Monday, December 26, 2011

Playing Chicken

People often ask why I do not eat meat. I can never think of a concise answer, because I have many reasons, not all of them easy to explain.  Often I just give the one that will satisfy the most people, even though it explains the least: I refrain from taking life as part of my practice of Buddhism.

It started in the fall of my sixteenth year, when my mother found an excellent deal on chicken leg quarters at the IGA supermarket. Growing up impoverished in the Taiwanese south had given her a strong frugal streak, so she bought enough chicken to fill up the entire freezer.

As my mother hated cooking, she worked out an ingenious scheme for expediting weeknight supper. Each weekend, she would broil as many chicken leg quarters as would fit in the oven, dice them up, and keep them in the refrigerator, ready for use.

I did not--and do not--begrudge my mother for saving money or time. After a month of bland, chewy broiled chicken, however, I was ready to snap. Raised in Chinese fashion, I harbored no notion of asking my mother to vary the menu. So I started making ramen for myself when I got home from school, arguing that I was too hungry to wait, then skipping dinner to study (and/or play MUDs).

Once soccer season arrived, though, I regularly made it home later than my parents and could no longer use hunger as an excuse to make my own meals. So I came up with a reason that I thought would pass the filial piety test: vegetarianism.

It did not impress my parents.

My mother, perhaps more perceptive than I gave her credit, insisted that I hated her cooking. There was no fighting her on that one. My father calmly explained that I could not possibly get enough protein to survive his PT regimen and varsity soccer without eating meat. I, with the stubbornness I inherited from him and perhaps a bit of teenage defiance, insisted that I most certainly could.

I did some research on nutrition and presented it to my father. He remained unconvinced. I kept a journal of what I ate for several days, demonstrating that I got plenty of protein. This annoyed him, but he knew too much biology to argue that protein from meat was qualitatively different from the protein in other foods. Reluctantly, he allowed me to continue, convinced that I would grow out of the phase soon enough.

Ironically, I might not have stuck to vegetarianism if my father had just let it alone from the start. The fact that I fought him (amicably) over the issue and won meant a lot to me, and thereafter my diet represented one of the few areas I controlled in my highly regimented life.

As the years passed, I often considered eating meat again--and at times have done so in limited capacities. I have a strong aversion to habits that do not serve any purpose, and make regular audits of my habits in order to eliminate or change unnecessary ones. My vegetarianism has survived several such audits, emerging at last with renewed conviction.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Born Sinister

" not left-handed!"
I have decided on a project for the coming year: using my non-dominant (left) hand for tasks normally performed with the (right) dominant hand. Exclusions include situations where clumsiness can easily end in disaster and the use of items designed specifically for the right hand.

As I begin 'practicing' with my left hand, I have noticed just how much the design of everyday products subtly favor the right-handed. Presumably actual left-handed people, who grow up with these inconveniences, adapt to them in time and seek out non-handed/left-handed alternatives. Freshly and artificially left-handed, though, I find myself struggling with scissors and fumbling with can openers constantly.

This will prove another interesting and challenging year (refer to the previous post for a recounting of my E-Prime project for 2011).

It occurred to me, in thinking about handedness, that it makes a decent analogy for sexual orientation--better, in a lot of ways, than the ethnicity parallel that so many LGBT activists prefer.

Humanity contains about the same percentage of non-right-handed people as LGBT people. Chirality, like sexual orientation, appears congenital, but science has not yet explained what determines either of them. One often cannot tell a person's handedness at first glance, and most right-handed people assume everyone else shares their hand dominance. Also, certain religious groups considered both left-handedness and homosexuality inherently evil.

Oh, did I use the past tense there?

Like every analogy, it breaks down at some point, but I had fun playing with the idea. Today, in the West, most people do not actively discriminate against left-handed people, nor assign any real significance to handedness at all. However, I doubt anyone came to the conclusion that left-handed people deserve the same rights as right-hand people because they cannot help it

Why, then do so many LGBT activists and allies cling to the 'born this way' argument? For those not familiar with the conceit, it pretty much explains itself: we should not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity because LGBT people came that way and cannot help it.

