Tuesday, January 25, 2011

"2011: Year of the Vegetarian" or "Eating Shoots Ain't a Metaphor Anymore"

Why bother? You'll only remember one or two anyhow...
In the waning hours of 2010, I made two decisions for the upcoming year. I loathe calling them resolutions because of the cliché of it all—as if I stumbled down from a mountain like a fat, shaggy Moses (I swear, biblical allegories never work with guys who look like me, since most of the men were already shaggy to begin with. I mean, The Hangover alone completely ruined my whole “fat Jesus” vibe) with some defiant or determined proclamation. New years resolutions are almost always self-fulfilling prophecies of failure—born to be broken in the days, weeks, or months that follow their birth. I suspect that several of you are either resentfully staring at your monitor or nervously shifting in your chair as you read this, thinking about your own “in 2011, I’ll…..” moment that’s already fallen victim to circumstances and excuses. So I don’t use the “R” word. No resolutions, just a few decisions to consider.

It's morphin...sorry, blood pressure time!
Anyhow… I had been having issues with my blood pressure earlier in the week, so I decided to try and eliminate caffeine from my daily routine. I’ve been living with atrial fibrillation since 2008, so I was supposed to be off caffeine anyhow, but you know how things get…especially if you’re a nocturnal person living (and working) on banker’s hours. A little coffee here and some Mountain Dew there can make those first few hours after the alarm goes off a little more bearable. But it still wasn’t good for my heart, so after having checked in at 180/92 a few days earlier, I was already several days into my abstention by new year’s eve. I figured that if I was making one dietary change, I might as well use the new year to make a few others. I had been thinking about several adjustments to my eating patterns, and I decided that a single rush of cold turkey was going to be preferable to an approach where I weaned myself off of several things one by one by one. So I made my list: caffeine, salt, and carbonated sodas. Vegetarianism was the unplanned surprise…

I’d been curious about vegetarianism for years. I’ve always been a bit concerned about the proxy junk I consumed when I ate mass-farmed meat—the chemicals, the artificial growth hormones and what not. But in the immortal words of Gen-X balladeer Joe Jackson: everything gives you cancer. Besides, having spent most of the 2000’s thus far on an academic’s (either grad student or adjunct instructor) pay, I couldn’t have afforded the organic, free-range, Whole-Foods-pretentious meat anyhow. So giving a nod to Joe Jackson, I wrote the meat off as one more thing that would probably inch me closer to the grave and consumed.

Pusher, comforter...
In 2002, I made an effort to lose weight, and I thought that a vegetarian diet would be the magic bullet to maintaining my then-new weight. Then, I met my first fat vegetarian…and second…and third. Between the revelation that a vegetarian diet was no more effective at staying thin than reparative conversion therapy was effective at keeping closeted Republicans in heteronormitive states and my then-grad-school addiction to double quarter pounders with cheese and extra pickle, my curiosity had been quelled and both fast-food chains and the Texas Beef Council rejoiced at their preserved profit streams. Then in 2010, I started having what I believed were gallstone attacks—or at least after having a heavy, greasy meal, I had an intense series of pains that matched the symptoms of a gallstone attack. Being underemployed (my glamorous, $8 an hour part time lifestyle) and uninsured, self diagnosis and instincts have been my physicians in the last four years since I had coverage. So one night in April, as I was cursing the consumed double Whopper that had me writhing in discomfort on my recliner, I again considered vegetarianism. After all, I rationalized, if fatty, greasy foods triggered a gallstone attack, removing meat from my diet would be a big step away from future gallstone attacks. I started by trying to do several vegetarian days a week, with an eventual goal of living mostly vegetarian by the end of the year. A more recent addiction to Qdoba poblano pesto chicken burritos led the charge that ultimately derailed my vegetarian intentions. Again, resolutions—new year or mid year—rarely succeed. So for years, my flirtations with vegetarian were like any other sorts of flirtations: brushes of feigned interest with a desired object that had no eventual consummation planned, just a playful wink over the shoulder. Facebook, Craigslist, Myspace, vegetarianism, I suppose. Then I cooked Thanksgiving dinner this past year, and I had one of those weird little moments that made me at least consider following through on my occasional winks at vegetarianism.

