The personal blog of Frank Lesko. Award-winning writer. Non-profit entrepreneur. Activist. Religious professional. Foodie. Musician. All around curious soul and Renaissance man.

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Songs That Voices Never Share

"People writing songs
that voices never share
And no one dare
disturb the sounds of silence"

It has only been recently that I have come to appreciate the jaw-dropping brilliance of Paul Simon's "The Sounds of Silence".

This world--this life--this society--the powers that be--the whole kit and kaboodle--convinces us to be ashamed of ourselves. The world pressures us to remain silent with the most sinister manipulation. Keep your art to yourself. Keep your emotions to yourself. Spend your life struggling to love yourself so you don’t spend any energy actually changing the world to the positive. Keep the artists and thinkers second-guessing themselves so they don't actually threaten the powers that be.

Don't disturb the sounds of silence, you are not worthy enough to do so. Sit back in your seat and be quiet.

Keep the woman paranoid about her weight so she doesn't actually realize her power and potential. Keep them scurrying around and reacting, and then when they internalize it you can lay off because they'll spend their life fighting shadows in their mind. Don't buy it, folks!

It pains me to imagine all the beautiful musicians and other artists who have only shared a portion of their creations with a select few. Its pains me to imagine all the people who don't share themselves with the world as the living art that they are. I am profoundly disturbed to say that most of them probably entertain a dream of sharing more widely but don't. The sounds of silence have won.

Many people out there are wildly creative and have wonderful dreams of living according to their passions and sharing art, thought and ideas with the universe. The tragedy is that many, many of them don't do that. Will anyone ever hear their songs? They have succumbed to the sounds of silence. The curse of perfectionism: A feeling of such profound unworthiness that someone never feels like they or what they create are ever good enough. I'm all for taking pride in a job well done, but there comes a time when silence is the only sound that is heard and that doesn't sound like a job well done at all.

They are convinced of their unworthiness. This music not good enough. This painting is not worthy enough. I'm not worthy enough. Silence is somehow better than the sound of my spirit. It would be better that I were not even here at all. Its painful to actually write that out, because my spirit screams from deep down with ever fiber of my being that it is not true, but I'm writing it because that's the message we tell the world when we fall silent. Those are the sounds of silence--everyone's scream of their own unworthiness. Or perhaps their resignation.

Where is the voice of one crying out in the desert? (Luke 3:4) Who is going to stand with me and say: I am worth contributing to this universe! I want to be part of God's creative energy molding and fashioning and coaxing this universe forward! What I have to offer is worth sharing!

Who is going to risk looking silly? You might get mocked, but that's just part of the trap. Don't be like the elephant with a tiny string around his leg who is absolutely convinced it is an indestructible rope.

Kitchen Sink Palette

I have a very peasant approach to food. I often make thick, hearty concoctions all mixed up together. I know some tricks, but few recipes. I work hard to make meals full of flavor and nutrition but give very little attention to presentation. (In fact, I used to sneer at people who value food presentation--I thought I was all about substance, but I realize now that there is a substance to style. I still don't understand garnish, though. Why buy something only to add a visual dimension to your plate and then immediately throw out? Seems wasteful to me. And who can eat curly parsley? It gives parsley a bad name.)

I abhor throwing out food, so its a challenge to keep fresh items at home that are versatile enough to use over and over before they go bad. I prefer to keep items that are easy to build meals out of--onions, garlic, potatoes, eggs, beans, usually tomatoes. I rotate in a "fresh item of the week" which is not on that list. This week, its mushrooms. They will appear in everything I eat this week but probably won't make an appearance again for a while.

I like having recipes where these foods serve as the base, but where there is also a lot of flexibility to add new items. However, the meal will go on if it is limited to only those basic items.

For a while, I subsisted almost entirely on burritos, omelets and soups. I called it the "Three Brothers of the Cupboard" (since the Iroquois already coined the term "Three Sisters"). Take the omelet, for example. The basic part is rather straightforward and eggs are common in my fridge. The fun is that you can add just about anything. I'd have virtual salads in there or a Mexican fiesta. Burritos function in the same way: Once you got a nice fluffy, whole-grain shell, the palette is open for you. Chopped onions, garlic and tomatoes are a no-brainer. Beans, meat, cheese, sour cream, lettuce, corn . . . you can have a complete meal and you're never missing an ingredient, since the items are so interchangeable.

