If you love it, you’ll learn it

When you’re learning a new language, there’s one excellent method to increase your vocabulary and improve your fluency, and here it is.

Different people have different learning styles. Some people learn visually. That is, if they see it, they won’t forget it. Others are auditory learners, who pick things up via hearing. And there are also people whose learning method is tactile, through touch or physical motion.

Now, some of those skills seem to apply obviously to certain disciplines. Painters are probably visual learners, musicians are auditory, and dancers are tactile. In the case of language, you might think that it’s an auditory skill, but that’s not necessarily the case. Fortunately, you can use different tricks to learn a new language via your own method.

For visual people, it’s all about words, so the obvious best natural ways for visual learners to pick up a new language are reading and watching.

For auditory people, it’s all about sound, so they’re going to want to listen, although videos won’t hurt if they do have sound as well.

For tactile people, it’s all about sensations, so they’re going to be doing a lot of writing things down by hand.

That part of the lesson may seem like a “Well, duh” moment, but the key is in what you’re reading, listening to, or writing. If you want to learn a new language, treat it like your first language.

That is, whether you’re reading, listening, watching, or writing, you’re going to want to do it with things on subjects that interest you. I can’t emphasize this enough. What you should be doing is seeking out online resources in your target languages — generally newspaper and magazine sites — and then focus on the sections that pertain to your interests.

Whether you’re a fan of movies, TV, sports, fashion, politics, or whatever, if the content in the target language you’re scooping into your brain via your preferred method happens to be about topics you already love, then your contextual understanding is going to go through the roof.

Why? Well, because specialized topics happen to use specialized words, and the quickest way to start to understand the heart of a language — which is how words are derived, how idioms are formed, and so on — is to pick up those words that were created to describe your favorite topic.

I’m a fan of film and theater, for example, so a word I see a lot is taquilla, which means box office. As in English, it’s both a literal and metaphorical meaning. It can refer to the physical place where tickets are sold or to the amount of money a film or play took in.

But where did taquilla come from? Well, like a lot of words in Spanish, it came from Arabic (La Conquista lasted for centuries), and taquilla is a diminutive for “taca.” That word, in turn, came from the Arabic taqah, which referred to a window with bars — a good physical description of a lot of actual box offices, actually.

Incidentally, pretty much any word in Spanish that begins with “al” came from Arabic, where the al- prefix just means “the,” similar to how Spanish combines the articles “a” (to) and “el” (the) into “al.” For example, algodón, which means cotton, and which is also the source of the English word; or alfombra, which means carpet, and this gets back to the focusing on what you love idea. Alfombra was permanently cemented in my brain after seeing it in a few articles about movie premieres always in this context: “en la alfombra roja.” On the red carpet.

The best part is that this is not just limited to Spanish, thanks to the internet (either la internet or la red), because you can probably pretty much find resources in any target language somewhere. If you want to read, you can find national newspapers in the native language and probably plenty of websites — and it will also be a big help to adjust Google’s language settings to include your target. If you want to watch or listen, then there are also tons of videos in other languages. And if you learn by writing, you’ll need source material, so transcribing audio or copying the written word will help as well.

But, again, the key to it is this one simple bit: engage with what you’re interested in in the first place, and it will make your target language come alive in a way that rote lessons or drills or routines never will.

Love it, live it, learn it!

Image © Syed Ikhwan. Used via Creative Commons license 2.0.

Them’s the breaks!

One little misstep on a subway platform, one big lesson in adaptability.

A funny thing happened this past weekend, while I was on the way back from the L.A. Times Festival of books at the University of Southern California, which is just south of Downtown L.A. and two simple Metro train hops from the station closest to home. The change of trains happens at a very busy station called the 7th Street Metro. This is where three lines meet up — the Red Line which runs from North Hollywood to Union Station, the Expo Line which runs from Downtown L.A. to Downtown Santa Monica, and the Blue Line, which runs from Downtown L.A. to Downtown Long Beach.

