Dandelion Greens with Leeks, Sundried Tomato, and JustEgg

Thanks to the amazing cooks at Moya and the good folks at Imperfect Produce, I’m enjoying the most wonderful brunch. A couple of days ago we had a hankering for Ethiopian food, with which my family has a special relationship because of my aunt Michal’s years as a social worker working with the Ethiopian-Israeli immigrant community. We ordered Moya’s excellent veggie combo, with extra injera, as well as tofu tibs, and had a tiny bit of sauce from the tibs left, as well as some of the injera.

Enter the vegetable box, which brought us a big bunch of dandelion greens, a gigantic leek, fresh green onions, spry parsley sprigs, and a little jar of Sicilian dried tomatoes. We also had a container of JustEgg in the fridge, though crumbled tofu would do the trick here just fine. A few minutes later, a brunch fit for royalty.

  • 1 big bunch dandelion greens
  • 1 leek (just the green part)
  • 1-2 sprigs green onion
  • big handful parsley
  • 2 tbsp chopped dried tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp Tibs sauce, or tomato sauce
  • 3 tbsp JustEgg, or 3 oz crumbled tofu

Heat up a bit of water in a pan. Thinly slice the leek and green onion, chop the parsley, and cut the stems of the dandelion greens into bite-size pieces (the top part of the leaf you can leave whole.)

Pop the vegetables into the hot was. Add the tibs sauce or the tomato sauce, as well as the dried tomatoes, and mix. Cover the pan and let steam for a few minutes. After the greens have wilted and the water has all but evaporated, add the JustEgg or the tofu on top (the tofu might need mixing with the flavorful greens), close the lid again, and allow to cook. Serve with injera (or bread, or nothing.)

Whole Food, Plant-Based School Lunches!

It’s been a big week for our family! The news about FESTER’s dispatch to our publisher are small potatoes compared to the bigger journey: Our son is now a schoolboy! It’s been a big transition, helped by the kindness and wisdom of his new teachers at Red Bridge SF. This also means that we have to roll up our sleeves and make school lunches – enough calories, nutrition and flavor to sustain and gladden a little boy until the afternoon.

I’ve talked to a few experienced school-lunch-packers, as well as read the oldie-but-goodie Vegan Lunchbox. I think the winning formula for us is going to include:

  • 1 whole grain mini-pita with a wholesome filling (avocado, nut butter, cashew cheese);
  • a container or two with a hearty and tasty starch + protein + veg (brown rice sushi; quinoa pilaf; rice and chili; chickpea or lentil pasta);
  • a container or two of raw or lightly steamed vegetables and fruit;
  • a sweet treat: dried fruit and/or a slice of quickbread (zucchini bread, banana bread, pumpkin bread, black bean brownie);
  • a water bottle.

I’m trying to be more organized ahead of time, and I think what this means is that every Sunday we should:

  • batch-cook a grain
  • batch-cook a bean
  • make sure we have cute vegetables and fruit for snacks
  • bake a batch of mini-pitas and freeze them
  • bake a quickbread, slice, and freeze

My most successful school lunch this week was the vegan sushi and tofu combo you see above. In the little bag are slices of green apple and cucumber sticks. There was also an avocado-filled mini-pita and dried blueberries. If you are plant-based, tell me what you’re sending to school with your kids in the comments!

Red Vegetable Quinoa

This simple little dish turned out fantastic with very little effort and fanfare, largely thanks to excellent spices from Havat Derech HaTavlinim in Bet Lechem HaGlilit, my favorite spice shop, but you can obtain these at Middle Eastern markets and online. The combination of these red and purple spices with a lot of red vegetables yields something very special with a sweet flavor profile. An ideal Instant Pot recipe but this is easy to make in a lidded saucepan – it’ll just take a few more minutes.

