Reminders from Irma


EvacuateWe didn’t evacuate for Hurricane Irma. But we had our bags packed and staged in one area of the house for either a last-minute departure or so we’d have a better chance of finding our most important belongings together amid the rubble.

When you reduce your belongings to one suitcase and two backpacks — I had a second backpack for important documents, most of which are backed up in the cloud anyway – it’s a reminder of how little you need.

Here’s what my suitcase contained: one suit, brown and black shoes, two dress shirts, two ties (probably unnecessary), black belt, six casual shirts (four short-sleeve), five T-shirts, one light jacket (I don’t own a heavy coat), one pair casual slacks, one pair of jeans (I planned to wear a second, along with sneakers and T-shirt No.6), two pairs of shorts, gym shorts, six pairs underwear, and four pairs of socks.

That capsule wardrobe covers me at least 80 percent of the time. Looking at the remainder of a closet I’ve pared down considerably in recent years, there still was a lot of clothing left.

Here’s what was in my first backpack, the one without important documents:  laptop, tablet, chargers, spare keys, safe box keys, ID cards, checkbook, back-up drive, toiletries, camera, and camera cards.

That was it. My wife and sons had similar stashes. Had we departed and a category five hurricane reduced our home to sticks, we would have had everything we needed to start over.

Which begs the question: Why do we have so much other stuff?

hurricane2Not long after we moved to Florida in the late ’90s, we had three hours to evacuate for a hurricane. This was before kids and digital media, so we dedicated much car space to photo albums and CD and DVD collections, which seems downright silly now.

I grabbed a large box that contained my sports card and memorabilia collection (since sold). We also packed a small stereo system (again, the late ’90s) before driving inland for two hours to stay with relatives.

Then, as now, we needed space for a cat carrier (different cat, of course).

As we drove away in 1998, I realized I wouldn’t miss anything if our apartment building washed out to sea. Everything of importance was in that car, which surprisingly wasn’t that loaded down.

We have friends who years ago endured a middle-of-the-night electrical fire. They have four daughters, all 10 and under at the time, and thankfully everyone got out before the house burned to the ground.

A few years later, the father told me he considered it a blessing. “It was very traumatic at the time and putting our life back in order has been challenging,” he said. “But as far as the contents of the house, I don’t miss anything. We never would have gotten rid of a lot of that junk. The fire totally changed our mentality and I’m thankful for that. We don’t collect or accumulate anything and only buy what we absolutely need.”

Every summer since the fire this family of six has rented a large van and traveled the country. They typically take one or two of their nieces as well. People no doubt see their social media postings from some cool, out-of-the-way place and wonder how this big family finds the time and money to do it on two modest incomes.

When you spend only on what you need, it’s amazing the resources you have for experiences. And if disaster strikes, nobody can take those memories away.

When making a discretionary purchase – meaning something you don’t absolutely need – ask yourself if this is something you’d throw in the car during a hurricane evacuation or miss if the house burned down.

If it’s not something you’d grab with three hours to evacuate, it’s probably not worth buying.

I’ve accumulated far too much over the last twenty years. I’m reminded of that when I’m away from home for weeks with just a suitcase or backpack, free from the burden of a houseful of possessions. I was reminded of that Monday, which I spent cleaning up a large yard and literally rearranging deck chairs around a titanic (for me) home.

I’m thankful to have that home still intact, of course. Listening to Irma howl all night was a reminder that many here in Florida, like those in Houston, did not fare so well.

But Irma also was a reminder that the home need not contain nearly so much stuff.

Sugar-Free Lent?

NoSugarLentSugar is America’s No.1 addiction. Even when we’re not consciously eating cane sugar, we’re consuming things loaded with artificial sweeteners, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and other sugar-like chemicals we can’t readily identify on a food label.

So when I gave up sugar for Lent this year, the challenge was not only to stay away from the obvious – cookies, candy, cake, ice cream, chocolate, trail mix, energy bars – but also the many products infused with sugar and sugar impersonators.

Thankfully I long ago gave up soda and sports drinks. I’ve never consumed coffee. I rarely eat many of the foods that have sugar or related sweeteners injected such as ketchup, baked beans, salad dressings, crackers, bread, yogurt, and fruit juices.

In my mind, I made it through the 46 days of Lent without consuming sugar. It helped that I also gave up alcohol in a show of support for my wife, who avoided booze for Lent. By eliminating alcohol, I was less likely to give into the temptation of eating poorly while drinking.

