Jan 10 12

Reflection: Streets of Paradise

by Emily Benjamin

I remember when we arrived in San Francisco last year, more than a few people mentioned to us the strange mix between wealth and poverty here in one of the biggest cities in the world. San Francisco is the home to some of the wealthiest people and companies on the planet, and it is also one of the most expensive places to live. But it is also ‘home’ to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of homeless people.

One such homeless person is Jasper. Jasper is an African American homeless man that sits outside my local Walgreens, and he is an absolute gentleman. What I like about Jasper is exactly what I like about most people – he has a positive attitude, he’s nice to people, and generally he is inoffensive. That might sound like a strange list, but in context of the documentary ‘Streets of Paradise’, it makes more sense. In the documentary, a number of people in Santa Barbara were interviewed for their opinions and thoughts on the homeless people living in the city. I recall one man said that he doesn’t like standing near homeless people that smell – he finds it offensive, and would prefer it if people that smelled weren’t near him, his home and his shopping centers. Now, I can understand that initial feeling or reaction to a bad smell – but for me, the understanding that many people can’t change the way they smell quickly counteracts that initial reaction. If I was living on the streets, I doubt that my body odor would be the first thing on my mind each day. So while someone smelling less than favorable is, well, less than favorable, it’s not a big deal to me.

Another man in Santa Barbara said he was annoyed when people begged for money. Money is a funny thing, though. People can ask me for my time, my thoughts, and my company… but the moment someone asks for my money, I’m defensive. I’m not really sure why. I have been asked for money by homeless people hundreds of times – sometimes I’ve given it, other times I haven’t, and only once did I offer to get them some food instead. On this occasion, the man replied ‘I don’t want the food, I need the money for weed’ – so I have never offered food again. I understand that he was perhaps an anomaly, but I wouldn’t give my best friend money for drugs, so I won’t give money to a homeless person for drugs. So I can see the man’s point. But I can also see why homeless people have to try it. If you don’t have something, and someone else has what you need, you should ask. And if you ask enough people, without any success, you will inevitably end up feeling tired, defeated, and desperate. But, homeless people have to keep trying, so I can’t blame them for that.

One of the homeless men interviewed in the documentary captured the other side of the argument – that homeless people are people, too; they just want to be treated like anyone else. I agree with him, and if someone – anyone – says hello to me on the street (whether they smell or not!) I will say hello back, and ask them how they are. If their next question is to ask for money, I will probably shake my head and walk away. But Jasper is different. Jasper sits there during the day, calling out to people walking past. However, he’s not asking for money; he just calls out ‘Hello’ and offers compliments, jokes, or generally tries to make people smile. Jasper doesn’t know my name – he calls me ‘Red’. A few weeks ago, when I was walking out of Walgreens after being at the gym, Jasper yelled out ‘Looking good, Red! You’re as thin as a stick!’ I was so taken aback by his spontaneous compliment that I spun on my heel, turned around and chatted to him for a few minutes. He was selling newspapers for a $1 each, but I gave him $5 instead, claiming I had nothing smaller. What is different about Jasper is that he doesn’t demand money, doesn’t get in people’s faces, and he tries to add something light and cheerful to the day of every person that walks past. Yet he still makes money from people, without ‘begging’. I know this might sound like his ‘good behavior’ is being ‘rewarded’ – and who are we, to pick and choose who to be nice to – but in life, good behavior is rewarded, and people are generally going to respond better to niceties rather than the opposite. As my aunt once said to me – “you catch more flies with honey!”

After watching the documentary, I spoke to my husband about it, to better understand both my opinions on homelessness and to see how they compared to someone else’s. The more I think about it, the more guilty I feel for having so much, even though I genuinely try not to take anything for granted. I have a roof over my head, plenty of food in the fridge, and a support network of friends and family around me. I wish that everyone in the world could have that. I don’t know if money is the answer to homelessness, but I think compassion is a step in the right direction.

