Thursday, June 24, 2010


Now that my son is out of school for the summer, my mind naturally turns to one thing: camp. When I think of camp, it is a swirling sensory experience: it smells like bug spray, mildew-y bathrooms and plastic bottles of hyper-sweet juice drink. It looks like daddy longlegs and idolized teenaged counselors wearing terry cloth sweatbands. It sounds like garbled, buzzing announcements over the loudspeakers, singing the disturbingly violent Little Bunny FooFoo complete with hand gestures en mass, mosquitoes everywhere. It tastes like airy vanilla-fudge swirl ice milk in the little plastic cartons with the tabs that lifted up, crispy-skinned toasted marshmallows with gooey insides. It feels like pointy plants brushing against your leg that may or may not be poison ivy, terry cloth (the fabric of my youth), Band-Aids on my elbows and knees.

When I was growing up, like many North Americans, I experienced both day camp and overnight camp. Both were pretty much Machiavellian affairs, especially as soon as the thrill of weaving misshapen pot-holders and Ojo de Dios with sticks and yarn wore off and we grew bored, then started setting our sights on each other. There was always someone who would hyperventilate at the sight of any sort of winged creature, someone who would glumly hand the counselor a note from her mother that she was not allowed to swim until a full hour after lunch, someone who melted into a heap of human heat-stroke as soon as she stepped off the bus, someone who permanently had zinc oxide affixed to her nose. There were top tier campers, too, of course, the ones who bronzed rather than burned, who would optimistically spring from the tire swings over the lake with the gangly athletic grace they took as a birthright while the rest of us only knew painful belly flops. The mass of the us were sandwiched between these bookends, relatively content for the most part. Within the micro-climate that was camp, though, things could turn on a dime and an unfortunate camper who sat in the wrong "permanently saved" bus seat or who was identified as the source of the "weird smell" could find herself sitting at the picnic table with the bug-phobic, overprotected, heat-addled outer edge. That was an omnipresent threat in the Lord of the Flies environment that was summer camp. Anything goes and anything went.

Despite this, I look back with fondness, perhaps born more of nostalgia than of genuinely good feelings. At the first camp I went to, I was on the Yellow Triangle bus that picked me up on the end of Romona Road. The bus driver looked like a migraine in human form, her patience already ripped to shreds at 8:30 in the morning by thirty or so squealing, singing campers. Every day after camp, we elbowed and jostled one another to find that correct color and shape combination lest we be whisked off to the hinterlands and a bus lot where we'd almost certainly starve to death overnight. There was also the seat wrangling: who sat with whom, who got the window seat, who had to sit in the back of the bus with the seat with the rusty coil poking up. Camp was a lot to negotiate with just the politics around the bus ride. The Yellow Triangle bus was a little universe unto itself where I learned about negotiation, alliances, hierarchies. It is not surprising that as camp is part of the American experience, so, too, is reality television. One important life lesson that day camp helped to instill in me: if you don't like what you see around you, create a new reality altogether. Plugging into something else is always an option. I sat wherever I wanted.

If the bus was a human behavioral petrie dish on wheels, the actual campgrounds were the laboratory where it all played out. That first day of camp, the impossibly huge mass of us was divvied up among roaming counselors with clipboards. We wanted the pretty one, the athletic one with the pom-pom socks, the one who seemed the most like our fantasy babysitter. We crossed our collective fingers that the one with the thick glasses, flushed cheeks and Ace bandage around her knee would not call our names because then it was over: all her charges were dweebs by association. The truth was that even if you were assigned to the pretty, cool counselor, you were still subject to the vagaries of intense social maneuvering. I was content to fly under the radar with my ragtag mix of Wilmette school district friends: smily Laura with the corkscrew curls, Fee with the goofy-serious mien, skinny Annie, always ready to belt out a show tune whether the timing was appropriate or not. My friends made camp bearable and even fun, which leads to another important life lesson I took away from camp: I never did make a really great pot holder, but I did learn that quality wins over quantity every time.

At day camp, we had treacherous relay races against other groups, we played catch the flag, we wore broken safety vests while canoeing in the lake, we checked each other for ticks with nervous hearts, and we took occasional field trips to fetid, unpleasant and crowded places that escape my memory except for those few details. Lunch was brown-bagged, soggy and with stink lines emanating. Still, the Yellow Triangle bus returned me home at 3:00 or so and I was no worse for the wear. The next day I was fresh and recharged, waiting with my mom at the end of the block for the Yellow Triangle bus with the poor, migraine-y driver again.

