Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Attack of the 39 Foot Woman!

Attack of the 39 Foot Woman!
The Outs- February 2010
Ellen Jo Roberts

Cue scene…and ACTION! A giant woman invades the Verde Valley! Larger than life, a vision in white! The townspeople revolt violently! Chaos! Confusion!…and Cults? How will this story end? Stay tuned!

The Mago towers at the edge of Cottonwood, along Bill Gray Road, 39 feet tall, and standing on a 9 ½ foot base. Part of the Sedona Tao Center’s Mago “Earth Park”, she represents a vision of “earth mother”, gingerly holding a floating globe within her colossal hands. Like many atomic giants that terrorize the tiny townsfolk, Mago’s origins are in Asia. “Soul of the Earth” is the Korean mythology of Mago. Her outsized presence has stirred the Verde Valley into an equally jumbo-sized lather. For months, hundreds of letters to the editor rant and rave against her appearance: some protests reasonable, others prejudiced and hateful.
Reasonable complaints argue that this statue simply violates the building code, design regulations, and height ordinance. While others quote the Bible and argue against the basic tenants of the Constitution. Still others say it blocks the view and could potentially cause visual impairment to the vehicular public due to its dominance along State Highway 89A. Perhaps the biggest problem many Verde Valley residents struggle with in this tale is the center’s connection to controversial Dahn Yoga, its cult-like leader, Ilchi Lee, and his organization’s questionable business practices.

By the time you read this article, the giant Mago may be gone.
Sorry if you missed her. At press time, the park’s lawyer, Flagstaff land use attorney, Willam P. Ring, P.C., had offered a compromise to Cottonwood’s Planning and Zoning Commission offering to remove the 39 foot statue in exchange for a smaller 9 foot version.

“We understood, from the criteria, that monuments of spiritual quality were not subject the height ordinance”, Mr. Ring explained, at the public meeting January 25th, citing various Cottonwood building codes, “We are willing to admit this evening that was OUR misunderstanding. We are willing to retire that statue and replace it with a smaller Mago statue”.

I am a huge fan of roadside kitsch. We travel far and wide to catch sight of highway mascots, folk art, and assorted monuments to bad taste. There is something just so full of silliness, so full of joie de vivre, it makes me just plain happy to be alive on planet earth. When somebody believes in something so strongly and feels so compelled to create something so crazy, it renews my faith in the human spirit. The Mago and the other various religious figures depicted at the Sedona Mago Center’s Earth Park definitely qualify as Kitschville to the max. I half expected Mother Mago would be holding a giant donut, or a muffler, like her fiberglass kin folk across the USA. So, yeah, I gotta admit, I went there, and I kinda loved it. It was so totally over the top that it knocked my socks off.
The Mago is gigantic and glossy. She can be seen from as far away as Jerome, and far out along Highway 260. She is a pale-faced blonde, in a bright white robe. Locals squawk at her blonde “Barbie Doll” looks. It doesn’t meet our traditional notion of an “earth mother”, which is generally more in earth tones-- like the native and natural tribes that make up the majority of the globe. Against the Arizona blue sky, with Sedona’s red rocks in the distance behind her, she is a striking scene. Looking up at the 39 foot tall Mago I imagine this must be how I look to my pet Chihuahua, Floyd.

“The flowing robes, the grace. Striking.”
Carl Spackler, “Caddyshack” c. 1980

It would only be a matter of time before cartoonist Bill Griffiths (a well-known fan of gigantic roadside weirdness) would arrive in Cottonwood, Arizona to draw a “Zippy the Pinhead” comic featuring the Mago. The park, neatly landscaped with shrubs, trees, and stone pathways, is also home of many other not-quite-as-colossal figures, referred to by the city of Cottonwood as “ornaments’. There is a 15 foot tall Kokopelli statue, surrounded by lil’ multicolored children in action, running, kicking jumping in every direction. Naturally, the native North American legend of Kokopelli is one of fertility—the stranger that comes to town with his big “flute” leaving a throng of pregnant women in his wake. That’s where all these childrens came from! Basically, Kokopelli was just a gigolo! Why are we not protesting him? A small side courtyard features 10 foot tall golden figures of “Enlightened Ones” depicting Jesus Christ, Buddha...maybe Zeus, Confucious, and some Native American figure in full Plains feathered regalia.