Filed Under → Words
Jan 1 12

Forks Over Knives

by Emily Benjamin

Recently I watched Forks Over Knives (2011), a documentary that ‘examines the profound claim that most, if not all, of the degenerative diseases that afflict us can be controlled, or even reversed, by rejecting our present menu of animal-based and processed foods.’ (IMDB) Despite having heard of numerous pro-whole-foods-plant-based-themed documentaries, this was the first that I watched in it’s entirety. And it was good. But, for a number of reasons, I am still not convinced it’s the healthy lifestyle choice for me.

I can begin my argument with a rebuttal. A huge rebuttal, in fact, that on paper, trounces my argument easily. The rebuttal is that I believe the information given in the documentary is 100% true. I have always believed, known even, that many of the degenerative diseases we humans are ‘prone’ to can be prevented, and sometimes reversed, by healthy lifestyle. To me, healthy lifestyle is defined as eating well, exercising well, and managing your life to avoid unhealthy stressors. So based on this, my pre-existing belief, I can easily take the next step to see that a whole-foods, plant-based diet is an example of ‘better lifestyle’. That is my rebuttal.

But the sum of my argument is not logical. I will lay it out now, with full ownership on my part, and full warning to you, that many of the following points could be considered invalid, straight away, for being stubborn, emotional, or plain illogical. Here is why I am not convinced that a whole-foods, plant-based diet is the right choice for me.

1) I love meat. I truly do. Many different types of meat. Chicken is perhaps my go-to, my versatile favorite, but anyone that knows me knows that I absolutely love my steaks, too. And I have always loved meat. My family still share stories of my carnivorous ways as a youth; when I was really young, maybe only 5 or 6, I asked a waitress for a T-Bone the size of my plate, with no room for any sides. I still love steaks, but now try to eat much smaller serves, usually only 3-4 oz. But I genuinely love every bite.

2) Certain meats make me feel stronger. In particular, from time to time I feel weak, lethargic and tired, and almost always I realize that  I’m also craving red meat. I feel like it is an in-built iron detector, and without fail, a night or two of red meat makes me feel better again.
3) I know meat. As in, I know how to cook it, many different ways, for breakfast, lunch or dinner. That doesn’t mean I have meat at every meal… but I know how to prepare it for any occasion, and how to prepare it well. So the idea of giving up meat gives me a culinary headache, because I wouldn’t know where to start.
4) I know the documentary isn’t just about meat – it’s about abstaining from animal based products in general. So let’s see – cheese, milk, yoghurt, cream and eggs, to begin with. I love all of these. I don’t love them as much as I love meat, but they are still a part of my day to day diet. An egg on whole grain toast with spinach makes me feel alert and energized for the day. A yoghurt-based fruit smoothie gives me a good lift after a gym workout. And cheese… well… what’s a grilled cheese sandwich without the cheese?
Enough about the food aspect… let’s consider the physiological argument.

5) The documentary argues that many degenerative conditions can be prevented or reversed with the removal of animal products from the diet. As an anatomy and biology nerd, and an ex-member of the health and medical industry, this argument has many different facets. Yes, many degenerative diseases can be reversed – this is true. However, many people find they can reverse conditions such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol while still eating some animal-based products. I have seen this myself, heard about it continuously, and had it advised to me personally by countless medical professionals. But that’s the reversal – I prefer the idea of prevention. Take osteoporosis, for example. Defined by a weakened density of bone mass, which increases the potential of fracture, osteoporosis can be prevented or slowed quite easily. But unfortunately, you need to plan some 20-30 years in advance. The peak time to build bone mass is 25-35 in women, and a slightly older bracket in men. And diet is only a third of the argument; weight bearing exercise and genetics make up the whole picture. So while the calcium from milk and cheese might be better found from plant-based foods, a diet change of that style won’t be enough to reverse bone damage that began 30 years ago. I could go on further, but what I mean to say is that there is some doubt in my mind that a change in diet to reflect the whole-foods, plant-based idea is not the sole solution to degenerative disease.

