Tag Archive: consumer


Newspin

Pueblo Going Nuclear?

(Originally printed in PULP)

Everyone’s aglow about the prospect of nuclear power coming to southern Colorado. Given the ongoing plant disaster in Japan, it seems the timing for such a proposal could not be worse, though the plans for the 24,000-acre Clean Energy Park southeast of town were moving ahead well before then.

Lawyer and local resident Don Banner is at the helm of the proposal, which would develop in three phases. At present, he’s seeking rezoning for the giant swath of land in eastern Pueblo County for a PUD, or Planned Unit Development.

As Banner himself noted, there are scores of factors that would have to fall into place for his plan to work, only one of which is local support. But he claims, too, that the only way to bring together other green energy components of the park. such as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal, is to go nuclear, to the tune of a 1,000 megawatt plant, give or take a few watts.

There’s plenty of hyperbole around such an explosive issue, so let’s set aside the Simpsons-like images of fish with three eyes long enough to get a little bit more perspective on what’s at stake.

PRO

It’s easy to hedge at plans for a nuclear power plant, reacting with a knee-jerk sense of fear. From Chernobyl to Three Mile Island, the fallout from a nuclear plant failure ain’t pretty. But Banner argues that the fears are generally overblown. Chernobyl’s substandard engineering doomed it from the start, and Three Mile Island – the only nuclear plant to fail on US soil to date – cannot be connected to any actual deaths, according to Banner.

The new plant would be far superior to either of the aforementioned plants, he says, and it would be located in a relatively remote area, buffered on all sides by thousands of acres of the Clean Energy Park. As for security, the storage facilities where the spent fuel rods are kept after use have been tested against the heartiest potential air attacks, standing firm in the face of fire.

On the upside, we would enjoy hundreds of Davis Bacon-wage jobs over the several years it would take to build the plant, followed by up to a hundred permanent jobs that pay well above average for power plant work. In addition, more than a dozen interest groups organized by Banner, from local schools to nonprofits, would share in hundreds of thousands of dollars donated back to the community.

The average Joe Consumer would stand to benefit from Banner’s proposal to contractually require the utility company that builds the plant to sell power generated to Pueblo residents, the price of which would be equal to the cheapest rate offered to any other community. Pueblo would benefit from the taxes the plant would push back into the local economy, and Banner suggests that the number of secondary jobs due to the new plant could grow into the hundreds.

Another big question is water.  We’re more or less in the middle of the desert here, and nuclear plants require water to keep the fission process under control. Though Mr. Banner points out that the volume of water needed will depend largely on what kind of plant a developer can place on the land, he projects that consumptive water use (the amount that can’t be returned directly to the water system) could be as low as 125 acre-feet per year.

CON

It’s well and good to claim no lives lost during the Three Mile Island catastrophe, but some studies have projected that upwards of 5,000 will eventually die because of complications related to radiation exposure from the site. This is not to mention the risks to the livestock, land and other natural resources which could be affected for hundreds of years or more, should an accident happen.

So the silos where the radioactive spent fuel rods are stored (on-site, by law, for at least sixty years) may be sturdy, but are we inviting terrorist attacks by having such materials lying around? And, current US law requires that the uranium be removed from reactors and stored before it reaches weapons-grade level. This means it still has the potential to be converted to weapons-grade uranium, which seems to invite trouble.

Most of the construction work would be temporary, and yet we’d be left to contend with nuclear waste for generations. And who is responsible for decommissioning the plant after its projected 60- to 80-year life? If history is an indicator, the plant operators will walk away and leave local taxpayers with the bill.

Pueblo is developing a reputation for being the dumping ground for power plants other folks need but don’t want in their own back yards. How much of the power created will actually stay in Pueblo? And doesn’t having the plant in our county warrant a little bit more of a homeboy discount?

