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.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Just Cool it on the A/C

A common scene in Ohio in mid-January: Folks look out the window and bemoan another day of grey. There are excited words of anticipation for the breaking of spring. We long for the heat and sunshine of summer. We can’t wait another dreary, winter’s day for it.

But what actually happens in Ohio when summer rolls around?

We blast ourselves back to the Ice Age with air conditioning.

We lock ourselves in our homes, cars and offices, spending an awful lot of energy avoiding what mother nature has to offer.

I understand people want to be comfortable. I also understand that some elderly folk and others with health problems have great difficulty in the heat. But its one thing to have a little A/C to take the edge off, and quite another to wallow in low temperatures we'd never tolerate in the winter.

Its no picnic for me to sweat in the garden in the afternoon then go to work in the morning in a winter sweater. It is hard to acclimatize under those conditions. I'd love to wear short sleeves and bask in the summer heat, but I'm shivering at 65 degrees in mid-August! Those of us who spend time outside are at a disadvantage when the thermostat is set by people who spend their lives locked inside.

I'm not totally against air conditioning. But let's roll with the punches a bit. Its amazing what a person can adapt to when you just give it a chance. Spend 20 minutes a day taking a casual stroll outside and you'll be surprised how well you can get used to the fluctuations in the temperature. Few people are not in good enough health for a short, casual time outside each day. A little heat does not have to terrify you. Remember--you've been waiting for it all winter!

Besides, its better for the environment to let your temperature roll with mother nature a bit, as well. Set your thermostat a few degrees higher in the summer, a few degrees lower in the winter, and we can all save a bunch on our carbon footprint (not to mention our utilities bills).

We're all missing out on the wonders of nature to go through life in climate control. Let's enjoy the summer with the heat and sun it has to offer. We've been waiting for it. If nothing else, temperature fluctuations give your wardrobe the opportunity to do things you can't always do in climate control.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Paleo Diet

The “Quest for the Paleo Diet” is the Holy Grail of modern nutritional research. There are no Indiana Jones tomb raids in competition with Nazi armies, but the drama is just as high. The goal is to deduce the diet that our ancestors would have eaten during the most defining phase(s) of our evolution. The hypothesis is solid: The closer we can imitate the diet & lifestyle of our Paleolithic ancestors, the healthier we can be—we would be living the lifestyle that we evolved to live.

Even if you have never heard the term “paleo diet,” you have felt its impact. The current fascination with low-carb diets and whole-foods are both based on its principles.

There is a lot at stake in the paleo diet. Food may seem so ordinary that we take it for granted, but it is big money and has substantial political implications. Just think back on the lashings Oprah Winfrey received in the wake of criticizing the beef industry or consider the always hot-button issue of farm subsidies. Vegetarians and meat-eating hunters trying to justify their lifestyles have big stakes in the paleo diet, as well (or steaks, as the case may be).

So what did the paleo diet consist of? The hunt is still on, but some characteristics of paleolithic eating are starting to form:

What is for certain is that widespread grain consumption was unlikely. Even though rice (in the east) and bread (in the west) have been the absolute pillars of civilization for thousands of years, their usage spans a relatively short period of time from an evolutionary point of view. Farming began at the earliest 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. Other places around the world followed suit, but in some cases thousands of years later. While that is an ample amount of time for a species to tolerate a new food source, it is often considered not enough time to fully adapt to a new diet. Our Paleolithic ancestors probably ate some grains in limited amounts, but it is unlikely that the earth could have provided enough wild grain to form a staple of human diet. If you consider that our species has been around for about 100,000 years, then we have lived 10 times as long before towns, cities, farming and grain-consumption.

The increase in grain consumption is linked to the “modern diseases” such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes. Even cows (designed to eat grass) develop these same illnesses when raised on a diet of refined grains with minimal exercise. The idea here is that species should eat the diet they are designed to eat.

There are many characteristics to our ancestors lifestyle that we would have difficulty re-introducing now. Virtually every group ate a significant amount of insects. There was probably a lot of passive nutrition from unfiltered water and lots of dirt. Regular exercise and exposure to the sun is a no-brainer. Considering that fire was domesticated about 300,000 years ago by homo erectus (and earlier species of humans from which we evolved), I think that is solid evidence that cooked foods have been an evolutionary staple for our species which came along much later. They ate whole foods--the animal (organs and all), the whole vegetable (peels and all) and the whole grain. Their environment was 100% organic and all animals were raised on diets healthy to them, too. Food choices came and went seasonally.

The evidence from Dr. Weston A Price is invaluable. In the 1930s, he and his wife researched diets of hunters & gatherers as well as those using some traditional farming and ranching lifestyles. While we often think of primitive peoples as unhealthy with buck teeth and bloated stomachs, his research showed the opposite: Most people living in traditional lifestyles had substantially better health than their westernized counterparts. Dental issues were almost non-existent--even among the elderly--even though few teeth (if any) were brushed. Cancer, heart disease and diabetes are almost unknown among these groups. While we tend to think of technologically advanced societies as being healthier, his findings are what you would expect from an evolutionary perspective.

He also documented such a wide array of different diets and lifestyles among these primitive societies that it is hard to establish what they had in common. There were near vegetarian communities ranging to those eating all meat. While that makes it harder to establish dietary guidelines, the good news is that a hugely varied diet for us is probably possible. The diet just needs to keep in line with whatever paleo principles underline it. Right now, we understand those characteristics as "whole foods" and "pasture raised animals" and "low carb", but in the coming years I am hopeful that we will come to an even better understanding of what really made those diets tick.

It is ill-advised to cherry-pick certain attributes of the paleo diet, even if we are able to identify those aspects with certainity. For example, some paleolithic humans would have certainly eaten a diet consisting almost entirely of meat. There are modern hunter gatherers in the Arctic north who live this way. During several ice ages, our ancestors would have almost certainly had a similar diet since there would have been little else to eat. However, it would be wrong to translate that into the modern Adkins Diet. The Inuit eat the whole seal--vitamin-rich organs and all--and even get some vegetable matter from stomach contents. Much of the meat is raw, so it still contains many more microbes and vitamins than if it were thoroughly cooked. This is vastly different than a diet of cooked boneless, skinless chicken breasts and modern steaks from nutritionally deficient grain-fed cows. Both the Inuit and Adkins practitioners are eating a mostly-meat diet, but they couldn’t be further apart nutritionally. The Inuit have a virtually all-meat diet, true, but that fact alone does not tell the whole story.

In a previous post, I talked about vegans who were healthy living in India but developed nutritional deficiencies after moving to England. Their diet was identical, but in India they were getting additional nutrition from their surrounding environment that they weren't getting in England. This is another example that if a diet works for a particular group of people, we have to be careful not to extract isolated portions of it, because the diet functions as part of a whole system.

So low-carb diets have solid scientific rationale behind them, but like the above examples shows, how they are being implemented in the latest diet fads can often leave much to be desired.

It is difficult to determine which time period would be the most representative. Do we look at humans right as our species first developed in Africa or after our species split off and migrated around the globe? Is it right to compare equatorial groups with people who lived for tens of thousands of years in Ice Age Europe? The separation was significant enough to develop some regional (racial) differences among people (even though they are characteristically small changes), so was it enough to develop dietary differences, as well? Is is right to use the term "paleo diet" when the plural may be more accurate? The Paleolithic period covered 90,000 years, during and between several ice ages and geographically spans the globe.

Since humans evolved from vegetarian primates, some argue that we should be vegetarian, too. The problem with that theory is that our split from primates happened millions of years ago. Our protein-dependent large brains and migratory patterns into vegetation-scarce arctic territories gives weight that hunting has been a part of at least some human diets for quite a while. The inability of some modern people to thrive on vegan diets is further evidence for this. This does not rule out a possible vegetarian or near-vegetarian portion in our evolutionary history, but descending from the apes alone is not ample evidence due to the significant span of time alone.

