Wednesday, November 17, 2010

How I Came To Be a Vegan and an Abolitionist

This is my story as to how I became vegan and an abolitionist. It is really nothing exceptional; it's just my unique experience. Like me, it's a story that is still very much in progress.

I am the grandson and great-grandson of kosher butchers. I grew up around meat, all of the time. I would spend some of my summers, even as a very young kid, working in my grandfather's butcher shop up in Albany, New York. There was a great sense of pride in coming from a family that was "a long line of butchers" because, as it was presented to me as a child, they were preserving the tenets of their faith in adherence to strict laws of keeping Kosher. So I grew up, proud of our family's connection to meat. I never thought of THE PEOPLE who became meat- the non-human persons.

Throughout my adolescence, I slowly began to deconstruct the religious dogma my orthodox Jewish upbringing had drilled into me. This was greatly facilitated by a recognition, at a very early age, that I was gay. Mind you, I had no language for that- for what it meant to be gay- at the time. I knew nothing of what being gay was, other than that it was something deemed "sinful", something to hide and be ashamed of. But I knew it was as integtral a part of me as my left-handedness and that it was something I couldn't pray or wish away. This realization, around age 13, opened the door to deconstructing the myths and lies about dogma and religions in general. Once I knew that something was wrong with one of the "teachings" of our faith, then ALL of the "teachings" came into question. Eventually, by the time I went to college, I abandoned the belief in the faith of my family and stopped practicing orthodox Judaism altogether as it was not something I believed in. It was, and still is, important for me to live my life in accordance with what I know and/or believe to be true about the world.

I was 15 years old when I was working one afternoon up at the butcher shop, wrapping meat in the back. My grandfather's employee, Harry, decided to play a joke on me. Harry was a "man's man." Rough around the edges. He smoked too much. Harry had served in World War II and was scarred from having watched all of his high-school buddies die in the battles out in the Pacific. He was an alcoholic with severe emotional issues and he often did things around women and children that were just completely inappropriate. Anyway, Harry arranged to have another employee (whose name escapes me) tell me to go into the meat locker in the back and pick up the rack of ribs on the 3rd shelf on the right, and bring it up front. I hated the meat locker. It smelled foul to me. It was like the smell of death, but frozen. It always made me uncomfortable and I always would ask my younger brother to go in my place. But this afternoon my brother wasn't at the store. So I reluctantly made my way to the back of the store, opened the heavy, thick door, and prepared to step in. Just then, Harry came RUSHING out at me- screaming as loud as he could- "Ahhhhhhh.... Mooooooo!!!!!" He had the decapitated head of a cow on the handle of a broomstick and he was charging me with it.

Naturally, I screamed and ran out so fast. I kept running, screaming, through the store all the way to where my grandmother was at the front register. My grandfather really gave it to Harry for doing something like that. After all, he didn't just scare me, but got me running through the store, making a commotion which clearly upset the customers. I eventually recovered but didn't go back to work with the guys in the back on the meat packing and cutting that afternoon. When the day was over, my grandfather and I drove home in silence. About 3/4 of the way home I broke the silence and said, "Zayde?" (That's yiddish for "grandpa", and that's what I've always called my grandfather). He said "What is it?" as if he knew what was coming. I continued, "I don't think I want to work in the back of the store anymore. I'd like to learn the business side of things. I could work with Bubby (my grandmother) up at the front register. Would that be okay with you?" My grandfather paused, realizing that I was lost to him and would never want to go further with the butcher shop as a potential business some day. He said, "Yeah. That would be fine. Whatever you want to do is and always will be just fine with me." I think, somewhere in his mind, he had hoped that my brother or I would have turned back to the old family business and taken it over from him one day. Incidentally, years later, when I told him that I applied and got into medical school, he said, "Ah, you'll be working with knives, just like me." I always thought that an odd statement, until much later.

