Cracking the Brain Crack – 30 Day Challenges

Loyal followers of The MonkeyBuddha Diaries will have noticed that there hasn’t been much to follow a while now. While the podcast has stayed satisfactorily strong (I have low standards), my last written post howls from the forgotten geologic era of seven months ago in, a time known as “November 2017.” Even that entry was a reflection in response to a book rather than a straight-from-the-gut post.

This presents a problem. I refuse to raise the white flag and surrender the blog as “dead” in any way shape or form, mostly due to my healthy faith that it’s as good of an idea as it’s ever been. But the more time that goes by without an entry, the more I feel self-administered pressure to rise from the grave valiantly with a mega-post that integrates a wealth of experience from the past two hundred days, and I just don’t have that post in me.

This somewhat maps on to what YouTube pioneer and design-thinker-person Ze Frank refers to as “Brain Crack,” the disastrous phenomenon among creative types whereby the addictive envisioning of a good idea prevents a creator from taking steps towards its manifestation out of fear that it won’t live up to its increasingly grand vision. The solution, of course, is to drop your conception-to-production time as close to zero as possible, pumping out a chain of great-albeit-imperfect creations and perpetually clearing room for the next idea to come in. I’ve been further spurred to do this by reading a lot of Slate Star Codex recently, a stupendous blog by a pseudonymous rationalist who somehow publishes thoughtful, well-researched pieces on the gnarliest of social issues twice a week while maintaining a full-time psychiatry practice. One of the many keys to the author’s success is portion control. Each individual entry dissects only a fragment of a larger topic, keeping the site writable (and more importantly, readable) while building a comprehensive take on the world at large through gradual accumulation. Take, for example, his recent article on The Intellectual Dark Web which restrained itself to a central question rather than take on the entire IDW phenomenon at once.

So, this is what you get. No, I haven’t been working on this post for six months. And no, there probably won’t be any single post attempting to wrap up everything I’ve thought about throughout my fellowship into a grand conclusion. But hey, would you want to read that post anyway?


What I’ve written instead is a something that will hopefully give a little glimpse into each of the past seven months at my post and maybe an unintentional sense of a personal trajectory across them. Sometime in September I overheard my co-fellow listening to a TED podcast by some guy explaining how he had recently integrated “30-Day Challenges” into his life. The guy turned out to be Matt Cutts and the idea is simple enough: incorporate some new practice, ritual, or lifestyle change into your life for thirty days, then see how you feel about it. The formula has been tremendously rewarding for me because timespan is just right; A month is long enough to tell whether you really want to stick with the behavior change long term, but short enough that potentially difficult ones aren’t overly intimidating.

I’ve now completed some seven-and-a-half-ish 30-Day Challenges since starting in October. Here are my thoughts on each one.

October: Core exercise every day for thirty days

An obvious, if not terribly inspired place to start. For thirty days straight I did Antranik’s sequence of six bodyline drills from the Bodyweight Fitness Subreddit’s Recommended Routine, throwing in a little extra on days I could. In brief, the bodyline drills are a series of six static holds that demand effort out of alternating groups of core muscles in a way that’s pleasingly elegant to a wannabe fitness geek. To force progression, I started out doing each hold for 35 seconds and then added a second each day, successfully reaching my goal of holding every pose for a full 60 seconds with virtually no rest in between by day 30. So that was pretty cool. I’ve continued using this as my core warmup for the sporadic workouts I do to this day, and I’ve forced myself to stay at a full 60-second hold for each pose to prevent fall-off.

What surprised me the most from this challenge was that in addition to being able to do the holds marginally longer each day, but I also felt that I got better at doing the holds themselves. It’s a tricky thing to articulate, but I swear that I could “feel” subtle little muscle chains activate through my back, obliques and groin that just seem to be the “right” ones to be involved. Another way I might put it is that I felt a hell of a lot more familiar with the intricacies of each pose on day 30 than on day 1. Side plank and I got intimate.

That might all be in my head, but having just crunched the numbers, I was surprised to find that over those thirty days I spent 142 minutes total on the mat holding one pose or another. That comes out to roughly twenty-four minutes each. The strenuous nature of each hold demands a fair degree of concentration, and I think it’s fair to say you’d more thoroughly understand just about anything you seriously concentrated on for twenty-four minutes straight.

