Successfully Alienating One’s Neighbors

I just finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals and now feel compelled to post offensive signs in my front yard in an attempt to change my neighbor’s minds about eating meat and animal products. Not, that the signs wouldn’t be true , but people get a bit uneasy when their ethics and habits are called into question.

I’ve been here before, when I first started on me journey of veganism – the confrontational vegan activist phase of my life. It was not something I enjoyed. Mealtimes became battle scenes. Family gatherings were awkward. I bought lots of activist literature to distribute and stickers to put on products in stores that were tested on animals (but was usually too scared to actually place them on products for fear of getting caught). I thought I had outgrown this episode in my life. But this book compels me not to be silent about the suffering of factory farmed animals. Taking a personal stance and changing one’s personal diet is one good step, but trying to get a few other people to join me would be better and is, in fact, necessary if anything is going to change.

But how exactly does one go about this without becoming the neighbor of nightmares? I don’t mind if people talk about me, but I’d hate to become the object of avoidance or to have my kids targeted because of something I did. I don’t, in short, want to become the wacko freak lady who puts signs in her yard. I have a decent relationship with quite a few of my neighbors. Our children play together. We have them over for dessert. They stop and chat with me when I’m working in the front yard garden. I don’t want this to change. They’re nice people. But they all eat factory-farmed meat and processed cheap food.

I am just utterly mystified that people who mostly like animals (I don’t know many people who don’t have a dog or cat at home) can so willingly fill up the pockets of those corporations that routinely torture, deform, and cruelly slaughter animals. Is it a case of ignorance is bliss? Or simply they’ve been duped by our terribly dysfunctional and unethical food system? I realize money is tight and most of these people grew up eating cheap, processed food. I did, after all. Lots of these people, my neighbors, probably can’t afford to spend the $150 – $200 a week on organic, muchly local, “health” food that it takes for me to feed my family of four (that expense also includes personal products and vitamins). But I also choose not to buy a lot of new clothes and thrift store shop, when possible. We don’t eat out terribly often and I cook most meals from scratch. In other words, if it means spending a bit more on food and opting out of cruelty, I’ll do it. Many argue that eating organic and vegan doesn’t have to be expensive. True. IF you buy only fruits, vegetables, and staples like dried beans, flours, oils and tofu. If you are buying processed foods, like breakfast cereals, crackers, cookies, canned soups, you can expect to pay pretty dearly. A trip to the farmer’s market to buy fruits and vegetables in the summer costs me about $30 – $40 a week, if I’m not stocking up on a case of peaches, for example. And this is only to supplement what I grow in our garden at home. 

My husband thinks I should take the environmental angle – “It takes umpteen thousand gallons of water to produce one steak” argument. Or, better just stick to the positive and put up a sign promoting the importance of gardening at home. Meanwhile, I’m thinking up more blatant, disturbing messages: “Eat Meat. Support Animal Abuse.” “Factory Farmed Animals – the New Holocaust.” “How many animals suffered to feed you today?” You get the gist.

I’m not one of those naive vegans who think it’s possible to convert the entire world to veganism. And, unlike most vegans, I don’t necessarily disapprove of local farmers who humanely raise and slaughter their own animals. If you’re going to eat meat, this is the way to do it. I would even argue that this is more natural than veganism. I just can’t make the leap myself from caring for and loving an animal to slaughtering and eating him. I’m not comfortable with blood on my hands or bloody hands on my behalf. But I think most rational people would agree that factory farming is beyond inhumane and is not sustainable. If the coorporate farms and slaughterhouses cease to exist, and people curb their insatiable appetite for huge quantities of meat and animal products, we would all be better off.


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Doing things differently

During the past year or so, as I’ve been reading more and more about food issues, peak oil, climate change, etc. I’ve noticed a shift in my thinking. The things that always felt kind of normal to me – like shopping at Target – make me feel guilty in new and wonderful ways. Now, instead of feeling guilty for simply spending money, I feel terrible in a layered-lasagne sort of way. First, there’s the money, of course, then the consumption of resources, then the environmental impact that went into manufacturing whatever it is that I’m buying, then the fact that I’m helping support a store that doesn’t necessarily uphold my preferred standards of doing business (local, sustainable, fair-trade, fair labor), then there’s the ultimate disposal of said item (slow, toxic-leaching disintegration in the ocean or an artifact in the landfill?). I’m sure, if I thought hard enough, I could come up with a few other reasons to add to my guilt heap.

