Book review: The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair

So after reading Fast Food Nation, I decided to read another book about the meat industry (I know, it’s gross, but it just further affirms that I made the right decision long, LONG ago to be a consumer of animal products or by-products).  Enter The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair.

Sinclair wrote this book in the mid-20th century, right when factory farming was becoming a boon.  In this fictional book, Sinclair describes a Lithuanian family who comes to America seeking good fortune.  They settle into a district known as Packingtown in Chicago.  Packingtown is so named because it is the hub of meat-packing plants.  Jurgis, the protagonist of this story, is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and oh-so-eager to get a job at one of these plants.  He thinks that the work that goes on here is wondrous, marvelous, something about which to be proud.

It’s not until later, after he’s toiled, labored in the horrid conditions that he comes to realize why everyone else was so jaded, and why they looked at him, with his jovial attitude, as if he were crazy.  Sinclair does a good job, a very good job, of describing conditions inside this plant.  And there are others, as well.  Jurgis has come to America with a large extended family and, though he wants to be able to support them all, the sad truth is that some of the others must also work.  Being Packingtown, and having no skills or experience to get a white-collar job anywhere, they are also forced into jobs at meat-packing plants, or those related to meat-packing.

Terrible conditions about for everyone, and injuries in this industry are rampant.  While Sinclair’s book has been hailed as opening the eyes of the public to what really goes on in slaughterhouses, I feel that much has not changed.  Surely there are more industry regulations now, but slaughterhouses are still the most dangerous place to work.  Even aside from the whole issue of killing animals for food, one MUST care about human conditions.  Do we really want to support an industry that is so utterly dangerous, and so utterly unnecessary?

Even though this is a book I’d read before, reading those descriptions of slaughterhouse practices made my stomach turn.  It’s so revolting!  Oddly enough, Sinclair had written this book not so much to expose these conditions, as to describe the Socialist movement and his support of it.  But, as is stated in the afterword, what The Jungle was and is remembered for are the slaughterhouse descriptions, because they were so visceral.  One can actually imagine all those things taking place, as hideous as they are.

On the other hand, Sinclair’s description of Jurgis’ foray into Socialism is a bit lofty, unrelateable.  And that’s why readers can’t really hang on to it and make a connection.  I think that left Sinclair a bit disappointed, but I hope he realized that his book still made a huge positive impact, maybe just not exactly the impact he had originally planned.

Personally, anything that sheds the light on the despicable meat industry is valuable and needs to be read and to be seen by the public.  It’s hard for me to believe that even now, in 2015, there are people who honestly believe that the meat/dairy/egg industries have their (the consumers’) best interests in mind.  When will people wake up to reality??

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Ramadan-inspired musings

Ramadan Mubarak to all my fellow Muslims!  Today is the second day of the holy month of Ramadan.  Well, all the months are considered holy, but Ramadan in particular because it is the month is which the Holy Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad.

A few days ago, I was thinking about the beginning of this month, and that the end would be marked by Eid ul-Fitr (the larger of the two Eids).  And then a few months later would come Eid ul-Adha, or Bakra Eid.  Bakra means “goat”.  Just thinking about Bakra Eid gets me downhearted.  How am I supposed to reconcile this holiday, which is traditionalized by the “sacrifice” of an animal, with my views as a vegan?

Quite honestly, my vegan outlook on the world trumps everything, and I find that I am uncomfortable and upset at the notion of Bakra Eid, or even that it’s commonly referred to in that way instead of Eid ul-Adha.  I don’t understand why.  Why must an animal be killed (sorry, “sacrificed”) as a blessed offering?  It makes me sick to think of all the goats, sheep, rams, etc. slaughtered for this holiday.  Surely there is a better way to help the poor than to give them meat.  Why can we not build upon the concept of Zakat and actively help the poor?

Don’t get me wrong- it’s absolutely wonderful to have obligatory alms-giving as one of the pillars of Islam, but I don’t think that just giving money is enough.  I also wish that Islamic culture wasn’t so centered on meat.  Providing meat, or the living animal itself, to a poor family shouldn’t be seen as something great and noble.  We should be doing more to ensure that not just the poor, but everyone, has access to fresh, healthy plant-based foods. These are truly sustainable, and they are also affordable and better for everyone.

My suggestion would be hold monthly food drives, make it part of Zakat, in which each donor must provide a healthy, non-perishable vegan food item.  That, or give money that will be used solely to purchase these types of foods.  We really need to end the association of meat = wealth & prosperity, no meat = poverty.

