Monday, December 31, 2007

“GE”—Bringing Bad things to Life?

Is it just my imagination, or is the entire world going nuts (not to mention corn, tomatoes, and soybeans) over the issue of genetically engineered foods? I swear there has been more written and said about this issue the past few months than any other health or environmental issue I can remember—ever. The media overkill is positively sickening. That's why I couldn't resist writing this!

By genetically engineered ("GE") foods I am talking, of course, about plants (we'll leave animals for another day) that have had their genetic structure modified, usually through the introduction of foreign genetic material. That genetic material doesn't necessarily have to come from other plants. It may come from animals, bacteria, or even viruses. Indeed, GE foods became a big issue for vegetarians a number of years ago when some Bozo got the bright idea of transplanting an "antifreeze" gene from a flounder into a tomato. Suddenly, the traditional tests we vegetarians use to assess what's appropriate to eat (Does it have a face? Does it run away?) seemed woefully inadequate.

GE foods have been getting wide attention from a lot of non-vegetarians too, because of the antics of a "life sciences" company by the name of Monsanto. It may as well be named "Hitler Industries" for all the infamy it's getting. Not only have the Monsanto folks used genetic engineering to create new crops that are immune to their own herbicide (so farmers will buy both seeds and herbicides from Monsanto), but they've created seeds that produce sterile crops (so farmers have to buy more seeds from Monsanto every single year, instead of being able to grow their own). Do these Monsanto guys have a public relations department? Are they all out to lunch?

The Claimed Problems and Benefits

If you read about the dangers of GE foods you may decide this is a good time to go on that therapeutic fast. Scientists are making credible arguments that these previously unknown biological creations may cause enormous, unexpected problems for the humans and farm animals who eat them, and that they have the potential to create superweeds, and even superviruses. Equally good arguments can be made that GE plants will foster increased use of toxic chemicals by farmers (since their crop plants will now be immune to such large doses) and will hasten insect resistance to pesticides (since pesticides engineered into plants can be many times stronger than those sprayed on.)

Arguments as to the benefits of GE plants aren't too shabby either. Promoters, including many environmentalists, cite the ability of GE crops to substantially reduce the land utilized in farming, increase wildlife habitat, reduce pesticide use, reduce the need for additives to preserve foods, and improve taste and nutritional values.

This is probably is not a circumstance where the truth lies somewhere between the opposing viewpoints. Rather, it is probably the case that, depending on the situation, both camps are right.

The Facts

Whatever you think about the problems vs. the benefits of GE foods, there are some immutable facts. First, genetic engineering is possible and it is effective—therefore it will continue to be developed and used. Humans have insatiable appetites for knowledge, and a GE lab can be up and running for $20,000. All the governments of all the countries of the world couldn't stop genetic engineering now, even if they tried. The proverbial cat is already out of the proverbial bag.

Second, you are already eating GE foods, and they will be even harder to avoid as time goes on. As just one example, by next year most of the US soybean crop will be genetically engineered, and this percentage will increase. (I've seen predictions that Monsanto licensees will own as much as 100% of the market within the next few years. I don't believe this though. Monsanto isn't very good with percentages. It's corporate website claimed that "over 100%" responded positively to a survey. That's a lot of people!) Over 80% of processed foods already contain GE ingredients, and even rennet for "vegetarian" cheese is being made with gene-splicing techniques.

Some Suggestions

Genetic engineering is with us to stay, and will almost certainly have a profound effect (good or bad) on life on this planet over the next generation. We can't stop this, but there are some things we can do to make the future a little less scary:

1. Promote Vegetarianism—Vegetarianism can significantly reduce the strain on our agricultural resources and the perceived need for genetically engineered products. With vegetarianism everyone wins.

2. End the patenting of life—The ability to patent plants and animals (and thereby gain a 20-year, government-sanctioned monopoly) is the biggest economic engine for biotechnology. Nothing else does as much to promote profit over the public good. Unfortunately, these patents have been granted for several years now. Considering the economic interests at stake here, this cat is probably out of the bag as well.

3. Test (?)—Many GE foods are allowed on the market with virtually no testing. As shocking as this is, I, as a vegetarian, don't want to promote the use of guinea pigs (or any other animals!) as "guinea pigs" for these foods. (The whole field of biotechnology presents unprecedented opportunities for animal exploitation.) Indeed, there is considerable doubt that animal models are sensitive enough to reveal small differences between modified and unmodified foods. Instead, what we need is good science, and the development of new ways to assure the safety of our actions.

4. Label—Although 78% of Americans surveyed want labels on foods to tell us if they contain genetically engineered ingredients, these labels are not now required. Our government should make GE foods withstand the test of the informed consumer. Furthermore, GE foods should be specifically excluded from the definition of "organic" in the upcoming National Organic Standards. We have a right to choose what we eat and, contrary to the paternalistic attitude of agribusiness, we are smart enough to make this decision on our own, thank you.

Too bad we aren't smart enough to put the cat back in the bag.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Word About Cats

When I got married I inherited four cats. That's right, four cats. Count 'em. Now, I like cats as much or more than the average person does. I grew up with a cat, and he was one of my best pals as a kid. But that was one cat. One cat will pay attention to you, and isn't that much trouble. If you have more than one, they prefer to spend their time with each other, and of course the amount of "cat upkeep" increases exponentially. Did I mention that we have four?

The relationship between cats and human beings is ambivalent to say the least. At our best we love them as pets, buy them expensive food in little cans, and even freeze dry them when they die so we can keep them around. At our worst we curse their shedding, let them live overpopulated and homeless on the streets of our cities, and worse. But more about that later.

Perhaps one reason for the love/ hate relationship we have with cats is that they are smart enough that we can attribute all kinds of human characteristics to them, but inevitably, since they're cats, they always let us down. A few months ago I was unpacking a new electronic gadget in the living room. All the cats got very excited and gathered around to watch.

"It's got dual power supplies and discrete circuitry," I told them, taking the gadget out of the box and holding it up. They really didn't care about that, of course. What did fascinate them was the plastic wrapping and the box half filled with Styrofoam peanuts.

Oh, cats. They have such strange taste. Every time our cats bring some poor bird home in their mouths I'm reminded that these are vicious carnivores. Back to the wild, I think. How can we humans ever expect to get along with heathens who prefer catnip to watercress, cottage cheese to truffles?

"Care for a glass of Bordeaux?" you ask. "Perhaps a '61 Chateau Haut Brion?"

"Not interested," replies the cat. "But if you don't mind, I would like to bat the cork around the kitchen floor."

I suppose one reason cats were originally domesticated was precisely because they don't enjoy the same foods humans do. That way they could be trusted to protect the stores of grain from rodents. We've come a long way since then. Cats still have an economic value to humans, but in a much more grisly way—as laboratory animals for medical experimentation.

They do a lot of brain research on cats, and the mere thought of it sends shivers down my spine. Cats being who they are, it also makes me doubt the wisdom of the researchers. I mean, just how much can they expect to learn from studying the brains of animals who think it's fun to chew on houseplants and then systematically throw up on the carpet in five different rooms?

The other day I was at home working for several hours. For my own sanity I tried to ignore the cats, who were busy playing a game I didn't understand, but which seemed to involve chasing one another several times across every piece of furniture we own.

Late that evening I was very grateful when the house finally quieted down. That was when our little cat Henry jumped up on my lap and nuzzled against my hand. As he curled up in a contented ball I was reminded that, despite our obvious differences, we have a lot in common. Along with all the other animals of the earth, we share an innate need for physical and emotional comfort, freedom, dignity and peace.

Looking down at the furry body, now lost in sleep, the areas of antagonism between cats and humans—be they as trivial as shedding on the furniture, or as significant as death in a medical laboratory—seemed gratefully far away. Yeah, cats are pretty terrific, I thought. I could only hope little Henry might feel the same way about humans.

The holiday season is approaching, and with the help of a sleeping little cat in my lap I am renewed in the hope that someday the lion really will lie down with the lamb, and the peace so many of us have hoped for between our own species and the others on this earth will finally be realized.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Won’t Anyone Consider Vegetarianism?

Omelets, glasses of water…

and Uncle Charlie smells like a cow—

At last count, and this was several years ago, there were about 1.2 billion cows in the world. (There are probably even more now, although I suppose for the most part they are different cows.) Now, it seems that each of these animals, by belching and by various other means, which we cannot mention here, emits about 14 cubic feet of methane gas each day. This makes cows a major source of air pollution, and a large contributor to the "greenhouse effect."

At the U.S. government's agricultural research facility in Beltsville, MD they put cows in Plexiglass cages and study the amount of methane that is produced. The idea is to alter the cow's diet and other conditions to come up with a "clean cow" that won't pollute so much. This would, of course, make barns smell a whole lot better, and would make many farmers very happy. I'm sure it's a terrific use of our tax dollars. Still, I wonder if they've thought about vegetarianism?

For years scientists have been working on ways to preserve milk so it can endure long periods without refrigeration on your cupboard shelf and still be drinkable. More recently, they've developed ways to raise chickens to produce eggs with less cholesterol. These are exciting ideas and make dairy farmers and omelet lovers very happy. But do you think they've considered vegetarianism?

