Wednesday Wonders: More fun with Excel

Every so often, an Excel formula challenge comes up that takes more than a little dissecting and pondering before the solution becomes clear. I had one of these recently, and when I finally did hit on the answer, I even surprised myself. I’ll get to that in a bit, but first a little backstory.

One of my job functions was to create a Policies and Procedures manual explaining all of the workings of the place from my perspective, and to keep it updated. It’s currently somewhere around 70 pages, and to make it easy for the user, it’s a Word Doc that is extensively cross-referenced with a full glossary of the many complicated terms in the Medicare insurance business. There are also a number of appendices, from the very inside baseball explanation of the various Medicare Supplement Plans to a useful but very specific guide to the nearest fast and fast casual dining establishments relative to the office which links out to Google Maps for each destination.

Another inclusion was a schedule of pay periods and pay dates which I originally included as a quick and simple table cut and pasted in from Excel starting with the pay period from when I originally created it. But it was static and although it covered a couple of years, would eventually go out of date.

So my challenge was this: How to create a dynamic table in Word by linking to an entire table in Excel that would always start during the particular pay period the document was opened in. For example, as I write this, our current pay period goes from September 28th to October 11th, with payday on the 15th. But if someone were to open the document in a week, then the first entry should show October 12th to 25th, and so on.

The three columns in the table show just that for each pay period: the start date, the end date, and payday. Each row below shows the next period, etc.

Normally, this would be a simple matter of doing an IF/THEN calculation. IF (today’s date) is greater than a period’s start date and less than its end date, then use the start date in that cell, otherwise increment to the new date.

Now, this would be great if I could create a table of all the start dates for however many years and then link to it. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option.

The other usual method for incrementing periodic changes wouldn’t work here at all. Normally, you could look at the cell above and use something like “IF (old cell) is less than 10, (this cell) equals (old cell) + 1, otherwise (this cell) equals 0.” Then (this cell) becomes (old cell), repeat.

The problem is that you can quickly run afoul of the circular reference problem,

This happens when two or more cells have formulae set up so that each one provides input to the other at the same time. The simplest example would be something like inputting “=A1+B1” in cell A1. This is telling Excel that the value in cell A1 is equal to itself plus B1. The problem is that B1 changes the value of A1 no matter what it is, so A1 has no value until B1 does, but even if B1 has a value, it will keep constantly changing the value of A1. It all leads to an endless loop, and computers do not like endless loops. That’s why programs like Excel have a hard-coded braking system that will stop an endless loop before it happens. If you ever accidentally do enter one, you’ll notice that the program gives you an error message, draws little arrows to point out the offending cells, and evaluates the initial culprit to zero.

Which is the long way around of saying that I had to figure out a way to calculate the current pay period start date based on the current date and do it all in one cell without evaluating any outside expressions.

Excel nerds, if you’d like to go grab a nosh or latte and think about this now, please do and compare your answer later. Everyone else, here’s how I managed to figure the problem out — again, after a lot of thought and contemplation.

The problem, restated: Calculate a table of payroll period start, end, and pay dates dynamically based on the current date, and without relying on any kind of lookup function using a pre-determined database. In other words, this puppy had to do it dynamically, with only one input point.

When I finally found the solution, I damn near shit my pants in joy, because it was really so simple and elegant, but it took a lot of thought, and gets to the heart of how Excel handles dates.

The only way that a computer can work with dates is to count them as a certain number of days since a fixed day. The behind the scenes work converts a particular number into a particular date. The catch is that a system can only handle dates after their zero point, and not before. If you enter 08/01/1899 into any Windows or Apple program, it won’t know what to do with it. Start with any date on or after 01/01/1900, though, and you’re fine, because that’s the start point.

So… in Excel, any date is just the number of  days since that start point, and if we go with the first start date of my company’s payroll period in 2020, we get January 6 which, in the terms stated, is 43,836. If you don’t believe me, divide this number by 365.25, and you get 120.02, which is just a hair over the number of years it’s actually been.

But forget that. The important number is 43,836, because, to Excel, that means the same thing as Epiphany, which is January 6, 2020 — the start of a past pay period where I work.

The key insight I had here was this: The important bits were those days that were exactly increments of 14 days after the starting point — and having a starting point and increment meant that I suddenly had two constants to plug into the equation, and that made all the difference, because constants are the anchors that everything else could be hung on, and it could happen in a single source cell.

Two constants would be modified by a single variable — what is today’s date? And the answer to that question comes in the form of another great Excel function, NOW(),  which simply returns the number for the date at the point it’s invoked.

So… given an arbitrary pay period start date of January 6 and a pay period of 14 days, the first cell formula looks like this:

=43836+(INT(((NOW()-43836)/14))*14)

Where 43836 is the constant date value for January 6, 2020, 14 is the constant interval in days, and NOW() is the variable based on today’s date. Inside the brackets, we get the integer value of Today minus the start date divided by the interval, and then multiplied by the interval outside of the integration.

What all that fancy math does is this: decides whether the current date is evenly divisible by 14. If it’s not, then it uses the original start date. If not, it increments it by a number that just happens to work out to be the actual number of increments since that first day. If it’s not obvious, it works like this. The +(INT(((NOW()-43836)/14) part determines how many pay period past the original date that NOW is. The *14) part puts back the days to land on the right week.

Yes, it was a struggle to figure it out and it worked beautifully, and I felt that my Excel Jedi score was vastly boosted. But… oh. Did I mention that I had to make this whole thing work as a dynamic spreadsheet insert inside of a Word Doc with no external links to Excel?

Oops, I guess? I did it again.

The Saturday Morning Post #35: The Rêves, Part 13

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

The Tempest

Brenda and Jonah’s neighborhood did have one advantage over most of the Culver City area — although it technically was part of Los Angeles and not Culver City. The advantage was that it was on the western edge of an area called the Baldwin Hills, which was an oddly out-of-place lump of mountain in the middle of a part of the L.A. basin that was otherwise generally flat all the way to the ocean in two directions, Rancho Palos Verdes to the southwest being the other exception, but it happened to actually touch the ocean forming a sort of elevated mesa above the crashing surf.

But what this height difference really gave Blair Hills was an incredible view of everything out to Marina del Rey and the Pacific beyond. On a very clear day and from the right spot on the hiking trail west of the neighborhood, they could actually see the water, or at least a thin blue strip that curved off to the horizon. On some days, it even sparkled.

In the evening, especially when the Sun set late, Brenda and Jonah liked to leave the kids with her mother and hike out as far as they could, put down a blanket, then just sit and watch the expanse of the silent city, the distant ocean, and the changing of the sky and clouds from cyan and white to orange and gray to dull red and almost black, then a final deep blue before the stars started to appear and before the sky finally went as black as it could over the L.A. Basin — which wasn’t much.

On some nights, they were treated to an extra show as a waning Moon would set not long after her brother Sun. On others, the full Moon would rise behind them even as the Sun left, and if they looked the other way, they could watch as it appeared and loomed huge over the other side of the neighborhood — although they had to stay up later for that one because the neighborhood itself blocked a lot of the view to the east until the Moon was probably at least 30 degrees in the sky.

This evening, the distant clouds over the ocean had grown very dark and ominous, but Brenda and Jonah didn’t really pay any attention to them because they were so far away. Instead, they focused on what they usually did when they came out here.

Brenda had dubbed it “Grievance and Reconciliation Time,” something she had learned from an interpersonal relationship class given by the county, and the idea was that each of them was free to bring up something that was bothering them in a neutral, non-judgmental and non-blaming way. Meanwhile, the other one would use active listening to restate the issue as they understood it, and they would continue this process until they both agreed that they understood it the same way.

Next, the other partner would explain the issue from their point of view — again without judging or blaming, although obviously not neutral — the partner with the grievance would do their active listening bit, and it would continue until they both agreed.

The third part was the hardest, but it also turned out to be the most beneficial. The partner with the grievance would explain why they were wrong based on the other partner’s POV, then the other partner would do likewise. This would wrap up with aggrieved partner explaining what they could do to not be bothered, and the other partner explaining what they could do to eliminate the grievance.

