‘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!

Pedal down, grow up

Being a big fan of the Green Bay Packers, I love seeing stories that share a little bit of the behind-the-scenes stories of the players. I was just reminded of one, from 2012, as offensive lineman T.J. Lang had signed a big contract: $21 million to play football — for the Packers — for the next four years.

The article diplomatically explains how Lang — then all of 24 years old — struggled with the responsibilities of adulthood when he broke into the NFL just three years earlier.

“I was 21, living downtown, going out three, four nights a week sometimes,” Lang said…. “But looking back on it, I really didn’t understand why I was doing it. I didn’t think it was a problem back then, but looking back, it’s like I’m lucky to still be here.”

Clearly, he’s matured, as one of his coaches said:

“(Lang has) continued to put the pedal down, saying, `Look, I want to be darn good at this.'”

Maybe like any typical 21-year-old, Lang didn’t fully appreciate 1) the talents he had, and 2) the opportunity he’d been given. But by age 24, he’d become aware. He’s capitalizing on these things and reaping the rewards for it. The article helps me and all Packers fans celebrate a feel-good story.

Perhaps it’s also a moment to be self-reflective: Do I realize the opportunities I have? Or the talents I possess? And even if I do, will I continue to push the pedal down, driving myself to be the best I can be? It’s one thing to celebrate the success of a sports figure on your favorite team; it’s another entirely to dedicate yourself to grow and develop as a person and as a professional.

In 2014, T.J. Lang is coming off a season where Pro Football Focus ranked him as the 15th best guard in the league. There’s room to improve, but there’s reason to believe he’s up to the challenge, and I have a hunch that Lang will earn his second Super Bowl ring.

Meanwhile, 2014 marks the start of my 22nd year as a full-time professional. I want to recognize my talents, to create opportunities, to grow, to mature, and to win my own version of the Super Bowl.

Look, I want to be darn good at this.

Avoiding “Nothing”

It’s like my 7- and 9-year-old kids were already teenagers. I’d leave work a little early to face my 90-minute commute, the occupations of my day so I can raise my family in the first place, so my excitement had plenty of time to build until I could finally see them ask, “What did you do today?”

Quite literally, I’d get “Nothing.”

I thought that sort of ennui wasn’t supposed to hit for years!

Instead of getting exasperated by it, I realized it just needed a different context. Because what didn’t they do today? They got up, they lived life, they made friends, they ate, they struggled, they achieved. It’s too basic, too overwhelming a question. If there were something worth reporting, chances are they’d tell me before I could even ask.

Still, the question was an important one to me — I want to know about their lives, even the day-to-day minutiae, because that’s where life is truly lived. Maybe I could rephrase it, getting them to share the highlight of their day, something they enjoyed, because who wouldn’t want to relive that? And it hit me:

“What made you laugh the most today?”

I first tried it out on Lauren as I was tucking her in. Her eyes lit up, and she bubbled, “Leah was so funny at lunch today!” She launched into the story before I could say a word. And we talked about what a good friend Leah is, and how the lunch ladies don’t always let you sit next to your friends, and how kids who bring their lunch are seated differently than those who buy, and….

Lauren went to sleep a little later than normal that night.

The next evening, I tried it out on Jacob. I was awarded a story about playtime at recess, where this one kid said such a funny thing, and that led to a conversation about which kids he plays with, and how the one kid dropped out of the group, and how last year’s best friend now plays with someone else, but these other two kids are good friends this year…

I now ask my favorite question a lot more frequently. Not every day, because I don’t want it to become a chore. But often enough that they can probably see it coming — and maybe they’ll be more conscious for those moments, and keep an eye out for those situations where they find a belly laugh.

At least, that’s the effect it’s having on me. I expect someday soon, they may ask me the same thing. And I have to tell you, keeping those joyful memories fresh so I can relive them later is a pretty cheerful use of brain space.

The serious business of being funny

The worst thing my wife has ever said to me: “Six.”

But I’d asked for it. Literally.

On a scale from one to ten, how funny did she think I was?

Never ask a question unless you’re truly ready for the answer.

As much as the story haunts me to this day, it has me on the lookout for proof that I, even for short moments in time, rate better than a six. One just popped up this weekend.

almondmilk

Social media provides an opportunity to share such moments, and teaches me to get better at it. Dropping “make your own” would have made it punchier. I pay attention to these things constantly now, trying to up my score, The worst was after I mis-told a joke I was particularly proud of:

mumfordtrain

Matt’s comment was a good lesson: Be efficient. The band mention diluted the payoff.

Even this is all in good fun. Tracey and I laugh about my “funny score” quite a bit. And I see it as a challenge — there’s lots of opportunity to grow. And hey, even a six puts me above average, right? I’ve had my moments. I’ve gotten people — even my wife — to belly laugh. In fact, I’ll submit evidence of what is the funniest joke I believe I’ve ever told (click the picture to see the comment full-size).

selfesteemstore

If it made Ryan laugh, on a plane, it couldn’t be all bad.

Or maybe I deserved that six after all.

Give the kid a break

I’m at Jacob’s baseball practice, his third in four days*, where the coach is hollering. “Ball up the middle, you have to cover second!” “Be in the ready position!” “Pay attention!”

To get here felt like moving mountains. “Do you have your jacket?!” “C’mon, you’re going to be late!” “Tie your shoes, let’s go!”

