Thursday, January 31, 2013

Issues in Community: Aging

I have a new model of aging since I've been to Twin Oaks.  While I was there, a group of us put on a showing of the cult film 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show' and my favorite memory of it was seeing their oldest member, a woman in her late eighties, dancing away to the 'Time Warp'.  Makes me rethink what growing old can be like.

My favorite year at the community I helped build in Cambridge, MA, was when we had someone in every decade of life there, from a child under ten and a child over ten to a man in his fifties.  Twin Oaks was even better than that, with an age spread from toddlers to eighty-somethings.  In contrast, while Acorn has some folks in their fifties and sixties, there is quite a different feel to the place because most members are in their twenties or thirties.  The place feels very young.

Since that community in Cambridge, I've lived in several different co-ops in the Boston area.  In the first two everyone other than me was in a range from late teens to early thirties, with the vast majority in their twenties.  At that point, however, I was in my fifties.  While I was treated like anyone else, I still felt out of place.  I got upset when someone suggested we could advertise the community as multigenerational.  I pointed out that I was the 'multigeneration'. 

On the other hand, the next co-op I lived in, almost everyone was in their fifties and sixties.  I felt sorry for the twenty-something woman who moved in with us.  While I felt more comfortable there, I missed the liveliness and young energy. 

I have enjoyed community the most when there really was a spectrum of ages; when community becomes a place where the young can learn from the old and the old can learn from the young.  I feel community needs both--the old and stable and the young and wild.

Community can be a place to age, to take care of each other as we grow older.  Just as it takes a village to raise a child, a village--or even better a community--can care for their elders.  True multigenerational community becomes a place of support for everyone.  It's not always easy to get the right mix, but I think it's worth it.

Quote of the Day: "Communication and rapport become essential if we shall be looking after each other--sometimes in quite intimate ways--as we age." - Margaret Critchlow and Andrew Moore

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Issues in Community: Children

Most people have heard the saying, it takes a village to raise a child.  Well, if you don't have a village, a community will certainly do.

I helped raise two children in a communal setting.  Having talked with both of them (young adults now), I think it certainly made a difference and both of them said they were glad they were raised this way. 

At Twin Oaks this fall (see Life at Twin Oaks, 12/4/12, for more about my time there), I met some very articulate and thoughtful youngsters, including one who was studying their planning system for a school assignment and his notes on the meetings were so detailed and accurate that they became the minutes for the meetings.  I also found out that Twin Oaks had a very new thing happen to them recently: two of the kids that were raised there didn't leave as they came of age but decided to become members.  In my experience this is very unusual and it may have more to do with the poor state of the US economy than because of a great love for Twin Oaks.  Still, another person raised at Twin Oaks who left has come back as a member and, at least in his case, the reasons don't seem to be economic.

Dozens of children have been raised at Twin Oaks.  It hasn't always worked out well.  It seems like they are doing better these days but one thing that was going on while I was there was a controversy about certain buildings that had been traditionally child free.  This is one issue in community child rearing--not everyone in a community wants to raise a child.  At Twin Oaks at least there is a bit of space so some areas (in theory) can support families while other areas can hold members that don't want to be around children.

The community I helped build practiced rotating childcare.  Each of us took turns being the 'parent on duty' (or POD as we called it).  I think this was great for the kids, if sometimes a bit stressful for the adults.  When I looked at how much energy it took for five adults to keep up with two children, I started wondering about my own parents, who were two adults coping with five kids.

I also think that our community broke up at the right time for the kids.  While I firmly believe that communities are wonderful places for a small child to live, I have seen how difficult it can be for adolescents to live in community, particularly in an urban area.  This is an age where there is a strong desire to be like your peers.  Few teens want to stand out or look weird. I visited a co-housing group filled with young kids running around.  They had created a special teen room just so their adolescents would have a place of their own--and the adolescents would have nothing to do with it.  The room was basically deserted.  This makes it all the more impressive to me to see teens doing well at Twin Oaks.  I suspect that this may have a lot to do with how big the place is, how many kids there are there, and how isolated it is.  Being in community for a teen may be easier if most of your peers are in community as well.

I'm not saying that it's easy to raise children in community (or anywhere) or that the children always turn out well.  But I think it's very possible and can be beneficial for the kids.  In a future post I hope to look at how children raised in other alternative settings turn out (for example, children from the 'hippie' culture or from 'poly families').  If we are going to create a sustainable society, raising children in the best possible way needs to be part of that.  And I do think that communities can be places that support parents, children, and families.  I do think that a community can raise a child--and sometimes many children.

