Neither Face nor Feelings

A while back, the website BigThink had an ultra-short science fiction story contest. This was my entry, which took first place — your Thursday night bonus.

No carnefab Manager liked hearing from an NFA Inspector, but especially not when the message said, “Fieldspec high neuro count. Site audit 213245-1330. Pres Req.” Paul Ingersoll read the message and checked the time. 213245-1312.

“Shit,” he muttered. He barely made it to the factory floor before the Inspector arrived and gave Paul the lot number from the batch in question.

“Restaurant stock, Mendocino,” he explained. “Chef reported a twitcher.”

Paul checked the number, heart sinking — one of their “perfect” batches with ideal genetics. Every vat in this factory was churning out a thousand kilo slab that had been born from those cells. Now the government said every batch from that lot might be useless. No. Not might. Was — if the Inspector’s results confirmed the chef’s report.

The Inspector was already at the nearest vat, a large, open-topped box full of pinkish liquid. Inside sat a rectangular red slab, riddled with veins and marbled with fat. This slab was only at five hundred kilos, so had a few weeks to go, and had never given any indication that it was anything but an entirely senseless block of artificially grown meat, built from cells that divided without consciousness. That was the point — to produce meat with neither face nor feelings. It had worked for nearly a century, except for the two times that it hadn’t, both long before Paul had been born.

The Inspector pulled out a wand and touched it to the slab. There was a blue flash and snap and the slab twitched along its entire length. “Okay,” Paul thought, “Not world end without genetics,” although he knew he was lying to himself.

The Inspector tapped his forearm repeatedly, sending notes to a government computer. Then, emotionless, he pulled out a biop kit, dipped a finger on each hand into a vial of blue goo that grew sterile gloves up to his wrists, sprayed anesthetic on the slab and proceeded to gingerly poke it with a rod that plucked out a small cylinder five millimeters wide and deep. He stuck the rod into a hole in the biop kit case, then sprayed the wound with healer. By the time he peeled off the gloves, the results came back, Paul feeling ill as he waited for the hammer to fall.

“Neuro count exceeds Fed Regs by one hundred sixty parts per million,” he finally said. “Recall ordered for every batch from this lot. You retire the rest. We confiscate the original germ lot. Sig off inspection and results, please.”

The Inspector held out a flat pad and Paul touched his palm to it. What else could he do? They had been producing bad meat and nobody noticed. It probably wasn’t in the original germ lot, but mutations were always possible, and so were deviations with stem cells that decided to grow into

something besides meat, fat, veins and red blood cells that were kept oxygenated by the vats. Still, stem cell deviations generally led to things like hair or teeth, sometimes a hoof. They rarely led to the development of brain cells — so rarely that this was only the third time it had happened, and Paul Ingersoll was the poor unlucky son of a bitch in charge of the factory where it happened. Had been in charge. All the recalled meat that wasn’t already dead would be euthanized. The meat in this factory would be retired, the employees held on retainer until a clean germ line was brought in. Paul, however, would be transferred. Not retired, and not laid off. He would carry the responsibility for this problem for the rest of his career, which was a long time, since he was only twenty-seven.

* * *

The warehouse known as “The Old Cows Home” covered thirty square kilometers in the California desert. Inside were endless rows of swimming pool-sized vats where retired meat went to live because nobody was sure whether it was aware or not and nobody wanted to take the chance that it was. Perhaps the bad meat that had already been sold was lucky. Even if it did develop consciousness, four minutes out of the vat without oxygen would have killed it or severely damaged any sort of brain, so it was easy to think of as dead, and no one would feel guilty if tasked to destroy it.

The retired meat was not so lucky, and neither were the people who had to deal with it. It had to be treated like a living thing, brought from the vats to the warehouse on life support, then re- installed in the larger vats, to be left for… nobody knew how long. The lots already here had arrived thirty-eight and sixty-two years previously, and were still going strong and growing. Each vat started with one slab, the size of an adult cow. The oldest slabs had filled half their 2,500 cubic meter vats, and it was time to worry about what to do when they started to outgrow those. Thanks to the Compassionate Food Act of 2034, amended 2070, killing the slabs would be murder; letting them die, negligent homicide. Paul’s job now was as one of the nurses to all this meat that would have been food had it not developed nerves and at least some rudimentary feelings. Maybe.

Everything was predicated on “Maybe.” Maybe this meat felt pain. Maybe not. No one knew because the world of 2132 was black and white, either/or, and the only way to answer the question was to commit a prohibited act. As long as there was any chance that these inanimate slabs of protein might experience an unpleasant sensation, the question was considered answered, and the answer was, “They are our responsibility for as long as they live.”

