Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On Burning Bridges...

Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to be on Chicago’s Public Radio station in promotion of Chicago VeganMania. The person who invited me is someone who is pretty well-known in “foodie” circles in the area for her championing of locally-raised, smaller-scale animal products and flesh. She is someone who, frankly, has offended me over the years because of my core disagreement with using animals toward our own ends, and, even more dagger-like to my heart, allowing affluent consumers to snag a green halo for themselves while eating “humane” this and “grass-fed” that. Even a casual reader of this blog will know how very dishonest I find this mentality of so-called compassionate consumption to be: I am on record for that, nothing to hide there. For every essay, though, I’ve also composed a million really incendiary messages in my mind and never actually written. I have to wonder, What if I had burned that bridge that would ultimately allow me to be talking about veganism to lots and lots of people on Chicago Public Radio? If my name were associated with slash-and-burn personal attacks, I likely wouldn’t have been able to get my foot in the door and isn’t that essential to reaching others? 

A few years ago, I was describing a disagreement I was having with someone to a friend and she asked me a rhetorical questions that has stuck with me ever since: Is it more important to be right, or is it more important to be heard? For someone like me, someone who feels an almost compulsive need to get the last word and win every argument, it wasn’t a rhetorical question. I honestly had to answer that I preferred to be right. Her framing of this struck a nerve, though, and I have thought about it again and again. When we cling to this notion of proving our opponents wrong and running victory laps around them, we risk “winning” damaging pyrrhic victories as opposed to anything meaningful and worthwhile. If the ego is pushing us to tell someone off, it could very well come at the expense of being heard. If we are not heard because, as messengers, we are so lacking in basic people skills, we have shot ourselves in the feet. The animals are the ones who pay the price if people close themselves off to what could be a very compelling message. Character assassination probably won’t work so we need a better strategy to get through to people. 

What this doesn’t mean:
It doesn’t mean that we suppress our voices.
It doesn’t mean that we are dishonest.
It doesn’t mean that we are phony. 

What this does mean:
It means that we don’t make personal attacks or hit below the belt.
It means that we stick to the subject.
It means that we deserve the right to speak honestly.

We can express our disagreement with someone without trying to also annihilate that person. If the intention is to prove someone wrong, that is one thing, but if the intention is to prove wrong and humiliate him or her, you will have likely closed any doors you have to a decent, engaged dialogue and potential growth. A key to communication has to be honesty, though. Sometimes we have painful truths to tell and there is no way getting around offending people. It is simply a fact of life that if someone wants to be offended by you speaking honestly about what you see and feel, you can’t control that. It is not our job to reassure and absolve people who are harming others, pretending to not know what we know. We should do our damnedest, though, to to not have doors slam shut on us. 

How can we do this? I have found that not making it personal is essential to being heard: stick to the issue or issues at hand. Refrain from using manipulative or loaded language; I cannot be the only one who has had whole arguments dismissed because a simple word or two were poorly chosen. These things matter. I do feel that for the most part, people appreciate honesty and the ones who don’t, no matter how we say it, simply won’t be able to hear us until they are ready. 

We owe it to ourselves and the animals to bring our best to our interactions. Think back about how someone brought up a difficult topic to you, something you didn’t want to hear at first, but you still listened. What did that person say? How did he or she say it? Maybe you have done it successfully, too. What did you do? If we can connect with one another’s humanity - what is important and unique about each other - instead of demonizing, we are much more likely to get a foot in the door. This is just common sense. Too often, we forget that a key to being heard is often as simple as talking to someone as we would like to be talked to, even - especially - with a challenging subject. We’ve got to get out of the way of our egos here in order to create positive change. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Creating the world we want to inhabit...

Chicago VeganMania may have started off sounding like a little pipe-dream, but I’ve learned to never dismiss those things. Making an event of this scope and scale takes real commitment, cooperation and hard work but it’s the magic of these silly little fantasies that really propels them into becoming more than just daydreams, and what helps us to lift something this big off the ground. 

