they made a worker’s paradise and filled a parking lot with big yellow taxis

Hybrid Union Cab

Hybrid Union Cab (Photo credit: afagen)

About five months ago I started a new job at Union Cab of Madison.  As a graduate student, I sought a job with flexible hours that I could enjoy and take some pride in. So when I found out that Union Cab was hiring, I jumped at the chance to drive one of their big yellow taxis.

Union Cab was started in 1979 after Yellow Cab and Checker Cab shut down in Madison rather than sign new union contracts. Five former Checker drivers started the co-op and after nearly 35 years, it continues to grow and thrive.

Prior to interviewing at the cooperative, Union was already my preferred taxi service. After trying other taxicab services that were cheaper, I chose Union Cab because of its reliability. As someone who has run his own non-profit before, I have been a strong believer in paying for quality, and fares that are a tad higher than that of competitors are fully worth it to me if the company can get me to an appointment on time.

All of the sedans on the taxi fleet are Toyota Prius hybrid cars.  Cab No. 11 pictured above is one that I happen to drive the most frequently.  After eight or nine hours on the road–typically over 100 miles, the most gas that I’ve ever pumped into the tank to top it off is about four gallons, with two or two and a half being more of the average.

A lot of businesses will talk about being worker owned, but Union Cab seems to walk the talk.  From what I’ve seen so far, Union Cab seems to have the flattest and least hierarchical organizational structure I’ve ever seen for an organization of that size.  That doesn’t seem to inhibit the organization from holding its employees to high standards. Extensive training even includes “democracy class” that teaches members how democracy can work within the context of a workplace. Each employee is a co-op member who owns a share of the company and is able to vote for the co-op’s board members and/or serve on committees  I also sat in recently on an all-members’ meeting and was quite impressed with the overall quality of discussion.

When I first moved to Madison, I heard that the city had a reputation for having cab drivers with PhD’s. While no driver at Union Cab has ever insisted on having me address them as “Doctor of Philosophy,” I find the cooperative’s workplace culture to be quite unique.  Imagine the cast of “Taxi,” but then make the characters sensitive to issues about the environment, gay rights, gender issues, with one or two even having a smattering of knowledge about Marx, and you sort of get what the culture of the organization is like.  It’s an “only in Madison” institution and one of the things that, in my view, makes Madison unique.

Okay, maybe there’s no such thing as a “worker’s paradise” but I am thoroughly enjoying the job, I’d seriously consider continuing to drive shifts for the cooperative even after I graduate. Right now, cooperatives provide my housing, much of my food, most of my income and all of my banking.  At a time when more and more employers and financial institutions seem to show little regard for the well-being of their employees and customers, cooperatives are one grass-roots solution that has the potential to reverse that trend.

 

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the “new book of crazy”

A 12th century stone statue in Polonnaruwa, Sr...

A 12th century stone statue in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, widely believed to be of King Parakramabahu I (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s been more than a month since I’ve posted on this blog.  I had a crazy eight week class–Psychopathology–that required weekly exams and bi-weekly papers and it was just crazy. It was the equivalent of Anatomy class for med students as we got to learn about the DSM-5–the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which is a book listing of all the diagnoses related to mental illness.

I felt kind of privileged because the DSM-5 was just released this past May and so those of us in the Psychopathology class this fall were among the first to learn about new manual.  When my mother was going to school for social work in the late 1970s and early 1980s, they were making the transition from DSM-II to DSM-III.  Now they’ve dropped the Roman numerals and they’ll number updates to the in the same way they number software updates, so I guess that brings the DSM into the third millenium.

Even our instructor disliked the word “psychopathology” because of the concern that it reinforces the stigma against mental illness. The DSM-5 goes to significant lengths to caution against using diagnoses to stigmatize without taking into consideration different backgrounds, cultural values and life experiences. The DSM-5 also points out that a conscious, well-informed decision to deviate in specific ways from social norms is not, in itself, a psychological disorder. Indeed, I feel that people who make such concious decisions may very well be more sane than others, and I have little doubt that future historians will look at the late 20th and early 21st centuries as rather mindless and barbaric by comparison.

Another story that illustrates that point well was the first required reading in the course, excerpted from the book Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters which revisits the Western response to the trauma of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, specifically in Sri Lanka. To sum things up, Western psychologists, sometimes even without the permission of the Sri Lankan government, assumed that the survivors of the tsunami would respond to trauma in the same way that Americans do, and since the Sri Lankan public was, to a large extent, not exposed or aware of modern Western psychology, a second “tsunami” of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder would soon sweep the island nation unless well-intentioned Western psychologists intervened.  Watters argued that counselors didn’t consider the possibility that PTSD itself might be a disorder unique to Western culture, and that attempts to impose Western trauma treatment on a non-Western culture might not help, and could even hurt.