If you know the area at all, it’s quite an impressive junction because it makes it possible to get from one neighborhood to another that, once upon a time, used to be a very onerous drive by car. Angelenos in the Valley are notoriously reticent about making the trip to the Westside, of which Santa Monica is the heart, and vice versa.

But all of that is neither here nor there. Well… it’s not here, but it is there, and it was there, at the very busy 7th Street Metro last Saturday that, while I was changing trains, I took an unexpected trip, namely over some stranger’s foot, and wound up crashing hard onto the platform. I was holding my swag bag of books and other goodies in my left hand, so I wound up landing on my left knee and right wrist. My knee hit the platform proper, some sort of marble or faux version thereof. My right hand slammed down on a metal plate in that platform, and did so with such a loud bang that it scared the shit out of everyone around me.

Seriously, I think for a second they thought it was a gunshot. But it did get a sudden sympathetic wave of onlookers asking me if I was all right and, in that moment, I thought I was. Nothing really hurt badly, I was back on my feet in a second, and the person I had tripped over actually stopped as well until I assured him that I was uninjured.

I went along my way, but later that evening my wrist was feeling a bit wonky. Since I’m paying a princely sum for my own health insurance now, I figured, “What the hell. Let’s get my money’s worth and go to urgent care just so they can tell me that nothing is wrong.”

That’s not what they told me.

In fact, it turns out I have an avulsion fracture to the scaphoid bone. What this means is that somehow the ligament in my wrist popped a little chip of bone off and put it somewhere it shouldn’t be. The scaphoid bone is one of eight stuck in between the twin arm bones, radius and ulna, and the bones of the hand itself. If you hold your hands out palm down in front of you, it’s located on the inside of your wrists. And, incidentally, mine in the X-ray looks nothing like the version in the anatomy books, which is interesting in itself.

The orthopedic surgeon who bound my hand and forearm up like King Tut assured me that if one were going to break that particular bone this was the best possible way to do it. It turns out that the arteries that lead to the hand and provide all the blood to the fingers do a really complicated twisty thing around this particular bone, and it’s very easy to mess that up in a more severe fracture.

So… yay! I guess.

Here’s a bit of perspective. I have somehow managed to make it through life with only two broken bones. This is the second, and both breaks were ridiculously minor. The first happened when I was 21 and slammed the middle finger of my left hand in a window, making a hairline fracture across the bone in the tip. However, hands are really annoying things to have broken bones in because, well, they’re pretty useful. At the moment, and probably for the next month and a half, I am essentially without a right thumb. All the other fingers on that hand work, but it is amazing how tricky things can be when you lack that essential primate digit and your dominant hand is also the majority hand.

For example, I can’t use scissors right now at all, and a manual can opener is quite the challenge, although I’ve gotten good at being able to operate it with my index and middle finger. This serves to keep my dog happy, because it’s necessary for her to eat. Since I can’t get the wrapping on my arm wet as if it’s some sort of Gremlin, doing things like washing dishes or showering are a special challenge — I have to basically do the former one-handed and the latter with several plastic bags and rubber bands. You haven’t lived until you’ve tried to shampoo one-handed or shave with your non-dominant hand.

Certain other activities with my left hand have been… oh, let’s just say… tricky. I’ll leave the details to your imagination, but every man reading this probably just got it.

Although they told me I shouldn’t drive (this is L.A., screw that!) I’ve managed to also figure out how to work ignition keys with those same two can opener fingers, and since I drive stick, I’m basically shifting with my pinky.

What’s also interesting is that I actually appreciate it when people look at my arm and ask, “Hey, what happened?” And that’s kind of a lesson for me when I see other people in similar situations. Or maybe it’s just me, but… go ahead and ask and don’t feel rude, because it gives us a really interesting story to tell. Okay, maybe don’t ask someone with missing limbs or in a wheelchair, but if the damage looks temporary like this, fire away, please.

