About Me

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My interests include veganism and vegetarianism, health, ethics, politics and culture, media, and the environment. I have three kids; I teach college part-time, study piano and attempt to garden. I knit. I blog on just about anything, but many posts are related to my somewhat pathetic quest to eat better, be more mindful of the environment, and be a more responsible news consumer. Sometimes I write about parenting, but, like so many Mommy bloggers, my kids have recently told me not to. :) Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 28, 2009

The "Poll": How Long Have You Known About Veganism?

For the last month, I had a wee bitty poll on my blog here. It was poorly constructed, and meant only as a jumping-off point for a discussion of "knowledge" of veganism. The "sample" is absolutely in no way, shape or form, representative of a known population. I don't know who answered the question ("How long have you known about veganism?") but I strongly suspect that the 40 people who took the 6.5 seconds to answer are probably some of my Facebook friends. MAYBE -- just maybe -- a stray Twitter user saw my tweet about my poll and wandered over here to answer it. But honestly, I doubt that. Whatevah -- thanks to all who answered!

Acknowledging first that the poll was not much and that the sample is not statistically representative, I'll still share the "results": 30% claimed to have known about veganism for so long that they can't remember when they didn't know; another 52% claimed to have known for six or more years; and 7% said they'd heard of veganism in the last 1-5 years; another 7% in the past year; and only 2% claimed no knowledge.

I'll skip the discussion of how the question could have been better written as well as the obvious problem of the "sample" (i.e., my friends) being one that probably already knew of veganism from, if nothing else, my previous writings (and I'm sure from other, better sources as well).

I asked the question because I wondered if people felt veganism was "new" or "old." Judging by my "data," veganism is not a new idea. That got me thinking...while my obsession with veganism is very new (7 months); my initial introduction to veganism goes back at least 15 years.

At that time, the only vegan I knew was the daughter of a colleague of my husband's, and she was a very odd young woman, and that's putting it charitably. (She never made eye contact with people; she had a hard time holding "normal" conversations; she dressed all in black; she seemed depressed and completely obsessed with food...you get the picture.) Although I was experimenting with vegetarianism and macrobiotics then, the idea of consistently giving up dairy and forgoing wool and leather and honey and silk? Well -- that just seemed more than a little crazy. And for reasons that remain fuzzy, the whole animal rights angle was not part of my introduction to veganism; it may not have even been part of her reason for being a vegan.

So, frankly, I basically "forgot" about veganism until this year; and in the meantime, I've had three kids, finished a masters degree and a Ph.D., moved several times, struggled with a kid with ADHD, helped my Mom through colon cancer and watched my Aunt die of breast cancer, watched my husband launch a pretty great career -- in other words, I've had other crap to think about. Forgive me if obsessing over veganism, the environment and animal rights was not foremost on my mind for quite awhile.

My life is now a whole lot more settled AND I've met some vegans that I would actually describe as "normal." WHO introduces you to a new idea as well as WHEN that idea comes into your life are two powerful factors in determining whether the idea finds fertile ground in your brain. I don't think, back in the early 90s, when I was still reeling from the deaths of my Dad and brother and working on my first master's degree, that meeting a vegan who dressed all in black and spoke in whispers was likely to convert me to her cause. Just sayin'.

When you think about how long you've known about veganism and the reasons you have for being or not being a vegan, take some time to think about how and when you heard about the issue and how that -- more than the actual "facts" that vegans ususally spew about animal rights and health -- may have affected your choice. And maybe if you are a vegan, you can be more aware of how you might come across to those non-vegans in your midst. And if you're not a vegan, you might now believe me that we're not all witches in covens wearing black pleather and chanting mantras.

