Monthly Archives: November 2007

Look Into My Eyes O’Neil

I was sitting in front of my computer in my small upstairs office one cool October morning eight years ago when I received an email from a friend in New England. He forwarded me a wire service report that had appeared in his local paper that morning about a boater missing off the coast of Massachusetts. The missing boater was my old college roommate Alice.

The story pieced together slowly over the next few days. First Alice was simply, bafflingly missing—she had taken her 25-foot catamaran out on a breezy autumn afternoon and not come back. The next day the boat with all of Alice’s belongings still on board had washed up on some mud flats in Duxbury Harbor. The Coast Guard, the state police and the Plymouth harbormaster searched by boat and by air; Alice’s other friends and I went over and over the possibilities on the phone and in back-and-forth emails, all of them unlikely, but no less unlikely than the simple fact that she had disappeared. Could she have somehow accidentally fallen overboard? Been kidnapped? Gotten off somewhere and been marooned? I sat at my desk sifting finer and finer and finer grains of information and understanding less and less.

Alice had taken her boat out on a Thursday afternoon and the boat had been found on Friday morning. It was getting to be late in the season and Alice had told the Duxbury harbormaster that she wanted to get in one last sail before she put the boat up for the winter. The search went on throughout Friday until dark when the Coast Guard called off its portion of the search, and resumed on Saturday with state police divers. By Sunday the official search party had dwindled to the Duxbury harbormaster and his assistant, sweeping the harbor with a borrowed underwater camera, but by then it was clear that Alice hadn’t intended to be found. On Sunday the newspapers gave the first delicate hints: “Plymouth County District Attorney Michael Sullivan said Robinson’s disappearance is being treated as a missing persons case,” I read in the on-line version of the Boston Herald. “Coast Guard officials have said evidence on the boat suggests Robinson, a well-respected sailor, may have been injured. According to a law enforcement source, a splatter of blood and tissue on the boat’s mast appeared to be consistent with marks left behind by a self-inflicted gunshot. Robinson’s boat was found with its outboard motor in reverse and out of gas, its dinghy still in tow.”

The day after Thanksgiving I flew up to Massachusetts for the memorial service. Mara met me at the airport and we drove together to the old house in Marshfield that belonged to the local Audubon Society. Mara had seen Alice more recently than I had. What was it? I asked her. What was it that made Alice decide that those grasses and those trees just coming into yellow and red, that sky and that choppy water, were the last things she ever wanted to see?

I don’t know, Mara said. I don’t think Alice wanted us to know. Whatever it was, whatever depression and darkness, I think she would rather die than ask for help.

I used to admire that in her, I said. Her control.

I guess it didn’t do her much good after all did it? Mara said.

I always think of Alice’s memorial service, of the kind, sad, pleasant people sitting in a circle at the Marshfield nature center, the low late autumn light over the estuaries, the wind in the tall reeds, when I think about Seattle, November 1999. It’s strange how the two of them lie one over the other in my mind like a set of transparent overlays

In November 1999 I had never heard of the World Trade Organization, had barely heard the term anti-globalization, didn’t think protests still happened, believed that chaos was more dangerous than order, thought that the police sometimes made mistakes but were basically always right, thought that this might not be a perfect world but it’s the best one we’ve got. I was beginning to have questions, but I didn’t see my way clear to any answers. “I don’t get it,” I said to Isabell after reading about the 50,000 people on the streets of Seattle, the disrupted meetings, the teargas and broken windows and burning dumpsters. “It all seems so fuzzy and pointless. Is it about the sea turtles or the steelworkers or what? What do people hope to accomplish anyway?”

It took me a couple of years to understand the full ambitious intention of Seattle 1999: nothing less than to confront, resist and banish the dominator model of power and replace it with a power that rested on cooperation and partnership. A year after Alice’s death I met someone who had actually been in Seattle. While I had been going about my autumn business that year, he had been making up his mind to travel across the country on a Greyhound bus. His report of what happened next remains one of my favorite pieces of writing. An excerpt from it is below—Tuesday, November 30, the intersection of 4th Avenue and Pike Street, standing in front of a line of police in full riot gear.

