Monday, January 24, 2011

Montreal-Toronto, July 2008

Adventure! What a word. It stirs within us a great feeling of excitement. The idea of breaking the routines we have by catapulting ourselves into something completely different. It's so appealing. How much we can learn by getting outside of the box, the comfort zone.. Nothing strikes down the cancer of apathy like looking beyond what is familiar. Exploration of the unknown is one of life's greatest thrills. May we always strive to live new experiences.

Such were my musings during the month of July 2008. My friend, Conor, and I were on the cusp of a great adventure across the geo-colossus that is Canada. I had spent 2 months in Montreal, walking the tightrope of life in a bilingual city.. A little dramatic perhaps.. The only real difficulty I had was trying to fit into my job where French speaking colleagues sounded so often to be bitching about even though I had no idea what they were actually saying. As much as we had come to settle (lots of 'settling') in to life in Montreal, we decided that we would see as much of it as possible.

Our first stop was Toronto. Not so unfamiliar, I had been there two years previous. This time though, I had timed our presence in correspondence with a gig that I really wanted to see. I couldn't wait! Better still, we were adventurously travelling the 5hr trip in a 'rideshare'. Being all progressive, I had arranged the 'ride' over the Internet with an anonymous man who would take us to Toronto if we contributed money for 'gas'. The plan was to meet him at Station Sherbrooke at 9am on a Sunday, July 27th. There, Patrick (prospect of conversation about his Irish name noted) would pick us up and we could share the ride all the way up Highway 401 to Toronto.

So it was on that bright summers morning, we hugged our neighbour Jake goodbye and started trekking down to Sherbrooke. The first snag on our great adventure was that Conor had to carry his very heavy bag after it's wheels jammed. Worried that we would miss our rendez-vous with our ride, I started pacing ahead to get there on time. Every now and again, I looked back at a blank faced Conor, who still managed to convey how annoying his bag was becoming. We did, however, succeed in getting there on time. At around 9.05 I might have commented on how annoying it was when people weren't on time. By 9.20 I was calling Patrick from a payphone. No answer. By 9.40, it was clear that the great adventure was struggling to get out of Montreal. 'Fuck sake Patrick, you said you'd let us ride with you'. We cursed the ambiguous rideshare system and resigned ourselves to the dreaded bus journey which took about 7hrs.

First impressions of Toronto were that we were in an English-speaking part of Canada, where stop signs said 'STOP' as opposed to 'ARRET' and where approaching strangers for directions didn't require the preamble of 'Parlez-Vous Anglais?'. That night we went to the gig that had I had spent the whole day trying to make it to. Even though Propagandhi rocked my socks off, I was too worn out to properly appreciate it. My abiding memory is watching revelers throwing themselves violently from the stage. I wondered where they got the energy. After spending the night in a hostel, we spent the next day roaming around 'downtown' Toronto. Highlights included pretending to take a sip of this junkie girl's drink after she kept offering us some. We were also accosted by a pretty young woman who told us that she had just had a fight with her boyfriend and who kept asking if she looked ok. 'Yeah, like fine'. In a hazy state of mind, we walked through Chinatown, repeatedly commenting on how it felt like we actually were in China.

That night we made contact with a friend I had made on my previous visit. She offered us her couches for the night. We were delighted to accept. She did mention that she had a cat that was a little crazy. Ever the animal lover, I brushed aside any suggestions that this cat would actually interfere with our sleep. 'It's a cat..How bad could it be?'

Bob introduced himself to us by making a spectacular jump from one couch to the other. 'Well he certainly is a livewire, but I'm sure he'll settle down once he tires himself out'. Emily looked at me doubtfully. 'If he's a pain in the ass, just throw him in the bathroom'.

Apprehensively, we turned off the lights and lay down for some much needed sleep. I hadn't even reached the relaxation stage when Bob started to set out his stall for the night. He began by performing several more jumps around the living room furniture. Conor and I made no comment. I was hoping that these leaps were Bob's bedtime routine, a closing expenditure of any energy he had left.

After an hour or two, it was clear that this was wishful thinking. Bob was now carrying out routine attacks on both of us. His black coat blended in with the dark and so it was without any warning when his paws traversed my face. Or when my hair was being fiddled with by a stealthy and erratic claw. Bob's madness grew as the night wore on. When he wasn't bothering me, I heard monotone expressions of frustration from Conor. 'Fucking cat', 'Get off!' 'Jesus Fucking Christ'. Enough was enough. I decided to act on Emily's advice and confine him to the bathroom.

