Friday, October 30, 2009

Avoiding Halloween Sugar-Overload

It is the day before Halloween, and our family persists in charging out into the night to demand candy from strangers. As a child, this was one of my favorite traditions, and I am sad to see how few children are allowed to carry it on. There is such a culture of fear in our country that people take their kids to the mall during the day to collect candy. How does that compare to striking out into a spooky Autumn night, trees and leaves rustling in the wind, venturing up to one door after another, never knowing who will answer? But, some unfounded rumors of razors embedded in apples, and an increasing mistrust of our neighbors, has changed all of that.

Many of my parent friends don't send their kids out simply because the sugar overload is an experience they dread. My daughter reacts strongly to sugar also, but I feel like it is a once-a-year indulgence, and I can deal with it. However, here is one technique we use to create a compromise:

We used to allow Anouk to keep something like 10 pieces of candy, and we traded the rest for a new toy (something she has been wanting, purchased ahead of time to make it easy to give up the candy.) Last year, she was five, so we made the arrangement a bit more sophisticated. We decided we were willing to offer her up to $20, and she had collected around 25 pieces of candy. We said we would give her a dollar for each piece she gave up, and would take her to her favorite toy store to spend it. Initially, she traded for $15, keeping 10 pieces of candy. At the store, the toy she wanted cost $18, so she gave up three more pieces of candy.

One thing to keep in mind is to follow through on the arrangement as soon as possible. Immediate gratification is key for kids and negotiation. Also, as she grows, she will get faster and more efficient at collecting candy, and we won't be able to offer as much money per piece. We will have to stay flexible and change the arrangement as she grows. Eventually, she may just stick with the candy.

As a kid, I stayed out late trick or treating, collecting bag after bag of candy. I made that candy last until Easter. Each kid is different, but so far, we are all satisfied with this method, and Anouk learns a little lesson in value and commerce.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jizo Bodhisattva Mosaic

Yesterday, I managed to get to a small business conference in East Olympia by the skin of my teeth. I dropped my daughter off at school and drove about 40 miles to the area that I expected to find the conference, based on the address. I got lost for a long time, but finally arrived about an hour and a half late. Enterprise for Equity, an organization that helps low income people start businesses (I went through their program 3 years ago) made it possible for me to attend by paying most of the fee. And my friend Tara offered to pick Anouk up from school in the afternoon so that I could stay for the whole program.

It was nice to put on clothes that weren't covered in adhesive and to venture out into the world. It felt validating to present myself as a business owner, a professional in my field. I was reminded of many key principles that I tend to ignore, like the importance of factoring profit into my pricing and tracking cash flow.

The last seminar of the day focused on using social media to promote business, and the speaker (Dave Bryant) discussed the use of networking sites and blogs to get attention. He said, "Every business should have a blog." Now, I have been posting on my blog, but I rarely address my work here. I do online networking with my mosaic colleagues and I post updates on my Facebook business page, but I will make more of an effort to write about my life as a working artist on this blog.

In August, I completed a new mosaic panel featuring the image of Jizo Bodhisattva. I have felt drawn to this symbol for about seven years now, but this is my first attempt to create it in mosaic. As a background for the story, I had moved from Seattle, where I had been a dancer in a troupe for about six years prior. Now, I was living a couple of hours drive from my friends, way out here in the sticks, and I was pregnant. One of the other dancers had a baby, and the baby had a heart condition. She underwent surgery, which seemed to be a success at first. But, she suddenly passed away, and when I heard this news, I was heartbroken. I spent a lot of time grieving by myself, for the sweet little 11-month old girl I had held and played with a few months earlier, and for my friend's unfathomable loss.

At the same time, it hit me that the baby growing inside of me was also a vulnerable little being, and how I was already changing, becoming fiercely attached to this child in a way that I had never felt about anything. I realized that, if anything this terrible happened to my baby, my life would be shattered.

During this time, I discovered the Jizo image, and it resonated strongly for me. Jizo is protector of women and children, guiding the passage between life and death, and he is a special symbol for parents who have lost children. I began painting Jizo images, wanting to manifest that sense of protection and peace. I framed one and gave it to my grieving friend, though I don't know if it offered any kind of solace for her. When my daughter was born, we planted her placenta with a Japanese Maple and placed a Jizo statue next to it.

