Archive for the ‘Personal’ Category

The Seed Bank of Democracy: Conscientious Objection, Compromise, and the Defense of Liberty during “The Good War”

In Personal, Political Theory, Politics on 2014/10/06 at 16:21

During the final year of my undergraduate work I was named a Scholar at the George C Marshall Research Library. Upon re-reading the resulting paper years later I realized that what was one of my best pieces of academic work was never shared beyond a select circle. Below is an exerpt from the beginning of the paper. A PDF of the work in its entirety follows.


Jessie Wallace Hughan, one of the founding members of the pacifist group the War Resisters League, sent a message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt immediately after the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, urging him to keep the United States out of the war despite the attack.[1] Wallace’s plea was, obviously, ignored, and her organization, as well as and pacifism in general, had little influence in the public mind for years to come. Historian Scott Bennett points out, “Most studies on the World War II home front either ignore pacifism and conscientious objection, or mention them in passing, offering only a cursory discussion of them and treating both as issues of civil liberty.”[2]

American pacifism and conscientious objection during World War Two is an underexplored topic. An exploration of pacifism and conscientious objection during World War Two provides an interesting critique and reevaluation of the American war effort, and a fascinating glimpse at the practical application of the, sometimes contradictory, American values of individualism and patriotism. Pacifism during World War Two had a disproportionately large effect on American democracy in the 20th century compared to the small number of people involved in conscientious objection.

To understand the importance of pacifism and conscientious objection as an alternative view, or even a critique, it is first necessary to acknowledge the power, and examine the basic outline, of the concept of America’s “Good War.” In the collective national psyche of the United States, and in the glitzy materialization of that psyche that is American popular culture, perceptions and depictions of the Second World War largely fall within the bounds of a doctrine, which, for the most part, goes largely unquestioned. That doctrine is, of course, that World War Two was the 20th century’s “Good War,” that American involvement in the war was just, that those who participated in the war effort make up “The Greatest Generation,” and that to have refused to fight the expansionist forces of European fascism and Japanese imperialism would have been to shirk the moral obligations of American greatness.

The story of the Allied struggle in World War Two is one of America’s favorite stories. World War Two is a powerful meme in American culture, in print, in film, and in the ever increasingly important medium of electronic gaming. Culturally speaking, the war is an opportunity for the storyteller to place a near mythic sheen on a tale of actual historical events. The sheer horror of many of the crimes of the Axis powers makes it easy to paint the war as an epic battle between heroism and villainy. Set against this backdrop of uncomplicated, almost Manichaean struggle, the war is the symbolic crowning achievement of the United States’ journey towards becoming a world power.

One humorous example of the power and near sacred status of the meme of “The Good War” in American pop culture is a mock PSA at the close of an episode of The Simpsons television show. The episode’s plot revolves around a schoolyard battle and Bart Simpson reminds viewers that, contrary to what has just been seen; “War is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners; only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War Two, and the Star Wars Trilogy.”[3] This is just one example, yet it is the quintessence of America’s pop culture obsession with World War Two. The addition of a fictional story of the fantasy genre to the list of “good wars” humorously underscores the extent to which World War Two has attained a status in American culture almost akin to that of a sacred legend.

President Roosevelt wanted America to be Democracy’s Arsenal. There were some in the United States who believed that, by it’s very nature, Democracy cannot be protected by an arsenal. That true Democracy is not established by force of arms, but is grown. They saw Democracy as arising naturally from a free society, and the seeds of that free society are the individual liberties of each of its citizens. The refusal of those who opposed violence on moral grounds to give up their individual right to maintain their consciences protected these seeds of a free society thought should be sacrificed for the short term gain of a nation fully mobilized for war. Is there such a thing as a good war? Is the militarization of a society for the purposes of violent conflict justified in certain situations? And should minorities who disagree be silenced for a time, in the interest of the greater good? A small group of Americans during World War Two answered “no.” An outline of the argument for the “Good War” narrative, juxtaposed with the words and actions of conscientious objectors, complicates, and deepens our understanding of this iconic era. The nuances of the differences in opinion between the many different groups of conscientious objectors and their respective supporters, will lead to a greater appreciation and deeper understanding of the importance of pacifism and conscientious objection to the seeds of Democracy, individual liberties.

Read the full paper here:

Seed Bank of Democracy


Race, Gender, Croissants, and the Dangers of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss

In Art, Personal, Pop Culture on 2013/10/22 at 08:01

The previous time I recognized the song someone else was blasting out of their headphones next to me on the bus it was Katy Perry’s “Peacock.” Do the people who blast their music so loud know we can all hear it? I assumed this guy didn’t, because I can’t think of a more embarrassing song to be listening to, though his overall fabulousness and the way he bobbed his head to the beat made me think he probably didn’t care what some breeder like me would think of his musical taste. If I had to describe the thirty-something-year-old Perry fan in a word it would probably be…sassy.

This time was a little different. Again, I assumed the man next to me didn’t know I could hear his music. Again, I fantasized about getting his attention and warning him about the very real dangers of permanent hearing loss (Seriously kids, turn your music down). However, instead of merely being able to laugh off hearing someone sincerely enjoy a song that only exists to supply the least poetic phallic wordplay in recent memory, I actually was interested to know what was going through the mind of the person listening to Kanye West’s new album Yeezus with me. I’d heard one track before and recognized his voice on the material I wasn’t familiar with yet, and as we rode along and later when I listened to some of the tracks more closely through my own headphones, I reflected on hip-hop, fame, race, and misogyny.