I'm not sure how I actually got him into the bathroom. I doubt it was physical force. He wouldn't have liked that. Whatever the means, I did manage to secure his confinement. I closed the door and returned to my couch, feeling a little cruel for resorting to imprisoning him. It was his turf. Who were we to just turn up and expect him to give up his space? And then lock him up when he wasn't conforming to the standards we expect of a 'good little pussy'.

Bob's false imprisonment was abruptly ended when I could stand his sorrowful bellowing no more. The prospect of him destroying the bathroom was too daunting to consider. When, with Conor's support, I went to release him, I opened the door to find him dangling from the toilet roll holder with a look of defiance etched across his face. He made for his escape quickly, immediately returning to his armchair pulpit. As I passed him by, I begged for a cessation of his escapades. 'Please just go asleep Bob'.

Vindicated by his victory over my conscience, he resumed his frantic attacks against our pursuit of some kind of serenity. The whole situation was starting to look like a campaign of guerrilla warfare against the forces of occupation. Bob, the determined rebel, against us, the usurpers of his residency, in this little insignificant part of the world; Emily's sitting room.

The Ontario sunrise was now scantly illuminating the room. We grabbed whatever sleep we could in between Bob's regular attacks. At one stage, Conor and I sat up and looked across at each other. We shook our tired heads as Bob's wild eyes assessed our condition from his armchair. And then, with some sort of divine intervention, Bob lay down outstretched and closed his eyes. After a few more minutes it was clear that if we were going to get any kind of sleep, now was the time. Already jaded, I battled with my anxiety at the possibility of him waking up and finally fell into proper sleep. I awoke a few times to to look at Bob still sleeping. When, on one occasion, I saw that he had moved, I was joyfully surprised to see him curled up on the bottom of my sleeping bag. 'See Bob, we can do this, we can work something out..We don't have to fight'.

I woke properly a few hours later to see Bob proudly looking out of the apartment window at the Toronto skyline. I spoke to Conor to see if he was awake. He was. 'Got a few hours there at the end, did you?'. Conor turned around to reveal several scratch marks on his face and neck. It seemed that Bob's early morning tactics involved an aggressive targeting of him. 'We can't stay here again tonight...'. Before long, Emily was up and about. 'How did you guys sleep?'. 'Ah yeah, Bob gave us a few frights but fine yeah, we slept fine.' Emily went over to Bob to get his side of the story 'Were you being a pain in the ass Bob? Eh?'. Bob didn't respond. Emily then verbalised our thoughts whilst affectionately petting Bob and adopting that sort of 'baby talk' voice people put on when they talk to animals. 'You're a crazy fucker aren't you Bob? Eh..You've got issues..haven't you..' Bob turned away.

We had a few days left in Toronto. Emily offered us another night on her couches. We replied politely. 'Really? Thanks so much!'. It wasn't that we didn't appreciate the offer from someone who, after all, we didn't know that well, it was just that another battle with Bob was a scenario that we felt undesirable. I checked a few guest houses to see if I could stretch my 'adventure budget' to purchase a cosy room usually occupied by middle aged professionals on business trips. And that didn't have mentally unstable animals. But I was in over my head. Too expensive. Conor, ever the economical one, was steadfast. 'I'm not paying for a room! I can handle him'. I admired his bravery especially while looking at his wounds from the night before.

We returned to Emily and Bob's place that evening. This time I played with the little bastard for a while. It might have some effect. That night, Bob's attitude was a lot less hostile. We managed to get a lot more sleep even if we it was marred with weariness at Bob's presence. The next day we bade Bob goodbye and prepared for our departure to Vancouver. Our plans to 'hitch' across Canada had been shelved after the film RoachTrip ( left us unsure about the wisdom of such a feat. We hung out with Emily that day. She shared with us her disdain for the pretentiousness of climate-change awareness and her obsession with the American Civil War. We were sorry we didn't get to hang out some more with Emily. She was fun.

That night Conor and I separated. He went to avail of a late Couchsurfing offerwhilst I stayed in the Global Village Backpackers hostel. There, I made acquaintance with an English guy. Playing Pool, I inexplicably managed to pull off some majestic pockets. He was impressed. I was perplexed (I'm normally really shit at Pool). I had a few drinks with him. He started on about what drugs he had taken and how they had nearly killed him. He was kind of weird. And I just wanted to sleep. I left him with an Irish acquaintance I coincidentally ran into. (I've never really reflected on how big a coincidence it was to run into John. John Prendergast. From Kilkenny). He was with loads of Irish people. I had a drink with them. Then I left.