Still, a nutritionist would note that I didn’t avoid sugar altogether. My morning green smoothie, which consists of kale, spinach, chard, and avocado, also contains half of a frozen banana and one ounce of orange juice. There are natural sugars in fruit, so that’s not too bad. But I also throw in half a scoop of whey protein. There’s some legitimate artificial sweetener in that. Not much, but a little.

Each day I also consume one or two protein drinks. These prepackaged, 11-ounce beverages contain just 1 gram of sugar per serving (along with 160 calories) in the form of the artificial sweetener Sucralose. They’re also vanilla or chocolate flavored, which accounts for the artificial flavoring and also seems to violate the spirit of the Lenten vow. I drink them post-workout or as a mid-afternoon snack.

I also drink an occasional “Energy Shot,” a 5-Hour knockoff produced by Costco under its Kirkland Signature product line. I’m not proud of this, but I don’t drink coffee, tea, or soda, so this provides the caffeine I occasionally need. These energy shots also contain Sucralose.

So did I give up sugar? Maybe, maybe not. In his recent book The Case Against Sugar, author Gary Taubes notes that it’s virtually impossible to avoid sugar and artificial sugar in the modern western diet. I read the book during Lent and if I hadn’t already given up sugar, it would have scared me into doing so.

Taubes, a decorated investigative reporter, shows how the sugar industry’s lobbying efforts led researchers and journalists to focus for decades on dietary fat as the cause of America’s health problems when sugar is the more likely culprit for the increase in obesity and diabetes, along with heart disease, cancer – even dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Yesterday, Easter Sunday, I was able to eat sweets for the first time since February. I ate some candy and a chocolate muffin. My wife and I polished off a bottle of wine. None of it tasted as good as I expected, so perhaps I broke my sugar addiction.

I lost seven pounds during Lent, which is significant given that I ate clean and drank little alcohol already. Nor did I increase my activity level during Lent.

Maybe Taubes is right. The answer to what ails us might be as easy as giving up sugar.





Why Can’t Anyone Handle Money?

cashchangeDuring my senior year of high school, back in the Stone Age of 1986-87, a time when cash was king and debit cards were rare, I worked in what was then called a video rental store.

There I had a wonderful manager who taught me how to maintain a cash drawer. Bills were to face up and in the same direction with the top of the dead presidents’ heads to the left. Change was to be handed back in ascending order, counting up. If a customer gave a twenty for a $3.79 purchase, you’d start with the coins, then the picture of George Washington followed by Abraham Lincoln and then Alexander Hamilton (not a president, just a future musical inspiration) – all face up and in the same direction. After all, people wanted to put the cash back in their wallets neatly.

The “associates,” as we were called, counted off the change like this: “Okay, we have $3.79. Here’s four (handing back the coins), five (picture of George), ten (Abe) and twenty (Alex).”

“You’re showing respect for the customer,” my manager said, “You’re also showing respect for the business, your work, and the money itself. Don’t ever forget that.”

Thirty years later, I still haven’t forgotten. In fact, I think of it most every time a cashier hands me back change with the bills in random order, some upside down and facing every direction. Change rarely is counted back. Even at banks, money comes out of ATMs and from tellers in multiple directions.

Back at the video store, I prided myself on having a cash drawer that matched to the penny at the end of the night. This was in the heyday of video cassette rentals and I usually had more than $1,000 in cash in my drawer.

Now this might sound like the OCD ramblings of a middle-age man. “Dude, don’t you use credit and debit like everyone else? Use Apple pay. Who carries cash?”

Maybe. But this cavalier attitude toward cash is more a sign of a culture that no longer shows respect for the customer, business, work ethic, and the money itself. Customer service is a lost art. Nobody can handle cash – literally in the case of cashiers.

Those who benefit most from our consumer culture on steroids know that the greater the separation from your cash, the more you’ll spend. You’ll drop more with debit or credit since you can’t feel the cash leaving your hands. Cruise ships, theme parks, and cashless resorts understand this, giving customers charge cards and not accepting cash.

There’s even a movement by some in government to do away with cash altogether since, after all, cash is used in most illegal activities. Of course, if we eliminate cash we will leave an electronic trail on every deal, making everything taxable.

Such a move would take Americans further away from their cash, thus increasing consumer spending. Every financial guru encourages people to go on a cash diet. Spend only what you have on hand. Cut up plastic and pay with cash since it becomes more real. You feel the pain.

I learn a lot from standing in line at Chipotle. I’m fascinated by how so many teenagers have debit cards. Maybe they have jobs, though I haven’t seen a teen mow a lawn in 20 years. When our kids were a few years younger, we struggled to find babysitters. Teens are busy, though few seem to be working.

