Ninth of Av

Last week was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, or the Ninth of Av.  This fast day is arguably a minor religious holiday (compared to the High Holy Days, Passover or Sukkot, for example) and often passes unnoticed by all but the Orthodox.

We have quite a few fast days on the Jewish calendar throughout the year.  Like many Jews, however, the only one that I observe is the granddaddy of them all, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).  Growing up, however, I attended a very religious Jewish school and was quite observant.  My memories of Tisha B’Av are not the best, which I suppose is fitting, considering the nature of the holiday.  The fast day always fell during summer vacation, so I had to watch for it on the calendar in order to avoid missing the date.  I was aware that it was a day of obligation and that I was expected to fast.  My parents and sisters, however, were nonobservant and had no interest in fasting.  I recall stopping at Dairy Queen with them on a sweltering summer afternoon and then remembering that it was Tisha B’Av and that I was not supposed to indulge.  As I was always obese, my parents didn’t mind a bit that I chose to abstain.  I would stew quietly as I watched them munch their Dilly Bars and ice cream sundaes.

Tragedies, mourning and hope

Tisha B’Av commemorates the date on which both the First and Second Holy Temples, in which we offered daily sacrifices to God as required by the Torah, were each destroyed.  The First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians (under King Nebuchadezzar) in 586 B.C. and the Second Temple by the Romans (under the Emperor Titus) on this date in the year 70 A.D.  Other tragedies befell the Jewish people on the same date in later years, including the expulsion of the Jews from England (by King Edward I in 1290) and from Spain in 1492.  The latter event is known as the Alhambra Decree, signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in the very year that their speculative investment bore them vast riches when Columbus discovered the New World.  Interestingly, the Alhambra Decree was not formally revoked until 1968.

As you may imagine, Tisha B’Av is traditionally a day of intense mourning.  The destruction of the Second Temple and the razing of Jerusalem irrevocably changed the face of Jewish life, ushering in the exile (known in Hebrew as the galut) to the Diaspora that continues to this day.  Where we once were unified in the Holy Land given to us by God, our misdeeds resulted in nothing but sorrow and tragedy as we were scattered al arbah kanfot ha’aretz, to the four corners of the earth.  According to Jewish tradition, Moshiakh (the Messiah, Elijah the Prophet) will one day gather the dispersed from even the world’s most remote outposts and return us to Jerusalem where we will rebuild the Holy Temple and once again offer the sacrifices as prescribed by the law.  The Shemonah Esrai (18 prayers) that the observant recite three times daily reiterate our fervent wish for the return of Elijah, as we believe that constant prayers of yearning will hasten the Redemption “speedily in our days.”

Thus, while the theme of Tisha B’Av is certainly one of expressing grief over our losses, it is also tinged with hope for Redemption that we believe may be at hand.  The Torah closet is draped in black and we read verses prophesying doom (from Jeremiah), verses describing catastrophe (from Job) and the entire mournful book of Lamentations.  Yet we balance this with verses from Exodus describing repentance of sin and God’s grant of our request for absolutions.  Finally, we recite 16 verses from Isaiah, beginning with “Seek the Lord when He is found, call Him when He is near.  The wicked shall give up his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and he shall return to the Lord.  Who shall have mercy upon him, and to our God, for He will freely pardon.”  Is. 55:6-7  We know that the pain of what has been taken away from us will not last forever and will, in fact, be replaced by the joy of restoration in due time.

Rituals and culture

On Tisha B’Av, many engage in symbolic gestures that, in the Jewish faith, are associated with mourning the death of a loved one:  Ashes, sitting on low benches and refraining from all signs of joy or luxury (even extending to not wearing leather or jewelry).  Weddings, parties and even haircuts are not scheduled on Tisha B’Av or the weeks leading up to it.  From the days of my youth, I recall much cultural ribbing associated with these proscriptions.  For example, I remember my mother singing a Yiddish folk song that began with the verse “The wedding was held on Tisha B’Av and no one came.”  And then there was the Allan Sherman comedy album song (played on my father’s stereo turntable) about lost love that contained the clever rhyme “Oh why did she have to fall in love/I haven’t seen her since Tisha B’Av.”  Before I was old enough to appreciate the solemnity of the day, I remember thinking that both of these were hysterically funny.  At the risk of being sacrilegious, I now realize that injecting a bit of humor into a black situation is a psychological coping mechanism that helps us get past the gloom that is the order of the day.

