Reconsidering Meat

Eating Animals bookcoverI’m struggling. Last night I finished reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, which isn’t so much a treatise against eating meat, as it is a thoughtful exploration of why we still tear into that bacon double cheeseburger despite knowing

  • There is now a scientific consensus that animal agriculture is the single largest contributor to global warming—outstripping even the transportation industry in its production of greenhouse gases;
  • Factory farming’s industrial slaughterhouses have created worker conditions that Human Rights Watch describes as “systematic human rights abuses“;
  • Farm animals are genetic mutants. Broiler chickens, for example, are so heavy that their bones cannot support their weight, making it difficult for them to stand. The birds reach their market weight of 3 1/2 pounds in seven weeks.
  • A typical hog factory farm produces 7.2 million tons of untreated manure annually;
  • Overuse of antibiotics in animals is causing more strains of
    drug-resistant bacteria, which is affecting the treatment of various
    life-threatening diseases in humans. According to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, between 5 and 10 percent of all hospital patients develop an infection, leading to an increase of about $5 billion in annual U.S. healthcare costs.

For some, those facts alone are compelling enough to make them put down that drumstick. But for many of us, myself included, giving up meat is hard because meat represents more than a craving or basic sustenance. As a Shelf Awareness review of Eating Animals noted, “giving up meat is difficult because of the stories we build around the food we eat and the culture and tradition built through these stories.”

I’m thinking of my Aunt Kathy’s meatballs. As a child, I was a picky eater and a majority of what my aunt served me at family get togethers would remain on the plate. Squid salad. Yuck. Dark turkey meat with gravy? No way. Spinach? Are you kidding?! But when she served spaghetti and meatballs, my stomach growled and I ate every bite.

“I dream about your meatballs, Aunt Kathy,” I told her.

“You hear that, Joe Pace?” my aunt turned her husband and squawked. “She dreams about my meatballs!”

What if I went to see my aunt in Arizona and she placed a plate of spaghetti and meatballs in front of me? Suddenly, I’m not just refusing meat: I’m refusing to be a part of an integral story from my childhood. I’m refusing the joy we shared over the one thing I would eat.

Perhaps that disappointment would be fleeting; however, I imagine that being a vegetarian forces you to confront the stories you tell about yourself. I consider myself a compassionate, thoughtful person, but can I still be that person and eat meat, knowing what I know?

For now, I’ve resolved to drastically cut back on my meat consumption and to eat more conscientiously. That means seeking out farmer’s markets and local producers. It’s a small step, but perhaps it will lead to another. And another.

What I Learned From My Father’s Death

The Kids Are All Right book coverI can still remember getting the call from the hospital about my father, who was being treated for terminal liver duct cancer. The voice on the other side said the words “ICU,” “unconscious,” and then asked the question, “Do you know what his wishes are?”

From the other room, I could hear my six-week old daughter cooing. I opened my mouth, but no words came out. How was I supposed to decide whether my father should live or die?

I don’t remember what I said. What I do remember is wishing like hell that I wasn’t in this position. Because my mother is mentally ill and unable to competently make decisions, and because I have no brothers or sisters, the decision to continue life support or to opt for palliative care was mine alone. My father had left no living will or health care proxy explicitly outlining his wishes in the event he became incapacitated or who was authorized to make those decisions.

Even if he did regain consciousness, he wouldn’t have long to live. The cancer had spread to his surrounding organs and was inoperable. A pulmonary embolism, or blood clot, in his lung left him gasping for air. I decided to take him off the ventilator and withdraw his feeding tube. He was given a morphine drip to control whatever pain he might feel.

My father died a few days later, never having regained consciousness, and I was left to figure out what do next. We need a will, I thought. He had mentioned one a few weeks ago, so I drove to my childhood home and began digging through his file cabinet. After about 10 minutes, I discovered a legal-sized envelope from a law firm. This must be it. But when I opened the flap and pulled the papers out, my heart sank. It was a draft of a will. He had not signed it.

When someone dies without a will, it’s known as dying intestate. Basically, it is up to the state to decide how the property and assets will be distributed to the beneficiaries. This is known as the probate process. It takes a long time and the court costs are paid by the estate, which means less money for the beneficiaries. In this case, me and my mother.

These memories came flooding back to me while I was reading Diana and Liz Welch’s The Kids Are All Right. Told in alternating voices of the siblings, the memoir recounts the story of four kids who, within the course of a few years, lose their father in a car crash and their mother to cancer. After their father’s death, the family is hounded by bankruptcy lawyers intent on collecting on the hefty debt the father left behind. Later, after the mother succumbs to cancer, the kids learn that she never specified in her will who they would live with after her death. As a result, the kids are dispersed to different family friends, and their lives take heart-wrenching turns before they are able, in early adulthood, to come together again.

Why hadn’t Mom specified what would happen to us after she died? the Welch kids wondered. The answer: she believed to the end that she could beat this thing.

I can’t help asking a similar question of my father.  How could he leave me with such a mess? Without a will I had no access to any money. I borrowed money from my father-in-law to cover my Dad’s funeral expenses (the kids in the memoir had to rely on an uncle to pay for their mother’s burial costs at the cemetery), and I paid for my mother’s COBRA health insurance with my savings.

Eventually, I hired a lawyer, went to probate court, and got appointed as Administrator so that I could start paying the bills. But it didn’t have to be like this. The mother in “The Kids Are All Right” at least had the presence of mind to create a trust fund for her children, ensuring that their education was taken care of.

My husband and I decided never to let our daughter go through what the Welch siblings and I endured. Several months after my father’s death, we went to a lawyer and had health care proxies, living wills, and wills drawn up designating an Administrator for the estate and Guardian for our little girl.

My daughter is an only child, so she won’t have siblings to rely on, but at least if anything should happen to me and my husband, she’ll know that we cared enough to spare her the crushing paperwork and anguish that accompanies an unexpected and unplanned death.

This post is inspired by the book, “The Kids are All Right” by Diana and Liz Welch, with Amanda and Dan Welch. I received a complimentary copy of “The Kids Are All Right” as a member of the Left to Write Book Club. All comments and opinions of the book are my own, and I did not receive any compensation, monetary, or otherwise, for this post.*