Friday, March 29, 2013

What's Extreme

That NPR Commentary by Barbara J. King

Anthropologist Barbara J. King is surprised. She wrote a short commentary for NPR yesterday about veganism ("Want to help animals? No vegan extremism is required"), weighing in on where to draw the line to qualify a vegan as an extremist. I mean, it's a really short commentary and variations on the word "extreme" show up a good half-dozen times to punctuate it. Her blurb begins by focusing on another NPR commentary written a few weeks ago, this one by Eliza Barclay and about a recently-published book called Veganissimo A to Z: A Comprehensive Guide to Identifying and Avoiding Ingredients of Animal Origin in Everyday Products.

Veganissimo as (Possible) Straw Man

Barclay's commentary ("Is your medicine vegan? Probably not") revolved mostly around how some vegans -- including one of the book's co-authors -- will actually risk their own lives by refusing to consume non-vegan medicines they need to survive. According to the book's press release, a copy of which I received (and promptly forgot about) back in early December, veganissimo is purportedly "a new word to describe someone who is as vegan as possible". According to the release, the book is mostly descriptive in that it provides the information about the prevalence and occurrence of animal ingredients in stuff (i.e. not just pharmaceuticals, but in food and other consumable products) for people to do with it what they will. Either Barclay decided to hyper-focus on the pharmaceuticals aspect of it, or perhaps the press release is vague on the book's actual slant and on its perhaps being prescriptive and persuasive. (I suspect the former, but have contacted the publisher and should be obtaining a review copy shortly to see for myself and to share the outcome with My Face Is on Fire readers. And don't get me started on this whole "new word for a variety of veganism" thing. I think I've made my position on that clear enough in the past.)

"There's No Such Thing as a Vegan"

So back to Barbara J. King's piece: She starts off talking about how "animal [people]" sometimes decide to alter their lifestyle choices to exclude different types of animal exploitation, sometimes doing so progressively until they reach a point where they decide to reject to consciously participate in animal exploitation altogether. She writes:
Now you're thinking about taking the next step: going vegan. You're ready to give up dairy and eggs. But something worries you. Can you ever be vegan enough?
Right there -- that. Every vegan has heard the lame argument brought up again and again by non-vegans -- or worse, by "former" vegans -- that there's really no such thing as veganism, since you simply cannot avoid all animal products: they're everywhere. This gets brought up -- often smugly -- as if to convey that deliberately choosing to go ahead and consume some animal products is morally OK, since you're going to end up using other animals on some level or another anyway. What's funny is that this is completely lost on King (who may very well not be vegan -- anyone know?), who tweeted her surprise several hours ago today that what she describes as her "pro-vegan" commentary is experiencing some "vegan backlash".

Matt Ball and His Unvegan Outreach

Of course, I had to take a peek at the particular blog post response to her piece which she cited as "vegan backlash". Albeit roughly written, some valid points are made in the post referenced on Of Course, Vegan. Veganism isn't extreme and it does a disservice to vegans and to non-vegans, who are more than ready to hear a clear vegan message, to blather on about where vegans should draw the line in terms of those areas where animal ingredients aren't, in fact, easily avoidable. The writer of Of Course, Vegan begins by showing a complete lack of understanding of Matt Ball's position on what it means to be an "extreme" vegan by describing him as having been "coerced" by King into "talking as if taking animal products is something that vegans should do". Anyone involved in serious vegan advocacy knows that Ball and his misnamed Vegan Outreach outfit certainly do not need to be coerced into loudly proclaiming that vegans should consume non-vegan things and engage in non-vegan animal advocacy. Ball repeatedly shames vegans who choose to avoid easily avoidable animal products in their food, accusing them of making veganism seem "too hard", and Vegan Outreach has become pretty publicly outspoken about vegan advocacy's asking too much of non-vegans. (Thankfully, Of Course, Vegan's writer did manage to see through Ball's illogical rubbish and commented on it.)