If they ever became sentient, and vengeful, Paul hoped that they would understand — they had been created out of the desire to feed the planet humanely.

* * *

You can read this story where it was originally published at BigThink.

Chapter Twelve

In this excerpt from Chapter Twelve, I share my tips and tricks for healthier eating through creative cooking.

What’s cooking?

All right. We’ve made it together this far, so now it’s time for the fun stuff. I’ve written plenty about nutrition and how to lose weight. Now I’m going to tell you how to put it into practice and share some of the kitchen tips that I’ve learned myself.

Aside from paying attention to the nutrition facts, a big part of eliminating sodium from my diet involved coming up with workarounds to avoid it as much as possible. Remember: salt isn’t the only seasoning in your pantry that’s full of sodium. Soy sauce, steak sauce, ketchup, mustard, Sriracha, and teriyaki sauce can have surprisingly high amounts of it. There are variations, though. For example, honey mustard tends to be lower in sodium than yellow or Dijon, but higher in sugar.

Some condiments can be multiple offenders, as well. Not only is ketchup full of sodium, it’s often loaded with sugar via our old friend high fructose corn syrup — although low sodium ketchup is available. And some brands, like Trader Joe’s Organic Ketchup, are much lower in sugar, at 2 grams per serving, while a brand like Heinz has twice as much sugar but about the same amount of sodium. BBQ sauce is an even bigger offender in all areas except for fat. And mayo, while tasty, hits hard in fat content and, depending on brand, can be a little high in sodium.

Prepared horseradish is probably the most surprising of the bad condiments, bringing with it an excess of sodium, sugar, and fat. Better to make your own instead, which is surprisingly easy. I’ll explain how to do it later in this chapter.

Healthy alternatives to the aforementioned condiments include things like hummus, pesto, tahini, tzatziki, guacamole, chutney, and certain salsas. And, again, some types of mustard can be healthy if you pay attention to the sodium content. Another Indian staple, raita, is also healthy and not only goes great with chutney, but can replace mayonnaise.

Take a look at the healthy and unhealthy list one more time and see if you can spot the pattern. That’s right — the unhealthy ones are mostly all-American/Northern European, while the healthy ones come from Southern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. The outliers on both sides are unhealthy soy and teriyaki sauces from Asia, and healthy guacamole from Latin America.

* * *

Spicing it up

“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

That quote comes from Frank Herbert’s Dune and, in the context of the books, was more a metaphor for control of fossil fuels than seasonings, because Herbert’s “spice” was a substance produced by sandworms that gave interstellar navigators their ability to fold space. So in its original contest, you could replace “spice” with “gasoline” to get the same result.

Oddly enough, though, quite a lot of colonial expansion in the age of “discovery” (aka the age of “killing non-white people”) involved bringing back new and exotic spices from all those countries discovered in the Americas and South Pacific. Prior to that, a lot of trade between Europe and Asia done overland involved the importation of spices as well.

A lot of this trade and seeking of new flavors, though, was just an extension of the Old World’s deadly love affair with salt.

Now, I completely understand the appeal of salt. I was hooked on it myself for a long time. So, when you have to cut way back on the sodium, you run the risk of everything suddenly tasting bland. But fear not: there are healthy alternatives that can flavor that food right back up and, in fact, make it taste even better than it did with salt.

When I was in the hospital, one of the nurses there tipped me off to a brand of seasoning called Mrs. Dash. It was developed in the 1980s by Carol Bernick, who wanted to create salt-free seasoning alternatives for cooking at home. Each flavor is made from granulated herbs and spices, and they have quite a range of them. There are twelve varieties of spices in all: Caribbean citrus, extra spicy, fiesta lime, garlic and herb, Italian medley, lemon pepper, onion and herb, original, Southwest chipotle, spicy jalapeño, table blend, and tomato basil garlic.

I have tried most of them, although I have a caveat. Because they don’t contain salt, they are subject to clotting in humid weather, so you definitely need to keep them in a very dry place. I’ve tried six out of the bunch and found that lemon pepper, Southwest chipotle, and table blend clumped the most, while original and Italian medley clumped the least and garlic and herb has never clumped at all, so keep that in mind.

They also make three grilling varieties, for chicken, steak, and hamburger. I’ve only tried the chicken, but it hasn’t clumped either. Of course, you can probably completely avoid this issue with their liquid 10-minute marinades, which I haven’t tried any of yet, although I suppose I will be, since I didn’t even know they existed until I researched the history of the product to write this section!

There are other salt substitutes out there, some good and some bad. In general, you should try to avoid substitutes with potassium chloride in them, especially if you have kidney problems or are taking certain medications. Consult with your doctor first.

