Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Four Words Missing from the English Language

We speakers of English really have it made. Our language is probably the most comprehensive tool for expressing ourselves ever developed by humankind. The Oxford English Dictionary contains about a quarter of a million distinct English words. When we consider that many of those words have multiple meanings and can be used in multiple senses (for example as both a noun and a verb), the number of usable words increases dramatically. Add on top of that hundreds of thousands of different chemicals, drugs and other scientific names, and the list of English words could easily top a million.

You'd think with all those words at our disposal—with the ability to call at will upon such goodies as "bower" and "kip" and "wincey"—that everyday speech and writing would be a breeze. Well, it would be, except for the sad fact that there are four words missing from the English language. Missing?! Yes, and these are not obscure words either. I'm not talking about, for example, a word to express the wrinkles under the legs of a horny toad. No, these are words that, if available, we would use all the time in our everyday lives. These are words that we need, and they don't exist!

I won't keep you in suspense any longer. The four words missing from the English language are words needed to express the common pronouns "he" and "she" and their variations in a gender-neutral manner. Simply put, we need a word that means "he or she," a word that means "him or her," a word that means "his or hers" and a word that means "himself or herself."

In these politically-correct times, most of us want to give both sexes their due, but without these words available to us that can often be difficult. Consider, for example, how cumbersome this simple English sentence becomes: "When the person in the chicken suit gets here, he or she may need to excuse himself or herself, because his or her sports team is trying to reach him or her."

Isn't that a mess?! And it gets worse when the context of what we're saying or writing demands that we go on like this for sentence after sentence. Most people just give up and use the male pronouns to implicitly include the female, kind of like using "mankind" when you really mean "humankind." But that, of course, simply ignores the problem, and it certainly isn't gender-neutral, even if you reverse it and throw in some "shes" and "hers" every few sentences.

Worse yet is when people wrongly use variants of the plural word "they" in referring to an individual man or woman, as in "The person in the chicken suit just fell on their tail." This drives me nuts, and it just emphasizes that English does have gender-neutral pronouns for multiple men and/or women, but not for the singular.

I think we can do better. If we can come up with 40 silly new drug names every day, surely we can coin four new words that we really need.

Here's my suggestion. Rather than coming up with totally new words that people will have to learn from scratch, lets just combine the existing male and female pronouns into new words. For example, "heshe" refers to a person of indeterminate sex, "hisher" is its possessive form, and "himherself" is… well, you know what it is. For the objective form I suggest "herhim," because it puts the woman first for once, I like the way it rolls off the tongue, and it creates an exception to the rule—something for which English is known.

So, lets take these new words for a spin. If we go back to our original sentence, it's much simpler now: "When the person in the chicken suit gets here, heshe may need to excuse himherself, because hisher sports team is trying to reach herhim." If it still sounds a little awkward, that's just because you aren't used to hearing the words yet. Remember how odd and silly words like "Flonase" and "GasX" sounded when you first heard them? …Okay, so they still sound silly. But trust me; with a little practice these new pronouns will become second nature.

So there you have it—"heshe," "hisher," "himherself" and "herhim"—four new words the English language desperately needs. Start using them today, and if we're lucky the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary will make them official in hisher next edition!

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Becoming a Vegetarian—A Personal Remembrance

For many of us who were originally of the meat-eating persuasion, the conversion to vegetarianism was lengthy and convoluted. After all, major lifestyle changes of any kind don't normally happen overnight. The desire and motivation to change require knowledge and outside influence, to be sure. But it also takes something intangible. From speaking with vegetarians, I've found most of them were guided much more by their hearts than by a rational decision-making process.

I know that was true for me. Looking back on it, I can trace my own conversion to vegetarianism to a series of learning and changing steps that started when I was very young.

The Unknown

When I was a kid my mother's best friend had a vegetarian uncle. The women used to sit at the kitchen table with their tea and talk about him in hushed, embarrassed tones. Maybe I wasn't supposed to know, but of course I overheard everything. I was fascinated. In my mind I tried to imagine someone who didn't eat meat. I conjured up a dark image of a strange, antisocial man. Perhaps someone with a scraggly beard and long, unkempt fingernails.

One day my mother took me aside and confided to me. "He doesn't even wear leather," she said with wide eyes. Wow, I thought. This new information was just too much for me to reconcile with my eight-year-old suburban American view of life. Suddenly the mysterious character I had envisioned was barefoot besides. The thought haunted me for days. He doesn't eat meat or even wear leather, I kept thinking. What an odd person he must be.

I never met the mysterious "vegetarian uncle," and I suppose after a while I pretty much forgot about him. I was busy growing up, and vegetarianism was the farthest thing from my mind. School, friends and activities consumed my time and my thoughts.


By the time I got to high school the country was in the throes of the social revolution of the '60s. New ideas were being tried and old values were subject to question. One day my best friend announced that he had become a vegetarian. I have vivid memories of him visiting our house—sitting at my family's dinner table and refusing to eat anything.

I felt betrayed. Here was someone I thought I could trust, and suddenly he was rejecting the meat-eating lifestyle I had grown up with, and my family had practiced for generations. I was angry at both him and the whole concept of vegetarianism. It was wrong, I told myself. It just had to be wrong.

My friend didn't stay a vegetarian for long. After a few months he moved on to other causes, and I was relieved because we no longer had a major rift between us.


It was several years before I was to confront vegetarianism again. This time I was in college. My junior year I moved to a new dormitory and quickly discovered that a large percentage of the people with whom I was now living were vegetarian. I would sit across from them in the dining hall eating my roast beef and eyeing them—at first suspiciously, but then with a good measure of curiosity. They looked healthy, I thought. Some of them were even fine athletes. They didn't talk a lot about their vegetarianism, but I sensed a great deal of commitment. I knew it took courage to go against the norm, and as I watched them eat their vegetables and grains I couldn't help but be impressed.

The more I learned about vegetarianism, and the more I thought about it, the more conflicted I became. In the back of my mind I was starting to realize that vegetarianism was for me. Intellectually and emotionally I agreed with everything about it. But I just couldn't admit that to myself. Instead I tried in vain to rationalize meat-eating. I was afraid, I guess. Afraid to give up those late night trips to the diner for a hamburger, and even more afraid of the reaction I would get from family and carnivorous friends if I suddenly went meatless. I took the coward's way out—I did nothing.


Three months after I graduated from college I moved to a big city hundreds of miles from home. For the first time in my life I was truly on my own. I didn't know anyone. It was only there, in the security that my solitude offered, that I did something I'd probably wanted to do for a long time. I became a vegetarian.

Over the years since then people have asked me if it's difficult to give up meat. No, I tell them with a casual shrug, it's very easy. I guess what I don't tell them about are the years that I spent finding out about vegetarianism and then struggling to reconcile it with my lifestyle. In retrospect vegetarianism is a snap—the choice is clear, and there are very few worthwhile things in life as easy to implement.

It's just that some of us, I suppose, were a little slow to learn.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

More Tales of the Veggie Avenger—The Saga of “Vegetables Fred”

The Veggie Avenger, our superhero of vegetarian superheroes, has lost his position as an elevator operator. (His boss gave some flimsy excuse about rudeness and body parts getting caught in the doors.) Desperately in need of money he takes a job as a waiter in one of Big City's swankiest restaurants. Clad in a tuxedo but still wearing his traditional white canvas tennis shoes, our hero feels a little out of place as he waits on his first customers– a middle-aged man and woman from the suburbs.

Man: What exactly is the Veal Oscar?

Veggie Avenger: Actually, Oscar was the name of the calf. We were all very fond of him. [He sniffles] We'll miss him a lot.

Man [taken aback]: Oh, I see. Well, how's the lamb tonight?

VA: He's dead too.

Man [losing patience]: Yes, I know that. I was referring to his...uh, its taste.

VA: Oh, not bad. He did have the one John Denver album, and for some reason he liked Sylvester Stallone movies. But other than that his taste was pretty good.

Man: Young man, you're joking with me.

VA [sincerely]: I swear I am.

Man [closing his menu]: Well, I'll just have the chicken.

VA: Chickens.

Man: Pardon?

VA: Chickens. They're individuals, you know.

The man becomes angry and gets up to leave. The Veggie Avenger fears he may have gone too far. If these customers walk out he's in danger of losing his new job before it starts, and he's already spent his first week's salary on a new bowling shirt.

VA: Please don't leave! Listen we have a terrific special tonight. We call it... uh... Vegetables Fred. It's a mixed vegetable grill sautéed in olive oil with capers and pine nuts. We serve it with fresh snow peas, red peppers with dill sauce and a tomato stuffed with wild rice. It's much tastier than some boring piece of meat, and I guarantee it's cholesterol free!

Woman [to husband]: You should watch your cholesterol.

VA: It's also five dollars cheaper than anything else on the menu.

Man [smiling now]: Actually, that does sound pretty good... Okay, I'll go with it.

[The woman nods her approval.]

The Veggie Avenger walks back to the kitchen gloating over his victory. These were his very first customers, and he's talked them into ordering vegetarian. What charm, he thinks. What savoir-faire! Only one thing worries him. How in the world is he going to talk the chef into cooking Vegetables Fred?


