Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Year Without Four Feet

That is, the flesh from quadrupeds in my gullet. Spending my life until last June self-described as an utterly devoted "meat and potatoes" sort of guy, I find that I don't miss meat. This amazes me.

Reading a student's research paper today, I reflected on why I made my choice. The essay told how a PETA video shown to this student in high school did not have any real impact, but the soft-sell message of the wildly popular "Skinny Bitch" book did in its subtle persuasion for gals like her to go vegan. Leo the other day asked me why I stopped. I averred a bit, saying it was part health, and part moral, but I downplayed any emotional incentive. He responded that if I had given up meat for morality, he would have found it easier to do so himself.

There was no road to Damascus moment, although I have written inevitably earlier on this blog about my hike on a less arid path in the gathering gloom eight miles or so late one night, or long twilight, from Glencolmcille to Malin Mór to Malin Beag and back in what became before midnight a steady rain in from the raw Donegal coast. I had begun to stretch my legs around 9 p.m. after the first harrowing day of an all-Irish immersion course. The light grows dim there only around 11, and by 3 or so it's already glowing again in the mid-summer that far north.

Before I knew it, there being but one way and that eventually a dead end four miles or so on, I kept walking into the gathering gloam. I talked to myself with as much Gaeilge as I could practice, mile after mile. The whole time perhaps two cars passed me. My sturdy Slovenian shoes and my waterproofed coat kept me cozy, and I recommend for any one in Irish climes to take a simple accessory: that little scarf knotted up around my neck ensured none of me got wet (except my glasses) and I packed it at a fraction of a bulky sweater. That, the jacket, and the boots proved my best investment. I still wish there'd be an invention to repel drizzle off one's specs. Yes, I know of hats, but they ruin my hair. Yes, I wore a hood, but it was no help.

On that by-road, a trailer passed me in the same direction with sheep, those that earlier I had in turn trudged past. How I know this as a citified pansy I am not sure, but I did. One ovine occupant appeared to scrutinize me as our eyes met. We kept looking at each other. The sheep faced me, peering into my gaze as the trailer towed the animal off to its byre after a day's grazing. Our looks locked.

Seán Ó Riordáin has an Irish-language poem about a farmer, Turnbull, who recounts how a horse's eyes passed into his ken by osmosis or imminence. It's like that, but less into the mystic. All I can say is I resolved at that moment of kinship between mute man and canny beast to keep up what for already a week in flight and at Limerick I had started. On the plane I demurred the beef-- which looked better-- for the chicken, and figured once in the land of euro, with no dough to spare and needing to travel light, I would eschew meat and try to eat veggie. (At Gus's bbq locally not long before, I had ordered the boys on a Dad's night out their baby back ribs not knowing they were verboten even by our uber-liberal kosher; another time I had done the same with a blasted form of spareribs. The nearest true smokehouse is out of business anyway now.) This total avoidance of tasty tender sinew had worked for me on past trips, when I avoided any meat in case pig hid in its blankets of sauce or spuds. I continued to stay veggie, with the exception of chicken at my host's couple of meals in Belfast; it's hard enough being a polite guest in an Irish home without making it awkward to turn down bacon and pork products of all kinds as it was, let alone beef or lamb, so some accommodation was understood. But, I could not believe my success.

One of the people in the house I stayed at next to Oideas Gael sensed I was not a true vegetarian. Probably because I turned down communal salads. She asked me and I denied I was, but I told her it was for my financial situation as well as a self-testing experiment. Even the sturdy American women who signed up for the hillwalking course, I noticed, gobbled down the local shop's Britishly frozen dinners full of chemical sludge. Maybe if they were Californian it'd been different: I figured they lived where Applebee's proved fine dining.

