Monday, October 4, 2010

Radical Catholic

I was watching Claire Berlinski on Uncommon Knowledge and the conversation drifted over the idea of what constitutes a 'radical' as opposed to a 'moderate' Muslim and the acid test they agreed on (mostly) was 'do you accept the laws of the United States over the Islamic law- Sharia?' If the answer is yes you are moderate and if no probably a radical. I then asked myself if I were radical or moderate in my own religious belief and the answer I came up with is that I am definitely a Catholic before an American. Thus, I am a radical Catholic.

And of course no one in their right mind fears a radical Catholic.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Anna Blues

Got these blues Anna you never satisfy.
I got these blues Anna you never satisfy.
When you get that news mamma you know the reason why.

Wake up mamma don't you sleep too long.
I said wake up mamma don't you sleep so long
'Cause I got that fire and a' you been away too long.

Put your milk in your coffee, your lemon in your tea,
Put your heart on the table put your blues in me, Anna
Oh, mamma just leave the back door key.
We gonna drink that wine and a' you gonna do for me.

I got these blues Anna you say you gonna stay.
I said I got these blues Anna you say you gonna stay
Ah, but you look so fine Anna when a' you walk away.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

At What Price a Cucumber?

I'd like to ruminate for a bit on sustainable agricultural practices, specifically; the relative advantages and disadvantages of locally raised, organic, grass-fed beef as compared with commercially produced grain-fed. I'm not lobbying for one or the other practice but simply trying to lay out the relative merits of both and their impact on the environment, society, and the economy. I also want to talk about cucumbers.

First of all what do we mean by sustainability? The simplest definition I found was on a website called, “Sustainable Table” and it reads:
“Sustainable agriculture is a way of raising food that is healthy for consumers… does not harm the environment, is humane for workers, respects animals, provides a fair wage to the farmer, and supports and enhances rural communities.”
When a process is sustainable, it can be maintained indefinitely. Sustainable food production can be maintained indefinitely because sustainable farmers do not take more resources to produce food than they give back.

Remember the circle of life? Grass grows, cow eats grass, cow poops on grass; new grass grows…cow eats new grass and so on. That’s a sustainable system. Now in a small rural community a family raises a cow on a small but adequate parcel of land. The family kills the cow, eats the cow, poops on the grass and it is still a sustainable process. The problem arises because we urbanized Americans can’t stop at just one cow. We are so infatuated with the flavor of beef that we are willing to change the natural balance of things just to be able to eat more cow than is …sustainable. We do this in part by eliminating competition from insects, fungus, and plant diseases that attack the plants that cattle graze on by dousing them with petroleum based chemicals- a wholly “in-organic” process. 

So what do we mean by the term organic?
“Organic farming is the form of agriculture that relies on crop rotation, green manure, compost, biological pest control, and mechanical cultivation to maintain soil productivity and control pests, excluding or strictly limiting the use of synthetic fertilizers and synthetic pesticides, plant growth regulators, livestock feed additives, and genetically modified organisms.” - Directorate General for Agriculture and Rural Development of the European Commission
Simply put: Organic agriculture is farming without chemicals or, farming as it had been from the dawn of civilization until the 20th century. There is nothing new about organic agriculture; my great, great, great, grandfather was probably an organic farmer.

Grass fed vs. feed-lot Beef
Now that we have a working definition of sustainable agriculture (don’t take out more than you put in) and we know that organic farming is just natural farming let’s get back to the subject at hand: the sacred cow.

There are two ways of bringing a head of cattle to slaughter weight: first you can let it wander around the pasture eating grass for four or five years, take it down to the local butcher, have him slaughter it and cut it into steaks for you, and then figure out how you’re going to cook all the different cuts of meat to get the most out of your cow. This is the old fashioned way- the organic way, the sustainable way.

But if you’re like most people you go down to Pick-N-Save, grab a lb of ground beef or a sirloin steak, go home and fire it up, put a glass under the wine box, draw some off, sit down with a friend and enjoy. This is the modern way, the immediately gratifying way, the conventional way.

