Pursue what scares you because it will make you stronger

After a month off for the holidays, it’s nice to be back on the improv stage again, and in tonight’s match I was captain of the blue team and we won, 25 to 20.

If that terminology for improv seems strange, let me give a brief explanation. I do improv for ComedySportz — the Rec League, the starter rung, as it were, of their performance groups. They also have the Sunday Team and the Main Company. It’s an international franchise, founded in Milwaukee Wisconsin in 1984. The L.A. company opened in 1987 and it’s the longest-running comedy show in town.

If you don’t know what the term “improv” means, then you might recognize it from shows like “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” It’s basically comedy that is made up on the spot by the performers with a lot of possible games, which generally divide into two broad categories: Scene games, in which the players are performing a scene about characters with specific relationships in a particular setting with the goal of finding a conflict and a resolution; and non-scene games, in which the goals revolve around things like wordplay, puns or rhymes.

There’s also short-form and long-form improv, the latter known as a “Harold,” but what I do is strictly short-form. The ComedySportz twist is that each match, which consists of a number of games, is performed by two competing teams, Blue stage right and Red stage left, moderated by a referee and with an announcer keeping score. Matches usually have two halves, which open and close with a head-to-head or team vs. team game, then alternating single-team games. Sometimes, there will also be another head-to-head game in the middle of a half. This is all in keeping with the sports (or sportz) analogy — and if you’re wondering why it’s “sportz,” that goes back to the mothership in Milwaukee, a city with a strong Polish-American heritage, and a lot of Polish words either end with or have a Z in them.

But that’s not the point of this story. The point is a note that I got about a non-scene game that we played to open the second half of the match. This is a rhyming and singing game in which we line up alternating red and blue team members, then sing a particular song using a suggested name from the audience. The first person gets to just use the name. The second person has to use a rhyming word. The third person has to come up with three rhymes that haven’t been used yet. So, for example, if the name is “Jon,” the first person uses “Jon,” the second might use “gone,” and the third could use “con,” “non,” and “pawn.” The pattern repeats, so that every third person has to come up with three rhymes.

Needless to say, the more times around it goes, the harder it gets for that person in the three-rhyme spot to hang on, and people are eliminated if they hesitate, break the rhythm, or repeat a rhyme. Homophones are okay, though, so if the original name were Jim, for example, the words gym and gem would be acceptable, provided that the differences were clear in context: “He goes to the gym,” and “his ring has a gem,” for example.

And when I first started learning improv, although I loved to watch this game, the idea of doing it scared the holy crap out of me. And, in fact, every single time I tried to play it in class or when I first joined the Rec League, I would be (clap clap) “out of there” during the first or second pass because I’d either repeat or totally freeze up.

But the entire reason I’d started taking improv classes in the first place was because I loved the art form but it scared the hell out of me to actually do it. And the more classes I took the more I realized that I liked it, so a big note I gave myself when I actually started performing for people was this: Play the games that scare you silly.

This was one of them, and by forcing myself to keep playing it, I’ve managed to go from “person who gets thrown out on the first or second pass” to “guy who keeps winning it.” That’s not an attempt to brag, by the way. It’s just the lesson I’ve learned. You can absolutely get good at something that terrifies you if you put the fear aside and do it. And what is that fear about, really? It’s the fear of failure. And yeah… every time I used to play this game, I would fail badly and get called out early. But as soon as I put aside that fear, a funny thing happened. If I got called out early, so what? And if I didn’t, I was just having fun, and the more fun I had the easier it became to keep on going to the end.

A really nice personal culmination to all of this came tonight when we got notes after our first match of 2019. The note I got basically boiled down to, “You’re really great at this game, but please don’t be so great when your team is ahead at the start of the half.” In other words, intentionally fail at what you’re good at so we can keep this as more of a horse race. Which, in a strange way, is really kind of the next level thing I need to latch onto in my improv progress: Failing spectacularly in this genre is just as good as winning it all.

