Sunday, October 14, 2018

On Flexitarianism

I like to think of myself as an ethical person. I don’t want people or animals to be abused, and if I saw it happening I hope I would do something to stop it. However we live in a corrupt world, where abuse happens all the time, in multiple ways. I don’t condone it, but when I try to work out what I can do - or not do - about it, it becomes overwhelming.

There are child slaves picking coffee and cocoa beans under terrible conditions in some African and South American countries. There are adult slaves making clothes under even worse conditions in Asian countries. There are animals treated appallingly to provide meat and dairy products all around the world. And that’s without even starting on the way rainforests are being torn down, and the earth’s resources used up, having a long-term negative effect not just on humans but on the indigenous animals and birds.

Some people choose to live off the grid entirely, to grow their own produce, weave their own cloth, make their own clothes. While some develop their own rigid systems that can lead to different kinds of abuse, I have an overriding admiration for those who can follow a simple lifestyle, knowing that they’re not causing added pain to anyone outside their community. But we’re not all called to that kind of living.

So, as an ordinary 21st century woman, I admit that I like using kitchen appliances and technology. I stop sometimes and wonder: were they made by slaves in China?

I don’t know.

I’m not proud of that fact, but most modern equipment is made of so many components that it’s impossible to guarantee ethical sourcing.

What of clothes? I tend to buy from inexpensive and second-hand sources. I don’t have any interest in designer labels or spending large amounts on clothing. Pre-owned clothes are good from the renewable resource point of view, but were they originally made by slaves?

I don’t know.

I stopped shopping at one discount store in the UK when it was publicised widely that its suppliers included slaves. But is there any guarantee that other shops are any better? If high prices are charged, does that mean that the people at the far end of the chain were paid a good wage? Or does it simply mean that the suppliers and shop owners are raking in bigger profits?

I don’t know.

Then there’s the controversial topic of food. I have avoided, for some years, buying products from one particular company whom we are aware have some dubious ethical practices. But are others any better, or are they simply more able to hide their dubious practices?

I don’t know.

A few years ago we made the effort to buy only Fair Trade coffee and chocolate. We expanded that to include items stamped with the sustainable agriculture or ‘green’ logos. Companies that work with the environment are generally working towards fairer trading and wages, even if they have not yet achieved the necessary standard for the Fair Trade stamp. But living in Cyprus, it’s not always possible to find items that we know to be fairly traded.

Where possible we buy locally produced fruit and vegetables. That’s partly for selfish reasons, as they tend to taste better. It’s also partly to reduce our carbon footprint at least slightly. Besides, supporting the local economy seems like a good thing to do on the whole…

… Yet all that is just a tiny drop in the ocean of doing our bit to reduce the abuse of other humans.

When we try also to avoid animals abuse, further problems arise. We have many friends who are vegetarians (including some family members) and a few who are vegan. Some follow these diets for health reasons, some due to personal preference, some for the sake of economy or the environment. And then there are those who are vegan or vegetarian for ethical reasons. Some of them are very vocal on social networks. Are animals subjected to horrific treatment and pain for the sake of meat-eating humans? Undoubtedly they are, in much of the world. Pigs are considered as intelligent as dogs, yet most of us in the West would not consider torturing dogs or eating dog meat. Cows are gentle, caring animals, suffering abuse not just for the sake of meat but for the vast dairy industry: forced into repeated pregnancies, having their calves taken away from them at a young age so that they can be milked by machines, to provide daily pintas.

Until perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, I hadn’t thought much about this. I always knew that I would not be able to kill an animal myself. If I lived alone, my preference would be vegetarianism, but in part that’s because I’m not a great fan of meat anyway. But I had seen farm animals grazing on British hillsides, and thought idly that they wouldn’t be alive at all if it weren’t for farmers breeding them for the sake of meat. I had assumed that the slaughtering process was, if regrettable, at least humane.

