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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Never Underestimate the Power of a Good Conversation

No matter how bad life gets, no matter how far you are sinking, even when you have come to the conclusion that there just isn't any hope left, sometimes one good conversation or one hug can completely turn your life around.

It is almost magic.

Men, we need to learn this and just keep re-learning. When we have a problem, we just go off by ourselves and absorb it until we work through it. That can work passably well when you are dealing with mundane stresses of the day--it's not great, though. Like Chris Rock says, just because you can do it doesn't mean it's to be done. But when you are dealing with major life issues, it just won't work, anymore. It can take forever to process every problem in isolation like this, and even then it may not be sufficient.

It doesn't make sense to our masculine mind: Talking about something doesn't "fix" anything. What good can it be? Well, I am here to tell you that sometimes that is all the "fix" we need. Just getting your thoughts out of your head and expressed and shared with someone else, hearing their feedback, not always because of the advice that they say but rather the fact that they hear you and affirm what you said. Yes, I hear you and understand.

Then suddenly you feel a weight lifted off of you and you can breathe again. Suddenly your seemingly endless stream of anger has melted away, like it was never there. And no matter how much you have convinced yourself that there is no silver lining to this cloud you're under, the words of someone else might help you see something so obvious you didn't bother to consider. I can't tell you how many times I thought I had it all figured out until someone breathed some words of wisdom into my ear

That is the fix.

And after one good conversation you can find yourself re-emerging into the world refreshed almost instantly. If you had gone off by yourself and muddled over it, it might have taken you ten times as long to get to a point where you felt better about it--and even then, it would probably not be fully resolved. It is gruelling, isolating and insufficient to boot.

Most of us men have only one person who we confide in: Our significant other or spouse. Statistically speaking, women often fare much better after a divorce than men do. That is probably because men just don't have the support structures in place. You lose your girlfriend, you can risk losing your entire world.

Just talk to people. Share your thoughts. Whatever they may be. And keep doing it--even when you don't think you need to, anymore. No, it's not easy, but you'll almost certainly be glad you did it.

I probably shouldn't make this a gender issue, but there is no mistaking the fact that women tend to do this a lot better than men. Women will regularly unload things that a man would keep inside for years. It is actually painful for men to open up, sometimes. And I'm sure this is true of some women as well. But once you do it, you'll be glad you did--even if you don't get the response you wanted from others, you'll at least be glad you unloaded it and said it out loud.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

So Far, So Good

I renewed and expanded my commitment to eat only humanely-raised meats, eggs and milk about a month ago. It has been difficult, since I don't have a freezer full of meat like I did last year. It was convenient always having that around. I have to be more vigilant and go to specialty stores, and they are expensive. I will soon buy a quarter cow of grass fed, organic beef to cut my costs and load up my freezer.

I eat vegetarian at restaurants, now. This is the one area that I was very lax last year. While my grocery meat purchases were right on the money, I would eat anything if it came from a restaurant. This is the major place I have changed this time around.

A few days after I made my commitment, however, I was hungry late at night and indulged in some Chinese food loaded with no doubt factory-raised chicken. Aside from that one instance, I've kept my commitment rather well.

It can get extreme if I factor in all the eggs, milk and animals fats that are ingredients in just about everything. I try not to worry about all that and focus my attention on the items with large components of animal products.

I picked up a couple of whole chickens at the farmers market. I use them to make soup and usually extract some meat for sandwiches. I also have been eating a lot of fish.

Wild caught fish is a good option, since the animal did not live in confinement and probably suffered little at the end, comparatively speaking. However, the fishing industry as a whole is causing massive turmoil in all of our waters, so it is not a perfect choice. But knowing that none of our food choices is perfect helps me to make the best of it. Even if you eat only vegetables, if they are raised through conventional agricultural methods they are contributing to destruction of ecosystems and global warming when you factor in pesticide usage and erosion. But you can avoid cruelty to animals and have a smaller environmental impact overall by eating vegetarian or properly-raised meats.

Restaurants

I ask for the veggie patties at Subway. They are not on the menu, so you have to ask for them specifically. Most Subways carry them, but not all. They are quite good!

I eat pork and chicken at Chipotle. They are listed as "naturally raised" in Columbus, OH (each restaurant may be different, so you have to check what their menu says). I am under no delusions that this meat would meet all my ethical standards, but I support their efforts to bring better quality meats to the mainstream markets. A chain like Chipotle is large enough to help the industry develop in size and infrastructure, making the work of the next generation of meat vendors easier. Hopefully, we will see meats from animals not raised in confinement and completely organic, but what we have now is a start.

A baked potato and caesar salad at Wendy's isn't a bad lunch, either. I'm a growing boy, so I can often get spacey if I go too long without a substantial meal, so it takes some work to find suitable alternatives to meat. My foray at the Chinese restaurant above was due to not planning and then having a major protein crash. Keeping trail mix conveniently stashed in my car or desk at work helps out in case I get hungry and a substantial meal is too far away.

It has taken some adjustment, as I often eat meat only once a day now, and there are longer gaps between servings. It is best when I can avoid restaurants, especially fast food, but it is unrealistic to think that I can avoid them altogether. The best options in town are the Whole World Bakery & Restaurant, one of the Aladdin's locations or the Northstar Cafe's. The latter serves grass-fed beef and free range turkey as well as great vegetarian meals.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

New Wave of Monasticism

When historians of the future tell the tale of religious orders, they will look back on our current time as the beginning of a new era. We all know that there are fewer nuns and monks than ever. The old orders are dwindling as people are no longer drawn to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Non-Catholics are looking for a way to plug-in, as well. It is getting harder and harder to find a nun these days. However, this is not the end!

There are many different types of religious movements, and each of them began in the wake of a societal change. It may be useful to see that each of these movements is a protest against the excesses of society and church of their particular day. There is a new movement beginning right as we speak.

Desert Fathers and Mothers: This was the earliest form of Christian monasticism. People literally went off into the desert and lived as hermits. Some of them practiced extreme lifestyles, such as St. Simeon who lived above the earth on a platform, never coming down for years. The draw here was that people were renouncing the materialism and social strata of the Roman Empire.

Monasteries: As the Roman Empire disintegrated, Europe dove head first into the Middle Ages. Western Europe was characterized by rampant political instability, like modern day Third World nations. Folks lived mostly in rural areas scattered around the countryside. Monasteries kept learning alive, teaching the peasants agriculture and food preservation and offering protection during times of attack. They were the backbone of early Medieval society. Their strict rules of daily life were a tonic for a chaotic world.

Friars: St. Francis and St. Dominic started the mendicant orders as Europe developed larger towns. These were more "freelance" orders who travelled the countryside two by two preaching and serving. They were not sequestered in a monastery but rather drifted around where the people were. The stability of the monastery was not as necessary.

Jesuits & Specialized Orders: As towns turned into cities and as Europe begun a wave of exploration of the New World, Asia and Africa, new orders formed again. The Jesuits were like a special "task force" who could be dispatched to addressed particular issues, such as missions work. Other orders became specialized around tasks such as education or nursing to match the increased specialization of the cities. It may also be useful here to see many Reform movements as also originating out of a witness to a less-institutionalized Christianity, such as the Anabaptists.

Modern Charity Orders: People are now more and more aware of the intense disparity of wealth in the world. In the Middle Ages there was certainly poverty, but odds are you were just as poor as your neighbor. "Helping the poor" meant giving bread to the guy next door if his flour went bad. Today, there are millions of impoverished people, and we have access to them through modern transportation and the media. We are also more aware of the larger social structures that produce poverty. There are orders such as Mother Theresa's Sisters of Charity who devote themselves to direct service of the poor in large scale operations. There is a renewed activism for justice.

The New Monasticism: We are in a period of religious ecumenism. Obedience is less appealing as traditional religious denominations are softening their divisions. We are tired from centuries of religious fighting. People believe there are multiple spiritual roads, and on any given day we are exposed to any number of them. The old vow of chastity lacks appeal, as people don't see a life of celibacy as a means of spiritual purity, anymore, nor are there feudal laws of inheritance so heirs don't compete with the Church for property. Yet, there is still the call to organize Christian communities.

A new monasticism is arising all over the place. People from many different backgrounds are hearing the same call. People are hungry for community, and they want to break down barriers. They are not drawn to lifetime vows nor being part of a hierarchy. They want to increase fellowship in our world which is starving for human contact, not live a life of silence. There are grassroots communities of Christians springing up in a very organic way. They are often rooted in a particular church, but people are drawn to them more for their way of life than through denominational allegiance.

