Hallway Chats: Sharing Stories and Building Belonging

Hallway Chats is a new podcast that I launched with my friend and WordPress colleague, Tara Claeys.

As 2017 was getting underway, a colleague from the WordPress community reached out to me to ask about starting a podcast together. Independently, we had both been considering creating an online audio show, but independently we had yet to land upon an idea. My colleague, who I now consider a close friend, Tara Claeys, was eager to focus on the human side of the WordPress community. From that initial idea, we worked up the concept and name for Hallway Chats.

All the Legwork

As Tara and I held a series of conversations about the logistics of getting started, we were both confident that it was an entirely manageable project. We both have our own separate consultancies, but with organizational structure and proper planning, we were sure getting started would be pretty easy.

Wow! Were we wrong!

Let me clarify: Tara and I were not surprised by the length of our to do list. We had done enough research and spoken with enough successful podcasters that we knew our checklist was solid.

What caught me offguard was how long each item might take. I had ignored that creating a logo takes a fair amount of time – perhaps even more when making a logo for yourself. 

Going Live

All of initial conversations, research, follow-up chores, and of course, recorded shows, would all be put to the test when we went live. Tara and I originally aimed for a launch in late May or early June. We hit that right on the head: we published our first episode on 01-Jun-2017.

We lead with what we felt was a really powerful conversation with a very strong woman, Jessica Reilley.

As the number of downloads began to climb, and as words of praise came across on Twitter, I felt a real sense of reassurement: Our idea of building belonging within the WordPress (and wider) community by chatting with real people, with real lives and real stories to share was making a connection with our intended audience.

Onwards and Upwards

It's safe to say that Tara and I are very much learning as we go. We're often updating and tweaking our systems, approach and workflows as we learn more about how to deliver an engaging, professional and valuable podcast. Thus, even though our show is now "live and on air", we still very much have a list of items that we'd like to improve, refine or add to our efforts at Hallway Chats.

I'll end by thanking the many, many people who've listened to our new show, have shared kinds words of praise about it on social media and who have subscribed to our podcast. I'm so grateful for your generous embrace of this new effort that Tara and I have worked so hard to get started.

Thoughts from a Vacation to Germany

A series of notes and observations about my recent family trip to Germany.

Traveling in Germany

The German People, Culture and Land

  1. The German people are wonderfully friendly and warm. I was surprised by how happy to help, how friendly and how welcoming they were.
  2. My inability to speak German was never really an issue. When ordering a beer or asking for help, I'd begin with a friendly "Hallo! Sprechen Sie Englisch?" More often than not, I'd get a warmly delivered reply, "Of course." Sometimes, the reply was more of a "A little". Yet every reply was delivered in a welcoming way. My lack of knowledge of German was not seen as something for which I was to be derided.
  3. Germans are quiet. Even when a restaurant or bar was packed, the conversations at each table were quiet. It was an effort for my loud American self to adjust.
  4. The Germans are an outdoor people. They seem to really enjoy outdoor activities of all sorts: biking, hiking, swimming and more.
  5. As for linguistics, umlauts are of great importance. Do not book a hotel in Munster, Germany, if you wish to stay in Münster, Germany. In due course, you will come to find out that they are not the same place.
  6. June in Germany is a sun-lovers heaven. It's starts getting light about 4:00 am and does not get dark-dark until 11:00 pm or so. I ate dinner at outdoor restaurants at 8:30 pm in perfect sunlight. It was wonderful.
  7. The two cities that I visited, Düsseldorf and Münster, were both heavily bombed during World Word II. Following the war, the Germans in both cities (and perhaps elsewhere too), rebuilt the old sections of their cities (Aldstadt) as they were before the bombing (albeit often replacing original buildings were facades of their former buildings). I was grateful for that approach as it returned some of the character of Europe that I wanted to see as a visiting American.
  8. Walking through cities that trace their history back to the 1200s and to churches that reach back to 800 AD is deeply moving. The connection to the past is palpable and gripping.