I’m usually not one to let my impressions of an artist’s personality affect my appreciation of their work. I’m as amazed and disturbed by the implications of Tom Cruise’s ascent into religion-fuelled mania as anyone, but I still watched all the Mission: Impossible movies and enjoyed them because I think Tom Cruise is a good actor. However, hip-hop as a medium seems to demand a significant infusion of the artist’s personality into the work — most hip-hop artists talk about themselves more than anything else — and this makes it impossible for me to cut Kanye West the same slack as Tom Cruise.

Fundamentally I think my problem is that I just don’t get Kanye West. He’s an enigma. I want to believe that the idiotic bravado of a suburban kid who dropped out of art school to pursue hip-hop stardom is all an extremely successful, self-aware, Andy Kauffman-esque performance piece that I’m supposed to be laughing at. Only Kanye west could declare himself a god multiple times, rhyme massage with restaurant and croissant, and devote thirty seconds of track time to the sounds of panicked screaming all in the same song (I am a God) but still end up with a chart-topping album, and I can appreciate how amazing it is that he somehow pulled that off. I’m laughing, but I’m not sure if Kanye’s laughing with me, and even if he is, I don’t think we’re laughing at the same joke.

Thanks again to Stevie Driscoll

Thanks again to Stevie Driscoll

Just because Kanye West has only ever been arrested (along with his bodyguard) for assaulting paparazzi, he still, like many hip-hop artists, has something to say about the incarceration of huge numbers of African Americans. In “New Slaves” he draws our attention to the privately owned American prison system and their propensity to “lock niggas up.” Of course, if you’re expecting any deeper analysis of the issue or exploration of the experience of the prison-industrial system, you will be disappointed. Kanye West’s message to the DEA and Corrections Corporation of America employees (who he imagines safe in their homes in the Hamptons) is a threat of sexual violence against their wives:

“I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse, came on her Hampton blouse, and in her Hampton mouth.”

In fact, the entirety of “New Slaves” is tinged with the all too familiar misogyny that is displayed so unapologetically in far too much hip-hop, but especially notable in a song that begins with a remembrance of the artist’s mother:

“My momma was raised in the era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin.”

In the end, solid as Kanye’s skills as a producer may be (if you can ignore the hilarity of his lyrics, a lot of the album can be enjoyable), if I’m going to listen to hip-hop (be it by choice or otherwise), I’d  much rather listen to Binary Star, who also released a new album this year (their song “Wait” explores the African American experience of the prison industrial system in a far more visceral way than Kanye ever could, and though it still sadly descends into misogyny in the later verses, the end result is still far more interesting than Kanye throwing Maybach keys in “New Slaves”) or the always amazing Saul Williams.

La Vie En Rose

In Art, Personal, Politics, Pop Culture, World on 2013/10/12 at 18:48

The subject is reminding the viewer of the author’s presence, because they’re staring straight back at you…it creates an ethical problem in the viewer’s mind so then they’re confused and angry and disoriented. This is great because you’ve actually got them to think about the act of perception and how this imagery is produced and consumed.

— Richard Mosse, on The Enclave

Fashionable as a certain style of cultural illiteracy may be, I like to know about the cultural matrix the people who sit next to me on the bus might live in. I admit to being aware of the attention Miley Cyrus’ new image has received. Her performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards bears the distinction of being the most tweeted-about event in history at 360,000 tweets per minute. Concerned mothers everywhere are mourning the seemingly inevitable corruption of Hannah Montana. Sinead O’Conner has evidently appointed herself their leader, admonishing Cyrus, whom she calls a “precious young lady” with motherly wisdom like this:

Yes, I’m suggesting you don’t care for yourself. That has to change. You ought be protected…This is a dangerous world. We don’t encourage our daughters to walk around naked in it because it makes them prey for animals and less than animals…

Maybe my feminism is a bit off, but to me that reads as one of the more insidious types of rape apologetics.

A former child star somehow transformed into a 20 year old woman. This is presented to us as if it should confuse and anger us.

The full Cyrus experience — from Hannah Montana to what I believe has been dubbed correctly as a sort of poor-man’s Lady Gaga — does not surprise me. The phallic metaphors with a sledgehammer, the full nudity, the suggestive dancing, does not surprise me. It should not surprise anyoneWhen it comes to female sexuality, especially when it is youthful, America suffers from a prudish puritan tension between disdain and titillation. This is the reason why you even can make millions of dollars by showing a young woman in a sexual light in America in the first place.

Much has been said about the racial aspects of the VMA performance, much has been said about how Robin Thicke, the much older man onstage with Cyrus, escaped much attention, but there is something more to be considered. Am I alone in noting a not insignificant note of a different kind of disappointment in the popular discourse around Miley’s new image? Wasn’t part of the excitement and commentary on Miley at the VMAs a sort of embarrassment that, somehow, she wasn’t doing it right? She wasn’t being NuBritney enough? She’s cropping her hair short and sticking her tongue out, and though we know we are supposed to say we’re offended by the sexuality of her performance, we feel robbed that the sexiness is missing.

