Description

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.

Monday, June 30, 2008

When Eating Healthy Isn't So Healthy

I had chicken soup the other day. Good homemade chicken soup. To the average American, this would seem like a healthy meal. Yet, it wasn't. But what could be wrong with homemade chicken soup??

Let's look at the ingredients:

Carrots, potatoes: These were both extensively peeled.

Boneless, skinless chicken breasts: This is the white bread of the meat world. Its stripped of everything that is good. Granted, I can understand why people would want to avoid the fat from meats raised in a factory conditions. The way the animals are raised yields a more unhealthy meat, high on the negative fats, low on the good ones. Still, the only way to make decent chicken broth is by using everything. Boiling a whole chicken--skin, bones, marrow, organs, meats and all--brings all of that rich goodness into the broth. I recommend pasture-raised chickens.

Noodles: These were made from white flour. This is bleached and striped of the germ and bran sections of the grain, which are the most nutrient dense. I found a chart that suggests that white flour may be missing 2/3 of the nutrition it had as a whole grain.

Since these ingredients could not yield a flavorful soup, canned broth was added. This is almost always loaded with MSG and doesn't have the same gelatinous properties of homemade broth (most likely due to have a concentrated chicken flavoring but less actual substance from the chicken). Real chicken broth is a greasy, murky solution that turns almost to a solid gel when cooled. That's when you know it has all the good stuff in it!

Recent research into nutrition is suggesting that eating whole foods is the better way to go. Our society processes foods and strips out essential components. Many vitamins loose the structures that deliver that nutrition to your body. Our diet becomes calorie-heavy, but sparse on nutrients. In their natural, whole state, foods provide balanced nutrition, but when we start messing around with it by favoring certain parts and removing others, we mess with the delicate balance that we have evolved to eat.

In light of the whole foods approach to eating, much of what we think is healthy need to be re-evaluated.

Would your recent meal pass the whole foods test?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

1 Week, Follow-Up

I've worn nothing but baking soda as deodorant for a full week. The verdict? No smell. I was just sweating in the garden this morning--90 degrees and humid today. No smell. Nothing. I check my armpits often, and I actually enjoy the smell--I don't know how to describe it, but the word "fresh" comes to mind. Baking soda does freshen things up, like your refrigerator.

I like this a lot and hope it holds up. Baking soda is a chemical, sure, but probably one of the safest. I don't have to read ingredients or gamble one toxin versus another against my health. Its cheap and effective. And the big corporations don't want you to know. Most people have trouble believing that it can be this easy. An expensive product with lots of advertising must be better!

The theory is simple: Your sweat does not smell. The smell comes when bacteria feast on your sweat. So all you have to do is change the pH by making your armpits more basic (baking soda) or more acidic (vinegar) and bacteria won't grow.

I have had baking soda on for periods longer than 24 hours and still no smell.

To be very clear, there may have been a small hint of a smell on the first day I tried this. I may not have applied it properly on the first day. The smell was not on me, but rather on the underarm of my shirt. So I rubbed my shirt lightly on my armpits to pick up some baking soda residue. The next time a I checked, I didn't smell anything (it was so faint I might not have even had a smell--occasionally I catch a whiff of someone's food or something in the air, and I think its me sweating, but then when I check again I realize its something else).

Another alternative is to apply vinegar through a spray bottle to your armpits. I figure if the baking soda fails, perhaps the bacteria found a way to tolerate it. So if that happens, I would alternate vinegar for a while to offset that. I hear that you don't smell like vinegar when you do this--the smell dissipates quickly.

The skin irritation I was experiencing the first few days went away. I am not sure if that is because I applied two coats that day, rubbed it in too firmly, or whether my body adapted to it. I should also note that my armpits were already mildly irritated from using the Trader Joe's deodorant, so maybe the baking soda just made an existing condition worse, rather than generating it.

I am firmly in the Vinegar and Baking Soda Club. They can do almost anything. Clean your floors with it. Put it in your food. Deodorize yourself. I hear that spraying vinegar on weeds is as effective as Round-up--and certainly not a harm to you or the environment at large.

For more information and links to sources, see recent posts (and comments) on baking soda and another that is a write-up about Trader Joe's deodorant and issues of toxicity of deodorants in general.

UPDATE: See this more recent post on concerns about baking soda and a switch to vinegar.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Can I Get a Second Opinion?

On Memorial Day, I lacerated my knuckles gardening with my dad. He was plowing the rows with the tractor. After each row, he paused and lifted up the plow. I'd reach in with a hoe and bang off the dirt, so that we wouldn't have to rake it out of the lawn later. In my haste, I missed and banged my knuckles into what must have been a rather sharp part of the plow, slicing them open. I bled and bled and bled. I never did go to the emergency room. It seemed like a minor skin injury, substantial but not too deep. The last thing I wanted was to spend Memorial Day in the emergency room with all the other idiots who have done any number of stupid things on a holiday known for that sort of thing.

As it started to heal, my ring finger just wasn't straightening. I had lost the ability to fully extend it at the last knuckle. Fortunately, I am still fully capable of typing and even guitar playing, so while annoying and disturbing for people to look at, its not nearly as big of a deal as it seems.

I assumed I must have cut a tendon. So after a couple of weeks and still no sign of functionality coming back, I went to see the family doctor (well, mine was busy so I had a replacement).

Family Doctor: You probably cut a tendon. Just wear a split on your finger. About half of my patients heal up just keeping it straight for two weeks. You can take it off periodically to stretch out your finger and for cleaning. Going to the emergency room would not have really addressed this, so you did not miss out.

He fumbled trying to concoct some kind of split with a broken tongue depressor. That didn't work, so he tried just using tape with this awkward-fitting finger splint. I later figured out a good method using the split and putting the tape up and over the finger, not around. The splints he gave deteriorated over the 2 weeks, with the padding pulling off and the metal frame coming apart. So I did all that but after 2 weeks no substantial improvement. So he referred me to a hand surgeon. While waiting for them to set up an appointment, I overheard a conversation in which the family doctor said he had successfully cured a patient's condition with a simple B-12 shot--after specialists had given up.

Nurse at Hand Surgeon's Office: Oh yeah, you cut a tendon. You'll definitely need surgery. I see this all the time. The doc stitches them up and they're back to normal.

She left and I waited for the hand surgeon.

Hand Surgeon: You cut a tendon. I would never do surgery for that. You must keep it straight for 6 weeks, without taking the split off to bend it at all. Any bending of that knuckle is going to break the scar tissue that you are trying to form. This is old school medicine, been in the books for years. Had you gone to the emergency room, you might have had this fixed by now.

He fitted me for a plastic split that was made precisely for this exact condition, and it was sized for my finger. It fits nice and as comfortable as possible. It works great, kind of like a lever--pressure on the back side actually puts pressure on the front to straighten it out. Ingenious.

So what did we learn? We learn that 3 medical professionals can give you the same diagnosis but vastly different notions of how to treat it. Even though this is "old school medicine" and the surgeon made it sound like common-knowledge, there were still a variety of answers I heard--each given with confidence. Yet, a broken tendon on the last knuckle of your ring finger has got to be one of the simpler things to treat.

