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.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Chinese Restaurant People

I'm fascinated by the people who work in Chinese restaurants. They seem like an interesting group of people and I know very little about them.

Most of them seem to speak Chinese as their primary language. Am I to assume that they are recent immigrants to America? Or is it possible they live such separate lives from the rest of mainstream culture that they are 2nd and 3rd generation immigrants who have passed on their language (without picking up English)?

I haven't noticed any kind of significant immigration from China, but it almost seems like there is an organized effort at work here. They fan out and set up these restaurants in the most unlikely of places--even the most remove, white bread, small town in the Midwest.

You can tell from the food that there is something coordinated about it. There is an amazing amount of diversity in Chinese cooking. It has a fifth of the world's population and a big chunk of its space. Yet, you can pretty much know what to expect when you walk into a Chinese restaurant. Do you really think one billion Chinese people sit down to General Tso's chicken every night with gooey sauce? I would guess not. Yet, all these restaurants seem to prepare things in very similar ways. There must be classes or some kind of info sessions they go to in order to learn how to prepare Americanized Chinese food.

I wonder what it is like growing up in a Chinese restaurant. I often see people kids playing in the back or sitting at a table doing homework.

Do the people who work there eat the food they make? Or do they make the really good, true ethnic Chinese foods for themselves? Do they remember how to make those dishes?

Do they work long hours and live upstairs? How many of them are really Chinese and not some other ethnicity? Or are they mostly from the same region in China? Do you have to be Asian to make this food, or can anybody do it?

Maybe there are "Immigrate to America and Open a Restaurant" programs in China itself.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Gimme some old time music with my 'ligion

I made my banjo-playing debut at the St. Francis Mardi Gras celebration last Saturday. I was invited by Kris (dulcimer) and Bonnie (singing/guitar). We played through a swath of old country gospel tunes. It was a great time, and Bonnie had everyone stompin' their feet and whoppin' it up real good.

My perfectionist self was unhappy, of course, because some songs didn't go as well as they did in practice and because our sound balance was way off. The banjo is normally a loud instrument, but mine has issues. It is real twangy and loud in an empty room, but fill that room with people talking and suddenly it can't be heard at all. Without finger picks and a microphone, I was lost in the flood. But that's okay, next time I'll prepare better. At practice, the three of us blended together real well as a group and I do hope to play with these fine musicians again.

Many of our songs came together really well and it was quite an enjoyable experience.

My normally faithful videographer has been quite lax lately, and this is the only picture taken. From right to left you have Kris (behind the pole), Bonnie and me. I don't know the two women sitting in the back.

I also had the great honor of winning an ice-cube lamp in the raffle! It is quite lovely and is currently adorning our dining room table at home. One of my housemates claims to hate it, comparing it to an infamous "leg lamp" we all know so well. I just think he's jealous.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Greensboro, NC

I'm heading to Greensboro, NC, to go to a Bruce Springsteen concert! I wasn't planning on going this tour, trying to save money and all that. But it turns out this event is going to be a major gathering of people who participate on a Bruce Springsteen-themed internet discussion forum that I frequent. I've been trading barbs and jabs with some of these folks since 2002, and as of yet have met very few of them (and virtually none who I actually "talk" to on a regular basis).

I have two tickets, but as of yet no traveling partner. That could be you! Start the bidding.

Only condition is this: No ticket snobs. I didn't exactly get the best concert tickets, they are gonna be way up in them there rafters. But the Spring will be here and the time will be right for a road trip to the Olde South. There's a promise of Southern-cooked ribs to be waiting.

Who's in? On yeah, it's May 2nd.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Republicans and Democrats

You hear a lot about the differences between Republican and Democrats. There are extreme points of view and exaggerated ones. People claim there are differences in everything from morality to intelligence level to their attitude toward life. It can seem like a mess. However, the differences can actually be boiled down to one simple belief.

From an economic standpoint, both of them are capitalistic. However, both of them favor a form of capitalism with restrictions. The part that makes them different is simply a different approach about how those restrictions are to be applied and under what circumstances. In a broad sense, Republicans believe in the individual. In their view, if every individual acts as freely as possible, we will end up with the best system. The Democrats, on the other hand, favor a collective approach—they lean on making decisions together as a group. Both parties believe in freedom, even though that is often the charge they level against each other.

