Wednesday, December 17, 2014

My Sixth Annual Disgruntled Vegan Alphabet


Being vegan is awesome. I know that. You know that. (Well, you should.) As we know, though, just because we know that something is awesome, it doesn’t mean that the world around us shares this view. Because animal consumption is part of the miasma of disconnection that swirls around us all, most are unable to see it for what it is. Thus, I present to you my compilation of complaints and crankiness as one steaming platter of snarly ‘tude every year. This is my sixth annual airing of grievances, and while I am a little concerned about what I will do with the dreaded letter X in 2015, I have no doubt that people will continue to harsh my good vibes. Does this mean that I think being vegan is a burden? No, it does not: being vegan is fabulous, the best decision I ever made, one that I am grateful for each day. Could non-vegans stand to be less annoying in 2015? Yes. Yes, they could.

A is for Another flaky “former vegan” celebrity just went on a talk show and is now on the paleo bandwagon so could we please stop already with the celebrity worship? Pretty please? It never ends well.

B is for “But what about the Inuit? But what about the Native Americans? But what about the lions? But what about the microscopic insects you kill? But what about soy? But what about eating humane meat? But I’m part Italian. But eating meat is how I honor my ancestors. But I was raised eating meat. But I give a blessing. But I give thanks. But my guru said it was okay. But I need the protein. But I am allergic to soy, wheat, all grains, all fruits and all vegetables except for celery. But I need the iron. But I just eat a little meat. But I don’t eat red meat. But I only support the best farms. But…”

C is for Cough in front of the wrong person and it is incontrovertible proof that I have a vegan-induced nutritional deficiency.

D is for Delusion, because apparently there is a just and compassionate way to needlessly slaughter other sensitive beings as long as you have an unlimited supply of it.

E is for the Eerie silence that happens whenever I get stopped by a Greenpeace canvasser or the Sierra Club calls and I ask them about their organization’s public position on eating animals.

F is for For once, could I either opt out of the Secret Santa exchange at work or get someone who doesn’t give me a basket of alpaca milk soaps from her brother-in-law’s farm?

G is for Gotcha moments, and, no, you didn’t “get me” with your inquiry about what my shoes or coat are made of but try again, sport, because this endless game of pin-the-tail-on-the-hypocrite never gets old or predictable.

H is for Har-har-har, writing People Eating Tasty Animals in the middle of a debate never fails to make an original and devastating counter-argument. Touché! How could anyone ever recover from such a salient point?

I is for Ick, no, I really don’t miss eating corpses. Do I look like Hannibal Lecter or something? Fava beans and a nice chianti, though, those would be fine.

J is for that Junk science video you posted about “plants feeling pain.” If this is more persuasive to you than, I don’t know, the lack of a central nervous system and an evolutionary incentive for pain reception and you ignore the fact that far more plants are consumed when eating a diet that includes animals, I am going to have to question if you are really sincere about your convictions.

K is for karma because sometimes that is all we can hope for in life and we have all heard about her general disposition.

L is for Logical Fallacies because whether were are talking about a strawman argument (“Vegans hate people and only care about animals!”), the slippery slope argument (“If we stop eating animals, they will take over the world!”) the tu quoque approach (“How can you talk about animal suffering when you are stepping on bugs, hmm?”) and an anecdote (“My cousin was vegan for two weeks and she almost died from a protein deficiency!”), these are all examples of the logical fallacies people who want to continue eating animals will wrap themselves in like a warm blanket. A blanket with a bunch of holes in it nonetheless.

M is for the Massive meltdown that happens when a vegan asks her affluent grass-fed, organic paleo cousin how many worlds we’d need in order to sustain the world’s population with his way of eating.

N is for the Namaste-spouting New Agers who try to justify eating animals and are so self-involved as to claim that “judgments” are worse than unnecessary violence and destroying the planet. Altogether now: om…

O is for Okay, do you honestly believe that vegans are pushing their views on you? Have you looked at the world through the lens of someone who doesn’t think that animals are “food” lately? Have you tried to look at the world through the lens of a being who is born and raised solely for the purpose of being eaten lately?

P is for Paranoia, as in, “I said soy milk, right? Because if my coffee has cow’s milk in it I will be really upset and disgusted. Okay, wait, I see you’ve charged me extra because apparently destroying our planet is not enough for animal product consumers, now they should be able to get what they want without any penalties at all and when is a vegan coffee shop finally going to open around here??? So, anyway, how do I know the barista didn’t make a mistake?”

Q is for having exceeded my annual Quota of weird looks and passive-aggressive remarks about my meatless roast at my family’s Thanksgiving dinner within five minutes of being there. Because family

R is for Really, I don’t want to hear about how much you love animals but vegans “just take it too far” because, you know, this is kind of idiotic if you think about it without your ego getting in the way.  

S is for being Self-righteous because it’s better than being self-wrongteous.

T is for Turducken because what kind of twisted, Caligula-minded sadist invented this grotesquery?

U is for the Universal sign of warm weather, which means that when I can finally open my windows for a few months, the smell of charred, tortured flesh filling the air greets me. Yay.

V is for getting Verklempt at the Vicarious thrill we enjoy when one of our protégés goes off and becomes an awesome little vegan agitator in his or her own right. Fly, little bird. Fly! Oh, wait. This was supposed to be complaining. Okay, V is for Vasectomy because, please, 98% of humanity, let’s look into it. Snip, snip, done.

