Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Knocking a Leg from the Meat Industry's Tripod

“The corporate revolution will collapse if we refuse to buy what they are selling – their ideas, their version of history, their wars, their weapons, their notion of inevitability.

Remember this: We be many and they be few. They need us more than we need them.

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.” – Arundhati Roy

Often when I think about the industrial agribusiness complex we are standing up against, it feels like an enormous wall looming over me, so immense that it can block out virtually all the light. Just the shadow from it alone can make me feel utterly powerless. From the marketing that is so ubiquitous as to be invisible to the government collusion that keeps the price of animal flesh, dairy and eggs down, it’s very tempting for those of us who are advocating on behalf of the animals our society brutalizes to want to just hide under the covers for a day or a week or, you know, a lifetime when we think about what we are up against.

If I reimagine animal agribusiness as a tripod, though, rather than an unscalable wall, and I use this framing to inform my efforts, suddenly I have something to work with rather than struggle against. With this framing, I think we will make significant inroads to turning the tide. Animal agriculture is like a tripod that is stabilized by three powerful legs: two of them are the interests of government and industry, which work together to make the products of agribusiness widely accessible, inexpensive and normalized. What is the third leg? It’s so obvious that we often overlook it. It’s us.

With all my years of studying the industry, I can’t help but notice that there are, in fact, many deep cracks that crisscross its veneer of impenetrability, extensive enough that it is actually my belief that animal agribusiness is a lot less secure and stable than it gives the impression of being. If we were to withdraw our participation and help others to do the same, we would effectively send the whole jerry-rigged system tumbling like the giant house of cards that it is. Without knocking out the leg of our participation, the machine keeps running as it has. With the knocking out of that single leg, we would be kicking over the entire tripod that underpins and props up agribusiness.

When we think about the power that the government and industry wield, not to mention the other very formidable sectors within them, like the medical industry and the lobbying sphere, these mutually vested interests become Orwellian abstractions that are almost impossible to comprehend, much less feel equipped to take on. While I don’t want to underestimate or downplay the tremendous influence of these systems, I stand by the assertion that they are still fully subject to our participation. In other words, if we concentrate our efforts on disconnecting consumer support from animal agribusiness, it doesn't stand a chance of continuing.

This is not to say that industry and government – with their marketing, resources, influence, deception, deep pockets – aren’t forceful opponents. They are and they are so monolithic as to seem impervious. I understand the feelings of despair and hopelessness we feel when we think of their supposed inescapability and this is why we should concentrate our efforts on that third leg, because it is real and it can be influenced. By going directly to people and helping them to withdraw their support of animal agribusiness, we are circumventing these parties that may have all the power in the world but cannot force products or practices upon a public that is unwilling to buy. They have used and will continue to use their best tools to keep the machine running as it is but if we divest and continue to chip deeper fissures into the industry’s façade of impenetrability, it will eventually collapse under its own weight.

That third essential leg – the stabilizing of the entire industry – is maintained by our participation: this is influenced by habit, tradition, culture, convenience, familiarity, discomfort with change, even memories. If we continue to make it easier and easier for people through education, great food, affordability, access to information, community and excellent resources, we will be cutting off the very lifeblood of participation that agribusiness needs in order to continue. In other words, each time we make it easier, more appealing, more levelheaded and more undeniably rewarding to unplug from agribusiness and plug into veganism, we weaken the giant machine that depends on our participation and we strengthen the vegan movement’s inevitability.

In her beautiful book on the practice of writing, Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott wrote of her brother, ten at the time, who was completely overwhelmed by a large book report he had put off until the last minute to write. Books and resource materials, paper and pencils were splayed out around him as he sat at the kitchen table, barely holding it together. Her father put his arm around her brother and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” This is the approach we need to take as well: person by person. If we continue to apply our talents, resources, attention and acumen to knocking out that third leg, I have no doubt that the entire tripod, propped up by us through our undergirding of cooperation, will crash.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Foodie Edition with Ricki Heller


In order to introduce author Ricki Heller, I have to take a kind of long and circuitous path, sort of like a large intestine. This simile will make more sense in a minute, trust me.

First, I’ll start by saying that someone can be a health-focused vegan and still not thrive optimally. Any number of equal opportunity afflictions from chronic headaches to Crohn’s disease can strike even the most health conscious of us, though we may have reduced the likelihood and intensity of these maladies by choosing antioxidant-rich, nutritionally-dense plant foods. Ailments still happen, though, as we are not perfect machines. These problems can make some of us – even those of us who rarely get sick – feel like failures when all the alleged health benefits of veganism don’t exactly kick in as promised.