Each had an idea of what was going on, and some inkling of how to treat it. It is worth noting that my assumption was right on, as well. Each of us was sort of partly-right. Your doctors are not gods. There are many ways to treat the zillions of conditions out there, and your doctor is guessing more often that you care to know. Makes you wonder what they do when they look at you in the office then step outside for a few minutes before returning. Are they shooting darts? Consulting the magic 8-ball? Why don't they tell you that they might not have the best idea? One doctor may be researching the best method while another may be eating a sandwich. Medical care is nowhere near as standardized as people like to believe. Just because you "went to the doctor" doesn't mean you got the same care as someone else who went to a different doctor.

We idolize doctors, and place them firmly on pedestals. We need them to be our priests and gods. We need them to be way above us. We want somebody, somewhere to have the answers. Americans will actually resist if you try to suggest that maybe--just maybe--their doctor isn't right and that they should seek a second opinion. I believe this need for someone to idolize is at the root of why holistic medice is often scoffed at in place of western medicine. I've seen people in my family go to their grave on the bad advice of their doctor rather than seek a second opinion. As people have lost faith in the certain answers of religion, we found another place to cling to appease our fears. In America, there is no one we hold higher than medical doctors.

We crave assurance, but medicine is not an exact science. Half the time, your doctor is probably thinking, "hmmm . . . let's try this . . . " That does not make them bad--that's actually their job. Their job is not to have the best answer all the time--their job is to do the best they can. In my case, should my family doctor have known what was obvious to the hand surgeon? Shouldn't the hand surgeon's own nurse have seen enough cases to know that the doctor doesn't operate with my condition? Maybe there is some quackery going on, but maybe its just an inside view of what a normal day is like in medicine.

So before you disregard the quackery of your Methodist minister, or laugh off your Catholic Priest, or scoff at the teachers of Judaism, Buddhism, Islam or any other religion, consider this: The amount of variance in their answers to spiritual concerns may not be any more divergent that the spectrum of answers I got concerning my hand condition. Each is on the right track, but not all opinions are equal. You have generalists and specialists, each with good days, bad days, moments of insight and moments of good luck. Sometimes your simple country pastor can speak a truth that you can't find among the hallowed halls of experts, and visa versa. Do you see the parallels?

Our society is quick to reach the conclusion that so-called religious experts have nothing to offer us. And for what its worth religious leaders need to know they are not gods, either. But have we lost our desperate faith in religious leaders only to replace it with something else? And is that something else really as reliable as we are led to believe?

Baking Soda vs. Sweat

I haven't worn any commercial deodorant or antiperspirant for about 5 days.

I don't smell at all.

I apply baking soda once in the morning, and that's it. I've followed the advice in this link, and it works nicely. I put a small amount of baking soda in my palm. I then mix in about an equal amount of water and stir it up with my finger. I then slap it onto my armpit and repeat the procedure for other side.

The only question about this is that I haven't sweated much at all, so it still seems a bit untested. Normally, I'm a bit-time sweater. 30 seconds into some physical labor or a stressful situation and I've got walls of sweat rolling off my forehead. I'll know for sure what the results are when I've gone through a serious bout of sweating, but I will say this: Even without sweating much, going 5 days without any smell is still quite an achievement.

The link warns of using too much, since baking soda is a skin irritant. I have found that to be true. I am not sure how to manage that. I either need to use less or apply it more gently. Maybe the reason I haven't sweated is that my skin is irritated, so perhaps the pores are not working normally.

Baking soda seems like the ideal thing to use. It adds no toxins at all and it allows your body to sweat when it needs to in order to purge other toxins of its own. The smell is so far really fresh. I just hope it can hold up to a major sweat!

Warning: Do not apply any commercial deodorant to irritated skin! Some suggest that the way toxins get into our bloodstream is through nicks, cuts and other irritations caused by either shaving or an adverse reaction to deodorant. This is considered a still-unproven culprit in breast cancer.

ADDED LATER: Here is the kind of discussion that is going on linking breast cancer to deodorants and antiperspirants. Fact? Fiction? I don't know--but I would venture that no one else does, either.

ADDED MUCH LATER: See this post about concerns about baking soda and a switch to vinegar as deodorant.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Life Within a Dead Language

You may have heard that all Catholic masses were once conducted entirely in Latin. Some who attended understood what was being said, but many sat and prayed by themselves. That was true right up until the early 1960s, when it all changed with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

While few modern people have ties to the Latin service anymore (I've never even been to one), I would venture to say that "Sunday services in a foreign language" is symbolic of the essence of Catholicism, and a really big difference from Protestants.

I know it seems absolutely outrageous to go to church and not even understand the words, but let me explain:

Protestants are more cerebral, for better and sometimes for worse. They have a focus on the "word" and on sermons that explain.

Catholics are all about atmosphere, for better and sometimes for worse. We focus on art, ritual and ancient chants. The fact that you can't understand the words may actually help you to speak that spiritual language and catch the haunts of the ancients who have come before.

I admit I think of the Catholic Church when I think of the Jedi from Star Wars--the crumbling remains of an ancient empire, an order of priests mysterious and bold, shadows and incense and echoes in old stone cathedrals.

Modern masses are supposed to be a happy balance between the cerebral and the intuitive, though--using the local language in words folks can understand and having a sermon which is an exposition on the Biblical texts are two ways to bring the rational, deductive mind into the mass. From what I have heard, the Eastern churches (such as the Orthodox or the Eastern Catholic rites) are even more atmospheric.

Both traditions are good, but each can be a trap if left unbalanced. Atmosphere is great, but you need to have some sort of rational understanding of it. But too much explaining can lead to endless logical formulas that miss the mark.

The use of extensive metaphor in the parables and elsewhere in the gospels should show that sermons are not the only proper way to interact with the Divine. Symbols can go to places that no sermon can go. And you also need good explanations and discussions.

Looking at a Catholic mass through Protestant eyes, it is easy to come away feeling unfulfilled. Going to a hurried mass lacking in enthusiasm doesn't help, either. But I'm saying that there is a fundamental difference in approach to the Sunday service. It is easy to miss if you are expecting it to come in a different way.

Latin Hymn

I didn't expect to be moved today at mass. I went to St. Michael's in Worthington, mostly because at 12:30, it was the last morning mass in town. Besides, it is right up the road (there are some after-dinner masses, but I didn't want to put it off until then). I dressed in long pants and a double shirt, since the last time I was there I almost died from the air conditioning. I was in a "practical" mode.

The service was alright. Lots of families, people coming in late, parents taking kids to the bathroom. Its a wealthy parish, and the church building is very cathedral-like. The sermon was hard to hear and ramble-y, but the priest talked about Augustine's Divine Providence and some snippets from the life of St Therese of Lisieux. I am always pleased when people are exposed to the tradition of saints and theologians, so he gets points for that. [This was the associate pastor Fr. Coleman. The pastor is Fr. Pendolphi, who is some kind of fanatic when it comes to military board games, which doesn't relate to this post at all but I just read it this morning, so how could I not include that?]

