I went to a small, Jesuit liberal arts college in upstate New York. Although there weren’t many Jesuits teaching there, the school still had a religious feel. Crucifixes hung on the front wall of every classroom, statues of saints stood watch in the gardens, and the whole campus smelled like church.
One of the best professors I had while I was there was a man by the name of Ellerman. That’s how he introduced himself. Not Dr. or Mister, or even Karl, which was his first name. Just Ellerman. At the beginning of the first class, he gave a small summary of what we were going to study (Ethics) and then he simply said. “My name is Ellerman.”
As we got to know him, he confided in us that he hoped someday to write a new, improved version of Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground. He was intense, wore a pencil-thin mustache, and rarely smiled. He was also an avowed atheist. Quite rationally, he explained that since he could discern no proof of God, he simply couldn’t believe. This non-belief, frequently expressed, came as quite a shock to my classmates, most of whom came from Catholic high schools. To them, God was a given, the claims of the Bible waterproof tight. The priests and nuns told them so. And so it must be true.
Ellerman was the first pure contrarian I ever met, pushing everyone’s accepted beliefs to the limit, and I worshipped him for it.
Then one day, he was gone. Working at a college as I do, now I understand the intricacies and high drama of the tenure process. I’m sure he was told he wasn’t on track to get tenure anytime soon, so he moved on. But back then I wanted to believe he had lost his position because he was a confessed atheist at a Jesuit school. He stuck it to the man, wouldn’t compromise his beliefs, chose reason over magic, and paid the ultimate professional price. Even if none of it was true, believing it made his sacrifice seem even greater in my eyes.
One of the ethical problems we discussed was whether or not someone had the right to challenge another person’s long-held belief in God, even on their deathbed. Was it ethical to try and make the dying person see reason, or to let them die happily with their belief in the afterlife and eternal salvation? The question applies not only to religion, but to other philosophical positions as well. Politics or personal ethics, for instance. How far are we permitted to go in order to make someone else agree with our position? Is any discussion of long-held beliefs worthy, or do most people, by the time they reach a certain age, simply believe what they believe and either can’t or won’t believe otherwise, rendering any dialogue moot?
Buddha is quoted as saying that when words are both kind and true, they can change our world. But sometimes true words can’t be kind. And kind words are certainly not always true.
I’ve just finished Morrissey’s Autobiography, and have decided, once again, to recommit myself to the vegetarian lifestyle. This puts me in a somewhat uncomfortable position at times. In a representative quote from the book, Morrissey says, “Suddenly, you come to a certain situation and you are unable to live with it, and the only protest you can make on behalf of the butchered animal is to depart the scene. Whether this be considered irritating or rude by the gluttonous carnivore is of no interest to me. Nobody can possibly be so hungry that they need to take a life in order to feel satisfied – they don’t after all, take a human life, so why take the life of an animal? Both are conscious beings with the same determination to survive. It is habit, and laziness, and nothing else.” Later in the book, Morrissey tells us how he fired an agent for simply ordering frogs’ legs in a fancy Beverly Hills restaurant.
Vegetarians, like recovering alcoholics, must always be ready, it seems, to defend their beliefs. Carnivores and drinkers never do.
If I followed Morrissey’s lead, and simply started walking out of places, like the recent Super Bowl party I attended where a friend brought a bowl of chicken wings (wings I had, on many previous occasions, eaten with unchecked abandon), I wouldn’t have many friends left at all. How far am I willing to go, as Ellerman taught us, to challenge my friend’s long-held beliefs by reminding him that he is eating dead, burned flesh? Should I launch into graphic descriptions of animal torture and slaughter, and how sometimes the flesh is peeled back from the skull of a still-live cow in cases where that poor cow hasn’t been fully anesthetized by the slaughterman’s stun gun? Or how the beaks of chickens are cut off to prevent them from pecking each other to death in the unconscionable close quarters they are kept in? Should we talk of veal, or fois gras? And what about that poetic misnomer, “ethical meat,” that is bandied about by the foodies in the pages of the New York Times? What can be ethical about killing an innocent, sentient creature, with thoughts and feelings, who wants to feel pleasure and avoid pain, just like humans do, as long as the creature was “free range” or had a “name instead of a number” before it was led to the abattoir? Lucky Bessie! She had a good life, but then we had to chop her head off and eat the flesh from her roasted bones. A life destroyed for a moment on the lips.
