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.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Which Way Does It Trickle, George?

If George W. Bush was a such a true believer in supply-side, trickle down economics, why is it that any time the economy was in trouble he got on TV and urged people to keep spending?

His actions seemed to show a confidence in demand-side, trickle up economics, no?

Thursday, June 16, 2011


I cut myself today in the kitchen. Not bad, just a little slice.

I didn’t feel like holding the wound closed all day, but I didn’t have any band-aids. So I thought to myself, why don’t I wrap it closed with some tape?

Then I continued to think, hey, maybe I can put some tissue directly on top of the wound and then secure that with tape all around. That might be more cozy and sanitary.

. . . wait a minute . . .

. . . that IS a band-aid!

It’s a piece of gauze with tape. Band-aids are just a glorified piece of tape.

So often we are surprised to find that natural cures and home remedies are simple and effective. We’ve become so accustomed to the store-bought remedy that we have forgotten what the remedy actually consists of. We don’t stop to think whether it is really necessary or not.

The same phenomenon happens with natural deodorant, something I’ll post about shortly. The home remedies are easy, effective and accessible. They are so easy, we become suspicious--it can't be that easy, can it? We have all been trained to think we need to purchase that stuff from the stores, spending money and exposing ourselves and the environment to questionable chemicals.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Pantry Check: Not Bare

I was hungry tonight and wanted a snack. All I could find were some tortilla chips to munch on. I don't do corn chips plain, so I was about to skip out for something else.

Sometimes you have to take a second look through your pantry before you declare it to be bare.

I found some green onions, a hot banana pepper, some sour cream and cheddar cheese. I chopped up the veggies, shredded and cheese and lobbed in some sour cream. I mixed it all together and spooned it up with the chips.

What a great little snack, and nutritious too! I used up some items that were in danger of going bad before they were eaten. Not bad.

Had my fridge contained other items, it's very possible that they, too, would have ended up in this bowl. When you have things like cheese and sour cream at your disposal, there is very little you can't do.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Now or Never

Even though I have been writing church music for the last several years, I have not shared much with my current choir. In the hustle and bustling of getting ready week after week and settling in as the director, it was the last thing on the agenda. Original songs would take several weeks of practice to work out the kinks. On some level, I wanted the choir and congregation to accept me in a more substantive way before pushing a lot of strange new music on them—I wanted them to buy into my vision and be willing to go for a ride with me.

I admit that part of the hesitation was my own inhibition about sharing this part of myself. All the other closet artists out there can no doubt relate.

However, we have sung at least 15 original Responsorial Psalms in the last year. At least a good 6-7 were mine. Most of them were originally composed by my cantor Mary. I enjoyed that as it took the spotlight off of me and gave me the chance to focus on the vocal arrangements and chord structures. She is nearly blind, so I have jurisdiction over everything written. That gives me an autonomy while still being a creative partner. She would sing a melody a cappella and the rest was up to me, with her feedback along the way. While it is appropriate to credit her as the songwriter on those, I definitely felt like a co-writer and could really stretch out creatively. It has been a great opportunity to practice arranging for voices, something I had not had a lot of experience with. Responsorial refrains are very short, which was a good opportunity to focus on the details and get them right.

Fast-forward to today.

Most Catholics are aware of what is happening in Advent, 2011: The implementation of the new translation of the English Mass, which includes changes to many of the sung parts.

The “Holy, Holy” is changing by the difference of a single phrase, but other pieces like the “Gloria” are radically different from the current translation. While it is possible to engineer existing music to fit the new words, this is often a questionable exercise. Some pieces just do not work with the different words. Even the “Holy, Holy” has significant troubles. “Lord God of power and might” will be rendered as “Lord God of hosts.” The difference of 3 syllables in a short piece, not to mention ending with an abrupt physical sound like “hosts,” is enough to threaten the very existence of an existing musical setting. Many versions are not going to survive.

Songwriters are like architects. There is a mathematics to it. You want to be creative, but yet all the pieces have to fit into the context, too: Heating vents cannot be covered by rugs or couches. Plants need to have the right amount of light. A house should be an expression of an artist’s creativity, but it still has to accommodate all the practical demands of withstanding the elements and being a functional space.

Songwriting is the same. You have to put the pieces together in a way that meets practical and artistic demands. The left and right sides of the brain are not only both used but they must work together in concert. Every note and phrase must make sense locally and within the whole. The right words need to be accented. Not only does the physical sound have an architecture, but there are the additional concerns regarding the appropriateness for liturgy and fitting with the available instruments, choir members and congregation. All that has to fit while still being an artistic expression.

All of this is to say: Do not be fooled at how “small” some of the changes are, because they will have a dramatic impact on the playability of these songs. This means that the next several months is now or never time. If the numerous Mass settings that I have composed are ever going to see the light of day, the time is now.

This gave me an incentive to pitch this music to the choir. They will sing whatever I ask, but it is important to me that they are with me in spirit. The choir is receptive to giving these compositions a chance. I want to be sensitive, as songwriters have a notorious reputation for holding their congregations hostage to being a dumping ground for their original music. The music has to resonate with the life of the congregation. But we must always remember that the Catholic faith has always inspired people to create art and music. Our faith would be dead if we did not make room for the different gifts people have to offer. I am a writer, and I need to tinker.

I have often had this vision that one day I would just open up my back catalogue of tunes and just start rolling them out as-is. What has happened is probably what is generally more likely: I pick a tune from the past I like, make a couple more to match, add a new piece and rearrange something else dramatically. There are factors which make some songs better options than others, and require still others to be adapted, such as the members of the choir and their respective ranges, the temperament and charism of the parish, and the singability and ease of learning of a piece. What we are rolling out is actually 2 older pieces and 3 brand spanking new ones. The creative process is always in the present tense.

I originally began writing a “Gloria” as I was recovering from cancer surgery back in 2005. Over the next few years I kept adding to it until the piece was complete. I recently added vocal harmonies that I am proud of. The other piece is a “Memorial Acclamation” from around the same time. I liked it so much I decided to use it to fashion a “Holy, Holy” and an “Amen,” since those pieces are a musical trinity. Mary added some significant advice, and we have worked out a finished set. They are simple, singable, and I overall feel good about them. I tried to work out a “Lamb of God,” but as I was tinkering on it one day, Erin started singing a completely new melody to the chord progression, and it turned out to be quite lovely. Her “Lamb of God” is the one we are going with.

Today we unveiled this set, with the exception of the “Gloria” which will still take a couple of weeks of practice. It is hard to debut original music. I always feel that it is never good enough, and I continually find places to make changes. I have come to a place where I do not need people to like it for my emotional well-being. Some will, some will not, and some just need more time and a good performance before they are convinced. But there is no question that this is me revealing myself, and it is so hard to face rejection on thooe terms. When people do reject it, or even reject the whole idea of me sharing my music at all, I know cognitively that they are usually doing it to mask their own insecurities or ignorance, but it still can hurt quite a bit. But I also have grown tremendously by taking the chance to share anyway.

I was happy with how it went today. The choir did a good job and did right by me. We will see how it goes as this music is sung over the next few weeks. A lot of people are just exceedingly happy that we are finally transitioning away from the Latin Mass parts (which we began in Lent). Right now, I am just happy to be sharing this music. I have been working on this music for many years. Aside from some very informal Masses at the Catholic Worker, this has not been played in a Church setting before, so this is a big step for me.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Going Native

I saw an IMAX movie once about the Lewis & Clark expedition. The film showed the daring travels of this small group of explorers over rivers, fields and mountains in all weather. It also showed in dramatic detail the lengths these people went to carry with them massive amounts of crates, boxes and all sorts of supplies. They took a small city with them. While they were exploring completely uncharted territory, they seemed to put an astonishing amount of energy inward on managing their stuff. I wonder how often they took the opportunity to just look around.

Every so often, the movie would pan out and show a couple of native Americans sitting on a hilltop observing all this commotion. They would sit in the shade, with perhaps a day's worth of food with them. They traveled light, and because of this, they could just experience the present moment a little bit better. They could no doubt get what they needed from the land around them rather than by lugging around tons of supplies.

The last several months has involved a lot of of moving. With the Catholic Worker dismantling and people coming and going, goods donated far and wide, many things put into storage, and me moving twice, it was a seemingly constant effort moving things around from one place to another. I have boxes of unsorted personal papers and memorabilia that I have trudged from placed to place. Much of it is just random papers that I may or may not want to keep, but I have not taken the time to sort through it all.

I have felt like I was on the Lewis & Clark expedition, with all my energy inward on my stuff and barely looking around, keeping anything and everything because "I might need it someday." It was an empty, unsatisfying experience.

I have boxes and boxes of keepsakes and mementos. Some have unfinished emotional business, in some I am hanging on to the memory of loved ones, some who have passed, and in others I have stuff I would like to keep for a rainy day--I may want to re-read those old letters or show them to my kids someday.

It has gotten to the point where hauling this stuff around is affecting the quality of life in the present tense. I have had to make decisions about where I live because of it. I can not count the times I have said I would have few regrets if an "accidental" fire took this burden off of me.

