Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Vegan Fellowship

I recently made friends with a really cool vegan chick, Kara, and her really cool vegetarian husband, Orion. This is a great new development in my life.  On Sunday night, they provided me with a lovely, home-cooked dinner of baba ghanoush, foccacia and green pepper slices. For those who don't know, baba ghanoush is an Arab dish of mashed eggplant, mixed with various seasonings. It's usually eaten as a dip. Orion made fantastic foccacia bread to go with it, so we dipped that and crisp, fresh green pepper slices in the ghanoush. It was heaven. 

"Kara, this baba ghanoush is better than the Rubaiyat's," I told her shortly after the meal began. And anyone who has ever read or heard me gush about the Rubaiyat knows I wouldn't say this unless it was absolutely true. But it was. The baba ghanoush at the Rubaiyat is a little watery and tends to separate, but Kara's was blended to a perfect consistency: creamy, smooth and wonderful. The green pepper was wonderfully fresh and snapped when I bit it, releasing a flood of juicy goodness into my mouth to mingle with the garlicky eggplant. It was amazing. And sharing a meal with friends always make it taste that much better, of course. Hanging out with vegans is freaking awesome.

No honey is still killing me a little bit. At the beginning of class, I wrote about the crushing realization that I could no longer have honey in my oatmeal, and how it made me die a little inside. And I still miss it. I miss big blobs of honey in my green tea. I went to have a bowl of Kashi cereal the other day at my mom's house, but was stopped in my tracks when I saw "honey" a  little way down on the ingredient list. Damn. So I guess I have to say that the animal byproducts I miss the most are the ones you get from bees: honey and beeswax.

But, like I've said before, I have a mental clarity now that I've never had before in my life, and have always longed for. I am grateful every day for all the wonderful things veganism has brought into my life. It's made it easier for me to be myself, and to seek out those things and people that fit best with me, specifically. This has been such a wonderful experience for me, and I'm so glad I embarked on it. 

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Bye-Bye, Burt

This is what might bother me the most so far about being vegan: no Burt's Bees.

Going meatless is no problem for me. I'm fine without meat. I actually prefer life without meat, and I'm glad to have definitively learned this about myself through this project. But I am a lip balm addict, and Burt's Bees is my drug of choice. But, since Burt's Bees lip balm (and many other of their fine products) are made with beeswax, they are not vegan-friendly. Meaning I, as a new vegan, can no longer use them. Me. This is a problem.

I am known in my family as the Burt's Bees queen. Everyone always gets me Burt's Bees products as presents for Christmas and my birthday. It's part of my personality. Dan (my brother) loves classic Looney Tunes and Bo Diddley, Melissa (my sister) loves psychology and cooking, and I, Jess, love the paranormal and Burt's Bees.

The realization that vegans can't use Burt's Bees didn't hit me until I ran out of my old tube of Burt's Bees a month or so ago and went to the Co-Op to pick up some more. However, the Co-Op stopped carrying Burt's Bees products a while ago because they are not totally organic anymore now that they've been bought by the Clorox Company. I keep forgetting about that. So, I was browsing among the different lip balms the Co-Op did have, when I came across one that said "100% Vegan" on it. "Oh, shit," I thought. "That's right. I can't get Burt's Bees at all anymore. I have to make sure my lip balm is vegan now too."

I will expound all day upon the perils of ingesting animal protein and by-products and how bad they are for the body as a whole. But! I happen to be a big believer in the healing properties of beeswax for chapped lips. I am really sad that I can't use beeswax, or royal jelly, anymore in my beauty regimen. I love Burt's royal jelly eye cream, and Burt's lip balm is one of my favorite things I've ever discovered in life, but I can't use either of them anymore. It's a big adjustment.

