Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A Shiny, Happy Vegan Alphabet for Optimists

For the past four years, I have done my annual Disgruntled Alphabet and I looooove doing it because it’s a great opportunity to vent while still having fun. I was thinking this last time, though, that I really ought to make an alphabet that reflects the true spirit of veganism and all the priceless personal bonuses we reap by adopting it. It was less delicious to write - because I was born to snark, apparently – but more reflective of veganism at its best, which brings so much good into the world and into our lives. 

A is for alignment, because our values are in alignment with our actions and that is a really rare, beautiful thing. A is also for the animals because we can look at them in the eye and know that we are not harming them.

B is for the benefits of veganism, of which there are myriad, from health advantages to a very reduced ecological footprint, and many points in between.

C is for consistency and compassion and clear conscience, each of which is a renewable resource that fills our lives with meaning and depth.

D is for direct, because if you want to create a long-lasting, positive change in the world immediately, compassionate living is a direct pipeline to it.

E is for that exquisite feeling of knowing that we are laying the groundwork for a new world through our actions. 

F is for full potential: We are not making excuses for ourselves because we are truly striving to do our best.

G is for gratitude that we can live as vegans today without making any sacrifices but reaping an abundance of rewards.

H is for the hens whom we get to feed, pet and hold at animal sanctuaries without feeling guilty or ashamed.

I is for inexpensive because the least affluent people in the world are often vegan by default: whole grains, legumes, local and seasonal vegetables and fruits, nuts and seeds are the most healthful way to eat (thus fewer doctor bills) and are usually much more affordable than animal products and flesh.

J is for justice, for knowing that we have integrated our convictions about fairness and equality into our lives instead of just giving lip-service to them. J is also for the joy that comes from knowing this.

K is for kicking the unnecessary habits that harm and kills others.  

L is for love: why would we kill when we could love and live with an attitude of abundance instead?

M is for more, as in more inner-peace, more consistency, more gratitude, more honesty, more passion.

N is for no more disconnect between our deepest values and our actions.

O is for our convictions, which give our lives purpose and meaning.  

P is for the peace we feel from practicing what we preach.

Q is for questioning the status quo, which gives us so much strength and confidence to create the compassionate, independent lives we want.

R is for rejecting the habits that contradict our ethics.

S is for solutions: we are living examples of people who are creating solutions to the destruction animal agriculture wreaks and it also stands for the dynamic shift we are bringing to the world.

T is for truth, because living with knowledge and self-honesty are liberating.

U is for undoing the damage and the pride that comes from that.

V is for vegan because that’s what it’s all about.

W is for wherever we are, we can always do our best in that situation.

X is for X, the mark we make on each day of the calendar until it’s our annual veganniversary day of gratitude.

Y is for yes, we can easily make a positive difference with our actions.

Z is for zealous because sometimes we can be a little overly so but everyone has his or her faults.  It’s better to err in the direction of passion over passivity, right? 

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Yet Another Disgruntled Vegan Alphabet

I’ll let you in on my dark, little secret. You want to know?

I’m not that dark of a person.

A kind of embarrassing truth about myself that I have come to accept over the years is that I have a pretty cheerful, optimistic nature. Why would this be embarrassing? As someone inclined toward the arts, with a passion for the radical, a preponderance of black clothing, and the dark coloring/pale skin combination that is such a perfect fit for goth-y gloominess, I was always kind of an outcast amongst others of a similar bent. I was born with a loopy (some would say zany) energy. I definitely didn’t fit in with the pep squad but my temperament also clashed with the perpetually sighing artists. What worked for me eventually was to find friends who also defied categorization: depressive cheerleaders, happy poets, stable performance artists, serene radical feminists. These friends have an important place on my personal island of Misfit Toys and have made my journey in life much less lonely.

Despite my essentially happy nature, though, I am painfully aware of how much of the world rather, well, sucks. As vegans, we know this all too well. Maybe the reason that I am pretty happy is that I’ve always had an outlet. Whether I’ve been painting or writing, my thoughts have been explored, processed and, finally, released. My annual Disgruntled Alphabet is honestly therapeutic at this point and I fully encourage you to add your favorite letters and corresponding gripes in the comments. We need to release all this angst so we can get back to being the good examples we strive to be, right? Or just to get it out of our system before embarking on a fresh new year. In case you're thinking that I am making the case for why veganism sucks, I'm not. It is awesome but, as the expression goes, hell is other people. Maybe next week, I'll come up with a Cheery, Happy Vegan Alphabet for Optimists. For now, though, I present the 2012 Disgruntled Alphabet.

A is for Anatomy because, come on! Learn it. There is a freaking world of difference between a tomato plant and a cow and NO, they both don’t feel pain. We don’t live in a world in which we can pretend to not know about sentience, neurological and circulatory systems, brain waves and so forth. Anyone who asserts that plants feel pain – anyone who is older than, say, five - is just illustrating how willing he or she is to abandon logic and escape to the puffy, swirly kingdom of Magical Thinking [see M] instead.

B is for B.S., which I call whenever I hear a variation of the “I was vegan for a week and then all my hair fell out, and then my limbs atrophied, and then my organs started attacking each other and I was put on life support because I have a really, really rare amino acid thing,” story, which apparently happens more than would seem possible. 

C is for the Caterer at the wedding, who very thoughtfully and painstakingly prepared a spectacularly grey plate of boiled broccoli and cauliflower on a bed of iceberg lettuce for your gustatory pleasure.

D is for Diversionary Tactics, which re-route us from honest and thoughtful discussions about the ethics of eating animals to pulling up a chair at the all-you-can-eat “lions-kill-gazelles-plants-feel-pain-what-about-the-Inuit-people?” smorgasbord of random delights from Excuseistan.  

E is for Eggs: I don’t care if they came from a virgin meadow of the softest grass where the hens are serenaded by classical violinists and gently massaged by the finest avian masseurs each day as they dine on organic, free-range grubs and are lovingly tucked into bed each night by a trilling Snow White herself. Eating eggs is unnecessary and exploitative but keep dreaming up those sustaina-bull [see S] fairy tales all you like.

