by John Beske
Recently, the CBS famed news show 60 Minutes aired a powerful and terrifying segment called The Vanishing Wild that details the Sixth Great Mass Extinction – an event that is killing off thousands of entire species 100 times faster than is typical. Implicit in the story is that one of the species facing extinction is our own.
There have been five great mass extinctions in the last 440 million years or so. The most recent one was 65 million ago and it killed off all the dinosaurs, and the worst one being the Permian-Triassic Extinction of about 250 million years ago that wiped out more than 90% of the plants and animals on the planet. It took the world millions of years to recover from that one, but once it did, the new inhabitants were the first dinosaurs and the first mammals.
This extinction event is unique, though, in that one single species is deliberately and carelessly doing all the killing. The episode shows this in detail, but, like most documentaries about environmental catastrophe, it fails to address, or even acknowledge, the greatest villain of all – the animal agriculture industry.
Nearly two-thirds of the biomass (combined weight) of all mammals on Earth are cows, pigs or other animals raised for food. Most of the remainder are humans and only 4% are wild animals. 70% of the biomass of all birds on Earth are chickens or other birds raised as food. (source) More than half the land area in the US is used to either graze cattle or to grow food to feed them and the other animals we eat. (source) Yet, all these animals (plus all the fish and other sea creatures) provide only about 30% of the calories we consume. (source)
If we could somehow convince everyone to switch to an all plant-based diet (a big challenge, to be sure), we could grow all the food we need on less than half of that land, freeing up hundreds of thousands of square miles that could be converted back to its native prairie, forest and high plains ecosystems. This would massively increase the biodiversity and species preservation of these areas, and solve a huge host of other environmental woes in the process.
For example, in the Western states of the US, millions and millions of acres of land are used to raise one single species – cattle. To protect these cattle, or more accurately to protect the profits of the ones raising these cattle for slaughter, most of the original inhabitants of these lands – all the deer, bears, wolves, eagles, beavers, etc – anything that threatens or competes with the land or water, are routinely exterminated – shot, trapped, or poisoned – often with help from the US government. This land is commonly called by its exploiters “wasted space” that serves no purpose other than cattle grazing, but it is not wasted space at all. These areas were all deeply complex ecosystems that thrived for millions of years before being destroyed to raise cattle for cheap beef.
Preventing the Sixth Great Extinction doesn't require any new technology, tools or wisdom. All it takes is the willingness of a whole lot of people to put the lives of their future grandchildren and the survival of our species ahead of their desire to eat animals.
If you want to do something to help fight the Sixth Great Extinction, the best place to start is with your dinner plate.
And if you are considering switching to a plant-based diet, we have produced an excellent guide to get you started
Depending on where you live and when you read this, it may or may not be soup season but I am here to say that no matter the time of year or temperature, it can always be soup season. It all hinges on your willingness to explore the vast array of soups that can be cradled by your bowl because they really run the gamut, from light, brothy fare to thick, hearty chowders you can rest your spoon on without it sinking. Soup season is, after all, a state of mind.
With things moving into autumn in the Northern Hemisphere as I write this, we are heading into classic soup season, though. I have curated 35 vegan soup recipes that will take you through the calendar year.
. . .
Spicy Sesame Carrot Soup with Red Lentils via The First Mess
Pasta e Fagioli via Vegan Street
Creamy Tomato Soup via Loving it Vegan
French Onion Soup via The Curious Chickpea
Chicken Noodle Soup via Karissa’s Vegan Kitchen
. . .
Olive Garden Minestrone via Midwest Foodie
Cream of Mushroom Soup via Connoisseurus Veg
Creamy Wild Rice Soup with Seitan via Cadry’s Kitchen
Easy Egg Drop Soup via Nomss
Creamy Potato Leek Soup via Vegan Huggs
. . .
The Best Hot and Sour Soup via Woon Heng
Creamy Broccoli Chowder with Garlic Croutons via Forks Over Knives
Tortilla Soup via Be Plant Well
Garlic Pepper Soba with Chili-Roasted Tofu via The First Mess
Sweet and Sour Cabbage Soup via The Vegan Atlas
. . .
Tom Yum Soup via The Foodie Takes Flight
Mulligatawny Soup via Holy Cow Vegan
Clam Chowder via Nora Cooks
Curried Sweet Potato Bisque via A Simple Palate
The Best Borscht via Nirvana Cakery
. . .
Greek Lemon Orzo Soup via Vegan Cocotte
Authentic Miso Soup via Okonomi Kitchen
Split Pea Soup via Eating Bird Food
Corn Chowder via Simple Veganista
Creamy Sausage and Potato Soup via Rabbit and Wolves
. . .
Easy Alphabet Soup via It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken
Louisiana Gumbo via Not Enough Cinnamon
Cheesy Cauliflower Cashew Soup via Veggie Society
Caribbean Greens and Beans Soup via Robin Robertson
30-Minute Smoky Black Bean Soup via Budget Bytes
. . .
Vegetable Barley Soup via From the Comfort of My Bowl
Hearty Lasagna Soup via Dianne’s Vegan Kitchen
Vichyssoise via Go Dairy Free
Best Ever Gazpacho via Delish
Sweet Cherry Soup via Vegetarian Times
. . .
Spoiler alert: They’re not food. Also: They include parasitic arachnids.
Yay, picnic season is upon us!
We already know that the food (including at least eight kinds of hummus and one tabouli) and the libations (whatever they are, you’d best have a reusable mug with you unless you want to drink out of your cupped hands) are important to a vegan picnic but when it comes to leveling up your experience, have you given much thought to the non-comestible extras that will really make your day perfect? Consider packing along some of these suggestions to make your next vegan picnic the best it can be.