While I was at the park avidly snapping photos, a pleasant man cheerfully introduced himself as “Alex, the owner”. We chatted a bit. He explained that the center, their own private property, was something they wanted to open up for everyone to enjoy, for the public’s use. He then invited me to come into a small building for more information and some tea. I saw the pile of shoes outside the door, and lost my nerve. If there were strings attached to this park, I didn’t want to be tangled up in them.

The Earth Park, consisting of 6 acres of land at Bill Gray Road and Highway 89A, was originally issued a permit in 2006 simply as a welcome center, parking lot, and shuttle staging area, to bring visitors from Highway 89A back out to the organization's retreat center many miles along the unpaved and wild Bill Gray Road. The Tao Center of Sedona opened its Mago Retreat in a remote area of the Coconino National Forest between Sedona and Cottonwood back in 1998. The retreat center is renowned for its “green” practices, using solar energy, grey water, and installing thousands of native trees and plants. They have an organic garden, fertilized by compost from their dining hall and manure from their horse stables.

In the past 3 years additional interim permits were approved allowing for such things as small events at the Earth Park, things like farmers markets, weddings, and parties. Landscaping was improved, and small gazebos were constructed. A conditional use permit legally allowed the Mago Center to erect the 50 foot Mago for their opening celebration, December 16th 2009. Once the permit expired, as it now has, the statue would have to be removed. These interim and conditional use permits assumed a final permanent design for the property would be presented within 3 years. It has not been. This makes the Cottonwood Planning and Zoning Commission testy. A stop order has been placed on various additional unapproved projects. .
The public hearing to review the statue’s conditional use permit needed to be postponed a month, when crowds too large to be seated arrived to protest. The meeting location was rescheduled for a much larger venue, Cottonwood’s Mingus Union High School auditorium.

“It’s incredible that you are the only planning and zoning commission in the U.S. to be gullible enough to allow this,” said feisty Cottonwood resident Judy Love, calling the Mago an ”incredibly ugly” statue, “That statue is a free advertising sign to get people into their compound, and relieve them of their money. It’s all about the money. It’s a business, not a faith based church, but it’s along the same lines as Jonestown, the Moonies, David Koresh, and the recent sweat lodge incident in Sedona. We should not allow this to happen in our community.”

“Why not give your neighbors a chance?” asks Dahn Yoga spokesman Joseph Alexander from Mesa AZ, “I have volunteered at the Mago Earth Park. It is designed to share with all people. This is not about religion, or one religion. It’s about recognizing each other as fellow citizens of the earth.”

Johhny LeDoux from Cottonwood declared himself as a member of the Nazarene Church, “To me this is an affront. This is an idol. This is a graven image.”

“I am opposed,” said Cottonwood businessman, Mark Avery, “I did not come here to talk about religious aspects. It should be known that the Tao Center is a for profit business.” Mr. Avery then sited the recent CNN report and investigation of Ilchi Lee. “If you put up a 4 foot statue it is not going to attract anybody. It’s not about religion. It’s about sign code. How can I attract people? It’s my business. I need to attract people. If you don’t enforce this, how can you control it when the hardware store wants to put up a 50 foot hammer?…It’s a business and it’s getting bigger by the minute.”

Ilchi Lee, a legalized American citizen born in South Korea in 1950, is a “brain philosopher”, and founder of a series of brain and body training programs, some criticized for their intensity and danger. Dahn Yoga includes traditional elements of yoga already familiar to us: stretching, meditation, circulation, and “chi” representing human energy flow. The Korean word “Dahn” translates as “primal, vital energy.” But, the program also allegedly features overexertion, sleep deprivation, dehydration, numbing repetition, and other tactics commonly used for breaking the spirit and controlling the mind. Various lawsuits were brought to court and dismissed throughout the ‘00s, including wrongful death, sexual assault, and unfair business practices. A current Arizona lawsuit, filed in May 2009, includes claims against Ilchi Lee from 26 former Dahn members and masters from throughout the United States, and Korea. All plaintiffs claim that after lengthy association with Dahn Yoga (sometimes years worth of various studies and programs, with aggressive encouragement to recruit new members and new money) they were finally “able the break the psychological manipulation and indoctrination sufficiently to leave Dahn.”

