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

Chapter Fourteen

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

Putting it all together

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

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

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

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

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

But I do digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

 

Chapter Thirteen

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

Inevitable setbacks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *


Continue reading “Chapter Thirteen”

Chapter Eleven

This next chapter excerpt approaches dealing with controlling eating and addictions from a different angle: ritual and its instinctual nature in humans.

If you can’t fix yourself, fool yourself

As I mentioned before, the main reason I was finally able to quit smoking is that I started out by having no choice for the days I was in the hospital and a good friend who, on my request, relieved my place of all tobacco before I returned. I was also very fortunate in that I did not have to resort to any sort of nicotine replacement method, like gum or the patch.

I detailed all of this in Chapter Six, including mention of a friend unsuccessfully trying to quit, although I really think that “trying to quit” is a misnomer. Not to go all Yoda on you here, but you either quit or you don’t. But if you do fail this time, don’t take it as a sign of being a failure. When you finally get it to stick, you’ll know it. After all, I tried and failed to quit many times before. This is the one that took.

Now, while my health insurance provided me with counseling by phone over quitting, I was so successful at it that I kind of felt sorry for my counselor, because every call would basically go as follows:

Counsellor: “So how is quitting going?”

Me: “Really well. I haven’t had any desire to smoke.”

Counsellor: “Great. So when should I schedule your next call?”

Previously, I wrote about the cycle of cue, routine, and reward. In this chapter, I’ll be approaching breaking that same cycle, but in a different context: Ritual.

Humans, like all animals are ritualistic, but the essential difference is that human rituals are largely symbolic, while animal rituals are instinctual. For example, if you’ve ever trained a dog to do a trick in exchange for a treat, you’ve created a ritual for that canine — a behavior they must perform in order to receive a reward.

My dog, Sheeba, actually learned how to shake not from me directly but from watching my late, great dog Shadow do it — and Sheeba even imitated Shadow’s habit of only shaking with her left paw, which Shadow picked up because when I taught her, she mirrored me instead of mimicked me. So, in Sheeba’s mind, “lift paw” equals “get treat.” It’s become such a ritual for her, in fact, that she’ll start slapping her paw in the air the second the treat is even visible, and she can get quite miffed if it’s not immediately forthcoming. It’s almost like she’s saying, “Hey, I did the thing, you pay up now.”

There are plenty of animal rituals, too. Dogs walking in circles before they lie down to go to sleep, cats grooming themselves, squirrels pretending to bury food when they know another squirrel is watching, alpha wolves getting first shot at eating the kill, and elephants mourning their dead, to name just a few. And, of course, animal mating rituals can be quite elaborate, whether it’s a bird showing off in song, a bullfrog inflating himself to ridiculous size, or two males (of many species, including humans) battling to win the right to all the local females.

Human culture, of course, is loaded with rituals. The obvious ones are religious: baptism, brises, bowing toward Mecca to pray, meditating, chanting, sweat lodges. And then there are the big two that are universal to probably every religion: weddings and funerals.

There’s a reason that ritual, especially religious or ceremonial ones are so important to humans. They are built into us, and the culprit is the solar system itself, primarily the quasi-eternal dance of earth, moon, and sun.

Think about Western Culture in the Northern Hemisphere and, specifically, how it basically shuts down around mid-December — although sometimes it seems like the whole holiday season keeps getting longer and longer the more modern and industrialized we get.

In fact, it would probably seem weird, except for people in certain professions, to not shut down for at least the week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Day and even if you do have to work the holidays, so many other people are off or out of town that it can seem like nothing important is happening. But the whole thing isn’t just cultural. It’s instinctual, because it’s been built into our DNA from our very beginnings.

You can thank the earth being a little bit tilted for all of this. If you think of the planet as a spinning top, it’s easy to imagine it with the poles pointing straight up and down as we revolve around, but that’s not quite the case. The whole planet leans over a little bit as it goes around the sun, with an average tilt of 23.5º, although the planet wobbles a bit so the range is from 22.1 to 24.5º. Don’t worry, though. It takes about 44,000 years to cycle from one to the other, so you’ll never notice a thing.