F is for Forgetting, because it’s embarrassing when you forget that one of your friends is not quite vegan and it just dawns on you after you said something pretty snarky about how gross it is to drink milk and then it’s all awkward between you. Oops!

G is for "Get a Life!" which we are told that we don’t have if we care about the billions of sentient, gentle beings who are abused and slaughtered with each moment. Because one proves that one has a life by not giving a damn, right?

H is for the Hassle you go through every year when family members squabble over the annual dinner out together when your peevish great uncle comes to town and you always end up eating a plain salad with nothing on it at his favorite steakhouse anyway. You'd better be in that geezer's will.

I is for “I know that I shouldn’t say this to you, but I couldn’t live without bacon.” Yes. You. Could.

J is for the Jack of All Trades who strikes up a conversation with you about the Problems with Veganism at the annual company holiday party: he’s a dietician, an anthropologist, a historian, an elite personal trainer, a philosopher, a biologist and an expert on world cultures all rolled into one. And you thought he was just an accountant.

K is for knife, which is yours but your roommate sometimes uses it to cut meat and doesn’t see what the big deal is, anyway.

L is for Lighten Up, which we need to do because needless suffering and slaughter isn’t really all that big of a deal, either.

M is for Magical Thinking, which brings omnivores a whole host of interesting diversions, such as Plants and Their Feelings, All I Eat is Happy Meat, Death is Life/Life is Death, By Eating Animals, I Am Showing My Respect for Them and more. The realm of Magical Thinking is a shiny, happy place that omnivores can skip off to whenever they don’t want to face the reality of their habits. They can stretch out on a puffy cloud, float over a crystalline pond and frolic with the glittery free-range unicorns any time they like through their Magical Thinking escape hatch.

N is for Neurotic, because caring about what you put into your mouth and spend money on is just so high-strung, isn’t it? Meat is a metaphor for hot, carnal sex. We get it. We’re prudes. And you're a necrophile.

O is for Opinions, which we shouldn’t mistake for facts, right? Like it is an opinion that the life of a tomato and the life of a chicken are roughly equivalent but it is a fact that plants and animals have very different anatomies and physiological functions for evolutionary reasons and purposes but let’s not let facts stand in the way of a little romp in the land of Magical Thinking. Oooh! Glittery unicorns!

P is for Passive-Aggression, without which we wouldn’t have hostile family meals, a persistent mispronunciation of the word vegan by your significant other, knowing smirks between coworkers when you get the leather gloves in the Secret Santa gift exchange, your brother-in-law describing veganism as a “lifestyle” with little quotation marks that just seem so snarky with his stupid, mean fingers and other really fun things like that.

Q is for Quack because, honestly, you can send me all the wackadoo videos you want from that chiropractor talking about how soy will turn boys into girls and how our “inferior protein sources” cause our brains to shrink like thirsty little walnuts and how vegan children are all pre-diabetic Children of the Corn and I still won’t believe you.

R is for Rights, which omnivores are pretty obsessed with, as in their “right” to eat or do whatever they please as opposed to another being’s right to live free from intentional harm. Clearly the “right” to a pepperoni and cheese pizza is more worthwhile and valuable than a sentient individual’s right to sovereignty and self-protection.

S is for Sustaina-bullshit because it defies mathematics and basic logic to believe that you can eat as much grass-fed, organic, free-range blah-blah-blah as you like without an ecological impact as long as you buy it from cute little heritage farms. A form of Magical Thinking, Sustaina-bullshit rewards those who want a reassuring little pat on the back and cup of organic cocoa rather than more substantive actions.

T is for the Trauma of Thanksgiving. T is also for Therapy.

U is for Unless you plan to bring your own food to Thanksgiving, you can expect a dinner of cranberry sauce with a side of defensiveness and a generous dollop of guilt-tripping. Okay, you'll get those extras even if you do bring your own food.

V is for Vermont: Weren’t we supposed to have a vegan commune there by now? Near a mountain or a river or something and we’d all eat massaged kale salads all day? Let’s get on that already.

W is for “Well, I was a vegetarian for ten years but then I read that the Dalai Lama eats meat so…”

X is for X-Ray vision, which you don’t possess but you can still see the layers of subtext and insinuation buried within the offhand remark of your cousin that she “doesn’t think it’s right to mistreat animals but there are more important issues in the world and it's nothing to get all crazy about.” 

Y is for Yay! Your new officemate just put up a Heifer International calendar where you can see it every day! And your manager is pressuring you to buy candy bars for her son’s elementary school fundraiser! And you have to meet an important client for lunch next week and he’s on the Paleo diet! YAAAAAY!

Z is for Zen. We’ll get there one day. Or we won’t. Whatever. Is that Zen enough? 

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Next Emancipation

Over the weekend, we saw Lincoln. I am always embarrassed by how little I know of this critical time in U.S. history, so shot through with upheaval. After seeing the film, I was especially struck by the character of Thaddeus Stevens, someone I knew nothing about, played with a fiery but believable zeal by Tommy Lee Jones.

Thaddeus Stevens was chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means committee and a key Radical Republican; by all accounts, he was consumed with such a profound and visceral contempt for slavery, roiled by the thought of it, that he made it his life’s work to eradicate it. Today, it’s easy to take an emphatic moral position against slavery: is there even any reasonable counter-argument? In the 1860s, though, with much of the country in ruins, no end in sight to the horrific combat and hundreds of thousands of deaths already tallied, it was not such an easy political stance, nor was racial equality considered a given. This was a pivotal time in American history, one where the United States could have easily fissured, but President Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens (among others) remained deeply committed to getting the 13th Amendment ratified on the Constitution. 

Imagine the pressure. Imagine the misgivings. Imagine the nights of sleepless anguish. 

