Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Notes to Myself on the Occasion of My Birthday...

I just turned 23 (what?) and so, on the occasion of my 23rd birthday (be quiet, I’m warning you), I’ve compiled a list of some of the things I wish I’d learned while growing up. If not in childhood, then at least by the age of 16. Or 31. (Oops, well, you caught me.) Some maxims I have fully embraced and others I am still trying to internalize. Some might take a lifetime. If my adult self could intervene and give advice to my developing self, this is what I would like to have said.

* Avoid people who fake apologize. You know how there are certain people who, when they apologize for something thoughtless they said or did, actually make you feel worse? The ones who usually say something along the lines of, “I’m sorry you were offended” or “I’m sorry you took that the wrong way.” You know how it feels kind of insulting? That’s because it is -- they want the credit for apologizing while actually shifting the blame onto you. What they’re doing, indirectly, is a form of pseudo-apologizing, an “apology” with an underpinning of blame. People who fake apologize are some of the worst kind of friends and you should excise them from your life, the sooner, the better.

* Don’t be pressured into apologizing either. With that in mind, never, ever apologize if you haven’t done something wrong and don’t expect anyone else to, either.

* Partners-in-crime are the best friends on earth. The best kind of friend is as game for checking out the tacky haunted mini-golf course as she is crashing the Ann Coulter book signing or just hanging out over tea. She can laugh with you, cry with you, stop whatever she’s doing to check out the sale at LUSH, totally get your sense of humor and know when something’s wrong even if you won’t admit it to yourself. Keep these friends. Fight for them. Treasure them. They are more rare and valuable than you could ever imagine.

* Are you getting how important friends are?
I wish you would have learned when you were ten or so that the pursuit of popularity is a never-ending, exhausting and empty treadmill. Go for quality over quantity every time and you will be so much happier.

* Drink more. (Water. Why, what did you think I meant?)

* People will try like mad to find your hypocrisies if they think you are “too perfect” and if they can’t find any hypocrisies, they will resent you. Either way, it is all arranged so you lose. Opt out by just concentrating on your inner-compass no matter what the people around you do.

* Maintain some harmless vices. The daily chocolate square or three (as long as its dairy-free, organic and Fair Trade -- do you see how pushy I’ve become?) is a good one to keep.

* Don’t say, “It’s okay,” if it’s not.
Start practicing this immediately because, boy, is it ever a hard one.

* Heartbreak makes can either make you more hardened or more empathetic.
Choose empathy. 

* This may not seem so, but there is a world of difference between being nice and being kind.
Learn it. Being nice means that you are concerned more with what others think of you and being kind is a much more engaged, challenging and fulfilling practice.

* Nobody is as hung up about you and your perceived flaws and shortcomings as you are.
Everyone has his or her own struggles and you probably barely register into their awareness. This should be reassuring, not disappointing. Think about the people in your life: are you obsessing over their imperfections? No, and no one is doing it to you, either. Self-absorption is the worst kind of suffering. Try to give it up.

* Don’t be pressured into doing or saying anything that goes against your gut.

* It’s a cliché but it’s true: when people show or tell you who they are, always believe them.
You will only be disappointed if you have expectations.

* Eat as much ripe, cold, perfect watermelon in the summer as you possibly can.
The same applies to peaches, mangoes, blackberries, cherries and everything else that is heavenly and ephemeral.

* You may think you don’t like Brussels sprouts now but, seriously, roast them.
They become savory candy. Life is too short for boiled Brussels sprouts.

* Want instant liberation? Let everyone off the hook for being responsible for your happiness.
Your happiness begins and ends with you. Start this practice immediately.

* Smile as soon as you wake up, before you get out of bed.
Make this a practice and it will change your whole day and all those days eventually add up into a life. I’m just saying...

* Strategies for when you’re feeling stuck:
Skip. Go for a bike ride. Take a walk in the woods. Listen to your favorite music. Work somewhere else if you can. Meet a friend who inspires you. Exercise. Garden. Look through photos. Go to the library. Go to an art museum. Do some jumping jacks. 

* A single golden strategy for when you’re feeling miserly and ungrateful:
Make a list of three positive things that you made happen at the end of each day as well as three reasons you made these things happen. (For example: “I cleaned my office. 1. I value my space. 2. I understand that being orderly helps me be productive and reach my goals. 3. I am committed to making positive changes in my life.”) It’s harder than it seems but it is so worthwhile. I learned this a few years ago and this practice will get you to a place of abundance and gratitude.