Evangelicals are crazy for the new monasticism. There are movements emanating from the Anabaptists. Protestants in general are drawn to it, as well. There is the Landing group right here in Columbus, OH. People rave about Shane Claiborne's book The Irresistible Revolution and the Simple Way community he helped start. Groups of Christians all over are starting to do something like this on their own. As a friend of mine recently said, this is definitely the work of the Holy Spirit as these groups are oozing from everywhere and they don't even know about each other. They are all responding to the same hunger. I've only begun to start looking in these groups, and I'm not sure how they are all related, yet.

I see the new monasticism as originating with the Catholic Worker. In the 1930s, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin started a movement of lay people who live in intentional Christian communities. This movement draws inspiration from Benedictines and Franciscans. They live in poverty in the cities or on farms. They share what they have with the poor and are trumpets of social justice activism. Community, intentional poverty, charity, justice, hospitality, non-violence and spirituality all blend together as pillars of the same foundation. Catholic Worker communities scattered all across North America function as the skeleton of the peace and justice movement today. I consider it a "lay monasticism." Many people in the New Monasticism use the Catholic Worker as the model.

Conclusion

This is a very rough sketch of the history of religious orders. These periods were not mutually exclusive: There are still Benedictine monks today, and people in the Middle Ages practiced works of charity. New movements begin, but the old ones do not die out completely, as there is always a need for their witness, as well. I hope that all of these movements stick around. No one knows yet where the new movements are going to lead, but it is sure exciting to watch!

ADDED LATER: It is interesting the way the Protestant desire to get back to the tight-knit, early Christian communities is blending with the Catholic impulse to form movements and orders within the larger Church. There might be something really good happening here . . .

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Measure of Time

It wasn't long after I finally cancelled my cable TV that I actually wanted to start watching TV, again. So I rooted around in the desk drawers and found my collection of old VHS tapes. I have a lot of Saturday Night Live shows, concerts and some home recordings of varied and sundry kinds.

I popped in the SNL 15th anniversary show. It was broadcast in 1990, and most of my tapes are from that time period, give or take a few years. I was amazed at how dated it was. 1990 wasn't that long ago, was it? The calendar counts 18 years. I don't consider 1990 to be the "olden days" by any stretch. Yet, this was well before the internet broke. This was before cell phones. This was before both the Clinton and Bush II years.

I was amazed by the difference in language. I found some PBS documentaries in my collection (some narrated by Johnny Carson), and they were still prolifically using male-based language. It was all "mankind" this and "mankind" that. You just don't hear that, anymore. Even a very "liberal" show like SNL had traces of this. There were subtle differences in the way gender roles were played out, and I couldn't quite put my finger on what specifically is different but it was there.

And while David Letterman's show seems like the one thing that time doesn't change, I spied one notable difference: Special guest Peter O'Toole conducted his interview with David with a lit cigarette in hand. In fact, I remember Dave himself known to light up a cigar now and then. You just don't see that anymore. It's probably illegal. Granted, this show was on location in London, so maybe that had something to do with it.

Malcolm Jamal Warner was on commercials urging kids to "stay in school." OJ Simpson guest-hosted SNL. This was the era of tampon and FDS spray commercials trumpeted ad infinitum on prime time TV--mothers and daughters sat on park benches and had "the talk" about "not so fresh feelings." I remember sitting with my dad when those commercials came on, and I tried to grab a magazine and look busy until they passed. No one said a word. I feel awkward talking about them even now, but why should I feel awkward--I wasn't the one broadcasting these things with no measure of subtlety at all on national TV! You just don't see that, anymore. We have come a long way . . . now we have herpes commercials, instead.

Smart Lifestyle Changes for the Environment

I bought a reusable, hemp coffee filter. I don't remember the brand, but it is kinda like these. I bought it at the local co-op. It is sold as an eco-friendly way to make coffee. Nice.

However, I feel like I am always nursing this thing. I reverse it inside-out and scrape off the grounds with a butter knife, although it often splatters. The grounds always stick in the seams and are a pain to get out. I try to hang it out to dry before scraping, but if it gets too dry, the grounds will shoot all over the place with the slightest touch. I used to rinse off the filter. Then I started to wonder if all the extra water was offsetting the environmental benefits of a reusable product. I only rinse it occasionally, now. The manufacturer recommends boiling the filter in water every once in a while to kill off germs and thoroughly clean it.

This is a daily hastle, and I'm not sure if it is worth it. I probably save a few boxes of coffee filters a year. I used to buy unbleached filters, and would throw all the used grounds (filter and all) right into the compost bin. The box would be sent to the recycling bin. Unbleached filters are kinder to the environment at the point of manufacture and being able to directly compost the product makes for less waste. Reusing is always better than recycling, but disposable filters seem to have minimal environmental impact in the first place.

I'm not sure if the coffee filter industry is bad enough that it deserves this much time and attention. There is certainly nothing wrong with having a reusable filter. It would be great to have reusable everything. But I also know that you can easily spend every waking hour of your day making your life greener. Most of us are going to make certain changes and leave the rest--but not all green changes are equal.

Here's my concern: We may pacify ourselves by making these drop-in-the-bucket changes in our carbon footprint but ignore the big stuff. No amount of reusable coffee filters can offset the miles driven in our cars or our home heating and A/C energy use. Our time and energy would be better spent insulating our water heaters or homes. We would be better served researching for the most fuel efficient car or experimenting with the bus lines. Other folks go out and buy new clothes regularly, which accounts for a significant strain on our environment through agriculture, pesticides and oil-based fuels.

I totally recommend the reusable coffee filter. It's a little more hastle, but it is nice--and you never run out of filters or have to use paper towels as a substitute. But don't let it lull you into thinking you are somehow "green." If you want to go green, try to target the changes that will have the biggest impact. Don't drive yourself neurotic trying to save a single coffee filter every morning and leave no energy for the big things!

Monday, October 20, 2008

Be the Change

Maybe it's a sign of age. I have much less sympathy for folks (often younger people) who have no problem telling everyone under the sun how disappointed they are with organized religion. These people are on a spiritual quest and they experiment in all sorts of ways, attend all kinds of denominations, but they still end up unsatisfied. They say all religions are hypocritical, all are sub-standard, all of them don't live up to what they preach--they aren't even close enough when you factor in natural human imperfections!

And then what do these people do? Quite often, they just give up. Even worse, they feel self-righteous about it--they have looked where they could look and gave everyone an honest shot, and now they can wash their hands of the whole bloody mess and be done with it. As a result, they don't believe (much) about God, they don't practice spiritual practices, they don't do the charity and justice work of the churches, either. So they give up their entire faith just because they didn't like how some other church people were going about their business!

I don't want to criticize anyone's spiritual journey. There are times in your life when you need to be fed, and you yearn for a community or a group where you can find that nourishment and mentoring. The restlessness of youth calls the adults out of complacency and into accountability. We all need that.

But there also comes a time when the next step in the faith journey is to take responsibility for yourself. If all those groups are failing, so what? You be the change you want to see in the world, as Gandhi said. Try it for a while and you may become much more sympathetic about all those "hypocritical religious types." It is easier said than done. You might find out that as difficult as it is for you to live out the gospel, maybe, just maybe, others who are in religion find it difficult, as well. It has never been easy.

At some point in your life, you realize that you are an adult, too. If the church is failing in your eyes, what is stopping you from showing us all how it's done? The Pope isn't our "daddy" that we all look to for direction while we stay in quasi-infancy all our lives. He's a man like I am, and I can look him in the eye and we can talk about it and yell about it then go fishing when it's all said and done. He may not be any better equiped (or positioned) to live out his faith than I am.

"Be the change you want to see in the world," should be our constant reminder every time we want to get up on our soap box and preach hellfire and brimstone to everyone else who is failing around us. Don't come complaining unless you also come with a plan--or at least a desire to help make one.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Friday, October 17, 2008

Going, Going Granola . . . Gone!

I realized yesterday how far I've come on the trek toward a healthy diet.

I spent the day snacking on apples and cashews. Meals were full of whole grains and other healthy foods. Here's the amazing realization: It never once occurred to me that I was sacrificing or depriving myself in any way.

You have to understand that while I have opted for healthy foods in the past, those decisions came with a bit of discipline. I enjoyed them, but if I were to hit the grocery store uninhibited, I would have often opted for something else. I wasn't forcing myself with clenched fists, but at the same time, it wasn't the most natural change in habit, either. Yesterday, I realized how much I have weaned myself off of those temptations.

I can still give a bag of chips a run for its money. No, I'm not as good as I once was, as Toby Keith will tell you, but I'm still as good once as I ever was. However, when it comes to chips, you can find me munching on Kettle Brand or some organic corn chips with salsa instead of Doritos (which I absolutely never, ever touch anymore). I don't miss Doritos at all. In fact, I resent them. They are addictive (probably due to the high MSG content). Even worse, I have always blamed them for getting cancer. Whether that is fair or not, I don't know, but I stay the hell away from them, and I have all sorts of vicious anger toward them. A couple times I have bought a bag of Doritos and then just sat there as I realized my rage for being hooked on something that might be killing me, and I then suddenly grabbed the bag and threw it into the trash with all my might. It's personal.

