Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Candy Demons...

My son is going to be a ghost-hunting alien this year for Halloween. Luckily, we're not a family that's averse to homemade costumes. He is bouncing around the house in excitement: Halloween is like a birthday party, Mardi Gras and New Year's Eve all wrapped up in one crinkly plastic wrapper for children. Watching him, and seeing how the holiday influences almost every aspect of our lives as the final countdown to Halloween day begins, reminds me very much of my own childhood.

When I was a child, like nearly every other child in my little suburban universe, I absolutely loved Halloween, every pumpkin-scented aspect of it. I loved the weeks leading up to Halloween, the thrilling anticipation that was almost too much to take, and as a result, I recall October as vividly as any of my childhood memories. I remember watching the Charlie Brown Halloween episode each year, knowing each line of dialogue, every plot development, but still bewitched by the whole thing. I remember going to the Woolworth’s, referred to by my mother as “the dime store,” (an old-fashioned term even then) at Eden’s Plaza every year, and - I can’t believe how incredibly quaint this is going to sound, but it’s true - my mother and her best friend Rose would sit at their long lunch counter and drink Cherry Cokes while I looked around for my Halloween costume with Rose’s daughter, Susan. I was Wonder Woman one year – with that creepy mask with the oval eyes cut out that I had to keep hidden away until the big day because it was so clearly going to suck the soul out of me otherwise – and I remember those cardboard-y wrist cuffs, which I wore all year until they finally disintegrated. I remember the caramel apples sales at our school (specifically Affy Taples here in Chicagoland) coming out just a couple of weeks before Halloween and I remember that squeamishly sick feeling I got as I was eviscerating a pumpkin, reaching in for the grotesquely slimy innards, and that particular pumpkin smell, all unripe and sharp. I remember Mrs. Lane next door and her homemade, orange-colored buttercream-frosted pumpkin cookies that she handed out to trick-or-treaters (imagine such a thing today – the Department of Homeland Security and the FDA would shut down her operation in a minute flat). I remember the thrill at school on the day of Halloween, and I remember shrieking with unbridled joy when I’d locate a friend in a particularly outlandish costume. I remember the Halloween celebration at school, where we would all parade across the stage in the auditorium with our ungainly swords and shields and robes everywhere. I remember racing home after school with my friends on Halloween day, so unbelievably excited; I remember that the air always smelled so delicious, like a candy version of itself. I remember going door-to-door as the sky began to darken, and how we would skip in pairs and small groups down Romona Road, and sometimes even into the townhouse development on the other side of our block. I remember hearing squeals of excitement everywhere, disembodied voices down our dark street, and I remember that the festivities became a little more deliciously sinister as it edged closer to nighttime. I remember lugging my bag of candy around until it felt like there were dumbbells inside and it was so heavy I was afraid the bag would rip. I remember going home and dividing up my candy into different tiers of preference, from miniature candy bars - even whole ones sometimes! - at the top of the list to boxes of dried-out raisins relegated to the bottom. I remember that I had a system of how my stash was to be self-allocated, and how I stored it all in my bed table drawer, those poor raisins never seeing the light of day again until six months later, on their trip to the garbage can. I remember the unsubstantiated rumors of “razor blades in apples” that had Been On The News and the candy in lunchboxes for weeks afterward. Every October, I remember it all with an enthusiasm that seems to build every day. I still think of Halloween from the perspective of a child who was really thrilled by haunted houses and spooking herself out and, yes, candy. Now that I’m a parent myself, none of that enthusiasm has really diminished.

Oh, except for the candy part.

Candy-will-rot-my-son’s-teeth-leave-him-unfocused-at-school-hyper-at-bedtime-and-it-will-alter-his-taste-buds-fundamentally. Sweet-and-sour will excrete from his pores. The arteries to his brain will become clogged with corn syrup. The little, pure, perfect body I nurtured and protected for nine months inside my own will be attacked from within by mutant armies led by artificial food dyes, scary preservatives, wholly unnatural additives, making him a human science experiments. His smooth, satiny skin will become rough and mottled, his bright eyes will become cloudy, his inquisitive nature will become dull. Right?

