Do you have a conscience? Me, too. Is yours a pain in the butt? Check.
My conscience is probably more of a pain than yours is, though. Mine isn't some vague feeling of disapproval that tut-tuts at me from time to time but can reliably be shushed by a beer or two. My conscience is sober as a judge, and just as judgmental. When it is disappointed in me, it demands a meeting. Its name is Bruce.
I consider myself a reasonably moral person, except for one small problem area: I love animals but pay others to torment and slaughter them for my dining pleasure. As I see it, this is a central hypocrisy pulsing at the core of my very being, but it's not as though I don't deal with it. I deal with it just fine, by not thinking about it.
And this is where my friend Bruce Friedrich comes in. Until recently, he was the obnoxious, argumentative, sanctimonious national spokesman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Thankfully, he has moved on. Now he's the obnoxious, argumentative, sanctimonious national spokesman for Farm Sanctuary, an organization that rescues farm animals and preaches veganism, a dietary choice that Bruce describes as "not eating rotting animal corpses."
Bruce is not some Johnny-come-lately to the bleeding-heart business. For six years after studying abroad at the London School of Economics, Bruce worked as a staff member for a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Washington, apportioning himself a salary of zero dollars, which eventually, with near paralyzing guilt, he increased to $5 a week.
My point here is that Bruce is an incredibly competent and persuasive conscience. He has graduated conscience school magna cum laude. And he summoned me to lunch to discuss my latest transgression, which was mentioning "foie gras" in a column without sufficient opprobrium. My reference had been neutral, I thought, but that wasn't good enough for Bruce.
"How should I have referred to it?" I asked.
"The hideous foie gras," he said, "part of an evil worldwide goose holocaust."
"In a humor column?"
"Yes," he said. At times like this, there is no reasoning with him.
We are in a restaurant of Bruce's choosing, which means there are many menu items containing quotation marks, as in "meat"ball sub. I ordered half of one of those and half a "turkey"-and-"cheese" sandwich. These foodstuffs all seemed to be made of the same substance, possibly turnip.
The meal was only part of my penance. The rest of it was having to submit to interrogation by Bruce. Bruce conducts his conversations almost entirely in parable and rhetorical question -- half Socrates, half Jesus. Bruce knew I had once been almost a vegetarian but had backslid.
"So. Do you eat birds now?"
I sighed. With Bruce, it is usually best to tell the truth.
"Well, because, properly prepared, duck is the best-tasting thing possible to find anywhere on Earth."
"I see. Well, what do you think of roasted human thigh?"
"I have not had the pleasure. Your point?"
"My point is, you might be wrong about duck!"
It went on that way for a long time. Bruce is like a good dentist: I'm not always elated to see him, but I've got to do it from time to time.
You probably want to know if this meeting changed my behavior at all. Well, that's between me and my conscience.