The typical result was a compromise between them that, in retrospect, was so bone-headedly stupid obvious that they should have just seen it from the get-go.

Taking a completely trivial complaint, a typical session in brief might go like this: Brenda always serves peas with dinner, but Jonah really hates peas, and he’s mentioned it before. Now, the wrong way for him to complain is to say something like, “Why do you always have to serve peas? I hate peas, and you know it. Are you just trying to piss me off?”

Instead, the conversation would go more like this:

Jonah: “I’m really bothered whenever we sit down to dinner and I see peas on my plate, because I have never liked peas since I was a child.”

Brenda: “So, you’re saying you don’t want peas with dinner at all?”

Jonah: “Just not with my dinner.”

Brenda: “So I should never cook peas again?”

Jonah: “No. I just shouldn’t have them on my plate.”

Brenda: “So, you don’t like peas, and you don’t want them with your dinner?”

Jonah: “Exactly.”

Ding! And on to phase two.

Brenda: “The reason I serve peas all the time is because they are very cheap, have a very long shelf-life and, surprisingly, it’s one vegetable that all of our kids will eat.”

Jonah: “So I have to eat like our kids?”

Brenda: “No. I just do it to be economical and convenient.”

Jonah: “So it’s peas because it makes it easier for you, and costs us less?”

Brenda: “Yes.”

Ding! Phase three.

Jonah: “Then I guess I should just learn to love peas — ”

(This would be considered a foul)

Jonah (as Brenda): “Maybe I can find a vegetable that you and the kids like?”

Brenda (as Jonah): “Maybe I could be a little more adventurous in what I eat?”

Usually, this is the point when they’d look at each other and laugh.

“Well, shit, honey,” Brenda would say. “I do tend to just dump ‘em on all the plates, right? I suppose serving bowls wouldn’t be out of order.”

“So I don’t have to take them if I don’t want them?” Jonah said.

“Exactly,” Brenda replied. “And I could cook up a mess of vegetables that you do like.”

“Then steam me up some baby carrots every night… baby.”

Of course, this being a hypothetical, it all happened very easily and smoothly. In real life? Not so much and not always, and the subject of Malia was one that Brenda had still not been able to crack with Jonah.

It had taken them several rounds to get him to agree to call her Malia in the first place, after she broke down his resistance to the idea that Malia changing her name was just disrespecting their greatest president. Brenda had to remind Jonah that President Obama would have been on their daughter’s side.

Which was the kind of thing that just brought up the next issue. While Jonah would call Malia by her name, he still referred to her as his son, at least when Malia wasn’t around, only using, “Hey you!” or “Mal” when she was present.

Tonight, as they sat on the bluff watching the distant sea, Brenda tried again.

“I want to do anything I can to make sure that Malia has a safe and happy life, but I get very upset when people do not acknowledge or accept her choice and her reality.”

“So you want to do anything at all to support Malia,” Jonah said, “And will do what you can to defend our youngest son.”

Even though it was against the rules, Brenda let out a heavy sigh, although she refrained from saying No. She paused, then tried again. “I want to do anything I can to make sure that our youngest daughter has a safe and happy life, but I get very upset when people do not acknowledge or accept her choice and her reality.”

Jonah said nothing for a long time, just staring off at the ocean, Brenda staring at him. Finally, he practically whispered, “Baby, you know I just can’t. Not yet.”

“So we’re not even going to try to reconcile this tonight?” she asked him, sadly.

“Look, I’ve told you all this before. This isn’t about which way the TP goes on the roll or where we’re taking the next family vacation, or why you don’t like spending time with my parents, or why I think you get jealous too much… we got past all of that. But this one…”

“This one is about one of our children, Jonah,” Brenda replied calmly. “One that we should love as much as the others.”

“I do. I do love Malia,” Jonah said. “I love him as much — ”

“Then why do you use the wrong pronouns?”

“I’m from a different generation!” he snapped. “I’m not used to this shit, okay?”

“You’re only three years older than me, honey,” Brenda said. “And I’m fine with it.”

“Yeah, well… I guess it’s probably different when you’re a man. And when your father is a Baptist minister. And when everything you’ve learned growing up says that there are boys and there are girls. Penises and vaginas, and one sex does not magically turn into the other one just because they say so.”

“Times change,” Brenda said. “And knowledge increases. The idea that there are only two genders is absolutely ridiculous. Science says so. And Malia didn’t just ‘magically’ turn into a girl.”

“Then why he got a dick?”

Brenda really loved Jonah, but sometimes she could just slap him. She thought he was too well-educated for this, but apparently not. “Not everyone born with a penis is a boy,” she explained, “And not everyone born with a vagina is a girl. Sure, a lot of the time… the majority of the time, the two do match. But every so often, the sex on the outside is different than the gender inside.”

“I wish I could believe that.”

“So Malia didn’t magically turn into a girl. She always been a girl. It just took her time to realize it and tell us. And there aren’t even only two sexes, honey. Do you have any idea how many different combinations of sex chromosomes result in viable human babies? Everyone isn’t just XX or XY, you know.”

“Yeah, well, that’s another thing,” Jonah said. “Sure, I trained in science, but it was all engineering. You know — math, trig, geometry, physics, calculus. But ask me about biology or genetics or any of that, I know nothing.”

“I know,” Brenda said. “I didn’t either, until my mother told me about what Malia told her. And god bless her heart, my mother — who was definitely born in times when these ideas were even more alien than they are to you, and who still sings in the church choir every Sunday — she was the one who educated my ass about it, and kept sending me links left and right on the whole subject.

“Your mother? Really?” Jonah asked.

“You’d never think it to look at her, right? Short tiny-ass black woman with the floral dresses and fancy Sunday hats, even wears her gloves to church and can beat the best of them at those hallelujah gospel singing moments. Yeah. That woman, my mom, taught me to love my other daughter, because she told me, every chance she got, that she’d be the kind of disciple that Jesus would have taken into his flock.

“And why not — that was his thing. He wasn’t about the rich or connected. He was all about the outcasts. Lepers, whores, manual laborers, whatever. That’s what Mom sent me, that’s what I read, and what I learned was enlightening. So… maybe you should let my mom have a chat with your parents…?”

There was a long pause before Jonah replied. “I love your mom,” he said. “I wish she were my mom,” then he laughed. “Shit, no, that’d be total hillbilly incest stuff. Oh, you know what I… and if I only had her to deal with, then, yeah, I’d be there in a second.”

“But you’re afraid of your parents,” Brenda announced casually. He replied with a shrug.

“You’re a grown-ass man with your own family, your own career, your own home, whatever… you don’t need their approval anymore.”

“Yeah, well, um… I’m their only son, and he is a very popular Baptist minister down in the community, so…”

“Now how do I read that?” Brenda asked, already knowing her answer. “Oh, right — he’s already bilked the hell out of his flock, is richer than Croesus, and you want to inherit all that filthy lucre when he kicks, so you’re not rocking the boat, and not accepting your daughter is worth it?”

Jonah said nothing, just fuming, as Brenda realized that they had yet again blown the intended format of their Grievance and Reconciliation Time straight to hell.

“Do you have any idea how much property he owns?” Jonah finally whispered.

“Which is more important?” Brenda whispered back. “Material shit your father only has because he bilked people in Jesus’ name? Or accepting your daughter for who she is? Even if you have to ignore using pronouns for a while and just call her Malia. Can you do that?”

Another long silence, and Brenda was surprised to see that Jonah was doing his best to stop from crying.

“I’ll try,” he said. “Really, I will try. For you — ”

Brenda sighed and gave him a look.

“Okay, for him…  her,” he replied.

“Thank you,” Brenda said.

Jonah looked off to the west, then suddenly sat bolt upright. “Holy shit,” he said. “Do you see that?”

