Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The 81st percentile

Six miles northeast of San Jose City Hall, Alum Rock Park spreads across 720 acres in the Diablo foothills.  It's a beloved destination for downtown dwellers.  Families barbecue by the horseshoe pits; schoolchildren take field trips to the Youth Science Institute; couples walk hand in hand along the Creek Trail.  And on a Saturday afternoon, you'll join a steady stream of walkers, runners and bikers if you head for Eagle Rock and its 180-degree view of the Santa Clara Valley.
Go just a little further, though, to the Todd Quick trail off the North Rim, and you'll access the Sierra Vista Open Space Preserve.  Other than your own footfalls, the only sound you're likely to hear is a moo from cattle grazing freely on the hillsides.  (They’re part of a plan to reduce invasive species and bring back native plants.)  On a weekend in July, while Eagle Rock was enjoying its typical popularity, I ran into a grand total of three other hikers - and two grey foxes- in two hours.  

Coming back down the switchbacks, it occurred to me that I had crossed into the 81st percentile.  By design, it doesn’t get much discussion.  The Pareto principle, or 80-20 rule, states that for many things, 80% of results come from 20% of causes.  It's an invaluable management principle.  By focusing on the 20%- the critical few- you get the best bang for the buck.  Cross over the line and you start yielding diminishing returns.

In our personal lives, though, that long tail of the distribution curve is where interesting things happen.  Once we surface from our awkward teenage years and realize that following the herd isn't all it's cracked up to be, the world opens up to us- and a small deviation in our patterns can land us in a surprisingly different place.  On that Saturday afternoon, I didn't free-climb Half Dome or go heli-hiking in Banff.  I just turned right instead of left in my local county park, and it changed my experience significantly.

This got me thinking about how often we navigate the world along programmed neural pathways.  If I looked just beyond my largely cruise-controlled life, I wonder what I would find.  What musical treasures transcend Today’s Hits on 97.3?  Could a 30-minute meditation take me deeper into stillness than 15?  And why do I habitually run for half an hour, even when I have time to go longer?  Where are those touch points that, with a small, deliberate effort, yield surprising rewards?  

I know that “81st percentile” is technically a misnomer, but the point is that you don’t have to get extreme to live more expansively.  Most of us will never cross the Grand Canyon on a tightrope or dance with the Bolshoi Ballet.  But a gentle stretch away from our dialed-in routines is an exponentially richer world waiting to be tapped.  We have unprecedented, virtually effortless access to information today.  It’s all in how we use it.

I tested my theory at work today by Googling “NPR music blog.”  There was a review of a band called Grizfolk.  I typed it into Pandora, and presto, I was listening to a stream of artists I’d never heard of: Shaye, Appleton, Amie Mariello, Lynn Maas.  I was excited.  I kept exiting Powerpoint to see who was playing and write down their names.

And then I ran for 35 minutes.

This certainly didn’t make me hip.  It didn’t make me a bad-ass.  It just made me happy.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


In the 25 years since I stopped eating meat, I've often been asked, "Why?"  My pat response is "Because I don't need to."   Most people seem satisfied with that, but the real answer, and what I actually put down the hatch, are more nuanced.  This question has come up a lot more in the past two weeks, since Paula and I began a six-week vegan experiment (inspired by Vegucated, an entertaining, biased, but nonetheless thought-provoking documentary,) and I've been revisiting my answer to it.

It runs in my family to love animals more than people.  At some point, I’d seen enough “Love animals, don’t eat them” bumper stickers to ask myself whether I should love McDonald’s hamburgers so much.  It took me a while, because I ate a lot of fast food: chicken patties in the dining hall, golden arches on the weekend.  I had never learned to cook, only how to reheat.  But the summer before my sophomore year of college, I lovingly wadded up my last red and yellow burger wrapper, wiping away a tear or two.  

That's how it began.  A year later, when I started my environmental studies major, some inconvenient truths about meat in the modern world came out: rainforest cleared to make way for livestock; concentrated animal waste runoff polluting waterways; the massive investment of energy and water required to produce a pound of beef.   As we peeled back the onion, industrial meat production, or "factory farming”, emerged not only as grossly inhumane but also as a blunt example of poor environmental stewardship.  And this was 1990; global warming had barely entered common parlance.  We were just beginning to talk about methane from belching farm animals and its impact on climate change.  My vegetarian conviction became even stronger.  

But then I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  And it got a lot more complicated.  Industrial organic, factory-farmed laying hens, pasture-raised cows grazing on native grasses… suddenly, my asparagus quiche didn’t look like such a good choice compared to a steak from Marin Sun Farms.  And especially when compared to hunting my own boar. 

Over the years, the dialogue about meat and factory farming has migrated from PETA meetings and patchouli-scented co-ops to a mainstream audience.  It comes up as a culprit for global warming and water pollution, but also heart disease, breast cancer, and Type 2 diabetes.  The chorus of voices urging people to cut back not just on burgers but on all animal products is now rich with harmonies.  A growing number of doctors and researchers stand among the tree-huggers and dreadlocked yogis.  They have different reasons why, but their refrain is common: eat less meat.  

I was interested in the vegan experiment primarily because I wanted to get past my excuse of “it’s too hard”, and I was facing some more inconvenient truths: that industrial dairy relies on veal calves; that laying hens suffer some of the worst treatment of all farmed animals; and that dairy cows belch as much as ruminants bound for slaughter.  And, most of all, that labels like “cage-free”, “free range” and “organic” provide little transparency into what is actually happening down on the farm.  Still, I’m not fundamentally opposed to eating meat.  I just think that here in northern California, where we can grow our own vegetables, have access to bountiful farmers’ markets, and can even buy tofu hot off the press in Japantown, it’s easier to make good choices within the confines of a {mostly} plant-based diet.

The decision matrix around putting food on the table can be exhausting.  It can kill the mood if you start thinking too hard about the mouth-watering meal set before you, especially one prepared with love.  It’s not enough anymore to be a vegetarian, or even a vegan; you need to be a locavore who eats whole foods that are responsibly grown.  (Skittles may be vegan, but only because they contain almost no ingredients that could be recognized as food.)   

But we don't just have a right to know about our food; we have a responsibility.  We can't just believe what companies who market food tell us, because they will tell us what we want to hear- and that is different from the truth.  In accepting that responsibility, to the best of our ability, there is a different kind of pleasure. 

Once we wrap up our 6-week free vegan trial, I expect some dairy, eggs and fish back in my diet – but not nearly as much.  And unless I take up hunting (who knows?), I will probably stay off meat, with two exceptions:

  • If I’m a guest, especially overseas, I’ll eat whatever I’m served.  In the tangled web of connections, our connections to each other feel most important.  I visited friends in Russia at a time when getting any sort of food meant standing in a long line.  I wasn’t going to snub the chicken. 
  • I’ll eat almost anything that is bound for the trash (unless it has grey furry stuff on it).  If my kids leave chicken on their plates, better to reroute to my stomach than to the garbage, I say.  It seems the worst insult of all to slaughter an animal and then throw it away.  
When all is said and done, I think Michael Pollan summed it up well in his New York Times Magazine piece:  Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants.  Words to live by.