30-Day Challenges: Self Discoveries on the Journey to Habits

My students are wrapping up their 30-day challenges this weekend. One of my students, who challenged herself to drink more water, wrote in her journal this week that she now can’t go long without drinking water. It has now become a habit. Research states that 40% of our daily actions are habits. They great thing about habits is that they do not require will power – they are programmed actions into our life that we automatically expect to complete. Once you get use to exercising every morning, it is harder not to exercise than it is to exercise.

Before my 30-day blogging challenge, I felt a bit at loose ends as a writer. Last summer, I completed my dissertation, which was the accumulation of years of researching and writing on new media and critical pedagogy. While I enjoyed much of the process, I also felt burnt out on academic writing at the end. Before pursuing my Ph.D., I was a journalist and a creative writer. My blogging challenge allowed me to begin to put the pieces of my many writing selves together.

It also helped me move from drafting to sharing. While I have written for years, I rarely share my words. Writing is immensely personal. I put off exposure through lengthy editing, rewriting the same paragraphs and pages over and over. Blogging does not allow for shyness or perfectionism. As Andrew Sullivan once wrote, “You can’t have blogger’s block. You have to express yourself now, while your emotions roil, while your temper flares, while your humor lasts. You can try to hide yourself from real scrutiny, and the exposure it demands, but it’s hard.”

What I like best about these challenges, though, are the unexpected benefits. For me, it was how blogging shaped my daily life. You cannot blog if you are not thinking, experiencing, and reading. I became more mindful of what I was doing so that I could articulate the purpose, and I pursued more out of my box experiences in order to have something interesting to share.

Now, I am learning more about my relationship with food and my food’s relationship with my body through my gluten-free challenge. Wish me luck!


The Blue and Black Salad, A Paradigm Shift

The first time I experienced a blue and black burger I was at an alumni magazine editor conference (yes, such a thing exists) in Boston. Because the travel gods were against me, my true fun and adventurous self was buried beneath a head cold. Still, I rallied as best I could to see the city with my boyfriend and travel partner. After a long day of conferencing, which peaked with the unbelievably big name speaker Susan Orlean, whom I still consider to be the ultimate profile writer and a pioneer of creative nonfiction journalism, we tried to find a restaurant close to our hotel.

Near the campus of MIT, we discovered the Boston Burger Company. I really never considered myself a burger person, as meat in general is not a large staple in my diet. At the time, my favorite hamburger came from McDonald’s, and I do not mean the Quarter Pounder or double patty Big Mac, but the 99 cent one with the thin slab of barely detectable meat. Mostly because I am a big fan of those partially dehydrated onions that are sold in vats at Gordon Foods, which are generously doled on every McDonalds burger. I know, as I spent a year of my adolescence working underneath the golden arches. Nothing helps teenage acne like steam from the deep fryers.

Despite my health and hesitations, I looked for a new culinary experience at every Boston stop. The best part of travel is food discoveries: salmon in Seattle, gumbo in New Orleans, deep dish pizza in Chicago, etc. Two of the criteria of a good trip are a good meal and a new experience. Often, they go hand and hand.

I initially chose the black and blue burger because I associated the term “blackened” with well done, which is the only way I like my beef. Any sign of red, reminding me that this was once blood-filled animal flesh, causes me to immediately gag. Again, not a meat person. However, that night I became a burger person. The sheer quantity of seasonings penetrated my plugged sinuses and actually made an impression on my dulled taste buds. I especially enjoyed the combination of sharp flavors as the seasonings melded with the blue cheese. The burger, which included an eight ounce patty, was dauntingly large. And I ate the whole thing. Every crumb.

Since that trip, I’ve ordered many blue and black burgers: some with a blue cheese sauce instead of crumbles, some with bacon, some with caramelized onions, some with turkey instead of beef. I loved them all. For 30 days I am saying goodbye to brioche and pretzel buns, which means I am saying good-bye to burgers.

