On Being Totally Vegetarian for a Month: My Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation Light the Night Challenge

So as regular readers may know, I recently went totally vegetarian for a month. It was part of a fundraising effort I’m doing for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation’s Light the Night Walk: the Foundation Beyond Belief is a “Special Friend” team, I’m the FBB International Team’s Honored Hero for 2013, plus Freethought Blogs has a virtual team that’s part of FBB’s giant mega-team… so I’m doing all these dares and challenges as our team reaches assorted fundraising goals. One of those dares was to go vegetarian for a month… a month that was over on November 8. (We’re currently at $8.587, by the way — if we reach $9,000, I will eat bugs, and if we hit our $10,000 goal, I will eat — shudder — broccoli.) Here’s my report.


Being totally vegetarian was less difficult than I’d thought it would be. I’m close to vegetarian anyway (I sometimes call myself “vegetarian-ish”): I eat some meat sometimes, but not that often, and only certain kinds of meat or under certain circumstances. The exceptions I typically make are: meat that I consider to have been ethically raised (pasture-raised or grass-fed); local specialties when I travel (barbecue in the south, Buffalo wings in Buffalo, that sort of things); bites off of other people’s plates; times when I’m having serious problems with food due to health issues (when I was recovering from cancer surgery and having all kinds of weird appetite and digestion stuff, I gave myself permission to eat any damn thing that seemed appetizing and that I thought I could keep down); special occasions like Thanksgiving; and fish pretty much any time. So as it is, I eat meat, including fish, maybe once or twice a week. Cutting out that once or twice a week was not that big a deal.

The things that were actually challenging about this:

1) Times or places when I ordinarily would have eaten meat — such as food places that had meat I’d usually be fine with. When I was getting lunch at the foodie haven in the Ferry Plaza, I felt sad about all the “meat I consider to have been ethically raised” options I was passing on. I ordinarily take advantage of those when I can, since they don’t come along that often, and I felt sad to be missing one of my chances.

2) Not taking bites. Even at times in my life when I’ve been harder-core vegetarian, bites of other people’s food have pretty much always been an exception for me. It was sad to pass up those tastes.

3) Meat going to waste. This was very difficult indeed. I ordered a vegetarian crepe for dinner at a conference — a chicken crepe, actually, which I asked them to leave the chicken out of — and they forgot to leave out the chicken. Ordinarily I would have eaten that chicken with zero qualms. I have some ethical issues about eating meat at all, and giant ethical issues about eating generic meat raised in agribusiness factory-farm horror shows — but I have much bigger ethical issues about meat going to waste. The thought of that chicken suffering and dying just to be thrown in the trash… no. But I’d made a commitment to be strictly vegetarian for the month, so I stuck with it, and had them pitch it and make me a chickenless crepe. It didn’t sit well with me, though.

(I go back and forth about what this rule means at buffets, by the way. But I’m leaning towards not eating meat — if meat at a buffet goes to waste because I didn’t eat it and other vegetarians didn’t eat it, maybe they’ll serve less meat next time.)

4) Remembering that fish is not a vegetable. Even at times that I’ve been closer to the vegetarian end of the vegetarian-ish spectrum, I’ve almost always been okay with eating seafood (except for squid and octopus — they’re way too smart and sentient for me to feel okay about eating). Looking for the seafood options on a menu is almost reflexive for me. It was hard to remember, “Oh, yeah. Vegetarian. That means no salmon, no oysters, no scallops, no fish sauce.” That wasn’t a sacrifice so much (although it was at times — passing up oysters, sigh) — it was mostly just hard to remember.

So has this experience persuaded me to go totally vegetarian?

