A place in my mind where I have all the time in the world to think and write about the things I want to, without interruption. I’m also going to the wonderful Woodstock Writer’s Festival in early April. To be with my tribe.
The Goldfinch. I might be the only other man I know on the planet who is reading this book. It comes with a lot of hype. Maybe too much. I’m on page 567 right now. I’m all in. I’ll reserve judgment until I’m done. I loved Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History. I haven’t read her second, The Little Friend, even though I have a signed copy, obtained when I met her at a book show in Chicago almost ten years ago. I remember her haircut, still the same after all these years, and making her smile.
To the new Beck album, Morning Phase, out today. Billed as a “sequel” to his “masterpiece” Sea Change, it sounds more like a long-lost friend rather than a coda. We have to be careful where, when, and how we listen to a new piece of music for the first time. I listened to the first four songs of Morning Phase after dropping my daughter off at school, and while driving to work, crossing the frozen New Meadows River with the pink sun blazing the ice. But now I’m at work, in my concrete bunker, and it’s not the time to keep going. With its echoes of Rumors-era, sunny California seventies soft-rock, this album doesn’t belong in a basement. It belongs in a car, on an open road, on the way to the beach. Or from, at sunset. I’ll save the rest for later.
Syracuse University basketball games. My daughter is quickly becoming a rabid fan. Speaking as a lifelong Orange supporter, I warned her she’s in for a lot of heartbreak. Wearing her newly-minted Ice Man t-shirt, she seems OK with that.
As much Chobani yogurt as I can stuff into my fat face. As a born-again vegetarian, I need my protein. My favorite is the plain, drizzled with some fresh Maine honey. Take that, Putin.
Red Rose English Breakfast tea, out of my new $8 Plain White Pottery Barn cup-and-saucer set I bought at the mall. I’m one-quarter English on my dad’s side, and smitten with Downton Abbey. I may start walking with a cane, like Mr. Bates, just for fun.
My standard all-black livery: black pants, black socks, black shoes, black crew-neck sweater, with a touch of color at the neck and wrists. Almost everything was bought at Brooks Brothers at a deep discount. As Morrissey sang, I wear black on the outside because black is how I feel on the inside. Plus it’s slimming.
How about you? What are you up to right now?
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.
About five years ago, on a rainy Wednesday evening, I drove to the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center outside of Boston to take the Buddhist Refuges and Precepts, an age-old ceremony that is about as close as one comes to a Buddhist declaration of faith. The teacher that night, Larry Rosenberg, is a well-respected insight meditation teacher. Insight meditation, also known as Vipassana meditation, is believed to be the original form of meditation taught by the Buddha to his monks and lay followers. The first thing Larry said to us in the elegant upper floor of the center that serves as its meditation hall, was “I don’t care if you take the precepts or not.” Tough love, then. We sat in meditation for a half-hour. There was about fifty of us there. Larry told a few stories, the most notable one about his strenuous hike up a mountain in South Korea to see the most beautiful Buddha statue in the world, only to find the altar empty when he opened the doors of the hilltop shrine. His guide had tricked him, you see. The most beautiful Buddha in the world was actually within the sweat and heat of his hike up the mountain, and couldn’t be found on any altar or contained in any shrine. After the stories, we took the vows. The Three Refuges, or Three Jewels are: taking refuge in the Buddha (teacher), taking refuge in the Dharma (teaching) and taking refuge in the Sangha (community of practitioners). Then came the harder part, the Five Precepts:
“I undertake the precept to refrain from killing living creatures and to practice compassionate action.”
“I undertake the precept to refrain from taking that which is not given and to practice generosity.”
“I undertake the precept to refrain from using sexual energies unwisely or uncaringly and to practice responsibility in all my relationships.”
“I undertake the precept to refrain from harmful speech and to practice kind speech.”
“I undertake the precept to refrain from the misuse of alcohol and drugs and to practice caring for my body and mind.”
We recited these to ourselves and more importantly, to each other. We had a delicious, deep red pomegranate tea served out of a big pot in the dining room on the first floor. There was fellowship. Then I bowed to my fellow Buddhists and drove back to Maine in the rain. So far, so good. But as soon as I got home, about two and a half hours later, I distinctly remember walking into my kitchen and making a roast beef sandwich and cracking open a beer. Already I had broken two of the precepts I had just taken. Not using skillful means, as the Buddha would say.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am always trying wacky diets. I’ve been a “I’m never going back to eating meat ever again” vegetarian about twenty times in my life. I was vegan for a month about two years ago during Lent. You’ve seen me standing on the sidewalk eating beans out of a can. You laughed when I brought vegan cheese to a barbeque. That’s OK. I am going to try, starting tomorrow, to remember the precepts I took in Cambridge. I’m going to try to be a vegetarian for a whole year. I’m going to try to refrain from killing living creatures. There’s enough suffering in the world already. I don’t need to add any more. Tomorrow is my sister’s birthday, so it will be an easy date to remember come my meatless anniversary. You will laugh at me, and I can take it. But please support me. You can eat pork buns until you start oinking. I won’t judge you because I’ve been in my own pork bun hell. I won’t tell you that 99.9% of animals raised for meat have been tortured because you know that already. You can make the case for ethical meat and I’ll nod politely. But I really have to try something new here. My jeans don’t fit. I lose my breath when I bend over to tie my shoes. My karma ran over my hot dogma. The Buddha is watching me, and he’s shaking his head.