Friday, December 24, 2010

Rebel Jesus

Well, the family is set to take off for Florida for a week of much, much needed travel and relaxation. I'm feeling guilty for all the writing that's not being done but I'd feel far worse to not take advantage of this opportunity to soak up some vitamin D and maybe grin at a manatee or two. I will be back in the new year with whatever it is that I do here. I am very much looking forward to 2011 and achieving some goals that will be defined on the highways between Chicago and wherever it is we find ourselves in Florida, let the sun shine on them some, then let them start to take root on the long drive back.

This time of year can be a complicated, challenging one for a non-Christian. It can feel isolating, lonely and depressing not just for non-Christians, but for anyone who is estranged from her family, isn't part of a relationship, isn't affluent. Cutting away all the baggage that surrounds Christmas, though, we are left with the story of a man who - agnostic, pagan-leaning Jew that I am - I have a lot of admiration for, I have to confess. I have never been into Bible stories, but the idea of this man truly rebelling against the current, living a life full of complexity, courage and compassion, I can get with that. Someone who preached a life of simplicity and kindness, well, I see no harm in that. I think that so many of us have been so stung by the manner in which many religious people conduct themselves we reject the story of Christ because of all that damage. I can understand that. My point is that whether you believe in Christ or would sooner believe something you read in a supermarket tabloid, there is something to learn and grow from with the story itself.

With that long-winded introduction, here is my favorite Christmas song, The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne. It captures my feelings about the holiday beautifully and I'm sure many people feel the same way. I will see you in the new year! Be well and be happy, from a heathen and a pagan on the side of the Rebel Jesus.

The Rebel Jesus

All the streets are filled with laughter and light
And the music of the season
And the merchants' windows are all bright
With the faces of the children
And the families hurrying to their homes
While the sky darkens and freezes
Will be gathering around the hearths and tables
Giving thanks for God's graces
And the birth of the rebel Jesus

Well they call him by "the Prince of Peace"
And they call him by "the Savior"
And they pray to him upon the seas
And in every bold endeavor
And they fill his churches with their pride and gold
As their faith in him increases
But they've turned the nature that I worship in
From a temple to a robber's den
In the words of the rebel Jesus

Well we guard our world with locks and guns
And we guard our fine possessions
And once a year when Christmas comes
We give to our relations
And perhaps we give a little to the poor
If the generosity should seize us
But if any one of us should interfere
In the business of why there are poor
They get the same as the rebel Jesus

Now pardon me if I have seemed
To take the tone of judgement
For I've no wish to come between
This day and your enjoyment
In a life of hardship and of earthly toil
There's a need for anything that frees us
So I bid you pleasure
And I bid you cheer
From a heathen and a pagan
On the side of the rebel Jesus

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Another Disgruntled Alphabet for Vegans...

Last year I wrote my first Disgruntled Alphabet and because either the idea is so magnificent or my poor brain is turning dirty and crumbly like the snow outside my door, I’m going to resurrect this old chestnut and have another go at it. We can never run out of things to knit ourselves a lovely afghan of annoyance over to warm us on those lonely winter nights.

Like last year, this alphabet is for those days when you wouldn’t change being the awesome vegan ass-kicker you are for anything but you’re tired of the rest of the world, well, sucking so hard. This time of year, the things that irritate and plague us are particularly unpleasant, maybe because it’s all served up with the worst Christmas music etched onto our own brains like a record groove, invasive good tidings from people who couldn't care less about us the rest of the year, crass materialism and red and green junk everywhere. This Disgruntled Alphabet is for days when you just want to curl up in a peevish little ball of dirty looks and judgment and let the stupid year just end already. Make yourself a mug of hot chocolate (extra bitter!), put on your comfiest socks, wrap yourself in your personal afghan of annoyance and enjoy. Last year, my Disgruntled Alphabet had some bright spots interspersed: this year, I'm serving it straight up. You can take it, soldier. We'll get back to the warm fuzzies soon enough.

A is for the predictable but no less Antagonizing way in which your family (or co-workers) think that you can and should just “eat around” the meat.

B is for Buzz-kill, the way you feel when you’re reading the list of ingredients on that fabulous looking chocolate bar or bag of salt-and-vinegar chips when you come upon whey as the second-to-last ingredient.

C is for Caustic, because sometimes you feel like your head might explode if you cannot release the pressure with a caustic aside, like, “Oh, yes. I can certainly understand why you think that tofu is disgusting when you eat animal corpses, mammary secretions and ovum regularly. That makes perfect sense.”

D is for Damn right, I eat plain nutritional yeast straight out of the bag. What of it? Like you don’t have any bizarre habits, freaker.

E is for Eating. Just let us eat in peace. Aren't we supposed to be the annoying and judgmental ones?

F is for Finally, as in I looked through a veritable mountain of winter coats and I finally found one without fur trim or wool and it's not even that hideously ugly.

G is for Gross, as in Gross! What is that at the bottom of my produce drawer? Is that from freaking last summer? Can I just buy a replacement drawer?

H is for Hegan and any other silly media catchphrases that get some attention for about two weeks before being tossed into the dung pile until Larry King half-heartedly resurrects it for five seconds before it is finally, inescapably retired.

I is for, “I’d like to get the burrito without cheese or sour cream. Right. No cheese or sour cream. Right. Could I just get extra guacamole instead? I mean…I’m not getting the cheese or sour cream. A dollar extra? But I’m not getting those things that are costing more so it kind of evens out – oh, never mind. I’ll eat at home.”

J is for Just kidding, as in, “I think it’s awesome that you think you’re rebelling against the status quo by eating bacon like just about every other shmuck on earth. Just kidding!

K is for Kale because, damn, sometimes you feel so broken down by the world you want to curl up in a ball but you should really try a vitamin infusion from this heavyweight of the produce world instead. Or fine, curl up in a ball instead. Like a gallstone, it'll pass.

L is for Listening, which we are forced to patiently do, while nodding on top of that, as people explain that they're not eating all that much red meat anymore.

M is for Michael Pollan and the zombie-like band of self-important meat fetishists that he helped to spawn. Thanks, Michael. The world wasn't heartbreaking enough before artisan, slow-roasted suckling pig was on every foodie's wish list.

N is for New Year's Resolution, in which you intend to be less bothered by the world, and it works pretty well until January third or so.

O is for the Orange wool scarf you got for Christmas and you need to try to exchange this year without a receipt. O is also for limiting the Occasions that will come up for your sister-in-law to see you in the winter without it.

P is for Prissy. You are not prissy! You are Principled and Perhaps Perfectionistic and occasionally Persnickety but you are not Prissy. Oh, so what if you are?

Q is for Questions: do you get enough protein? Are your shoes leather? What about the homeless? Did you hear that tofu will make your son start menstruating out of his nipples: I read this in a very reliable study funded by the Weston A. Price Foundation...

is for, "Really? Are you sure about that?"

S is for Sanctimonious, which, apparently, you automatically are if you have convictions.

T is for Thankful, which you're supposed to feel so much you want to start spontaneously pirouetting for the dead, tortured turkey on the dining room table, the stuffing jammed into the poor bird's anal cavity that you're supposed to be able to eat somehow, the cousin who decides that now would be the perfect time to gloat to you about how she convinced her son to stop being a vegetarian. You're so Thankful you could just burst right there.

U is for Unpleasant. Sometimes it just is.

V is for Vegan, long 'e', hard 'g.' No, Mom, not veggin. How long have we been working on this? No, not vaygun! Never vaygun. I am not clenching my teeth. VEGAN. Vegan. Yes, I'm sure that's how it's pronounced.

W is for Why does everyone think that you are suddenly and single-handedly responsible for creating a solution for every hardship or injustice in the world, natural or man-made, just because you're vegan? How is this fair or rational?

X is for Xylophone. What does a xylophone have to do with veganism? Well, what does the claim that your neighbor's sister's daughter's best friend was allegedly vegan for a week and her skin turned bright green and then she died of aneurism have to do with it, or the fact that while being one you still can't suddenly and single-handedly cure every injustice in the world, or the PETA recently did something embarrassing and stupid that was on the news, or the fact that Drew Barrymore is no longer one have to do with it? So, yes, xylophone.

is for Zingers, because even the most dour, humorless vegan in the world has built up a reservoir of plenty of these over the years. It just happens.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

She Who Laughs Last…

This past week, I've been thinking sort of obsessively about the role of the clown, and humor in general, as it relates to advancing culture and causes. If the personal is the political as the formative women’s studies professors in my past asserted - and I agree - we are obligated to start with ourselves. Like I need an excuse to start with myself: self-indulgence is the writer’s most essential motivation and reward all in one, right behind self-expression.

