Category Archives: This is me

Posts that have something to do with the way my brain works, or how I’ve come to be the person I am.

The most important thing in life

Years ago, I heard someone — I think it was a stand-up comedian — say that he knew what was the most important thing in life:

“The unexpected.”

At the time, his explanation made sense: If you woke up in the morning and knew exactly what you were going to get out of the day, you might not bother. Knowing a good day was on tap would take away some of the adrenaline rush when it actually happened. If you knew it’d be a bad one, well, you’d want to stay under the covers.

Not sure why this has stuck with me for so long. But I remember when I realized he was wrong, because I recognized what the most important thing actually was:

Hope.

And I wanted to debate this long-forgotten comedian/philosopher about my revelation, convinced that it’s the possibility of good that actually gets people moving and inspires them to be the human beings we all know and love.

I’m glad that didn’t happen, because a couple of weeks ago, I came up with a new answer.

Belief.

Hope is important of course; but in some ways it’s transient. We can hope for meaningful, noble things… but we can digress into hoping for warmer weather or that we hit all the green lights on our commute.

What really gets us out of bed in the morning, without hitting snooze and maybe without an alarm at all, is belief. We don’t just cling to a wish that it will be a good day; we’re empowered to make it so. Conviction that we can serve as a good parent or citizen. Belief that a relationship or cause is worth dedicating ourselves to. Confidence that the work we do is meaningful and making a difference.

Of course, belief can be based in spirituality. I remember being invited to a church group’s awards dinner 20-some years ago. Technically, I was an adult at the time, but I felt aimless and ungrounded listening to a couple of teenagers give witness to their belief and blessings from God. Their passion was unwavering and clear.

Based in religion or elsewhere, to have that kind of fire within — to know something is so valuable to you, that an internal force is constantly guiding you — is what matters most. It can’t be manufactured or faked. True belief is authentic, real, and palpable.

When it’s missing, you can’t make up for it. We all know someone who is going through the motions because they’re missing a sense of purpose.

But each and every one of us has something to offer the world; it’s just a matter of finding the trigger to unleash that power. Think about the people in your life who are on a mission, to the point that it is what defines them to you. They’re driven and won’t stop.

That kind of belief is a blessing. It needs to be cultivated and fed to sustain us for today and the next day and the next. When we believe, we’re unstoppable.

What do you believe in?

Motivation: From real work to yard work

I’m not doing yard work.

Last week, I started a seven-week sabbatical that my company graciously offered. As the idea of this company perk bubbled up, the idea was to allow time to recharge and relax, get away from it all and come back to work with a fresh mind.

My first instinct: No thanks. I love pretty much everything about my job. My coworkers, our members, the mission, my responsibilities, the fulfillment I get from working hard, the opportunities to improve… there’s a lot to not just like, but truly love. I don’t want to be away from that for seven days, let alone seven weeks.

But I took it, because, hey, when do you get an offer like this? Lots of benefits: Sleeping in sounds nice. My commute is replaced with a family road trip. Time with family. Time for me.

And, as my wife told me, time to spend on her “honey-do” list. First up: Landscaping the backyard.

Note: The word “landscaping” is as absent from my list of benefits as it is from my résumé. But when she said it was important to her to have decorative rock edging, then it became important to me.

Our conversation quickly turned to how capable I would be to lug a pile of rocks from the front yard to the back. I can, case closed, so let’s do this. We bought 2 cubic yards of rock, which now sits in our driveway.

Only this project is more than rock. In fact, that’s the least of it. We need to dig up the grass we no longer want. Right? At least put down weed block. Uh oh, we didn’t discuss paver blocks to match the rest of the house’s look. Wait, what do we do with the sod we dig up? These thoughts have consumed my sabbatical so far, especially since the opportunity to do the work has been hampered by the rain that has fallen Every. Single. Day.

I recognize these are first world problems. In fact, I’ve come to a first world answer: Let’s pay someone else to do it.

My knee-jerk reaction to that thought was: I’m a failure. I’m giving up on a project that really shouldn’t be all that tough. I’m physically capable of doing this. It’s not rocket science. I could always just take my best swing, then get someone to fix it afterwards.

