Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Sam deserves his own post as he is on my list of people who I think I know well enough to write about. He and I have had numerous adventures together and still do as we see each other often. Sam is one of the smartest and most knowledgeable people I know, and a real seeker of knowledge. We have a lot of fun playing together and I learn a lot when we work together.My only trouble with Sam is doing something with him when it's in an area where I know as much or perhaps even more than Sam. Then, Sam is, as I often tell him, a "pain in the ass". I understand that the need to question every step in a process is a security issue for Sam whose family are a bunch of weird and selfish people, however, I ain't one of them. Of course, I am a pain in the ass who never feels he's wrong either, so I'm really not one to judge. To be fair, Sam and I usually work out our differences, and in spite of them, really like each other.

Sam had a good time with the guys at Big Gray. The men's club of Big Gray was a long standing tradition at the house. The men (especially) were more likely to have night jobs or weekends in the middle of the week as I did at both the bookstore and at Circle's.That also meant the people who you hung out with the most at Big Gray were men. There were a few women who didn't fit the mold , like Sylvia who worked nights waitressing and Donna who had ten or more odd jobs in her three year stay. But by and large,it was the men of the house who would find themselves gathering together for all manner of conversation and libations. I'm sure it was during one of these "meetings" that Sam and I cooked up the idea to grow pot indoors at Big Gray.Our outdoor gardens were far too apparent to our neighbors to whom we were trying to appear more "normal", and we had an entire crop stolen once before. So, as you constant readers will know, there was a long tradition at Big Gray of using the large, unoccupied space of the basement for individual ventures. Jaime's bottle destroying wall , Barbara's pottery studio, Abby's jewelry studio, Matt's wood shop ,the darkroom and my garden starting area were all "basement projects". The garden area consisted of a wooden frame with three shelves positioned between two of the basement's pillars.I mounted grow lights on the shelves and started garden plants there in early spring. There was a heavy, plastic sheet in the back of the frame used to block the cold from destroying my young plants. We decided to block off the area defined by the frame by placing two pieces of sheet rock from the frame extending back to the cellar wall. That created a "room"which we then sealed from light by lining it with garbage bags. This was important for two reasons. For one, meter readers visited our basement monthly, and secondly, in order to reach the flowering stage, pot needs to be grown in alternating 16 hour "days" and 8 hour nights completely devoid of light. To provide light, we hung a 5 bulb commercial florescent frame which we found in the trash somewhere from the ceiling. We construed a way it could be lowered or raised as needed to supply light to the 9 buckets of a specially designed soil mix we created. An aquarium timer shut the lights off after the requisite 16 hour interval. Characteristically, we argued incessantly during the whole process and the pot even though we got it to flower, wasn't that good. Weeks into our project, we learned that our basement was being bathed in carbon monoxide from a blocked chimney vent. Sam blames that on our arguments. I think we would have argued anyway, but I wonder if it compromised the pot.

Sam and I still argue over most things we do together, but our friendship also continues to grow.
At Big Gray, he had problems with the process of seeking consensus. Like Dan, he found consensus inhibited us from making Big Gray into a truly beautiful place to live and would have opted for a majority rule. (There was always someone who didn't want to spend money or energy for many of these projects)I don't think majority rule belongs in a commune, although I understand their position and often felt the same frustration with less committed people who for various reasons didn't want to go along with projects to improve the house. Recently, Sam's partner proposed we (She and Sam and my wife and I) buy a piece of property with the intention of creating another communal house, only this time with rules we would all be committed to following. I shot down the idea. I really don't think a commune can survive with rules, just like I don't believe a family can flourish on rules alone. It takes love and trust to make a family work, and I think the same holds true for communes. That's why all the rituals and parties and meals together are so important. They help provide the "glue" that bind people together. Where I personally failed with Big Gray was in not following my instincts about people who I felt would not fit the Big Gray model. Practically speaking, we would have had far fewer problems had I been stronger about waiting for people I felt that bond with. Of course, we would also have had far fewer members that way, but Sam would have been happier. Anyhow, Sam eventually left to argue with his new bride and Big Gray was left trying to recruit what would be its last Fire Chief.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Wedding and the Milk, Butter and Eggs Generation

It all began to fall apart after the wedding. Ah, the wedding! Truly one of our finest moments as a house. My girls and Julie played a roll, Kim was on the piano, I remember Matt serving food chatting up all the guests like a nice, normal person. I should have known. Matt was supposed to ride his Harley up a ramp, through the front hall and into the dining room. (as he did at one of our summer anniversary parties.) It was a bad sign because being married usually meant one thing. Barbara and Michael would be leaving Big Gray to find a home of their own. True, we all had an idea to escape to the country - sort of move Big Gray to the country. But, in the end, Mike and Barbara did it alone, and another great part of the connection I had with that first generation moved away. Matt and Laura also had married (not to each other) and moved. Abby too, after living at Big Gray for a time with Rene, moved to California with him and married. Were wedding bells breaking up that old gang of mine?