Jobs are fine, but if folks don’t have water to drink, what good is economic development? How many hundreds or thousands of acres of farmland will dry up as a result of water purchased for the power plant, and how many agricultural jobs will dry up as a result? Will the water that passes through the plant damage the streams into which it is released? Is nuclear power our last, best hope to stem the effects of global warming, or are we just passing on the problem in another, possibly more dangerous, form to future generations? Can we afford the water? Are we even sure the net to Pueblo is positive when all is told?

And the debate rages on.

My Take

Comparing the proposed plant to the one in Japan impacted by a 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami really isn’t fair. Neither is in the cards for Pueblo. And yes, modern plants have many more safeguards than those from decades past. But aside from moral, safety and security arguments, there’s the question of what we want Pueblo to be.

Will we continue to produce for wealthier communities what they need, yet refuse to provide for themselves? And will we use our limited water resources to do so, for the promise of a fleeting handful of jobs and some negligibly cheaper power? Or are we something more?

Our bountiful sun and wind position us to be industry leaders in renewable energy, setting a standard that others around the world will long to follow.  Do we want to invest in decades-old technology that may be at its apex, or should we focus on developing energy technologies that have more potential without the negative environmental impact?

We’ve gotten a start with the likes of Vestas and the proposed solar arrays here and in the San Luis Valley. But we have to believe that we’re more than a repository for the rest of the state’s undesirable industries.

Finally, we’ve created this beat of need for power with our own unbridled consumption habits. If we’re really worried about what the risks of such power sources will be for any community – not just ours, the only real solution is to reduce consumption.

It’s been said that the two-fold path to happiness includes both making more and needing less. Only one is a path that leads anywhere. We have to choose our own path.

NewSpin@ PuebloPULP.com

NewSpin: House of the Rising Stench
Written by Christian Piatt
December 2010

There’s a home down the street from us that’s affectionately known by neighbors – particularly those within smelling distance – as “The Toilet.” On warm days, the distinct smells of decaying garbage and slow-rotting feces waft through the air.

Gross, right? Try living by it.

The Toilet, which some might call a rental property, sits at 1724 N. Grand and is the bane of the block. In a neighborhood that has been designated “historic,” The Toilet stands alone as a monument to squalor. From the couch on the front porch to waist-high weeds and crumbling façade, the place looks like it should be condemned.

How can anyone live in such conditions? For most of the past decade no one has lived there, which is part of the problem.

The house, title to which is under the name of Robert P. Mourning, was consistently rented until mid-2003. After the last tenants moved out, the utilities were disconnected and the house sat vacant for the next six years. In the meantime, homeless people regularly broke in and made camp – bathroom included – inside the house, alongside wild animals that found shelter within the decaying walls.

For years, neighbors would occasionally mow the lawn and pick up trash left by homeless visitors in an effort to keep the place from looking even worse. The owner was nowhere to be found, and would not return messages.

When some renters finally moved in, the carpet, which by now was drenched in sewage from a backup in the lines, was tossed into the backyard along with animal excrement, garbage and other goodies. What wasn’t thrown into the yard or the garage was burned in the fireplace, creating a noxious stench that caused several neighbors to call everyone from the sheriff to the health department in an effort to get the place cleaned up.

Oh, and although the new family moved into the place, they did so without reconnecting any utilities, including water. So they used candles to light the space despite the many clear code violations. When regional building staff finally deemed the home uninhabitable until utilities were turned back on, the family simply tore down all warnings and camped inside until the sheriff’s department threatened them with serious consequences if they were found on the grounds except to clean it during the day.

More than a month later, the utilities were reinstated and the young family moved back in, along with at least eight cats and a dog. There seemed to be a revolving door on the house, with various newcomers crashing there from one night to the next. Meanwhile, the animal excrement was tossed into the backyard to mingle with the carpet and other garbage.

You get the picture.

A number of complaints were filed with the health department, and a few times Mr. Mourning was ticketed. But there were a couple of problems with the system. First, the fines cost significantly less than any of the repairs would have been to remedy the issue. Second, no one with any authority followed up to enforce the violations.

Instead, Mourning’s paid a few hundred dollars to satisfy citations over the past decade, and the festering heap of a house continues to decay before the community’s eyes and noses.

