Deserted Island: Shackleford Banks

At the southern end of a 200-mile string of barrier islands off the North Carolina coast known as the Outer Banks is Cape Lookout National Seashore. And at the southern end of that is an uninhabited island called Shackleford Banks. I spent the day before Thanksgiving there with my parents.

The island is only accessible by boat but there are a couple of ferry services on the mainland in Beaufort. Beaufort itself is a cool little town established in 1709. It’s rich in history and very picturesque but its biggest claim to fame (and my favorite thing about it) is the fact the Blackbeard’s ship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge ran aground just off its coast in 1718. The wreck was discovered in 1996 and is the subject of an ongoing archaeological research project.

You can view artifacts from the QAR in the NC Maritime Museum in Beaufort  which happened to be right across the street from our ferry service. So while we waited for our departure time, we got to wander about the museum examining artifacts from straight pins and tiny glass beads to cannon that had been buried under the shifting shoals of Beaufort Inlet for 300 years. To me, that’s a lot of fun and I tried to read every sign in the 45 minutes we had before our boat left.

Our ferry was a flat-bottomed skiff that offered no protection from the frigid late November wind which I thought it was invigorating. My parents looked slightly less thrilled, but 15 minutes of cold wind and spray seemed a small price to pay.

Leaving Beaufort in our wake.

We were plenty warm enough once we arrived at the island and hiked the half a mile through the dunes to the ocean side.

The sound side of the island where the boat dropped us.

My parents hiking across the island.

And when we got there, it was delightfully deserted.

There were just two people on the other side when we arrived and they were just leaving to catch the boat back.

The Gulf Stream passes at it’s closest just off shore here before swinging away to the east bringing with it plenty of shells more common to shores farther south.

I haven’t picked up a Florida fighting conch (lower right) since I was a kid beachcombing in Florida.

A broken queen’s helmet, also not common this far north.

There were also plenty of shorebirds…

…and a lone shrimp boat being swarmed by gulls.

And to my delight, a bonus. To visit the Cape Lookout Lighthouse (and take a photo of it making my collection of Outer Banks lighthouses almost complete), we would have to have taken another, longer boat ride and our mini-vacation just didn’t allow time for both trips. But when I took a closer look at this photo, I realized the Cape Lookout Light is just barely visible on the horizon.

See the tiny tiny lighthouse on the horizon? I say this counts.

And even more delightful, on the walk back across the island, we got to see some of the wild horses that have lived on the island for about  400 years.

Locals say the “banker ponies” are shipwreck survivors. You can find a more detailed history here.

So I’ve added another island to my mental list of favorite places, and I’ll be going back first chance I get.

How about ya’ll? What’s one of your favorite places and why?

You Better Not Tell: Best First Lines of My Favorite 20th Century Novels

Once, in another life, I went to college – four of them actually, in three different states where I studied a variety of subjects, got disillusioned or distracted, dropped out, moved, got a another crappy job, quit and went back to school, until finally, in 1996, after 12 years of false starts and changes, just after my 30th birthday, I got a big piece of embossed paper that says, basically, that I’m rather good at reading.  It’s not a particularly useful degree, but it was fun to get.

Because I love books. I love everything about them. The weight of them in my hands, the smell of aging paper, the lure of the cover art or the mystery of a battered, jacketless hardback; the crackle of brittle glue when you open an old text; the marbled or illustrated endpapers; the arcane details on the back of the title page; chapters with names or numbers or introductory quotes; epilogues and intriguing prefaces, and all those lovely pages filled with words in every permutation imaginable. Books are my drug, and I’ve been a junkie since I learned to read.

So here’s another post about books – in particular, their first lines –  a follow-up to my last post about the novel beginnings of some representatives of my favorite genres, science fiction and horror. This time, I’m focusing on any novel that I’ve read and enjoyed that was published in the century of my birth.

(Some of my favorite novels didn’t make the list because their first lines weren’t all that catchy. And some of the best first lines I’ve read didn’t make the list because they were the beginnings of short stories. Not to short the short story. As a literary form, I tend to agree with Edgar Allen Poe who once called it the ideal device for telling a story, superior to the novel in delivering a singular punch. But this is a list of novels. So here we go.)