W is for Wings as in do you know that people actually sit around and eat a bird’s severed limbs and then dump the bones in a bowl and, um, tofu is gross? Oooookay, then.

X is for the Xenophobes who think that Asian cultures that eat dogs are barbaric while they themselves eat dead chickens and cows. Um, what???

Y is for the boiled Yellow squash plate vegans are served at our cousin’s wedding that no amount of salt, pepper, denial or wishful thinking will be able to remedy. This is why an emergency nutrition bar should always be in the glove compartment.

Z is for the Zany situations that turn your life into a tragicomedy that will make for an excellent screenplay for a film that roughly two percent of the population might be willing to see one day.

Until next time!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Mayim Bialik

I don’t know MayimBialik in person and I am not even all that familiar with her contributions to popular culture because, apparently, I live under a rock but still, still I know she is fabulous. Hordes of ‘90s kids grew up with Mayim as the floppy-hatted title character and star of Blossom, and, more recently, are enjoying her as the ascerbic Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory (hey, I did a little research) but in addition to these two cultural landmarks, she earned a PhD in neuroscience (as one does), had a couple of babies, went vegan, wrote a popular cookbook
, and generally made the rest of us feel like a bunch of low-life slackers. It would almost make you resent Mayim if she weren’t so busy actively making the world a better place.

My sense is that Mayim is that friend who levels with you, isn’t too proud to be silly and inspires you to be your best. Oh, and she’ll make you a killer bowl of vegan matzo ball soup that will melt all your troubles away, too. Mayim is that friend we could all use more of in the world. I am so delighted for her willingness to talk, the technologies that allowed us to connect and her confidence about sharing her gifts with the world. Thanks for all you do, Mayim!

1. First of all, we'd love to hear your "vegan evolution" story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

I was the kind of young person who loved animals and always felt conflict about eating them. It wasn't until I got to college, though, that I was able to act on these feelings and become a vegetarian. It's hard to imagine but in the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were very few options for vegetarianism, so it was not at all easy to eat vegetarian. I cut out pretty much all dairy in college after repeated sinus infections and have not had a sinus infection since. Many people clearly have a dairy allergy but we walk around thinking it's normal to have those kind of sicknesses and symptoms. After my first son was born, he was sensitive to any dairy through breastmilk, so I cut it out completely and cut out all eggs after my second son was born. I have, therefore, been completely vegan just over seven years.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I think the health benefits and the impact on the environment are important things that complement very nicely with a desire not to harm animals. When I read the Jonathan Safran Foer book, Eating Animals, that was what struck me the most: that your health and the environment are as affected by eating animals as the animals are.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

Humor and straightforwardness combined together. There is no need to try and sugarcoat the realities of the world we live in. And there is nothing wrong with people being uncomfortable with the choices they have made. My intention is never to make people uncomfortable, but sometimes speaking simply and bluntly is enough to show people the reality of their situation.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

The expansion of restaurant choices has been tremendous. The addition of veggie and vegan options into school lunches and even chain restaurants has also been tremendous.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

I think a lot of organizations use gory or graphic imagery, which sometimes turns people off. Also, plain old apathy is still an issue.

6. All of us need a "why vegan" elevator pitch. We'd love to hear yours.

It costs more to store the animals for feeding them to people than it would be to give food away. The environment is damaged by how much meat we have to eat to keep up with the supply. And most people simply don't know what real nutrition is. The government and Dairy & Meat Lobby are basically controlling what we eat in America. Those are my main points.

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer, PETA, the Humane Society, the documentary, "Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead," the documentary "The Future of Food,"and the documentary "Food, Inc."

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

Getting back to basic foods and healthy foods always makes me feel better, as opposed to so much of the fun vegan food I sometimes eat too much of.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Veganism is pretty high on that list so you guys are helping me do that.

10. Please finish this sentence: "To me, being vegan is..."

To me, being vegan is a way of making the world better, one meal at a time.

Thank you, Mayim!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Of Geese and Our Endless Pursuit of Formation...


This time of year, I get to watch a lot of geese getting into their famous “V” formation as the frost and snow starts to fall down on those of us who are hopelessly anchored-down fools. My son’s school is close to a fairytale-like woods and river and in the late spring, I saw these same geese as fuzzy yellow-and-brown hatchlings wobbling in a cluster together, following their mothers in the tall reedy grasses of the banks. By now, they have grown into the sleek, big, proud birds I watch honking with confidence as they head to warmer weather for the winter. Watching them against the backdrop of the grey sky on their migratory paths, I always have to stop and watch, even if makes me a little late to pick up my son. He understands because he loves to watch flying geese, too. The geese who are already in formation are a meditative, peaceful sight, a rare majestic sky display in our busy world, but the ones who are actively getting into the V are the ones who really inspire me. As they flap their muscular wings, some fall behind in their row, some move ahead, they swerve through and surf the air currents as a group, and then, gracefully, they get organized into their famous formation. I feel a sense of profound relief every time, of things being right in the world, at least at that moment.