Communion started with a so-so rendition of a folksy tune. The song ended, but people were still streaming in for communion. For a moment, it sounded like the organist didn't know what to do next. Within a couple bars, they dropped to something minor-ish and began this song in Latin (or maybe Italian?). It absolutely floored me. I have no idea what song it was, but if you think Ave Maria you would have the right idea. The singer was a woman who was expertly navigating the high registers in this chant-like melody--not so much technical precision as to be showy, but just enough to sculpt a piece of beauty to match the shiny marble fixtures. Walking up to communion with the music echoing off the bright marble I was immersed in beauty and in something more. You could have peeled me off the floor.

I've never been a proponent of the Latin mass. It never made sense to have a service in an unfamiliar language, beautiful and historic though it may be (you may find it astonishing that there remains a strong movement with the Catholic Church to re-instate the Tridentine Latin mass). I've never even attended a Latin mass, and have only heard a few hymns in Latin at all ever. Despite all the talk, its not much of a part of modern Catholic culture.

But somewhere in this communion procession, I heard the voice of the ages saying something. It wasn't just beautiful, and it wasn't just spiritual. It was as if this church--this marble--this architecture--this mass--were built with this in mind. And that's something to consider. It was like the whole building was singing in tune and the resonance--both audible and spiritual--was deeper.

I agree with Pope Benedict that we should dip our toes in the Latin tradition--not to go into the past, but to carry some of it forward. Whether or not he supports a full return to the Latin mass, I don't know, but I can't argue with the idea that we should have some feel for it.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Healthy Antiperspirant Deodorant

I had given up on finding a healthy deodorant a long time ago. My experiments with them were heartbreaking: For the first 2-3 days they worked famously. Sure, I'd sweat a little more, but no smell and no major problems. Then on the third day, just a couple of hours into the workday, I'd notice something. I would detect an unexpected smell, mildly at first and almost unconsciously, until it became more pronounced. At first, I would think it was the person working next to me or food someone brought in. It wasn't long before I realized that it was me! The natural deodorant totally failed, and I'm trapped at work with hours to go.

Others have reported similar episodes. My theory is that the body has a residue of the previous antiperspirants you've used. They really are "so effective you can skip a day." It takes time for that to work its way out of your system. Then bam! Its just you, your sweat glands, and nothing but a thin layer of herbs standing in the way. Others claim the body's bacteria may just need a moment to develop a defense for this new substance. In any case, they just didn't work.

Forget all that: Here's introducing Trader Joe's Unscented Deodorant! I've been using it solidly for about 3 weeks in 90-degree stress, and it has worked like a charm. I'm dry as a bone yard and smelling great! It claims to accomplish its antiperspirant goals through wetness-absorbing cotton fibers. How in the world this works is unclear to me--wouldn't the cotton fibers absorb wetness but still cling to you? That's certainly what happens with cotton T-shirts!

Strangely enough, I am not sweating much at all. Is it possible that antiperspirants messed up my body's natural cooling mechanism making me actually sweat more all these years?

The Lay of the Land

Remember that deodorants and antiperspirants are not the same thing. The former works to make you smell good. The latter works to subvert your natural cooling system to prevent you from sweating.

Deodorants and antiperspirants contain many harmful toxins. At the top of the list is aluminum. These are found in antiperspirants only, so you can avoid them by just employing a regular deodorant. Aluminum is linked to Alzheimer's Disease. In the 1980s, this link was discovered and in response kitchens all across the land discarded their aluminum pots and pans. But we still are potentially getting a strong exposure through antiperspirants.

Parabens are preservatives that have also been suspected for leading to breast cancer, but it has not been proven. I do feel that rubbing chemicals on your skin on a regular basis is probably not the smartest thing to do (see the post on the Precautionary Principle below).

People who shave their armpits are considered more at risk due to continuous nicks, cuts, scrapes and general rawness, which makes an easier pathway for the toxins to get into your bloodstream directly.

To be clear, Trader Joe's Unscented Deodorant never claims to be "organic" or even "natural". It states that it does what it does without aluminum and parabens (two of the worst toxins found in most antiperspirant deodorants). In addition, it contains "conditioning herbal extracts to help smooth skin." I am not sure why skin in the armpits would need smoothing, unless it were irritated by the deodorant. It still contains glycol, which is another suspicious substance, and other questionable chemicals.

If you are committed to find a safer deodorant, don't give up. Judging from this list, many people have bad luck with certain brands only to be helped by another. We all have different chemistry, activity levels and diet, so we all respond to different formulas. The most basic is just to apply plain ole baking soda to your armpits and skip everything else.

Options

Even if you never find one perfect natural alternative, there are ways of minimizing your exposure to toxins, even by using conventional products in some cases. Here are some tips:

1. Many conventional products really are "so effective you can skip a day" so I'd suggest taking them up on that offer! Use a natural alternative (or nothing at all) on the in-between days. You can reduce your exposure by 50% just with this one change.

2. Switch to deodorants and discard the antiperspirants. Nothing can stop me from sweating when I really want to anyway, although antiperspirants do help minimize this. Even conventional deodorants don't have aluminum, so you can eliminate the #1 problem just by doing this. Preventing yourself from sweating may be a very unhealthy thing to do, because that is a mechanism the body uses to purge itself of all sorts of toxins.

3. Try different brands! Don't give up without trying a wide variety of natural products.

4. Minimize how much you use. You don't need a heavy coating, just a small amount in the center of your armpit.

5. Most of the world's ills can be cured with baking soda and vinegar, and sweating is no exception. Just dab on baking soda with a damp washcloth onto clean armpits, and that may be all the deodorant you need! A spray with vinegar also works to kill odor-causing bacteria (and doesn't leave a smell on you, from what I hear).

6. Change your approach to deodorant. I know, most of us want to apply something in the morning and not have to think about it the rest of the day. We want to use the same product every day. Finding healthier deodorants may involve mixing it up: You may want to wash and re-apply baking soda halfway through the day.

If you are unwilling to take the plunge and go 100% healthy, then keep the nasty stuff around for stressful days and experiment with natural products on the weekends until you're comfortable with how they work. The good news is that once you find a system that works for you, you can go back to not thinking about it--just follow the routine.

7. Just go without! Many people catch themselves smelling bad as a teenager and vow never to allow that again. However, you may not need much of a deodorant at all now. As you grow older, your body changes. Perhaps a light dusting of baking soda will be all you need, even if it didn't work years ago.

Our modern American culture is so extreme that we have virtually no tolerance for natural human smells. The human race has been around for about 100,000 years, modern deodorants just for a generation or two. This isn't to say that people didn't try to improve their smell in ancient times--they did, but in general, natural human smells were just part of life. Its part of our shame-based culture, but that's a post for another day.

For now, I'm using my Trader Joe's brand. It seems to be holding up. Its not perfect by any means, because it still contains questionable chemicals, but I'm glad to be stepping away from aluminum-driven antiperspirants and parabens to boot. I'm going to dabble with baking soda and vinegar, and see if the results match the claims!

