Friday, December 24, 2010

Rebel Jesus

Well, the family is set to take off for Florida for a week of much, much needed travel and relaxation. I'm feeling guilty for all the writing that's not being done but I'd feel far worse to not take advantage of this opportunity to soak up some vitamin D and maybe grin at a manatee or two. I will be back in the new year with whatever it is that I do here. I am very much looking forward to 2011 and achieving some goals that will be defined on the highways between Chicago and wherever it is we find ourselves in Florida, let the sun shine on them some, then let them start to take root on the long drive back.

This time of year can be a complicated, challenging one for a non-Christian. It can feel isolating, lonely and depressing not just for non-Christians, but for anyone who is estranged from her family, isn't part of a relationship, isn't affluent. Cutting away all the baggage that surrounds Christmas, though, we are left with the story of a man who - agnostic, pagan-leaning Jew that I am - I have a lot of admiration for, I have to confess. I have never been into Bible stories, but the idea of this man truly rebelling against the current, living a life full of complexity, courage and compassion, I can get with that. Someone who preached a life of simplicity and kindness, well, I see no harm in that. I think that so many of us have been so stung by the manner in which many religious people conduct themselves we reject the story of Christ because of all that damage. I can understand that. My point is that whether you believe in Christ or would sooner believe something you read in a supermarket tabloid, there is something to learn and grow from with the story itself.

With that long-winded introduction, here is my favorite Christmas song, The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne. It captures my feelings about the holiday beautifully and I'm sure many people feel the same way. I will see you in the new year! Be well and be happy, from a heathen and a pagan on the side of the Rebel Jesus.

The Rebel Jesus

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants' windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God's graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by "the Prince of Peace"
And they call him by "the Savior"
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber's den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There's a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Another Disgruntled Alphabet for Vegans...

Last year I wrote my first Disgruntled Alphabet and because either the idea is so magnificent or my poor brain is turning dirty and crumbly like the snow outside my door, I’m going to resurrect this old chestnut and have another go at it. We can never run out of things to knit ourselves a lovely afghan of annoyance over to warm us on those lonely winter nights.

Like last year, this alphabet is for those days when you wouldn’t change being the awesome vegan ass-kicker you are for anything but you’re tired of the rest of the world, well, sucking so hard. This time of year, the things that irritate and plague us are particularly unpleasant, maybe because it’s all served up with the worst Christmas music etched onto our own brains like a record groove, invasive good tidings from people who couldn't care less about us the rest of the year, crass materialism and red and green junk everywhere. This Disgruntled Alphabet is for days when you just want to curl up in a peevish little ball of dirty looks and judgment and let the stupid year just end already. Make yourself a mug of hot chocolate (extra bitter!), put on your comfiest socks, wrap yourself in your personal afghan of annoyance and enjoy. Last year, my Disgruntled Alphabet had some bright spots interspersed: this year, I'm serving it straight up. You can take it, soldier. We'll get back to the warm fuzzies soon enough.

A is for the predictable but no less Antagonizing way in which your family (or co-workers) think that you can and should just “eat around” the meat.

B is for Buzz-kill, the way you feel when you’re reading the list of ingredients on that fabulous looking chocolate bar or bag of salt-and-vinegar chips when you come upon whey as the second-to-last ingredient.

C is for Caustic, because sometimes you feel like your head might explode if you cannot release the pressure with a caustic aside, like, “Oh, yes. I can certainly understand why you think that tofu is disgusting when you eat animal corpses, mammary secretions and ovum regularly. That makes perfect sense.”

D is for Damn right, I eat plain nutritional yeast straight out of the bag. What of it? Like you don’t have any bizarre habits, freaker.

E is for Eating. Just let us eat in peace. Aren't we supposed to be the annoying and judgmental ones?

F is for Finally, as in I looked through a veritable mountain of winter coats and I finally found one without fur trim or wool and it's not even that hideously ugly.

G is for Gross, as in Gross! What is that at the bottom of my produce drawer? Is that from freaking last summer? Can I just buy a replacement drawer?

