Hitler Was a Vegetarian (or, The Politics of American Health)
- My father in law had a heart attack on Friday.
- I'm a cancer survivor.
- I've run two marathons.
- I've been a vegetarian for almost 13 years.
1. There we were. Just chillin' on our float trip in the Huzzah Valley last Friday, enjoying a picnic lunch under the shade. Like all good Americans, this lunch included beer, potato chips, Oreos, and processed meats. Over the course of ten minutes or so, Scott started to look a little green, said he had some terrible indigestion happening. Felt like maybe a potato chip had gotten lodged in his esophagus. During the rest of the float trip, we made comments about his health, ranging from heart attack jokes to earnestly asking if he should go to the hospital. No, he insisted. He was fine. No need to stop the fun on account of him.
He was indeed having a heart attack. No family history of heart disease. Pretty healthy guy. Decent weight. Only in his mid-fifties.
We visited him in the hospital on Saturday, and five of us decided to go out and get some lunch. When I suggested we go to a cafe down the street, one of our company asked if they had any "real" food. The cafe has an all-vegetarian menu. The person was asking if they sold any meat. Because real food means meat.
2. In the spring of 2004, Sarah and I were only days away from getting married when she asked me about a lump in my throat that was getting more and more in the way of me easily shaving that part of my neck. I figured I wouldn't bother with it until we got to New York (We would be moving there that summer.) and I established a new PCP. She was insistent, though, and I relented and went to the doctor, who decided it was serious enough for me to get it biopsied. At the age of 27, I was diagnosed with papillary carcinoma of the thyroid.
Still to this day, it's sometimes hard for me to say.
I had smoked about an average of a half a pack a day for almost ten years at that point, though there is no research clearly linking that type of cancer to smoking. There was no family history of it. I was not a middle-aged woman, nor had I been exposed to high levels of radiation, two things that would have made the cancer make more sense. There was no answer as to why. When this happens, that's the one question you want answered: Why? And when this is exactly the answer you're never going to get... Well, it's hard.
3. Not long after I got over the major part of my cancer treatment, but while I still had the disease, I decided to run my first marathon, in Nashville. My only goal was to finish, and I did, running a 3:47. Knowing I could run a better time, I ran the New York City marathon a couple years later, clocking in at 3:16 and coming up only six minutes short of qualifying for Boston.
I still had cancer during the entire training and running of these races. There was something I was trying to prove to myself, and indeed to the world, by running them. I may be mortal, but I could still do extraordinary things with my body. I think I'm finally going to run another marathon in St. Louis next year.
4. In the fall of 1999, I decided to stop eating meat. No seafood, either. Yes, I eat dairy. Yes, I am fully aware that cheese, milk, and eggs come from animals. No, I don't see it as a conflict. I'm not cut and dry about it. I've cheated a few times, sometimes on purpose, sometimes because I was drunk. Yes, I'm skinny. I've weighed in the same ten-pound range since I was 15 years old. So no, I'm not this thin because I'm not getting enough protein. That's a myth, actually.
I became vegetarian for ethical and political reasons. I was doing a lot of reading about food maldistribution, about the cattle and poultry industries, about American food habits and obesity. But I was also the new owner of a dog, and doing a lot of thinking about what it means that humans supposedly have dominion over the Earth.
As I've gotten older and have read more research on the subject, my reasons have become more focused around health. As Americans, we eat too much poorly regulated meat. Way too much. It's part of what's making us unhealthy. I'm not just making this up.
When it's all said and done, I'm just tired. Tired of the way that eating less meat (or no meat, in my case) is seen as so radical, and in some people's eyes, even snooty, elitist, or intentionally aloof. It's also seen as a judgment on those who eat meat, to which I would say, "I think you're projecting."
It's a similar problem when I started biking a lot more. Frequently these days I can't bike nearly as much as I want because of needing to get multiple places in one day for my job. However, I'm known at my job--and at my previous two or three jobs--as "that guy who bikes so far." You become, by default, a spokesperson for cycling.
I bike two miles to work. Two. Miles. That's it. I could walk it in a half hour.
What have we become that biking two miles is seen as so insane? That eating no meat is considered a crazy idea? That exercising regularly is seen as hardcore? That all our easy, quick food choices are so terrible for us? Why is making better food choices and letting people know why you do so seen as condescending? Against whom? Against the gooey butter cake industry?
The health choices we make should not define us as people. And yet they do. They say a lot about our worldview, and our view of self. Nonetheless, every vegetarian, bike-commuting marathoner doesn't vote the same way. And they're not sitting across the table at you, glaring at your well-done steak. Please. My wife is a carnivore and she loves it. Yet, she's the first to calmly jump to my defense when I'm prodded about my dietary choices.
There is an implicit un-Americanness we have woven into many lifestyle choices that are simply healthier. We have painted them with an imaginary sheen of he's-just-trying-to-be-better-than-you.
Really, I'm not. What I am trying to do, somewhere, deep down, is to still beat this cancer. Both the actual cancer, and the memories that silently mutate in my mind like cancer. And the cancer my culture sprouts up all around me without being honest about what it's going to really do to me.