Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Made in China

There seems to be a fresh awareness of the ways we impact the world when we buy stuff. Maybe our own suffering has made us more sensitive to the suffering we contribute to. Maybe social media has given a better platform to those who have long wanted us to know. But I’m encouraged by this conversation, and I’m learning. There’s so much to learn.

As Bill Clinton points out, capitalism has lifted millions out of poverty worldwide, and that’s important. But there’s a difference between frameworks like fair trade or microlending, working with dignity toward economic independence, and brutal conditions that separate families, and lead to physical and psychological breakdown, dependency. 

A couple of documentaries from Netflix have given me a visual picture of conditions for millions of factory workers in China. Both films are admirable in the way the directors get out of the way and let the stories tell themselves. Last Train Home begins with a couple trying to get train tickets for the 1,000-mile trip back to their village at New Year’s, in what the film calls the largest migration on Earth. One hundred thirty million peasants live in a few tiny rooms and work, as these two do, bent over worktables in low light conditions, sewing for hours. They left their small children to be raised by their grandmother. The story slowly shifts to the couple’s teenage daughter (the girl on the cover) who seems resentful that she was abandoned by her parents, and confined by her rural poverty. Her parents are devastated when she quits school to make the long trek, herself, to the city to work. Even though their lives are dramatic, the film is quiet and understated, using the visual scene to create an understanding.

Manufactured Landscapes features workers all over the world. It’s visual, only: no words, just scenes of people at work. It opens with African men climbing out of a slippery muddy pit with heavy sacks on their backs. All day, slipping up the narrow path, then back down. The shots in China are incredible – minutes of panning across unthinkably massive factories, like the cover shot of groups of workers getting their morning pep talk.

During a good chunk of the ‘00s, I lived on student assistantships, and while it was hard, it taught me to weigh every purchase. Do I really need that? I’ve been trying to hold onto that way of thinking as my conditions improve. I’ve also tried to add another question to the equation: if I buy this, what impact does that have on the world, on the environment, on someone’s life? I say try because I don’t always get there.

In Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Oskar Schell’s dad tells him that if he moves one grain of sand in the desert, he changes the history of the universe. That’s enough encouragement to keep trying.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Poetry Book Discussion Group Reads Kotrba & Bingham

One of my NEOMFA classmates has a new book out with Ohio publisher Bottom Dog Press. Karen Kotrba’s She Who is Like a Mare is a well-crafted collection of narrative poems in different voices that tell the story of the Frontier Nursing Service in rural Kentucky. FNS was the brainchild of Mary Breckenridge, a fierce and practical heiress hell bent on making a difference in the world. We’ll discuss this book (with the author!) over chai Tues. 5 Feb., 7:00, at the Lemon Grove.

Our March book will be What We Ask of Flesh by Remica Bingham, newly out with Etruscan Press. Remica will read in Youngstown on Tues. 19 Feb. at 7:00 in the McDonough Museum of Art. Pick up your signed copy of these sensuous, sentient poems, then join us for a discussion and a swig of Youngstowns own Rust Belt ale on Tues. 5 March, 7:00, at the Lemon Grove.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Youngstown Cash Mob Goes Retro

Our first cash mob of 2013 will be at Greyland Gallery.

Youngstown Cash Mob
Sat. 26 Jan, 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m.
23 W. Boardman St.

This is a fun space on the lower level of an old, smoky parking garage. What can you find there? Vintage clothes, art, old postcards, furniture, jewelry, pottery, glassware… think Grandma’s attic, if your grandma was a hippie. And a painter. And likes hand-carved African chairs.

We’re going to have a presence there all day, but the fun really begins at 4:00 when there will be live music and food. Bring a mug for the free coffee.

Stop by the Youngstown Cash Mob Facebook page this weekend for voting on the February cash mob nominees. Another terrific slate:

·         bodygoodies on Belmont at Churchill Hubbard Rd.
·         Downtown Circle Deli at 116 W. Federal St.
·         Easy Street Productions at 865 Mahoning Ave.
·         Joe Maxx Coffee Co. at 47 Federal Plaza E.
·         Krakus Polish Deli & Bakery at 7050 Market St.
·         New 4 U Consignment Boutique at 7178 West Blvd.
·         O.R.E. (Outdoor Recreational Equipment) 5316 Market St.
·         Santa Fe “Southwestern CafĂ©” at 2626 Mahoning Ave.
·         Second Time Around Consignment at 4954 Mahoning Ave.

Here’s a link to the Facebook page (you have to be on Facebook to vote). Vote by joining the group, and clicking on the button next to your choice.

If you visit any of these businesses for the first time because you saw it here, let them know. Let us know, too. 

For the March cash mob, we're only considering businesses owned by women. Nominations will be on Sun., 3 Feb. 

Thanks for helping us spread the word!

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Love Song for the Cave Painters

My grandmother had books in every room. She read at night, at the dinner table, right in the middle of the day – non-fiction on art, geography, history – new and old fiction. She subscribed to dozens of magazines, as well.

One branch of my cousins lives in the southwest, and I’ve only seen them a few times. After I’d grown, we caught up once at a wedding in the Midwest. They were telling me that my grandmother felt she had influenced me. I laughed and waved them off. No, no, no influence there.

But that isn't true. I remember one lazy, adolescent summer when I was visiting my grandmother. She’d been complaining about my resistance to reading. She took up a slim book, and, hovering near me, every now and then interjected a commentary. “Hmmm… this is an interesting story about a girl in high school.” Pretty soon she was fanning herself and exclaiming, “Oh, my! This book is so steamy, I can hardly get through it!” Dear reader, I stole that book. Well, I ‘borrowed’ it. Without asking. I took it back! and after she died, I found it in one of her many bookcases.

I inherited from her many books, including several by my favorite naturalist, David Attenborough. I’m working my way through The First Eden: The Mediterranean World and Man (1987), a compelling human and natural history. It’s excellently visual, with photos, drawings and maps. I wouldn’t have realized how much humans altered the land. I mean, that sounds so obvious, but, for example, northern Africa was once lush and life-sustaining, and only became desert after the citizens of the Greek empire had cut down the trees, which allowed the topsoil to wash away. This plays out over and over. Sometimes people had logical reasons and something they didn’t. They were as prone to greed and weird obsessions same as we are. By that I mean, we haven’t learned a thing since the Crusaders marched into the Holy Land, fell in love with the greenery, gardens, fruits and spices, and then clear cut the trees to wage continuous war. The Crusaders also brought back the tropical rat whose fleas spread the bubonic plague, wiping out one-third of northern Europe.

But it’s more complicated than that, of course, and more beautiful. The ones who left their art on the caves led me to the documentary The Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2010), about ice-age cave art in Chauvet, France. This cave was more recently discovered than Lascaux, so it’s more pristine, so dreamlike, so artistically accomplished. And cave bear tracks criss-cross the floor. Man would eventually kill them all, along with many other species, so their prints are even more poignant.

This is where religion, mythology, was born. Filmmaker Werner Herzog interviews a paleontologist who says there are two things to remember about our cave-painting ancestors: the firm categories we use, like man and tree and animal and sun, were more fluid, and the barrier between man’s world and the afterworld was permeable.

We can feel connected to and learn much from ancient people who can be forgiven for not knowing their actions would diminish the land for all future generations. (We will not be forgiven.)  But the impulse to make art, to tell a story, to make meaning, is in our collective DNA. It  changes the landscape, as well, and sets us dreaming.