Just So Yummy (A Vegan Allegory)

Among the many difficulties of eating a vegan diet is that you are constantly challenged — by well-meaning family members, by coworkers, by mere acquaintances.  My advice to anyone considering going vegan is that this aspect of the lifestyle is far more difficult than the matter of finding something to eat.  The fact is that, without adequate support, you’re always going to be the odd person out.

What is worse, however, is that you can count on being frequently called upon to defend your practices and beliefs.  It’s a bit different than practicing a minority religion (which, as a Jew, I do as well), as the United States and most western nations have laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion.  While there are exceptions, for the most part you can plan on those raising an eyebrow at your turban, yarmulke or hijab keeping their bigoted opinions to a nudge and a wink, or to comments made outside your presence.  Vegans have the advantage of not being identifiable by external symbols.  Some vegans choose to take advantage of this fact by staying “in the closet” to the extent possible, at least outside of safe spaces.  The irony, of course, is that there are no “safe spaces” for vegans.  Once your dietary preferences become known, you should expect pot shots and low blows to hit you from any corner, including from those with whom you have regular contact.  Not only is this awkward, but it’s also pointless and unnecessary.  So you can understand why there are times when I feel that it is always open season on vegans.  Simple acceptance of a minority viewpoint would be great.

Oh, but it gets worse still.  After a few years of this, just when you feel settled into a pattern of healthy vegan eating, just when you think you have the right comebacks for almost any remark, you may find yourself lapsing into a morass of self-doubt.  Is always being different really worth it?  Trying to be an educator and a role model gets old and you have to wonder if there is some truth to the adage “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”

The pressure to conform is even greater for vegans who are also gluten-sensitive.  Now you have not one, but two different types of deviation from the “standard American diet” (I love that this is abbreviated SAD).  Being gluten-free is something that people can at least understand, even if they think that accommodating you is a serious pain in the ass.  There is not much that anyone can say about dietary restrictions resulting from health problems.  But why do you have to be a vegan on top of it?  Is it really necessary to be so difficult?

I try to avoid this line of destructive thinking as much as possible.  I bristle for a moment at insensitive comments, then turn the other cheek.  But it all hit me like a tidal wave this past weekend, and at an unexpected moment.  I say “unexpected,” as you don’t usually expect encountering a relatively familiar situation to serve as a trigger.  I am learning that being a vegan can mess with your head.  Has anyone else out there experienced this?

During a most enjoyable weekend away in Reno, we considered having dinner at one of the casino buffets.  My wife doesn’t particularly care for buffets, but I have always liked the variety, all the more because there is likely to be something even a gluten-free vegan can eat.  It’s also nice to be able to serve yourself rather than engaging in the usual eating out litany of “no butter, no sauce, steamed only, does that have flour in it?”

My wife stood at the buffet entrance while I asked to go in and take a look at the offerings to determine whether this was going to work or not.  A quick walk-by looked like it would be possible.  There were plenty of salad fixings, garbanzo beans for protein, fruit.  Then I ambled past a large pile of breaded, fried fish.  I should explain that, in my former life, this was one of my absolute favorite foods.  I would indulge at any opportunity.  I can wax nostalgic about wonderful fried fish I’ve enjoyed from Maine to California.

Suddenly, I wanted to grab a plate, pile it high with fish and tear off the breading so that I wouldn’t end up in the rest room all night.  It was a weird feeling.  And, with a little shudder, I turned around and walked out.  We had dinner elsewhere.

I gained an interesting insight from the experience.  How could I be so easily tempted to throw away my beliefs for a plate of food?  This brought to mind Esau who, in the Book of Genesis, sold his birthright for a mess of pottage.

The visual cue of that fried fish struck a primordial nerve that screamed “I want it!”  This is not too different from the 1960s mantra “if it feels good, do it.”  Or, to be more accurate, “if it feels good, screw everyone and everything and just do it.”  I believe the proper adjective for this sentiment is “hedonistic” (although, perhaps “selfish” would be more fitting).  The implication is one of “you deserve it, so don’t overthink it.”

In fact, Big Food and Madison Avenue would rather that we don’t think about what we eat at all.  We’ll keep making tasty stuff, you pay us money and eat it.  End of story.  It is highly inconvenient when consumers begin to think about where their food came from, how humans and animals suffered to bring it to their plates and what alternatives might be out there.  My cynical side has long believed that it’s all about money, but I now realize that, while it is about money, it’s more than that.  It’s about the idea that denying one’s self anything is the epitome of uncool.  How others are affected is not supposed to come into the picture.  The advertising world counts on the predominance of the brain candy that is the moment of “I want it!”  It’s nothing short of pandering to our inner three year olds.