Quote of the Day: "Reaching agreement in community is not easy.  Raising children is not easy.  Reaching agreement on raising children in an egalitarian community is, so far as I can tell, impossible." - Kat Kinkade

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Issues in Community: Introduction

As I was writing the post I wrote from Twin Oaks this fall, I started thinking of issues that I saw there (and at Acorn) that I thought might deserve their own post.  The more I thought about it, the more issues I thought of, not only from TO and Acorn, but from my previous experiences with communities and co-ops as well as stuff that I read or observed in other situations.

Thus this series.  Some of the issues that I hope to look at here include Children in Community, Aging in Community, Community Size, Urban, Rural, and Suburban Communities, Diversity in Community, Tobacco, Drugs, and Alcohol in Community, Attracting Community Members, and looking at Leadership in Community.  And maybe a few other things will pop up along the way.

So this has the potential to be quite a long series.  I am still reading a bunch of things so I may alternate book reviews with posts in the series.  My hope is that some of this may prove useful for other people starting communities, looking for communities, or living in community. Or maybe even for people who are vicariously interested in community living and the problems therein. 

When I was at Twin Oaks they gave us little visitor booklets entitled  'Not Utopia Yet'.  No community is, but I think the attempts give us more ideas of what's possible--as well as what's difficult.  This series will be my attempt to look at some of where the difficulties lie.

Quote of the Day:  "Having clear principles doesn't solve all your problems or make things easy in any group, and this is even more true in the community setting.  However, compared to not having clear principles, having them does help, including when tough decisions come up." - Tree Bressen

Friday, January 18, 2013


I've been prowling through the public library recently, finding all sorts of books that have captured my interest.  (Thus all these book reviews.)  This was in the new books section.

The title is Imagine and the subtitle is 'How Creativity Works' and the author is Jonah Lehrer.  The book is divided into two parts, entitled 'ALONE' and 'TOGETHER'.

The first section is interesting, looking at the neurobiology of creative thinking and the creative benefits of travel, as well as how Bob Dylan wrote the song 'Like a Rolling Stone' and how poet W.H.Auden benefitted from using amphetamines.  But it's the second part of the book that I think holds lessons for those of us into communities and social change.

Lehrer begins that section by citing a study done by sociologist Brian Uzzi, covering every Broadway musical produced between 1877 and 1990, which looked at the teams involved.  Were most of the people close friends or frequent collaborators, or were they pretty much strangers? 

Interestingly enough, the musical teams that created the most successful productions were composed neither of mostly familiar faces nor of folks who hadn't worked together before.  Rather, the bulk of Broadway hits were made by teams that were a mix of old friends and new faces.  It turns out you need both people you know and can depend on and newcomers with fresh ideas.

My sense is this is true of communities also; the ones that are the most successful (Twin Oaks, for example) have both long-term members that have known each other for years and new folks coming in and out.  You need people who know what they're doing and can depend on each other, and people you don't know who bring new blood and new energy.

From there, the book looks at Pixar, which has created eleven films, all of which have been commercial successes.  They claim that a big part of their success is because of the organization of the studio--all the main functions are located in the center of the building, even the bathrooms, so that you constantly have to run into people to do anything.  It's the continual interactions that promote the creativity.  Lehrer references sociologist Ray Oldenburg who talks about "third places" (neither home or work) where people get together--coffeeshops and bars and other hangout spaces.  In communities I often notice this in kitchens and dining areas, people running into each other and chatting, and often connecting with new folks.

There's a lot more in this section, including the benefits of large cities and particular times in history--as well as pointing out that 'brainstorming' doesn't work and critiquing sessions actually work better, but I want to end with something I found in couple of places in the book.  The first was in a footnote where Lehrer was talking about W+K, a very successful ad agency, where the walls were covered with art, including a canvas covered with pushpins.  When viewed at a distance the pins create the words 'Fail Harder'.  Later, he mentions visiting the classroom of a drama teacher at a school for the arts.  Hanging on the wall above the door is a banner that reads 'FAIL BIG'.

Lehrer goes on to discuss a study that compared two medical funding agencies, the National Institutes of Health which funds proposals that are well supported by preliminary evidence, and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, which encourages researchers to take risks.  It turns out that the HHMI researchers "went on to produce twice as many highly cited reseach articles and win six times as many awards" as the ones funded by NIH. They "also produced 35 percent more research papers that were cited by nobody at all."  Lehrer concludes by saying, "The moral is that these scientists weren't producing better research because they were smarter or more creative or had more money.  Instead, they had more success because they were more willing to fail."