Take yeast overgrowth, for example. Candida albicans is a normal part of the healthy gut flora but for those who have CRC, or candida-related complex (including myself), this yeast has become very aggressive and voracious, resulting in the damaging of the intestinal wall, causing sexy yeast byproducts and undigested food to penetrate the bloodstream. The end result of this yeast overgrowth can manifest in a profusion maladies: bloating, fatigue, escalating food sensitivities, weight gain, abdominal pain, skin irritations (including breakouts, rashes, eczema and hives), pervasive aches and pains, mental fog, anxiety and depression are just some of the consequences that often worsen over time due to candida overgrowth. Fun, glamorous stuff. Despite the persistence and discomfort of most of the symptoms of CRC, they fall under the vague terms of “malaise” and are not typically recognized by mainstream medical professionals, which creates even more of a silencing effect around this poorly understood condition, as if anything connected to the words yeast overgrowth didn’t already do that enough. To make matters worse, those of us in the vegan community who look to alternative healing modalities (many after being brushed off by conventional medical doctors) often find ourselves in a bizarre wasteland of Weston A. Price Foundation/Paleo recommendations, which are decidedly not animal-friendly and reek of quackery.

Thankfully, we have Ricki Heller to the rescue. Ricki, a registered holistic nutritionist, describes in her new book, Living Candida-Free: Conquer the Hidden Epidemic that’s Making You Sick, a longtime struggle with symptoms of yeast overgrowth and a worsening rash that eventually covered her torso as she had ineffective cream after ineffective cream prescribed to her by multiple doctors. Her personal experience with identifying and healing from CRC has made her something of a candida guru over the years. Her very informative new book offers her wisdom and experience, as well as more than 100 accessible recipes that go with her three-stage program to combat yeast overgrowth. Living Candida-Free is further bolstered by the explanatory chapter written by functional nutritionist Andrea Nakayama, who expertly takes this complicated and confusing subject and makes it comprehensible. Those of us with CRC finally have an excellent resource and plan of action for restoring vitality and wellness. For helping people who suffer from CRC find a real path to wellness without harming animals, Ricki Heller is a true vegan foodie and a rockstar.

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?

Baking was certainly something that ran in my family. My aunt was a caterer, and my mom was a consummate from-scratch baker. As a result, I grew up in a home that had lots of homemade baked goods around all the time, and my sisters and I learned to bake from a young age. Fairly early on, that love extended to food in general, and once I went away to university and lived on my own, I really began to experiment with cooking new and different dishes. I think living in Toronto, the most multi-cultural city in the world, helps too, as there is a plethora of restaurants available for anyone who wants to explore different cuisines.

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?

What’s funny is that my mother wasn’t the best cook even though she did make everything from scratch. So I grew up on a fairly bland, typically North American diet of mostly meat and vegetables. Because my dad was a butcher, we had meat pretty much every day. I think that the typical rebellious nature of kids took hold and my sisters and I actually loved processed, packaged and prepared foods much more than the real foods we were getting at home. So, as soon as I was able, I started buying junk food outside the home, going to McDonald’s with friends, and so on. That led to some pretty abysmal eating habits in my 20s and 30s!

We rarely ate dinner together as a family because my dad’s hours were so crazy (he often didn’t get home until 8:30 or 9:00 PM), so we kids learned to grab what we could by ourselves on weeknights. So we established a Sunday brunch tradition in the house, because that was the one time we could count on everyone to be there at the same time. I guess that sort of did translate to my current preferences, since breakfast and brunch remain my favorite meals of the day.

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

There’s an upscale restaurant near where I live called Terra, which used to offer a 7-course tasting menu with wine accompaniments. One year, my husband and I went for our anniversary, and he had the omnivore version while I ordered the vegan version. It was spectacular! I remember a roasted chickpea appetizer, a fabulous glazed sweet potato side dish, Portobello steak, and incredible chocolate truffles for dessert, among other things. We wanted to have it the following year, too, but by then they had stopped serving it.

A close second would be my first visit to Pure Food and Wine in New York City. That was another phenomenal meal, made even better by the group of fellow bloggers with whom my husband and I shared our evening.