  • 1/2 white onion, minced
  • 3 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 tablespoon baharat
  • 1/2 tablespoon sumac
  • 3 big carrots, grated
  • 1 little tomato, finely chopped
  • 1 little beet, finely chopped (I used a precooked beet from lovebeets)
  • 1 cup quinoa (I used tricolor, but would’ve used white quinoa if I had any)
  • 1 cup water

Set the InstantPot to “sauté,” heat it up, and then pop in the onion and garlic. Cook for about five minutes or until beginning to be golden. Then, add the spices, carrots, tomato, and beets. Continue cooking for about five more minutes. Turn off the sauté function and add the quinoa and the water. Mix well, close the lid, and set the Instant Pot to pressure cook on high temperature for 11 minutes. When it is done, let it sit for about five minutes before depressurizing.

My Day in (the Food) Court

In 1992 I left home and moved to Jerusalem for law school. Being on my own for the first time was an opportunity to revise and question many habits, including my nutrition. The impetus for becoming vegetarian came from a humiliating (but, in hindsight, funny) incident: in my first year of law school I dated a classmate who came from Jerusalem’s academic aristocracy. His family invited me to a famous gourmet steakhouse. I had obviously not grown up eating such fancy things and had no idea how to order my steak, so I thought well-done would be safe, and they proceeded to repeatedly ask me throughout the meal in concerned tones: “Are you sure your steak is not too dry?” That meal was the last nail in my carnivorous coffin; I eschewed animal flesh that evening when I came home.

Ours was not a kitchen-centered household, and my hard-working mom would bring me food from restaurants near the courts where she tried criminal cases as a defense attorney; so, being a serious person, I decided to teach myself how to cook and eat vegetarian by purchasing my first cookbook, Phyllis Glazer’s A Vegetarian Feast. I also discovered an amazing natural foods grocery store in a nearby kibbutz, Ramat Rachel, which was a complete revelation. It was there that I encountered whole grains for the first time, as well as exotic things like tofu (promoted as “soy cheese”); I come from fairly humble beginnings and did not grow up eating such foods. My new way of life was strange to my family, who were pained by my avoidance of meat and were puzzled by the whole grain thing (gradually, they all came around.)

My knowledge of nutrition was fairly limited at the time; the reigning theories of vegan and vegetarian nutrition were the now-debunked “food combining” and “complete protein” myths, which seemed like a whole lot of trouble. I had no concept of the extent to which the cruelty to animals permeated the dairy and egg market (I did buy “cage-free” eggs after visiting an army colleague’s home and being horrified by her family’s chicken coops.) And I had no idea how to stay healthy on a vegan diet; vegetarianism was already a pretty radical step considering where I came from. So, I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian, and remained such until getting to the States in 2001.

Arriving in America was a harsh blow to my health and digestive system. U.S. food was richer, more laden in chemicals, and far less fresh and healthy than its Israeli counterpart, and throughout grad school I suffered from debilitating stomach aches and miseries that would put me out of commission for days at a time. With the help of a wonderful nutritionist I met through my Chinese medicine studies at the Acupressure Institute, I did an elimination diet and eschewed bread and dairy; I immediately felt better. Since I didn’t quite know what to substitute it with, I went back to eating fish. Meat crept back into the menu several years later, when I was training for long marathon swims. I thought I needed the protein, but the whole thing never sat well with me, morally and ethically.

Everything changed in 2014, when I saw Judy Irving’s wonderful documentary Pelican Dreams and suddenly realized that everything was interconnected–the food chain, the ecosystem, the planet, our health, the health and welfare of our nonhuman friends–and that I wanted nothing to do with the animal torture industry. I came home that very evening and told my partner I was going to be vegan from now on (he joined me not long after and we’ve been happy and proud vegans ever since, raising a happy and proud vegan son.) I became involved with Direct Action Everywhere and started writing about factory farms and open rescue. It was also, as it turned out, an easy and convenient time to go vegan, because the next generation in quality nut cheeses and meat substitutes emerged.

