Friday, December 11, 2009
She’s in a bed, not her own, a hospital bed, but it’s her own bed right now. And she has her family around her. My father sings songs to her, when able. We hold her hand and we talk to her, and we are reading from Mama’s Bank Account, about a Norwegian-American mother at the turn of the twentieth century. And we know this is our Mama, the archetypal Norwegian-American Mama, resourceful, funny, determined Mama, whose recipes have names like lutefisk, yulekage, leftsa, rumegrat. I know a Mama who prepared hot chocolate and spritz cookies; a Mama with a daughter with a desire to be a writer.
So we read these stories, we take turns, each sister, one holding her hands, and one reading, and one sitting in a rocking chair as the snow falls outside, snow on snow. We know that out mother is comfortable, and we know that our mother is loved and experiencing our love, and we take our tears to another room, where we decorate the Christmas tree, and we clothe this old Victorian house in more Christmas lights than its ever known. And we think of how some of the Christmas carols that talk about welcoming birth could just as easily be talking about giving a good death.
I wake up early in the morning and look out my window at a winter wonderland, and I know that because I’ve slept through the night, all is calm downstairs. And I feel the intersection of mythic stories and the Christmas story. The tender loving care that a babe in a manger needs, a dying person needs. Like birthing, dying is a holy time. We struggle to accept the mystery of it. Our primary caregiver, Freddie, is now a midwife of the soul. She is teaching us all. Each night here, is a holy night. And as this silent night passes into a snowy morning, I know I can go downstairs and do again the things we did yesterday and the day before. The things that all together are giving my mother, I pray, a good death.
In the bleak midwinter, what can I give? I will do my part. I give my heart to this, to this gift that my mother most needs: a good death.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
Of all the anonymous people who have influenced my life, a special place is held by a Norwegian immigrant farmer who hired my grandmother to help with household chores. My grandmother, Nellie, had been orphaned at eight and raised by an elderly childless aunt and uncle. She was a teenager, when, around 1910 or so, she went to work for the nearby farmer, helping to cook and clean up. What happened exactly, I don’t know. When I interviewed my mother and her sister in the 1990s about their childhood, they each reported that the farmer had chased their mother around the kitchen table. He influenced my mother because he terrified her mother. This early experience of sexual harassment made Nellie extremely suspicious of men and, when she married, extremely protective of her two daughters born fourteen months apart.
Protective is perhaps too kind. Her mother saw the world as a dangerous place for women, and she kept her girls near her, suffocatingly so. Add to that, she was strict. She allowed her son, Robert, the third child, the freedom to roam; with his bicycle he could wherever he wanted after school. My mother and her sister had to come straight home. He could invite friends over; he could go to friend’s houses. Toni Morrison in her elegant Playing in the Dark says that the enslavement of African-Americans in the first part of the nineteenth century heightened the meaning of liberty for whites. It’s as though whites needed to illustrate how free they were by how enslaved others were.
My mother and my sister experienced the reverse: they knew how homebound they were by their brother’s freedom to roam. Their lives seemed all the more restricted in the face of their brother’s freedom to exit and return. If there had been no brother, Margaret and Muriel would still have had to come home after school, would still have had an overcautious mother, but they would not have been reminded daily that it was because they weren’t boys that their lives were so constrained. My mother had an abiding sense of the injustice to women at being treated differently.
I read somewhere that we are always leaving our mothers. Our arrival in the world is also a departure from their body as our world. Both Margaret and Muriel were bright girls. Muriel was valedictorian of her class. St. Olaf offered her a scholarship, but it was the Depression, her parents didn’t really understand how such funding worked, nor even how college worked. College was not a way out.
During the height of the Depression, these two young women plotted how to escape their mother and their small town. Margaret hit upon an idea: Mom would teach and put Margaret through school; then Margaret would get a job and put Mom through school. My mother went to work in a one room school room in rural Minnesota, and sent money to Minneapolis to support Margaret as she went through business college (secretarial school). After two years my mother was going to join her in Minneapolis, and Margaret, armed with her degree and a job would put my mother through business college. My mother quit her job, and then learned that Margaret had not yet earned enough money for Mom to come to Minneapolis. So my mother had to take a job in another town, another one room schoolroom. It was a miserable year.