ADDED: Here's an excellent link for using baking soda as a deodorant.

UPDATE: This is the first of a series of posts on finding a healthy deodorant. Later posts explore baking soda, which is a significant improvement but still has a mild toxic risk. Vinegar has the lowest toxic risk factor, see this post for details.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gas Prices and the Well of Human Ingenuity

You can count me among the people who are happy that gas prices have gone up. Change is a difficult thing for many of us, and often we need a good push. And here's the thing: A lot of people may not be as screwed as they think they are.

Some people want to drill more oil wells, but we are neglecting the most promising well there is: Human Ingenuity.

A friend of mine has decided to carpool with a co-worker in light of skyrocketing gas prices. As a result, she is now saving about 40% on gas (assuming she still runs errands on her own and has to go slightly out of her way to pick up her co-worker, so she won't reduce her gas bill quite by half). Over the past year, gas prices have risen about 30%. So putting it all together, she's saving 40% while the price has gone up 30%--she's actually better off now than she was a year ago! Add a 2nd or 3rd person to that carpool, and you have a tremendous cost savings, not to mention less emissions into the environment.

I know that some people will slip through the cracks no matter what, but the environment is taking a beating, and that is not acceptable, either. A change is needed. People have options. I really don't want to hear any bitching until people have tried the following:

  • Use public transportation
  • Drive more fuel efficient cars
  • Carpool
  • Drive less overall (consolidate your trips, walk, bicycle)
  • Drive more efficiently. From the link: "Speeding, rapid acceleration and braking" can impact your fuel efficiency by as much as 33% (you can potentially offset the rising cost of fuel just by this one change alone!) Also: "You can assume that each 5 mph you drive over 60 mph is like paying an additional $0.30 per gallon for gas. "
  • Don't run the a/c or carry unnecessary cargo.
  • Keep your vehicle well-tuned and in good condition (see the above link, as well)
In a longer term view, people can consider these things when they choose a place to live: Can you walk to the grocery store? Is the commute to work short? Is there public transportation available? Is there a movement to bring public transportation to your neighborhood in the near future (and can you support that movement)?

You may improve your health, improve relationships with people, save the environment and reduce fuel expenditures. You may even end up--as my friend above--better off than you are now. She would never have considered carpooling if prices had remained low, but now that she has, she is better off financially and actually has more time to spend with someone rather than driving alone.

Many of the great things we can do for the environment do not even involve significant changes to our lives. We are so inefficient that it is actually quite easy to dramatically reduce our energy consumption with a few small but substantial changes.

Precautionary Principle

I ran across this term by accident on Wikipedia. I didn’t realize this philosophy had a name! I should have known better. It describes a point of view that I generally take. Here's the quote:

The precautionary principle . . . aims to provide guidance for protecting public health and the environment in the face of uncertain risks, stating that the absence of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason to postpone measures where there is a risk of serious or irreversible harm to public health or the environment. An alternate formulation states that the lack of certainty regarding the threat should not be used as an excuse to do nothing to avert that threat.

You hear about so many benefits/risks for everything from food to medicine to chemicals to lifestyle habits. Some people find statistics, correlations and anecdotal evidence to support their claims. Many are contradictory. Yet, science is by nature slow moving. It can take generations to isolate a variable and run it through tests to determine a true cause and effect. When dealing with our health and environment, there are thousands of variables at play at any moment. What’s a person to do in the midst of all this?

It would be wrong to lock yourself in your bedroom with the covers over your head (especially since your blankets probably contain numerous dust mites and chemical toxins). But it is wise to go forward with caution. In the interests of business, many people push products that are untested onto the public. You often hear: “It hasn’t been proven to be a problem, so we are using it.” In response, I wolud say: "It hasn't been proven safe!"

We live in a world highly influenced by science, but make no mistake: Much of what we do in life we do without the benefit of science.

A doctor once told me: the study of medicine is a science, but the practice of it is not. That is something to remember whenever you go into the doctor’s office. They can’t (and won't) scientifically prove what’s wrong and have an exact plan for what to do about it. What they can do is look at your symptoms, looks at health indicators, and put that together into a likely diagnosis. It is scientifically informed and an educated guess, but it is not a verifiable fact.

We need to live between what science can prove and what common sense can indicate. Too many people throw out science, assuming that anything with the label "natural" or "traditional" is better. Too many people do the opposite, clinging to only what has been proven by science but neglecting warning signs, trends and conventional wisdom.

A perfect example is smoking. All the evidence was clearly pointing to the fact that smoking causes cancer, but it was quite a bit later when science was actually able to say for certain. I respect that about science, it has to do what it has to do (assuming it wasn't unnaturally delayed in reaching this decision due to special interests). But we have to make decisions in the meantime--informed, common sense decisions.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Environmental Savings Related to Clothes

Much of what you can do for the environment revolves on how you manage your clothing!

Buy fewer clothes. Remember, they all come from either agricultural sources (cotton, linen, wool) or oil-based ones (polyester, rayon), so a savings in either category has a tremendous ecological benefit. Buying less means less land scoured with conventional farming practices, less oil consumed and fewer toxins released. Shop instead at thrift stores and deck yourself out in retro style.

I feel spoiled that I now have 2 pairs of jeans. A few shirts and a few pants are all you need. I am sympathetic if clothing is your passion, but get creative with accessories and be honest about the fact that much of your wardrobe sits unused in your closet. Donate what you don't need to thrift stores.

Wash your clothes less often. A day at the office does not require a thorough watch in a heavy-duty laundry detergent! Hang them up to wear again (socks and undergarments excluded, of course). Each time you wash clothes, you use water, put detergents into the environment, increase the demand for plastics (containers) and use energy to power the machines and heat water. The best way to save on your laundry footprint is simply to not do laundry! You will also enjoy the added bonus of having more free time as you spend less in the laundry room.

Avoid drying your clothes with a machine. Just hang them up to dry. If time is an issue, I have found that running a regular fan pointed toward the hanging clothes speeds up the process with minimal energy use. If you are really ambitious, put them on a clothesline outside. The sun is a natural bleaching agent, so it can help you avoid the chemical variety of bleach.

While we're at it: Avoid bleach. Unless you're washing hospital garments, it is just unnecessary and potentially harmful.

Use energy efficient appliances. They conserve water and use a more concentrated detergent (reducing the amount of plastic container waste). Some dryers don't even use much heat at all, so they are a much better option than traditional varieties.

Wash in cold water. Very rarely do I opt to use warm or hot, and only for an unusually dirty batch of socks. You will save on your hot water heater by using less energy and probably save your clothes from the stress of getting washed in hot water.

Use natural laundry detergents. They all seem to work just fine for me, and many smell great. You'll be saving on oil and phosphates from the environment, decrease your carbon footprint, and keep those toxins off your skin. In addition, consider using a smaller amount of soap. A lot of people use way too much!

