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.

Homemade Green Chilled Soup

In the last few months, I’ve been enjoying lighter fare before lunch – usually green juices or a smoothie. This green chilled soup is my recreation of Lydia’s Alkalizing Soup, which I got to enjoy this summer at Rainbow Grocery as well as at Harbin. Sadly, the soup seems to have vanished from the shelves – but fear not, amigos, because I got your back and have managed to make it with my Vitamix at home. You blend it, serve it chilled, and top with a handful of pepitas or other seeds, a little swirl of cashew yogurt, and/or some nice sprouts. It makes a great breakfast or a light lunch alongside a salad with some beans or tofu.

For my WFPB and Forks Over Knives buddies: the avocado is absolutely essential and produces a wonderful texture. For everyone: this thing keeps for a couple of days in a mason jar in the fridge.

  • 1 small avocado, or 1/2 a large one
  • 2 Persian cucumbers
  • 4-5 kale leaves
  • big handful baby spinach
  • 4 celery sticks
  • big handful parsley
  • big handful cilantro
  • big handful basil
  • 1-2 stalks green onion
  • 1 large garlic clove
  • 1 lemon, peeled
  • pinch of salt
  • 1 cup water

Cut all veg into pieces. Place in blender; blend. Top with seeds, sprouts, or a bit of cashew yogurt. Enjoy cold!

Escaping the Opinion Marketplace

With our refreshing family vacation at Harbin Hot Springs now over, I have a lot to contemplate. The interruption of the constant stream of internet opinions, takes, takes on takes, speechifying, and moralizing was so profound that its effects on my wellbeing were palpable. For the first time in a long time, I found some space to hear my own thoughts and, more importantly, to let them go, like puffy, airy clouds, making room for for sensations and feelings.

Perhaps unfortunately given my line of work, in the last few years I’ve experienced profound exhaustion resulting from the constant bombardment of takes, ideas, and invitations–sometimes quite coercive–to “be a part of the conversation.” I tried writing something about this a few months ago, which focused on the schoolmarmish, admonishing tone of so much of what is written these days by my milieu–academics, journalists, and other opinion people. But I don’t think I managed to capture how oppressive all of this is, how inauthentic.

In her book Our Word Is Our Bond, Marianne Constable analyzes the nature and operation of legal speech, arguing that law operates through the trappings of language. Much of legal education, accordingly, focuses on the minutiae of language and what it implies, constitutively, for the world of policy. I’m not a linguist, and surely this is not a particularly original take on this, but I’m getting the sense that performative, declarative speechifying has now become so commonplace it transcends the world of policy. Everyone is busy declaiming and declaring where they stand on various issues. It seems like the natural counterpart to Citizens United: First we argued that corporations were people, and now people are behaving like corporate PR departments, issuing statements, apologies, excoriations, and the rest. This is all playing out in a few arenas–Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as the main culprits–all of which I vowed to leave when I retire, but waiting another fifteen years to give myself some freedom is too punishing.

Since late March, I’ve been working hard on reclaiming my health, which suffered serious setbacks in the last four years and especially during the pandemic year. While working on the San Quentin case, documenting the COVID-19 disaster in prisons, and advocating on the media and in scholarship, I became seriously inflamed, suffered constant headaches and digestive upsets, put on an enormous amount of weight, ate and slept very poorly. I’m now convinced that I was very close to a heart attack. I can only imagine the deleterious effects this catastrophe had on the health people I talked to and collaborated with–people inside, people recently released with friends inside, family members and loved ones living with the stress of incarceration on the outside.

I’m happy to report I’ve now reversed, and improved, all the health problems I had. I lost 40 lbs and am on my way to losing 15 more and returning to my high school weight. I’m eating a whole-food, plant-based diet rich in vegetables and fruit and exercising daily. My resting heart rate is down from 82 to 57. All my other metrics have been reversed and are now optimal. After a long break from endurance sports, I completed a sprint triathlon last week, scoring a personal best. I continue to run, bike, and/or swim daily, supplementing with pilates and strength training. I am determined to retain my good health, because I know how awful it is to lose it.

