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

See also my professional blog: The Traveling Ecumenist.

Monday, October 29, 2018

So I was arguing on the internets today...

So I was arguing on the internets today... Some guy shared some internet meme, I presented an article that directly provided evidence against it. He responded with:
"if I had time to look I could probably find something to refute that."
I just about lost it. Hilarious. Isn't that the internet in a nutshell? Or rather, our society in general? The sad part is he probably COULD find something for or against any point out there. It's the era of post-truth. You get to choose-your-own-reality. Pick whichever fantasy you want and then believe it and by that simple decision it will be true. Red pill or blue pill, you get to pick.
It's not just a poetic allusion, anymore. In the past, if you said you were "creating your own reality," it might mean you were choosing to be an optimist instead of a pessimist or choosing to see the good in people instead of bad or something like that. That's not what I mean here. By "reality" I mean the nuts & bolts of facts and verifiable data. That's the kind of reality which is a matter of personal choice these days. And your opinion is equal to my informed facts. It says so right there in the Constitution. Even if... well, it doesn't actually say that in Constitution, you know, with like, words. Doesn't matter, I believe it to be there. It's got to be there somewhere. Or at least, in the intentions of the writers of the Constitution, you see. And I know this because, well, it's the reality I want to believe in.
Perhaps it started with modernism, as fundamentalists intuitively feared. Or post-modernism. Or post-post-modernism. Or maybe it started with Bill Clinton saying, "It depends on what your definition of 'is' is..." But I don't think there's any question that the true masters of this craft are the Republicans of the past 40 years, in particular the current manifestation of Trump and his minions Yes, there is fake news on "both sides" but that doesn't mean that both sides are equal. It's been going since Rush Limbaugh started spouting his diatribe and far too many people couldn't tell the difference between his lies and reality. After all, he preached a version of reality they WANTED to believe, so... they did.. Then with the rise of FOX News we have a 24/7 propaganda machine that doesn't even hide that fact, all the while calling everyone else "fake news" or the "liberal media" or other smokescreens to hide what they are them doing. It doesn't need to hide the fact that it is basically a propaganda machine with little true journalistic credibility because people don't want to believe that, so they... don't believe it. Even though people have told them.
So perhaps the anti-modernists were right a couple centuries ago when they predicted this mess. Their best response, however, was just to keep their heads lodged firmly in the proverbial sand and try to delay the inevitable, and that just wasn't plausible (religious fundamentalism being one primary manifestation of this approach). But then again, a population being easily manipulated by their fears by a 2-bit dictator and worked into a mob-like frenzy is not exactly new. It's not like we can solely blame post-modernism for that phenomenon, as human beings have been falling for that for as long as we have records of human conduct.
So what does all this mean? I have no idea. I guess it means... whatever you want it to mean.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Thanksgiving Muffins

Thanksgiving Muffins have cross-species appeal!

This is one our favorite meals!

It all started when we threw some leftovers together in a pan with some butter and broth. We liked it so much that we now cook it intentionally from scratch.

  • Mashed potatoes (made with butter, salt and milk)
  • Mashed butternut squash (mixed in with the potatoes)
  • Baked chicken (we prefer thighs (cooked with skin and bones). We bake them until the meat falls off the bone and is swimming in juices).
  • Sweet corn
  • Quinoa
  • Boxed stuffing (we prepare it in butter per the directions but use bone broth instead of water).
The only seasoning we add is Himalayan pink salt in addition to the seasonings that come with the stuffing and broth.

Pre-cook everything separately then assemble: Mash up the potatoes and squash first. Then add the quinoa. After that, it all goes in: chicken, corn and stuffing. Drizzle in some juices from the chicken pan. That's pretty much it!

For a crispy texture, fry it in a pan with some butter or bake it in buttered muffin tins.

Serve with a dollop of cranberry jelly!


Why make muffins?

You might ask why we would take the extra step to mix all these ingredients together instead of just enjoying them separately like a regular Thanksgiving-style meal.  Here's why:

1. It's great toddler food!  Our 18-month old can grab little chunks of muffin mush and handle them very well. She would not have quite the same luck with, say, a serving of cooked quinoa by itself or mashed potatoes. Also, she probably wouldn't eat some of these ingredients unless they were disguised:  For example, she generally refuses most meats but will eat them in this way.