The same is true for hash browns, which are quickly becoming a staple. It starts with shredded potatoes and onion, with simple spices. Last night, I threw a large handful of chopped (not curly!) parsley as well as generous amount of mushrooms. Cheese decorates them often. You can really throw in just about anything This helps for late night cooking when the cupboards are getting bare and its time for some creative experimentation. Open a can of something and toss it in. The good thing is that the meal will go on even if I can't find anything extra to go in.

I like recipes that start off with simple, nutritious elements that are easy to keep around, but which also have the flexibility for an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-dump-in-all-you-got approach.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Of Cars, Friendship and Live Music

I don't know what it is about cars. I am not much of a car fanatic. In fact, I don't particularly like them. I abhor shopping for cars or spending much of any attention on them. They would probably be fun to fix, but I have not spent much time at all attempting that.

But there is nothing quite like listening to music in a car.

I don't know why music comes alive while cruising down the road, stereo blaring, all senses reeling. Maybe because music is motion. Its one of my favoritest ways of communing with friends. Singing to each other, living the music with our whole beings, speaking lines with every drop of expression as the poetry that they are.

The car doesn't even have to be running. (There goes the theory about motion above, but maybe a car--even a parked car--always has that potential of motion, its about being "out there" in the world and not inside a building).

Hats off to Scott Teresi: Its times like this when I realize how rare it is to have a friend who you can just sit and sing songs together with for a spontaneous block of time. We went out to dinner for what I thought would be a quick study break. We ended up parking in the car and just blasting tunes for not just one album cycle but about 6 hours virtually straight! We moved parking spaces occasionally, went for a Taco run and some refreshments.

There aren't many friends with whom who you can literally breathe Lionel Richie and Neil Diamond songs without any drop of weirdness (nor should there be, but society is what it is), or with whom you can run the gamut from funk to folk without noticing any discontinuity.

This time, we started off with a rompin' Victor Wooten album "Soul Circus"--a new found discovery of mine that has gotten me really excited. "Nasty, funky, low-down bass". This album is stunning and wildly creative, and rare to find such a precious gem (its not like high school where mind-blowing albums were discovered one after another after another). Just couldn't get enough funk, so it was Sly & the Family Stone after that, giving way to Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. We always seem to find our way back to John Hartford's Hamilton Ironworks, one of my favorite albums of all-time (and no doubt one of his, too)--old time, expressive fiddle music interspersed with great stories of John's childhood and early music experiences. A lot of albums that play old time songs make them sound like museum pieces. These songs are the soundtrack of John Hartford's life and he plays them that way. Hamilton Ironworks, yeah.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

On Coffee: Headaches, Addiction and Listening to Your Body

I used to drink a tall glass of orange juice very morning as a teenager. I couldn't seem to get my day started without it. As I transitioned into college, eventually that tall glass of orange juice gave way to a morning jolt of coffee. As soon as I'd roll out of bed, my first duties every morning were to get myself to make that first cup of coffee and bring myself to life, again. I didn't even realize that my desire for orange juice had just quietly faded away.

And so it was for years and years: Coffee was my bread and butter. Periodically, I have tried to wean myself off of coffee. Once, I managed to sustain that for a number of months. What I discovered to my amazement was that as soon as I got off the coffee and passed through the initial withdrawal, that strong and gentle desire for orange juice showed its face, again. It occurred to me that the desire for orange juice had always been there. It was just drowned out by my louder addiction to coffee. All those years, I wasn't feeding my need for orange juice! (I still drank orange juice throughout the day, but I wasn't getting that early morning hydration nor that consistent glass of juice).

Health experts recommend that you "listen to your body." Your body knows what it needs and what it doesn't need, and every individual has different needs. I believe this to be true, but I think there are different tiers to this. There is a quick fix, fast action desire of your body. Coffee, junk food, fast food all tap into this. You can say your body wants it, and that is true. However, its really the quiet, gentle tugs that are best listened to.

Its like exercise--your body wants to sit on a couch and be lazy. That's a true want. But also deep down, in sometimes a quieter voice, your body also wants to exercise. How can you want to be lazy and want to exercise at the same time? Which voice do you listen to? We have to learn to listen to those deeper voices. Just like in my coffee and orange juice example, the desire for juice was drowned out by coffee. I don't believe that coffee satisfies the same nutritional benefits as the orange juice so I'm left believing that those nutritional needs were left unfulfilled all those years, and I didn't know it.

Learning to listen to those gentle voices is key to healthy living. The same process is key to cultivating a healthy spirituality. The quick fixes are often unsatisfying deep down, even if they address something we want (or think we want) on the surface.