The Veggie Avenger's Code

The Veggie Avenger vows to fight tirelessly for truth, justice and the Vegetarian Way, and to do his best not to get arrested, beat up, or run out of beer in the process.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Morally Correct vs. Politically Correct

It's only been a few days since Sarah Palin was nominated to run for Vice President of the United States, but I've already received dozens of emails from animal rights and vegetarian groups opposing her. Those emails portray her, quite honestly from what I can tell, as a passionate hunter and fur wearer who opposes protection for polar bears, likes to decorate with dead animals, and supports eradication of wolves with airplanes and high-powered rifles.

My guess is that Governor Palin probably doesn't mind these email assassinations of her character at all. Sure, the McCain ticket will probably lose some votes from animal lovers, but the image of having a gun-slinging cowboy for a Vice President (remember the old TV show Maverick?) will probably attract lots more votes than it loses.

I am personally plenty offended by Ms. Palin's beliefs and actions with respect to animals, but that's okay. I've offended lots of folks myself by espousing veganism over the years. One of the wonderful things about our country is that no one has the right not to be offended. The First Amendment guarantees it. The Governor can believe and say anything she wants, and that's what makes life in the good old U.S. of A always interesting. That's also what makes our political system so entertaining, and often so frustrating.

The real question for the election is not whether someone has the right to say or believe one thing or another—of course they do, and thank goodness we all agree on that. No, the real question for the election is whether those beliefs will negatively affect their ability to govern. "Reasonable" minds may differ on polar bear legislation or what constitutes "sport" in hunting. I'm not so worried about that. The majority of the people will decide what they decide on those issues, and that's how it should be. I think Ms. Palin's beliefs and behavior, though, tell us something even more important about her. I think they tell us that she lacks compassion and empathy, and that's where I have the problem.

Please know that I am not talking about all hunters here. I've known plenty of hunters who were wonderful, caring people. They knew what they were doing, they ate what they killed, and they had respect for wildlife (…though obviously not much respect for the individual animals that they killed). Their venison dinners caused much less suffering than a suburban hockey mom picking up KFC for the family. My friends who were hunters didn't wear fur. They didn't chase wolves with airplanes.

I personally don't think that people, like Sarah Palin, who find great entertainment and personal ego in killing and exploiting animals are wired for compassion and empathy. I doubt that in dealing with human animals their feelings are going to be much different, and for a politician that's a serious problem. We live in a much smaller world than we did when Teddy Roosevelt was President. (Who, by the way, would have made a great running mate for Ms. Palin!) The United States can't go it alone anymore. To effectively solve the world's many problems, our leaders have to work with others and understand the plight of the oppressed. They have to put themselves in the shoes of those who disagree with them, and see issues from all different viewpoints. In other words, an important prerequisite for the job should be the very compassion and empathy Sarah Palin lacks. The world has already had too many leaders who prefer shooting things from airplanes; what we need now are leaders who can use the tools of dialog and understanding.

I find Governor Palin's current popularity terribly sad. Sure it's sad for the animals in question, but it's sad for people and our society as well. It's sad that, in an era when politicians bend over backwards to be politically correct, it's still okay for someone running for the second-highest office in the land to publically portray herself as an animal abuser. I guess what's morally correct doesn't become politically correct until enough voters care about it. Thomas Jefferson could get elected President despite a sadly small minority of people objecting to the fact that he was a slave owner, and now, two hundred years later, Sarah Palin might well be elected Vice President despite a sadly small minority of people objecting to the fact that she mistreats animals.

I know I shouldn't be sad. For now, Sarah Palin can say and do as she pleases, and I can vote for… well, for somebody else. But the fact that we have made enough progress on putting the shame of slavery behind us that we now have a black man as a serious candidate for President gives me hope. One day soon I hope that we'll put the shame of killing and exploiting animals for our own amusement and vanity equally far behind us. When that happens, politics will be even more entertaining, and far less frustrating.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Getting All Choked Up on Old Food

Over the years I've found that there are certain advantages to being part of the so-called "baby-boomer" generation. There are so many of us that we have a purchasing power probably no other demographic group can match. Consequently, businesses tend to cater to us, and certainly advertisers target us. As we go through the years most of the national trends seem to follow our station in life, or at least what somebody thinks our station in life should be.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the food industry. I don't think it's just my imagination, for example, that in the late 1960s and early 1970s when we were students there were a lot of restaurants around that sported rustic wood paneling and sitar music. They all had mellow "waitpeople" that plied us with mango juice and "Ethereal Planet Burgers." Sprouts were everywhere.

In the 1980s our generation turned materialistic with a vengeance, and the food industry was there to capitalize on it. The "Whole Life Café" was suddenly renamed the "Exchange Grill," and it began catering to the power lunch set. The ferns were taken out, and the paneling was changed from old barn siding to polished mahogany. Even Jeff, the catatonic waiter who had been there ever since that day he wandered in on his way back from Woodstock, had changed. He was now referred to as "Geoffrey," and he wore a tux and worked at being rude.

Supermarkets took advantage of the materialism of the 1980s as well. They made a killing by offering expensive vegetables that no one ever heard of, and by selling gourmet frozen dinners to busy working people for twelve dollars apiece.

Now that the 1990s are upon us, the food industry has once again changed the way it relates to the baby-boom generation. Someone has gotten the idea that now that we're getting a little long in the tooth, we must all be responsible family people. That means we have to make decisions about what we feed our children and, even more important, it means we are starting to get nostalgic about what we ate as a kid.

The food industry seems to have created a clever and highly profitable marketing plan to take advantage of these assumptions they have made about us. I say highly profitable because, by pushing nostalgia on us, they can sell all those old products they've been making for forty years. The hope, of course, is that not only will we try these things again for "nostalgic" reasons, but we'll feed them to our kids as well.

All of this has made watching television almost unbearable (all right, even more unbearable.) Over the past few months I've heard corny jingles and seen cartoon mascots that I thought had mercifully died in the fifties. Even lowly products like corn flakes are getting national airtime at two hundred thousand dollars a minute.

By far the worst of all these nostalgia ads is one that shows a decidedly yuppie-looking fellow patiently teaching his too-cute-to-be-believed son the proper method of eating an Oreo cookie. This is no subtle manipulation of the buyer at home. This is shameless sentimentality, and I guess I resent the fact that it is aimed at my generation.

I, for one, am not going to get caught up in this food nostalgia thing. Mostly, that's because when I look back on the things I ate twenty or thirty years ago I have only to borrow a phrase from the generation after mine: gag me with a spoon! I remember that as a kid (in those dark pre-vegetarian days) my favorite dinner was a twenty-five cent box of macaroni and cheese mix with a couple of hot dogs sliced up in it. I'd wash that down with about a quart of cheap, store brand ice cream. This is something to be nostalgic about?

Things didn't improve very quickly, either. As a student living in poverty I was fond of microwaved American cheese sandwiches (at least they were fast) and salads made of nothing but iceberg lettuce. These are days to be remembered, but certainly not days to be relived.

Now I don't want to sound snobby about all of this, but vegetarians are by definition choosier than the general public about what they put in their bodies. We, more than most people, feel that our diet has become a little more sophisticated, a little healthier, over the years. That being the case, we're not likely to take a step backwards twenty or thirty years for any reason, much less at the urgings of some advertiser trying to make a buck off food nostalgia.

So don't I ever get nostalgic about food? Well, yes. But only food from my post-vegetarian era. On occasion I remember how nice the Whole Life Cafe used to be. We would sit there amongst the knotty pine and play with the honey container on the table while we waited for our dinner. And you know, when he wasn't stoned, old Jeff could be a pretty darned good waiter, too. Sometimes, when I ordered the Ethereal Planet Burger, he'd give me extra sprouts.

Mark's All-Star List of Foods Consumed During the (Pre-Vegetarian) 1960s

  • Kool Aid (I didn't even like it very much as a kid)
  • Cool Whip (At least they spelled it right)
    • My Grandmother's Buttermilk Pancakes (These I could get nostalgic about—I'm waiting for the ads)
    • Herring (Really, no kidding!)
    • Hostess Snack Pies (They were always filled with two cherries and lots of gloppy syrup)
    • Dietetic Soft Drinks with Cyclamates (At least this is one thing we won't be seeing nostalgia ads for)

Monday, August 25, 2008

Tales of the Veggie Avenger

There's a new superhero on the streets of Big City. He's the Veggie Avenger, and every day he does battle against the meat industry, the milk lobby and the fast food chains. Our hero has no super-human powers. He has no mask and he has no cape (but he does
have a rather snazzy sport coat.) Relying only on his cunning and his good eyesight, he works to preserve the not-so-American way of Mom, apple pie, and tofu dogs.

Today we bring you two stories of the Veggie Avenger in action.

"Tacos in the Elevator"

Our story begins as our hero has taken a job as an elevator operator in a Big City skyscraper. (In this job he truly can leap a tall building in a single bound.) The elevator fills with his first load of passengers, and, just as the door closes and they begin their ascent, the Veggie Avenger brings out an old shopping bag.

Veggie Avenger [to the passengers]: You thought this was going to be an ordinary, boring elevator ride, didn't you?

Woman [leery]: That's certainly what we were hoping for.

The Veggie Avenger moves closer, and as the crowd backs away he holds up a "recycled" (i.e., he bought it at a garage sale) Tupperware container.

Man: Is that a bomb? Are we hostages?

VA [laughing]: No! I just want to offer you free samples of the Veggie Avenger's famous earth-loving tacos. Good for you, good for the environment! They're all organic. No chemical pesticides or fertilizers, and absolutely
no animal flesh.

