Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Far Wall

Warning: This is a venting post. :) While I outline some graphic things in paragraph eight, it's quick. Like pulling off a bandaid.

Last Friday, we took our three third-grade classes to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as the culmination of a interdisciplinary study of artist biographies. It was a wonderful trip, pulled together by our astonishingly dedicated art teacher, who inspires our students to such a degree that they rattle off the names of famous artists and their well-known works, not with the dull flat tones of memorization, but with real adoration and love in their voices.

I was shadowing one of our chaperoned groups around, and noticed that towards the end of our time  the kids were starting to get tired and hungry. We only had about ten more minutes to go, so I decided to distract them a bit with a fun exercise. I led three of the students towards a large painting and asked them what it was.  They remarked that it was a bunch of different colored circles in a kind of modern design. I asked them to turn their backs to the painting and to walk seven big steps away from it towards the opposite wall. They did so and turned around. "Hey!" one of them said, surprised, "It looks like a man's head!" We took seven more steps away and then seven more and by the time we reached the opposite wall, they were delighted to see that the painting from far away was a very detailed image of a bespectacled man. So detailed and clear, in fact, that it looked like a photograph.

Which leads to my topic/rant today, though you'll have to stay with me to the end to see the connection. :)

So I'm just going to lay this on the table, as it's something I've been butting up against a lot lately. As positive and happy as I am to be vegan (and astonished at how easy it really is) I do have days when I get completely frustrated with people. It's not the questions I mind -- I welcome those with open arms, as people who ask questions are genuinely very curious and want to know more. I actually love engaging in dialog and welcome a respectful debate any time.

But I feel that as much as I want people to see veganism as a positive, wonderful way to live (which it it has been for me and so many others), there are hard moments. These moments have nothing to do with any cravings for meat, dairy, or eggs (don't miss 'em at all.) And eating out isn't a bother; there are plenty of wonderful restaurants that have a wide breadth of mouthwatering vegan food. 

It's the eye-rolling about veganism and the declarations of how extreme it is that really really rub me the wrong way. It's almost viewed by some as a bland way of life, led by militant, humorless hippies. Usually, I'm very understanding, knowing that only one year ago, I was unaware of the plight of what so many animals go through. But I guess it's that word "extreme" that is so casually touted that bugs me. While I never thought I'd go vegan, I never made fun of vegans or vegetarians. I was kind of fascinated by them and very curious. I was one of those incessant-question-askers, wondering what it was like to eat that way and wary of how one could get an adequate supply of protein and nutrients.

And now I've come to see that veganism is not extreme. It's just a way of eating that hurts as few beings as possible. The food is delicious and you end up feeling better. You might need to do a little homework to learn some new tricks in the kitchen, but it's really quite uncomplicated once you get started. Now that I use flax seed in baking, for example, I could never fathom going back to eggs, with their slimy texture and limited shelf-life. (One never forgets cracking open a rotten egg. Ugh.)  Even if drinking cows' milk did not hurt cows, I'd never go back to it. Almond milk (and other plant-based milks) last so much longer and I don't have to constantly sniff them to make sure they haven't gone sour.

What is extreme to me is what happens to the animals who are killed for our food: how they are dismembered often while they are still alive and kicking. It is extreme to see them watch their own legs being cut off of them and their skin pulled off. (I know it's tough to read that, but this is what lies behind the neat, shrink-wrapped cuts of meat that you find waiting for you in the supermarket.) It is extreme to see what happens to the sheep who have their wool and skins (hello Uggs) harvested and who make a ridiculously awful trip from Australia to Middle Eastern countries by ship to be slaughtered. It is extreme to see that down does not typically come from dead birds but is pulled from the skins of birds who are alive, as it makes for higher quality feathers. Pigs swimming in scalding hot water, when they are supposed to already be dead? Extreme. And common.

And it is extreme to me that most people can make jokes about animals being killed and can laugh about veganism, and yet be the first ones to hold up their hands and say huffily that they "don't want to know about it." The denial of not wanting to know where our food comes from is extreme. Recently, I rewatched a television special by a comic I admire, Jim Gaffigan, and was really taken aback when he made jokes about eating animals. I had not noticed it in my first viewing, when I was eating meat. He states, "Don't get me wrong. I love animals. I just love eating them more." I'd be willing to bet he'd pass on watching what actually happens to the animal before it gets to his plate. Most people would.

Being in that much denial seems very extreme to me.

I don't see myself as a lily-white example of a perfect and well-informed person. I understand the denial, having tried to convince myself for years that consuming organic milk, cage-free eggs, and humanely-raised meat from Whole Foods was doing the animals a favor.

But this strange way of detaching myself from what was really going on didn't hit home with me until I walked far enough away that I could see the big picture properly from a distance. From close up, we can't see how weird we've gotten with our relationship to animals. But as you slowly back away, you start to see things come into focus. That drinking the food meant for a calf is bizarre. That adoring your dog but declaring your undying love for bacon (and yet not wanting to hear or see what that pig went through to get to your plate) is so subjective and disturbing. That, wow, I never thought about what happened to the male chicks in hatcheries, but it seems like a glaring omission on our view of these pastoral "cage-free" farms. Of course they are killed. And ruthlessly.

I've been vegan now for about ten months and am now standing at that far wall, looking back and thinking "How could I have missed all this?"