None of the Mrs. Dash products contain potassium chloride and range from a minor 5 to 10 mg of potassium per serving. Some brands of salt substitute that also lack potassium chloride are The Spice Hunter, Benson’s Table Tasty, and Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Salt Free Seasoning.

But you don’t need to resort to commercial replacements, especially since some of them can be a bit pricey — Prudhomme’s is $7.09 for a 5 oz shaker on Amazon, for example. The nice thing about going salt-free is that it actually opens up all kinds of possibilities for flavorings, some of which you may never even have thought of before.

Here are some of my personal favorites…

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Eleven, or start with the Prologue.

 

Chapter Eleven

This next chapter excerpt approaches dealing with controlling eating and addictions from a different angle: ritual and its instinctual nature in humans.

If you can’t fix yourself, fool yourself

As I mentioned before, the main reason I was finally able to quit smoking is that I started out by having no choice for the days I was in the hospital and a good friend who, on my request, relieved my place of all tobacco before I returned. I was also very fortunate in that I did not have to resort to any sort of nicotine replacement method, like gum or the patch.

I detailed all of this in Chapter Six, including mention of a friend unsuccessfully trying to quit, although I really think that “trying to quit” is a misnomer. Not to go all Yoda on you here, but you either quit or you don’t. But if you do fail this time, don’t take it as a sign of being a failure. When you finally get it to stick, you’ll know it. After all, I tried and failed to quit many times before. This is the one that took.

Now, while my health insurance provided me with counseling by phone over quitting, I was so successful at it that I kind of felt sorry for my counselor, because every call would basically go as follows:

Counsellor: “So how is quitting going?”

Me: “Really well. I haven’t had any desire to smoke.”

Counsellor: “Great. So when should I schedule your next call?”

Previously, I wrote about the cycle of cue, routine, and reward. In this chapter, I’ll be approaching breaking that same cycle, but in a different context: Ritual.

Humans, like all animals are ritualistic, but the essential difference is that human rituals are largely symbolic, while animal rituals are instinctual. For example, if you’ve ever trained a dog to do a trick in exchange for a treat, you’ve created a ritual for that canine — a behavior they must perform in order to receive a reward.

My dog, Sheeba, actually learned how to shake not from me directly but from watching my late, great dog Shadow do it — and Sheeba even imitated Shadow’s habit of only shaking with her left paw, which Shadow picked up because when I taught her, she mirrored me instead of mimicked me. So, in Sheeba’s mind, “lift paw” equals “get treat.” It’s become such a ritual for her, in fact, that she’ll start slapping her paw in the air the second the treat is even visible, and she can get quite miffed if it’s not immediately forthcoming. It’s almost like she’s saying, “Hey, I did the thing, you pay up now.”

There are plenty of animal rituals, too. Dogs walking in circles before they lie down to go to sleep, cats grooming themselves, squirrels pretending to bury food when they know another squirrel is watching, alpha wolves getting first shot at eating the kill, and elephants mourning their dead, to name just a few. And, of course, animal mating rituals can be quite elaborate, whether it’s a bird showing off in song, a bullfrog inflating himself to ridiculous size, or two males (of many species, including humans) battling to win the right to all the local females.

Human culture, of course, is loaded with rituals. The obvious ones are religious: baptism, brises, bowing toward Mecca to pray, meditating, chanting, sweat lodges. And then there are the big two that are universal to probably every religion: weddings and funerals.

There’s a reason that ritual, especially religious or ceremonial ones are so important to humans. They are built into us, and the culprit is the solar system itself, primarily the quasi-eternal dance of earth, moon, and sun.

Think about Western Culture in the Northern Hemisphere and, specifically, how it basically shuts down around mid-December — although sometimes it seems like the whole holiday season keeps getting longer and longer the more modern and industrialized we get.

In fact, it would probably seem weird, except for people in certain professions, to not shut down for at least the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day and even if you do have to work the holidays, so many other people are off or out of town that it can seem like nothing important is happening. But the whole thing isn’t just cultural. It’s instinctual, because it’s been built into our DNA from our very beginnings.

You can thank the earth being a little bit tilted for all of this. If you think of the planet as a spinning top, it’s easy to imagine it with the poles pointing straight up and down as we revolve around, but that’s not quite the case. The whole planet leans over a little bit as it goes around the sun, with an average tilt of 23.5º, although the planet wobbles a bit so the range is from 22.1 to 24.5º. Don’t worry, though. It takes about 44,000 years to cycle from one to the other, so you’ll never notice a thing.

The upshot of all of this is that the part that’s leaning toward the sun gets a lot more light and daytime while the other side doesn’t.