When we first started the thought process that eventually manifested as CVM, it was honestly rooted in frustration: Why didn’t a city as big and diverse as Chicago have its own vegan festival? Yes, there were stray vegan-friendly booths here and there at other festivals, but they weren’t the same thing. We still had to eat first or really work hard to find food there. We still had the fumes wafting off of grilled meat (at both conventional street festivals and “eco-friendly” ones alike) getting in our clothes and hair. Chicago has a rich tradition of ethnic and cultural festivals: why couldn’t we have our own, something that would show off the rich diversity of vegan living? Well, it turns out that it could.

No sooner did this idea get expressed than did we start rolling up our sleeves and finding allies who were equally driven to getting such an event to happen. We met and tossed around ideas, ultimately determining that we were mostly interested in a vegan event that was more ambitious than just an expo, and something with the word “vegan” right there in the title. We were advised at the beginning by some to take the word out, to call it “veg” or “veggie” so as not to intimidate the masses of omnivores we were trying to attract. Ultimately, our decision to use the word “vegan” right there in the name of the event helped to shape how our event manifested: there is nothing to hide, nothing to be afraid of, it’s all right out there in the open. How can we foster the changes we want to see in the world if the very people who are promoting the changes are afraid of the word connected to us? Around this early stage, one day my son was at a dinosaur class offered by the park district (correcting the pronunciations of the various ancient beasts of the teen teachers) and I resolved to come up with the name of our event by the end of the class. I sat in the corner with my pen and paper and without too much effort, Chicago VeganMania floated up out of the ether. It was perfect: gently making fun of vegans while still putting it all out there.

So we planned. And planned and planned and planned. We found a space in a creaky and beautiful old historic building with lots of rooms. We convinced vendors to take a risk on us and on the readiness of Chicagoans to embrace something like this. We figured out insurance, licensing, and all those things that make me want to hide under the covers. We got speakers - actually, they all came to us through word of mouth because we weren’t originally going to have speakers - and bands lined up. We immersed ourselves in the planning of something the likes of which none of us had ever done before.

That first year, we had no idea of what to expect. I had high hopes but nothing to base it on. As we pulled up to the building an hour before we opened, though, my heart leaped: on this unseasonably cold October day, a line outside the door snaked around the building and down the block. There was a line of people waiting for us to open at 9:00 in the morning on a Saturday. Chicago was ready for our event: it was more than ready. As I greeted people in the line before we opened in my little vegan cupcake costume, there were very few people I knew. People were huddled together, laughing, drinking coffee, rocking back and forth for warmth. They had smiles on their faces. They were there because they wanted to be there.

All day long, too, the people kept coming. The speaker room was packed, the vendor rooms swarmed with life. We didn’t dumb down our idea. We were fueled by optimism and naiveté but somehow, it worked. The dream actually came to be and it was better than we could have imagined. 

So this is all to say that I don’t have much in terms of an essay this week - and maybe not next week - because Chicago VeganMania is this weekend and it is going to rock so hard, but before that, it will have eaten up pretty much every waking and lots of would-be sleeping moments. Please come see us if you can! Every year, we wonder why we throw so much time into an event that only lasts for a day but I always come back to this conclusion: because it needs to happen. People need to see how dynamic and exciting and accessible veganism is and we can create that vegan world, if only for a day. Don’t ever give up on your pipe-dreams. They are what creates the world in which we want to live.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Back to the future: A letter to myself as a new vegan...

Dear Marla -

It’s 1995: it’s so cool that you’re finally going vegan! You were vegetarian for 12 years so it’s kind of about time but, hey, there’s no time like the present. I have the luxury of being able to write this in 2013 so I have some added information that might be useful to you as a new vegan. This actually won’t at all be useful to you because you won’t have read it so this is mostly an exercise to show the world how much better things are for vegans today. It is so, so much easier and more enjoyable to be a vegan today. Don’t believe me, 1995 Marla? Allow me to make my case...

In 1995, vegan cheese sucks. It just does. You may as well eat plastic. Move on. Things will get better.

Soy milk is pretty awful, too, like liquified cement but somehow worse. And why is it so beige? Would it comfort you to know that one day, you’ll have easy access to everything from almond milk to hazelnut milk and they can be chocolate, too?