When my son was younger, Halloween was all about the dressing up and crafts, and we could easily pretend that whole other aspect of it didn’t exist; now that he’s seven, though, he knows about candy. And he likes it. Blame my mother, who never met a piece of candy she didn’t like, who maintained such a well-stocked kitchen of Bubble Yum and Milk Duds that all the neighborhood kids would come gather around our house like alley cats, in the most unsubtle manner imaginable. They all knew about the gum drawer and the candy cabinet, even the new kids, like the information was transmitted psychically. It was only a matter of time before my own child would become curious about Grandma’s stash of cute, squishy Swedish fish and Dum Dums (which includes the awesomely named Artificially-flavored Mystery Flavor, which just blows the mind with its post-modern riddle within a riddle). Or maybe his father started him on this path that one day when my son was crying at the restaurant and he gave him a peppermint candy to make him stop. Was that the gateway drug, the little hard candy with the bright red points hurriedly popped into his mouth? This was the baby who followed me around our apartment as soon as he could crawl, stealing steamed broccoli from my bowl as I ran away. This was the boy who loved miso soup and turned me on to avocado sushi when he three. These days, he treasures the stray pieces of candy we allow to fly under our radar and he savors them like he once savored apples.

I do make occasional exceptions and allow our son to eat the sort of thing I don’t otherwise approve of, but it’s just a few times a year. That seems balanced to me: he’s not eating it every day or even once a month. When he does eat candy, it’s vegan and, while I’m generally not thrilled about the ingredients, it’s appreciated by him. I feel like a zero-tolerance approach would be the recipe for a future rebellion. So it’s rare but candy does happen. And when it happens, I leave him alone: I try not to scrunch up my face or make derogatory comments (admittedly, it’s a challenge sometimes). I just let him enjoy it, the same way I enjoyed candy when I was a child, with his whole, passionate self.

There are people who take a hard-line approach to candy and I can respect that. I do have my doubts as to how effective that is in the long run. (Further, as someone who grew up in almost literally a candy house with pretty much no food-like substance prohibited, I have to say that I never crave the super-sweet stuff of my childhood.) I also think that it can be neurotic and irrational to think that candy a few times a year is going to have such dangerous and lasting repercussions. It’s not. If you raise your children to value their health and to appreciate how sublime a ripe mango can be and how our bodies feel kind of icky on junky fuel, I don’t think there’s any reason to create an environment of fear and anxiety around the occasional detour: in my view, that's more about the parent's own food phobias than anything else. If a parent is creating such a tense and unpleasant environment around forbidden foods, I just don’t think that’s healthy. Those of us who are health-seekers can go overboard just as those who let their children eat anything they want can go overboard. Allowing that little bit of candy every year works for us and my son does not get the message that he needs to go behind my back if he develops curiosity about the “forbidden fruit.” So every year on Halloween night, after we pass out our last organic lollipop, we sort through my son's stash together, separate out the acceptable items, and he can choose five pieces. The rest goes to the Good Halloween Witch (a.k.a., a local dentist who takes candy off the hands of nervous parents) and she leaves a little toy or book behind as a gift. Again, this wouldn’t work for everyone but it works for us.

I want my child to experience Halloween like I did: as a time of year full of anticipation, excitement and absolute joy. I’m not going to deprive him of this experience. And, like it or not, candy is part of the Halloween experience. I want my son to have how own warm memories of Halloween when he grows up, not remember how uptight I was about everything, how he didn't get to enjoy things because of my rigidity. It's a time of celebration. Why would I create anxiety around that?

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Roman Polanski and the seamy underbelly of privileged liberalism...

As usual, I've been blissfully marooned in my internal fairyland so I’m a day late and a dollar short on weighing in on cultural matters, specifically referring here to the Roman Polanski imbroglio. It has been pestering me lately, though, because underneath it all, it touches on something that staked a claim on my serenity for years: the tendency for liberals to turn their damn brains off if something hints at “injustice” and, more subtly but every bit as perniciously, to behave like tantrum-y, breath-holding, petulant three-year-olds when it is implied that they are not as perfect as they think they are. I blame the preponderance of empty-headed, solipsistic New Age doctrine, something many liberals consume and excrete like ravenous wraiths, for much of this. More on this subject at a later date, if I can work up the fortitude.

