For something in the range of 3 years, I have not had my own bedroom either at Acorn or Twin Oaks. I have been ghosting. I have a shelf in the suite that Hawina and Willow share, where I have some stuff. Some other possessions reside in the Tupelo attic. Beyond this, I live out of and a collection of travel bags and I also draw heavily from our collective clothes library. Between the communities there are always enough slack rooms and when I had the job of room assigner at Twin Oaks I had an intimate understanding of where the slack bedrooms were. I could float.
I get that this would not work well for most people. You can either look at it like you are homeless, or as though you are on a marathon traveling adventure, where you are looking for just the right place to land, knowing it might well not be an option the next night.
I’ve stayed a lot in GPaul’s room at Acorn, because he is mostly doing Point A work in Washington DC. He is still an Acorn member. Fortunately for him and me, Acorn values the network building efforts he does do. While he is away he does not count towards Acorn’s soft agreed population limit of 30 people. So i often sleep in his room. But the last two times i have tried to use the room, i failed.
The first time i just wanted my shoes. I was going to Italy and i thought it would be nice to have the only reasonable piece of clothing i actually control, which are these simple leather shoes. I don’t use them much but sometimes, for public speaking or trade shows, i take them. They are comfortable and i think they look nice.
As is my way, i am packing at about 4 AM, before a 6 AM departure. I have my little flashlight and i am going to into GPaul’s room to rescue these shoes. I figure if i am really quiet, it should be fine. It was a hot night.
I opened the door slowly and there is a naked body sleeping on top of the sheets. I close the door. The penalty for tardy packing is that i don’t get to take my shoes to Italy. I was never able to figure out who was actually in that bed. It appears that they were wildcatting (sleeping in a room that was not assigned to you). It doesn’t really matter.
The second time I tried the room, I wanted a place to sleep. This time there was again a person sleeping there, a relative of a member who was visiting. I could have gone to the Rec Collective, which has 6 bunk beds which almost always has a free bed. But instead i opted for a couch. Acorn has pretty great couches for sleeping.
I am becoming an Oaker again as part of my dual member switching and, unlike the last two times i rejoined, i am going to take a room this time. The room i am technically taking over is one of the most bizarre on the Twin Oaks campus. It is called the Hobbit Hole. It is called this for a number of reasons, but mostly it is because of the unusual door to the room. This door is 3.5′ tall, at the high end. The low end is about 2′ tall. Most people have to crawl into the room.
Update: While the Hobbit Hole was lovely, i am following the cool kids and moving back to Ta Chai, into the same room i shared with Puck for quite some time.
This is number 2 in the randomly occurring series which extends the answer provided in the Twin Oaks website FAQ section. The first was on personal possessions. And this post appends to the answer given about our membership process. That answer is:
Basically, in order to become a member, a person needs to be willing to abide by the agreements of the community (e.g. no personal cars, our income-sharing agreements, and lots more). They also need to be able to fit into our social norms which, because we live so closely together, are quite particular (e.g. being sensitive to people’s “personal space”, being able to pick up social cues, being able to be cooperative and share control, etc).
The process for membership involves an interview with the Membership Team during a Three-Week Visitor Period. The interview consists of telling one’s life story, and answering questions about how one deals with various aspects of community living like conflict, anger, people with different values, etc. Then there is an input period during which all visitors leave Twin Oaks for some time, and have the opportunity to reflect on their experiences and decide if they really do think they want to live here. During this time, each member of the community has an opportunity to give input on the visitor (Accept, Visit Again, or Reject for membership). If there are outstanding health (including mental health) issues those will also be taken into consideration. The Membership Team makes the final decision about a visitor becoming a member.
While generally a fine answer, there are all kinds of things missing here. The first is the complexity of Twin Oak’s own visitor and membership process. We have no less than three separate teams inside the community to deal with this process.
Another thing missing from this answer is that pretty consistently for the last 4 years the community has had a waiting list. This means if you are in a big hurry to live in community (a state i would recommend no one be in) then Twin Oaks might well be a poor choice of places to come. Some communities permit accepted visitors to stay indefinitely after their visitor period waiting for a space to open up. Twin Oaks is not like this. If accepted, expect to wait 3 months to a year.
One of our stronger rules is that after your visitor period (if you are applying for membership) you need to leave the community. Usually, this is for at least one month. This is part of our “anti-cult” orientation. We want you after your visitor period to return to your family and friends. If they can’t convince you that the idea of joining a commune is a little bit nuts, they you can come.
