Description

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

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

One Year Post Chips

My kitchen counter not too long ago.


It must be going well when the anniversary of giving up an addiction goes by and I don't even notice.

I meant to publish this on the anniversary, but it's a couple days late.

October 25, 2015, is when I stopped my bag-a-day habit of eating chips. I gave away the 4-5 bags I had in the house and said, "I'm not doing this, anymore." 

I probably averaged at least 5 big bags of chips each week, but I wouldn't be at all surprised if I were 7 or more. There were often several bags of varying sizes in various stages of consumption in various locations (car, work, house) at any given moment. Saying it was "a bag a day" habit seems entirely fair.

I would eat exceptionally healthy meals, except for the fact that one meal every single day (if not more) was just chips.

I wrote about this at the nine-month mark, so I figured I needed to write a follow up at the one-year mark.

How did I do?

In short, I basically don't each chips anymore.  I can put a period at the end of at that sentence and stop there.

There were a couple of exceptions and room for growth in the future. The fact that they are so few tells its own story.

Exceptions

To start, I gave up chips without a lot of confidence in my ability to succeed. I had tried so many times in the past. In fact, I was always in a state of quitting only to snap back like a rubber band a day or two later.

It took almost two months after giving up chips before my resolve built up enough that I was ready to make my commitment absolute. In those first two months, I basically gave up chips but indulged a couple times--a significant achievement, despite that. I remember gorging myself on some corn puffs and such at a work gathering in early November. I was lacking in energy and that's all that was available, so I justified it. I think there was one other time, but I can't recall the particulars. It was mid-December when I told myself that those kinds of exceptions had to stop. 

Using food as a crutch in general had to stop. Losing about 15 pounds this year also made a big difference. I basically severed an over-dependence on food in that process. Yes, I can survive without constantly stuffing myself. I can even do quite well in "fasting mode." I can run leaner and tighter. Breaking that psychological barrier helped immensely.

Mexican Restaurant Exception (MRE)

I have also been allowing myself to eat corn chips whenever visiting a Mexican restaurant. My rationale has been that the salsa is just so nutritionally wonderful that it would be a sin to skip out on it just to avoid the accompanying chips. In retrospect, I am not sure that argument holds up very well. I can just put the salsa on top of my meal and avoid the chips entirely. It's great mixed into beans & rice or on top off a burrito, for example.

I previously figured that the MRE was not a problem for these reasons:

1. It was in the context of a meal.
2. It didn't seem to stir up chip cravings.
3. I wasn't going to Mexican restaurants solely to indulge in chips.
4. It was only about once a week.
5. Plain corn chips were never high on my list of cravings, anyway.

That was fine for a while, but lately I do feel those chip cravings stirring.

I believe the MRE is unnecessary and crosses a line, so to begin my second year without chips, my commitment is to scratch this clause. 

Focus

Avoiding chips is much easier when I focus on that goal. Recently, I have taken my eye off that ball, and it's easy to find myself on slippery slopes. Avoiding chips is just part of life now, and I don't need to think about it as constantly as I did several months ago. The problem is that this lack of focus makes it easier to make mistakes. I have found myself almost unconsciously grabbing for chips at a social gathering a time or two. I was once at another work-related gathering, and I saw some corn chips on the counter with some hummus and other dips. It seemed like the MRE scenario, so I had one. The chip clearly had some kind of a Dorito-like flavoring and that crossed a line, but before I could collect my resolve, I had another. Then I stopped.

It is exhausting to be constantly on the watch, but I think it is important to keep it up. Sometimes it feels like I'm holding my breath and it would be good to just let go, but I'm not quite ready for that, if ever.

I find that if I limit my overall carb intake and especially avoid fast food, it is much, much easier to avoid chips. Regular carb consumption as well as all the chemicals put into fast foods make me want to reach for chips all the more. Eating fast food and then expecting to kick a junk food habit is not smart. You're either setting yourself up for failure or at least working severely against the grain. I recently had an Arby's sandwich and had to fight cravings for the next day or so.

In summation, the fact that I can list so few problem areas is a great sign. You have got to understand that I used to plow through a entire large-sized bags of chips on an almost nightly basis. I would plan my days around chips. I made sure they were stockpiled in my car and home. It's like I needed them for my very survival.

Incremental

Struggling with an addiction involves walking a fine line. It's important to make it black-and-white.  You've got to be strict. It's serious--even the slightest exception can bring a crack in the wall, setting the stage for a dam burst later. 

At the same time, mistakes can and do happen. If you beat yourself up so badly if a mistake happens, you can make it impossible to get on the horse and try again. Basically, you've got to make it a positive experience, not one crouched in negativity, guilt and shaming of yourself.

My way of dealing with this is to see it as a process. I am deepening my commitment over time and strengthening my resolve. If this were a graph, I need to see the line going up and to the right. A dip or two isn't a big deal if that's all it is.

I used a similar process when I lost weight. I'm also using a similar process now fasting from unnecessary purchases to better manage money. I start with a modest but significant commitment, and as I gain momentum, confidence and experience, I tighten up going forward.

Going Forward

Sometimes I wonder--what would it hurt to have a few chips? They do taste good and I've clearly overcome this addiction in profound ways. That I have gone a full year without them would have been unthinkable not too long ago. There are times it would seem natural to have a few. However, I still think it's too soon, if ever. The paradox is that I could probably have them again at the moment I no longer want them.

Even one year later, I am continually amazed that I still experience cravings on a fairly regular basis. There are other times when the last chip seems like it was 90 years ago, and it's hard to believe I ever indulged like that, as if it were just a figment of my imagination.

