Eat vegetarian

I’m not opposed to eating meat. That seems to be a natural part of life, whether you subscribe to evolution, creationism, scientology or anything that falls between those three equally valid and rational positions. Food chains, and all that kind of thing. I am concerned about the industrialized nature of modern animal farming though. In fact “nature” is clearly out-of-place in that sentence. Keeping farm animals in tiny cages, in-breeding, pumping them full of hormones and antibiotics, then squeezing eggs and/or sausages out of them until they’re turned back into feed for the rest of their relatives. It is clearly wrong, and it’s also commonplace. Most of our meat and dairy production in the UK and particularly the US is literally dependent on animal suffering to keep the price down.

That’s how capitalism works. I’m not saying that as a conspiracy wielding anti-capitalist Marxist utopian idealist, I mean it is actually how capitalism is supposed to work. The market adjusts until the price is right, taking into account other factors (such as the public’s preference for animal welfare). There’s a balance, and there should be a tolerance for some animal… let’s say “discomfort”. The majority of us tolerate the domestication of farm animals, keeping them and feeding them and so on, all things that wouldn’t happen in the natural world, but we would prefer that they be allowed to live healthy lives, and are given some degree of freedom to roam rather than being cooped up in battery farms.  I’m convinced that’s the balance most of us would actually prefer, if pressed.

But there’s a problem with the modern farming marketplace. Capitalism depends on efficient markets, and efficient markets depend on a degree of transparency. And modern industrialized farming engineers, and depends on, a lack of transparency. I’m not opposed to eating dead animals, but I think it’s important to remember that’s what we are doing. Modern farming allows us to keep a very safe distance from the reality of raising, killing and preparing animals destined for the plate. As an extension of the same thought process, I like the idea of eating every part of the animal, and using other bits and pieces as best we can. Killing a shark just for the fin, or an elephant for the tusks, just seems particularly wasteful and disrespectful of the life lost. It requires you to dismiss animals as thought they were potatoes or paperweights, there only for mashing or shaking to make it look like snow is falling on a famous landmark from your trip to a place. I digress, and tusks have nothing to do with meat anyway; the point is I think most of us meat-eaters would find that if we were truly exposed to the realities of modern industrial animal farming it would really cramp our munching pleasure.

And yet, this is where it falls apart. Most of us know what really goes on. We understand that chickens are crammed into small, dark places and huge spinning sharp things slice through literally millions of throats each year. We choose to ignore that information. We buy meat packaged in containers with pictures of cute little cockerel-on-barn-at-sunrise farmyard scenes, and names to match. Aside: the only place you’ll find Archer Farms is in the trademark office.

I’m the worst offender. Despite all that respect for using every part of the animal I mentioned earlier, I’m also a tremendous wuss. I don’t like stringy bits or blood veins. For quite a while I didn’t like eating chicken wings because they were so clearly chicken wings; bones and skin, and bits of tendon being pretty strong reminders. I like white chicken that bears minimal resemblance to what it used to be. I think that’s why the only shellfish I generally like are scallops. Octopuses and crabs creep me out. It’s a conflict; I don’t practice what I like to hear other people preach, and I feel a bit guilty about it.

So, it’s in the industry’s interest to keep the realities of modern farming under its hat, and we’re complicit through a kind of semiconscious denial. That’s why lots of animal welfare charities throw ugly videos of animal abuse up on social media, to try to shine a spotlight on the worst excesses and thereby introduce some transparency. If we were truly honest with ourselves and faced up to the realities we would almost certainly make different choices at the check-out, picking welfare brands, free range chicken and so on, and the market would correct, with meat processing facilities changing practices to accommodate the public’s new awareness and preferences. Some would eat less meat, or even no meat at all. Such a drift seems to me to be a very positive thing, so more power to those trying to raise awareness.

OK, so a lot more talk of economics and animal welfare in this one than I expected, thanks for staying with me, but the point is there are plenty of good reasons to question my consumption of meat, and there are regular reports of health benefits from cutting back, especially from red meat. Spending a week without meat seems like a good thing to do.

Stir-frying vegetables for a Thaish curry
Stir-frying vegetables for a Thaish curry

It was a good thing to do. I think meat can be an excuse for unimaginative cooking. A big chunk of heated meat is sometimes the center-piece of a dish, with some limp microwaved vegetables to one side as a token gesture to be ignored. It’s a disservice to vegetables that can be so much more varied and delicious, and deserve to be given the spotlight from time to time. Well, most vegetables can be varied and delicious. I’m not a particular fan of aubergine/eggplant, or mushrooms, ironically because I find them a bit meaty. But I respect them, and I know the failure is of my own palate and its poor appreciate for their many obvious qualities.