* Please, please, please, wear sunblock.
And a wide-brimmed hat. And sunglasses.

* Being a family member does not give anyone license to mistreat you.

* If there is an empty swing at the playground, take it.

* Skip when you can instead of walking.
It’s faster, more fun and it’s an instant happy pill.

* You’re about to spend a lot of money on gin and tonics and cover charges from ages 19 to 26 or so.
Seriously, please consider saving it and traveling instead. Oh, you won’t listen to me.

* Although you will meet your husband at a bar in so at least go to the Green Mill on May 2, 1993.
(In other words, never say never.)

* You know how you think being flaky, disorganized and unpredictable is cute?
It’s mostly just annoying.

* I bet you think I’m going to tell you not to major in fine arts. But I won’t.
Major in fine arts just don’t expect to do anything with it.

* Your son or dog will eventually grow too old to want to play with you and then you will miss those days. Play with your babies whenever possible.

How about you? What would you tell your younger self? What do you wish someone had told you?


Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Of Butcher Shops and Billboards that Bully

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” ~ George Orwell, 1984

Last week, there was a bit of a local news story turned national hug fest for heritage carcass carvers everywhere when an esteemed Chicago meatery called Publican Quality Meats responded to a billboard that PETA had rented near their shop, which happens to be in the old meat-packing district and is a hub for trendy, upscale restaurants today. PETA’s billboard simply read, “You can live without those ribs. I can’t. Try vegan,” with the image of a piglet. (No Lettuce Ladies? No puerile sexual double-entendres? Oh, PETA, you always keep me guessing.) PQM responded to the billboard with the kind of chillingly convoluted doublethink that never fails to turn me into a human version of these pugs but still, it’s what I have come to expect from those who claim that we can simultaneously “love” and “honor” animals while killing, dismembering and profiting from them. In other words, there’s nothing new here. [Breathing, breathing, breathing...] It’s the sort of obvious contradiction that I have come to learn is very hard to notice if one is still participating in consuming animals. 

In their message to the public, PQM pulled a card that surprised and delighted their fan base of affluent meat-eaters: they characterized themselves as advocates for animals. In asserting that their beliefs about the ethical treatment of farmed animals were similar to that of PETA with the exception of that niggling difference of, you know, eating (oh, and profiting from) their segmented parts, PQM tried to neatly sidestep the issue as if it were a mere difference in personal taste. “Hey bro, it’s like you like Coke and I like 7-Up. One is a cola, one is the un-cola, but we’ve got more in common than we don’t. We both love carbonated beverages. World peace! Now let’s go Instagram some charcuterie...” [Seriously, entering deep breathing time: in with peace - one, two, three - out with anger - four, five, six....] With evidence that they cooly presented as proof positive of their honoring of animals but is, in fact, actually deeply fetishistic (“This is why we do not waste a molecule of these beautiful animals. We process them into headcheese, marrow bones, cured meats, cooked meats, ham hocks, regular cuts, blood sausage. We feel this honors the life of the animal and is the right way to do this kind of work”), it is important to note that industrial agriculture is as, if not more, resourceful at extracting every last, um, molecule of a beautiful animal’s corpse than a trendy butcher shop could ever be. This is what industrial agriculture does best, just without all the chest-thumping and backslaps to themselves and, implicitly, their customers. In this fusing of their economical use of another’s various body parts with the higher ideals of honoring them, a disturbing inability or unwillingness to parse fairly essential differences is revealed.

Reading the articles and comments on the various news sources [still breathing here], I saw this same phenomenon again and again - the inability or unwillingness to parse essential differences as PETA and their billboard were repeatedly referred to as “bullying” the sweet little exclusive butcher shop. Really? Never mind the fact that the placement of the billboard far more likely has to do with its close proximity to Chicago’s restaurant row and the significance of it being in the meat-packing district rather than near one specific butcher shop, there is a bigger problem here. Specifically, let’s look at the word bully and the charge of bullying. Bully, used as a verb: (To) use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically force him or her to do what one wants.