I should not be so over-confident to think that a few chips at a gathering is harmless. I don't need to open that door. I resent the power they once had over me, and I no longer need or want something to have that role in my life. I have found that it's important to set clear boundaries with myself.  Wrestling with those internal demons has been a huge factor here. Opening the door just a little can generate an internal tug-of-war which is not smart--if you wrestle with yourself, you'll lose half the time, since you're equally matched. No, the adult me is in charge, calm and confident, and I like it like that.

I'm not sure how to end this post. I don't think it needs one. Hopefully, there will come a time when avoiding chips is completely second-nature, and for the most part it is already.  But I do have to keep that focus, at least a little bit on some back burner of my mind, at least for now.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Compliant

People say that this man is not compliant:


Quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during national anthem.

People say that this man was not compliant:


Terrence Crutcher with his arms raised before being killed by Tulsa police.

It makes me wonder what people mean when they want more "compliance."

The only image that comes to mind is this:


Black man forced to kiss the boots of a white man in the Jim Crow South.

Yes, that must be what people want.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

All Chipped Out



I stopped a 20+ year chip addiction 9 months ago.

If you have spent any time with me over the years, you know this is a significant achievement.

I used to consume all manner of chips and other crispy carbohydrates--potato chips, corn chips, even crackers in a pinch.

As early as Middle School, I was trading my lunch money for a couple of small vending machine bags of Cool Ranch Doritos and a drink.

My relationship with chips grew until I was a full-fledged carbohydrate addict by my early 20s. I didn't even know there was such a thing as a "carbohydrate addict," but I was one.

It's not an exaggeration to say I'd average at least a full bag of chips every day for the past 20+ years. I'd store bags in my home and car and to some extent structure my day around obtaining chips.

Eating chips had quite a psychological hold over me. It got to the point where I would be afraid to go to bed without eating chips.

I used to live a block away from an all-night convenience store when I was 24. I would often drift away to sleep only to wake up about an hour later, around midnight. I'd walk half-asleep over to the store, make a purchase, come back up to my room, eat about half a bag of Doritos, and then fall back asleep.

My body would go into a kind of shock if I didn't have them. I would often each chips preemptively just to avoid this kind of episode from happening. It was scary--was it physical or psychological? I didn't know, but I just lived within its parameters.

Number Crunching, Chip Crunching

My path out of this started with thyroid cancer when I was 30. In preparation for the surgery and radiation treatment, I had to follow a strict low iodine diet. No chips of any kind were allowed. I must admit that among all the fears I was wrestling with during that time, one of them was the question over how I was going to cope with this diet. Would my body allow it? Would I go into some kind of low-carb shock? Would I cave and violate the diet? I've tried to give up chips time and again only to snap back each time after a brief interlude like a taut rubber band. My confidence that I could go without chips was pretty low and almost completely untested.

I actually made it through the low iodine diet and did quite well sans chips. That was my first confidence boost out of this mess.

I intuitively blamed the cancer on Cool Ranch Doritos. I tried to eat Doritos a number of times since the diagnosis, only to throw the nearly full bag into the trash with anger.

From that time on, my chip of choice changed from Cool Ranch Doritos to salt & vinegar. I started opting for "healthier" chips but otherwise the addiction resumed unabated. Due to the radiation, my mouth became drier and my taste buds duller. The irony is that I could no longer eat Doritos without chasing each mouthful down with some water. The salt & vinegar helped stimulate my saliva glands enough to partially make up for that.

I tried to eat chips that were as organic and healthy as possible--with sea salt instead of table salt, with organic ingredients instead of GMO potatoes or corn, without any unnatural seasonings and with coconut oil, avocado oil or lard instead of processed vegetable oils (the latter being extremely difficult to find).

However, there is really no such thing as a "healthy" chip. The ultra-scorched cooking process to make chips creates some pretty nasty chemical alternations (like acrylamide), and that happens whether the ingredients are sourced organically or not.

At 41, I started to do some number crunching in addition to all the chip crunching. A full-sized bag of chips every day for 20 years equals 7,300 bags and approximately $21,900. What's worse is that those numbers may be understated. What really concerned me, though, was the impact on my health. I could only imagine what legacy that crud might leave on my body after so many years.

A full meal each day was just a bag of chips: My daily routine was breakfast, lunch and chips.

This song hit a little too close to home: The all-natural, healthy food star who at night is a closet Junk Food Junkie, by Larry Groce. I was making some incredible progress in healthy eating with one major exception.

I didn't want to wake up at say, age 60 or 80, and realize that I had ben spending the last 40-60 years pounding a full bag of chips every day. The numbers were already racking up as it were.

It was never going to be easy to stay, I figured, and it was never going to just go away on its own--so I might as well start now. I got so tired of just being a victim and a helpless pawn to this addiction.

I will say that during the last couple of years, my body has been less and less inclined to eat chips. I would very often feel like absolute garbage after eating them. Time and again, that was becoming the most common response I felt. I was getting some push from the inside to wean off this addiction.

Root Vegetable, Root Cause

It is good to get the root cause of cravings. A dose of chips can sooth overtaxed adrenal glands that have been worn out due to stress. The salt replenishes the adrenals, the carbs help produce the calming serotonin and the fats help stabilize hormones and a host of other effects. Given all that, it might sounds like chips might be a nice tonic for stress, so why stop? Well, yes and no. They do address stress, but they also introduce toxins into the system. And there are better ways of addressing stress. People can effectively self-medicate in all sorts of ways, but not all ways are as good as others. Some methods treat symptoms while others address the root causes. Some methods treat one problem only to generate another.

My body's need and cravings for coffee dramatically reduced once I started addressing methylation issues. That's a post for another day.