We're actually lighting soy candles, debating wool use, and re-tweeting posts about needy dogs while making bean balls, quinoa, and tofu ricotta. We call ourselves "normal". :)

Friday, December 18, 2009

Ridiculously Easy Vegan "Baked" Soup

My Mom shared a Weight Watchers recipe with me for "Oven Baked Fall Soup." I've adapted it a bit -- taken out the chicken broth, upped the veggies a little and increased the water -- and here's the revised version. It's super-easy and goes well with some crusty bread (topped with Earth Balance vegan margarine, of course) and a red wine. And the kids *tried* it and didn't hate it. I actually LIKE it. Brownie points for progress!

1/2 c lentils
1/2 c split peas

OR 1 cup dry bean soup mix

OR 1 c just lentils

5 cups vegetable broth (I used three 14 oz cans of Swanson's vegetarian vegetable broth)

1 c chopped carrots
1 c chopped celery
1 c chopped red bell pepper
1 c chopped onion
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon pepper

optional: 1 c chopped cabbage or 1 c chopped cauliflower If you add these additional vegetables, you'll need to increase the broth, probably by a cup or two.

Mix everything together in big pot. Cover pot and bake in the oven at 350 for 2 hours.

Easy, huh?!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Almost Vegan

When I first started this vegan "kick," as my friend calls it, it wasn't due to a concern about animal welfare. Not that I didn't already care about animals -- I did and I do -- but my motivation to try veganism was purely selfish. I wanted to be skinnier, as the book, Skinny Bitch, somewhat promises people they will be if they turn vegan. I've recommended the book before and I still do, provocative title and all!

I'm not skinnier. Truth be told, however, I wasn't particularly heavy to begin with. I do have big legs, but then, I always have and no diet short of starvation is going to change my body build. (In fact, at my absolute skinniest -- 108 pounds, when I was going through chronic anxiety attacks, which I cannot recommend -- I STILL had big legs.) So, I've given up the dream of transforming my legs into, say, Jorja Fox's. Ain't. Gonna. Happen.

But, seven months into this diet, I am healthier, at least if recent bloodwork is a good indication. And isn't health a wee bit more important than great legs? I sure hope so. I call myself an almost-vegan, meaning that I've had some dairy here and there during the past seven months, generally when I'm not at home and when, for instance, non-dairy creamer wasn't available. Sin confessed!

So now the question is: has veganism (or almost-veganism) become, for me, about animals? Well, yes and no. The more I read about factory farming (which includes dairy farming), the more I am convinced that such farming is neither ethical or sustainable. So, yes, my chosen diet is, at least in part, a way for me to take a stand against practices that I see as incredibly cruel as well as environmentally disastrous. (To read more about factory and dairy farming in MUCH more detail, read blogs on girliegirlarmy.com, the Huffington Post or the New York Times, or PETA's website, or any of the 100s of websites out there that discuss animal welfare and either vegetarianism or veganism. Ellen DeGeneres even has a bit about "Why Go Vegan" on her website. I'm not repeating here what you can read in other places. I also highly recommend the books Eating Animals and The China Study.)

The bottom line, for me, has become this: eating meat and dairy contributes directly to both animal cruelty and environmental harm. So, by and large, I do not.

"But I eat only grass-fed...and I buy only organic..." Yeah, I agree that those choices are better for the environment (and YOU) than the conventional ones. In fact, I still believe it's ethical for people to eat meat occasionally. Despite choosing a vegan diet for myself, I agree with Barbara Kingsolver that one can still live an ethical life by eating meat rarely and selectively. (In her superbly-written book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, she writes, "However selectively, I do eat meat." And then she goes on to describe which meats, and why, and even goes into detail about her experience slaughtering her own turkeys. I highly recommend the book. Even if you come away with a different perspective on meat-eating, you will have read a thought-provoking account of one family's attempt to live a whole year raising as much of their food as possible and buying everything else that they need within a 100 mile radius of their home.)

Theoretically, if people only ate one meal a week with meat in it and say, only two or three meals a week with dairy, it would be possible to raise animals in more humane ways because the demand for their products would be so much lower. Such farming would also be sustainable. Of course, this would require MASSIVE changes to how people eat, as well as huge hikes in the prices for animal products (assuming that we want the farmers to be able to make their living).