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

The dessert would likely be a seven-layer chocolate affair with all kinds of buttercream and shaved chocolate. I imagine a dinner party with Dorothy Parker wouldn’t be boring (but then I’d want to invite the rest of the Algonquin Round Table, too)!

5. What do you think are common mistakes in vegan cooking and how do you avoid them?

That’s a tough one for me because I love vegan food so much, I kind of just like it all! I don’t know how common this is, but since I’m a baker by nature, I tend to notice flaws in baked goods the most. One thing I used to find when I would buy baked goods was how they were flat or heavy on occasion. I think that’s because vegan baked goods require extra lift—leaveners like baking powder and baking soda—since they’re lacking the leavening power that’s usually supplied by eggs. But I think the quality of prepared vegan baked goods, and vegan food in general, has come a long way since I first started eating this way back in the ‘80s! 

6. What ingredients are you especially excited about at the moment?

My latest ingredient love is psyllium husks. Not very sexy, but this plant husk is a great alternative to xanthan gum or guar gum for gluten-free baking. It also happens to be helpful as an anti-candida food, so I try to use it as often as I can. 

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

I think I’d love Ethiopian food. It’s naturally gluten-free and plant-heavy, and there seems to be an infinite variety of Ethiopian dishes available to try. Plus, I’ve loved every Ethiopian meal I’ve ever eaten.

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

Once I realized that the diet I preferred was something called “vegan,” I sought out vegan cookbooks. The first one I found that also fit my dietary restrictions at the time was SimpleTreats by Ellen Abraham and that had a profound influence on my baking. In fact, Abraham’s book was, in part, the inspiration for my own organic bakery, Bake It Healthy. I also loved Dreena Burton’s books from day one and still find that her recipes always appeal to me, and are perfectly reliable every time.

Starting my blog also opened up an entire world of vegan connections that I would never otherwise have had. I’m so grateful for all the friends I’ve made through my blog, some of whom have become friends offline as well.

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

Well, given where I’ve been putting my attention lately, it would have to be candida. This syndrome (caused by too much yeast in the body) is one that is thankfully gaining more attention in the media, but still has a ways to go before it’s recognized by conventional medicine as a bona fide illness. Because it’s so often an “invisible illness” with no overt signs, people can be labeled as hypochondriacs or overly anxious and doctors believe there’s nothing wrong with them. And getting treatment is double difficult for anyone on a plant-based diet, since almost all of the common anti-candida diets out there are closer to Paleo than vegan. I wanted to prove that you can beat candida on a vegan diet. It’s eminently doable!

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

Veganism is finally gaining recognition and coming into its own in the world.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Against Non-Human Animals: How Language Shapes Our Worldview


Imagine for a moment a scene in which a turtle is talking to another turtle about a nearby rabbit. They are in a little vegetable garden together, and the main turtle, let’s call him Sheldon, nudges his friend, let’s call her Shelley, indicating the rabbit with his wrinkly turtle head.
 “See that guy over there with the long ears?” asks Sheldon.

 “You mean the non-turtle animal?” asks Shelley.

“Yes, that one. He seems to really like the carrots,” says Sheldon.

With Shelley’s framing, the rabbit has been described by what he is not, which, in this case, is not a turtle. This framing positions turtles as not only the dominant species but also the main benchmark by which this other being in the garden, the rabbit, is understood. When other beings are filtered and described through a lens that ineluctably points back at those who are describing them, they are, in effect, measured against another’s contours. It isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine why a vegan would find this kind of structuring problematic. At best, it is sloppy and at worst, it is another example of anthropocentric arrogance.

The phrase non-human animals is an example of a thoughtful restructuring of language, created to challenge how we conceptualize ourselves and it is used by vegans as a way to remind people that, yes, humans are animals, too. The intention behind using it is a good one. Despite this, I have always done my best to avoid the phrase because it sounds and looks and sounds clunky to me but I have used it when I felt it was better than the common alternative, which is the distorted separation of “people” and “animals” in our language, as if we were not also animals. A few years ago, though, I realized that there was something else that bothered me about the phrase, and it wasn’t just an aesthetic one. Once I fully worked out the problems with the phrase, I stopped using it altogether and I think other vegans should consider doing the same. Here's why: I believe that when we say “non-human animals,” we are unintentionally reinforcing the same human-as-center-of-the-world conceit that underpins the mindset that allows for the domination of other animal species. Remember that rabbit? His own autonomy vanished when viewed through distinctly turtle-centered lenses: he was no longer a rabbit, he was some other entity that was simply not a turtle.