Taken together, these steps are not very hard. Too often, we don't think about our clothing choices when we consider environmental stewardship. But everything from making clothes to maintaining them produces a significant strain on the environment. Keeping a simple wardrobe, washing it minimally and using natural cleaners can have a substantial impact.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Hiram College Reflections: Less is More

Hiram College was one of the few places where Mayberry still existed. You could run off with your friends for a late-night adventure through the woods, leaving your books and tape player on a table in a public building. You come back hours later, and everything would be just as you left it. If something were missing, it would be more likely that your friends were playing a trick on you than an opportunist looking for free stuff.

When you walk by people on campus, you would wave and smile. It wasn't to get something, but just to be friendly. Folks raised in the city would be shocked, because avoiding acknowledgement of strangers had been a survival mechanism for them.

My friends brought their spouses to visit campus for our reunion, and many were aghast. There are virtually no stores in town. There is virtually no town. How could you enjoy yourself at a place where even a midnight run to Taco Bell required a 30-minute drive to Kent, OH? The answer to this concern is actually self-evident, if you sit and think on it a bit. The massive campaign to work this out is one of college's greatest phenomena: The Road Trip--finding someone with a car, jamming as many people into it as possible, scrounging for dimes under vending machines, screaming and laughing out of car windows, getting lost on the way. If you don't see the fun in this, you are spending too much time thinking about your taco and not enough on the journey.

Hiram is as quaint as you can imagine--a perfect blend of Midwestern and New England charm. However, some of the most attractive features of Hiram were barely underway when I was a student: an tasteful chapel with gardens, a road that was eliminated and another re-routed to make way for a stone walkway, fancy new buildings, and an old dormitory restored.

Hiram has committed some sins in preserving its heritage, too. You hear about a gorgeous century building demolished to make way for a 1960s pale substitute (although by the time I went to school, those 60s amenities had taken on a retro charm). I like the replacement but appreciate what they’re saying. I would often bemoan the attention the college was paying to science and athletics, seeming to disregard its profound liberal arts tradition. Yet, it is clear that someone in Hiram has been fighting the good fight, as the Hiram I know seems as alive and well as it was then. Much has been done to maintain the charm of the place, and overall they have gone a great job.

All this is possible, because it really wasn't about the buildings.

Like all good things, Hiram is mystery. It is really tough to crack the secret of Hiram, but I will venture this: There was nothing to do. You would hear students endlessly complain about this. But when you and your neighbors learn to have fun with salt & pepper shakers while staying late in the dining hall on a snowy night, because there’s nowhere else to go (but truly no place else you’d rather be), then you have learned a lesson you can carry your entire life. Independence and personal choice are not all they are cracked up to be. Getting stuck with people and making the best of it . . . that is what life is about!

No, I’m not advocating for oppression here, only saying that dependence is the true seed of community. Sometimes being thrown into situations and having limitations brings out the best in all of us, stressful though it may be. The best gifts in life are living with a roommate, learning how to share things, finding clever ways to have fun rather than simply writing a check for it, and yes, having to put up with (and enjoy) the folks you’re with. It is learning to use your own muse as entertainment, rather than relying on your environment to provide you with the stimulus. We all have it within us, but at Hiram you nurture it.

Technology does much to isolate people, and I worry because Hiram has felt the pull of modernity, too. Doors seem to be locked more often than they used to be (and harder to jimmy, I hear). Individual dorm rooms are now wired for cable and internet. I even saw a TV set up in the hallway of a class building (to entertain commuter students??) My peers and I were caught in the middle of this transition. We heard about the infamous one phone that was available on each floor of a dorm building not long before us, and students had to work out a system for using it. Movie night was not where you invited your friends into your room to play VHS tapes, but it was a community-wide event where everyone turned out to see the film projected in the theater or on the side of a building in warmer days.

How many people made new friends because there was only one ride going to Taco Bell, and if you wanted in you would have to spend time with folks you didn’t know? I worry about all the shy students who find it easy to lock themselves into their room with private internet, cable TV and cell phones shielding them from ever participating in the community around them. I do hope that whatever makes Hiram great is still available to them.

There are many who wonder why they are unable to reclaim the joy of college in their later years. The answer is so obvious—the refuse to do the very things that made their college joy possible. They refuse to share their living space, refuse to share their possessions, and don't circulate in areas where other folks congregate. They long ago quit learning and wound down their exploring. They don't need to beg and borrow for food and rides. They drive alone in their car with their windows rolled up, wondering why they are lonely, irritated with anyone who gets in their way. A carload of giggling college kids passes them by, and they shake their head in annoyance. We all need people, but some folks don't act like it. We convince ourselves that we have matured to a new phase in life that is about paying bills and not bumming rides with your buddies, but the quiet depression we carry should be evidence that something is not right. It often takes necessity to coax us out of our shell. Blessed are the needy.

Hiram College has fewer students than some high schools. But again, the paradox holds true: While there are fewer people to know, odds are you will know more of them and in a deeper way than if you were on a bristling campus with tens of thousands of people streaming by you every day. Water, water everywhere—but not a drop to drink, as my grandmother used to say.

Hiram is certainly the Eclectic Institute it was christened to be. You have East Coast students of an upper-class background. There were also blue collar folks from about a 200 mile radius to keep everyone honest. You might even happen upon a few true local yokels. Hiram also attracts a large LGBT population, has a significant presence of international students and some playing sports. Many students are pre-med, drawn to the strong science program. I once did some calculations and realized that 1 out of every 5 males was a member of the football team (I did mention high school, right?) Its hard to believe.

Students often claim that "everyone knows everyone", but I have found that to be an overstatement. There were many I barely knew. There were times I was interested in a girl and could not figure out a way for our paths to cross no matter how hard I strategized. I had many lonely days and nights. Despite the proximity of everyone, you still had to get involved in activities in order to meet people. It was not always easy, but it always seemed within reach. I say this not to downplay Hiram or the people I scuffled with, only to point out that it wasn’t some kind of perfect life on the clouds. People were living on top of each other, and it was at times gossipy and rude--like all community.

As a final clarification, Hiram College offers a first class education. It works hard to make up for its small size and isolation by making available numerous study abroad opportunities (which are now common, but weren’t always so), excursions to local areas and by hosting worthy speakers and other programs. The claim that “there is nothing to do!” is not a reflection on the educational quality at all.

I could drop into a professor's office or see them walking on campus, and spontaneously spend the afternoon talking with them. They would accompany us frequently on excursions. It was the perfect environment for an inquisitive person like me who would often wander around looking for good conversation. Those whose only contact with professors was in class were missing at least half the show. The much-touted admissions line that "you'll have dinner at your professors houses" is a bit of an overstatement, but it did happen--But the notion that you'll have plenty of contact with professors if you choose to soak it up is absolutely true. By contrast, my sister (who went to a large state university) once called a professor at her home. The professor was horrified that their number could be so easily found and probably thought my sister was out to get her somehow. The prof quickly and anxiously got off the phone.

Hiram was a welcoming, safe stage on which to play out your life, low on stimulation but full of props. We were stranded together in a little place. A lot of people focus on the word "stranded", but those who get it understand the key word is "together."

Friday, June 13, 2008

Hypochondria

The sad reality is that hypochondriacs already have the debilitating disease they are so afraid of. This is tragic irony at its best (or worst, however you want to look at it).

