Monday, February 25, 2013

First World Luxuries

Chef, food critic and television personality Anthony Bourdain is a devilishly intelligent guy.

Last year on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” Maher asked Bourdain, “If you had to choose between average sex and a great meal, which would you choose?” With precision comedic timing, Bourdain winked, “Depends on who’s doin’ the cookin’ and who’s doin’ the fuckin’.”

For all it’s locker room charm, that quote wasn’t as thought provoking as another Bourdain quote that my son, Cal recently shared with me. On Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, “No Reservations,” he was in a third-world country eating meat from an exotic local animal, and when asked about vegetarians back in America, he quipped, “Vegetarianism is a first-world luxury.”

I love a confrontational quote that begs soulful self-examination. And it was delivered with a layer of indictment that’s hard to ignore, as if luxuries are to be apologized for.

I shared the quote (about vegetarians) with a friend who is not only a chef and a vegetarian, but also a fan of Bourdain. Unfortunately, this friend doesn’t really like to be provoked with self-examination. Her momentary silence and tightened body language revealed she was taken aback (and from my experience, vegetarians are prone to being taken aback – that’s how they became vegetarians!), so I took pity and offered a sympathetic comeback: “Quality education is a first world luxury. Sanitary drinking water, sewer systems, a criminal justice system, air traffic control systems and national elections, to randomly name just a few, are all first-world luxuries.” She was soothed and echoed my comments with a sorta, “Yeah, to what you just said.”

But to focus on that alone ignores the complexity of Bourdain’s observation. Those living in the relative ease of the first world have the safety, comfort, and plenty to choose beyond today’s dire necessities. We can say, “Oh, I won’t eat that, because I’ve decided it’s not ethical treatment of animals,” or “it’s not healthy.” But people in the 3rd world often have to eat what they have to eat. They may never get a chance at self-actualizing such decisions because they have more pressing worries: hunger, safety, and weather extremes.

But does that mean we have to apologize or feel guilty because we can choose to eat what we want to eat? I don’t dress or house my family like people in the 3rd world (if you ignore my son, Jack, who chooses to dress that way). As much as I wish the world’s poor had more, I’m not sorry for my circumstances. I’m grateful.

I think Bourdain’s quote was a bit of a cheap shot. And Bourdain does it a lot. He often compares vegetarians to picky eaters who drag everybody else down when traveling and dining with their fussy sensibilities. But when I think of first-world luxuries, I do think of people who have the luxury to fear and disdain that which others less fortunate would kill for.

For instance I know a number of people who refuse to vaccinate their children, convinced that it’s dangerous. The staggering swath of medical history and worldwide child mortality data you have to ignore to become a vaccination-phobe speaks to the isolation of the first-world experience.

Like President Franklin Roosevelt, my aunt Beverly suffered from polio. She spent part of her childhood in an iron lung. You know how modern-day people who refuse to vaccinate their children get away without vaccinating them against polio? Because the rest of us do! Providing a safe cultural pool for their kids to swim in.

Look at countries without widespread vaccinations and you find countries with high infant mortality and a level of childhood misery that is Biblical in its gushing heartache. But in the first world, you can live like all that never happens . . . or isn’t even true. Instead, you take your relative safety from disease for granted and obsess over side issues.

The vaccination-phobes remind me of people I’ve met who are afraid to fly. They talk forever about how airplanes can fall from the sky, but can’t seem to focus when you share travel data that proves hands-down that it’s more dangerous to drive than to fly. They instead tell you stories about airline mechanics who let dangerous planes fly or pilots who drink before they go to work. Share yet more unmistakable data again and they find another obscure objection. They’re focused on the emotional, a place where the rational has no power.

Only in the first world, where there is no longer any polio (thanks to vaccinations) can you get hyper-focused on the minute percentage of kids proven to have a negative reaction to vaccinations. In the 3rd world, people have to spend their time worrying about the far, far, far higher percentage of children who get polio.

In the comfort of the first world: emotions, minus scientific observations can equal reality. Call me a science nerd, but I like to do it the other way around, adding up scientific observation and subtracting emotion.

And I have friends here in central Indiana who insist on commuting in large 4-wheel drive SUVs, “because they’re safer.” We live in just about the flattest place in the world, in a county with not a single gravel road, with some of the safest, best designed highways in the world, but they feel unsafe without all that metal and those gear ratios on their side. They need an urban assault vehicle or they just won’t feel right.

First world luxury indeed! Think India or Cambodia and a scooter with an entire family perched atop it.