Woman [even more leery]: What's in them?

The Veggie Avenger, prepared as always, shrugs and mutters something about not reading the label on the package.

Young Boy [stepping forward]: I'll try one. [he puts a taco in his mouth] Hey, this is good!

Our hero smiles and pushes the Tupperware toward the other passengers. They gasp. A woman reaches into her purse for mace. A businessman defends himself with his briefcase.

Young Boy: Hey pops, let me have some more!

As the elevator door opens on the 18th floor and the passengers flee for their lives, the Veggie Avenger is content. He's just started this job, but already he's shown a young boy the joys of vegetarianism. Smiling, and with a heart filled with love and brotherhood for his fellow creatures, he reaches over and pats the boy on the head.

Young Boy: Touch me again and I call my lawyer.

"Doggies in the Elevator"

Later that day, a woman in a full-length fur coat enters the elevator with her small daughter. The door closes and the three begin their decent to street level.

Veggie Avenger: Boy, that's some coat! Is that real dog skin?

Woman in Fur: Certainly not!

The Veggie Avenger moves closer, as if he might be about to reach out and touch the coat. The woman backs into the corner and shields her daughter with her arms.

VA: Yeah, when I was a kid my dog Flopsy had fur like that. Of course, we didn't make him into a coat or anything. No, when he died we just buried him out in the gully behind the garage. Anyway, it would have taken five, maybe six dogs the size of Flopsy to make a coat like that one.

Daughter: Mommy, is that a doggie?

Woman: Of course not honey, it's fox fur.

Daughter: What's the difference between a fox and a dog?

Woman: You know the difference; a fox is a wild animal.

Daughter: Does it look like a dog?

Woman: Just a little.

The little girl starts crying as the elevator reaches the ground and the door opens. The woman glares back at the Veggie Avenger as she leaves the elevator, her daughter in her arms. Our hero shrugs and gives her an innocent smile. But inside he's confident that there's one more little girl in the world who won't wear fur when she grows up.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Nineteen Things I Hate About Being a Vegetarian!

  1. I hate ordering a pizza, having them leave out the most expensive ingredient (the cheese), and still having to pay full price.
  2. Speaking of restaurants, I hate being lied to by waitpeople who are too lazy to go ask the chef, and instead tell me anything I want to hear. ("…Yeah, I think our bacon cheeseburger deluxe is totally vegetarian.")
  3. I hate it that, even if I had the money, I couldn't even consider buying really nice shoes (leather), rugs (wool), cars (leather seats), or a myriad of other products. (Why can't they make this stuff veg-friendly?)
  4. I hate the way plastic (phony leather) belts always fall apart.
  5. I hate being socially rejected as a "killjoy," and never being invited to all those social events where people with the meat-eating habit get together for their "fix."
  6. I hate it that my vegetarianism reduces my field of potential mates by 95%. (Okay, well I guess I don't mind that maybe the competition is reduced too.)
  7. I hate being in the Detroit airport at 9:00 at night and realizing that the limitations of my diet may make my food choices for the night less healthy (yes, the potato chips are vegan) than those of my meat-eating fellow travelers.
  8. I hate paying twice as much for soymilk as others pay for cow's milk.
  9. I hate having to buy the name brand of a medicine because the generic stuff only comes in "gel tabs."
  10. I hate that my vegetarianism was always a wedge between my parents and me.
  11. I hate being looked upon as a model for a healthy lifestyle. (Merely because I don't eat animals doesn't mean I don't have plenty of other vices!)
  12. I hate it when people assume that, because I'm vegetarian, I must be an aging hippie. (Even if it is true.)
  13. I hate feeling sorry for the plants I eat.
  14. I hate the fact that my organic vegetables may be supporting factory farming. (Yes, all that organic "fertilizer" has to come from somewhere.)
  15. I hate it whenever I make people go to any extra trouble to accommodate my vegetarianism.
  16. I hate not being able to stop myself from preaching to my meat-eating friends, even though I know intellectually that it won't do any good and that they'll just resent me for it.
  17. I hate the fact that nobody has developed a good, slip-on, stylish loafer that breathes and that I can wear without socks (I don't ask for much, do I?) without using leather.
  18. I hate it when restaurants and caterers assume that, because I don't eat meat, I also don't want anything with any fat, spices, or taste whatsoever.
  19. I love vegetarianism so much that I hate having to hate anything about it!

Friday, August 8, 2008

How Can It Kill Thee? Let Me Count The Ways…

Back in the good old days, about eight Star Wars movies ago, life was simple. People ate meat and dairy products, they got heart disease and cancer, and they died. No one really understood all the intricacies of high-density lipoproteins and Omega-3 fatty acids in this process, but that didn't matter. Hey, life was simple and life was good. Life was short.

Today things are much more complicated. Today we spend half of our gross national product on exotic, biological research in level-5 isolation laboratories. We have genetically-engineered vegetables, new patented plants and animals, and we know all there is to know about the 3 natural and 52,126 artificial substances in our favorite foods.

The other half of our gross national product goes to studying everything we do and reporting on it with endless quantities of data. That data is fed into high-end scaleable vector processing system supercomputers, and what they spit back out is immediately routed by satellite and fiber optics to the four corners of our oval earth. A scientist in Tanzania can assess epidemiological data on the impact of corned beef consumption by left-handed people on Wednesdays in Ohio even before the sandwich wrappers hit the trashcans.

With all of these modern innovations, we now have all the knowledge we need to develop the perfect diets for our own health and the health of our loved ones. We pump out boxed dinners by the billion with promising names like "Healthy-Choice" and "Heart-Smart." Even our pets can eat "Science Diet."

So is life even better? Nah. People still eat meat and dairy products, get heart disease and cancer, and die. Life is still short.

One thing has changed, though. It's not just heart disease and cancer anymore, Toto. Our research and information skills have given us a much better idea of all the creative little ways that meat injures and kills us every day. What fun! Here are just a few of the things we've learned.

  • Exotic Diseases— People have known that infected meat is dangerous ever since the 14th century, when Tatar armies invented the first biological weapon by catapulting comrades who died of bubonic plague into the city of Kaffa. But now we have the specifics. Now we can chronicle with deadly accuracy each outbreak of Salmonella, Campylobacter, and Listeria monocytogenes, not to mention our favorite little germ with the catchy name: Escherichia coli O157:H7. Of course, all of those seem mild compared to the brain-destroying prion protein that causes the spongioform encephalopathies "mad cow disease" in bovines and Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease in the humans who eat them. Meat is now routinely sold with warning labels, and the government recently recommended warnings on chickens' eggs as well. Heck somebody even came up with a warning label for bear meat which, like "pork," presents a danger of trichinosis if the meat is cooked rare.
  • Exotic Toxins— Since toxins tend to accumulate in meat, these crises seem to flare up from time to time. For years the European Union and the US have argued over the EU's ban on the import and sale of meat products treated with growth hormones. Just recently another worldwide political crisis broke out when it was discovered that farm animals in Belgium had been given feed contaminated with highly toxic dioxin. (Even if these substances never kill anyone directly, the arguing over them may lead to World War III!) In another recent incident 480,000 pounds of chicken nuggets were recalled by an Indiana company because people were having violent allergic reactions after eating them. The offensive ingredient? Dairy products!
  • Exotic Jobs— The meat industry is a dangerous place. In 1996, 154 Americans were killed working in livestock production, 73 in commercial hunting, fishing and trapping, and 29 in slaughterhouses and meat processing plants. That same year 122,100 Americans were injured or became ill working at these same jobs.
  • The Truly Exotic— You want even more examples of the dangers of meat? We've got 'em! How about the 13 people who have been gored to death since Pamplona's "running of the bulls" became an international spectacle in 1926? How about the urban equivalent when, in just the past few months cows have rampaged in downtown Darwin, Australia and Atlanta, Georgia? ("traffic couldn't moove") Then there's the infamous story of the shoot-out that ensued when residents of Beaver, Oklahoma argued over ownership of "cow chips." (Apparently they were valuable as fuel.) Finally, there is the recent recommendation by a microbiologist at Kansas State University that electric bug-zappers and food should be kept apart because while they are killing insects, the zappers can spread bacteria or viruses up to six feet away.

    Okay, you say, bug zappers may be dangerous, but this isn't meat-eating, per se.

    Well, maybe not, but bug zapping is certainly in the same spirit. (Anyway, nobody's going to serve a vegan meal within six feet of one of those things.) I still say it's safer to be vegetarian—just like it's always been.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mike Royko is Dead

A few years ago I used this column to lampoon Mike Royko, the great Chicago newspaperman, and a column he had written lampooning vegetarians. I thought I was being very clever in my lampoon of his lampoon—shooting barbs at Mr. Royko's arguments, and pointing to the places where the humor in his writing seemed to be wearing a little thin and exposing a narrow-minded point of view. (Hey, it's always fun to be a nobody and get the chance to attack a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer!) At the end of my column I noted that if Mr. Royko really ate in the "damn the cholesterol, full speed ahead" manner he espoused, he probably wouldn't be around as a target for pot-shots for too many more years.

It turns out I was right. Mike Royko died of a brain aneurysm in April, 1997, at the relatively young age of 64.

I felt bad when I heard the news. It was one of those situations (Remember when James Garner and Dave Thomas had heart attacks at the same time their beef ads were running on television?) when we vegetarians want to say "I told you so," but at the same time we don't wish harm on anyone. And there's certainly a fine line between making fun of someone else's beliefs and making fun of them personally.