They only offer one vegan lip balm at the Co-Op right now, at least that I saw. It's The Merry Hempsters brand Vegan Hemp Balm, orange-flavored. It works pretty well, but orange is not very soothing to sore lips. In my previous, non-vegan life, I would never have picked an orange-flavored lip balm in a million years. I feel the same way about fruit-flavored lip balm as I do about candles scented like baked goods: I just, for whatever reason, don't think it's right. I've had problems with chapped lips my whole life, and let me tell you, the only way to truly soothe them is with a minty, cooling, preferably medicated balm, not some fruity crap. The Merry Hempsters Orange Hemp Balm is fairly soothing, but that citrus doesn't feel nearly as good to put on sore lips as cooling mint does. Oh well. I can't do anything about it except suck it up and use it, which is what I've been doing. And it works pretty well, honestly. It's just not what I prefer. My lips miss Burt.  

Anyway. On the food and digestive front: I've had major stomach issues for the past few days. I must accidentally have eaten something with dairy or egg in it. I often order wraps or flatbread sandwiches with no meat, cheese or mayo when I go out to a restaurant, but sometimes I get sick as hell afterward, so I imagine they must not be totally vegan. There's probably some dairy in the bread or sauce or something.  My veganism is affecting my tolerance for fried foods now too. I get terrible stomach cramps and nausea whenever I have french fries or onion rings now. It's like the more my body adjusts to health, the more it rejects any bad crap I try to feed it. It's okay. I need to get away from eating that kind of stuff anyway, hopefully altogether someday. I also haven't been cooking very much lately; I'm still kind of catching up from having my respiratory infection and then going on spring break, then coming back and having midterms. I need to get back in the swing of things.

One great thing about this project is that it forces me to do all sorts of things I never thought I could do. I've noticed that I get the same reaction from people when I tell them about my vegan project: they are interested and oftentimes agree that eating meat is wrong, but they say they could never do it themselves. "I could never give up dairy. I could never give up hamburgers," they say. And I completely understand where they're coming from because, before I started my project, I felt the same way. I never thought I could give up sour cream and onion chips, cheese or Burt's Bees lip balm, until I did. And guess what? I did it! Life has gone on. I'm still here. I'm living without things I never thought I could live without, and it is incredibly freeing. Going vegan, paying all this new, careful attention to the foods you eat and the products you buy, has a great way of putting your priorities into perspective. You learn what you can and can't do without, and you become aware that there are always alternatives. And, for me at least, this leads to being aware that there is always light at the end of the tunnel. Always. It's there even if you can't see it.

So, with that said, I'm confident I'll be able to find a minty vegan lip balm at some point in my life (or make one). But for now, I must make do with this orange hemp nonsense. Bye-bye, Burt. I'll never forget you. My lips thank you for every moment of cool, minty, bee-balm-bliss.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saturday Night Musings

By the way, I didn't mean to sound preachy in my last post. No one has told me that I did, it's just that sounding preachy is one of my greatest fears when it comes to writing about issues that are important to me. I am passionate, but I don't want to come off as unlikeable, difficult or militant. (The fact that I even feel the need to apologize for appearing unattractive while expressing my own opinions on my own blog is likely due to the conditioning that I, as a female, have had to endure over the course of my life. But, that is a different subject, for a different time. Perhaps for a different blog.)

Going vegan is hard. I miss sour cream and cheese a lot. Every day, pretty much. I miss coffee and danishes (I can still have the coffee, but there's really no satisfying vegan substitute for a cream cheese danish). I do miss meat sometimes, but only during moments when I'm really hungry and wish I could order my old favorite comfort food meals at restaurants. However, like I said in my last post, the longer I abstain from eating flesh, the grosser such a notion seems to me.

I don't know if I would have been able to stick with veganism this long if it weren't a school project. In fact, in the broken-down state I was in at the start of this semester, I guarantee that I wouldn't have been able to. I wasn't even able to start, even though I've been thinking about going vegan for over a year now. This is not to say that I've been perfect during the duration of this project. I've had quite a few slip-ups since beginning my vegan experiment, some unknowingly, some willingly. I ate onion rings at Vango's even though the batter had milk in it, because I really wanted onion rings. Once, I ate a piece of Dominos pizza with a smattering of cheese and their dairy-infused white sauce, because it was the middle of the night and I had the munchies and the vegan pizza I'd ordered for myself was a mess. I have never slipped on meat though, not once, and I honestly can't imagine ever eating it again at this point.