2. It's portable. My wife gets looks of envy from her colleagues when she brings a couple of these muffins to work for lunch. Once they are made, they're easy grab-n-go food.


We have incorporated sweet potatoes and baked beans at various times and still loved it. You can pretty much experiment with whatever is in the fridge.

It's so tasty! Yes, it's a carb-heavy meal, but the stuffing adds some necessary texture so that it can be toddler finger food. It's an otherwise perfectly balanced meal with meat, veggies and starches. The boxed stuffing is the only thing with any processed ingredients, but everything else is just simple whole foods. We might look for less-processed options in the future for the stuffing portion.

The consistency is mushier than a typical muffin but firmer than a glob of mashed potatoes.

Bon App├ętit!

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Of Walls, Iron Curtains and Other Lessons from the Cold War

The Cold War was still going strong when I was growing up. The nightly news would regularly feature stories about the Berlin Wall and the infamous "Iron Curtain" that tightly hid the USSR and its satellites from the western world.

My dad would always shake his head and say, "They don't realize that the reason America is great is because we don't have to do that." Instead of forcefully trying to control all of its citizens like the USSR, the USA found that it was much more stable and powerful by granting freedoms.

The USSR tightly controlled and monitored its citizens. It severely limited travel and only allowed it by permission of the state. By contrast, the citizens of the USA never needed to be kept in. The fact that we were free to go meant that we always wanted to come back. It's a paradox. Or just common sense.

Free speech. Free movement. Freedom to even protest. It all made us stronger, not weaker. That was the promise of America. We didn't have to deplete ourselves trying to control everybody. The USSR eventually imploded partly because this effort drained it of resources that could have been used elsewhere. In addition, this effort severely stunted growth of its industries, its experiences and its reach. So not only did it deplete resources to do this but it prevented the growth of new resources. Double whammy.

We were better than this. There is little strength when you are curled up in a fetal position with a clenched fist and your whole body continually tight. A perfect example: Experts tell us that you are more likely to be injured in a car accident if you tighten up your body during impact.

Real strength is relaxation and being loose. Real control only comes with letting go. This is the spiritual lesson. I thought we knew this in the USA. This was one of the most glaring faults of the Soviet experiment.

This analysis is steeped in American mythology, as we were never quite as benevolent as this makes us seem. Nevertheless, there is plenty of truth here.

Now, we are in a period where many Americans are justifying building our own versions of Iron Curtains and Berlin walls: Trump's wall with Mexico. The so-called Muslim travel ban. These are nothing but replications of history's failed experiments.

I'm just so shocked because I thought we already knew this.

Further, I believe the risk these populations bring (Muslim ban, Latin American immigrants) has been overstated if not completely fabricated. I think what may be happening is two things: First, Trump is currently working to bomb and starve places like Yemen into oblivion and doesn't want refugees appearing on our shores. Second, Trump's base is motivated with stage 1 spiritual thinking, which means they love black-and-white thinking and they need an enemy to rally against. Appeals to authoritarianism make them feel reassured at some instinctive, reptilian level where logic cannot reach.

Why the current obsession with "citizenship"?

It's time to celebrate non-citizens, who are part of (and have always been a part of) our society.

The Supreme Court decision to uphold Trump's travel ban was made yesterday. Critics say it resembles too much the infamous Korematsu Supreme Court decision in 1944 to allow internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. They say both decisions allow a wholescale discrimination of people based on ethnicity or religion with trumped up (pun intended) irrational fears for national security. In other words, both a racism and a denial of human rights in disguise. Supporters of the ban say that it is very different because this ban does not target citizens.

So I'm left to ask: Why is citizenship such a big deal here? I don't understand the current obsession by some on the right with "citizenship." Non-citizens make up a significant portion of our society--and always have. The political right has been making this issue of citizenship into a golden calf. Just like in Ancient Rome, there were many people who made up Roman society besides "citizens." A lot of people contribute and have rights besides citizens. They are not the only people who matter. Citizens are not the only ones who have rights.