Most of us don’t have to think about the fact that the cow was force-fed a product it was never designed to eat (corn and soybeans) injected with antibiotics to keep it from getting diseases brought about by close confinement with hundreds of other cattle, and growth hormones to help bring it quickly to slaughter weight within a year and a half of birth (one third of the time it takes to raise grass-fed cattle). We don’t usually notice that the animal was treated inhumanely since most of us have never looked at a cow up close, let alone raised one from calf to adult. In fact, that shrink wrapped lb of chuck doesn’t look much like a cow anyway.

Let me stress that I’m not an animal rights activist- I’m simply saying that many of us would approach our dinner differently if we had to kill it ourselves. There is a symbiotic relationship between humans and the animals that feed us. It is a natural, organic relationship- it does not have to be a cruel or unusual one.

In a natural, sustainable scenario the costs of producing a lb of beef would prevent most people from developing such a dependence on cattle for food. However, modern agricultural practices combined with American prosperity have made beef cheap and plentiful- the costs are hidden ones and mostly environmental.

Below are listed some of the disadvantages of both locally raised, organic grass-fed beef and commercially produced grain-fed beef.

Locally raised, organic grass-fed:
cost- it takes four to five years for a grass fed steer to reach slaughter weight making it 20-100 % higher in price than grain fed
land- grass fed cattle require much more land to graze for longer time
soil erosion- more land requires more de-forestation to sustain large herds of cattle for longer time
displacement of wildlife- also a by-product of extended land usage and longer production time
pollution- grass fed cattle produce triple the amount of methane as grain fed
taste- inconsistent, some describe it as gamey, bitter, and sour- certainly less appealing than grain fed

Commercially produced grain fed:
saturated fat- grain fed beef is higher in cholesterol causing (delicious) fat than grass-fed
inhumane- feed-lot cattle are held in close confinement, there is a painful adjustment to feed, and cattle are prone to sickness
waste- concentration of waste from feed lots can be a biohazard to local air and water quality
fossil fuel consumption- growing feed, producing petro-chemicals, and transporting livestock to slaughterhouses contribute to 284 gallons of oil being consumed per head of cattle (According to David Pimentel, Professor of Ecology and Agriculture, Cornell University.)
human diseases- the parasitic bacteria E. coli is a phenomenon of the modern feed-lot method of cattle production

Concerning the prevalence of E. coli in feedlot cattle Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma writes:
"Most of the microbes that reside in the gut of a cow and find their way into our food get killed off by the acids in our stomachs, since they originally adapted to live in a neutral-pH environment. But the digestive tract of the modern feedlot cow is closer in acidity to our own, and in this new, manmade environment acid-resistant strains of E. coli have developed that can survive our stomach acids - and go on to kill us. By acidifying a cow's gut with corn, we have broken down one of our food chain's barriers to infections."
Local vs. Commercial
Leaving the debate over grass-fed vs. grain-fed beef aside let’s look for a moment at the issue of locally produced agriculture vs. industrial. When you’re talking about the merits of sustainability (not taking out more than you put in) no one does it better than your local, organic farmer.

It never ceases to amaze me that in July and August I can have more cucumbers than I know what to do with in my back yard and yet when I look at the boxes of cucumbers arriving at the local Pick-n-Save grocery chain they say, Product of California, USA. I recently  disovered  a term for this phenomenon, and it is: “transaction costs”. Again, Michael Pollan:
“Big supermarkets want to do business only with big farmers growing lots of the same thing, not because big monoculture farms are any more efficient (they aren't) but because it's easier to buy all your carrots from a single megafarm than to contract with hundreds of smaller growers. The "transaction costs" are lower, even when the price and the quality are the same.”
And so we ship our cucumbers across the country at exorbitant costs to the environment just to make a lousy salad. The sheer volume of mega farms cucumbers also have the effect of driving the price so low that it becomes economically infeasible for the small scale, local farmer to sell his cucumbers to Pick-N-Save. Thus we have a created an economic climate in which the small family owned farm is disappearing in part because the "transaction costs" associated with distribution to 'mega-grocery' are prohibitive.
Victor Davis Hanson, professor of classics at Stanford University, war historian and farmer, author of The Land Was Everything put it this way:
“We American agrarians of the latter twentieth century fought a war for land we did not even know we were in. Yet apparently we have lost it nonetheless. In the next century… [democracy and capitalism]…will ensure to the millions of the world material prosperity, entertainment, and leisure undreamed of by any generation in the planet’s history […] Family farming, ancient and deemed inefficient, is gone.”
So it seems that although modern agriculture has given the world a cheap and plentiful supply of nutritious, if sometimes tasteless, food, the real question is for how long and at what price? Perhaps sooner than later the cost of fuel to ship cucumbers across the world in February will become prohibitive- and I’m just speaking of the monetary and not the environmental cost. The relevant question may soon become, ‘How many gallons of gasoline does it take to get a cucumber from Fresno to Milwaukee?’

