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

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A Few of My Favorite Things

Every so often I get a hankering for cooked cabbage. I can darn near eat the whole head in one sitting. Lately, I've been eating it with a generous helping of bean sprouts and tofu marinaded in soy sauce.

I try hard not to boil anything, unless I plan to drink the broth. Too many nutrients are washed away that way. However, I don't always have the equipment for steaming. I have this method which is sort of a half boil, half steam. The important part is that I don't throw any water away.

I get a stainless steel pain and pour some olive oil in. I cut up some onions and get them going. As soon as they are starting to turn translucent I throw on top lumps of cut up cabbage and a little bit of salt. Right before anything gets stuck to the bottom of the pain, I'll start pouring in small amounts of water and put the lid on--no more than maybe 1/2 inch of water in the pain at a time, medium to low heat.

The pan just has to be watched. The cabbage actually is steam cooked, although the small amount that touches the water directly is technically boiled. However, I don't throw this water away. Instead, I let it cook out. I keep adding small amounts of water whenever it is needed, but careful not to add too much and be left with vegetables floating in water. I mix the cabbage and onions regularly, too. The goal is for the water to cook out right at the very moment when the cabbage is perfectly done. If any nutrients have been cooked out in the boil, my guess is that they are still sitting in the pan ready to be consumed.

The end result is juicy, cooked cabbage with onions with a very light coating of oil and salt. It goes great with sausage, kielbasi and ham, as well.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Alfredo Sauce

Nothing will turn you into a fool quicker than a simple recipe. If you see 3 ingredients on a list, you know your cooking skills are in for an ego bashing.

Case in point: Alfredo sauce. You just know there's got to be more to it than a whip, snip and a dash, yet recipes across the world wide web were awfully consistent: Melt some butter, pour in some cream and Parmesan cheese, stir, salt and pepper to taste, and voila!

As I was mixing ingredients together, it was starting to have the smell and consistency of Alfredo sauce. I was hopeful. Upon pouring it over noodles and salmon, I couldn't believe the horror I had created. It was fiercely salty and way tangy. Ummm... too much Parmesan?? Next time, I had better watch the ratio of ingredients a little bit better. I got cocky and thought I'd act like a traditional Old World cook and dump all the ingredients together without wasting my time over silly little things like measurements. I was strongly reminded that you can only do that when you actually know what you're doing.

I managed to knock it down, but at what cost to my health? Please keep all livestock away, as I am a walking salt block and could get licked to death. I'll never need to eat salt again.

Folk Music

One of the least understood terms these days is "folk music."

People play music on acoustic guitars and tambourines and they call it "folk." There is nothing folk about it. That is just acoustic music, no more, no less.

True folk music is just that--music of the people that is part of the collective songbook of everybody. They are songs you sing while playing childhood games, while people gather to shuck corn or pick cotton. People used to do that all the time before TV and radio--they whistled while they worked and hummed tunes and sang. You would, too, if you didn't have TV, radio and ipods constantly turned on around you. Summer camp is about the only place where this kind of music still exists.

I bet we would all be amazed to go back in time to see what life was like when people had to entertain themselves else ways. This is folk music--you don't know who wrote it and every town has their own verses, like campfire songs that just keep getting passed down from generation to generation, and you can improv some verses yourself when you feel like it, like we all do when singing on top of old smokey or "the littlest worm" or other stupid elementary school songs. Now we just turn on the radio or cd player and just hear some heavily produced number, but often it is the same songs over and over with the same arrangements. I love recorded music and electronic media. Love it. But think of the price we have paid: We stopped singing.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Eating Meat: Ethical Issues

Vegetarian culture would have you believe that simply not eating meat is the appropriate way to deal with ethical issues around animal cruelty and ecology. They have valid points, but the answer is not so simple:

If you choose not to eat industrial-raised meats, you are definitely saving animals from a cruel life and a cruel death. You are saving chickens from living virtually their entire lives in tight cages nor cows pumped full of hormones and antibiotics. However, what you are also doing is making it so that some animals are not raised at all. When the demand for such meats goes down, producers will simply raise fewer animals. Those animals will never have a life at all, cruel or otherwise. Would the animals really thank you for that? Hard to say.