Richard and I feeling real proud of our snickerdoodles in October. And oh man, the hair.

November: Contact a friend from home every day for thirty days

Sometime in October I got waylaid by what I think some people call “culture shock.” I’m not convinced of the usefulness of said term, because even if what I experienced was a real and measurable pattern common to many recent migrants (i.e. even if culture shock exists), it didn’t feel anything like what one typically associates with “shock.” My experience fits within these people’s definition of “a reactive phenomenon occurring as a result of culture change and including both cognitive and affective components combining to produce extraordinary stress on the individual migrant,” but that definition is so broad that it might be useless. What I went through in October was a gradual and unpleasant recognition that I was very unlikely to connect with anyone in Uganda as effortlessly and deeply as I connect with many people back home. You don’t realize what a role obscure cultural references play in your social/emotional well-being until you spend a year away from anyone who might pick up on your Spongebob quotes.

Luckily, a cool feature of the 30-Day Challenge is that it naturally lends itself to progressive problem solving. With November coming up, I resolved to reach out to someone from home or USC each day every day just to say what’s up and see how they’re doing. I imagine most readers have felt guilty at some point for not being a little better about keeping in touch with distant loved ones, yeah? Boom, 30-Day Challenge that shit.

My execution of this one wasn’t perfect, in that I would go a few days without contacting anyone new and then reach out to a whole bunch of people in one day to make up for it. All in all, I did hit up thirty people over a span of thirty days, so I’d say that’s a success. Most of this was done through Facebook Messenger, making a decent case for the idea that Facebook isn’t purely demonic. Though I was of course happy for people to respond, I would sometimes end up with half a dozen or so new messages in my inbox and have to sit down at the end of the workday to go through each of them and respond, which made this more of a time commitment than I expected. Or maybe we all regularly spend similar amounts of time communicating digitally with people we care about every day, but do so in bits and pieces that fade into the background and later get categorized as “wasted time” by people like me with tyrannical productivity instincts.

From this one I learned that yes, people are reassuringly receptive to messages like “Hey it’s just been a while and I’m trying to be better at staying in touch,” as I hoped I would find. I also found that there are only so many ways you can answer the broad question of “How’s life in Uganda?” and that friends who asked specific, pointed questions were much more satisfying to talk to and probably got a better picture of “my life abroad” than those who explicitly asked for a picture of “my life abroad”. This was reaffirmed during my trip home for the holidays; I sincerely appreciate my relatives who tended towards more specific questions no matter how off-base they may have been from the reality of Uganda’s present state.

And lastly, yes, there were a handful of people who never responded, and no, I didn’t mind. Maybe I did a little bit. But I’m fully aware that my lifestyle here permits way more time for these kinds of things than the collegiate or professional lifestyles most of them are living in the US, and I’m sure that I would have been a non-responder myself in some of my more stressful weeks of college. Mostly I just hope those people haven’t avoided responding or reaching out in later months because they felt awkward about acknowledging a previous silence. In May, two people who didn’t respond back in November reached out and reinitiated conversation, and it made me happy.

The view from a hike in the Rwenzori foothills we did back in November.

December: Get to bed before 11pm every day for thirty days

Yeah, this didn’t work out.

I’ve struggled with staying up late on my computer ever since middle school and always secretly wondered if I might be a “morning person” with a perpetual identity crisis. I figured I’d have the best shot at cracking this here in Uganda, where my internet access (read: Reddit access) is pretty limited at home. I hoped that I would spontaneously wake up at 7am each day and use the time for something healthy like reading or yoga, but mostly I just continued to sleep or mull about until 7:45 as usual. After a couple weeks some late night commitment I can’t recall broke my streak and it pretty much fell off after that.

But hey, in life you either win or you learn. My failure on this one definitely informed the morning running I’ve been doing in June, but more on that later…

A banana peeling operation I came across back in December. The bananas are for making… “juice”.

