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 D├ęcor 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.]