“It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.”
The Bell Jar (1963), Sylvia Plath
 
“You better not tell nobody but God.”
The Color Purple (1982), Alice Walker
 
“I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”
Out of Africa (1937), Isak Dinesen
 
“My wound is geography.”
Prince of Tides (1986), Pat Conroy
 
“He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.”
The Old Man and the Sea (1952), Ernest Hemingway
 
“Time is not a line, but a dimension like the dimensions of space.”
Cat’s Eye (1988), Margaret Atwood
 
“We slept in what had once been the gymnasium.”
The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), Margaret Atwood
 
“I bought Mother a new car. It damn near killed Aunt Louise.”
Six of One (1978), Rita Mae Brown
(I have to cheat at least once per list, so I included these two sentences that could have been one.)
 
“A green hunting cap squeezed the top of a fleshy balloon of a head.”
A Confederacy of Dunces (1980), John Kennedy Toole
 
“Mildred hid the ax beneath the mattress of the cot in the dining room.”
Mama (1987), Terry McMillan
 
“Novalee Nation, seventeen, seven months pregnant, thirty-seven pounds overweight – and superstitious about sevens – shifted uncomfortably in the seat of the old Plymouth and ran her hands down the curve of her belly.”
Where the Heart Is (1995), Billie Letts
 
“The old woman remembered a swan she had bought many years ago in Shanghai for a foolish sum.”
The Joy Luck Club (1989), Amy Tan
 
“Millions upon millions of years ago, when the continents were already formed and the principal features of the earth had been decided, there existed, then as now, one aspect of the world that dwarfed all others… a mighty ocean, resting uneasily to the east of the largest continent, a restless ever-changing, gigantic body of water that would later be described as Pacific.”
Hawaii (1959), James Michener
 
“No one remembers her beginnings.”
Rubyfruit Jungle (1973), Rita Mae Brown
 

Now that I look at the list I’ve assembled, I’ve realized every one of these books had a powerful effect on me for one reason or another, the quality of the prose, the circumstances of the author’s life, the elements of the story and how it was told, and, always, a connection to my life. I remember when, where and why, I read each and how I felt when I read it and what I loved about each. So I guess these are very personal choices.

Do you have books like that? Did you ever read a favorite book of a friend or partner to get to know her/him better? Ever read that first semi-autobiographical novel of a poet or writer to try to see how she ticked? Ever fall in love with an author who can write more eloquently than you about a passion you share? Ever feel grateful to an author for expanding your world? Yeah, me too.

So let’s talk. Tell us about your personal books (with great first lines or not).

Far Out: Best First Lines of Sci Fi and Horror Novels (that I Think You Should Read)

The modern American reading public has the collective attention span of a stressed-out, sleep-deprived gnat with ADD. At least, that’s what conventional wisdom would have us believe. English teachers, editors and published writers all seem to tell aspiring writers every day that they’ve got to hook readers with the first line or they’ll lose them. Disgusted editors, they are told, will fling their manuscripts disdainfully into the slush pile if they’re not captivated by the opening lines. As a member of the reading public, I find these assumptions vaguely insulting.

And a little true – though I tend to give an author a few paragraphs or pages before I make any summary judgments about his or her skill. So I don’t require that a “hook” be buried in that first line to keep me engaged. But I have to admit, I love a good opener.

So here are a few of my favorite first lines from my two favorite genres, science fiction and horror. Not only are these intriguing sentences, but each begins a book that I would highly recommend reading. See what you think:

 “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
1984, George Orwell
  
 
 
 
“Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
 
 
 
 
“Behind every man now alive stand thirty ghosts, for that is the ratio by which the dead outnumber the living.”
2001 – A Space Odyssey, Arthur C. Clarke.
 
 
“It was a pleasure to burn.”
Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury
 
 
 
 
 
 
“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.””
The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
(Okay I know this is two sentences but it could have been one and it’s one of my favorite openers.)
 