Food, Drink, Chocolate and Ice Cream

A variety of bacon
  1. Any trip that includes Swiss, German and Belgian chocolate in notable quantities is likely to be an enjoyable trip.
  2. If you're a meat lover, Germany is your country. My first meal in Germany (dinner, after a full day of international travel), was a variety of bacon. Later in the trip, I enjoyed a delicious sausage called a Westphalia Rosary (it's my new favorite prayer). It was a simple bratwurst, but it was by far the best sausage I've ever had.
  3. I was in Germany during the hottest heat wave on record. Apparently, Germans cope with heat by eating delicious ice cream at just about every hour of the day. I ate such ice cream twice a day, every day, while on vacation. That was wonderful. (My two flavors of choice were Nutella and Roche, a combination of chocolate ice cream and Ferrero Roche chocolates.)
  4. While I only ever drank 2 or 3 beers in any given sitting, I never drank a bad beer in Germany or Belgium. (I didn't have a chance to grab a beer in Holland.) Quality beers of all sorts: alt, weiss, lager and pilsner. The quality of the beer is reason enough to consider moving my family to Germany.
  5. It's a common practice in German restaurants and cafes to simply walk in and sit down at whatever table is available. That felt rude to me given our practices in the US. By the end of the week though, I had adjusted well enough. I imagine this will cause me problems when I seat myself at some diner in America this week.

Driving the German Roads

  1. German roads are so well maintained and so clean. No potholes. No rubbish strewn along the highways. Even the cities I visited (Düsseldorf and Münster) were impeccably clean.
  2. The concept of a speed limit like "whatever is reasonable" seems to makes sense after driving in Germany for a week. Drivers didn't seem to have a need to show off how fast they could drive, because everyone was driving fast.
  3. I loved the adherence to the rule of "pass in the left lane; drive in the right lane." This made highway travel feel safely predictable, i.e., no boy racers screaming up in the right lane to overtake with a really cool, Fast and Furious style lane sweep.
  4. The rental car had cameras in the front and rear, and on both sides. It also had sensors to warn when I was too close to a major object. This made parking in tight spots and narrow roads very easy.
  5. Europe as an entity, its geographic size and the proximity of its nations astonished me. Yes, I know that with the European Union, it's possible to drive from one country to the next without border control. Yet, the experience of driving from Germany, through the Netherlands to spend the afternoon in Belgium, before making the opposite journey home in the same afternoon was mind-blowing. It was no different than going from PA through NJ, to NY and back, albeit with less traffic, less graffiti, fewer pot holes and more scenes of rural beauty.
  6. While listening to German radio as I drove, an occasional traffic update notice would pop onto the dashboard, asking me if I wanted to override the radio program with the travel update. After listening to the first travel update, I realized it was a waste of time. The updates were, understandably, delivered in German. I skipped the remaining updates.
  7. I rented a Nissan SUV. The car had a GPS/map built into the dashboard. The coolest feature was that the GPS posted the speed limit of the road I was on to the dashboard, between the speedometer and tachometer. Most impressively, the updates about changes to the speed limit were pin-point accurate: As soon as I came level to a 70 kpm speed limit sign, the Nissan's dashboard instantly displayed the updated limit.

Technology

  1. Downloading and installing the Google Translate app with the German dictionary was a big help. The app itself allowed me to use the camera to hover over words in German while the app instantly translated the words to English (with enough accuracy for me to either completely understand or at least get the gist of meaning.)
  2. Stopping into the Bang & Olefsen shop in Münster was well worth the short visit. In a nutshell (and I imagine the marketing people at B&O would not approve of this characterization), B&O are taking the wifi sound system concept that Sonos perfected (or nearly perfected) and have turned it into an art. Beautiful speakers. Crystal clear sound. Very cool. Frighteningly expensive.
  3. Having to pay more for internet access on my phone was a blessing: I spent less time on Twitter and more time enjoying the many moments of travel.
  4. Having a quality camera in the phone was great for those "right now" shots.
  5. I was also glad that I brought my bigger digital SLR camera. I'm eager to pop that camera card into the computer to see how those shots turned out.
  6. The wireless Bose noise cancelling headphones delivered all the promise they were rumored to hold. The inflight music, movies and podcasts were so easy to hear and enjoy. The airplane noise was reduced to a quiet whisper. I even wore the headphones while sleeping – with no music or sound streaming.

