Thursday, April 26, 2012

When Vegans (Almost) Rule the World...

When vegans (almost) rule the world, vegan nutritionists will be consulted on mainstream news stories about omnivorous diets. They will look very concerned and, while saying that it might be possible to not die prematurely as an omnivore, those people should be very careful with their meal planning.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will complain amongst themselves about all the photos their herbivorous friends upload onto Facebook of their animal-free food. "Ugh, do I need to see this all the time?" they will say. "Is there no safe haven?"

When vegans (almost) rule the world, expectant omnivorous parents will be asked, "Well, I understand that you eat animal products, but you're not planning to force that upon your child, are you?"

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will dread every Thanksgiving. They will have to get together with their vegan relatives and sit silently as dish after dish is served, not even a piece of turkey or anything else from an animal on the table. They will wish that on a holiday, they could just be accepted for who they are.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, meat-eaters will have to eat the foul, cobbled together Omnivore Plate at weddings.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, once identified as meat-eaters, omnivores will have to listen to stories from co-workers about "the cousin of a friend of my neighbor whose son was dating an omnivore and she got really sick and died" and that sort of thing. 

When vegans (almost) rule the world, the best chefs will roll their eyes at omnivorous requests. "I cannot work with such inferior ingredients," they will say. "Those with boring, unsophisticated palates and extreme limitations shouldn't come to my restaurant expecting to eat."

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will be irritated by how they are depicted on television ("So stereotypic!") and they will be crushed when their favorite meat-eating celebrities jump ship and start promoting veganism. "It just makes us all look flaky."

When vegans (almost) rule the world, it will be implied that omnivores are pushy and out-of-touch when they try to defend their eating habits.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivorous parents will worry that their children's packed lunches don't look appetizing. They will also hope that their children's lunches don't draw too much negative attention to them.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will be bitterly disappointed when they discover that their carry-out food has vegetables all over it and no meat.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, smart phones will have special apps to help omnivores find the restaurants that serve meat.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will be competitive with each other over how long they've been omnivorous and judge one another for their motivations for eating meat.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, meat-eaters will hear stories from people at parties about how they used to be omnivorous but they had to quit because it was just too hard. Plus, they felt too weak and sickly.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will feel uncomfortable when people stare at their food with a mixture of disgust and morbid curiosity. "Ew! What was that?" people will say.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, it will be implied that men who are omnivores are wimps and women who are omnivores are on crazy diets. Never mind. When vegans (almost) rule the world, we'll be done with that nonsense.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, meat-eaters will lament the lack of positive role models and wish that they didn't publicly embarrass each other all the time. Omnivores who argue with each other are accused of "hurting the movement."

When vegans (almost) rule the world, when two meat-eaters get married, their friends will ask, "You're not going to have an omnivorous wedding, are you?"

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will be derided for eating mock tofu and faux tempeh and they will be told that no one understands why they'd want to eat an imitation of something that they supposedly don't like. It will be implied that they are clearly stifling their inner-vegan.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, some omnivores will be told that they look healthy despite their habits.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, when groups of omnivores and vegans go out to eat together, the omnivores just know that they will have to suffer through some half-assed meal by a chef who doesn't know how to cook "their" food.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, it will be implied that omnivores must have a ton of willpower to live the way that they do.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will meet each other through the website

When vegans (almost) rule the world, whenever omnivores adopt a dog or cat, they will be asked what they will feed them.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, it will be assumed that any ailment or injury an omnivore has is directly linked to that person's diet.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, it will be implied that omnivores are hypocrites if they wear non-leather shoes.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will roll their eyes every time someone asks them where they get their fiber.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will always be accused of having an agenda.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, it will be implied that omnivores are uptight, inhibited puritans, chomping on dead bodies, ovum and secretions, when it's clear that luscious fruits and vegetables are what the sexy people eat.

When vegans (almost) rule the world, omnivores will be told collectively to get a life.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Dear Alicia Silverstone...

Dear Alicia,

Hi! How are you? It seems like I should be writing this letter in purple ink with my rounded handwriting and slipping it in your locker but I’m hampered by circumstances. I will concede that it’s kind of awkward approaching you in this very public way. Ideally I’d just put this note in your locker or your desk or your hand surreptitiously as we passed in the hall but I still don’t think you seem like the kind of person who would mind getting a public letter. Maybe it is presumptuous of me but you seem like an easygoing, unpretentious type of person. Also, this is the only way I thought of that could potentially reach you so there’s that.