The upshot of all of this is that the part that’s leaning toward the sun gets a lot more light and daytime while the other side doesn’t.

Incidentally, the earth happens to be the farthest from the sun when it’s summer in the Northern hemisphere, around July 9, and closest in winter, around January 9. This might explain why summers in Australia are usually hotter and winters are colder than on the other side of the planet.

In the north, that maximum tilt away comes right before Christmas, usually around December 21. This is the day with the least amount of sunlight and the longest night north of the equator.

So what does that have to do with the holidays? Well, keep in mind that from the time humans discovered fire, it was our only source of artificial illumination until the very beginning of the 19th century, which was only two hundred years ago. Before that, we had to burn something if we wanted to see at night, whether oil, gas, coal, pitch, or wood. It was in 1809, at the same time that gas lamps began popping up in cities everywhere, that Humphry Davy demonstrated the first arc lamp, precursor to the modern electrical light bulb.

Consequently, the pattern of human life tended to follow the natural cycle of nature: wake at dawn, work by day, go home at sunset and sleep by night. And, obviously, this cycle would change as the length of the days did, with humans being most active in summer and least active in winter. The seasons themselves also dictated overall activity — plant in the spring, harvest in the fall, and hope you’d stored up enough to survive the winter.

And this is where the tradition of everything stopping for the holidays was born: Once the harvest had been brought in and stored, there was no more work to do in the fields. Generally, this meant there would be a celebration of the harvest in the late fall (Thanksgiving, anyone?), and then time for people to spend with each other, often during the long, cold nights.

Of course, superstition fed into it, with many cultures creating rituals to be performed in order to make sure that the sun came back — something they always saw it start to do after that shortest day, called the Winter Solstice — which is why right around that date became the central celebration focus for so many different Western religions.

So the reason that we’re seeing Christmas start to pop up around Labor Day now isn’t necessarily commercial greed. This entire time of year is programmed deeply into our genes and our behavior. And, if you’ll notice, our human holidays still tend to cluster around those points when the seasons change, with fertility rites in the spring, just as we’re planting our crops, and thanksgiving ceremonies in the fall as we harvest them.

Well, when we used to. We modern, urban-dwelling humans probably don’t plant our harvest anything beyond a backyard vegetable garden or a few window box herbs, but that doesn’t really matter. Although we may have lost our direct connection to living by sunrise and sunset and change of season, those rhythms still live in us, which is why following some kind of ritual is so important.

That includes self-created rituals, whether helpful or destructive. The trick is to replace the destructive ones with helpful ones.

Did I mention that not all rituals are religious? In fact, in secularized western nations, many of them are not, but they’re still rituals. And we definitely have non-religious weddings and funerals.

But… if you’ve ever participated in a trial in any capacity — plaintiff, defendant, lawyer, judge, or jury — then you’ve taken part in one of humanity’s most formalized secular rituals.

And this may come as a surprise to you, but have you ever seen a movie, play, or TV show, or read a work of fiction? Guess what: Those are rituals, too, because they follow a familiar form of beginning, middle, and end, with certain things established in a certain order and particular conventions. There’s an entire cottage industry of books explaining this to screenwriters in the context of “structure,” but the whole concept was originally written down by Aristotle in his Poetics nearly 2,400 years ago.

(Side note: Umberto Eco’s brilliant The Name of the Rose postulates an Aristotelean treatise on comedy alleged to be so funny that people who read it die laughing, and does it in the context of a 14th century riff on Sherlock Holmes, among many other things. I highly recommend reading it and seeing the movie adaptation.)

Then there are the everyday rituals we all do. Think for a moment about your routine in the morning. It’s probably pretty consistent and although the particulars and the order may vary from person to person, in general they most likely involve going to the bathroom, random acts of hygiene, putting on clothes, and breakfast of some sort — and there are probably many days when you feel like you do it on autopilot.