The debate is by far not settled as to the amount of meats in our paleolithic past as well as the percentage of cooked food. An all-vegetarian or an all-meat diet are possible for isolated groups, but the human race as a whole most likely ate somewhere in between this. Big questions remain as to the amount of grains, whether they were refined or not, how much meat, how much raw food as a percentage, and how much nutrition came from unexpected sources, such as "contaminated" water and exposure to the sun and soil. Insects were an important part of the diet for most groups. Exercise and exposure to the sun in an all-organic environment probably helped our ancestors process their foods properly.

The huge variation among the diets of modern hunter gatherers should give us some joy that variety is available for us, as well. The main challenge for us now is to figure out what what the defining, underlying principles that seemed to make all of these varied diets work, even though they seem so different on the outside.

This is a nice website for assorted articles on the subject. I can't recommend the article from the Weston Price site enough (linked above). Be careful wading through the various paleo diet fads out there. The hard part is taking the theory and translating it into a workable diet we can eat today.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Plant Friends

Growing an organic garden is not just a matter of subtracting the pesticides, artificial fertilizers and genetically altered seeds. You have to systematically change your approach to gardening. Nurturing a natural, healthy environment is key.

You can't always repel bugs with a spray or add nutrition through a fertilizer. There are organic options, but they are not the bread & butter of organic agriculture. You have to get out of the western mindset that you are just gonna "fix" it with the injection of a new substance. Even the components you do add take time to prepare--generating a compost pile or properly aged animal manure is not difficult, but takes more forethought than simply buying a bag of artificial fertilizer. Managing pests is also highly dependent on having the right combination of plants.

Being aware of those companion crops is key. Certain crops compliment each other while others counteract. For example, one plant may attract a harmless insect that eats the pests that are plaguing another plant. The odor from marigolds and nasturtiums keeps many insects and rabbits away, and tomatoes and basil growing together enhance each others flavor. Potatoes and tomatoes are said to be bad for each other, as one fosters an early blight and the other a late one, but both are vulnerable to either ailment.

The best companion system is the famous Three Sisters approach of the Iroquois (also here). Corn stalks grow tall in the center of a mound. Beans are planted around them and use the corn to climb (so you don't need to erect a pole system). Beans also deliver nitrogen to the soil that the corn needs. Squash completes the system by growing vines around the base, which detract critters with their spines while their big leaves inhibit weeds and keep the soil moist. For people, the beans and corn provide complete protein and the squash adds more vitamins and oils. To this day, a better system has not been developed, but it is not the only one.

French gardening is another approach. Erin had done some gardening research and found a method to mix the seeds of carrots and spinach and grow them together in the same patch. The carrots grow down as the spinach grows up, and the spinach gets eaten right about the time the carrots demand more room for their greens. The spinach roots do not go deep, but they break the soil and make room for the carrots early on. Radishes and lettuce work together in the same way.

These are good examples, but the french have many more. The french also grow with intensive successive planting--rotating crops tightly. Just as one crop is on its way out, another gets put in. One crop is ripe and taking light while another is just getting started, and when the first is done the second is ready to take its place. Companion crops do not always have to be literally interspersed with each other, but often just planted in adjoining rows is close enough for the beneficial effects.

A main advantage to the french method is that it conserves space. You can feed your family many times over on a fraction of an acre. The tight growth also preserves the soil moisture and keeps weeds down naturally. The downside is that it can be labor intensive and requires a lot of heavy composting--you will need very rich soil to grow so intensively.

My initial response with the french method is that it is time consuming. I can cut out a basketful from the lettuce patch in seconds. To pick the spinach, I have to cut each leaf individually, careful not to snip the delicate carrot greens growing among them. This extra work shouldn't be an inconvenience to someone who was willing to hand-till the entire garden! It is more tedious, though. However, it is well worth it for a small garden if the crop quality is actually improved.

There are many charts and charts and charts of companion crops. Some of them conflict with each other, so keep an open mind. Much isn't scientifically tested, but rather known through practical experience. A lot depends not just on the crops you plant, but also the particular flora and fauna in your surrounding environment. What works in one area may not work in another. Some trial and error is in order.

As you can tell, managing your organic garden has a holistic approach that uses the same principles that you can use to manage your personal health. Instead of using invasive drugs and surgeries, you would instead manage your health through proper nutrition and exercise, and if you get off kilter you first work with yoga or herbal treatments before resorting to western drugs and surgeries as an absolute last resort. Organic gardening is similar in that cultivating the right environment is the primary focus, using beneficial plants to keep it balanced, injecting more extreme measures only when all else has failed.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to Memorialize?

Regardless of your feelings about war, it usually doesn't seem to be asking too much to grieve those who died as a result of war. Even many anti-war activists I know don't hesitate to participate in parades, a moment of silence, a "final salute" or 21-gun commemoration.

However, when you consider honoring America's fallen soldiers on Memorial Day, I ask you to think of your audience (this post is late, but we have a number of other holidays to commemorate soldiers coming up).

When you heap praise on fallen soldiers, think of the 18 year old in small town America. He has hormones bursting through his veins and a desire for meaning and to be part of something powerful that matches the energy he has. He also has little other than low-paying fast food or factory jobs to look forward to, assuming he doesn't go to college. Kids in small town America are BORED out of their minds.

Then suddenly someone talks in reverence about the "ultimate sacrifice" of soldiers. The kid doesn't hear the word "sacrifice," but he wants to be part of something that you can describe as "ultimate." I know no one has that intention when you use those words, but you gotta put yourself in their shoes.

Military recruiters know that bloody and gruesome movies about war help recruiting just as much as the sanitized John Wayne films. Young kids want to be part of something important, and the grit and talk of death is not a turn-off for them.

I want to figure out a way to honor the fallen soldiers without creating the next generation of them. War is too serious, people get chewed up. Those raging energies and a quest for meaning and drama can be better channeled other ways--saving the environment, improving society, mentoring young people. That same competitive spirit and thirst for adventure can be satisfied in other ways. We need to support that.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Plastic Surgery as Suicide

I get one of the sickest feelings when I see a person on TV who has just won an "extreme makeover" contest. The show gets your set up for something wonderful--first you hear about a tragic life, maybe a struggle with poverty. Then this person has won a contest to change all that. Finally, you discover that the means to change their life is through altering their bodies.

Breast augmentation, fake hair lines, nose jobs--what are we really doing? We're telling the world that we're not good enough. That bumpy Mediterranean nose isn't good enough. Our culture, our personal history, our family, our bodies, who we are--its all not good enough. It must be destroyed and replaced with something else. We must--literally--cut out that essence of ourselves and replace it with something artificial. Then and only then can we expect to get the approval of our peers, their love and the happiness we crave.

The idea came out of a discussion in my recent Eschatology class. Abortion, it was said, is a form of suicide. To me, that idea also applies to plastic surgery and any over-the-top physical enhancements.

I'll never forget one of those extreme makeover shows. There was a woman who was just beautiful, shining out from within. She positively glowed. She also had a really large and awkward nose. Let me repeat: She was beautiful--maybe even because of her nose. I couldn't bear to watch her go in and have her nose changed. I couldn't watch her destroy herself like that, and I still mourn her to this day--she was killing herself.

Where do you draw the line? There's certainly nothing wrong with combing you hair or finding some nice outfits to wear. Those are enhancements to one's appearance. I won't feel bad about frying a wart off my hand. Maybe it all depends on the spirit with which its done. We all know people who can't go outside with one hair out of place, so plastic surgery or not they are still trapped, thinking their self worth is based on some exterior circumstance. A lot of people have tattoos, wear jewelry. I've never been drawn to those things, so its hard for me to relate, but the human race has always explored that kind of ornamentation. If someone were a burn victim, I wouldn't think anything of it if they got reconstructive surgery.

I'm not telling anyone what to do, only to ask you to consider what you are really doing.

But all of you who are bending to societal pressures (or your own inner pressures) are just making it that much harder for the rest of us who aren't. You are further marginalizing us, further reinforcing the idea that there is something unworthy about those of us with those traits.
If you allow yourself to look honestly at yourself, you might find that you actually look gorgeous with that bald head and those few extra pounds. You may see those scars on your face and the history they tell--why would you want to erase them? And what exactly are you erasing if you have them removed?