So yes, my first morning duty is still making that cup of joe (sometimes I've surprised myself by going the first couple of hours without it, but it always makes an appearance at some point). However, I always include that tall glass of juice, as well. In effect, I chase my coffee. Not always right away--I'll drink the juice maybe 30-60 minutes after my coffee. This has had a profound effect. A lot of people complain about coffee headaches, and it makes sense: Caffeine tenses up your body and the coffee dehydrates you, so that combination is sure to bring headaches and general irritability. Chasing my coffee every morning seems to offset that to a large extent. If giving up coffee is not really on your radar, then chase it.

I'm certainly not against all coffee. Some argue that it is full of beneficial antioxidants and that a cup or two a day might be a great boost for you. I do have some words of caution, though: Like any addictive substance, it can cause problems having healthy relationships in life. When you're addicted, a substance is filling a "gap" that could otherwise be addressed through relationships or spiritual cultivation. I also think coffee speeds up your life.... ages your body. Also, if I start drinking several cups a day, its not long before my throat consistently burns.

Monday, February 18, 2008

For Procrastinators

I tend to approach a lot of my problems in life a similar way as my post below on "Food Infrastructure." I step back, look globally and come up with good strategies from that perspective. I try to create an environment in which it is easier for my goal to be reached.

It doesn't matter what I'm trying to do: Exercise, get all my homework done, make friends, eat right, you name it. I think back to when I have been successful in those regards. I then try to re-create that same kind of environment again. I try to put the infrastructure in place that will support my goal and even make things possible that otherwise would not happen.

Let's say I want to make more friends. I am terrible in bars. I can go to a bar every night for a year, and I'd be lucky to strike up a meaningful conversation or two. However, I can do some volunteer work and find lifelong friends within a matter of days. There is no sense going to a bar day after day if its just not conducive to my personality style. Its not a question of just trying harder--its more of a question of changing the scenery.

College was a great place to meet people, but what specifically about it? Living in community, being involved in activities, going to classes, etc. While most people are not going to live in dorms once they leave college, they can do the kinds of things that will have a similar result.

I also do well in deadline-driven environments, but the deadlines have to be short. I don't do well if I have 2 weeks to finish something. Knowing I have to do something today makes a big difference. In my job, much of my work has immediate deadlines, and that helps to keep my momentum up and my energy moving. It prevents me from getting bogged down and in a rut.

I'm terrible when it comes to homework. I procrastinate like crazy. I have found that having a daily schedule really helps. When I look at hundreds of pages to read and papers to write for each class 2 weeks from now, it can be easy to try to put that off or to come up with unrealistic ideas about what I can do on the weekend before class. I divide up my assignments into daily regimens. 2 weeks worth of assignments can be daunting, but if I go home from work today and know I have to read these certain 20 pages, that really helps me. I know I need a certain number of days off to avoid burnout, and a day or two of backup in case something comes up. It cuts down on stress. I don't have to weight the entirely of my homework every minute of every day. If I follow my schedule, which is well made and based on realistic goals, I will do fine.

Let's say you have trouble writing a paper in a noisy environment. At your house, there are noisy people and kids running around. You can simply try to muscle through and do your homework anyway. You plug your ears, pound the table, put music on, yell at people, but it doesn't work. It would be senseless to keep struggling in this environment. Instead, find a private room. Go to a library. Pages will start flying off better than ever. What are you trying to prove by trying to work through an obstacle like that? Save your energy for the obstacles that are absolutely necessary to overcome, because there will be plenty of those. Step aside from the ones that take energy but really prove little.

We all have weaknesses. Knowing your weaknesses is a major step in reaching your goals, because once you know them you can do something about them. If you know there are certain environments in which you don't do well, don't worry about changing yourself. Just change the scenery.

If you are trying to reach a goal but find yourself spinning your wheels and beating your head against the wall, spending more energy and agonizing in frustration just trying to get started, it would probably do you well to step back and change your environment. You can keep trying to muscle through, but you might be up against a lot. Your results will be minimal for all the work you do spinning your wheels.

