a tale of a university parking permit and a trip to walmart

Earlier this week I picked up my prepaid parking permit for the University of Arkansas, where I begin my PhD career next week.  (I won’t get into how much the permit cost, or the economics of this lovely little side business that the University has, because that will only make both you and I mad at the beginning of what should be a light-hearted blog post.)

The day of permit pickup it was raining and I was hoping to find a close parking spot.  This didn’t happen, so I threw on my hooded rain jacket and bolted quickly to the overhang of the building where lines of students were waiting at their respective category of parking permits’ table.  When I reached the overhang, I slipped the hood of my rain jacket down (ah- peripheral vision) and was face-to-face with several young first-year undergraduate students, many of them with parents in tow.

In this rather small moment, I had a momentous realization.  Even though I have all of the excitement of a first-year student (because I am a first-year student at a new school pursuing a new degree), my life is COMPLETELY different than the last time I was a new student.  I might have the butterflies of a new school year starting, but I’m also a grown, married, home-owning, dog-owning woman, dancing in between the world of student-hood AND so many other responsibilities.

So much can change between 18 and 26.

This subtle observation was cemented when I traveled further down the road to the local superstore, where I needed to pick up approximately three things: light bulbs, paint primer, and Draino.  As I made my way through the aisles of the store, I passed college students pushing carts full to the brim of non-perishable foods and dorm decorations.  It forced a reminiscing of my own supermarket trip eight years ago to fill up a cart with dorm necessities.  (I also encountered a few young men trailing behind their parents as moms and dads placed well-meant Swiffer dusters and bags of apples in their carts.  Bless them for trying.)

The obvious in hindsight wasn’t so obvious to me a week ago: there is just a plain weirdness to this season of life.  Now that I’ve acknowledged that, I’m eager to learn what balancing aspirations and responsibilities looks like in this scenario.

1%

“1%” is a charged figure.

When I see or hear “1%”, I automatically think of tremendous wealth and invincibility.  But in the light of presidential budget season, “1%” is taking on a new meaning for me: it represents the poorest and the most fragile populations around the world.  That’s because just 1% of the US national budget is spent on foreign aid.  That includes development aid, political aid, emergency aid, and foreign security aid.

Are you surprised to hear that?  I always assumed that about 10% of the budget went to such activities.  A recent poll shows that my estimate was far below that of most Americans, who generally believe that up to 30% of the total US budget goes towards foreign aid (Kaiser Family Foundation).

Over 20 US government agencies fund or execute foreign aid activities.  One of the primary agencies, USAID, shares the following mission:

To “partner to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing our security and prosperity.”

You could talk about foreign aid from multiple angles.  I’m inclined to support it based on aspects of humanity alone, but since this is a blog about consumption, I’ll focus there.

95% of the worldwide population lives outside of the US.  Many of these people are entrenched in poverty and poor health, unable to actively participate in a global economy.  Strong patterns of trade and consumption in a globalized society require wealth, resiliency, and democratic societies for all partners involved.

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I can’t believe I’m being so pragmatic about this, but again, for the sake of focus here… investing in peace and security, global health, and basic humanitarian assistance makes sense from a global consumption point-of-view because it protects future business partners.  It protects (and quite frankly, creates) the global consumer class.

Foreign aid isn’t the best solution; strong economies and strong societies are.  Foreign aid isn’t meant to be permanent, but rather something that helps us get to strong global societies.  For the US, a society so driven by consumption (for better or worse, I won’t comment on that now), it seems like we would be eager to invest a mere 1% of our annual budget on building an atmosphere of healthy global production, trade, and consumption.  You know, not to mention promoting a healthy humanity worldwide.

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Low tides leave no winners.

 

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Footnote:

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This article from Washington Post has some of the best explanatory graphics of the foreign aid budget breakdown, using 2016 numbers.

