A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Monday, September 17, 2012

All together now

"We are excited to share with you some early results from our survey! Thank you once again for participating. Your voice and your experience will contribute to research and policy efforts regarding cohousing in the U.S.”
My voice and experience!  How official-sounding.  But despite the chipper thanks of the team from the CohoUS Phase 3 Survey Team, when I filled out their survey several weeks ago, I was pretty sure I was no expert on community living.
When I first moved into a “cohousing” situation thirteen years ago, I didn’t even know the term, and even now that I’m a fully-vested shared-property-owner, I don’t actually explain my living situation that way.  Instead, I generally give a rambling description that starts off with, “Well, there are five homes on our property, plus a shared cabin…” I add, in random order, useful facts such as, “Only two of these kids are actually mine,” and “Sharing the washer and drier makes sense, but I do seem to end up with a lot of odd socks.” 
“The results presented here represent data from 502 cohousing residents.”
Well, I’m glad it wasn’t a mere 501.  Five hundred and TWO sounds so much more respectable.  Practically mainstream.  But, official surveys notwithstanding, I know that cohousing requires explanation.  Like biking at forty below zero, using a plywood privy, and thinking that science is super-duper-fun, it’s not exactly normal. 
Cohousing is rare enough that we don’t categorize easily.  Our little group had a lot of fun, I’ll admit, when the most recent census forms hit our (joint) mailbox.   How many bedrooms?  How is this person related to the head of household?  How many bathrooms?  Well, that’s easy – none.  Someone at the head office in D.C. was going to get twitchy and run out of space in the “other” column.  Likewise, when asked to give a brief description of our household on the twins’ kindergarten forms, I had to squinch my writing to fit the allotted space.  My kids are going to be earmarked as wacko Esterites before they even crack open the new Crayolas, I worried.
Of course, I could have just said that each child lives with her mommy, her daddy, her sister, three dogs and a cat.  It would have been perfectly true.  Our nuclear unit inhabits a boxy little house that looks remarkably like the iconic pictures taped to fridges all across the Apple Pie states (although there is not, last I checked, a rainbow hovering over us at all times).  But teachers get a year-long unedited window into kids’ lives.  That’s why they want to know about households in the first place.  If my child draws a picture of the dinner table and it includes thirteen people sharing the organic leek-kale-zucchini stir-fry, the teacher might start to wonder.  If one of the twins suffers from the dreaded Icky Tummy at school, and the person who comes to pick her up is a scruffy guy in his sixties with three layers of patches on his coveralls and no discernible relationship to me or Jay, will anyone believe he is actually supposed to be there – and has a nursing degree, besides?
“Eighty percent of the residents think of themselves as Democrats, 16% as Independents, and a little over one percent as Republicans.”
Several of my friends have gleefully labeled me as a communist.  My political leanings notwithstanding, I have to point out that my community-mates and I have not pooled our checking accounts or started referring to one another as “comrade.”  Eating dinner together five nights a week and pitching in for a Sam’s Club gallon jug of olive oil, a quart of chili powder, and toilet paper by the crate makes for some economies of scale, but does not really constitute nefariously liberal behavior.  Our dinner-table conversations, of course, are another matter.
“Sixty-six percent of the respondents hold a graduate degree and all respondents have at least some college experience.”
That’s right, at dinner we talk about not only how to subvert the dominant paradigm, but also the finer points of arctic vegetation composition and nutrient cycling, upper atmospheric auroral processes, and application of the Hosmer-Lemeshow test for binary logistic regression to other generalised linear models.  We’re a rocking crowd.
Recently, it has dawned on my six-year-olds that other kids don’t have dinner around a table that’s fifteen feet long.  The quarter-hour walk up out of our swamp-estate to the bus stop gives plenty of time for endless questions.  “Why doesn’t anyone else live in a community?” Molly wanted to know. 
On the theory that everything is a Learning Moment, even when Mommy has not yet had breakfast and is thinking about all the spreadsheets awaiting her at work, we talked about different kinds of neighborhoods, families, extended families, and communities.  Some people have nosy neighbors or reclusive neighbors or neighbors who hang up misspelled NO TRISPASIN signs on gun-shot plywood.  Some kids are adopted.  Some kids have step-parents or live with grandparents or have two mommies or two daddies.  Some have aunties and uncles who live nearby.  The most important thing, of course, is that (all together, now!) kids have a loving family that they can count on to take care of them.
The twins nodded along.  Parents, they seemed to be thinking, are really prone to stating the obvious.  “But, how come more people don’t live in communities?” Molly insisted.