In human terms, when rituals go off the rails and take over our lives, they manifest as things like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or the need to perform certain rituals before being able to move forward. The expressions of OCD are many and varied, but include things like someone having to turn the lights on and off a certain number of times before they leave a room; hand-washing, or counting objects, particularly if they’re in an array — one that gets me from time to time, although I am far from being a full-blown sufferer of OCD.

(Another side note: Never say that someone “is OCD.” Or ADHD or HIV or fill-in-the-blank. That’s about as stupid as saying someone “is flu.” OCD is a condition, so you can’t be it, you can only have it. Thanks for letting me get that gigantic pet peeve out of the way.)

What you might not know, though, is that there’s a “silent” form of OCD, in which the rituals all occur inside the sufferer’s head. This includes the counting of objects, as well as repeating certain words, phrases, or even prayers in response to external conditions. In all cases, the cause of the obsessions and compulsions is the sincere belief that they will stop a bad thing from happening. That’s why I would never claim to have OCD, because my occasional counting of arrayed objects is more a matter of curiosity combined with a penchant for math, but I am fully aware that nothing bad is going to happen if I don’t Count All the Things!

OCD, in a lot of ways, shows the animal origins of our ritualistic behavior. Although its causes likely involve physical differences in the brain and are genetic, there’s no rhyme or reason to how it exhibits itself — although an individual’s belief that if they don’t perform an action or think a particular thought, then something horrendous is going to befall either them or a loved one is really no different than an animal that has been negatively conditioned — in other words, trained to perform or suppress a certain behavior in order to avoid punishment.

.And, in many ways, this is the source of addiction: the belief, whether conscious or not, that something bad is going to happen if you stop doing that thing you do, whether it’s smoking, drinking, or taking certain drugs. Now in some cases that’s true, as I’ve mentioned. There are certain addictions that are physically dangerous to stop cold turkey. But smoking is not one of them.

* * *

(Image By Tauʻolunga (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 2.5 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

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

 

Chapter Eight

In this excerpt from Chapter Eight, I begin to discuss some of the unexpected places where excess sodium, sugar, and fat are hiding and how to avoid them.

The dirty yet open secrets of food

Once my doctor and nutritionist taught me how to properly pay attention to those Nutrition Facts labels, I started to see traps everywhere. They were right. Sodium wasn’t just in the obvious places, like pretzels and chips. And although that was my only initial concern, I began to see that fat and sugar were hiding in places you wouldn’t think to find them, either.

There are some things that naturally have sodium when you wouldn’t expect it. For example, spinach actually has 24 mg per cup. Not a huge amount, really, and totally safe. The fruit and vegetable families are generally sodium-free, but there are still surprises like this. Here are some others, with their sodium count per cup: chard, 77 mg; celery, 81 mg; carrots, 88 mg; beets, 106 mg; artichoke, 320 mg; and seaweed, 792 mg.

Seaweed probably shouldn’t be that big of a surprise since it grows in salt water, but what about the most common shellfish? Those figures are, again for one cup: oysters, 193 mg; lobster, 401 mg; mussels, 649 mg; Dungeness crab, 669 mg; shrimp, 810 mg; clams, 1,364 mg; and Alaska king crab, 1,895 mg.

Since I’m going to cover all of the food groups, let’s look at meat. Those numbers are: beef, 59 mg; turkey, 109 mg; chicken, 170 mg; lamb, 186 mg; pork, 1,262 mg; honey smoked ham, 2,043 mg; bacon, 2,384 mg. The last three are a really good reason for pork to be considered tref and haram.

You wouldn’t think that the cheese aisle would be a minefield of sodium, but it is. A look at that list shows why the only cheese I eat anymore is Swiss — and I find the “Most Sodium” award winner in this category to be very ironic. The per cup figures are: aged Swiss, 440 mg; Jarlsberg, 1,053 mg; havarti, 1,187 mg; Gruyere, 1,378 mg; pepper jack, 1,405 mg; provolone, 1,419 mg; Brie, 1,428 mg; mild cheddar, 1,460 mg; string cheese, 1,703 mg; mozzarella, 1,703 mg; Gouda, 1,859 mg; imitation American, 3,053 mg; and deluxe American, 4,061 mg.