More likely, parents gave these kids debit cards, continually adding money. Thus teens rarely feel what it’s like to fork over cash – even of someone else’s money.

Since my teenage years working at the video store (RIP, Erol’s!), our national debt has soared to $20 trillion. Things that were fairly unusual in 1987 – car leasing, college loans, kitchen remodeling – have become standard operating procedure for many, who view consumer debt as the norm. If you can’t afford it, finance it. Sacrifice tomorrow for today.

Sure, income levels have hit a plateau or gone down. My college-educated video store manager once mentioned his $38,000 salary in 1987 – $82,000 in today’s dollars. There aren’t many retail managers making $82,000 today. (Again, RIP Erol’s!)

Even if incomes had risen, could they possibly keep up with the insatiable appetite for spending?

They might — if we spent more time thinking about how we handle cash.




Distracted Cycling

bicyclingDistracted driving has become a big issue and with good reason. People think nothing of texting and talking while operating a 3-ton motor vehicle. No wonder it’s never been more dangerous to drive.

It’s symptomatic of our modern inability to focus, to remove clutter and distraction and live lean mentally.

Distracted driving is a subject for another time, however. Today’s topic is distracted cycling. At least 80 percent of cyclists I see on the roads here in Florida’s most densely populated county ride while listening to music. Bicycling is inherently dangerous, especially around here, but these folks think nothing of relinquishing arguably their second-most important sense. Thus they’re not able to hear cars approaching from behind, the sirens of emergency vehicles, or the voices of other cyclists. If a pedestrian wanted to shout a warning to them about oncoming danger, the cyclist likely would not hear it.

Not only that, by listening to music, the cyclist is losing focus. Instead of having all five senses on high alert to navigate this dangerous world, they’re lost in a cocoon of noise.

Distracted driving and distracted cycling is a dangerous mix, one I witnessed several weeks ago while in the car. The driver in front of me clearly was texting and the car was weaving in and out of the lane. Up ahead was a cyclist riding in the bike lane. A collision appeared likely. Thankfully the cyclist, who was not wearing a listening device, heard the car drifting into the bike lane and swerved into the shoulder, avoiding disaster. Thankfully there was a shoulder. The cyclist yelled some choice expletives, which the driver probably didn’t hear, focused as she was on the phone.

More often, however, the cyclist would have been wearing a listening device, oblivious to the car drifting over, and likely now injured or dead.

In theory, cycling is supposed to be healthy, saving us money and helping the environment. In reality, many use it as another form of digital distraction, creating a volatile mix on the roads.

If you don’t ride a bike regularly, perhaps you think this message doesn’t apply. But we’ve reached the point where many folks won’t do anything unless they’re tethered to a device or at least exposed to media. They’ve surrendered their ability to focus and operate in quiet, when the mind and senses arguably are most effective.

Many folks cannot disconnect, even when exercising, and not only is this dangerous for cyclists, it defeats the purpose of training outdoors. One of the great joys of cycling, running, hiking, or paddling is enjoying the outdoors with all five senses. If you’re plugged into music, you might as well be indoors on a treadmill or stationary bike.

Understandably, music is performance enhancing. Whatever your taste in tunes, a favorite playlist can ramp up your energy and produce a better workout. In the gym many people listen to their own music rather that endure the many commercials interspersed with the club’s music. Or they might prefer their own songs. All of which is understandable, though even that’s dangerous as wired people in the gym sometimes run into others or don’t hear equipment moving around them.

One of the most important rules at triathlons is to not wear listening devices – ever. Not on the swim, not on the bike, not on the run, not even while setting up in the transition area before the race. That’s because athletes need to hear emergency vehicles, other athletes passing them, and the announcements broadcast over the sound system in transition. It’s a matter of safety.

Roads generally are closed to traffic during triathlons. But nobody would think of riding with a listening device. (Actually, some athletes would, but it’s cause for immediate disqualification.) So why wear listening devices when roads are open? It actually might be less of a risk to ride with no helmet and no listening device than with a helmet and a listening device. Heck, it’s dangerous enough with a helmet and no listening device.

To live lean means maintaining focus. This increases productivity and forces you to eliminate the clutter of the mind, zeroing in on what’s important. It also means choosing the beautiful sounds of nature over digital distraction.

When it comes to cycling, the life you save could be your own.

Free from TV

tvSince committing to living lean, I’ve discovered a number of people who watch little or no television. It’s probably no coincidence that these usually are wildly successful and happy folks.

