Keegan and adder take on tech. Both share their interest in teaching children to understand and program computers, but express fear at the way computers and smartphones can have power over people. Keegan shares his childhood memories as the first personal computers made it into homes and his lifelong obsession with computers that he has spent his adult years fighting off. Can children on the commune avoid a similar fate? Adder expresses his nostalgia for video games and shares his plan to teach a 5-year-old text-based computing. Both try to make sense of the ubiquity of smartphones in the lives of today’s children.
Last Friday Compersia, the first commune birthed with the help of the Point A Project, turned one year old. It’s been a year filled with joys and difficulties and a few close calls. Recently, responding to our frustration with the gap between our reality and our vision and the stubbornness with which some big important items seem to stay on our to-do list, Courtney, one of our members, gave us some perspective by noting that the commune is a living thing and only a year old. If it was a human we’d be thrilled at this point if it wasn’t pooping on itself and had mastered the art of eating solid food and crawling around. From that perspective, we’re doing pretty well, thank you very much. We’ve got our foundational policies written, we’ve added some new members, we’ve got money in the bank, and we’re building some deep and resilient relationships. And, much like a baby, the commune demands a lot of attention and care and not always at the most opportune times. But as it grows and develops we can see more and more clearly how awesome it will be when it’s fully grown and how all our hard work parenting it will pay off.
Some highlights from our first year:
Started the commune! Set up a legal entity, set up a group bank account, started pooling our income, our labor, and our resources.
Modified one of our member’s houses so it could fit most of us and our vital functions, host events, and host guests. It made a wonderful crib to hold us in our delicate first moments.
Started a video editing and media coop that currently supports one member and will hopefully grow into a multi-member commune business.
Another member started a handyman business.
Took on two new members to add to the four founders.
Had a couple weekend long retreats to work on plans and policy.
Hosted dozens of guests.
Hosted jam nights and game nights.
Started connecting with cooperative lawyers to lay the groundwork for a project to create an easily replicable model for urban communes.
Pursued and started negotiating on several potential buildings to buy.
Now, on the eve of our first birthday, and with a recently expanded membership, we’re moving all six adult members and all four kids into a new house and setting our sights on a new set of goals. But we’re doing it with the knowledge that we’re only a year old and if we don’t accomplish all our lofty dreams we won’t be that hard on ourselves. As long as we’re growing and thriving, learning and maturing we will beam with pride at our bouncing baby commune.
We at LEF have had some interesting experiences with local and global media in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, we spoke with representatives from BBC, Discovery Channel, and Netflix about their desires to do shows about off-grid living. BBC said they wanted to do a show about a group of people living off-grid. I told them about LEF, as well as several other projects around the U.S. with similar goals. (Possibility Alliance in Missouri, a Neo-Christian group in Iowa called Brotherhood of Christ, a small group in Harrisonburg VA called the Downstream Project.) I suggested that by looking at groups who had been working on this idea for years, they would get a great picture of what life can really be like without fossil fuel. They said that they were not interested in my idea. They intended to drop 50 people with no experience living off grid in the Australian Outback and film what happened for the first year. That sounded pretty grim. We declined to participate.
Discovery sent a couple producers out. They looked over our project. Then they informed me that they had found a couple living in a bedraggled cabin on the Eastern Shore. The couple was struggling to manage livestock, build their buildings, and deal with all the necessities of homesteading. They then offered me a few thousand dollars to hire a crew, buy building materials, and go build them a barn or a composting toilet so their show could look like rustic home make-over heroes (I guess…). Seeing my blank look the producer responded “there’s not much money in television.” They were not particularly interested in LEF either.
Producers from Netflix interviewed us, and then dropped the idea without much explanation. Fox News has also done its part to contribute to the image of living without fossil fuel as a Grim Specter, though in that case it had nothing to do with LEF. If you haven’t seen Gaslands I & II, they are excellent, low-budget documentaries about fracking. The original Gaslands caused enough trouble for the fracking industry that they counter-attacked. Fox News ran a “story” about “debunking” Gaslands in which the commentator listed the “falsehoods” in the documentary with a backdrop of film from an African famine playing behind the commentator, who then concluded with a comment about what life would be like without fossil fuel. (It’s on youtube.)
There have been numerous stories published about LEF. (There is a list at end of this article.) These stories have been a welcome avenue to reach people. The most recent Atlantic article portrayed off-grid living as a hardship, and then closed with a comment about how solar energy is “expensive.” Several other writers have commented about how solar energy is “too expensive.” Funny thing is, they didn’t ask me how much it cost to build our infrastructure at LEF.
Truth is, if you do anything alone, then you can’t do much. If you live in the city and tried to pave the 50 feet of roadway in front of your house, that could be rather difficult and expensive. Societal choices determine the cost of most of the infrastructure we share. LEFers often travel by train. It is shocking how cheap cars seem compared to the train, when obviously the train is much, much more efficient. But automobile travel is largely socialized via the various federal and state Departments of Transportation.
The State bears the cost. At LEF, we say over and over again that our most important technology is community. It is only by the cooperative use of resources that we have any hope of undertaking projects of any complexity and reducing our ecological footprint. It is by focusing on the individual pitted against the wilderness that one can make life without fossil fuel look miserable.
So how much does it cost to live without fossil fuel? And is there any truth to the image of the Grim Specter of misery in the absence of fossil fuel? Our buildings at LEF were informed by a strawbale insulated, solar-heated cooperative house in Charlottesille that Alexis built prior to LEF. At last measure, that house used 91% less energy on a per-capita basis than the American average. The formidable cost? About $14,500 on a per-capita basis, including the purchase price of the land. (Incidentally, there is no solar electricity on that house, which belies the focus we have developed for grid-tie solar electricity.)