Counselors didn’t try to learn about strong coping mechanisms already inherent in the culture of Sri Lanka. Those familiar with Sri Lankan culture believed residents were, in fact, remarkably resilient even through decades of civil war.  Researchers studying trauma around the world have reported markedly different responses to trauma from different cultures. But when the survivors didn’t respond to the counseling in the way the Western counselors expected, the visitors often judged the Sri Lankans for being “in denial” or “lacking self-awareness.”

While social workers carrying clipboards into Sri Lanka certainly had more pure intentions than the Portuguese carrying guns onto the island four or five centuries earlier, I think that a colonial mindset still permeated both “invasions.”  Whether the gift was the Bible in the 16th century or the DSM-IV in the 21st century, the visitors assumed that Western culture was superior and that they had arrived to save the natives from themselves.  My experience has been that unless such a prejudice is verbalized and exposed to the light of day as a prejudice, such unspoken assumption remains invisible to the person harboring it.  As such, the 21st century visitors were “in denial” of the disrespect they held for the Sri Lankans they wanted to treat.

I actually have a theory that PTSD exists largely because Western culture in the industrial era has 1) been stripped of a lot of its spiritual meaning due to corrupted religious institutions and people responding to such institutions by minimizing spirituality in their lives and 2) become much less communal and more isolating than many other cultures.  Without these pillars upon which to lean in the face of tragedies, Western society may very well be less equipped to deal with disasters than many other cultures around the world.  I have reviewed no research supporting this assertion and I very well might be biased.  Neverthless, I think that we ourselves might one day find ourselves in need of counseling from these same cultures that we have previously looked down upon.

gatherlings

Today is the tenth anniversary of the day that I first moved into a co-op house in Madison.  I’ve been living in an intentional community lifestyle ever since then.

As much as I want to celebrate ten consecutive years of community living and the fact I’ve lived in intentional communities for over one-fourth of my life, it’s not just intentional communities that I’ve wanted to write about.

I’ve been a Bahá’í for five years, but it’s not just the Bahá’í Faith that I’ve wanted to write about.

I’ve been concerned for several decades about the state of our world and our continued ability to sustain life on this planet, but it’s not just the environment that I’ve wanted to write about.

I’ve struggled for months if not years to come up with a single world to really try to describe what it is that I want to write about and why. “A Hundred Hands Will Catch You,” while compelling (and based off a line in a poem I wrote over twenty years ago) still did not quite sum up what I felt this blog was about.

I found myself wanting to reach for something that links all these things.  Community, togetherness, unity, oneness, love…what?  These words seemed so abstract and overused as to become highly subjective and/or meaningless.  Reaching for them felt like reaching for handfuls of air–there was nothing original there, nothing to grab on to.

Then I came upon the word “gather.” Meaning people–gathering people.  Something felt right about this word–a little more concrete.  People coming together for a good reason.  What reason?  Many reasons: to get to know each other, to enjoy each others’ company, to dance together, to pray together, to create change.

One concern I’ve highlighted frequently over seven years of blogging has been the degree to which Westerners tend to live in isolation from each other compared to most of human history.  Our world of intimates has often shrunk to the size of the nuclear family–with not much outside that nucleus–and even that nucleus has been split with single mothers struggling to raise children on their own, giving away significant portions of their income to child care and at the mercy of employers that won’t let them stay home with a sick child.  Regardless of our status, we are left with little time to share with each other, so television, the Internet and video games fill the void.

We’ve let ourselves become broken up as a people.  We’ve become prisoners within castle walls stacked up high with bulk purchases from Sam’s Club.  With the biggest interactions between us and the real world coming through television and the Internet, we can easily become defenseless against the whims of image makers, spin-meisters, and people all too wiling to define our reality for us.  We are, in essence…

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMKYj-RAC1c&w=640&h=480]

Scatterlings. I’m reminded by the Juluka song from the early 1980s. It’s hard to find a definition of the word “scatterlings” or how it came into being–a common online definition of the word is “One who has no fixed habitation or residence; a vagabond.” Juluka’s song “Scatterlings of Africa,” according to songwriter Johnny Clegg, was about how all of us Homo Sapiens have our origin in Africa.  The lyrics of the song also speak a lot about searching for truth–the line “on the road to Phelamanga,” refers to a search for the place where the lies end and where there is nothing left but the truth.

Thus the genesis of the new title for this blog: gatherlings. Now that we have scattered ourselves in so many ways, to the extent where human beings and the resources of the earth are becoming more and more exploited, it becomes critical for us to gather together.  Why?  Once again: to get to know each other, to enjoy each others’ company, to dance together, to pray together, to create change.  To gather together is the essence of civilization.  We are still learning to become civilized.  We are still evolving as a species and as a society, and evolve we must if we are to avoid becoming extinct.

talking about community–where are we?

