Yours in the Dharma:  Essays from a Buddhist perspective by Sandy Garson

This blog, Yours in the Dharma by Sandy Garson, is an effort to navigate life between the fast track and the breakdown lane, on the Buddhist path. It tries to use a heritage of precious, ancient teachings to steer clear of today's pain and confusion to clear the path to what's truly happening.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Size Matters

Twenty years ago I published a small spiral-bound book called How To Fix A Leek…and other food from Maine’s Farmers’ Markets to help my local farmers boost their meager sales. I was hoping to do that by helping the people who, week after week, spent their market time asking the same questions again and again. If they got definitive answers once and for all about how long a product would be at the market and what you were supposed to do with it, I was hoping they could start shopping. Wanting everybody to understand what farmers' markets were supposed to mean, I also went around the state speaking on the crucial benefits of farmers and their markets: economy, ecology, safety and security—green every which way. I sold several thousand books but green was not then a buzz word so my passion was lonely.

That's why I've noticed the frenzy for farmers’ markets. Now that green is the going thing, from Santa Monica to Maine they’ve become all the rage-- fodder for glossy magazines, daily news beats and slick tourism appeals. This is especially true in dowdy old Maine, the shiny new darling of national foodie networks brimming with braggadocio about its lobster rolls and locavore restaurants. Well, except for maybe three or four of those latter eateries, all are brand new, the seeming symbiotic result of a doubling in the number of farmers and markets over the last four years. Just a sign that food has yet again become the counterculture’s answer to the madness of finance. (Remember “back to the land” of the 60s?)

New methods of instant communication have certainly fertilized this fever. The internet is buzzing with sites for homespun farms, photogenic events and zealous networks like ELFC (Eat Local Foods Coalition of Maine), the Farmers’ Market Federation and GetReal GetMaine. They're basically saying what I said 20 years ago, but this time people are listening. Desperation does that.

We have a very repetitive pattern in our American samsara that looks something like an accordion. It starts with a squeeze when a human being with heart and soul makes something of value and others pursue it hotly. That heat increases the smell of money. Down swoop the capitalists who scoop up the product and peck away at it, cheapening it for mass production by leaching out the quality that cost money. They'd rather the money went into their pocket than the product. Eventually the egregious awfulness of what's being sold compels somebody to tinker with the original product in that old fashioned, heartfelt way. Dang the dollars, they want to make something really good. In this oscillation between boutique and big box, this swing from ingenious creation to disingenuous manufacture, small gets huge, then squeezed back into small, just like an accordion. I think of this boom, bust, boom as the unique impermanence heaved upon the world by the irrational exuberance of capitalism.

Coffee first made me aware of how this happens. All that hard hitting advertising about the discriminating Colombian eye of Juan Valdez and the heavenliness of Chockful o’ Nuts just couldn’t disguise the tasteless sawdust packed into supermarket coffee cans by bloodless corporations pretending it was real Joe. Then somebody somewhere tasted real coffee elsewhere and woke up. In frustration, they started roasting their own beans, differentiating them by place of origin and type of roast, and selling them in brown bags. They recommended replacing percolators with more expensive brewers that actually enhanced the taste. Coffee came back into fashion. Coffee had taste and meaning again. Coffee houses became the rage. (And now, here we go, Starbucks is diluting the concept with a never ending menu of sugary sop cheaper to profit from.)

After coffee came beer. Thirty years ago all you could buy was the double carbonated (more air more money) tasteless, brew shot into cans for mass producers like Miller and Budweiser, companies that spent millions not on making beer but on marketing to make you think their product was the real deal. Then guys got mad enough to not take the absence of quality any more and started playing around with hops themselves. Now beer is back to being what should be beer and it comes in very distinct brews bottled all over the place. My own favorite is the unique blueberry ale made in Maine.

We have now started drowning in mushy heirloom tomatoes because people who wanted a tomato to taste like a tomato revolted against those gassed red hardballs shipped in refrigerated trucks from Florida and cavalierly passed off as genuine fruit. People wanted a tomato to be what tomato is supposed to mean. And the same quest for quality has people scavenging farmers’ markets for dairy products without bovine growth hormone, corn without Roundup in its kernels, garlic not from China whose soil is poisoned and eggs that don’t scramble into salmonella. They want wholesome food that provides all that real food is meant to.