A change

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While I was still in college, my eyes were opened to the reality of modern day slavery.  As a business major, the application for me personally was clear: use my career to support ethical production and consumption, and be an advocate to influence consumer demand in way that does not cause harm towards the origin of the supply chain.
The fashion industry, the world’s 3rd largest industry, is one of the primary creators of many negative externalities we see socially, both from a human rights standpoint and an environmental standpoint.  Fast fashion in particular (both in industry practice and as a consumer mindset of ownership) is especially harmful.
If you’ve heard me rant about fast fashion before (linked post circa my college blog in 2012), or if you’ve ever gone shopping with me, you know that even informed, passionate people struggle with the practice of purchasing ethical fashion (OH TARGET CLEARANCE RACK, YOU COMPEL ME SO.)  It’s a complex issue to say the least.  Back to the connection of modern day indenturehood, “The purchasing practices of Western garment brands have a huge influence, positive or negative, on the lives of garment workers in clothing factories.” (Lotte Schuurman of the Fair Wear Foundation).  Our decisions matter tremendously!  That’s an exciting opportunity to me.  Because if we can leveraging Western buying power for good, we can produce transformative results within this very complex issue.
And that brings me to the topic of this post: a change.
Beginning this August, I’m embarking on a PhD program at the University of Arkansas, where I will study sustainable consumption behavior, marketing, and public policy.  Using an interdisciplinary approach, I will be able to work with a variety of partners (both inside and outside of academia) to explore solutions to social issues in regards to consumerism.
Change comes from several angles.
As I said in my first post, my hope for this platform is that it fosters a process of idea creation.  This blog will continue to focus on consumption related issues; fast fashion is just one example that I am passionate about.

 

For the last few years I have thought a lot about the work that I want to do throughout my life and about the things I might want “to be”:

A continuous learner
A teacher
A writer
A change maker
…To see these wrapped into one opportunity has made me just giddy.  It reaffirms that timing is everything and patience is a worthy pursuit.
To building the new!

La La Land 6 months later ; and a late reply to ‘escapism’

I was about a month late to the La La Land party.  When it came out in early December 2016, I knew nothing about the film, except that it was some sort of technicolor spectacle starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.  (My little brother happened upon their Red Carpet premiere in Paris and sent me a picture; they are seriously gorgeous people.)

I’ll get around to seeing it eventually, I noted.

And then one day in January, I scrolled down my facebook newsfeed to see a 60 second preview for the movie: the scene in which characters Mia and Sebastian (those names!) tap dance in Griffith Park during LA’s golden hour.  Swoon.  A friend and I had dinner plans that evening but I was tempted to change course.  I texted her: “just throwing this out there… we could see la la land tonight…”

She obliged.  A couple hours later, I sat in the plush theater seat with a jar of White Chocolate Wonderful peanut butter and a spoon (hey, everyone has their movie habit) as the opening, overly-cheery scene “Another Day of Sun” rolled by.  By the time the film’s name flashed across the screen at the end of the first number, I knew I had a decision to make.  Was I all in?  Was I going to do this?  Was I going to let myself get lost in this whimsical storytale?  La La Land was just what I needed.  I hushed any question of doubt because deep down, I loved what was happening.

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Choreography from La La Land’s opening scene, “Another Day of Sun”. (credit: Summit Entertainment)

The days following La La Land were filled with lingering musings.  I was struck by the beauty of the storytelling and the tension of the ending.  I also felt an unusual boost of creativity.  La La Land is the kind of film that you don’t just watch and move on.  I wanted to feel La La Land over and over.  I almost immediately downloaded the soundtrack on spotify so that I could continually relive the experience.  I wrote poetry that week.  I took the dog for a walk without headphones, doing my best to take in the beautiful surroundings in a focused way.  I clumsily strummed on the guitar.  I tried my best hand at watercoloring.

As a part of my (I’ll just call it what it is) obsession, I also feverishly read reviews and interpretations of the film and its reflection of our current society.  This is when I discovered the wide-spread assertion that La La Land was merely a form of ‘escapism’; overblown and overhyped, and just what the collective “we” deserved.  (here, here, and here)

I had to think about that one for a bit.

