Wednesday, October 30, 2013

On Owning Language

Some people really hate labels. I am not one of those people. 

I know that I should shun labels. I am an open-minded, artistic, rebellious type. (Oh wait, those are actually more labels.) But labels are for cans of soup, right? On the surface, yes, but on a level  deeper than that, labels can actually help people to flesh out what was once two-dimensional and inaccessible to them. If you are “out” as someone who identifies with certain so-called labels, it helps those who meet you to understand the richness and complexities of human nature more, not less, and actually see you in a much more expansive way than it would seem that a label would allow.

At a university surrounded by cornfields, I was happy and honored to be able to embrace the label of feminist. Why wouldn’t I be? Feminists were powerful and independent and not taking any nonsense from anyone. It wasn’t long, though, before I learned that it was not so cut-and-dried for the many other young women who made it crystal clear that they did not self-identify as feminists. Even if they were going to college to develop marketable skills and knowledge for professional careers upon graduation, or as a stepping stone to the advanced degrees denied their female forebears, they weren’t feminists, no way, no how. In talking with people, what I learned was largely that they had conflicts with the image and perception of what they thought it meant to be a feminist. To many who disassociated themselves from feminism, it often seemed motivated by a conflict between the image of themselves they were trying to project and feminism.

The same outdated notions prevalent in 1970 were still alarmingly entrenched in 1990. This was what I learned: Feminists don’t shave. Feminists hate men. Feminists don’t wear bras. Feminists are ugly. Sadly, in 2013, all these years later, there is still such a powerful grip the negative associations of feminism has on the word that many women continue to reject the word even as they personally benefit from the advances early feminists fought for years before. In thinking about it, I have to conclude that the universal cultural pressure to be considered attractive might be as powerfully motivating as they come. 

Over the years, I have noticed a growing reticence around the word “vegan” by my fellow herbivores and it also seems to be largely motivated by some similar negative perceptions the dominant culture has attached to us. Vegans are angry. Vegans are busybodies. Vegans are judgmental. Vegans hate people. It’s disappointing to me, as someone who is a proud vegan, to see so many who could be out there creating positive change and challenging perceptions in the world remove their association with the word altogether. I fear that feminism is so full of baggage at this point that I don’t know if we’ll ever rid ourselves of the negative associations attached to it, and I don’t want to see the same thing happen to veganism.

Given the pressing importance of spreading our message of compassionate living, I have to ask this: Whom do we want to control the language and messaging around veganism? Do we want to hand it over to big advertising? Do we want the media to dictate it? Do we want the powers that be, the ones who have everything to lose if veganism takes hold, to control the terms and messaging of it?

I embrace the label “vegan” partly because I am so very grateful to be living at a time and in a place where I can live by my values. This is an extraordinary privilege and it is unique to our age. In embracing the label, we humanize it and then, paradoxically, it becomes less of a label and more of a simple descriptor. If we can live as complex, individual, dynamic and creative vegans, we take the one-size-fits-all label off of us and we create something altogether new and real out of it. This more fleshed out understanding of who vegans are then flows out when we interact in the world so the public will have a more complete understanding, which will help them to reject the shallow clich├ęs that have been tacked onto us. Further, when we take an active role in broaden the public perception of veganism, the people we interact with can begin to imagine themselves as vegans.

I believe that we need to own the language and, yes, the label, because through that, we will expand perceptions and I believe that this will ultimately ripple out to have a positive net effect for the animals. We can’t give up the messaging around veganism to those who barely understand it or want to see it fail: we need to be out there as individuals, showing the world what it means to us to live as vegans. Our beliefs about equality and justice spring from something much richer and more deep than the lazy cultural identifiers the people who don’t understand veganism assign to it so we need to own the word. Allowing others to define who we are will be our ruin and it will ultimately lead to the continued dismissal of the vegan message.

