Red meat wasn't hard, once he put his mind to it. He'd been thinking about it, off and on, since a first-grade field trip to a family farm. One of the girls asked the teenaged hired hand, a surly Elvis wannabe in muddy biker boots, what the names of the three adorable little lambs were, and he — Elvis — looked at the students in their private-school uniforms and replied with a smirk, "Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner."
"Where'd you think meat came from?" his father asked him over dinner that evening.
He stared at the piece of steak on the end of his fork. "I don't know. The store?"
But it was a YouTube video, years later, that finally did it. Next to a meadow where cows grazed, a man began playing a cello. The cows moseyed over and then stood there, on the other side of a barbed wire fence, chewing their cud and listening thoughtfully to Brahms Cello Sonata No. 1. On the third day, the cows came running as soon as they saw the red pick-up truck with the cello in the back.
Red meat wasn't hard because there was chicken. Who cared about chickens? They weren't only stupid, they were vicious: After a fight, if blood had been drawn, the flock would peck the loser to death in a violent frenzy. Or so he'd read.
But then, one day, while surfing the internet, he happened upon another animal video. It began with a small dog running down a dirt path. At the end of the path, a school bus stopped, and a boy stepped down. The dog leapt into the boy's arms, and the boy walked back up the path carrying the dog. Only when the boy approached the camera did you see that the dog was actually a rooster.
And — who would've thought? — the rooster was a show-off! The boy would play "Billie Jean," and the rooster would perform a Michael Jackson moonwalk while the hens watched in wonderment.
That left fish, which was fine because he loved fish, although he began to feel a little differently after a trip to visit an old college friend in Hong Kong, where, at a banquet in his honor, the pièce de résistance was a grilled whole fish. A whole fish represents prosperity, he was told. The fish was placed on the table with its head pointed toward him. He and the fish exchanged woeful stares. Then the pretty young woman next to him leaned over and, with her chopsticks, plucked an eyeball from the fish and placed it on his plate. Fish eyes are a great delicacy because they improve memory, she said.
"Actually, I have," said his friend, who proceeded to pull up a video on her phone about a pet fish that came on command — not to be fed, but to be petted. The fish, a non-binary clownfish named Sydney, would stick its head out of the water, pucker up, and kiss the tip of the owner's finger.
He sighed and sat back in his chair. "Well, there's always octopus. It's okay, right? I mean, it's just this brainless blob." Grilled octopus was one of his favorite things to eat.
She gave him a sad and sympathetic look. "Hate to tell you this, but octopuses are the opposite of brainless blobs." She then told him about My Teacher the Octopus, a new documentary that would change forever how he thought about octopuses.
That evening he watched the film. It was about a friendship between a filmmaker and, yes, an octopus. Octopuses, it turned out, were highly intelligent. They were cunning shapeshifters who evaded predators by disguising themselves as seaweed. They opened jars, used rocks as tools, and even decorated their homes with sea shells. Easily bored, they were known to break out of their tanks and return to the ocean. One octopus confined in a small tank committed suicide by yanking out the tank plug at night and draining the water. And they played pranks. Otto, an octopus in a German aquarium, learned to turn out an overhead spotlight by squirting water at it. Then he would watch, amused, as everyone madly ran around trying to find the cause of the problem.
He sighed and turned off the TV. Well, that does it, he thought. How can I eat something with a sense of humor?
It took a while to get used to nothing but vegetables and fruit, but once he did, he felt — and looked — better than ever. He lost his belly fat, and his knees no longer ached. He had boundless energy. His high blood pressure became normal. His cholesterol was perfect. "Whatever you're doing, keep doing it," his doctor told him.
And then the book about the hidden lives of trees came out. Trees, he learned, felt pain and empathy; they even made friends with other trees, sharing resources. If trees felt pain, what about other plants? he wondered. Injured plants, it turned out, released gases that were the equivalent of crying out in pain. That sweet summer smell of fresh cut grass? It was actually a chemical distress call. There was even evidence that plants could hear themselves being eaten: In a University of Missouri experiment, mustard plants responded to the recorded sounds of chewing caterpillars by releasing a noxious chemical to ward off predators.
An online newspaper headline summed up the research results: "Plants know when they're being eaten. And they don't like it!"
His friends and family have become alarmed. You're skin and bones, they tell him.
You can't go on like this — you'll die.
But he knows better. He's never felt so good, so calm, so clear-headed.
In fact, there are moments when he's quite sure he is going to live forever.