You can eat sustainably raised meats. The problem is that the more animals raised on farms just translates into less land available as natural ecosystems. Maybe the chickens you ate were sustainably raised, but a small forest glen had to be cleared out to make room for them to live. Numerous animals in their natural habitat died off to make room for the livestock.

At this point in history, we are seeing the last remnants of widespread natural ecologies. What I mean is that human population is growing so densely over the earth that natural ecosystems will soon only exist in isolated pockets. Large-scale migrations of animals across hundreds of miles may actually cease to exist. When was the last time you saw tens of thousands of buffalo stampeding across the Midwestern plains? How many salmon waterways are still open today, compared to what their once were? You have animals like deer and raccoons who can slip in between the cracks and live between humans, but there is a great cost compared to what was once there.

I often opt for seafood at a restaurant. I prefer wild caught, since farm-raised fish are often worse for the ecology than wild caught. I figure that at least the animal lived a normal life and had a relatively normal death, for a fish. But I also know that the waters are being depleted. The more fishing that is done, the worse the oceans become. Many popular fish species are near extinction, and the ecology of the oceans hangs in the balance. Maybe this fish I am eating is a sustainable choice if you evaluate it as an individual animal, but the overall impact of the fishing industry brings suffering to untold millions of sea animals just to get me the few fish I eat. Am I saving animals from cruelty by eating this wild caught fish?

Eating meat is part of nature. Lions would die if they had to eat grass--they eat other animals. However, if the lions did not eat them, those prey animals would eventually overpopulate and die. The cycle of life and death is part of nature, and there is no way to escape it. If you could somehow disallow animals from killing each other, soon the lions would die of starvation and then their prey would fall on hard times, too. Perhaps an entire species of deer would die off due to overpopulation, rather than just a few being taken here and there by lions which keeps the whole species in check.

In our modern tree-hugging culture, we like to think that every living creature can live to full health and happiness all together in one loving ecology. That is not true: nature is a constant fight for survival, and one death only brings life to someone else. It's not pretty, but it is what it is.

The reputation of the Native Americans seems to fit the best: Take what you need, use what you have, and respectfully leave the rest.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Dont Read the Lyrics

The general rule is this: If you already like a song, don't read the lyrics. There is too great of a risk you'll change your mind.

Case in point is Viva la Vida by Cold Play, which Cathryn recently blogged about (she also has the video and lyrics posted).

I have been enamored with this song for some time. It slowly caught my attention, almost like a mist gradually rising up from the ground and then all of a sudden I found myself immersed in it. I was incredibly drawn to it whenever it would be on the radio, and it would go through my mind all day.

I couldn't understand all the lyrics, but the majestic (I call it heavenly) music coupled with some isolated phrases I was able to pick out created this amazing scene:

This song was about a man who was once a player in worldly affairs, rolling the dice and winning, getting satisfaction from the thrill of victory and reveling in power and riches. I imagined he had some sort of conversion experience in which he lost all that but found a humbler but deeper spiritual path.

In the refrains, there were Jerusalem bells ringing, Roman Catholic choirs singing, and missionaries working abroad. I took the Jerusalem bells to represent the Jewish faith--or even more so--the city of Jerusalem which is a holy city to Christians, Jews and Muslims. In other words, when the church bells of Jerusalem ring, much of the world responds and we are all called back to our ancestral home. It is also our future home, as the "New Jerusalem" has been a Biblical symbol for heaven and our ultimate destiny.

Blending all these images together, it was like the entire faithful of every religion were united in one common prayer--as if the bells in Jerusalem, the choirs of Europe, the daily prayers in mosques and the far and sundry work of missionaries were all heard in heaven as one single, expression of a faithful humanity, like all the sounds of a well-oiled machine and one common effort. Heavenly choirs echoed this hymn as the entire universe was in tune.

And in the middle of this global scene, this one individual man was sure that St. Peter will call his name. In this wild global chorus of millions of people, he as an individual voice has a personal relationship with God. It reminds me of the kind of thing people say when they have a conversion experience--they just know somehow that they are called by God and that they will be welcomed into heaven or into the great mystical union or whatever you want to call it. The image from popular lore is that St. Peter will welcome him into the pearly gates of heaven.

Hearing this song was like waking up from a wonderful, mystical dream.