For me, the most interesting part is figuring out how to work around it and not let this little oopsie slow me down at all. I’ve already done one improv show with my arm like this because, well, the show must go on, right? I also managed to successfully cook up a ton of chicken fried rice, mostly using my left hand — and if you’ve ever done that one, you know what a challenge it is, because it involves cooking a few different things before combining them all together for the finale — rice the day before, then chicken, then veggies, then egg, then everything together.

So the point is this. Although I don’t like the idea of having a wee bit of a handicap temporarily, it reminds me how resilient our species can be. Sure, it’s a gigantic, inconvenient pain in the ass to have my dominant hand partially immobilized like this, but it leads me to figure out new ways to do things, and it’s certainly pushing me toward being a bit ambidextrous, and it’s always a good thing when you can figure out how to do it both ways, pun fully intended.

What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger. This fall didn’t kill me, and I have a feeling I’m actually going to be better for it once I’m done with two weeks of splint and four weeks of cast. That’s called always finding the silver lining.

Tiny changes, big results

Sometimes, the smallest changes in your working space can make big differences in your work. Here’s a how and why on the zen of writing by not writing.

It’s amazing what a small change or two in your physical space can do for both your mood and productivity. This is especially important for writers who work from home. You need to be comfortable in your work space.

I hadn’t been comfortable for a while because my desk chair had gotten old. The padding on one armrest had come off and I’d replaced it with duct tape and a sponge. Thanks to the time I spent overweight, the hydraulics had slowly given up until the chair sat way too low for me — I’m 6’2” and all legs, so that wasn’t good either. It also creaked like the Tinman’s knees before Dorothy got to him any time I turned it, which was annoying.

The other problem was that the keyboard drawer under my desk came off. Somehow, the rails had gotten bent and jammed, and in trying to fix that, the wood hold the rail on the right side shifted. End result: the rails were just a hair too far apart to hold the drawer up.

Enter a free chair. And not just any chair. I was given an Aeron that someone didn’t want anymore. In case you don’t know, these are the chairs that were infamously bought by tech companies during the dotcom bubble and have a reputation for being ridiculously expensive. How ridiculous? Used models go for a few hundred bucks, and new ones can be well over $1,200. My old office chair cost me about $99 at Staples.

The nice thing about this particular model is that it goes up really high. I can actually lean back and bring my feet off the ground, and for once my knees aren’t elevated when I sit. It’s also adjustable nine hundred ways from Thursday — tilt, height, armrests, backrest, and so on. It is a million times better than my old chair.

But…

(And there’s always a “But…”)

Suddenly, having my keyboard on my desk became terribly inconvenient and awkward, so it was time to figure out what to do about that drawer. I found a perfect replacement online. The only catch was that all of the brick and mortar stores I found it on didn’t actually sell it in the stores. But I had my new chair! I was full Veruca Salt: “I want it now!”

It was not to be.

The next day, I tried finding the thing locally, starting to think outside the box. I tried CVS and Walgren’s websites and found nothing. And then I tried hardware stores and suddenly it clicked. I didn’t need to replace the whole thing, since I still had the drawer itself. I only needed to replace the rails.

And there they were, for one-fifth the price of a new drawer — the perfect 12” drawer sliders. And the websites for both hardware chains told me they were in stock, so I was off to shop… and to find out that one of those stores lied. Out of stock, so I made the drive to the other store. At this one, they were in stock, but they were not in the aisle or bin their website or app said they were. In fact, they were one aisle over and six bins down, but I finally found them. I grabbed those and some extra 1.5” wood screws because I thought I’d need to re-attach a wooden edge to the drawer, and then it was home to play handyman. That’s right, I can cook, bake and use power tools! I can also improvise, on stage and off, and I had to. Remember, the problem wasn’t just bent rails on the drawer. I’d forgotten that the right rail support on the desk had shifted.

So… a little extra cardboard under the right rail on the drawer, and then a convenient foam tube that came as padding with something I’d once bought to brace the desk rail support against the tubular leg, and in a few minutes, voilà! Good as new. (That padding and cardboard were a reminded that my sometimes packrat tendencies to keep interesting things around sometimes come in handy. Don’t worry, I’m far from a hoarder. The cardboard came from a replacement scale I bought recently, as in “might still need a warranty return,” and the foam tube — think of a four-inch pool noodle — was just interesting.