Eating Organic but Cooking Toxic

Cast iron pans have finally replaced teflon in my kitchen. And its about time. The main question is: Why didn't I do it sooner? I can't figure out what the worry was about. So far, they have been easy to use, easy to maintain, and very much non-stick. There are a few crumbs of eggs that get stuck to the bottom, but not enough to ruin a meal or cause excessive waste.

I was a little intimidated by cast iron, after hearing how you have to "prepare them" and use them in specific ways. I avoided using them for a while, even though I got a pan as a gift from Andy a while back. There's nothing to it, folks. Yes, you have to bake it covered with oil to create a non-stick coating when you first get it. Do a 2-minute internet search and follow someone's method. I just washed it thoroughly (no soap), coated it from top to bottom with olive oil, and threw it in a hot oven for a few hours. Done.

You can't wash them in soap. Just clean off any food with water and a sponge. I put them on the stove to dry immediately afterwards (to prevent rust), then put a light coating of olive oil to sit. But that's not hard.

Teflon pans are no walk in the park, either. You have to baby them. They can't go in the dishwasher, you can't scrape them or you'll lose the non-stick coating (not to mention toxifying yourself). The have to be replaced when the coating starts to peel. Where is the convenience? Food will still stick if you don't use enough oil or watch it while cooking.

I think we were led to believe that teflon was somehow easier. Michael Pollan talks about how many of the "conveniences" of modern culture are really not that convenient, but rather something we have been convinced through quite a bit of marketing. I wonder if the belief that teflon is easier than cast iron is related to this. Markers of teflon cookware probably stuffed their ads full of the promise of easy use.

The sad reality is that you can eat a diet of 100% organic foods and still pollute yourself silly through your food. How can this be? The way you preserve, store and cook your food may be the point where more toxins are added to your food than anywhere else. Check out this ultra-depressing list:

Metal cans give of BPA (except those at Trader Joes)--liked to cancer. Teflon pans emit enough fumes to kill a bird, if you had one in your kitchen. Teflon is also related to numerous cancers, such as liver cancer, although it is "not proven" of course. Aluminum cookware is linked to Alzheimers. I was horrified recently to find out that most crock pots contain a lead glaze. I couldn't believe that any cookware is still being produced with either lead or aluminum, but you really just gotta watch out for it. Plastics give off chemicals, especially in extreme eat or cold. Water from bottles tastes like plastic for a reason--avoid #7 plastic bottles in particular. Never put any plastic or styrofoam in the microwave, just keep a ceramic bowl handy. Even plastic bags can give off chemicals in the freezer.
(A lot of this is taken from this great article on the Non-Toxic Kids blog, including the comments at the end).

So my cast iron cooking is one good step in the right direction. Organics are still very much worth it by keeping pesticides out of your system as well as causing less environmental strain through better agricultural practices, but if your goal is toxic-free living, it may be just as important how you manage your food as much as which foods you buy.

As a side note: I only really need a non-stick cast iron pan for eggs. You can cook anything in stainless steel if you include a smidge or oil or water to keep it from sticking (but not too much to drown your food). Virtually anything can be cooked that way leaving nothing stuck to your pans if you do it right.

Headaches and Breathing

Pay attention the next time you get a headache. You probably reduced your breathing quite a bit. You are probably taking more shallow breaths. Maybe your diaphragm is tight.

Headaches remind me of a reflex to fade away, maybe to crawl away and take cover. When you get a headache, the instinct is just to curl up somewhere, shut your energy down and wait it out. However, that very instinct may be what is causing the headache in the first place. The last thing you feel like doing when you have a headache is jump boldly into the world with both feet, but that is what you have to do.

When you feel a headache coming on, start taking deep breaths. Lift your arms above your head, and twist your torso from side to side. Really stretch out your diaphragm and rib muscles. Massage your ribs with your hands. Keep taking deep breaths until you feel yourself go "over the hump" and take satisfying breaths. Don't hyperventilate here, just take steady, deep breaths over time. Maybe every 20 seconds breathe deeply, hold it for a second, then let it out.

Your instinct will be to fade away, hunch over in your posture and go limp. That's the headache reflex. Fight it and break on through to the other side. Sometimes, when I feel a headache coming on, I'll just do some extreme behavior, like jump up and down or run or do some deeeeep stretches. You can break that chain reaction just by forcing your body not to shut down (you might want to be careful if you are in danger of heart disease or stroke). Don't let your body curl in on itself like that. I have fought off many a headache this way, but the sooner you catch it the better chance you have.

Shallow breathing is a precursor to migraine headaches, as a slight imbalance in oxygen in your brain is what starts a migraine. The vessels in your brain expand and contract in order to make up for this deficiency, which causes a roaring headache.

It goes without saying that there are many reasons for headaches, of which shallow breathing and posture habits are only one possible cause. But you may be surprised to find how often your headaches are related to breathing if you start watching out for it (google Pete Egoscue and his books for more info on this--the basic idea that headaches are related to breathing is something I picked up from him).

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Organic Grandmother--or not?

My grandmother's lifestyle would be the envy of many "natural living" advocates today. Her diet consisted entirely of organic and pasture-raised foods throughout her youth, living in a rural village in Slovakia after the turn of the 20th century. After coming to Cleveland as a 17-year old, she eventually settled in rural Ohio, raising much of her own food on a family farm.

Fresh produce and pasture-raised meats and eggs were the mainstay (the animals were partially grain fed, but still had significant pasture time). She ate a diverse diet, her family ate the whole animal, organs and all, and grew a plethora of fruits and vegetables. "Organic" was not a luxury, it was just the way it was. Later, they introduced pesticides on the farm and she started eating more store-bought items as an elderly person, but she had decades of predominately organic living before that.

She worked hard all her life, and even as an elderly woman had a constitution that amazed American doctors.

Yet, she developed diabetes later in life. It caused her great difficulties, and probably caused her to die sooner than she otherwise would have (she still lived to age 83).

It is always dangerous to refer to anecdotal examples. The experiences of a single person can always be attributed to random circumstances and may not indicate an applicable trend for everyone. Still, her example should bring us pause. If even she developed one of these "modern diseases", even while still living a lifestyle far more traditional than most people, what hope do the rest of us have of averting that fate with natural living choices? Most of us would consider ourselves lucky to eat organic foods sporadically--perhaps a few servings a week. Yet, organics were the norm for my grandmother for entire decades.

Yet, it is curious that diabetes was the disease she developed. I believe it is associated with refined grains and sugars. She did eat a lot of white bread, peeled potatoes and pastries. Perhaps that is what happened. The fresh produce and naturally raised meats kept her heart healthy and kept her cancer-free, but the refined carbs took their toll. That is my hypothesis.

One of my earliest memories is seeing her among the other church ladies, throwing another load into the potato-peeling machine. For a person who lived such a "whole foods" lifestyle, there was a significant error when it came to refined grains and starches. I don't know how often she ate whole grains or peel-on potatoes, but I believe the reverse was the norm.

It would be irresponsible to draw any firm conclusions from this sketch, but it raises questions. Is a few servings or organics a week enough in light of this? Are our occasional efforts at regular exercise and natural foods just a drop in the bucket? Or was it really the refined sugars? Maybe she developed diabetes from a whole host of other reasons. Maybe her life was every bit as long and healthy as it should have been. Maybe the era she lived in brought her exposure to chemicals that have since been regulated.

I don't know, but I do wonder.

Liberal and Conservative--Analogy of a Village

I see liberals as those who are off exploring fresh lands to farm and searching for new game herds.

Conservatives are the ones staying home, protecting the village and tending to what the group already has.

In a reasonable society, there is a place for both--if both approaches are operating within reason.

If the village would rather starve to death than stretch out and explore uncharted territory, it is unreasonably conservative.

If a village squanders what it has out of the lure of continuous discovery and the fame that comes with it, the village is unreasonably liberal.