You see what I mean about the problem of challenging deathbed beliefs. How graphic should I get? What happens in a slaughterhouse doesn’t need to be ginned-up to convey its sheer horror. Animals are skinned alive for our food. That’s what happens.
The whole scheme only works if you believe two (in my opinion) false assumptions. First, that animals are less worthy than people, thereby making their suffering less important, and second, that we need meat to live. If you’ve ever had a dog or cat or goldfish or hamster, and you examine your feeling towards these “domestic” animals, you will probably find that their lives are just as important as yours. I realize that humankind, at some point in our development, may have needed meat to evolve. But with 50 varieties of hummus and 30 kinds of peanut butter in every supermarket, no one can make the argument that meat is now necessary for human life to continue.
Yet meat is everywhere and is consumed, as Morrissey said, out of habit and laziness. Alongside the ubiquitous beef jerky, dried pieces of turkey flesh can now be bought in little baggies in nearly every checkout line of every Wal-Mart in America. Because turkey, the experts tell us, is healthier than beef. Healthier, perhaps, for everyone but the turkey.
Remember how shocked the world was to learn that there was horse meat in the meatballs that were sold in Ikea cafeterias? The horror! But is a horse any more noble than a cow, simply because it’s capable of running at Churchill Downs? If a cow could curl up on your bed at night, or even speak, would it still be so easy to kill?
But what if, as Thoreau believed, that as mankind evolves further, he will naturally leave off the eating of flesh food? However you slice it, meat is dead, decaying flesh. The forms that it takes disguise the fact. A plate of sushi, which is sliced fish bodies, is made to look like candy. Animals are the prefect industrial workers because they can’t complain in any meaningful fashion, nor can they unionize. It’s so easy to kill animals because we are stronger than them, and they trust us. But imagine leading your dog to the guillotine?
Yes, of course people love the way meats tastes, but is a few minutes of pleasure worth the pain? Is it necessary that both a pig and a cow be slaughtered so we can enjoy applewood-smoked bacon on our drive-through cheeseburger?
You may read all this and still say yes, it is.
I know in my lifetime I’ve consumed thousands upon thousands of once-living, self-aware beings. I’ve been vegetarian and even vegan at other times in my life, but have always returned to meat-eating eventually. I’m sure that if I had to hunt to keep my family from starvation, I would have to do it. Or if I was driving my car and had to swerve to avoid hitting either a child or a cow, I would avoid the child. Of course a few extreme situations can be imagined where animal life must be taken to ensure the survival of human life. But these situations, in the modern world in which we live, are negligible almost to the point of non-existence.
There’s a difference between ignorance, and knowing but still choosing. As we move from ignorance to knowledge, maybe we can leave off killing animals for food. Maybe we won’t need a deathbed conversion.
Maybe, as Gandhi suggested, the way we treat our animals will someday be an intimation of the way we treat each other. Maybe we can be kind. And true.
In the dining hall of the college where I work, everyone knows when it’s carrot cake day. Word spreads like cream cheese frosting-covered wildfire. Normally, diners can wait until their lunch is over before perusing the dessert case. Plenty of time to get those cranberry blondies, folks. No need to shove.
Today it was indeed carrot cake day (I knew by 10 a.m. because I’m friendly with the ladies in the kitchen) but I forgot to pick up my slice when I grabbed my ziti with bell peppers and sausage backed by a ham and cheese panini. Just as lunch was winding down, I remembered. I waddled over to the place they keep the desserts and noticed that there were only two pieces left. As I reached into the case with my silver, crumby tongs, I felt someone behind me. I turned and saw a nice lady, obviously a visitor because she was wearing a lanyard with a name tag attached. We smiled at each other. I put one piece of carrot cake on my dish. If she hadn’t come along, I would have taken the other. Instead, I turned and asked her if she wanted the last piece. I noticed she had been eyeing it expectantly. Yes, she said. I relinquished my tongs.
I’m not telling you this to show how special and kind I am. When we give gifts, or perform charity, we’re not supposed to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing, as Jesus said. If we give with any expectation of reward, then we haven’t truly given, the Buddha echoed. I’m telling you this because this little exchange is what keeps our society from completely and irreversibly blowing apart. Today, it was me. Tomorrow it could be you, playing the role of either giver or receiver. Who knows? Maybe both in the same day. My karma ran over my dogma, or something like that.