However, we are not three year olds.  As adults, we have the capacity to appreciate how our actions and words affect others.  Those whose psychological makeup does not permit this are often labeled “sociopaths.”  Who cares what anyone else thinks or feels?  It feels good!

This is where fried fish comes in.  That pile of food represents many dead sea creatures, hooked in the mouth or strangled in a net and dragged bloodied onto a boat to head for “processing.”  I have to wonder what that sharp hook piercing my mouth would feel like or how I would thrash with suffocation as I was pulled from the water and left to die.  And why should this happen?  So that my skin could be flayed off and my body cut up and frozen to eventually be dredged in bread crumbs and thrown into a vat of hot oil.  Over six billion fish are killed annually so they can go down our gullets.

Fortunately for most of us, the pain, suffering and death experienced by marine life is largely out of sight.  It’s convenient that we don’t have to witness the ugliness that occurs on the way to our plates.  Out of sight, out of mind.  The disembodied piece of protein before us doesn’t even look as if it were ever an animal.  Thank goodness we don’t have to think about it.  That way we can be like everyone else instead of being some weirdo who doesn’t eat meat.  That way we can go back to the buffet for seconds.

After all, it’s just so yummy.

 

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Commatose

Commas are a bit like farts:  They usually stink and they can be quite funny.

If you are on excellent terms with the comma, I salute you.  If you’re not, however, you are in good company.  And if you have any doubt that commas stink, just ask the opinion of a third grader, or for that matter, of a college student struggling through the ordeal that is freshman English.

Should you wince at the mention of the comma, finding nothing funny about it at all, I direct you to the panda that is the subject of the famous “eats shoots and leaves” joke (and also to Lynne Truss’s grammar book by that title, comma added after the first word).  And if that’s not enough to free your inner belly laugh, I refer you to some of my experiences as a proofreader with a major pharmaceutical company, some 35 years ago.

Now, you may argue that proofreading is about the deadliest dull occupation in existence.  Like anything else in life, however, it is what you make of it.

One of my fellow proofreaders was seriously mismatched for the position (she had previously been a printing press operator for the company and, well, we had a labor union).  English was not her first language, she was very poor at spelling and she had no interest whatever in grammar or punctuation.  I am not proud to say that I joined the other proofreader in making some rather cruel jokes at this poor woman’s expense, particularly after one of her written instructions to the typesetters indicated a missing coma.  You have to work for a drug company to truly appreciate that one.

After that incident, we proceeded to make horrible comma jokes at every opportunity.  I’m talking about everything from “Can you comma over here for a minute?” to bad karaoke attempts at singing James Taylor’s “Handy Man” (click on the link and listen to the end of the song if you don’t get the reference).  From there, we moved on to mangling other forms of punctuation in the name of medical proofreading humor (correcting an improperly punctuated sentence might involve a “semicolonoscopy”).

I thought about those long ago days while I was standing in the checkout line at the supermarket this morning.  I noticed a sign regarding the use of plastic bags.  Let’s just say that this topic has become something of a big deal in our fair county since a local environmental ordinance, passed by the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, requires supermarkets and box stores to charge ten cents per plastic bag.  Many of my neighbors drive across the county line to Roseville to do our shopping, where no such ban is in place.  But even the “avoiders” may be out of luck come November, when an initiative to extend the measure statewide will be on the ballot.

The sign in question read:  “Say so long to single use plastic bags.  Bring Your Own Sac.”

Whoa, Nellie!  Sac?  Seriously?

My Webster’s defines the word as “a pouch within a plant or animal, often containing a fluid.”  I also checked one of the online dictionaries, which added the note “can be confused with sack.”

No kidding.  Just when I was processing images of shoppers bringing cow stomachs and goat bladders to the supermarket, I realized that that the issue was not one of spelling, but one of punctuation.  To understand this, it helps to be aware that, locally, “Sacramento” is often shortened to “Sac.”  Apparently, the statement in question was intended as an instruction to county residents.  “Bring your own, Sac,” has quite a different meaning than the same sentence without a comma.

It’s been a while since I’ve discussed grammar or punctuation in this space, so let me know if you’d like me to do so again (or conversely, feel free to lob rotten tomatoes at me).  In other words, please leave me a comma.