“The Dahn organization (“Dahn”), which is controlled by Defendant Ilchi Lee, operates under a complex web of corporate names, and is comprised of myriad for-profit and not-profit business entities and organizations, including but not limited to the Corporate Defendants, Dahn Yoga & Health Centers Inc., Tao Fellowship, BR Consulting, Inc., Mago Earth, Inc., Vortex, Inc., and CGI, Inc., all of which collectively operate and control more than 130 “Dahn Yoga” Centers in the United States, including 6 in Arizona, as well as more than 300 Dahn Yoga Centers in South Korea, 350 in Japan, and approximately 20 in Canada and the United Kingdom.”
-Case number 2:09-cv-01115-SRB in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona

The Sedona retreat hosts about 3000 guests each year, as the primary training facility for Dahn worldwide, and is noted many times throughout the current lawsuit. In the legal documents the essence of the organization comes across as a giant pyramid scheme, an aggressive business plan. Members are encouraged to attend more and more classes, and programs, sometimes going into great debt in order to do so. They’re encouraged to enlist new members into the fold, for more money. Dahn defendants deny all claims made in the lawsuit, referring to the plaintiffs as “disgruntled employees”.

“When Defendants deemed that they had been sufficiently indoctrinated, Plaintiffs were coercively induced to attend an extended Dahn Yoga training retreat in Sedona, Arizona, called ‘Master’s Training’. This retreat was designed by Defendants to further indoctrinate Plaintiffs into Dahn and reinforce a Dahn members 100% devotion to Dahn, and Defendant Ilchi Lee and his ‘Vision’”.
-Case number 2:09-cv-01115-SRB in the United States District Court for the District of Arizona

“When I look at Mago statue I see hope. Hope for unity. Hope for the future I had not seen before I began this practice,” said Johnell Moore a Dahn devotee from Mesa, Arizona. “The United States Constitution gives me the right to practice my spirituality in any way I like, as long as it doesn’t interfere with your rights.”

Danny DeBose, “an American Citizen and Veteran” of Cottonwood said, “One of the things I was fighting for was freedom of religion, for people to worship how they wish. That’s why we came here to this country. I’d like our constitution to be held up. I’m in favor of the Mago Park…Sometimes people don’t like what they see in art. But perhaps this is because they don’t like what they see in themselves.”

Many feel the Mago could become a major tourist draw benefiting the entire Verde Valley. The Mago Center is a for profit organization, with future plans for a motel, restaurant, gift shop and horse back riding at the site of their Earth Park. Hiding behind religion when it suits them, the Tao Center seems to want to play both sides of the coin depending on what side is more advantageous at the moment. In the end, it’s not about religion, business, good art or bad art. It’s about Cottonwood building codes, zoning, and design review. Rules, plain and simple.

5’9’’ Ellen Jo Roberts lives in a historic brick bungalow that meets all Clarkdale building codes.
She shares her home with 6’4’’ Bike daddy Chad, and several rambunctious pets that are all up to date on their vaccinations and fully licensed by local authorities.
Read all about it at ellenjo.com

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Navigating the New Economy

Navigating the New Economy
The Outs - The Noise
January 2010
Ellen Jo Roberts

On “Black Friday,” the morning after Thanksgiving, we were nestled around a campfire, cuddling with coffee mugs to ward off the chill of the night before. We spent the holiday under the stars camped on a wild beautiful bluff overlooking the Verde River. Friends had organized an outdoor banquet, completely off the grid, but not lacking a thing. There were two turkeys, with all the traditional tubers and root side dishes, stuffing, numerous pies of assorted fruits and nuts, and a broad variety of beverages both hot and cold.
As we woke up to the day, all wild-haired and sleepy-eyed, somebody said,
“Isn’t it funny that at this very moment people are storming Super-Walmart, wrestling each other for the best deals on flat screen TVs?”
We all shook our heads, chuckling in disbelief.
The thought that people had camped out in the very same valley, the very same night, but in an asphalt parking lot waiting for “doorbuster deals,” could not have sounded more foreign to us.
Not just because we didn’t have the bucks to buy each other expensive electronics, and not just because the idea never even occurred to us — but also because frenzied spending seems a thing of the past — from a time when people spent money they didn’t have on things they didn’t need.