In 2010 and 2011, I gave up television for Lent. I didn’t think I’d make it through Lent. I certainly didn’t think it would create lasting change. Instead, it’s been one of the best decisions of my life.

I always had made vague commitments for Lent – chocolate, sweets, pizza – but never followed through. But in 2010 and ’11, I made it all 40-plus days without television. The biggest challenge was daily life, where we now have televisions in places where it was unthinkable just 20 years ago: airports, doctors offices, gym locker rooms, auto service waiting areas, even taxis. Heck, those of us over 40 can remember when many restaurant bars did not have TV.

When you give up TV for Lent, you’ll miss the Academy Awards. In certain years, like 2010, you’ll miss the Winter Olympics. You’ll miss the best time of year for college basketball.

Actually, in 2010 and 2011 I didn’t miss anything. That’s why my wife thought it was lame of me to give up television for Lent; I don’t watch much anyway.

I have not watched a network television program regularly since the first season of Survivor in 2000. I have not seen a single episode of American Idol, The Walking Dead, Lost, Dancing with the Stars, 24, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, or most anything else that has debuted in the last 15 years. I’ve enjoyed several series on HBO, especially Six Feet Under, Rome, and True Blood, but I’ve never watched Game of Thrones, its biggest current hit.

Since True Blood signed off in August of 2014, I have not watched a series of any sort. I’m told there’s some great stuff available. But I have no desire to watch since I’ve broken the habit.

I grew up in a home where my parents refused to get cable TV, but I still watched a fair amount of network programming. I can recite dialogue with any of the 200-plus episodes of M*A*S*H, for instance.

But gradually my viewing has diminished to almost nothing. Maybe it came with having kids or taking up endurance sports. Maybe it came with the lack of quality programming. Maybe it came from transitioning from being a full-time sportswriter to a journalist focused more on performance and fitness. Maybe it came with Disney purchasing ABC/ESPN and making it seem like an infomercial. Maybe it came with the transition of television from news and entertainment to talking heads yelling about politics and sports.

Because of the non-stop chatter surrounding sports, you need not watch the games themselves anymore to follow along. I have not watched an NFL game other than parts of the Super Bowl since 2007 and still feel like I can keep up with it by reading online for 20 minutes or so a day during football season. (Heck, millions of people watch six hours of NFL every Sunday but are too drunk to remember any of it.)

How much of our lives do we surrender to television? The DVR was supposed to let us spend less time watching TV since we could zip through the commercials. Instead, it’s made it convenient to record and later watch stuff we probably would not have back when it took some effort to program the VCR. Some actually brag about their binge viewing, a term that didn’t exist five years ago, as it it’s an accomplishment to lie in front of the couch for an entire weekend. (Yeah, but I saved time by watching it all at once!) Technology has advanced to where we now can watch TV anytime, anyplace, on a screen of any size.

Most people design their homes around television. There are home theaters, man caves, entire wings of the house devoted to wasting away watching television. Here in Florida, people have TVs outside, too. We once placed objects of importance on the mantel. It’s telling that many people now mount a flatscreen in that spot. Hey, it’s what they consider most important.

Nobody has time to work out. But everyone has time for television. Some people make half-hearted compromises, watching TV while plodding along on a treadmill or stationary bike, usually getting the predictable modest results.

If you want to discover more time, turn off TV. If you want to get better sleep, turn off TV at least an hour before bed. If you want to have more sex, take the TV out of the bedroom.

When I gave up TV for Lent in 2010 and 2011 many exciting opportunities came my way. Maybe that was coincidence.

Thankfully, my crash television diet instilled a new habit. Over the last six yeas, I’ve watched little beyond college basketball.

I haven’t missed much.



The No Laundry Challenge

nolaundryThis isn’t about wearing dirty clothes, saving water and energy, or going nudist for a few weeks, though there’s something to be said for all of that. This is about leaning out your wardrobe and discovering the clothes you truly value.

It’s been said that we wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time. Some have suggested hanging your clothes the opposite way on hangers as you wear them. At the end of 30 or 60 days, you can look at the clothes not turned backward and tell which ones you no longer need.

The No-Laundry Challenge is a faster, more powerful way to illustrate this trend. Simply see how long you can go without doing laundry. We’ll make exceptions for underwear and socks, though if you run out of either, hopefully it’s because you still want to wear all of your inventory. If not, designate those you don’t want as rags. You know you’re done with a pair of socks or piece of underwear when you’re down to your last option and cringe at the thought of wearing it.