 

Growing Up Jewish and Racist

My wonderful wife has a heart of gold. After all the years we’ve been married, she still amazes me. For one thing, she cares deeply for people. For another, she has an intuitive understanding of others that’s almost scary. Words will come out of her mouth that are dead-on perfect while I’m still muddling through my feelings and trying to figure out what’s really going on.

Like last week, for example. We were having lunch in a nearby restaurant on Saturday afternoon. I started chattering about police-involved shootings and the Black Lives Matter movement when my wife’s comment stopped me in my tracks. “Am I the only one who feels like walking up to a black person and apologizing?” she asked.

No, my dear, you’re not. That’s exactly how I feel, though I hadn’t been able to define it. And I suspect there are a lot of us white folks out there who feel the same way.

I can hear the criticism now. “Feel sorry for what? I didn’t do anything to them.” Well, there has to be a collective sense of guilt. For referring to those with a different skin color as “them,” for one thing. There is no “them.” There is only “us.” An injustice done to one is an injustice done to all. We are all connected.

Each Passover, observant Jews read the Haggadah’s warning that he who fails to acknowledge his freedom from slavery on the grounds that he was never personally a slave to the ancient Egyptians is a sinner who, had he lived in Egypt in those times, would not have been deemed worthy to be redeemed.  Dare we ignore our brothers’ legacy of slavery and their continued oppression and marginalization in modern times?  We do so at our peril.

This puts me in mind of the prejudices deeply instilled in me during my upbringing. Trust me, these early influences are extremely difficult to overcome. Intellectually, of course, I know better. But it is frightening how those preconceived notions continue to sit there in my subconscious, waiting for the right moment to invade a split-second thought.

I grew up in a lily white suburban neighborhood where I rarely encountered anyone who looked different than I did. Segregated neighborhoods resulted in de facto segregated schools. Oh yeah, also the teachers all were white. And this was in New York, not Mississippi!

I attended a very large junior high and I don’t think there were ten black kids in the whole danged school. They must have lived right on the district line. The only black kid I remember was named Leroy (hanging my head in shame) and he was constantly in trouble. I watched him set a fire in the boys’ room once.

At home, blacks were schvartzers (or worse, if my parents were angry). The Yiddish word just means “blacks,” but was always uttered in a tone dripping with contempt. By the time I was five years old, I knew that a vast chasm stood between “us” and the schvartzers.

Us: People of the Book. Value education.
Them: People of the Street. Can’t speak English properly.

Us: Doctors, lawyers, accountants.
Them: Maids, cooks, janitors.

Us: Married with two children.
Them: Single women with five kids by different daddies.

Us: Hard-working. Law-abiding.
Them: On Welfare. Criminals.

Us: Sip of wine in synagogue.
Them: Bottle of wine in a paper bag on the street corner.

Us: Kosher
Them: Hazer (pig) lovers

Us: Academic track. College bound.
Them: Detention, suspension, things too horrible to mention.

Us: Success.
Them: Failure.

I learned early on to stay as far away from the schvartzers as possible because they were no-good troublemakers. They would steal your money, beat you up and kill you.

I am crying as I write this.

There is no pennance I can do that would begin to atone for the hate instilled in my heart when I was a kid. Al het shakhatanu… For the sin which we have committed. The sin of hate, for which there is no forgiveness.

Can hate and fear be unlearned?  Can I forget my father’s ugly racial slurs, cruel jokes, imitations?  Can I replace these memories with love and blot out that evil forever?

And then I went to high school and the world changed overnight. It was 1973 and we were now integrated. Uh, sort of.

A lot of the seniors were still hippies with their faded denim jackets, ripped jeans, flower decals, beads, peace sign chains, pot smoke. The school was beyond capacity, bursting at the seams courtesy of the baby boom. And a few hundred of us were black. (I hadn’t yet heard the term “Hispanic.” Oh, you mean Puerto Ricans?)

The school district was heavily into tracking. The extent of one’s exposure to teens of another race largely depended on one’s track. “B” class? (Remedial level) Nearly all black. “O” class? (Average track) About 3 whites for every black. Advanced placement or honors class? Lily white.

Well, everyone has to eat. The cafeteria, you would expect, would be the great equalizer. You would be wrong.

The student newspaper denounced the lunchroom’s “invisible line.” The white kids sat on one side, the black kids on the other. I thought it was just plain dumb. No one dared cross over to the “wrong” side. This self-imposed racial segregation was accepted by most of us as an ironclad rule that could not be violated. I don’t recall any brave soul from either camp ever attempting to break down this barrier.

