Saturday, April 28, 2012

I voted twice

I just voted today right after the polls opened.  And I voted twice.  As the old saying goes: "Vote early and vote often."

The first time I voted in this election cycle was a few weeks ago.  It was at the courthouse.  It was very solemn.  I think most of us know the ritual.  After being checked by a volunteer, I was escorted behind a curtain (adorned in the National Colors).  And in total privacy with the serious air of a sacramental confessional, I voted using the computer.  This was a "primary" election held under the auspices of the government.  Polls were open all day, and people even voted days in advance using "early balloting."

At that time, there was no campaigning close by, nobody seeking my vote.  In fact, there are laws against it.  Even wearing a candidate's tee shirt or button within so many feet of the polling place during the election is illegal.  There is a statue of Thomas Jefferson a few feet away from where this election took place.

And it didn't count!

At most, that "election" was a non-binding referendum.  In reality, it as more or less a poll.

Today, I voted for real - more or less, anyway.

This "election" was a "caucus" and was held at a Quality Inn and run by volunteers from a private club.  Voters had to be there between 8:30 am and 12:00 noon.  And this is the one that supposedly counts.  This is the one that will actually select delegates - which is to say, the people who will really vote.

There are two private clubs that run the real elections.  You get to join one or the other, but not both.  And if you don't join either one, you don't get to vote.  The private clubs (which are along the lines of the collegia in the Roman Republic/Empire) have a lot of behind-the-scenes politicking and arm-twisting that are unseen by the voting public.  The clubs are usually called "parties" - but they are so similar as to be wings of a common single party.  And like the Crips and the Bloods, the main difference between the two is that one is symbolized by red, the other blue.  And again, unless you join one of these clubs, you get no vote at all in the "primary" election - which determines the candidates that will appear in the "general" election in the fall.

So today's event was, in fact, the real election (the "caucus"), as opposed to the one from a few weeks back (the "primary").

There was more of a carnival feel to it.  Unlike the solemn (non-) election at the courthouse, there were no anti-campaigning laws.  People walked about in tee-shirts and carrying campaign material.  I approached the volunteer desk and gave my name and driver's license.  When I was asked for identification, I produced my Discover card.  It was a mistake, but I consider it more of a Freudian slip.

When she handed me my ballot, I reached inside my pocket and pulled out the little case holding my reading classes, and the volunteer gasped and said she thought I was pulling out a knife.  What a sad country we have become!  Anyway, my wife and I each took the yellow piece of paper, and it was explained to us that we could either choose 25 names on one side of the ballot, or pick a slate on the other side of the ballot.

I took my ballot and looked for a place to fill it out.

I found a window ledge (overlooking the motel parking lot) so I could fill it out.  There was no little confessional booth draped in the National Colors.  As I was getting ready to vote, an older lady approached me and asked me if I knew who I was going to vote for.  I told her that I did.  She stuck her tongue out at me.  At this point, I was waiting to see if the Queen of Hearts and the Cheshire Cat would be entering stage left.  I asked her: "Why did you stick your tongue out at me?"  She replied: "I wanted you to vote for me.  If you change your mind, I'm on slate..." and she gave me the number.

I went back to the window ledge overlooking the Quality Inn parking lot so I could exercise my sacred franchise.  Needless to say, I did not support the Geriatric Lingual Slate, even with her continued yammering at me while I voted.

Afterward, Grace and I looked for where to place our "ballots."  There were cardboard boxes with holes cut in the top, kind of like something out of The Little Rascals.  A man approached us before we deposited them in the box.  He wanted to see our ballots.  He was some kind of Party volunteer, and he said he wanted to make sure that we hadn't voted on both sides of the ballot (which would have spoiled the ballot).  I found that a little odd.  Of course, I have no idea what happens to all of those paper ballots once everyone has left and volunteers from the private club start pulling them out.  I can't honestly say that I have much confidence in the process.

And that is how the Party (both of its wings) selects candidates for the "general election."  The fate of the republic hangs in those cardboard boxes with such characters that I saw today.

I'm reminded of my friend the history buff, who has a century-old ballot box from Texas that still has the lock on it and the "ballots" inside.  I'm also reminded of Communist elections, in which you can vote for any candidate as long as it is the only one on the ballot, and you can belong to any party so long as it is the Communist Party.

A lot of people believe we have a democratic form of government.  Fewer still believe we live in a republic.  I think we are really operating under some kind of bureaucratic apparatchikocracy (or a political version of the System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether) - though from what I saw today, maybe the best term is idiocracy.

