Sometimes It’s Better Not To Know

We had our Co-op annual meeting tonight. As board president, it means I’m more or less running the show. The face of the meeting at least. Luckily we have a great staff and I can pretty much show up half-an hour before and everything is all set up. But I have to have an agenda and something to say.
So I was preparing my remarks this afternoon, working from the list I made earlier in the week. I left the list on the dining room table during the week so I could think about it in passing while I went about my days. This works well for less complicated topics – if there’s real work to do then I need to sit down for hours on end and actually focus and draft and revise and edit and re-structure and grind it out. But brief remarks I can write from the heart after some background processing and everything tends to work out okay.
The most important section of the meeting tonight, from my perspective, was presenting my friend Bruce Pacht with the Allan and Nan King Award for Community Service. Bruce is a family friend; I nominated him for the award, and as president I would present it. That writing went well, primarily because Bruce has a 30-year resume of community contributions and I could work quickly from his accomplishments.
Then I worked up some notes about the Board’s decision earlier in the week to pay itself a stipend for service. This idea failed a board vote a few years ago, but this week we agreed on $200 per meeting attended for board members, and $300 per for the president. During the spirited discussion about voting ourselves a salary, the moral and ethical dilemmas therein, and the potential reaction of our member-owners, someone asked, “How will the members find out?” I said, “I’m going to stand up in front of them Sunday night and tell them, and ask for feedback. Then I’m going to write an article for the Co-op News.” Someone suggested we ask the members first, perhaps at the meeting. This is reasonable from many possible angles, but I came down on the side of leadership – we should consider a broad range of material and as leaders decide what’s best, then explain ourselves to whom we are accountable, and then just listen. Make adjustments as required. An important component of leadership is making decisions – constant polling and triangulation generates train wreaks like the Democratic party.
So anyway I wrote up those notes, and checked the clock. It was 2:45 PM. I had to leave at 4:30. I was done, save for another round of edits, so I took a break for lunch. When I came back upstairs to check the agenda, I realized I hadn’t printed an agenda yet, because I was working from Tuesday’s 3×5 notecard. So I printed one out. An then it jumped out at me: The first agenda item was President’s Remarks – uh oh, I haven’t written that yet!
Um, maybe we could start the meeting by skipping the first agenda item?
Maybe not. So on two sheets of yellow pad paper I wrote everything that came into my head in sound bite format. Not the exact words to say but the main idea and any connect-the-dots language necessary to the other ideas. Then I got in the car and drove to the church basement where we hold the meeting.
Once things got rolling there were perhaps 60 or 70 people there. We had a very nice meal for the $5 fee, and then saw a slide show of a fair-trade coffee trip to Mexico, where an employee and the manager of another nearby co-op had travelled to pick coffee beans as ambassadors of American co-ops. A fascinating personal report. As you might expect, the village is extremely poor. The exceptional houses are constructed of cinder block and are slightly larger than New England tool sheds. They hike two hours, on a steep slope to the top of the mountain, barefoot, to harvest the beans. I saw the photos. Men, women, children; all hands on deck. When they pick the beans they put them in sacks which, when full, weigh about 100 lbs. The sacks have a strap at the top that goes across your forehead, to leverage the weight of the bag slung onto your back – you need your arms free to balance and hold onto trees going down the trail. Barefoot. My chiropractor would be horrified. Not to mention my pedicurist. When the beans make it down the hill, they have to remove the outer skin with a hand-cranked machine, and then they dry the beans out on a cement pad, like a garage bay. The moisture content has to test correctly for the beans to be valuable for export. If it starts to rain, they have to scoop them all up and put them inside then spread them out again later. In the old days, they’d walk them to market, a couple of hours away, and then be forced to take whatever the gringo buyer paid that day. The world market price is set by the commodities markets in New York and Chicago, but the farmers didn’t know this number. Sometimes they had to accept ten or twenty cents a pound for their product. And, guess what, the gringo brought his own scales….
I am a tea drinker, no coffee for me, but I wonder what the grim reality is for harvesting the green tea crops.
So now that they have a co-op of their own, they have a laptop in the office that can get the current world market pricing – they have the information. They also have their own scales. And because they’re dealing with Equal Exchange, the pioneer of fair-trade, they get $1.25 a lb for their coffee beans, or $1.45 for organic. Score one for co-op’s, and score one for fair trade.
My remarks went over fine. The Celebration of Bruce was nice, though it sounded a bit wooden to my ear as I spoke it. Some other things were reported. I opened the “Q&A” section with the board pay bits, and we got some feedback on both sides of it. Some other questions were asked and answered. We even almost came close to approaching the beginning edge of audience dialogue there for a brief moment.
Then it was a wrap, I thought. But Don, the board VP, snatched the mic and launched into a very nice tribute to me. Because I will not accept a nomination for next year’s presidency, this was the last meeting at which I’ll preside. I’ll stay on the board, but as a past-president. Don waxed eloquent about abstracting up, my leadership and vision, and my thoughtful concern for all things co-op. It was very nice. Then he gave me a whoopee pie as a departure gift, about which I’ll have to consider the hidden meanings. Then it was a wrap.
I talked with some members who approached me. I gathered my things. I finished my water bottle. I picked up my coat. Then the GM came up to me and said, “Did you see that crazy guy in the back?”
I had, actually. He had a weird look. The winter parka, the fidgeting, the unkempt hair, the look in the eye. Down from the woods. I had smiled to him on my way to the restroom and I got a sort of vacant return. The GM said, “Did you know he had a pistol?”
What??? No, I did not know he had a pistol. Speaking as the guy in front of the microphone most of the time, I was not excited to learn that the weird fidgety guy with the vacant stare at the back of the room near the exit had a pistol. I was not LOL.
It turns out that employees Tony and Aaron had noticed this situation and had debated what to do. They didn’t want to cause a scene. I appreciate this. They work in a public market, and there are discreet ways to handle disturbing situations. I once had lunch at the cafe, where, behind me down the hall an employee was having a seizure, and it was absolutely amazing how the staff handled it. Very calm, loving, professional. So I dig that they didn’t want to accost the guy and create a scene.
Tony called the police to see if it was legal. They told him that if they guy had a concealed weapon permit it was legal. How would you know if he had a permit? Ask him to show it to you, they are required to carry it. Okay, Tony tells us now, he didn’t really want to ask the guy because that’s heading toward making a scene. So Tony and Aaron position themselves on either side of him, in case Something Needed To Be Done. Apparently when I was talking about store expansions, and a couple of other topics, the guy got really fidgety, rubbing his hands and twisting his thumbs and breathing heavily. Eventually he’d had enough and left early. Nothing happened.
I was totally freaked out. I am a very accepting person, but this was over my line. I just don’t think weird fidgety guys with vacant stares are being very cooperative when they bring pistols to member meetings.
So next year, when you walk into the Lebanon Cafe and see the sign on the door announcing the annual meeting, you will see at the bottom, “Firearms not allowed.” I’m not sure if we’ll hire security and do actual searches, but I am just not sitting on stage at the front of the room when weird fidgety guys with vacant stares have pistols under their coats. Not even for $200 a meeting, no way.