Random and Miscellaneous

  1. International travel is a great source for feeding numbers onto my Instagram stream.
  2. I watched more sports on television than I expected. In relaxing in the hotel room, winding down at the end of an evening, I found that the sports shows were the only programs I could follow. I didn't understand a lick of the commentary, but I could follow the games and matches easily enough.
  3. I brought my 10 oz. Yeti on the trip. It's best use case for visiting a country where ice machines are not on every hotel floor was on the long haul flights. I didn't worry about spilling my drink as all. The kind flight attendant was impressed as I asked her to pour the small bottle of wine into the Yeti.
  4. For the trip, I bought a purse. It was a great decision. It was so easy to throw credit cards, cash, passports and other important travel documents into a single place. It was mentally reassuring – everything key to getting around, and ultimately, to getting home, was in my purse. During the course of my travel, I increasingly lamented the gender stereotypes that inhibited me from realizing this sooner in my life. (Related: Why have car makers not come up with a handy storage solution for the driver's purse? Placing it on the floorboard of the front passenger seat, or on the backseat were both less than ideal solutions.)

Baltimore Heritage Walk

A surprising installation of sidewalk placards in a tourist-friendly corner of Baltimore, Maryland.

While in town for WordCamp Baltimore, I quite literally stumbled upon the Baltimore Heritage Walk. Yes, I tripped over a crack in the sidewalk as I strolled from the hotel towards the WordPress conference. As I recovered my balance, I caught site of the Heritage Walk placard embedded in the sidewalk. I’m a history buff (I studied Modern European History in college) and I was immediately intrigued.

Glancing down the sidewalk, I noticed that there were Heritage Walk placards every few yards. I went to look at the next in the row. It was in a different language. And so was the next, and the next, and the next. In fact, there were Heritage Walk signs in 10 different languages.

With all the turmoil of the presidential elections, I found it comforting to see that the good people of Baltimore embraced diversity.

Can you please help me figure our the different languages used on the placards? I’d love for people to share their answers with me on Twitter – without using Google Translate.

Baltimore Heritage Walk: The Placards

(1) Korean
(2) German
(3) Chinese
(4) Portugese
(5) Hindi
(6) ?
(7) Arabic
(8) Spanish
(9) English
(10) ?

Thanks to Jayvie Canono for supplying a number of the languages above. And a thanks you Reed Gustow and Susan Walker for chipping in too.

Goals for 2016

A short list of my personal and professional goals for 2016.

With 2016 still making its way out of the starting blocks, I am trying something new: I am posting a selection of goals and aims for the new year.

Professional

  • Attend a new-to-me WordCamp (I’ve been to WC Philly, Lancaster, Baltimore and US)
  • Implement a CRM for LBDesign to aid in business development
  • Raise the LBDesign newsletter list open rate to over 50%
  • Clean my office at least once a week – it really does make for a better work environment
  • Attend one marketing or design conference not focused on WordPress

Personal

  • Pray and meditate on a daily basis – even if only for 5-10 minutes
  • Read professionally for 10 minutes a day, every work day
  • Read 10 books for fun or relaxation (over the course of the full year)
  • Write regularly on this website – at least one blog post per month
  • Borrow books from the library – instead of renting them through late fees

Hobby

  • Now that I’m back on track with chickenmonkeydog, keep it going strong with at least two blog posts per week
  • Ride my motorcycle (a ’96 Kawasaki Vulcan Classic) at least once a week in warmer weather.
  • Organize a local motorcycle ride with friends and contacts in Philly. I know Alx Block rides, LeeAnn Kinney rides and has set herself a goal to get her bike up and running. Who else rides?

Health + Fitness

  • Run 8 miles at an 8-minute mile pace: I’ll start this month working towards that goal on the treadmill, aiming to achieve my indoor goal by the end of March. I’ll work towards achieving it outdoors by mid September.
  • I like to think my best running weight and easiest/most practical weight to maintain is between 190-195 lbs. So, I am aiming to get down to 193 lbs. by the time I reach my indoor running goal. (I’m currently around 207-210 lbs. I prefer to tell people that I weigh “200 and Christmas pounds.”)

I certainly have other goals that I’m working on in 2016, but these are the ones I’m ready to share publicly. Thanks for supporting me as I try to make myself a better, nicer, more efficient and more productive person.

The Year That Was 2015

A briefy synopsis of the year that was 2015.

What an amazing year 2015 was! The world has experienced such tremendous change, turmoil and upheaval that at times it can all be very overwhelming. A sense of “What difference does my personal 2015 in Review matter?” almost kept me from publishing this post. Yet, I believe that the little wins in my life help keep me focused and grounded so that, in some way, I am addressing the wider, global issues facing our world.