People jump on their bandwagons and demonize the other side, but in reality we do use both approaches and that is probably why America has survived how it has. Both approaches have flaws and benefits.

The Soviet Union was an example of a nation that relied on collective decision making. A technocrat in Moscow would tell farmers who lived 10,000 miles away when to plant their crops. This generated some huge inefficiencies. No matter how smart the brain trust was in Moscow, there is no way they would be better able to respond to local weather changes nor would they have the intimate knowledge of local climate and land compared to the people who have been farming that land for thousands of years. They rarely did a good job--telling farmers to plant in the worst of conditions or farmers losing the best days waiting for approval from the central authorities. Even if the central authorities did a good job, though, they were simply an unnecessary step. There is no need for that to be a collective decision--farming on the Russian steppes works best when individuals make those decisions on their own.

The Soviet Union was not the best example of true collective decision making. What really ended up happening was that it was a totalitarian regime. Nevertheless, the example still does a good job of showing the flaws in appointing the government to manage more than it should.

Yet, pure individualism has some serious problems, as well. We tend to demonize businesspeople in America, but most of them would like to maintain strong ethics. The problem is that capitalism is competitive. You can maintain all the ethics you want, but all you need is one competitor who is willing to bend those rules and you will be out of business. That one competitor will make cheaper products (since they don't care about the people or environment they take advantage of) and end up out-competing everyone else. In unrestricted capitalism, the rotten apple spoils the barrel. That lowest common denominator sets the tone for everyone else. All the other businesses are either forced to water down their ethics or simply go out of business.

In the above scenario, a good solution is collective decision making: We all get together and legislate our morality. We make our ethics the law. As a result, all businesses have to pay a minimum wage, follow child labor laws and have safety standards. Businesses then don’t have to break their own code of ethics in order to keep their doors open. We have collectively decided to follow these principles and it works better than letting the one who plays the dirtiest set the rules of engagement for everyone else.

Take tax cuts, for example. The Republicans will tell you that lowering taxes is good for the economy, since individuals will have more of their money and will make the best use of it. The Democrats may argue for higher taxes so we can band together and pay for things we never could pay for as individuals--such as an alternative energy infrastructure. That way, we can try to plan so that we can realize our values rather than being isolated individuals making the best decisions for ourselves but not thinking of the larger context. People criticize the Democrats and say that they think that government knows how to run our lives the best. That is not the goal. The goal is that we the people are the government and there are some decisions best made collectively rather than as individuals. It may turn into a blubbering bureaucracy, and that may be a weakness of this approach, but it is not the goal.

The Wal-Mart Effect is an example of Republican principles in action. People shop at Wal- Mart because it is cheaper and convenient. However, we all know that Wal-Mart ruins good towns and cities, but it is hard to be the one person who refuses to shop there. As an individual, why should I pay higher prices just to shop somewhere else? My protest means little, and it is easier just to buy the cheapest items since I am unlikely to hurt Wal-Mart by not shopping there. This is how Wal-Mart takes over--it is the sum effect of individuals making decisions based on their own short-term interests. If everyone bands together and refuses to shop at Wal-Mart, then collectively this protest now carries more weight. Sometimes individuals acting in their own interests leads us all down a path we don't want to go, even if all the little decisions we made to get there seemed good. Sometimes, we need to just get together and put the brakes on.

* * * *

This is what I have gathered to be the biggest difference between the parties. Everything else stems from that (unless you want to talk about social issues, but that's another story). People can rant and rave about how "Republicans are selfish" or "Democrats want the government to take care of us." There may be some merit to those charges, but all too often people jump to those conclusions before knowing the full story about what is motivating these parties. Don't believe the hype--Democrats are not going to turn us into pure collectivists (like the socialists) any more than the Republican are going to try to turn us into an anarchy (pure individualism). They do lean those ways, respectively, but they are both firmly rooted in capitalism and aren't going anywhere.

Ear to the Ground

Keep your ear to the ground. The masive spending bill that Obama just signed may have something in it for you, and it is too early to tell how easy it will be to get access to those benefits.