Note: There are mixed reports as to whether Kettle Brand products are all perfect angels with regards to additives, but in any case I consider them to be significantly better than Doritos.

I am disappointed as I scan the contents of grocery carts of other people. They are stuffed full of frozen pizzas, prepared meals, candy, pop tarts, deli counter meals, carbonated beverages, you name it. There is hardly anything that hasn't been significantly modified and chock full of additives. My cart? Potatoes, onions, 100% juices, whole grains, dried beans, etc. "Prepared" foods are still very basic and would include things like hummus, salsa and guacamole and the Ezekiel Brand cereals.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Freedom of Restrictions: In Economics, In Relationships

We often distinguish between two types of "freedom" in theology. The first is called the freedom from. This refers to freedom from oppression, from rules, from any kind of limitation. This is what most people have on their minds when they talk about freedom. They want to be un-tethered.

The second kind of freedom is freedom for. This describes the kind of freedom whereby you have the time, resources and capacity for a particular goal.

Going to school can limit freedom by having to take classes, do homework and pay tuition. But in the long-run, it can give you the freedom for a wide open future that you wouldn't have otherwise had.

This plays out in a committed relationship. You do lose the first type of freedom in a long-term relationship. You aren't free to date other people and there are bills to pay, diapers to change and school supplies to buy. However--here is what most people forget--you have the second freedom in abundance: The freedom to take that long-term relationship to the limit, something you would never have the freedom to do sitting on the sidelines going from one date to the other. It's the freedom to be a parent and a spouse and to grow in love.

Kris Kristoffersen understood this when he wrote, "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose." A freedom from limitations by itself gives you nothing, unless it also provides the freedom for something.

The biggest mistake people make is spending a lot of energy securing the first kind of freedom while giving the second freedom only an afterthought. Yet, the second freedom is the most important one. Are we free to do what we want to do? Every decision we make is going to have limitations. The focus should not be about which limitations we can live with, but most importantly what opportunities we have.

A perfect example is my beloved stoplight scenario. At its most basic level, it is very true that stoplights limit our freedom. They tell us when to stop and when to go. However, a traffic light system keeps everyone moving like a well-oiled machine. The end result of this "restriction" is that we can drive where we want to more safely and quickly. This restriction increases freedom!

This is a simple lesson we all learned in elementary school fire drills: If we line up single file, we can all exit smoothly and safely. If everyone runs screaming for the door, we're going to have a pile-up and nobody's going to get out very easily at all.

Restrictions in the Economy

Capitalists usually freak out when they hear about restrictions. In theory, capitalism espouses a system of anarchy where the market should be kept totally free. The theory stresses that the fewer limitations the market has, the better the economy will function. Capitalists immediately assume that restrictions limit the ability of commerce to flow.

In reality, smart restrictions function like a traffic light system.

The more safeguards to protect people and institutions, the smoother it runs. I don't want to drive through a city without stoplights, nor do I want to work in a job market where I can be fired without provocation or be subjected to life threatening physical danger at any moment.

Businesses raged against regulations such as minimum wage, child labor laws, health insurance, unions, 40-hour workweek, the environment, you name it. But all of those things actually made their workforce more stable, healthy and happy. People were more productive and in turn spent their money back into the economy. Businesses did not lose productivity due to employees quitting or getting injured. By investing in safety, good wages and safeguards for workers, businesses prospered. Granted, these businesses did it kicking and screaming, as if they were in a hurry and held up at a red light. But they were not thinking about how everything would grind to a halt if there were not the occassional red light.

But then why are so many business people politically conservative? For a single business, it seems great to lower restrictions. Every law seems to hurt their ability to make money. In their minds, it makes all the sense in the world to unshackle them as much as possible.

What they don't take into account is the net effect of an entire system of people who have agreed to abide by a certain regulations. It does negatively impact an individual business in the short run if the government makes them pay their workers more through minimum wage laws or overtime requirements. All things being equal, now the business has to pay their workers more and they get nothing in return. However, if every business out there were doing this, the situation changes dramatically. Suddenly, all workers out there are making more money. And what do they do with their money? They spend it right back into those businesses!

In the above scenario, all businesses are taking a hit by paying their workers more. Since all businesses are doing it equally, there is no loss of competition in the market. This is why the government is the ideal body to mandate these changes--a single business would lose their competitive edge if they enacted these changes on their own, because other businesses would undercut them.

Businesses tend to support a conservative agenda because it speaks to these short terms fears, but you need to look at this with a prophetic eye to see where it's all going. Frankly speaking, the conservative agenda is not good for business. Too much unfettered capitalism just creates an unstable marketplace that is bad for business.

The Bottom Line

I've never forget a comic I saw on the office door of a college professor. It had four panels, each showcasing a different crisis in business: The application of Child Labor Laws, Minimum Wage, Safety Regulations, 40-Hour Workweek, etc. In each panel there was also a businessman screaming at the top of his lungs that these regulations would ruin his business! And in each instance, business not only did well but continued to prosper. We need to keep this in mind every time the business community tells us that some new regulation is going to ruin business.

In the year 2008, it is often those "environmental regulations" that are the scapegoat. Or universal health care. But look deeper: These programs may costs a lot, either to the government or business. But in the end, they will stabilize our society which lowers risks and will support the economy. Universal health care would give you the freedom to start new ventures, knowing your family is protected. Good environmental practices will improve our health and enable a future.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Economics of Tax and Spend

In the closing days of the presidential campaign, it is a good time to sort through the piles of rhetoric that get shoveled our way. You hear a lot of talk about taxes and expenses. Some candidates complain about cutting taxes--how will the government pay its bills? Other candidates talk about raising taxes--how will people afford it?

It just doesn't work that way. We need to talk about how taxes and expenses are going to either stimulate or deflate the economy. That is the better way to look at it. You can have a situation where you lower taxes but the government actually ends up with more revenue in taxes--the lower taxes stimulate the economy enough to pay for itself. Raising taxes can also do the same! What's the right thing to do? The key is to figure out where the money is being invested, as I'll show below.

The Police Effect

Let's say the government raises taxes to hire more police officers. As a result, your city puts in a new precinct in a rough part of town. Folks are a little grouchy, since taxes went up to pay for it, but more jobs are created. The cops are spending their money in that neighborhood. The gas stations and donut shops are doing better business. Eventually, some enterprising people notice that there is a safe neighborhood where there used to be a rough one. They decide to open a business right across the street from the new police station. Soon enough, a second person opens another shop right next to them. Suddenly, a neighborhood that was once lacking in resources has new businesses, increased stability and a more vibrant economy.

Having the police around reduces risk in a neighborhood. Businesses are not as worried about break-in's or theft, anymore. People don't have to spend so much money buying bars for the windows or limiting their operations. Risk is one of those key indicators in an economy. When risk goes down, productivity goes up. Other folks who are less enterprising take the jobs that these folks left vacant, and some people come off of unemployment.

All this happened because we put a few more cops in a neighborhood? Yes! Sure, we paid more money for more police, but if it plays out right, you could have a small renaissance where we all benefit. All of this increased activity just turns into more tax revenue for the government.

You could follow all the possible ripple effects even further: There is more supervision for kids so they can be productive members of society rather than rotting away in a cell somewhere. If folks feel safer they might spend more money on their yard or their cars, knowing they will be protected. People might take more pride in their neighborhood which could be a boost of morale for everyone. Cops have special training, so that means there is a more educated workforce out there. The ripples keep going on and on.

The Teacher Effect

Let's say we raise taxes to put more teachers in the classrooms. All the same applies: There is an immediate boost as new jobs are created, and those teachers spend their money back into the economy. It also means that universities increase enrollment to train new teachers. More teachers also means that schools can hire art and gym instructors, hire more counselors and host more extra-curricular activities. All of these just turn into more opportunities for students to learn more and get more support. They also provide ways for kids to be connected who may not get that connection in a pure classroom setting. It also provides more mentors in different capacities, who may encourage kids to stay in school, stay out of crime and be successful. Violence should go down in schools, as well.

The result? Not only did we boost the economy by hiring more teachers, but through their work they help foster a smarter, safer, more stable population. Not only are teachers an immediate benefit to the economy, but the product of their work keeps reaping benefits as the years go on.

Just like lowering risk in the police example, innovation in the market is also another key indicator of growth. New ideas, education and technology are reliable factors for growth. We can expect long-term economic growth with a smarter, more experienced population.

The Military Effect?

