In this podcast I talk a lot about these three big transitions that I went through – with the food, with the flying, with taking on leadership role and I talk a lot about after I made the transition. I wanted to share a bit about beforehand because it was not as easy as it might sound. I think a good starting point was the first time I ever had my first Twinkie. I was a little kid, maybe 5 years old, something like that. I must have been at some friends’ house because we weren’t allowed to have things like that in either my mom’s house or my dad’s house growing up. So, what do I remember a long time ago? I remember there was a box on a countertop. I opened it up, inside there is individually wrapped in plastic Twinkies, I guess. And so, I took out the plastic wrap thing and then you opened it up and you can hear the noise and you can feel it in your hand opening it up and then in my hands is like this Twinkie, it’s like this golden brown perfectly shaped spongy thing. And for a kid it’s like that sponginess is kind of cool. I remember biting it down on my teeth piercing this brown sponginess and they kind of gliding in. And then the feel of the cream, which I’m sure was spelled c-r-e-m-e because I don’t think there’s any dairy in this thing, but it feels cool on the tongue and sweet and it’s so spongy and soft to eat. I think I ate probably eight of them in a row. It was so delicious.
And if you don’t mind my jumping ahead some 20 some years to graduate school, I distinctly remember in graduate school, the first time I was living on my own, not in a dorm, just you know my own place, paying my own rent, I loved ice cream, or to be more precise, I had ice cream all the time. It’s not that I loved it so much. It’s that I didn’t want to get it all the time. But every time I went shopping I would get it and I would feel guilty about getting it because I’d feel like I’m trying not to get it… Maybe not guilty but helpless and hopeless because I try not to get it but I always get it and then I’d feel bad about getting it. And then it would be on my mind because it was on my mind and then I would eat some and I would put my spoon in it and put it in my mouth and different flavors all the time and I would taste it and it would taste so good.
And while I was eating it that feeling of helplessness and hopelessness was overwhelmed with the feeling of, “Oh, this is so good.” And so, I’d eat a bowl or two of it and it would taste really good. And then I’d put it, I’d be done and I’d think, “What did I do? Why did I do this again?” I was pretty athletic so it wasn’t like the… You know my health is decent but you know looking back I had a bit of skinny fat to me because of that. But it was that helpless hopeless feeling that it would cause me to eat it which would make me feel that more again which would make me eat it more which would make me feel that way again and that cycle kept going.
So by the time that I talk about on the show a lot when I looked down and noticed that most of my garbage came from food packaging, I could also say that most of my food came from packaged food. I didn’t think that way. It’s only looking back now. But I would come home a lot of times, I’d just stop at the deli downstairs and pick up a can of chili or a can of soup and I wouldn’t think anything of it. I sometimes have two cans of stuff for dinner and there’d be two cans. I had a lot of pasta so I’d have jars of spaghetti sauce. And that was my starting point was a jar of sauce and the spaghetti itself would come in a box or a bag and then I’d get bread that was in a bag, or I get hummus that was in a little plastic container and I had tons and tons of these plastic containers.
I got very little in the way of fresh fruits and vegetables. I mean I would be in that aisle in the market but I wouldn’t get it. I would have bags of baby carrots and I have bags of celery and the vegetables that I got were generally the packaged ones because they were easier to get. And then I’d always have a six pack of beer in the fridge, and I’d always have some wine and maybe some scotch. If I ever had beans or legumes, I didn’t really know how to boil them. I mean I guess I knew how to boil it but I never did. So I just get them from cans because it was so much easier and they would be more uniformly made. I really didn’t have anything fresh.
I remember when I would eat at my sister’s house out in Queens she would have stuff from the farmers’ market. It was all fresh made. And I was amazed. It was just this wonder how… I wondered how did she know how to make stuff from all these different vegetables that I couldn’t identify. For that matter, when I would go to the farmers’ market when I was there with her, she would talk to the farmers or the people behind the counters, behind the tables really. She knew all these people and I was like, “How did she know them?”