One would think that experience with the cow's head would be enough to keep me away from meat-- certainly cow beef-- for the rest of my life. But it wasn't. It did, however, drive me to become vegetarian. Mind you, I still ate eggs, dairy, occasional fish, but I "was a vegetarian". This went on and off for a number of years until in my mid 20's I was no longer a vegetarian. Why? Well, somehow, it all lost it's meaning. There was no connection to animals I was trying to avoid eating and harming and I went back to my "numbed state" of cognitive dissonance. In a matter of years, I was back to eating steak, not thinking about how this was a part of a cow- A part like the decapitated head of that poor creature. I was eating wings, no longer seeing them as the arms/wings of a chicken. I'm ashamed to admit how long this went on- mostly because I became busy with my studies, med school and my residency. Distraction was convenient.

It was in my residency that the next "inkling" towards making the animal-food connection came. I was in my surgical residency and after a year of retracting, assisting, and watching, it was finally time for my first solo case. The attending surgeon handed me the scalpel and said, "When you're ready." I waiting. I was really focused. This was the moment; My first surgery! I had gone over this a thousand times in my head. I knew every move I was going to make. I'd seen this hundreds of times. I took the scalpel, looked up at the clock and announced, "Incision, 7:45 AM." The nurse repeated, "Starting, 7:45 AM." I cut into this human being and the feeling was... well... the tissue felt soft. Warm. Vulnerable. Foreign. As soon as I finished the skin incision and the blood began to run out of it, the Attending said, "Well done. That wasn't too bad, right? Nothing to it... Like cutting into a steak."

That just threw me! "Cutting into a steak? How is this like cutting into a steak?!?" Suddenly I was totally distracted, unable to focus on what I was doing because I was riveted by the notion that this action I just took- this first step in helping someone, in healing someone- was allegedly like cutting into a dead piece of meat. It didn't make sense. I immediately thought of that decapitated cow and her head just rushing at me in the cold meat locker. I started to think about all of the pieces of animals I had consumed since that day. I became overwhelmed.

I made it through that surgery and 3 more before lunch. How I did it, I'll never know. When I went for lunch, I ordered one of the hospital hamburgers. Those burgers were revolting on a good day. I actually removed it from the bun and tried to re-do my incision as I had that morning. But the meat was cooked. It felt tough. "This feels nothing like cutting into a steak" I told myself. From that day on, it became a tradition for years for me to end a day of surgery with a hamburger. It never dawned on me until years later how this "tradition" was not just reactionary to that first day in the OR, but that it really was a way of connecting with my grandfather. It was my conciliatory act act to him. Almost as if I were saying, "I rejected your profession, but not you." I ate meat after surgery every day I operated until May 2009.

In May 2009, my life was a mess. I had slowly but steadily gained a LOT of weight over the preceding years. I didn't really know quite how much, but I knew it was a lot over the years. A bad diet, in spite of exercising daily, took it's toll on me. I was on Liptor for my high cholesterol after years of trying to get it down with Niacin, Fish Oils and all sorts of "dietary modifications". (All except removing the Cholesterol source- animal flesh- from my diet.) At that time, our dog, Chandler, was very sick with rapidly spreading metastatic malignant melanoma. We were doing everything to help him survive it. He had 2 surgeries to remove tumors from his bladder, neck, lymph nodes, and he was still not well. We were feeling desperate because we knew the end was coming faster than we wanted or were prepared to deal with. My husband, Michael, got in touch with a canine holistic doctor who was also a certified naturopath. His recommendation was to get the processed foods out of Chandler's diet, and feed him all organic foods and only fresh, raw, Grass-fed beef. It was about 2 weeks into this when one day, I had gone to Whole Foods to get the meat and some fresh organic vegetables. Michael spent over an hour preparing this organic meal for Chandler. Once we fed him, I said "What about us? What do you want for dinner?" We ended up taking out burgers & fries from Five-Guys. About half way through my burger, I started to feel uncomfortably full and kind of sick. I turned to Michael and said, "You know, we're spending all of this time and money on Chandler with all of the Grass-Fed beef and organic foods... don't you think we should at least do the same for ourselves?" This started a long discussion which concluded with us deciding that we were going to make the investment in ourselves to be as healthy as we could and buy only organic foods for our home. This was a HUGE switch for us.

