Vegan Lessons from Early Disney Cartoons

My little grandniece, who will turn four later this month, loves to watch cartoons on Netflix when she is visiting us.  Although she has been a video fanatic at least since she was two (I am old enough to remember when cartoons appeared on TV on Saturday mornings only), we encourage her to get involved in other activities as well.  While she visited us over the weekend, she played with the cats, got a good look at the chickens, romped about with the neighbor kids, created things with Play-Doh (the blue and red mashed together for so long that all of her creations are now rendered in a sickly purplish hue) and was taught to play Chutes ‘n Ladders by Uncle Guac.

However, it is the cartoons that really take me back.  My grandniece’s fascination with Peppa Pig, Shopkins, Minnie Mouse and the cast of Frozen notwithstanding, I am amazed by how engrossed she becomes in some of the original Disney animation from the 1930s to 1950s, now available anytime on Netflix and YouTube.  This time around, she wanted to watch the short films “The Big Bad Wolf” and “The Three Little Wolves,” not once, not twice, but over and over again.  Aging baby boomers will likely share my fond memories of the “Mickey Mouse presents” Silly Symphonies.  A series of these feature the three little pigs and I must say that the quality of the Depression era animation is mind-blowing.  You can see how the fancy Pixar stuff of today was influenced by these early works.

I am particularly fascinated by the way the three pigs (protagonists of both of these shorts) are drawn.  Their coloring is very pink.  They have appropriately piggy ears, snouts and hooves.  The little curly tail (referred to by the wolves as the “curly cue”) is present.  Only the “worker pig” is clothed on the lower half of its body (in overalls, including a patch over the rear end while a hole for the curly cue to stick out).  The other two pigs are naked below the chest.  Their belly buttons are visible, as are the cracks of their rear ends, but no external genitalia are in evidence.  This, I suppose, not only accommodated the sensibilities of the era, but also made the series more appropriate for children.  I was a bit surprised that the butt cracks were drawn in, and I wonder how this got past the censors.  Perhaps this was deemed okay for animals other than humans?

The wolves all have long bushy tails, lots of black fur and, of course, huge mouths with prominent sets of very white, sharply pointed teeth.  As Walt Disney was involved in producing some of the war effort propaganda, I can understand why the wolves, villains of these tales, speak with a pronounced German accent.  For example, the “father wolf” teaches his lupine offspring from wall charts labeled “choice cuts of pig” and “pig product chart” that include “pigsen feet” for “pigs’ feet” and “schweine stew” (using the German word for “pig”).

Unlike the 19th century “three little pigs” folk tale, in Disney’s “The Three Little Wolves,” the pigs appear to reside together in a single structure rather than in three separate dwellings.  Perhaps this is a reference to the wolf’s prior destruction (“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down!”) of the flimsy houses built by “fiddler pig” and “piper pig.”  In fact, it appears that “worker pig,” who is so busy with bricks and mortar, is constructing an addition to its home, perhaps because its existing residence is too small to accommodate the porcine threesome.

In addition to this reference to the original “three little pigs” story, “The Three Little Wolves” also includes significant elements of “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.”  The former character appears early in the film; “fiddler pig” and “piper pig” attempt to escort her to Grandma’s house via the short cut through the woods known to be frequented by the wolves (against the advice of the ever practical “worker pig”).  The two musical pigs also play a trick on the worker pig by blowing a horn (hanging from a tree below a sign reading “wolf alarm, for emergency use only”) when no wolves are in evidence.  The worker pig (who hits its head on a board and nearly shoots itself in its rush to arrive on the scene) warns the other two that such antics will result in no response to the horn when the wolf really is in the area.  It’s amazing how smoothly Disney manages to mash these three stories together.

As a vegan, I have to wonder whether “The Three Little Wolves” contains a subtextual protest against carnivorism.  Not only do the lupine villains speak with German accents, but they crave “choice cuts” of pork, a German staple.  One pig is industrious and the other two are happy-go-lucky musicians, but their contributions matter not to the wolves, who visibly salivate at the thought of eating them.  When the wolves finally do catch up with the two musical pigs and truss them side-by-side in a pan, they are ordered to say “Ah!” so that an apple can be shoved into their open mouths prior to cooking.  The pigs in the pan are just on the verge of being placed on the fire when the wolves are interrupted.  Apparently, the plan was to roast the pigs alive.  While I like to think this is designed as a display of the animal cruelty involved in cooking animals, more likely it was intended as a reference to the cruelty of the Germans during World War II.  The bottom line is that we sympathize with the playful pigs who are forced to spend their time devising ways of escaping being eaten by the wolves (building a “wolf appeaser,” blowing the emergency horn) or running away from the pursuing wolves.