Some say we should spend more on the military because it will stimulate the economy. At the outset, this is true. It follows the same initial pattern as if you hired more cops or teachers. The government will hire people to work in the weapons factories and in research and development. These people, in turn, will support the gas stations and convenient stores. Eventually, real estate agents start selling again so they feel comfortable enough taking their family out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, for example. It goes on and on, just like the previous examples.

The problem with military spending is that it doesn't create anything with a life of its own. If you make a bomb, then that bomb sits somewhere in a warehouse. You stimulated the economy in the short term by making the bomb, but once that money is spent, it is gone. The bomb has no further use to society, other than to blow up someone else's country--which you may rebuild but I wouldn't count on that, nor would I want an economic strategy based on bombing and rebuilding other countries! Admittedly, some innovation has come through military engineers, but I would rather have that innovation enter the economy directly and not in a small way as an after-thought of military research.

People: The Real Deal

So as you can see from the above examples, the real deal is not just a simple statement of who is raising or lowering taxes. There are good and better ways to stimulate the economy. Pay a guy to build a bomb, and the bomb sits in a warehouse and the guy sits in a factory. Pay a guy to teach our children, and not only do you have an active, vital teacher but he is also hard at work sculpting the next generation of innovators and productive members of society. That is the kind of investment that pays out for years and years.

So my advice: It is good to know how the government is taxing and spending. But look deeper: Think of all the expenses as investments. Are we spending our money on projects that are going to pay out dividends for years to come? Or are we throwing our money into things that have a limited impact? The government can stimulate the economy by hiring all sorts of people--we should be hiring people who, in turn, also perform a service that betters society.

Investing in people is the way to go: Police, education, social work, these are the kinds of things that build up the infrastructure of a society. These people all work to improve on key macroeconomic factors: reducing risk and increasing innovation. One person out of jail and into the workforce makes us all happier, smarter, safer and richer. This is really an extension of FDR's New Deal: building roads, bridges and dams not only puts people to work in the short run, but it also creates a transportation system which increases commerce and cuts cost, thereby continuing to support business in the years to come. It's a double pay-off.

These Democratic policies are not anti-capitalistic at all--in fact, they are entirely capitalistic. They support the system of capitalism so that it can run more smoothly. They function like the traffic light system: Businesses are more profitable when there is a well-policed environment. Businesses can innovate with a more educated workforce. Good social work can help people develop the social skills to work through difficult circumstances in their life--circumstances which keep people from being productive in society. A good counselor can help an angry teen find healthy ways to channel his feelings--instead of one more kid in jail, you have a potential role model in the making.

So not only should we ask our politicians how they are going to tax and spend--we need to ask them how they are going to invest in the future of this country. Some ways of investing can have an exponential impact while others just a linear one.

There are still scientists around today who were inspired and put to work by John F. Kennedy's science initiatives. For the last 40+ years, our nation has benefited from his prophetic investments into our future. Just think how another leader may set in motion the next generation of leaders and innovators who will continue to help us long after the job of that leader is done.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Its Your Church

There were some tired, elderly folks with hearts as large as the Grand Canyon who labored to keep the church of my youth in good shape--polishing the pews, mowing the lawn, setting up for the annual Chicken Dinner.

My family would plead with the priest to get more help--make an announcement during mass or even pay someone to do it! Hire some kids or a landscaper! His response: It's your church. [Translation: I'm not paying anybody to take care of your church.]

I loved our priest growing up. He was a good guy, and you could feel grace in him. But he also knew how to kill the spirit of a parish--people with good ideas were consistently knocked down and others gave of their energies until they were spent. The priest wasn't about to spend a penny nor did he have any idea how to take leadership, and--even worse--he would subvert the efforts of others who were trying to lead. It was a toxic environment.

In some ways, this was a reflection of the infamous old school Catholicism: You took for granted people would show up to Church. You took for granted that things would get done. There were no councils to organize people nor campaigns to encourage anybody--you just did it. But it would be also wrong to overstate that--people were being socialized to do the work, but maybe that socialization was happening at home and it didn't need to happen at church.

The problem is that it just wasn't working, anymore. Surly men paraded in for mass then left with big smiles on their faces, not a care in the world. It is quite possible it never occurred to them that they should be doing anything different. The folks who were pulling the weight were getting older and having to quit due to health reasons. Their numbers were dwindling and the few left were having trouble keeping up. The priest was preaching (literally) to the choir, but the choir was getting tired.

The common pattern was that some good people would start up something like religious education or grounds keeping and keep it going for a few years. They would eventually get burned out or drift to another, more vibrant parish. Suddenly no one was doing their job anymore, until some other well intentioned person decided to step up. We saw this play out time and again. It is hard to watch good folks get destroyed or see enthusiastic people pull up stakes and go to another church. People who criticized us were usually people who didn't stick around long enough see this.

The parish started a council on their own initiative and tried to address some of these issues (many churches didn't have parish councils back then!) After some heartbreaking incidents, the council scattered and folks left the parish, wounded.

But I will say this--the priest was so right about one thing: It is our church. It is hard for me to reconcile with this, because this whole event left scars within my family that remain to this day. Yet there was wisdom in the priest's words and he knew that, wisdom that went back to an earlier day.

If the church isn't getting together to take care of the . . . well, church, then something isn't right. This isn't an entertainment venue, where you pay your dues and go there for a show then leave. Church is not a spectator sport--it's full contact. Nobody has to tell you to clean your own house or wash your own dishes. In the same way, no one should have to tell you to clean your church, either.

I can't imagine going to a church that has outsourced its landscaping. You could say that the times they are a'changing. You could say this is merely a cultural shift as people are still dedicated, but they will attend seminars and social events rather than spend their time dusting the altar and peeling potatoes. Many people don't even mow their own lawns, how can we expect them to mow at the church? It's a sign of the times and folks are happy to hire a cleaning crew to get it done. Perhaps the same church is there, and it just looks different. Perhaps it's actually better if folks are attending Bible studies instead of peeling potatoes. But you can't tell me that we didn't lose something big.

To me, church is little old ladies gathered in the parking lot, unloading buckets and rags from their cars to shine up the pews. Church is men driving their tractors down the street to mow the lawn--proudly showcasing a brush hog, front loader or some special apparatus. Church is old folks chopping vegetables together in the garage in preparation for the annual dinner. Church is some of the best memories I've ever had and where I saw holiness. Like a beacon, I've seen what goodness looks like and I can see that beacon no matter what storms I go through. I have recently come to realize that what I saw back then has shaped everything in me. I have a stunning bullshit detector. And it's easy: I've seen what the real deal is.

St. Francis of Assisi urged people to preach the gospel at all times, using words when necessary. I went to church almost every week growing up, but heard few sermons. Our priest had a very gravely voice, and while he would give lengthy homilies, I literally couldn't understand a single thing he said, even when I tried. But in light of St. Francis' words, you could definitely say I heard the gospel preached all that time in this little country church.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Man vs. Oil

I keep telling myself that I've learned my lesson when it comes to cooking oil. Yet, every time I say that, it's not long before I find myself with yet another pan engulfed in flames on the stove, with me dodging grease bullets trying to get a lid on the situation.

It is easy to do. I don't clean my cast iron skillet very often, so grease builds up. When I do rinse it down (never use soap), the oils often end up running over the top and bottom of the pan, making it so much easier to ignite. In addition, cast iron is a whole different animal to cook with than stainless steel. Once it gets hot, it becomes a heat source of its own as it will continue to cook food long after you turn the burner off. Oils can really accelerate under these conditions.

Today was by far the worst. I heated up some oil in a skillet, no big deal. Got ready to throw some chicken chorizo sausages on it. I guess the pan had been heating for a while, because it was ready to blow. As soon as I threw the first sausage on the pan, a shotgun blast of grease pellets nailed me dead center on my bare-skinned stomach. This cast iron pan doesn't have more than a fraction of an inch of a rim to it, so it was practically a flat iron with nothing to keep it from shooting directly toward me.

Fortunately, the grease cooled pretty quickly on my skin, which is amazing as I think back on it. Grease can often continue to burn for quite a while once it makes contact. I'm guessing the splattering effect made the grease dissipate so that it cooled more easily?

Still, it was quite a shot. I ended up with significant red patch of skin on my belly. It hurt to wear a shirt when I finally put one on. I managed to find some sunburn lotion with aloe in the cabinet and applied it, and after a while the pain went down. Later on, much of the redness had gone away. I thought it was healing astonishingly well. Then in the evening, my hand brushed up against my belly and I felt little lumps. I pulled up my shirt to confirm what I already knew: Yes, I was blistering. My stomach is now the texture of a sheet of bubble wrap, but--unlike bubble wrap--I have no ambition to pop anything. Woe to me when that happens.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Tomorrow Morning, 9:00 AM

Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone woke up tomorrow morning and decided unanimously not to do anything until all the suffering of the world were taken care of?