January: Be present, here in the Toro Kingdom, every day for thirty days

Around this time my challenges started shifting from explicit daily instructions to something more along the line of a “monthly theme.” At the end of December I flew home to spend the holidays with my family and started to freak out a little bit about my fellowship already being 1/3rd of the way through with so much of the local culture and region still untapped. Throughout the fall I had been distracted by the impetus of grad school applications, the soap opera allure of American political media, and my usual knack to always be preparing for the next thing coming up. I figured January would be the best shot I’d have to just be where I am. What’s the point of always thinking ahead towards the next thing if you never slow down just to let that be the current thing, y’know?

For me, “being present” meant reinvigorating my efforts to learn more Rutooro, playing soccer with the local guys on Saturday, and reading the Ugandan novel Kintu that my co-fellow kindly provided. It lined up well with a work assignment that had me supervising the construction of a groundwater well and often not getting home until 7 or 8 pm.

I only wrote one entry in my journal from the entire month of January, which is unusually infrequent for me. I think it sums up how that month went better than anything I could write now, so here are some excerpts from Tuesday, January 23rd.

This effort [to be present] has been far from perfect, but I dare say it’s working. I think this is most evidenced in the fact that I haven’t had anything to manically sort out in writing the past two weeks. Now that I am finally turning to the journal, it’s not with my usual lamentations of “omg so many things swirling in my head,” but with a calm inclination to check in and record this feeling for future reflection.

What would I like to say to a future reflector? I suppose this: I’m quite capable of being content here. The people are kind, the landscape is beautiful, the work is gratifying, and I have ample time to indulge in my youthful health and curiosity. If by some series of tragic events you’re looking back at this from a place of despair and wondering if you’ve ever been happy in your entire life, the answer is yes. If satisfaction is what you’re looking for, a willingness to be present with the time-tested ingredients of a good life really does work…

…And yet, a yearning to be somewhere other than here still gnaws at me. A dissatisfaction with a state of satisfaction…

…Part of me sees this temptation as, for all intents and purposes, The Devil. It’s a false promise of greener grass than the turf under my own feet mixed in with some nihilism just for style points. It’s no different from the allure that draw gamblers back to the dice and exes back into unhealthy relationships.

The other part of me thinks ol’ Lucifer might have a point here. Am I not too young, too ambitious, and too indebted to the world to settle for contentment? That shit is a lukewarm bath – on my deathbed will I want to look back on a life that was enjoyed or a life that was grappled with, grabbed by the neck to drag me through the trials of neurotic delirium to emerge scarred and anointed? This part of me thinks that maybe my goal with this whole thing was to prove that I knew how to be happy, and I’ve succeeded. In fact, it’s a simple recipe and the ingredients have been around since the dawn of mankind. Do I now want to spend the next 70 years eating the same dish?

Yours truly pictured with a chicken we kindly welcomed into our home and then slaughtered and ate in honor of Clara and Richard’s birthdays.

February into March: Watch and take notes on one video from Crash Course’s World Mythology series every day for thirty days

This is the series I’m talking about. Back in the US, I had downloaded four of Crash Course’s series using the handy dandy 4k Video Downloader, and coming into February I was feeling really into mythology. I made a theme out of this one too by reading through Richard Buxton’s The Complete World of Greek Mythology, which had the added bonus of making me feel marginally more in touch with my Greek heritage.

Why mythology? The interest came from the Karl Jung/Joseph Campbell idea of mythical archetypes as explained by Jordan Peterson in this brilliant podcast bit. My idea going in was that long-standing myths are especially significant as stories not because they’re untouched relics from some ancient source of original inspiration, but because they’ve had so many people’s hands all over them as they were passed from generation to generation of storytellers all the way down to today. Having evolved by such an iterative process, they’re impervious to the idiosyncratic quirks of individual authors and more likely to hold narrative clues to the trials and tribulations at the heart of a common human experience. By examining world mythology in particular and distilling everything down to the common themes across disparate cultures, you might even be able to hit on themes that are universal to human nature itself.

