Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Preview of Parenting

Several weeks ago I told Ian that we should think about investing some stock in the pet care industry. I had just read an article, Why America’s Falling Birth Rate Is Sensational News for the Pet Industry, which highlighted the trend of us job-hunting, loan-burdened, cohabiting 20-somethings turning to our furry babies to replace human ones. Ian and I very happily fall right into this quasi-parenthood. We bought Teddy health insurance, we buy him vanilla cones at Dairy Queen, we send him to daycare, and we've even taken him to get his picture with Santa.

For us, dog parenting is like real parenting “lite.” We still have responsibility for Teddy’s socialization, for his health care, and for remembering to bring his toys when we travel to “Grandma and Grandpa’s.” But we can still put him in his crate and go to the movies on a whim. And, of course, we love that friggin’ dog with our whole hearts. Even with the shedding, the drool, the vet bills (which, btdubs, I’m starting to think he has better healthcare than us), parenting him has been a blessing in our lives together.

However, dog parenting has given us another glimpse into a really annoying part of real parenting: unsolicited advice.

Let me take you through two scenes we encounter with our big pup all. the. time:

At a new groomer checking out:

Groomer: So, what do you feed Teddy at home?
Me: We feed him Purina Pro Plan for Sensitive Skin & Stomach.
Groomer: Gasp! Oh you know that Purina is not good food for him, right?
Me: Well, we’ve tried him on the really high quality foods - I want to feed him those - but he just doesn’t do well on them.
Groomer: Pulls up list of Pro Plan’s ingredients on computer screen. Well I just have to show you this. This ingredient is a byproduct of the brewing industry, this is a preservative...this isn’t hormone-free organic meat from Mount Sinai...

Everyday this week, walking in the shade in front of our building or at night:

Passerby 1: Your dog looks really hot.
Passerby 2: Your dog looks really hot.
Passerby 3: Your dog looks really hot.
Passerby 4: Your dog looks really hot.

In these two instances, these folks usually have the correct intentions. In fact, when people comment on Teddy being hot, it’s often observational (“Wow, he must be hot today!”). But it's the critical comments that make me want to get snippy. The wrong words or the wrong tone implies that we’re bad dog parents because he looks hot. Even though they don’t know that we live RIGHT ACROSS THE STREET.

And boy did I almost lose my cool at a critical comment last night. Ian and I were coming in with Teddy after his nighttime walk when two ladies asked us to hold the elevator for them. We did. I even pushed their floor button for them because they were carrying lawn chairs. One of the women narrowed her eyes, tilted her head in judgement, and asked us in a slow, drawn-out question:

"How can you liiiive with a dog like that in this building?"

In spite of her tone, I responded politely: “Well, Newfies are actually pretty good apartment dogs because they’re so lazy. He’s just a big floor potato.”

“Oh, alright.”

Our elevator stopped at our floor, so I loosened my tongue a bit as we stepped out: “... And, you know, there's the fact that we love him. We’re not going to get rid of him.”

The doors closed behind us, and I turned to Ian to say what I really thought: “Bitch.”

More than any fact about Teddy’s life, that he is big and lives in an apartment with us draws the strongest criticism. These particular commenters might think they have my dog's best interests at heart, like the food-mongers and the heat-observers, but they do not. Nevermind that Teddy is not a goldfish. Nevermind that we did, in fact, live in the suburbs with him and even with the big spaces and backyards, he still missed the city. Nevermind that he is a floor potato and, as I type these words, he is engaging in one of his all-time favorite activities: sleeping on the tile by the fireplace.

No, this line of thinking - that only small dogs can live in smaller spaces - is dangerous. As an animal shelter volunteer, I see dogs relinquished because their humans are moving to different spaces. I hear adopters come in and say to me, “I’m looking for a dog, but only a small one because I live in an apartment.” And then I see the shih tzus and poodle mixes adopted the same day they arrive on the adoption floor, while the shepherds and pit bull mixes, cursed only by their size, wait and wait and wait for someone who knows what Ian and I have known all along: dogs don't care about the size of your house, but the size of your heart.

When we got Teddy, we thought he would fit well into our lives. Little did we know that, two years later, we gladly fit into his. I bet it’s the same with real parenting, too.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Biting My Tongue, Part 2

Over the past few years I’ve dined at Italian restaurants with a few family members who, of the plethora of menu options available, have ordered the veal parmesan. Now, I’m not saying you shouldn't eat veal parmesan; I’m sure it’s very tasty, and to each his own blah blah blah... But, like gifting Turkish delights to an Armenian, or eating bacon-wrapped cheese curds in front of a devout Jewish person, picking the baby cow off the menu in front of a vegetarian makes me do a little mental head tilt of confusion. It’s just a little... weird?

As much as I enjoy a good debate about the morality of meat-eating, I usually bite my tongue about others’ meals because nobody, especially vegetarian ole’ me, likes for their food choices to be the center of conversation. Even when the subject of my vegetarianism does come up, I try to be polite and never engage in a Wollenian style takedown of others’ carnism.

But the biggest reason I stay mum at the dinner table is because militancy - whether about gun rights, immigration, abortion, or calves being tethered into immobility - rarely works. At least not with friends and family.