I don’t think so — but it’s definitely persuaded me to go more vegetarian than I currently am. I know myself, and I know that if I vowed to never to eat meat again as long as I lived, it would immediately become the one thing I wanted to do more than anything. (That’s what’s happened in the past when I’ve tried to go totally veg — and when I fell off the wagon, I fell off big.) I have enough complicated emotional issues with food as it is — I don’t want to add another one. If I was at a really amazing restaurant with a really amazing meat dish, I think I’d eat it. And I think the “meat going to waste” thing is always going to be an exception for me. Watching that chicken get thrown out was the one time in this experience when I actually felt like I was making a morally bad choice.

(And yes, I am morally fine with eating bugs. Which I’ll be doing if the Freethought Blogs team raises just another $413 for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation!)

But for the most part, this was easy enough to do that it seems silly not to do it more. For a couple/few years now, my general approach to meat-eating versus vegetarianism has been a “harm reduction” approach — I don’t feel a need to entirely eliminate meat, but I want to reduce the harm done by eating it — and I’m still pretty good with that. But I do think I want to slide my “vegetarian-ish” dial closer to the “totally vegetarian” end of the spectrum. I think I want to make eating meat even more of an exception than I already do: maybe once or twice a month instead of once or twice a week. I think that even at restaurants that have meat I consider to have been ethically raised, I’m not immediately going to leap at “Here’s my chance! That’s for me!” — I’m going to look at the vegetarian options, and give them at least as much weight, if not more. I also want to reconsider my “local specialties” exception: travel is stressful and eating local specialties is sone of the ways I handle that stress, but when I look carefully at the ethics of it, I don’t think that’s important enough to counter-balance the “agribusiness factory-farm horror show” thing.

And I am re-thinking seafood. During my vegetarian month, whenever I pondered the question of fish, that line from Nirvana’s “Something in the Way” kept popping into my head: “It’s okay to eat fish, ’cause they don’t have any feelings.” And I kept thinking, “Okay, Kurt, fine, you have a point, that’s not very consistent or evidence-based.” (Although I also kept thinking about the line, “And I’m living off of grass and the drippings from the ceiling,” and realizing that I don’t want to go there, either.) I might have to research fish neuropsychology a little bit to decide where exactly I want to draw that line. (Maybe no to regular fish, but yes to shellfish?)

I’m still okay with my harm-reduction model of eating meat. But if I can reduce that harm even more than I am, I don’t see any reason that I shouldn’t.

(In another Leukemia & Lymphoma Foundation Light the Night fundraising challenge, I’ve promised to go vegan for a week. I haven’t yet decided when I’m going to do that, but it’ll be soon. I’ll post about that when it’s done.)

Secular Meditation: Flexible Discipline, Or, On Creating a Regular Practice in an Irregular Life

So I’m working on creating a regular meditation routine. I’m running into an interesting conundrum with it. And the conundrum, like so many I run into with meditation, is bringing me some compelling insights into how I live my life… in this case, into what it means to have discipline, and what stability and security might mean in a constantly changing life.

At the end of my eight-week meditation course, the teacher emphasized the importance of creating a regular routine with it. He said that if we wanted to keep up the practice and not let it fall through the cracks of a busy life, it was important to create a routine: pick a particular form of meditation that works for us (a sitting/ breath meditation, a body scan, a walking meditation, a yoga or other body-motion meditation, etc.), and do it at the same time every day. He didn’t use the word “discipline” — his language is generally more gentle than that — but the word would certainly be appropriate.

I can see the value of this. I’m not arguing with it. But here’s the problem: My life just doesn’t look like that.

dali clockSome days I stay up writing until four a.m. and sleep until noon. Some days I get up at five a.m. to get on a plane. Some days I get up at seven a.m. to make it to the conference by nine, and I’m at the conference all day, and I get back to my hotel room, exhilarated but exhausted, at nine p.m. or later. Some days I have a meeting or an interview or a conference call at nine in the morning, or at noon, or at three in the afternoon, or at seven at night, or any combination of the above. Some weeks I have three deadlines; some weeks I’m in a different city every day; some weeks I have no immediate demands and can work on more or less whatever I want. Some days I get eight hours of sleep, or even more on occasion; some days I get six hours of sleep, or four… sometimes for several days on end.

