A Pig, a Photo, Grapes, and Our Life’s Purpose

Hi there friends,

I had the most Switchboard-y weekend this week. Allow me to share? It’s kind of epic. 

Did you know there is a Switchboard for Portland farmers to connect with customers wanting to buy locally raised sustainable meat? There is! The Portland Meat Collective Switchboard was started by Camas Davis, a force of nature.

Back in September, William posted an Ask for a Pig.

He was immediately contacted by farmers and ended up going with one he found from Payne Family Farms in Carlton, OR. And then William did what we hope every Asker will do on Switchboard: he posted a success:

These successes make us inexpressibly happy at Switchboard Headquarters. So happy, in fact, that I Tweeted about it:

In response, William invited me to the grand display of his success: a pig roast to celebrate his family’s housewarming (and, unofficially, 30th birthday). How could I refuse? 

I was greeted by their cat, Dante. This happened to be the last sunny day in Portland. Dante found a good way to spend it: 

I met Wiliam’s dad, Daniel, who has roasted about a dozen pigs. He started out by doing pig roasts for his church and his town’s non-profits.

I asked Daniel why pig roasts build community so well. “People are fascinated,” he said. “It gets back to something pretty basic. It’s primal.” This is how we’ve been gathering together for years. Around a fire, with an animal, eating with our hands. All that’s changed is that we use rubber gloves and mops a basters.

The six hours of slow roasting paid off. It was delicious.

Also: there was homemade pie—blueberry, pumpkin, and apple—courtesy of Rosanna.

It’s a glorious fall day, I’m milling around with a multigenerational bunch of friends and neighbors and who do I run into but Ethan Rafal.

Backstory: one of the reasons we started Switchboard at Reed was very much because, if you can believe it, there was no place for students and alumni to post about their Kickstarter campaigns and ask for the community’s support. One of the earliest such campaigns was Ethan’s 2012 photography project documenting post 9/11 war and homeland decay called Shock and Awe (book out this fall!). This was that post, one of the first Kickstarter Asks.

We pledged to fund every Kickstarter campaign. A few months after it ended I got this photo in the mail (of Ethan’s grandmother) which now hangs in my office. I’d never met Ethan, but seeing how Switchboard could be used to support a community I care about, manifest in this photo, was a daily inspiration.

And then there he was, in William’s back yard in his snazzy pink converse. Both of our eyes lit up. “I know you!” And that’s what it felt like. I knew him, despite never meeting him in person. He’s been one of our best supporters on Switchboard, always reaching out to Reedies in the Bay asking for housing or opportunities in the arts.

It happened that earlier this week there was this other ridiculously great post on Reed Switchboard from a faculty member, Sarah. She had a bumper crop of grapes in her back yard and posted this Offer for Grapes. And conveniently, she lived not far from the pig roast. 

I asked Ethan and a few other folks if they wanted to go on an adventure and off we went. Sarah was out of town but here was her big-hearted text. Imagine a world where people open up their back yards to one another to share fruit (as I learned, that already happens in Portland, naturally): 

We resorted to crazy tactics to get at the bounty:

I brought my portion of grapes into work. And then I logged a success (as did Martha, from our team):

The sun was setting, we were covered in concord grape juice in clothes saturated with meat smoke and remnants of whipped cream on our chins. It was Dionysian.

Ethan gave me $2.50 for bus fare and that was the only time money changed hands that day.

Last week I spoke at a panel on the sharing economy. I was on stage with with an employee of AirBnB. I felt a bit out of place. Long before AirBnB there were independent bed and breakfasts across the country. My mom ran one out of my childhood home. And although we’d receive notes in the guest book along the lines of, “Thank you for sharing your home,” for my mom it was, “Thank you for sharing your money. We we can now pay our mortgage.” She never continued a relationship with a single guest.

It seems there are transactional economies with monetary exchange, and there’s sharing (full stop), an economy of gift giving built from the simple, primal, inexhaustible, currency-free activities of communities giving, receiving, and reciprocating. In my mind, there is a gulf that separates the two. It perplexes me that we lack the discernment to recognize the difference. As Lewis Hyde put it, “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establish a feeling-bond between two people, while the sale of a commodity leaves no necessary connection…a gift makes a connection.”

We at Switchboard are often asked what our product “does.” “What’s the value proposition? What would people have to share? How is this different from a Facebook group?” This question is one of the hardest to answer. What it “does” is a reflection of the hearts of the people who use it, and the connections they make there. A web is formed from Camas to William to the Payne family to Rosanna to Daniel to Dante to Ethan to Ethan’s grandmother to Sarah to my fellow grape pickers to Martha to me. I’m not Facebook friends with a single one of these people, nor have I the desire to be. These types of webs aren’t built or maintained there. This web is different. It was built by kindness, generosity, and grace, and constructed within the practically invisible doorframe of Switchboard. The value proposition of this doorframe is our belief that sharing and receiving these necessary gifts is our reason for being alive.