As anyone who cares deeply about any issue knows, we impassioned folk have a choice to make everyday: to be outspoken about the wrongs that bother us, or to sit back quietly and lead by example. I think the latter works better in the long-run because, as much as we define ourselves by what we are, we also define ourselves by what we are not. The Other is just as much a part of our identities as The Self, so every time we say/tweet/post something divisive, we may harden the juxtaposition of opposing opinions.

Here’s what I mean:
  • I am a woman; I am American; I like Coke; I am a Chicagoan; I am a vegetarian
  • I’m not a man; I’m not an Afghani; I don’t prefer Pepsi; I’m not a New Yorker; I don't eat meat

So every time you say something about being a man; it reinforces my womanhood. Every time someone in suburbia posts about their 2nd Amendment rights, it reminds me that I’m a Chicagoan who hates gun violence. Everytime I share a video about overfishing or ag-gag laws, I’m forcing people to identify themselves at meat-eaters.

In other words, sharing strong opinions cultivates defensiveness. We think that the rightness of our own beliefs will entice people to step over to our side, but it usually makes people take big steps away from us. So, as much as I love the chance to correct someone who thinks that the milk in their fridge comes from a farm like Dotty and Kit’s in A League of Their Own, I try my best to stay mum on the subject of modern-day animal agriculture because, if I push my points to strongly, I’m going to push people away.

Perhaps the most persuasive action is a quiet, kind patience.

Take my cousin, Emma, for example - a lifelong vegetarian who gave up meat as soon as she learned who it came from. When I started thinking about transitioning to a meat-free diet, I naturally thought of her. But I didn’t think of her Tofurky or her leatherless shoes. Rather, I thought of her kindness and her patience with the rest of us; her constant acceptance of our different food choices. She was the quiet vegetarian who never made me feel guilty for eating turkey at the holidays or having down feathers in my winter coat.

And that’s the thing: when people hear the word “vegetarian,” I don’t want them to think of me. Or if they do, let it be with the kindness with which I always thought of Emma. Let my presence as a plant-eater in others’ lives be but a brief respite in their minds before going on to ponder the real substance of the word.

Militant vegetarians - or environmentalists, or Tea Partiers - do their cause a disservice. Combativeness should stay in the town hall or on the streets in protest, but not at the dinner table because - and this is the the truth that makes me bite my tongue every time a family member orders the veal - had I ever been made to feel guilty by a vegetarian, I probably wouldn't be one today.

I made the transition, and now there are two vegetarians at our family gatherings. Last Thanksgiving, Emma and I sat together at the far end of the table, happily plopping vegan stuffing and butter-free mashed potatoes on our plates while handing off the turkey slices and corn casserole to those around us. Then, at our most recent family gathering a few weeks ago, the turkey master himself, my grandpa, gladly scooped up a slice of of our vegan dish for the first time ever. A vegetable pot pie. He really liked it.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Biting My Tongue, Part 1

I’m a vegetarian, an almost-vegan these days (How you doin’ oatmeal chocolate chip cookies from Potbelly?). I’m a shy vegetarian, though - not because I’m ashamed or embarrassed, but because I realize what a lightning rod the word “vegetarian” can be.

Case in point: I was at a friend’s potluck a few months ago. I brought my vegan mac ‘n cheese, which everyone seemed to like even before they knew what was in it. Eventually someone mentioned the lack of dairy in my dish, and then this guy meandered over to me and said: “So you’re a vegan? You know that cows want to be milked, right?”

Game on.

Whenever somebody starts to defend modern animal agriculture I get a little tickle of excitement in my gut because I loves me a good debate about the merits of vegetarianism. Seriously, I have several vegan cookbooks in my pantry; I attended a seminar with the founder of Farm Sanctuary and summarily adopted (symbolically, of course) one of their goats for Christmas; I subscribe to at least a dozen farm animal protection groups on Facebook; and I’m hoping to some day memorize this epic speech by Australian Philanthropist Philip Wollen in a debate called “Animals Should Be Taken Off the Menu":

So bring. it. on.

But, I had just met this guy, so I bit my tongue and responded diplomatically, “That’s just not true, but we don’t have to get into all of that right now. Tell me more about where you grew up?”

Deep down, I love when people want to talk to me about vegetarianism. That you care about where your food comes from, even if you disagree with me, makes me smile on the inside.

But I stay mum on the outside. I usually bite my tongue at these kinds of provocations because I never want people to feel like I’m different from them because of my food choices. That’s a very common complaint about vegetarians, isn’t it? That we think of ourselves as “better” than meat eaters. However, I think this defensiveness quietly asserts the opposite. Slaughtering animals for human consumption has been and always will be a violent, guilt-inducing act, especially nowadays. We all cringe at undercover PETA videos, and free-range eggs and organic meats have a growing market share because, deep down, everyone cares about animal welfare. We are all compassionate; we are all “better.” As a vegetarian, I may be more consistent with my values, but my values match yours. We are the same.

The biggest reason I bite my tongue at questions about my food choices is because I’m starting to realize how divergent opinions can reinforce each other. I leave my vegetarian dish to do the talking for me at the dinner table because the best way to get people to eat less meat might be to stop trying to convince them. I'll explore that idea in my next post.