Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer

I have always been an avid omnivore. Nothing against vegetarians, or vegans, or anyone with dietary choices different than mine. But I never thought I would even consider cutting meat from my personal menu options.

Which is why this book, which I bought blindly without reading so much as a dust jacket blurb, frightened me. It was nothing like Foer's other books, both excellent novels. No, this book sat threateningly on my shelf for weeks because it had presented me with a choice: Remain largely ignorant about the meat industry in America, or risk having to change my gastronomic lifestyle.

Foer doesn't proselytize the vegetarian cause, although it's clear throughout the book what his own personal stance and choices are. But he does discuss his findings after years of research and industry infiltration. And he comes to the conclusion in his book, as in his personal life, that eating meat -- which, in this country, almost inevitably means eating factory-farmed meat -- is not the right thing to do for a whole slew of reasons.

But is what is right for Foer necessarily right for anyone else? I do know that, having finished this book, I cannot eat meat with the same zeal, nor (if I'm honest) the same indifference, that I did a week ago. And it's not just because the cute little animals have to be killed for me to enjoy eating them. If I may quote from near the end of Eating Animals, Foer writes:

"For some, the decision to eschew factory-farmed products will be easy. For others, the decision will be a hard one. To those for whom it sounds like a hard decision (I would have counted myself in this group), the ultimate question is whether it is worth the inconvenience. We know, at least, that this decision will help prevent deforestation, curb global warming, reduce pollution, save oil reserves, lessen the burden on rural America, decrease human rights abuses, improve public health, and help eliminate the most systematic animal abuse in world history. What we don't know, though, may be just as important. How would making such a decision change us?"

Or, what to me is the obvious question: How would not making such a decision change us? Change me?

Perhaps I am weak. I see how vegetarians force their generous hosts to prepare "specialty" meals, not usually by demanding vegetarian fare, but because those serving food feel an obligation to accommodate that person's dietary choices. Or, I watch as vegetarians have to go without eating in a social setting because there is no vegetarian option. And I don't want to be in either of those positions.

In my own kitchen? No problem. Except that those with whom I live are omnivores, and I couldn't expect them to alter their dietary habits to match mine.

Basically, it's societal eating that is keeping me from turning vegetarian right now. Which makes some sense; eating is, and for humans always has been, a social activity. But for me, the question has become whether that influence is enough to prevent me from changing my dietary habits across the board in a way that now seems fit.

If I do choose to become vegetarian, am I likely to give up meat forever? No. I think that, if I could be absolutely certain about certain qualities of the animals -- essentially, are they free of all the detrimental treatments and attitudes that define factory farms and their practices -- I would eat them. But not as regularly. And certainly never again so casually.

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Water-Method Man, by John Irving

This blog post frustrated me. I struggled with it -- with sitting down to write it, with knowing what to write -- despite simply loving the book. It was maybe the funniest Irving I've ever read, eminently enjoyable, with a cast of hilariously messed-up and untrustworthy characters.

But I couldn't write about it.

Then, yesterday, I had a singular experience. The moment itself had nothing particularly outrageous or unexpected, but it belongs to that limited category of times in life when everything takes on a new perspective. When something familiar is translated into new terms. When new lenses make the pictures pop out in full 3-D perspective.

And maybe the moment was a little cliché. But just as clichés are not necessarily invalid, this moment was perhaps all the more valuable for it.

Riding on a train from Santa Fe to Bernalillo, overnight bags on the seats opposite, by-then-lukewarm tea in paper cups, darkness having descended outside, head resting on a scented shoulder, hearing the first chapter of this book read aloud to me, the story was interrupted only by her shocked and delightful laughter.

John Irving is a part of who I am as a person and, to a much greater extent, a writer. I don't know if it was realized or not, but a part of me was shared on that train ride through the empty land north of Albuquerque.

And that's what books are all about. Not the characters, not what makes a story good or enjoyable (or bad and miserable), but about sharing pieces of ourselves. About bringing people closer.

Not bad for what's so often -- and maybe should be less frequently so -- a solitary activity.