So here is my challenge to you if you don’t like the public perception of veganism: Practice owning the word. Be an out and proud and unapologetically fabulous vegan. Society being able to see us - as artists, entrepreneurs, students, grandparents, scientists, activists, neighbors and everything in between - as unique representatives of veganism is what is going to be the game changer here.

Are you ready?

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

My Vegan Haunted House

This year, I’ve decided I wanted to create my own vegan haunted house. It’s not the sort of thing that will scare vegans, though, because just navigating through life, we already deal with plenty of frights. (The annual catered holiday meal with the office; driving through parts of the country without a mention on the Happy Cow app.) Instead, my haunted house will be for omnivores and I won’t even show anyone the scariest parts, the blood and gore of animal agriculture. My haunted house may look like an ordinary home from the outside but it is certain to make an omnivores arms prickle with goose bumps. It is a house of horrors. Consider me your personal tour guide. 

Upon entering this seemingly normal house, intrepid visitors will be brought to the kitchen. What’s so alarming about the kitchen? Look inside the freezer, the cupboards: There are no chicken nuggets, no Chips Ahoy. What kind of insane asylum of deprivation is this?! The worst kind: It’s a vegan one. If that weren’t chilling enough, what on earth is that terrifying bright green liquid in the glass on the counter? Nuclear waste run-off? Primordial sludge? Worse: It’s a green smoothie. And what is this mysterious yellow powder in the container? Ground up witches’ teeth? Flaked off skin from the kneecaps of an ogre with psoriasis? It says “nutritional yeast” on the container. Have two words ever sounded scarier together?

Now, I will take you to the first of our staged rooms. This one is where you will get to time-travel and visit with a cardiologist ten years in the future. Men, you will also get the results of your future prostate exam. Before we exit, you will get to dip your hands in a disgusting substance that mimics the sticky plaque of clogged arteries. Squeeze it between your fingers. Who’s saying, “Mmm...bacon....” now, hmm? 

From here, it is only natural to go to the pharmaceutical rep room, where sample pills for heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and more are dispensed. Wait: do you need a stent? It’ll just take a minute -- do you want to schedule an appointment to discuss that now?

Scared yet? Now we will go into the subsidies room, where the door will be locked and you'll be forced to learn about the true cost of hamburgers, McMuffins, chicken and Ben & Jerry’s. While you sit there, you will learn the cost to our environment and health care system and YOU CAN’T ESCAPE until it's over.

Next up, we will walk down the hall and the creepy advertising agency executive zombies will wildly grab at you, trying to stuff coupon circulars into your hands, and stare at you with their hungry, cold, dead eyes.  If that weren’t bad enough, fast food executives will be shouting their dollar menu listings into your ears. Want to supersize it?

Ah, now we will enter one of the worst features at my house of horrors: the olfactory room, where you have to experience what it smells like at a factory farm, a slaughterhouse and a fecal lagoon. Could you stand it for even a minute? 

Next, we will visit the food-born illness room: walk through it and try to avoid the creepy-crawly e. coli, the pernicious salmonella, the menacing campylobacter. They will jump on you no matter how much you try evade them. Did you pick up any antibiotics in the pharmaceutical rep room? No? Meh, they probably won’t work anyway due to antibiotic resistance. Oh, well. Hope for the best!

For our next stop, you will be brought to the argument room, where vegans will dismiss any and all arguments used to justify eating animals without even breaking a sweat. “Plants feel pain?” “Look at my ‘canine’ teeth?” Seriously, you don’t want them to laugh right in your face, do you? Our vegans won’t physically harm you but they may really damage your ego.

Finally, we will bring you to the animals room. Remember how I promised that you wouldn’t see any gore? I am keeping my promise. In the animals room, you will put on headphones and listen to the sounds of animals in captivity, crying to get out, driven mad, screaming. How long can you take it?