So King goes straight to Matt Ball (who shames vegans as being too extreme for 1) not consuming honey, 2) asking servers about ingredients in dishes on restaurant menus or for 3) being unequivocal in promoting veganism). In doing so, she ends up just regurgitating -- or at least perpetuating -- that same old "veganism is too hard" whine that's usually spewed out alongside the "veganism is extreme" whine of the many who want their occasional piece of cheese and to not have it pointed out that they didn't need it and that it wasn't theirs to take. She gives Ball a platform to do more of his usual shaming by quoting him repeatedly. For instance:
What we personally consume (especially at the margins) is almost irrelevant compared to what we can accomplish with thoughtful, honest advocacy for the animals. For example, influencing just one person to stop eating chickens and eggs — or even simply cutting back! — has an almost infinitely larger impact than if I avoid yet another obscure, miniscule animal product.
What my choosing to personally consume has to do with influencing "just one person to stop eating chickens and eggs", I have no idea. Ball seems to be saying that we need to stop being vegan to somehow accomplish more for other animals. This makes no sense whatsoever. None. King described her commentary on Twitter as being "pro-vegan", but it's not -- unless you consider "vegan" to involve occasionally indulging in a bowl of soup made with animal fat broth, stealing honey from bees and applauding others for shuffling a few animal products out of their diet while they continue to otherwise exploit other animals. King doesn't seem to get this, but in relying on Matt Ball as some sort of reasonable expert vegan voice, she pretty much set herself up to not "get it".

The Lo-Down on Basic Self-Preservation

Whether this book that triggered King's commentary actually encourages vegans to avoid taking life-saving medication is sort of beside the point. I mean, vegans encouraging other vegans to risk their lives is of course a form of inexcusable reckless shaming. If the book does indeed engage in that (and I'll find out when I get my review copy), its writers are crackpots. That line of argument is the same sort of absurd bunk that leads some to insist that if vegans really wanted to avoid exploiting other animals they shouldn't even eat plants, since growing plants involves displacing and killing other animals.

The bottom line is that there are medications we sometimes need to take which are derived from other animals, or that have at one point been tested on other animals -- medications for which there are no animal-free or animal-tested alternatives. Taking these to be healthy and to stay alive is certainly excusable. But doing so in no way adds weight to the argument (perpetuated by groups like Vegan Outreach) that there are times we should shrug off consuming or exploiting when it is possible for us to avoid doing so. Using Veganissimo as a lead in to bring in Matt Ball's slippery-sloped take on what should be considered "extreme" was confusing, wrongheaded and unfortunate.

The Lo-Down on Speciesism

What dragging Matt Ball into her commentary seems to have accomplished is to conflate a sort of viewpoint that is extreme (i.e. vegans might as well all become breatharians since the mere act of living seems to involve animal exploitation) with Matt Ball's twisted idea that actually earnestly rejecting animal exploitation and following through accordingly and authentically in our daily lives is also extreme. Ball seems to think that we should all throw in the towel and discard holding veganism as a moral baseline in our advocacy, since even though vegan education worked to persuade some of us to stop exploiting other animals, it somehow can't possibly be expected to make a difference in the rest of the world.

Someone like Ball considers it a victory for other animals if we can all just persuade a friend or family member to skip eating meat for one or two meals out of their average week. Actually addressing the underlying issue -- i.e. the prevalent speciesism in this world -- seems unthinkable to him. But the thing is that we're not going to shift the general population's mindset without striking at the root of the problem. We're not going to permanently change their hearts and minds about treating those sentient beings as things by giving someone a high-five if she shuffles out this or that form of animal use while otherwise continuing to use other animals. We're certainly not going to convey that we in any way take the rights of other animals seriously if we giggle and shrug, then gobble up a non-vegan dish with gusto alongside them.

If Matt Ball believes that punching toddlers is wrong, would he suggest to us that we should give a parent a big old hug for agreeing to not punch their toddler one day a week? Would he expect us to  call it a victory for toddlers? Would he not agree that what we would need to do is convince those abusive parents that punching toddlers is wrong in and of itself since toddlers shouldn't be punched at all? So why settle for less with other animals and ignore that it's the underlying speciesism guiding non-vegans' behaviour that needs to be addressed in our advocacy?