I choose one—at random, for they all look exactly the same. Every inch of his body is hidden under black cyborg armor. He is armed to the teeth. His face is hidden under a gas mask, face shield, and fullseattle6.jpg helmet. O’Neil is embroidered on his bulletproof vest. I plant myself squarely in front of his face and I stare dead into his eyes. He won’t look at me. He blinks constantly, looks down, left, up, right; anywhere but at me. It infuriates me almost beyond words that this coward has the impudence to attack me when I am unarmed but lacks the courage to even look me in the eyes. “Can you look me in the eyes? CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? LOOK ME IN THE EYES O’NEIL.” Nothing. I know why he won’t look at me. When he was halter-broken he joined his trainers in a companionship stimulated not by love, but by hatred—hatred for the “enemy” who has always been designated as a barbarian, savage, communist, jap, criminal, gook, subhuman, drug dealer, terrorist, scum: less than human and therefore legitimate prey.seattle10.jpg

I try to make it impossible for him to label me as a faceless protester, the enemy. I pull off my ski mask and continue to stare into his eyes. I tell him that I am from the South, about fixing houses and laying floors and loading tractor trailer trucks, about nearly getting killed in a car wreck in October, about carrying my dog around crying to all the bushes that she loved to root around in the day she died of cancer. I tell him that we all have our stories, that there are no faceless protesters here. Nothing. “Can you look me in the eyes, O’Neil? I am a human being, and I refuse to let you evade that. I won’t let you label me as a protester, and I don’t want to have to label you as a cop. I refuse to accept that they have broken you completely, that there is not something left in you which is still capable of empathizing seattle09.jpgwith me. I want to be able to treat you as an equal, but only if you prove to me that you are willing to do the same. And the only way you can do that is by joining us, or walking away.” I remain dead still, staring into his weak cow eyes. He is blinking excessively and is visibly uncomfortable. “Can you look me in he eyes O’Neil? The difference between me and you is that I want to be here and you don’t. I know why I am here. I am enjoying myself. I am reveling in this. I am rejoicing. I have been waiting for this to happen since I was a little kid. There is nowhere in the world, ever, that I would rather be than where I am right now. There is nothing I would rather be doing than what I am doing right now. It has never been so magnificent to feel the sublime power of life running through the marrow of my bones. I know that you don’t want to be here. I know that you don’t know why you are here. I know that you are not enjoying yourself. I know that you don’t want to be doing this. And no one is holding a gun to your head and forcing you to. Wherever you want to be, seattle21.jpggo there, now. Whatever you want to be doing, do it, now. Go home and get out of my way. Go make love with your girlfriend or boyfriend, go snuggle with your kids or dog, go watch TV if that’s what you want, but stay out of my way because this is a lot more important to me than it is to you.”

I have not moved my feet or my eyeballs at all. I have been trying to blink as little as possible. O’Neil’sseattle06.jpg eyes are quivering and squirming to avoid me beneath the mask. “O’NEIL! CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? CAN YOU DO THAT FOR ME, O’NEIL? CAN YOU LOOK ME IN THE EYES? Basically the whole ‘Battle of Seattle’ boils down to the relationship between you and me. And really, there are only two kinds of relationships that we can have anymore. If you can either join us or walk away then you will be my brother, and I will embrace you. If you cannot then you will be my enemy, and I will fight you. The relationship that we are not going to have is the one where you are dominant and I am subservient. That is no longer an option. That will never be an option again. Which kind of relationship do you want to have with me, O’Neil? Look around you. Look at all of these people singing ad dancing and making music. Don’t you see how beautiful this is? Don’t you see how much more healthy and strong and fulfilling and desirable and fun relationships that rest on mutual respect and consent and understanding and solidarity and love are than the ones that rest on force and fear and coercion and violence and hatred? Don’t you see that the life and the world that we are beginning to create out here is superior to the one that you have been trained to accept… Don’t you see that we are going to win? Don’t you want to be part of this? If you want to remain my enemy then so be it. But if you want to be my brother all you have to do is join us, or walkseattle02.jpg away.”

At this exact moment the Infernal Noise Brigade appears. For the first time since this surreal monologue began I look behind me. A small man wearing a gas mask and fatigues is prancing about in front, dancing lustily with two oversized black and green flags. Behind him two women wearing gas masks and fatigues march side by side, each bearing an oversized black and green mock wooden rifle. Two columns of about fifteen march behind the women with the guns. They are all wearing gas masks and fatigues, and they are all playing drums and horns and all sorts of other noisemakers. They are making the most glorious uproar that I have ever heard. The Infernal Noise Brigade marches all the way to the front where we are standing. When they reach the line the columns wto121.jpgtransform into a whirling circle. We form more circles around them, holding hands and leaping through the air, dancing around and around in concentric rings like a tribe of elves. We dance with absolute abandon, in possibly the most unrestrained explosion of sheer fury and joy that I have ever seen. On one side of the line across 4th Avenue there is a pulsating festival of resistance and life. On the other side there is a blank wall of obedience and death. The comparison is impossible to miss. It hits you over the head with a hammer.

