Saturday, October 30, 2010

Josie the Cat

On May 25th 2009, my husband and I adopted Josie, a calico cat, from a pet rescue group. We found her in a local Pet Smart adoption event. She was tiny, dirty, only weighing five pounds, but she was very friendly. She purred and rubbed her face against my husband’s finger from inside a wired cage the minute when we approached her. She was pretty much the first cat my husband met, and knowing him, it is not surprising we adopted the first cat we came across. Our first impression of Josie was that she was angelically sweet, which is true, but as it turns out she is very naughty as well.

All we know of Josie’s past is that she came from some farm area in Spotsylvania, VA, and she was taken somehow and sent to the shelter there. The kill rate in that shelter is terribly high I was told, it was pretty much a death sentence. In fact they scheduled to put Josie down, but luckily she got picked up last minute by a rescue group and brought to the city for adoption. We think she was about four years old and she probably very recently had kittens.

So now I must go further back in the story. My husband and I married two years before adopting Josie. We married rather quickly, we didn’t date very long, and our relationship wasn’t particularly interesting or romantic. We met as coworkers. We were both engineers in a semiconductors company and for myself; I came out of a decade of intense dating and basically very eager to settle down. I was 30 when we married, so I felt simply that it was time and quite frankly I didn’t know my husband all that well. My husband wasn’t conventionally good looking, or particularly successful, so I wasn’t very proud of the whole thing at the time. I called him my Harry Goldenblatt, my husband is bald and Jewish as well.

As you can see, I was quite shallow. I wasn’t very nice either. I was very anxious to rise in my career, which I felt was not moving nearly fast enough. I was good at what I do, but I never hesitated in doing whatever necessary to move ahead at other people’s expense as well. Survival of the fittest right? But I had a sense that my line of thought was toxic somehow, but couldn’t find a way to shake out of it. I complained for six years that I was unlucky and fate simply didn’t favor me enough. Anyway, it was not all bad, but I would not want to be like that again.

Our marriage was quite rocky before Josie as expected. I thought the point of getting a husband was to have kids, so we were trying for a baby right away. We were planning to buy a big house and big cars to go with a couple of babies, the typical path we never questioned up to that point. But I couldn’t get pregnant, we found out it was my problem, not his. Again I blamed everyone under the sun, my tempers flared. How is it possible that so many undeserving women out there are getting pregnant but I couldn’t? Until one day, I guess even I got tired of complaining and decided to hell with trying for a baby and get a cat instead.

Animals have a funny way to reverse any bad situation I find. Josie did that on her first day. She was a saucy little thing. I can go on forever on Josie stories but I will just give one here. On her first day, we sat down for dinner and we had to establish some ground rules with her. She was not allowed to jump on a dining chair when we are eating, so when she jumped on one, my husband said “OFF!” To our surprise, she jumped down right away, but she went onto the next chair. She looked at us like “You said no to that chair, but not this one.” We said “OFF!” again. We had to say “OFF!” to five different chairs. She was so charming, she surprised us all the time. You'd only have to say no just once; she doesn’t repeat crimes, she simply proceeds to invent new ones. Some months later we adopted Peter Cottontail, and he is as different from Josie as I to my husband, which goes to show how unique each animal can be. Whereas Josie’s philosophy is ‘Do first, possibly think later’, Peter is thoughtful, careful, and polite.

Life definitely improved after the kitties. But then one day, my husband made an offhand remark about how much he loved Josie. I replied, equally mindlessly, “Yeah, we love Josie, but we are meat eaters. Who knows? maybe that chicken we just bought was just as cool as her.” My husband didn’t say anything for like five minutes and I totally forgot the matter as soon as I said it. But five minutes later my husband came back with “I guess we will not eat meat then.”

I thought he was kidding, but was I wrong! My husband was a tank commander in the Israeli army, I underestimated how disciplined he could be. I told you, I didn’t know him that well. He had a whole plan going on his own, he made his own meals and he didn’t order meat when we ate out. He started with one vegetarian day, then two days and so on. I was caught in a strange situation then, I suggested it, so I couldn’t say anything bad about it. But I had no intention of becoming vegetarian, yet I couldn’t let him have the upper hand on me like that. In truth, deep down, I can’t help thinking “Holy Crap! This is the guy I married!”