Tonight, as I adjust to this new diet paradigm, I attempted to make a blue and black salad. I took my burger meat and instead of making patties fried it into crumbles. As it cooked I dosed it with a black and blue seasoning recipe I found online (minus the thyme, which tastes like how musty smells). I softened some onions in the microwave, as sautéed onions are my favorite burger topping. Then I sprinkled this over baby lettuce and blue cheese crumbles. I drizzle the whole concoction with a yogurt based blue cheese dressing. It was tasty, but I found the blue cheese a bit overpowering in this format.

The challenge is still a challenge. While I felt full after eating my blue and black salad, I still felt a craving for something. I don’t necessarily crave bread — it’s more of an intangible yearning. What can fill the gluten void?

Going Nuts: Making My Own Almond Butter

As I was gorging myself on breadless peanut butter and banana sandwiches yesterday morning, I already knew that while this was gluten-free, it was not healthy. Despite or perhaps because of it’s reduced fat peanut butter status, my JIF contains a lot of ingredients besides peanuts, such as the number 2 ingredient corn syrup solids. So I decided to make my first DIY jar of nut butter.

At the start of my Google search, all the recipes I found recommended I first soak the nuts and then go through a drying process. Way too much fuss and way too much time! Then I found the Detoxinista, who listed a simpler process—roast raw almonds for 10-12 minutes in a 325 degree oven and then throw in the food processor. Sold!


If you try this at home, be prepared for the blast of sound as your processor tries to break down the hard shells of a pound of almonds. I seriously stopped and put on headphones, but I am unusually noise sensitive. No one is allowed to watch TV in my house over volume 8. Luckily, it soon died down to a normal processing whir. Get comfortable with this sound, as the process from nut to nut butter is a LONG one. It took me a full 20 minutes of starting and stopping to scrape the sides.

To enhance the flavor, which was a little blasé, I added a tablespoon of coconut butter and a tablespoon of pure maple syrup. The end result was heavenly, especially when it was still warm from the roasting process. I added some dark chocolate chips and grabbed a spoon. Let the dieting begin J

Day Two: Wheat Opiate Withdrawal

In my current English class, one of my students is doing a 30-day challenge to quit smoking. The toll it is taking on him is clearly visible — the fidgeting, the irritability, the need for candy to dull the pulsating physical need for nicotine. When I see struggles like these, I always feel a profound sense of gratefulness that I never had to fight a powerful addiction. My new 30-day challenge is a humbling exercise in empathy.

Steadily over the years, I have made increasingly healthy choices when it comes to breads, abandoning white bread for whole grain breads, and recently only eating the 35-calorie breads. I eat the low-carb versions of flour tortillas and healthier versions of pasta as well. So, honestly, I thought doing a gluten-free challenge would be a nuisance more than anything, a restaurant inconvenience.

This morning I woke up at 5 a.m. paralyzed with anxiety about the policy changes at my children’s daycare. Yes, childcare is a good reason to stress, but usually I can control my worries and focus on the task at hand, in this case sleep. I’m notoriously easygoing, at least I am when I am pumped fuel of gluten.

As I shopped in the morning for my healthy substitutes and emergency microwavable meals, I was reminded of those late night runs to Meijer’s in college, when the bars closed and suddenly someone wanted a bag of combos. A somnambulant haze descended on me, and I had to constantly remind myself to focus. At the time, I blamed on the hunger. For breakfast, I scooped slices of bananas out of a peanut butter jar, which had the appetite-suppressing shelf life of two hours.

However, later, after I gorged myself on Indian cuisine, leftover tofu, and lime flavored corn chips, the mental fog remained. The issue was larger than my appetite, which is saying quite a lot.

In addition, I found it more difficult than usual to deal with the sibling squabbles and general shenanigans of my children. I estimate I used the word “hush” approximately 108 times tonight. Everything bothered me. My son was tipping a water bottle back and forth, making a slight swooshing sound. The repetitious low noise nearly drove me from the house. Luckily I am a rational person who could recognize the abnormal signs of crazy.