• Big vegan flag
You’ll want a big ol’ vegan flag you can immediately stick into the earth so your picnicking neighbors will immediately get the message and grill dead bodies somewhere else, maybe downwind from you. Never miss an opportunity to make a statement and be seen, right? A proud v-flag flapping in the breeze will do it.
• Cruelty-free sunblock at highest possible SPF
How high does SPF go? Get that. It’s important to protect our skin and being as pale as possible really helps us to reinforce some fun stereotypes about vegans so we can disarm people and make inroads with them. If expectations are low, how can we help but exceed them?
• Folding table
Not for sitting, silly, it’s for your lit! You bring educational materials everywhere with you, right? Because it’s picnic day, you can take a break from actively leafleting but why not set up a table with some vegan lit for a little easy outreach? Pack along some big ol’ clunky rocks to hold your pamphlets in place and you’re golden! This is what we call firing on all cylinders.
• Citronella soy wax candle.
Get yourself a big-ass – like the size of a small charcoal grill – citronella candle with as many wicks as possible to non-violently keep the mosquitoes at bay as those bloodsuckers don’t differentiate from vegan allies and regular ol’ meat-eaters so we are all at risk.
• Lone Star ticks
Speaking of at risk, we are against keeping animals in captivity or exploiting them, but if you have some Lone Star ticks who need a little day trip, why not pack some along to surprise and delight your picnicking neighbors? Pretty soon, those steaks and ribs won’t be so appealing.
Just kidding. This is satire. Except for the ticks. Okay, I’m still kidding.
OR AM I??????
I remember hearing about Pure Food and Wine in the early days, probably shortly after they’d opened in 2004. Arriving before the era of social media but sharply predicting it with their beautifully-plated raw vegan dishes that called out for proto-influencers and their cameras, the buzz around Pure Food and Wine was hard for someone who tracked vegan culture to avoid.
It was a raw foods place, yes, but elevated to an almost comically paradisiacal level, showcasing dishes that were not plates of beige, tangled sprouts and zucchini splashed with Bragg Liquid Aminos but something altogether different. Somehow, they single-handedly and immediately transformed any outdated hippie associations: Using mandolines, blenders and the ingenuity of very talented, visionary chefs, raw fruits and vegetables were suddenly sexy, they were global, they were works of art on a ceramic canvas, they were voluptuous and they were sleek, they were tantalizing, they were It.
You could see the lifestyle promised in the cookbook collaboration between Pure Food and Wine’s original founders, Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis, the once-golden couple whose images were scattered on the glossy pages like so many macadamia nuts: A shimmery duo with colorful and alluring recipes that seemingly pulsed with radiant plant lifeforce, which might also be bestowed upon those of us who prepared their recipes. It was not just food, but jewel-toned juices and kicky cocktails in elegant glasses. And not just food and beverages but a peek inside Pure Food and Wine with its leafy patio dotted with pretty lights, a magical place to gain entry. I never had a chance to go but from my home in the Chicago suburbs, I leafed through their cookbook, which managed to elevate raw foods to new heights, no small task, something we hadn’t managed to do yet with just regular ol’ vegan food. I don’t know if I ever made one of the recipes but I sure felt the inspo before I ever heard the word.
. . .
Like so many others, I have just watched the new four-part documentary series on Netflix, Bad Vegan, which documents the downfall of Pure Food and Wine and Sarma Melngailis, as well as many others whose investments or paychecks were tied to the restaurant and its offshoot business, One Lucky Duck, all due to the maddeningly incomprehensible influence of a scammer seemingly straight out of central casting, hired to play a Looming But Still Pathetic Bad Guy in a direct-to-video production.
Oh, at this point I should say that spoilers abound here. Heh.
There are too many dizzying details to go into here but the long and short of it is Sarma – smart, level-headed, everything-going-for-her Sarma – became entangled with this man, known at first as his alias, Shane Fox, and later by his birth name, Anthony Strangis. Perhaps it is her overall flat affect, but Sarma, in both her testimony and in recordings taken at the time, never seemed all that taken by him. In fact, many times she seemed as mystified as to what this man was doing in her life as did her employees, who seemingly admired Sarma and thought of her as a kind of cool mother figure. Strangis, though, preyed upon her vulnerabilities to the point where she could variously be both deeply skeptical and desperately hopeful that he would come through with his promises if she only met his demands for an endless supply of money transferred. Soon after the series starts, we learn that when Sarma and Matthew Kenney broke up and could not work in the same environment anymore, she was offered by their investor to buy Kenney out so she had a $2 million debt to him. This was hanging over her from the beginning but the restaurant was successful. Pure Food and Wine was making money from the start, and banking on Sarma’s allure and vision, a clear path ahead of lucrative but realistic opportunities and success was splashed out ahead of her and the brand like the proverbial Yellow Brick Road. She was on her way. Then, in 2011, she met Strangis.
On paper, none of it makes sense. In hearing the tale, even with the probing questions of an interviewer behind the camera, it remains frustratingly abstruse. Shane/Anthony was supposedly a mercenary type, working in black ops as a secret agent and paid handsomely for his dangerous operations work overseas. He would take care of Sarma’s debt and somehow grant Leon, her beloved rescue dog, immortality but first, she had to be tested, she had to prove her commitment. Sarma had to give him large sums of money, funneled directly from the restaurant. She had to submit to his seemingly random tests where “everything would suddenly make sense” and move on when it never did. She had to give him access to all her communication passwords, from her cell phone to her email. She had to do these things while he disappeared for weeks at a time. Marrying Strangis was the easiest way for the $2 million to be transferred to her fully, so at some point, she did that, too, though that money never arrived and her loans to him kept accruing.