After several months of consideration though, I've decided that if I could write my Mike Royko column over again, I wouldn't change a word. There are two reasons for that decision, and they're important enough to me, and important enough to vegetarianism, that I want to point them out. I'm sure Mr. R will agree.

The Right to be Offensive

First, we live in a marvelous society that recognizes freedom of speech. And one critical element of freedom of speech (an element that rarely gets mentioned in Fourth of July parades and high school essay contests) is that no one in our society has the right not to be offended. How critical is this to the vegetarian cause? Very. Several times, even in the life of this silly little column, issues involving "political correctness," my overall bad taste, and the sensibilities of others have threatened its publication. But think about it. If we vegetarians weren't allowed to offend anyone, how on earth would we get our point across? How would we ever reach the masses of meat-eaters who don't want their comfortable lifestyles upset by something as trivial as the truth?

Being offensive may not always be something to strive for, and I certainly don't advocate intentionally hurting anyone. But the right to be offensive in expressing one's beliefs—whether that involves me attacking an icon like Mike Royko, or your cousin Mel ridiculing this column with the boys down at the butcher shop—is critical. When that right starts to erode, I'll be headed to another planet.

Everything is Funny

The second item on my First Amendment soapbox agenda is humor. We live in a world of incomprehensible horror and tragedy. Humor is the only thing we've been given that allows us to cope. (The only legal thing, anyway.) The more serious something is—the more horror and tragedy that's involved—the more we need humor. Need I say that the battle between vegetarianism and meat-eating should be at the top of the list?

There's a lot of funny stuff out there in the dialogue over meat-eating, and a lot of it makes fun of us vegetarians. It ranges from the classic recipe for vegetarian stew ("Gut, drain and skin one vegetarian…"), to the sarcastic Boulder Vegetable Rights Association, to the People Eating Tasty Animals (PETA) home page. Offensive? You bet! But doesn't it beat serious men and women screaming out their message in angry prose? Doesn't it make their point so much more effectively?

Mike Royko knew a lot about being offensive, and he knew a lot about being funny. The former made his writing important, while the latter made him loved. It was only late in his career, when consolidation in the Chicago newspaper industry and the death of his wife left him battling depression and alcohol problems, that his anger became more pronounced and his humor began to fade. It was only then that people openly questioned his right to speak. That in itself should tell us all something about how to conduct ourselves the next time we're ready to spout off about our vegetarian beliefs.

Mike Royko loved to eat meat, and now he's dead. But we vegetarians can still learn a lot from his example.

Funny Things from the Newspaper [The original “Mike Royko” column]

Recently I spotted two things in the paper that were so outrageous, and so offensive to common sense and decency, that I just knew they'd make great column material. The first was an advertisement by the Colorado Beef Council promoting the cow as "Mother Nature's Recycling Machine." Make no mistake about it, this ad was so full of untruths and half-truths it should be framed and sent to New York, where it can serve as the inspiration for future generations on Madison Avenue. The beef industry types will want to quote verbatim from this one at the next Congressional hearings on grazing leases. They'd better have their lawyers with them.

The other thing that caught my eye was a piece by Mike Royko, the syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. He decided to lash out at vegetarian activism and healthy foods generally, and at Jeremy Rifkin and McDonald's phenomenally unsuccessful McLean burger in particular. Mr. Royko is a humorous guy, but what comes screaming out of his writing is the image of an aging good-old-boy threatened by changes in our society he refuses to understand. It almost makes you lose sight of the funny stuff.

For those of you fortunate enough to have missed these two journalistic classics, I quote liberally below.

First, Enlightenment from the Colorado Beef Council

[I swear they're serious about this. I'm not making these quotes up!]

"Cows make the most of our food production resources,"

Yeah, sure. And everyone who eats beef has an IQ of 200. I'm a millionaire with the bronzed body of a Greek god, and the Pope reads this column "religiously." Isn't fantasy wonderful?

"...healthful, nutritious, low-fat beef."

It's all in your frame of reference, I guess. Everyone knows the beef folks have financed carefully controlled tests of their product's nutritional value. When pitted against such popular foods as suet, fried "pork" skins, Ben & Jerry's double chocolate fudge ice cream, and wood alcohol, beef came out looking like a nutritional winner!

"Like mowing a lawn or pruning a tree, cattle grazing promotes plant vigor and diversity."

Anyone who's ever looked at a fence line in the American West knows this is true. Those darn "diverse" and "vigorous" plants sure are clever, too. They have a charming way of disguising themselves as erosion and mud.

"Cows are also environmental protection machines."

And how could they not be when they're managed by today's socially-responsible, food conglomerate, factory farmers! Yes, on the old environmental friendliness scale herds of cows rank right up there with the B-l "Stealth" Bomber, Mount Pinatubo, and Arnold Schwarzenegger in The Terminator. Give them all Winnebagos for an even bigger "green" factor. Only Soviet atomic energy scientists could have come up with anything better.

Now, Words of Wisdom from Mr. Royko

"...veggie burgers, tofu burgers, seaweed burgers, cabbage burgers and other healthful delicacies. They could call them Twitburgers."

I suppose. Of course, if "they" were just a bit more mature and/or enlightened they might prefer to call them "Socially-Conscious Burgers," "Morally-Inspired Burgers," "creative," "visionary," "compassionate," or just plain "tasty." (This last adjective doesn't necessarily apply to the seaweed burger—I'll reserve judgment. And it assumes, of course, that "their" taste buds haven't already been deep fried in the last batch of hot grease out of Burger King or KFC.)

"America does not want a Twitburger. It prefers something it can really chomp on. Damn the cholesterol, full speed ahead."

For me, Mike's wartime imagery really captures the essence of the American eating experience. We can all join the Marlboro man—looking macho as hell in our hospital beds.

... "goofball"... "peepingTom"... "dimwits"... "public nags"... "common scold" ... "public nuisance"... "compulsive busybody" ... "intellectual gnat" ... "aging hippies"...

Choosing his words with the precision and accuracy of a skilled surgeon, Mr. Royko uses a number of adjectives to describe individuals and groups of people espousing vegetarianism and healthy eating. Of course Mr. R is merely demonstrating one of the golden rules of persuasive writing: When logic fails to advance your position, resort to name-calling. For obvious reasons, this technique is often used by those opposing the vegetarian cause.

"Now I must go have dinner. Steak tartare. That's raw beef, ground up. I prefer it on the hoof, but it's a chore chasing the critter."

Finally, at the end of his column, some levity! It's not too funny, though, if you're an individual of the vegetarian or bovine persuasion. I have to believe that despite the sarcasm Mr. Royko probably does eat the way he preaches, in which case he may not be around for too many more years of wit. It's a shame. If there's any justice, he'll be reincarnated as a cow.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


[Original Column]

Lately I've been thinking a lot about Zero Mostel in Fiddler On The Roof. I can just picture him in my mind dancing across the stage singing that song about "Tradition." Now I, of course, have no idea how Mr. Mostel or the writers of Fiddler really felt about the subject, but I've met plenty of people who, just like the character in the play, think tradition is sacred. I even admit to feeling that way myself sometimes—like when I get misty-eyed and nostalgic about my favorite baseball team.

We are all creatures of habit, and will cling to things that are familiar, even if those things are nonsensical or conflict with other values we may have. It doesn't really matter how it all gets started. Just like an untrue rumor, if an action is repeated often enough it develops a certain credibility. With the glossy patina of age, it becomes tradition.

Sometimes it's fun to think of some of the ridiculous things in our society that are perpetuated by tradition. For example, for years we have had a whole class of people called "cheerleaders" who go to sporting events in miniature pleated skirts, with funny things called "pom-poms" on both hands. Women in our society regularly wear uncomfortable shoes with spike heels, and paint their fingernails red and their eyelids blue. And lest you think that I'm pretending to be above it all, I freely admit that as I write this I'm wearing a tie. The reason for all this nonsense is beyond me. But then again, it doesn't need a reason—it's tradition.

Along with the frivolous aspects of tradition are some pretty serious ones. Tradition, of course, plays a large and beneficial role in helping to maintain the values necessary to hold our society together. Unfortunately, it can also work the other way. It can be a convenient excuse used to justify otherwise unacceptable behavior. This is what I call the "my daddy did it, and by golly I'm going to do it too" syndrome. Among the evils it's responsible for are bigotry, racism, and those fuzzy dice people hang from their rear-view mirrors.

Those of us who are vegetarians and who love animals often find the "my daddy did it" syndrome particularly disconcerting. It is the rationalization for barbaric behavior all over the world, from caged dogs in the back of South Korean restaurants, to lobster tanks in hometown America.

Sometimes the types of behavior tradition supports are as incongruous as they are barbaric. For example, lately I've been bothered by an inconsistency in our society that goes something like this: If you belong to a church and you torture and kill cats as part of your religious ceremony, you could be in big trouble with the law. If you perform the same acts under the guise of "scientific research" not only will you be protected, but you might even get government funding to do it. Now, that doesn't seem quite right to me. And I find it especially curious in light of the fact that the First Amendment to the Constitution specifically protects freedom of religion, but doesn't say a thing about scientific research.