“What?” she asked, following his eye-line. The black clouds far away over the sea had grown to cover more of the sky, meaning that they were getting closer. Meanwhile, out over the ocean, it was an almost constant barrage of lightning bolts flashing, although no thunder was reaching them. Neither of them had ever seen anything like it in their lives.

Brenda grabbed her phone and opened her local news app, where the weather reporter was frantically describing an unprecedented and unexpected front that had suddenly rolled up the coast, from Malibu south to Palos Verdes. There was a “Special Bulletin” banner across the bottom quarter of the image.

It had already made landfall in some areas, and was bringing heavy winds, heavy rain, severe thunderstorms, and even hail. Alerts had already been issued for people to shelter in place as far inland as the Central Valley, while people in coastal areas and foothills were advised to just evacuate to shelters ASAP.

“Well, at least we’re on top of a mountain,” Jonah said. “They say how soon it’s going to get here?”

“No,” Brenda replied. But I’d imagine that right about the time we start to hear the thunder is when we want to be inside.”

“Or, you know,” Jonah said. “Now?”

“There is one other thing,” Brenda added.

“Oh, now what?” Jonah grimaced.

“You might want to sit down for this,” she said, and he did. She proceeded to explain all the weird goings-on that had been happening with the supernatural entities and the ghost hunters and all of that. At the end of it, he just started at her blankly.

“So?” she said.

“So, woman?” he replied. “You been holding out news of the apocalypse on me?”

“Not at all,” she said. “I’m sure these two are not related, but I had to tell someone in the family.”

“Not related?” Jonah shouted. “Not. Related?! Look at that shit out there. If that isn’t some end of the world crap brought on because a couple of guys dressed like idiots pissed off the spirits, then I don’t know what the hell is!”

At that moment, they suddenly heard a distant rumble of quiet thunder that seemed to come from all directions and continue for a long time. They locked eyes and stood, Brenda grabbing the blanket.

“Run!” they told each other at the same time, and neither one of them had to say it a second time. They got home, went inside, locked the doors, found the kids and Esme, and then decided that they were going to have an all-night family movie night and the kids could stay up as late as they wanted.

Outside, thunder came again, this time noticeably closer.

On the other side of the continent, in a secure facility deep beneath the Pentagon, the agent on shift had been idly surfing the internet, as all of them did and had, every day and night for decades. The machine they monitored never received any messages at all. At least it gave him the opportunity to work on his great American novel.

Until tonight, when there was an abrupt signal indicating a message had been received.

“Oh, what the fuck?” he muttered, opening the inbox. He read the message three times, each time more slowly and carefully, then checked the date and time.

“Wow,” he finally exclaimed quietly before he grabbed the secure line in the room that went direct to the project director’s cell phone, no matter where he was. When the director picked up, all he said was, “Slingback. Credible and urgent.”

All the director thought was, “Fuck.”

* * *

The Teapot

Joshua and Simon had decided to commiserate over their absolute fuck-up with Danny/Preston with probably a bit too many edibles, a snuggle in the bedroom with a binge-watch of the old 1960s series The Prisoner, and a quiet cuddle, the sky to the east visible outside of the open blinds.

At some point, they got texts from the National Weather Service, and they were severe weather alerts, which they both read before turning to each other.

“Severe thunderstorms. Here?” Joshua asked.

“That’s what mine says,” Simon replied.

“Holy fuck!” Joshua answered, but coming from him it was an expression of joy, and Simon agreed. They both loved thunderstorms, which were too far and few between in Los Angeles in general, but in the Valley in particular.

“Suite B?” Joshua asked.

“Suite B!” Simon agreed.

In their particular building, there were two condos per floor, one on the east side and one on the west. Theirs were on the top floor, and while both came with lofts, they only used the loft in the front unit for storage of files, old equipment and whatever.

The main reason they had also bought the western unit, which they called suite B but which was actually Unit 2302, was for the ultimate in privacy — no immediate neighbors, and since it took a key to get to a floor, it meant no pesky outside visitors. They had also bought it in the name of the Foundation so that there would be no direct ownership connection to them, although they had paid for it via an anonymous donation.

Suite B was minimally furnished, but it did have computers networked to everything in their main unit, 2301. They had also set up the loft here as a kind of emergency outpost, with enough supplies, battery back-ups, and whatnot to keep them alive for a month with no outside support if necessary.

They’d both agreed that it was silly at the time, but also that it would really up the resale value.

The thing about the loft units were that they had both wrap-around windows, balconies on two sides, and skylights, and so from here, on the west side, they could watch the storm not only approach, but pass over.

They pretty much resumed their binging from where they’d left off, only this time, they had a front row seat for that glorious moment when either Zeus or Thor would march across the sky and teabag the city. The only light in the room came from the TV, but they turned that off as soon as the sky to the west started to light up like a bar at last call.

“Whoa,” Joshua said.

The entire horizon that they could see went a flickering blue-white for a good twenty seconds, then faded. Right about the time it faded, the barrage of thunder came, rattling the windows for about the same twenty seconds.

“Ooh… about four miles away,” Joshua said.

“Nice,” Simon added.

Joshua pulled up the local news on his phone, which was all about the storm. Santa Monica had already had about four inches of rain, complicated by a six foot storm surge. PCH had been closed due to landslides, and the canyons were experiencing flash floods.

“Shit. Wetter than a bottom at a circuit party,” Joshua said.

“Honey… eww?” Simon replied.

The sky went electric blue again, although they weren’t sure how long this time, and it seemed like it was only about ten seconds after it started that the thunder came, this time much louder and much longer, and the whole building shook.

Joshua held Simon tight, totally giddy. “My god, I can only get so hard,” he said. “This. This is weather. This is what I’ve missed growing up here.”

“Are you sure?” Simon asked him.

“Don’t tell me you’re not.”

“Yeah, but, what if we caused this?” Simon asked.

“You mean you and me personally?” Joshua shot back.

“No, silly. Humanity. What if this is all because of global climate — ”

Before he could finish, the sky above them went blinding white at the same time that thunder rattled downward at them. They could feel the bed shift and a picture fell off of the wall, the glass shattering. That bothered Simon a bit. It was a fanciful depiction of Russell’s teapot, a favorite of his among their artworks.

All the lights outside went dark, although their UPS kicked in immediately, so nothing even turned off. Sheets of rain started to pummel everything, and then hail started blasting onto the balcony and the skylight and the noise was deafening.

The thunder and lightning show kept on going, but Joshua just rolled over and held Simon tight, totally content. Simon held him likewise, and they both just smiled.

As long as the heavens were letting loose above them, the two of them were both in heaven. Well, okay, lying in each other’s arms had a big part to do with that, too. But the both of them together? Bliss.

The four-inch thick Plexiglas they’d installed in both the skylights also helped to assuage any fears they had of suddenly being pelted by ice.

The brighter the lightning flashed, the louder the thunder roared, and the harder the rain and hail struck, the happier they were. At some point during the onslaught, they both drifted off to sleep, not waking up until the morning, when everything outside their windows was a solid gray.

Their phones told them that it was almost 11 a.m., so the Sun should have been up. They checked the weather report, looked at each other incredulous, then strolled out onto the balcony. Since visibility was zero, neither one of them bothered to put on anything.

And the weather reports were true. The entire city and most of Southern California were now blanketed in heavy fog, and visibility everywhere was about two feet. All roads had been shut down, there was extensive flooding everywhere, and people were advised to shelter in place in case of emergency. The state had called in the National Guard to do overflights with infrared cameras and sonar in order to identify areas that needed immediate assistance.

“This is actually kind of cool,” Joshua told Simon. Although it was also literally cool. It was a summer day in L.A., but only about 65ºF out, and condensation was forming on everything.

“But what caused it?” Simon asked.

“I guess it depends upon how rational you want the explanation to be, right?” Joshua replied.

“As rational as possible,” Simon answered.

“Exactly,” Joshua said, realizing that they had somehow also modeled their working relationship on Holmes and Watson, the one big problem being that each of them thought of the other as Holmes when, in reality, they were both right and neither of them was the Watson.

“You want to go inside?” Simon finally said. “Because I think my balls just did.”