Several years ago I went to a vegetarian grilling class with a group of friends. The instructor began by explaining that humans were never meant to be vegetarians, describing in detail the shape of our teeth and what they were made to do – the front teeth made to tear meat apart and the back teeth made to grind it up so we can swallow it. He went on to explain our high protein needs, from the vital part it plays in childhood brain development to ongoing adult needs for protein – something harder get if you don’t live in a first world country. The one vegetarian in our group was, well, taken aback. She didn’t like having her belief’s challenged.

But truth is, I had some sympathy for her. If we’re to look only at science and human history, it’s hard to argue that being peaceful rather than warlike is what we were “meant to be.” And anthropologists tell us time and again that it is not in human nature to be monogamous. But that doesn’t stop us from trying to be peaceful and faithful, nor is human history a reason to dismiss or condescend to people who strive for those ideals.

Don’t we all strive against our natural tendencies to greater or lesser degrees?

What Bourdain was really nibbling at was Maslow’s Need Hierarchy, which we all remember from any psychology class we ever took. People at the bottom of the hierarchy are striving for food, shelter, and safety. Once you have that, you move up the hierarchy and start expecting more, and better. Once you get that you start searching for self-actualization – seeking purpose and meaning in what you do. There is a natural tendency, when we’re at the top of the hierarchy and embarrassed at all the time we spend gazing into our belly-buttons, to think the people scrapping at the bottom are more worthy than us, “more real,” because their needs are more immediate and less petty.

I actually believe that’s true. But I also bet those at the bottom, those in the 3rd world would trade with us in a heartbeat if given the option. It’s good to be reminded that our lives of comfort can make our concerns a little petty. But it’s also good to have the comforts.

So go on vegetarians - disdain meat. Eat your veggies and your grains. I’ll eat those too, and your share of the meat, and won’t feel bad about you or myself no matter what Anthony Bourdain says.

It’s a little like sex vs. the well-cooked meal Bill Maher asked about. You really shouldn’t have to choose between the two. Take them both, recognize that you’re lucky, but don’t apologize.

Sunday, February 17, 2013


This is an excerpt from a much longer piece I wrote about my grandparents for the 2012 edition of the Polk Street Review. To read the full version, stop by The Wild bookstore on the courthouse square in Noblesville and purchase a copy. The book is filled with short stories, poetry, photography and essays from Noblesville folks.

                                              Alvie and Marguerite in the 1960s, as I knew them in my childhood

I never understood Marguerite.

I never satisfied her stern, disapproving stare and pursed lips, rarely broke through her long frozen silences and rarely grasped her perplexing view of the world. 

On the first day of school after Christmas friends gushed about special gifts from their grandparents - new bikes, TVs or a trip to Disneyland. What did my grandmother buy me? Socks and underwear.

After my grandfather, Alvie died, on rare occasions Marguerite stayed at our house in Tipton for a few days at a time. No sooner did she set down her suitcase she’d tie an apron around her waist and go about cleaning our house, emptying trashcans and dusting. If you could see it only as an expressive of the German work ethic she was raised with, it was generous and helpful. But to us it said, “You’re house is dirty.” I don’t think she meant it that way. But that’s how it felt.

I recall at age eight or nine, Marguerite standing over me in a JC Penny’s, disapproving as I tried to buy the Monkeys second album with my birthday money. She knew I had their first album and so read the song titles off the back cover, asking after each, “Are you sure you don’t already have that song on the other record?” It wasn’t enough to simply say, “You’re wasting your money on childish music,” it had to be a protracted standoff, and for the thin-skinned child I was, a needless humiliation in front of other store patrons. 

During our summer visit, my sister Cindy remembers a forced haircut (without our mother’s permission) and a forced diet. No snacks allowed between meals and you got only what you were served at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, whether you liked it or not. We were dumbfounded. The kitchen in our own home was open anytime for a handful of saltines or a cup of Kool-Aid.

As best I can figure, Marguerite had a bleak childhood in the unforgiving flat landscape of northern Indiana during the first World War. She grew up in a tiny town southwest of Bluffton called Poneto. It was barely eight city blocks nestled against a rail line to its west, connecting Ft. Wayne to Hartford City, and to the east was just a small farm field away from an electric Interurban line to Bluffton. Her maiden name was Myers and she would marry a Meyer. She had one sister and three brothers. One of the brothers was mentally ill and committed suicide. Her parents divorced and her father, Guy Myers, moved to Lansing, Michigan.

My father recalls a childhood visit to his grandfather, Guy in Lansing in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s. Guy was working in an auto factory and “shacking-up” with a woman.

There are many, many stories about my grandfather’s upbringing and family yet almost none about my grandmother’s. She just didn’t talk about it.