One thing I realized at Harbin is that the focus on my family’s happiness and on my own health and wellbeing has a price. It means I haven’t pushed out as many chapters of #FESTER as I perhaps ought to have done (though you can find bits and pieces here, here, and here.) It means I haven’t been aggressively hustling for conferences and travel and vividly engaging with the current conversation on every topic as I would perhaps strive otherwise. A few days ago I gave an interview on the Cosby reversal on NPR and had to actually sit down and read the decision, because I hadn’t been religiously following the takes, let alone supplying takes myself. Given how well I’m feeling and how awful I felt before, I think this is a fair price to pay.

I am reminded of Patty Sun, Andrew Taslitz’s widow, and what she had to say after his untimely death. She wrote:

In the past four months I have kept seeing accolades to Andy’s amazing productivity—the 100+ articles, the zillions of case books, etc., and I have always told people that yes, he led a normal life, yes, he got plenty of sleep and yes, he even took plenty of naps.

But that’s not really true. His life was not normal, at least not to me, and it certainly wasn’t balanced. Yes, I know he genuinely loved his work and yes, I know he had a brilliant and unusual mind, and yes, I know he was cut down in his prime when he still had so much more to give. But all of that came with a price. Not the teaching or the mentoring, but all that scholarship.

So what was the price in the end? In the entire time we were married we only took a two-week vacation once, and just about every vacation we did take was wrapped around one of his conferences or presentations. The furthest he went on each of his two sabbaticals was his front bedroom, because he spent every single day on his manuscripts.

So in the end how do I feel about his productivity? Yes, he enjoyed it, but he also killed himself trying not to disappoint people or to break deadlines.

And as I sit here with the dogs on July 4th, I think was it really that important to add one more book review to his CV or to do one more tenure letter as a favor for someone he never met? I’m glad his peers all loved him for the reliable genius that he was, and I don’t know how he feels wherever he is now, but I am very, very bitter.

Yes, he was a great academic mentor and collaborator, but the price for all that frenzied output was me, and there’s a part of me that will never forgive him for it, because he died right after he promised to slow down and enjoy life itself more.”

I’m taking these words, and the testimony of my own lived experience with improved health, to heart. My bottom line is this: I would like to create a clearing in the dense forest of my life, away from all this chatter, and do as little as possible to clutter my world and yours with more superfluous, unoriginal speechifying. I want to post only what I consider essential and important, stay out of scurrying activity that is not, ultimately, that relevant, and “participate in the conversation” only on my own terms. This is not some glossy, precious wellness flummery. Stress is real, and it can kill you. I won’t have this chatter take me away from my family and from my own body.

This means prioritizing active time–swimming, running, biking, taking dancing, hiking–and time in nature, which I intend to do every day of my life from now on. It also means prioritizing my family over everything and everyone else.

This also means that something else has become important: If you, too, are feeling unwell, stressed, bloated, achy, weepy, exhausted, burnt out, and ready for change, and want to transform your life through a combination of plant-based foods, exercise, and mindfulness, please hit me up on email. I’m a certified mindfulness meditation teacher; I have tons of experience in endurance sports and have taught pilates and aerial fitness; and I have a certificate in plant-based nutrition. More importantly, I know what it is to feel less than your best and how it can rob you from a full participation in your life. Please don’t let this profession, even as you work on noble, important, pressing issues of our time, rob you of your time on Earth. I can help. Let’s talk.