Given the enormity of what other animals face, I will admit that this sounds like a trivial thing to get hung up on. I would argue, though, that as we move ahead in re-conceptualizing coexistence, the language that we use is of critical importance. The theory of linguistic determinism posits that the words we use shape and even help to determine human thought. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein observed plainly, “Language disguises thought.” The thought that is disguised by that ungainly (but, again, well-intentioned) phrase is that other animals disappear and are replaced by our own example as the dominant point of reference.

The words we choose have real consequences and these consequences can inadvertently reinforce the very status quo that we are trying to dismantle. It is a minor alteration, but I think we should leave behind the expression "non-human animal." Ask yourself if you would like to be referred to as a non-male human being (if you’re not a male) or a non-white homo sapiens if you were not Caucasian. Can you see how a ripple effect of such framing could diminish your own rights to sovereignty and equality, as well as reveal an intrinsic partiality that necessarily denigrates those who aren’t part of the dominant standard?

Given all this, I propose that we rethink using the term “non-human animal” and come up with something that is more respectful and less self-absorbed. Of course contexts always vary, but when we are trying to communicate that we are not talking about humans (who are also animals) but other animals, I propose that we say something along the lines of other animals or other beings. I’ve heard others who say fellow animals. That works, too, but to me it sounds a little precious. Other animals has its flaws, too, as there is a built-in “othering” element that distances and leaves room for objectification but this is the best that I have arrived at so far.

Your thoughts are appreciated. What do you think about the expression “non-human animals”? Do you have a preferred alternative?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Ginny Kisch Messina

GinnyKisch Messina is a bright, steady light of compassionate, knowledgeable and dependable outreach in a culture often overstuffed with flyaway bits-and-pieces of erroneous information. As a respected registered dietitian, Ginny has instructed at the university level, developed nutrition materials for many organizations, and co-authored a variety of books that manage to make the subject of nutrition both accessible and interesting to laypersons, such as with Vegan for Her and Never Too Late to Go Vegan. She also maintains a popular blog, which is a great source for nutritional information and analysis.

A longtime vegan whose well-reasoned approach to nutrition is guided by the latest in peer-reviewed research, Ginny doesn’t make far-fetched, easily refuted claims, unlike the preponderance of various “wellness gurus” who claim that their interpretation of the ideal vegan diet offers a magic bullet against disease and illness. Ginny could probably have made a lot of money touting a specific dietary plan as the one true path to wellness and staying slim, but she has resisted this seductive siren’s call for something far more respectable, though less personally lucrative: By reminding people that a vegan diet does have some real health advantages, the fact remains that no one is indestructible, and that creating exaggerated claims about veganism doesn’t do the cause or the animals any good. Instead, by steadfastly chipping away at common myths and misconceptions, while maintaining her principled, rigorously science-based approach to nutrition, Ginny is creating something much better, and longer lasting, for the world: An educated interpretation of the most current knowledge of plant-based nutrition and a dedicated reminder that veganism is rooted in compassion, not dietary faddishness. For these reasons and more, Ginny Kisch Messina is a vegan rockstar.

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 really didn’t have any of those influences or experiences. But for as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong connection to animals and an extreme reaction to their suffering. I just didn’t see my food and clothing as having anything to do with that. While that seems mindboggling to me now, it also makes me realize how important it is to help people see the food on their plates as real animals. It’s hard, because we are so conditioned not to see that.

I started connecting those dots when I was in my 20s and was experimenting with vegetarian cooking just for fun. It had nothing to do with animal cruelty - I knew nothing about factory farming at that time - but instead, the idea of eating animal flesh suddenly felt simply wrong to me.  

I didn’t learn about factory farming until I went to work a few years later at PCRM in 1990. This was also my introduction to an animal rights culture and to the whole concept of veganism which, until then, had felt very extreme to me. So, while my heart had always been open to animals, my eyes weren’t opened until well into adulthood.

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?

They could have shown me that my choices have a direct effect on animals - their welfare and their rights. They could have shown me a “why love one but eat the other” meme, which I think would have helped me to make the connection. And they could have fed me some vegan mac ‘n cheese and a good vegan brownie so I would have seen how little sacrifice is involved in choosing a compassionate lifestyle.

