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.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

How To Achieve Goals

If you want to do anything in life--any goal at all--I don't care if its learning to play the oboe, starting a fitness routine, changing your career, or just making new friends--no matter what the goal is, the best shot you have of actually achieving it is to build it into the structure of your regular life, right into your daily routine.

Let's say your goal is to exercise. Picture this (it shouldn't be hard because you've probably been in this very situation): You wake up and struggle your way to work in the morning, hustling through alarms and traffic to get there in the nick of time. You work all day, then drag your tired body home through rush hour traffic. Get in the car, get out of the car, get in the car, run some errands, unload the car. Find food, do some laundry, look for some down time . . . Then you want to do some exercise! God forbid anything unexpected happens in your schedule, because there is only a very small window for exercise even on an ideal day.

Its no surprise that a regular, fulfilling exercise program rarely takes root in such a lifestyle. Its totally extraneous and doesn't even fit into the flow of the day. Considering that most people are running at or near capacity most of the time, its a wonder it is even attempted at all. When you're busy, when you're tired, when you need some rest, when you just don't feel like it, your exercise routine is the first thing out the door. Its not essential and sometimes its just too much.

Kudos to people who (with grim determination) can make it happen anyway, but those isolated few are not a model for the majority of us who just don't function that way. Most of us do not want to go through life with a trench warfare mentality, gripping that exercycle until someone pries our cold, dead hands off of it. Blaming yourself because you can't force your way through life is just heaping unnecessary guilt onto an already disappointing situation.

For any goal, you will sometimes need to must up some determination to get through a lazy day. However, if you find you have to force yourself all of the time, then the problem is that you are just not set up properly. You've heard me talk about infrastructure before. You need to build your day around your goal. Spend your energy on your goal, not on some kind of test to prove your level of determination in the face of unnecessary agony. In other words, the goal is to exercise--the goal is not to see if you can get to the gym daily. If you make it unnecessarily difficult for you to achieve your goal by relegating only to your "extra time" and superimposing it into an already-packed schedule, you have to ask how much of a priority your goal really is.

You won't walk to the grocery store if you live 10 miles from it. However, if you live 1 mile from some shopping areas, you may be inclined to take a stroll. If you live in a neighborhood with good sidewalks and bike lanes, you may ride your bike more often than someone who has to load the bike into the car, drive 5 miles to the bike path, unload the car, bike for a while, then reverse the process to go home. See what I mean? You'll be more likely to actually do it if you can just walk out the door and jump on your bike on a whim.

Urban planning is all about this, as Alison talks about in her blog. You are more likely to walk if the sidewalks and neighborhoods are conducive to it. You are more likely to take public transportation if it makes sense in the rhythm of your life, with convenient routes and fees. You are more likely to meet your neighbors if you have natural, regular times for meaningful contact (not waving at each other through rolled-up car windows while hurriedly driving past them). Urban planning is all about building an environment that encourages a certain outcome--in most cases, that hoped-for outcome is community building.

The same principle applies to your life as an individual. Build the environment that is conducive to your goals. If you want to meet new friends, you need to put yourself in situations where that is likely to happen, given your temperament, style and history. So you may want to work at a place with a lot of people intermingling instead of a job where you are isolated behind your cubicle walls. If you want to exercise, find ways do that that within the normal course of the day. Move closer to your work so you can walk or bike there, or take a walk on your lunch break. The activities that fit within the normal flow of your day are going to be activities that have staying power.

I lived in Spain for a semester while in college. Me and a friend lived on the outskirts of town. Buses were too expensive to take regularly, so every time we went anywhere we had to walk. And walk. And walk. Rain? We walked. Sick? We walked. Didn't feel like walking? We walked. Feet hurt, hungry, in a hurry, bored with walking, you name it--we still walked. We simply had to, there was no other option. We walked miles daily. It was almost religious. We got into great shape, and it was such a powerful experience (I do believe in the miracle of daily walking, and I'll write about that some other time).

