Eat for the Future

28 07 2013

Sometimes, you don’t have to travel far to learn a lesson in cultural exchange. The contrast can be almost as stark when comparing urban and suburban as it can be between two countries.

Growing up, I lived down a long dirt road, on 7 wooded acres, where I walked a mile to go visit my best friend. I pined for sidewalks and paved streets to ride my bicycle along like my friends at school had. I loved playing down in the woods, discovering another world, sun dappled on the valley floor.

There weren’t a lot of kids nearby for me to play with. None were in my grade, or even at the same school, since many went to private schools in surrounding towns. The neighbors were quite varied, some very intelligent and cosmopolitan, who valued the solace of this peaceful, rural area. Most were older, retired, and kept to themselves. It was the kind of neighborhood where you don’t want to be when it comes time to score candy on Halloween- that’s why we always went to the suburbs to Trick-or-Treat each October.

At age eleven, I decided to become vegetarian. It wasn’t peer pressure (nobody in my circle of friends was vegetarian at that time). Everyone in my family thought it was a phase. Boy, were they wrong!

veg 1I didn’t actually know a single person who was vegetarian, but I came to realize all on my own that I was not morally okay with eating other living beings. I started getting curious, staring at a gray plate of beef stroganoff, trying to draw the connection between the farm and this meal. I asked the question, “Which animal is this?” and could not bear to live with the answers. I wouldn’t eat my beloved childhood cat, Mooney, and I couldn’t see much difference with other creatures. That was it. My mom struggled with this, and we went back and forth on various compromises, but eventually I prevailed. I was a strange kid in my neck of the woods.

By age 12, I was learning how to write a research paper, and was excited to learn more about vegetarianism. I spent hours in the school library, pulling 3”x5” pieces of cardstock from the large, wooden file of card catalogs. I discovered that there were more than 6 different types of vegetarian, depending on who you talk to, and that I was a Lacto-Ovo-Vegetarian, which means that I still ate eggs and dairy. A Pescetarian is someone who also thought it was okay to eat fish, and a Vegan is someone who does not consume any animal products whatsoever.

It was an eye-opening experience for me, to start to see how many shades of gray there were to this moral battle that I was defending. Who am I to say that you are wrong to eat fish, if that is where you draw the line? After all, there were others even stricter than I, who would see me as morally deficient for consuming honey and other ‘stolen animal products.’ What right did I have to judge others?

There is more to the story than just being an animal lover, however. I also gained more knowledge to support my own stance, based on broader issues. As a budding environmentalist- soon to be President of Earth Club- I learned about the larger scale impact of choosing not to eat animals. It’s not just about an individual choice, it’s about the big picture!

veg china studyWhy do we eat so much meat? The health and nutritional facts are clearly in support of less meat or meatless diets. The arguments from 20 years ago about not getting enough protein have long since been proven invalid, based on false arguments and propaganda. If you’re still not sure, try reading The China Study to see why study after study has proven the value of plant-based diets for your health.veg protein

We eat meat because we can afford to. It is a sign of affluence! But, if an accountant were to review the numbers, she would quickly say, “This doesn’t make sense.” You could generate 100 times as much food with the same basic resources by simply focusing on the food that comes from the land. We could eliminate world hunger if we simply shifted those same resources towards a plant-based diet.

The grain production required to create a certain amount of caloric fuel via meat is staggeringly disproportionate to the amount of energy it takes to generate that meat. When you factor in the cost, labor, water, and energy it takes to feed, fertilize, house, medicate, ship, kill, and process a pound of meat, it is simply staggering. It’s like saying, “I’m going to spend $200,000 to buy a yacht to cross that river, even though I could get a canoe that would perform the same function.” It’s overkill, and wasteful.