Last night it was 15 degrees F. Yesterday it was partly cloudy with a howling cold wind. Forgive me if this is “too much information,” but last night I slept naked with a sheet and one blanket over me. I can’t remember the last time we built a fire for heat. Six weeks ago? The build-out cost of our zero fossil fuel house, kitchen and attached infrastructure at LEF is about $10,000 per capita. (Not including the purchase price of the whole farm property.) It’s really quite simple. We have fewer square feet per person (by far the biggest cost difference), we don’t have to pay for a heat pump, boiler, or furnace. Our solar hot water heaters and solar space heating equipment is comparable to the cost of conventional equipment we didn’t install. We have fewer bathrooms (mostly by dividing the functions of a bathroom) and one kitchen. A strawbale wall cost less than a “normal” wall because strawbale is ideally suited to unskilled labor, but the strawbale wall has four times as much insulation. The final cost of a LEF model self-sufficient house is less than most people pay for housing in the industrial world. Energy self-sufficient communities are cheaper, not more expensive. So why the recurring Grim Specter of chaos in the outback? Why the recurring theme that a self-sufficient lifestyle is “too expensive”? One can only presume that it relieves the discomfort of the viewer or reader of commercial media stories to know that such outlandish alternatives really are impractical.
It is a profound irony that so many would imagine life without fossil fuel to be a sacrifice. The world we inherited involves terrible sacrifice. So many people work so hard, taking out 30 year mortgages to pay for their houses (which are, statistically speaking, three-times larger per capita than two generations ago) and to pay for the cars to drive to work. But our culture sets our values, so we have normalized the sacrifices that support the industrial consumerist economy. We have developed a lifestyle that is expensive, and leaves each individual or family to fend for themselves. That has become a cultural value, and like so many other cultural values, we hold to it, defending our beliefs with ideological vigor and fiction as necessary.
And now our political system is twirling ever more into madness because the corporate powers that supply our fossil fueled addictions are also buying our political system via their own private propaganda “news” programs. History is painfully clear, economic concentration leads inexorably to the concentration of political power. Protests and expressions of indignity will not reverse that process. Economically empowered, sustainable communities can. As much as I understand the visceral reaction we have to immediate circumstance, we do not have to keep losing to civic decay. We simply have to decide that a long term, realistic plan is more important than having enemies. And we have to choose our culture, from the bottom up.
We are all going to live without fossil fuel eventually. If we work on it now, we can improve our lives. If we wait for the money system and food production to destabilize, it’s going to be much, much more difficult. Think that’s not going to happen? The temperature oscillation we are experiencing as I write these words is going to hit our food production on the east coast, just like it did last year. We are at the beginning of a 100,000 year curve. That’s how long it takes to wash the carbon out of the atmosphere. We are headed for change. We need a longer term focus. Can’t afford it? We cannot afford to live an individualized, consumer lifestyle AND stack gobs of “renewable” energy on top of it. Total per-capita electricity production at LEF is less than 200 watts. We can afford that, if we can choose our own cultural values. We pay for what we really want. It’s time to want a livable world for our children. It’s not somebody else’s responsibility. It’s yours.
Expanding the LEF Model
For the most part, the mechanical side of LEF is working really well. We said from the beginning that we would not be a technology development center, that we would simply use technologies other people have developed. It hasn’t worked out that way. We are having to innovate quite a bit. That takes time, but it’s coming along. We will improve things, but even now, our life is very comfortable.
Now it’s time to build a movement of economically empowered, sustainable communities. We stuck our toes in with drilling a well in Bindura, Kenya, but the communication has not been adequate to support further work there. The silver lining is that we went looking for others who might be able to get involved, and we found some folks. One of those folks is Katherine Heitz (Kate). She has worked for numerous non-profit organizations helping people around the world. Frustrated with the bureaucracy of the bigger organizations, Kate started her own group to drill wells in Africa called Groundswell. (Website) Her family is based near LEF. We had numerous meetings with her before she left for Lebanon (where she is now working with an organization that removes land mines). In about a month, she will be back in Kenya. She has worked with a clinic there that is hauling their water with donkeys, and does not have reliable lighting. We believe we can use LEF’s approach to help the clinic, and hopefully plant a seed of sensible off-grid living in Kenya in the process.
We have also had three meetings in the last few years with members of the Board of Directors of Ekal Vidyalaya, a very large organization in India who runs literacy programs in 60,000 Indian villages. They are hoping to provide rural economic support so the children they educate will have better opportunities. They have done work with solar energy, but unfortunately they have relied on solar contractors who use the poorly conceived American design of using lead-acid batteries, inverters, and AC equipment. Those systems fall apart in a few years. A few board members suggested that we may be able to help them apply an LEF-style design to their efforts. We’re still just having the conversation, but it is promising.
The primary root of global ecological problems lies in the industrial world, in the U.S. in particular. We lead the world in financial and military power, and as well as cultural models, like our poorly conceived solar energy systems. As the modern economy goes through its inevitable convulsions, more people will end up on our doorstep at LEF. For LEF to be a viable seed that can grow as replacement for the consumer economy, we need more LEFs. Today I am going to order a couple more DC motors for our shop. That is really easy right now. As these inevitable economic convulsions arrive, that might get much harder. The more we can do now, the more viable the idea is in the long run. LEF has some connections with the Intentional Communities (IC) movement. The hardest part of transitioning to living in an LEF-style community for the average American would be giving up control over so much private space (house and automobile). For people in ICs, the most difficult transition has already been made. We will keep trying to promote our ideas there as elsewhere.