Guy Myers was an adopted child. His birth parents are unknown. A rumor of shadowy origin suggests that Marguerite had some Mexican or at least “south-of-the-border” blood. She never spoke of this except to deny it once to my mother and on another occasion late in life, when someone admired a beautiful Mexican waitress in a restaurant, Marguerite offered proudly, “Some people think I might have Mexican blood.”

At a Bluffton social gathering 20 years ago I sat next to a distance cousin named Julie. She was the granddaughter of Marguerite’s sister. I asked, “Have you ever heard anything about an ethnic secret in our grandmothers’ family?”

“YES!” she replied emphatically, grabbing my wrist. “What is it?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Hoped you’d know.”

But she didn’t.

While on vacation in Acapulco, my oldest sister, Jama sat in an ocean-side restaurant watching a group of elderly local women as they talked and ate. They had the look of mixed-race women from Central and South America - that mix of Spanish and native ancestry. Jama told her partner, “That’s my grandmother. Every women at that table could be Marguerite.”

When Marguerite finished school, she took a job as a maid, or “hired girl,” as was said in the 1920s, for a well-to-do family in Bluffton. It was apparently during that time she met a young Apostolic man who worked at a gas station and rode a motorcycle, my grandfather, Alvie.

But in my childhood, I knew nothing about any of this.

In Marguerite’s stern exterior and rigid insistence on what was proper, I read an urge to be not only accepted, but also to protect some community notion of what was acceptable. There seemed so little room to maneuver within those rigid expectations, why even try? And so when I was with her I felt I didn’t measure up and eventually didn’t really want to.

When I was 13 her Christmas gift of socks and underwear gave way to checks for $50. I figured she was softening. But once, later in high school, after I’d been dating a girl for a couple months she gave me puzzling advice. “Don’t let yourself get too serious about this girl,” she warned. “When you get to know a person too well you discover their faults and it’s disappointing.”

Later when I dated a girl who was diabetic, she again warned me not to get serious. “If you marry this girl and have babies, they might not be normal.”                                        (at right, Marguerite in the 1920s)

Did she have any idea what it meant to be young and in love? I thought not. Where was the tenderness and warmth? Instead, just warnings and advice that would leave you all alone if you dared take it.           

When I was in college the $50 checks at Christmas turned into $500 checks. By the time I graduated they went up to $1,000. Her generosity only increased her mystery.

In college I wanted to study a semester in London, but my parents refused to pay for it. On a whim I called Marguerite and asked to borrow the money from her. She quickly and easily said yes. When my father found out, he put an end to her loan and loaned me the money himself.

That Christmas money helped fund three more trips to Europe in the ‘80s. But though she approved of the first trip, she didn’t approve of the others. She told me it was a frivolous use of the money. Was she bothered that I was traveling with the money she and Alvie had saved for their failed dream of travel during retirement - though I hadn’t really earned it? It made me wonder why she didn’t travel and live out their dream on her own. Why did she just sit day after day in that apartment on Wayne Street, play cards with her cronies, go to church and eat dinner once a week at the Dutch Mill?

The travel I bought with that money change my life – expanded my view of the world. But there came a time when Marguerite’s influence changed my life even more profoundly.

When I was in college at Ball State, Marguerite once told me to keep an eye out for a young girl she knew, who was also studying there. “She’s such a nice girl. I play canasta with her grandmother.”

I shuddered to imagine the kind of girl Marguerite would find a good fit for me. If Marguerite liked this girl, there must be something wrong with her.

Six months later on the first day of a distance running class the instructor called out that girl’s name. I craned my neck to see what homely Bluffton girl would raise her hand.

But the arm raised high was attached to a slender, blonde, blue-eyed knockout. We ran together a few times, but nothing came of those first few meetings. Two years later Marguerite mentioned the girl again - said she’d bumped into her at the grocery store in Bluffton and that she had asked about me. I was going to Ft. Wayne the next weekend to visit college friends, so I called her and asked her out. On the date I discovered the girl had neither bumped into Marguerite at the store nor asked about me.

We married a year later in Bluffton.

Marguerite had done the most significant thing anyone ever did for me in my life, and she did it with a strategic lie.

In 2001 I published a novel and traveled the state promoting it. One night I gave a book talk for the historical society in Hartford City. There I met an elderly woman who knew my grandmother. She was a schoolgirl when Marguerite was a young newlywed. Living close to my grandparent’s first house, the woman and her girlfriends played near their back porch and looked up to Marguerite. She said they often sat in the kitchen while Marguerite cooked. She described my 20-something grandmother as lighthearted and fun, singing while she cooked and prone to easy laughter. Marguerite would bake them the cut-off trimmings of piecrusts, smeared with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar, and serve it with lemonade.