Incidentally, the earth happens to be the farthest from the sun when it’s summer in the Northern hemisphere, around July 9, and closest in winter, around January 9. This might explain why summers in Australia are usually hotter and winters are colder than on the other side of the planet.

In the north, that maximum tilt away comes right before Christmas, usually around December 21. This is the day with the least amount of sunlight and the longest night north of the equator.

So what does that have to do with the holidays? Well, keep in mind that from the time humans discovered fire, it was our only source of artificial illumination until the very beginning of the 19th century, which was only two hundred years ago. Before that, we had to burn something if we wanted to see at night, whether oil, gas, coal, pitch, or wood. It was in 1809, at the same time that gas lamps began popping up in cities everywhere, that Humphry Davy demonstrated the first arc lamp, precursor to the modern electrical light bulb.

Consequently, the pattern of human life tended to follow the natural cycle of nature: wake at dawn, work by day, go home at sunset and sleep by night. And, obviously, this cycle would change as the length of the days did, with humans being most active in summer and least active in winter. The seasons themselves also dictated overall activity — plant in the spring, harvest in the fall, and hope you’d stored up enough to survive the winter.

And this is where the tradition of everything stopping for the holidays was born: Once the harvest had been brought in and stored, there was no more work to do in the fields. Generally, this meant there would be a celebration of the harvest in the late fall (Thanksgiving, anyone?), and then time for people to spend with each other, often during the long, cold nights.

Of course, superstition fed into it, with many cultures creating rituals to be performed in order to make sure that the sun came back — something they always saw it start to do after that shortest day, called the Winter Solstice — which is why right around that date became the central celebration focus for so many different Western religions.

So the reason that we’re seeing Christmas start to pop up around Labor Day now isn’t necessarily commercial greed. This entire time of year is programmed deeply into our genes and our behavior. And, if you’ll notice, our human holidays still tend to cluster around those points when the seasons change, with fertility rites in the spring, just as we’re planting our crops, and thanksgiving ceremonies in the fall as we harvest them.

Well, when we used to. We modern, urban-dwelling humans probably don’t plant our harvest anything beyond a backyard vegetable garden or a few window box herbs, but that doesn’t really matter. Although we may have lost our direct connection to living by sunrise and sunset and change of season, those rhythms still live in us, which is why following some kind of ritual is so important.

That includes self-created rituals, whether helpful or destructive. The trick is to replace the destructive ones with helpful ones.

Did I mention that not all rituals are religious? In fact, in secularized western nations, many of them are not, but they’re still rituals. And we definitely have non-religious weddings and funerals.

But… if you’ve ever participated in a trial in any capacity — plaintiff, defendant, lawyer, judge, or jury — then you’ve taken part in one of humanity’s most formalized secular rituals.

And this may come as a surprise to you, but have you ever seen a movie, play, or TV show, or read a work of fiction? Guess what: Those are rituals, too, because they follow a familiar form of beginning, middle, and end, with certain things established in a certain order and particular conventions. There’s an entire cottage industry of books explaining this to screenwriters in the context of “structure,” but the whole concept was originally written down by Aristotle in his Poetics nearly 2,400 years ago.

(Side note: Umberto Eco’s brilliant The Name of the Rose postulates an Aristotelean treatise on comedy alleged to be so funny that people who read it die laughing, and does it in the context of a 14th century riff on Sherlock Holmes, among many other things. I highly recommend reading it and seeing the movie adaptation.)

Then there are the everyday rituals we all do. Think for a moment about your routine in the morning. It’s probably pretty consistent and although the particulars and the order may vary from person to person, in general they most likely involve going to the bathroom, random acts of hygiene, putting on clothes, and breakfast of some sort — and there are probably many days when you feel like you do it on autopilot.

In human terms, when rituals go off the rails and take over our lives, they manifest as things like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or the need to perform certain rituals before being able to move forward. The expressions of OCD are many and varied, but include things like someone having to turn the lights on and off a certain number of times before they leave a room; hand-washing, or counting objects, particularly if they’re in an array — one that gets me from time to time, although I am far from being a full-blown sufferer of OCD.

(Another side note: Never say that someone “is OCD.” Or ADHD or HIV or fill-in-the-blank. That’s about as stupid as saying someone “is flu.” OCD is a condition, so you can’t be it, you can only have it. Thanks for letting me get that gigantic pet peeve out of the way.)

What you might not know, though, is that there’s a “silent” form of OCD, in which the rituals all occur inside the sufferer’s head. This includes the counting of objects, as well as repeating certain words, phrases, or even prayers in response to external conditions. In all cases, the cause of the obsessions and compulsions is the sincere belief that they will stop a bad thing from happening. That’s why I would never claim to have OCD, because my occasional counting of arrayed objects is more a matter of curiosity combined with a penchant for math, but I am fully aware that nothing bad is going to happen if I don’t Count All the Things!