Finally, she was liberated into life in the big city. What a grand time they had. We need more stories about single women and the lives they led at the end of the 1930s and the early 1940s. They each landed great jobs for women at that time. They golfed; they played bridge; they had women friends. The world of Minneapolis was theirs!
When World War II broke out, Margaret joined the Women’s Army Corps and Muriel the Red Cross. Mom was sent to Hawaii. When the war was over, Margaret was stationed in Japan, and Mom was engaged to be married. She was coming home. She wrote to her parents telling them of her arrival time at the train station. She got off of the train and looked for her parents. No one was there. She waited for a while, watching to see them arrive. No one showed up to pick her up. She was confused. She had sent the time of her train’s arrival. What happened?
Finally, she grabbed a taxi and took it to the house. She asked her mother why her father wasn’t at the train station. Her mother told her she did not send her father to great her at the train station because she had disapproved of her going to Hawaii, because Muriel had not asked for permission to join the Red Cross. (At the time, she was thirty years old!).
My mother encouraged her daughters to leave home early and often – if we wanted. We all went abroad as teenagers. We knew a warm welcome was always awaiting us. And we all know where we want to be right now. They are there; I’ll be joining them soon.
Friday, December 4, 2009
Let me plunk her down in the middle of the 1960s in a chicken coop. She’s gone there with Willard, a physics professor and a Quaker, his wife Laura, and Tom, a Methodist minister. They are there to clean it. Dried, flaking chicken shit is flying everywhere. All of them have been very involved in improving the living conditions of the migrant workers who arrived in Western New York every summer to pick crops. Each year in January, farmers would fly to Puerto Rico to hire laborers. Then, when they were needed, the men would be flown to Buffalo and from there be taken to lodgings the farmers provided. Mom and her friends had learned that a local farmer planned on keeping his migrant workers in an old chicken coop. They went to inspect it and were shocked by its condition.
That day they returned with buckets, soap, rags, and determination. With my mother (and the others as well) determination always prevailed. After hours of cleaning, they felt the place was habitable. And for many, many years, they laughed about the day that they returned home covered in white.
My father was a local attorney, and represented many of the farmers whom Mom was encountering in her work to improve migrant camp conditions. On another occasion, Willard and Mom went to the migrant camp of one of the large growers in Chautauqua County. Each spring, he brought about thirty-five men up from Puerto Rico to help him plant the tomatoes and vegetables. In the summer, he would add more men to help with the picking. By the fall, when the grapes had to be picked, he had about eighty-five men in his lodging. The rooms that housed the men were each about 8 by 10 feet, with double bunks. The little stove they had to cook on was an open gas flame burner. The cook slept on one of the bunks in the second tier, and had hung a blanket from the ceiling to keep the light from the open gas burner out of his eyes. The blanket was suspended perilously close to the open flame. Willard and Mom saw this fire trap and Mom reported it to the gas company. The gas company came and replaced the open stove with vent pipes and an enclosed heater.
The farmer was really angry about that because the gas company immediately sent him the bill. The next time the farmer saw Willard he referred to my father, who was the farmer’s lawyer. The farmer complained, “he’s such a good lawyer, if he could only control his wife.”
I love these two stories! Before anyone claimed that shit happens (and caregivers know that fact for a truth better than anyone!), we kids knew that chickenshit happens, hazardous conditions exist, and as a result advocacy and good buckets are always needed. Yes, Mom showed us how chickenshit happens. It’s what you do about it that matters.
Friday, October 30, 2009
Reversing the direction of the metaphor is acceptable in our culture; it happens all the time. Animals are the raw material, not just for meat eating, but for metaphors that convey the immensity of feeling oppressed
In The Sexual Politics of Meat, I propose that the term meatis functioning as an absent referent: one cannot truly like a piece of meat because meat by definition is something violently deprived of all feeling. In regard to rape victims and battered women, the death experience of animals acts to illustrate the lived experience of women.