Miley Cyrus smoking fan art illustration by Stevie Driscoll

Illustration by Stevie Driscoll

Not all the concern has been about the danger to Miley Cyrus and women everywhere when we allow them to be depicted as sexual beings. (Remember, they become “prey.”) Miley Cyrus isn’t just refusing to cover up and quit with the dirty dancing, she’s also spreading reefer madness amongst America’s youth. The very profitable buzz around the New Miley plays off two separate problems with American culture that work in a similar way. There is a reason for the classic combination of drugs, sex and rock n’ roll. Just as the collective kitchen table of America still hasn’t figured out that by making the female form something illicit (something that must be hidden and protected from spoilage) we therefore make it seem that much more exciting, we see a similar stubborn myopia when it comes to drugs. Rather than dealing with abuse and addiction as physio-psycho-social problems, inebriation is criminalized and thus is created the black market for drugs. Rather than talking openly and honestly with our children and our society about sexuality, we make sex a taboo to be exploited by pornographers and their ilk.

I felt a strange existential dizziness as, looking into Miley Cyrus’ eyes, I reflected on what I had been reading about the situation in the Congo after watching a trailer for Richard Mosse’s film The Enclave. Embroiled in a decades–long series of conflicts that have left much of what is one of the most resource–rich regions in the world in what Mosse calls a “Hobbesian state,” the eastern region of the country in particular is known as the rape capital of the world and “the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.”
Please watch the trailer.

Eastern forest-boreal transition

In Canada, Food, Personal, Philosophy on 2013/09/07 at 17:44

Most of the time I don’t even have to leave my apartment to see dozens of people every day. I can hear their conversations in an always impressive array of languages, examine their clothes and faces as we politely pretend to ignore each other in the elevator, or watch them work through the windows of their offices directly across from my window. I live in Toronto, the fifth most populous city in North America, and it’s amazing, it’s exciting and, often, it can be completely overwhelming. That’s why, for quite some time, my friend Ian and I had been planning a trip to Algonquin Provincial Park.

Algonquin covers an area more than ten times the size of the City of Toronto, yet the permanent, off-season population of the surrounding area is counted in thousands, perhaps even only hundreds, while Toronto is home to almost three million.

In four days in the park we only saw six or seven other human beings, and we saw all of them from a distance. Sometimes in the early evening we could hear people across the water and catch a glimpse of their campfires through the trees, but whenever anyone became aware of our presence they acted with an unspoken code of back-country etiquette, which we always reciprocated, and tried their best to keep quiet, as if their presence in our vicinity ought to be a source of embarrassment. The loudest noises we heard with any regularity were the sound of wind through the tops of the trees and the calls of a pair of loons.

Provoking Lake

For two underemployed, city-dwelling 20-somethings there is no greater and more affordable getaway than a good camping trip. We already had or could easily borrow most of the gear we needed- which was fairly minimal anyways, back-country permits are reasonably priced, we were going to have to pay for food no matter where we were, and if we went for a back-packing trip instead of sticking to the water we wouldn’t have to pay to rent a canoe.

The only real obstacle was transportation. I own a car but realized some time ago that paying over 100 dollars per month to park it was not worth it when I live half a block from a subway station. The car now lives at my parents’ place. I considered renting or borrowing a car and Ian talked about getting a ride from someone headed in that direction, but no easy and cheap solution made itself immediately obvious. That is until Ian found out about the Parkbus.

Parkbus is an amazing service that takes you from downtown Toronto (and now Ottawa too I believe) to one of several different park destinations. It’s a fair price and there’s plenty of room for your gear and usually even for your bike as well. We had found our solution, but it got even better. Parkbus was looking for volunteers to confirm passenger lists, help people load their things on to the bus, and answer any questions anyone might have. It sounded like a really fun way to help out a great service that we were really happy to have found and, amazingly, volunteers get a free ride. It was settled immediately. Ian took a ride up and back to try it out and had a fun time just riding the bus, so we signed up as volunteers and our trip was set.

There was one thing left I had to deal with before I was ready to get out into the woods. Last Christmas, one of my younger brothers started playfully mocking the state of my shoes as I was packing up to leave my parents’ house after my holiday visit. My shoes were filthy and full of holes. I think you could see my feet through them and they probably didn’t smell great but I was too cheap to buy new ones. My brother took me into the garage and gifted me an old pair of running shoes that, despite being his lawn-mowing shoes for many months, were in far better condition than what I was wearing. So now it was August and I was still wearing those shoes, with fresh holes and the same grass-stains.

During a recent visit they made to Toronto I playfully guilt-tripped my parents into giving me money for new shoes, this involved a lot of squealing in a cockney accent about being used to feeling the cold grime of city streets on my bare skin, and how I really don’t need shoes and not to worry about me. I probably called my dad “guv’nah.” My parents agreed to subsidize the purchase of a decent pair of shoes. God bless us everyone.

As I have mentioned before, I’ve recently started getting sucked into many aspects of  the “primal” or “paleo” lifestyle. The diet has been the major change so far, but I’d also been reading and thinking a lot about minimalist footwear. It should go without saying that I’m not a doctor, but I feel the need to include that disclaimer as many forums and comment sections on articles about barefoot running and minimalist footwear contain an astonishing amount of vitriol. It seems obvious to me that the human body evolved over millions of years to work in a certain way, and that changing the way your feet and legs work from what they do naturally can’t be good for you. A cushioned shoe encourages heel strikes when running, bypassing the natural shock-absorption capabilities of the foot and sending the energy of the impact straight into the knee where it doesn’t belong. However, like I said, I’m not a doctor or anything.