So what explains the difference? What carries more weight than our laws, or even our Constitution? You guessed it—tradition. In this context tradition dictates that religion involves organ music and uncomfortable clothes, while "scientific research" has something to do with white lab coats and rats living on Diet Coke. Cutting open cats is antithetical to our concept of religion, but wholly consistent with our norms for science. In the scientific venue the value or morality of such an act is not even likely to be questioned.

A meat-centered diet is in general is so economically wasteful, so unhealthy, and so downright unnatural that its continued viability must in large part be due to tradition. Repetition over thousands of years (and particularly the last fifty) has given it a credibility that we vegetarians have barely been able to put a dent in. That's too bad.

A tradition like meat eating seems so deeply rooted in our society that maybe the only way to fight it is with tradition itself. Maybe we vegetarians need to start some silly tradition of our own-like eating millet burgers on Groundhog's Day, for example. If we did that for, say, fifty years, everyone would start to think it was the natural thing to do and would follow along. Of course, people will need to hear about it. It's tough to start a good tradition without lots of publicity. If we could just get some well-known celebrities to join us that would help... Too bad Zero Mostel isn't available.

The Role of Tradition


Tradition is what gets us all misty-eyed when we think about our parents and grandparents, or the history of our favorite baseball team. It's the embodiment of our values, and the glue that holds our society together through the generations. Heck, it's the stuff Zero Mostel sang about in Fiddler On The Roof! With all that going for it, tradition must be pretty wonderful, right?

Well, most of the time. Unfortunately, tradition is probably the biggest enemy to vegetarianism and many of the other sane things on this Earth! Here's why...

We are all creatures of habit and will cling to things that are familiar, even if those things are nonsensical or conflict with other values we may have. It doesn't really matter how it all gets started. Just like an untrue rumor, if an action is repeated often enough it develops a certain credibility. With the glossy patina of age, it becomes "tradition".

Think of all the ridiculous things in our society that are perpetuated by tradition. Here are some examples:

  • For years we have had a whole class of people called "cheerleaders" who go to sporting events in miniature pleated skirts, with funny things called "pompoms" on both hands.
  • Women in our society regularly wear uncomfortable shoes with spiked heels, and paint their fingernails red and their eyelids blue.
  • Men in our society wear odd paraphernalia called "ties," which appear to have no purpose other than constricting unimportant things like arteries and windpipes.

    The reason for all this nonsense is unknown. But then again, it doesn't need a reason—it's tradition.

    Along with the frivolous aspects of tradition are some pretty serious ones. It can be a convenient excuse used to justify otherwise unacceptable behavior. This is what I call the "my Daddy did it, and by golly I'm going to do it too" syndrome. Among the evils it's responsible for are bigotry, racism, sexism, and those fuzzy dice people hang from their rear-view mirrors.

    Those of us who are vegetarians and who love animals often find the "my Daddy did it" syndrome particularly disconcerting. It is the rationalization for barbaric behavior all over the world, from shark's-fin soup in Asia, to genitally mutilating girls in Africa, to Thanksgiving turkey in North America. Tradition is the excuse given when all others fail to explain why sons of fishermen must continue to fish when populations of fishes are threatened or sons of loggers must continue to log when our forests are dwindling. Tradition justifies the ritualistic torture of animals as part of "religious" ceremonies in the Caribbean, and under the auspices of "bullfights" in Spain and Mexico.

    Let's say it again, just for emphasis (yes, that would be the traditional thing to do): If behavior cannot otherwise be justified, we defend it by saying it is "tradition".

    A diet centered on meat and dairy products is so economically and environmentally wasteful, so unhealthy, and so downright unnatural that its continued viability must in large part be due to tradition. Just like bigotry, racism and sexism, repetition over the years has given it a credibility that we vegetarians have barely been able to dent. That's too bad. Tradition should never be used as a source of comfort for those who cannot otherwise defend their actions to themselves or others.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Meat In Space

I read a lot of news stories about meat and dairy products. These stories are usually pretty predictable. Either they report on some new study that says eat less meat and dairy products and more fruits and vegetables, or they are thinly-disguised reprints of industry propaganda. (You can always tell the latter. Usually they have titles like: "Scientists Say Drink Your Milk for Healthy Bones!")

Every once in a while, though, a news story comes along that is so incredible it deserves a column of its own. That's what I thought when I read a recent ABC News story about Morris Benjaminson, a researcher at Touro College Applied Bioscience Research Consortium, and his research into growing meat in the laboratory. You see, Mr. Benjaminson is concerned about our astronauts on a future two-year mission to Mars. He wants them to have fresh meat, and he's figured out how to raise that meat in space—without the animals!

This is exciting news, and to prove that I am not making this up, I've decided to give you some actual quotes from the story and my reaction to them.

  • "Benjaminson sliced 2-4-inch sections of flesh from large goldfish and placed them in a nutrient solution of fetal bovine serum, a liquid extracted from the blood of unborn calves. After a few weeks in the solution, …the fish meat grew by up to 16 percent."

    —This sounds so tasty that I bet the public will be signing up in droves for the next Mars mission. They say with Mars getting there is half the fun, and this sounds like the food on a luxury cruise!

  • "To test the lab-grown meat's appeal, his team showed it to colleagues to analyze for color and fried the meat to assess its aroma. Benjaminson said most considered the fish meat appetizing, although no one actually tasted it."

    —I bet they had to hold them back with chains.

  • "Benjaminson, himself, restrained from eating it since he was wary of possible infectious agents from the fetal bovine serum used to grow it. 'I'm just as careful about prions as the next man,' he said, referring to the infectious proteins behind mad cow disease."

    —What a wimp! Well, I'm sure our brave astronauts won't have these reservations. After six months or so living on liverwurst out of toothpaste tubes, they'll probably be more than ready to gorge themselves at an interstellar fish-fry.

  • "Eventually, Benjaminson hopes to improve the growth rate of his homegrown fish sticks and expand the technique for growing chicken and beef. The team also hopes to create a meat-growing machine to automate the process…"

    —Look for a late night "infomercial" on this machine, coming soon to a cable channel near you. Maybe George Foreman can even be bribed to put his name on it.

  • "But growing meat in space has some serious drawbacks to consider. William Knott, the chief of biological programs at NASA's Kennedy Space Center points out that, unlike tending a garden of vegetables, growing meat will consume critical resources that the astronauts need themselves, namely oxygen and carbon. 'The problem is the meat would compete with the astronauts' needs,' Knott said. For that reason Knott suspects the first Mars travelers will subsist primarily on a vegetarian diet.

    —Hmmm. Do you just suppose that the same arguments could be made for not raising meat on "Spaceship Earth?"

  • "Benjaminson is hoping his meat-growing technique might also find applications on Earth. For example, he wonders if some vegetarians would be willing to eat meat products that were not directly slaughtered."

    —Just what we poor, deprived vegetarians have been waiting for! (Some days I just can't control my cravings for the taste of goldfish in bovine serum.) Where do we sign up?!!!

  • "Benjaminson says he has already heard from executives at a poultry company… who expressed interest in using the technique to grow boneless chicken products."

    —Why does this not surprise me?

    As Mr. Benjaminson's research demonstrates, meat in space can be a scary proposition. How are astronauts supposed to stay healthy eating a bunch of goldfish like silly college boys? How can they be expected to maintain weightlessness after a heavy dinner of meat?

    In response, I think it's time that the people of the Earth declared space to be an official "Meat–Free Zone." There's certainly precedent for this. Antarctica has been a nuclear-weapons–free zone for more than 40 years, and I have yet to hear anyone gripe about that decision. Anyway, if you don't count that one tragic evening when a neutron boy from the planet Xerox went on a joyride on his Farleigh-Dickenson antimatter motorcycle with a Fleshburger Supreme from Saturn's Golden Rings franchise, we Earthlings are the only folks in the whole Universe still dragging meat into space.

    I'm going to circulate a petition opposing meat in space. Be sure to sign it. If we all act quickly on this thing, there's still a chance we can get space declared the "Official Meat–Free Zone of the 2008 Summer Olympics."


    Petition to Designate Space as a Meat and Dairy–Free Zone

    To The Honorable Ban Ki-moon

    Secretary-General of the United Nations

    We, the undersigned people of the planet Earth, respectfully petition the United Nations and its member nations to actively promote such international treaties as may be required to designate space, including all areas of the Universe outside of Earth and its atmosphere, as a Meat and Dairy–Free Zone.

    In support of our petition, we call to the attention of the General Assembly the following facts:

    • The production of meat and dairy products is the cruelest and most environmentally destructive of all human activity.
    • The consumption of meat and dairy products is the leading preventable cause of human disease and death.
    • The goal of space exploration should be to strive for higher values, not to export our vices. (What's next—gambling on Neptune? A smoking lounge on the International Space Station?)
    • Cows, pigs, chickens and fish get nauseous in zero-gravity, and their space suits fit poorly.

    For these reasons and others, we hope and trust that the people of the Earth, led by our United Nations, will work to accomplish this noble cause. Thank you.


Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Mad as Hell

In the words of anchorman Howard Beale, as so aptly portrayed by Peter Finch in the movie Network, I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it any more.

What am I mad about?

I'm mad that the animal agriculture industry is perpetrating horrors the equivalent of the Holocaust on farm animals in this country every single day. Nobody seems to care, and nobody, except the tiny fraction of the population that we vegetarians and vegans represent, does anything about it. Why? Because to care would mean thinking about things that are unpleasant. To do something would require a change in lifestyle that might be inconvenient.