It’s confusing for people, including myself, because Sarma was never a chanting, beatifically-grinning Manson girl or wild-eyed, obsessive Hubbard devotee to Strangis. She is almost unerringly dry and matter-of-fact with a little touch of gallows humor. He roped her in not by sweeping her off her feet with grand romantic gestures but with promises of settling her debt and making her business aspirations come true, which he intimated would make that initial $2 million debt seem like pocket change, and he strung her along, continually rearranging the goal posts and making ever-more outlandish promises and excuses, some as to be of epic proportion, to keep her supply of cash coming in. Because her business goals were also tethered to her passion for helping the animals and creating a better world, it was a heady combination ripe for manipulation: She was personally desperate to settle her debt to her restaurant investor, and she was mission driven to make her brands a success and her altruistic goals accomplished. The relationship was a transactional means to an end, not a romantic coupling, and she was at least clear-eyed about that. From the recordings, it appears he was clear on this, too.
. . .
Things get fuzzy when other people without fault are pulled into the riptide of grifters like Strangis, especially as Sarma was the vehicle for him scamming them. She made some terrible decisions, the kinds of decisions made by people who are desperate and clinging to false hope. The choices she made hurt employees whose wages Strangis gambled away, investors to the Pure Food and Wine business and those close to her, like her mother. Ultimately, her entanglement with Strangis amounted to more than $6 million from the aggregate of those owed money. How could such a level-headed woman, one with a background in finance and an Ivy League education, one who gave the impression of being a mission-based entrepreneur, lead herself and those around her to such ruin at the hands of this common grifter?
She had to know what she was doing, seems to be the refrain I see again and again in the court of public opinion. She obviously was a scammer, too, just like him.
. . .
I am going to offer my opinion on this messiness with the caveat that I am not a psychologist. I am also not an expert on cults or abusive relationships. I can read and research as well as anyone else, though.
I think what we have here, among other things, is a case of coercive control and the sunk cost fallacy. Coercive control, which is a criminal offense in the UK, is described by Bristol, England-based Women’s Aid charity as, “...An act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish or frighten their victim. This controlling behaviour is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.”
Have you ever tried to understand Scientologists when they describe why they’ve signed over their lives to be indentured servants to Sea Org? Did you ever try to listen to the more affluent ones explain why they’ve sunk millions into the organization? Why they isolated themselves from friends and family who were not Scientologists? I have watched most episodes of Leah Remini’s excellent series about Scientology and I am no clearer on what the organization offered in exchange except for some hokey fairy tales about personal liberation from a two-bit science fiction writer and grade A conspiracy theorist.
But why did you join? Why didn’t you leave? Was anyone holding you hostage?
None of it makes sense. Stop trying to make it make sense.
As I mentioned, I believe there is the added aspect of the sunk cost fallacy, which comes into play often with cults and abusive relationships. Sunk costs are not always drained finances as with Sarma, but often deep personal costs of time (“But I spent so much time there…”), the cost of a damaged reputation (“No one trusts me anymore…”) and/or sacrificed relationships (“I’ve alienated everyone and I have no one else left…”) that keeps people in cults and relationships that are steeped in coercive control. Want to better understand the sunk cost fallacy? Look no further than multi-level marketing scams like LuLaRose or Amway, a $35.4 billion industry in the U.S. where 99% of people not only never make money, they lose money, ever pulled in deeper by the money they have lost in pursuit of making a living.
I am not saying that Sarma Melngailis should not be held responsible for the bad decisions she made – and she made plenty – and the debts incurred during her time with Strangis. I am also not saying she should have no burden of personal responsibility or the trouble to her conscience because that’s not for me to say, though I do hope she finds a way to ease those and find self-compassion. Dismissing what happened as one woman’s foolishness is not only simplistic but losing an opportunity to learn more and try to understand the way that this kind of abuse and entrapment happens. (And let’s rid ourselves of the notion that smart people don’t get drawn into cults while we’re at it because intelligence has nothing to do with her situation or why someone would stay with an abuser or be attracted to a cult.)
. . .
Speaking of losing people to cults, have you noticed that we are living at a time when whole families are ripped apart after losing children and parents, siblings and partners to QAnon and Fox News’ disinformation campaigns? Scams are not limited to strangers with aliases who want your money. Scams are also disinformation purveyors who continually move the goal posts to keep believers hooked to ever more outlandish stories of elite pedophile rings being run out of pizza parlors that will be busted when Trump reveals the Deep State and the baseless notion of a stolen election despite all evidence to the contrary and their own lack of substantiation. As I write this, the same people who were claiming – again, baselessly – that coronavirus vaccines implant tracking devices have pivoted to the notion that Ukraine is a Nazi training ground that Putin is bravely going up against. The suspension of disbelief here is, well, as unbelievable as the fact that smart, accomplished people like Sarma Melngailis could keep hanging on by her fingernails for a glimpse of what she’d been promised but that doesn’t make it any less real.
This is why I, with a background in the creative arts, someone who always felt more comfortable in the realm of the imagination than “real” life, am now fully allergic to anything that even has the merest whiff of disinformation and conspiracism. It is not innocuous. Disinformation is not a difference of opinion. It is an intentional attempt to manipulate, deceive and mislead. Disinformation warps your brain and gaslights you to the point of absolute brainwashing,
It is easy to look at Sarma Melngailis and tsk-tsk at her for what she did but when are we going to look at the deadly, deeply harmful disinformation that is now stitched into the webbing of our society and is often written off as a simple difference of opinion? My point is, does this so-called open-mindedness that is treasured by the people of this country make us all more vulnerable when a Strangis is at our personal door?