But now to the point of this ramble. With just these two changes, my workspace has become really comfortable again, and it feels good to be sitting here. And successfully finding an off-label use for hardware and doing grown-up stuff like fix a thing all by myself was a great ego boost as well. I didn’t need an adult’s help, I didn’t look anything up online. I barely read the instructions that came with the sliders.

So there’s a dual lesson. First, do one thing to make your personal work space more comfortable for you. Define “comfortable” however you want. Maybe it will involve totally rearranging the furniture or getting completely new furniture. Maybe it will be as simple as finding a cute tchotchke in a thrift shop or a comfy throw to put on your chair. If you’re low tech, it might even come down to finding the perfect pen.

But make it a project, and then find other little projects to do around the house. Find things that are not writing because you will find, in those times when you’re focusing on that project, your brain is silently working on some plot point or structure issue that’s been blocking you. Or, if nothing is blocking you, your brain will spit out a completely new idea or two.

Did I mention that the entire idea for a TV series fell out of my brain while I was sitting under my desk with the cordless drill and three-way flashlight? Because it total did, although part of it was inspired by the misadventures involved in finding those drawer sliders in the first place.

Make your work space comfortable and you’ll make it inspirational. Occasionally focus on creative projects that are not writing, and your subconscious will inspire you. And thus endeth today’s lesson — quite often, our biggest writing helps have nothing directly to do with writing at all.

How to be funny

Drama is easy. Comedy is hard. Why? Because, too often, we try to write the funny instead of the reality.

I’ve written both comedic and dramatic scripts, so I can tell you beyond all doubt that it is much, much harder to write comedy than it is to write drama. I should know. Over the years, I’ve had more than a few readings of comedic plays that I’d developed in workshop, and everyone in that small room without an audience thought the jokes and situations were hilarious. Hell, even I thought they were hilarious on re-reading, and I can be one of the harshest critics of my own work. And then we’d come to the reading with an amazing cast, quite often made up of actors I’d specifically written for, knowing their strengths and kinds of characters they could play well. Then we’d get it out there for an audience, read it straight through — and from the reaction you’d think that I’d written the darkest of tragedies. Not a laugh nor a giggle nor a titter.

This is why, as a writer, learning how to do improv is so important — it will inform your writing. (Not, however, the other way around, but that’s a subject for later.) For a long time while learning, I would aim for the funny while doing improv. A clever idea, a funny line, a weird character, whatever. My brain would tell me, “Oh, this would be hilarious here,” and then I’d do it, and sometimes it would work and a lot of the time it wouldn’t, and my teachers would give me the encouraging look a parent gives a child when they say something really cute but stupid, then proceed to give me a note.

I appreciate every opportunity like this, though. Honest criticism is the only way to learn, and I needed a lot of it. But, sometimes, the best way to learn about your own mistakes is to watch someone else make them, and recently I wound up working with a fellow student who is genuinely talented and very funny — but he would always aim for the punchline as well, and that’s when I realized what the problem was. But let me back up one second for a technical explanation.

There are really two types of routines (or in the parlance of my improv troupe, games) that improvisers do, ignoring short vs. long form for the moment. There are scene games and there are so-called “jump out” games. Now, for the “jump out” games, which are essentially a series of dueling one-liners, it’s all about the jokes and the funny and the humor. You might not be familiar with any of the games our group does, but if you’ve ever seen “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” then you may know of games like “Scenes from a Hat” and “Props.”

In the former, the host will read out a prompt, like “Things you can say to your dog that you can’t say to your partner,” and then the improvers will jump out, make a quick joke, then go back to their spot. (“Sit!”) With the latter game, two teams each get their own weird prop or props, and they have to alternate coming up with as many funny uses and lines for it as possible — for example, if the props are two traffic cones, a quick Madonna impersonation will probably happen.

All very funny, very fast, and none of it would create an entire evening of satisfying comedy. They’re more like punctuation.