The part that made the most sense was my son Leo with his toy light saber hoping to defend the republic.  I guess both of us have a healthy imagination.

Vote early, and vote often!  It's an eye-opening experience.

Monday, April 23, 2012

New Blog: Travels in Lutheran Siberia

Father Hollywood meets Father Vladislav

It has taken me a while to do this, but I have compiled my travel-blog posts from my trip to Siberia, re-edited them a bit, blew-up (as in enlarged, not as in exploded) the pictures and added some captions, and re-arranged them in chronological order.

I laid all of this out in a new blog with some different links and features, and with a different look.

The best part, though, is that it is in chronological order and easy to navigate (at least I think so).

So here it is...

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

American Royalty and a Missed Opportunity

No wonder people spend millions of dollars making promises they could never keep to the American people  in order to become president and first lady, or should we say king and queen of America.  It's a pretty good gig!

I would love to be there for pizza with His Royal Highness in Detroit next Wednesday, but I'm having the oil changed in my Learjet that day, and I'm also expecting Bill Gates and the Sultan of Brunei over for beanie-weenies served on solid platinum saucers.  I do hope somebody is bringing the Dom Perignon, especially after I just bought brand new matching tumblers from WalMart (Biden tipped me off about the rollback...).

Ah, what is a good American to do?  I'm so disappointed.

Note to self: be sure to have regrets sent engraved by hand on solid gold plates and delivered by the butler as soon as he returns from the French Riviera (good help is so hard to find these days).

Opulence, he has it!

 What the people think the bishop had on his wrist

What the bishop really had on his wrist

This surreal article made me think of the video below...

And this one too...

A good "reflection" or bad?  Epic win, or epic fail?  Does the bishop have any lap giraffes?

Losing Fat Without Work?

It seems like there is always another fad or product or program that promises weight loss without working out - usually with the tantalizing claim that you can eat anything you want and still lose weight.  I even remember something about an ad a few years ago that claimed you could drink all the beer you want, sit on the couch, and still the pounds would melt off.  I bet that guy made a few bucks!

Mostly that kind of claim (weight loss without hard work) is nonsense.  But only mostly.

I want to report that I am stunned and amazed at my shrinking belly and how it has almost gone completely away in about a month - without working out and without taking pills.  I ran across a website by a guy named Mark Sisson, a remarkably fit middle-aged former marathon runner who has come to the conclusion that our entire approach to healthy eating and exercise is not just all wrong, but almost opposite of what really works.

He calls his approach The Primal Blueprint.

He starts with a premise based on evolutionary theory to explain why it works, and he introduces a mythical caveman to make the argument.  You can ignore all the evolutionary theory, however.  It makes no difference whether we are acting contrary to our natural bodies as evolved (according to the myth) or as created (and corrupted by original sin). His caveman tale as a foil to present the approach doesn't validate it or invalidate it.

I began to see how far we Americans have let ourselves go when I went to Russia last summer.  I saw almost no fat people anywhere.  A person who was "a bit chunky" there was a rarity.  I saw nobody who was morbidly obese - while this is increasingly common in the U.S.  Here in the states, I have always been considered "thin" - even with my middle aged paunch.  I saw how different my physique was when I was in Russia.  I was embarrassed.

Russians typically walk more than we do (especially in the summer), and that's part of it.  But the diet is really where we differ.  Russians typically do not eat junk food, prepackaged snacks, and sugary drinks.  They eat much simpler and healthier meals, usually consisting of a soup, a salad, and a meat dish.  The serving sizes are much smaller.  Food is not typically industrial and prepackaged.  They do not constantly walk around with Cokes and bags of chips in their hands "grazing" all day the way Americans typically do.  They don't eat a lot of sweets.  Fast foods are not part of the daily regimen.  Many people still grow their own vegetables.  Their meat and milk are not laced with hormones and chemicals.

They drink a lot of water, and a good bit of tea.  I found that they drink a lot less coffee than we do - and of course, far (far!) less by way of carbonated drinks - diet or otherwise.  They do have some of these things, but practice great moderation and self-control - something we Americans are not known for.

Until about a month ago, I was more than 170 pounds (I'm about 5' 10" and 48 years old), mostly with my excess fat distributed in my belly.  I don't drink much beer at all, but I was really getting a "beer gut."  I like candy, sweets, sodas, and snack foods.  I love ice cream, and became fond of a midnight snack of a bowl (or even two) of cereal.  I generally drank diet drinks, but very little water.

