Archive for the ‘Slow Twitch’ Category

Why We Drown

» May 4th, 2016

It’s later afternoon at the Town Lake YMCA in Austin, Texas, and a man in Lane Two is gliding through the pool with fearless perfection. His movements are languid; breathing metronomic; pace effortless. He completes lap after lap with such ease of motion that the only word that keeps coming to mind as I watch him move down the lane is natural. That’s a natural-born swimmer.

In fact he’s nothing of the sort. No human being is a natural-born swimmer.To confirm, I need only look over to the YMCA’s instructional pool, where the whole notion of being a natural-born swimmer is quickly disabused by a clutch of six physically fit adults milling anxiously in waist-deep water around Dena Garcia, a swim instructor.

They’re participants in a TOW?—“Terrified of Water”—class, and the contrast with what’s happening in Lane Two illustrates something important. At some point in time (probably very early in life), the impossibly elegant lap swimmer had to do exactly what these courageous adults were now doing in the instructional pool: confront his fears by gripping the edge and kicking, placing his face in the water and making bubbles, and allowing his body to float while avoiding a panic attack.

Exactly why we don’t instinctively swim is a mystery. But as Daniel E. Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, explains, “It is possible that some of our ancestors swam or occasionally waded into marshes to collect sedges, but there is very little evidence that natural selection acted much on human abilities to swim.” He calls humans “slow, inefficient, and awkward as swimmers.”

Read the full story here. 

On the Road

» April 23rd, 2016

In the early 1970s, John Tarrant, a British ultramarathoner who set world records in the forty- and hundred-mile distances, suffered a hemorrhaging stomach ulcer that occasionally sent him to the hospital for tests and blood transfusions. Tarrant despised the interruptions to his training schedule, and during at least one stay, he ducked into the bathroom, changed into running gear beneath his hospital gown, and snuck outside for a quick five-miler. As Bill Jones recounts in his book The Ghost Runner, Tarrant sacrificed everything for his sport—his work, his family, and, evidently, his better judgment.

Today is the 120th Boston Marathon [this piece was originally published on April 18, 2016], and I’d wager that nearly every runner in the race would understand Tarrant’s impulse. Training for long-distance races breeds a restless need to elevate the heart rate, score an endorphin hit, and achieve what Tarrant called that “magnificent feeling of well being.” Running begets more running, an insidious cycle that can become, over time, a game of high-mileage brinkmanship that blurs the line between dedication and obsession. At the peak of his training, Tarrant was logging 180 miles a week—an addiction, no doubt, but a healthy addiction, at least according to the runners. (The doctors aren’t convinced: by 2015, running-related cardiology concerns had crystallized into something called the excessive-endurance hypothesis; google the phrase and “scarring of the heart” comes up a lot.)

Raed more. 

Vassar Vegans

» November 8th, 2013

Last night I spoke at Vassar, in the auditorium and Sanders Hall, and it was an all around excellent experience.  There’ always the fear that, at a school with less than 2,500 students, about 4 students will show up (for the record, it doesn’t matter–I give the same talk if there are 5 or 500, but still . . .it kind of does matter at the same time). Due to effective organization, active publicity, and the langniappe of vegan pizza, attendance was more like 52—most were, I think vegan or vegetarian. Several of them had excellent questions and, afterwards, many students–eating said vegan pizza made with rare expertise by Alessandra Seiter (who organized the whole deal and is bound to become a great and widely known voice for vegan issues)—were eager to get more involved in vegan activism and outreach.  Overall, a terrific event, at least from my perspective.

