Thursday, November 28, 2013

Objectify Women and Protect Immigrants! All With American Apparel

As some of you may know, I am the office manager at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.  Part of my job includes ordering merchandise for our small bookstore/gift shop.  I have no background in retail and had no idea how difficult this part of my job would be. There are many elements to this I could discuss but what has really been alive for me lately is the world of clothing and the controversy around organic, made in the USA, sweatshops, fossil fuel and consumerism.

So I basically have to decide with every item I order how universally likable is said object, will people buy it and how much will people pay for it.   Holy shit!  You ask 100 different people what they think about a particular item of clothing for example and you get 100 different answers.  I took on the task of ordering new sweatshirts and long sleeve t-shirts for the fall/winter seasons.  This included deciding which sweatshirts to buy and what image to put on them.  As the director said to me one day, I was fun at first and then it got to be not so fun as it took up more and more work time, brain power and kept me up at night ("what if everyone hates them and I wasted thousands of dollars??!!").

The logo stuff took time and some hounding of contributing artists.  But more painfully I had to figure out where to order the blank sweatshirts from.  Here at Green Gulch using organic products is very important so we have often used the company Econscious for our clothing needs.  And they are pretty good.  Their website says all the right things.  For the sake of the environment I do believe organic is better.  Not using petrochemical fertilizer is simply better.  Chemical fertilizers are toxic and they get into ground water, kill animals and poison people who come into contact with them.  Things can get a little sticky when you start to look at certifying organizations and their actual standards (see QAI, the world's largest organic certfier) standards are known to be broken or sometimes like in the case of China, they do not allow foreigners to inspect their farms and the US agency must rely on a contracted third (fourth) party certifier. There are great certifying boards in the US, often times local to certain areas, but if a farm uses them it is often on top of using the USDA "McCertifier".  This is one of the problems with all of our products coming from overseas, it is often much more difficult to monitor quality, working conditions, employee payment, etc. even when organic.

Yikes! At least she looks like she weighs more than 90lbs?
Which brings me to American Apparel.  This is where I have to come back to the buddhist concept of "holding two truths."  American Apparel was founded in the '80s by Dov Charney who is dedicated to a model of local manufacturing of goods.  On the one had you've got this guy who has had several lawsuits filed against him for a variety of types of misconduct in which the claims are pretty heinous and he also uses horrid advertising that objectifies and sexualizes women to the extreme (see right) but on the other hand he is doing something no one else is doing: producing mainstream clothing IN THE UNITED STATES. In fair working conditions, with decent pay and benefits and the fact that the production is local allows for a level of transparency just not possible in foreign countries.  They even do their own garment dying in SoCal, which brings just one more step of the process into the realm of humane treatment.

So when Megan at the Feminist Current blog mentions in many places, how disgusting the founder is and her general abhorrence of the existence of AmApp, I feel guilty!  After much time debating the merits of various options (availability, fit, feel, colors, organic, made in US) I chose one sweatshirt from Econscious and one from American Apparel.  I think my partner was a bit disturbed that I paid more money for a sweatshirt that wasn't even organic but I do think there's merit to Made in the USA.  And my only option for doing that is to simultaneously support fair working conditions and the exploitation of women.  Not so clean.  It never is.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Too Messed Up to be a Zen Master (or Justin Beiber)

Hi y'all it's been a while but I got sufficiently fired up the other night that my inspiration has come back.

San Francisco Zen Center hosted an event Friday night at the Jewish Community Center in SF. It was a "conversation" between premier Buddhist scholar, Dr. Robert Thurman (maybe better known in some circles as Uma Thurman's dad), Zen Center president Susan O'Connell and local therapist Dr. David Bullard.  The title of the event was "Embracing the Disappointments of Intimacy: How Buddhist Ideas Can Help Relationships."  Sounds cool right?  I think people are thirsty for these kinds of discussions.  People like me, who are into this zen practice, are trying to figure out how to apply the teachings to our everyday lives.  And as humans, relationships are a central, if not The central, theme in our lives.  They open up and touch every emotion we have.  So we need help!  We want to be better to our loved ones and even better to those we don't love so much.