Rather, put yourself into the kinds of situations that are conducive to your personality and work styles. Think about the places, circumstances, structures and atmosphere in which you thrive, and either create it or find it. I'm not against facing a challenge or working through difficulties, but there comes a time when its an exercise in idiocy to keep doing the same things and expect a different result. It could even be some trick you play on yourself to actually avoid your goal by squandering your time on senseless and unnecessary hurdles. Spend your energy on your goal, not on getting started. There will be plenty of obstacles to overcome in reaching any goal, don't waste your energy on things that can be avoided. Put the kinds of support structures in place that will do just that--support you. No person is an island, and we are heavily influenced by our environment.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Food Infrastructure

So you've been reading my posts detailing the bounty of health and financial benefits of making your own nutritious, organic whole foods. You want to stand up against industrial food. You don't want MSG and hydrogenated oils in your bloodstream. You want those hundreds of dollars you spend each month on restaurants and packaged foods to stay in your pocket. Yet, despite all this, you find it hard to actually do. You figure that the only way to accomplish all this is to spend all your time in the kitchen or carry large satchels of food to work every day.

I admit, even though I love to spend a lot of my energy on food, I have a difficult time sealing all the cracks. There are days when I run out of time to prepare a lunch, or I'm out on the road and misjudged the timing. I'm forced to stop as a restaurant instead or (God forbid) a convenience store.

You certainly can spend all your time and energy managing your food. However, all hope is not lost if you are not able or willing to do so. You can make this so much simpler for yourself by creating a Food Infrastructure in your life.

Think of recipes that are quick and that you actually like to eat (key point). Now keep that in mind and see how your favorite recipes might fit in to the following strategies:

For example, I make a point of eating some fruit every day. However, it is easy to miss when I'm running late in the morning or didn't go to the grocery store the day before. I therefore keep some berries in the freezer at work. I also keep some dry oats in a container in my desk. I can have those berries and oats for breakfast in the morning. Its not quite the same as fresh fruit, but berries are an important part of any diet.

I will sometimes buy a package of whole-wheat pitas, a container of hummus and a couple of tomatoes and bring them to work on a Monday. They can stay in the fridge at work or in my desk cabinet, and provide a tasty and nutritious lunch for an entire week. All I gotta do is bring it to work once and its good for several days eating.

Work is, in fact, a wonderful place to get yourself to eat foods you know you should eat but find easy to avoid. It’s a controlled environment. Beans and whole-grains are often missing from contemporary American cuisine, so making sure they are in your lunch at work is a good way to get them into your diet consistently. Then you don't have to think about them for the rest of the day. Knocking out your fruits or veggies early in the day can free up your evenings in case you do something unexpected or are out on the road.

Stash containers of trail mix at work or in your car. A great snack of seeds, nuts and dried fruit--Important items that most Americans don't eat enough of.

Other people recommend once-a-month or once-a-week cooking, as well. You blow the kitchen out making every concoction you could ever want and stock the freezer with it. You have ready-made dinners for yourself whenever you want them, good for at least a year in the freezer.

I always try to keep some food items at home that can constitute a quick dinner. Sometimes I come home and I'm too tired, but the fridge is empty and I don't feel like making a big ordeal in the kitchen. It would be real tempting to go out and hit a restaurant. Having a dozen eggs on hand with some onions or tomatoes at the ready is my way of making a 5-minute dinner. Those are items I generally keep around, so they rarely go bad. Eggs are a good meal for this purpose, because you can always add whatever you have available: sour cream, salsa, peppers, beans, cheese, meat, whatever is in the cupboards can really go into a meal of eggs.

There's no reason to overlook the good ole faithful peanut butter & jelly. Bring a load of bread with a couple containers of the toppings and you're all set for quite a while. Keep in mind that there are other options besides PB & J. There are plenty of other nut butters, jams and preserves with various fruits. Even if they are slightly more expensive than the old standbys, the money you're saving by not going to a restaurant more than covers it. [I should mention here that I believe that conventional breads and jams are rather bad for you. I do recommend getting something organic and minimally processed.]

Keeping a loaf of bread in the freezer can be a good idea, too. For me, bread goes bad quickly if I don't do something about it (especially since the bread I buy doesn't usually have preservatives in it). Alison once told me that a toaster can bring some frozen slices of bread back to life really well.

Making healthy food a priority certainly can take a consistent, constant effort. It goes against the grain of our society, so you have to be at the ready at all times. However, you can really minimize how much effort this takes by having a network of food that you keep in strategic locations--at work, in the car, at home. These are foods that can be cheap, they keep well, they target key areas of nutrition, and they are foods you actually like to eat. Even if they function purely as a back-up plan, they can be a great way to cut costs and keep you healthy.

If you have quick and easy food ideas, I'd sure love to hear them.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

How To Go Into Debt

In our debt-ridden, credit card happy society, it is easy to get frustrated and want to swear off all forms of debt. You may personally know the horrors of running up a credit card bill and its toxic effect on your life. Inheriting some of the frugalness of our grandparents' generation seems in order.