So I became a passionate fact finder, to convince myself that becoming vegetarian is the right thing to do. My husband didn’t need to know much, he thinks we should give animals the benefit of the doubt and that was enough for him. I needed more. That was when I came across an incredible podcast by Colleen Patrick-Goudreau called Vegetarian Food for Thought. If you don’t know it, I highly recommend it, it gives you everything you’ll need to understand veganism and to better appreciate life in general. I love literature, and Colleen regularly reads the most beautiful stories on animals, and on real heroism. I was sold, we didn’t have reasons to be vegans, but my husband and I turned vegans almost instantly. This experience solidified our marriage, we did something meaningful together and now I can say that we are happily married.

Life changed a great deal for me this past year and it is continuing to change, and in completely unexpected ways. Other than my marriage, my relationships with friends and family have evolved drastically as well. I have enough material to write a novel on that, but I will give one big example here. My best friend’s name is Sanaz, and we know each other for more than two decades. Until very recently, I always thought of her as rather slow and uninteresting, it was generally agreed that I was the smart one in our relationship. She was always very calm and I thought, to my shame…dim. Sanaz is Persian, she came from Iran, and she is vegan since she was two and a half. None of her other family members are vegans. In most ways Sanaz is the stereotypical middle child, with two very self-assured sisters, Sanaz was always pale by comparison.

When Sanaz was two and a half years old, she noticed that the meat she was served had a little blood in it, and later in another occasion she saw a lamb slaughtered in the streets of Iran. She refused to eat meat right then, and she won’t even drink milk which is a staple in the middle eastern diet. Unfortunately her parents were not the most supportive, they tried to trick her every chance they have, so at a young age Sanaz became rather suspicious and she had a tendency to internalize her feelings. I am sure it affected her a great deal, how could it not? Being her best friend, I don’t recall ever being supportive over her choice, she was stunned when she heard I turned vegan. So, what kind of blockhead could have someone like that in her life and not see it for twenty years? My only surprise is that she never gave up on me. She has a beautiful baby girl now, there are times when I don't know what to say to her.

My whole view on life has changed too, and I plan to transform my career. A few months ago I took a huge step and quit both my job and school. I was admitted to the Stanford Management Science program and I walked out on it. I don’t know what will happen next, but I am hopeful. My husband and I joke when we see terrible things in the world, which we did not care to see in the past, we would say, "Oh those red pills!" in reference to the Matrix movie. We took the red pills and now we are open to the truth, I am sure some of you out there can identify. No longer the reason, "we have always done it and/or everyone is doing it" is good enough for doing anything!

Oftentimes I wonder, if I had a baby instead of Josie, how different would things be. Maybe the universe is trying to teach me a lesson, I am glad I took the opportunity. Life is truly a gift, through loving my cats, I found that it takes a lot to give life, and to nurture life...I am not so eager to end life anymore. I think about all the animals killed for me in the past and I cry, and I am so happy I finally have enough wisdom to cry.

After all these strange but wonderful events, naturally, I would like to share my stories with the world. This is not a blog about travel or photography or veganism or any topic in particular. It is to document a quarter-midlife crisis gone right. It is nice to wake up in the morning and not feel tired or angry or scared. Most of the time I am just very curious, I am so full of new experiences now, I feel like a child squeezing a ball for the first time and learning what is squishiness and finding it exhilarating. I hope my blog reflects that.


Josie and Peter Cottontail

Friday, October 29, 2010

Lyrics in a Song

Yesterday I drove out to a park to catch the fall colors by myself and while I was on the road I heard a NPR show that really caught my attention. It was an
interview of Stephen Sondhien, the lyrics writer who wrote those famous songs in Sweeney Todd, Gypsy, and West Side Story. Remember this gangster's song from West Side Story?

When you're a Jet,
You're a Jet all the way
From your first cigarette
To your last dyin' day.

When you're a Jet,
If the spit hits the fan,
You got brothers around,
You're a family man!

You're never alone,
You're never disconnected!
You're home with your own:
When company's expected,
You're well protected!

