Sunday, May 27, 2012

Timekeeping for Meetings
About this Essay
Some colleagues, who work with developmentally delayed clients, have been co-chairing large staff meetings with mixed results. Since I appreciate meetings, I have a written a piece to help them. I have focused on some concepts, with implications, as well as addressing the little-known fact that at times a chairman's mind may boggle.

The above introduction, linked to my discontinued website, is getting some hits these days, so I guess I should politely provide the entire piece:


for co-chairs of Do-it meetings

By Sean Crawford June 2009

"When hiking, the best way to keep from getting lost is to always stay found"

Concept: When chairing a meeting the way to keep from getting time-lost is to always stay found.


1) It would help to always know (stay found) where you are... to have a sense of proportion, to always know how many minutes (and what meeting portion) have passed and how many minutes are left.

2) It would help to decide ahead of time how long each part of the meeting is (at least roughly) and what will be the time on the clock at each point.

3) To compensate for your brain getting boggled it would help to have a big clock facing right at you.

4) If you choose to stick up a "flip chart page" with the agenda on it then it might help your self confidence to pencil in the clock times alongside the agenda items.

Concept: The group is responsible for the group.


1) As with supporting a client in a job, our mission ideally is to fade ourselves out (almost) completely as the group gets more mature about meetings.

2) Therefore we can feel more relaxed and less need to be controlling. (Sean: "Hey man, it's not my job to herd cats.")

3) If you decide to stick up a "flip chart page" agenda then it would help if the times are written alongside the agenda items in bold felt pen that can be seen from the back of the room.

4) It would help if the group "buys in" to the agenda times at the start of the meeting, then during the meeting the group self-control comes partly from their agreed on times (group responsibility) and not solely from you.

5) If you are constantly trying for "informed consent ... informed choices" by constantly reminding them of "time proportions" then the group will, secondly, get more mature at judging time, and, FIRSTLY, help to "peer pressure" the time-wasters.

6) The more you refer people to an impersonal clock or impersonal time on the agenda the less work for you, the less chance that someone will take your controlling them and interrupting them personally.

7) It would help if the timer reported to the entire responsible group in a clear loud voice.

Examples of a loud group timer:

Chair: "For the next agenda item we have agreed to ten minutes, from 1:00 to 1:10"

...(time passes) Shawna: "...and so that is what I think."

Timer: "Five minutes left."

Chair: "Thank you, Timer. Sean, I think you are next, did you have something to add?"

...(time passes, now Jane is talking) -so what I mean is, um,-"

Timer: "That's ten minutes."

Chair: "Thank you. Please finish up, Jane"

(Jane finishes)

Chair: We seem to be really excited and involved in this topic. We said to give it ten minutes, but, shall we go another five minutes longer? This would mean less time on, say, discussion of the last item."

Group: "yes, sure, you bet."

(time passes)

Timer: "That's it."

Chair: (If giving the group more responsibility) "We agreed on five minutes extra. We did so. Can we move on now?"

(If giving the group less responsibility) "Now we need to move on. We can write the topic in the "parking lot" and get to it later or next week if time permits. Now we are on to item X..."

Note: Last month I gave the group zero responsibility. One or more people got excited and wanted us to get onto something that was outside of our (realm) jurisdiction, something like wages. Me:

"Whoa! As chairman I must be autocratic and declare that we will not discuss this, nor will we discuss the reason we are not discussing it. If curious, you can ask the supervisor later. Right now we are moving on..." Note: The group took it well, and "autocratic " became someone's word of the day.

Question: Why did I begin with, "As chairman...? Answer: The group is responsible for the group, but I feel I have been delegated (by the group) to have special powers for the purpose of helping the group... I was not speaking "as Sean."

Regarding brain boggling:

It happens. Last month at one point I said calmly, "My brain just boggled. Kim, please take over." Then, turning to the group, I added, "Hey, that's why there's two of us." (I said this partly to help the group to learn more about meetings.)

Concept: Clients don't function when they are upset and neither should you. 

It seems to me that if any time you lose track of time, then that is a flashing sign that you are a teensy bit boggled, so STOP for a second, get "centered" and get back on track.

It seems to me that if both co-chairs are truly boggled, both at once, then probably the group is half boggled too; Either way, I think it is OK to say, (I'm making this up) "Let's take a minute of silence to all collect our thoughts, and choose our words, so we will each be able to contribute in the briefest possible way....Timer, please let us know when a minute is up. I realize a minute feels like forever, but it's only a minute, and we need the time..." (Then huddle with your co-chair and get centered)...

The point is to decide together before the meeting that you will STOP and pause or take a recess or something- you can't just "try to bravely carry on" if you are both really uncomfortable. 

(Sean: "Hey man, I can't carry on if I'm boggled; I'd rather try to herd cats.")