 
 
 
 “No live organism can continue for long to exist under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream.”
The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson
 
 
 
 
 
 “The story so far: In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.”
The Restaurant at the End of the UniverseDouglas Adams
(Two sentences again, I know. But it’s my list and I can cheat if I want to.) 
 
 
 “First of all, it was October, a rare month for boys.”
Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
 
 
  
 
 
“My name is Odd Thomas, though in this age when fame is the altar at which most people worship, I’m not sure you should care who I am or that I exist.”
Odd Thomas, Dean Koontz
 
“Sam Vimes sighed when he heard the scream, but he finished shaving before he did anything about it.”
Night WatchTerry Pratchett
 
“Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening Hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.”
The Golden CompassPhilip Pullman
 
 
 
 
  
 
“The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years – if it ever did end – began, so far as I know or can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.”
ITStephen King
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
“The year that Buttercup was born, the most beautiful woman in the world was a French scullery maid named Annette.”
The Princess Bride, William Goldman
 
  
 
 
“No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water.”
War of the Worlds, HG Wells
 
 
 
 “The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was.”
Life, the Universe and EverythingDouglas Adams
(Nobody opened a story like Douglas Adams.)

Parenthood: The Job You Can’t Quit

“I stink at being a parent, and I don’t want to do it anymore. All my kids are going to end up in therapy, and I’d just rather go hiking really.”

(via pictures funny16.com)

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably been here. You’ve had those days when you were just so discouraged that you couldn’t see a way through the tangled morass of hope, fear, joy, worry, doubt, and dread that is parenthood. It’s a colossal task, raising kids, and most of us are woefully unprepared for it.

There’s no magic rule book, no fool-proof training. The only models we had are our own parents. But they raised different kids in a different time when children actually played outside occasionally and didn’t carry smart phones in their pockets. The old tricks don’t always apply. And just when you do manage to become an expert on your particular kid, he/she will change. Kids do that. They grow, they develop, they enter puberty, and then all bets are off.

So here I am trying to make decisions on a daily basis that are going to affect the development and future potential happiness of our children, and I’m guessing. Most of the time they are educated guesses, sure, based on past observations of said child, the experience of other parents, and often, extensive reading.  But when it comes down to it, every decision is a judgment call, an educated guess at best, and one that is very often swayed by how much or little patience I’ve got left for the day. And lately, I’ve got to say, the reservoir is pretty darn low. I’m thinking about rationing, but I can’t figure out how to get my family to go along.

And that’s where I run into my other little problem – raising a child in the context of a family. Everybody has needs, and they don’t always spread them out so that you can deal with them one-by-one when you are well-rested-and-emotionally-prepared. That’s not the way life happens. No, life likes to descend on you like a shit-storm of need, nausea and broken appliances. It’s failing grades and juggling bills and used Kleenex and muddy paw prints on the spread you just washed. Life happens in your face, when you least expect it, or when you honestly think the very next thing will be the last straw. You know what happens when you have that thought? Something awful, usually.

Life is like someone calling your name over and over, but they never come to you. You must seek out the caller and carry out their commands. Can you get me a towel? I don’t understand my chemistry homework. Will you get those dogs to stop barking? I’m stressed, I’m nauseous, listen to my problems, fix it, fix it, fix it! It’s like being a genie with a house full of frantic wishers. And just when you think you have a handle on it all, when you have put your house in order, walked the dogs, and anticipated and prepared for every child’s (and your partner’s) every need – life will surprise you. It will wait until you have done your very best, until you are sweaty and dirty and proud of yourself, and then it will walk up, wag its tail, look you right in the eye – and then hike its leg and pee on your shoes.

So this is where I would probably be expected to add a paragraph about how it’s all worth it in the end and how the joys by far outweigh the stresses. And yes, that’s true, though I’m not feeling it so much at this particular moment. Because we all know, you have to work for that attitude. So this is my first step – writing it down. It’s therapeutic. Then I’m going to go have a cleaning frenzy all over my house, because that’s what I do when I’m stressed and don’t know what to do next. (I already had a cleaning frenzy on our yard last evening and may have been a bit too vigorous with the weed-eater and gardening shears. I’m a little afraid to look.)