Without animals there would be no meat eating, yet they are absent from the act of eating meat because they have been transformed into food. The absent referent is that which separates the flesh eater from the animal and the animal from the end product One does not eat meat without the death of an animal. Live animals are thus the absent referents in the concept of meat. The absent referent permits us to forget about the animal as an independent entity; it also enables us to resist efforts to make animals present. The absent referent functions to cloak the violence inherent to meat eating, to protect the conscience of the meat eater and render the idea of individual animals as immaterial to anyone’s selfish desires.. The function of the absent referent is to allow for the moral abandonment of a being.
The animals become absent referents, whose fate is transmuted into a metaphor for someone else's existence or fate. It is there through inference, but its meaningfulness reflects only upon what it refers to because the originating, literal, experience that contributes the meaning is not there. We fail to accord this absent referent its own existence. This is the frustration of any alert vegan when eating with meat eaters. We encounter the absent referent before us, and the question is: what is our responsibility?
When vegans eat with meat eaters, many of us don’t see “meat.” We see the remains of a morally abandoned being, at the center of the table, being buried into the stomachs of those around us. We are not just supposed to be quiet, we are supposed to be polite.
What if Natalie Portman had used feminist-vegan theory? What if she had said something directly from The Sexual Politics of Meat: Through the structure of the absent referent, patriarchal values become institutionalized, and the result is interconnected, overlapping oppressions: Sexual violence and meat eating, which appear to be discrete forms of violence, find a point of intersection in the absent referent. A structure of overlapping but absent referents links violence against women and the fragmentation and dismemberment of nature and the body in Western culture.
Is there a sound bite for that? The Pornography of Meat proposes that women are animalized and animals are sexualized and feminized. Perhaps this is why advertisements for meat eating obsessively present and represent these interconnected oppressions. According to meat eating ads, someone wants to be eaten, the question is who. In the sexist responses to Portman’s statement, some men have been providing their own salacious answer. It has to do with meat eating, it has to do with the sexual politics of meat.
There is nothing surprising in any of this. That’s this vegan-feminist’s lament.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
This week I’m in upstate New York, hiring caregivers for my mother who, like the miners, is trapped as well – trapped by her Alzheimer’s and by a recent minor stroke. But like the miners still alive in the mine, she’s still there. Many people might not take the time to see this, but we want caregivers who will. My job is to stand at the elevator to the mine and call out “Who’s for My Mom?”
Yesterday, we interviewed two possible caregivers, and one was clearly for my Mom and one wasn’t, and the contrast was so stark that they could be used as case studies in hiring careproviders.
I was anxious and concerned because this job of hiring is usually done by my sister Nancy who has worked in the health care field. I talked with Freddie, my Mom’s primary caregiver, about how the interview should be structured. Then I called Nancy and we created some questions to ask. Here’s what Nancy and Freddie already knew – when you start asking questions, the person’s answers will reveal the nature of their caregiving approaches. With the right questions, I would have no trouble recognizing someone with a personal touch and someone with an institutional approach. We don’t want Mom to be seen as an invalid, but as a person with qualities and a personality that are still alive down in the mine. We don’t want her impediments to be seen as a problem that has to be solved (like feeding her), but as a process of uncovering her skills that has to be respected (she can feed herself, even if it takes awhile).
I began by explaining that my father feels the home is the best place for my Mom and his daughters agree and are supporting him in that. I described our goals for my mother – not just to keep her at home, but to keep her active, for her to have a viable life and to keep her mind active. What we want, I said, is a personal touch.
Here are the questions I asked:
1) Tell me how you got into caregiving. What are your skills, your background, and your past jobs?
2) How would you break up a day so that it would be stimulating for my mother?
3) How do you sense, when someone has trouble communicating, what they really want?
4) What’s the toughest personal care experience that you have had?
5) What do you find rewarding?
6) And because my parents live in an area that can get 200 inches of snow in the winter: have you driven in the winter?
If someone has worked in a nursing home, I was to ask, What’s the difference between caregiving in the home and caregiving in the nursing home. What are the advantages of each?
At some point, both Freddie and I realized the first person was giving answers that focused on the negative, didn’t provide personal statements about what mattered to her about caregiving, and seemed to have many other priorities. In response to the “toughest personal care experience” the first person said it was the death of someone she had just been hired to care for. She had cared for him on Friday, he died on Tuesday. The answer seemed so flat. The second person described working for a retired schoolteacher with Alzheimers who was extremely nasty to the caregivers, and how hard that was, but she knew it was because of the disease and that helped her in caretaking. She gave us so much more information: From her we learned how she interacts with difficult situations and that she does not blame the individual for being trapped in the mine.
