About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Then I Opened My Big Mouth...

So...I got myself elected/appointed "Parish Education Chair" at church.  I'll skip the story of how THAT happened and just say that technically, I'm kinda helping to oversee ALL education this year -- from preschool to adult.  This also means I'm now on church council.

Joy.  (They are very nice people, but the timing of the monthly meeting -- third Wednesdays at 5:30 -- is less than ideal, in fact WAY inconvenient.  What would be wrong with, say, 7:30?)

It's one of those things I cannot change -- there are other things that go on on Wednesday nights and really, other things that go on EVERY night and this is, well, the established time and theoretically the most convenient for the most people.  But not for me. 

I'll live.

Back to topic -- at the first meeting I mentioned that there were a few things on MY agenda that I think are relevant to parish education.  First?  Gender inclusive language to refer to God.  Get rid of "Lord," "He," "Father," "Kindgom," "King".  Replace with such phrases as "Our Loving Creator," "the Almighty" "Our Parent," "Realm," "Ruler".  In the last two churches I belonged two (the previous SEVENTEEN years prior to coming to this church), this was already done.  Prayers had been rewritten to get rid of patriarchal language; hymns and creeds as well. A statement as to WHY this was done was in EVERY bulletin, EVERY week, as well as in the church information available in every pew.  The reasoning?  God is NOT human, does NOT have any genitalia that we know of and continuing to refer to God as male continues a tradition of lifting men above women -- something *most* people these days think is wrong.  Whether or not this is explicitly stated is irrelevant -- when that which is MOST HIGH is referred to as male, people get the image that males are higher or better than females.  It's inherent in the structure of the concepts, which is precisely why the language should change.

So in the first meeting, I mentioned that at the very least, we should get the teachers to refrain from exclusively referring to God as "He" or "Father" in Sunday School classes. Get the kids to talk about various ways of imaging the divine and get the older kids to talk about the patriarchal culture that has dominated religion(s) and how that limits how we think of God.

Lead. Balloon.  One guy said that his daughter is not so insecure as to think that one must refer to God in gender neutral terms in order to feel good about herself.  He also said to me that "if you need a more liberal church, you should go to a more liberal church".

I'll get back to THAT in a minute.

Referring to God in gender neutral or gender inclusive terms is as "normal" to me as eating breakfast in the morning.  I don't think of God as human; I do recognize that Jesus was an historical  figure and a male one so I do not mind referring to *him* as *he*.  But not God.

So being in a church that does NOT use inclusive language (one pastor told me, when I discussed this with him briefly last year, "Well, THAT will never happen") is increasingly intolerable.  It's not enough that *I* generally change the terms when I recite the creeds or prayers or read in front of the congregation.  It really bugs me that so few in the church think as I do.  (If they do, they are mighty silent about it.)

A few weeks ago, I was the reader in church.  I changed words such as "kingdom" to "realm" and "He" to "God" and I also changed the traditional ending, "The word of the Lord" to "Here ends our lesson".  (To which the traditional response is "Thanks be to God," something that does not need changing.)  The one pastor for whom this is blasphemy pointed to me my "mistake".  Uh, no.  Not a mistake.  (The changes had been cleared, by the way, by the director of children's and family ministry and by the senior pastor, though it is entirely possible that the younger pastor did not know this.)

The point?  I don't know how much longer I can take this, yet here I am, appointed Parish Education Chair.

As if the whole rigmarole about inclusive language isn't enough (the senior pastor thinks of it as "optional," meaning that readers may change the words if they want to), I then had another "brilliant" idea.

Every year, our church has a Blessing of the Animals Sunday (Oct 3 this year).  Lovely tradition.  Everybody brings their pets (or pictures of their pets -- no horses have yet to show up at church) and each one receives a blessing and a treat.  The kids, in particular, LOVE this Sunday.  Pets (at least those unlikely to have an accident) are even allowed in the sanctuary.

So, it occurred to me that the previous Sunday (Sept. 26) would be good to have an animal theme for adult education hour.  I mentioned that one of the challenging issues of our time is animal rights and that it would be a thought-provoking discussion (NOT SERMON) to have and we could tie it back to two church traditions -- the Blessing of the Animals Sunday and the church task force, Caring for Creation (which has presented on such topics of supporting local farmers and reducing food-to-grocery-store-miles).  We could even briefly explore how the Genesis command of "have dominion over all" has perhaps led to some things we should re-think. 

