Saturday, January 3, 2009

Conversation Cafes: Look Who's Talking

By Joe Leeak
(Originally published in May of 2002 by The Seattle Press)

Freedom of speech is a dangerous thing.  At least that's what England's Charles II thought when he banned coffee houses in 1675.  He claimed that they were frequented by groups of malcontents who had "evil and dangerous effects on society".  But coffee house chatter between diverse groups of people is exactly what north Seattle resident and activist Vicki Robin is promoting with her latest project, Conversation Cafés.  "For me, this is about lowering the taboo against talking to strangers about things that matter," Robin said.

In the days leading up to Earth Day last Sunday, Robin invited everyone to attend a Conversation Café' and talk about the important issues faced by our planet.  Conversation Cafés are a homegrown way for people to engage in big talk in small groups that meet regularly through out the Puget Sound region.  The Café' discussions have been inspired by the need to talk about life in America since September 11, Enron, the Middle East, and most recently-- Earth Day.

Conversation Cafés have been taking place in Seattle since August of last year and are Robin's latest effort in promoting positive change in society.  The basic format is hosted discussions that use proven conversation techniques, allowing interesting exchanges to take place.  Conversation topics are usually determined at individual Cafés by both the host and the participants.  Topics discussed at a special Earth Day Conversation Café', which took place downtown at Elliot Bay Books, included: favorite strategies for making a livable future, ways that everyone can live within the earth's means, and thing people can do to raise earth-friendly awareness.

Three regular participants at the Fremont Conversation Café' recently decided to participate together in an Earthday Day beach cleanup at Golden Gardens Park.  But Café' participants don't need to worry about coming away from a Conversation Café' with a to-do list as long as their arm.  "No action items will be delegated," Robin said, "and if you form a committee you're on your own."

For the last three decades Robin has lived in shared housing situations where the core of the community is centered around a communication process that is very similar to what happens at a Conversation Café'.  The process allows each person to speak in turn until they are finished while others listen without judgment.  "After 31 years that [process of] deep listening, honest speaking, full disclosure, and no judgment opened up a profoundly deep awareness," Robin said, "and I have a deep trust of the process."

Robin's idea for public Conversation Cafés hatched four years ago: First as a radio show that never went on the air, next as a TV show that never was, and then last summer, in its simplest form, as groups of people sitting together on a weekly basis to speak of what was really important to them at neighborhood cafés and coffee shops.

Robin decided to lead a Conversation Café at the Wedgewood neighborhood's Grateful Bread deli-bakery near her home.  A core group of people began to come every week.  Then after the events of September 11 she felt that it was time for the concept to go public on a larger scale.  Today there are nearly 20 Conversation Cafés meeting regularly throughout the region.  Robin said they are meant to be study groups. "[They're] about the expectation that you can go down to you local Café' where a bunch of interesting people are sitting around talking about interesting universal things, and you can drop into the conversation."

Robin's hope is that someday Conversation Cafés will not have to exist.  "It could just be a regular thing-- just uncork it.  If we can't talk about the future we want, we will never generate the social will to get there.  Debate isn't enough.  Lectures aren't enough.  We have to think together-- and Conversation Cafés are designed to allow people with divergent views to listen to learn from one another."

[When this article was written in 2002 Conversation Café discussions took place every Thursday in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood at Wit's End Bookstore and in the Ballard neighborhood on Tuesdays at the Penny Café.  You can learn about Conversation Cafés today at: .]

Friday, January 2, 2009

Simplicity Lessons - a book review

A Book Review By Joe Leeak
(Originally published in 2003 at

Simplicity Lessons: A 12-Step Guide to Living Simply

By Linda Breen Pierce

Gallagher Press, 2003

For most people who decide to simplify their lives the process starts out as an inside job. As Linda Breen Pierce, author of Choosing Simplicity, describes it in her new book Simplicity Lessons : “many people are attracted to simplicity because of personal stresses in their lives-- too much work and debt, too little time and pleasure”. Pierce says that once people “make progress in those areas something else happens. They develop an interest in other-directed values-- interest in community (however small a radius), concern for the earth, and social justice.” Simplicity Lessons offers the reader plenty of tips and tricks for completing the inside work of cleaning out their closets and simplifying job, housing, and financial demands, while at the same time giving us a glimpse of the deeper “other-directed” or outside reasons to simplify.