I’ve pared my wardrobe dramatically in recent years as I dropped 20 pounds. Much of my wardrobe was oversized to begin with and by leaning out my body, little of it fits. I figured everything remaining must be stuff I actually wear.

Not true. As a freelance writer living in Florida, I live mostly in jeans or shorts, T-shirts, and short-sleeve collared shirts. I tend to work out most every day, so I have a lot of training gear and rack up a lot of laundry. Having purged so much in recent years, I have an organized closet with gaping holes; I no longer need so much space.

So I figured the No-Laundry Challenge wouldn’t produce eye-opening results. I was wrong. After 10 days, I discovered three T-shirts that still had tags on them. I had purchased them at least six months ago. They had sunk to the bottom of a pile, which was where they remained as I wore the same shirts on top, washed them, and placed them back atop the pile. Even though I haven’t bought any other shirts in the last six months, it was startling to find I didn’t need the ones I bought six months ago – which I’ve started wearing this week with everything else in my overflowing laundry bin. I liked these three shirts when I bought them and still like them. It’s as if I just found some free new clothes.

nolaundry2As I made my way to the bottom of that T-shirt pile looking for something to wear, I passed a few other shirts, well-worn wardrobe veterans. It was time to thank them for their service, as Marie Kondo recommends in her terrific book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, and take them either to Goodwill or the rag bin.

As I went through the sock drawer, it was surprising to see how many orphaned and worn socks there were. There were others I didn’t particularly like but kept because they were freebies from running events and triathlons. This violates the Live Lean philosophy of not accepting free items just because they are free. When I found that I would rather wear a pair of mismatched white socks to train in rather than a pair of freebies with some cheesy sponsor logo, it was time for the freebies to go.

You can do the No-Laundry Challenge several times a year because of seasonal clothing. Plus you’re always bringing in new clothes. Even if you rarely shop, you receive gifts and freebies. Ideally, we’d adopt a one-in-one-out philosophy each time we add. In reality, we usually don’t, especially with freebies. We don’t tend to get rid of something when we get a freebie since it likely isn’t better than much of what we have and, besides, it’s free. But there’s still a cost to ownership in that it needs to be maintained and produces clutter.

At the moment, nearly two weeks into the No-Laundry Challenge, I have one pair of underwear remaining and I’m down to mismatched socks. So I’ll wash socks and drawers today. But as I wear a “new” T-shirt for the second of a three-day stretch, I plan to continue the No-Laundry Challenge. I’ll no doubt find more stuff that can go and I’ll likely discover more “new” clothes to wear.

Best of all, I’ll continue to lean out my wardrobe, retaining only the clothes I love to wear – and keeping them where they can be seen.




Three Hours to Evacuate

hurricaneAs I write this, Hurricane Matthew is gaining strength in the Caribbean. Those of us who live in Florida know this drill well. We keep an eye on the news and update our hurricane plan if needed. Thankfully the storm usually weakens, moves offshore or takes a turn away from us.

That’s not always the case, however. Not long after we moved to Florida, a hurricane formed suddenly in the Gulf of Mexico and authorities issued an order for our county to evacuate – in three hours.

It’s amazing how you prioritize possessions when you have just three hours and two small cars. This was the late 1990s, before digital photography and storage, so we dedicated much car space to photo albums and CD music collections, which seems downright silly now. Valuable documents already were tucked away in a safe deposit box at the bank.

We put the cat in a pet carrier and filled two suitcases with a representative sampling of our wardrobes. I grabbed a fairly large box that contained my sports card and memorabilia collection (since sold). We also packed a small stereo system (again, the late ’90s) and a laptop computer before driving inland for two hours to stay with relatives.

As we drove away, I couldn’t help but think I wouldn’t miss anything if our apartment building washed out to sea. Everything of importance was in these two cars, which surprisingly weren’t that loaded down.

hurricane2The hurricane never came and we returned home the following day. It was a valuable exercise, though, in realizing how little of what we have is important. Heck, even much of what we took at the time wouldn’t be necessary now that most everything is stored digitally.

We have friends in Boston who ten years ago endured a middle-of-the-night house fire. They have four daughters, all 10 and under at the time, and thankfully everyone got out before the house burned to the ground.

A few years later, the father told me he was glad it happened. “It was very traumatic at the time and putting our life back in order has been challenging,” he said. “But as far as the contents of the house, I don’t miss anything. We never would have gotten rid of a lot of that junk. The fire totally changed our mentality and I’m thankful for that. We don’t collect or accumulate anything and only buy what we absolutely need.”