A week later, we had a bunch of friends over for dinner. Three of the women at dinner had recently given birth and were lamenting the difficulties of losing the baby weight. They all starting talking about their Weight Watcher points, etc... I started asking them about how Weight Watchers works and by the end of dinner I was hooked on the idea-- I'm going on weight watchers and finally loose the "extra few pounds" I had. I also decided, that I would do it as a vegetarian. I was sick of all of the animals I was eating and I knew I would lose weight faster on a vegetarian diet. So, as of June 1, 2009, I again became a vegetarian and went on Weight Watchers.

The thing I didn't count on with Weight Watchers was that a lot of the "vegetarian-but-not-vegan" options are big no-nos on the diet; No milk. No cheese. Eggs were okay but only the egg whites. Next thing you knew, I was "nearly vegan" though completely unintentionally. And man, did that weight come off!! I lost 45 lbs in under 4 months. 45 lbs! I had no idea I was so heavy or had that much to loose, but boy did I feel better and better as I lost the weight.

Over those months, I also happened to start reading more about vegetarianism- mostly from stuff I read online from PETA. I was reading recipes and going to different Vegetarian (and vegan) websites. I really new very little about why one would be a vegan as opposed to a vegetarian. That opened a lot of other doors. I started reading dissenting opinions from those espoused by PETA. I also started reading a bunch of different books. THE FACE ON YOUR PLATE, The Truth about Food by Jeffrey Masson really opened my eyes. I read it twice. I realized why eating meat was no different than drinking milk. Then I read Eating Animals, by Jonathan Safran Foer. After I read it, it struck a strong chord within me. I did some research and learned that Foer was a vegetarian and not a vegan, and it shocked me. How could someone who so clearly states the reasons to not participate in animal use choose to still use animals? How can he rationalize his stance of knowingly participating in consuming products derived from animals when he knows- firsthand- how this would affect these poor animals? The intellectual dishonesty pissed me off. I kept thinking, "How could someone know the truth and still not change their behavior? It then dawned on me- I now know the truth. Will I be a Foer? Will I prioritize my convenience and momentary pleasures over the rights of sentient, feeling, tortured creatures? I couldn't do it.

And that was it. November 22, 2009, I became a vegan. There was nothing to it. I just went out, got a half-gallon of Lowfat Soymilk and put it in my coffee that morning and thought- this doesn't taste the same, but I'll get used to it. And I did.

It was months later, when I resurrected my Twitter account, that I started to learn about the difference between advocates of an abolitionist approach and those who promoted welfarist initiatives and single-issue campaigns. There is no doubt that Gary Francione has singularly affected me more than any other person on this subject. Having read his books, essays and Tweets about abolitionist veganism, I felt like there was finally someone out there who understood my intellectual commitment to living in alignment with my beliefs in a strict and consistent way. And he was unapologetic. When I noticed the many accusations of him being "Divisive" for pointing out the inconsistencies in others' behavior vs. beliefs I knew that he was on to something. After all, we often call people things like "Divisive" or "Critical" or "Unhelpful" when we don't like what they're saying. I could relate to him and absolutist positions. He strengthened my commitment to both myself and to being vegan. I owe Gary a debt of gratitude that I know I can never repay. I also know that the fact that I'm an abolitionist vegan who educates and promotes consistent, vegan abolitionism is all the "payback" he'd ever want or hope for... just for each of us to pass it on and pay it forward.

So I'm coming up on my first Veganniversary. In some ways, it feels like I've been vegan FOREVER! I can't believe it's "only been a year." Still, I have perspective and I understand that this is the first of many years and decades to come. I'm nothing like the person I was a year ago today. A year ago I was scared of this "decision" to "become a vegan". Wondering at that time, "Can I do it?" The man I was then would never have believed that in such a short time- much less than just a year- I'd look back and say, "Of course I can. How could I ever NOT be vegan, at this point?"

Yes, it's been quite a year for me. There have been many different levels of awareness-expansion, justice-seeking and compassion that have evolved within me. I look forward to seeing how my understanding and knowledge on this issue will continue to unfold and develop within me in the years to come as I become more and more of a "veteran vegan". I can't wait.

Wishing Us All Peace.