When challenged by neighbors of such properties about the relatively impotent code enforcement power the city and county seem to have in such cases, officials balked, saying that their hands are tied by state regulations. This, however, is false, since local communities can establish their own codes and consequences, so long as they are at least as strict as the state’s.

It would be bad enough if this was an isolated incident, but Mourning himself owns more than a dozen properties around town, many of which are in similar shape – or worse. If he were the only culprit, a handful of run-down homes wouldn’t be enough to create a larger negative perception of our city. But he’s not.

So, if slumlords have little incentive to change their ways, and our local officials hedge at giving more teeth or funding to the anemic code enforcement we currently have, what’s a resident to do? For one local citizen, the answer is to take the cause online.

Lori Winner started a Facebook page called Pueblo Houseofshame, inviting people to post photos of decrepit properties with the hope that community pressure would push owners and residents to clean up their act. One can also email photos taken from the street (please, no trespassing) to pueblohouseofshame@yahoo.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it , along with the address and details about the condition of the site, and Lori will post it for all to see. [See sidebar.]

We all know that Pueblo struggles with an image problem with many tourists and residents from the north. But until we become more proactive about making the change ourselves, and unless regional building officials and other code-enforcement bodies get serious about making it painful for owners to let blight continue, whom can we really blame for the bad rap we have, other than ourselves?

An Update

Over the weekend prior to publication, Lori Winner, moderator of the Pueblo Houseofshame page on Facebook, posted that she had received a “proverbial shot over the bough” and was considering shutting the page down.

In response to P.U.L.P.’s inquiry, Ms. Winner said she had received word from her husband – Jay Winner, Executive Director of the Lower Arkansas Valley Water Conservancy District – that Pueblo police captain Troy Davenport wanted to speak to her. Though her husband gave Davenport her number, Ms. Winner claims he didn’t call her.

The week of November 20th, Ms. Winner wrote to me, stating, “[My husband] Jay’s board member told Jay on Tuesday that Davenport said that ‘police were laughing because they are going to drive by her houses.’ On Friday I [received] 3 citations on 3 different rental properties,” though she claims her properties all are “nice” and that, “The violations are ridiculous, and easily fixed at no cost.” She added, “however I am seeing this as a warning shot.”

Following her husband’s call to one of the board members who had heard the conversation noted above, Ms. Winner received a call from Capt. Davenport, who denied that her properties were being targeted in retaliation for her publicity against run-down properties and the lack of enforcement by local officials.

Davenport told P.U.L.P. that the reason he originally intended to call Ms. Winner was to invite her and her husband to observe how the code-enforcement process works in person. However, when seeking permission for this, other officials from the city told him the Winners already had been offered such an opportunity, so Davenport saw no point in calling her.

Davenport also said that he has no recollection of any such comments being made at any meeting where he was present. He also clarified that the three items issued to Ms Winner’s properties were notices of violation, and not citations, which means the property owner has ten days to remedy the violation without further action.

Davenport said that it is the policy of the code enforcement department to respond to any citizen complaint, including the cases involving Ms. Winner. He also noted that, since all complaints are allowed to remain anonymous, he had no way of knowing who had lodged the complains against Ms. Winner’s properties.

My wife, Amy and I were watching TV the other night, and a series of commercials came on that told me a lot about who the sponsors of the show thought I was. First, there was a Pepsi ad for this program they have where they give “grants” to people with good, community-changing ideas. Second was a Sun Chips commercial touting their new compostable packaging.

I remarked to Amy about how prevalent this kind of social marketing had become, and did so with no small amount of disdain in my voice, I expect, based on the way she looked at me.

Basically, it’s popular these days for companies to tout their social responsibility to help persuade you to buy their product. From Sun Chips (owned by junk food giant Frito Lay) to Pepsi, and even Coke with their “every time you drink our sugary, caffeine-laced soda, you’re participating in worldwide recycling” promotion, everyone wants to get in on the action. Of course, food and beverage manufacturers aren’t the only one’s getting in on the action. Car manufacturers, clothing designers and all manner of retail chains try hard to give you wamr fuzzies about their products.