And while it is true 95% of the time that that membership team makes the final decision on accepting, rejecting or visiting again a prospective new member, the remaining 5% of the time is interesting to consider. While i complain about the internal decision making process in the commune, there are numerous well designed components of it. How do we deal with splits within the community around membership? A minority of the membership can reject a visitor or provisional member trying to become a full member, but this minority can be overridden by the majority. One of the clever aspects of this policy is that the larger the minority rejecting someone, the larger the super majority must be to override them. At something like 27% rejecting a person, it becomes impossible for the majority to override the minorities decision.
One of the community agreements not explicitly mentioned in the above FAQ is working quota. During your visitor period you will get assigned a bunch of labor, including an incredible number of orientations. Including these, you need to work your 42 hours of quota a week. There are all manner of areas you can work in as a visitor. Reliably the kitchen has cooking or dish washing cleaning help to offer. We used to train people in hammocks, because they could always fill up their quota in this area. Though this is less true these days and some visitor groups don;t even learn how to make hammocks these days. And we are a bit unforgiving in this. You stay with us three weeks, if you are interested in membership, you better work 42 hours each week – or have some compelling excuse for not working (remember being sick is labor creditable – to a point). Visitors not making quota consistently lose their ability to apply for membership on that visit.
Another thing to be aware of is the commune has a second process step for people who are interested in membership who are 55 or older. One of the policies i most dislike is out Age Cap policy. It comes from an understandable place, when the average age of the community exceeds 43 years of age, we slow our acceptance of older members to not pre-maturely age the community. And the reason this is relevant is that Twin Oaks has a very clever pension system, which slowly decreases the quota of members over age 49 by one hour per year.
The other membership cap is around gender. While i think the community is increasingly well educated in the fluidity of gender (strong gender binaries are so twentieth century) we still maintain an existentialist policy when it comes to capping lopsided gender balances. Specifically, if we end up with more than 60% male, we cap our admissions of men until we become more balanced. It would be true for females as well, but this is not really our problem or any of the other FEC communities. For slightly inexplicable reasons, many fewer women apply for membership at Twin Oaks and of those who do apply, a significantly smaller fraction of those we accept decide to come. On the positive side of this imbalance (again for inexplicable reasons) women tend to have longer memberships on average then men.
Fortunately, in the 16 years i have been hanging around Twin Oaks, we have never hit this 60%/40% ratio, so unlike the age cap we have not implemented a gender cap to membershiping visitors. Unfortunately, East Wind has not been so lucky and has had well over 60% male membership for a long time, which gets in the way of the problem correcting itself.
For a look at some of the other restrictions Twin Oaks puts on it’s member, take a look at this post on our most controversial approval.
[This is an old post. When i wrote it i showed it to the planners and was told that i could run it if i wanted, but one planner asked me to hold off til the issue was no longer topical, which i did.]
One of the myths in community is you can’t keep a secret here. In fact, this place (i am thinking Twin Oaks, but to a lessor extent Acorn as well) holds a tremendous number of secrets. What you can’t do is keep a secret when a lot of people know about it and other members know there is a secret being kept.
That is what is happening tonight. The planners and the membership team had an unusual evening urgent meeting to talk about something. There are 3 planners and 6 members of the membership team and there were a number of other people at this meeting as well. The most plausible guess is that it is some expulsion level situation, the news for which has not broken to the membership. You may well never know what is happening, but i and a half dozen other communards i spoke with this evening certainly will and probably soon.
The math goes terribly against secret keeping in this kind of circumstance. In part because many of the people on these teams have romantic partners, who they want to tell about it and then need to be sworn to secrecy. Yet with every leak to an intimate, a general leak becomes more likely. As soon as a bit leaks out generally the rest can often be teased out, because people who know will feel the need to correct the inevitable rumors.
Also, it is only a question of time before the secret will have to be released because of the pressure associated with the existence of the secret being known. For the people who know it, especially the planners, there will be pressure to release it to folks who are curious or concerned and there will be pressure to set a soon deadline as to when the informant will be put out in a mailbox, from members only to read.
By the following morning the commune was buzzing and the people who were at the meeting were doing a heroic job of trying to maintain the secret, but simply by looking at who was inside the loop and who was outside and by lots of members asking lots of questions, before noon a likely scenario was established. But as i said, you may never know – because in fact the commune can keep some secrets, just necessarily from itself.
[It turns out the secret was soon revealed and was mostly about a controversial person who wanted to come to visit and was ultimately asked not to. This secret is old and largely forgotten news now.]