Logical?  I think so.  Could I do it without proclaiming that everybody go vegan?  Yes, I could.  Am I willing to?  Again, yes, even though I think going vegan is the logical conclusion to the facts about animal suffering, HUMAN health, and environmental degradation.

So, what was the initial response?  A few people said yes (and by the way, I *do* have the blessing of the council to do the talk).  But two people were less than responsive -- one guy (who used to run the adult education hour) said that I have to "present the opposing side".  What is that?  As my (omnivore) husband joked, "the NRA".  Even the senior pastor (in a separate meeting) joked, "the opposite side is 'let's kill the animals!'".  (His daughter is vegan; I suspect that little fact makes him immediately see the ridiculousness of requiring the "opposing view".)

What REALLY gets me, though, is that I've NEVER seen any other speaker during adult education hour have to present anything other than what he or she is there to present (end of life decisions, archeology in Israel, missionary trips, history of Handel's Messiah, etc.).  WHY should *I* be required to do differently? 

It's a tough topic -- thinking that animals HAVE rights is revolutionary and I'm the first to admit that it still makes me a bit twitchy.  But it's a great topic BECAUSE it isn't easy.  It's also a great way to let people know what's involved in those eggs or meat or milk that they routinely purchase.

There is always a tension between fighting the good fight in a place that arguably isn't ready for it or joining those who have already fought it.  Once, back in Divinity School, I asked Professor Krister Stendahl (former Bishop of Sweden), whether or not one should bring up controversial topics in church or whether one should be more quiet about them.  He looked at me and said, 'Well, sister, some people fart on the inside and some fart on the outside.'  I *think* that means there's no clear answer and some people are destined to push the envelope and others are destined to walk away to a place that is more comfortable for them.

Holy Moly.  I am SO wishing I hadn't volunteered to do this talk.  And that guy who suggested maybe I should find another church?  Maybe he should know that idea isn't too far from my mind.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Gene Baur's Farm Sanctuary

Several weeks ago, I promised a blog on the books I've been reading on animal rights.  A few of you might be wondering when the *heck* I'm gonna write about those.

I've been, of necessity, reading about status and health, epidemics and stratification, medicalization of everyday conditions, cultural interpretations of symptoms and the history of medicalizing women's lives.  (My fall class is Sociology of Health and Medicine.)

In other words, I *still* haven't finished the pile of animal rights' books I've bought and been slowly reading. 

Rather than wait to write until I've finished *all* of them -- my original plan -- I've decided to write about each one separately.

I have now read Gene Baur's Farm Sanctuary (Touchstone Press, 2008).  I suspect I read it first because the picture of the pig on the cover is so darn cute.  I also LOVE autobiographies, and although this isn't billed as one, you learn an awful lot about who Gene Baur is as a person while reading it.

Who cannot get into the story of a guy, raised in Hollywood, who majored in sociology (!) and ended up being inspired by activists Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman?  A guy who worked as an intern for Ralph Nader and was equally inspired by a talk by Carl Sagan?  A guy who spent some time hitchhiking trying to figure out what to do with his life -- something that would "match [his] values"?  A guy who stayed in a hotel across the street from the New Holland (PA) stockyard and ended up rescuing a sheep who had been abandoned in the trash?  A guy who initially funded his sanctuary by selling vegetarian hot dogs at Grateful Dead concerts?  A guy who proves that "you can achieve amazing things even by the humblest means" (p. 41)?

Gene Baur is my kind of guy, and not just because he majored in sociology.

In some ways, the story of his journey starts on page 23: 

"One hot and humid Sunday in August 1986, as we walked by the dead pile, we saw
carcasses of a cow, a couple of pigs, and some sheep decaying in the heat
-- nothing unusual....  As we approached, something remarkable happened: 
the sheep lifted up her head and looked at us....
we knew we couldn't leave her on the dead pile to linger, possibly for days....
We didn't stop to think about what we were doing. 
This is how he and Lorri (then his wife) began rescuing animals discarded by the factory farming industry.  (The sheep lived, by the way.)  They established a sanctuary for animals in upstate NY (and another in CA) and when they were not rescuing animals, they were documenting inhumane conditions, illegal activities, and putting forth legislation to improve the lives of farmed animals.

