Monday, December 29, 2008

Getting Older is Hard to Do

Science still doesn’t fully understand aging. While it’s often suggested that it is simply a wearing out, much as a car engine wears out over time and use or a rock weathers and grows smaller, the fact remains that certain biological organisms don’t age and it seems to be built into our genes. The simplest story of the human body is that our cells have a lifespan and before they die they replicate themselves. Over time their replications decrease in quality, so to speak, and quantity, until we are worn out and old and then finally we just break down completely.

I have just stepped onto the path of confronting my own mortality and my own aging. I have been blessed with excellent genes and even though I’m in my middle forties I look younger. Right up to a couple of years ago I could easily pass for my twenties and could find myself carded buying a bottle of wine. Superficially I still appear to be a young woman.

My own mother has the same fabulous genes. I remember well how people always mistook her for my sister, or later on assumed we were a lesbian couple (amusing dinner party stories in there!). She always spoke of age as being immaterial when I was growing up and I believed her because she was living proof, and of course she was my own personal deity. Her own crisis with aging and its effects hit her around fifty years old and all the smug belief that aging didn’t matter flew out the window like a brick.

It’s a chicken and age question, literally, whether her crisis was assisted by her beginning to see a man ten years her junior or whether she started seeing him because she was having a crisis. All I can say for sure, from a personal viewpoint, was that her crisis of faith shook me. My own, however, still lay in the future. I approached it with less sanguine self-confidence after my mother crashed and burned on the altar of impending mortality and all the loss of beauty and vigor that it implied, but nonetheless it was a shocking surprise those first signs of age. No, I lie. The very first sign of aging on my part was the first silver hairs to start sprouting out of my scalp and it was my mother that dealt with that crisis as a personal affront to her own battle. She plucked them out of them top of my head before I could even open my mouth to protest.

My own inklings might have started with the contact lens a couple of years ago. My job came with some benefits and I decided to succumb to vanity. They didn’t last long. Besides the fact that they felt weird and didn’t improve, something about the shape of my eyeballs having changed with age, but when I looked in the mirror for the first time I could see my middle-aged face staring back at me. Friends will laugh at that comment, strangers envious of my apparent youth will sneer, but the reality is that my skin is no longer young. It has lost its elasticity and while I don’t have wrinkles the delicacy have my features has been changed for a sort of stodgy solidity. My neck is beginning to sag, my teeth are not what they were, and my joints ache.

As I said I am just on the beginning of the path, but I’m not so far away from the same age my mother was when she had her crisis and then spent years trying to come to terms with it. If I were to bring it up casually in conversation most people don’t want to talk about it. They divert the topic by telling me I look young, as if being young was the most important thing in the world. They tell me that old trope “you are only as old as you feel”. I don’t feel that young anymore, and I don’t believe I should. I like being a grownup and I don’t mind all the experience, knowledge, and hopefully wisdom that the years bring with it. I’m not even that vain over my looks anymore that I will start wearing turtleneck sweaters to hide my incipient chicken neck (or those weird big collars that Candice Bergen wears in Boston Legal all the time). In fact from a scientific viewpoint it’s actually very interesting watching the inevitable decline of the human machine that is the body – if only it weren’t my body I was watching decline.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Crazy or Not? Hiccup Remedies

Get a glass of water, double up a paper towel and put it over the mouth of the glass, and then sip the water through it.

Hold your breath.

Hold your breath, pinch your nose, and push down on your diaphragm.

Stand on your head.

Drink a glass of water backwards.

Breathe slowly into a paper bag.

Squeeze tightly on the soft fleshy part of your earlobes. (?)

Drink a glass of water slowly without breathing.

Take a mouthful of water or other beverage then bend over from the middle and swallow (sounds like a recipe for choking if you ask me).

Bite into a lemon.

Drink a shot of vinegar.

Eat a spoonful of mustard.

