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Few rich men own their own property. The property owns them.

R.G. Ingersoll,* Address to the McKinley League, New York, 1896


The Church Annie was heading for looked like someone's fantasy of ancient Greece, with steps and columns facing grandly over a rather ordinary four-lane street, not far from Lucky's supermarket and Thrifty's drug store. Whoever had cobbled together the pseudo-classic build-by-numbers holier-than-thou God-is-our-heavenly-banker-and-we-are-in-control design had achieved a complete dissociation from its surroundings that in its own way was right out there with the best of the drive-in Elvis Memorial Chapels of Love in the Nevada desert. Unfortunately the construction was better than the architecture, so it would take more than a blast of trumpets to tear the monstrosity down.

The Pastor, whose taste was as finely developed as his humanitarian sensibility, had looked hopefully for signs of distress after the almost-great quake, but was now resigned to remaining at least until higher authority determined that the road's four lanes should be fruitful and multiply. He would probably have been happier with a God-in-a-Box prayers-to-go operation, especially since the congregation rarely filled a quarter of the house, but he made do.

The one major benefit of the grandiose structure was that it included all manner of useful rooms at the side and back, which housed a small pre-school by day, and were always available to community organizations by night, for a nominal fee if they could afford it. Any group that was not positively in favor of war and oppression or actively against peace and civil rights was welcome. That let out the White Aryan Resistance, for example, and arguably a number of groups whose members owned large living rooms. Turning down fascists, however, was not a problem; scheduling meetings of the elect so they didn't overlap had been, until the soft-hearted minister turned it over to his more efficient secretary. Now the evening rush put Sundays to shame.

Annie turned right at the colonnade, as per instructions, and sought a place to park. The annoying little digital clock on the dash was blinking in surprise that she was early. In its own way, this was as aggravating as its usual censorious listing of how late she was, and more by the minute young lady, see here. Her irritation, as much as her promptness, was a mark of anxiety. It wasn't every day she did something new.

She walked up the steps to and through the side door near the back, following a large man with a long blond ponytail. Smiling nervously, she called after him, "Is this where the Gulf War group is meeting?"

He turned to reveal a wispy beard that scarcely concealed an oversized baby face. The beginnings of a twitch played around the corners of his mouth.

"If you mean the PGPC, right through that door. If you want the war group, you have to go to the Pentagon."

There was a little edge to his tone. Annie couldn't tell if he was giving her a friendly smile or a sarcastic smirk but decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"Right," she said, "The anti-war group. I sort of didn't think you were in the army." The pink triangle badge on his chest was a dead give-away but she didn't feel confident enough to specify.

"Maybe I'm undercover," he said, but his amusement was becoming less aggressive as he saw her holding her own.

She shook her head, chuckling, and followed him into the room. Six tables were arranged in a U shape, with the twin stems bracketing an old blackboard, framed in wood and featuring three-letter words with a in the middle, written large – cat, mat, fat... Two men and a woman, all in their early twenties, were kidding around by the board, trying to work all the words into sentences.

"The fat rat batted the cat on the mat," offered one.

"No, no," said another, "The cat in a hat sat on the mat with the bat and the fat rat. We want to keep it peaceful."

"You want a Gandhian rat?" asked the woman incredulously. She was about half the height of the second speaker but apparently made it up in feistiness.

"Don't be species-centric," corrected her comrade. "Why do you think they put so much effort into torturing rats anyway? It's 'cause they're smart."

Right on, thought Annie, I must have come to the right place. Over by the cross-wise tables, an old bald guy was conferring with the man she had seen making the announcement on campus and writing something on a large piece of paper. People were filing in, nodding to each other and taking seats. Annie decided she had better grab one and chose one discreetly in the middle of a long side. She felt kind of isolated, with everyone else, it seemed, sharing greetings if not confidences, but there was another woman sitting quietly opposite her, fiddling with some sewing and that made her feel a little better about just waiting. The tall rat-lover slid into the seat on her right and said "Hi" in a friendly tone. He looked as though he would say more but the bald guy was noisily clearing his throat to get attention.

"Agenda items, anyone?" he called to the room.

"Shouldn't we do check-in first?" retorted the bearded blond Annie had followed in, who had settled down at the far corner.

"OK," said the first guy, "Let's do check-ins and then agenda review, OK?"

Most of the people raised their hands and twiddled their fingers. Annie was puzzled but rat-man leaned over and whispered, "That means we have consensus, we all agree." Annie nodded, mouthed "Thanks" and wiggled her fingers like the rest.