The current economy may be the new economy, the new normal — with the spendy memories of the not too distant past gone out like a tide that ain’t never coming back.
For us, our lives luckily have not changed too much — but, we’ve never lived large. Actually, that’s just a nice way of saying we were poor and broke before, and we’re poor and broke now. We here in Northern Arizona are well acquainted with “poverty with a view,” so for us it’s like the rest of the country is finally slowing down to our speed.
We may be on a low budget but this doesn’t mean our life isn’t rich. Our newest vehicle is 23 years old, and we don’t have any car payments. We bought a small house with a manageable mortgage. We shop local whenever possible. Many times we just go without. We seldom dine out, see movies at the show, or buy new clothing. Most everything we own is 2nd or 3rd hand. No cable TV, no satellite radio, no high-speed internet. For us, this way of life hasn’t changed much in 15 years.

This doesn’t mean we are without our extravagances.
I like a new pair of Fluevogs every few years, and ordering Fuji instant film for my old Polaroid cameras. Chad has expensive tastes in shampoo and hair wax. He indulges me the cost for art supplies, and processing 35mm film. We treat ourselves to new Levis every year, and splurge on a seasonal bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin. Perhaps our most ridiculous luxury is jetting our Chihuahua, Floyd, around with us on (rare) airplane trips.
Despite these lil’ splurges, we live cheap, filling our lives with experiences rather than expenses. We are very grateful to both still be employed, keenly aware of the many Americans who’ve spent the last few years scrambling for jobs after being downsized, out-sourced, or having their retirement savings swallowed by economic failure.

How has your life changed? In what ways have you changed your habits to navigate the new economy? How have our local communities been impacted, being heavily reliant on tourism? This is what I wanted to know. This is what I asked people. I talked to many artists and creative types who, by nature of their creativity, adapt to whatever is dished their way.
I have friends who’ve taken pay cuts, lost their jobs, and lost their homes.
But even in these tough clouds, silver linings are evident.

“People don’t think so materialistically. They think of other values in life, and live more simply,” said Verde Valley artist, Birgitta Lapides. “So, I think some good can come from it. People can realize the truly important things in life. It’s more who you are than what you have.”
Ms. Lapides shows her work in Jerome, a town that operates in its own economic micro-climate, a different planet than Every Day, USA, but still not completely immune to the ebb and tide of the outside world. Many artists who sell their work in the town have found the need to offer lower-priced series of works because the grand masterpieces are just not selling like they used to. Anne Bassett, renowned Jerome artist and longtime resident, has survived there for years, in times both lean and rich.
“I have aspired to ‘scrape by’ but not actually attained that status yet,” jokes Ms. Bassett. “I expect the US economy to get much worse as our war debt impacts are felt. Our nation's pitiful education system has lost us the edge on being global innovators in technology, and our foot-dragging on global warming has hampered our nation in green advancement, which I believe to be the only expanding financial venue around. My art income has stayed about the same for a couple decades, fluctuations not withstanding. Gold, art and real estate appreciate.”

Real estate, while generally agreed a good investment, has been troubled during recent years, with the realty boom busting big time. Denise Lerette is a realtor in the Verde Valley. She lives in a historic bungalow in Clarkdale, with her cat, Barrington, and dog, Jaeger.
“I'm not exaggerating when I tell you it has been tough,” says Ms. Lerrette, “When it hit our entire economy, it hurt in several different ways. First, of course, is the ol’ pocketbook. I learned how to live very frugally last year. I cannot stress how frugally I really mean! I had my gas turned off for 6 months. I became very adept at heating a tub, doing laundry, and other seemingly common tasks with a bare minimum of energy expended. I did not have cable or even turn on my TV. This I now like! I discovered the library and long walks with Jaeger. I latched on to a little device called a ‘Kill-A-Watt,’ thanks to a good friend in Flag, and got my APS bill down to $25 a month. It taught me a lot about conservation, tenacity, and kindness, above all.”
Ms. Lerrette sees a bright light at the end of the tunnel.
“The upside to all of this was really learning something about the varieties of human natures that do exist. Fortunately, I have not lost my faith in humanity and have seen that human kindness still outweighs its polar opposite. People working together is the only way we will truly survive and live well.”