So, note to self: Keep playing games that terrify you while not being afraid to fall on your sword when it will make the other team look good.

I would have learned none of this, by the way, had I not gotten over my initial fear of actually doing improv and starting classes in the first place. If you’re interested in doing improv and have a ComedySportz franchise in your city, look them up. Especially if you’re interested in doing it but also scared to death of trying because, trust me, three or four classes in, your fear will be a thing of the past.

Quartets on the Deaths of too Many Children… Part 1

Sometimes, I write poetry. Sometimes, it’s inspired by real-world events and not who I’m in love with that week. This is one of those sometimes. Feel free to share.

Thoughts and prayers do nothing, you know
Except make you feel no guilt
One more shooting, and one more blow
This is the world you have built

How many children, how many deaths
How many guns do you need?
Suffered enough of their terminal breaths?
When will we learn to take heed?

You’d think we’d be better than that
Learn to transcend our animal past
But we kill like a hungry house cat
So our species ain’t destined to last

The secret is this, the secret is love
The secret is learn how to share
Take other people and put them above
Learn how to tell them you care

This planet is old, our species is not
But all life that lives here is kin
Learn to be happy with what you have got
Learn how to let all life in

The problem, I think, is that words interfere
Let’s tackle emotions instead
Settle on being in the now and here
List’ and react to what I just said

So here are my quartets
And here are my words
Take ‘em or leave ‘em, ta-da
Breaking the format
To bring you this point…
Smile and hug me… voila!

Look — an interview!

Meet Jon Bastian of The Word Whisperer in Sherman Oaks, courtesy of Voyage L.A.

As I move now from writing the book to rewriting and editing to get it ready, I won’t be having the regular chapter updates. But I do have this bit to share: an interview I did recently for the website Voyage  L.A. Check it out! And while you’re at it, don’t forget to check out the book, beginning with the Prologue.

Chapter Fifteen

With Chapter Fifteen, we come to the end of the line. This is where I reveal the lesson of the safety pin from the prologue — but not in this excerpt!

Closing the circle

And so we have made it to the final chapter together and, I hope, you’ve already begun to see some progress. For me, it’s always helpful from time to time to think back to August 25, 2016 — who I was, what I had become, and how I have changed since then.

I wasn’t happy with myself then, and hadn’t been for a while. I had ballooned up to a ridiculous weight and had been living in such denial that it took my scrotum blowing up to the size of a cantaloupe just to get me to the doctor — despite having excellent health insurance. I smoked at least a pack a day, could barely walk across a room, and pretty much only left home to go to work, pick up my mail, or buy groceries. Dating? Not even a remote possibility.

A brush with death will definitely change you, but it wasn’t until afterwards that I started to realize that my uncle’s heart attack had affected my parents a lot more than it seemed at the time. Not only did my dad go on a diet to help prevent heart disease, but my parents got me a social security card at the time. For non-Americans, this is effectively a national ID number although it’s technically not supposed to be used for identification (spoiler: it constantly is). It’s how your employers track you and report your wages and income taxes, and it’s how you collect retirement benefits from the government after you’ve spent a working lifetime paying into them.

In the 1980s, the rules changed so that infants had to get social security numbers, mainly because a certain political party went through one of its frequent moments of anti-immigrant muscle-flexing, but combined with the legitimate need to keep people from creating fake babies to use as tax deductions. When I was a kid, though, it still wasn’t necessary to get a social security number until you were about to get a job — unless you were going to collect someone else’s benefits, i.e., a deceased parent’s pension and death benefit.

So yes, my parents took my dad’s brother’s heart attack quite seriously. It was also not long after this that my dad started taking me to the movies — usually science fiction — which totally changed my life. Again, I never made the connection between “specter of death” and “spend more time with your son” until I’d gone through the same thing myself. Minus the son part, of course.