And when I would go to the farmers’ market, I would feel like really, “Oh I’m doing something really farmers’ marketee.” But what I actually got was the bread and the cheese and sometimes I get wine and I think, “Oh, it’s all locally made” but really I was just getting processed stuff and I ate out a lot. I probably ate out most meals, I mean most dinners. Breakfast I would have cereal, lunch was like packaged stuff. I ate a lot out. There was really little… Looking back now from the way I look at it now there wasn’t a whole lot of differentiation. I mean I would get Mexican one night, Thai another night and I’d varied the cuisine. But you know I couldn’t tell… How do I put this? The food was basically very similar. Like Mexican food and Thai food are very different but I couldn’t tell what was oily or sweet or salty because they all were… And I couldn’t… That’s what I couldn’t differentiate. Yes, it was different cuisines but it was all done the same way of… It was all comfort food. I think restaurants used to not be comfort food. I don’t know, that was before my time. But now I feel like everything is delicious in the yummy way which is to say it wasn’t really… I didn’t really get vegetables. It was a lot of pasta and rice and covered up with sauces that now when I eat them…
Well, I suppose we could talk about how it was before but I didn’t notice something then that I notice now that after I eat from restaurants I had this kind of stickiness on my tongue and my lips that’s from the sugar that’s on there. And there was nothing about the flavor of the plants or of the mushrooms, of the complexity like a fine wine, the textures, they were just made to be delicious. But yummy… Yummy and delicious I should differentiate. Yummy is what kids like. Delicious is something where there’s a richness, a complexity, of something challenging you, of you discovering something in it, of not just everything being there for you but something meaningful featuring the plants and the whole thing that went into it, not just turn into something that glides down your throat and is immediately pleasurable. That’s pleasing but it’s not rewarding, it doesn’t make my life better to eat something that’s just like sweet like that or oily. At the time I was like, “Oh, this is really pleasurable” but there was nothing to it. It wasn’t substantive.
Ok, that was about food. But there was something very similar about traveling. I’m not going to go into travelling in as much depth as I did about the food but I can tell you that there was a passive enjoyment of things that I would go to some place and I’d have things happen to me because I was there. Yes, I would go to a museum and I would go to see the sights and I would go to observe the cultural whatever you could see when travelling and of course going to North Korea, going to China. These are places that are pretty different than here. Looking back, it was really more like TV than Marco Polo. When I travelled by bike when I was a kid the summer between high school and college I took a bike ride with a friend and we went from Philadelphia to Maine and back with tents on the back and we were traveling on our own. The traveling now is really I get on a plane and I get out and I’m in a new place. How do I put it? The stuff that I really enjoyed, going off the beaten track and finding stuff that’s not available to the average tourist, I guess jumping had to later I found that I can do those things in New York, I can do things where I am. I can find people that are different than me and learn from them and things like that. It’s hard for me to put it in the way that I used to see it but looking back now it was a really passive thing.
Anyway, if you want me to talk about traveling, email me and I’ll talk more about traveling. There was another big thing which was after Trump was elected. There was a long period when I saw that he was elected and I had anticipated that he was probably going to plunder more than protect the environment. And that was not comfortable with me. And I thought, “What am I going to do?” And I felt very powerless. And I don’t like feeling powerless. And I felt very hopeless and I felt very helpless. That was very uncomfortable for a while because I don’t think of myself as someone who’s powerless and yet I just thought, “What can I do?” I mean maybe I can reduce my consumption a little bit. I was already not eating the packaged stuff by this point. But that’s nothing on the scale of what a president can do. I didn’t know what to do. I felt helpless. I gradually slowly identified the huge glut of other people also who felt powerless, who complained but also this huge dearth of people acting.
My country is full of… You know by the time he pulled out of the Paris Agreement it dawned on me that most Americans had basically pulled out of the Paris Agreement in their behaviors well over the IPCC limit of what we’re going to do to keep things below two degrees. I really wanted to find someone that I could support, some leadership effort, some community that was actually changing people’s behavior. But the more that I looked I just didn’t find it, watching The Inconvenient Truth, watching Before the Flood, watching documentaries. I didn’t see anyone actually making a difference. On an individual level, plenty of people, on a leadership level none. You know I just watched Chasing Coral, which I recommend watching, but there’s a scene when they show the coral bleaching, all these corals, all over the world dying, to all these coral scientists and the scientists are crying. It breaks my heart to see a roomful of people who care and want to do something completely impotent, helpless and unable to conceive of what they could do to change anything and looking to do more science.
Yes, I’m a fan of science but there I saw in them and what I felt in myself is just utter despair of what to do. And I think people watching these things, watch and they think, “What can I do?” and this catchphrase, I think of the catchphrases of our time, is, “I want to do something, I do care but if I act and no one else does, then it doesn’t make a difference” which is the pinnacle of… It’s the opposite of leadership. It’s the pinnacle of despair, of complacency, of giving up. It’s just if leadership is acting on your values with some expectation of people following, to say that phrase that, “I want to do something but if I do something and no one else does, it won’t make a difference” that is acting against your values. Following these nameless masses. And that’s how I felt. I felt guilty, I felt despair and it was really uncomfortable. Only when I started realizing that I could act and do something… Now, at first, I was very uncomfortable because I didn’t realize what I could do. But it started dawning on me that I could do something and then it started hitting me that I didn’t create the system that I was participating in. And whatever guilt I felt I stopped feeling guilty for a system that was created by people before I was born. And I know I blame them for creating systems based on a belief that how would they know that humans really could affect the climate on a global scale.