Who makes this country what it is? I know many people who live here who are citizens. Some are permanent residents (i.e. green card holders). Some are immigrants in various stages of immigration. Some are temporary workers. Some are here on student visa. Some are undocumented. Some are travelers, wanderers, hobos and homeless.

ALL of them enrich and enliven our society.

For example: Every single university in this country is substantially and significantly improved and enriched by international students. American education would not be the same without them. American culture would not be the same without them. Certainly our academic and technological achievements would be far diminished without them. Yet, they are not citizens. Many only stay a few semesters and some a few years. Still, they have a significant impact on our society, and we should respect them and their role in our culture for it. They should be treated as honored guests. The same holds for the other groups mentioned above. They all make us who we are.

Citizenship matters, but I'm very wary of attempts to make the dividing line between citizens and non-citizens too deep especially as we enter this scary phase in history where Trump has tweeted that non-citizens should not have the right to due process (i.e. human rights). The Supreme Court ruling yesterday is basically arguing along similar lines: It diminishes the rights of non-citizens. That's what it's really about. It dovetails into a larger cultural movement going on now to dehumanize and denigrate non-citizens and immigrants. It is widening the gap between citizens and non-citizens and in my opinion no good can come of this.

Citizens and non-citizens are going to have different rights to some degree and certainly different responsibilities as a matter of definition. But we must be very wary about making sure that whatever non-citizens lack in rights they make up for in a gracious welcome and hospitality by the rest of us to make sure no human rights violations occur. We should honor the place of non-citizens in our society and recognize the significant role they play in making us who we are. This is not happening right now with Trump's tweet mentioned above about denying due process to undocumented immigrants and in this recent Supreme Court ruling.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

White Americans and Meanness

Census charts show us that it won't be long until non-white people are the majority of the U.S. population. Personally, I can't wait. I just hope that when it happens the non-white populations do not take on the characteristics of white folks.

I've been all around the world and know people from all races and walks of life, and there is a meanness among American white folks that you just don't find anywhere else. I've never seen a group of people who had so much power and privilege and were just so cold, hard-hearted and nasty for no reason. Even when they are nice, there is a coldness that you just don't find anywhere else.

I know I'm considered white and most of the people I know are white and there are some fantastic, great people among us. But as a whole, we are a pretty miserable bunch of people, always walking around like someone ate our cheerios. Especially white men. My gosh! Mean-spirited, insecure, walking around with a constant chip on their shoulder... they don't even feel whole unless they are packing a firearm. What a way to live! I'm not blaming them as individuals, just saying the mix of culture and history has not produced a very good result.

A perfect example is all the Nazis trying to take over our country right now. What an unbelievably miserable bunch of people! I can't for the life of me see what is attractive about it, other than maybe "misery loves company"? Have you tried the smile test? You can't support most of Trump's policies with a smile on your face. if you can't, that says something, doncha think?

The ironic thing is that so many white folks (especially men) think that it's all the other races, ethnicities and genders who are "always complaining" but they can't see the obvious truth about themselves.

So for all the people out there who want to share in our power and privilege... are you sure? Maybe it's a privileged thing to even ask that question, but let me tell you it may not be as green on this side of the fence as it seems.


NOTE:  I originally ended this post with the line that went something like: "White Americans suck." It's not normally my style to think or write this way, but this post was written quickly and I decided to leave it in just to keep the original freshness of the piece. Besides, as a white American male, I feel a certain license to speak freely about my own group in a way that might be less welcome if I were to direct that kind language to a group that I was not a member of. Let's face it, our track record is pretty bad:  Colonization, ethnic cleaning of native people, slavery, continual beat down of immigrants and non-white racdes, rampant domestic terrorism of all types, and just a general chip on our shoulder which makes little sense in light of the well-documented privileges we have.  It's not far off to say, "look guys, looking at our history overall, as a collective group, we basically suck." It's a reality check that we need.