When the dance is over I return to my post up in O’Neil’s face. I stare into his eyes and invoke all the love and rage I can muster to fashion an auger to bore through his mask and into his brain. And Cow Eyes cries crocodile tears. His eyes are brimming, with red veins throbbing. His cheeks are moist. Heseattle12.jpg won’t look at me. “O’Neil, I don’t care if you cry or not. I don’t care what you’re thinking right now. I only care about what you do. Before long you will get orders to attack us, or one of you will get impatient and provoke another confrontation. What are you going to do? When that happens I am going to be standing right here. If you choose to remain our enemy then you are going to have to hit me first. I dare you to look me in the eyes when you do it. You may be able to hurt me and not look at me. You may be able to look at me and not hurt me. But you won’t be able to look me in the eyes while you hurt me, because you are afraid you will lose your nerve. You are afraid of me, and you should be. O’Neil, you all have been terrorizing us all day. If seattle08.jpgthis goes on all night we will have to start fighting back. And you and I will be standing right here in the middle of it. I have no illusions about what that means. Neither should you. We may get killed. But I would rather deal with that than accept this one second longer. I would rather die that give in to you. I don’t think you cans say that, can you, O’Neil? Would you rather die that be my brother? Who are you dying for? Where are they? Whoever gives you orders is standing behind you, man. Whoever gives them orders is relaxing down at the station, and whoever gives them orders is safe in some high rise somewhere, laughing at your foolish ass! Why isn’t your boss, and their boss, out here with you, O’Neil, risking their lives and crying in the middle of 4th Avenue? Why should they? You do it all for them! What are you thinking? I just don’t get it. They don’t care about you. Hell, I care about youwto.jpg more than they do. You’re getting used, hustled, played man, and you will be discarded the minute you become expendable. Please look me in the eyes. I’m serious, O’Neil, come dance with me….”

Someone whispers in my ear that another cop is crying down the line to my right. For a fleeting moment I can feel it coming, the fiery dragon breath of the day that will come when the servants turn their back on their masters and dance…and then it’s gone. Because O’Neil is not dancing. He is completely beaten. His lifeless eyes don’t even bother to quiver or squirm. And he won’t look back at me. I could whisper in his nightmares for a thousand years, I could bun my face onto the backs of his eyelids, I could stare at him every morning from the bathroom mirror, but he would never look me in the eyes. He is too well trained, too completely broken, too weak to feel compassion for the enemy. His eyes are dead. There is nothing left. The magic words that tank.jpgcould pierce his armor and resurrect him elude me, if they exist at all. “O’Neil, I know that you have been broken and trained. So have I. I know that you are just following orders and just dong your job. I have done the same. But we are ultimately responsible or our actions, and their consequences. There is a life and a world and a community waiting for you on this side of the line that can make you wild and whole again, if you want them. But if you prefer to lay it all to waste, if you prefer death and despair to love and life, if all of these words bounce off your armor and you still choose to hurt me then FUCK you, because the Nuremberg defense doesn’t fly.” I have nothing left to say. I sing the last verse of my beaten heroes’ song, softly, over and over and over again, staring into O’Neil’s eyes and waiting for the inevitable: “…in our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold, greater than the might of armies magnified a thousand fold, we can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old….”

Eventually one cop down the line either gets impatient or gets orders. He grabs some guy, completelyseattle07.jpg randomly, pulls him across the line, and starts beating him. The crowd surges to rescue our friend, and O’Neil makes his choice. “LOOK ME IN THE EYES, O’NEIL!” He clubs the person standing next to me, and the cop standing next to him clubs me. “LOOK ME IN THE EYES, MOTHERFUCKER!” But he never does. I ram into him as hard as I can, praying that the sea behind me will finally break through the wall, drown the both of us, and carry my friend out to safety. But I am not strong enough, and the wall of death beats us back once more. Over my shoulder I watch one cop walk up to a very small older woman and unload a tank of pepper spray into her eyes. Her indomitable and bitter face is the last thing I see before I have to run away.

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Movie of the Week

Rock the WTO

One of the best films about the WTO protests isBreaking the Spell; if for nothing else watch it for the moving scene in the middle that lingers on the saddened expression on a policewoman’s face. A full-length feature film, The Battle in Seattle,starring Charlize Theron and Woody Harrelson will be released sometime next March.

