Lent 2015

I don’t have a lot of traditions but Lent seems to be a consistent one that I uphold. For me it’s a journey of both sacrifice and growth. I give something up to experience the sacrifice inherent to the original Lent and I try to find something creative to do each day as a way of growing. Last year, I chose to write a blog post every day. That wasn’t only a growth goal, it turned out to be quite a sacrifice as it takes a lot of dedication and time to write even a banal few paragraphs. Towards the end, I resorted several times to haikus or complaints about how hard it is to write every day. I’m not sure that’s in the spirit of the goal.

This year, we have a family Lenten sacrifice. We have struggled some over the last year or so with financial issues from a “we’re in a new relationship and there are some things to hammer out” view, from a “we’re spending too much money on bowel movements and hangovers” view and not to mention from a “we had a really awesome wedding in Savannah” view. Some of these were conscious choices we made. I wouldn’t trade the wedding for anything. Others were habit, the habit of just pulling out a card. Paying for some average food and a couple of drinks with a card is painless. Paying for average food and a few drinks with a $50 bill isn’t so painless. If you read any of the mainstream “no-debt” resources, almost all of them advocate paying with cash to make you aware of your spending, painfully aware in some cases. From this awesome post at Get Rich Slowly

  • Paying in cash forces you to consider the real purchase price – No matter what you’re buying, the fact that you’re paying in cash turns it into an entirely different experience. That’s because you have no choice but to consider how much money you’re paying overall, and not just what you’ll have to pay on a monthly or yearly basis.
  • Paying in cash might help you spend less – When you force yourself to pay in cash, big ticket items start to lose their appeal. Try walking into a dealership with the intention of paying $15,000 or $20,000 for a newer car. All of a sudden, the prospect of keeping your old paid-off junker becomes an incredibly attractive option. Am I wrong?
  • Paying in cash keeps you out of debt – The best thing about refusing to finance things is that it keeps you out of debt in the first place. We all know what a slippery slope that can be. There are so many benefits to being debt-free, including the option to save more of your income, less stress, and of course, the feeling of not really being beholden to anyone. It’s a freeing feeling, and it’s one that I will never, ever surrender without a fight.

Dave Ramsey says much the same thing. The powers that be tricked us when when they gave us all credit and debit cards and taught us that we could afford anything. Anytime something is easier, it should immediately arouse suspicion especially when it comes to spending money. So we’re embarking on a Lenten journey of paying cash for everything outside of bills and auto fuel. I’m toying with shutting down even the bills and sending in actual checks like people in the Stone Ages did (no offense, Mom). The upside of all of this is that come April 1st, we won’t have to listen to the sucking sound of a $1000 or more black hole coming from the bank account as our credit cards swallow money.

For a positive family Lenten challenge, we’re going to spend one night a week dedicated to just us. We’ll have dinner and then play a game or read a common book. The goal is for it to be interactive, to avoid the passivity of the computer or the TV. I’ve been wanting to learn Go for a long time so if we just trade off every week between that and Rummikub, maybe I’ll only get my tail kicked every other week.

On a personal side, I’m going to repeat last year’s sacrifice of sugar. I started this year with some new personal record blood work (where the personal record is cholesterol through the roof). I have some personal ideas about carbohydrate intake and cholesterol that are, umm, not mainstream. Last year, I had my LDL levels down to 164 which is pretty good for me. In January, they were back up to 245. Obviously, that’s a heart attack waiting to happen according to the mainstream medical media. I’m pretty sure it’s a result of 4 months of eating like I was getting married and next to zero exercise. That 164 value came in May last year when I was eating well, had just come off of giving up sugar for Lent and was exercising a reasonable amount. I don’t think that’s a fluke. To really kick things off with a bang, I’m going to do my longest fast ever, 48 hours. There is a wealth of information out there in support of regular and intermittent fasting as a healthy practice. I’ve been doing intermittent fasting (food intake only between 12 and 8ish) for a couple of weeks. But the health benefits of a 48 hour fast are hard to ignore so I’d like to start integrating that into my eating. So starting today, until Thursday night, it’s water and coffee and tea only.

On the growth side, I’m going to think about it some today but I’m leaning towards something similar to last year as well when I wrote every day. If I did that, I’d expand it out to “write, draw or play the saxophone/piano” every day. On the upside, I miss those right brain creative type things. On the down side, I have some goals for 2015 that would likely suffer because there are only so many hours in the day. Things like Spanish and reading would go to the backburner. I have ways to mitigate this because I have a 2 hour train ride each day. But writing more personal code or exercising would be harder and harder to fit in. So that’s going to be a mediation for today to try and identify what I really want to focus on and what’s important.

