talking about community–where are we?

A community doesn’t automatically happen just by sticking a bunch of people into the same house.

Depending on who lives in the house, people might interact all the time or hide in their respective rooms and rarely come out.  Moving into a co-op house or other type of intentional community doesn’t mean that you will automatically have deep connections with other people. You have to make it happen.

I think all people, to varying degrees, struggle with being clear on what they want, asking for it, and negotiating their needs and desires with others.  So many relationships and families exist where people have difficulty expressing and communicating needs.  The same can be true of communities.  Sometimes people have difficulty putting into words what it is that they want.  Sometimes people give up on getting what they want.  Sometimes people get so caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle and just don’t think of asking those important questions when they’d rather just curl up and relax at the end of the day.

The other day, I led an agenda item at our bi-weekly house meeting that asked where we stand as a community at this point.  I asked to what extent people felt there was a sense of community here, to what extent was it meeting their expectations and to what extent was it falling short.  I also asked about things that might improve the sense of community here.

Conversation mostly focused on ways we could improve the sense of community.  We talked about things like game nights and trying to spend more time in the common areas as opposed to our own rooms.  One person has started livening up dinner-time conversation by using cards from a game that asks questions that reveal a lot about ourselves, such as “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” or “What’s the most pain you’ve ever experienced?”

Community living requires a lot of communication and getting a good sense of the most effective way to communicate. Sometimes, it’s challenging enough to talk about house dishes not getting done or making sure that the grocery shopping list includes kale.  Talking about how we are doing as a community can take it to a whole new level, depending on how deeply people want to take the subject. Like many other things, these questions can go unsaid.  But I believe it’s vital to talk about it.  It’s the intentional part of intentional community, the part having to do with asking oneself whether the community is what you hoped for, whether it’s meeting your needs, whether it’s meeting your dreams.

funny, i don’t remember “indian summer” being this creepy

(c) Gjs/Dreamstime.comI don’t know what it is about this fall’s “Indian Summer” but there’s something about it that seems, well…strange.

Brief spells of summer-like weather in October or even November aren’t unusual.  Perhaps it’s because this year’s Indian Summer is so cloudy as to be gloomy.  Might it be that the fall colors peaked early and that the outside temperature and the fact that I’m going out without a jacket doesn’t jibe with the mostly bare trees and the layers of leaves on the ground?  Or is it something I detected in the unusually high amounts of humidity?

The term “Indian Summer” is centuries old, and certainly precedes talk of global warming.  But perhaps with the “winter that wasn’t” at the beginning of the year, leaves appearing on the trees at the end of March, and the triple-digit Fahrenheit weather over the summer, maybe unusually warm weather just seems creepier than in previous years.

After fooling with Mother Nature for so many years–something which we’ve been repeatedly told not to do (and not just on margarine commercials) am I starting to detect fangs in Mother Nature’s beatific smile?  Am I starting to worry that the birds chirping sweetly in the neighborhood will suddenly band together and go all Alfred Hitchcock on us?

Not to mention the very term “Indian summer”–of which the Wikipedia entry gives many explanations for it origin.  The Europeans settling this continent–people I am descended from–have not treated Native Americans any better than our natural environment has been treated, and that still continues to this day.  I sometimes wonder about that haunting us.  Like I have often said, there are lessons that we Americans have to learn, and we seem to be choosing to learn them the hard way.

As I write this, rain is beginning to fall and the 70 degree weather is giving way to 40 degree weather.  In any case, no mention of “Indian summer” can be made without mentioning the awesome Beat Happening lo-fi indie rock classic from the late 80’s.  Crude on many levels yet with a lot of heart, I always enjoy listening to this song…


my own caseload

Now they’re giving me the steering wheel at my social work internship.  I am now the proud manager of my own small caseload–three “consumers” or “clients” for whom I’ll be taking primary responsibility.

I probably shouldn’t get too excited about being able to use this rather common piece of social work jargon.  Caseloads can be the bane of many a social worker’s existence, especially when those numbers are so high that it becomes difficult or impossible to give appropriate attention and services to those people who need it.

As I’ve repeatedly told people, I feel I chose my field placement well.  I can see that the executive director who supervises me is highly competent, well-regarded in her field, and able to create an environment that is laid-back yet professional and quite supportive. I like my co-workers a lot.  I want to look at the people on my caseload as 1) people first and foremost, 2) people who are resourceful, capable, and have as much to teach me as I do them.

Keeping that up is a challenge, but I know it’s important.  Years ago, a good friend made me think when she said to me “I hate being a client.”  Given that I frequently had lunch with social workers at the agency I worked at back then, I knew exactly what she was talking about.