There is a very logical and pragmatic reason behind this specific formation: the aerodynamic positioning lets the geese get more bang for their collective buck, allowing for their range to be maximized while effort, and thus fatigue, are significantly minimized. Except for the lead bird, who is rotated in and out, they all enjoy reduced drag as well as benefit from what is called “upwash,” which helps to carry the weight they are responsible for keeping aloft. I watch these birds seemingly effortlessly form their distinct Vs in the October and November skies and I’m both impressed by their intuitive precision as well as secretly envious. From my perspective as a vegan and a longtime activist, I can’t help but wish that we could be more like geese. Why can’t we get organized to get the maximum benefit?

In the vegan movement, as was true with the feminist and the anti-war movements I was involved with from my teens on, there are always those voices from within who call for us to become more unified in order to most easily reach the bigger goal, presumably one that we share. The problem is that we do not necessarily share the same overarching goal and, even more significant, it just is not going to happen. Human nature is oppositional to that precise orderliness and singularity of vision within large groups, the kind that allows flying geese to turn on a dime and gracefully adjust their formation according to ever-shifting factors – fatigue, wind currents, the overall strength of the group and who knows what else – that are keenly felt and communicated to one another. As much as I might admire and envy the kind of elegantly efficient structure and selfless cooperation I see in a formation of geese, I also realize that it is a pipe dream for us to aspire to as a movement. It simply isn’t happening and nor should it.

The fact of it is that vegans are not all flying to a pond at a nice gated community in Georgia or Florida but even if we were, we would still find reasons to fight and disagree. Should we turn left or right or stay more or less center? How high? How low? Should we go faster or maintain a slow-but-steady pace? Should we stop for a rest? How can we be so selfish and weak as to think of resting when there is so much to do??? As much as I might like to fantasize about being part of a flying V, pointed like a determined, wind-resistant arrow toward the end goal, I know that this is just not human nature. It’s a pleasant, gauzy distraction of a daydream but that is all that it is.

I don’t think that it’s in anyone’s best interest to continually peck away at one another over pettiness, but, being human, we will disagree about what is petty. Rather than trying to get everyone on board with a singular approach and vision, perhaps the best path is to share yours with the world and find those with whom you can work together on your path. I think we need to quit this essentially futile quest for cohesion of thought, voice and action and just seek out those we can easily get into formation with toward shared goals. If we stand around bickering and squabbling in pursuit of something that is unachievable, before we know it, the fall will have turned into winter and we will be forced to remain stuck in one place. 

It’s early December so ice is starting to form on the river near my son’s school, floating pieces that are slowly starting to freeze into a solid surface of ice. Some geese left at the first sign of cold, some waited until heavier frosts and still others are going to tough out the winter here. To the best of my knowledge, they don’t argue about routes or strategies or unity, they don’t mock those who left earlier as wimps and they don’t disparage those who remain as old fogies. The geese just do what they need to do. I think we should do the same and stop beating the drum beat of unity, no matter how temping it might be. We need to find our own way to fly and go the distance.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

10 Questions: Foodie Edition with Dreena Burton

I have not had the pleasure of meeting Dreena Burton of Plant-Powered Kitchen in person yet but when I do, I think I am going to wrap myself around one of her legs and not let go until she feeds me hummus. This woman is really, really into hummus and I think it may be the protein-packed secret behind her healthy glow and her productivity. In addition to her popular, frequently updated website that abounds with simple but enticing recipes as well as instructional videos, Dreena also has written some excellent and well-loved cookbooks, which focus on family-friendly, nutritious but still appealing dishes that children and busy parents alike can enjoy. A vegan for 20 years, Dreena also contributes recipes regularly to magazines and websites, such as Yoga Journal and Forks Over Knives. Her fifth cookbook, Plant-Powered Families, comes out this May and I can't wait for it.

I love Dreena's positive approach and her accessible way of helping parents become empowered role models and healthy living advocates for their children. Knowing that healthy eating habits begin in childhood and can be so challenging to change later on, I think that what Dreena is doing is actually quite revolutionary with an enormous potential for creating positive change, one household after the next. With so many challenges to good health - from the deep-fried chicken "fingers" and vegetable-bare children's menus to empty calorie snacks that kids gulp down between activities - it's very reassuring to know that Dreena is helping to create a new food climate - free of judgement and sanctimony - with easy, delicious and nutritious recipes anyone could make and enjoy. Thank you, Dreena, for changing the world.

1. How did you start down this path of creating delicious food? Was a love for food nurtured into you? Did you have any special relatives or mentors who helped to instill this passion?

I’ve always loved food. We didn’t grow up eating a very healthy diet, but I do remember having an appreciation for home-cooked meals. I’ve also always had quite the sweet tooth!  I wasn’t one of those kids that spent hours cooking with her mother. My love for cooking actually began once I became vegetarian, and soon after, vegan. I never enjoyed cooking animal flesh or baking with eggs - from prepping to cleaning it was unappealing. When I started cooking and baking vegan, it felt like food freedom! Which is ironic, because most people perceive plant-based foods as restrictive. For me, it sparked a new passion in food and recipe developing.

2. What was your diet like when you were growing up? Did you have any favorite meals or meal traditions? Do you carry them over today?