Whenever I out myself as most definitely not a liberal, I can see the confusion in the eyes of the person who has mistakenly identified me as one, and it’s understandable: we live in a binary culture, one where you’re either liberal or conservative. Or, in this case, it is a ternary landscape, where all persuasions are determined by one’s placement among three points along the continuum: liberal, conservative or middle of the road. Well, it is clear that I am not a conservative, though I would like to reclaim that word as so much of what I love is found in its root word: conserving, meaning protecting from harm or loss, using carefully and sparingly, I can get behind that. I travel by bike or public transit, I am vegan, I buy second-hand, I love canning, I hang my clothes to dry on a laundry line, for Pete’s sake: I’d say that I am a true conservative given the original meaning of the word. I would probably totally hit it off with your homesteading Depression-era great-grandmother. I often wonder how many self-labeled conservatives are guided much by the root word. Clearly, politically, my views are pretty much the opposite of the archetype of the modern-day fire-and-brimstone, hateful, mean-spirited conservative, though. (I realize that this is an archetype, not necessarily one that is representative of your average conservative.)

Middle of the road? I don’t relate to this very strongly either. I like people who maintain strong opinions and are guided by deep passions. I have always gravitated toward emotive, expressive people and I’m glad for it: they will occasionally get overwhelming with their fiery ways, but I think they embolden the rest of us to live big as well. I do believe that the middle path is often the most measured and mindful one: it’s just when one maintains a staunch middle-of-the-road position on everything, it can be stultifying. I appreciate the “grey areas” the middle-roaders remind us of, but I think that it can become too much of a security blanket, compulsively wrapping oneself in that broad, comfortable position in the middle. There are times when strong views are not only better, they are necessary; it is the stuff that propels us toward positive change.

Now on to liberalism. I have been labeled as a liberal ever since I was a little girl and could not for the life of me understand racism. My brain just did not compute. Racism is not only hateful and self-serving, it is irrational. It simply makes no sense. At the risk of being overly simplistic, racism is just plain stupid. Not long after I learned about racism, I learned about homophobism, speciesism, ageism: to my young mind, those things were also hateful, self-serving and irrational. I have to say, though I am a little more nuanced in my understanding, I haven’t changed much from that initial revulsion toward prejudice and injustice I had as a small child. It is just icky. As such, and being more of the outspoken (a.k.a., Jewish) persuasion, I have always felt keenly for the underdog or those treated unfairly and spoken out accordingly. From my earliest memories, I was labeled the family liberal in my household of Reagan-loving Republicans.

At first, I took up the mantle with pride: young people are often seeking labels to understand themselves better. I was a liberal, this was why I looked at the world with my particular slant. Of course! With my fervent, impulsive nature, coupled with my youthful vigor, I pursued my liberalism wherever it led me because I finally had an identity I enjoyed, I called strangers on phone lists to ask them to donate to my cause, I went to marches in the dead of winter, I withheld my babysitting money from businesses and products I opposed. (I still do two and three.) I stood up for the unjustly maligned at family meals and I held my poor social studies class captive as I became more and more outspoken about apartheid, Nicaragua, Western imperialism. Oh, I’m sure I was insufferable. I had more political buttons than I had life experiences, but I was proudly liberal.

How am I tying all this up with Roman Polanski? Here’s how: the longer I was exposed to liberalism, the more I felt removed, and, within the last ten years or so, repulsed by it. The Hollywood liberal elite’s clubby support of Roman Polanski, despite his refusal to face his conviction for drugging and sodomizing a thirteen-year-old girl against her will in 1977, is very consistent with what I have observed time and time again among liberals: a tendency toward mindless, privileged self-absorption. What if the director had been shlocky rather than an auteur? Save those hands for manicures, no wringing required. What if the rapist was still Polanski but the eight-grade girl was Iraqi? Uh oh. That would be uncomfortable. What if the girl were instead an adult woman who was drugged and anally raped by Polanski? What was she wearing? She was trying to seduce him. Otherwise intelligent people are saying this in 2009! Here we can expose the preening, misogynistic hypocrisy of liberalism with their refusal to admit what this case is about: a man who has evaded justice for a violent, sadistic crime he committed against a child for 32 years. The fact that the survivor, as a 44-year-old mother, would like this to be dropped already, well, she has my sympathies. No one is responsible for the continued victimization of this woman in this particular case, though, but Polanski for his cowardly refusal to turn himself in after it became clear that he would face a penalty he didn’t want to face. And what sort of dangerous precedent would we create if the victim had the final word as to whether the perpetrator is convicted? For example, if a rapist were living on your block, would you want his victim(s) to determine if he doesn’t have to face charges? As much as I feel for the survivors of these heinous attacks, that is not a smart or safe approach to criminal justice. While I doubt that the 76-year-old Polanski poses much of a threat to society, that is not how our judicial system works, thankfully. (I should say here that I’m not much of a believer in prison, either, but now that he is in custody, he will go to trial and finally face what he has avoided all these years.)