After a year and a half of accepting without understanding, my mother took a job an hour and a half away and I found myself in another giant high school, this one on the edge of farm country. White as the January snow. I learned what an evangelical Christian is. They learned what a Jew is. I came to the conclusion that being different just wasn’t worth it. I stopped wearing a yarmulke when I ate my tuna sandwich in the cafeteria. I joined the chorus and figured out that it wouldn’t kill me if I sang a song with the word “Jesus” in the lyrics. But the impromptu prayer meetings after school was where I drew the line. So I was never a real native, even though most of the time I could pretend. What if my skin were black? Would I have been able to blend in then? And would I have been welcomed at the prayer meetings?

Flash forward to the present. My efforts at color blindness have met with mixed success. I say “mixed” because there are so many interracial relationships now that I often couldn’t make a racial identification of a particular individual if I tried. I am far more interested in what a person knows and what someone can do than I am in what he or she looks like.

Case in point: My family has become a melting pot. (Whispering: And I love it.). My twice-divorced sister-in-law had married two Hispanic men. We have a lot of fully and partially Hispanic nieces and nephews as a result. They all grew up and many of them got married, to spouses of every race, skin color and cultural background. So when we attend our grandniece’s third birthday party (Hispanic mom and African-American dad), we know there will be a piñata, hard core rap music, and American burgers and hot dogs on the grill.

We all need to be involved in narrowing the cultural chasm, the racial divide instilled in me as a child that I continue to struggle to overcome. I see my landlord as a role model. He and his wife are Ukrainian-Americans. His wife emigrated as a child. He owns his own business and rents us a house that he built with his own hands. They home school their children, attend a Russian church, speak excellent Spanish and hire employees of every race and culture. If the American Dream still exists, surely this is it.

I was disappointed recently when I read about how a “Black Lives Matter” posting on an employee white board (!) at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park was crossed off and replaced with “All Lives Matter.”

Really? With the epic gun violence and shocking murder rate in our country, I am led to believe that life is cheap. It’s hard to believe that “all lives matter” when the pettiest slight will get you shot and no one seems to care if you live or die.

So all lives matter, eh? Do white-skinned people have to worry about racial profiling? Do white-skinned people have to worry about being automatically thought of as criminals? Do white-skinned people have to suffer the indignities of serving as the butt of tasteless jokes based on racist stereotypes? Do white-skinned people resign themselves to being shooting targets for the cops? Do white-skinned people have to live life knowing that many consider them utterly disposable due to their appearance alone?

I was relieved that Mark Zuckerberg chastised his staff for crossing off the “Black Lives Matter” sign. Insisting that “all lives matter” diminishes the pain and suffering experienced by African-Americans. The aggressor is not entitled to share in sympathy extended toward the victim. And don’t tell me that you never did anything to “them,” that what happened to “them” is not your fault. Let me say it again: There is no them! There is only us!

We’re all responsible for this horrible mess. I bristle when I hear the words “check your privilege,” but it’s true! I enjoy white privilege that my darker-skinned brethren will never have. And although I can’t undo that, I can only hope that this privilege will erode through a combination of education, exposure and cultural melting. For it is only then that our nation’s ideal of E. Pluribus Unum will become a reality: Out of many, one.

Revolt of the Toys

Toys 1

Toys 2

You always know when my three year old grandniece is visiting because our tiny two-room rental house begins to bear an uncanny resemblance to a toy store.  As my wife works from home, having a pile of toys around usually serves as sufficient distraction to allow my wife to take care of her job responsibilities.  Granted, Little One would rather be watching a Disney movie, kidvid on Netflix or (her preference) YouTube videos on my wife’s iPhone.  Hence, the toys.  Even at her young age, I think the kid is addicted to electronic devices.  The upcoming Generation Alpha (those now under five years of age) are more connected to the world than any previous group, including their millennial parents.

We’re not sure how we feel about that.  We’d rather that Little One take time to be a kid and not grow up so fast.  It’s not that we want to hold her back or anything, but watching her glazed eyes mesmerized by the screen is a bit unsettling.  Accordingly, we try to balance the electronic with a healthy dose of low-tech fun.  This includes playing outside with the landlord’s kids, having fun with the cats and dogs, making trips to local play venues and spending imaginative time with the huge number of toys to which she has access.

We have taken on some of the child care duties to allow my niece to go to work without worry.  She lives about 45 minutes from here, so the procedure involves a complicated relay of pick-ups and drop-offs that my wife and her sister have worked out with Little One’s mom.  I have stopped trying to keep track.  What I do know is that Little One stays over with us one or two nights each week.  Although the suitcase that she brings with her clothes usually contains a few toys, it helps to have the toy shop ready to go.