. . .
Last, just a couple of small gripes with the documentary, which I think was, on the balance, well done. The title is clickbait, pure and simple. Sarma was a vegan, yes, but she remains dedicated to her vegan values and as she was under the thumb of coercive control, we should take that into consideration when we determine if the decisions she made when she was with Strangis mean she is a bad person. In addition to being clickbait, it points to the animus the general public feels towards vegans and the schadenfreude they delight in when we’re given our comeuppance or revealed to be hypocrites. It was also annoying to me when one of the people interviewed, the journalist who’d written about the debacle for Vanity Fair, characterized vegans as being inclined to believing crackpot notions. That is an unfair, broad brush treatment and thankfully it was short but should have been omitted as it was one man’s opinion that contributed nothing to understanding what happened with Sarma and Pure Food and Wine.
Oy, I see I have written a lot here. Anyway, lots of thoughts. I’d love to hear what you think.
But I have one last thought: Another important topic to explore is also the role of white privilege and investors’ obsession with the combination of conventional good looks and gumption that means people like Sarma as well as Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, Adam Neumann of WeWork, the dude-bros of the Fyre Festival and so on usually have no shortage of people eager to finance them and indulge their prosperity gospels.
Okay, I’m done.
My partner, Marla Rose, and I have been working together to try and expand the vegan community for more than a quarter-century, and a few people have referred to us as OG (original gangster) vegans, which is a term I accept with pride and humility because there were obviously so many who came before us. During all this time, we have spent a great deal of time pondering the meaning of the word that drives our philosophy and our life’s work.
Pretty much since the beginning, we have been taunted by people questioning our commitment and understanding with non-questions such as, “Aren’t those shoes leather?” or “What about all the mice who die in a wheat harvest?” These barbs were almost universally tossed at us from carnophilic trolls who then quickly disappeared into the crowd or the ether.
Lately, though, these trolls have largely been replaced by “Veganer Than Thou” trolls, most of whom loudly claim that we should stop calling ourselves vegan, because we support the covid vaccines. Their claim is that since these vaccines have been tested on animals, that anyone who takes them, or, worse yet, actually supports them (egads!) is not only not vegan, but is the sworn enemy of the animals we purport to save. Our comment threads have contained many missives such as these, including some who have demanded that we change our name from Vegan Street to something like Veganish Street.
So did we betray the vegan movement by getting our covid shots? Let’s think about that.
The reason the covid vaccine was tested on animals is that the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) requires that all medicines, medical procedures and anything of medical significance must be tested on animals. Indeed, this is true not just in the U.S. but of the medical organizations that regulate and oversee every country. This applies not only to life-saving medicines like penicillin or insulin, but also such common products as aspirin and antacids. Yes, all of these products must, by law, be tested on animals.
And it’s not only medicines. If you eat any food that contains any ingredient developed in the last 60 years, that ingredient has been tested on animals. That pea protein found in so many great vegan products? Some laboratory animals somewhere once suffered in its development and release.
Is all this animal testing absolutely necessary for human health? This is arguable, and we would certainly argue that it is not. There are far more modern and accurate methods to determine safety. However, we can make a far greater difference by publicly challenging the vivisection and seeking and promoting alternatives than we can by not eating veggie burgers or taking a vaccine.
And what about all the many other ways that animal exploitation has invaded our lives? If you drive a car or ride in a bus or on a bicycle, the tires beneath you may well have been made using animal-derived stearic acid. Or that label on your jar of olives or peanut butter is likely held in place using a glue that contains whey. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of products we use regularly that contain ingredients or processes of animal origin.
Even if you are eating a full-on whole-foods-plant-based diet, the commercially grown fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes you eat were almost certainly grown using animal manure, and very likely were at some point treated with pesticides. You could perhaps provide all of your food from your own veganic garden, but even then, it’s pretty difficult to till the soil without occasionally slicing into an earthworm.
So is it possible to live a 100% purely vegan life? It doesn’t appear so.
. . .
How can we make peace with that? Do we just throw up our arms, give up on our values and start eating animals again?
It turns out that the answer to that question is as old as the word “vegan” itself. In 1944, when the absolute OG vegans, Donald Watson and his colleagues at the newly formed Vegan Society were asking the same questions I’m asking here, they came up with what is probably the best definition of veganism ever, one that both the UK and US Vegan Society still use today, and that is embraced by many other groups, including us at Vegan Street. Here it is in its entirety:
"Veganism is a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude – as far as is possible and practicable – all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of animals, humans and the environment. In dietary terms it denotes the practice of dispensing with all products derived wholly or partly from animals."
The key words for our purposes here are “as far as possible and practicable.” They realized that they lived in a world where eating and exploiting animals was the accepted norm and that it simply wasn’t possible to avoid this exploitation altogether .
For us, those words mean that it is not responsible to practice a kind of purity of veganism that promotes harmful, dangerous behaviors during a global health crisis of the magnitude we have been experiencing for the past two-plus years.
The OG vegans believed that if ending animal exploitation that were even possible, it would take many decades at the least before veganism would dictate policy. It will likely take many decades yet, even though there are a great many of us working to bring this change about.
Until that day comes, let’s all just be as vegan as possible and practicable. That much is a lot.
To my darling Ruby-Mae, also known as Ruby, Rubily-Boobily, Roto-Rooter, the Rooster, Rue and Ru-Ru (so far) -
Happy first birthday, baby!
