Friday, August 31, 2012

Maybe vegans ARE better than me

photo lifted from
NPR's recent story, "Do Vegetarians and Vegans Think They Are Better Than Everyone Else?" reminded me of other articles that have discussed a possible link between vegetarianism/veganism and self-righteousness. I think people who love animals and don't eat them enjoy a simpler philosophy of life than those of us who love and eat animals. We meat-eaters can make the argument that all creatures eat something else and there's nothing wrong with doing what it takes to survive, but shouldn't we humans hold ourselves to a higher standard of non-killing?

It comes down to whether your moral beliefs include valuing animals. The bible tells us not to kill each other, but is full of animal sacrifice. Other religions believe all life is sacred. Is veganism part of homo sapien evolution to a more spiritual form? I actually think it could be, but we have a long way to go to evolve from needing to consume animals. There is the vitamn B-12 problem, after all (the human body requires vitamin B-12, but it's only found in live organisms and their byproducts).

Right now veganism isn't practical for a lot of people who need what we get from animal products. We notice that we get light-headed and hungry without animal protein and have better energy when we eat it. In the spiritual evolution of the human species, maybe we meat-dependent will die off, leaving only those who truly thrive on vegetation and have evolutionarily gotten around the B-12 problem. Maybe the world will be a better place when only animals are eating each other.

But back to the question of whether vegetarians and vegans think of themselves as better than everyone else. Who cares? We all have our reasons for thinking we're better than everyone else. It's often about religious beliefs or income or education. Sometimes it's about how many children someone has or what kind of clothes they're wearing. My question is do vegans or vegetarians talk about nutritional superiority enough to bug the rest of us?

I guess they do or we animal chompers wouldn't be asking the question. But another possibility is that we bone-gnawers just get touchy when we see someone choosing not to eat what we're eating. We often ask why someone isn't eating meat and then start a conversation about it unilaterally. This happens with alcohol, too. I often don't drink and have no desire to talk about it, but if everyone's drinking except me, people think I'm judging them. My abstinence makes them uncomfortable and then we're talking about it when I didn't mean to. Skin-suckers might similarly be feeling our own guilt and insecurity about whether or not we are eating well, and this comes up when we see someone eating in a way that we fear might be morally better. We project our hostility on the non-meat-eater and there we are, imagining that they're judging us.

We gristle grinders associate vegetarians and vegans with people who don't quite have their feet on the ground, who make up their own rules and threaten the status quo. We feel defensive when someone actually does inititate a discussion about the problems of a meat-based diet, not because they have the power to take our burgers away but because how we eat is tied to our personal beliefs as much as religion. Anyone else talking about how we should do it feels offensive and we want to say "keep it to yourselves, people."

And yet I totally understand the desire to recruit people to your way of thinking. No one's more self-righteous than I am, only I prefer to eat slowly rotting flesh. For those who believe the world really is dying because we eat so much meat, they're on an honest crusade that comes from a sense of responsibility for the state of the planet. They're trying to do their part for all the other species: flora, fauna and Fido.

I believe that ideally we would each tune in to our bodies and eat the most nutritious diet that makes us feel the healthiest. We'd choose only food that supports our peaceful digestion, full energy, good mood and deep sleep at night. If we were all committed to listening to our bodies that way, we could leave morality out of the whole food question. I'd eat meat because it makes me feel healthier while another wouldn't eat meat because that makes her feel healthier, and we wouldn't have to talk about it.

But we're Americans and we tend to turn innocent topics into a moral battle. We feel criticized by someone simply living her life in a different way. Nutrition has become the new religion/politics: it's right up there in strong feelings and emotional reactions. I don't feel like vegans or vegetarians are trying to recruit (or redeem) me, but I actually do believe my life would be more supportive of all species and the planet itself, if I cut down on the corpses I consume. Unfortunately, my body doesn't do well without animal protein. I accept that those who don't eat animals might be more spiritually evolved than I am because they can put the planet's needs ahead of personal ones, but I just can't switch my priorities like that. This makes me and a vegan similar to a layperson Catholic and a nun: I admire her commitment to beliefs that I'd like to support 100%, but I just don't have it in me to commit on the same level as she does.

I can't say vegetarians and vegans are more self-righteous about food than I am, but this animal-swallower believes it's possible that they really do have more reason to be.

As I re-read this post it seems disjointed and weird. Please someone comment and let me know if this even makes sense to them.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

ID photos attached to emails - yes, please!