Get a mouthful of water and then press your fingers into your ears.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Going Bananas

The history of banana eating goes back at least as far as Roman times, and it is supposed to have originated in East Asia or Oceania. The botanical name is Musa acuminata where Antonius ‘Musa’ is the physician of Octavius Augustus and ‘acuminata’ means tapered. The word ‘banana’ is Arabic for ‘finger’. The ancient banana is not the banana we eat today but really a plantain, a fruit that needed to be cooked to be enjoyed. Our banana, the sweet banana, is actually a mutation discovered by Jean Francois Poujot on his Jamaican banana plantation. All sweet bananas would be grown from that original sport, as bananas are cultivated by cutting and not by seed (though not in direct line as there have been a few banana variety wipeouts). They would have been eaten with a knife and fork back then. They were all the rage at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition and sold for a whopping ten cents each.

Now, on the other hand, they are one of the cheapest foods in the US and the UK and are also one of the most popular foods. From that original little mutation an enormous industry has been born, as well as wars been fought. The United Fruit Company started life as the Boston Fruit Company by Massachusetts sea captain Lorenzo Dow Baker, railroad builder Minor Keith of New York, and then Boston businessman Andrew Preston. A subsequent merger in 1899 created the United Fruit Company that dominated the banana trade until it literally controlled the governments of countries like Guatemala and Costa Rica, hence the term ‘Banana Republic’.

It didn’t just happen overnight because when the banana first arrived in North America it was an oddity to say the least. It was necessary to educate the public and many recipe instructions were given. Much of the success of the fruit lay in it being available, much like the orange, in the winter months, but that’s not the whole story. They come in their own handy packaging but even more appealing they are full of dopamine and serotonin and so give the brain a ‘feel-good’ sensation. All of this goodness packed into just 69 cents a pound or less? And shipped from across the world? How can this be? It comes at the expense of the workers in the countries where bananas are grown, workers who are low paid, exposed to highly dangerous levels of toxic chemicals, and live in squalid conditions, and as I said wars fought and paid for by United Fruit. In 2007 Chiquita Banana brand paid out a $25 million settlement after pleading guilty to funding terrorist activities in Columbia before it sold its interests there in 2004.

Whenever possible I have chosen not to supplement unfair practices against workers, or terrorism, or unsustainable farming, and I look out for the Fair Trade sticker on my bananas. Just by paying ten to twenty cents more for this already cheap fruit I can help to make a difference.

Sources and more information:

We're All Going Bananas - The Observer

Banana History at

Fair Trade Bananas at Coop America

Chiquita and Columbia Terrorism at MSNBC

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Introduction to Cooperatives

I have worked in the coop world now for five years and it’s been a really illuminating experience. By working for a coop and being an active director of a coop board for three years as well as attending the CCMA, an annual conference for Food Coops, I have learned about a great alternative business model that stands tall in comparison to the corporate model. The corporation is basically handicapped from the start by the emphasis on profit as the end all and be all. Profit is the bottom line of most business enterprise and that does not, most of the time, translate to social or environmental responsibility. It’s also about a few getting rich on the labor of the many.

Coops on the other hand are organized in an equitable fashion: one share equals one vote and equal responsibility. They are democratic organizations where profit is not the bottom line. They have a set of guiding principles, first drafted in 1844 by the Rochdale Equitable Pioneer Society in Rochdale, England, that were revised in 1994 by the International Cooperative Alliance. These principles are standard throughout cooperatives whether they are wholesale and supplier services, food retailers, credit unions, or employee owned cooperatives like Equal Exchange, the Fair Trade company.

The Seven Cooperative Principles
The co-operative principles are guidelines by which co-operatives put their values into practice.
Principles taken from The International Cooperative Alliance web site.