During the pandemic, we relied a lot on these substitutes, which were not only easy to procure and order in, but also psychologically soothing (salt and oil will do that.) My weight started creeping up to an alarming degree, and unpleasant, debilitating symptoms, which I had ascribed to perimenopause, became a way of life: relentless low-grade headaches, digestive problems, brain fog. Litigating the San Quentin case and advocating for incarcerated people during the pandemic took an enormous psychological toll, and my health continued to deteriorate. In March 2021 I fell in the street and could not get up – to this day I’m not sure if it was cardiac or something else. It was a sense of utter weakness and frailty. But at that instant, all the shame I had been feeling about my health decline turned into rage: I don’t deserve to live like this, I thought, I deserve a better life. The next day I bought all the vegetables and fruit I could think of and took a walk around the block. I juiced for 30 days, then added fresh salads, soups, and smoothies to the menu. The walks grew in length and became runs, I bought a bike, I started swimming again, I completed my lifeguard training. In March 2022, a year after I fell in the street, I completed the Oakland Marathon. At that point, all my symptoms were gone, my bloodwork cleared up, all my health metrics were transformed, and I lost 60 lbs, getting back to my high school weight. My swim and run times were, and are, better than ever in my life, and I continue seeing personal bests in the pool and on the trail.

Most of the inspiring success stories on the Forks Over Knives website involve folks who ate the standard American diet before shifting to a whole-food, plant-based plan. I’m here to tell you that it’s entirely possible to be 100% vegan and eat in a horribly unhealthy manner. I’m so glad I shifted to whole foods, juices, smoothies, chilled soups, and other vegetable-rich meals. I am sure that eating this way has saved my life. On social media, I frequent various vegan groups, and many of the posts involve a search for the perfect meat analog, faux egg, or rich cheese on a pizza; I very keenly recognize the feelings driving this quest in myself as well. It’s not just cravings from the animal-consuming days; it’s a sense of deprivation and righteousness. Whenever I crave something like this, I detect in my own thinking a sense that dammit, I’m doing the right thing here for the animals and the planet, I deserve this tasty reward.

I have found a way to set aside this righteous thinking pattern: I interrupt it by thinking, what I deserve is to feel splendid, wake up fresh and pain-free, and live many years to be with my son and to push myself to athletic heights. That’s my reward. The way to earn my “just desert” is through chilled green soups, delicious salads, and concoctions rich in healing greens. To learn more about nutrition, I’ve read up on the latest research on a variety of conditions, and taken my plant-based nutrition certificate from the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies, as well as the Forks Over Knives cooking course. I feel so wonderful now that I don’t want to ever not feel this way; I wake up every morning yearning for everyone to feel this way. It’s hard to describe how profoundly pleasing it is to go about my day with everything humming and working the way it should. I want the same for you, and for everyone else.

Thinking Like a Community

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the disappointing, but not unexpected, outcome of Happy the Elephant’s case. Taken with similar attempts to imbue animals with legal personhood, this can induce a lot of despair: fringe legal philosophies have not produced the change we’re hoping for.

But perhaps there is another way to go, which learns from contemplative and deep ecological perspectives. At 5:30am on election day I rode my bike to the polls and was treated to a magnificent dawn chorus of San Francisco’s diverse and colorful bird population. A thought flew through my mind: The birds don’t know and don’t care that there is an election today. Much of what we will vote on (transit, construction, garbage collection) will directly affect their lives, but they are not involved in this process–they live adjacent to it, oblivious of what it may bring in its wings. Who will speak for their interests at this election? 

I’m obviously not the first person to introduce contemplative practices into ecology and animal rights. In their 1988 book Thinking Like a Mountain: Toward a Council of All Beings, John Seed, Joanna Macy, Pat Flemming and Arne Naess propose a blueprint for human decisionmaking that takes all perspectives in mind. Through transformative, contemplative practices, a Council of All Beings invites humans to deeply adopt and articulate the perspectives of nonhuman entities in decisionmaking. I participated in one such Council as part of a facilitator training; I spoke for a mushroom and some of my fellow participants spoke for parrots, rocks, and blades of grass. It was a profound immersion in the interests, if they can be called that, of nonhuman entities.