While spending hours daily worrying about cancer, heart attacks, food borne-illnesses or anything else, the person is already suffering under a terrible weight. It can sabotage a person's life as they are afraid to go out or to partake in activities. Even if they don't cancel plans because of it, their hypochondria still saps precious time and energy and will undoubtedly leave a negative impact in terms of lost opportunity somehow, someway. Just think of what you could have done instead of being consumed in these worries.

Its a difficult web. You can't just declare that someone is well or not. As I have often said in the past, "even hypochondriacs get sick for real sometimes." That is true, and you do have to take care of your body and go see a doctor when you have a concern. But don't let a normal occurrence of illness in your life be some kind of proof to your fears. Wait around long enough and anyone will get sick, that doesn't mean all the fears day after day, year after year were justified.

So what is going on with hypochondria? When someone is worried they are sick, what they are doing is trying to tell the world--"Look, something is wrong here." Something in their spirit is sick. Something demands attention. Something in the life, or their memory, or their lifestyle has a "sickness" to it. Emotions are unresolved, pains are festering. They want care, they need healing, they want to be public about it.

They have probably spent years rationalizing that their unresolved issues do not need to be addressed. That is understandable, as it can be one of life's hardest missions to confront those who have hurt you or be honest about feelings you have tried to cover up. The truth is that whether we want to or not, if something needs to be addressed then it needs to be, and no amount of shoving it under a rug will make it go away. Hypochondria is the language of the subconscious bubbling up to say, "There is something wrong here and I need to do something about it!".

Sometimes going to a medical doctor can help you calm your fears, but keep in mind this is a treatment of symptoms and rarely a cure. As soon as you stop worrying about one illness, you may have another one to take its place. Yoga and the Egoscue excises can help immensely, too. Ultimately, a counselor can help you discover what needs to be addressed and then come up with a plan to deal with it--step by step, in manageable doses. The good news is that once you deal with it, you can really get through to the other side.

What is "wrong" is not the cancer or other illness they are afraid of. However, you can look at the object of their fears for a clue as to what the source is. "Cancer" is something that eats away at the body from the inside--like a person keeping a secret that needs to be shared. Food is something you internalize to sustain your life, so fear of food poisoning may be related to this--maybe a lack of trust in the outside world influencing you in some way--whatever is outside is bad, keep it out. Consider what the "disease" you are worrying about is saying to you metaphorically. These are suggestions, only you can know for sure whether they apply to you or not.

As you can tell, I think there are emotional roots at the source of this psychological condition. I am not denying that hypochondria can spin out of control, far more than the initial issues seem to suggest. It can take a life of its own. I realize that people can often get outrageously mad when someone suggests than a "mental illness" may be related to an emotional source rather than some random disease they contracted no different than getting the flu. The level of anger may betray the fact that there is some truth there, however. I am not claiming to diagnose everyone and there may be some exceptions, but I will predict this: Rare is the person who cannot improve or even cure their hypochondria by healing these festering wounds on their soul.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Atheists

When I was young, I had a conversation with my mom about people of different religions. I don't know how it started, but I probably made a remark assuming that all people were Christian or Catholics, and she corrected me. She told me that there were people who did not believe in God at all, called atheists.

That struck me kinda funny. I was curious to know what these people did when they went to church--I mean, what was there to talk about? I imagined a congregation in wooden pews, all looking straight ahead, fists pumping in the air, repeating, "We don't believe! We don't believe!"

That's what church must be like for atheists!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Organic on a Budget

We all know that organic foods costs more. Sometimes a little bit, sometimes two and even three times more! We also know the benefits are myriad and bountiful. But how do you budget it?

If you eat like most Americans, a shift away from some popular bad habits can have you eating organic without increasing your weekly budget--you might even show a savings!

1. Don't throw it out! Between 30-50% of all food goes into the garbage can. Being smart about freezing foods before they spoil is the main thing you have to do here to manage waste. And don't put it on your plate unless you're gonna eat it. Right off the bat, you can reduce your food budget by at least 30% just with this one change.

2. Buy basic foods. Bread, cheese, guacamole and salad dressing are the most heavily processed items I buy. My grocery cart is filled with items such as eggs, potatoes, onions, carrots, apples. The real money pit is the prepared foods. I cook simple but delicious recipes that don't take much longer than it would to heat up a microwave-meal or make a short trip to a fast food joint. Also, a dash of spices or olive oil is usually enough to dress up a dish. Sauces and marinades can be extremely expensive and double the cost of your meal. The food items themsleves can be rather cheap.

3. Avoid restaurants. You almost have to do this if you want to eat organically, anyway. I'm not against going out as a social event, but a lot of people eat at restaurants just because they mismanage their time and resources--late for work, too tired to cook, fridge is empty, etc. Being prepared, having ready-made meals of your own in the freezer helps (such as the leftovers from Item #1 above), things you can grab on the way out the door or heat up quick. It can also be fast and easy to cook up a nice dinner, you just need to keep some items on hand and a knowledge of a few recipes. Also: Keep snack foods such as granola or nuts in the car.

4. Buy in bulk. There is (what's left of) a 1/2 cow in my freezer. It lasts for a year. At bulk prices, this much organic, pasture-raised meat costs about the same as if you bought non-organics piece-by-piece at the grocery store. Other good bulk items: Dry beans, rice, barely, oatmeal, flour and whole sugar.

5. Grow your own garden. A single tomato plant averages around $2-4 around here. You could easily pay that much for a single package of tomatoes. In contrast, you could get between 20-40 pounds of tomatoes from each tomato plant. Some vegetables and fruits are difficult to grow in an organic format, but tomatoes grow very well with minimal supervision.

6. Watch out for sales. I can often find organic foods at conventional prices when they are just past the point of ripeness and the store wants to get rid of them quick. Good quality stuff at reasonable prices that way.


It does take effort. It does take foresight and preparation. And the most difficult part: It takes going against the grain of contemporary society. But with a little bit of practice, its not that hard at all and the payoffs are immense. I eat organic, gourmet meals every day spending about the same amount as the jokers eating fast food.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

On Pushing Rivers--Let's Review

If you've been following this blog, you may have seen a trend that I have seen as well: I'm convinced that many of the problems with America stem from a pervasive attitude that we can force the world to be what we want it to be. We expend countless resources to do this, when it would be more effective, efficient and gentle to work with our surrounding and bend with them.

The following is a snapshot of ideas that have been discussed in previous posts. While they may seem to encompass varied topics, I am hoping the following shows a common theme among them:

Instead of finding a nice shade tree to relax under, we would rather rev up an engine and sit in houses and cars with air conditioning. People don't think of wearing lighter clothing or working at a slower pace in the heat. The term "climate control" sums it up. There is tremendous irony there, as people who live this way are not in control, but actually trapped in their homes and cars, powerless to thrive as the environment changes (they could if they just gave themselves a chance to adapt). A lot of people don't know that you can really thrive in the heat, but you have to give it a chance.