I grew up in a very traditional “meat and potatoes” home. Quite a lot of processed meats too, like Vienna Sausages, bologna, Fraser Meatballs, deli meats, and fish sticks. I shudder at the thought now! My mother also cooked many meals from scratch, but fresh vegetables were not plentiful, so the veggies we did eat were canned or boiled. I do remember some of my mother’s signature dishes as favorites in my childhood, and a few I’ve adapted. More so, I think I’ve created new food traditions for our family. Our daughters always ask for Pumpkin Custards during the holidays, and often request Tamari Roasted Chickpeas, hummus, and Mac-Oh Geez!

3. What is the best vegan meal you've ever had? Give us all the details!

One of the best meals I had was in Portland, Oregon at Natural Selection. It was during my trip to Vida Vegan Conference, and the meal was just beautiful composed. They really understood flavors and textures and every course and bite was scrumptious. I hope to visit more vegan restaurants now that our girls are growing and I can hopefully indulge in more travel!

4. If you could prepare one meal or dessert for anyone living or dead, who would it be for and what would you create?

Wow, that’s a big question! Perhaps my father. He passed away just after my 11th birthday, and I feel like I learned a little “alternative living” from him. He loved food, truly loved it! With six children in our family, he’d didn’t always get seconds for dinner and would satiate his remaining hunger with crackers and jam! So, I’d probably make my Umami Burgers with home fries for him, there’s no hunger after that meal! Dessert is a must, too. He loved a good cookie bar, so I’d probably lean towards my Hello Vegan Bars!

What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?
Perhaps thinking we now have to like a new food or cuisine because it’s popular in vegan cookery. For instance, foods such as seaweed, tofu, beets, eggplant, buckwheat, or specific beans like edamame or black-eyed peas. I like to say that our palates blossom when we become vegan. We become more in tune with all the nuances of flavors in foods. Sometimes this leads us to like foods we once didn’t like. Other times, it heighten a particular dislike, or we simply try a new ingredient as our choices broaden. It’s okay not to love every plant food!

What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

Ooooh, fun question! I love the Coconut Aminos line of seasonings - their teriyaki sauce, coconut vinegar, and more. Really tasty and quick to add to quinoa, salad bowls, steamed kale, etc. I also love coconut butter because it’s magical in desserts, winter squash because it is just nature’s comfort food in the fall, sweet potatoes because they are incredibly versatile from savory to sweet recipes, and macadamia nut butter - it’s very underutilized and a dessert lover’s dream.

7. You are restricted to one ethnic cuisine for the rest of your life. What would you like it to be?

Hmmm, either Lebanese (because #hummusisafoodgroup) or Mexican for its avocado love!

8. Who or what has been most influential to you on your vegan path? Individuals, groups, books, films, etc. included.

I began my journey after reading Diet For A New America. My path began for health reasons, but soon I learned about the atrocities of animal agriculture through Erik Marcus' work. By far the most influential book for me was The China Study. I read it many years back, when it was first released, and it grounded all my beliefs about eating plant-based. I began sending copies of TCS to friends and families, recommending it everywhere and anywhere.  Now there are so many game-changing books and movies, from Forks Over Knives to Vegucated to Whole.

9. What issue is nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like people to know more about?

Making healthy eating a priority for children and families. Our generation of parents invests so much time in sports and activities for kids, and yet many children are eating the most non-nutritive foods - even in families that can afford very good food. Diet is learned, we need to teach children early about real food.

10. Last, please finish this sentence. "To me, veganism is…"

...simply life.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Truly Thankful...

So prepare your eyes to see a fair bit of whining, just saying. Don’t worry, it’s not a feast, just a little taste and it’ll be over quickly.

A couple of weeks ago, I experienced my first major computer crisis. In retrospect, it was probably just my turn. Nothing could have prepared me for what was ahead of me, though: one moment, I was simply doing my last email check of the day before bed and the next, out of nowhere, I seem to have temporarily lost my executive cup-holding function and spilled water all over my keyboard and track pad. I did my best Janet Leigh impression and John came running in; we held the computer upside-down, powered down and unplugged it. We followed the protocol we found online of letting the computer dry over a crate with a light fan on it. We may have also chanted, lit a candle and done some positive visualizations. Somehow we slept that night and the next morning, we made an appointment with the resident geniuses at our local Apple store with my laptop all wrapped up like a baby with croup.

Despite telling our technician that we needed it backed up (something we hadn’t done – and I blame myself for this – because I thought that saving was the same thing as “backing up,” which, oops, it isn’t), and having the technician verbally confirm this several times, he failed to note that on his work order and we failed to notice that it wasn’t on there when we signed it. Again, the technician was incompetent but this was our fault for not double-checking. We signed the work order, reasonably hopeful after he said he didn’t notice any water damage at the initial check, and I busied myself for a few days with other work. When John got the call that the computer was ready for pick-up, we were thrilled: it was back a day early and no water damage had been detected. I wouldn’t need a new laptop! Oh, one small thing, though. They did what is called a “clean install.” There was no need for backup noted on the work order. My laptop was effectively wiped clean of all the work on it, all my files, all my saved messages, all programs, everything. It was all gone and my desktop was returned to me, naked as a jaybird. Or a cardinal. Or a goldfinch. Really, you could insert any naked creature here, it doesn’t have to be a bird.