Pierce came to write Simplicity Lessons after facilitating a simplicity workshop in early 2002 after which a number of people were interested in forming a study group to learn more about the subject of simplicity. She found that there were numerous guides published focusing on various aspects of simplicity but there was not a single volume that dealt with all of the aspects that she wanted to explore with a study group. Though Simplicity Lessons is primarily written to function as a basic text for groups wishing to gather for discussions about the how-and-why of creating a simpler life she also suggests study methods for those who want to explore the subject on their own or with a friend. Readers are given a chance to focus on practical issues related to material possessions, money, time, work, housing, transportation, and travel as well as outer-directed issues like community and environmental sustainability.

Each lesson offers the reader a chance to consider some of the personal aspects of the lesson topic as well as a chance to look at some of the related big-picture issues. For example in Lesson Four -- Home is Where the Heart Lives-- Pierce considers many of the issues and circumstances that surround our wants and needs related to housing. At the end of the lesson the reader is encouraged to determine the size of their home in square feet per household member and reflect on how they feel about its size. After this we’re encouraged to think creatively about new ways of living that would reduce demands on the environment while still meeting our needs.

Suggestions are offered at the end of each lesson of issues that can be reconsidered during annual check-ups. Pierce suggests in Lesson Four that we reconsider our housing situation on a yearly basis to see if our current housing still relates to and supports our life. Have our space needs changed? Is our home still in a good location for what is going on in our life? And if we previously determined our housing should change-- what progress have we made in changing our living situation to bring it more in to alignment with our simple living goals?

At the end of the book a number of useful worksheets are provided. These exercises are designed to give us the chance to collect and to put down in black-and-white the financial data and inventories that can help us to identify areas of our lives where we can simplify. Worksheets are provided for determining actual job compensation, tracking how money flows through our lives, how we spend our time, and home ownership versus renting costs. Detailed instructions are also provided that help to explain how to start and conduct a simplicity study group for 8 to 10 people.

Discovering and accepting the value of living a simpler life leads us into a process that is likely to last a lifetime. As Pierce explains:

“Simplifying your life is not accomplished in a few weeks, or even a few months. Many people need an initial period of three to five years to make basic changes toward a life of simplicity. And you never really get there. Simplicity is not a destination but a life-long process, a way of looking at life, a form of mindful living that will take on different shapes as you go through life. Recognize that what may be a life of simplicity for you now might look radically different in ten years. Refinements and adjustments are ongoing.”

Linda Breen Pierce’s Simplicity Lessons is likely to become an often referred to friend in the years to come as your path to simplifying your life continues to unfold in front of you.

Joe Leeak is a part-time engineer, writer, bicyclist and guitarist who lives simply in Seattle, Washington.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Thinking About Simple Health Insurance

By Joe L
(Originally published in 2006 at

After simplifying my life a few years ago and leaving a regular job with “benefits” behind my largest single monthly expense, outside of housing, is health insurance. But thanks to general good health and the fact that I don’t yet have any chronic medical issues I’ve felt safe in carrying only a high deductible catastrophic health insurance policy. In my case, at age 54, the savings have been large since a comprehensive low deductible health insurance plan is more than double what I’m currently paying. But of course there are some risks. Beyond the obvious risk of the higher deductible my insurance never covers outpatient prescription drugs and drug expenses don’t count toward either the high deductible or the policy’s stop loss limit. So recently I decided to try and learn about the size of the risk in having such a large hole in my health insurance coverage.

