Fast Forward | #30

Only normies eat daily

Hi friends,

What’s the longest you’ve ever gone without eating? This week I did a 72-hour fast, from 1pm Monday to 1pm Thursday. I ate zero calories and only drank water and tea the whole time.

Why?

Many people fast for religious or weight-loss reasons, but that’s not why I did it. My main goal was to stop using eating as a mindless escape. I noticed that when I’m bored or procrastinating on work, my mind goes “hmm, am I hungry?” and I tend to wander over to the kitchen looking for parmesan chips. I wasn’t actually hungry, just trying to get away from a slightly uncomfortable feeling by distracting myself. By taking a break from eating, I wanted to cut that connection for at least a little while. Will it work? I don’t know, but I can tell you that I’ve written this whole piece without getting the urge to snack.

A side benefit of a long fast is the opportunity to practice weirdness. I like to inject bits of weirdness into my life to become more intensely myself. Humans are social animals, and we naturally mimic those around us and conform to the expectations of others. We tell ourselves that each person is unique, but we only show our uniqueness in socially-acceptable ways. Even a minor rebellion like fasting in an unconventional way is a visceral reminder that it’s fine to go outside social conventions. “Most people eat three times a day. I ate zero times for three days and I’m fine.” This habit of small transgressions inoculates you against the stress of bigger norm-breaking. Think of it as weightlifting for your “doing what’s important to me” muscle.

Finally, I wanted to do a hard thing just because it’s hard. A long time ago, when my wife and I were just starting to date, we made a bet. She would give up coffee for as long as I gave up beer. Whoever caved first had to make a fancy dinner for the other. We started on a Monday, so she had to go first. If you’ve ever tried to go cold-turkey with coffee, you know the first few days are tough: headaches, tiredness, irritation. She put up with it like a champ. Then the weekend rolled around and I decided I’d rather make her dinner than skip the party that night. I didn’t even try to avoid drinking. As you can guess, she was furious.

That’s a silly story, but there’s something to it. Perseverance is a skill, and just like the skill of authenticity, it can be trained.

So was fasting hard?

Only at times, though I didn’t expect it to be that tough. When intermittent fasting first became a fad years ago, I had a habit of doing a 24-hour fast every two weeks. The strategy was to skip dinner the first day, then avoid food till a late lunch the next day. Having that experience, I knew the first part of this fast would be easy. I ate a large-ish lunch and mentally settled in for the ride.

The next day started ok but got rough. By evening I was tired and unfocused and even strangely sore in my legs (turns out fasting and standing desks don’t mix). It didn’t help that my daughter and I were both having trouble sleeping, so I only got a few hours of shuteye. But once I woke up on day three, I felt pretty good. My stomach rumbled more than most days, but urge to eat was no stronger than usual. Even being around delicious food at mealtime was fine, not the torture you might expect it to be.

On the morning of the last day, I was still going strong but ready to be done. My stomach muscles felt tight all the time (though not painful or desperate), I was tired, and the messed up sleep was getting annoying. I held out till 72 hours on the dot, then ate a small meal to ease back in slowly. The food was great, but the coolest part was how quickly my energy came back. Like a frog being slowly boiled, I didn’t realize quite how weak I was getting. The injection of calories felt like taking off a weighted backpack after a long hike. After an hour I was bursting with energy, and I used it to vigorously feed myself two dinners that evening.

Would I do this again? I’m not sure. Quality sleep is near the top of things I care about, and if fasting ruins that then I’m less likely to repeat it. On the other hand, maybe I’ll just take the hit instead of fighting and read a book all night. If fasting were easy, what would be the point?

Never give up,

Grin

Touch Grass | #29

Hi friends,

I’m trying a new trick this week to help me write faster and more naturally: I’m gonna record my first draft instead of writing it out. There’s a cool tool called Otter.ai that will transcribe your recordings for you. Then I’ll edit that down. I’m hoping this leads to writing that sounds more like something I’d actually say. Let me know if I succeed.


“Go touch some grass” has become a minor insult online. It’s the equivalent of shut up, log off, step away from the computer and go away. Which is weird to me because I like going outside and touching the grass. It’s actually a great reminder :-)

I don’t always sleep with my window closed, but when I do, I open it first thing in the morning. First the blackout curtain, then the window itself. It’s a fun little ritual to let the day in. Then I soak in the morning.

The sounds hit me first. Our windows are new and very soundproof, so as soon as it’s open I get a rush of singing birds and lawnmowers. You might find that annoying, but I kinda like it. The baseball field across the street from me gets mowed often, and it’s fun to watch the hovercraft-like lawnmowers float around on the grass. Depending on the time, I might also hear kids or dogs playing in the field — more signs of life.

Shortly after the sounds, the smell hits me. Fresh-cut grass smells like renewal, a new day pregnant with possibility. That’s when I open my eyes and breathe it in and smile. The air has a nice chill to it in the morning and I let that wake me up fully.

