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Event Review: Texas VegFest 2012!

March 31 was the very first Texas VegFest here in Austin, held at Fiesta Gardens, which is right on Ladybird Lake.  I, like a lot of veggiesaurs in our fair city, was really surprised we’d never had one before – Austin is loaded with vegetarian and vegan resources.  They were certainly well-represented at the festival!

I headed out with a friend who’s a health coach, into what was outwardly a gorgeous day but was, in fact, blistering-hot because there wasn’t really adequate shade near most of the vendors.  I don’t fault the planners, though – they’ve been working on this thing for two years, and how were they to know we were going to skip right over Spring this year?  90 degrees at the end of March is positively unholy.

There were somewhere near 100 vendors and booths, ranging from local restaurants and bakeries to animal rights organizations to health and wellness services…and of course live music, this being Austin and all. My own favorite Austin Pets Alive! was there, as were Compassion Over Killing and Vegans Rock Austin.

It was really something to behold – especially since there was such a big crowd!  I’m really hoping that the turnout will make it feasible for the planners to hold one every year, although I know what a freaking nightmare that kind of thing is to put on.  I salute the hell out of the planners and volunteers.

Upon entering we received Whole Foods swag bags full of coupons, stickers, various sorts of literature on health, environment, and animals, and even a couple of samples.

There were samples galore to be had in the food booths and plenty of tasty things to buy – the most popular were of course the ice cream makers like Luna & Larry’s, NadaMoo, and our local vegan ice cream parlor Sweet Ritual.  The longest line (aside from the ice cream) was at the Daiya foods booth where they were giving out samples of the latest vegan cheeses. Several of the local veg food trucks were there.  And oh, the smells – especially the various Indian restaurants represented, including one of my favorites, Curry in a Hurry.

But the best part was an opportunity to be a goofy fangirl – Isa Chandra Moskowitz did a cooking demo, with all her wit and kitchen wisdom.  She was both hilarious and practical, and demonstrated recipes for barbecue seitan and sunflower seed mac & “cheese.”  For all that she and her partner in crime, Terry Hope Romero (who also did a cooking demo of tamales later in the day) are basically vegan rockstars, Isa was wonderfully genuine and down to earth.  I may or may not have squeed a number of times, including when she shared the scoop on her forthcoming cookbook.

One of the best things about the fest, which is a personal thing for me, was the body diversity on display. A lot of veg communities are, to be blunt, real jerks to fat people, since veganism has been touted as the new great white hope in weight loss and I guess we make them look bad. There’s also a stereotype that vegans in particular are all white yuppies, which isn’t remotely true.  Today I saw all shapes, sizes, and shades of skin, a true reflection of the wild mix of people who call our groovy city home.  Go Austin!

Really, my only complaint was the heat – I think next year I’ll try to go earlier in the day.  The speakers’ pavilion was air conditioned, so getting there right around opening time and making the rounds then settling in the A/C to listen to the speakers I think would work out better…assuming, of course, that we skip Spring next year too.

One of the major reasons I wanted to go was that I’ve been needing something to rekindle my veg passion; despite all the work I’ve been doing lately on my mental health, my dietary habits have, shall we say, sucked balls.  And balls, as we know, are not vegan.  Now I’m inspired to read some of my books again and thumb through my cookbooks…right after I finish sorting my swag.

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Book Review: Veganist by Kathy Freston

I find myself conflicted over this book. I’ve been a huge fan of Freston’s first, Quantum Wellness, since it came out; I always really liked her “lean into it” approach to wellness, which involves making small changes, educating yourself, and letting your mind, heart, and body come into a gentle congruence that is far more lasting than trying to force radical changes on yourself.

I know her approach is a valid one because it’s worked for me. I know there are some people who can go “cold turkey” on change, but after years of frustrated failure I realized I’m just not one of those people. Freston’s approach was a breath of fresh air for me on the vegan front, since practically every pro-vegan book out there emphasizes “you must do it NOW NOW NOW and to hell with your emotional needs, that’s all touchy feely nonsense anyway!” and my forays into vegan online community only reinforced my sense of not-belonging. Hippies, non-atheists, and anyone not “hardcore enough” were clearly not welcome. Neither are fat people unless they’re in the process of dropping millions of pounds on their new miraculous vegan diet. Apparently fat people are bad PR for veganism as the perfect lifestyle. Right.

So in that regard, I understand why Freston wrote her new book, Veganist, and is trying to create a sort of new-agey alternative to the term “vegan” which she sees as too harsh and limiting, more about deprivation than wellness. I think the word “veganist” is ridiculous, but I can see where she’s coming from. To me it feels like Freston knows where I’m coming from, too – it feels like she must have had similar experiences with vegans and decided that if she wasn’t going to be welcomed in their world, she would just strike out on her own.

Personally I’d rather go with Colleen Patrick-Goudreau’s term “joyful vegan” than try to totally reinvent the word; don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, but emphasize that there is more than one way to be a vegan…because there are many ways, and not all of them are going to attract people. Lord knows most haven’t attracted me.