So if Barbara J. King is surprised that there would be any sort of "backlash" to her article, maybe she needs to re-examine her understanding of what it means to be vegan. At the very least, she should have done her research before weaving Matt Ball's shaming of ordinary old vegans into her commentary and using a straw man to launch into what she claims is a pro-vegan piece. Far from being pro-vegan, it's just more of the same speciesist fodder from the overwhelmingly and sadly speciesist mainstream media.

Vegan Eats in Washington, DC

I've spent a surprisingly large amount of time in the DC area in the last two months: a total of around 25 days. I hadn't realized just how many days had actually added up until just a few minutes ago. My first visit there in January was my first ever to the area and my introduction to it was both gentle and thrilling. There will be gratuitous tourist shots in blog posts in the coming weeks. Over the next few days, however, I hope to stay more focused and share with you the crazy variety of beautiful and scrumptious food I got to enjoy during my stay in North Virginia (NoVA to many locals) and frequent visits into the towns and cities nearby. Although conservative with my borrowed camera during my first stint there, I hauled it out more often earlier this month to snap photos, sometimes to the quiet sighs of my hungry host, who sat waiting patiently.

Devouring the pizza with his blue peepers.
DC has some pretty vegan-friendly places to eat. One experience which was new to me was having the opportunity presented to eat vegan pizza at a number of different regular pizzerias, where they will happily top your pie with Daiya. (At least one place will apparently sprinkle on Daiya if you bring it in yourself, which is sort of silly, particularly if they charge you the same as they would charge for a pie covered in dairy cheese.) Pete's New Haven Apizza (aka Pete's Apizza) was a spot which Gary had wanted to try out, so after a day spent Smithsonian museum hopping, we drove over to its Columbia Heights location and ordered "The Green" -- artichoke hearts, sauteed spinach, oven-dried tomatoes and kalamata olives on a thin crusted pie with delicious rich and tangy oregano-scented sauce and a generous pile of mozza Daiya. It was a little pricey, but quite yummy and a treat for me, since "cheesy" vegan pizza back home in nowheresville Canada is solely concocted in my own kitchen.
A closer look.
For dessert, we drove over to Sticky Fingers on a quest for Cake-in-a-Cup or cheesecake, but were disappointed to find the display case mostly filled up with cookies and a few cupcakes. We watched a customer order what seemed to be the last sticky bun and then Gary piped up and asked if there were more. Lo and behold, a tray was brought out and we indulged. They were enormous and wonderful. I do really like this spot for sweets (don't get me started on their over-priced and bland "regular food" menu), but it doesn't compare to to the bliss that was visiting Vegan Treats in Bethlehem, PA, whose cheesecake nearly made me cry from happiness a few years ago. (No surprise that their products are even shipped in from PA to a few vegan-friendly restaurants in DC and NoVA.) Sticky Fingers is a hopping little spot with a lot of character, though; I'd gladly visit it again for a sweet treat.

There are two things that are certain when you're visiting the DC area. One is that it has the highest number of Ethiopian restaurants per capita in North America. The other is that those Ethiopian restaurants will offer up a fair number of vegan-friendly dishes. I visited one spot in NoVA during my first visit -- I can't find the photos and don't remember the name of the place. It was diner-like and Gary claimed that the food was so-so and super, super greasy. It was still sort of neat to me, since I'd never had Ethiopian food before. This last visit, though, we went to Ethiopic, a new-ish place with a relaxed atmosphere, enjoyable music, stellar service and decent prices. It got Gary's nod of approval for its fare, which was truly delicious.

Waiting patiently for the food itself this time.
There were two vegetarian sampler platters on the menu and both were priced reasonably. We chose the one with the most options. In the photo below, from the bottom left going counter-clockwise are dinich wot (a mild curried potato dish), shimbra asa wot (spicy chickpea dumpling stew), tikile gomen (a mild potato, cabbage and carrot dish), miser wot (spicy split lentils), kik aletcha (mild yellow split peas), fosalia (Gary's favourite, caramelized green beans, onions and carrots mixed with jalapeno peppers) and gomen (mild simmered collard greens). In the center was a spicy tomato salad, which provided a nice change in texture. The basket of injera, as is the norm in these places, was bottomless.
Way too much food for two hungry vegans to finish off in one sitting.

