This post first appeared on the Commune Life Blog.
We had two naming parties to find a name for the new commune in DC. They both failed. Unlike naming a car or a rope machine, it actually matters that you get a good name out of a party, if you are naming your home. Naming parties tend to gravitate towards sillier or complex names. For example, the Mighty HaHas of TomorrowLand was the disputed result of the last Compersia party. But even this silly name did not go to waste completely, the Ivy City house which Compersia Community just moved out of is called TomorrowLand.
But the community itself needed a bigger name, and stronger name. I was quite satisfied with what they choose without the help of a naming party – Compersia. Derived from the word compersion, this name is a big ask. It’s about trying to let go of our jealousy and envy and be happy with those we care for being happy, even if our special connection is not exclusive.
The Compersia community has a new house. They moved out of Ivy City and now are in Crestwood (one of the proposed names was Bestwood). It is a much larger house, with a real yard and an ample basement play space. This basement space got named Bonkersville at the naming party, which seemed apt since Sappho, Meren, Zadek and Julian were boxing with oversized gloves for much of the evening.
I was asked to facilitate, which i really should take as a compliment, because both of the previous two meetings that i facilitated failed. We got about 50 suggestions from Bagel and The Situation to Emma’s Tea Room and Whitetop’s Castle.
There is an origin story to that last name. Whitetop was the gambling tzar of DC in the 50s thru 70s. Someone said running the numbers ended not long after this with the advent of the state sponsored lottery. He built this house in Crestwood, a quite suburban enclave beside a park, within the city limits of DC.
Perhaps 50 people participated in the naming party that i facilitated. In the first round they had all 50 choices and 6 yes votes and 3 no votes. Over half the list got eliminated this way. People added names in, but generally these did not make it to the next elimination round. Bougie’s Bugaloo did not make it to the 3rd round, (Bougie Galore is Jenny’s comic commune name), and we also dropped Neverland and the Lucky Heretics. Lucky was for gambling, and heretics because they don’t believe in private income. The last three names on the list were:
- Sheppards Gamble
- The House that Numbers Built
Technically, Asterix won, but only by a single vote after 4 rounds of eliminations. We agreed to call the Bike Shed, “Wheels Up,” and the Basement, “Bonkersville.” There already is a holy site dedicated to “Our Lady of Perpetual Container Shortage” which houses a giant four door refrigerator filled with well organized dumpster treasures.
But the name i think the house is going to go by is “Numbers” which is what folks will call “The House that Numbers Built”. It references Whitetop’s business success. It can quickly be abbreviated by a single #. Googles parent company is Alphabet, the Communes star model is Numbers.
We will see if this one sticks. It is a lovely place.
Sometimes our parents teach us how not to be who they are. My father’s father died when he was a boy. My father had to work hard all his life and grew up to be risk averse. He bought insurance, showed up early for almost everything, and was a highly disciplined and organized man. He was a captain of industry, the CEO of a firm which bore his name, and a real job creator. That ain’t me.
The art of online dating is fundamentally about risk taking. It almost never works out, except when it does. Because I wanted to see the OK Cupid profiles for folks in a local poly group, I created a profile for myself (OKC will not let you review profiles unless you have one). But because I did such a terrible job with it a charitable friend offered to rewrite it for me – which lead to some curious situations, but that is another story.
I dutifully answered a few hundred questions and did some surveys that I found interesting and did some flirting, but nothing really came of it. I am the wrong demographic for this platform: too old, too male, maybe even too straight, who knows.
I did at one point get a date with a gal who was a 99% match. This is quite rare for people who have not already lived in community. For the people who have lived in community, it is somewhat common to have very high matches. I was a bit excited. She wrote me that her and her boyfriend were in Virginia and he especially was interested in Twin Oaks and asked if they could stop by. A first date with her existing boyfriend seemed perfect to me.
Some might find this odd, but I have been on very few dates in my life. I’ve had more than my share of wonderful romantic experiences, but they almost all started at protest actions or festivals or conferences or the comfortably relaxed environment of the communities. Dating was a bit scary to me.
So having the boyfriend along set the parameter clearly. We were not going to end up in bed together at the end of the evening, unless there was some really amazing chemistry. His interest in the communities gave us lots of things to talk about and we would get to know each other in a relaxed way. Them coming to the commune meant I did not have to organize travel or go anywhere and deal with bar or café scene, and could avoid spending money which was also nice.
