Things That Go Bump in the Mind

Things That Go Bump in the Mind
Look for a new post every Sunday morning.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How to be Vegan and Ambivalent about It

It's not what goes into your mouth that defiles you; you are defiled by the words that come out of your mouth. -- Matthew 15:11
It's not easy being green. -- Kermit the Frog

     This morning for breakfast I had toast and some stuff that looked pretty much like ham salad – but it didn't have any ham in it. Instead the “ham” was made up of the pulp from carrots, beets, apples, and sauerkraut. It didn't taste bad; in fact, after pretty much sticking to the vegan diet for the past year, I thought the concoction tasted pretty good. Notice the contingency of the phrase “after pretty much sticking to the vegan diet for the past year,” because I'm confident there was a time not too long ago when I would have turned my nose up at the fake ham salad. I must admit the dab of peanut butter I put with it certainly added something to the flavor. The amazing thing is, however, it did taste pretty good, even without the peanut butter, and that's because if you stick with eating a certain way for an extended period of time, your preference for particular tastes begin to adapt to whatever you are eating.
     When my wife, Ruth, started this diet (I supposed I should use the word “lifestyle” because a “diet” is something you choose for the short term, but a “lifestyle” is something you're supposedly in for the long haul), I was not going to do it. At the time she told me she was changing to a “plant-based” diet, I was on a “gas station-based” diet – practically everything I ate was brown, round, and rolling on the grill at the Speedway. Gosh, I loved that food, and I still get my cravings for it, but I'm doing better about living day-to-day without it. It took an extra six months and a movie called Forks Over Knives to convince me to try to change over to a vegan diet, and just basically eat what Ruth did. I still cheat on the “lifestyle.” I don't have the willpower to overcome 50 years of programming in just a year or so to entirely forgo meat and cheese, but I often surprise myself on how well I do it. Ruth is a devotee, however, and can navigate a buffet like zealot. I'm not that strong; if we're at a party or some other social gathering, somehow, a tiny particle of beef or cheese finds its way onto my plate to hide beneath the broccoli.
     So, the Big Question is, of course, “Why veganism?” Why bother? I often tell people I do it because Ruth does it (and there's a certain amount of truth to that since I wouldn't have started if she hadn't gone first). I like the answer “I do it because my wife wants me to” because it lets me off the hook from doing the explaining why a plant-based diet is a good idea and really worth the effort. You see, here's the rub: as a rhetorician, I understand when people ask questions because they are really more interested in making an argument rather than getting an answer. So, not always, of course, but often enough, I get people who ask me “Why do you bother with this diet when it's so much easier to eat like everybody else?” when they don't really want to know why I do it but are really just wanting to justify why they eat like everybody else. Honestly, I don't care why other people eat what they do. So, it's in those situations when I'd rather not bother with the argument at all that I just put it back on Ruth. So, I circumvent the argument; I say, “I do the vegan thing because meat and cheese makes my ears bleed.” And then they go, “What?” and then I say, “You know, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah” and they give up wanting to argue with me because they figure I'm just another henpecked husband who does whatever his wife wants him to. (Again, there may be a certain amount of truth to that, but I'm not nearly as henpecked as I am unwilling to argue with people who have already made up their minds about something.)
     Ruth, by the way, goes way beyond the vegan thing and actually tries to follow a sparse “plant-based” diet that also puts strict limits on sugar, salt, oil, and other evils of processed food. I'm not so much committed to that lifestyle because living without meat and dairy is hard enough, and it's taking me more than a year to wrap my brain around how to do the vegan thing while working in town without remembering to pack a lunch. Ruth would be happy to have you know that while a vegan diet is a healthier diet, it still doesn't mean it's a healthy diet if you are living off of french fries, doughnuts, and soda (which technically can be all vegan because you can get all of those things without meat, dairy, or eggs). Ruth's diet is about heart health, and eating that way really is a good way to help avoid heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, and even cancer.
     It's not that I have a death-wish, but the reason I'm not as good at avoiding “the other bad food” is because when I get too hungry my belly can get louder than my brain. If I'm hungry, my brain can yell its fool head off about cancer and diabetes, but it can't get louder than my belly singing “The Supper Song of Freedom.” (It's lyrics goes a little like this: Eat what you want, Eat what you want, you may die tomorrow of a heart attack, but you're suffering right now from hankering for something greasy. Don't fear the cancer; fear the hanker).
     Some people choose to do the vegan thing for ethical reasons. They see the needless butchering of animals as an evil humans can live without. I have no argument with these people any more than I have arguments with the people who believe humans have a right to shoot anything that moves. I am not interested in arguing either way. It's not that I don't have an opinion on the morality of killing animals for particular reasons; it's that I don't think my opinion is necessarily better than anyone else's on this so I'm not interested in participating in an argument in which I can see validity on both sides of the aisle. If there's one seriously good idea I picked up from studying rhetoric, it's that it's really okay to stay uncommitted and agnostic when you're not persuaded by the evidence “for” or “against” something.
     So why do I follow the vegan diet? Sometimes it's because I love my wife enough to want to support her in something that she believes so deeply in (Heaven knows there's enough ideas she believes in that I can't find myself supporting); sometimes it's because there's nothing else in the house to eat; and sometimes it's because I just want to see if I can please both my brain and my belly with stuff that isn't going to kill me somewhere do the road. Perhaps when I have expired, I can come back as a vegan zombie and while other zombies are craving brains, I can be moaning for “Grrrrains!”

      Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Goodbye, Southern High.


     On Thursday, I retire from teaching public high school and tonight I will watch my last group of seniors graduate. Sometime next week, they will start the process of knocking the building down. It's not that the district is taking my retirement that seriously; they were planning on knocking the building down anyway because a new high school (right next door) will be finished this summer.
     Somehow it feels completely appropriate that they are knocking the building down the same year I'm heading off to The Great Pasture of Retirement. Both the building and I are 52, and I suppose if I were to hang around much longer, they'd be taking a bulldozer to me as well. To be blunt, my values are no longer welcome in teaching. Like the building I'm leaving behind, my wiring is out of date. I know that needs some explaining, so here goes:
     My dad was a school teacher before me (and he taught in the very same high school where I have taught for the past 30 years). Back when I was in college, I was majoring in Journalism, but I had my eye on a teaching career. My dad didn't want me to do go into teaching. He was afraid I'd become disgruntled over the small salary he'd had to live off of to raise his family; he didn't want me to make the same mistake. When I broke it to him that I was getting my teaching certificate, he said, “Well, all right, but you know how much it pays. Go ahead and become a teacher, but I never want to hear you complain how much money you're making.” That's been the deal for the last 30 years; I've never complained to him about my salary (even though for better than the past 15 years, my beloved school district was literally the lowest paying district in the state of Ohio).
     So, I didn't become a teacher for the money (nor, for that matter, have I ever met a teacher who did). I became a teacher because I liked the respect and dignity that came with the job. I've said to several principals I've worked with over the years, “Look, I could get a better paying job. I need my respect. If I don't have my dignity, I might as well be a circus clown.” Now, as far as I can tell, everyone has something they are really good at; for me, it's been teaching high school English. You can ask anyone in my family – I'm a lousy plumber, a horrible mechanic, a terrible carpenter, and I couldn't dig a straight ditch to save my life – but put me in a room of snarly teenagers, and I can get them to care about Dickens' “Great Expectations,” and I can get them to feel pretty good about their ability to write. Call it a “gift” or “calling,” but I've been blessed to work in my old high school with the people who would respond to the enthusiasm I'd bring to my lessons.
     Now, it's time to go. Call me cynical (perhaps I am), but the qualities that used to be valued in being a good teacher are no longer relevant in the contemporary classroom. What used to make me a good teacher is that my students knew that I cared about them and that I did my best to make them feel welcome. Now what is being valued in teaching has nothing to do with treating students like human beings. What is now considered the most valuable skill in teaching is the ability to document what you plan on teaching, document what you teach while you're doing it, and document how you plan on reteaching the same material once you've documented that the students didn't master the material the first time you covered it. In other words, it's about faking a ton of bureaucratic paper work so if the need ever arises, the district can prove that you presented the material. How you presented the material, whether it was merely a thick life-sucking packet of tree-killing handouts or through an engaging Socratic discussion makes no difference whatsoever. This is to say, no one cares anymore why students didn't learn anything from your instruction, the administration only cares about the evidence in triplicate that proves you offered the instruction.
