Brittany ran to me as i was walking through the Ash Street gardens of the Baltimore Free Farm. She was clearly excited to see me.
“I am so glad there is an old person here now!” was the first thing she said to me
I cracked up laughing. She explained that the party was full of 20 somethings and she thought my experience would be a grounding effect. Most people don’t find me grounding, but i was still totally flattered.
Many folks say they are busy, but you make time for what is important to you. I really wanted to go to StrangeFolx, the Baltimore Free Farms anniversary celebration. I wanted to go because i had missed the protests that BFF had played an amazing supportive role in. I wanted to go because i am regularly impressed with daring, tenacity and street smarts of these punks. I wanted to go, because i wanted a big, political party that someone else had organized.
On the way to the event i stopped at a roadside stand and got a flat of strawberries. I was handing them out to the perhaps 100 people who were already at this event by 1 PM. I walked by Billy who was pumping out pizzas.
As i approached the oven, there was a metal stake sticking up in the middle of the steps which dozens of people would soon be walking. “Fix that!” i barked at Billy pointing to the offending stake, in the way busy organizers sometimes dispense with pleasantries. A nearby anarchist reminded me, “You could fix it.” Billy soon put a purple cup over the stake and pronounced it fixed. Safety isn’t first with this crowd, otherwise they would not be rioting with the police.
Billy suggested that i change my thinking about pizza. Moving away from the idea that it would be a point in time in which one might have pizza, to more of a continuum or infinite span of pizza. And he made quite good on his promise to deliver unending pizza. Recently toughened up by the tremendous cooking effort done to support protesters of police violence in Baltimore, the Free Farm kids prepped for this 8 hour long anniversary party of a few hundred people. GPaul asked for a vegan pizza, and in moments it was there. The advantage of these real pizza ovens is they can cook a full pizza in just a couple of minutes.
When Billy finally took a break he greeted me warmly and gave me an illegal piece of riot swag. I was touched and i looked at him curiously. “We could not have done it without your cooks. It was amazing to have all this help and we desperately needed it.” When Baltimore exploded, Billy called me. He asked me to put out the call to Action: Baltimore needs cooks. So i blogged about it, copied it to few facebook pages and crossed my fingers. I got great reaction, with cooks responding to the blog post wanting to help. Many had minor logistical problems (like little money and no car). I cobbled together ride shares and other minor logistics, but folk were resourceful and wanted to get to Baltimore. In the end about a dozen cooks ended up volunteering at BFF. And i felt some pride around networking effectively.
But as though my ego were on some type of zen roller coaster, shortly after this i got schooled by Brittany on how unworkable my clever plans were to try to build coalitions with people of color (POC) activists. She was clear and firm in telling me that the internship scheme i was proposing would not fly culturally.
Instead Brittany and Billy agreed that the best thing for white allies to do these days is be consistent in providing the type of food services for protesters that BFF and Food Not Bombs have been providing. And be patient.
NYC has changed me.
Two years ago, if i had walked out of the Richmond train station and seen three “traveler kids”, i would have headed the other way. But having spent time doing support work for travelers in Tompkins Square Park has shifted my perception of this fringe group that i had not been connected to before.
I walked out of the train from Baltimore and saw these three, i had a bit of time to wait and decided that this could be fun. I got a cheap pizza and approached my new friends. They were welcoming. I sat with them where they had found an open wall socket to charge their phones with.
They introduced themselves to me as: Barefoot – who claimed she did not own a pair of shoes. One Eye – who had a fine line tattoo pattern on the check of side of his face where he had lost an eye to a fight or an accident. Tex – who said he was from Texas. After i had been there for half an hour and they decided that i was at least interesting and perhaps okay, Tex told me “You should call me ‘Too Dim‘. My friends call me Too Dim, not Tex.”
The conversation rambled. They offered me beer and cigarettes. They played an animated guitar and sang in a raspy voices. They were generous, friendly and welcoming. All the traveler kids i have run across have been.
They train hopped from Jacksonville FL to Washington DC and discovered what many of us had experienced there. Washington is tough for outsiders with no friends in the town. They tried to talk to people, but no one had time for them. They played guitar and sang, but no one was generous. They tried lots of different types of places and nothing improved things. So they left.
They were hoping Richmond is better. I don’t know, but something makes me think it will be.