In Zimbabwe they have a problem with preserving wildlife. As is the case in so many other countries, raising cattle is a status symbol there. As the population gets wealthier and more westernized, the expanding cattle ranches displace wildlife habitat. The government has come up with a program to charge hunters big bucks (that's the money kind of bucks) for every lion or elephant they shoot, and to funnel these funds back to the local villages. This gives the rural population an incentive to preserve habitats and make sure game is there for the rich tourists to hunt. Pretty clever idea, huh?—hunt the game you're trying to save. But wouldn't it have been better just to promote vegetarianism?

In California for the last couple of years there has been a water shortage. The problem was so bad last summer that restaurants in Los Angeles could be fined if they served a glass of water to a customer without it being requested. Of course, it took 2500 gallons of water to produce the steak that same customer would eat. Did anyone consider vegetarianism?

It seems that so many of the world's troubles— from depletion of rainforests, to drift nets killing our oceans, to your Uncle Charlie's evening flatulence— could be solved by humans simply giving up eating animals. Instead, though, people prefer to labor for years to find politically acceptable compromises or miracle scientific "cures" for these problems. And of course no one gives vegetarianism a thought.

To ask that people give up their ham sandwiches would require too much of a sacrifice, I suppose. Our meat eating society would rather live with dirtier air and water, faster global warming, massive climatic changes from loss of the earth's vegetation, extinction of species, soil erosion, more heart disease, more cancer, higher food prices, etc., etc. Not to mention ugly golden arches and pictures of Colonel Sanders on every corner.

Getting back to our consideration of cows and their gas, though, I may have a solution to this methane problem. I once knew an agricultural engineer who told me food could be recycled four times through a cow. The trick, he said, is to mix in a little molasses each time. (Apparently a cow will eat anything if it's covered with molasses.) I figure digestion of food four times— actually four cycles times four stomachs equals sixteen times— will help this mess. If it doesn't, I haven't a clue. Unless, of course, someone wants to consider vegetarianism.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Reflections on an Un-Turkey Thanksgiving

When I was a child, Thanksgiving was turkey day. By the time we got to my grandparents' house in the early afternoon, the smell of the roasting bird reached clear out to the car. I'd run into the house, excited, and open the oven door to see it. Despite the fact that it looked done to me, it would always take what seemed like an eternity to get everything ready to eat. My job was mashing the potatoes that would serve as the receptacle for turkey gravy. It was a simple procedure, but one entirely dependent on adding just the right amount of milk. A more complex task, left to my father and grandfather, was dissection of the great bird. I was convinced that it was a job that required not only my constant supervision, but also my occasional nibbling fingers to remove small pieces that fell by the wayside and would otherwise go to waste. When we were finally ready to eat, there would be the yearly battle between my great-grandmother and me over the parts of the turkey we liked best. She always let me win.

After the main course, I have memories of multiple pieces of pie with whipped cream and card playing on the big round table—once it was cleared. Then, later that night, and for some days thereafter, there would be turkey sandwiches, always on white bread with mayonnaise.

I look back on the Thanksgivings of my youth with mixed feelings. I remember at times I would think about the turkey as a real animal rather than just a meal. At those times, I would feel bad, wondering why this bird had to give his or her life for the sake of our supper. I would ease my conscience with the thought that Thanksgiving and turkey were synonymous—you couldn't have one without the other. Not only was turkey the whole point of Thanksgiving, but it was something that everyone, including my family, subscribed to—it must be right! But even if it wasn't, there was nothing a young boy could do about it.

I've learned a lot since then. I know now that, while it can't be denied that a certain amount of tradition has evolved around eating a turkey as the main dinner course, and while that tradition holds memories for lots of us, that doesn't make it right. Eating turkeys is not the whole point of Thanksgiving. The slaughter of a bird is no closer to the meaning of the holiday than are the Macy's parade or the football games on the majority of our television sets. There are other traditions to be had for the asking that can be just as enjoyable and even more meaningful. I also know that what matters to me now about those Thanksgivings long ago is not what we ate, but what we were—a family with an opportunity to be together, to share our support and love for one another.

While many of the family members I shared my early Thanksgivings with are now gone, in many ways the holiday itself means more to me now than it ever has. Part of the reason is that I no longer have to endure those tugs at my conscience—there is no turkey on my table. While I once felt powerless to defy tradition and change that one aspect of the holiday that bothered me, I now know that my Thanksgiving is whatever I choose to make it.

This year at our vegetarian Thanksgiving feasts we will all have a great deal to be thankful for. We'll have the opportunity to celebrate the fruits of the harvest, and to revel in the bounty that the earth provides without the necessity of taking life. There will be good food and good friends.

This year I'll have my eye on the children, and I'll admire their parents for raising them as vegetarians. Together with vegetarian families across the country they will be creating new Thanksgiving Day traditions—traditions that carry with them a message of reverence for life that can be passed from generation to generation.

Thanksgiving is a special holiday for vegetarians. This is particularly true for vegetarian children, as their Thanksgiving will have only the joy and the love—without the killing, and without knowing the guilt. What a fine Thanksgiving that is!

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Being More than We Ever Thought We Could Be

The good news is that I can still comfortably wear several of the items of clothing I wore in college. …The bad news is that they are all shoes.


A study that appeared last year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the average American gains about one pound during the Thanksgiving to New Year's holiday, over-eating, season. That doesn't sound like much of a weight gain, considering the amount of pumpkin pie, gravy and stuffing most Americans stuff into themselves during those six weeks. The problem, though, is that despite our best New Year's resolutions, we never seem to lose that extra pound. And a one-pound-a-year weight gain can really add up. By the time we reach middle age we find we've gone from a "size 2" to "the size of 2."

I used to think that we vegetarians were immune from worries about being fat. I thought all vegetarians were skinny. Of course, that was back in the days when I could see my neck above my shirt collar. That was back when I could zip up my pants.

Now I have to face the fact that even my vegan diet won't save me from the inevitable. No, I don't eat gravy and stuffing, or even pumpkin pie—at least at the non-vegetarian holiday parties I go to. Instead, I stand by the nut bowl and consume 47 handfuls of roasted cashews. Gads. The net effect is just the same. I'm a veritable poster boy for the American holiday weight-gaining experience. It's amazing I don't gain two pounds every year.

Sometimes I wonder why all vegetarians aren't fat. If there's one thing we all have in common it's a love of food. And we all eat way more than the "normal" human beings around us. Last week, for example, I went to dinner with a group of vegetarians. We were at a restaurant known for large portions, but that didn't slow us down a bit. Between the 8 of us we ordered 12 entrees. (Count 'em—12!) Then we went out for desserts. I felt like we should have had a warning sign for other diners: "We're vegetarians. Don't get between us and food!"

Of course, I'm bad even by vegetarian standards. The other day at the office I was trying to squeeze the lunch I'd brought in onto two full-size dinner plates when a friend said sheepishly: "Gee, isn't that a lot of food?" I guess it was. No wonder I can't see my feet anymore. No wonder my parents just sent me sweat clothes big enough to house the circus.

Things have gotten so bad lately that I've started to look at the processed foods grocery stores stock for fat people. I've already tried vegan "lite" (grocers don't think we fat people can spell) mayonnaise and Thousand Island dressing. Not bad, but not exactly health food either. I had my eye on a jar of "Santa Cruz Fat Free Guacamole" until I read the label and realized it wasn't really guacamole (no avocados!) and it wasn't even fat-free (canola oil was a listed ingredient!). Grocers must think we fat people are stupid too.

I'm not sure what to do next. I looked into one of those weekend fasting retreats, but the price they quoted me was kind of high—and that didn't even include meals. Maybe I'll join a health club. Then again, maybe I should just resign myself to my place in history. I'll be the one in the back row, between the Michelin Man and the Goodyear Blimp. I'll have a spare tire around my waist too.

The year 2000 census tells us that there are now more than 283 million Americans. Nearly 55% of us are already fat, and collectively we're gaining 283 million pounds a year.

It's amazing the whole country doesn't just sink into the ocean.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Fast Food Revisited

We vegetarians tend to ignore fast-food restaurants. Oh, we know they're around, of course. Who could miss the tacky architecture, the cheap building materials, the garish colors, the plastic, and the acres of free parking? But there are so many of them that they all tend to meld into the entropy of the suburban landscape. No self-respecting vegetarian would patronize these places, and it's only when the wind blows in the right (wrong?) direction, giving us a whiff of air thick with rancid grease, that we say to ourselves, "Oh my god, there's a KFC over there!"

I have been pretty successful in ignoring fast-food restaurants for the past 25 years. I do, though, admit to having dined at the Wendy's salad bar a few times when dragged there by others. (My parents were big Wendy's fans). It was always an experience.

When your only knowledge of fast food comes from what you see on television, it's quite a shock to actually walk into one of those restaurants. The first thing I always notice is that everything is covered with a sticky film that I guess comes from being repeatedly coated with grease and wiped down by wash rags. Tasty. And the high school kids behind the counter don't look anything like their counterparts (that's a pun) on television. Where are the fit bodies, the tailored uniforms and the perky smiles? Why doesn't anyone at the real restaurants seem to care about their jobs or their customers? And how come the manager, a young man with bad acne in a short-sleeved, lime-green "dress" shirt, can't string two coherent sentences together when he's yelling at his employees? Television makes working in a fast-food restaurant seem like valuable training for bright young people on their way to Congress. In real life one can see that this is where our society warehouses the undereducated and the less fortunate—condemning them to a life of struggle on a minimum wage.