I could beat myself up for not knowing enough to back up my computer but I am taking it as a learning lesson. I could rail against Apple for their incompetence, and, well, actually, I am doing that. Once I stopped imagining writing such an incendiary letter to Apple that the keyboard on my now-naked laptop would need to be replaced, though, I was able to see something else with absolute clarity: what made me feel like my insides had been removed with a pumpkin scooper was ultimately the same reason why I should be grateful. This is my life’s work and I have found it. This is everything.

I could wake up every workday with dread and resentment. I could be bored out of my damn mind. I could not feel a sense of purpose. I could actively hate my job. I know many people who clock in and dedicate their off-hours time to their pursuing what brings them a sense of meaning and purpose. I’ve been able to construct my life so I can do what I love full-time. It’s not something most people are able to do so there is that gratitude there, to have found what I love to do and to be able to dedicate my life to something that is so profoundly necessary.

There is not a day when I feel like I’m phoning it in. There is not a day that I don’t look forward to doing this work or am a loss for ideas. All that said, of course, it’s not about me. It’s about creating a world with less suffering in it, more compassion, more justice, more joy, more connection. The fact that we get to live at a time when we can choose to construct the lives that are meaningful to us is a profound, rare gift and I plan to take full advantage of the opportunity of it.

So this week’s essay is shorter as I am still making up for the week I lost. If you haven’t already, please check out my interview on the fabulous podcast, OurHen House (also, please consider donating now as donations will be matched through the new year). I also got the fantastic news that my recipe for Brussels Sprouts Sliders was featured on the New York Times section, The Well. There’s a lot to be thankful for but I need to get busy with filling my computer back up.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Julieanna Hever


I am not one of those people who think that people are only motivated to stop eating animals by ethics. I have met people again and again who got their foot in the door through taking ownership of their health and then began to make deeper connections to compassionate living. People can speak all they want about their utopian standards but for me, the proof is in the pudding: some of the most active, passionate and ethical vegans I know came in through the side door of health. The idea that we would push anyone out of “the club” because they didn’t follow the personal trajectory we’d prefer is kind of appalling to me, especially seeing as how very important community is to integrating change successfully. At the end of the day, dogma is pointless and even harmful if more potential vegans are lost in stubborn pursuit of our ideals and, ultimately, the animals pay the price for that shortsightedness. I believe that our movement is anchored in social justice and as such, our outreach on behalf of animals is ideally rooted in a foundation of ethics -- ideally is key here -- but it should never come at the expense of losing people who might otherwise become phenomenal champions for the vegan cause if we were to allow them to gain access through a side door.

This is all to say that while I wish everyone were driven by compassion and justice, at some point we need to be grateful that they are exploring or have fully embraced not eating animals for their own reasons. This is where someone like Julieanna Hever, M.S
, R.D., C.P.T. comes in. As someone whose own veganism is rooted deeply in her convictions about compassionate living, Julieanna has found a way to deftly move between worlds: her background in nutrition, health and science; her passion for animals and the earth; and her skill at conveying her message of wellness and kindness without dumbing it down and without condescension. This cannot be an easy feat and yet she pulls it off with uncommon diplomacy and grace. In short, Julieanna Hever is fabulous and you should know about her. I believe you’ll be just as impressed.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

Like for many others, it all started for me by reading John Robbins’ Diet For A New America many years ago, as a teenager. Once I learned about the hideous, atrocious, harmful ways animals ended up on a plate, I was devastated, shocked, and frustrated. I did not want to contribute to that industry anymore. But I was sucked into the fear of nutrient deficiency, of lacking options to eat, of my family and friends isolating me, and of going against the societal norms. It took me years of investigating and then, ultimately, going through graduate school in nutrition and a dietetic internship to come to the place I am at now...where I feel confident and secure in the fact that not only do we not need animal products to survive, but that we quite possibly do better without them. Everything evolved to make perfect sense in that eating vegan is the only way to stop suffering of animals as well as stop the destruction of the environment and just so happens to be the healthiest way to eat, too. I do not believe in coincidence and am passionate that it is a win-win situation for all when we eat the way my heart and soul knew was right since first being awakened to the information decades ago.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

I was honored and eager when I was asked to write my first book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition. I felt like that was my chance to write the book I wish I had when I originally wanted to go vegan and didn’t know where to start. I have found that offering information (when requested) and role modeling are the most powerful tools for supporting others. However, an incredibly crucial lesson I have learned over the past few years is that saying less is more. When I started out and was exceedingly loud about veganism, I shut out a bunch of family and friends and seemed to have had the opposite effect I was hoping for. I wanted to veganize the world and had no problem talking about it at any opportunity. I still want to veganize the world, but have found that the less I say, the more people are interested. Apparently, the inspiration is in the subtlety and people really are curious. But if someone feels attacked, they naturally pop into a defensive mode. If you avoid that by not being confrontational or judgmental and meeting them where they are at, they are more likely to proceed further. Personally, if I were pre-vegan again, I can’t imagine myself being anything other than ravenous for facts and tips.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.?