I'm glad I went to the talk and I could say a lot about how the discussion could have been better.  To keep it short I will say I would have liked the conversation to have stayed on topic.  Robert Thurman had a lot to say and often what he said was loosely related at best.  At worst, you could say he hijacked the stage and went of on some rants.

But here's where my beef lay and here are some of the questions it inspired. At one point early in the evening the subject of sex came up, as often does in conversations about intimacy.  This was in relation to falling in love and the tendency to get totally consumed by this other person.  Dr. Thurman says he wants to share some wisdom he heard from Sasaki Roshi and goes on to casually acknowledge that he's currently being accused of some sexual "misdeeds."  (I have included one link but there are many) He might have even chuckled to himself when he said it!  Dr. Thurman went on to say "but he's still a great master."  And continued to share some of Sasaki's teachings about sex!  Including something about when people first fall in love they stay all wrapped up in the bedroom for a few days but they can't stay like that forever, and eventually someone "has to clean the sheets.'  Fucking gross! (please excuse my language).  It will never be okay to be casual about a spiritual leader taking advantage of his congregants.  And I also feel like it will never be ok to condone "teachings" from a criminal about the very behavior they are being accused of misusing.  That is just messed up and it's a head game for people who are vulnerable, seeking, and deeply exploring their own psyche.

Which leads me to the question, how messed up do you have to be to lose your "Zen Master" membership card?  In the discussion of spiritual teachers gone wild, it is often mentioned that these behaviors are mistakes and these people aren't gods, they are still human beings, and they still offer some great insights that are really helpful for a lot of people.  But I think we have to draw a line somewhere.  Our brains are set to compartmentalize the world around us. I'm not sure it is so easy for a lot of us to separate a Zen teacher's good teachings from shitty teachings.  Of course they will make mistakes, this issue will never go away, but we can do our best to protect people.  Letting him slide because he was a "great master" is how this mess continued for so long in the first place.

On a, I would argue, somewhat related note.  Here's a link to a hot of the press story of Justin Beiber's visit to a brothel.  I do think all of this is related because it falls into "rape culture."  The devaluing and sexualizing of women that is supported by many seemingly harmless things, like Dr. Robert Thurman subtly approving of Sasaki Roshi's behavior by still regarding him as a great master.  How would that make his victims feel?  Invalidated perhaps? And then you have celebrities like Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus who are these extreme examples of the symptoms of a sick society.  We can argue that they aren't good examples because they are not regular people but what are the kids watching every day?  Justin Beiber running out of a brothel covered in a bed sheet and Miley Cyrus getting nasty with a sledgehammer on video.  It all gets into the mind and shapes it, sometimes in obvious ways and sometimes less.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Don't Criticize the Farmer With Food In Your Mouth

This month at Green Gulch it is food awareness month.  We have events like:
  • A harvest dinner prepared by the farmers and gardeners including a lot of stuff we grow (beet burgers, baked fries, apple pies, cole slaw),
  • An apple tasting to sample our 15 varieties of apples (have you heard of Mrs. Bramley? a premier cooking apple), 
  • Fun food facts every day at our work circle (did you know orange carrots are a more recent invention? Historically they were lots of colors and our current orange ones are a blend of the red and white strains)
  • Movies like Food Inc. and The Garden
We have also had a variety of talks and discussions about food and its place in our lives.  This is an issue that is very close to home for us residents of Green Gulch Farm Zen Center.  Our discussions after the TED talked (linked below) touched on many things.  For example, what Green Gulch can do to participate in taking care of the planet.  And in particular, what is our responsibility given our large presence in the northern California organic farm movement?  We asked ourselves "are we doing enough?"  We are doing our part to take care of this land.  We host school groups and a 6 month apprenticeship each year.  We buy only organic food.  But we also have common issues.  Like, we sell a large percentage of our food to restaurants and at market rather than to our own kitchen.  We can make more money selling the food to the public.  What is wrong with this picture?  What kind of example are we setting when we sell our food to other people and then buy cheaper organic produce through a wholesaler?  If it seems that the world is suffering from a food and environmental crisis, should we be practicing more sustainable, closed loop farming?  Of course it is not so simple.  We are a Buddhist training center that needs a lot of staff and short term help to run.  There are stipends, health insurance and of course building upkeep and before you know it the budget is in the millions of dollars.  As we noted, this is a microcosm of exactly what the entire world is dealing with.  