I have a box of old National Geographic maps from my grandpa. We used to look through those maps in wonderful detail together, pondering places and comparing facts and figures. These were his maps. I will probably not look at those maps again that way, if I look at them at all. Even though I have sacramentalized the box of maps itself, is it not more accurate to say that it was sharing those moments together that I treasure more than the objects themselves? The box of maps itself does not bring with it what made those moments special. Why keep them?

When looking at these boxes of stuff, the glaring metaphor of emotional baggage cannot possibly go unnoticed. The real danger here is that I could think that by keeping this box of maps, I could somehow keep my grandpa, too. However, if I did have my grandpa around, I would not stuff him into a closet or a storage shed, so why would I do the same with stuff that I am clinging to as a way of clinging to him?

Some archivist might come along with a quite lovely idea--I could make a collage of these maps and put it on the wall! That would honor the memory in the best possible way while still clearing out the unnecessary clutter. It is the memory, after all, that I want to preserve, and all I need is a trigger for that. I am not trying to totally discount the object itself, because there is something about the historical artifact itself that makes me feel like I can touch those moments of the past so directly, but maybe all I need to keep is a piece of it. However, when I consider the time/effort it would take to put something together like that, I just shove the box back into the closet and figure I will deal with it another day.

I could easily devote the next several months to managing my past. I could make collages of items. I could take photos. I could sort and label photos. I have an old 1980s computer with old files I would love to have, if I could ever take the time to set it up and relearn how to use the machine again. Let's not even talk about scrapbooking.

As any hoarder will tell you: I could lose 2/3 of this stuff and never miss it. Easy.

If it were just one box of maps, I could just keep them and bring them out now and then to remember. But it is not just one little box. It is old furniture. It is broken stuff. It is boxes and boxes of unsorted piles of clutter. Plane tickets, business cards, little notes, cards and envelopes--envelopes, for crying out loud! The real downside is that keeping anything for several years turns it into an artifact. It could be a 20 year old page of ads from the newspaper, but by golly it is 20 years old and now it is precious!

This stuff legitimately does bring back memories. However, it is not like I kick back on a Saturday evening, put a pot of tea on the stove, light the fireplace and bring out one of these boxes to savor old times. No, the only time I interact with this stuff at all is when I am moving. And moving, admittedly, can either be the best or worst of times to wrap up loose ends. I often throw stuff out, but just as often I am to busy and end up just transferring it from one location to another, unchanged.

Lately, I have barely had the time or energy to do all this moving, and when I realize I am just shuffling junk from one place to another, I have finally been "moved" enough to say: Enough is enough. It is time to purge.

I had a great time driving around Columbus recently, dropping off items at various thrift stores, churches and outreach organizations. It felt so much better doing this than the drudgery of hauling boxes from one storage environment to another. The Catholic Worker movement has a history of living in the present. There is a tendency not to hold onto excess items or even money. They take what they need and give out the rest, in full faith that when they are in need later, what goes around will come back around. It was great that so many people donated to the Catholic Worker, but it is hard to justify keeping all those donations in a storage shed when they could be put to good use outside. We only stored it because it was possible we would be up and running again in a short while. When that did not happen, it became time to liquidate. So I have been liquidating both my personal stuff and the Catholic Worker belongings, too.

For so many years, I kept this stuff because it felt like a piece of me. How could I get rid of something that was a part of me? The ironic thing is that the more I have given away recently, the more I have felt like myself. That baggage was keeping me trapped in a bygone moment and preventing me from fully living into the present moment. Even when it was just sitting in a closet somewhere, its presence still weighed me down on some level of my being. I am lighter and more me than before.

I would like to think I gave away half my possessions over the past few weeks. That is an overstatement, but perhaps the good news is that it felt like half. I delivered many truckloads to Goodwill and divided appliances, furniture and other items to various people and organizations. I took many trips to the recycling bin.

The greatest horror in this is that it is darn near impossible to find a good home for used books. I have a wonderful collection of classics, spiritual works, just all sorts of great stuff. The used books stores have enough of what I have, and often they will shred the rest if they take it at all. It is certainly a sign of the decline of civilization that no one wants good used books, even when given for free. St. Stephen's Episcopal Church right in the OSU campus area operates a used book store, and they donate the proceeds to NSI, an agency that runs a free food pantry and other services for the poor. They took a lot of my stuff, and I was glad to leave it there.

It is time to go native. It is time to travel light and spend time in the present moment. It is interesting that "going native" has connotations of nakedness. It is about being more exposed, perhaps more vulnerable but also perhaps more flexible, which is a form of strength.

As for the box of maps, I think this is actually my own collection and not my grandpa's after all! So much for memory!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Cheesecake Episode

I had some cheesecake tonight. I was very surprised by the impact it had on me. I could immediately feel my energy rise and then suddenly dip. The old familiar roller coaster was going down its track.

I had not been eating much sugar for the last two weeks. I have felt great from all the fresh produce and otherwise high quality foods I have been eating. However, I have not been fully cognizant of the impact on my energy levels until tonight. I have been very even-keel.

You would think that even-keel would be boring, but it is not. It is just a steady, healthy stream of energy. Energy is basically a non-issue. I do not have a never ending series of peaks and valleys with junk food and caffeine first to perpetuate it and then to mediate it.

I still consume some sugar. It may be a while before I can take my coffee straight, but I only put a small amount in. Other than that, I have been relatively sugar free.

Sugar is hard to avoid. It is not just in desserts. The worst culprits are carbonated beverages (which are no different than desserts), which thankfully I do not consume. Other than that, virtually all processed foods are loaded with sugar—breads, frozen foods, anything packaged. It is just everywhere, unless you eat basic, whole foods.

Avoiding sugar is not just for the weight conscious. Sugar is a key suspect in the modern diseases of affluence—heart attacks, diabetes, strokes, cancer, and possibly quite a bit more. It also disrupts our energy levels, as I experienced tonight.

My first thought was that I could not wait until the sugar cycle passes and I could get back to good eating, again!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Brisk Walk, No Talk

I had an unexpected walk today. I woke up to find my truck had been towed and impounded. I mapped out the location and found it was only 2.5 miles away, so I figured I could save a few bucks on cab fare by hoofing it. I could have dressed a little better for a brisk walk on a blustery day, but all in all, it wasn’t too bad.

Cognitively, I understand why parking is so strictly enforced in the city. Parking is a precious commodity, and offenses would quickly get out of hand if policies were not enforced. The cynic in me also wonders how much of it is a money-making scene, but on some level, it does make sense. Most people don’t have the time or even the knowledge of whose car it is to inform someone of an impending tow.

But the small town person in me will probably never understand. Waking up to find your car has been towed feels terribly unwelcoming. Someone could have just put a reminder under my windshield wiper. Maybe there was an emergency or just an oversight. On the flip side, folks probably feel it isn’t their job to babysit some dumbass who obviously can’t read a sign. But that’s just it: Human beings are interacting with each other through signs, policies and procedures rather than through direct contact. Any time you put a large amount of people together in a small area, interactions get less and less personal and more and more procedural.

In any case, a 2.5 mile walk should not be a rare thing, and I’m glad I got the reminder. There should be plenty of opportunities for such a walk in the course of daily life. I’m not a fitness buff by any means, but throughout my life I’ve periodically had all kinds of exercise: I’ve schlepped bags of dog food in a warehouse for 40 hours a week and after several months dropped from a 36 to a 32 waist. I’ve sweated hard in the garden under the hot sun in the summertime. I’ve ridden bikes all across town, ran long distances in the woods in the fall, lifted weights to thundering rock and roll music, and mopped floors in a food pantry for half the night. Each of these was a high for me. But I’ve never felt healthier than when I would walk consistently.

I’m a big believer in the miracle of walking, and there are others out there who feel the same. There’s just something about it. It’s not as intense as other forms of exercise, but that may be why it is so good. It is like food slow cooked in a crock pot rather than scorched in an oven. It just gets things moving in a better way. Walking is one of the main things that defines our species, so we are built for it. For a kinesthetic person like me, it helps me think. The best is walking early in the morning and then again later in the day.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Back on the Food Track

Living at the Catholic Worker was a bounty and a blessing in many ways, but one negative aspect was that the quality of my diet went down considerably. There were always leftovers to be eaten from our many potlucks, retreats and other events. In an effort to reduce waste and save money, many of us tried to eat up as much of this as possible. The downside was that what was left was often starchy, processed, snack food-type items.

I have always tried to balance between quality foods and economical ones. The scales definitely tipped toward the economical during this time.

I’m on a quest to get back on the food track. The jury is still out as to what I want to focus on, but I’m fairly certainly I want to eat good stuff and avoid bad stuff. Easy enough, right?

When I tell people that I am switching to a diet of mostly of organic and fairly traded foods, the first question they have is: How in the world can you afford it? I do live on a tight budget, and the prices of organic foods are often 2-5+ times more than their conventional counterparts.

Like most Americans, though, there are lots of places where I can trim expenses out of my food budget to make room for more organics:

1. I avoid restaurants. I love a good night out as much as the next person, but how often do we opt for restaurants just out of laziness?
2. I am careful about waste. I try to eat what I buy and preserve leftovers. Some folks may throw out anywhere between 15-50% of what they buy! That’s money.
3. I avoid processed foods. In fact, I try to buy the most basic ingredients as possible: Potatoes. Carrots. Beef. Garlic.

