26 October, 2012

Going 'pink' not about the green

Here's a piece I did this week for the Salem News. I'd love to say I came up with the headline (the title above) but I did not. Sadly. I wrote the article though - and took the pictures!

Local businesses mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month

They are there for Breast Cancer Awareness Month and are one way that owner Hoang “Ritchie” Phan, 37, is connecting to the local community through his dry-cleaning store.

“This is not about business,” Phan said, “it’s about smiling. It’s about helping someone who has breast cancer look nice and feel good. That’s normal.”

Phan is one of a few local business owners who, during the month of October, purchase unique “pink” products from their regular suppliers to sell or display to mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month. For small businesses like Beverly Cleaners, the reasons have little to do with making money.
“I don’t think it necessarily helps business,” said Bruce Kahn, 54. “It just helps dry cleaners show their customers they care.”

Kahn is a sales consultant with AristoCraft Supply, the dry-cleaning, laundry and tailoring company that sells its products (which in October includes pink bracelets, pink hangers and pink-ribbon polyester bags) to Phan. Aristocraft donates the proceeds of these sales to the American Breast Cancer Foundation and is one of the 40 sponsors listed on ABCF’s website.

“During our first year, about 75 percent of our customers were involved with it,” Khan said.
AristoCraft donated $5,000 to the ABCF in its first year and $7,500 in its second. This will be its third, with approximately 100 New England customers having bought into the program.
One of those customers is Phan.

Other businesses are showing their support in similar ways. Paul Danehy, 37, manager of Curran Brothers Florist in Danvers, says that when his regular vendor offered him a new product containing a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon, he made an impulse decision to buy it.

“It was sort of spontaneous,” he said. “I thought it would be a great way to participate.”
Danehy purchased a stock of wooden plant boxes with a photo cube on each side, one of which contains a pink ribbon. For $19.95, customers can buy pink cyclamen flowers in these pots, $5 of which will be donated to breast cancer research.

“It’s a nice, uplifting gift,” Danehy said. “It touches everyone; we all one way or another know someone who is affected by breast cancer.”

According to statistics from the American Cancer Society, 1 in 8 women in America will develop breast cancer during her lifetime. It is the most common form of cancer among women. With individuals, schools and businesses becoming more aware and supportive of the fight against breast cancer, it is no surprise that the pink ribbon has become so widely used.

However, some people are wary of the current pink trend. The advocacy organization Breast Cancer Action tells people to “Think Before You Pink,” warning consumers about “pinkwashing,” when a company or organization uses the pink ribbon on its merchandise but continues to use chemicals or sell products that are linked to breast cancer. The companies might do this to help increase their bottom line.

On the local level, however, supporting breast cancer awareness is not necessarily a business-motivated decision, as in the case of Beverly Cleaners and Curran Brothers.

After buying the pink ribbon flower pots for around $12 each, offering free delivery in Danvers and donating $5 to breast cancer research, Danehy says he just about breaks even with his pink product.
“We don’t make anything off it,” Danehy said. “But I don’t know if that’s really what it’s designed to do.”

Phan would agree with him. He says that his business is not about making money, it’s about making friends. And supporting the fight against breast cancer is just one way of doing that.

Ritchie Pham (left) and Paul Danahy (right) with their "pink" products

16 October, 2012

Getting in touch with my inner-hippie

I watched a movie the other night that inspired me to be more old fashioned and homey.

The movie (Miss Potter) is the story of British author and illustrator, Beatrix Potter. It's basically about her journey to become published; her quirks and fancies as a children’s-book writer, how she overcome all social and family obstacles and of course got engaged to the man of her dreams. (As a side note, Beatrix Potter was also a natural scientist and conservationist but for some reason the movie-makers decided to focus on her love life...go figure.)

It was a touching, warm and idyllic story and it sent me into a period-drama-frenzy. Over the last week I've watched Pride and Prejudice (new version), Persuasion and all four episodes of Wives and Daughters. 

The effect of all these heart-warming stories, as I said, has been to make me long for old-fashioned, homey, romantic...things. I want to draw portraits and write letters, to pick flowers, make bread (which I did on Sunday), go for long walks in the country-side (hmmm, not much countryside here, and it will all be covered in snow in a few weeks…rats), to read and drink tea (I've had that one pretty well covered since I was seven), have thoughtful conversations with friends over coffee, take long train rides and so on. 
I have the urge to quit my job (and get away from these darn computer screens), live artistically and simply, and devote my days to discovering my inner-hippie.

Sounds beautiful.

But. Unfortunately for my inner-hippie, we have this silly thing called money (and rent and bills and loan payments). Talk about messed up values. 

As a senior in college (last year) I was special. I was told I was smart, going great places, doing great things, an amazing person. Graduation week, I felt on top of the world. Buuut, I didn’t stay there. I’m back at my college as a staff member (Administrative Assistant) and no longer feel special. I didn't go places, haven’t done great things, I’m not even an intelligent student anymore.