Then you are set
With a capital J,
Which you'll never forget
Till they cart you away.
When you're a Jet,

You stay a Jet!
- by Stephen Sondheim

Brilliant huh! Well, this is masterful I think. I need to write some lyrics too, for a song. And it is sang by a little boy who learned it from other little boys sung to impress little boys in general. It is a hunter's song. I want it to be a timeless one, non-period specific. I couldn't sleep last night, and this was what I come up with:

Oh, the mornin' is sunny and gay
Time to leave home with our gears
I feel like we'll be winners today
when we hunt those far and near

Why you do not think so you say
Too long we wait for a deer
Bet you are wrong and you will pay
Hidden they prick 'em pointy ears

In time young ones come out to play
Too soon they forget their fears
Their mom is busy to chase them away
She watch not her exposed rear

The moment has come to shoot hooray!
Her scream rings loud and clear
You've lost a bet, come see where she lay
She's dead you owe me a beer
- by moi
This is what I've got so far. It's fun ain't it!


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Aimless Adventures

Two days ago I received a last minute email early in the morning from my favorite non-profit group at the moment: PCRM. I was asked to come into their Washington DC office to help out. Since I am in love with this organization, I went straight away. So this was my task: to put together a bunch of petition letters to be send out to house of representative members, put them into envelops and labeled them with address stickers. My first reaction was a slight irritation at the idea of doing something so menial, I know that was what I expected but when I sat down to it, I couldn't help being annoyed.

Luckily my face didn't betray me and I proceeded to toil away in an unremarkable conference room without windows. For hours I assembled letters and petitions, and only half way into the monotonous work did I bother to read the letter itself. The letter was written to urge congress members to support and cosponsor a bill to put an end to animal testing in the military. Hold on a minute, I am all for that! Now I am not American and I have no idea how the system works here, even though I live near Washington DC for more than six years, I didn't acquired much interest in the workings of the government. So naturally I am somewhat naive.

"I hope these letters work." I said out of nowhere, breaking the silence. There were three of us volunteers and we were a quiet bunch. I secretly had a mind to kiss the letters before putting them into the envelops.

"I don't think they will." A fellow volunteer next to me said, he was in the process of arranging petitions from the concerned citizens of California. "The Congressman gets thousands of petitions from interest groups everyday, these are likely to be lost in the pile." He told me. But then he added, "But read some of these petitions, the point is it gives people a chance to speak up, and that's good enough for me."

Now this volunteer is a young guy, maybe in his mid twenties. He wore a Green Peace type shirt and he seemed to me an edgy sort, or just young and full of indignation at the world. I cannot blame him, so I chatted him up. In the past I may have ignored this guy the minute I got a hint of a diatribe coming my way, but I have since learned to judge a conversation by it's content and so I find him actually rather knowledgeable. I don't think he liked me very much though, or perhaps he is unable to drop his 'edge' for anyone, he talked to me like I was most definitely on his other side.

It was five o'clock when we headed out, time flies when the conversation is good. Now I had a long drive home to from Washington DC to Northern Virginia, and the traffic is horrendous during that hour, so I asked if there is a Barnes and Noble around to pass the time.

"Oh, have you heard of Politics and Prose? It is real close by here, it is an independent bookstore and they have a talk there every night." The PCRM lady suggested. I thought I caught a disapproving grin from the young volunteer when I mentioned Barnes and Nobel, somehow I didn't think he was too tolerant towards big corporations. On second thought, it isn't so bad to visit a more local place, so I resolved on going to Politics and Prose.

As I left PCRM I wandered the classy neighborhoods near the office, which was just south of the Friendship Heights metro station. The houses in the area are like from the picture books, with Halloween decorations perfectly displayed against the backdrops of fall colors which made the place looked like an outdoors theater set. I always thought that there is a great difference in mentality between those with old money and people with newly acquired wealth, and one can generally tell by their gardens. I live in the suburbs in Virginia, and the landscaping of the McMansions in my neighborhoods are invariably hideous and artificially manicured. Not like the elegance of these properties, where both nature and house enhances the beauty of the other, I meandered through small streets to admire as much as I could before sunlight faded.

When I arrived at the bookstore, I was just in time for the night's talk given by a Jewish friction writer Myla Goldberg. I didn't know anything about her beforehand, and I have never been to a reading before, but I love literature so I was intrigued. She started off by declaring that the adage "I think, therefore I am" as inaccurate, but instead that "we are what we remember." I like that, it is a provoking thought and it raises a lot of questions, the sort of reflection writers love.

I looked around the audience and I saw many well-to-do couples, they formed the exact picture of a Jewish literary crowd in my mind. I was the only outsider I think, and I enjoy that. Being an outsider is a healthful thing sometimes, simply being there made me feel like I have discovered something precious. And as Ms. Goldberg read her story, I thought about how different was this day compared to my days in the company when I hid inside a cubicle, an isolated entity among rows and rows of similar cubicles. I may not have made any lasting connections in my day of sorting letters and attending a reading, but I think that in the end it was a fruitful day, one I longed to experience for years.


Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Beautiful Farm

My parents are both turning 60 this year within months of each other. Initially my sister and I wanted to take them to Costa Rica for their birthday celebrations, but they refused to on account of being too old for such exotic destinations. So instead I took them to Farm Sanctuary in Upstate NY.

Farm Sanctuary in Watkins Glen, NY is all East Coast country beauty. Rolling Hills, lush green terrain, and small quaint farm houses by dirt roads. Truthfully, my parents were not too thrilled with the idea of this place since they weren't sure what they would see and how much they would need to confront afterwards. I understand that but I have never made life easy for my parents. So why start now?

First morning we woke up to a bright and beautiful autumn morning. We stayed in a cabin within the farm. While we were having breakfast, my mother took off on her own to see the animals. A concerned kitty named Sorella found mom near the bunnies and probably thought she was lost. The cat followed my mom to escort her back to the people area so they could BOTH attend the morning tour. She meowed her commands all the way. We got to know Sorella very well this trip. She is one hell of a cool kitty.

What a thoughtful sign. If ever you are interested in seeing animals in a happy state, and not as some sideshows like a zoo or in a farm where you don't want to imagine their fate, do consider visiting a farm sanctuary. There is something very different about this place, being here makes you feel happy just to be alive. The idea is so simple, and yet so powerful. So begins our Farm Tour.

This beautiful lady here is Teresa. Every time we met her she came up to greet us. We petted her, talked to her, took pictures next to her, while the guide told us her sad tale. She, like all dairy cows,was kept pregnant constantly so she could keep up with high milk production rate of ~100 pounds a day. She gave birth again and again, but her babies were immediately taken away, to be made veal if it is a boy, another dairy cow for a girl. But in the end, mother and babies were sent for slaughter. Teresa is lucky, but not her babies. Someone once wrote of the slow oddities of cows, but I think it is only what we choose to see, we tug them away when they bellow themselves hoarse in search for their lost children.

These two are close friends. The one standing is Coco, also a dairy cow. When we met her, she was diligently licking her good friend, who was very grateful. We are taught at a very young age that animals live in a competitive world, merciless and deadly. But perhaps that is the only part we choose to see?

I wonder how they see us. So, how should we think of raping someone over and over again, then snatch and kill her babies just to steal her milk, and then brutally kills her in the end? And as if that is not enough, we do this to everyone remotely related to her. She must sees us as the devil himself! But the unbelievable part is, she befriends us instead.

Sorella the kitty was one of our tour guides. She was with us when we visited the cows, in fact she led the way. She was very dedicated to her job, we've quickly discovered that she gets snippy if you try to pet her while she is working. She is one of the staff thank you very much! You don't just go pet the guide do you? We were amazed at the professional pride of this kitty. Our human guide told us this was part of her daily routine, to give tours. But we found out later she goes far and beyond her morning duties.

The blazing sunlight gives a beautiful view of the farm. The history of Farm Sanctuary is one of true inspirational tale. Do check out the
book and film. Today, Farm Sanctuary has grown into an important animal advocacy group, but it has a humble beginning. It was originally funded by sales of vegetarian hotdogs at Grateful Dead concerts. The first animal rescued was a sheep named Hilda from a pile of dead animals in a stockyard. Since Hilda, Farm Sanctuary has grown into two large farms, one in Watkins Glen, NY, and another in Orland, CA.

Ah the pigs. In this farm, pigs have plenty of room to roam around and we curiously watched them mud bathe. First of all, they are freakishly huge. They are bred this way. And second, their eyes are very human like. The pigs you see in the pictures are from one family, mother and four piglets. The mother was a
breeding sow in a hog farm. One day there was a major flood and many pigs drowned trapped in their crates. But this lucky mom managed to escape and found a place to give birth and protected her piglets all on her own. Pigs are very intelligent and resourceful, even in the most terrible circumstances.

Now the whole family lives happily and we hear them call out to each other in the mornings. In the hog farm, pigs are put into crates so small and crowded they go insane, which is why it is standard practice to cut off their tails (without anesthesia) to avoid biting brought on by sheer boredom. People ask me sometimes, don't you miss bacon? Well, yes. But then I think of being trapped inside a cage in a pool of my own excrement scared to death with no hope whatsoever, and I think differently right away. It works every bloody time.