It comes down to priorities. The same folks who scoff at the high prices of organic foods may think nothing of a $50 dinner for two at the Olive Garden. Price wise, it’s outrageous, but the customers are happy. Some folks recently made fun of my fair trade coffee which is $10 for 10 oz. However, these same people have a Keurig in their home and often treat themselves to gas station coffee which is several times more expensive (and tastes worse) than what they could have brewed at home. My fair trade coffee comes in pretty cheap in comparison. I’m all for going out, but there are cheaper ways to do that.

The mark-up on processed foods is amazing. Organic ground beef comes it at a whopping $5/lb. However, you can buy the same beef pressed into hamburger patties with a fancy colorful box and pay $7.00 for 10 oz. If you do the math on this, that comes down to well over $11/lb! All they did was shape the ground beef into hamburger patties. Is THAT worth paying more than double? I also did a little price comparison on potatoes. Organic potatoes are a lot more expensive than conventional, but if you compare the price to Ore Ida hash browns, the cost savings disappears. It’s not that hard to cut a potato! (It was hard to do a price comparison here because frozen potatoes seem somewhat dehydrated so that will affect price/lb.) When it comes to “processed” foods, I’ll buy cheese and bread but I don’t need anyone to cut my potatoes for me and charge me double.

I do think organics are over-priced. They are marketed as a yuppie luxury item rather than wholesome nourishing food we all need. Still, it comes down to what I value.

Besides, the above list contains not just cost saving measures. I just about have to do this to meet my other health goals:

I want to eat a balanced, nutrient dense diet, as holistic and minimally processed as possible.

There are many items to avoid. I still have not decided which ones to prioritize. I think minimizing sugar, MSG, colors/flavors and other additives, is where I’ll put my attention.

I was quite taken with Dr. Robert H. Lustig’s viral You Tube clip on sugar and have come away convinced it is worth avoiding, even eliminating, if possible. Besides, I’m just so sick of sugar. Damn near everything is chock full of sugar these days. You can’t even get meatballs, for crying out loud, without sugar in them. All breads are sweet breads. Salsa, pasta sauce, you name it, it’s all full of sugar. It tastes great without it! The most scary thing is when you wean yourself off of this processed stuff and then have an opportunity to taste it again, it is real apparent just how bad it is once you’ve had some time away from it.

I am trying to minimize meat from factory-farmed animals. The best meat is that which is not only organic but where the animals eat a diet that matches what they are built to eat. This makes sense environmentally, nutritionally and from a standpoint of animal cruelty.

There are many things to do and many things to avoid. The best thing is to eat foods that I prepare myself out of the most basic, natural ingredients possible, and then I’m golden. There is no need to watch labels and scan ingredients when the items don’t even have labels. By doing this, I will be generally avoiding what I want to avoid (and then some) and getting what I want (and then some).

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Farmers Markets and Red Meat

Spring means the return of farmers market season! I dragged my tired body out of bed just early enough to visit some markets before they closed. I’m partial to Worthington and Clintonville, but I’ve noticed that they have many of the same vendors. I have a feeling they are not the cheapest markets, so I’m game for looking around in the upcoming weeks.

I have to admit it was heavy on my heart to pass by so many booths selling heirloom vegetable plants. This year, I’m garden-less for the first time in a while (although I may help out at St. James the Less from time to time). Vegetables were scarce at the market due to the time of year, but I was there for meat.

My haul was this: Two whole chickens, 2 packages of bacon, 1 dozen eggs, and an assortment of 100% grass-fed beef. For the latter, I found some that had the bone-in and the rest was ground beef. I tried some of the Raven Rocks almonds—I don’t even like almonds but these were so good I almost drove back to buy some. I looked into buying a quarter-cow, probably from Long Meadows farm. Buying in bulk is the way to go to save money when it comes to organic meat.

Red meat has largely been demonized since the anti-fat hysteria of the 1980s. It was based on some truth and some myths. One thing people seem to forget is that fat is a nutrient. Yes, we must be careful to avoid the bad fats, but we need to seek out the good fats. I’m pleased to note that researchers from different disciplines are converging on this: food anthropologists who study the healthy eating habits of traditional cultures as well as mainline scientists are discovering that fat seems to be okay. Americans have collectively reduced fat intake by 10% since the 1980s and still heart disease, cholesterol, diabetes and obesity are on the rise. It’s not the fat, as Dr. Robert H. Lustig points out.

Red meat is actually quite good for you, but there is one essential caveat: avoid the factory-farmed stuff. Everything that vegetarians say about red meat is largely true, if you consider only factory-farmed animals. Naturally raised, organic meats that are devoid of steroids and antibiotics and which are raised on a diet consistent with what the animals would have naturally eaten in their pre-domesticated state is actually quite good for you. Those variables make a critical difference. Grass-fed beef has a beneficial ratio of good/bad fats, where factory farmed beef is the opposite. Grass-fed and organic beef is also much better for the environment, on many levels.

I’m getting to the point where I can’t eat the other stuff, anyway. Those tubes of ground beef for $0.99/lb at the grocery story are just terrible. I’m not exactly sure what makes that beef so bad, but I can barely stomach it anymore. I’ve become very tuned in to the difference in quality and let me tell you that it is significant.

In turning my diet around, one of the major factors is eating organic, pasture raised meats. I’ve taken a big step in that direction today. I should point out that you can buy this kind of meat at Whole Foods, Trader Joes and the Clintonville Co-cop, to name a couple places, but I think the selection and prices is better at farmers markets.

I should also mention that is the definitive place to go to find a farm near you that sells this stuff, and it also has a plethora of research on the health and environmental benefits of naturally raised meats.

Friday, May 13, 2011

A Lost Art: Bacon & Beans

I ended up soaking and pre-cooking a lot more pinto beans than I needed for the chili the other day. I put them away for another recipe. Here is what I did:

I chopped up and cooked a couple slices of organic bacon in the bottom of a pot. I added a little olive oil to keep it cooking well, since it was only in stainless steel. I then added a large array of chopped vegetables, mostly items that were leftover from the chili: onion, leek, banana pepper, garlic and a couple of mushrooms. I let it all sauté together for a while, tossing it with the bacon and oil. After it had cooked a bit, I threw in the pinto beans and added just enough water to cover it all, maybe an inch or more. I had previously boiled the beans and estimated that they needed about an hour more of cooking, so I planned that by the time the water ran out it would be done. I added some sea salt, black pepper, paprika and chili seasoning (it was the black pepper that made this dish). If it cooked any longer, the vegetables would have reduced to mush, but clocking in just under an hour prevented that.

It was simple and delicioso, to borrow a phrase from a popular cooking show.

It is great to keep a pot of ready-made beans like this on hand at all times. It can be a side dish or a main dish. It can be incorporated into other dishes, such as burritos or omelets. This dish can be prepared in so many ways with different ingredients, so it can be a great help when cleaning out the pantry.

“Beans & bacon” is a popular dish just about everywhere, such as drunken beans from Mexico or cassoulet from France. American pop cuisine has so ruined this concept with sweet baked beans and canned food varieties that many folks just do not know how good it can be. It is a great way to put vegetables into the forefront and meat into a supporting role, and even a robust meateater would never feel slighted.

Many Americans have little knowledge of how to properly prepare vegetables. Many folks assume that having vegetables means opening a can of plain corn or fetching a salad of iceberg lettuce. The truth is that vegetables can be a robust and central part of any meal, and the possibilities are nearly endless. Having a great recipe for beans should be essential for every household.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Compliments to the Chef

I usually try not to pat myself on the back too heartily, but I must admit that tonight’s chili is just amazing. We’re talking eyes-roll-back-in-your-head-food-gasm good. It’s loaded with a bounty of mostly organic produce and beef—leeks, mushrooms, yellow and red peppers, pinto beans, tomatoes, onions, garlic, hot peppers, you name it. I top it off with lots of raw green onions, cheddar cheese and sour cream.

My only regret is not recording the prices of everything. I’ve been kicking around the idea of doing some more food blogging. A big passion of mine is eating healthy, holistic foods on a shoestring budget. I'd love to know how much it cost to make this meal.

It is easy to bemoan the high prices of organic foods, but they are nothing compared to what we pay at restaurants or for ready-made, excessively packaged items at the grocery store. With a little bit of planning, we can eat really well without breaking the bank. Heck, I paid $3.50 for two donuts and a coffee this morning at Tim Horton’s! I have been spending the hours since coming up with all sorts of ideas of what kind of robust, organic breakfast I could have made for that same amount! A meal of organic bacon & eggs is still easily under $2. In the past, I have made a chicken soup that is mind-blowingly nutritious and crank out 12 quarts of thick goodness for under $20. I did it once for $15.

This chili tonight is full of everything that is good. My eating habits have gone down substantially over the last couple of years, but I was once very good at eating very well and very cheaply. It’s time to step back up to the plate.


