The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish
November 20, 2008

Focus on Fake

The title of this blog is Fake Plastic Fish, ostensibly because if we don’t solve our plastic pollution problem, fake plastic ones could be the only kind of fish we have left. And also because of Radiohead, for those who know what that means.

But there’s another reason for the word “fake” in the title of this blog, and after the small uproar caused by yesterday’s post about PETA’s fake plastic wishbones, I’d like to try and address that reason.

But first, what is real?

Besides being kind to others and taking care of the earth, the primary motivating question of my life is “What is real?” That question is the reason I go on meditation retreats, sit and notice the silence around me, and listen to the words of spiritual teachers. It’s why I practice noticing my own thoughts and the explanations my brain creates about life that, when I step aside, turn out to be just stories.

And what story does plastic tell? It’s a substance often made to fool us. We can have plastic decks that look like wood; plastic bottles that resemble glass; Mylar that looks like metal; nylon that seems like silk; synthetic fibers that mimic cotton or fur or wool; even plastic dolls that look and feel like real human babies.

But have you ever seen any “natural” materials made to resemble plastic? Granted, I’ve been fooled by live flowers that seemed too perfect to be real. But would anyone advertise that their product is so great, you’d think it was plastic? In fact, my Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (c. 1996) lists among its many definitions for plastic,

13. artificial or insincere; synthetic; phony

Which is also what Zen Chef Edward Espe Brown says in the movie How to Cook Your Life when he holds up what looks like a yogurt container and says, “Plastic is insincere.”

So the idea of a plastic wishbone, besides the fact that it’s made from a substance that we know may be harmful to our planet, rattles me because of its very inauthenticity. It’s not a bone. It’s only the idea of a bone because a marketing company gave it that name and shape and planted the idea in our heads. But really, it’s just a piece of plastic. And once it’s snapped, it will go the route of all the other non-biodegradable plastics.

Is it recyclable as PETA claims? Perhaps in theory. In the wishful thinking of our minds. As an idea. In reality? Tiny pieces of plastic like that don’t get recycled. I’ve visited recycling centers. It’ll go the way of the rest of the junk, and hopefully end up in the lesser evil of the landfill rather than the ocean.

Plastic wishbones remind me of imitation food. I love tofu. I like to eat big chunks of it. But please don’t texturize it and fill it full of food coloring and liquid smoke and other “natural” flavors to give the illusion that it’s meat. It’s not meat. It’s tofu, beautiful tofu. And it’s fine the way it is. I also eat real meat sometimes. And therein lies another question of authenticity. Do I believe the stories sold to me by the organic, humane meat producers? Or do I, like Michael Pollan, need to go and see for myself what is real and what is fake?

During the last meditation retreat, as I’d find my mind wandering and conjuring up one image or story after another, I had moment after moment of waking up to the startling realization, “Oh! That’s not really happening!” What was real was me sitting in my chair with my eyes closed, breathing. The rest were thoughts in my brain. And what a wonderful brain it is that can imagine and play, plan and remember, and create stories for us.

I am not dissing the powers of our amazing brains!

But isn’t it also true that these are the very capabilities that advertisers take advantage of every day? Selling us beautiful stories. A McDonald’s hamburger is a happy family smiling together. A hunk of California cheese is the gift of happy talking cows. And a piece of plastic molded into the shape of a V is a Lucky Break Wishbone to make all a vegan’s wildest dreams come true.

What’s real? What’s fake? It’s a question for many lifetimes. But it’s also a question for right now. What do you all think?