H is for Hegan and any other silly media catchphrases that get some attention for about two weeks before being tossed into the dung pile until Larry King half-heartedly resurrects it for five seconds before it is finally, inescapably retired.

I is for, “I’d like to get the burrito without cheese or sour cream. Right. No cheese or sour cream. Right. Could I just get extra guacamole instead? I mean…I’m not getting the cheese or sour cream. A dollar extra? But I’m not getting those things that are costing more so it kind of evens out – oh, never mind. I’ll eat at home.”

J is for Just kidding, as in, “I think it’s awesome that you think you’re rebelling against the status quo by eating bacon like just about every other shmuck on earth. Just kidding!

K is for Kale because, damn, sometimes you feel so broken down by the world you want to curl up in a ball but you should really try a vitamin infusion from this heavyweight of the produce world instead. Or fine, curl up in a ball instead. Like a gallstone, it'll pass.

L is for Listening, which we are forced to patiently do, while nodding on top of that, as people explain that they're not eating all that much red meat anymore.

M is for Michael Pollan and the zombie-like band of self-important meat fetishists that he helped to spawn. Thanks, Michael. The world wasn't heartbreaking enough before artisan, slow-roasted suckling pig was on every foodie's wish list.

N is for New Year's Resolution, in which you intend to be less bothered by the world, and it works pretty well until January third or so.

O is for the Orange wool scarf you got for Christmas and you need to try to exchange this year without a receipt. O is also for limiting the Occasions that will come up for your sister-in-law to see you in the winter without it.

P is for Prissy. You are not prissy! You are Principled and Perhaps Perfectionistic and occasionally Persnickety but you are not Prissy. Oh, so what if you are?

Q is for Questions: do you get enough protein? Are your shoes leather? What about the homeless? Did you hear that tofu will make your son start menstruating out of his nipples: I read this in a very reliable study funded by the Weston A. Price Foundation...

is for, "Really? Are you sure about that?"

S is for Sanctimonious, which, apparently, you automatically are if you have convictions.

T is for Thankful, which you're supposed to feel so much you want to start spontaneously pirouetting for the dead, tortured turkey on the dining room table, the stuffing jammed into the poor bird's anal cavity that you're supposed to be able to eat somehow, the cousin who decides that now would be the perfect time to gloat to you about how she convinced her son to stop being a vegetarian. You're so Thankful you could just burst right there.

U is for Unpleasant. Sometimes it just is.

V is for Vegan, long 'e', hard 'g.' No, Mom, not veggin. How long have we been working on this? No, not vaygun! Never vaygun. I am not clenching my teeth. VEGAN. Vegan. Yes, I'm sure that's how it's pronounced.

W is for Why does everyone think that you are suddenly and single-handedly responsible for creating a solution for every hardship or injustice in the world, natural or man-made, just because you're vegan? How is this fair or rational?

X is for Xylophone. What does a xylophone have to do with veganism? Well, what does the claim that your neighbor's sister's daughter's best friend was allegedly vegan for a week and her skin turned bright green and then she died of aneurism have to do with it, or the fact that while being one you still can't suddenly and single-handedly cure every injustice in the world, or the PETA recently did something embarrassing and stupid that was on the news, or the fact that Drew Barrymore is no longer one have to do with it? So, yes, xylophone.

is for Zingers, because even the most dour, humorless vegan in the world has built up a reservoir of plenty of these over the years. It just happens.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

She Who Laughs Last…

This past week, I've been thinking sort of obsessively about the role of the clown, and humor in general, as it relates to advancing culture and causes. If the personal is the political as the formative women’s studies professors in my past asserted - and I agree - we are obligated to start with ourselves. Like I need an excuse to start with myself: self-indulgence is the writer’s most essential motivation and reward all in one, right behind self-expression.

[Why is writing about humor so dreadfully tedious and unfunny? The process is deeply humbling. Despite this, I assure you that I am a barrel of laughs, a hoot, riotously funny. Present moment excluded.]