I realize as I sit here that I have never had an animal where I knew their actual birthday before you. All my other animals have been rescues with nebulous-at-best origin stories, usually strays, so we just celebrated our “gotcha” days, which is a perfectly lovely tradition but I have also been embracing the novelty of having this extra bit of information. I have also not regretted adopting our other animals as adults one iota (save for our Clara Bow, found in our backyard as a newbie kitten) but there is also little bit of longing attached for me to have been able to at least see a picture of them as babies. With you, it was different. I not only got to see you as a puppy this past year but experience you and all those needle teeth, those sweet little grunts, that soft belly, those floppy ears, that delicious puppy breath. Even your poop, even in unwanted places, was adorable.
You came into my life when I was at a crossroads of trying to decide if I was able to take another chance at love, at trust, at vulnerability, at possible heartbreak after a profoundly traumatic, sudden loss that capped off two very difficult and stressful years.
Ruby-Mae, our lives together started like this: On February 16, a friend (you might remember her, Stacey), who crossed state lines to rescue your pregnant mama Lulu, posted that four puppies had been born in her home. (Stacey thought that was it but two more would follow, making you one of six.) You were part of the first four, Ruby. Somehow Stacey’s post made it to my eyes. I lingered on it for a minute then closed my laptop. I wanted to pipe in but I also know my tendency towards leaping before I look. I also didn’t know what to say and my heart was just so tender. I went back. In my mind, seriously, I kid you not, in my memory, I returned to the post the next day. Nope. I just checked out the timestamp on that. Fifteen minutes after Stacey’s original post, I commented. To me, this took enormous self-discipline, not fifteen minutes, but nearly a thousand seconds of being calm and moderate.
Ever-so gingerly (even if it did not come across as such, I suck at playing hard to get), I intimated that if there were still households needed, I would toss my hat in the ring as a potential adopter. Stacey ever-so gingerly acknowledged my comment with a thumb’s up circled in blue. I put this interaction in the back of my mind, telling myself little clichés that managed to be true: “If it is meant to be, it will be.” “At the very least, I know my heart is ready to adopt again.” I tried to put it out of my head and just carry on. Meanwhile, I was dreaming up names, making more room in my heart for you.
Fast forward to March 21, when you and your littermates started being introduced. As you were born on Mardi Gras, your initial names were all New Orleans-centric, and you were originally Roux, future Ruby-Mae; your picture was in my feed, though I still didn’t know if I would be an adopter of you or anyone else. On March 28, I got word from Stacey that if I were still wanting to adopt, she had a puppy in mind for our family. Did I still want to adopt? The puppy was you, soft face, floppy ears, cutest paws, your expression a little tentative but confident, too, the sassy head tilt, easily held skyward by Stacey’s gentle hands. I stared at your picture. I gasped at every little whisker and obsessed over your sweet eyebrows. You were looking through the screen to me: “Mom?” I said, “Baby.” I said your name over and over until it morphed into Ruby-Mae. I was incredulous and it also felt as natural as anything has ever felt that we would click together like puzzle pieces.
I said yes.
. . .
Puppy love is a real thing. I already knew this but I remembered it in a more real way as I geeked out over your picture. The deeper love was to come but it was immediate. You nestled into me that blurry day as we drove home from Stacey’s house (April 13), and I knew. There was no doubt that we were meant to be and that you, in fact, had rescued me.
What can I say, Ruby? One way with countless examples is how you have helped to heal me: This year you experienced seasons, nature and life for the first time and I got to experience it through you. Your first swim. Your first flowering bushes in bloom. Your first Gay Pride parade walking past. Your first autumn. Your first sticks to chew up. Your first redbud pods. Your first acorns and pine cones. Your first walk in the woods. Your first animatronic Halloween display. (No likey!) Your first trick-or-treaters. (Same.) Your first leaf piles. Your first snow. Your first eerie tornado warning the first Tuesday of every month. Your unabashed curiosity and enthusiasm for life was a wellspring for me. I got to not just observe these things passively but look at and experience the world with fresh eyes, a less jaded perspective. This alone has been immeasurably valuable at a time when I was starting to get used to feeling more than a little numb inside.
One of the things I missed most about Romeo, your brother in the spirit realm, was how just looking at him, I could get a hit of dopamine. How he made me smile with all of his perfect ways: The way he bounded down the steps from upstairs to join me on my yoga mat in the morning; the way he looked when he was sun-dappled on the couch in my office; the way he sighed in his sleep; the way he curled behind and between my legs to sleep; the way he was an ambassador in our neighborhood, making all the good people feel special, especially the older ladies; the way I knew that even if it was A Very Bad Day, even when I came close to really disliking myself, he was an ardent fan. Losing him was losing a lifeline to everything: Not just the loss of this magnificent being who meant everything to me but losing all the endless, everyday magic he sprinkled on all of life.
You have endless, everyday magic, too, Ruby-Mae.
Your curiosity and intelligence. Your fierce self-confidence and loyalty. Your razor-sharp comedic instincts and dazzling sensitivity. You have given me this daily reminder: That this world, capable of profound suffering and unfathomable cruelty, could also create a being as exquisite as you. As Lorenz Hart wrote in “My Funny Valentine,” you make me smile in my heart. Every day of my life, I get to smile because you’re in it, Ruby-Mae.
Happy birthday, sweet girl. I am so grateful for you.
. . .
“I may not agree with you, but I will defend to the death your right to make an ass of yourself.”
