SEATTLE - David Docter and his neighbor on Seattle's Capitol Hill share a lawn mower and a pressure washer.
"Why should we have two pressure washers when I use it twice a year and he uses it twice a year?" asks Docter, who applies similar logic to the mower and to an Oregon Coast cabin he and his wife, Alicia, share with a dozen other families.
Two decades ago, when they bought into the cabin, it would have been tough to afford alone. Now, each family gets to use it several weeks a year for minimal expense.
These sharing arrangements are small steps. But through them, each family has lightened its environmental footprint, freed up cash and fix-it time, and found confidence in cooperation.
Which leads to a logical question: If sharing stuff is so environmentally and economically sensible, why don't more people do it? Why are our roads choked with cars that sit in parking lots most of the day? Why do so many of us have hedge trimmers languishing and taking up space in our garages? Why are huge RVs parked in driveways and boats sitting in slips for 50 weeks at a time?
Because sharing is scary.
Ask anybody. Just randomly. I did.
Me to Younger Colleague: So, would you share your car with a friend?
YC: No way! What if they wrecked it? What if they hurt someone? Even if that never happened, there would have to be a lot of discussions. Maybe even some legal agreements. It sounds really complicated. I don't even like to share a vacation with someone. I just like to go where I want to go.
Me to Close Personal Friend: What do you think about (someone) suggesting that the two of you buy a boat together?
CPF: Oh, I know what would happen when something broke. I'd end up being the one fixing it. (Never mind that CPF likes fixing things, particularly boaty things.) And we could never agree on where to moor it. Naw, it would never work.
Those conversations get even stickier when you're talking about emotionally charged, personal, precious stuff. Heirloom jewelry. A wedding dress. Homes. Pets. Even kids.
And, hey, if you think sharing a string of pearls is tough, how about sharing a "spare" body part, such as your kidney?
There's a reason why Nolo Press' recent book, "The Sharing Solution: How to Save Money, Simplify Your Life & Build Community," includes "agreements and forms." Long chapters discuss such issues as responsibilities and conflict resolution.
Both the book's co-authors, Berkeley, Calif., attorneys and mediators Janelle Orsi and Emily Doskow, participate in sharing arrangements and know how the best intentions can unravel.
People interested in sharing often ask: "What if something bad happens?" says Doskow.
They ask about liability. But when she talks to them a little more, she often discovers that they're really worried about communication. Disagreement. Conflicts.
"We've probably lost our skills of being able to cooperate with other people," she says, because society has encouraged us to be really "independent" - i.e., have our own everything.
Not coincidentally, that's been good for business. But for individuals, Orsi says: "It's put a huge economic burden on everyone to earn enough money to sustain that lifestyle," isolated us from each other, and started a lot of people wondering what it's doing to the planet to continually extract resources to make more and more things.
As the recession prompts questions about a consumption-driven economy, many see sharing as more relevant than ever - a way to build community and connection, even a safety net for tough times.
But how do you do it?
Sometimes, sharing just seems effortless, logical, efficient and all-around helpful. City-dwellers with fruit trees and no time to pick end up with yellowjackets. Neighbors who sign up with CityFruit help harvest and supply food banks.
Wanna-be gardeners with nowhere to dig sign up with Urban Garden Share, as do people with unplanted ground.
Kate Pflaumer and Tracy Madole, two lawyers who have known one another for 30 years and live about 10 minutes apart, each wanted a dog - actually, about half a dog. Pflaumer works part-time from home but travels; Madole lives in a houseboat where full-time dogs are not allowed. Pflaumer wanted a non-shedder, and Madole wanted assistance with duck hunting. Bingo: A lab-poodle mix known as a Labradoodle, now christened Ghillie the Much Admired.
Horse lovers have been doing the sharing thing, often known as "care lease," for a long while. It's a way for both sides to defray costs that range from expensive to wildly, unaffordably expensive. In the recession, it's become even more popular.
Susan Gerde's Carnation, Wash., family has been on both ends of the deal. Recently, their friendly, miniature horse, Phantom, went to live with the Bergevin family in Kirkland, Wash. The Bergevins are assuming all Phantom's expenses in exchange for the tiny one's presence, an obvious delight - and learning opportunity - for their 10-year-old daughter, Joy.
Earlier, it was Gerde's daughter, Kaela, who was delighted when the family shared a pony with owner Kelsey King. At first it was just about sharing love for a pony, Gerde says, but it soon grew beyond a contract. "We forged a family friendship that has lasted for years."
Now, as 14-year-old Kaela helps Joy learn about Phantom, the families see the cycle continue. "The kids have learned so much about life," says Gerde. "I wouldn't change a thing."
Sharing seems to foster community. Or maybe it's community that fosters sharing.
It's a chicken-and-egg thing, and let's just say this story features both chickens and eggs.
Sara Eaton, an Eastside Seattle counselor who grew up in a communal setting in Alaska where families pooled resources, says when you borrow and return things, there's a "gratitude that helps develop a sense of community and breaks down isolation."
Docter says his neighbors in Seattle's North Capitol Hill, most of whom have lived there for many years, share all sorts of things. They look after each others' pets, share dinner several times a year and borrow tools. Knowing one another has fostered trust. When the power-washer broke, he and his neighbor bought another - together. No arguments about on whose watch it broke or who should pay.
