Puff, puff, past…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Three

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

Thank you, Mr. President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

 Putting the “die” in diet

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

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

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

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

 k/m^2 (or) P/I^2 x 703

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

The one-finger memory aid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter Two

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

It starts early

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read an excerpt from Chapter Three.

Can’t live / in fear

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter One

And here it is, my faithful fans — the first chapter of the book. Viddy and enjoy and share.

“All right. I’m admitting you to the hospital via the emergency room.”

These are not exactly the words I was expecting to hear late on a Friday morning in summer. It was August 26, 2016, to be precise. It was the day before my boss’ birthday, and I was supposed to go into the office that afternoon to record a group video message to him. And, besides…

“Can I go make arrangements for my dog first at least?” I asked.

The doctor, who was an Indian woman currently giving me the stern look worthy of a disapproving Indira Gandhi, shook her head. “Would you like to die?” she asked, matter-of-factly.

Well, that was not good news.

I tried bargaining, but she was firm. She couldn’t exactly detain me against my will, but she urged my compliance in the strictest of terms. I tried to tell her why it was important that I go into the office briefly and arrange for someone to look after my dog. She was having none of it.

“Will anyone die if you don’t go to work?” she demanded.

“No…”

“Do you have friends you can call to go take care of your dog?”

“I… yes.”

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have even been a question, but even up to that point I was trying to deny the obvious. I was dying. I probably even should have been dead. But, like too many stubborn men, I had put off paying attention to the warning signs for way too long. And, like too many men, it wasn’t until whatever was going wrong with me affected my junk that I finally paid attention.

See, by this point, I had been rapidly gaining weight — nearly 45 pounds since the beginning of the year. I knew this and still know it now because I’d been tracking my weight since September of 2013, in an effort to lose some. In that first entry, from September 13, 2013, I logged a morning weight of 227.8 lbs. Even at 6’2”, that’s a BMI decidedly in the obese range already, and although I’d been taking steps to lose weight and tracking things diligently, my body decided at the beginning of 2016 to give me a hearty, “Screw you and your diet efforts!”

Hell, I’d stopped eating red meat entirely the October before. Wasn’t I supposed to start shrinking because of that? I was only eating poultry. I was doing fast days. Hell, there were weeks when I only had energy bars for lunch, and still I was swelling up like Violet Beauregard at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

By late August, I’d actually been sleeping sitting upright in my office chair rolled into my bedroom for a few months, wrapped in a comforter, because I could not breathe when I lay down. I could barely walk — not only because my legs were so swollen, but because almost any effort sent me gasping for air. The dog suffered because of it. We used to go up and down the neighborhood and around several blocks. Now, I’d sneak her outside and ten feet away to do her business, then right back in.

Now you’d think that a rational person would have taken any one of those things as a sign and gone right to the doctor, but I had two strikes against me in that regard. First was that whole natural male stubbornness.

“Oh, it’ll get better.”

“Oh, I’m not that sick.”

“What? I feel fine!”

Right.

Second was a bit more personal, but I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this. I suffered a severe case of what is technically called iatrophobia — fear of doctors — although, in my case, it wasn’t so much a phobia as it was a deep-seated mistrust, and it went straight back to a series of events that affected me deeply in my teenage years.

I won’t go too much into it here (out of respect) except to say that my mother fell victim to a mystery illness. In retrospect, it may have been lupus, or not. But the very short version of a too long story is that she died when I was way too young after a series of doctors seemed to basically scratch their heads and try a ton of medications. Ultimately, I think their ill-informed attempts to treat her symptoms rather than find the cause are what killed her. She’d been injected with steroids, given pain-killers and anti-inflammatories, poked and prodded and, mostly, ignored.

I specifically remember her complaining to me once that she had told her (exclusively male) doctors many times that her symptoms got worse whenever it was her time of the month. She told me this not very long after I’d learned what “time of the month” was in Sex Ed in the first place, by the way. But her male doctors just told her, “Oh, it’s all in your head.”