When I searched for answers on Google, I was not surprised to find an array of articles discussing gluten withdrawal. However, I was surprised to read that there are gliadin-derived optiates in wheat. I had no idea the depth of physiological changes that could happen just from removing this one ingredient from my diet. I mean, come on, it is not like I am cutting out sugar. The associated withdrawal symptoms are numerous: fatigue, moodiness, constipation, joint pain, headaches, etc. Often, the symptoms a gluten-free diet is suppose to cure get worse before they get better. While I am comforted to know that my crazy is temporary, I am less comforted to know the temporary state varies from several days to several weeks. Let’s hope it is several days.

Day One: Gluten-Free

In the spirit of “you won’t know until you try it,” I began my 30-day gluten-free challenge today. As I previously wrote, my doctor believes in lifestyle changes over medications and that the secret to improving my digestive health is to go gluten-free. Her other key piece of advice is to chew my food 50 times, a feat I have yet to achieve.


I’m beginning today, in order complete the challenge before July 13th, because I cannot have a birthday without cake. Perhaps before then I will have perfected a gluten-free cake. However, I am probably the only one in my house that would eat it. I did beg my husband to join me on this journey of sacrifice in the name of science. He, like others I have discussed this with, believe that because civilization has thrived through many eras of breaking bread, it must not truly be harmful.

I understand this point of view. The counterpoint I read discusses how the grain of today is not the grain of yesteryear. It has become increasingly processed and genetically modified. Another counterpoint is that the ratio of fat, protein, and carbohydrates was radically different in earlier times as well. Hence, the Paleo Diet, which I’m still not convinced is a legitimate representation of caveman cuisine. Perhaps, this will be a future challenge.

Honestly, I am not sure what I want the outcome of this test to be. If it is beneficial, it means that I can never eat grain again with a clear conscious. If it is not beneficial, it means I need to find a new doctor, who is not swept up in the current diet fad. So far, I’m just hungry and moody. I understand that I am in what is called a detoxing period. Only 29 more days…

Today’s consumption:

Egg whites with sauteed “power greens,” an orange pepper, and onions

A luna bar

An Activa Greek Yogurt

Carrot sticks

Peanut butter and celery

Baked tofu stirfry with tofu noodles

Stoneyfield Strawberry Banana Yogurt (designed for toddlers, perfect for end of the night, there is gluten in my Ben& Jerry tantrums)

I’m committed to overcommitting

What drives us to overburden ourselves? According to researchers, we, the overcommitters, operate under the misconception that we will have more time tomorrow than we do today. However, this mythical tomorrow full of free time never arrives, so we scramble to meet the promises and commitments we made. I knew I had a problem today when an old friend cancelled on our plans tonight, and part of me was relieved. In my effort to make the most of my time, I left myself no time.

The night before I was in a professional development class to become a better reading instructor. Today, I had my spring teaching load, my writing center duties, and popped into a podcasting class to steal some learning. How does one steal learning you ask? Well, when you are so overcommitted you cannot attend a whole class, you ask the instructor to let you sit in on half the class. I try to contribute knowledge during discussions, but really I am just a freeloader in the backrow doing some live Tweeting. This is all before school lets out and I begin my other full-time job as a parent.

So when my friend cancelled, I decided to stay in and enjoy a little reprieve from the pinball machine action that keeps me popping through the shoot. Okay, not really. I’m just moving from one machine to another—external commitments to internal commitments. Exhibit A: Blog post. The productivity machine is hungry, so I feed it.

My goal for the magical day known as tomorrow, where anything is possible and time is limitless, is to budget some downtime with a glass of wine on the back porch and invest in the art of doing nothing. Of course, to do this, I will probably have to research various philosophical theories on ” doing nothing,” take notes while sitting on the porch, perhaps live Tweet descriptions of the sounds I hear, and then go in the house and write about the experience.