So, here it is. My review of 2015. At least what I can quickly remember and pack into a blog post before 2015 ends.

All Things WordPress

If I had to choose one word that characterized my work in 2015, it would be “WordPress”. Between serving on the organizing teams of a couple of WordCamps and presenting at two as well, it was great to be so actively involved in the WordPress community. I also was lucky to continue to serve as the organizer of the Philly ‘burbs WordPress Meetup, which has been running since May 2012.

  • Co-organized WordCamp Philly 2015
  • Co-organized the inaugural WordCamp US
  • Delivered presentations at WordCamp Philly and WordCamp Lancaster
  • Attended WordCamp Baltimore, meeting my goal to attend one new-to-me WordCamp in 2015. (I suppose that WordCamp US also ticked that box!)
  • Delivered talks at WordPress-focused Meetups in Philadelphia, the Lehigh Valley and Asbury Park New Jersey

Through Tech Impact, I delivered a 5-part webinar series around WordPress as key tool in online marketing. The five separate sessions are listed below:

Exploring New Places

For the first time, I stepped outside of the WordCamp world to attend Prestige Conference in August. It was a very valuable experience and I was able to put several items I learned into practice within the remaining months of the year. It was also the first time that I visited Minneapolis. What a fantastic city!

Attending WordCamp Baltimore enabled me to see that city in a bit more detail than ever before. I enjoyed strolling through Fells Point on a warm Saturday evening.

Running a Marketing + Design Consultancy

As a business owner, the challenge of steadily growing my consultancy is a thrilling one. It’s very exciting to have steered LBDesign along a path of consistent and manageable growth since our expansion in 2009. This past year was another one of growth for the company, with sales up over last year (still working out the final numbers). While that sales pace is off last year’s growth, I was able to reduce costs significantly meaning that 2015 is even more profitable than 2014.

As I have done from the start, I steer LBDesign along a course that enables our little team to work with businesses and charities across the US, UK, and beyond. I very much look forward to growing our client base even more in 2016, all the while focused on building long-term relationships based on trust, communication and respect.

Life in General

Liam Dempsey with a braided beardLife is certainly a lot more than work, so I wanted to include a few notes about life outside of the office:

  • Discovered a new history podcast: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History
  • Grew my beard long enough to braid it (and then promptly trimmed it)
  • Fastest outdoor 3.0 mile run in 2015: 8:16 minute miles on 03-Dec-2015
  • Worked up a batch of home made BBQ sauce – it was tasty, but not quite good enough to brag about
  • Vacationed in the Poconos, enjoying Lake Harmony and Hawk Falls
  • Sadly, didn’t ride my motorcycle at all
  • Spent a couple of months experiencing a dairy-free diet
  • Made a 10″ dairy-free chocolate peanut butter cup

As I click the publish button on this year end wrap-up, I’d like to take a moment to thank the many family, friends, colleagues and strangers who made this such a memorable year for me. Cheers!

P.S. Seeing the new Star Wars movie did not make this review because I am going to see it at 1:20 this afternoon.

Huge Home Made Chocolate Peanut Butter Cups

Dairy free, home made chocolate peanut butter cups. In a 10″ in Lodge cast iron pan.

In exploring dairy free food options over the past few months, I have been particularly interested in dessert choices. So many store bought desserts and candies come laden with milk and other dairy products. In early September, I explored cupcake size chocolate peanut butter cups. I botched the first batch by over-cooking the chocolate, but the ones I made the next day were wonderful.

And then I began to think about Halloween. Tricking-or-treating for dairy free children, especially those who don’t like fruity candy, must be a huge frustration. What could I do to make Halloween a night of indulgent chocolately awesomeness for a dairy free child? Then it hit me: a super huge, dairy free, home made chocolate peanut butter cup.

So, without further ado, here is my attempt to recreate the recipe that I used to make my first 10.25″ chocolate peanut butter cup. This recipe is a mish-mash of various recipes that I’ve found online. (Side note: I am a big fan of cast iron pans and highly recommend the great products from the people at Lodge. So versatile and easy to use.)

The Chocolate Peanut Butter Cup Recipe

A chocolate peanut butter cup in a Lodge cast iron pan

Prep time: Not too long. 3 independent batches of 15 or so minutes

Why are the prep times on recipes so wildly understated? Hopefully, mine paint a more accurate picture of how long it takes to take these chocolate peanut butter cups.

