Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Vegetarian's Manifesto, Part 1

Our small and abused little Chihuahua, ironically named Lassie, is in heat.  Although I’ve never really taken her for a looker, wherever she’s gone lately, a group of three or four dogs has followed her, sniffing her here, licking her there, lipstick extended, attempting to spend a few minutes (is that how long dogs take?) in doggie-heaven.

Perhaps it’s because she’s only two and just not ready for motherhood; maybe it’s that the dogs haven’t shown that they’re father material; it could be that the shear size of two of her suitors, a Great Bernard at least six times bigger and a sweet, black mutt, only 4 times bigger, makes her shudder at how such a union might work.   For whatever the reason, Lassie wants nothing to do with anyone in her eclectic group of suitors: she barks for hours on end in fear, runs as fast as her little legs will carry her, attempting to hide from then, and, perhaps saddest of all, appeals to her human owners for protection. 

She should know better.  It is no surprise that the same people who hit her and kick her (in their defense, not too hard, but hard enough), have ignored our little dog’s search for safety.  Instead, titling the somewhat comic escapades as Lassie’s Search for a Husband, they have imported a skinny Chihuahua from another farm to get the deed done, and, whenever they can, lock the two “amantes,” or “lovers,” in a small shed to facilitate the completion of the dirty deed.  After about twenty minutes, Lassie’s scratching of the wooden door and her high-pitched barking subside, and we are only left to speculate.

“Why are you doing this to Lassie?” I ask my colleagues.  “It’s seems pretty obvious that she’s not interested.  Why not just let her be?”

“Do you know how much Chihuahua pups sell for?” They ask me excitedly and without pause.  “Almost 4,000 pesos,” or a little over $100.  “The rich people love these dogs.”


Whether it’s for money or entertainment, to release aggression or just because we can, we, as a society, have condoned the maltreatment of animals.  Examples range from forcing sex on defenseless dogs to cock fights, to the gruesome, inhumane way that animals are raised, slaughtered, and processed.   The subject for today’s post is not a description of these practices (which, if interested, can be found in many, many books such as Fast Food Nation, feature length films, such as Food Inc., or in undercover reports on the PETA website), but rather an investigation of how we justify the abandonment of some of the principles that we hold most dear in the treatment of other species.

The most common arguments I’ve heard in defense of our treatment of animals are remarkably simple.  First, they’re not human.  Many of the people who contend this, not religious, claim that we, as humans, have a celestial quality that separates us from the other members of the animal kingdom.  There’s something about us—created on the 6th day, maybe, not the 3rd, 4th, or 5th—that sets us apart.  The difference cannot be scientific: the more we study animals’ DNA, we learn that is strikingly similar to our own; the more we learn about animals, the more we understand that many have eerily advanced communication systems and that much more is happening in their brains than we can detect.  The second argument I’ve heard, also surprisingly simple, is that, as part of the animal kingdom, we are at the top of the food chain.  This is the natural order of the world, they contend, and we’re just doing our part.  This second argument is made by many who have just bought their shrink-wrapped hamburger patties and hotdogs at Shop and Fresh.  It ignores the fact that, naturally, mano a mano with many of God’s creatures, we don’t stand a chance.   

The real justification, the assumption underlying all of the other arguments, is that we treat animals like they were unfeeling, unthinking, inanimate objects because we can.  Because they are smaller, weaker, less expressive, or less powerful than us.  Because there’s no one whom they can complain to, the consequences few and far between for their abuse.

This same reasoning—that we can treat other beings that might not be as smart, as evolved, as expressive—when applied to people holds no water.  It is cruel, unusual, inhumane, and completely unjustifiable.  Such ratiocination helped justify the infamous abuses at Abu Ghirab (to the abusers), where American servicemen and women treated suspected terrorists as if the language and cultural barrier converted the prisoners into lesser beings.  In the DR, much less blatant but all the more pervasive, husbands, who go out dancing and drinking whenever they please, play baseball and dominoes at all hours of the day, apply the same principle to their wives, whom stay at home doing laundry and take care of the children, because men, the reasoning goes, are more fit for most things than women; sexual abuse is supposedly rampant here, as one generation feasts on the next in actions which they know lack reprisal; fathers take switches to their children for minor infractions; kids regularly mock Christian, the handsome, strong, and smart deaf-mute who lives here, who can’t hear when people call him names and couldn’t respond even if he did.  What all of these examples have in common is that people feel like they can take advantage of others because the victims have no recourse.  No matter the context, no matter the victim, no one should remain silent.  On the contrary, we have a responsibility to say something and to act against those who can’t speak up for themselves.