I have already admitted that much of my argument might be flawed due to lack of logic, or emotion. I can recognize that in many ways I am being stubborn; I see it, and admit it. But my love for meat, my experience in the health and medical industries, and the advice I have always been given, lead to remain unconvinced. But the documentary penetrated even my strong carnivorous defences – it makes me consider a change in diet. My sister would support it – she is already vegetarian, for primarily ethical reasons. My devouring of meat during family celebrations gives her both concern and comic relief. I know the little lambs, baby chickens and calves that I love so much would thank me for it. Stubbornly, I still have an illogical divider in my brain that disconnects the anatomical logic of the ‘leg of lamb’ cooking in an oven and a baby sheep running around a paddock. Like I said – illogical. But despite my stubborn, illogical and emotional argument, the DVD nonetheless has given me food for thought. Maybe, just maybe, I will reduce the intake of animal-based foods in my diet, and the world will not end.

Source: Forks Over Knives (2011) http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1567233/

Filed Under → Words
Jan 1 12

Cesar Chavez

by Emily Benjamin

I knew nothing about who Cesar Chavez was, or what he was about, until today. With each of these reflections, I’ve known at least something about the subject before I researched them. But with Chavez, I knew only that there was a street named after him in San Francisco, that my bus goes past every day as I make my way to college.

The source text I chose is the United Farm Worker’s website, which is the group Chavez founded in 1962. The site provides a background on Chavez, from where he was born and brought up, to where how he was educated, to how he spent his later years. Chavez was born in Arizona and from very early on, he understood injustice. His family had their home taken from them, when deeds were broken by dishonest white land owners. The Chavez’s had no options, but to take a loan that inevitably they were unable to pay interest on, and the house was lost. This began the cycle of debt for Chavez and his family.

Recognizing this cycle, Chavez worked towards getting himself and his family out of it. Education, he thought, would be the key. But being in school during the 1930’s and 40’s meant racism was rife – you either suffered through it in the integrated schools, or chose a segregated school. Chavez and his brother ended up at thirty-seven different schools before Cesar left school in eighth grade, in 1942. Despite this early graduation, Chavez pursued his belief in and love of education, collecting and reading an amazing array of book throughout his life.

In 1948, Cesar Chavez married Helen Fabela and together they moved to Delano to start a family. The time that Chavez spent with ministers, priests and in missions led him to pursue a life seeking justice for his family, friends and co-workers, through nonviolent measures. In 1962, the United Farm Worker’s group was formed to protect the rights of farm worker’s in California. Through Chavez’s leadership, the group helped lift the lives of thousands of worker’s across the state, ensuring better pay, better work conditions, and protection from racial and economic injustice.

What really stands out to me about Chavez was the success he had with non-violent measures. He pursued his beliefs and the UFW’s interests without aggression, choosing picketing, protests and strikes over more forceful options. Chavez also went on a lot of fasts, often as a protest to the unsafe use of pesticides on farms, which put the health of worker’s and their families at risk. While I have always agreed with the non-violent approach, in any situation, the idea of fasting has me confused. In Chavez’s case, and in many other cases, I understand it is about awareness. And if it wasn’t for the attention given to Chavez’s public fast in 1988, where actors, entertainers, politicians and celebrities fasted with Chavez, perhaps the issues for farm worker’s wouldn’t have been addressed.

But it has always seemed too passive to me. I think about the 40 Hour Famine that my primary school used to run once a year, for those that wished to take part, to raise money and awareness for World Vision. In this instance, the money gave this initiative a tangible result – at the time, just $1 a day raised or donated could feed an entire family in Africa, World Vision said. The program, from my understanding, has now switched from abstinence from food to abstinence from something – because fasting may not be so ideal in children and teenagers. It also makes me think about the breast cancer awareness campaigns that filter through Facebook each year. The first one I remember was with people updating their status to share what color underwear they wore. When people started asking why so many people were on Facebook declaring ‘Red!’, ‘White!’ or ‘Black!’, it was revealed as a campaign to increase awareness of breast cancer. How, exactly? No one could answer it. Their latest campaign involved changing your profile photo to a pink one, again for breast cancer awareness. True, the symbol of breast cancer awareness is a pink ribbon, and thus seeing this color pink might remind people of the ribbon they’ve seen elsewhere – but what does changing a profile photo actually do for the number of regular check ups, and the push for early detection? I don’t think it does very much at all.