The per slice figures aren’t much more encouraging. Based on 20 grams per slice, they work out to be: aged Swiss, 35 mg; Jarlsberg, 93 mg; havarti, 105 mg; Gruyere, 121 mg; pepper jack, 124 mg; provolone, 125 mg; Brie, 126 mg; mild cheddar, 129 mg; string cheese, 150 mg; mozarella, 150 mg; Gouda, 164 mg; imitation American, 269 mg; and deluxe American, 358 mg.

Did I mention that I used to love to have grilled cheese sandwiches with eight slices of that imitation American cheese? Toss that between two slices of wheat bread and slather with margarine, and voilà: 2,555 mgs of sodium in a single sitting! As for the other figures, that one sandwich had 2,336 Calories, 171 grams of fat, 70 of sugar, and 165 of carbs. But it was just so damn delicious!

Was it any wonder why my heart conked out on me?

I already mentioned in Chapter Seven my annoying habit of eating an entire pizza in a sitting, with 1,360 Calories, 60 grams of fat, 2,840 milligrams of sodium, and 12 grams of sugar, sometimes adding extra cheese to bring it up to 1,520 Calories, 72 grams of fat, and 3,180 milligrams of sodium. This was also at the same time that I was having those English muffins with cheese and butter every morning for breakfast at work that I mentioned in Chapter Six.

So I was essentially existing on a diet of cheese, carbs, and salt. And where did the habit for that kind of diet come from?

I hate to do it, but I have to blame my mother. In the same way that smoking seemed normal to me growing up because she did it, I swear that she subsisted on a diet of cheese sandwiches. That was her go-to lunch late afternoons when she’d finished up the housework, and I remember many times when I was a little kid watching her at the kitchen table with the same thing: American cheese slices on Wonder Bread, which doesn’t really qualify for either word, with some Miracle Whip (not even real mayo) and mustard — French’s Yellow, which, I’m sorry, but in my opinion, is one of the worst tasting mustards I’ve ever experienced.

By the way, I only ever knew Miracle Whip growing up and did not experience real mayonnaise until I got to college, but as soon as I did… OMG, what a revelation. See, Miracle Whip has always been classified as a salad dressing and not mayo. It also has more sugar and carbs than real mayo, which has none of either and is lower in sodium. On the other hand, real mayo does have more Calories because it has more fat, so it’s a trade-off.

Did I mention that real mayo tastes a hell of a lot better than the abomination that is Miracle Whip?

But, as a kid, I loved the cheese sandwiches my mom would often put in my lunch and the grilled cheese sandwiches (swap mayo for margarine, but otherwise the same) she would make and the mac and cheese, made with longhorn Colby cheddar and a can of cream of mushroom soup. Both of those combined, even divided by the number of servings, were still ridiculously loaded down with sodium.

That’s the thing about soup — it is ridiculously high in sodium, almost without exception and, quite often, the “light” or “healthy” options are almost as bad. Here are just a couple of examples of Campbell’s brand soups. Their Healthy Request® Italian-Style Wedding Soup does only have 410 mgs of sodium per one cup serving, but switch to either the regular or light version, and suddenly you get 790 mgs. Their light creamy chicken Alfredo only has 100 mgs less sodium than the regular version, at 690 vs 790. The same is true for their New England clam chowder, but worse, with 790 and 890 mgs of sodium respectively for the light and regular versions.

“Vegetable medley” sounds like a perfectly healthy soup, right? Nope. It has the same 790 mgs of sodium per serving as some of the others, and that’s according to Campbell’s own nutritional info site. And don’t forget that a typical can of soup actually has two and a half servings in it. If you’re the type to ignore that information and just eat the whole can, you can find yourself on the receiving end of as much as 2,225 mgs in one meal — or in less than one meal, if you have a sandwich along with your soup.