At my workplace we use Microsoft Outlook. Recently we upgraded to a version that can attach your photo to your emails as a kind of visual signature. All staff have been encouraged to voluntarily submit a head shot that will be uploaded to the system in the next several weeks.

This is a wonderful idea for people who have trouble remembering names and for people with prosopagnosia or face blindness. When you consider that one out of every 50 people has some degree of face blindness, you might imagine what portion of the population struggles to remember what our own daily co-workers look like. Imagine how embarrassing and awkward it is to end a meeting with people I work with regularly, and have to ask someone later, "Who was that who I promised to send our PowerPoint to?" Learning faces takes repeated effort for those of us with face blindness, but if everyone's photos were attached to every email, we'd have a much better chance of avoiding such uncomfortable situations. Those who have trouble remembering names, which is a much more common problem, would also benefit greatly. How wonderful if we could all practice remembering each other's names and faces with each email exchange!

But many of my co-workers don't like the idea of having their photo attached to their emails, even though they can choose, edit or photo shop the exact photo themselves. One reason I've heard is that it feels like an invasion of privacy. I don't understand this because only staff will be able to see these photos on our internal Outlook system: our photos won't be visible on any email that goes outside the organization.

Another reason people resist is that they just don't like the way they look in photos, which is very common, human and understandable. Some people just dislike all photos of themselves and avoid having pictures taken at all.

I would plead with anyone who doesn't want their photo attached to their emails -- whatever the reason -- to please consider how much easier this would make our lives. Many times people in our 500-plus organization email each other back and forth, with no idea of who exactly they're dealing with. Then when we we end up in a meeting together or a special event, we feel stiff and unfamiliar with each other, as if in a roomful of strangers. It's sad to feel that way about co-workers with whom we might be quite familiar on the phone or online.

Imagine how convenient it would be if someone who hadn't responded to emails or voicemails stepped onto the same elevator as you and you could say, "Hey, I've been trying to reach you!" That's not possible if you've never laid eyes on her (unless she's wearing a visible badge, which many of us don't).

Knowing our co-workers by face and name makes an organization more efficient as well as more social. Work feels like a friendlier place if you can greet people with genuine recognition and hear them say your name. There's just no good reason to resist a strategy that would help make a workplace more efficient and feel more familiar and pleasant.

To those who hate photos of themselves I plead: for the sake of more efficient interactions with your co-workers and a friendlier workplace, please let your head shot be attached to your emails (again: only staff will see them, not the outside world!). Those of us who need lots of help with faces and names will be very grateful.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Life with prosopagnosia 2

Want to see if you have face blindness or prosopagnosia? Go here and take a test. It won't definitively tell you, but might give you an idea.
I need lots of extra time to memorize just one face (like weeks or months). Until I finally get a face down, I rely heavily on hair appearance, clothing, if they wear glasses, skin color and things like that. I LOVE name tags, even though I'm pretty good with names. I just can't possibly memorize a roomful of faces in just a couple of hours.

This also means that, until I've seen a face repeatedly, all white people look alike, all black people look alike, all brown people look alike, all babies look alike, all thin white girls with long straight blonde hair look alike, etc. It's not an easy world for me to navigate. Hardest for me to distinguish? White men with brown hair. I swear they look like clones until I really know them well!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Life with prosopagnosia

Dear Jennifer,
It was nice to meet you the other day. Again, welcome to your new job. I like working here a lot. I’ve been here four years and hope to be here for about 15 more.

Please keep in mind that I have a condition called prosopagnosia which means I don’t remember faces well. It could take me a while to get yours down, so feel free to “re-introduce” yourself if I see you in the building. Chances are I will ignore you because I’ll have no memory of your face. Sorry, it’s just how I was born.

Please let me know if you need any help with anything. I know how it feels when everything's new.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

"In Praise of Depression"

Thanks to Jess Young for directing me to an article published on called "In Praise of Depression." I might be able to get behind the idea of praising depression, but I didn't quite follow all of Katherine Sharpe's argument, although I liked her research. Sharpe gives a historical overview of how depression has been perceived and treated over hundreds of years, from the ancient Greeks to Freud to contemporary psychiatrists. According to her, every culture has had their story of what causes depression and what characterizes it. In the middle ages, to feel depressed was sinful, but by the Renaissance depression was thought to cause philosophical  insight and sensitivity. She throws today's theories of chemical imbalance onto the list of ways that the mystery of depression has been explained.