Some people say they are called to help the needy, like some kind of religious vocation. Some don't feel called. But do you feel called when your mother gets sick? Do you feel called when your best friend is in trouble? No, you respond out of a deep impulse within you. Instinctively, you jump into action, as if the whole world stopped right then and there. If your mother needed you, there would be no hill or mountain that could stand in your way.

I think this is what Jesus is getting at when he wants us to rethink our family relations. All people are your brothers and sisters. The same instinctive, immediate response to the suffering of one of your blood family members should be the same response you feel whenever anyone is suffering. All people are your family.

Our ancestors who lived several thousand years ago had an edge on us. Living in isolated villages, many of them probably lived out their entire lives without knowing that there is extensive suffering in the world. They went to sleep at night not realizing there were hungry people they could have helped.

If a neighbor fell on some catastrophe in one of those ancient villages, I would imagine people would have helped out. House burned down? Just stay with the folks next door. Food supply went bad? The town will pull together to cover the difference. How could you go to bed at night knowing the folks in the next hut are literally starving to death while you have plenty of food? You wouldn't let that happen. Human nature being what it is, I'm sure it was a few steps removed from utopia, but I think it is quite possible that basic needs were met in one way or another in a lot of these places.

We don't have that luxury today. We know that there are millions upon millions of desperately suffering people--from sickness, famine, war, drought, homelessness, emotional anguish, you name it. This is one of the most shocking changes in human culture over the last 100 years: We hear statistics like 'so many thousands of people die of hunger every minute.' People who lived previously saw suffering, for sure, but they didn't have quite that same information in front of them. What that does to our souls is something I don't want to consider.

I just wish all people expressed a collective "No!" one day. Let's not do a single thing until every person goes to bed with a full belly. Let's all stop everything we're doing and hit this hard--with the same fervor as if it were our very mother who were hungry, with the same immediacy as if it were our own levees that were about to fail. Let's take to the streets, boldly go where no one has gone before, and get 'er done!

Thursday, October 9, 2008

To Pro-Life Voters

I sympathize with you. But let me clarify where I stand, as there can be some miscommunication with the terminology. I have what you could call a consistently pro-life position. I find myself not just against abortion, but also the death penalty, war, and anything that impedes and restricts love and life to grow, mature and develop. I find my pro-life expression in supporting the arts, in appreciating nature and beauty and education. It is just about the most unpopular stance to take in modern American politics.

In fact, "life" is the benchmark upon which I make all my moral decisions. Does something support life? Does something oppose life? That which supports life is that which I support. And so on. I see education as a pro-life stance. I see the environment as a pro-life stance. I see the arts, community building, peace making and war stopping to be pro-life.

In the Catholic world, we call this the "seamless garment" (John 19:23). All life is a single garment interwoven together, but without a seam or any sort of natural place where it would be logical to separate or tear it. It belongs together as one piece. The young, the old, the infirm, the unborn, the injured, the mentally retarded, the brainiacs, the soldiers, the saints--we're all woven into the fabric of life.

However, to advocate and support life at every stage means you run out of politicians to vote for.
Some people don't vote, as a result.

Some try to pick and choose--they are against abortion but can tolerate war and the death penalty, because in those cases at least you are getting the "bad people." Well, wars often involve carpet bombing civilians and many innocents go to death row. Not so simple. Some vote against war and the death penalty but shrug their shoulders over abortion--they figure it is already a law and there are some claims to womens' equality--claims they don't believe in, but it is easy to look the other way on this issue. We all find ways to justify our vote. You may find me doing it in this post, as well.

A Pro-life stance is not just about your relation to other people. It is about your relationship to yourself. What does it do to you when you justify killing another person? What has become of your own humanity when you find yourself finding excuses why this or that person or group is not worthy of life? Darth Vader didn't start off as a machine. As you can see from Luke Skywalker, it happened slowly--first his hand was replaced with a mechanical one. Then his heart was in play, and Luke had to choose: Life or machine.

The Betrayal of the Pro-Life Movement

I will say this to all the people against abortion out there: You have been betrayed. The Republicans have given you a lot of lip service and gladly took your money, but they have done NOTHING against abortion. NOTHING. Ronald Reagan took office in 1980, and there has been a strong pro-life Republican presence in Washington since. There have even been times when there has been both a Republican Congress and Presidency. Still, what have they done against abortion over the last 28 years? These were such "strong anti-abortion" people. Surely the powerful Ronald Reagan would have stood up to Congress to push some pro-life legislation through. Where was he?

They have led you to believe that somehow they "can't" do anything. They succeeding in convincing you that all they can do is slowly nominate Supreme Court justices, and that over time maybe just maybe they will be able to do something about abortion. But don't believe it. Congress or the President could have introduced, advocated for and supported all sorts of policies and legislation if they really wanted to do something about abortion. They could have let the Supreme Court fight it out. You could have seen these politicians talking about these issues when it comes time to make a law and not just when it comes time to get your vote.

In business terms, the pro-life movement didn't get much for the millions and millions of dollars it has invested. And I realize this is something that can't be looked at purely as a business investment. If nothing else, it is good some politicians are at least giving it lip service, even if that is all they are giving it. It keeps the conversation on the table and there are pro-life role models out there--sort of. But let's face it: Both the Democratic and Republican policies are not very pro-life at all--they just pick and choose some issues to support and others not to support, but they aren't driven out of an innate support for life itself. It is hard to see how George W. Bush values unborn babies when he seemed willing to go to war and blow some babies up for . . . what reason was that war for, again?

Right in line with that, John McCain is willing to use your pro-life sympathies to get your vote and your dollars. He says he will work against abortion as president. What has he done against abortion the last 26 years in Congress? Why is he waiting until now? In the meantime, he sees no sign of stopping a war that is killing lots of born and unborn children in another part of the world. I don't know what he'd do about abortion, but judging by his record I'd say it would be very little. But I do know what he'll do about the children in Iraq, as he has been very clear and consistent on that one.

I can't claim to know every bit of legislation ever attempted in the last 28 years. Perhaps I'm missing something. But you would think with all the talk around election time and the massive campaign machinery of the anti-abortion movement you would see a little more action than you do. I don't see anyone fighting this out on the streets of Capital Hill. And I believe there is a reason for it: They don't really plan to do anything at all about abortion.

If the Democrats were smart, they would take a softer stance on abortion which would undermine the Republican base. Had the Dems taken a more inclusive position when it comes to abortion, I am a firm believer they would have won the Presidency under both Gore and Kerry for sure, and possibly Dukakis and Mondale. The Democratic Party--a party supposedly of diversity--has taken a hard line stance on abortion and it probably lost them their edge in American politics. Who do you think those Reagan Democrats, Southerners and Catholics were who left the Democratic Party in droves in the 80s? That's right: The Pro-Life movement.

But pro-life is bigger than abortion.

I ask the pro-life voters to consider this as you vote. Are you getting what you think you are getting with the Republicans? Are they valuing and respecting your money and your vote? You already know my answers to those questions.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Of Great Social and Political Importance

I got a container of pepperoncini the other day. You know, those hot peppers you sometimes get topped on a salad? I've never bought them in such a large quantity, before. What am I gonna do with a peck of pickled peppers?

I just wanna announce that I love 'em and they're going fast! I can easily knock out a half dozen in a single sitting or continually munch on them while hanging out in the kitchen. They are particularly good with meaty, salty things, hence the oft used combination with pepperoni or mozzarella cheese. I have found that wrapping then in a crispy slice of bacon works just fine, as well.

Eating these little peppers requires a physical, whole body commitment. You gotta get involved. Most Italian food is like that--You throw the pasta against the wall, tear off slabs of bread, and meditatively stir the sauce like you were a gondolier. So with the peppers, you hold the stem, grab the pepper with your teeth and pull the stem off. Juices may squirt all over the place, but if you do it right they drizzle over your salad or sandwich or leave a tangy ring around your mouth to flavor your next bite. I don't want to make this sound too precise, because it isn't. It is more invigorating and refreshing. It does require a level of attentiveness much different than mindlessly drubbing your hand into a bowl of party mix.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Protestants Love the Patristics, Saints and Monks

One of the reasons I have remained a Catholic is because I don't see any sense in leaving when everyone else is trying so hard to come back. I say this to joshingly jab at my Protestant friends, but there is some truth to it.

I switched on my radio yesterday, and it was tuned to a conservative Christian station. You know what the sermon was about? A raving and in-depth study and appreciation for . . . guess who? Augustine.

