Dentistry as Destiny

Raised on vegetarian diet

It seems that every time I visit with my parents, there has to be at least one conversation about veganism.  It’s not that they have anything against vegans, but why, oh why, of all people, would their son have to become involved with such a thing?  At least that appears to be the subtext behind their words.

With my mother, it’s always the same thing.  Although she is not a dentist, she seems to believe that destiny lies in the teeth.  “The kind of teeth you have tell you what you’re supposed to be,” she tells me.  What she means is that humans have canine teeth designed for ripping and tearing flesh.  I had a similar go-‘round on this subject with a coworker some months ago.

Mom spent years as a science teacher, which explains her point of view.  Her error, I attempt to gently relate, is that biology must be tempered with anthropology and geography.  I patiently tell her that, since she believes in the theory of evolution (as a God-fearing man, I harbor more than a dollop of skepticism), she must be aware that the apes and monkeys from which humans supposedly arose are vegetarians.  As they spread out from the jungles of Africa to more temperate climates where fruit and juicy vegetation were not available during the winter months, they learned to be hunters to survive and, over the eons, evolved canine teeth to better chew the bloody carcasses.

I thought I’d have better luck with this than I ever do in advancing ethical and Biblical arguments for vegetarianism, but alas, no dice.  Mom is going to believe what she wants to believe.  Just like everyone, right?

My father offered that he had never heard the word “vegan” until my sister used it several years ago, explaining that vegans are “an extreme form of vegetarian.”

What once may have been regarded as extreme, I reminded him, is now commonplace, or at least well-known.  As for calling one’s self a “vegetarian,” I told Dad that it can mean almost anything.  Heck, back in my fish-eating days I referred to myself as a vegetarian because I didn’t eat land-based animals.  The word “vegan,” I added, is rather specific.  It refers to someone who eats no animal products.

The only “variety” of vegan that I have heard of to date is the raw vegan.  I’m sure there are many others with which I am not familiar.

I suppose I should call myself a “convenience food vegan,” since I rely on so many soy-based substitutes for animal products, such as vegan “deli slices” from Yves and Tofurky and frozen entrées from Gardein.

Despite the fact that vegans comprise a tiny minority here in the United States, I have noticed that more accommodations are being made for us as the years go by.  For example, it is encouraging that one is able to order a vegan meal on a cross-country flight.  Even the labor union at my place of employment offers a vegan option for its monthly lunch meetings.

Of course, it’s encouraging to see the expanding variety of vegan products available at the supermarket.  They may be considerably more expensive than animal products, but at least they’re on the shelves.  And I know they wouldn’t be if no one were buying them.  Where there’s money to be made, the goods will make their way to the marketplace.

During a visit to Whole Foods Market today, to pick up my favorite vegan cheese and a vegan donut for dessert, I couldn’t help but notice how the store attempts to make shoppers feel better about eating meat.

“Five step animal welfare rating,” reads one of the signs at Whole Foods.  “Your way of knowing how our meat animals were raised.”  Mean animals?  For real?  I suppose I have to count myself among them, as I, too, was composed of meat the last time I checked.  Obviously, our fellow creatures receive no respect whatever.  Just a moment’s thought will lead to the realization that our pets are made of meat, too.  In the movie “The Wizard of Oz,” Dorothy was way ahead of her time in 1939 when she referred to Toto as “a meat dog.”

“Raised on a vegetarian diet” screams another sign.  Really?  Me, too!  I only hope I escape the fate of the animals whose hacked-up body parts filled that particular refrigerated case.  I couldn’t help but notice that, tucked away on the bottom shelf, were packages of pig’s feet.

Whatever you may think of the ethics of ending the lives of members of the other species with whom we share this planet for the pleasure of our palates, even if you believe that dentistry is destiny, you have to admit that the blood, guts, body parts and gore that is meat is pretty disgusting.