This depends on the audience and the medium. When I am speaking, I can’t help but get impassioned and sometimes even emotional. Even when I am speaking to physicians and other healthcare practitioners, I can’t help but reveal my true feelings on the subject. But, I also tell jokes and try to make it fun. I always infuse as many facts and science to back up everything as well as tips and ideas on how to realize this way of eating. On social media, I play more with humor and sarcasm, using images and memes (particularly my absolute favorite, brilliant Vegan Street Memes, which I and my audience eat up), and a ton of documentation of facts, facts, and more facts.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

The passion of vegans is the biggest strength. The growing momentum is without doubt due to the persistent and consistent efforts of groups like PCRM, Mercy for Animals, PETA, Vegan Street, the growing base of vegan chefs and cookbook authors, healthcare practitioners writing books and speaking, and others who are lending their voices, skills, and talents to the media and other audiences. It’s exciting to witness. Another extremely critical element in the success of the vegan movement is the growing body of science in the literature confirming how a plant-based diet is the healthiest.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

I see many vegans get frustrated and angry at the lack of respect in the overall community and media. (And, believe me, I know there really is a lack of respect.) But that comes from fear. People are scared to death that they have been doing it all wrong. That they may have to face major changes. And that is because there is perhaps nothing more personal than food. When we use judgment and come from a place of anger, it is ineffective and turns people away. If there were fewer vegan police, more people would be open to trying to move in this direction without fear of having to be perfect. I have worked for years on being able to meet people where they are at and acknowledge all of their strides, regardless of how small they may seem. I prefer billions of people eat fewer animals overall and focus on that angle instead of trying to make a few completely vegan. Truthfully, it makes it easier for me knowing that once someone starts the journey and witnesses the deeply transformative effects and starts having revelations on how their forks affect the world around them, they continue down the path anyway.

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

This, of course, depends on who I am speaking to, but when someone asks me, my deepest, most sincere pitch is: “I am vegan because I do not want to contribute to the suffering of animals, the degradation of the planet, and because eating plants is the healthiest way to live.”

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

John Robbins started my journey and he is amazing. I have also found great wisdom and authentic, life-changing mentorship from Brenda Davis, Dr. Melanie Joy, Dr. T. Colin Campbell, Dr. Neal Barnard, and Dr. Joel Fuhrman. Other people who have supported and inspired me include vegan dietitians GinnyMessina, Jack Norris, Reed Mangels, and Vesanto Melina. I love and deeply admire Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine and Mercy forAnimals as powerful world-changing organizations. And I give huge props to the genius culinary artists Dreena Burton, Chad Sarno, Robin Robertson, Tal Ronnen, Chloe Coscarelli, Chef AJ, and Miyoko Schinner, who consistently show how delicious veganism is. Veganism is exploding and I absolutely love all the gorgeous voices that are emerging. I am inspired by people like Gene Baur for starting Farm Sanctuary and Dr. RichardOppenlander for defining the environmental impact of animal consumption. Fearlessness is powerful and it is changing the world.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

When I feel the impact of negative energies build up, I go to my friends that have been doing this for years and decades. Or I go to resources. I read information or watch documentaries and remind myself why this is the reason I am here and it rekindles my flame. So far, it has been easy because I am clear on all the work I have yet to do. I love and am beyond grateful to have a voice in helping others and, hopefully, in continuing to inspire people to recognize this necessary evolution towards eating plants.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

That we cannot only survive without animals, but, likely, we can thrive and do better without them. Because the implications of not eating animals are so vast and so hugely imminent.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

To me, being vegan is everything. Being vegan means compassion, wisdom, and interconnectedness.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ten Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Wayne Hsiung

I met Wayne Hsiung about a million years ago (or so) in Chicago when he was studying at the University of Chicago and new on the local activist scene. There was a lot of buzz about Wayne, most of it centered around the fact that he was very smart. Meeting him did not disappoint in this department but did help to fill out the whole picture: Wayne has an uncommon combination of confidence and humility, audacity and sensitivity. Always articulate and cerebral but with rare qualities of approachability and warmth infusing everything, Wayne has a lot of complementary skills that are not seen together too often in one person. Perhaps this is why he is so magnetic and uniquely talented. It is no surprise that his rare combination of skills and attributes make Wayne someone who would go on to big things.

Fast forward a million years (or so) from when we first met and Wayne has helped to ignite a diverse movement of people from around the globe who have become empowered to courageously speak up for animals in the public sphere through the organization he founded in the Bay area, Direct Action Everywhere, also known as DxE, which now has chapters around worldwide. DxE and their actions happen to have sparked a lightning rod of debate and controversy within a short amount of time, prompting conversations, often heated, about strategy and approach within the vegan activist community that I believe, no matter where one is on the spectrum of support, are ultimately very valuable for a robust and evolving movement. Where do you stand on nonviolent confrontation? Where do you stand on the disruption of the status quo in the public sphere? Is speaking out a moral obligation or do negative public reactions make things worse for the animals? No matter where you stand, this is forcing us to ask questions of our own comfort zones - are they for us or for the animals? If these were people being eaten, would we still be silent? - and forcing us to challenge our own tendencies of accepting the entrenched societal customs. I believe that there are compelling arguments both for and against their style of direct action; no matter what you think about Wayne and DxE, I have no doubt that business-as-usual is being rattled and, ultimately, this rattling is a very good thing.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

It’s hard to remember how things started 15 years ago. But I’ll share two experiences that were key.