I did get in the habit of drinking a lot less coffee and more tea (including antioxidant-rich green teas) when I came back from Russia.

About a month ago, I joined a gym and resolved to get back into shape.  I used to run marathons in my 20s and 30s.  While at seminary, in my late 30s, I did the Bill Phillips Body for Life challenge (along with Grace).  We went like maniacs and were, if I may say so myself, quite buff by the end.  We basically continued the lifestyle, while easing up a bit after the challenge actually ended.  BFL is a 12-week plan of  balance between carbs and protein, lots of supplements (protein shakes), no sweets, and hitting the gym hard three days a week and doing aerobic exercise (running) the other three days.  We had a gymnasium to use free of charge at the seminary, and we pounded a lot of pavement and pumped a lot of iron.  My vicarage year (after leaving the seminary) was basically a continuation of the physical regimen without the supplements and less emphasis on diet.

But over the years since then, middle age crept up, and we (myself more than Grace) put on the pounds.  Grace's cross to bear was recovering from pregnancy (which she did quite well over time).

So, bottom line: just a few weeks ago, we decided to go back to the gym and try out Mark Sisson's philosophy (which is rather like Atkins - basically very low carbs, lots of protein).

So here is what I did:

  • Cut out the starchy carbohydrates entirely: rice, potatoes, bread, cereal - all gone.  That means no more of my favorite food: pizza.  No more French bread.  No more bowls of cereal.  All gone.  No "cheat day."  Gone in toto.  I figured this was a short-term experiment, and I needed to see results.
  • Cut out the desserts.  No more ice cream, cake, pie, etc.  We do allow ourselves little squares of dark chocolate (which is an antioxidant and good for the heart if consumed in small quantities) eaten sparingly as a treat.
  • I upped the protein considerably.  Nuts, seeds, meat.  Almost limitless quantities of beef, chicken, boiled eggs, beef jerky - even bacon.  Yum!
  • I enjoy fruits in moderation (they are carbs and laden with sugar, but are also healthy).
  • I eat lots of vegetables!
That's pretty much it on the diet.  No calorie counting, no extensive planning.  We have continued a basic vitamin regimen that has served us very well over the past few couple years - we are almost never sick.  We take a One-a-Day, a B-vitamin, some D, and Glucosamine-Chondroitin for joint health (which we actually have stopped recently).  We also drink a powdered Vitamin C and immune system boost to ward off colds.  I have them all ready to go in the morning. (If I feel a cold coming on, I hit the Zinc and "Airborne" tablets hard and fast.  I find them very effective).

For breakfast, I continue to have my cappuccino (double espresso with whole foamed milk, but I have abolished the sugar).  For a morning snack, I eat some nuts (not peanuts though, as they are carbs), a few grapes, and a boiled egg.  At lunch, I eat a can of chicken and microwave juicy frozen vegetables (Bird's Eye Stir Fry, no sauce!) with olive oil (a tablespoon and a half) and seeds (a full tablespoon) on them.  Yum!  I try to drink tea here and there during the day - especially green tea - no sugar (except once in a while).

Dinner is typically chicken (or beef) and vegetables.  We enjoy ethnic vegetable and meat dishes.  Sometimes we go out to eat.  It's really pretty easy to go primal even at fast food joints and other restaurants.  For example, at McDonald's, I usually get two Angus bacon and cheese snack wraps - and get rid of the wrap.  I eat the meat, cheese, onions, bacon, and pickles with a fork.  No fries!  Absolutely no fries!  I may get a diet soda as a treat, since I don't really drink them at home.

You can basically do the same at Wendy's.  Taco Bell, no.  Fried chicken and fish is not the best, but if we go to Chick Fil-A or eat fried catfish (our church had fish fry Fridays during Lent), that's not so bad - so long as there are no potatoes or goodies involved.

Chinese buffet is really easy - no rice, just meat.  Lots of it!  Yum!  And Texas Road House is also easy: just avoid the bread and fries.  Order the steak with two sides, and make the sides veggies and green beans.  That's it!  And drinking water saves money.

I have found it surprisingly easy to give up the goodies.  It's just about starting a new habit.  We can have as much as we want for snacks - so long as we're talking meat, eggs (boiled eggs are really convenient - make them ahead of time and load up the fridge), beef jerky, etc.

Working out became almost impossible though, as I work full-time in the parish ministry and have a part-time job as well.  I went to the gym almost every day for a week - and then we had things that needed attending to, and Grace and I both fell out of the habit of going to the gym.  But something interesting happened...