Every summer since the fire this family of six has rented a large van and traveled the country. They typically take one or two of their nieces as well. People no doubt see their social media postings from some cool, out-of-the-way place and wonder how this big family finds the time and money to do it on two modest incomes.

When you spend only on what you need, it’s amazing the resources you have for experiences. And if disaster strikes, nobody can take those memories away.

When making a discretionary purchase – meaning something you don’t absolutely need – ask yourself if this is something you’d throw in the car during a hurricane evacuation or miss if the house burned down.

If it’s not something you’d grab with three hours to evacuate, it’s not worth buying.

The Forrest Gump Suitcase

gumpbriefcaseForrest Gump knew how to live lean. The guy didn’t own a car, preferring to run everywhere, and kept himself in top condition. He had a laser focus in all of his endeavors, from football to the military to Ping-Pong to entrepreneurial endeavors. Even after becoming a multimillionaire, he lived in his childhood home, wore the same clothes, and had the same small circle of friends, mostly just Jenny and Lt. Dan.

Yep, ol’ Forrest could teach us a few things about living lean. But my favorite Gump lesson comes from his suitcase, the one he held while sitting on a park bench telling his life story. The suitcase, being of the old-school, travel-light variety, could hold only a few items, but it was a sufficient sampling of things that defined Forest’s life, along with some useful stuff like socks and a toothbrush.

There was a Bubba Gump shrimp ball cap and an issue of Forbes magazine showing him and Lt. Dan on the cover, the magazine he pulled out to prove that he was, indeed, the noted co-founder of the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. There was a well-worn Ping-Pong paddle, the one he actually used, not the one he endorsed for the $25,000 check he used to launch the shrimp company. There was a copy of Curious George, his favorite book. Perhaps the briefcase also contained his Congressional Medal of Honor and maybe a ring or certificate from his All-America football career at the University of Alabama.

Forrest was a man of many accomplishments and yet it all fit into one modest suitcase. Most of us haven’t achieved a high level of success in one field, let alone the military, sports, and entrepreneurial endeavors. But we hoard everything: old report cards, ID photos, childhood awards, trophies, certificates, collectibles, sports equipment, and any document or news clipping that mentions our name. Those of us who write for a living are even worse as we tend to save anything we’ve written, co-authored or been quoted in.

It’s as if we believe that one day someone will create The Museum of Us and will want this treasure trove of our stuff to display to the public. Guess what? There will be no Museum of Us.

petegumpThat’s not to say, however, that we shouldn’t think like curators. The greatest museums display only a fraction of their vast holdings, the most noteworthy pieces. Sometimes artifacts are rotated in seasonally, but for the most part a museum’s holdings are warehoused and stored for research and preservation.

Which is great for items of historical significance. But few of us have such things. That’s why we need to think like Forrest Gump, keeping only what can fit in a small suitcase, as if we were traveling for a journey and preparing for the future. As I’ve purged my possessions in recent years, I’ve created my own Forrest Gump briefcase. It started with an actual briefcase I received as a college graduation gift way back in 1991. Briefcases were out of style even then and I never used it for anything other than storage. As I began the purge in 2013, I started with the contents of the briefcase and began curating.

When I sold my sports memorabilia collection – tens of thousands of baseball cards, autographs, and odds and ends – I kept a few items for the briefcase. I purged my stockpile of hundreds of press passes and media credentials, keeping only a few from the most memorable events I covered. I shredded more than a hundred IDs, frequent flyer/hotel cards (TWA, anyone?), and other cards, keeping just three or four from jobs and gigs that defined my career. I’ve written a number of books, but I placed only a copy of the first one in the briefcase, along with advertising postcards from several of the others. (The others, of course, could fit on a Kindle or other reading device.) I added a thin Sesame Street book I read to our sons hundreds of times – Don’t Forget the Oatmeal – my equivalent of Curious George. I had a collection of 125 Matchbox cars from my childhood that my guys didn’t want. So I sold the collection, keeping my favorite car for the briefcase.

I’m gradually moving all photos and keepsake papers into digital files and I’ll eventually keep a hard drive in the Forrest Gump briefcase. Some day I hope one of my sons will keep the briefcase. He won’t have to go through tons of my stuff upon my passing. I’ll have curated everything for them in one small briefcase.

gumpmovieposterI could have gone with a suitcase or a steamer trunk but that would not be living lean. Choosing a small suitcase – or briefcase – forces you to keep only what you’ll carry on the journey and nothing more. If you add to it, you must take something out. That’s why it’s best to be constantly curating.