Don't get me wrong, I totally understand why an evangelical would find Augustine outrageously appealing. In fact, I'm surprised there hasn't already been a more natural connection with the patristics (early church fathers). The early church writers were powerhouses of spirituality and theology, and you can't help but appreciate them. But it wasn't that long ago where you never would have heard such a thing coming from the conservative evangelical community. Denominational barriers no doubt played a part.

I think the Catholic Church is rooted in good stuff. The traditions--which may be difficult for us all to understand--are there for a reason.

Take the saints, for instance. Many Protestants have been outraged at the Catholic veneration of the saints. How can we pray to dead saints or have statues and relics of them? Isn't that idolatry? But as my college chaplain pointed out, Protestants will complain about this but then talk to their deceased relatives. They keep photographs and relics of their loved ones, too. Well, what do you think the saints are? That's right: Deceased loved ones who we stay in relationship with. Whether we come to know them through personal experience or through the Church does not make for a real difference.

Just the other day, I saw statuettes of angels in someone's car. Protestants usually do not believe that saints are hovering around you and interceding on your behalf. Yet, there is all this talk about angels. Stepping back, it looks awfully familiar.

There are strong new monastic movements drawing in Christians of all faiths. As traditional orders of nuns and monks dwindle in numbers (with great sadness), there are plenty of people from all denominations looking to create something like it anew. Why? Because monasticism is a true calling. People seek it out, they yearn for it, and frankly they just do it. It radically changes form over the years, but it is always there. The early Desert Fathers and Mothers (hermits) were quite different from the Benedictines (monasteries) and the Friars (freelance agents) after that. But monasticism--in some form--has always been around. It speaks to people. It needs to be there. The next wave in monasticism is underway right now. Hint: It looks a lot like the Catholic Worker.

Many monasteries are respectfully being visited today by Protestants. They are hungry for it. And I'm glad--now is the time to learn before the traditional orders wither away.


I've seen a lot of non-liturgical churches that seem awfully . . . liturgical. I've even heard hushed murmurs about a renewed interest in Mary among evangelicals, too.

I think most Protestants have softened their view on religious artwork, as well. In the Reformation, many took pride in destroying paintings, statues and stained glass with wild abandon. Some literally painted over beautiful frescoes with thick, white paint. Imagine taking a paint roller and going to town on the Sistine Chapel. The loss to our heritage is unimaginable. I can appreciate the stark asceticism, but I'm sorry I do not consider it enlightened to destroy art with a . . . passion. However, I do understand why they did it, just like I understand why medieval Catholics burned books or the Spanish Inquisition tortured heretics--I understand, but certainly do not agree nor condone it.

The Reformation was a bit headstrong in removing these traditions--baby out with the bathwater. My biggest criticism of the Reformation was exactly this tendency to be headstrong and sometimes too heady. People got on fire for Jesus and purged themselves of precious traditions without knowing what they were getting rid of. However, those traditions were there for a reason and attempts to squelch them have not lasted. Over time, the Spirit has found a way to work its way through the cracks and crevices and come back to the surface, as you can see in all these examples.

As I said at the beginning, this is in good humor as there is plenty of mutual learning. Catholics have largely reconciled with many of the original complaints of the Reformers. We are moving toward vibrant Bible studies in our parishes, Protestant-influenced scholarship in our universities and so on. We're doing very Protestant-y things. In fact, most Christian denominations are more invested in learning from each other and reconciling differences than maintaining their divisions.

Did we need reform in 1517? You betcha. We can stand to have some more reform right now--and so can the Protestants. But even though Catholics are constantly being told how bad we are, it is refreshing when others are discovering what we already knew--that maybe, just maybe, we aren't all that bad, after all.

Lost and Found Books

Continuing the book purge mentioned in my last post:

I am getting rid of books as if it were a matter of social justice: Get them to the people who will use them, I say! Book hoarding is just another form of book burning--yes, I'm talking to you, Jackie!

I was a teenager the last time I read a Jack Londen work, so why do I have the Complete Jack London? Or the Unabridged Shakespeare, for that matter? These books are so bulky that even if I were to read one of these works I'd probably get another edition. My two volume Complete Sherlock Holmes is a treasure, but if I need early 20th century British wit I always have Chesterton. I once had a penchant for books with the words "complete works" or "unabridged" in the title.

I found Girl with the Pearl Earling--wasn't I supposed to send this to someone? I also noticed part III of Dante's Divine Commedy. Didn't know I had it! I bet parts I & II are in there somewhere, too! I was embarassed to find Ray Brown's New Testament Essays--the same book I was gonna check out from the library the other day.

I would love to read all 1,259 pages of James Clavell's Shogun, but I don't see where I'm gonna find that much time for Japanese historical fiction. I would no doubt love to have read it--pay close attention to my verb tense there. However, I can't part with B-29: The Plane that Won the War, by--no joke--a man named Major Gurney. That book is as much history as what it describes. Maybe my copy of Go Ask Alice can save the life of another teenager as it may have saved mine--I always knew that hard drugs were to be avoided, and there were lines I knew never, ever to cross. I just assumed all kids knew that, but I have realized that that's not the case. I still haven't read the selections for my freshman college class on Science Fiction, so into the Goodwill box they--finally--go.

A Moral Issue

Should I be giving away the books I like or the books I don't like? One man's junk is another man's treasure, they say, but I feel like I need to justify keeping the best stuff behind. Am I gonna read it again? Refer to it in an upcoming paper? Or am I just putting a lid on the light of the world?

Or maybe I would accomplish more in life if every little decision I made wasn't laid out in terms of a moral and social justice dilemma. Sometimes a stack of books is just a stack of books.

Ancient History

Should I keep a Dictionary and Thesaurus around to show the next generation how it was back before the internets?

Do I really need the fourth edition of the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers when I am currently using the sixth?

Misappropriated Books

The copy of Zwick's The Catholic Worker movement is not mine. Nor is The Long Lonliness, for that matter. Or Henri Nouwen's Can You Drink the Cup? If the owners are reading this (you know who you are) all I can say is: I didn't steal these on purpose! They just . . . sorta got absorbed into my overall stuff.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dusting my Junk

My apartment landlord decided to replace the ancient steam heating system with a new fangled (or at least cheap) forced air one. This involved putting new duct work and pipes all through the apartment. I came home one day to find that everything I owned was covered with a thick layer of plaster and paint dust. I was horrified.

While it is probably mostly plaster, the inner layers of paint are no doubt leaded as this building is about 100 years old. The thought of curling up on my couch breathing in leaded paint dust was too much. And the cleaning job that lay ahead was epic.

We're not just talking about sweeping the floors and dusting the furniture. No, the heating system was installed into my closets, so upon request I had previously taken mountains of junk out of the closets and lined the center of my rooms. I have a lot of stuff. So the dust did not just cover bare tabletops and wood floors--it was in the cracks and crevices of all my papers, souvenirs, nostalgic items, family heirlooms, Christmas decorations, boxes and boxes of bills, scraps of paper and just assorted junk I have kept because I have never known what to do with it. It wasn't in neat, covered boxes, either, but open and loose and ready to suck in all sorts of construction dust. Even worse: Clean laundry was not put away in a dresser but rather strewn across the bed and hanging on a drying rack, so it was all covered, as well. The dust was in and through everything.

So I tried to find the rainbow. These things often happen for a reason, or at least, they bring with them opportunity as well as obstacle. But with working full time and taking more than full time coursework, this was not the challenge I wanted. [This also isn't the time to detail the atrocious job these people did, who must have been drunk as they left some implements and a shirt, for crying out loud, in my apartment, as well as large holes in the wall. Nor is it time to talk about the dust that got into my exposed piano, computer, printer and other electronics. No, not right now.]

Base of Operations

Erin came over and helped me establish a beachhead--we got the bedroom in order so there was a place that was "clean" from where I could mount an assault on the rest.

It was time to purge. I want to live lighter. I don't want to hold on. Dragging all this stuff around was just sabotaging what I could be doing right now. I was annoyed as I was going through papers deciding to keep them or not. It was taking too much time--time I could be using to make new memories.

I also approached this from a perspective of sharing. I keep lots of stuff because I may someday find it useful in the future, such as the Handbook of Medical Spanish. I got it from my cousin before I went to Honduras for a brief trip as an interpreter. That was 10 years ago and I barely cracked the book then or since. While I can theorize that I may find such a book useful one day possibly in the future maybe, it occurred to me that I am hording things that may be directly useful to other people. I haven't used them yet, what makes me think I'll use them in the future? Knowing that this stuff may help others helps me let go. [But HELLO we're investigating opening up a medical clinic with the Columbus Catholic Worker, so I'm gonna hold onto this one for a minute!]