- Oscar Wilde
It is one of the most treasured tenets in the United States, but free speech has never meant consequence-free speech. While you won’t likely be imprisoned for your words, you can be sued for slander or libel and pay damages. Words can lead to pushback or even public uproar. A place of employment can determine that you are too big of a liability to continue being associated with because of the free speech you exercise; verbal abuse can lead to divorce. It isn’t a matter of suppression or censorship. Freedom of speech carries not only consequences to it but should be understood as a two-way street: Just as you can speak your words, people can receive and respond to those words within the framework of their legal rights, too, which includes satirizing, journalism, protests, boycotts and, well, there are nearly 200 forms of nonviolent activism that are recognized by the Albert Einstein Institution as options to the aggrieved. You have your right to free speech but that doesn’t mean it is free of repercussions.
As vegans, we know that freedom of speech cuts both ways and that we can promote veganism but expect that lawful recrimination is always on the table, especially in the era of social media. We know this. It is also a given – I think, at least – that if we spread exaggerations or misinformation, it is not only going to make people skeptical of us as trusted sources, it could result in retractions, removal of content and more. That is part of the responsibility we bear as part of this two-way street of communication. If there’s anything we should understand at this point of the pandemic, it’s that we don’t live in isolated bubbles. Our words and actions exist within a larger community and thus affects more than us as individuals.
This isn’t exactly news. You’d think it was, though.
Two incidents are popping up in my mind as recent examples of speech being free, yes, but not without consequences. One was pretty small in scope: The pushback I was happy to see about a meme that reinforces shaming (and misinformed) attitudes about disease and “healthy” vegan diets making you essentially bulletproof. Yes, they are free to post memes that promote such notions and critics are free to, among others things, call it out in the comments, unlike the page, or, heh, write critically about it. Them’s the breaks, as the phrase does.
Spotify and Joe Rogan’s recent controversy is another example. I won’t describe it because most people have already heard about it and if not, it’s easy enough to research, but I will say that I consistently saw people misunderstand and/or misconstrue the basic principles of free speech, censorship and the right to maintain standards. No one is owed a platform. If I submit an article to a publication and an editor finds that it is riddled with wrong conclusions and misinformation, the publication rejecting it is not an example of them censoring me. It is an example of the publication maintaining certain professional and ethical standards for what they put on their platform. In the example of Rogan, amplifying disinformation slingers and cultivating confusion to his massive listenership during a public health crisis the likes of which no one alive has ever experienced before, it is beyond simply differences of opinion or shutting down those who have a different point of view. Sowing confusion and spreading disinformation is demonstrably adding strain to our already overwhelmed front line workers and killing people. What Neil Young and now other artists are doing is leveraging the power they have on the same platform as Rogan to try to force their hand. Some, like Young, are more “Rogan or me,” and others, like Brené Brown, are asking Spotify to come up with a disinformation policy that is respectful of free speech, transparent and consistently applied before they will be available on the platform again. As consumers, we can decide to cancel a Spotify membership. As people in the world, we can get the word out and educate. Again, these are among the panoply of lawful and reasonable responses available to those disaffected by Rogan’s content. None of this is censorship.
There are a range of consequences to speech; unlike the disinformation spread by Rogan and company, it is not deadly. The fact that consequences exist to speech is not silencing or suppressing. It is simply reality to anyone who is older than a toddler.
“One foot on the brake and one on the gas, hey…”
– I Can’t Drive 55, Sammy Hagar
I turned one of those ages that end in a five today so I guess that means I should write something contemplative and replete with Deep Thoughts because, as such, it is a significant year.
Truth be told, I don’t really like getting older all that much. I’m supposed to hide that and instead pump myself up about the wisdom of age, caring less about what others think, gaining clarity on what matters – and that is all true and all appreciated – but I can’t pretend that I like the palpable feeling of time being in shorter supply.
I feel I should take a moment here to say that if you came here hoping for some rah-rah-rah aging rules stuff, this won’t be it.
I am at an age now that I first remember my grandmother being and at the specific age when my mother started going steeply downhill. The fact about my grandmother is just an observation; the one about my mother, though, that keeps me up at night. (Oh, plus I probably have to pee no matter what time I cut off beverages the night before, another injustice and indignity of aging.)
The good news? It often surprises me in a positive way that I am this age-that-ends-in-five. I don’t feel old, though that was always my impression of those who are this age until I was staring down the barrel of it myself. I am as fit as I’ve been in a long time. Often I hear myself giggle and it sounds pleasantly childlike to me. My spirit is strong, my health is good, I haven’t had as much as a sniffle in more than years. All good.
I can’t deny that there are weird pops and cracks when I move these days, especially when I first get out of bed. Sometimes my joints hurt randomly and I can’t blame it on exercise. (And what is going on with my knee anyway?) If someone famous is under, say, 35, chances are more than likely that I have no idea who they are and I am fine with that for the most part but also thinking I may be out of touch. I think of 40 as young now and my instinct is to refer to full-grown adults in their twenties as “kids” but I am a little too vain for that. My eyesight, never great, is full-on Velma Dinkley ridiculous at this point. Not that long ago, I wouldn’t start thinking about dinner until 7:00 but more recently, I’ve discovered that I like eating dinner during early bird hours in part because I sleep better that way. Speaking of, in the old days, I would flop on a bed-like surface at 3:00 in the morning, straight from a bar or party with cigarette smoke still trapped in my hair, and bolt up for school or work at 7:00 AM, shower, and be fresh as a daisy. I’d rise like a phoenix who’d never crashed and burned, skin like a soft shield of freaking alabaster, the metabolism of a hummingbird, bouncy as a trampoline, good to go. Today, if I go to sleep after 11:30 PM or eat something with too much salt, sugar or excess of whatever, I will pay the price for daaaays.
So there are signs that the one-time Manic Pixie Girl qualifies for AARP but, whatever.