They arrived at Morningstar and we spoke for a while, and they seemed nice enough. She was an unemployed opera singer, he did geeky things with software, they were from the NYC metro area, and I thought at first there might be a Point A connection.
But as the evening wore on it became increasingly clear that there would be no chemistry. She valued completely different things than I do. When we talked about how we made life choices I found myself repulsed by what she had chosen; she likely found my decisions equally problematic. I could ramble off a list of the things that I found problematic about her personally, but it is perhaps more useful to list the things she probably thought of me:
Disconnected from the real world, not creating a secure financial future, not building a resume, sloppy, disorganized, reckless, over extended, unfocused, insufficiently respectful of existing power structures and institutions, uncultured, dirty, and self possessed.
“But what about the 99% match?” I kept asking myself. “How could we have done so well with the algorithm and be such a complete mismatch?” Then I figured it out. There are literally thousands of questions. If I only answered a few hundred and she answered very different ones than I, then we could have a high match by having very few overlaps and those being highly correlated by chance. I was pleased with my clear explanation of this slightly uncomfortable situation.
“How many OK Cupid questions did you answer?” I asked to confirm my theory.
“All four thousand,” her boyfriend answered for her. So much for my clever theory.
And so it was with almost every OK Cupid experience I had. I hardly went on any more dates, but I chatted up a lot of folks and kept finding repeatedly that either I was too odd for them, or they were just not very appealing to me. I paid for the premium service for a few months to see if this would help, but I just got more people to be excited about (since it shows you who is interested in you) and none of them panned out. It seemed like the entire thing was a gigantic waste of time and emotional energy. All of online dating was a pointless exercise.
Except it wasn’t.
“I need to meet you,” she wrote me. She read my profile, was intrigued both by me and community life. Now we are together almost everyday, Gryphon, her charming daughter, Sappho, and her ex-husband Curt at Acorn. She was a 96% match. I never ever would have met her if it were not for OK Cupid. Our worlds had no overlap. And she has significantly changed my life.
So when they tell you online dating is pointless, they are almost right but not quite. And that difference makes all the difference.
Around 50 years ago the founders of Twin Oaks decided that they were going to radically depart from conventional decision-making techniques. They disliked voting, consensus had not been secularized by the feminists yet and waiting for everyone to agree seemed time-consuming, so they thought they would develop something new.
Almost everyone in community makes decisions in meetings, but Twin Oaks was founded by writers. They thought a dynamic writing-based decision system could get around some of the big problems associated with running a complicated community. To this end they developed the O&I Board. O&I stands for “Opinions and Ideas”. Critics of this system occasionally quip that the name really comes from “Oh am I bored”.
The way it works is pretty straightforward. There are 2 dozen clipboards placed on a wall and anyone can put up a paper with a proposal for something new on one of them. At the end of the proposal you have posted you leave blank pages of paper so that other members can make comments or suggestions.
There are several advantages to this system. The first is that you don’t need to gather everyone in the same place at the same time to discuss something. On our busy, large farm this is significant plus. People can read everything that others have written, or skim it if that is their interest, or skip it completely if the topic doesn’t resonate with them. Readers can comment in whatever length they feel appropriate, from multiple pages, to simply dittoing something someone else has written and signing your name (this is a pretty common practice). Members can make alternative proposals or point out unaddressed problems and hopefully the proposal becomes stronger for all this input. The pressure to agree with someone who is talking to you and who you want to make happy as well as some groupthink problems are decreased.
But there are problems as well. Written communication is much more likely to result in flame wars than face-to-face communication. If you can see how what your saying is upsetting someone, your humanity kicks in and you may tone down your words – the O&I looses this important control. Because you are somewhat more likely to be attacked on the O&I than in a meeting, some members shy away from this format not wishing to be in the center of a controversy. Written communication is difficult for some people. If there are many comments on a proposal, the later ones do not get as much attention as the earlier ones and there is no notice that new important comments have been added, so you have to keep checking on papers with which you are concerned.
The real problem with the O&I board is none of these described above, nor is it a problem with the board itself, but rather with it as an entrance ramp to our decision-making process in general. The real problem is once you have posted on the O&I board, if there are any significant number of comments your next steps are unclear.