I stumbled across Dan Pink’s TEDTalk on motivation. One of the many takeaways are three elements he says workers need in order to stay motivated: Autonomy (“the urge to direct our own lives”), mastery (“the desire to get better and better at something that matters”), and purpose (“the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”)

I really dig this (and this fuller version of his talk) because it explains why this landscaping project feels like such a waste of time. The desire for this project didn’t come from within, it’s a one-time project that I’ll never repeat, and maybe a couple dozen people will ever see the result. This is the opposite of motivation. (Well, except the part where it would make my wife happy. But that motivates me to find a solution, not to do the job myself.)

What I find interesting is that the same checklist sums up why I love my job — it’s a slam-dunk to check those three boxes as a doer. What about as a manager? Am I providing my team the opportunity and reinforcement to stoke their passion for the job, giving them the chance to develop in the ways that help them in a way that also helps the company’s mission?

Maybe this sabbatical is going to be good for me after all.

“Feed Me” is now “Fed Me” — conclusions from the great experiment

It’s nearing (what should be) dinner time on August 31 — time to recap the month of the great “Feed Me” experiment.

My goal is here is to explain what I’ve learned, where this has made me better, how I have faith in longer-term healthiness… and how the wheels came off at the very end.

I’ve gone back and graded myself on how I ate each day — sticking to the plan, if I ate well when I went off-plan or was left to my own devices, etc. Instead of A’s, B’s, or F’s, I went with percentages on a typical school grading scale. You can see the scores (and explanations) on the far right column of the meal plan spreadsheet.

The month started strong, and even with events (an impromptu ballgame, a short camping trip) interrupting flow in the first two weeks, I stayed true to the plan. Through August 14th, I gave myself just one B and one C. The rest were A’s.

During that second week of August, the kids started school. Same for my wife Tracey, since she occasionally works there, and she was called in a bunch in the first couple of weeks. A work event that kept me late on what would have been grocery shopping night meant postponing Friday’s plan. I recommitted that weekend, and spent Sunday shopping and preparing upcoming meals… when jury duty called. I was seated for three days — an experience I’m proud to have been part of, though it stalled out the experiment. The perishable groceries I’d purchased had perished. Then *I* started to perish, as the back-to-school bug the kids brought home (and had knocked Tracey out for the better part of the week) finally got me over the weekend.

With one week to go, I was determined to do well — until the kids’ first sports practices and games got underway, stretching longer into nights than expected. The month’s final weekend wound up being Labor Day weekend, and a chance to finish strong lost out to an impromptu road trip with Tracey. Family first, not food.

I end the month with two failing grades — two of only three I had for the month. I’m going to take an overall B for August as a win. Earlier, I was thinking if I ever did this again, I’d start with a grading system, because scores tend to keep me motivated. The more I thought about that, though, I realize a scoreboard couldn’t have given me the thing I most needed to have made this an A+ success:

Time. You foodies, I don’t know how you do it. My typical weekday involves 1 hour getting ready, 3 hours of commuting, 9 hours at work, 2 hours for family (typically: dinner, homework, sports practices), and 7 hours of sleep. That leaves two hours for me, from 8-10 PM. Whatever I need to do for me takes place then. I don’t bring this up as an excuse or a complaint — early in the month, I was able to stick to using those hours learning my way around the grocery store or prepping the next day’s meals.

That time was in high demand as the month progressed, and was needed for more than just planning meals. In the context of this experiment, it led to some failure. As for my life, I needed to use that time in other places, and I’m OK with that.

It also helped crystallize the biggest learning: The main reason I’m attracted to fast food isn’t taste, but convenience. We live in a world where you can pull off the road for one minute, get inexpensive sustenance in a bag, handed to you with a smile through a window, and you’re back on your way. And you can snarf down that consistently-prepared food by the time you reach your destination, so you can focus on whatever’s next.

I realize now that what I put into my body is also priority, as much as the kids are, as much as work is, as much as any of it. The road I was on was going to end much sooner than I’d like if I didn’t make a change. This month was a wake-up call for that, and I’ve learned.

I’ve also learned that the support from people who care about me is intense. For as many good recipes that were shared, the encouragement was leaps and bounds beyond that. Thank you, everyone, who helped make this month happen. You helped me improve my life, and you continue to do so. My good friend Mike wrote me near the end of the month, advising me to think about what September might hold and set some reasonable goals to keep up the good that’s happened here.