You may walk into my house of horrors and walk out a completely new person. What do you think? Want to give it a try?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Of Transformation and Giving Thanks

I had one of those a ha! experiences a couple of weeks ago when something cut through the ordinariness of the present moment and managed to rise above all the chatter in my mind. I was cooking dinner and my son was talking about Halloween, hyped-up with anticipation for our favorite holiday, and, in that jumping from topic-to-topic way that he has, he started talking about Thanksgiving. What should we make? Shepherd’s pie? Pumpkin cheesecake? He was thinking aloud about possibilities (“...Pumpkin brownies. Or should we make stuffed squashes? We can make both a main dish and a dessert, right?”) when it struck me in one extraordinarily crystalline moment: this child has no apprehension about Thanksgiving. I had to savor that realization as it washed over me.

As someone who went vegetarian in high school, my experience around Thanksgiving was very different. It was a day filled with dread, sadness and isolation. From the sound of the electric carving knife in the kitchen to the awkwardness of having people ask me why I couldn’t eat “just a little turkey once a year,” it was a day that I just suffered through, unhappily pushing the stuffing and cranberry sauce around my plate with my fork, and internally counting down the minutes until I could hide away in my bedroom. Separated from the dining room, the kitchen was a different grisly scene with an actual carcass in it, the flesh carved away and exposing more skeleton and cavity as the meal progressed; I would block my eyes whenever I was asked to bring out more rolls, more butter. I just learned to white-knuckle my way through the experience and find comfort that when this was over, I had 364 blessedly Thanksgiving-free days before the next one.

How very opposite it is for my son, raised as a vegan, and who has nothing but excitement and eager anticipation of the celebration we share with our adored friends. Our Thanksgiving - with plates overflowing with Brussels sprouts and casserole and pumpkin pie and fresh cranberry sauce - is all he has ever known about the holiday because this is how we’ve celebrated it since before he was born. Unlike myself at his age, my son knows and cares deeply about the barbarism around the holiday, but that doesn’t dampen his ability to also be able to revel in the joy of the day, which at its roots is about spending time with the people you love, laughing and catching up, and eating delicious, abundant, decadent dishes.

It occurred to me in that brief moment as we stood together in the kitchen: This is how transformation happens. In one generation - actually, within a single lifetime -Thanksgiving has transformed from a day of dread and isolation to one of pure joy. It seems to me that harnessing that drive to do better, to create a life woven with meaning, care and passion, is how we are going to transform the world, one person after the next, after the next. In that simple, ordinary moment, I saw the future that I dream about. We can change, we can evolve and thank goodness for that.

These children like my son will still be growing up in a world that considers animal products and flesh to be food and they will still be growing up in a world where the human “right” to do whatever we please, whenever we please is a given. With the lens of outsiders, these children can see the deadly consequences of our tyranny everywhere they look with the clarity of those who haven’t had their vision obstructed and this is difficult and painful. They have the added challenge of having to face peers who yell “Ewww!” at their lunches and, as young people, finding a way to live with the absurdity of that. They are not the ones who are eating carcasses, after all. 

That is challenging, no doubt, but this is where it gets really, really exciting: there are engaged parents who are sourcing baseball mitts without leather, who are helping their kids opt out of dissection, who are creating new holiday traditions that are not steeped in the suffering of so many violently silenced beings. Often, we are fumbling and stumbling our way through this as we work to create a new world out of the one we have, but we are still doing it. These little things that circumvent business-as-usual practices may sound silly and trivial but they are not, they’re full of importance: we are actively creating the compassionate world we want our children to live in and every day, we are showing them that it’s possible and it’s joyful.

I started out writing this, thinking I would be writing about my son’s experience with Thanksgiving but it occurs to me that this isn’t just about Thanksgiving. This is about transforming how we think, how we feel, and how we live even within one lifetime. My son reminded me of that the other day in the kitchen: he knows about the violence of the world but he also feels pride and ownership about this life we’ve carved out for family and as a result, we have created transformation. We are not destined to have to blindly maintain the same customs and the same habits we grew up knowing just because that was how we were raised. Given that, this is what floors me sometimes, even when it’s not Thanksgiving: a feeling of immense thankfulness that we live at a time and in a place where we can live according to our deepest convictions and values.