All cravings have a root cause. Intense sugar cravings, for example, could be linked to inadequate protein intake or protein processing. Address that, and the cravings can lose their grip on you. There could be other reasons, as well, so it is worth researching.

Salts do help calm the adrenals. But table salt is a poor way to treat that. I take a daily regimen of minerals. I use magnesium, natural salts and the adrenal cocktail at different times of the day to balance out.

There was no question that eating chips was filling an emotional void. I used to "stuff" myself to block out other feelings that were bubbling up. It has taken a lot of work to root all this out and get to the bottom of it.

I've done some intense work on myself to root out stress and anxiety. I wouldn't say that the change happened overnight. But I've been putting healthy building blocks in my lifestyle bit by bit, so that when I finally made the decision to quit chips, it wasn't that hard to do it. I don't recall working directly on the emotional side of my chip addiction, but the more I worked on myself in general, I eventually reached a place where eating chips like this just did not fit any more.

Decision Time

So back on October 25, 2015, I just gave away my last remaining bags of chips and that was it.

In the first couple of months afterwards, I did partake of chips and other junk food at least once or twice. One time I was extremely sluggish at an all-day work meeting. I was out of town and there was a long table of snack food. I caved just to keep my energy up. Looking back now, I'm amazed I did that, because I would never do that now. After building my confidence and my resolve in those first two months, I doubled down on my commitment and became far more strict about it. I could never imagine eating a chip now.

It's hard to imagine I was that person stuffing his face several times daily with all manner of greasy chips. They are gone and feel long done. It feels like my last bag of chips was closer to 9 years ago than 9 months. Despite that, I still get cravings. It's amazing how enduring those cravings are. My mouth will salivate as I pass the chips aisle in the grocery store. I still feel the tug. In very relaxed moments, I could easily grab some chips at a party and start munching if I don't quickly remind myself.

Not. An. Option.

What helped the most was laying out some simple ground rules. I am not going to squander my energy in some immense tug-of-war with myself. Me fighting me means that each side loses half the time, as they are equally matched. That's a recipe only to exhaust myself and ultimately continue--or even further entrench--addiction patterns. I've been there and that's nothing but failure.

I simply declared that eating chips is "not an option," and that's it.

There are some things you just don't do--you don't tug on Superman's cape, you don't spit into the wind and you don't pull the mask off the ole Lone Ranger. And I don't eat chips.

Cravings remind me of a rebellious teenager. They will keep testing boundaries until they find a crack in the façade and exploit it. If you "more or less" decide to give up an addiction, that part of you that still wants to indulge will know that your resolve is not absolute. It knows there are conditions under which you'll crack. The voice will simply amplify itself until you give in, or even worse--to create the conditions in your life necessary for giving in.

If this happens, don't blame the voice of cravings--you are the one that left the door cracked open! You've got to take charge of yourself. Whether that's your inner child or just the voice of habit, the adult you has to be in charge. If you resolve to not indulge your addiction 80% of the time and just cross your fingers and passively hope that the addiction cravings don't notice the wide-open 20%, you're kidding yourself.

This doesn't mean that renouncing all addictions must be done cold turkey. There is room to gradually take steps and build resolve. Whatever works. At some points along the way, though, decisions have to have credibility and you have to have the confidence to hold to them.

This is about the adult me being in charge---respecting and listening to the child me inside but making sure the balance is appropriate--with the adult being the adult and the child being the child.

I liken it to the way children are calm when they are around calm, confident adults who have a healthy sense of self and boundaries. This doesn't happen by dominating or belittling the children--it happens through calm, respectful leadership where the adult is in charge. When adults are not so well centered, the balance is off, a power struggle ensues and all mayhem breaks loose. When the cravings of an addiction get the best of you, it's like unruly kids who have taken over a school classroom with the teacher playing defense.

Moving Forward

There is one exception. I will eat chips with salsa/pico at a Mexican restaurant. However, the chips are few and I don't make the decision to go there just to eat chips. The experience of eating those chips does not seem to trigger the former pleasures or reflexes associated with the chip addiction. It just doesn't feel like a chip indulgence. I'm okay with that, and it doesn't feel like cheating. it's just a great way to deliver the salsa, which is one of the primary reasons to go to a Mexican restaurant. I may one day decide to forego these as well, but so far I don't think this is a problem. I don't make any desperate evening taco runs or even include Mexican restaurants more often in my dining rotation (which is rarely more than once per week and often less). I won't buy any chips & salsa to eat at home, as that seems like a slippery slope.

Will I ever eat chips again? Good question. I thought about allowing myself some chips after maybe a year. Going without chips forever seems like a harsh penalty. But I really don't need them and don't particularly like them. Leaving the door open for some future indulgence just feels like that--leaving the door open. No, I think I'm done for good. I don't see any value in re-negotiating any other terms. Opening the door a little just ends up opening the door too much.

I suppose eating a few chips without turning into the lady in the comic at the start of this post would be a good sign that the addiction is a thing of the past. But as long as there are any latent cravings at play here, I won't indulge. And frankly, after 9 months, I really don't miss chips all that much and don't see any need to ever eat chips again.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

As Predicted: Armchair Warriors Have Failed Us



I'm disappointed in my fellow Americans.

But even more than that, I'm just flat out surprised.

I am painfully aware that most Americans are ignorant of history. Few people seem to have any idea of where we came from. Fewer still can identify patterns from the past and apply them to the present or future. 

It's a glaring problem with real-life consequences every day.

History is not just memorizing facts: It's about having a historical consciousness--it's who we are, where we came from, what we are all about and what we mean (and have meant) to each other. Our awareness is pretty abysmal.

Those who do study history are often fed the narrative of the Empire, which is missing an awful lot, to say the least. It is also chock full of inaccuracies (otherwise known as lies). All you have to do is check out Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States to realize our basic understanding of history has all the structural integrity of Swiss cheese.