However, I read some feminist pieces that contain lines like "men suck" and I rarely find that helpful. There is real pain behind those words but my assessment is that it is not being directed in the most helpful or accurate way. The pain has become generalized to be directed to the whole population. Some get defensive, others can 't believe how anyone could be defensive in light of the real issues they want to address, and the conversation becomes all about the line "men suck" and the predictable responses. It might be more accurate to direct attention to male privilege, for example, and the fact that this privilege can manifest in all sorts of ways (in men and women), in ways that we know and in other ways that we don't know. 

Case in point: I discovered that the line "white Americans suck" became controversial with some folks. It was the defining line. Someone was trying to explain to me, and they said, "you know, the blog post that says 'white Americans suck.'" Instead of looking at the overall message of this piece that as a whole, our white American culture can stand to do some serious self-analysis to find out what is up our collective butts, people instead point to this line to distract from the real discussion that needs to happen. The message is hard to hear, so they want to control it somehow--get the author to stop, reign in the language and find some way to avoid the real topic. By using that kind of language, I play into their hands. So whether the line is meaningful or justified, the point is that it is rarely helpful.  Case in point:  I'm writing far more about the lie "white Americans suck" (which no longer even appears in the piece above) than the actually piece above.

But is there something about white American culture that we can say? Of course. If we couldn't define characteristics of a group of people, then the entire discipline of sociology would be defunct. We can and we have to talk about how we function as a group and overall features of how we function.

That being said, I'm often skeptical how much we can do to encourage people to talk about something that they simply don't want to talk about. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink, as the saying goes. some want to believe in the shadows on the wall and won't submit to a simple head turn to get another perspective. Plato's frustration over this can still be felt 2,400 years later, so it's not exactly a new problem in the human condition.  Still, I tend to believe that are better ways to bridge those divides than others, or else I wouldn't be doing the work I'm doing. 

We need to look no farther than Donald Trump to see the problems that occur when we break down our collective commitment to civility in discourse--and then call anyone a "snowflake" who dislikes it. In my own Lake County in Ohio, one of the County Commissioners--a devout Trump supporter, I believe--was complaining because he was called names at a public meeting and that his fellow Commissioners did not step up to defend him and throw out the offending party. The cognitive dissonance is astounding here, given the unbelievable, almost daily, profoundly juvenile insults coming with the Office of the President--but maybe Trump supporters need to play this out to see why it is a problem. Maybe it seems okay to sit among friends and complain about this group or that group (we all do that to some degree), but when this goes from private conversations to public, and when it is directed back at you, and when public discourse goes down the proverbial toilet, and when civility in the face of differences of opinions is gone, then we have a breakdown in how our society functions in a way that few people really want. But sometimes you have to play that out to remind ourselves why civility is important.

Monday, May 28, 2018

How To Memorialize (and De-Mythologize) Memorial Day

When people join the military, they promise to follow obediently the chain of command. We know this. What we rarely talk about is that there is an equal responsibility on the other side. We as a society enter into a social contract with soldiers and promise to make sure that we only ask them to do things that are good, noble and decent. They trust us with their very lives, after all.

There is a lot of talk about how our soldiers have supposedly earned our freedoms in this country through their blood. It is quoted so often it is basically assumed to be true. Yet, I don't think there is much evidence at all for this claim.

And what exactly are these "freedoms" we like to talk about? Few people can actually articulate what that even means. I see Native Americans trapped on reservations. I see African Americans harassed through mass incarceration and police brutality and lack of opportunities in employment, housing, you name it. I see forced patriotism as evidenced by the NFL banning protest. Many Americans would be afraid to say what I'm saying here out of fear of backlash for questioning the national mythology--what kind of freedom is that? I see millions of Americans in virtual third world status crippled with poverty, bankruptcies, student loans and lack of access to medical care, despite being the "richest nation on earth."