If the village picks up and moves to a desert because of the mistaken belief that the ancestors thrived there, then it is reactionary.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fresh Off the Vine

An important part of any diet would include produce that is literally fresh off the vine. I'm not talking about foods labeled as "farm fresh" which have been sitting in packages in the store for days. I'm talking about walking into the garden, pulling off some leaves or fruit, and eating it on the spot (or soon after).

As soon as produce has been picked, a timer starts ticking. With each passing moment, nutrients are lost. Quite a bit breaks down within the first few hours and days. By the time you get most foods at the grocery store, even the freshest have probably been picked days and even weeks before (ironically, canned and frozen foods are often preserved more quickly than that).

There are many farms that allow people to pick their own berries, fruits and vegetables. Pick Your Own is a directory of sites all across the USA, Canada and even a few other countries. Its a great day out with the family and a nutritious one to boost. Few experiences you can give your children are better than a day out munching on fresh, ripe berries right off the bush. Even if you eat what you pick days later, you are still way ahead of the game, as produce in the stores will most likely have been sitting for much longer.

Farmers markets are another way to buy food that is locally grown and recently picked. Local Harvest has an online directory of sites (it is also a great website to find stores and restaurants that stock locally picked foods). I did a quick test of Columbus markets, and it seems to list most of them, but there were some missing, so keep your eyes out for additional ones in your area.

The best is really to have your own garden. If you are not up for that or have space limitations, even the most citified apartment-dweller can find room for a few pots of herbs or tomatoes. A number of other vegetables grow well in containers, such as cucumbers, peppers, eggplant and squash. You just need to research how to do it--check this site by OSU Extension.

And don't rule out grocery stores, either. Check with the manager or look for signs above produce indicating the freshness of an item. They will often stock locally grown and recently picked items, you just have to be on the lookout for it.

So how much vine-fresh produce should you eat? Even our ancestors who lived completely off the land most likely picked food and ate some of it days later, carrying it with them in pouches (they are significant since their lifestyle was the one our bodies evolved under). Further, some of us in northern climates will have to take advantage of this as the seasons permit. So there is a limit to what we can do, and it may not be necessary to go to extremes in this. That being said, I see no reason not to eat as much fresh foods as you can possibly eat.

In the peak of summer gardening, I will gorge myself on just-picked veggies and make them the absolute centerpiece of my diet. However, considering the difficulty in finding items as fresh as what I'm talking about during most of the year, you may have to be satisfied averaging a few servings a week. But if you do, you'll be way ahead of the game, as most Americans eat little to none of this, opting instead for a diet that has been pulverized, nuked, sterilized and chemically preserved.

Our ancestors ate off the vine, and so should we. And don't worry if its not washed perfectly clean--you may be keeping some useful microbes in your meal, as well! Most people realize they need fresh foods in their diet, but if they are looking in grocery stores they might be falling a bit short. They end up with food that is raw--which is important, since you do need some raw foods in your diet, as well. Frozen or canned may be fresher, but they are no longer raw. It is best if you can find foods that meet both of those aspects--raw and fresh.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

A Challenge for Progressive Theology

A lot of people wake up in the morning and say, "Well, I don't see any miracles happening, so therefore Jesus must not have performed miracles." This is the danger of modern progressive theology--the idea that things don't "seem to happen", so therefore they must not. It is based on the person's individual, already-conceived notions of how the universe works, and then a re-interpretation of the stories of Christianity to fit in with that.

The problem with this approach is that the ego becomes the center of the universe and religion and faith are secondary. Instead of your faith working with you to shape your world view (through the grace of God), you are bending your faith to fit a world view you have already developed by other means. It is not outrageous to say that there is a false idol here of one's own ego. Religion and faith just get the crumbs that are left over. Religion and faith are not equal players in the discussion here--nor is scholarship. That's not much for a theology that talks about transcendence. The "self" is not set up for engaging in transcendence, in fact the "self" becomes the yardstick by which everything else is measured. The "self" maintains itself, which is the opposite of transcending it.

To be clear: We need to make sense between our experience of the world and the teachings handed down through religious traditions. That's an important struggle of every person. It would be irresponsible to disregard our own opinions just because the "church said so," and it would be equally irresponsible to throw out the church teachings because they don't "seem to" be true based on how we see the universe. We have to walk that tightrope and engage in the communication between our experience and the faith traditions we have. We may have to sit in tension for a long while until we can find a way to reconcile them. This is an even bigger challenge in our pluralistic world of many religious traditions.

To be very clear: I have a tough time swallowing the idea that Jesus performed miracles, as well. There isn't a day that goes by that I don't struggle with the historicity of some of the gospel claims. Yet, modern scholarship has not disregarded the historical validity of the miracles at all. In fact, many of the miracle stories hold up quite well in light of the test of many scholarly methods of analysis. Some don't. If you wake up in the morning and find it really hard to believe in miracles based on what you see, touch, taste and feel in real life, that is a crucial (and perhaps ideal) starting point for more inquiry. Key phrase here is "starting point." It is the beginning of a search for deeper understanding, not the end.

Regardless of this, the miracle stories contain "truth", according to 2,000 years of tradition. It is a form of madness (not to mention academically irresponsible) to start off with an assumption that the gospels are making historical claims, then to state that they can't possibly be true based on how a person in the year 2008 views the universe, so therefore to conclude that the stories are invalid or untrue. There are flaws in logic at each step of that thought process, and people are often guilty of some if not all of them. We should tread lightly before thinking that somehow 2,000 year of saints, scholars, martyrs and everyday common folk just didn't know better than me.

This is the real challenge of any liberal-minded person. This issue is larger than simply whether or not the miracles happened or whether Jesus did this or that. It has to do with how one approaches religion in a most basic sense. Do we grow outside of ourselves, or use our sense of the universe as the sole determining decision-maker for everything? The danger here is that many modern liberals assume they are approaching from an enlightened, learned position, to which the church and its leadership are at a most basic stage of spiritual development. Progressives often assume that church leaders live in a simple world of rules and regulations. Even if that is sometimes true, the faith tradition itself can be incredibly wise, even if the current leadership of a church falls short. It is also possible to be intellectually advanced but spiritually young. Growth is not a straight line, as each of us can be naive and wise all at the same time in different ways. The surest way to make an ass of yourself is to claim you are more advanced and enlightened than someone else.

As a very liberal-minded person, I say this with much humility. There are pitfalls in every approach. Conservatives fall into traps searching for absolutes. We liberals have our own set of challenges, and we need to check ourselves from running too far with our assumptions and impulses. We need to be free as we long to be, but careful--and to truly embrace the idea of liberalism/progressivism--that all ideas can have merit, and be flexible enough--and liberal enough--to bend to the truth wherever it happens to be. Even if it is not where we think it is. This is the full blossoming of a liberal approach.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

I'd Like to Start a Campaign

A classmate said that one day her home was filled with the strong smell of pesticides. Apparently, a neighbor just had their lawn sprayed, fertilized and who knows what else. The fumes carried in the wind across the neighborhood. It is actually rather good news, in a sad and twisted way, that most people don't open their windows but use the heater or A/C.

I was driving to the library of the Josephinum Seminary, and Bruce was mid-song, full-throttle. I had to give him his due, so I drove down some side roads to scream my head off with him for a while. This was in Worthington, OH, with very high-priced homes. I was horrified by what I saw. Every lawn looked the same. Every lawn was filled with thick, identical-colored green grass. Why they even had grass is beyond me, it was so doggone fake they might as well have just installed some plastic imitation grass and be done with it. There was an old lady standing at the curb spraying the sole dandelion on the block (she wasn't wearing any protective gear). There is again some twisted (but somehow good) irony when you consider that none of the kids would ever think to play outside.

I grew up in the country. A nice landscaped lawn is something to behold, but its not natural. Its unhealthy. You need worms and bugs and birds. Natural actually looks good, when you give it a chance. You need fresh green grass to play in and let your dog roll around in. You need some well-worn paths. Get a little dirt on your hands, it won't kill you--as long as its free from pesticides.