This whole thing takes about 30 seconds, demarcating my transition from sleeping body to awake person.

At lunch I’ll try to get some more outsideness into me. When I remember and have the time, I try to eat on the back porch. Even 10 minutes spent sitting outside and soaking in the sun helps me feel like a new man. Working alone in a room staring at my monitor all day can make the time feel like a grey run-on series of tasks. Lunch outdoors punctuates the morning and capitalizes the afternoon, giving me a moment to take a breath. I’m usually barefoot and the added sensation of pebbles and grass accentuates the contrast.

In the evening before bed, I do one last trip into the world. Sometimes it’s to take out the garbage. Other times I just step outside and listen again. No dogs or landscaping equipment this time. Instead it’s often crickets and a faint rustle of leaves. Sometimes you can hear the neighbors talking in the distance. Everything is muted — a great way to end the day.

Until next week,

Grin

New Approach | #28

Hello dear friends,

I put up the piece about my daughter that I sent out last week. Thank you so much to everyone who responded with praise and encouragement and feedback . Here’s the finished version.

That piece is the result of working with Sasha Chapin over the past few months to improve my writing. I have a few more that I started but haven’t finished yet, and I may publish them later. If you’re interested in improving your writing (or any skill, really), getting a coach is one of the best things you can do, and working with Sasha reaffirmed my conviction on that (def hire him if you’re serious).

The best thing I got out of the experience (besides a finished essay that I’m proud of) is that I’ve expanded my understanding of what writing can be. Part of my struggle with writing in the past was a narrow idea of what I’m trying to achieve and what a good job looks like. Partially this comes from the way I do my own reading — mostly nonfiction that presents neatly-packaged insights with strong supporting arguments. So that’s the experience I tried to create each week in my writing. But that’s a really high bar to clear on a weekly basis when I’m writing in my spare time.

Instead, I can do something smaller. I can write about just a small chunk of an idea without pulling in everything that idea is tied to. Or I can stop trying to teach some minutia and instead convey a feeling or point the spotlight of your attention at some shared human experience. Including emotion can make the whole thing more memorable and fun for me and for you.

So with this new perspective, I’m going to get back to writing weekly. It’s the only way to continue to improve. I won’t promise any money yet (though I may if I fall off the wagon again), but I am committed to getting a Unicycle out every Friday by noon.

The best is yet to come 🚀

Grin

Things I Tell My Daughter | #27

Hello dear friends 🙂,

Greetings from Buffalo. I’m here with my wife’s family to celebrate the 4th and spend some time away from our usual routines. It’s a beautiful place to relax, enjoy nature, and do some writing.

Speaking of writing, here’s a draft of a story I’m working on. It’s about the phrases I often say to my four-year-old daughter, and the conversations that follow.


I love you no matter what


I hope you're not surprised to see this one at the top of the list. For the past few months, it's been the last thing you hear before going to sleep. After we brush teeth, read Mr. Putter books or look at the world map, turn off the lights, and snuggle up with your favorite Bunny, I repeat this last part of our ritual. You whisper back "I love you no matter what too", though I doubt you know what that really means. Maybe someday.


What I'm really saying is, I accept you as you are. Even when I'm mad at you, even when you're ashamed or sad or being selfish or doing something you shouldn't be. Even when you're ecstatic, or you knocked your brother off the jungle gym again, or you demand to have the peas picked out of your pasta because today you feel allergic to green.


Branding advice says that mottos are important because people only pay attention for a few seconds. Most of what is communicated is lost. Leaders have to repeat everything over and over, so a company can't have 17 values unless they drill the employees daily. But a motto, a single idea, can be transmitted pretty reliably. If I could only tell you one thing, it would be this: I accept you as you are. There's nothing to do, nothing to change. I won't always be happy with you, or proud or even there for you. But that's about me, not you.


Yes, little monkey?

One of the great joys of parenting is pet names. Your favorite is "little monkey".

My dad likes to tell me how creative Russians are with pet names. Any name can be the root of a vast tree of nicknames. Take Alexey, my birth name. Only a teacher or judge would call me that. The shopkeeper lady might call me Alyosha, the first step up the name tree trunk. My parents and friends in the yard would use Lyosha or Lyoshka. Lyoshenka, up in the furthest branches, is my grandma's favorite; Leshunya is reserved solely for my mom (unless I'm late for dinner, then it's Alexey Grigorievich!).

With you, our deal is that you call me Papa. Not Dada or Daddy or any of that. Papa is more unique and softer, more pleasing to the ear. In return, you like when I call you "little monkey". You still respond to the occasional Zaychik ("bunny" in Russian) or other variations. But when you wanna ask to go play outside or how long before Grandma comes to visit, you lead with "Papa?" and I know what you want me to say.