Let’s just look at one example. Water. Potable water is a scarce resource, and land wars are erupting every day over water rights. “Studies on world food security estimate that an affluent diet containing meat requires up to 3 times as many resources as a vegetarian diet.” Farming accounts for around 70% of all freshwater withdrawn from lakes, waterways and aquifers (the accessible underground layer of water).29 Based on variations in water consumption, the production of a kilo of meat compared to a kilo of wheat is at least 13:1, and in some cases, 200:1.

veg deforestationThere are numerous other issues to be considered, all with surreal numbers. Just look for yourself at things like deforestation, fossil fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, artificial hormone ingestion, and food security. If those aren’t enough consider the health care crisis. First world countries like the U.S. are suffering a rapid increase in preventable epidemics in heart disease, diabetes, and several types of cancer. These are directly correlated with diet, and a heavily meat-based diet.

None of these issues were on the radar in the town where I grew up. But as an adult, I have found that awareness is growing. While only 2% of the population is vegetarian, there is a growing trend in meat reduction.

You don’t have to become vegetarian. You can have a dramatic impact on your health, your society, and the planet, by simply reducing your meat consumption and being mindful of where your meat comes from. Learn how to cook something new, and help to make your family healthier.

Start small! You might try starting out with Meatless Mondays, an international trend where families simply avoid meat for one day. Then, look to purchase meat from local farmers instead of big factory productions. If you can’t identify what animal it came from, should you really be eating it? Is baloney even real meat? What hormones and chemicals are you ingesting in that processed stuff? If they can’t answer these questions at your supermarket, seek out a local farmers market or butcher shop instead.

I work with people everyday who aren’t familiar with this topic. They think it’s simple. They grew up eating animals, and that’s normal. Why question tradition?

Our world is changing rapidly. It’s a global economy, like it or not, and issues in Africa are impacting the way we live and breathe. As developing countries grow up and try to emulate prosperous nations like the Unites States, forests in the Amazon are being bulldozed to make room for cattle production. Habitats are being permanently lost for endangered species you’ve never even heard of. Water is being polluted, and competing fossil fuel consumption is driving up prices at the pump in your own town. If we can’t change our path, how can we expect others to do so? The entire planet cannot survive if we all lived the “American Dream.” We have to adjust, and redefine what it means to be Americans.

If you consider yourself a humanitarian, if you claim to follow Christian values, if you believe in the Golden Rule, and if you care about your family’s health, then you owe it to yourself to pause. Just take a minute to consider the bigger picture. Are you willing to change, just one day, to free up more resources for others who are less fortunate? To reduce your children’s risk of diabetes? To ensure that they will have clean lakes to swim in? Just one day, that is a start.


The Climate of Art Fairs

20 07 2013

art fair stormIt’s Art Fair week in Ann Arbor, Michigan. This can mean only one thing… ridiculously hot, humid weather with no overnight relief, and at least one torrential thunderstorm. Thousands of people from across the country flock to this city every year to display and explore the many arts and crafts that fill the streets for four days. You might not find the art-on-a-stick you were searching for, but one thing is certain. The unpredictable weather is the only predictable thing about this climate!


art fairDespite the cold winters and stunning springs, summer here never ceases to amaze me with its dripping humidity, rivaling Houston. We either get comfortable 70s for highs, or 95 and humid. There’s little in between, it seems. Meanwhile, denizens of the mitten are battling to maintain their Midwestern niceties after 6 days in a row of excessive heat warnings. We’ve lost our cool.

While folks love to live here because of the ever-changing seasons, it also makes it harder to adapt. They say that if you don’t like the weather in Michigan, just wait 5 minutes. It’s true, it is highly variable. This also means that by the time you’ve figured out how to live in one set of conditions, the rules change. How are people supposed to be expected to know the precise conditions in which it makes sense to open your windows to allow a cool breeze in, or when to close them to keep out the heat?

This is where some other climates have an advantage. When you live in Texas or Thailand, you have a pretty good idea of what conditions you will face each and every day, with a slow and gradual transition between summer and ‘winter.’ There are tried and true methods to beat the heat, including a plunge into the icy cold spring-fed waters of Barton Springs. Just a quick dip in this conveniently dammed-up river will cool you to your core, and leave you feeling refreshed for the next several hours.

climate fan

In most northern states, you can depend on a warm summer, but rarely does the humidity slap you in the face the way it does once it’s crossed the great lakes. So, we crank up the A/C, suffer through power outages, and complain on Facebook. Within a week- two at the absolute max- it will be over. And we will have learned nothing about living in extreme weather.