However, the real skill to learn is not how to avoid debt--It is how to go into debt properly. I'm starting to think that this is an area where people make mistakes on both extremes--some people buy bubblegum on credit. Other people refuse to take out a loan for almost any reason.

When you take out a loan, you do pay interest. You are going to pay back more money than you borrowed. That is the harsh reality that makes many people avoid borrowing at all. However, you have to look at the whole picture. You probably won't mind paying that money back if you took the money you borrowed and used it to make more for yourself.

Sometimes the Hare Beats the Tortoise

For example, let's say two people want to start a business, but each needs cash on hand in order to do so. Person A works 2 minimum-wage jobs around the clock, scrimping and saving over the course of 10 years before he finally has enough money to invest in a business. Person B takes out a loan and starts the business immediately. Person B is paying back interest on the loan, but that person is also fully engaged in his new business making money hand over fist. When its all said and done, Person B is way more ahead financially than Person A, who waited until he had all the money saved up before investing in a business. Plus, Person B is also living his dream 10 years sooner than Person A.

The same is true when it comes to buying a house or financing your education.

It makes sense to borrow money if you can link that to some kind of investment in your life--a capital improvement. This will be something that ends up bringing in more money to cover the interest and then some.

The Multiplication of Tomatoes

You loan me 10 tomatoes today on the condition that I pay you 12 tomatoes later. If I am hungry and just eat the tomatoes, I'm in real trouble. I am full now but still have to feed myself tomorrow AND still somehow manage to pay you 12 tomatoes for the 10 I ate. But let's say I saved the seeds from the tomatoes. I manage to grow 100 tomato plants to yield thousands of tomatoes. It takes virtually no effort to pay you all 12 tomatoes back when I am literally swimming in thousands of tomatoes. However, I would never have had a tomato garden if you did not lend me those 10 tomatoes to start with.

You should never borrow money to pay for living expenses. If you are, then you are not managing your money properly. That's like the guy who ate all the tomatoes and ended up even worse than he was before--still hungry but now in debt. If you don't have enough money to pay for your living expenses now, what makes you think you will have enough to pay for living expenses in the future AND have some left over to pay back the money you originally borrowed? You may be living larger than your income allows. The problem is that when you start paying that money back (and you will), you will be living smaller than what your income would normally allow.

I appreciate that it is a noble feat to earn what you have in life and never borrow in addition to that. I respect that. We need a little more of that in our society which wants immediate gratification and doesn't understand the discipline of working toward a goal. However, society would still be (literally) in the medieval times if it were not for widespread and legal money lending. That one change in society sparked more economic growth than most people realize (it was once condemned by the Catholic Church for Christians to charge interest to each other, which had a negative effect on the economy and spurned all sorts of responses, such as black market "loan shark" type arrangements and just a general lack of money lending).

There is also a nobility in borrowing money, depending on how it is played out. You are asking someone for money that you can't possibly pay back and agree to not only pay it back but also interest on top of that. It’s very gutsy! It can be a healthy and noble risk.

The Cost of What You Didn't Do

You also should consider the opportunity cost of any decision. An opportunity cost measures what you could have had if you made a different decision. Even if you did something profitable, it could still have an opportunity cost because you could have done something more profitable.

Let's say you bought a house for $120K, fixed it up for $10K and now want to sell it for $150K. However, the market is tight. You get an offer for $140K, but that's not really what you want to get for it. You want to make sure you get every penny out of it that you can. You feel it’s an insult to get one penny less, and you are going to dig your heels in and wait it out. So you sit on it for another 6 months, then 9 months, then 12 months before you are able to find a buyer. You finally sell it for $145K and you consider it a victory. You still got less than you originally wanted, but you got more than what that first person was offering 12 months ago. You are happy and feel like you've beaten the system. You waited 'em out and won.

This might make sense if you are a one-home owner and aren't in a hurry. But if you are looking to make sensible investments, you probably lost out. You sat on a piece of property for 12 months to gain yourself only an extra $5K more than the original offer. You could have sold that house at $140K and made a modest profit, then turned around and used that money to buy another house and made another modest profit, and maybe repeated that process 3-4 times that year. You could have made $10K on each house yielding $40K rather than keeping one house and holding on to it and selling it for top dollar.

You profited $15 grand on the whole deal (not counting the 12 months of mortgage payments you made which probably voided all your profits). You had the opportunity to make $40 grand. Yeah, you profited, but the option you did not select would have gotten you far more. The opportunity cost is negative $25 grand.