A lot of times my agency uses the word “consumer” instead of “client” at my agency.  I’m not sure if it matters which word we use.  “Client” was intended to be a neutral word–essentially, a business client.  Yet my friend’s statement underscores the way that the word can be used, and she totally picked up on the lack of regard that the people supposed to be serving her had for her. I think the word “consumer” is supposed to evoke Consumer Reports and suggest that the recipient of services is entitled to look at our services with the same discerning eye that the reader of the magazine should use when deciding which product to buy.

I agree with the sentiment, but it’s not hard for me to imagine the word being used with the wrong tone of voice, just like the word “client.”  I think what’s most important here are actions, not words. It’s also important for me to realize that with a few changes in privilege and fate, I could have easily switched chairs and roles with my client, with my client being the person helping me.

Given that most of my classmates already have jobs in the social work profession, very few of us working towards our MSW’s (Master’s in Social Work) have naïve idealism about the profession.  That’s good–we are in better positions to exercise discernment with the jobs we take and the situations we encounter. Hopefully, we’ll be less swept off our feet when the cold hard realities of the profession greet us.

hell, year…


I knew it…but…

It’s now official–I’m in the most difficult year of the four-year part-time program at UW’s School of Social Work.  Our program director even confirmed it.

I knew it was going to be crazy when I saw that we would be enrolled for seven graduate credits in both the fall and spring semester of this school year.  Eight is considered full-time, so rather than attend half-time like I did last year, I’m attend 7/8 time this year.

The big event of this year is my field placement (aka “unpaid internship”).  I’m doing this at an agency that helps people suffering from certain types of mental illness find jobs in the normal, competitive labor market.  I’m enjoying it so far–I feel like I chose my agency well.  Now they are starting to hand me the steering wheel in working with some of our clients (whom we refer to as “consumers”).  Unlike most of my classmates who have experience in social worker roles at social service agencies, this is a brand new thing for me.  But, with the help and encouragement of my co-workers, I’m seeing that I do bring relevant skills to the table.

I’ve gone from juggling one to three classes at a time, and I’m in class on Saturday from 9 am to 3:15 pm, so Saturday has become the new Friday for me.

It took me about four weeks to get used to the pace, but I’m catching up now.  I can’t even imagine trying to do this on top of a full-time job, but that’s what most of my classmates are doing.  I was talking to a friend recently who also spent four years attending grad school part-time (not in social work) while working full-time, and she described those four years as some of the worst in her life.

I’m determined not to feel the same way about my grad school years, as I don’t want to get my MSW (Master’s in Social Work) and be already burned out after taking off my cap and gown.  This year we talk a lot about “self-care” in class, and my three tools are meditation, journal-writing, and something I am calling “Self-Care Sundays” in which I set aside one day a week to do whatever I want.  We’ll see if I can keep those things up…

everything you know about politics is wrong (spitting out the political konvention kool-aid version)

???????????????????????????????????????We’re down to less than sixty days before the finish of the chest-beating, truth-twisting, anything-but-informative ritual know as the American presidential election.

As a both a Bahá’í and the holder of a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, I’m a firm believer in avoiding partisan politics.  In addition to inhibiting world unity and making me feel queasy in general (the word “unity” sometimes makes me queasy too, but that’s another post), I feel that partisan politics has two aspects which both seem to short-circuit critical thinking–party loyalty and ideology.

Ideology–whether it be Marxism-Leninism, neoliberal capitalism, libertarianism, Green politics, religious fundamentalism, or some other -ism–is, in my view, an approach to managing human affairs that is unique and peculiar to industrial society.  It’s an archaic, assembly line form of management that starts with valid and often insightful observations about the nature of human beings, but then turns into an out-of-control machine crushing all independent thought in its path.

The problem starts when those making those acute observations feel that they have stumbled onto something that provides a fundamental explanation about how the world works.  The Observer–or perhaps self-described disciples a few generations removed from the Observer–decide to codify their observations into an ideology to provide a somewhat simplified explanation as to how the world works.

The ideology might, in fact provide useful explanations and solutions to certain problems.  Most often, the effectiveness of the ideology might be akin to hammering a nail into place with the handle of a screwdriver.  On the surface, it might appear to work fine, and may appear to even run smoothly but the observant person might notice some nails not driven in properly and some screwdriver handles breaking.  Believers in the ideology might respond to the observation in any number of ways 1)  insist that there’s nothing wrong with the nails or screwdriver handles, 2) acknowledge that some bent nails and broken screwdriver handles might not be a desirable outcome, but insist that there is no better tool than a screwdriver for driving in nails, or 3) jail and/or murder the person pointing out the problem.

Another possible outcome might be that someone else will discover that a hammer is immensely more effective than the handle of a screwdriver when it comes to driving nails into wood.  This might result in the creation of a competing hammer ideology as the hammer starts to be employed not only for driving in nails, but screws as well, and–well, you can probably figure out what happens next.