I found a copy of Chesterton's Orthodoxy. You know, the book I just bought a few weeks ago and posted about. It was another copy--yes, I bought a book I already had. I found Alison's book that Jackie dropped off about a year ago which I've been meaning to send back. Maybe it was two years ago. I should just lie and say it got destroyed in the construction.

There's loads and loads of books--many I've never read. I realize it is an injustice to keep something and not use it when someone else may benefit from it. I should send them forth like so many seeds. I know how to get them if I ever want to read them, and that's the key idea. Some of these books been lining my shelf since childhood, so they cross the line between stuff and nostalgia, which makes it harder to part with them--whether I've read them or not!

My big weakness is nostalgic items. Few things leave my hands if they have a personal attachment. It is nice going through stuff and remembering the events that they remind me of. But I can't help but wonder that every time I hold onto stuff from the past I may be holding myself back in the present. There is so much in life you just can't hold onto: Conversations come and go. If I have no record of my daily conversations, why is it so important to keep every scrap of email I receive? No one is following you around with a video camera catching every moment of your life, and even if they did, you wouldn't want to spend half your life watching it! You'd rather live the 2nd half of your life! Life is meant to be lived in the here and now. We don't have any opportunity to go into the past or reach into the future, everything we have is right now. Letters, videos and tapes make us think we still have direct access to the past, but I wonder if that is always such a blessing.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with keeping boxes of stuff in a closet. Just tuck it away, and it's there if you ever want it. In reality, I feel congested and cluttered and want to purge. Even though this stuff has been in a closet, I still feel like I drag it around with me every day. Baggage is baggage. The more stuff you are carrying around, the less strength and attention you can give to what is going on right now--even if you are not consciously aware of this stuff you are keeping! If you are cluttered in your mind and spirit, then there isn't much room for new growth. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: You tell yourself that it was good to hold onto that stuff because nothing has happened to exceed it. But you weren't really open to anything new either, not really, because you were too busy dragging the past with you--or trying to. The problem is that you can't have the past again. Mementos are great, but they are only a slice of the past, not the real thing. Sacrificing the present in favor of a partial past is a losing deal.

Don't get me wrong: Mementos and memorabilia are important--but not every scrap of paper or record of every conversation.

Until the "plaster and paint dust incident," I had every bill I have ever paid--except for the stuff I pay online, which got me thinking: If I don't keep my online records, why do I keep anything else? Do I need my entire billing history from all three landline phone companies I had in 1999? Of course, since my bills are not neatly organized but rather in overflowing boxes and stacks, intermingled with personal letters, I had to go through every last blessed one to figure out what to throw out and what not to. It was an immensely time-consuming but satisfying process dumping these mounds of paper into the recycling bin. I was saving a tree, baby, and maybe saving my life.

Much of this stuff wasn't even difficult to part with. In my haste, I often just shove stacks into the closet just to get them off the table. So I had piles of papers from job searches in 2001 or a house search in 2005. None of these leads were even remotely relevant anymore. I had thick folders from medical insurance plans I don't have anymore and stacks of magazines I've never read.

Habitual purgers like Erin would probably be disappointed with the amount of stuff I still kept. Heck, she throws bags and boxes away without even looking to see what's inside! I can't even pretend to wrap my mind around that. But for me, this was a big deal. The amazing thing was that so much of it went into the recycling bin easy as pie. There were few hard feelings. I was ready to get rid of it. In fact, it didn't even feel like purging--much of it was just junk that was in the way.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Abortion, Infant Baptism, Stoplights and the Western Mind

The Western Mind

In order to break the stalemate in the abortion debate, it may be useful to step back from our culture and look at it from a distance. When historians tell our tale, they will probably have a lot of words to classify our era, but among the terms would certainly be "western individualism." Just like the Renaissance, Dark Ages, Enlightenment and numerous other schools of thought before, there are themes deep in the psyche of each era. Each movement is characterized by a particular world view and assumptions.

Individualism is many things, but one of the defining points is that the individual is the ultimate reality. The more distinct and separate the individual is, the better. Our society is oriented toward the individual, with everything else taking second or third consideration.

Individualism is endemic in both liberal and conservative ideology. In fact, it is the axis on which those viewpoints revolve. We see this manifested in capitalism, our environmental approach as well as religious movements today. The rights of the individual are paramount, and the effects of our individual actions on each other and the world are an afterthought.

We are starting to collectively realize the shortcomings of such a worldview: When each of us is focused on getting something for ourselves we end up shortchanging each other and ultimately ourselves, as well. Many of us are now looking for a more holistic worldview in which we acknowledge our togetherness and inter-relatedness.

Stoplights

Half of Columbus was without power a couple weeks ago. It amazed me how slowly traffic moved without stoplights. Many of us usually dislike stoplights--we want to drive unimpeded and hate having to stop at every 3rd intersection for a red light. Yet, without those lights, we move at a snail's pace. Instead of a long line of cars moving through an intersection when it's their turn, you instead have one car at a time. It does make people become more aware and cooperate on their own, rather than mindlessly obeying a stoplight. But the end result is that it takes forever to get from one side of town to the other.

In the case of the stoplights, if we were to focus so much on the individual's "right" to travel without being told when to stop and go, we would end up with a society in which we are more limited than before. When every intersection is a 4-way stop no one gets anywhere. Taking your individual freedom away and making you stop at red lights and go on green actually gives us all more freedom when it is all said and done.

Infant Baptism

Let's look at religion as an example: The current evangelical movements strike a chord with a lot of folks today. The emphasis on a "personal relationship with God" is very individualized. Many people think of religious salvation in individual terms--this person gets saved and that one doesn't. Maybe you think we all get saved--each individual. Whether you have a conservative or liberal view, many of us are still looking at the issue on individual terms. By contrast, traditional Catholic views hold for the salvation of a people, consistent with Old Testament Judaism.

Many folks have trouble understanding things such things as infant baptism, such as in Catholicism. People don't understand how an infant baby can make a decision for Christ when the infant is just a few days old! Well, that's a misunderstanding--infant baptism is a community sacrament.

We celebrate the fact that God's grace is a gift and you can't actually go and get it yourself. It is a sacrament of God's promise and our hope that the gift will be there through no work of our own. In this light, infant baptism makes all the sense in the world. Celebrating our faith, hope and love that God's grace will shine on this person in whatever way God wants, we make our commitment to raise the child in the body of Christ--the Church. It may even make more sense than adult baptism, which emphasizes the individual's decision for Christ.

In my view, both baptisms are just fine. Each version emphasizes certain elements and not others. With adult baptism, it is easy to forget that the adult is able to make a decision for Christ only through the work of the Holy Spirit in the first place. With a baby, it is much easier to remember that the baby isn't making any decision at all and the child is totally dependent on God's grace. And with infant baptism the decision of the individual for Christ is still to come.

Abortion

Pregnancy really boggles the mind of a western individualist. How can it be that two bodies are joined as one? This issue is really not that hard for someone living in another time period, but for our era of western individualism, this is a real stumper. The decision that gets reached in the mind of the western individualist is that the baby must not be a real life. That is the only solution that makes sense to the modern person.

To acknowledge the life of the child (and rights) would be to challenge western individualism itself--it would be to acknowledge that there is something greater than the self. It is not just your body anymore, no matter how much western individualism tells us that we are entitled to think that way. The western mind simply cannot conceive of two bodies ultimately joined, and in frustration the western mind simply devalues one in favor of another. It doesn't know how else to handle this. However, you can see the discomfort in people around this--they know deep down this isn't a satisfactory answer.

Western individualism is ultimately limited. The truth is that we are fervently inter-connected to each other. The actions of one person can and do affect others, no matter how much the western mind wants to pretend that we are totally separate. We all live downstream from someone and upstream from another. Your right to smoke impedes my right not to breathe dirty air. None of us is totally "independent"--that is another myth of western individualism. Instead, we are all in various stages of growth and development, and each stage is vital to us. All day long my actions affect others, and their actions affect me.

A lot of the hot button social issues today can be intensely challenging to figure out--abortion, euthanasia, stem cell research, etc. We all have beliefs about life that we take for granted, but when we wrestle with extreme situations like these we can have real difficulty finding a way to make the ends meet. Some things just don't fit. It is easy to throw up our hands and be glad when we don't have to make decisions about these complicated issues. However, I would hold that when these issues are so challenging it is because they are exposing the limitations of our worldview. Maybe it's a sign to change our worldview. Individualism sounds fine in certain arenas, but it quickly falls short in describing what is going on here on earth as these issues show us.

We need to approach the issue of abortion out of the mindset of an inter-connected people, not as separate individuals who happen to be in society together. With individualism, we focus on the individual first, and we use our legal system to sort out what to do when the rights of one interferes with the rights of another. The focus here is the individual, with limitations imposed only when these clashes occur--considerations of society come second.