I’m not complaining. I am way beyond lucky to be living the life I’m living, and I’m intensely aware of that. But it does present its challenges. And this is one of them: If I tried to set up a routine in which I meditated at the same time every day, it’d fail within a week. The only way I could really meditate at roughly the same time every day would be to do it right before I go to bed… but for me, that would be an almost complete missing of the point. I meditate to get my mind in a good state for dealing with my life and my work. I don’t particularly need to get my mind in a good state for dealing with being asleep. (Also, when I meditate right before I fall asleep, I tend to, you know, fall asleep.)

So for me, staying disciplined about this isn’t going to look like, “meditate every day at seven in the morning.”

For me, staying disciplined is going to look like, “meditate every day… regardless of what your day is like.”

For me, staying disciplined is going to look like, “No matter what your schedule is, find a slot in it for meditation. If you have time, do an open-ended body scan first thing when you wake up. If you don’t, then do a twenty-minute sitting meditation in the middle of the day before lunch, or in the late afternoon before you go to the gym, or during one of the conference sessions you’re okay with skipping, or do a body scan on the plane. If you really and truly don’t have twenty minutes today, do ten. And if you absolutely can’t find any other time to do it, do it at the end of the day before you fall asleep: it’s not ideal, but it’s better than not doing it at all.”

Discipline is a weird thing. It can mean regimentation, creating a schedule and sticking to it: going to the gym after work on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays; playing chess every Tuesday and reading the Sunday Times every Sunday; writing every evening from eight until midnight. And for a lot of people, for a lot of lives and a lot of personalities, this works. I’m not dissing it. I’m actually kind of envious: an irregular life creates its own stresses, and it’s hard to feel stable or centered when your days and weeks never feel the same.

river with rocksBut a regular life is just not an option for me. Not at this point in my career. I need another kind of discipline: flexible discipline, adaptive discipline, discipline that flows around the rocks in the stream and still keeps moving, still stays itself.

And meditation isn’t just one of the things that I’m trying to fit into this irregular life. It’s one of the ways I’m making it feel regular. It’s one of the ways I’m giving it cohesion. It’s not just another part of my life that I’m trying to be disciplined about: it’s a tool that’s helping me create discipline, that’s helping me stay focused while the ground underneath me keeps shifting. And it’s a tool that’s bringing me some measure of peace.

One of the more unexpected things I’m beginning to get from this practice, and one that I hope to keep getting, is a sense of stability and centeredness that I can take with me wherever I am. An irregular life, a life that keeps throwing different things at you every day, can make you feel unsteady, off-center, vulnerable and defensive all at the same time. But whether I’m slamming on three deadlines at once, or staying in a different hotel in a different city every day, or freaking out about the Internet firestorm of the week, I can find twenty minutes, and sit quietly, and pay attention to my breath, and simply be myself.

Other pieces in this series:
On Starting a Secular Meditation Practice
Meditation and Breakfast
Meditation, and the Difference Between Theory and Practice
Some Thoughts on Secular Meditation and Depression/Anxiety
Secular Meditation, and Doing One Thing at a Time
Secular Meditation: “Energy,” and Attention/ Awareness
Secular Meditation: How Down Time is Changing
Secular Meditation: “This is my job”
Secular Meditation: I Am Who I Am
Secular Meditation: “That’s not for me”

Violet, 1997-2011

Ingrid and I have some sad news. Our cat Violet died today, of cancer in her lungs and her thoracic cavity.

This both was and was not sudden. Violet was diagnosed with cancer in 2008, so we always knew that a recurrence was a possibility. But the treatment went well, and she was in good health for a long time. In the last few months, her energy has declined somewhat, and in the last few weeks her appetite was somewhat off, but nothing that indicated that anything was seriously wrong. But Wednesday night when Ingrid got home, she hadn’t eaten anything all day, and her breathing was labored. We took her to the vet, and the X-rays found fluid in her lungs and a mass in her chest. They were able to stabilize her long enough for her oncologist to see her Thursday morning, but it was clear that there was no hope for treatment or even palliative care. We had her euthanized Thursday afternoon. We had hoped to bring her home first, but her breathing and general condition were not strong enough for that to make sense for her, so we stayed with her while she was euthanized in the hospital. She went very peacefully and very quickly.