That’s where you come in. We have had some generous donations to the Living Energy Global Initiative fund. But it makes no sense for us to try to build LEF-style communities for people who don’t want to live in them. We need to find people who want to live this way, where ever they are. We have a great crew at LEF now. But our bubble of ecological purity, if that’s what it is, doesn’t help anyone until we can figure out how to transplant the model. We need your help with that now. Our biggest need now, indeed the only way we can address the larger ecological crisis, is to de-stigmatize the cooperative use of resources. The only way to accomplish that is to have more people doing it and promoting it.
We are all going to live without fossil fuel eventually. The inherent instability of the rapidly changing modern industrial system, with its financial system leveraged on thin air, might bring instability sooner. Or perhaps the inherent ecological instability of geometric growth on a finite Earth will take some decades to play out. Either way, we will all live without fossil fuel eventually. The solution to that problem is the same as the long-term solution to civic and political ossification — sustainable, empowered
communities. You could help us organize a conference about long-term solutions, entitled You Know What You Oppose, Do You Know What You Support? If you have skills, you could take Eddie’s place as a technical intern when he leaves at the end of April. You could look around, in the U.S. or abroad, and help us find people for whom a shared economy based on renewable energy would be a welcome addition to their lives. It’s time for you to help us figure out how to plant new seeds, in the U.S. and abroad. We look forward to hearing from you.
Living Energy Farm is a project to build a demonstration farm, community, and education center in Louisa County that uses no fossil fuels. For more information see our website, or contact us at email@example.com or Living Energy Farm, 1022 Bibb Store Rd, Louisa VA, 23093. Donations to the Living Energy Farm Education Fund are tax deductible.
The founders of Twin Oaks faced a dilemma. They could see the faults of a voting based democratic decision system, but did not want to have to wait for every single person in the group to agree. It was 1967, the feminists had not yet taken the consensus process from the Quakers, secularized it and released it onto progressive moments across the land.
If the magic threshold number is not 50% plus 1 person nor 100% what is it? We could not choose a number, instead we chose a process. It would be wrong to call it a “super majority” because the exact threshold is not fixed. What i clumsily call it is “negative minority centric”. But what does this actually mean?
If you get 24 accept votes to become a member after your visitor period and you get 6 rejects, you get rejected. That hardly seems fair, but with membership decisions this is easier to justify. We get a lot of visitors and the average Oaker has lived here about 8 years, which means they have seen perhaps 500 visitors, plus an uncountable number of guests. If you have seen that many visitors when you get a little input slip in your 3 x 5 slot requesting you give your input on these people who were just here for three weeks, you think back and say “Oh, i did one tofu shift with them and they were pleasant at a lunch at the fun table, they would probably be a good member.”
But the 6 reject votes the membership team is reading are saying things like “Was a disaster in the garden, pulled up vegetables instead of weeds” and “told an off color joke at the party and kept interrupting everyone, bad sense of boundaries” and “i have concerns about the amount of alcohol they consumed during the visitor period and i think they might have addiction issues”. And thus the membership team will choose to reject them, or tell them visit again.
Part of the problem is that Twin Oaks is so large that we don’t do what Acorn and most smaller communities do and gather together as a group and discuss membership applications. Partly we don’t do this because it would be terribly time consuming. We had a visitor period last year where we had 9 people applying for membership. If it took 20 minutes on average to discuss each of these people (which would be quite short in some cases) and there were 90 members (which has been the average membership for the past several years), that would be 270 person hours of membership decision making.
Adder and Keegan examine the personalities of children and the effects their peers have on them. They ponder the sibling-like relationships of commune kids, consider that parents might have less of an effect than they might think, and reflect on the effects of schooling and video games in their childhoods.
I’m really looking forward to our next episode on tech in the lives of children. Keegan is a bit of a luddite. While I have my tech concerns, I also have perhaps a little bit too much nostalgia for the hours spent playing video games as a child. Can video games be good for kids, or is the addictive nature of them too great?
Truly, most communities, even co-housing communities which are sort of at the other end of the spectrum from income sharing communities, do some degree of sharing. However, most of the income sharing communities, by their very nature, do much more sharing than simply income.
Acorn also shares cars and bikes and tools and clothes, as does East Wind. And at new communes such as Cambia and Compersia the work of building the community is shared.
I have a button that I wear sometimes that says “Consume Less, Share More.” In the communes this type of radical sharing is a daily reality.
First publication in The Indexer Volume 35 Number 1 March 2017, pages 10-18. Publication is with permission of the editor, Maureen MacGlashan (‘firstname.lastname@example.org’)
Members of Twin Oaks intentional community – past and present – tell the stories of their involvement in the community and its indexing business.
Twin Oaks is an income-sharing intentional community near Louisa, Virginia (Kinkade, 1994; Sassen, 2001). Intentional communities are groups of people who ‘live together or share common facilities and who regularly associate with each other on the basis of explicit common values.’(2) Examples are religious communities, kibbutzim and communes. Founded in 1967, Twin Oaks is one of the longest-enduring and largest secular intentional communities in the United States.