“Guess we’ll have to fish them out,” Joshua answered. They went back in, secured the doors, went back to 2301, and hunkered down to cuddle and watch all the news reports on whatever it was that had just passed over the city.

“Oh…” Joshua suddenly blurted at one point.

“What?” Simon asked him.

“Extensive flooding, including North Hollywood. I suppose that means that the Tesla is probably fucked.”

“Doesn’t that depend on how far up the garage the water made it?”

“If it’s four feet above the ground — ”

“Oh. Right. Oh well…”

They went back to watching news of the apocalypse. At least there were no reports of first-born sons having died. That would have taken Simon from Joshua, after all, and that would have just killed Joshua.

* * *

Image: Robert Stirrett, used unchanged under (CC) 2.0 license.

Friday Free-for-all #32: Roll illegal and weird

What makes you roll your eyes every time you hear it?

That’s simple. Any time somebody takes astrology seriously. Actually, I’ll extend that — any time anybody starts prating on about whatever particular brand of woo woo they subscribe to. It’s a long list: Crystals, reiki, homeopathy, chiropracty, acupuncture, anything peddled on The Goop, tarot or any kind of psychic reader (but see below), and so much more.

I’d even also include a lot of bullshit conspiracy theories (there’s a redundancy!) like “chemtrails”, QAnon, and 9/11 Truthers, to name but  a few.

What’s really frustrating is that I know so many otherwise intelligent and well-informed people who so easily go in for one or more of these things. Well, except for chemtrails and QAnon. I have yet to meet anyone nursing anything resembling a brain in their skull that fell for either of those.

And those last three, more than the others, will make me roll my eyes harder than the dice on a Vegas craps table during a pro competition.

Sure, some of that woo woo is harmless — like reading your horoscope for daily advice, provided you don’t take it too seriously. But some of the medical practices can actually be dangerous or deadly, as well as ridiculously expensive if you get hooked and keep buying the shit. I’m looking at you, Goop fans, but I’m sure that plenty of people have blown a fortune buying crystals, or going to any of the pseudo-medics listed, never mind being scammed by a psychic.

But that brings me back to my initial mention of psychic and tarot readers, which came with a caveat. A lot of them are ethical, and while what they claim they’re doing is total bullshit, what the good ones actually do can be beneficial.

I say this because I was once fortunate enough to get to sit in as a friend of mine did what was midway between a psychic and tarot reading for someone else. He was using one of those New Age Woo Woo decks that was, I think, Archangels. I don’t remember.

If I do remember correctly, the Sitter (as they are always called) picked three cards, each one to represent an aspect of their current concern — something like goal, obstacle, and outcome.

The cards basically had the names and images, but there was a book that came with it, with longer descriptions of the Archangels. And here is where I watched somebody good it actually do something good by exploiting someone’s belief in the woo woo to that person’s advantage.

Basically, it turned into a mini counselling session, nothing more nor less. But the Reader, my friend, was able to use the vague descriptions in the book to form open-ended questions, so that he slowly induced the Sitter to talk through his own situation and discover the issue he thought he had.

And so it continued with the other two cards until the Sitter came up with this amazing realization. In his case, I think it revolved around having a career he enjoyed but which he felt was a dead end, and the possibility of changing but fear over doing so.

All the Reader did was have the Sitter walk through that fear, discover what could realistically be done, and then find a plan to do it. So, in that case, if the woo woo works for you, then it works. But not for the reason you thought it did. No supernatural powers or angels here. Just one dude with some insight and empathy who knows how to ask the right questions.

Speaking of which…

What’s the most illegal thing you’ve done?

This is always such an interesting question, because the definition of “legal” varies so much. I’ve committed sodomy in several states, but it was only illegal in one of them, Texas. Ironically, it was the overturning of that state’s law by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2003 that made it legal to get your same-sex freak on in all 50 states.

Oh. And oral and anal because, while these laws were often supposed to be targeted at gay people (of the male variety in particular) straight people also technically fell victim, since the wording was of the “only a ding-dong in a hoo-hah is considered actual, legal sex.”

Not the terms they used, but the intent behind the laws was about as mature.

So, yes. I’ve definitely violated state law by sticking my ding-dong where Texas used to say it wasn’t supposed to go, multiple times and in multiple positions.

But state law is for amateurs. What about Federal?

Again, for the most part when we’re not talking about crimes of violence committed by one person against others — rape, assault, sexual assault, murder, arson, armed robbery, burglary, mayhem, and the like — then it’s really kind of hard to define what a crime is.

I mean, that list between the dashes there really should be the 8 1/2 Commandments of “How Thou Shalt Write Thy Laws.”

Everything else? Well, those are open to debate and interpretation and ad hoc sessions of committees of (unfortunately way too often old white men) debating into the night and then doing what the lobbyists pay them to.

Which should make up the other half to round the above list to 9 Commandments: “Thou Shalt Not via Public Office.”

What should definitely be legal? “Congress (or whoever) shall pass no laws limiting what the People can ingest or inject into or do with or to their own bodies, or do with or to the body of one or more others, provided that all involved are consenting adults.

TL;DR: No drugs should be illegal. And, in fact, the one I took was actually totes legal right up until… 1966, when the U.S. said “Hell Noes…”

Not bad. It had a 21-year run, seemed to have some really beneficial uses, but, as is typical, the panic breakdown seemed to work like this:

Liberals: This seems useful. Let’s explore it!

Conservatives: This scares me. BAN IT!

So, anyway… seeing as how I first did it decades after the U.S. banned it, I did indeed violate federal law multiple times in the 90s by (gasp) dropping acid. Never mind that I’ve also done the same every time I’ve smoked pot, even after it became legal in California. The LSD stuff is just more interesting.

The most interesting part, probably, is this: Unlike other drugs, the effective doses of LSD are miniscule, measured in micrograms, of which I don’t think I’ve even taken more than 1,000 at once. One microgram is a millionth of gram, and a gram is just under four hundredths of an ounce.

Second: LSD apparently crosses the blood-brain barrier quickly, does its thing to certain receptors, and then quickly leaves the brain. It can stay upstairs for about twenty minutes, and then circulate in your blood for about forty-eight hours.

So it’s kind of like this drug sneaks into your brain, bangs a gong and runs away, leaving you to enjoy the reverberations.

Subjective view via many trips: What LSD seems to do is this: It turns off your brain’s filters for a while, and we have a ton of those. Your pupils dilate so your peripheral vision expands like crazy (especially crazy if it’s already mad good, like mine was and is) and you start to experience things in what I’ve always described as “Hindu Time.”

Not meant to be any kind of aspersion or cultural appropriation, but the thing that talking to people while I was tripping that most struck me was that it suddenly seemed like they had multiple faces and arms, all overlapping and swirling. This was a side effect of the thing known as “trails,” but, to me, it made every conversation feel like it took place simultaneously except just before now, right now, and just after.

Then the peak of the trip would hit, most likely involving some sort of audio stimulation (usually music) and this is where the outside world would vanish, but is this really all that different from going to sleep and dreaming? Yeah, I don’t think so.

The more I did it, the more I realized… LSD makes us remove our filters and shields and face the world naked. Some of us like that and embrace it. Too many of us don’t.

And that is what we’re voting on in November, plain and simple. Please. Be brave, Bea Arthur, be naked… but remove those goddamn shields at the very least.

What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s home?

Okay, this is one of those things where I have to give a lot of benefit of the doubt, but let’s start with what I saw…

An entire curio case full of what could be, at the most charitable, referred to as “Jim Crow Memorabilia.” Or, in other words, the smaller, indoor versions of all those tasteless Lawn Jockeys that were mostly eliminated decades ago.

Less charitably, let’s call it a tiny “Museum of Really Racist Shit.” All kinds of stereotyped figurines, some even with placards using incredibly racist slurs.

And I was of two minds on this one, given that the owner of the house happened to work in the business of liquidating estates and such, so he basically evaluated and sold off shit owned by dead old people.