While this cartoon makes it very obvious that the wolves wish to eat the pigs, Disney never shows us what the pigs eat.  However, the theme of opposing the consumption of animals is extended in another Disney short film, “Lambert, the Sheepish Lion,” which my grandniece also watched several times at our house.  In that film, the wolf, forever the carnivorous villain, is after sheep rather than pigs.  At the very end of the eight-minute cartoon, after the antagonist is soundly vanquished, the audience is told not to worry about the fate of the wolf.  Although the wolf is kicked off the edge of a cliff, it is shown clinging to a branch that adequately sustains the wolf because it grows berries “every spring.”  The carnivore converted to a vegan!

My guess is that these lessons are totally lost on the generations of children for whom they were intended and that the adults watching with them just don’t give a damn (after all, the roast is in the oven).



Phone Bones

We have been out of town the past couple of weekends, once to Reno and once to visit my parents in the Central Valley.  From the vantage point of a New Yorker who transplanted himself to California 20 years ago, the distinguishing factor of the Golden State is that it has no distinguishing factor.

Even after two decades on the west coast, many notice a trace of a New York accent that lingers in my speech.  When I admit to my roots, I am typically asked where exactly in New York I am from.  It seems that I disappoint them when I don’t announce that I hail from Batavia, Binghamton or Buffalo.

“I was born in Manhattan,” I tell them, and they seem suitably impressed.  I don’t bother mentioning about starting out sharing a single bedroom with two sisters in a roach-infested walk-up in the Bronx.  Nor do I get into my parents’ flight to the leafy suburbs in the mid-sixties.

“Things must be really different back there,” is the usual reaction.  I disappoint once again when I say that, no, they’re not.  I’ve long resigned myself to the increasing homogeneity of America.  So much of California reminds me of New Jersey.  The grubby suburbs of Sacramento and the urban sprawl of Los Angeles are not that different than Passaic and Essex Counties in the Garden States.  Newark, California has a lot in common with Newark, New Jersey.

We travel the interstates, taking an exit periodically to fill the gas tank, fill our bellies, use the rest rooms.  Whether we’re in Oregon or Nevada or right here in northern California, the one thing that every convenience store, strip mall and restaurant seems to have in common is the bones.

I refer to the skeletal remains of the once ubiquitous pay phone.

I remember it well.  It was the summer before I went off to college, and my father and I were hitting balls on a tennis court at the local junior high.  I had never been away from home before, was quite immature at the age of 17 and began fretting about how I’d keep in touch.

“There are pay phones everywhere,” my father offered.

Oh, so true during the Carter administration.  In my freshman year, I lived in a dormitory that had one pay phone on each floor, in the elbow that separated the men’s wing from the women’s.  It was considered proper etiquette to answer it if you were nearby when it rang, and then to leave the receiver dangling while you went to bang on the door of whomever the caller requested.  I remember being tickled the day I heard it ring just as I walked by and it was actually for me!

Later, I transferred to a giant state university that was bursting at the seams with baby boomers.  Despite a veritable city of dormitories, there was no room at the inn and I ended up with a couple hundred other students in a decrepit single room occupancy hotel downtown.  There was an old cast iron black telephone in each room.  The phone had no dial (this was before the age of push button phones), as it received incoming calls only.  To place an outgoing call, one would use the pay phone in the lobby.  Alternatively, up on campus one could descend into the basement of the university library, where in a room near the huge bound volumes of obscure academic journals, was a bank of pay phones, complete with little stools on which to perch during one’s phone call.  For some reason, Sunday night seemed to be the time when everyone wanted to call home to Long Island.  After all, everyone was far too busy bar hopping on Friday and Saturday nights.

Somewhere in a dusty album there is a photo of my sister and her young ex-husband, newlyweds on their honeymoon, hugging each other while squeezed into the narrow doorway of a phone booth.

Phone booths!  Remember those?  Clark Kent relied on them to make his transformation into Superman.  The red ones I found throughout London when I visited in the mid-1980s were highly photogenic, although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to use them to make a phone call.  “You can dial that yourself,” one operator unhelpfully informed me.  HOW??!!

My parents typically spend their evenings watching television, a habit I have studiously avoided for years.  To make matters worse, they don’t have cable or a satellite dish.  Thus, they receive only a few over-the-air stations from a nearby city.  The trash that they serve up to the public makes me roll my eyes.

And so, on Saturday night, after sitting on folding chairs in the driveway to watch the stars for an hour, my wife and I found ourselves sitting on my parents’ couch, watching the first Terminator movie (1984) with my mother.  My father was in the office watching documentaries about murders on another TV.  As a Californian who endured a term of Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor, I could not but guffaw at seeing him as a cyborg.  But it was his repeated visits to phone booths that really caused me to belly laugh.  Phone booths that not only had fully functioning phones in them, but also had phone books present (remember those?), so convenient for Arnold to look up the addresses of his next victims.