After some careful thought, I don’t think I’ll set September goals. I don’t know that I need them. August’s numbers are nice: 0 fast-food burgers, 1 Coke, 5 lost pounds. But the bigger takeaway is, I deserve better than what I’ve been doing to myself, and I won’t need a scoreboard to stay true to that. Just some patience, some extra virgin olive oil, and some reflection on why this is important in the first place.

I swear, when this whole thing started, I thought September 1 was going to include a Wendy’s Triple and a Culver’s Concrete Mixer. It won’t. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen someday, but it won’t happen as often. The longing for them just isn’t there.

And that is a win.

Feed Me update: Feeling guilty

It was a tough week for the great experiment.

After a pretty successful first couple of weeks, things took a turn last Sunday afternoon. I was already feeling a little overwhelmed: Making Monday’s lunch in advance, lining up Monday’s dinner ingredients, while knowing Sunday’s quick recipe still needed to get made.

That’s when Tracey asked, “So do you have jury duty tomorrow?”

The wheels came off. I was seated on a jury from Monday through Wednesday where lunches (and one dinner) was provided. My family celebrated my civic duty by catching some back-to-school cold bug that they couldn’t wait to share with me.

It caught up with me Friday evening, flattening me for the weekend. So I napped, I neither shopped nor cooked, I postponed meals to future days.

Worst of all, I caved. During the jury deliberations, fighting a sore throat and cough, I asked the vending machine for a Coke.

On Saturday, a day that included twice passing out on the couch, I ordered pizza for dinner.

In both instances, karma tried looking out for me: Instead of giving me a Coke, the vending machine rolled out a Hawaiian Punch. And while I lazily waited and waited for the pizza delivery, it dawned on me that I might have ordered carry-out.

If I was going to cheat, it wasn’t going to be easy.

By Sunday evening, I was starting to get my mojo back. Realizing there’s one week to go in the month, I put together the recipes and got to work. Made a grocery store trip. Whipped up some veggies. I’m revved up for the homestretch.

I’m writing this on my commute to work, carrying my breakfast and lunch (a Greek yogurt and a homemade Southwest Quinoa Bowl) in a plastic bag.

One more week. The days are all claimed, so the path is clear, as is the support. We got this.

The mid-month “Feed Me” update

It’s somehow already August 15th, and only August 15th, all at the same time. Either way, it’s time for a quick update on our great experiment.

I consciously call it “our” instead of “my” experiment, because it really wouldn’t happen without you. I’m just the guinea pig here. But even guinea pigs can learn a thing or two. Me, I’ve learned five:

If you’d like to cook, being color-deficient sucks

Since I can’t tell reds from greens from browns, I’ll never get to be a pilot or astronaut. But I’ll also be limited in properly cooking meats, which means I’m a liability at the grill. That filet mignon I had August 7 was a rude awakening on how I needed to turn over my “man card” at the grill so I don’t kill anyone. So Tracey grilled up chicken on August 12 (and man, was that a great thing). It’s frustrating as one of the goals here is to learn to enjoy cooking, but gauging meat by its color just isn’t going to happen. Which leads to the next learning…

To cook, it helps to be flexible with rules

You’re not just making food, you’re experimenting, dabbling, trying. Over the years, Tracey always has gotten a laugh when she sees me making pancakes — I precisely measure the 1 cup of water and 2 cups of mix, just as the box says. What else would I do? “Just keep adding until it looks right.” She may as well ask me to grill up a steak on the moon. We recently took a personality assessment at work, where part of my description reads, “Being exact is imperative in everything Kurt does.” The butcher told me how to cook that filet mignon: how many minutes to sear each side, what the grill temperature should be when, what the meat temperature should be, and so on. But it didn’t work. Silly as it sounds, following the directions and not getting the desired result can be a punch to the gut for me. Especially for the time and investment I’m putting into this. Which brings me to…

Cooking requires a lot of planning

The first lesson came on July 31, when I told Tracey I would buy all of the first week’s groceries. She looked at the list and taught me all that produce wouldn’t survive to the end of the week. Very well, it’ll be two grocery trips each week, a few days’ worth at a time.

Ah, plans. How quaint.