Unfortunately, I don't see everyone jumping on the vegetarian or vegan bandwagon. I wish more people would. Without that, it's hard to put adequate pressure on farmers to raise animals differently.

If this societal diet transformation occurred, some animals would still be slaughtered, which is totally anathema to the vegan position that animals should NEVER be used for human needs. (And it is very much true that we don't NEED meat or dairy in order to be healthy.) I realize I'm taking a heretical stance, relative to other vegans, in considering the possibility that *minimal* meat and dairy consumption could be ethical. This is why I said "yes and no"to the question, 'has veganism become for me about animal welfare?' It's not, for me, entirely about animal welfare or animal rights.

That does not mean, however, that I think a farmer should be allowed to treat a cow however the hell he chooses. Or that I think that it's tolerable that chickens are raised in cages so small they can't extend their wings and end up living their entire lives basically in excrement. Holy crap! (Pardon the pun.) Who thinks that that's OK?

I also don't think it's OK that pigs get their tails chopped off (not even with anesthesia) so that they won't chew each other's tails off while living in crowded conditions. Nor do I think that male baby chicks should be ground up ALIVE because they're not going to grow up to be hens and lay eggs. Nor do I think cattle should be fed corn to grow fast (with lots of antibiotics, steroids and hormones) when the diet that's right for them is grass.

I think animals should be allowed to live as they were intended: roaming, eating what they are meant to eat, living with other animals like them, and, in the case of domesticated animals, living with the help of humans. Such "intended" lives might include, however, eventually ending up on somebody's plate.

That last part is, of course, what makes my position a non-vegan one. But I don't think I'm completely off my rocker to think it. I do not support the (usually vegan) view that animals' rights are identical to humans'.

That doesn't mean, however, that the "right" to eat animals on occasion translates into a "right" to raise them as they are currently being raised or to eat as much of them as we want whenever we want. Our insatiable greed has created the factory farming nightmare that exists. It hurts the environment; it's unnecessarily cruel; and, due to the excess of meat and dairy consumption, we're literally killing ourselves. Not to mention that we're consuming a cocktail of hormones, steroids and antibiotics contained in those animal products.

So, while I've chosen an almost vegan diet for myself, my "almost vegetarian" advice for everyone is to eat FAR LESS dairy, FAR LESS meat and pressure farmers to raise animals in ethical ways. UP your vegetable and fruit consumption (a lot); try soy or rice or almond or help or oat milk. Go a whole week without cheese. (You can do it!!) Get a soy latte instead of a regular one. Buy a vegan cookbook. Get the free vegetarian start-up kit at PETA. Look at your old recipes and figure out how to make them vegetarian or, even better, vegan. Buy Earth Balance vegan margarine; try coconut milk yogurt. Ask me for a recipe or two. Go find recipes on girliegirlarmy.com or any of the 100s (literally!) of vegan and vegetarian websites. Give up the idea that you need more protein (chances are, you don't), as well as the idea that you'll die without loads of calcium (quite the opposite, you might be helping yourself develop MORE brittle, not less brittle, bones). Go get some exercise. Donate money to an animal shelter or a farm sanctuary. Support farmers who DO raise animals ethically, without hormones, cages, cruelty or food they were not meant to consume.

Even if on occasion you eat one -- I'll "allow" you that -- let the animals live in conditions that an animal would want to live in. It's the least you can do. Even a carnivore shouldn't be comfortable with the realities of factory farming.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Memory of Aunt Laura

On Thanksgiving, I learned that my favorite great aunt had died six weeks earlier.

I'll skip the tempting discussion of how totally dysfunctional it is of my family not to have told me -- or how bizarre it was of Aunt Laura's family not to have held a memorial service for her -- and instead launch straight into a memorial of my own.