Brussels sprouts epitomise what I’m talking about here. In Britain at least they are almost uniformly accepted as a Christmas side that kids hate and adults tolerate for tradition or possibly health. But the reason brussels sprouts are miserable is that we do some a pathetic job of cooking them. Take that pan of water off the boil, and instead sprinkle those sprouts with olive oil, some grated parmigiano, perhaps some garlic or lemon juice, toss with pancetta or dip them in duck fat, and roast them for 25mins … and hold the phone it turns out they’re a much tastier addition to the Christmas table than the turkey.

This is a veggie burger. Veggie burgers are good.
Veggie burgers are actually pretty good.

OK, pancetta and duck fat sort of undermine my vegetarian leanings here, but perhaps that’s my point. Meat can maketh the veg, as well as the other way around. And there’s plenty of great food to choose from without eating meat at all.

So obviously I found spending a week without meat pretty easy (you would hope so, as millions of people manage it for a lifetime), and I tried a few new things in the process. I experimented with snow peas and bok choy in a not-very-authentic Thai veggie curry (using a bought lemongrass sauce), which was yum. Even cooked veggie burgers for the family one night because I’ve always been curious how those compared. Turns out, pretty well. Tastier than a cheap hamburger, in fact. All in all, it was easy, cheap and fun to go without meat for a week. Recommended.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention, I accidentally ate cheese made with rennet. Did you know that a lot of cheese is made using an enzyme scooped from the stomachs of newborn calves? I did, but I sort of assumed that it would be listed on the ingredients of the cheese. It is not, in the US, at least (it’s just down as “cheese enzyme” which surely implies it’s a product of cheese not cute baby animals). Transparency, people.

  • Difficulty: Easy (now you know about the cheese thing)
  • Worthwhiliness: High

Declutter clothes

There’s a whole category of useful resolutions that I would loosely term “life laundry”. You know the kind of thing: go through all the stuff that builds up in one area of your life, get rid of what you no longer need, and organize the rest. For this week’s mini-resolution I picked the most literal form of life laundry, and an area I’m particularly bad at keeping organized: clothes.

I struggle with two competing instincts. The first is to be hyper-organized and minimalist; the second is to hoard. It’s a lovely combination that keeps me in a state of perpetual mild irritation with myself. I’m probably on some kind of spectrum, though thankfully on the very mild side.

I think the hoarding instinct comes, indirectly, from my mother, who grew up as part of a generation who were significantly less spoiled than my own, needing to be thrifty and resourceful with what they had. “Make do and mend”. That doesn’t make you a hoarder, but it does mean you don’t throw things away if there’s a chance they might be useful in future. Apparently I’m imaginative when it comes to future use, because I find it very hard to discard anything. Containers, in particular, might be very useful for storing something. For example they would be ideal for storing all these other, smaller, containers.

When it comes to clothes, I don’t like to get rid of something if I can still wear it. That leads me to deliberately wear my oldest, least favourite items of clothing in an attempt to wear them out such that I can get rid of them without feeling guilty. The clothes I actually like take a back seat while I wear that t-shirt that doesn’t really suit me, the shirt with the slightly fraying cuffs, the ripped jeans that aren’t supposed to be ripped quite as ripped as they are but it’s fine as long as you don’t stand up or sit in certain positions, and so on.

And so out they go. This week’s resolution is to go through every wardrobe, closet, cabinet and sock drawer and pull out anything that I shouldn’t be hanging onto. Stuff I like that doesn’t fit, novelty clothes, t-shirts from fun-runs, odd bloody socks I’ve hung onto for years just in case the other one shows up. Those old clothes I pointlessly hold on to for decorating or paintball (I don’t play paintball, and I decorate exclusively in the nude).

I’ve had an idea for a system that I’ve wanted to try for a while now (see probably on some kind of spectrum, above). You find a distinctive hanger, or fold some colored card over one, to make a divider, then put it at one end of your closet. Then, whenever you wear something, you return it to the other side of the divider. After a month, you throw out anything that didn’t make it to the worn side. It’s a way of forcing yourself to face up to the clothes you kid yourself you need, but really don’t wear. It’s like being a captain picking sides at secondary school: once you’re down to the last few days, you’re going to need to make some tough decisions about what to save, and that kid who wets himself when he gets excited is not going to make the team.

Who am I kidding, I was never the captain, and I’m not sure what item of clothing the wets-self kid represents. It’s a weak analogy. Anyway, formal or occasional wear like suits or sports jerseys are exempt. I put my wetsuit to one side because, while I’m for sure a gnarly surfer in the summer months, it’s a bit chilly at this time of year, along with my studden football boots because I will play on real grass again one day dammit. Even so, attempting to arbitrarily cram this process into only a week left me cheating wildly and, one the last day, wearing as many outfits as Eva Longoria presenting an award ceremony for people who wear a lot of outfits.