The book is chock-full of statistics about factory farming, slaughtering practices, the evils of genetic modifications, environmental calamity, diseases, and the reality that animals are treated as simply objects for our use. I'm not going to reiterate all that here (except for detailing the problems with dairy and genetic engineering below), but I will say that if you've been living under a rock and *don't know* how bad the system is for animals, for the environment and FOR YOU, then you should read the book. 

If you *don't want to know* you should read it too.  Selective ignorance isn't attractive and it certainly isn't an excuse to think that it's OK to keep to traditions just because it's "culture" or "the norm". 

If after reading the book you still think that eating a vegan diet a few days a week isn't a reasonable compromise between an omnivore culture and a vegan one, then I'm not sure I can think you're a reasonable person.  Honestly.  The data is just too strong not to think otherwise.

Though he writes forcefully and convincingly, Baur advocates politeness and reasoned dialogue (p. 65) and a sensitivity to the farmers who, understandably, don't know what life they will go to if they give up what they know (p. 63).  Those are two other reasons why I love his book.  He is unfailingly polite and sensitive to how hard it is for people to change. But that doesn't mean change isn't possible, even against enormous odds.  He proves that it is.


Committed vegans know this, but for my readers who do not, it's worth a few paragraphs.

Few people fully realize why dairy is as inherently violent a food choice as meat.  Though I have blogged in the past that there is a distinction between use of animals that involves death (meat) and use of animals that allows them to live (honey, milk, wool), it's increasingly clear to me that, unfortunately, it isn't all that clear.  I wish that it were.

As Baur writes, there is NO use for a male calf on a dairy farm (pp. 99-110).  Most male calves are taken from their mothers within days of their birth, raised in crates so small they cannot turn around, and fed a liquid diet intentionally low in iron and fiber in order to keep their flesh pale. They are then slaughtered at 20 or 24 weeks.  Some are slaughtered even earlier and end up in TV dinners.

I've greatly summarized the story of veal here in order to make clear the same point Baur does:   DAIRY IS NOT INHERENTLY NON-VIOLENT.  It's a tough lesson, and one that depresses me greatly, not just because I love dairy (I DO!) but because in the days prior to factory farming one, arguably, could have milked one's cow in the backyard and, at least for several YEARS, given that cow and her calves good lives.  (Not a vegan position, but an acknowledgement that dairy coming from an old-fashioned family farm would have definitely involved less violence than dairy from ANY source today, including...drumroll please...organic farms.)

If you care about the treatment of calves, you shouldn't eat dairy.  It's not enough just to give up veal or meat.


A theme throughout the book is how often the animals at the farm sanctuary suffer from physical ailments.  Some of you who eat meat will undoubtedly be thinking "Well, that's why we kill them and eat them first, before they get old and suffer!"

(Clearing throat.)  NO, that's NOT the point. As Baur writes,

"People often comment on Opie's [steer rescued as a calf] size...
A few of [the steers whose mothers were dairy cows] weigh up to three thousand pounds. 
One reason the steers are so large is that the dairy industry has genetically bred cows
for more and more milk production, which has had
the unintended result of producing bigger animals..." (p. 68).

Need another statistic?  Dairy cows now produce 53 POUNDS OF MILK PER COW PER DAY -- three times as much milk as they produced only fifty years ago (p. 113).  It's impossible not to see that the cows are treated as machines, genetically modified for OUR -- certainly not THEIR -- benefit.

What about this?  Pigs and chickens (and cows and turkeys, too) are bred to grow to "such sizes so that their bodies provide more of the parts people like to eat" (p. 137, regarding pigs).  "[B]roilers have been selectively bred to grow twice as fast and twice as large as normal" (p. 149) and have been "genetically manipulated to develop extra-large breasts" (p. 151).  Turkeys routinely suffer fatal heart attacks and are commonly lame AND are so big and shaped so oddly that they cannot mount and breed naturally (p. 160). 

Because of these realities, pigs at the sanctuary are usually unable to live out their intended lifespan and usually have to be put down at 8 or 9 years old because they are so big that they have trouble moving around (p. 137). (Wild pigs can live much longer and move around just fine.) 

Baur writes that

"[b]ecause our society mainly eats the young,
Farm Sanctuary is one of the few places in the country where it is possible
to see the long-term effects of breeding for productivity and industrial confinement.
As they age, the animals need additional care. 
Genetic alterations and the industry's standard practices
have compromised their health in irreversible ways" (p. 230, emphasis mine).

