Category Archives: Miscellaneous

Three coffee habits

Leaving aside whether it’s useful or sensible to give up coffee, I thought it might be interesting to post some thoughts about how to give up. Perhaps these thoughts might apply to other kinds of habit-forming substances. Your mileage may vary.

I’ve given up coffee several times, for several reasons. I’m not suggesting you do and if you do, I’m not suggesting you do it forever. You may have some short term reason for doing so, or you might want to do it for the long-term. My suggestions about getting off, because I’ve gone on and off, I don’t have much to offer about long-term strategies other than – if you end up with a habit again, just do all this again.

The main thing I want to point out is that most coffee habits actually have three distinct aspects woven together: addiction, psychological habit and social habit.

Addiction is a physical dependency. Your brain builds a dependency on having caffeine fed to it regularly, when you stop it goes into caffeine withdrawal causing headaches (and possibly other side-effects). I once went from about 7-8 espressos a day to none overnight – I’ve described the effect as “wearing the iron crown” for three days. Imagine a big crown cast from pig iron with spikes that dig into your head. As I recall it was also three days in which everyone hated me and I hated everyone: I really don’t recommend it.

Because addiction is a physical dependency based on chemical needs, I’d recommend treating it chemically – just make sure that you wean yourself off caffeine over a few days. You can do this by cutting down cups, slowly substituting decaf for caffeinated coffee or using caffeine pills (much like you’d use nicotine gum or lozenges when quitting smoking).

But, you’re also likely to have a psychological habit of drinking coffee – maybe you associate coffee as a reward drink, a drink marking a mid-point in the afternoon, a drink you have when you wake up. You have an individual pattern of associations between various times and actions and drinking coffee.

An approach to giving up that deals purely with the chemical addiction, but not with the habitual behaviour patterns is less likely to work. I’d recommend finding substitute behaviours – maybe other drinks to fill the gap: tea, decaf, herbal drinks – or in the case of rewards things like dark chocolate. However in the world of rewards you tend to drift to booze, candy and cigarettes and really, coffee’s the lesser of many evils, but if you can find a healthy substitute reward that works for you, go for it.

The final aspect is the social habit. You probably “go for coffee” with friends. I have always had a cup of coffee with my beloved as a way to start the day, coffee often comes after a shared meal and so on. In many cases, we hang out with other coffee drinkers whose social persona includes “coffee drinker” as a self-identifier, as does one’s own. This aspect is not about your personal habit, or your chemical dependency, it’s about social pressure.

Depending on how big a part coffee drinking plays in the group’s culture, this part can be easy or very, very hard. If it’s just a basic social habit to have a cup of coffee with friends, it’s fairly easy to substitute green tea or a herbal tea for your usual cup of coffee without much problem.

But if you hang out with people whose usual drink is a single shot of espresso, who know what a ristretto is and who laugh out loud when a friend orders a “decaf skim latte”, you may have some issues.

You’ve really got three options in my view:

  1. show up a little late and order a decaf so that no-one can hear
  2. order whatever you want and soldier through the derision
  3. find new friends and stop hanging out with the coffee pushers

My approach this time through has been aimed at minimising pain and taking it easy.

  • I bought a really nice-tasting, organic, Fair Trade decaf coffee for our espresso machine
  • I started substituting decaf espressos in place of my usual, without changing frequency
  • after a couple of days, I tried only drinking decaf until I started to feel a headache or some withdrawal symptoms and then add a “medicinal dose” of caffeinated espresso
  • over a week or so, those incidents naturally started to space out
  • I started to substitute green tea and herbals in place of some of the decafs

… and that’s pretty much it. Now once or twice a week I have a cup of caffeinated coffee if I feel like it, and I rarely do. I start the day with a decaf with Anthony because we like to make coffee for each other. If my friends raise their eyebrows when I order decaf (and they mostly don’t) I laugh.

That’s my thoughts. Your mileage may, of course, vary. I hope some of that’s been of some value.

Title problems

I’ve just been doing some maintenance on the blog (hello Disqus comments!) as I sat here with my decaf espresso and pondered the current irony of my blog title.

The fatty liver issue has meant that I need to restrict my intake of caffeinated coffee (green tea is OK). So, while I have still “just had coffee”, it’s now the decaf stuff. Nice, fair-trade, organic decaf, but decaf nevertheless.

Fatty Liver Update

Just visited the nutritionist. So far, so good. I’ve stuck to the diet and exercise for two weeks, no major slip-ups. I’ve lost 3 kilos or so, but some of that is muscle – we think because I’ve been skipping some protein. So more protein and some weight training.

In any case, the bodyfat percentage is down. In a couple of months, we’ll test my blood again and see if my liver’s recovering.

Fatty Liver Lifestyle

In May this year I turned 42. I figured a prudent step might be to go see a physician and get a medical check-up just to see if anything was amiss. I’ve spent so much time in the last ten years trying to cajole my late mother into seeing a doctor, it seemed a bit hypocritical not to.