I’ll start out by saying that I think you’re fabulous, but I’m not saying it in that fawning way that people like me might speak to people like you. I’m not one who fawns, anyway, though I totally love baby deer, which I suspect you do, too. (So cute.) Nor am I being sarcastic, though that is my natural default setting. You just seem like someone who smiles easily, has fun, doesn’t buy into the terrifying Kardashianization of Western culture that threatens to swallow us all, which seems like a trite thing to point out but isn’t. Plus you’re vegan, which is a big ol’ plus in my book, of course. I’m being serious, Alicia: I appreciate you and your approachable example of a life well lived.

So please keep in mind when I say what I’m going to say that I like you as much as I can like someone I don’t know. You seem like you’d be a lot of fun at a party and I would totally tell you funny stories over tempeh burgers on gluten-free buns that would make you laugh. Hard, too. So this is it: please, for the love of all that is good in the world, please don’t ever spit up food into your baby’s mouth again. At least don’t do it on camera again and then load it onto the internet.

There. That’s it.

As someone who has been in front of cameras from a young age, you must be somewhat image conscious. I don’t mean it with that shallow, la dee dah “I’m so superficial” connotation we have with the word “image.” (The word itself has an image problem, which is kind of funny.) With image, I mean the impression we are sending the world by how we’re perceived through our actions. Human mothers feeding their babies using the mouth as a means of transportation just is going to be problematic. A vegan mother doing this with her vegan baby is, like, a million times worse. I’m not saying that feeding your baby this way is right or wrong. It’s not for me but I also don’t care. Frankly, I wouldn’t care if you fed your baby on the wings of a mourning dove you rescued or in a hemp seed-encrusted coconut shell sent to you by Woody Harrelson over the Pacific ocean. I really don’t care. Once it gets into the public domain, though, I start to care.

You have to understand that I don’t mean to be harsh, Alicia. It’s just that many in the world consider parents raising vegetarian children to be nutty and that those of us raising vegan children should pretty much be on the DCFS “frequent visitation” list. Do we need to, you know, take this up a notch by pre-chewing and then spitting food into our children’s mouths on camera? I think vegans appear on most internal Orange Alert lists even without such provocations.

I get that this reveals such screwed up values, believe me. People are saying that feeding your baby this way is unsanitary and, meanwhile, they’re feeding their children assorted animal parts that have been “sanitized” with ammonia. Pretty messed up, right? And it’s better that the media should cover the eccentric style in which a celebrity feeds her baby then, like, dedicate time to exposing war, violence and climate change, right? Ugh. We wouldn’t want that.

This is the world we live in, though, and these are the values. Given this reality, and that veganism fundamentally disrupts some core presumptions, I think we need to minimize the weirdness whenever we can. Which is not to say that a whitewashed, generic world void of personal idiosyncrasies is what we should aspire to but to many people, we are the only vegans they know, and that is already quite weird enough.

Maybe also we should get a better handle on “good weird” and “bad weird” in general: good weird is associated with chutzpah and charm. The average person with any taste can’t help wishing that he or she had some of that distinctive, confident style. Bad weird unnerves. It disgusts. It sends eyes searching for the nearest exit. It is the difference between climbing a tree just for the heck of it and imitating a mother robin by pre-masticating your baby’s food and then spitting it into his mouth. This is a wide gulf, you know? Yes, I get that it’s all in the eyes of the beholder and kind of arbitrary but I still think you know what I mean. There’s all kinds of wiggle room there.

I have been bad weird as an outspoken vegan more times that I care to admit. My stint as a vegan stretches way back into the mid-1990s so let’s just say that sometimes I was That One who screamed at strangers in the grocery store. And dressed up as a scary clown at the rodeo and/or circus protest. And dropped banners from viaducts while raising my arms triumphantly. I do not regret that passion or those convictions one iota nor have they diminished; that’s not what the message of this is about. It’s just that when you live a public life as a vegan, you represent more than just you. Because we are still so small in number, we represent each other. I know it’s unfair, but that’s life.

So maybe keep the quirkier of your home movies to yourself and your immediate family. One day you and your baby’s father will watch the movies together and you will sigh, “Aw, hon, remember when little Bear Blu used to let me spit food into his mouth?” But when the rest of the world thinks that skimming an ingredient panel is straight up bizarre, this is just too much, Alicia.

Know what I mean?

So please keep living your eco-fabulous, vegan life and know that I appreciate what you do. You’re kind and natural and the real deal. I’m even not ashamed to admit that I’ve written a novel that I think would be awesome for you to get behind. (What would I have done in the old days if this were an actual letter and I couldn’t put a link here?) I hope that I didn’t hurt your feelings. It’s not you, it’s the world. We’ve got a lot to do – a ton – and we can’t afford to let people get hung up on this silly stuff that really doesn’t matter.

Onward and upward, right?