My problem comes again with the culture of “diet veganism,” and how it’s become the new cash cow…oh, excuse me, the new “hook.” Lure readers in with the promise of guaranteed weight loss, and then fold in some stuff about animal suffering and environmentalism and maybe eventually they’ll read it.

Again…I get it. I understand the “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” idea. But it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. It feels dishonest, and not just because promising effortless weight loss is iffy at best, and cynical at worst.

Sure, you might lose weight by going vegan. But you might not. Statistically speaking it’s 95% unlikely you will succeed in the long term if your only goal is weight loss. I can say from experience that veganism is a wonderful choice for your overall health, as long as you are paying attention to your diet and getting a nice variety of nutrients every day; but placing all your hope on the weight loss power of veganism is dangerous…if you’re expecting some kind of fat-melting miracle and don’t get one, then what? How many people are going to go on a vegan weight-loss diet and realize they haven’t suddenly gotten skinny, then say to hell with it and give up before they’ve managed to get to the chapters about what veganism actually *is* all about?

I mean, sure Atkins is more appealing for dropping pounds! You eat all the bacon you want! Contrast that with veganism, and which do you think will win out? It’s obvious, because weight loss isn’t the main benefit of veganism. You don’t abstain from half the Standard American Diet just to be a size 6; you need more than that to motivate you to make such a profound change. Atkins has no greater meaning; it’s just about creating chemical conditions in your body (dangerous ones) that cause you to drop pounds. End of story. Veganism is so much more than that, because it didn’t start out as a way of “slimming.” It’s not for people who want the same-old-same-old and to be able to do things the same way they always have just using low-fat mayo instead of regular. Veganism changes your life from the inside out.

I find it a disturbing commentary on our society that if you try to tell people veganism is a compassionate, spiritually uplifting, overall healthy way to live for your body, mind, and soul, they roll their eyes at you and crack some lame-ass joke about bacon; but if you start off by touting veganism’s “guaranteed” weight loss, you wind up on Oprah, Martha Stewart, and magazine covers galore.

I’ve heard a lot of vegans bash Kathy Freston for not being a “real vegan” because she is more concerned with 95% integrity than 100% purity. She believes – quite rightly in my opinion – that it’s impossible to be 100% pure vegan right now because of how manufacturing, shipping, and research are conducted, but that shouldn’t stop us from doing the best we can. She also believes that it’s more important to make veganism accessible than to pitch an ungodly fit in a restaurant when there’s a half-teaspoon of butter on your bread. I can absolutely see where hardcore vegans would be outraged over that…but still, I have to say I see Freston’s point.

I just don’t see how being black-and-white has ever helped anyone change. You can’t guilt yourself into compassion any more than you can hate yourself healthy. The thing about loving energies like compassion and healing is that they arise from a place of wholeness and positivity, not one of blame and anger; they come from having your eyes opened. True change comes from opening your arms, not turning your back.

Whatever you think of Freston’s approach, what I like about it is that it isn’t judgmental and doesn’t emphasize the shalt-nots; her way of leaning into wellness involves having your horizons broadened to the abundant health and spiritual freedom that becoming a plant-based human offers. “Promising” anything as a result of a dietary change is a mistake, in my opinion, but it’s a bold move either way. I personally would be much happier to see a million people go 80% vegan and stick with it for five years while gradually upping that percentage than 1 million people go “diet vegan” for a year and give up six months in because it’s “too hard” and their only motivation was ass size. The more reasons you have to do something, and the more they resonate to your heart and spirit (not just your ego), the more likely you are to do the homework, make the plans, and take the time to succeed.

But that never happens overnight. It’s a gradual unfolding, not a switch flipped on and off. There are a lot of mini-switches, sure, but it’s very rare that people wake up one morning and say, “Aha! Today I become a ventriloquist!” and nothing gets in the way. Our culture is terrified of losing time, wasting time…spending time. We want everything to happen in 30 days or less, preferably for $19.99 or less, and if you know anything at all about the human soul, you know that isn’t how things happen. Force creates resistance – and resentment. Is your relationship with your body one that needs more resentment? Or force? Do you need to give yourself something else to fight against? Or would you rather give your body the choice to move into a new way of being at a pace that will become a lifelong change rather than a series of false starts?

I know whereof I speak, here. I’ve been trying to go vegan for five years now. Every single time I’ve tried to go cold tofu, and every single time, I’ve failed, because I wasn’t ready, didn’t have all the tools and information I needed, or the support system I needed in place. If I had taken my time and allowed the philosophy to mature, sought out support, and gathered as much knowledge while making a series of smaller changes, I think I would have been much more successful from the beginning. That certainly seems to be the case this time; I’m working slowly, without judgment, learning more about myself than ever before, and it’s working. I feel safe in this kind of change, my puppy mind is waddling her way along with her tail high and ears perked in curiosity, and I’m so glad I read Freston’s first book, or I might never have come this far.

And so, silly word or no silly word, I have to give a thumbs-up to Kathy Freston’s efforts at taking veganism mainstream, and I wish her luck. She’s certainly made a big difference in my life, and I honor her for that.

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