The first person did give one heart-stopping answer. First she described the conveniences of working in a nursing home “there are aides, there is the medicine you need, there’s hospital beds” – all of which reminded us that her training was to view my mother as an invalid, or an almost invalid. Then she said, “at home, your whole life is still with you, even if you can’t recognize it.”
We were sitting in a room that has on the wall a poster-size photo of my parents on their wedding day. I faced it. “Who’s for my mother?” I thought. “Who’s for my mother? That’s the answer I need to know. Who’s for this specific person, with this specific life, here?”
I knew that the second person had given good answers, because Freddie asked her more in-depth follow-up questions than the first. Later, Freddie explained, “If I can feel a personal trust, a personal desire, and a personal interest, I am going to ask more. If a person doesn’t have those, you are just going to come in and do the motions and not go beyond them.” But, I already recognized those qualities too. The questions did their job.
In the second interview, the excitement and care and interest in my mother was so intense and wonderful. She asked questions about who Mom is and has been, and I knew from this that she was someone was who would not hesitate to rescue trapped miners.
I wanted to hug the second person as she left and I did; I was so thrilled to feel her commitment to caring for this wonderful person, my mother. I knew that she was willing to join us in the elevator in the mineshaft, as we called out the most important question of all: “Who’s for my mother?”
Thursday, July 30, 2009
As far as I can learn, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Nelson Mandela, and a host of other world-changing activists and leaders never had to take their clothes off in the service of their cause. They would have laughed at the idea. Is it because they were concerned about human rights? Is there something peculiar to animal rights that has inspired at least one organization to continually strip clothes off of its (overwhelmingly female) activists?
Often it is said, animal activists are the voice of the voiceless. This claim, so hugely anthropocentric (as though the only voices that we can hear speak words), creates an anxiety about what is our responsibility to these beings whom we are tacitly acknowledging are different from us because they can’t be speak. It creates an urgency: we must do what we can, we must do it now. But then the interesting thing that happens is that, rather than giving voices to its activists, it takes away their voices by emphasizing their bodies, their naked bodies.
The latest to be added to the long list of naked or nearly-naked activists is Lydia Guevara, Che Guevara’s granddaughter. As far I can tell, Che Guevera never stripped for his cause; and the only time he is shown nude is after his death.
This is not the picture being used in the animal campaign. I asked my son to add a t-shirt. The question I want to pose is what is the meaning of the t-shirt? Is anything gained by asking Lydia Guevara to take it off? Why does any animal activist think a t-shirt removed is more effective to raise the issue of animal exploitation?
I would argue that the t-shirt is to this picture what stripping women is to PETA. It is their “tell.” According to Wikipedia, “A tell in poker is a subtle but detectable change in a player's behavior or demeanor that gives clues to that player's assessment of his hand.” Clearly, PETA feels that if they were to let Lydia Guevara keep her t-shirt they would be giving away something they don’t want to. They need her unclothed; that is the message they have to convey. PETA can’t keep t-shirts on women because it gives away something, something of their power, or the power they have created to captivate the media. Put the t-shirt on, and perhaps no one will pay attention.
Many people respond to say, “well I don’t agree with this part of their work, but PETA does many other good things.” But that is the aspect of the ‘tell” that is so important. Wikipedia continue s “A player's tell gives information only about that player's assessment of his own cards, and hence is reliable only when that player has accurately assessed his own hand.” Has PETA accurately assessed its own situation? Is it really willing to risk its good works by these calculated uses of airbrushed, youthful, correctly proportioned women? By proliferating them, PETA implies that it needs these naked campaigns. This makes PETA more powerless than they need to be, and subject to the male (adolescent?) gaze in constructing its campaign. Why does PETA fear to clothe its women? Why can’t PETA let women have voices along with their clothes?
People say, “Sex sells.” I say, “Sex sells sex.” PETA conflates sexualization and animal exploitation and this harms animals. (That it also harms women is a given, argued not only by me [in Pornography of Meat] but on countless blogs as well.)