Or maybe the fabric of society has already has been shredded to bits but it’s little acts of kindness like this that can put it back together again. I could have pretended I didn’t see her and taken the last two pieces of carrot cake. I think these days, that’s what most people would have done. Just like this parking space I swooped into even though you had your blinker on for two minutes while you waited for the octogenarian to finally remember how to start her car and back it out of her space at the mall, when I want two pieces of cake, I want them, and who the fuck are you to tell me otherwise? It’s my right, right?
Wrong. Give a stranger your second piece of cake. Maybe even your parking space. You’ll both be glad you did.
Who can eat two pieces of cake, anyway?
Although I find him witty and occasionally entertaining, I don’t often agree with Times columnist David Brooks, either in print or when I see his political commentary on public television. As a grad-school philosophy drop-out, I feel perfectly qualified to say that I often find his reasoning faulty and his logic filled with holes. So I was very surprised that I actually liked most of what he wrote in his June 4 piece called The Way to Produce a Person. I won’t summarize the column here (that’s what hyperlinks are for) but I will quote one sentence that stayed with me: “You might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around.” The key word in this passage is “might.” I know we can all love each other locally and still contribute to the greater global good. We can even butt-text to a charity if we aren’t careful. Of course I want to help the starving children in Africa. But I also want to help the starving children in Chicago. In Portland. In Bath. On Edwards Street. Or my own starving children. Come to think of it, there’s a rumbly in my own tumbly right now.
Friends and acquaintances in my age, education, and income bracket often speak about this mode of being as “balance.” As in, we need to balance work and family, private and public life, selflessness and selfishness (in the good sense), local and global activism, etc. Even though I consider myself a Buddhist, and agree with the Buddha’s advice that we live the “middle way” between extreme indulgence and equally extreme self-denial, I hate the word balance. Balance suggests some kind of compromise, and the older I get, the less I want to compromise. The great Irish writer Edna O’Brien said in a recent interview that she wishes more writers were the drunken brawlers of old rather than the modern ones who now make a lovely risotto. If I had to choose, I’d be the drunken, brawling, bohemian rather than the gourmet chef. (Much to my wife’s chagrin. Although I am a pretty good cook, for a man.)
There is so much pressure these days to be blameless in all of our consumer activity. In his column, Mr. Brooks taps into this idea. He expresses a thought that’s almost dangerous to mention in polite, left-leaning, environmentally-conscious company: that you don’t have to save the world. Or as the great Stanley Fish wrote, Save the World on Your Own Time.
I call it the tyranny of perfection.
Think of the endless questions, the crushing din of our inner leftie dialogue: Did we give our spare change to the Heifer Project? Is our plastic baby bottle BPA-free? What about the air pressure in the tires on our Prius? Is it maximized to produce the greatest gas mileage possible so that we use less oil and thereby don’t deplete the ozone layer any more than it already is and so cause a spike in greenhouse gases that produces extreme weather conditions like tornadoes in the heartland that reduce elementary schools to rubble within seconds? Did a child laborer have to endure incredible suffering under barbaric working conditions just to make my t-shirt, or Air Jordans, or iPhone 5? Is our meat local? Is our dairy hormone-and cruelty-free? To paraphrase that brilliant scene from Portlandia, did we know our chicken’s name before we ate it for dinner? His name was Colin, by the way.
Yes, I’m veering into sarcasm here and I am fully aware that these are serious questions that demand serious answers. Just last night, I was shopping at TJ Maxx and found a beautiful pair of FC Barcelona soccer shorts (crafted in that luxurious Barça scarlet red) on sale for $9.99. Then I looked at the tag and it said the shorts had been made in Bangladesh. I immediately thought about the garment factory that had collapsed there a few weeks ago and even though the shorts were already made and probably from last season’s kit or they wouldn’t have been on the rack at TJ Maxx and they were right there in my hands and they were my size (XL) and that red was so beautiful and I knew that I would look halfway-decent in them once my legs got a nice little summer tan going, I put them back on the rack.
See? So we can make informed consumer decisions based on the suffering factor of the goods we buy. (Read Unto This Last by John Ruskin for the full-blown demand that we take laborers’ working conditions into consideration before buying anything.) And I suppose we should. Surely, we can vote with our pocketbooks as my friend’s granddaddy used to say. But growing up, I don’t remember my parents having to make these decisions. Maybe because our milk came from a local dairy and our clothes were made right down the Thruway in Gloversville and Dow Chemical or DuPont hadn’t even invented BPA yet. Yes, we live in a highly complex, hyper-interconnected world. But what if we just want to get up when our alarm goes off, make our coffee, put in an honest day’s work, indulge in some not-so-serious vices on the weekend, take the occasional vacation, and simply live our lives, trying every day to be the best people we can be to our spouses, family, and friends?
