Two Principles and their Odd Consequences

1. Once I was strolling in downtown Annapolis, Maryland. I passed a seafood restaurant that was holding a promotional event that involved boiling a lobster. An animal rights group was protesting in front of the restaurant. I walked over to the protesters and chatted for awhile. Though I had already been a vegetarian for almost ten years by that time, it had never occurred to me to protest the consumption of meat by others, even when that consumption involves boiling a creature alive. I find it hard to think of lobsters as anything but big bugs.

What I remember most about the protesters was the one I spoke to who was wearing leather. He thought it wrong, I suppose, to put a dead creature in his mouth, but not to put one on his feet.

I stopped wearing leather several years after I stopped eating meat, and though I’ve ended up with leather on me several times in the years since – a belt, a pair of shoes – for the most part the principle has held just as my decision to eat no meat has held for the most part as well. My decision was helped a few years ago when one of my former students from Shimer, perhaps pitying the embarrassment I felt at wearing black sneakers as the Dean at a Shimer graduation, sent me wonderful dress shoes from a company called “Vegetarian Shoes.”

Avoiding leather footwear in Haiti has be easy so far. I wear sandals almost exclusively, rather fancy American ones for the most part. I had a pair of Tevas for several years, then I bought a pair of Chakos. I’ve liked them so much, and they’ve lasted so well, that I haven’t had to give them another thought.

Until recently. Over the last months, it was growing ever clearer that my Chakos were just about done. So I began thinking about what could take their place. I had been very reluctant to buy another pair for two reasons. On one hand, they are expensive. I live around people who struggle to get by, who struggle to send their children to school. Under the circumstances, it seems odd to spend $100 on shoes.

On the other hand, I wonder whether either Chakos or Tevas are the right shoes for me. And this is where my objection to leather gives me problems. My Chakos, for example, are not leather. They’re made of what appears to be a high-tech synthetic material. Several high-tech materials, actually. And they are made to last. Though they were getting very close to uselessness, the very great majority of the material they are made of remained intact. It’s trash. And it’s hard to imagine what it can ever be but discarded plastic in a country where trash is a problem too easy to see.

So I waited. When I came here in January, I almost decided to buy a new pair, but I didn’t. When I was in the States in April, I almost bought new sandals once again, but I decided not to. I suppose I was hoping without quite telling myself so that the last damage to the sandals would never quite be done.

But I was walking down the steep hill from Mariaman to Malik on Friday and I slipped on the road wet from a night’s rain. I caught myself well before I fell, but I felt my foot move in an odd way, and I knew what happened without looking. The last threads that were holding the right sandal’s strap together tore through.

The sandals were finished.

I was in a bind. I made it from Malik to Darbonne, and then borrowed sandals from a friend. They got me through classes on Friday and Saturday, and then back to Pétion-Ville. When I got to the market there, I went by to see Madanm Jean-Claude, a sandal merchant who’s the mother of several of my friends. I spent a little less than three bucks on a temporary fix: a pair of plastic Chinese bath sandals that I can at least keep to wear around my house and to offer to guests.

Tomorrow I will wear my bath sandals down to Port au Prince. I’m going to a street corner where Haitian cobblers sell sandals that they make. The sandals are leather, but they’ll cost a lot less than my American Chakos, and the money I pay will go to a Haitian craftsperson rather than the stockholders of an American manufacturer. They should last well, but that remains to be seen. Because they’re made here, they should be reparable here as well. At least I hope so. And as the leather rots, it will return to the earth it came from. Ashes to ashes. Though I’ll be sorry to have another creature’s skin on my feet, it seems like the right thing to do.

2. Today I joked with Frantzy that he and I would have to schedule a reyinyon gran moun. A “meeting of the adults” is part of the traditional process leading towards marriage in Haiti. The parents of a man who wants to marry pay a visit to the woman’s parents’ home. The meeting can involve more than parents as well. Aunts, uncles, older siblings or godparents might be involved. My friend Saül has told stories both of his parents’ visit to his in-laws and of the role he’s played in such meetings for his younger brothers as their times have come. If the meeting goes well, the adults decide that the marriage can go forward and the set a date.
My joke had to do with Frantzy’s male puppy. It had been chasing my Lilly all over the place for at least a couple of days.

Lilly’s not just a little puppy any more. She’s nearly full grown at ten months, and the array of male dogs that follow her around our yard day and night shows that she could start producing litters of puppies any time now. So she has an appointment with a veterinarian on Wednesday. She will be spayed. I should have had it done long ago, but I never quite got around to it. It can’t wait any longer.

Just as it seems strange to buy leather sandals, it feels odd to take my dog down to Pétion-Ville to be spayed. The operation will cost 3250 Haitian gourds, or about $85.00 US. It may not seem like much, but most of the people I know here make less than that in a month. Not only that, but few of them have simple access to good medical care. So I feel as though I’m doing something for a dog that I cannot do for the people who are my friends.

My neighbors all approve of my decision. Then I tell them how much the operation will cost, and they smile. Or even laugh. One older women was especially amused. Then I pointed out that the are people we both know who could profit from better acess to medical care, and she agreed with a frown.

Even so, the lives that most dogs here lead really bother me. Litter after litter is born. A few puppies survive; most either starve or die other rotten deaths. They are beaten with sticks and with rocks, treated as thoroughly expendable, feelingless beings. Some of the dogs I’ve come across in Haiti are among the most pitiful beings I’ve ever seen. The last thing I would want is to see puppies born in my yard, with no prospect of finding a home anywhere, with no prospect of living well.

So I will spend the money on the operation. And live with the fact that I’m offering better quality care to my dog than many people in Haiti would be able to afford.

And I’ll continue to buy her dog food as well. She’s my responsibility. In for a penny, in for a pound.