I must have looked particularly stupid, because she elaborated.  Wouldn’t it be kind of boring, she posited, to have just Mommy or Daddy as the cook every night?  What a shocking lack of variety that would engender!  Having only one sibling to play with in the precious hour between dinner and bed would be sub-par, as compared to enjoying the fantastic activities of the resident nine-year-old, and even the occasional condescending attentions of the young lady of twelve.  Without a community, who would take care of Pippin, Polar, Remus, and Togiak when we went on vacation?  Without a community, there wouldn’t be someone who was best at fixing pretty much anything in the whole world, someone who can play the accordion, and someone who has an entire Solar System of planet beach-balls.  There would be no treehouse to share.
I realized then that Molly was asking the question not with a hidden agenda (why is our family weird, Mom?) but from her own personal biased perspective.  To the kids, our family – our community – is normal.  Why isn’t everyone else normal, too?
Sixty-nine percent of residents partake in community meals... About 80% of residents exchange services with other residents and about 90% exchange, share, or gift materials… About 17% are active in caring for elderly residents.
She was right.  What isn’t normal about sharing your easily shareable stuff (no one really uses their extension ladder, their shovels, or their Cuisinart 24/7 – do they?) and spending time with your friends and neighbors?  At what point did it become mainstream to go into our houses and shut our doors against the metaphorical (or real) village outside?
I gave Molly as clear an answer as I could muster, pre-coffee.  I told her that plenty of people – and possibly everyone – DOES have a community.  Community means different things to different people.  It can mean looking out for other people, or knowing who lives on your street, or dropping by when you’ve by-mistake-on-purpose baked too many pies and perhaps someone else would like one (oh, go ahead, twist my arm).  It means compromise and friendship and snuggling an extra cat to sleep when your community-mates are visiting Australia.
Communities like ours may be rare, I told the kids, simply because everyone else just hasn’t quite figured out yet how much fun it is, or hasn’t gotten past the initial hurdles.  I quickly outlined the complexities of buying land, and setting up guidelines, handling legal paperwork, and figuring out finances.  I recalled the day a decade ago when the horde of us piled into Yukon Title, ate all the free snacks, and signed off on our boggy kingdom.  I remembered the living-room meetings at which we invented “Bob” the mythical disruptive, disreputable community member for whom we were crafting careful rules of conduct.  I told the kids that in my opinion, it was totally worth it.
They agreed.
“Cohousers rate their physical health as better than others their age and their mental health as very good.”
It just might be true.  Or perhaps we are just remarkably and deludedly optimistic.  Either way, I’m good with it.
Maybe I AM a cohousing expert, after all.  Either that, or a communist.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Stranger Than Fiction

Photo credit: Jay Cable, Ireland, 2009

It was about ten p.m.  My friend Amy and I were biking along a deserted road.  The only landmarks nearby were a cemetery, a field full of musk oxen, and a whole lot of dense woods.  We were at least half a mile from the nearest house when a very small curly-haired person stepped out of the forest.  She was wearing a nightdress, cowboy boots, a large cross, and a backpack.   A dense cloud of mosquitoes was busily feasting on her dimpled knees and pale little arms.  She gazed about in what appeared to be mild confusion.
I squeezed the brakes.  “Um… hi there.  Do you need help?”
She considered this carefully.  She wasn’t sniveling, shrieking, or showing any other signs of little-kid distress.  “Yeah…” she said, with the hesitation of someone who is unsure whether they prefer chocolate or vanilla. 
Amy and I started questioning her, as gently as possible.  She was six – or, no, maybe she wasn’t six.  Her name was Kira – or, then again, maybe it wasn’t.  After the first few brief moments of simple trust, she was eyeing me with suspicion, her brow furrowed as if recalling a lesson. Oh crap, I thought.  She knows she’s not supposed to talk to strangers.
Don’t talk to strangers.  It’s one of the basics, part of Parenting 101, along with Don’t Give In To Whining and Don’t Fill the Sippy Cup with Mountain Dew.  But it was a safety precaution that –unlike the nifty outlet blockers, diminutive bike helmets, and many-strapped car seats --  I’d never actually done anything about.  Last winter, I felt caught out when notes came home from kindergarten with Molly and Lizzy.  My children – along with everyone else’s -- would be hearing a talk about “stranger danger” in school, unless I demanded that they NOT hear it.  It was unclear what would be done with students whose parents refused to comply, but of course I made no protest.  The school was doing the Right Thing – weren’t they?
Afterwards, I asked the twins what they’d been told, but they were noncommittal.  Trying to ask kindergarteners what they did all day in school is about as productive and informative as trying to ask the cat why she insists on shredding my bags of sewing supplies.  However, a couple of days later, as I was dropping the kids off in the morning, I witnessed an interesting scene.