The point to the Spain story was that we were successful at walking regularly because we had to be. It was just a part of life. It was the most consistent exercise I have ever gotten in my life, and all because there was no way out. I didn't even have to waste energy fighting with myself over whether to walk or not. There was no need, because it was woven right into the fabric of life.

There are sometimes going to be some hard choices. If you work 40 hours a week and commute 1 hour per day and need 2 hours in the evening to unwind after your workday before you can even think of doing something else, you will most likely have neither the time nor the energy to develop into a star cello player. That's just reality and some simple math. You may have to substantially overhaul your daily routing to make room for what you want. That might involve such things as moving, changing jobs, reducing your hours at work, reducing your commute, and finding other ways to make yourself available for your goal.

If you don't have the time to work on your novel, but find time to wax/wash your car every week, you may be lying to yourself. I'm not advocating driving a dirty car, but there's priorities and then there's priorities.

Sometimes joining a group of people who are already doing what you want is a great way to get the support structure you need. I played music more when I was in a band, just because we had gigs and practices and I had to be there.

Working with your style and temperament is just as important a part of your infrastructure as the tangible environment of your home, job and community. I am particularly bad at doing regular exercise. However, I practically race home from work, leap out of my office clothes and into the garden. I will sweat myself dry daily in a garden. Knowing that this is exercise I will easily and gladly do, the key to build the right infrastructure to support my exercise habits is just to make sure I have a plot of land that I can conveniently attend to. Gardening is ideal exercise for me because it is exercise I will actually do. Sometimes it forces me to work because there are things that need to be done, but more often than not its just a pure joy.

Your temperament plays into your social goals, too. If you are a shy person who craves long discussions about books, then why are hanging out in bars on football Sundays? If you want to meet a Roman, your best bet is to go to Rome. I'm all for magic happening anywhere, but there is something wrong about putting yourself in impossible situations on a regular basis and expecting instant karma to hit you out of the ballpark (pun intended).

I am not recommending taking the easy way out. But I am recommending making it easy on yourself. Spend your energy on your goal, not on all the business of getting to and from. Take some chances and find ways to weave your goal into your very routine. It may involve a move, a change in job, or at least a change in scenery. It may involve a little bit of planning or set-up work to save you lots of headaches later. But if your goal is precious to you, it will most certainly be worth it.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Petition as Prayer

Christians often do not waste any time bringing all their heartfelt needs and simple desires to the Lord in prayer. "God help me pass my test" or "God, please heal this person."

While I can certainly sympathize with many of the wishes being prayed for, they can reflect a mentality of people who want the universe and God to bend to their wishes. "God do what I want; God make my life the way I want it to be" as if God is some genie in a bottle that will bark on command. It is easy to visualize our wish list as some scroll that is so long that when it is unraveled it rolls across the room, out the door and down the street.

It is easy to look down on this, especially when the thing asked for doesn't seem to weigh too heavily in comparison to oh, shall we say: world peace. It can look like the person does not want to grow in relationship with God, but rather just boss God around.

But I think there's more going on during petitions that that.

St. Augustine has impressed me recently in his Discourse on the Psalms, The Easter Alleluia:

Our praise is expressed with joy, our petitions with yearning. We have been promised something we do not yet possess, and because the promise was made by one who keeps his word, we trust him and are glad; but because possession is delayed, we can only long and yearn for it. It is good for us to persevere in longing until we receive what was promised, and yearning is over; then praise alone will remain.

What I take from this is the importance of being in a state of longing. It is good to nurture this thing called desire. We were promised justice, joy and fulfilment from a God of love. It is good to imagine what that would be like. It is good to reach for it and dream of it, and savor it like a meatloaf in the oven you can smell from the outside that compels you to want to come inside for dinner. We are hungry, and we can almost taste the feast ahead of us. The feast that was promised.