Most history textbooks read more like a propaganda tool than an educational endeavor.

But I always thought there was at least one thing we wouldn't get wrong.

There was at least one thing that couldn't possibly happen here in the USA--we've actually been warned about it thoroughly and consistently, and we've been educated on it well enough.

If America has anything, it has an army of armchair warriors. You know the type: Middle aged white guys who saturate themselves with regular doses of World War II documentaries. They are fixated on the carnage, the death tolls and the heroic and not-so-heroic deeds of yesteryear. These guys can narrate every step of the rise of the (evil) Nazi empire followed by the banding together of the (good) Allies--the latter crawled out of the Great Depression to overcome the Axis powers in the 'war to end all wars.'

It's the stuff of legends. 

It makes a man salivate just hearing about it, Amen?

[To be correct: The 'war to end all wars' was actually World War I. But we didn't learn the lessons of that war so we had an even bigger 'war to end all wars' about 22 years later. I digress.]

You see, there's a reason why the History Channel is commonly referred to as the "Hitler" Channel.

This cornerstone of cable TV is packed with almost non-stop WWII footage, re-enactments and talking heads with glory stories of triumph and tragedy. It's enough to get those middle aged guys to feel a little bit of adrenaline and sexual excitement from time to time. Call it a "war-gasm"--it's truly satisfying. And they don't even have to actually leave the comfort of their armchair and actually take any risks to do it.

The USA is awash with poor misconceptions of history. It's easy to see how we would be vulnerable to making any number of catastrophic policy decisions based on how poorly we understand how the world has arrived at this moment--and we certainly do make those mistakes over and over again.

But out of all the things we suck at, it always seemed there was one thing we would not screw up: 

We would see the rise of a Hitler-esque leader from ten thousand miles away and stop that person cold at the first resemblance of a Nazi salute.

Yet, the very people who have been immersed in these documentaries as an utter lifestyle . . .

Who have furniture-sized World War II commemorative books on their coffee tables . . .

Whose kids buy them "The Complete Rise and Fall of the Nazi Empire" on DVD for Christmas . . .

These are very often
          the very same people
          who very well plan
to vote for Donald Trump come November:

Enraged, disaffected white guys.

They shrug their shoulders at Trump's many guffaws, his whipping up of crowds into a hysteria of rage and near-constant demonizing of immigrants and Muslims.

[Note: It does not take a PhD in History to realize that "immigrants and Muslims" sounds eerily familiar to Hitler's "Jews and Gypsies."]

I'm not saying that Trump IS Hitler. There are differences. But let's not get so hung up on the differences that we fail to see in Trump the makings of the biggest mistake our country could ever make. Whether he's "more like a poor man's Mussolini" than "a Hitler protégé" is a nuance we can debate at a later time. The fact remains: He IS a demagogue. And he is playing right out of the Nazi playbook to a tee. We don't know what he would do as an elected leader, but any student of History--or the History Channel--should be well aware of the colossal mistake of feeding Trump and his movement.

Demagogues are leaders who manipulate people through their prejudices. They usually have a violent, authoritarian style and openly mock attempts to bring educated nuance to complex issues.

Trump is following the simple formula of a demagogue:  Take a population that is discontented due to their falling standard of living. Drum into them the message to be constantly afraid and to blame their problems on some already-marginalized, already-poor groups (usually groups who have little to nothing to do with their falling standard of living). Then tell them you are the strong, authoritarian daddy-figure who's going to whip the world back into shape.

You know:  Like in Hollywood. In the voice of movie preview guy Don LaFontaine: "The world is in shambles, chaos is in order... but ONE MAN will rise up to save the world . . ."

Armchair warriors can't differentiate very well between Hollywood and history.

Getting the poor whites to blame the poor blacks is the oldest trick in the book. The status quo keeps using it, though, because it's the damndest thing: It just keeps working.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It bears mentioning that fear is often the way that companies market to you. For example, in the days of rising gasoline costs and climate change, marketers have convinced a large swath of the US public to own gas-guzzling, expensive SUVs for all their "off road" adventures (of which these armchair warriors have few). It's not a sensible purchase. SUVs are hyped to make you feel powerful, even though you are clearly not powerful if you are so easily manipulated into emptying your wallet for something as ridiculous as an SUV. It's the illusion of safety. It's fear. It's allusions of power. See my last post about the reptilian brain for more on this.

History is full of demagogues. For the life of me, I can't understand why the human race has not yet figured out a way to stop this phenomenon. Trump is only a very recent incarnation of something the human race has been through time,
     and time,
          and time,
               and time again.

But then again, we'd all know that if we knew history better.

***

My logic comes full circle as I have to admit: It's my own ignorance of history that causes me to be surprised by this:

Don Henley sings:  Armchair warriors often fail, and we've been poisoned by these fairy tales.

This isn't the first time that armchair warriors have let us down. Their starry-eyed glory lust has led many of their young sons to debilitating wars and their nations to ruin. Armchair warriors, armchair quarterbacks, armchair theologians--weighing in on the struggles of someone else's life from the insulated comfort of their suburban living rooms does not make for the best judgments, to say the least. A good shepherd ought to smell like the sheep, says Pope Francis.

If you find someone who demands harsh treatment toward immigrants, Muslims, the LGBT community or anyone--odds are it is someone who has little personal knowledge or experience of that community.

Armchair warrioring is a losing proposition.  Proof: Even after their endless hours of Hitler-a-thons, they couldn't even get the Trump situation right.

The Mammal Brain Can Beat the Reptile Brain!

