Switching Gears & Changing Lanes

I recently came across saved copies of some blog posts I’d written in 2009, when I was mired in a deep quagmire of personal disasters. Life, as they say, had handed me lemons. In fact, a whole grove of lemon trees.

In March of that year, I had been downsized during the worst point of the recession, and despite my best efforts, remained unemployed with no job prospects; I’d also recently ended a romantic relationship, and was living out of my car while sleeping on a friend’s couch.

I drank, a lot. As I floated through the boundless expanse of my quarter-life crisis, I didn’t really have much else to do except turn up a bottle of Jack Daniels and spew my half-coherent opinions into the aether.

This was a time in my life when I was seriously contemplating uprooting from midtown Atlanta, moving to rural Alabama or somewhere similar, living in the trashiest trailer park I could find, making friends with all the residents, and writing a book about it. I imagined it being part investigative report, part dark comedy, part feel-good narrative about the rural South. Some of my friends told me to go for it.

The stuff I ended up writing certainly wouldn’t win any awards, nor earn me a publishing deal, and plenty of swears were occasionally used in place of punctuation — but it was actually pretty funny.

Usually when I find something I wrote a million years ago, I always end up reading it with a little bit of cringe. (For a real “WHAT was I thinking?!” moment, or fifty of ’em, try reading the journal you kept in college.) I don’t know how published authors do what they do… get to the point where they feel their work is ready to be permanently stamped onto sheets of dead trees? I’m always seeing how I could have worded something better or turned a phrase more eloquently, or… just… not been so much of an oblivious navel-gazer, I guess.

So when I say I thought my writing was funny, I’m not tooting my own horn — I think I’m my own worst critic. As I revisited my old memories, I was sitting there in total bewilderment, like, “Where did THAT person go? What happened?”

What happened? Well, I finally got a job and had to quit drinking so much. (But, I’d moved to New Orleans by that point, so in reality I didn’t have to quit drinking all THAT much. Now I live in Jacksonville, where “because it’s Tuesday” isn’t an excuse to close the office and day drink on the neutral ground. My brain misses that, but my liver, wallet, and waistline are like, “You’re good, stay in Florida.”)

Eventually I really wanted to start writing again, and thought I would try to do so in a relatively sober fashion. If you’ve been keeping up with my blog (which probably means we’re related somehow or have been friends for a long time), you can probably tell I’ve clearly been trying to “find my voice” again.  When I rebooted my blog, I told myself: no more late night booze-fueled rants! I’m gonna write about serious stuff, and people will take me seriously.

Yeah, well… that, as it turns out, is boring AF. That’s clearly evident as I read over what I’ve posted in the last 2 years.

I’ve always wanted to make people laugh. I like when I do make them laugh, and frankly it surprises me every time they’re not laughing at me. But sometimes that’s okay too. I try not to take myself too seriously either.

Attempting to take myself seriously meant that instead of writing the way I actually talk, in my authentic voice, I’ve been writing the way I think a “serious” blog would sound. Sure, it winds up mostly scrubbed clean of all the words that would make your granny try to wash your mouth out with soap… but it’s about as interesting as a kitchen appliance manual.

I don’t want my blog to read like I’m narrating a PBS documentary instead of talking about my own life. I don’t want to come off as pretentious or disingenuous. Keeping up an internet ‘persona’ is high maintenance and frankly too exhausting, and ain’t nobody got time for that.

I’m going to start trying to write more naturally, and hopefully that will put me in more of a mood to do it.

Yule at Universal Studios

Devon and I are Universal Studios season pass holders, so when we were brainstorming a relatively inexpensive way to spend the long christmas weekend without being stuck at home, we decided to pay Orlando a long-overdue visit.

As season pass holders, we were able to get some extremely discounted hotel rates that came out to about $99 a night for a standard room. We chose Sapphire Falls, one of the newer resorts. The atmosphere was a warm, Caribbean theme with lots of rich wood textures and tropical colors.

Our season passes have holiday blackout dates on early park admission, but fortunately all Universal Studios resort hotels provide early admission to guests, and complementary transportation to the parks. You’ve got your choice of water taxi, shuttle bus, or a walking path. You’ll also find some fairly standard hotel amenities like a fitness center and swimming pool (with a water slide!), gift shop, children’s play area, and private cabanas available to rent. We didn’t use any of it, lol.