Organic, sustainable agricultural practices were the norm for thousands of years of human history. Civilization itself probably owes its existence to the agrarian community; farmers who came together to fight against the elements, build barns, and fend off enemies who would attack their crops. With the technological advances of the twentieth century have come incredible means of feeding people around the world. But there is a trade off in the net effects on the environment. The age old Platonic dilemma remains, 'Just because we can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean we should.'

Monday, December 28, 2009

Qualities of a Leader

This post is a speech I wrote for a training at the food and beverage department daily briefing at Potawatomi Casino.

I decided to give a speech on the qualities of a great leader. There are a couple problems with that: I'm not a good speaker and I'm not a great leader. So I went to the great repository of information - the internet- and I googled, ‘leadership quotes’. As you can imagine I received about a gazillion quotes and some of them were actually from great leaders. Far too many were from people who wrote books.

But I read, and I sifted;  sorted, organized, categorized; and I came up with what I believe are the five qualities of a great leader; and they are: vision, confidence, trust, ownership, and humility.

I’ll take them each individually, give a couple closing remarks and hopefully we’ll be back to work in about 20 minutes.

“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground.”
-Franklin D. Roosevelt
In order to lead others you have to first know where you are going. You have to have a plan. Thomas Edison said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” Or, put another way, 'a visionary without a plan is just a dreamer.'"

So, you have to have vision, and you have to have a plan- but your plan has to be flexible because...
 “...the best laid plans of mice and men are apt to go astray.” -Robert Burns

Most all great leaders are workaholics- so plan on rising early and working late. The team is inspired by a leader who is found working when they arrive and is still working when they leave. It doesn’t hurt if you spend some time in the trenches either. Do the dirty work- peel the onions, bus the tables; park the cars. If you want the team to share your vision try sharing the work of the team.

“It’s hard to lead a cavalry charge if you think you look funny on a horse.”
- Adlai Stevenson
Alexander the Great literally conquered the world by the time he was 30 years old. He inherited a great army from his father Philip, but no man in history ever led with such unabashed confidence. Alexander used to lead the cavalry charge and was always in the thick of the battle. His troops believed that he was indestructible and this gave them confidence in victory.

A confident leader can inspire even a person of mediocre talent to give excellent results, while an incompetent boss can demoralize even the best team. Confidence in the leader inspires confidence in the vision. Trust in the vision insures buy-in by the team; and no one can lead a cavalry charge without a cavalry.


“Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their ingenuity.”
-George S. Patton
No one likes a micro-manager: share the vision, share the plan; delegate responsibility and demand results. Reward efficiency and re-train when necessary. Most people respond best when they are given ownership of a project. Ownership begets pride.

Lao Tzu, the Chinese philosopher who is credited with the founding of Taoism said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

If you cannot trust your team how on earth can you expect them to trust you?


“The price of greatness is responsibility.”
- Winston Churchill
Harry S. Truman had a plaque on his desk, it said: ‘the buck stops here.’ Harry S. Truman was the man who ordered the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan- effectively killing over 200,000 innocent people.

All leaders make decisions- great leaders make difficult decisions. You don’t always know if it’s the right one but sometimes you have to act- especially if no one else will.

Later in life Truman wrote to his friend Irv Kupcinet, a Chicago broadcaster, “I knew what I was doing when I stopped the war... I have no regrets and, under the same circumstances, I would do it again.” You see, ‘Desperate times call for desperate measures.’


“…let the greatest among you be as the youngest, and the leader as the servant.”
-Jesus Christ
There is perhaps no other figure in human history that has had the impact of this uneducated itinerant preacher from a backwater region in an insignificant little occupied country in a remote corner of the once dominant Roman Empire. He never wrote a book, he never held an office, but his impact on western civilization is incalculable and indesputable. He believed in a simple truth and because he refused to renounce his belief he was executed by the very best, brightest, and powerful people of his day.