I want to start a campaign--a "Natural Lawn" campaign. Maybe have signs up in the yard saying, "The Natural Look". I would like to petition universities, businesses and homes to join me in this. Let nature takes its course. Don't spray your lawn. At the very worst, churn your lawn up and re-seed it every once in a while if you don't like the weeds. But in all honesty, when you mow it, you can hardly tell. It looks a little uneven, but it looks natural and healthy.

I don't want to infringe on anyone's freedoms, but there is no way to guarantee that what you spray on your lawn isn't going to pollute my air, my drinking water and my land. We're all downstream and downwind from each other. There's just no need to hose every square inch of our land with plant and critter-killing chemicals. Fish and frogs are showing strange mutations all over, we're also killing whole scale species because of this--not to mention ourselves, potentially. And for what? To have grass that you can't touch? Air that you can't breathe? Let your toes sink into the green grass, and treat yourself to nature's foot-massage.

Getting Mad About It (Holistic Medicine)

I have known people with all sorts of conditions--obesity, diabetes, MS, you name it. You would think they would be happy to hear about any new treatment for their condition, even if its an old wives tale or something off the beaten path. Surprisingly often, people not only resist these ideas but get outrageously mad that you would even suggest it. Anybody with me on this?

I can definitely appreciate why people would be sensitive if you try to link their condition to depression and suggest that their illness may be a symptom of their emotional life. I get that--it may still be true, but I can understand why they would be defensive. But to say that it might be linked to diet, exercise or even environmental toxins just causes an uproar as well.

People are so locked into their prescription drugs and whatever their doctor says. Its like they want to be on drugs, some kind of adult umbilical chord. Everything will be okay if I just take these drugs and listen to my doctor. Exercise and healthy eating involves taking an active role in your own health. Maybe changing one's lifestyle is scary.

I love the Egoscue exercises. They are similar to yoga in that they can correct posture and reverse a number of stress injuries (carpal tunnel, etc). They are designed to target issues common for a modern lifestyle. For me, they have been a godsend. All sorts of posture and joint problems just disappear after doing these exercises, and I feel GREAT. I've had anxiety that was so crippling I could barely move, with my body aching. A couple sessions of these exercises and the anxiety is gone--as if it were never there.

These exercises are not wholly accepted by science and would most likely not be recommended if you went to your doctor with carpel tunnel symptoms. They would want to re-wire your wrists and rarely consider that maybe if you didn't slouch all day at the keyboard, pinching the nerves in your shoulder, you wouldn't have any wrist problems--yet slouching is not always something you can just change on a whim, you may need a proper program to get your body to assume its natural and normal posture, again.

Of course, I don't pretend to be able to diagnose anyone's condition. Further, even if lifestyle issues are at play, that doesn't mean anybody knows which factors exactly are causing which illness nor would they know how to reverse each and every condition with certainty. However, to suggest that the data out there might indicate a correlation between lifestyle and environmental factors more than genetic ones is not rocket science. It is worth considering that some people have done very well with non-traditional methods of healing.

If cancer, heart disease, diabetes and MS were genetic ailments you would expect them to occur in similar rates in different historical time periods and in different environments. Yet, it is widely known that rates of certain cancers are rising right now. Heart disease was rare just a couple of generations ago. All of these diseases started rising at exactly the same time when people went from manual labor and farm-fresh foods to a more sedentary lifestyle with packaged foods and chemicals, cleaners, exhaust and pesticides literally everywhere. It is not proven, but there sure seems to be strong environmental triggers at play here. Yet, researchers spend lots of time and money trying to find the "genetic link" or develops drugs to "fix" you.

Look at it from an evolutionary standpoint: Our bodies were designed to live a certain lifestyle and eat a certain diet. Changing all of that suddenly, its no surprise that we are met with all sorts of debilitating diseases. The good news is that this also suggests that getting back to a "whole foods" diet and having amble exercise might be a way to keep ourselves healthy.

I think western medicine is fantastic. No intelligent person should ever try to distance themselves from it completely. However, despite the brilliance of western medicine, there are some cultural assumptions so firmly rooted in the practice of it that doctors often do not even realize it, and if they do, they don't have the tools, education or support structure to do anything about it.

One assumption I'm talking about is the notion that a doctor can invade a patient and forcibly "correct" a condition in order to treat them. So you have drugs and surgeries. Yet, nothing can treat a human body better than the human body. Even the best of medicine only works with the body, not against. There isn't enough talk about prevention and maintaining a healthy body in balance (see The Egoscue Method of Health Through Motion). When you consider the positively insane work schedules of modern American physicians, it is clear that living in a healthy balance is not something practiced, supported nor sought out in potential candidates for physicians.

Hopefully, this is changing. After dissecting the human person into specializatized fields, medicine is once again starting to think of people in holistic terms. You doctor will now be more willing to talk about a complimentary exercise or chiropractic program to accompany their regimen of drugs and surgery. Experts everywhere have been telling us about the benefits of diet and exercise for some time now. Doctors often still talk about them as if they were just a "bonus", just some "extra things you can do" rather than the heart and soul of healthy living, but we're getting somewhere. Baby steps. The potential of diet and exercise to cause and cure illnesses is an area we've only started to mine, in my opinion.

More research needs to be done, for sure. There could be all sorts of reasons why illnesses are happening, and possibly the data out there now is not accurate. But there is so much evidence that lifestyle and environmental issues are deeply involved in modern illnesses that it would be irresponsible for science not to consider them right at the top of the list. As a individual, you should take responsibility for your health and consider that your diet, exercise and exposure to toxins may be a key role in your health--or your illnesses. And don't get mad at me about it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Gardening 201

A year of trial-and-error and quick-learning has made a substantial difference in the garden at Erin's house. Yesterday, I hand picked a salad of lettuce and spinach leaves, and it was only May 13th! That was a far cry from last year, when nothing was even planted until the beginning of June.

So many things seem to be going well. We have a developing patch of sunflowers--last year, the seeds were eaten by birds before they could even germinate. Last year, we had as wide assortment of greens growing, but few that were tasty. Much was planted too late, and entire sections of the garden just didn't do much. There were many tasty things from the garden, so it was a success, but I am hopeful to see it develops much more and make the most of everything we plant.

Potatoes are about 8 inches high right now. There were some that were sprouting in the bag and going bad, so instead of throwing them out, we decided to put them in the ground to see what happens. I don't have high hopes due to the beetles and fungus I've heard about, but we'll see. They are planted early enough to possibly avoid some of those ailments (we don't want to use pesticides).

Same worry about the green beans--last year they were tore up something fierce by bugs, to the point where they only yielded about a serving of beans. There were a few to nibble on while you were out there, but nothing much to bring back home. Hopefully, planting now will avoid some of the bugs. Some of the worst beetles don't start descending on us until late July.

Already, we also have strong patches of kohlrabi, multi-colored beets, peas, two kinds of onions, and broccoli. Something's nibbling the broccoli, but they are hanging in there. There are numerous "volunteer" tomatoes all over the place, coming up from the thickly composted soil. I'm mad at the the possum or whoever it is that's eating the strawberries! We put some chicken wire around a plant that has new buds on it, hopefully that will keep him out.

I just planted some green beans, dill, okra, more lettuce, celery, arugula and flowers. Erin put a batch of transplanted herbs in the front, along with the sage, thyme and chives that are coming up from last year (very exciting). Oh, can't forget the asparagus that is on its 2nd year, so it should have something for picking!

We decided not to rent/buy a rototiller, but to dig the garden out by hand. That is partially insane, but consider that I sit in an office all day and this is a very good form of exercise. Its awfully hard, though. I turn over every square inch with a shovel, which isn't so bad. Then I rake the hard clumps smooth with a hoe, which is outrageously difficult. The downside of this method is that the ground is much clumpier than if it were machine-tilled. Some clay sections are just impossible. The more I hoe the looser the dirt becomes, but its tempting to quit and say its "good enough." I dig a couple of rows each day and have some nice exercise out of it.