Then, of course, there is the food. Television makes fast-food burgers seem the size of Mount Olympus, sizzling off the grill and topped with a mound of carefully-placed condiments. The real thing—haphazardly thrown together, mushed into a paper wrapper or Styrofoam box, and then left to rot on a warming tray—is quite a different story. Is this what people come in here for, I always wonder? Or are they on a never-ending search for that perfect burger they see on the television screen?

It's been so long since I've visited Wendy or Ronald or the Colonel that I thought it might be time to reeducate myself on the fast-food industry. No, I'm not going to try out any of the food, but I thought a little research might be in order. Here are some of the things I found:

  • For his marvelously entertaining documentary Super Size Me, director Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's' food for thirty days. The result? He gained more than 20 pounds and stressed his liver to the brink of failure.
  • A lot of people seem to be just like Morgan. Seven percent of the US population visits McDonald's each day, and 20 to 25 percent eat in some kind of fast-food restaurant.
  • Research has shown that children consume an average of 126 more calories on days when they eat at a fast-food restaurant. That difference would translate into a weight gain of 13 pounds in one year.
  • In 2003, the CDC declared obesity the most important public-health issue in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk for type 2 diabetes, and children and teenagers are contracting this "adult-onset" diabetes at a rapidly increasing pace. In Texas, we may have the first generation in which the parents will have longer life expectancies than their kids, as obese children who develop diabetes before 14 years of age can expect their lifespan to be reduced by 17 to 29 years.
  • McDonald's likes children as customers very much. So much so that it has become the largest private operator of playgrounds in the U.S. In some urban areas McDonald's may be the only safe place in the neighborhood for children to play.
  • Fast-food companies do have their good side. McDonald's corporation contributed $5 million to the victims of hurricane Katrina. While that seems very generous, the gift amounts to less than 0.13% of the $3.9 billion in cash the company generated from its operations last year.
  • Money buys influence, and occasionally makes for strange bedfellows. Among the people making pitches on the McDonald's website are Bob Greene, Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer (Hey, wasn't it Oprah who swore on national television she'd never eat another hamburger?), and Dean Ornish, MD (Isn't he the same guy who's been preaching a near-vegan diet to eliminate heart attacks?!). Go figure.
  • One of the main reasons people flock to fast food, of course, is that it is an inexpensive way to get lots of calories. If I were so inclined (I'm not) I could satisfy my daily caloric needs with McDonald's hamburgers for $21.06 a day. To get that same number of calories from organic greens (let's say kale) at my local farmers' market I'd have to pay about $61.00!

    How come hamburgers bought at a new restaurant with a 2-story built-in playground are only about 1/3 the price of greens bought off the back of an old truck in a parking lot? Lower materials costs, less overhead, easier production, lower advertising budget? Nah. Subsidies, cheap wages, massive scale of production, and even more subsidies? Yup.

In this case, though, you get what you pay for. The relatively expensive kale would have hugely less saturated fat, more protein, and less than half the sodium of the hamburgers. It would also have 45 times the calcium, 191 times the vitamin C and a whopping 34,739 times the vitamin A!

The world of fast food is indeed fascinating. But if you don't mind, I think I'll continue to study it from afar. I'll be in the parking lot, eating my kale.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Expecting Too Much

When I woke up this morning Jack was sitting on my pillow. Jack is the tiny guy with the green hair and chartreuse pants who lives in the back of my head. He tries his best to keep me going in the right direction, but as you can imagine, it's often a losing cause.

"You have a column due," Jack said bluntly. "And I bet you have no idea what to write about, do you?"

I pulled the sheet over my head and moaned. "I never know what to write about. My best years of writing are behind me."

"You never had any 'best years'," he said cryptically. "But don't worry—I can help."

"Swell. In that case I'm brushing my teeth."

Jack followed me into the bathroom, suddenly excited with new ideas. "Hey, why don't you write about that long-term vegan friend of yours who took advantage of you and now isn't your friend anymore."

I shook my head. "That's a sad story about a troubled person. Nobody wants to read about that."

"But it teaches an important lesson," Jack said.

"What? That I'm an idiot?"

"More than that, it shows how we vegetarians tend to give one another the benefit of the doubt, the way the public trusts and idolizes sports heroes. But just because we're good in one thing doesn't make us perfect. Vegetarians can have big faults just like anyone else—look at you for example—and maybe we need to stop expecting too much from one another. I think that would make a fine column."

"That might make a paragraph," I countered. "What else do you have?"

"Well, speaking of expecting too much, you could write about that 'health food' grocery store that's promoting veal sales."

"I'd get sued."

"You wouldn't name them. You could just call them Wh*le F**ds, and no one would ever guess their true identity. You could talk about how, just because they sell tofu and organic lettuce, people expect them to be perfect in other ways too. People expect them to have a conscience and behave in a moral fashion, but of course they're only a big corporation and their morality is no greater or less than that of their customers. Then you could talk about how we expect too much from all of our public and governmental institutions. We expect them to lead us, rather than vice versa."

I glared at Jack. He was being way too heavy-handed for 7:00 in the morning. "What else?" I asked as I turned on the shower. "Remember, people don't like it when I get serious."

Jack thought for a moment, and then held up his miniature finger. "You could write about what your friend Sharon was telling you last week—that even as people become more health-conscious and the selection of 'healthy' foods expands rapidly, it's getting harder and harder for true vegetarians, and especially vegans, to find something to eat. People are expecting too much from the foods they buy—relying on magic words like 'organic' and 'healthy' to protect them. It's almost like 'organic' has displaced 'vegetarian'. And when people expect too much from food processors the quality of our food choices is dictated by marketing concerns and gets reduced to the lowest common denominator. 'Organic chicken' and 'organic beef' are replacing vegetarian foods in the diet, and dairy products—as long as they're 'lowfat'—are used with abandon in just about everything. You could write about what a cop-out this is, and how people need to take responsibility for their own diets, rather than expecting that anything they buy from Wh*le F**ds will be good for them."

"I don't know…" I climbed into the hot shower. "If I used the term 'cop-out' in a column, people would laugh at me."

"They laugh at you anyway." Jack bounded into the shower beside me, his tiny legs straddling the drain and the green food color dripping from his hair down into his face. "Listen," he said, hands on his hips. "I've given you three good ideas, and you don't want to use any of them? Don't you think you could string them together and come up with something that could meet your readers' usual low expectations of you?"

I thought about the idea for a second and rejected it. "Nah," I told him. "There's not a column in any of that material."

I put my face under the hot water. It felt great. Maybe if I stayed in the shower long enough a really good idea for a column would hit me. Then again, maybe I was expecting too much.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Porcine Persona—Some Highly-Forgettable Pig Facts

Most people I know love pigs. (Note that I am also speaking in the non-gustatory context here.) There's just something charming about the looks and personalities of these wonderful animals. If you are a "pig person" like I am (again in the non-gustatory context), here are a few facts about our porcine brethren (and sistren?) you may find interesting:

· The pig was among the first animals to be domesticated, probably as early as 7000 B.C. Pigs were first introduced to North America in 1539 when Hernando de Soto brought them to the Florida mainland.

· Pigs are remarkably smart. Professor Stanley Curtis of Pennsylvania State University has taught pigs to play computer games by using specially-designed joysticks and offering food rewards for winning results. The pigs like it too. "Nine times out of 10 we have to terminate the session," he says. "Otherwise, they may play all day."

· 277,000 pigs are killed every day in American slaughterhouses.

· A 250 lb. live weight hog will yield approximately 120 pounds of "take home" meat. By-products from the rest of the animal might show up around the average American home in these products: antifreeze, artist's brushes, bone china, buttons, cellophane, cement, chalk, crayons, fabric dye, fertilizer, floor waxes, glass, glue, insecticides, insulation, matches, ornaments, plastics, porcelain enamel, rubber, upholstery, water filters, and weed killers.

The University of Nebraska offers these helpful hints to America's youth: "One basic task involved in the 4-H Swine Project that continually provides difficulty to many 4-H members, leaders and parents is properly ear notching project pigs. While for some this is a matter-of-fact task, others have great difficulty understanding the purpose or practice of notching. …If pigs can be notched when their tails are docked, or at 1-3 days old, the task is much easier. If you allow pigs to become large (100 lbs), the task can become considerably demanding mentally and physically. …When combining ear notching with other pig processing, consider doing the notching last, as it tends to cause more bleeding than other procedures, such as teeth clipping, naval care, injections or tail docking."

"The main job of a pork producer is to make sure the pigs are healthy, comfortable, and well fed." —from the National Pork Producers Council's "Farmtastic Voyage" presentation for kids.

· The PIGVISION Institute in Melbourne, Australia has a project they call PORCONTROL (Pig Operated Remote Control), which will install the switch (button) of a pedestrian traffic light in a piggery in Australia, and link it via the Internet with a set of traffic lights in Europe. During a 24-hour event, which will be run in conjunction with an art festival or symposium, pigs in Australia will effectively stop traffic in Europe.

· From "Ask an Expert" from Porknet at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign: "Pork from boars, or uncastrated male pigs at slaughter weight, may have an odor during cooking that is very offensive to many people. This is called a 'boar odor' or a 'tainted' odor. This is the primary reason for castration of male pigs destined for slaughter…"

· Speaking of odors… Manure Matters, a newsletter addressing livestock environmental issues, is now available on the web at (Wouldn't you love to get a business card from the editor of Manure Matters?! I wonder what their corporate logo is?)