Friday, April 8, 2011

The Forgotten Piece of the American Dream

It is often said that if you work hard in America, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps and make something of yourself. This belief has been handed down to us from generations of pioneers, pilgrims, farmers and factory workers However, there is one very important detail we have forgotten from their stories: This is the American Dream. In other words, it is not the European Dream or some other dream. This has been possible primarily in America, and there are reasons for that.

As my immigrant grandmother used to tell me time and time again, hard work did not equal prosperity in 1920s Eastern Europe. In that time and place, you worked your fingers to the bone in the hopes of just barely scraping by, assuming some famine, war or repressive government did not completely wipe away your gains or even your very chances of survival. In America, by contrast, you worked your fingers to the bone in the hopes of building a better life for yourself as well as for your children and community. That was unprecedented in history, and the immigrants knew it.

The bottom line is that hard work is not all that is needed for prosperity. It is a combination of hard work and good economic and political policies that make prosperity possible. Most of our ancestors lived in absolute poverty through century after century of life as peasants in Europe, Asia, the Middle East or elsewhere. They worked hard but had little hopes of moving up in the world.

There are complex reasons why most of the population of Europe lived in perpetual poverty for century after century. All too often, we probably just unconsciously assume that civilization and technology had just not developed to the point where a better life were possible. I would suggest that the causes were actually the near-constant wars, political instability and third-world-type exploitation that robbed the poor and glutted the rich.

America was no walk in the park, either. 1890s America was a brutal place for most people. We hear some of the success stories, but there were many folks ground under the wheels of the industrial revolution who did not survive, and neither did their stories. Still, there was enough opportunity in America to make a critical difference. Most importantly, when the system got too oppressive, we changed it. There were always people trying to undermine the American Dream, and we have had to work hard and use our democratic voices to keep the window of opportunity open for as many as possible.

This is something to keep in mind as we think about the current budgets that are being proposed at the state and national levels. For the first time in the history of America, the younger generation is not doing better than their parents. Wages for middle class and the poor have been stagnant since the early 1980s, but the price of everything has gone up, as it naturally does. The middle class—which helped defined this country and make it what it is and was—is clearly shrinking. There is a tendency to blame the poor for their own problems: “They are poor because they don’t work hard enough.” That may be true for some, but it is not true for most. The amount of people in poverty is growing in just the last couple of years, and it would be silly to suggest that those people are simply not willing to work as hard as they did just a short while before. People say we do not need collective bargaining, that if we just work hard enough the rest will fall into place, as if multi-national corporations will just seek our best interests without any of us at the table to speak for ourselves.

Hard work does not solve all problems. However, hard work--in an environment that supports it--can be golden.

I visited the homes on Millionaire's Row in Rhode Island years ago with my family. You can tour the mansions of the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers. The tenements and shacks in which many of their workers lived have not survived to be viewed. 1890s America was a time when a few had unbelievable wealth and power, while most lived an impoverished existence with a lifestyle of malnutrition, 16-hour work days and child labor. When I read statistics that right now 400 individual Americans have more wealth than 155 million Americans combined, it is not hard to see that we are making an uncomfortable parallel to an age we should not revisit.

It makes no sense to me that in an effort to balance our state and national budgets, we are further cutting taxes on the very wealthy while demanding that the growing segment of poor and what's-left-of-the-middle-class pay for it. Right now, the rich are under-taxed compared to other periods of time, and their level of taxation is not preventing them from reaching unprecedented levels of wealth. However, the poor and middle class are struggling just to make ends meet.

What do we want our country to be like? Senator Bernie Sanders used the word "oligarchy" to describe this kind of nation we are heading toward--a small group of people controlling vast resources. We may already be there.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Unions Got Too Greedy," They Say

People blame the unions whenever a company packs up its operation and moves it overseas. The classic Reagan-era excuse was that greedy and demanding unions got too big for their britches and forced otherwise benevolent companies to move away. But have you noticed that entire industries that have never had any experience with unions are also making a mad dash for the third world? Cases in point: the tech industry or the customer service call centers for any industry.

While the rank and file engage in a heated debate as to whether or not unions are justified, the CEOs have been running to the bank unabated. Regardless of which side you are on, if you are fighting that fight, then you (like me and many others) fell for the diversion tactic.

I propose another explanation: I believe companies packed up and moved overseas simply because they could. Advances in transportation, communication, as well as advances in the third world nations themselves, made it easier for multi-national corporations to set up shop in places like Indonesia, Vietnam, etc. The businesses themselves also matured to the point where they were ready for such a change. A lot of industries started off as mom & pop shops, quickly growing to a larger operation, then multiple operations, etc.

Whether Americans are unionized or not, there is no way we can compete with people willing to work for mere cents a day. Even factoring in the large transportation expenses and set-up costs, businesses have been exuberantly clear that the savings in labor more than make up for any additional costs for having a split operation (management in America, manufacturing in the third world). I have no doubt that the demands of unions were a factor that irritated businesses—no question. But unions were not the foundational reason that prompted this seismic shift that has been going on the last 30 years. Industries that have no experience with unions are following the same trends.

You could argue that multi-national corporation are no strangers to the developing world: sugarcane plantations and diamond mines have been around for 500 years, if not more. In those cases, though, I would argue that they had to be there. The businesses themselves would invest in the nation’s infrastructure since there was nowhere else to harvest that produce or mine those minerals. There is more flexibility with a modern sweatshop. It is an employer’s market, if you will. They can set up their factory anywhere, so they can put more pressures on the local governments to put in that infrastructure for them. They can wait until conditions are favorable.

Statistics are clear that there is no less wealth in America. It is just concentrated among an increasingly smaller and smaller group of people. Real wages for the lower and middle class have been stagnant for 30 years. I know this from personal experience: A union factory worker could make $10-12 per hour in the early 80s. He could support a family on a single income and do it quite well. I have meandered around factories, warehouses and other industries, and even in the year 2011 one would be lucky to work for $10-12 per hour. What kind of lifestyle can you have today making $10 per hour (roughly 20 grand annually)? The price of everything has increased sharply, yet wages have not kept up with inflation. The result: the standard of living has gone down for most Americans. We are in a 30-year slow cook, and the boil is coming on just gradually enough for us to not realize it until it is too late. I have heard that frogs will leap out if thrown into a pot of hot water, but they are unable to respond if placed in a pot of cool water that heats up slowly.

Unions raised the standard of living for the lower and middle classes of America. There is no question about that: Advances that were won by the unions were directly the same advances that increased the standard of living for workers: Higher wages, better safety conditions, child safety laws, the 40-hour work week—these were the achievements that improved the standard of living of the lower and middle classes and they were fought for and won in large part by the unions. The existence of unions was not a mere correlation to advances in the standard of living in America. They were absolutely causational.

Most Americans today probably would not have liked living in the America of 100 years ago. The “home of the free” was not much different than a modern third world nation—our forefathers worked 16-hour days in often deadly conditions “for peanuts,” as they would say. They lived in tenements and shacks. Maternity leave consisted of an afternoon off, if you were lucky. Have we forgotten Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle? The increasing gap between rich and poor is not an empty political talking point. It is the grim reality of daily life. Businesses and politicians capitalize (literally) on the fact that most people either do not know or remember what it was like just 30 years ago.

All of this does not bode well for those of us in America. Our labor is competing with third world labor. It does not look promising to imagine where this will lead when followed to its logical conclusion. I have a sinking feeling that we are going to find out up close and personal where it leads, though.

I definitely urge America and especially Ohio (which is right now fighting for the life of collective bargaining in the public sector) not to vote against the interests of organized labor. Like any human operation, you can point to some faults and flaws among unions, but I would argue that it is dangerous to conclude that we would be better off without any unions. "The unions once served their purpose, but now they more problem than they are worth," you may hear. But just as the rise in the standard of living corresponds to the rise in organized labor, so too does the decline in that standard of living correspond to the decline in organized labor.

Regardless of how we vote, my worry is that organized labor may not be as effective as it once was in securing a more even distribution of the wealth. The tools and methods it has used historically are harder to apply in the modern marketplace. Workers acting as a group were able to control the supply of labor into an economy and make demands as a result. That was very effective when the supply of labor was limited to a small region. Now that advances in communications and transportation have made almost the entire 6 billion people of the world as potentially a part of the labor supply of many industries, the kind of global solidarity that would be required to use the same union methods as before seems far outside of the range of possibilities right now. Companies can pick up and move so easily now.

The industries that have been able to maintain their collective bargaining power have been those where outsourcing is simply not possible—such as teachers, for instance. Still, every industry that maintains collective bargaining provides a "bump" in the standard of living for all of us. There is a positive spillover effect as even non-union workers demand better terms in their employment. Likewise, every industry that loses that right will most likely also be knock to other industries, too.

Here is the bottom line, and it affects your bottom line: Whether lower and middle class workers act collectively or not, the results will be felt collectively.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Insurance Speakeasy

I have been complaining about medical insurance companies so much in recent posts, I figured I needed to come clean about how it all ended up.