So after I’ve obsessively put our house (and yard) in order for a few hours, I will be sweaty, tired, satisfied in a way only a career house-not-wife can be after a day spent cleaning, and happy to see my partner and our children when they get home this evening. And we are going to have a happy and fun Friday evening together with lots of hugs and positive affirmations. But until then, I’m going to go bleach something.

Worrywart

I was born without a sense of humor. I am, however, very high-strung. Not a good combination. A few years ago, I decided that the key to managing stress in my life was humor. I just had to learn how to find the funny in life. It was helpful that my partner has a hair-triggered wit. Funny, clever things just fly out of her mouth. But there are different kinds of funny and hers is sometimes a little dark. So I starting reading every book by every funny writer I could get my hands on – the idea being that complete immersion might help even a hard case like me. It did. I grew a sense of humor. Not only can I laugh more often, sometimes, I can even make people laugh. Happy day.

My next t-shirt (via zazzle.com)

But I have to practice pretty regularly or it goes away. The following is part of an exercise I try sometimes as a tool for managing stress. I made a list of all the things I was worried about and then tried to write a funny version. Some of the tougher items never made the funny list but a few did. And if you’re honest, a few pretty stupid things will appear too, which is always fun. Anyway, it helped to change my mood.

Some of the things I worry about:

…that my partner sometimes talks about herself in the third person (and I can’t always tell if she’s joking).

…that #2 son seems to be experiencing a kind of school-induced narcolepsy which may someday lead to a permanent position at Burger King.

…that #3 son can play Minecraft for 6 hours straight without stopping to eat or to go to the bathroom.

…that #1 son might decide to get another enormous skull tattoo.

….that menopausal is my new normal.

…that global warming will flood my favorite vacation spot.

…that I won’t be able to stand the winters in Canada when we move there to escape the climate of intolerance in the US.

…that nobody will notice that pun.

…that Nintendo is putting out a new damn expensive game system.

…that our sons will decide not to have a Halloween party and I won’t get to decorate the house. (No fun without an audience.)

…that my computer might crash leaving me to deal with the real world without Facebook, email, Photoshop, or my blog.

…that my dogs get bored.

…that unless he learns to do his homework, #2 son will be living in our basement when he’s thirty spending all his time off from Burger King playing Dungeons & Dragons or video games with Friday-night interludes to watch movie classics like Jackass 2 with his big brother.

…that #3 son will be living in the basement with him.

…that they’ve already seen Jackass 2.

…that it made them laugh.

…that whether I’ll get skin cancer was probably determined by a sunburn I got in Ft. Lauderdale in 1977.

…that I really am a hoarder.

…that my IQ is inversely proportional to my age.

…that God is real and she’s pissed.

…that hip hop won’t die.

…that I’ll never own my own bookstore or little beach motel.

…that when I clean out my email inbox, I will find messages that I really should have responded to weeks ago (Happened this morning. My apologies to Catherine, Jennifer, my brother, Scott, and Daddy.)

…that one day, instead of washing the dishes, I will take them out in the driveway and smash them one by one against the concrete.

…that I am forgetting something important (often true).

…that if my short term memory and attention span keep deteriorating at the present rate, I’ll need a full-time keeper by the time I’m 50.

…that I’m going to think of something super-clever to put on this list after I’ve published it on my blog.

So what do you worry about? What would be on your list? How do you deal with stress?

Carrots or Caterpillars?

My favorite thing about gardening is sometimes you get visitors. It’s not my partner’s favorite thing. She’s still put out, I think, that I didn’t save her carrots. But I was too busy taking pictures.