So when somebody eats their cheeseburger or takes a slice of Thanksgiving turkey and looks at me sideways, saying, "Isn't veganism a bit extreme?" it makes me sad. Not for me. (Well, maybe for me a tiny bit. The need to feel like one belongs is strong.) But for all the animals who are conveniently hidden away and who are treated in the extreme with cruelty. I wish the people who make those remarks would be willing to take just seven steps from that wall and actually see the reality and not the illusion. I wish they would be willing to look at things in a different way. And perhaps be brave enough to go to the opposite wall and see things as they really are, crystal clear.

I know we'll get there someday. In the past year alone, many abuses of animals have come to light and people are starting to wake up. And I often feel guilty when I get frustrated, both because I was very recently a person in denial and because the frustration I occasionally feel is nothing compared to what these animals endure.

Social change is never neat and tidy. And the people who initiate it are often viewed as extreme, when later generations ponder, "What were those other people thinking??"

I guess, when I think about it, that's what this blog is really all about. Teacher that I am at heart, I want to gently guide others to the other side of the wall so that they can actually see what is happening. And then make the change.

So to leave this ranting post on a positive note, I'll end with a very uplifting song/video: Michael Jackson's song, Man in the Mirror.

Thanks for reading/listening. Sometimes you just gotta' rant.


  1. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what I feel. I, too, have recently made the transition to vegan and am never looking back. I found your blog this morning and have read every word since you started. You are an inspiration.

  2. Well written Katrina. We are getting away from mass produced everything. I have to say that raising our own chickens has been great for us. The kids love being involved in our own food production, mostly eggs, but a few roosters got to aggressive and are downstairs in the freezer. Their value with keeping insects at bay, particularly ticks can not be understated. Man has a long relationship with these animals. I compare our chickens to staring at a campfire, the relationship is almost as old. My oldest boy rushed the head count a few days ago during a cold snap and we lost 3 hens to a fox. He was very disappointed in himself, but he learned an important, old school lesson about responsibility. I'm not ready to go Vegan, but I share your disdain for the mass production of meat. We are taking an old school approach, to make sure our kids have a firm understanding of where their food comes from. Next up is pigs. We produce so much edible scrap at the store it seems like a logicle next step. Plus their natural habits are wonderful for preparing forest to be field once again. I do appreciate your view. Did you know a farm fresh egg can keep 6 months in a cool dry place?

  3. Thanks for the kind words, Edward! I'm thrilled to have a new vegan buddy out there!

    Thank you too Mark! Coming from a published author, that means a lot! :)

    Nope-- I did not know that farm fresh eggs can keep for that long. I've long lost my taste for eggs and won't be going back, but I get why you so enjoy having the chickens. Before Ry and I went vegan, we'd been thinking of getting our own chickens but then changed our minds when we saw how much money and work it would be to keep them. (Knowing you, you've probably figured out a simple and economic way to house and feed them. I seem to lack that basic know-how, just from lack of experience in building things.) But then I learned about the hatcheries for egg-laying hens and mail-order chicks and how most male chicks are macerated/gassed/bagged and I was done. I'm sure that there exist places that don't do away with the males, but I haven't discovered one yet. Someday, though, I'd love to have rescued hens and turkeys, just to give them a place to live out their lives. If the hens laid eggs, I'd just give the eggs to neighbors. Though I don't know if housing outside birds is doable in a suburban neighborhood like ours. I've never checked the zoning laws.

    Anyway, I applaud your pulling away from mass produced food. It can be a challenge at times, though clearly not an insurmountable one. Even when I buy my vegetables at the market in the winter, I'm often dismayed to find how far those veggies have traveled to get to Massachusetts. Though emerging winter farmers markets are starting to change that.

    Regarding the animals and our relationship with them, here's where I see a big difference between our ways of thinking. (And correct me if I've read your views incorrectly.) To most people, animals are viewed as being here to serve humans in some capacity. This has been going on, as you mention, for a very long time. But to my mind, they are not here for us. They are here for them. Many people explain that it is a reciprocal relationship: we take care of the animals and protect them from outside threats, and they benefit from that protection and eventually give their lives to us so we can eat/wear their bodies. But they are forced into that relationship; it's not something they entered into willingly. Just like human animals, they want to live and will fight to stay alive.

    Going back to the point that man has been benefiting from animals for ages: just because something has been done for a long time doesn't make it right. Enslaving other humans has been going on for thousands of years, but recently we've evolved to the point to see that this is wrong. Women in many cultures have been treated as second class citizens since mankind entered the picture, but we're evolving from that view as well. (And I don't mind comparing human situations to those of animals. We're all animals - a fact we as a species seem to conveniently forget.) I think we need to look ahead to how we can evolve to live kindly and peacefully and not look backward. (I just reread that last sentence and it sounds so hokey and kumbayah, but I can't think of a non-hokey way to say it.)

    I'm really glad you wrote, because I think this kind of dialog is incredibly important to have. And you (like my brother-in-law Eric, whom you've chatted with on facebook) think more deeply on these issues than so many people, who get upset even thinking about it. (Which is understandable. It is upsetting.)

  4. Great post Katrina! I was thinking about this while cooking breakfast this morning. I made vegan biscuits and gravy and the person who taught me how to make this in the first place is my vegan nemesis - the one who pokes at me and questions me (not in a curious way, but in a combative way)until I lose it, which as you know, is pretty rare for me. It can be tough to remain patient and compassionate toward humans sometimes :) I always love your blog - keep it coming!

  5. Thanks, Tracy! Yes - I don't think I've ever seen you lose it. Ever. Wow. I almost want to see it, for pure entertainment value. :) (Just kidding ... I'd hate to see you upset.) Thanks for all your encouragement, by the way.