The fact of the matter is there is more life behind me than in front of me, and even if I do live to an impressively old age, those latter years are not necessarily ones I am clamoring to experience. It is not lost on me, though, what an amazing privilege it is that is denied to so many through no fault of their own, this growing older thing, this looking back at an impressive spool of years behind you and this knowing factors into everything I’ve written here, even if it is a little bittersweet.
I’d much rather grow old than not.
. . .
Despite the fact that I have a bit of what I will just call age dysmorphia – in my mind’s eye, I am at least 20 years younger than my actual chronological years – in some ways, I am painfully aware of being an easy roommate to the Golden Girls and pictures of nice, flowy kaftans are whispering sweet nothings to me in a way I never would have thought possible. “Put me on, Marla. I am made for you.” How can it be this many years since I climbed trees with skinned knees and played Charlie’s Angels with my besties from the block into dusk? Since I sat with my grandmother at her little kitchen table and measured vanilla, since making prank calls at sleepover parties? Since platform heels and mosh pits? The clichés of getting older are kind of like the clichés of falling in love: Cringe-worthy in their triteness but bizarrely accurate.
I used to roll my eyes when I’d hear seniors say that their lives went by in a flash but I understand that sentiment so viscerally now – wasn’t my son a toddler just a couple of years ago at most? – which is why I am intent on savoring and extracting as much as possible. No matter one’s age, there are no promises. I know with the last couple of years and my husband’s close call before that, anything can happen. We can eat all our vegetables, keep everything on the verboten list far from our lips, wear our bike helmets and seat belts, stay well-hydrated, get in our 10,000 steps a day, cultivate great relationships, Blue Zone the ever-loving crap out of our lives and shit can still happen, you’d better believe it. We are deluding ourselves if we think that adding ground flax to our smoothies is going to keep an errant car from doing irreparable harm to our bodies but stacking things in our favor is still beneficial.
. . .
Fifty-five January 25ths ago (yes, I’m done with being coy if the quote at the start didn’t tip you off), I was born in Chicago’s most legendary snowfall and my mother and I were snowed in to Weiss Hospital for two weeks. Family legend has it that my grandfather spent a whole day trekking to the hospital to visit us – though he lived in the city, the roads were socked in and impassable for a while – and when he got there, he correctly identified me from the other side of the glass among a riot of other blizzard babies as being his granddaughter. Papa Nate and I always had a special bond. I was basically born in a snowglobe. It is not lost on me that we did not have snow in Chicago this year until nearly January, the latest measurable snow on record for the city.
Despite it being the natural confetti of my birthday, I am not a fan of snow. I have slipped on ice and lost keys in snowbanks, I have shoveled many a sidewalk, scraped it off many windshields and it is the official worst when it somehow gets under the wrist of your gloves. By March, what was soft, pretty, sparkly and even majestic has been pushed by snow plows into dirty, crumbly charcoal gray heaps. I am not a fan of snow but I am a defender of it if for no other reason than a world without polar bears is one I don’t want to contemplate. And I am also here to defend coral reefs, water tables, soil health, air quality, communities at risk and the animals who were born with bodies that can suffer only to end up tortured and eaten.
It’s kind of perfectly on brand for me to take on the task of helping the atmosphere create more freaking snow but you know what? All of us working together for some time can do this. We can do this. There were polar bears when I came into the world that day when the skies tore open and snow fell out and out and out in January, 1967 – oh, they would have been in snowy heaven, even diving into Lake Michigan in Chicago – and there damn well will be polar bears when I leave it, many more than today, finger crossed, because I just don’t want to think that we suck that bad.
I’m 55 and I have so much to do. This is my lament. It is also my challenge.
Maybe this is all to say that the worst part of aging for me isn’t so much the weird pops and aches but the fact that I honestly love this purposeful life I’ve built, so getting older swirls with both sadness and pressure. Gratitude, yes, so much, but those other things as well.
Happy birthday to me. Let’s do it.
Thinking about this end of year stuff first makes my mind go blank and that eventually settles into my body as a knot in my stomach so, in the interest of self-care, I am just going to freefall here if you don’t mind.
This last year has been like another car of the same train, a train that has been disrupting, menacing and claiming lives for nearly two years, when the pandemic rolled into the world. Yes, we have new tools, which is beyond helpful, but two years in, it means we are just that much more over it, frazzled, scared, frustrated, stung by the indifference of others and tired of that ever-present train whistle and rumble. Just tired. (Not to be too self-indulgent, but it’s an even longer train for us, a train that started in February of 2019, when John was diagnosed with leukemia, had a bone marrow transplant and subsequent quarantine, but come to think of it, that is a different train pulling a bunch of cacophonous cars on a different track, but it often feels the same and sometimes the tracks criss-cross.) (What year is it again?)
If we ran a proper website at Vegan Street, I would take this year-end opportunity to remind you of our successes, and there were those, detailed in our short video. So I guess this is to say we did do that. With 2022 waiting for us – like the proverbial cat stationed next to the mousehole? – it’s probably best to just keep moving forward, though, because there is no other way.
So I’m going to move forward and say that I hope you find peace and forgiveness, for yourself and for others, in 2022. I hope the same for myself.
I hope you tap into resources of strength, gratitude and patience you didn’t know you had. I hope the same for myself.
I hope this time changes you and me for the better: I hope that it makes us more wise, more compassionate, more considerate, more joyful and more discerning about who we let into our minds, hearts and lives. I hope we never return to the normal that took anything precious for granted. I hope that we never return to the normal of thinking that honest vulnerability is anything but a key asset and strength. I hope we never return to the normal of shutting down conversations about injustice and work to fix these injustices with effective idealism, creativity, resourcefulness and ego-less willingness.