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/matthew-fox/the-real-winner-at-the-re_b_11173542.html

Wonderful article by Matthew Fox on the US presidential election. Fox is one of my favorite theologians. His book Original Blessing had a big impact on me about 18 years ago when I was coming out of college. I haven't engaged with his writings much since then until I met him at the Wild Goose Festival this past summer and participated in his Cosmic Mass.

***

My take: This presidential election is a tug-of-war for the soul of America. Which will win--the reptilian or mammalian brain? Sometimes I think we are doomed to fall victim to the reptile and have few defenses against the onslaught of the media marketing machine--but something very encouraging is happening this election cycle.

Trump is treating this election like a reality show, and Clinton is treating this election like a marketing campaign. Each has a different style, but they are both working on the voters at the same level of consciousness: It's about branding, "other"-ing, divisions, distractions, trying to control the narrative with buzzwords. It's all fear, fear, FEAR!! Trump supporters are motivated by fear of Clinton, and Clinton supporters are motivated by fear of Trump. Step back a minute and you may see some astonishing similarities. It's as if America is one big reality TV show, where your votes don't matter and people are kept poorly informed and easy to manipulate. Policy is very rarely discussed--it's buried on their respective websites, somewhere.

I see in Sanders, Stein (and possibly others on the conservative/libertarian side who I'm not as familiar with?) an attempt to awaken the population and use the upper level of our brains. Let's talk principles, ideas, our greater good. Let's have actual debate with a back-and-forth of complex ideas. Let's find a way to build compassion into the infrastructure of our society. Let's listen to the concerns of others. Let's lead with passion, integrity and ideas rather than cheap shots and all manner of crazy making diversion and denial tactics. Is this a hopeless venture?

Those media manipulation tactics only work when a population is asleep. The Clinton marketing tactics during the primary--which may have worked during previous elections--largely fell on deaf ears with the majority of Sanders supporters. The fact that Sanders supporters are still not just falling in line with the party line is very refreshing to me. It means that once a population has been awakened, there is no going back. We are not doomed to fall victim to the near-steady brainwashing of the propaganda machine, which is running in overdrive right now.

It doesn't look like Sanders is going to win, but he came very close. He came close enough to convince me what's possible.

It's still an enormous task to live out of a higher consciousness. But at least there's hope that it is possible.

Monday, July 4, 2016

River Currents: The Physics of Prayer

Floating in style.

My view of the spiritual life is that it is like the currents of a river.

We are born in this river and that's where we live our lives. It is all around us, and it has energy and movement. Like a person swimming in the river, we are a part of it and yet also have some autonomy--at least, for a time.

We have the ability to either swim with the currents of the river or against them.

There are things we can do--or that can happen to us--to align ourselves more closely with the Spirit.

Religious traditions have identified methods--prayer, meditation, academic study, works of charity, artistic pursuits, our daily labors, our family, friendships and community involvement--that can put us more or less in line with the currents of the river.

When we are moving with the current, we seem to swim more easily, seem to cover more ground and seem to be doing what we are meant to be doing. When we fight against it, it's sometimes dangerous, but not always--but it's a lot of effort with perhaps little gain. We're out of sync.

We don't control the river, but we can make ourselves more receptive to it.

And sometimes the river will simply move us no matter what we do. Call it grace.

The current can also be dangerous, too--a long tradition of martyrs witnesses to this.

Maybe this is not an original thought--saying that the Spirit is like a river is borderline cliché, after all. How many of you reading this have Garth Brooks' The River going through your mind right now? (I'd link to it here but I wasn't able to find any good versions online.) But it feels new to me if we apply this metaphor of the river specifically how it relates to spiritual practices. It's a way to understand prayer. It's a way to understand religion--it's the physics of spiritual practices.

A lot of people reject the notion of the power of prayer, saying--if there is a God, how can we pretend to control God through our petitions?

A common response to this is: Prayer changes the one who prays more than it commands the activity of God.



Pope Francis seems to be echoing these thoughts in the meme above. This is one of my all-time favorite Francis quotes. He has an ultra-earthy spirituality that I just love. It's a spirituality so concrete it sounds like atheism. He is challenging anyone who has lulled themselves into a false confidence that the amazingly passive action of praying for the hungry is actually going to somehow bring food into their mouths. That is not nearly enough. I don't think he is saying that prayer itself isn't enormously beneficial, I just think he's suggesting that if all you are doing for the hungry is praying for them, that's not exactly bringing your "A" game by any stretch.

Prayer changes us, but not just our attitudes.

I think it's more about energy. When we pray, we turn toward the current and allow it to carry us--like a sunflower that turns toward the sun. We vibrate at the same frequency of the Spirit. Or at least, we tune ourselves to harmonize with the cosmos better. Prayer--and other practices--help align ourselves to go with the current rather than against.

Instead of resisting the current, attempting to muddle along inch-by-inch through our own power, we instead submit ourselves to the current first. Then our efforts are supported and encouraged by the momentum we have put ourselves in line with. It's the same spiritual energy that gave birth to us and which is our ultimate end.

Prayer brings us into a resonance with the deeper, life-giving wavelengths of the universe. It does not just change our attitude or direct our awareness, both of which are also good, impactful things--it causes us to vibrate at a different frequency. Once we are vibrating at a different frequency, the world around us changes, too, because we will then be drawing other people, activities and things that resonate with our new vibrations.

Imagine yourself a street musician. If you play sad songs, you might invite the tears of those who pass by. If you play happy songs, you may find yourself surrounded by happy people dancing. If you align yourself with the deepest currents of the universe--the deepest of which is love, according to all the mystics from nearly all the world's religions--then your life and activities will correspond with love, and you will probably witness daily miracles.