So many things that we consume are to recover from the harder parts of life; the parts that take concentrated focus and attention; the type of focus and attention that loses effectiveness after constant grind.  When I watched La La Land, it was not to escape from life and never come back.  It was to pause; be inspired, feel creativity rush through my body, and jump back into society with new vigor.  I did not watch La La Land to run away and hide from anything.

Now, escapism in its truest form is scary stuff.  Early 20th century scholar Arnold Toynbee coins escapism as a key indicator of a disintegrating society, based on his research of common themes seen in 21 once-great world civilizations.   True escapism is when people in a society seek to avoid their problems [permanently] by retreating into their own worlds of distraction and entertainment.  True escapism marks a period in which consciousness is permanently adrift.  And I don’t think that’s what we have here.

“Escapist La La Land” is a misnomer.  If anything, La La Land, because of its insistent and emotional look at the connection between desire, choices, and outcomes, made me more conscious about my individual creative pursuits and the way those fit into society.

Six months after the US premiere, and as time continues to pass, I think it is hard to tie the merits of this film to merely helping  us through a dicey time in American politics. It is more stirring than just that.

CSA PSA

Friday, May 19, 2017:

I roll the Mini off a busy suburban street onto an offshoot, a gravel road I literally drive by 5 times a week but have never noticed.  For nearly three minutes I slowly travel this winding gravel road to the main stand, taking in sights of the expansive farm: seedlings that would harvest in the coming months, followed by corn that was still low to ground, and finally sprawling greens that were vibrant in the early weeks of the growing season.

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credit: Cobblestone Farm Project

I was here to pick up my first CSA.  (CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture.)

Here’s the quick version of how a CSA works:

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credit: Kilpatrick Family Farm

In a world where I feel so disconnected from most of the products I consume on a daily basis, subscribing to a CSA is (quite literally) a breathe of fresh air.  Cobblestone Farm will be producing most of the food my husband and I consume over the next several weeks (until the final harvest in October).

I see the rise of the CSA as an extension of the farm-to-table trend that has taken foothold in American culture.   (My favorite local Fayetteville farm-to-table restaurants include The Farmer’s Table and Greenhouse Grille.)

For me, supporting local farmers with a CSA is a win-win-win-win.

  • I am consuming fresh eggs and vegetables all season long – and trying new things!  (During my first pickup I received, among many other things, a bundle of mustard greens – that’s new!)
  • I am investing in my local farmers by giving them funds at the beginning of their growing season.  This decreases their need for traditional debt and allows them to secure consumers early in the season, while they have time for such activity.
  • I am voting with my dollar for sustainable farming (what up, soil health.)
  • And since Cobblestone Farm, where I’m subscribed, has a focus on providing jobs and food for those in need (they donate HALF of all yields to hunger relief), I am supporting those efforts as well.
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credit: Cobblestone Farm Project

Like most movements in America, the farm fresh food movement has come and gone – and come back again.  100 years ago, this is how everyone ate!  And throughout the past century as our manufacturing capabilities expanded, so did the variety of our food.  Some innovations like frozen food and mass produced canning provide many benefits, all of which I won’t get into now.  But as the new found food-manufacturing industry took hold, supermarket shelves began to contain more and more processed, food-ish products.  That innovation also has its place, but as many Americans have found, processed food alone will not lead to complete nourishment, which can in turn affect quality of life.  And so society swings away from these innovations and feats of food science and manufacturing – and back to the farm tucked off the (now) busy suburban street.

Maybe it’s the widespread consumer education efforts made by documentaries and books like Forks Over Knives and In Defense of Food, which begins: “Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.” as a guideline for healthy eating.  Or maybe it’s that people are tired of food-ish things don’t fully nourish.  Or maybe, as some progressive food critics point out, farm fresh food is a only a fad for those who can afford it, driving a further wedge between the haves and the have-nots.  (Is anything in our culture NOT actually a complicated socio-economic-political issue?)  I would like to understand the consumer motivations here better.  But one thing is for sure: the farm movement is back, it’s mass-culturalized, and I hope it’s here to stay.