We are building this life. We are changing the world. Whether we are parents or not, we are doing it, one person after the next. Transformation is always at our fingertips.  

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

You aren't vegan because I said so, damn it! More adventures in self-absorption and losing our priorities...

In recent years, I’ve learned that I am not vegan.

This took me by surprise the first time I was alerted to my wayward habits but I’ve since grown accustomed to it. First, I learned that I was no longer vegan when was expecting my son. In the years that have followed, I’ve been informed that I’m also not vegan because I shop at a certain grocery store chain, because I am not a fruitarian, and because I vote. I am not the only “not really vegan vegan.” There are apparently a lot of misguided people who unknowingly but flagrantly violate the vegan code of conduct all the time. Thank goodness there is a veritable army of people with far more consistent conduct ready and waiting to call us on every single perceived violation. This time it’s not the omnivores poised at the ready to yell “gotcha” at us, though. More and more these days, the angry crowd of critics may consist of our fellow vegans.

One recent example still has me shaking my head: my husband and I were reprimanded for including soy and wheat as examples of animal-free protein. They weren’t unhinged Weston Price Foundation followers leading the charge this time: the ones attacking us were other vegans. In the dust-up over soy and wheat that ensued, I was accused of trying to get the world hooked on Twinkies (?) and also having an agenda to get everyone I’m in contact with dependent on harmful medications (?!). Ignoring the fact that we weren’t recommending any foods but were simply stating that these are examples of plant foods that contain protein, I was derided for even acknowledging that they exist. Why? Well, according to these self-appointed guardians of All Things Correct, soy and wheat are bad for us and thus if you are suggesting them as protein options, you are giving your tacit approval of cruelty to animals - human animals - and that is terrifyingly Not Vegan. Underneath it all, the reasoning is something like the following: I don’t like X so I will stretch and warp the meaning of the word vegan to have my thoughts about X fit into the interpretation I prefer. Over the years, I have also heard it claimed that caffeine isn’t vegan, grains aren’t vegan, olive oil isn’t vegan, salt isn’t vegan, and so on. I have long been aware of a certain subset of herbivores who might only be content if we live in a separatist society and eat only the select seasonal plums that were blessed by mountain-top dwelling vegan monks; there will always be the people who want to add more rules and make veganism more restrictive, cliquish and exclusive. This is nothing new. What is new is that social media has exacerbated what was already problematic with the instant commentary and information overload.

As you can see, attaching our own attitudes about things unrelated to veganism is a slippery slope and takes us very far afield from its core foundation, which is rooted in beliefs about justice, equality and compassion, plunging us into a realm of personal opinion and arbitrariness, a place where our principles become more and more blunted to the point of meaningless. This deeply undermines veganism and reframes what was potent and persuasive as belonging in a murky place of subjective preferences. As vegans, we are asking people to reevaluate their place in the world; we are asking people to see other beings as worthy of equal consideration. This is pretty serious, challenging stuff for the average person to process, let alone integrate: is it a smart strategy to attach an amendment to this, also naming gluten, soy, sugar, dirty snow, the smell of gingko trees and whatever else displeases us to be included as Not Vegan? We are going to ask the public, many of whom already think that we are impossible-to-please and confusing, to not only consider giving up meat, dairy, eggs and honey but also include our various personal preferences under the umbrella of veganism? We are going to take something that is rooted in the ethics of non-violence and attach an anti-gluten component to it? Really???

If veganism is that subjective and personal, here is my list of what isn’t vegan. If you don’t like this list, well, screw you. You were never really vegan. Carnist.

