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.