A couple of questions pushed me to make clarifications in my own mind, or at least clarification regarding how to articulate my position. One was a variation on the where to “draw the line”/”what about plants as a life form, too?” question. You feel yourself mature as a thinker and activist when, instead of instinctively scoffing at the question or getting annoyed by it, you take it seriously and answer the question with as much exactitude and clarity as possible. My response was to argue that, if we accept the premise that all life has equal moral worth in the framework of the biota’s overall health, then the most ethical act we could undertake would be to kill all the humans, starting with the wealthiest first. Given that, for most sane people, this is an obviously irrational proposition, the next task is to decide how to draw the line. That is, how to decide by what standard we will decide what forms of life lie within our circle of moral consideration. That standard, I suggested should be sentience, or the ability to experience suffering. From there, we can have our arguments–who is sentient and who is not?, when should exceptions be made and on what grounds?–but this seems to me as reasonable and achievable a way as I can think of to begin clarifying an issue that, if left vague, could really muddy the ethical waters for vegan activists. (And I don’t mean to suggest that I’m the person who thought of this idea, one that goes back to Jeremy Bentham, and maybe earlier.)

Second, a woman asked a pretty loaded question about the status of a human fetal vis-a-vis a chicken. She wondered how we could argue that it was wrong to kill a chicken but okay to terminate a pregnancy (or “kill a fetus” as she put it). “Suffering,” she said, “is suffering.” Of course many readers will be aware of this kind of question and, as with the first question, we cannot demean it. Suffering might be suffering, but the frame in which that suffering happens matters in a fundamental sense. In the chicken case, the frame includes no real competing consideration other than the fact that some humans think chickens taste good. A number of plant-based items could be substituted for the chicken, but the person has a hankering for chicken. That is, of course, hardly what we’d call a powerful competing moral consideration to the prospect of chicken suffering. But, with the pregnant woman, there is clearly a powerful competing moral consideration: the right to one’s own body. Sure, there might be an argument to be had over what “right to one’s body” might mean, but the fact remains that the establishment of a moral consideration beyond “I want chicken” in this case means that, alas, suffering cannot be considered in and of itself. But rather in the framework of competing consideration.

After the talk, a woman (vegan) told me that her family had moved to Oregon to live off the land and that, in their case, living off the land meant raising and eating turkeys,  goats, and pigs. Given that she had just heard a lecture about how nonindustrial farms experience severe welfare concerns of their own, she now wondered how she could approach her family and explain to them how what they’re doing might not be as right for the animals as they think. Tough one. I vaguely recalled  how Jonathan Safran Foer wrote movingly in Eating Animals about the dilemma posed by his grandmother’s traditional chicken dish, and the implications of not eating it during the holidays. I mentioned that. But otherwise I simply suggested that she observe what they do and, in light of her knowledge of how they react to criticism, decide on the best ways to highlight the fact that nonindustrial agriculture, although better for animals in the short term, is ultimately an ethically unacceptable way to treat critters we claim to genuinely care about.

Finally, a woman confessed her “urge” to eat animals, in addition to the sense of sadness and loss she fears she’d experience if she gave them up (this, too, came in a conversation after the talk). The “urge” question was the easier of the two: we urge a lot things that we do not–cannot–do. If somebody cuts me off in traffic and I want to get out of my car and, a la Jack Nicholson, smash their car, I don’t, because it’s uncivilized, and if we all reacted thusly we’d have anarchy. A few thoughts about sexual urges and you get the idea here. Now, the nostalgia concern should not taken lightly. Much of our identity is wrapped up in what we eat and there’s every reason to think that we can become sort of psychologically addicted to eating certain animal-based foods. I think perhaps the best way to work through that addiction is to consider veagnism not as a loss but as a clearing of the plate, so to speak, of old traditions in order to make room for a more diverse array of tasty new ones. Yes, I might have a little twinge of nostalgia for a greasy egg on toast after a long run, but the fact that I now eat bowls of porridge with a dozen superfoods in them and, as a result, feel much better, is pretty good compensation for that long lost egg.