So… favorable evaluation One: This was the shit he refused to sell because it was so goddamned racist, but he felt it necessary to preserve somewhere private in order to document the abuse.

Less favorable evaluation Two: Since my host was from the South… this was the shit he refused to sell because he wanted to keep it for himself, because it somehow fed his narrative.

Conflicty points: I’ve been to dinner parties he’s hosted with guests of all races, which make me lean toward option One. On the other hand, it was at one of those dinner parties that I learned that an Asian man could actually be prejudiced as fuck against Black men, and that broke my white brain.

I mean… really?

But those are the answers for now. Enjoy!

 

The Saturday Morning Post #29: The Rêves, Part 7

You can catch up with the first installment of this piece here, or last week’s chapters here. It started as somewhat of an experiment. It seems to be taking the form of a supernatural thriller, set above and below the streets of Los Angeles.

Paperwork

Since Brenda was management, and therefore salaried, she was lucky enough to not have to report in the morning after the… adventure at Universal City station. Unfortunately, since she was management, she was expected to come up with some write-up of what had happened, and since she knew that all of the CCTVs scattered all over the place would show… something, she spent all of the next day after she’d woken up well past noon trying to come up with some plausible narrative… and she was drawing a blank.

She was also kicking herself for not getting contact info for the two guys who had been involved in the whole thing. All she knew were their names, Joshua and Simon, and that they lived somewhere in the NoHo Arts District, in one of the high-rise condo complexes that had sprung up like weeds in the late ‘10s.

She did manage to get her assistant to email her all of the CCTV footage from Uni City station, as well as the plaza and all of the street cams from there up to the clusterfuck intersection of Lankershim, Vineland, and Riverside/Camarillo, but there were apparently problems with anything north of that.

The footage from in the station wasn’t really helpful, since all it showed was various people freaking out and acting stupid. Same thing with the footage up the escalators and on the plaza. Lots of people in view, not a lot of… not people.

“Fuck,” Brenda muttered many times while reviewing the footage. She had definitely seen the things, and so had the dudes she’d gone to breakfast with — where were they now?

She decided to go take a drive, and wound up at the same Denny’s, flashed her credentials at the day manager, and managed to finally get somewhere — the CCTV footage of her visit the night before with the two would-be ghost hunters.

And while it didn’t reveal a whole lot other than their meal, when they left it at least gave her a direction, and she was able to call in a favor from an old family friend who worked for the L.A. Traffic Department, and those cams and footage traced those boys right back to their doorstep. Well, at least the building their condo was in.

She filed the paperwork that gave a pretty general idea of where to find the guys who claimed to be ghost hunters while claiming no knowledge of the thing herself; the perfect dodge. Except that two of her assistants had been accurate way beyond their paygrade, apparently.

They had also taken advantage of their connections to look at cell phone location data.

She’d thought that their info only included the building address, but it didn’t. It included the unit number and a link to the Zillow page on it. She hadn’t read their entire doc before she put it an email to Rita and hit “send.” Why would she? She trusted them, and it was already pushing four in the afternoon.

Ironically, considering where she worked, she wasn’t really able to take public transit to and from the office even though the Metro did run downtown to Culver City. The problem was that it ran too far away from her neighborhood, Blair Hills, to make it easy to get there without relying on a taxi or Über or something else, and there was no way in hell at her age that she was going to hop on one of those stupid scooters.

Anyway, her commute would have taken three times as long.

Unfortunately, she was in the wrong department to do anything about that. But she managed to get home by a quarter to five, half an hour before her husband Jonah did, to find her two youngest, Samuel and Malia, sitting in the living room vying to the death on a video game.

She had only recently gotten used to thinking of her younger son… no, daughter… as Malia instead of Barack, and she tried to drive that dead-name out of her mind, appreciating her youngest daughter’s very interesting choice of new name. Samuel and her oldest, Theresa, who was majoring in law at Penn State, hadn’t even skipped a beat when Malia made the announcement last Christmas, and immediately welcomed her as their sister.

Unfortunately, her husband Jonah was having a bit of an issue with it, but that probably had more to do with worrying about how to handle it with his parents, who were hard-core old school Baptists.

Brenda had had none of those problem with her parents, who were old-school radicals. Well, she knew that her father wouldn’t have had a problem, but he was long gone, shot in the head during a routine traffic stop by a white cop when Brenda was still in college back in the 90s. This had radicalized Brenda’s mother no end, and she had gone on every protest march possible after that — Black, LGBTQ+, Native American, Union, whatever.

This had had a huge impact on Brenda, especially her mother’s words: “Honey, it don’t matter your color, sex, race, whatever. What matters is who hates you for the way you were born. And then, take a good hard look at them, lock arms with the others who get hated for how they were born, and go kick their fucking hateful asses.”

And Brenda’s mother, Esme, had been her babysitter since each of her kids were born. Brenda and Jonah has specifically looked for a house with a so-called “Mother-in-Law Flat” out back — in this case, a full one-bedroom guest house — and had moved Esme in at the same time they did.

Malia was the first one to tell Esme her secret: “I’m not a boy.”

When Esme told Brenda about the conversation and repeated her reply, Brenda just broke down in tears and hugged her mother hard.

“She said, ‘I’m not a boy,’” Esme told her. “And I said, ‘That’s great. So tell me who you are to you, because that is forever who you’ll be to me.’”

It was five-thirty when Jonah pulled into the garage and came through the door into the kitchen, and grabbed Brenda to give her a huge hug and kiss, interrupted by Samuel and Malia running into the room to hug his legs while shouting, “Daddy!”

“Ooh… what smells good?” he asked.

“You do, for one,” Brenda replied.

“Nah… what you got cooking, princess?”

“It all depends on how soon Mamaw gets home to wrangle the kidlets, stud.”

“Stop! They might hear you.”

“Okay, what I got cooking is dinner, but you know your job.”

“Oh, right.” Jonah smiled and whistled, pulling five bowls out of the cupboard as the sound of twenty paws skittering along the floor, finally reaching a crescendo. Three dogs and two cats stopped in the doorway in anticipation.

The dogs were Libby, Prince, and Orpheus — a yellow Lab, black Lab, and German shepherd. The cats were Desdemona and Ophelia, a calico and a tabby. Ostensibly, each of the dogs belonged to one of the kids and each of the cats to one of the parents, but in reality, Jonah was the wrangler of them all.

But not the boss. Oh no, not that. Because all of the animals and all of the humans just knew and understood that Desdemona was in charge of them all, and Ophelia was her lieutenant.

It was kind of exactly like the Brenda and Malia thing, actually — right down to no one ever mentioning it.

By six o’clock, they were all seated at the dining room table — well, except for the dogs and cats, who had long since finished dinner and had wandered off to go snooze in whatever space they had picked — and Brenda set out their meal.

Honestly, this was her favorite part of every work day — when they all got to sit down and everyone told her about what had happened in their day. And it didn’t matter how “stupid” or trivial it seemed. To Brenda, it was about her family, so every single bit was the most interesting thing ever, and she never had to fake that.

So… Samuel had actually talked to Melissa at her locker today, and while Brenda could easily see that the girl had no interest in him, he was over the moon at having taken the chance. And Malia reported that she’d met a fellow student, Lance, who was a transboy, and they’d really kind of hit it off and were having lunches together.

Jonah sort of rolled his eyes at this, but Brenda kicked him under the table.

After dinner, while Jonah and Samuel did the dishes, Brenda called Theresa to check in, and she was already considering focusing her legal studies on social justice issues, but she had to cut the conversation short because there was a sorority event coming up.

Later on, Esme came over to look after the kids, and Brenda and Jonah headed up to their room to, as she put it, “binge and fringe,” although as he held her in his arms, she looked into his eyes and said, “You really need to lighten up and deal with our daughter.”

“Who, Theresa?” he said.

“No,” she replied. And she was beginning to think that he might have been the only reason that she didn’t just come out and share all the Metro ghost shit with everyone else, because they might have had actual ideas. But then he dug it deeper.

“We only have one daughter,” he continued.