Yes, I was truly rejected a couple of times when I applied for health insurance due to having "medical conditions." There did not seem to be any options, and I was rip-roaring mad (as you might have noticed from my writing of 4 blog posts on this subject in the course of a couple of days), but then I got a good tip from an insurance broker:

A little caveat most folks do not know about (and which insurance companies do not go out of their way to tell you) is a little thing called Open Enrollment. It turns out all companies are required by law to offer insurance to any applicant through Open Enrollment regardless of medical condition(s). The only catch is they have a quota, and once the slots are filled the window closes. But it's like a password at a speakeasy. The conversation goes like this:

Me: Hello, could I have some health insurance with your company given my medical history?
Customer Service: No, sorry that is not an option. Have a nice . . .
Me: I see. Well, can I have insurance through your open enrollment?
Customer Service: Yes, we can go ahead and get you set up.

They do not go out of your way to let you know about this option, but if you speak the magic word, they have to let you in.

At a cursory glance, it seems like decent insurance. It is a little expensive but not out of reach. After all my yipping and yapping about insurance companies, I figured I should probably post this note to inform others and to at least partially redeem the insurance companies, even though they are not exactly doing this from the kindness of their hearts.

After I had accepted an Open Enrollment policy, another application finally got accepted, after numerous long discussions with medical personnel on behalf of the insurance company.

The same company rejected me last year when I applied, but they accepted me this year. I suppose my cancer had gone enough years to where I was acceptable to them. Who knows.

Getting a regular policy does not seem too much different than what I would have gotten through the company's Open Enrollment. The premiums and maximums were very similar. A few of the other terms were different enough that I was able to make an easy decision. They both seem to cover catastrophic occurrences quite well, but it's the day-to-day expenses where you can get eaten alive.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Traditional and Non-Traditional at the Same Time

I was cooking today and noticed that the kitchen smelled like my grandparents' house . . . and I knew I must be doing something right!

This comment will make sense if you have seen a certain commercial on (the) Cooking Channel.

I have playfully made fun of that commercial before, but when it happens and you are transported, it is deeply meaningful. Suddenly, you are not just in your kitchen anymore but also in the kitchen of your childhood, and the smells bridge a gap between now and then. You are standing in two worlds as if you had stepped through some sci-fi time warp. It is an amazing thing.

Today, what I cooked was traditional and non-traditional at the same time, yet it still took me back. There was some whole-grain rice sitting in the fridge, slightly dry. I put it in the bottom of a casserole dish. I then browned up some fresh chorizo (made in a local shop) and lots of onions in a pan. I poured them on top of the rice with some additional olive oil and sea salt and threw it all in the oven, covered to seal in moisture. The hope was that the sausage and onions would moisten and flavor the rice, and it did. I served it with lots of fresh chopped parsley on top. It was good to have some fresh greens with this.

This was nothing like anything my grandparents would have done, yet it totally had the same spirit all at the same time!

My grandparents probably never ate whole-grain rice, and they would have opted for fresh kielbasi before chorizo. Yet this dish carried the essence of Slovak/Polish food even though the ingredients were off-center.

The fresh sausage and onions sizzling in a pan and the smell of chopped parsley on the counter took me right there. That is the essence of a Slovak-American kitchen.

It is amazing the way smells can not only remind you of something, but actually take you there.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Putting it all Together

If you haven't caught on by now, I like to approach problems in a strategic way. I focus on the overall systems and structures that affect our lives. Some people approach problems tactically; I'd opt for the bird's eye perspective. Many times a decision that seems very noble based on local issues may not be so wise when you take a step back and look at it from a strategic vantage point.

For example, I used to have all sorts of coping strategies to help myself write college papers at night. I took breaks, tried to give myself little rewards, limited social time and did all the things people recommend to do when you are struck. I hated all those ideas and they rarely worked, but they were the wisest things to do given the circumstances. But that's just it: Your ears should perk up at the word "given." Always check your givens and assumptions.

It turns out that the even wiser thing to do was to change the circumstances. Once I realized that I write better in the mornings without a belly full of carbohydrates then suddenly I didn't need those coping strategies anymore. All those little tricks to coax myself would at best help me gain inches (when they worked at all), while changing my overall work schedule helped me gain miles without much friction.

The previous four posts have revolved around goal-setting. I often focus on artistic goals, but these same themes apply to any goal, whether it is for fitness, personal growth or any professional aspiration. Try those ideas on and see if they fit! Each post addresses the topic of goal-setting with an eye for the larger framework that we operate in:

1. Time of Day and the Creative Process. Know yourself. Know your peaks and troughs. Maybe you write better at certain times of the day or seasons of the year. You might be a people-person at night or need a long hibernation in the winter. Build your schedule around that.

2. Artistic Formation through the Public Forum. Have a public outlet for your goal. Get feedback from the larger community. The presentation of art is as big of a task as the creation itself and that takes time to unfold. Get started! Even if your goals are not artistic, having that give-and-take with the wider community makes a huge difference.

3. Goals: How to Achieve Them. Think of any other environmental factors that support you. Don't make a spectacle of your personal self-discipline, but rather find the easiest environment to work in. The task itself is where the difficulty should lie. Don't burn yourself out just getting yourself to the drawing board.

4. Follow-Through. Have concrete goals, performances or other calendar items to force you to finish your work and get 'r done! Deadlines are a blessing.

So, what is the point of this post in particular? It wouldn't make sense to write about strategic goal-setting without having a larger, encapsulating post that covers it all!

* * *

This is part 5/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."


I enjoy writing liturgical music. I often will wake up in the morning and work out a new tune. I have been doing this for years even though I didn't have a direct outlet for that music. I always figured I'd do something with it at some point in my life, but for the time being it was enough just to create it and save it to my computer.

I mention this only to say that thankfully I haven't had a shortage of motivation on this front for a while. Creative inspiration does have its ebbs and flows, but overall I haven't had a problem applying myself to the task, at least when it comes to the initial song creation (I have had a problem with follow-through and finishing pieces, though).

Still, my recent job has caused a spike in this creativity, even though I didn't think I needed it. In the last 6 months, I wrote at least 40 Responsorials Psalm settings and co-authored about a dozen more. I also put the foundations down for several stand-alone songs. On top of that, I have made a number of new arrangements--especially for guitar but also for piano and voice--of contemporary and traditional hymns.

The reasons for this spike are simple and obvious, when I think about it:

1. I have had a direct occasion to play them. Even though I love writing with no goal in mind, it is so much easier to write when there is a concrete, direct application. Very little of this material would have been created if I didn't have a job where I would directly use this material.

2. The job also helps with follow-through. The Psalms simply have to be ready by the appropriate Mass if they are going to be sung at all. I knew if a didn't get a particular Responsorial together it might have to wait as much as a couple years before it rotates back in the liturgical calendar (Responsorials can be done outside of their designated weeks, but we prefer to stick with the liturgical calendar at my church).

2. I have had a supportive team to work with. The choir has been great with editing out unnecessary fluff. I've also worked with a couple of cantors to co-author pieces. We just generally encourage each other. There have been a couple of weeks where left to my own motivation I wouldn't have done any original music, but the prodding of one of the cantors gave me the necessary push. I've often provided the same push for her, as well.

3. I started writing in 4-part harmony. Why? Because I have a choir that needs it, that's why! In the past, I'd usually sculpt a melody line then pepper in with flutes, clarinets, or whatever. Having a choir that will sing these pieces has forced me to write for the choir, and I had to develop those skills. For some tunes, I simply wouldn't have written a harmony if I couldn't think of one off-hand, but having a choir has forced me to do it even when it isn't easy. On a related note, I haven't written anything for the flute in a while, because we don't have a flautist.
In short, I did these things simply because they needed doing.

A couple of my friends have reported similar findings: They love to write prose and poetry, but after being involved in a local poetry group their creativity has positively spiked--and it didn't take a lot of painful self-discipline to apply themselves to the task. It was a fun environment that was conducive to their creativity.

There is nothing like a deadline to foster creativity. It also helps to be with others who are creative and doing the same things. Even though most artists market themselves as individuals, if you did research on them you would probably find that any artist out there who has had success in their field also has had a team of supportive people around them and an environment that brings out the best in them.

I could opt not do my original pieces at church. However, once that choice is made, there is a natural structure that helps keep me on task. There is a deadline and a certain level of complexity is requiest as there is need for parts for a choir and at least one accompanist. Yes, I need enough self-discipline to commit myself to the task. But once I have committed myself, there is a natural structure and demand for follow-through that keeps me moving along.

* * *

This is part 4/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Goals: How to Acheive Them

Maybe it's that grid-iron football mentality that many of us were taught at a young age: If you have a problem, you just tuck your head down, double your efforts, and plow through it, inch-by-painstaking inch. Goals shouldn't be easy, after all. If they are easy, something's wrong. Yet, we all successfully do things all the time that are easy. We just don't pay as much attention to them, because, well, they're easy.

I know folks with all sorts of goals--fitness goals, professional goals, emotional health goals, artistic goals. I often hear the same things: I just gotta push myself harder, I just gotta make myself do it. And then when they inevitably fall off the wagon, therein starts the cycle of self-flagellation and mea culpas. Unless guilt and shame are your true goals, this method usually doesn't produce the desired results.

There's no question that self-discipline is a vital characteristic of anyone who achieves their goals. It's important to have an underlying current of self-discipline at all times, at least in the background somewhere. You need to kick it in when times are tough and to be able to muscle through a problem when all else fails. But that's exactly it: You need the "all else." If you continually find yourself going against the grain, maybe there is a way to change the grain.