I found her summary of how depression has been seen through the ages very interesting. I didn't realize depression had had positive as well as negative associations in past centuries and Sharpe might be right about our current brain chemistry explanation for depression being another untrue story. What I disagreed with was Sharpe's apparent opinion that depression is not a disorder or illness at all, but a natural part of life. I agree that everyone feels depressed at some point in their life and a certain depth of depression is a normal reaction to certain circumstances. But Sharpe doesn't focus on the kind of depression that incapacitates people, or that recurs with such frequency that it affects our functioning and relationships. That mind set is different from the occasional gloomy day or the process of grieving. I wouldn't want to remove depression from the medical category just because we don't know how anti-depressants work. Sharpe is absolutely right that the medical industry has been pill-happy for a long time and it's entirely possible that drugs are not the best way to treat severe or recurring depression. But that just means that medicine/psychiatry needs to widen its treatments beyond chemicals and drugs. For instance, energy work and certain nutritional practices can lighten or lift depression, but most psychiatrists pay little attention to such alternative approaches.

There is a very wide range of mood states that are referred to as depression, from discouragement to grief to suicide attempts. Sharpe needs to clarify what she's writing about. I doubt she would dismiss all of those emotional states as natural phases, but the overall tone of her piece suggests that we are incorrect to view depression as a chronic condition. Yes, throughout history many have described depression in romantic or metaphorical terms, but that doesn't mean severe/recurring depression doesn't belong in the category of illness. The failure of modern medicine to explain the mechanism of depression just means it hasn't figured out this most baffling of systems: the mind/brain/thought/emotional connections. Psychiatry badly needs to widen its array of approaches and treatments so that it can truly begin to work out what causes and lifts depression. Just as many diseases were first seen as the result of sin or spirit before they were understood to be the result of micro-organisms, so depression will continue to be explained with stories and theories until we truly figure it out.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Living with depression

I get the opposite of what many people get. Seasonal Affective Disorder hits during the colder months when there's less light, but those aren't my worst months. My worst months often happen in the summer. Some of my most serious depressions have started in June, July or August. That isn't to say that summer is always bad for me or that I don't get depressed during the colder months, too. Often depressions that start in summer go through fall. But every time I have a gloomy summer, I wonder about all the people who do better during this time and I wonder why my depressions so often start during this bright, "happy" season.

I'm going through a shift in how I see my chronic depression. Up until now, I’ve kept thinking I'll find the combination of medication, exercise, diet, emotional support and fun activities that will head off depression or at least get rid of it quickly when it comes. I’ve been struggling to reach a point at which I don't spend any more time fighting (and giving in to) sugar cravings, staying in bed too much, staring at my tear-swollen eyes in the mirror and wishing I could stop being me. I’ve tried to stop gaining and losing weight depending on my mental state. Most painfully, I’ve tried to hold myself together because not everyone I know is comfortable with depression. Not everyone has accepted that this is a chronic illness that requires patience and management, but I suspect I’ve been in denial, too. I think the past 24 years of therapy, remedies and techniques for improving myself have been a sort of denial. I haven't wanted to face that my condition is no more likely to go away permanently than someone's arthritis, chronic migraines or diabetes. Believing that if I work hard enough, I'll figure out how to beat my depression for good has done a real number on my self-esteem. Each time the depression comes back, I feel like a failure.

I am done with that. It's time to accept that I have a chronic illness, the symptoms of which will come and go. When it's not here, great. But when it is, I'm going to stop trying to push it away, feeling ashamed and depressed about my depression. Instead, I've decided to start nurturing myself during depressive episodes. I'll accept that when the depression is with me, it's time to take extra gentle care of myself, rather than berating myself for "letting" the depression return. I'll let myself move more slowly, spend more time with friends, do more yoga, eat some chocolate and take sick days from work (mental illness can be just as incapacitating as physical illness, although it seems few people understand that). It’s time to stop worrying about what others think and just focus on taking care of myself.

I went to my Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance meeting last week and bawled out my hopelessness and fear and those wonderful people let me. The facilitator came and sat by me and rubbed my back, encouraging me to let it all out. The others supported me with stories of what they do when they feel this way, or just validating how I felt. Some admitted their sugar addictions and assured me that just because someone has a hard time understanding me, that doesn't mean I'm incapable of being understood by anyone. I felt supported and much more peaceful after that meeting.