I’m part of a family who, on the whole, eat and serve quite a bit of meat. Some of them become depressed if they don’t eat meat at least two or three times per week. While some people thrive as vegetarians or vegans, others seem to need to eat meat of some kind. If I have to prepare meat dishes for family members, it’s extra effort to make vegetarian ones too. I’ll do it for friends or family; it feels a bit selfish to do it just for myself. So over the years I’ve learned to compromise.

So I cook fish or poultry three or four times each week. If I make something with beef mince, such as chili con carne, or enchiladas, I make myself something similar based on beans or lentils rather than meat. We’re dairy-free because my husband finds that cow products make his ears block up, but we eat free-range eggs. I don’t cook steaks or chops or use any lamb or pork (except for occasional sausages for visitors) but when visitors treat us to a meal out, my husband will eat meat while I choose a vegetarian option.

My other inclination is towards natural products - cooking with ingredients rather than buying anything processed. I grew up in a household where almost everything was cooked from scratch, and home-cooked food tastes so much better than most ready-made versions. When I had small children at home I sometimes bought pre-made products, to save time. But over the years I’ve moved increasingly towards cooking everything from ingredients. This is partly as I’ve learned more about doing so, and partly as processed foods seem to attract more and more potentially toxic additives. I suffer migraines if I eat anything containing MSG or its derivatives, soya products, nitrites, sulphites, aspartame or - alas! - Marmite. That’s a very good, if self-centred reason to buy and use only pure products with minimal processing.

Still, I keep ready-made sheets of puff pastry in the freezer for the occasions when I need it. I buy ready-made tortillas and pittas, although I could make them myself, because they’re so much more convenient. And - so far, at any rate - I buy ready-made mayonnaise, as the home-made version is quite complex to produce.

I learned a few years ago that what I consider regular cooking with ingredients is known as ‘clean eating’, and is a trend in its own right rather than most people’s default. But I didn’t have a label for my style of mostly vegetarian with some animal products now and again. Then I learned that this, too, has a name: flexitarianism. The idea is a mostly plant-based diet, with flesh foods a few times a week. When people write books and websites giving ‘flexitarian diets’ they’re not much different from the so-called ‘Mediterranean’ diet, which has been touted as the ideal for good health for many years.

I find it a tad ironic that so many people want regimes and lists for the ‘flexitarian diet’. Yet the same itself implies flexibility. Questions flood forums and other sites: Isn’t it just vegetarianism with cheating? What is ‘allowed’ on a flexitarian diet? Can we eat meat if someone else cooks it for us? How many times a day can we eat eggs…?

It doesn’t work that way. My eating preferences fit into flexitarianism nicely, and my meat-loving husband is fine with it too. If we’re staying with relatives who cook roast beef on Sunday, I’ll eat a little, and pile my plate with vegetables. It’s not like militant veganism; I’m not trying to convert anybody else to my style of eating. I do think it has health benefits. I also think that the dairy-industry is cruel nowadays, but I was aware of that before we stopped using cow’s milk products. I still eat ordinary cheese when offered it in other people’s houses. Does this make me a hypocrite? Perhaps.

I didn’t think much more about my style, having found a name for it. Then a week or so back a worrying report was published, from top scientists, on the topic of global warming. Whether or not this phenomenon is connected to a natural cycle, as some claim, there seems little doubt that global temperatures are increasing at an all-too-rapid rate. Moreover, this could be reduced if sufficient people and organisations take action. Many strategies are proposed, including widespread use of sustainable energy and reduction in fuel usage.

But the most important recommended change, a little to my surprise, is in the way we eat. Avoiding meat and dairy products, according to the report, is the single biggest way to avoid a negative impact on the earth. According to this analysis, meat and dairy provide only 18% of people’s calories globally, and 37% of their protein. But livestock uses 83% of farmland around the world, and produces 60% of agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The leader of the research, a scientist at Oxford University, stated that, ‘A vegan diet is probably the single biggest way to reduce your impact on planet Earth.’ He began the research in the hope of finding the most sustainable sources of animal products. As a result of his research, he has stopped consuming animal products altogether. Other scientists around the world agree with his conclusions, but realise that veganism would be too big a step for the majority of people. Vegetarianism which includes milk products would not help.