"Well, I'll start," said the guy who seemed to be in charge. "My name is Luke Gasheon and I'm a member of the Greens but I'm not authorized to represent them at this meeting. We consensed last week that we'd try to pick a facilitator at the end of each meeting, to draft an agenda, and I agreed to facilitate this meeting. I'd like to welcome everyone, especially I see some new faces..." He paused to nod at Annie and at a guy sitting a few places to her left. "And I'll try to explain as we go along. First thing we do is just go round and say who we are and maybe a little about how we're doing and so on, just briefly, and anyway I'm Luke and I'm doing pretty good tonight." He gestured to the person on his left, who was so far the only person Annie remembered having seen anywhere before.

"I'm Eric," he muttered and left it at that.

"I'm Graham." said the next guy, a slender youth with very long, very straight, very beautiful, nearly blond hair that he pushed back over his shoulders. "I just heard – someone picked it up from PeaceNet I think – anyway I heard from Phil Frank that the Pentagon just ordered 250,000 body bags. Extras. I mean, I'm sure they keep them in stock, right? Anyway I thought we all ought to know that and we should find some way of telling everyone."

"We can put it on agenda review," interrupted Luke.

"Yeah, right. Anyway I just, I'm kinda blown away by it. Check."

"I'm Sunshine," said the woman with the sewing. "And I just can't ... how do they even think about it? I don't know, every time I think about what they're doing I get so upset. I'm glad to be here, because otherwise I might just, y'know, kind of ignore what's happening, and anyway maybe we can stop it. So. It's good to see all of you again, and it's good to see a new person, and especially a woman." She looked Annie in the eye. "Hi."

"Oh no," said someone further round the table, "Not gender balance again." He was smiling, almost joking, but evidently hit a sore spot, for Sunshine bristled.

"I didn't say that," she objected.

"Process!" came the call from several people at once. "Process!"

"All right, all right," said Luke. "No dialogue, and anyway we're still on check-in."

Annie was a little confused by all the back and forth, but on balance encouraged. These people seemed to have their own rules and she figured she could always learn rules, while more importantly they seemed to be her kind of folks, more or less. There weren't enough women, that was true, and as usual in Santa Cruz the crowd was white, but at least the people were real. No suits! Another prejudice, she knew full well, but so what. She realized that, especially after finding out that they met at a church, she had half-expected and entirely feared a convocation of missionary Christians wearing trousers with turn-ups. Instead she seemed to have stumbled into a congregation of her peers, only politically more so. Certainly worth staying awake for.

The introductions rumbled on, flooding Annie with more data than she could assimilate in real time. She relaxed into it, allowing herself to be satisfied with general impressions. There seemed to be a coterie of young people, recent graduates perhaps, and then a random scattering of ages thirty to seventy, maybe more. People kept coming in until there were maybe two dozen in the room, which was getting full. Two of the arrivals stood out, a tall skinny guy with terrible teeth who refused a seat and propped himself against the window, muttering something vague about being connected with the networks and keeping the light shining, and a little girl of about two, who toddled in with an armful of toys. She was shepherded by an anxious dad, who settled them both on a couch by the back wall and greeted the company with a quiet wave.

At her own turn, she explained herself with a quiet, "Hi, I'm Annie and I don't like what's happening in the Gulf and I was on campus last Friday night and I saw, um, Eric, and I picked up a flyer about the Military Recruitment Center and I thought I'd find out what was happening." A chorus of nods and mmm's shuffled around the table and the group focus moved on, to her relief.

As the circle reached completion, the blond guy – "Patrick," he had said by way of check-in, and nothing else – raised his hand again, and gained acknowledgment.

"Vibes-watcher and time-keeper," he prompted.

Luke looked vaguely out of sorts, and Annie diagnosed a spat of male territoriality. Piss on my turf, would you? She was somewhat amused by this, her frustration at its absurdity balanced by a sort of relief that she hadn't left the familiar world of conflict. Patrick's next move, however, did surprise her.

"I'm sorry, Luke," he said, clearly breaking the rules by not waiting to be called on and yet trying to mend them at the same time. "I should let you facilitate at your own speed. I call the vibes against myself."

There was certainly something ritualistic about the apology, especially its wording, yet its sincerity was obvious. Somehow its contradictions seemed to encapsulate the atmosphere.

Annie spent the meeting switching between modes of passive participation. She didn't contribute, in the sense of speaking and making suggestions, although quietly sympathetic listeners are valuable in any meeting, but she split her time between focusing on the subject at hand and on the type of group it was. And then she backed off from the present in an unquenchable attempt to integrate the experience. Foolish, of course – insufficient data – but she would, wouldn't she.