I'm mad at the fast-food industry for luring our children into their restaurants, and into a lifetime of horrible eating habits, with clowns, playgrounds and free toys. Even more, I'm mad at our government for allowing this to happen, particularly when armed with the knowledge that more and more of our children are becoming obese and diabetic at a younger and younger age.

My anger with the politicians doesn't stop there. Must they compound the problem by selling out our schools to the soft drink companies who install vending machines in the corridors and to the meat and dairy industries that dictate the school lunch program? Why is it that every single "food" item that receives a government subsidy is something that is bad for us (dairy, crops used as sweeteners, crops used for animal feed)? Shouldn't our government be spending its money to make our health better rather than worse?

I'm mad at meat-eating environmentalists who promote their causes while conveniently overlooking the 800-pound gorilla in the room—the animal agriculture industry. Not only is that industry our biggest (by far!) consumer and polluter of land and water, but it's all so unnecessary, and all so wasteful. I'm similarly mad at the medical professionals who promote a "healthy" diet, while always ensuring that it's based around ever-so-unhealthy meat and dairy products. I'm mad at "pacifists" who still condone the least pacifistic of all activities—the torture and killing of animals, and I'm mad at "feminists" who don't seem to have any problem continuing to consume dairy products and chickens' eggs despite the fact that they exploit the females of other species and require rape and the taking of babies from their mothers.

I'm mad at the way my fellow vegetarians and I are consistently discriminated against. We're uninvited to social events, left off of dinner invitations, made fun of, and all too often shunned by family, friends, co-workers and potential mates. What is our crime? We back up our moral convictions with our behavior. We "put our tofu where our mouth is" (to coin a phrase), and that makes other people feel uncomfortable. It's easier to avoid us than to think about the message we send by our example.

I'm mad too that none of this will change substantially in my generation's lifetime. It won't change in the lifetimes of our children or our grandchildren either, and maybe not until the earth, and the human life on it, is destroyed by our own greed and stupidity.

Most of all, though, I'm mad at the millions and millions of educated, compassionate people out there who continue to be part of the problem rather than the solution. In their brains they know the facts about animal rights, environmentalism and nutrition, but in their hearts they still don't "get it." The old saying goes that the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of crisis, stand by and do nothing. Well, this is certainly a time of crisis. Where are these people? Can't they change their behavior just one little bit? Couldn't they manage to go just a meal or two without digging the graves of animals, the earth and themselves with their dinner forks? We need them on our side, and we need them now.

The other night I had a long conversation with an Episcopalian reverend. We talked a lot about my reasons for being vegan. She brought up the Biblical reference about the lion lying down with the lamb, and I finally had to ask her what her religious view was on killing animals for food. She thought about the question for a moment, and finally explained that there were different levels of morality—some moral ambitions that we can achieve within the confines of our society, and others that will have to wait for a better day and a better place. I didn't believe that for a moment, and from the look on her face I could tell she didn't either.

I personally don't want to live in a world where our morality changes to accommodate what's popular, pleasurable, and convenient. I don't want to live either in a society where the vast majority of the population is in a state of cognitive dissonance and rationalization—where their daily actions are totally inconsistent with their beliefs on the most basic concepts of what's good for them, how to treat others, and distinguishing right from wrong.

I guess I don't have a choice though. Room reservations on the other planets are awfully hard to come by right now, and around here almost everyone eats meat. I'm the odd man out.

I'm mad as hell about it.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Getting on the “Low-Carb” Bandwagon

Americans are getting fatter. Two-thirds of us are overweight, and we're moving toward obesity at an alarming rate. In 1991 the obese comprised less than 20% of the population in every state of the union, and less than 10% in 8 states. Eleven years later the obese comprised more than 20% of the population in 31 states and more than 15% of the population in every state. Since 1980 the percentage of overweight children has doubled.

The fact that more of us can now literally sit around the house means more than just a deterioration of the scenery at the local beauty parlor. Absent radical changes in dietary and exercise routines, one-third of Americans born in the year 2000 will develop diabetes and suffer premature death. Experts have even speculated that in some states, like Texas, we may see the first generation of children to be outlived by their parents.

Something has to be done about all of this, and I've decided to do my part. First, I consulted with the legions of executives, experts and ghostwriters here at On or Off the Mark international headquarters. They, of course, had no idea, so I moved on to the real powerbrokers—the sales-types.

After a series of power lunches with my marketing people and my public relations people and their people and their people's people, I think I now have the answer. I am now in a position to make the exciting announcement that On or Off the Mark has become a "low-carb" column! As a matter of fact, I think I can safely say that this column is as low in carbs as any column of its type, anywhere. I'm hoping that readers will eat it up.

Of course, as a low-carb column I will now be able to proudly display the official "Low-Carb Option!" insignia from the American Diet League (not an official US Government agency). For an extra $14.95 I think they're even sending me a wallet card that I can flash at people when I want them to know that I, too, am low-carb.

Since this column is now officially "low-carb" it can safely be read by those persons, including the entire population of the United States, who are on the Atkins, South Beach, North Beach, South Pole, etc. high protein diets. (Hey, aren't these the same people who are collectively getting fatter?) And I know that this is going to appeal to all of those couch potatoes who drink those new "low-carb" dietetic beers to take off a few pounds while passively watching the game.

This development comes at a good time for the regular readers of this column too. Lately I've noticed that two of my three readers (I happen to be one of these two) have put on a couple of extra pounds. If they (okay, we) can diet while reading, that has to be a good thing!

Now, you may think this is merely a temporary publicity gimmick foisted on an unsuspecting public by an opportunist with no real commitment to the ideals of vegetarianism. To make you feel at ease, I'll make this promise: I'll keep my column low-carb at least until the next "high-carb" fad comes along. (At that point On or Off the Mark will officially become a high-carb column, perfect for "carb-loading" readers. But I get ahead of myself…)

Acquiring low carb status means that my lowly column can now join such American icons as Kraft Foods, Applebee's, WalMart and General Motors on the low-carb bandwagon. Think I'm kidding about General Motors? Well, maybe I am. But the way things are going, it's only a matter of time before we have low-carb trucks and busses.

I like this low-carb thing. It's totally in keeping with the great American tradition of ignoring the real causes of our problems and focusing on the quick-fix. Reaching for something labeled "low-carb" is a heck of a lot less work than real exercise or real dieting. It's faster than serving fresh vegetables to our kids (god forbid!), and a lot less scary to the average Joe than anything beginning with a "v." Most importantly, it's easy to market with the proverbial 30-second sound byte.

Image is everything, you know, and it beats out substance every time. Sounds perfect for this column!

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Rules of Logic (As Taught by Meat-Eaters)

When I was a kid my parents gave me a logic game for my birthday. It came with a little hourglass (so players could actually time how logical they were) and an instruction book that was a couple of hundred pages long and read like a computer programming manual. I think the purpose of the game was to hone the minds of the younger generation so we would be equipped to deal with the communist threat.

Anyway, after ten minutes with this game, I found out I wasn't very good at logic. I was better at sleeping. If the free world depended on the likes of me, we'd all be eating blintzes and borscht by lunchtime.

As I've grown older—living as a vegetarian in a meat-eating world—I've been constantly reminded of how bad I am at this logic stuff. Sometimes it seems that, when it comes to diet and the way we treat animals, almost everyone is living by a whole different set of rules. I can't figure them out. (If you're a vegetarian, I bet you've got the same problem!)

One thing I have noticed over the years, though, is that the incomprehensible logic as practiced by our meat-eating society manifests itself in certain recognizable patterns—certain omnivorous "rules of logic," if you will. Here are a few of my favorites.

  • We should pay folks to do things we don't like. Whether the debate is about controlling the onslaught of waste from hog "farms" in Colorado, or limiting fishing to protect salmon populations in the Northwest, the arguments against taking action are always the same: "If we do this, we'll lose jobs." Okay, I hate to see people unemployed as much as the next guy (I have intimate experience with this myself!), but why should we continue to pay these folks to do something destructive. Is this logical?
  • The reason we do it this way is because we've always done it this way. Let's see… people eat cottage cheese when they're on a diet, "chicken" soup when they're sick, hot-dogs (with none of the fixings) at the ballpark, a ham for Easter dinner, and cow's milk when they need something "healthy." Has anyone really given any thought to this? Do people really enjoy this stuff, or are they just going through the motions???
  • It's what you think, not what you do—good intentions are all that matters. We vegetarians are tired of hearing about the good intentions of the meat-eaters around us. By their logic, they all have the healthiest and most compassionate diets in the world. Sure.

    […Hey, wait a second. I had some good intentions myself. Wasn't I going to get up at five every morning to ride my exercise bicycle, read Milton, and iron my socks? And didn't I sleep in today and eat chocolate for breakfast? Okay, so maybe this is one perverted rule of logic that isn't unique to meat-eaters.]

  • It doesn't count unless people are involved. I found a great example of this on the radio news the other day. There was an environmental story about the dwindling population of salmon in an Idaho river. The activist they interviewed was very upset. Her concern: she wanted fish in the river so her son could get out the old rod and reel—and kill them.
  • Meat-eating is good—this is beyond question. Even a knot-head like me can figure this one out. It goes like this: "Meat-eating is humankind's most barbaric behavior. Meat-eating is okay by definition. Ergo, everything else must be okay too!" (The logic guys love to use Latin words like ergo.)