Yeah, I can hear the record-scratch for a modern audience on that absolute mind-boggler of a sexist statement, but nobody would have caught onto that in the late 80s. Of course hormones have an effect on medicine and how you’re feeling and everything else. Incidentally, to this day, most medicines are only tested and normalized based on men.

See, women get excluded from clinical trials because of the idea that they might one day get pregnant, so there’s no data whatsoever on the effect a lot of meds might have on women. Lather, rinse, repeat the vicious circle.

Sigh.

Anyway… I lost my mom and my dad lost his best friend and partner, and so I really never went to doctors. I can count on less than one hand the times that I ever did as an adult, whether I had health insurance or not — and too many of those times were bad experiences.

Prior to this visit, in fact, I had a nightmare adventure visiting an urgent care center that shall remain nameless (except: Not Kaiser) because of a sore finger, where I was utterly misdiagnosed with gout, and then they lost my blood samples after I left. Oh yeah — in order to get to that urgent care, I had to convince the insurance company, which had misplaced my primary care hospital nearly forty miles from home, that I in fact did not live in Huntington Beach, but in North Hollywood.

Good thing for me that I had mostly been healthy enough to feel immortal, right?

So this is why your humble narrator slept sitting up for a few months and tried to deny that he was in real trouble, and didn’t seek medical care until, as mentioned above, things started to affect his favorite things — which were those bits between his legs.

* * *

Oh, balls

If you’re an average male, your scrotum is about the size of a plum, depending on the weather. If you’re gifted, maybe a lemon, and if you’re a freak, a baseball. If you get up to stuff like pumping or inflating… well, you shouldn’t, but even then, that was nothing on what happened to me.

Imagine a nice, big cantaloupe. Now try to hold one of those between your thighs and walk. Also, try to imagine that this surprise set of elephant nuts is trying to strangle your penis. No — it’s trying to make your penis disappear, which makes it really awkward when it’s time to pee.

That was me on the Saturday night before I wound up in the hospital, when I insisted on driving all the way over to the West Side to see a friend’s staged reading of their musical in progress. How or why I did it, I have no idea — but fortunately the friends of mine in attendance who saw me and to whom I confided the truth had some advice for me.

“You should be in the goddamn hospital right now.”

Yeah, I guess I should have been. So the following morning I went to urgent care where, ironically, I met my primary care physician for the first time because he happened to be on rounds. I don’t think he was all that happy to see me. But, as I said in the intro, I’m sure that his first impression was not a good one: “I hope this fat sack doesn’t expect me to pull a miracle out of my ass when he hasn’t bothered to even show up despite being insured.”

Honestly, I totally deserved it if that is what he thought.

Of course, what really happened was that he ran a couple of tests — as it turned out, for an infection and an STI — prescribed some antibiotics, and sent me on my way. Probably standard procedure, but possibly also a different kind of test of me. I’d pretty much confessed my iatrophobia to him on first sight, and he didn’t seem impressed by that.

But a funny thing happened on my part when Dr. Williams came into that room. My fear of doctors vanished. He was a nice guy. He seemed to be a bit annoyed with me but, at the same time, was not at all judgmental. He listened. He explained. Nothing scary or nasty happened. He was clearly there to help, and there was a course of action. Maybe everything was going to be okay.

So I filled the prescription, headed home, and hoped for the best.

By Wednesday, my scrotum had gotten even bigger — what’s next up from a cantaloupe? And I wasn’t breathing better, and wasn’t feeling better, so I called Dr. Williams. He scheduled an echocardiogram for Friday morning, so that’s where I went. And it was after that test that the cardiologist gave me the life-changing news.

“You’re going to hospital now, or you’re going to die.”

Well, all right then…

* * *

How hearts fail

If this were a one-person show instead of a book, this is the point when the sound of a heartbeat would fill the theater and the lights would go to black, then the heartbeat would gradually get slower and more labored as slides projected in the darkness with a voiceover.

Congestive heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Congestive is exactly what it sounds like: traffic gets backed up, so your blood cells can’t get to where they need to go. Symptoms include fatigue, diminished ability to move around, shortness of breath, and swelling.

Guess which of those symptoms I had. Yeah, it’d be all of them.