The next morning my breakfast was eggs with salsa, prune juice, a banana and a third of a bar of Green & Black's Organic Dark Chocolate with Mint. So be it. I felt depressed and that was okay. People with herpes, AIDS, sciatica and psoriasis get flare-ups of their symptoms, but they don't beat themselves up for it (I hope). They just take extra care of themselves until the symptoms go away again. That's the response to depression that I'm committing to from now on. It comes and goes and beating up on myself only makes it worse. I just need to keep in mind that the depression is a force of its own, independent of the reality of my life. Instead of hating myself each morning that I wake up depressed, I'll focus on thinking, "It's back, but that's okay because it will also go away again."

Over a week has passed since that DBSA meeting and it turns out that allowing myself to sleep late, eat sweets and walk more slowly didn't prolong the depression. Giving myself permission to be depressed, didn't keep me there. Within days of accepting my emotional state, the sadness began to lift and today I'm back to healthy eating, brisk movement and not feeling irritated with the dog.

Maybe this is the way to go: instead of fighting the wind, I'll yield to it, trusting that it won't blow forever.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Pit bulls don't have great digestion

For those who have been following the story of our new dog, here’s an update (for those who haven’t been following the story: we purchased Ozzie from a shelter in Sept. 2011. He’s a 49-pound, black, pit bull mix who’s four years old, but acts like a puppy).

Hey everybody, Ozzie is still healthy! We’ve reached a full month of this dog having NO digestive problems! I’m so relieved. But I have my fingers crossed because on Friday night he got into my lunch bag that I carelessly left where he could reach it and then I left the apartment for a few hours. Mistake!

Ozzie ate my cashews, almonds and raisins, plus a small container of natural peanut butter. He’s good at opening hard plastic sealware, so the peanut butter container is re-useable, but he chewed open the baggies the other food was in (fortunately, he’s too well-mannered to eat the plastic baggies themselves). He showed the most restraint with the bag of raw carrots, which he dragged uneaten into his den (crate) probably in the hope that it would ferment into a more appealing food.

Yes, I said he ate raisins which I know are toxic for dogs, so I’ll be watching him carefully for signs of renal failure. Anyone know what the symptoms are for dog renal failure?

But so far so good: Ozzie’s had no ill effects. He seems to be recovering well from his weekend-dog-binge-party. I’m grateful that my bag lunches are pretty healthy. It would be awful if our weak-stomached pit bull got into Flamin' Hot Crunchy Cheetos and Milk Duds.

(FYI: Wellness Dry Dog Food - Ocean Formula finally fixed Ozzie's stomach problems. He now eats nothing but that, boiled sweet potatoes and boiled fish. And whatever junk he gets into when we're not home. So far it's working.)

Sunday, August 12, 2012

DINKs (Double Income No Kids)

I said, "Hey, Bob. It's time for back-to-school shopping and we still don't have kids."

Bob replied, "Okay, good. Let's keep it that way."


Tuesday, August 07, 2012

My native language is still English

I recently gave a speech in my Toastmasters club that had the same title as this post. I based it on a post I published eight years ago on this blog. I reprint the text of that June 20, 2004 post here because it's an important message (the text is slightly edited and improved). The message is: shaming someone about their language skills is a terrible way to try to preserve a culture.

Orginally posted June 20, 2004:
Last night I went salsa dancing. I met an impossibly good-looking guy from Tunisia who was a great dancer. When we started talking, I told him I was a singer and he asked about my music. I was only a little surprised to hear his dismay and disapproval that I don't write songs in Spanish. I told him, "I really only write songs in English because my native tongue is English. My dominant language is English."

"That's too bad," he chided, "You have been colonized."

"No," I tried to reassure him, "I haven't been colonized. I'm an American. I was born here. I'm actually a colonizer."

"You cannot be a colonizer with that shirt on," he gestured at my GEORGE W. YOU'RE FIRED t-shirt. I was a bit relieved to hear his disapproval dissolve into a joke, but it's a point that comes up often in my life: since I am Mexican, I should use more Spanish. 

What do I say? You can argue all day long that Latinos should speak Spanish, that Latinos shouldn't abandon our culture, and that it's shameful when Latinos only know English. But you know what? Acculturation, or the uglier word assimilation, isn't always a choice. I didn't choose to be born in the United States, nor did I choose to grow up in an exclusively English-speaking suburb, attend English-speaking schools or have my parents speak only English to me my entire life. Those things just happened.