I have learned from a couple slip-ups. For instance, even if you order French Sourdough toast for breakfast at the Sweet Water Cafe, it's not vegan unless you specify that you would like it dry. Otherwise, the bread will indeed be vegan, but it will come to you slathered in melted butter. It just occurred to me now that I could have sent the toast back on that occasion and asked for dry, but I don't want to be fussy in a restaurant and I didn't want to waste it. I was afraid they would just throw the toast away if I sent it back, and to me it felt less wicked to eat the toast even though it had butter than to throw away perfectly good food. And today, I ordered a Gourmet Burrito from Border Grill with black beans instead of meat (so it would form a complete protein with the rice in the burrito), and I specified that I wanted no cheese. Well, it was cheeseless, but I forgot that Gourmet Burritos also come with sour cream on them, even though it doesn't say that in the menu (at least, not that I saw). I ate half of it (because, again, I didn't want to waste it), and my stomach has been upset ever since.

Every time I accidentally eat dairy or egg in something, my system immediately lets me know in a horrible, unpleasant fashion, involving severe cramps, fatigue, and frequent, uncomfortable trips to the bathroom. It's enough to make me want to shun dairy and meat for the rest of my life just based on how awful it's going to feel to introduce them back into my system after this long! That's one of the (many) reasons I am glad I did this project. If I weren't inspired by my project for school to keep the veganism going, I would never have gotten to this point, and I would never have learned all the things I have learned about life, the world and myself in these past couple months.

Sometimes I get these overwhelming rushes, these feeling-floods, of pure relief, just, like, in the middle of the day, when I'm driving down Washington towards home or when I'm sitting on my mom's couch watching "Family Guy." I mentioned this sort of thing in the blog entry before last, I think, these moments of joy that Alicia Silverstone talks about having in The Kind Diet. For me, it's a feeling of profound relief and gratitude that I've made it this far in life, and that I've actually reached a point where I'm grateful for my particular life, pain and grief included, and how glad I am to still be alive. Not that there was ever a severe danger that I wouldn't be alive, it's just that it's nice to wholly feel like I want to be alive again. Wow, even writing that makes me realize how depressed I was. For many months in a row, I went through every day not even sure if I wanted to live. I could never see the hope on the other side of the abyss, though my faith (in life, the universe and everything) and the advice of my psychologist assured me that good things were ahead. I waded through endless months and muck of uncertainty and nightmare to get to this place, and I believe going vegan has helped me to truly, finally get here. Ridding my body of animal protein, no longer ingesting the poisoned, tortured, adrenaline-and-stress-hormone-infused corpses of my animal friends has mellowed me out, mentally, physically and spiritually. Going vegan has helped me to understand, as Alicia says, "how joyful and peaceful life really is." That alone is enough to convince me to continue with this diet for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Eating Animals

My friend Emily, who is a vegetarian, recently lent me the book Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. It is devastating, illuminating, enlightening, heartbreaking, and Important with a capital I. In my opinion, everybody who eats food in America ought to read it. Everyone deserves to know the true story behind the food they consume every day (after all, you are what you eat). Unfortunately for meat-eaters, that true story is not pretty. But make no mistake, it is the truth.

The horror of factory farms is too nightmarish to even contemplate. Really. Imagine the worst abuse you've ever seen anybody take in the worst, most violent, disgusting, degrading, twisted horror movie you've ever seen, and I guarantee you that shit, and more, gets done to the vast majority of animals raised for food in this country every day. (Including the shit that happens in Takashi Miike's movies, which are the most violent and disturbing horror movies I've ever seen.) Pregnant pigs get metal rods jammed up their vaginas and anuses, for no reason other than cruelty. They are forced to spend their entire pregnancies in crates so small they can't even turn around in them, stewing in their own shit. Chickens are pissed on by factory workers, who also spit tobacco and spray paint in their eyes, and dragged through electrical baths that are 'intended' to knock them unconscious, but only serve to electrocute them and prolong their suffering for absolutely no reason other than cruelty. And this is just some of the tamer stuff.