The first was a pretty deep and early connection with animals. Growing up in an immigrant family in central Indiana, my family didn’t have much community. We were the only people of color in the neighborhood, and we never made white friends. So I made friends with the local animals. I would stomp through the forests and creeks, babbling to the squirrels, the birds, and even the bugs. I invented all sorts of fantastic relationships for the animals – squirrels would be married to frogs, and cousins to the birds, and uncles to the deer – to make up for my lack of human family and community. I’d obsess over animal books at the library, insist on going to the Indianapolis zoo (usually on discounted days) on every occasion that I could, and beg, beg, and beg my mom and dad to allow us to adopt a dog. The day they relented is still, to this day, perhaps the most joyous day of my life. My first dog Vivian was my first and best friend and, in many ways, my hero. And though she destroyed almost everything she could in our house, the love and companionship she built up in our family was worth so much more.  

Even at an early age, though, there were serious signs that something was not right about the way we treated animals. For example, as a kid, I was obsessed with the primate cage at the zoo. This was back in the day when zoos were much less careful than they are today about human/non-human interaction.  There was a corner of the monkey exhibit where, if you were small enough, and willing to crawl under a wooden bar, you could get within a few feet of the wire cage that separated us from the primates. And if you brought a stick with you, you could stretch your arm out towards the cage, and the primates would stretch their arms out through a hole in the cage, and you could hand them a stick. If the zoo employees caught you doing this, they’d immediately command you to stop. But I became an expert over the years at avoiding the zoo employees, and I would literally spend hours upon hours just handing them sticks (sometimes, also playing tug of war), usually with a younger primate, often a boy just like me. We would stare at each other, wave at each other, laugh at each other, and sometimes, even talk at each other. But through it all, I always remembered the image an outstretched arm pushing desperately for a stick through a grim wire cage. And I remember always thinking to myself, why is he in there, and why am I out here?

The other sign that all was not well came from an early visit to China – specifically the Southeastern region where most of my family is from, and where dog flesh is still commonly sold. My parents tell me that we never got close enough to see it, but I distinctly remember hearing about Gou Rou (“dog meat’) and being absolutely mortified. “How can people hurt little ones like Vivian?” I cried desperately. But my parents insisted that I was being immature because, after all, we ate plenty of animals back home. I rejected this as a kid. But many years later, I realized that my parents were right. There is no difference.

And that brings me to my second experience. Unlike many vegans, I did not come to veganism as a consumer or dietary lifestyle. I was never a picky eater, and (like many people who come from a background of food insecurity) the particularities of the food I was eating never really concerned me, as long as I had some food to eat.

I came to veganism, instead, as an extension of other social justice causes I had been working on. In particular, in the late 1990s, there was a swell of activism around false convictions of people on death row. A small team of volunteer investigators at Northwestern, through diligent research, had discovered numerous instances of clearly innocent people (generally poor, people of color) who were set to be killed for crimes they did not commit. 

I related instantly to this cause because I knew what it meant to be attacked physically for something that was completely out of my own control. From an early age, I had been mercilessly bullied by kids at school as a strange immigrant kid with sloppy clothes. And the most terrifying aspect of that experience – and the reason racial epithets are so hurtful – is that there was absolutely nothing I could do to make things better. I was being attacked for who I was, not for anything I did. And the same thing was happening to these men on death row. They were captives to a society that saw them as worthless beings, punished for the crime of being poor, powerless, and “different.”

It didn’t take long for me to see the connections to another class of beings who were in that same dreadful state.  But unlike my experiences with bullying (eventually, the school caught on, and some of the bullies were reprimanded quite severely), it did not seem anyone was particularly concerned about the animals' fate. And that’s when I decided that something needed to be done.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

The two things that I wish I had learned are, first, that animal rights and veganism (at least in its political variants) are not about diet but, rather, justice, and, second, that there is a huge community of warm-hearted, smart, and motivated people out there supporting you every step of the way. Tap into that community. Build with that community. Empower that community. Too much of my early veganism/activism was done under the false notion that what’s most important is finding hard-working individuals. But as Robert Putnam put it, there’s only so much you can do if you’re bowling alone. Growing as a vegan or activist is a collaborative project.

3. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message as a vegan? For example, humor, passion, images, etc.? 

There is so much evidence that stories are by far the most powerful way to get your message out, to provoke dialogue, and to make change. Lincoln is reported to have said to Harriet Beecher Stowe, regarding the antislavery movement in the United States, “So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war.” And while that quote may be a myth, it reflects a truth that Steven Pinker, among others, has identified: movements for empathy have almost always been triggered by stories. A kind and distinguished black woman calmly refuses to give up her seat on a segregated bus. (Civil Rights) A desperate fruit vendor lights himself in fire to protest tyranny in Tunisia. (Arab Spring) Three young woman are brutally attacked by a police officer with pepper spray simply for begging him to stop beating their friends. (Occupy Wall Street)

Storytelling is a core organizing principle of Direct Action Everywhere because we’ve seen the power of stories in prior movements, and we know we have to harness the power of stories for ours. 

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?

Our network. At DxE, our formula for social change is “Create. Connect. Inspire.” And there’s a huge literature in sociology, psychology, political science, and economics on the importance of empowered networks for creating change. Look, for example, at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the Civil Rights Movement. We remember Martin Luther King Jr. as singularly responsible for Civil Rights, but the network he was part of had a life and power of its own – spawning SNCC, the March on Washington, and countless other important groups, events, and individual leaders for the movement. 