But these are the questions we ask: how do we protect the planet and try to feed everyone?  Is food science the answer (GMOs yikes!)?  Can we ever feed everyone?  Do we already have enough food to feed everyone but there's an economic/social/political problem that favors a few over the many?  What do we do about the heartbreaking amount of food wasted every day in the United States?  Why don't people care? Do people care?  Who or what creatures are most deserving of our moral and ethical efforts?  Are patriarchy and racism involved?  How does no one see the link between immigration policy and the produce that comes to our table (just in case you're not sure, much of our food is still harvested by illegal immigrants)?

Maybe I'll stop here for now while I continue to ponder.  Below are some good reads from recent mainstream publications.

Follow up reading*:
  1. Edible Marin did an article about us as a farm and place of spiritual practice.  
  2. This article in The Atlantic "How Junk Food Can End Obesity" discussed the issues of obesity, conventional food, techno food, and popular conceptions about eating organic and local among many other related topics.  It was very difficult to read the article when it challenges some of the most basic tenets I hold in my heart in regards to food and its nutritional and environmental value. But maybe I have to open my eyes wider?
  3. This article was in the New York Times Magazine "Tell Us Why It’s Ethical to Eat Meat: A Contest".  I have to commend it's originality to propose a contest such as this, something that would touch a wide audience.  They asked readers to submit essays in regards to the ethics of eating meat.  They had a panel of "judges" to pick the best essay, which was then published.  There are also some great responses questioning things like the all white male judges panel to the moral judgement included in the proposal.
  4. This video from TED, called The Other Inconvenient Truth was used as a discussion starting point.  It is similar in a way to the Atlantic article in that it approaches the food crisis from a fundamentally different perspective than many organic farmers.  It is a good summary of the serious threat to and by agriculture on the ability of humans and the planet to survive.  His "factual" statements are questionable.
* Please note that very often published material is delivered in a provocative way (ie. that will piss a fair number of people off) or attach big names in order to garner readers.  So there is often a conflict of interest and ethics in how and what material is presented. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Free The Creek!!

This morning was one of those special Green Gulch mornings.  Under a soft mist and ever-brightening skies, most of the community walked down to the 5th field of the farm.  Two by two, in silence, led in procession by the abbess and two priests ringing bells.  We arrived at the compost yard (where Kogen does much of his daily work) where a large sign was hung on our old fence that said "Free the Creek" with salmon swimming across the bottom.  We circled around the sign and Sukey our land steward welcomed us all.  She shared with us her beautiful vision of the meandering stream that runs through the valley.  Linda Ruth Cutts, our abbess, and Jeremy Levie, the tanto, both shared heartfelt and at times emotional words about what it means to this community and this land to begin this restoration work.  They invited back many many creatures, by name, who have been displaced for decades as the creek was manipulated for human use.  They also acknowledged and apologized for the harm that was done by the people before us and continued in our hands.  They loudly called and welcomed back the creatures (or at least their descendants) who once lived here.  It was so beautiful.  And it just felt good to acknowledge as a community what we have done to impact the land we love.

Some brief background for you.  Green Gulch lies in the middle of about an 8 mile watershed where water collects from all the mountains.  Many creeks and tributaries flow into Redwood Creek including the little creek here at Green Gulch.  Redwood Creek eventually returns water to the ocean at Muir Beach.  The farm that ran here before ours created culverts and damns and other ways of moving water around for use to support the animals.  Concrete was poured.   A barn was built over the original creek bed.  And the creek was moved outside of the fenced in farm area.  BUT the coho salmon are endangered, the red legged frog is endangered, steelhead trout are threatened, etc.  So in partnership with some others and some grants Green Gulch is doing a HUGE creek restoration project in our lower fields that we hope to positively impact habitat for generations to come.  This is just the beginning.