. . .
If there is anything that changes a person, it is trauma. Being pummeled with a long and ever-unfolding medical trauma, our family emerged from our foxhole a little shell-shocked. It made me so keenly aware of who and what matters, though, and extremely protective of my time, knowing how fragile and uncertain it is for each and every one of us, whether or not you have a scary diagnosis.
Yes, I can still get caught up in the STDM (stuff that doesn’t matter) but I don’t get as hopelessly entangled in it as I once did. (This is just a function of aging, too, one of the best benefits of having the good fortune of living long enough.) But I hope you and we emerge from this pandemic time better than before: Tough and tender. Strong and sensitive. Confident and humble. You’ll notice that I didn’t say “but” there, I said “and” quite intentionally. I think there is no reason these qualities should contradict one another.
May we emerge from this experience with more compassion for ourselves and each other. Bruised, battered and maybe a little seasick but in it. And for those who can’t be on the right side of history, who still need convincing that lives matter without justification, let us part ways if we can and gain sustenance from our tribe, the ones who nourish, protect and shine a light on a better way to treat and care for one another.
Oh, this time has been so very real.
May 2022 bring us more of the good stuff we all need.
Vegan Street Presents 2021's Happy News of the Year
Each month, we send out a newsletter that includes what we call our happy news of the month, which is exactly what it sounds like: Good news for the animals that happened the month prior. I decided to look through the twelve issues of our newsletter from this past year and see if I could gain some big picture insights from the positive developments we included each month.
. . .
Clockwise from top left: Pinky Cole, Tabitha Brown, Melissa Butler, Tracye McQuirter and Maya Madsen
Black Woman Leadership
We are thrilled for each and every vegan but 2021 seemed to be a year when Black women got some long overdue recognition for the heavy lifting they have been doing for years. While Slutty Vegan’s Pinky Cole and social media icon Tabitha Brown have been adored for a while, this past year shot them into the stratosphere with new collaborations, expansions, partnerships and projects respectively. Let’s not forget how Maya Madsen of Maya’s Cookies, charity-focused and experiencing a massive uptick in support as a Black-owned business, was able to open their first storefront during a pandemic, Shark Tank-rejected Melissa Butler’s The Lip Bar (now referred to as TLB) continued to expand their retail presence and product lines and, last but certainly not least, public health nutritionist Tracye McQuirter helped 15,000 (yes, you read that right) Black women go vegan through her free 21-day program, 10,000 Black Women. Pretty damn impressive.
. . .
Vegan Fine Dining
I am one of those people who proudly prefers vegan food that is on the peasant side of the spectrum, but it’s still exciting to see traction happening on the fancy-pants level because we need to be firing with all cylinders. Michelin-starred Eleven Madison Park transitioned during the pandemic to reopen as a fine dining restaurant with a vegetable-forward vegan menu (except for milk and honey for coffee if requested); another Michelin-starred chef, Alex Gauthier, also went vegan and transitioned his established London restaurant Gauthier Soho to an entirely plant-based menu in line with his ethics and opened 123 Vegan, a more casual spot. In 2021, ONA (an acronym for Origine Non Animal) became the first fully vegan restaurant in France to receive a coveted Michelin star. With cutting-edge vegan culinary schools in Boulder, Las Vegas and Australia, and a new animal-free 10-week pastry course at the storied Le Cordon Bleu, it should come as no surprise that our cuisine is getting glammed up a bit.
. . .
Fur’s On the Way Out
The writing has been on the wall for a long time about the fur industry, but 2021 saw some meaningful nails in that horrific industry’s coffin. Fashion media powerhouse ELLE recently announced that all of its 45 international eponymous publications will no show any fur on its pages, website or social media, but in 2021, we also saw famous fashion houses and brands like Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino, Alexander McQueen/Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta and Canada Goose to either discontinue fur altogether or announce a timeline for the discontinuation of it. (This is not to imply that leather, wool, down and more are not still used by these brands, but one thing at a time.) Department stores Neiman Marcus/Bergdorf Goodman (hey, hey, John was arrested at an anti-fur protest at Neiman Marcus in the ‘90s) and Saks Fifth Avenue also announced that their fur salons would be closing down and the sales would be discontinued. Last but not least, in 2021, Estonia became the first Baltic country to ban fur farming, Ireland became the 15th country in Europe to outlaw fur farming, and Israel became the first country to ban fur sales. Heck, even France, the home of so many of these iconic fashion houses, banned fur farms in 2021. Closer to home in the US, the towns of Wellesley and Weston, MA banned the sales of fur, as did Ann Arbor, MI.
. . .
State By State, Animal Cosmetics Testing is Ending
This year saw the states of Maryland, Maine, Virginia, Hawaii and New Jersey join California, Nevada and Illinois in banning cosmetics testing on animals. Panning out, Mexico became the first North American country to ban animal testing for cosmetics and the European Parliament voted to phase out animal testing and research in the European Union. There is not much more to say on this except it is long overdue and we are grateful for every win.
. . .
There have been many more wins for the animals, but here are a few more odds and ends: 2021 saw the continued rise of the sustainable vegan leather industry made with plant materials like cactus, mango and mushrooms; speaking of mushrooms, is it just me or is everyone suddenly obsessed with these special fungi?; last but not least, greyhound racing in Florida finally came to an end this year. With Iowa’s remaining racing track set to close soon, the two only tracks that remain in use are in West Virginia.
This year-end summation brings us the rise of positive developments and some nails in coffins that are long overdue. There is much to be done but let’s acknowledge some gains, too.
Here’s to an even better 2022!
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