Sure, if everyone says “This is a great idea, lets do it!” then it is clear, but this very rarely happens. If your proposal is contentious or has several sets of recommendations on how you should change it, you as the author of the original proposal are at a crossroads. Should you push on with your proposal? Should you do a community survey? Should you call for a community meeting? Should you go talk with the people who seemed most upset about your proposal and see if you can find a compromise? Should you talk to the people who are most supportive of your proposal and ask them to help you advance it unmodified? Should you talk with the planner or the council about it? Should you just give up and drop it completely? This is, for many members, simply too many options. Especially since if the proposal is at all controversial no matter which one you choose some critic is going to call “bad process” on you for not having done it the way they want it done. Perhaps this is why after 50 years no other community has decided to mimic the O&I board as their central decision-making tool.
It started with the asparagus and a hole.
For 50 years the lepers hospital had been abandoned, fenced off and losing the struggle against entropy. Late in the fall of 2002, a handful of liberators cut a hole in the fence, letting themselves and the locals in. These mostly poorer pensioners from the outskirts of Barcelona had for years watched the fenced off asparagus sprout inside and go to seed. Not this year.
But the story only begins with this “chance harvest”. While locals reclaimed and seeded this newly available agricultural land, the squatters planted roots of their own in this place they renamed Can Masdeu (house of many springs). And as expected, before the first plants had sprouted, the police had arrived – not worried about the vegetables, but rather a different “weed” taking root. In April 2003, several dozen Barcelona riot police arrived to remove the illegal occupants from this long abandoned 3 story “mansion”.
What the police found was 11 people suspended on various platforms and perches designed so that to remove any one person, would cause another (or in some cases two other) people to drop from great height, potentially to their deaths. To this day, there are chairs mounted on the outside of the building – outside the top floors, where protesters sat for 3 days, through a rainstorm and mostly without food – waiting for justice. And finally it came. A local judge ordering the police to retreat, declaring human life is more important than property. It did not hurt that the dozens of local and imported supporters at the squat were aided by very visible protests and lobbying going on inside the city of Barcelona and even the Spanish Embassy in Am*dam was under siege by sympathetic anarchists.
But as romantic and exciting as the origin myth of Can Masdeu is, it is the current projects and dreams which makes it such an important and seductive place. Two dozen young people (from 22 to 39) have built gardens and bread ovens, opened a community bike shop, constructed meditation spaces, planted fruit trees, installed solar cookers and reversed entropy. They have inspired a DIY/”we can do it” culture which manifests both cordial relations with the locals and deep connections to the rural squatting movement (which is more secure than urban squats, because Spain, like most places, is suffering from urban flight). Meals at Can Masdeu are a cross between a noisy family reunion, a conspirators clandestine gathering and a polyglot’s wet dream, with the colorful players switching languages every few moments.
The internal economics are pretty simple. Everyone (visitors and members alike) pays 1 Euro (about $1.20) a day for the dry goods – mainly organic and bio regional foods which are collectively cooked by volunteers each day. On our last night there no one signed up to cook and cheerful, last minute, self selecting recruits finished cooking at 11 PM. (Which is only an hour or two later than dinner normally is. This is Spain – or more precisely Catalonia – after all.) The food is good. It is mostly vegan of necessity since cheese is expensive – but there are no culinary restrictions placed on the group.
Though simple, the meals were wonderful. Culinary success is fostered by a culture of joy and political action. Stuff from the gardens, food left behind after the farmers market (in a novel twist, farmers don’t feel it necessary to put broken glass into food which they can not sell, to keep others from eating it as we are so fond of doing in the US), bread from their clay ovens, dry goods purchased with the money chipped in – all create a squat cuisine which kept us out of the wonderfully tempting Barcelona restaurants.
We were lucky to get in. Jana and Frodo recommended the place, but June is one of their closed months. They have been so popular that they need to control the visiting of folx so as not to get overrun with outsiders. Our boat into Tarragona arrived just as a closed month began – but we were generously granted an exception (which we had arranged by e-mail in advance). We gave back to the squat with a presentation on Twin Oaks which was attended with great interest. They were trying to figure out many of the sharing systems that more mature communities have already developed. At 1 AM I was still answering questions, Hawina having fielded the first hour of them, while I chased after Willow (at this writing was age 2), who seemed to get the infectious spirit and thought that he owned the place.
