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.

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Spicing it up

“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”

That quote comes from Frank Herbert’s Dune and, in the context of the books, was more a metaphor for control of fossil fuels than seasonings, because Herbert’s “spice” was a substance produced by sandworms that gave interstellar navigators their ability to fold space. So in its original contest, you could replace “spice” with “gasoline” to get the same result.

Oddly enough, though, quite a lot of colonial expansion in the age of “discovery” (aka the age of “killing non-white people”) involved bringing back new and exotic spices from all those countries discovered in the Americas and South Pacific. Prior to that, a lot of trade between Europe and Asia done overland involved the importation of spices as well.

A lot of this trade and seeking of new flavors, though, was just an extension of the Old World’s deadly love affair with salt.

Now, I completely understand the appeal of salt. I was hooked on it myself for a long time. So, when you have to cut way back on the sodium, you run the risk of everything suddenly tasting bland. But fear not: there are healthy alternatives that can flavor that food right back up and, in fact, make it taste even better than it did with salt.

When I was in the hospital, one of the nurses there tipped me off to a brand of seasoning called Mrs. Dash. It was developed in the 1980s by Carol Bernick, who wanted to create salt-free seasoning alternatives for cooking at home. Each flavor is made from granulated herbs and spices, and they have quite a range of them. There are twelve varieties of spices in all: Caribbean citrus, extra spicy, fiesta lime, garlic and herb, Italian medley, lemon pepper, onion and herb, original, Southwest chipotle, spicy jalapeño, table blend, and tomato basil garlic.

I have tried most of them, although I have a caveat. Because they don’t contain salt, they are subject to clotting in humid weather, so you definitely need to keep them in a very dry place. I’ve tried six out of the bunch and found that lemon pepper, Southwest chipotle, and table blend clumped the most, while original and Italian medley clumped the least and garlic and herb has never clumped at all, so keep that in mind.

They also make three grilling varieties, for chicken, steak, and hamburger. I’ve only tried the chicken, but it hasn’t clumped either. Of course, you can probably completely avoid this issue with their liquid 10-minute marinades, which I haven’t tried any of yet, although I suppose I will be, since I didn’t even know they existed until I researched the history of the product to write this section!

There are other salt substitutes out there, some good and some bad. In general, you should try to avoid substitutes with potassium chloride in them, especially if you have kidney problems or are taking certain medications. Consult with your doctor first.

None of the Mrs. Dash products contain potassium chloride and range from a minor 5 to 10 mg of potassium per serving. Some brands of salt substitute that also lack potassium chloride are The Spice Hunter, Benson’s Table Tasty, and Chef Paul Prudhomme’s Magic Salt Free Seasoning.

But you don’t need to resort to commercial replacements, especially since some of them can be a bit pricey — Prudhomme’s is $7.09 for a 5 oz shaker on Amazon, for example. The nice thing about going salt-free is that it actually opens up all kinds of possibilities for flavorings, some of which you may never even have thought of before.

Here are some of my personal favorites…

* * *

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.

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(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 Ten

When you lose a lot of weight, you discover things you might not have expected. In this excerpt from Chapter Ten, I discuss one of them.

Twenty things you learn when you lose a lot of weight

While I was in the hospital, I lost close to sixty pounds real fast in the form of the water they managed to squeeze out of me with a diuretic IV, but that left me at 220, which was only slightly less than I’d been hovering at for a while. It took me exactly a week to break the 200 lb. barrier going down, and then about seven months to lose the next 20. It was exactly a year to the day after I went into the hospital that I dropped below 170 for the first time.

So it’s not a fast process by any means, and there are ups and downs along the way, although fortunately because of my changes in diet and lifestyle, the “ups” were very small and temporary, and never more than six pounds in a day, although generally I would also lose most of that gain by the next morning.

Here’s a fun fact: Yes, it is possible to lose weight while you sleep. In fact, it’s apparently totally normal, something I’ve documented by weighing myself twice a day, every day — right after I get up and go to the bathroom and right before I go to bed. Remember: We breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide, which is 38% heavier than oxygen, so there’s some of your passive weight-loss right there. The vast majority of the air we breathe — 70% at sea-level — isn’t even oxygen, it’s nitrogen and other inert gases, so it just goes right in and right out.

Sweat can also remove weight while you sleep.

Here’s another fun but totally anecdotal fact that I’ve verified with my handy digital bathroom scale: A good ripper of a fart can actually make you slightly heavier! Although note that your results may vary and come down to whether your gas is predominantly methane or hydrogen sulfide, which determines whether you’re losing weight or losing buoyancy. Yes, that’s actually a thing. Gas inside your intestines can make you a little less dense and a little more “floaty,” or affect you the other way around.

The more you know…

Anyway, in my case, it was that rapid 20 lb. loss right at the start that helped really kick-start things for me and kept me from getting frustrated or really noticing (even until now) that it took so long for the rest of the weight to drop.

There are both pros and cons to losing weight. Some of them are probably pretty obvious. When you lose weight, you’re healthier, it’s easier to get around, seats on subways and in theaters are much roomier (although not necessarily more comfortable), and people don’t give you the stink eye when they see you coming.

But some of the benefits and annoyances will probably surprise you. What surprised me was not only going through them myself but, as I was researching for this book, finding people with similar stories and realizing that things that I experienced that I thought were weird were totally normal. Here are just a few of them.

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It gets cold

For most of my life, I’ve been more a fan of colder weather than hot — which goes really great when you grow up in Southern California (sarcasm), and has gotten even less great as the weather has gotten hotter and hotter over the years. But when I was younger, I could have run around naked in the snow and worked up a sweat, but not have cared one bit or felt at all cold — but let it get much above room temperature and I’d have started sweating like crazy.

And this was always independent of my weight. Whether I was fat or thin, I always preferred it cold. That all changed this time around, but that’s probably an advantage. All of a sudden, the heat doesn’t really affect me at all while the cold does. This was probably why I willingly made so many trips to Palm Springs this year — I can now tolerate temps above 110ºF (43ºC).

This isn’t something that we’re all imagining, either. Called “cold intolerance,” it’s a real phenomenon with several causes. The most obvious one, of course, is that you lose a lot of insulation. For me, that translated into an 11- to 12-inch drop in waist size, from 42 to 30-ish. I saw “ish” because 31 inch pants are a little big on me while 30 are a little small, so I’m right in between. Another issue can be caused by Calorie restriction, which slows your metabolism. Lowering metabolism is like damping a furnace — less energy burned, less heat created.

In my case in particular, I had also developed a bit of anemia, although that finally cleared up. But it’s a condition that can also contribute to feeling cold. In fact, this is one of the reasons that women are often colder than men in the same situations and temperatures — losing blood can cause anemia, and menstruation leads to blood loss, which most men don’t even realize is a thing.

One of the places where I found a lot of confirmation of what I’d experienced was in a Reddit thread in the Ask Reddit sub with the question “Former fat people of reddit, (sic) what were some unintended side effects of your weight loss?” Feeling cold happened to be the most popular response, but far from the only one.

Yeah, who knew — useful information from an online news aggregator. (Actually, if you pick the right so-called sub-reddits, you can learn a lot.)

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Read an excerpt from Chapter Nine or go to the Prologue.

Chapter Nine

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

A train, a street, and a saint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now let’s go!

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Read an excerpt from Chapter Eight or Chapter Ten, or 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.

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