“Are you that stupid?” she shot back.

“Um… excuse me?” he asked.

“No. Excuse me,” she replied, slamming her way out of the room and calling back, “Her name is Malia,” adding under her breath, “You are such an asshole sometimes.”

And that was when she remembered the thing she liked least about family dinners. Still, she figured that Jonah would eventually come around. It had taken a few months to get him to stop dead-naming Malia and he was making fewer mistakes with the pronouns, at least when she was around. But for god’s sake, he was nearly fifty. He should give a damn what his parents thought anymore.

* * *

Tailed

The next morning, Simon and Joshua got up, got ready, had breakfast, then headed down to the garage, carrying the trap with Anabel in it in the velvet bag. They were dressed casually and Joshua had called dibs on driving, which was fine with Simon anyway. They hopped into the Tesla, Joshua put his foot on the brake and shifted into gear. The car hummed to life.

It would be fair for anybody to speculate how a couple of guys their age who only seemed to hang out in subway stations dressed as refugees from a Jules Verne novel could afford a Tesla, much less their own condo, along with all of the geegaws and gadgets involved in their ghost hunting.

The short answer was that in the previous decade, the two of them had designed a series of killer apps that had a habit of being bought up for anywhere in the high seven to mid-eight figure range. Simon was the idea man and Joshua was the coder and tech nerd, although it was Simon’s really uncanny ability to figure out what the Next Big Thing was going to be a year or two before it was that drove things.

But they had also made an agreement that they would never allow themselves to be worth more than a certain amount. They had originally set that at a billion until they exceeded it and realized how ridiculous a billion dollars was for just two people, so they cut it down to a hundred million, then finally settled on ten million.

Anything in excess of that went away as charitable donations, or to any of several dozen anonymous educational foundations they had set up around the world. It wasn’t uncommon for them to sneak a server a few grand as a tip, or buy a house and “rent” it to a homeless woman and her children for a dollar a year, or provide necessary supplies for a struggling school.

Still, they considered themselves to be the Banksy of charity — they never announced any of what they did, never put their names on it, and swore their beneficiaries to silence.

“We’re like thieves in the night,” Simon liked to say,” Except Robin Hood.”

They did start a charitable organization that would handle everything, but they had named it the Ada Lovelace Foundation, which they both felt appropriate for two reasons. One was that she was basically the world’s first computer programmer, back in the nineteenth century when “computers” were entirely mechanical.

The other was that she was an important character in William Gibson’s book The Difference Engine, which both of them had read and loved as kids and it was considered to be raison d’être for the entire steampunk genre.

Of course, as far as Ausmann ever knew, they were forever broker than shit and relied on their job with him and his largesse. This just gave them leverage that he didn’t know existed.

Joshua pulled out of the lot and turned right onto Tujunga, heading south toward Magnolia. As they crossed South Chandler — named for a family not related to the Chanlers — he and Simon both noticed a vehicle pull away from the curb by the park a little too quickly and obviously.

“Did you — ” Simon started.

“Yep,” Joshua replied. “Did you notice the license plate?”

“No,” Simon replied. “What?”

“Exempt.”

“Shit.”

In California, this designated that it was a government-owned car, although which level of government wasn’t certain — it could be city, county, or state. And, contrary to what some under-informed people thought, it did not mean “Exempt from obeying all traffic laws.” Rather, it meant “Exempt from taxation,” so the car wasn’t subject to annual registration, sales tax on transfer from one exempt entity to another, and so on.

Although the driver had been so eager to pull out on Joshua’s ass that they had cut off another driver who gave an angry honk.

“What do we do?” Simon asked.

“Drive casually until we figure out who they are,” Joshua explained as Simon turned to look out the back window. “And don’t look at them!”

“Sorry,” Simon said.

“Don’t we have an app that does the license plate thing?” Joshua asked.

“Oh, right,” Simon replied, taking out his phone and pulling up the app, porting the output to the car’s tablet. He activated the back-up cam, got a clear photo of the front plate, and in a few seconds the screen displayed the answer.

CALIFORNIA VEHICLE EXEMPT PLATE
JURISDICTION LEVEL: COUNTY
AGENCY: LOS ANGELES METRO
DIVISION: CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
LEO?: NO

“Shit, that’s it?” Joshua laughed. “We’re being followed by customer service? What are they going to do, make us take a survey?”

“We still don’t know who’s in that car,” Simon replied.

“True, but…” Joshua tapped the screen, went to the back-up cam and titled it up, pulling slightly away so he got a look at the driver and passenger. “Well, it’s not Brenda, at least,” he said.

“I really have a feeling she wouldn’t sell us out,” Simon said. “Besides, we never even told her where we live.”

“No, we didn’t. Did we? Hm.”

They continued up Tujunga and turned left on Magnolia, crossed under the 170, then turned left to hop on the on-ramp and head south. Traffic was light at least, so Joshua hit 70 and stuck to the leftmost number one lane carpool, apparently continuing down the 170 into Hollywood, Metro vehicle behind all the while.

“You want the other side,” Simon told Joshau.

“I know,” Joshua replied.

“Oh, shit. You’re about to — ”

“Make you shit your pants?”

“Joshie!”

“Sorry, honey. We need to shake a tail.”

Joshua accelerated to eighty as the approach to the lanes that cut off to the 170 and Hollywood neared. Then, at the very last second, he yanked hard right and swept over three lanes, punching it to ninety and heading down the 134.

The Metro vehicle behind them managed to make it one lane over before a BMW cut them off and Joshua sailed it down the interchange and onto the freeway to Pasadena without their pursuers, bringing their speed down to 65 to Simon’s great relief.

“I hate it when you do that,” Simon told him.

“You’re still hard right now,” Joshua replied, and they both knew that it was true.

“Yeah, but it’s a fear boner,” Simon explained sheepishly.

It had subsided by the time they got to JPL and made it down to Ausmann’s office. On the way, knowing full well by now that he’d probably already seen the footage, they had to come up with a plausible reason for Preston’s escape, so they had decided to blame it on the woman from Metro who had left with them.

She demanded to know what was in the other trap, against their better judgement they opened it, and Preston flitted off into the night, as these things were wont to do.

But, surprisingly, Ausmann didn’t even ask about Preston after they’d placed the other trap on his desk and removed it from the bag.

“Apparently,” Simon explained, “Her name was Anabel Rose Catherine Chanler LeCard.”

“Really?” Ausmann replied, looking stunned. “You two mooks managed to capture Anabel?”

“You know her?” Joshua asked, just as stunned.

“I know the name,” Ausmann said. “But are you sure that’s who she is?”

“That’s who the other entity said she was.” Simon explained.

“And how would that one know?”

“Apparently, he was her son,” Simon added.

“Did you bring the other one?” Ausmann suddenly asked.

“Uh… we caught him, but, um, he… got away,” Joshua offered.

“Oh,” Ausmann replied, but didn’t say anything more about it, just staring at the trap on his desk. “If this really is Anabel… I think you two are in line for a couple of bumps up the ladder.”

“You mean… up our pay grades?” Joshua asked, pretending that it mattered.

“Oh, yeah, that too. No, I meant… more on upping your security clearances. But… that all depends on whether this is Anabel or not.”

“Who was… is Anabel, anyway?” Simon asked.

“You don’t get that story until I’ve bumped you up from public trust to secret. Good work, boys. See you next time. Last stop is North Hollywood, right?”

“Next week,” Simon replied.

“Can’t wait to see what you pull in then. Thanks!”

Simon and Joshua left the office and headed up top. Once they were in the elevator, Simon asked Joshua, “Has he ever told us ‘thanks’ before?”

“Nope,” Joshua replied.

Back in his office, Ausmann turned the trap over and over in his hands. It was an amazing piece of work, really, and he had no idea how the two managed things like this on what he paid them. Still… Anabel was a name that had come up countless times in their failed attempts to keep these entities either trapped down here or from suddenly melting into nothing.

Except for the ones who popped up claiming to be famous people — a sure sign of insanity — most of the others cried out one name before fleeing or disappearing. “Anabel.”