Twin Oaks has around 90 adult members and 15 children. They live on 456 acres of farm and forest land, with a lifestyle based on the values of cooperation, sharing, nonviolence, equality, and ecology. Natural timber residences are nestled in the woods, and there is a pond for swimming and canoeing. Fruit and vegetables are grown in a large organic garden, and they also keep cows and chickens.
All adult members have their own bedroom, but other spaces are shared. Most meals are eaten in or around the communal kitchen and dining area.
Members work on a variety of income-earning and domestic activities. The main income sources for Twin Oaks are tofu, hammocks, seed growing and wholesaling, and indexing. The labor system is complex. Members are expected to work 42 hours per week; these hours are called ‘labor credits’. Each week, members fill in a sheet indicating the work they wish to do. The labor managers then allocate shifts to ensure that all essential jobs are filled.(3)
Interested people can visit Twin Oaks for short tours on some Saturdays or for a three-week visitor period. You will find many articles and videos about Twin Oaks on the internet.
Twin Oaks indexing
This article explores the history and current working of the indexing business at Twin Oaks. It is largely based on memories going back many years. Because of this, it is possible that some dates, sequences and events may be wrong. The early work process is described in a separate box.
Twin Oaks Indexing started in May–June 1981,(4) when an indexer called Bill Pitt, from Washington DC, came to Twin Oaks and suggested that they establish an indexing business. Bill was indexing with a community in DC called the Finders,(5) and wanted to share the work with Twin Oaks, particularly the large indexing projects that, as a collective, Twin Oaks could handle better.
Kat Kinkade, one of the founders of Twin Oaks, wrote about indexing: ‘This little business is good for us, because it calls for an entirely different kind of labor and uses some of the brain-power and education the Community has in good supply’ (1994). Kinkade explained further:
When Bill first came to visit Twin Oaks and to talk about his idea, he was referrred to Taylor [Frome], who was New Industries Manager. Generally speaking, the job of a New Industries Manager is to provide a small budget and guidance for any member who has an idea for a new income area. If the fledgling business shows promise on a small scale, it will be given the resources to expand.
Taylor was very good at this job. She had the experience to know that most of these efforts would cost us a few hundred dollars and some labor credits and probably come to nothing in the end, but she never tried to discourage anyone with an idea. She recognized that Twin Oaks really does have a need for viable businesses, and she kept her mind open.
Taylor Frome not only supported the business, she was also the inaugural manager. She wrote:
[Bill] invited me to apprentice on an index with him, which I did in the spring. I stayed at his house in DC. After that Twin Oaks decided we’d start an indexing crew, and I posted a 3×5 card6 to set up a meeting for anyone interested in learning about it. The day before the meeting, Bill Pitt called to let me know that he’d accepted a job on our behalf – indexing a 3,000 page document that was the collected papers for an international conference on heat transfer. We had 6 weeks to do the job.
So, instead of having a meeting to discuss indexing, anyone who could free up their schedule became an indexer. Bill coached me, and I believe I redlined the whole document with half a dozen people making 3×5 cards. [See box for a description of the indexing process.]
We took over the former backpacker shop in Morningstar [a Twin Oaks residence], and when I calculated my work at the end, I’d averaged 7 hours a day of indexing for 6 weeks.
Sometime early in the process, Keith Davison (who was my lover at the time, but living in Boston doing a high-tech start-up) realized that we were going to have a hellacious typing job (the index ended up being 50 pages, double spaced), so he brought down an Apple 2e computer and taught a few of us to do word processing. Gerri Frantz was the main person who did the word processing of the first index.
After that project Bill got us an ongoing job with the State Department indexing recently declassified documents (also usually several thousand pages) and I started looking for other work. I had a background as a Special Education teacher, Trisha was a teacher, and someone else also had an education or disability background, so we marketed ourselves to textbook publishers.
After a couple of years, Max and Juniee were involved, and I stepped aside (happily) as they took over. At some point things were not working and I stepped in again. I left Twin Oaks in August 1987, but probably stopped managing indexing before then. (8)
Box 1 The early indexing process
Do Mi Stauber explains the original indexing process:(7)
In the early days, the work was mostly done by hand. The main indexer, or ‘redliner’, marked up the page proofs with entries and locators, underlining phrases in the text or writing in headings in the margin in red pen. I usually did this work around the community, in my bedroom, out on the lawn, in the dining room, in a hammock. I always had pages of my current index on a clipboard with me as I walked around. It was nice to be able to work in this relaxed way, although we were indexing ‘blind,’ unable to see the whole index until later in the process.
The pages then went to the carder, who wrote each entry on a 3×5 card (yes, that’s why they’re called ‘index cards’!) and alphabetized them in fishing tackle boxes. Thousands of used index cards floated around the community and were used for notes and postings (Twin Oaks still uses a 3×5 board for community messages). I took a box with me when I left and used them for years, musing over my own pencil handwriting and that of carders long gone by. Carding was a good job for people who wanted clerical work but didn’t want to do the higher-level thinking of redlining. They had to be meticulous and reliable.
Beginning indexers would start as carders. By carding indexes, they could see page by page the decisions that the redliner was making: what to index, how to word entries, what subheadings to make. After they had carded for a while, they would index their own book with me following along and giving feedback.
When the carding was finished, the carder would return the boxes to the redliner, who would edit the index with the cards, spreading them out on the big tables in the indexing office in the Morningstar residence. This was a very good way to learn how to index, because physically moving cards to their new places in the index order and consolidating duplicate entries enabled the indexer to experience the index structure in a visceral way.