Not now, I'm on a call


Ok I admit it: I'm not Superdad. I like to do other things besides play with you all day. When you sprint upstairs to our guestroom/office and jump on the foam mattress because your brother's going to sleep and there's no one to play with you, I'm probably in the middle of something. Now you're jumping up and down impatiently, silently mouthing "Papa I want to tell you something!" as if I didn't know, as if it's not a daily thing for us. I try to pay attention to my meeting while holding up a finger off-screen asking for patience. It's futile.


Sometimes, you storm in in tears while I'm on a 1-on-1 call with someone I'm hoping to hire. That's the triple whammy. My mic is pretty good at cutting out background noise, but it's no match for your high-pitched wail. I briefly wonder if the person on the other end has kids (mentally violating EEOC guidelines), and whether that makes them more or less likely to judge me. "What a family-friendly workplace," I hope they're thinking, and not "how do they get anything done."


I excuse myself to deliver this line to you. It doesn't help (is anyone surprised?).


Then I scoop up your small sweaty body and hug you. I prop you up against me on the chair next to my standing desk. You hold me and sob quietly while I try to continue the interview, hitting the Mute shortcut after every sentence.


I love you no matter what.

Go wash your face

Thinking back on life can make it seem like a collection of highlights: a first date, a graduation, a baby's first steps. But in the moment, its a thousand typical Tuesdays that fade together in memory. So too with parenting. Not every moment with you stands out as special. Sometimes we just have shit to do. Dress, undress, eat, clean up, go here, go there, go to the bathroom, go to sleep.

You've mastered most of these, but there are gaps. You don't fall over when you walk ... most of the time. I don't have to remind you to go pee ... except before we go out. And you can even pull the wobbly plastic stepstool up to the cabinet to reach the cheddar bunny snacks from the top shelf ... but you refuse to wash your face after eating them.

"Go wash your face."

"I don't want to."

"It's dirty."

"I don't waaaaant tooooo."

"What's going on in your mind?," I scream internally. You know facewashing is coming -- we do it after every meal. And you know resisting won't work because it didn't work the last dozen times you tried it. "The longer you take, the less time for playing," I say. Why do you still threaten to turn a typical Tuesday into Ruby Ridge?

Putting up a fight must meet some need for you. Someday I hope you understand yourself well enough to explain it to me (most people never get there). In the meantime I grit my teeth, let out a long breath, and mentally go through my catalog of options. We don't have all day.

"What book should I read to you after you wash?"


How would you feel if...


You're at once the most grown-up and the most selfish that you've ever been. If I wrote a list of top things you say to me, "I want" would be at the top.


It's incredibly frustrating. You are so articulate and sensitive, yet all you think about is what you want. When you were younger, somehow it was more ok. Now that I can have an hour-long conversation with you about why you should get a cup of water without me, it's not.


The other day you knocked your happily-playing brother off the jungle gym. He screamed, his whole face deep red and tear rolling down his cheeks. I couldn't believe eyes could make so much water. But you acted like nothing was wrong.

I pointed it out and you didn't get it. You couldn't explain in words. But when I asked "how would you feel if he pushed you off the bar", you showed me your angry tiger: face scrunched, eyes narrow, fingers curled into claws, and a growl in your throat. Where was that ten seconds ago?


Worse, you're teaching him that this is how he should play with you. Still, I love you no matter what.


The best is yet to come 🚀,

Grin

Varieties of Human Experience | #26

A link roundup

Hello dear friends :-)

These days I find myself thinking a lot about how others see the world. I haven’t written much about it (yet), but that’s been the theme in my recent reading. Here are some things you might find interesting.

How Not To Let Work Explode Your Life. This one’s pretty long (11K words) and worth it. A look at how people used to work in the past, the role work played in their lives and relationships, and how society in general felt about work. Our perspectives on life are often limited by our experience. It’s hard to imagine living in a world very different from ours and being ok with it. So it’s always good to be reminded that there are many ways to live that we haven’t even considered.

Let The Others Find You. Make a deep connection with someone, and you’ll have one friend. Invite others to make deep connections with you, and you’ll never be lonely.

The Hawk. A lovely short story.

Hoist the Colors. I wrote last fall about how pirates were the startups of the 1700s. Here’s a longer, deeper, and more colorful version of that story.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics. Oldie but goodie. I’ve been noticing more and more that a big part of decisionmaking is avoiding blame. That leads people to take less initiative and ignore problems they could be fixing.

Weirdo Subcultures Are No Longer Producing Great Art. A back-and-forth discussion about why there hasn’t been much “great” art created in the last twenty years. I’m not sure I buy the premise (look at scenes like improv, standup, graffiti, NFTs) but its provocative. My best theory to support this claim is that “great” means something like “critically acclaimed”, and the critics are old-media elites who’ve become less relevant in recent times (do people still care about the Oscars?). So the art is still good (in fact there’s more of it than ever before) but there’s less consensus on what counts as great.

The best is yet to come 🚀

Grin

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