Friday, October 7, 2011

Good Guys Vs. Bad Guys: Vegetarians and Omnivores

I'd like to start regularly blogging different topics built around the same theme: Good Guys and Bad Guys exist only in fiction.

It's the main theme of my unpublished novel I've been trying to sling to literary agents lately. You know how when something's on your mind it seems like everything you encounter reminds you of it? It's usually pretty trivial stuff, like when you sell your car because you think it's a pos about to fall apart and then notice the same make and model driving around everywhere which starts you second guessing your financial decision. Or it can lean more toward the profound, like when your brother dies and out of nowhere every radio station is playing one of the songs that reminds you of him and although usually shy about singing, you're compelled to sing them all, anytime or anywhere, your voice turned up to 11.

So trying to sell my manuscript has my mind on moral ambiguity. So does trying to parent a five year old. It's quite developmentally normal for kids her age to go through a very rigid social norms phase. I thought having me for a mother would make her question everything, but I find instead she mostly just questions me. Which I know is normal. It's just that "normal" to me has always represented something stiffling. To Katie I think it represents making sense of a world that she hasn't yet figured out is senseless.

It seems my number one parental role lately is reminding my daughter of the ambiguous nature of life. This morning Katie woke me up to tell me her dream about being chased by a crocodile. She was quite proud because in the dream she saved herself by running so fast the crocodile couldn't snatch her up and eat her.

Just as I was drifting off into parental nirvana, thinking about my courageous daughter who dreams of saving herself instead of relying on a prince charming to rescue her, Katie asked me, "Why do crocodiles like to eat people?"

I returned to earth. "Because they're hungry."

"Not because they're bad guys?" Katie asked in in sweet little voice.

"No, crocodiles don't eat people very often," I assured her. "But when they do it's not because they're bad. It's just because they're hungry. They eat other animals too. Just like we eat chicken and pigs and fish and you and Daddy eat cows. We're not bad guys. It's just the way of the world."

"But we don't eat dogs," Katie smiled at her argument.

"Some people do."

Katie stopped smiling and walked away as she often does when I play devil's advocate with her. I hope my bluntness with her isn't something worth adding coins to her Freudian piggy bank.

After she got ready for school, Katie came into the kitchen and found me spraying vinegar on the army of ants that decided to sneak attack our counters overnight.

"Why the ants keep coming into our house?!" Katie asked as she pointed out ants I had missed.

"Because they're looking for food and water." I nodded my head toward the sink filled with dirty dishes.

Katie stompped her foot and said, "They need to find it outside. Not in our house."

I smiled and said, "Yeah, the poor little critters just don't know any better. They look for food and water where they can find it. They don't mean to contaminate our house."

Katie watched me quietly for a bit, her forehead wrinkled, then she cried out, "You're killing them."

"Yeah." I sighed. "I don't like killing them. But I don't like them in my house even more."

Another few quiet moments passed. Then Katie slumpped her shoulders and stated, "I don't want to eat chickens anymore, Mama."

"Why not, Sweetie?" I asked as I sprayed more vinegar around the counters.

"Because they're sweet little creatures and I don't want to eat them."

Katie has recently been on a "Chicken Run" kick and I suspect the anthropomorphic chickens are influencing her new self-directed diet restrictions. I was similarly influenced by pop culture when I decided to stop eating meat when I was a teenager because my idols Morrissey, Michael Stipe and k.d. lang were touting the virtues of vegetarianism.

I went through spurts of vegetarianism throughout high school, but it wasn't until New Year's Eve 1988 that I decided to quit eating meat for good. I didn't stick to it. I still haven't had any beef since December 31, 1988. I simply don't like it and I'm concerned about all the methane gas those sweet farty beasts produce. But I've wolfed down crispy pieces of bacon, juicy chicken breasts, or one of Will's delicious fish dishes regularly since sometime in 2005 when I turned all Stevie Wonder superstitious and decided to start eating meat again. I read somewhere that adding more meat to your diet helps with fertility, and I was desperate to have a baby. I also read somewhere that being a vegetarian helps with fertility, but I had already tried that.

I happened to get pregnant later that year, but I think it had more to do with the Clomid and Estrace than the added animal protein in my diet. Who knows? Who cares? At the time I was willing to try most anything and I'm glad I did because something I tried brought me Katie.

But still, even after Katie's birth I never went back to strict vegetarianism. I don't eat meat every day, but I no longer make a big deal out of it. Nowadays the trendy term is flexitarian, which I guess I am, but really, I'm just hungry and paying more attention to my body's cravings than I used to in my more ascetic past.

I read once that sexual abuse survivors, which I am, often become anorexic, which I did, and then move on to vegetarianism, which I did. Figures, I'm so freakin' normal. The theory is that having control of your own body robbed from you through sexual abuse leads you to want to control your body in other ways. The food we eat or don't eat, at least for those of us in wealthier societies, is one of the easiest things we can control in our daily lives. Kind of a hunger strike against an uncontrollable world.

But through years of therapy and just general wisdom aquired over the years, I realize total control isn't an achievable goal. Or even a desirable one. So if an occasional strip of bacon makes my tummy rumble, I indulge my cravings.

When I was younger, I hate to admit, I thought I was a morally superior person by not eating animals. Then I got dogs. Dogs really aren't suited for true animal lovers. My sweet furry kids turn into vicious hunters when released into our back yard, often killing baby squirrels and offering them at my feet as if these dead babies were gold, frankincense or myrrh and I was Dog.

My dogs are not bad guys. They don't think, "Dog, I want to tear that little creature to shreds because it will make me feel more powerful and fierce." They also tear into my trash and I don't assume it's due to a power struggle. They're hungry. They're freaking dogs. That's what dogs do.

So my ideas about human beings' eating habits have evolved thanks to observing my sweet, yet killer pooches. Yeah, it would be cool if more people in industrialized nations who can go to the local market and buy loads of protein-rich, meatless foods would limit their consumption of animals. Yet I understand that humans have evolved to be omnivorous, just like man's best friend. I no longer assume people who eat animals do so out of viciousness. They're hungry. They're human beings. That's what humans do.

Not that I'm letting our nation's factory farms off the hook. The way many animals are treated is ghastly. But now I think perhaps the best way to help those animals is not to quit eating them in some kind of hunger strike, but to try to pass legislation that enforces that animals intended for food live in conditions more suited toward their natural habitat, free range chickens, cows eating grass and not corn, fish caught one by one and not in giant nets that also kill dolphins and other creatures.

Part of an evolving personhood is becoming aware of and accepting of the incredible ambiguity of life. So I'll let my five year old eat or not eat whatever animals she wants, for whatever reason. I know some day she'll figure out that what we put into our mouths to nourish our bodies has less to do with goodness or badness and more to do with the the natural way of the world.