Overnight camp was a more challenging, complicated affair as it coincided with junior high and the terrain that came with it. I went to two overnight camps. The first one was called Camp Watervliet, and it featured horseback riding in a verdant Michigan setting. We didn't realize that we'd be woken by a very energetic, bugle-toting counselor playing a mean-spirited Reveille right outside our musty cabins at six in the morning. We groaned like the teenagers we were transitioning into and thumped out of our bunk beds, heads in our hands to brush and saddle the horses. Bleary-eyed at dawn, I never did learn how to properly saddle a horse. The first week or two, those of us from the North Shore of Chicago wrote heart-wrenching letters to our mothers like we were saucer-eyed Amnesty International poster children: do have any idea what they do to us here?!

Once the shock of the rude awakening wore off a bit, Camp Watervliet settled into a nice place to be. There were horses to ride, guitars to strum, arrows to aim at an archery board affixed to a tree. We had a canteen set up twice a week that our parents dutifully sent us money to strip bare, full of the Hostess and Lay products we were suffering shaking withdrawal from since we left home. There was an annual play that we performed for a neighboring camp: the first year, it was The Hobbit, and we had to audition and everything. I was shocked when I was originally cast as Bilbo Baggins but I gave up the role to a blonde alpha girl named from Florida who reeeeally wanted the role. I took on the part of Gollum instead, a much juicier role actually, and I properly chewed up the scenery with my interpretation of his uniquely tortured psyche. After two summers there, I jumped ship to Camp Chi, a Jewish overnight camp in Wisconsin, and my days at the relative simplicity of of Camp Watervliet took on a halcyon glow: Camp Chi was a hard-core, raging pheromone seventh grade torture camp set in the woods. We didn't need a homicidal psychopath like Jason: we had other campers.

For one thing, for the first time in my life, I was now going to a co-ed camp. While just the year before at Camp Watervliet some girls brought stuffed animals and cried from homesickness, the girls here were wearing lip gloss and mascara, big combs in their back pockets, Ralph Lauren polo shirts tucked into their shorts. For another thing, there was a small but dedicated army of mean girls from a different school district who made it their business to torment who wasn't from theirs and I only had one other friend there so my alliance was pretty puny. To compound everything, this was the summer my body decided to start menstruating, perhaps spurred on by the close quarters in my cabin. So I had to buy "time of the month products" at the canteen, which meant that the goings-on with my uterus was soon public knowledge even though I carried my products back to the cabin in a brown paper bag like I had just bought a Hustler or something. The mean girls had spies everywhere, of course. They probably had the staple of daddy longlegs working for them.

These same girls tormented their European counselor so viciously that she flew back to Norway after a week. They were grounded for any number of infractions, so after they drew all over their cabin with markers, they went wilding: rampaging through the kitchen, letting the horses loose, running like tortured POW escapees into town when they were the ones who's been actually holding the camp hostage. Sadly, they weren't all sent home. Sadly, their parents were even called. The camp management collectively shrugged their shoulders and some guy with a Jewfro who perpetually wore tennis shorts made an executive decision to give them more freedom. Their reign of terror continued: we would continue to wake every morning to find they'd tossed our training bras up a tree and scrawled threats and insults on our cabin door in black Magic Marker. God, they were evil. Imagine the worst of junior high without disciplinary measures, grades or even the ability to go home at the end of the day. That was Camp Chi in a nutshell. Oh, and throw some mosquitoes and bloodthirsty ticks into the mix. Needless to say, I ran off the bus when we finally returned home and if memory serves, I actually kissed the parking lot pavement. I don't think I was ever so happy to see my family.

So it is with all this baggage in mind that I still decided to send my son to day camp for four hours twice a week. It's managed by clean-scrubbed young college students and it all seems pretty innocuous so far. It looks to be causing a minimum of psychological damage. At the very least, well, I know he'll survive. I did.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Blah blah blah...

It's summer, so my son is home from school and under my care but for four hours twice a week. My mother is living with us now, too. I've got deadlines breathing down my neck. I will be back soon. Just not quite yet. In the meantime, if anyone has a line on a cloning machine, I'd love to hear about it. Thanks and hugs to you lovely people.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Exploitation + Objectification = Conklin Farms. (In other words, business as usual.)

I love Mercy For Animals. They are tirelessly committed advocates who create a staggering amount of impressive output every year. They don't resort to shock tactics or insults to get their message across and they present dignified, forward-thinking and honest communications to the public. In this world where PeTA and their human circus of yodeling naked ladies have come to represent vegans, I am deeply grateful for MFA and their consistently thoughtful approach.

This is not a critique of them or their very brave work. I think that if people would truly listen, the only honest conclusion to draw from their work is that those who care about animals should stop eating them. Of course, people will interpret MFA's investigations how they want, though.

Interpretation is everything. This is something that I've become keenly aware of in the aftermath of various exposés that bring the horrors of industrial farming to the public, and it was really brought home by the now-notorious Conklin Farms undercover investigation. I should say that I have not watched the footage and I very much doubt that I will ever be able to do so. (My optimism is tenuous sometimes and I need to safeguard it the best I can.) What I noticed was, counter-intuitively, that the loudest, most seemingly outraged condemnations of the practices at Conklin have been from self-identified omnivores. If you go to message boards and read responses to articles, it becomes very clear that there are many who don't want the vegans to direct the discussion here. The idea put forth is that the demented worker who horribly abused those young cows was just that: demented. He should be removed from society. And, yes, Conklin should also pay for allowing this individual to do what he did, they should be fined and maybe they should be shut down.