Pay phones went through slow stages of disrepair and dilapidation before they disappeared altogether.  There were a number of years during which the phone probably still worked, but nothing dangled at the end of the cord where a phone book was supposed to be.  Most pay phones seemed to be of the outdoor variety; where an actual booth still existed, the little shelf beneath the phone that was supposed to house the phone book was always empty.

When I worked as a manager in the court system, I remember making a sign and posting it on the wall of the courthouse lobby to inform visitors that the pay phone did not work and that no money should be inserted therein.  People tried anyway and lost their dimes and quarters.  I don’t know how long it had been since that particular pay phone had ceased functioning, but I do know that picking up the receiver yielded an incessant beeping and nothing more.  It took quite a lot of research, probing and pleading before I was finally able to get that pay phone removed and the empty hole in the wall plastered over.  The challenge was finding out who actually owned the phone.  None of the phone companies who I contacted were willing to take responsibility for it.  Little did I know that there were businesses that actually purchased and serviced pay phones.  I always had a vague idea that “the phone company” took care of it.  Perhaps this was true in the halcyon days before the breakup of Ma Bell.

The advent of the cell phone relegated pay phones to be just another remnant of American social history, along with the vinyl 33⅓ RPM record and the manual typewriter.

But still, like ghosts of the past, the bones remain.


When I arrived home from work on Friday evening, my wife, Pastor Mom and I relaxed by watching the indie film Vegucated on Netflix (click here to see it on YouTube).  This documentary follows the journey of three meat-eaters who volunteer to go vegan for three weeks.  They learn about the factory farms where most of our meat comes from, the horrific cruelty inflicted upon the birds, cows and pigs that become our food, and the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and cancer that could be greatly reduced by eliminating animal products from our diets and embracing the eating of vegetables, legumes, fruit and other plant-based food.

I was delighted by the film’s opening sequence, taken from what appears to be a 1950s-era newsreel for school children, featuring Bossie, the happy cow giving us milk and kids petting the cute baby chicks on the farm.  The pneumatic bolt guns used to drive steel through the brains of cattle prior to slitting their throats is discussed later in the film, but not shown.

I had to laugh at the interviews conducted on location in what looks to me like Times Square in Manhattan, particularly the guy who refuses offers to go vegan first for $10,000 and then for $100,000.  The point that Americans love their hamburger was well illustrated.

I highly recommend taking a look at this film and learning what happens to the California dude, the young Latina and the hipster psychiatrist/stand-up comic.  Along the way, you’ll learn about what vegans eat and some of the motivations for adopting this type of diet.

Although this film is about five years old now, I learned about it at a propitious time.  That’s because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to be a vegan and what responsibilities I have to share my experiences with others.  One hears the phrase “change the world” quite a bit in vegan circles, yet I feel confident that the practice of killing and eating animals will always be with us.  I can’t say that I truly feel that what I’ve been doing for the past year and a half will change the world.  I have long believed that we have no control of what others do; we only have control over our own actions.  This, however, may be enough, as being a living example of right actions remains the most powerful way to influence others.

I have never been one to proselytize or in any way push my beliefs on others.  Still, I often find myself having to rein in my disgust with what others put in their mouths and bellies.  Ultimately, each person has to do what he or she thinks is right.  The prevailing notion among Americans seems to be “if it tastes good, eat it.”  Just where that food came from doesn’t seem to factor into the equation.  Yet I am somewhat reluctant to educate others on this subject, particularly since it seems that many would prefer not to know.  Perhaps ignorance really is bliss.

Some see vegans as ascetics, crazy (a little creepy, even) hippie throwbacks who foolishly choose to deprive themselves of the finer things in life.  I try not to point out that I don’t deprive myself of eggplant, chick peas and cashews, which I happen to view as some of the finer things in life.

It’s interesting to hear the questions I’m asked when folks learn that I follow a vegan diet.  Aside from the usual “Goodness, you can’t eat anything!  How do you survive?” I typically get questions such as “Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing?” and, of course, “Don’t you ever miss having a hamburger?” Uh, no, actually I don’t.  Although I must admit that I’ve become rather fond of my vegan Boca patties.

Many view a vegan diet as something that one can try for a while as an experiment, but certainly not as something sustainable for a lifetime.  They might be surprised to learn how many of us have been vegans for decades.  A vegan diet has been shown to lower blood pressure, cholesterol and weight.  Although I haven’t eaten meat in about a quarter of a century, ditching the dairy products allowed me to lose about 70 pounds in the first year alone.