There were many times in watching the film that I saw clear parallels to the uphill battle vegan activists face in our struggle to have 98% of the population consider the rights of others on moral grounds. There seem to be some obvious similarities to the obstacles abolitionists faced. For example, those who wanted to maintain the status quo depicted the anti-slavery campaigners as ridiculous, dangerous and worse. White people were born with the right to own slaves as part of their natural prerogative, after all, ordained by God. (Even many of those who didn’t keep slaves still didn’t want to believe that slaves were as human as they were.) Similarly, vegan advocates are often characterized as ridiculous, dangerous and worse by those who want to maintain the status quo of animal exploitation and use. Further, people of faith and atheists alike consider that it’s a given that animals are ours to eat and use as we see fit. Whether they say that this was what God decreed or they say, well, sorry but that’s the way things are (in so many words), the bottom line is the same: the animals are ours and we have every right to them. Interestingly, some justifications were also similar, for example, the attitude among anti-abolitionists that they were doing it for the good of the slaves, a kind of benevolence: what would all those feeble-minded slaves do if they were suddenly freed? They would not be able to fend for themselves, to feed themselves. Today, we hear the same flawed rationalization for maintaining animal agriculture. If we no longer killed animals for food, they would not only overwhelm our resources and land, they wouldn’t be able to care for themselves.

I am not one who likes to compare historic or contemporary tragedies to each other and say that one is the equivalent of the other. I believe that this cheapens the suffering and diminishes the individuality of those who have been oppressed. When a sentient being is in anguish, the suffering is uniquely experienced by that individual. For this reason, I don’t like saying what the animals experience is like slavery or the Holocaust. This is not because “they’re just animals” but because I think that doing so over-simplifies the specific anguish the individuals suffered, whether human or otherwise. I do think that there are parallels, though, with slavery: the concepts of ownership, of sovereignty, of emphasizing the powerful majority’s “right” to the entitlements they want to preserve versus the right of those not so endowed to simply live their own lives. In short, the chilling mentality of exceptionalism. 

The essential questions we have to ask of ourselves are also eerily similar: Where do we draw the line in regards to another’s rights and why do we draw them there? Are the relatively small forfeitures we make in order to end our role in harming another really tantamount to giving up our supposed rights? Is something truly a right or did we inherit it due to existing power structures that unjustly favor us?

The unfair and unnecessary brutality against animals is not going to end unless the world begins to think in moral terms about something as seemingly benign as ordering a chicken salad sandwich. In the 1860s and before, it was considered laughable to think of the lives of the slaves working the field and the moral implications of saying that another being belongs to someone else. Today, we are told the same about the animals people like to eat and exploit. Why? To live with honesty and integrity, there are times when we have to make uncomfortable reckonings with ourselves.

I truly believe that this is our social justice movement of the day. Our blatant and unspoken acceptance of the human domination of other animals is something that the overwhelming majority of people don’t want to face. If some comparisons make us feel uncomfortable, though, that may be a signal that it is something to explore. Within this discomfort, we can reveal a painful truth: there are more similarities than differences between the mentality that allows for slavery and the mentality that allows for eating animals than many of us would care to admit.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Vegans Need to Get a Life

While I was marching against the fur industry last Friday, I was told to “get a life” by a passerby with several big Macy’s bags, just as I have been for about the past fifteen years. Some years they have Bed, Bath and Beyond bags, other times bright bags from American Girl, occasionally H & M or Bloomingdale’s, often a clashing mix of bags from different places on both arms. What I think I am to infer from this casual comment from this stranger (and all the ones before him) is that I, fully ambulatory and not on the hunt for brains, nonetheless lack key inner qualities that constitute what Mr. Macy’s would consider a life. People have also said this to me when I was protesting wars, and when I have spoken out against violence in general, and it’s always pretty predictable: a muttered comment as someone rushes past, meant to be heard but not meant to be discussed.

It’s a shame that they always hurry by so quickly, though, because it never ceases to make me wonder: what is a life? What does it mean to be alive? Most important perhaps: how does someone “get” a life if he or she is not in possession of it? I figured that those able to identify those without one must certainly have one, so I decided to look to them to find examples of how we can know that someone has a life. 

I was expecting it to be more complicated but I found a really simple and clear answer.

People with lives shop, especially on Black Friday.

Apparently getting statisticians at the National Retail Federation to rock back and forth on their heels with delight by pushing, elbowing and stampeding to grab DVD players, flat-screen TVs, tablets, towels and sweatshirts is confirmation that one is in compliance with life-having. Individuals imbued with the powers of animation offer ample evidence of their aliveness by driving in circles around parking lots, stalking exits for shopping carts, shouting directives at family members with the ferocity of an especially cranky General Patton, and basically pummeling or trampling anyone who happens to get between them and a toaster oven at a deep discount.

More cautious life-possessors shop at places with generous points of entry. The real rogues go to the stores with the individual doors.

How do you know that you are alive? Your adrenaline hormone has been released, prompting muscular and circulatory action.

Just try to stand in a line in the middle of the night facing a shopping emporium if you’re not alive. I’d bet that you couldn’t do it.

Being alive means that you participate in shared experiences with others of your species.

It also means that despite being a driven, eyes-on-the-prize kind of person, you are smart enough to know when to combine resources for mutual benefit.

One’s ability to push and point a shopping cart toward a particular destination is further evidence of possessing life-having properties.

If you don’t feel that fire in the belly to get what should be yours – and to push, punch, elbow and jab if necessary to get your hands on it – that should be a red flag, alerting you to look into whether or not you were endowed with a life.

You could ask yourself the following questions:

Do you care about others, even when how they are treated has no real bearing on you personally? You need to get a life.

Do you speak out against cruelty and injustice, even if your views are unpopular and unwelcome? You need to get a life.

Do your core values inform your actions despite how poorly you fit in with mainstream society? You need to get a life.

Hot damn, I think I have my answer.

Were the people I encountered necessarily correct in saying that I need to get a life? I don’t know, but if I had a dollar for each time someone told me that I needed one because I care about others, I might have the money together to actually purchase one at Best Buy. (Which department do you think it’d be in?) At the very least, I could stand in a giant crowd of agitated, aggressive people and give it my best try. 