To some extent, that worked out for me. There are particular tropes that do seem to show up in distant geographies and suggest that there are universal ways people make meanings out of their surroundings. The original set of creator deities across a surprisingly wide range of cultures involves a Sky Father and Earth Mother, which fits with Peterson’s discussion of Father Culture and Mother Nature. Crash Course specifically addresses these common-occurring themes in a subset of videos that address archetypes such as heroes, tricksters, gardens, and mountains.

A friendly piglet spotted on a walk to work back in February.

But these commonalities definitely didn’t emerge as easily as I expected, and it became clear to me just how much arm-twisting Peterson has to do to arrive at his own interpretations while insisting that they’re ancient and universal. And many times it was the cultural idiosyncracies rather than cross-cultural commonalities that blew me away; consider for a moment that reeds must have played such a significant role in ancient Mesopotamian life that the original divine family includes a place for Ningikuga, the Goddess of the Reeds. Hell, the Yoruba have a God of Crushed Cassava. And here we are, thinking that we’ve uncovered Love and Fear as the ultimate sublime forces weaving a cosmic drama…

Though the videos are each only ten to twelve minutes, I also insisted on taking notes for each one. Since they move fast as hell, it mean that I was pausing every fifteen seconds to type something out, then get back to the video. I eventually switched my strategy to 1. Watch the full video, 2. Take notes on everything I could remember, 3. Watch the video a second time to fill in the gaps in my notes. Either way, this became about an hour long commitment every day and stretched into March when I realized that there were more videos than I had counted on. By the time it wrapped up I had accumulated an astonishing 109 pages of notes and was honestly kind of glad to move on. I’m sure it will pay off years down the line when I’m one of those cool academics who links current events to mythological tales every once in a while.

Other interesting mythological finds:

  • My two favorite things from the Richard Buxton book were 1. The gorgeous photographs of what’s left of some of the monumental amphitheaters, which I desperately want to see one day, and 2. His brief discussion of Kronia, a summer festival honoring Kronos that turned the social order on its head for a few days and had aristocrats waiting on their servants. It sounds like a good-ass time and a great antidote to the dehumanizing effect of a long-entrenched class divide. If anyone is keen on bringing it back, hit me up.
  • The creation myth of the Yoruba Orishas is a really interesting commentary on equality that one could interpret as saying that you have to make a choice between the crushing monotony of sameness and the chaos of inequality.
  • The lone episode on Theory of Myth was one of the most interesting and a great primer on the many competing perspectives you can take to these legendary stories. Who woulda thought a historian trying to trace back the origin of Indo-European commonalities would have accidentally laid the groundwork for Hitler’s theory of racial genocide?
  • The Mwindo Epic is a jolly good tale from the region that’s now the DRC with a Freudian bent. Apparently the traditional telling of it involves a big theatrical production with lots of audience participation, which I would love to see one day.
  • This episode on mythical gardens and mythical caves sets up a great contrast between the origin story of Genesis and that of the Zuni people of North America. Makes a pretty good case that your theological perspective towards the natural earth is probably going to guide your stewardship of it.
  • In Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid, Aeneas has time to grab one thing from his home in Troy before it’s sacked and he chooses his statues of the household Gods. When people ask me “What one thing would you save if your house was burning down,” I usually say my laptop. I gotta get me some local god totems, man.
  • People often poke fun at mythology for the bizarre prevalence of incest, but I never realized just how much there really is. I couldn’t understand how something so universally abhorred by human cultures could simultaneously be so commonplace amongst our Gods until reading this interesting excerpt from Edward O. Wilson’s Consilience this week: “Societies with some degree of [sibling incest] permissiveness have included the Incas, Hawaiians, Thais, ancient Egyptians, Nkole (Uganda), Bunyoro (Uganda), Ganda (Uganda), Zande (Sudan), and Dahomeyans of West Africa. In each case the practice is (or in most instances was, having been discontinued) surrounded by ritual and limited to royalty or other groups of high status. In all the incestuous arrangements the male also consorted with other women, fathering outbred children in addition to ‘pure’ progeny. The ruling families are or were patrilineal. The strategy yielding maximum genetic fitness for a high-ranking male is to mate with his own sister, producing children who share with him 75 percent of their genes by common descent, instead of the usual 50 percent, and also to mate with women who are genetically unrelated and more likely to give birth to normal children.” So maybe we’re adapted to be kind of OK with the idea that the Gods/Kings/Alphas might practice incest, just not the rest of us?
In March we had our Princeton in Africa retreat in Tanzania. I spent a few days in the mountains beforehand, joined by this stunning grasshopper.