Decades before I was born my parents ventured as small, school-age, Spanish-speaking children, into the public schools of Texas in the 1940's. Neither of them knew a word of English. Unfortunately, Texas in the 1940's had little tolerance for what would later be called cultural diversity. No Spanish was allowed in school: not in the classroom, not on the playground, not in the bathroom, nowhere. No Spanish. What were my parents to do? It was the only language they knew. Inevitably the Mexican children would communicate in the only way they could and were strictly punished for it. Unfortunately, in Texas in the 1940's punishment in the public schools sometimes meant being hit.

So my parents learned English the hard way. The joke I have heard is that one of my father's uncles, who must have gone to school in the unimaginable Texas of the 1920's, had a teacher who was unable to pronouce his name, Asención, and whose name he was unable to pronounce: Schmidt. Mrs. Schmidt's solution to this cultural gap was to punish Asención for not saying her name correctly, and to change his name to "Willie."

I believe these early and violent lessons in the "inferiority" and inappropriateness of Spanish never left my parents' psyches. They both became strong political organizers in the Mexican American community of the San Francisco Bay Area, and they told my sister and me countless times to be proud of our heritage. They connected us to Mexican culture as much as they could, even though they settled our family in a white suburb of San Francisco. I grew up with a lot of the food, music, holiday celebations, cultural values and traditions of my parents and ancestors.

But for all my parents' efforts to preserve the culture and pass it on to us, English was the language of our home. Sometimes they argued or scolded in Spanish, but all daily conversation with me and my sister took place in English. I think my parents were never able to shake the cultural stigma they learned to attach to Spanish in that Texas environment of the 1940's. Surrounded by intense and often violent racism, my parents learned to prioritize English. As many times as they voiced the desire that my sister and I speak fluent Spanish, they were never able to help us learn it by actually using it with us.

So my English was perfect when I began public school. My parents made sure their daughters were never punished for not knowing the appropriate language, but in an ironic over-correction, they left my sister and me with very little knowledge of Spanish. I learned it along with all the other Anglos in high school.

Today I have little need to speak Spanish. English is the language of my environment and I would have to make a special effort to find places where I would use Spanish. Someone could argue that I should put in the effort to find places where I can speak Spanish, that I owe it to my culture and my people, but although it might sound ugly coming from the granddaughter of Mexican immigrants, English is the language I love best. It's the language in which I thrive, write music, express emotions, make jokes. It's my best language and even if I were forced by circumstances (or a very unlikely set of political events) to function in Spanish, English would still be the language of my heart. It's how I was raised.

Unfortunately, I have had so many Latinos (and white people) shake their heads disapprovingly at me that I have learned a deep shame for not speaking Spanish fluently. From a very young age, I was chided for not knowing Spanish, despite such a decision being out of my hands until I could choose to learn Spanish in school. With this shame, I developed a psychological block against being able to speak Spanish. With this internalized pressure to please my people and fulfill their demand that I know competent Spanish, I choke each time I try to speak it. For most of my life, even though I got A's in those Spanish classes, my Spanish has not been good. It's not because I can't conjugate or remember the vocabulary, but because each time I open my mouth, I can already hear the scolding for my poor ability. My Spanish comes out hesitantly, hobbled and usually full of mistakes.

So I address all those Latinos (and white people) who thought they were doing their part to preserve the culture by shaming me for my lack of Spanish: ustedes haven't really done me favor by giving me such a complex that to this day I never claim to be able to speak the language of my parents. In fact, I envy white Americans who learn Spanish and receive only congratulations for it. Their mistakes are not judged because it's so impressive that they can speak Spanish at all.

THAT'S ME TOO, I want to say. I was a teenage white girl from the suburbs who had to learn her vocabulary and verb tenses off the page. My parents didn't give me a head start. Someone give ME credit for working hard to learn a "foreign" language and still being able to hold a conversation in it today. How many Americans, at the age of 37, can still hold a conversation in the language they took four years of in high school? Seriously, how many?

But no, I get no compliments, no credit. I'm Mexican and I should speak beautiful Spanish, so my halting Spanish gets judgment and head-shaking. And that is why, when someone asks, "Do you speak Spanish?" I often answer, "Only in case of emergency."

Friday, August 03, 2012

Do you like to read books?

Just wondering: does anyone pay any attention to the books whose titles I post in the top right corner of my blog, under "On my Kindle right now?"

There are also lists of some of my favorite books in the bottom right corner of my home page.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Health benefits for women go into effect August 1, 2012

I have a signature on my personal email that was particularly appropriate when I emailed this information to friends. It reads, "You can't cure families; you can only prevent them."