A community doesn’t automatically happen just by sticking a bunch of people into the same house.

Depending on who lives in the house, people might interact all the time or hide in their respective rooms and rarely come out.  Moving into a co-op house or other type of intentional community doesn’t mean that you will automatically have deep connections with other people. You have to make it happen.

I think all people, to varying degrees, struggle with being clear on what they want, asking for it, and negotiating their needs and desires with others.  So many relationships and families exist where people have difficulty expressing and communicating needs.  The same can be true of communities.  Sometimes people have difficulty putting into words what it is that they want.  Sometimes people give up on getting what they want.  Sometimes people get so caught up in the day-to-day hustle and bustle and just don’t think of asking those important questions when they’d rather just curl up and relax at the end of the day.

The other day, I led an agenda item at our bi-weekly house meeting that asked where we stand as a community at this point.  I asked to what extent people felt there was a sense of community here, to what extent was it meeting their expectations and to what extent was it falling short.  I also asked about things that might improve the sense of community here.

Conversation mostly focused on ways we could improve the sense of community.  We talked about things like game nights and trying to spend more time in the common areas as opposed to our own rooms.  One person has started livening up dinner-time conversation by using cards from a game that asks questions that reveal a lot about ourselves, such as “If you could have one superpower, what would it be?” or “What’s the most pain you’ve ever experienced?”

Community living requires a lot of communication and getting a good sense of the most effective way to communicate. Sometimes, it’s challenging enough to talk about house dishes not getting done or making sure that the grocery shopping list includes kale.  Talking about how we are doing as a community can take it to a whole new level, depending on how deeply people want to take the subject. Like many other things, these questions can go unsaid.  But I believe it’s vital to talk about it.  It’s the intentional part of intentional community, the part having to do with asking oneself whether the community is what you hoped for, whether it’s meeting your needs, whether it’s meeting your dreams.

the way things are meant to be? part 3 (you can lead a horse to community…)

I procrastinated on writing part three of this subject.  (Parts 1 and 2 were the first two posts in this blog.)   At first, I think the intent was dramatic pause but that simply gave way to procrastination.  Part of the struggle was in writing an answer to the rhetorical question asking “What’s a 21st century middle-aged American to do” about fostering a sense of togetherness.

First of all, truth be told, plenty of Americans have that in their lives.  Plenty of people have a tight circle of friends and family they can lean on at any time.  But I think it’s harder to foster that than it used to be.  Many people want such a tight circle but struggle to bring it in their lives.  A lot of times people, particularly parents, are too busy to really let other people into their lives.  Others are perfectly content to live in their own cocoons–either with a spouse, a family, or by themselves.

I’d mentioned before that I’d participated in the Global Walk for a Livable World and I have a page about it on this website.  We became a mobile intentional community that could not help but be around each other all the time.  We ended up being a very tight-knit bunch of people, to the extent that even those on the Walk that I wasn’t very close to still ended up feeling like a part of me.  When we found each other on Facebook it’s as if no time had passed between the end of the Walk and the present, and that felt especially true when we had our twenty-year reunion in Colorado.

So, okay, some answers, right?  That we live out of tents?  No, but intentional community?  That has the potential for some real answers.  Of course putting a bunch of people together in a house or on a piece of land might not automatically result in community, a feeling of connectedness with others.  It would still be easy for people to retreat into their own cocoons.  Furthermore, living together in community takes skills that not everyone has developed well.

I’ve lived eleven years of my life in community, nearly one-fourth of my life.  I’ve been living in co-op houses for the past 9 1/2 years.  I can say that a lot of times I’ve felt a strong sense of connectedness.  Other times the connectedness was weak, and there were a few instances where it was downright dysfunctional.  I think community is something to strive for, and I believe that there will come a time where it will be critical to our well-being.  I don’t think that day is too far away…

the way things are meant to be? part 2 (reaching out for something)

So, regarding this phenomenon of a group of strangers hugging each other and holding hands and having what was basically a G-rated love fest. What was that all about?

It’s worth noting that we were all young adults, and we were at a conference where we got ourselves all excited about changing the world.

Even among those sharing the same ideology or advocating for the same broad political platform, the definition of “changing the world” can vary widely. People often project their identities onto a political ideology or movement, and as such, consciously or sub-consciously project their hopes, desires, and unspoken dreams into that movement.