April: Practice guitar for thirty minutes every day for thirty days

Yup. After moving to rural Uganda and growing my hair out, I decided to go full hippie-bro by getting an acoustic guitar and banging out Avett Brothers songs every night. In for a penny, in for a Totnes Pound!

I already had some musical experience stretching back through childhood violin classes, middle school percussion and high school piano lessons, so I tried tackling music theory one more time in addition to learning the technical skills of guitar. Each time I’ve approached theory I’ve been able to understand a little more, and this time I finally got my head around how a major key gives way to a particular set of major and minor chords, as well as what the hell all the variations on chords like “Augmented” and “Sus 2” mean. This cool-ass video from Gary Garret is an enormously helpful way to think about harmonies, especially if you like to call yourself a “spatial learner.”

At this point I’ve got a dozen or so open chords down on the guitar and can make my barre chords sound decent if I really, really try. It’s shocking just how many of your favorite songs you can learn to play in only a couple weeks. Also,

  • I’ve decided that piano is much more mentally difficult than guitar, but guitar is much more physically difficult than piano.
  • It took about two weeks for the callouses to build up on my finger tips to the point that fretting doesn’t hurt.
  • I have a ton more respect for the talented guitarists of the world who make it look so goddamn easy. Pretty sure John Gomm is a superhuman.
  • Any delusions I may have had about being an internet famous musician have again been dashed to the rocks. Now I just want to be able to play songs for my kids as they fall asleep if I’m a dad someday.
  • I even took the bold step of composing and writing lyrics for my very own original song, which I had never done before. I just can’t play it very well. It feels very vulnerable to have something creative that I made from the ground up, especially when I try to sing it. Maybe one day I’ll throw a recording up on here…
A real artsy shot I took from inside a bag of passionfruits, known locally as obotunda.

May: Read like hell every day for thirty days

I arrived to Uganda with high hopes for just how much reading I was going to get done here. Those hopes slowly turned to worry, then anxiety, then despair. I am reading more than I ever have before, but the pace isn’t nearly what I thought it might be. In May I tried to correct that. Over the course of the month I managed to read…

Looking at that list now I’m relatively happy with my progress, even though it probably pales in comparison to what big-time reader friends of mine managed to finish in the same time span without even making a thing of it. My progress was helped along by my laptop being basically non-functional due to power surges that fried the hard drive. But there was a problem…

For a long time, I’ve had a strained relationship with videogames. I played a lot throughout my childhood and high school years and had some genuinely great memories that I would never trade away alongside spans which I now deem “wasted time.” For the past five years, I’ve had neither the time nor the hardware to play much at all, but still adamantly kept up with the latest games coming out. There’s an astonishing amount of “gaming stuff” online to watch, read, and just plain look at, and this has continued to take up a lot of my free time even as the actual gaming itself has dropped to something like once a week.

This has set up a tortuous but addictive relationship of 100% desire and 0% fulfillment that I can’t turn myself away from. To the Buddhists who claim that life is suffering and suffering comes from desire, I’m putting myself through hell. I dream about the games that I could be playing and build a growing catalog of games that I would play if only I could drop $300 on a Playstation 4 and freeze time for a couple months. None of this is helped that we’re arguably in the midst of a gaming golden age. The whole thing is weirdly well described by the bridge from The Beach Boys’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice:

You know it seems the more we talk about it

It only makes it worse to live without it…

…But let’s talk about it!

~Wouldn’t it be nice~

I always thought that this was a phenomenon unique to my relationship with gaming. Games seem like a particularly good candidate for a non-narcotic addiction, and you could argue that they’re designed to reward players with surges of neurotransmitters not all that distinct from classic drugs. Part of my commitment to reading for the month of May was swearing off all digital media and gaming-related stuff, with the thought that maybe going cold turkey would crack my addiction.