The prayers and scriptural readings of Tisha B’Av are actually the culmination of a three-week period of solemnity beginning with another fast day, the 17th of Tammuz.  A number of disastrous events befell the Jewish people on that date as well, including Moses’ breaking of the first set of tablets of the law (upon witnessing the worship of the Golden Calf), the end of the offering of sacrifices in the First Holy Temple (due to running out of sheep during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem) and the Roman breach of Jerusalem’s protective walls that led up to the burning of the Second Temple.

The three weeks

The 21-day period between the two fast days is supposed to be a deeply introspective time, during which we reflect upon ways in which we can improve the state of the world through deeds of kindness and charity, and through forgiveness.  We all get caught up in our regular routines, spending our time in fulfilling professional and family responsibilities, and it becomes all too easy to overlook the needs of our community that stare us in the face daily.  Turning a blind eye to our homeless, our poor, our children, our elderly and our lonely is part of the reason that we suffered all the losses that we mourn at this season.  Our only hope of hastening the Redemption is to take assertive action to take care of those who most need us.

This three-week period of mourning that just concluded presages another time of introspection coming up at the end of next month.  The asarah y’mai teshuvah, the Ten Days of Repentance, begin with Rosh Hashannah (Jewish New Year) and end with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Informally, we refer to this period as the High Holy Days or, in Hebrew, as yomim noro’im (the Days of Awe).  Tradition holds that this is the time of the year that God judges us on our deeds of the past year and decrees our fate for the coming twelve months.  It is a time of prayer and repentance, of recognizing and confessing to our misdeeds and the needs of others that we ignored.  As many of us do on January 1, on the Jewish New Year we make resolutions for self-improvement.  Rather than focusing on personal goals such as weight loss, smoking cessation or increased fiscal prudence, however, our resolutions are other-directed.  We say in the liturgy that we “afflict our souls,” meaning that we search inside ourselves for the strength and motivation to bring our agendas closer to God’s agenda.  We seek to “avert the severe decree” by changing our ways, by being less selfish, by opening our hearts, our homes and our wallets.

Honoring our Father

While the month of Elul (an Aramaic word meaning “search,” as in “to search our hearts”), the final month of the Jewish calendar, is the direct lead-in to the High Holy Days, one could say that the current month, the month of Av, is the true start of our holiday season.  As we do at Halloween, we realize that the holidays are upon us even though we still have a couple of months to go.

The very name of the month of Av is fraught with meaning.  At its most basic level, av simply means “father.”  Many Christians are more familiar with another Hebrew word for “father,” abba, as the phrase “abba father” is found in many modern Christian hymns and sermons.  However, av is the word for “father” most commonly used in the Torah, perhaps most famously in the Fifth Commandment (kibbud av va’em or “honor thy father and thy mother”).

In our secular tradition, we honor dear old Dad on Father’s Day in June.  In the Jewish tradition, however, we have not just one day, but an entire month to express our appreciation to our av!  While, on one level, this underscores the deep reverence and respect for our parents that is an integral part of Jewish culture, the month of Av is equally dedicated to our Heavenly Father.   Av is a great time of year to increase the attention and affection we bestow upon our parents, or to fondly remember them and ponder the many things we learned from them and the many kindnesses they bestowed upon us.  But Jews the world over also find it an appropriate time to improve our relationship with God, to spend more time studying scripture, to spend more of our discretionary income on charity and less on Starbucks, and to spend more of our energy attending to the needs of our children, our elders and our community.

For the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz, Tisha B’Av, and the big one, Yom Kippur, are rendered meaningless unless our ritual practice spurs us on to action that makes our world a better place in which to live.

How Do You Help an Alcoholic?

Homeless Guy #2 was released from jail this week.  All of us were surprised, as he already has multiple probation violations on his record.  I’m glad he has been given another chance, not because of his particular circumstances, but just because I believe everyone deserves another chance.  After all, God keeps giving us chances to improve, to do things right this time.  And who am I to argue with God?

Our friend’s next court date is a year from now.  Depending on one’s outlook, that either gives him a year to get his life back together and prove himself, or it gives him 12 months’ worth of opportunities to mess up again.

Upon his release, #2 immediately moved back in with his wife at her mother’s home across the way from us.  The next day, I saw them holding hands, and then they came to pay us a visit.  Sitting across from each other in the living room of the parsonage, this heavily tattooed couple spoke nothing about prison life or about past hardships endured.  Nor did I hear much talk about the future.  It was all about the present, about living in the now.  Still, I heard the usual whininess creep into her voice and easily detected his annoyance therewith as he asked her to stop complaining several times.

Predictably, everything fell apart within the next day or two.  The wife came over here in hysterics, claiming that one of her acquaintances had called the cops on her, not because of anything she had done, but solely due to the woman’s vindictiveness.  “I don’t wanna go to jail!” she wailed.  Pastor Mom prayed with her, calmed her down, got her to leave.