At one point Barefoot complimented my shirt. I asked her if she would wear it. She said she certainly would, then i offered to give it to her, but she would not take it as a straight gift, she wanted to trade – which is how i got the stylish skull tank top i am donning in the picture below.
After an hour or so of hanging out, i decided i need to be moving on. They were lovely folks, dressed in tattered clothes. I am thankful my previous prejudices are subsiding and i can connect with a greater array of people.
When i left, with no request on their part, i left a few bucks behind. One Eye called out after me, “You have restored my faith in humanity”. And strangely, i felt the same way.
The way i see it is, when it comes to the written word, there are basically two kinds of people in the world. The most common kind of person is an editor. You give them a page with a bunch of words on it and they read the words, tweak the words, tighten the meaning and the page gets better.
I am the other kind. I am a blank page kind of a guy. I depend on editors, not just because of my horrific spelling and grammar, but because i am sloppy and often other people need to make sure i am not making errors of fact or telling stories too far removed from reality. And while i also do a fair amount of editing, the place i excel is when someone is starting with nothing and needs a document to get somewhere.
Thus i do a lot of ghost writing for other people, especially in the context of the community. Twin Oaks requires written communication from visitors, long term guests and people who have run afoul of our occasionally labyrinth policies. Many people i talk with don’t even know how to start these letters. This is where i come in.
Typically, i can get someone to explain their situation to me at a meal, ask a handful of questions and craft a draft response to the community which they are very relieved to have as a starting point. Perhaps 25% of the time they can use my letter with only trivial modifications (like the above mentioned problematic grammar and spelling). Universally, people are appreciative for the help.
Someone might be upset by this, feeling it is somehow cheating and people should write their own letters. Nonsense i say. The power of community is that we help each other by sharing our diverse skill sets. I can’t cook worth a damn and will go nuts if i have to garden. But i need these things to survive. And while survival is not on the line with my ghost writing, i see it as part of our great skill share.
I’ll take care of you, you take care of me.
Hawina and i were at an engaging after dinner conversation at Ganas about what good communication culture looks like within community. There were lots of examples of different community cultures. I pitched the Acorn Clearness process, which is part of the Point A kit of tools for improving trust and transparency in your community. We talked about whether it was important to greet everyone you see each day. We discussed and disagreed on the fundamental nature of people who are in conflict and the availability of mutually agreeable bridges.
At one point a Ganasian confessed that there was confusion around what the appropriate protocol was for sitting at a table with someone who was already sitting there. Do you ask if it is okay? Do you just plop yourself down next to someone? It may seem like a tiny point, but in the occasionally hyper sensitive world of commune culture, you want to get the social cues right.
The way we have resolved this type of problem at Twin Oaks is thru zoning We use spacial and temporal zoning to help with a collection of issues: kid noise, nudity, smoking, sex noises, bike sharing, gardening and much more. In the case of who sits where at meals and what to expect in those places we have evolved three different types of tables.
Tables: Most of the tables at and around the dining hall at Twin Oaks are simply tables. If they are free you can simply sit at them. When the next person comes to the table the etiquette is to simply check in “Can i sit with you?” Or if there is already a group of people you might ask “Is this a meeting?” which you might be invited to sit in on, or it might scare you away from the social lunch you were hoping for with these people. Simple enough, no?
Fun Tables: For reasons i can imagine but don’t know for sure, the community wanted a place you could go reliably and socialize. A place where you never needed to ask if you could sit down and where you were sure there would not be a closed meeting or work discussions happening. And thus the fun table was born. The informal rules are that we will always make room for you at the fun table. And if you start talking about work at a fun table my son and others will call you out about talking about work. There are two fun tables at Twin Oaks, one inside and the other outside. They are popular and oft lively.
Super Fun Table: Turns out there was a greater need for fun tables than just these two. And it turns out that members don’t want there conversations controlled. So there is now a very long set of three picnic tables end to end which are super fun tables. You can talk about anything, you don’t need to ask to sit down and while it seats perhaps 30 people we will always make more space if it is needed.
It was great to see Drew on my recent trip to the West Coast. He is a networker who is excited about the Point A project and has mad skills. He also has stories.
One of his stories that i was excited about was his experience of playing Frisbee at Acorn. An ultimate game he claimed was the best he had ever played. Not because we are especially good players, tho we can field a respectable team. It was the way we play. In his blog he writes:
We didn’t keep score, something I hardly noticed at the time. It wasn’t necessary to keep score because we were all infinite players playing a series of finite games.
