i woke up and looked out the window and saw someone i did not know, but i could guess who they were. i threw on my clothes, bopped out the door and said
“You must be Dragon, i am Pax”
to which he replied “i know i read your blog most mornings”
and of course this peaked my curiosity (and tickled my immodesty). We talked for a bit, of his mixed ethnic origins (Mayan, Swedish and Mexican), his early life fishing for food with him mom as a child. The same mom who bought a school bus which she named Lucy and painted it before taking Dragon and his sister across the country, turning their poverty into an adventure. Dragon told me that he was engaged, which is a state he hoped to maintain indefinitely, not really believing in marriage, but embracing commitment.
i may never know Dragon’s given name. Wild Horse named him shortly after he arrived and Dragon embraced this with the willing acceptance and daring which seems his style. And i dont need to know his given name, because for me his taken one is better in every way.
But what won my heart was when Dragon offered to cook at Twin Oaks on short notice. i had invited a couple of enthusiastic Land Day guests to stay at Twin Oaks and see if it might work for their family. I got them assigned a week of work each and then they vanished without a word. And thus their unfilled labor assignments become my headache as their host. Today i needed a prep cook and Dragon stepped up cheerfully and the crew back at Twin Oaks was impressed with his speed and pleasant manner.
As a funologist, part of my tool kit is games. And i like games. And recently i have been laughing quite a bit over a game called Cards Against Humanity, which i had never even heard of a week ago.
The game is elegantly simple. There are black question cards and white answer cards. You get ten answer cards and replace one for each question card read. For each question card that is selected by each player in turn you provide your best answer card. ”Best” is defined perhaps as the one which the reader (who selects the winner) will find most funny or thought provoking or gross. It is a relative of mad libs and the card game Apples to Apples, if you are familiar with those.
When we first started playing the game i searched (as i oft do) for a political slant. The game authors make it a bit easy because they go after Glen Beck in a couple of the answer cards. And there is no shortage of scatological, sophomoric and off color jokes. It is also often funny.
i wrote 50 answer cards tonight for the new internal version we are creating. [The Twin Oaks internal version is called Cards Against Community. Acorn does not have a name for our game yet.] The internal version uses the same format and refers to things which Acorner’s know about like Daniel’s moped gang and bacon that got cooked for 12 hours. My favorite card of my design (which is unusually long) refers to something that has not happened, but many people could imagine.
“i appreciate the work you do around here, like fixing the floor in the smoke shack or the many times i see you up very late packing seeds. There is no doubt in my mind you are a good communard in this sense. ” i was doing my clearness with Bobbie who might be 35 and has been at Acorn a bit longer than i have. But this was not the important part.
“But when i think about you more deeply, i realize i have an enigmatic experience of you. i think i have a pretty good understanding of who most of the people who live here are and what motivates them. With you i am much less sure. i know that i like you and have enjoyed your company, but really what this clearness drives me to do is suggest we hang out more so that i can get to know you better.” She smiles and agrees and a few minutes later our clearness is over.
With Chubby Squirrels on my mind i am thinking a lot about what are the best practices we have in our communities, and the more time i spend at Acorn the more i fall in love with the clearness process. Put roughly it is a forced opportunity for intimacy. Not everyone takes it, of course. There are a fair few “Oh, we are clear” style quick clearnesses. But there is an opening at each one, an opportunity that i have tried to take seriously and every time i have felt better about my connection with someone.
Every forming community must ask itself “What are we going to require of our membership, what is our mandatory behavior?” Non-violence is often required, as well as some form of work commitment. Acorn also requires clearnesses; you must do at least two a year with everyone who lives there (your own clearness with each member plus each other members clearness with you). On the relatively short list of required behaviors this opportunity for intimacy has been selected.
And if you are going to force anything, this seems like the right thing.
A crew from Twin Oaks came over to help with the cleaning up of Acorns steel building which burned a couple weeks back. i ran around with a dust mask on mostly shoveling and moving wheelbarrows full of charred often indistinguishable items to the large rented dumpsters. We dutifully separated out copper and other valuable parts, which one day might be usable. But it was not until today that i really realized the magnitude of the loss.