Now that I’ve explained ideology and its uses, let me next touch on political parties.  Political parties are formalized factions within a government.  George Washington in his farewell address warned against the dangers of such factionalism, but for centuries it has been weaved into the fabric of the American political system. The two political parties dominant for 160 years–the Republicans and Democrats–are widely viewed as the only ones capable of producing viable candidates for elective office–particularly that of the President of the United States.  No politician’s name flashes on the TV screen or is printed in the daily newspaper without abbreviations indicating his party affiliation and the state they are from.  The fact of the matter is that in 2012, two other presidential candidates–Jill Stein of the Green Party and Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party–are on enough state ballots to theoretically win a majority of electoral votes, but given that they are not of the Democratic or Republican parties, they are widely ignored.

The Republican party has arguably become an ideologically driven party dedicated to,  in general, dismantling as many government regulations and programs as possible and promoting a more aggressive foreign policy.  The Democratic party is less ideologically driven and attempts to please a broader spectrum of people.

Nevertheless, the parties have turned into a political shorthand that, frankly, short-circuits independent political thinking.  Depending on which side of the aisle one has chosen to align oneself with, one side has become the epitome of all that is good in the world and the other side has become the epitome of all that is evil in the world.  There seems to be no room for shades of gray in the colors red and blue.  This often leads rather absurd twists of logic on both sides of the aisle.

At one point I saw a graphic on Facebook that put out simplified view of Democratic and Republican worlds.  The Democratic world had windmill and solar power, sustainable agriculture, walkable neighborhoods, co-op markets, bicycles, and other tokens of an idyllic, environmentally sustainable world.  The Republican world showed polluting coal-powered plants and oil refineries, big-box stores, cookie-cutter sprawl development, and other tokens of a highly polluted dystopia.  I pointed out that I saw a heck of a lot of Democrats on that Republican side of the picture. Meanwhile, many Republicans portray Democrats as Jesus-hating, handout-gobbling leeches on the system. Once again, political shorthand short-circuits independent thought.

So this political circus will end in another month and once again, a government will be elected that roughly 47 or 48% of the electorate will be unhappy with.  Meanwhile serious problems needing attention such as global warming and the state of perpetual war this country has been in for the last eleven years will continue unaddressed.  And the circus will continue…

stomach flu sweeps through co-op house, seven ill


It started on Saturday afternoon right at the end of class when I started feeling nauseous.  I attributed it to hunger, as I remember having a similar feeling a couple of weeks before at about the same time.

I met a few friends for drinks.  Someone ordered a nacho potato thing with, of course bacon (I was hanging out with Millennials so of course the classic punch line that so confounds Baby Boomers had to be involved) and shared it with all of us.  But the food in my stomach didn’t help and after two club sodas,my third drink involved Alka-Seltzer.

This didn’t help so I excused myself and went across the street to Union South to relax.  Instead, I found myself taking several trips to the bathroom where, um, both ends of the alimentary canal were active.  I got home and wrapped myself in blankets as I was starting to develop serious chills and I slept twelve hours of a feverish sleep interrupted several times by trips to the bathroom.

I felt better but still out of it the next morning.  I made myself a breakfast involving a green smoothie and yogurt.  I had a very hard time getting the yogurt down.  I slept a few more hours.

Late that morning a housemate stopped me and said, “Have you…uh…stayed well?”  Actually, no, I replied.  She explained that several people in the house seemed to come down ill with this stomach bug at the same time–five adults and two children.  One of them was a guest staying with us.  At one point in the middle of the night, the guest felt the need to throw up so she went to the second floor bathroom only to hear someone throwing up and moaning there.  So she went to the first floor bathroom but someone was also there throwing up.  She ended up having to resort to using the sink.

Everybody recovered within a couple of days.  We think it came from a potluck we had Friday night–we learned later that three attendees there got sick later.  Stomach flu–more properly known as gastroenteritis because it bears no relation to influenza–is highly contagious.

In nearly ten years of co-op living, I’ve never seen a bug sweep a co-op so fast. Our co-op house is not really a germ factory despite what one might think. Bugs come and go, but at the most maybe one other person catches something from a housemate and I don’t think even that happens very often.  We share dinners a few nights a week, but spend a lot of time to ourselves as well.  We are fastidious about cleaning, and after the first reports of the house pandemic began to surface, a housemate purchased bottles of hand sanitizer for the two bathrooms and kitchen sink.

We ended up postponing our Sunday house meeting but other than that things are back to normal after a strange weekend.  My apologies to anyone sharing those potato bacon nacho things with me if they got hit with the same thing–I thought I was just hungry.