Are there strategic decisions you can make with your life to put yourself in environments, cultures and conditions that are more favorable to your personal style and thus more conducive to your goals?

Goals are hard enough just by themselves. There is no sense reaping on yourself additional burdens (and the guilt that comes when you fail) by making such an issue of your own self-discipline. I think some folks need to prove something to themselves, perhaps they feel they need to earn something in order to have it. I also suspect that all this talk about self-discipline may just be another method of avoidance. In true tragic irony, focusing so much on the process may just be a distraction from the true goal.

It really doesn't matter if Mozart wrote his pieces effortlessly or in gruelling agony & ecstasy. The important thing is that they got written.

It's a good exercise in being human to acknowledge that we have limitations and weaknesses. That is actually a moment of true empowerment. I can say to myself, "I really want to work out every day, but I know there is no way in hell I'm going to muster up the self-discipline every single day to do it consistently." I know that about myself. I also know that I will work out in a different environment. I'm much more likely to work out if I join a gym, have workout buddies, or change other factors in my life that bring working out closer to the regular infrastructure of my day. I could also think beyond the gym, and realize that I will work harder every day in my backyard vegetable garden than I ever would in a gym. Knowing this I can make some changes to accommodate.

Admitting limitations can be a moment of depression, but it can also be a moment of opportunity. Once you identify a problem, you can more easily identify a solution.

My roommate and I walked every day when we lived for a semester in Spain. Walking was just about the only way to get anywhere. Due to cost, the bus was only for emergencies. We lived on the outskirts of town, so that meant there was at least a mile to and from class, to and from the internet cafes, to and from restaurants, clubs and shopping. We walked 2-5 miles every day. When we did break down to occasionally take the bus, we noticed we didn't feel as good that day. We walked and we loved it--rain, sleet, or shine. We loved it so much and enjoyed such tremendous health benefits for mind, body and spirit from doing it that we said we would continue walking even after we returned to America. Guess what? We probably walked once or twice then let it slide. No matter how good it felt, no matter how convinced we were of its importance, once it was so far removed from the daily routine it quickly fell away.

Walking was hard enough. We had blisters, blistery weather, and some late mornings trying to hoof it to class. But at least we weren't fighting ourselves. When left to my own devices, I can't tell you how much time I would spend trying to convince myself to take a day off, quit or rationalize my way in or out of any other excuse. Being in an environment where walking was essentially the only option took that whole debate right out of the equation. We could spend our energy working through whatever problems arose rather than wasting all that energy deciding whether to get on the horse at all.

Daily, rigorous self-discipline is not what it's cracked up to be. It is also important--and perhaps essential--and perhaps easier and smarter--to put yourself into an environment that is conducive to your goals. It doesn't necessarily get any easier at that point--but at least you can apply yourself to achieving the goal itself rather than spend all your energy just getting yourself to show up.

* * *

This is part 3/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Artistic Formation through the Public Forum

Beatitude Sunday is probably not the best day to play Prometheus. Unless you enjoy tragic irony, that is.

I have a lot of friends who are closet artists of all kinds. One major lesson I have taken from my 6 months as Music Director of a church is how crucial it is to just get out there and put your art in a public setting. This is true for any art form--music, prose writing, you name it.

It has taken the last 6 months--2 Masses each week, practices and a few Holy Days--before I've been able to more fully stretch out on the guitar. If you are counting, that's at least 50-60 live "performances" with at least as many practices either with the whole choir or individual cantors.

I could play all sorts of intricate songs at home, but put me in front of a crowd in a formal setting, expecting me to lead a full choir and congregation through my playing, and all sorts of problems arise: My fingers suddenly have all the flexibility and dexterity of telephone poles. For months, the only thing that has worked was chugging my way through simple chords. It was the only thing I could do that was strong enough and confident enough to actually lead in an adequate way. Folks asked for more intricate intros with the melody so they could follow the tune better, but it was all I could do.

It has only been in the last couple of weeks that I have been able to play more elaborate finger-picking songs at Mass. I've been having a blast coming up with my own arrangements of popular songs, and the congregation has responded to it. The big lesson was realizing how long it took to do something in public that I could have easily done at home.

There's nothing like a public showing of your art to point out where the gaps are. A little hesitation while playing at home may not be noticed until it throws off the entire song at Mass. You also need to be twice as good in private in order to play half as good in public, when you factor in nervousness, crowd distractions, and sound system issues that are all poised to throw you off when you least want it.

Part of the problem was just finding a comfort level with the microphone and sound system. Artists often forget how important it is to navigate the technical doo-dad's and gizmotrons that are part and parcel of their craft. It takes a while to find the right settings and to get comfortable with placement of the mic so that it rings out the way it should. Even purists who abhor electronic amplification still have to adjust to each room they are in and factor in how the temperature, humidity and crowd size can impact the resonation of sound. These lessons are just as important as learning the notes on the page.

The public presentation of art is also crucial for garnering critical feedback. Many original ideas that work well in the privacy of your own living room just can't hold water in public. Some just need slight--but essential--tweaking. In Catholic liturgical music, I would argue that it should be darn near mandatory that all pieces are done at Mass before any attempt is made to seek publishing. Each piece needs to be sung and played and sung back to you by a congregation. They need to be part of the life of the Church, and the people need to be on board.

In addition, a choir needs to give feedback to chop an inflated song down to its essential core. While my choir is experienced enough and technically sophisticated enough to sing just about anything, it is often good when they struggle or wrinkle their noses at a new piece. If a piece can only be done well by the most avant garde ensemble, then it just might be missing something important, especially since I'd rather craft tunes you can whistle while you wash dishes. The public forum can be frustrating, and you have to know when to push for something new and stick to your guns and when to let the masses who are often resistant to new things push back. A lot of "cute" ideas aren't really that cute. A solid church choir won't let you get away with much, and your art will usually be the better for it.

You can put something together that you think has all the t's crossed and the i's dotted, but then an editor takes a look and brings it back to you smothered in red pen. That is not a moment to be discouraged, as the editing process is an essential part of the craft. It is not something that only "bad pieces" go through, every piece should be edited by people far a wide--for technical issues or to discuss the vision. Any good artist has a team of such people--whether formally assembled or otherwise--that serves this role. You should expect that a significant portion of what you create will not leave the cutting room floor (and you can always keep that stuff in the back of your mind to use again later).

Since my guitar playing has been going well lately, perhaps I tried to over-reach this Sunday and make a bit of a show of myself: I originally planned to do the opening song on banjo, the offertory in an open turning, the Psalm and Alleluia on piano and the rest on a second guitar in standard tuning. The problem was that the choir just struggled. No matter how prepared I thought I was, they just couldn't get into the pieces, and I'm still not sure why. I shelved the banjo to try to help, as I was a little awkward with it, but Saturday was still disappointing. We did close out Sunday singing strong, but my lesson had been learned by that point.

I will also admit something unfortunate: I only picked the song for Offertory because I was super-excited about an arrangement I came up with. I borrowed Erin's guitar and had a blast working on it in an open tuning. The problem was that the song had no bearing on this Mass at all. We were talking about the beatitudes, and this was a song about the centrality of the Crucifixion to our faith. As a good theology student, I can build a systematic case as to how and why those two themes are related. "Blessed are the meek" is, after all, not that far removed from the paschal sacrifice--the less becomes more and the sacrifice becomes a gain. Still, I didn't feel comfortable with it and my motives were not theological. Normally, I go to great lengths to pick music that is liturgically appropriate, but this time I let that slide a bit.

I keep getting reminded that slow-and-steady is what will win this race. Yes, it is good to stretch out and reach for more, but I reached too far and got burned this time. I also didn't reach with my feet on the ground, and that is probably the most significant issue. I picked at least one song for the wrong reasons, and probably had my focus off center on some other pieces. As a result, I'm not surprised that it just didn't work. I had too much of my focus on my own playing without giving enough thought to connecting to people through the music.

Seek the Lord all you humble of heart. As this passage from today's readings suggests, being meek doesn't mean we are passive or inactive. We need to seek the Lord, but through humility. We need to seek goodness and seek artistic fulfilment. You see, Prometheus wasn't wrong for reaching for more--he was wrong because of his motives for reaching.

* * *

This is part 2/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Thank You, Motter’s Music!

I dread going into music instrument mega stores. I’ll even have an anxiety episode when I walk into a Guitar Center or Sam Ash Music. Those places are set up to attack you and over-stimulate your senses with all the packaging, loud noises and all the rest. People are friendly, but there is an undertone of arrogance and aggressiveness there. I wasn’t even sure how I was going to shop for a guitar at all under these conditions.

So that is why I was so pleased to happen upon Motter’s Music Boardman, which is, strangely enough, in Canfield, OH. It’s a small mom-n-pop shop that I just decided to go into on a whim. As soon as I walked in there, I had a sense of calm, even though the store was also chock full of instruments, books and accessories. That made for quite a pleasant shopping experience.