As I was doing research on just what kind of shoe I wanted I kept coming across disclaimers about how I would need to give myself lots of time to adjust to minimalist footwear. I read about all the different types of injuries I was going to give myself by over-exerting myself without “proper” shoes. I ignored all those warnings completely. I’ve gone barefoot whenever possible for quite some time and I’m not a very hardcore runner so I figured I would probably be fine. Rather than “taking it easy” and giving my body time to “adjust” I decided to immediately start wearing the new shoes all day to break them in before the trip and then go on long hikes through the woods for several days in a row. I think I went for a 1-2km jog in them the first or second day.

I was torn between the Vibram FiveFingers Komodo Sport and the FiveFingers Spyridon LS. The Spyridons specifically say they are for the trail and have a slightly thicker sole than the Komodos, but they suffer the same drawback as many of the Vibram shoes in that they look absolutely ridiculous. The Komodos felt comfortable and even though I was worried they might be too thin for hiking I was planning on wearing them for normal every-day use after the trip and I found their design less flashy, so I decided to risk it. Most Vibram shoes seem to be designed to draw attention to themselves; They scream “hey everyone, look at these crazy shoes I’m wearing! Look! Toes!” The mens Komodos are mostly black. I got them on clearance at MEC and blacked out the material between the toes to make them even more subtle. I was ready.

Fantastic to wear but goofy-looking

Fantastic to wear but goofy-looking

Ian and I prepared gigantic bags of trail mix after a trip to Bulk Barn and started getting psyched up for our trip. The bus leaves Toronto fairly early in the morning. Being a volunteer meant travelling to the first stop it makes in the city, even though the second stop was much closer to where I live. Getting up earlier than usual made the whole thing more exciting, almost like Christmas. Taking the Parkbus was a great experience. All the passengers were friendly, as was the driver, everyone on the bus seemed to be in a really good mood. Why wouldn’t they be? They were going camping.

Ian and I disembarked at the Lake of Two Rivers campground, then walked along a short trail to the Mew Lake campgrounds where we picked up our back-country permit. We then hiked in to our site on Provoking Lake. We had discussed a basic plan for our trip but had been unsure of how long the trails would take. The Algonquin website rates the Highland Backpacking Trail as “difficult” and we weren’t sure what that really meant. It turns out that “difficult” really does mean difficult. We hiked over a variety of different surfaces and gained and lost quite a bit of elevation at near 90° angles in places.


The new shoes felt great, though I did start to develop a blister on one heel. Our campsite was on a beautiful spot and  I wasted little time getting in the lake for a swim. We had brought in a small amount of meat to eat for the first day so we had sausages for dinner and when I went to hang the food-bag out of reach of any bears that might show up I discovered something about the FiveFingers that I had never seen mentioned anywhere; they are excellent for climbing trees.

View from the tree

View from the tree

I am a very amateur astronomy enthusiast and was excited to get a decent look at the night sky after spending so long in the glare of Toronto. Unfortunately we were about a week late for the Perseid meteor shower, it was a full moon and was mostly overcast. I was hopeful conditions would improve by the end of the trip. Unfortunately it didn’t get much better while we were there.

Through photo-magic; here are more stars than I could actually see.

Through photo-magic; here are more stars than I could actually see.

Something we accidentally left around the campfire attracted a small animal in the middle of the night and I was awakened by sounds of rummaging. I got up and ran out of the tent clapping and yelling and it made a hasty retreat. I only realized the next morning that I was lucky it wasn’t a porcupine. Getting stuck with a bunch of quills would not have been a fun start to the trip.

Handsome woodsmen

Handsome woodsmen

For our first full day we headed to a nearby lookout where I was pleasantly surprised to find I had cell service. I made a quick call to my girlfriend to let her know I was alive and then we started on the small loop around Provoking lake, which we figured was about 10-11km.

A very intimidating sign. We did the loop in 4 hours at what felt like a very relaxed pace. We have pretty long legs and weren't carrying any weight that day though.

A very intimidating sign. We did the loop in 4 hours at what felt like a very relaxed pace. We have pretty long legs and weren’t carrying any weight that day though.

The forest is beautiful. I was amazed by the chaotic variety in the types of vegetation we passed through. Whenever you see forests depicted in art they are always fairly uniform, but walking through just a small portion of Algonquin we passed through a wide array of areas that could have convincingly played completely different forests in a movie.

One of our favourite unique spots. A stand of what we thought was birch.

One of our favourite unique spots. A stand of what we thought was birch.

I was already loving the shoes after the first day, but going on a long hike without a pack really convinced me of how fantastic they were. I felt like I was much more in touch with my environment. I could feel the different textures and materials I was walking over in a way I’d never experienced without worrying about cutting the bottom of my feet before. It added a whole new layer to the sensory experience of exploring such varied terrain. There were areas where the ground was mostly made of tree roots, there were squishy, muddy sections, places where the trail was mostly a thick, soft bed of pine needles, and even parts where the trail cut over an exposed rock-face and formed what looked and felt just like a city sidewalk except that it was bordered by lichen.

Natural sidewalk

I felt light on my feet and completely free. I found that the FiveFingers made me more conscious of where I was putting my feet rather than trudging through everything in normal hiking boots. I also discovered another unadvertised perk of the toe shoes; sometimes adorable bits of foliage get stuck in between your toes for you to save and appreciate later.