And here comes the dilution. The flight from taste free, nutrient free mass marketed groceries has fueled the frenzy for everything “organic”, which is unleashing the deliberate obfuscation of that concept. Big box mass marketers like Wal-Mart have bought enough lobbyists and Congressmen to get the original strict standards deviated, sometimes to the point that small Maine farmers who use the manure of their animals, have been legally accused of using “chemicals” in violation of their certification. Caring not about kohlrabi, only money, the mass marketers want to make it impossible us to understand what that word actually means. “Organic” has already become so tainted—is it food from your local soil grown without chemical additives or food flown into the supermarket from Ecuador when it’s out of season here?-- small farmers, the ones who rely on farmers’ markets, have to resort to describing themselves as “natural” or “old-fashioned” or “pesticide free.” Something definitive and comprehensible.

And that says it all. Frankly, it doesn't have to just be coffee or cantaloupe anymore. All the cosmetics at the counters are made by just two companies pushing the same stuff out of the same factory while spending billions of your dollars in brainwashing campaigns to make you think they're different and worth every penny.

This is the phenomenon driving our politics--that's what the anger is about. We are a culture that is not so interested in making things as we are in marketing things. We don't care about the steak itself, just the sizzle. That's why all Obama's handlers can talk about is "protecting the brand." So what if he didn't turn out to be a quality product that delivered satisfaction. Just as long as they can convince you to buy him as though he might. So people are looking for independents who are not mass manufactured marketing miracles.

Marketing thin air has co-opted everything nowadays, and this kind of emptiness has shown itself to be toxic. The voters are enraged and desperate for a two-party alternative, the consumers are turning to small farmers who actually make food with their sweat and hands. The accordion effect is the way the loss and recovery of meaning--of significance, manifests. Funny how hard we work to fill that emptiness back up.

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

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Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Belief You Can Change In

Three Sundays ago, my friend Helen’s son got married in the waterfront grove of the old family farm on the coast of Maine. I first saw the place at her sister’s wedding 35 years earlier-- to the week, when its overgrown mosquito infested acreage was reachable only by scrambling down a series of ledges and its almost 300-year-old Cape Cod house had neither water nor electricity. Now I saw the miracles of sheer determination. Hacking away for thirty years-- a weekend here a weekend there, had produced not just electricity and running water with a hot tub on the restored screened porch, but a paved road down to the rebuilt barn and a dirt parking lot where there had been an especially thick tangle of poison ivy. There were wide, painstakingly bark lined paths to the waterfront, and so much foliage clipped away, so many trees harvested by a professional forester, the breeze could pass through the old apple orchard and blow mosquitoes out to sea. Not one bite on anybody that afternoon made me tell Helen she and her husband deserved a noble prize.

Actually prize worthy displays were everywhere. As perhaps a reminder of the family’s seafaring heritage, the bride-- in a strapless with a seriously long train, arrived in a white lobster boat. Standing coveside, surrounded by white plastic buckets sprouting deeply red and yellow hued wild and summer flowers, this young working class woman was married to Helen’s Ivy educated son by a local justice of the peace. In Maine this need only be a notary public. Nobody in the family adheres to organized or otherwise religion, and they don’t seem to need it. The four “children” in the front row, all carefully dressed for the occasion, and armed with their own digital or iPhone camera to remember it, were evidence they’ve managed to embody the wisdom anyway. The lithe beauty with long, shiny black hair and high heels was Vietnamese. The impossibly tall young man and wide young woman with dark chocolate skin were Sudanese. The fellow with the contagious smile, lanky legs and caramel colored skin had been rescued at birth from the underbelly of Boston. They were all members of the family.

This astonishing tableau captured the spirit of the late Helen Sr., a passionate New Englander who bought the abandoned farm in the 50s to bring her family “home.” An executive long before working women became a norm, she was an enthusiastically devoted mother who stabilized her daughters by giving them deep roots, then egged them on to whatever they thought they could do, whatever they dreamed to dare. Not striving for improvement and achievement, not knowing how or what to do to make things better were not acceptable. She was pushy that way.