This is why businesses are willing to put items on sale to get rid of them quickly. The business may actually be losing money to offload those items like that, but if they aren't moving then that shelf space could have held something that sells much faster. It is actually a loss to keep it on the shelves and hold out for a higher price.

Money Isn't Everything

It goes without saying that money isn't the total measure of anything. I have chosen to incur debt and barely subsisted in lower-paying jobs in order to work towards a dream. I chose to struggle financially to build my resume. For example, I wanted to work in the non-profit world, but jobs were tight and my experience wasn't up to snuff. I worked as an Americorps member for a very small amount of money, but I was able to build experience that I would otherwise not have been able to amass so quickly otherwise. It was a wise decision to do. I knew I was living thin and had to incur some credit debt in order to pull through that year. I did go into debt, but the mistake I made was how I did it. There was too much restaurant spending and other expenses that could have been trimmed down to minimize the debt. That is where I screwed up. The decision to potentially enter debt in order to build my resume was the right thing to do.

Americans often change jobs several times in a lifetime, but it still can be hard to change your entire career. If you have worked in business for several years and want to pursue ministry, the arts or non-profit work, for example, it may require some gutsy "investing". This may involve some unpaid internships, student loans, or very low paying entry-level jobs to work your way up. It can totally make sense to do that if you are incurring those losses around a vision for your own growth, financial or otherwise. Only you can know for sure, but I will say this: Some prudence is in order. But also it is important to take risks in life, too. The wisdom is knowing when to do what.

If you are borrowing money and taking risks on your future without some kind of vision or plan for how that will come to fruition, you are taking quite a gamble. You may be suffering from some unrealistic belief that it's all going to fall into place someday. Certainly, some amazing people have stumbled into greatness with nary a plan nor an idea. I am not sure I would want to take that kind of gamble, though. If you want to achieve a goal, the best thing to do is have a plan. The odds are unlikely that you will able to achieve your goal without taking some kinds of risks, though, and among those risks could very well be taking out a loan. Or two.

The Bottom Line

So if you don't take out a loan, yes, you are saving yourself interest. But what could you have had if you took out the loan? Don't let loans stop you from financing your education, buying a home or starting a business. Those are the ideal places where loans are best used! Going into debt is not a bad thing at all under certain conditions. Its can be a reasonable and profitable thing to do.

While society would really benefit from some old fashioned frugalness, some wise, targeted investments are an essential part of a healthy economy. I do believe our society can use some prudence either way--knowing when to hold 'em, and when to fold 'em. So every decision has both a cost and a benefit. Every decision also has an opportunity cost--whether its worth it or not depends on the situation. The bottom line is: If you're going into debt, have a plan.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

"As If", Part II

Let's say you are dealing with an issue where a lot of people are concerned about health risks, but there is no definitive word from the scientific community as to the validity of those fears. For example, many people are suspicious that cell phone radiation can cause cancer. It hasn't been proven one way or another. There seems to be evidence on both sides of this.

A good question to ask yourself is: Does anyone stand to make or lose a lot of money depending on the outcome of this question?

When it comes to cell phones, a lot of people stand to lose billions of dollars if it is discovered that cell phone radiation can cause cancer. (They also stand to make billions of dollars by selling protective equipment, but the business community tends to be conservative and doesn't always see the opportunity present--new opportunities mean new competition and a potential that the big dog may become the smaller dog. Companies at the top just like to keep things the way they are).

Watch the money, and be careful. I don't trust the business community.

I don't want to be a guinea pig in the cell phone company's large societal experiment. In 10-20 years, we may all find out that cell phone usage really does cause cancer but that it took that long for the evidence to roll in. Some people may say a person is being paranoid to take extensive measures to protect themselves against something that isn't a proven threat, but that's exactly my point: It hasn't been proven. There is enough reason to be concerned. With big money slowing down this process, it may be another generation or two before any proof rolls in.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

All I'm Saying Is: Give Beets A Chance

Please reconsider beets! These vegetables are one of the most disliked in the food pallette. Some people have had a negative experience with them as children. I suppose that has a lot to do with cold, canned beets from the salad bar. I never found them appealing when I was young, either.

But these vegetables are really magnificent and have much potential to augment your repertoire. If you are a root vegetable lover like me, beets are an important component to that category! They're sweet, they're tasty. The Russians make borscht soup out of them. My observation is that women like them more than men, but I love them. They are high in Vitamin B-6, which makes them really good for expectant mothers and women preparing to be pregnant.
Right off the bat, you can eat the whole thing. Beets were initially cultivated for their greens, probably by the Romans. It wasn't until solidly in the Middle Ages that the roots were bred to be larger and were only then considered a premier part of the vegetable. I usually steam the greens until they are soft, and eat them plain or with a little bit of salt and butter.