This transcendent notion of perspective taking has migrated from deep ecological theory to the legal realm, with some expressing optimism for its potential for transformation. In his article We Are the River, my colleague and friend David Takacs offers some examples: The New Zealand Parliament has recently granted the Whanganui River and the Te Urewera mountain ecosystem rights as legal persons, with a Māori governing board to speak for the nonhuman entities, based upon traditional cultural precepts. Similarly, governments in Australia, Colombia, Ecuador, Bangladesh, India, Uganda, and the U.S. have also declared that rivers and other living systems have legal rights. While these initiatives stem from  disparate historical, philosophical, and legal backgrounds, and pursue disparate goals, they all seek to enshrine in the law the fundamental symbiosis between human and nonhuman ecological health, and to empower suitable stewards who will nurture that symbiosis. As Takacs explains, newly vested spokespersons for nature–often indigenous populations, who savvily position themselves as more authentically empowered to speak for natural entities–can, and sometimes do, turn novel legal theories into real legal work that protects human and nonhuman communities. 

So, perhaps the solution to our failure to effect real change through animal personhood is to eschew performative (often prosecutorial and anthropomorphized) rhetoric on behalf of animals and give some careful thought, through discerning political considerations and contemplative experiences, to two important questions: what are the genuine interests of nonhuman animals and who should be vested with the authority to represent these interests? As I explained here and here, and as Justin Marceau explains so well here, deep engagement with the true interests of nonhuman animals does not and should not include a reliance on incarceration. The answer, perhaps, is that criminal courtrooms are not the right places for deep, thoughtful perspective-taking. This is not to say that meditative retreats or multiparty government meetings would be completely free of anthropomorphism: any humans speaking for nonhuman entities necessarily translate very different lives to their own into human terms and might, manipulatively or carelessly, twist or convert these into their own interest. This is why it is essential to identify speakers for animals who are truly curious, knowledgeable, and sincere. 

When we understand on a deep level what animals want (they are more similar to us than we might think, as Larry Carbone explains in his treatise on laboratory animals), the solutions are up to us. Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute often explains that the true solution to the horrors of factory farming lie at least partly in the hands of the market: we must create substitutes to animal products that taste the same or better, and cost the same or are cheaper. Would factory farmed animals provide us with this solution? Naturally not. This is an entirely human solution, derived from an entirely human conceptual world, for the genuine problem nonhuman animals face–the horrific reality of exploitation and torture that is the CAPO industry. What Friedrich’s solution shows us is that, when we set out to comprehend the unmediated experience of our fellow living beings, with as little imposition of our own agendas on it as possible, we can then fashion human solutions to these problems. I resolved to participate in (human) elections and vote on measures that humans introduced, and on human candidates, while “thinking like a mountain” at the ballot box.

But we can find even more uses for thinking like a community, such as in physical and mental health matters. Recently, I read and enjoyed Will Bulsiewicz’s Fiber Fueled and listened to this podcast with him, in which he explained that we should think of our eating habits as eating not just for ourselves, but for a whole community including trillions of microbes. What I eat is for them as much as it is for me, or for whatever “me” is (not that easy to parse, with so many microbes in the mix, right?) So, when you crave a mountain of nutrition-empty things, consider that there’s an emotional aspect of “you” who wants them, while there are many aspects of “you” – the physical, biological, mental “you”, that needs other things. Think of the cliché of pregnant women “eating for two:” we’re all eating for trillions.

There’s also a psychological aspect to this: I’m enjoying Richard Schwartz’s No Bad Parts, an excellent introduction to family systems theory in psychology, which is all about the notion that we contain multitudes. It is useful to give a voice to neglected parts of the self, even if one believes there’s some “core self” (a better fit for western psychology than for Buddhist psychology.)

Next time you’re involved in decisionmaking, for yourself or for others, try thinking like a community and see how it feels.

Vegetable-Rich Pakora-Falafel Waffles

My savory breakfast project proceeds apace! This morning I created savory waffles that sit somewhere between pakora and falafel. I was inspired by the amazing Vegan Richa’s recipe, but made some substitutions and several tweaks that make the waffle even more nutritious (I threw in a lot of tofu and spinach, which are not in the original recipe). The outcome was superb–somewhere between pakora and falafel. I suspect it would be more pakora-like with cilantro, but parsley is what I had in the fridge.