By the way, I’m only picking on Campbell’s because they are one of the top brands in America, with four out of the top-ten selling soups in the market. In 2017, the company is projected to have over $7 billion in sales and gross profit of $3.06 billion. That’s a lot of soup. However, the tide may be turning there, with soup sales in the U.S. actually showing a decline beginning in 2009, and then very little growth after 2013. It’s not clear, though, whether the problem is the soup or the can itself, and Campbell’s has been moving away from metal containers to market two different lines: Campbell’s Go Soup, which comes in pouches, and Campbell’s Soup on the Go, which comes in a plastic container.

But don’t think that the packaging makes it healthier. The champion in this category for the Go Soups is coconut curry with chicken and shiitake mushrooms, weighing in at 830 mgs of sodium per serving — and the convenient pouch holds two servings. But, again, who’s going to split a container that seems designed to hold one serving?

At least both types of Soup on the Go are more reasonable, at only 410 mgs of sodium, and those containers are single-serving.

If I seem to be overwhelming you with math, it’s only because it’s something I’ve had to learn to live with and get used to. It’s not always possible to avoid absolutely everything in the grocery store that comes in a box or a can, but it is possible to make an informed decision. That’s why, for example, I only buy one particular kind of hamburger buns and one type of cheese. They are the lowest sodium brands available that I’ve been able to find in the regular store.

There are ways to go lower, but that gets heavily into “make it yourself from scratch” territory — although that isn’t a bad thing and I’ve gotten very used to it myself. Not that I’m going to start making no-salt cheese any time soon, but I have made re-fried beans, corn tortillas, and bread, as well as prepared horseradish, sweet and sour sauce, a soy sauce substitute, and both traditional and tofu-based tzatziki using no sodium at all, and they tasted just fine.

If you thought that everything in boxes and cans in grocery stores was bad, then stay out of restaurants. The sodium content in a lot of restaurant and fast food is outrageous. According to Pop Sugar, some of the most heinous examples include the Quizno’s turkey bacon guacamole sub, with 2,470 mgs of sodium; Dairy Queen’s 4-piece chicken strip basket at 2,530; Panera Bread’s bacon turkey bravo on tomato basil, with 2,290; Olive Garden’s Tour of Italy entrée at 3,830; IHOP’s country fried chicken steak and eggs with sausage gravy, 4,210; and Applebee’s chicken fajitas rollup, with 4,290.

However, the most staggering restaurant item is the Jersey Mike’s Buffalo chicken cheese steak, with a literally heart-rending 7,795 mgs of sodium per serving. For comparison, the most sodium-heavy item on the entire In-n-Out Burger menu is the double-double with cheese, at a mere 1,440 mgs of sodium. That’s less than one-fifth the amount found in the chicken cheese steak.

In 2017, the American Heart Association created a series of video spoofs awarding “MilliGrammy” awards to restaurant meals with high sodium content. Perhaps Jersey Mike’s didn’t quality in the national competition. After “accidentally” announcing the Big Mac Value Meal (970 mgs) as the winner, they corrected their La La Land-esque mistake and awarded the real winner, P.F. Chang’s Pad Thai, at 3,720 mgs.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Seven or Chapter Nine, or start at the Prologue.

Chapter Seven

In this excerpt from Chapter Seven, I explain the importance of those nutrition labels, and why you really should pay attention to just what it says on the tin.

Labeling, not enabling

Not long after I got out of the hospital — I think it was between two and four weeks, but I don’t remember exactly — Kaiser invited me to a free post heart-failure class, which was led by a nurse and a nutritionist. There were several dozen attendees in the room, and other than the nutritionist and one kid who must have been his grandmother’s ride there, I was by far the youngest person in attendance. And I don’t mean by just a couple of years. Everyone else there had to have been at least two decades older than me. If they weren’t, they sure looked it.

