Monday, February 26, 2018

Why I Have Many Backpacks Yet Only Have One Back!

Taking a rest at Lake Hogan, Valley Springs, CA
What is it with me and backpacks? The one pictured in the photo above is now a few months old and came from Gossamer Gear. I purchased it during a Labor Day sale. Did I need another pack? No! My main pack is an Osprey Skimmer 30, also purchased last year during a sale. Both packs are what is termed a "daypack" and they each serve different purposes for me. (In the interest of full disclosure, I also own a smaller hydration pack, an 18 liter child's pack from REI and three backpack "purses" from Dakine.)  In my quest for the perfect pack, I have often felt like Cinderalla with a mild case of OCD!

Why all of the packs then? I think the reason has to do with a question that came up for me recently after a few discussions I had with other members of my hiking group. When I am trying to sort something out, I tend to ask other people questions so that I can maybe find an answer myself. Though I was initially wondering about my own love of backpacks, I started out asking people in general why they like to hike. I began by asking a couple of my fellow hikers what was up with this hiking business, why do they like to do it. I also looked at the personal profiles of people in my Meetup hiking group thinking that I would learn something from other people's answers to questions about why they hike. What I gathered is that although the answers are varied, there are some common denominators. People love the outdoors, they like communing with nature and getting exercise. There are places that they want to visit and hiking is also a physical challenge for them. All these reasons are great but I realized that they aren't precisely my reasons. The answers didn't really speak to my love of walking around with a backpack.  It occurred to me then that my initial question about why people like to hike might be the wrong question to ask. It would be better to consider what motivates me to get outside and take a walk with my heavy pack? Why do I love packing up that bag so much and buying backpacks in general?

The answer is simple and is tied to something from my childhood.  After some thinking about hiking and backpacks, I was lead to a memory I have of spending time at my grandma's house. It was a surprise to me to recall that as a kid I had enjoyed making backpacks!  Memories of sewing backpacks out of scraps from my grandma's fabric stash came right back to me as I thought about why I love my current set of backpacks. I used to get the fabric and cut it, use a simple running stitch to close it up on the sides, make the straps, and then pack the thing with a sandwich (Wonder bread with butter and homemade plum jam). I would then head out to the backyard to walk around and eat my lunch. It's pure nostalgia for me to think of warm sunny days in her garden, the smell of onions and dirt, and all of the various trees that my grandma had in her yard. And of course, I had my pack! 

Nowadays of course, I buy my packs and agonize over all of the details and the prices. Is it the "right" pack, etc. Packing the thing is also a challenge sometimes. The "Ten Essentials" must be included!  I also include items for my own comfort much as a woman or man might do with organizing their own purse or other type of bag.  My pack has room for layers of clothing, a hydration bladder, a first aid kit and extra socks. I could even stash some shoes inside if needed. And of course, there is food! I still love a good sandwich (though the choice now is of some vegan variety rather than butter and jam) and snacks to keep my energy level up. There is just something about setting out for the morning or day with everything that I need close by and strapped to my back. Generally, my hands are unencumbered (except for a hiking pole) and I just have to follow the trail. I am free to touch the dirt, to fondle lovingly non-poisonous leaves, and to dip my hands in any cool water that appears.  It's often just as simple as that. 

And that is what I love about having a day pack. Or several day packs. They produce a wonderful feeling of simplicity if done right and well. If I can push past my anxiety and all of the other ridiculousness, I can get to the pure joy of having a bag filled with goodies strapped to my back for just a few hours. The packs represent a kind of freedom and carefree feeling to me. A feeling of self sustainability and the notion that for a few hours, I can simply rely on myself. It's rather nice to be an adult yet have a kind of childlike feeling when I set off. It's a feeling that I look forward to each time I pack my bag. And it's also the reason I recommend buying a pack (any pack will do!) and walking around with it on your back, even if for just a little while. Oh, to be young again!

PS-Is there something that you do now or that you own which reminds you happily of your childhood in some way? Let me know in your comments!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Six Month Marker: My Reflections on Veganism

My new friend!
Photo by author 

It has been six months now since I elected to go vegan. Switching to this way of eating has occurred gradually over the last couple of years and was prompted by a desire to eat in a way that was personally more meaningful and more healthful.  I have been treated for cancer and heart disease and so choosing a healthy plant based diet is part of my life plan in dealing with the aftermath of those conditions. Additionally, I really want to match my food choices with how I feel about animals; that they are sentient beings just like humans and that every last one of us are God's creatures, no matter how small or large or seemingly insignificant. In an overall way then, it's important for me to honor both my health and my beliefs. Veganism helps me to support both of those priorities.

As with many types of lifestyle changes, the process of going vegan has been slow. It is still a work in progress. Shopping for food is problematic. Many prepackaged food items contain animal based products.  Learning to substitute or simply replace certain foods with others has been challenging. There has been a lot of education on my part, trial and error cooking, and a general phase out of animal products in my pantry. Some of that phase out has been easy. Red meat and pork were never really on the radar for me so I had no problem giving them up. Chicken and turkey were a little more difficult but I gradually cut them out as well. Fish was tough since I was convinced it was needed for optimal health but even that was soon replaced with other things. At this point, I still clung to my love of yogurt, milk and eggs. Honestly, I felt good about my choices for a time. And then I didn't.