· The National Pork Producers Council brags that a three-ounce serving (that's tiny!) of "pork tenderloin" has only 4.1 grams of total fat. They don't mention the fat in those cuts of "pork" much more likely to show up on the average dinner table. The same size serving of "ham", for example, would have 12.9 grams of fat (60% of its calories from fat). Three ounces of "bacon" would have 15.6 grams of fat (77% of its calories from fat).

· Pigs may not get representation in the hallowed halls of Congress, but the people raising them do. The Pork Industry Congressional Caucus (Pork Caucus) is an informal bipartisan group of 26 Senators and 48 House members considered to be "pork industry friends", and who routinely assist the industry on important legislative, regulatory and political issues. I guess this is where the term "legislative pork" comes from.

· According to the lore of the Maine seacoast, it's bad luck to paint a pig on a boat. The boat will sink.

· Since pigs are genetically engineered to grow fast, casting for the title role in the movie Babe posed a special problem. Pigs were trained in several groups because they could only be filmed while they were 16 to 18 weeks old. To make all these animals look alike, makeup artist Carolyn Tryer glued a small tuft of dark hair to the piglets and dyed their lashes black to highlight their eyes. Many vegetarians praised the "subliminal vegetarian message" in the film, and actor James Cromwell (Farmer Hoggett in the movie/a vegan in real life) appeared at a number of animal rights events, including a tribute "Pignic" sponsored by the Farm Sanctuary in California. After seeing the movie, Oprah Winfrey was inspired to publicly question her consumption of "pork".

· In 1996, the year after the movie Babe came out, per capita annual consumption of "pork" in the United States was 45.9 pounds, down from 52.1 pounds in 1980. …Hey, that's a start!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


A lot of people claim to have a recurring dream where they find themselves naked in front of a large group of people. I've never had that dream, although I'm sure it must be a very exciting experience. I have had the other classic dream—the one about being unprepared for the big final exam. In my version, though, it's usually the last week of the semester, I haven't yet been to any of my six classes, they're always in impossible subjects (history, for example), and I don't even know how to find the classrooms. I wander around aimlessly, asking other students for help, and wondering how I got myself into such a fix. (Actually, this dream is remarkably like my real-life college experience.)

There's another recurring nightmare that I have, and this one involves vegetarianism. I don't know if other vegetarians share this problem, but I sometimes dream that I'm eating meat. The dream starts out simple enough—the meat is just there in front of me, and for some reason it seems right and appropriate to take a bite. Once I get it into my mouth, though, there's that moment of realization. "Oh my god," I scream, "what am I doing?!" I always wake up in cold sweats after the meat-eating dream, and after I calm down it strikes me as very odd that I could have a horrible nightmare about doing something most people do, with pleasure, several times a day.

I have lots of good dreams about vegetarianism too, but they tend to be of the "daydream" variety. Here are a few I've had lately:

  • I'm riding in a plane, and after we get up to altitude the flight attendant comes on the intercom: "Thanks for flying United Airlines ladies and gentlemen. We'll be serving lunch on our flight to New York today. In the main cabin our entrée will be rutabaga stew…" A few minutes later the flight attendants come down the aisle. On top of their cart is a huge pot of stew, and they ladle it out into bowls for the passengers, tearing chunks of brown bread off of big loaves to go with it. Wow, I think, this reminds me of the food service they must have had on trains to Siberia in 1927. It certainly is an improvement over modern airline fare!
  • I dream that the world has gone organic—but since we've all become vegetarians too, that means we use compost rather than cows' manure. In my dream I replace all the toilets in my house with DumpMaster 2000® politically-correct composting toilets. According to the advertising, it only takes fifteen minutes for the "special biological enzymes" in the DumpMaster 2000® to turn household sanitary waste into a "rich loam that's perfect for conditioning the soil in your garden, or for adding an earthy flavor to your favorite casserole." I'm so impressed that I become a successful DumpMaster® franchisee and make millions of dollars.
  • I dream that I'm on a white-sand beach by a shimmering blue ocean. Suddenly three young ladies appear in bikinis, with perfect tans. Even though they are young enough to be my kid sisters (okay, possibly they are even younger than that), I want to be polite, so I invite them over for tofu at my quaint beach shack. "Goody, goody!" they all coo in unison, following me with pitchers of Mai Tais in their hands. "Muscle-bound lifeguards are okay in their place, but we just love vegans."
  • I dream that I'm trying to buy health insurance at the offices of a stuffy insurance company. I'm looking across an intimidating wood desk at a stuffy insurance executive. "Our health policy will cost you a thousand dollars a month," he says sternly. When I ask him what medical costs the policy pays for, he says, "Nothing. But if you have our card in your wallet at least the hospital won't leave you to die in the lobby." I point out that coverage like that doesn't seem like a very good deal—especially for a vegetarian in good health. "Vegetarian!" he says. "Why didn't you say so?! Since you have lower risks, we have a special policy for vegetarians. Your premiums are free!"
  • I dream that I'm in a fancy restaurant for lunch, and I don't see anything vegetarian on the menu. "I'm a vegetarian," I say, wincing in anticipation of the reaction I will probably get. "Can I possibly order the salad niçoise without the tuna, anchovies and eggs?" My waiter nods. "We can do that…" he begins. "We'll add Portobello mushrooms, roasted red peppers, and Italian olive salad, and we'll charge you $3 less." At that point I know I'm dreaming. Too bad I have to wake up.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Vegetarian Travel Series, Episode #14: Vegan Dining in Big City

As one of the great cities of America, Big City has long been known for having some of the very best restaurants in the world. Today, as part of our ongoing travel series, we'll visit a few of the most renowned Big City eateries and see what kind of magic their incredible chefs can stir up for the vegan diner.

The very best place to begin our visit to Big City is with a hearty breakfast at Walter Brennan's. With its selection of incredible egg dishes and homemade pastries, Breakfast at Walter Brennan's®
has been a Big City tradition for more than 50 years. We settle into the opulent dining room with a strong cup of coffee (sorry, no soymilk available—they must be temporarily out) and ask our waiter what dishes would be good for vegans.


We explain what "vegan" means, and the waiter shrugs, pointing blankly at the menu. With a little more explanation he is able to offer some helpful suggestions and we're finally ready to order: the fruit cup and white toast, dry. "The cantaloupe is ripe," one member of our group points out. "Very evenly toasted bread," raves another.

After that delicious breakfast a shopping trip down Big City's famous 4th Avenue seems in order. It lightens our wallets, but also perks up our appetites for lunch. We decide to head downtown to the waterfront, and eat at The Seafood House, a quaint restaurant with a seafaring tradition that was once frequented by the likes of Herman Melville and Peter Benchley (though they weren't necessarily there together). We ask the waitress what kind of sandwiches they have.

"Soft-shelled crab and shrimp salad."

We smile and explain our dietary restrictions, after which she shrugs and points blankly at the menu. After a little more explanation she brings us French fries and coleslaw, hold the mayonnaise. The cabbage and potatoes remind us of Ireland, and the famous famine of the mid-19th Century. How colorful!

We walk off our delicious lunch by spending the afternoon hours in Big City's famous Linkletter-Carney Museum of the Arts. The collection is world-class, but looking at the many still lifes (lives?) leaves us hungry for dinner. After a brief stop at our hotel to freshen up, we take a cab uptown to Palms Up, the famous steakhouse where Herman Melville also used to eat. According to the sign, Palms Up prides itself on serving "huge cuts of aged, prime beef in an atmosphere of quiet sophistication." The big leather chairs are a bit heavy for one person to move, but after we get seated and our eyes adjust to the hickory smoke in the air, we enjoy the wood paneling and the jovial conviviality of all the fat people at the neighboring tables.

We know our vegan diets will be a welcomed challenge for the fine chefs at Palms Up, and we rely on our knowledgeable waiter Edward to guide us through a delicious vegan meal.

"What did you say you people are?" Edward asks.

After a little more explanation Edward shrugs and points blankly at the menu. Still more explanation and a discreet $20 bill (we find out later this is why they named the restaurant Palms Up) put Edward on the right track. He suggests the famous Palms Up salad (hold the bacon bits, hold the cheese, hold the hard-boiled egg, hold the dressing) and the famous Palms Up "twice-baked" stuffed potato (hold the butter, hold the bacon bits, hold the sour cream, hold the "stuffing", no need to bake twice). The dinner is very filling, and when it's time for dessert we're glad that the famous Palms Up cheesecake, when modified to be vegan (hold all ingredients), is remarkably light and airy.

Back at our hotel we're happy and tired after the first day of our visit. We've made wonderful choices, and we've had the kind of rare dining experiences one can only get in world-class establishments. We can't wait to see what culinary delights are in store for us tomorrow, as we explore more of the fine restaurants of Big City!

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Conversations with Uncle Danny

Last weekend I went to visit my fictitious, totally made up Uncle Danny at the retirement home where he now lives. Uncle Danny is older than most rocks, and has spent his long life as a soldier, radio newsman, pilot, and international Don Juan. (He claims to have single-handedly liberated the French Riviera in World War II and come home with five French women on an Algerian freighter.)

Did I mention that Uncle Danny is also a vegetarian? Well he is—perhaps as a result of his stint as the spiritual leader of Thailand, or maybe from the years he spent teaching auto mechanics to natives of the Amazon rainforest. Uncle Danny loves being a vegetarian, and knows everything there is to know about the subject. He's the guy I go to whenever I need inspiration.