     Of course, the logic behind this thinking is madness itself. Clearly, if you test a roomful of students and 90% of the students pass the test, the instruction had to be there or where would the 90% have learned it from? But it's no longer about common sense, teaching now is about cranking out the paperwork. Simply put, humanity is no longer relevant. I can't stay around and teach when my value as a teacher is based on my ability to document what I'm teaching and not on my ability to get my students to care about their own development as citizens and fellow human beings.
     This past January, I had a student whose step-father shot himself in front of the family. When the girl told me what had happened, I hugged her and said, “I'm sorry to hear that you have to go through this. Don't worry about your English grade; you've got bigger things to care about right now. I've got your back; you will pass English this spring.” Was making such a promise ethical? Given the modern obsession with testing and scoring, absolutely not. Was the promise profoundly moral? Give my life's interest in preserving dignity and concern, it absolutely was. The girl in this circumstance is probably the most dramatic example of the need to protect and prize our students' humanity, but I could take you desk by desk and tell a similar story about each of my students: this one has to work til midnight in a fast food restaurant to help her parents pay their rent, this one has been pregnant since February and has no idea if she can handle college and a baby, this one can't concentrate because her boyfriend has been hurting her a lot more lately but doesn't know how to break up with him without getting beat up for trying. Desk after desk, story after story, I know these people. My students are not merely data entry points on some chart they are constructing in Columbus based upon their OGT scores. Nonetheless, if I were to hang around next year, 50% of my next evaluation would come directly from their standardized test scores.
     When I was writing my dissertation on the history and theory of rhetorical authority, I devised a formula for determining “good” authority from “bad” authority. It's not really that complicated: “Good” authority is concerned with the dignity of the people it works with; “Bad” authority is not. I called the good form of authority “pro-agentic” because it takes the agency of other people as its highest responsibility; I called the bad form of authority “pythonic” because like a large and powerful snake, bad authority likes to constrict other people and squeeze them into seeing the world according to its own narrow point of view. The best example I can come up with for the “pythonic ethos,” – that is to say the form of authority that denies the other's humanity to achieve it's own political agenda – is the current educational environment that is only willing to look at the data generated by test scores and the documents that “prove” instruction occurred to determine the worth of a classroom teacher. I think Tina Turner would say, "What's love got to do with it?"
      God help us all; kick me out and knock that building down. There's no longer room for teachers like me – we're as obsolete as blacksmiths in a Ford factory. Once I'm gone ,who is going to teach students that how you treat people is more important that how you can manipulate them into doing what you want? That's a trick question, of course, because it's not on the test.
     Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week (but I won't be a school teacher, I'll just be another Old Fart who pines long and loud about the Good Ole Days).

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Why Words Are Stronger Than Welts