However, I reject the notion of what many called the "prosperity Gospel." This is the idea that if you do what God wants, then you will be rewarded with material riches, as if God is locked into some kind of contractual relationship with you. Prosperity Gospel enthusiasts will say that faithful believers will be rewarded with happiness, wealth and easy-to-see material rewards. I do affirm there is a power to positive thinking, but it's not as linear as that. A lot of people surrounded by love also have great tragedy. Spiritual abundance does not always correspond to the material abundance we were hoping for. The spiritual path takes bravery for this very reason.

I'm not against the idea that prayer not only changes the people praying but can also effect change outside of themselves, too. There are probably ways that prayer can impact the collective consciousness or draw positive energy toward us or others, like some spiritual gravitational field. I also think that this is also personal and not merely mechanical, although I cannot claim to be able to work out the theology for that.

A lot of people think they opt into the Spiritual life when they join a particular religion or get initiated. I don't think so. We are already in the river. We have a physical, emotional and spiritual life by our very nature. We don't just opt in. You don't get a body by joining a gym, and you don't get a heart by seeing a therapist--but you can choose to cultivate those aspects of yourself through these mechanisms. Religion is an attempt to do the same for the spiritual dimension of life.

Much of Christianity has skewed this, I think. There is a longstanding belief that we can choose what kind of afterlife we want or whether we have one at all--rather than simply believing that we are all just part of it all no matter what. In my view, we can choose to thrive in it or not, but we can't choose whether or not to participate--at least, not in this life.

We can choose to glide gracefully over the waters or thrash about--why? Perhaps for the sheer beauty of it. Perhaps it is not tied to any end other than just that. Maybe we can do good just because it's good--a pure gift, just like how God gives to us. That's when we know we are truly in line with the Spirit.

Too much of Christianity has claimed that the value of cultivating a spirituality is for the purposes of securing a certain kind of afterlife for oneself. I think that stagnates growth as it is based on fear. The Biblical tradition instead calls us to let go of fear and just love for no other reason than because we were ourselves loved openly and freely first. Does this come with some kind of consequence?  I'm sure it does, but not in some simplistic sense of buying ourselves a ticket to heaven. But it does put us more closely in line with the power of Christ who will ultimately reconcile all of Creation back to God--why not support that rather than resist? Maybe all the workers receive the same wage whether they arrive early or late (Matthew 20:1-16), but wouldn't you just rather be early to the ultimate party and be part of it as it is unfolding? That is its own reward.

I think the spiritual path is more about behavior than belief--that's why nonbelievers who are full of abundant love are in line with the Spirit, even though they may understand it differently than I do.

I would also suggest that much, if not all, of what I'm saying here is not far removed from more traditional religious speak. There may be different language for it, but if you step back and look with a mystical eye, you might conclude that I'm not saying anything new at all.

What meditation looks like.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Why You Will Marry the Right Person

I like this article:  Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person

It has some great lines, especially in describing how a partner will get us into those family-of-origin issues while many friendships will just skim over the deep stuff. I can see how the pessimism it describes can be freeing.

It's tough to admit, but in some way, shape or form, we all start off looking for a partner as an object to meet our needs--a puzzle piece that will "complete us," where everything just magically (and passively) falls into place. If a relationship doesn't work, the blame is on not having found the "right one."


Both men and women do it. Men want the 'princess in a tower' and women want the 'prince charming to rescue her.' The fairy tale may vary in some of the details, but the overall emotional structure is the same. He is treating her as an object, and she is doing the same to him. That's actually why they are a match, because they are both at the same stage of development.

There are definitely some growing pains when the fairy tale falls short and lived experience points to a different calling. The pessimism the article talks about seems to be the author's way of attempting to cope.

Where the article falls short is not seeing the karma in this. Partners will come into our lives to meet us exactly where our emotional work ends and our unfinished work begins. We actually are objects for each other's growth, but in a far different way than we thought as young romantics. Those old illusions have to shatter in order for the new growth to emerge out of those shattered expectations. Cynicism is only one of the first reactions in the aftermath of the fairy tale, but it does not have to be the last word. A renewed optimism emerges.


The "flaws", "rough edges" and tensions start looking like opportunities for growth--rather than signs of incompatibility or obstacles to be overpowered.

It's tough to watch young partners who are constantly bickering who don't yet realize the source of their bickering nor the fruitlessness of it. The relationship is urging them to grow but they are digging in their heels and refusing. They can go many, many rounds for many, many years. They won't win by winning the arguments in some simplistic sense, at least, not ultimately, not existentially. Their stalemate is actually quite a gift--it forces them to seek another, better way.

The relationship then takes on a new hue and becomes a deeper journey. I love the line in the above article that compatibility is an achievement, not a prerequisite. That goes against the massive tide of popular culture in America, where Hollywood aims and endings are mostly a voice for the fairy tale expectation. And fairy tales have their value and their place, but like Don Henley sings, we've been poisoned by these fairy tales.

I agree with the author overall, I just wouldn't call it pessimism. It's only pessimism if you are still grieving those fairy tale allusions. I think it's an exciting journey. 

I don't want to change you, I don't want to need you, and I certainly don't want to spend my time like some blacksmith hammering you into the perfect puzzle piece to fit all my rough edges. That wouldn't correspond to either my dignity or yours. An occasional truce may be in order to get through a rough patch, but not as a lifestyle. I'd rather just be with you, enjoy your smile, appreciate the differences and be companions for the journey.

Take it away, John Denver!

Monday, May 23, 2016

My Genetics Test

Frank Lesko, 23andme Ancestry Report
Click on the picture if you have trouble reading the text.

Intro

I sat at the dining room table several weeks ago spitting into a vial for what seemed like an eternity. After I had produced an ample sample of saliva, I sealed it up and mailed it off to 23andme.com for a comprehensive genetics test. Thankfully, the provided return box didn't require any spit to seal.
 