So yes, it’s difficult for me to reconcile my veganism with this Islamic holiday.  But more immediate, it’s difficult for me to reconcile my strong desire for an active lifestyle with the requirement of Ramadan, which is to fast from sun-up to sun-down.  All I’m left with is just an immense amount of guilt.  It’s a common theme in my life.  I feel guilt over so much of what I’ve done and continue to do, and what I know I will do in the future.  Surely I’m not a bad person, but sometimes I wonder what it is that I’m really doing to help others, and to help myself.

  

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Book review: Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser

The latest book I’ve finished (re-)reading is Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.  If you’ve never before read this book, I highly suggest that you do!  Even though it came out in the 90s, the information presented is still relevant and important.  Particularly if you eat meat/eat at fast food restaurants.

Schlosser describes the evolution of the fast food industry, of the mass production of identical food items; of the desire for low-skilled workers to perform simple, sometimes dangerous, tasks very quickly and for long hours and low pay; of the marginalization of the American farmer and cowboy.

Full disclosure and no big surprise: I’m a vegan.  I of course don’t support the fast food industry at all (as an aside, I do have a very personal connection to it).  Regardless of my stance on fast food in particular and meat in general, I’m sure I’m not alone in my sympathy of the true American farmers and cowboys.  Here were people who made their living directly off the land, worked in harmony with nature, and then their livelihoods were pushed aside to make way for factory farms and mass food production.  To say nothing of the horrid way in which animals are now treated.  They are merely commodities, not individual living, breathing beings.

People think that “I only go to McDonald’s once a week” or “I don’t eat that much fast food” means that they’re choices don’t have any significant negative impact on the world around them.  But they DO.  Read this book and you will understand why this industry needs to permanently be a thing of the past.  And the most effective way to vote is with your dollar.  Your consumer choices.

While I urge everyone to forgo fast foods and convenience packaged foods, I don’t advocate any “humane” meats, cheeses, etc.  You’ve heard this from me time and time again, but the best thing that you can do for yourselves, the planet, and those around you is to go vegan.  Eat whole, plant-based foods.  We need to keep our planet diverse, both in terms of vegetation and in terms of restaurant/food choices.  Schlosser discusses the globalization of big chains such as McDonald’s, now McDonald’s aim is to provide a consistent, crave-worthy, delicious (yuck) taste no matter where in the world one goes.  And if that means adding beef tallow to the fries, so be it.

If you’ve never read this book, it will be an eye-opener for sure.  And if your diet is less-than-stellar, this book will surely make you reconsider your food choices.

Schlosser also references Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which is another book I’ve read and in which Sinclair describes the horrid conditions in Chicago’s meatpacking district, which are sure to be representative of meatpacking plants everywhere in the US, at least at that time.  So I’ve decided that a re-read of The Jungle is highly appropriate right after Fast Food Nation.

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Race report: Kinetic Half triathlon, May 9, 2015

And so I set out to accomplish my first complete half Ironman triathlon!

A few years ago, I had intended to do this complete triathlon, but, not a big surprise, I had a leg issue and so wasn’t able to run.  So I just did the aquabike, which still is a pretty significant achievement.  At the time, it was by far the longest open-water swim I’d done (maybe even longer than any pool swim, I’m not sure) and my longest bike ride.

Having that experience under my belt, and able to run somewhat (though still battling yet another leg issue), I was a bit more prepared for Saturday’s race.  Though I wasn’t racing so much as I was participating.  Really, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could complete this distance of a race.  That I could rightfully say that I’ve done a 70.3.  Fast-forward to today, and I can proudly say that I have!

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So let’s go over this eventful day!  Fortunately, the SOS message I’d posted on the DC Tri Club forum was answered by another member who gave me a ride down to Lake Anna (why I signed up for it without a definitive means of transportation is beyond me).  She and I decided that, to be completely sure we’d get there in time, we’d leave Arlington at 3:30am.  3:30am!  Wow!  That meant I should be up by 2:30am; to be safe, I set my alarm for 2am, so I’d have some snooze time before I really had to get going.  Luck would be that my alarm rang at 2am and I was UP.  Not sleepy, not really, but just up and like, “Ok, here we go.  People in California haven’t even gone to bed yet on Friday night, and my Saturday has already begun!”

We left right on time, got to Lake Anna in good time (there was no traffic- go figure :-p), and it was still dark as I got my race packet and started setting up my transition area.  At least the air temperature was nice- cool, but still warm enough to walk around in race gear.

I hadn’t done an open-water swim since…. August, so I had the typical pre-race jitters comprising, “Oh my God, do I even remember how to swim in real water???”