My mother was quite affected by what she saw. I think she can relate as a mother much more than I can. When she got home, she said she will most definitely quit eating goat and lamb. This picture shows why. The goat's name is Gloria, we were told she is famous. Gloria took an instant liking to mom and came up to nuzzle. Gloria was rescued from a racetrack after being tied up for eight years, so we are told Gloria can be socially awkward with others, but we didn't feel it, she was all sugar.

So we saw a young man who worked in the farm, and we chatted him up. He said he had worked in Farm Sanctuary for five months, and then he added, "But I will work here my whole life." I thought that was a strong statement, I don't think I can say that about any job. I asked him which was his favorite specie, and he answered, "Turkeys for sure. They always surprise me." He carried a walkie talkie, and off he went to see to some goats. When we visited the turkeys, they were rather shy. They wouldn't let us touch them. But I found that if I stayed still, as sure as eggs is eggs a turkey will come check me out. They are inquisitive and stately birds.

We visited the ducks and chickens the last. Most of the birds were rescued from factory farms as egg layers, broilers, and froi gras ducks. We saw them out and about in little groups, just enjoying the day. This rooster came up to me, and he had beautiful plumage, so I took many photos of him. He was rescued from an egg laying operation. Since he was born a boy, and therefore useless for an egg farm, he was dumped in a garbage bag together with hundreds of male baby chicks to suffocate. And if you think that is cruel, that is already the humane method. I dare say death is preferable to what happened to the hens though, they suffer a worse fate if that is possible.

We came back from the tour with a heavy heart. We sat in front of our cabin and talked. Sorella kept watch on all the guests, it was her duty to keep us comfortable and entertained. Our neighbor told us Sorella knocked on their door in the middle of the night and they thought it was a break in, they almost called 911. It turned out the sweet cat only wanted to sleep on their bed.

As night approaches our conversations livened. We talked to many who works in the farm. Most of them are just starting out in life, and I envy them. And when the staff left the People Barn after a day's work, we sat admiring the twilight together with Sorella.

I have traveled all over the world, and I proudly thought of myself as a worldly person. But now I feel I actually know very little of the world other than some trivial facts about ruins and temples and cities. I only went out to seek exciting things, I didn't really go out to see anything. I danced in night clubs, drank good wines, ate famous dishes, saw exhibits in museums. But this trip is a very different kind of travel. There is no TV, internet, or spa treatments. Just night skies full of stars, good company, stimulating conversations, and Sorella by our side.

On our final morning Sorella introduced us to her friend Tank. Tank is a rescued Rottweiler. Despite the bad reputation of his breed Tank is as sweet a dog as can be. The lady he lives with said to us, "Tank is not aggressive because he knows who he is, he doesn't need violence to prove himself." What an interesting idea! I think that explains it. If we know what we are about, and not feel afraid, we won't need violence either and speak up when we see something is wrong. If we aren't so damn scared, we would say enough is enough and go on to do the right thing.

So long Farm Sanctuary, we will be back next year. I hope you enjoyed reading my story and please drop me a line. And if you get a chance, do visit Farm Sanctuary, you won't be disappointed. Thank you.


Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Romantic Thought

Picture taken from site

I've read a cute little book back in college called Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. It is a fantasy book about a two dimensional world, and in it the inhabitants are various two dimensional shapes, such as a square. In this world, the more edges and perfect symmetry you have the greater your status, the highest being a perfect circle. It was clever, farcical, and sexist. Women are lines (one dimensional) with sharp pinnacle points on both ends and they are sometimes known to stab and kill their two dimensional husbands in fits of feminine misunderstanding and then forgets about it.

Anyway, there is a moment in the book when a promising pentagon-shaped child questions if there is the possibility of a third dimension, which he could not envision however hard he tries. I would like to think of the universe the same way. Everything from laws of physics, life, free will, chaos, music, light. It is a comfort to know that the universe holds more secrets than I can possibly discover, such as another dimension I cannot fathom. This ensures that in life, possibilities are endless, forever stretching, even if my imagination ceases to follow. And it puts out there the hope that if I am wise, the universe may unravel its secrets a little, just for me. And if I remain humble, I would see it in the end, a spectacular sight it will be.