Bethany Bezdek is a married mother of 3, living in Clarkdale.
The turbulent economy has made a profound impact on her family.
“We gave up our house because of the economy. Big change,” said Ms. Bezdek.
“I used to go to the health food store once a week. Now I go maybe once a month and buy 4 or 5 items. Our grocery bill for the five of us is always more than I think it should be, even with these changes. I grew up on government cheese and powdered milk, so I am not complaining. I still feel very fortunate to have food and to be able to buy it on my own.”
The Bezdeks no longer purchase books or magazines, and have very few meals out. And rather than going to the movies, the family enjoys free entertainment like libraries, parks and hiking. Their life remains joyful, despite the wild financial ride. “Truthfully, it feels fine,” says Ms. Bezdek, “Although I do miss just going out for Chinese on a whim. As cliché as it sounds, I have really appreciated the importance of our family and how lucky we are to love each other and enjoy each other’s company.”

Many people have changed their lives in big ways, and many make changes in small ways that add up big: killing watts and their televisions, cutting cable and internet, brown-bagging their lunches, quitting cigarettes, planning smaller vacations or “staycations.” Many donate more to charity than ever before.

“We really don't realize how spoiled we are until everything has been taken away. Like a kid getting grounded and having their phone, computer and TV taken away,” said Stacey Champion, of Phoenix.
Ms. Champion is the owner of Champion Indoors, an environmental consulting firm. A single mom raising two young children, she takes coupons seriously, and has downsized the “fluff,” like everyone’s nemesis, “Target ‘impulse’ buying.”
Says Ms. Champion, “I feel very fortunate that I grew up Midwestern and blue-collar, because when everything was really good and the money was flying in, I didn't go out and buy a new car, new house, etc. My debt load probably isn't as bad as many other people's because of this. I also take my kids to do as much volunteering and charity work as possible now, so that they can see, first-hand, that even though we aren't able to necessarily ‘do’ or buy all of the things we used to, there is still an awful lot to be thankful for — like a roof over our heads and food on the table. Small but important stuff.”
Ms. Champion, an idealist, believes good times will return, and we will get through this challenging time, “being more grateful and humble in the long run.”

Kenny Mattheis is a jack-of-all-trades, a bit of a genius, and a self-proclaimed “hobo,” who lives in a tiny but chic house in Humboldt, outside of Prescott.
“The biggest change I've had to make in my life due to cutbacks, is the amount of income I can donate to things I believe in. I'm used to giving 60 to 70% of my income to causes I feel will affect my life directly. I'm still able to give the same percentages, but 60% is a lot less these days than it's been in the past.”
Mr. Mattheis is a big fan of a website called Instructables.com, which offers instructions and ideas for fashioning useful second lives out of assorted objects, and things people discard. “Turning some things I don't use any more into useful things I can use, or other people say that they would like, or need. I've even been able to make a little money on the side helping people with projects or making stuff that they would like to have.”

Another issue aggravated by the financial downturn is health care: the millions of citizens who don’t have it, and are farther away from it than ever. “I find myself donating more and more art for raffles or auctions to assist those without medical insurance cover their costs,” says Clarkdale artist Judy Jaaskelainen, “These are people who we might refer to as the ‘working poor.’ They are not 'poor enough' to qualify for AHCCCS or other government assistance, but they do not have the means to cover the cost of medical care.”
Ms. Jaaskelainen is currently involved in selling raffle tickets to raise money for local artist, Mary [Druen] McKeown, who needs two new hip joints. Artists, jewelry makers, and businesses have donated a great list of items. “There will be other fund-raisers on Mary's behalf in the New Year,” says Ms. Jaaskelainen, “Mary is only one of the hundreds, maybe thousands, of ‘working poor’ in and around the Verde Valley. Artists, craftsmen, and musicians seem most at risk.”

In interviewing people, I discovered restaurant meals are the expense most commonly being trimmed from budgets in this new economy.
Jet Tennant, owner of Jerome’s Mile High Grill, runs the restaurant lean, confronting the downslide head on, basing their plan of action on past seasonal successes. “We also keep a strong bare bones crew who are willing to work harder when it is busy, instead of over-staffing. We put off improvements for a year to see how we would be affected. Living in a tourist town offers us a influx of people that other places don't have,” said Ms. Tennant, “I feel like we are riding a wave. It feels a bit wild, but not out of control. Just a ride, which is why I got into the restaurant business and being self-employed in the first place.”