There wasn’t a whole lot of time spent at Sapphire Falls, so I didn’t get a chance to sample all the food options the hotel had to offer. On christmas day, the main dining room does a special brunch, but it required making reservations and looked like a ‘prix fixe’ kinda deal. I don’t usually mess with fixed menus, so we went to Citywalk instead.

At the end of each day, we’d stop for a drink (or two, or six) at Strong Water Tavern before going to bed. Our bartender was really fun and we had a great time just chatting with him while drinking our way down the menu.

I’m a sucker for drinks with fruit & flowers in them.

Our plan of attack for christmas eve was to start at Islands of Adventure with early admission to hopefully avoid the crowds in Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. Then we would just do as many attractions as we could cram in before our feet got tired. The weather was perfect for walking around. When we returned to the parks on christmas day, the number of guests had tripled — almost as bad as midsummer crowds.

This is my third time visiting the Wizarding Worlds, and I anticipated larger than average swarms of people because of the holiday weekend. We got into Universal Studios at 7 am, made a beeline for Diagon Alley, and were waiting in line for the Escape from Gringotts ride by 7:15. This is probably my favorite of the Harry Potter themed attractions.

Afterward, we hopped on the Hogwarts Express, then got in line for The Forbidden Journey ride — which was the longest “wait” we experienced, maybe all of 5 minutes. Even when the queue is longer, it’s actually not horrible, especially in the summer when it’s nice to spend some time in a dark, air-conditioned area. There are also bits of entertainment scattered throughout, such as one room where the Hogwarts portraits talk to each other, and another where you’re eavesdropping on Harry & company.

For the other attractions, we were able to walk right up. It was refreshing to be able to really explore and look around without being pushed and shoved in a crowd of sweaty muggles. People started really flooding into Hogsmeade after the parks officially opened at 9:00, but by that time we were ready to move on to something else. I think we rode everything in less than an hour. This is NOT a typical experience.

I didn’t “grow up” with Harry Potter since I was already halfway through high school when the first novel came to the States, but I love the stories just the same, and I’m really impressed with the attention to detail in these sections of the parks. Everything looks ancient and weathered, and some buildings (like Gringotts) appear to defy the laws of physics.

As a graphic designer, I find the hand-painted looking signs and overall application of typography really compelling and just fun to look at… everything right down to the packaging on the candies in Honeyduke’s and trinkets inside Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes. The park designers really managed to capture the slightly off-kilter whimsy of J.K. Rowling’s magical world.

This time around I finally had a chance to go inside Ollivander’s, but was disappointed that the wands are not actually made from wood?! You’re literally paying $40 for a stick of plastic. Hard pass.

As I’d suspected, most people were there for Harry Potter, so everywhere else was absolutely deserted! Not a single wait took more than 5 minutes. It was absolutely glorious.

Similar to the Harry Potter series, Jurassic Park is another much-beloved movie/book from my teen years.

Myself & my brother, circa 1995 — If this photo was a person, it’s now old enough to buy a beer.

The main attraction in the Jurassic Park area is a water ride, so with the weather being on the chilly side (below 80F is chilly for Florida), we skipped it this time.

Many of the rides from my childhood like Jaws and Back to the Future are now gone, having long since been replaced by Men in Black, The Simpsons, and Diagon Alley. (The ET ride is currently still there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes away soon.)

My favorite ride in the main Universal Studios park is probably Rip Ride Rockit, since I still prefer actual roller coasters over 4D screen-based rides. Revenge of The Mummy is another I enjoy; it’s an indoor coaster with practical “stage effects” (creatures, glowing hieroglyphs, fire, etc.) built in. What I would really like to see happen with this park is a full reboot of the classic monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, etc.) since they already have The Mummy going on. My other wish is for another Harry Potter expansion, perhaps to reinvigorate the “New York” area with an attraction involving the Ilvermorny school and North American wizarding world.

This is my first visit to the parks since going vegan, and the choices were better than I expected them to be.

First, the disappointments: Poor dining options are where the Wizarding World stops being so magical for me. I couldn’t find a single meal I wanted to eat. Also, I’m still not sure what the deal is with butterbeer… nobody at the park is allowed to divulge the ingredients, but the internet seems pretty sure that it contains whey. All the other drinks appear to be vegan, as far as I can tell, but… seriously, who goes to the Wizarding World to drink a pumpkin juice? :| Yuck.