And so it was that I found myself on Sunday afternoon meeting my uncle in the lobby of his building.

"Whacha got in the bag, kid?" he asked me right away.


His eyes lit up and he grabbed the paper bag out of my hands. Uncle Danny loves pistachios. Then I followed him outside into the sunshine, and we sat on a park bench while he pulled apart nuts with his thin, curled fingers.

"Why the long face?" he asked. "You got problems?"

"The world has problems," I answered. "I get depressed every time I pick up a paper. Have you read the news lately?"

"No." He shook his head. "I've found it's usually a bad idea."

"Well, your generation left us the world in reasonably good shape, and we're messing it up big time."

My uncle smiled. "You shouldn't get so upset. Try to live by the words I once discovered excavating the tomb of an ancient Egyptian king: 'Leave your worry on the doorstep and direct your feet to the sunny side of the street.'"

"No Uncle Danny, I believe that was from a popular American song of the 1920s."

He shrugged. "Whatever."

"But Uncle Danny," I persisted. "Have you been hearing all that stuff about the oceans dying, and the grain shortages that have sprung up in Asia because they're raising more cattle? And now the animal waste problem has gotten so bad that even Congress can't ignore it. One of the big food conglomerates is building a hog farm in Utah that will generate as much waste as the entire city of Los Angeles!"

Uncle Danny didn't seem to care. "We're both vegetarians, aren't we?" he asked.


"Well, then. When everyone else decides to follow us—and they will—those problems will go away like magic!"

"You make it sound so easy."

"It is." He tossed a pistachio to a squirrel who had been waiting patiently a few yards away. "Just remember what Winston Churchill said when he consulted me about covert operations during the war: 'What, me worry?'"

"No, I believe it was actually Alfred E. Neuman who said that, in Mad magazine."

"Yes, that's a possibility, too."

"But Uncle Danny, maybe you haven't heard about 'Mad Cow' disease, and all the new strains of E. coli bacteria, and the deadly bird and swine flues from Hong Kong that could wipe us all out any minute. Humankind is only holding on by a thread!"

Uncle Danny dismissed that notion with a wave of his hand. "Aren't you listening, boy? Vegetarianism will solve all those problems too!"

"Sure it will. But how are we ever going to get everyone to be vegetarian?" I asked. "In this crazy world if a person goes on television and says she'll never eat a hamburger again, she gets dragged into court in Texas."

"You're talking about Opera Windows?"

"Oprah Winfrey," I corrected him.

"And the cattlemen who are out to get her?"


Uncle Danny laughed. "Now, don't you think a smart woman like that is going to make mincemeat out of those 'beef' heads?"

"Well…. You know, you may be right."

"Of course I am. It's just like that ridiculous McLiberal litigation—"


"—Win or lose, the vegetarian cause gets loads of free publicity."

I'd never thought about it that way. But looking at my uncle, a guy who'd seen just about everything and still viewed the world through the rosiest of lenses, I knew his kind of optimism was not only perfectly sensible, but just what I needed. That was why I was here.

"I hope you didn't want any of these nuts," Uncle Danny said, popping the last pistachio into his mouth. Then his gaze went across the street to the park where some children were playing soccer. "You know, the Mahatma Gandhi once gave me some good advice when we were traveling by train across India. He said: 'Don't worry—be happy.'"

I couldn't stand it any longer. "Uncle Danny, you never met Gandhi in your life, and that line was from a popular song by Bobby McFerrin."

He turned back to me and shrugged, the smile refusing to leave his face.

"Whatever," he said.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007


Well, they've cloned sheep and they've cloned monkeys. Now everyone is asking whether humans will be next. It's the moral dilemma of the year. Of course, the mere fact that this is the question on people's minds should tell us something. Ever notice that nothing becomes an ethical problem until it affects (or potentially affects) humans? Make all the identical tadpoles you want and no one will notice, but threaten to grow little copies of Elvis and that's big news.

Naturally, we vegetarians look at the broader picture. For us the ethical issues associated with biotechnology started a little sooner. For example, we knew genetic engineers were up to no good way back when they planted that "anti-freeze" flounder gene into the "flavr savr" tomato. We tried to tell everyone who would listen that only bad things can happen when we play God and experiment on our fellow creatures. We railed against the whole idea that animals are something that can be created, patented and profited from. But did anyone listen? Of course not!

It's only nownow that it's actually become possible to clone a young Sandra Dee and film a remake of that movie classic Gidget Goes to Poland—that people are starting to take notice. But, of course, it's too late. The juggernaut of genetic engineering is at full speed, and we're standing on the brink of Brave New World. (Pass me some soma please, and while you're at it, you may as well clone me someone to clean out my garage.)

Of course there's the possibility that we're getting this all wrong. Maybe we vegetarians have been focused on the "doom and gloom" aspects of genetic engineering for too long. Maybe we should go with the flow for once in our lives and look on the brighter side of things.

We won't exactly need our sunglasses, but there is some potential light on the horizon. For example, if people are going to experiment on animals anyway, would it be so bad use clones, so that fewer animals could be used to make a statistically valid sample? If people are going to raise animals for food anyway, wouldn't it be better to genetically engineer them to resist, without antibiotics, the diseases they're likely to encounter on the "factory" farm? And what's so terrible about corn genetically engineered to be pest resistant, so we can do away with pesticides?

Of course anyone concerned with animal rights or human health could counter by saying that these "good" things only help to solve problems that humans created in the first place. We don't need animal testing at all. The "vegetarian" model of organic farming is better still. And the biggest medical advances could come very simply if people would only eat healthy food.

How about genetically engineered animals being raised to supply "body parts" for transplantation into humans, you ask? How about people simply signing organ donor cards when they get their drivers' licenses renewed instead.

A recent CNN/Time poll found that 66% of Americans think it is morally wrong to clone animals, and 56% said they would not eat meat from cloned animals. How long should we expect those numbers to last? If hamburger from cloned animals is on our friendly grocer's shelf for 30 cents a pound cheaper than the other stuff, what are people going to choose? Are morals worth 30 cents a pound?

Like it or not, and for better or worse, genetic engineering will play a huge part in our future lives. And when cloning, or any other kind of bio-manipulation of plants and animals, and even humans, becomes commonplace, it will be a moral issue no longer.

How do I know this? From personal experience. I don't shun gorgeous blondes merely because thousands of years of natural selection have accentuated the traits in all of us (…well, not me personally) that people find attractive. I like dogs too, even though greed-driven "genetic engineers" of times long past created them from wolves. And this spring I'll choose seeds for my organic garden from the only kinds available—genetic "hybrids" that are worlds different from their ancestors in the wild. When I see the big, perfect plants they produce I'll think about the "ethical" issues George Washington Carver must have faced, but I won't have any moral misgivings about those things now.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. But that doesn't mean there's nothing to fear in the future. A hundred years from now cloned sheep will be no big deal compared to the bio-ethics problems facing humankind. Who knows what people will be doing by then, and who knows what they may be "manufacturing" to put on their dinner tables. It's a scary thought.

One thing I know they won't be eating at the end of the next century is the "flavr savr" tomato. After all the fanfare, it will be remembered as the biggest bio-flop of the long-gone 1990's, and will be seen only on display in the Smithsonian Institute. There it will sit—on the shelf between the Tickle Me Elmo doll and the Rubic's cube—juicy and ripe forever.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Assorted Weird Diseases Part II—The Dumb Things We Do

Some people believe that the dinosaurs, proud inhabitants of this earth for 165 million years, were finally driven to extinction not by meteorites or floods, but by the spread of some contagious disease. A tiny bacterium and his buddies bringing down the mighty T-Rex? Well, I don't know if that happened or not. But I would give you odds that when the human race finally hangs up its Reeboks it won't be because of nuclear weapons, global warming, or even Jerry Springer. No, the biggest threats to our species, by far, are all microscopic.

Of course, biological threats have been around forever, and will always be with us. The real question is how we are managing them. Unfortunately, not very well. And in that respect, nothing is speeding the journey to our eventual rendezvous with microorgasmic disaster faster than our animal agriculture and animal research practices. Just look at some of the dumb things we do:

  • We raise billions of farm animals under conditions of horrible confinement and stress, to make sure that diseases spread as easily and rapidly as possible. (Remember how sick you got last winter when you were on the elevator with that guy who had TB? Same thing.)
  • We use huge quantities of antibiotics to promote growth in farm animals, creating a perfect environment for the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms. (Roughly half of the 25,000 tons of antibiotics produced in the United States each year are used on farm animals.)
  • We take new antibiotics that are in development and use them on farm animals, to make sure that antibiotic resistance keeps up with antibiotic development. (Example: Since July of this year every intensively-raised chicken in the UK has been fed an antibiotic growth promoter that is cross-resistant to a new, vitally-important medical drug on trial in British hospitals.)
  • We do medical research on animals, creating the perfect opportunity for cross-species transmission of disease. (Example: The vast majority, if not all, of our existing lines of stem cells were cultured with mouse cells. This will present a real problem if they are ever used in human treatment.)
  • We intentionally feed diseased animals to other animals…
  • …and to ourselves! (The next time you're at a fancy cocktail party remember that "Foie gras" is liver from geese with the painful disease hepatic lipidosis.)
  • We have slaughterhouse and food inspection procedures that we know will allow a certain number of diseased and contaminated animals to pass into the food supply, because it's just too expensive to test every carcass.
  • We blindly accept the fact that millions of people get food poisoning from eating meat (and other foods contaminated by meat) every year. (My meat-eating friends are getting sick all the time.)
  • We transplant animal organs into humans ("xenotransplantation"), creating the risk that we might contract diseases from these animals in the process. (When asked if this could cause an outbreak of new infectious disease, Phil Nogouchi, M.D., a pathologist and director of the FDA's division of cellular and gene therapies said frankly, "We don't know.")
  • We create genetically modified organisms using viruses and bacteria (precisely because they have the ability to break down barriers between species), and introduce these organisms into the environment.
  • And if all of this isn't enough, last summer some Bozo stole three research pigs from a lab at the University of Florida and had them ground into sausage for human consumption. (Mmmmm… doesn't that sound tasty?!)