* Refinancing home mortages to get a lower monthly payment

* Extension of unemployment benefits (and food stamps)

The unemployment may just kick in automatically if you are already receiving it, but you may have to contact your bank directly to find out about the refinancing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Your Chance to Make History

I'm going to change the URL for this blog. While the title of this blog is "Speaking Frankly," you need to use my full name in the address bar to get here. You obviously know that or else you wouldn't be reading this.

I have decided to go quasi-anonymous. No, I'm not going to make a big deal about concealing my identity. I just want to make it harder to Google my name and find this blog. The reason? As I become more active in ministry or academic work, there may be a necessity to make (some of) my opinions and struggles private. I may submit items for publishing (both in music and writing) and may some day teach courses. Who knows.

I have wrestled with this a lot. I have built a solid record of advocating for openness through my life (I don't need any comments from the peanut gallery as to whether I have done a good job living up to my value of openness). I don't hold any false impressions that people in the public eye or positions of authority need to pretend they have perfectly clean records. In fact, it is more encouraging to know that they don't. Still, the impression remains in our society that those in that position are expected to act like they got their shit together.

My blue collar roots give me a solid bullshit detector, and it always sounds off when I hear that ministers in the Church are asked to keep their opinions to themselves, while the Church itself rams it's opinions down your throat. I understand that one individual does not make a church, but sometimes it seems like the Church may be resisting the cleansing light of openness and honesty. What are they afraid of?

But again, those are the kinds of opinions I need to keep to myself. How am I doing so far?

I do believe, though, that there is a time and a place for disclosing matters. It may (heavy emphasis on "may") be inappropriate to know your professor's opinions when taking his class. You don't need egomaniacs starting their little cults all over the place--I have seen that and it's not good. Part of being pastoral is respecting the people you are ministering to and not impressing on them (while they are in a vulnerable place, such as being a student or someone coming for spiritual direction) your own conclusions but rather helping them reach their own. That makes sense to me.

I still go back and forth on all this, because I think you can make a mature argument either way--just because you share your opinion doesn't mean you are ramming it down anyone's throat. Nevertheless, there is some consensus in the professional world on this, and it may behoove me to abide by it.

Besides, some of my friends think a person is a raging egomaniac to use their given name for a URL (to which I would say that you can make the same argument for having a blog at all, whether you use your name or not). I admit I have never been settled with it. I attribute this to my family--we aren't very showman-like and tend to downplay a lot of public attention and spotlights, unless there is a very good reason for that and your work deserves it. Spotlights are an upper and lower class phenomenon, not the value of blue collar workers and humble farmers. However, the name made the most sense . . . these are my thoughts, so it seems they already had a natural name: mine. Anything else just seemed to box me into something else.

So here is where you come in: I need some suggestions. Some little bastards already took the obvious ones, such as "speakingfrankly", "franklyspeaking" and "franktalk." None of these blogs have been updated since 2002, and 2 of the 3 were never used at all--someone just took the URL and held it. There needs to be a statute of limitations here.

Send your comments in quick before I give up this blog altogether. As you may have noticed, dear readers, I haven't been hanging around here that much, spending more attention on the Columbus Catholic Worker blog. Still, I'm far from throwing in the towel. The rumors of this blog's death have been greatly exaggerated.

Friday, February 13, 2009

On Mission at Work

One of the most convenient places to help transform the world is right in your current community and workplace. Sure, it is tempting to want to go away and be with other like-minded people. It is tempting to quit your job so that you can pursue a ministry vocation full time. However, doing ministry while working through a church or non-profit may not have quite the impact you may think. It is probably already an environment teeming with people doing that very thing.

Working 8-5 for some corporation can put a real damper on your time and energy for outreach. However, it also puts you right on the front lines. There are valid points to be made for both approaches, and only you can know for sure what you are called to do.

There are so many possibilities to do good right where you are at: Start a recycling program at work! It is much less productive to start a recycling program at an environmental organization, whereas many of the businesses out there are ripe for sustainable practices. It often just takes an employee with initiative to get the ball rolling. Be pastoral with your co-workers--people who may never step foot into a church or be impacted directly by the outreach done from there. Work is probably the one place people can be reached who are otherwise inaccessible.