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

People can’t do something if they don’t know how to do it, so I’m a very big fan of food activism. Potential vegans need to taste great vegan food. They need recipes for super easy meals (or really, they need meal ideas; most people don’t have time for recipes).  They need to know that vegan diets include treats and comfort foods. I think it’s much easier to get someone to hear a vegan message once they know that vegan food is good.

And then we simply need to get them to think about the impact of their choices. Humor can be good for this, or any message that is a little provocative. Vegan Street is great at this, of course, and I also love the Vegan Sidekick cartoons.

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

The fact that we have truth on our side. That this is a movement built on values of justice and compassion. And that it is increasingly easy to be vegan with really good food, incredible cookbooks, and some exceptional convenience products.

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

Probably the biggest one is that we are dealing with habits and beliefs that are so deeply ingrained and we don’t have good data on what works. We desperately need research on the best ways to promote veganism and to help people stay vegan.    

I think it might also be harmful in the long run when we overstate the benefits of vegan diets in an effort to get more people to stop eating animals. The idea that a vegan diet is the only healthy way to eat isn’t backed by science and it’s probably not true. It’s a waste of valuable resources to try to prove something that probably isn’t true. It also forces us to cherry pick evidence and distort findings.  I worry that it detracts from the strengths of our movement - the integrity that is at the root of an ethic of justice - when we misrepresent the science behind nutrition.

Also, some of the bad nutrition information that circulates on the internet and elsewhere can set people up to fail on a vegan diet. This is largely why my work focuses on sharing the best guidelines - based on what we know right now - for staying healthy on a vegan diet.    

Finally, I think we need to stop making it so hard to be vegan. We need to allow new vegans to sometimes fall short of their goals without feeling that they have failed at being vegan. We need to drop the unwarranted restrictions against veggie meats and soyfoods and vegetable oils and all of the other things that fit very well in a healthy vegan diet and make this way of eating a far more realistic choice. We need to avoid turning veganism into a restrictive fad diet because restrictive fad diets generally don’t change the world.  

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

I’m vegan because there is always suffering and death behind the use of animals for food and clothing. As long as there are alternatives - and there are some pretty great ones - I just don’t feel that I can contribute to any of that suffering. And because I’m a dietitian, I’m confident that vegan diets are safe and nutritious.

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?

My evolution continues to be both professional as a vegan nutritionist, and personal as an activist. On the professional side, those who have had the biggest influence on my thinking and approach to nutrition are Jack Norris, RD, Reed Mangels, PhD, RD and my husband Mark Messina, PhD. They are my go-to experts for unbiased and critical perspectives on nutrition research.  

On the personal side, I’m inspired by many, many activists, especially those doing grassroots activism - handing out leaflets and food samples. And, of course, the very brave activists who shed light on what is happening inside of farms and slaughterhouses.

I also read a lot of blogs and websites that provide different perspectives - those focused on abolition, utilitarian approaches, direct action, etc. I often find my own viewpoint challenged, and that’s good. It relates back to my answer to question 5: We don’t have data on the best tactics, and so we need to stay open to all experiences and viewpoints.

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

Burnout, stress and depression are definitely issues for me and so I try to maintain at least a little bit of balance. I do the usual stuff - meditation and exercise. I keep a journal and have done so since I was a teen. I read a lot for pleasure and that’s my absolutely most essential and beneficial leisure activity. I’m learning to play piano and I crochet with vegan fibers in the winter and garden in the summer. And sometimes I just have a glass of wine and watch re-runs of Modern Family.

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

Advocating for homeless and feral cats. I volunteer at my local animal shelter and am on the board of a local spay/neuter group. I’ve done lots of TNR and cat fostering over the years. It’s really where my heart is, but also, I think it’s so important to remember that veganism doesn’t start and stop at your dinner plate. We have an obligation to all animals and especially the ones in our own neighborhoods and communities.

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

A moral imperative for those of us who are fortunate enough to have a choice about what we eat and wear. A willingness to commit to an ethic of justice and compassion, and to make choices that reflect that ethic.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Twenty Years Vegan: How to Age Without Regret

I want to write about getting old today. How about that for a great hook? Don’t worry, it all gets better after I get that out of the way.

You see, I just turned 48. Forty-eight, no matter how you try to buff and shine that sucker up, just doesn’t sound dewy and fresh unless we’re talking about giant tortoises, bacterial spores, solar systems or along those lines. When octogenarian millionaires threaten the inheritance of their adult children, the lady friends who have gotten them to take leave of their senses are generally not perky 48-year-olds. So, I am getting old and there’s no way to spin that otherwise.