OCD, in a lot of ways, shows the animal origins of our ritualistic behavior. Although its causes likely involve physical differences in the brain and are genetic, there’s no rhyme or reason to how it exhibits itself — although an individual’s belief that if they don’t perform an action or think a particular thought, then something horrendous is going to befall either them or a loved one is really no different than an animal that has been negatively conditioned — in other words, trained to perform or suppress a certain behavior in order to avoid punishment.

.And, in many ways, this is the source of addiction: the belief, whether conscious or not, that something bad is going to happen if you stop doing that thing you do, whether it’s smoking, drinking, or taking certain drugs. Now in some cases that’s true, as I’ve mentioned. There are certain addictions that are physically dangerous to stop cold turkey. But smoking is not one of them.

* * *

(Image By Tauʻolunga (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Read an excerpt from Chapter Ten or Chapter Twelve, start with the Prologue.

 

Chapter Ten

When you lose a lot of weight, you discover things you might not have expected. In this excerpt from Chapter Ten, I discuss one of them.

Twenty things you learn when you lose a lot of weight

While I was in the hospital, I lost close to sixty pounds real fast in the form of the water they managed to squeeze out of me with a diuretic IV, but that left me at 220, which was only slightly less than I’d been hovering at for a while. It took me exactly a week to break the 200 lb. barrier going down, and then about seven months to lose the next 20. It was exactly a year to the day after I went into the hospital that I dropped below 170 for the first time.

So it’s not a fast process by any means, and there are ups and downs along the way, although fortunately because of my changes in diet and lifestyle, the “ups” were very small and temporary, and never more than six pounds in a day, although generally I would also lose most of that gain by the next morning.

Here’s a fun fact: Yes, it is possible to lose weight while you sleep. In fact, it’s apparently totally normal, something I’ve documented by weighing myself twice a day, every day — right after I get up and go to the bathroom and right before I go to bed. Remember: We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, which is 38% heavier than oxygen, so there’s some of your passive weight-loss right there. The vast majority of the air we breathe — 70% at sea-level — isn’t even oxygen, it’s nitrogen and other inert gases, so it just goes right in and right out.

Sweat can also remove weight while you sleep.

Here’s another fun but totally anecdotal fact that I’ve verified with my handy digital bathroom scale: A good ripper of a fart can actually make you slightly heavier! Although note that your results may vary and come down to whether your gas is predominantly methane or hydrogen sulfide, which determines whether you’re losing weight or losing buoyancy. Yes, that’s actually a thing. Gas inside your intestines can make you a little less dense and a little more “floaty,” or affect you the other way around.

The more you know…

Anyway, in my case, it was that rapid 20 lb. loss right at the start that helped really kick-start things for me and kept me from getting frustrated or really noticing (even until now) that it took so long for the rest of the weight to drop.

There are both pros and cons to losing weight. Some of them are probably pretty obvious. When you lose weight, you’re healthier, it’s easier to get around, seats on subways and in theaters are much roomier (although not necessarily more comfortable), and people don’t give you the stink eye when they see you coming.

But some of the benefits and annoyances will probably surprise you. What surprised me was not only going through them myself but, as I was researching for this book, finding people with similar stories and realizing that things that I experienced that I thought were weird were totally normal. Here are just a few of them.

* * *

It gets cold

For most of my life, I’ve been more a fan of colder weather than hot — which goes really great when you grow up in Southern California (sarcasm), and has gotten even less great as the weather has gotten hotter and hotter over the years. But when I was younger, I could have run around naked in the snow and worked up a sweat, but not have cared one bit or felt at all cold — but let it get much above room temperature and I’d have started sweating like crazy.

And this was always independent of my weight. Whether I was fat or thin, I always preferred it cold. That all changed this time around, but that’s probably an advantage. All of a sudden, the heat doesn’t really affect me at all while the cold does. This was probably why I willingly made so many trips to Palm Springs this year — I can now tolerate temps above 110ºF (43ºC).

This isn’t something that we’re all imagining, either. Called “cold intolerance,” it’s a real phenomenon with several causes. The most obvious one, of course, is that you lose a lot of insulation. For me, that translated into an 11- to 12-inch drop in waist size, from 42 to 30-ish. I saw “ish” because 31 inch pants are a little big on me while 30 are a little small, so I’m right in between. Another issue can be caused by Calorie restriction, which slows your metabolism. Lowering metabolism is like damping a furnace — less energy burned, less heat created.