I browsed through their line of guitars. I saw a nice Yamaha that had potential. I also discovered the brand Seagull Guitars, a make out of Canada I hadn’t heard about before. They sound great! After a bit of trial-and-error, I settled on a beautiful blonde maple guitar, which was, naturally, the first one I tried out. For finger-picking, it's sensational.

For folks who have known my guitar tastes, this one is a new direction that you might not have expected, but I bet you’ll be impressed, as I am, too.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Time of Day and the Creative Process

I've always been an out-of-the-closet night owl, and I have worn that badge with pride. You can imagine that I was shocked and amazed to discover that I'm far more creative and write better in the first few hours after waking up. I was actually in denial about this for a while, because I didn’t even want to think of myself as a morning person!

I had an epiphany when I realized there was a huge time-of-day component to writing, for me. The best times are somewhere after coffee and before breakfast. I naturally sit down to start blogging or work on a song. As soon as I eat a big meal, blood goes to the belly and it’s all over.

Being a procrastinator means that I rarely wrote in the mornings during college. Each day, I took advantage of every distraction until I found myself staring at the computer screen at midnight, attempting to squeeze out a gold nugget or two. I now realize I was always writing during times that were less-than-ideal at best, and absolutely contrary to my body's rhythms at worst (with procrastinitis on top of that)! I was often working against my own grain. Looking back, I remember there were a few times when I wrote pages almost effortlessly in the AM that would have taken true grit later in the day, but I didn't fully appreciate why until much later.

There is a hierarchy to creativity for me, I’ve noticed. The deepest levels of creativity are best accessed in the morning—putting something on a blank piece of paper. It doesn’t matter if it’s writing music or songs. The rest of the day is certainly not extraneous, though, as other forms of creativity take center stage. Editing is perfectly appropriate for later in the day and so is what I call "secondary writing"--tying up loose ends, closing out scratchy paragraphs and adding essential dimension and color.

I actually do much better with music performance and improvisation in the afternoons. For example, I play guitar at Mass much better Saturdays at 4:30 PM than Sundays at 10 AM. I can crank out a better guitar solo later in the day. That could possibly be because my body has had time to loosen up during the day, too. However, any public presentation is better for me later in the day. I'm more jovial and creative in conversations as the day progresses, too. I become more of an extrovert as the day goes on. I'm much more present to people.

I finally had writing papers down to a science when working toward my Masters degree. Even on days when I was running behind and had to make every hour count, I would still subdivide my work in the following way to maximize my output and still work within my body's parameters:

First 3 hours of the day (or as long as the juices keep flowing): Writing!--Especially anything from scratch.

Next: Editing, joining disparate sections, rounding out pieces.

Afternoons: Reading, note-taking and research. Note: Taking notes provides the occasion for any later-in-the-day creativity to come out, as those notes often become the building blocks for later sections in a paper. Summarizing another author's ideas is a good writing exercise for this time of day.

Burning the midnight oil: If I need to stay up late, the best tasks are the most technical--adding citations, sculpting a bibliography, tinkering with layout & graphics.

After midnight? I used to have breakthrough moments sometime around 3-5 AM. I don't do this to myself anymore, partly because it's not kind, and partly because my body simply cannot hang in there long enough for this to happen anymore even if I wanted it to.

By adhering to the above schedule, I make use of my body's peak times. I also spread out the different types of work throughout the day. In a pinch, I can be productive nearly all day, because I don't over-tax any one area of the brain.

You can always go against your grain and attempt to force yourself to operate contrary to your body's natural rhythms. What I have found is that by doing that I would often just end up staring blankly at the screen for several hours, attempting to gather momentum via endless rounds of the latest time-waster games (that meant Minesweeper or Tetris in college; today that means Farmville). These days, if I have time to spare, I don't even try to write if my body won't cooperate. That time is best spent sleeping with the goal of hitting it early in the AM.

Keep in mind that the way I subdivide the day is relative to the individual: "Morning" is the time after waking up, it has nothing to do with the clock. My natural morning is around 10 AM, when I don't have commitments that force me out bed earlier.

Knowing this brings to mind a somewhat sobering fact: I can't do all things at all times. I have limitations. But this also means I have important information to make decisions about my day. I've been endlessly frustrated when working 9-5, knowing I am squandering my best creative hours doing something else. Even when immersed in the world world, I'd often find myself scratching down notes for a blog post or paper in my head, because it was simply in me to do during that time of day. Lately, I've been blessed to have a work schedule that is more conducive to my creative ebbs and flows. If my goal is to write, I have to find a way to orient my lifestyle around that, not give my writing the leftover scraps of weekends or occasional days off.

There are other factors that affect my creativity. Eating a protein-based meal helps significantly, while carbs make me feel more scatter-brained. I also have come to respect and know that creativity often comes in spurts, so when it's there I need to give it free voice and not just assume it will be there at a later time when I want it to be there. This is especially true when conducting research--if a particular passage sparks an idea, I need to write about it right at that moment and not assume I will be able to find that passage later, re-read it and have the same spark to comment on it.

Do you have a natural cycle for creativity like this?

* * *

This is part 1/5 of the series "Strategic Goal Setting."

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sympathy for Insurance Companies

I can sympathize with the plight of insurance companies. In a purely capitalist system, there isn't much incentive not to be total assholes. As soon as you have one do-gooder business insuring people with cancer (like me), the sooner they'll be out-competed by the assholes on the block who aren't doing that and be put out of business.

One rotten apple spoils the whole barrel. Capitalism left unchecked tends toward the lowest common denominator.

That is why that argument is so clear for universal health care. If we all just get together and decide to share the burden and get 'er done, we can do it. Companies acting alone with no reward for taking on a financial burden won't insure the people who actually need it. They will sit up late at night trying to figure out ways to exclude people, which isn't a very good exercise for any human being to be involved in. Nobody should put themselves in a position where their job is to figure out ways to deny coverage for the people who most urgently need it.

The government shouldn't run health care, it just needs to remove barriers for people who need access to it and/or increase incentives for companies to do so. The government can help level the playing field so that business people who want to do good are not penalized for doing so. Let's help create a society where it is easier to be good, as Peter Maurin suggested.

I'm not saying capitalism is all bad. I'm just saying that there are some decisions that are best left to individuals to fend for themselves against market forces, and then some decisions are better left to large groups (like nations) to decide and enact en masse. Few people are trying to bring about socialism in America, and few are truly trying to bring pure capitalism (which is really another word for anarchy). The only question in American politics is agreeing on what we do individually and what we do collectively--either way it is still capitalism. Nobody is forcing the government on anybody if we all democratically decide that we would rather do something as a group than as individuals.

I'm glad we don't leave it up to the free market to determine how to drive on roads. I'm reasonably happy to know that when I drive on the road that anyone coming in the opposite direction is going to stay on the other side. Laws like this just make life easier, not more difficult. All these people spouting about how the "least government is the best" haven't seen how the business world works when left unchecked.

However, opponents like to throw out words like "socialism!" to scare people. Few people will do the relevant research to unpack all that loaded language. This is especially true in a nation where technical training is up but we have very little stock in educating people about logic and rhetoric (once pillars of higher education).

* * *

There's another argument for universal health care that few people are talking about: Entrepreneurism. How are we gonna dig our way out of this economic malaise? One surefire way is through innovation. Innovation is proven growth element in any economy. Any economist will tell you that the best way to encourage that is to reduce risk. Let's support an environment where people have fewer barriers to trying new things and let them take us to the next level.

I'm an entrepreneur. I'm ready to start my own business. I'm a director of a nonprofit organization. However, we need some time before we can turn it into an operation that can support salaries and insurance packages. The jump from a standard, off-the-shelf job into this is too steep right now. I'd have to fly without health coverage for a while. That's simply not an option. So instead of boldly going where no one has gone before, I'm looking into being a barista just for the health care. The availability of health care coverage is the biggest governor slowing down the whole process. Here I am, an excited and motivated citizen, ready to bring innovation into the economy, and I'm halted by a flawed health care coverage system.

The biggest problem is that our health care is all tangled up with employment. That needs to be unravelled. Perhaps it made more sense 40 years ago as many folks worked for large corporations like the Big 3 Auto and job transitions were more rare. Nowadays, there are many self-employed and other entrepreneurs, but the current health care infrastructure does not support their occupation choice.

Decades ago, companies found that they instead of paying higher wages, they could offer "wages plus benefits" to employees as part of their compensation package. It was a win-win: Companies could negotiate lower group rates so in a sense the employees were getting more bang for the bucks that the companies were spending on them. The problem is that we ended up with this convoluted system where health care is tied to employment. In our modern world where job transitions are higher than they ever used to be, the current system does not support our current work culture.

I Built Your Skyscraper, Now Where's My Dime?

I've always been sympathetic to some of the folk songs from the labor movements of decades gone by. However, I have to admit that sometimes I found their arguments to be less-than- convincing.

I never thought I'd be singing (for real) Brother Can You Spare a Dime? by E.Y. Harburg & Jay Gorney. The Weavers had a great version.

I used to think the song was well-intentioned, but still corny and melodramatic. Now I realize it is the cold, hard truth. Some realities in life we don't fully understand until we go through them ourselves. That is why Dorothy Day and many others have advocated for a lifestyle of intentional poverty, because if we are ourselves poor, vulnerable and at risk we will react differently to injustice. We'll be more urgent and more passionate.