Take care, Alicia. I just think that from now on, you should let your little guy chew and swallow food on his own, okay? It’ll be character building. You know I’m not mad. Let’s just all vow to do a little better. The eyes of the world are upon us.



Friday, April 6, 2012

Hungry for Underdogs

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Flannery O’Connor

Last weekend, I saw The Hunger Games. I went into it with a lot of apprehension. I think John was surprised when I told him that I would see the film with him as I had been steadfastly avoiding the trilogy ever since it first appeared in our home a couple of years ago. The stark spines have been staring out at me from our bookshelf ever since and I looked past them even when I was desperate for a new book to begin. Something – probably the movie – motivated me to crack open the first one. I started the novel and a week later, we planned to see the film.

I am not one for dystopian fiction as a genre in general. When we know that Treblinka, the Nanking Massacre, the Bosnian war and the horrific Rwandan genocide really did exist, not in the annals of our history books but in fairly recent years, I wonder why it’s necessary to imagine a dark and violent world. I worry that it makes people complacent about the dark and violent world we already inhabit. I consider myself an optimist for the most part but it seems to me that we have demonstrated time-and-time again throughout human history that it doesn’t take much kindling for us to explode in a powder keg of sadism and barbarism toward one another. I’m referring to really ugly, premeditated and sustained brutality that requires the consent of a large percentage of population, too, not just random flashes of violence. If objectification is the spark, disconnection and paranoia are the fuel. Perhaps we are hardwired for it, too, programmed deep inside the reptilian part of the human brain. This is why dystopian fiction has little appeal to me: it’s too real.

Unless, of course, people can extrapolate from these very imaginable story lines and see how our current world easily contains the seeds for the frightening future described. This has been the most interesting aspect of the Hunger Games phenomenon to me: the premise of teens killing teens for the entertainment of the elite was turned into a massively popular series and now film. How is it affecting the consciousness of readers about our contemporary world? Could it awaken people to the gross disparities in the world, the dangers of voyeurism, detachment and oligarchic power structures? Does the story lead to more penetrating insights and questions? Or has the series been spun like cotton candy into more pop culture pabulum, a cautionary tale in and of itself, consumed and enjoyed without much consideration? This is not radically different from how the wealthy in Panem’s Capitol relish the annual fight to the death in The Hunger Games

These questions have caused me no shortage of angst. Given that there are disparities in our world, we like to think that we root for the disenfranchised, the scrappy survivors. The outward support of underdogs is woven into the fabric of our human narrative. From Harry Potter to Jay Gatsby, Norma Rae to Katniss Everdeen, we love cheering on those with the odds stacked against them. It’s a source of pride: I root for the underdogs. We like what we think that says about us, that we root for David over Goliath. 

Is this how it plays out in real life, though?

In the film, Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker (the lead person behind the scenes who helps to direct, create and manipulate the environment the Tributes are fighting on) has a conversation with President Snow that was very telling. President Snow is unhappy with how the Games are going and the conversation leads back to the Katniss somehow managing to elude a gruesome death thus far. The President is displeased.

The Gamemaker, sensing that he has to sell this unexpected angle, says, “I mean, everyone loves a good underdog.”

President Snow icily shuts him down. “I don’t. There are lots of underdogs and I think if you could see them, you would not root for them either.”

This is very true. If an actual downtrodden person were in front of the cold-blooded Seneca Crane, he would avoid that person at any cost. The idea that we like to align with the underdog is a story we tell ourselves, not necessarily something that applies to real life. Harry Potter, the ostracized and weird orphan with the scar on his forehead? We adore him in fictionalized form. In real life, though, I’m not so sure. Norma Rae, the status quo-disrupting firebrand? Keep your distance.

As vegan, of course, I cannot help but see an analogy to the billions of animals killed every year, killed largely because we want to keep enjoying the things we enjoy and maintain our status in the hierarchy we engineered. The quintessential underdogs are the animals humans eat: the birds in captivity, the fish suffocating in giant nets, the calves taken from their mothers, the mothers forced into pregnancy after pregnancy until death. If we were truly empathetic to the exploited and disadvantaged, the narrative we like to tell ourselves, wouldn’t we naturally strive toward being vegan? Wouldn’t that be the best way to root for those who have been institutionally tyrannized?

I think we need to stop repeating this line that we root for the oppressed and have an honest reckoning with ourselves. Do we really? Or do we draw the line at the liberties don’t want to give up? The flesh, the milk, the eggs: are they worth the suffering we inflict and the delusion we sell ourselves? We are better than this. We need to stop repeating this lie that we can care about others and we can exploit them at the same time. 

Monkeywrench the machinery. Opt out. Take a real stand for the underdog. Go vegan.