    For a classic example of this look no further than the current debate over "xenotransplantation" (Logicians like Greek too!), the raising of animals to supply replacement body parts for transplantation into humans. I was amazed the other day when I read the results of a CNN poll, finding that only 17% of the people responding found any ethical problem with this practice. And what about those ethical problems? They were analyzed for us in a recent article by Jeffrey P. Kahn, the Director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Bioethics.

    According to Dr. Kahn, there may be some humanitarian concerns if the "xenotransplanted" organs come from fun animals like dogs and chimpanzees, but those problems magically go away if they come from the kinds of animals we eat. If we can, say, genetically alter pigs that are raised for food to also produce the kinds of organs we humans need, that makes it all okay. At that point the only "ethical" issues remaining are how safe the procedures will be (Safe for the humans, that is—i.e., can we get mad cow disease?) and how people will feel about eating genetically-altered "bacon."

    Let me see if I've got this straight. We might care a little bit about the animals if we're only killing them to save a human life, but we don't have to care at all about killing them for the pure pleasure of putting something supremely unhealthy on our BLTs?

    I'm sure the good folks at the University of Minnesota pay Dr. Kahn a lot of money for these insights. As for me though… well, I just don't understand the logic.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Latest Innovations

The world is full of inventors and inventresses, and every now and then I like to use this space to highlight some of the exciting new developments they've come up with—especially as they impact the worlds of vegetarianism and anti-vegetarianism. Both the good guys and the bad guys have been doing a lot of innovating lately, so let me just pop the top on a frosty Soy Beer (the latest drink of choice for the discerning vegetarian) and let's see what's new.

  • Neither Fish Nor Ford— You'll be excited to know that a new product named FastBass, a plastic fish painted to look like a race car, is available on-line for $59.95 at It aims to capitalize on the growing market appeal of both NASCAR racing and professional bass fishing—the so-called "redneck twins of Southern sports." Marketers see this as a natural fit, noting that, "The 100,000 bubbas in the [NASCAR] stands are the same people who have an avocation for bass fishing."
  • Even the President Gets No Respect— And speaking of bubbas… Eaves Food Incorporated of Georgia has developed a one-third pound hamburger affectionately called the "BUBBA burger". Recently the company was forced to recall 28,860 pounds of BUBBA burgers because of possible E. coli contamination.
  • My Bells!— The Bella Mia restaurant in San Jose, California came up with a great way to save on the cost of veal—they just used pork instead. Now the restaurant has agreed to pay a $60,000 court settlement. The district attorney assigned to the case noted, "There are several groups who don't eat pork products, and many of those people may have been ordering veal to avoid pork." Gee, I wish I had $60,000 for every time I've gotten meat in a restaurant entrée labeled "vegetarian"!
  • Kids' Stuff— The dairy industry always has something dubious in the works, and lately they've been developing new containers targeted toward children. Among those being tested are the "Milk Chug" (jazzy single-serving bottles of flavored milk aimed at teenage boys) and new three-liter bottles that young children can pour without lifting.
  • Better Kids' Stuff— To promote the 75th birthday of the Green Giant, the company asked kids to compete at the National Veggie Eating Invention Contest at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Museum in Washington. Winners included a "Veggie Pult" that launches carrots into the mouth and an "Easy Biter Motorized Corn Cob," with motorcycle-inspired handles.
  • Whatever Happened to Olestra, anyway?— Just down Madison Avenue from Green Giant, America's food processors seem to be climbing back on the high-fat bandwagon. Among the new offerings are Philadelphia Snack Bars from Kraft (cheesecake "in a convenient on-the-go package"), and Calzone Creations from Sara Lee Corp. (microwavable sandwiches with as much as 12 grams of saturated fat each). According to a poll sponsored by the Food Marketing Institute, just 46 percent of the supermarket shoppers who say they are "very concerned" about nutrition are worried about the fat content of foods. That's down from 60 percent in 1996.
  • Soy is Hot!— Have you been noticing the twelve new types of soymilk showing up every day at the supermarket? It's no wonder that the National Milk Producers Federation has registered a trade complaint asking the Food and Drug Administration to stop use of the word "milk" by soybean beverage makers. Indeed, soymilk sales in mainstream supermarkets reached $126 million last year, a 60 percent increase over the year before. (That may sound like a lot, but it's still less than 1% of the $22 billion Americans spend each year on soda and cows' milk.) Of course, the soybean's popularity isn't limited to soymilk. Everyone wants to get in on the action. The Indiana Soybean Board sponsors an annual "soybean utilization" contest that in the past has yielded such novelties as soy-based gelatin, ski wax, lip balm, fire starter and breakfast cereal. One of this year's winners was SoySnaps, a cracker said to be "similar to a Ritz," but with the "light texture of overdone pizza crust." Mmmm!
  • Try a Little Tenderness— Finally, there's some exciting news from the meat industry in their long battle to make better use of the 10 "subprimal" cuts of meat they say they get from every steer. (Of course, for some of us all cuts of meat are "subprimal," as are the brains of those who produce and sell them.) One slaughterhouse in Corpus Christi, Texas has started zapping animal carcasses with 400 volts of electricity. They say this tenderizes them by tearing apart muscle tissue and "accelerating the aging process." Even more innovative is the new "hydrodyne" meat tenderizing process, developed in part by scientists at the USDA. They put meat—400 pounds of it at a time—into a vat of water anchored in concrete. Then they set off a small explosive charge, and voila—shoe leather is magically transformed into filet mignon! This invention is dynamite! (That's a joke.) Think of the possibilities. Think what this could do for your boss. He could certainly stand to be a little more tender!

Well, that's what's new. I didn't have time to tell you about the New York hotel that decorates with cheese, or the "Elvis Sandwich," but maybe I can save them for another time. I have to admit, though, I did make up the part about the Soy Beer. (It sounds like a good idea though, doesn't it?) Yes, Soy Beer is just an idea whose time has yet to come. I'm working on it. Meanwhile, I'm promoting another great idea I have: Organic Water.

Think it will sell?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Label Lies

Not too long ago in this space I talked about "Santa Cruz Fat Free Guacamole," which I found in the grocery store, and which I'm sure is very groovy stuff except for the fact that it is neither "fat free" nor "guacamole." A short while after I wrote that column I was enjoying my favorite eggplant goo, Imam Bayeldi, on some crackers. "This is great stuff," I thought. "Too bad it's so greasy." I looked at the label to see just how greasy it was and found that, despite the fact that olive oil was one of the first listed ingredients, the goo had "0" calories from fat. Either the label was wrong or my local Middle Eastern market had found a way around the laws of thermodynamics.

These experiences got me to wondering what other food labels may contain grossly misleading information. I decided to investigate, and here are some of the things I found…

  • Food labels love to make health claims, whether they are true or not. For example, Post Golden Crisp Cereal advertises itself as "wholesome," despite the fact that sugar is its first listed ingredient. Actually, of its 7 listed ingredients, 3 are sugars, one is hydrogenated oil, one is artificial color and one is salt. I guess that leaves "wheat" as its "wholesome" ingredient. Wholesome indeed.
  • Hundreds of products lie about their fat content. Annie's Natural "Low Fat Gingerly Vinaigrette" salad dressing, for instance, gets 50% of its calories from fat. This doesn't sound like "low fat" to me, but it's a lot better than the bottle of Hidden Valley Original Ranch "Fat Free" dressing with bacon I found that gets 130 of its 140 calories from fat. Maybe they got the labels mixed up (??!!), or maybe in Hidden Valley what they hide is the truth.
  • Speaking of hiding the truth, check out Dinty Moore "97% fat free" Chicken and Dumplings, Valley Fresh "96% fat free" chunk chicken, and Swanson "99% fat free" chicken and beef broth. Despite these claims, each of these products gets 25% of its calories from fat. And "90% lean, 10% fat" ground beef actually gets 50% of its calories from fat. Well, at least that's better than the "80% lean" stuff, which is in reality over 2/3 fat.
  • Of course, many meat products don't have nutrition labels at all. Why? They would look terrible, so the meat lobby got them exempted. (Labeling of meat products is controlled by the Department of Agriculture ("DOA"), and isn't subject to the FDA labeling requirements.) "It's not a bribe, Mr. Congressperson—just think of it as a tip."
  • Dairy content is another area that seems to spawn food label lies. On the Coffee Mate coffee creamer label it says, "This is a non-dairy product." Under "ingredients" on the very same label it lists "sodium caseinate (a milk derivative)." How do you suppose they define "dairy?" Of course the other "non-dairy creamers" lie on their labels too.
  • If you want food labels that are both misleading and dumb, check out Hormel Pig's Feet and Cedar Springs leg of lamb, both of which advertise themselves as "semi-boneless." What does that mean, anyway? Wouldn't it be more honest just to admit that they contain hunks of fibula and/or a few toe bones carefully hidden inside?
  • My prize for dumbest misleading label, though, goes to Herb Ox Vegetable Bouillon Cubes. Among its ingredients is "fat flavor" (mmmm!), which, in turn, contains "partially hydrogenated corn oil" and "flavor." Gee, that's informative.
  • Of course, misleading food claims are not confined to product labels. Indeed, restaurant menus can be some of the worst offenders. How many gazillion times do non-vegetarian dishes show up in the "vegetarian" section of the menu? How many gazillion times do they forget to mention the cheese or chicken broth or worse in menu descriptions?
  • Sometimes restaurant lies even carry over to their national advertising. For example, the restaurant chain Chili's incessantly advertises "baby back ribs." Despite this depraved-yet-enticing claim, clearly intended to raise images of cannibalism, I have it on good authority that there are no actual babies in these ribs at all. Instead, they are made with dead animal parts, just like all their other menu items. (Jonathan Swift and Jeffrey Dahmer, eat your hearts out.)
  • Of course the mother of all food label lies is found on your friendly neighborhood carton of cow's milk. Milk labeled as "2%" really gets 34% of its calories from fat. The reason the dairy people lie and call it "2% fat" is that they sell more milk if people mistakenly believe it is a low-fat product rather than a high-fat product. Simple? Yes. Blatant frauds on the consumer? Absolutely!