*An additional sentiment and I'll try to keep it brief.  I know it may seem ridiculous to some, spending millions of dollars on projects to save little creatures we barely even see or to have to pay for a biologist to survey a construction site every morning for potential frog visitors but if we widen the perspective a bit to allow for the future, the picture and the issue seems more pressing or precious.  Sure lets forget about the frogs for a moment but then what happens in the whole food chain as one after another species go extinct?  Also think about the great Irish Potato Famine.  This happened because, unlike the ancient civilizations in South America that grew dozens of varieties of potatoes, Ireland was basically growing one.  So when a pest particular to that variety showed up it decimated everything.  Had they grown other varieties circumstances might not have been so dire. Just some food for thought (pun intended).


"Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over." - Mark Twain


Post-racial America(?)

There are about a million links to articles and discussions about the most recent case of a Jonathan Ferrell, a young unarmed black man shot and killed by the police, this time in North Carolina.  I guess I just want to express my sadness.  My deep sadness and sometimes hopelessness about the pain caused by one human to another.  It happens literally every day, all day all over the world.  We hear about only the tiniest percentage of the cases but they are all sad.  Even when it is the death of someone that people think deserved it or when the killer didn't mean to do it it is still a mark of our failure as a society to take care of each other.  To cherish life as best we can.  To break our conditioned responses, to interrupt or change the karma, the causes and conditions, that led to us to make that choice.

It makes me think about the undoing racism workshop recently at Green Gulch.  Some people felt that talking about it made the problem worse or more complicated or something.  That we should just work towards "meeting" people of any color in the moment, etc.  Like that was all we needed to do to change.  But its  "moments" like this shooting where you see the danger of unconscious racism that is never examined or acknowledged.  Of course most of us will never be wielding a gun and have to choose whether or not to shoot a stranger but we may have words or judgments or a quick decision to make with a stranger that could impact their life in ungraspable ways.  And whatever choice we make there will be consequences we have to bear forever.  It will be a seed planted and watered by future decisions, making it easier or harder to make a different decision in the future.

I can imagine the possible confusion that happened when a stranger knocked on her door in the middle of the night.  She was alone and you never know what can happen.  Having lived in New Orleans for example, as a rule you would not open the door in the middle of the night to a stranger.  We so far have no idea what the exchange between them was, what words were said, explanations given etc.  But police officers are meant to protect everyone, assess situations before using violence, so I can't see any reason that a police officer would shoot someone who, while maybe "advancing" toward him, was not bearing a weapon.  Other than race and the assumptions this police officer has about young black men.

I am just so sad for everyone, all of us.  And in other news, people are pissed an Indian-American woman won the Miss America pageant.  What do we do?

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Kombucha 101

Pardon me if I have posted something like this before but let's be real one can never have too much information on kombucha brewing or encouragement to home brew.  So here we go on a magic brewing adventure of fermentation nation!

There's a slim chance you might ask, "what is kombucha?"  It is a fermented beverage made from caffeinated tea, sugar and an active culture (often referred to as the "starter" or mother or scoby).  This culture is fed by the sugar and becomes a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.  It eats up the sugar so you can bottle the tea when it is to your taste.  It will get more vinegar-y the longer it brews.  Kombucha lovers and makers champion it as a health elixir with a lot of the same properties as other probiotic and fermented foods.  They say it contains good bacteria for your digestion, that it contains lots of B vitamin and other amino acids.  Scientific evidence is scant but we all know western science rarely supports a lot of alternative healing methods**  So take it as you will.

Here's the quick and dirty version:

  • Brew a large jar of caffeinated tea
  • Add 1 cup of sugar
  • Add starter w/juice
  • Cover with cloth, paper towel or coffee filter
  • Store in a dark place
  • Brew for 1-2 weeks