      A Zen koan is a short parable that gives us something to think about that snaps us out of our routine mindset. One of my favorites goes like this: A neophyte monk goes to his master in the Buddhist temple where he has gone to live and says, “I've been here a few months, and I've been meditating for 12 hours a day, and I don't think it's working for me. As much as I try to find the Eternal Quiet of Being, I feel – underneath it all – as though I am a bottle that is filled with gunpowder and could explode at any moment. Can you explain why I feel this way?” The master nodded serenely and said, “You feel this way because everyone feels this way.”
      I don't know if everyone feels as though they were going to explode, but I certainly can relate to the idea that we all struggle and yet, we forget that everyone else has their own struggles as well. Today is Mother's Day, and my mother passed away nine years ago. Some days I miss her so much I find myself crying while sitting all alone in my truck as I'm driving to work. Other times, I go months without thinking of her at all. Like the Zen koan above, I feel my own relationship with my mother is uniquely complicated, but I suppose the truth really is that everybody's relationship with their mother is uniquely complicated.
     Although it is difficult sometimes to explain to people the benefits of a rhetorical education, one boon is the ability to use words to make subtle (but important) distinctions. Throughout my life, I don't think I ever had a moment when I didn't love my mother, but I had many stages in my life when I didn't like her very much. As a child, I had expectations that my mother was never able to meet, and it wasn't until I was well into my adulthood that I was able to understand enough of my mother's own history to comprehend that it was her own struggles with life that prevented her from being the mother I felt I deserved. It's difficult even now with her being gone all this time to explain how the pains of my childhood have molded the man I am today, and, furthermore, regardless of how I wish now things had been different in the past: I am who I am, she was who she was, and underneath it all is not a bottle that could explode at any moment, but the enormity of grace that comes from learning how to forgive.
     I grew up in an era in which “child abuse” existed as a matter of everyday existence, but did not exist as a recognizable classification of behavior; that is to say, during my childhood, nobody called it “child abuse,” people just referred to it as “parenting.” People who worked with my mother later in life used to tell me how kind and loving she was to them, and whenever I heard them say such things, I inevitably had a brief bout of vertigo that comes from cognitive dissonance. Whenever people told me how kind and loving my mother was, they were completely unaware they were talking about the woman who used to beat me as a child frequently and violently with a wide variety sticks and boards. My brothers and I were beaten so often by our mother that we became “connoisseurs” of beatings, and even now can reminiscence over the finer ones. “Remember when I was beaten for getting muddy at that construction site? Ah, that my friend, was a very good beating.”
     It wasn't until decades into my adulthood that I was able to wrap my mind around that idea that my mother had been beaten during her own childhood and grew up believing that not beating your children is a form of neglect, and that somehow, beating children is a way of demonstrating that you care about them. Although I was frequently beaten as a child, I resolved growing up that I never was going to beat my own children. Although beatings were a regular feature of my childhood, somehow the concept that it was an essential (even “normal”) part of life never made it into my belief system the way it had been entrenched into my mother's.
     I would be lying if I said I still don't feel the psychic wounds of my childhood thrashings. However, I think I can honestly say that I have learned to forgive them. I live with the hope that whatever psychic wounds I may have fostered on my children are forgiven as well. Time will tell; like the rookie monk, we don't understand what everyone else is going through.
     Of all the things I held my mother accountable for as a child (in addition to resenting her beatings, I was disgruntled over her indifference to the way I was bullied by neighborhood children), I can nonetheless feel an astounding depth of gratitude for the things my mother did right. Pretty much at the top of that list is this: my mother took me to the library. When I look back at my childhood, I can remember the public library as well as my mother's kitchen. These trips to the library were magical. The idea that we could go to a place where we could surround ourselves with books and that we could take several of them home with us astonishes me even now as I relive those feelings of being allowed to choose to read anything I wanted. I escaped into books, and somewhere during those escapes, I picked up the odd idea that words were more important than welts. And that is why I revere words and the potential they hold to achieve what violence never will. And, that is perhaps the best definition I can give Rhetoric: the belief that people who achieve their ends by violence and coercion are inevitably flawed and corrupted by their faith in violence.
     On this Mother's day, I am grateful that I learned, perhaps in worst way possible, that words are stronger than blows, love is stronger than fear, and forgiveness is the greatest strength of all. This morning I am missing my mother enough to cry again, by myself as I type this. Underneath it all is a bottle waiting to explode, and beneath that, love and forgiveness.
     Keep thinking rhetorically and I'll be back next week.