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Thanksgiving When Vegans (Almost) Rule the World

It’s that time of year again. Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, abundance and giving thanks for the harvest and yet a certain fringe group of people insist upon making it all about themselves and their own selfish agenda year after year. They practically ruin the holiday, too, with the rest of us having to be careful to not upset them.  

I’m talking about the omnivores, of course.

Once again, they will show up at your beautiful vegan Thanksgiving meal and expect to be fed. They are so presumptuous, too: it’s as though they expect their hosts to bend over backwards, catering to their unreasonable, finicky and downright bizarre dietary whims. Most of what they eat seems to be the stuff of fiction. I can’t even keep up with what they do or do not consider edible. Pigs? Cows? Chickens? Lizards? Cardinals? I have no idea. So many weird things that they eat, such peculiar habits they maintain. Omnivorism is like a cult. It’s as if they’ll eat anything.

They will show up, too, because inevitably your niece or your neighbor or your son will know an omnivore who is all alone on Thanksgiving and you will open your home to him or her because you are a generous person. It’s always a disaster, though. The omnivores are so conspicuous whether they try to draw attention to themselves or not, making everyone uncomfortable with their mere presence. We just want to enjoy our delicious meal in peace and yet there they will be, reminding us of all those unappetizing things that we don’t want to think about, especially at Thanksgiving.

Can’t they just give it up? Gah! So strident.

No, instead of being like everyone else, they’ve got to make it all about them and their extreme lifestyle. I swear, half of them do it just to get attention. To keep the peace, though, we have to just deal with it. What upsets me, though, is that the omnivores act like their weird habits are more important than my traditions. Having a vegan Thanksgiving is a beloved custom of mine. I really don’t care if honoring my family’s traditions is offensive to others but they insist that their ridiculous habits also be respected. Isn’t that unreasonable? And they seem to want the rest of us to feel guilty that they’re in the minority. How is that my problem? Next thing you know, they’re going to want their own Thanksgiving parade or something because la dee dah, they are just so special and unique.

My advice to you? Just ignore them. Let them keep living in their little fantasy world. If they try to engage you in a debate, change the subject. It’s their fault that they have chosen to be so removed from reality but you still don’t want their bizarre lifestyle to take over your lovely event. Take control. Smile and ask them to please pass the sweet potatoes.

You don’t deserve to have your holiday ruined because of an omnivore at your Thanksgiving table. Enough is enough. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Personal is Political: Veganism is a Feminist Act

“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from the motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton

I was born a feminist. I’m not sure where it came from – perhaps my dynamo of a grandmother, confident to the core – but growing up, I never thought that I was anything but a complete equal to everyone else. I was a natural feminist and when I learned that there were was a real need for it - that there were those who believed in arbitrary, illogical and repressive hierarchies - the fire within me to correct injustices was found its fuel source. When I saw kids throw rocks at squirrels, heard people make bigoted remarks, witnessed others being treated unfairly, my hands would involuntarily ball up into tight little fists. Even if I wanted to keep quiet, to not attract the ire of that bully down the block who threw rocks at the squirrels or the loudmouth at the bar years later, I physically couldn’t do it. It’d be like asking a volcano to please not explode. My feminism and my passion for equality and fairness were always fully interwoven and integrated.

Now here is the sad part, the whole falling out between me and mainstream feminism that left me so disappointed. I will concede that maybe I’m naïve. It’s quite possible that I’m just out-of-synch with the world around me. I have come to accept that I am stubbornly idealistic sometimes. This is all possible.  


When I came of age as a feminist in college the idea of intentionally adopting a patriarchal system of oppression was unthinkable. This is not to say that I was perfect by a long shot: I have a virtual walk-in closet chock full of skeletons just accumulated from the Booze Era of my life that lasted from ages 19 to 26. Even with a mean hangover, though, the idea was that I was trying to dismantle vicious systems of tyranny, not benefit from them. The thought of consciously participating in a fundamentally unjust and violent power structure once I knew about it would have been akin to keeping slaves simply because I could.

Animal agriculture is a historically and essentially oppressive one, one that asserts at its very root that “what’s yours is mine” if you don’t happen to be a human. Your milk, your eggs, your life. This is an entrenched patriarchal conceit, born of domination, and the idea that women, feminists at that, would accept this particular status quo is strange and troubling to me. That they would adopt it and wrap it in the parlance of quasi-feminist empowerment is especially unsettling. Yet I see photos of women with weapons standing over dead animals, grinning victoriously. I read grandiloquent accounts of slaughter, including one in which a woman was quoted as saying that she felt like “a goddess, an Amazon” after killing a chicken with her own hands. (Oh, and a knife.) I hear women speaking with obvious pride about shooting deer, killing the animals they have raised, taking them apart from limb to limb. Less overtly inspired by bloodlust, I know of avowed feminists who could “never” give up “their” cheese, who don’t pause to reflect on the lives of the chickens on the plate in front of them at their favorite Thai restaurant, who say that they consider their preferences first as a matter of self-empowerment.  

Here is the thing: when feminists are accepting and embracing the tools of oppression, it’s time to reevaluate things. Ladies, you have co-opted your own feminist principles and replaced them with maintaining your comforts instead.

Feminism is a social justice movement, one that asserts at its core that females are equal to males. No one deserves violence, injustice, suppression, and inequality simply because she was born with X and Y chromosomes, just as no Jews deserve persecution just because of the lineage they were born into or people of color deserve it because they are not Caucasian. We know this. Why are the animals people exploit and kill – those who were born to circumstances outside of their own control, just like all others – excluded from the sphere of consideration by otherwise thoughtful, kind, and progressive people? Because unrestricted access to animals is their right, damn it, and they will guard this privilege to the finish.