I lost weight quicker and easier than I did doing BFL even without the working out six days a week!  The pounds seemed to melt away.  I was losing about a half-pound a day.  My posture improved.  My mind became sharper.  My aching joints became healthier.  Grace and I noticed that our skin really improved (thanks to the oil).  I was not starving.  I also had (and have) far more energy.

On Good Friday, I wore a dressy cincture (belt) with my cassock that I had not been able to get into in about seven years.  A couple days later, just for kicks, I wore my 1986 Aerosmith concert t-shirt without my belly protruding.  I bought that shirt when I was 22 years old.  I can wear it after a month of basically cutting out carbs - without even having to work out.  I went from the 170s (I don't even remember my beginning weight, as I was not taking it very seriously at first), and now I have broken the 160 barrier.  My last weigh in brought me to 158 pounds.  My 32  inch pants are hanging off of me.  I have to hike my belt tight to keep my trousers from falling off!

So now, I am indeed ready to take things to the next level.  Some of our issues have ironed out.  We are actually going to cancel our gym membership.  We live near a path for biking and running, so we can do that.  We have a pull-up bar and are considering making a small area in the shed to do free weights (which we already have).  A former teacher of mine - who was very fit well into middle age and actually bore a striking resemblance to Mark Sisson - once explained to me that you don't need to go to the gym - just do push-ups and crunches.  It worked very well for him.

So there you have it.  I think anyone can do this.  It is so worth it!  And it is not an inflexible program.  I actually had a piece of carrot cake for Easter.  But just one - not two or six.

I wanted to pass this along to anyone wanting to give it a shot.  I know that the Rev. William Weedon is a primal guy.  I know there are several others in the Lutheran blogosphere who have tried it and praise its effectiveness.  You can't argue with success!

Here are a few links: This is a young Asian guy who stopped eating rice and got amazing results.  Here is a similar story from a lady of Italian extraction who finally gave up pasta, and saw tremendous results.  Finally, here is a 71-year old man whose life has been changed by going primal.

Mark Sisson isn't selling anything. He's not trying to hawk supplements or exercise gadgets. He has authored a book (which he is quick to tell you that you don't really need - all the information is actually on his free website) and he gives away an e-book specifically about Primal Fitness.  Dr. Joseph Mercola has some similar thoughts on exercise (see here).  There are a lot of other "testimonials" on Mark Sisson's site here.  It is especially encouraging to read about people getting off of prescription drugs for things like high blood pressure and acid reflux.  Our diet in America is not commensurate with what our bodies need.  Sisson's website includes a lot of free articles and video, such as today's offering about using a pull-up bar.

His approach does run against the grain (pun intended) of some "conventional wisdom" - especially when it comes to FDA recommendations.  Keep in mind, the government is run by lobbyists, and government's conclusions are not necessarily the healthiest, but rather the wealthiest (for them, anyway).  If their guidelines were as good as they claim, we would not see so much childhood obesity, diabetes, and all the other health problems associated by being too fat.  Mark Sisson advocates for more nature and less industrial processing. This fits in well with what I saw in Russia.

So take responsibility for your own health, and leave the government bureaucrats to what they do best: making money for those industries who bribe them.  I have no financial dog in this hunt.  I'm not invested in anything I've mentioned.  I'm not selling anything.  I'm just stunned at how well this works.  It's like magic - mainly because it is rooted in truth instead of what is convenient for Big Pharma and Big Agribusiness.

I'm skeptical about claims of weight loss and "easy" programs.  But I can't argue against my own success.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

One of the Best Books I Have Ever Read

Thanks to this article (which is an outstanding read in and of itself) I learned about the heroic Russian dissident Vladimir K. Bukovsky and his out-of-print remarkable biographical work To Build A Castle: My Life as a Dissenter - which I promptly ordered through inter-library loan.

I literally could not put the book down.

Bukovsky is an outstanding writer, and he structured the book almost as a novel or a fast-paced thriller.  It is so well-done that I think it would make for a compelling film.  It chronicles his life and work as a Soviet-era dissident, his work with fellow dissidents, scientists, and writers in not only producing samizdat (anonymous free-press newspapers) but also openly engaging in public demonstrations - only to be arrested by the KGB again and again.  It covers his many years in Gulag prisons, how he kept his sanity, how he was mistreated (though his prose is not gratuitous), how the Soviets misused Psychiatry as a means of political control, and how the bureaucrats who ran the country and the prison system eventually devoured one another - especially in the light of international scrutiny.