You see, the question in abortion is not a matter of deciding what the rights of the baby are versus the rights of the mother. The real question is deciding what the responsibilities of the baby and mother are to each other and our mutual responsibility as a society to and with these people. Only then are we going to get out of this abortion stalemate.

We are in stalemate, because we are asking the wrong question. We end up with all sorts of awkward ideas in order to maintain our western individual mindset, such as claiming that the baby is not a baby--or even if it is, it doesn't have rights because of some arbitrary criteria picked out of a hat such as which stage of development it is in. Let's be honest: Those criteria are not for the baby's benefit, those are designed to uphold the freedom of the mother first. In our society, the baby only has rights when the mother does not have to be involved anymore. So we define the start of the baby's life as the point by which the mother can check out--as if that actually has anything to do with the start of the baby's life at all.

A baby has become an object. The only way to support abortion is to devalue babies--probably the core value the human race has ever had. There is probably nothing that defines our species more than the intense love of adults for babies. This is the tie we have to sever in order to justify abortion. We have to make babies into objects.

I don't even want to imagine what that does to the human spirit or what long-term impact that will have on a society which is working hard every day to devalue life in all it's forms and reduce us all to mechanistic formulas--psychology, science, you name it. You see, the western mind does not just want to kill the unborn. The western mind wants to kill everybody. Scientists are working hard every day in their laboratories trying to kill us all as quickly as possible. "You see, there's nothing special about you--you're just a lump of cells in an impersonal universe!" That's what they tell us. I really have to ask why they are trying to hard to do this? They can't wait until they have taken everything special out of life. (Those of you familiar with G. K. Chesterton may notice his influence here, in particular on this last paragraph.)

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Bailout Follow-Up Post

There was crazy moving weekend last year. We got a group together from the Columbus Catholic Worker and the Newman Center. In addition to helping Erin move to her new house, we transported massive amounts of furniture to and from several locations, much of it going to the Catholic Worker's Emmanuel House. It took two full days to get it all done. It was truly a moving experience, in more ways than one.

During that weekend, Erin had been hinting that she knew someone else who could use some help: A single mom who had gotten a much-deserved break in life and was moving from graffiti-laced tenements to a much nicer home. We were exhausted from all the work, but many of us decided to help out. How much stuff could a poor woman like that have? We figured we'd throw a few items onto the truck and quickly wrap it up.

I had rented a 26' Penske truck for the weekend--the largest moving vehicle I could have gotten without a CDL license. I mention this because it took us two full loads with this vehicle to transport all the items of this impoverished woman.

Now, I want to be very careful here before we are tempted to jump to any conclusions about this woman's poverty. None of these items were worth much--we're talking about smoke-soaked, urine-stained mattresses and furniture that practically fell apart when you touched it. Everything was broken, and you would be lucky to get a nickel for any of it.

I also don't want to jump to any conclusions about how she acquired all this stuff. Maybe it was all donations or picked up by the side of the road. It could have been left by previous tenants in the apartments she has lived in It is possible she didn't spend a cent for any of it in the first place.

But I would be lying if I said that the thought never crossed my mind that a part of this woman's poverty could involve decisions she was making about these items. If she were actually spending money for this stuff, maybe she could be doing it differently. The stuff she had was barely even usable, by middle-class standards. If she were spending money on it, even if it were the most low-cost church rummage sale, what she was getting was hardly doing the job. Maybe instead of buying several extremely low-cost beds, for example, she could instead have bought one or two nicer ones.

Again, I don't want to create an impression that poor people are all living with mountains of valuable possessions and have loads of resources they just need to shift from one place to another and then all their problems are solved. I'd invite anyone to take a tour with me of some of these homes before you think that poor people are running away with highway robbery of government support.

But it is also no secret to say that many of us--including the very poor--just don't have good resource management skills. We don't spend our money wisely or accumulate items in the most forward-thinking way. In poverty, people deal with violence, fear, long periods of unemployment--they are immersed in a culture of substance abuse, multi-generational depression and a constant state of emergency. People don't always have the time or resources to cut coupons or do smart shopping. Still, if they were somehow able to do this, I wonder what kind of possibilities would exist.

And while many of us are living paycheck-to-paycheck without a retirement plan in sight, how many trucks would it take to haul away all of your stuff? You see, I write this post not to criticize the very poor and certainly not this woman in particular, whose life story would chill your blood. I describe this as as an example for middle-class America: Those truckloads of useless junk lining the walls of your basement or attic are your future. That stuff could be your retirement plan, heirloom furniture, trips to Jamaica, donations to the poor or literally anything else. Those boxes of stuff you bought for a dollar here and a dollar there add up to hundreds and even thousands of dollars squandered away.

This poor woman probably didn't even buy the stuff she had--what's your excuse?

Bailout

With all the depressing talk about the economy lately, there are some rays of hope. Some folks are saying that if it becomes harder to get credit it may actually have a positive effect on our culture. People may invest more wisely and save up for things. Imagine that!

We feel so entitled to have things right now in our culture. We feel entitled to buy a house--even though we don't have a blessed cent to put up for it. We feel entitled to have the latest flashy thing in the store window, whether we truly need it or even if we'll still want it when we wake up the next day. We think getting that TV for "zero money down" is an amazing deal--at least, it seems that way. But looks can be deceiving.

Erin told me about someone who did not buy a dining room set until she had the money saved up. Until then, she and her family ate dinner on the floor. Pondering this, I realized there isn't any furniture that you actually need right now. Sure, 30 years eating on the wood floor would be difficult. But a few days? Weeks?

The grim reality in our culture is that our need for things right now has actually made us have less! We think we are ahead of the game, when in reality we are far behind. Let's say you found a dining room set for $500. It seems like a good deal, so you buy it on credit. But how much do you actually pay for it? By the time you pay the interest, fees, delivery (because you couldn't wait until you were able to borrow a truck or double-up with somebody else) you might be paying $600... $700... more?

You would have paid $500 if you saved up for the dining set. Your need to have it right now made you pay an extra $200--money you could have spent on something else. That's a nice lamp you're not going to have. What would have been the harm in waiting? 6 months eating dinner Indian-style on the floor is not torture. It may actually be a cute story to tell your kids in the years to come. God forbid--it may actually be a fun adventure!

I should also mention that the woman who waited for her dining set is a wealthy woman. It is smart decisions like this that got her where she's at. The rest of us have an addiction to stuff. We need stuff and we need it now. The paradox is that we end up with less while the woman who severed her unhealthy attachment to stuff ends up with more.

Credit is a wonderful thing, but it should only be used if the situation meets one of these criteria:

A. Will the benefits outweigh the costs? Let's say you run a gardening service, but you do not have money to buy a rotor tiller. Instead, you have to dig gardens with a shovel by hand. You end up digging up 2 gardens by hand instead of rotor tilling 10. In this case, it would be totally worth it to buy a rotor tiller on credit. You can increase your revenue by 5 times with this one smart investment which would no doubt cover the interest and them some. In the case of the dining room furniture, there is no real benefit to having it right now.

B. When emergency dictates it. There are times when you just gotta have something and it's for real. You may need fly to Bolivia to investigate your son and the commune of "happy, loving people" he joined. However, this point is really an extension of the point above: The benefits need to outweigh the costs. In this case, the benefits are not material but still valuable.

People can be richer if they just slow down a bit. Every time you use your credit card, you are actually taking out a loan. You will pay for it eventually. If you don't have enough money to buy it now, what makes you think you are going to have enough money to pay for it in the future with interest on top of that? You will have to severely restrict your lifestyle to accomodate these unwise investments.

The rotor tiller investment is wise because it will enable you to increase your income so that you will more than compensate for the interest. You should only go into debt when it will enable you to expand your resources enough to cover the extra cost of having it now. If you use this criteria every time you swipe yourcredit card, you may find yourself swiping it less.

One person can have a dining room set and a lamp. The other person has just a dining room set. Just think how these people are going to differe after 10 years of these kinds of decisions! One may have a house decked out with exquisite furniture (all paid for), while the other is scrambling to pay interest on the few simple items they got on their so-called amazing zero money down deal. They first person gets two items for every one the other gets.

Most Americans live in a fog where we think they can have it all and never have to pay. As Al Gore says, America may be entering into a period of consequences--in the environment, in foreign policy and in personal finance. The loans become due whether we pull the covers over our head or not.

Take it from me as someone who is living much humbler than I should. For the past few years, not only have I been paying back all my credit debt but also paying a couple hundred dollars each month in interest (thankfully I'm near the end of it). I am living like I'm making half the money I'm making. I believe in simple living so I'm not too upset, but that is money I could have spent for charities or else to save up for a house or retirement.

For most of us, there is no bailout. We end up paying it all back. With interest. All for junk you can live without.