The problem is a basic difference in gardening philosophy. B is trying to grow food which I think is fun and amazing, but even more fun to me is attracting wildlife. Sometimes those goals aren’t at cross purposes. If you’re talking pollinators, for instance, flowering veggies and herbs are quite handy. They benefit from the visitation of various bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, and I get photo ops. But most critters see only two uses for greenery – to lay eggs on, like the mother of all my lovely caterpillars did, or to eat. And if you’re growing food, you don’t want something eating it before you do – I get that. But look:

Aren’t they lovely? Before I tell you what they turn into, let me start at the beginning. Caterpillars are eating machines. Their only purpose is to eat as much as possible in order to fuel the changes to come. All these lovelies, started as eggs which hatched into something like this:

As they grow, caterpillars shed their skin several times. Each of these stages is called an instar and they can look quite different at different instars. This one is the second instar, I think. The first would have been even smaller and looked a lot like bird poo.

This is the maybe the third instar. It’s getting bigger, the color is changing but the knobby things are still present.

Eventually, we get to the fat, happy stage – the last instar before it’s ready enter the chrysalis stage. Most of mine were getting very close to this point.

In the meantime, I got to watch them completely denude B’s carrots of all leafiness.

And I learned that if you poke one, this orange organ will appear. It’s called an osmeterium and it emits a foul smell to discourage predators. How’s that for a superpower?

So for the last two days I’ve been hovering about my caterpillars waiting for one of them to move on to the next stage. This morning I went out and counted. Nine of fattest caterpillars had disappeared! I searched and searched, and found this:

The chrysalis. The last stage. I only found one. Where the other fat little larva went is a mystery. I scoured the garden and surrounding area. I’m afraid that perhaps their foul smelling superpower wasn’t enough to save them from hungry birds, though I prefer to believe that they are just particularly adept at finding a hidden spot to anchor themselves with silk and split their skin that last time to become a chrysalis.

The fun part is what happens inside the chrysalis. The body of the caterpillar will basically liquify and rebuild itself. And in 8 to 12 days a butterfly will emerge. So are you ready to see what kind?

A black swallowtail. (This one is a male.) Maybe my lonely little chrysalis will release a female. And  after it mates, maybe it will find a garden like mine with some dill or parsley or fennel or carrots to lay its eggs on and the whole process will start again.

The Hesitant Herbivore, Part 3

In which I examine the pros and cons of cutting almost everything I like to eat out of my diet.

When we left off, I was on the precipice of making the decision that might fundamentally change my life:  Leap into the scary abyss of a plant-based diet or stay safely on the cliff of selective compassion, constant fatigue, and general digestive distress

In the cons column, I had: “I might starve” and “Is life worth living without the cheese and ice cream?”

On the pros side, I had “It might be worth it if I could fit into size 8 jeans again.” Yes, I am that vain. But amazingly, vanity wasn’t the factor at work here. Sure, I want to lose weight and I was hoping a new lower-fat diet would help me do that. But mostly, I wanted very badly to feel better. My forties have not been kind, and I’m still trying to learn how to live in my changing body.

Wouldn’t it be great if all cows, and people, got to feel as good as this one?

And that’s why, after all these years, I was willing to take the leap. Though I’d love to be able to say it was my compassion for farm animals that finally won out, in reality it was a completely selfish motive that finally gave me the edge I needed.  I have come to believe that the human body is not designed to process dairy products as an adult and that amount and nature of the meat we eat is not necessarily a healthy thing, either.

So with my odds of fully-functional longevity in mind, I started compiling my “pros” list.  Here are the basics.

Health:

–          Weight – I gained 50 pounds after I quit smoking 6 years ago, and it’s caused a whole host of problems for me from my aching feet to how I breathe when I sleep. And I’ve had no success at losing weight and keeping it off. According to the Mayo Clinic, vegetarians (especially vegans) usually consume less fat and fewer calories and have lower body weights that their meat-eating counterparts. No guarantees of course since there are still plenty of fatty, sugary foods I can eat but if I avoid those too, my chances are looking good.

–          Cholesterol – Mine is borderline high and I would really like to stop it there. Now the jury seems to still be out by how much this is controlled by diet and how much by genes, but the consensus seems to be, it’s a combination of both. So doesn’t it seem slightly insane to end up taking medication to control the adverse effects of your food when you can just change your food instead?