Equipment

  • A 10.25″ seasoned cast iron pan
  • Parchment paper
  • Some way to grease the bottom side of the parchment paper – just a bit so it sticks to the pan*

* I used vegetable shortening so that my chocolate peanut butter cups would be dairy free and tree-nut free.

Ingredients

Note: If you’re not into dairy free, just swap your chocolate of choice for the dairy free stuff.

  • 2 x 22.5 oz. bags of dairy free chocolate chips
  • 3 cups or so of peanut butter
  • 1.5 cups of powdered sugar
  • Some salt – a dash or so

Preparation

A large chocolate peanut butter cup

(1) Grease the pan just enough so that the parchment paper will stay in place.

(2) Place a long enough piece of parchment paper into the pan so that it becomes a makeshift cupcake paper. (I tucked the extra bits of parchment that stuck out over the top of the pan down around and under the bottom of the pan – so that it would hold the parchment paper in place.)

(3) Melt one of the bags of chocolate chips until it’s liquidy smooth. You can use the microwave. I used a glass mixing bowl on top of a pot of boiling water. This takes about 10 minutes or so.

(4) Once melted, pour the chocolate into the parchment-lined pan, being sure to spread it evenly about the bottom.

(5) Using a cooking brush, or even the back of a spoon would work, brush some of the melted chocolate up the sides of the parchment paper. (This makes the sides of the chocolate peanut butter cup.)

(6) Place the pan in the freezer or the fridge so that the chocolate hardens. This can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour, depending on where/how you cool the chocolate.

(7) While waiting for the chocolate to harden, mix the peanut butter, powdered sugar and salt. It should look and taste like the consistency of the peanut butter in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.

Note: The basic ratio of peanut butter to powdered sugar is 2:1. If you want to make a smaller chocolate peanut butter cup, adjust accordingly.

(8) After removing the pan from the freezer, spoon the peanut butter filling into the pan. Leave a wee bit of room around the edges of the pan to allow for the subsequent batch of melted chocolate to flow down over it.

(9) Place the pan back in the freezer or refrigerator.

(10) Repeat Step (3), melting the other bag of chocolate chips.

(11) Once the chocolate has melted, remove the pan from the freezer and pour the liquid chocolate over the top of the peanut butter filling. Use the kitchen brush to spread the chocolate around, filling in the gaps and making sure that all the peanut butter filling is covered.

(12) Place the pan back in the freezer until the chocolate is solid.

(13) If you’d like, trim the extra parchment paper above the top rim of the cast iron pan.

Forced Healthiness: No More Working Through the Pain

Thoughts on suffering major medical issues, treating them properly and establishing the correct work-life balance.

When the noted developer, writer, business owner and speaker Rachel Andrew asked for volunteers to answer a few questions about how major injuries or long-term illness affects creativity and productivity, I felt like I had to respond. Over the course of too many years, I learned the hard way about the price of not taking proper care of my health. I had thoughts and ideas to share that might help others avoid the mistakes I’ve made.

Following her research, Rachel wrote a great piece called Being Creative While in Pain: Working with Chronic Illness, which was published on the fantastic site that is 99U. More information about Rachel is online at rachelandrew.co.uk. What follows are my own thoughts on the same topic.

A Tale of Two Issues

I have two medical issues which affect my work. The first is a bad back. It’s gotten worse over the years as I get older and, particularly when I fail to effectively manage the flexibility and strength of my back (and core muscles) with proper stretching and exercise.

The second issue is sleep apnea. When I was in the process of starting my own marketing and design practice, I was transitioning out of full-time employment into self-employment. Over the span of about six months, I worked 12-16 hour days: 9-5 for my employer, then for myself from about 7-midnight and again the next day from 4-7, before heading into my day job. It wreaked havoc with my sleeping patterns and caused me to develop sleep apnea.

Downed by a Bad Back x 2

With respect to my back, I really do need to get up, stretch and walk a bit every hour. I also need to do core exercises on a daily basis. Failure to do so will put me out of commission, possibly for weeks. I went to the Emergency Room in an ambulance in February 2013 and subsequently could not sustain a full-pace work schedule for a month or so. Then again in 2014, while I avoided a trip to the ER, I did manage to land myself in bed for a week following severe back spasms.