It’s funny how adult eyes can change your perception of things your parents did. For example, my parents decided to try to sell the house I grew up in and buy something bigger and better, although that never happened because the seller’s market was bad at the time. Again, though, it wasn’t until years later and as an adult that I realized they did this almost immediately after my dad’s youngest son from his first marriage turned 18 and my dad didn’t have to pay child support anymore. (Alimony must have been a thing of the past, because his ex-wife had remarried almost as soon as he did.)

But I do digress.

In my case, almost dying gave me a second chance, and almost six months after I wound up in the hospital — just in time for my birthday! — I was very happy with myself. I was thinner than I’d ever been as an adult except for one brief window when I was about 26, I had discovered that my fear of doctors and hospitals was largely an illusion, based on past experiences that just didn’t apply anymore, and not only had I quit smoking (saving over $260 a month), but I now found the habit to be beyond disgusting. I was athletic and energetic again, had started taking improv classes, and noticed an incredible difference in the way people treated me — friends and strangers alike. My social life took off and, although I didn’t get back into dating quite just then, I did start to meet a lot of new people in 2017.

Since I like statistics, here are some as a reminder, because I’ve told you this before. My top weight was 277.6 lbs. I brought that down to 167.8. My measurements were 44-42-48. Now, they’re more like 36-30-34. My shirt size went from XL to less than S, and the one belt I own that had gotten too tight at its loosest I now regularly crank down to the last hole. Yeah, I guess I should buy a new belt.

Certain body parts always stay the same size, so now my head, hands, feet, and… other bits all seem enormous — there’s your diet incentive right there, guys! The smaller you get, the bigger it looks. It’s funny, because there’s kind of a stereotype that it’s always the skinny guys who are the most well-endowed, and now you know why that seems to be…

* * *

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

Chapter Five

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

Strap in for this ride…

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

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

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

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

That wasn’t the only lap.

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

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

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

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

“You’ll love it,” Janet insists.

“Nah, I don’t like — ” I protest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, hell no.

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

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

“Oh,” I thought. “That’s pretty…”

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

I totally love roller coasters!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

Image: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons

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

 

The Amateur’s Guide to Making Your Own Miracles

In the middle of 2016, I almost died. By the middle of 2017, I had turned my life around, lost over a hundred pounds, and rediscovered happiness — and I want to tell you how I did it.

While my main job is providing my writing and editing services in order to make your business and communications stand out above the rest, I do have my own story to tell, and the title of this post is the title of the book I’m working on.

Here’s the thumbnail version. In August, 2016, I weighed 278 pounds, I wound up in the hospital when my heart failed, and my cardiologist told me flat out, “You are going to die if you don’t make some changes.”

Well, I made those changes, and a bit over a year later, I weigh 167 pounds, my blood pressure is in the low-normal range, and I’ve been told that I have the resting heart rate of an 18-year-old athlete. My heart also made a full recovery., and I managed to kick a decades-long smoking habit cold turkey with absolutely no desire to go back to it.

When that same cardiologist started asking me for diet tips, I knew I was doing something right — and I knew that it was time to share my how-to story with the world. It wasn’t easy to do what I did, and I’ve been told that it was also theoretically impossible at my age, but losing over a hundred pounds and a full twelve inches off my waist size says otherwise.

The only downside was that I had to replace my wardrobe three times because I kept getting too damn skinny for my pants. Yeah, first world problems, I know!

The thing is, if you have the desire, you can do it too, and make a radical transformation that will make you healthier, happier, and more self-confident. Not only did I transform myself physically, but I went from being a shy introvert to a complete extrovert — and became pretty athletic and energetic in the bargain.

Basically, it was like hitting a “reboot” button and going back to my late 20s all over again.

So that’s what I’m working on for myself and I’ll be sharing it with you soon. Trust me: If I could do what I did, then anybody can. Watch this space for updates on the book’s progress, coming soon!

Read the book’s prologue.