The Good, the Fast and the Cheap in Plant-Based Nutrition

I’m halfway through my certification in plant-based nutrition through the T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies and eCornell. Even though I knew a lot about nutrition, the certification has provided in-depth information about issues I was fairly muddy about, such as insulin resistance, the connection between nutrition and heart disease, and nutrition-related factors in cancer growth and remission. Our instructors, including T. Colin Campbell himself, his son Thomas Campbell, cardiologist Caldwell Esselstyn, doctors David Jenkins (developer of the glycemic index concept) and Michael Greger (of NutritionFacts.org), and some environmental and legal figures, all tout–and with good reason–a whole-foods, plant-based (WFPB) diet. They strongly recommend eschewing animal products, added oils, and processed food, and constructing one’s meals of vegetables, fruit, tubers (starchy vegetables), whole grains, and beans. They marshal considerable evidence to undermine the protein craze and counter the carbohydrate-maligning trend. It is interesting and eye opening, not least in the personal sense: as some of you know from Twitter, the pandemic stresses, exacerbated by the many hours I’ve spent (and continue to spend) on the COVID prison crisis, produced a dangerous dip in my health. Knowing what I know now about susceptibility to heart disease, I’m realizing that the amount of stress I was in, plus the pattern of stress eating I developed during the pandemic, put me at serious risk of a heart attack out of the blue, even with no apparent history of heart issues. For the last month and a half, I’ve been working on dramatic improvements to my lifestyle, including a longer and more varied daily meditation practice, a WFPB diet, and daily exercise (mostly in the form of walking.) I’m already seeing astonishing results and my scary health outcomes have dramatically reversed themselves.

Which is why, I think, it is important to direct the WFPB message to vegans as well as animal product consumers. I’ve noticed that most of the advocacy and success stories focus on people who, prior to their conversion to a WFPB diet, ate what they refer to as SAD (the standard American diet), full of fats and animal products. A far less examined issue is the fact that one can eat very poorly on a vegan plan. The messaging is that a vegan diet is “good for you, the animals, and the planet”, but no meaningful distinctions are made between these goals. There are, of course, guidelines on how to choose among plant foods, but the message isn’t making it to the environmental and animal rights communities. In my years in animal activism I’ve encountered an enormous amount of disdain toward health food and almost a reverence for vegan convenience foods. Once, a friend and I brainstormed how to support a group of committed activists who were starting a new sanctuary farm. I suggested getting them a membership in a CSA that would deliver fresh produce to the farm every week. My friend replied with scorn, “they’re activists, not health freaks” and countered with a proposal to get them a subscription for a vegan snack box. Not a week goes by that I’m not invited to some vegan pop-up or other featuring almost exclusively vegan convenience foods.

The appeal of vegan convenience food has many commonalities with the appeal of animal-based convenience food. We now know a lot about hyperpalatability, namely, the appeal of foods rich in fat, sugar, and salt. To that, we should add some factors unique to the animal protection community: the drive to counter claims of nutritional deprivation made by animal consumers (e.g., “vegan food is no less tasty!”), to celebrate the emergence of more and more realistic animal food substitutes (e.g., “this is a game changer–there’s no reason not to be vegan now!”), the need to support vegan businesses by purchasing and consuming things like vegan snacks, donuts, and fake meats, and the potential to attract people who were daunted by the prospect of a big dietary change to the vegan cause. I know these are all very real thought processes among animal rights advocates because I’ve felt strongly pulled in this direction myself. I feel compelled to patronize small businesses producing delectable, if unhealthy, vegan treats because I want them to replace nonvegan treats–even though it would be far better for me not to consume them at all even in their vegan version. The temptation to listen to the moral voice within–that one is making a morally correct choice by eating vegan, regardless of the healthfulness of the vegan food actually consumed–can silence the important voice of the body communicating distress.

Alas, not all vegan foods are equally healthful, and in order to live longer and healthier lives (which, incidentally, would help us be more effective advocates for animal protection), we should care about our health beyond merely “eating vegan.” After this year, I am living proof that someone can indeed suffer considerable health consequences–an alarmingly high resting heart rate, low blood oxygenation, grogginess, exhaustion, irritability, bloating–on a wholly vegan diet when it is based in large part on convenience foods. And after the last month and a half, I am living proof that these outcomes–resting heart rate, blood pressure, digestive issues, energy, etc.–can be completely reversed by eating a WFPB diet, coupled with a mindfulness practice and exercise.

There is no doubt in my mind that the WFPB diet is crucial in fostering optimal health. The problem is time/money. Those of you who have heard me talk about a variety of subjects, ranging from bail reform to the death penalty, know how much I like to use the classic “contractor triangle”: good, fast, and cheap. When renovating or fixing up a home, a contractor will draw a triangle, put those three words in the corners, and tell the client, “pick two.” You can have fast and cheap, but it won’t be good; you can have good and cheap, but it won’t be fast; you can have good and fast, but it won’t be cheap.