This reminds me of what I wrote in my post on Gaviotas a few years ago.  (See Real Models 2:Gaviotas, 10/6/10.) "The Gaviotans tried many, many experiments and almost as many were failures as were successes."  Part of why Gaviotas has produced so many sustainable innovations is their willingness to fail.  And, as I wrote in my update on Building New Communities (12/18/12), if most new communities fail, the only way to have more communities, is to keep creating communities, knowing that they are likely to fail but that may be the only way to succeed.  And I think that's also true of most social change efforts.  The fact that many of them won't be successful, is a good reason to do more.

So there is my goal for both building communities and creating social change.  Fail more.  Fail faster.  Fail harder and fail big. You've probably heard the expression that someone has failed miserably.  What I want to do is fail joyfully.

Quote of the Day: "People have a tendency to want to work only with their friends.  It feels so much more comfortable.  But that's exactly the wrong thing to do.  If you really want to make something great, then you're going to need to seek out some new people, too." - Brian Uzzi (quoted in Imagine)

Monday, January 14, 2013

Off On Our Own

I was in a local library when I happened upon this book.  I was immediately intrigued by it.

Off On Our Own, by Ted Carns, is stuffed with several different kinds of things.  First of all, it's the story of how Ted, along with his wife Kathy, built up an off-the-grid, sustainable household in the woods of western Pennsylvania.  He tells the story with humor and a clear belief in what he's doing.  The book is also filled with pictures of The Stone Camp, all of them in black and white, many of them striking.

He also goes into details about the systems that he and others have built there in order to live off-grid and produce 'zero waste'.   He makes it clear that most of these can be built for very little money.  (He found many of the 'expensive' parts he needed for cheap at a local flea market.)  He talks about buildings, power, refrigeration, and water systems.

In addition, he adds plans for 'Eight Small DIY Projects' that someone interested in this stuff can do and lists the Skill Level, Cost, 'What you need', and 'How to do the project'.

Then he throws in a chapter entitled 'Favorite Recipes from The Stone Camp Kitchen' (all of them vegan) with Ingredients and Directions.

Finally, after he talks about 'The Years Ahead of Us', he adds three more chapters in an 'Epilogue' explaining his views on Fossil Fuels, Sustainability, etc, etc.

The book is fun to read and filled with useful stuff.  Best of all, most of this is from one person's own experience.  It's a book about and by someone who is living sustainably, day to day. 

One thing that I didn't like was how the back jacket points out that "They have all the comforts of modern life, from flat screen TV to morning smoothies from their solar powered blender."  This gives the impression that you can live the same consumer lifestyle you've always lived, but just off-grid.  Fortunately, the book points out the problems with upward mobility and what Ted Carns calls "the world's peer pressure..."  As he says, the cure for this is learning to think for yourself.

While this isn't a community book (it's mostly Ted and Kathy and frequent visitors, with him doing most of the work), the stuff in it is applicable to communities, individuals, and families--anyone who wants to live off-grid.  I also noted that he several times mentions how much more he could do if he could clone himself.  I wonder how much more could be done if there were several dedicated people working together on things like this.

Quote of the Day: "One thing I hear a lot when people come to visit is, 'Now I see how much I have to learn.'  At first I wasn't so quick witted, but now I point out straightway, 'No, it's not that at all.  Now, you see how much you have to unlearn.'  Maybe that really is what this book has been all about, teaching a process of unlearning so that you can come to your own clear vision of the future." - Ted Carns

Thursday, January 10, 2013


If you read my last post, you may know where I'm going with this.  If you're squeamish about body functions, you may also want to stop reading now.  And, warning, the language is going to get a bit rougher than usual.

Joseph Jenkins, the author of The Humanure Handbook, puts it bluntly: "The world is divided into two categories of people: those who shit in drinking water and those who don't.  We in the western world are in the former class.  We defecate in water, usually purified drinking water.  After polluting the water with our body's excrements, we flush the once pure but now polluted water 'away', meaning we probably don't know where it goes, nor do we care."

The Humanure Handbook means to change all that. Jenkins originally wrote it and self-published it, creating 250 copies--which was about as much as he could imagine selling.  The first edition went through four printings and eventually sold over 10,000 copies.  The second edition (which I got out of the library) is distributed by Chelsea Green publishers and will probably sell a lot more.