The finished set of alphabetized and marked-up cards would go to be typed into the computer. We used an index formatting program (IF) invented by Keith. The typists were special people because they had to stay up all night to get the entries into the computer in time for the redliner to finish the job. During my time there, Bob was usually the one who did this work – he liked to get twelve or so hours work under his belt in one night, and was exacting in the details. The next day, right before the deadline, the indexer would mark up the typed index, send it back for changes, and then print out the final copy on the big dot-matrix printer, ready to send to the publisher. We wrote the accompanying letter on Wordstar, and this was the first computer program I learned (coached by Velma).
(From an email to Glenda Browne, 19 September 2016.)
Velma Kahn was a resident of Twin Oaks for seven years in the 1980s. She remembers typing up an early index on a manual typewriter when she was on the Twin Oaks visitor program in 1981. This was perhaps an early trial index, to see what the work was like and whether it was of interest, and probably not one that got published.(9) Velma managed a number of areas at Twin Oaks (Kinkade, 1994), but most of her involvement in indexing was indirect. Do Mi Stauber wrote, ‘During my time at Twin Oaks Indexing, Velma was doing all of the tech support for the indexing business, including introducing beginners like me to the computer.’(10) She also later helped Cameron Taylor evaluate indexing software packages.
Other information about the early days came from Jim Farned, who emailed Glenda Browne about the involvement of his partner Catharine and himself. He wrote:
My partner, Catharine (Bunny) Battaglia and I … had a B&B on the shore of the upper Chesapeake Bay, in a little town called Betterton. We hosted members of the TwinOaks community for weeks at a time and trained them in indexing. We (Bunny and I) were not members of the Twin Oaks community but had been active in intentional communities in the Washington, DC area and beyond. We subsequently sold our Maryland B&B and moved to … California, where Bunny died in 1990. I am still here, still indexing. (11)
Do Mi Stauber and Paula C. Durbin Westby as managers
In 1986, Taylor Frome stopped working as indexing manager, and was succeeded by Do Mi Stauber and Paula Durbin-Westby as co-managers. When Paula left in August 1988, Do Mi remained as sole manager until approximately June 1989.
Paula Durbin-Westby wrote about her time as manager:
The day Taylor put up her leaving note, I thought to myself ‘I guess I am going to manage indexing’ …
… I started managing Twin Oaks Indexing in 1986, when Taylor moved, along with Do Mi, and co-managed from that point through August 1988. I trained new indexers, oversaw indexing projects, helped people edit, took over projects when they got derailed for various reasons …. Our earnings per hour were extremely low. The system we used [see Box 1] was not efficient. (12)
After Paula left the community, she earned a music degree in organ performance. After obtaining the degree, she returned to indexing, focusing on music theory and history. Paula still lives near Twin Oaks and indexes scholarly monographs.
Do Mi Stauber wrote about her time as manager:
When I was graduating from college, having taken a wide variety of courses in the humanities and social sciences and not ‘prepared’ myself for a particular job, I went to What Color Is Your Parachute for career advice. This alternative handbook helps you to dig out the kinds of activities you have enjoyed and to describe your ideal job. I came up with ‘a job that is creative but not purely artistic, that involves books and organization, and that allows me to be self-employed.’ Not knowing of any career that had all of those elements, I took the ‘books and organization’ part and decided to go into library work. After a couple of years of the most cushy possible nine-to-five job in a university library, I was bored to tears and chafing at the rigid hours. At the same time, my then-husband and I were looking for a different way to live. We discovered the intentional communities movement, and moved to Twin Oaks in the summer of 1985.
Twin Oaks members all work the same number of hours per week, but aside from weekly requirements of dishwashing or bathroom-cleaning, they choose from the wide variety of work areas that help the community run, including both income-producing businesses and daily life areas like child care, cooking, and running errands. I heard about indexing and was immediately excited. I haunted Taylor Frome, the manager, for two months until she finally had time to train me. And a bit later I discovered my old Parachute notes and realized that indexing matched exactly that dream job description – I just hadn’t known it existed! Indexing truly is the ideal work for me, and I appreciate my luck at landing right in an indexing collective!
One of the benefits of working in a collective like Twin Oaks Indexing is that there are so many opportunities for collaboration. When an indexer gets sick, their current job can be passed on to someone else. Paula and I often discussed our strategies and problems, and our work relationship made us both better indexers. In general, there was a feeling of support and camaraderie that I miss working on my own.
During my time at Twin Oaks, the indexing collective did not have any contact with the wider indexing world. The budget did not allow for ASI membership or travel to workshops, and we just indexed along on our own.
One of the very special things about Twin Oaks is the culture that encourages people to share their skills and to stretch into new areas. After I had been indexing for about a year and a half, Taylor asked me and Paula to be account managers (the contact people for specific clients). This was terrifying for me! I remember Taylor telling me that the editor with whom I’d be speaking was my age and was new at her own job, which humanized her for me. And Taylor gave me a script, and held my hand during the first call! It’s hard to remember now what a stretch it was to make a business call. I learned how to negotiate fees and schedules and how to assign indexes to collective members, easing me into the skills of managing a business that have served me for the last thirty years.
When Taylor left the community, Paula and I were co-managers, and then when Paula left I was manager until the spring of 1989, when I left Twin Oaks for Oregon with my partner Trisha and our daughter Alex. We left because the child program was not working for our daughter, but we continue to miss many things about Twin Oaks, and keep in touch with friends we made there. When I left, I decided to start my own indexing business. I felt it was important not to ‘steal’ clients from Twin Oaks, so I did not solicit them. I did inherit the State Department account, which no one in the collective felt able to handle. I made 200 cold calls, and my managing experience gave my resumé the boost I needed to get my business started in Oregon. I’m often in touch with the many other indexers, scattered over the country, who got their start and training at Twin Oaks.