Hashtag Failure: My First Twitter Party Contest

In the spirit of trying new things, I entered my first Twitter party contest –unfashionably late. Who starts a contest for a family vacation at 8 p.m. on a school night? Bedtime is stressful enough without worry about answering questions on your favorite features of the Kalahari Resort in Poconos. By time I began, the “hosts” were already on question four.

Note to self: if you cannot attend on time, ignore the hashtag and move on with your life. I put in a good last minute effort. However, I was flustered. I forgot to use the hashtag on my first go around. I spent WAY too much time crafting my words. From my observations, speed is what matters. Reply fast, favorite everything, and retweet like your life depends on it. Also, do not be afraid to use cute photos of your children to draw attention to yourself. Sell, sell, sell those adorable faces that will be crushed if they are not given a free trip to a waterpark.

Overall, I was clearly in over my head. I looked at some of the winners who were negotiating multiple contests at once. I was willing to dabble, but I am not ready to devote my evenings to marketing products and places in order to have a chance to win a freebie. My hat is off to those who have the dedication, patience, fast fingers, and followers for such endeavors. I will quietly go back to my books and meditations.

Meditations on Housework

Growing up, I was not encouraged or even expected to do many chores, aside from cleaning my room. I have vague recollections of cleaning the undersides of tables as a small child, but generally the expectation was for me to stay out of the way. Whenever I started to do something, my mother would inevitably take over. I understand why now that I have my own children, as watching them tackle a household task or even a craft is painful. It’s all I can do not to push them aside. Also, it is terribly inefficient, as I will end up having to rewash streaky windows and re-sweep the crumbs that did not make it into the dust pan. Inevitably materials will be lost, as papers are ripped, stickers misplaced, and glue globbed on in puddles. I try to see their end products more holistically instead of thinking, I could have done this much better by myself. The experience is what matters. So what if a cake only has sprinkles on one side?

Luckily my children are stubborn and will not quite trying to do things on their own, even in the face of my exasperation. My four year old must continue put the toothpaste on herself, even though half of it ends up on the sink. I’m proud that they are not deterred by failure. This is my reminder.

It is also a reminder to appreciate the peace that comes with completing a task on your own, even if it is cleaning the kitchen. I had a perfect cleaning day today, as I discovered that cleaning is the best task to complete while listening to podcasts. While listening to the Tim Ferris Show and On Being, I kept a notebook handy to jot down notes. I lit candles without having to worry about someone continually blowing them out. I squirted my stainless steel cleaner without having to share the bottle and contain my cringes as five dollars worth of product is devoted to a quarter-sized surface area. Who knew cleaning could be so relaxing? Some days it is part of my in-house Montessori program and other days it is meditation.

A Herculean Challenge: The 12 Labors of Tucker

One reason I dislike my children watching regular, non-PBS cable TV is the commercials, those 30-second seductions perfectly geared to Id-driven young children. Last week my son begged me to take him to Popeye’s Chicken, as if it were a five-star restaurant. This week it is the hamper hoop, which is exactly what the name indicates, a laundry basket with a basketball hoop. I placed a laundry basket under the small indoor basketball hoop we already have and said, “Voila.” My six year old was not impressed.

My husband and I have no clear policy regarding buying nonessential items when it isn’t a birthday or holiday. And right now, our son is not ready to manage his own money. If we unlocked his piggy bank, I guarantee it would be followed by a binge of impulse spending. I also did not want to do a trade — if you do this activity, you will get this reward. According to Daniel Pink’s book Drive, we shouldn’t give rewards for chores, as that creates an expectation. The logic being if I pay them once for making their bed, why should they ever make it for free again?

My solution was to introduce my son to the twelve labors of Hercules. As luck would have it, a children’s version was available online and I was able to introduce him to Greek mythology and give him a way to earn his hamper hoop. To acquire it, he needed to come up with twelve challenges. Some of the challenges he came up with were to complete a puzzle, pick up his toys, read a book to his sister, and complete a craft. He isn’t strangling lions or moving rivers, but unlike Hercules, he is not going for immortality, just a glorified hamper.