Buddha also advised us to change ourselves first before we try to change the world. For most of us, myself included, that task alone is more than enough for one lifetime’s work.
Master Dogen, the founder of the Soto School of Zen Buddhism in Japan, wrote that there are ten benefits to the traditional rice porridge (okayu) served at Zen temples. They are: it gives the body healthy color, increases strength, does not sit heavy on the stomach, extends life, makes the voice clear, aids digestion, prevents colds, relieves hunger, relieves thirst, aids excretion. All important and healthy benefits. In my quest for good health, I have been searching the internet for some authentic okayu recipes, and found a few here, here, and here. I also just returned from my local health food store and picked up some instant brown rice hot cereal from Arrowhead Mills. We’ll see how my little food experiment works. I suppose if I eat like a zen monk these next few weeks, I’ll lose weight and feel a little better about the approaching beach season in Maine. I’m also thinking a little more metaphysically about Dogen’s advice to the Zen cook. He writes “Prepare the rice today for tomorrow’s gruel.” Zen’s emphasis on the present moment, and its dismissal of the past and future as things that don’t really exist and therefore shouldn’t be worried about, sometimes leads people to believe that Zen doesn’t care about the future or is somehow completely impulsive. Not true. Living in the present moment also means taking care of the future. If you want to eat tomorrow, you’d better plan to shop today. Planning for tomorrow’s gruel doesn’t represent an obsession with the future. Just a common-sense approach to it. An American Zen teacher, when asked what the meaning of Buddhism is, replied “Doing what’s required.” And yet, the next question might be: what kind of rice porridge are you preparing tomorrow? Or more deeply: what kind of person are you preparing to be tomorrow? If you don’t know the answer, your grocery shopping might be in vain.
I’m a vegan. There, I’ve said it. Actually, I’ve only been a vegan for a little over two weeks, but I don’t foresee going back to my old meat-and-dairy days. Not unless, like the Dalai Lama, my doctor tells me I have to eat some meat or else I will die. This strange and surprising transformation of my eating habits and, by extension, my life came about unexpectedly and completely on accident. After a wonderful week visiting my family in upstate New York, bingeing on chicken wings, pizza, and steak, I came back to Maine feeling that I had turned a corner in my dietary habits. The time I spent with my parents and my sister and her husband were great, but the food I ate while I was there was certainly not. Perhaps subconsciously I was already plotting my own personal food revolution. I started investigating vegetarian and macrobiotic diets when I came across a book written by Alicia Silverstone called The Kind Diet. Yes, the girl from Clueless changed my life. I always knew that meat was bad not only for the human body but also for the environment, but I never thought the same way about dairy products and eggs. They seemed so benign compared to the massive amounts of suffering and death associated with meat production. Did you know that dairy cows are kept pregnant all the time so that they will keep producing milk? Or that male calves born to dairy cows end up in the beef industry, usually as veal? Did you know that we use more farm acreage in this country to grow food for animals that we will eventually kill for food than we do for food for humans? Maybe you know all this and still want to eat meat and dairy. That’s fine. I certainly don’t want to come off as a hellfire-and-brimstone-preaching vegan. Less than one month ago I ate a huge steak dinner and had creme brulee for dessert, and it was mighty tasty. So I’m not going to go all Brad Pitt-in-12 Monkeys on you. But I do notice strange and almost hostile reactions from some people when I mention my veganism. Most are the “That’s nice, dear” variety. But some insist that we are at the top of the food chain and that as humans we were born to eat meat. I think there is some weird karma going on here. I can’t help wondering if people’s own buried guilt at eating meat isn’t somehow manifesting itself in these reactions. I touched on this is an earlier post when I talked about Thoreau’s vegetarianism. Thoreau once mentioned that after catching and eating a fish or some wild game, he felt that for all the slaughter and trouble, some bread or a few potatoes would have done just as well. I also notice in myself that in becoming a vegan, I almost feel as if I have joined some underground animal liberation rebellion (12 Monkeys again). I feel like an outlaw, like an eco-terrorist on the lam. And yet, did you know that raising animals for food production is one of the leading causes of global warming? I’ll get off my soapbox now and close with a few quotes from my main man. “Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals.” Or this: “One farmer says to me, “You cannot live on vegetable food solely, for it furnishes nothing to make the bones with;” and so he religiously devotes a part of his day to supplying himself with the raw material of bones; walking all the while he talks behind his oxen, which, with vegetable-made bones, jerk him and his lumbering plow along in spite of every obstacle.”