In the chess-game Ausmann had been playing, it felt like he had just captured the Queen.

* * *

The Saturday Morning Post: Prologue

Here’s a little teaser from “The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles,” and you get to read it here first. This is the prologue.

Since the work I’d been serializing here ended its last installment last week, I have to switch gears. I have other works to serialize. I just have to figure out which one to do next. Meanwhile, here’s the second piece I published on the site nearly three years ago. It’s the prologue to the book that was the original reason for starting this site, but even as I finished writing the first draft, life brought more complications — and those were the years before 2020! From here, you can follow the links through to the other chapters, if you’d like.

It’s Saturday morning of Labor Day Weekend, 2017, at around seven in the morning. I’m 6,500 feet up in the mountains just below Big Bear, a couple of hours outside of Los Angeles, and I am lost in the woods.

That isn’t a metaphor. Distracted by some deer running through the trees and my own thoughts, I have wandered off of the path and have no idea at the moment how to get back to camp.

Oddly enough, I’m not that concerned. The weather and the landscape here are beautiful, and the only sounds I can hear are nature, as the many birds and chipmunks living in the area are waking up and starting their daily struggles for survival.

I’m up here because I’ve come to an adult “summer camp,” which runs for the whole long weekend. We’re staying at an actual YMCA camp which is available because schools are back in session, so there are no more kids for the camp to rent to. We’re staying in cabins with bunks, although the braver ones have brought their own tents and are roughing it outside. Meanwhile, those with less bravery but more money are staying in their own RVs back up in the parking lot.

I’m not concerned about getting lost because I’ve just had a gigantic epiphany, but I have to rewind to the previous afternoon for a moment. When we had all arrived at the camp on Friday — a diverse assortment of men with ages ranging from late 30s to early 90s — the leader and organizer of the group greeted us and gave each of us a tiny gold safety pin.

They do this camp three times a year, although this was my first visit, and every camp begins with the same ritual but a different object — last time, it was a key, for example. The object comes with simple instructions. Paraphrasing wildly here, they are:

“This pin symbolizes this session of the camp, but its meaning will be unique to each one of you. Some of you may come up with what it means right away. Some of you may not. But the important part is that the meaning of this safety pin is yours alone, and it’s most likely that no two will be the same.

“And you never have to share the secret of that meaning with anyone else…”

Up with the sun, and before my sole bunkmate, I had wandered into the woods, seen the sheer beauty of nature and the pure power of running deer, got lost — and found my meaning of that safety pin.

I’ll share it with you eventually, but finding that meaning was the culmination of a journey that had begun exactly one year and one week earlier. But before I can tell you what I discovered in those woods, I have to tell you the other story first…

Read Chapter One.

Chapter Fourteen

This chapter comes with its own cookbook, documenting DIY condiments and a few recipes I’ve customized. But first… advice on learning how to do something and a shout out to some friends.

Putting it all together

If you’ve come this far, then you’ve followed my journey through some really hard work, and if you’ve managed to get a good start at it, congratulations. Don’t stop and don’t give up. But half of the fun of changing your life is finding new and more creative ways to do it. This chapter is going to be all about the practical, and I’m going to share some of the recipes and replacements that I’ve discovered and altered to fit my diet over the last year and a half.

Previously, I’ve discussed healthier versions of various seasonings and condiments, but you can also make your own versions of the latter, and the best part about doing so is not only do you have complete control over what goes into them, but you can fiddle around and adjust the recipes to suit both your own dietary needs and your palate.

And, like anything else, the only way to get better is through practice. The more you do anything, the better you get at it. Look at one of my non-cooking examples: I walked into my first improv class at the beginning of 2017 being absolutely terrified of even trying it. Just under a year later, at the end of 2017, I started doing it for real for audiences as often as I could and I am loving it.

Another example I haven’t mentioned. At my (former) workplace but still freelance office away from home (long story), there’s a ping pong table. Before I got out of the hospital, I never even tried to play. I thought I’d be terrible at it, honestly. It was something that I watched my two office besties, Peter and Cooper, do all the time for well over a year, and they were both quite good at it, but I was intimidated.

But then, not long after I got out of the hospital and was feeling better, I figured what the hell, let’s give it a shot. And I sucked. Peter and Cooper could both kick my ass with their eyes closed, although to their great credit they really held back at first. And they also taught me, little by little. While I’m not as consistently good as either of them to this day, I can still manage to sometimes hold my own and win a game or two, although I will never take it as seriously as Cooper does and I will never mind losing to Peter because he’s nice about winning.

But I do digress.

My point was that my progression on both fronts — improv and table tennis — is one of the biggest lessons I want to share with you, my loyal readers. You can’t get good at anything if you don’t try, but you have to understand that when you try it at first you’re probably not going to be any good at it. If you are good from the start, then congratulations. You’re a prodigy, and you should absolutely keep going.

Don’t be afraid to ask others for advice or to teach you. Peter and Cooper taught me how to play ping pong, among many other things. Rick, Holly, Jen, and Abel, along with all of my fellow students, taught me how to do improv, among many other things — and every audience I appear in front of teaches me a little bit more about what works and what doesn’t.

I’m going to share a little bit with you about how to cook, but don’t be afraid to seek out the help of others. J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, an American chef and food writer, can teach you all about the science of cooking in his books and blog, and there’s a copy of his weighty tome The Food Lab in my kitchen right now — although be careful with his stuff, because he does lean a bit toward too much salt. Listen to him for the how of cooking; not so much for the exact ingredients.

It might seem strange that I’m both promoting and criticizing Lopez-Alt in the same paragraph, but the fact that he teaches science-based cooking brings up a good point. When it comes to the strict chemistry of things, salt is really, really useful. It’s a preservative. It helps to denature proteins and make them cook better, and it facilitates necessary reactions in baking. When I first discovered him, way pre-hospital, I followed his recipe for scrambled eggs, which involved tossing in a teaspoon of salt with the raw eggs, then letting them sit for fifteen minutes before whisking and cooking.

And yes, they were the best scrambled eggs I’d ever had. And they had at least 2,325 mg of sodium from just the salt, never mind what came from the eggs and milk. In other words, it was nearly twice what I’m supposed to have in an entire day in a single breakfast item.

So… not really a viable roadmap to follow without editing the ingredients yourself and acknowledging that some bits of cooking magic will be impossible. On the other hand, if you stick to his methods regarding cooking tools and times and techniques, then he’s absolutely worth following.

There are also cookbooks geared toward specific dietary needs, like both editions of the American Heart Association’s Low Salt Cookbooks, which happen to be sitting right next to my copy of The Food Lab unironically. Any brick and mortar bookstore or online retailer (although, please, go to the former first!) will have an array of books designed for low-sodium, low-fat, sugar-free, vegan, gluten-free, kosher, halal, and any other kind of diet you can think of. You can also find books, and plenty of blogs, teaching general cooking techniques.

One go-to blog for me personally is SodiumGirl which, despite the title, is oriented toward low-sodium diets. Other useful sites are FatSecret for tracking calories and keeping a food diary, and EatThisMuch for meal-planning, although you’ll need to set up a free account in order to customize beyond daily Calorie count. I tested it without being logged in, and the first suggested menu under vegetarian options blew my sodium count with breakfast alone, so be aware.

But let’s get to cooking and start it out simple, with the All-American trio of condiments: ketchup, mayonnaise, and mustard.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Thirteen or start with the Prologue.

 

Chapter Thirteen

It isn’t all puppies and unicorns when you try to improve yourself, and I’m no exception. In this excerpt, I discuss the setbacks I hit and how I dealt with them.

Inevitable setbacks

Since this chapter flashes back to the Prologue, it’s appropriate to have its own prologue. Remember the diary we started back in Chapter Five? Well, I keep one, too, and I documented a lot of what I went through below, good and bad, although I wrote this chapter after I came back out the other side. If it reads at times like I’m in the midst of the Sturm und Drang, it’s because I’ve basically collaborated with myself from that time period when everything seemed like it went pear-shaped.