Sedona is one of Arizona’s top tourist destinations, and feeds dollars to all of the outlying communities. Nena Barlow operates Barlow’s Jeep Rentals in Sedona.
“We were lucky to not drop very much early in the ‘recession.’ We have worked a lot harder to make the same money,” explains Ms. Barlow. “We became more aggressive with specials, reviewed and increased our marketing efforts, and set very tight budgets to keep costs in hand.
“What I observed was that the higher-priced goods and services have been the hardest hit. If you have some product that is on the lower-end of the price spectrum for which your customers are shopping, they will still buy. Everyone is looking for a bargain, and no one is too proud to ask for specials or discounts these days. We aren't looking at this as ‘how do we survive?’ but rather ‘how do we run this leaner and meaner from now on?’ Sort of like adopting a new diet — it's not some fad, it's a necessary adjustment we need to make to stay healthy from now on.”

Bradley Blalock is a gifted singer, musician, and a licensed massage therapist, working at the ASIS Clarkdale campus. The current economy has stimulated his creativity. He spends more time practicing music and creating music at home instead of watching TV or surfing the internet. Mr. Blaylock surrounds himself with positive people, “Staying creative and positive, as best I can to live nobly through this, without self-destructively escaping into negative behaviors, one day at a time.”

Our pal Natasha Shealy, a perennial Noise favorite, offers her tips for conserving money. Ms. Shealy lives in smalltown North Carolina, a rural hardscrabble microclimate not dissimilar to our own. She is surrounded by creative people, artists, writers and musicians.
“I cut expenses, and build skills wherever possible. Perhaps a Protestant hangover, I thrill in cutting my own wood for fuel, growing our own food, and brewing homemade beer and wine. I have harvested fowl, but have yet to hunt deer. I leave that to the mountain man … I am recording my ideas for a book to share with others.”
Ms. Shealy has always been inspired by the 1970s series of Foxfire books, with mountain folk telling tales of making soap, building cabins, pickin’ tunes, and slaughtering swine. Something tells me she’d be living this lifestyle and writing about it even if she were a millionaire.

A Jeroman who wishes to remain anonymous shared her secret of success with us: “Once a week I take an hour to tour the great fortune that can be found in the charity and thrift stores of the valley. Had I known what a fun sport this was, I would have started it years ago. When I think of all the countries and cities I have traveled to and yet missed out on the random filtering of items considered surplus! The trickle-down effect of ‘one mans trash is another’s treasure.’ The sport and randomness of finds is a daily renewal on the thrift front. It’s the closest thing to gambling I have ever done ... Some days I want to run out of the store and toss my fist into the air with triumph, and do the Rumpelstiltskin jig of joy.”
I’ve long been an avid fan of thrift shops, dating way back to the year 1985, when a hip older cousin took me to scout out my neighborhood secondhand store in search of a trench coat for his New Wave ensemble. Thrift shops are chock full of housewares, artwork, office supplies, movies, books, clothing, tools, and vintage appliances manufactured better than anything made today and sold at prices well below their value.
We reevaluate the notion of “stuff.” We reexamine the products we use.

The new economy has affected us in interesting and different ways. Some of us not at all, and some for the worse. Some have actually benefited from it, due to special skills, and situations. Many of us live how our grandparents did in the Great Depression, stitching socks, surviving on soup, and growing our own food. Young people just entering the job market have no great expectations for the fantastic career, knowing their fine education now offers no guarantees. Older folks who’ve worked hard their whole lives, planning ahead like the ants for winter, now find themselves in a pickle like the goofy grasshopper, at no fault of their own. Everything’s been erased, re-written, wiped out, like a brand new ball game.
In the end, might we be better for it?
When the true value of the important things shines brighter than bling ever did?
I think you know the answer.

Ellen Jo Roberts is low on budget but high on life. She lives in a historic bungalow in Clarkdale, Arizona with “Bike Daddy” Chad, “Cool Cat” Clyde, “Five Pounds of Fury” Floyd, Ivan a.k.a. “Goofy McSuper-Spaz” and several ancient automobiles.
Read all about it at ellenjo.com