I found the kind of General Practitioner I’ve always fantasised about: Dr Nick Bassal. Nick started the Wholistic Medical Centre a couple of decades ago to provide integrated health management. There’s four medical doctors and a whole crew of naturopaths, osteos, nutritionists, masseurs, acupuncturists and so on. I like using alternative therapies, but I’ve always wanted a GP who could refer me to what was the right one to use. Now I’ve got one.

The check-up involved mostly blood tests, which showed skewed liver numbers. We followed up with an ultrasound which showed I have a “fatty liver“: my spreading girth (or “central adiposity” as the medicos like to euphemistically phrase it) is accompanied by visceral fat around my organs and fatty pockets inside my liver. Early signs of Metabolic Syndrome, says Dr Nick. The liver condition will get worse if I don’t change my lifestyle – pockets of fat in my liver gradually squeeze healthy liver cells rendering my liver less functional. Diabetes, cardio-vascular disease, cancer.

Well. That’s why you get a check-up I guess.

So, off to see Gerard the naturopathically-qualified nutritionist to talk about my diet. I saunter in holding a food log from the previous month anticipating a relaxed chat about ways I could improve my diet. Gerard has other ideas.

He hands me a booklet called “Whole Life Vitality” which firmly lays down the law on (previously loved) foods which are forbidden and (previously ignored) foods which are now mandatory. And 60 mins of exercise per day. Every day.

No potatoes of any kind. No white rice. No sweets or chocolate. I count my blessings that he crosses out the “no coffee” part, but seriously, is life worth living without potatoes?

I take a deep breath. It’s not that bad. I’ve done crazier diets and this one’s for serious (as my beloved sister likes to say). I need to work out how to keep this up basically forever or at least until my live gets less fatty.

This is my fourth day. It takes a lot more forethought and planning about my diet than I’m used to. My usual approach is to just do what ever I’m doing until roused by hunger pangs, survey the immediate environment and scavenge food. This approach will no longer work.

I’m kind of in shock about it all. It all seems a bit big. I’ll try to check back in when I’m the swing of things, if that ever happens.

Wish me luck!

Edit: all posts about my fatty liver lifestyle are here: Fatty liver

Creditless

I just received a modest sum of money which enabled me do something I’ve been planning for a while: to pay off the last of my debts, put the foundation of some savings in the bank and cancel my final credit card. This means that for the first time since I was about 20 years old, I’m debt free and living without credit.

I twittered this fact and asked for feedback from people and got some interesting responses (mostly cheers) via Twitter and Facebook. In order to calm people down a little: I still have a Visa debit card, so I can still shop online. My friend Lochy asked me to blog a little about how the whole experiment goes and I think that’s an interesting idea, so here’s some first thoughts:

First, it’s exhilarating. Every personal finance book I’ve ever read starts with the advice: “first, pay off your credit cards” and I have to say it feels very good, both doing it and knowing I have enough money in reserve to cover some basic emergencies. Even while using credit cards constantly, I have irrationally resented the banks for giving them to me and for constantly raising both the interest rate and my credit limit. Really though, I should read the product disclosure statement, have some self-control, turn down credit limit increases.

So second, I want to come out in public and say: I’m not good with credit. I’m the ideal credit card customer who fills the card, stays just under the limit, pays pretty regularly and never quite pays it off. Banks love me. The clever credit users pay the card down to zero regularly, never spend more than they can repay within the interest-free period and never get charged late fees. Banks hate those guys – they’re a drain on a perfectly good profit-making system. I aspired to be one of those people. But I’m not.

I’m a person who lends money and then forgets the debt within a few weeks. I can rarely answer how much things I bought cost. I don’t bargain. I mentally use the same anticipated income to pay more than one debt. I’m not what you’d call “deft” with my finances.

I’ve come to acknowledge that I have a mental deficiency… let’s call it, Idunno… Profound Financial Aphasia or something. I’m a little retarded about money. Some people need books with big print and small words. I need to only spend what I have.

Third, having something saved makes me feel like saving. There’s a few things I want, nothing urgent. I could just buy them, or I could save some money over the next few months, make a little extra interest and buy them later. Here’s the weird thing: for the first time, I feel like waiting. So not me.

I’ve waited to buy a few things recently: some computer gear, some books, a cassock. I’ve had no credit to spend, no cash in reserve, I’ve just had to wait. You know what? Just like Grandma used to say, having to wait makes it genuinely more delightful when I finally get the thing. I’m sure it’s something I really want, not just a passing whim. Waiting makes me feel like I deserved it.

So, why not wait, save up and buy it when I have some more money saved? My friends who don’t have PFA are ROFLing right now, but pause, reflect on how insane a lot of my behaviour has seemed over the years and share a moment of happiness with me that perhaps I finally get it.

… and check back with me in six months to see how I’m doing.

Barefooting

People who know me usually know that I’ve had neck and upper back pain that varies from mild to excruciating for years. Most of my friends also know that it’s one my favourite projects: I’m always trying a new body-mind therapy, a new osteopath (Hi Tim!), a different kind of chair or something – all in the interests of trying to quiet the occupational agony of the geek.