Regarding individuals wasting time:

Lorna has given us several tips, remember?, but here is one more-

If someone starts repeating herself for the third time in different words, then you may say, "Excuse me, but in the interest of time I must summarize. I hear you saying XY. Is that close enough?" "Yes, but-" "Then we must move on. Jane, I think you are next."

Note- I hope that in time the group will learn the skill of speaking concisely. (Definition: giving a lot of information clearly and in a few words) When I was working with walkie-talkies they encouraged us to "think before you speak" and they said it was perfectly fine to write it out on paper before you went on the air, if you needed to do so. We all caught on quickly.

Concluding remarks: 

Oh yes, best to do a cartoon of a car "parking lot" on the flip chart for the group at the beginning of the meeting. (To park topics to talk about later)

For this paper I have been a little wordy to give us all something in common to discuss. 

Needless to say, I encourage you to do-it in your own way. My focus is less on specific tricks and things, rather I focus on concepts to produce a relaxed tone.

Kim and I, in fact, do very little of the stuff in this paper: as I said, you can do-it in your own way.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Of Human Energy and Flying Robots

My word of the day is “energy.”

While Japan has switched off all its atomic energy plants and gone to fossil fuel this year, friends of Japan over here in Calgary enjoyed another energetic Otafest. The “ota” part is short for otaku, a Japanese word meaning living-in-your-mother’s-basement fan. Over here, though, the meaning’s not nearly so extreme. This weekend young people gathered to enjoy Japanese pop culture, especially animation and comics, or, anime and manga. (You don’t need to write these words in italics anymore)

The annual festival, totally put on by volunteers, is always held at the University of Calgary, on the Queen Victoria Day weekend. At one point, while I was sitting in the food court, a happy Asian family, one with a light easygoing energy, asked me, “What’s going on?” This while so many otaku in costumes were having lunch and passing back and forth. So I explained things, adding that, just as Japan has better animation than we do, over in Japan the housewives are watching South Korean TV dramas for being much better than theirs. At this the adults burst into laughter. Their poor boys had to be told that while yes, there was a huge dealer’s room that includes toys, you need an Otafest wristband to get in.

As usual, I attended mainly for the anime. Why? As with opera, I can get into feeling far more tragic emotion and laughter from anime than I would while watching Hollywood shows on the zombie-box. I said as much to a conventioneer my age, a bald fellow in a plaid shirt. He pointed out that a lot of the background inspiration was western opera, as well as western myths and religions. Indeed. The young people attending may never have heard of the ancient epic of Gilgamesh, but they know what they like. We both liked how we were old enough, i.e. rich, to buy anything we saw. That’s a nice thought, one that perked me up all weekend as I searched for DVD sets and stuff.

So many conventioneers looked so excited all the time. My heart went out to contrasting little groups of two or three —rarely three-- where everyone had somber faces. I wondered if they had grown up with a somber expression as their default, and if they had gravitated together because they had similar energy levels, from having similar pasts. “God bless the beasts and children.”

The only seminar I attended, about piloted Gundam giant flying robots, had a low energy level. The lone panelist, with a computer hooked to an overhead display screen, had ample resource material to explain his points, yet he apologized several times for not being more prepared. I guess he meant he had no really well planned lesson for us, but he was OK, and he surely had enough background knowledge. He also had knowledge of how to facilitate, as he knew when to say, “let’s move along,” when to ask for a show of hands, and when to ask for questions. If the energy never got very high, well, maybe it was the nature of the topic. The lesson I took away was to always have a second person, or more, on your panel, even if they have to admit right away, “I know nothing” about the topic. I’m serious: Because the comfortable energy sent between the two panelists, besides being reassuring to them, may then ignite others attending the panel to warm up too. And besides, the most powerful force in the universe is a determination not to let the other guy down: There would have been no apologizing about a lack of preparation. (Note: Someone said the audience was too diverse for the panelist. That sounds right, in which case a second panelist might have helped build bridges)

I don’t think anyone reacted to me as being old, except I was asked for directions a lot. For me, the festival was like being in a fairy tale, a land where, without any need for fearful warm-up, strangers who met could start talking right away. I wore no costume, no yuppie clothes or business suit, merely a T-shirt and jeans.

At one point I asked a lone girl about her school uniform costume, complete with armband. She burst forth at length about it, and how she was from a little private school. Truly, there can be a strange energy to experiencing a big party where you don’t know anyone. My advice: Unless you’re a hardened guy my age, try to drag a friend along. If you’re a woman my age, have no fear of standing out. Last year my curious English professor’s wife was well received by the young fans. In fact, come to think of it, contrary to nerd stereotypes, I guess there were even more young ladies at Otafest than young men.