What I’ve learned is that three quarters of the population over the age of 45, and five of six over the age of 65, are taking at least one prescription drug. The prescription drugs that I’m most interested in though are those drugs that might be prescribed for a long term chronic condition. After a little research on the internet I discovered that the most common chronic conditions requiring use of prescription drugs, as reported by the Center for Disease Control, are high cholesterol, hypertension, arthritis and muscle pain, and type 2 diabetes.

During a recent physical exam I learned that my cholesterol was bordering on the high range. Now a year later after losing some weight, making a number of dietary changes, and adding some dietary supplements my cholesterol is way below its levels of a year ago. Had my efforts failed it’s likely that I would soon be a candidate for one of the cholesterol lowering statin drugs, like Lipitor, which is now the number one most prescribed prescription drug on the market.

Statin drugs help us to lower our bad LDL cholesterol levels and increase our level of good HDL cholesterol as well as helping to reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes in people who already have coronary artery disease or diabetes. Of eight common statin drugs I found listed there is only one that is available in a generic form-- Lovastatin. Prices for generic Lovastatin range from $30 to $60 for a thirty day supply where as Lipitor, a drug still covered by patents, costs from $66 to $121 for a thirty day supply. The good news by most reports is that all of the statin drugs have about the same effectiveness so the lower cost generic Lovastatin will work for many people.

According to recently revised guidelines nearly half of the population of the planet is now considered either hypertensive, and in need of treatment for high blood pressure, or pre-hypertensive and on the verge of needing treatment. But there’s a lot of controversy around the change of what constitutes high blood pressure. Before May of 2003 the threshold for hypertension was considered to be blood pressure over 160/100. With the newly established guidelines for hypertension treatment is now recommended for blood pressures of 140/90 and above with blood pressures between 120/80 and 140/90 being labeled as “pre-hypertensive”. Critics have claimed that the newer guidelines were adopted in response to studies by doctors with strong connections to drug companies. Critics also claim that some of the newer drugs used to treat hypertension are more expensive, less safe, and not as effective as older treatments.

I also learned during my last physical that my blood pressure was in what is now called the “pre-hypertensive” range. Luckily many of the same changes made to lower cholesterol levels have the double effect of also lowering blood pressure. My blood pressure in fact came down along with the lower cholesterol levels but for those not able to control their blood pressure through exercise and diet there are a number of drugs available to help. Thiazide diuretics, sometimes called water pills, have been used for decades to help lower blood pressure and can cost less than $5 a month. Another group of drugs called beta blockers, in use for over 40 years, are also effective in many cases and can cost from $5 to $30 dollars a month. Four other newer drugs are also available with monthly costs ranging from about $30 to $60 per month.

NSAID’s or, non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, are another one of the most commonly prescribed types of drugs. Two NSAID drugs, ibuprofen and naproxen, are often prescribed to relieve pain and inflammation resulting from arthritis and muscle and joint pain. There are a number of cost saving choices for generic NSAID drugs with monthly costs ranging from about $20 to $45 per month while patented NSAID drug prices commonly costing from $100 to $150 per month.

Type 2 diabetes is the last common health condition that I considered in my survey of chronic conditions requiring ongoing use of prescription drugs. Type 2 Diabetes can often be treated with oral hypoglycemic drugs that lower the blood sugar level. Orally administered hypoglycemic drugs are usually preferred in people with Type 2 Diabetes over insulin because of their decreased side effects. At least half of the commonly prescribed hypoglycemic drugs are available in generic form with the cost of a one month supply ranging from $20 to $50 with drugs still under patent costing from $30 to $167 for a months supply.

The general conclusion I’ve drawn from looking at the four most common chronic conditions requiring prescription drugs is that they can usually be treated with prescription drugs costing less than $50 a month. Of course everyone also needs to consider their own health history to determine what health conditions, beyond the four common conditions discussed here, may affect the prescription drugs that could be in their future. And so with that in mind I’ve decided that for now I’ll continue to roll the dice with my high deductible health insurance plan and its lack of prescription drug coverage.

Joe Leeak is a part-time engineer, writer, bicyclist and guitarist who lives simply in Seattle, Washington.