In my case in particular, I had also developed a bit of anemia, although that finally cleared up. But it’s a condition that can also contribute to feeling cold. In fact, this is one of the reasons that women are often colder than men in the same situations and temperatures — losing blood can cause anemia, and menstruation leads to blood loss, which most men don’t even realize is a thing.

One of the places where I found a lot of confirmation of what I’d experienced was in a Reddit thread in the Ask Reddit sub with the question “Former fat people of reddit, (sic) what were some unintended side effects of your weight loss?” Feeling cold happened to be the most popular response, but far from the only one.

Yeah, who knew — useful information from an online news aggregator. (Actually, if you pick the right so-called sub-reddits, you can learn a lot.)

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Nine or go to the Prologue.

Chapter Nine

It seemed wrong to post a chapter from this book during Thanksgiving, hence the delay — but I’ve also caught up with myself, and am now working only one chapter ahead. That’s good news, though. I’m getting close to done with the book!

A train, a street, and a saint

Before I get to some more techniques for changing your lifestyle, I have another story — although it comes with two other stories as preface.

Los Angeles first opened its modern subway and rail system on July 14, 1990, with the inauguration of the Blue Line, which runs from downtown to Long Beach. Since then, the system has expanded and as of late 2017 it now has 80 stations, and 87 miles of rail which also connect to 120 bus routes. I’ve been a fan of the system from the beginning, and used to take the Red Line into downtown Los Angeles all the time — so long, in fact, that it wasn’t even called DTLA when I first started going. Another common destination was a great used video and DVD store on Hollywood Boulevard just down the block from the Hollywood and Highland station.

I’d gotten away from riding regularly, though, and especially once mobility became more difficult, so it was actually a great pleasure and became a new pastime once I got out of the hospital to rediscover the rail system here. I started taking weekend trips as well as spent a week-long staycation in the spring buying a day pass, then hopping on a train and exploring, and I wound up going to some places that I’d either never been to before or hadn’t been in a long time.

I’d love to take a train to an unfamiliar neighborhood, hop off and just walk around. This is something I encourage people, especially city-dwellers, to do — because there is no better way to get to know the hidden gems that are impossible to notice from a car. Whether it’s bits of street art, hidden shops, or even entire streets, it is well worth the experience. There’s also the added bonus of it being great exercise. On some of these trips, I’d wind up walking three to five miles but didn’t even notice it.

One destination that used to be very familiar to me and which I rediscovered was Olvera Street, which is about the oldest bit of L.A. history still standing. It’s part of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument and is known as the birthplace of Los Angeles, an event that happened on September 4, 1781 as forty-four settlers known as “Los Pobladores” created the pueblo that at the time had the much more cumbersome name of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles de Porciúncula — although that date is more traditional than historical, as there really wasn’t all that much of a to-do at the time, and the idea that all forty-four settlers walked together from Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to El Pueblo is a bit of mythology that was created much later.

The rail route to Olvera Street is via Union Station. Built in 1939, it’s the largest passenger rail station in the Western U.S., and it’s easy to believe if you ever transfer to or from the Gold Line and have to walk down the long hallway that connects all the various platforms. The place really is huge, and manages to seamlessly combine three separate architectural styles — Streamline Moderne, Art Deco, and Mission Revival — into a combo called Mission Moderne. (Sorry. My dad was an architect, so I tend to pay attention to those kinds of things.)

Olvera Street is just across from Union Station, and it’s impossible to walk into the Pueblo and not feel a great sense of history of the entire city — not just in terms of dates, but in seeing what is the authentic and original culture of quite a lot of the state of California. If you went there and ignored the tourists, you could spend the entire time speaking nothing but Spanish, which is just one of the many personal draws of the place for me.

On weekends, there’s always at least one musician or band playing, surrounded by a dancing crowd of people of all ages, and Olvera Street itself is a narrow but vibrant, two-sided lane stuffed with shops of all kinds on both sides and down the middle. The only traffic is pedestrian. Of course, most of the shops specialize in traditional Mexican clothing, arts, and crafts, combined with the inevitable tourist-trap schlock that you see everywhere. Beautiful recreations of the Aztec calendar and displays full of dulces direct from the De La Rosa candy company sit side-by-side with cheap T-shirts emblazoned with “Los Angeles,” “Hollywood,” and the like.

By the way, you can shop some limited items online if you go to Olvera-street.com, although the selection there includes mostly apparel and mugs and is hardly a reflection of the incredible variety on hand in the real location.

But that brings me finally to the story I meant to tell. I happened to revisit Olvera Street for the first of many times on Palm Sunday, 2016, and in one of the shops there bought a small statue of San Miguel (St. Michael) doing his thing, which is traditionally to be standing on Satan’s head, about to plunge a sword in his face. Not long after that, I also acquired a medal depicting the same story in the alternate version, with a dragon standing in for Satan, although the imprint of “St. Michael” at the edge indicates that this isn’t actually some St. George wannabe.