I'm not even sure if I'm making sense anymore or flowing well in my writing, I have a hard time being articulate when it comes to this subject.  I just don't understand why stuff like this needs to happen.

Reading Eating Animals has solidified my conviction never to eat meat again. And that is a conviction that I was very doubtful I would ever truly have again. When I first started my vegan project for this class, it was under the pretense that I would be able to eat a cheeseburger again at the end of the two months. My love of cheeseburgers was part of the reason why I fell off the vegetarian bandwagon years ago. I just didn't have the emotional maturity it takes to actually give burgers up. Now, I believe I really do.

One nice thing about Safran Foer is that he doesn't shy away from the fact that it is a sacrifice to give up one's favorite meat-y meals. It is not comfortable, fun or easy. I'm glad he says this, because I'm discovering I feel the same way. No matter how repugnant eating meat seems to me now, I still miss cheeseburgers, sushi, and bacon. I don't want to consume animal flesh (by the way, it seems so weird to me now to eat a corpse, after going without for so long. What am I, a zombie?), but I miss the taste and the fuller feeling you get from meat, (although I prefer the lighter, clean-burning energy I get from plants). It's just an emotional thing. Safran Foer says it's a real sacrifice to go the rest of your life without burgers, and it's hard, and it hurts sometimes, but you have to ask yourself: Do I care more about eating meat, or about my health and the health of the world? Do I care more about being able to have fried chicken whenever I want it, or about being a moral, ethical, and socially responsible citizen of Earth? (By the way, going vegetarian is the single most important step you can take towards helping the environment. Just sayin'.)

It's astonishing that factory farming has gone on this long, and continues to. Well, it's not astonishing, really. It all comes down to money. (And greed. And power.) It's the same reason why we are the only country in the Western world that doesn't provide free universal health care to its citizens, although we definitely have the means. The meat and dairy industry work hand in hand with the pharmaceutical companies to pump our food animals full of unnecessary antibiotics (unnecessary because they are administered even when the animal isn't sick, just in case, since most food animals nowadays are genetically-altered mutated abominations of nature who couldn't even survive on their own in the normal world. They can't walk. They can't even have sex. The birds don't even have beaks, for Christ's sake.), which are then passed on to us, which lower our resistance to antibiotics and other medicines given to us by our doctors (which we have to pay up the ass for, even though most medicines cost next to nothing to manufacture) so we have to take even more medicine, which is even worse for our systems, all while consuming food that is killing us slowly but surely. Countries that don't eat nearly as much meat and dairy as we do have much lower rates of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis (even though the powers that be claim eating dairy helps to prevent this: it actually causes it), etc., and also are not suffering from an obesity epidemic of mammoth proportions (no pun intended. Well, maybe a little bit.).

I think the most punk (punkest?) thing you can do in this country today is go vegan. It makes me feel like some sort of subversive. It's made out to be such a big deal. When you tell people you're vegan, it freaks them out and immediately puts them on the defensive, because deep down, they know eating meat is wrong. At least, eating the meat that we get from the factories and slaughterhouses that provide over 99% of our meat in this country is wrong. It's easier to go with the flow, be a sheep, swallow whatever they give you to swallow (literally). The only way anything will ever change in this country, and the world, is if people stand up for themselves and decide that they really are not going to take it anymore. A life and a country sustained by factory farming isn't what life should be, for both our country's citizens and its animals. It is, I will say again, a nightmare.

I mentioned in my last blog that abstaining from animal flesh has made me feel closer to the animals in my own life. After I wrote that, I read this very interesting anecdote about Franz Kafka in Eating Animals. Foer begins by discussing Kafka's work in general:

"Among many other things we could say about his wide-ranging explorations of literature, Walter Benjamin was the most penetrating interpreter of Franz Kafka's animal tales.
"Shame is crucial in Benjamin's reading of Kafka and is imagined as a unique moral sensibility. Shame is both intimate--felt in the depths of our inner lives--and. at the same time, social--something we feel strictly before others. For Kafka, shame is a response and a responsibility before invisible others--before 'unknown family,' to use a phrase from Kafka's Diaries. It is the core experience of the ethical.
"Benjamin emphasizes that Kafka's ancestors--his unknown family--includes animals. Animals are part of the community in front of which Kafka might blush, a way of saying that they are within Kafka's sphere of moral concern. Benjamin also tells us that Kafka's animals are 'receptacles of forgetting,' a remark that is, at first, puzzling.
"I mention these details here to frame a small story about Kafka's glance falling upon some fish in a Berlin aquarium. As told by Kafka's close friend Max Brod:

"'Suddenly he began to speak to the fish in their illuminated tanks. 'Now, at last I can look at you in peace, I don't eat you anymore.' It was the time that he turned strict vegetarian. If you have never heard Kafka saying things of this sort with his own lips, it is difficult to imagine how simply and easily, without any affectation, without the least sentimentality--which was something almost completely foreign to him--he brought them out.'"

Foer goes on to say: "Shame is the work of memory against forgetting. Shame is what we feel when we almost entirely--yet not entirely--forget social expectations and our obligations to others in favor of our immediate gratification." (Let me just interject here and point this out: what would be our word for somebody in our human society who forgets social and moral obligations in favor of their own immediate gratification? An animal. Kind of ironic, don't you think?) Foer is speaking specifically about fish in this paragraph, in light of the Kafka anecdote, but I think his words here are worth quoting and remembering every time we think of eating meat: "We do not, so to speak, blush with shame before fish. We can recognize parts of ourselves in fish--spines, nociceptors (pain receptors), endorphins (that relieve pain), all of the familiar pain responses--but then deny important parts of our humanity. What we forget about animals we begin to forget about ourselves."

With those few words that Kafka spoke to the fish in the aquarium--"At last I can look at you in peace, I don't eat you anymore"--he was able to sum up and articulate for me a lot of what I was trying to say in my last post. That's just it, I can look at animals in peace now. There is not something held up between me and them anymore, no "work of memory against forgetting," no shame. I do not feel guilty cuddling my cats now that I know I am not turning around and eating their brethren. This is a profound shift in perception that I did not expect when I became vegan, but again, it is one I am eternally grateful for, and happy to explore in my daily life.

It seems like every time I've been reading Eating Animals, I've been accompanied by an animal of some sort: either my own cats, Cinder and Kai, my mom's dogs, Indy and Saira, or my friend's roommate's dog, Peaches (that was just this afternoon). I guess I just fraternize with a lot of animals, which is the way I like it, but it also seems like it's the universe trying to drive the point of this book home to me. I'll read about a cow who broke out of her pen in the slaughterhouse and ran miles and miles away, as far as her stocky cow legs could carry her (and cows don't like to run; she was desperate), and when she reached a river, she didn't stop even though she was exhausted; she swam all the way across, right to where the owner of the slaughterhouse was waiting on the other side to take her back. I'll put down the book to have a moment of silence and send some waves of compassion into the universe for any animal who has had, is currently, or will have to suffer such a fate in the future, and my own cat will crawl up on me to give me hugs and kisses around my neck. It seems like the universe is saying to me, through my kitty, Look, there's no difference between your cute cat here and all those thousands of cows, pigs, chickens and fish who have to suffer this brutality every day. Every one is a sentient, intelligent being and therefore deserving of love, respect and fair treatment. I hate the thought of my own pets in peril, but this is what I do think of to remind myself of the immediacy of the suffering of all these other animals, who are tortured daily in the name of human consumption. It serves as a good reminder of how much I don't want to participate in that cycle of pain.

As I type this, I can smell my neighbors' dinner cooking downstairs. It's a yummy, distinctly pork-y odor; it may even be cudighi, my favorite. But I know the spiced, sizzling flesh on their stove top was once part of a pig who was as smart as, if not smarter than, your dog; a pig who had just as much personality, compassion, and capacity for feeling as anyone, human or not. Sure, that flesh smells great, and the sensory pleasure of biting into a flavorful piece of meat cannot be denied, but there are more important things at stake here. At least, that's the way I feel.