1st Principle: Voluntary and Open Membership
Co-operatives are voluntary organisations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, racial, political or religious discrimination.
2nd Principle: Democratic Member Control
Co-operatives are democratic organisations controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Men and women serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership. In primary co-operatives members have equal voting rights (one member, one vote) and co-operatives at other levels are also organised in a democratic manner.
3rd Principle: Member Economic Participation
Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their co-operative. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the co-operative. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their transactions with the co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.
4th Principle: Autonomy and Independence
Co-operatives are autonomous, self-help organisations controlled by their members. If they enter to agreements with other organisations, including governments, or raise capital from external sources, they do so on terms that ensure democratic control by their members and maintain their co-operative autonomy.
5th Principle: Education, Training and Information
Co-operatives provide education and training for their members, elected representatives, managers, and employees so they can contribute effectively to the development of their co-operatives. They inform the general public - particularly young people and opinion leaders - about the nature and benefits of co-operation.
6th Principle: Co-operation among Co-operatives
Co-operatives serve their members most effectively and strengthen the co-operative movement by working together through local, national, regional and international structures.
7th Principle: Concern for Community
Co-operatives work for the sustainable development of their communities through policies approved by their members.

To participate in a cooperative by buying a share and becoming an owner is to take a certain amount of control. You are no longer passive. When I opened my account with my local credit union I became an owner of that business equally with all other shareholders, even if they had more money in their account than me, because the share amount is exactly the same. I have the same vote as every other credit union member.

Cooperative history is rich and goes back a few hundred years. The oldest surviving coop in the United States is the Philadelphia Contributionship for the Insurance of Houses from the Loss by Fire. Benjamin Franklin founded it in 1752, and while a cooperative it operates a little differently than cooperatives formed after the Rochdale Equitable Pioneer Society. Coops are equally important for their contribution to the Civil Rights movement, the electrification of rural America under the New Deal, and they continue today with their work in the arenas of Fair Trade, both internationally and domestically, as well as social equality.

Learn more about coops here: Go Coop.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Short and Sweet Update

What a week! Even now as I type this the snow keeps falling and falling, but what a lovely snowfall it is. It's the kind where every individual snowflake is quite distinct, a tiny piece of ephemeral art cast upon the air, most destined to be lost in the white, melted by morning.

I ended up selling a number of paintings from my show; not for a spectacular price but an anonymous benefactor wanted to make a gift of several of them to the sitters and since I have no need for twenty portraits I was happy to offer a bulk discount. That was followed by a commission for another portrait. Again it was not exactly for a great deal of money but at this point I would rather have some of my children out there in the world than worry about undercutting my competitors or selling myself short. After all we're talking portraiture!

On an equally happy note I'm still adoring my etching workshops and here is the completed portrait of my mother. Please see earlier post for the first pull. I hope to be able to set up my own print studio one day such is my enthusiasm for the medium.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Can You Make a Difference Really?

I work, currently, for a food coop. I love the cooperative business model because it puts equity, responsibility, and accountability of the owners and the owners are the local people that use the coop. I love that we are primarily geared to natural foods with an emphasis on organic, local, and fair trade, but over time I have come to feel that fundamentally, while coops are essential and should be promoted, the whole natural foods industry has some inherent flaws as a plan to save the world: well certainly as it is applied to our country. I’m not talking about cooperatives operating in third world countries that really are doing groundbreaking work in getting poor subsistence level people empowered.

One of the biggest problems with the natural foods industry as a tool for change is the very fact it is an industry, and we have been convinced that the solution to our problems is in the ‘marketplace’. So many of us jump on the organic, local, and fair trade bandwagon because we care about things like what we put in our body and what is sustainable for the planet, and one of the biggest reasons to care is the very real possibility that climate change will make this plant much much harder to live on, not just for exotic species or some type of frog no one has ever seen in their lives except in National Geographic, but for billions of human beings. But can the marketplace is an inadequate tool for change. It’s all too willing to lie to us with marketing tools that insist that a certain car manufacturer is really green when you and I know that the very fact of burning petroleum products or owning an SUV or four-wheeling over endangered terrain is simply non-sustainable.

But even more than that the marketplace doesn’t care ultimately. As soon as you can’t afford it in your budget because of a recession in the economy they’re going to go back to polluting because it’s cheaper. And to keep profits high in processed organic foods they’re going to look to cut corners and they have already. Just look at the case of Aurora and the scandal of factory farmed milk produced oftentimes by cows just transferred from conventional farms and then denied pasture, or the case of Cascadian Farms where their CEO, once the poster boy for organic Gene Kahn, is now a vice president of General Mills, which owns Cascadian Farms. Kahn regularly lobbies the FDA to undercut organic additives standards in order to make organic food more palatable as processed food.

