Saturday, January 30, 2010

Teenagers Poisoning Themselves (…and other things society considers “cool”)

The two teenagers in front of me in the checkout line must have been hungry. They stood there looking out of place—scruffy facial hair, untucked shirts, hands in the pockets of their baggy jeans—until they reached the front of the line and started pulling things out of their cart. A twelve-pack of Mountain Dew, two loaves of Wonder Bread, lots of American cheese, mayonnaise, a jar of Velveeta…

I stood there with my asparagus, green pepper and potatoes, feeling more horrified with each thing they put on the conveyor. "No meat?" I wondered. "They must be buying meat, too." Sure enough, a second later the teenagers fished several packages of luncheon meats out of the bottom of their cart. (Funny how we can predict these things, huh?)

My first reaction on seeing these kids was to wonder how they could survive—how anyone could survive—on such a diet, even for one day. No fruits, no vegetables, no whole grains. What would these people look like in 30 years? Would they even live another 30 years? Shouldn't there be a law against destroying healthy young bodies?

Then I remembered what my diet was like when I was a teenager. I lived for fast food. When I "cooked" it was most likely a box of Kraft macaroni and cheese—add a couple of hot dogs and extra cheese, please. And what point was there in buying anything smaller than half a gallon of ice cream?

One Saturday a buddy and I decided to take a long hike down the railroad tracks. (I'm pretty sure this event was the inspiration for the Stephen King book and movie Stand by Me, but I digress.) What did we take to sustain us on our arduous journey? Vienna sausage, of course. Lots of those tiny cans of Vienna sausage.

When you think about it, it isn't surprising that teenagers have terrible diets. First they start with the terrible diets of their parents. Add to that, years of fast-food "Happy Meals" (i.e., being rewarded with toys for eating things that are bad for them), a decade of dreadful school lunches planned to appease the meat and dairy lobbies, and thousands of hours of celebrity-laden TV ads for processed foods loaded with fat and sugar. It's small wonder that when teens start shopping for themselves, the things that go into their grocery carts are pretty darned toxic. It's small wonder that each generation of teenagers eats a little worse than the previous one.

Of course, when you think you're going to live forever, unhealthy things are "cool." (I love that word; it was even "cool" when I was a kid!) Things advertised by the latest celebrities, especially with tie-ins to big sports events and movies, are "cool" too. Somehow, carrots and grapefruits just don't have quite the same pizzazz.

It doesn't have to be this way. I'm convinced that with a little creativity there are some things we can do to reverse this trend and make vegetarianism even "cooler" than eating the toxic stuff. Of course that means delving into the "popest" of pop culture and, in some instances, catering to the most vile and decadent of human desires. (Hey, isn't that what advertising is all about?) If we're willing to so delve and cater, here are my suggestions:

  • Make the Nike "swoosh" the first letter of "vegetarian." (Then the slogan "just do it" might really mean something!)
  • Convince Britney Spears to abstain from meat rather than sex.
  • Hire Michael Jordan to do a banana commercial.
  • Hire Mike Tyson to advertise for Tyson Foods.
  • Find anti-vegetarian literature in an al Qaeda cave.
  • Make the contestants on Survivor eat Brussels sprouts.
  • Have John McDougall beat up Robert Atkins in a special pay-per-view grudge match sponsored by the World Wrestling Federation.
  • Give out "Bobble-head Gandhi" dolls with the purchase of a Veggie Whopper at Burger King.
  • Get to kids early with a Sesame Street character named Freddy Fiber, who takes an imaginary journey through their intestines and teaches good colonic hygiene.
  • Make lima beans an official sponsor of the annual Sturgis Harley-Davidson rally.
  • Have Steven Spielberg make the blockbuster film Geriatric Park, about vegetarian octogenarians who terrorize meat-eaters visiting their retirement home.
  • Have Steven Spielberg make the blockbuster film Groceries' List, about adorable vegetarian dinosaurs held in an alien concentration camp in space.
  • Develop action games for Nintendo, Xbox and PlayStation featuring our favorite vegetarian superhero, the Veggie Avenger.
  • Launch a massive advertising campaign emphasizing that "vegetarian food comes from plants—just like tobacco and beer!"
  • Package broccoli in cigarette cartons.
  • Print and distribute millions of bumper stickers that say, "Vegetarians have inner peas."
  • Open "Weed Eaters," a franchised chain of drive-through salad bar restaurants.