    Of course the dumbness doesn't stop there. We see it around us all the time. On the evening news the other day I saw a doctor interviewed about Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, and the possibility of contracting it from eating cows infected with Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy ("Mad Cow" disease). The doctor agreed that this is a serious problem that we should all be worried about. There was a somber moment in the studio, until the commentator asked: "Doctor, do you eat beef?"

    "Oh yes!" the doctor answered, and there were smiles all around. I guess as long as a doctor is still eating meat nobody has to be worried about anything, much less think for him/herself.

    Speaking of mad cows and humans, a recent article that appeared on WebMD downplayed the risks of Mad Cow disease in the United States, citing the effectiveness of the FDA's feed separation rule to prevent the spread of the disease by banning the feeding of cows to cows. (It is widely believed that cows become infected through eating feed containing infected bone meal.) The article noted with approval the FDA's finding that "about 90%" of the animal rendering plants inspected are in compliance with the rule.

    Hmmm…. Doesn't that mean that "about 10%" of the inspected plants are out of compliance? Isn't that a problem?

    In September Japan reported its first case of Mad Cow disease. By the time it was discovered, the cow in question, a five-year-old Holstein milk cow (name apparently withheld pending notification of kin), had already been "processed" into the week's batch of meat and bone meal. ("Hey guys, this cow we're grinding up looks kind of funny. Why don't we test her for Mad Cow disease?" "Good idea, Yokomo. Let's eat some hamburgers while we're waiting for the test results.")

    Humans have been around, in one form or another, for only a few million years. It's looking like we'll be extinct long before we reach the longevity of the dinosaurs.

    They had walnut-sized brains. We aren't that smart.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Assorted Weird Diseases Part I—There’s Plenty More to Fear than Fear Itself

The other morning I woke up to the radio, and before I even had my eyes open I was hearing the saga of Dawn Becerra. Wow, what an eye-opening story! It seems that poor Dawn was vacationing in Mexico a few years ago when she made the mistake of eating a "pork" taco. It made her sick for 3 weeks. But that was just the beginning of Dawn's woes. Sometime later she began suffering seizures and more illness, and eventually the doctors at the Mayo Clinic found that a worm from the taco had made its way into her skull and was happily chewing away on brain tissue. The doctors eventually removed the worm (it was already dead—probably from years of eating fatty foods) in a 6-hour operation, and fortunately Dawn is okay today.

Think she's given up eating "pork"?

Just a few years ago things like brain-eating worms crawling out of tacos would have been seen only in Japanese (no, make that Mexican) horror movies. Today, though, it doesn't seem so strange. Just look at some of the assorted weird diseases that have been in the news lately.

  • E. coli Contamination—E. coli, the bacteria found in animal excrement, has been big news ever since four people died and another 700 got sick from eating at the now-infamous Jack-In-The-Box restaurant chain. (New corporate slogan: "We're cookin' the sh*t out of our burgers.")
    In the years since then major outbreaks, meat recalls, and other newsworthy E. coli disasters have come around just about every hour. My own personal favorite was the "Cornstock" party, where guests got sick after some hearty partying (they apparently consumed a steer, a hog, and an ostrich along the way!) in a farmer's field in Illinois. Embarrassed party organizers swore that the field was cleaned of manure in advance of the event, but they probably couldn't say the same for the steer, hog and ostrich.
  • Mad Cow Disease—Let me see if I've got this straight… There's this renegade protein running around that even modern sterilization procedures can't destroy. Everyone in Europe is terrified of it, but here in the Colonies we've been a bit slow to catch on. Anyway, it turns cows' brains to mush, and will do the same thing to people if they eat the cows. Since nearly everyone eats cows, and since this disease can take years to manifest itself, this is an accident waiting to happen. We could wake up tomorrow and find that the people left alive on earth are a few vegetarians. (We'd all be very rich and enjoy the last laugh, but heck, we'd probably get bored.) Is that pretty much it?
  • Foot-and-Mouth Disease—Nobody seems to understand this disease, but it too appears to be driving the Europeans loony—causing them to kill all their farm animals and light large fires with them. This, in turn, causes major depression to spread among us animal-rights types. This may be the most frustrating and distressing disease of all.

    I could go on. In addition to the above, people are getting sick every day from Pfiesteria piscicida streptococcus, giardia, salmonella, Listeria Monocytogenes, Campylobacter jejuni, chlamydia and even toxic algae. And there seem to be new things that could be turned into Japanese horror movies appearing all the time.

    What all these assorted weird diseases have in common, of course, is that they are all intrinsically linked to the raising and eating of animals. So, does anyone ever suggest that vegetarianism is an answer to the problem? No, that would be too easy. Instead, we promote irradiation, quarantine the boots of people who have been traipsing around the European countryside, and generally do a lot of worrying. And of course the most common advice given by our medical community is to "make sure your meat is well-cooked."

    Well-cooked meat? That may be a partial answer, but it seems ironic that, as I write this, well-done meats have just joined cigarettes, asbestos, DDT and arsenic on the federal government's official list of substances suspected of causing cancer.

    Would you rather be afflicted by assorted weird diseases or by good old-fashioned cancer? It's a heck of a choice for meat-eaters.


    [Next time, in exciting Part II, we'll look at some of the dumb things we humans do to make sure new assorted weird diseases keep coming, and get shared by everyone!]

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Animal Lovers

"I believe that mink are raised for being turned into fur coats and if we didn't wear fur coats those little animals would never have been born. So is it better not to have been born or to have lived for a year or two to have been turned into a fur coat? I don't know." —Supermodel Barbi Benton


Several weeks ago I spotted an article in the "Living" section of the paper that really should have been in the obituaries. It was about furs, and how they are supposedly making a comeback with the elite fashion set.

After I looked at the pictures (smiling women ringed with dead bodies) I took some anti-depressant drugs and read the text of the article. Buried toward the end, after the interviews with fashion designers and other wealthy people, was only a brief mention of the animal rights issues involved. One fur owner (not the original owner, unfortunately), when asked if she felt guilty, smiled from behind her coat of carnage and said, "I'm an animal lover."

"Oh gee," I wanted to tell her. "I didn't know. I guess that makes it all okay."


All this got me to thinking about all the self-proclaimed "animal lovers" in our society. Take John (warning: not a real person) for example. He might tell you he's an animal lover because he keeps three dogs, four cats, and some exotic birds locked up all day in his tiny house. Marge would want you to know she's an animal lover too, because she's always doting on Fufi, her toy poodle with the trick haircut and spandex jogging suit. (Fufi is so neurotic by this time that she'd agree.) George is definitely an animal lover because he spends big bucks stocking the private lake where he fishes during the summer.

None of this impresses us vegetarians. We know that eating animals is the A#1, super primo, meanest thing we do to them. Try as we might, it's hard to take meat eaters seriously when they tell us they love animals. That's true even if they are otherwise doing some wonderful and good things. It's not that they're bad people, it's just that they don't make the connection. It might be more accurate to say that they love animals under certain limited circumstances. They compartmentalize their feelings.

When it comes to treating animals well one minute and hideously the next, humans are as fickle as can be. On the one hand we torture and kill cats and dogs in our medical laboratories, but on the other hand we pamper them as our pets, and spend big bucks on their medical care. On the third hand (wait, I'm running out of hands!) we train the people who provide that medical care by doing more hideous experiments on cats and dogs. That certainly makes sense, doesn't it?

Every time I think we vegetarians could put an end to this madness, I'm reminded of how many of us feed meat to our pets. Yeah, sometimes we conveniently compartmentalize our ethics just like everyone else. Once I even met a vegetarian whose whole reason for changing his diet was that he'd spent his career experimenting on animals and he wanted to make up for some of his sins by not eating them. No kidding.

As for folks like John, Marge, George, and the woman in the fur coat, there's a communications problem out there too. Unfortunately the English language is not precise enough to distinguish "love," as in "I will love, help and protect you," from "love," as in "I love how you make me feel powerful," or "I love how you taste." I, for one, wouldn't mind it if someone could coin a few new words that would make this distinction. Any volunteers?

This kind of communication problem brings to mind the old Twilight Zone episode about the aliens who came to earth and were very nice to us lowly earthlings. They'd even written a book entitled To Serve Man.

Our "encounters of the third kind" with these aliens were going really well until one fateful day. That was the day we finally figured out that To Serve Man was a cookbook.

I guess those aliens were "human lovers" the way some humans are "animal lovers."

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

An Insider’s Look at the US Medical System

I recently had the chance to get a 4-day, inside look at a real, functioning emergency room and hospital. I came upon this unique opportunity (actually, it came upon me) when I happened to be the driver of the losing vehicle in an automobile/bicycle winner-take-all grudge match staged at a local intersection. (Please do not try this at home!) In any event, I am fine, thanks, and the experience was most enlightening—even better than watching old reruns of ER!