I don’t believe animal advocacy needs naked bodies to make its point. Animals can be compelling on their own, if we were to give them a chance and a real voice.
Monday, June 29, 2009
Carol J. Adams
In the midst of a life filled with meeting deadlines and responding to the latest negative images interconnecting women and animals, I recently had a glorious weekend in Hampshire, England. It was a Jane Austen weekend; and it was dedicated to her beginning and end.
As I traveled by train from London/Waterloo to Basingstoke I felt so lucky. I was going to see where Jane Austen was born and where Jane Austen died.
The parish church of Steventon is the church her father served when Jane Austen was born. It remains an active congregation and they maintain what I call “a ministry of Austen hospitality.” They encourage tour groups to let them know they are coming and they meet them, open the church door, and answer questions about Austen’s time in Steventon. My guide and I sat quietly in the church for several minutes. I offered thanks for the life of Jane Austen.
Then we walked to the site of the old Rectory, where Jane Austen was born. The building is no longer there, but one can stand by a fence and look in and continue the wonderment of one’s thoughts that Jane Austen lived here, walked here, worshiped here, began to write here.
Knowing that I was a vegan, my most hospitable guide had prepared a vegan shepherd’s pie. We talked of Austen’s life and novels as we enjoyed this traditional British meal, updated to the 21st century!
The next morning we headed to Winchester, where Jane Austen was taken when she became very ill in 1817. There she died:
In one of her last letters, Jane Austen described the house and referred to the “neat little Draw[in]g-room with a Bow-window” that overlooked a garden. We sat on a ledge facing this bow-window and, again, thought of Jane Austen. Her last days were painful.
On the day of her funeral, her sister Cassandra “watched the little mournful procession the length of the Street” and then it was lost from her sight.
Austen was buried here, in Winchester Cathedral. You can find her ledger stone on the floor: If you are only 5’5”, it is hard to photograph this. Even standing on a chair purloined from nearby, it’s not easy to get a good angle. I spent a long time trying to get a good picture and then realized, lots of professional photographs exist. So, I put my camera down, and looked up.
A beautiful bouquet of flowers stood underneath a memorial brass plaque to Jane Austen. According to the little booklet on Jane Austen and Winchester Cathedral, the plaque was paid for by Austen’s nephew, a Victorian writer, who penned her first full biography.
Do you see that little scrap of paper? I went over to see what it said.
In her letter to her niece, after the funeral was over, Cassandra told her, it wasn’t watching the funeral procession that overpowered her. It was writing the letter that described it. Oh, the power of words.
And with me, it was when I walked over to the flowers and found that the scrap of paper next to it, left, clearly by another Jane Austen lover, said: "You must allow me to tell you how much I admire and love you."
How brilliant. Or, as my British host said in response to a claim I was making about Jane Austen, “Clever you!” These are the words from Darcy’s first proposal to Elizabeth Bennet, (almost, Darcy says “ardently” rather than “much”). Sitting there, by the flowers, they take on an entirely new meaning. How ardently we do love and admire you, Jane Austen.
Carol J. Adams is the co-author of The Bedside, Bathtub, and Armchair Companion to Jane Austen (Continuum) which has been nominated for a Regency Award for best 2008 non-fiction on Jane Austen by the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, England.
I think you can still vote at http://www.janeausten.co.uk/awardsurvey.ihtml
Thursday, June 4, 2009
In May 1995, I bought, at auction, the office equipment of the national office of Operation Rescue. It had been seized earlier that spring to help settle a $1,000,000 legal judgment against Operation Rescue for its role in trying to close down the Planned Parenthood clinic in Houston.
The office equipment included six computers. When the constables arrived to seize the equipment from the national office of Operation Rescue, an office person attempted to destroy the material on the computers, but had only eliminated the most recent operating system. Using an older operating system, the entire contents of the six computers was discovered. One of the items we found on the hard drives was the diary of anti-abortion clinic protestor. He was called a “missionary to the pre-born” and it was part of his job to update people who provided monthly support to him.