Today, I was shopping to buy presents for three birthday parties my son is going to this week – one for a neighbor and two for classmates. As I’m driving, I’m listening on NPR to stories about the terrible earthquake in Haiti. Let’s see, I could donate the $30 I was going to spend on the three gifts to help relief efforts in Haiti, but somehow I think the parents and kids who invited us might not be so appreciative or understanding. Now, Legos, which is what I set out to buy, are at least not complete junk and find many creative uses. They are almost indestructable and definitely re-usable. Still…how can I even be thinking about going to Target when tiny children are being turned away from orphanages to fend for themselves on the streets of Haiti! Why am I buying more plastic crap for kids who have no need of more toys? Why am I, not even ranking  as middle class in America, so fortunate and others so dirt-eating poor?

 I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I am thankful that my son was invited to these parties. He loves to be included, and of course, to have fun. But part of me also feels a bit strange that these school families have far more money  than my family will likely ever see and here I am buying them more stuff they don’t need.We have been invited to three parties for kids from school so far this year and none of the invitations has said “no presents please,” or “in lieu of present, please donate to…” My son goes to a $16,000 a year school. We are on financial aid and pay a tiny, tiny fraction of that amount – another something for which I am greatly appreciative. I am trying to view the gift as a “thank you” for inviting my son to the party and to let it go at that. 

Still, could I have done things differently? Yes. I could have bought books from my local independent children’s bookstore. That, at least would have been more in line with my values. I was trying to please my son, who said that his friends both liked Legos. And, I didn’t want my son to be embarrassed when his friends opened gifts that they may not have been that excited about. I could have given them something useful – warm socks, art materials…I don’t know.I could have made a donation on their behalf and just left it at that. Am I just trying to meet expectations that weren’t there? Would the parents even have cared? Or would my son be banned from future birthdays or become the kid whispered about when the parents mingle at future parties? Maybe, in light of the bigger things in life, it just doesn’t frickin’ matter.  Live and learn, right?

I could start whining here about how all of the fun has been taken out of nearly everything that I used to think of a commonplace and normal – birthday parties (festivals of excess), running through a sprinkler in the summer, for instance (waste of water). Or, getting a cup of coffee out (was it a local business? fair trade? how much fossil fuel was used transporting it or in the manufacture of the cup or packaging? the landfill – oh the landfill). In truth a lot of the fun has been zapped in the keister because I am simply more AWARE. My actions have consequences. Whether I want it to or not, my being on this planet makes an impact  I have a freakin’ footprint! Once you become aware, you can’t go back. This leaves me with a couple of choices:

a.) I can choose to ignore the impact and consequences of my actions and live pretty much like most people in industrialized society. Shop, shop, people. The economy is tanking, afterall! We must do our part. And, while you’re at it, why don’t you pick up some Big Macs and fries for the whole family?

b.) I can learn to enjoy life in new ways, try to minimize my ecological footprint and encourage others to do so.

Once the Buddha became enlightened, did he say, “Screw this enlightenment thing, take me back to the palace!”? I think not. Do scholars give up their books and attempt to return to an illiterate state? Well, I suppose there have been a few who became hermits and didn’t do the world much good for all of their brain power. Still. Would it be ethical for me to ignore the state of the world and continue to live an unconscious life? Probably not. 