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So, right before my swim wave starts, I notice that, oh hey, my goggles are really foggy.  And they don’t stay unfoggy for long.  And the sky was gray and overcast.  And the buoys were small and hard to see.  Well, turning back now.  The horn went off for my swim wave and thus it began!  Splash splash splash, ohmygodwhatamidoing, everyoneispassingmenobigsurprise, and then finally I settle into a sort of rhythm.  Slow, but steady.  And I have to search for those darned buoys because they’re so small!  Nation’s Tri has the best buoys of any triathlon I’ve done; those buoys are GIGANTIC, spaced every 100m, and labeled with the distance.  So you definitely can’t miss them and you know exactly where you are along the course.

I finally get done with my swim- super-slow, but faster than when I had done the Kinetic Aquabike a few years ago, plus I wasn’t all light-headed and breathing heavily like before.  And my arms didn’t quite feel like jelly.  Which is really good, because I didn’t get my darn wetsuit stripper this time!!  Very pissed off about that!  I paid good money for a stripper and I didn’t get one.  Instead I clumsily tried to partially take it off as a ran to transition, then sat and awkwardly got the rest of it off.  It still took a while, but I guess not as long as I had feared.

And then the long, LOOONG bike ride.  The course wasn’t so bad.  Not nearly as awful as Luray, and that was only half as long!  The Kinetic bike course was mostly rolling, with a couple of bigger hills, but nothing where I felt like I was barely moving.  The course was well-marked and stationed with volunteers, which is good, since I hadn’t paid too much attention to the course map posted online.  I did notice that it was a different course then when I’d done the Aquabike.  I distinctly remember doing two loops before, and I’m pretty sure it was all/mostly inside Lake Anna park.  Not so this time.  This time it was just a one-loop course on traffic-filled two-lane roads.  It would get particularly irritating every time a slow-moving vehicle would block the lane and then there are a bunch of cyclists who have no choice but to slow down.  There’s no bike lane, and solid yellow double lines on the other side, so vehicles were so stupidly hesistant to move over to give us space.  I don’t care if the previous course was harder, I’d gladly return to a bike course that has little or no car traffic!  Why am I so vehement?  Because a little after Mile 10, I saw some cars pulled over at the side of the road, including an emergency vehicle, and I saw someone in a stretcher.  I’m pretty sure I saw a bike as well, but I can’t remember now.  After that, I was pretty freaked out and just prayed to finish the 45 or so miles unscathed.

There were moments when I feared I may have gotten a flat tire, but I didn’t want to check to confirm it.  It’s that stupid, irrational thought that, “If I don’t actually check it, then it can’t have happened, right??”  Because I really did NOT want to be fixing a flat.  The good news is that it was all in my head and there was no flat tire.  And the funny news is that, towards the end of the bike portion, I started feeling really sleepy!  I’d been up since 2am and it was now probably near noon and I just wanted to go to sleep.  I stayed cognizant enough to not have any bike mishaps, but the weirdest thing I noticed was that, even though I totally stayed on course, the distance from the Mile 45 sign to the Mile 50 sign was NOT five miles!  It was much less, maybe 2 1/2 miles!  Was I the only one who noticed?  If so, I must have missed a loop or something- I was so confused!  Well, better to stop focusing on that and just hope I can make it the last few miles safely, which I did :-)

Back to transition, and then I set out for a not-so-fun run course, for two reasons- (1) the clouds have now parted so the overcast, misty sky is now hot and sunny and (2) my leg isn’t 100% better, so this run/walk is going to be rough.

I wasn’t even trying to be competitive, and my only thought was just to finish somewhat respectably.  Sadly, long gone are the days when I would finish races (marathons) with a great time, often being in the top 10%.  Enough digression.  The run was a three-loop course, which was good and bad, though I feel like the good may have outweighed the bad.  The good part about a three-loop course was that I actually got to see other, faster people on the course (granted, they were probably on their final loop as I began my run) and I got to pass by the crowd of spectators at the finish area multiple times.  The bad part was doing the same loop three times, so I knew exactly which parts to dread (all of it, haha).  I ran/walked it, but I think my run was more of a fast shuffle.  Two thoughts were going through my head at the time: 1) this really sucks and I just want to die right now, and 2) OMG, I’m really doing this- I’m going to finish my first half Ironman!  After several rounds of run/walking and splashing cold water on myself (it was HOTTTT, remember?), I finally neared the finish line for my final loop and then crossed it, and then it was over.  I should have just taken my shoes off at that point and jumped back into the water, but it never occurred to me to do that.  Weird.

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Anyways, I collected my hard-earned medal, my awesome carpool buddy took my photo (yay!), and I enjoyed some post-race cookies (vegan, of course!  provided very thoughtfully by RosePT) and pizza (cheeseless mushroom personal-sized pizza from Papa John’s).  They hit the spot, I must say!

