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Veg and the City: My Journey to Ethical Veganism

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I suppose I am one: an activist -- for animals and a vegan lifestyle. I hear that word, however, and look around to see if someone is indeed referring to me. I don't have the activist temperament. I like listening to divergent points of view and hearing people out. I like getting along. I even like being liked, although activists of any stripe should get rid of that handicap at the outset.

I grew from a typical Midwestern, middle-class only child into a committed plant eater and animal advocate due, probably, to a series of events that happened early on. When I was seven, I came home from school and proudly recited to my grandmother the four food groups, gold standard of nutrition education at that time: the meat group, dairy group, vegetable and fruit group and bread and cereal group. Ever the contrarian, she retorted: "There are some people who never eat any meat. They're called vegetarians. I could take you out to the Unity Inn (a church-run semi-vegetarian restaurant in a suburb of Kansas City) and get you a hamburger made out of peanuts. You'd think you were eating meat."

"Wow," I thought. "I hardly know anything."

Two years later, another stone was laid on my path to veganhood. I went to the Boat, Sports & Travel Show held annually at the convention center in downtown Kansas City. My family wasn't into boats, sports or the rugged kind of travel showcased there, but everybody went so we did, too. This particular year, one booth boasted a sizable fish tank and a sign that read, "Kiddies fish free." Free was a good price, and I figured "catch a fish" was like "catch a ball" -- fun for all.

I "caught" one right away and was unprepared for his (her?) violent struggle. I could barely hold onto the pole when the booth worker grabbed the line and smashed the fish's head on a metal table. I was unprepared for the torrent of blood that gushed from the now deceased being, placed in a baggie and handed to me. I had killed. I hadn't meant to, but I'd done it. I put the plastic-shrouded corpse in a ladies' room trash bin and asked God to forgive me. I had to go direct; this wasn't a sin I could take to confession.

As a sophomore in high school, I had another wham-o. Biology class. We dissected worms. It didn't feel right. I knew frogs were coming, then cats. I asked to be transferred to lab-free human science. "It's not college-prep," the teacher said.

"I don't care. I don't want an animal to die for me to go to college."

The teacher pushed his glasses down his middle-aged nose so he could get a close look at my sincere, acne-pocked face. "But you eat meat, don't you?"

Oh my gosh: he was right. This man taught biology but he should have been teaching logic; his reasoning was unassailable. I'd been a fraud all these (15) years, claiming to care about animals while scarfing down fried chicken and pork chops and, of course, Kansas City steak every chance I got. But what could I do? I was a kid. My parents wouldn't stand for it. What would I eat? I couldn't even drive yet to get to the place with the peanut-burgers. "I eat it now," I told him, "but I won't forever."

He paused for an instant, and peered at me even more intently over his spectacles: "You know what? I believe you." And, pushing the glasses up again, he signed the transfer form.

I liked human science. We learned about health and sex. I got into college after all.

But before college, I discovered yoga. It wasn't widely known then. (People confused "yoga" with "yogurt," and both were suspect.) I loved it, though. It helped me connect my awkward physical self with the spiritual part of me where I'd always felt at home. And central to its moral code was ahimsa, non-killing, non-harming. I stopped eating land animals right away, then sea animals, too. I'm not proud that it took me more than a decade to go vegan (no eggs and dairy), although that was the common route 30 years ago. People who were sensitive to these issues became vegetarians and worked up to vegan over time.

It's different now. Young people see a film like Earthlings or they happen onto a PETA site and come upon some facts of life that were left out of high school science classes, college-track or not. When my daughter's peers learn that cows have to give birth to give milk, and that boy babies from dairy herds are routinely slaughtered for veal, soy milk starts looking pretty good. When they find out that laying hens' male chicks are suffocated or otherwise summarily disposed of, they have no problem discovering incredible edibles besides eggs.

So here we are, the quick-to-change 20-somethings and the finally-changed boomers like me, forming a movement. I never thought I'd be part of a movement. I just stopped eating animals and, ultimately, their "products," without realizing that this was a political act.

I understand that societies are held together by agreements. In our society, it is agreed that killing humans, other than in wartime or for self-defense, is wrong. There is agreement (now) that it's wrong to own slaves, send children to work in factories and keep people from voting because of their race or gender. Most concur, however, that killing animals for food is right, although these creatures should be raised and slaughtered as "humanely" as possible. The majority of men and women don't want to look too closely to see whether or not this is the case, and tend to simply agree that everything is okay down on the farm. Few even think about the slaughterhouse. (Have you ever seen one? Do you know where one is located? Most people don't.)

Accepting that I live in a culture in which my convictions in this area are outside the accepted norms, my aim -- my activism -- is not to argue with those who think I'm nuts. Instead, I attempt to be an example for the interested, a resource for the curious and a guide for those new to this way of life -- like the woman I met today, an Israeli-born grandmother who told me that she hadn't eaten an animal product since March. "My eyes were opened," she said. "And I tell other people because you can never be sure who is ready to wake up."

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