Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Dogs As Food or Food for Thought?

" Zen, which has been in English since 1727, is the Japanese pronunciation of Chinese chán, “quietude.” Chán comes from Pali jhānaṃ, from Sanskrit dhyānam, “meditation,” from the Sanskrit root dhyā–, dhī–, “to see, observe.” The Indo-European root behind the Sanskrit is *dheiə–, *dhyā–, “to see, look at.”

Each summer since my teens, a strange personal phenomenon befalls me. Some new idea or perspective - a lense, if you will - surfaces from the depths of my psyche, and for the months before the Jewish High Holidays that lense becomes a dominant lense through which I view my world. This year, the lense is Zen-ish. It feels Zen-ish to me because the world has contrived to wrest from me whatever small control I had over critical personal affairs, leaving me rudderless, in limbo. And somehow, instead of fighting for control, I simply relaxed into the loss. In case you are wondering what I'm referring to, I'll outline it briefly.

Until about five years ago, I was gainfully employed as a lawyer-lobbyist type in Arizona's capitol city of Phoenix. Then, I set in motion a life-change designed to take me through a Ph.D program and dump me out as a university academic teaching environmental policy, the subject of my prior legal practice. I desired to step back from politics, to look at social problems from a less political, more solution-oriented perspective. With a bit of belt-tightening, this plan seemed feasible.

Now, picture this. I, blissfully ignorant of the coming economic tidal wave, go about my business. I take years of classes, pass my comprehensive exams, become a Teaching Fellow, and finally begin my dissertation research. Then, about a year ago, the bottom falls out of the economy, just as I am about to fall out of my program. The first hint of the economy's coming impact on my own life: my administration forwards a letter from Harvard to its faculty outlining cutbacks the school must take, including a faculty hiring moratorium. Within a week or two, the Harvard letter is followed by another letter of the same ilk. This time from my own administration, to our faculty.

In my field there are maybe a hundred-plus jobs a year that come available across the country. Suddenly there are maybe 20 jobs. And, instead of being tenure track positions, these handful are short-term contract positions, rung reluctantly out of moratorium-tied administrations via a waiver application process. If I was qualified for a couple dozen of the hundred-plus, I feel very fortunate to have been asked to interview for two of the handful. And, given the steep competition for the few existing jobs, it does not surprise me that I won neither job. I am a newly minted academic - actually not even quite minted, as the dissertation is still unfinished and there are no publications to show off.

At first I try damage control. I stop working on the dissertation and apply myself to a couple of articles so that I can be published - more competive. I inform my faculty that I don't intend to graduate until I find a job, in order to keep my health insurance. I tighten my belt even further. And finally, I pack up my pets and head out to Arizona (where EcoCurious was launched last April). I believed that, because of my years' and years' worth of friends and contacts in Arizona, I might more easily find a job. However, those in the know, like economic development guru Ioanna Morfessis, warned me not to get my hopes up. The Phoenix economy is one of the hardest hit in the nation, relying as it historically has on population growth and real estate. I spent nearly four months solid networking, found one job to interview for, "came in second," and left at the beginning of the summer empty-handed. Realizing that it was financially imprudent to fire-sale my Kansas house in this market and without a job - I resigned myself for the time-being to stay in Kansas. Stuck, stuck, stuck, with not a hint of my future.

Someone else would panic. Someone else would fret endlessly over dwindling finances, wondering where their next paycheck would come from. Someone else might go to their doctor and ask for something to calm their nerves, anxious and sleepless because it is nerve-wracking not to know whether you will end up in Arizona, Pennsylvania or Oregon. Whether you will be teaching or whether you will be forced to give up the dream and take some other type of job altogether. There comes a point where personal preferences are no longer among the options. And in fact, I have at least two friends whose nerves frayed badly from being in exactly this situation. Not your classical shlub who can't hold a job, but two very talented individuals whose lives and livelihoods had been thrown for a loop by the economy. One has an impeccable academic pedigree and ran successful venture funds. One has an unbelievable history of creative work as a communication specialist. After about a year out of work, and dozens and dozens of resumes submitted and interviews tolerated, neither was holding up well.

In my case, however, the Zen-ish thing settled over me early. The large, airy house that was my Phoenix home was devoid of furnishings, except for an office chair pulled up to a built-in kitchen desk on which I parked laptop and books, and a blow-up bed borrowed from my friend Jean. I bought a couple of tea mugs, and two of each, plate and utensils. I had no couch, no table. I had internet (of course!) but no cable. For the first time in my life, I had no TV. My visitors were incredulous. They asked how I could live without the trappings of civilized society. I offered them my desk chair to sit on, and pulled up a work-out ball for myself. They were noticibly uncomfortable. "I don't know," I told them, "but it is strangely relaxing. Oddly freeing." I meant it. It was my first entry into the Zen-ish-ness that has become my life.

Today, I find that my personal limbo is a great scenic overlook on the highway of life. Instead of driving by, I have pulled to the side of the road to take advantage of the view. Things I have taken for granted my entire life are getting a philosophical once-over. And don't think that my turn toward philosophy fills otherwise empty hours. I offer two classes regularly, and somehow three more courses have materialized. I added one this semester and am building the other two for next semester. Projects are underway. My dissertation is finally rising to the top of my to do list. I have a great many new friends here in Kansas City, and I get out. But simply put, the inability to design and control my future has freed up brain space to ponder life afresh. To discover my own voice here in this blog, because I have been freed from being someone else's professional mouthpiece. To find a new freedom to reconsider many aspects of my old life. Suddenly I am attempting to realign my lifestyle to more closely match my ideology. I am open to this, because there are no rules and no plans to hem in my vision.

I go with the flow, and the flow asks to be examined.

# # #

In this spirit of this fresh review, I offer up links to two recent blogposts by another writer, Angel Flinn, who is also asking important questions about practices we take for granted. In "Dog, Horse... It's Good Food for Us," and the sequil, "A Mouthful of Flesh" she revisits the way we perceive, embrace and utilize different species of animal. For some we hold great affection, deeming them worthy of protection because we have opened our hearts and homes to them. Others we sever from such consideration, because our contact with them is primarily limited to eating their parts as food. It's not like we don't know this, but we mostly just accept it. We pat the pup under the dinner table. We eat the chicken on our plate.

If this is starting to sound like a PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) ad, withhold your judgment. Flinn does not believe in killing animals, but even if you disagree with her ultimate conclusion (I am not a vegetarian), she has insightful observations around human behavior with regard to animals. At a minimum, accept her call for mindful living. Hear her request that we acknowledge the consequences and implications of our choices. This is a food chain and we are fortunate to be at the top of it. It is the way of life and the source of nourishment. And yet, as thinking human-beings with the ability and proclivity to philosophize - to reflect upon the meaning we make through our behavior - we are more than simply food chain royalty. With that position comes choice - ours has been to spare the kitty and spear the cow. With that choice comes responsibility. Isn't it incumbent upon us to ask, each time we eat meat, what it means that our own sustainance is tied to the death of other creatures? You may ultimately come to a different conclusion than Flinn, but the questions she raises are very important.

Today I ask you to go Zen-ish with me. To think about this basic act of taking life so that we may live, and to ask how we might best honor this gift and the animals who are sacrificed in the process. To stay with my earlier metaphor, Flinn has offered us a bit of a scenic overlook. I urge you to pull off here and check the view.

Dog, Horse... It's Good Food for Us
A Mouthful of Flesh

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