So what’s my next race?  Your guess is as good as mine!  I’m hoping my leg gets 100% better soon, so I can run fast and happy!

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Book Review: A Woman in Charge, by Carl Bernstein

It’s been over a week now since I finished the book, and I’m finally getting around to my review. A Woman in Charge, by Carl Bernstein, is about the life of Hillary Rodham Clinton from her college days up until her years as Secretary of State. What’s interesting for me is that I started reading the book while the country was still speculating, “Will she or won’t she (run for President again)?” Even though she hadn’t officially said anything, we all knew that she was going to. There was probably a 0.000000001% chance that she wouldn’t. Well, I was about ¾ of the way through the book when she officially announced her run for the 2016 Presidency. Woohoo! Yes, I really do hope she wins. I’d volunteered for her 2008 campaign, just some phone-banking and whatnot, and had felt really deflated when she had lost the Democratic primary. But we’re definitely ready for her now!!

As for the book, Bernstein provides an abundance of in-depth information into Hillary’s life. The dynamics with her family, her time at Wellesley and Yale, meeting, dating, and then marrying Bill Clinton, her transition to life in Arkansas as the governor’s wife, but by far the largest portion of the book is taken up by her time as First Lady of the US. Her husband’s indiscretions couldn’t not be mentioned, because they comprise a lot of how the Presidency was shaped, as well as how Hillary grew as a woman, as a wife, and as someone who started to gain public admiration for her strength. The Whitewater investigations, the Travel Office investigations, the blatantly biased investigating of Special Investigator Kenneth Starr, all that and more. It made me really empathize with Hillary, and really, both the Clintons, because they really were outsiders, they didn’t claim to be part of the same old royalty-like regime of the Bushes and Reagans; they wanted to bring a fresh approach to the White House, one that was more focused on the everyday person and, instead, they were derailed time and time again by the Republicans and their allies. It is some consolation to know that we can now look back and honestly say that the Clinton presidency was a great one. A truly great one.

I particularly enjoyed the parts of the book about Chelsea, and I found out that she’s only two months older than me. Chelsea is amazingly brilliant, beautiful, and successful, and in no small part thanks to her parents, who did a great job raising her simply and providing her with as normal of a childhood as possible. Both Bill and Hillary have been fiercely protective of Chelsea, Hillary probably moreso, because at the outset she wasn’t even sure she’d be able to have children, or if she could be a good mother, and so Chelsea was a blessing.

In all, I felt that this book was a very good read. Bernstein does his best to provide a fair, balanced portrayal of her, but you can still tell that Hillary is held in a positive light. And I’m not saying that it’s biased; I’m saying that her qualities shine through so brightly that you can’t just give a dry account of her life. She is admirable, and it was exciting to read this knowing that now, in the present day, she might very well become our next President!

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Race Report: Cherry Blossom Ten-Miler, April 12, 2015

I guess it’s about time I write about this race from last Sunday! Well, if you’ve been following me at all, you know that there are several races recently that I’ve had to walk. This was no different. Up till that morning, I was hoping to feel good enough to give running a shot, but the ever-present swollen bumps in my leg said no. So walk I did. I knew there was a strict cut-off time, to allow the hordes of tourists to view the cherry blossoms, so it was firmly established that if you didn’t maintain a 14:00 minute/mile pace, you’d be forced to re-route to the finish or picked up by the sag wagon. If I were running, this pace would of course be no problem. I’m pretty sure, though, that even the races I’ve walked have been under that pace. (Not the most recent one, though, because that course was a killer.) Still, I didn’t want to suffer the further indignity of being too slow. Insult to injury, literally.

I took the metro to the race start, and only a few minutes before I left my apartment did I think that maybe I should have biked there. I was afraid the metro would be too crowded. It wasn’t, but what was the problem was once I got off at Smithsonian. Sure, the race start was nearby, but then bag check—for which there were NO signs to direct us—was located waaaaay down past the start. There wasn’t a line, but it was still annoying. On race day, there are people going every which way, so it’d be nice to have signs indicating where things are. Didn’t help that the volunteers I asked didn’t know either. Since I hadn’t arrived particularly early for the race, I had to book it to bag check (in hindsight, I should have just planned to NOT wear warm clothing before the race, and carry my small things with me) and then book it back to my corral. It was already a comfortable temperature by this point, so there wasn’t much shivering going on. Which is good, because the worst thing in the world is to be standing around in shorts and a tank top when it’s cold with nothing to do but wait.