Jesus, I’m not perfect by any means. I probably rank with Al Gore – simultaneously cattle ranching and living in huge, luxurious houses and flying around the planet doing some fairly good work in talking to others about global warming. I do find myself becoming self-righteous at times when I compare myself to others and their planet-trashing ways. I’ll think, “Look at that Hummer (the roads are ruled by SUVs and trucks here in Denver)! Who do they think they are?” and I’ll stick my nose in the air ever so slightly as I speed by in my 10-year-old Subaru wagon. Does awareness come with an attitude? Or maybe I should take a more enlightened approach to enlightenment – everyone is doing the best that they can given what they have. Ugh! There’s some monster inside of me that is repulsed by that do-goody talk. We’re not doing the best that we can! Christ, we’re stupid and lazy and immoral and we need to get off of our infomercial-watching, Cheeze-it fattened butts and do something!!! That’s really what I want to scream. 

And then, there’s lil’ ol’ me. We (my family) do live fairly simply. We garden. I bake my own bread. I preserve food for winter. We try to conserve our water and energy use. I try to support local businesses and local food. We buy used (furniture, clothes). We recycle. We’re vegan (I hear livestock are the number one problem in global emissions – not to mention polution). I wash and re-use baggies. I compost our kitchen waste. We buy green and organic.

Yet, we drive a bit (about 10,000 miles a year). Our city’s public transportation is pretty inadequate for places we need to get to and we’re very pinched for time when we change the guard to balance child-care and our two jobs. I’m not exactly volunteering my time anywhere because I have no time to give unless I paid someone to be a mommy to my kids during the day. As it is, I work three nights a week and a full day on Saturdays outside the home. Our family time suffers, but the kids at least have one parent caring for them at all times – few exceptions. Did I really need a new sofa to replace the 35-year-old, twice re-covered hand-me-down sofa? Probably not. And now, I’m regretting the purchase. I use our clothes dryer almost daily, though I do hang some loads outside. Do I have any place turning my snooty nose up at those who don’t do as I do? I struggle with this and it certainly doesn’t make me happy. Perhaps that’s one other thing I need to learn how to do differently.

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If you can’t beat the Bushmen…

My latest foray into the gloom and doom literature predicting our bleak future is Workman’s book Heart of Dryness: How the Last Bushmen Can Help Us endure the Coming Age of Permanent Drought. Cheery title, don’t ya think? I especially like the word “endure.” Maybe it’s just me, but crouching under the minimal shade of dry brush all day, limiting my brain activity and physical movements to dusk and dawn, and burying myself in urine-soaked sand to keep cool are not at the top of my “Things I Want To Do In This Lifetime” list.

Nothing against the Bushmen, of course. These tough people are the closest genetic link to “first man.” Even when threatened with military force, separation from their families, and death if they don’t give up their “primitive” ways, the bushmen choose this lifestyle over a more leisurely, modern one. I admire and respect them, yet I confess that I have no inclination to join them. 

For months, I’ve been reading books about the coming emergencies due to climate change, peak oil, possible pandemics, etc. And, I’ve been taking some reasonable steps to prepare my family: storing water, stocking a pantry, buying cast-iron cookware, making sure we have adequate warm clothing and bedding. But, the thing is, if there’s no freakin’ water, what the heck is the point in learning food preservation, baking my bread, grinding my own grain, learning to garden,stockpiling food, buying all sorts of survival gear…

My brain reels after I read books like this. I’m left with a strong sense of  – I wish I could say urgency, but it’s more like PANIC. There’s no possible way to prepare! And, even if we take huge steps to cut global emissions and the planet doesn’t warm up any further than it already has, looks like the desserts will continue to spread anyway, the water evaporate, rains cease to fall, ice caps melt. We’ve already screwed ourselves with technology and changed the weather patterns so drastically that there’s no turning back.

It’s hard to know what to do with all of this information. Colleagues at work urge me, “Stop reading that stuff!” But, it’s addictive. I can’t get enough. I keep hoping some resource will give me a comprehensive list that I can follow methodically and somehow avoid the unpleasant future: 100 Things You and Your Family Can Do To Avoid Being Wiped Off The Face Of The Planet. 

If it were just me – or even me and my husband, that’s one thing. Say, “black tongue and dehydration-induced delusion” and I’m all over it, baby. But I have kids. Someone please hurry up and create the list that will get us through this.

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Why don’t she write?