Patrick did intrigue her, and for good reasons that she wasn't yet ready to probe. He was obviously management material to the bone, quick and incisive, with the kind of intelligence that could extract the nub of a suggestion and recast it to include the gist of other ideas. Luke was the nominal facilitator but it seemed that Patrick was running the meeting, letting topics drift by without comment if he simply agreed, and effectively blocking decisions when they didn't naturally go the way he wanted. Some of the time there was a passive-aggressive cast to his behavior, as though he would pout for what he wanted even if he refused to fight; sometimes he would drift away, his eyes roaming the ceiling and his face turning slack. Just when he was about to look like a first-class jerk, however, he would snap back to attention and present a cogent plan, a timetable for the action a week from Thursday, for example, that was close enough to satisfying everyone's demands that a trivial compromise would settle it. The only question that remained was, did he consciously include the deliberate mistake, or was it left in the plan out of some genius for management by committee that even he was not aware of? Only his creator knew for sure.

There is nothing wrong with management skills per se (let us postulate), but they sometimes seem odd when exercised in the trappings of the dearly beloved (and nowhere near as dead as some would have us believe) counter-culture. And that's where Patrick was such a gorgeous manifestation of contradiction. It wasn't just looks: Long-haired redneck dopers long ago made the transition from paradox to cliché and did it quicker than Duane Allman and Dickie Betts could consummate a solo, while the tie-dyed family of the Grateful Dead developed an efficient multi-million dollar marketing division that won the ungrudging respect of many a Brooks Brother. Certain kinds of straight style were certainly incompatible with radical society, principally uncomfortable ones from high heels to stiff collars, but no kind of bent clothing disqualified anyone from straight thinking.

What Patrick had was a case, in fact a truckload, of fully internalized PC instincts. He believed, Oh Lord, he truly believed, in consensus process, in the value of equality, and in the danger of trusting in leaders.

Patrick the anarchist leader.

Every time he saw that headline rising in his brain he cringed and shrank into his considerable shell. And every time he saw something ludicrously incompetent developing that surely he could fix, the urge arose to plunge right in. Since, like Oscar, he could resist everything except temptation, plunge he often did, only to bring himself up short and gasping in the awful realization that he was leading again.

Paradox as paradigm, and what the hell is wrong with that?

Annie worked out something close to this a little later, but she sat through the meeting in a general aura of comfort. The disagreements were muted – that they agreed on a vibes watcher was an excellent start to not needing one – and sharpest on the most trivial of issues. There was a boring and argumentative passage not long before the end, when they were discussing the name of the group. In rock'n'roll terms, this was the drum solo of the performance, the definitive proof that, as Robert Christgau once wrote, it's not hard to rock out in 9/8 time – it's impossible. No-one seriously interested in that kind of bureaucratic debate was qualified by political inclination to take part in it. No wonder it dragged on.

"We're not a coalition because we're just here as individuals, not representing organizations."

"That's what I like about it."

"There isn't any Persia anyway, that's just a colonialist imposition."

"It's geographic, not political."

"I think we're a committee."

"A nonviolent committee."

"Let's make it the Persian Gulf Peace Group, then we can be the pee gee squared."

"Group is not an 'in' word. I will not be associated with a group."

"I'm tired of those words like 'nonviolent'; how about 'harmonious'?"

"Look, I'm for all this stuff and so on, but 'harmonious' means we're getting near the compost end of natural."

This brought a longed-for laugh that defused the discussion and let Luke finally table the discussion till next meeting (again).

Announcements followed, many and varied, highlighted by a blizzard of fuzzy photocopies and an unstoppable ramble from the lamppost guy with the dodgy incisors that was accepted in good part, evidently as a payback for his complete silence during the rest of the meeting. That led to check-out, another go around the table, largely devoted to mutual politeness and thanks to the facilitator but occasionally interspersed with thought.

"You know," said the guy on Annie's right, "I really enjoy spending this time with all of you. I'm glad we come together to try to do something about, well, George's war and all that but mostly it's the coming together that I like and I think it's even more significant than the doing. What we're doing with ourselves is actually more important in the long run than what we're trying to do out there. We're learning to respect each other and our differences and our agreements and that gives me a really good feeling. Thanks."

Annie had nothing to add, but plenty to take away.

*Perhaps alluding to this comment by Robert Burton, in The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621–1651: [The rich] are indeed rather possessed by their money than possessors.