It is not utopia yet either; one problem and benefit is the clash between the Spanish “manana culture” and the North European (esp. British and German) punctuality. The squat is perhaps 2/3rds locals and 1/3rd internationals and Gesine (who was our host and is from Germany) was really struggling with the group’s ability to make decisions effectively.
While we were there a couple of Dutch co-counseling instructors were there teaching a class. But their meeting techniques did not seem to take hold the way some of the squatters had wanted. I found myself wanting to be able to materialize Tree and plant her in this place for some months.
Squats, especially large ones which are likely targets for eviction are generally a mix of disheveled and broken stuff – and that which has been repaired or renovated. There is dodgy wiring and the same “second world” plumbing style as East Wind (running water inside, but outside composting toilets). But these folx were fast on their feet. At one point Willow charged into one of the living rooms, with cushions missing from chaotic couches, piles of papers on the dirty floor. An hour later we returned and the couches were complete and positioned for a meeting, the floor cleaned and cleared, a meeting agenda on the easel in front of the space. And in my favorite anarchist tradition, no one was claiming credit for the magical transformation. It just sort of happens, because it needs to.
It is not hardware or architecture which makes Can Masdeu important, it is the culture creation, the social relations and the politics which does. “We don’t just wear black,” says Gesine, explaining that part of the perceived threat of the squat to the establishment is that they are media friendly, accessible to (and in fact supporting of) locals from different ages and classes and constantly doing outreach. Barcelona is one of the most heavily squatted cities in Europe. The combination of poverty, speculation on rising real estate values and a legal system which does not deify property rights has caused an explosion in squatting and the anti-military service campaigns. The moneyed class does not want popular, accessible squats like this one – it emboldens folx to take matters into their own hands. Squatters are supposed to be dangerous fringe criminals, not helpful, friendly, folx fixing people’s bikes and respecting each other and the land and local tradition.
Even during their closed month there are tours and workshops every Sunday. There was a series of sessions on healing arts when we were there – taught not by folx from the squat, but by Barcelona practitioners using the space with the squat assisting in promotion for the event. The local school has several student groups who choose (and are encouraged) to meet there, in the café and ample conference spaces. There is a growing book library, a free shop (a commie clothes look alike), and a tool library as well as all the squatting propaganda you could possibly want. One of the rooms is for storage and construction of giant protest puppets and is also the flamenco dancers practice space. These types of multicultural mixed use spaces are common.
My last day, by good fortune, I ended up in a long conversation with Martin from the UK, who spent a year looking for this place before actually squatting it. His was an amazing and tragic tale, complete with getting cut from the rope which was blocking the G8 from arriving at their Swiss retreat. He dropped over 60 feet into two feet of water, broke his back and was lucky not to be paralyzed, much less alive (see www.aubonnebridge.net website for the amazing and disturbing video of the action). We talked about the culture of Can Masdeu, the meetings and process, the hopes and relations with other projects. For me it was the perfect arrival to Europe. People who had a very high level of commitment to radical political work, but were not stuck in old boxes, which would for example, keep them from the media, or distance them from the local population. We talked about his desire to protect this ecosystem, which he felt was at the edge of its carrying capacity with the gardens which had already been planted. And how amazed he was at what they had so far created.
And it might all end in October. After 5 failed criminal cases have been run against them, Can Masdeu now faces a civil suit, which it may be nearly impossible for them to win – because in fact they don’t own the property and someone else does. The police might not evict – this happens sometimes. But the most likely future is that in the winter of 2004/05 there will be a call to defend the squat. They hope hundreds of people will help defend the house and if they resquat there may be a popular action, hopefully with many hundreds of people especially people from the barrio. They have grown deep roots. My guess is many more than the original 11 people who risked their lives will be in dramatic and dangerous positions, with more than 3 days food and a very enthusiastic and very large group of people all around them supporting them.
I’ve seen the future and it is off the end of the metro green line in Barcelona
Update Nov 2016: The police did not come. To this day Can Masdeu continues to host events, political protests and a dynamic scruffy band of anarchists, who are now joining 20 other Catalan communities to build their movement.