Several weeks later, a computer spit back a report.

MTHFR Gene

My primary goal was to test for methylation issues. Because of the way I respond to stress and interact with certain vitamin supplements, I am almost certain I have the infamous (and comically named) MTHFR gene. I will be exceedingly surprised if the test does not confirm this. The MTHFR gene is only the first in a long line of potential methylation issues in the body, so it is good to have a thorough test to build a targeted approach to addressing it.

The initial report arrived in my inbox recently. I need to submit the data into another program to get the methylation results, and I may blog about that in the future.

However, what did come back in the initial report is, among other things, a detailed description of my probable ethnic ancestry. It caught me off guard, as I was only half aware that the test would deliver this information. There were some major surprises that have left my imagination swimming since then!

Family oral history

Let's start with what I've always been told. Family tradition has been consistently straightforward: My dad is 100% Slovak, and my mom is 50% Polish and 50% Slovak.

My dad’s parents met in Cleveland, OH, but were from neighboring towns outside of Košice, a city in eastern Slovakia. My Polish ancestors were from southeastern Poland, not far from Košice, as well.  I think my mom’s Slovak ancestors were also from this region, but I need to confirm this.

Somewhat reliable family tradition also says that somewhere in the double or triple great-grandmother level was a German ancestor, both on my mom’s Polish side and somewhere on my dad’s side.

Other than that, though, my background seemed darn near homogenous. It sure looked like my immediate family came from a very specific region of the world! We were peasant class folk who had been living in the same area for as long as anyone knew.
 
At first glance, the test seemed to corroborate with what I've always been told. However, the more I looked, the more surprises I discovered.
 
Bombshell #1

I was somewhat disappointed to find that I tested almost exclusively European. I seemed to have a predominately Eastern European ancestry. There were no traces of African, no Ashkenazi (Jewish), no Middle Eastern, no Native American, no Asian—well, except for one small exception.

What drew my attention immediately was that the test showed I have a small representation of genes from East Asia. Granted, it is an extremely small amount, but it’s there! 0.3% of my genes are specifically from the Siberian population of the Yakut people, with an additional 0.2% classified as unspecific East Asian (which could include Chinese, Mongolian, Japanese, Korean or Yakut). 

The mind wonders and wanders how in the world did 0.5% of my genes come from East Asia. Granted, it is a small number, but it is there.

I started imagining scenarios as to how this could have happened. Did a Yakut migrant wander into East Europe? Did a European missionary interact with the Yakutz population? Then it hit me:  This could be a living remnant of the Mongolian invasion of Europe in the 13th century. I remember reading in James Michener’s Poland that many Poles to this day have noticeable Mongolian features. I researched and sure enough, the Mongolian army would have included people from the Yakut population. Chilling.

This kind of genetic report has a margin of error. In fact, there is a sliding bar where you can adjust the algorithms for a more conservative or risky estimate of your ancestry. However, even on conservative settings, a portion of the Yakut genes remained. Wow.

Bombshell #2

At first glance, my ethnic ancestry on this report seems to match what my family had always told me. The test showed me as predominately Eastern European, what we might call northern Slavic. No surprises there, right?

Well, not so fast. When I looked closer, a very different portrait of my ethic ancestry emerged.

The test only showed me as 63.7% Eastern Europe. By all accounts, I should have been a whole lot closer to 90% or more.

By far, the biggest surprise was that the test showed that I have an ethnic makeup of 21.2% from Southern Europe. This includes a whopping 14.7% from the Balkan region, 0.5% Italian and the remaining 6% as broadly Southern European (meaning: the test couldn't drill it down any further).

Absolutely nothing in my family history corroborates this in the least.

21.2% is a large swath—it is almost the portion of a grandparent! The Balkan region identified by this test includes everything as far south as Greece/Crete on up through Romania, Croatia, Slovenia, Albania, Bulgaria, Moldovia and Macedonia. Perhaps this explains my longstanding fascination with all things related to the Ancient Greeks! Romanians are Slavic people from the Balkan region but also have a Roman heritage, so perhaps that is a connection?

Again, my mind wonders and wanders through scenarios. My grandma Lesko used to tell me stories of encounters with the Gypsies and the tensions between them and the local Slovak population. She was often not very polite about the problems between these groups. Had there been any mixing with the Gypsy population, given the tensions and stigma, it is highly possible that it would have been hushed and the child raised as Slovak. But would the test regard Gypsy ancestry as “Balkan?” I am not sure about that. I’m actually surprised "Gypsy" doesn’t have its own category, given what must be a very unique genetic history. I think 23and me is working to expand and develop its genetic database and may include more categories in the future.

The Balkan region includes some of the poorest parts of Europe--Albania and Bulgaria come to mind. It would have made sense for people in this region to migrate looking for work or as war refugees. For a thousand years prior to the 20th century, most of Eastern Europe had been united first under the Ottomans and then under the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. As a result, it probably would have been easier to migrate within this empire than elsewhere. Perhaps Slovakia saw an influx of people from South Europe who just blended in over time. Perhaps it was individual workers or even whole families who came to call themselves “Slovak” or “Polish” over time. 

The test cannot show which parents the specific genes come from, but it can suggest whether the genes are from a single parent or from both parents. In this case, it seems that both of my parents have some of these South European genes. It seems safe to say that there was more than just a single person of Balkan ancestry who got mixed into the family. [If another family member took the test and linked up with mine, the test could better determine which side of the family the genes come from.]

