Nathan and I once went to a vegan restaurant with our kids where the young waiter asked us how long we’ve been vegan. When we answered “Twenty years,” and explained that our kids have been vegan since they were born, he looked astounded and said, “You guys were vegan before they knew it was safe.” We laughed, then sat patiently answering a myriad of questions: What did we eat? (The same thing most Americans do but in vegan versions). Was it hard to raise vegan kids? (It is not). How did we felt health-wise? (Great!)
With his excitement and insatiable appetite for all things vegan, he reminded me of myself, over two decades earlier, when I attended an animal rights conference being held on a college campus, anxious to learn all I could about the philosophy of animal rights and the vegan diet. It was there that I also met the people who would later become my housemates – students from the campus animal rights group. After recognizing my unbridled enthusiasm, they asked me to rent a room in their home. An animal rights rookie, I was thrilled and grateful for the opportunity to learn all I could from people I then regarded as seasoned veterans. Which is why, though their “house” turned out to be the dark, damp basement floor of a very run down Victorian in Berkeley, I threw caution to the wind, and moved into what can best be described as their “commune.” It was then that I learned that the only thing we had in common was our veganism.
Were you to have judged my housemates simply by their appearance, you would have likely concluded that they had just stepped out of a time machine set for 1968.They had long and often unwashed hair. They wore colorful, loose clothing. The women never wore make-up and the men never shaved. But despite their hippie appearance, an almost militaristic devotion to law and order betrayed their mellow facade. Theirs was a house run with precision and discipline. There were rules about everything: how to feed and tend the six foot high compost heap in the backyard, how to limit the use of water when cleaning dishes and when it was appropriate to flush. “If it’s yellow, let it mellow…” was strictly enforced. Television was prohibited. And everyone had to be quiet whenever the “meditation” room was occupied. Where there weren’t rules, there was an expected conformity to certain conventions. No one wore deodorant. No one ate junk food. And you had better rinse and re-use every plastic bag – no matter how sticky – or risk the withering stares or raised eyebrows of you housemates.
To belong required adopting a whole host of behaviors that had absolutely nothing to do with being vegan. Yet because I was new to veganism, I still was somewhat confused by its implications. It was if I had to change absolutely everything about my life and who I was to be vegan. Only, in truth, I didn’t. I didn’t need to be an anarchist. I didn’t need to give up white rice for brown. And I didn’t need to look like Janis Joplin. As I would later gratefully discover, I could still be an authentic vegan and wear make-up, color my hair, and enjoy the occasional mani-pedi. I could still love shopping for clothes and watching Beverly Hills 90210. I could still be me. I didn’t need to change, just the food I ate, the materials my clothes were made of, and the products I used to clean my house did. That’s all. That’s it. And nothing more. What a relief.
Over the last twenty years, I have come to realize that the confusion and misperceptions I once had about veganism are relatively common. People make a lot of assumptions about you when you reveal you are vegan – assumptions about your politics and your lifestyle, as well as your eating habits, assuming that you are a super-human health-food nut who shuns potato chips and soda while subsisting on a diet of fruits, vegetables and whole grains consumed between yoga classes.
But that’s not me. I don’t subsist on vegetables. And I like my veggie burger with a white bun, thank you very much. I don’t do yoga, or write poetry, or sip tea in my Zen garden. I don’t wear Birkenstocks, t-shirts with slogans, a crystal does not hang from my car’s rear-view mirror, and I don’t use phrases like “All is one” and “mind-body-spirit.” I don’t begrudge people who do. And I certainly do not mind if they do. But I don’t, nor do most of the longtime vegans I know either. Among our friends and family are a vegan lawyer, a vegan surgeon, a vegan accountant, a vegan CEO, a vegan insurance salesman, a vegan textile designer, a vegan realtor, a vegan mechanic and a large handful of vegan-since-birth but otherwise totally typical American children who love to read Harry Potter, play video games and eat hot dogs and hot fudge sundaes.
Yes, some vegans conform to stereotypes. But most don’t. To be vegan, you just have to stop eating and using products made by harming or killing animals. You do not have to listen to NPR or stop and smell the roses. You do not have to give up your coffee for Yerba-Mate. You do not have to give up Barnes & Noble for the Indy bookstore. You do not have to give up potato chips for rice crackers. You can order it to go. You can have your cake and eat it, too. In other words, you can still be vegan and still be you; living the lifestyle you are currently living and eating the foods you have always eaten, minus the harm to animals. Just be the change you want to see in the world, nothing more, nothing less.
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