Here, for your enjoyment, is the streaming dialogue going on while I’m attempting to write the post I started earlier today. This occurred during maybe the first three paragraphs of the post.

Two-year-old Bodhi, looking at a big book about animals (and me responding after every inquiry or comment complete with turning the book to the pages he wants):  “Show me the antelope. Where’s the mandrill? Do you have a phone in your purse? Could I say ‘hi’ on it? Where’s the zebra? Do we have a zebra in our box? What’s this? What’s this? What’s this? I want an apple. Show me the gorilla? Is this a daddy gorilla? Do we have an ostrich at home? Do we have a big horned sheep? I want some more apple. Do you have a peacock? What is amphibian? Do we have bitey book? Do us have ostrich at our house? I want tofu taco..”

Oh. My. God. The torture.

And this, dear readers (well, ok, reader of one – I have no following to speak of) explains one of the reasons why I go weeks without posting. 

On top of this brief taste of my life, I also, in the space of 4 hours (from 6 am – 12 noon), got two kids dressed for the day, fed them, sent one off to school with homemade lunch in hand, baked homemade bread, did two loads of laundry, changed 2 diapers, took out the trash, filled bird feeders outside, did dishes, unloaded the dishwasher, made 1/2 gallon of homemade chai, read several books with Bodhi, played with Bodhi, showered, and fixed lunch. And then Bodhi napped for 15 minutes and soon it’s time to start on dinner before I go off to work.

Why don’t she write, huh? I’ll tell you a thing or two…

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Dirty Dancing No More

Feeling nostalgic a couple of weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Dirty Dancing and watched it  while pinned to the couch by a sleeping toddler. Patrick Swayze was on of my admired hotties when I was a teen and I’ve been kind of in a funk about his death. Oddly. Strangely. Because I haven’t paid any attention to the guy or his movies since I was a young woman. 

At any rate, the movie was pretty awful, though the dancing and music was a bit fun. I laughed my way through it, embarrassed that I had once adored the thing at all. Ah, the ignorance of youth. I recall my girlfriends and I sitting around weeping to a song from the movie, “She’s like the Wind,” when my boyfriend at the time (a runt of a guy about whom I was never even remotely serious but who had provided me with my first official make-out session) broke up with me. Oh, the drama. 

So, there I am with a dozing Bodhi on my lap, chuckling and even hiding my face in shame during a few of the more awkward and poorly acted scenes, when it occurs to me, I’m never going to be a famous dancer. I’m too frickin’ old. Not that I ever even aspired to be a ballerina. But, suddenly I was terribly torn up about what I would never accomplish in my life because I am now OLD. I started making lists in my head: I’m never going to be a famous singer,  or an actor, never going to have an affair with someone adorable and famous, never going to have a grand adventure . . .

What was this? A mid-life crisis? Seemingly, it’s irrational to mourn the loss of things I never wanted in the first place. Yet, here I was feeling morose because a crappy movie had reminded me that my youth had passed. I decided to drown in the feeling for a while and ordered a bunch more of Swayze’s movies. Then, I went on to read Swayze’s autobiography. I am not a biography reader, for the most part, and don’t follow the “stars” in People or tabloids. Heck, I don’t even watch television, so again, it was odd that I was even stirred to read about the guy. Yeah, he died youngish (57), yeah, it was sad. But it’s not like he was Gandhi or anything. 

Anyway, here I am a few weeks down the road, doing what I do – being a mom, baking bread, taking care of the house, dreaming of this spring’s garden, planning my family’s future. And, you know what? Mostly, I’m fine with it. So what if I’m never remembered for anything other than loving my kids and being a good cook? I might not make headlines, but my work is valuable. Besides, there’s still time to become an author someday, right?

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child not sleeping

mommy not writing

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Bye-Bye Vegan Diet? Or, Little Cluck Cluck Meets the Axe

Could I be a killer? That is the real question. I know, I know, I sound like a bit of a whiner. Anything living ends up killing something even if the killing is accidental:  chopping up worms when I dig the garden soil, crushing ants as I cross the driveway, the endless smearings of flying critters spattering my windshield as I drive. What’s the big deal, right? The thing is, I feel bad about even these deaths – the deaths can’t control. I can only imagine how it would feel to intentionally slaughter something bigger than a bug – something with a distinct personality, soulful eyes, and a significant amount of blood.