Do the wealthy liberals who signed petitions and wore badges to “Free Polanksi,” (such as Martin Scorsese, Pedro Almodavar, Salmon Rushdie and Milan Kundera) think that we should have two forms of justice, one for “regular” people and one for cultured European filmmakers? That is the message I am receiving. Worse, it appears with the “Free Polanski” meme, they are trying to refashion him into some sort of political prisoner and martyr who has already suffered enough, a sort of an arthouse Nelson Mandela. (Oh, can we just forget that whole forcible sex with a minor thing? That doesn’t fit with the comfortable revisionist theme…) Could someone please tell me what on earth was Whoopi Goldberg thinking when she characterized his crime as “Not rape rape”? What was it, simply rape in the singular? I need some clarification: what is “rape rape” and what is just your garden-variety rape, Whoopi? What are the thoughts that drive this opinion? And Debra Winger, another Polanski freedom fighter, referred to the Swiss officials who arrested him as “philistine colluders.” See, we in the U.S. are the philistines and the Swiss officials were our colluders. The obfuscation around this issue is almost as fascinating as it is infuriating: is the idea here that Polanski is some refined bohemian artiste and we with our puritanical, repressed values in the United States were once again trying to impose our morality (against raping children, or anyone else for that matter) on someone who should simply be left alone to create his great works of cinematic genius? Tell me I’m wrong. Let’s sat that law officials interceded to arrest someone who had sexually attacked one of Debra Winger’s sons, and this perpetrator happened to be an artist of high regard. Would those people also be colluding on behalf of “philistines”? And how sad is it that I have to put this in personal terms? Isn’t the rape of a child universally understood to be a terrible crime? Yes, the crime was a lifetime ago – which seems to be the sticking point for a lot of people - but Polanski removed himself from due process by evading it as long as he had. Again, his apologists need to admit that he is solely responsible for the case dragging on as long as it has. He committed the crime: the crime was not committed against him.

Sadly, I have found the sort of knee-jerk, entitled, accepting-of-misogyny attitude found here to be very common among liberals, and this is what the Polanski case has exposed: the seamy underbelly of privileged liberalism. This sort of attitude is hateful, self-serving and irrational, just like conservatism as its commonly practiced, but in some ways it’s more insidious because it pretends to be something else. So the next time someone near you says that a thirteen-year-old girl should be held responsible for the actions of a 43-year-old man – and if she’s not responsible, then it’s her mother, and if she’s not responsible, then it was because those were the times, and if none of those things is responsible, can we just drop it already? – you may very well be talking to a liberal. Flee while you have the chance.

Free Roman Polanski? No. Free your mind and reject elitist, self-serving liberalism.

(Oh, and I know many of my friends identify themselves as liberals: have no fear, you are not of this variety. You are true progressives, darn it!)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The power of a word...

Self-doubt can be the worst kind of curse. If I were the sort of person who could and would curse my enemies, I would probably zap them with the plague of self-doubt. (Thankfully, I possess neither the power nor the ill will to afflict another with my damnatory abilities.) There are people I deeply envy who, when others express apprehension about their talents or goals, do not let those doubts cloud their self-esteem or judgment. They take it in and they let it go. I am not normally one of those people: if someone expresses apprehension about an idea of mine, especially at a critically early stage, the whole thing can collapse into a heap around my feet, irreparably punctured and deflated. Something was different with Chicago VeganMania. I’m going to try to figure out why.

Vegans can be our own worst doubters. We often anticipate resistance to our message so we try to shroud what we are advocating of by never uttering its name, like the combination of consonants and vowels itself is a boogeyman that will send the average person off shrieking in terror when spoken. So we call refer to the word as something else, like "plant-based," or we cover it in something that we think will be more palatable, wrapping a cushion of apology around it, saying things like, "Well, it won't happen overnight. Don't worry," as though we’re talking about compulsory amputations or mandatory checkpoints on every street corner. I think we convey that there is something to fear when we use such tactics, even when our intentions are good. I do appreciate the advantages of a more dialed down, nuanced approach to advocacy, and I also see that the one-size-fits-all school of communication is pretty much destined to be a failure. This doesn’t stop me from believing deep down inside, though, that we can be direct about the change we want to see in the world while still being friendly and receptive. We are complex people, who need to convey information to other complex people: shouldn't we aim for fluidity?