Praying for Rain on Rosh Hashannah

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Today is the last day of the year on the Jewish calendar, the dregs of the month of Elul, our new year’s eve. This is a day that always leaves me reflective, and all the more so if I am visiting my parents out in the country.

My elderly parents have an elderly cat, an 18 year old Siamese named Taffy. The furry beast is full of fleas, but my mom wonders whether she should let her pet in the house notwithstanding, since Taffy has been coughing so much. You see, California is on fire. Here, on the cattle-grazing ranch land at the dead center of our huge state, the fires are far to the north and south. The smoke, however, travels for hundreds of miles and scents the air even here. The news broadcasts warn children, the elderly and those with respiratory conditions to remain indoors. Mom reminds me not to open any windows.

My wife is not with me for this trip as she has work obligations on Monday. This weekend, however, she paid a birthday visit to a friend who lives high in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to our east. She texts me that the smoke-laden air is totally unbreatheable. Even down here on the valley floor, local high school and college football games are cancelled due to the smoke. Everyone hides indoors and runs the air conditioning full blast against the 100 degree heat and uncharacteristic humidity.

Back home in Sacramento, we have to be careful how we enter and leave our home. Open the door, step outside and quickly pull the door shut behind you. Leave the door open for 30 seconds or so to deposit groceries on the counter or haul out a sack of trash and the smoke alarm goes off.

My mother settles for locking her cat in the laundry room with food and water. Taffy will have none of it and meows up a furious storm until Mom lets her outside again. Mom says she doesn’t want to get bitten by fleas. The feline spends the night in the garage.

Driving down Highway 99 through California’s normally fertile Central Valley, I notice a billboard erected at the side of the road. “Pray for rain,” the sign exhorts us.

The epic drought in the West, now in its fifth consecutive year, has rendered much of the state a tinderbox. The grass in the highway median, the citrus groves, the waving rangeland where the cattle are fattened on their way to becoming Big Macs and porterhouse steaks, the stately old growth forests, all are just sitting ducks, dessicating in the sun, awaiting consumption by hungry flames barreling over the ridge. Everything in the path of the blaze is destroyed, leaving nothing but charred remains. Water and red-hued flame retardant is dropped from the sky by helicopter and airplane. CalFire erects firebreaks but can barely get one fire under control before another breaks out somewhere else in the state. Thousands of acres are consumed. Four firefighters are in the hospital after sustaining serious burns yesterday.

And yet the flames remain unsatisfied. What’s next?

The leafy trees in your backyard. Your house.

Dozens of little towns are evacuated. Residents stuff families and pets into their cars, grab what belongings they can, and flee. Horses are rescued by distant farms with spare paddocks, stables and horse trailers for transport.

Heading down Interstate 5 to work on Thursday morning, I saw plumes of smoke off in the distance. The billows were heading in our direction. I turn on the radio and learn that yet another fire, this time in a local park, had been reported at six o’clock that morning. A haze blankets downtown Sacramento and I dash from the car to the door of the office building where I work, attempting not to inhale the smoky air.

Governor Brown declares. a state of emergency.

My parents are fighting off a plague of ants. Desperate for water, colonies of ants enter through every crack or crevice. We spray and spray, killing ants by the dozen as they congregate in the kitchen sink, in the bathroom, even on the toilet seat.

My mother steps outside in the heat for a few minutes to water the few trees on her property that haven’t already died. She lets Taffy in for a brief respite in the air conditioning. Mom says her cat appears to have gone blind in one eye and isn’t seeing too well with the other. When she calls for Taffy, the old cat gropes around trying to find her.

“I’m afraid she’s not long for this world,” Mom tells me.

“We’re not long for this world,” my father quips in retort.

Dad turns 82 in November. My wife and I have made plans to drive down for his birthday.

I wonder how many more times I will visit this big house out in the country to celebrate Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish new year.

