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Veg and the City: The Care and Feeding of Vegetarians

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This has been a banner week for plant-eaters. Dr. Gupta of CNN sang the praises of a vegetarian or near-vegetarian diet for the prevention of coronary disease. A report came out on a Mesa, Arizona, man, Bernado LaPallo, who is a raw-fooder celebrating his 109th birthday (he's writing his second book and plans to open a restaurant). And three of the top 10 luminaries cited among Vanity Fair's "100 Most Influential People" are vegans: Twitter cofounder Biz Stone (#10), Apple's Steve Jobs (#2) and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who tops the list.

As a journeyman vegan here behind my computer observing it all, I find this thrilling. But in the interest of keeping it real, I have to remember than I am still part of a minority.

My friend, Mark Mathew Braunstein, a vegan activist and author from way back, sent me a vintage bumper sticker that reads "Love Animals, Don't Eat Them." Since I'm a bumperless Manhattanite, I stuck it on my laptop and it elicits comments from people who see it in the coffee shops where I write.

One woman who saw it whipped out her iPhone and started regaling me with photos of her rescued pit bull, "the sweetest dog ever," and how wrongfully maligned the breed is. (I agree: my Aspen was part pit -- "American bull terrier," to use the proper term. She was actually "the sweetest dog ever," but I didn't want to hurt this other woman's feelings.)

In the past, I used to argue with those who didn't share my views. I felt this incredible need to "make my point." Now I live my life and do my best to be an example of what seems right to me. If people want what I have, they'll ask what I do. And that, my friends, is the challenge. You see, I stopped eating meat when I 18 years old because I didn't want to kill animals. It didn't seem like a big a deal at the time: when you're 18, you're making life choices every day and this was simply one more. But as I evolved from vegetarian to vegan, as I became someone who chose not to eat or wear or use products derived from animals, it was obvious that this was a big deal, after all. I had aligned myself with a minority position and, subsequently, became part of a minority group. This made me subject to scrutiny. If somebody else got a cold: bad luck. If I got a cold: protein deficiency.

Therefore, I take superb care of myself. I like to think I'd do that anyway, but because I've taken this stand for the animals, I volunteered to become a walking advertisement for a vegan lifestyle. I can either promote it or demote it by the way I look and feel. It's not a responsibility I asked for, but it's one I accept, as do my fellow different-drummer diners.

It means a certain degree of straight-and-narrowness I might otherwise have avoided. Getting enough sleep, as an example, is a good idea for everybody, but if you're a vegan, you really need to do it. This isn't because vegans need more sleep than omnivores, but because a sleep-deprived vegan is going to be the one who lives on in legend as: "There was this vegan I knew who didn't look so good." Exercise is required, too. I wish it weren't. I know some people love it, but it bores me. I rarely find it stimulating or fun. Still, I do it: a flabby vegan is less likely to prompt emulation.

As a member of a minority, I even have to keep my emotional balance more, well, balanced. I see people having fits because their coffee is too hot or their baked potato is too cold, or some random something is imperfect and somebody can be blamed for it. These people can fly off the handle and nobody says, "Too much beef will do that to a person." If it's a vegan: a clear case of alfalfa sprout poisoning.

Being inspired (or prodded) into living as well as possible is one of the gifts of being committed to this way of life. It indirectly benefits animals and it very directly benefits me. You know how expectant moms, even those who were drinking and staying out late and eating everything before they got pregnant, often do a complete turnaround and become super-vigilant about everything once they know they're having a baby? That's because it's not just them anymore; someone else is depending on them. Baby reaps rewards as a result; so does Mother.

This is the way it is for us vegetarians and vegans, too. The more we can show people that we're thriving--physically, emotionally, professionally (and as decent human beings who aren't going to put somebody else down because of what they're eating for lunch)---the more others will look at what we're doing with an open mind. Not everybody will want to join our team, but some will. Many will. Many have. And of the immeasurable amount of suffering on this planet, they've alleviated a little bit. And that's pretty wonderful.

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