It covers all the basics that you need to know: how to make a simple bucket toilet arrangement and how to compost what you collect; where to buy composting toilets (which are quite expensive--compared to the do-it-yourself versions); the process of composting (basically anything, but with an emphasis on humanure--which is shorthand for human manure); a detailed chapter on pathogens entiled 'Worms and Disease'; and lots of reassurance on the safety of the process.  The important thing to know is that you need to add a carbon source if you don't want it to get smelly and attract insects--most toilets I've used (and what he recommends) use sawdust, the same way that food scrap composting piles tend to use leaves.  He also includes a chapter on 'Alternative Graywater Systems', which doesn't quite have to do with humanure but is also quite useful, and has appendices on 'Sources of Wetland Plants' and 'State Regulations' for 'Composting Toilets, Graywater Systems, and Constructed Wetlands'. 

As you might guess, I think this is an amazing and incredibly useful book.  Given the complexities of the subject and concerns about spreading disease if you don't do it right, I would recommend that anyone who wants to compost their feces should read this book.  My one concern is that Jenkins occasionally attacks or puts down 'fecophobes'--ie, people who can't deal with the fact that their excrement needs to be dealt with.  I understand his frustration, but given the importance of spreading this information, a more understanding approach might be in order.  However, this shouldn't stop anyone from reading this book.  I think we all need the information it contains.

If you are skittish about composting your feces and want to start with something simpler, or you just pee a lot and don't always want to mix that into the compost (as Jenkins suggests that you do), the book Liquid Gold by Carol Steinfeld is a starting place for thinking about simply collecting and using urine.  It lists the composition of urine (lots of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur--but also a lot of sodium and chloride), how to think about the carbon-nitrogen balance issue (urine is heavy in nitrogen and almost lacking in carbon), and recommendations on the best way to use it (compost it, add it to graywater, or dilute it and use directly on plants).  For use directly on plants, Steinfeld recommends eight parts water to one part urine. She ends the book with a chapter filled with examples of gardeners and farmers who use 'liquid gold' to increase productivity.  Unfortunately, the first third of the book is filled with 'urine lore' and pictures of cute urinals--which seems like filler material to me.   The author could have concentrated on the agricultural aspects and created a shorter, tighter pamphlet that would have addressed all the significant issues.  Still, the stuff here is important enough that I think it's worth at least reading this book.  It may be worth ordering or at least finding out if your local library will get it.

Finally, on a related subject, is a book called How to Shit in the Woods by Kathleen Meyer.  This is oriented toward campers and how not to pollute streams and groundwater with your droppings.  I wish I could recommend it but it is filled with camping tales and info on the word 'shit' and low on the information I think is important.  (Yes, an even higher ratio of filler material to the useful stuff than Liquid Gold.)  As far as I'm concerned, the most important information (as in how to actually 'shit in the woods') is simple and could be summed up in two sentences: "Choose a location well away from creeks, streams, and lakes--150 feet is generally recommended..." and "... dig down six to eight inches".  Beyond that, there is information about the spread of Giardia (a pathogen that for some reason Jenkins doesn't cover--and he covers a lot of pathogens), a chapter on peeing in the woods for women, and an interesting chapter on natural alternatives to toilet paper.  If any of this interests you, or you want a book with amusing stories of squatting in the woods, or if you find it cheap in a used bookstore, it may be worth getting.  Unfortunately, I doubt many libraries will carry it.

Just like regular composting, humanure (and 'liquid gold') closes the loop and creates a sustainable way of dealing with what is, after all, a natural process that each of us does every day.  If we want to create a world where we enrich the soil (rather than deplete it) as well as a world of zero waste, we are just going to have to deal with this.

Quote of the Day:  "It is ironic... that we humans have consistently ignored one problem that is very near to each of us--one waste issue that all of us contribute to each and every day... Perhaps one reason we have taken such a head-in-the-sand approach to the recycling of human *excrement is because we can't even talk about it. ... For *waste is not found in nature--it's strictly a human concept, a result of our own ignorance.  It's up to us humans to unlock the secret to its elimination.  Nature herself provides us with the key..." - Joseph Jenkins

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Thinking in Circles

Yes, this is partly a play on the title of Donella Meadows' book, Thinking in Systems.  (See my posts on Learning from Modeling, 1/31/12, and Leverage Points and Graphs of the Future, 2/15/12, for a bit more about the book.) To be able to think in systems is a wonderful thing but I do find it difficult.  On the other hand, linear thinking is easier but causes many problems.  I think the first step to system thinking is thinking in circles. Circles (or 'loops' as the systems people would say) is the way that nature works on the small scale.