The next day I met back up with Conor.
'Well, how was your night?'.
'Great.. Your one was sound'.
'Good for you. I bet this English guy at pool'.
'Yeah right'
'I wonder how Bob is'.

As we packed up our stuff and prepared for the trip out to Pearson International, we ran into the pretty girl who had asked a few days earlier how he she looked. She still looked pretty good. The funny thing was that she didn't remember us at all. It was a weird end to a weird couple of days. It wasn't easy, but our great Canadian adventure was underway. Even if the romantic musings I had in Montreal had been destroyed by a guy named Patrick and cat named Bob.

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Celebrity Cows
I was about 8 years old when I watched, in the company of family, the 1991 comedy film City Slickers. For those of you who haven't seen it, it deals with three urban dwellers who try to escape their mid-life crises by taking part in a rural cattle drive, presumably to find some perspective on things. Traversing dangerous terrain, the three men and cattle herd eventually arrive at their destination after negotiating a dangerous river, where one calf really struggled to make it. For me, the film could have ended there. My young mind took great comfort in knowing that through some kind of interspecies harmony, both man and cow had arrived safely. It was to my absolute shock and horror that the closing scenes revealed that the herd were to be slaughtered for meat. Whilst I sobbed inconsolably, I remember my brother trying to tell me that the cows in the movie were some kind of 'celebrity' cows that would never be harmed. Beside the fact that I didn't believe such reassurances, I was way too emotionally involved in the story to accept such an ending.

Dominion to Factory Farms
The type of relationship we have with animals is probably best described as a bi-product of our ability to exercise power over them; an evolutionary facet of our transition from hunter-gatherers to civilisation. But it's a relationship that's been revisited and examined time and again throughout history. The Book Of Genesis (1:20-28) dealt with the question by giving humans 'dominion' over non-humans. Hence, the Bible supposes that God put animals here for us. Later, the French philosopher, Descartes, on similar lines, concluded that animals are lesser than humans because of their supposed inability to reason.

Nevertheless, even the most fundamentalist human societies did begin enact laws to reduce the suffering of animals. In Puritan England, legislation was introduced to curb the practice of bloodsports, which were widespread in the 17th century. The Puritans interpreted man's dominion over animals as one hinged by responsibility. Enlightenment philosophers like Locke and Kant opposed animal cruelty because of it's effect on human relations with each other; the idea being that indifference to animal suffering would reduce our capacity to empathise with human pain. By the 19th century, a more rounded concept of animal protection was beginning to emerge. In 1822, the Irish MP, Richard Martin, secured the introduction of legislation that outlawed the the ill-treatment of farm animals. In one of the earliest prosecutions under the law, Martin, seeing that the magistrates were unmoved by the plight of a donkey who had been beaten by a costermonger, decided to parade the injured animal in front of the shocked court. Seemingly, it wasn't until the court was actually confronted with the suffering animal that the case was taken seriously. Martin was later involved in the creation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, an organisation who's members developed the concept that animals have rights.

By the 20th century, there had been a dramatic emergence in new attitudes toward animals and how they should be treated by humans. These attitudes weren't always always a product of general benevolence. For example, it was the Third Reich that passed some of the most progressive animal protection legislation. Hitler himself espoused the virtues of vegetarianism and would often try dissuade meat-eaters with accounts of his visit to a slaughterhouse. It is said that, whilst watching films depicting moments of animal suffering, Hitler would cover his eyes until he was told it was over. Nazi ideology removed the hierarchical barrier between humans and animals. Instead, it looked upon wolves and eagles as second only to Aryans, with rodents and Jews making up the bottom end. In effect, the Nazi's protection of animals was founded on the notion that 'subhumans' would take their place in the reception of unspeakable barbarity.

Since the Second World War, animal rights movements have grown in tandem with the marked increase in animal testing and industrial farming. Some groups like the Animal Liberation Front, advocate direct action in the pursuing an end to animal exploitation. The late 20th and early 21st century has also seen efforts by food manufactures to placate the growth of vegetarianism. The championing of free range animal products and the idea of 'humane meat' demonstrate new attempts to placate human concerns over animal treatment. So the idea that we should treat animals better isn't at all new, nor is it going away.

City Slickers:
Deleted Scene
I live in Kilkenny, a medium sized town surrounded by a well developed agricultural industry. My mother comes from a farming background and my father used to work for Glanbia, a leading dairy company that also produces meat. Nevertheless, whilst understanding the concept of food from animals, I was never really exposed to it. When I think of it now, I wonder that this might not have been purely circumstantial. As the City Slickers incident illustrates, I was always fairly sensitive about animal welfare. The common sight of cattle trucks on the roads always solicited a turning in the other direction, as I didn't want to look at the cows sticking their heads out from behind the bars as they were taken to their deaths. My concerns weren't limited to human treatment of animals. I still find it difficult to watch nature programmes that document one animal hunting and killing another. However, it was the contrived and mechanic slaughter of animals by people that troubled me the most. This was consolidated by my sister's vegetarianism. It was her lifestyle choice, which I think was more taste driven, that made me aware that animal slaughter isn't necessary. And that today, we do it just because we can.