Born in South Dakota 94 years ago, she grew up very poor. Her life revolved around the family farm and all the work involved in trying to make it during bleak years in a family with six children. Born to German immigrants, she was the oldest girl, and spoke only German until she went to school. Once she started school (and the wars broke out and anti-German sentiment was rampant), her father insisted that the family only speak English. I've always found our family's loss of German sad though understandable.

She was reportedly very bossy as a child. I can easily believe that because her most distinctive character trait as an adult was a powerful ability to hold her own in ANY argument. She was also distinctive because she was nearly six feet tall, rather ungainly, and not particularly feminine. She must have stood out when she was young, both for her height and for her personality. The best comparison I can make to someone well known is Julia Child, though, heaven knows, Aunt Laura was a terrible cook and quite thin.

Like many poor children, she didn't have a chance to finish her education. After the eighth grade, her family sent her to work in the city (Rapid City) for "rich folk" as a maid, in order to help support them all. She later married Uncle Jim, a man who had never completed formal schooling past second grade.

Even with that minimal education, Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim did well. As young adults, they moved west, to Oregon, as did most of their family members. They worked HARD. They were frugal to a point of insanity, and they were born inventors. I suppose, when you can rely neither on wealth nor education for success, your next best bet is what you can do with your own two hands and your mind.

Uncle Jim invented the first portable saw mill (lumber used to be key to the Oregon economy), and in doing so, he made a whole lotta money. I'll never forget a conversation I once had with Aunt Laura while eating lunch at a mall. I must have been about 9 or 10. I was aware that Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim had put both their kids through college, and their son through dental school, and had helped both their son and daughter buy VERY nice homes, and were helping put three of their grandchildren through very expensive private school. I said, "You and Uncle Jim are rich." Rather than criticize me for my rudeness, she said, "You got that right!" And went right on eating her .99 burrito.

You would have never known, had you met them, that they were rich. They dressed incredibly shabbily. Uncle Jim wore jeans and flannel plaid shirts and Aunt Laura wore polyester trousers and Walmart-quality blouses and shoes. I doubt Aunt Laura ever had a massage, a pedicure, or a manicure. I don't even think she ever colored her hair. She would have thought such things selfish, silly, and a total waste of money (she did, however, buy such "fancy" services for her granddaughters).

Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim lived in a small shack -- literally, a little, white, run-down, one-bedroom house with a galley kitchen and a teeny fridge under the counter -- in a part of Portland that has little to recommend for it. Uncle Jim also built -- BUILT, with his own hands and ingenuity -- what must have been one of the first motor homes. Dark green and ugly as sin, I thought it was the bee's knees when I was a kid. He and Aunt Laura took their kids all over the United States in that thing -- they were nothing if not patriotic -- and it was still running strong in the 70s when I was a little girl.

When we stayed over at their house (always a big treat), they would chauffeur us around town in that big green monster, allowing us to lounge on the bed in the back of the truck and watch TV. (NOBODY else we knew back then had a TV -- let alone a bed -- in their vehicle!) We didn't have to wear seat belts when we were with them, something that I found incredibly extravagant. (The thing was built like a tank and honestly, if Uncle Jim had hit somebody with it, we would have been fine, but I'm not so sure about anybody in another car.)

They'd take us to the mall and buy us junk food; our parents never did that. They'd give us five dollars each and let us buy whatever crap we wanted at the dollar store. They let us jump on the bed. They let us stay up late and watch TV (and they had cable LONG before anybody else did). They'd take us to McDonald's or Taco Bell or wherever we wanted to go to eat. They also built go-carts for us -- old-fashioned, 50's-style go-carts -- and let us race up and down their street without adult supervision. Of course, where they lived, there wasn't really any traffic to speak of anyway.

In other words, when we were with them, we were spoiled rotten. We had amazing freedom when we were with them. Some of the best times I ever had as a kid took place in their big ugly "mobile home," their little shabby house, and later, at their new house on a big hill with a huge farm-like yard.