In the corner of the bedroom where I sit writing this untangling of my memory, there's a framed photograph taken by an artist friend of Becky's. She was visiting during one of our summer parties and the morning after, when we were all finally up, gathered us outside for a rare group photo. It's a great picture but, Kim and I are the only ones in that photograph who had a link to our early history. Moreover, Joyce is the only one in that photo older than Kim. When Kim joined our original group, I recall that he was our youngest member. Now here we sat, two old bachelors, among these younger single people. The next generation had taken over, and I was getting older. Could I still be relevant among this younger group of mid-westerners?

Well, let me tell you, I sometimes did feel out of place and that was just too bad, because it was really my problem. Anyway, Dan's was a strong generation, two among it old friends of his from Ohio. They were also two guys who contributed a lot to the quality of life at Big Gray. Keith was a great guy, and the father of an adorable little boy. He was going through a lot of relationship problems while he lived with us, but Keith was always good to be around. (Another Big Gray Aquarius). And the other Cincinnati guy was Eddie who came to Big Gray with the beautiful Martha. He was one of our outstanding book keepers. He kept a lot of stuff in his head unlike Barbara whose record keeping was flawless, but he had some decent ideas on the sharing and privatizing of food in the refrigerator. Eddie was the founder of the Milk Butter and Eggs Club which significantly streamlined the organization of the space in our (two) refrigerators. He also started us on recycling. On a personal level, Eddie was a good and generous friend. I believe he was the driving force behind taking up a collection for me on my 50th birthday to help pay for a trip to Italy which I probably would not have gone on without that gift and the fact that he would be meeting me in Rome. We went to a few Dead concerts together, as well. Eddie was also a frequent visitor to my room with his red bong which he bequeathed to me when he left. (Yesterday, I went to a wedding. The tie I wore -a silk lined classic, was a gift of Eddie's from his dad's closet.) And if all that weren't enough, Eddie moved to Big Gray with two girls I really loved- Martha, his girlfriend at the time and Chelsea, his dog.I took care of Chelsea whenever he and Martha were away, and I hung out with Martha and Kim (who also had a crush on Martha) whenever she was available. Eddie left Big Gray, broke up with Martha who became a Park Ranger in Washington, and went to medical school. I think Abby is still in touch with him. If that's the case, I hope she will direct him to the blog so he may add his remembrances. While I'm on that subject, I hope that all of you who read this will use the comments section to add your thoughts.The Milk Butter and Eggs generation was not without its problems, but compared to its predecessor, it was a quiet time at the big house. We had two fire chiefs. The guy who we took in right before Michael and Barbara left was the leader of that generation, Dan. As I said, he was from Ohio, a big Cincinnati Reds and Bengals fan. He studied Chinese at Ohio State and was translating letters and documents from China for a New York law firm when he came to Big Gray. Dan was an extremely ambitious person. He applied for and won a Kellogs' Foundation grant and soon after, began working towards the formation of an organization, The New York Rain Forest Alliance. Dan led the fledgling organization from a two person group to a major player in the field of ecological preservation. He still serves as Chairman of the Board. So,all this was going on while Dan was at the house. He left in 1991 after six years.I think Dan truly loved living at Big Gray, but grew weary of our constant necessity to reach consensus. Another fire chief who had a similar problem with our process was Sam who lived at Big Gray for two or three years during Dan's tenure. He too felt that the need for consensus was frustrating and blamed others for what he could not accomplish. Both these guys had a point, but I think both missed the point.If you're going to live in a house like Big Gray, you have to strike a balance between playing by the consensus rules and doing what you think is right. In January of 1989, we received a disturbing letter from the head of the parish council of the church that owned Big Gray. In it he stated that our rental agreement was monthly, and that new considerations (to convert the house for "Church use") required us to vacate by June of that year. The letter was addressed to me. I was very upset by it and immediately wrote a letter to the Monsignor asking him to reconsider the decision. Martha was the only other person home at the time I finished my letter. I showed it to her and asked her opinion. She thought it was OK, but was also disturbed by the news we might lose Big Gray. In spite of my communal sense, I had a proprietary feeling about the house and I sent the letter without consulting anyone else. I felt Dan would have taken a combative stance, which knowing the Monsignor as well as I thought I did, would have been the wrong approach. Someone else might have called a meeting and tried to bring everyone else along. I didn't. Later that evening at the emergency meeting I called, Dan berated me for acting without consulting the house. As I suspected, he wanted to hire a lawyer. Well, as it turned out, the lawyer he consulted told us we had no legal claim. And, when the Monsignor visited the house later on with members of the council, he assured me that "We should not worry- that as long as the house could be rented, he would rent it to us". As it turned out, the Church found it unfeasible to convert the house, and they continued to rent it to us till 1996 when we announced we would no longer continue.I believe my letter prompted the Monsignor's promise and that Dan's approach would have been seen as belligerent. But my point is that I didn't wait.I acted on impulse. I took charge. Dan and Sam both had problems moving within that process. I think it may have something to do with their own family dynamic, but I don't know.