I am often compared to Eva Longoria. Like her, I didn’t really blossom until my mid teens. I’m just throwing this paragraph in so it’ll be displayed when people share the article on social media. Try it why don’t you.

A week later, and my bedroom floor is host to a big pile of clothes. It includes an unpleasant pale yellow shirt I don’t remember buying (and through which you can clearly see my nipples), a really nice and expensive dress shirt that I optimistically bought in Extra Slim, and an old university rugby top from more than a decade ago that still annoyingly fits me and refuses to fade.

The total haul:

  • 9 t-shirts.
  • 1 corporate branded sports coat
  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 1 belt
  • 2 pairs socks
  • 3 pairs underwear
  • 3 bloody odd socks
  • 2 pairs of shoes
  • 2 work shirts
  • 1 rugby top
  • 2 ties
All the Instagram filters in the world couldn't make this picture interesting
All the Instagram filters in the world couldn’t make this picture interesting

I listed the really nice work shirt I’ve never worn on the share-cycle-app-thing Yerdle, everything else that is sale-able goes to the local Salvation Army charity shop, and the rest goes in a plastic bag into our recycle bin because apparently they can do something with the fabric.

My drawers, closet and co are a bit more relaxed, as am I. Sincerely, I actually feel a little bit less stressed. I can find things, and I never have to wear that nippley yellow shirt again. That’s something we can all get behind.

  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Worthwhiliness: High
Ah no, that is actually a bit more interesting
Ah no, that is actually a bit more interesting

Get more sleep

I’m a night owl, by default. Always have been. When I was at high school I would lie awake late into the night watching whatever was on TV, surfing back and forth between the channels. That took a certain commitment back in the 90s in the UK, when there were only four channels, and at least one of them would go dark at a surprisingly early hour. I wasn’t choosy; I would watch a documentary on Channel 4 about the industrialization of the loom industry in the Cotswolds, then whatever imported comedy was on (Friends or Kids In The Hall were highlights) then enjoy Open University geology programming that was intended for people to tape on VHS recorders rather than watch live. Actually I think this might explain my later fascination with sketch comedy, varied academic subjects and weaving. But the point is I would regularly stay up late, sometimes beyond 2am, then get up in the morning for an early paper-round before school. I once played Fantastic Dizzy on the Amiga CD32 until 3am, because back then you couldn’t save your game, before hitting the rounds with bleary eyes at 6am. I’d like to say that this was cool, and I could handle it, but I was tired all the time at school, and I’m sure my educasions suffered.

When I got to University that pretty much continued, except that everyone else was doing it too and, ironically enough, we were much less likely to be watching university programming. There was definitely more late night drinking. I find it hard to imagine student parties here in the US, where you don’t get to drink until you’re 21. What do you do, soberly enjoy the company of friends? Play board games? Study?! Ridiculous.

When I graduated I worked for a while as both a waiter in a nice restaurant and behind a hotel bar, which pretty much suited my schedule perfectly. I’d be wiping tables on Saturday nights in the restaurant until around midnight, and mid-week in the hotel you were at the mercy of the current residents. If there were people in town for a work conference they didn’t care about, who wanted to drink until 2am, then you were working until 2:15am. Not that I’m complaining; it enabled my late night habit.

Jump forward to my first “proper” job, and I’m working in the City of London as a high-flying, pin-stripe-suit-wearing, professional executive temp (junior). I’ve finally made it. I did pretty well at re-orienting my sleep habits at first, partly because I was living with a teacher with a long commute. But then we got broadband internet, the great absorber of time. Where do all the productive hours, sucked into aimless surfing, go? Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg will live on in indefinite youth, while an old computer clunks and whirs in his attic, LEDs blinking as it feeds him the minutes stolen from people like me, who lost them tending to virtual crops or reading about insomnia on Wikipedia at 2am. The web-server of Dorian Gray. (For any Millennials reading, that’s the guy from the philosophical literary novel by Oscar Wilde, not the Twilight fan fiction 50 Shades of Grey. Which has probably sold many more copies. Mankind is doomed.)

I fixed my habits eventually. Four years ago I took a job working with people spread all around the world, and simultaneously moved to Southern California. That meant being available early in the morning to speak to Western Europe (9 hours ahead) and sometimes in the evening for Oceania (who are basically already previewing tomorrow, I think; I still get confused about it, and to make matters worse they refuse to tell me what lottery numbers are coming up). Quite a few people in LA timezones work early to sync up with the East Coast (3 hours ahead), so I’m not unique, though I probably do it more than most. Once or twice I’ve done a 4am meeting, and I regularly do 6am. So the really late nights inevitably stopped pretty quickly.