It wasn't until my teenage years, during my discovery of punk rock music and the ideals amongst it, that I realised that there was a well established culture of vegetarianism that opposed animal consumption on more ethical grounds. This philosophy endorsed vegetarianism and in particular, veganism, as an extension of a general belief that it is fundamentally wrong to impose one will at the expense of the welfare of another. It equated animal freedom with that of humans, arguing that sentient suffering is essentially uniform. These ideas, whilst appealing, seemed extreme in the context of my surroundings. We ate meat every day; the music I listened to wasn't enough to undo that, not whilst it was confined to rhetoric anyway. It was then, with real unsettledness, that I listened to the track 'Purina Hall of Fame' by the Canadian band, Propagandhi. The song opens with a thirty second documentation of the sound of a sow been beaten by workers on a factory farm. The haunting scream of the animal was enough for me to fast forward every time the song came on. The inevitable visualisation of the event didn't quite match up to my eventual viewing of slaughterhouse footage on the internet these past weeks, something I've avoided doing for years. The reality of seeing defenseless animals been beaten in the most heinous ways is enough to cement my decision in becoming a vegetarian. Of course, I don't believe that all people who work in slaughterhouse's are as psychopathic as the workers in the videos, it's just I don't want anything to do with anything that even remotely resembles such scenes. If only the closing scenes of City Slickers documented the cattle's last moments in the abattoir, I might have followed through on my eight year old threats of refusing to eat meat. Enough is enough. If this has been been at the back of my mind for most of my life, it's time I started acting like it.

A Reasonable Emotionalism
It is then
with a certain amount of emotion that I have made the decision to stop eating meat. This has made me consider how wise my decision is and how I might be blinding myself with my own subjective views on right and wrong. The doubts I have about vegetarianism have always been th
ere and it's only now that I really have to challenge them.

The notion that vegeta
rianism is a defiance of the natural order of things is one such concern. For a long time, I thought there was no point worrying about animal slaughter because it was merely a reflection of nature. I was being faithful to the fact that we are the planet's dominant species by dutifully eating meat.
It's true that a large part of the heritage of human dietary habits is the consumption of animals. But human dietary habits can hardly be classified as infallible in a world where McDonalds is King and diabetes is rampant. However, it has been forwarded that the size of our brains could be directly tied to our meat-eating tradition (it has also been suggested protein rich nuts could have been more influential). But, even if that were true, what does it mean?

The basis of evolution is that a species is anything but static, that we survive and prosper on our ability to change and adapt to the world around us. Such change is apparent to anyone who compares today's world with that of before. The flat earth, divine right of kingship, religious dogmatism, slavery, racism, sexism and homophobia are all examples of previously held assumptions that have been challenged and lessened by our scientific and intellectual development. And is it really absurd to suggest that the darker side of humanity has something in common with the norm of animal genocide carried out on this planet every single day? Right now, as I write, and you read, conscious beings with fully functioning emotions and nervous systems are being terrorised and butchered so that we can eat food that we do not need to. It's making less and less sense every time I think about it.

It's been three weeks since I stopped eating meat. To call it a lifestyle change would be a dramatic overstatement. It's been too easy a change to qualify it as such. As such, I can see how my contribution to the reduction of animal suffering is only the smallest of drops in the ocean. Having taken the first step, I have already started thinking about what's next. The glue in my runners, my leather belt, the milk in my tea; living a cruelty free existence is a tough prospect. And have I properly considered that medical advancements may hinge on testing on animals? Even if many of the world's most threatening diseases thrive on the lifestyle that we choose to adopt.

And then there's the social implications. In such an economically sensitive time, asserting that an industry that provides livelihoods to so many people is ethically unsound is a big statement. Yet the issue at hand seems so much bigger than economics (if anything really is). Besides, to single out the meat and dairy industries as the 'evil' profiteers in this whole affair would be arrogant. Our treatment of animals is more of a cultural question. It's about a fundamental issue in our lives; how we treat other living things. The distant prospect of a cruelty free existence may only be attainable in a painfully slow recognition that there is something inconsistent about seeking understanding from a world where we impose such immeasurable suffering.