Castle is an epic of courage and devotion to liberty.

Vladimir Bukovsky was born during World War II (The Great Patriotic War) in the immediate aftermath of the end of Stalinism.  In his teen years, he rejected Communism and became involved in the burgeoning dissident movement.  Those were frightening times, and it took courage and a willingness to be imprisoned for years on end, being sent to "psychiatric hospitals" and exiled internally to labor camps - only to be released and have the whole process repeated again - all in order to continue to put pressure on the tyrannical Soviet government to start respecting human rights and liberties.  Eventually, their pressure on the bureaucracy led to the collapse of the Gulag system, the end of the USSR, and the tearing down of the Iron Curtain.

In 1976, Vladimir Bukovsky was exiled to the west.

He moved to Cambridge, England where he still lives.  A neurophysiologist, he earned a Masters degree from the University of Cambridge in Biology.  He remains politically active.  In a 2005 Washington Post article, he warned the United States about the dangers of normalizing torture as public policy.  Embedded below is a video of Bukovski warning his fellow British citizens about the dangers of the European Union - which he sees as just another incarnation of the Soviet Union.  He is a member of the UK Independence Party (whose president is the intrepid Nigel Farage).

And here is a link to an interview with Bukovsky on the shortcomings of the EU.  Here is a link to much of Bukovsky's writings in both English and Russian.

What follows are a couple of quotes from To Build A Castle: My Life as a Dissenter that I found particularly interesting:

On Marxist Economic Theory:

This dream of absolute, universal equality is amazing, terrifying, and inhuman.  And the moment it captures people's minds, the result is mountains of corpses and rivers of blood, accompanied by attempts to straighten the stooped and shorten the tall.  I remember that one part of the psychiatric examination was a test for idiocy.  The patient was given the following problem to solve: "Imagine a train crash.  It is well known that the part of the train that suffers the most damage in such crashes is the carriage at the rear.  How can you prevent that damage from taking place?"  The idiot's usual reply is expected to be: Uncouple the last carriage.  That strikes us as amusing, but just think, are the theory and practice of socialism much better?

Society, say the socialists, contains both the rich and the poor.  The rich are getting richer and the poor poorer ---  What is to be done?  Uncouple the last carriage, liquidate the rich, take away their wealth and distribute it among the poor.  And they start to uncouple the carriages.  But there is always one carriage at the back, there are always richer and poorer, for society is like a magnet: there are always two poles.  But does this discourage a true socialist?  The main thing is to realize his dream; so the richest section of society is liquidated first, and everyone rejoices because everyone gains from the share-out.  But the spoils are soon spent, and people start to notice inequality again --- again there are rich and poor.  So they uncouple the next carriage, and then the next, without end, because absolute equality has still not been achieved.  Before you know it, the peasant who has two cows and a horse turns out to be in the last carriage and is pronounced a kulak and deported.  Is it really surprising that whenever you get striving for equality and fraternity, the guillotine appears on the scene?

....It is difficult for man to resist this dream and this noble impulse, particularly for men who are impetuous and sincere.  They are the first to start chopping heads off and, eventually, to have their own chopped off.  (pp 106-108).

On Resistance and Inner Freedom

[I]f you answered lawlessness with lawlessness, there was precious little chance of ensuring observance of the law.  There was simply no other way.  In exactly the same way, answering violence with violence would only multiply violence, and answering lies with lies would never bring us closer to the truth....

[T]he suggestion was that citizens who were fed up with terror and coercion should simply refuse to acknowledge them.  The point about dealing with the Communists is that to acknowledge the reality of the life they have created and to assent to their notions means ipso facto to become bandits, informers, hangmen, or silence accomplices.  Power rests on nothing other than people's consent to submit, and each person who refuses to submit to tyranny reduces it by one two-hundred-and-fifty-millionth, whereas each who compromises only increases it.... It presupposed a small core of freedom in the individual, his "subjective sense of right," as Volpin put it.  In other words, a consciousness of his personal responsibility.  Which meant, in effect, inner freedom. (p. 240).

On Non-Violence

Until people learn to demand what belongs to them by right, no revolution will liberate them.  And by the time they learn, a revolution won't be necessary.  No, I don't believe in revolution, I don't believe in forcible salvation.

It is easy to imagine what would happen in this country if there were a revolution: universal looting, economic collapse, internecine butchery, and in every district a different band of outlaws with its own "gangleader" at its head.  And the passive, terrorized majority would gladly submit to the first strong system of government to come along, in other words, a new dictatorship. (pp. 323-324).