We returned to our campsite with a lot of day left and I went for a swim and spontaneously decided I was going to head out to the small island out nearer to the middle of the lake. It ended up being almost completely caked in bird droppings, probably from the lone gull I had seen standing on it earlier, but it still afforded an interesting new perspective on the lake. I rested in the shallows around the island for a while before starting the swim back to the campsite where we built a small fire, ate our dinner and cracked open the two small books we had brought along; Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and the Tao Te Ching, both of which are excellent reading material for the end of a long day exploring the wilderness. I slept very well that night.

Waking up the third morning was a wonderful feeling. Realizing after such a full first day the day before and realizing that I had two full days left to enjoy made me indescribably happy. We mostly stayed in the vicinity of our campsite, swimming, reading, napping, and checking out the surrounding, unoccupied sites. We ended up convinced that we had made the right choice and picked the best one available. A lone hiker walked past our site sometime in the evening.

We found this tree shaped like a bench. It was quite comfortable.

We found this tree shaped like a bench. It was quite comfortable.

The fourth day, our last full day in the park, started off rainy. We had planned for this contingency and were ready to relax in the tent and read, but the sky cleared quickly and we decided to head out and try to find  a waterfall marked on the map. We failed in our quest but still had a satisfying hike anyways. Sometimes the maps aren’t super reliable as far as pointing out places of interest, and one of the other Parkbus volunteers that I met on the ride up makes and sells his own maps of the park. Unfortunately, we didn’t have his map.

My observation of the day was that the most diverse part of the forest is in relatively open areas where nothing has grown higher than 5-10cm yet. Nothing has a real lead on everything else in the race towards the sunlight and you get a miniature preview of everything that might end up dominating that section of the forest months or years later.

The next day we packed up our site early in the day and hiked back towards the highway to get picked up by the bus. We met a couple more cool Parkbus volunteers who had rode up and then we started loading peoples’ packs into the bus and we were on our way back to the city. It was very strange to drive back into the city during rush hour. Our driver handled the traffic really well and being a passenger was completely stress free, but I did joke with Ian about having been transformed into a wild person and not being able to cope with civilization any more. I think we said something along the lines of “all this…this is the real wilderness man, it’s a spiritual wilderness… you call this ‘civilization?’ This traffic jam isn’t civilized at all.”

I spent the next few days coming down off of my nature-induced high and immediately started planning for what my next trip would be like. First, I would be sure to try to coincide my trip with good star-gazing conditions and any notable astronomical events if possible. Second, I would think about some different choices for gear. If I had unlimited resources I could spend a small fortune at MEC, but I think the items at the top of my list include a Hennessy Hammock (our MEC tent was great but using a two man tent isn’t as comfortable as it should be for the hassle of carrying even a very light tent) a Platypus Gravityworks filter (boiling water was a hassle and we think using iodine aqua tabs may have been causing some gastric discomfort) a headlamp with a red light option for preserving night vision, and I think I would like to try the Vibram Spyridons if I got the chance. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed just moving around in the forest and think I could get really into a more minimalist set up. My girlfriend and I recently made a big purchase of grass-fed beef and were given a dehydrator so I’m imagining a very light food-bag full of starvation rations of homemade beef jerky and little else.

For now I am back in the city for the foreseeable future, but I am fantasizing about my return to the woods. I’m especially glad that Parkbus exists and will be able to get me there and I look forward to volunteering with them again.

Next time I’m in the park I’m going to try harder to see a moose. That was a bit of a let down. Though we did see some evidence of beavers at one point.

Beaver dam

Beaver dam


“Thus spoke Zarathustra, and he left his cave, glowing and strong as a morning sun that comes out of dark mountains.”

Agave Americana

In Personal on 2013/09/02 at 23:38

As my grandmother lay semi-concious, dying slowly and quietly in her hospital bed, the century plant at the gardens was blossoming.

I imagine its lifetime of waiting, dormant beneath the glass of the greenhouse with the other succulents. A proud burst of agave, massive and immobile, its growth slow and plodding and barely noticable over the decades.

The stalk hit the ceiling within the first days of the start of its strange final chapter, erupting out of its once full base—now wilting beneath the thickening trunk which continued growing far above the hole they had to cut through the pane of the conservatory for it. It was a futile exercise, as are the behaviours of many domesticated specimens. The pollinators it might attract would never cross another of its kind to mix its desert genes into the code for a new generation of patient and thirsty flora. Whatever seed it might spread on the wind would find no suitable home outside the artificial desert room in the middle of the bustling, temperate city.

Yet, despite its futility, I still found that stalk; a reminder both of the plant’s long life and its impending death, beautiful and proud. Like Zarathustra’s solitary and defiant tree standing by the sea, “a living lighthouse of invincible life.” Here was living and here was dying. A long project at last fulfilled, a grand gesture, an eruption of effort after a great preparation.

The whole event lasted only a few weeks. As I looked at the drooping yellow blossoms, flaming in the low-angled light of late afternoon that poured onto the greenhouse between the massive buildings of the downtown core, I silently praised the plant for its strange and tragic beauty.

The Happy Omnivore

In Food, Personal on 2013/07/24 at 17:47

As the organs slipped out of the incision I had made in the rabbit’s abdomen I noticed one I did not recognize. Gray-purple with a translucent membrane full of bright red veins, the thing was a forked mystery amongst the more familiar mass of leporid anatomy spilling out of this rather large, freshly-skinned specimen. The intestines were still squirming with peristalsis as I dropped them into the grass, but my attention was still focused on the mysterious organ that had slipped out with them. The dog licked his lips expectantly.