Ah, nothing like a balance of genders to add energy. (At one point I overheard three girls sharing a phone-camera photo of a boy they knew in costume) As for my own energy, I noticed it was down this year, partly for some personal reasons, and partly because of a significant reduction in the number and type of anime offered… At least I patronized some young artists. –And hey, I already have all my new posters up on my refrigerator door! And I’m energized to have bought lots of stuff on sale, -yes!- enough to last me through the whole year. I’ll be back!

Sean Crawford
Back in the mundane world,
May 2012
~Of course we celebrate the birthday of our monarch, but we can’t be changing the date every time we get a new one, right? So Queen Victoria’s birthday stands in for whomever the current monarch is.

~On page 5 of google's otafest listings I found this collage teaser-intro to the Gundam panel I attended.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Sex and Surprise

Back in the 1980’s, I recall a big white button that university students howled over. This was at a weekend conference. Volunteers from student newspapers all over the Canadian west had converged on the city of Saskatoon. For “west,” think “the great plains,” and think “the bible belt” like in the movie Footloose, and then think “generic high schools” like Archie’s Riverdale or Buffy’s Sunnydale High. Young men and women from a northern campus knew to bring lots of the white buttons to sell.

The bold caption: Officer Bob says 
the cartoon: a huge foolish cop with a silly (for the 80’s) crew cut; 
what he said: “…Sex is wrong.”

At the time, the sexual revolution was waning fast. On the prairies, although nobody surfed, the most timid of the Generation Xers were steadily exchanging their jockey style swimsuits for bathing trunks like their grandfathers wore. They called them surfboard shorts, but let’s face it, they were trunks. How queer to think that right now, on the internet, there may be readers living in lands where girls and boy are finished school at age fifteen and pregnant that same year, lands where sex is not discouraged but normal, common and old news—but not for us. Like I said, we were in Canada’s cold bible belt.

As teenage boys, we had talked about French houses of ill repute. As a young man, while stationed in Europe, I never made it to any Paris bordello—but I did, back in Canada, avec English subtitles, see that popular movie where Catherine Deneuve plays a housewife who gets a job in a Paris brothel. She is surprised to find that, night after night, she is not selling sex but fantasy role-playing.

About this time, the Hollywood TV fad for westerns had been replaced by a surfeit of detective shows. One such episode sure surprised me. It opened with a man at home, appearing at the top of the stairs dressed in football gear, while downstairs his wife was dressed as a cheerleader, cheering him on. At first I thought he was a real athlete. Then, as the director intended, I clued in. At the time, back when nerd science fiction conventions with cosplay (costume play) were unknown, I was “sports-challenged,” a nerd. Although I didn’t care about sports myself I said, “Aww, how sweet, how romantic.” Then the guy collapses from poison, the police investigation begins, and to my surprise—and chagrin—the woman in cheerleader costume wasn’t even his wife! (Sigh) If married couples have any special fun, then Hollywood simply hasn’t found out yet. Are Hollywood guys all from Canada?

In our teenage years, the girls must have been surprised and disappointed when the boys would “kiss and tell.” Looking back, I would advise the girls that to boys sex is real manly, like achieving a military medal or a football touchdown: they just have to tell. A girl’s best bet for secrecy would be a nerd, one with his eyes looking beyond school life and peer acclaim.

Blair and I

As middle-aged men, my smart buddy Blair and I felt no need to boast or lie to each other. We talked of the rewards of being closed mouthed as a teen, and of activities in our adult lives. As I noted in a previous essay, Blair was a good-hearted and decent man. When I knew him, he was settled down for good in the old Strathcona district of Edmonton, having been raised in Saskatchewan. One evening, figuratively enjoying our port and cigars, my friend confessed something he had felt deep guilt about down the years. He related how one day a timid lady friend proposed he play a part in some special sexual costume play together. To his deep regret he burst out laughing. And her precious heart was crushed, just crushed. Bair has felt so bad ever since.

I pondered the end of my cigar, reflected that Blair had an excellent attention span, and said, “I can address that. But first we need to back up and appear to change topic.”

Consider homosexuality. According to the scientists, homos are evenly distributed throughout the population, through all socio-economic groups, the same as left-handedness. According to the public, gays are less common in mafia families and the US marines, while being more common among social workers. It’s as if “real men” are bigger jerks than normal men, or as if gays are nicer than most of us. Not quite. The issue isn’t niceness but safety. In the mafia, a really messed up group where, for example, people from Sicily are bigoted against the rest of Italy, it just isn’t safe to be out-of-the-closet. Nevertheless, left-handed Italians are being born every day.