I prefer the roots, though. I cook them in two stages. First, I cut off the leaves, leaving about an inch of stem still attached to the roots. I scrub them with a brush under water, removing any dirt but leaving any major roots attached. I then take the washed beets, wrap a bunch of them together in one sheet of aluminum foil, and bake them. People say you get a different taste depending on the temperature you cook with. I usually stay in the 325-375 range and cook them anywhere from 45 minutes to 2 hours (I rarely go under one hour, though). Beets are done when a fork goes through them like butter and when the skin peels off easily. Older beets many need a longer time to soften, but if they are too old they may end up woody--there's not much you can do when it gets to that stage, so cut off those sections when you eat them. No matter what, its hard to overcook beets.

I then let the beets cool. After that, its time to peel them and cut off the roots and tops (you keep these on during cooking so that the juices stay in the beets). You can peel them with a fork or knife. I generally use a fingernail. Keep in mind that beets can seriously stain your countertops or cutting boards! Traditional recipes recommend you do not eat the skins. I would not be surprised that as beets catch on in popularity in our modern culture that we will discover that the skins of beets are just as precious as the skins of potatoes, but as of right now they are usually not recommened.

Once you have peeled and cooked the beets, they are ready for any recipe. You can put them in the fridge until you are ready to use them. You can eat them plain and cold. Fresh beets have a wonderful earthy taste when cold. But here is the ultimate:

Erin Go Beets

Take your cooked and peeled, still-hot beets and mash them! Just use a regular potato masher and go to town. Add in generous amounts of butter and sour cream. It is difficult to estimate how much you need of each. I use fairly equal amounts, but that can vary. For 4-5 medium sized beets, I may use a big scoop or two of sour cream and a half-stick of butter, but don't quote me on that. It really depends on the level of creaminess and consistency you like. Stir it all up together!

These mashed beets a la Erin are amazing, and even the most hardcore beet hater will warm up to them (as a side note, this is the same way Erin makes mashed potatoes).

Some people eat beets raw, but it is generally discouraged. I'm sure they are fine to eat that way occassionally, but--like potatoes--can be tough on your system when eaten raw on a regular basis. I don't know all the facts, but you can google it, if you want.

Oh, almost forgot: A certain percentage of people will end up with discolored urine or bowel movement after eating beets. This is perfectly normal!

The "As If" Approach

I saw Senator Tom DeLay on MSNBC the other night. He mentioned that it was "arrogant" for humans to think we can affect the global climate. I'm not exactly sure where he came up with that, usually that kind of terminology is code for religious fundamentalism--'God put us into this world, God'll take us out.' I was surprised. I figured that after George W. Bush had finally acknowledged global warming, that the nay-sayers were a thing of the past.

In truth, it is not proven that the burning of fossil fuels and modern agriculture are the causes of global climate change. Yes, a change is happening. Of that, there is no doubt. But the cause(s) remain scientifically unproven. There is a bounty of evidence that global warming is linked to human activity--the rise in temperature corresponds to the usage of fossil fuels which took a sharp increase at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As compelling as statistics like that are, it is still technically unproven.

We need to understand the way science works, though. If you all remember back a few years, there was a major debate as to whether or not smoking causes cancer. Cynics and skeptics mocked science and railed against any allegation that smoking causes cancer. For sure, big money slowed down the process. Yet, the evidence was staggering that smoking causes cancer, but in a purely scientific way, it was not technically proven until recently. In order for science to prove something, it has to isolate a variable and show in clear view that this one variable led to this one outcome, and then to repeat that on a statistically large enough test group. When you consider all the thousands and thousands of chemicals acting upon your body--every scrap of food you eat has hundreds of chemicals in it--you can imagine how difficult the task is for science to break it down.

When the evidence starts to build up as drastically as it has been in the cases of smoking and global warming, we need to act as if it is true. Just using your common sense, you could see that the lung cancer ward at the hospital is filled with people who smoke. Smokers just seem to have breathing problems. There is a ton of correlational evidence that smoking is linked to cancer. Sure, you can find the odd person who lives to 90 years old as a chain smoker, but one or two examples might actually prove the rule rather than discount it.