Our recent event, Chicago VeganMania, is making me think about all sorts of things. Nothing really new, just making me more convinced about things I already suspected. One thing I’ve been thinking about is the sheer audacity of naming an event we were hoping to draw lots of curious omnivores to with the words "Vegan" and "Mania" right there in the name. We didn't call it something more vague like "VegFest," we didn't try to masquerade it as something it wasn't, pulling a bait-and-switch on the public expecting some nebulous “green” event. The boldness of laying all our cards on the table was part of the plan and part of the charm: there were no illusions about this festival from the beginning. Thus people came - and they came in droves, a long line snaking out the door and around the block all day - with open minds and warm spirits.

At the beginning when this idea was first hatched, there were at least two full meetings devoted to just debating the name. There was a party of one who felt uneasy about the word "mania," feeling that it made light of mental illness (to which I say that I appreciate the consideration but we all need to lighten up a little) but the word that seemed to make the most uncomfortable was the one that we all ultimately are trying to get people to be more comfortable with: vegan. There were people who have learned to try to sneak the concept in by making it softer and squishier (and insert the squat and meaningless expression "veg" in its place) or eradicate the word all together. "What if people are intimidated?" was a common concern. "Will we only attract the converted?"

My gut feeling from the beginning was that the name Chicago VeganMania was a stroke of genius, as I’m nothing if not humble: we could be bold (no one questioning what it was all about) and self-effacing (making light of the "vegans are obsessive maniacs" stereotype) at once. When we are direct but friendly, we send those we are communicating with the message that we trust them and they can trust us to treat them as intelligent and reasonable beings who do not need coddling. It wasn’t like we were shouting with megaphones from the rooftops, “Go vegan now, you stupid schmucks!” We were simply direct about the fact that this was an event with a distinctly vegan orientation. This built an environment of reciprocated trust between the omnivores and the vegans, which was a major hurdle we didn’t have to try to dismantle later.

We brought to the day the attitude that we had nothing to hide and everything to share: thought-provoking speakers and conscientious businesses, wonderful non-profits and delicious food. Who wouldn’t want that? No excuses, no fear, and, as such, there was little resistance and tons of goodwill. Thinking back, I remember of the lovely craft fair that originally sparked the idea behind Chicago VeganMania: the organizers did not try to conceal what it was about, anticipating correctly that there was a demand for homemade, one-of-a-kind goods. They did not create messaging that conveyed, “Just try this for a day and if you don’t like it well, you can still buy your mass-produced, sweatshop-created items when you leave.” They were proud of their unique and diverse community of participating crafters and artisans, just as we were proud of our unique and diverse community of vegan participants. Why would we shroud it in anything that diminished the forward momentum of the day? It just wouldn’t make sense. I say that as long as your message is communicated in with a warm and generous spirit, you shouldn’t be afraid of the word vegan. It is the attitude of condescension and rudeness that gives people pause, not necessarily the word itself (though some are apprehensive because of negative associations through personal experience and ignorance). That’s why we have to turn things around by associating the word vegan with positive identifications. If people still want to reject it outright, well, that is their loss.

I do understand that each community is unique and we all know our own best. Calling an event VeganMania in South Dakota or Mississippi might not be a recipe for drawing big crowds. Do what works for your location to foster more compassionate living.

Just don’t let the word vegan become a boogeyman. It shouldn’t be feared or a source of anxiety. Once we embrace it ourselves – not as a cudgel to create more divisions but as a means for passionate, diverse, intelligent and kind people reaching out – I believe that the world will embrace it, too.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tired, tired...

So Chicago VeganMania was a smashing success. Thousands came. Hard to describe. Sentences not forming. Brain feeling muddy. What a beautiful community we have here. Too much to say. Read recaps here and here. I will write soon of feminism and veganism and agitation but rest now. Rest now...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Chicago VeganMania!