Food has been on my mind a lot lately. I’ve gone through somewhat of a personal dietary revolution over the past several months. I gave up eating meat for lent a few years ago and since I was starting a romantic entanglement with a vegetarian that persisted long after Easter, the habit stuck. I had always been attracted to the idea of being a vegetarian, but more as an identity that I thought would be interesting to take on, not as a lifestyle I thought I would enjoy. My motivations for embracing vegetarianism were much more honest and well-informed by the time I actually went for it I think.

I like to think I have fairly strong will-power, and my adventures in vegetarianism confirmed this. I didn’t find myself craving meat, and I didn’t burn with secret, shameful jealousy when others would consume delicious animal flesh in front of me. Eventually I decided to take things to the next level. Vegetarianism was for people who weren’t committed enough to be vegans. Eating eggs and dairy is still supporting the factory farming industry and all the environmental, humanitarian, and animal cruelty related baggage that goes with it. Also, I had actually gained a bit of weight since becoming a vegetarian as I was eating a lot more cheese and bread.

So I did it, I took the next step and tried out veganism. Veganism is enjoying a lot of pretty good PR recently. It seems like I come across some vegan propaganda at least a few times per month: mass veganism will solve world hunger, help solve the climate change crisis, help you lose weight, and give you bucket loads of warm, fuzzy, animal-love karma. If you are a vegan you will live forever and shit rainbows and adorable baby chickens and puppies will follow you everywhere you go.

Most of the arguments for veganism are really pretty solid. From personal experience I can tell you that I did get a bit slimmer. The idea that we can solve world hunger by eating less meat, using the grain that all those chickens and cows were eating to feed the hordes of emaciated children in the developing world, is compelling and everyone in the developed world should be constantly thinking about it, though I do find it a bit misleadingly simplistic. The direct environmental impact of mass adoption of veganism is also compelling, the way we raise animals and the things we have to do to feed them are terribly destructive, yet ask a vegan about the sustainability of most soy production (and I’d like to meet a vegan who doesn’t eat huge amounts of soy) and things are sure to get a bit awkward.

With all this in mind, vegan Adrian was happy, haughty, and always very hungry. Yet throughout my adventures with a plant-based diet, I always believed that I was not actually living the ideal food lifestyle. Yes, the factory farming industry is cruel and destructive and unnatural, but I never believed that killing and eating animals is inherently morally abhorrent. I have a lot of respect for anyone who chooses a more plant-based diet and thus takes a step back from supporting the horror and stupidity that is factory farming, but I no longer think abstaining from meat is enough for me. I want to actively support a better way of making eating meat a healthy and sustainable part of being human, as it has long been before the last century or so. I was always open to purchasing and consuming naturally and humanely produced animal products. Wild animals with healthy populations, grass-fed beef and other free-range domesticated species, sustainable seafood, they all seemed like responsible and desirable options, and I would eat them whenever I came across them, though I wouldn’t actively seek them out.

Then the latest twist in my food adventure happened. My girlfriend, the former vegetarian who started this by cooking me delicious meat-free meals during lent, and who bravely joined me in full-on veganism, started talking crazy. First she became worried about a cavity and started reading about how cutting grains out of your diet can help prevent tooth decay. Then she started working with some super-healthy people heavily into exercise and “fringe nutrition” and she was even more intrigued. She told me about the bizarre things her boss would eat for lunch; like a generous serving of beef which she would dip in coconut oil to increase her saturated fat intake. She started reading about Paleo diets, about how the food pyramid is a lie, carbohydrates are evil, and saturated fat is your friend.

Finally, after weeks of research, she decided she wanted to try it. I was hesitant and suspicious at first, but after doing some research of my own, and thinking back on the things I’d always said I believed about responsible sources of animal products, I decided I would come along for the ride and try it out. Even if the diet ended up being too extreme and we abandoned it, it was time to stop paying lip-service to sustainable meat and actually start supporting an industry I believe is good and probably needs all the help it can get.

Eating animals more sustainably is not hard. It’s not even expensive. Grass-fed beef is expensive and hard to find in stores, but if you put a bit of forethought into your diet, find and develop a relationship with a farmer who is willing and able to raise an animal to your standards, and buy in bulk you will actually end up spending less money on food. We are still figuring a lot out, but we are eating cheap, delicious food all the time now. I dropped 10-15 pounds of fat on the new diet in just a few months and my appetite has decreased. Furthermore, we are more closely connected to our food than ever before. We have a tiny, balcony herb and vegetable garden, we buy local produce as much as possible, and we know exactly where the animals we eat come from, how they were raised, and what they were fed. The only challenge has been in travelling, but even then, with a little bit of planning and effort, it’s possible to eat sustainable, healthy, affordable food anywhere.

This summer I left Toronto for a month to live and work in West Virginia with my girlfriend’s parents who own a landscaping business. They live on a large piece of property out in the woods where they grow an abundance of edible and decorative plants. We ate from the vegetable garden; they had a supply of grass-fed beef; and many of their friends raise chickens for eggs. I was mostly satisfied, but I still desired a bit more diversity in my diet. This is what brings me back to the rabbit.