    Yeah, in the great scheme of things I'm convinced that vegetarianism (and even we stuffy vegetarians!) can be as "cool" as we want. All it will take is a slight moral compromise, huge amounts of money, and the right public relations people.

    Maybe the first thing we should do is hire those two kids from the grocery store line as technical consultants.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Putting the “Carne” Back Into Reincarnation

Could there be a meat-eater in your future? Could it be you?

I just finished reading a book about an incredible young woman who, under hypnosis, can remember in intimate detail many of her 86 past lives. Wow! I can't even remember what happened yesterday.

The book, Many Lives, Many Masters, was written by the woman's psychiatrist Brian L. Weiss, and he thought it would be "comforting" for people to know that their soul lives on after death through reincarnation. According to the author (and his patient) we learn new lessons in each of our lives. In between, we hang out for a while in a murky spiritual world with a bunch of old dudes called "Masters," who spout off helpful platitudes of new-age wisdom. When we've finally learned enough, we move on to the next "level," wherever and whatever that may be.

Well I, for one, am not particularly "comforted" by this idea of reincarnation. The idea of suffering through 85 or so more lives sounds pretty darned tedious. (I've been awfully lucky in this life, and I figure the odds won't be so good in the future.) Dying that many times doesn't hold a lot of appeal to me either. (Like Woody Allen, I don't mind dying; I just don't want to be there when it happens.) And then there's that one awful, nagging question: Suppose I come back as a meat-eater?!

I know a number of people who strongly believe in reincarnation. A few of them have even told me that, because of my ethical veganism, I must already be at an advanced stage—nearly ready to move on to that coveted next "level."

These people obviously don't know me very well. In reality, I feel more like Albert Brooks' character in the terrific movie about reincarnation, Defending Your Life. Like him, I'm filled with neurotic fears and anxieties, and much more likely, I think, to be kicked out of the universe entirely than to be promoted to any higher plane. With my luck, I'm destined to spend my next 85 lives as a slaughterhouse worker, or the dorky kid with the bad acne behind the counter of the local hamburger joint. Doesn't that sound delightful!

Okay, I shouldn't make fun of anyone in the meat industry here, because maybe—just maybe—it wouldn't be so bad to be reincarnated as a meat-eater. Indeed, I've spoken with many ethical vegetarians who have said—not entirely in jest—that they wished they could be like everyone else and "not get" the connection between meat-eating and disease, suffering and environmental degradation. Maybe reincarnation is a way to do that. Maybe as we learn more from our past lives and from the "Masters," we'll lead our future lives blissfully chomping down corn-dogs without a concern in the world. And maybe, after a few lives of that, we'll then move on to the next "level," where we'll all be rewarded by being able to eat as much meat as we want without ever getting heart disease, or even fat.

I hope reincarnation doesn't really happen. After I die, I'd much rather go live on a cloud somewhere for eternity, playing golf with St. Peter and having someone serve me peeled grapes and single-malt Scotch. If reincarnation does happen, though, vegetarians should fare pretty well. I think there's a darned good chance that one of those things we have to learn before we can move forward is that eating by the Golden Rule will take us to a higher spiritual place. I hope we vegetarians have already learned that lesson in this lifetime.

If I'm reincarnated, I want to go to a world where we get our energy directly from the nearest star and our nutrients directly from the ground, without having to kill anything for "food." If that doesn't work, I want my next life to be way out in the future, when everyone has decided to adopt a vegan diet and they've finally stopped showing reruns of Friends. If I can't have either of those choices, I guess I'll have to give in to the forces of the universe. In that case, I want to be a dog living in some gorgeous mansion in Beverly Hills. I'll sleep most of the day, be lazy all the time, and scarf down scraps of ham and roast beef from the table. Yeah, I'll be a meat-eater, but that's okay. The "Masters" will be happy, and at least I won't know the difference.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

It’s an Odd World Out There

The other day a friend of mine pointed out that we humans spend most of our lives trying to make sense out of things that defy rationalization. It's our little way of trying to assert some control over our inherently uncontrollable lives. I'd never thought about it that way before, but I guess I have to agree. The need to make sense of things would seem to explain everything from science to Hollywood's happy endings.