Ok, ok, I’m pouting and feeling sorry for myself.

But it’s made me think about societal values. We (me included) are forever looking to the future – to the next big step in life, to what we’ll do when we grow up, to who we'll be when we can say “ I've made it”. And people (me included) are disappointed when we don’t “make it” – when we aren't performing on Broadway, going to grad school, working for peace in Africa, teaching English in Korea, building planes or networking with CEOs in DC.

Do I have to be “making a difference” before my work, my daily life, my existence, can be thought of as meaningful?

I've just started the ambitious project of making a quilt by hand (I don’t have a sewing machine or know how to use one and they sort of terrify me).So far, I’m thoroughly enjoying it; each night when it takes me an hour to tack and stitch two 4”x 4” squares carefully together, I feel creative and accomplished. I feel content.

And I’m learning that this time is not wasted. Just because I take immense pleasure in making simple, beautiful things, and taking time to do it – whether it’s a loaf of cinnamon bread or a nine-block square for a quilt - doesn't mean I’m wasting time. I don't have to return home exhausted from the office or the classroom each day and work late into the night to be 'fulfilled'. And just because I’m no longer a student and don’t really know what I want to be when I grow up doesn't mean I can’t keep learning, be intellectually challenged, be bold and proud of what I do. I can be an Austen-inspired hippie and a student and a romantic all at once!

So tonight I’m going to happily, and without feelings of guilt , sew a few more patches on my quilt while I watch the 2nd round of the American Presidential Debates.

I feel excited and content just thinking about it.

Oh and in case you want to see, here's my bread and the 'progress' on my quilt :)

03 October, 2012

Running: a cultural education in canine-care

This one made it into the Salem News last week. Woo hoo! Pity they don't pay for Op Eds...

I've discovered that you can learn quite a bit about a country's culture when you're a runner. For example, I've recently been struck by the two extremes of dog-care: the non-interference, leave them alone, sometimes leave out scraps of food attitude of people in Thailand, and the take them to doggie-daycare, wrap up their poop in little, blue plastic bags, hire a dog-sitter/walker protectiveness of people in America.

If you're a morning runner - like me - you get to see all sorts of things that the late-risers don't. Like the people who walk their dogs on West Beach despite the "Absolutely No Dogs Year Round" sign at the entrance. In fact, I've become nodding-hello-as-we-pass friends with a brown-haired woman who walks her highly-energetic collie on the beach every morning. The collie's name is Max.

Max races up and down the beach, sniffing and panting as though each morning is his first time there, barking with ecstatic urgency at the gulls and plovers. Max doesn't find me very exciting. Thank goodness.

Dogs can be a runner's nightmare. They bite, they chase, they bark. They're unpredictable. And unlike the gulls and plovers, I can't fly away when I'm chased, an ability that would have come in very handy during the six months I lived in Thailand.

Chiang Mai, a beautiful, modern city on Northern Thailand is full of dogs and there's no pound or animal shelter to keep them in check. They roam the streets in packs, sleep inside people's doorways, live in temple grounds where monks (and tourists) won't chase them away. Unlike the dogs here in the U.S., those dogs aren't pets; they're mangy, scrawny street dogs. Some Thais do keep dogs as pets in their homes but most of the canine population lives on the streets.

I had to be on hyper-alert mode when I ran in the mornings in Thailand, crossing over to the other side of the street whenever I saw a pack of dogs ahead of me. Most of the time they were docile or sleepy and completely ignored me. But not always.

One morning just before sunrise I was running around what's known as "the old city"  - a square block in the middle of Chiang Ma that is surrounded by an ancient moat and remnants of stone walls. I turned a corner, my MP3 music pumping in my ears, sweating in the lovely Asian humidity, when a small part of my consciousness registered a faint shout somewhere (some kind soul taking pity of the poor farang girl was about to be attacked).

I took out my earphones and turned around to see a large, white dog running straight for me. And it wasn't 'oh-look-someone-to-play-with' running, it was 'I'm-gonna-bite-this-girl-in-the-leg' running.

Now, I'm certainly not brave. But I can be immensely practical, and in that moment - as this strange dog raced towards me - my practical mind pushed the cowardly, heart-racing, petrified girl inside of me aside and took control.

I ran forward towards the dog, clapped my hands hard and shouted, "EY!!"
The dog stopped, completely surprised and stared at me in confusion.
"Don't!" I yelled.

Then I did something that made the the cowardly, heart-racing, petrified girl faint inside me. I turned around, and kept running. Thank heaven the dog didn't follow.

Jogging on the beach in Beverly, watching Max yap at the gulls, I am constantly reminded of that dog-chase in Thailand. I've realized that jogging is something of a cultural education, it requires not only physical but also mental energy. You have to abide by the unspoken cultural, social, every-day  rules around you and accept that they are necessary. You have to learn the flow of the country and ride along with it in order to survive. Or avoid being bitten in the leg by dogs.