But since I was getting more focused on my reading, I decided to make a Goodreads account to log all of the books I had read, was reading, and wanted to read. And I never could have imagined what a rabbit hole Goodreads is…

Yes, I was reading more than ever. But every book I finished (especially nonfiction) referenced or was related to half a dozen other books that sounded like something I would love, and I feverishly looked them up and added them to my “Want to read” section to save for later. I started browsing through user reviews of everything and anything, several of which would denounce the book they were reviewing and propose a similar title that was infinitely superior, so I had to check that one out too. Rather than daydreaming about playing The Witcher 3, stomping pubs in Overwatch, or spending a summer working through the Halo Masterchief Collection, I was daydreaming about reading Proust, covering everything out there on evolutionary psychology, or spending a summer working through the monumental Malazan series. I was reading more, but I was also reading about reading a hell of a lot more, and the list of books I want to read promptly accelerated even further beyond my reading pace.

It turns out that the phenomenon I though was linked just to gaming is a much more general thing. At the very least it’s generalizable to my relationship with different forms of media, but maybe it’s generalizable to me outright or the abundance of digital media outright? The body of work I want to consume expands in direct proportion to the rate at which I can consume it, such that the “want to consume” list will always outpace the “actually consuming” rate and the difference becomes even more extreme when the “actually consuming” rate increases. It’s the old “moving goalposts” problem, and it guarantees that no matter how many books/games/movies/albums I read/play/watch/listen to, it will never be “enough.” Whatever the hell “enough” would be.

In a way, this made me feel better about my gaming voyeurism. But it also suggests that I have a bigger, more daunting problem to solve, something to do with patience, presence, discipline, and inner peace. The obvious wisdom is “don’t think of your pastimes as a series of accomplishments to get under your belt” or “don’t let thoughts about books you want to read ruin the experience of the book you’re reading right now,” but I’m finding that’s much easier said than done. If any of you have struggled with something like this yourselves, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. For now, I’ve got a whole bunch of books I want to read on the topic…

My room on a particularly atmospheric May morning.

June: Be healthy. Specifically, 1. Run in the morning before work, and 2. No sweets. For thirty days.

That brings us up to today. How’s it going? Well, at least in this moment I could definitely go for some Nutella and I’m feeling ambivalent about my run tomorrow morning.

Like I said back in the December section, I’ve always wondered if I might secretly be a morning person having a perpetual identity crisis. The past ten years of my development have generally shifted from unhealthy hedonic pursuits to a productive and sustainable lifestyle, and I’ve long wondered if becoming a morning runner person might be the logical next step in this trajectory.

Interestingly, yes, I have always thought about it as “becoming a runner person” rather than “taking up running.” The idea that one would wake up at dawn to jog in a giant circle for thirty minutes every morning is very wrapped up in identity for me. There’s a whole cascade of lifestyle choices that tend to be associated like going to bed early and being vegetarian and smiling a lot, and I suppose I’ve done more of each of those over the past few years. I viewed this challenge less as an accomplishment to conquer and more as an exploration of a lifestyle – I want to “see what this running stuff is all about” in case I want to incorporate it in my life long-term. For the moment, I also live in a beautiful place surrounded by gentle hills and winding roads where the sun rises at the same time every morning and breakfast is prepared for me before work, so I have the fewest excuses I’ll probably ever have not to try it out.

Standing in opposition to all of these great reasons to run is a simple, overwhelming dread I’ve had of running that I think dates back all the way to middle school. I was a pretty chubby kid through six, seventh, and eighth grade, and the time of year when the fitness test came up was always a nerve-wracking experience. The mile test itself was ten minutes of overwhelmingly dreadful misery, so even as I’ve taken up exercise in other forms in recent years, endurance running has lurked like a Babadook in the fitness shadows.

I started off by measuring out a two-mile loop and just running it as fast as I could every morning, and was pretty happy to get my pace down from an 8:10 mile to a 7:50 mile before checking out the r/running subreddit and learning I was doing everything wrong. I’ve since adjusted to running a three-mile loop at an easier pace every other morning or so with increasing frequency, and am currently sitting at twenty-three miles total.