A big temptation for new vegans is to get through the meat and dairy withdrawals by relying heavily on refined carbohydrates — lots of potatoes, chips, pretzels and cookies.  Indeed, after all this time, potatoes remain my downfall.  As a Type II diabetic, I have to keep reminding myself that our bodies turn those carbs straight into sugar.  I have been working on this particular problem by making sure to consume less starchy vegetables such as carrots, spinach and tomatoes along with my spuds.  And I’ve been substituting some of my potato-based meals with garbanzo beans.  They also contain some starch, but at least they are high in protein.

To say that tofu is my friend isn’t too much of an exaggeration.  Because this pure soy protein is essentially flavorless, it can be added to anything and spiced up at will.  Then there is the “soy meat” like my favorite Gardein and Tofurky products.  There is fake chicken, fake beef, fake fish, fake cheese, fake hot dogs, you name it.  Most of it is made from flavored soy and textured vegetable protein (TVP).  I can’t begin to describe how delicious this stuff is.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  Or better yet, try it for yourself and be surprised.


My dinner this evening:  Baked yam, Boca patty, rice and garbanzos (seasoned with soy sauce and garlic powder).

An English Major at the Movies

My wife and I had a date tonight.  We went out to the movies for the first time in about a year.

It’s not that we don’t love the movies.  We enjoy the entire experience, from the popcorn to the previews.  For the past three years, however, we have been living in a remote area of the Sonoran Desert where a trip to the movies involved driving three hours round-trip.  There actually was a two-screen movie theater in our little town when we first moved there, but it went out of business just a few weeks after our arrival.

In discussing this tonight, my wife and I tried to remember our last excursion to the movies.  We decided that it must have been during a long weekend in Laughlin, Nevada in 2012 when we saw The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in one of the casinos.  Now that we’ve returned to “civilization” in northern California, we hope to get back in the swing of attending the cinema.

Tonight we saw Saving Mr. Banks and we both loved it.  I particularly enjoyed the period sets that did such a good job of depicting early 1960s Los Angeles.  My only complaint was that the frequent flashbacks to Travers’ childhood in rural Australia, while an effective plot device, tended to make the film drag.  The repeated shots of palm trees in Queensland seemed to parallel the palm-lined boulevards of L.A. and, for Travers, must have been a trigger for childhood memories.  This would also help make sense of Travers’ remarks about preferring rain (typical of her London residence) to the Los Angeles (and Queensland) sunshine.  The California climate, coupled with reminders of childhood in the form of Disney stuffed animals and figurines, combined to bring powerful, unpleasant memories to the surface that nearly torpedoed the Mary Poppins project that was the subject of the film.

I know, I should just enjoy the film without being so analytical.  This, however, is one of the hazards of having been a college English major.  Regardless of the number of years that have gone by since my days on campus, some things stick with you.

Another example of my English major ways reared its head during a recent visit to my parents.  They had borrowed a DVD copy of Life of Pi from the public library and enjoyed it so much that they wanted to see it again with us.  Although I had not read the Yann Martel novel upon which the film is based, I found myself providing my wife with a running commentary on subtext and symbolism.

Did you notice that the tiger was originally named Thirsty and that when Pi snuck into the Catholic church and drank the holy water on a dare, the priest said “you must be Thirsty?”  Talk about identification between two characters!

Did you notice that Pi, a starving vegetarian, was forced to eat a fish, while the tiger, a starving carnivore, was forced to eat the biscuit rations that Pi shared with him?  Role reversal!  And what about the fact that the vegetarian tried to avoid being eaten by the carnivore while the carnivore depended on the vegetarian for food?  This symbiosis seemed to be reflected in Pi’s Hindu beliefs.  (Despite dabbling in many faiths, he attributes being saved from starvation to the appearance of the Hindu god Vishnu in the form of a fish.)

Did you notice that Pi was named for a swimming pool (water imagery) and was thrown into one by his father so that he’d learn how to swim, while later Pi was “thrown” into the ocean and similarly had to learn to fend for himself?

By this time, I think my wife had had quite enough of my literary explanations.

Then my niece, a college student, came over to visit and remarked upon how much she enjoyed the movie Pay It Forward.

Did you notice that the teacher was broken in body but whole in spirit while his girlfriend was whole in body but broken in spirit?

Did you notice the Christ imagery in the innocent, pure-hearted boy becoming a sacrificial lamb at the end of the film?  Remember the Bible verse about “a little child shall lead them?”

And what of the effort to create a chain of good deeds without end in the midst of the city of sin, painted in broad strokes in the depiction of the tawdry side of the Las Vegas entertainment industry?

I’m telling you, we English majors can be insufferable bores.  We should never be allowed into a movie theater.