Plenitude and the creative process

A few years ago, I bought some paint.  Gauche to be exact.  I wasn’t sure what had gotten into me: I didn’t know how to paint.  And although I generally consider myself to be creative, I did not consider myself very artistic.  But that day, I just felt like painting.

So, standing in the aisle of the local craft store, I choose gauche.  Gauche is a forgiving and transforming medium, a mix between a watercolor paint and a heavier opaque paint.  The beauty of gauche comes from its ability to transform; the amount of water determines how far you can pull the paint across the page and how translucent it becomes, making gauche highly respondent to creative whims.

The first thing I decided to paint was a decidedly silly portrait of my then-fiance.  I enjoyed the process of mixing and layering paint, with very little skill or strategy or knowledge of fine art.  But somewhere in the middle of this creative venture, I asked myself – what is this for?  And I suddenly felt a weird sense of guilt… why was I using good resources (in this case, my mid-tier gauche) on something silly that had no purpose and wasn’t even beautiful?  I was consuming something to create nothing of real value.

I told myself it wasn’t meaningless; creative pursuits are worthy productions in themselves.  But I struggled to accept that.  I felt wasteful.

I decided to rationalize my new found pastime with a specific purpose.  And that’s what led me to hand-painting 200 invitations for my then-upcoming wedding.  With practice, I created a simple olive branch motif which would easily be replicated over and over.  By the nature of handpainting, each invitation turned out uniquely different.

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In the midst of a stressful season, handpainting wedding invitations became a creative refuge.  I could enjoy the process of producing something beautiful that was also meant to be (at least marginally) useful.  While I found a small success

I’m currently reading a couple of books on the topic of ‘Plenitude’ (here and here).  Plenitude describes the difficult relationship our Western society faces: we technically have plenty of things (even if they aren’t distributed well, but that’s another topic), but there is an eternal desire to produce more things because producing things makes us happy.

This leads me to believe that in an age where we should be concerned with the effects of having plenty (or just plain too much), the process of making new things can get a bad rep, unfairly.  Production and consumption are not dirty words, like a contorted type of minimalism may make them out to be.   But how do we balance plenitude with the very nature of the creative process, which brings about more things?

Does everything we create have to have value?  Who determines value?  Who gets to benefit in order for something to bear the title ‘valuable’?

This is complicated stuff.  I propose a level of thoughtfulness in all production and consumption.  You don’t even have to justify your reasons to anyone else; the mere process of slowing down to bring a level of consciousness to our creations and our consumptions should suffice for now.

More questions than answers swirl around my head at this point.  To be revisited…

who made my clothes?

In 2012, I counted all of the items in my closet.  234.

And then I counted the number of items I had purchased in the past year.  64.

Turns out, I was spot on with the average American in purchasing 64 items of new clothing in a year.

At the time of this experiment, I was a senior in college.  I wasn’t abundantly wealthy – but I was thrifty.  Probably half of these purchases came from a thrift shop or ebay, and the other half came from stellar black friday sales (RIP The Limited) or clearance racks.

As a consumer (and as a college student) my attitude when purchasing clothing was to “get the most bang for my buck.”  And what that translated to was “GIMME AS MANY CLOTHES WITH THIS $20 BILL AS I CAN GET.”

2012 was the year I began to learn more about the phenomena of fast fashion and the direct impact that my behavior had on the entire system.

2013 was the year that Rana Plaza, a factory building in Bangledesh housing mainly female garment workers, collapsed.  Lives were lost.  1,129.

The Rana Plaza collapse brought a spotlight to the realities of creating mass amounts of really cheap fashion.  People were mad.  People started asking questions.  People came to realize that shopping at Forever 21 and Primark drove factories to push their workers into unsafe situations in order to fulfill fast-paced orders.

A Fashion Revolution begun.

April 24th-30th is Fashion Revolution Week.  It’s a time to be curious and ask – “Where did my clothes come from?”

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Pages 4-5 of Fashion Revolution fanzine #001

 

Now when I shop I check the labels and ask a series of questions in my head:  What is this garment made of?  Where did it come from?  Who made my clothes?


 

If you want to learn more…

(images from fashionrevolution.org)

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