It’s going alright. It still takes some willpower to get out of the house and start moving on a chilly morning, and the first half mile is typically the worst part. But I’m settling into something like a rhythm and definitely find the early morning air and action to be refreshing. I think in order to really hook myself, I’ll have to set my sights on a particular race or a distance so I can have something to strategize towards.

The no-sweets policy is, surprisingly, much more difficult. The history with my sweet tooth follows the opposite trajectory of my general health and wellness, as I somehow didn’t care much for sugars as a kid and only picked up after-meal cravings for them in the last couple years. For the bulk of this year there’s been an abundance of baked goods around the house which I’ve complimented with my own private stash of cheap cookies in my room, and the compulsion towards something saccharine at the end of a meal has grown downright tyrannical.

For the first week or so of June it was alright. I’d still feel the craving after a meal, but took it as a personal point of pride to resist indulging. I hoped that the desire would grow less strong as I continued to not satisfy it, but the opposite has happened instead, and continues to wear on my commitment. The craving also changed a little bit – after each meal I’m drawn to just eat more of anything, not necessarily sweets, regardless of how heavy the meal was. I’ve since dialed back my ambitions to a “healthy alternative” approach rather than a “strict abstinence” approach, and keep a stash of bananas and peanut butter around instead of hazelnut Nutros.

I mentioned this frustratingly persistent post-meal hunger at the lunch table the other day, and one of the summer volunteers now living with us mentioned that he was feeling it as well. His theory was simple – “I think it’s the carbs.” That pulled everything together for me.

I’ve talked about the approach to fitness in Uganda before in this podcast, but only now do I think I have a decent picture of the whole health/nutrition strategy that keeps many Mutooro so trim. I reckon it follows a pretty simple formula:

  1. Eat readily-available but nutrient-poor starches like rice, matooke, potatoes and posho in such large amounts that sufficient nutrition is gained alongside an excess of carbohydrates.
  2. Live an active lifestyle that makes use of your body while burning off the excess carbs.
  3. Enjoy the resulting (relative) balance of nutrition, calorie intake and energy expenditure.

It essentially solves one problem (the poor nutrition of the most readily available foods) with another problem (the demand for physical labor) and prescribes large portion sizes as a key component. But fail to uphold one side of the formula and you’re either perpetually hungry or packing on an excess of carbohydrates every day.

This article from Healthline busting the “Calories in, calories out” myth makes more sense to me than ever. When I’m back in the US, I’m planning to be a lot more intentional about keeping a low-carb diet, and will remind myself appreciate the nutritional availability that much more. For now, I’ll keep enjoy my bananas and peanut butter.

View from the front yard breakfast table, ready to walk up to the office.

July: ???

I’ve got one full month left, and my thoughts on how to fill it are very much up in the air. The two personal projects I intended to work on here that I’ve not made any progress on are 1. Learning to do a handstand, and 2. Drawing, so I could certainly try to fit one of those in while I still have the time and freedom to do so. Part of me thinks I should finish out my year with a big reflective undertaking like the Self Authoring Suite of writing exercises to guide my year in grad school most effectively. But right now I’m leaning towards just getting myself to journal every day, whether there’s something “worth” writing about or not. My biggest fear is that I’ll look back on this year like a dream and doubt whether it really happened when the stress, sights and sounds of Chicago are up in my face every day. My journals have done a good job of capturing the changes in my thinking, but a less good job of capturing the daily stuff that I take for granted now and will probably long for later on.

I usually don’t decide on a new challenge until a day or two before the turn of the month, and they seem to consistently emerge organically right on time. And yes, I intend on keeping it going in Chicago, though I may have to dial back the intensity of each one to account for the other demands of life. Luckily, the possibilities are endless!

In case you can’t tell, I think these are a great idea. I’d venture to guess that while reading this you’ve had more than a couple ideas for your own challenges come to mind. Do it. If you hate it, you’re free in thirty days, and get to rest comfortably with the knowledge that daily yoga or journaling or meditation maybe isn’t for you.


Richard and I with our last baking project, a tray of brownies back in May. As you can see, great progress has been made with the hair.

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