Sunday, September 19, 2010

An Interview with Piper Martin at Twin Oaks

This is a continuation of interviews with members of Twin Oaks. The theme is the possibility of using the imagination to collectively challenge gender with various intentional organizations of child care responsibilities. The opinions and recollections expressed are those of the individuals interviewed, and are not necessarily reflective of the community or of the people about whom they speak.

As you can tell, if you have been reading the previous entries, most Twin Oaks members are very busy. They have to keep up with a quota of 42 hours of assigned labor a week, although older members get a pension of one hour off per year per week starting at the age of 50. That is, at the age of 50, you only have to work 41 hours; at 51, 40, and so on down the line.

Nonetheless, no matter what the age, it becomes a challenge to corner a member and schedule a block of time--45 minutes, an hour--which he or she can pencil on on a labor sheet to sit down and reminisce in front of a computer about any topic under consideration.

As a guest, I too have a labor sheet, and am required to make quota, so my time is also under high demand. This Sunday morning, Piper and I have about 45 minutes before I go to water the orchard behind Morningstar, a job Elsa gave me,  and Piper goes to wash and cut apples.

I gave Piper an article I had written from oral history I had done with women in Palestine/Israel while I set up the session, and then organized to begin my questions.

Piper, at the age of 86 and three quarters, having lived on Twin Oaks around 30-35 years, moved here first in March of 1971 but then left a few times and returned. She remembers the time when children lived away from their parents in Degania, a building named after a kibbutz in Israel.  I asked what she could tell me about the Degania system.

Piper: First of all, I think you have to put it in the context of how different Twin Oaks was then from now. We had a much higher quota and less resources. Quota was 49-51 hours a week.

Q: What do you mean by quota?

P: Quota is part of our elaborate system of equalizing the community's work load among all members. Once a year, we vote in the Trade-Off game for our best guess of how many hours of work we want to do to earn our income and to do our daily living chores like cooking, total that up and divide by the number of members, and get the number that is called "quota." In reality, this requires many compromises in the things that we would like to be creditable as quota hours in order to keep the quota, or required number of hours, average, per week. It is perfectly OK for members to "bank" their extra hours and spend them later.

Whenever we were not getting enough work done, we raised quota to get closer to what we wanted. Most of the time just raising the quota left us not yet getting what we wanted. And allowance was very low. It could have been only a dollar a week. Or ten dollars a month. Something very minimal. Now it is minimal by other people's standards but it is  86 dollars a month now. When our allowance was so low, we were making do with a diet inferior to what most of us wanted. That included things like baloney sandwiches. When a cheese sandwich was served, if we wanted an extra slice of cheese, we had to pay a nickel out of that tiny allowance. This was  before we were making our own cheese, before we even had any cows.  So to work more hours meant we could improve our community diet. And there were other things like that. If people needed eye glasses, you pretty much did without them, unless you had parents who paid for your eye glasses. Turn-over was extremely high then. A lot of people came with these wonderful visions and found they couldn't stick it out. But also this many years later, it is funny to think how many people came expecting it to be an easy life with lots of sex and time to play music and life an easy life.

But we had this vision and the parents originally participated in this vision that the children would not be owned by their parents, that the children would be Twin Oaks children, that we would collectively enjoy them being Twin Oaks children and we would collectively take responsibility for them being our children.

Q: What happened with that vision?

P: Well I think one of the main things that happened was that the parents did not feel the community took as good care of their children as they could by themselves, even if they had to go back to the mainstream. Back in the mainstream, they could get grandparents to help them, often grandparents with money. There were only 30-40 members at the time, so lots of complications happened--jealousy, when we didn't believe in jealousy. We believed in equality. We wanted every body to have everything. And here we were. So when the parents  left, they would leave with their children. If they left the community, they took their children with them, which was not the understanding we had started with in attempting communal parenting. The idea was that if the parents left, the kids would stay and other people here would parent them. So it was a very serious job to take on a primary for one of these babies. There were various levels, but the ones who were equivalents to the parents were essentially saying they were taking on the child for life just as the parents were.  So Josie Kincaid and two other young women--one was named Freddie--and a hammocks manager for so long-- were intensely committed to this idea that their children were going to be community children, and their children were going to get super care.