Then it was #2’s turn to visit us solo.  A talented musician, he brought over his guitar and introduced us to a beautiful tune that he said he had just written.  He reiterated that he wants me to help him with his civil case, in which he seeks compensation for injuries incurred during one of his previous stints in prison.  I told him that he has already waited so long that his case has probably been dismissed.  However, I agreed to call the court clerk’s office for him and we were surprised to learn that the judge has ruled that #2 has another month to file his paperwork.  I agreed to help him prepare for court if he brings over all his medical documentation and spends a couple of hours with me to sort it all out.  So far, this hasn’t happened.

He thanked me for my help and vowed his commitment to us, volunteering to wash our cars regularly.  “If you want to do something for me, start going to AA meetings,” I told him.  #2 appears to have had a long-running love/hate relationship with the bottle and I made it clear that he’s going to end up right back in jail if he doesn’t take action.  I didn’t remind him of the night that he woke up in a ditch, soaked to the skin, and came banging on the outside of the parsonage at two in the morning, needing a change of clothes and a ride back to where he was staying.  I did, however, remind him that his most recent stay in jail was due to a parole violation check that resulted from his arrest on public intoxication charges the previous evening.  #2 hemmed and hawed, told me that there used to be AA meetings close by but that there no longer are.  As I was sitting at my laptop, I immediately looked this up and provided him the days and times of three meetings that are held just down the street, plus those of daily AA meetings a few miles away.  He grinned sheepishly.  I knew right then that no one will ever hear him say “I’m Homeless Guy #2, and I’m an alcoholic.”  And I know in my heart that it is only a matter of time before I learn that he is back in jail.

Then #2’s wife began texting Pastor Mom and wouldn’t stop.  The fact that her texts went unanswered did not appear to deter her in the least.  #2 is being mean and evil to her.  She needs us to pray for her.  She wants help in drafting a prenuptial agreement.

Say what? You mean tattooed guy is not actually married to tattooed lady?  Lucky for both of them, if you ask me.

The next time I saw our friend, he asked me what I think of the Kabballah, whether he should study it.  “Is it good or bad?”  I explained that it is probably unwise to get into that staff unless one is steeped in God’s Word first.  I told him about an Orthodox Jewish saying that a man should not open the Kabballah unless he has studied the Torah from childhood through to the age of forty.  But the Kaballah speaks of the center of the body being the stomach, he protested, and when he felt convicted (by the Lord, not the law) while in prison, he felt a distinct gurgling in his stomach.  I pointed out that, being a Christian, the study of Jewish mysticism might not be the wisest use of his time.

Then I saw him again, when he popped his head into the parsonage for just a minute or so.  He informed us that his wife was out in front of the church in the car we had sold them and that the cops were with her.  It turned out to be a false alarm.  It wasn’t their car after all.

As for Homeless Guy #1, he remains in jail.  In his short time there, I hear he has already served one stint in the hospital ward due to behavioral issues resulting from his mental problems.  The district attorney offered him a reduced sentence of 11 years in return for a plea of guilty.  He wisely declined.

The word going around now is that the victim of #1’s crime never actually came forward herself.  Apparently, one of their mutual acquaintances, quite possibly out of malice, called the police to report the alleged rape.  At this point, it is unclear as to who is willing to testify to what.  Rumor is that the alleged victim was seen in #1’s tent several times after the supposed crime took place.  I don’t know whether a judge would even allow such evidence.  I think the DA is going to have a tough time making his case.

Oh, and Homeless Guy #2 is now back to living in his car.  This, I think, is an excellent use of the car, as he does not have a valid driver’s license.  That fact, of course, has done nothing to deter him from driving.  Even if he manages to stay away from alcohol and reports for every scheduled appointment with his probation officer, the cops will eventually get him for driving without a license.

It may be August, but we’ve had some seriously chilly nights recently.  We gave #2 our old quilts.  We finally bought new, heavier quilts (turquoise!) that my wife found on sale.  I’m glad that the timing was just right for someone who needed our old ones.  After all, they were given to us as a wedding present.  As soft and comfortable as they are, they had become torn and ratty following 16 years of hard use.

About halfway through the church service this morning, I heard the door open and turned around to see the dynamic duo walk in and sit down next to each other.  He had his arm around her as if nothing had happened.

Toward a Better Understanding of Hypocrisy

A blog comment I ran across last week suggested that “hypocrite” is just about the worst epithet that can be applied to a person.  I do not agree.  Not at all.  It seems to me that hypocrisy has a useful and respectable place in our society and that it has been unfairly maligned over the centuries.