I can't write a post about eating vegan in DC without bringing up one of the few actual vegan restaurants I got to check out on my trips. Everlasting Life was my intro to vegan "soul food". During my visit in January, I got to try their "ribs" and fried "chicken" and a variety of their salads. A few weeks ago, we went in looking to indulge in their brunch offerings. It was late in the day and since I'm not generally a fan of pancakes or waffles, I loaded up on their sausages, mac and "cheese", roasted potatoes and garlicky kale. Gary, with obviously much more brunchy inclinations, switched out the kale for tofu scramble. The sausages -- some sort of tasty homemade seitan -- were incredible, as all meat subs I've tried at Everlasting Life have been. The mac and cheese of which I've heard so much really hit the "comfort food" spot, and as an unapologetic kale addict I was left pretty damn happy munching away on my greens.

Good eats.
Everlasting Life's an interesting spot. You walk in and through the dining area and all the way down a small corridor to the back where you pick hot and/or cold dishes available to build up a personalized plate on a tray, sort of cafeteria-style. They have specific main hot entrees each day of the week. It's a small room and when busy, it can get a little clogged and confusing in there -- something I experienced back in January after an afternoon getting jostled at . You then head back out to pay with the option of purchasing a bottled beverage or freshly-made juice. On both my visits, I've gotten the Roots Tonic, a drink made of carrots, beets and ginger that's left me determined to buy a good juicer.

To the food fetching area.
The juice bar.
Slowly-sipped gingery goodness.
I'm missing a few odds and ends and completely omitting a visit to a DC Busboys and Poets location during my January visit. There I had the best vegan nachos I've eaten since my visit to Saturn Cafe in Berkeley, CA last year (which I don't think I ended up reviewing, either). Maybe a post on vegan nachos -- and homage to them! -- is in order in the near future? At the very least, over the next few days, I'll be sharing photos from visits to other restaurants in the area outside DC itself and writing more about the vegan-friendliness of urban area.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Missed Goodbyes

I've written about Zeus several times before, most recently when serious issues arose with his health a few years back. He's the beautiful boy in my arms in the profile photo for this blog. When I first met him almost thirteen years ago, he was one of two runt kittens fostered by friends of a good friend. Their mother had apparently been found pregnant and starving in an apartment whose tenants had left. Zeus and his sister Sophie were born shortly after they were taken in by the shelter and once I met them, tiny balls of furry energy that they were, I knew we would end up sharing each other's lives for a spell.

Zeus eventually developed the same asthma that led to his sister's death in August of last year. As with Sophie, quality of life became a constant concern. The neighbourhood pharmacist knew them both by name. They were his first ever feline "customers" with their prescriptions for the inhaled corticosteroids and bronchodilators they both eventually needed to breathe. Both Zeus and Sophie's asthma seemed triggered by food allergies, but as time wore on, other triggers factored in. My home became scent-free years ago. The search for the perfect dust- and scent-free litter left me constantly exploring new products. Different foods where shuffled in or out whenever symptoms worsened. I learned to sleep lightly, sensitive to the sound of wheezing that meant someone needed urgent help; I learned to deal with the constant anxious gnawing of the fear that such an attack might occur if I was at work, at the store or elsewhere.

That same anxious gnawing left me hesitant a few weeks ago when I planned a return trip to the DC area to spend time with a human love. For the first time in my life, I hired a cat-sitter, hoping that in tandem with visits from a friend, someone would be around as much as possible to keep an eye on my feline loves and to ensure that Zeus' medications were administered regularly to mitigate any possible issues.
Eight days into my trip, a worried cat-mom's worst nightmare occurred. A friend just happened to drop by on a Friday afternoon and found Zeus in respiratory distress. She rushed him to his vet's where the clinic promptly took him in and then refused to deal with her since she wasn't listed with them as a contact. I'd forgotten to have her added. Worse was that I was stranded at my host's landline-free apartment, my Luddite self without a cell phone. My friend messaged me on Facebook to urge me to find a way to call the vet immediately and after a few frantic emails to my American host (who was at work), phone access was obtained and I was patched through and told that his condition was quite bad and that his prognosis with treatment was incredibly poor.