What is true bullying? To erase the sovereignty of one’s own selfhood, of one’s own body, and force another’s desires upon that being. To impose the will of those in power over the fundamental rights of those who are not in power. Vegans represent between two-to-three percent of the population at most; this is incredibly light resistance against the ingrained, entrenched institutions and customs that buttress the habits people enjoy. Are we really supposed to believe that a billboard that merely asks for consumers to consider what they are eating to be bullying? What’s more, those who speak up for those who are truly oppressed are now the bullies? And those who are complicit in the exploitation of others (intentionally or unintentionally) have become the bullied? If we were talking about the government pushing this notion of bullies and the bullied, we could easily call that mentality Orwellian. Because our societal use of animals is deeply-rooted and systemic, omnivores refer to what they do as within their rights and when their “personal choices” [breathing...] are criticized by killjoys, their feelings are hurt. They feel constrained. Hence, the meat-eating public has effectively felt bullied by a pretty tame billboard.

Holy moly, what a strange place this is sometimes.  

What kind of irrational, tangled world do we live in where the very small minority of people who speak out against the atrocities inflicted upon billions of innocent beings, something that 98% of the population aids and abets through their habits, are suddenly bullies for pointing out the simple fact these habits cause suffering and death? Stating a fact - in this case, that a pig cannot live without his or her ribcage - is suddenly a bullying action. If you are a meat-eater and you feel bullied by those who speak up for animals, I have some questions. When people speak up for animals:

* Are you fearful for your well-being?
* Are you exploited?
* Are you oppressed?
* Are you harmed?
* Were your rights denied?
* Is there a power imbalance that is unfairly inflicted upon you?

My guess is that if we replace the word “bullied” with “feeling guilty and upset about it,” or “feeling defensive about one’s privileges,” we may have a more accurate understanding of the dynamic at play. Because, let’s face it, who is really bullied in this equation? Quite obviously, the billions of animals, born into servitude and captivity through no fault of their own. They are forcibly impregnated (raped in human terms), castrated, docked and clipped without anesthesia, forced to entertain us, be experimented upon, live in filth, be slaughtered. Who are the bullied? Whether they are “heritage” animals or “lowly” chickens, graceful dolphins or silver fish in a river, when we impose our will upon the animals, they are the bullied. If we are willing to take off our blinders, it’s abundantly clear who the bullies and the bullied are here.

I am not saying that omnivores are all bullies. I don’t believe that at all. I just think that most people are not awake to the horrors inflicted upon the animals and their role in it. Before I stopped eating animals, I wasn’t able to face this either. It’s understandable. What is abhorrent to me, though, is this charge of bullying when the curtains that obscure cruelty to animals have simply been gently pulled back. That is not bullying. That is called honesty.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Do What You Do (Just Do It)...

I have a friend who passed away recently. Rynn Berry was a really interesting, erudite and gentle person and he was also a historian, specializing in vegetarians throughout the ages, with a particular passion for tracing and revealing the often hidden but wonderfully rich philosophic and spiritual origins of a movement many assume was created by some stoned hippies on a commune in the 1960s. Through examining these deep roots that stretch into antiquity, Rynn contextualized our growing movement, giving us colorful pins on the historic and cultural map and pride for our connection to some of the most advanced thinkers of their time. In doing so, Rynn helped to not only instill a sense of context and pride among modern-day vegans, but he also played an important role in elevating the Pythagorian diet to its correct historic position.

I met Rynn in 1999 at my first Vegetarian Summerfest. I’d already been vegan for four years, but being able to have a meal and an in-depth conversation with someone who was not only a hero to me but also someone who carved out a unique niche for himself within the movement created what felt like the shifting of different tectonic plates within me. That summer, I met luminaries within the vegan movement - sanctuary pioneers, first generation vegan authors, powerfully influential activists - as well as everyday people who were figuring out ways to create change from within their spheres of influence: librarians, athletes, PTA parents, nutritionists, gardeners, architects and more were spread out across the world, putting their own stamp on their advocacy. The influence this had on me was an indelible and lasting one. It reinforced powerfully within me something that I already knew but needed to see in practice to believe: There is a place for all of us to do this work in our own way.

I have an untested theory that people stick with the things that they enjoy, and the things that they enjoy, they tend to do well, and, along this same token, they avoid those that they don’t enjoy. It’s not rocket science to understand but sometimes the conclusions that are the easiest seem the least believable. I hear from people all the time who say that they would love to do more for the animals but they are not comfortable with public speaking, they are not comfortable as activists. They think those are the only roles for them. Here is what I tell them: Do what you love. Do what you are good at doing and let your unique vegan sensibility shine through.