Such Birdseye fare appeared quite popular in An Teach Mór the fortnight I was there with all the tenants, including a surfer from Cork, a New Zealand trekker, and a couple of formidable mountaineering women of an uncertain, tough, age. Even the determined woman, coughing the whole fortnight, but not contagious, who faced summits in whatever gust from Berkeley ate like somebody from, well, anywhere but the supposed demographic(s) of the East Bay. Our marathon runner, a willowy blonde teacher from Dublin who ran up a steep slope to the Tower and back in amazing sprints, devoured factory effluents along with my fellow Americans, Brits, Kiwis, and native Hibernians. I concocted slumgullions closer to my temporary home: delicious cheese, treacle bread from a nearby bakery, onions, lentils, rice, seeds and legumes galore, tomatoes, apples, and peppers. I ate well, I thought. Even if nobody else agreed.

Despite almost a month apart from my dear spouse, the best cook in the world, I had thrived on grains, vegetables, fruit, yogurt, soup, and bread. I survived. I felt fine, walking everywhere when the record-setting summer's rain permitted. She never thought I could do it. I'm not even sure if I had fish, come to think of it, but once or twice. If salmon had come my way except for one or two noshing episodes at University College Dublin's bookstore book launches sponsored by the conference, I certainly would have. Biscuits, tea, wine and cheese receptions, and supper that turned out to be tiny bowls of salty snacks at one function proved the total of two universities' largesse-- funded largely on our own reg fees. Still, the vintner's choices at the a pair of welcome UCD shindigs proved more than palatable.

Have I learned any deep insight? We still ladle out disgusting chunks for cats; the dogs scarf kibble, dessicated chicken tenders that remind me of beef jerky with a suntan, and scraps from the boys, who munch burgers and steaks. But, after a fling in public now and then with prime rib, my wife's becoming less carnivorous, and reverting if in a lateral fashion back to the vegetarian with whom I fell in love nearly twenty years ago. I'm sure, although her blog lacks tags, that you can find her account of my inimitable meeting at her house for my first meal there and what she served me as her first domestic repast. My face betrays me when I lie or when I taste, enough said, and all my manners could not hide the truth. She tried. I tried.

My inability to digest or even masticate greens and my hatred in toddler style of cold leaves and oily accouterments does provide an insurmountable barrier to further dietary retreat on my part, and there's the kids to feed, so we do our best. It's texture you miss, not grease. I find any bulk faking it as meat cannot really be discerned in a casserole or sandwich anyhow, given enough sauce or spice or starch.

I feel little sympathy for birds and fins compared to goggle-eyed puppies, although even this may change. (Niall assures me that fish lack nerves.) That sheep I saw, staring back at me, differed not from its mates in that flatbed crate, spray-painted and dirty wool. Like most bedraggled people I pass on other strolls closer to what passes for civilization, it's not the outward appearance that moves hard-hearted me here. Sheep or human, I have to establish eye contact, touch a deeper mood, feel some connection. I cannot say any compassion has enriched me that powerfully, but perhaps it's a shift of my wavering, skeptical, seeking spirit aligned more subtly. I'd like to think so.

Maybe credit assigned yoga, unawares of any logic. Another paper I graded told of a disenchanted young woman's search beyond Catholicism and her embrace of Buddhism, and I noted with my pedagogically incorrect red pen hovering in hand (she's a terrible proofreader) of the injunction not to harm any living thing. I recall how this was waived for the Tibetan varietal, given their rather lackluster flora compared to their livestock. I wondered if meat-raising countries like Tibet or Ireland bred far fewer vegetarians historically, or more now.

My meals are preferably gobbled hot at least in part. Come to think of it I want even my toast, my oatmeal, baked apples, and my warm tortillas. Food served at a higher temperature than my body or the noonday thermometer is my preference no matter the weather. Chicken and fish still suffice. I crave fiber.

Problem is, I'd love to live on grain, tea, and berries, but I have not found any Beverly Hills or Palm Beach doctor's diet prescribing this attractive regimen yet. Manchán Magan's "Angels and Rabies" tells of his meeting with a Western drop-out in the Andes flourishing after two decades living only on fruit. But recalling the harangues from St. Simon Stylites, the discredited Marian visionaries at Garabandal, or the urban folktale from Santa Cruz of the man who lived the past nine years on a diet of only the air that he breathes, I doubt that Irishman's pal's veracity.

Photo: My setting was very much like this Irish scene that June evening. But it rained more.

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