Feminism is about many things and it differs from interpreter to interpreter. I get that. If feminism implies through word and deed (or is also complicit by the lack thereof) that some females are more equal than others, though, this crosses into the troubling mentality that supports slavery and selective, self-serving habits over moral consistency. When females of different species are forcibly impregnated and have their babies and milk taken from them in an enforced cycle of pregnancy and birth until they are considered worthless, that is a crime against them and it is gendered. This is institutionalized, state-sanctioned violence and exploitation. Wouldn’t a feminist naturally take a stand against such abuse? Wouldn’t a feminist naturally not aid and abet such heinous cruelty? Wouldn't a feminist naturally disavow such distinctly unenlightened and unnecessary violence? 

I am a feminist because I believe that all beings were created equal. I am a feminist because I reject the common practices of patriarchal violence, no matter how culturally ingrained they are and beneficial they might be to me.  I am a vegan because I am a true blue, proud feminist. We have to be honest to ourselves and honest to each other: are those of us who believe in social justice going to go the distance for others or are we just going to remain in our own comfort zone? Are we going to be fearless as we create this new world order or are we going to accept business as usual, choosing comfort over challenging ourselves to be true champions for sovereignty of the body and spirit?   

Despite how disappointed I have felt by other feminists over the years, I am still one in my heart and soul. This won’t ever change. I am just ready for other feminists to step up to the plate and take the animals off of it. We have to never let go of a commitment to tenacious compassion.

We are the ones. The future of the world rests in the hands of the powerful and fearless vegan feminists.  

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Serve With Fava Beans and a Nice Chianti: The Hannibal Lecterism of Happy Meat

I was originally drawn to her because of the rare quality of her breeding. The moment I saw the young female, I knew that I was the perfect person to be entrusted to see her through to the end.

I had had a young female the year before, a close relative of hers, and her fine heritage took me aback. She spoiled me for life: I couldn’t go back to having those of an inferior caliber again. When it was time that I wanted to have another one, I knew I wanted one of her pedigree once more, but I didn’t want to just be a passive bystander in her death again. Something within me needed a different experience. This time, I had to actively participate in her death, until her last shudder, and follow that through to her complete disassembly. The entirety of the young female would be used very purposefully and with great intention.

She had been born into a life of high standards. Being a rare creature myself, I recognized this in her. There are too many females of interior genetics, ones who are common and low born, and this one was cut from a different cloth. She was special and lovely and she had to be that way in order for me to consider having her as mine. Of course I wanted to see how she lived so I would have a deeper appreciation of how she was to die.

I wanted her parts, the internal organs, her viscera, the blood of her, still fresh and warm. I wanted her tender flesh, cut from her with my trusted instruments and pulled with my own hands. I wanted to understand the elegant, clever design of her before I consumed her, and I wanted to break her down personally. I wanted to find creative uses for every last inch of her so her life wouldn’t have been taken in vain.

Seeing her in out her natural habitat, breathing in the crisp autumn air, I knew that I made the right decision. She wasn't like the others, the poor, pathetic creatures that have been so damaged by poor genetics and circumstances. This one was different. She was a perfect specimen of her variety, a natural female, her pretty cheeks warmed by the sun to a golden peach. This was a young female who had felt gentle breezes blowing through her auburn hair, who had never been mistreated by course, rough hands, who had dined on organic blueberries she’d plucked from a neighbor’s garden with her own graceful hands. I insisted that she live no less of a life before I would take it from her.

That day, I spent an hour getting to know her and she seemed to trust me from the start. I rubbed her shoulders, and I touched her hair, warm from the sun. She was playful, affectionate, spirited. She smiled easily, clearly enjoying this life, and she had no idea of my intentions. This began to make me very uneasy but I told myself that it was better this way, better that her life would end with someone she trusted rather than at a stranger’s hands in an unfamiliar, cold setting. This was much more humane. Breathing deeply to keep my emotions in check, I held her hands in mine. I looked my young female in the eye. I told her that I was grateful for what she was about to give me. I may have even shed a tear. I have consumed countless young females in my lifetime, but being there then was a deeper, richer experience, though one fraught with tension. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything in the world.

In the end, her death was astonishingly quick and easy – two quick bullets - which is fortunate because there was no time to waste.

First I carefully undressed her and then I began collecting my blood. I’d never had this before so it was a priority. I had to make that everything was positioned right to bleed my body properly, otherwise all that good blood would be squandered. It was a struggle propping everything correctly and I questioned whether I was cut out for this work but in the end, I was successful and I am very glad that I had the persistence to see this dream of mine – fresh blood – realized and that I didn’t quit.

That task completed, there was a lot of work ahead of me, which meant scalding, scraping, cutting through fat, muscles, tendons, and tugging out organs. As repulsive as it might sound to an outsider, it was a breathtakingly clean and methodical process, breaking down the body bit by bit and seeing how the organs looked and felt close up: the heart, the kidneys, the bladder, one by one, I observed them with the cool-headed precision of a surgeon and gently placed them in my container. The bright pink lungs in particular, lungs that just a short time ago had breathed in the same cool fall air as I, were especially noteworthy. She did not disappoint.

Separating the intestines from the fat and other tissues meant that with just a good cleaning, I now had sausage casing that I had pulled from a body I chose with my own hands and technical skills. It was hard to not feel prideful pulling out handful after handful of healthy intestine. This makes it all worthwhile, I thought to myself as my organ container continued to fill, steam slowly rising from it. The young female was no longer of this world but all these different parts and pieces would extend her far life beyond her reach as a living being. The incredible responsibility I felt of needing to continue to provide stewardship for the young female even after her death was a profound realization.

After she was fully broken down and stored properly, I felt I owed it to myself and to her to finally enjoy the fruits of my labor. Carving bits of her flesh on my butcher block, I was able to quietly to reflect on our symbiotic relationship: she gave her life to provide nourishment for me and I was able to consume her with true appreciation for her fine quality. We gave this to each other.