It is often said that prayer results not in getting what you ask for as much as it is about transforming the person who is doing the praying. As my professor Sr. Fatula says, this theology increases our capacity to receive what it is we ask for. Our yearning opens us up and increases our passions. It stretches us as we reach deep and far at the same time. It is good to reach and to reach out to relationship with God. Even when we are just praying for a good grade, we are living in desire.

It is important not to judge someone else's petitions (or our own). Even if they seem trite, we need to start somewhere. And besides, they may not be so trite, after all! They may be the very thing that fans a spark into a full flame.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Whole Meat

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts are the carnivore's equivalent to mass-produced white bread.

It is easy to think about bread and pasta when considering "whole foods." You can actually buy something called "whole grain", so there is an immediate mental connection. A whole foods philosophy does not end there, however. It relates to meats, vegetables, fruits and has a bearing on the diet as a... well, whole.

Chicken skin and fat contain a lot of vital nutrients. Your best bet is organic, pasture-raised meat. It contains less of the harmful fats and more of the good fats, such as Omega-3 Fatty Acid's. That fat is so good people get it in pill form. Grass-fed beef contains 3-4 times as much Omega-3's as factory raised cows, with pasture-raised eggs at 10x. My eggs from Raven Rocks state on the label they are aware of instances as high as 20x. Pasture-raised have less overall fat, and what's there is the good kind.

Cooking with bones was once common. Nowadays, producers spare us the problem of de-boning meat by having it all nicely mechanically separated and pressed into patties, nuggets or just fillets. Bones are vital to nutrition, though. We don't eat them (although some cultures do crush them into a bone meal). In cooking, bones release plenty of minerals and other nutrients into our food. The cartilage releases glucosamine, something people spend a lot of money for in supplement form to treat arthritis.

See the Weston A Price website for features on bone soups and the problems with boneless, skinless meats.

Any time you can cook with the bone in, go for it. Its amazing what a few bones and a lump of fat can can do for a batch of beans (pork & beans, ya know). Scott's grandmother uses pork neck bones when making pasta sauce. When roasting or grilling, let that marrow drizzle out into your food. I've already talked at length about bone soups in previous posts. If you don't know what to do with bones, just throw them in the pan when you're cooking something--anything. Needless to say, the bones of naturally-raised animals produce a better gelatin for sauces and soups.

To really complete the deal, you should eat your fair share or animal organs, too. I try to eat some liver regularly (about once a month). I often make soup with the whole bird--gizzards, heart, liver, skin and all. Most of my sausage is in natural, intestinal casing. That's about as far as I've taken the organ thing.

I have a 4 lb beef heart and a much smaller kidney waiting for me in my freezer. Just not sure what to do with them, yet. I thought about "Steak and Kidney pie", which is a featured item on the menu for any Guy Fawkes celebration worth its salt. However, my goal is to have my cow finished before the end of October (so that I keep the frozen beef no longer than 1 year), so I may have to have my own celebration before the November 5th holiday rolls around. Any suggestions? Consider yourself fair-warned if you invite me to a potluck in the next few months.

The smaller the animal, the easier you can eat the whole animal without grossing yourself out. I think about small fish were used to munch up whole in Spain. Every organ was there!

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Hats off to Good Professors

Humanities majors know the story: The Standard Operating Procedure for many college courses is to read a bunch of books, talk in class and write some papers. All-too-embarrassingly-often, that's it. The class conversation often has little to do with your research as you thumb through pages of a poetry book, talking informally. Profs seem in no great hurry to cover material and all-too-willing to joke around about anything at all. And sometimes those are great rambles. Freedom is a versatile tool for an educator who really knows how to turn on the magic of the classroom. But sometimes the freedom makes it all-too-easy to just crap out.

Papers assignments are often as focused as: "Write a 10-page essay on a book of your choosing." You turn it in, your professor scribbles a few unintelligible words on it, circles a mis-spealling (something spell check won't catch, of course), and says "Great job! A-". And you think: If its so damned great, why the A-minus? As long as its a good grade, you usually don't care, but geez--after putting so much effort into the paper, you crave meaningful feedback.

