I was making a salad of greens and edible weeds like sorrel, lambs' quarters and chickweed, tossing them in a gigantic metal mixing bowl. The Hotel's small kitchen was jammed with people cooking, talking, standing around. I kept my elbows tucked in and stayed small. It was Melissa Jones' sixth birthday party. Local friends of Dreamtime had driven in for the celebration.
Chaos may be the perfect word to describe Dreamtime. It rang in my ears the first time I saw the interior of the school. The people who lived at Dreamtime had cultivated a relationship with chaos, a familiarity with its ways and a respect for its whims. In late August every year, there was the Corroboree, a continuation of Liz and Miekal's Festival of the Swamps. This night it was something much smaller, but a taste of what was to come: how to feed and entertain two dozen people?
As we ate outside in the waning light, conversation was sparse, sparked only by an article someone had clipped about the squats recently raided by New York City police. Melissa appeared in a Hotel window looking out over the diners, smiling devilishly. Bay shouted up "Sing us a song!" and Melissa offered up "My Tooth Never Fell Out," which she had written herself. Afterwards, most of us went back to our food, and I wondered whether the silence was one of comfort or discomfort.
After nightfall, after the cake and presents, a huge bonfire was lit in front of the Mansion. We were quiet again as we watched flames as high as the Mansion's roof curling and sparking. All of Zon's firecrackers were set off and we burned a huge dragon-like wooden sculpture which a placard described as the "EFFIGY OF AMERICAN CULTURE." The placard itself wasn't burned, and so when only a prodigious pile of ashes remained, it became the new effigy--someone's clever joke, or a chance juxtaposition. (The metaphor only deepened when corn was planted in the ash-enriched soil.)
That night, while the adults mumbled about injustices on the Lower East Side, the children had screamed and danced. They seized the spotlight and stayed in it for the next week. By and large, children roamed free at Dreamtime. Gardens, musical instruments, art supplies and all day to explore and play--my own childhood paled in comparison. The flipside of this freedom was the lingering feeling among many non-parents that we had become unpaid babysitters, and that the "home schooling" the children were supposed to be receiving was practically nonexistent, even in relevant subjects like gardening.
Before moving to Dreamtime, I had been excited about living with children. Three years of isolation on a college campus had me desperate for a break from twenty-year-olds. But by midsummer, the children only jangled my nerves.
Fueling my romantic ideas about children, Zon had a way of attaching himself to visitors and new arrivals. In his black jumpsuit and dreadlocks down to his waist, Zon reminded me of nothing so much as an ambassador from another planet; his attention made me feel honored. Seven years old, he played childish and mature roles as he saw fit. He seemed driven to create a vivid imaginative world for himself and the other children to play in. Having been raised on art, Zon used his imagination not only to express himself, but win over adults and other children.
Melissa and Jessica were sisters, and near opposites in personality. Melissa, 6, was the troublemaker, consistently obnoxious. Her sister Jessica, 10, had been put in the role of the mature older sister; she took on most of the responsibility for Melissa, and smoothed things out between kids and adults when there were differences. Their mother, Troy, was traveling, and had left the care of her children up to us and her ex-husband Craig, who lived in the Mansion while Troy was away.
When the comfortable relationship between Melissa, Jessica and Zon was disturbed, as when other children would visit, bad things happened. When Dave took care of a friend's child for a week, a lot of destructive energy was touched off in the kids. Now, they were fighting for the newcomers' attention, playing ruthless games with each other's emotions. Every ten minutes, it would be something new, some tearful intrigue or a goat let out of the pen. Most of their offenses were minor, but together they drained our morale.
Meetings would usually happen around eight o'clock on Tuesday evenings; they started around sunset and ushered in the night. With a meal rich in browns and greens (like lentil stew, barley and steamed greens), we would sit on the couch and chairs, or plastic buckets or the staircase for the unfortunate last few who showed up. If you had a good seat and left it to get seconds or go to the bathroom, it might be taken when you got back. There were no hard feelings; you would have done the same.
Two weeks after Melissa's birthday party, the kids were an agenda topic for the meeting. Liz, Miekal and Paul--who lived down at the Beaver House--talked about ways we could discipline the kids. The idea was to establish some way of putting them to work, getting them to do the kinds of small chores that terrorized me when I was their age. I was surprised: I expected strict adherence to some anarchic ideal. Instead, the tone was pragmatic. The language people used did frame the whole topic differently: there was more emphasis on ideas like "responsibility", less on "discipline" and "respect for authority." The feeling was that we wanted to have the kids pull their own weight; to at least clean up after themselves now and then. Instead of imposing some judgment there and then, we decided to convene a summit between children and adults in five days' time.