Quinoa. Keen-wah. They’re tiny little powerhouse grains from a magical land and you can finally give rice a break. They’re another great gluten-free option. Oh, did you know that you will have a gluten intolerance? Well, now you do.

In 2013, you know that screaming out the window at someone wearing a fur coat as you drive past will likely just result in her hearing, “Heeeeeeeeey, youuuuuuul ssshouuuulz...” Not effective.

You are just beginning to understand that trying to modify all those Moosewood Cookbook recipes you used to love that call for 8 eggs and 2 gallons of milk and a carton of sour cream is futile. Better recipes will come very soon.

Two cups of nutritional yeast in a recipe that serves four is too much. It is just is.

People will pronounce it vay-gun, veg-gin and everything in between. Forgive them. Stop twitching. Move on. People will stop doing this. Mostly. (Sigh...)

Starting conversations with people just because they are looking at the tofu/tempeh/seitan section of the grocery store will likely make you look like a really over-eager stalker. I would say to chill out, but you won’t listen. You still do this in 2013.

You know that vegan guy who looks and sort of behaves like the Unibomber but he goes to every event so you feel like you should sort of be friendly and so you invite him along when you guys go out for lunch after the Ringling protest and he makes everyone uncomfortable because he never takes off his coat and hat, he doesn’t speak and he just stares at the floor? You don’t need to be friends with him. Seriously.

Staring at the testicle area of every male dog to see if he’s neutered so you can lecture or feel good about his person is a little weird and may make you look like a perv.

The restaurant food - oh my gosh, the restaurant food! - in 1995 pales in comparison to 2013. You may think that those hummus wraps and portobello mushroom “steaks” are good but they totally aren’t. Blech. Admit this already! It gets so, so much better. Meanwhile, though, you’ll have to continue to plow through your weight in hummus, I’m afraid.

Okay, how do I explain this? You know that vegetarian restaurant guide that you keep in the car for when you travel, the one with all the notes in the margins and dog-eared pages? You know how when you travel you stop along the way at telephone booths to call ahead and see if they are still around and often they aren’t? You know how you think to yourself that you can’t imagine what you ever did without this guide? Okay, one day there will be these things called apps (like an abbreviation for appetizers but it’s actually for “applications”) and here’s the thing: you can look up restaurants, grocery stores, freaking vegan goods stores (yep, there are those) on your flipping PHONE and see the menu and reviews and call them and follow a map there and with just a phone. Yes, you can. And that’s just one app. There are also cruelty-free products apps (you get to retire that guide from PETA you carry around), recipe apps, even an app with snappy comebacks to annoying pseudo-questions about veganism. Okay, there’s not that last one yet but we’re totally going to create one. Is your mind blown yet? Holy guacamole, I live in the future and I’ve got goose bumps.

In 2013, there will be vegans who don’t really care about animals or animal rights. Yes, it’s wild but true.

The “vegan” celebrities will break your heart again and again. Do not jump on any stupid bandwagon and feel all “rah rah rah!” about any of them. They are all sell-outs. Except for Woody. Woody’s still holding strong.

One day, you will be able to walk into a restaurant and order a pizza with vegan cheese and sausage instead of the cheeseless pizza and this in and of itself is kind of mind-blowing.

You will have a vegan wedding and the food will be so good that your mother’s friends from the Beth Hillel sisterhood won’t even complain and that’s saying something because that Faye has a big mouth.

You know how you flip out whenever the word “vegan” appears in pop culture? You don’t do this anymore. (For the most part.)

You know those two kinds of dairy-free ice cream that aren’t very good? In 2013, there will be more varieties of vegan ice cream than there are vegan products on the shelves in 1995 and I’m kind of exaggerating but not by much.

The shoes. The shoes. You know how you can only wear, like, Converse or Doc Martens? Things have improved.

So it gets better. Got better. I’m glad I’m here in 2013. Thank you for powering through in 1995, even though you were still so gosh darn easy-to-please that you apparently didn’t even notice that things sucked. Anyway, yay! Let’s hear it for 2013, Marla!



Wednesday, September 4, 2013

On Community...