Tonight I will don a white shirt and tie, and we will drive into Fresno to attend the synagogue service marking the start of the High Holy Days. Tomorrow morning, we will go again to hear the blast of the Shofar, the trumpet that is supposed to wake us from our slumber, our stupor, the well-worn grooves of our lives that leave us blind to the neediness and suffering of others. We will greet each other with “L’shana tovah,” may you be blessed with a good new year.

And I know I will be praying for the safety of the firefighters, for the evacuees and their homes, for an end to the drought and the conflagrations that are burning up my home state of California.

I will be praying for rain.

The Breast Rule

Most times you can’t hear ’em talk, other times you can
All the same old clichés, is it a woman or a man?
And you always seem outnumbered so you don’t dare make a stand

— Bob Seeger, “Turn the Page”

I consider myself a student of customer service, both as a consumer and as one who has supervised employees for a couple of decades now.  Experience has taught me that providing incredible, amazing customer service (the “wow” factor) involves more than sustained effort; it requires the right attitude.

When I began studying the FISH philosophy years ago, I was surprised to learn that one’s attitude can be chosen.  It was with mouth agape that I watched a video showing businessmen showing up at the Seattle fish market at five in the morning in suits to help the fishmongers shovel ice.  The fact is that a positive attitude is contagious.  Once demonstrated, everyone wants to be a part of it.

I used to believe that one’s attitude was fixed as a matter of personality.  I thought that, like one’s profile or shadow, attitude pretty much follows you around and there’s not much you can do to change it.  I would hear coworkers say “Ooh, don’t mess with her, she’s in a bad mood today.”

What I learned is that it is possible to adjust one’s attitude rather than resign one’s self to the vicissitudes of fate.  So, you had a fight with your significant other, your kids are a bunch of unappreciative no-goods and your car is in the shop for expensive repairs.  With so much going wrong in your life, the last thing you want is to have a crappy day.  The good news is that you don’t have to.  I like to think of work as a sanctuary where I can arrive with a smile upon my face and forget my troubles for a while.  Work can be escape from the less than wonderful aspects of life.

In the customer service world, we expect people to call in because they want to complain, because they have problems that they would like us to solve (immediately, if possible).  I like to treat those problems as challenges.  I encourage my staff to dig into their mental toolboxes and determine what resources are available to make the customer happy again.  This means that you need to have sufficient tech skills to research the issue, but more than that, it means soothing those who would just as soon take out their frustrations on you.  Success requires listening skills and being “fully present.”  It is so easy to set yourself on autopilot by making assumptions because, after all, you’ve heard it all hundreds of times before.  There are few ways of losing a customer faster.

Remember, for the customer, this is the first time.  This is the only time.  The attitude of the customer service rep, whether at a call center or in a retail store, will be the number one factor in determining the customer’s image of the business.  And there are no second chances.  Blow it and not only will the customer not be back, but the customer will tell everyone he or she knows to do business elsewhere.  I myself will not step foot inside certain businesses as a result of poor customer service that I received years ago.  Customers have long memories and, really, that’s the way it should be.

In light of the above, I will proceed to gripe about one of my all-time customer service pet peeves.

There are two words that need to be eradicated from every customer service representative’s vocabulary.  Those words are “sir” and “ma’am.”

Yes, we wish to be courteous and deferential.  But those terms are so loaded that they need to be banished to the trash heap.  Forever.  You may think that these words express respect, but in many cases they do not.

I have had more than one experience with women being offended when I call them “ma’am.”  Not only does it sound phony, but they have told me in no uncertain terms that it makes them feel like old ladies.  “Only my mother gets called ‘ma’am’,” one customer told me.

And that’s not even the half of it.  When speaking to a customer on the phone, can you really, truly tell me that you can be 100% sure of the person’s gender?  I assure you that you cannot.  I know of few ways to make a customer angrier than referring to him or her by the incorrect gender.  I cannot blame customers for taking offense at such misidentification.  Our gender is a part of our identity and getting it wrong can make an already unhappy customer unmanageable.  This gaffe can unnecessarily turn a little problem into a big problem.