On the other hand, both candy stores (Honeyduke’s in Hogsmeade and Sugarplum’s in Diagon Alley) sell a few vegan treats, including these villain-themed lollipops, quite appropriate for us sassy Slytherins.

Outside of the Wizarding Worlds, in the “New York” section of Universal Studios, there is a full-service Ben & Jerry’s counter where you can find their amazing almond milk ice cream! They only had the PB & Cookies flavor in stock at the time, but that was enough to make me happy after not being able to join Devon in drinking a butterbeer.

I think the best dining options are the restaurants in Citywalk. Our server at Antojitos took special care to ensure that my veggie fajitas were made vegan. Of course, guacamole is a must because it’s always vegan!

At a New York deli inspired restaurant called Sandwich Box, I ordered the veggie melt (minus cheese or pesto) and it was fantastic. Plus, it’s physically impossible to go wrong with tater tots. That’s just science.

If you’re looking to imbibe a few adult beverages, don’t forget about a vegan’s best friend: tequila! I first had a blood orange margarita at Antojitos and then a “mood ring” margarita at Margaritaville. It’s purple, y’all. Also, lime juice helps fight scurvy, and it’s got antioxidants. Practically a health food!

(Confession: I actually like Jimmy Buffett’s music. Just look at this giant blender and try to tell me it doesn’t make you wanna sing a sea shanty-inspired song about getting drunk during a hurricane.)

On christmas day, we slept in and ventured out late, deciding to grab an early lunch before hitting the parks. I didn’t think a place called The Cowfish would have anything I remotely wanted to eat, but I was pleasantly surprised by their take on a basic vegetable roll, and I loved the “Treehugger” maki roll: shiitake mushrooms, fried portobellos, red peppers, cucumbers, red onions, and basil, with a wasabi yuzu dipping sauce. Sushi on christmas? Why the heck not?!

This trip was such a relaxing, low-stress way to enjoy a long weekend — Devon and I don’t celebrate christmas, but I gotta admit, I would not be upset if this became our go-to holiday tradition.

Choosing compassion

My 34th birthday is coming up. It isn’t really a “milestone” year, but since entering my 30’s I’ve tried to use birthdays as a reason to set a goal for myself — kind of like a secondary new year’s resolution. Sometimes it’s crossing an item off my “bucket list” and other times it’s a permanent lifestyle change.

On my last birthday, I decided to quit smoking cigarettes. I procrastinated a lot, and then went “cold turkey” shortly after St. Patrick’s Day. I won’t pretend to have been completely smoke-free this entire time — but I think I’ve done a good job overcoming most of the mental triggers that used to make me want to smoke. Nobody ever talks about how hard it is to quit when you’ve been self-medicating your anxiety with cigarettes, but fellow quitters tell me it’s an ongoing process and eventually stops being a struggle.

Although I didn’t plan it, another thing I quit last year was meat eating. I was a vegetarian once before, in my early 20’s. I didn’t really think about it again until I had a routine physical exam that showed my cholesterol levels were not ideal. It was a disheartening thing to hear, since I’d assumed I was leading a pretty healthy lifestyle up until that point. For the last couple of years, I’d been mostly following a “paleo” style diet, which advocates eating more meat, ditching grains/legumes, and replacing processed foods with animal products (for example: putting butter in coffee, cooking with lard). When I told my doctor this, she didn’t seem too surprised. As it turns out, a diet full of saturated fat was bad for me. :(

A game changing moment for me happened when I read a book by Dr. Michael Greger called How Not to Die — it really drove home something that I already knew, but didn’t want to admit about myself: “thin” does NOT equal “healthy.” Reading the book prompted me to begin doing more research, which led me to the conclusion that if I wanted to be proactive in avoiding the health problems that run in my family (including colon cancer, IBS, ulcerative colitis, heart disease, diabetes, and dementia), I would likely be much better off adopting a plant-based diet… for life. It’s not a panacea by any means, but it would likely help my odds.

Unlike cigarettes, I didn’t quit meat “cold turkey” (pardon the pun) but over the months that followed, I drastically reduced my consumption of all animal products. I didn’t feel deprived of anything; in fact, I rediscovered how delicious something like a simple bowl of beans and rice can be. I started having more energy for physical activity, and felt genuinely good about how I was fueling myself. At a follow-up with the doctor, my cholesterol had dropped and I’d lost a little bit of weight. I’m sure running a marathon also helped, but I hoped a plant-focused diet would make it easier to be healthy while not actively training for a race. (So far, it has.)