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Justin

Justin got home Monday night; he moved to New England a couple of years ago.  Margaret and TR and the dogs leave Greensboro for Austin, Texas in a couple of weeks. But for this one lovely sunny autumnal week all three children are here in town together. It feels really good.

One of the things Justin is doing in New England is playing a lot of music. He’s a really talented drummer but he also plays guitar and keyboard; he plays the tabletop, the chair back, the car dashboard if nothing else is available. justin22.jpgHe’s one of those people who thinks in music, who dreams in music. He’s never had formal lessons and didn’t even really have access to instruments until he was into his teens but he’s got the kind of music inside him that flows over and around and under all impediments. I look forward to hearing all the music he’s going to be making for the rest of his life

Margaret sometimes jokes that she groundscored herself a little brother and she’s not far from the truth. She was the first to meet Justin, down by the railroad tracks one spring night in 2001. Justin started hanging out at the apartment that Margaret was sharing with some friends, sleeping on the sofa, eating out of their refrigerator, watching their TV. He didn’t say much about himself and gave his age variously as 15, 17 and 19, though he looked about 11. It was obvious that he was a runaway and pretty clear that he was on the run from a foster home. One Friday evening Margaret called me up and asked if I would come over right away to help them figure out what to do.

There was nothing very appealing about Justin—dirty white tank top, dyed blond hair, sagging jeans, thuggish attitude, the smudgy precursor of facial hair across his upper lip. He sat way down in his chair and gave me evasive answers when we talked, but it was clear that Margaret had guessed right, that he had run away from a foster home and had been gone for several weeks now. By one of those strange chances of which life is made, I had volunteered years before for something called the Guardian ad Litem program. I had been trained as a court advocate for children in the foster care system. I asked Justin if he had a GAL. He said he did, although he couldn’t remember her name.

On the strength of that I called my husband Bill. He agreed that I should bring Justin home and call the GAL office on Monday morning—it had been ten years since I had volunteered and I didn’t know anyone in the office any longer, but at least I knew what questions to ask. The weekend was uneventful; Justin was much sweeter, justinsufferbus22.jpgmore childish than he had seemed when he was slumped down, sullen and spraddle-legged, in Margaret’s apartment. He slept a lot. He ate a lot. On Sunday night just before bedtime he lost what would turn out to be the last of his baby teeth. Right before I went to bed myself that night I opened the bedroom door—Justin was sleeping in Isabell’s old room—and slipped a quarter under Justin’s pillow.

The next morning I called the office and spoke to the woman who had Justin’s case. Everyone was tremendously relieved to hear that he was all right; I learned that he was 13, almost 14, that he had been in the system since he was nine, that he was a habitual runner, that he had been gone this time for two weeks. Justin, small for his age, wiry and energetic, quick to smile, was a favorite in the office. The Guardian ad Litem office is in the courthouse. We drove downtown and parked in the deck across the street from Government Plaza. As we lined up to go through the metal detectors Justin turned to me and said “This feels like a trap.”

It was. Justin’s GAL had told me over the phone that the judge had issued a “secure custody order” on Justin, which meant that when he was picked up he was to be taken directly to juvenile detention for three days. She had asked me not to tell Justin that when I brought him in. We rode up the elevator to the office. Women came from behind their desks into the reception area to hug Justin and ruffle his hair and tease him about the new rhinestone stud in his ear. Justin, the GAL and I went into the GAL’s small office; Justin and I sat in a pair of chairs so close to the desk that my knees nearly brushed up against the dark modesty panel. The desk was crowded with papers and pencil holders and paperweights and brightly colored erasers. The GAL told Justin about the secure custody order. The GAL excused herself and left the two of us alone. I felt like crying. “It’s just three days, Justin,” I said. “Just give them the three days and then it will be over.” Justin was talking about running away, about killing himself, about going to find his mother. “I knew this was a trap,” he said. “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.”

The GAL came back. She had two security guards with her, two overweight men in dark brown uniforms, their wide shiny black belts hung with keys and flashlights and handcuffs and holsters snapped shut over black handguns. One of them took the handcuffs off his belt and opened them up. Justin bowed his head, lifted his two arms, and held his wrists out in front of him with his hands hanging down.

“ Behind you, son,” the other security guard said.

“Please,” the GAL said. The guard shrugged and fastened the cuffs in front.

I reactivated my Guardian ad Litem status. They waived the retraining for me. I left the courthouse that day with a paper signed by a judge and a six-inch stack of folders filled with Justin’s files.

It wasn’t three days. It was three weeks. The judge decided that Justin shouldn’t go back to the foster home from which he had repeatedly run and that he should stay locked up until an alternative was found. I met with his social worker, his psychologist, his probation officer, his lawyer, with people whose jobs I never could figure out, people who were making major decisions about Justin’s life without ever having met him. I felt ill-equipped and ill-informed for the responsibility I had taken on. I barely knew Justin myself, and I felt way over my head, but I still kept getting in the van, driving down to DSS or Mental Health or wherever for another meeting around another conference table in another windowless room. And Justin was still in detention. I took a copy of my court order out to the detention center as soon as I was allowed to—they told me at the office that Justin had to go through several days of processing before he could see anyone. I had never been to the detention center before. It was—it is—a large one-story concrete facility out by the airport, fairly new and well-maintained, with small neatly-trimmed boxwood bushes on either side of the heavy glass door into the lobby and a big interior window with a speaker grille and a metal drawer like the change drawer at the drive-up window at the bank. Behind the thick glass I could see a woman watching a row of monitors that showed wavering images of empty corridors and closed doors. I put my court order and my driver’s license in the drawer and waited.

Finally I was allowed in, accompanied through a series of thick metal doors. Justin and I met in the dayroom of his little pod: a small open area with a set of polished steel benches and a steel table etched with a checkerboard, all bolted to the floor. The room was lined with cell doors; each door had a single long window about five inches wide and maybe eighteen inches long; as I came into the dayroom every window suddenly had a little boy’s face in it. The guard asked me to wait. He opened Justin’s door and brought him out. Justin was dressed in a white polo shirt and elastic-waisted khaki pants and sneakers: the uniform. He walked with his head slightly bowed and his hands clasped behind his back. Every other time I went out to visit him he walked the same way, with an almost professorial gait, as though he were lost in deep contemplation. It took me sometime to realize that he had been ordered to walk that way. The handclasp was in lieu of handcuffs.

This became the background of my life for the next year. Justin was finally released and sent to a group home out in the country south of Greensboro. It wasn’t long before he ran. He got caught and sent back to juvenile detention. He did his time, got out, went back to the group home and a month or so later he ran again. One time he left school and talked someone into driving him back to Greensboro. Once he borrowed a bike from a friend and rode it the fifteen miles back to Greensboro. Once he jumped out of a social worker’s car at a stop sign and ran. He was finally moved from that group home to a smaller home. He ran from that one. He ran out the back door. He got off the school bus and ran. One day I added it up: out of twelve months Justin had spent 82 days in juvenile detention.

Even then I didn’t know the worst of it. One day when I was visiting Justin in detention he came in buoyant. “Check it out!” he said. “They’re letting us keep our mats!” I asked him what he meant. That’s when I learned that the cells were unfurnished except for a toilet, a sink and a cinderblock platform covered with a mat and a blanket. The guards had been coming in every morning at 6:00 to take the mats and the blankets. Now they were leaving the mats. That’s also how I learned something else that I hadn’t known before, that when a boy or a girl is brought in to the detention center (there were girls there too, though I rarely saw them) he or she goes into automatic solitary confinement for five days. Twenty-three out of twenty-four hours locked in a cinderblock cell with no books, no paper, no pencil, no human interaction except a brief moment with the guard who brings the meals. An hour of television in the recreation area, then back to the cell. If a child does the time, gets out, and is brought back before the judge within two weeks, it’s double time, which means that it is possible for a child to spend fifteen days out of a month locked up alone. The thought that Justin was being hovered over by counselors and psychologists and lawyers and social workers, that he was being force fed mood stabilizers, taken to church against his will, handcuffed and humiliated, and all the time being locked up in a way that was designed to destroy any good any of that might do him made me sick at heart. And they knew. His lawyer, his social worker, his psychologist, they all knew. They weren’t bad people; they truly liked Justin and cared about him, but there were so many Justins in their files, so many children crying and pleading, so many children sullen and angry, so many children mute and hopeless, that they weren’t going to throw it all away on one child. They got angry at Justin for running, for setting things in motion again, for forcing them to choose again: him or my job. Him or me.

I was horrified and heartsick. I didn’t have a job to lose, but I was afraid of having my court appointment revoked and being taken off Justin’s case. I joined the crowd encouraging Justin to just suck it up and deal with it, but on the inside my admiration for him was growing. His habitual running seemed to me his way—clumsy, desperate, but effective–of hanging onto some sense of himself, of saying “I know that I’m worth more than this. I don’t know where I belong, but I know that I don’t belong here.”