Most people probably assume that this is all nonsense and none of it’s had any effect, but while the frequency of me talking about my back hasn’t diminished much over the years, the actual pain definitely has. The various therapies have helped me get a better sense of the emotional repressions I habitually do, which result in constantly winding more tension into my back. They’ve also helped me end many of those habits. Simple, practical stuff like a good working chair and a better arranged workspace helps me not re-offend, as does some exercise, chiefly: walking.

I’ve been reading stuff about walking and running barefoot for a couple of years and recently I’ve started trying to go for long-ish walks barefoot. A few things seem to be happening as a consequence:

  • I’m learning to engage with the ground in a different way, more involving my big toe and the ball of my foot, this seems to be gradually making the painful bit of connective tissue behind the ball of my foot calm down. Win!
  • The whole way my legs and pelvis work together as I walk is balancing in a different way, this seems to be shifting my spine to a more balanced position, and I’ll be darned if my shoulders aren’t shifting naturally backwards, my neck getting more erect and the shoulder pain lessening one more quantum. Win!
  • This is a big one: it’s really, really joyful to walk barefoot. I feel like breaking into a run spontaneously. I feel connected to the ground in a more intimate way. A surge of energy seems to rush out of the ground and up the front of my body from time to time. I feel like a kid, I want to hope up on walls and jump over things. This isn’t exercise, this is hilarious. Win!!!

Summary: Win! I like going barefoot.

But… it’s winter in Sydney and in the mornings (my favourite walking time) it’s just too cold to comfortably walk, the pavements have broken glass, all the palm trees are dropping little hard seeds, every little rock and bump hurts more when your feet are cold. It’s a low-joy event.

Enter the compassionate hand of My Beloved who decided to buy me for my birthday a pair of FiveFingers Classics. We went to pick them up today and I walked home in them. As advertised, just like going barefoot, with a tiny bit of cushioning, so that hard things don’t hurt, I don’t fear broken glass, but I still get that direct perceptual link to the ground.

It’s very hard to convey how happy I’ve been from the simple act of walking home “barefoot”. I may never wear a normal shoe again.

All about the beans

"Farek and I eat our ful" by dlisbona

OK, so first up, I am not on a diet.

People who’ve known me for a while have seen me do all kinds of crazy diets to either put on muscle or lose fat. I’m not dissing the craziness — most of those diets worked and the speed with which they did was pretty motivating.

But the stuff dieticians tell you has been true for me, when I make an extreme change to my regular way of eating, it might work, but a few months later I’m back more or less where I started.

So now I’m focussing on gradual, bearable, sustainable changes to how I choose, prepare and consume food. I want to change my personal “food culture” to improve my body composition and (directly and indirectly) my health.

One thing I’m messing with is a kind of “slow carb” eating (which is to say you aim for low GI foods) which incorporates beans. I found it on Tim Ferriss’s blog and something about the idea appealed to me. The key idea is that each meal contains some kind of straight-up protein: meat, eggs, tofu (I guess); some kind of legume or bean and some kind of vegetables. Close to the Paleolithic Diet in some ways, similar to a Low Carb diet in others — but beans as well as being low GI also bring along a whole lot of health benefits.

Subjectively, when I eat just meat and vegies, I get all the odd jittery effects I’ve come to expect on a low carb diet (at least in the first week) when I add beans I get this nice, steady thrum of energy that lasts from meal to meal. I crave sugar and fat less, my energy levels are more stable. It’s nice.

When I started, I was pretty bean clueless so I used canned baked beans and canned chickpeas… which is fine, but a little dull. In the last few weeks, I’ve been keeping my eyes out for good bean recipes. My favourite so far is a dish called Ful Medames. “Ful” is the Egyptian word for Fava (or broad) beans and this dish has been filling the bellies of the hard-working Egyptian people since the place was called Kemet (or so Meave O’Meara assured us on the episode of Food Safari I found the dish on).

It’s a slow-cooked mix of red lentils and fava beans with cumin, salt, pepper and a dash of olive oil added. You eat it with flat bread and a boiled egg or salad. It’s like the ultimate breakfast of champions.

I have another mediterranean-style thing I do with chicken, but I’ll save that for another time. One day perhaps I’ll be able to brag about making feijoada… but not yet.

upgrade done

Workmen by Adrian Stewart

Workmen by Adrian Stewart

I just went from WordPress 2.0something-or-other to 2.7 yesterday. v2.7 has a very pretty, very usable dashboard. It claims it can auto-upgrade the core for me (which I’m scared of, but impressed by) and does the kind of browse-click-relax auto-install of plug-ins I’m familiar with from Gallery2.

If you haven’t upgraded, check it out. WordPress.org is running 2.7 from what I can see.

long delayed upgrade

"workmen close" by quarsan

Apologies for any bumps, I’m upgrading my WordPress install for the first time in a couple of years.

Update: if you read this via a feed reader like Newsfire or Bloglines or Google Reader, could you take a moment to drop a comment on this post so I know I haven’t broken the feed?

It warms my heart when people listen to me

Chris Caines quoted me today and it made me smile.