Since then, I have loved the Jizo symbol. It is a simple image, conveying a serenity and acceptance that I aspire to. Finally, when I had some time to work on my own art (not commissioned), I made this piece. It is done onto a salvaged cupboard door using reclaimed stained glass. The skin tone is created with a really amazing glass that has an opalescence that you can really only see in person. The red attire is also opalescent. The simplicity and bright colors remind me of childhood innocence, while Jizo himself possesses a deep wisdom and calm.

Recently, a friend commented that she was surprised I would sell one of my mosaics that commemorates an experience from my travels. And it is true that it can be difficult to hand over a piece in which I am emotionally invested. At the same time, I feel unfulfilled if I only create decorative work. Most of my mosaics come from a very personal experience, and if I kept them all, I would not be in business. I do love when they are sold to friends, or customers with whom I keep in touch. I like seeing them again on occasion, or at least knowing who has them. I do have a hard time selling in galleries, where I am sent a check with no personal connection to the buyer. When someone buys my work, they take home a little part of me. (Literally- a good bit of my blood is embedded in each mosaic.)

So, now you know.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Killing wild vs. domestic animals

Well, Autumn is in its full glory here in the Pacific N.W. One of my windows is glowing with gold from the leaves of Maples growing up from a ravine that runs behind our house. To the right, a large pasture stretches back to an evergreen forest that connects to the Black Hills, a low mountain range that I cannot see right now because mist rises up into low clouds. Shadowy silhouettes of trees fade into a gray background.

Every now and then, a truck or S.U.V. passes, and I see a flash of telltale neon orange in the cab. I hear occasional gunshots throughout the day, mostly echoing in the distance, but sometimes alarmingly close. The Porter Tavern, a small saloon that has been in business for something like 100 years here in our little town, has a large banner outside that says, "Welcome Hunters!" Every year at this time, I find myself revisiting my thoughts on the practice of hunting.

I grew up in the Northern Lower Peninsula of Michigan, a stone's throw from Ted Nugent. Hunting was a big part of the culture, so every Fall there were trucks driving around with deer carcasses in the back or cars with them strapped to the top, and it was common for antlers to be mounted to the grill. It seems like someone I knew got shot every year - one fatally, by his best friend. We dressed our dogs in bright colors in the Fall, making sure our Great Dane was covered in neon so he wouldn't be mistaken for a deer.

My uncle Bernie, one of the nicest guys you could meet, has always been a hunter. I loved visiting my cousins, but hated having to pass by the gutted deer hanging in the garage. I did, however, enjoy the venison they served that time of year, despite never being a big meat-eater.

In my early 20s, I lived in an army tent in a rural area not far from here, and when hunting season arrived, it was very scary. Hunters would drive out and park on our road, and just sit there in the cab and wait with their gun at the ready. When they left, there would be a pile of fast food packaging and alchohol containers left on the ground. When hunters describe this as a "sport", this is the image that comes to mind for me.

As a young woman, I became a quiet, but dogmatic, liberal. Becoming mostly vegetarian was no real sacrifice for me, as I had never cared for red meat at all. (Besides which, I was anorexic.) My social political opinions became more defined, and I was definitely against the barbaric practice of hunting.

Here I am at the very tail-end of my 30s, and I now eat poultry and fish, and occasional local buffalo. I try to eat only animals raised humanely, allowed to free-range and fed a natural diet. In fact, almost all of the meat we consume was raised on our land. I have always believed we should only eat animals if we can face the reality of its life and death. It continues to be a challenge for me. I have every respect for vegetarians, though I think meat has health benefits that are essential for many consitutions, and I black out less often now that I get occasional meat protein.

Barbara Kingsolver discusses this issue at length in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and she makes some very good points. The production of those meat-substitutes that so many vegetarians rely on is not without problems. I have always defended my non-meat eating by stating the fact that the resources used for raising meat could produce many times more vegetables and feed that many more people, which is very true. But it does not apply to those raising livestock on small farms. Also, there are regions and cultures that would starve if they did not eat meat, especially in very cold or desert climates.