In our current society, many have reasonably-solid health care coverage (or at least think they do), many don't. This divide makes it hard for one side to understand the other.

These words really ring true to me now in a way they didn't, before:

They used to tell me I was building a dream,

and so I followed the mob,
When there was earth to plow, or guns to bear,

I was always there right on the job.

They used to tell me I was building a dream,
with peace and glory ahead,
Why should I be standing in line,

just waiting for bread?

Once I built a railroad, made it run,
Made it race against time;
Once I build a railroad -- now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once I built a tower to the sun,
Brick and rivet and lime;
Once I build a tower -- now it's done.
Brother, can you spare a dime?

Once, in khaki suits, gee, we looked swell,
Full of that Yankee Doodle de-dum;
Half a million boots went sloggin' through Hell --
I was the kid with the drum.

Say, don't you remember, they called me Al?
It was Al all the time.
Say, don't you remember? I'm your pal.
Buddy can you spare a dime?

Aetna used to call me "Frank." It was "Frank" all the time. When I applied, they told me they couldn't wait until I joined their family! Anthem wanted to be my friend. Now it's "Dear Mister."

My own current insurance company (Aetna) has already refused me once when I attempted to go off the group policy into an individual policy. I'm in the process of applying again. I helped build their skyscraper. The only thing I did "wrong" was get laid off.

It's amazing how we as a nation don't honor the debts of those who have contributed. We take their earnest and naives contributions and leave them out in the cold on some technicality when they are no longer useful.

We do it to our troops. We do it to our laborers.

Insurance companies were glad to take my money when I didn't have a "pre-existing condition." Folks are scared not to have coverage if some tragedy strikes, so they pay in even when they aren't getting paid back. Now they are looking for loopholes to turn me away.

The song may have been crafted to make an argument for social security. Indeed, how do we as a society take care of each other? Are people only worth anything if they are fit and able to contribute? What happens when they grow old, sick or disabled, do we just turn them away? People deplete themselves working to build up our society. Yes, they got their paycheck, but we all benefit from their contributions. Are they only good when they can contribute then left to be cast aside later?

What about soldiers who are done with their service who find their needs still remain? What about laborers who worked to build up our nation who are now too old, sick or disabled to work? Right now, we just provide health insurance for those lucky enough to fall into a sweet benefits package and disregard those who fall through the cracks.

Not only are they our sisters and brothers, but they also helped build up the wealth and the world we live in. We are living off the sweat of their backs. But they're out in the cold, asking for a dime.

So many people try to denounce universal health care and social security as some kind of government "handout." This song helps illustrate the fact that we are inter-connected. If I'm going to risk my life and future in your army, if I'm going to risk my health building your skyscraper, then that demands that we have a longer-term relationship than just paycheck-to-paycheck.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Keep Getting Dumped

Insurance companies have not been very bashful about telling me the reason why they are turning me down. Well, let me amend that--their detached electronic correspondences have not been very bashful.

It goes like this:

I have cancer, so therefore I don't have the option to have insurance through their company.

No joke. No exaggeration.

In other words, I don't have the option for health insurance because there is a high likelihood that I'll actually use it.

Now, I'm sure all these insurance companies can cite all their financial woes and show me charts about risk management. Call me crazy, but isn't there something fundamentally wrong about a system that is not meeting the need it is intended to meet?

That's like saying we won't spend tax dollars to build roads in a part of town with high traffic--too much risk that the roads will take a beating. That's like saying we can't put a police station in a part of town with high crime.

Maybe the Amish should only agree to build barns for people who live in the cities who, well . . . don't need barns.

My mom and dad have been especially insistent all my life on the importance of having continuous medical coverage. Don't ever go without it, they say. You gotta have health insurance, don't have gaps.

I bought into the whole idea that if I just did my fair share and kept myself continually covered, that companies would also do their fair share and continually insure me. That's the honest man's deal we all made, right?

I don't even like to mention that last point, because there are all sorts of very understandable reasons why someone may have a lapse in coverage. But that doesn't need to enter this discussion, because I've never had a lapse.

I should demand that I get my money back from all these insurance companies to whom I've paid considerably more than they have ever paid out for me over the years. By their logic, that would make sense, right? It goes like this: If they won't cover me because I'll use it, then they should pay me back for the times when I haven't. That would be the honest solution, don't you think?

So let's say I go without health insurance and neglect follow-up appointments and procedures for my cancer condition. Let's pretend for a minute that that doesn't scare the living shit out of me and affect my actual life. Let's just look at it in financial terms. Perhaps my condition will worsen being left untreated for several years. If/when I do get into an insurance policy, then my medical bills will be through the roof, much worse than if I had just maintained preventative care. Maybe at that point they will wish they had been continually covering me. Actually, they might try to deny me coverage for having a period of time without insurance. Now wouldn't that be ironic?

It's time we just recognize that health care is a value we all share, and we'd all like access to it. The current system is not working. Well, let me amend again: The current system is not working for me, even though I am one of the people who helped build it up.

I once built a railroad -- now it's done.
Brother can you spare a dime?

Would you like to live in a society where you had to pay a hefty fee every time you called the police and pay out-of-pocket for the officers who protect your home and business? Just imagine firefighters sending you a bill for services rendered! No, we recognize that police and fire protection is something we all want, even though some may need it more than others, often through no fault of their own. We share the financial burden because life would be absurd otherwise.

Whether it is police protection or health insurance, you can complain if some people are getting more out of the system than they are putting in. Or you can just consider yourself blessed that you don't need their help as much as others.

Health insurance is probably the best example going that capitalism by itself does not yield a beneficial result, and it certainly doesn't bring out the best in human nature.

I'm glad I'm not a person at an insurance company denying coverage to people. I'm sure they have built many walls within themselves to rationalize this. I'm sure the responsibility is spread out among so many people that no one individual feels like they are doing the screwing, they are just "following along with the company policies." Regardless of blame, the result is ugly.

It really isn't financially prudent for individual companies acting alone to insure a whole population without looking for ways to pick and choose. This is where some collective action as a group is important, because if we all act and pay together as a nation we can share a burden that no one (or perhaps no corporation) could (or would) handle on their own.

Health care is not much different than police, fire, public education, roads and other infrastructure--it permeates into every nook and cranny of everyone's life. Yes, health care is individual, but it is also very public (the statistics are quite good showing the relationship between individual health and societal cost). Life is just simpler and more humane if we all just take it on together, quit playing the have's against the have not's and quit rolling dice with our lives.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Medical Insurance: Denied

Insurance should be a beautiful thing.

Insurance should be like Amish barn raising--we all rally together to collectively share a burden that might be impossible to endure by ourselves. We all know it could happen to any of us at any time.

Yet, from a purely financial standpoint, it makes sense that a company would want to do what it could to provide insurance coverage for the people least likely to use it.

But if they're in the business to cover people, then shouldn't they be better at finding ways to cover people? What good is insurance if it is only for "healthy" people? That defeats the actual purpose of having it.

You could argue that I have no right to complain if I've been denied medical coverage. Who am I to expect that total strangers in some corporation miles away should be obligated to pay my medical bills?

To that I would say that I wish there was a way that "healthy" people could not feel trapped to pay into a system that would do everything in its power to block them out if they needed the system to pay out.

I could even somewhat understand why a company would hesitate to provide coverage to people with unusually reckless behavior--although even raising that question opens a very explosive can of worms. It can be a cruel exercise to figure out where the line is between privacy and the community's right to judge behavior as being worthy or not. Let's not even go there.

Certain jobs provide medical plans that accept just about everybody, regardless of their conditions or history. It isn't too hard to imagine that such a system could exist regardless of whether people obtain certain employment or not. In other words, why is unconditional coverage tied to employment? That makes no sense, especially as our society is changing and there are more and more self-employed people, contract workers, etc. I can get car insurance and it has nothing to do with my employment. You would think health coverage could function the same way.

I'd say that the deck seems stacked in favor of insurance companies right now. There are many policies in place to protect companies from individuals who would take advantage of them. They make sure that people can't go around without health insurance and then immediately buy into it when an illness occurs. You need some history of continual coverage. But there doesn't seem to be an equal and opposite level of responsibility for companies.

In all my 36 years, I never never had a lapse in health insurance. I've taken care of myself very well. I do have existing conditions. Yet, as I work as an independent contractor now, I've been turned down twice. I don't have all the answers yet as to why.

People are ranting and raving about the new Obama health plan. Yet, all it does is reduce some of the barriers that exist so that people can get coverage.

Like Obama asks,

Would you want to go back to discriminating against children with pre-existing conditions? Would you want to go back to dropping coverage for people when they get sick? Would you want to reinstate lifetime limits on benefits?

People: Is that really too much to ask?

If it is, then I'm truly perplexed. Where is the rage and the resistance to this coming from? I think misinformation is big. You hear lots of warnings about "socialized medicine." But. That's. Not. What. The. Plan. Actually. Is.

The good news is that if I can hang in there a bit longer, the new Obama coverage should make it harder for companies to refuse me--if I can wait a few years until it is all rolled out. And if the plan isn't repealed.