Let’s start by taking a moment to examine the meaning and etymology of the word “hypocrite.”  Much as I esteem the opinion of the Oxford English Dictionary, I am unable to tell you how they weigh in on the issue, as the online version is behind a paywall and my unemployed ass cannot afford the $995 cost of the 20-volume print edition or even the $400 cost of the compact CD.  Making use of the tools that I do have available, cites the origin of the English word “hypocrite” as the ancient Greek hypokrites, meaning “a stage actor, hence one who pretends to be what he is not.”

The original Greek appears to indicate that, at some level, hypocrisy was a socially acceptable construct.  Ancient Greek audiences understood perfectly well that the onstage histrionics they were witnessing were the products of talented actors who were not actually being murdered and dismembered before their very eyes.  This is often referred to as “willing suspension of disbelief.”

Once we leave the stage, however, society has always had a much more difficult time accepting one who “pretends to be what he is not.” defines a hypocrite as “a person who acts in contradiction to his or her stated beliefs or feelings.”  In modern times, the epithet “two-faced” has been applied to such an individual, but the revulsion visited upon hypocrites goes back centuries.  Arguably, the epitome of the public dissing of hypocrites was meted out by Jesus.  Among the best known statements about hypocrisy is in Matthew 23:14 (KJV), “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayer:  therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.”

Despite the bad name given to hypocrisy in the New Testament, I submit to you that being a hypocrite was likely quite practical 2,000 years ago and is certainly so in our modern world of the 21st century.

1. We grew up with hypocrisy.  Most of us were introduced to the concept of hypocrisy at an early age, long before the word entered our nascent vocabularies.  Either by inference or (as in the case of my own parents) literally, our folks would tell us “Do as I say, not as I do!”  If you think about it, this makes sense.  All parents have hopes and dreams that their children will do better than they themselves did.  As parents, we have bad habits that we do not wish our children to emulate.  Of course, children are strongly influenced by the actions of their parents, which is why many fathers quit smoking or drinking or swearing when they learn that a little one is on the way.  When we are unable, for whatever reason, to forsake our evil ways, the backup plan has always been to tell the kids to “pay no attention to the man in the mask.”  Hypocrisy:  It’s how we seek to improve the next generation.

2. Hypocrisy as a coping mechanism.  A famous quote from novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald posits that “the test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”  We may, for example, simultaneously entertain the ideas that “drinking alcohol impairs my ability to function” and “I need a drink to get through the day.”  (In my own case, I suppose I should substitute ice cream and potato chips.)  One may dispute the accuracy of Fitzgerald’s assertion about intelligence, but acting against what we know to be our own best interest is a form of hypocrisy that is a valid coping strategy used to allow us to keep going (and to keep from going crazy) in the face of life’s daily contradictions.

3. Hypocrisy is a reasonable response to society’s persistence in judging us.  Back in the years when I worked in the court system, I would regularly hear criminal defendants bemoaning the law’s condemnation of conduct that they found perfectly acceptable.  Some of this is decidedly solipsistic in nature, but to a great extent, this sentiment is the product of conflicting cultural norms.  As the social workers and probation officers know all too well, the guy in the orange jumpsuit will likely think nothing of committing assault and battery if such conduct is a daily occurrence in his neighborhood, and particularly if he witnessed and/or participated in it as a child and adolescent.  “I’m being judged unfairly!” is the prisoner’s mournful moan.

How does this relate to hypocrisy?  Most of us attempt to stay on the right side of the law in order to stay out of jail, but things change considerably when it comes to matters of morality.  This may seem only marginally relevant today, but in times of restrictive social norms, we may seek to avoid the judgment of society by publicly spouting the party line while merrily pursuing our own agendas in private.  An example I mentioned in a post earlier this week is that many of us kept our criticisms of the government to ourselves in the 1950s to avoid social approbation that could include becoming unemployed and being run out of town.  Similarly, for years most gays remained “in the closet,” some even going as far as entering hetero marriages, in order to avoid being judged harshly by those around them.  So you can see that saying one thing and doing another is a reasonable response (“I have to live in this town!”) to persistent judgment by a society cherishing norms that directly contradict one’s own.  Those who hang out in the third standard deviation pretty much have the choice of being hypocrites or adjusting their behavior to conform with cultural norms.  Those who are unable to embrace either approach often find themselves in those orange jumpsuits, or arguably worse, in padded cells.