At DxE, we carefully study both the history and science of social change to identify the attributes of networks that allow them to grow and thrive. And our hope is that what we learn will empower the entire movement.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?

Three things come to mind. 

The first, and most important, is cynicism. If we don’t believe we can change the world, we won’t. But too often we look around us, at a sea of seemingly apathetic faces, and tell ourselves that we can’t achieve our dreams. This is not just self-defeating but inaccurate. The problem before us is, in fact, far easier than what faced historical movements. (Just as one simple illustration, the antislavery movement sought to destroy an industry that was more than 2000 times larger, as a percentage of the US federal budget.) And we only need to mobilize a small percentage of the population to effect massive systemic change. We have to believe we can do that.

The second problem is undue focus on individuals. At DxE, we focus on creating networks and communities – and not just individual vegans—because we know that individuals disconnected from supportive communities will not remain committed to the cause. An astonishing 60% of self-declared vegetarians eat meat within a week after identifying themselves as vegetarians, and a far higher percentage give up over the long term. Duncan Watts, among others, has identified the power of highly energetic networks to creating and sustaining change. We need to make creating those empowered networks, and not converting individual vegans, our main focus as a movement. 

Third and finally, we too often lose sight of our inspiration – social justice. There is virtually no evidence that a consumer-based movement has much potential to grow – much less change the world. (Indeed, the consumer-based “free produce” movement in the 19th century barely registers a footnote in the history of antislavery.) The distinguished philosopher Will Kymlicka has written recently on how animal rights is the orphan child of the Left, and one of the reasons for this is its insistence on framing the issue in terms of consumer lifestyles that are alien to, or out of the reach of, the vast majority of human beings on this planet. There is more to social justice than a boycott. There’s more to meat than just a meal. (“It’s not food. It’s violence.”) And we need to frame the issue more strongly, and with more inspiration, for our movement to grow. 

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.

“I’ve seen a dog being tortured and killed, and it’s the most evil thing I’ve ever had to witness. I know you feel that way too. But we in America are routinely engaged in practices that are just as horrific to other animals. We have to see that for what it is – discriminatory violence – and empower ourselves to take action against it. Here’s the good thing: there are people all over the world taking a stand. Species is the next frontier of justice.  And if we come together behind a strong message, we can change the world."

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution? 

I had a lot of really positive early role models. You were actually one of them, Marla, because I immediately noticed that you stuck to your principles, but maintained a positive tone. That’s not an easy balance to manage, but it’s a vital one if our movement is to both maintain its integrity *and* grow.

But by far the most influential people on my veganism and activism have been my fellow activists at Direct Action Everywhere. I have learned so much, grown so much, bonded so much in the past 11 months that I’m a completely different -- and better -- person than I was at the beginning of 2014. The activists in the Bay Area we have are obviously close to my heart. But even beyond that, I’ve met so many people around the country (at our Forum at Cal-Berkeley in May, and then later during our East Coast Speaking Tour) who just blow me away with their commitment, passion, and integrity. We really focus on building good culture and character at DxE – honest, optimistic, transparent, and enthusiastic – and that has really paid off in the team of amazing people we have leading our chapters around the world.

Re: other influences, I don’t think any can compare to the influence of my peers. But Patty Mark and Animal Liberation Victoria continue to inspire me from afar. The work we do is, in many ways, modeled after theirs.

8. Burn-out is so common among vegans: what do you do to unwind, recharge and inspire yourself?

I used to play ultimate Frisbee, karaoke, and tons of board games. But animal rights has always been my first priority for the past 13 years, and over the past 2 years, it’s completely taken over. That’s ok, though, because there are so many diverse, interesting challenges that there’s always something new to learn. (The past year, for example, has been a crash course in video editing, so we can make videos like this.)  The only thing I need to recharge is to connect with another activist (with DxE or otherwise) who’s enthusiastic about making change.

9. What is the issue nearest and dearest to your heart that you would like others to know more about?

Anti-speciesism. There are so many vegans, and even quite a few animal rights activists. But there is little discussion of what it means to be an anti-speciesist – to treat every animal, or animal body, with the same respect and consideration that you’d offer a human being. 

What we’ve learned from a few decades of research into other forms of discrimination is that they are often deep-seated and unconscious, that they shape our basic assumptions about the world in ways that disadvantage oppressed classes, and that they powerfully influence our behavior in ways that we don’t even recognize. We know, for example, that even those who identify as “anti-racist” are more likely to pull the trigger when faced with a person of color; that sexism is not just about explicit violence, but also subtle assumptions about women (weak, dependent, less intelligent, etc.); and that people with ethnic sounding names will, by that alone, be rejected both socially and professionally from positions of influence or power. 

But we have just begun starting these conversations regarding anti-speciesism. For example, what is an anti-speciesist to do when a friend or family member is dining on the body of a murdered being? The obvious answer, from an anti-speciesist perspective, would be to react the same way we would react toward a murdered human being. And while there might be legitimate reasons to deviate from that reaction, we should carefully scrutinize whether our disparate treatment of animals or their bodies has more to do with our indoctrination in an unthinkingly violent society, or genuine concerns regarding effectiveness.

10. Please finish this sentence: “To me, being vegan is...”

Just the beginning. Our greatest dream – a world where every animal is safe, happy, and free – is within reach. But only if we’re inspired to do more.

Thank you, Wayne!