I doubt that many hunters sob over the prostrate bodies of the animals they kill, but I can guarantee you I would. No victory dances for me, thank you very much.  On a PBS show, I once saw Ted Nugent prance wildly in celebration around a dead wild boar that he had shot with an arrow in one of his hunting videos. I found that disrespectful, disgusting even. To gloat over another living creature’s suffering and demise, shameful – especially since this animal was going to feed his family. This is the problem I have with hunting for “sport.” Hunting to survive is one thing and the animals should be respected in life and death, but “sport” implies the right to gloat, to preen and prance about as if it death for death’s sake is a victory.

One of the things that I’m a bit concerned about with the coming of peak oil…well, ok, more like panicked aboutis the possibility that I may have to eat animals or animal products again out of sheer necessity. While I’ve worked through my ethical concerns about eating the eggs of fowl that I would obtain from ethical sources and raise humanely on my own property, I cannot reconcile myself to dispatching one of my hens when she reaches retirement age. Thanks for the years of service, Henny, now into the pot you go! Knowing that our economic status would probably prohibit me from continuing to feed a “nonproductive” member of our household (kids not included), brings up all kinds of uncomfortable issues for me.

I understand the reason behind responsible animal husbandry – grass-fed, naturally raised beef, for example. I know the history of animal domestication and the reason why raising animals is an essential part of farming – especially organic farming. Grazing and foraging animals like chickens, goats, cows produce tons of natural organic fertilizer and, in small numbers, benefit the pastures they graze upon. The poop helps the grasses grow and can also be spread on garden beds to enrich the soil. The animals supply the farmer with one or more “crops”: milk, meat, eggs, wool. The animals live a good life and then bang (or whack), they feed the farmer’s family. The problem for me comes when you’ve spent months or years caring for the critters every day and suddenly it’s not an issue to send them to slaughter. I know farmers who talk as if they love and care for their animals yet still enjoy them on the dinner plate. I’ve read books and heard interviews with farmers – farmers whose general philosophies and practices I would mostly approve of otherwise – who have no trouble viewing their livestock as commodities – a crop (I think it was Barbara Kingsolver who put it that way). They gave them a good life and have no problem giving them a “good” death to feed their families or make a living. They aren’t sentimental about their animals even though they take the time to scratch a sow’s back or mingle with and pat the cows every day. Granted, these animals will die from natural causes or disease eventually even if they weren’t destined for dinner. I have a problem being the agent of that death.  What gives me the right to decide that a year or two is long enough for a cow to live when they might live to be 15? 

I’m also familiar with the idea that domesticated animals wouldn’t exist without us – true enough. However, I don’t buy into the thought, raised by some, that these animals have “thrown in their lot” with us and agree to feed people in return for the privilege of existing. I don’t believe animals would willingly sacrifice themselves so that their species can continue to exist. This is not to say that animals don’t have a sense of the future – just not the future in those terms. Faced with danger an animal will not choose to be killed and eaten if given the opportunity for escape. 

I do not disagree that in subsitance agriculture, animal products provide essential fat, protein and calories. However, Americans, most of us, are not living hand to mouth. It is the CHOICE not to contribute to animal suffering that keeps me returning to to veganism. If i did not have this CHOICE, if my family was dirt poor and a few chickens could make the difference between starvation and survival, yes, I could still choose to let my family perish, but that would seem pretty silly. Being vegan is a luxury allowed by our current somewhat “elite” (as compared to much of the world) lifestyle. Now, many people in the world eat very few animal products because they are costly and dear and this is how it should be. Instead, our society has cheapened animal products so much that we raise millions of animals in such nightmarish conditions that death is probably a welcome blessing for them. 

As long as I can, I will remain vegan (with the exception of a the few humanely acquired eggs I’ve mentioned in the past). Now, honey is another issue…and I’ll talk about that some other time.

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