A midday summer Sunday, cicadas sounding like a chorus of table-saws. We met out at the picnic table under the apple tree around lunchtime. The apples were green on the tree and Melissa kept trying to pick and eat them. "Melissa, they'll make your tummy hurt," Liz suggested, but Melissa persisted, and we all squirmed at this perfect illustration of why we were having the meeting: the children were better anarchists than anyone else around.
Jessica was the last to come out and join the group. She shoved open the ragged screen door and came out crying. They were tears that were indignant, a little angry, and seemed to have been held back for too long. I think we all knew what those tears meant. Jessica felt that she had been held responsible, not only for her own behavior, but for Melissa's and even Zon's. Jessica's maturity was a kind of trap: showing it only made "adults" delegate more and more duties to her, making it harder for her to lead the life of a ten-year-old.
Between sobs, she told us, "I try and I try, but I can't make Melissa and Zon behave. And now I'm in trouble."
"We're not here to punish you--or anybody," Liz told her. Liz had worked with children for years, and when she spoke, it was in that perfect tone of voice somewhere between mother, teacher and confidant.
We began with a round of gentle accusation, the adults explaining in slow, easy terms some of the ways the kids made their lives difficult. Mark Ludwig, as the one who took care of Dreamtime's livestock, talked about having to round up goats and chickens that were routinely let out of the pen. When it came time for concrete suggestions, I proposed that each time a child asked a favor of an adult, the adult could then ask the child for a favor. It was also suggested that the kids show up at the beginning of each meeting and talk about what they had done that week.
After the kids' meeting, I walked into the kitchen and found Dave and Jen with their elbows on the table leaning forward into a friendly debate. Patrick sat back watching with his legs crossed. Jen and Dave had different opinions about how much work people should put into Dreamtime. Jen's take seemed to be that she understood that while she was here, she was working on Liz and Miekal's project. This was surprising; she had already clashed with Miekal on her plans to install a kitchen in the School. David said "I guess I have a kind of Taoist point of view on things like this. I think people naturally find the work that they're most suited for, whether or not it fits in with someone else's vision of what they should be doing." I gave Dave a look. "Well, pseudo-Taoist," he said.
I asked, "Does anyone think that people who don't do 'work' pull their weight in some other way?"
Patrick, who had been listening quietly now said, "Well, Neil really made the Hotel a livable place when he was here." I'd heard a lot of stories about Neil. I'd heard that he was a slob and he let his dog shit on the floor.
"How?" I asked.
I could feel Patrick's deadpan delivery coming, his eyes slightly narrowed from behind his hornrim glasses. "He was a jolly, fat guy." I was reminded of a 19th century cartoon I had seen reprinted in a book on Fourierism. A rugged working-man with a shovel addresses a short, pudgy man leaning against a fence:
"Come along and help dig them Taters!"
"Why, you must be a new comer to the Phalanstry," short and pudgy responds, "or you would know that I belong to the Eating Group."
How many people would truly consider jolliness and fatness a vital contribution to the community? Patrick was hard to challenge because it was impossible to tell whether or not he was joking. I suggested, "It looks like there're a lot of different opinions about really basic things like this. We all really need to get together and talk about what we expect from everyone in the community. If we decide that it's something different than the plan, then so be it. Personally, I think that three hours a day isn't too much to ask."
The next formal meeting featured the first (and last, as far as I saw) kids' check-in, delivered by Jessica, who was the kids' representative by default. Work, or the lack of it, had been on the collective mind. The word "SLACKERS" had been placed on the agenda by Mark Ludwig. He proposed that we set up a work log, a public proof of who did what and when. The votes were six to five in favor. I voted against it. The most convincing arguments were stories from Mark Ludwig and others about housing co-ops that had very efficient and successful systems for tracking work hours.
Patrick hadn't been at the meeting, and I filled him in on it the next day. "What really convinced people," I told him, "were stories about Madison co-ops that had work logs."
He said, "People are always saying that Dreamtime isn't just a housing co-op, that it's unique, that it experiments with new forms."
"Good argument," I said. So why hadn't Patrick been at the meeting to make the point himself? His vote would have tied the issue and his argument might have changed minds. In Patrick, I always saw a critical nature that was creative, intelligent and funny at its best, weary and cynical at its worst. It kept him away from group functions, especially from anything resembling a display of solidarity. In theory, Patrick was the ideal Dreamtime resident. He was interested in all of the right things: mail art, gardening, situationism. But he never seemed happy, and by August, he had left.
A few years earlier, Patrick had moved from Chattanooga to Providence, Rhode Island. Hanging out with students from Brown and RISD, he got involved in postering and stickering-- at their best, forms of guerrilla art. From there, he entered into the networks of zines and mail art. Joining his partner Kym in Chicago, Patrick met up with Baklava, an anarchist group that was in the process of dissolving, and got interested in their ideas and their networks.