I have often pondered that much hypocrisy, as well as outright law-breaking, could be avoided if people would relocate to parts of the world in which social norms are better aligned with their predilections.  We may be horrified at, and quick to condemn, practices such as the use of hard drugs, allowing minors to consume alcohol or eating the meat of cats and dogs, but there are many areas of the world in which these are not the cultural taboos as they represent in North America.  Those who reside here but find it inconvenient to pick up stakes for an intercontinental move to a more compatible social environment often engage in culturally prohibited practices in private while, in public, pretending the horror that our society expects of them.  And let us not forget that many throughout history have found becoming hypocrites essential in order to practice their religions while avoiding death at the hands of an intolerant majority.

Rather than reviling the hypocrite, perhaps we should consider that none of us is perfect and that every one of us is hypocritical in some fashion at some point in time.  For example, we may be staunch advocates of truth-telling, yet accede to telling a “white lie” in order to spare someone’s feelings.

Among the problems that we have with hypocrites is the fear that they will “fool us” and the rage we experience when we feel that we have been duped.  This is symptomatic of a simplistic and childlike mindset that paints every situation in black and white.  We want to be able to distinguish the “good guys” from the “bad guys.”  Not only does this sentiment fail to acknowledge the complex nature of modern society, but it also errs in equating the good with current social norms.  Aside from the fact that such norms change rapidly, it behooves us to recognize the value of diversity and multiculturalism in that individuals with widely divergent traditions, mores and folkways can all make positive contributions to our heterogeneous society.

Some believe that once a hypocrite has been “outed,” nothing he or she says may be trusted ever again.  We think of politicians who are elected on a “law and order” platform and then are discovered to be crooks themselves.  A few years ago, a Scientific American article pointed out that our unwarranted emotional responses to hypocrisy (i.e., our unwillingness to put ourselves in the shoes of the hypocrite or, dare I say, to examine our own hypocrisy) “tend to short-circuit rational examination” of a person’s statements.  Just because one acts hypocritically to avoid harsh social judgment in a particular area does not mean that every statement uttered by that individual should be discounted out of hand.  Compassion, particularly among those of us who profess efforts to live a godly life, seems in order.

Yet compassion appears conspicuously lacking by many, particularly by those on the religious right, who chastise hypocrites as “liars” and “haters of the truth.”  It may be more accurate to say that an intolerant, judgmental society is the real hater of truth, the truths that there will always be dissenters in our midst, that there is a place in life for personal choice, and that peaceful coexistence is possible without achieving universal consensus in regard to every belief and practice.



The (Not So) Good Old Days

Back when we lived in California’s Central Valley and my nieces and nephews were still in middle school, each time they’d come to visit us I’d be appalled by their tastes in music.  For the most part, it consisted of pop and rap.  At face value, it was the violence and profanity that got to me.  On a deeper level, however, I detected a profound lack of understanding on my part of a cultural ethos in which those closest to me had become embroiled.  How could they buy into so much anger that glorified murder, gangbanging and blatant misogyny?  “Teenagers!” I’d shake my head and sigh, much as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles have done since the dawn of time.

In response, and as something of an antidote, I attempted to introduce my nephews and nieces to country music.  Now, country certainly has its unlovely moments, too.  For one thing, there is plenty of celebration of the joys of alcohol.  I think of “José Cuervo,” both the Shelly West classic from the early ‘80s (as in “you’re a friend of mine”) and the Tracy Byrd hit from 2002 (as in “ten rounds with”).  As a general rule, however, the country genre eschews the practice of permeating each verse with a liberal sprinkling of epithets that have to be bleeped out on commercial radio.  As Hank Williams, Jr. sings, “in country music, you just don’t use the F-word.”

After treating my nephews and nieces to a liberal dose of country radio for several days, I was rather surprised to learn that, on the way home, they were blasting country in the car and singing along.  “What have you done to my children?!” asked my incredulous sister-in-law.  That one brought a smile to my face.

What surprised me even more, however, was when I discovered a couple of years ago that my nieces and nephews were getting into “oldies.”  My nephew, who is a singer of some considerable talent, was working his way through the Frank Sinatra catalogue.  And my niece had fallen head over heels for the likes of Dion, Paul Anka and the Frankies (Lymon and Avalon).  I tried to explain that there were great girl groups, too — you know, The Shirelles, The Chantels, The Chiffons (do-lang, do-lang) — but she seems to prefer the guys for some reason.

I felt compelled to admit to them that, yes, there was a period when I, too, was into that stuff.  I am slightly embarrassed to say that, when I lived in New York in my twenties, I used to run around the Tri-State area to hit all the oldies shows.  But no, I had to explain to my nephews and nieces, I did not grow up with that music.  Most of it is now so old that it was popular even before my time.  (And I know you think I’m ancient, my dears.)