A newly purchased vehicle was destroyed (despite Daniels heroic efforts to move it from the steel building inferno). A $2K table saw is now junk. Tens of thousands of dollars in seed inventory was destroyed (though curiously, some thousands of dollars of seeds which where were being stored in a deep freezer that was completely engulfed in flames may have survived – as did some ice cream).
And it leaves Acorn with the vexing problem of what to do with the hull of the torched Quonset hut. The structural engineer we employed to review it says that the building is probably structurally sound, but the galvanization which coated the steel has been burned off and if we want to use the building we should 1) paint it to prevent rusting and 2) store things in it which it is okay if the building collapses on it. Sadly we do not have enough stuff which can have buildings collapse on them and as an operating farm and agricultural business, we have significant storage needs.
We are faced with an odd problem: we are not poor–the businesses are pretty successful, so we are reluctant to ask for financial help from those who have offered it. And at the same time we can not afford to build a new building on this site (at leas this year), with the new seed building under construction and other business capital needs.
And while this is certainly a high class problem, it is a problem none-the-less.
Both of the intentional communities I live in have cottage industries. These are the economic engines which allow us to buy the many things we don’t make or grow ourselves. Most of Twin Oaks’ income comes from the hammocks business and the tofu business, over 90% of Acorn’s income comes from the seed business. I’ve been involved with tofu and hammocks for over a decade, but I’m just starting being involved with the retail part of the seeds business.
There are some highly desirable features to Twin Oaks’ Hammocks business, which i believe are part of the reason the community has been successful. The first aspect is that production is highly flexible. You can come in to the hammock shop at any time and weave or do other fabrication tasks.You can work for as long as you like, there is no “boss” telling you what to do although there are people who will train you and direct you, should you need it. You track your own hours on a trust-based system.
Despite there not being “bosses,” the hammock shop has a manager (my dear friend Shal) who is responsible for lots of things related to the work flow of the shop, especially ensuring that supplies are available when needed and that the multiple steps to make hammocks are balanced. If we need more harness makers, he encourages people towards that work (if they can do it), trains visitors to do it, and will bring in people to do it, if the group is falling behind. Twin Oaks uses behaviorist incentives during our busy season (which is the winter for production, because agricultural season is off, but we sell most hammocks in the spring and summer) — we set goals for production and we get rewards if we succeed and quota goes up if we fail. Hammocks management (which I was part of for some years) does not like quota increases being our “stick” to get people to work. We have tried several other approaches — treats, music and events in the shop, nice coffee — to get people to work in the shop and they have mostly been appreciated, but ineffective. Now we start with the behaviorist sticks pretty early and raise quota until we have filled the orders, then quota drops down.
The Twin Oaks Tofu operation is a much more classical assembly line structure. Frankly, I think we had to be a much more mature community to operate it. It has long been the case that a dedicated team of tofu managers (usually working quite hard in the tofu hut itself) maintain an esprit de corps for the large collection of workers in the hut. Unlike hammocks and seeds, the expectation is if you have a tofu shift scheduled, you will either go to it, or you will find someone to take your place. Because it is classical assembly line format, production requires at least one person at each of three stations and the pace of the workers influences the speed at which subsequent workers need to be moving. Specifically, a fast kettle worker (where the tofu management often works) drives the speed of the entire hut.
For years I marveled at the effective anarchist chaos of the Twin Oaks hammocks business. Lots of workers, almost completely unsupervised, coming at all different times, leaving little to no communication for subsequent workers, working short or long shifts as they liked…seemed to get all the hammocks made.
It was not until I got to Acorn that I realized that there was an even larger step-up in the self organized workplace. The seed business also has three production stations, which are not a classical assembly line, because each step is temporally independent. Packing the seeds in little packets, followed by picking the seeds for each order from the storage room where all the varieties are represented. Finally, the shipper takes the picked order, checks to make sure it is correctly filled and then creates a mailing package for it (occasionally a custom one for oddly shaped orders) and puts it in the post.