PS: note the stunning sycamore/plane tree in the photo above


A “Good Success” in Montreal

» September 27th, 2013

Montreal is a bilingual, vegan-friendly, friendly-friendly, big-time city seemingly full of young people with a predilection for talking incessantly and brilliantly about animals. I spoke last night in a beautiful room at McGill University about the hidden problems with small-scale, non-industrial farms. I’m the worst critic of my own talks (being far more at ease and in control behind the computer) but last night I can say that when our time was up I was eager to keep going. So I take that as a sign that something went well enough, or at least that I was properly caffeinated for the experience.

The essence of whatever popular interest there is in my topic seems to stem from a vague sense that the sustainable food movement’s happy farm/happy meat rhetoric is actively obscuring the darker realities that inflict suffering on animals raised in what appear to be more humane conditions. (That was a badly written sentence, but go easy, as I’m at the airport, blurry, and nursing my first cup of coffee). Giving some specificity to that vagueness, my presentation reminds viewers (and, when my book comes out, readers) that, while a pastured system might have welfare advantages over a factory farm, it’s not by any means a viable or ethically sound replacement for industrial animal agriculture. Several people told me they desperately need more grist for this mill. Of course they do: nobody in the popular media is writing about this topic.

Here’s a thought I had in the very middle of my talk: For better or worse, none of what I talk about when it comes to this topic is rocket science. There’s rarely a need—given that my intention is to encourage people to consider leaving animals out of their diet—to ascend into high-intellectual ether. Understanding that sentient animals suffer when they are raised primarily to be slaughtered and commodified does not require a grounding in Bentham or Kant or Singer or Regan. It just requires empathy and compassion, qualities we seem to have, at times, on our better days, in abundance. When an astute member of the audience noted that, even if farm animals were pampered while on the happy farm, they’re still killed about a tenth of the way through their lives, thus being denied 90 percent of their potential happiness, I think people (lots of omnivores in the crowd) intuitively get why that’s wrong. Whether it’s wrong enough to inspire behavioral change is another story. But at least the ball gets rolling.

I greatly enjoyed post-talk discussions about the ethics of domestication without slaughter, the strengths and weaknesses of the land ethic, the inherent flaws in conventional activism, and the appropriateness of the slavery analogy to the prospect of animal liberation. These discussions played out at a vegan restaurant called “Invitation” [in-vee-tah-see-on], where I ate a perfectly spiced curry dish and drank a glass of white wine before going down for a few hours of sleep and getting back to the airport, where everyone seems to be exceedingly polite given the obscenely early hour of the day (or any hour, for that matter).

Leaving my taxi this morning, my exceedingly polite taxi driver, who spoke French as his first language, told me to “have a good success” as I climbed out of the car. I told him, “thank you, I already have. And you have a good success, too”


Veg Fest Report

» July 8th, 2013

I knew it was coming. I could actually feel my anxiety level rise as I sat in the back row and listened to Nathan Runkle open his talk at Veg Fest Colorado. My discomfort had nothing to do with Nathan himself, the boyish-looking, natty leader of Mercy for Animals. Instead, it was because I knew he’d show a clip from MFA’s invaluable underground work, the footage of brutality that characterizes life on factory farms, the horrific “data of experience” (my phrase) that we have, as Runkle explained, an obligation to “bear witness” to.  I knew it was coming. And it did. It came. And it was awful, more awful than I’d imagined.

It’s worth looking around the room when a video is playing of animals being terrorized. Some people walk out. Others hang their heads, more in shame than out of a wish to avoid the hard imagery.  People cry. Veg Fests have as many, if not more, “veg curious” attendees than they do vegans or vegetarians. So these images, horrific as they are, were critical for people to see.  I commend Runkle for bringing utter darkness into a talk that many expect to be all sunshine and light. That takes guts.

The other highlight from the festival, aside from the irony of it being located on rodeo grounds, was the cooking demo by JL Fields (of the blog JL Goes Vegan). I will confess to once being slightly dismissive of cooking demos. I would think: “is this why we’re here?”