My sister, Jama doesn’t remember a fun person prone to easy laugher, but she does remember a woman she learned to make peace with.

“I don’t recall her ever saying, ‘I love you,’ or giving me hugs but she encouraged me and showed tenderness in the advice she gave me as an adult. She was stern and firm, but also generous.”

Jama was painfully shy as a child, and was afraid of Marguerite. As she grew, Jama became a standout student and exceptional athlete. Marguerite regularly encouraged and complemented her. In college in Arizona and later living in California, Jama wrote Marguerite a letter every two weeks and made the drive up to Bluffton to visit whenever she was back in Indiana.

During Jama’s marriage, Marguerite read between the lines of the letters that arrived in her Bluffton mailbox, sensing something wasn’t quite right. She responded with letters asking Jama about her marriage: “Does he come home right after work? Does he treat you well?” It was concern and sympathy, sent from a woman who often had a hard time showing it.

Marguerite spent her last several years in a nursing home, and much of the time didn’t really know who anyone was, but often pretended to. When she died my parents were in China. There was no easy way to reach them and no way for them to get home in time for the funeral. My siblings all gathered in Indiana and we went to Bluffton where I stood in for my dad, greeting old family friends alongside my uncle Gene. When the time came, Gene, my brother Tom, my two young sons, and I acted as poll bearers.

Later, my uncle Gene shared with me a photo album found among Marguerite’s things. In old black and white pictures taken in the 1920s, Alvie was young, handsome and looked Great Gatsby-ish with thick, long hair on top, razor-smooth on the sides above his ears. A far cry from the feeble Parkinson’s patient I’d known. And Marguerite was a lovely, happy flapper of sorts. In some photos they sat together on the running board of a Model-T and in others hugged each other lovingly and suggestively, up to their necks in a lake on a long-gone sunny summer day.

The look in their eyes was unmistakable. If you’ve seen someone in the early bloom of love you know that look. There was a giddy, electric expectation in their smiles, a candle-like glow behind their eyes, like every breath was taken with a bird flapping its wings wildly in their throats.

That’s how I would like to remember them.

In my childhood Marguerite so often made me feel like an outsider, unwelcome and unwanted. After looking into those hopeful, loving faces in black and white, I wanted to understand her, wanted to know how that happy, eager young woman became so cold. That young woman never would have let the kind of child I once was feel so isolated, like I didn’t measure up, like I wasn’t good enough.

The photos made it clear that she had known all along what it meant to be young and in love. And in her own manipulative way she found the woman who would be the mother of my children.

What happened in the intervening years to harden her? Some of it I know now and the rest I can guess from my own journey through adulthood and marriage to parenting and into mid-life.

After Marguerites death, what at the time seemed like a staggering sum of money arrived in the mail. It was especially meaningful because my wife and I were living on one teacher’s salary. It was my cut of Alvie and Marguerite’s life savings. Money earned during the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, money that was supposed to fund their retirement travels we used instead to restore the front of our Victorian-era home on Cherry Street and rebuild its missing porch. From the first warm day of spring to the last useful day of autumn that year, I climbed scaffolding, swung a hammer and flung a paintbrush, turning Alvie and Marguerite’s money into a restored 1890s home. A fitting tribute.

Marguerite and Alvie in the 1920s

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Gun Fetish

Fetish:  A material object regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence.

In the wake of the Newtown shootings gun control advocates have proposed pretty mild measures to address gun violence – the kind of measures championed by Ronald Reagan in the ‘80s. In response we’ve seen a convulsion of gun advocacy that is mystifying in its paranoia, extremism, and sheer lack of foundation in reality. The bottom line: Most of what is held up as true about guns is just plain false.

I’m not against gun ownership, but think they should be respected with levelheaded reverence, not fetishized.

The typical TV news gun debate leads us astray from the get-go. The discussion is all about protecting ourselves from bad guys. But most guns deaths have nothing to do with “bad guys.”

The majority of gun deaths in American are a result of accidents and suicide, not crime. But the fetish argument is all about protection, then cascades through a long list of hollow arguments.

When people tell me knives can kill as easily as guns, I start by asking them, “Then why don’t just buy a knife? It’s cheaper and requires no ammo.” Then I challenge them to a dual to solve the debate once and for all: "We are both armed. We walk out 10 paces, turn and attack each other. The person who lives wins the argument. I get a gun and you get a knife. If both are the same, you shouldn’t object."