Since I’ve mentioned previously that I’m not at all religious, you’re probably wondering why the statue and medal would have any appeal for me, and the reason is because the two are highly symbolic. Hey, you don’t have to believe in the religious part in order to find the message or allegory to be incredibly moving.

In my situation, especially after the hospital, St. Michael became very meaningful to me because he and the devil (or dragon) represent the struggle I had gone through and won. Some people would see it as representing the triumph of good over evil. I prefer to see it as the battle we must eternally fight against our own demons.

We need to become our own St. Michael or San Miguel, and to think of ourselves in exactly that way. It’s a powerful and empowering image, especially once we cast our own bad habits in role of Lucifer. (The image at the top of this story is of the statue I bought in case you’re not familiar with the symbolism for this particular saint.)

Wings, Roman armor, a sword, and the scales of justice — this is one archangel who comes well-prepared. Meanwhile, Satan is naked and ass-up, helpless against the onslaught.

That’s how I want you to start thinking about the habits you want to break and the things you want to change as I walk you through the process of putting on that armor, picking up that sword, and growing wings.

Now let’s go!

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Eight or Chapter Ten, or start with the Prologue.

Chapter Seven

In this excerpt from Chapter Seven, I explain the importance of those nutrition labels, and why you really should pay attention to just what it says on the tin.

Labeling, not enabling

Not long after I got out of the hospital — I think it was between two and four weeks, but I don’t remember exactly — Kaiser invited me to a free post heart-failure class, which was led by a nurse and a nutritionist. There were several dozen attendees in the room, and other than the nutritionist and one kid who must have been his grandmother’s ride there, I was by far the youngest person in attendance. And I don’t mean by just a couple of years. Everyone else there had to have been at least two decades older than me. If they weren’t, they sure looked it.

I found myself wondering why there was such a huge difference. As far as I could tell, no one in that room was a current hospital patient, so they all must have been through the same experience. Now, granted, my relative youth might have been an important factor, but I’m only assuming that everyone was so much older. Again, it could have been perception, and there may have been younger people in that room who were just a lot sicker.

After all, in the months before I’d gone into the hospital, I had looked a hell of a lot older myself.

But it was a strange sort of encouragement. I felt downright chipper and energetic, and if what I was looking at around that room was the alternative, then I had either really lucked out, really done something right, or both.

This feeling really kicked in at about the halfway point when the nurse had finished talking about the importance of physical activity, then said it was time for a stretch break and asked us to stand up. Three of us did — one patient, the aforementioned grandkid, and I. The nurse quickly covered with the request, “If you can’t stand up, just put your arms up.”

Some of those efforts were totally half-assed as well, and I really began to feel sorry for a lot of folks in that room, also remembering that not all that long before this class, I would have been in their boat, and not paddling along on my own.

I hope this isn’t making the class sound useless, though, because what the nutritionist taught us is still invaluable. It’s advice I follow to this day, and information I alluded to in Chapter 2. This is where I learned to start watching people in restaurants in order to see if what she’d told us was true, and it is — the first thing the vast majority of people do when their food arrives is to grab the salt and start shaking away, even before they’ve tasted a single bite.

She also taught us the importance of those nutritional information labels on the backs of packages that we often wind up ignoring, which brings up another one of those funny doctor moments.

Before I wound up in the hospital and as my doctor was scheduling my echocardiogram, I had mentioned my dieting attempts and how they weren’t working, but I insisted that I always read the nutritional labels. As the conversation continued, though, I realized that I wasn’t really reading the labels. I was only looking at the Calorie information, and only on a few items. After all, if you go by only Calories, an entire jar of 100 grams of olives only has 115 — but it has 735 mg of sodium. And a condiment, like a particularly snooty brand of mustard, only has 5 Calories per serving but 120 mg of sodium.

(Free grammar and science lesson: “Calorie,” with a capital C, refers to the things in stuff you eat. The other one, “calorie” with a lowercase c, refers to a specific scientific unit of measure, and is 1/1000th of a Calorie. No, I don’t know why, but the easy way to remember is that Calorie, with the big C, is bigger than calorie with the little c.)

My M.O. had only been to look at the Calories on pre-packed, frozen entrees, but I hadn’t given it a thought when it came to other things, like bread, buns, condiments, juices, and so on. I also gleefully ignored the serving size rules, meaning that the Calorie counts on the package became meaningless. After all, if the serving size is one fifth of a package at 260 Calories, eating the whole package would actually be 1,300 Calories, or a huge chunk of an adult’s needs for the entire day.