Then you have to deal with all your science & engineering friends who jeer at how much harder they work and how superior their academic field is to yours.

It sure wouldn't hurt if the Humanities had standards for course content like the Natural Sciences. I realize no prof wants to be boxed in by someone else's itinerary, but there are so many duds out there. Sometimes the freedom to do what you want can lure even the most well-intentioned prof into blowing off a day here, a class there, a semester there. How many times have you heard an English teacher exclaim, near the end of the term: "Well, I guess we didn't cover much of the syllabus!" and then break out in to riotous laughter. (My Hiram friends know who I mean, and I love the man too much to put his name here--besides, his were meaningful rambles.)

Hats off to all those Humanities profs who go out of their way to really mix it up.

One of my Theology profs does an excellent job coming up with all sorts of assignments. Its not just about writing a series of papers which are all the same length and depth. On the contrary, we have long and short papers, informal and formal. Sometimes we are to use the material to plan out a Bible study or structure a liturgy around a theme. We have to respond to critical questions in short essays. A common assignment is to make up an "encyclopedia entry" on a particular word that is relevant to our studies.

Make no mistake, we have our major papers, too. For those, sometimes we pour through research of other scholars. Other times, we are asked to do our own study and only consult other scholars after we have done our own independent analysis. And heck, sometimes we even write on a topic of our choosing.

The end result is that we engage the material with a wide range of approaches and methods.

Hats off to all profs who work hard to come up with challenging and interesting assignments. The banal "write pages of fluff that will be skimmed by the prof" is an insult to everyone involved.

You can often tell how bad a professor is by the length of the papers they assign. The longer the paper, the worse the professor is. If you can answer critical questions in 3-page essays you may be working harder than shoveling someone else's research onto a 15-page lifeless drone. Any time you do that, you have to consider another substance that is often the direct object of shoveling.

As Mark Twain said, "If I had more time, I would write less."

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Seasonal Eating

In keeping with a rhythm that would have been very normal for most of our ancestors, I find that my food consumption has a very seasonal quality to it. I eat certain food items in excess for about a month or two and then move on to others. After a while, I always roll back to where I started.

I was a vegetarian last winter. I came off that experiment quite discouraged and indulged haphazardly in restaurant foods and other poor habits for a while. Then, the summer came and I was immersed in bushels of fresh vegetables out of our gardens. It was beets and summer squash at first, moving into green beans and corn and climaxing with tomatoes, onions and peppers. Beautiful root parsley opened the winter for us with lots and lots of soup.

When the last tomato of the season was eaten, I could barely look another one in the face. The fact that there were no pickin's at the store worth eating helped. I spent the early winter laden with my grass-fed, organic cow and naturally-raised pig. Just recently, I gradually moved into a diet centered around potatoes, beans and eggs. After several months, I finally had the taste for tomatoes again, but usually canned varieties to make chili and such. Yesterday, I had a salad, which really awakened a desire for summer vegetables, again. So here I have come full circle, with the early crops of snow peas, spinach and others already in the ground.

Variety is a hallmark of the ideal human diet. Given the natural growing seasons of most plants and considering migratory patterns of animals, our ancestors most likely ate seasonally, too. I imagine they gorged themselves on apples when they were in season for a month or two. Then it might have been a month of pears. Then berry season. After that, meat and stolen ostrich eggs could have been the mainstay until the apple season began again. I'm over simplifying, but you get the idea.

In forming a healthy diet, I hypothesize that eating certain items in excess for a period of time, and then moving on to others, mimics the seasonal growing patterns of most crops and is in keeping with a very natural rhythm. It is most likely built into our evolutionary make-up. I would venture to say that this is a good way to eat, as long as the items you are eating are quality ones. Besides, there are a lot of foods to eat with good nutrition. Limiting yourself to only certain items like tomatoes every single day would limit your body's exposure to other nutrients. Eating in spurts and then moving onto others is probably a good way to manage this intake.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Faith and Belief

I often talk to people who consider "faith" and "belief" to be the same thing. For them, "faith" just includes all the things that have not yet been understood by science. That would mean that faith and belief are two endpoints of the same spectrum--one refers to things that are known, the other to things that are unknown.