In lieu of chickpea flour, I used the “vegan omelette mix” that is sold in Israel and is a mix of yellow dal flour, chickpea flour, and a few other ingredients. You can easily substitute with chickpea flour or besan, as in Richa’s original recipe. Here’s my version:

  • 1/2 cup cauliflower
  • 6 stalks green onion
  • 100g spinach
  • big handful parsley
  • 1/2 inch ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 package Hodo Soy tofu (about 150g)
  • 1 cup vegan omelette mix or legume flour
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp coriander
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2 tsp ras-el-hanout
  • 1/2 tsp cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • a few drops of olive oil for the waffle maker

Place all the vegetables and the tofu in the food processor and process to a coarse mix. Place in a bowl and add the legume flour, water, and spices. Mix again. Heat up your waffle maker while the mixture sits for a few minutes. Then, place a spoonful of mix in each waffle spot, drop some olive oil on top (to prevent the waffles from sticking to the other side) and close the lid. The waffles come out crunchy and delicious. I’m pretty sure this will be fantastic with other vegetable combinations.

A very cool variation, inspired by an online course I took in Korean temple cooking: Substitute all the vegetables and tofu for one big zucchini, half a cauliflower, and lots of scallions or leeks. Substitute all the spices for a big tablespoon of gochujang and a bit of salt. Cooks the same and tastes a lot like the wonderful traditional Korean pancakes.

Savory Oats

We have returned from a few days at Harbin Hot Springs, one of my family’s favorite spots for renewal and joy. We love soaking and swimming, taking in the natural forest (now young, green, and lush again in its recovery from the disastrous fire that destroyed the place a few years ago), and meeting delightful people. Every time I visit Harbin I come home with new insights, many of them gained from conversations with forward-thinking folks in the sacred waters. This time, I enjoyed seeing my son and other kids make friends and enjoy the pools, and appreciated a lot of examples of enlightened, mindful parenting around me.

One of the biggest changes at Harbin has been the elimination of Fern Kitchen, an enormous communal space where visitors could cook delectable plant-based meals and share them with the folks around them. The café and restaurant, in their former incarnation, are also gone, as is the little organic grocery store. Instead, Dancing Bear Café, operating from a few trailers near the blooming garden, offers wonderful plates, but is woefully short-staffed and wait times are, well, more conducive to the practice of contemplation when one is not the parent of a young child. This situation inspired us to try something a bit different: we opted for an enormous, vegetable- and protein-rich breakfast every morning, followed by eating just raw fruit and vegetables for the rest of the day. We were amazed by how well this felt – the afternoon slump was completely gone, we were full of energy and joy, and the breakfast did not feel heavy or cumbersome in the least.

I decided to continue the experiment at home, so this is my second day of eating a big savory breakfast, accompanied by a lovely oat matcha latte and a green juice. Today, inspired by a story my friend Serena told me about a breakfast she once made at a campsite, I opted for savory oats. Generally, I prefer savory to sweet foods, and this oatmeal is everything! It feels like a fiber-rich risotto with loads of vegetables. I ate it alongside our vegan chili from yesterday.

Please don’t let the longer cooking time of steel cut oats deter you – their texture is so much superior to that of rolled or flat oats! The secret is to boil them with water the night before, turn off the heat, and then wake up to a basically ready meal except for the toppings. The other advantage to this method is that, if your family members prefer sweet oats, you have everyone’s needs covered. Here’s what you need for 3-4 helpings for people with diverse preferences:

  • 1/2 cup steel cut oats
  • 2 cups water
  • a splash of water or plant milk (I like Oatly)
  • 3 cups spinach or kale
  • 1 stalk leek
  • 1 cup mushrooms
  • Herby/garlicky seasoning (I’m fond of Stonehouse’s aglio olio, but you do you)
  • A little bit of the vegan cheese of your choice (I have Forager’s cashew parmesan and it is phenomenal)
  • a hefty spoonful of nutritional yeast
  • A sprinkling of hemp seeds
  • any fruit or nuts that your family members like on their sweet oatmeal

The night before you choose to have this breakfast, put the oats and water in a pot and bring to a boil. Turn off the heat and just leave until morning (you don’t have to refrigerate.)

