Making the Switch

Dave glances at my plate of spinach, beans, and brown rice as I eye the meatballs Not me... yetnestled in his spaghetti.

“You eat like a rabbit,” he says.

“Rabbits don’t generally eat garbanzo beans or cooked rice,” I reply.

“But still…”

As the conversation changes, he forgets my rabbit food, and I forget his meat. In the end, it doesn’t really matter what we have.

According to a 2008 study by Harris Interactive Service, about 7.3 million people are vegetarian in the United States—that’s about 3.2 percent of the population. Most are young, from middleclass backgrounds, and live in the Western or Southern regions of the United States. I’m one of them, a skinny, grain-eating, tofu-crunching middle-class American.

Nothing radical there.

We vegetarians eat about three meals per day—just like our omnivorous counterparts. We don’t all use organic paper and beet-juice ink or attend regular services at hippy churches on weekends.  Most aren’t PETA extremists who throw red paint at fur coats and survive on seaweed and unpronounceable grains. Perhaps our farts smell a little bad sometimes, or we’re be a pain to take out to dinner, but most of us are pretty normal. At least I think so.

Still, some people berate me with things like, “why the hell would you do that?” or “we deserve to eat animals,” or my personal favorite, “you’re going to die because you’re not getting enough protein.”

Others aren’t so malicious. They just don’t understand, or grow up thinking that all vegetarians fit the same model. But we are all very different and have very different reasons for becoming vegetarian.

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Philosophical Journalism

Philosophical journalists would be an interesting breed. I don’t mean bent, bearded men toting reporters’ notebooks and tape recorders stumbling across Capital Hill–although that would be interesting. Nor do I mean reporters jabbing politicians with barbs about how the latest bill violates Kant’s categorical imperative. Instead, I imagine people curious to see what other people think, people who like asking questions about our basic assumptions.

Today, I watched a documentary called the “Nature of Existence.” The filmmaker, named Roger Nygard, chronicles answers to those “big questions”–like the meaning of life–by interviewing people from around the world, including hard-core Indian ascetics, fiery evangelists, physicists, artists, and waitresses. Some dash off the questions with a humorous observation, others admit their own ignorance, and some weave stories substantiated by absolute conviction.

His methods are those of a journalist, but his focus is on first principles, the realm of the philosopher.

Scanning titles in the non-fiction and creative nonfiction shelves at bookstores, I realize modern readers still have a lot of questions. We like to pretend we are practical these days, zeroed in on the nuts and bolts of economics and applied science. But I feel we only use new disciplines to fill an age-old void: purpose and meaning.

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