Now, if I am justifying the killing of free-range animals for food, how is that different from hunting? Deer are flourishing, and venison is totally free range, organic, delicious, nutritious food. I think part of it is my own bias against hunting because of the negative impressions I described. Another aspect is the way I view wild animals. Deer are such peaceful, graceful, vulnerable animals. If you are not a threat, they will come right up to you - I've experienced this many times. The neighbor across from us has an orchard in his yard, which is well-fenced with "NO HUNTING" signs posted every few feet. (Despite this, hunters regularly stop to sit in front of his house, and they often ask if they can shoot the deer.) He whistles in the evenings, and the deer come to eat grain from his hand. During hunting season, they congregate here, sensing safety. Each spring, we see the does return with newborn fawns. We notice when one is missing, and when they are dead on the road. We watch them grow, see the antlers start, but the bucks don't return. I'm sure some are hunted and shot and others survive on their own. On a given evening, there can be 20-30 deer under those apple trees, and I just can't imagine killing one on purpose for food. However, I know this is a conceptual thing. I also couldn't kill a goat or a dog, but some cultures wouldn't think twice.

Which brings me to cute, furry bunnies. A few years ago, we were so overrun with rabbits (100 had escaped from a nearby farm and had taken over the neighborhood) that I was collecting and rehoming them. They were living and breeding in our barn, and man can they reproduce. They were a breed raised specifically for meat, and I thought a lot about how much more efficient this meat source is than any others. The meat is lean, reportedly very tasty, and plentiful. I think evolution resulted in the best natural defense of any for this animal: cuteness. Is there a more adorable creature? You just want to hold and cuddle them! I don't think I could ever bring myself to eat one.

So, I guess I've become slightly morally ambiguous on the subject of hunting. If an animal is endangered, it obviously should be protected. I still have a very hard time with the fact that these animals are often injured and left to suffer because the hunter couldn't complete the task, or even the stories of a hunter tracking a bleeding, limping deer for miles and miles before it finally collapses and slowly dies. This does not seem humane. I also think most hunters are out in the woods, drunk, with guns, jacked up on testosterone, and I am terrified of them. (The women are just as bad because they think they have something to prove.) I have many thoughts on the matter, but no clear conclusions, so I feel kind of silly posting it publicly. Oh well.

Did you know it is legal for blind people to hunt in Michigan?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Which is better; urban or rural?

Once again, I was struck by a conversation I heard on NPR while working in my studio. This time, writer David Owen was insisting that New York City is the most environmentally sustainable place to live, possibly moreso than Seattle or Portland. I've never been to New York, so I don't have a strong opinion either way. But I've been considering the question of the environmental impact of city life versus country life, which has plagued me since moving out here to the sticks.

When I lived in Seattle, I biked almost everywhere. It was fairly easy to navigate the streets and find alternate routes that were more direct by bicycle than by car. If I was too tired or felt unsafe, I could wait for a bus and put my bike on it to go the rest of the way to my destination. My housemates and I grew gardens in our backyards to supplement our groceries. I think people living in the city can be very conscientious, and I do think it makes sense to condense all of that human activity to the smallest area possible to reduce impact.

At the same time, I recall feeling so overwhelmed all of the time by the constant noise, light, and stimuli around me. There are cars everywhere. Businesses keep their lights on, along with streetlights and parking lot lights, all night long for safety purposes. City life is busy, there is always something going on, and all of that entertainment uses a ton of energy and creates never- ending streams of garbage. Even now, when I visit Seattle or Portland, there is such a variety of exciting things to do, I feel like I'm missing out on a hundred of them. I also notice that I feel bombarded with storefronts full of enticing things to buy, and I feel the urge to consume.

In 2000, I moved back to Olympia, which is a very moderately-sized city with great communities. When I walk down the street, I always see people I know, and have known for 20 years, since it's where I went to college. Bicycling is easy in Olympia, the bus system is convenient, there are two co-ops, and people are generally very environmentally conscious. Truth be told, it has been the easiest place for me to live according to my own environmental standards. Many of my Olympia friends grow year-round gardens that are so much more manageable than my own, right in their small backyards. There is a thriving farmers market. People in Olympia produce their own biodiesel, compost, work together in community gardens, offer all kinds of classes and workshops for free, and most are the nicest people you've ever met. Can you tell I love Olympia?

But, we couldn't afford a home in Olympia when it came time to buy, and we were interested in having a large garden and goats. We had the idea that, in case of some kind of disaster, we wanted to be self-sufficient, as well as possible. The spot we eventually bought is 5.3 acres with a diverse ecosystem. There were already buildings on the property, so we wouldn't have to dig a well or put in a septic system. We lived in the 1970 mobile home for 5 years, then dismantled it by hand (recycling most of it), and had a 1400 s.f., passive solar home built on its footprint. We have replaced almost all of the lawns with vegetable and perennial gardens, which do require some watering, but no mowing.