[Why is writing about humor so dreadfully tedious and unfunny? The process is deeply humbling. Despite this, I assure you that I am a barrel of laughs, a hoot, riotously funny. Present moment excluded.]

The first time that I understood that I really, really liked to make people laugh probably took place earlier than this, but that most obvious first internal click that I recall happened when I was about five or six. A man was at our house to talk to my mother about insurance or something equally soporific and as he sat at the dining room table with her, talking about boring, stupid things, my brother and I chased each other around the room, inspired by the novelty of having an unfamiliar visitor. For some reason, I had a styrofoam cup in my mouth as I chased after my brother, and I slipped on the tile floor and fell, which caused the cup to break off in my mouth. This elicited a big laugh from our visitor. In hindsight, it may have actually been a polite little chuckle, it may have been a titter or a full-on, hearty guffaw, but whatever it was, it was unexpected and highly appreciated. For the rest of his visit, I tried to recreate that unintentional pratfall to ever-diminishing returns. Of course, the insurance salesman didn't laugh again, just adjusted his glasses and returned to his papers, and eventually my mother barred me from the room, but it is easy to see in retrospect that a desire to make people laugh was internally wired from an early age.

Maybe I’m naturally inclined toward clowning because of The Jewish Thing, programmed through an ancestral DNA imperative to distract the guys with the daggers and rifles long enough to survive another day. Maybe it's the result of trying to bring levity and fun to an often claustrophobically unhappy house. Probably it's the confluence of a bunch of factors that astrologers, birth order experts and numerologists can argue over. In whatever case, the end result is that I'm someone who consciously and unconsciously strives to be funny, and, as such, I’ve always looked for the comedy in life. A life without absurdity, inside jokes and the well-timed aside would be such a flat, empty and dreary one that it makes me depressed to even consider it. Like you know how you feel when you're all congested from a bad cold and you can barely feel anything for a couple of days but your clogged up, numb head? That's how I imagine a life without humor to be, a vast internal Siberia.

When I first became involved in advocacy, I was in college. Even though I knew that I was supposed to be serious, grim and strident to be respectably outraged by society, I quickly became bored by anything that seemed like a traditional display or form of protest. As a painting major, it was also expected that I be serious, grim and strident and as much as my wardrobe reflected the Gothier side of life, my spirit did not conform. Why shouldn’t I have been happy? I was out of my parent's home. I had a revolving door of cute, irresponsible boyfriends who set my heart ablaze. I was able to drink what I wanted (and, boy, did I), eat ice cream for dinner, and stay out as late as I wanted along with countless other perks. These were all reasons for a celebration, not sour-faced moping. I couldn’t hide my exuberance and I was told directly and indirectly more than once that I needed to tone it the heck down if I wanted to be taken seriously. Occasionally I bowed to social pressure but usually I did not: I couldn’t suppress myself. 

Despite my instinctive rebellion against how the traditional protest takes shape, I have done my share. I have stood with countless signs, collected signatures, exchanged words with smug passersby. I have marched, yelled, and chanted with the best of ‘em and I have no doubt that I’ll do those things again. I know that sometimes they’re absolutely appropriate and effective. I just believe that the most successful, persuasive advocates work with their best skills front and center. Being creative with our activism, being fluid and treating it as unique to us as our fingerprints, is essential for our messaging and our longevity as activists. I believe that so many people get burned out on this work because they are not doing the sort of outreach that they excel at and enjoy, whether it’s handing out educational materials, organizing vegan bake sales, suing animal abusers or starting a shelter for dogs and cats.

The pivotal moment when my personal advocacy changed was about twelve years ago, when my husband and I were going out to meet some local activists for a protest in front of McDonald’s for World Vegetarian Day. As much as I wanted to see my friends and let the world know how much I loathe McDonald’s, I dreaded going. Every year, it was the same thing: go to the River North McDonald’s, get mocked by smirking tourists, chant for about an hour, pass out some brochures (and pick up the ones that get tossed on the ground), load up the signs and go home. That year, though, I decided that I was done with business as usual. I just couldn’t abide another year of it. So an image flashed in my head, and I found myself spontaneously telling my husband as it developed in my mind like a vision, “What if I go as a veggie burger this year and hand something else out?”

I am lucky to have the partner I do for many reasons. He’s a kinder, more patient, more considerate person than I am many times over. On this day, though, the qualities I most appreciated were his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get behind one of my schemes and his handiness. The man is an artsy MacGyver with an Exacto knife and foam board. He constructed a colorful sandwich board of a veggie burger that I could wear and I was immediately transformed into my vision: Valerie Veggie Burger. The Chicago Diner agreed to let us distribute two-for-one veggie burger coupons, and my nifty husband put together a nifty new brochure for us to distribute. (You should have seen the well-intentioned but virtually unreadable materials – bad photocopies of print outs from ten years before - we were handing people in the 1990s.)

The experience was transformative: instead of people dodging me and averting their eyes, they came to me, seeking what I was handing out. Instead of jeers, I got smiles and thumbs up. Instead of people covering up their children’s eyes, they took my brochure and had them pose for photos with me. Instead of people mumbling that I should “get a life,” they came to me and started conversations, asking for ideas of where to eat. It opened up whole new dialogue opportunities and created a fresh way of relating to each other that wasn’t defensive or aggressive. The dismantling of the old dynamic was disarming enough that we could actually communicate in a way that was real and mutually beneficial.

After I got a taste of what it could be like to stray from the traditional format, I couldn’t get enough, and being the person I am, it usually took on elements of street theater. We handed out green ribbon-bedecked vegetarian dining guides to Chicago on St. Patrick’s Day with the title “Erin Go Broccoli” instead of Erin Go Bragh. I marched in Gay Pride as Valerie Veggie Burger (my husband was Tommy Tofu Dog) and we amused the revelers with our “Eat me!” signs. We put on puppet shows to the lines of people in front of the Shedd Aquarium. Two of my favorite memories: my husband dressed up as a guitar-playing fox and a happy group of us who toasted our good fortune with champagne, singing joyful songs outside of Andriana Furs when a location went out of business: we actually were able to hand-deliver an oversized card we’d made to them, one that said on the outside, “Congratulations on the new chapter in your business…” Inside, it said, “Chapter Thirteen!”  Another time, we went to a rodeo protest, with him dressed as a bull and me as a violent, idiotic circus clown: it was a great opportunity to torment my obliging husband for the purposes of satire.

Not everyone loves this style of activism, that’s clear. Although I noticed that in general fellow activists found their spirits invigorated with our unique approach, others accused us of being silly, making grave issues seem too lighthearted. I can understand the criticisms but I disagree: satire, wit and irreverence should not be underestimated for their sly way of making people challenge their accepted views. Historically, we can look to Jonathan Swift and Oscar Wilde, political cartoonists, Dorothy Parker and the Merry Pranksters, and we can find that their influence on culture leads us today to Jon Stewart, Dan Piraro and countless others who are upending accepted social mores, exposing the absurdity in conventional thought, and have a talent for incisive wit, forcing people to stop and think about things they’d scarcely even noticed before.

This is unproven, but my guess is that if you can make a person laugh, you can make a person think. It’s the same pathway to the brain. If people are more likely to approach you because the way you’re communicating is more appealing, or if they are challenged to think of things in a fresh way because you’ve reframed an issue, I cannot see the harm in it. In fact, using a diversity of approaches is very much to our benefit. Thankfully, it doesn’t need to be an either/or dichotomy: we can draw from as many sources of inspiration as we like.

More important than the issue of whether to use humor or not in one’s advocacy is that we bring our talents, perspective and passions to the table instead of feeling forced into roles that do not fit us. As I said earlier that is a recipe for burnout and the animals very much need for us to stay engaged, empowered and productive. 

Over the years, my personal contribution has become more and more fine-tuned and specific, clearly favoring writing over even my old passion for street theater. When I can merge comedy with writing, that is my ideal point of entry. As I did with the insurance salesman, I’m still seeking that serendipitous comedic moment, that burst of unexpected laughter, and that’s what drives me forward with my advocacy.

But enough about me. What is a passion of yours? How can you utilize it to help make the world a more compassionate place? My guess is that identifying this passion and finding a smart way to harness it (and there has to be a way) is going to be the very best way that you can make a positive difference in the world. It is certainly a better long-term plan than adhering to a tired stereotype or someone else’s notion of what an activist is supposed to be, don’t you think?

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #30

Adopting a vegan diet is the single best way you can reduce your ecological footprint and make a stand against cruelty to animals. Focusing on locally grown, seasonal and whole plant foods further boosts your health and environmental stewardship. Find a community (online or otherwise), get some cookbooks and set some goals for yourself. A vegan diet is imminently do-able!