So many scientists are recommending a gradual decrease of animal products in our diets, while - as doctors and other health experts have been saying for a long time - we should all increase our consumption of plant-based foods. The word ‘flexitarianism’ is in the news, and people who like to follow the latest trends are asking what exactly it entails.

For once in my life, I am doing something that’s not only scientifically recommended and at least somewhat ethical, it's actually fashionable.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

On Thankfulness

I'm reading a book about thankfulness, at the moment. The author talks about how she made a decision to find 1000 gifts - or graces - for which she could be thankful. Not, she hastens to assure the readers, in a 'Pollyanna' way, but truly honouring God for what he gives us daily, weekly, or just occasionally.

I decided to start writing a list myself. On the first day I easily came up with about sixty items - mostly people - for which I am thankful, without much thought. I listed many family and friends, and other individuals who have been instrumental in my learning and growing over the years. I listed other random things as they occurred to me: chocolate, books, beanbags, coffee, our new bathroom. There is much which I take for granted, but in global terms I am wealthy and have a great deal more than most.

On the second day, I slowed a little, jotting down names of authors who have inspired or encouraged me, abstract concepts such as laughter and love, small pleasures such as walking along a nature trail, playing with my grandson, stroking a cat. I thought of scents and sounds, of the evidence of God in all creation.

On the third day, it felt harder; I started listing individual fruits and vegetables for which I'm thankful, board games I like to play, books I have enjoyed reading. I didn't remember everything I had listed on the first day, and it started to feel like a chore.

On the fourth day, I didn't write anything down, but I thought of some of the things I had previously listed; even if I never come up with more than 180 'things' it's a lot to be thankful for. And I found that, starting the day by being thankful, I continued the day feeling grateful for those around me, for my health, for the comfort of my home. When I am deliberately being thankful, it's much harder to feel anxious or irritable or frustrated.

The Bible is full of exhortations to be thankful. Here's a list of Bible verses about thankfulness; skimming down, some aren't directly about thanks, but it's simpler to refer to this than come up with my own. Paul gave thanks even when in prison, and started all his letters by thanking God for those he was writing to, for gifts he had been given, for the responsibility he had to spread the good news.

We Christians should be known for our love, but also for being thankful people, acknowledging God in all we are, all we have, and all he has given us. I know there will be occasions in future when I won't feel at all thankful, but that's all the more reason to get into the habit of gratefulness now, when there is so much to be thankful for.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Categorising (or 'Us and Them')

Skimming through this blog, I noticed that almost exactly two years ago I wrote a post entitled 'Normality and Judgement'. It was about the way we tend to make generalisations and assumptions, and how important it is to be open to different cultural and generational traditions and habits, without compromising our faith and what we understand to be ethically important.

I'm currently reading an excellent book: 'Disunity in Christ' by Christina Cleveland. She's an American academic who writes in a very readable and accessible way, and I'm finding much to ponder. An early chapter discusses the way that we categorise things and people around us, and ways sociologists and psychologists describe this.

Categorisation is extremely useful in many situations: we need to know that something is (for instance) edible or not edible. A baby doesn't know this distinction and will often put non-edible items in his mouth to explore. Likewise a young toddler, seeing a four-legged object, doesn't necessarily know whether it's a chair for sitting on, or a table which should not be sat upon. Our grandson, at eighteen months, used a step-stool as a table. When one of the adults with him showed him that it could be sat on, he tried to climb on the coffee table to sit on that.

When we categorise other people, however, we can run into danger. That's not to say that it's always a bad idea: we are aware, for instance, that an elderly person might move slowly and could be somewhat hard of hearing and we make allowances for that. When we hear a certain accent, we have a good idea of where someone might come from. We assume that taxi drivers are competent in their vehicles and probably good at knowing the neighbourhood. When we want building work done on the house, and cannot (or don't want to) do it ourselves, we call a builder.