Since we have a well, we are not pulling water from a larger system, and there is no treatment necessary. Our septic is the same story. It is a small system, and we use only biodegradeable cleaners and products so that our system can filter naturally. We originally thought that Mike would eventually move his job to the Elma school district, only 6 miles away. However, he has grown comfortable with his place as Special Ed teacher at the alternative high school that is a 45 minute drive away. This is our biggest carbon contributor. I have been working at home, restricting my drives to Olympia to about once per week, when I run all of the errands. Now that Anouk is in school, I drive her both ways, and this is another conundrum. She could catch the bus to a larger school, saving that gas and those emissions, but we are very attached to the 3-room-schoolhouse she attends, 12 miles away. When we can afford it, we will buy a hybrid or electric car. Growing our own food means less packaging, less fuel to transport produce, fewer pesticides being used, and the few animals we raise for meat living a good, healthy life. And we don't buy stuff. There is no need for a lot of stuff, and it's not in our faces, tempting us to buy, buy, buy. I don't need nice clothes, and what I have is bought second-hand.

Ultimately, I think people living in both rural and urban environments can make good choices. I love living out here. I love the quiet most of all, and the darkness at night, the trees. The guy across the street has a special whistle to call the deer, who come in the evenings to eat grain out of his hand. We have a 30-foot waterfall near our house. I hate city life. It feels oppressive and confining. When I visit a large city, I can't stop thinking of all of the toilets flushing, dishes being washed, flourescent lights, trash, etc. Not everyone can live in the city. And not every city-dweller is making conscientious choices. Most of us are just doing the best we can with what we have.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Sanctify Me

Recently, while catching up with a friend, I talked about how we've been working hard to grow our own food, and that "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" had a big impact on my attitude about the time and labor I have to spend on this endeavor. My friend said, "But now you can be all sanctimonious and walk around feeling like you are better than other people." It was said tongue-in-cheek, but I felt that it came out of resentment, from a mother of three living in the city, just trying to maintain her sanity. It achieved the desired result; it shut me up.

Today, I was listening to an interview with a food critic on NPR about the latest trends in American food. She said people are very concerned about where their food comes from, how it is grown, seeking quality and sustainability with their food choices. There are different approaches, some eating free-range, grass-fed meats, some going vegetarian, locavores, etc. A man called in to say that this was all fine and dandy, but was there any way to keep these people from being so self-righteous about what they do and don't eat?! He called it "obnoxious." The radio personalities heartily agreed, and seemed apologetic.

When I was at my liberal arts college, studying women's issues and becoming aware of the wide range of injustices in the world, I found that I was not allowed to discuss these topics with non-college friends. Political topics were dubbed "too P.C.," and friends asserted that it was elitist to be politically correct. End of debate.

I have known my share of the stereotypical vegan-snobs who won't eat from a plate that has touched meat, insist that using honey is bee extortion, and who fly into a rage if the cook accidentally includes a dairy-based condiment with their meal at a restaurant. My own husband, a strict vegetarian until 3 years ago, once stacked menus between us at a restaurant in Poland to block his view of my plate of fish.

But most of us are just learning about the genuine impact of our food choices on the economy, environment, and the lives of animals and farmers, and we want to find balance.

The fact is, humans are eating more meat than the planet can support. People are starving in this and other countries, rainforest is being destroyed at an incomprehensible rate, animals are raised and slaughtered by disgusting and horrific methods, and illegal immigration is supported by a fast-food industry that relies on cheap labor for a dangerous job that legal United States citizens are not willing to do. However, animals can be raised humanely, sustainably, and resulting in higher quality nutrition, and most Americans would benefit from reduced meat consumption. Food purchased at a big box grocery store is produced far away by cheap labor. Buying local food saves fossil fuels, puts the money into the hands of our farmers (who are struggling to compete with big companies using unsustainable practices), and we eat fresher food with far better nutritional value. Growing some of your own food is very rewarding, the flavor is incomparable, and it saves money.

Some of you have more pressing challenges to attend to, and just getting food on the table is enough of a struggle. Some are simply not interested. But I have made this a huge part of my life, and I don't intend to be secretive about it to make other people more comfortable. I believe this is an important conversation, worth having, even if we don't agree. If people who feel passionately about an issue are silenced by those who feel they are "obnoxious" and "sanctimonious", we won't get very far.