Here's the more detailed version:
  1. Find yourself a starter and some starter juice.  You can ask any friend who brews kombucha for a layer of their scoby and a little of the fermented tea drink. (rumor has it you can even just buy a bottle of kombucha at the store and use that as a starter)
  2. Find a pretty big glass jar (or even plastic they say).  Clean it well, sterilize it if that's an option.
  3. Fill the jar 3/4 of the way with hot water and 3 or 4 tea bags of your choice (green or black).  Add 1 cup of sugar and mix in.  Let the tea steep for 10 minutes or so and remove the tea bags.  Let the tea cool to room temp!!!!
  4. Add the starter and its juice to your tea mix and cover with a cheese cloth/paper towel/coffee filter.  Make sure it is secure as you don't want anything to get into your brew except air**
  5. Move your jar into a darkish warmish space.  I keep mine in a cabinet.  
  6. Let it sit.  For 1-3 weeks.  This part is highly variable.  It will brew faster if it's really warm.  It will brew faster if the starter is BIG.  In New Orleans where it's hot and humid it brewed in a week.  Here at Green Gulch in the cooler climate it's more like 2 weeks.  
  7. After a week you can try tasting it.  If it's super sweet and not so tangy it probably hasn't brewed enough.  If it's way too tangy almost like vinegar it probably brewed too long.  Also look at the scoby.  If it hasn't grown in size that's a good indicator something ain't right.   Also if mold grows on top of your scoby, mold like the blackish furry kind, then you have to scrap the whole thing.  This has only happened to me twice in the entire time I have been brewing (several years).
  8. When the brew has a taste you like what I do is bottle it into a few smaller bottles.  I like the bottles with the rubber stopper.  So I fill up the bottle using a funnel, I like to make sure some of the little chunks get in there (my theory is that it helps it to keep brewing a little), and then I add a tiny pinch of sugar before closing it up.  I let it sit a few more days because it will get more fizzy being sealed shut with the sugar. 
  9. You can also add flavor.  Before you seal up your smaller bottle you can add things like ginger, blackberries, raspberries, lavender and anything else you can dream up.  Blackberries turn it a lovely pink color too!
  10. Enjoy.

**Scientists also warn against the danger of contamination in home brewing, which is a fair warning but probably nothing to be too worried about, especially given all of the other questionable things we eat (for example, "hmmm, this has been in the fridge for a few days, do you think it's still good?").  I have not had a problem yet.  I do wash my hands and the jars frequently in the process and I have the luxury of a sterilizer here at Green Gulch.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Sun Will Come Out...Today!

After months of gray, foggy and rather depressing weather out here in the gulch, the sun has finally come out for more than 5 minutes...in one stretch!  We have actually had several, maybe even 5 or so, sunny and warm days.  So let me put it in perspective.  Our regular "summer" (June, July, August) weather is cold and misty.  This is good for our crops (lettuce and brasicas) and generally reflects (I think) healthy and expected weather patterns.  That's the catch-22: I wish it was sunny and warm because it's glorious and energetic but that would actually be asking for something that's not good.  So instead I try my best to deal with the seasonal affective disorder- like symptoms and wait patiently for the fall and it's summery weather.

Here's some gulch highlights.

  • Flocks of teenage quails roaming about, sounding their hilarious distress signals and generally freaking out, when they're not taking dust baths or running away from you like repelling magnets of course.
  • We have two late arriving baby ducks with their mum hanging out in our algae filled irrigation pond.  They are teens by now and it seems mom is confident in what she has taught them enough to leave them on their own sometimes.  They learned to groom, to dunk under water with their butts in the air and sleep on the floaties.  
  • The bees are having a ball.  First the large bees come around and now it's the smaller honey bees.  You walk by a bush and it just looks like a bush, but it's full of buzzing!  
  • You know what else is great about the fog lifting?  When there's no cloud cover I can hear the ocean again from my bedroom window.  Ahhh, it's like one of those sound machines but better, and free.
  • We have been hearing crowds of coyotes howling, yelping, barking.  It's amazing.  Sometimes when the whole community is doing farm work on Wednesday mornings it sounds like a stadium of fans cheering us on. Very encouraging.
  • This season it seems "distemper" is back again.  It generally affects dogs but also wild animals like foxes, raccoons, etc.  We have found two dead foxes which is very sad.  I will admit I am not sure the garden will be that sad if it kills off some raccoons because they ransack our apple trees every year. 
  • Snapdragons are blooming, actually they're at the end of their cycle but it's been glorious.