A corollary holds that the existence of homosexuality in the rest of the animal kingdom makes it 'natural', therefore we should not condemn it.

I do not take issue with the premises. Sexual orientation and gender identity do seem largely congenital and stable as far as we can tell, and animals do exhibit a great variety of sexual behaviors, including homosexuality. However, I take issue with the reasoning (or lack thereof), and object to the proliferation of such arguments in the societal dialog about LGBT issues.

We do not grant civil liberties to left-handed people because 'God made them that way', nor because variations in chirality exist in other species. We do it because we recognize that handedness (or sexual orientation, or gender identity, et al.) does not violate the rights of others in a free(ish) society, and thus has no bearing on the worthiness of an individual to receive those same rights.

It does not make any difference whether a person can change his homosexuality or his left-handedness. I say this as someone who has arguably chosen both, and I defy anyone to tell me I ought to do otherwise. 'Born this way' might make a catchy refrain in a pop song, but never mistake it for a sound argument against discrimination.

Friday, December 16, 2011


Every Winter Solstice, I undertake a project for the coming year. These year-long projects generally take the form of a change in personal habit, practice, or belief, preferably in a way that impacts my everyday life. After a year, I decide whether I want to keep the change brought about by the project.

As my personal project for 2011, I chose to speak and write without using the verb 'to be'. Some call this English Prime (E-Prime), and attribute to it any number of positive qualities, to the point of advocating its use over standard English.

The benefits of E-Prime do not always seem immediately apparent. Some linguists consider E-Prime less biased and more efficient, as it discourages definitive statements (e.g. "This language is bad.") in favor of descriptive ones (e.g. "This language lacks flexibility").

Not a linguist myself, I chose this project primarily as a challenge. As well, I wanted to test the practicality of using E-Prime on a day-to-day basis. Given that I live in a society heavily addicted to using 'to be', however, I left myself some leeway. I allowed myself to use the forbidden verb when referring to it as a noun (as I did in the preceding sentence), quoting someone else, and when working on fiction that predated the inception of the E-Prime project.

So, how did it go?

Switching over to E-Prime in writing came very easily. Perhaps, as a novelist, the need to plan sentences and paragraphs gave me an edge in restructuring written expression on the fly. Whatever the case, I never experienced any difficulty writing in E-Prime--unless you count forgetting to not write in E-Prime when working on my novels!

Speaking E-Prime posed a far greater challenge. It took me weeks to train myself out of saying various forms of 'to be', and even after the first month, I often cut myself off when I realized I could not complete the sentence without using 'to be'. Conversing with more than two people at once, especially while under the influence of alcohol, led to a large number of infractions. Contractions became the bane of my existence, since many of them 'disguise' the use of 'to be'.

E-Prime has certainly helped me gain a greater awareness of what I (and people around me) say and mean. I find myself using a greater variety of verbs now, and speaking more descriptively--if sometimes awkwardly. I also noticed some other, unexpected benefits, such a decreased incidence of triggering out-group hostility. For example, I received far fewer defensive responses to saying "I do not eat meat", compared to "I am a vegetarian" (the previous post addressed this phenomenon in greater detail).

However, I have also found that E-Prime eliminates many useful and elegant constructions, especially in terms of metaphors. While technically accurate, "I compare the world to a stage" just does not sound as poetic as "all the world's a stage". Also, sometimes a definitive statement, far from judgmental or vague, simply makes sense. "This pen is blue" gains little by conversion into E-Prime: "this pen has a blue color".

As the Solstice approaches, I have no trouble coming to the conclusion that 2011's project must end. Through my experiences, I have developed vast respect for E-Prime and what it can teach us, but also severe doubts about its utility as a living language. While I hope the lessons I have learned about language and communication will stick, I look forward fondly to the end of my 'to be' prohibition.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Meat in the Middle

Stir-fried vegetarian 'beef' and green peppers over brown rice.
I became a vegetarian several years ago for a variety of reasons that could probably fill an entire post but pretty much amount to 'orneriness'. In any case, I do not use my dietary choices as a brickbat, nor judge others who do not share my views, nor try to convert them (except jokingly, with close friends).