And yet, I was a bit taken aback one evening recently, when I found myself having a conversation with my 17 year old niece at the kitchen table.  As we worked our way through some fresh celery stalks (cream cheese for her, hummus for me), she confided that she wished life could be simple and uncomplicated, the way it was “back then.”  I knew right away that she was being influenced by those black-and-white YouTube videos of performances circa 1958, featuring handsome young men in jackets and ties singing doo-wop ditties about pining away for their true loves.

I sighed.  Despite the image, things were not simple and uncomplicated back then, I explained.  We just covered it over better.  We whitewashed the exterior.  We didn’t air our dirty laundry in public.  But just because we didn’t talk about certain things doesn’t mean that they didn’t exist.

For example, what do you think happened when a teenage girl got pregnant back then? I asked.  I knew my niece could relate to this one, as she has an almost two year old daughter.  The girl would “go away” for nine months, I explained, usually to a relative’s home in another city or state, and then would return alone, left to put on a brave face and pretend that nothing had happened.  Isn’t it wonderful that Great-Aunt Beulah is feeling so much better?  Meanwhile, the baby would have been put up for adoption.  And the teenager would have to suffer with this for the rest of her life.  The baby would always wonder who her mom and dad were.  Child support?  What’s that?

“Do you really want to return to those days?” I asked.

Those were the not so good old days, my dear, and there are more than a few reasons that I do not wish their return.  For example:

  • If you criticized the government in any way, you were a Communist.  That alone could get you blacklisted at work and run out of town.
  • Many buildings had little yellow signs featuring the Civil Defense logo attached to their façades.  This meant that there was a fallout shelter in the basement where you could go if the Russians dropped the atomic bomb on us.  Every kid in school knew how to do the “duck and cover” drill.
  • There were drugs and crime and mental illness and child abuse.  No one ever talked about it, though.  Well, maybe you could whisper it to your spouse after the kids were in bed.
  • If you were an alcoholic or homeless or unemployed, you were beyond help. You were a “bum.”
  • Novels containing profanity were banned.  Books that appealed to the prurient interest or that might inappropriately influence minors were culled from public libraries.
  • A teenage boy might wear a leather jacket and sport a duck tail, but no one of either gender could streak their hair green, blue and purple or shave it to resemble a topiary lizard.  Also, you couldn’t pierce your tongue, your nose, your navel or, uh, you know, “down there.”
  • If you were a man who had a tattoo, it meant you were in the Navy or the Marines.  You had to cover it up before you could go apply for a job.  If you were a woman and had a tattoo, it meant you were in a circus freak show.
  • You couldn’t wear your pants halfway down your ass, show your butt crack when you bent over or go in public without a bra.  Come to think of it, you couldn’t say “ass,” “butt crack” or “bra.”
  • There was no internet.  Yes, my dear, I realize that you can’t imagine this, but there was no Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no SnapChat and (heavens to Betsy) no YouTube.
  • There weren’t even any computers.  We did, however, have a black cast iron thing called a “typewriter.”  Most people didn’t know how to use it.  Those who did developed strength in their fingers by pounding hard on manual Remingtons and Underwoods.
  • There weren’t any calculators.  You had to learn your times tables and how to do long division.  In high school, you might get to learn to use a slide rule.
  • There weren’t any photocopiers.  A few weeks ago, my dear, I used the word “mimeograph” and you had no idea what I was talking about.  That’s how teachers duplicated tests and assignments.  You had to crank the handle and got purple ink all over your hands.
  • There was no texting.  There were no iPhones.  There were no cell phones.  There were no phones with push buttons.  All telephones had rotary dials, and there were plenty of public ones around called “pay phones.”  To use one, you entered a tiny space called a “phone booth” and creaked the door closed.  The booth had a little seat and a local phone directory hanging by a cord.  A local call cost a nickel.  Until they raised it to a dime.
  • If you lived in a big city, your TV might pull in six or seven channels.  All shows were in black and white.  There was no such thing as a remote control.  You got up and turned the dial a click or two to change the station.
  • No one had air conditioning.  Everyone had fans.  Except the schools, that is.  If it was the end of May and 95 degrees in the classroom, the teacher used the window pole to open the window.  You did your best to stay awake because if you didn’t, you would be sent to the principal’s office and your parents would be called.  Then your dad would take you over his knee and spank you, even if you were bigger than he was.  And there was nothing you could do about it.
  • If you were a boy and a bully took your lunch money or a mean kid threw a snowball at you or someone snuck up behind you and pulled down your pants and everyone laughed, no one got in trouble.  If you complained, you were told to be a man.  If you cried, you were ridiculed as a kindergarten baby.
  • If you were a girl, you got engaged in your senior year of high school and got married a few days after graduation.  Girls didn’t go to college like you do, my dear.  Very few boys did, either.
  • If you weren’t married by the time you were 21, there was “something wrong with you.”
  • If you were married and didn’t have any kids, there was “something wrong with you.”
  • If you got divorced — oh my God, don’t even say that word!
  • No one talked about sex in public, but people did it a lot more often.  That’s because there wasn’t anything else to do.