Bette Davis dryly observed that getting old isn’t for sissies* and for the most part, I am at peace with both aging and not being a sissy. After all, what is the alternative? Being a dead sissy, that’s what. As someone who was always young for my age in terms of maturity, I still feel a little unsteady on my feet sometimes when the reality of my age splashes cold water in my face and – cliché warning, but it’s true - I immediately feel how rapidly the years have whizzed past and it’s like I’ve suddenly been deposited at the end of a time warp or I’ve just gotten off a Tilt-A-Whirl and I need to get readjusted to land because I’ve got the spins. In those moments, as with dizzying carnival rides, the only way to get reoriented is to sit down and breathe between my knees. When I look around and notice how many of my contemporaries now have aged parents and are sorting through and dividing up the acquisitions of a lifetime, at first I always find myself shaking my head, thinking, “Isn’t this for people older than us?” Then, no: This really is us. We were kids yesterday, though, weren’t we?

This is really turning out to be a buzz-kill, isn’t it? I promise, I will get to some more uplifting stuff. The suspense is probably killing you, so I will jump right into it.

On February 1, one exact week after turning 48, I will also mark a much more exciting milestone: My 20th year of living as a vegan. On February 1, 1995, I called my ex-boyfriend (current husband) and said, “John, we should go vegan,” and he said, “Okay,” without even a pause and so over the course of a sometimes-maddeningly imperfect first year, we did just that. Twenty is pretty young but definitely venturing into elder territory for the length of time as a vegan. I can say this for a fact now with twenty years of hindsight at my hind: Going vegan was the very best decision I ever made, right in front of deciding to go out with that smiling guy who wasn’t a jackalope (my ex-boyfriend/current husband). Despite some eye roll-worthy claims to the contrary, veganism will not give you eternal youth but it is a way to become renewed again and again when the hope and promise of our ideals triumph over the defeatism and cold-heartedness of custom.

With twenty years behind me, I can say that the only reason I’d want to live forever is so I could keep doing this work for as long as necessary, which I hope isn’t forever, because it is so damn fulfilling and important. Veganism is not about checking labels, being vigilant and feeling out of touch with the rest of the world (though those things are certainly part of the experience sometimes); it is not about sacrifice, hardship or martyrdom (not even for a moment). If I could get people instead to understand how incredibly empowering it feels to not be owned by corporations, social pressure or habit, I will have done something worthwhile. So I am saying just that – if you’re looking for meaning in your life and a sense of higher purpose, going vegan will do this for you. I feel like I get paid back every single day that I put more distance between the last time I told an animal that a temporary pleasure of mine mattered more than his or her life. Twenty years since the last time I decided that my taste buds were more worthy of being listened to than the cries of another living being in anguish. Twenty years of rejecting the cynical notion that because I am allowed do something, this confers the right to do it. This is an indescribably liberating feeling. At the end of the road, though, it’s not about any of this.

 It’s about him.


And her.

And them.


And, yes, us too.

What started twenty years ago as a desire to not inflict harm has evolved into my life’s purpose. I have screwed up in many areas of my life but living as a vegan is one thing that I have done right. I wake up with a passion for this work and this deeply-held purpose every single day. Yes, I’m 48 but for the past twenty years, I’ve felt renewed every time I get to say yes to my ideals. This sustains me. I get to help create change from the right side of history. I couldn’t be more honored and grateful for this opportunity I get to enjoy every day of my life. I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that it keeps me young but I will say that it keeps me at peace and this is worth everything.

Getting old isn’t for sissies; neither is living our truth but it is more rewarding than anything I know.

*Yes, I understand that the expression “sissy” is problematic. I’ve decided that I don’t care (one of those perks you hear about that comes with age) and you can insert the word you’d prefer.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

10 Questions: Vegan Rockstar Edition with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau

At the risk of sounding like a Colleen Patrick-Goudreau
fangirl, well, I am a total Colleen Patrick-Goudreau fangirl. I don’t think it’s too much of an overstatement to say that Colleen is the vegan fairy godmother we all need, floating ear-level to advise us in times of dispute how to be our most articulate, calm-and-collected but confident selves; cheering us on; giving us the encouragement to be a joyful vegan in this messy, flawed world and pouring us a tea and showing us cute pictures of her kitties when it just gets to be too much. (Or is this just in my imagination?) As a bestselling author, a popular podcaster, a speaker, a video creator and much, much more, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau has really set herself apart with her powerful, positive-but-pulling-no-punches advocacy that is understanding of the challenges individuals face while never equivocating. This is no easy task. While acknowledging the fear many people have of change, Colleen still closes the gaps in awareness, deftly dismantles excuses like the vegan Superwoman and keeps her laser-sharp focus on the bottom line: by empowering people to manifest their own convictions about compassion, she is helping the animals, helping the people who are no longer consuming them, and helping the planet become a more compassionate, more just and healthy place. Heady stuff. Oh, plus she creates some pretty fabulous recipes, too.