Aunt Laura's idea of cooking was dumping cut-up hot dogs and baked beans in a dish and baking it until crusty. She did, however, routinely make fruit leather and always fed us (overcooked and/or frozen) vegetables with every meal (that is, when she wasn't taking us to some fast-food place that we begged to go to). She also made a mean chocolate-zucchini cake.

Despite her lack of skill in the kitchen and her willingness to let kids eat fast food, she was quite health-conscious. As her son once said, 'If Mom read somewhere that a 10-year-old kid should have 10 peas a day, then, by golly, every 10-year-old who walked in the house and ate with us got those 10 peas.' When one of her granddaughters (she raised two of them) was having trouble in school, she took her to be tested for food allergies because she had read somewhere that allergies can cause behavioral and/or learning difficulties. Now, this was 25 year ago -- back when such an idea was relatively novel and, well, weird. Sure enough, my cousin was allergic to milk, eggs, and oatmeal -- things she had been eating EVERY day before school -- and Aunt Laura took those things out of her diet and my cousin's school performance improved dramatically.

I have no doubt that were my Aunt alive today and knew of my vegan diet, she'd find it interesting, be willing to talk about it, and to try new dishes. (I doubt, at her age, she would have converted, but she would have found the evidence for the healthiness of a plant-based diet compelling and she would have listened.) When her husband was diagnosed with something (I no longer remember what) and was put on a diet, the poor man was the proverbial hen-pecked husband as Aunt Laura made sure he ate what the doctor said.

Aunt Laura was also a good hostess. By this, I don't mean that she set the table a la Martha Stewart or that she cooked recipes from Gourmet magazine. I mean that she cared whether guests were enjoying themselves. Did they find something to eat that they liked? Could she get them something different? I'll never forget, actually one of the last times I saw her, how she reacted when my then six-year-old son said out loud that he hated her meatloaf. (In his defence, it was horrible.) My mother, who was with us, was about to flip out over his rudeness, but Aunt Laura took a different approach. "Well, son, do you like hot dogs?" He nodded his head. Well, yes, he does. She got up, made him a hot dog -- god only knows how long she'd had that package, but I tried not to think about that. As she handed him his hot dog, she said, "It's important to eat something you like!" Everybody returned to eating their food, the rest of us terribly jealous of my son's ability to get something to eat that was actually tasty. :)

She was also of the generation that believed that kids could, and should, find things to do without a whole lot of adult intervention. One new year's eve, we were visiting her house during a birthday party celebration for her son. Many relatives were there, crowded into the little house. All the kids were pretty much forced to be together in the bedroom. All of sudden, my son (then five) came running over to me, showing me that his hands were full of nails and magnets. Yes, NAILS. Aunt Laura had given the kids a plastic bucket of old nails, a bunch of magnets, a few ancient toys (30+ years old) and a tub of old candy. The children never bothered the adults that entire evening, and everyone left with teeth and eyes intact.

She was fascinated -- fascinated -- by all inventions that saved time and had, I believe, every one imaginable. I suppose, after all those years of hard work on the farm and in the city, the idea that cooking could involve opening a can with an electric can opener and sticking the contents of said can in a microwave was, on some level, very liberating.

Aunt Laura was generous both with time and with money. She and Uncle Jim gave the BEST Christmas presents, and they were almost always something electronic. At the time, I didn't quite understand why Mom and Dad thought that the handheld Merlin game and the air hockey table were "typical" of Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim, but now I do: they were electronic gizmos and Aunt Laura and Uncle Jim found them totally irresistible. So did we.

My Aunt and Uncle lived during years that saw unprecedented social and technological change. Despite their lack of education, she and my Uncle kept up with a surprising amount of it. They recalled, as children, driving the horses across the field or into town. Aunt Laura told me that she loved doing that because "you could really feel the power in your hands." By the time of their deaths -- in 1997 and 2009 -- they had seen the world transform from an era of horses and buggies to an era of mass transportation and cars, cars, cars. They rarely talked of missing the old ways; they were forward-thinking people who joyously embraced technological change.