There are lots of other parts to the seed business work here at Acorn — processing back orders, dealing with customer calls, prioritizing orders when the customer has paid extra for this, contracting seeds with farmers, germination testing seeds, deciding which seeds to carry, attending trade shows and much more.
During the busy season what most of the people at Acorn are working on are these three order filling steps: packing, picking and shipping. Hundreds of person hours go into this work, and the amount of management, supervision, training and planning which goes into this process is the lowest I have seen for any of the many business operations i have ever been involved in. It is, as I have been slightly shockingly referring to it recently, an anarchist’s wet dream.
Because there is so little supervision/management instruction from above, combined with a very high feeling of affinity and connection to the business from the line workers, there is a high level of conscientious behavior on the workers to make sure that the right things get done, and that the right mix of work happens.
My personal experience is that I have come into the picking room, done a bunch of organizing, and taken over the management of that part of the operation without asking anyone. And we are definitely more on top of things than before I stepped into the picking room. There is better communication about out of stock items and back orders. But I hold no illusion that if I were hit by a bus tomorrow, we could not return to the old, less centrally-organized approach and things would function just fine.
And from an anarchist perspective what is most important here is that the line workers are empowered to take responsibility. They do not feel oppressed by supervisors or managers and they are happy and proud of their work. Something that exists far too rarely in my experience.
There is a conversation which Acorn has about membership that Oakers basically don’t ever have. It is the spaceship versus lifeboat conversation.
Lifeboat proponents say that industrial capitalism is destroying the planet and chances for survival are slim. And that Acorn represents a lifeboat for people who are trying to escape this disaster. Correspondingly, your humanitarian nature drives you to try to get as many people into the lifeboat as possible and you don’t judge your fellow survivor based on their abilities or merits, instead you welcome them and try to integrate them the best you can.
The spaceship crowd (which i am a long believer of) says we are looking for the best people to take on this mission we are going on. In fact the success of the mission is dependent in large part on us selecting people who have the complex mix of skills and gifts we need to make this journey work well. Some of them are organizers, some of them are inspiring artists and performers, some of them garden and fix things, still other manage computers, cook and take care of and teach kids.
When i was going thru my Acorn clearnesses, one member said to me “i like you okay, but i think anyone who wants to should be able to live here, regardless of my opinion of them.” This is a classic lifeboat position. At Twin Oaks, we are not having this discussion. We are spaceship believers and we select people largely based on their sociability, their work ethic and their skills.
When i was talking with GPaul about this division i posited that “In this debate the spaceship crowd wins, right? Because any single member can block someone new from joining, so if the lifeboat clan wants everyone, the spaceship faction simply rejects prospective members they don’t want and they get their way.”
GPaul was quick to correct me; it is not so simple. You can not just run over the will of a group in the community regularly and there are people who the life boaters get excited about when they are in their visitor periods who they really are excited about having as members, even if they dont want to be blocking others out.
There is a friendly rivalry between my two communes (Acorn and Twin Oaks). Like the younger sister who grows up to get the better job, Acorn has certainly learned from Twin Oaks’s missteps. But despite the myriad differences, we are far more alike than we are different. The number of folks not working directly for money, outside of a spiritual context is so small as to be laughable in the US. Yet bloggers, like myself, are drawn to comment on the contrasts more than the similarities.
When i studied classical economics one of the things which came through early was the advantage of international trade. The resources and skills of one region would give them a productive advantage over another land which had its own special abilities. Trading between these countries or regions was mutually beneficial to everyone. It was this advantage i was aware of last night at the Twin Oaks Validation Day party.
At 8 PM the dance floor was stalled. Caroline was playing quite compelling music but the Oakers were distracted by side conversations, various treats and their validation day cards. Around 8:30 the Acorn vehicles started to arrive, and it was like Great Britain discovering East Indian tea – everything changed for the better.