The next morning, wake up to a pot full of cooked steel cut oats! Add a splash of water or plant milk and reheat. In a separate pan, sauté the spinach, leek, and mushrooms in a little bit of water. Add the seasoning, nutritional yeast, vegan cheese, and hemp seeds, and then add about 1/2-2/3 cup of the cooked oats. Mix and see the cheese melt beautifully into your oat risotto. The remainder of the oats can be served with fruit or nuts according to other people’s preferences, though I pretty much guarantee that they’ll want to try yours.

My excitement about this plan comes also from reading Will Bulsiewicz’s Fiber Fueled and listening to his interesting interview on the Rich Roll Podcast. We are now determined to play the two microbiome-enriching games he suggests: eating 30 different plants every week and at least one type of fermented food every day. The above breakfast provides at least five different plants (more if you improvise on the toppings!), loads of protein, and a fermented food (the cheese.) Now I’m ready to tackle my day!

Not Exactly From Scratch Vegan Mac ‘n’ Cheese

Our story begins with a sniffly child in need of comfort (not the plague! We tested) and a mom sprouting a migraine halo. This situation led to us deciding on a low-key movie evening, and the child asked for mac ‘n’ cheese. Not having in me to cook, I called our trusty food deliverance app and ordered the famous vegan mac from Homeroom. We were foiled, however, as it took them about an hour to find a delivery driver, and the child’s need for comfort was growing more urgent and weepy by the moment.

Rather than spend precious minutes listening to muzak on customer support, I took matters into my own hands. We had all kinds of awesome dairy alternatives in the fridge, so I improvised, and used Banza in lieu of semolina pasta to bring some nutrition (protein, fiber) into the situation. It turned out pretty good, if I may say so, and we immediately tucked in. A few minutes later, a delightful and very apologetic delivery driver showed up with the restaurant version. Rio ruled Ima’s version better than the restaurant’s (and I trust him, as I don’t think he has already learned to lie for social convenience)! Upon Chad’s return home, I administered a blind tasting test to Chad and he, too, declared my version superior to Homeroom’s, which is high praise.

Chad opining on the relative virtues of the two dishes

To make a long story short, if you find yourself in dire straits, have some Miyoko’s products lying around, and want to be your own hero, here’s how I did it:

Ingredients

  • 1 package Banza pasta
  • 1 tsp Miyoko’s cultured butter
  • 2-3 tbsp Miyoko’s liquid mozzarella
  • 1/3 cup Ripple plant milk – unsweetened
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg

salt, pepper, onion flakes, and garlic powder to taste

Cook Banza pasta according to instructions–get it somewhere between al dente and al denture (it’s children comfort food, not an effort to evoke a Tuscan gourmet experience.) Strain and immediately return to the pot. Add all other ingredients, mix well, and cook a bit on low heat until the fake dairy thickens and becomes gooey and delicious. Taste to fix the spices and flavors (you might need a smidgeon more salt and pepper) and serve.

I bet smoked paprika, some turmeric, and a few extra nutritional yeast flakes would make this yellower and tastier, but the child prefers his comfort dishes bland. You, of course, are free of such constraints, so enjoy!

Cauliflower Kitchari

Now that the semester has ended on both sides of the Bay Bridge, I have some time to cook delicious things, rather than eating on the fly as I ride my bike and BART. I even cracked open a great cookbook–Oz Telem’s Cauliflower–and branched beyond my usual fare of whole roasted cauli, or cauli/olive/chickpea salad, to making this satisfying, stick-to-your-ribs upgrade to cauli rice. It’s an aromatic concoction of riced cauli and yellow or red lentils with some spices.