Monday, November 29, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #29

Want some kitchen-tested vegan holiday cookie recipes in an e-book format for a mere $3.00? VegNews Magazine is venturing into the digital cookbook realm with their Holiday Cookie Collection, which includes recipes Spicy Gingerbread and Candy Cane Whoopie Pies. Impress your family and friends this holiday season with some delicious vegan treats.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #28

Chilly weather brings to mind cocoa. The best kind is dairy (and cholesterol) free with fair-trade cocoa and cute little air-puffed, gelatin-free marshmallows. For four mugs, heat 4 cups of unsweetened non-dairy milk, 4 tablespoons of agave nectar and 2 tablespoons of vanilla over medium heat until very hot (not boiling). Whisk in 8 tablespoons of unsweetened cocoa powder and enjoy!

Saturday, November 27, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #27

Being an urban-dweller can mean that we don't get to see much in terms of wildlife. Many people support zoos and aquariums just so their children will get a chance to see a variety of animals. Please reconsider supporting industries that keep wild animals in captivity and out of their natural habitats. Animal sanctuaries offer a wonderful opportunity to connect more deeply with non-human animals in a non-exploitative, compassionate environment. Sanctuaries need our volunteer time and donations. If there are none near you, two words: Road Trip!

Friday, November 26, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #26

Today is Fur Free Friday. My guess is that most readers of this post do not wear fur or support the evil fur industry. In the spirit of the day, though, please take some time to learn more about the fur trade to educate others. Forty-five million animals are brutally killed with steel-jaw traps, gassed, electrocuted and even skinned alive. Please let the people in your life know the truth about these horrible "luxury" items.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Vegan World Month Tip #25

Vegan Thanksgiving meals can be amazing celebrations of the earth's bounty. Imagine all the colors, textures and fantastic flavors available to us: pomegranates, roasted Brussels sprouts, pumpkin-flavored desserts. A vegan celebration is not lacking in anything and reinforces the message of gratitude of this holiday.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #24

Please consider sponsoring a turkey from a farmed animal rescue in the true spirit of Thanksgiving this year. Your sponsorship fee helps to pay for food, medical care and anything else the rescue needs to maintain good care of the animal throughout the year. The small donation very far with these amazing organizations!

Omnivore: Fail

This essay was born of the recent trend of people publicly disavowing their once passionately held vegan or vegetarian beliefs. For many years, when people would identify themselves to me as former vegetarians, I would counter, tongue-in-cheek, that I was a former omnivore. This is my attempt to flesh out my inability to thrive - emotionally, spiritually and physically - as an omnivore. 

I wanted to be an omnivore. I really did.

The path from which I began straying from omnivorism was painful, difficult, heart-wrenching even. People might try to tell me that I did something wrong, that I just didn't try hard enough, but they are mistaken: I tried with all my being to live as an omnivore. When it shattered around me, I wondered how could something that I believed with such a passionate, deeply held conviction - that animals were ours to do what we pleased with - be wrong? Who was I if I were no longer an omnivore? My core values, my deepest beliefs about my place on the earth, were inextricably tied to my omnivorism. When things started going downhill with my animal consumption, when it no longer felt like a natural or decent thing to do, I grieved for that part of myself that I was losing and desperately tried to cling to it more tightly. It was no use, though: eating animals was making me sick, literally and figuratively. Toward the end, it was clear that I was just going through the motions.

If I can trace my falling out with omnivorism, the path would lead back to our family dog. His being helped to usher in the first inkling that something was wrong. I could observe that he had emotions, that he had preferences and the same reasons anyone else would have for not wanting to be exploited, abused, killed. Then, somehow, this view expanded outward, try as I might to contain it, and it grew like a thing out of control to encompass the birds, pigs, cows. Before I knew it, it no longer felt justifiable or rational to eat some but not others.

In other words, it no longer felt natural.

That first bite of cheeseless pizza was something I dreaded but in reality, it was remarkably easy and welcoming. Despite this new consciousness that nagged at me, I tried to continue to live like I had grown accustomed to living, to put cheese on that pizza. I even tried to put chicken on it, but I couldn't bring myself to live the lie any longer. When I threw away the cheese, tossed the chicken in the garbage, it just felt so profoundly right: even more, when I piled the pizza high with gorgeous roasted vegetables, a cornucopia from our local farms, it just felt so correct, deep inside, and I felt the ancient echo of uncomplicated contentment I had been missing from my life for so long as an omnivore. I don't know if I had ever been so hungry or had that innate hunger so completely satisified. Yes, my starving soul nearly screamed with each voluptuous bite of silky roasted vegetables and chewy crust, yes.

I knew then that my days as an omnivore were numbered. I was entering a territory I'd long scorned and derided. The more I tried to force my body to listen to my head, the more it became an inevitability: my body was insisting on becoming herbivorous despite my most fervent wishes.

Nearly from the beginning, when I would see produce in the farmers markets, I realized that there was no escaping the fact that I was part of their demise. The snow peas, proud carrots, pears, ripe little raspberries: they once burst with life. In the market, they are still colorful and plump, but they are no longer alive. They were killed for me. Not long after intitially dabbling in veganism, I realized that I couldn't ask another to do bring these plants to market without being able to face the process myself, so as I moved away from omnivorism, I decided to start my own garden. At first, I started small, just a few packets of salad greens in a sunny little patch, but as I've fully moved toward a life rich in plant material, it has since grown much larger.

As uncertain as I was at first, I still took deep pride in the tender shoots that confidently sprang up and thrived because of my care, because of my nurturing. They could be natural, fully realized vegetables in their ideal setting with the sun warming their leaves, the wind in blowing through their stems, rain gulped thirstily by their roots. That first year of gardening, I understood on a deeper level something that I'd always known: to live was also to die, and that the natural order after birth and life would be death. When it came time to pluck those first spring lettuces, soft, sweet and delicate like a baby's satiny cheek, I was distraught. I cried and thought of asking a friend to do it instead, one who had done this many times before in his own garden. "No," I told myself. "No, I need to do this."

And so I took a deep breath and I did it, tentatively at first. My stomach hurt, my hands seemed shaky. The peppery arugula, the red leaf, the baby mizuna, they yielded at once to my touch, like a sigh. They were so alive at one moment, so clearly no longer attached to the earth the next.  As much as it pained me to admit it, pulling them just felt natural and right. The depth to which I felt that I was at the right place at the right time doing the right thing was profoundly stirring. Once the initial sadness subsided, I immediately realized that I was doing more than pulling up plants. I was reconnecting with my vegetable-loving ancestors. My fingers were digging in the rich soil, pulling up the plants and brushing off the dirt to return to the cycle of life and death in my garden. It felt like a dance. The thing I thought I would never do - could never do - felt as intuitive and native to me as anything I'd ever experienced. And I thanked the greens as I collected them in my colander: thank you for giving your life to me.

Almost immediately after I quietly shifted from being an omnivore, I found that I had more energy. I felt lighter, liberated, and the heaviness I'd once felt after a big meal filled with meat and cheese was no longer evident. My heart was light, too, unburdened of the weight of all those hard, undigestible feelings that I'd suppressed for so long. I felt like singing to the world, “This feels right! Finally, I am back to being who I was meant to be!”

I dared not tell my friends, though, the omnivores who expected me to maintain the status quo, who expected me to eat chicken wings with them, to laugh at the selfish, smug meat-abstainers we knew. How could I keep my secret safe at Super Bowl parties, after-work get-togethers, holiday meals? The thought of my parents and how they would accept this betrayal of them and the core omnivorous values they raised me with brought me the most pain and worry. It was too much to bear at times and I suffered in my silence. I continued to eat my delicious stir-fries and curries, but I did it alone, surreptitiously, the light from the refrigerator the only thing illuminating me in my quiet, now-herbivorous kitchen.

Eventually, I couldn’t keep up the charade any longer and the deception I’d created came crashing around me. How many times could I tell co-workers that, no, I was saving money so I would not be going to order with them from the chicken place before they'd realize that something was up? How many creative ways could I conceal the lack of meat in my lunch before people begin to notice? How many times could I fail to take antacids or suffer from heartburn before those around me would start to wonder? When it all crashed down around me, precipitated by a busybody and a vegan cookbook I'd carelessly left out on my desk, it was horrifying but it was also a relief. The double-life I'd be leading was shattered, a permanent fissure finally ripped through. I could no longer keep the lie alive.

So today in the spirit of full disclosure, I lay myself bare. I am a failed omnivore. I did my best, I really did, for years and years but it just didn't work. The hamburgers, chicken wings, tuna casserole...ew. It's not you, it's me. Instead, when I bite into roasted red peppers, grilled corn on the cob, mangoes, black bean burgers, guacamole, I know this is me as I am. It just feels right. I love the voluptuousness, the harmlessness, the juicy, life-sustaining properties and I am no longer going to be shamed into hiding.