Much of the dirt is rich, though, and boosted with compost and some peat that we throw in the clay-ey sections. Interfering trees, roots and endless English ivy has been removed, which probably choked out a lot of plants last year. There is plenty of space, but we are conscious of conserving. Erin discovered a method of mixing spinach and carrot seeds--the spinach grows up, the carrots grow down, and the spinach is eaten before the carrots develop significant greens. I'm not against planting rows between other rows and clearing one crop out to start another.

Once the tomatoes and peppers are planted, space will be a premium. We are also thinking of sweet corn, which might not be too smart considering it requires a fairly large crop to cross-pollinate, but its a fun thing to grow.

Frost has long been over, so we really could have planted everything a month ago, but who knew? As it is, we took some risks and they have paid off. We planted a few things easily, and we figured if they got killed by frost, the worst that would have happened was that we would have to just put something else there, so it didn't seem like a loss to give it a try. Most of the early crops were cold weather ones, anyway.

There are numerous tomato and pepper plants almost hardened enough to be outdoors full-time. We don't have as much variety as last year, but quite a few healthy plants. Many more sweet peppers and not as many hot peppers. There are also cabbage, cauliflower, bok choy and brussel sprouts plants growing slowly but well, and ready to be transplanted outdoors. Basil has been seeded in pots. There are also insect-fighting flowers like marigolds and nasturtiums just starting to sprout in pots.

We're ready!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On a Mission (Trip) to Find Family

I spent a good portion of my adult life looking for intentional communities. I had a profound spiritual awakening as a high school senior at Nazareth Farm, WV, still the holiest ground I've ever walked on. It was a week-long "service trip"--living in community, praying, service to the poor, you name it. All of my values were in full bloom in one intense lump--even some I didn't know I had. Any time I've been discouraged by the Catholic Church or felt doubt in my faith, this is the guidepost that shines clear and bright and makes a lot of decisions awful easy.

I've been continually trying to find and build that sort of thing ever since then, but really, its never far from my heart. It showed me what's possible, and that is forever etched in me. A lot of times when I've been in conflict with people, I realize its because they don't have the same sense of what's possible that I do. They haven't seen what I have seen.

In college, we called them "alternative spring breaks" or "mission trips" (I don't like to use the latter term due to its connotations in the Evangelical community of conversion), and we visited numerous organizations in many states. Since college, I looked to the Catholic Worker movement, Americorps, non-profit organizations and lo and behold, even some church ministries. I've sought out community at every chance I could get. Unlike Bono, I really did find what I was looking for--at least, for brief but precious moments.

Lately, I've been discouraged by these groups. They very much represent the "honeymoon" phase in a relationship, but I've had such difficulty managing them for long periods (I will say that college was an exception--even though the trips were short, my friends were able to maintain much of the spirit throughout the rest of the school year). Take a group of highly opinionated, highly sensitive, somewhat imbalanced people and throw them together into an intentional community among the homeless or other disenfranchised people and you tell me what happens. The intense prayer and openness was all that kept it together--and it was good.

I can be sympathetic to this--people are people, and the same struggles of ego, temperament, territory and such are going to play out in every human organization, even a spirit-filled one. As long as you continually work at it (like any relationship), you have a fighting chance. But still, there has been something unsatisfying--or better said--unsustainable about these communities. They rarely endure past a few years time.

I've been really blown away by this statement by Gregory Baum, quoted in Avery Dulles' Models of God, the book I've been mining pretty solid this past week [I read the term "underground" to represent any out-of-the-way, non-traditional communities that live and work together--like a commune, service-trip or other intentional living arrangement]:

Some people involved in the underground are eagerly looking for the perfect human community. They long for a community which fulfills all their needs and in terms of which they are able to define themselves. This search is illusory, especially in our own day when to be human means to participate in several communities and to remain critical in regard to all of them. The longing desire for the warm and understanding total community is the search for the good mother, which is bound to end is disappointment and heartbreak. There are no good mothers and fathers, there is only the divine mystery summoning and freeing us to grow up.

All I can say is: Wow.

Dulles reminds us that "cynicism should not have the last word" (57)--community is a good thing. But boy, if this quote doesn't ring true. Just about every line.

I've long known that my search for community has been an attempt to find family. But this quote helped me to understand some of the disappointments in that. There is a place for intentional community. It may be a great way for Christians to organize themselves. But if it is driven too much out of a base need to find that cozy womb to snuggle into, you may be setting yourselves up for a major let-down. You can see this all the time--people complain about church because it is not "perfect." It doesn't meet their needs and its not that loving family they want to be a part of.

My former spiritual advisor reminded me that often the best spiritual quests are those which are driven by our base needs. Indeed--how many times did I go on those missions trips really to pick up women? Yet, I never thought that was an improper reason to go, because I fully participated in the life of the community while I was there. Its okay if you are looking to "get" an uplifting spiritual experience. We are all hungry for that. It can be a problem when these base needs turn us too much into consumers, and we can't get what we want because we are too concerned with the getting.

Is it wrong to seek family? No, I don't think so. But Baum suggests we may be barking up the wrong tree. You can't just sequester yourself off from the world or put unfair expectations on a community to meet your needs. I'm not really sure where to go with it, but I think he's on to something. Anyone out there have any ideas?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Being Late for Love

My friend Michael once told me that people who are habitually late are rebelling. 5 minutes late for every meeting and always rolling into work trying to beat the clock. You can say that procrastinating on your assignments is the same phenomenon. Its an aversion to structure, a way to thumb your nose at the system--perhaps any system.

His idea hit me as having a lot of truth in it. I'd like to add another element to it: I think people who are habitually late are testing. They want to be loved and accepted 'even though.' They aren't ready to settle into society because they have unfinished business. They want to know that even though they are late, even though the assignment is past due, even though its stressing everyone else out and pushing the whole system to the brink, that they are still loved. Its a test.

Kinda like a teenager who is always testing those in charge--they push you away, but they really want you to bust through all their defenses and hold them close. I make this comparison not to mock or judge, just to explain. The only problem is that if you go through life looking for love this way, you may find yourself, indeed, too late for love.

Follow Up: Models Quiz

If you took the quiz in my previous post and are wondering what your results mean, go here to get a brief sketch of the 5 models of church described by Dulles. I wrote about a couple of them in my last post, but haven't gotten around to describing all of them.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Models of Church & Quiz

What is your model of Church? Here's a quiz that is based on the categories of church in Avery Dulles' book Models of Church.

You opinion of church, and your expectations, assumptions and levels of satisfaction (or not), may depend on the model of church you are operating under. If you see the church in judicial terms--as an authoritarian parent--you may either be easily disgusted or hold fast to absolute rules & regulations in response. According to Dulles, this would be in line with an "institutional" model. Whether you accept or reject the church on these terms, you are operating under the same model.

If you have a "mystical communion" model (which is how I tested), you may see church in more loose terms as a rag-tag, wayward bunch of people thrown together by the spirit of Christ, in all forms and with all sorts of baggage.

Its like how Bruce Springsteen described his E Street Band in the recent eulogy of organist Danny Federici:

"If we didn't play together, the E Street Band at this point would probably not know one another. We wouldn't be in this room together. But we do... We do play together. And every night at 8 p.m., we walk out on stage together and that, my friends, is a place where miracles occur...old and new miracles. And those you are with, in the presence of miracles, you never forget. Life does not separate you. Death does not separate you. Those you are with who create miracles for you, like Danny did for me every night, you are honored to be amongst."

To me, that is church. People who wouldn't otherwise be together, but yet for some strange reason, we are on this ship together, perhaps lost at sea, yet united under a purpose. You've got your businessman, your teenybopper. You got the married couple and the captain, and the skipper. You got people who want to be there, people who are just along for the ride, some there to pick up women or with ulterior motives, and others who don't know what they are doing. Yet, we're all simply . . . there. We belong and we participate because somehow, someway, we are on a mission together. Whether this group makes rules and regulations or develops a hierarchy of leadership doesn't matter as much as the fact that our togetherness is the most critical element defining our existence as a group--and the "force" that has brought us together.