The night before...
I’m the cook in my household. My partner and our housemate both tend to lean towards convenience foods or takeaway meals. So as November loomed, and the discussion turned to Thanksgiving dinner, all eyes fell on me when it came time to discuss who would be doing the cooking. I didn’t volunteer as much as I was volunteered. I didn’t mind though. I love cooking for others. Far be it of me to endorse the notion that gay men adhere to feminine gender roles, but when I cook for people, it’s done with the love that could rival any mother or ethic grandmother: Fat Jesus meets Tita de la Garza, I suppose. I planned a huge traditional meal, from the homemade cranberry sauce, to the sides, to the bird itself. I started meal prep the day before, and when I went to bed, I had the materials for each course laid out on the counter: pans or baking dishes, with non-refrigerated items, and recipes, all ready for the next day’s cooking.

The next day...
The next day, around noon, I stepped into the kitchen. I began with the bird. I’m not a big fan of putting stuffing in the bird, so I needed to get the main course roasting before I started anything else. I cut the turkey free from its shrinkwrap and reached into its neck and abdominal cavity to free the bagged innards and the bag of frozen gravy concentrate. With my bird on the aluminum roasting tray, I pulled out my stick of softened butter and began to rub it down—starting with the breast and moving down to the wings and legs. As I pulled the drumstick and leg away from the body to butter it, I had a realization that thrust me back to my childhood and adolescence.

In the war of suburban pet families, my family was a dog family. My mother was allergic to cats, so when my brother and I demanded a family pet, the decision was already made. But which type of dog? I’ve noticed that families each gravitate to certain breeds of dogs. My maternal grandparents, for example, were Cocker Spaniel people. Visits to see them always meant having to deal with short tempered, floppy-eared, honey-colored mops. One of our neighbors fancied Sheepdogs and Irish Setters, while another preferred Shih Tzus.

My mother decided that we were to be a Yorkie family.

I always thought it was because she associated Yorkies with rich people, inspired by scenes of Eva Gabor holding a Yorkie in her arms as she looked at New York from her balcony, in the opening of Green Acres. So when I was five, Peaches entered our lives. Two years later, as my parents divorced, Mom kept the dog in the settlement—the kids, the dog, the house. Had my father been a fan of country music, he’d have had a potential hit on his hands. However, instead of putting his spleen into music, he opted for a more time-honored coping mechanism: one-upsmanship. Peaches was a regular Yorkie. My father wanted a better Yorkie, one even more special (and expensive) than the one he left with his ex-wife. He wanted a Teacup Yorkie. Teacup Yorkies are a subset of the breed known for their stunted growth—a detail that keeps them looking like puppies throughout their entire lifespan—the Gary Coleman of toy dogs, I suppose. Moreover, since we bought Peaches from amateur breeders, my father bought our Teacup from a registered breeder, meaning that she not only came with papers, but an equally pretentious name: Buttons and Bows VII, Buttons for short.

Nothing says bitter spouse like a new dog...
We had her for almost thirteen years—bought in the spring of 1981, she died in 1994. While my mother had to leave Peaches with our grandparents in Missouri after her move to Florida, Buttons was a fixture in my life throughout my childhood and adolescence, until I moved to Tallahassee for college. At night, she would run a patrol of the house, checking in on my brother, father, and I as we slept, taking short naps on our respective beds. During the day, she would jump up on the couch while I was watching television and demand attention with a shrill, scrappy bark. So I’d frequently cradle her in my arms as I watched TV, rubbing her tummy and tugging at her paws as she tried to nip at my fingers.

And as I was buttering up the Thanksgiving turkey this past November, I had one of those epiphanies where two random things suddenly connect: the joints and limbs of the turkey were almost identical in structure to those of Buttons’ hind legs. It didn’t bother me to the point of refusing to eat the meal, but it stuck with me in the days and weeks afterwards. In thirty eight years as a carnivore, I always knew that my meat had been alive before it had been turned into my meal, but aside from a few animal-rights videos shown during a Consolidated show I caught as an undergraduate at Florida State, I’d never really thought about where my meat came from—much less how it got to me. Meat was just the stuff in a cellophane-wrapped Styrofoam tray that I pulled from a cooler case at the supermarket. I certainly didn’t have images of my turkey morphing into a Yorkie right there in the aluminum tray, but I kept thinking about that connection in the weeks following. Mind you, it wasn’t enough to curb my carnivorous ways either, but it had me thinking about vegetarianism again.  I mean I didn't need meat to survive, and though I knew that my decision to live meatless wouldn't save masses of doomed livestock, it might at least balance out the carnivorous karma I'd been building up since the mid 1970's.

On New Years Day, my partner and I met up with a friend to see a film. Afterwards, we ended up going to a nearby Panera Bread for dinner. By chance, I’d ordered a bowl of macaroni and cheese and the tomato-mozzarella panini sandwich. As we ate, I looked at my plate and realized that I had no meat on it. Though it wasn't one of those R words, I figured that it was a good jumping on place to integrate vegetarianism into my dietary routine.  I decided to start my year by just doing three meatless days a week. Simple, right? Three on, four off, eventually shifting to totally meatless by the end of 2011.