On the surface, I know it seems cynical to grumble about companies trying to be socially responsible, even if it only is to better their bottom line. After all, if the result is the same, who cares what their motivation really is, right? But the concern I have hearkens back to my time-tested theory about capitalism at the consumer-level, which is that companies try hard to make us feel good about buying their stuff, and we agree not to ask too many questions, because we’d rather feel good (even if falsely or superficially) about getting what we want rather than doing the hard work of digging deeper for truth and – God forbid – maybe having to sacrifice some wants for our ethics.

First, we should never take a company at their word that what they’re doing is good for us or the planet. As an example, here’s a recent mention about Sun Chips’ installation of a ten-acre field of solar panels to help operate one of their factories, for which they won an “Effie.” This award, it turns out, is not an environmental award, but rather an “effectiveness in marketing” recognition. This from Effie’s website:

On Earth Day 2008, Sun Chips’ factory in Modesto, Calif., opened a 10-acre solar grid so that Sun Chips would be made with solar energy. However, the brand’s users were not hard-core green consumers, and they didn’t care to hear about the details. They just wanted to know they were doing something a little better.

I’m not saying this move to solar is a bad thing, but there are a few questions I’m left wondering about (though evidently, the marketing folks are clear that the general population doesn’t really care):

What percentage of the factory’s total consumption is generated by solar?
Was this part of a government mandate for communities/companies to get certain percentages of their energy from renewable sources, or was it voluntary?
Does the company have any standards for their suppliers and the way they grow, harvest and transport their products?

In short, the idea is to find out if this company seriously is committed to the values they’re promoting, or if it’s simply a photo-op. Before we give ourselves pats on the back for being responsible consumers, we should try to find out.

Second, and perhaps more important, I have concerns that we allow companies who engage in this kind of social marketing to assuage our guilt for our way of life, allowing us to feel like we’ve done our good deed simply buy buying a soft drink or eating chips. Yes, guiding our dollars to more responsible outlets is an important thing to consider, but this doesn’t let us off the hook as human beings, responsible for the care of ourselves, our fellow human beings and the planet. It’s not unlike how some folks figure they don’t have to work hard at making the world a better place all week long, just because they go to church on Sunday.

If the companies we support truly are walking the talk, and if we can verify this, more power to them, and more power to us to support their efforts with our money. And if guiding our purchases in such a way is simply a reflection of a greater effort in all parts of our lives to do right by ourselves and our world, that’s great.

But let’s not fool ourselves; just because we drink Fat Tire instead of Miller Lite or buy our gifts from 10,000 Villages doesn’t mean we don’t have a hell of a lot of work left to do.

Concerned about recent action by the Supreme Court that endowed corporations with the same free speech rights individual citizens have?

WATCH THIS 5-MINUTE VIDEO:

Want to know what to do about it?

VISIT “FREE SPEECH FOR PEOPLE” HERE.

NewSpin
By Christian Piatt

(Originally printed in PULP)

Love or hate it, we have a new cement plant in Pueblo. Yes, it will bring jobs, and yes, it will add pollution to our local environment. Spin it however you want, but no one can argue in good conscience that cement manufacturing has a positive – or even neutral – impact on the planet.

What we’re left with, then, is the challenge of at least mitigating those negative effects on our community. Already, we see growing numbers of respiratory-related problems in Pueblo. So what to do?

Some local media have celebrated the proposal to burn used tires for fuel in the plant, indicating that this is an excellent example of “real recycling” for our state to celebrate. Apparently, the other recycling efforts currently underway in Southern Colorado don’t qualify as “real.”

Granted, we have millions of tires that have to be disposed of every year, one way or another, and burning them for fuel does decrease the need for fossil fuels. But to tout tire burning as an alternative energy source is, at best, disingenuous.

As the Montana Environmental Information Center points out, “Tires contain chlorine. When chlorine is burned, it can form dioxin. DEQ (Department of Environmental Quality) admits that the dioxin emissions pose the greatest risk to health and the environment from tire burning.”