[Update: Please read the comments at the end of this post for the proper history of what has happened at East Wind Community in Missouri regarding Personal Shelters. They are the ones who have pioneered it, and the story i have in this post is slightly wrong. I will fix it in the coming days. Paxus]
Egalitarianism is tricky. It starts out tricky because we don’t even have a common definition of it in the income sharing communities where I spend most of my time. The relevant parts of the principals from the Federation of Egalitarian Communities which describe it are:
- Hold land, labor, income and other resources in common.
- Assumes responsibility for the needs of its members, receiving the products of their labor and distributing these and all other goods equally, or according to need.
- Uses decision making which gives members an equal opportunity to participate, either through consensus, direct vote, or right of appeal or overrule.
- Works to establish the equality of all people and does not permit discrimination on the basis of race, class, creed, ethnic origin, age, sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
[There are other FEC principals, like non-violence and sustainability, but these are not the core of egalitarianism.]
So what is missing from this important list? For starters the idea that all work is evaluated as equally worthy. An hour of my time spent writing a blog about communities is worth the same as an hour spent making a hammock or cooking a meal for many members.
One aspect of egalitarianism (that is touched upon in the second point above, but some FEC communities take much further than others) is that we are trying to avoid envy. We do this in part by avoiding the uneven distribution of our collective resources, except in agreed cases of need (for example golf carts for people with mobility problems at Twin Oaks is a needs based intentional unequal distribution).
Which brings me to the controversial idea of personal shelters. The FEC communities provide housing for our members. In several cases these communities are located on pieces of land large enough for members to build their own housing separate from typical dorm-based housing. We call these usually small buildings “personal shelters”.
Quite some years ago East Wind community (on over 1,000 acres in the Ozarks) decided to permit their members to build personal shelters. This resulted in some handy/artistic folks building some really beautiful places. The problem is that these structures created envy. The bigger problem was when the original builder/owners left, they created a fairness problem. Members who had not been involved in the work of creating these shelters could potentially end up in housing that felt much nicer than what most people living in the community had access to.
The problem this created ultimately lead to East Wind banning the creation of more new personal shelters. Twin Oaks has never permitted them, largely because of East Winds’ experience. Acorn wrestles with permitting them and so far has not allowed them. Some Acorners who were really excited about the idea left to form new communities where such things are possible.
The arguments against personal shelters which GPaul outlined to me, late one night while we were driving back from a Point A gathering in NYC are:
- Energy Use/Carbon Footprint
- Psychic Space
One of the things income sharing communities do especially well is minimize their ecological impact. The dormitory style buildings we have share kitchens, bathrooms, living space and meals. This low impact living is very hard to achieve without a lot of people under the same roof. Personal shelters are usually just one or two persons under a roof.
The fairness issue is covered.
The issue I had never heard before was one of psychic space. In a regular community residence dorm, you know you can stand in the hall in front of someone’s room and not worry that you are infringing on their space. The same is not true of personal shelters. The space they take up is much larger than the physical footprint of their construction. Peoples don’t know how to behave around them and this can cause discomfort and confusion.
Do you think the benefits outweigh the costs?
[Edited by Judy Youngquest]
i try to be quick with friends and recruiting prospects about the things they may not like about the community. But somehow, likely because i don’t drink it, i forget to mention we don’t have public coffee at Twin Oaks. So what often happens is my guest has a wonderful first day experience and wakes up the next day with sort of a romantic hangover from the lovely people, prosaic landscape, community spirit, charming distinct kids, exotic holiday, enviable life style, etc.
And then they ask where the coffee is.
Coffee is pricey and many people don’t drink it at Twin Oaks, some because they view it as a mind altering but legal drug. But really the reason we don’t have public free coffee somewhere is that it is the last vestige of behaviorism. We use “free” coffee to get people into the hammock shops and work in that one of our collective businesses.
So when my new friend Gryphon woke up this morning enchanted but seeking caffeine, i started running around seeking this peculiar tasting fluid. As many hours i have worked in the hammock shop, i don’t feel quite right taking guest coffee from the hammocks business, so i seek out some generous member to let me bum a cup. Which honestly was not hard.
But i realized that i have some coffee shame, it feels like a difference which runs over excited guests initial excitement about us.
On Friday’s i do the Louisa town trip for both Acorn and Twin Oaks. This is basically a centralized shopping task, where any member of guest who wants something purchased in town fills out a pre-formatted form and slips it into the appropriate drawer in the main office at Twin Oaks (or writes it on the right clipboard at Acorn) and the town tripper goes and satisfies all the requests. If you get your request in before 9 AM, there is a 95% chance you have it where you want it by 1 PM the same day. This is a powerful and convenient system. You don’t have to handle money, you don’t have to do the accounting, you are not even expected to thank the tripper.