January first became January second, another meatless day. The third, meatless. For the fourth day, I decided to go meatless again. I was on a streak. After a week, I simply decided to keep going for as long as I could sustain it. By MLK Day, I realized that I wasn’t even thinking about meat anymore. Yes, I was aware of meat when I was grocery shopping or in a restaurant (if only because of my new game: “hunt down the token two or three vegetarian options on the menu”), but I no longer found myself looking for the meatiest entrees when I was dining out, nor did I find myself thinking about meat-based entrees.

"Maybe tofu zebra was a bit extreme!"
Of course, it’s been an interesting few weeks since starting this. I made a few posts on Facebook that I was abstaining from meat and caffeine, giving a running tally of the days. The responses gave me a moment of pause. Most had that same tone of audience violation that I observed in theaters back in 1994, when Scar betrayed Mufasa: “How…..could you?” There were no posts along the lines of “Give up caffeine? Are you crazy?” (and if you know gamer culture, you know how much that such a proposition would border on heresy) or “Less salt? Are you stupid?” but several of the responses to my decision to eliminate meat ranged from agitation to the sort point-blank outrage that the US government currently holds for Julian Assange. “You’re supposed to be a carnivore!” one friend recently blasted on Twitter, as if my own dietary choices somehow affected him personally.

Let’s be honest, it’s easy to pick on vegetarians. Most of us aren’t born into it, so when we decide to change our dietary habits, some friends treat it like any other abrupt change in lifestyle—with a blend of suspicion that sometimes borders on distain or even hostility, depending on how greatly it clashes with their own values and beliefs. Considering things like the whole “cult of bacon” mindset (bonus points if it comes from an adult frat boy or other assorted manchild, complete with dated Tim Allenesque grunting) that’s become hip and trendy in the wake of celebrity-chef-driven-televised-food-porn, choosing to reject meat is as much of a rejection of the mainstream as opting to listen to the Smiths in the 80s or read in the new milennium. Of course, it doesn’t help that the public image of vegetarians is sometimes skewed by the more extreme cases, such as the stories of Linda McCartney having the trashbins on tours inspected (or the McCartneys' infamous tour riders), trying to ferret out closet carnivores who may have snuck a burger or two and tried to stash the wrappers away. If anything, my own encounters with militant vegetarians and vegans in college also made me shy away from the lifestyle, until I met several who neither preached at me nor condemned me for my then carnivorous ways. I suppose that most of the apprehension from friends stems from fears that I’ll start blasting PETA recruitment films at them, I suppose. But in the end, it’s my choice. I made the decision to change my eating habits, and I don’t feel that it’s my place to blast others for theirs. But for me, for right now, it’s what works. My health is already taking a turn for the better, and I’ve noticed that my weight has shifted down a bit as well. If friends and acquaintances have an issue with it, I made a realization recently: If I can cut a few ounces of meat out of my daily routine, I can certainly cut two and three hundred pounds of detractor from it as well.


  1. Good luck! I've never been able to go vegetarian because I'm lactose intolerant, allergic to soy and simply can't digest most legumes. I tried once in the 1990s. Ended up with a severe migraine and exhaustion. Mentioned it to my chiropractor, who was one who used those little vials to assess what you were lacking. After about three minutes she stopped and looked at me and said, "Are you trying to go vegetarian?"

    I was floored. I said I was. She told me to stop it, go home and eat at least two things from a list she gave me. (It included chicken gristle, a guilty pleasure of mine since I was a small child) She said some folks are just carnivores and we need to respect ourselves.

    I also struggle with obesity, but mine is probably carb related, in addition to a sedentary lifestyle because of fibromyalgia and some serious fat genetics.

    I'm also attempting to drop a few pounds. Had a wake up call back in November. I donate platelets twice a month, which allows me a bit of BP monitoring. Mine went from an okay 120/85 to 110/100. As I am also sans medical coverage, I knew I had to do something. Did a bit of research and decided on a regimen of potassium in the morning and calc/mag, fish oil and cayenne at lunch. Did that for a couple of weeks and my BP came down to 140/85. Then I stopped and it shot back up, so I started again and last week my BP was 120/75.

    I really need to blog about this stuff more on my own blog. LOL

  2. Good luck with that.

    Your detractors seriously need to STFU; it's your body, your dietary choices, not theirs.