Aunt Laura loved to videotape and audiotape us -- where those tapes are, I don't know -- but she took lots of home movies and cassette tapes of us, and encouraged us to keep in touch with the family and to know our history. She was the family historian. She knew who your third cousins were, what the South Dakota relatives were doing, whose kid had just left for college, or what year your aunt was born and what the weather was like that day. She plastered her walls with pictures of her children, her grandchildren, their children, nephews, nieces, friends' kids and grandchildren. I always knew when I sent her pictures of my kids that those pictures would be up on her wall, proudly displayed next to the portraits of me and my sister taken when we were three.

I now realize what an invaluable lesson she taught me: to embrace change while remembering the past.

I'll miss you, Aunt Laura.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Singin' in the choir

I sing in a church choir that is truly one of the best church choirs in the Pacific Northwest. I don't often blog about this part of my life; my spiritual life is quite private and my singing life even moreso! I have an incredibly average (alto) voice, but I like to work hard and, thankfully, auditions are not required to be part of this ensemble.

This past weekend, the choir gave two performances of Handel's Messiah -- the WHOLE thing -- and the experience of that and the reaction to it is worthy of a blog.

For those of you who don't know the piece (or don't know anything beyond the Hallelujah Chorus), the entire Messiah is 53 pieces of music -- arias, recitatives, choruses. That's nearly three hours of music. We did it with a small (15-piece)orchestra (which is in keeping with the Messiah's baroque origins) and nine professionally-trained soloists. It was fun. It was hard work. It was well done. It was inspiring.

The church pays the musicians and the soloists a (very modest) fee for their work; because, collectively, paying that many people adds up fast, the choir members contribute to paying the musicians and soloists. We don't mind. It's one of the typical costs, I fear, to being in a group that lacks a budget but has high standards. I, of course, earn nothing for my work with the choir, but I contribute to the small paychecks received by the soloists and musicians. So, in a way, the cost of my doing this was roughly equivalent to what it would have cost me to attend a professional performance of the Messiah in NYC. The irony is not lost on me. But that's the part of this blog that's supposed to make you laugh -- I PAY to be able to sing in a really good choir. I'm happy to do it.

However, for audience members, the cost of attending this event was about as cheap as it gets for decent music: canned food or a check made out to a local food pantry. We asked people to be generous, though we didn't specify a minimum number of cans or a minimum donation, nor did we turn people away if they just came to listen (and many did, in fact, come without giving anything). Despite that, our auditorium was packed -- and I do mean packed -- for both performances. In the end, people gave a total of $4588 and 1,319 pounds of canned food. Those numbers alone made me exceedingly happy, as this concert was a benefit for the needy. What better way to start the holiday season???!!

What touched my heart even more than those donations, however, were two letters that the choir director received a few days later, and which he shared with the choir. The first letter came from the first violinist. She is an exceptional musician trained at the London School of Music, a member of our congregation and works both as a pediatrician and a professional musician with local orchestras and festivals. She has, not surprisingly, performed Messiah several times. She praised our choir and soloists as having given a truly outstanding performance, one that she would compare to performances done by professional choirs. The second violinist told me the same thing. Wow. Way to make a bunch of amateurs truly proud! Our heads are a little swelled, but at least we know our hard work paid off.

The second letter, however, is probably the more important one. A woman wrote to the director, telling him that as a child she sang in a church choir and had performed the Messiah. Lately, however, her life has been rough -- she's lost her job, her marriage is falling apart, her car has been repossessed, she's suffering (understandably!) from depression and anxiety and a sleep disorder. But she told our director that for over two and a half hours, she forgot all that and felt peace.

I can't imagine that there is any greater reward performers can receive than knowing that their performances can make people escape, momentarily, from their suffering.

That is really what singing in a church choir is all about. I'm just lucky that the one I sing in is also particularly good.