It was at the moment of the opening disc thrown that the finite game started. We played for the point at hand. Not for the accumulation of points. Once that point was scored the finite game ended, the winning team got the title of team to most recently score a point then we started play on the next finite game.
We played to keep the game going. If one team kept winning and the other team was getting frustrated we would trade players to even out the skill levels. We would adjust the rules, boundaries on or off, people rotating out, etc. to ensure that the game continued (until sun down, of course).
Each finite game was played to it’s fullest. We played with great seriousness. Even more serious than professionals I would guess. Because no point was worth any more/less than another. We were never so far behind in points that scoring couldn’t keep us from losing or so far ahead that we could go easy on our opponent. We were never playing warm up or pre-season games that “didn’t matter”. We were playing for the point, the only point—at that moment in time—that mattered.
I had not thought of this analysis before, but i found it compelling. While not universal, anarchist score keeping (aka not keeping score) is common in the communes. Quite some Volleyball games start and end with scores of 7 to 7. They are no less fun that ones i played with highly competitive rules and cultures.
I live in a world that is slightly inconceivable to most people. I do a lot of work, almost all of it stuff I am super pleased to do. And I don’t get paid for it. Instead the communities I live in (Twin Oaks and Acorn) cover most of the costs of my living: Food, shelter, clothes, education, entertainment, medical insurance, dental insurance, and most of my travel.
Instead of getting paid in money, besides the services listed above, I accrue labor credits. For each hour I work, I get one labor credit. My labor obligation is 42 hours a week. It makes little sense, however, to compare this work quota to most people’s straight jobs. On the rare cases when I commute (like to a college speaking gig or a craft show) I get “paid” for my time traveling. I get labor credits for voting and going to the doctor, and some small fraction of the time I spend taking care of my son Willow is labor creditable. All the time I spend with Willow on home schooling, including the prep is labor creditable. When I clean our collective dishes, I get labor credits. If I were to cook for more than 7 people (which I never do) it would be also be creditable.
Some of the stuff I do is hard. I do mediation between people who are furious with each other. I work to stop nuclear power plants. I am trying to start income sharing communities in NYC, where couples committed to each other for life find it easier to not share income. I help find consensus when there is sharp disagreement. With some regularity people thank me and appreciate the difficulty of this work. When I am feeling clever or exhausted by my efforts I say, “That is why I make the big labor credits”, a silly knock off on the phrase “That is why I make the big bucks.”
Silly, because all labor credits are exactly the same size. One hour is one credit. It does not matter how hard I work in an hour to the accounting system (though other members certainly appreciate and celebrate anyone’s hard work). The labor credit I get for an hour of preparing space for a party is the exact same size as the one I get for hour I spend getting a drunk and belligerent guest out of the party. The labor credit I get for folding mail in the sun while talking with charming visitors is the same size as the one I get for counseling and talking down a manic or suicidal member.
I don’t need to get a bigger labor credit for the harder work. Turns out when my basic needs are met, I am pretty well off. The communities are poor. The people who live there have legitimately calculated taxable income below the poverty line (or at least in the case of Twin Oaks–Acorn is higher but still below the national average income). What this radical sharing we deploy does is to permit us to live like kings (or at least like the upper middle class), while we live in technical poverty.
If you are thinking to yourself “Wait why doesn’t everyone do this? We could eliminate the awful effects of living in poverty without having to make any more money,” you would be on to something. Besides stopping climate change, we would be saving millions of lives from the sharp edge of poverty.
What stops us is we don’t trust each other enough to share what we have, almost all of which is sitting idle almost all the time.
Post Script: I should clarify this thing about traveling, since it has sparked a bunch of questions. Perhaps half of these trips are paid for by the communities i live in. These include craft fairs trips with Hawina, college speaking gigs, hammocks sales trips and almost monthly trips to DC/Baltimore and NYC for the Point A Project, With the possible exception of Ira from Acorn, no one at either Twin Oaks or Acorn travels even close to this much. And i travel more than this.
I visit my mother at least two or three times a year, often in Florida, and she pays for this travel completely. I also travel with the Star family (my family of choice) and i pay for this out of money i earn outside of the community. I am also fortunate to have romantic intimates who pay for me to come and see them in all manner of curious or exotic locations.