Now, I know it's always been fashionable among vegetarians to bash Western medicine. I've done my share of that bashing in the past, and nothing in this experience changed my mind about the things that I've written and said. On the other hand, our medical institutions are incredibly good at some of the things that they do, particularly in the practice of "horizontal" medicine. (That's Dr. Michael Klaper's term for what doctors do when the patient arrives in a "horizontal" position.) Here's a sample of the good and the bad that I experienced during my recent sojourn.

  • Security guards are there to keep us safe. I arrived at the emergency room in a bit of distress. (If I had been a car, a mechanic might have said that I had an alignment problem.) Did anyone offer to let me lie down? No. Pain medication? Not for 7-1/2 hours. A bandage for my bleeding elbow or leg? Never. After I'd been there for a few minutes, though, the uniformed security guard on duty came over to me and asked, "Can I get you some ice for that arm?" I was very happy to take this kind soul up on his offer. Obviously, in the US medical system, security guards are a critical link in the provision of emergency services. God bless 'em!
  • Your medical dollars at work. There are two reasons why Americans spend over a trillion dollars a year on medicine, and why those costs increase every year by double-digit percentages: prescription drugs and paperwork. Speaking of the latter, my first night in the hospital I had to give my medical history three separate times—the first two to doctors and the third to a nurse. Any clerk with minimal training could have done this, filling out a database questionnaire on the computer. Such a simple change in procedure would have saved the hospital at least $100 on me that night, and would have substantially lessened the risk of a mistake being made because of incomplete or conflicting data. (Of course, an even better and cheaper solution would be to keep everyone's medical information in a database accessible by doctors over the Internet—but that would be too simple, I guess.)
  • Hospital beds are hard to come by. It was 10 o'clock at night and I'd been in the emergency room for four hours when they told me I was being admitted to the hospital. But then they said I would have to wait for a bed to become available. I thought about that and panicked. "What?!" I screamed. "Who checks out of a hospital at 10:00 at night? A dead person, that's who! You're going to put me in a dead person's bed, aren't you?!" It took me several minutes to calm down, after which I realized that somebody had probably died in every bed in the hospital. By 1:30 in the morning, more than 8 hours after my accident, I was finally tucked away in one of those beds, feeling like the dead person myself. I had Benedryl to put me to sleep, two syringes of morphine in my veins for the pain, and I was still wearing my dirty bicycling clothes.
  • The forms aren't made for vegetarians. I became a vegetarian for ethical reasons alone. But I do have to say that it was awfully nice to say "no… no… no" when they asked over and over again if I had any of the long string of diet-induced maladies on the hospital's charts. (It was also nice to say "none!" when asked what drugs I take regularly.) "You seem pretty healthy …for such an old guy," I was told several times. "I'm a vegan," I would reply, trying to get in a good word for the cause. "You can write that on my chart!"
  • The food isn't made for vegetarians. My first day in the hospital the only thing I was offered to eat was a quart of barium drink (Mmmm!) that would make my organs glow under the cat scan. (By the way, they don't use real cats in this procedure.) The food didn't improve much after that. Indeed, the only thing remotely healthy about hospital food is the small portions. In general, hospital diets are tailored to make patients come back soon and come back often. If you're a vegetarian, expect to eat a lot of eggs and cheese. If you're a vegan and ask nicely, they'll bring you a plain salad and a baked potato. …Kind of like being in Texas.
  • Hospital people aren't necessarily healthy people… I can't tell you how many really unhealthy people I saw in the hospital—and they were working there! It struck me as very odd—kind of like walking into a health club and seeing the whole staff smoking cigarettes. One morning a very overweight and out-of-shape young woman was pushing my wheelchair to x-ray. As she huffed and puffed it was all I could do to keep from saying, "Gee lady, maybe we'd better trade places."
  • …but they do work hard. I saw doctors on rounds at 5 in the morning, and people putting in 16-hour days on Labor Day weekend. And then, of course, there are the people who toil all night long, waking patients up every 2 hours to take their pulse and make sure they're still with us. (I guess these are the folks who phone the emergency room to tell them when beds open up.)
  • Misdiagnoses happen. You always know you're in trouble when they repeat a medical test on you. That's what happened to me. Then, a few hours later, a stern-faced doctor trailing half-a-dozen medical students showed up beside my bed. "There's one thing we didn't tell you about your test results…" he began. "You may have Gilbert's Disease, a really horrible disease of the liver." Immediately I recalled all the stories I'd heard of relatively healthy people going into the hospital and never coming out alive. Then the doctor smiled. "Actually, I have Gilbert's Disease!" Well, it turns out that Gilbert's Disease is a disease without any bad symptoms at all, and in any event I didn't even have it. The official diagnosis, given to me after still more tests the next day, was that I just "beat the crap" out of my liver. (Doctors do love those fancy medical terms!)
  • Sometimes, they get it all right. When you see all the chaos in a modern hospital, see one thing bungled after the other ("What did you say you were allergic to?"), and wait around endlessly for every simple procedure, it's tempting to just write off the entire medical community. But that's often when something extraordinary happens. It happened to me. In my case they found a potentially serious problem (a partially collapsed lung) and fixed it. (They put a tube in my chest and re-inflated the lung—thereafter giving me the perfect excuse for looking like a blimp!) I don't want to sound corny, but it's almost magical to watch up-close (okay, too close) as very smart, very well-trained doctors and nurses use some of the most sophisticated machines science has ever developed to do miraculous repairs on the human body. If I ever grouse about modern medicine again (and I'm sure I will), just remind me of that, and I'll put everything in perspective. I may have learned it the hard way, but I have to admit hospitals are pretty amazing. …Now, as the bills roll in, I just wish I could say the same thing about insurance companies.

Monday, July 2, 2007


We're a society of junkies. Ninety-nine percent of us are hooked on something bad. Something really bad. It's something so addictive, and so dangerous, that only three other things in life come close: tobacco, cocaine and Jerry Springer. What's worse, we're addicting our kids too.

That "something", of course, is meat and the other animal products we humans consume so voraciously. People just can't help themselves.

Now, I know what you're thinking. Sure, meat seems to have an unnatural hold on many folks. But isn't it a bit much to call it an "addiction"? Isn't it more of a "habit," or maybe just an unfortunate routine people have gotten themselves into? Isn't it an awfully big stretch to compare the addictive nature of meat-eating to human vices like cigarettes and drugs? And how could it ever rise to the level of Jerry Springer?! Is this perhaps just one more instance when the brain of a certain vegetarian columnist has succumbed to the effects of global warming?

Well, it is true that I've been out in the sun a lot lately. But I still think I'm right about this addiction thing. Let's take a look at some of the common behaviors we associate with addiction and see how meat-eating stacks up:

1. "I've got to have my fix! NOW!"—The vast, vast majority of people in our society eat meat, usually accompanied by significant quantities of other animal products, 2–3 times a day, every day of their lives. Need any more be said?

2. "I'm a little uncomfortable when I'm out of touch..."—People who are addicted get very uneasy about the prospect of being in a situation where they won't have access to the source of their addiction. I know this can happen with meat. I regularly taunt meat-eaters with the threat of dinner at the mythical "Tofu Palace" (shame on me!). And I'm always prepared for the peeked look I get when I suggest a restaurant with the word "green" or "natural" or "harvest" in the name. ("Gee [nervous laugh], will they have meat there?")

Consider, if you will, my experience last year when I was with a group of people planning a weekend in the mountains. The subject turned to food, and since several of us were vegetarian we offered to make vegetarian chili for Saturday night's dinner. Looking around the room I noticed some pretty uncomfortable looks on people's faces. Finally someone said, "We can make our own chili, thanks."

People turning down a free meal? People offering to cook when someone else will do it for them? There has to be some kind of powerful reason for behavior like that! Could it be addiction?

3. "…but I don't have a problem. I could give it up any time!"—Denial, of course, is the hallmark of addiction. How often do we vegetarians hear, "I've really cut back on red meat," or "I could be a vegetarian, but my husband…," or "You know, I eat very little meat." Every day, huh? (And isn't it funny that we usually hear this right after the person in question has ordered a cheeseburger?)

Now, how often do we hear "I've done it. I've given up meat completely and forever!"? Once in a month of leap years?

Does there seem to be a gap between the way people subjectively view themselves and their behavior? Is this addiction?

I'm not sure what causes this addiction to meat. I know it has cultural and "force of habit" elements, but I suspect there's a large physical component as well. Maybe while meat is clogging up people's arteries with its fat and cholesterol it's also sending out miniature secret agents to our brains with subliminal messages ("Eat me again! Soon!").

However this works, the addictive properties of meat sure make the job of promoting vegetarianism a lot more difficult. Last March I spent some time plugging the advantages of a meatless diet as part of the annual "Meat-Out Day" celebration. The message—try giving up meat for a day and see how you like it—is pretty straightforward, and no vegetarian thinks that it's asking much of meat-eaters to forego the stuff for only three out of the thousand meals they eat in a year. But the reactions that people have to this proposal are usually negative, and often not subtle at all. (Getting angry when confronted? Sounds like addition to me!)