Well, after more than one hundred posts, I clicked on a mystery button, my garage didn't explode on the spot and thanks to this miraculous confluence of events, I now know how to post a link! Like I can now link to my new gig as Chicago Vegan Examiner just like this. Sa-weeet! If you appreciate the wacky hijinks of this here blog but would appreciate more practical and helpful information - not that uses of bad bananas is not practical or helpful - you might want to subscribe to this page. Chicago residency is not required. It would be so appreciated.

Second, oh, sweet heaven, have I got a deal for you. First a little background: my husband and I have had this idea percolating in our fizzy heads for a while. You know how the different social justice movements seem to go through different phases of integration? Like third-wave feminism, for example, building on the previous waves, or the movement away from HIV-awareness activism (represented by groups like ACT UP) and more toward demystification and integration into society. Each begets the next and so on. Each phase is crucial for the genesis and development of the particular movement, which is why I respect at least the need for each stage. Usually these waves were created by brave people using the tools and information they had access to at the time. It is easy for us to look back and say, for example, "Oh, those stupid second-wave feminists with their power suits and capitalism." In retrospect, it is easy to point out the flaws and shortcomings of pretty much anything. It is important to look critically at points along the arcs of the various social justice movements so we can learn from our mistakes: to see the misogyny so endemic to the Civil Rights Movement, for example, or the consumerism of second-wave feminism. At the same time, it's important to have some understanding, to understand why movements went in a certain direction and to show forgiveness. I believe that most of what we can look back at now with derision started out as a genuine attempt toward progress.

With all this bubbling around in our brains (my husband and I are both big into movement theory), we determined that as vegan activism is at its core a social justice movement, we also were subject to waves and evolving philosophies. It seemed to us, if we followed a similar arc as several other social justice movements - from activism, to education, to integration - we would be wise to start working on the integration phase. (These are not isolated stages, by the way: they overlap considerably and go back and forth. It's not like we're done with either of the two previous stages.) There are many others who are working on integrating veganism: this would be the Veggie Pride Parade in New York (also one can clearly see activism and education at work here), for example, or the work of someone like Isa Chandra Moskowitz, with her fabulous cookbooks. We would not be at the next phase without the activism of groups like Mercy For Animals and the educational efforts by Vegan Outreach but right now my heart is all wrapped up in integration. As we wake people up to the cruelties of animal agriculture through our activism, and we give them the information they need to learn more and educate their friends, we must also give people the tools for integrating this new way of living into their lives. This integration must come in many forms, from teaching new recipes to finding a new community to support this new lifestyle, but we do know that it is not enough for us to say "just do it." We have to extend a hand.

This is where Chicago VeganMania comes in, the project my husband and I - as well as a group of other very dedicated and creative volunteers - have been working on for the past year. Chicago VeganMania is described by us as a daylong celebration of vegan culture, community, commerce, cuisine and couture. It is taking place this Saturday, October 10, from 10:00 - 4:00 at the Pulaski Park Fieldhouse, 1419 W. Blackhawk, near Wicker Park in Chicago. All the details are on the website above. We have been getting some great feedback from those who planning to be there and we hope to see you at Chicago VeganMania, too. It is going to be impossibly cool, if you can imagine that.

First of all, the first one hundred in line will receive a free swag bag chock full o' vegan goodies. Don't despair if you're one of those people who is slow moving on Saturdays, though: all attendees get five free tickets for food samples from our vendors. There will be ten food vendors participating, and one can try anything from vegan comfort food at the Chicago Diner to the soul food from Soul Vegetarian East to raw foods with a Middle Eastern flair from Cousin's Incredible Vitality. (There will also be chocolates, Tofurky slices, Vega smoothies and on and on. Check out the "vendors" link from the Chicago VeganMania website for more.)
In addition to the food vendors, there will be other vendors, selling everything from books to high fashion coats to jewelry to soaps to vegan message gear. It's going to be a great opportunity to support these conscientious, cruelty-free vendors. There will also be non-profits present, like the formidable Mercy For Animals and the Vegetarian Resource Group, to namejust a couple. The mind boggles at the magnitude. Even though I helped to conceive and organize Chicago VeganMania, truly, it is staggering sometimes to consider the scope of it and what we can achieve by harnessing the good will of our community, so eager for opportunities to bring more compassion into the world.

And that's not all.