But they always object.

That’s because guns change everything. Children playing with a knife might cut themselves. Children playing with a gun might kill themselves. People committing suicide with pills or carbon monoxide might get the dose wrong or be found before the poison does its work. People who use a gun usually succeed. And they’re called “drive-bys” because you can kill someone from a car window with a gun. Kinda hard to do the same thing with a knife.

Guns change everything.

“If you ban guns, only criminals will have guns.” Only problem with this argument is that in pretty much every country with gun control (nearly every other western industrial nation), criminals have a hard time getting guns and violent crime and gun deaths are comparatively low. In a typical year America has nearly 13,000 murders. In Japan, a typical annual number is around 10. In England during the past 10 years, an annual number is a low of 18 and a high of 52. Typical year for Germany: 178. I could go on and on, but you get the point. And please don't tell me it's because they're smaller countries. England has a 4th our population. Multiply their murders by 4 and it still won't make you feel any better.

There is even a story going around social media lately claiming that when Australia tightened gun control “12 months ago” gun crime went up. Actually, it wasn’t 12 months ago, it was 16 years ago, and since that time gun deaths have decreased markedly.

I’ve been to Switzerland a couple times. The image at right is about as unlikely as any you’d see there. Guns are issued by the government as part of civil defense. People don't buy them. The guns usually sit in the backs of closets, waiting for a civil defense drill. The country essentially has no gun culture Americans would recognize. But increasingly the Swiss government is rounding up the guns and putting them in armories and depots. That’s because Swiss gun death statistics show what American gun statistics show; put a gun in a home and you increase the chances that someone in that home will be killed with a gun – mostly by suicide or accident.

There are countries with higher gun death rates than America, but you have to go to countries at war, third world countries, or those in Central and South America to find them. Among our international peers, our rate’s the highest. Hands down. No contest. Not even close.

Those with the gun fetish will tell you it’s because we’re soft on crime. Also not true. We have a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other country in the world. We are 5% of the world’s population and house 25% of the world’s prisoners. China, a communist country with 4 times our population, comes in 2nd.

This little "straw man" message at left . . . this is the most disturbing kind of thing I find online from gun rights supporters. First, I don’t know anyone in a position of power proposing that gun owners turn in their guns. And “the government’s out to kill us” stuff? I can only shake my head in dismay. This one was posted twice on my Facebook feed, both times by college educated Hoosiers.

Women need guns to protect themselves? This notion is maybe the cruelest of all. Why? Because people with guns are more likely to be killed by someone they know than by a stranger. This is especially true for women, who are most likely to be killed by a boyfriend or husband, not an unknown assailant. So ladies, if you’re buying a gun, you’re actually bringing it home to the person statistically most likely to use it against you. When there is a gun in the home, the chances that domestic violence will end in the murder of the woman is multiplied times 8. Women living in a home with a gun are nearly 3 times more likely to be murdered than women living in a home with no gun.

I believe in the 2nd amendment. Our Constitution protects the right to own a gun. But I don’t own a gun because I know it makes me less safe. I don't hunt and I already live in one of the safest places in the world; Hamilton County, Indiana.

If more guns will make us safer, America should be the safest country in the world. We have more private guns per capita than any other nation on earth. Instead, we have the highest gun death rate among developed nations and a higher percentage of our population in prison than any other nation on earth. Clearly more guns aren’t the answer.

Not all gun owners have the gun fetish. Many understand how dangerous they are. They’re hunters or folks who live in a dangerous neighborhood. They train themselves and their family how to use them properly, lock them up when not in use and don’t glamorize or defend beyond reason the ownership of assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. They’re not afraid of background checks and they’re not conspiracy-theory loonies who think they need a gun to protect themselves from Obama's government. They don’t laugh off gun-buy back programs, understanding that people who don’t want a gun in their homes are the last people who should have them (and they probably also know that many criminals get guns by stealing them from the homes of law-abiding citizens).

But those with the gun fetish seem to think guns solve everything. In the wake of Newtown, they actually think more guns in schools is the answer, not knowing or caring that when a gunman killed 13 and wounded 21 at Columbine High School there was an armed guard on duty, or that when a gunman killed 32 and wounded 17 at Virginia Tech, the university had it’s own police force, or that when a gunman killed 13 and wounded 29 at Fort Hood, it happened on a !MILITARY BASE! where guns are bountiful. If armed soldiers on a military base can't prevent a mass shooting, what good is a rent-a-cop at North Elementary!

Ignoring such realities is what fetishes are made of; irrational, blind affection focused on an object.