Forty years ago today, March 1, 1973 I became a vegetarian. I was 16. There was no glorious last supper before my truce-ifixion with non-human beings – my farewell to flesh was a leftover bologna sandwich.
I had been thinking about becoming a vegetarian for awhile and decided that I would tie it in with the March 1-7 nationwide boycott of meat because of high prices. In the radical whirlwind of the early 1970s it wasn’t unthinkable for meat eaters to join collectively, deny themselves gustatory pleasure for a week and try to effect change. (Roe v. Wade had just overturned state abortion laws and the American Indian Movement was occupying Wounded Knee. Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon appeared and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In exited. That May Day 1.6 million British workers engaged in a one day strike against government austerity measures. Think we’ll get that many on the street against Obama’s upcoming austerity measures? I bet the NAACP will lead the protest!) Today, Americans accept living like peasants because we are allowed to eat like kings, feasting on rich animal-based foods 21 times or more a week – and we’ve got the obesity, heart disease, diabetes and health bills to prove it.
Because of my mother, animals were seen as fascinating and being able to help them was a blessing. Despite that, we weren’t vegetarians and the “issue” of eating animals never came up. (Mom was even a vegetarian for awhile in her teens and her father was a longtime vegetarian in the 1940s and 1950s. He died when I was very young and I only have one memory of his presence: When I was three — and probably in a sugar cookie-fueled frenzy — he let me wrap and tie up every object in the living room and dining room with balls of string, every chair and table leg, the bookshelves, the couch, the banister post leading up the stairs, one giant crazy web that took hours to make. When my mother came home from work she wondered what the hell was going on because it was impossible to walk. She told me later — I didn’t remember — that he said, ”It’s OK, he’s using his creativity.”) At one point as a child, I thought hamburgers were laid like eggs or meat was shit that somebody doctored up for human consumption. My mother tried to get me to eat a variety of foods but if I didn’t like something I’d wait till she left the kitchen and then throw it in the trash, later telling her how great it was. Sometimes I’d outsmart myself and she’d give me more and then I’d have to dump it twice or, worse, eat it — I especially hated these “draws.” The thing that I threw away the fastest was pork chops. Being a culinary artist came very natural for me: when I was trusted enough to use the oven I’d throw a few hot dogs under the broiler till they ripped open and turned black on the outside. Then I’d toast the buns, slather them with peanut butter, add the ripped black hot dogs and feast away — what the yum!
I was the only vegetarian I knew. I think I lived on peanut butter sandwiches, canned peas and Kraft macaroni and cheese for the next five years. I didn’t know a damned thing about health (who does at invincible 16?) Somebody could have told me I was gonna die but it didn’t matter — I wasn’t participating in meat eating anymore. So, it’s five years later and I’m a lacto-ovo vegetarian, happily ensconced in the land of milk and honey, thinking my ethical work is done here…I’m working the night shift at a hospital, I’m 21 now, I’m sitting in the kitchen on my lunch break and I’m powering down those single serving (huh?) hospital ice creams, I’ve got a giant mess of them on the table, all vanilla… Flashback: God how I loved vanilla ice cream, I’d dump a half gallon of vanilla ice cream in the biggest bowl we had in the house, a bowl that I didn’t know why we had because it was only ever used for my vanilla ice cream epics and I’d decorate that white monolith with as many Chips Ahoy chocolate chip cookies as it took to eat both of them in sweet harmony, I was the cookie jeweler breaking them up in halves and quarters and eighths with my spoon and it always, perfectly evenly Edenly, took the entire bag and that was my idea of an after school snack… But back to the hospital: I’m reading Peter Singer’s book, Animal Liberation, where he talks about egg production and veal calves and the dairy industry, and I looked at that collection of empty ice cream cups and said to them: “Well, that it’s for you.” Except for being unintentionally snookered by servers at restaurants two times about dairy and once about chicken fat in rice, I haven’t had an animal product since November 15, 1978 and it’s the best decision I ever made. Looking back on my excesses I’m reminded of Dr. John McDougall’s contention that moderation is bullshit and doesn’t work because humans are risk-taking creatures prone to excess and that, instead, our junkiedom should be embraced in the healthiest ways possible, whether it’s eating mountainous plates of brown rice, baked potatoes and vegetables or finding physical activities that we can be crazy about for our entire lives.