I am a failed omnivore. Judge me if you must, but please know that I tried my very best.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #23

On those days when life just seems overwhelming, a walk outside to reconnect with the natural world is all it can take to find your way out. Whether it's a twenty minute walk in your neighborhood, a hike in a nearby forest, a day trip or a weekend away to a quieter, beautiful place, this time outside can be incredibly restorative to our spirits. Don't run on empty: fill yourself up with nature.

Monday, November 22, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #22

Vegan Potluck! One of the best ways to try new foods and socialize is by organizing a vegan potluck. Get a list of friends together, pick a date and get moving! As the holidays are coming up, many people are looking for ways to bring friends and food together: why not organize a vegan potluck sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas? They are a lot of fun and not a lot of work.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

World Vegan Night Tip #21

New recipes make the world go 'round! When you feel like you're in a food slump, sometimes it's because you've been relying too much on old standbys. It can be easy to get into the habit of the same old boring meals, and it's just as easy to break that habit. Buy a new vegan cookbook (or check one out from the library), go to a website with great recipe ideas.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

World Vegan Night Tip #20

Movie night! Enjoy a night in with an eye-opening or heartwarming film: The Cove, Fast Food Nation, Peaceable Kingdom, The Witness, Super Size Me, to movies like Charlotte's Web and Babe. Movies have a way of influencing us in ways that are unique to the media. Either with friends over or alone, let a movie transport you.

Friday, November 19, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #19

Restaurants usually respond to a very simple supply and demand equation. If you have a restaurant in your neighborhood or near where you work with no or very limited options for vegans, going in and politely saying that you'd love to support them if they had more to choose from can work wonders. Get your friends to come in or call with requests, too. You will likely find that many are grateful for your help.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #18

Help dogs who are kept in in backyards year-round by keeping an eye on them. Do they have wind-proof and water-proof shelter? Do they have fresh water and dog food? Do they appear to be thin, injured or in decent shape? If you are uncertain, call a humane investigator anonymously at your local animal control. If there are no violations, offering to walk the dog and leave blankets may be helpful. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #17

Blog it! It costs nothing to start your own blog, it can be great fun and you'll meet other people around the world as your share your thoughts, recipes or whatever else you have to give the world. It's a fun creative outlet and you can help spread the word about compassionate living. What is your unique voice, what are your gifts? Don't worry if you don't have it all nailed down: your blog will evolve as you go.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #16

Community is everything. If you are new at "the vegan thing" or even if you have been doing it for a while, it is tremendously helpful to have a community of like-minded people around you who understand your point-of-view. You can find online communities, but don't underestimate how important one-on-one shared experiences are as well. Find a vegan community to improve your quality of life!

Monday, November 15, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #15

Think of all the places you go during the course of a day and all the opportunities for leaving educational materials behind. A Vegan Starter Kit is a great tool for learning about the cruelty-free lifestyle. Leave one or more behind at places where people love distractions:  on the train or bus, the hair salon, your gym, the local cafés.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #14

One really easy way to help animal shelters is to 1) volunteer and 2) donate. My son saved money through his allowance and bought a bunch of gently used towels and blankets at resale shops for the shelter we volunteer at once a week. Towels and blankets come in handy for creating a more comfortable environment for the animals and they are relatively inexpensive.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #13

Power smoothies! A great way to start out your day with a blast of cancer-fighting antioxidants is with a delicious, fruit-based smoothie. My favorite is with sliced frozen bananas, soaked and seeded dates, orange juice, frozen raspberries, nutmeg, cacao powder and hemp or flax seeds. Switch out the OJ for non-dairy milk for a creamier smoothie. There are limitless combinations you can try.

Friday, November 12, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip # 12

It is easy to become discouraged by the sheer enormity of cruelty to animals in our society. I have noticed that many of us are also inclined to an "all or nothing" mentality. Many people give up being vegan because they feel they cannot be perfect enough. Set workable goals. For example, try to make more vegan meals this week, or the next time you buy a new pair of shoes, make them non-leather. This is not a purity contest: it's about making it work.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Thanksgiving without blinders...

Turkeys, like other animals unfortunate enough to please the human palate, are born to be forcibly impregnated, grow impossibly huge in the briefest amount of time possible, get wedged into a crowded, horrid place and are then killed, plucked, decapitated, plastic-wrapped, sometimes frozen, shipped and consumed in quick order. They are born for the sole purpose of being slaughtered in a hurry, to be literally served on a platter. They are stuffed with wild rice or dried bread or even oysters, they are basted in their own oils and they are roasted until golden, until the little plastic thermometer pops out, until the timer goes off. Limbs are removed and their flesh is carved until just the skeleton of a once-living bird remains. On Thanksgiving alone in this country, 46 million birds’ corpses are said to symbolize the spirit of the day and as such are expected to evoke warm feelings of gratitude, blessings and togetherness.

I apologize if this sounds strident or condescending, but this is what happens on Thanksgiving, right?

Is it really so strange that vegans look at the world, at the accepted norms and values around us, with an outsider’s perspective of incredulity and dismay? We have this built-in refractive lens, cultivated over years or in one big epiphany that changes us forever, a lens that makes it impossible to see what others may take as a birthright and accept it as the truth. We have a different sort of vision and sometimes it renders us pretty incapable of feigning otherwise. This isn’t always so. Speaking personally, it is often the fact that I can put blinders on that makes life manageable. Those blinders are not always reliable, though.

Sometimes when someone is eating an ice cream cone, I see dairy cows in confinement, their babies wrenched away and milk stolen. I cannot help it; it’s not that I want to see that. There are times when I’m on the train and I see fur trim on the coat of a fellow passenger, and all I can think is miserytorturedeath until I can find something to distract myself with instead or one of us gets off the train, whatever happens first. I go to my son’s school sometimes and the smell from the cafeteria immediately brings to mind crowded broiler hens with their beaks seared off. I don’t want my mind to go there, I’ve tried to train myself over the years to do anything but think of it, but sometimes I cannot control these gut reactions. They’re honest responses to a violent world I can’t pretend doesn’t exist and doesn’t affect me.

People who ask vegans to not know and feel what we know and feel are asking us to be complicit in a lie, in a crazy-making mass deception that says that what is plainly obvious does not really exist, and if it really does exist, it’s not so awful. Speaking of it is far worse.

Around the Thanksgiving table this year, many of us will be told in subtle and overt ways to muffle what we know and just play along with the annual charade society has created around the holiday. We are the minority in our families and in our communities: we are the ones who need to make the accommodations. That is not a dead bird on the table: it is a symbol of our family bond, of our blessings. The happiness of the event depends on us maintaining the lie, averting our eyes and just getting over it already. Even if you don’t eat parts carved off the dead bird, you should smile and be nice. In such situations, it’s impossible for me to not think of an abusive alcoholic who insisted that his family pretend that everything was acceptable and okay.

It is not acceptable and okay. It’s also no surprise that every year around this time, things start boiling up more than usual between herbivores and omnivores. It is just damn hard to pretend to not see what one does.

This doesn’t mean that the vegans at these countless Thanksgiving meals need to be rude or standoffish. It doesn’t mean that we’re going to force everyone in attendance to watch Meet Your Meat. It means that we’ve already determined that we’re not going to play along with this lie that everything is all right. Most of us will white-knuckle it and power through, concentrating on our beautiful side dishes, trying to not look up too much. Others of us are able to truly disengage and close ourselves off, feeling not much.

This year, as I’ve been doing for many years, I am fortunate enough to be going to a vegan Thanksgiving celebration. No one will ask me to be complicit in a lie. I will not ruin the day for refusing to “take just one bite and make everyone happy.” It will not be implied that I am a ridiculous extremist for maintaining my convictions, even on Thanksgiving. It will not be implied that I’m selfish for being the way I am, the way that feels right to me. I will not be resented for being the elephant in the room, and I will not resent others. I will laugh and enjoy myself and eat without judgment.

It will be a day of true gratitude and love, consistent with the true spirit of Thanksgiving.