If you deal with people in person, misidentifying a person’s gender is still an issue.  I know this from unfortunate personal experience.

I refer to this issue as “the breast rule.”  Some women have low-pitched voices and some men have high, squeaky voices.  So retail staff often decide whether to refer to a customer as “sir” or “ma’am” based on the presence or absence of breasts.  I realize how preposterous this sounds, but I am not kidding.  To make matters worse, it is often an unconscious process.  The way our brains are wired, we make split-second connections based on past experiences.  Hence, the breast rule.

You can see where I am going with this.  Many men, myself included, have breasts due to obesity, hormonal problems, genetic issues or some combination of the above.  Androgyny has often been ridiculed in the media, perhaps most memorably by the old Saturday Night Live sketch “It’s Pat.”  These days, I hear talk of “moobs” (man boobs) and even the “bro” (a support device that I am told is the male equivalent of the bra).  I have been referred to by many hurtful names, one of the worst being “she-male.”  It goes on and on.  But if you’re after a customer’s business and wish to provide truly exceptional service, it is necessary to stay as far away from this sort of thing as possible.

Yes, I become totally annoyed when shop or restaurant employees misidentify my gender and refer to me as “ma’am.”  I usually fight back by deliberately referring to the employee using the incorrect gender.  Sometimes they apologize; sometimes they don’t.  Sometimes they don’t get it or just play dumb.  My poor wife has been known to pipe up “He’s a man!”

Ironically, this is a customer service error that, unlike a lot of things, is so easy to fix.  The obvious first step in this process is to scrap “the breast rule.”  Make no assumptions.  The next step is to excise the words “sir” and “ma’am” from your vocabulary.

Whatever happened to just donning a big smile and asking “How are you today?” in your most cheerful voice?

No gender identification required.

Vegan Road Food

Vegan on the Road

It’s always interesting to observe how people react when I tell them I’m vegan, usually as an explanation for why I won’t eat whatever is being offered at the moment.  Most often, they think I’m crazy or misguided or a hippie or just plain weird.

“I could never be a vegan,” was the reply I received recently.  And why is that?  Because you’re addicted to McDonald’s hamburgers?  Because you don’t like vegetables and you think tofu is disgusting?  Because your significant other would leave you and your friends would try to enroll you in a 12-step program?  Actually, none of the above.

“Think of all that chopping,” he said, sadly shaking his head.

Chopping?  That must be some other vegan you’re talking about.  I don’t do any chopping unless you count the occasional onion or slicing up a brick of tofu.  Oh, all right, maybe a tomato and a cucumber once in a blue moon when I actually decide to make a salad.

The fact is that I work a lot of hours and I have neither the time nor the inclination to cook.  My wife and I also travel whenever we can.  I rely on a lot of convenience foods, such as the aforementioned brick of tofu, garbanzo beans in a can, soy “deli slices” for sandwiches, Boca burgers and Gardein’s frozen “fishless filets.”  Olives out of a jar.  Athenos roasted garlic hummus (one of my fave craves).  Potatoes that I can slit and throw in the microwave to bake while I’m taking a shower.  Fresh fruit that I can toss in my lunch bag.  Trader Joe’s vegan “cream cheese” (read a nice review of this product here) for my toast.  Almond milk for my cup of tea.

Chopping is not my problem.  Eating out is.

Being a vegan on the go can be quite a challenge.  Over time, you might say that I’ve been schooled, mostly the hard way.  Like the time we arrived on Whidbey Island in Washington State late in the evening and found no restaurant open but a couple of fast food drive-thrus.  On that occasion, I managed to run into Safeway just before they closed to pick up a baguette and a tub of hummus.  Or the time at a hotel in Phoenix when I had to borrow a can opener from the front desk so I could settle for a can of spinach for my dinner.

The most important lesson I’ve learned about eating vegan on the road is to take nothing for granted.  Plan what you’re going to eat in advance and bring it with you.  If you get lucky and find plenty of delectable vegan eats where e’er you roam, you can spend lots of money eating out like everyone else and just ignore your stash from home.  (Don’t tell my wife I said that.)