Ingredients

2-3 cups cauliflower florets

1 cup yellow or red lentils, preferably whole

1 scant tsp turmeric

1.5 cups water

1-2 tsp salt (I used truffle salt to great effect)

3-4 tbsp olive oil

6-7 garlic cloves

1 heaping tsp cumin

Place florets in food processor and process until it has couscous consistency. Transfer to a medium pot along with the lentils, turmeric, and water. Bring to a boil, add the salt, cover, and lower the heat to a simmer. Let simmer approx. 15-20 minutes, or until the lentils and cauli are soft but not mushy.

Toward the end, heat olive oil in a pan. Thinly slice and add garlic cloves and cumin. Fry until golden. Add contents of the pan to the pot and mix well. Serve with a nice vegetable stew (pictured) or with coconut yogurt (I like Cocojune.)

By the way, we’ve had to find a new produce delivery service, and in an effort to prevent food waste we now get our fruit and veg from Imperfect Foods. This recipe came about because they brought us lots of wonderful cauliflower! In addition to the lovely produce, they have an impressive array of plant-based alternatives to meat and dairy, many of which we’ve never tried before, and we’re very happy with them so far.

Health and Fitness Update

Back in July, when I wrote this, I was so touched to receive an enormous amount of support from friends and colleagues; my journey back to health was even featured in this Q&A piece, in which I said:

My health has deteriorated in a serious, serious way in the course of my work. I made a few key decisions during the pandemic, one of which was to put my health first, because that is what allows me to help other people. Of course, I’m speaking from an extremely fortunate place — I don’t have a loved one behind bars, my family is well, and academics largely kept our jobs.

At the same time, if you are fortunate, the temptation is to say, well, worrying about my stress is a bit precious and other people have it much worse. Which is of course true, but stress is real and it can kill you. There is a mounting pressure that results from having multiple conversations every day with people that are telling you about horrific things happening in the world. To keep your own resilience and your own little torch of hope lit so you can speak for them is extremely important.

I’ve taken steps to repair my health and it’s gotten much better. Now, I analyze: What is the optimal contribution I can make in this situation? Which contribution will advance the movement the farthest without making me sick or making my loved ones suffer? Talking for the sake of hearing yourself talk or having a clever soundbite on Twitter is not useful. This is not where the real suffering is happening, and it is not where the real improvement will happen. During the pandemic, many of us learned this is not where we will be of service.

I’m not Christian, but one of my favorite spiritual scriptures is the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” I like to wake up and think, Okay, how can I be an instrument of God’s peace today? What’s the best way for me to do that, without my ego, my stuff, or infighting getting in the way?

COVID has exposed a lot of our failures — the problems in our educational systems, in our healthcare systems, the travesty of how we treat people in our prisons. We have also seen each other’s resilience and compassion.

At the turn of the new year, I got a “Season’s Greetings” postcard from prison on which someone wrote, “Thank you for being our voice. We so appreciate it.” I was happy that people inside know we are trying to help. But I also just thought about the fact that this person is living in what is essentially purgatory, yet he is still extending me kindness and grace. It’s absolutely stunning.

Many of the people leading this movement—for instance, in the Stop San Quentin Outbreak Coalition—have just been released. You would think a person getting out of prison would want to find a place to live, get a job, and start repairing their relationships. Some of these people have been out of society and away from their families for decades. But they immediately roll up their sleeves and work for the friends they left behind. How beautiful is that? You build on that work, and it helps you keep going.

Since I know many of us are on a similar path, trying to put their physical and mental health on an upward trajectory after several very difficult years, I thought I’d demystify my process in case it is helpful to others.

As Simon Hill shows in his new book The Proof Is In the Plants, a whole-foods, plant-based diet is optimal not only for your health, but for animal welfare and for our planet. I’ve been vegan for a long time, but in the last few years, what with the stresses of parenting, working full-time, and fighting the Trump Administration on the media almost as a full-time job, I slid toward relying on over-processed, starchy foods. In March 2021, when I awakened to the realization that I deserved a better life, I transitioned to eating exclusively whole foods. I now drink green juice or a smoothie for breakfast, eat a big salad for lunch, and a vegetable stew, soup, and/or stir-fry for dinner. For treats, I enjoy fruit, attractively sliced vegetables, and decaf green tea lattes on oat milk. I found out that I don’t need nearly as much food as I’d been eating. The return to working in person has made this a little more challenging, but it is doable with a bit of planning. We batch-cook beans, lentils, and grains on weekends, and use them during the week in various forms. I especially focus on consuming an enormous amount of leafy greens, which is very easy in smoothies, juices and salads.

