Sunday, August 07, 2005

The grinch family visits the commune

Last night we went to hang out a co-housing community where a former co-worker of Epu's lives with his wife and daughter. We had never heard of co-housing and found it to be fascinating and freaky at the same time, and I thought, somebody should write an article about this. Then in this morning's Chronicle Magazine, lo and behold.
Basically it was an apartment/townhouse complex with an intensively communal neighborhood association. Things we liked: There was a "common house" with a fun kids room, a rec room for parties, a restaurant-grade kitchen, and -- get this -- two guest bedrooms with baths upstairs for visitors. Your dues include several weeks' worth of use of the guest rooms per year. There was also a craft room and a pool and hot tub. And apparently they have some kind of childcare or kids' classes.
But it went beyond all that. Epu's friend had sent out an email saying he reserved the rec room for this game night, and that we would all chip in for pizza. But when we got there, besides friends, there were also a bunch of kids from the complex and a couple of parents playing a game, and a boy attacking the bags of cookies someone had brought.
Turns out Epu's friend had opened the invitation to the entire cohousing community, which means that our pizza was paid for by the recreation committee, even though only a handful of people from the community actually came. Over a game of Scrabble, I learned that one of the moms I was playing with had recently given a talk on astrophysics here in the common room, to the delight of residents. And, I learned, they cooked communal meals in this room twice a week.
"It's an intentional community where you expect to have a relationship with your neighbors," Epu's friend's wife told me. It's like a retirement community for all ages, I remarked to Epu later.
On the way home, Epu and I talked about how it was all a good idea, but that neither of us could possibly survive in such a set up. Funny, if I went to a two-week camp or writer's retreat where everything was set up like this, I would probably totally bond with the residents and have a wonderful time. Or even if the shared facilities were a club down the road from my house.
But live here? Oh no. We need our privacy, and, even more importantly, we need the freedom to avoid people we don't like. Because in a community of say, 25 families, what percent do you think is going to be likeable? Maybe 30%? The way I see it, you can't choose your co-workers, so at work you have to establish cordial relationships with a lot of people who you would not choose to socialize with. Then, on Friday night, you can go out with your friends and make fun of them over a few beers, and forget about them all weekend. Living in a place like this, you'd have to maintain those cordial relationships almost all the time.
But hey, for nicer people than us, who actually like other people, great idea, cohousing. I totally approve.

After we got home, put the sleeping Nut in her crib and settled on the couch for a little snuggly reading at around 10:30, my cell phone rang. It was Bert, stuck in Redwood City at her ex's house after her car broke down (she had just given him a ride home from the airport). I changed out of my shorts (suburbs were hot, city coooold) and drove half an hour to get her, took her to her apartment across town from us, and arrived home at midnight.
As I climbed into bed with my sound asleep husband (what, you thought he would wait up?) I thought about my own network of friends, patched together with the chewed-up gum of mutual experience, sense of humor and circumstance. I imagined having to take an hour-plus round trip for someone in my co-housing complex, just because of a credo of mutual assistance. Well, it would be nice to have people to fall back on like that in this era where we live so far from our flesh and blood families. But the thing is, half an hour of chatting in the dark car with Bert was pleasant enough to make the whole trip not so bad, because -- despite the tangled path we took to friendship -- we picked each other. There is no assigned seating in life.


Raines said...

Thanks for your perspective. In my experience living in two cohousing communities, the secret is: You don't have to love all of your neighbors, just like enough of them to get along. Some people I see, others I seek out, others I avoid. The physical design makes it harder to avoid people, so it makes it worth it to actually (gasp) talk to them and get to the root of what's getting in the way of communicating -- and the group provides support and training to help you do exactly that, effectively, to get beyond hurtful words or seemingly thoughtless actions and get an appreciation and understanding of what's really intended. I've never felt obligated to drive anyone an hour or anything, but I've been blessed with the opportunity to spend quality time with neighbors young and old and enrich my life by exposure to theirs.

boardmember, Cohousing Association of the United States (Coho/US)

P.S. Which community did you visit?

Raines said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Carrie said...

Whoah. If I had imagined any cohousing residents were reading, I probably would have been more circumspect in my comments. I agree -- talking to people I don't like at first would be much better than avoiding them or making fun of them on the Internet. It would just wear me out to do so, though. Heck, it wears me out to spend too much time with people I do like.
Can I ask how you happened to come across this blog entry?

mike said...

Thanks. After reading your post, I now want to live in a co-housing community, and Kori hates my guts.

There's a co-housing community just south of us in Woodlawn, btw.

Bert said...

You just made me cry, Girlfriend. I just posted a thing on my blog, not even 10 minutes ago, about our friendship. I accidentally got all smooshy. Then, I wondered what was up in your blog, and I read this. Great minds, you know... Thank you for coming to get me. Thank you for chatting for a half hour in the dark. Thank you for being one of my very best non-assigned seating friends. Big, fat, bear hugs to you. :)

Raines said...

re: how I happened to come across your blog entry: I found it because I have Technorati and other automatic searches set up to alert me whenever anybody in the world even mumbles the word "cohousing". ;-) Seriously, the saved searches are helpful for finding new perspectives like yours and weaving them into the threads of other conversations, it's all too easy to get into the rah-rah-isn't-this-great-for-everybody mode and it's great to get a real-world outside perspective like yours. So, don't mind me, please don't hold back, that's the only way we'll ever improve, individually or collectively, by incorporating the wisdom of those with fresh eyes.

re: "it would wear me out"
One of my neighbors (from another community) intentionally minimizes his community participation. He's a self-proclaimed introvert (living in cohousing because his wife dragged him into it, allegedly), and he says that work and home take up all his social energy so that adding another sphere of interaction is more than he can handle. But because he does participate enough to sometimes come to dinners, he happened to share a table with a friend of mine recently, who turns out to have worked at the same place he does, and they had long conversation about the place and the people. Yes, sometimes it's more work, but the rewards can be surprising and delightful.