You can’t go wrong by packing bread or tortillas, peanut butter and jelly, hummus, canned veggies and fruit.  Granted, that kind of diet can get pretty boring after a while, but it’s worth the peace of mind to know that you’re not going to be stuck making a meal out of a bag of potato chips and a soda from a gas station (been there, done that).

Even if you should find yourself in a city or town that has a vegan restaurant, unfortunately you are not guaranteed a garden of earthly delights.  After some less than positive experiences with a few vegan restaurants that shall remain nameless here, I am always glad to know that, as a fallback, I can make myself a sandwich.

That said, I will admit that, when traveling, I do everything in my power to eat at “normal” restaurants (yes, even chain restaurants) and find something vegan on the menu or that the cook is willing to prepare for me.  I may end up paying a lot of money for a plate of steamed vegetables and a baked potato, but it’s worth it if that allows me to sit across from my wife while she has her bacon and toast or her patty melt.  It’s really more about the company than the food, don’t you think?

Now that it’s Labor Day weekend, I can look back at the summer and say that my vegan luck on the road has been very good indeed.  I highly recommend PETA’s guide to eating vegan at chain restaurants (thanks to my wife for finding this).  That’s where I learned that I can enjoy a vegan meal at Olive Garden by ordering pasta with the kids’ tomato sauce, salad and breadsticks.  It’s also where I learned that Del Taco’s bean burritos are vegan if you hold the cheese, sour cream and rice.

Johnny Rocket's

While playing at a Scrabble tournament at a resort hotel in July, we discovered a Johnny Rocket’s on the premises and found out that they serve a dish called the Streamliner, which is none other than my tried and true Boca burger.  (Here in Sacramento, I often enjoy the same   thing at Red Robin or at Brookfields.)  We visited Johnny Rocket’s twice during the tournament, and both times I had a delightful meal by adding avocado and all the fixings to my Boca.  We also enjoyed the oldies music and were entertained by the staff performing renditions of 1950s dances in the aisles.

rocket dancing

Shake, rattle and roll at Johnny Rocket’s

Then we visited Chili’s, where I ordered the citrus salad without the chicken and had the balsamic dressing.  Topped off with chips, salsa and guacamole, a vegan meal worked out just fine.

Our next outing was to Texas Roadhouse, which is unfortunately known for those dead pieces of flesh in the display case out front (I’m pretty sure I heard someone call them “steaks”).  To my pleasant surprise, they have a country vegetable platter that features four items of one’s choice.  Not wanting quite so much food, I settled for a baked potato and the steamed veggies.  I never heard of steamed vegetables being prepared with butter, but this place does!  Fortunately, I checked first, and they had no problem preparing them without for me.  Just like at Johnny Rocket’s, we enjoyed the staff’s performances, which at Texas Roadhouse involves country music, line dancing and many choruses of “Yeehaw!”


On my wife’s birthday, we took her out to Farrell’s ice cream parlor, where I discovered that even in this bastion of dairy, there is a vegetarian sandwich made out of a grilled Portabella mushroom.  My guess is that this was not strictly vegan (particularly since it contained pesto), but it was excellent!  For dessert, I sampled two of their nondairy sorbets, lemon (not bad) and mango (incredible!).

Candy barrels

Farrell’s barrels

I must say that Farrell’s made me feel like a kid again.  From the candy shop in the front of the store to the staff (oops, “cast members”) who bang on drums, play ukuleles, crack jokes, dance and sing humorous renditions of old-timey songs in honor of birthdays, anniversaries and, well, probably just because they feel like it, Farrell’s put a big smile on my face.

Vegans need no longer fear traveling, be it cross country or just around town.  It is indeed possible to enjoy the ubiquitous chain restaurants with friends and family and still have some good food that is vegan or a reasonable approximation thereof.