This general unease niggled at the back of my mind despite my satisfaction with the food choices that I had made thus far. I knew that a desire to support good health had drawn me to vegetarianism in the beginning. There is a lot of sound and scientific information supporting the connection to better health with this way of eating. However, it wasn't until I realized that my feelings about eating animals and animal products had changed that I finally decided to choose veganism. I do a lot of reading and through that endeavor I came to believe that all animals, no matter how small, large, or seemingly insignificant, are sentient and alive beings in some way and that their lives matter. All of us on this planet are God's creatures and we all matter equally. Once I began to believe this, it seemed to me that my food choices ought to reflect those beliefs. If I am convinced that all lives are precious and have meaning in a larger plan, then I should make choices about which foods to eat that are commensurate with those beliefs. 

At this point, six months into the process, things aren't perfect. I still wear my leather walking shoes because they haven't worn out yet. Many products in my home have animal derived ingredients in them. Will I use them or donate them? There is organic, locally grown chicken in my freezer because my husband is an omnivore and wants meat from time to time. I don't want to be wasteful and so I am gradually culling out items that don't fit with what I believe. I am married though and have to consider my husband's wishes as well as my own needs. Veganism is fraught with contradictions and choices that must be made. Sanity must be balanced against practicality, my other ethical concerns, and a desire to live compassionately. I know that my choices aren't always perfect and may not be consistent.  I have come to understand and accept these contradictions.  

There is a lot of information on the Internet about people's experiences with veganism. My story is just one example. I feel that each person's shared experience will help to open up the door for others who are vegan/vegetarian curious. In that spirit then, I offer up some simple things that I have learned. Please remember that these are my opinions and are based on my own experiences. 

1. It's possible to get used to (and love/like) anything:

Almost! The thing about a plant based and nearly whole foods type diet is that a world of new tastes and textures opens up to you. Going vegan has been a great way to try new foods and new flavor combinations. I can't say that everything I have tried so far has been a success, however. As an example, homemade vegan "mayonnaise" was not a winner, at least not in my hands. It's expensive but worth it to buy Vegannaise, a ready made mayo replacement. I have gotten used to almond and hemp milk as well as the numerous seeds and nuts that I eat to get protein and healthy fats. And tempeh? This is some straight up hippy nonsense but it is very good when handled well. Who knew? The key here is that I try not to think of these new foods as substitutes for something that I have stopped eating. I have never been an adventurous eater so I try to think of these new foods as simply something that I haven't been exposed to yet. There is a subtle but important difference at work here.

2. Flexibility and variety is the key to staying well nourished, sane and friendly:

A real rigidity can set in which sucks the joy out of everyday living. Sticking to your guns isn't always easy and can sometimes result in missing the point. When faced with a few choices that may not be ideal, it's best for me to relax a bit and pick the lesser of several evils. Eating out in a restaurant for example, especially where I live, can mean that vegan choices are limited or non existent. Mostly I end up picking things that are close (meaning vegetarian) which may mean having to compromise my principles. Being fluid in my choices may mean that I eat a salad made with ice burg lettuce or a veggie burger that may contain some dairy products. Keeping my eye on the big picture is important though so I consider my dietary choices in the overall scheme of things. Am I making good decisions as often as possible? Am I eating out with friends and family and enjoying myself? If I catch myself being too rigid, I try to relax a bit. Flexibility in choosing and deciding is very important in order to not make myself crazy and in order to stay well nourished.

The other issue, for me anyway, is variety. As mentioned above, I have never been an adventurous eater. Many of the things that I enjoy now are relatively new to me. Since I can get stuck in a narrow routine, I try and ask myself if I am varying up what I choose to eat. When is the last time I tried a new vegetable or fruit? Have I tried any new recipes recently? Am I using everything in my pantry consistently? I can get stuck so I try to remember to hit my food groups consistently and to vary up the items in each category. We are so lucky in this country to have such a varied selection of food. The combinations for cooking are endless. And as long as I make thoughtful food choices, my diet will continue to be sound and my interest level will continue to be high.

3. The perception of others: Quiet (or not so quiet!) disapproval:
Here are some hard truths: Not everyone is interested in veganism. People will not be understanding of your food choices or your principles. There are going to be things that you will not want to hear. Get ready for some blank stares and profound silence when you tell people that you are a vegan. And be prepared to hear about how wonderfully tasty meat is and that yogurt and fish are so healthy and why would you give any of that up?