So, my dear niece, do you still want to go back to 1958?

My Crazy Vegan Life

I grew up as a carnivore but was a pesco-vegetarian (one who eats fish, eggs and dairy products, but not meat) for 23 years before I went vegan about ten months ago.  Veganism has helped me to lose weight and has yielded some (but not enough) improvement in my blood pressure and blood sugar.  Overall, I am pleased with the results so far.  But I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said that I made the change for health reasons.

I went vegan for a combination of philosophical and pragmatic reasons.  I don’t believe that we have the right to kill our fellow creatures so that we can eat them.  I don’t believe that we have a right to appropriate the milk that cows use to feed their calves or the eggs that are chickens’ method of creating the next chicken generation.  But also, I am appalled at the cruelty and violence that occurs daily at abbatoirs and poultry farms around the world.

“And you think by not eating meat and dairy you’re going to change any of that?” I am frequently asked.  My answer used to be “Oh no, but I can’t control what anyone else does; I can only control my own actions.”  Nowadays, however, my answer is “maybe.”

Do I expect the beef, pork and dairy industries to give it up and shut down because I went vegan?  Hardly.  But I do maintain the spiritual belief that everything is connected and the practical belief that each of us exerts a great deal of influence over far more people than we might realize.  They, of course, influence the beliefs and actions of many others, and so on down the line.

So, no, I don’t expect to be able to talk anyone into going vegan.  However, I do hope to promote awareness that some of us have indeed taken the vegan leap, and to explain why.  I hope to help others realize that the vegan life is not some sort of utopian fantasy.  It is a possibility.

Being a vegan is harder some days than others.  When a well-meaning friend joked that he is “a second-hand vegetarian” because “cows eat grass and I eat cows,” that was a hard day.  When my 80 year old mother told me that my eating habits are “crazy,” that was a hard day.  When I happen upon websites that post dire warnings that vegans will die prematurely due to a lack of taurine and L-lysine in their diets, those are hard days.

When I hear people say that vegans needlessly limit themselves when we should be expanding our horizons and enjoying as much as possible of what the world has to offer in this short life, that’s a hard day.  When I hear people say that vegans are crazy ascetics and “holier than thou” self-righteous asses, that’s a hard day.  When I hear people say that we’re never going to change anything, that we’re just wasting our time and that we’re the ones missing out, those are hard days.

But when I check in with a blog that I’ve been reading for months and suddenly discover that the writer and her entire family are vegans, that’s a good day.  When it dawns on me that poor, unemployed people on Food Stamps (that would be me) can be vegans and still get their protein thanks to PEANUT BUTTER, that’s a good day.  And when my niece tells me that she’s decided to go vegetarian, that’s a very, very good day (even though she later changed her mind “because it’s too hard,” but hey, she actually tried it for a couple of months!).

And despite the naysayers, I’ve actually expanded my culinary repertoire by learning to enjoy a whole pantheon of protein-rich soy-based foods.  Some items I found I didn’t like, but at least I tried them.  I do wish I could get everyone to try hummus at least once.  And (trust me on this one) if you’ve never tried chocolate flavored coconut milk “ice cream,” you don’t know what you’re missing!

Going vegan has improved my eating habits in at least two distinct ways:  It has caused me to cut down on my consumption of junk food and it has helped me to alter my decidedly unhealthy relationship with food in general.

Don’t get me wrong.  At some level, I will always be a junk food junkie.  I love potato chips and pretzels.  I’ve discovered a non-dairy chocolate bar that may yet be my undoing.  But just today I read a blurb about how most Americans consume an inordinately high percentage of their daily calorie intake in the form of commercial baked goods.  Let’s just say that I can relate.  For years, Sesame Street’s Cookie Monster had nothing on me.  At the moment, we still have two boxes of cookies left over from Pastor Mom’s 70th birthday party.  As I pointed out to my wife, prior to my vegan days, those cookies would have been long gone.  Most commercial baked products, however, contain dairy and eggs (and even meat products, in some cases).  It’s hard for me to believe that I don’t miss them.