By some strange, mystical reason, we are in communion with each other--hence "mystical communion." Agreeing with the leadership or following the rules isn't as strong in this model as in the institutional model. The grace of God putting us together and in which we live and work is the driving force in this model. In the institutional model, following rules and making professions of faith are absolute requirements for membership itself.

A lot of Catholics see Church as "family"--we were born into it, we belong, like it or not. That's a model I'd add to the conversation. Dulles has three other models of church that he explores in his book, besides the two above.

So far, this has been an outstanding book, and I'm only a chapter-and-a-half into it.

Church Authority

It is very easy to get upset by a church that declares it has authority to know theological matters or to be the judge of this or that. It just doesn't sit well with the modern, western mind, and often for good reason.

What right does a church have to claim authority in anything, especially since theological understandings of God are quite obviously mystery to everyone?

Avery Dulles makes some good points about this in his book Models of Church (I draw heavily on his ideas in his first chapter in this post). The very fact that theological and spiritual matters are mystery is actually key, in his view. Mysteries are a form of knowledge that cannot be empirically determined. You can't reproduce an experiment to yield a conclusive answer. Neither is a single person going to sit in their private bunker and "figure it all out". However, somehow the collective understandings of a body of people in a church are able to come to a somewhat reliable (but flexible) understanding.


The way I see it, it is like trying to come up with a definition of the word "family." You can do it, but no definition is ever really going to cover all the bases. "Family" is something that has to be experienced, and in a way, no outsider can truly be the best judge. How can you walk into my life and say that my friendships with this person or that meet the criteria for family or not? You 'have to be there' to hope to make a reliable judgment.

We all have an inner understanding of what family is. For some, it may be as simple as a blood line. That's it. cut and dried, black and white. For others, "family" has more to do with the spirit of the brotherhood. From this perspective, bloodline or not, you have to act, feel and behave like family in order to merit the title. Thus, if a certain spirit is there, we can say that "family" is there.

But where do you draw the line? When do you say that one group of people is a family, but another group isn't? You can't write up a formula about it that measures every possible condition. But if you have a large enough group of people, they can probably come to an understanding that is somewhat reliable for making a pronouncement on a given situation.

In a sense, this is what church authority is--the collective understanding about things that are not easily defined, but sort of instinctively known. The individual is not always the best judge acting by themselves, but an individual can and must weigh in. It is not a collective decision if individuals are not participating. But an individual should not think that they are going to run the show, either. The combined wisdom of countless people through countless generations forms a picture that has a certain amount of authority to it.

Conflicts Between the Individual and the Church

So then what does an individual do when their views clash with the established group understanding?

Obviously theologies change over time, even in large churches with long histories (perhaps especially so). A church cannot change unless someone comes out and proposes something that is in conflict with current ideas. Reform is thus a natural and healthy part of the process. So the contributions of individuals can and do affect this change.

The process whereby change happens is a delicate one. You cannot expect a church to bend to your will. But it would be wrong for a church body to be completely inflexible to individual contributions and overall developments and evolutions. The proposed reforms have got to resonate with the people in order to be valid. They've got to peculate deep into the community, and then brew back out. It can be a long and frustrating process.

It is hard to know what to do when as a private person you have insights that differ from the church you belong to. What do you do with that? You can submit to church authority. You can rebel and leave the church. You can ignore the items you disagree with. You can play along.

You can act "as if" this church knows best, even if you are not yet able to understand why. This is sometimes an important thing to do (key word: "sometimes"). It is easy in our modern world to assume that past theological insights of the church are ridiculous given the non-scientific nature of people in Biblical times or early Christianity. But spiritual insight is not linear, so it differs considerably from scientific knowledge. You can't simply say that people from the past were not advanced enough to know best. The fact that we can continually draw from the wisdom of the ancients through the Bible and other texts is a pure "testament" to this fact. Some things needed to evolve, but the capacity for wisdom back then is unquestioned, even in light of many social considerations that we would simply not have room for today (slavery, genocide, etc).

So therefore it is always important to defer at least to some degree to the collective wisdom that has come down the pipe. It is shows a spiritual immaturity to think that a 33 year old living in Columbus, OH, with my varied but hopelessly limited experience just somehow "gets it" more than the millions of people who came before me in countless cultures and generations of history. I have often felt that many parts of the church were stupid only to be deeply impressed when I actually did a sophisticated study. But yet, there have been reforms, breakaway movements, some of it unfairly suppressed, so its not like the orthodox church authority is always a clean and clear, open decision. But yet, to think that all these people didn't have a clue but _I_ do is just silly.

But what do you do when the collective wisdom declares itself to have absolute authority? Does that have merit? What do you do when the collective wisdom believes it is important to suppress other ideas? Is that truth talking or fear talking?

Book of Job

I think the Book of Job can lend some insight to this. Like Job, we need to have the integrity to respect our own thoughts. Job sat with his sickness telling him one thing and his religious tradition telling him another. His life experience told him that he was a righteous man, but in the theology of his day, it was believed that he must have been sinful to warrant his physical suffering. And he sat there in tension between these conflicting thoughts.

He did not throw either of them out, entirely. He could not reconcile his experience with what his faith tradition was telling him, and he passionately spoke out. The people around him like his wife and his "friends" were picking sides. Job did not. He hung in there. He did not blindly defer to his church tradition, nor did he completely toss it out in favor of his personal theology. There is a model for faithfulness there, as Job was the one who "spoke rightly" about God and he was the one who was ultimately rewarded with a transformative experience of God.

The Fruit Effect

You may remember that I don't like fruit. It actually surprises me how people dive into a bowl of strawberries or knock down a bunch of bananas in a single sitting. Here I am forcing down a single banana intentionally for my health, and they can't seem to stop.

So I made a conscious choice to eat more fruit--it just doesn't seem right to avoid an entire food group, even if my body doesn't seem to want it. And the change has been rather successful. I probably eat 4-6 servings of whole fruit each week. That may not seem like much to you people who can enjoy a whole case of strawberries in a single sitting, but this has been a substantial change for a person who could previously go a year without eating fruit and never notice the absence.

So what has been the net effect?

I must clarify--I used to gorge myself on fruit juices. Even though I ate no solid fruits, I would drink ridiculous amounts of 100% fruit juice. I stocked the larder to capacity with bottles and bottles of it. Orange, apple and cranberry were favorites, but so were others. When I started eating whole fruit, I stopped drinking so much juice. I still make sure to have a tall glass of OJ in the morning and often re-hydrate in the hot summer with juice, but the amount has significantly gone down. You could say I gained some fruit in my diet and lost some. However, it was probably a net gain since I am now eating all the fiber and pulp. So it wasn't entirely accurate to say that I ate no fruit--just no whole fruit.

I also noticed that my vegetable consumption has gone down with my increase in fruit. I absolutely love vegetables, especially cooked. Stir fries, soup, stews, you name it, bring on the veggies and then bring more. But lately I just don't eat as much of it.

I gravitate toward a diet that has pretty equal servings between meats, starches and fruit/vegetables. There is a natural equilibrium that I can't seem to shake, and maybe I shouldn't.

Let's say that for lunch I eat a sandwich. It has meat, bread and a number of vegetable fixin's (lettuce, tomato, etc). My awareness of the ingredients in this sandwich will be largely dependent on what I ate in the previous meal. If I had two eggs for breakfast (as a high protein, "meat" meal), I'll be very much tuned in to the bread and veggies in my lunch sandwich. If I ate a starchy oatmeal breakfast, then I'll be looking forward to the meat in the lunch sandwich more than the bread--I'll think about it before the meal and taste it more while eating it. Over the course of the day, amounts will balance out.