In light of all that, we have soldiers in the Middle East (and just about everywhere else)... doing what, exactly? Millions dead, disabled and in disarray in the aftermath of our various military campaigns. Just to give one example out of many: Over a million dead in Iraq with the once proud country in shambles... do you actually think we did that to free the people from the tyranny of Saddam? More of them were alive and happy when he was around, so if Saddam was bad for Iraq, then the USA is many times worse. Anyone with even the smallest hint of common sense can tell you that our military is only likely to create more anger, terrorism and fighting due to our actions--so we obviously do this by design. We do it intentionally so we can have perpetual war. That's not for our "freedoms." It's for money and power and most of us don't get to see any of that money and power.

Do you really think people in other places around the world have less freedom to move about and speak their mind than we do here in the USA? In some places, that is true, but not in many others. When it comes to freedom for its citizens, I'd say the USA is... about average. Some places are better, some places are worse. We're basically mediocre. So in light of that, tell me why we need a military is at least as large as the next 13 largest militaries combined? The math doesn't add up. If that is true, it is a terrible return on our investment compared to what other places around the world achieve for far less.

The USA does enjoy a position of unparalleled power and prominence in the world. Did we get that way because our soldiers fought off bad guys who want to take that from us? Hardly. There have only been a few military campaigns in our history that can actually justify that claim.

We are rich and powerful because:

1. European settlers strategically and systematically encroached upon native American lands and basically wiped out whole populations of people (some of the accidentally through disease but much of it intentionally). Our military did much of that.

2. European descended settled brought in African slaves to build a disproportionate amount of wealth for themselves. They have since maintained that wealth through deeply embedded systems of privilege. African Americans are still kept in a vulnerable, second-class status through various systems of discrimination, as well. Our military, police and militias have all had a hand in keeping African people enslaved and harassed.

3. The USA rose to power largely because the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans make it hard for anyone else to come here. Through the Monroe Doctrine, we have kept other nations in our hemisphere poor and fumbling by systematically oppressing them and installing puppet governments. We continue to do this today. The rest of the world knows it, but most Americans are kept oblivious. Our military does that.

4. The US military has bases in over 150 countries around the world. Are they "protecting our freedoms"? I fail to see how. No, they are defining the boundaries of the US empire, making the world "safe" for multi-national corporations to rob the world blind, scorch the environment with impunity and put down any democratic, grassroots resistance. Any country that doesn't immediately play along and bow down to US interests is labeled a "rouge nation" and ostracized and stricken with embargoes. When that fails, we went in the military and ultimately attack and destroy those places. There is little evidence that the US actually tries to encourage or establish democracy elsewhere in the world. That's simply the narrative we are fed and sadly most Americans gobble it up without question. I'm not sure why that is--maybe we like to believe the lies rather than face the truth or maybe that's simply the result of very effective propaganda. It's amazing how we believe this absolute fantasy about ourselves yet we can see it so clearly when other nations delude themselves. It's what Americans like to believe. But what if the truth is not what you have been led to believe all your lives? Can you handle it? Can you look at it square in the eye?

What I'm describing here is basically an empire. We don't like to use that word because of all the negative connotations, so pundits and journalists have created the term "superpower" to hide the truth of the situation. Most Americans have bought it unquestioningly.

Here's reality:

The USA was created through a brutal system of ETHNIC CLEANSING of Native Americans. Then we established an APARTHEID STATE through slavery and Jim Crow laws. We SUPPRESS freedoms elsewhere in the world through imperial power to keep our foot on just about everybody else, despite the widespread suffering and death that entails. This is all well documented. [Do you really think much of the third world is desperately poor just because they can't get their act together? Or do you think there are outside forces keeping them this way?] And then the sickest part is that we have created endless narratives telling ourselves that we are the "good guys" bringing freedoms and flowers to a world hungry for whatever breadcrumbs we throw to them. Let the scales fall from your eyes. The USA is not a great place unless you're rich and white and never has been. And we are shitty neighbors to the rest of the world. Whatever standard of living we do have comes at a very brutal price elsewhere.

Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, it doesn't matter. Successive administrations of both parties keep this national agenda moving along with little interruption. Obama was drone bombing at least seven nations--the same kinds of things liberals would be enraged about when Trump does it. Hillary Clinton spearheaded the destruction of Libya as Secretary of State. Most liberals can't hear this. Each administration has its own wars and campaigns.