It is not just that the Acorners are younger on average (by about 10 years). And despite there being many fewer of them than Oakers (29 as compared with 91 adult members currently) they stormed onto the dance floor and we had a party. At a bit before midnight, i counted 22 people on the dance floor, a dozen of them had come w/ Acorn. [While Acorn is only 29 members now, it is more guest/intern/visitor friendly, so for any given event they/we will bring perhaps as many as 25% more participants who are not members but are in the social circle.]
Sometimes, you are really thankful for your little sister.
i also got the best validation day card ever. Pictures soon.
i was caught off guard by Acorn’s acceptance of me as a dual (provisional) member. It was supposed to happen next Sunday. And while i was not surprised by the decision, i was slightly relieved to be through the intensive clearness process. As we might expect, mine is a slightly exceptional membership right from the get-go.
Because i am a dual member with Twin Oaks,for the purpose of membership count, Puck plus me will be a single member (Puck is also a dual member). In addition, i will share Puck’s room (Acorn is at its housing capacity, with several people in substandard living situations – someone looking at GPaul’s room in the barn said “you have everything you want in this little room” to which he replied “except insulation”).
The provisional membership process at Acorn normally lasts a year, and for a dual member (who is there half as much) it takes 2 years. But there is not really much difference in the membership status that affects me. The dental and health costs which are not covered by Acorn during this period, will likely be covered by Twin Oaks.
My acceptance at Acorn was a triumph over the negative campaigning. The ringleader of this foul effort was Keenan who wrote:
Acorners, be warned: Accepting Paxus will change your community! There will suddenly be massive multi-day, very disruptive New Year’s parties. The very members of your community will travel to earn thousands of dollars at work elsewhere. He may talk radical, but he is very devious in increasing sales for businesses. You will all be working harder! The place will become riddled with political activists! And lots of guests from totally foreign countries! There will suddenly be a huge influx of young women members! Save yourselves! Don’t accept him for membership and send him back to Twin Oaks where we are already used to his ways.
i love my critics, some of them at least.
i am honored and excited to be part of Acorn. Acorn feels like an intricate feral gem within the communities movement, and i am going to like polishing it in several places, including right here. Stay Tuned.
Twenty years ago. when the pioneers of Acorn were designing a different membership and decision making structure than the parent community Twin Oaks, they decided they wanted to create something called a clearness. It is two distinct things actually – or perhaps most precisely two parts to the same clearing process.
The first part is a face to face conversation with everyone who is a member of the community. So for the last week or so i have been catching Acorners, going for walks, chatting while packing seeds, chatting over making dinner or quietly in someones room. And with the exercise i finally learned all of the names of all of the members and the guests (because to a new person it is occasionally hard to tell who is who). The purpose is for people to share concerns, specifically about my membership. Overall, these were wonderful conversations in which genuine appreciation and what felt like quite transparent communication took place.
Some members were concerned that my motivations behind joining Acorn were indirect, in that i have been clear that part of my reason for wanting to be here is to work with Acorn on starting up Chubby Squirrels. But to a member, these concerns were secondary to the nearly universal desire to expand the communities movement and specifically to strengthen the eco-system of income sharing intentional communities in central Virginia.
Ira said “I never know quite what you are doing.” To which i had to confess was my own experience with myself with quite some frequency. ”I have nothing to say to you, Paxus.” a generally taciturn Abe told me, followed by “and i mean that in the nicest way”
The second part of the clearness is everyone getting together in the dining room and talking about whether you would be a good fit in the community. i had my community clearness and people were very friendly and supportive of both me and Acorn fostering the Chubby Squirrels project as well as my recent efforts in the picking room. The facilitator started the round of check in’s with asking people what their favorite band was when they were 12. The Beatles and In Sync both got more than one vote each.
The last community meeting Acorn will have about my provisional membership will be the Sunday after this one in which the community will meet without me and make a decision if i can join. Given what people said in the meeting which just took place, it is unlikely a hidden concern will derail my effort to become a dual member. And as several people jokingly reminded me, these types of last minute concerns do pop up.
The clearness process is a sister to the transparency work i have already been doing, but is clearly something which i would mimic in a membership process for a new consensus based community.
When i told Angie there were no real concerns about my potential impact on the community, her reply was “they are not paying careful enough attention.”