So has there really been a net effect of forcing myself to eat more fruit? I think so. I'm eating just as much fruits and veggies, but I'm getting more of them in whole form and less through juice. I'm eating more raw foods. My veggies have gone, but I end up with a more diverse diet than before. I'd say diversity is better than anything when it comes to fruits and vegetables.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Jesus Died For You (now go eat lunch)

"Jesus Died For You"

I always hated this line about Jesus, and its derivatives such as:

"Jesus paid the price"

I always have a difficult time making any sense of out it. The best I can come up with is this: So we're inherently sinful just because we're born, which is a debt to be paid, and God sends Jesus to pay this debt for all people, and if we just believe in that and allow Jesus to be that debt-payer for us, then we are debt-free and no longer pay the price for sin, which is death.

Just always seemed like a way to wash our hands of it. "Thank you Jesus for doing this for us, so I don't have to do shit."

I think its really hard to reconcile the call to "take up your cross and follow" with such a confessional statement.

The worst part of this confessional statement is just its call to passivity. You don't have to actually do anything. There's not much transformation there. There is just belief--making a statement. Saying some words. It can be a pathway to greater spiritual development, I don't doubt that. But all too often, people use it as a way to distance themselves from the passion. Here's a guy hanging on the cross, and in fine bourgeois fashion you pat-pat him on the head, thank him for his troubles and go eat your dinner.

Joining yourself to the Resurrection means joining yourself to the Passion, too.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Organic Prices

Its hard to consider the prices of organic foods. Its about $7-10 for a pound of organic, fair-trade coffee, around here. That's tragic when you consider you can get the "other stuff" for no more than $3-6, and often lower. Organics are sometimes 2-3 times more expensive.

You know the benefits of organics--less pesticides and hormones into your body and into the environment (due to the farming practices) and better treatment of workers, just to start things off. But how do you afford it?

Well, in the case of coffee, you are looking at about a $3-6 difference for a full pound of coffee. Sit back and think what you could have done with all that extra cash.

Folks, that's one trip to Starbucks! Maybe two, depending on your tastes. Lately, I've been tearing through coffee, but it still takes me about a month to go through a pound of coffee. Cutting out an extra trip to the coffee shop or taking that extra 5 minutes to brew my own cup instead of stopping on the way to work is all the difference in the world.

Someone who brews their own organic coffee regularly can actually have a much cheaper coffee budget than someone who drinks non-organic but mismanages their time and is always running to the local gas station or Starbucks!

I'm all for coffee shops as a social gathering place or to taste some new flavors. I got through my course in Eschatology on gallons of Panera coffee. But if you really want to go organic but are wondering where you are going to find the money, you may have more available than you otherwise thought. Its money you are already spending on coffee, just a sacrifice of "a cup a month" at a coffee shop can actually make up for all the price difference!

B-12 and Protein for Vegetarians

When people become a vegetarian, the talk is almost always centered around protein. People ask: How are you going to get your protein? Let's not forget that meat is also the source of vitamins, minerals, essential oils and all sorts of good things and not just protein, but I digress.

Most foods have some amino acids in them, which the body combines to form "complete protein." Most non-meat items fall short of containing complete protein, though. As a result, a vegetarian has to eat certain foods in combination to get it.

The formula is:

2 parts grain + 1 part legume (beans, nuts, soy, etc) = complete protein

It is interesting how many traditional foods follow this model rather well--beans & rice, peanut butter between 2 slices of bread, oatmeal & walnuts, hummus & pita bread, tofu & rice. The grains should be whole grains to get the best impact.

In the past, it was considered essential to eat the grains and legumes during the same meal. Recently, the rules about protein have relaxed considerably. For example, you can have grains for breakfast and beans for lunch. As long as they are eaten within the same day, there should not be a problem forming complete protein out of it.

Furthermore, it has been discovered that virtually all foods have some amount of complete protein in them. The reason they are not classified as such is because they do not have enough quantity of certain amino acids. For example, you can get all your protein needs even from something as nutritionally deficient as white bread, you just have to eat an awful lot of it--more than you could ever eat in a day. But there bottom line is that protein is everywhere.

The end result is that as long as you eat a balanced diet, no vegetarian is going to have a problem getting enough good quality protein. Just make sure you regularly get whole grains, some beans and nuts, and a lot of variety of everything else, you'll be fine. The problem only comes in for those who eat nothing but french fries or white bread.

However, there is still a real danger to western vegetarian diets. It is Vitamin B-12. B-12 is only available in animal foods. It is formed as the by-product of bacterial activity in an animal's body, often in the colon. The human body makes all the B-12 it would ever need, but it is formed in your lower intestine and your body cannot re-absorb any nutrition there. Meat eaters have an abundance of B-12, and your body can store it for long periods (a testament to the fact that our ancestors probably went long periods without meat).

The fact that your body stores B-12 means that you don't notice a deficiency for quite some time. Many people initially feel ecstatic when they become a vegetarian. The feel all sorts of health benefits as their body does not have to struggle with digesting meat, not to mention all of the unhealthy fats, hormones and chemicals found in factory-raised meats. However, there is a time bomb ticking. It can be months or even years before a B-12 deficiency starts to show, because your body can use and re-use what it has.

Truth is, most vegetarians are running a B-12 deficiency, and nearly all vegans.

B-12 is a funny vitamin. You don't need much of it. But when it is lacking, it can cause all sorts of catastrophic nerve damage and other problems. Even worse, once you run a deficiency, it can be hard to rebound without significantly changing one's diet back to meat or seeking medical treatment.

There have been some studies of vegan groups in India (the article is about a third of the way down the linked page) where the population did not show any signs of a B-12 deficiency. However, as time went on, they found that they fertilized their crops with human feces (rich in B-12) and that their storehouses of rice and beans were infested with insects. Insect excrement, insect bodies and eggs were mixed into their daily fare of rice & beans, providing all the B-12 they needed. They may also have gotten a share from drinking water that was partially contaminated with fecal waste. As you can see, the conditions for getting B-12 in this culture would not work in America.

There are options for vegetarians and vegans, though. There are B-12 supplements. There are excellent B-12 shots, which are often important for someone who is running a serious deficiency to get them back on track. I have even seen B-12 patches. Some foods are fortified with B-12, but the vitamin is very unstable when exposed to sunlight. Fortified nutritional yeast is a common dietary supplement for vegetarians. However, if it sits in bulk bins at the grocery store, the B-12 content may have been drastically reduced or eliminated just from exposure to sun. (Keep in mind that not all nutritional yeast is fortified with B-12, so check the label.)

Even worse, eggs are typically considered a great source of B-12 for vegans, except for the fact that it is in a form that is difficult for for humans to access. You may not be getting the B-12 from eggs that the label says. For most vegetarians, milk is then the only natural source of B-12, and it usually do not contain enough to give you your recommended daily allowance. There is some B-12 in plant foods, but humans are not thought to be able to access it.

I used to argue that B-12 is the smoking gun that shows that humans never had a vegan ancestry. Our bodies are evolved to take in B-12 from animal sources. However, we may have gotten enough environmental exposure to compensate, such as the villages in India mentioned above. There are some mostly-vegetarian communities of hunters & gatherers and farmers in the world, but virtually none that are purely vegan. (I have often wondered how much nutrition our ancestors got simply from environmental sources--bare feet walking in the dirt, swimming in rivers and ponds, hands touching wood, grass and dirt all the time.)

The #1 priority for all vegetarian and vegans should be to find stable and reliable sources of Vitamin B-12. I would recommend getting it from a couple of different sources. Some people do not absorb the vitamin from supplements very well, but may take it in from other sources. If you are a partial-vegetarian who only eats meat occasionally, it might not hurt to target meats that are high in B-12. This would include beef and seafood. Poultry is typically low in B-12.

Protein and B-12 are not the only issues in vegetarianism. Some people do not process Vitamin-A properly from plant sources. Adequate Vitamin D intake can also be a problem. People who can trace their ancestry to northern cultures such as Scandinavian, Irish, Inuit, etc., (where meat would surely have been a large portion of the diet) are also theorized to have lost the ability to convert some plant sources into proper nutrition (see this link, the same one cited above and go about a third down the page). For other issues and a counter-point of vegetarianism in general, see here. If you tried to be a vegetarian and are struggling, there may be some real obstacles for you based on your ancestry, lifestyle or other health issues.