On my father’s side I am saturated with the idea of cooperatives, an ideology he acquired as a component of what was his religious position: prairie progressive humanism. Devised as a way of surviving poverty and the strangulation of corporate railroads and elevators, rural co-ops made life possible, though it was a lot of work to attend the necessary meetings in grange halls to work through all the issues of goals and strategies. In fact, it is probably this difficulty -- plus today’s prosperity mostly supported by government subsidies -- that eventually withered most ag co-ops away. The last one in Valier sold out a year or so ago. Of course, the town itself is more or less a cooperative, though some people want to sell the water system to a corporation.
My most favorite co-op is the Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Hyde Park where you might have run into Obama once. Not now. I still maintain my membership which I began in 1978 so I’m now officially a thirty year member. I get 10% off purchases, which just about covers the shipping. What I need is an equivalent for used and remaindered books, which are mostly what I buy, but I can find them at Powell's which used to be in Hyde Park. These bookstores work because they are run by wonky geeky idealists. I love ‘em: I mean both bookstores and idealists.
The deepest I got into communal stuff was the Portland Scribe where I was the theatre critic for a year, attending the weekly meetings where a volunteer editor presided over an unruly circle of people sitting on the floor in an old church. Of course, I was the Animal Control Officer for SE Portland, which was where many of the hippies lived in old houses in the San Francisco manner, though the houses weren’t nearly so elegant. All day long I knocked on doors, earnestly trying to get rebellious counter-culturists to do the right thing about their dogs. They’d say, “Dogs are supposed to be FREE, man!”
But the most nearly I came to really joining the counterculture was when a highly intellectual young man in steel-rimmed spectacles worked for us at Scriver Studio a few days in the Sixties and seriously suggested that I just go with him to Stanford. The attraction was mutual and instant. I turned him down. Might’ve been the wrong move, but I wasn’t finished with Browning by a long shot. Still am not.
What works against the hippie/commune/counterculture magnet is from my mother’s side of the family, esp. her fiery Irish-Prot father who demanded respect with that imprudent, raging attitude of someone who knows he isn’t getting any respect. He longed for sons, then adopted the defensive attitude (he had a LOT of attitudes) that his four girls could do anything sons could do. Their reaction was to pose in bib-overalls, boots and old hats -- their long curls cascading over their shoulders. In the end, after watching her mother die slowly of cancer, my mother fixed on respectability in a more low-key dependable way as an elementary school teacher and then librarian. (Barrus’ mother also was a librarian. Neither of our mothers was the kind who had a degree in library science. They lugged books around.) My mother wanted security and though she was brave in some ways, she never got up the courage to move out of her original bridal house.
Except that at one point she thought the two of us should buy a duplex and each live on her own side. I didn’t even want to stay in Portland, much less where my mother could monitor me. She was very angry when I left for seminary in Chicago and stayed disapproving even after I appeared to be doing fine as a minister. “Why can’t you just marry a nice Presbyterian minister?” she asked.
So, caught between prudence and risk, being co-opted and being co-operative, I’ve ended up solitary, which is not the same as lonely because I’m so busy and so connected to virtual community through the Internet. Not Face Book or You Tube or even Twitter, but just on-going relationship with various communities, the most unlikely of them entirely guys, many of them young, and one of them only ten years younger than me, a survivor of full-frontal, deep-dish, all-the-way communalism. I’m there, but I’m not there, which suits both sides of the arrangement. None of us has much to lose. Of course I mean Cinematheque.
I take Barrus to be a combination of his mother and father, the same as myself. What choice do we have? His father’s ability to use tools, to work hard, to be a good foreman -- his mother’s gifts as master gardener and librarian -- all survives in their son. Even the rage -- though verbal and aimed mostly at exasperating people in publishing or cyberpredators. Taking three “puppies” with suicidal tendencies on a sudden pilgrimage to Bolivia to stabilize Barrus’ daughter and her family in the midst of street demonstrations was his father Maynard’s kind of thing to do, defying danger while protecting from it. “You kids feel like dying? I’ll show you what dying is really like! If you’re going to die, do it FOR something!” The only way to tell whether it was a good thing to do is to keep those pups alive until they are thirty, then ask them. Works for me. In the meantime Barrus’ daughter and her family stayed safe, didn’t run.
All this is so romantic, so unlike the lives of most Americans, that there is a contingent who insist Barrus making it all up. Maybe. I read the articles of William Langewische in Vanity Fair, which are just as out on the edge, but no one says he’s making it up. Of course, he’s a journalist and making it up would be breaking the rules. But Barrus is beholden to no one. Even if they were BOTH making it up, they explore ways to live that aren’t just a matter of trying to make enough money to keep your house.
Incidentally, maybe the solution to the big empty foreclosed McMansions is to make them into hippie communes for artists. No government processing or interference -- just let it happen. Might happen anyway. An ecological niche always gets filled one way or another.