Still, a not insignificant percentage of people get defensive or skeptical when they learn of my dietary preference. By 'defensive' I mean reacting as though I had accused meat-eaters of immorality, and by 'skeptical' I mean insisting that a vegetarian diet cannot supply adequate nutrition, despite sound evidence to the contrary.

In turn, I find myself reflexively throwing scientific research and dietary arithmetic around to justify my choice. This works about as well as you might expect, and accomplishes nothing except firmly convincing the other person that I (and probably all vegetarians) look down on meat-eaters. Lately, I have grown more conscious of this phenomenon and try to refrain from engaging such individuals.

Of course we have a desire see our own choices and preferences--even the largely arbitrary ones--as Correct. In some of us the need to validate this desire runs stronger than others. Perhaps those people would get equally defensive/skeptical about my preference of colors, or movies, or music, if different from their own.

Interestingly, I have found that I trigger the defensive/skeptical reaction less frequently when I say "I do not eat meat". This discovery came as a side effect of my 2011 yearly 'project', in which I undertook to eliminate the verb 'to be' from my vocabulary as much as possible. Doing so meant I could not declare "I am a vegetarian", and so I started expressing my dietary preference differently.

Why would insecure or excessively passionate meat-eaters find "I do not eat meat" less offensive? I would have imagined a negative statement about meat more likely draw more objections than a positive statement about vegetables. No. Instead, most people respond by asking me why.

I usually reply that my motivation stems in part from my practice of Buddhism, but that, for the most part, I simply do not like the taste of meat (though, as implied above, my vegetarianism has a far more convoluted history). They usually accept this without complaint.

So what makes this exchange more acceptable than "I am a vegetarian"? Perhaps the participation of the other party forges a sense of cooperation with me? Or the avoidance of identifying as a member of a group side-steps the in-group/out-group reflex? Or maybe the word 'vegetarian' itself has negative connotations in the American imagination, conjuring visions of PETA and the Counterculture?

Whatever the case, I have learned that creativity in language use comes with an unexpected bonus. Who knows what other psychological minefields I can circumvent by expressing things in unconventional ways!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

End of the Beginning

To the best of my knowledge, I have only disappointed my father once.

It had seemed like the end of the world. Perhaps so, in that it ended one epoch of my life--one I do not like to think about often anymore. Like it or not, though, I owe my cherished present to that unpleasant past.

In the winter of my senior year in high school, I withdrew my application to the Naval Academy, for which I had prepared the three years previous. My father has an Irish temper, and usually it flares bright and brief. That event, however, infuriated him to such an extent that I could not talk to him for nearly a month.

It probably did not help that my eldest brother had done something very similar years ago.  He had changed his mind about attending West Point at the last minute, went to a liberal arts college for a short while, then hared off to some Ashram in California.

Dad attributed my change of heart to 'nerves', cowardice, the liberal media's brainwashing, and pretty much everything except for the reasoned decision I thought I had made. Neither he nor my mother would accept my choice, and kept waiting for me to 'get over it'

I heard them talking in the living room at night about how I would never make it in civilian life. They thought me too intellectual and too sensitive to brave the world without the structure of the military to prop me up and give me direction.

At the time, I believed them.

Like my brother, I did find my own way to higher education. Unlike my brother, I did not drop out to join a commune, but our life experiences still have their parallels. Academic scholarships made moot my parents' reluctance to foot the bill, and I never returned home again except for short, uncomfortable visits.

Though I kept in touch with my parents by email and by telephone, we rarely had much to discuss. They no longer brought up military service, or other unsolicited advice that they knew I would ignore. Nevertheless, it seemed plain to me that they did not particularly approve of my life choices. I could live with that.

A couple of months ago, I called my father to wish him a happy birthday. We talked about the weather and our workout routines, and about my mother, as usual.

Then, he dropped this bomb: "I don't think I say this often, but I'm proud of you. You may not have done things the way I would have, but you've done good, and I love you."