In my case, my doctors told me that my heart function was at 15%. In a normal person, it’s expected to be 55% or above. So, while 15% isn’t as bad as it could be against a hundred, it’s still pretty bad. This percentage represents the ejection fraction — that, is the amount of blood that the left ventricle actually manages to squirt upward per beat. In a sense, this is your heart’s money shot, and the higher the better.

On top of this, I also apparently had a bit of mitral valve backwash. That is, blood that was trying to make it up and out that left ventricle was pouring back down instead. End result: Fluid gathering, first in my legs, then in my ass, finally, washing up into my torso and back down into my scrotum.

In retrospect, I think that the doctor who had admitted me was right. I probably would not have lived more than another week if I hadn’t gone into the hospital right that moment. As it was, I spent about the next ten hours in the emergency room, in a private room on a gurney, hooked up to a Furosemide IV.

Furosemide is a powerful diuretic. A diuretic makes you urinate — and that I did, about every fifteen minutes for most of that weekend. Now, since they were monitoring fluid in and fluid out, I had to use a plastic urinal, and I couldn’t count how many times I filled one of those things over the next three days. All I do know is that I walked out of that hospital 45 lbs lighter than I’d been when I walked in.

* * *

In hospital

As a patient, I’d only been in a hospital one other time in my life — the first sixteen days after I was born two months premature, so I don’t remember any of it. I was a frequent hospital visitor as both of my parents were dying, though, so I did not have great associations with the places.

Ironically, my original ambition had been to be a doctor, although I just didn’t have the math aptitude to pursue a scientific profession. I also volunteered in a hospital in high school and then worked in two during and just after college, and these experiences did not help enamor me of the location, either.

Hospitals are full of sick people and they never really quiet down. I had learned that one firsthand working as a security guard while I was in college, when first the swing guy didn’t show up and then the night shift guy didn’t show up, so I worked a twenty-four hour shift. Hey, it was a small hospital.

Did I mention that the fine people I worked for at the time screwed me out of the ridiculous overtime on that one, by the way? Although in retrospect I could have screwed them back fifteen ways from Sunday in a lawsuit. But I didn’t. (I didn’t work for the hospital, by the way — it was a contractor that staffed multiple hospitals, and the people who ran the company were dicks, in the modern and film noir meanings of the word.)

But I do digress…

I found the entire hospital experience that summer to be surprisingly… pleasant, actually. And yes, that was a surprise to me. I actually had two IV lines in me — one in my left hand and the other in my right arm — and the biggest surprise there was that they didn’t bother me at all.

I had always wondered how people could put up with having needles in them for a long period of time, and now I know. Part of the reason, of course, is that an IV isn’t a needle in your arm, it’s a cannula, which is a very thin and flexible tube that’s actually inserted via a hypodermic needle. I didn’t realize this until they finally pulled it out and bent it.

In a lot of ways, being in a private hospital room is a lot like being in a very fancy, although very boring, hotel. There’s also a magnificent staff available 24/7 to wait on you, and a parade of doctors. When they need to do tests or take X-rays, one of the wonderful nurses will give you a ride, either flat on a gurney or in a wheelchair. There’s even cable and WiFi!

One of the most interesting changes I’ve noticed in medicine from my days working in hospitals is how much everything has become geared toward modesty, which is a sad side-effect of America’s returning puritanism and sexual repression that began in the ‘90s. Even when my doctor was examining my scrotum out of necessity — cantaloupe, remember? — I still had on my underwear and a gown, and he only uncovered what he actually needed to see. This was also true when they did an ultrasound on the same place in the hospital — the tech was basically groping around under a towel.

Now, I’m not a particularly shy person, so these kinds of concessions don’t really mean a lot to me, but if you’re the kind of person who avoids medical care because of modesty, it looks like that issue has been minimized if not all but eliminated. Of course, I never had to have a catheter, so there wasn’t any reason for doctors or nurses to poke around down there in the first place. In fact, they told me to keep my underwear on when I changed into the hospital gown.

That part wasn’t so pleasant after three days straight, by the way.