With the audacious aplomb we’ve come to expect, Colleen’s new, revised book, The 30-Day Vegan Challenge: The Ultimate Guide to Eating Healthfully and Living Compassionately (which I just reviewed) takes a topic that feels daunting to many people regardless of their culture and upbringing and helps them gain the know-how and skills to achieve the self-assurance over 30 days to emerge confident, savvy vegans who can take on any challenge. This book is really an amazing resource for creating a more compassionate world and if we didn’t already know that Colleen is an absolute treasure for our community, we know it now. For these reasons and more, Colleen is vegan rockstar royalty.

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 – like most people – grew up loving animals and intervening if I saw them suffering – but I was taught to compartmentalize my compassion for them and to compartmentalize them into those who we should care about and those we should use for our own pleasure. I could have gone about my whole life desensitized -- or asleep, but luckily I woke up and realized I was contributing to a culture of violence that I would never participate in directly. So, I very naturally and joyfully stopped eating animals and their secretions once I saw the violence I was contributing to.

As far as early influences, I really believe that we come into this world innately compassionate, so I really think we already have a compass that leads us to our compassion. It’s inside us the whole time -- even though we might not be manifesting it outwardly and unconditionally. So, I think it was my own compassion that kept calling to me, guiding me back to the instincts I have not to cause anyone harm.

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?

Such a great question. I was about 19 years young when I started on this journey to awakening. Perhaps if someone had given me a book a little earlier I would have made the connection sooner. For me, it really was exposure to the truth about our use of animals -- for consumption, in laboratories, for entertainment - that opened my eyes and compelled me to change my behavior. So, I think education and bearing witness is absolutely key.

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

When people are tuned into their compassion, they act from it, and their paradigm shifts. So, I see my job as shining the light on the compassion that already exists in them to enable them to have that paradigm shift. I’ve always seen my advocacy role as a guide – giving people what they want – rather than as someone who dictates what action should be taken. So, over the years as I was trying to find my place and my contribution, I just kept asking the questions: “What am I good at?” and “What do people need?” and I kept finding the answers. It’s not about me; it’s about giving people what they need to make it possible to make the changes I know they want to make.

So, I use everything in my personal arsenal. Everyone has an arsenal. Mine comprises communication, humor, language, history, literature, ethics, and practical tools. I taught cooking classes and wrote cookbooks to give people the recipes they need to make delicious food; I produced a podcast to answer all the questions people have about the social aspects, ethical aspects, and nutritional aspects of living vegan; I launched The 30-Day Vegan Challenge to guide people to making these changes confidently, healthfully, and joyfully. My present and subsequent projects will continue to be driven by “what tools do people need to make the changes that will reflect their values of compassion and kindness?” As long as I can fill that gap with the skills I’ve been given, I’ll do it.

4. What do you think are the biggest strengths of the vegan movement?
The intention to do the right thing.

5. What do you think are our biggest hindrances to getting the word out effectively?
Small thinking. Fear. Egos. Competition. Fear of success. Fear of other people’s success. Judgment. Losing sight of the big picture.   

6. All of us need a “why vegan” elevator pitch. We’d love to hear yours.
When I realized I was paying people to do things to animals I could never do myself -- things that are the stuff of horror movies, I stopped participating. I’m vegan because I don’t want to contribute to violence against anyone.  

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' book Dietfor a New America planted the first seed for me, but it was Gail Eisnitz, who wrote Slaughterhouse, that truly opened my eyes. I was in awe of this woman who had the courage to visit slaughterhouses and talk to the men and women who killed and dismembered animals. I appreciated her strategy of asking the same questions to workers in whatever slaughterhouse they were in so that her expose wouldn't be accused of just focusing on "a few bad apples." And what struck me most by her findings was the violent culture we're all supporting by paying people to kill for us. These men and women were desensitized to the animal suffering and also to their own compassion. Aside from the slaughter, which is horrific enough, they hurt and torture the animals --- because they can. So, thanks to Gail Eisnitz, I became vegan upon reading her book, and it changed my life completely.