There was one young man I spoke with (bleached-blond spiked hair, baggy shorts, tattoos, piercings, skateboard under one arm—your basic all-American kid) who seemed particularly resistant to the vegetarian message. Every time I would point out another reason not to eat meat he would get more upset. Finally, normal conversation became impossible, and I asked him what was so darned special about meat. He had turned red by this time, and he was literally bouncing up and down with nervous energy as he tried to think of something to say. "It's dope!" he finally blurted out. Then he shouted it again for emphasis: "Meat is dope, man!"

You know, I couldn't have agreed with him more.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Razor-Thin Difference

Many people believe that Stephen Hawking is the most intelligent human being on the face of the earth. Dr. Hawking is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, a chair once occupied by Sir Issac Newton. There he studies cosmology, the laws of physics and mathematics that define the universe. His goal is to unify General Relativity with Quantum Theory and explain the mysteries of our lives.

My totally-made-up, fictitious cousin Sylvia is a lot like Stephen Hawking. Sylvia studies cosmetology at night. By day she has a chair at Dee Dee's "Curl Up and Dye" Salon in Jersey City that is occupied, the first Tuesday of every month, by Doris Newton. Sylvia helps Doris understand the mysteries of Days of Our Lives while she does her nails.

Stephen and Sylvia have more in common than just their professions. At a genetic level their bodies are very similar, even despite Sylvia's baggy arms. Indeed, a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine, who has created male transgenic mice with XX chromosomes, suggests that only two genes, called Sry and Sox 9, determine male gender. That's a razor-thin difference, but unfortunately one that has been, and continues to be, very large for some people. Many societies around the world still deny females fundamental rights, while closer to home the good-old-boys at Augusta National (the golf course where the Masters is played) flex their Sry and Sox 9 by denying membership to women. Too bad.

Stephen Hawking also has a lot in common with my totally-made-up, fictitious neighbor Dave. This is true even though Dave is black. The Human Genome Project has revealed that roughly 99.9% of the DNA of every person on the planet is identical, and that variations within a race are more significant than variations between races. Unfortunately, the razor-thin nature of the difference between races is lost on many people. Nearly 40 years after legislation supposedly eliminated all legal distinctions between people of different colors, racism—both overt and subtle—remains rampant in our society.

(My neighbor Dave is gay too. Isn't it ironic that, even as the scientific evidence mounts that sexual preference is also one of the tiny genetic differences that do exist between people, so many steadfastly refuse to consider that possibility, claiming instead that it is merely a moral choice?)

Finally, even though he may not like to admit it, Stephen Hawking shares a lot in common with Kanzi. Kanzi is an ape who lives at Georgia State University in Atlanta. On a genetic level, primates are very similar to humans indeed. We share 98.4% of our genes with chimpanzees, our closest nonhuman relatives. Other animals aren't far behind. We share 95% of our genome with dogs, and an amazing 74% with microscopic roundworms.

Now, you may be the kind of smart aleck who would say, "Gee, a whole 1.6% difference between us guys and them dumb chimps? …Sounds like a lot to me!" Don't count on it. Actually, the difference is much smaller still. That's because, in actuality, none of us are very human at all. In our bodies there are more than 10 times as many bacterial cells as human cells. Doing the math, that makes us mostly bugs and less than 9% Homo sapien, whereas our dog Phydeaux is mostly bugs and less than 8.55% (that's 9% x 95%) Homo sapien. Is there a big difference there? I don't think so.

Most people, of course, don't care that our fellow animals are so much like humans. In this country animals have no legal standing. Moreover, the vast majority of people eat meat, and participate, at least indirectly, in unthinkable agricultural, entertainment and medical atrocities against a wide variety of animals, from primates on down. Often this behavior is rationalized with arguments like, "they're not like us," "they don't really think," "they don't have souls," and "they don't feel pain the way we do." Even if casual observation didn't show these rationalizations to be ridiculous (and it certainly does), the genetic likeness we share with these animals also makes such arguments highly suspect.

Of course, one thing other animals don't share with us is our capacity for speech. Certainly some animals (whales, birds, dolphins) have their own languages that we have yet to decipher. Perhaps most do. But this doesn't seem to count. If more animals could speak to us in a way that we could understand, and tell us about their fears, their suffering, their emotions, would it make a difference? Nobody wants to eat Porky Pig, or send Mr. Ed to the glue factory. I think it would make all the difference in the world.

By the way, Kanzi can speak. As long as he has the aid of a computer he can communicate with us on our own terms. He uses a special keyboard with symbols that he associates with things and concepts. Using his keyboard Kanzi has a working vocabulary of over 200 words, and he can recognize over 500 words.

Just like Kanzi, Stephen Hawking also needs a computer if he wants to speak. He suffers from Motor Neurone Disease and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, and must communicate through a portable computer fitted with a speech synthesizer.

The most intelligent man on earth and a "dumb" animal both "talking" in the same way? It's true.

Let me summarize… Cosmologist or cosmetologist, male or female, black or white, gay or straight, human or dog or ape—there's just a razor-thin difference between all of us, and it's just a genetic crapshoot that determines which side of the line we fall on. Given those facts, wouldn't you think we could manage to understand each other a little better? I would.

Too bad we can't isolate the genes for bigotry and intolerance and cruelty. Too bad we can't erase them from the genetic framework forever.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Carnival Carnivores

As the sun sets in the western sky, the brightly colored lights of the carnival midway come up. Over the laughs and screams of the children on the Ferris wheel and the sound of the carousel in the distance, a voice can be heard.

"Step right up, folks! Step right up!"

The crowd gathers around a carnival barker dressed in a red and white-striped jacket with a straw hat. He dances a little jig and then starts his pitch.

"We've got trouble," he says, "right here in River City. With a capital 'N', and that rhymes with 'M', and that stands for Meat!"

"But 'trouble' doesn't start with 'N'!" someone cries.

"That's okay folks," the man reassures the crowd. "The point is—and thank goodness I'm here to tell you—that when you weren't looking killer meat snuck into your little town. You can smell it on your neighbor's breath, and I'll bet you dollars to donuts that little Johnny's passing it to his friends at school!"

"Oh no!" the crowd sighs.

Then someone in the back shouts, "Wait a minute... we like meat."

"Yeah," the crowd says in unison. "We like meat!"

"So you think," the man in the striped jacket says. "But wait 'til I tell you about the evils of killer meat. You, sir..." He points his cane to an overweight man at the front of the crowd. "You suffer from gout, do you not?"

"Oh yes!" shouts the man. "It's terribly painful."

"Wouldn't it be worth giving up meat to get rid of that pain?"

"No," the man says without a pause.


"No way."

"How about if it would make you thin besides?"

The man shakes his head and snarls. "Still not worth it."

"How about if it would prevent that heart attack you're going to have next year?"

The man is angry now. He turns and stomps away through the crowd.

The carnival barker looks frustrated. "You," he says, pointing the cane at a college student. "You're an environmentalist."

"You bet I am," the young woman says proudly. "I even recycle toilet paper."

"Well then, certainly you'll give up eating killer meat once you learn that animal agriculture is our biggest consumer and polluter of water."

The woman considers this for a second and then shakes her head. "Sorry, I'm not that much of an environmentalist."

The carnival barker pushes his hat back and scratches his ear. The crowd is growing restless, and beads of sweat have formed on his forehead.

"How about you ma'am," he pleads to a woman standing with her arms around her little boy. "Your heart has always gone out to every animal in distress you've come across. Wouldn't you give up meat to save the billions of innocent creatures mistreated and killed in our slaughterhouses?"

"Well, I don't know..."

"Wouldn't you take meat off your family's table to protect the innocence and health of your little boy?"


At that moment a man in a cow suit appears. He's wearing a sandwich sign that reads: "Come eat at Jack's Burgers and Shakes—Conveniently located next to the fat lady's tent."

"Can we go get a burger?" the young boy asks excitedly. "They've got a real clown and a playground and everything!"

The woman gives a helpless smile to the carnival barker and hurries her son away.

"Don't go! Please don't go!" the barker calls after her, but by this time the crowd has lost its patience.

"He's just a huckster!" someone shouts.

"He's a charlatan!" someone else screams.

"Yeah, send him back to Charlotte!"

The angry crowd starts to close in around the man, and he holds up his cane in self-defense. "Hey, wait a minute!" he shouts. "I'm only trying to help you!" A tomato flies out of the crowd and hits him on the side of his face, knocking his hat off. Suddenly he realizes it's no use, and he takes a step back, frightened.

The crowd starts chanting, "Give us milk, and give us meat. Those are things we love to eat! We want burgers, we want shakes. We'll eat whatever the animal makes!" Then, as a group, they turn and march off in the direction of Jack's.

The barker lets out a sigh of relief, thankful that the only damage was done by one tomato. Someone comes up by his side, and he sees that it's the carnival owner, a grizzled old man with a Western tie and a frayed vest, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip.

"That was a close one," the old man says.

"I'll say. What did I do wrong?"

The old man shakes his head and toes the dirt with his boot. "You know, I've been in the carny business for forty years now, and I've found that everywhere I go people are all pretty much the same. You can get them to fall for the cheapest illusion, just as long as it's what they want to believe. But if it's something they don't like, well… they'll fight the truth tooth and nail."

With that the old man puts a comforting hand on the barker's shoulder. "You'll have better luck next time," he says.

Neither of them really believe it, though. After all, this is the world of the carnival. The midway is filled with jingling coins, the laughs and screams of children, and the bright lights of the Ferris wheel. Everyone watches as it goes around and around in the blackened sky.