The way I see it, then, being a vegetarian is about many things.  In addition to environmental and health reasons, which I will cover later in the week, it’s about standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves.  Some may try to paint such a position as extreme, that we should abuse animals, only less.  Maybe I’m missing something, but whether it’s 9 times a week or 4, I just can’t remain silent.  But maybe you can.

*An update: There’s no question about what went down in the shed: Lassie and spouse had a good time.  I’ll update you on her condition as the year progresses.  Is anybody interested in buying a pure-bread Chihuahua?  Know anyone who is? I can get you a good deal!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Eat Your Vegetables!

I will preface this post with an admission: I am no longer a vegetarian.  The reality of life on the farm, where Charo, a genius in the kitchen, cooks for us, simply does not permit the lifestyle choice that, with the exception of a few (now much questioned) months, partly define my teenage years and early adulthood.  It’s not that food is scarce here, exactly; there’s almost always enough rice and beans, the staples, to leave you full.   But after 6 hours of chopeando or even a day without snacking, sometimes the body is screaming for the sustenance that habichuelas con arroz, or moro, just can’t provide.

So, with this post now prefaced, I can still draw from years of vegetarian experience and post-vegetarian guilt to finally answer that question, the one that people ask us (can I say “us” anymore?) and then immediately stop listening, eyes glazed over, waiting for you to just finish already, they were just being polite; that surefire conversation killer, that seeming obligation that, by its nature, must be filled over a meal which features meat on everyone’s plate but your own; that cannot be answered 100% truthfully, or surely your friends, meat left untouched, would be partly responsible for the pointless death of an animal or, were they to keep eating, would be heartless, ice-blooded pendejos who didn’t respect your opinion; that question, seemingly so innocent, that reveals 1) that your friends are judging you and 2) that you have already judged them: Why are you a vegetarian?

Oh the disappointment when I hear those horrible words! A wonderful date ruined (who am I kidding? I should say “a wonderful time ruined)! A lovely dinner disrupted! A quick shudder, a falter, an attempt at a witty response: “Oh I like to kill animals, I just don’t like to eat them;” no, no, that’s just creepy; “have you ever read that story where the father makes his son eat roadkill? You know, how in the end the kid, so terribly shaken, waits with a fork and knife for his father to run him over?” No, that won’t work either, even creepier.  “Because you’re eating flesh of another being.”  No, too obvious, too honest, even creepier still.  Oh what to say! What to do!

Michael Pollen wrote a supposed eater’s manifesto in In Defense of Food (a book so disappointing, so poorly written and researched that I could barely get through 100 pages); the series of posts that follow will feature a vegetarian’s manifesto, a defense of what seems like a noble diet but which, to its followers, is really just obvious and no big deal.  My hope from the entries that follow is twofold: first, that omnivores will read this site and decide to pose diet-related questions more carefully or not at all: “You really like your vegetables, huh?” or, “I’m a big fan of salad, too.” I’m not trying to convert anyone, I promise, although I wouldn’t object were someone who, after reading these posts, to agree to do the right thing (I joke. Or do I?),  Second, I seek to give vegetarian’s confronted with this question, surely by troglodytes, locked in caves for years, unenlightened and uninformed because they don’t know about this site, a ready response.  “Wonderful question, (insert favorite curse word here).  Just read ’In the Arena with Eli Berman.’  He, like always, says it all.”

So, brace yourselves, lettuce lovers and meatheads alike, for what’s to follow.  It really could be a game changer.  By the end of my series of entries, people won’t be asking “Why are you a vegetarian?” but rather, “why aren’t you?”

Email me your thoughts, and I’ll be sure to include them over the course of the week.  Until then, eat as much meat as you can.  You may never have the justification to do so again.  Unless you’re on a farm in the Dominican Republic….No, I don’t think that works so well, either.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

A New Promise!

A note to my many and influential readers:

What follows below is my first blog entry written in the Dominican Republic.  Although placing it first on this website is not chronologically correct, I did so in order to maximize your experience on In the Arena, for it was meant to be the first entry read by you.  Clearly, I’ve done my part; in order for you to maximize your experience, follow the instructions below:

Step 1: Read an entry.