I think one of those desires is a desire to connect with other people, to have their world feel like a web of interconnection rather than a bunch of isolated silos connected only by the remote controls in front of the television sets.  I think this is what people were attempting with the “love-ins” and “be-ins” of the 1960’s, and is expressed in the song above–people may not recognize the artist and title, but would probably recognize the lyric “I think it’s so groovy now that people are finally getting together.”

I think there have been many attempts in the forty years since that song came out to create that feeling. But usually, that effort creates, at best, a certain transient transcendence where for a space of a few seconds, minutes or hours, you might actually believe that “All You Need Is Love.” Ultimately, at the end of the day, you return from that high to the real world, and you wake up the next day with the world not that much different from what it was before.

The Wikipedia entry for Friend and Lover actually reveals a lot about what that song means to people.  The song’s writer was inspired by a personal encounter with a love-in in New York.  The song became a protest anthem in 1968, but interestingly enough, Christian rock groups in the 1970s picked up on the song, too, based on a belief that the song had spiritual overtones.

So Jordan’s and my effort to start a “real group hug” was but one attempt to create that feeling.  That event meant a lot to me then, but it wouldn’t as much if it were to happen now.  It was such a fleeting moment.  I don’t think I would recognize any of participants on the street if I saw them today–perhaps not even Jordan, since I’d only known him for a couple of days beforehand as part of our caravan traveling to the event.  (I did briefly date one person who was also part of that caravan, so I might recognize her if I saw her.)

I know some people who organize or often participate in “cuddle parties.”  I went to one once, but decided not to go back.  The intentions behind them are good, particularly the part about creating a safe space and getting practice in negotiating boundaries, but to me the experience felt creepy.  I guess my boundaries are such that if I want to cuddle with someone, it’s because they mean a lot to me as a friend or lover, and that usually takes time to establish.  My guess is that most Americans would feel the same way.

So, in analyzing this (in the same way I analyze other things to death), it seems that we want to be part of a web of connectedness, but that level of connectedness doesn’t happen just overnight.  What’s a 21st-century middle-aged American to do?  More on that later…

the way things are meant to be?

I thought it would be great to start a blog during the six hours that the “leap days” on the Western and Baha’i calendars overlap. Ayyam-i-ha on the Baha’i calendar refers to days that don’t belong to any of the other nineteen months (of nineteen days each)–they are extra days (four most years, five this year) that round out to a solar year.

Somehow, starting a blog on a day that won’t exist on next year’s calendar seems somehow appropriate for the odd way my mind works.  It will also keep this blog from getting old, as it will only be five years old in 2032.

The title of this blog came from a poem I wrote in 1990.  Here it is in its entirety:

laughing sprites

at the camp-out in the county fairgrounds
was the laughter emanating from the trees
or from us?

we don’t know, but that evening my friend Jordan and I went to
a large campfire where their was dancing
and like crazed agent provacateurs in love with pyrotechnics
we instigated a group hug
just walked in there expecting it would happen

Jordan instigated the first one
where people nodded “sure” and moved together into a circle
but it was just arms around the shoulders
and sheepish grins
so I stepped out into the center and yelled in a raspy voice
“That’s not a real hug!  Let’s do a real hug!”
and this time, everybody squeezed together
pushing, pushing
until we became one big giant heartbeat

and then someone talked about a bigger bonfire further down
and so the heart muscle contracted and
we all ran in a chain
hands clasped together
running
sometimes kind of dragging each other
a roller-coaster ride
where the cars swing back and forth wildly
where you feel like you are going to fall
but then you realize you’re floating

like a sudden westerly gale we swept into the other group
someone else yelled, “Group hug!  Group hug!”
and again we pile together squeezing like a big rubber ball
and then bounce back
and then broke out dancing,
and then squeezing like a big rubber ball again
and sometimes we’d just pile on top of each other.
all I had to do was reach out, and a hand would be nearby for me
if I fell backwards, one hundred hands would be ready to catch me
and I realized that this was where I needed to be
and this was how we were meant to live

was the laughter emanating from the trees
or from us?
we didn’t know that evening
and the trees will remain forever silent about it.

(October 1990)

This poem was written based on a real event, and the descriptions of what I and my friend Jordan did were accurate.  This was a nationwide conference of seven thousand student environmental activists held on the campus of the University of Illinois–my alma mater–but I had already graduated the year before, and was there to give a workshop talking about the Global Walk for a Livable World which was in the midst of wrapping up its final month.  I’d taken what was essentially a four day break from the Walk to attend the conference.  The Walk itself was extraordinary, with many experiences parallel to this magical moment in Urbana.

More than twenty years after the fact, can I look back on this event and say that was how we were meant to live?  My answer is no, and then yes.  What I mean by that I will talk about in subsequent posts in this blog.  It’s a big part of what this blog is about.