In a beloved cast iron skillet that once belonged to my grandmother, I sautéed delicately sliced pieces of her flesh with minced garlic, baby carrots, parsnips and fresh purple basil and thyme from my garden. The scent of her filled the air: rich, savory, mouthwateringly alluring. A splash of her blood to thicken the sauté was an inspired improvisation, I think.

Sitting down to finally enjoy the meal I’d created, I knew that I had made the right choice. She was tender but perfectly substantial, sinewy in certain places but nicely balanced by her delicate texture. Her flavor so effectively captured her essence that at times, it was as if she was still with me, sitting across the table from me, her hair glinting in the candlelight. I toasted her spirit.

In all, it was a beautiful, bittersweet experience. I couldn’t help ruminating on how she slumped back with that first bullet, the look of shock and horror marring her perfect features along with the spray of blood. I thought of how much work it was to collect all the blood, how exhausted I felt, pulling out the intestines but how I had to do right by this young female. She would live on to be my steaks, sausages, burgers and bacon for the year as well as provide bits for stew, gravy, casings and so on. I think she would be proud to know how very well used she would be.

After this experience, I will never again take another’s life and death for granted. When it comes time for me to harvest another young female, I will bring this same intentionality and poignancy. It will be my gift back to those who give me their lives and it is my gift to myself. I will do right by all the future young females who will grace my butcher block. You can count on that.  

If you think that this is extreme, please read this first hand account of the slaughter of a pig by popular Chicago butcher, Rob Levitt. With me just making one simple, easy switch of who the victim is, suddenly it’s evident that the story was written by a psychopath, despite the key details remaining essentially unchanged.

The self-aggrandizement, as well as the perfectly clinical and Hannibal Lecter-esque narrative, were deeply disturbing to me in Rob Levitt’s essay. It is one thing to mindlessly eat animals. It is another thing to romanticize the special flesh you consume, to repeat the narcissistic myths you want to think that eating it says about you. Make no mistake, it is the mindless consumption that is creating the immense death toll of ten billion land animals in the U.S. each year, but it is this arrogant, self-serving mentality of entitlement that is so pervasive among Happy Meat enthusiasts that I find deeply chilling. It is also what has me thinking as a satirist.

If my essay was disturbing to you, that is a good thing. It means you can still feel. Thanks to Nicole from Upton's Naturals, a dedicated vegan protein company, for bringing it to my attention. 

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Creating the Wave

“There is nothing like a dream to create the future. Utopia today, flesh and blood tomorrow.” Victor Hugo

Sometimes it can be nearly impossible to see the big picture because, as advocates for animals, what we are looking at is pretty bleak. Speaking personally, it is never far from my mind how much needless suffering, barbarism and destruction is happening and, with each moment, how much more is to come. Each second, babies are stolen from mothers, innocent beings suffer in confinement, bolts are shot into brains, knives are slashed across necks. The despair from knowing just how easily it could all be prevented if people simply acknowledged the injustice of the violence and decided to give a damn is difficult to mitigate. Those of us who are awake to what is happening feel the senseless pain of it so deeply, and because of this, we are not always aware of its counterpart: the slow-but-steady grassroots shift that is occurring in tandem. Just as stop-motion photography reveals dramatic transformations due to subtle metamorphoses that are imperceptible to the human eye, the vegan movement has been making strides in recent years but we often need a something different – an altered perspective, a fresh lens - in order to notice it.  

I have been vegan since 1995, a time when I would gasp and spontaneously erupt into a happy dance if a café had soymilk. With my nature being much more inclined to enthusiastic outbursts rather than, say, doing the professional poker circuit, I’m sure I startled many a coffee shop patron deeply engrossed in that new Sartre biography but I didn’t care. Even though I have always very much disliked the taste of coffee (the word swill comes to mind), I would hold my nose and suffer through a sip or two just so I could enjoy the novelty of coffee with milk in a café like a normal person. (This is pretty much where my desire to be normal begins and ends.) In 1995, even in a large, multicultural city like Chicago, vegans didn’t have much but it was just beginning to trickle in. The landscape has transformed before my eyes since then.  I wish I had stop-motion photography to illustrate this. In retrospect, we were on the cusp of a sea change that is really still in its infancy. The wave of change has just begun gathering strength, but, have no doubt, it is happening and nothing can stop it.

If 1995 had a vegan pastry mascot, it would be dense, beige, heavy and could best be described as “roughly muffin-esque” but my activist friends and I would still be turning cartwheels in the streets for it. Contrast that with my son’s experience 17 years later. Over the summer, we went to a cute West Coast-based cupcakerie that opened an outpost here. I was struck when my son initially turned up his nose at the pretty red velvets, sniffing, “They only have one vegan flavor?” Despite being one of the most distinctly unreserved children I know  - the spontaneous happy dance gene is inheritable, apparently - you still have to get up pretty early in the morning to impress my born-and-bred herbivore with your vegan culinary creations. This is how much the environment around us has changed. When my son seems a bit too comfortable with the easy-peasy vegan world he was born into sometimes, I make him listen to my equivalent of the old “I used to walk ten miles barefoot in the snow to school” saw, telling him that there was a time not too long ago when vegans couldn’t just walk into any ol’ bakery and expect to find a pastry they could eat.  (“Imagine the hardships your stoic forebears faced.”) And we may not have been barefoot in the snow but our poorly constructed, plastic-y shoes came from catalogues that were archaic even at the time. Except for those who could afford expensive imported shoes from England, we may as well have been barefoot in our porous boots in Chicago in January but we didn’t complain because at least we had vegan shoes finally, for god’s sake, and they weren’t Converse, either.

Of course, the changes are not just better access to higher quality cupcakes and shoes. I am not one who puts much stock in “humane” meat or animal products, but the fact that this is a subject so many people are bringing up in defense of their meat-eating shows something encouraging. While the industry may provide another layer of fantasy and self-denial for omnivores to delude themselves with, the fact that people want to think that they are seeking out “more humane” animal products means that the personal discomfort with the status quo of eating animals is now something people are acknowledging out loud. This is a profound shift. No one was talking about this 17 years ago, certainly not in the widespread way that it is talked about today. Although I think that the happy meat sphere is a serious obstacle to compassionate living that wasn’t there before, the urge to reconcile this internal discomfort actually is cause for hope.