    What I want to know is, where is our government in all of this? The folks in Washington have been strangely silent. Have the FDA, DOA and Congress all sold out to the meat and dairy and Coffee Mate lobbies, or is it that they just don't care very much? And if they don't care, why not? Why pass labeling laws in the first place if you are going to ignore noncompliance?

    Maybe it's time we took matters into our own hands. Hindus are already suing McDonald's over their fraudulent claims about "beef" in their fries. Maybe it's time we stand up to the other lies too. If only Jonathan and Jeffrey were here to sue the Chili's folks over the "baby back ribs" scandal, I'd support them in a minute. It just seems like the right thing to do.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Keeping in Touch with Old Friends

I was at the shopping mall last Saturday when I ran into my old friend Nancy coming out of the Home Décor Barn. It was great to see her again.

"How are you?" she asked me right away. "I haven't seen you in ages. Not since Ted's party last year!"

"I think you're right," I answered. "It's certainly been awhile, that's for sure. How's old Ted doing anyway? Is he still working hard in the vegetarian movement?"

A troubled look came over her face. "Not anymore."

"But he seemed so committed," I said. "What happened?"

"I think that vegetarian group he was working with finally broke up. You know, for years they had to deal with the friction between the snobby ethical vegans and the health-conscious crowd promoting Omega-3 supplements. That took its toll on everyone, but I think the final straw was when they couldn't agree on the background colors for their web site."

"Gee, that's too bad," I said. "But I suppose those things are important. Is Ted's wife still in the environmental movement?"

"No, her environmental group had a big falling out with his former vegetarian group over the animal testing issue. It was really ugly. I think both she and Ted are devoting all their time to their Amway franchise now. That's something they can both agree on."

"I see. Well, what about all those animal rights people you and Ted used to work with?"

"You mean the P.E.T.A.X group?

"Yes, that's it."

"Oh, they had troubles of their own. Nobody ever got along in that group. First the people advocating full legal rights for animals broke off to form B.A.R.K., then the animal welfare people left to form M.E.O.W. Finally the cat-and-dog crowd started their own group called P.E.T.S. …And I just heard that there was another rift in B.A.R.K. between the folks who believe in civil disobedience and those who don't, so that group split into Y.I.P. and Y.O.W.L." Nancy shook her head, as if it was all too much to keep track of.

"Well," I said, trying to look on the bright side, "at least there will be lots of local groups that can be represented at the big annual rally next month."

"Don't count on it," Nancy cautioned. "First there was a big fight over which group was going to sponsor the rally and get to put up its signs, then Y.O.W.L. accused Y.I.P. of being infiltrators from the Department of Homeland Security, and finally P.E.T.S. insisted on bringing food for their dogs from the company M.E.O.W. was boycotting. In the end they all decided it was too much trouble and canceled the rally."

"Gosh, that's too bad," I said. "It sounds like a lot of people are leaving the movement."

Nancy sighed. "It's hard working for causes that are ignored by most of society. It gets you down after awhile. Sometimes I feel we're just like those poor birds in the battery cages—we have no power against our real enemies, so we start pecking at each other."

I nodded sadly. "Well, at least you're still pushing ahead, Nancy."

She gave me a sheepish grin. "You know, I've kind of moved away from vegetarianism myself," she said. "The high-protein movement is where the action is now. The Atkins people are spending $10 million, and bringing 70,000 people to town for a convention next week. It should be very exciting. Heck, the vegetarians could never do anything like that. …And how about you? Are you still writing that silly column?"

"Yes," I answered, a little embarrassed. "I haven't had time for much else though. You know how busy life is, what with following the bombings in the Middle East and the last episode of Friends and all."

"Sure," she said. "Well, we should get together sometime. …Plan a march or something."

I told her that would be great, and we said our goodbyes. As I walked away I thought for a moment how much fun it might be to get the old gang together and do something to change the world. Then I remembered that I had a lot on my calendar the next few days—a dentist appointment, dinner plans, some yard work that I'd been putting off. Maybe in the fall, I thought. Yes, that was it. In the fall when everyone had more time we could pull it all back together. We'd save the world then.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Interview

After all the years that On or Off the Mark has been in print, two questions keep coming back to me: "What do meat-eaters think of all this?" and "Why the heck can't someone else write this column?" Inquiring readers want to know.

We'll address both of these questions with today's interview. Here with me in the studio is Stephen Hess, an accomplished writer who is also a trial attorney and stage performer (not that these are necessarily different things). Stephen has the unique perspective of being both a meat-eater and (unlike most of the "people" who appear here) a real human being. Honest! Stephen is one of the funniest people I know, and he's even agreed to write the questions for his interview. Boy, this is easy. All I have to do is sit back and watch!

FLV (Flaming liberal vegetarian): Stephen, every once in a while our readers like to hear how you carnivores think.

PCM (Perfectly contented meat eater): Great!

FLV:    It's a refreshing reminder of the moral superiority of our diets.

PCM:    Hmmm…

FLV:    You worked your way through college as a meat cutter. Did you ever have to do anything that was disgusting even to you?

PCM:    We had "bone barrels" for collecting bones, bone dust from the saws, fat, and anything else we couldn't package in a commercial form. A stubby little guy from the Philadelphia Leather Company came by and bought our cutting waste, and whoever had torqued the meat manager off the worst that week got stuck cleaning the bone barrels. It was understood that you shouldn't go on a date the night you had to clean the bone barrels.

FLV:    Anything else you remember from that experience?

PCM:    Well, every once in a while we would cut into a pork loin and find some unpleasant growth there.

FLV:    That's truly disgusting, Stephen. Yet with perfect equanimity you just went on eating meat?

PCM:    Why thank you Mark, I have always taken pride in my equanimity. But I don't buy this "too disgusting to eat" argument. After all, disgust isn't a meaningful criterion even in your diet, is it? I assume you eat mushrooms knowing full well how they are grown. You just don't think about it when you are eating. And tell me half of your dishes don't look like someone already ate them once.

FLV:     That mushroom never screamed before I harvested it, though.

PCM:     Neither did the cow. In fact, he (she?) literally didn't know what hit him (her?). It was certainly quicker and less painful than cramming braces on some poor little girl's teeth for four years just so her smile will be prettier. Besides, I don't think those cows that produce the milk you drink live "happier" lives—whatever that means to a cow—before they visit Mr. Stubby from Philadelphia.

FLV:    Don't look at me! I agree, and for that reason (and a bunch of others) I am a "Vegan"—I don't drink milk or use any animal products.

PCM:    No animal products? No wonder you and Spock and all the rest of you Vegans have green blood. You need iron from animals to keep your blood red.

FLV:    There are plenty of sources of iron besides red meat. Also, Spock was a Vulcan, not a Vegan, and Star Trek was science fiction. If you are going to insult us, at least have the courtesy to get your terms straight.

PCM:    Sorry, Mark. But seriously, it's your own fault—you guys have made vegetarianism impossible to talk about anyway. You see, if you haven't studied vegetarianism carefully (as I have), visiting a health food store is like walking onto the set of a martial arts movie. "You know, I have a black belt in Tofu. I studied under Master Tempeh in Seitan." It would be a lot easier to understand if you gave all those foods meaningful names so we didn't have to guess what we'd be eating.

FLV:    Let me guess, you were just about to tell me…

PCM:    As a matter of fact, I was. Why don't you just call tofu "that mushy soy stuff," and call tempeh "that other mushy stuff with chunks," and call seitan "that mushy wheat stuff," and call seppuku "that really yucky soy stuff."

FLV:    First, I personally believe that truth in advertising in the food business pretty much died with "head cheese," and "blood pudding," and "kidney pie." Second, seppuku isn't a vegetarian food. It's a form of ritualistic suicide practiced by the samurai. Come to think of it, eating meat regularly is a form of ritualistic suicide in its own way, except that it takes longer.

PCM:    Well, as they say, good health is merely the slowest form of death. What's your motto, anyway? "You are what you eat; I think I'll eat a vegetable."

FLV:    Very funny, "meathead." But let's leave the personal insults aside for just a minute. And let's forget disgust and animal abuse for a minute since you don't seem to care about them. But I assume that even you recognize moral obligations to your fellow man…

PCM:     C'mon, Mark, do you expect me to believe that if I give up a pound of meat this week we could tweak our food production to support thirty or forty billion people on this planet and even save enough land for an Afro-Disney? Anyway, we'd run out of potable water, waste disposal, shelter, and satellite dishes well before then. Give me a hamburger!

[At this point the interview ended abruptly. From the videotapes it wasn't clear whether the vegetarian or meat-eater threw the first punch.]