My Polish great-grandfather said that before coming to America, he and his brother (Karol and Kasimir) were often farmed out—literally—across western Europe. Since the family was “poor as church mice” back in Poland, they followed the harvests as migrant workers in France and Germany in the early 20th century. It is well within reason that people from the Balkans did the same thing in earlier generations, either as individuals or as whole families, and either settled or left some offspring in Slovakia or Poland. There has been far more genetic mixing in the "Old World" than most of us are willing to consider.

Still, 21.2% is an extremely large percentage, and it is surprising that not a trace of this history remains anywhere in the family's collective memory, given that it probably had to have been pretty recent.

Not a Bombshell, but Still Fascinating

Despite family tradition, the test showed no decisive traces of German ancestry. However, there is a category of Northwest European, which could include German. This accounts for 5% of my ancestry:  2% Scandinavian, 0.4% British/Irish, 0.2% Finnish and 2.5% Broadly Northwestern European. So perhaps this piece does corroborate oral history.

The small portion of Scandinavian ancestry could also have a wartime origin. The Vikings were well known for invading the British Isles, but they also terrorized Poland centuries ago with a war as recently as the mid 1600s. Given the close geographical proximity, though, there are other more benevolent possibilities for how those genes got mixed into the family line. Perhaps a missionary, soldier or a traveling royalty mixed with the local population.
 
Further Reflection
 
It is very unnerving to discover that my ethnic ancestry may be quite different from what I have always been told! I spent a day or two just finding my footing. Still, I have to wonder: Is this test accurate? Am I getting carried away for no reason? Did the test "sensationalize" my ancestry, creating a more imaginative background than reality? If these other ancestries are true, how far back could those genes come from?

A concept like "ethnic ancestry" is a constantly moving target. All of humankind is ultimately related, and some say that every human on the plant shares at least one common ancestor going back perhaps as recent at 5,000 years ago. That seems hard to believe until you do the math.

A test like this only shows ancestry going back maybe 10 generations, which would probably have been around 250 years ago (if you average 25 years per generation). 10 generations ago, there were 1024 people who were my direct ancestors--each of them would have been my grandparent with 8 "greats" in front. Each one of those people accounts for slightly less than 0.1% of my total genes.  The test doesn't drill down any more than 0.1%. And that only takes us back to the mid 1700s.

If you keep doubling the amount of ancestors every 25 years, then there would have been about 8 thousand ancestors during the most recent Swedish invasion of Poland and a whopping 536 million people who were my direct ancestors at the time of the Mongolian invasion of Poland. That assumes that there was no "overlap" in the family tree, which is impossible. It is doubtful that there were 536 million people in East Europe at all during that time. I am unclear whether the genes I have today would match a modern Yakut or Scandinavian person or whether those genes would have come from something much more recent.

So I'll continue to brood over this and share more insights. Whether this test is accurate or not, it is fascinating to imagine what could have happened and where we all come from!

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

How Is Everything Tasting?

I’m not sure when it came into use, but a few years ago I started noticing that wait staff in restaurants would come to my table with a new question:  How is everything tasting?

It’s in near universal use now. In fact, it is quite noticeable to me whenever a waiter doesn't use this exact wording, because those times are extremely rare. In those cases, I figure it must be a trainee who is quickly taken out back and throttled after this faux pas.
This question disturbs me. It’s not just because it's a grammatical hack job: I certainly hope that my food is not tasting anything at all, because I prefer my food to be dead before I eat it. I am the one doing the tasting, not my food, thank you very much. If that’s not the case, I would certainly like to know, so I could make my exit and find another establishment where I could enjoy a meal of good, dead food. I’m okay with a few living microbes on my plate, but animals and plants should not be alive when the wait staff brings them to me. It sounds morbid to state this out loud--and it is, quite literally-- but it is the reality .

I'm not much of a grammatical snob. I enjoy regional variations in dialect. Language evolves, and what’s incorrect today may be in the rulebooks tomorrow. This particular phrase does stick in my craw, however, as it is particularly tasteless, if you pardon the puns. 
But that’s not what’s really bothering me.
No, what bothers me is that mealtime has been downgraded from a holistic experience of culture, memories, dreams and relationships to simply a matter of bodily pleasure.

I consider this a telltale sign of the downward trajectory of the health of our culture.

In the past, a waiter might have asked: How are you?  Or: How is everything?

Though very general, those are open-ended questions through which the staff would have been trying to gauge all aspects of their patrons' dining experience--food, ambiance, service. Within that, there would have been a deeper, implied question--how are you?

Mealtime is a cornerstone of human culture, so these questions are mightily important.

To now ask, how is everything tasting? reduces the meal experience to only an experience of pleasure sensations. Complex social interactions are being described as consumer transactions. You are purchasing a product, and the sly-but-ever-so-significant implication is that its taste is the only relevant factor in the dining experience. In fact, this question is not only a sign of the decline of civilization, but it actually helps to facilitate that decline.
How so?  It's an illusion of choice: You are not being told outright what opinion to have. No, that would never happen in freedom-loving America. Your opinion absolutely matters, as any marketer would tell you. It is, after all, all about you.
But it's not. What is going on is much more sinister. You are being told the category and range in which meaning itself is recognized or, dare we say, allowed.  You can like or not like the food all you want, and the wait staff and their employers really want to know. But it's taste is the sole criterion for your opinion.
Human flourishing, cultural meaning, the spirituality of mealtime--those are non-criteria. Those are not to be discussed. Those aspects are not being refuted or argued against--no, that would actually give them power. Even worse, they are completely ignored altogether. They simply don't exist. Those kittens have been drowned in the river. Human hope, where the sum is greater than the parts, that language is gone. No, we are merely cogs in the wheel of consumer transactions, moving from one sensation to another.
Please, pass the red pill. I hear it's really tasting good.