Zeus had suffered a pleural effusion. Fluid had filled up his chest cavity and by the time my friend found him that afternoon, he was already in seriously bad shape. It was unrelated to the asthma and the vet assured me that its onset is almost always sudden and an emergency, its symptoms manifesting similarly to those of asthma."You wouldn't have been able to have done anything differently had you been there," the vet reassured me. Worse, I would have been at work that afternoon and would not have found him until hours later. The staff at SouthPaw did all they reasonably could and I'm grateful that they were able and willing to look after him when he was brought in.

Zeus' suffering was brought to an end shortly after I called, my friend returning to be with him during his last moments. My heart broke from hundreds of miles away, my arms unable to hold him, to comfort him, to whisper to him how dearly I loved him and to tell him how sorry I was that I'd left. Since kitten-hood, Zeus had always expressed a preference for climbing up to my left shoulder, pressing his head against my neck as I held him to my heart. So many evenings when I've sat here at my desk typing, it's been one-handed with Zeus' warmth against me, listening to his reassuring purrs as he snuggled in more closely. Even now, I remember precisely how it felt to hold him. Sammy and I both miss him, each of us wondering where he is -- where he went.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Hey Lardass?

A few weeks ago, I had someone misinterpret something I had written in a vegan group email exchange. (Yes, I know: OMG! Something was misunderstood on the internet!) I'd cracked a pathetic joke about your average non-vegan man probably relatively packing away more animal products than your average non-vegan Hollywood starlet (i.e. strictly by virtue of their relative overall food consumption). I'm only ever accidentally funny, so it didn't surprise me that the attempt at lightheartedness fell flat. What did surprise me, however, was when someone took off on a tangent, pointing out to me that veganism and weight are unrelated (I had not suggested otherwise -- we'd been discussing two non-vegans). This somehow led to someone else's mentioning overweight vegan friends in a manner that conveyed that he was assuming the previous person's response had indeed been to my perhaps having suggested that non-vegans weigh more than vegans.

The funny thing about that is that I'm usually the first person who will pipe up to object when vegans sometimes lapse into diatribes about the supposed chronic obesity of those who consume animal products, or worse, who insist that going vegan will invariably lead to a 20-50 lb weight-loss. Not only have years gabbing it up online with other vegans shown me that this is in no way "invariable", but I can speak from experience about it. You see, I'm one of those vegans who didn't lose 10-50 lbs upon going vegan. Nope, I am one of those people who went vegan and actually gained weight. After years mired in my vegetarianism, though, I hadn't gone vegan for health reasons. Some friends and family members assumed as much, since my going vegan coincided with the death of my father following his short battle with cancer. And although at the time I certainly wasn't skinny, I most certainly hadn't gone vegan to lose weight. I'd gone vegan for ethical reasons, because a clear vegan message had left me unable to do anything but permanently connect the dots and make immediate (and permanent) changes to my overall life habits. Wandering into my late thirties may have been a contributing factor. An official "bum thyroid" diagnosis just a few years earlier may not have helped. Starting an office job where I sometimes work 10+ hours a day glued to my desk? Sure. The bottom line is that veganism was no panacea for the weight I ended up gaining.

I was left with it, internalizing comments and advice from friends, coworkers, family and romantic interests who made it a point to let me know that the weight gain had been noticed or that the weight gain was deemed unattractive. Eat less, exercise more. That's what the first person I dated after a lengthy years-long relationship's break-up advised on our first (and last) date. So I ate less. I counted calories for the first time in my life, shuffled a lot more raw fruits and vegetables into my diet and would juice for several days a month. I counted calories to the point of spending most of my day tracking every single thing going into my mouth. We're talking hours of plugging ingredients into online databases, or of crunching numbers factoring in the nutritional information on the backs of cans of food. Hell, I spent so much time crunching numbers that I had little time to eat -- or even exercise! Further disincentive to eating came from knowing I'd eventually have to spend an hour documenting a salad it might have taken me a mere 20 minutes to make and eat. I bought a bike and used it daily. I actually lost a lot of the weight... and when I went back to eating ordinary vegan meals, a lot of it just came right back. Life went on. The raw fruits and vegetables were reincorporated into my diet, albeit to a lesser extent during the long cold off-season months when a small head of romaine lettuce can cost as much as $4 at one of the local supermarkets. I kept bicycling. I kept working, blogging, dating -- basically living and loving, but no longer counting calories. I still found myself -- still find myself -- perpetually aware of my shell, even more so than I do of my perpetually over-thinking, introverted and existentialist inner-self. And although I no longer count calories, I still watch what I eat every single day, as if each and every item I put on my plate could possibly amplify that miserable hyper-awareness I've developed of my shell.