Thursday night, I was blessed to be among a small gathering who sat with a dear friend as he transitioned from this life. In the final weeks of his life, our friend was in the hospital and all along the walls of his room, there were drawings from the children who knew him their whole lives, cards from friends, hand-written letters. We ran out of wall space to hang everything. Friends called him and visited the whole time he was there, bringing miso soup, hemp milk, avocados, well-wishes from others far away. Some of us were part of his circle from being vegan, others from the Catholic Worker house, the Quaker meetings, and then there were also the anti-nuke people, the peace activists, the sustainability crowd, and the friends he had simply known forever. Meeting someone new while visiting our mutual friend was an incredibly rich experience: everyone was so impressive and interesting. He was an exquisite collector and curator of friends. The whole time he was at the hospital and until the day he passed away, the nurses asked, “Who is this man? Why does he have so many people visiting?” We shrugged: “He’s famous.” He was. Is. He passed as he lived, surrounded by the friends he’d made along the way, treasures he’d discovered on his path through life.

Perhaps because he wasn’t close to most of his family, he put a lot of effort into cultivating his friendships and community. Some people are fortunate enough to be born into big, close-knit and loving families, but many of us are not. Ever since I was little, I have always looked with envy at my friends from those warm family backgrounds and I idealized what it must be like to be part of such a thing. My childhood was filled with daydreaming about being part of the family on Eight is Enough, playing the tambourine with the Partridge Family, sharing my bedroom with the Brady sisters. Even Walton’s Mountain with John-Boy and and his crowded farmhouse spurred feelings of heartfelt longing within me: if I had a big family to call out goodnight to through our bedroom walls, if I had a messy, chaotic house, maybe I wouldn’t feel so alone. I could lose my loneliness in the messiness and chaos, and I’d always have people who loved me because they had to love me.

The truth that I learned as an adult is that whether you grow up as an only child with few cousins, a small family or one with a boatload of relatives, it really doesn’t matter in terms of whether you feel fulfilled and complete or terribly alone and isolated. Intimacy, connection, acceptance and unconditional love, the things we need for a sense of  security, can happen with or without a close family. Loneliness is a condition of the soul, not something worsened or alleviated by having people around you.

When I went away to college at 18, I left home feeling pretty alienated and alone in the world. In college,  though, it wasn’t long before I discovered that I could create my own family out of friends. We shared apartment keys, learned how to cook together, had sleepover parties, sipped mimosas at brunch, hungover. My friends were like family but in some ways, it was better than that: we weren’t together because we felt obligated or born into a relationship. We were together because we liked each other, because we cracked each other up, because we helped each other through difficult breakups, because we got one another. We chose each other. We were family without the often painful baggage. Instead of the Partridge family, we were more like the Monkees. Who wouldn’t want that?

True community is a hugely important need but something that I think is often neglected. Feeling a sense of belonging, of kinship with others who understand and accept us, of knowing that we have shared values and passions, means that we can relax in each other’s company. We’re not expected to play mind games or dance around certain subjects. We can leave behind the constricting roles we are often expected to play with family and we can discover who were are, something that is not always possible with our immediate relatives and their expectations of us.

When someone decides to go vegan, it is often at the risk of becoming estranged from family and this can actually be terrifying to some people. Breaking away from family in order to live the lives we feel most aligned with takes real courage and conviction. Ultimately, we all need to feel intimate connections, though, or we will lose our spark. We must make it a priority to nurture this. My friend in the hospital made many decisions that distanced him from his family of origin but he also went out into the world and built a new family, one that was more accepting and supportive of him than his original one, and one that was more allowing of him to be the sort of person he aspired to be. Imagine if he had been limited to just his family of origin as his only community: he would have never been allowed to shine.

Our friend was surrounded by people who loved him as he was, and with their support, he was able to go out and create more positive change in the world on his own terms. At the end, he carved out the life he designed by himself, and when he died, he was surrounded by his chosen family. This is not to say that his life was without challenges but it was the one that he chose. By nurturing a community for ourselves, we are given both wings and a soft place to land.

Are you doing what you need to cultivate a community for yourself? Can you make this more of a priority in your life? Do what you can to make it happen and you will reap countless rewards in your life.