The problem with this line of thinking is that it construes the violence as a series of isolated incidents that occurred in a sort of unique bubble of its own. Bringing the perpetrators to justice - which absolutely should be done - also gives the outraged a false sense of security that the "bad guys" are out of commission. What does this then mean? It means that omnivores can continue eating their turkey burgers, omelets and whipped cream coffee drink confections without a whiff of guilt by association. The psycho has been locked up. There is a problem, though: the animal products industries are constructed on a shared model of exploitation. Once you can say "what's yours is mine," meaning the milk, the eggs, the flesh that came from another, you are participating in a system that is firmly anchored in oppression. This is not to say that the people who work in animal agriculture are all deranged sadists torturing animals with crowbars. People tend to point to the exceptions, the idyllic little family farms with the red barns we have in our collective psyche, and convince themselves that this is the norm. It is not. Simply put, these quaint farms with the red barns cannot produce what the masses demand. The concentrated feeding operations and their practices are, instead, the norm, and they are the natural conclusion of getting demand for animal products met. (I should also point out that the sweet little farms that produce animal products are also built on a foundation of exploitation, just one that is less overtly abusive.)

Far more often than people would like to believe, the journey from farm (farm used in the loosest sense possible in the vast majority of cases) to plate or glass is steeped in harrowing, unjustifiable violence simply because of what it is. I mean harrowing, unjustifiable violence on top of that regular ol' violence that is inflicted whenever there is a desire for something that doesn't just happily hop on our plates, squirt milk into our glasses and otherwise gladly surrender her body for our cravings.

The process through which we make peace with the inherent injustice of how we treat non-humans occurs because of objectification, the largely unconscious fragmentation system through which sentient beings are turned into objects. It is easier for the mind to integrate the misuse of objects than the abuse of living beings. Through this process, individuation collapses: all cows, all hens become a single entity to be turned into product. Those who are in power have their interests interpreted as a natural right rather a personal desire. When our interests require the subjugation of another, objectification makes the acquiring of what we want that much easier. How do we begin to fragment living birds into deep-fried pieces inside a bucket, cows into hamburgers with ketchup and onions in a paper sack? They were not individual living beings: they were moving objects created to be segmented and formed into patties. The omnivores who are angered at Conklin Farms are denying or not understanding something very fundamental to animal agriculture, that it is intrinsically violent at its core. Again, it is violent because it is based on the notion that what's yours is mine. I understand people are saying, Yes, we want to eat our meat and drink our milk. Being cruel along the line, though, is unacceptable. The whole concept of taking from another when it's unnecessary and causes harm is, at the very least, ethically problematic. The abuser was just a short detour on that same path, and the people who don't want to change their eating practices are reluctant to admit that animal agriculture is based on exploitation that easily turns violent, even before the gruesome end. If they admit it and do not change their ways then they are accepting culpability. Again, fragmentation. It is easier to accept that a handful lunatics are running loose than that the very system of objectification breeds a culture of violent lunacy.

Why would the industries abuse the animals beyond what is necessary to turn cows into milk machines? Don't they need healthy suppliers? Why expend that energy when it's not necessary? Because they have been driven to insanity by the industry and because they can.

Violence associated with objectification is not isolated to non-human animals, of course. Look at the Nanking Massacre. Look at the concentration camps. The people were going to be killed, did they have to be raped, experimented upon, brutalized along the way? There is an insanity that accompanies institutionalized violence. Historically, where there is pervasive objectification, there is a terrifying violence that goes beyond the standard practice. We have a term for this: war crimes. This also shows our willful fragmentation. There is the accepted violence of war, and then there is "unnecessary" violence. This is the stuff that makes us uncomfortable. Rape, torture, brutal beatings, pillaging communities, enslavement. With objectification, this becomes standard practice because with objectification, any brutality becomes acceptable. When omnivores are decrying Conklin Farms, they fail to acknowledge the essential objectification, and thus the essential violence, of animal agriculture.

I believe that our job as animal advocates is to supplement the important exposés with the message that taking what doesn't belong to us is an intrinsically exploitative practice, and that the threat of violence (again, beyond what is accepted as necessary) naturally accompanies such a mentality. I am not expecting people to drop all animal products tomorrow. I am not expecting people to even reduce their consumption. But I am also not willing to be complicit in a lie: in the most diplomatic but honest way possible, I will tell people that when there is exploitation and objectification, our minds fragmentize and madness is just a heartbeat away. Where there is madness, violence is right around the corner. Anything else is a myth.