The thing to feel guilty about if anything is not acting. And the more that I started that guilt became more precise, it wasn’t just a [unintelligible] of like not feeling good, it was like… This is the problem that I’m not doing something and I could do something. And then I went through this whole big challenge of the people in history that I saw that made differences that were like the sorts of differences that are needed today. Those are my role models like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Vaclav Havel. It started dawning on me that if no one’s doing that and it’s really catastrophic not to have that happen, I’m going to have to do it.
And this is like to me the heart of chutzpah or gumption. Like who thinks of stuff like that? Who thinks, “I’m going to be like Martin Luther King.” And it took me a long time before I was able to say that to myself, before I was able to say it to others and not have to qualify it over and over again and I still feel like I have to. And I’m really still not sure a lot of what they did was nonviolent civil disobedience. So Bill McKibben is doing a lot of nonviolent civil disobedience to stop the oil companies, the fossil fuel companies. But that’s not influencing the average person. And there’s 300 some millions of them in the United States and billions all around the world and so we can do all we can with the oil companies. But if people are still demanding all these fossil fuels for their cars and planes and so forth and their heating and whatever, it’s kind of tough to blame the oil companies for delivering what people want.
And so, it dawned on me either I don’t act and then I just wallow in these feelings that I don’t like, or I act and then I have to face up that people are going to look at me like, “Who do you think you are?” I look at me and say, “Who do I think I am?” And I have to think of new ways of acting that are not nonviolent civil disobedience because I don’t think that works in the case of the environment. We’re not trying to change human laws but eventually what we’re trying to change human behavior, everyone, not just Jim Crow laws. So I was looking forward to risk and embarrassment and people saying, “Who do you think you are?” Even if I didn’t fail, even if I did succeed, success would mean people are going to come after me.
First of all, my experience of being vegetarian is that people always want to tell me why I should eat meat or why…I mean now it’s changed because a lot more people are vegetarian. But over the course of the past 20 years – 25 years there’s a lot of that. And I don’t like that. And I can certainly expect there’s going to be a lot of people telling me why it’s OK to do this, why it’s OK to do that, they really push… I didn’t know this at the time but I would very quickly find out that when you make people aware of them acting against their values, they push back really hard. And they point out how, “Oh, what I’m doing is ok.” I don’t want to go into that because I came later. I’m sure people listening to this have had the experience of suggesting to someone to turn lights off or not to use something they didn’t need to use and the person gets mad or something like that. You know that that stuff is going to happen, that I’m going to be venturing into these emotional minefields, minefields of emotional intensity.
And then there’s a piece of you know you have these role models for all of your life. I looked up to these people and… Of course, I like to follow in their footsteps. Then there’s this piece of vanity that says, “Oh, maybe you can be like them” but then there’s this other feeling of, “What? Who do you think you are?” I can’t put this into words. And so eventually I had to act. I didn’t really know what to do. Just I had to get started. That began months of self-doubt, wondering and then I could only start with baby steps. I didn’t really know what to do. I guess I know it was only till later that I realized that Martin Luther King also didn’t start with I Have a Dream. He started as a grunt worker in Montgomery, Alabama. Not many people can find Montgomery, Alabama on the map even today. At the time, he was going to help a criminal – Rosa Parks. Well, I guess he got there first, then that happened. I didn’t really know what to do. I guess I’ll start maybe next time with the disasters that came when I started giving talks at NYU.
Anyway, I wanted to share the before, how I came into this. I really loved packaged food. It was my natural way of eating. It was what I did. I went to the store, I didn’t get vegetables. I didn’t know what fruits and vegetables to get. I didn’t know how to prepare. I knew in principle how to make a recipe but everything I made was from packaged food. And that’s just how I ate. I didn’t think anything of it and I didn’t know any other way to do it. And I had no anticipation that I’d be able to figure stuff out as quickly as I did. I mean I stated that I had six months to a year of really blunt food, now that feels like a really short period of time. Anyway, I’ve shared a lot about post-transition. I haven’t shared that much about pre-transition. I wanted to share something about that.
Read my weekly newsletter
Subscribe for a weekly update of musings on leadership, the environment, and burpees.