* Shopping carts with wobbly wheels aren’t vegan.
* Bringing 12 items into the ten items or fewer line isn’t vegan.
* The tree with the root that is screwing up the foundation of my house isn’t vegan.
* The squirrel who dug up my tulip bulbs isn’t vegan.
* Iced tea without enough ice isn’t vegan.
* Mondays aren’t vegan.
* My DVR isn’t vegan when it screws up what I tried to record.
* Stores that only give you in-store credit on returned items aren’t vegan.
* That horrible car alarm isn’t vegan.
* The vegan pie crust that keeps sticking to my rolling pin isn’t vegan.
* All the music I hate isn’t vegan.
* My lost keys aren’t vegan.
* I hate tomatoes so they aren’t vegan.
* My husband’s snoring isn’t vegan.
* My broken fingernail isn’t vegan.
* The lemon that squirted in my eye isn’t vegan.
* The guy who cut me off most definitely isn’t vegan.
* Cold, rainy weather isn’t vegan.
* Headaches aren’t vegan.
* The curb that almost tripped me isn’t vegan.
* My alarm not going off isn’t vegan.
* This crowded train with no seats and the broken heater isn’t vegan.

As we can see, the things that irk and even offend us may indeed be irksome and offensive things (and maybe just to us) but that doesn’t make them not vegan.

By all means, people are welcome to have their own convictions on how to live; I certainly do. We must consistently draw the line, though, at conflating our own preferences about this or that with veganism. The more we try to conflate these two often disparate things, the more confusing, remote and inaccessible veganism becomes to the very people we most need to reach. So the next time another vegan criticizes you for anything not directly related to your veganism, I think it is fair to remind that person that you aren’t pretending to live according to his or her rulebook. You are vegan because it’s the right thing to do, because you love the way you feel, because it’s a powerful, thoughtful and meaningful way to make a difference in the world. This other stuff they are attaching to veganism doesn’t belong there. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Some things that have really, honestly been said to me as a vegan and, yeah, with a straight face.

Basically, this can all be summed up as “Why vegans are nutty.”

After my interview on Chicago Public Radio (so, yeah, I’m exploiting this thing for all it’s worth), a bunch of people asked me how I stayed poised when asked about “freeganism” and eating dead deer. How did I remain unruffled? Well, here's the thing: I’ve been tabling and promoting veganism since 1995. In other words, I have probably heard just about everything. If you want a really great opportunity to hone your vegan craft, talking to the public will do it.  You don’t even have to do that, though, because if you are a known vegan, the strange inquiries and statements will come to you, regardless. 

This is just a collection of some random thoughts, questions, free associations and bizarre assertions made to me over the years. I’m guessing that no one was on acid at the time but I can’t be positive of that. What do you hear a lot? Feel free to add some of your own favorites in the comments. 

“You care more about animals than people.”

Also conveyed as:

“What about the homeless?”

“What about the children?”

“What about the homeless children?”

Because we have to carefully measure out our compassion, right? You don’t want to give too much away or you’ll be fresh out the next time you need to reach into your empathy supply bag and then, oh no! It’s empty and you have no choice but to be a big ol’ meanie to the whole world. (In other, less sarcastic words, a compassionate person is a compassionate person is a compassionate person.)

“I went vegan for two weeks and my skin turned green and all my hair fell out.”
You turned into this? That’s kind of awesome. Because if you’re an alien, maybe we actually will succeed in invading the planet and taking everything over more easily.

“Where do you get your vitamins?”
From fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. And you?

"If we didn't eat the animals, they would take over the world."
So that whole supply and demand thing doesn't apply? You are the front line that stands between us being ruthlessly overrun and dominated by chickens and cows? Thank you for your sacrifice as you plow through McNuggets and burgers. You efforts are truly heroic. 

“What about your jeans? Cotton comes from sheep.”
Spoken by a Ringling Brothers Circus employee, who also claimed that elephants stood on their heads “in nature” to frighten predators.

“Your shoes are leather.”
I was wearing Converse All-Stars at the time. So yeah...