I’m grateful to every person who documents the horrors we want to avoid looking at. Without their bravery, we wouldn’t know what goes on behind closed doors.

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

I’ve created a life based on what I love -- not only in my work but in my personal life as well. Although I’m not skilled at reading the signals that tell me to stop when I’m running on fumes, luckily I have people in my life who remind me to do so. But I have many ways I refuel -- I love spending time with my husband and watching movies. I love running, hiking, traveling. I spend a lot of time in nature and with my cats. Ultimately, I’m fueled by the people who tell me they’ve returned to their own compassion. It’s the good in people that gives me hope.

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

Really, my overarching aim is to guide people to their own compassion so it’s reflected in their behavior, and clearly I spend a lot of time talking about the animals we raise and kill for human consumption because in terms of human actions that directly impact animals, it’s the consumption of them (and their secretions). It’s all part of the same goal, but our decimation of natural habitat and our slaughter of wildlife to serve our desire to build, eat meat, and make more room for ourselves just breaks my heart. And so, I keep trying to speak to the heart...

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

“...just a succinct way of saying I removed the barriers to the compassion that had been inside of me all along.”

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

How To Go Vegan Without Really Trying (A Life Map)...

Be born. This is really the most significant part and you can take comfort in knowing that if you’re reading this, the biggest task is already behind you. You’ve got this!

Be raised in any number of homes and environments. Meaning you may grow up as the child of hippies or hunters or business people or politicians or schoolteachers. You will grow up in a rural community, the suburbs or a city. Believe it or not, you don’t need to be raised on a commune or by parents who met during an Earth First! tree-sit to grow up to be vegan. It really doesn’t matter. You will still eventually go vegan.

Grow up eating “normal” food for your familyIn our house, it was macaroni and cheese from the blue box, scrambled eggs, Lipton Ring-O-Noodle chicken soup, turkey and cheese sandwiches, my grandmother’s brisket, hot dogs, Fudgsicles. Guess what: I grew up liking those things and this still did not stand in the way of me letting them go. Today – spoiler alert! – I’m a vegan. You might grow up eating Greek food, Italian food, junk food, whatever. You might hate vegetables. You will be pleased to learn that it need not interfere with your eventual veganism. Phew! You may even learn to love vegetables. (Or you won’t.)

Your books almost all feature animals. Tenacious rabbits, clever foxes, irrepressible pigs, maternal hens, endearing crocodiles and more are well represented. Many of your toys are stuffed animals, some of your favorite songs are about animals and when you draw, you often draw animals. You are taught that kindness to animals is a virtue and cruelty to animals is immoral. Despite all of this, you will grow up eating them, probably without even really being aware of it. 

You may or may not have a household animal or two growing up. You may or may not make a connection to this animal that may or may not hasten your eventual veganism.

You will go to school or be home-schooled. You will play. You will have lots of friends or not too many. You will be very social or not very social or sometimes social. You will learn your ABCs, how to tie your shoes, simple addition and to not put paste in your hair. No matter your education, you will probably not learn much about the animals you eat.

You will grow up loving nature or not loving it. You will spend your time outside climbing trees or inside looking at books or riding your bike or your best friend’s house or or the beach or the library. No matter your experiences, you will still grow up to be vegan, so that's a relief.

You will feel a deep affection for other animals or you will not feel this or you will feel this for some but not others. No matter your affection or lack of affection for animals, this will not necessarily have a bearing on your evolution to veganism.

At some point you will become an adult. Maybe you’re already vegan.

Over time, you will become an outspoken liberal or be a staunch conservative or be moderate or an anarchist or completely apolitical. You will be an atheist, of faith, agnostic, spiritual or skeptical. You will date males or females or both or neither. Whatever! Who cares? You’re still going vegan. 

At some point in your life span, you will have an epiphany or you’ll just connect the dots and then you will go vegan. You will make the change overnight or it will be gradual. You will have an influential friend or you will read something or hear something or watch something that makes a deep impression on you or maybe your roommate is a great vegan chef or your doctor says something to you. You will go vegan for life or else you’ll quit and you’ll return to it maybe more than once before it sticks. 

It will be the best decision that you ever made. 

The end.