I don't tell people about my veganism unless I have to. It doesn't mean that I am embarrassed but simply means that oftentimes it is irrelevant or I don't want to start an argument or discussion.  There are times though when I have to fess up and I run in to some common reactions. In the main, I am invariably told in some way, either subtle or overt, that my choice is "bad."  I hear a lot about dietary deficiencies and how veganism isn't a sound nutritional choice. Old ideas about veganism are still prevalent and are rooted in stone if not grounded in fact. Many people believe that there is too much opposition to a plant based diet for it to be successful in the long run. (This last argument involves hunting and the management of wildlife. I live in a Western rural area and encounter this attitude a lot.)  Lastly, my own intuition tells me that people discredit the choice to go vegan because it is simply a fad kind of thing. An extreme choice, if you will, and one that is not likely to last. Change is hard for everyone, myself included, so I find that being understanding helps me to get along without being too irritated. 

What approach then is best when faced with this sort of opposition? Veganism, to me, requires a real flexibility in thinking; a kind of compassionate live-and-let-live philosophy. One of the very first things I learned is that a hard line approach to talking about veganism turns people off. There are also a lot of misconceptions that are hard to overcome simply through persuasive talking. Many of our collective ideas about what to eat are culturally rooted in tradition and habit. As an example, there is the idea that meat and animal products are necessary components to good health. This concept is well supported in our country. And while it's true that animal products offer some unique nutritional components, it's not impossible to get those components from other plant based sources.There is also the notion that a vegan diet doesn't supply enough nutrition or caloric density to be sufficient for good health. My argument against this is that any diet people choose to eat could result in a deficiency of one sort or another. Veganism isn't unique in this respect. The average American diet is pretty unhealthy to begin with so my vegan choices actually look pretty good in comparison.

Overall, my experience is that there is a kickback when you tell people that you have gone vegan. Everyone seems to have a story about someone they know who did some harm to themselves through either vegetarianism or veganism. (It does pay to listen here since you could learn what not to do!) And unless you like to argue, it's best to be prepared with something polite to say. At the most, I may ask the person why it is they think what they think. It's not my job to correct them or to try and persuade them to my way of thinking. I can only set an example that I believe in with regard to what I choose to eat. It is my job however to be as respectful as possible of people's opinions and food choices even if I don't agree with them. (Which frankly, is quite often.) I expect the same in return but know that I won't always get that. In the end, this unevenness has to be OK if I want to get along. It's my goal to be a good ambassador for this way of eating. Arguing, being obstinate, and being disrespectful of others choices isn't going to accomplish this. 

4. Get educated (in a sound and scientific way): 

Many years ago I took a college level nutrition class. One of the things we learned was that there are different types of diets that people can choose: omnivore, vegetarian, and vegan, to name a few. We learned that getting the correct vitamins, minerals, and macro nutrients (fats, carbs, and protein) was essential for good health. Just choosing to not eat animal products doesn't automatically make your diet nutritionally sound. Eating vegan potato chips and vegan ice cream could be ultimately just as poor a choice over the long haul, nutritionally speaking, as eating bacon and butter.

As a result of having taken the above mentioned class, when I switched to veganism, I knew to be on the lookout for a few dietary pitfalls, namely a shortage of the vitamin B-12 and the mineral iron. I also knew that calcium and zinc could be issues. I educated myself through valid sources to learn what to eat to get a better chance of meeting all of my nutritional needs. 

5. Keep overall goals in mind and keep them fluid: 

It's good for me to remember what drew me to veganism in the first place. The road to success with this way of eating is paved with potholes, curves, and detour signs. It can be hard to stay on track as new information on nutrition becomes available, as new products are discovered, or even as I talk with others about my food choices. Repeatedly asking myself some key questions has been helpful in allowing me to stick to my commitment. Do I love the foods I eat? Do I feel nourished and healthy? Are animals and their lives, my health, and my ethics still my main priorities? Do I feel like my food choices are having a positive impact on the planet even if it isn't obvious. (This really has to do with faith.) Is what I chose to do sustainable, meaning can I keep it up long term? Is it real?

All of these questions can be overwhelming so I keep them in the background most days as I go about my business but remember to ask them as I make my daily choices. They are good guidelines for when I am faced with something new. I remember to unpack these questions and to do a kind of brief and simple litmus test using them as my guide. Perfection isn't the point here, thank goodness, but I try to make at least a small effort every day. My hope is that my choices, over time, will add up to something meaningful for me and for those other beings that I impact with those choices.  

What I have come to realize after six months is that veganism isn't an easy option and maybe isn't for everyone. Food insecurity and scarcity is real and is more widespread than people realize. Not everyone is able to shop for food easily. Not everyone has the ability and means to buy fresh produce or to spend lots of time in the kitchen. People have complicated lives and there is a need for healthy and affordable foods that can be easily purchased and readily consumed. I think there is a big gap that exists in our food supply. Barring this obstacle though, I am beginning to believe that choosing what to eat really does make a difference in the long term. Maybe the point of the whole exercise (choosing a vegan diet) is for it to be a little tough. Maybe that difficulty can help people to stop and think about the impact of their choices. It can be very easy to be removed from what it is that we are eating and too easy to ignore the impact of our food choices on our environment and consequently, on one another. I know it's a lot to ask of a simple carrot or cow, but choice really does matter.

Perfect In My Imperfection!

Recent haul from Sprouts market The other day I told a friend that veganism is an imperfect way of living. At best, you can only hope to...