I’ve noticed that the way I approach food and eating has changed somewhat.  I have been obese since childhood and I still have a tendency to overeat.  I reject the term “food addict,” at least until such time as a healthy means of going cold turkey (cold tofu?) is discovered.  Now that I can’t just grab almost anything out of the refrigerator, however, I am forced to become more aware of what (and how much) I am putting into my body.  This is from a guy who would once eat eight eggs or an entire package of cheese in a single sitting.  I am much more unlikely to eat an entire package of tofu or celery in a single sitting, and even if I did, I wouldn’t be doing nearly as much damage.  (If I have coconut milk “ice cream” in the house, however, all bets are off.)

Then there are the challenges associated with dining out and travel.  There was a time in my life when I ate one meal in a restaurant (sometimes even two) nearly every day.  Even after those years, a day would seldom go by that I wouldn’t wish I were eating in a restaurant.  Now, I find eating in a restaurant to be more of a chore than anything else.  It is usually difficult for me to find anything I can eat other than a baked potato (hold the butter, hold the sour cream, hold the bacon) or a salad (hold the cheese, hold the croutons, hold the dressing). In an Italian restaurant, it may be possible to order what Alex of Ox the Punx refers to as “eggplant parm without the parm.”  But at a chain such as Olive Garden, even without the “parm,” the breading in which the eggplant is fried contains cheese.  One can always resort to a Chinese restaurant, most of which serve some type of tofu and vegetable dish, often called “Buddhist’s Delight.”  Of course, you have to ask for it steamed (not fried), no sauce, to even approach a vegan entrée.

Some restaurants claim that one of their soups is vegan, but unless it’s at Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation or a small, local place with a separate vegetarian menu, I take such claims with more than a grain of sea salt.  As for condiments, well… I occasionally carry my own soy margarine (to avoid eating dry toast) or almond milk (to avoid drinking black coffee) into a restaurant, but you can’t get away with that everywhere.  In general, it’s just easier for me to eat at home.  Think of all the calories and money I save.

When I can’t eat at home because I’m on the road, I am faced with another entire set of headaches.  As Shannon from dirtnkids so elegantly pointed out recently, there are things you can do if you’re willing to take food with you or stop in supermarkets along the way.  Things like hummus burritos, PB&J, bananas, nuts, avocados.  I’ve had more than a few experiences with eating bread and hummus in motel rooms or struggling to open a little individual package of tofu with a plastic knife and my car keys.  Sometimes you even luck out (as Shannon did in Colorado Springs) and find a restaurant with items on the menu that cater to the vegans in town.  My guess is that this doesn’t happen too often in places like the Midwest or Texas.  I’ll never forget the time I walked into what turned out to be a steak place in a tiny town in the Big Bend area of south Texas around lunchtime.  The place was full of men in Stetsons and boots eating enormous slabs of meat.  I wanted to hide under the table when I ordered “just the salad bar, please.”

Shannon also referred to the black bean burgers at Cowboy Café in Dubois, Wyoming.  She didn’t happen to mention whether those are vegan.  One of the great things about California is that the majority of restaurants, from fast food to fine dining, have some sort of veggie burger on the menu.  In the course of my vegan journey (and many road trips), however, I have discovered that most of these are not vegan.  You can generally count on them to contain cheese and nonfat dry milk.  It is no exception to this rule when a restaurant refers to their “black bean burger” (the family restaurant chain Chili’s, for instance).  The only chain restaurant that I can count on to have a vegan burger is Red Robin.  If you happen into a local place that caters to vegetarians, of course, you may get lucky.

Then there is the matter of French fries.  I recently noticed a post online in which the writer jubilantly rejoiced in the fact that “French fries are vegetarian.”  Well, sort of.  Potatoes are vegetarian, yes.  I am a big fan of fries, too, but whether they’re vegetarian or not (never mind vegan) is largely a product of what type of grease the potatoes are fried in.  If you just assume that it’s pure vegetable shortening, you may want to think again. You may be surprised at how often commercial frying oil contains beef tallow and/or lard.  You can always ask what type of oil is used on the fries, but the server won’t know and the cook may not know either.  He just uses the bucket of gloop with which he is provided.

I’ll conclude by relating a little story about my visit to Red Lobster back in my pesco days.  My father, a huge shellfish fan, harbors an intense love for Red Lobster (he claims that, upon his death, he wishes to be cremated with his ashes scattered over Red Lobster) and takes my mother out to eat there once each week.  Once, when I was visiting my parents, I joined them for dinner at RL.  Now, my mother grew up kosher and still tries to keep a kosher home (more or less… no longer as strictly as she used to).  She doesn’t eat pork or shellfish.  But she does enjoy Red Lobster’s filet of sole.  On this particular evening, she and I were both going to order the fried sole, so just for kicks and edification, I asked the server what it is fried in.  Canola oil, she assured me, “with just a touch of lard for that crispy goodness.”