All this is quite lovely, except that that's not what the song is actually saying.

I got the Jerusalem bells right, but it's Roman Calvary choirs singing. What in the world is that, anyway? Calvary is the hilltop on which Jesus was crucified. Cavalry is an army of mounted soldiers. Perhaps a typo, as Alison pointed out to me? In any case, I don't think the Roman armies had either a cavalry or a choir.

And this man is sure that St. Peter won't call his name. However, it is not as depressing as it sounds: This man was once "king of world" who says he now "sweeps the streets I used to own." When he was king and marched into battle, he was so confident he felt like he had the assurance of God that he wouldn't die. This was a man who was so drunk with power that he felt invincible, but he no longer feels that way. Still, that's a far cry from a mystical belief that God will call him back into his fold when he dies!

I still think it is a great song. It is still about a man who has fallen from worldly graces but who now sees a greater grace. All the contrasting images do create some kind of abstract panorama which inspires the imagination and suggests that song may be about more than just the literal images put together. In my opinion, the song still means what I thought it meant--I like my image so much I just don't want to let it go.

There is a reason why many of the great classical composers were thoroughly against putting words (or even titles) to their pieces. The imagination of the listener can see where a song is going even when the composers themselves can't. It is better not to interfere with this pure expression by putting words in the way. While I am a total lover of words, this is a quite valid point in some circumstances.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Caffeine Withdrawal Update

No news is good news.

Earlier this week, I made a 3-hour trip to Garrettsville at night after a long day of work and class. I got a so-so night's sleep then awoke at the ungodly hour 5:00 AM for a drive back to Columbus and another full day of work. Normally, I wouldn't even think of doing something like that without being heavily caffeinated. I would have reached for coffee whether I needed it or not, trying to schedule cups so that I did not drink any too late (and thereby impact my sleeping) and did not drink too much too soon to offset the effects when I needed them most, all the while making sure I had enough. This is how I used to plan out events like this.

The whole ordeal was exhausting, yet I did the whole trip without a spec of caffeine, not even decaf or any sort of tea whatsoever. I'd say this was a trial by fire and I passed with flying colors.
I'm basically free of caffeine and doing quite well! I'm still somewhat foggy, but that appears to be getting better with time.

It is amazing to realize that caffeine doesn't give you any kind of "up" that you aren't already capable of without it! I'm not saying you can't get a rush, but I've been drinking it for so many years now that the "up" was basically just normalcy.

Big 3 Bailout: Anti-Trust Perspective

I don't care if the Big 3 auto makers go down. They lack vision, they are inefficient businesses, and their sales are proving it. I have worked with GM and Ford in my professional life, and the former especially is one of the least progressive businesses I have seen.

They were trying to push SUV's when the Japanese years ago saw that the future was in fuel-efficient cars and hybrids. It didn't take a genius to realize that. Just the other day I read that Ford is still holding out hope for a resurgence in SUV sales in the wake of current low gas prices. They just don't get it.

SUV's were a temporary fad that would not last when gas prices inevitably go up. The consensus of experts out there clearly says that gas prices will rise sharply as oil reserves become more scarce and most costly to extract from. We can call the Japanese "visionary" but it was more common sense. I don't say that to slight their achievement, only that it should not have been that difficult for US automakers to get on the fuel efficient bandwagon when the evidence was pointing that way.

The SUV/hybrid divide is only one example of why the US Big 3 are collapsing in competition with Japense automakers. It is easy to say we should let them fail on their own and let more successful busineses take their place.

However, the question of the bailout still lingers. Does the country want to go through a painful transition period if they go under? There are plenty of other car manufacturers out there who are more successful businesses. However, it won't be a smooth transition if millions of Americans are suddenly unemployed. They aren't going to simply start buying more Japanese cars--what will happen is that millions of Americans aren't going to buy any cars. It is too much of a shock to an economy that is already reeling. As a result, I'm on the fence when it comes to a bailout. But if we're going to do one, I do support Obama's idea that a bailout should come with strings attached to re-tool the US automakers to transition toward more fuel efficient cars.