Predator species like coyotes are largely missing from many areas for well-known reasons. That leaves an overpopulation of prey species like deer and rabbits. There were dozens and dozens of rabbits around the house in the vegetable garden eating my hosts’ food and in the decorative plant gardens and greenhouse, eating their livelihood. They were lazy, fearless rabbits who felt safe in the predator­-free zone around a human dwelling. In the winter they begin to starve, chewing at the bark around the roots of trees, having exhausted most of their food sources by their unnaturally large numbers.

The system was out of balance, my hosts were unhappy with the damage to their gardens, and I was hungry. There was one simple solution.

It didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable with the pellet gun. My aim was good enough to get a headshot on a rabbit that wasn’t used to having to run away from anything and let me get fairly close before spooking. The first time I killed one I freaked out a little bit. I felt a strange caveman pride in having killed something that I planned to eat, but I was a bit terrified as I held the still warm body in my hands, knowing that the next step was to take a knife to it, remove its skin and organs and chop it up into a crock-pot.

I googled it.  Sitting on the steps outside the house, pellet gun and dead rabbit sitting next to me, trying not to get blood on my laptop. “How to skin and gut a rabbit.” There were lots of results, a lot of Game of Thrones references, but also several very helpful how-tos and instructional videos. It turns out that skinning a rabbit is almost hilariously easy. My hosts had eaten rabbit before, though not recently, and had told me how easy it was, but I guess I didn’t believe them. Seriously, if you ever skin a rabbit you might find yourself wondering why they don’t spontaneously fly out of their own skin by accident all the time. If you make the right initial cuts it’s like slipping off a glove. Gutting them is also quite simple, as long as you aren’t too bothered by the smell. I cleaned and gutted the rabbit, fed the bits I wasn’t going to eat to the very grateful dog, and we threw the meat in the crock-pot.

Rabbit stew with vegetables. The rabbit and the bamboo shoots were both grown on the farm.

Rabbit stew with vegetables. The rabbit and the bamboo shoots were both grown on the farm.

It was delicious. I’m not sure if the pride and other happy feelings at eating something that lived naturally and happily 100 meters from where I was living, and that I killed and prepared it myself was making it seem that way or whether the meat really was better than any meat I’ve ever tasted. A lot of it was probably the locavore/caveman pride making it taste better than it was. The next day I went out again and killed another one.

My aim improved even more, I could hit them from farther away and so was less likely to spook them and lose the shot. I killed a couple rabbits each week for the rest of the time I was there. The damage to the gardens diminished quickly; I was eating a lot of delicious and completely free meals; and the rabbits that remained were acting more like rabbits — living in the woods and running away from people. The twinge of guilt and terror I felt at killing that first rabbit faded quickly, and I felt like a heartless, terrible agent of rabbit death. Until that extra organ slipped out of that one special rabbit.

The smell inside of a freshly dead animal is hard to describe. I don’t know what I expected, but I didn’t expect it to smell like that. It smells like death, but somehow it also smells like life at the same time. Blood and biles and feces and whatever else all mixed together in a weird stew that bursts out of the thing as soon as you cut into it. The inside of an animal is warmer than I imagined, and there’s a lot of twitching and squirming in the parts of the body that apparently take longer to get the message that they’re supposed to be dead now.

Like everything else I pulled out the unfamiliar organ was moving, and as I examined it and sliced it open an adorable little face came out, squirming and gasping. I froze, shocked and fascinated. There were six little rabbit fetuses in there. As I held them in my hands and called the dog over to come and put a quick end to any sort of simple suffering they might be feeling, I thought back on my relationship to my food. From blindly eating whatever was put in front of me, to a sort of lazy vegetarianism, to conscientious and self-righteous veganism, to this: disembowelling a pregnant animal and killing her unborn offspring with my own hands.

For a moment, I felt horrible. Something just seemed wrong about killing a pregnant animal, even though I had no idea that’s what I was doing when I took the shot. Then the fascination of dissection overcame my guilt. I understood, viscerally, the anatomy and physiology of rabbit reproduction better than I ever had before. I learned that rabbits have bifurcated uteruses, I saw just how tightly those little fetuses are packed in there and as I looked around me at the thriving gardens that would also be providing me with food for the next several weeks a little bit of pride crept back in. One mother, six babies — seven rabbits dead in one shot. That’s pretty good. Seven less mouths to chew on the scenery.

The guilt came back in waves for the rest of the evening, the foetal rabbits were adorable in a wet, Ridley Scott’s ALIEN kind of way. I comforted myself by remembering that they were overpopulated, and that when their food sources started to disappear with the changing of the seasons many of them would have died miserable deaths anyway. I was making life better for the rabbits that remained. The next day the guilt was completely washed away as I sat down to dinner.

The mother was the tastiest rabbit yet.

America’s Crippled Democracy: Real Choices in West Virginia

In Personal, Politics, West Virginia on 2010/09/13 at 16:23

Governor Joe Manchin is the democratic nominee to run for the US Senate seat from West Virginia previously held by the late Robert C. Byrd. He will face Republican candidate John Raese in the midterm elections this November. It’s apparently a fairly tight race at this point but I’m assuming Manchin will win. This is an example of how American democracy has been crippled almost to the point of being nonexistent.