World Vegan Month Tip #11

Circuses, rodeos and other forms of "entertainment" that use animals in confinement to amuse audiences use incredibly cruel methods to break the spirits of the animals and get performances, from using atrocious bullhooks to electric shocks as well as other forms of abuse. Please educate yourself: never support an industry that profits from the unjustifiable exploitation of animals and let your friends know why you will not be supporting them. 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #10

You know you're perfect just as you are, but if you ever want to add another level of sparkle to your natural glow, please consider buying cruelty-free cosmetics. By definition, vegan cosmetics are made without animal testing or animal-based ingredients. Also, choose more natural, paraben-free vegan cosmetics by letting companies know that there's a demand for it.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #9

To me, there's little better than a big salad at lunch to give me energy for the rest of the afternoon. My favorite is often the same: baby lettuces, lots of carrot strips (I use a vegetable peeler to make them into "noodles"), pitted kalamata olives, red onions, toasted walnuts (or chickpeas) and sometimes a diced apple in a homemade vinaigrette. My cat even begs for a bite. Who says you don't make friends with salad?

Monday, November 8, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #8

According to HSUS, animal shelters in the United States care for an estimated six to eight million dogs and cats each year, and between three to four million are euthanized. This is an unnecessary tragedy. Be a responsible guardian: keep your companion animals safe and healthy and commit to them for a lifetime. Please have any animals you have spayed or neutered. Last, please do not ever support pet stores or breeders as they are largely responsible for overpopulation. Adopt instead!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #7

Seek a mentor. If you are new at this vegan thing, it can be helpful to have a mentor with a few more years under his or her belt help you with everything from finding stylish shoes to the best deals on organic produce in your community. Conversely, if you're old hat at the vegan thing, why not make it easier for a newbie by offering some (solicited) guidance? Find others through your community's vegetarian society, vegan meet-up or school organizations.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #6

Vegan Chili! During these cooler months, sometimes a hearty chili is exactly what you need to warm that belly. There are seemingly endless variations, but sautéing vegetables, then adding them with beans, tomato sauce, chile powder, water, maybe tofu (or seitan or crumbled tempeh or even crumbled veggie burgers), then cooking it together until I can't wait any longer is my general method. Serve over rice or quinoa, with diced red onion, chili peppers, vegan sour cream and hot sauce on the side...mmm!

Friday, November 5, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #5

Libraries are a phenomenal resource in most communities, and many have well-stocked cookbook sections. This is a great way to "test drive" a cookbook before committing to it. Also, educate yourself about the benefits of a plant-based diet and the cruelties of animal-based agriculture with the books and films available. If you don't see what you're looking for, don't be shy about requesting that they order it.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #4

Slow cookers (a.k.a., crock pots) are amazing tools for working people or anyone who likes a flavorful, healthful meal with a minimum of effort. There is nothing like coming home to the aroma of an already cooked meal to make you feel energized. Usually requiring nothing more than a quick sauté and then loading the ingredients in the slow cooker for a set amount of time, you can easily prepare everything from vegan stews to lasagne in your trusty device. This book is an amazing resource for any dedicated slow cooker. (I recommend getting a model with a timer and an inside pot that can be removed from the base for easy transportation.)

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #3

Take care of yourself. If you're tired, sick and/or stressed, you're not a compelling role model. It's obvious that animal and earth advocates have our work cut out for us. This is why it's important that we keep ourselves physically and emotionally well. Take your B-12 and Omega 3 supplements, eat whole foods (emphasizing fresh produce), rest when you need to, take time to laugh, nurture interests and friendships. If you don't take care of yourself, you won't be effective for anyone else.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #2

To avoid that "It's 6:00: what's for dinner?" panic that many of us face, it pays to be organized. Often the meals we choose at the last minute aren't the healthiest, just the quickest. When you're trying to eat more healthfully and save money by eating more at home, keeping a binder full of your favorite recipes is a smart idea. Go through your cookbooks and copy your favorite recipes; print out the ones you like online. Having your favorite vegan recipes in one spot saves time and money

Monday, November 1, 2010

World Vegan Month Tip #1

There are frightening and unhealthy chemicals in many cleaning products, and so many are also tested on animals in laboratories. Carcinogens, volatile organic compounds (VOC) and phosphates are some of the dangerous by-products found in conventional cleaning products. Why not save yourself some money, create a healthier home environment and protect the environment by creating your own cruelty-free cleaning products? They are harmless, effective and cost a fraction of store bought brands.

World Vegan Month!

It's November 1 so that means it's World Vegan Month. For the second year, in honor of WVM, I will give a tip a day to help people adopt more compassionate and healthy steps toward adopting a vegan lifestyle, or help make it just a little easy for those who are already there. I'm excited!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

A Survivor’s Guide to Slasher Films

I was raised on horror movies. My mother didn’t like to see movies by herself so when I was growing up, if her friends Rose or Pearl weren’t available, I’d get to be her tag-along buddy at the old Old Orchard Theater, back when it was the bustling multiplex of its day. In the 1970s, there was very little concern or even awareness about keeping children out of “grown up” movies, so it was never an issue. I remember seeing a lot of disaster films and I’m pretty sure that I saw most of the famous ones: Airport, The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure, Two-Minute Warning. Anything with the threat of lots of people being annihilated, we were there, eating popcorn from the most right-in-the-middle seats we could find. I don‘t think that these movies made me any more worried about being in airplanes or a tinder box-like high rise: as long as Charlton Heston wasn’t in sight, I knew that I was safe. (Very coincidentally given everything, Charlton Heston’s mother actually lived on my block.) In between Smoky and the Bandit and its sequels, we saw a lot of horror movies: Audrey Rose, The Exorcist, The Omen, the kind of films with images that wormed their way into your brain and are nestled in there for a lifetime. 

My teen years were when slasher films came into prominence, perfectly dovetailing with that time in my life when Seventeen magazine and my own hormones conspired to turn my thoughts to clandestine adventures with boys: Friday the 13th, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Prom Night, Terror Train, the Halloween franchise. Slasher films are the specific classification of horror that is most true to my generation, and, in hindsight, it occurs to me that I learned a lot from these movies and the heroines who triumphed: how to be a successful survivor, how to avoid trouble, how to face it head-on if trouble comes your way. It would be an exaggeration (and a sad statement about my life) if I said everything I ever needed to learn in life, I learned from watching slasher films, but I still did learn a few very valuable lessons of what to do and what not to do in a slashtastic environment. Just in time for Halloween, I offer these examples for your consideration.

If you hear something crash, do not go exploring.

Just don’t. For God’s sake, who are you? Magellan? Don’t you see that it’s a little, well, foreboding out there? The lunatic has escaped the asylum, it’s the anniversary of a grisly event, the dogs are going crazy in the yard (though some of the wussier ones will just whimper and hide), the clouds are hanging dark and low, the local schizophrenic just said something disturbingly ominous and then cackled, it’s freaking Halloween! How many more signs do you need? You need one more? Okay, all the power suddenly went out in your home, just like that. Stop pressing on that stupid receiver button, has that ever worked? The phone is dead, too. Are you satisfied yet that something is askew? So something crashed upstairs or in the basement. Things happen. It was probably just some tacky glass figurine you hated anyway so I’m going to have to insist that you get out of the house NOW. You do not earn a merit badge for exploring: you get a pickaxe in your brain. MOVE. 

Also, do not leave your car. Ever.

So what’s a terrorized scream-queen to do? You get in your car – first check for psychos in the back seat, then immediately lock your dumb-ass 1970s-era car doors one-at-a-freaking-time and they’re all like five miles apart – and you drive. If some maniac jumps on the roof of your car, who freaking cares? You are encased in a motorized machine. Why would you get out? Why? Because some maniac jumped on your roof? So what? Take it up with Allstate when you’re safe and sound, reading Jane Austen and sipping cocoa by a fire. If you’re in a car and he’s outside of the car, you have a distinct advantage. See that little thing under your right foot?  It’s called an accelerator. Could you please, pretty please, just press your foot down really hard on this? I don’t care if you run out of gas – which, I can pretty much guarantee you, you will – stay in your car and blast your horn. If you get out of your car, you deserve what you will get. I’m not blaming the victim, but this whole chain of events could have been avoided if you didn’t go investigate in the first place.

Do not go to camp or anywhere out in the woods or in a boat on a body of water.

Stay in the city. If you’re not in a city, go to one and stay there. Despite the carjackings, muggings, and random, unprovoked harassment by strangers, you really will want to be in a city to stay safe and avoid the more misanthropic of sociopathic psychopaths. Disaster movies: they often happen in cities, psycho-killers, not so much. This only makes sense: if you hated humanity to the point where you terrorized and murdered any nubile teenager who crossed your path, where would you want to be? If I was the type who took deep breaths behind a hockey mask and mail-ordered scythes the whole month of October, who was consumed with an inexplicable-I-was-just-born-that-way enmity toward others, I would want to be around as few people as possible, just enough of a supply to satiate my appetite. I’d head for the camps, the woods and the lakes, that’s what I’d do, and I’d just wait for the drunk, slow teenagers to arrive. Even, as in Halloween, a sleepy, leafy suburb would do. Urban teens also have the advantage because they are much more street-smart and tough than your average voluptuous hayseed and her studly but slack-jawed suitor. City kids are not consumed with an ill-advised urge to “go explore” whenever they hear a crash inside the house. City kids have this little instinct called self-preservation coursing through their cynical veins and they know to run like hell. So stay in the city if you’re in one, go to the city if you’re not, and try not to let the horrifying bloodbath going on in the boonies bother you too much. Go check out the cool new restaurant around the corner instead, or maybe that indie boutique. You’re safe. Well, okay, not really. You're safe from from horror film lunatics.