To put things in perspective, I do not come from a warm and demonstrative family. By "I don't think I say this often", my father actually meant he had never said it before--at least not to me.

So I gaped for a moment, wondering who had kidnapped Major Farrington, USMC (Ret.) and replaced him with this understanding, modern dad. No, it defied the bounds of belief to imagine someone breaking into the home of my aging but freakishly in-shape ex-military parents and leaving with anything other than injuries.

"I love you, too, Dad," I replied at last. "You're my hero, and the best father a son could have."

Even typing that now kind of makes me cringe, but I meant it. Before we hung up, he added that, in retrospect, he believed I had made the right choice in not attending the Naval Academy, and he respected me for holding my ground against him.

It felt like some strange, belated rite of passage: a blessing from the man whose opinion I had valued above all others for the better part of my life. Sure, I did not any longer wait on his approval like the child his anger once devastated, but in a way that made it easier for me to appreciate the gesture.

Entering military service, in and of itself, would not have made me like my father as I once hoped it would. Becoming my own man, honoring my word, respecting others, and taking responsibility for my actions--these things make me my father's son.

And I did not even have to join the Navy to do it.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Beginning of the End

On the second day of Naval Academy Summer Seminar, they woke us at 0530, lined us up in the passageway, and told us to run five miles in half an hour. I made it in under the time limit, winded and nauseous, but triumphant.

My limbs felt like noodles as I struggled to keep up with the squad on the way back to the dorms. A squadmate, the only one who finished ahead of me, threw my arm over his shoulder and helped me along.

He had platinum blond hair, buzzed very short, and ice blue eyes. Though almost two inches shorter than me--no mean feat--he probably outweighed me half again in pure, rippling muscle. I could not decide whether I envied him or wanted him.

It turned out he lived near the beach, and would run down to the water each morning, swim across a cove (in all seasons, no less), do a ton of push-up on the beach, then run home.

To me, his accomplishments seemed godlike. Sure, I played varsity soccer, but it mattered more to me that our quiz bowl team made it to the nationals. I jogged three to five miles every morning, and visited the weight room every other day, but it did little to improve my whip-thin physique.

The rest of the squad had already written me off as a nerd--even our midshipman squad leader vocally disdained my "book smarts"--but they shunned him for reasons entirely mysterious to me. Perhaps he just seemed too well-prepared, too gung-ho, and too unconcerned about their opinions.

The next day, during personal time before lights-out, he confided his motivation for joining the Navy. He needed structure and regulation in his life to compensate for something he lacked.

He looked right at me, no emotion in his perfect Aryan eyes, and said, "I can be very cruel."

I stopped envying him, but wanted him more than ever. Maybe the others avoided him because they could sense his sociopathy, or something. What did it say about me that I liked him?

When he asked me why I wanted to join, I could not summon any of the high-minded drivel about duty and service and 'being a part of something bigger than myself' that we all write in our admissions essays.

"I want to be like my dad," I blurted.

He actually smiled then, a strange, thin smile. "You can do that without joining the Navy."

"He's a Marine, actually, a Mustang," I conceded. "Said he would rather have a daughter in a whorehouse than a son in the Naval Academy. Guess this counts as rebellion for me."

"You can do that without joining the Navy, too," he pointed out.

It did not occur to me to turn that around on him--to say that he could find structure and purpose and whatever in all sorts of places. It did not occur to me because his words had triggered a revelation of sorts.

Until then, I had embraced the naval service as my destiny. If not the Academy, then NROTC, or enlistment. The very thought of civilian life seemed ridiculous and untenable. I did not consider the litany of reasons I might not belong in the military, and, more problematically, I refused to consider why I really wanted to serve at all.

Later that night, I lay in my bunk, waiting and dreading as cries of "goodnight" traveled down the passageway. I joined in when our turn came. When the last, distant "goodnight" sounded, I thought for a moment the next part might not come.

Then someone outside shouted, in a sing-song voice, "Goodnight, Jane Fonda!"

"Goodnight, Commie bitch!" my fellows roared, without me.