Never for a minute did I stop to ask the toys how they feel about this arrangement.  So I suppose it should come as no surprise that one of her toys decided to take matters into its own hands and speak its mind.  Pixar’s animation studios are about two hours down the road in Emeryville, but they have nothing on us here in Sacramento.

It started in the middle of night.  If a toy wanted to pick a time of day most calculated to capture our attention, this would be it.  While we may be fast asleep, you can be sure that we’re going to sit up and take notice when anything noisy develops anywhere in our tiny house.  Here at home, anyplace you are at the moment is no more than a few feet from any other place.  So it’s not as if a toy’s cri de coeur would stand a chance of being overlooked.

My best guess is that the toys took a vote.  Word is that they eschew any Electoral College type system of representation in favor of a New England town meeting style of direct democracy.  In this election cycle, the nominee was my grandniece’s Minnie Mouse telephone.  In better times, pressing the numeric buttons would result in the playing of recorded messages about visiting Minnie’s clothing emporium.  Turn them into good American consumers while they’re young, right?

Now, it’s not as if we’ve engaged in blatant abuse of the toys, at least not on a level that would warrant retaliation.  Benign neglect, maybe.  Perhaps the Minnie Mouse phone was attempting to serve as the voice of the other toys that were tired of being cast aside in favor of mere images on electronic devices.

At any rate, this is how the deal went down.  My wife and I were fast asleep when my dreams were invaded by a weird mantra that was chanted over and over again.  As I struggled to consciousness, I wondered if there was some type of emergency in the neighborhood that necessitated loud speaker warnings to evacuate immediately.  It sounded just about that ominous and urgent.  “What was that?” I asked my wife, who murmured “I dunno” and immediately returned to dreamland.

What on earth was I hearing?

“Stricky-ah! Stricky-ah! Stricky-ah!  Restricky-ah! Stricky-ah!”

Generally, I sleep so soundly that I wouldn’t wake up if a bomb went off.  But it seemed as if I had finally met my match.  This time, the sheer weirdness of this interruption to my somnolence was enough to keep me awake.  It sounded as if I had walked into an area that was off-limits and had tripped an alarm that was attempting to shout “Restricted!  Restricted!”

I climbed out of bed and headed to the bathroom, quickly realizing that the noise emanated not from outside, but from the toy pile.  The disembodied voice sounded like something out of a bad sci-fi movie.  I touched the Minnie Mouse phone and noticed that it was wet.  Immediately, the phone returned to its normal self as I heard the cheerful, chirpy voice to which I had become accustomed.  “Hello!  This is Minny Mouse!”

Now the toys were just playing mind games with me.  Was I still dreaming?  Was this all a product of my imagination?  And why was the phone wet?  Oh no, I thought, I hope the batteries aren’t leaking acid all over everything.

Padding back from the bathroom, I climbed back into bed and went back to sleep.  Less than five minutes later, it started up again.

“Stricky-ah!  Stricky-ah!  Restricky-ah!  Stricky stricky stricky stricky stricky stricky-ah!  Restricky-ah!”

As I am a lazy so-and-so, I really did not want to mess with it.  So I tossed and turned, went back to sleep and woke up again multiple times, only to find that the revenge of the toys had not let up.

“Restricky-ah!  Restricky-ah! Stri-stri-stri-stri-stricky stricky stricky stricky restricky-ahhh!”

In the morning, my wife filled me in.  Apparently, Little One had taken the Minnie Mouse phone outside to play and had gotten dirt inside it.  Then she took it in the bathtub with her to wash it.  That explained why I felt water when I touched it.  My wife said we would just have to throw it away.  And that was more than fine with me.

We had a lovely Saturday, complete with going out to lunch and attending a birthday barbecue for another three year old member of our extended family.  Little One was present and I had the opportunity to engage in one of my favorite pastimes, taking lots of iPhone pictures.  We capped off the day by watching the Olympics.

Saturday night, I was dead asleep when I bolted awake.  What was that noise?  “Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!”  It sounded as if one of our electronic devices was attempting to send a fax or maybe connect to an old-fashioned dial-up modem.  Oh, good, it stopped.

A few minutes later:  “Ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding!”  Not again!  It seemed that the nefarious Minnie Mouse phone was not about to give up without a fight.

In the morning, my wife removed Minnie’s batteries.  Later, she took it out to the trash.

Thus endeth the tale of the great 2016 revolt of the toy pile.  And tonight, I get some sleep.