The same applies to diets. You can eat fast and cheap vegan food, and there’s plenty of advice out there on how to do it, but you’ll end up eating a lot more tacos and french fries and much fewer salads than is good for you. You can eat good and fast vegan food, which can happen through the myriad food delivery and meal preparation services on the market such as Thistle and Purple Carrot, but it won’t be cheap. You can eat good and cheap vegan food, by buying produce and cooking your own meals; as blog readers know, that’s mostly what I do, but even when the meal itself is not elaborate or time consuming to prepare, it does require weekly planning of the family grocery trip and, often, batch cooking, and in that sense is not something you can spontaneously pull out of your sleeve on a regular basis. It is also precisely the sort of extra labor that will go out the window when one is stressed out and pressed for time, which is what happened, far too often, in the last year or so in my case.

The way I see it, there are two interrelated, but distinguishable, challenges in making a WFPB diet accessible to a wider swath of people: the economic battle to make good, healthy food accessible and banish food deserts, and the educational battle to persuade people that plant-based eating is good for them and teach them how to cook and eat vegetables. Both of these concerns apply to vegans as much as to meat eaters, and perhaps even more so, because vegans who are weary of making their own food are celebrating a bounty of new substitutes. I think the health benefits are worth it, but I’m also well aware that folks facing real financial hardship, balancing jobs and families, and taking into account different dietary preferences at home on top of everything else are having a rough time and might not have the bandwidth to prioritize their health the way they would if, say, a private WFPB chef were cooking for them.

This is why I think that the problem of nutrition deficiencies will not fully resolve itself until we make big strides toward more economic equity and less servitude to workplaces. More life-work balance is crucial to give people the space to care for their family’s nutrition the way they should. Education about the benefits of the WFPB diet must come coupled with easy and convenient access to reasonably priced produce. Since moving to the U.S., it has always driven me nuts to see that packaged foods here are often less expensive than fresh produce–the pyramid is inverted in Israel, and it shows. At my certification course, experienced food lawyer Michele Simon (a UC Hastings grad!) explained the political pressures from the meat and dairy lobbies and talked about the need to lobby harder for vegan foods (she’s walking her talk with the Plant Based Food Association). I wish there was more lobbying on behalf of fruit and vegetables, which are truly the cornerstone of health. If I sound a bit evangelical about this, it is because the transformation in my health has been magical, and all there was to it was vegetables, fruit, and walking. If you can move yourself in that direction, I can’t recommend a better investment in yourself; and we should continue to collectively move society in that direction, so that it is easier for individuals to make better choices.

Fonio

The other day I very much enjoyed watching two marvelous animated films on Criterion Channel: Kirikou and the Sorceress and Kirikou and the Men and Women. Both films are magical, artistic, deep creations, and I found them engaging and captivating. They involve a tiny boy, Kirikou, and his courageous fight against a sorceress and her fetishes on behalf of his people–even as said people are not always as gracious about his efforts as they should be. Highly recommended!

I mention this because, at some point in the second film, one of the village women comes to stay at Kirikou’s house. Kirikou’s mother invites her in, saying:

This caught my attention. Fonio? What is it? I had never heard of it, so my eyes were glued to the screen to see what it would look like. And here it was:

This looked exactly like something I would very much enjoy eating, so I quickly looked it up. Fonio turns out to be a West African grain, gluten-free and rich in protein and nutrients. It cooks very quickly and can be used similarly to quinoa, couscous, or rice. A restaurateur in Harlem wants to uplift Fonio and make it an exciting new grain option for Western palates, noting that, by contrast to quinoa (where the Western demand removed it from Andean tables), Fonio had been rejected as a food staple for quite a while in West Africa on behalf of Western options.

This is quite sad, because fonio is not only healthy, but delicious! I ordered a bag on Amazon; it’s quite economical, as in cooking it expands considerably. The fonio-to-water cooking ratio is 1:2, and you can add a teaspoon of oil and a little bit of salt (though it’s not really necessary, in our experience.) It comes out fluffy, kind of like couscous or quinoa, and has a very flavorful, nutty taste. I can see serving it with a variety of vegetable stews and learning more about West African cuisine. Give it a try and let me know what you think!