Don’t have sex!

Listen, we get it. We’ve all been there. He’s really cute: you have hormones and then there’s peer pressure and even though you're totally not a slut, you think he’s really the one and all that, and maybe if you don’t have sex, there’s another whole back story about how you’re afraid you’ll lose him if you don’t. But listen to me: the ones who survive if a rampaging, madman is on the loose – the only ones – are the virginal ones. Your sexually active friends - P.J. Soles, I’m looking your way and, no, your gum-smacking and pigtails do not throw homicidal maniacs off your trail, these things infuriate them, apparently - and their lovers are impaled through mattresses time and again, and, no, that wasn’t a metaphor (at least by me). Crazed serial killers have a heightened morality in some regards and frown upon what they interpret as promiscuity. So don’t do it. Take a cold shower instead. Yes, by yourself. In a city, not in a podunk motel. And don’t check on any unexplained crashes. You should be safe to finally have sex when you’re in your mid-thirties.

Don’t be a Smart-Ass Buddy, either.

The Smart-Ass Buddy is the male counterpart to the sexually active female in a horror movie. Everyone knows that. So you think it’s funny to put on a mask and scare everyone for a brief moment before you start laughing like a hyena (I don’t know if hyenas really laugh, but work with me) and everyone is relieved for a moment because you are not actually a serial killer, you are a smart-ass buddy? Well, I’m sorry to tell you, but this kind of tomfoolery does not sit well with the guy in the mask lurking behind the window curtains so you’ve pretty much written your own autopsy at this point: death caused by beheading, a one-way pass through a woodchipper, tossed out of a stained glass window and then, after you limped off to the woods (no!), you were dismembered with a power saw. It’s your call, weisenheimer. Is it worth it to get a cheap laugh? No, not at all. The psychopath has a famously bad sense of humor about this sort of thing. He favors serious but not smug potential victims.

Think he's dead? Think again.

Okay, so somehow you - non-violent, virginal, serious you - have managed to dispatch the guy who naturally lives and breathes murder like bunnies were born to munch on grass. Never mind how. He had you cornered in a closet, he had all the weapons, the talent and the unstoppable drive to do it and all you had was a flimsy wire hanger, your screams, and a desire to not be eviscerated, but somehow you defeated every odd and not only survived but killed him. Or did you? First deaths do not count, have never counted, in slasher films. You have at least one, probably two or more deaths ahead of you and I’m not even going to mention the sequels. Time-wise, you are almost at the end but you’re not there yet. You don’t run 3/4 of a marathon and then stroll off to grab a coffee! When Jason or Freddie or Michael Myers appear to be lifeless and you have a clear path out, you do not lean against the wall and to sob and catch your breath. Now is not the time to reflect on your murdered boyfriend, your many friends who are now impaled on many camp beds. Now is the time for action. You wouldn’t break out your best stationary to start writing sympathy cards to all the parents who’ve lost their children to the guy you just killed, right? Nor do you even get on a damn rotary phone and start dialing! Listen, we’re proud of you, we really are. Should we ever be on the outs with a homicidal maniac, we’d want you on our team. The problem is that you are not safe until you are out of the house. Do you hear me? I thought we covered this in the first point. GET OUT, for cripes sake. Do you need a hand-written letter scrawled in blood and attached a rock that comes crashing through that big bay window? Will you understand then? You’ll get one soon enough if you don’t stop slacking. Leave already!

While we’re at it, stay away from windows, too.

Now why – why?! – if you’re being menaced by some furtive lunatic in the dark would you stand in front of a window and look out? He can see you, you can’t see him. When dealing with maniacs, you will want to level the playing field as much as possible. Standing in front of a window – one that was built to be crashed through – is just not using your noggin.

Babysitting is rife with occupational hazards.

Pity the poor babysitter. She’s not out on a date with some serial killer taunter: she’s earning money, she’s being responsible. She’s also just spent the night changing diapers, had Spaghetti-Os flung in her hair, stepped on countless Legos and read the same stupid book to the bratty three-year-old 17 times before he finally fell asleep for about $10.00 and now she has to deal with this annoying, whispering perv who keeps calling her. Calling her and asking her how the children are: has she checked the children? Of course, this is one of those houses with windows everywhere (see above) and it’s all really quite sucky. She ends up being harassed, threatened, tormented, and she hasn’t even been paid yet. Plus her clothes get torn. Here’s my recommendation: don’t go into babysitting. It’s totally not worth it. Get a job squeezing lemons at that one stand at the mall, fold shirts at the Gap, take up a paper route. Babysitting will kill you, no joke, and you’ll still have to change diapers before all that, and you don’t want to spend the last few hours of your young life with Cheerios in your bra because that seems totally unfair. Why walk into such an obvious trap? Get a job making lemon shake-ups at the mall instead. The worst you will risk is being embarrassed in front of your friends, an ugly uniform, a manager with bad breath leering at you and carpal tunnel. Comparatively, it’s a walk in the park.

So there you have it, my friends, a survivor’s guide to slasher films. Do not go exploring, don’t leave your car, stay in the city, don’t have sex, don’t be a smart ass, make sure they’re good ‘n dead, stay away from windows and don’t go into babysitting. You should be fine.


What was that noise?

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

This imperfect world, full of juicy and poisoned apples...

When we are young, when we are nineteen and twenty, things are so much more wonderfully simple. What a dreamy, lovely time. Yes, it’s more complicated in many ways - by juggling school, work, infatuations and drink specials, by our ricocheting emotional state - but simpler in that we think that for the first time in our lives, we feel that we have “finally” Figured It All Out. What is it that makes us so steadfastly certain about life at that stage? Is it a certain hormone that’s set to be released after high school but before our first serious job? My guess is that it’s the lack of nuance that youth and inexperience foster inside us that creates such intoxicatingly unclouded convictions at nineteen and twenty.

When I was a twenty-year-old feminist, I was insufferable to all but a select few. That was okay because I was certain that everyone else was a selfish idiot. After that first heady blush of fiercely feral conviction I experienced during my feminist awakening in college (oh, how I tormented the menfolk), I had another wave of intense certainty again when I became vegan at 27. As before, I was insufferable to all but a select few. I was certain that people who didn’t believe what I knew to be true were selfish idiots. That was the only reasonable explanation. Years under the belt and more experience have worked in tandem to smooth over most of those harsh edges: I know now that people who eat meat are not consumed with violent, sadistic bloodlust. Most are simply following customs that are ingrained in them and supported by our culture. Many feel very attached to certain foods – through traditions in their home, associations they have, simply because it tastes good to them – and it is not as easy for some to adopt a new way of living than for others. I was fortunate in that it was a fairly quick process for me once I was ready, accelerated by seeing a film I simultaneously wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy and also wish would be mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to continue to eat animal products. There are so many thoroughly unnecessary tragedies happening at once that it is paralyzing to contemplate. If there’s anything that I’ve learned, it’s that we live in a seriously messed up world created by some seriously messed up people with their seriously messed up ideas, and the idealists among us need to accept these simple truths and try to make the best of it. As vegans, we need to accept that some of the choices we have to make as the result of living in an imperfect world are also going to be imperfect.

Does this sound like cynicism, like giving up? I hope not, because I am not advocating either. It’s simply that there are always going to be compromises we accept that undermine our pure, Utopian beliefs, unless we want to close ourselves off to the rest of the world completely, that is. The thought of living in a non-violent, vegan, feminist paradise (one that manages to be artistic and fun-loving, too!) is deeply appealing but…it’s not here. The deeply idealistic 19-year-old in me wishes that I didn’t think that it could very well never be here. I could go off and live surrounded by those who live, think and feel like I do, but in my heart, I know that that’s not what I want. I am challenged by people who are not vegan all the time: my life is enriched and thoughts are broadened by those who come from different perspectives and experiences. Also, as someone who is cloistered and separate, how much could I really help to change attitudes with my isolation? Yes, I could be more of an unsullied visionary but I would be deluding myself if I thought I could bring positive change by living as a separatist.