In two nights, in two very different settings I got the same message and it is a message that needs to get through.
My father was an architect. He got a lifetime achievement award from the Boston Society of Architects (BSA) and felt like this award should really be bookended by an outstanding young architects award, so he created one. My father passed in 2009 and my mother continues to give out this award at the BSA gala each year.
I went this year for the first time to the BSA gala. It was black tie and probably the fanciest dinner I have ever been to. It was held at the Intercontinental Hotel in Boston.
Before the event my mother noticed I was not wearing any socks and asked me to put some on. I went to my pathetic bag and could only find one sock, so I put it on (one qualifying as “some”); fortunately, no one seemed to notice. My mother sat next to the award winner who was friendly and charming. On her other side was the Boston Globe architecture critic, a long time family friend.
At this awards dinner a life time achievement award was given to Theodore Landsmark. I had met Landsmark before when he gave my mother an honorary doctorate from the Boston College of Architecture. Landsmark certainly deserves a lifetime achievement. He was the president of the very cool open admission Boston College of Architecture for 17 years. He has been on the board of multiple arts-related institutions including the Institute of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He has a bunch of advanced degrees from a number of fancy schools. But in my mind the thing he is most famous for is being the right person in the wrong place as depicted in the Pultizer Prize winning photo below.
Landsmark is a great public speaker, but his message was not a comfortable one for the architects in the room. He observed that he and one other architect were the only black faces in the room and had been for the last 30 years. He told the black tie crowd that they had to do better promoting people of color and women to positions of responsibility in the field of architecture. He noted that since he had joined the Boston Redevelopment Authority, they had approved scores of projects worth over $2 billion and only twice had the presentations been done by a women or by a person of color. He pointed out that companies with diverse senior management are more profitable. Further, that the emerging architecture markets in the global south are expecting to see greater diversity from partner firms in the north. He observed that the city of Boston was “Majority Minority” and that most of the graduates of architecture schools are now women. He attacked architecture and especially architecture management as being a bastion of old white men.
But I probably would not have written this blog post at all, if a similar conversation were not happening in a completely different context the next day.
I’ve written several times about the Baltimore Free Farm. It is one of the most inspiring urban projects in the US, and is affiliated with the Point A project. BFF does a “Fancy Dinner” fundraiser once a year.
BFF has done a bunch of work on diversity and inclusion issues and provided important support — in the form of free food — for the protests in Baltimore last April. Despite this work, there was a powerful critique of this year’s Fancy Dinner on the event’s Facebook page. It included the following text:
People think about racism as an individual act of prejudice or discrimination from one person to another. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about systems, structures and institutions.
One of the principal organizers for the BFF collective read this critique during the Fancy Dinner. BFF was being called out to support more local black businesses. The audience of the Fancy Dinner was mostly white, and I believe quite sensitive to this critique.
There has been a huge jump in whites’ understanding of racism as a problem in the US. And at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, at fancy dinners of dominantly white participants had this brought up in uncomfortable and powerful ways.
i have to say i am very proud of my co-dad. Sky has been selected as the new executive director of the Fellowship for Intentional Communities. And near the top of the list of things that EDs do, is hustle money.
So far he has been pretty successful. The first crowd funding effort since he became ED has raised more than $7K for the FIC’s Intentional Communities directory.
The FIC is trying to build on this success in the last few days of the online fund drive. An anonymous donor has agreed to match any donations up to the $7500 mark that come in.
As with many good crowd source campaigns, the FIC is making it easy to donate by giving you a premium that you really want anyway for your donation. You can get the brand new FIC intentional communities directory for donating $25. Just do it.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
The Louvre Museum has 8.5 million visitors per year. This blog was viewed about 95,000 times in 2015. If it were an exhibit at the Louvre Museum, it would take about 4 days for that many people to see it.
- The House that Numbers Built April 10, 2017
- Block Gorsuch esp SC, AZ, ME, and NV April 5, 2017
- Slip Trip – When the GPS sends you astray April 1, 2017
- The Death of Westinghouse March 25, 2017
- When almost all “yeses” means “no” March 22, 2017
- “So you are a polyamorous community?’ March 18, 2017
- What she sees wrong with me March 15, 2017
- Binghamton – Hello and Goodbye March 11, 2017
- Crafts House and Tufts March 9, 2017