After a year of trying to find someplace for Justin, it became clear that the first place Justin belonged was out of the foster care system entirely. So that’s how I became first his foster mother, and eventually his adoptive mother, and in a way that’s how this collective house came into being. My husband Bill didn’t want to take on the responsibility for another child—not only had he already raised two daughters, he’s a high school teacher and spends all his time with teenager. With Isabell and Margaret out of the house our relationship was showing all the cracks and fault lines that can develop over the course of a marriage. Bill and I separated, and my panicky, clumsy response to the prospect of becoming the single mother of an angry, frightened, vulnerable teenage boy was to invite other people in to try the experiment of collective living. The collective became the village that raised Justin, or perhaps more accurately accompanied him into adulthood. That’s not to say that it was always easy, that I didn’t ever wonder what I had gotten myself into (and that Justin didn’t wonder the same thing), that I didn’t ever make mistakes. I made a lot. But it was also from the very beginning full of funny, wild, exhilarating, tender moments. In the end it wasn’t simply that Justin belonged out of the foster care system. It was that he belonged with me. We belong together.

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Movie of the Week

Sufferbus

This is just one of the many bands Justin has been in in the last six years–summer of 2005, Somewhere Else Tavern, Greensboro. The shaky camera work is all mine, but it’s worth watching to the end to hear what Justin has to say about where he first learned to play drums.

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My Bike Takes Me Places That School Never Could

A couple of weeks ago I attended a panel on immigration: descriptions of undocumented workers, mothers and fathers, taken away in the middle of the night and their children turned over to the foster care system. I turned on the radio in the car the other day and heard a discussion of whether waterboarding is torture, followed by a image_503.gifdetailed description of what it feels like to be brought to the point of near drowning. I was talking to someone on Sunday who said he was trying to decide whether to hold an event before or after the US bombs Iran. “Wait a minute,” I said, “what do you mean, ‘bombs Iran’? You don’t think it’s really going to happen do you?” He just gave me a look. After he left I went online and found a description of the 30,000 pound bunker-buster recently tested in the Nevada desert. Oh great.

All I can say is, thank God for my bike.

I’m not a prodigious biker like most of my housemates, but over the last couple of years I’ve come to think of my bike as my main form of transportation. It’s nothing special, but the more I ride it, the stronger my body and the more extensive my range. I ride my bike downtown now, to the bank, to the library, to the coffee shop, to friends’ houses, to Food Not Bombs, even to the dentist. Next on my list: learn the bus system and start using the bike racks in front of the buses. When I ride my bike regularly I can feelbike-shed2.jpg a difference in my legs every day. I see things, I meet people, I get my blood pumping in a way that doesn’t happen boxed up in a car. Most important, even a short bike ride helps to restore my equilibrium.

There’s not much else to say. Sometimes the world gets hard. There are days when the best possible thing you can do for yourself, your friends, and for the whole universe is just to get on your bike and ride.

The green patch above and lots of other great bike-related and just general good stuff-related stuff is available from Microcosm Publishing.

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Safetybike


YIKES! Safetybike update 1/18/08: The Safetybike video will be featured this coming weekend on an CNN show called “News To Me” that runs on Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 and 5:30. Mark and Chris have put together a Safetybike website for inspiration.

Another one of Mark’s projects! To see more of his inventions check out the typewriter piano and the Invisible Chair.

Mark has also become the collective house’s resident hydrologist; you can see his directions for an inexpensive rain barrel here. That’s just a start–he recently found us two big plastic containers that will hold 275 gallons of rain water each, to be installed once we’ve finished replacing the gutters. Stay tuned…

1/10/08 SAFETYBIKE UPDATE: Crazy! The Safetybike video has caught on in a big way. In the last month it has gone from several thousand views to well over 1.1 million. If you Google “Safetybike”, page after page of links come up.

Mark himself is back from tour with Zegota and home sick with a bad cold. He’s not quite sure what 1.1 million views means to his own life, except that he and Chris Huggins are thinking about putting the actual Safetybike–resting against Mark’s parents’ garage for the last couple of years–up on eBay. We’ll see.