However we also make generalisations based on stereotypes and hearsay. The Japanese (we assume) eat sushi. The British (we are told) drink tea. People of one religion (it's believed) are peace-loving, people of another religion violent. Graffiti (we imagine) is probably the result of a young and disillusioned person getting hold of a can of spray paint.  And so on. In some cases there is more than a grain of truth in our assumptions.

But not always.

We are Brits who do not drink tea. Any religion is likely to attract a few violent types and some non-confrontational pacifist types, and large numbers of people who are somewhere in between. I'm sure there are some Japanese folk who loathe sushi. And I see no reason why an elderly lady in a wheelchair shouldn't be a secret graffiti artist...

Does that last sentence cause you to shake your head a little, thinking I've gone too far? And yet, why not? Why should it be assumed that young people are likely to deface their environment and old people (who were young themselves once) wouldn't do such a thing?

According to the book I'm reading, there's a tendency to align ourselves with people who are like us in some respects, while avoiding, as far as possible, those who are different. Inevitably we belong to or develop interest-related groups: that's not a bad thing in itself. An orchestra consists of people who are musical and like playing together; a gathering of philatelists isn't going to be enhanced by people who have no interest in stamps.

The problem occurs when we assume only positive things about 'us' and our 'in group', and negative things about everyone else. And we do it, the author tells us, to help us feel more comfortable about ourselves.

As I was reading about this, I felt a tension in my neck, a tightness in my chest. Surely this doesn't apply to everyone? I thought. Yes, I can see that there's a great deal of aggression around the world and negative assumptions about 'others' can certainly contribute to it. But we're not all like that. Some of us are quite able to accept anyone and everyone.

Then something was mentioned that was specifically relevant to the USA, and my shoulders relaxed as I remembered the author's nationality. Ah, I thought, she's writing about Americans here. Americans see things in extremes, in black and white, whereas we Brits...

I caught myself mid-thought. There I was, categorising 'Americans' as 'them'. Which is quite unfair as I know it's a stereotype: some of my closest friends hail from the United States and are not judgemental at all.  But still, the generalisation is in my psyche; and yes, for a moment I took comfort in being in group that didn't categorise negatively.

The good thing, apparently, is that all we need to do to overcome this tendency is to be aware of it. It may take time and effort, but so long as we stay open-minded, and realise that generalisations and categorisations are at best limited and at worst untrue, then we're moving in a less judgemental direction.

As an INFJ 'Idealist', one of my important values is knowing that everyone is a unique and valuable individual, and I don't believe it's right or helpful to judge or negatively categorise anyone at all, even those I find most difficult to relate to, or whom I understand the least...

... in other words, 'we' are those who accept everyone, and 'they' are the ones who categorise and judge....


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Spoon Theory and Health

Spoon Theory is an analogy developed to explain the difficult choices that have to be made, day by day, by those with chronic diseases, serious depression, fibromyalgia and other debilitating conditions. Here's a link to the original story, created in a restaurant, to help a healthy, able-bodied person understand just a little better about how difficult it can be when one doesn't look ill, but has drastically limited energy for even the most basic of tasks.

The idea is now widely known, and used in many contexts. But the disabled community - in the broadest sense, including the chronically sick and exhausted - insist that it's only relevant for those with health conditions of some kind. It does not, some of them say, apply to the able-bodied. The difference is apparently about the need for choices; healthy people (one blogger wrote) have an endless supply of 'spoons', and thus don't need to make constant decisions about which of two options they must do.

I think it's unfortunate that it's seen as so black and white. For one thing, 'health' is a vast spectrum of conditions. Even amongst the chronically sick, one person might have twelve 'spoons' worth of energy for the day, another might have only six. Someone else might wake up with just one, if their condition worsens, or if they've made choices the day before that deplete their entire energy for the rest of the day.

Amongst the generally healthy, too, there are ups and downs. After a bout of influenza, even the fittest of people can feel entirely lacking in energy. Just getting out of bed to go to the bathroom can drain them for hours. Yes, it's temporary. Yes, they will almost certainly get better. It's not to be compared to the chronically sick, who have to suffer in this way day after day. But the reason that the analogy is so powerful is that the rest of us DO understand, not just in theory, but from having been in that situation ourselves, albeit temporarily.