Consider university. Here is a safe haven for students to be scholarly, open-minded and growing more liberated with every semester. Yet, as you walk the campus corridors, you won’t see any men with limp wrists, nor any women in pink dresses. You won’t even see any discrete little pink lapel pins. Why? Mainly because the public is very mistaken about such gay stereotypes. And partly because idealistic young gay students, raised in straight society, know better than to trust that any future scholars, if still fresh from high school, will be able to think for themselves yet. Hide those pins! Secondary schools, remember, are like the school principal in the movie Dead Poets Society: intent on teaching the social norms of society’s “party line.” (How Blair and I suffered in school, as independent thinkers surrounded by straight-A conformists!) Many undergrads will go on to be leaders of society, but first they need to learn how to think. And develop their attention span.

Consider safety on campus. Of all the faculties, where would young students feel the safest to exist? I remember teasing a friend, a year after she had settled down from bravely coming out to herself. “Are you going to buy a children’s paint set? You know, with six colors, as a starter set for you? ... Because everyone knows gays are so creative!” And then we shared a laugh at society.

I don’t know about any “gay creativity,” but I am confident the safest place would be in the faculty of performing arts, especially in the department of theatre. Obviously some gay students would still be in the closet; nevertheless, here would be the biggest percentage of those openly gay. The reason? As I explained at some length in an essay last month, Creative Movement, the stage is the place of people developing their concentration and energy.

To illustrate: A Hollywood writer once gave me his version of why paramount tried the unusual step of making not one but two pilot episodes for an outer space show, back in the 1960’s. This was a time when a space show would have been financially risky: there had never been a space series for adults. (Anthologies, but not a series) The actors for the second pilot, William Shattner and company, took their work seriously, but did not take themselves seriously, and so they got the green light. The actors for the first pilot lost out, the writer told me, because they took themselves too seriously. I think he meant they felt too self-conscious about wearing silly costumes in a silly space show. In other words, they didn’t maintain the required concentration. Well, at least they weren’t giggling like students in an Introduction to Drama class.

There are no sensitive thespians in the US marines. A culture where people may have to sprint from a landing craft and race bent over through a rainstorm, running across sharp coral in the face of terrible incoming hellfire… is a culture that must be harsh… A culture, in other words, that is less-than-polite.

And the stage? Any culture where people must fully concentrate on what they are doing is a place with no tolerance for the distraction of derisions or unwanted comments. Politeness rules. If students are struggling to master the classic tragedy R.U.R., (Rossum’s Universal Robots) while trying to “find the character,” and “get the beats right,” then there is no place for being laughed at. The culture does not allow it. The stage must explicitly be a place of trust.

I learned something surprising in my college drama class, something that has lasted me all my life. This would have been about a year before I saw R.U.R. performed at the university. I was enrolled in Drama for Adults Dealing With Children, taught by Tanis Lefroy. Using the text The Developing Child by Brian Way we learned how drama is a splendid means for a person’s growth. We did many of the same movement exercises I remembered from Introduction to Drama, but now I was learning the theory of how and why.

Drama is NOT acting. If assigned to teach drama in school, the first thing you must do is go and tell the principal you will NOT be putting on a school play. Stage acting can wait until after some personal growth. The ideal classroom would have no stage, a carpeted floor, no windows for onlookers, and no desks. There would be lots of lights, of varying intensity, providing some darker corners for shyer people to gravitate towards. I was so pleased: Our classroom was just like in the textbook. And it was even close to the exciting theater dressing rooms, which we were free to use. None of us did so. Why?

Because: We were mostly plain prairie women earnestly studying things like early childhood or community disabilities. By keeping the door closed, we had no men to gawk at us. (I was the only male in class) Nevertheless, we only wore our blue jeans or sweat pants. No leotards or bodysuits, because we just weren’t comfortable enough with our sexuality. No surprise there.

I learned a lesson on the day we watched a small group of five or seven barefoot women present a movement study to the rest of us. The group did some interesting beautiful movements, and then they beautifully all came together, facing each other, reaching their hands together, on tip toes, up, up…—suddenly they collapsed down and rolled away. We burst out laughing. As we laughed, violating the safe space, ripping apart the agreement to trust, smashing the sense of safety… our classmates were just crushed.

Later during that class Tanis critiqued the movement projects we had just seen, while our peers still looked sad at being laughed at. Tanis explained to us the concept of “comic surprise.” It turned out we were not “laughing at…” We weren’t laughing from aggression or hostility, nor from superiority or a “put down.” We were simply surprised. It’s like how the next week in class, when someone handed me some little cinnamon valentine hearts, Tanis advised me not to put the hearts in my breast pocket, even though I was wearing my plaid shirt with pearly snaps. (And nylon combat pants) If I was doing movement, and if somehow the hearts fell out, then there would be a sudden surprise, and so people would laugh.

It’s strange to think we could all finish high school, and then go on through our everyday lives without ever learning the concept of comic surprise, but there it is.

On that evening when I told my story to Blair… he told me that since hurting that poor woman’s feelings, down the long guilty years… my story was the most comforting thing he had ever heard.

Sean Crawford
North of Montana,
May 2012