Scene games are, well, what they sound like. There may or may not be an audience suggestion, but then the players are let loose to interact with each other, and that’s the key word. Interact. And the secret to scene games, and to comedy in general, is to never go for the funny. Go for the relationship. It isn’t about the jokes. It’s about the reactions, in context of that relationship, and where they go. And the humor comes from that.

Imagine two people walk on stage and you have no idea how they’re connected. Then one of them says, “Nice hair,” the other one says, “Oh, shut up,” and they exit, end of scene. Not very funny, was it?

But bring the two people on and let them establish their history. Maybe they’re siblings, or parent and child, husband and wife, lovers, co-workers, best friends, worst enemies, whatever. And they don’t exist in a vacuum, so they’re somewhere, and they each want something. And then, once we have that framework, we have something else very important.

See, what makes comedy happen is its relatability. That is, when the audience identifies with the characters or situation, they empathize, and it’s that empathy that leads to the comedy. The reaction is either “Oh, I’ve been that person” or “Oh, I’ve put up with that person” or “Oh, I’ve seen that happen,’ and it leads to the laughs.

During a space work class recently, I had this insight while doing a scene with another student that, to me, felt like it really didn’t go anywhere, and it all started with him creating an invisible revolving door and entering a hotel lobby. I entered after, and we quickly established that he was a tourist in New York and I was a local — and then I proceeded to appear to be rude, but when his character called me out on it, mine would explain that I wasn’t, it was just the way New Yorkers did things, and we’d patch things up until my next offense.

And my offenses were not coming from a place of, “Oh, what would be funny here?” Rather, they were coming from a place of, “Okay, he’s a yokel, I’m urban, he just said that, so how do I (in character) feel?”

I found myself very present in that conversation with him. I wasn’t trying to think of anything funny to say, I was just listening and reacting. At the same time, I was thinking, “Shit, we must be boring the hell out of everyone else right now.” But we went on. And on. And on… it seriously seemed like a good ten minutes, although I’m sure it wasn’t.

And when it was over, the teacher jumped up and asked the rest of the class, “Wasn’t that totally engaging?” And they agreed. “I could have watched that all night,” he told me and my scene partner, and I was kind of bowled over.

I was also reminded of Nichols and May. If any of my readers know them, they probably know them as the film directors Mike Nichols and Elaine May, but many eons ago they were an improv comedy team. I only learned about them because my grandfather was a record collector. He would buy boxes of LPs at garage sales, pull out what he wanted, and then leave the “crap” for me and my cousins. Well, his definition of “crap” was “anything recorded after 1950” and “anything spoken word,” so I wound up with quite a collection of stand-up and comedy albums from the 50s and 60s — Newhart, Carlin, Bruce, Berman… and Nichols and May.

And the thing about Nichols and May is that they did not go for the jokes. They created relationships, and then created the emotional stakes, and subsequently the drier and more matter-of-fact they got, the funnier it got. Sure, they would pull out old tricks like repetition (the rule of 3s!), callbacks, sudden tilts, and so on — but everything was about the relationship between the two characters.

I hadn’t even thought of their stuff in years and hadn’t listened to them since I was a kid, but this little improv lesson in character and stakes as comedy builders brought them back to mind tonight. Here’s a particularly great example that begins with one of the most basic and common relationships of mother and adult son, and then spirals right off into hilarity that probably every one of us can relate to, but it’s all built on the emotional reactions from one to the other. Not a joke in the bit, and yet, you’ll be laughing your ass off.

Here’s the thing: while all art should reflect the truth in some way, comedy needs to be ten times as truthful as drama. Why? Because drama may depict travails and tragedies we have not gone through ourselves, but which we can understand. But for comedy to hit, we have to relate to the situation and the relationship, and everything else. We cannot laugh at a universe we have not experienced, and we cannot make others laugh until we show them that we have also experienced that universe.

One other way to put it: Drama shows other people being strong. Comedy shows all of us being weak — but, in exposing our weaknesses, sharing our vulnerabilities, and coming out better and more honest for it on the other side. That’s why laughter is cathartic. Humor is the great leveler. A sense of humor is the most important thing any of us can have.