Should the big hurricane hit Central Florida, I’ll grab the Forrest Gump briefcase first. In theory, it should be all I need. With the briefcase, I’m forced to think in terms of traveling on a journey, both a short trip and a journey through life. What do we really need to travel light, tell our story, and to live lean? We want to bring pleasant memories that are literally light, not heavy, stressful stuff that weighs us down. We want to bring only those things essential to the trip that celebrate our past and contribute to the future.


Eating (Almost) Free at Chipotle

ChipotleCvilleChipotle Mexican Grill has had a tough 12 months. There were scattered outbreaks of e.coli, salmonella and norovirus. The rapidly-expanding Chipotle, founded in Denver by Steve Ells, in 1993, saw its white-hot stock drop nearly 50 percent.

Some customers never returned. Some people never liked Chipotle previously, but I’ve remained a big fan. I dropped 20 pounds about five years ago, going from 177 to 157 – and while there are multiple reasons (training green smoothies, and writing Core Performance fitness books with Mark Verstegen), the common thread has been eating roughly three times a week at Chipotle.

In July, in an attempt to bring back customers, Chipotle launched its “Chiptopia” summer rewards program. You earn a point for each visit, per month. Visit four times, get a free burrito. Visit three more that month, get a second free burrito. Visit another two times and get a third free burrito. At this point, you’ve reached “hot” status. Reach that level for July, August, and September and earn catering for 20 — a $240 value.

The catch is that it’s one point per visit. So you can’t place a massive office takeout order and collect 12 points at once.

Using a typical $9 burrito for math purposes, that’s nine free burritos ($81) and $240 in catering for a total of $321. Subtract the cost of 27 burritos ($243, ordering only a water cup) and you come out $78 ahead. So you can pretty much eat for free.

ChipotleMealThis assumes, of course, that you have use for Chipotle catering for 20. The promotion ends at the end of September and I have an October birthday. Looks like there’s food for the party!

Not only that, but when I have a free burrito coming, I load up on double meat (chicken plus either carnitas or steak). That’s a $2 value x the nine free burritos, but I don’t count that $18 in the equation. Besides, I always order half chicken, half carnitas or steak since that tends to equate to double meat for standard price anyway.

Chipotle has its detractors, to be sure. The food is salty and the taste isn’t for everyone. Plus, you’re not going to lose weight or lean out eating at Chipotle if you do not train and/or consume certain Chipotle ingredients.

Here’s how – and why – it works for me:

CONVENIENCE: The biggest misnomer about Chipotle is that it was founded or once a subsidiary of McDonald’s. Not true. Ells did take a massive infusion of McDonald’s cash in the early days to fund Chipotle’s meteoric growth, but retained control and didn’t allow McDonald’s to influence his vision. When Chipotle went public in 2006, McDonald’s cashed out and walked away.

But Chipotle is like McDonald’s when it comes to fast service. The only difference is that Chipotle is actually healthy food. Morgan Spurlock famously ate at McDonald’s every day for one month and nearly died. I eat at Chipotle a dozen times every month and have gotten into the best shape of my life.

I’m not alone. Chipotle is often packed – the crowds have returned in recent months – and the funny thing is that people who eat there tend to be in better shape than the general public. Heck, the stereotype of the chubby, donut-eating cop is disappearing in part because of Chipotle’s half-off policy for law enforcement personnel.

I’ve had many business lunches at Chipotle. Even with the lines, it’s possible to get in and our far quicker than at a sit-down restaurant.

Eating healthy on the road is always a challenge but it’s increasingly easy to find a Chipotle nearby. Now that Ells is expanding his Shophouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept, an Asian-themed restaurant modeled after the Chipotle formula (with 15 locations, thus far only in DC, LA and Chicago), it will get easier.

PeteRunningCOST/VALUE: Chipotle isn’t inexpensive. But it’s a great value. A burrito with water from the soda fountain costs roughly $9. You’re getting nutrient-dense food mostly free of antibiotics and hormones. Eating right is a little more expensive, but always worth it.

STRATEGIC ORDERING: You are what you put in the shopping cart. A person’s physical appearance is usually a reflection of what’s in their cart at the grocery store. I’ve noticed the same phenomenon watching people at Chipotle, where it’s easy to load up on too many calories.

Here’s my usual order: burrito bowl with one scoop of brown rice, fajita peppers, black beans, half chicken and half carnitas, mild and medium salsas, guacamole and lettuce. Sometimes I substitute hot salsa for medium. Sometimes I’ll go with no meat. Sometimes I just order a bowl of chicken.