Watching JL, I realize that, for hundreds of attendees, the answer is in fact yes: that really is why we’re here. JL, whose new book Vegan for Her (co-authored with Virginia Messina) is hot off the press, gets this. She provides home cooks with a wealth of fast and accessible ways to eat healthy vegan food. She’s not doctrinaire, she trusts her well-honed instincts when it comes to sensing what people need culinarily, and, perhaps best of all, she is a natural in front of a crowd—funny, self-deprecating, at ease, and full of genuine personality. Get this woman a TV show!  She could be the Julia Child of vegan cooking.  No joke.

Other highlights worth noting: a gorgeous trail run at Red Rocks, led by a new friend; a quick but rewarding visit to Nooch Vegan Market in Denver, and solid vegan meals at City O’ City and Watercourse Foods. And don’t even get me started on the beer. IPA heaven in the mile high city.









Turning the Table

» June 24th, 2013

Asheville, North Carolina is a laid back town surrounded by the Blue Ridge Mountains, an endless maze of trails, and some of the best microbreweries in the country. Typical of progressive towns with an emphasis on local culture, it also has quite the little foodie scene, tinged with a not unexpected North Carolinian adoration of pork.

Fortunately, the place is also quite vegan friendly (in this way it reminds me of Austin, meat-loving but well veganized). Nearly every restaurant menu I studied had a “V” designation (and GF=gluten free). The small café in my hotel lobby served a tempeh wrap. Even the nearby camp that’s been harboring my daughter for the last three weeks is vegan friendly.  None of this would have possible a decade ago and I take some comfort in chalking that up to progress.

Not everyone is so up to speed, though.  Languishing in the dark ages is a much-venerated Asheville restaurant called Table.  Praised for its support of local organic farms and artisanal (blah blah) methods of food production, Table impressed me when I ate there last year for its willingness to prepare a decent vegan option despite a menu that lacked one (I was dragged there with a group who’d read about it in Gourmet or some such and just had to go). This year, my friend had an interest in returning, leaving it to me to make the reservation as he was in route, which I was happy to do.

Until I called. The exchange was pleasant until I asked if vegan options would be available. “No, not really,” I was told. “Really? Nothing?,” I said. The man’s voice turned cold. “No, really. Nothing.” And that was the end of that.

I hung up the phone wondering how a restaurant as critically acclaimed as Table, in a town as open-minded and veganized as Asheville, could be so rudely indifferent to potential patron prepared to drop serious bucks on a serious meal (the friend I was with is a wine guy and would have chosen very well). I mean, it’s not as if the place didn’t have vegetables and a little olive oil and salt in the kitchen—ingredients that any real chef could buckle your knees with.

The hostility, I decided, had to be a cultivated attitude of defiance against anyone who dared tinker with the menu. Out of curiosity I checked the Google reviews of Table. I know these are generally meaningless scribbles from anonymous “critics,” but I must say that I found myself nodding in agreement when one woman recalled, “I told the waiter I didn’t eat pork and wanted to leave the sausage off my plate and asked if I could substitute something else. He said the amount of sausage was so miniscule it wouldn’t matter.” Another: “Thanks for making me feel like a dirty peasant unfit for polite conversation. I am a local organic farmer. Jacob [Sessoms] is the rudest chef I have ever done business with. Take your money elsewhere.”

Yes, do so. Like down the road  to, say, the Asheville Brewing Company, where I spent about a quarter of what I would have spent at Table, drank the best black IPA I’ve ever had, and indulged in a simple vegan house salad and a bowl of delicious rice and beans marked on the menu with a V. Whatever you do, if you live in Asheville or visit the town, avoid the hype and experience of Table, encourage others to do so as well, and find a place that at least respects people who want eat with some discrimination.