The hypothetical product I’m basing that on would also jump from an already ridiculous 960 mg of sodium to 4,800 mg — way over double the RDA.

Guess who used to ignore the serving sizes and consider “one package” and “one serving” to be synonymous? I used to eat an entire 12-inch pepperoni and sausage pizza for a meal. A meal like that was loaded down with 1,360 Calories, 60 grams of fat, 2,840 milligrams of sodium, and 12 grams of sugar just for fun. Sometimes, I’d even add extra cheese, bringing it up to 1,520 Calories, 72 grams of fat, and 3,180 milligrams of sodium.

Hey, at least the cheese didn’t add any sugar, right? And I won’t say which brand that pizza was, other than that it’s very appropriately named. What I will say is prepare yourself now, because pizza is one of those things that’s going to become very, very rare in your diet if you want this to work.

If your initial reaction to that comment was to express some degree of skepticism or disdain at losing out on pizza, then you are going to have to work extra-special hard at all of the tricks I’m sharing, because you are being your own enabler. In order to succeed, you’re going to have to learn to cut off all of your enablers, including yourself.

That cutting off begins by doing what I learned to do. Read those nutrition labels on absolutely everything.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Six or Chapter Eight, or start at the Prologue.

Chapter Six

In this excerpt from Chapter Six, I introduce three psychological tricks you can use to get yourself into the mindset for achieving a healthier lifestyle.

The first three steps to a new you

How did your first diary entry go? Because you did that, right? Good. Now this chapter is going to give you three specific things to do that will help you get into the new mindset necessary to go on this journey and make it easy. We have a lot of old habits and lifetime programming to undo, and a lot of new ways to learn until they’re second nature.

Don’t let that sound daunting to you, because it isn’t as scary or difficult as it seems. I’ve got a nice analogy to explain the process to you, and it comes from my summer camp adventure as well.

We jammed a lot of activities into that weekend, and two of them were things that I’d never done before: canoeing and zip-lining. Now, the old me would have just said, “Well, I don’t know how to work a canoe and dangling on a cable is scary, so I’ll be in my cabin.”

New me was all about it, and a funny thing happened once I got out on that lake. It was a three man canoe, with me in the front, another paddler in the back, and a passenger in the middle — and I found that being able to control that boat was almost intuitive. Before we got out there, I’d thought that it was going to be difficult, we’d hardly move anywhere, maybe we’d wind up going in circles. Nope. We got that canoe going a lot faster than I’d thought possible, and I was doing most of the steering, maneuvering around the lake and avoiding other canoes and people who were fishing.

When that experience was over, I was let down only by the fact that it had been way too brief a trip. I could have paddled all over that lake all day long.

So the lesson there is don’t judge the difficulty of an experience before you’ve tried it, because you may be totally wrong. But the bigger lesson came in the zip-lining.

That experience was somewhat like my first time on Space Mountain — a lot of build-up to the big moment. The staff at camp had to teach us about safety, fit the harnesses and helmets on us, make sure everything was secure, then send us on our hike around a meadow and up to the launch platforms.

Funny how much higher up those platforms seemed from on top of them, but by that point I’d committed. If you’ve never zip-lined, it works like this: You’ve basically got your legs in a harness, and that’s what’s holding you up. This is connected to a rope that has a huge carabineer on the other end, and that carabineer hooks onto the zip-line itself.

All of that’s the easy part. The hard part is literally a leap of faith, because nothing happens until you step off of that platform, and that’s the bit that really takes trust, courage, and maybe a little bit of stupidity. The first time I went, I hesitated for a second or two, and then just let go.

And that’s where the real lesson comes and the magic happens, because once you start going on that zip-line, everything else is physics and gravity. The hard work is done, and your only job is to enjoy the ride and hit the ground running.

I must have liked it, because I went around five times and, again, would have gone more, but we’d hit the time limit for the event. And while taking that first step was always a little weird, it got a lot less scary, but the fun and the adrenaline rush was entirely worth it.

Following the steps I’m going to give you is just like zip-lining. I’m going to provide the instructions and the harness and point you on the way. Then it’s up to you to step off that platform and enjoy the ride. The first step is the hardest, but once you take it, the rest of it follows right from the rules of nature.

For the impatient sorts, so you don’t have to peek ahead, here are the short forms of those steps:

  1. Get out of your routine
  2. Get out of your space
  3. Try something new

One important thing to remember: Some of these may work very well for you and some of them may not. You don’t have to use all three. If you can, great — but if you find one that really does the trick, then stick with it and don’t worry about the others.

Are you ready? Okay. Strap on your helmet and let’s step off the edge.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Five or Chapter Seven, or start with the Prologue.