I found myself wondering why there was such a huge difference. As far as I could tell, no one in that room was a current hospital patient, so they all must have been through the same experience. Now, granted, my relative youth might have been an important factor, but I’m only assuming that everyone was so much older. Again, it could have been perception, and there may have been younger people in that room who were just a lot sicker.

After all, in the months before I’d gone into the hospital, I had looked a hell of a lot older myself.

But it was a strange sort of encouragement. I felt downright chipper and energetic, and if what I was looking at around that room was the alternative, then I had either really lucked out, really done something right, or both.

This feeling really kicked in at about the halfway point when the nurse had finished talking about the importance of physical activity, then said it was time for a stretch break and asked us to stand up. Three of us did — one patient, the aforementioned grandkid, and I. The nurse quickly covered with the request, “If you can’t stand up, just put your arms up.”

Some of those efforts were totally half-assed as well, and I really began to feel sorry for a lot of folks in that room, also remembering that not all that long before this class, I would have been in their boat, and not paddling along on my own.

I hope this isn’t making the class sound useless, though, because what the nutritionist taught us is still invaluable. It’s advice I follow to this day, and information I alluded to in Chapter 2. This is where I learned to start watching people in restaurants in order to see if what she’d told us was true, and it is — the first thing the vast majority of people do when their food arrives is to grab the salt and start shaking away, even before they’ve tasted a single bite.

She also taught us the importance of those nutritional information labels on the backs of packages that we often wind up ignoring, which brings up another one of those funny doctor moments.

Before I wound up in the hospital and as my doctor was scheduling my echocardiogram, I had mentioned my dieting attempts and how they weren’t working, but I insisted that I always read the nutritional labels. As the conversation continued, though, I realized that I wasn’t really reading the labels. I was only looking at the Calorie information, and only on a few items. After all, if you go by only Calories, an entire jar of 100 grams of olives only has 115 — but it has 735 mg of sodium. And a condiment, like a particularly snooty brand of mustard, only has 5 Calories per serving but 120 mg of sodium.

(Free grammar and science lesson: “Calorie,” with a capital C, refers to the things in stuff you eat. The other one, “calorie” with a lowercase c, refers to a specific scientific unit of measure, and is 1/1000th of a Calorie. No, I don’t know why, but the easy way to remember is that Calorie, with the big C, is bigger than calorie with the little c.)

My M.O. had only been to look at the Calories on pre-packed, frozen entrees, but I hadn’t given it a thought when it came to other things, like bread, buns, condiments, juices, and so on. I also gleefully ignored the serving size rules, meaning that the Calorie counts on the package became meaningless. After all, if the serving size is one fifth of a package at 260 Calories, eating the whole package would actually be 1,300 Calories, or a huge chunk of an adult’s needs for the entire day.

The hypothetical product I’m basing that on would also jump from an already ridiculous 960 mg of sodium to 4,800 mg — way over double the RDA.

Guess who used to ignore the serving sizes and consider “one package” and “one serving” to be synonymous? I used to eat an entire 12-inch pepperoni and sausage pizza for a meal. A meal like that was loaded down with 1,360 Calories, 60 grams of fat, 2,840 milligrams of sodium, and 12 grams of sugar just for fun. Sometimes, I’d even add extra cheese, bringing it up to 1,520 Calories, 72 grams of fat, and 3,180 milligrams of sodium.

Hey, at least the cheese didn’t add any sugar, right? And I won’t say which brand that pizza was, other than that it’s very appropriately named. What I will say is prepare yourself now, because pizza is one of those things that’s going to become very, very rare in your diet if you want this to work.

If your initial reaction to that comment was to express some degree of skepticism or disdain at losing out on pizza, then you are going to have to work extra-special hard at all of the tricks I’m sharing, because you are being your own enabler. In order to succeed, you’re going to have to learn to cut off all of your enablers, including yourself.

That cutting off begins by doing what I learned to do. Read those nutrition labels on absolutely everything.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Six or Chapter Eight, or start at the Prologue.