More significantly, though, different people have different amounts of energy. And different activities replenish or diminish it, through the day. I don't think anyone starts the day with an infinite number of spoons; even the most energetic bouncy person will eventually flop.  A child usually has more energy than a young adult. A young adult has more energy than a busy mother. A busy mother has more energy than an elderly person. There are a limited and varying number of spoons for each of us.

I'm fortunate enough to sleep well, usually. So perhaps I wake up with a hundred spoons, rather than just ten or twelve. My situation is undoubtedly much easier than that of someone with chronic illness. I feel rich in spoons; I get out of bed and pull on clothes with barely a thought; yes, the actions take up a couple of spoons, but that's okay; there are lots left.

But there aren't always sufficient spoons to last the day. I have to pace myself too. Not in the ordinary chores which pose so much difficulty to the chronically sick; I certainly understand that there's a wide gulf between someone who has to sit down for half an hour after walking downstairs, and someone who can hurry straight back up the stairs because they've forgotten something. I am very thankful for the spoons I receive every morning, and that, most of the time, they are sufficient.

But I'm an Introvert; that means that simply being with other people is an energy drain.  A pleasant evening with two or three friends is very enjoyable, but it depletes my spoons rapidly. That's okay if I'm going straight to go to bed when they've left; I recharge well when I'm asleep. But if I still need to clear the kitchen, and put the rubbish out, and think about what I'm doing the next day, my mind will go blank; it will be difficult to drag myself to bed. Sometimes I barely have the energy left to brush my teeth.

I'm also growing older. I like pottering in the kitchen; I make almost everything from scratch. It's a choice I make, and I'm thankful that I can. But if on one morning I make soup, and ketchup, and granola, and a cake, none of which is particularly difficult by itself, my spoon supply depletes rapidly. Sometimes there's nothing left by the time everything is finished.

I'm immensely thankful that I'm not chronically ill. I'm thankful that I am able to make choices - genuine choices, to make this, or go there, or do that. But those choices do have an impact on the rest of my day, particularly if I'm with other people. There have been times when I've said 'no' to a suggestion of activity that would probably have been enjoyable, because I know that if I do it, I won't have the energy I need for the following day.

Energy levels can be reduced by pain of any kind, by standing for too long, by stress or arguments. I rate almost 100% on the 'highly sensitive person' scale; in recent years I've adjusted my life so that few of these things impinge too much. I avoid bright lights and loud music; I don't watch television; I make sure I have plenty of time to do things, and try not to run into stressful deadlines. But all those things can deplete my energy - or reduce my spoons, depending on how you prefer to look at it - in ways that are hard to understand by those for whom they are energising.

We each have our own likes and dislikes, our own stresses and concerns. We each have our own energy levels which vary from day to day; we each have different things or people who drain us. There's no easy formula to maximise energy, and sometimes it's inevitable that we run out. Those who are chronically ill have it far worse than those who are able-bodied and healthy, but that doesn't mean we don't or can't 'get it'.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

I love reading with a four-year-old...

Sometimes I see comments online (or even hear them said in real life) to the effect that it's so difficult to read to a small child, because they keep interrupting and it's impossible to read 'properly'. I usually respond that this is what it's supposed to be like - the words and pictures in a young child's book are the starting point for imagination and discussion, not something to be sat through and endured.

And since I had the privilege of reading to one of my favourite small people this morning, without further ado I present an approximate transcript:

E (nearly four-and-a-half) asked me to read 'Mister Magnolia' by Quentin Blake, after a couple of other books. I hadn't read it for a while and it's not too long; I was happy to oblige.

Me: 'Mister Magnolia, by Quentin Blake.'

I turned to the first familiar page and read the classic catchphrase that recurs throughout the book:

Mr Magnolia has only one boot. 