I'm not suggesting we change everything we do at every hypothesis that science throws our way. That would be impossible to do, anyway, since science is not one unified body--it is often a plurality of voices with contradictory opinions. But something like global climate change is a very big deal, bigger than most people even imagine. The scientific community is either at or approaching concensus that global warming is due to human activity. We really don't know how bad it can get, but we are already surpassing science's worst case scenarios for the stage we're currently in. A lot of people, however, seem to believe what they want to believe rather than what the evidence tells us. This is the hard discipline of science--letting yourself be guided by truth rather than your own desires. I encourage people to look through evidence in a detailed way. Call science on the carpet. Scientists need to be checked so that they don't let their assumptions or predispositions drive them, because they are vulnerable to the same tendencies as the rest of us.

If you went to a restaurant and the waiter brought you a plate of chicken, what would you do if the waiter said: "Someone thinks that this chicken was thrown into the garbage can, and that someone retrieved it and put it on your plate. However, some of us are not sure. It has not been proven that it ever went near the garbage can." I can tell you what I would do: I would not eat the chicken! I see no reason to take that kind of chance.

If we live in a world where millions of people believe fervently that an activity is dangerous, I am the type of person to heed that warning and refrain. Whether science is not entirely sure about the cause or not is really not entirely consequential to me--I am going to act as if it is true, until science proves that there is no reason to be concerned. Science is busy working on the problems of our day, but it may be generations before we get answers to some of our most pressing questions. We need to figure out what we are going to do in the meantime. I certainly don't want to be huddled under my blankets and afraid to face the world because somebody thinks there's a risk here or there. But we need to figure out what to do in situations where science does not have an answer. If someone thinks there's a good chance my dinner came right from the garbage can before it ended up in my plate, I can tell you that I am not going to eat it despite the fact that it is not yet "proven". I am going to act as if it is true. Whether that means cleaning the chicken, re-cooking it, feeding it to the dog, or simply throwing it out. I am going to make my decision in light of the very real possibility that is has been tampered with.

Maybe its an urban legend that standing next to a running microwave puts you at risk of dangerous levels of radiation exposure. However, it costs me little time and energy to stand at a distance from running microwaves. If it turns out to be untrue, then I'm not really any worse off for being careful. However, if it turns out to be true, I will be glad I took steps to protect myself.

We shouldn't be run by our fears, and we shouldn't let ourselves be swayed by every hint of allegation or suspicion out there. Somebody, somewhere, has a warning for just about everything you could possibly do. However, science has some very strong theories about certain things, with quite a bit of correlational data. There are some issues that I feel are too important to wait for science to prove.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Getting Through Lent Fast

I was introduced to Oxfam in high school. Students were organizing a campaign for third world relief in conjunction with that organization. Part of the campaign involved taking a pledge to forego a meal on behalf of those who do not have enough to eat.

That did not make sense to me. I would much rather have spent my energy getting food to those who need it rather than going without food. It seemed counter-intuitive. At the very worst, it seemed like a waste of time.

In the time since, my appreciation for fasting has grown considerably. I do think it is a very
worthwhile practice. Certainly with Oxfam, the notion of solidarity is striking. We know there are millions of people without food across the world. It says volumes without a word when we are willing to be hungry with them for a while.

When I was going in for surgery, I was not allowed to eat anything after midnight the night before. Being a young 30 years old, my surgery was scheduled late. It kept getting pushed off later and later to make way for younger children and older people who needed their operations earlier in the day. It was harder for them to get through the fast for so long. My dad decided to fast with me. He did not drink any coffee until I was in the operating room. Despite a strong headache and my urgings, he quietly refrained until I was in. I can't even begin to tell you how meaningful that was. It goes outside the realm of words. Logically, it makes no sense. Why have 2 people suffer when only 1 needs to suffer? It shows that there is something more important than the 3-dimensions around us. (Whether he had his morning coffee or not, I don't remember, but he wasn't going to drink any in front of me while I was sitting there with a caffeine headache of my own.)

Fasting can be transformative, too. As one of the high school organizers said (whose name I unfortunately can't remember), "you can't go without a meal without thinking about what it must be like to live with hunger." It is quiet and powerful.

Much ado has been made about all lenten promises we make as children. Maybe it is silly to give up chocolate or reduce TV viewing during Lent. I suppose those are not very big sacrifices. I do not sneer at them, though. Just the very thought that giving up something is a good thing and an appropriate spiritual practice is invaluable. I would urge people not to judge their lenten sacrifices too harshly.

To many in our culture, the thought of giving up anything at any time is just outside of the realm of imagination. It is just not considered. Like me as a high school student, the answer to our problem is always "more" and not "less."