For a couple of years we had had no children at Twin Oaks after blaming ourselves for the poor care of the children at Twin Oaks who had left with their parents. So this time we waited until we had completed Degania and had what we thought were super super conditions for children to grow up.  Meaning that before these babies were born, we had handles to the doors down low where toddlers could reach them and electric outlets up high where toddlers could not reach them--all sorts of things to make life good for our children. And we even had a glorified crib. Do you know about the Skinner cribs? For example, a soft mesh mattress was used so that urine could go straight through and  the infant did not have to wear diapers 24 hours a day.  There were other things about the crib such as a fan attached to the outside so that the child would be cool. We were basing this all on the fictional book Walden Two by BF Skinner. When Skinner came to visit, we started proudly showing him the crib. We just had one of the special cribs and were wondering whether we could make another one ourselves.  Skinner looked very flustered as he tried to explain to us that the crib was supposed to be right in front of a large window so that the child could see birds coming and going, the weather through the sunshine, clouds and rain, etc.  And instead, we had placed the crib in a small special room up against blank walls with windows, high above the crib, that the child could not look out of. And then we tried to make up for it by putting commercial mobiles in the crib. I don't remember the year.  Skinner only made that one visit. He wanted to come earlier, but we said, we don't feel ready yet. Would you first wait for us to invite you?

Walden Two was about a thriving large community that already had lots of resources. And here we were a little struggling community with maybe 4 per cent of the number of members that the Skinner community had, trying to see what we could provide for our children. So some mild degree of disagreement between the parents and the non-parents started as soon as the first metas got labor credits for watching and recording the actions, and the number of hours the infants slept, and the number of times they peed, and all that, while the rest of us worked "much harder".

Q: What is a meta? And why did they have to keep records?

P: Metas are a name we picked up from Israel. The Israeli name is longer but it started with those letters, of the name of the person watching the children in the kibbutz. Record keeping was part of our idea of how to take super care of the children. People took childcare shifts and we wanted each shift to be well informed to do a superb job. 

I never was a meta. I was part of the non-parent, non-meta group.

Q: How did you view the situation?

P: I was extremely disappointed when it failed. I actually had been seriously considering the possibility of adopting a child to raise under these experimental conditions, although I was over 50 by this time. It was supposed to be security for the children, the best possible life for the children. But the program wasn't enough to fulfill the metas, some of whom went on to have their own biological children to add to the roster of Twin Oaks children.  Some metas tried especially hard. One I remember in particular was Eve. She wanted to be the kind of meta who would not have her own child but would spend her life as one of the mothers of these communal children.  But, apparently after a lot of soul searching, she did leave the community.  And left the children feeling as if a mother or father had left them.  This was a warning to all the biological parents and to the community that we could not count on anybody to stay and feel as responsible as the real parents did. This is where the vision hit the reality. Eve made it known to the community that she was feeling unfulfilled.  I think she tried to get pregnant and couldn't.

But by that time we also discovered that the biological parents wanted to have a bigger say in what the children ate or didn't eat, whether the children brushed their teeth or not, whether they dressed in gender-specific clothes. Some people thought we should train their kids from the beginning to wear girl clothes and boy clothes. For the boys to wear girls clothing---that was a big leap. Some of the community was in favor and some not.

Q: So it broke down over gender roles--the parents did not want their boys wearing skirts?

P: No, they did not want the community deciding whether their boys would wear skirts.  It was also over whether  their kids could eat sugar....was it important to have supervision over tooth brushing...little daily things.  Too many by far to have community meetings over all these things.  Remember there was no precedent anyplace. Walden Two did not talk about details like this. As far as we knew we were the first ones trying to benefit our children by behaviorist methods in a group setting. We didn't have any resources to go visit kibbutzim to learn how others had done things until after our whole effort was history.

Q: Had you already raised your own children before this?

P: : Oh yes. My youngest was in college at Antioch.  After the first year, the students there were self-supporting. I had no financial obligation any more. My older daughter had graduated from college and had a job in NYC, and my son, who had stayed with his father after our divorce, was on his own at that time.

Q: Having raised your children in a nuclear family, what was the appeal?

P: It was a major appeal of the community in the first place that we were going to do a better job than on the outside raising children.

Batya: Thank you for being such a good resource.

No comments:

Post a Comment