So I choose to live in the real world, one that is very flawed. I’ve tried to carve out a place for myself here that works and I think that I’ve largely succeeded. Accepting my place in this temporal world, though, means acknowledging that it is flawed place and requires all kinds of compromises of those who live here. This sort of compromise means that the grocery store I shop at also sells meat. I support them with my money because I don’t know any other way, realistically, unless I were to live completely self-sufficiently. It means that I buy some vegan items from non-vegan companies. I also support them with my dollars because although I’d love to give my money to exclusively vegan companies, there aren’t enough around to have that luxury, and I think it is a very elite, or intentionally isolated, few who can be afforded that privilege. This also means countless other compromises, too many to list, that wear away at the sharply defined edges and reassert that I live in the real world, dwell among people who do not live, think or feel like I do.

I am not a separatist. If that’s what I wanted, and if I thought that was what would do the most positive, lasting effect on the world, that would be what I’d do. Frankly, at times it’d be an easier choice: cut off the stuff I dislike. It is easy to sit on a secluded mountaintop and issue condemnations of how others live, but it is hard to live honestly and engaged in this flawed world with that sense of personal purity intact. Life is messy. Once you put yourself out there – take in a disabled parent who loves to order bacon when she eats out (and more than twenty years of your comments have made no impression), for example, or adopt a cat who loves to eat moths, flies, mice, any creature that moves – you allow for some measure of compromise.  This doesn’t mean that you accept the violence of the world. It simply means that you accept the truth that violence exists. When you also have to make decisions that are imperfect because of how this flawed world operates, well, that is life, at least for now. I will do my best to change the things I can but I didn’t become a vegan so I could feel superior to everyone else. I became a vegan because it was consistent with my values and I wanted to do the most good possible. Sometimes the most good possible is still tinged with defects just as I am still tinged with defects.

Maintaining someone else’s standard of perfection is not my goal. My goal is to live a dynamic, compassionate, happy and challenging life. I want to live the hell out of this life I’ve got. Sitting on a metaphoric mountaintop so I can keep my hands clean and issue judgments with impunity? That’s not for me.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Wheat-free, vegan Pumpkin-Cream Cheese Brownies

I don't care how much my West Coast friends make their little cutting remarks to me in the deep, dark heart of January, stories about going to the beach and working up a sweat on their bike rides, I love where I live for many reasons, the dramatically changing seasons chief among them. If you poll your friends who live in the Chicago area, you'll probably find that a sizable percentage are like me and love autumn most. With the bright, bold leaves, the crisp air, the crunch under our shoes, that tantalizing, thrilling feeling that Halloween brings to our hearts, it is a sensuous, free-spirited time of year, a last hootenanny before the deep freeze of winter settles in. Also, after a hot summer, it's time for us to start those ovens again, filling our homes with the great, comforting smells we associate with the season: pumpkin, nutmeg, vanilla. The idea for these brownies seized my imagination for a day before I gave in and my test kitchen was open for business. Pumpkin, cream cheese, chocolate chips: a symphony of both mild and rich flavors, it was even better than I imagined. The morning after? They are insane.

These brownies are wheat-free and, unless you have Celiac disease, gluten-free. Oats are naturally gluten-free, but are cross-handled with gluten containing grains like wheat, barley and rye in mills and processing plants. For those who are like me, people who do not have not had a diagnosed allergy but have difficulty digesting gluten, oats are usually fine. (For those who need a more strict avoidance of gluten, there are oats, such as a variety sold by Bob's Red Mill, that are handled separately and are therefore gluten-free.) The flour I used here is made from oats, and it can be used from grinding quick rolled oats in the blender or buying already ground oat flour. This flour is substantial enough to give your brownies the structure they need without adding too much weight. (Feel free to substitute the kind of flour you prefer.) The pumpkin purée adds a rich texture and subtle flavor without any fat; the cream cheese-pumpkin topping adds a cheesecake-like finish to something that was already kind of amazing. As always with vegan baking, these babies are cholesterol-free. To heighten the seasonal flavor, you might want to try a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice blend (cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice) in the cream cheese topping.

Pumpkin-Cream Cheese Brownies

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly oil an 8 X 8-inch baking pan.

In a small bowl, whisk together the following ingredients:

1/3 cup + 2 Tb. pumpkin puree (not pumpkin pie purée)
1/3 cup + 1 T. maple syrup
1/4 cup oil (olive or safflower is ideal)
1 tablespoon vanilla

In a larger bowl, stir together the following:

1 cup oat flour
2/3 cup natural, unbleached sugar
1/2 cup chocolate chips (add 1/4 cup for the topping!)

Then, sift in the following:

1/2 cup cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

Stir together, and add the wet pumpkin mixture from above. Stir until everything is well combined and then add it to the prepared pan. 

Pumpkin-Cream Cheese Topping

1 8-ounce container room temperature vegan cream cheese (I like the Follow Your Heart brand)
1/3 cup natural, unbleached sugar
3 tablespoons pumpkin purée
2 tablespoons arrowroot powder
1 tablespoon oat flour
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon nutmeg or pumpkin pie spice blend

In a mixer or using electric beaters, mix together the cream cheese, sugar and pumpkin purée until it is smooth. Then add the rest of the ingredients, processing until smooth.

Smooth this over the brownie batter, and sprinkle 1/4 cup of chocolate chips over the top. Bake for twenty minutes at 350 degrees, rotate a half turn, and lower the temperature to 325 degrees. Bake for twelve more minutes, until the cream cheese is a little tan around the edges. Let it cool, preferably on a wire rack.

Now go take a walk. Seriously, this is part of the recipe. Enjoy the beautiful maple trees, peeking with color. Throw a stick for your dog or borrow your neighbor's dog for this purpose. Don't come back for at least 30 minutes. You have to let your brownies cool for at least that long before cutting and enjoying, otherwise they'll fall apart. These are best cool, stored in the fridge.

Happy autumn, everyone!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

After the Mania...

For the second year now, we worked and planned and laughed and made scowling faces over the details for months before it happened, and then it blew through town like a tornado. It's sort of like a wedding where every aspect of it has been pushed and pulled and fussed over for months, and then, before you know it, you're standing there in your tulle and the janitor is slowly sweeping up the last of the sparkly confetti. It's a little melancholic, naturally, but that's how it has to be.

Chicago VeganMania is a little beastly, to be honest, a friendly gorilla, but a gorilla nonetheless, and it's often pretty overwhelming to try to manage. It has a life of its own and it marches to its own beat: we can try to control it, we can try to coax it with bananas and belly rubs, but we really can't. The best we can hope for is to plan for what we would like and hope that it is amenable to our ideas.

What happens behind the scenes is always rich material for those of us who find comedy in the absurd. There were quite a few last minute cancellations of speakers and food vendors. There was scrambling to find volunteers, to find a place worthy of receiving all that waste that'd been so meticulously sorted (only four bags of actual trash, go Green Team!), searching for rides to and from the airport. There are only about ten of us who work on making Chicago VeganMania happen and it feels like scaling a mountain sometimes and we don't have any fancy equipment from Erehwon, we just have what we happen to have on us. As a perfectionist, it almost caused me physical pain when some balls (or teaspoons and bowls) were dropped. Oh, and there were occasional equipment failures. It was too loud, it was too hot. There were also moments of sheer panic. We weathered it together as a team, and we did so with everyone working hard but with grace. Again, there's the mountain climbing metaphor because sometimes when you have something this huge in front of you, all you have is what is on your body: foot, hand, foot, hand, breathe...

I am inclined to browbeat myself over what went wrong but when I have some perspective, I can see that most people were happy. Very happy. They were ensconced in a little vegan paradise for a day, a place where ingredient labels didn't need to be scrutinized, where they were surrounded by businesses, non-profits and people they love, where they were the norm for the day. Most of the vegans I know are on the rebellious side and truly embrace going against the grain. We are different and we wouldn't have it any other way. There can be something so reassuring, though, to just be around others who relate to our experiences, share many of our convictions, our joys and sorrows. You can relax in this sort of company: your guard can be relieved from his or her post. What I saw on Saturday was so many happy, radiant, animated faces taking it all in. This was a day for us a day to celebrate our unique, creative and ever-evolving culture. What's not to love?

Yes, things can be improved upon. We need way more volunteers than we have. (Ideally, some of those volunteers should be more pragmatic and detail-oriented as we seem to be imbalanced toward favoring the visionary/impractical people.) We need to run a much tighter, better organized ship. It I could take a time machine and a big eraser to fix the day and one major thing, it'd be to improve the cooking demo area. The spirit, the energy and creativity were all there, though, and I think people responded really well to it. In describing our event the other day I came up with the idea that it is a big vegan house party. That's what it is: it is not an expo.  It is not primarily focused on converting or even educating people. It is a celebration. As simple as that sounds, the idea of a vegan celebration is still a pretty radical idea considering the expectations people have.