At the Phinney Neighborhood Association, Michael Broili, who runs the Well Home Program and the tool-sharing library, says his predecessor focused on building community. So when "Bob" came looking for a saw, the director would say, "John has that; go find John."
You guessed it: Bob got the saw from John, then Frank got it from Bob, Jane got it from Frank, and pretty soon they all knew each other - great from a community-building perspective. But back at the tool library, nobody knew where the tools were or when they'd return.
Are such arrangements sharing or renting? And does it matter?
It's true that those who have flocked to car-sharing company Zipcar, which has seen a 70 percent increase in membership since the recession began, are mostly strangers.
Even so, as an economic model, they're on the same continuum, argues Ted Klastorin, a University of Washington business-school professor, who shares the pressure-washer and lawnmower with Docter. If you're sharing a car, even with strangers, you're using fewer resources and realizing that you don't need to own to use.
People who share often begin with that lightbulb moment: "Hey, I don't need a full-time (horse, car, job). Or: "I have more of these, those, that, than I can use."
But what about more competitive arenas - medical research or hospitals, say? Or really hard-to-get items such as body parts?
Dr. Greg Foltz, director of the Center for Advanced Brain Tumor Treatment at the Swedish Neuroscience Institute, has offered to map the genes from patients' brain tumors for other doctors - including those from competing medical centers - because he sees it as a win-win. They get information to help tailor treatment; he gets more research material.
For this relatively rare disease, competition will never produce a cure, he says. "It will only come from cooperation."
Institute codirector Dr. Marc Mayberg says he's specifically hired those amenable to collaboration. Now, surgeons, acupuncturists, physical therapists and others work as a team to evaluate and treat back-pain patients, for example. Group incentives and revenue sharing remove financial penalties for passing along a patient to another provider, he says, and both patients and providers benefit.
Another collaborative project, a "telestroke" program, teleconferences small community hospitals with Swedish stroke experts to quickly identify patients who need time-sensitive medications.
Such deals are more complex than neighbors sharing tools, but Mayberg says there's no reason why many hospitals can't share a specialist such as a neurologist. "We're figuring out the best ways to do that."
Together at lunch, they are obviously enjoying one another's company - and both a little in awe of the other.
"He is so smart, bordering on brilliant, a good citizen, a great dad," Denis says.
Danieli, now 40, recalls how, on dialysis, he became an exhausted "shell of a person." Then, out of the blue, a woman steps up to share a precious organ, filling him with life.
Denis' spirituality, generosity and "level-headed" altruism still humble Danieli. "To donate to a complete stranger never even crossed my mind."
If Sara Denis sailed into the Bermuda Triangle of sharing, members of Seattle's most famous commune, the Love Israel Family, charted a course right into the eye of the hurricane.
Following a faith view developed in the 1960s by the family's charismatic founder, Love Israel, family members shared everything - everything. "One-ness is the core understanding," explained longtime family spokesman Serious Israel.
Though plenty of intimate criss-crossing took place, "our own psyches were not magnanimous enough to withstand the attacks of jealousies and comparisons and possessiveness and all the little horned attitudes. ... We didn't have the emotional maturity to manifest those higher ideals," says Serious, one of a dozen remaining family members.
"Interestingly, we ended up concluding that at least for now, one man and one woman works best."
Each of us has a thermostat for how much we can share, says Anne Lucas, a Seattle therapist and collaborative divorce coach.
Not terribly surprising that most people can't share lovers. But they can invest even insignificant objects with great symbolic value, she says, recalling a seemingly amicable divorcing couple who came unglued over an inexpensive key holder.
Even expert Orsi found one of her sharing arrangements coming apart after a miscommunication resulted in two households believing they'd reserved the same space and time for different events. "I was just angry beyond comprehension," she says.
An honest discussion, with real listening, helped both sides see the other's view, she says. "It went from me feeling like I'll never forgive them to feeling more trust toward them."
The Nolo authors caution would-be sharers to ask plenty of questions ahead of time, working out ownership, responsibilities, privileges and rules. Car-sharing in one "intentional community" failed, for example, because without individual ownership, nobody felt obliged to care for the car.
It's not just about talk, Orsi says, but about understanding others' feelings, the underlying meaning, the nuances.
Society pressures everyone to be independent and self-sufficient - an illusion, Orsi says, because we are all globally interdependent.
Maybe it takes living in a different culture to see that clearly. The Rev. Dave Anderson, alumni chaplain at Seattle University, lived among the Yupik native Alaskans for eight years, where bounty was always shared. "For them, being stingy or selfish are the worst traits a person can have," he says. "Everything is about 'we,' not 'me."'
Maybe we're realizing that we, too, are "we," and not "me" - connected, like it or not. If so, perhaps we need to change bumper stickers from "He who dies with the most toys wins," to "Share your toys."
Why? Because it builds relationships, says Denis, and brings us "closer together as a collective group." Personally, she simply wanted a "deeper connection to life and people around us."
It's what everyone really wants, she's convinced. "I believe being grateful and sharing the things we have is the key to a happy and fulfilling life."