It was interesting to manage a deadline-oriented business in a community. Because people could choose their work from week to week and go on vacation whenever they had accrued enough extra hours, it was unusual for them to have a job that they could not abandon at will. I did have to set boundaries with people – ‘no, your index is due on Monday and it’s not finished, you can’t go away for the weekend!’ But indexing also filled a need on the farm for people who wanted intellectual and/or clerical work, and collective members were willing and happy to do it.
An indexing collective is a perfect environment for training, and I feel lucky to have learned my profession there. My experience in training and writing instructiondocuments at Twin Oaks was the seed of my indexing workshops and my book, Facing the Text (2004).
I am endlessly grateful to Twin Oaks for empowering me, for teaching me so many skills, and for giving me my lifetime career. (13)
Table 1 Likely dates for Twin Oaks indexing managers
Managers or co-managers Likely dates
Taylor Frome (with Max and Juniee involved for some time) Mar–June 1981–86
Paula C. Durbin Westby and Do Mi Stauber (co-managers) 1986–August 1988
Do Mi Stauber August 1988–approx June 1989
Cameron Taylor October 1989–92 or 1993
Vicki Metcalf (aka Seneca) 1992 or 1993–94
Tree Bressen 1994–97
Tree Bressen and Jake Kawatski (co-managers) 1997
Jake Kawatski 1997–2006
Summer Tupelo Late 2006 to present
Breffni Whelan wrote about his time as an indexer:
The first index I did was for a 12 page genealogy I wrote a year before coming to Twin Oaks in March 1983. Not knowing anything about indexing at that time, I left out the two main families!
Then I came to Twin Oaks and joined the indexing team. Using 3×5 cards for the entries, sometimes half a dozen people or more would work on different aspects of the same book. At first computers were only used to type up the final index. The dollar-per-hour rate for some of these early indexes was very low. With the advent of indexing software, the cards were abandoned and efficiency went way up.
I learned indexing one step at a time, starting with alphabetically sorting the 3×5 cards. After a couple years I had the various functions down and could be the lead indexer on a book. One nice thing about indexing at Twin Oaks is that there was always someone to check and give feedback on the index before it went to the publisher – learning was an ongoing process.
I didn’t index for several years after leaving Twin Oaks in June 1989, but then got a computer and have been indexing ever since. (14)
Years 1989 to 1997
From 1989 to 1997 Twin Oaks indexing was managed by Cameron Taylor, Vicki Metcalf, and Tree Bressen. Do Mi trained Cameron Taylor in summer 1989, and he took over as manager at the beginning of October 1989. Cameron wrote about his time as manager:
I remember making the decision to go with Cindex …. As we, little by little, learned to use it we were satisfied and impressed. I think I remember at least one upgrade while I was still manager and I don’t remember any disappointments.
I’d been an anthropologist (taught at the University of Brasilia) until 1977, and later worked for the NGO Survival International. So some people thought I’d be a ‘natural’ as an indexer. In fact, it required a totally different mind-set which I never did make the transition to.
I resigned 1992 or 1993 and I as I remember it, Vicki Metcalf took over at that point. (15)
Cameron also highlighted the importance of proof reading:
In my time as manager a woman called Piper was our proof reader. I think maybe she’d done it professionally in her past. She was very, very good at it. It must have been the first typed out version of an index that we gave to her to proof read and it was a tremendous help. (16)
Vicki Metcalf (aka Seneca) was the manager from 1992 or 1993 until 1994, when Tree Bressen took over. Vicki was Jake Kawatski’s mentor/teacher. Tree was based at Acorn, Twin Oaks’s sister community, and therefore was not always able to play a hands-on role. She co-managed with Jake Kawatski for a short time in 1997. Jake took over as sole manager in 1997 and stayed in the role until 2006.
Jake Kawatski as manager
Jake Kawatski (whose current business name is Live Oaks Indexing) was briefly co-manager of indexing with Tree Bressen in 1997, and was manager from 1997 to 2006. Jake wrote about his time as manager:
I did my first index in 1982 while I was living with two former Twin Oaks indexers in Portland, Oregon [Laurel Nanke and Herb Fyfield]. It was all very much 19th-century technology: entries hand-written on cards, alphabetized by hand. We used a manual typewriter to put it all together. It was a memorable book on rhododendron species. It included the exploits of the Victorian plant explorers, tromping thru the mountains of Asia, looking for new plants to send back to England. I have always been a plant enthusiast, so this was great fun for me.
When I returned to Twin Oaks two years later, I got into vegetable and flower garden management and didn’t look into indexing again until I was 40 (in 1992). I had broken my heel bone, and couldn’t stand without pain for more than 8 hours, so I thought indexing might be a good fit for my new condition. I had been a speed reader since secondary (high) school, so it turned out to be a good fit. (Slow readers should not consider indexing!)
In those days we divided up the task. The master indexer would redline or highlight all the indexable items on a set of proofs and the apprentice (me) would type them up, using a DOS Cindex program on the computer (very basic software: pulsing white dots on an intensely blue background). We didn’t upgrade to a Windows format until 2000. Vive la difference!