Last Friday i got this TOR (Twin Oaks Request)
i believe it is the first one Willow has ever written, it is certainly the first one i have ever gotten. And my immediate thought was “He might stay.”
i have always assumed that Willow would in his later teens go off and do something that might result in him never returning to the commune. In the last few years he has talked about becoming a lawyer. This is after some years of him saying he was never going to go to school. Parents who worry about their children’s college/employment plans before they are 15 are people who apparently don’t have enough to worry about. Kids change their minds.
But the emotional impact of getting this first TOR was significant. It was more than just a request for chips. It was Willow stepping into the complex set of systems which make the clockwork community of Twin Oaks work.
The last two teenagers who grew up at Twin Oaks did not go away to college, unlike the half dozen before them who all did. Instead they stayed and became adult members of the commune. [One of the most common questions we get at college speaking gigs about the communes is “What do you do about kids education?” For the college part, the answer is “We send them to college.” The community does not simply write a check for the totality of tuition, fees, room and board. Instead we go thru the entire financial aid package, do some combination of loans and grants and money from other places. But what we make sure is that any one of our kids who wants to can go to the school that they get accepted at.]
To go from a kid member to an adult member is a non-trivial jump. Your quota goes from something like 14 hours a week to 42. You need to do a three week visitor period, but you dont go thru the regular membership input process, instead, if you make full quota as a visitor after 3 weeks we simply accepted you as a member.
Until this TOR i had never really thought seriously about Willow following the lead of our most recent teens. When they became adult members they moved out of the residences where they grew up and where that their folks live, into different buildings in the community, where their parents did not live. It is worth pointing out that both of these kids continue to have fine relationships with their folks. And it is some type of vote of confidence that the commune is attractive enough to hold it’s own kids.
i am guessing Willow won’t stay. He has an adventurous streak and will perhaps go see the world, or become a lawyer, or a lion tamer. But who knows. Kids change their minds.
The title of this post comes from an interview with former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. When asked why he was seeking a second term, having initially emphatically claimed he was only interested in one term as Secretary General he replied in part “Only stupid people don’t change their minds“
[Guest Post by Keenan]
It seems to me that Twin Oaks is thriving, but I don’t want to believe that Twin Oaks is doing well when we are not. The Farm in Tennessee went bankrupt in the eighties because they thought they were doing fine, when actually they were sliding deep into debt. So is there some sort of accurate empirical measure of the health of a commune?
Twin Oaks doesn’t have any debt—that’s significant—perhaps the most significant economic indicator there is. Twin Oaks’ Dun and Bradstreet rating is as high as it can be for a “business” our size. So Twin Oaks is unlikely to fail due to debt. Maybe that’s all we need to know. But I wonder…
Using other economic indicators, Twin Oaks is doing rather poorly. For instance, everyone at Twin Oaks lives below the poverty line. Twin Oakers could get food stamps since we qualify, but we really don’t need food stamps, we can grow our own food, thank you very much.
Twin Oaks is larger, at 500 acres, than a handful of countries; if Twin Oaks were a country what would our GDP be? [From Wikipedia: Gross domestic product (GDP) is the market value of all officially recognized final goods and services produced within a country in a year. GDP per capita is often considered an indicator of a country’s standard of living and is one of the primary indicators used to gauge the health of a country’s economy.] If Twin Oaks were a country, economically we’d be at about the same level of GDP as Armenia, Swaziland, and Guatemala. That’s not good.
Collectively, Twin Oaks’ bank account might seem large, but divided out among 110 people, it’s not that much. Why is it since Twin Oaks has no debt, we own 500 acres, have a dozen buildings, run a handful of successful business that we don’t rank better using standard economic indicators?
There are some other economic indicators that can be measured at Twin Oaks, e.g. Unemployment: current unemployment in the United States is just above seven percent. [This is actually falsely low, since there are many people who would like to have a job, but who have given up looking; they are considered employed, or at least, they aren’t counted as unemployed–OK, that’s bizarre] Twin Oaks has zero unemployment. Everyone works, unless they are elderly or sick. That is, if you can work; you work; if you can’t work, you don’t work. Twin Oaks has always had full employment. By that statistic Twin Oaks is doing great.