By understanding our passions, interests and talents and figuring out how to create positive change in the world with them, we break the psychological impediments that restrain, isolate and disempower us. Too often, the message we internalize is that to make a difference, we need to be someone we are not. We need to be more outgoing, less introverted, seemingly fearless and relentlessly on point. This is not everyone, though, and I see too many people shy away from making their contribution to veganism because they cannot imagine themselves in that role. We get the message that someone has to be a very articulate, charismatic public speaker or activist to make a difference in the world but what really matters is that we stay active, engaged and resolute at chipping away at it. The worst thing is to not contribute because you don’t think you have traditional leadership qualities. We all have something vital and necessary to weave into this multifaceted tapestry. We can’t be sitting on the sidelines because the vegan movement needs all of us, from historians to piano tuners (yes, we actually know a vegan piano tuner), to offer the talents and unique vision that only we have to give.

What are you good at? What do you love? How do you like to spend your time?
Since that first experience at Vegetarian Summerfest, I have met people from all walks of life, rural and urban, children and seniors, many of whom are working at applying their talents to the movement they love. From those who have a knack for balancing budgets who volunteer for their favorite non-profits to choreographers who find evocative ways to communicate their message through dance, there is a place for all of us and no one is more valuable than another because we all have something to give and an opportunity to reach those who others cannot. There are many who hold back, though, who think that they are not enough as they are to play a part in the vegan movement and to those people I say, please don’t sit on the sidelines, waiting for permission to contribute. That will never happen. You already have everything you need to get started.

This is dedicated to Rynn Berry, a gentleman and a scholar (some clichés are accurate), a wonderful man who figured out how to fuse his love of history with his core convictions about compassionate living. He believed what he had to give was vital. In pursuing his passions, he created a robust and exciting niche for himself, and he also found a point of entry for creating change. Rynn was quiet, soft-spoken and had a wonderfully imperfect, crooked grin yet that didn’t stop him from leaving his signature imprint on the world. Through his example, I learned that I - weird, imperfect me - had a role in this, too. I didn’t need anyone’s permission. I just needed to believe that I had something vital to give. I do and so do you. 

Now do it.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Welcome to Hypothetical Chicken Island

Dear omnivores of the world,

How are you? I’m well, the holidays are over (YAY!), it’s a fresh, new year, Auld Lang Syne and all that. Cheers, clink-clink, kiss-kiss. Given that, in the spirit of new beginnings, there’s a little something I’d like to address. Is that okay?

I just have to ask: What is it about you and your obsession with deserted islands with chickens and a single starving vegan on it? I mean, it’s weird already.

One of the things you may not realize is that your people spend an inordinate amount of time trying to get vegans to imagine living on a desert island. Not because our breath smells like hummus with extra garlic (though maybe it does) or because we listen to too much Morrissey (though maybe we do) but because you just seem to really want to know what we would do in such a particular living situation, specifically if we were stranded on a deserted island with a chicken.

Growing up, as much as I enjoyed imagining what it might be like to live on Gilligan’s Island - Mary Ann would be my roommate, for sure, because, annoying as she was, you know Ginger would totally stiletto a fellow shipwreck survivor just to have a monopoly on all the lip balm - I never really gave much serious thought to eventually residing on a desert island until I went vegetarian at 15. After I’d been vegetarian for a while, I became accustomed to the strange fixation on the possibility of an eventual island-dwelling habitat as people seemed to really be concerned that I might end up in such a setting. With a chicken. Because that makes sense.

“What if you are stranded on a desert island with just a chicken? Would you eat meat then?” Once I went vegan, this question started being pitched at me at an astonishing rate. Seeing as I’ve never been the seafaring type, did my inquisitors know something I didn’t about an Old Testament-style flood?

Before I could answer their question, though, I have always had a few honest questions of my own to ask. For starters, why am I on a desert island as opposed to, you know, on land or a much more common island with some population? How did I end up there? What happened? How did the chicken end up there with me? Was he on a shipwrecked boat (or was it a downed plane?) with me and if so, why? I like chickens a lot but if I were traveling, a chicken wouldn’t my first choice as a travel mate: why is he with me? Or was he born on the desert island? (And if so, please tell us, which came first, the chicken or the egg?)