Ingrid and I are obviously extremely sad about this. Violet has been with us for fourteen years, and the house seems very empty without her. It also comes at a bad time for many reasons (not that there’s ever a good time for this). But knowing that we have the support and understanding of our friends, family, colleagues and community means a great deal. I may not be my usual self for a little while: I may not be able to blog on my usual schedule; I may not be able to respond as quickly to emails and comments and tech issues as I normally am; and I’m likely to be less cheerful and more short-tempered than usual. I hope you all will understand and will be patient with me. I’ll be posting photos and a proper obituary later on; right now, I just don’t have it in me.

And finally: It pains me that I have to say this, but past experience has taught me that I do.

If there are any religious or spiritual believers reading this blog: Please, please, please, do not say that you’re praying for us. Do not say that Violet is looking down on us. Do not say that we’ll see her again someday. Do not say that this is part of God’s plan. Please do not offer any “comfort” of a religious, spiritual, or supernatural nature. I do not find these ideas comforting. I find these ideas profoundly upsetting. If you wouldn’t tell someone who’s Jewish that their dead loved one is in the arms of Jesus Christ their personal lord and savior, please don’t tell an atheist that they’ll see their dead loved one in the afterlife. I am happy to discuss and debate religion at another time and place, but I do not want to do it in my cat’s obituary. Any comments of this nature will be disemvoweled, and the commenters will be banned. (And to the rest of you: If anyone ignores this request, please do not engage with them. Please ignore them, and let me handle it with comment moderation.) Thanks.

I have my archives!

I have my archives from my old blog! They’re here! With comments and everything! They’re even in the right categories!

Images and videos didn’t make it over, and there are a handful of posts that didn’t make it and that I’ll have to put in by hand. (For some reason, it didn’t like my posts about alternative medicine, speaking at Stanford, making atheism a safe place to land, atheists having morality, and my recipe for chocolate pie. Make of that what you will.) But I can live with that. The archives are here. Years of my old work — all finally in one place. This has been driving me up a tree, and I can now finally relax about it. (A little.)

If you want to see them, scroll down in the sidebar to where it says “Recent Posts/ Comments/ Archives.” Click Archives. There they are! You can also search for posts in the archives with the handy Search box at the top right of the blog. Which works waaaay better than the search box at my old blog.

When I’m back from my Minnesota trip, I’m going to start working on (a) getting the old blog to redirect to the new one, and (b) getting the best and hottest posts listed in my sidebar, so newcomers to the blog can browse them more easily. And I’ll probably start linking to the cool stuff from the archives, so newcomers to this blog can become familiar with it. For now, I’m just going to sit back and cry tears of happiness and relief. I can haz archives! Yay!

I have to express my intense gratitude to fellow Freethought Blogger Jason Thibeault, at Lousy Canuck, for making this happen. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that atheists have no sense of community or compassion. I owe him big time. Go visit his blog, and tell him Thank You.

Mental and Physical — We Need Non-Supernatural Language

If you think there’s no spiritual or supernatural world, and that consciousness/ emotions/ intention/ etc. are all products of the brain and the physical world… then what language to you use to distinguish between the mental aspects of your body, and the other aspects of your body?

I’ve been talking with JT Eberhard, good friend/ fellow atheist blogger/ Secular Student Alliance high school specialist/ total badass,  about mental health issues. JT has anorexia, which he’s been blogging about; I have a history of mental illness in my family (alcoholism, mostly) and something of a personal history with it myself (depression — it hasn’t been a serious issue in some time, but I always have to pay attention to it and take active steps to prevent it from recurring).