In the mainstream economy a worker cannot casually try out being a teacher, a farmer, a mechanic, an accountant etc. Students must pick a career path early, expend lots of time and money getting the required certification, and only then see whether the work is suitable. Additionally, it does not pay to be a dilettante in the mainstream culture. Work security comes from working full time, and work satisfaction comes (if it comes at all) from getting promotions.
Twin Oaks does not have protective barriers around jobs. Anyone can try anything that they want to try. The outcome is a labor scene that is far different from the mainstream labor scene—immeasurably different. No one works at one job at Twin Oaks; people easily switch jobs. People, we discover, are happier not having to work 40 hours at one job. And still the work of the community gets done. There is no work sabotage, or sneaking off with inventory. Twin Oaks wins on worker satisfaction. Because there is no unemployment at Twin Oaks, there is no class stratification. Because there is no class stratification there is no poverty, no crime, no need to hire a police force, or live in a state of constant fear. The crime rate is, essentially zero. Twin Oaks wins on crime statistics and, of course, income inequality.
Twin Oaks is hardly outside of the market economy in our businesses. Twin Oaks’ hammocks business has been thriving for over thirty-five years while other hammocks businesses in the United States have gone out of business. Twin Oaks’ tofu business and East Wind’s nut butter business demonstrate that a communal society can successfully start and operate a capital-intensive business.
When Pier One Imports dropped Twin Oaks hammocks, which accounted for 75% of Twin Oaks’ income at that time, there was no desperation or impetus to start making a shoddy product, do false advertising, or other strategies common for mainstream businesses undergoing stress. Workers switched to other work, the community expanded smaller businesses, and everyone took an equal pay cut, metaphorically speaking. The other businesses grew. Within two years, Twin Oaks’ income was back to where it was. And, of course, no one was laid off. [Paxus note: When Pier 1 came back and asked us to make hammocks for them again, about 4 years after they dropped us, we declined, we had moved forward and did not want to work with them for the relatively low wages per hammock that we had in the past.]
During this time , a well-established and well-known leisure goods company approached Twin Oaks to make cotton hammocks. Twin Oaks had, at that time, slack production capacity. The offer sounded very profitable for Twin Oaks. but we turned the offer down. Why? Because cotton rope is hard to work with; the rope is heavy and would have contributed to wrist injuries. Also, cotton hammocks don’t last as long. We would be selling an inferior product at a higher price. None of the workers wanted to work with cotton hammocks. If the order had been accepted, it is likely that workers would have found work elsewhere in our community.
Health, happiness, and ethics won out over mere profit. How do you measure that decision? Literally, how can you measure happiness? How to measure an unhurt wrist, or a happier workplace? Doing work that is aligned with your own ethical compass? Those considerations don’t have much of a place in the mainstream economic model.
The goal of mainstream economics is to atomize society into individual consumers and to monetize every transaction so that they can be more accurately measured. People re-using stuff, and people sharing stuff all lower global GPD. Growing a garden lowers GDP. Sharing a car with a neighbor lowers GDP. The goal of Twin Oaks is to bind people together in a strong, mutually-supportive group. The by-product of these structural decisions is that lives at Twin Oaks are demonetized; being demonetized, Twin Oakers lives don’t measure up.
Boom and bust cycles, unemployment, class-stratification, planned obsolescence, poverty, crime—these are the logical, predictable, and inevitable outcomes of mainstream economic measures. Not the system, not inefficiencies in the system, not poor implementation of capitalism; the very yardstick itself causes these bad outcomes.
Maybe the yardstick itself is wrong. [Click here to continue this article]
The good news is that Keenan has started blogging. If the reason that you come to this blog is that you are interested in the inside story about what is happening at Twin Oaks, then you are quite likely to be more satisfied with Keenan’s blog which is mostly about those types of issues. If you are looking for news about nuclear power, thoughts on polyamory, Funological analysis of trasnformative festivals or grading of our events, practical critiques of contemporary anarchism or what the front line is of growing the communities movement in eastern US cities, then you probably want to keep coming back to this blog.
If you are looking for proper spelling and good grammar, well thought out and argued positions on community policy, a rational long look at what make the community tick. Then Keenan’s blog might be a great choice for you. And of course you don’t need to choose, you can check out or subscribe to both.
Below are the first few paragraphs of a recent post he wrote which is nominally about not granting a leave to a member who left the community under a cloud of upset. But really what it is is an explanation of how planners make exceptions to policy (or not) and how we are not a democracy, but something more interesting and hopefully more fair.
To see the rest of this article click the link below.