E: And a stripy shirt
Me: Yes, he does, but the words don't say that.
E: What do the words say?
Me: Mr Magnolia has only one boot.
E: You should say 'BOOOT' (said in a high-pitched tone).
Me: Mr Magnolia has only one BOOOT.  No, that sounds silly.
E: Read the words.
Me: I've read all the words on this page.
E: You didn't read the words on the other page.
Me: They're not very interesting.
E: Read them!
Me: Okay. Text and illustrations copyright 1980 Quentin Blake. All Rights Reserved. First published in Great Britain 1980 by Jonathan Cape Ltd.... are you sure you want me to continue?
E: Yes!
Me: (several more lines about where the book was first published in various countries)
E: Now the other page
Me: You know what it says.
E: It should say Mrs, that's a girl
Me: No, it's a man. Mr Magnolia
E: That long word, that says Magnolia
Me: That's right. And 'M-R' says 'Mister'.
E: I think it says OOT.
Me: Well the last word does if we cover up the 'b' at the front. Then it says 'Mr Magnolia has only one oot'.
E: You covered the 'b'
Me (uncovering it) Yes. That word says 'boot', so if I cover up the 'b' it says 'oot'
E: Turn the page!

Me (with relief) He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot--
E: That's a guitar case on the floor. So he must be a girl.
Me: Boys can have guitar cases too
(Brief digression involving other members of E's family about people of both genders whom we know who play the guitar, eventually agreeing that a guitar case could be owned by a man or a woman).
E: Why does he keep a trumpet in his guitar case?
Me: Ah. Good point. It's not a guitar case, it's a trumpet case.
E: It looks like a guitar case
Me: Yes, it does, but it's not really the right shape.
E: And Mr Magnolia has only one boot
Me: True, but it doesn't say so on this page.
E: Turn the page

Me:And two lovely sisters who play on the flute --
E: They are girls
Me: Yes, they're his sisters so they must be girls
E: I know they're girls because they have long hair. This one is VERY long
Me: True, but boys can have long hair. And girls can have short hair...
E: They're not very pretty
Me: No, and their dresses are too long. If they stood up they might trip over.
E: Do they have any boots?
Me: I don't know. We can't see their feet because the dresses are so long.
(Brief digression as we all discuss the possible footwear, or lack thereof, which the sisters might be wearing, and a comment about Quentin Blake's drawings always looking that way, and discussion about whether or not the sisters are actually lovely.. mention, too, of the cups of tea and biscuits shown in the picture, and whether they could eat biscuits while playing the flute...)
E: Next page!

Me: In his pond live a frog and a toad and a newt --
E: Which one is the newt? (points) I think that's the frog (pointing at the toad)
Me: No, the one squatting down is the toad, I think the other one is the frog.
E: Hmmm.
(I turn the page)

Me: He has...
E: Why are those birds making holes in his suit?
Me: Because they're parakeets
E: Why does he have them?
Me: I don't know. I don't think he should: that cage is too small for even one parakeet, and there are four of them in the picture.
E: Read it!
Me: He has green parakeets who pick holes in his suit --
E: What's that word? (points at the long one)
Me: Parakeets. A very useful word to be able to read...
(E's mother points out that it's at least phonetic)
(I turn the page)

Me: And some very fat owls who are learning to hoot --
H (E's six-year-old sister, who was busy doing something else) What is 'hoot'?
H&E's mother demonstrates hooting
E: But Mr Magnolia... go on, read the rest!
Me: But Mr Magnolia has only one boot.

By this stage, I was eleven pages into a book which - if read straight through - would only take about a minute to read, and we had been reading and discussing it for at least ten minutes.

I did finish the rest of the book rather more quickly... although we had further discussion about what a salute is, whether the dinosaur was realistic, and why it was raining.

Not every book is discussed this extensively - I think this is the longest we've ever taken with this particular one! - but this is the kind of conversation that makes reading aloud to young children so very enjoyable.

<--- and this is a link to 'Mister Magnolia' on Amazon UK, just in case anybody who reads this post is wondering what happened at the end of the story, or would like to have a copy to read to their own small child.