Josh Garrett’s 2,655-Mile Vegan Journey

» June 10th, 2013

Imagine hiking 42 miles in a single day. Imagine doing it over the toughest terrain, be it vast stretches of merciless desert, cragged mountainsides, or raging rivers. Throw in a 30-pound pack and a few rattlesnakes to dodge. Now, if you can get your head around such a challenge, imagine doing this for 63 days in a row, over 2,655 miles, from Mexico to Canada. Ridiculous, you would think. Impossible. 

Not if you’re Josh Garrett, a 30-year old track coach and exercise physiology teacher at Santa Monica College. Garrett will not only leave sometime this week to hike the famed Pacific Crest Trail, but he will do so as a relatively new vegan aiming to break a relatively new record: the 64 days, 11 hours, and 19 minutes it took Scott Williamson to hike the trail in 2011.

Garrett is no novice. He has hiked the trail before, in 2009, and recalls the journey as “one of the greatest experiences of my life.” It took him 88 days. Between then and now, however, two experiences have braided into one to make his current record-breaking quest an inspiring reality.

First, he went vegan. This change was instigated in 2011 by getting to know a couple of turkeys rescued by a friend. After coming to know (and adore) these animals, he watched a Mercy for Animals undercover video of a slaughterhouse employee using live turkeys hanging from a conveyer belt as punching bags. “I was sickened,” Garrett explained, “and my own consciousness started to change.”  The fact that a plant-based diet had the added benefit of providing Garrett unprecedented reserves of energy was equally critical to his decision to reconquer the PCT.

Second, last year Garrett met a friend who also happened to be an avid hiker and vegan. This person recognized Garrett’s considerable talent and encouraged him to go after Williamson’s record, offering to sponsor Garrett by providing not only moral support, but food, water, and hiking gear. That friend was John Mackey, Whole Foods CEO. Mackey said, “Josh is not only a very nice person, but is also the strongest hiker I have ever had the privilege to hike with.”

Mercy for Animals, the organization integral to Garrett’s vegan awakening, is backing the venture as well. Through its website it will give updates on Garrett’s progress, a map of the trail, and opportunities for supporters to donate financially. Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, said,  “We hope that Josh’s selfless journey inspires others to take steps in their own lives to help prevent the horrible suffering of animals on factory farms by adopting a healthy and humane vegan diet.” Garrett is eager to raise awareness of MFA’s mission.

For all his verve and optimism, though, Garrett recalls having “mixed feelings” when Mackey first floated the possibility of breaking the PCT record. “I loved the idea of the challenge,” he said, “but didn’t want to let anybody down if I didn’t make it.”

I think Garrett can rest assured on this one. The fact that he can even conceive of accomplishing a physical and mental feat that is beyond most of our imaginations elevates Garrett into yet another model of vegan compassion and inspiration for future vegans to follow. Plus, his motivation is, as Runkle noted, so “selfless” that, in a way, it’s beyond failure. “The more I learn about animals used in the food industry,” Garrett said, “the more I want to help.” He added, “I walk because they can’t.”

I for one plan to cheer him on the whole way. And beyond.


Veggies (a lot of them) in El Paso

» May 5th, 2013

Only in Texas would it take a full day of flight travel, including a layover, to get from the central to the western part of the state. El Paso. It’s a town so dry that an 8-mile run in the morning sun leaves you free of sweat. It’s a town so dry that the river separating the United States from Juarez, Mexico, is now a strip of brown dust dividing cities so different that one has one of the highest murder rates in the world while the other has one of the lowest (although I gather car theft is a big problem in El Paso). It’s kind of a strangely cool border town, marked by dramatic contrasts between a pancaked desert landscape stuffed with 800,000 people running into the Franklin Mountains, the valleys of which are covered in spiky desert flora and rattlesnakes.

But perhaps El Paso’s sweetest secret is its Vegetarian Society—one that’s two decades old and still thriving. I spoke last night to about 75 people—prepared all week for it. What stood out more than anything was the generational diversity represented. After the talk I got questions from folks of all ages–from college students to senior citizens. In addition to the generational diversity there was also dietary diversity. I wasn’t really sure what people were eating.