Irrespective of my thoughts on fasting as a form of activism or protest, Chavez’s fasting produced results. Through his non-violent actions, perseverance and willingness to stand up for himself and others, he was and still is the face of civil rights activism for many Mexican Americans.

References: [URL] United Farm Workers Website http://www.ufw.org/_page.php?inc=history/07.html&menu=research

Photo from [URL] http://www.chavezfoundation.org/uploads/001006000000000/FL12057613330.jpg

Filed Under → Words
Jan 1 12

Say No to Hate Crimes

by Emily Benjamin

It has been a good few months since I’ve posted on here, but not by choice. There has been a lot to write about, and lots of photos taken – but no time to put them all together on this blog. But in one of my classes at college – that’s right, I’m at college, but more on that later! – a recent video has inspired me to get back to writing, here on my website, for all to read.

Last week, we watched a documentary called When Hate Happens Here, about community reactions to hate crimes in Northern California. The video was impactful, to say the very least. But I won’t just say the very least. I will elaborate. The video reported on five specific hate crimes in California – the brutal bashing and murder of a young transgender teen, the shooting of a loving gay couple, the burning of three synagogues, the destruction of library books related to the LGBT movement, and the burning of a cross outside the home of an African American family. In some cases, the culprits were captured and charged. Other times, justice might not have quite hit the mark – in the case of Gwen, the transgender teenager, two of the defendants were charged with second degree murder, and the other two pleaded to voluntary manslaughter, but none of the charges were given the hate crime enhancement. What the cases all had in common was the hope, togetherness and perseverance shown by communities in the face of such tragedies. Schools, workplaces, and towns united to speak out against the hate crimes, to refuse to let them happen again, and to support the families and groups affected by such violence and hostility.

But, why should it come down to the unity and togetherness of a community, after the fact? Why did the crimes happen in the first place? Hate crimes happen when a person or group targets a victim, based on the victims inclusion in a demographic or group. It could be a religious group, it could be the victim’s sexual orientation, their class, their skin colour, or even their political persuasion. If the perpetrator’s motivation was related to any of these areas, it could be considered a hate crime. But what in that perpertrator’s life led him or her to think it was ok to target another human being in such a way? How can they be so unaccepting, so intolerant, so violent? How can they possibly believe that it’s ok to inflict injuries upon someone else, purely because they think differently, feel differently, or believe differently? How dare they? Who or what are the influences in someone’s life that lead them to these actions?

At one point in the documentary, a commentator said that it wasn’t just about tolerance of different people, cultures and ideas – but it was about acceptance. Shouldn’t acceptance be considered the norm? Isn’t it is common sense, not to treat people with such hatred, such disrespect, such agression? To me, everyone should be accepted, no matter who they are, where they are, or what they believe in. If someone believes differently to you, or prefers men while you prefer women, or believes there is five gods, rather than one, or none – respect their choice, their belief, their thoughts. You don’t have to change yours, because of theirs. There is no rule book in life that says ‘everyone must think and feel the same’ – we should respect and appreciate the differences and uniqueness in societies here, and around the world.

That brings me to my travels and experiences. I have met a lot of people in the past few years. They were all amazing, in their own way, and many of them I will know for life. Some are gay, some are straight. Some have dark skin, others have light skin. Some believe in one god, some believe in none. Some speak with a strong accent, or speak very little english, while others sound just like me. Some are married, some are single, and now some are in civil unions. But these differences are beautiful. I don’t want a world where everyone thinks the same, where men can only love and marry women, or vice versa, or where we are all forced to believe in one god, one religion, one way of thinking. I want diversity, and unity. And while it may be too late for certain people in past or present generations to un-learn whatever it is that makes them believe their colour, gender, orientation or beliefs make them superior, I can only hope that in future generations, hate crimes don’t exist.



http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Gwen_Araujo [URL] Accessed 03/09/2012
http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/04/08/DDGVNC4AV61.DTL [URL] Accessed 03/09/2012

Filed Under → Words