So JT and I been talking about this stuff. And I frequently find that I want to say things like, “You seem like you’re in really good physical health right now, it’s your mental health I’m more concerned about.” Or, “I’ve been ignoring my physical health lately, and it’s really having an effect on my mental health.” You get the picture.

And then I stop, and think, “Wait a minute. Mental health is physical health. Our brains are part of our body. Our thoughts and feelings and impulses and intentions are physical, biological processes. Why am I implying that it isn’t? What can I say instead that doesn’t have that implication?”

And I get stuck. I’ve been trying to think of different language… and I’m coming up short. I’m wondering if we need new language. Or — better yet, since it works so much better — if we can re-purpose existing language to get this idea across.

I don’t just want this new/ re-purposed language when I’m talking about mental illness and mental health. We talk about the differences and relationships between our brains and the rest of our bodies a lot. And I do think this is a useful distinction to make. Yes, I think our brains are part of our bodies… but the brain/ mind/ thoughts/ feelings/ etc. parts of our body have some important differences from the muscles/ guts/ bones/ lungs/ circulation/ etc. parts. And it’s useful to be able to draw a distinction between them, and talk about the ways that they’re different, and the ways they’re similar, and the ways they overlap and interact.

But I want to be able to do that in a way that doesn’t invoke Cartesian dualism. When we say “mental versus physical,” it implies that the mental isn’t physical. I want to talk about the distinctions and connections between the mental and the non-mental parts of our bodies, without that implication. I want to talk about it in a way that acknowledges that the brain is part of the body.

And for those of us who are dealing with mental health issues, in ourselves and in people we care about, I have other reasons for wanting language that doesn’t separate the brain and the mind so radically from the rest of the body; for wanting language that acknowledges that the brain is a body part, and that mental health is physical health.

There’s a tremendous stigma and shame around mental illness — a stigma that’s not nearly as prevalent with non-mental illness. Yes, there’s some stigma around illness, some illnesses more than others… but we have much more compassion and acceptance of non-mental illness than we do with mental illness. Mental illness is still seen as a personal failure. Our society judges people who have depression or anorexia… in a way that we don’t judge people who have diabetes or cancer. I think if our language reflected that mental illness is a physical illness, it might mitigate that stigma and fear about it, and increase our empathy.

But I don’t know how to do that.

So I’m crowd-sourcing the problem. Thoughts? Is there a word we can use other than “physical” to mean “parts of the body that aren’t the brain and mind”?

I’m on Twitter! Follow me at @GretaChristina .

Further Thoughts on Fashion and Style

So as I should have expected, my recent post on fashion and feminism generated a rather substantial volume of conversation. Much of it quite vigorous. (In fact, as of this writing, the fashion post has substantially more comments than my post on diplomacy and accomodationism. I think this is hilarious. I love you guys.)

And of all the comment debates and conversations that this blog has generated since it switched over to Freethought Blogs, this is the one I feel most inspired to respond to. Which I also think is hilarious.

A lot of people made a lot of points in this conversation. Some of which I take issue with, some of which I think are valid. I want to get into a few of these… and I want to start with one of the most valid ones.

Namely, the distinction between fashion and style.

When I talked about fashion in the original piece, a lot of people thought I meant “the dictates from the fashion industry about what people should and should not wear.” Do’s and don’ts. What’s in and what’s out. Fashion magazines; women’s magazines; celebrity fashion icons; celebrity gossip magazines obsessively examining this week’s red-carpet looks under a microscope; designers telling women what to wear this month and what kind of body we should wear it on. Etc. And this, these folks argued, was not a form of personal expression that could be likened to a language. This was a form of oppression. They made a distinction between style, i.e. the individual ways that a person expresses who they are through their clothing and other personal adornment… and fashion, i.e. what some self-appointed arbiters in society tell us about how we should be expressing ourselves, and indeed what we should be expressing. Nobody quoted Lester Bangs — “Style is originality, fashion is fascism” — but they certainly could have.