“We don’t quiz each other on our diets,” my host and President Liz Walsh (vegan) told me, but it was evident that vegans were probably a minority while vegetarians and meat eaters were, in whatever proportion, the majority. This was good. I found myself enjoying the experience more, knowing I wasn’t preaching to the converted. My message of compassion for animals and food reform was, as a result, (perhaps?) sparking new thought. (In case you care, Steve Best wasn’t there—he evidently stopped showing up at the society’s events years ago but seems to be missed very much. I certainly would have liked to have met him.

My talk came after dinner, which was prepared by Michael Ross, chef at El Paso’s Opus World Bistro. The restaurant isn’t vegan, or even vegetarian, but Ross has learned to cooked superb vegan meals for the vegan portion of his menu. Items of note included dolmas, tabouleh, a lemon-kale soup, and delicious little lentil cakes.

Before heading to the airport this morning (where I’m now writing), I had a truly lovely brunch at Richard and Sukie Sargeant’s house (Richard and Sukie founded the El Paso Vegetarian Society).  Their house is set on several acres and harbors rescue chickens, a rescue goat, a couple of dogs and more than a couple of cats, every vegetarian cookbook ever written, and an experimental veganic farm that spans the Texas/New Mexico border. Watermelon and cantaloupe seeds are in the ground now. Fingers are crossed.

It was a memorable experience to pull into this beautiful ranch house on the border, in the midst of land that had been, over the years, turned to dust by overgrazing, and pull up behind a car with a Texas plate that read “VEGAN-1.” The brunch itself was outrageously good—beans, homemade salsa, a potato casserole, amazing tofu scramble, watermelon, roasted jalepenos with peanut butter (good!), fresh orange juice, and kick-ass coffee. Oh, and a great cinnamon bun. You eat this way and you think “nobody would miss animals if they could eat such food.”)

I’ll be honest: these events—the speaking and the socializing— once frustrated me a little. I’ve never felt great about public speaking (being more at home behind a computer), the travel gets old, and it always sucks up writing time. But last night after my talk, while sipping a stout beer and adding notes to my journal, it occurred to me how deeply gratifying it can be to come out of the cave, as it were, and interact socially with people, really good people, who are working in quiet and often unappreciated ways to make the world a better place for animals.

It was a simple but reassuring thought, nourished by a ton of great food.




Catharsis on the Trail

» April 21st, 2013

The role of diet in my running transformation is a theme I’ve visited often here at Eating Plants. The physical and emotional empowerment that comes through food reminds us that so much personal improvement is literally right at our fingertips. Since starting to eat a nutrient-dense vegan diet my long distance running–as well as recovery from all strenuous distance runs–has gone from dreadful to nothing short of astounding.

This morning I ran a very technical and hilly 30K trail race just outside of Austin.  Beforehand I ate a piece of wheat toast with avocado and nutritional yeast. The day before I ate a great deal of quinoa and arugula and pumpkin seeds. Soon afterwards, I ate upwards of six vegan breakfast tacos stuffed with spinach, black beans, tofu, and salsa; two smoothies with bananas, blueberries, almond milk, hemp seeds, and cocoa; a cup of homemade granola; a bunch of nuts, a carrot, and some dulse. I was starving. But as I write, there’s no stiffness in my legs, no fatigue in my joints. No dehydration ache in my head. (Although my feet are pretty banged up.)

Feeling energized on this run was especially important. I’ve been trying all week to make sense of the events in Boston. They touched a raw nerve for me because marathoning—as well as trail races such as the one I did today—are events where everyone there is there to be good. It’s a simple truth. The bombing at the finish, and the violence of the aftermath, left a black mark on my most sacred of physical and emotional places: the finish line of a marathon. All week I kept having to stop what I was doing and react with one emotion or another, or a weird sort of amalgam of many feelings. The communal run today was my catharsis. My catharsis was made possible by my energy and attitude. My energy and attitude were made possible by plant-based foods full of stuff that helps make us become better and better at seeking the goodness that’s in all of us.