* * *

Not that bad, really

The hardest part of the experience was that first day, really, and mainly because I spent about ten hours in the emergency room before they took me up to the hospital proper. By the time I got up there, the kitchen had closed and I hadn’t eaten anything before the test, so by that point it had been well over twenty-four hours since I’d had food. “Dinner” on the first night consisted of graham crackers and juice, although I was limited during my stay to a maximum of 1.2 liters of fluid per day — which ain’t a lot.

The food for the rest of the weekend really made up for all of it, though.

This is something I thought that I would never say or write, but I actually have fond memories of that weekend in the hospital. Maybe it was being the center of attention — a little bit — but it was also an enormous sense of relief. My health had been going downhill since at least the previous Thanksgiving by that point. Now, suddenly, people were doing something about it and I was feeling better.

One of the most memorable encounters of the weekend happened on Saturday, though, when I first met my cardiologist, Dr. Manela. Keep in mind that this was a Saturday, and the doctor walked into the room wearing a kippah. If you’re a goy, you might know that as a yarmulke, but the key point is that despite the doctor being very Jewish, he’s dropping in on me on the Sabbath, and those two little details really gave me confidence. Long story, which I’ll probably tell elsewhere, but while I’m technically Catholic while raised as a very secular Protestant who ended up a total atheist, I’m also very, very Jewish culturally because all of my closest friends growing up were — so I tend to trust Jews more than I trust any other religious group, because they truly are concerned with life. That, plus they don’t try to convert people, which is a big bonus.

That was exactly the reason that such an observant Jew was able to work on the Sabbath and meet with me, by the way. See, there’s this great little bit in their rules that says, “If what you’re doing will save a life, then you go and work your ass off, and don’t even pay no never mind to whether it’s the Sabbath, or whether it’s kosher.”

Who’d a thunk it — a religion that uses logic. Wow.

The news that Dr. Manela came to give me was this: “Hi. Your heart failed.” And he was then truly shocked by my lack of shock. In fact, he even pointed it out, telling me that most of the time that he told people this, they freaked the hell out. My response to him was that I tended to react that way to bad news, because the only logical response was to say, “Okay, that’s a thing. Now what do I do to fix it?”

I think he appreciated that answer — a little bit then, but a hell of a lot more as time went on, more on which later.

Saturday was also the day that I met one of my weekend nurses who, more than anyone, was really responsible for making my stay a fantastic experience. He was nice, he was caring, he was funny, and he really took his time to explain to me what was going on, and to just sit down and talk. I don’t even remember whether I told him about my whole iatrophobia thing, but I definitely told him about the circumstances (read: swollen nutsack) that brought me there in the first place, and on Sunday he asked me, “Uh… can I see it?”

Keep in mind that he’s straight (sorry, boys), and his interest was strictly professional, but it was actually really endearing. I mean, honestly, in America, elephantiasis is probably not something he’d see every day, or any day, and, while that was not the cause of my produce department sized funbag, it was still an interesting end result, at least.

Like I said, I’m not shy, but this led to one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had. Yeah, we’re talking about my balls, there they are somewhere inside of all that, and how’s your wife again? Definitely a bonding moment.

* * *

About my dog

Now, the observant and animal-lovers among you are probably still wondering one thing. “What about your dog?”

Thanks for asking.

Her name is Sheeba and when I went into the hospital she was eleven years old. While she kind of acts very independent, she’s actually a lot more clingy than she pretends to be, especially to me and especially after her older sister, Shadow, passed away in September 2014. She doesn’t exactly have separation anxiety, but she doesn’t do well on her own.

That’s a kind of interesting side-effect of my day job, which I haven’t mentioned yet. For the last decade, I’d worked for the Dog Whisperer, also known as Cesar Millan, and it was a dog-friendly office. So Sheeba and Shadow always got to go to work with me, and Sheeba especially did so after Shadow was gone — practically every day. But the downside of that one was that when I had to leave her at home alone because I was kind of busy trying not to die, it was not good for her.

I did manage to contact one old friend who knew her from about a decade ago, then give her my keys to go drop in for feeding and walking. The problem was that Sheeba didn’t remember her, so fled and hid behind the bed. So switch-up to a friend Sheeba had dealt with more recently, and he managed to actually get in there and walk her and feed her.