At the end of last week, I found myself behind on shopping. This week, after a late work night then a day’s notice that SOCCER PRACTICE BEGINS TOMORROW EVENING YOU BETTER BE THERE, I didn’t even make the grocery list let alone shop. Which is frustrating, because it made me postpone the one day that included a dessert. Not to mention it took me off my plan (see paragraph above).

But I’m learning some good things too.

I’ve got great friends

To date, everyone has been about as excited as me when their day pops up. Did I actually make it? Really? And I ate the spinach? How did it turn out? When I get to say something like, “even the kids liked it!” (I’m looking at you and the pork sandwiches, Sharon), it makes us all happy. That so many people have stepped up is amazing to me — it’s a dopey little experiment, but these pockets of investment really matter, to you and to me.

I actually can eat healthy — even on my own

I’ve taken the list very literally, and since nobody has listed soda pop, I’ve only had one (on a day not assigned to anyone). But I haven’t looked back. And I’ve never snacked much during the day anyway, but when I do, it’s been almonds, or piece of cheese, or just a glass of water. The two days I had to postpone the original plan, I still ate healthy: oatmeal, bananas, turkey sandwich on thin bagel, etc. And maybe my proudest accomplishment: A road trip with my dad and son included three restaurant stops. Last month, I’d have had the buffalo chicken pizza, the fried egg burger, and red velvet pancakes; this month, I had the pasta and veggies plate, a simple cheeseburger, and the small order of whole grain pancakes with fruit.

I’m down six pounds.

If you’re just reading about this experiment for the first time, get the whole story here. Even better, claim your day by clicking here. And to Michelle, Erin, Beth, Laura, and Sharon: Thanks for getting me through this last week!

One week down, the rest of my life to go

Last month, I asked for your help to help me eat better. Or frankly, to help me eat, period. As the original post explains: Left to my own devices, I don’t take such good care of my temple, and who’s in a better position to help me than… well, pretty much everybody else?

One week in to the experiment is a perfect time to check in. The short version: This is going better than I could hope, because it has me paying attention to what I’m eating, it has me excited about preparing meals, I’m more aware of my body, nutrition, and friendships than I ever have been.

Here’s a breakdown:

The meals

So these are the real stars of the show. The first night, I made a tilapia with tomatoes, olives, and capers. And it was magnificent.

tilapiadinner 20140801

An excellent Sunday morning breakfast of scrambled eggs and spinach (!) set me up for a work week of easy-to-make breakfasts (yogurt parfait, cereal, oatmeal), basic lunches, and dinners that even I could make. When I’m home. Which leads me to…

The planning

Somehow, I didn’t consider how spontaneous plans could ruin this whole experiment. In late July, we made a plan for an August 2 family trip to the ballpark. That not only postponed the evening’s steak dinner plan, but could have wrecked the whole experiment — you don’t walk into the park without being overpowered by enticing smells of funnel cakes and hot dogs. But I stayed strong: merely 2 bao (yes, they have a Wow Bao at U.S. Cellular Field!) wasn’t extravagant or especially damaging.

Last night, a friend in a new job had a work-related event, which kept me downtown late. Only on my 5:30 walk to the event did I realize: My wife Tracey and I talked about a fish dinner, and I was going to miss it! She was going to cook this one, but it turned out she’d had a busy day too. Without the Michelle-ordered “protein, veggie, and grain such as rice” dinner prepped, I asked Michelle for (and received) the OK for a Chipotle rice bowl feast.

Physically

I’ve taken the list of what to eat as literally as possible — if drinks aren’t listed, I only drink water. My co-worker Erin had Day 1, and in the afternoon, I jokingly (?) expressed my desire for a Coke. She was surprised and said, well of course you could — she knows that’s basically my lifeblood. But I said no, it wasn’t on the list. And I survived. Until about 7:30 that night, when I had one of the most crippling headaches I can remember. It hurt just to keep my eyes open, and I fell asleep. I awoke at 2:30 overnight, still with a headache. Maybe it was all caffeine-induced, maybe it was other stuff. But I can tell you this, I haven’t had a Coke all week.

I’m continually sensitive to how my body feels at most every moment all week, probably because I’m looking for the smallest detail to give credit or blame to what I’m eating. But that’s not fair, and with that in mind, there’s nothing significant to report after just seven days.

Emotionally

On the afternoon of Day 3, I was grumpy for no obvious reason. I paused for a moment (it was Laura’s day, she recommended meditation), and realized: For the first time in forever, I’d gone three days without eating the typical processed crap I eat; maybe my body wasn’t celebrating, but asking, “What the hell are you doing up there?” I went to the grocery store to stock up, and was very conscious of how much junk is out there, and how the stores highlight these items: Cookies on the end caps, an entire aisle full of chips, another one dedicated to snacks, and candy bars at the register. All of it colorful, enticing, and delicious. It’s amazing any of us eat well. But the real kicker…

Financially

When I checked out of the grocery store, I looked at the conveyor belt and wondered, “What have I become?”

grocery 20140803

I’ve never bought so many produce items in my life. Not in one day, OR IN ALL MY LIFE COMBINED.  There wasn’t much more than what you see in this picture… but this was a $44 trip. Before August started, Tracey said she was worried this would be expensive — but she may not be fully aware of how much of my paycheck goes toward fast food. I reasoned the cost would be another facet of the experiment. I haven’t done an actual comparison yet, and I recognize I’m buying some ingredients for the first time (and will have lots of leftovers. That minced garlic will LAST). Sticker shock is a part of it. (If this paragraph interests you, you should really read this article about taking a homeless woman grocery shopping. It’s a worthy read for the main piece as well as the comments.)

Setbacks

Today was rough. I was tired and crabby this morning, and really wanted a caffeine hit. For lunch, I bought a Diet Snapple Half’n’Half (iced tea and lemonade) instead of water. (Or, depending on how you look at it, instead of a Coke.) 20 minutes later, I was WIRED. From just 22 grams of caffeine? That never would have given me such a buzz.

Tonight was steak dinner night (thank you Kathy). I stopped by the butcher’s on the way home, and asked for advice — I don’t do this often, and I don’t see colors very well. No worries, they said, and told me how to cook two filet mignons. Well, this is under “setbacks” for a reason: I went in confident, Tracey knew better than to let me on the grill but I wouldn’t have it, and I ate what was probably a rarer-than-rare steak while she went and recooked hers. I got stubborn wanting to do this myself, and could have better enjoyed a nice piece of meat. But, lesson learned — and we will try again. With Tracey on the grill. (Partially-colorblind guys like me have to turn in our Man Card during BBQ season, it sucks.)

Support

So, I lied earlier, the meals aren’t the real stars of the show: You all are. That so many have jumped in to help with a meal plan, or to ask if I’d be OK to eat X, or no really you’d eat X?, or even just to ask how it’s going — that keeps me motivated. And isn’t that the biggest help for any habit change, to know that people care that you’re looking to improve yourself — and they’re willing to help?

A couple of people have asked if this is ultimately going to be a book or feature article I’ll write somewhere. Nope. Hey, that it led to a feature on Outside the Loop Radio is honor enough!

If I can be greedy, it’s to say I could use more support: August is filling up, but isn’t yet full. I’d love to have different people fill up each day this month, so if you haven’t yet taken part, it’s not too late: just click here to claim a day.

And to Erin, Jaclin, Laura, Jack, Evette, Michelle, and Kathy — thank you for a memorable week!

‘Twas the night before August…

So the great food experiment begins tomorrow. I thought today would be a gustatory send-off — gorging on buffalo wings and Crisco — but it was pretty much a regular day.

And I suppose that’s the problem. Today’s menu was:

  • Farmers’ market crepe with banana! (and Nutella)
  • 2 Chick-Fil-A sandwiches (this was deliberate)
  • A turkey sausage
  • Chocolate ice cream mixed with Butterfinger (this was a splurge, even for me)
  • 2 Cokes (including — dun dun dunnnn — the last one in the fridge)

But starting tomorrow, the menu changes: You are telling me what to eat. Co-worker Erin is up first, and she helpfully guided me through the fish dinner plan for tomorrow night — tilapia will work instead of the recipe’s sea bass, and canned tomatoes would suffice if I didn’t buy fresh.

But I did buy fresh. And the tilapia is thawing now. And the main reasons those two things happened is because my wife Tracey is providing a great deal of support, and I know this whole concept would fail without her. She was patient with me in the produce section yesterday, telling me what I’d need for a salad. She’s offered to cook the dinners, since I usually wouldn’t be home in time to make them. And she’s coaching me on the little things: The silver thing with the four pointy ends is a “fork;” couscous, quinoa, and rice are something called “grains” and are interchangeable (or something, I kind of stopped listening after “quinoa” because I knew I’d have to type it later); I can’t buy produce four weeks in advance; after preparing food you don’t have to put it in a bag because apparently food can be served NOT in a bag; etc.

And I love Tracey anyway, but especially with this. She’s already taking care of two kids, and now there’s me.

And besides, (food pun ahead!), I wonder if I’ve bitten off more than I can chew. A late work night or extra-curricular event (like Saturday night’s Sox game with the kids) will wreck dinner plans — so I’ll have to move Jaclin’s steak dinner to another day. And I get up way before the rest of my family, so noisy or complicated breakfasts on weekdays won’t work — so I swapped Laura’s Monday, including a egg breakfast, with Jack’s Sunday, with a quieter oatmeal breakfast.

But you know what? It’s going to happen, or at least, mostly happen. I have patron saints for most every day in August, and I’m genuinely thankful and grateful to have friends looking out for me. Heck, my friend Mike thought the idea was cool enough that he interviewed me about it for his radio show and podcast, Outside The Loop. Whether or not it was good programming for him, it’s another public commitment for me that I am going to do this.

And thanks to you, I *am* going to do this.

Feed me

I could use your help. Before I explain how, allow me to share my sob story:

I’m seemingly incapable of properly, healthfully, regularly, feeding myself. I grew up in a home where my mom made nutritious meals for us daily. When I first moved to college, I got sustenance from the cafeterias, until delights like the $5 Grog’s Pizza — which was about as tasty as it sounds — became my dietary staples. Ever since, I’ve wandered from fast food joint to fast food joint, and sometimes just forgetting to eat altogether.

This came to light earlier this week, when my wife and kids headed out on a road trip. Left to fend for myself, I ate:

  • A peanut butter and jelly sandwich
  • A bowl of cereal
  • A Qdoba burrito
  • 2 frozen meals from the local deli
  • A Wendy’s Double and a crispy chicken sandwich
  • A handful of Doritos. OK, maybe a few handfuls
  • 3 bao from Wow Bao
  • A granola bar
  • A McDonald’s Quarter Pounder with cheese and fries
  • A Chick-Fil-A sandwich
  • 7-8 cans of Coke

This is not a healthy list. And it’s definitely not a list of proper sustenance for five days.

I want to change. I know how ridiculous this looks, and a fix should be simple — just get in the kitchen and make something HEALTHY. But I feel foolish not knowing where to start.

I have many foodie friends, who enjoy preparing a meal as much as they enjoy eating it. Even more friends are seemingly capable of making — and enjoying — a salad. Or a vegetable. Or whatever it is that healthy people eat.

So here’s the idea: I ask you to be my “food planner” for just one day. For that one day, I will eat what you, Healthy Person, tell me to prepare and eat. You can share your recipes, your favorite meals, and your good intentions to help me get right.

If 31 people are willing to help, I’ll eat properly for the entire month of August. I commit to buying and preparing the food as you suggest, within reason. (I won’t spend hundreds of dollars on any one day, and my limited skills or cookware may not be able to prepare a rack of lamb.) I will aim to follow each day and meal by the letter, because I don’t want to let you down. It’s a day that celebrates you.

To take part, click over to this online form to claim a day and tell me what I’ll eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Go into as much detail as you’d like: Just name foods and let me figure it out, give a list of directions, link to food websites with more detail, or link to/share your recipes. I’m asking you to put your name on this list so I can follow up with questions. Chances are, I know how to get hold of you, but if we don’t know each other I’d ask you to email me at kurtvan@facebook.com so I can thank you. (And if you don’t like the public spreadsheet idea, just email me your menu plan and I’ll list you anonymously.)

When I eat them, breakfast and lunch are typically on my own — but if you can share a dinner plan with my wife and two kids in mind, all the better. I’ll update the list with any days that have travel or work conflicts. I look forward to sharing how each day goes, and which recipes or lessons might be helpful to other people, too. Thanks for helping!