It makes me wonder why our entire economy is so dependent on a handful of large corporations and banks so much that if they go under our entire economy goes under. These recent bailouts are all based on this idea--these entities are simply too big to fail without forcing the rest of us into economic hardship. It makes me wonder if our anti-trust laws are as strong as they should be. We should never be in a situation where the fate of a few large corporations determines the fate of our entire economy! We aren't diversified enough.

It our entire economy is so entirely dependent on such a small number of businesses, then I think they fit the definition of a "monopoly" and should have been broken up years ago.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Election Commentary

Now let's celebrate the face of America!

There are many people who look back at the words of FDR, the Kennedy's or MLK Jr as being pivotal moments that help shaped the course of their lives. They were inspired into politics, science, civil rights, the Peace Corps or just a positive vision for this country. I think Obama's election yesterday is in league with that. I got a sense of this while reading about the public celebrations in Harlem that happened last night. There are people who are going to remember yesterday vividly for the rest of their lives--if not all of us.

I think it is a wonderful moment of reconciliation between white people and black people. This is a moment of deeper integration of black people into the fabric of mainstream culture. They are not just the voice on the outside, but a true inside voice. That will no doubt be an awkward transition, even though it is longed for. I hope black people feel like a part of America in every way possible now--if they aren't there yet, they will be soon.

As Erin pointed out, many black folks haven't trusted the system--why vote, when your vote doesn't count? The system or "the man" will certainly subvert any attempts at a black person gaining power in America, right? Those worries were not unfounded.

Yesterday, we saw it turn around. Something happened last night. Something deep, and we may not see the full flowering of it for a while. Something happened in the relationship between black people and America that will forever change things.

I can't pretend to know what the average black guy is thinking as I pass him on the street. I am sure there is a wide variety of thoughts based on the person. But now when a black guy looks at me, he might--just might--look at me and think, "he's probably one of the people who voted for Obama, since the majority of voters picked him." Maybe when black people see me they won't see an enemy but realize that the odds are I'm a friend.

This isn't to say that McCain supporters were racist! Your vote yesterday was not a vote for or against racism. But what an Obama win does say is that America is ready, willing and able to elect a black man and enthusiastically stand behind him. This isn't the first time that America has rallied behind civil rights, but it is a huge step into a new ballpark. We are not just acknowledging basic rights, but sharing the helm itself.

The presidency in America is more than just a job. Americans want to feel a sense of connection to the president--someone they can relate to or imagine themselves having a beer with. This mentality has caused us some grief. But what it means is that if America is willing to elect a black man as president that means that America is willing to accept black people into the soul of America. That black guy there--he's one of us. He's taking his fair turn at the mantle. Of course, black people were already a part of the soul of America in a major way, but the difference is that now it is fully acknowledged and wholeheartedly welcomed.

Decaffeinated Coffee

I drank only one large cup of decaffeinated coffee, yesterday. I have come to believe that I truly love a hot cup of coffee in the morning. Maybe it's the cream and sugar. Maybe it's the warm liquid. But it's not the caffeine, at least, not anymore.

Most people don't know that decaffeinated coffee actually does contain caffeine! Levels can be shockingly high, as Consumer Reports reports. According to that article, most decafs tend to have less than 5% of the caffeine as a regular cup. However, it could range from negligible amounts all the way up to maybe 33%! In extremes you might even see a cup of decaf with 50% of the caffeine as regular, if you take the highest levels of caffeine in a decaf brand and compare with the lowest levels of caffeine found in regular.

Still, as Scott said last night, if all you drink is one cup of decaf every day, it is probably safe to say that you aren't addicted to caffeine, anymore.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Voting Strategy

I had planned on spending tonight at the polling station. I was all set to bring a book and take my place in a long line.

However, I got asked for an evening favor and started looking for options. I had a narrow window of time between class this morning and work. I decided to stop in to see how long the lines were.

It was 10:30 am, which I believe to be the ideal time to vote--after the morning rush but before the lunch rush and the folks-getting-off-work rushes at 3:00, 5:00, etc.

There was a total of 1 person in front of me in line.