The most powerful first example I can give is photosynthesis and cellular respiration.  (I've discussed these in detail in my posts on Biology 101: Photosynthesis, 5/17/12, and Biology 101: Cellular Respiration, 5/10/12.) In photosynthesis, plants take in energy (in the form of sunlight) and carbon dioxide and water, and create sugars, as well as giving off oxygen (as a 'waste' product).  In cellular respiration, our cells take in sugar and oxygen and get energy from them--as well as giving off water and carbon dioxide.  Neither process would last long without the other.  We give the plants (and other organisms that use photosynthesis) what they need (carbon dioxide and water), the plants give us (and other animals) what we need (sugars and oxygen).  Yes, this is highly simplified, but the truth is that it does form a nice circular system--and one essential to our lives.

My other three examples are all drawn from composting, a process near and dear to my heart.  At least two of them can be compared with the 'linear' process that we now use--processes that seem crazier and crazier to me the more I think about them.

The first and most basic step is what most people think of as composting.  You take table scraps and leaves and let them rot together and you get rich soil.  You can then use this soil to grow more plants.  The circular model goes like this: food is eaten but the food scraps are used for compost which creates soil which is used to grow food which can be eaten and generates more food scraps to create more compost.  It goes round and round and round.  Compare this with the linear model that many people have lived by: food comes from somewhere (the supermarket?), we eat it and the scraps go out in the garbage to somewhere (in this case, usually landfills).  Meanwhile, conventional agriculture builds the fertility of the soil with chemicals made from oil (fertilizers) and there is a growing waste problem as our landfills fill up.  Which is sustainable?

But the process of composting can go two levels deeper.  (Warning, this is not for the squeamish--I will go to levels some people don't want to think about.  I suspect it's this very squeamishness that may be at the root of some of the problems.)

The next level down of composting is what happens to the food that we do eat.  Yes, we digest it and we excrete what we can't use.  The linear model for this is that we eat food from the supermarkets and then flush what we can't use down the toilet where it goes to that magical land of 'away'.  (In reality, into septic systems and often into our oceans.) In my next post I will review The Humanure Handbook by Joseph Jenkins, but a preview is that we can compost our feces (and urine), and use that to create even richer soil.  Again this becomes a circle where we eat food, and what our bodies can't use leaves as feces which can become composted into soil to grow more food.

But there is a deeper level of composting even more unimaginable to many people and that's composting ourselves.  Yes, our bodies after death can be composted. Natural burial is an alternative to the embalming, and metal caskets, and concrete vaults, that prevent nature from doing what it wants to do, and that's to turn our bodies back into soil.

Several authors that I've read point out that nature has no toxic waste sites.  The woods are not filled with the excrement of all the forest animals nor with their dead bodies.  Everything in nature is recycled back to the soil and from the soil grows more plants which feed the animals in the forest.  Nature acts in circles.  We need to think in circles. That's the only thing that's sustainable.

Quote of the Day: "We can't impose our will on a system. We can listen to what the system tells us, and discover how its properties and our values can work together to bring forth something much better than could ever be produced by our will alone." - Donella Meadows

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Beginning a New Year

With the first of January, the rest of the world catches up to me (see my post on #Beginning Again, 12/21/12, for more on this).  This is the beginning of a new year--and a year without much certainty.

At this point the only thing I have scheduled for myself is a return to Pennsylvania in March, to continue exploring community with the people there.  Hopefully, after a month or two, I'll have a clearer idea about whether I think this has the potential to build into long term community or not. Meanwhile, I'm trying to schedule another visit to Twin Oaks (see Update 6: Life at Twin Oaks, 12/4/12, for more on TO) in late February, which would also give me a chance to check up on the emerging communities down there.  (I should have a couple of chances to help out at Living Energy Farm--see Update 7: Living Energy Farm, 12/4/12--as well as being able to check on the progress of Chubby Squirrels--see Communities of Communities, 6/9/12, and Update 1: The Twin Oaks Community Conference, 9/9/12, for a bit about Chubby Squirrels.)

Beyond that, and especially the next month and a half, 2013 is wide open.  I do have a bunch of posts that I want to write and I'm hoping that my too much free time will give me the time to write them.  Hopefully my next post will be on Thinking In Circles, something I've been thinking a bunch about lately.  I've been reading some interesting books and hope to do a few book reviews.  Finally, I've got a series in mind I'm calling Issues in Community that will incorporate things that I've read, things I've learned through life, and new learnings from my travels this fall.

May the new year bring good things to you--and especially may it bring hope to a world sadly in need of it.

Quote of the Day:  "We will open the book. Its pages are blank. We are going to put words on them ourselves. The book is called Opportunity and its first chapter is New Year’s Day." – Edith Lovejoy Pierce