–          Type 2 diabetes – This is very possibly looming in my future if I don’t take extreme measures. See “weight.”

–          Your colon will thank you, said a vegan friend of mine who maintains that colon cancer is a big danger for dedicated carnivores. From what I’ve read, there does seem to be a positive correlation,

–          Recently, a long-term study by some Harvard folks that tracked the eating habits of 110,000 people over 20 years claims a high correlation between red meat consumption and early death.

–          Society – Can you imagine how much the cost of health care would drop if the population switched to a vegetarian/vegan diet and the numbers of people suffering from high cholesterol, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, and a whole host of other diet or weight related maladies suddenly plummeted?

Humane reasons:

via Humane Society

–          Living conditions for domestic animals are appalling.  Meat and dairy are big businesses and everything is secondary to the profit margin. To produce meat, milk and eggs quickly and cheaply many animals are confined for their entire lives– in barns, in gestation crates, in veal crates, in stacked cages. The animals often have little room to move, aren’t allowed to forage or graze or go outside at all.

–          Conditions in slaughterhouses are often horrifying.  Again, the profit margin seems to demand speed over humanity. The animals are “processed” with little regard for the terror or pain that they feel.

Years ago, I read a book by Dr. Temple Grandin called Thinking in Pictures in which she describes her experience as a person with high-functioning autism as motivation and fodder for her work in developing humane livestock handling processes. If every slaughterhouse in the US was designed (and managed) by Temple Grandin, a woman who has championed the ethical treatment of animals I think I would feel much better about the method, if not the need, of putting food animals to death.

–          People insist on eating things which call for brutal practices. Ever heard of foie gras, for instance? It’s the liver of a duck or goose fattened to unnatural proportions by force feeding the birds by stuffing a tube down their throats into their stomachs. The French, the largest (though certainly not the only) producers and consumers of foie gras, even have a term for this barbaric practice. It’s called gavage. According to French law, “Foie gras belongs to the protected cultural and gastronomical heritage of France.” I think that’s a fancy way of saying, we’ve been doing it for a long time, so it’s okay.

–          And finally, if all this cruelty is practiced in the name of feeding people, consider this: The grain used to feed animals could feed hungry people. And the water used for raising food animals could be used for raising crops and for human consumption.

The issue of farm animal welfare is pretty huge and I only touch on a few things here. For more information about the treatment of farm animals and about health issues related to a meat-based diet, you can follow the links below.

 

For the scoop on lactose intolerance, see this article in USA Today based on a peer-reviewed paper recently published in PLOS Computational Biology: http://www.usatoday.com/tech/science/2009-08-30-lactose-intolerance_N.htm)

For info on red meat and colon cancer see http://www.health.harvard.edu/fhg/updates/Red-meat-and-colon-cancer.shtml

For the link between read meat and early death see this article in the LA Times:  http://articles.latimes.com/2012/mar/13/health/la-he-red-meat-20120313

For the information on farm animal welfare go to:  http://www.humanesociety.org/news/publications/whitepapers/farm_animal_welfare.html

For A Report of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production:  http://www.ncifap.org/_images/PCIFAPFin.pdf

For PETA’s reasons to go vegetarian see:  http://features.peta.org/ChewOnThis/chewsheet.pdf

The Hesitant Herbivore, Part 2

Yup. Hate it all.

I hate fruit. I hate oranges because they’re pulpy, bananas because they’re mushy, and grapes because they pop like eyeballs might when you squeeze them between your teeth. I hate mangos because they’re slimy without their skin and smell like pepper. I hate watermelon because it smells like cat pee (to me). I like kiwi because they’re pretty, but I hate the way they taste.

I also hate most vegetables. Beets, broccoli and asparagus are all gross. Brussels sprouts are beyond disgusting and I’m not overly fond of peas or carrots.  And beans. I really hate beans. Pretty much, I hate almost everything people eat that grows in the dirt.

So naturally I decided to become a vegetarian. And then I thought, Oh shit. I’m going to starve.