Most people are supportive when someone quits smoking, drinking, drugs, etc. for their health — yet they often aren’t so supportive when someone quits eating meat for the same reasons. Still, the majority of people I know were pretty chill about it, but I would sometimes hear things like, “That’s cool, just don’t become a vegan.”

Hey, y’all! Guess what?

While a plant-based diet is simply about what you eat, being vegan is a lifestyle approach in which the aim is to not intentionally exploit, kill, or be cruel to animals. [More information here.]

Going plant-based was just about addressing my own health, and I’d never considered going vegan before. However, as I did more research, I found myself falling down a rabbit hole that led me to re-evaluate many aspects of my worldview that I’d heretofore taken for granted. I think it may be extremely difficult to go plant-based and not pick up something about, for example, the interconnected nature of animal agriculture, public health, environmentalism, and ethics. I watched a few documentaries and TED Talks on these subjects, and everything I saw seemed to point me toward going vegan. I used to be one of those people who thought veganism was just a fringe movement adopted by people who live on trust funds and take private jets to Burning Man. When I went on YouTube, I mostly found regular, average people (who work full-time and live frugally, not ‘trustafarian’ hipsters) sharing their views — and I was actually agreeing with a lot of what they were saying.

For me personally, I don’t see how I can be a secular humanist, a feminist, someone who mostly agrees with libertarian principles of non-aggression, and NOT also be a vegan. It seems logically consistent with the philosophies I hold as moral and ethical guidelines for my own life. In a capitalist society, I also have the freedom to be an educated consumer, vote with my dollar, and feel good about the things I’m buying… which is about the most that an average person can feasibly do.

However, despite feeling that, just like quitting cigarettes, this was a positive lifestyle change I wanted to make — I was afraid to say anything about it to anyone. If you want to know the hardest part about going vegan, I’ll tell you: it’s other people.

Unless you want to be my friend. Because I love salad.

Vegans are everyone’s favorite punching bag. I have social anxiety, so the last thing someone like me wants is to feel like everyone secretly (or perhaps openly) hates me. I was worried that my family and friends would think I had become “militant” since that’s the common impression people have of vegans… some kind of carrot-wielding Stalin, marching meat-eaters to the gulag.

(Even though vegans are the ones who are stereotyped as being aggressive and intolerant… if you want to make a normally levelheaded person flip over the table and ragequit, just try to have a conversation with two magic words: “I’m vegan.”)

Of course it’s possible for vegans to be dogmatic, but that could be said about almost any group of people, and the presence of a few extremists doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. I think the problem is that many people believe ​that everyone has to have the same morals/ethics, which leads to creating an “us vs. them” mentality between meat-eaters and vegans. This simplistic, binary view of “good vs. evil” is pretty common, but I reject it. Just thinking something is wrong doesn’t mean I always think that people who do the thing are inherently evil. There’s a lot of nuance that many people miss.

But since I had no idea how to communicate this to anyone, I just kept all my wacky plant-eating ideas to myself. I would often share pictures of vegan meals on social media, but I never came out and declared myself to be a vegan; in fact, I would try to dodge answering if someone asked me about it. I thought, as long as I don’t say those two dreaded words {I’m vegan}, then nobody will hate me! Problem solved.

Unfortunately, by not saying anything, it became harder and harder for me to socialize because it seems like 90% of all human interaction somehow involves food. I was either anxious that people would suddenly hate me for wanting to go vegan, or anxious that people would think I was being rude to them because I kept refusing food — creating an ouroboros of anxiety. The only other option I had was to eat something even if it contained animal products, and then feel bad about it.

When I figured out that I wanted to “officially” go vegan this year for my birthday, I thought I should probably say something about it, since I wanted people to understand where I was coming from rather than hear the word “vegan” and jump to conclusions. It’s easier for me to write out my thoughts and share them in a medium that everyone can digest at their own pace.

It’s probably silly that I even have to say this, but I don’t expect my approach to be flawless, nor do I expect the whole world to be vegan too. My intention isn’t to put myself on some high horse of perfection. It’s about doing my best to be mindful of what I’m eating, avoid unnecessary violence and mindless consuming, and be more deliberate and compassionate with my choices, since I have the ability to do so.

Cheers to a new chapter!

Don't worry, most alcohol is vegan.