That's not how I would put it.

“Belief” is like watching a movie where you already know the ending. Sure, you can still appreciate the story and how its put together, but its never quite the same as when you are hanging on the edge of your seat, ever fiber of your being in anticipation and rooting for the good guys to win. This is "faith".

To reduce this drama, many people want to make everything a “known” quantity. They have everything boxed into doctrines or non-doctrines. This includes people with a strict fundamentalism who hold many religious doctrines literally, as well as those who work hard to debunk the literalness of everything. What they end up doing is robbing themselves of faith itself.

Faith is not against assumptions and trust--in fact, it depends on those very things, though they can be elusive, too. Its not even against answers, but there is something about faith that is--by definition--hanging suspended between what is known and what is unknown. The ultimate trust fall.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The True Cost of Food

Its not that organic foods are more expensive,
Its that conventionally-raised foods are cheaper than they should be.

The above is a good perspective to keep in mind. Conventionally-raised foods cost less, because every corner is cut to get that food as cheaply to you as possible. Many long-term costs are not included. Paying twice as much for organics may seem outrageous, but it is a matter of perception. The question should not be, "Why are these organic foods so expensive?" but rather: "How terrible must they be treating the earth and these animals to get this food so cheap?"

Conventionally-raised foods would not be so cheap if they showed their true cost in terms of environmental degradation, ecosystem destroyal, and carbon emissions (that does not even include animal cruelty, for which you just can't assign a price). The day when farmers are required to compensate for the carbon emissions that somebody else will have to clean up and pay for all the destruction their chemicals cost down river is the day when organics will be the cheapest on the block.

Simply having the label "organic" is not always the best, though. The problem is twofold: "Certified organic" has rigid standards, but that does not mean the food is naturally raised. In contrast, there are no standards for "naturally raised", so just about any producer can use that label with impunity. For example, you can buy "certified organic" eggs, but the chickens could be locked into cruel cages and simply fed a diet of organic grain instead of conventional grain. Those are certainly not eggs I would want, even if they qualify as "organic". I want eggs from chickens who forage in fresh, green areas. Its not just a matter of animal cruelty. Pasture-raised are superior nutritionally, as well.

It gets more complicated. I have no problem eating something that is "organically raised" (but not certified). This is what you would get if you dug out a patch of dirt in the city and grew your own crops free from any pesticide. However, just being in the city with runoff from nearby roads and the potential of non-organic chemicals already in your soil would prevent you from meeting the criteria for organic certification. However, this is just fine with me (as long as you are not planting on the grounds of an extinct factory or something). Organic certification measures not only the chemicals the farmer uses, but also considers any second-hand exposure from the soil, air or water that could have been polluted generations ago. Sometimes this is an unnecessary extreme for the average consumer (although it would be a worthy goal for all food to meet this standard, someday).

As you can see, "Organic" is sometimes too extreme and sometimes inadequate, as shown above.
When in doubt, its still a good thing to buy organic. But if you can research a little more, that is even better. The most important thing for me is that farmers do not add any artificial pesticides or fertilizers to the land, practice soil conservation and that their animals are raised in the most healthy and natural way possible. If their farms have some minor contamination from up-river that is not as important to me as this other criteria.

Besides, if farmers are ever going to convert conventional farms to organic ones, it would be good if consumers would cut them some slack. Sometimes it takes years for the soil to lose all trace of the chemicals that were once used there. As long as they are not actively using those chemicals anymore, I will support them.

The most excellent website is Eat Wild. You can search for farmers and vendors in your area that supply pasture-raised meat, milk and eggs. There are also great articles on that website about the benefits of eating food raised this way. The list of benefits is substantial, from your health to the environment. Shop your local farmers markets for fresh fruits and vegetables, when possible. The vendors are usually more-than-willing to tell you exactly how they raised their foods.