“My daughter’s trying to be vegan. Could you talk her out of it?”
Wait, you want me to...what???

“My daughter’s a vegetarian, but she’s not vegan, thank God.”
Yes, that would just be awful.

“Cow produce milk spontaneously, without even needing to be pregnant.”


“You know, cows need to be milked for humane reasons or their udders will explode. I’ve seen it happen.”
Both statements were made to me by someone whose complete authority on the subject hinged on the fact that she was “from Wisconsin.” On a clear night, the exploding udders can be seen all the way into Chicago. I must have missed it.

“Soy turns boys into girls.”
It’s more affordable than sex reassignment surgery and hormones, so what is the problem? Oh, yeah: you might also want to give up dairy if estrogen concerns you. Yes, even “hormone-free” dairy has the hormones of the mother cow.

“Soy is killing our planet!”
Then, yeah, you might want to stop eating farmed animals, the biggest source of soy consumption by far.

“Animals don’t have souls.”
So, putting aside the unprovable, subjective construct of the soul, eating an animal without a so-called soul is evidence that you have one?

“My totem animal is a tiger and my tiger needs meat.”

“Life is death and I think it is arrogant to remove myself from the natural cycle.”
So by getting your organic, plucked chicken at the grocery store, you are participating in the “natural cycle?” Or hunting with a factory-built weapon is participating in the natural cycle? If you get sick, you won’t take medicine either, right? Nature intended for you to get sick. You’d also better hope that muggers don’t consider relieving you of your wallet to be part of the “natural cycle.”

“The Dalai Lama eats meat and by eating the flesh, he helps the animals on their karmic journey so they can come back as good people.”
I bet the animals are very grateful for his noble sacrifice, using his body as a vessel for karmic passage. I am dazzled by your spirituality...

“I only eat happy cows.”
When were they most happy? When their babies were taken away? When they were trucked to the slaughterhouse? When a rod was shot into their brains? When their throats were slashed?

“Milk and eggs are the animals‘ rent for us taking care of them.”
Right, because they are really taking advantage of our generosity and benevolence.

“I tried to give up meat when I was a vegetarian, but I was ‘too floaty’ and I needed meat to be grounded.”
You can’t argue with science.

"My body told me it was time to eat meat again."

Was that your elbow? Or your knees? Was the voice squeaky? Confident? Most important, how long have you been hearing voices?

“I was a vegetarian but then I had a baby and I didn’t want to force my views on anyone.” 
Because parents who take their children to church or raise them as atheists, enroll them in school and teach them not to take what doesn’t belong to them aren’t forcing any beliefs on their children, right?

“I’m not vegan, but my next door neighbor’s nephew’s girlfriend’s best friend was vegan and she got really sick from organ failure. Now she eats meat and she’s recovered.”
Again, sounds very legitimate. 

“I’d be a vegetarian but you have to be really careful about balancing your amino acids every time you eat or you will die.”
I crunch numbers like no one’s business before I eat or I am likely to collapse on the table and suffocate in my quinoa. I don’t know what I’d do without my Mega-2000 Amino Acids Calculator.

“What about the vegetables? Plants feel pain.”
Sigh...I know. Every time I take down my kale for the winter, part of my spirit dies, too.

“I can’t be a vegan because my blood type is O+.”

Said to two longtime O+ vegans.

“God said it was okay.”
And on the seventh day, in His great benevolence, God said: Go forth and eateth, weareth, and enjoyeth the creatures I have imbued with sentience in any manner you conceiveth, o, soul-possessing child of God. And so it shall be. Now smite that swine and passeth the bacon! Go forth and createth more fecal lagoons! Destroy this home I have created for you as you wish.

So, yes, you can see that I am sarcastic. These thoughts run through my head but then I have my straight answers because I know that when most people say these things, they don’t realize how it sounds to us. This is just one part of the cognitive dissonance of being vegan in this world and having to adapt to it. And this is also why vegans are nutty. By the way, where do you get your protein?