The EATS 101 Experience at UNC

» April 12th, 2013

Yesterday was my semesterly Chapel Hill visit to Professor Jim Ferguson’s legendary EATS class, now in its 29th semester. The format of the course is elegant and simple. Students read some of my work (in this case two Atlantic articles on animal rights and a chapter from Just Food), they write a response, I read what they have to say, and then we meet in person to discuss. If you are ever in the position of designing a course, and have the luxury of inviting guest speakers, this is the way to do it.

In the past, the majority of students—some of the brightest at UNC (it’s an honors class)—predictably come at me from a sustainable foodie, local foodshed, point of view. They’re mildly sympathetic to the idea of animal rights, but any deeper interest in exploring such a perspective, much less trying to work it into their preconception of “sustainability,” is countered by a near religious commitment to eating animals raised under comparatively humane and local and organic conditions. Blah blah blah.

Interestingly, refreshingly, this semester was different. Two observations stand out. Before I elaborate on them, I should say that the class discussion was of the highest quality, perhaps the best I’ve had on my many visits to the seminar. The students were impassioned and more than eager to delve into the most intellectually challenging topics. With two hours up, I very much wanted to keep going (which is rarely the case for me), and, given the complexity that students were game to take on, there were a lot of places to go.

The first change I noticed was in the way students positioned themselves in their response papers. There was little hesitation or doubt about their stance on eating animals. There was, in other words, an honesty that I greatly appreciated, whether it was an honesty that condemned the unnecessary suffering of animals as categorically immoral, one that admitted that it was wrong to eat animals but that the person would continue to do so because animals “tasted good,” or if it was a firm belief that humans were at the top of the food chain and had evolved to eat every other species that moved so, you know, get the hell out of my way. These opinions, laid bare on the page, gave us much to talk about. And we did. And it was productive, at times, I hope, correctively so.

The second change I noticed was, perhaps, the presence of too much honesty. What I’m about to say here is not a complaint so much as a neutral observation, one I’ll elaborate on momentarily with an attempt at a useful takeaway. Those readers put on the defensive by my ethical arguments were remarkably aggressive with their rhetorical weaponry. I say this not to whine because, frankly, I don’t really care about my ideas being dismissed as “silly,” “ridiculous,” marked by “a gaping hole in logic,” and coming from “a righteous vegan trying to proselytize.” But, nonetheless, these phrases—and others like them— were all written, for me to see before I visited, by students who have yet to graduate from college. That’s something new for me.

My elaboration/analysis of this phenomenon—one that, I’ll admit, had me choking on my airplane coffee as I read them on the flight to Raleigh-Durham—begins with this observation: the students who wrote these words were, in person, engaging, friendly, and smart. Their tone in no way reflected their character. Instead—and this is my sort of terrifying hypothesis—their tone, which sounded quite familiar to me, reflected the bitter writing culture that has evolved out of online commentary, a dungeon of expression in which you hide away and throw verbal and sub-verbal bombs because, well, you can.

I think these students were just as freaked out to see the physical me—a real live individual with passions and personality and a beard—as I was to see them. My message was, on this particular score, simple: when you want to throw an insult, hold back and use your turbo-booster brain to make an eloquent and well-reasoned argument. Because, if my hypothesis is correct, it would genuinely pain me to see so many intelligent students fall victim to the ubiquitous boorishness of online ranting, a form of communication that leads nowhere.

Either way, it reminds me of the power of personal contact to shape the tone and demeanor of personal interaction, whether it be between humans and humans or humans and animals.  Just as it’s much harder to sit next to a person and call his ideas “silly” or “ridiculous” or “illogical” or whatever, it’s also harder to spend time with an animal, see that he has a personality, and then kill and eat the poor creature.

Not a bad thought to have the morning after a first-rate seminar.