Today, the Pope is the spiritual leader of over one billion Catholics. That’s more than half of all Christians and one sixth of the world’s population. He is referred to as, “The servant of the servants of God.”

Joseph Stalin was once advised that the Pope was unhappy with some of his policies. Stalin replied, “How many troops does the Pope have? God is on the side of the biggest battalions.” Well, the Pope has no army- unless you believe in angels-but Joseph Stalin is dead, the Soviet Empire is gone, but the Pope and the Catholic Church are still here. So maybe there’s something to be said for humility.


As I was finishing up this speech I did a little browsing through the sayings of Lao Tzu and I found something that really floored me. Two lines from the Tao Te Ching that effectively destroyed everything I had worked on for the last couple days:

“Those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.”
I nearly decided to quote those two lines and sit down. The message was pure: ‘If you want to be a leader, then find a parade, get out in front of it, and lead. Otherwise, get in the back.'

If there is one thing I learned from this project it’s that great leaders are forged in the fires of crisis. And I wondered who the great leaders are going be in the next year- because I think there’s a storm coming.  I know it’s not me; I’m not smart enough, but I’m ready to follow. So if you have a vision, show me the plan. If you can inspire confidence, if you trust me, I'll fight along side you. I'll make mistakes- so will you. But when the goal is accomplished we'll share the credit with the team. And we may just be able to get through this thing together.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Baby Blue

Singing off key, wishing on a star, sitting on a merry-go-'round;
Looking in a pond, staring at the sun; watching the clouds roll.
Lullabies- daddy just sighs as the baby cries.
Green grasses- time passes you, Baby Blue.

Stand up; take a step to your dad.
Step, close, turn; take another step then you dance.
Angel, walk across the moon and dance across the sky.
Don't cry; time slips by you, Baby Blue.

Castles in the sand, angels in the snow;
Said she would have liked to stay, but she had to go.

Nice coat and a pack of cigarettes for an old man.
Nice boy, run, keep your sister safe, she's an old friend.
Nice man- said he would have liked to stay, but he had to go.
So sad, time has had you, Baby Blue.

Singing off key, wishing on a star, sitting on a merry-go-'round;
Looking in a hole, staring at the ground; feeling the sun go down.
Lullaby- Daddy don't die, you'll make the baby cry.
Green grasses- time passes you, Baby Blue.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Muses on Healthcare

“Sing in me Muse, and through me tell the story…”
-Homer, The Odyssey
Dearest Perses,
Thanks for indulging me in these reflections of mine. They are not cornerstones of my faith but feathers strewn upon the capricious winds. How they dance!

Something in me finds noxious the lack of resilience of the modern American and the debate over healthcare has intensified the bile. This great country was built with the sweat and the blood of his fathers who, I think, understood better the toil which is man's natural lot than his children in this generation do. They have forgotten, or were never taught, that work molds a man and suffering sanctifies him.

Nature does not guarantee many rights to man beyond the chance to live in freedom or slavery, hardship or leisure, according to his wiles and the blessings of Providence. On the other hand we are not barbarians- charity moves us to pity our fellow travelers who are in need and we are bound as men of eternal destiny or simply human virtue to help them. Charity is an act of the free will which also sanctifies us and should not be given over to another lest we lose the means of Grace. Again, neither nature nor the Constitution declare man as having a right to life free of suffering- government run or otherwise- merely the right to make one's way unimpeded by internal tyrants or foreign enemies. (You may disagree with the President but the Constitution gives him the power to commit troops to war and we, if opposed, have the right to vote him out of office- or change the Constitution.)

You say you are unhappy with our two-party system. I admit to its flaws but prefer them to the 'peace' that a one-party system would provide. I certainly reject the proposition of a Philosopher King (other than the Divine Christ) who could govern me better than I do myself. William F. Buckley was fond of saying he would rather be ruled by the first one hundred names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty at Harvard. This is the wisdom of the founders.

I've never had a class in government but I must take issue with your definition of representative democracy as 'giving the majority what they ask for'. This sounds closer to mob rule than rule of law and was the cancer that ate the belly of Rome. Again, I plead a certain ignorance but I thought our republic was predicated not on strict representative democracy but a system of checks and balances to thwart not only the power of government but also the fickle will of the people. The Constitution guarantees the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Liberty (the jewel in her crown) insures that I can live or die on my own merits without the 'safety net' (or snare) of Government. As to people being "mislead" by deceitful rhetoricians – this is Politics; the second oldest profession. Cain and Able were the first politicians and the process hasn't improved.