I have vivid memories of 2004: It was raining and cold and there were extremely long lines. However, few gave up except for parents with young children who just couldn't endure it all. People on that day would have endured far worse for their right to vote Bush out of office.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Price of Gas: The National Distraction

Few things are as hotly discussed as the price of gasoline. I know people who will make a special trip to the gas station when they hear reports of a price change of a few cents on the gallon. I scratch my head when I realize that 2 cents off a gallon only gives you only an extra 20 cents in your pocket on a 10 gallon tank. It doesn't logically make sense to put that much attention into something with so little payback. People will give their dimes away when you need help at the vending machine, yet they run out at lunch to save the same. I call it The National Distraction.

Let's say I have a 10-gallon tank and that I fill up 4 times a month at $4/gallon, for simplicity's sake. At its peak, that would run me $160/month and $1920/year.

If prices went down to $3.50 that would be $140/month and $1680/year--a difference of only $240 over the course of an entire year and only and extra $20/month in my pocket!

Right now, we are seeing prices at half of $4. Well, that's $80/month and $960/year, and we are starting to see some significant savings.

We could all do wonderful things with an extra grand in our pocket for a year. But keep in mind this is an extreme example where you are taking the price of gas and cutting it exactly in half and being able to sustain that price level for an entire year. Gas prices were not at $4 for an entire year, nor will they be at $2 for an entire year.

The bottom line is that with all the nervousness over the price of gas, when you factor in your actual travel against the fluctuations in the price, you may be looking at a difference of only a few hundred bucks over the course of a year and only an extra Hamilton in your wallet each month.

By no means am I suggesting that pricing is fair, nor am I trying to justify the runaway profits of oil companies.

I realize small business owners as well as those with large SUV's with high mileage can actually measure their gas expenses in the thousands of dollars a year, and these folks are more acutely sensitive to the price of gas. Also, an extra $20/month for a poor family can make a huge difference, as well.

But for most of us, it is really not going to make much of a difference. I'm not saying it's not a big deal--I am only wondering if it is worth all the attention folks give it. Get a fuel efficient car, try to reduce your miles by carpooling and consolidating your trips, and quit worrying about the price change of a few cents. Try to put your attention on projects that will really save you much more money than keeping yourself on the lookout for the cheapest station to fuel at.

The real problem with the price of gas is when everything on the store shelves becomes more expensive as every company has to pay higher costs to ship their products. This is where the real threat comes into play.

If you really want to save money, consider these:

25-50% of food is wasted in American homes. Look at your food budget and you may see hundreds of dollars of potential savings there!

Try greening your home. This site says the average home in my zip code can save $682/year. It does require some investment, but it will continue to pay out year after year. It is also good for the environment. It is also something--unlike gas prices--that you have real control over.

I Accidentally Quit Caffeine

The key to getting off an addiction like caffeine is to keep your energy up. Don't succumb to the urge to roll up into a ball and get weak. However, don't confuse this with the natural urge to just rest. I have found myself falling asleep easier or just dozing off on a couch--that is fine. My body probably needs more down time like that, especially when coming off an addiction. Just don't get all mopey and tired, because that is just your body pouting and sooner or later you'll get yourself into such a lethargy that you'll reach for your drug of choice to counteract it. You are planning to fail with that attitude.

Keeping my energy up works in two ways: I either get more physical exercise or spend time in an intensely emotional period of my life. This time it was the latter. I have been going through an unusually strong period of anxiety as feelings from the past have bubbled up and needed to be dealt with. I just haven't been eating much at all, and the intensity of caffeine has been too much. I naturally cut it down significantly and then made the final effort to cut it out completely rather easily. I'm down to about one cup of tea a day. Compared to the multiple cups of strong coffee I've been consuming daily (that were no doubt tearing my stomach lining apart) I am ready for a break.

I love the taste and experience of coffee and tea. But my addiction usually begins when I find myself waking up tired and having to find a way to snap out of it. Having a busy schedule is a major culprit. Then once I get my "up" from caffeine, in a few hours I'll crash and be lower that I would otherwise be. Then I'll need another cup just to get back to level. Addiction soon ensues. Non-caffeine addicts tend to have better sustained energy.

My brain has been soaked in caffeine pretty exclusively all of my adult life. I literally planned my days with coffee stops at certain hourly intervals in mind. I hunger to remember what it is like to see the world through non-caffeinated eyes. Believe me when I say that the force of this drug is strong. I look forward to the day when I can relax with a nice cup of coffee now and then without the element of addiction factoring in.