People are still eating ten billion land animals every year in the US alone, though, as if it is our birthright, as if the burgers and nuggets people eat were in fact grown in the patches shown in the old McDonald’s commercials. We may be eating less meat in the United States but international trends show an increased consumption throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa as animal products become less expensive, more accessible and a new generation of children develops an expectation of meat at nearly every meal. We are decimating our oceans, practically dredging them of life. Our addiction to cheap protein is altering this very planet. We have put our habits in the driver’s seat, and they are actively steering us toward a frightening future. Fabulous cupcakes and stylish shoes will not dull the sting of that reality.

The world is changing but not quickly enough. We need to go out and be great examples of being vegan and we’ve got to proudly own it. We are not doing the animals any good, nor are we slowing the ecological destruction of animal agriculture, by silently minding our own business. If speaking out about needless killing and destruction isn’t our collective business, I don’t know what is. We need to become empowered to use our voices, talents and passion for creating the world we want to live in because, quite simply, we are the ones to do it and the world needs us to step forward.

This doesn’t mean shouting. This doesn’t mean shaming. This means being honest, being humble, being inclusive, giving people the tools to make it easier for them and empowering them to make positive changes. On our own front, we should celebrate the small victories (so many great cupcakes!) but expect to keep shouldering on: creating a massive cultural shift of the one we are pioneering is not going to happen through anything but conviction and sheer endurance. This is how waves happen. Keep pushing forward with certainty that the world needs what you are creating and full of gratitude that you have this amazing opportunity to be building something so fundamentally good, kind, just and necessary.

If no one has said this lately, from the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you. You are amazing.

Now let’s get back to work. We’re building that wave, bit by bit. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Top Ten Frequently Repeated, Often Illogical and Always Convenient Myths Repeated to Vegans

Revisiting my previous post, I wanted to share some of the common myths and conceits that are repeated to vegans as if they were truth. I am doing this sort of as a favor to those who repeat them because, honestly, guys, you probably don’t realize the regularity with which we hear them. And when we hear them, it’s all we can do sometimes to be patient and not roll our eyes. You don’t want to be someone who causes excessive internal eye-rolling, right? There are many, many more myths than the ones listed here and many subsets of the ones I have, but you get the idea. We’ve heard it all before.

1. Vegan food is expensive.

First I have to ask: compared to what? Compared to fast food? Well, yes, compared to dollar menus of hamburgers and fries, it is more costly on the surface, but the expenses of illness and obesity more than offsets this. Time spent off of work waiting in doctor’s offices, scanning drugstore shelves for anti-constipation remedies, or getting arterial stents inserted is expensive.

The next question is if vegan food is truly expensive compared to meat and animal products. Quite simply, it’s not.

The average price for a pound of ground beef in July of this year was $3.085. The price for a pound of dried organic black beans was $1.99 at Whole Foods. One cooks down and the other expands with cooking. The poorest people of the world are often nearly vegan by default. Let’s look at what they eat: Legumes. Grains. Seasonal fruits and vegetables. Fresh herbs. Nuts and seeds. They are not eating organic, heirloom goji berries at $15.99 an ounce. They are eating simple peasant food that is grown close to home because that is the least expensive and most accessible. In our own country during the Depression, we canned and froze the harvest to make food less costly. The notion that vegan food is more expensive than animal foods is simply not fact-based. It does cost more on the surface to be discerning about what we put in our bodies but it is far more expensive down the road to be unwell. Consider eating whole, unprocessed foods another form of health insurance.  

Please note that none of this is even considering the expenses our whole society takes on in cleaning up the ecological mess of animal agriculture. 

2. Caring for animals prevents us from caring about people.

This is a false dichotomy born of an absolutist perspective. If one looks at the world through an either/or lens, it’s a natural conclusion that advocating for some means that we cannot advocate for others. In truth, compassionate people are compassionate people. Does someone who kicks his dog have more of a reservoir of compassion for people than someone who doesn’t kick his dog? We don’t turn compassion on or off like a faucet and we are not born with a finite supply of it. The greater empathy you feel for others, the more empathy you will produce. It is more like a muscle than a supply. I would be far more trusting of someone’s willingness to care for others who has demonstrated an ability to empathize and take courageous action on another’s behalf. The people who feel we need to carefully parse our compassion? Nah. Not so much.

3. Vegans are in a cult/engage in “group-think.”

Hee. This one is especially amusing to me.

Anyone who knows anything about vegans knows that you ask five of us the same question, you are likely to get five different opinions (or maybe 18 different opinions), some that may profoundly differ from one another. We will go to the mat on topics as seemingly benign as to whether we will date non-vegans and go for the jugular on the topic of what we feed our cats. The array of topics on which we will loudly disagree is truly spectacular, almost a renewable resource: whether to wear our old leather and wool items or give them away; whether or not we will eat at restaurants that serve meat; whether vegans are allowed to be motivated by health concerns over their ethical convictions; whether we support incremental animal welfare measures or most assuredly do not. This is just the tip of the iceberg. There is no shortage of topics for us to vehemently disagree with one another on and there never will be. We have no central leader, no agreed upon strategy and, honestly, no overarching goal. One thing vegans would agree upon is that we do not believe that it’s our right to abuse and kill animals. From there on out, though, all bets are off.

4. We have to be 100% impeccably vegan about everything our bodies come in contact with or else we are hypocrites.

You know what? We lived in a flawed world. We live in a violent world built upon exploitative systems. Have you noticed? There is animal-derived stearic acid in car tires: even if you don’t drive, it’s in bike tires. Gelatin is used to make the non-digital films people see. Those beautiful vegan cookbooks? Most likely, they are held together with casein in glue. We get it.