The first time that I understood that I really, really liked to make people laugh probably took place earlier than this, but that most obvious first internal click that I recall happened when I was about five or six. A man was at our house to talk to my mother about insurance or something equally soporific and as he sat at the dining room table with her, talking about boring, stupid things, my brother and I chased each other around the room, inspired by the novelty of having an unfamiliar visitor. For some reason, I had a styrofoam cup in my mouth as I chased after my brother, and I slipped on the tile floor and fell, which caused the cup to break off in my mouth. This elicited a big laugh from our visitor. In hindsight, it may have actually been a polite little chuckle, it may have been a titter or a full-on, hearty guffaw, but whatever it was, it was unexpected and highly appreciated. For the rest of his visit, I tried to recreate that unintentional pratfall to ever-diminishing returns. Of course, the insurance salesman didn't laugh again, just adjusted his glasses and returned to his papers, and eventually my mother barred me from the room, but it is easy to see in retrospect that a desire to make people laugh was internally wired from an early age.

Maybe I’m naturally inclined toward clowning because of The Jewish Thing, programmed through an ancestral DNA imperative to distract the guys with the daggers and rifles long enough to survive another day. Maybe it's the result of trying to bring levity and fun to an often claustrophobically unhappy house. Probably it's the confluence of a bunch of factors that astrologers, birth order experts and numerologists can argue over. In whatever case, the end result is that I'm someone who consciously and unconsciously strives to be funny, and, as such, I’ve always looked for the comedy in life. A life without absurdity, inside jokes and the well-timed aside would be such a flat, empty and dreary one that it makes me depressed to even consider it. Like you know how you feel when you're all congested from a bad cold and you can barely feel anything for a couple of days but your clogged up, numb head? That's how I imagine a life without humor to be, a vast internal Siberia.

When I first became involved in advocacy, I was in college. Even though I knew that I was supposed to be serious, grim and strident to be respectably outraged by society, I quickly became bored by anything that seemed like a traditional display or form of protest. As a painting major, it was also expected that I be serious, grim and strident and as much as my wardrobe reflected the Gothier side of life, my spirit did not conform. Why shouldn’t I have been happy? I was out of my parent's home. I had a revolving door of cute, irresponsible boyfriends who set my heart ablaze. I was able to drink what I wanted (and, boy, did I), eat ice cream for dinner, and stay out as late as I wanted along with countless other perks. These were all reasons for a celebration, not sour-faced moping. I couldn’t hide my exuberance and I was told directly and indirectly more than once that I needed to tone it the heck down if I wanted to be taken seriously. Occasionally I bowed to social pressure but usually I did not: I couldn’t suppress myself. 

Despite my instinctive rebellion against how the traditional protest takes shape, I have done my share. I have stood with countless signs, collected signatures, exchanged words with smug passersby. I have marched, yelled, and chanted with the best of ‘em and I have no doubt that I’ll do those things again. I know that sometimes they’re absolutely appropriate and effective. I just believe that the most successful, persuasive advocates work with their best skills front and center. Being creative with our activism, being fluid and treating it as unique to us as our fingerprints, is essential for our messaging and our longevity as activists. I believe that so many people get burned out on this work because they are not doing the sort of outreach that they excel at and enjoy, whether it’s handing out educational materials, organizing vegan bake sales, suing animal abusers or starting a shelter for dogs and cats.

The pivotal moment when my personal advocacy changed was about twelve years ago, when my husband and I were going out to meet some local activists for a protest in front of McDonald’s for World Vegetarian Day. As much as I wanted to see my friends and let the world know how much I loathe McDonald’s, I dreaded going. Every year, it was the same thing: go to the River North McDonald’s, get mocked by smirking tourists, chant for about an hour, pass out some brochures (and pick up the ones that get tossed on the ground), load up the signs and go home. That year, though, I decided that I was done with business as usual. I just couldn’t abide another year of it. So an image flashed in my head, and I found myself spontaneously telling my husband as it developed in my mind like a vision, “What if I go as a veggie burger this year and hand something else out?”