I’ve been a carnivore all my life and always figured that’s the way nature intended it to be. And I’ve probably spent more time than your average bear contemplating nature’s intentions. I’m a natural history buff – fossils, bees, birds, trees – I think it’s all pretty fascinating stuff.  As a kid, I was one of those nerds who loved a good nature documentary but I had to cover my eyes when the lions caught the zebra or the polar bear dragged a seal out of a hole in the ice. Nature is grand and glorious and brutal. And that’s not good or bad, it just is. It’s the way life works.

And so we human beings, as part of nature, are also brutal, because we have to be. Animals are food. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. Or is it?

A hundred thousand years ago, our ancestors ate what they could gather in the forest or the fields and also what they could hunt, kill and cook in order to survive. Even when agriculture was invented, supplementing their diet with meat from newly domesticated animals was a logical choice for early people. But things have changed. Now there is Kroger. Now there is Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Costco, Safeway, Publix, WalMart Supercenters, and The Pig (or Piggly Wiggly for those of you not familiar with this fine southern grocery establishment).

Gathering ain’t what it used to be.

There’s a supermarket on virtually every corner in this country where a person can go and buy a wide variety of nutritional plant-based foods and a bottle of B-12 supplements and be just fine even if they never ate meat again. So after 46 years, I finally realized the problem with the logic I used to justify my carnivorous diet. There is nothing natural at all about our modern way of life, so why would I use nature as a model for my behavior?

I learned a new phrase recently:  “selective compassion.” It just what you might imagine – the act of compartmentalizing the compassion you allow yourself to feel for other living things. On the one hand you have people, dogs and other pets, animals in the wild, and wild animals in captivity and all of these, as amazing living things, are deserving of our compassion. And then there are animals that become, or provide, food – cows, chickens, pigs are the most common in our culture. And seafood. (Isn’t is interesting how we use our language to reduce a whole host of ocean creatures to food with one compound word?)

I realized I’ve been practicing selective compassion all my life (as most of us do). Though I’ve believed for a long time that there are more humane dietary choices for us modern humans, it took me 46 years to get up the gumption to even try a meatless diet, because I was afraid that if I allowed myself to feel compassion for our “food” animals, I would have to stop eating them. And then my retarded palate might just kill me.

So for me, the time had come to put up or shut up. It’s hard to be a bleeding-heart animal lover and a carnivore. I was either going to have to learn to eat more things that grow in the dirt, or admit that human beings are brutal by choice not by necessity…

Look for part 3 tomorrow in which I will expound upon the evidence that finally helped me overcome my fear of “death by vegetable” and led me to become a vegan convert.

The Hesitant Herbivore

via National Geographic

I am a creature of habit, entrenched in my routines, glacially slow to alter my course. I cling to the familiar with the powerful grip of a 3 toed sloth and move toward any new direction with such incremental velocity that algae grows on my furry metaphorical coat. I don’t like change.

So for me to alter something as fundamental to my life and being as the food I eat took nothing less than years of passive contemplation and a growing a mountain of evidence that grew so high it finally fell on me. And I suddenly realized that becoming a vegan was not only the ethical thing for someone with my beliefs to do but the healthiest choice for my body.

via dummies.com

Six weeks ago, I removed dairy from my diet – a heartbreaking task for me. I believe cheese to be the glorious result of the most inspired bit of culinary resourcefulness the human race has ever displayed, a brilliant example of biotechnology born long before that term was coined. What a delightful variety of food we’ve learned to coax from the curd of sour milk – sharp aged cheddar and smoked gouda and herb infused wonders like Havarti with dill. Cheese is, quite simply, culinary wizardry at its best. And it makes the majority of the humans who consume it poot. Whoopsy.

I read an article about a recent study that found that sixty percent of human beings are lactose intolerant. Yep. Six out of ten. And here I was thinking all this time that the inability to process lactose was abnormal, and that only a few physically delicate nerdy-types can’t manage it (like the loveable but nerdy TV sitcom character, Dr. Leonard Hoffstater of The Big Bang Theory). In reality, the majority of us stop producing lactase, the enzyme necessary for breaking down the sugar, lactose, when we’re somewhere between two and five years old – presumably because we generally stop drinking our mother’s milk after that and don’t need it anymore. So the “abnormal” ones are actually those 40% who retain the ability to break down lactose and so drink milk or eat cheese without worrying about clearing the room later. Scientists call it lactase persistence and it’s the result of a genetic mutation.