One thing that was a bit curious was that when I had initially arrived at the race start, I heard the announcer say something about the course not being exactly ten miles. He said to “think of it as a 15K”. I had missed the beginning of his announcement, so I was surprised that they had goofed on the distance and *just* found out. Turns out it wasn’t quite that. The real reason for the shortened course was that there had been some accident/crime on a part of the course involving personal injury, so a part of the course had to be closed off as a crime scene. And it had just happened that morning, which didn’t give officials enough time to measure the shortened course and tack on the missing amount. It seemed like it was handled well, for the circumstances, because when I was on the course, I couldn’t tell where the re-routing had been done. It seemed more-or-less seamless.

The course itself was like the course for most other DC races- that is, it runs through only the nice, scenic parts of DC, e.g. Tidal Basin, Arlington Memorial Bridge, West Potomac Park, Kennedy Center. There were so many people, SO MANY PEOPLE. Thousands upon thousands, it’s just crazy. At no point during the race did I not have several people in my vicinity. If I’d been running, I would have been dodging people during the entire course. HUUUUGE contrast to the Red Rock Canyon marathon, which had just over 100 people, and large stretches where I might see someone far off in the distance, or no one at all.

Considering I started in my original corral (which was one of the first) and considering the course had been shortened, I had nothing to worry about in terms of not being able to finish in time. I was well under a 14:00-minute pace, and oh how I would have loved to just RUN! I hate walking races, but I shouldn’t say that, because at least I can do that. One day soon, I will be all better and I’ll be stronger than yesterday. Keeping the positives in mind, it was great to be able to enjoy the beautiful spring day with a brisk walk through downtown DC and enjoy the cherry blossoms with thousands of other people who, rather than obstructing my path, were going in the same direction :-) I got some nice photos afterwards, and then went back to my apartment where my parents were waiting for me. Not a bad way to start the day. (not the best, but still…)

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I still remember five years ago, my dad ran his first race, the Cherry Blossom 5K. (I ran with him, since I was, surprise(!) injured. Masking that pain was tough.) It’s still the only race he’s done, but he keeps (not-seriously) saying that he should sign up for this or that race. Here’s hoping that 2016 might be the year that he tackles Cherry Blossom again, maybe even the 10-miler!!!!

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Forever incomplete

Empty spaces fill me up with holes

Distant faces with no place left to go
Without you within me, I can find no rest
Where I’m goin’ is anybody’s guess

I tried to go on like I never knew you
I’m awake but my world is half asleep
I pray for this heart to be unbroken
But without you, all I’m going to be is incomplete

Voices tell me I should carry on
But I am swimming in an ocean all alone
Baby, my baby, it’s written on your face
You still wonder if we made a big mistake

I tried to go on like I never knew you
I’m awake but my world is half asleep
I pray for this heart to be unbroken
But without you, all I’m going to be is incomplete

I don’t mean to drag it on
But I can’t seem to let you go
I don’t wanna make you face this world alone
I want to let you go
(Alone)

I tried to go on like I never knew you
I’m awake but my world is half asleep
I pray for this heart to be unbroken
But without you, all I’m going to be is incomplete
Incomplete

— Backstreet Boys, “Incomplete”

I miss you so much and it pains me every day.  Why does it hurt so much?  I feel like I lost your love, but then I realize that I never really had it in the first place.  I try not to think about you, about the deep hurt that you have caused me, but it’s all I can think about.  It should get easier with each passing day, week, month, year, but it doesn’t.  The pain feels fresh, and even gets worse, because it’s just that much more of our lives that are spent apart.  I have tried so hard to reach out to you, but you push me away.  I’m so sorry for making you angry, and I know I have done some stupid things, but I want you so badly that sometimes I can’t even breathe.

I crave your love and I don’t think I’ll ever have it.  It makes me very sad and I feel like I’m all alone in this world.  I don’t know what I can do to fix this hole in my life.  I don’t think there’s anything I can do, because you’ve made it so very clear that you don’t want me in your life.  And if I really loved you, shouldn’t I respect your silent actions and let you live your life without any reminder of me?

I hate myself for what I’ve done.  Had a been a better person, we would have had a relationship.  We would talk.  We would spend time together.  But the sad reality is that when I do see you, I feel so awkward because I know I’m not wanted.  And when you say something critical to me, I just have to silently acquiesce, because I feel like anything I’d say would push you further away.  Or is that even possible?  If the relationship is already non-existent, can it be made any worse?

I often wonder how my life ended up this way.  I find it impossible to be happy now.  I try to distract myself as best as I can, but my thoughts always go back to you.   Without you, my life feels forever incomplete.

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