False friends and other stuff

As I wrote about previously, learning at least one other language is something that’s good for your brain, and not necessarily as hard to do as you might think, especially depending on how your native and second languages are related. For an English speaker, Germanic and Romance languages are probably easier to learn than Semitic or Japonic languages. Not necessarily the case — I know plenty of Americans who’ve learned Hebrew as pre-teens or learned Japanese because of a love of Anime and Manga — but sticking to other languages with common roots will help.

And if you learn one language from a family, while you may not be able to fluently speak related languages, you may at least be able to understand them. From learning Spanish, I can often understand spoken Italian, as well as frequently be able to read French and Portuguese. No such luck with Romanian, though. And yes, although it might be a surprise to some people, Romanian is a Romance Language, too. In fact, it’s the one that gave the family its name. Because I’d studied German, Dutch made sense to me when I dabbled in it. And so on.

But… a funny thing can happen as languages diverge from their origins and change. All of the Romance languages came from Latin. They are the remnants of the Roman Empire, after all. But all of them evolved and changed until they went from being street dialects of the imperial tongue to their own very separate things. The same thing happened with English. It started out as a language spoken by a tribe on an island off of the west coast of Europe with influences from a different language from other tribes on an island off of that island’s west coast. This got a heavy early dose of Latin thanks to Roman invaders. Then, a few centuries later, it was infused with Nordic Languages via the Vikings and, for a while, the kings there were Danish.

That all ended when ol’ William the Conqueror came roaring in in 1066, bringing French with him. In fact, for a long time, the nobility spoke French while the peasants spoke English and everybody went to church in Latin. We can still see remnants of the Norman Conquest today. It’s so often cited that it’s not really news, but that’s why we have different words for the animals: cow, pig, chicken, sheep; and for the meat from them, beef, pork, poultry, mutton. The former are all old Anglo-Saxon terms and the latter are French. The peasants grew the stuff. The nobility ate it.

The French roots are still really obvious in the latter: boeuf, porc, poulet, mouton. Meanwhile, the Germanic roots are really clear in the Anglo-Saxon words: Kuh, Schwein, Huhn, Schaf. The one odd one might seem to be chicken, Huhn — until you remember that we call a female chicken a… hen.

(Side note, looking at poulet and mouton: The reason that a lot of English words in British spelling have –ou where the American versions have just –o is that Samuel Johnson had a jones for preserving etymology, so words derived from French kept the French spelling — colour, behaviour, etc. Johnson was kind of a pedant — which is just a fancy Latin-based word for “douche.” But I do digress.)

The real point here is this: One of the big bugbears that language learners do face is what are called “False Friends.” That is, words in two different languages that look like each other, but actually have very different meanings. At their most harmless, they can lead to silly misunderstandings. At their most harmful, well… that’s self-explanatory.

Probably one of the most famous examples that any English speaker who takes Spanish 101 learns almost off the bat is this one: Embarazada. For those of you who haven’t studied Spanish, I’ll give you a moment to take a guess at what this word means. Hint: It’s an adjective.

While we’re waiting: One of the funniest (to me) Spanish errors someone can make is to leave the tilde off of the “n” in the word “años,” which means years. In Spanish, the phrase is not “He is X years old,” it is “He has X years.” So leaving the tilde off changes a statement like, “My grandfather (is) has seventy years (old)” to “My grandfather has seventy anuses.”

As for embarazada, what’s your guess? If you said embarrassed, then be embarrassed, because it actually means pregnant.

Speaking of actually… it’s generally easy to convert adverbs from English and Spanish and mostly be right. Adverbs that end with –ly in English end with –mente in Spanish. Probably, probablamente. So the word actualmente might look like it means actually… but it doesn’t. It means currently, as in “right now.” Actualmente escribo un artículo por mi blog. Right now, I’m writing an article for my blog.

Easey peasey. Or, in Spanish, pan comido, which literally means “eaten bread,” but I think you can see how that relates to another English saying: “piece of cake.”

Other fun false friends: Carpeta is not a carpet, which is alfombra, a word that Spanish borrowed from Arabic. Rather, carpeta is a folder, particularly a file folder. You’ll see this word all the time if you switch your devices to Spanish.

And there’s another one. Dispositivo might look like it has to do with disposing stuff, but it doesn’t. This is the word for devices, particularly phones and tablets.

If you work for a business or company, then you might feel like they’re getting all imperial on you. Easy mistake to make if you misinterpret the Spanish word therefore: Empresa.

Looking for a way out? Then you don’t want the éxito, which is actually a big hit — un gran éxito is a song or movie or TV show that earns a lot of money. If you really want to go, look for la salida.

If you want to introduce someone in Spanish, then don’t use introducir, because that means to insert something, and I don’t think you want to get that intimate with your… um… introductions. Instead, use presentar.

On the other hand, molestar in Spanish is a lot more innocuous than it is in English. If you molestas alguien en español, at most they’ll look at you funny and walk away. If you molest someone in English, you’ll probably wind up in jail and on a list. Molestar in Spanish simply means “to bother.” As Winnie the Pooh might say, “Ay, que molesta.”

Then, there’s this one: Fingir. I know what it looks like, but what it really means is “to pretend.” But if you go around fingering people in English… well, without their consent, don’t.

Finally, if you want to wash up, don’t reach for the sopa unless you want to bathe in soup. Otherwise, what you want is jabón… not to be confused with the Spanish word for ham, which is jamón. And this word may or may not have appeared in Michael Jackon’s “Bad.”

I haven’t done this in reverse, but let me know if you can. If you’re a non-native speaker learning English, what words in our language look like but aren’t words in your own? And if you’re an English speaker learning something other than Spanish, what false friends pop up in your target language?

Comment below!

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.

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.

* * *

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…

* * *

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

 

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.