He also said, in defense of his decision to become part of the system: “We tried hard to build a cooperative community and a local food system, but at the end of the day it wasn't successful. This is just lunch for most people. Just lunch. We can call it sacred, we can talk about communion, but it's just lunch."

I find this statement from one of the pioneers of organic farming to be both ideologically scary and yet profoundly true. When I first read it I was horrified and stopped buying Cascadian Farms products; particularly the pickles as they contain road salt, but he’s really talking about something quite fundamental to my point today. The marketplace doesn’t change because of us – we change because of the marketplace. The solution doesn’t necessarily lie in how we choose to spend our hard earned dollars. Frankly even standing in the middle of a natural foods coop I have no idea how to ‘vote’ with my dollar because behind every label is a hidden history and hidden agenda. I simply don’t have time to research them all.

And as I explained in an earlier blog even choosing to buy from a local farmer doesn’t always equal the right choice if you can’t afford it.

Really when I get right down to it the basic issue of changing human behavior becomes much more complicated when you realize that the majority of people on this planet don’t even have the luxury to worry about whether or not their toilet paper is recycled and unbleached, or whether they should by organic free-range chicken or save a couple bucks by getting the conventional stuff. They just need to get enough to eat, and for their children to eat, or not be tortured or bombed, or be able to get clean drinking water. Ultimately my choice not to eat tortured animals has no worldwide significance on the role that animals play in human lives. And it’s not just ‘somewhere’ else like Africa or India that I’m talking about. A vast number of Americans do not have the financial luxury to even contemplate many of the choices I make every day in the coop when buying my groceries. Most of those Americans don’t have the educational opportunities to even enter the discussion. There is a huge and vast divide in this country and it’s not just about red and blue.

Somehow, somewhere, there must be some sort of solution because if we don’t think of one soon it might well be that nature solves the problem for us.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Etching My Mother

Last night was another etching workshop. This time I worked on a doing an etching from a portrait I did of my mother. The image is from one of my test pulls from last night. I still plan to aquatint this image to create volume in the face. The original is an oil painting about 18inches by 24inches done on linen and the likeness is very good. I had attempted to capture my mother at least three over times through the years and always failed. She wasn't the best sitter in the world. She had a tendency to fidget and worry that I was making her look too old. This time she didn't worry and promised to sit still, but also I think it was better because I was really warmed up when I did this painting. It was in the middle of about twenty-five different portraits I did in six months. I don't work with sketches but use a live model, sketch onto the canvas in charcoal, and then start painting right on top of that.

For the etching I shrunk the image in Photoshop and then converted it to grey scale to simplify the line and the volume. I was still quite worried that it wouldn't translate or that my inexperience as an etcher would render the piece unrecognizable from either the original or the model, but I needn't have worried! Here is the original painting for some comparison. Once I do the aquatint next Wednesday I'll do an update on the process.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

New Blog Manifesto!

After a reasonable period of time (since late August) I feel I have to spend my time in better ways. To that end I’m revamping my blog over the next few weeks to better reflect my personal interests and beliefs. I hope those of you that have found me even the slightest bit interesting will continue to do so or maybe even find me more interesting as I let fly with subjects dear and close to my heart without regard to whether or not you will visit my Etsy shop. I’ll still be selling my art and jewelry, as always, but after having immersed myself in beginning marketing for the last four months I’m fed up!

This is not a sob story, don’t get me wrong. It’s actually an exciting change for me because I think I’ll get in some good writing experience and make new friends and that’s what it’s all about for me, ultimately, when it comes to the internet.

I might even delete all my older posts once I fully know what I’m up to.

Topics I’ll be writing about: art, history, writing, food and the environment, social issues, and changing the world one blog post at a time.