We still had to send in diskette copies along with a hard copy printout to the publisher. When we had diacritical markings in foreign languages, they were added in red ink. Now we just send it all as an attachment via email, and what a delightful change that made. [See Box 1 for more information on the early indexing process.]
Management and training in ANY business has always been a thankless job at Twin Oaks. But I got into it and revived the indexing business which had fallen into a slack time, without anyone willing to manage it. Previous managers had left me some good advice on how to proceed, and I needed the sedentary work! Every month I would phone up publishers that we had worked for and try to hustle up work.
When we gave up ‘phone tag’ and switched to email communication, the task became a
lot easier. What was challenging was training, coordinating, and supervising a crew of five or so indexers. We had a beautiful, quiet office space in an adult-only residence for the computer work, and mostly cooperative and competent crew. I had years of prior experience managing crews in the garden, so my indexing management (1997–2006) wasn’t so very different. The deadlines got a little crazy, especially if I had my own project to complete, and had to look over some team member’s index before it went out ….
I turned 65 in January, and decided I would no longer take on more than one indexing project at a time. When I left Twin Oaks I was doing 20–25 titles a year. Now I am lucky to do half as many, and have free time to volunteer at the nearby Montessori school and the local children’s theatre. I have done art and theatre all my life (particularly in winter when garden work eased up), so it’s great to be part of the art community here. My partner, George, and I also grow assorted greens and flowers for sale at the weekly farmers’ market. (17)
Summer Tupelo as manager
Summer Tupelo has been Twin Oaks indexing manager since 2006. (18) She was trained by Jake Kawatski, and is still in occasional contact, especially when either of them has work they don’t have time to do. Summer wrote about her time as manager:
I went to school in Ohio and studied creative writing for a couple years. The college I attended has a large student co-op movement, and its membership crosses paths with Twin Oaks regularly, so that’s how I found out about the farm.
Immediately after moving here I gravitated towards cerebral task- and deadline-oriented work. When I inquired about indexing, Jake told me I’d have to wait a few months or maybe even years to train; since turnover among the newest members is so high he wanted to assess my likelihood of staying at the commune before sinking hours into training me. A wise strategy that I resented a bit at the time but have since carried on in my own management protocols.
Back then we used Cindex 1.5 and hard copies were always mailed by the press, though we were just starting to send back our final work as email attachments.
After I trained with Jake I worked for about three years before he announced he was leaving. I took on the role of manager because I was the most senior acting indexer (there were others still on the crew who’d started well before me, but were away at the time of management turnover) and the most likely to stay (I had recently let the Child Board (19) know of my intentions to become pregnant). I do the manager’s job because I might as well, and because it gives me more autonomy over how things are run.
Jake showed me how he received and filed invoices, how he deposited checks, and the other little administrative minutiae I had never thought much about before. He also gave me some tips on how to train others. And that was about it. Taking on the title of ‘manager’, I did not receive a raise in my allowance, a bigger room, or a spacious office with my nameplate on the door. Moving up in one’s career is not really a thing at Twin Oaks.
I also manage the customer service desk for the hammocks business. As with indexing, the person who trained me left the farm, and I was the crew member who had the most information, and also, who was willing to become manager.
The indexing team is made up of 5 members. Although people sometimes think of expanding the business, this is not practical. [See Box 2 for the reasons this is the case.]
We are lucky in that we have a number of long-standing clients and do not need to do much marketing to stay solvent. We average about 60 indexes a year for about five main clients and several independent authors. Since I’ve taken over, our yearly income has been about $30,000, which is a tiny portion of Twin Oaks’s overall economic picture. However, the dollar per hour of indexing is high compared to other work areas at Twin Oaks (most of the crew can get to at least $15/hr), so it continues to be worthwhile for the community to pursue.
Work allocation is a juggling act. Variables include authors’ and publishers’ wonky schedules and sometimes poor communication. I’m sure everyone reading this article will be familiar with dates being pushed back, pushed forward, and/or hastily shortened. Other issues include authors who request a certain indexer; indexers’ skills and interests; indexers’ other indexing projects (as I try to avoid making anyone double up); indexers’ other farm work obligations; and indexers’ vacation schedules and home lives, which includes things like maternity/paternity leave, or a sudden need to care for ailing parents.
Because of all this, I am careful not to promise that a certain indexer will be available for a project if one is requested, though I will do my best to keep that member free. I also set our turnaround time as days from receipt of proofs, as opposed to a fixed date based on scheduling speculation. Staying on top of it all can be difficult when I have my own index to complete, but somehow it all works out. On the rare occasion that we are just too busy to take on someone’s project, I know many ex-members who are still indexing and may be able to subcontract.
It is rare for a member who stays at Twin Oaks to retire from the Indexing Collective. On average, indexing is about 18% of a collective member’s yearly labor scene. Our indexers have varied academic backgrounds. Together, our interests span just about every topic that is published in academic works.
People interested in learning to index have always approached me; I have done little recruiting. I have begun training people who have left or decided they did not like the work, but I have yet to train someone and then had to say, ‘sorry, you’re not fit for this’. (20) Years ago, one member had personal issues with a former manager and quit. Though co (21) and I did not have the same dynamic, I later refused co back on the crew out of apprehension that there might be another dramatic blowout while the member was supposed to be working on a book.
