Chapter Nine

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

A train, a street, and a saint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now let’s go!

* * *

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

Chapter 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.

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.

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.

Roller coaster

As I recovered from heart failure and lost over a hundred pounds in the course of a year, it wasn’t all just diet, exercise, and medication. A huge part of that battle was mental. Here’s one of the things that got me through it.

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

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

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

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

That wasn’t the only lap.

As I try to protest, we take off and run the course again. This time, it’s scarier, because I know what’s coming. To add insult to injury, pardon the cliché, the operator sends us on one more circuit before… freedom!

From that day forward, I knew that I hated roller coasters and avoided them. It wasn’t until I was an adult and some friends basically shamed me into getting onto Space Mountain that I discovered something I never would have otherwise.

I love roller coasters!

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

But that decision came after some actual testing, instead of as a seven-year-old’s panic that turned into a pseudo-phobia that lasted over a decade.

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

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

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

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

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

Training

As the rail transit system in Los Angeles continues to expand and improve, it provides more and more options for getting around this sprawl of a city without a car.

I find hopping on the subway, riding to a random destination, and then just walking around a couple of miles exploring to be ridiculously relaxing and strangely liberating. Once I’ve gone down the escalators and through the turnstiles, I’m suddenly not bound to where I parked anymore. I also get a much more intimate view of the city by walking through it instead of blasting past it in my private urban pod. Not to mention that it’s a great way to exercise.

The city is full of people, too, and one of the things I love most about LA is that when I get on the train I know that it’s going to be full of people who are as diverse as humanity itself is on the entire planet. Pick any random subway car at rush hour, and you can probably find people on it with backgrounds from six continents (sorry, no penguins!), and at least half a dozen whose first language isn’t English. I also see people of all ages, and lots of families traveling together.

What have I never seen on an LA Metro subway? A fight. Now, that may just be because I’m not a regular commuter so I haven’t had enough exposure, but people on LA subways seem remarkably polite to each other. Well, except for the dipshits who have their headphone volume so loud they might as well be carrying a boombox, but at least most of them actually seem to have musical taste, and it’s their ears, not mine.

I’m not sure why I find the experience so relaxing, though, considering that it consists of long stretches of sitting (or standing) on a moving vehicle interspersed with some heavy-duty pedestrian activity. Today, for example, if Google Maps is accurate, I did about three miles. And, since I always seem to forget to bring my headphones, I’m not distracting myself with music. I just distract myself by annoying all of you by over-posting about my experiences to social media!

Okay. I suppose the real reason it’s so relaxing is that it helps to quiet down the circus in my head — and as those unfortunate enough to have gotten into close proximity with that party know, it’s not just the Big Top in there. It’s all Three Rings, the whole goddamn Midway, and a ridiculous Sideshow thrown in for fun. But no clowns. No clowns. I hate clowns!

What I do love are trains and treks and discovering things about my own hometown that I wouldn’t have seen if I hadn’t taken the time to look. Today, a friend of mine pointed out in response to one of my photos (Hi, Charlie!) that we Angelenos don’t realize how lucky we are to live in a place that people actually save up and pay a lot of money to visit. Now, I’ve worked in or on the edges of The Industry for my entire adult life, so I know how little Hollywood actually has to do with the entertainment business. But you don’t see hordes of tourists in Burbank (well, except at Warner Bros.) for a reason. And for all its cheesy wonder, Hollywood Boulevard is kind of interesting if you just take it for what it is: as fake as the teeth and tits on most actors, male or female, but still nice to look at.

Incidentally, I’m 99.9% sure that I was conceived one summer day in an apartment building half a block north of that boulevard and right next to Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I’m that sure because I’m also sure that my parents weren’t that adventurous, so it wasn’t in the theater or in the back of a Ford or something.

I think. Which just reminds me that if I had ever had kids, at least one of them would probably have been conceived in a car. Except, oh, right… can’t conceive with that combination. At least not without making the news.

But I do digress. Wherever you live, take a moment to discover your town — native or adopted — like you’re a tourist. You might be surprised at what you see.