Step 2: Leave a comment.

Step 3: Repeat Steps 1 and 2 throughout the website.

This installment includes 4 entries, each of which I consider unique, fun, and thought provoking.  I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.


Yes, I admit it, this site has made some brash pronouncements over the past two years.  I don't, of course, refer to my prediction that "the Orioles will win the World Series in 2007, 2008, and 2009" (April, 2007) or that "George W. Bush will run for a third term and win" (May 2007).  Nor do I refer to my all too well informed observations that “Jessica Simpson is so too good for Tony Romo” (January, 2008) or that “Bruno will be a great movie” (March, 2008).  I refer to my various—in hindsight empty—promises that I would "post often" and "check in with you soon."  My frequent silences and inconsistency is downright inexcusable, and I apologize to anyone and everyone who has been waiting for me to solve their innermost crises, to help them be better people, to give them cocktail conversation, or to just know what the heck is going on in my life.  I promise to do better.

But what makes a now familiar vow so very different from those of years past?  If anything, keeping you informed from Los Marranitos, a community of around 100 people in rural Dominican Republic, will be my most difficult task yet.  The community is neither on the grid nor (GASP!) has internet, and only a 10 mile, 45 minute journey over bumpy, hole filled, twisting, and (sometimes unintentionally) one-laned roads towards that oasis, that Eden of a city, Jarabacoa, where internet connections abound, allows me to connect with you. 

But this time is different.  Maybe it’s that, unlike Fairfield, CT and Madrid, I truly feel that living in the rural Dominican Republic offers me a unique take on some of the most important issues of our time.   Maybe it’s that, for the first time in my life, poverty, unemployment, illiteracy, and racism are no longer key terms for tomorrow’s midterm exam but rather problems that I encounter on a daily basis.  Maybe it’s that, when we pull up to McDonald’s and order a large Freezy Freeze®, most of us have no idea where the ingredients that made the drink came from, how they got there, and what effect their cultivation (if it’s real food) has had on the people who helped produce them (although they are delicious!), but I’m seeing those effects now.  Maybe it’s that, without facebook, The Simpsons, The Orioles, People and US Weekly, I actually have time to devote to what I love most but don’t have the discipline to do—to read, to write, to experience new things, to always be learning.  Maybe it’s a combination of all those reasons.  Maybe I just don’t think that you can make it without me.

Whatever it is, after an all-too-long hiatus, In the Arena with Eli Berman has returned, with a vengeance, and I look forward to helping you grow along side me in my wonderful, fantastic, unique journey.

How could you not be excited?

A Changing View of Education

As soon as I got home from Madrid, I enrolled myself in  Introduction to Macroeconomics at American University.  A few  observations:

·      The Internet is changing the way that young people learn.

OK. Insert sarcastic “wow, you’re so perceptive” joke here.  Are you done yet? 

Let me explain.  I once heard computers and, most importantly, the Internet, described as an “imagination machine.”  I was at an education conference that focused on technology in the classroom.  The leader of this lecture, a teacher, couldn’t have been more eloquent in describing the potential of arming each and every kid with a laptop.  The internet creates, he argued, a democratic classroom, where the student often has more access to information than does the teacher, where everyone can learn from everyone, where hard questions can be answered in seconds.  “You want your class to build robots?,” the presenter asked, “well that’s only a Google search away.”  I left the conference wondering how I could justify building robots in my Spanish class.

My experience in Macroeconomics, however, provided a far different interpretation of this “imagination machine.”  Many students had ditched their notebooks and pencils and transitioned to note taking on the computer.  They brought their computers to class—I assume that students at AU are not the only ones in the country now doing this—but they were not looking up the GDP of Guatemala or the comparative advantages of growing coffee in Vietnam.  Rather, they were on Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, and whatever the new thing is that has popped up since I left the country.  The computer in the classroom was not the gateway to wisdom that the teacher at the conference explained; instead, it was sucking the imagination out of the classroom, one gamma ray at a time.

·      Education: both a birthright and a privilege

I’ve started some informal English classes.  The plan was to start next week, and I would lead classes alongside the other volunteer, Ria Shroff, who is the head of the library here.   But many of the community members—and most of them Haitians—wouldn’t allow me to wait.  They demanded that I go down to the library with them and begin classes.  That very day.  Right now.  How could I possibly have said no?