The exercise journey started with a daily walk, and in many ways that’s still the foundation of what I do – I walk at least 10,000 steps a day. I gradually tacked on more things; in addition to walking/running every day, I now swim five times a week (Tue through Sat) in various city pools (I’ll sometimes walk to a distant pool and get my walking and swimming done that way) and cycle to work on an e-bike every day (Mon through Fri.) On Saturday I take a Pilates session, which has been complementary and informative, and on Sunday I usually go for a long run. I make my exercise regime a top priority of my day and never let a day pass without doing something, even though pool closures and weather sometimes require revising my plans. If it rains heavily and the pool is closed, I walk inside my house on a cheap mini-stairclimber.

Even though my time has become very limited with the return to in-person classes, I still meditate and listen to calming music before falling asleep. I don’t sleep much (who does with a little kid and a full-time job?) but I try to at least get some refreshing peace of mind in the form of religiously separating work life from home life. I aspire to stop working at 6pm daily and never work on weekends (despite being repeatedly pressured to do so, both directly and passive-aggressively.)

All of this eats a considerable chunk of my weekly schedule, as you can imagine, but I’ve come to see nutrition and exercise as essential steps for keeping the organism in good working order. When I fall off the wagon (a pox on you, Halloween candy!) I feel the consequences immediately, and it motivates me to get back on track.

As to the consequences: The flashier news are that I’ve lost 60 lbs, landing me at my high-school weight; dropped 30 points off my resting heart rate; boosted my good cholesterol and other markers, yielding spectacular bloodwork according to my doctor; and acquired a good muscle mass, agility, and flexibility, which has helped me improve in all the sports I do. Years ago, I used to swim marathons in open water; I found that multisport is kinder on my late-forties body, and my splits in the pool are as fast as they were when I was swimming for hours every day. A month ago I astonished myself with a 2:19:58 finish at a half-marathon. My weakest sport is still the bike, and I’ve had to start small–logging some time in the saddle by commuting on my beloved e-bike. The hope is that I can improve my fitness, and especially my cycling, enough to make myself proud next June at the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon. But none of these things capture the most important aspect of health improvement, which is the constant, indescribable sensation of wellbeing that imbues my entire day. It is hard to overestimate the exquisite feeling of tackling one’s day with a body humming with healthy vibrations and free of malaise. I feel so good that I always want to feel this way, and I want this for everyone else, too.

As to the mental health piece of all this, it has been a real challenge tuning out some of the less savory aspects of higher education. In many ways this is a wonderful job for me, and the independence and flexibility are precious and valuable. But the climate of higher education has changed, introducing an enormous amount of administrative burdens, duties to contribute to a “shadow curriculum” beyond my areas of expertise, and panics and fears of upsetting or running afoul of campus orthodoxies, which rob me of my peace of mind. None of these trends show any signs of abating, and I have to come to terms with the fact that one of my most treasured aspects of the job–the freedom to say what I think and exchange ideas with people who can respectfully disagree–has eroded to a great degree. I try to remind myself that every job has its discontents and that, overall, I have been very fortunate in getting my career to a place where I can be of service to others, most recently our fellow Californians behind bars battling COVID-19, medical neglect, institutional ineptitude and political indifference. Finding peace and satisfaction at work is my ongoing project for 2022 and beyond, and I find that two things help enormously: being in my body and experiencing nature. These somatic experiences have a unique quality of cutting through intellectual noise and indulgent storytelling, as well as dissolving the ego piece of the whole thing, and provide even more motivation for keeping the exercise piece of the puzzle regular and fresh.

Some of the things that I have found inspiring and helpful on this journey are:

As I’ve mentioned before, if you are struggling with your own health and need a sounding board, hit me up. I’ll be happy to help you come up with a plan that works for you.