But dioxin is only one concern. The Energy Justice Network lists lots of other dangerous byproducts on tire burning:

“The fumes emitted are packed with the many toxic chemicals that tires contain (including volatile organic compounds such as benzene, metals such as lead, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons such as benzo(a)pyrene, and synthetic rubber components such as butadiene and styrene). Additionally, the chlorine content in tires leads to the creation of dioxins and furans (which are extremely toxic chemicals) when tires are burned.”

One argument that proponents of this energy strategy make is that, although these compounds created in the fires are highly toxic, the systems used to burn the tires can clean such chemicals from the gases emitted into the atmosphere.

They’re right that such systems exist. The problem is that cement plants that burn tires aren’t required to have them.
Said environmental researcher Dr. Neil Carman: “Cement kilns are not designed or required to have major fail-safe combustion devices such as large afterburners that all state-of-the-art incinerators must have by federal law today…”

Research for this piece yielded no federal or state standards to which polluters are held to determine if their tire-burnings are in compliance or not, and emissions from such plants generally are tested only 2 1/2 years, at most.

There is a fee that the state collects every time a new tire is sold. Approximately $1.50 of each sale goes to the state, supposedly for the purpose of subsidizing proper disposal of the tires once they’re out of commission. The problem is that this fund has regularly been raided, allocated instead for general fund expenses rather than being set aside to aid the purpose for which the tax was initially levied.

There are lots of other more Earth-friendly uses for old tires, especially once they are ground into “crumb rubber.” The byproduct is used for playground surfaces, running tracks and even in asphalt for roads. But these uses don’t fetch the same premium that they do as fuel. Meanwhile the shell game of environmental risk factors continues, and our community’s health suffers the inevitable consequences.

On a somewhat related topic, state manufacturers are incensed about proposed legislation that would lift the tax exemption for two years they’ve enjoyed on all money spent on energy to run their factories. The impact would indeed be close to home, with companies like Evraz Steel and Summit Brick realizing a significant tax increase.

The companies are fair in arguing such expenses may result in layoffs down the road. Pro-business advocates argue that the absence of such exemptions make us appear less business-friendly as a state. All of this aside, I have more of a philosophical issue with this complaint.

Personally, I get no tax break for the money I spend on electricity and gas in my home, and a big percentage of every dollar I spend on gasoline goes to the government coffers. Corporations don’t want to be treated like individuals because, theoretically, they bring more economic value to the table. They deserve special treatment.

Then the federal Supreme Court ruled recently that corporations indeed should have the same First Amendment rights to free speech that individual citizens have, which means they have free rein to donate to the political campaigns of their choosing.

It seems that businesses want to be treated as individual citizens when it benefits them, but not when it comes to taxation. This double standard not only serves to erode the confidence of a public already suspect of the impartiality of government; it also makes a mockery of the Constitution upon which our system of governance is based.

So, I’ve been working on this book about postmodern male identity for some time called BE A MAN, and Brandon, a colleague of mine, passed along the text of a recent Dockers ad campaign they’ve labeled the “Man-ifesto.” Here’s the ad content:

Once upon a time, men wore the pants, and wore them well. Women rarely had to open doors and little old ladies never crossed the street alone. Men took charge because that’s what they did. But somewhere along the way, the world decided it no longer needed men. Disco by disco, latte by foamy non-fat latte, men were stripped of their khakis and left stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny. But today, there are questions our genderless society has no answers for. The world sits idly by as cities crumble, children misbehave and those little old ladies remain on one side of the street. For the first time since bad guys, we need heroes. We need grown-ups. We need men to put down the plastic fork, step away from the salad bar and untie the world from the tracks of complacency. It’s time to get your hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of manhood. It’s time to wear the pants.