Before that, it was school. A big test in social studies. Who knows what new stuff came his way, while trying to make up work for two sick days last week.

Before that, it was getting ready for school. “Finish your breakfast, you’re going to be late.” “You gotta brush your teeth!” Dragging his butt out of bed.

Before that it was a night interrupted by his lingering cough, enough to ask Mom for help.

Before all that… was a day pretty much exactly like today. And the day before that, and the day before that.

Earlier today, I heard someone ask Jacob: “I’m just asking you a question, why are you getting all mad at me?”

Sometimes, I’m glad I’m not 8 years old.

*There was also a practice on day two, which he missed due to religious education classes. There’s also practice tomorrow.

Trying to warm up to exercise

Blog post as therapy:

I am lazy. And I can’t stop. Because, you know, that would take energy.

For years — decades now? — I’ve told myself pretty much daily that my life would be so much better if I’d exercise. Run a little, use that elliptical machine I bought, the treadmill desk at work, join a gym, walk the damn dog, anything. And I mentally list the reasons it’ll help:

I’ll feel better. Endorphins released, stress released, time for myself to think.

I’ll look better. The spare tire I’m growing will slow, at least a little.

I’ll sleep better. My body doesn’t need to recover much from sitting in front of a computer or on a couch. Those seven hours could be more productive.

I’ll be healthier. Stronger immune system, fewer colds, and I’d combat the high cholesterol in my genes.

Energy begets energy. What a magnificent cycle to start, to have more energy each day. imagine how much more I could do.

Set an example for those you care about the most. If my kids see me exercising, they’ll just think fitness is a normal thing you do — and perhaps carry these traits with them into their adult life.

Good grief. Any one of these is more than enough to make a life change, right? It’s not even a discussion.

Yet this next list apparently trumps all:

I’m lazy. You see, I… oh, never mind.

My November 18, 2013 blog post about rebooting my life included a plan to start exercising, for me and my own sake. Three days a week, which I immediately scheduled on my calendar and set a recurring appointment in my task reminder app, so I’d always be confronted with it. Since that post, today is the 27th time I’ve been reminded today is exercise day.

Today is the 26th time I’ll have deleted it.

There’s plenty I do well, and I’m smart enough to figure out most problems I face. But seeing as though reminders, pep talks, and self-loathing haven’t done the trick, perhaps this version of public shaming will get me started. I mean, all I have to do is stop typing, head downstairs, and hop on the elliptical machine.

You know, I bet tomorrow will be a great time to start.

The Joy Journal

joyjournalI don’t remember specifically what inspired me in April 2009 to run to a Borders bookstore (!) and purchase this empty black journal. But I know exactly why I bought it — I wanted to capture what moments of joy I had each day.

There must be at least three moments in every day, I thought, that provide me an inner peace or happiness. It would be healthy to watch for those, and maybe a collection would provide inspiration on days when I wasn’t feeling so great.

And so I scribbled:

4/19/09

  • Racing through Sam’s Club with Jacob laughing in cart
  • Jacob sat us down for a “show” — he announced into a microphone we were going trick-or-treating next week, and don’t forget your Easter baskets
  • Lauren asked me to sit with her while she peed. When she finished, she looked up and said, “I goed.”

Nothing earth-shattering. But it’s a little heart-warming to remember then-two-year-old Lauren’s potty training pride, or a simple moment where four-year-old Jacob made me laugh.

And so I captured three things from the next day, and the next. I even lugged the hefty journal with me on my first real work trip a week later.

I kept this up until December 21, 2009, when I instead started typing them into my smartphone’s notepad. And I’ve been doing it ever since. At the end of each month, I email myself the page so I have a backup copy.

That came in handy on December 3, 2013, when some sort of malfunction wiped out December’s notes. No record of joy for those two days. I let myself get immediately caught up in work, figuring I’d go back that night and remember… but I put it off, and it quickly became too late to recall the biggest smiles of those days.

And since then, I’ve wondered — how much does it matter? I’m compulsive enough that ending a several year-long streak makes me a little sad, just for consistency’s sake. But as it turns out, I’ve never gone back and looked at them. Typing in the first entry above is the first time I recall looking back at the hand-written ones… and I just assume the typed ones are saved in my email somewhere. But unfiled, unorganized, and unread.

As I’m typing this, Lauren came into my office and started poking at the book, asking what it was. I explained and then flipped through random pages to read her ones that mentioned her.

12/18/09

Jacob and Lauren each tried a new food. Lauren tried the smallest bite ever taken, but later, a real bite. Jacob saw that she had tried a bite, so eventually he did too.

7/29/09

Realize how much I look forward to seeing Lauren when I come home from work because she always has an announcement. Generally, it’s the highlight of the day. Today was, “I had a sucker today.”

9/1/09

After Jacob’s soccer practice, we all ended up playing soccer in our front yard. At one point, I kicked Lauren’s ball far away. She smiled and said, “Go get it, Kurt!” which even she realized was funny. We all busted up laughing.

9/21/09

Overheard in next room: J: “Are you my best friend?” L: “I’ll always be your best friend.”

Watching her reaction to these, maybe I’ve just found the real reason I’ve been doing this all this time.

Do you do anything like this? What do you do with your collection? Any suggestions on what I should do with mine?