We didn’t create this mess and actually, we’re the ones trying to get us out of it. The reason why there are animal-derived components in so much is because of the conceit that animals are ours to use as we wish and because, well, after eating whatever we can off of their bodies, there is a lot left over for people to make money off of still. We’re trying to create a world in which we do not exploit others. We are not there yet and the world is a complicated beast with many tentacles wrapped around various forms of exploitation. We’re not going to extricate ourselves overnight but at least the vegans are trying our best to minimize harm. Could you say the same? 

5. Historically, there has never been a vegan culture.

Ergo? And? We are blazing trails, not creating historical reenactments.

There was never a Christian culture before Christianity. There was never a culture of feminism before pioneers created it. There was never an ecological movement until people started it. We are not limited by the past: thankfully we have self-determination. While those who are yoked to the past keep coming up with nonsensical excuses, vegans are actively creating our own burgeoning culture that can make a difference now and benefit future generations. What is more exciting and promising, having our future hemmed in by history or boldly creating one ourselves?

6. If the world went vegan, what would we do with all those animals not used for food?

This is where people really start grasping at straws.

First of all, why do you suddenly care about the tenability or sustainability of caring for billions of animals at once? Were you concerned before about the giant, leaking fecal lagoons, dead zones in the ocean, air pollution and horrific wastefulness of animal agriculture? (And, oh, bonus points for gullibility if you think that the magic wand of organic agriculture would make the giant footprint of massive animal agriculture disappear. Ta da!)

Second, who on earth said that the world would go vegan overnight? Is that at all likely? What vegans are working for at best is a world that is shifting away from animal agriculture and even the most optimistic, power-of-positive-thinking, cheerful herbivore knows that this would occur gradually. Of course. The idea that we would wake up one morning after the Vegan Revolution to chickens all over our front yards, turkeys in our trees, and cows taking over the boulevards is absurd.

What would happen to all the liberated animals if they are not born, bred and killed for our interests? Well, something tells me that we have oodles of time to figure this out. One idea: as demand eventually decreases and fewer animals are bred in order to be made into food, the populations would decrease. As populations decrease, we need less of the massive amount of land that is currently earmarked for monocropping soy, corn, and wheat that is fed to all the animals in confinement. Perhaps this land could be freed up for some of the animals to live out their lives in peace. I’m not saying that I have the answers but I am saying that we don’t need them yet. Because it’s not going to be overnight, that much is certain.

7. What about all the SOY?! Vegans eat too much soy and that is destroying the environment.

Okay, is it honestly logical that vegans, checking in (very optimistically) at about 2.5% of the population, are creating all this demand for soy? All those damn Boca burgers? Seriously? You know who is responsible for the monocropping of soy? Omnivores. Omnivores eat the billions of “food animals” who consume all that soy in their feed. So if you are really, truly concerned about the environmental implications of soy, it’s simple. Do what I do: go vegan and limit your soy consumption. Easy peasy. And contrary to common opinion, vegans do not all eat tofu nuggets dipped in dairy-free mayo with a side of soy jerky. I buy tofu maybe twice a month. Could the omnivores say that they limit their soy consumption to this extent? (Oh, plus it’s totally not an ethical argument. Do not be misled by this one.)

8. The life and death of a cow and the life and death of a tomato are roughly equivalent.

Oy vey. Science was never my topic but I will give it a shot here.

One has veins and arteries. One doesn’t. One has a central nervous system. One doesn’t. One has a spinal cord with nerve endings. One doesn’t. One has a body designed by evolution and natural selection to avoid pain and suffering. One doesn’t. One has a thalamus. One doesn’t. One has a limbic system. One doesn’t.

Further, one is forcibly impregnated. One isn’t. One has babies who are taken from her shortly after birth. One doesn't. One calls out for them after they are taken. One doesn’t. One is de-horned, branded, and castrated without anesthesia. One isn’t. One has the proven capacity for emotionally bonding with her offspring and others. One hasn’t. One demonstrably suffers using an empirical checklist of physical and observational yardsticks. One doesn’t.

If you don’t believe in evolution and your beliefs tend toward Creationism, a Great Creator, Gaia or a combination thereof, perhaps you can tell me why your compassionate creator designed beings with a proven capacity to suffer and a clear desire to avoid said suffering only to give them no possibility of escaping that pain. What was the purpose of that? Where is the intelligent design or benevolence in that? I would never believe in a creator who would be so cruel as to imbue such deeply exploited beings with sentience and emotions only to have them needlessly suffer.  

One bleeds. One cries out. One writhes in pain. Making cows and tomatoes (or chickens and pears or any other animal-plant combination) peers in the capacity to feel and suffer shows how willing some omnivores are to suspend critical thinking in order to justify their habits.

9. Our bodies evolved to eat meat.

Evolution is an ongoing process. It is not static. There is plenty to contradict the notion that we are designed to eat meat (our teeth made for chewing rather than tearing, our small mouths and jaws, our lack of claws, our long, pouched long intestines) but I am not going to get into that. Evolution is, well, evolving, and thankfully we have some choice in the matter. The fact that we can live healthfully and abundantly without animal-based foods is all I need to know.

10. Native Americans showed their respect and gratitude for the meat they ate. I am doing the same.

I think that cherry-picking from various cultures in order to imbue one’s habits with pseudo-spiritual values is really exploitative and self-serving. Here are some other things native cultures have done: left their sick, disabled, wounded and unwanted to die; gone hungry when food wasn’t plentiful; pooped in holes in the ground. And on and on and on. How many other “Native American” habits do you maintain? Or do you just maintain the ones that make you feel that your comfortable habits are spiritual in nature rather than entitlements? 
If you want to feel respect and gratitude for me, don’t kill and eat me. If killing me is how you show respect and gratitude, well, then I’d rather not have it. I will just prefer sovereignty and compassion, thanks. If you have to invoke some quasi-spiritual convictions that you keep handy for justifying your habits, I’d say that this is evidence of hypocrisy and, ultimately, disrespect for the cultures you claim to respect.

What else have you got?