Baur has profiles of rescued animals scattered throughout the book, and many of them end up receiving special care as they age.  Perhaps it is telling that three chickens, Tofutti Cutie, Taboo, and Milky Way (p. 175) -- rescued from the carnage of Hurricane Katrina -- only get one sentence instead of an entire profile.  I suspect that, due to extreme genetic engineering inherent in chicken farms, they led short lives characterized by difficulties walking (due to heavy breasts) and breathing (also due to genetic modifications).  The sentence,
 "[they] were able to enjoy the rest of their lives with
a degree of comfort denied to their fellow Buckeye layer hens" (p. 175)
suggests that I may be right.

How sad.  And all because people like to eat white meat and want it quicker.

Ultimately, Baur believes that vegan is the way to go because doing it is environmentally sustainable and because it removes one from the cycle of violence inherent in ALL farming (p. 218). 

No review would be complete without a few picky criticisms.

There are a few places in the book where I wish he would have cited better.  For example, on page 212, he writes,

"...In 2005, sales of organic foods in the United States were nearly $14 billion. 
That's about 2.5 percent of the total retail market for food,
still just a fraction of the astounding $894 billion Americans spent on food in 2005." 

I don't doubt that last number as much as I wish I knew were it came from.  If you divide that number  by the (July 2009) Census Bureau US population statistic of 306,861,871, you get an annual per capita food expenditure of $2913.36.  For a family of five, that would be $14,566 per year or about $8 per day per person. If you divide $14,566 by 12, you get an expenditure of $1200 per month -- that seems a bit high to me.  I wonder how people arrived at that statistic of how much Americans spend on food.  What does that number include?  Eating out? Groceries AND other stuff you get at the grocery store, such as pet food and cleaning supplies? 

It would be good to know, but the info isn't there.

Similarly, he writes that a "noted writer" for The Washington Post has written that the cause of compassion of farm animals is "the moral calling or our time" (p. 190) and that the Slow Food movement began in Italy in 1986 (p. 217).  I'd love to read the Post article and know who that author is and I'd love to know where Baur got the date of 1986.  Alas, I'll have to do my own sleuthing to figure it out.

When thos are the worst criticisms you can lay at the feet of an author, that is pretty darn high praise.

His sociology professors should be proud. :)

Sunday, August 1, 2010


My son has a new friend.  NICE kid.  Goofy sense of humor.  Polite and responsible.  Puts his dishes in the sink without being asked and takes off his shoes at the front door too.  Gets along well with all my kids.  I enjoy having him over. 

So, I was kinda taken aback when, out of the blue, he says "I shot a goose this morning for fun." 

The boys were playing a game on the computer in the kitchen while I was making PB&J sandwiches.  I spun around.  WHAT?!!!

"Well, not with a *real* gun," he tells me.  "Just an air gun."

Mind you I have *NO* guns in the house, other than two small squirt guns.  In my opinion, *any* gun more powerful than a supersoaker should not be in a house, and definitely not where a child could get their hands on it.

(I don't even know what the hell an air gun is.)

"Did you kill it?" I asked.

"No," he said, "but I did kinda hurt it."  He motioned with his arms, indicating that perhaps one wing was injured.

I didn't bother pointing out that if he hurt it, he might as well have killed it because it probably won't be able to defend itself or fly or might suffer a slow painful death.

I just asked, "Why, honey?  WHY?"

He suddenly looked sad.  As if that had never occurred to him.  "My parents told me I shouldn't do that again.  They were mad at me.  It just seemed fun."

"FUN"?  "Barbaric" is a better word.  But I'm also very sure that he's not the first boy (or girl) to think that shooting an animal is "fun".

I said, "Well, the goose probably didn't think it was 'fun'.  Next time, think of how the animal might feel."

"Yeah," he said.  He looked tearful, so I didn't say anything more.

This is not a deranged kid.  He's not being raised by crazy parents, either (Mom's a doctor; Dad's a nurse and they've both done medical stints in Africa).  These are GOOD, caring people. 

But for some reason, the parents have a gun in their house and their kids (at least the oldest) have access to it.

My kids will not be playing over there until I have assurances that a) all guns are LOCKED away, b) kids have no access to the keys to said locks, and c) ammunition is stored somewhere else.

Which means, of course, that my kid may never get to go over to their house.

I pray the goose died quickly.  :(