It was a strange experience to have found myself dealing with what became an almost painfully raw self-consciousness about my body -- whether of how I moved or how much space I occupied, and of how others around me observed me and judged me at the time. I'd grown up with a family member with body dysmorphic disorders and had a roommate in college who'd suffered from anorexia. As a child, I'd always felt awkwardness watching my mother pick at her food during bikini season and over having anyone and everyone constantly fawning over my older sister's "petiteness" at 93-95 lbs up into her teenage years, and in college I'd watched my roommate leave behind her a trail of broken-hearted college boys. I always felt that I was an observer and that I somehow managed to keep my emotional distance relatively unscathed. Let's face it, though: We live in a society which, if we cannot admit glorifies thinness, we can at least admit vilifies not-thinness and does so particularly with girls and women. I've watched my sister refuse to eat, heard my college roommate regurgitating her meals, have listened to my size 2 coworker verbalize the loathing she has for her rear (which she refers to as "Lardass", her purported "dating nemesis").

One of my own last relationships was with someone who constantly criticized how much I ate at the table, not because I ate too much around him (I didn't -- I was uncomfortable eating anything at all around him), but because he felt I should eat a lot less to bring my weight down to something comparable to that of his lifelong-thin marathon runner ex-wife's. He used the word "fat" as a weapon in arguments, but then it's hard not to think of the word as a weapon when it's used by anyone who isn't. And as someone who's well aware that she would still not be described as "thin" if she lost 20 lbs, hearing the word tossed around by loved ones -- family, friends, lovers -- invariably leaves me feeling as if that weapon is pointed directly at me. I've been in relationships with other men who've either referred to themselves with disgust as "fat" and who've fingered other women in public as such with equal amounts of disgust. It's no unless unnerving to see that weapon pointed at another.

This same body size fixation seems to permeate vegan circles but with a twist, since it's almost always tied to criticism of non-vegans. Even now, after years of observing it, it still sometimes astonishes me to see or hear the derision with which some vegans rant about omnivorism (non-veganism, really) and obesity, as if the two are inextricably linked. Aside from the ridiculousness of vilifying non-vegans when most of us who are vegan now once-upon-a-time weren't, and when most of us have loved ones who are non-vegan, it's jarring to hear people who concern themselves with others speciesism linking speciesism with a sort of discrimination which, more often than not, is wrapped in sexism or misogyny. It's also ridiculous since far from all vegans are thin and, as I've both seen and experienced, veganism is in no way guaranteed to lead to weight-loss. Less saturated fat? Possibly? Less bad cholesterol? Sure? But less calories? A more efficient metabolism? Nope. It's not in and of itself a 100% guaranteed panacea.

Aside from being off-the-mark in terms of the assumptions it carries with it, this vilification by some vegans of the overweight thus leads to a shaming of overweight vegans. Whether or not that shaming is inadvertent is irrelevant. Isn't it enough that vegans walk around expected by non-vegans to be exemplars in terms of having super-powered immune systems (e.g. if you get the sniffles, it's because you don't eat steak). Do we now need to drag body image into the equation when thinness is no more the vegan default than being overweight is for non-vegan omnis? What vegans should have in common is a rejection of animal exploitation. What abolitionist vegans should have in common is the rejection of speciesism and of other forms of discrimination. What sort of sense of community are we fostering as vegans when we perpetuate the wrongheaded belief that eating animal products = being fat, while not eating animal products = being thin? Also, what sort of message are we sending to young girls who choosing to reject speciesism and who find themselves teetering on the edges of a vegan community that tosses at them the same old body loathing messages they're already hearing from society? What are we reinforcing? Think about it.