There will be live bands and world famous DJs. There will be a children's crafts area. There will be a kazoo-playing children's spectacle procession led by incredible performers towards the end of the day. I kid you not. This is all happening.

And that's not all. (Now I'm really feeling like a car salesperson, but hear me out.)

There are speakers, too, just upstairs from the festival. On the docket are Caryn Hartglass, Dr. Will Tuttle, Nathan Runkle, Dr. Michael Greger and Rae Sikora and JC Corcoran (both together here). Each and every speaker is incredibly impressive on his or her own. I cannot do justice here. They are speaking on the ethics of a vegan diet to the latest in health information to creating a more connected life. And you can sip free, Ayurvedic tea while watching the speakers. How amazing is that? Goosebumps are entirely appropriate.

So join us. It will be amazing.

And here is my final pitch. If you sign up to be a follower on this here blog and are the first to identify yourself as one to me (friends don't count, as much as I love you) at Chicago VeganMania, I will give you ten free food tickets (a.k.a., grub stubs). Simple, right?

LinkI will see you there!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Hard Sell...

Back when I was nineteen, I had a conversation with a man named Owl, a radical librarian who was partial to wearing skirts, in a park at a Lawrence, Kansas art festival. Somehow or another, the topic came up of the Rainbow Gathering, which is an annual love-in at different locations each year, culminating in a patchouli-scented prayer for peace on July fourth. It involves camping and a barter system and good vibes and hallucinogens. I was both repelled and intrigued, mostly intrigued. I was also eager to get out of town for a week. I didn’t think much about it before Owl called me a few days later, having borrowed the requisite VW van and arranged for people to pick up in Kansas City and Lincoln. When should he pick me up? I was thrown for a loop, stammering there for a minute, not remembering that I had committed but I found myself saying that he could pick me up on his way out of town. I borrowed camping gear, told my only-vaguely-remembered today boyfriend at the time to go screw himself, bought some bug repellent and called in to my job, which was nude modeling, citing some flakily constructed “family emergency” that would take me off the charcoal-smudged platforms for a week. I packed my big suitcase on wheels and took off.

The Rainbow Gathering was a huge adventure for a girl who was raised on the North Shore, the conservative, affluent suburbs directly north of Chicago. Aside from the culture in which random dudes in orange tie-dyes who would feel perfectly comfortable asking this “sister” for a hug (little did those poor, unsuspecting, dilated-pupiled souls know that I was going through a pretty active anti-male phase of my feminist awakening during this time, though they did soon), and the big-as-robins, bloodthirsty mosquitoes that Lake Superior State Park apparently breeds, I had a pretty great time. While I was exposed to more counter-cultural types when I went to school in Lawrence – home of William F. Burroughs and countless dreadlocks – going to the Rainbow Gathering was a total immersion in anything that flew in the face of mainstream, middle class values. Queer, self-proclaimed nature fairies? I met them on the long, dirt road walk to the campground (not easy with a constantly upending suitcase on wheels, I will tell you). Alcoholic bikers? They were there, too, just set off from the rest of the gathering, thank goodness, which had a strict anti-alcohol, pro-‘shroom platform maintained throughout. There were also latter-day flower children, potheads (this goes without saying), suspiciously frat boy-esque dudes looking for a “dose” (hit or two of acid), artists, sixties hangovers, feminists, peripatetic gypsies, you name it. There were also some who were very opposed to The System.

One day, I happened to mention a trip that some of us had made into town earlier that morning, a long journey that required miles of walking on a super hot day, to stock up on supplies. We had stopped at a Dairy Queen and I had a Mr. Misty, a sort of a Slurpee: we were extremely hot and dehydrated and I will admit that it tasted exquisite at the time. I should also mention that while I was a vegetarian, I had virtually no consciousness about consumerism or waste or any of that other stuff that drives me today. I just hadn’t been exposed to these ideas. Anyway, as soon as I had mentioned the Mr. Misty, one guy who just happened to be standing nearby overheard and flew into a sputtering, vitriolic rage.

