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Vegetarian Summerfest Brought Me Back From the Brink

Dan Piraro tells it like it is.

Dan Piraro tells it like it is.

Last week I was in a funk. I mean, I was really down—you know, when you think about the plight of animals, the state of the planet, world politics, etc., and it seems like we’re all doomed and there’s absolutely nothing you can do to make things better, and you just get sucked into that black hole of despair. But just a day after some of the worst of it, I went to Vegetarian Summerfest for the first time. The timing couldn’t have been better.

Not only was it amazing to know that I could eat and drink absolutely everything, but how incredible to walk around the Johnstown, Pennsylvania, campus and realize that every person I passed cares about the same things I do—for once, the veg*ns were the majority! (There were a few concerned carnivores in attendance, which was heartening, not to mention damned brave.) It was like the world in reverse, and it sure looked good.

It was as if the conference had been organized specifically to deal with my existential crisis. Mad Cowboy Howard Lyman kicked off the weekend program by talking about how he, as a cattle rancher, had probably caused the suffering of more animals and had consumed more meat and dairy products in his lifetime than anyone else at the conference, and look at him now! If that’s not cause to be optimistic, I don’t know what is. And humor always helps (I admit, it can be in short supply when I start discussing animal rights issues, as anyone who’s read my posts knows). The hilarious Dan Piraro gave a slide show of his cartoon strips and talked about his new book, Bizarro and Other Strange Manifestations of the Art of Dan Piraro, in which he shares how he went from being an oblivious meat eater to a vegan following just one visit to Farm Sanctuary.
He also showed a video that responds to the question, Are humans natural meat eaters? (Um, that would be no.)

On Saturday, Erik Marcus talked about being a more effective advocate by leaving behind the three-pronged approach to debating (health, the environment, and ethics) and focusing only on the commodity argument: that animal agribusiness is brutal and untrustworthy and that we cannot continue to support it (that’s a relief to those of us who can’t keep facts and figures straight to save our—not to mention the animals’—lives). Carol Adams, the author of Living Among Meat Eaters: The Vegetarian’s Survival Handbook, shocked with one of the most counterintuitive bits of advice I’ve ever heard about how to handle omnivores who interrogate you about your choices: Don’t get sucked into the debate! This sounds like a lost opportunity to educate, but she’s right: They don’t really care what you have to say; they just want to argue.

On Sunday, Dan Piraro was on a panel with writer, workshop leader, and advocate Rae Sikora and Will Tuttle, a musician and the author of World Peace Diet. “Aligning Our Lives With Our Values” focused on following your creativity and your passions to work that you love, which will in turn lead you to opportunities to champion the causes you believe in. You know, do what you love and the rest will follow (or: Don’t quit your day job). It’s nothing I hadn’t heard before in some form, but coming from these inspiring, accomplished people, the idea actually seems credible.

Between all the lectures—it’s impossible to attend them all—I spoke to the people working the various tables outside the dining hall. Their organizations are all worthy of our support: the aforementioned Farm Sanctuary, VegNews (which just named Best New Website, thank you very much!), Woodstock Farm Animal Sanctuary, Satya magazine, the American Anti-Vivisection Society, Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing, and Farm Animal Reform Movement, just to name a few.

Somewhere in all of this, I even found time to socialize. I spent time with old friends (like Doug Greene, the organizer of the NY Everything Veggie Meetup, which I assistant organize), ran into newer ones (including Rebecca Goth of the yummy Primal Strips jerky alternative, who never misses a chance to stop her car in the middle of the road and hand out pamphlets on going veg to unsuspecting omnivores!), and made some new ones. I know we’ll see each other again soon.

One of those new friends provided me with one of the most uplifting moments of the weekend: Marsha, a vegetarian, and I met at the Amtrak station Friday evening. On Sunday afternoon, on our way back, I asked how her weekend had been, and she told me that after hearing everyone speak and eating all the delicious food, she’d decided to go vegan immediately! She’d even bought her son a copy of Erik Marcus’ book Meat Market: Animals, Ethics, and Money and had called him to say that she’d like to help him stop eating meat. What more evidence could I need that things are rarely as bad as they seem?

So I’m really glad I went. I’m feeling a lot better now, and I know I’m more prepared to make my case for the animals. My only regret is that I went for the weekend instead of the full week. Next year, I’ll know better.

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