Fasting Resources for those so inclined:

Easy Summer Breakfast

It’s the height of tomato season around here and we’re overwhelmed with tomatoes. I may or may not have overplanted this year but I just picked a pound of yellow pear tomatoes and there are more on the vines. With that kind of production, you have to find interesting ways to eat more tomatoes. I came up with this recipe after reading an article in Garden & Gun regarding black cherry heirloom tomatoes. It’s an easy breakfast or lunch. Depending on your protein choice and your Paleo interpretation, you could call it Paleo though I used cottage cheese which might make some people’s toes curl.

Sauteed Heirloom Tomatoes and Onions
Some olive oil
1 onion chopped
Cherry or pear tomoatoes, a handful per serving
Torn basil
Fresh cracked pepper
sea salt
A protein of your own choosing. I used cottage cheese but this would be good on eggs, leftover chicken or black beans.

Heat the oil in a cast iron pan over medium heat. Saute the onions until slightly soft. Add the tomatoes, salt and pepper and saute for just a minute or so. You aren’t trying to create sauce, just get them to release the flavor a little. Add the basil and remove from the heat. Put your protein in a bowl and top with the tomatoes, onions and basil mixture.

Going Without

Yesterday, I did a 24 hour fast as a first step into Intermittent Fasting (IF). For the uninitiated, IF is a eating pattern where you do not eat for certain periods of time. This can be 1-2 24 hour fasts during a week, skipping a meal like breakfast and only eating between the hours of 12 and 8 PM or restricting caloric intake to a fraction of normal on fast days, say 400 calories while eating normally on all other days.

The reasoning behind IF often is historic in nature, i.e during our evolution we did not have access to McDonald’s 24-7 and thus our bodies are acclimated and even tuned for periods of feasting and famine. The constant availability of any calories we want is a fairly new phenomenon in human history and may have a negative impact on our overall health. The scientific literature in support of fasting is almost entirely positive. Of the many benefits are weight loss, increased sensitivity to insulin, decreased LDL and triglyceride counts and increased growth hormone production.

I have been considering playing with IF for a little while. In many ways, it’s always been a part of my eating habits as I’m prone to not eating dinner occasionally though that could be an artifact of snacking throughout the day occasionally. Being mostly unaware of the types of IF, I decided to start with a 24 hour fast, eating a meal Monday night at 8 PM and then not eating again until Tuesday evening at 8 PM. In theory, this sounds relatively easy. Who couldn’t go 24 hours without food? As it turns out, this guy can’t go 24 hours without food (though I did go 22 which I figure is close enough).

Obviously, sleeping and fasting is something most of us do all the time. I’m assuming there is probably some aberrant portion of the population who sleep eats but as a general rule, we fast when we sleep. This makes the first 12 hours or so of a 24 hour fast reasonably easy. As the astute reader will know, I’ve recently been doing non trademarked something less than Kevlar protected coffee for breakfast lately so I was prepared to fast through the morning. Though the coffee drinks have a substantial amount of calories, they are still liquid and tend to disappear fairly quickly. All this to say, yesterday morning wasn’t bad and actually was very productive and focused. The work I did in the morning was pretty good in quality (says the guy who hasn’t been to work yet today to actually verify that since he was in no state to verify anything yesterday afternoon though we’ll get to that shortly). I felt mentally alert and not overly distracted by hunger. I’m the type of person who doesn’t ever skip breakfast so I took this as a positive sign.

About 11, the hunger set in. At first, it was normal run of the mill “hey it’s time for a meal” hunger. I treated that with more coffee which is what I tried to use all day. By 12:30, I could tell this was going to be a much harder challenge than I anticipated. Working alone over lunch, I found it increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that my body seemed to be willing to sacrifice a kidney for a meal. My ability to focus began to degrade and continued to get worse throughout the remaining hours of the fast. No amount of coffee or water seemed to slake the desire for food. My body is apparently so used to regular meals that when they disappear for just 24 hours, nothing else of importance can rise above the hunger. I did manage to do some basic work in the afternoon but only through pair programming. I’m afraid I would have stared at the computer for 3 hours without that. The low throbbing headache that had shown up about 2 PM got worse and worse.

My original plan had been to workout around 6 PM as there are anecdotal studies that show a workout towards the tail end of a fast has increased effect on muscle growth and strength gain, likely due to the increase in growth hormone during the fast. However, at 4:30, I was at the point where further work was practically impossible so I headed out. I could tell that there was no way I was going to go home and manage a workout. I did manage to ignore the siren song of every fast food joint on the way home, a feat of willpower only surpassed by the fact I had to go to the grocery store to get cat food and I managed to exit with only the cat food, a rotisserie chicken and a Snicker’s almond bar in tow. There was a moment where I nearly sat down in the cookie aisle and ate an entire bag of Oreos on the floor of Brookshires but I assume the store management would have frowned on that.

They say you should never go to the grocery store hungry because you’ll buy stuff you’ll never eat like hominy. That may be true but go to the store after a 22 hour fast and you’ll eat practically anything. Without that Snickers, I’m pretty sure I would have eaten a can of cat food on the way home. The destruction I did to the chicken would shame normal human beings.