The first step in recovery is simply being honest about who we are and what we are about. Let's give up the lies and the fantasies. Perhaps then and only then would we actually honor the people who have died for this cause. The mythology about America is everywhere, it's virtually unquestioned and many people are afraid of saying otherwise. On this Memorial Day, I grieve for all those who have suffered and died in pursuit of a very evil agenda and who have died for a lie.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Will Baby Turn Us Into Foodies Again or Will We Corrupt Her?

A delicious stir-fry with leftovers from making baby food:
sorghum, pork, peas, sweet potatoes and yellow squash,
cooked with butter and salt! Served with Greek yogurt mixed in (not shown).
(all organic, pasture-raised, yadda yadda)

It's been over two years since I gave up my 20-year, big-bag-a-day snack chip addiction. Things are holding pretty steady. I basically don't eat chips anymore (with a possible relapse I discuss below). I still crave them, though.

What has happened, unfortunately, is that the rest of my diet has gone to hell in a handbasket. Andrea, too. Ever since Lucy was born, we've really gone on a downhill binge. Maybe for me it's a way to replace one junk food addiction with another, or maybe it's just what's normal for under-slept, stressed-out new parents. We now regularly consume the following items that were rarities in the past:
  • Fast food
  • Frozen, microwaveable dinners
  • Canned soups
  • Cereal
  • Desserts
  • Candy
  • Soda pop beverages
Despite my snack chip habit, I almost never ate the above items. Now they are mainstays. The carbs from chips may have been bad enough, but I almost never ate sugary foods. In the past I had one vice—a huge vice, but just one. I wondered whether I could still claim that overcoming this addiction is still a "win" given all of the other problems that have come in its wake.

I mentioned above a snack chip relapse. I had a run-in with a sleeve of Saltine crackers on a few occasions. It may not sound like a big deal, but I know where the line is, and it's fair to say that I probably broke my snack chip fast this way. I was eating them the way I used to eat chips. I wasn't just crumbing a few into soup, rather I was binge eating them late at night.

Given all my other dietary shortcomings, I have often wondered if keeping chips away was really much of an accomplishment in light of all the other pitfalls I have fallen into. What harm would it bring to re-introduce some chips, I wondered?  However, my brief experience with Saltines has reminded me why chips are in a category of their own. When I ate them, of course I enjoyed it. But I was surprised that I also felt disjointed. My rhythms were off. It took me to an old, familiar place where I no longer wanted to be. I didn't like my mood. I quickly realized this didn't feel good and stopped.

I have long postulated that addiction stands in the way of our real vocation, our love and our accomplishments. Even though I don't sense a direct connection, perhaps it is not a coincidence that some of the most noteworthy events of my life—marriage, parenthood and significant professional milestones (particularly around publishing)—all happened during the two years I was sans chips.

Who's the real foodie in the family?

The big challenge, of course, is that we can't keep up the charade forever with Lucy. She eats a pristine, almost 100% organic, nutrient-dense menu of foods. Meanwhile, mom and dad are plowing fast food on the way to the organic food store. Sooner or later, she'll either latch onto our habits or we'll latch onto hers. We've struggled with eating well, so we know what we're up against.

Being busy parents has pushed us to eat poorer than before, but Lucy has also been helping us eat better. It's been a mix.

In a previous post, I talk about making baby food. I tend to make it in stages. I'll cook up (usually by steaming) lots of fruits, veggies, meats and grains and store them in the fridge in glass containers.  On top of that, we keep lots of fresh, organic fruits on hand at all times as well as dried figs, prunes and apricots and frozen fruits of all kinds.  I'll blend up meals and freeze them within the next day or two after cooking. There is some nutrient loss in not freezing them immediately after steaming, but this is a consequence of being busy parents who only have so much time in a day. (Once food has been blended into a puree, however, it is immediately put in the freezer as those do not hold up well at all).  If Lucy doesn't like something, or if it has been sitting more than a couple days, I'll take her food and mix it into stir-frys, omelets and soups for the adults. We've had some wonderful meals that way (the picture at the top is an example).