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.

Sunday, August 8, 2010


My Sunday debut as Music Director started this way:

A near-complete disaster on the opening hymn!

Seriously, I flubbed my way through the piece missing every other chord, then after two agonizing verses I just stopped, hoping we could just end there. I wasn't even sure I was at the end of a verse or somewhere in between.. The priest led everyone for an accapella verse. Then another . . . Then another! Later, I learned everyone was good natured and laughed through it, but at the time I was too embarrassed to look up.

The rest of the Mass went well, with no major mistakes, just some timing errors and a few better-disguised mistakes. I really had a strong urge to run screaming out the side door at various points. I was hoping that I'd build confidence this weekend and put the stage fright behind me. That may take a little longer.

Looking on the bright side, I suppose this was a true confidence builder as holding myself together and recovering from such a dismal start is an important, if not essential, skill as a performer. All those hours and hours practicing these past weeks helped push me over the hump.

I played for the Saturday Mass yesterday and everything went quite well. Today was merely the first time playing for the much larger congregation with the full choir.

This is a wonderful parish and folks are truly laid-back and accepting. I really don't want to make my own performance such a focus, but when one is nervous it is hard to avoid that. I look forward to times when we can work together to lead the congregation is prayer, celebration and deeper spiritual reflection through music.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why the Garden is My Happy Place

Don't garden with a condom, folks! A medical study states that microbes in topsoil have been shown to boost serotonin levels in humans. This is simply through contact with the skin, so take off those latex gloves!

Perhaps this is why the garden is my "happy place." Low serotonin is linked with all sorts of health issues, including depression, anxiety, etc.

While I don't profess to judge the scientific validity of this study, it doesn't surprise me in the least. In fact, it supports something I've been hypothesizing for a while.

Right now, there is a mad dash among nutritionists and amateur foodies to figure out the so-called "paleo diet." This is the holy grail of human nutrition. Based on the theory of evolution, it purports that the diet and lifestyle that humans beings experienced through most of our history would be the healthiest for us. This would be the diet and lifestyle we evolved around and are therefore best adapted to. For a number of reasons, most people are looking at the paleolithic era for the most representative diet and lifestyle.

I see no reason to limit this to merely food or exercise, though.

It is amazing to ponder the effects on human health from simply living out in nature--touching trees and grass regularly, drinking "dirty" water, breathing fresh air. The human body is much more permeable than we think--so much gets absorbed through the skin and lungs.

We try so hard to secure "clean" drinking water nowadays. Certainly, excessively dirty water can lead to all sorts of disease, especially in our extremely congested cities. But our ancestors regularly drank river water, pond water, water in puddles. To think that we somehow improved upon human health when we started sterilizing water might be an overstatement. What did we lose?

To our paleolithic ancestors, insects and microbes were everywhere and got into everything. Insects "dirtying" food also brought in beneficial vitamin B-12 and protein, the very items you need to sustain yourself on a mostly vegetarian diet. Modern methods of food processing often strips those factors out. We reduce the risk of disease, but are we also reducing essential components for health? Vegan who lived quite well in India develop nutritional deficiencies when they moved to England, as "improved" food sterilization stripped out essential components of their diet.

I am sure there are numerous environmental factors that affect our human health and happiness. They may impact not only nutrition but also metabolism. Too often, we in America think that diet just relates to the simple intake of chemicals into the body in the form of vitamins, minerals, calories, fats and oils, proteins, you name it. Other cultures intuitively understand that the way food is eaten and the environment in which it is eaten can affect the quality of a meal. Those may not simply be incidental or mere ambiance--if they affect metabolism, they have a real chemical impact on food and may affect the quality of digestion (hence the nutrients we are able to extract).

In other words, if you frantically buy up everything at Whole Foods, go home and stuff it down in isolation in a desperate attempt to ward off cancer, you may offsetting the very gains you are trying to get! Your body may process the foods better (and thus get more nutrition out of it) in a relaxed atmosphere among friends and laughter.

People in Crete love a good seafood meal. People in Crete also believe that a seafood bake on the beach in the company of good friends is the best way to experience it. This is perhaps a component to the Mediterranean diet that gets overlooked.

The French say that in America "the cheese is dead!" This refers to the way we sterilize cheese and pack it in airtight plastic wrap, thus killing off all the beneficial microbes. It makes you wonder when you consider that obesity is much lower in France, despite the diet rich in carbs and cheese. And even so-called lactose intolerant Americans often do very well on a diet of French cheese.

We are only beginning to understand human nutrition itself and have only barely begun to even speculate about things like the way food is prepared, the containers in which it is stored, and how it is processed and sterilized. The role of a good feast or fast (common among human history) probably also has some huge role to play. Just like fires are a part of the essential life cycle of a forest, I would also imagine there is a role of occasional fasting on human health, as well, especially since our ancestors experienced cycles of feast and famine on a regular basis.

People often think about the toxicity of the modern environment--toxins from upholstery, industrial exhaust fumes, plastics, pesticides, you name it. But not only have we added potential health hazards, but we may have also taken away other health benefits--the microbes and chemicals we used to be in contact with but now aren't. I believe there's going to be a lot of research into this in the future.

It is easy to see why there is a focus on the health effects of food right now. When we take something entirely into our body, it would seem to have a more dramatic effect than simply touching something with maybe trace amounts permeating the skin. However, if working in the garden can elevate one's mood, then perhaps the impact is far greater than we would otherwise think.

Think of all we touch--clothing with trace amounts of detergent, perfumes and deodorants (I don't wear any commercial deodorant), carpeting and tabletops with traces of soap and polish. They may be having a far greater impact on our physical and emotional health that we might otherwise think.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Stage Fright

My gig as Music Director at a local church is underway!

I really have to thank the previous music director for being more-than-generous during this transition. I have been profoundly nervous and scrambling to hone up on my all-too-rusty piano skills. I sat in on guitar last week, and this week I was the sole accompanist on the Responsorial and Alleluia on piano. She has continued to be involved as I slowly take on more of the responsibilities. Perhaps that sounds a little too much like hand holding, but like they say, some of us just take a little longer to mature. In 3 weeks, it won't matter how we get there, it will only matter if we get there.

This might all sound like baby steps, but to me they were huge. The music ensembles I've led have been almost exclusively for college audiences and/or small Masses among friends, so playing in an "official" church with like, ya know, grown-ups and everything, is a big step! I’m no perfectionist, just trying to avoid the major train wrecks.

I lent out my mandolin more than a year ago to Barry, and he returned it last night. I brought it out on a couple of old timey tunes today—"Abide With Me" and "Come, We That Love The Lord." More than a few people have remarked that I sound hesitant, so that’s it, next week it’s on full bore.

What an emotional roller coaster. I sat at the piano moments before the Responsorial so nervous I was practically having an out of body experience. Afterwards, you couldn’t drag me off that piano with a cane. It is such an amazing transformation to go from wanting to shut down and hold back to then do a 180 degree flip and now find myself seeking out opportunities to share more and more and more. The good thing about being nervous is that it reminds me how essential it is to practice and focus. I can never forget that, even if/when it gets more comfortable.