It's strange to work so hard for something and then to have it disappear. I think about those monks creating their intricate sand mandalas over days or even weeks, only to have them naturally whisked away by the wind. They were beautiful while they lasted, though. It's an exercise in non-attachment, of appreciating the moment, of creating beauty for its own sake. Maybe this will be my final metaphor: Chicago VeganMania is kind of like a sand mandala (a big, loud one). We put it out there with the best expectations and hope that it is received as we intend for it to be. Its evanescence and the subjective nature of the experience is part of what makes it feel so magical. It is a short-lived gift to the community we love so much.

We'll be back next year, better than before.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Pushing the wave (Chicago VeganMania)...

Back when I started with this business of being vegan, back in the Mesozoic era of the mid-1990s when terrifying winged beasts beat their wings in circles above us and all the milk in local coffee shops came from udders, life ticked along at a distinctly different syncopation. In Chicago, there were usually between twenty and thirty of us who were consistently active, and we met monthly in church basements or spare rooms at the library. Photos from the time were, to put it bluntly, strange: fervent activists in their twenties working side-by-side with sad-eyed animal lovers in their sixties, with few ages represented in between. Back in the day, we got loopy from marker vapors together when we made our protest signs, we looked through an endless stack of boxes in a volunteer's basement to find the musty old chicken costume and played rock-paper-scissors to determine who would almost faint while wearing it at the World Vegetarian Day leafletting, we licked envelopes, people, and lugged all the newsletters to the post office downtown four times a year. We passed our favorite catalogue around the table at Mandy's house and put in group orders together for t-shirts, buttons, stickers. I still have one of those shirts, worn in and cozy like a favorite baby blanket, a black ink Rorsharch splotch on a sleeve from one of our marathon sign-making sessions. It's in the drawer of t-shirts designated only as sleep wear these days. It just has words on it: No, I don't eat meat. Yes, I get enough protein. No, my shoes aren't leather. Yes, I have a life. This shirt encapsulated the experience of a vegan animal advocate, and that particular time in my life, perfectly. Every time I pull it out, it's like I'm transformed back to the day, and I'm standing outside of a circus again or I'm in front of the McDonald's in River North, standing with my friends, rolling our eyes at the dirty looks, making our far superior snide comments about the idiotic snide comments. It's a t-shirt, and a time, that always makes me smile in recollection. 

Although I am nostalgic for the sienna-toned quaintness of that time, for the passionate connection that face-to-face hands-on work creates, I am very grateful to be able to enjoy this particular time right now perhaps because i remember what it was like before veganism had gained a little foothold in our popular culture. We are still very small in actual numbers, but somehow, we've become a force to be reckoned with over the past decade, and the ripple effect of our influence is keenly felt. Recently, for example, I went with my son to an apple festival in the city. Back when I lived in that very same neighborhood of Lincoln Square, it was all about the German delis. (At the Brauhaus on a date, I asked the server if they had anything vegetarian and she recommended hasenpfeffer, rabbit stew, but thankfully I had seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon where the king angrily - and with imperious sibilance -  demanded it so I was nobody's fool. Who says cartoons have no value?) In other words, Lincoln Square was pretty much the opposite of a vegan mecca. Today, the German food and culture remains, but shuffled between everything is more than a little hint at the change that's happening. At the apple festival, I could walk into pretty much any café with a boy Who Suddenly Could Not Wait Even A Second Longer to use the restroom, and know that I could pick up something in the treats-for-bathroom barter system. Later, when we picked up soy- and fruit-based gelato it occurred to me once again, as my friend told to the guy behind the counter that they should carry more soy options, what a radically different culture my son is growing up in, thank goodness. Back in the 1990s, my friends and I would launch into spontaneous cartwheels and shout from the rooftops if one coffee shop offered a dry, tasteless vegan cookie or we spotted the v-word on a menu, elusive and magical like a purple unicorn, but today, my son and his little herbivorous urban peers take it for granted that there will be high quality vegan treats for them. Not only that, but they actually have a choice now because just chocolate or vanilla is soooo pre-school: pumpkin, cinnamon swirl, lemon poppyseed, blueberry-freaking-cream cheese. Yes, they're a generation of entitled little brats who will never have to walk three miles barefoot in the snow for mushy veggie burgers, but I can't describe the sense of happiness I feel when I go somewhere and we can just be like everyone else. (But cooler!)

A couple of things to make clear: a culturally diverse, large city, and all the bounty within, is in easy access. I understand that this effortlessness is not available everywhere and I am so appreciative of what we have here. Second, I don't mistake a proliferation of vegan cupcakes as evidence that the revolution is at hand. The revolution will not be found in a bag of powdered sugar. The shift is happening, though, and it is seismic and it is real, born of natural cultural change, smart outreach, talented animal advocates and people waking up to the inescapable reality that our dietary habits cannot continue if we are to continue. It has not translated into fewer animals being consumed or abused yet - these institutions are nothing if not entrenched - but I have no doubt that this will happen as the wave continues. What we are witnessing is this slow untangling in real time so we may not always see it in an obvious way, but make no mistake that it is happening. Imagine the evolution of the vegan lifestyle as it settles into our larger culture like stop-action photography, from 1995 until the present. The dust is still very much unsettled and I believe that the boomerang we tossed out is really in its infancy of its journey back, but progress is certainly happening. I have no doubt about that.

This all a very longwinded way to explain what I am up to these days. My husband and I, along with some of the very best kind of people you could know, are putting together an event called Chicago VeganMania, and it's happening October 9 at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse, 1419 W. Blackhawk in Chicago from 10:00 - 6:00. This is our second year. The driving force behind our event, the thing that gets us excited to send out press releases and answer questions about parking (okay, this last thing is an exaggeration) in addition to all the other work we're doing, is the idea of third and fourth wave activism. If you think back on the historic arc of social justice movements, which the animal advocacy movement is part of, you'll see that the first wave is usually confrontation. It's people not getting to the back of the bus, it is Stonewall. This is what propels us at the beginning, what gives us momentum and the passion. Education is next: this is the outreach, the written materials that make the case, the more recognizable advocacy work. Understandably, the vegan movement has largely centered around these first two waves of activism. What we are trying to do with Chicago VeganMania is to be a part of ushering in the next two waves: celebration, which is the sort of thing witnessed in cultural pride festivals, and integration, where the "whys" of veganism rarely come into play, and it is simply accepted as a normal and natural way of life. The first two waves are still vitally important and they work in tandem with what follows: it's not as though they dissolve when the next waves begin. It is an organic and fluid back-and-forth motion, as waves naturally will be, with different current systems throughout. We need the third and fourth waves, though, for the veganism to take root on a mass scale and become more than a fringe movement. This doesn't mean that we're adapting veganism for mainstream tastes: quite the opposite. By taking proud ownership and putting it out there in our unique and diverse ways with our unique and diverse gifts, we are ensuring that that this movement that flows outward whether we like it or not, will have our particular stamp on it. And our stamp is fabulous so Chicago VeganMania will be fabulous!

We will have speakers, all lovely and passionate and talented with their distinctive voices. There's Nathan Runkle, Colleen Patrick-Goudreau, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, Dr. Milton Mills, Dr. Michael Greger, and Zarakyah Ben Sar Ahmadiel. We will also have cooking demos this year, with Isa Chandra Moskowitz again, Kim Gracen (from The Chicago Diner), Fran Costigan, Kelly Peloza, Linda Szarkowski and chefs from Soul Vegetarian. We will have entertainment: The Giving Tree Band, The Exponential, Read My Hips (belly dance troupe), The Rust Belt Ramblers, Phenom and Nikki Lynette. (The schedule and bios can here found here.)

There will be so much else: a children's play area. A DJ'd Luxury Lounge where people can relax and connect, Dozens of cruelty-free, independent vendors. Great food. Gift bags for the first one hundred in line age sixteen and older. A vegan rock star photo booth. Even a Vegan Cupcake Fairy! It's going to be amazing and it's all going to be part of that vibrant collective creative vision that is a small part of what is ushering in the third and fourth waves of the vegan movement.

So get excited and come to see us if you can at Chicago VeganMania. If you can't join us, keep adding your distinctive talents and unique, compassionate voice to the mix. When people perceive veganism as something more than a dietary fad, as something different than an exclusive club you need to know the secret handshake to gain entry to, we will effect incredible change. Chicago VeganMania is part of the galvanizing entrenchment of the movement. We have so much at our fingertips, we really do. Keep your eyes on the prize, and keep moving forward!

See you there...