I’ve enjoyed looking at some of the responses to the Safetybike video. I think my favorite is this guy:

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House Keeping

Jodi got a wild hair last week and rearranged the living room furniture. It looks great. “I think we’re growing up,” she said. The room definitely looks more grown up with the sofa and chairs floating companionably together in mailboxes.jpgthe middle of the floor and the clutter pared away. Some things didn’t make the cut: the zines are still there, self-published photocopied pamphlets covering everything from trainhopping to urban gardening to DIY women’s health, but the English muffin display rack decorated with a red and black star (“Anarchy! Anarchy! Read all about it!”) that held them is gone, replaced by a more conventional bookshelf. The cardboard cutout torches are gone. They were props for the “Today’s Empire, Tomorrow’s Ashes” entry in Greensboro’s 4th of July parade a couple of years ago, and unaccountably ended up in a paper bag in the corner of our living room. The “Love Earth” patch is still there, left behind by a traveler kid named Leroy who had walked from Maine to North Carolina and was headed west. He stayed with us long enough to repair his backpack and replace this patch with a new one. The Oxford English Dictionary—the two volume one with a magnifying glass–is still there as well, a remnant lvrm.jpgfrom the old days and still occasionally useful in settling after-dinner etymological discussions. The vermin panels on the doors to Jodi and Skye’s room are coming down later this week.

With the living room looking so nice, this seems like a good time to talk about some of the basics of our day-to-day living. I counted up not long ago and discovered that over the last five years sixteen different people have lived in the house—and that’s not even counting the long-term guests and sub-letters who have occasion ally spiced the mix. Each new person changes the ecology of the house a little bit, and every change helps to illuminate those deeper things that don’t change.

laundryrack.jpgThe house: The house was built in 1927 and sits on a street of houses of roughly the same age. The neighborhood was a suburb when it was established; now it’s considered a downtown neighborhood. It’s within easy biking distance of the center city and the university area and just a couple of blocks from a bus stop. When my former husband and I bought it 17 years ago it would have been considered a three-bedroom house, but in making it into a collective house we converted the dining room, downstairs study and wheelbarrow1.jpga little upstairs room—probably an old sewing room or nursery—into bedrooms as well. The backyard is large enough for a bicycle shed, a garden (though we wish we had more sun) and a pretty impressive chicken coop where the six chickens live. We have a nice screened-in side porch which is at the moment, unfortunately, used mostly as a depot for Food Not Bombs supplies. Since all the smokers in the house quit that porch hasn’t gotten much use.

The housemates: After me, Stef has lived in the house the longest. I, of course, have been in the house since 1990, but that life feels almost as though it took place in an entirely different house. In many ways it did. The collective phase of the house began in August of 2002 with Stef, Ben, Kate, Larry, Justin and me. Stef had lived in a wilder, woollier and punker version of a collective house, and was book2.jpgvery clear about what she did and didn’t want in this one. She and Ben, who had lived in the same punk house, helped to school the rest of us in the rudiments of consensus decision-making and mutual aid. Stef was also the one who insisted on a no-drunks/no-illegal-drugs policy, which has made an enormous difference in the livability of the house. Eventually Ben moved out and hopped a freight train west to return to doing environmental defense in the Pacific Northwest. Kate lived in the house for a year and then left for art school in New York. Larry was older than everyone but me, a homeless Vietnam vet who the rest of us had met through Food Not Bombs. He lived in the house for three years and then drifted back into homelessness; I ran into him in Fayetteville a couple of years ago, where I had gone to an anti-war protest. He was working in a dog food factory and had a little place of his own. He looked good. Justin was 15 when we set up the house, a foster kid under my legal care. I adopted him a couple of years later. He’s 20 now and lives in Maine with his girlfriend and has turned out to be a tremendously talented drummer and guitar player.

Mark moved into the house in June 2003, less than a year after the collective was established. We’ve benefited tremendously from his interest in gardening, his talent for inventing homemade musical instruments, and his more recent enthusiasm for water catchment.  Jodi and Skye moved in in August 2004, just in time for Skye to begin kindergarten. Jodi does a lot of work around domestic violence, and with the larger issues of power and control; in addition to de-cluttering the living room she has introduced a new standard of honest speaking into our household. You might say she has helped to de-clutter our communication. Will moved in next; he worked for a while as a profession al cook until he was able to build a career as full time musician (he plays drums and kora). We benefit from both his cooking and his music. Crystal is our most recent housemate; she’s been here for almost a year. She first lived in the house off and on one summer while she was writing her master’s thesis on Cakalak Thunder (“Cakalak Thunder: Anarchy, Value, & Community in the Music of Greensboro’s Drum Corps”). She’s been one of the movers and shakers in the chicken project.