And here’s a revised version/response from a blogger known as Heartless Doll, which I think kinda rules:

Once upon a time, men didn’t have anyone questioning their shit. They wanted to be congratulated for opening doors and walking across streets. Men were in charge because they kept everyone else down. But somewhere along the way, women wised up and were like, these dudes are fucking assholes and we’d like some freedom and autonomy now, please. Somehow, dance music and delicious coffee made it so that men couldn’t wear the official pants of middle management, left stranded on the road between ageism and misogyny. But today, there are questions scholars, feminists and other people who speak truth to power would like some answers to. The world does not sit idly by as activists fight against the actual evils of the world while some pants company complains about coffee. For the first time since bad guys, we realized that the heroes were often the bad guys. We need grown-ups who don’t whine about dance music. We need men to not be ushered into oppressive gender roles and to eat salad if they want to, and ladies, too. It’s time for everyone to get their hands dirty. It’s time to answer the call of gender equality. It’s time to wear whatever the fuck you want.

(Originally published in PULP)

It’s easy to turn a deaf ear to all the talk about “the economy,” at least until it hits you where it counts. Sure, we all notice when we have to pay more at the pump, or our health insurance costs jump for the 10th year in a row, but these are mere inconveniences compared to what some folks are dealing with.

I’ve been fortunate to work from home as a contract consultant to nonprofits for the past five-plus years. It allows me the flexible schedule I need to help out with the church, spend quality time with our kids and pursue my writing on the side. I’ve often carried more work during that time than we needed to get by, but my reasoning was that the work wouldn’t last forever.

Man, was I right.

This past summer, I lost all of my contracts in short succession. All of them said basically the same thing: it’s not about your work. We just have to cut back, and contractors are the first to go. Some were freaked out about city-county funding being cut, while others saw writing on the wall with their program-related contracts. One employer offered to keep me on part-time, provided that I move back to Texas to take the work.

Though things aren’t fully recovered for us, I’m grateful that a combination of side projects and a new part-time job with a graduate school in Tulsa have helped us keep the bills paid. We’ve undergone some fairly significant lifestyle adjustments, swallowed our pride and accepted help from family, and we have a plan to carry us at least through the holidays.

This whole experience, though, has caused me to reflect on a couple of things. First, though I’m not a fan of accepting help from anyone, it’s a blessing to have it available when we needed it. We realize that, no matter what happens, we’ll only fall so far. We won’t end up out on the street, and our kids will hardly know the difference.

I also am grateful to have a network of friends and professionals who have helped me dig up work from places I would have never found it by myself; I’m also thankful to have the opportunity to call people in positions of power and means to discuss ideas for employment.

Sure, I get work on my own merits, and I certainly wouldn’t keep it if I couldn’t perform. But this series of networks and safety nets is, without a doubt, the very definition of privilege. We Americans are fond of the idea that everyone, given a solid work ethic and enough ambition, can achieve anything. While there may be some anecdotal evidence to support this, it’s certainly a myth to suggest that this means that opportunity is an equally-distributed commodity.

It’s easy as a person of faith to fall back on guilt, and to assume that the “right” thing to do is deny myself those privileges that skew things in my favor. But, on reflection, I think the more just thing to do is both to recognize that privilege, and then to employ it to help raise others up whenever possible.

This may include giving what I can to charity, or returning the favor to those with less of a support system than I have. It might even be as simple as listening to others’ stories of hardship with a little more empathy and compassion. Most important, perhaps, is not to give myself too much credit for my own successes – or at least a minimalization of failures – and instead focus on gratitude.

The scaling back of our budget also has caused me to reflect on the difference between prosperity and abundance. Over the last three decades, organized religion has fallen over and again into the lucrative trap of preaching prosperity. All you have to do is turn on the television nearly any time of day, and you’re sure to find some preacher explaining to you why it is that Jesus wants you to be rich.

Funny, but I don’t recall Jesus or any of his followers racking up the bling. In fact, there’s more than one account of Jesus telling wealthy people that their prosperity could well be the stumbling block between them and a well-developed faith practice.

Jesus did, however, speak of abundance. Because of our consumer-centered worldview, we like to think that this is synonymous with “wealth.” But abundance is relatively independent of the physical world, and rather is a state of being. It is about believing that we have enough, here and now, rather than becoming willing slaves of want.