Half way through a lesson, a young, Haitian man entered the room.  He wanted to learn, he said, not in an informal way, with attendance optional and no expectations set out, but instead with everything structured, with tests, quizzes, and exams.  The grade didn’t matter; he just wanted to learn as much as he could in the best possible way.

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing for two reasons: 1) this young man, Ramón, incredibly bright, literate, fluent in Creole, French, Spanish, and with a solid command of English, didn’t have more than an 8th grade education and 2) where I come from and from what I saw in AU (and I think that it was the same at Middlebury), most of the students (including me) did the most we could to find the easy way out.  It was like how health insurance companies dedicate along the lines of 1/3 of their expenses to not paying health claims.  Where they fight tooth and nail to pay the least they can, we fought, and hard, to work as little as possible.

·      An “A” is a “B” and a “B” is a “C”: A birthright and a privilege, continued

I did, of course, ace my Econ class, but my lack of effort should have knocked me down more than few points.  I didn’t recognize that, although I firmly believe that education is a birthright, it is also a privilege. 

Maybe the worst part is that, my attitude and those of my classmates had seeped into the system.  Our teacher, a wonderful, kind, highly intelligent former economic advisor at the Fed, must have known that her students were not putting in their all.  She must have seen vacant stares and furious typing and concluded that students, physically in their seats, mentally had left the building.  Instead of increasing the difficulty of the class, however, or even calling them out, she made the class easier, catering to these students.  While my transcript will now include that AU “A” on it (it actually most definitely won’t) I didn’t perform at that elite level either, and anyone could have told you that.  Especially Ramón.

Felito, El Gatito

So I wish that I could write about something else right now (chopeando the whole day, for example, cutting down beautiful trees and plants in order to plant a monoculture canuco, a garden of one or two starchy vegetables, or a baseball game played a few days ago in between a river and on a hill, the clear objective hitting it on the hill, shrubbed and totally indefensible, or the stoning of a beautiful baby bird by a grou

p of Dominican adolescents) but my cat, Felito—on my lap,          ````````````now on the keyboard (yes, his contribution), now back on my lap, now eating the computer wires—has made an exploration of any other subject impossible.

This is my first cat (he’s now licking his privates), and he serves the indispensable purpose of keeping the rats away (he’s the first defense, the mosquito netting, I’ve heard, is not for the mosquitoes).  But the cost of his being here could outweigh a visit or two from Ratatouille.  Let me explain:

1)  He eats through my mosquito netting, creating holes for who knows what to get in at night.

2)  He “does his business” in the shower and then, I’m convinced apologetically, curls up in my lap, leaving behind on my shirt evidence of his indiscretion.

3)  He jumps on my head while I’m sleeping, trying to get into my bed, a right reserved for my dog in Chevy Chase, Shadow. At first, terrified that a giant animal was eating my face, isn’t it amazing what human beings can become accustomed to?

4)  He enters our food container every time we open it.

5)  His cat food, in that very container, has made everything else smell like dried disgustingness, or whatever it is these creatures eat.

6)  He’s too smart: every time I throw him out of the house, he finds some way to get back in (we do have various holes in the house, but we can’t figure out how’s he’s entering).

7)  He’s not a dog.

OK cat lovers, give me your best shot.  Why should I keep him around and not give Felito to a group of Haitians whom, according to Dominican lore, will cook him for dinner?  As Ratatouille would most certainly say, “bon appétit!”  He’d also surely have a great recipe…

Two Roads Diverged

Oh fair and gentle reader! Thou hast choices to make!

In a world of competitive cable news and innumerable Internet sites, one simply lacks the time to pursue all his fancies.  But trust my honest and unbiased opinion: my site is your all-in-one destination for the latest news and opinion. DrudgeReport and Washington Times be gone!  Choose to spend more time on In the Arena.

I had to make a difficult decision with my time today, but unlike yours, I’m still not so sure that it’s the right one.  Down to my last pair of pants and second-to-last shirt, the inside-out trick just couldn’t cut it anymore. The solar panel on my house is not quite big enough for a washer and drier, not even one of those two-in-one energy saver models (I know, right?), so I instead began to wash the clothes by hand.

I started at 7:00, the perfect time to wash clothes.  It’s not so hot early, and it gives you the whole day to let the clothes dry in the sun.  Today was a clear and, never knowing when the rain could envelop the mountains and refuse to depart, I took advantage.

I can imagine the scene well through Dolores’ eyes.  She, a 55-65 year-old-woman who lives across the street, was sweeping her immaculately clean dirt front yard when a tall and awkward gringo, clothes spilling from his laundry bag (what she could not have known was that the bag was from the Middlebury laundry service, to which I subscribed for two years) onto his trash-ridden dirt yard, tried to be a campesino.  He filled his ponchera, or bucket, with too little water, stared at the back of the detergent, scratched his heads, sorted his clothes, began talking to himself, dropped his now wet clothes on the ground, and spoke louder to himself, this time in short, anger-laden words, and looked puzzled as clothes once brilliantly white now had streaks of red, green, and orange.

Dolores offered to help,  but I tried to be a tigre, the word that Dominicans use to describe a player, someone who doesn’t need help, a little distant, always cool.  She, as well as most people who have ever met me, saw through that thin, thin façade.

She took a break from sweeping and grabbed the clothes out of my hand.  “Tiene que hacerlo así,” she told me, as she rubbed the clothes more vigorously than I ever could.  Laughing, completely incredulous that I hadn’t ever done something like this before, Dolores was clearly looking for an explanation.  My possible defense consisted of two options: 1) I had washed my clothes by hand before.  I spent 8 weeks living with an indigenous community in México, and there I had to wash clothes by hand, too.  There, however, by the end of the trip, the clothes had taken on a what would turn out to be permanent mildew smell which made me, I’m convinced, sicker then I think I’ve ever been; or 2) I had always used a washing machine.  Both answers seemed less than convincing, and I remained silent.

The short of the story is this: Dolores taught me how to wash the clothes, I did so, it took the better part of the morning, and I doubt the clothes are really even that clean.  Now, at 12:30 pm, knuckles raw and biceps soar, I’m finally on to other things.

What’s a man to do?  And would partial dependence, paying someone else to take care of my dirt laundryy, be OK? 

Your thoughts, oh humble reader, would be greatly appreciated.

Monday, September 22, 2008

El Cambio Grande

Well here´s a thought: time flies.  I know you´ve heard it before, but it bears repeating once more.  

The last time I wrote, I was probably grading papers, coaching cross country, and yelling at 7th graders (I hope all is well, Mr. Miller).  It would have been cold: February in Connecticut is not an easy month.  I would have been thinking of the promise of another Orioles season -- that this is would be the one -- and cheering for Hillary Clinton, who still seemed to be the sure fire Democratic nominee (Barack who?).  Finally, I would have been thinking about people and situations that, for better or for worse, have long left my daily thoughts.

As I write now, I´m currently on Calle Prim in Madrid, Spain, in the headquarters of Middlebury´s Spanish program.  For the greater part of the past four months, I have sworn to speak only Spanish, and I have done so.  This post, the final in my mother tongue (at least for some time) is to tell you that, in order to read my insights from here on, you will have to follow me in my quest to master the Spanish language.  And I´m asking you to do so, more for your sake than for mine, because in your learning of another language, you will be able to read Borges and Cortezar and Cervantes but more importantly me.  And this, I tell you, is worth every cent you pay to Rossetta Stone (or, if you´re interested, I can provide you material).  So let´s just get this straight: I´m not asking you to walk 1,000 miles.  I´m asking yo to straighten up, fly right, and pick up that 9th grade introductory to Spanish book that has been gathering dust under your couch and to learn some Spanish.

What can you expect from  En la arena con Eli Berman?  Well, the same that we can expect from a Sarah Palin/John McCain presidency -- or change that, McCain/Palin: more of the same.  I will continue to deliver you wonderful, insightful observations as I have ¨consistently¨done.  I will, of course, comment on the upcoming elections.  I will also try to explain a grammatical concept or word of the day that has captured my attention (this is as much for graduate students as for a 72 7th-10th graders in Fairfield, CT).  And I will fill you in as I continue to understand my first language, the language of love.  So, my friends, this edition of In the Arena With Eli Berman will now sign off and a newer, better, and far more exciting edition will herefore commence.  Entonces, mis amigos, disfruten esta nueva avenutra.  Abróchense, tengan cuidado, buena suerte y buenas noches.