House meetings: The time and day for house meetings has moved around as people’s schedules have changed; currently we meet at 9:00 on Monday evening after Mark gets back from his yoga class. The facilitator role rotates pretty casually, based on who volunteers and who hasn’t done it in a while. After the weekly search for a usable pen, the facilitator writes the date in the house meeting book. People call out whatever is on their mind that week–“refrigerator”, “Skye’s slumber party”, “painting the hall”, “new telephone”–and the facilitator writes them all down as that week’s agenda. It’s fun to go back and read the notes in the many different handwritings, and examine the doodles left by the many different facilitators.

In some ways the check-in is the most important part of the meeting. Before we tackle the items on the agenda each of us tells as much or a little as we want to about what’s going on in our lives. It’s not only helpful to understand the frame of mind everyone’s bringing into the meeting, it’s nice to reconnect, even with the people we see every day. We don’t comment or interrupt, we don’t criticize or praise. We just listen.

House decisions are made by consensus. There are lot of formalized procedures for consensus decision-making for large groups or among people who don’t know each other well, but our consensus is pretty straightforward: no decision is final until everyone can (literally in our case) live with it. It’s fascinating to watch people start with polarized positions and begin to reevaluate as the discussion goes on. Often the most important thing to understand is not what but why—when people can be honest about why they want something, or why they are made uncomfortable by something, often an entirely new solution can be found. It sometimes makes for long meetings, and it sometimes means that we have to revisit an issue more than once, but once a consensus has been reached the problem tends not to crop up again.

Finances: Like any other household, our household runs on money. Some collectives pool their money the way a family does, but we are not an income-sharing collective. A few years ago we sat down and worked out a rent structure that takes into account the different sizes and amenities of the rooms; based on that we pay anywhere from $190 to $275 a month, which covers the mortgage, property taxes, electricity, gas, water, telephone, and wireless internet, and includes $30 apiece–$180 in all—for common household expenses like light bulbs, laundry detergent, rice, and beans. After a good many house meeting discussions we recently tacked on another $50 apiece to go to house maintenance and repair. The first project will be to replace the gutters; the second will be to paint the living room and upstairs hall.

Food: The week’s cook is responsible for shopping for the household; we keep a running shopping list on a corner of the kitchen whiteboard. We eat together every Sunday night, rotating the cooking job week by week. The rest of the time we cook for ourselves, although that often turns into cooking for whoever happens to be in the kitchen. Each of us maintains a little spot in the pantry or the refrigerator for special food we’ve bought for ourselves; if something has someone’s name on it the rest of us stay away. The common food may have been dumpstered, or may be leftover produce from a night of Food Not Bombs cooking (Food Not Bombs currently cooks at our house on Mondays, to Skye’s unending delight—she pitches right in). Increasingly the food comes from the garden and the chickens, which is nice.

Chores: Crystal brought up at house meeting this week that we’ve all gotten pretty slack on the chores. Now that Jodi has made everything look so nice, we agreed, we should rededicate ourselves to keeping in that way. Housekeeping chores are divided into five categories: trash/porches/yard; sweep and mop; bathrooms; dusting and laundry; kitchen clean-up. The fifth person each week cooks Sunday dinner. We decided that from now on the person assigned to dusting and laundry is also responsible for calling everyone together at 6:00. Once we’ve gathered we’ll decide on the music of the night and get down to it.

The point of it all:
It’s really a pretty simple, straightforward, orderly way to live. I can tell from people’s questions that it’s hard to imagine living without power struggles and hidden agendas—the “family values” that no one likes to talk about—but we do. That’s not to say that no one ever gets pissy, cranky or snappish. We all do that too. But we forgive each other, wait to understand more, and figure that if it’s really important it’ll come up in a house meeting. Our household happens to skew young—at 58 I’m almost a quarter century older than Jodi, the next oldest housemate–we all happen to be artists and activists, we all happen to identify as anarchists, but I don’t think any of those are essential ingredients to a successful collective house. The thing that makes it work is that we take the business of living together seriously. And when something stops working, we change it.

I ran across a quote from E.B. White the other day that could be framed and hung in the living room of every successful household–collective or not–that I’ve ever visited: “Most people think of peace as a state of Nothing Bad Happening, or Nothing Much Happening,” he wrote. “Yet if peace is to overtake us and make us the gift of serenity and well-being, it will have to be the state of Something Good Happening.”

I believe something good is happening here.

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