It’s ironic that having less has made me more grateful for what I do have. But sometimes it takes having the opportunity to stop and reflect forced upon you to gain a healthier perspective.

I go to bed at night with the peace of mind knowing there’s food on the shelves for breakfast, and that the heat will still be on when we wake up. I offer a quiet word of gratitude for the abundance in our lives, even in the face of slightly less material prosperity. I wonder what opportunities tomorrow may bring to pass that privilege and abundance along, and if I’ll have the compassion to act as I should.

Prosperity is often the perfect antidote to help us forget our hardship. Abundance, however, reminds us that there will be enough, especially if we’re willing to let a little bit go for someone else.

My newest podcast, called “Porn Nation,” is taken from a chapter I wrote for a forthcoming book by Chalice Press called Oh God, Oh God, OH GOD! which deals with a wide range of topics on faith and sexuality. The book is due out February, 2010, and is the first volume in the new WTF? (Where’s the Faith?) book series focusing on young adults.

You can find all of my podcast episodes on iTunes, on my website or at the podcast host site.

For more about the series, visit my website at www.christianpiatt.com, or hit the Chalice Press website (www.chalicepress.com) and click the WTF button at the bottom of the home page.

I came across this site, sent to me by a friend today, and I’m still reeling from the potential is suggests.

Basically, imagine the volume of information contained in Google, but add to that the ability to manipulate and compute / slice up the information any way you can imagine. Their database set is still pretty basic relative to all the info in the world, though it’s already pretty amazing.

Check out the introductory video and see for yourself.

Interested in your thoughts.

I know this is a little past Lent now, but I think you might still enjoy the sentiment of this column, originally published in April’s PULP.

Lent: Celebrating the common

As some may know, this is the period known as Lent – the weeks leading up to Easter – on the Christian liturgical calendar. Lots of Protestants aren’t even familiar with it, but our church tries to recognize it as a spiritual discipline if nothing else.

There are a few things Lent is known for, namely Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. The idea behind this is that, since you’re supposed to give something up in Lent to remind us of the selfless or often-called “sacrificial” love demonstrated by Jesus. This begins on the first day of Lent, which is Ash Wednesday.

Some of us may know this holiday by some embarrassing moment when we’ve gone up to a person observing Ash Wednesday and said something akin to, “dude, you have some shit on your forehead.” The tradition actually is that the palm leaves from Palm Sunday, which is the Sunday before Easter, used in worship the year before are burned and mixed with oil, then used to place a mark of the cross on a person’s forehead. This is to serve as a reminder that we all came from dust, and hence will return to dust.

Fat Tuesday, then, being the last day before this period of fasting and reflection, is the last chance to get all the naughty bits out of your system. Problem is, a hell of a lot more people observe Fat Tuesday than Ash Wednesday.

Oh well. Everybody loves a party.

I actually had a college student friend of mine say recently that Lent is her favorite time of the Christian year. Whereas days like Christmas and Easter have largely become as commercialized as Valentines or other Hallmark Holidays, Lent actually requires something of us, and causes us to search inward to discern what’s really important in our lives.

For those who like to complain that all young folks are a bunch of narcissistic self-indulgent whiners, I might suggest that a growing movement known as “neo monasticism” suggests otherwise.

Neo monasticism, which is based on the ancient lifestyle of monks, emphasizes simplicity and communal interdependence. The best example of this is the monastery in Taize, France, where more than 6,000 young people travel every summer to sleep on the floor, cook meals for one another, sing chants and pray four times every day.

No rides or movie theaters. No iPods. Not even a Chipotle for miles. It’s about as different from contemporary life as one can get without being completely off the grid. And that’s pretty much the point.

This movement, brought to the forefront during this Lenten season, celebrates the common in our lives, embracing simplicity and freeing us from the shackles of want. It may be a passing fad, but it speaks to something deeper in our culture. We may have become dependent upon constant distraction and obsessed with comfort, but when we spend even a little while reflecting on what really matters, there’s something in us that’s restless for deeper meaning.