All of my progressive West Virginian friends seem to hate Governor Joe Manchin. I never really bothered to learn why. He was the governor of the state where I lived and went to school for several years but I didn’t really know anything about him. I knew I probably wouldn’t like him but I didn’t really want to talk to my friends about what their problems with him were. I couldn’t vote in West Virginia, or anywhere in the US for that matter (I’m a legal permanent resident but not a citizen), plus many West Virginians are fiercely (and oftentimes I would say illogically) protective about their State, so that making negative remarks about the governor, or any elected official, might result in a non-native being politely told to mind their own business, even if all parties present are in agreement on the issues.

It seems like many progressive West Virginians struggle with being ashamed of their State’s socio-political and cultural backwardness while at the same time feeling very proud of and genuinely loving many things about their home. I’m not saying that any of my friends were ever rude to me about politics, but there have been several times when I felt that some of my native West Virginian friends were perhaps a bit uncomfortable with my criticism of West Virginia. West Virginia is of course the butt of a lot of jokes, sometimes but most often not, deservedly so. I understand why a progressive West Virginian might feel a tad awkward about their extremely liberal Canadian friend bashing on West bygum Virginny and I want to say before I move on that most of what I know of West Virginia is great. All of the West Virginians I know have what I would consider the normal amount of teeth, none of them have married, or are at all attracted to their siblings or cousins, they all have lovely homes, and I find their gentle Appalachian lilt quite pleasant. It’s a beautiful place that’s home to a lot of people that I love very much.

Now that I have that out of the way…

West Virginia is a microcosm of everything that is wrong with American politics. It’s a place suffering environmental devastation at the hands of some very rich people in the energy industry. It’s one of the poorest and least educated places in America. West Virginians are literally suffering and dying all the time because of the coal industry, the landscape is being devastated at an increasing rate and, to be quite frank, most West Virginians are either too poor, too ignorant, or else too jaded to really care.

America’s commitment to Two-Party politics ensures that this wont change any time soon. When I read that Governor Manchin was the democratic candidate for the Senate I decided I should finally find out what his platform was like. I wasn’t too surprised. Then I decided to look at his opponent John Raese’s platform. Also not surprised. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. It seemed that West Virginians had a fairly simple choice in this election:  Vote for the wealthy, pro-life, anti-gun-control, anti-gay marriage,pro-war, fiscal conservative, coal-loving politician? Or the other wealthy, pro-life, anti-gun-control, anti-gay-marriage, pro-war, fiscal conservative, coal-loving politician. Of course if you look hard enough I’m sure you can find subtle differences between what they would be like as Senators, although it was a bit of a challenge for me as Joe Manchin’s Campaign website doesn’t even have an “issues” section.

It seemed to me that there was no real choice for West Virginians in this election. The differences between the two candidates were so small that they’re not even worth mentioning. I decided not to be so defeatist. I know some very intelligent people who are very politically savvy who have become so jaded by the lack of real choice in American politics that they haven’t voted in years. They’ve realized that democracy in America is a sham and they’ve given up. I have always chastised these people, telling them that it is because intelligent people like them voluntarily give up their most cherished civil right  that American democracy has been allowed to become so broken. There had to be another option for West Virginia. I had to be able to say something constructive about West Virginian politics. I have found something to say.

A simple google search of “WV Third party Candidates” brought Jesse Johnson to my attention. It seems Johnson is the perennial candidate in every election for West Virginia’s Mountain Party. Johnson received something like 4% of the vote when he ran for governor and he is running this year for US Senate. I’ll let Johnson’s campaign website speak for itself on his views (since his website actually explains his what his platform is, unlike Manchin’s), what I really want to talk about here is why I think voting for a third party candidate who has no chance of actually winning is important.

Jesse Johnson is not going to be a US Senator, or hold any high office, any time soon. So why should progressive West Virginians bother to get out and vote for him, contribute to his campaign, or tell anyone about him? Because change doesn’t happen just because of one election, no matter what Obama08 tried to tell you. Huge changes in a democracy take time.

It will take many years and many elections, but one day West Virginians will have to start taking the Mountain Party’s views seriously. The more people who vote now when they think it doesn’t matter the faster the day will come when real choices exist for West Virginia. Johnson may only get 4% of the vote again, or maybe he’ll get 5% if enough jaded liberals and ex-hippies (there are a lot of them living in the woods of West Virginia) decide to go vote come November. Now let’s say Johnson gets 4.5% of the vote and Manchin wins by a margin of 3-5%, a not unreasonable scenario. If the margin of victory is around the same amount of votes that got “thrown away” on third party candidates, the smarter mainstream politicians will start to pay attention to what those voters are saying, because they have the power to spoil a future election. Manchin and his kind don’t care if you hate mountain top removal mining as long as you stay home disgusted, but if you get out and throw your vote away on Jesse Johnson, you might screw with the election math so much that it becomes a problem for someone. When the results are tallied everyone will notice that the Mountain Party got 5% instead of 4%, then next time they get 7% instead of 5% and so on.

The bottom line is that nobody cares what you think if you’re not voting. Someone once told me that the only effective way to change a system is from the inside and I believe it. The only way to change West Virginia politics is to participate in West Virginia politics. It will take a long time. You will not see any results any time soon, but everything has to start somewhere.

Raise your hand and say that you want it to stop, be a part of that proud 5%. Don’t stay home and waste your vote, get out there and throw it away! Maybe some day it will have meant something.

Again: Mountain Party Website

Mountain Party Wikipedia

Jesse Johnson Senate Campaign

Jesse Johnson on Facebook