The diary was chilling. It tells, matter of factly, his daily labors -- of how he would stand outside a Dallas clinic and yell “murderer” to the doctor as he arrived. Though Operation Rescue claimed they did not do it, he was writing down the license plate numbers of all the cars who pulled into the place. One night, he came back and went through the garbage that had been left out. He followed the office secretary to the bank where she was making a deposit and then demanded that the bank not accept the “blood money.”
It takes many pages, but he describes how he and others, using several cars and over many days, succeed at following a doctor home. The doctor lived in a gated community, but through deception and persistence, they get in and discover where he lives. When we read this in 1995, we immediately notified the doctor.
This “missionary” also found ways to divert women coming for abortions to the anti-abortion “clinic.”
On the day I bought the equipment, I was a nervous wreck. My partner, who was too well known to Operation Rescue to attend the auction and buy the equipment, handed me Pepto Bismal with one hand and mace with the other. (Mace is legal here in Texas.) I didn’t know what to expect at the auction, but having been victimized by Operation Rescue’s pickets at both home and at the church where Bruce was a minister, I was anxious.
Arriving at the auction, I was relieved to see Dallas county constables everywhere. And when I was the successful bidder, they closed in around me to prevent anyone from Operation Rescue getting near me. One man tried to come up to me. The constables had forcefully to pull him back. He kept turning to me and shouting something like “I just want to make sure you are right with Jesus the savior.”
“That’s between me and Jesus,” I called back.
That man, wanting me to get right with Jesus, was the diary keeper – who spent his days harassing women and health professionals.
Sunday, May 17, 2009
Coming to Georgia in March and finding a fully-formed snow man – err, snow person – greeting me on campus creates a moment of incongruity. Pear trees are beginning to send out blossoms, but snow is on the ground. Georgia has had a rare March snow storm; and after the big wet flakes had lost their fascination, they continued to fall. Trees are down along the river that abuts the campus; this area provides a nice forest-y feel next to all the institutional buildings, but apparently campus expansion will take some of it away. The river water is brown, from all the melting snow; and limbs of trees lie broken off from their trunks. We pass the “Meat Tech” building; a small sign announces it. Georgia is the biggest poultry producer; and UGA focuses on “poultry” in this department.
The Save Our Species sponsors talk about how often, after an event –a film or a speaker – students will come up and say, “my uncle/father/family are farmers but they don’t do what that film says.” It is hard to imagine one’s family as culpable. The animal industrial complex (Barbara Noske’s term) requires workers on all levels. We have learned how contract farmers who provide the birds to the big companies like Tyson slowly got pulled further and further into factory farming to continue to make a profit. Warehousing animals was one of the consequences; medicines to deal with the effects of keeping birds so close together, and debeaking, and all the other inhumane treatments appeared. Somebody has to do that.
People do not want to see themselves as inhumane. Afterwards, at a vegan Mexican dinner and book signing, I talked with students. I hear from several of them, “People say, ‘I get it, but I don’t want to give up my hamburger, or I don’t want to give up my chicken sandwich.’” I’ve heard that too, and my temptation is to respond to the second part of the sentence and say “well, you’re selfish.” Clearly, this is a difficult thing to do if you want to keep your friends. Then I realize, no, they don’t get it. If they did, they wouldn’t have any doubts, they would know that they can’t live with themselves if they continue to eat animals. That’s the difference – if people see what they are doing as eating hamburger, they haven’t made the connections. I say, “You should tell them, You don’t get it. “
In 1969, when my sister Nancy was newly married and living in Roxbury, Massachusetts, she and Merv invited some other Harvard students to a dinner. She spontaneously can create a feast, anywhere, with any thing. I had just completed my first year at the University of Rochester. I was completely mesmerized by a Harvard graduate student in history and his disquisition on American culture. He said, “Cultures show what they worship by erecting their tallest symbols in honor of it. Look at the United States. We worship gasoline. All of the large signs on interstates beckon you to get gas.” Driving from the Atlanta to Athens, we passed a Hooters sign unlike one I had ever seen before. It is so high up in the sky! We are past it before I can take a photo, but it is just like the signs for Esso, or Mobil, or Sunoco (gasoline companies of the 1960s). So there it is; in a world of sexual politics of meat, our culture worships Hooters.