I baked two loaves of bread the other day. This might not seem like such a radical thing. People have been baking bread for centuries. I got the idea from the book I’ve been reading, The Freedom Manifesto by Tom Hodgkinson. In it, he says “if you can make bread, you can do anything. It’s amazing how much confidence baking bread gives you.” My family and I have been eating this bread, which is so much more substantial that supermarket bread, for three days now, enjoying it with our dinners or toasting it for breakfast. It’s a gratifying sight to see your three-year-old son eating the bread you baked. I’ve cooked many meals for my family but for some reason making bread has been the most fulfilling cooking I’ve ever done. And it’s thrifty. Another of Mr. Hodgkinson’s mantras is to “reject waste, embrace thrift.” He advises us to throw out the telly and stop buying magazines. These devices just entice us to buy things we don’t need. Ride a bicycle, the thriftiest invention ever! I just saw an ad on television for Lowe’s, a chain of home improvement stores. Spring is here, and so now we must start our “outdoor projects” Gene Hackman, their paid spokesperson tells us. We are forever working, even during our leisure time. “Let’s build something together” Mr. Hackman exhorts. More like “Spend a lot of money at Lowe’s, using your Lowe’s credit card, and then go home because now you’re on your own, friend.” Commercials never tells us that spring is here and now it’s time to lay in the grass, do nothing, and watch the clouds pass overhead. For the stores, there’s no money to be made in promoting idleness. But it feels so much better to be thrifty than to shop. Shopping will never gratify us. That’s why we keep doing it. If we were ever really gratified, we’d stop shopping tomorrow. But that’s not in the stores’ best interest. To always keep us wanting for more is their philosophy. But what a sweet victory thrift is over waste! For example, I found a free book in a donation bin a few days ago, a guide to identifying trees of North America. It’s one of these old fashioned Golden guides, with colorful drawings instead of photographs. I didn’t pay a cent for it, and yet my children and I have been enjoying looking at trees and trying to find them in the book so as to name them. We found out that the tree in our front yard is (probably) a Norway maple. We’ve lived in our house for almost ten years and never knew that. For the longest time the tree in our front yard was just named “tree.” But now it has a name. And just yesterday my son said that when he got out of preschool he wanted to “look for trees.” Now that’s much better than television.
This past week, I had the occasion to come across a small book that I found in a used book shop while on holiday with my family in Portsmouth, NH . It is entitled A Record of Awakening by David Smith. The subtitle is Practice and Insight on the Buddhist Path. Written in his own hand, this self-described “ordinary chap”, a gardener from England, tells of his deep awakening while practicing the Way at a Threravada Buddhist monastery in Sri Lanka. I won’t be a plot-spoiler, but suffice to say that if you are sincerely interested in the Dharma, this may be quite an eye-opening book for you. It was extremely inspirational to me, an ordinary chap myself, to read the story of the enlightenment experience of someone who had no advanced education or special knowledge, just a sincere desire to awaken. At the end of his account, he gives a few words of final advice, and one of his phrases resounded very deeply with me. He says, “Immerse yourself in the Dharma, dive into it like you would a pool of cool water on a hot summer’s day, but never get out!” This past weekend I also had the occasion to experience a brief illustration of why it is so important to practice. I was at my in-laws’ house and as I was pouring red wine into a glass, it spilled all over the countertop. As I attempted to clean up the mess, I knocked over the wine glass and it almost shattered. I swore out loud, anger flashing. My daughter was right behind me, and heard me. She wanted to know what the matter was. In that instant I realized how foolish I must have looked, getting so upset over some spilled wine. That ever-present Me was wronged once again, by these mindless, inanimate objects. Upon reflection, I saw the folly of thinking that we can somehow control every situation we find ourselves in. Shouldn’t we expect that if we open the bottle carefully, and slowly tip it towards the glass, that the wine will flow smoothly? But no. Despite our best plans, the wine spills or our car refuses to start or we lock ourselves out of our house or we lose our eyeglasses. But just who is it that gets so angry? I think practicing the Dharma can show us that there’s no one here to even get upset. Or maybe that I shouldn’t be drinking wine.