Monday, February 9, 2009

90 days or so . . . lost count

Scott read an article that says it takes 90 days for the brain to re-wire itself after coming off of an addiction. Well, I just realized today that it has been over 90 days since I gave up caffeine.

I have had some caffeinated beverages in the last 90 days, but not many. I've had maybe a 2-4 cups each month. I am careful not to drink them in consecutive days for fear of rekindling the addiction. After having some caffeine, I'll experience a "crash" and that's when I'm most vulnerable for reaching for another cup to get back up. So far, my body seems to do fine without it, and I just work my way through the tiredness.

My main concern is all the decaf I've been drinking. There are days when I'm positively slamming the decaf. I know that it contains some caffeine, but each brand seems to vary widely. A few cups of decaf at Panera and I know I'm wired. However, the organic instant coffee I make at work seems pretty tame.

One way that I know I'm off of the addiction is that I just don't seem to need it. I can go a long time before I think about it or want it. I don't miss it. It used to make me feel happy, but it also made me wired and tense. It's nice to feel happy, but when my happiness comes by way of a hot beverage I worry that I'm less likely to seek that happiness out elsewhere, such as through relationships, hobbies and work.

After 90 days, there really isn't much to say. I'm mostly writing this post out of a favor to a few friends who have requested that my post "Phlegm" drop down out of sight out of their "Most Recent Postings" feed.

Thursday, February 5, 2009


It is fun to cough up a triumphant blog of green goop. I hate it when I don’t get a chance to look at it. You kinda want to see what you got, right? There’s a certain level of satisfaction for coughing something like that up, and you want to take pride in what you did. Unfortunately, sometimes I just gotta spit it out the window when I’m driving or (even worse) swallow it because I’m in public and there’s “protocol.”

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Music Mattters

It is certainly nice when a song has lyrics we can relate to. The words can really hit home and portray our lives really well. We can revel in the nostalgia or remember parts of ourselves in specific ways.

But in some ways, lyrics don't matter a whole lot. All music is getting at the same kinds of things. Different genres just pick different lenses through which to look at life. Those lenses matter, but maybe not as much as we might think.

1950s songs look at life through the eyes of a prom queen and teenage celebrations and woes. Many people today scoff at that, but then throw on their 1960s drug induced psychedelic music--even though they aren't drug users themselves. Country music views life through the family or small town life in the heart of America's rural landscape. That sounds more realistic, but I guarantee most country music listeners don't live "way back in the holler."

While musicians are free to literally write about anything, they tend to work over the same themes that others have introduced. I'm not sure that is a bad thing. Part of what makes music great is that you can see the way one artists handles a theme and then how another one reworks it and builds off of it. Music is a collective experience, not an individual one. It is not about the theme, but the variation one artist brings to it in comparison to another.

I don't need to have ever walked on a New Jersey boardwalk with a carnival backdrop to understand a Bruce Springsteen song. I don't need to be Irish to "get" Van Morrison. The psychedelic era was ultimately about growth, discovery and failure. You don't need drugs to relate to that. My soul is practicelly fused to the song "Born in the USA,", but I am not a Vietnam veteran.

I often worry that people who connect on the superficial levels may actually miss the deeper points of connection. It is nice when a lyric directly resembles specific things in my life, but that is impossible on a regular basis. Everyone else lives a different life than me, so their lyrics will have to be different. Music is not about someone else singing my song, it is about my ability to connect with their song--to see my own life in their song. Even the artists themselves are not always writing literal autobiography--they often communicate through made-up characters and situations.

At first glance, it may be hard to believe how those silly songs about prom queens and Letterman's jackets were part of a cultural revolution. However, the lyrics were only an access point to a deeper message which was about spiritual freedom and integration. Early rock 'n roll helped people reconnect to their body and spirit--to take joy in the body. The music actually moved your body, as evidenced by Elvis' scandalous, shaking hips. This was a revolution in post-Victorian, post-Puritan culture which had denigrated the body and created a fragmented sense of self. The modern holistic movement was sparked in those 1950s songs.