The low-key gala also reflected the blithe spirit of Helen’s Newfoundland father, a wisp of a man tough enough to be an intrepid reporter who survived the bombings of London and the machinations of the Boston Globe. “If I’d known,” he once told me with a twinkle in his eyes, “that my daughter would grow up to become the senior vice president of Merrill Lynch, I assure you I never would’ve had sex.” That daughter’s interracial marriage and her sister’s interracial adopted son were perfectly okay though.

The remarkable parents are sadly past tense but their two remarkable daughters are still happily in multi-decade marriages to their first and only husband. Both are mothers who have never relied on a nanny to raise their kids. Helen’s two are now Ivy League graduates with good jobs and advanced degrees. Her sister’s daughter, who is still in high school, is currently training to be an Olympic equestrian, part of the reason the sister recently switched from this farm to a horse farm to which her husband now has to commute from his high ranking research at the Sorbonne.

Helen hacked out a career path the way she hacked airspace and paths through the overgrown woodland. She was the first person to take a PhD to the Street instead of academia and became the first woman to take the express elevator to the top of it. Her younger sister Susan, who I was sitting next to, started out to be a dancer and ended up with a Masters in Molecular Biology as well as a law degree. She worked for a financial services agency and learned enough tricks of the trade to set up her own financial services business and sell it for a mint. The sisters have become extremely rich by their personal efforts, but you wouldn’t know or even guess their bank balances from the clothes they wear, the cars they drive, the brands they buy, or the deliberate down-home feeling of the wedding whose guests included the backhoe guy who’s always lived down the road.

No matter what heights they reach, Helen Jr. and Susan have stayed as stubbornly focused on rooting and rooting for family as their mother was. They have dedicated their considerable resources not to getting their names emblazoned on buildings, headlines or even musical program notes, but to personally raising abandoned children. When Susan discovered refugees too toxic for the system to digest, she convinced Helen they should take them in. The four dark Sudanese children had escaped Africa only with their lives, not knowing if their parents had been macheted or bludgeoned to death behind them as they ran. They were distrustful and unwilling to be separated, for all they had in the world was each other. To quell their fear of diaspora, Helen took two of the teen-aged girls—her house was big enough. Her sister took the oldest girl and the brother John because she already had an adopted interracial son close to his age. That oldest girl, Yar, is now married to a Sudanese and about to have a baby, which is why she hadn't come.

I watched the young people sitting pretty in that manicured grove, tapping like any American teenagers on their Iphones or comparing photos on their digital cameras and loudly teasing their brother the groom, wondering how I could ever describe the knack Helen and her sister Susan have for making the nearly impossible seem so easy. How magical it is that Susan who is pale and frail and weighs at most 110 lbs introduces the seven-foot high, black skinned John as “my son” in the same matter of fact, no big deal tone she introduces Patrick as “my husband.” In truth it has not been easy to drive those kids to counseling and to school and to private tutors, to make them warmly welcome in a cold climate and clothes not native to them, to fill out endless documents and applications, and integrate them so seamlessly with their own flesh and blood. Yet they have hacked away at all this too. The oldest one in Helen's house graduated from a private school and Brandeis University and got American citizenship before she got accepted to the London School of Economics, went back to Sudan to try to find some family and promptly disappeared in a cross cultural meltdown. The youngest needed even more counseling to feel she could fit in and eventually came home with a new best friend, the Vietnamese girl who Helen promptly took in because she saw it would steady them both.

The other good news besides the marriage was that the oldest had surfaced, apologized and was now safely at the London School of Economics. She is the first Sudanese woman ever to be educated and will doubtless hack through the thicket of intolerance and violence to restore her country to the family of peaceful nations. I told Helen as it happened, I’d just met a woman working for USAID in Africa who couldn’t find educated females to carry out its mission of feeding women and children. Perhaps we should introduce her to Adeui. About a week later Helen called to say we hadn’t talked enough at the wedding so we should get together to catch up and maybe make the connection for Adeui. We set up a time but as it approached she phoned from the car. “I have to cancel,” she said. “The younger one (she actually said the name but I don't recall it clearly) and I are off for back to school shopping. Right now the most important thing is to get underwear for my daughter.”

~Sandy Garson"Wordsmithing to attest how the Dharma saved me from myself!"

Technorati Tags: , , , , , , Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
Click here to request Sandy Garson for reprint permission.
Yours In The Dharma 2001-2010, Sandy Garson Copyright 2001-2010 Sandy GarsonAll rights Reserved