So what motivated me to take the plunge into vegetarianism? My mother created the right ethical conditions but it actually took the boom-boom gang to push me over the edge. The Hindus say that you teach Aries Rising children about gravity by letting them jump off the roof and that’s what had to happen to me. I had to be confronted and challenged and I had to feel it. As I was growing up I used to get into arguments with adult hunters, telling them how wrong and cruel they were and one of these guys had the presence of mind to tell me I was a hypocrite because I was eating animals, that I was paying someone down at the slaughterhouse to do the dirty work for me, but it was me killing them just the same. Even though I didn’t know anything about health and nutrition I immediately offered a bullshit defense about how hunting and meat eating were different and how we humans had to eat meat. To not change, to stave off the unwelcome prospect of having to change, to not face my hypocrisy, I was an instant Clarence Darrow. But the truth of what he said hit me strong, my internal compass was broken but it didn’t stop — it was spinning wildly: Holy fucking shit, I’m in spiritual trouble here even though I don’t believe in God. Here I was: a happy well-adjusted traitor to the human race but it turns out I’ve been doing wrong! And doing wrong to my holy of holies…The hunter made the salient point that I was just as low down and fucking worthless as he was! And he was content with it! He was happy about it! I was the one in crisis! After that, I shut my little big mouth for awhile and regrouped. At 16 I told my mother what I was doing and she was totally supportive. It was one more way that I was like my left wing piano-playing grandfather and she wished, as I, that he and I could have known each other. Within a few years, tiny expensive guerrilla pints of Vanilla Almond Bark Tofutti, sent from the Big Bad Apple, would infiltrate sleepy Springfield, Ohio and the resistance was secure. My mother followed me into vegetarianism and was a vegan for the last 20 years of her life.
Some ninnies think hunters should get some points for killing their own “food,” that it’s “less hypocritical.” Wrong. We don’t need more people who kill sentient beings. We don’t need destroyers, we need creators and healers. Give me your ethically tired, your hypocrites, your huddled weak-asses, your spiritually lazy who claim they are too sensitive and can’t bear to see the photos and films of the cruelty that they pay for and cause — give me these people because they’re actually much easier to reach and turn around than the ones who routinely get their hands bloody and inure themselves to violence and injustice, especially if money is involved. America is one giant monster-making machine, from school dissection to teaching kids to hunt, from spanking and bullying to 4-H where the tears of each bawling Judas are quickly dried up, dammed and hardened by filthy lucre, the child’s first experience of selling out their “friends” to be murdered, the alienation moment, their first betrayal of the first working class (non-humans) and what it “feels” like to grab a rung in the capitalist hierarchy. 4-H needs replaced by a new program of 4-Rs: rescue, rehabilitation, relocation and refuge.
Anyway…Thanks, hunters. Thanks to you confronting me about my hypocrisy, you set in motion the most worthwhile learning adventure in my life. From that gut reaction of me hating what you do and seeing that I was too close to you, I changed, and I learned to eat differently. Once vegan, I plunged into Middle Eastern, North African, Indian and Vietnamese cuisines. I eventually learned to cook, I learned how most of our agriculture isn’t for humans but for fattening up poor creatures who are Satanically brought into the world to suffer and be brutalized and terrorized and then hideously killed all for the sake of the crown of creation’s taste buds. Tell me how special and noble you are, again, O speciesist bigots! Tell me how you deserve life everlasting! Tell me how you ever showed elementary compassion for innocent creatures by refraining from eating them! Tell me how atrocities done to your pleading selves are not atrocities when done to the animal nations! I learned about deforestation, desertification, overgrazing, the welfare-rancher bums and their genocidal wars on wildlife. I read great books like Ivan Illich’s Medical Nemesis and learned how improvements in hygiene, nutrition and sanitation in the early part of the 20th century were more important to human health than all the treatments and “cures” ever concocted in labs. I learned that there were mini-Marxes walking among us in the fields of philosophy and nutrition, thinkers whose main points have never been refuted like Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights and the health writings of Dr. John McDougall. I wondered and looked at what the world’s religions had to say about animals when, previously, I didn’t give a damn about what they said about anything. I was voracious and indefatigable because that’s what the animals required to be their defender — their tormenters needed to be beat back everywhere: politically, intellectually, socially, culturally. I learned about the Dr. Frankensteins of the forests and fields, the “game managers” who manipulate wildlife habitat to produce ever greater numbers of animals to be shot by hunters and the other Dr. Frankensteins in the labs, performing superstitious rites in order to have “confidence” about releasing lucrative and usually harmful potions onto the world. You hunters turned a kid who hated being called on in class into a debater, a campaigner, a picketer, an organizer, a legislation testifier, a cruelty documenter, a hunt saboteur and a consultant to cities, colleges and commercial real estate owners about how to pigeon-proof buildings (yeah, you never know where things will lead.) Way to go, guys! I didn’t get a chance to thank you back in the 70s, so I’m doing it now.
Today’s veggie birthday missive will fly away on the wings of Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being which came out in 1984, the feverish heyday of the animal lib movement. Or maybe it will be like a bird shitting on your head. The movie version of this astoundingly original and beautiful book didn’t have the guts to include how the death of a dog affects the main characters’ lives or Kundera’s powerful meditation on non-human beings in general. But a spoil sportsman like me is never gonna let you forget it:
There is no certainty that God actually did grant man dominion over other creatures. What seems more likely, in fact, is that man invented God to sanctify the dominion that he had usurped for himself over the cow and the horse. Yes, the right to kill a deer or a cow is the only thing all of mankind can agree upon, even during the bloodiest of wars.
True human goodness, in all its purity and freedom, can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test, its fundamental test (which lies deeply buried from view), consists of its attitude toward those who are at its mercy: animals. And in this respect mankind has suffered a fundamental debacle, a debacle so fundamental that all others stem from it.