Still, when I came home on Monday, it wasn’t pretty. Sheeba practically exploded when I finally came back, she had blown her coat all over the place, and had torn down and chewed up the metal blinds in my bedroom. My absence was clearly a traumatic experience for her, and if there was a downside to my hospital experience, this was it.

I suppose, though, it was better to come back to her three days later than to have never come back at all.

* * *

You gotta have heart…

Your heart is a muscular organ. It’s neither your largest nor your smallest. Those honors belong to your gluteus maximi (in your butt) and the stapedius (in your ear) respectively. However, it’s certainly the most important. You could live without your largest and smallest muscles, although you probably couldn’t walk or hear. Without your heart (or a mechanical replacement) you die.

The heart’s job, which begins about six weeks after conception and ends about eight minutes or so before your death (in most cases), is to move your blood around your body. Your blood has several jobs. One is to bring oxygen to your cells and take carbon dioxide away. Others are to fight infection and close up wounds. It’s also the medium in which nutrients and hormones get around, being distributed from the source organs in your digestive and endocrine systems.

If you have an average resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute, then it will beat 31,557,600 times per year, more or less. Live to the age of three score and ten years mentioned in Psalm 90:10, and it will beat over 2.2 billion times. (Ooh… the atheist just quoted the Bible. Yeah, I’m allowed to do that. It’s a pretty important literary source.)

Ironically, the only other muscles in your body that work as hard or harder are the two diminutive muscles in your inner ear, but only because they are constantly responding to everything that you hear. By the way, some humans still have muscles in their outer ear that allow them to actually move them. I happen to be one of those rare humans who does, and I can wiggle my ears like nobody’s business. That has nothing to do with anything, but it’s fun to brag about and it’s always amused my dogs.

But I do digress…

The average human heart is the size of its human’s fist, and it weighs about 11 ounces. This is far less than the human brain (3 pounds), lungs (1.9 pounds) and liver (3.5 pounds). This is also far, far less than the weight of your skin, which is your biggest organ, clocking in at a probably surprising but impressive 16% of your weight. In my case, that’s 27 pounds now. It used to be 44. Also surprisingly: despite my rapid weight loss, I did not wind up with any extra dangly skin bits.

But the point of all these facts and figures is this: This not particularly large organ that weighs just less than a can of soup and which hides behind your sternum (the bit that connects your ribs) and between your lungs (the left one of which is smaller to accommodate it) starts working before you’re born and cannot rest for a second until you die. When it’s doing its job right, you hardly notice it. But when it isn’t…

Oh yeah. You’ll notice then. The only question is whether you’ll pay attention to what your heart is telling you and live or, like me, ignore the obvious and nearly die.

I’m really fond of the “live” option, personally.

* * *

Fear

There was only thing that had kept me out of that hospital room and out of my doctor’s office: Stupid, useless fear. There’s a famous line in Frank Herbert’s Dune that is a recurring motif because it’s the mantra of a religious order and it begins like this: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

I’d update that in my case to say that Fear Is the Killer. It kills ambition, it kills progress, and it can kill people. It can prevent us from achieving what is possible and from learning who we are. It stops us from moving forward and locks us in a safe, little box that might as well be a coffin. Fear is the mother of prejudice and the father of hate; the creator of division and the birthplace of ignorance.

The opposite of Fear is Love, and Love is the mother of Hope, Harmony, and Humanity.

Once I got over my fear, amazing things took place, way beyond mere physical healing. See, a funny thing happens when you face one fear and nothing bad happens. You start to face more of them, one after the other, until you’re killing fears left and right.

The incredible doctors and nurses of Kaiser Permanente helped put my heart back together, but then I took that ball and ran with it because I’d been given the greatest thing in the world: A second chance at life.

I think that I’ve lived more in those days since I got out of the hospital than I had in the entire time leading up to them. It’s a great feeling, and now I’m going to tell you how to do it for yourself, but the journey out is a story best begun with the journey in.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Two

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.

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.