On to another point, and again I beg your indulgence, I'm not a hard man but I want to examine the first principles of our discussion, namely, 'is health care a right or privilege?' I maintain that it is indeed a privilege, since no man can have a right to that which belongs to another. A physician is to be paid for his services by the one who receives treatment. If the recipient cannot pay that is between the doctor and patient- and if it comes to it, the courts. The Hippocratic oath is for the virtue of the doctor and the good of man but does not bind the rest of society.

In the scenario you present your man elects not to buy insurance and an accident leaves him with a lifelong crushing debt. He exercised his right not to pay the premium and his decision was foolhardy. I can give you examples from the great teachers from Hesiod to Confucius to Christ who warn their disciples to prepare the barn against the day of famine. Your welfare is your personal responsibility and you must not presume upon the charity of strangers. One need not be educated to understand this so I won't entertain any arguments of having to provide for the ignorant masses, who have managed quite well throughout history. Now, the feeble minded and the infirm are another matter- they are the children of Zeus who's cries invoke his wrath and we cannot neglect them without losing our humanity. I'm speaking of the one who neglects his own house and then cries to Justice for reparation- she will not hear him.

You mention how one man born into wealth does not suffer the afflictions of another who is born to poverty. I would answer that Envy is a troublesome mistress. Do not begrudge your neighbor his wealth, for wealth is his burden and poverty yours and neither one guarantees happiness. Peace comes with the virtues well attended. See to your own happiness and let your brother attend to his.

Regarding your use of the term of 'developed countries' I would substitute the more accurate, if vulgar term, 'prosperous'- for one may be 'developed' in many ways but prosperity is prosperity. Whether our good fortune is from the gods, toil, resource, or luck it is not a blessing alone but also a curse. Too much prosperity has turned America into a land of entitlement as well as opportunity. Many of her free born citizens are closer to narcissistic Paris than valiant Achilles. The wealthy (and there are princes aplenty) have turned from teaching their children the pursuit of honor to tending to the 'business of business'. We have become a slave to the dollar rather than its master precisely because prosperity has lulled us into quiet submission to our possessions (iPods, plasma televisions, cellular phones, internet...) and our passions. In the words of a recently deceased friend of mine, Bruce Behling, who was at one time vice president of a major capital management firm, "a luxury once tried soon becomes a necessity."

Of the world’s prosperous countries I believe ours is the longest surviving under a continuous system of government and- more to the point- economic system, namely Free Market Capitalism. While she may have her faults the goddess Capitalism has proven to have remarkable resilience, and as anyone who has tried to bed her can attest, a mind of her own. She is at once a tawdry seductress, devoted wife and strict mother. She is like the hand of God who ‘giveth’ and ‘taketh away’ and any attempts to rein her in chances disruption of the whole system and the Diva’s wrath. Ronald Regan, under the inspiration of Milton Friedman said it best, “Government is not the solution; government is the problem.” Let the oracles read the signs and she will hand out punishments and rewards as only the divine goddess can.

It isn’t technology or medicine or a political party that I rail against, Perses, but the attitude that assumes a 'right' that neither nature nor the Constitution allows. Prudence, Temperance, Valor, Justice, and Charity built this nation- Envy, Greed, and Sloth may be her undoing. That is my opinion. If I am wrong I will be judged by the One who stands above human history and culture, who judges intentions and actions with omniscient clarity, and not by the shifting winds of passing convention.

I’m sorry if I let the Muses control me, Dear Perses, but your youthful zeal also inspires me. I wish I had more time to revise these murmurings but the nature of the medium is what it is. I do hope I did not offend- that is the last thing I want to do. You are a very good, intelligent and honest young man and I applaud your charity and righteousness. May the gods smile upon your way.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Prayer Before Communion

Mary, my mother, enter into my heart and receive the body of your son Jesus as you received him into your womb at the incarnation, and into your arms at the nativity and the foot of the cross. Receive him with humility, recollection and great love, as you received him in holy communion; and pray for me, Mother of My Soul, who am your unworthy servant.