Instead of practicing a lifestyle of health and working with the body when it falters, our medical community is much more geared toward invasive drugs and surgeries. Do whatever you want, and our doctors will "fix" you when you get "broken." It is oriented toward forcing a cure rather than enabling health. Diet and exercise are considered as an afterthought, almost like extra credit or when all else fails. Any doctor will tell you that the best cures work with the body rather than against, but people often think (and act) otherwise.

Instead of appreciating rocky landscapes or desert foliage, Midwesterners who move to the southwest instead try to force a green lawn onto the arid landscape--even though water is scarce and introducing foreign species may upset the local ecosystems. They move all the way to the desert, but want to recreate Ohio.

Instead of trying to work with other nations, the USA instead follows the imperial model of using military force to get our way. The "War on Terrorism" is a perfect example. The notion that we can simply end terrorism by military force is actually impossible, if you consider the definition of terrorism--the last ditch efforts of a group of people with little to lose, who aren't afraid of dying, willing to commit acts of destruction to make up for their small political or economic power, all in an effort to disrupt the imperial power. Reducing communication and the political power of others leads to terrorism, it does not fight it.

When Senator Obama stresses the importance of maintaining dialogue with other nations, that simple and common sense attitude is just too radical for many Americans. Yet dialogue breeds negotiation which breed compromise and commitment. Sure beats the current model, which is "I'm not talking to you, but I'm gonna bomb you." I realize that negotiating with people who are already terrorists may be hard to do, but the idea here is that terrorists come out of a context. If there were more opportunity, if their culture had more of a voice, terrorists probably would not exist at all--and if they did, they would not have the popular support they depend on.

It is for reasons such as the above that America as a whole is often considered spiritually immature--still convinced that strength in isolation is the way to approach the world and solve problems. We're like a strapping young teenager who hasn't fallen flat on his face yet, only to discover later in life that you can't go through life forcing it to be what you want or "taking it on" yourself. Health, happiness and yes--responsibility--comes by being in relationship--with yourself, your surroundings, your community.

You don't pull no punches,
and you don't push the river.
-Van Morrison

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Triple Threat, Triple Advantage

Many people choose natural products and organic foods because it limits their direct exposure to toxins. There is actually an impact far greater than this, as the benefits can be felt in triplicate: at the point of production, consumption, and disposal.

Take teflon pans, for instance. They contains toxins linked to cancer and other nasty bits. You can minimize your exposure to these toxins by cooking on low heat (never use high heat with teflon!) and by using only a soft spatula, careful not to scrape off any of the coating. When a pan starts to lose its coating, you can discard it and get another.

However, toxins will still be released into the environment where the pan was manufactured (people living near a teflon factory in Parkersburg, WV, have had high instances of liver cancer). There will also be toxins released as you send your pan to the landfill. It may be contained for a while, but eventually that pan will break down into the environment. It may be generations later, but it will happen.

Virtually everyone is downstream or downwind from a factory or agricultural site. Other effects of pollution such as climate change, acid rain and ozone depletion are global, so there isn't anybody who can claim to be outside of their sphere of influence.

If fewer people buy teflon pans, then the teflon factory will create and release fewer toxins. The workers will take jobs at the safer cast iron factory, instead. Buying organic foods will mean that chemical farms will decrease while organic farms increase. The health of everyone as well as the surrounding ecosystems will improve as there are more and more organic farms to replace the chemical ones. People living downstream will benefit. Rivers, lakes and oceans will be safer to swim in. Your city drinking water will be cleaner, too.

Every time you buy a natural or organic product, you are not just saving yourself from exposure to toxins directly . You are also saving people and animals you will never see, some who haven't even been born, yet. You are making the earth a cleaner place to be, a blessing which will come back to you at some point because whether you know it or not, you are also downstream from these farms, factories and landfills, as well!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Applause in Church

There is little that gets me more riled up these days than hearing that obligatory round of applause at the end of mass at my beloved Newman Center.

When I first starting attending mass there, I thought the applause was great--a fitting tribute to a fine musical ensemble. Maybe we think we're being more Protestant that way, I don't know (do Protestants do this?) In any case, it is a way to be more expressive in a church that often needs to be more expressive.

But its just so wrong.

Without realizing it, applause creates a huge chasm between the average churchgoer and the celebrants. They are the ones performing, we are the audience. In a church where there is already too much distance between the hierarchy and Jane Catholic, this can't be good.

To give applause makes it seem like we're actually not participating, but rather just watching a show. We're being entertained. Are people actively meditating, praying and involving themselves? Do they feel like they have the opportunity to do so?

It also gives the impression that the music is the real show. While I do believe the musicians are co-celebrants with the priest, readers, Eucharistic ministers and others, I worry when the balance is thrown off to much.

A key word is "obligatory". Let's face it: The music isn't always good. It is performed by human beings who have good and bad days, who are better prepared some days than others (I used to be one of those musicians, so I can attest from personal experience). If people were so moved they just couldn't contain themselves, I'd be more gracious about the whole applause thing. But they are not--it has become another obligation.

When a Catholic mass is done "right" (very loaded language here!), it is a wonderful, flowing experience of word and music. The musicians lead the congregation in the call-and-response of the ritual. We don't just sing whole songs, but have numerous refrains, alleluias, one-liners and small bits we sing throughout the mass. This is very well done (without being too showy) at New Albany's Church of the Resurrection. When you can feel the energy going back and forth between the congregation and the celebrant, it is glimpse to what mass could and should be, rather than the dry repetitions you often see at Sunday masses these days.

The point is that the music should foster a sense of involvement. Directors often exclude music because they are performance pieces or at least relegate them to certain slots (such as the offertory) where the music can be a primary focus. Dramatic solos and show-off numbers just don't fit in so well anywhere. The Newman Center music ensemble does a fine job with this and takes into account all of these things! The applause is not their fault.

Far be it from me to tell people how to experience church (remember, I'm the guy who says that not paying attention during mass is rewarding). I take the viewpoint that there are many valid approaches and a time and a season for each. However, I get alarmed when I see church practices gravitate toward a style of consumerism and entertainment that matches our secular culture. Maybe it is unavoidable that our church traditions are going to reflect our modern culture. But sometimes I think Church traditions are the only alternative some of us ever get to secular culture, so I feel a desire to hang on to some of that.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Mexican Food Revolution

The time has come to declare that Mexican food is an integral part of our national cuisine here in America… er, I mean the United States (they’re American too, you know).

Salsa, fajitas and carne asada are not just exotic foods you get at a specialty restaurant—they’re what’s on the menu at your local suburban backyard cookout. People grow cilantro in home gardens across the land. You don't have to italicize the words, either. The final proof that Mexican food has arrived: Kids aren’t afraid of it.

The US certainly has incorporated foods from all over the world into our national menu. However, certain nationalities have risen from an ethnic specialty into a national food. Look at Italian foods. Who hasn’t grown up eating spaghetti, lasagna and ravioli? And I’m not even going to mention pizza. While most people love pierogies and kielbasa, few Americans can name more Polish dishes than that. Yet, the Italians and Mexicans have worked their way to the top of our menu and their dishes are as American—and as common—as apple pie. And to be honest: I rarely eat apple pie, but had several burritos just last week.