I thought it was clear from context that, when I used the word “fashion,” this wasn’t what I was talking about. But I guess it wasn’t. And it’s my responsibility as a writer to make myself clear. If a lot of smart and thoughtful people don’t get what I’m saying, then I need to say it more clearly. Let me try again.

In my original piece, I used the word “fashion” instead of “style” somewhat deliberately. I wasn’t just talking about one person’s individual expression — I was talking about the cultural vocabulary, the global conversation that goes on through clothing and hair and makeup and jewelry and shoes and other forms of personal adornment. I was using the metaphor of language to talk about clothing and personal adornment as a shared vocabulary and grammar that we use to communicate. And “fashion” seemed like a better word for that than “style.” (I also couldn’t resist the title “Fashion is a Feminist Issue,” with its echo of the famous book “Fat is a Feminist Issue.”)

But yes. What I was trying to get at is probably closer to what many people think of as “style” rather than “fashion.” (Especially since the word “fashion” seems to rub so many people the wrong way.)

And in fact, this discussion has given me a new way of looking at the distinction between fashion and style, and a new way of looking at the entire issue of using language as a metaphor for fashion and style. This is a new idea for me, one of my “thinking out loud” ideas, and I want to run it by y’all.

Here’s the idea:

Fashion is a language.

Style is what we choose to say in it. [Read more...]

Fashion is a Feminist Issue

Can you be a feminist and still care about fashion?

As some of you may know, I’m pretty interested in fashion. I spend a fair amount of time and energy (and probably more money than I ought) on my wardrobe and appearance. I pay a fair amount of attention to other people’s style: admiring it, analyzing it, deciding if I can steal it. I watch TV shows about fashion. I read books and blogs about fashion. I buy fashion magazines, and even subscribe to a couple. (It would have been just one, but we got a two- for- one deal when we subscribed to Vogue and got Glamour thrown in for free.) At big public events, Ingrid and I will spend many happy hours checking out/ commenting on other people’s outfits. Fashion has become one of my central hobbies.

And in general, I find fashion to be a fascinating form of expression. A language, even. Not in the literal Chomskyan sense, of course — we’re not born with a fashion module wired into our brains, the way we’re born with language modules — but in a metaphorical sense. In the sense that many extremely useful parallels can be drawn between the two. In the sense that different articles of clothes are assigned meaning more or less arbitrarily, in the way words are assigned meaning — not because those meanings bear some connection to objective reality, but because we all more or less agree on their meaning. (It doesn’t matter why, historically, a suit and tie means “I am willing to treat social conventions with some degree of respect, and expect in return to be treated with respect myself” — that’s what it means now, regardless of its history). In the sense that the meanings of these clothes shift over time, the way the meanings of words shift over time, rendering them even more arbitrary. (The meaning of makeup on women, for instance, has shifted over the decades from “prostitute” to “brazen” to “fashionably cutting-edge” to “entirely conventional.”) In the sense that these meanings change depending on how we combine them — the “grammar,” if you will (jeans with muddy boots and a baseball cap from the feed store mean something different from jeans with stiletto heels and a $500 Dior T-shirt). In the sense that these meanings can change depending on context (jeans at a rock concert mean something different than jeans at a funeral). In the sense that different cultures assign vastly different arbitrary meanings to clothing. (A short skirt and stiletto heels mean something different in Manhattan than they do in Cedar Rapids… and something very different again in Dubai.)

In fact, fashion and style are so much like a language, I’m always a bit baffled when people say things like, “I want to be judged on who I am, not on the clothes I wear.” It’s a bit like saying, “I want to be judged on who I am, not on the words that come out of my mouth.” But that’s a point for another time.

Here’s my point for today. Fashion is a form of expression. A language of sorts. An art form, even.

It’s also one of the very few art forms/ languages/ forms of expression in which women have more freedom than men. [Read more...]