Most commercial milk cows don’t get pretty meadows to roam in.

The funny thing is, I have known for a long time that cow’s milk is not a particularly healthy or logical dietary choice for me, but my love of cheese and a few other dairy delights (like ice cream!) clouded my judgment. Okay, so we aren’t designed to eat stuff made from cow’s milk, so what? It’s so good! So it’s high in calories and has a lot of saturated fat. It has protein too! And calcium that the dairy lobby says I must get from milk! And it tastes good! Really good!

But once a person hits a certain point in life (the one I’m apparently at now), digesting foods that our bodies aren’t ideally designed to process finally becomes an issue. I’ve gained weight and am having a hard time losing it. The cholesterol numbers in my blood work say borderline high and are creeping upward. And I feel bad a lot after I eat. I was tired of being tired and feeling crummy.

So I gave up dairy. I got used to drinking my coffee without creamer and actually like it that way, now. I got used to pasta not smothered in butter and cheese and am experimenting with spices and oils. I’ve found a mint dark chocolate with no dairy that I like better than milk chocolate now. And I can live without ice cream. Whoops. No I can’t!

Ice cream is right up there with cheese. I love it too much to ever let it go. And so was born the Friday exception. On Fridays, I get dairy because life is too short to live forever without ice cream and cheese. And the cool thing is that if you go six days a week without these things, small amounts of them are more than satisfying by the time I get to Friday. So my days of stuffing big soup bowls full of frozen dairy goodness are over.

But this was just the first step in my dietary revolution. Come back soon for part two about the conversion of a lifelong carnivore to a plant-based diet and get the answers to questions I know you’ll be dying to ask. How hard is it to give up meat? Is it worth it? What are the benefits? Do you have to start making your own granola, hugging trees, and/or wearing Birkenstocks?

Garden Variety Fun

A few years ago, my partner and I decided it would be good for us to have a garden – someplace to putter, to plant, to dig in the dirt and grow pretty things and salad things and mostly, serve as an excuse for us to get outside more often. We’re still not really good at it, but we learn a little every year, and I’m always tickled when we manage to not kill something. So here are a few garden things that have made me happy this year.

This was the first bloom on the clematis vine this spring. I planted it just last year and it stayed very small and bloomed just a couple of times. This year, it went crazy (not long after I took this photo), but I neglected to take a picture when it had a gazillion flowers. My mom always had one of these in her garden, and I always thought this color was the most awesome shade of coolness.

My partner and our youngest son love fried okra so she wanted to grow her own this year. They were the only plants in the garden that didn’t wilt during the wicked heat and dry spell in July. And now they’re producing okra quicker than I can harvest them. These things grow fast and are hard to kill – my kind of plant. It makes me feel like I know what I’m doing. I do, however, think okra in any form of food is revolting, but look what pretty flowers they have!

As I was hovering over the okra plants with my camera, a bee flew by my nose, landed on a flower, stuffed himself inside it, and didn’t come out. This is him. I think he went into some kind of pollen coma or something. He just stayed there kind of buzzing under his breath.

Thai basil. Also easy to grow and hard to kill. And it has pretty flowers that attract fun insects. This came up all over the front of the garden a few weeks ago. I thought it died over the winter.

Portrait of a tiny, tiny flower.

Sunflowers make me ridiculously happy. These are my first. They’re of the giant variety and so are taller than me and just started blooming a couple of days ago. I went out to take a photo of one and this Spicebush swallowtail was considerate enough to flutter up and plant himself (sorry, can never resist an awful pun) on my flower.

He really, really liked the flower but got irritated at my clicking at him and sailed off over the house a moment later.

Anybody else have fun stuff going on in your garden this year?