Do I have matches or a lighter that made it with me to the island without being wrecked in the process of getting to there? Is there wood? Because I never made it past Brownies into Girl Scouts, I don’t know how to start a fire on my own other than I know that I am supposed to, like, rub sticks together vigorously but, since I can tell you with 98% certainty even if I do so, it will not result in a fire, I need to know what happens if I don’t create a fire. Am supposed to eat a raw chicken? Do I have knives with me? I understand if it’s too outlandish for me to have a weapon on my deserted chicken island, but am I supposed to just throw a whole hypothetical chicken on a hypothetical fire (that I won’t be able to start)? How does this work exactly? I don’t know how to pluck a chicken and all that and I am guessing that there is no wireless on this island for me to watch some gross video (much less a device that survived whatever occurred that resulted in me becoming stranded on an unpopulated island). So, yeah, there’s that.

Okay, the island itself: are there fruit trees, you know, like the coconuts that always fell on Gilligan’s head? (I’m sorry but as a child of the 1970s, this is my frame of reference for mythical islands.) What grows there? Because if fruit trees can grow, I guess I will finally become a fruitarian and live to 113 while still looking 27 on my stupid desert island with my washboard abs and flawless skin and be really bummed that no one is around to give me any compliments. And if I have a knife of some sort for taking a chicken’s life, it would probably work just as well on chopping fruit and no fire would be required, thus I won’t feel like a failure after three days of rubbing together sticks to create a spark of some sort that could eventually lead to a fire. (And you know I won’t be able to contain that fire and I’ll end up in the water with the sharks and the chicken will be watching me from the horizon as I’m circled by fins - but, oh wait - the island is on fire now so now we’re both screwed just because I needed a fire to cook a chicken.) So fine: I will just eat the fruit - I like fruit! - and hope that mango is among them. I think I’ll be fine here with my fruit.

Is there no fruit? A chicken’s corpse could provide how many meals? I can’t imagine one would get many meals from one dead chicken. So I could live for maybe four or five days off of a dead chicken’s corpse and then I’d begin to starve, right? If I can only live for a short time off a chicken’s corpse while I’m being baked by the sun without my beloved sunblock or my big hat, I think I’d rather just, you know, die than kill a chicken. In fact, I know I would. Further, I’m guessing I am surrounded by salt water? Hydration is going to be a more immediate need that will go unmet than hunger. I really hope there are coconuts on your hypothetical desert island because I don’t care how thirsty I am, under no circumstances am I’m going to go start drinking a chicken’s blood like a psycho Paleo. Hell no.

Based on all this, I can say with confidence that I will live and die a vegan on your hypothetical island with a hypothetical chicken, with or without hypothetical vegetation. But now I have some other, non-island related questions for you.

1. Do you live on land?

2. What is the likelihood of you ever becoming stranded on a desert island to begin with, let alone stranded with a chicken? (According to The Straight Dope, pretty much nil, even more unlikely with a chicken.)

3. Presuming that you do live on land, there is soil, water, sunlight, correct?

4. And those factors support growing plants, fruits, grains, etc.?

5. I will further go out on a limb and guess that there are grocery stores, markets, growers, and so forth that sell produce and a form of currency with which one can purchase it?

6. And there is soil in which you can possibly grow your own? Correct? 

7. There is a distribution system for access to food that has been grown?

I am going to guess that you live in an environment the supports consuming foods of a non-animal-origin and that even if you don’t live near a grocery store, it is far more likely that you have access to a diverse variety of plant foods than me ending up on a desert island with a chicken, correct? And this is a choice that you can make every day, not just an imaginary scenario constructed out of thin air that does not reflect the reality of our circumstances. You can live a vibrant life that doesn’t necessitate the death of innocent beings yet you would rather focus on what I might do on a desert island with a chicken? Because of your insistence on this island, I know that your scenario is rooted more in a different tacky show of a certain vintage: Fantasy Island. This line of questioning was never really about chickens and islands, this is about rooting out the hypocrisy that you know is in me, driven by your unwillingness to ask honest, penetrating, meaningful questions of yourself.

I live in the here and now. The choices that we make in this reality matter far more than any imaginary island with a chicken. What are we doing - in the here and now - to live in alignment with our values and reduce our footprint on the environment? This is what matters. 

(And, in case you hadn’t noticed, I answered your question: Viva la chickens, even the hypothetical ones!)

xo -