Once I had eaten (and by eaten I mean taken a tour through the kitchen stuffing anything I could find into my greedy maw, leaving the kitchen in a state that looked like they filmed 9 1/2 weeks there), the mental clarity returned with some slight modifications. For a little while, I wasn’t terribly sure what day it was or what I was supposed to be doing. Often after a big meal, I want to take a nap. My body seemed to want this as well but my mind was completely alert though uninterested in actually doing anything other than watching TV.

Throughout this first world ordeal, I regularly considered what it must be like to deal with actual hunger. I was voluntarily giving up food in pursuit of better health. That must seem like an insane act to those who deal with hunger all the time. We are fortunate to be born in a civilization where even the poor often eat enough food. Going without is a way of life for many people around the globe and it puts many things in perspective.

Things I learned from this:

  • Don’t do a 24 hour fast if you’re a knowledge worker and think you’ll be productive at all during the latter parts of the fast.
  • Be prepared for a sensation considerably worse than “I sure am hungry.” It will dominate your focus in the latter part of the fast unless you can ever manage to get over the hunger pains. I expected them to fade somewhat but they never did. Perhaps future fasts will be better.
  • The food you eat will increase in gustatory enjoyment. That was the best rotisserie chicken I’ve ever had and it was nothing special at all.
  • Normal functioning will be difficult towards the end of the fast. Leaving work, I felt slightly disoriented. I did’t remember the cat food until I was practically home which is unlike me.

Was it a positive experience? Yes. Not only did I feel good for a portion of the fast, it is humbling to think how easy it is for us to get whatever food we want whenever we want it. I’m not sure if there were any health gains obviously but I plan to keep playing with IF to see what’s involved. Several people I know responded on Twitter with their results and they were all very positive. They all chose to do a regular 12-8 PM feeding time with a fast overnight and through the morning which is probably a great deal more pragmatic for knowledge workers. Going forward, my 24 hour fasts will all be done on the weekends when I have less need to mentally focus on tasks. In fact, I think a 24 hour fast from 8 PM Saturday through 8 PM Sunday would be both easier and less likely to result in my eating a raw steak at Brookshires.

If you’ve been considering IF or if you are now considering it after reading about it, I do encourage it. The science is starting to strengthen in support of it as well as strengthen against our normal diet of eating constantly throughout the day. Our bodies respond well to periods of feast and famine and I’m looking forward to giving it another try. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go eat a dozen eggs for breakfast.

Fast Paleo Goulash

I came across this great looking recipe for Hungarian goulash last week. I’m going to try it soon but since I only had 45 minutes today for lunch, I made a fast version with hamburger that turned out pretty good. It can’t compete with anything cooked in a slow cooker for hours but it makes a great 1 dish meal that you can make in under an hour.

1 pound of ground beef, bison, venison, elk, whatever. I used grass fed beef from a local farm.
1 onion, chopped
1 yellow squash, diced
1 zucchini, diced
1 bell pepper,diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced or run through a garlic press if you’re lazy and in a hurry like me.
paprika (I just threw some in until it looked nice and red)
cumin (ditto)
1 tablespoon of tomato paste
1 cup of beef broth
black pepper to taste
salt to taste
coconut oil (I liked the flavor it added but some people might just stick to the lard)
lard (yup, lard. It’s good for you. Trust me, anything that comes from bacon is good for you)

Brown the beef in the coconut oil. Remove all of the above from the pan. Melt the lard and add the onions, paprika and cumin. Saute for until it looks and smells good, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and tomato paste and stir everything together. Add the meat back in along with the squash, zucchini and peppers. Add the broth and stir everything together. Cook on medium heat until the broth is reduced by half. Add pepper and salt if so desired. I added a little more cumin because I’m addicted to the stuff.

I ate it straight out of a bowl but you could serve it over sliced cabbage or cauliflower rice. The upside is that if you leave and come back home later, your house will smell fantastic.

Paleo Bison Stew

I made this up the other day and it turned out pretty darn good. Plus it’s reasonably priced with bison stew meat going for $7.49 a pound at Whole Foods. There’s very little precision to it, it’s “old school, your grandma has leftovers and she threw them all in the pot” stew but it’s tasty and healthy.

1 lb bison stew meat cubed
1 onion chopped
enough garlic to make you happy, chopped
1 large sweet potato rough chopped
1 can diced tomatoes (I used one with peppers and onions)
Any root veggies you want (I didn’t have any on hand but I bet rutabagas would be good)
1 can of diced green chilies
1 jar of Tikka Masala sauce (or cream of mushroom soup or whatever floats your boat)

saute the onions and garlic in olive oil for a couple of minutes until they are translucent. Add the stew meat and brown on medium high heat. Dump that into a slow cooker. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir it a couple of times. Cook on low for 5-6 hours.

The sweet potatoes are a nice contrast to the chilies and tikka sauce. This would probably work well with any game meat.