I am lucky to have the partner I do for many reasons. He’s a kinder, more patient, more considerate person than I am many times over. On this day, though, the qualities I most appreciated were his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get behind one of my schemes and his handiness. The man is an artsy MacGyver with an Exacto knife and foam board. He constructed a colorful sandwich board of a veggie burger that I could wear and I was immediately transformed into my vision: Valerie Veggie Burger. The Chicago Diner agreed to let us distribute two-for-one veggie burger coupons, and my nifty husband put together a nifty new brochure for us to distribute. (You should have seen the well-intentioned but virtually unreadable materials – bad photocopies of print outs from ten years before - we were handing people in the 1990s.)

The experience was transformative: instead of people dodging me and averting their eyes, they came to me, seeking what I was handing out. Instead of jeers, I got smiles and thumbs up. Instead of people covering up their children’s eyes, they took my brochure and had them pose for photos with me. Instead of people mumbling that I should “get a life,” they came to me and started conversations, asking for ideas of where to eat. It opened up whole new dialogue opportunities and created a fresh way of relating to each other that wasn’t defensive or aggressive. The dismantling of the old dynamic was disarming enough that we could actually communicate in a way that was real and mutually beneficial.

After I got a taste of what it could be like to stray from the traditional format, I couldn’t get enough, and being the person I am, it usually took on elements of street theater. We handed out green ribbon-bedecked vegetarian dining guides to Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day with the title “Erin Go Broccoli” instead of Erin Go Bragh. I marched in Gay Pride as Valerie Veggie Burger (my husband was Tommy Tofu Dog) and we amused the revelers with our “Eat me!” signs. We put on puppet shows to the lines of people in front of the Shedd Aquarium. Two of my favorite memories: my husband dressed up as a guitar-playing fox and a happy group of us who toasted our good fortune with champagne, singing joyful songs outside of Andriana Furs when a location went out of business: we actually were able to hand-deliver an oversized card we’d made to them, one that said on the outside, “Congratulations on the new chapter in your business…” Inside, it said, “Chapter Thirteen!”  Another time, we went to a rodeo protest, with him dressed as a bull and me as a violent, idiotic circus clown: it was a great opportunity to torment my obliging husband for the purposes of satire.

Not everyone loves this style of activism, that’s clear. Although I noticed that in general fellow activists found their spirits invigorated with our unique approach, others accused us of being silly, making grave issues seem too lighthearted. I can understand the criticisms but I disagree: satire, wit and irreverence should not be underestimated for their sly way of making people challenge their accepted views. Historically, we can look to Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, political cartoonists, Dorothy Parker and the Merry Pranksters, and we can find that their influence on culture leads us today to Jon Stewart, Dan Piraro and countless others who are upending accepted social mores, exposing the absurdity in conventional thought, and have a talent for incisive wit, forcing people to stop and think about things they’d scarcely even noticed before.

This is unproven, but my guess is that if you can make a person laugh, you can make a person think. It’s the same pathway to the brain. If people are more likely to approach you because the way you’re communicating is more appealing, or if they are challenged to think of things in a fresh way because you’ve reframed an issue, I cannot see the harm in it. In fact, using a diversity of approaches is very much to our benefit. Thankfully, it doesn’t need to be an either/or dichotomy: we can draw from as many sources of inspiration as we like.

More important than the issue of whether to use humor or not in one’s advocacy is that we bring our talents, perspective and passions to the table instead of feeling forced into roles that do not fit us. As I said earlier that is a recipe for burnout and the animals very much need for us to stay engaged, empowered and productive. 

Over the years, my personal contribution has become more and more fine-tuned and specific, clearly favoring writing over even my old passion for street theater. When I can merge comedy with writing, that is my ideal point of entry. As I did with the insurance salesman, I’m still seeking that serendipitous comedic moment, that burst of unexpected laughter, and that’s what drives me forward with my advocacy.

But enough about me. What is a passion of yours? How can you utilize it to help make the world a more compassionate place? My guess is that identifying this passion and finding a smart way to harness it (and there has to be a way) is going to be the very best way that you can make a positive difference in the world. It is certainly a better long-term plan than adhering to a tired stereotype or someone else’s notion of what an activist is supposed to be, don’t you think?