And yes, I’m quite aware of the irony of using a food metaphor in a book that’s supposed to help you lose weight, but at least it’s a somewhat healthy food metaphor. But I do digress…

For me, Labor Day weekend of 2017 was a high-point in this entire process. That’s when the incident I mentioned in the prologue happened. What I didn’t mention there was the purpose of the camp. It’s put on by a group called the California Community of Men, or CalComMen for short, which is basically a heart-centered social group for, as the leader puts it, “men who love men.”

They specifically avoid using the label “gay” alone because the group is more inclusive than that and covers the entire spectrum of men — gay, bisexual, transgender, and yes, even straight. A big part of avoiding labels, I’ve learned, is that there are a lot of men in the group who came out very late in life, many of them who had already been married to women and had families. I’ve done none of those things, but there are also plenty of other members like me, so it all balances out.

A lot of their events are clothing optional, which was another attraction for me. And no, it’s not all about sex parties. I should explain that there actually is a range when it comes to men’s social groups like this, ranging from the very prudish ones that don’t have any kind of nudity or hanky-panky going on at their events all the way to the ones for which that’s their entire raison d’etre. If I remember correctly, the group on the no sex side is almost totally spiritual and political in nature, while the group where sex is all but required goes by a rather quaint acronym that is a homonym for the crew of a submarine. Since I’ve never been involved in either of those groups directly, I won’t name them here, but you can probably find them if you look.

Of course, the sex fest group really gets the definition of naturism wrong, because it absolutely isn’t about sex at all. It’s about being comfortable with your own body and getting in touch with nature. As I’ve explained elsewhere, I’ve pretty much always been a nudist, I feel comfortable that way, and especially now that I’ve gotten back into shape I have no problems hanging around naked with other people.

But, as it turned out, this camp had suddenly become pretty much not clothing-optional except for a couple of indoor events mainly because one of the attendees at the previous session had not followed the rules, ending up in places he shouldn’t have been, which got the attention of neighboring camps. But that was fine with me because that wasn’t what this whole experience was about.

It was about trying new things and testing myself and making a lot of new friends and when I came back home, I was on a total high. I had also taken the Tuesday after Labor Day off at work, so I and my cabin-mate, whom I had met the day before camp because he needed a ride up from L.A., decided to go back via Palm Springs and spend the day and night at a small clothing-optional resort that had hosted CalComMen earlier that summer. Shout out to Tortuga del Sol. We practically had the place to ourselves.

I had an appointment with my cardiologist the day I came back to work, and my heart had improved nicely. This was also when I impressed him when I told him that I was losing weight despite eating things like pasta.

“Pasta!” he exclaimed to me, incredulous. “You eat pasta and look like this? You should talk to my wife and tell her your secrets.” He punctuated this by patting his belly.

And then, the next day, I got laid off from my job of a decade that I had loved so much because the company was having cash-flow issues, largely driven by lackluster web sales, something that has become more and more common everywhere that isn’t a website that starts with “A” and ends with “mazon.” It wasn’t a total layoff and I’m still writing for them freelance, but, obviously, it’s a lot less income and I’m no longer an employee, so I get to do things like pay for my own health insurance which, obviously, is really, really important to me because of everything that’s happened.

At about $460 a month for the same plan I had from work, I thought it was expensive until I tried to fill a prescription before my COBRA had kicked in — one of my heart meds of the “you can’t stop this one cold turkey” variety — only to find out that its real price was more than half of my monthly premium. Fortunately, Kaiser is very understanding, so instead of charging me outright, they agreed to bill me with the idea being that by the time that did happen my insurance would have kicked in and I’d pay the usual $11. And that’s what happened.

And yes, why a life-saving prescription would actually be more than my car payment in the first place, I have no idea. Welcome to America!

But… it was only because of a few things that my world did not crash down immediately. Number one, like I mentioned, I was still on a total high from camp. Number two, for once in my life I’d saved money like a madman, so there was a nice cushion waiting. Number three, the severance deal I got was ridiculously generous, so I was essentially paid through the end of the year, along with the freelance income and unemployment I’d be getting.

On the other hand, I do tend to have what’s called seasonal affective disorder, also known as “it gets dark early, so I get depressed easily.” The rest of September and October went pretty well, but as November came around and the clocks changed, I started to drift into a much darker mood and saw my motivation slip away as well. Now, I didn’t relapse by gaining weight or smoking again, but I was definitely no longer on my end of summer high.

Around the holiday season — which, in America, is basically “everything after Halloween,” —  I also had back-to-back romantic fake-outs. The first was someone who friended me and messaged med on Facebook after he’d joined a group I belonged to. At first, he hit on me hard and I bought it for a little bit, but things began to not add up pretty quickly. For example, he claimed to be an engineer living in the U.S., but his English was barely passable — and you don’t get that kind of degree without good language skills. He claimed to be from Brazil, but I couldn’t get a word of Portuguese out of him, and he’d just ignore any questions I asked him in Portuguese. (It’s a quirk of Google Translate that Spanish to Portuguese is much more accurate than either of those languages to or from English, so I came fairly well-armed.) As soon as he mentioned that he’d be going to Africa to negotiate a contract for a project, that’s when the dime dropped, so I just played along until he tried to bait the inevitable scam.

The way the scam works in a nutshell is that the Con Artist (them) asks the Mark (you) to help them out by cashing a large check for them. They can’t do it because they don’t have a bank account or they’re trying to hide the money from a spouse or the government, or whatever reason. By the way, in exchange for doing this for them, you get to keep a generous chunk of that check — 10%, 25%, whatever.

When the Mark falls for it, the check appears to be absolutely legit. It goes into their bank, it clears, and they send the balance, less their fee, on to the Con Artist, who promptly vanishes. It isn’t until weeks or months later that the Mark’s bank finds out the check was a fake — and guess who gets left holding the bag for the money that never existed? It’s called Advance Fee Fraud, and it’s a really, really old scam.

Of course, when my would-be con artist mentioned going to Africa, I told him to beware of Nigerian Princes and he asked me what that meant. I then proceeded to explain to him exactly the advance fee scam he was going to try to pull on me, but I guess he didn’t get the clue. When he asked me if I had a bank account, the alarm bells were going off big time, so when he asked if I could help him get money from a business partner “through your account,” I flat out told him “No” in Portuguese.

Funny coincidence, though — at just about exactly his moment, one of my good friends posted a video on Facebook from a man who’d gone through almost the same thing — minus the lonely hearts angle. Instead of blocking his scammer or reporting him, he told him, “I know you’re trying to con me, but tell me where you are and why you’re doing this, and I’ll see what I can do to help you legally.”

And, what do you know, he actually did. His scammer was in Liberia, and the man told him that he needed pictures from his country and would pay for the ones he could use. The scammer sent some photos and… they were awful. Eventually, the man sent him a $30 digital camera that was still much better than whatever the scammer was using… and the photos still sucked. But after the man gave the scammer some tips, the photos improved. This led to an Indiegogo campaign with the goal of creating a book of the pictures to document life in Liberia.

It succeeded, and as the man promised, he sent half the money from book sales to his now would-be scammer, with the promise to contribute the other half to some cause in Liberia. The Liberian photographer told the man that the schools there really needed help. This led to the photographer using the rest of the book money to basically buy out all the school supplies in town and give them to the students, happy ending for everyone.

Yeah, my friend is great at finding inspirational stuff like this. I’ve told him many times, although I still don’t think he believes it, that he has always inspired me to be a better person because he’s such an awesome human.

So… I made the same offer to my would-be scammer. I told him I was on to what he was doing, but if he told me where he was and why he was trying to scam people, I’d see what I could do to help him. I made that offer a couple of times, in fact.

Unlike the Liberian, he just kept doubling down. “I’m in Maryland, and I need you to use your account to get me money from my business partner.”

Well, so much for that, and I unfriended him. But you can’t say I didn’t try. Right?

* * *


Continue reading “Chapter Thirteen”

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.)

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