My best indexing story is from 23 August 2011. It was shortly after lunch and I had just finished making coffee and gone back to work on an index. An hour after I had settled in to my task, the room began to shake violently and loudly. Boxes fell from shelves. My french press stuttered off the desk and smashed onto the computer on the floor. The monitor in front of me fell over. I thought, ‘this is an earthquake! Eep!’ After several seconds – that felt like minutes – the room stopped moving. My first thought was, ‘I have to save my work!’ I righted the monitor, amazed to see everything still on and okay, and quickly hit Ctrl S, but was dismayed to see the spinny blue wheel (wait/loading icon). I realized at once that I had told the computer to save my work to our internal network, and that the earthquake must have damaged the connection somewhere. I tried to cancel the save, so I could just save locally and shut the thing down and start cleaning up (papers, glass, coffee grounds, boxes, furniture, and everything else that had been on the desk was now all over the floor), but the spinny wheel was insistent and kept on trying. All of a sudden we were hit by an aftershock and my adrenaline kicked in, and I ran to the doorway.
Because my work was inaccessible for a time (IT was later able to pull an earlier draft for me), I lost days, but my author was understanding. And now I have a little script one of my indexers wrote that runs a backup save to another location every 10 seconds.
I feel lucky and grateful for the way my life is set up at Twin Oaks. Indexing is a large reason for that. While it is difficult for me to watch a clock and try to keep track of time to fill my labor sheet with the hours I’m required to do for the community, it is very easy for me to meet deadlines. I have a mental trick where I convince myself that I will run out of time at the end, so I always pack in the bulk of my work early on and wind up finishing ahead of schedule. I love that indexing affords me the freedom to work and take breaks as feels natural to me. I like keeping both our real and virtual office spaces tidy. I like catching typos. I especially love the moment when it suddenly becomes obvious how I will organize and word the entry for a particularly hairy topic. And I love hitting send on an email with a final version and invoice attached, and then stepping outside in my bare feet and going to lie in a hammock somewhere. (23)
Box 2 Why we don’t expand the business
Summer Tupelo explains why, for many years, the crew size has stayed at around five members:
‘Can we expand the indexing business?’ is a question that has been raised several times during economic planning sessions here, especially at the time that we lost our hammocks business relationship with Pier 1 in 2005. (22) Indexing’s high dollar-per-hour makes it a sexy-looking community endeavor, but there are abundant challenges to expanding this area.
1 It is highly trained work. I spend about six months in training with new collective members before they go solo. They read all the literature, we work on fake projects together, they refer to the literature again, then we work on real projects in tandem (where my work is what is actually submitted), then they work on real projects with a lot of oversight, and then they’re just about ready to go. I still expect lots of questions for the first year or two.
This level of training is worthwhile so long as the new collective member doesn’t leave within a year or so of being trained. Twin Oaks members are under no contractual obligation to stay (we are not a cult!). I imagine it is difficult for outside-world business managers to assess whom to train into skilled positions, but there you attract and retain people with raises, etc. There is little assurance that my new collective members will stay for a good long time. That’s part of the reason why everyone on the crew is a parent. Having kids here makes it dramatically more likely one will stay.
2 The work is not social. The community hammock shop was our work and social hub for a long time. It was where we gathered to talk to each other, to discuss politics, to play word games, to listen to live music, and to make our livelihood. Indexing is not a great replacement for all that.
3 The workflow is tricky to manage with the rest of one’s life here. Twin Oakers’ lives are heavily scheduled, right down to social dates. Everyone does a handful of jobs to help keep things running. Yet when an index comes in, it demands focus and attention for days, and other work must take a backseat. Some ‘other work’ is all right to leave for a while, but if you’re the manager of food processing, you can’t let all the tomatoes rot: you have to make the sauce. If you’re the farm manager, you make hay while the sun shines.
4 Working on projects in succession with a few days or a week in between books is good for honing one’s skills, and if you don’t index for a while you feel rusty. If we trained every interested member to index, we’d also need to acquire a lot more work so that everyone could work enough to keep their skills up. That would mean doing a lot more marketing, a job at which long-term Twin Oakers are notoriously poor.
All of this together has kept us at our status quo. The five of us have simultaneous projects about two or three times a year. The rest of the time, one or two people are on a minibreak, awaiting the next job, while the others index.
(From an email to Glenda Browne, 16 September 2016.)
Unless otherwise noted, photos are by Glenda Browne
(1) With contributions from Taylor Frome, Jim Farned, Velma Kahn, Do Mi Stauber, Paula Durbin-Westby, Breffni Whelan, Cameron Taylor, Jake Kawatski and Summer Tupelo, as told to Glenda Browne. Thanks to Gordon for contact details of past indexers. We also acknowledge Bill Pitt, whose foresight and generosity have made a huge difference to Twin Oaks, its members, and the wider indexing community.
(4 ) Kinkade (1994) and Sassen (2001) say 1982, but Taylor Frome, who was the first manager, thinks it was May-June 1981 (email 22 August 2016) and the Twin Oaks indexing website proclaims ‘Back of Book Indexes Since 1981’.
Kinkade, K. (1994) Is it utopia yet? An insider’s view of Twin Oaks Community in its 26th year. Louisa, Va: Twin Oaks Publishing.
Sassen, C. (2001 ) ‘The Twin Oaks Indexing Collective.’ Key Words 9 (5), Sept/Oct.
Stauber, D. M. (2004) Facing the text: content and structure in book indexing.
Eugene, Ore.: Cedar Row Press.
Glenda Browne is a freelance indexer from Australia. She learned about Twin Oaks from Do Mi Stauber, and was hosted there by Summer Tupelo in July 2016. The three of us were the key coordinators of this article. Biographical information about Summer and Do Mi is included in the article.