Suffering Through Sleep Apnea

As my sleep apnea raged uncontrolled, I would drink 4-6 mugs of very strong coffee, 2-3 cups of tea and a soda or two every day to stay awake. And I would still fall asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow at night. I could take a nap anywhere, at any time. I could drink a post-prandial espresso and still be asleep within minutes of finishing dinner.

It would not be an overstatement to say that I was always on the verge of falling asleep. I could still be productive at work, but it took a mountain of caffeine to make that happen.

A Forced Change

My two medical conditions eventually forced me to make changes in my life. I say “forced,” because if I did not change, I am convinced that I would have suffered even more dire health consequences. I also say “forced,” because I should have chosen to focus on a healthy routine years sooner. I was an idiot for ignoring my health for so long.

Yet, I did eventually make some changes.

Addressing Sleep Apnea

While I scaled back the stupid-long hours soon after I started working for myself, I still suffered from sleep apnea. After about five or six years of near-constant exhaustion (and terribly loud snoring), I decided to address the sleep apnea. I went for a sleep test.

Following the sleep test (yes, I was plugged into all sorts of cords; no, it wasn’t that bad or scary), I learned that while the brain of a sleeping healthy person adjusts for breathing issues 1 to 3 times per hour, mine was making adjustments 58 times per hour. As I slept through the test, at almost every minute of every hour, my brain needed to do something to adjust for my breathing issues. So, although I was “asleep,” my brain was not getting the chance to actually shut down for a proper rest. No wonder I was exhausted!

To be clear, I was not waking up 58 times an hour. Yet, my brain still had to do something, somehow to make sure that a sufficient amount of oxygen flowed into my lungs. I didn’t need to understand all the bio-science to appreciate that I had a significant health issue.

And it was a health issue that could be comfortably and easily managed. Without medicine.

I now use a CPAP machine. I’ve named my CPAP machine Henry, which is short for Henrietta. Thanks to Henry, I now sleep very well and have plenty of energy for all of life’s challenges. I very vividly remember putting the mask on for the first time on that Thursday night in January. When I next awoke, it was morning! I slept the whole night through. I was so rested! I could not believe my energy levels after just one night of quality sleep.

Now that I’m on the CPAP machine, my energy levels have returned to healthy levels. I am a regular runner, on the treadmill in winter and outdoors in the other three seasons. As an anecdotal measure, I now drink 1-3 cups of coffee per morning (because I love the taste). The coffee that I make myself is much weaker too; no more rocket fuel.

Getting an In-Shape Back

With respect to managing my back issues, I no longer pull those “not getting out of my chair until it’s done” marathons. I also make time during the business day to exercise. I typically run at 1:00 pm or so, which helps me eat a lighter lunch and avoid the need for a post lunch caffeine blast.

Upon consideration, I think my new approach is healthier and more productive (we can’t really concentrate for hours on end, can we?), but it was a difficult transition.

Over the past few years, I’ve grown to truly appreciate the need for and value of proper exercise. It is now a work priority, so to speak. Pushing through the pain to get a proposal out the door or to get that website live is no longer worth it to me. I know that I will set myself back too much if I don’t prioritize the management of my health.

Coping with a Bad Back

The downside of managing a better work-life balance is that I no longer dedicate 12-14 hours of every day to my to-do list. Given that change for the better, I needed to find ways to be more effective with the time that I do have at work. To that end I have a few techniques that work well for me.

(1) I write my daily goals at the start of every business day. In addition to getting me focused right out of the box, it also helps me during the day when I get sidetracked. Is perusing Twitter really going to help me reach my billable target this month? Will checking out the football news right now enable me to read 15-30 minutes per day? Did eating such a big lunch make for a better afternoon run?

(2) I have a printed daily schedule. I write down the appointments for the day along with the specific tasks I aim to address that day, noting what time I will see to which task. My whole day is mapped out, including lunch, exercise, etc. That way, when I get off-track, I can glance at my schedule and know exactly what I am meant to be doing.

(3) I very much try to live in the moment. Admittedly, I don’t always succeed, but the purpose of my efforts is to help me make the most effective use of my time. When I am working, I want to concentrate entirely on work. When I am hanging out with my children, I want to focus on them. When I am going for a run, I want my mind to focus on getting in the best possible run. This change in mental approach (which has taken several years and continues to be a struggle) has been hugely rewarding.

Lessons from the Fire

As I look back at how I suffered with these two medical issues, I fully appreciate that I am to blame for the suffering and disruptions that they caused. I could have been proactive in dealing with both issues in a time frame that might have prevented them from becoming so problematic for me and for my family. I can’t get those years back, but I am committed to making sure that I manage my health properly now and for the rest of my life.

Cooking from Scratch

Cooking from scratch doesn’t have to be daunting. It can even be fun, relaxing and easy!

In September of last year, I started making pizzas from scratch. I’m a Friday Night Pizza Night guy and have been for over a decade. I really love my Friday night wind-down with family, friends, pizza and a nice drink. Last summer though, I was getting pretty bored of the delivery and pick-up pizzas that local restaurants had to offer. Plus, the better restaurants make their pizzas really, really salty and I was looking for a way to cut down on my Friday night salt intake.

Starting with Pizza

My plan was simple: make pizza from scratch as an experiment to see if I could reduce the salt take while avoiding turning Friday Night Pizza Night (FNPN) into some cooking fiasco or burdensome exercise. While the first few Friday nights were definitely experiments in getting the crust right, within a few attempts I fell into a rhythm that allowed me to make reasonably tasty pizza while not becoming a pain in the neck for me. (Perhaps I’ll write about that process in a future post.)

The Mother of All Challenges

As September rolled into October and October in November, I began to experiment with breads, pie crusts and other forms of cooking and baking. As I progressed both in terms of skill and enjoyment, I decided to attempt the mother of all cooking efforts: Thanksgiving dinner. I am really pleased at how well it turned out. No, I am not about to start challenging leading chefs for their jobs, but the meal was tasty, well-rounded, nicely presented and all made from scratch.

Five Thoughts to Make Cooking from Scratch Enjoyable

Now, with five months of cooking under my belt, I thought I’d share a few thoughts with others about my own lessons learned. Let’s be clear though: I am not about to share top tips for cooking and baking from scratch. I am hardly qualified to do that. What I can share is some ideas on how to making cooking fun and how to work our way up to more challenging meals and recipes.

(1) The goal of cooking is edible food

Humanity has been heating raw and uncooked foods over fire for thousands of years. The basic goal of cooking and baking is to make something edible. That’s a pretty low hurdle. Millions of people have cleared that hurdle. If so many people can make food that is edible, palatable and life-sustaining, then so can we. Understanding this goal helps reduce the stress of trying to get the recipe perfect.

(2) Cooking is not hard

Now, don’t get me wrong here. Making a beautifully presented meal where all the dishes are done at the same time and are then elegantly presented on the plate is not an easy task. That is tough. But baking a roast, boiling and mashing potatoes and baking a loaf of bread from scratch are not. Each task, taken alone, is reasonably simple and straightforward. The real challenge comes at trying to get all of them done right and at the same time. To avoid becoming overwhelmed in trying to get everything right at once, start by focusing on one dish at time. Get the preparation right for each one — then try to coordinate concurrent preparations.

(3) Set the right environment in the kitchen

For me, a big part of the enjoyment I get from cooking comes from the atmosphere in the kitchen. On Friday nights, it’s music playing the background, a glass of wine or pint of beer on the counter and chatting with my family and friends about their day and week. It’s a relaxing way to prepare a meal. If I’m cooking on Saturday afternoon, then it’s the English Premier League on the radio. For a Sunday afternoon roast, it could be football (soccer) or maybe jazz.

(4) Build up your kitchen arsenal

In the first month or so of getting into cooking, my pantry was woefully unprepared for the effort. I lacked many of the must have ingredients and spices. Equipping a pantry from scratch, on a single trip to the grocery store would be really expensive. It would be especially so if after two or three FNPN, I decided that I prefer to order pizza from a restaurant. So, I built up my supplies over time. A few spices this week, a few more the week following. I’m still adding some of the more advanced (read less used) ingredients to my pantry. While my pantry is by no means fully stocked, it can handle most meals without a last minute dash out to the shop to complete the recipe.

(5) Take your recipe to the store

A few days into the work week is when I start thinking about what I might like to bake over the weekend. I let my imagination stew over the recipe, enjoying in my mind the likely smells and flavors that I’ll enjoy at the week’s end. As I know what I want to cook, I’ll then bring the recipe with me to the grocery store to make sure that I get whatever ingredients I don’t already have at home.

I hope these few thoughts help others take up cooking too. Yet what tips or ideas might you have to encourage your friends and colleagues to give cooking a go? Let me know on Twitter.