A couple of first grade boys were chasing each other around in the snow, laughing uproariously as one wrestled the other to the ground.   Nothing unusual there; this is pretty much what all kids do until stopped and forced to wait in line by the boring Grownups In Charge.  But when these two came up for air, the kid on top jumped off and cheerfully told his friend, “Ok, now you can be the stranger!”  They took off again, shrieking and laughing and periodically shouting, “Stranger!  Stranger!” as they jumped on one another.
Yeah, I laughed.  Bad, bad, Mommy. But I also started pondering, then, just how useful the whole concept of “stranger danger” is.  Children DO occasionally get harmed by strangers, and the concept is too horrific for me to even try to say anything flippant about it.  But kids much more often get harmed by people they know.  Friends.  Neighbors. Family members.  Parents.  And no, I’m not going to say anything funny about that either.  But it does kind of convolute the message if the grocery cashier might actually be a safer bet than Uncle Cliff.
On that lonely roadside, Kira – or maybe not Kira – suddenly asked me, “Are you a mommy?”  My affirmative seemed to reassure her, but she still looked cagey.  Mommy or not, I was still, after all, a stranger. 
When we asked where her own Mommy or Daddy might be, she told us, big-eyed and with significant dramatic flair, that her mommy had been STOLEN.  
Oh, crap.  Stolen?  My mind raced down all kinds of avenues lifted straight from Hollywood.  An attack?  An abduction?  I started a sort of off-kilter game of 20 questions with the kid, trying to ferret out the story, but the details quickly became ludicrous and self-contradictory, and I caught Amy’s eye.  This little girl wasn’t suffering from trauma; she was suffering from a few too many movies, an active imagination, and a fear of telling the truth to someone she didn’t know.  We agreed that she would bike on down the road in search of other human life forms.  Someone must be responsible for this confabulating, engaging little waif.  At the very least, somebody had to have a phone, to call the cops. 
Police officers, of course, are almost always strangers, too.  Likewise, on the first day of school, the teacher is a stranger.  On the random Thursday when the teacher has finally succumbed to the fetid germs spread by hundreds of sticky little kindergarten fingers, the substitute is a stranger.  The pale teenager scooping Nanook Nosh is a stranger, as is the nurse who jabs you in the thigh with deactivated mumps, measles, and rubella.  There are six billion people in the world – including, presumably, my kids’ future coworkers, friends, spouses, and mildly annoying acquaintances.  They can’t all be scary.
Moreover, almost half of those six billion people are other people’s kids.  To them – to Kira -- I’m the stranger. 
In the end, no cops were called, and no damage was done beyond some parental heart-stress and a whole lot of mosquito bites.  Amy found a herd of frantic family members combing the streets and cemetery half a mile or more away.  Apparently the little cherub had gotten out of bed, donned her boots and backpack, and disappeared out the door while the rest of the family was watching TV.
“Honey, you can’t DO that,” wailed the not-at-all-abducted mother, alternately thanking Amy and me and hugging her wayward kid. 
I looked at little Kira, whose spirits seemed undampened, and considered that if she was capable of this adventure at age six, her mom might have her hands kind of full in another seven or eight years.  I couldn’t help but feel impressed by a six-year-old who had gotten up alone in the middle of the night, covered well over a mile on trails in the woods, and invented an abductor for her mother.  Of course, it was all wrong – totally wrong.  Pretty much the only thing this little girl had done right was admitting that yeah, she needed help – from a stranger.
It became clearer, then, what I’d always known: that ultimately, we all rely on strangers.  We have to trust them to brake at intersections, to measure the prescription accurately, and to serve the fries without spitting on them.  Sometimes, we have to trust them a bit further, too.  Fourteen years ago, I crashed a truck somewhere between Nowhere and Really-Seriously-Nowhere in northern Saskatchewan. I’m sure I looked like a very unpromising hitchhiker when stumbling down a dirt road in the dark with blood dripping from all over my face.  Nonetheless, a total stranger stopped for me. And turned around.  And drove me half an hour the other way to medical care.  And gave me a card and flowers the next day.
Thus, I’ve decided that the whole idea of teaching kids to avoid all strangers is a truckload of donkey manure – regardless of whether you have the kind of six-year-old who decides to hoof it alone cross-country in her cowboy boots, or the sort of overly-cautious child who is terrified of the Wicked Witch of the West even when she’s a marionette (not to name any names here).  Sure, I’ll talk to my kids about what kind of things no one should ever ask them to do, and I’ll try to make sure they know the difference between friendly and creepy.  But I’m not going to keep them on too short a leash, and I’m definitely not going to tell them to be afraid of everyone new.  I just can’t.  I like strangers too much – after all, they’re the people from whom I’ve drawn every single one of my friends.
And if you happen to be reading this and don’t already know me… go ahead, leave a comment.  I like talking to strangers.