Here’s what I don’t order: tortilla (290 calories and 44 grams of empty carbs), white rice, pinto beans, steak, barbacoa, corn salsa, or dairy products (cheese, sour cream).

My typical burrito, according to, weighs in at 650 calories, with 46 grams of protein and 66 grams of carbs. That’s relatively modest, certainly right for a 157-pound endurance athlete.

Were I to put the same burrito on a tortilla with cheese and sour cream, however, I would end up with an 1,160-calorie, foil-wrapped, 112-carb bomb with a whopping 2,710 mg of sodium – more than the 2,300 mg daily allowance recommended by the U.S. Health and Human Services.

My burrito has 1,920 mg of sodium, still a concern but at least lower.

Why no dairy? No matter how much you emphasize light cheese or a little sour cream at Chipotle, they’ll give you too much. Plus, I gave up dairy (other than whey protein) several years ago. Jack LaLanne never consumed dairy, stressing that humans are the only species to consume milk (let alone from another species) beyond the suckling stage. Jack still was doing badass athletic things when he died in 2011 at the age of 96, so he has some credibility there.

Ordering half chicken and half carnitas is for variety but also because you tend to get a little more meat than ordering just one.

You’d think more restaurants would take a food-with-integrity cue from Chipotle, which gets its meats from family farms as opposed to scary factory operations. Taco Bell officials recently started talking smack about how they will introduce a similar menu. That’s unlikely to make a difference since the 3 a.m. drive-thru crowd doesn’t place a premium on whether its munchies come from sustainable sources. Nor is Taco Bell likely to provide it.

I keep thinking I’ll get sick of Chipotle, which despite its few ingredients has thousands of combinations. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long for a Shophouse to come to Tampa Bay.

In the meantime, I’ll keep living in Chiptopia and collecting my free catering in October.


Declaring Independence from Clutter

July4The USA turns 240 today and we’ll mark the occasion as we always do with food, drinks and fireworks. It’s one of the highlights of the summer calendar.

During the Revolutionary War, many colonists saw their homes ransacked, burned to the ground, or otherwise taken over by the British. Those colonists sacrificed everything for freedom, including their lives in some cases. Others were left with only the clothes on their backs.

To look today at our American consumer culture on steroids, it can seem as if we’re celebrating our independence by accumulating as much stuff as possible. To support such a lifestyle, we sacrifice that hard-fought independence by going into debt, working long hours in jobs we don’t especially enjoy, and becoming slaves to fashions, trends, and must-have possessions.

By overeating and drinking, we relinquish independence by creating fat, inefficient bodies that no longer allow us the energy and strength to accomplish our dreams.

Here are four areas where we can create more lasting independence:

DOWNSIZE: You need not wait until the kids are grown to downsize. By going with a smaller home, you can reduce waste and expense and create more time and freedom. After all, a big house sucks time and money. One of this year’s best-selling books is “The More of Less” by minimalist expert Joshua Becker, who has inspired millions to embrace the freedom of living richer lives by owning less stuff.

Boaters know that the second-happiest day of boat ownership is the day they sell the burden. Homeowners know that feeling, too. More really is less.

LEAN OUT: If you’ve done any overnight hiking, you know the relief that comes when you’re able to finally take off that heavy 30- or 40-pound backpack. But many of us willingly choose to carry the equivalent of that pack all the time in the form of extra weight. That burden robs us of energy, makes us more vulnerable to illness and injuries, and keeps us from being more productive.

There’s tremendous freedom that comes from losing the weight. You will look good in anything, especially your birthday suit. Body acceptance is a wonderful thing, of course. But why not feel the freedom that comes from having more energy? Why carry extra weight around?

UNSUBSCRIBE: This July Fourth, declare your independence from e-mail. Unsubscribe to a minimum of 25 things – retail store emails, alerts, newsletters, and groups in which you no longer participate. The latter can be awkward, so include a brief note expressing gratitude for the invites/information but explaining that you’re no longer in a position to appreciate it.

GIVE AWAY: As I’ve given away half my possessions over the last few years, I’ve felt an enormous sense of freedom each time I leave a carload of stuff at Goodwill, deliver something to a Craigslist buyer, or just give stuff away to friends or those who need it.

Less stuff = more time, freedom and money.

That’s really what our Founding Fathers were fighting for when they declared their independence: time, freedom, and money. Thankfully, we only have to fight that battle these days with ourselves.