Neither Mexican nor Italian foods have lost their ethnic associations. No one forgets where the burrito or the lasagna come from. But there’s a sense that its our food, not just their food.

To be sure here, I’m talking about Mexican-American food. Most folks here in the 50 states still haven’t partaken in drunken beans (frijoles borrachos), ox-tail soup (sopa del caldo) or other gems of Mexican foods. But they’re not so far away, either. And that’s just the way it is in the USA, where Americanized versions predominate.

Its hard to say if the stunning popularity of Mexican food is due to immigration or the marketing of some restaurant chains. Taco Bell certainly broke into the market, but clearly left us at a plateau that someone else needed to rise above. If it were just for Taco Bell, I would still think a burrito was just glue wrapped in tar. Thanks to Chipotle and others who have redeemed the good name of the burrito.

When I was young, I was leery of salsa. I assumed it was just another “sauce” that was full of sugars, oils and was clogging the arteries of Americans—no different than commercial BBQ sauces or salad dressings (this may have been due to Taco Bell calling what's in their hot sauce packed "salsa"--but I could be remembering incorrectly). It wasn’t until later that we all realized that salsa is this amazing thing which is somewhere between a sauce and a salad. It’s a tremendous blend of tomatoes, peppers, onions, garlic, cilantro. While some commercial varieties can add some negative ingredients, at its core, salsa is one of the healthiest things you can put in your body.

Who doesn’t love Mexican food and want to eat a lot of it?

Mark my words: Middle Eastern food will be next.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Zen Catholic

Going to weekly mass was a gruelling affair for a young child like me. As an undiagnosed, possibly hyperactive/ADD child, sitting through the repetition was an unspeakable agony. I say “repetition” because knowing which words were coming next and being able to pace the always-too-slow course of mass made it so much worse than just sitting through an event that could change at a moment’s notice. It wasn’t changing. There were few variations. I was utterly shocked and horrified that people would opt to repeat the same words over and over week after week. Mass has often been an endurance event for me.

I learned to Zen out, though. I would get lost in my imagination and take long fantastical voyages. Sometimes I’d let the sunlight wafting through the stained glass lull me into a trance. I wouldn’t work too hard on paying attention to the celebrant, but rather let my attention fade in and out naturally. Sometimes the words and chanting would occupy my attention, other times it was a lot of mumbling that was a pleasing drone. In the summer, the large fans provided another nice drone (no, our church didn't have A/C!)

Sometimes there was an engaging homily or music, a lot of times there wasn’t. Instead of forcing myself to active participation with conscious focus on the words, I’d instead let them roll over me like a babbling brook.

You would think the stand-up, kneel-down, sit-down, stand-up again would have been a nice physical release from the monotony. It probably was, but at the time, I didn’t appreciate it as such--it just wasn't enough. Besides, long periods of kneeling or standing in place aren't exactly the best tenion-releasers. Like most kids, I looked forward to the moment when I could slip out inconspicuously and go to the bathroom, careful to be strategic about when and how I use that precious break.

I am sure kids all over did similar things, but I do wonder if my faith tradition lends itself to this. As a Catholic, we have a sense of interacting with God through creation, such as the presence of Christ in the bread and wine. It is not just through abstract ideas in a sermon, but the physical participation in the sacraments and communing through the atmosphere of a church—the incense, the wood, the kneeling, the coming forward in procession, the cool stone and echo of an old church. [The notion that we can encounter God in and through creation is called panentheism, which has a lot of support in traditional Christian theology.] Catholics say they go to mass for Communion, not necessarily to hear a good sermon. In the Latin days, people said silent prayers while the priest conducted the mass. Maybe the sense of "do your own thing but still participate" is still in the culture, somehow.

We engage through art and music—statues, paintings, stained glass. My attention could trace the delicately sculpted fingers and gentle facial features of a statue of Mary--features caved out of stone as light as a feather--and I could learn about God's love through beauty. Luther couldn't have been more wrong in thinking that statues and artwork were a "distraction." Some churches get needlessly ornamental, but that wasn't how I experienced it.

We engage by simply being there. Its very atmospheric, and I would drink it up. Zenning out like this is one way in which the monastic traditions really influence our whole faith. I would try to pay attention sometimes, but it never worked so I let it go.

Further, nobody worked that hard to catch my attention. Nobody worked that hard to entertain me. And the older I get, the more I appreciate that. There were few props. There isn't much latitude to play with kneelers, or the little clips to hold your books in place on the backside of a pew in front of you (boy, they'd be loud when you'd snap them accidentally, and then you'd get glares and lose your opportunity to play with them). The mass books didn't provide a lot of stimulation, either--no cartoons or games for kids in them.

Yet, I was always glad I went to church. I had that sense of accomplishment afterwards like you get when you do some exercise that you didn’t feel like doing, but are glad you did when you are done. I loved the music, the community and yes, sometimes even some words of wisdom.

I could appreciate a Catholic mass the same way you'd sit by a babbling brook and just listen to the water trickle, sometimes looking at a frog jumping, sometimes thinking about something going on in your life, but always just being there drinking it up.

Is this the only way to experience church? Certainly not. Is this what Jesus would have intended for his church? Who knows--silly hypothetical question. Is not paying attention what we're called to do?? It can be a good way. One thing is for sure: This way of participating in church is very honest.

You would think the statues, ritual, and costumes of the Catholic masses of my childhood would lend themselves to external stimulation. They didn't, though. They were the antithesis of a TV show--which stimulates and caters to you. There was little on the surface, but the roots ran deep. All that stuff was there to engage with, but it was up to you to do it—or not. Nobody was going to hold your hand or make it fun for you. It wouldn't have killed anybody if the church tried a little harder to engage people, at least to get the ball rolling like in a retreat or classes. But this was old time ‘ligion--all the good of it without the harshness. An ideal moment to experience church, I'd say. And yes, it was boring, too... sometimes.

Not to sound like a cranky old timer, but I'm tired of everything that has to be "made into fun" for kids. Few people made mass fun for me (except when I was real young and was set apart in the "Crying Room"). Perhaps the church has missed the opportunity to engage a lot of kids that way. We were expected to sit in our seats and participate in the mass--which often mean just keeping quiet. In this world of ever-increasing narcicism in children, its good for kids to learn that sometimes the world does not revolve around them--sometimes you are expected to play your part. There is something bigger than you. Yes, sometimes the Catholic Church seems unfriendly to kids, but maybe there is a lesson there worth learning. I have mixed feelings about this--part of me would love to see a church that welcomes kids in all their kid-liness--running around and screaming. Another part of me says that expecting kids to live up to a standard of behavior is a very worthy lesson, too. Any way we can do both?

So in summation: Sometimes you pay attention. Sometimes you don't. Sometimes you think about the latest thing going on at school. Sometimes you commune with God through the chanting and rays of sunlight. God dances on the sunlight which comes and goes, and so do you. In the end, you respect God's freedom and God respects yours. You don't have to "win" his favor or try hard to be 'the good churchgoer.' You don't have to fake interest--but you do show up to mass. And so does God.