It was through those connections that he heard about an anarchist gathering in Vancouver. There he met Drake Scott, who gave Patrick a copy of "Dreamtime Talkingmail." In it was a call for a hypermedia apprentice:
This position offers skills and experience in publishing, networking & mail art, bookmaking, desktop publishing & hypermedia. In addition to the daily correspondence, photocopying, & filing, there are plenty of specific projects to be tackled....
Patrick wrote to Liz and Miekal. They wrote back, and Patrick moved in.
The newsletters didn't really help, either--"Talkingmail" engages in mythmaking. A lot of newsletters are written in this lofty, high-flung way. Of course, there's nothing wrong with it; it's just a writing style, but a lot of people won't admit that. That's what brings a lot of people here, though: propaganda.
The apprenticeship was a 6-month deal. At the time, I was pretty oblivious to everything outside of that. I'd go work in the garden sometimes, and I'd socialize with people, but I wasn't that exposed to the personal difficulties. After my apprenticeship, I just did less work, spent more time with people and figured out what was going on.
There's too much internal politics here for me to be comfortable and happy. I've lived with groups of people before, and it wasn't as predominant as it is here. In the future, I'd like something smaller-scale with less people involved. I'm not really looking to move someplace that has a system. I don't think I'm going to live in another community anytime soon, and if I do, I want to have some hand in forming it. Ideally it would form very slowly, with people who already know each other fairly well and have similar ideas.
The day Patrick left, Miekal and I were hauling wood together behind the Post Office. We talked about his departure. "Did you ask him if he's lived with a large group before?" Miekal asked. "It takes a certain amount of skill, which he just didn't have. Some people aren't cut out for this kind of life." I wondered if every person who left Dreamtime was judged to be deficient in some way. Patrick told me that he wasn't happy or comfortable at Dreamtime, which I took to be reason enough for him to leave. While Patrick may not have been the ideal communitarian, I thought that Miekal was simplifying the situation in order to avoid the questions that Patrick's departure could have brought up.
Of course, Patrick's departure had more behind it than a unspecified discomfort. His partner Kym had been offended by Miekal a few months earlier, and had herself left by midsummer. I could never be sure how much of one person's opinion about another was based on some sort of grudge. From early on, I realized that I could spend my entire five months at Dreamtime digging up dirt on everyone there, and had decided to leave all of those issues alone. It saved me from being dragged into the dirt myself, but it made so many relationships there seem mysterious, and at the same time, petty.
As Patrick was getting ready to leave, we were giving the work log its trial run. The work log was a huge rectangle of thick white paper, divided into a grid by name on the top and day down the left side. It was hung over the couch in the living room, a dominating position once held by a colorful painting of dogs that Bay, Jessica and Melissa had collaborated on, which had left with Bay.
A few of us played along at first; Liz, Mark and I dutifully kept up with a few days' worth of entries. I was prepared to try it, only because it seemed to be the group will. I had nothing to fear from the work log: early on, I worked so much that I earned the epithet "John the Exploited." It was pretty obvious who worked and who didn't: you just needed to walk around every day and see what everyone was up to. The work log took the place of real confrontations with two or three people who were never seen with shovels in hand.
Even those who had argued for the work log now found it a nasty presence in their lives. Gradually, the work log was defaced and mocked like some offensive billboard. Instead of a list of tasks accomplished, Patrick pasted up enigmatic pieces of text. Jessica wrote "WORK MAKES US FREE!" in thick black marker. Even Ken, who rarely got involved in Dreamtime's politics, wrote "slacked" in every space in his column. Later, someone changed all the "l"s to "t"s, so that we all knew that Ken
After these adornments were in place, the work log, completely debased, was left untouched, transformed into another collaborative work of art to replace the painting that had gone before it. Eventually, I rolled it up and put it away, putting a collage in its place. The central image was from an early 70's National Geographic: longhairs from The Farm--a Tennessee commune--dancing in a circle, holding hands and beaming. Nobody asked where the work log had gone.
A work wheel, which had divided up household chores, had also met its end. These had served me well in college, but it was useless in the face of the constant flux of residents and tasks. Half of the people who were on the work wheel didn't live in the Hotel anymore. I had never even met some of them. A dishwashing schedule posted on the refrigerator went ignored.
Just as I had offered my work in the garden in order to win people over, Jen had offered her work in the kitchen. I warned her that this was dangerous. "People are going to get used to you cleaning up after them," I told her after she moved in. This had happened, and Jen had become the Hotel's maid. She and a few others began leaving exasperated notes in the the kitchen, a domestic situation I was familiar with. Notes are a sign of ill health in a house. I tried to pick up some slack in the kitchen, and whenever I found bitter notes in the morning, I left hopeful ones suggesting meetings.
Those who had been around for more than a year told me that this was a familiar situation. Dreamtime's problems were only repeating themselves year after year. They came loaded with the baggage of previous disappointments.
"A young woman in a political group in Washington once remarked, 'Of course communes work--I'm in my fourth'" (Kanter, 215).