Thursday, September 15, 2016

10 Questions: Vegan Rock Star with Annette Conlon...


I am featuring a lot of Vegan Rock Stars this month because I have been so busy with various work deadlines as well as Chicago VeganMania, which happens October 1, but it has been a real pleasure for me to let some of these amazing people get a little of the spotlight they deserve. One such individual is Annette Conlon, award-winning LA-based singer-songwriter, dedicated animal rescuer, compassionate fashion plate and over-all wonderful soul. Annette is embarking on her highly anticipated Compassionette Tour very soon, hitting TN, AL, NC and IL to touch down at Chicago VeganMania, playing a set at our Culture Café (curated by my dear friend -- and sister vegan Rock Star -- Robinlee Garber) and that evening at the Heartland Café-Red Line Tap, which will be offering a special vegan menu along with great live music for CVM revelers who don't want the day to end.

I treasure Annette's gentle persuasiveness, empathy, warmth, dedication and passion for compassionate living. Plus she's just super-talented and lovely. I am honored to showcase Annette Conlon as this week's Vegan Rock Star.

1. First of all, we’d love to hear your “vegan evolution” story. How did you start out? Did you have any early influences or experiences as a young person that in retrospect helped to pave your path?

In late 2002 my doctor told me that I had high cholesterol and that he wanted to put me on a statin drug. I suggested that I change my diet. He told me people don’t just change their diets. He was wrong.

When I first moved away from my parents I fell into a vegetarian diet for two reasons. 1) I couldn’t afford meat, and 2) I didn’t really care for it much. I became comfortable in this diet and stayed like this for many years, only eating meat if I visited my parents. I got married at 22, and we were transferred to Turkey (he was Army). Seeing the animals hung upside down in the market was enough to enforce my non-meat eating ways (I did not call it vegetarian because I did not know that word. I just said, I did not eat meat and everyone was cool about it. I did eat plenty of fresh feta from the goat that lived across the street.). When we divorced and I was back on my own I continued to live as a non-meat eater, unless I visited my parents. My stomach would sometimes become upset after dinner and I did not know it was my stomach revolting because it was not used to digesting meat.

When Doug (my current husband) and I started dating, he showed up one morning around 2:00am and started up the grill on the porch. I woke up and looked outside to see him hard at work. I opened the screen door and asked what he was doing and he said “Making ribs.” How do I tell this cute boy I don’t eat meat? How did he not even NOTICE that after almost 8 months of knowing each other I had never eaten meat?? Hmm. I had a small bite and fed the rest to the cat. I told him it was because I was sleepy. I was tired, embarrassed, and confused. I really liked him and was afraid he would not like me. Fast forward to the end of 2002. We had been married almost 9 years, I’d eaten way too much junk food, hamburgers, steak, french-fries, and it had made me sick. Literally sick.

I quit red meat and fried foods cold turkey. Within 3 months my cholesterol improved and I had lost a few pounds. As I continued to eliminate other animal products from my diet I noticed startling changes (poultry, eggs, then dairy and fish, and then these products as ingredients in breads, packaged foods, etc.). High cholesterol runs in my family so this was exciting, and, my doctor was very impressed with the changes. Within a year my lipid panel was “remarkable” and “envious” (according to my doctor.) As I stopped eating junk food, my skin cleared up and I lost more weight.  I felt like I had pressed a reset button. I felt energetic and years younger. By the end of 2003 I was no longer eating any animal products at all and had changed my perspective on how I ate. I had begun scouring labels at Whole Foods looking for hidden ingredients and questioning every waiter I encountered.  I learned that the less ingredients in any packaged food meant it was generally better, to always choose whole plant based foods over packaged foods, and I began experimenting, making everything from vegan lasagna, to vegan pizza, and vegan soups. I experimented with holiday pies and cookies. I started telling people I wouldn’t eat anything with a heartbeat. The dots had connected and I started to CARE.

The transition was harder on my friends because they had to listen to me bubble over with excitement as I tried to get them to eat all the yummy stuff I was discovering. Everyone had to go to my favorite vegetarian Indian place on my birthday for strawberry cake, and eat at my favorite Thai place that served tofu, but my friends in Dallas were all encouraging and supportive, none more so than my husband (who was an omnivore) who read every label with me. 

Probably the funniest story is about Erykah Badu. She and I shopped at the same Whole Foods in lower Greenville, in Dallas, TX, at the time. I never met her, but she was the only other vegan I knew of shopping at that Whole Foods at that time. I would ask the manager questions about products every time I went in (the internet was very light on information back then). He would tell me about the pizza Erykah bought, and when I found something I liked, I’d share it with him, and he’d share it with her. She and I shopped vegan together through the manager. It was very reinforcing to know someone else was struggling with the same decisions. I did not have any vegan friends, but I was not alone.

2. Imagine that you are pre-vegan again: how could someone have talked to you and what could they have said or shown you that could have been the most effective way to have a positive influence on you moving toward veganism?

Before I became vegan I met a vegan. His name was Vegan Steven. He was kind of a caricature of how vegans are described in bad movies. He ‘converted’ a friend of ours to veganism. (It was not a transition). That friend acted like he was in a cult. It was odd and weird and frankly I didn’t think too much of their movement. He became a meat eater again after his friendship ended with Vegan Steven, and Vegan Steven moved on. I remember eating lunch with him while he was a vegan and my friend trying to ‘convert’ me, but not having any real arguments. “It’s good for you.” He said. “So is this taco…” I’d say. Shrug. Shrug. Nothing about animals, or the planet, or lives saved.

Maybe he didn’t know. I didn’t know. There is no way any of us could know then what we know now. HOW MUCH of an impact one person’s choice can make on so many animals’ lives - over 300 a year is mind-boggling, in a good way. This is why, to me, there are no other options anymore. Because I now know. I may have started down this path again because of my health, but I have fought to remain vegan through life or death health crisis’ (feeding tubes due to a serious sepsis infection, and yes, vegans can get sick), and I will remain a vegan forever, because I now know.

Certainly I think the movies that are out now are very effective. I love Speciesism: The Movie, Forks Over Knives, and, Cowspiracy. Mercy For Animals shares so many informative and compelling videos, as does PETA – I find these sites to be an incredible resource and share information from them with friends regularly, especially friends who are new to veganism, because there is an easy wealth of knowledge at hand. If someone had shown these images or videos to me as a child, I would like to believe I would never have looked back. With the internet there are many ways we can communicate messages of veganism and awareness against animal cruelty that were not available when I started changing my diet, much less when I was a young and had not yet made the connection between what was on my plate and what I saw at petting zoos.

I transitioned organically and I’m grateful for that, and I am okay with not being born and raised a vegan, because it gives me compassion towards people who are considering transitioning to veganism. I understand their questions and can relate to their experiences. Also, I’m in no place to judge.

I love that there are so many incredible substitute products available for meat and dairy now. I think that they help people transition more easily. Maybe they help to remove some doubt about ease and fear of change. I know I looked for products when I first transitioned and they were few and far between. These products aren’t for the vegans that don’t want them; they are for the folks trying to make up their minds, or a new vegan, or a vegan in a hurry, or a hungry vegan, or a vegan that LIKES THESE PRODUCTS.

A supportive family is also important and I’m lucky because my family is great. They respect my choices as my choices. I’m so grateful for that. My mom cuts out and sends me terrific vegan recipes, shops for vegan food and other items at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s when I come to visit, and my entire family shows great concern whenever I visit, making sure I have something vegan to eat at dinners and outings. My husband eats vegetarian or vegan at home with me and eats vegan out with me whenever we go out to eat. He is also making more personal vegan choices in his life. I’m a lucky vegan gal.

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

Honesty and compassion. I think being honest about what is at stake (animal lives) is important, but also being a compassionate listener is very important. You cannot affect change if all you do is talk. We must listen.

There are statistics, videos, images, and graphic footage that will boggle the mind. None of this will have any effect to a burgeoning vegan or vegetarian if we don’t give them a chance to ask questions. So, we need to listen, then answer honestly, thoughtfully, and compassionately.

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

We’re growing. We’re becoming more mainstream. For me, though, the most important thing is that being vegan is a morally imperative choice. It’s the right choice for me, and, I believe, for people concerned with their ethics and doing the right thing for animals and the planet there is no other option. I think more and more people are becoming aware of the ‘ethics of diet’ and are making the vegan choice.

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

The in-fighting amongst vegans that gives the overall impression of veganism as a bad thing. That makes it a joke and fodder in the entertainment community. That brings out the bullies. The whole “I’m a better vegan than you because…” thing has to stop.

Veganism is a good thing. Why are any one of us making it look bad?

There is not one word of judgment in the Vegan Society’s definition of Veganism: “Veganism is a way of living which seeks to exclude, as far as is possible and practicable, all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose.”  As a matter of fact, I find the judgment some vegans cast upon each other to be somewhat exploitative and hypocritical. It really saddens me and I hope someday soon to see more unity amongst us.

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

Why not vegan? Why not make a change in your life that helps save over 300 animals a year? Veganism is easier than you think. Almost anything can be made vegan. Any minor sacrifice we may have to make to give up a convenience or flavor is nothing compared to the sacrifice dairy/beef/poultry/fish/game animals make every day. Their lives are worth more than a moment on my lips. Make them worth more to you, too.  

7. Who are the people and what are the books, films, websites and organizations that have had the greatest influence on your veganism and your continuing evolution?

I guess we all continue to evolve throughout our lives. I don’t read a lot of blogs because I’m busy, but of course Vegan Street is a site I visit regularly along with Mercy for Animals, Moby’s Instagram, Our Hen House, One Green Planet, PETA, and VegNews. I search out new vegan products, especially for makeup, fashion and household, and will try some of the new vegan prepared foods, although I prefer fresh whole plant based foods over packaged foods, generally. In a pinch, there’s nothing like a quick Tofurky sandwich with fresh greens, Vromage and some Vegenaise!!

I think my evolution has come from within. It’s my desire to grow and change and to do more to help animals that has driven me to put together my upcoming tour. I wanted to do something special to raise awareness so I put this together.

My Compassionette Tour runs Sept 24-Oct 1. I’ve dreamed of a chance to spread awareness of veganism and compassionate living through my music, and now I have that chance. From Nashville to Asheville, and up to Chicago, including the 8th Annual Chicago VeganMania, I’m thrilled to share the word about how to choose ways to add animal friendly choices into people’s lives, from music, fashion, food, and love!

There are several sustainable and vegan companies endorsing the tour, including Bedell Guitars, Bent & Bree, BHAVA, Couch Guitar Straps, Kat Mendenhall Vegan Cowboy Boots, and Seagull Guitars. Also endorsing the tour are Guitar Moose, L.R. Baggs, and Shubb Capos.

Tofurky has provided us with coupon booklets and counter-culture cards to pass out along the way. We'll also have free stickers from Couch Guitar Straps!

I think this is just the beginning of my next phase. I’m excited to see what happens next.

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

At the end of each day I sit on the front step with our feral kitties and talk to them. One of them, Red, was near death a few months ago. I held a “GoFundMe” to help raise funds for his high vet bills (thankfully covered by amazing friends). He’s robust and strong, now, and playful, sweet, loving, and ever the protector of our community cat colony. I sit on the front step at 1:00am or 3:00am, the mist of the ocean moving in on the clouds, feeding the kitties and talking softly to them, Red winding in and out between my feet, talking back to me. Sometimes I end up feeding five or six cats, the opossums, and the family of six raccoons all in one night. I sit still, or stand still, and the animals come up to me. In that moment I know with unwavering certainty that my life choices are 100% right. I’m at the right place at the right time. I’m calm, serene even. Nothing hurts, there are no fears. I have no doubts. I am confident in all things. How could I ever eat an animal when these wild creatures TRUST ME? It’s not even a consideration. No fur, no leather, no milk, no meat. No honey, silk, wool, or ‘fine’ perfumes. I don’t even think about it. I’m only grateful to be here to share time and space with them.

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

Animal Rights/Animal Welfare/Animal Cruelty

It’s more than just not eating animals (don’t).
It’s how they are treated in holding pens, in shelters, in zoos, in cages, tied in chains, injected, electrocuted, experimented on, murdered in cold blood…or, left to suffer and die in the bottom of the cage, as they watch their cage mates dragged off in terror.

We need to stop this now.
We need to stop vivisection;
We need to stop killing animals in shelters and adopt them out.
We need to get rid of puppy and kitty mills.
We need to stop keeping cows pregnant so we can use their milk for dairy.
We need to stop tearing babies away from mothers.
We need to stop slaughtering animals to increase Big Ag’s paycheck.
We need to stop killing horses to give cattle more room to graze. Cattle that will eventually be killed for food.
We need to stop.

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

Easy. There is no other choice.

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