All the same, I’ll still push it. After 10pm the house becomes pretty much mine, so it’s precious video game time. As anyone with a Playstation or Xbox knows, an hour is really the bare minimum time to play real games.  It would be common for me to turn in somewhere between 11:30pm and midnight, and later on weekends.

I’m not blaming video games though. This might be scientifically naive, but I’m suspicious that my natural body-clock actually runs to roughly 25hours. I always want the day to last a little longer than it does, but still want the same amount of sleep (a conflict that sleep loses). I’ve come close to testing the theory, by which I mean I went to University, but who knows for sure.

So this week’s challenge, the third mini-resolution in my series of 52, is simple: go to bed by 10pm. That means in bed, lights off. Not slyly looking at Flipboard or Twitter on my phone with the screen brightness turned down, but lying there, marinading in my own sleepless thoughts. 10pm probably doesn’t seem particularly late to a lot of people, but it’s an extra 1:30hrs per night for me. If I can actually get to sleep.

A couple of years ago my wife bought me a Lark for Christmas. It’s an alarm clock you put around your wrist like a watch, set via your phone, and which wakes you with a quiet vibration. The idea is that I could get up for my early calls without disturbing the rest of the household. It’s supposed to be a nicer way to wake up, but I find my wrist being shaken to be more alarming than a noise. My instant reaction is some variation on “HOW LONG HAS THE FIRE BEEN BURNING?” On the other hand, a cool benefit is that the Lark tracks your movement throughout the night, then syncs with your phone to give you a view of how well you actually slept. Whether you tossed and turned all night, or slept deeply. It has a weird effect on me: sometimes I find myself checking the stats to decide how I feel on a given day. Like, “oh good, I slept well last night, then I must not be feeling tired”. It tracks you throughout the week, then gives you a scorecard. So I can see how well this week has gone.

I set the alarm on the Lark on night 1, which informed me it would wake me in 9 hours, surely enough sleep to develop some kind of super-power. Of course falling asleep isn’t quite so easy in practice, and going to bed that much earlier than normal was like the first night on a trip to a different timezone. I obviously wasn’t tired, so I took a sleeping tablet. I have a pack in the drawer by my bed for those frustrating times when you’re lying awake, and the knowledge that you should be asleep, and that you’re running out of potential sleep hours, wakes you up more and more with each passing minute. The effect is particularly acute when you have an important early start the next day, I find. It only happens when my mind is highly occupied, perhaps once a month on average; hardly a problem, but nice to be able to take a capsule and break the anxiety/sleeplessness cycle. It might even be a placebo, or some kind of attribution effect, but I’m not going to dwell on that in case it stops it working. Ignorance is blissful sleep.

I took three sleeping pills during this week of, as is convention, 7 nights. I don’t really mind that. The net result was that I got probably an extra hour of sleep, on average. I think, despite the sleeping tablets, that it was better quality sleep too. On a normal night, if not tired, I might break out my phone and look at Twitter or Facebook. It’s well documented that the blue light emitted by just about everything these days inhibits the production of melatonin, or otherwise messes with circadian rhythm. By forcing myself to lie awake in the dark I avoided those ill-effects and when I did eventually fall asleep, according to the Lark, I slept a little more deeply.

But mainly I slept longer, averaging about 7:30hrs of real sleep per night (disregarding the time the Lark decided I was merely dozing lightly) and felt better the next day. Not super-powered better, and I’m pretty functional on 6-7hrs, but it made a difference. Easier to wake up, obviously, and perhaps a little sharper during the day. I felt like I got more done.

Actually, the biggest benefit was unrelated to sleep. By going to bed earlier, I gave myself time to talk to my wife. Normally I’d either slide under the duvet in the dark, trying not to disturb her, or we’d immediately turn the lights off so as to not waste precious sleep time. Suddenly we could comfortable talk for 10mins without feeling like we were spending tomorrow’s time.

By the end of the week, I noticed that I was getting drowsy around 10pm. The week had definitely reset my body clock, in a helpful way. I missed the extra time in the evenings to watch a TV show or play a game, maybe even read a book, so I plan to move it back to 10:30pm, when I can go to bed feeling tired and ready for sleep. That’s a big benefit. The extra 30mins sleep per night is a keeper.

  • Difficulty: Low-Moderate
    (easy to turn the lights out, but not so simple to fall asleep)
  • Worthwhiliness: High