He started screaming at me – jabbing his fingers and the vein in his forehead furiously pronounced – about Dairy Queen and how evil that corporation was and how they were exploiting the animals and destroying the earth and now I had just given them a couple of dollars to do it some more. I was shell-shocked. Not only had I never heard of any of these ideas (thrown up against me, rat-a-tat-tat), the fact that a random stranger started loudly berating me because of something I casually mentioned left me stunned. After his tirade, which lasted a good minute or two before he stormed off with sizzling lines of angry hissing all around him (or maybe that was my imagination), I was speechless. The best I could muster was a very pallid “Umm…”

I think back to that day often and more than anything, I resent that anonymous Angry Dude for not giving me the opportunity to learn more. As it happened, it wasn’t until about eight years later that I learned enough to become a vegan. I learned enough through the power of the internet and books, yes, but also through the positive outreach of many dedicated activists. Think of what an opportunity he squandered with his angry and vicious diatribe. Not only could I have learned right there and then all I needed to lay the groundwork for becoming vegan – thus I would have stopped supporting the horrible dairy and egg industries earlier – but I could have spent all those years helping to inform others about it. One bad experience with an awful messenger has a reverse ripple effect that can not only help to block progress but it can also work to turn people away from positive, life-altering changes completely. We often hear about the arrogant, strident, rude and hostile advocates who turn potential allies away in seconds flat. Think back in your own life to someone like that. It’s possible that the person’s message itself was good (as was his: think twice about supporting wasteful, exploitative businesses) but when it is wrapped up in a delivery that is so off-putting, it is a medicine very few willingly swallow. Given that, is it in the best interests of an advocate to bulldoze over those he is trying to persuade? Yes, people can be persuaded with threats and guilt tactics and insults – there are those who have such low self-esteem that they can basically be cajoled into anything – but for every “mission accomplished,” there must be dozens and dozens more who are turned off so thoroughly it may take them years, if ever, to reconsider.

I am not talking about wrapping up an ugly truth into a more agreeable package, for example, saying, “Well, factory farming sucks so you could just buy free-range products,” or “Don’t worry, the world go vegan happen overnight.” I am a big proponent of not apologizing in any way for having a message that may be upsetting to the general public. I do not apologize this message ever. What I do do, though, is try to maintain a warm and approachable demeanor. Simply by thinking to oneself, How would I want to receive this new information?, is all we need to go on. I would want the person delivering the message to listen to me without dismissing what I have to say out of hand. I would want to be respected. I would want to be heard and treated with compassion. Simple. At least it should be simple..

I understand the feelings of frustration, anger and sense of urgency the Angry Man had and I share them, often. Despite his shrill example, I have also turned off many people on my path to becoming a more balanced person and better communicator. I deeply regret this. While I am an lifelong fan of polemics, I am equally opposed to fundamentalism. It is unhealthy, imbalanced, puritanical and too often accompanied with a steaming side dish of hate. Is this the sort of world we want to create? I am a vegan activist because I believe in the power of dynamic compassion and because I want to people to stop being complicit in cruelty to sentient beings. I am not interested in creating a world with people who are stomping around, certain of their moral and mental superiority. As far as I am concerned, the message of ahimsa, whether we agree or disagree on the details, is not in question. What is being questioned (and rejected) by me is dogmatic, doctrinaire zealotry. I have no patience for fire-and-brimstone evangelicals in my life, whether they are preaching religion or screaming at me as a na├»ve nineteen-year-old for buying a Mr. Misty. Going in for the hard sell, whether it’s for religion or a new car or veganism, is going to make people naturally suspicious, those who don’t walk away in the first thirty seconds, that is. Our message doesn’t need the “hard sell”: it does require that we are honest, compassionate and thoughtful. It is also essential that we evaluate if our communication methods are effective. If they are ineffective, we may as well be shouting into the wind. In fact, if you are an ineffective communicator, shouting into the wind is often the case. This might do wonders for your sense of righteous indignation and conviction that everyone else in the world is stupid and cruel, but does this help the cause one iota? Again, I am not talking about changing the message itself, just how it is delivered.

It is my experience that all advocacy movements have a healthy population of those who follow the take-no-prisoners school of outreach. It has appeared when I’ve traveled in feminist, anti-war and sustainability circles and it is true of the animal rights movement as well. It is at that point to me where the far left and the far right intersect: a steadfast refusal to budge from a rigid, often purely theoretical, point-of-view. As I said, I have no place for fundamentalism in my life and it doesn’t do those the crusader is advocating on behalf of any favors either.

So what’s the answer? I think we’ve just got to strive to be better, more peaceful people. It should all fall into place from there.