One of the predominate conversations currently taking place in the sustainability realm is talk about adaptation. Our global conditions are warming, permanent changes are happening to our climates as we know them. Hardiness zones are creeping, with warmer weather plants thriving where they never used to grow. And if we don’t learn to adapt to our new reality, we face a very rough future. We can no longer simply say, “Turn off your A/C” and expect the world to go back to ‘normal.’ No, now we must both mitigate the conditions AND adapt our own designs to reflect our climate change conditions.

climate heatSo, as sweat rolls down my back, I learn to walk on the shady side of the street instead of the sunny side, and instead of getting in my hybrid car and driving half a mile to get breakfast. I wear lighter, more casual clothing at work to moderate my own body temperature instead of wearing a suit and cranking down the thermostat. As a planning commissioner, I learn to demand more shady trees lining sidewalks in my community. As an architect, I suggest that new developments incorporate rain gardens into their site plans to buffer the severe rain events that are growing ever more common and overloading our cities’ infrastructures.

I may not be able to teach the world, but we can teach each other. Go move your temperature from 72 to 78 and sit under a ceiling fan. You’ll be amazed how comfortable you can be, and how much electricity you will save when you take the time to learn, and adapt, to our changing climate.

Host Parent Post-interview

14 07 2013

Our son has now been gone for a month. He returned home to Thailand, to his real family, just before my birthday. Since then, we have caught up with the other host moms and talked about our shared experiences being parents to foreign teenagers in America. It was a fascinating comparison.


We knew from the beginning that our Thai son was special. He was friendly, outgoing, yet polite and respectful. He offered to help with chores, and spent all his free time translating his studies between languages. We loved him from the start, and were so thankful that we were able to find a way to keep him for the entire school year.


Today, while visiting with a good friend after a couple of months, she asked me, “Do you miss your exchange student?” I paused, and realized that there was not a stock answer to this question.

Not every host family experience is the same, or as easy and enjoyable. In fact, from those whom I’ve spoken with, there seemed to be a trend. Often, the family will host because they have kids of their own in high school, and like the idea of the exposure to another culture. Often, it allows American kids a chance to see what they take for granted. Sometimes it gives the exchange student a built-in friend to help them acclimate to their new school. But, with the repeat host families, there always seems to be that horror story. It’s like gambling with fate. There are only so many times you can do it before you get one of those. The odds were in our favor.

bank homesoming 1

Our son was involved in several after school clubs, but seldom spent time hanging out with his many new friends. Perhaps because of mobility, but mostly because of his dedication to his schoolwork and his ability to prioritize. In fact, we had to warn him in advance if we wanted to take him to do something fun, so that he could budget his time accordingly and accomplish his goals ahead of time. Still, we loved exposing him to our fun, seasonal traditions.


We never had to deal with him lying (much), or sneaking out, or doing illegal things, or having sex. We escaped the notorious Prom fiasco of “I’m spending the night at so-and-so’s house,” by taking him to Chicago that weekend. We didn’t even have that much of the departure blues that most families experience when someone leaves after being a part of their family for nine months.


When Bank left, we were sad to see him go, but it was also a return to our ‘normal,’ non-parent lives. We had nobody else to worry about preparing meals for, nobody to ask when they’d be home, nobody to consult when making plans, and no more responsibility beyond ourselves. It wasn’t ‘hard’ to be a host parent, but it was different.

When asked if I missed Bank, I tried to explain. I didn’t ‘miss’ him, in the sense of an absence or longing for what was, but I do spend time fondly remembering how much richness he added to our lives. I wouldn’t trade our time together for anything. I’m so glad that we got to meet this young man, and hopefully influence his future in some way or another. We love you, Bank. You will always be our Thai son.

%d bloggers like this: