Chapter Five

We all have irrational fears — but the only way to find out how irrational they are is to get over them. I explain in this excerpt from the next chapter of “The Amateur’s Guide to DIY Miracles.”

Strap in for this ride…

When I was seven years old and on a trip to visit my mom’s family back East, my dad took me to one of those rinky-dink pop-up carnivals. You know the type. They show up in public parks and church parking lots seemingly overnight and generally consist of a few shady sideshow games and a few shadier rides, all run by even shadier people.

At this carnival, my dad took me on a roller coaster — my first, actually. As a roller coaster, it wasn’t much to speak of. It was a single loop that covered the area of maybe two semi-flatbed trailers, and a single circuit couldn’t have lasted a minute, if that — probably more like thirty seconds. The tallest point on it was maybe twelve feet.

We strap in and the operator starts the ride. We get to the first insignificant drop, and my seven-year-old mind freaks out. I do not like this at all — the sensation of falling, and of being out of control.

We pull back into the station and I’m all ready to get off when the operator gives a look and a nod.

That wasn’t the only lap.

As I try to protest, we take off and run the course again. This time, it’s scarier, because I know what’s coming. This is sheer terror. I’m confined in a metal car, we’re careening down rickety tracks that are only not scarier because I’m too young to realize that they were probably slapped together by a disinterested minimum-wage crew on summer jobs. I hear other people laughing and hollering and having a great time — my own father included. How could he? And then we make it back and come into the station again and…

Oh, holy shit, the operator is giving me a big grin and signaling to me, “One more time.” He is the most evil man in the world. My seven-year-old mind turns to thoughts of homicide. They will never find his body!

The only reason I didn’t curse up a blue streak at him is because I didn’t know the dirty words yet. Around we went again, and I only don’t kiss that hot, smelly asphalt once my dad and I had gotten off of the death machine because, again, I was too young to have met that symbolic gesture yet.

From that day forward, I knew that I hated roller coasters and avoided them. And then, in high school, we were on a grad night trip to Disneyland — band friends Janet, Sam, Anne, Mike, and I, although I could be remembering the dramatis personae totally wrong anyway. The important part is that they all want to go on Space Mountain, and I don’t. Cue the peer pressure.

“You’ll love it,” Janet insists.

“Nah, I don’t like — ” I protest.

“Don’t be a pussy,” Mike chimes in. Did I mention that this Mike was kind of a dick?

“It’s really not that bad,” Anne adds in her quiet but confident way.

“There are lots of places to back out before the end of the line,” Janet explains, hopefully.

Well, in that case… what did I have to lose except my dignity and honor? After all, we were all graduating from high school in a few weeks and, as far as I knew, nobody I knew from Taft High was going to the same college I was, so what the hell? I let them lead me into that line, and I was as nervous as a first-time Oscar-winner giving an acceptance speech on the deck of a sinking Titanic during an earthquake in the middle of a tornado while watching their spouse and side piece run into each other and figure it out.

Or, in other words, I should have been wearing my brown pants. Ah, that’s the one — I was as nervous as a bad guy facing Deadpool.

But I made it through the line and past all of the emergency escapes — which I think Mike described as “pussy chutes.” Did I mention that I think he wound up working in his uncle’s gas station well into his 30s before I lost track of him? And then, fascinated by the design of the queuing area, I missed the last escape, and there we were, getting into the cars.

Oh, hell no.

Except that there I was, surrounded by friends, ride attendants hustling us forward, and the only thing I could do was get into that car, let them strap me in, and decide whether I was still religious. (Spoiler: nope). At least it was science fiction themed, though, and I love me some science fiction.

In retrospect, that may have been the carrot that got me past the stick, and then we were climbing up that long ramp into the dark and I had no idea what I’d gotten myself into, but it was nice to look at as we finally reached the top, circling in a moment of silence and peace, projected stars and galaxies above us.

“Oh,” I thought. “That’s pretty…”

And then the car tipped, turned, dropped, shot into the ride, and I learned something really amazing…

I totally love roller coasters!

Space Mountain had me hooked, and from then on I’ve looked forward to riding. The only exceptions are rides with steep vertical drops. I do not like those, but at least I figured that one out through the clear eyes of adult experience, and gave it a couple of tries before I decided that I don’t like that physical feeling.

But that decision came after some actual testing, instead of as a seven-year-old’s panic over nothing that turned into a pseudo-phobia that lasted over a decade.

I kind of had the same issue with doctors once upon a time, and that fear and reluctance nearly killed me. The biggest surprise? Once I put myself in their hands, I realized, “I’ve been afraid of nothing all along.”

That is the state that too many of us live in: Afraid of nothing all along. So my challenge to you is this: Figure out your thing that you’re very reluctant to do. It doesn’t necessarily have to be because of fear. You can call it disgust, or nervousness, or any negative emotion, really. Next, figure out where that reluctance came from. Is it something that happened in your childhood? Is it for some reason you can’t even remember? Is it because of one bad experience as an adult?

Now: Go do that thing. You only have to do it one time, but the important part of the exercise is confronting your reluctance and finding out whether it’s real or imagined.

The worst that can happen is you confirm you’ve been right all these years, but at least then you get to be justified in your dislike of something. But I’m willing to bet that most of those fears and distastes are imagined, and you might even discover a new thing that you really, really like.

Like I did with roller coasters. But I never would’ve found that out without taking one more ride.

* * *

Image: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons

Read excerpts from Chapter Four or Chapter Six, or go back to the Prologue.


Chapter Four

In this excerpt from Chapter Four of The Amateur’s Guide to Do-It-Yourself Miracles, I discuss the big roadblock to self-improvement: ourselves.

Change your mind, change your life

You’ve probably heard this old joke:

Q: How many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Only one, but the light bulb has got to want to change.

It’s a glib quickie that trivializes something that happens to be completely true. Change only comes from within, and it only happens once you decide that you absolutely want it to. Anything else is coercion, and there’s one thing that most people hate: being forced to do something by somebody else. Nothing will make a human being resist and fight back faster than that, especially in terms of lifestyle changes not related to addiction.

When it comes to people involved in addiction recovery, though, there’s still a lot of disagreement on the best way to approach treatment — voluntary or forced. The two extremes of the argument are summarized this way in a 2015 New York Times series on the subject. Robert L. DuPont, President of the Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc., believes that “Programs with effective coercion and serious consequences… often produce excellent outcomes for most participants.” Meanwhile, author and journalist Maia Szalavitz states that, “It’s hard to create the warm atmosphere necessary for addiction treatment if participants are legally mandated to be there… To improve both addiction treatment access and success, we need less coercion, not more.”

The hardest decision a person can make is the one to change — especially when they don’t think there’s a problem. Remember what I mentioned previously, about my attitude even as my health was failing? I didn’t think it was really serious and I was sure I was going to get better on my own, until someone else flat-out told me I was going to die if I didn’t do something.

But this wasn’t a case of someone telling me I had to change and I complied. I’d heard that advice many times before, but had chosen to ignore it. Often times, it had to do with how that message was delivered. True story: A few years ago, a doctor took my blood pressure and it was ridiculously high. His response was to give me a dirty look and practically shout in my face, “There is something seriously wrong with you!”

Gee, thanks, doc. Mind telling me what that is?

But do you think that I did anything about it then? Nope. All I was thinking in my mind was, “Well, doc, there’s something seriously wrong with you, too.” Not the best way to foster communication and healing, now is it?

What was different this time was, first, that the prognosis was delivered non-judgmentally by my doctors. It was given as a simple statement of fact. This made it a lot easier to not only accept that advice, but to finally make the decision to make the necessary changes in my life.

So the question is this: How do we wind up in that place where it’s easier not to make a positive change? It’s a process that practically begins at birth, it’s happening all around us, and it’s very easy to not see it because it’s so prevalent.

* * *

You can read an excerpt from Chapter Three here, go to Chapter Five, or start at the Prologue.

Puff, puff, past…

Today has been 420 days… exactly 60 weeks, or a year and two months since I quit smoking and… I don’t miss it one damn bit. And it has made life so much easier in so many ways. Herein, I’m going to tell you a few of them.

It’s kind of becoming more true than not, but the quickest way to spot either a tourist or a Baby Boomer in L.A. is to look for the smoker. And the quickest way to spot the ex-smoker is to find the person who is most vocally and vehemently against the habit.

The nasty, nasty, expensive, disgusting, filthy habit.

Guilty as charged. I quit smoking. It was the best thing I ever did for myself, and here are some things I learned in the process.

  1. I can breathe. I don’t get winded. I can run up and down stairs, walk for miles, exercise, dance, sing, whatever. I can breathe.
  2. I don’t waste time smoking. I don’t remember how many breaks I used to take every day at work — it was a lot — but I realize now that I may take two outside breaks a day, or maybe one, but that’s about it.
  3. I’m not as antsy… because I’m not sitting somewhere thinking of the next time I can go smoke. This has made everything easier, from work in general to meetings to public transportation to… well… everything.
  4. I don’t stink. But I can smell smokers from half a mile away and… damn, do they stink. It really is gross as hell guys. You smell like an ashtray’s asshole. Every last one of you.
  5. I have saved probably more than $2,500 to date (pre and post $2 per pack tax that went into effect on April 1, 2017) and will continue to save well over $200 a month. What could you do with an extra $200 per month?
  6. YMMV, but it actually turned out to be remarkably easy for me to quit. Sure, I had a huge bit of incentive to start (“You gonna die if you don’t!”) But I did it cold turkey, without meds, patches, gum, herbs, woo, etc. I did it by figuring out what triggered me to want to smoke, and then playing personal bomb squad and defusing those triggers. Turns out that my addiction was psychological, not physical — and I didn’t replace it with anything, either, so I didn’t eat my way to quitting or take up heroin or start watching reality TV or any of that shit. I just kind of… walked away.

What’s really interesting is that I have a lot of friends who have or did or who are trying to quit in the same time frame — yay, you all! And I just want to tell you all this: You can do it. It’s easier than you think. I’d been a smoker for longer than some of you have been alive. In under a year, I’ve managed to rewire to the point that I cannot even imagine wanting to light up a cigarette ever again. So if you need any advice or moral support or whatever, you know where to come.

It can be done. And, once it’s done, well… it’s pretty awesome. Smell better, live longer, save money, be more attractive to the non-smoking majority. What’s not to love about it?

Chapter Three

In this excerpt from Chapter Three of “The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles,” find out how we can be set up to fail almost from the beginning — by the best of intentions.

Thank you, Mr. President

When I was in elementary school, something called the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (whatever that was) determined that we had to be tested in our physical abilities as part of the Presidential Youth Fitness Program. Now, here are a couple of new details about me I don’t think I’ve mentioned before.

Number one, I was born very premature — something like two months early, possibly more. I spent the first sixteen days of my life in an incubator at Kaiser Hospital Hollywood, in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, which sounds much friendlier under the initialism NICU — especially if you treat it as an acronym. Preemies often have lung issues, and when I was about seven I had a bad case of bronchitis. Air quality in Los Angeles up through the ‘80s and probably into the mid-1990s was also total shit — seriously, it is much, much better now — none of which helped me at all.

I also had viral pneumonia when I was 14, so why I ever started smoking is beyond me, because I never should have in the first place. But flashback to about two or three years before that and here’s the scenario. First, I’ve never really had upper-body strength. Oh, sure, I’ve got legs for days, and in middle-school I could leg-press ridiculous weights — I distinctly remember actually lifting six hundred pounds with no effort. But my chest, shoulders, and arms? Not so much.

Now combine that with bad air and weak lungs, and strenuous physical activity really wasn’t my thing. But around fifth grade, they were suddenly testing us on how many pull-ups and push-ups and sit-ups we could do — for me, I think the answer was “one and a half” of each on a good day. But it got worse, because we were expected to run laps around the schoolyard, and we were grouped and categorized based on how many and how fast.

While I had strong legs, running was not my thing because I would get winded really fast. Also, because it happened to be our Evil Overlords (aka Principal from Hell and Teachers) mandating that we do all this shit, I really rebelled against it. I’d run as far as I could, which was maybe a quarter of the way around the hot asphalt playground of my elementary school, but then I’d stroll the rest of the way with those of us who couldn’t manage to go much faster. Fortunately, my two best friends, who were both named Mike, weren’t big runners either, so at least we had a private triumvir via which to commiserate and bitch about it.

Meanwhile, the jocks would easily cruise through a dozen or more laps in the fifty minutes allotted while the coaches — the bitter alcoholic recently divorced fifth grade teacher Mr. Slane and the butch lesbian ex-military sixth grade teacher Ms. Harrison — took notes and blew whistles and shouted.

In a weird way, this enforced activity missed the same boat that teaching kids strictly for standardized tests does now: It doesn’t effing work. If anything, it does the opposite. They started to test our natural abilities in fifth grade with an eye toward training us to pass the tests in sixth — but then they tried to ride the asses of those of us who weren’t cutting it and guess what? Our response was pretty much to decide, “Okay, we’re going to fail this shit, and we don’t care.”

At least we weren’t actually being graded on this one, right?

Honestly, it’s fine to fail at this kind of thing if your ambition is to not be a jock. But, on the other hand, if you want to actually get an education and this is how they’re feeding you math and history and languages and arts and everything else, well… it’s a really, really bad system. Especially because the current system doesn’t really include that art part at all.

You cannot build people up if you start out by saying, “Well, gosh, you sure suck at this.” And you can’t build yourself up if you start out by saying, “You’re right. I do.”

Improvement only comes from a safe space, and it starts with an acknowledgement of effort. I’m sure that, back in those days, if the response to my pathetic attempts at physical fitness hadn’t been, “Well, shit, you’re a weak little faggot, aren’t you,” but instead had been, “Okay, you did one, that was great. Can you do two? ‘Cause I think you can…” then things would have turned out totally different.

Well, who knows? I could have been a famous retired gold-medal winning Olympic athlete or something now. Why do I think that? Because, even earlier than failing at athletics, I got encouragement from all over the place on my intellectual abilities, especially my writing and my musical skills. Those are what were nurtured by my parents, teachers, and friends.

Guess which two things I have done for all of my life and still do to this day, and which other bunch of things I only rediscovered and learned to love recently.

Now, the idea behind all the Presidential Fitness shit was sound and noble. It’s just that the approach was bad. However, irony alert — it was probably largely due to government intervention in an effort to make people thin that America got fat in the first place.

I’ll get back to that part in a moment. But first of all… how are we going to define “fat?”

* * *

 Putting the “die” in diet

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), if you’re American there’s nearly a 37% chance that you’re obese, meaning that you have a Body-Mass Index (BMI) greater than or equal to 30. For a woman of average height, 5’4” (1.62 m), this means a weight of 174 lbs. or more (79 kg). For the average man, those figures are 5’10” (1.77 m) and 207 lbs. (94 kg). However, keep in mind that the BMI can be really wrong for very athletic people. An in-shape male bodybuilder of average height who is mostly muscle and weighs 230 lbs. is probably not actually obese.

But you’re probably not a bodybuilder, or mostly muscle instead of fat. You probably wouldn’t be reading this book if you were. You might be sighing in relief to yourself right now to realize that you aren’t obese, but many estimates put the number of overweight adult Americans at two thirds of the population — those with a BMI between 25 and 29.9.

If you’d like to calculate your own BMI, here’s the formula, in both metric and imperial units:

In the above, k is your weight in kilograms and m is your height in meters; P is your weight in pounds and I is your height in inches. Here’s how the formula breaks down for me:

 k/m^2 (or) P/I^2 x 703

Of course, if you’re averse to even simple math, you can always search “BMI Calculator” online and find many options for plugging in the numbers to see your own results.

76.1/1.88^2 = 21.5 (or) 167.8/74^2 x 703 = (0.0306 x 703) = 21.5

How did you do? Even if you did come up with a BMI in the normal range, read on, because this book isn’t just about losing weight. It’s about avoiding unhealthy outcomes in the first place, but that only applies to one third of you.

The question is: Why is it that so many of us are or have been overweight in the first place?

* * *

You can read all of Chapter One, excerpts from Chapter Two or Four, or start with the Prologue.

The one-finger memory aid

I started using the following trick when I was just a kid, and it’s worked since then and through my entire adult life. I didn’t learn it from anybody, but do any of you already do this, too?

I don’t know why I started doing this as a kid, but it’s always worked for me as a simple way to remember something in the morning when I think of it in bed but don’t feel like getting up and hunting for some way to leave myself a note. It’s going to sound stupid but, like I’ve said, it does work.

All you need for it is your dominant hand and one part of your body — no, not what you’re thinking. In my case, I always used my right hand and my forehead, although I’ve tested it with my right hand and my left forearm and that works too.

All you do is this: Use your index finger to “write” out what you want to remember on your selected body part and after each phrase — i.e., as much as will fit — “wipe” the space with your hand and continue to write and wipe as necessary.

The important part is that your finger makes the shape of the letters and that your body feels it. It’s very similar to taking notes in class helping you remember what you were taught, whether you ever look at those notes again or not. The physical act of forming the words helps cement the memory in place for later. I always thought of the wiping part as pushing the words into my head rather than erasing them, by the way.

And sure enough, in the morning, the idea will pop back into your head all by itself. How do you think I reminded myself late last night to write this article in the first place?

Have you ever used this trick before and, if so, how did you learn it? Do you have your own memory tricks that help you? Share in the comments!

Chapter Two

And more of the book drops, although this time you only get a hint, which is the very first part of the (much longer) second chapter. If you’re a math nerd, this would be about 18%. Bon apetite!

It starts early

I grew up as a typical American Gen-Xer, in a boringly suburban middle-class life — not quite upper-middle, but not lower either. Pretty average. I was an only child from what was the second marriage for both of my parents, so while I had half-siblings they were all much older than me and we didn’t grow up together.

Other than a brief little time of trouble with one particular neighbor family that led to their kids bullying me, there really wasn’t a lot of drama. I can’t remember ever seeing my parents fight, and they stayed married until my mom died. We had a dog and a house, I took music lessons, avoided sports, loved science and science fiction, and read relentlessly.

Yeah, I was a nerd then and I still am now and I’m proud of it.

There was always food on the table and in the fridge, and my mother was an excellent cook. She had grown up in a poor Irish-American family in Pennsylvania, lost in the middle of seven surviving kids out of thirteen. To them, “exotic” food was baking the potato instead of mashing it, so it was probably only natural once she landed in a stable marriage that she learned how to cook “fancy,” although her repertoire covered mostly Italian and Mexican food, and nothing Asian.

That was fine with us, though. My father was a huge fan of spicy food, and so am I.

My mother made incredible lasagna, enchiladas, and a casserole that was an amazing combination of ground beef, sour cream, egg noodles, corn, and cream of mushroom soup. Sunday lunch was quite frequently roast beef and mashed potatoes. There were always seconds, leftovers, and dessert.

Consequently, I always carried around a little extra weight growing up and averaged around 185 in high school. That’s still considered normal based on BMI for my height, but just barely — it’s ten pounds less than the lower limit for being overweight. There were also times in my adult life, on-and-off, when I averaged around 225, which is nine pounds under what would be considered obese for me.

A funny thing did happen once I moved from home after college, though — my weight dropped to 165, but it didn’t stay there and I yo-yoed. I had periods of being skinny and periods of being fat, but I could never really figure out a particular cause other than diet. For example, when I started working in TV I gained weight because it involved a lot of sitting around writers’ offices where they fed us constantly — and not the healthiest food, either, but a lot of it. And free.

There’s a very simple rule for weight-loss that tends to be buried under an avalanche of fad diets and pseudoscience. If you want to lose weight and it’s not being caused by an underlying medical condition, eat less and move more. When I’ve done this, I’ve lost weight. When I haven’t, I’ve gained. I’ll cover this concept in much more detail later on, but that’s really the secret in a nutshell, and yet it’s alarming how many people don’t get it. Sorry, but there are no magic foods or pills you can put in your pie hole to melt the pounds off. Surgery does work, but see above, re: existing medical issues. I have several friends for whom this was the case, and the lap band worked miracles for them, but chances are you won’t need to go that far.

This was also why my efforts from 2013 onward to lose weight didn’t work — there was an underlying medical issue I was unaware of, although one that I was able to fix.

As part of my care after getting out of the hospital, Kaiser invited me to a free class taught by a nurse and a nutritionist, and the nutritionist had some amazing stories, but one in particular is relevant here. She had a patient who had been trying to lose weight by eating healthier, and this patient proudly informed the nutritionist one day that they had eaten fifteen oranges in an effort to be healthy.

There’s just one little problem there. Even fruits and vegetables have calories, in this case about 45 per orange, so the patient had just consumed a third of their required daily caloric intake. Oranges are also full of sugar in the form of fructose, glucose, and sucrose. Finally, in sheer weight, that patient probably ate about four pounds of oranges. Can you imagine yourself eating four pounds of anything in one sitting?

Of course, food wasn’t the only thing that was going to slowly lead to my heart problems. I picked up two other not-so-great habits in college…

Read an excerpt from Chapter Three.

Can’t live / in fear

One of the most important things you can do for youself is to let go of your fear — it will open doors you never imagined even existed. Today, it put me in a music video.

A subject that I’ll discuss a lot in my book is how fear holds us back — whether it’s keeping us from going to the doctor, from having new experiences, or overcoming addictions.

In my post about my fear of roller coasters, I mentioned that I finally conquered this fear after a group of friends shamed me into taking a ride only for me to find out that I actually love roller coasters, but I think that peer pressure might be an early theme for me.

Fortunately, I had peers who mostly pressured me into good things.

One other thing they talked me into back in the day was auditioning for a play in college. Now, beyond third grade plays that don’t really count, I hadn’t really acted on stage before. I had taken one disastrous drama class in middle school and had played in the combos for a few small musicals, but part of the point of being in the backing band is that you aren’t on stage.

I figured, “Well, I haven’t done this before, there’s no way I’m going to get cast, and it’ll stop my friends from bugging me to get involved in theatre,” so I auditioned.

I got cast. In a featured speaking role. With lines and everything. I went from afraid to terrified, but I had already committed, so there was only one way to go…

And that, dear readers is how the acting bug bit me. Not that I ever wanted to pursue it as a profession — I prefer playing odd supporting roles and leaving the real work to the real pros, and I’ve certainly done some odd ones. If I had to pick favorites, they’d be the depressed unicycle riding bear in an adaptation of a John Irving short story, The Pension Grillparzer, The Dreamer in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, a leather-clad Jesus figure leading his blind mother along and whose dialogue is entirely in Spanish, and basically every spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors rolled into one in the form of a slightly greedy, slightly drunk, river-dancing Irish cop, but which doesn’t seem to have any reviews online..

At least the L.A. times did say something nice about me: “Jon Bastian’s bear and Matt Ryan’s hand-walking man own the house…”

Along the way, I’ve also done extra work in film and T.V., and a series of flash theater performances put on by L.A.’s own Playwrights’ Arena over the course of a year in celebration of their 20th anniversary. I think I managed to do thirteen of those, which were all live in various locations around the city, and very much right up close and personal with the audiences.

None of this would have happened if I had let fear stop me from auditioning for that first play way back in college. And it hasn’t just been about the experience acting on stage. I’ve made a lot of close friends through all these various shows and performances, and every so often I get to help an artist make a statement.

That’s what I was doing today, for a music video for a song by Deidra Edwards called “We Already Know,” which involved a large and very diverse group of people singing in a park in an act of political resistance, and then some studio follow-up shooting. I’m very excited about this one because of the message, and because it’s also both a real and symbolic return to performing for me, which is something I’ve been working my way back into over the course of this year.

One of the lines we sang in the song says, “Can’t live in fear,” and that is certainly the case. It’s something that I think we already know, but we also like to resist the thought and let our fears win out.

But when we don’t let them win, magic happens.