Of course nothing makes less sense, and defies rationalization more, than the world of animal agriculture and meat eating. The craziness of it, and the way we vegetarians relate to it, never ceases to amaze me. Here are some of the things I've seen in the last few weeks that have left me dumbfounded.

If we call it "organic" it's sure to sell

In a move that is sure to take the motoring world by storm, the automaker Audi has announced that all the leather they use in their cars is "organically tanned." But what does that mean, exactly? Do they just put their leather seats out in the sun? Is "organically-tanned" leather supposed to be safer or more environmentally-friendly than the pesticide-laden leather other car makers presumably use? Wouldn't Audi's efforts be better spent just making cars that get decent gas mileage? If automobiles are going "organic," will microwave ovens and toilet paper be next?

If we call it "free-range" it's sure to sell

In North Carolina, money from the tobacco settlement is funding the raising of "free range pork." I'm not sure what the connection is between tobacco and meat (other than they are both unhealthy and addictive as all get out), but I suppose one good vice always supports another. In any event, farmers say that consumers prefer the taste of this meat because of greater "intramuscular fat" than on factory-farmed animals.

It should be noted that these are rich farmers. Supposedly, demand for the "free range pork" is so strong they can make a profit of $2,200 per hog. (Wow! I somehow don't think their primary motivation here is ethical.) There's a lot more money to be made in meat than in tobacco these days.

Just in time for the summer barbecue season

Ingrid Newkirk, the president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, has drawn up a most unusual will. Upon her death she asks that her flesh be barbecued and her skin used to make leather products, all in protest of the way humans treat animals. She also wants her liver to be vacuum-packed and sent to France as a foie gras protest, and her feet to be removed and made into umbrella stands in a mockery of what we do to elephants.

I personally think Ms. Newkirk's plan is incredibly imaginative and fun. (While I'll pass on the barbecue, I'd be proud to have one of her feet next to my front door!) But I just can't imagine stuffy meat-eaters and other animal abusers appreciating the humor in this. I can just see Mr. Meat-Eater now, rolling his eyes when he reads about this at breakfast. ("Look at this Marge…another one of those animal rights fanatics wants to be an umbrella stand.")

Maybe we should all have wills like this. I'm sure Hormel would be delighted to get into the human "foie gras" business—especially if it's as profitable as "free range pork."

Mad dogs and Canadians

Canada's discovery of its first cow infected with mad cow disease made big headlines, got plenty of TV news coverage, and sent many US stocks tumbling. The Canadian government made extraordinary efforts to ensure that the public's food supply wouldn't be tainted. Unfortunately, the governmental bureaucracy was no match for the profit-hungry meat industry. Would this "downer of all downer" cows go to waste instead of profit? No! The cow was "processed" into dog food that was subsequently shipped to the United States.

Things we don't need science to explain

Signaling a major step forward in the advancement of human knowledge, a study at Edinburgh University and the neighboring Roslin Institute subjected fish to bee stings on their lips and concluded that fish can experience pain. While animal rights supporters found this conclusion to be rather obvious (Well, duh!), fisherpersons "carped" at the idea. A biologist for Britain's National Angling Alliance expressed the opinion that fish "literally do not have the brains" to feel pain. (A spokesfish for the test subjects countered that anyone who thinks it's fun to stand for hours waist-deep in a freezing stream doesn't have the brains a fish is born with.)

It's what we say, not what we do, that counts

Yogurt and ice cream maker Stonyfield Farm advertises that it "celebrates strong women." Next fall it is sponsoring the "Strong Woman Summit" with celebrities like Erin Brockovich. When the irony was pointed out to the Stonyfield farmers that their products only exist because of the rape of females of another species, they declined to comment. Surprise, surprise.

It's a strange world out there, and nobody's explaining it.