As Mel Brooks put it, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”


Image of Mike Nichols and Elaine May by the Bureau of Industrial Service for CBS Television

Pardon meme, but…

The internet is full of images with text on them, but all such images are not created equal. Some memes are image macros, but not all image macros are memes and not all memes came from the internet. Want to stand out from the crowd? Know the difference.

Meme: noun

  1. a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.

If you’ve spent any time at all on the internet — which you obviously do if you’re here — then you’ve run across plenty of pictures with text on them. Facebook timelines and every discussion board around is full of them, and they frequently serve as a shorthand or pre-made response to a topic or idea.

In the image above, one of these things is not like the others. Three are memes and one isn’t. Can you tell the difference? I’ll get back to it after a bit so you have time to make your guess. But for comparison’s sake, here’s an image that contains four genuine memes:

MemeStrip

Notice anything they all have in common? I chose four slightly older and well-known memes specifically to increase everyone’s chances of having run across them by now. Chances are you can probably associate a name with two or three of them — possibly all four if you’ve been online a lot, like I have.

From left to right, these images have become known as “Ermahgerd Girl,” “Scumbag Steve,” “Success Kid,” and “Grumpy Cat.” The latter two proved to be particularly lucrative for their originators, with “Grumpy Cat” parlaying media appearances and merchandising into a million dollar business. Meanwhile, the “Success Kid” image has been licensed out to companies like Vitamin Water and Virgin Mobile UK, but its ultimate success was raising over $100,000 to finance a kidney transplant for the father of the infant in the image.

You’ve probably seen each of these images with dozens of different captions. It’s not the wording that matters, really — it’s the recognizability of the picture and what it represents. Ermahgerd Girl is a nerdy expression of enthusiasm over something. Scumbag Steve is usually a set-up and punchline about that one guy who manages to be a douche to everyone. Success Kid and Grumpy Cat represent exactly what they sound like.

Of course, there are some memes that are a specific image macro — the same image and the same text always appear together — although you probably recognize both the copy and the picture in this one.

not how this works

This was taken from an esurance commercial, in which a character called Beatrice tries to bring Facebook into the real world by taping her vacation photos to her living room wall. As a meme, it’s usually used to point out that someone has made a dubious statement about science.

Now, back to the original question. Of the four images at the top, which one do you think is not a meme? If you guessed the bottom right, “We’re vegan…” you’d be correct. It’s merely an image macro, combining what is probably a stock shot with some copy, but it’s nowhere near widespread enough to have achieved true meme status.

Here’s another example of an image macro that is not a meme — and which is rather meta about that:

Meme Not a Meme

If you ever want to find out whether something is a meme or a macro or to learn the often fascinating history of a particular meme, there are some great resources out there, but Know Your Meme is probably the most extensive collection. They frequently will have an entry for a new meme within hours of its first appearance. And if you’d like to visit a place where memes roam free and are frequently born, start with web-aggregator Reddit.

The secret to something being a meme is that it is generally known and understood on site across a wide swath of the population, although there can definitely be separate memescapes with their own subsets. For example, memes from anime or gaming may be very well known in one internet population but completely meaningless to another. Newer memes may be unknown to older users and vice versa.

Finally, as I said at the beginning, not all memes come from the internet, although most of them live there now. “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” has been with us for close to 80 years. “Elementary, my dear Watson” and the image of Sherlock Holmes himself still endure — although the original character never used that famous phrase.

Some memes are even more ancient. Ever hear of Oedipus Rex? It’s a name that brings exactly one thing to mind. And that is the essence of what a meme is: a cultural shorthand widely understood within a group or subgroup that carries a lot of semantic meaning in very few images or words. Of course, I couldn’t end without sharing the most meta image macro of all that fits here perfectly using yet another meme picture known as “Good Guy Greg.”

Meme Final image

Although now you should know the difference between the two.

 

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?

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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.

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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…

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