How to be funny

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Pardon meme, but…

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

Meme: noun

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

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

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

MemeStrip

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

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

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

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

not how this works

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

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

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

Meme Not a Meme

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

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

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

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

Meme Final image

Although now you should know the difference between the two.

 

Chapter Seven

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

Labeling, not enabling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Chapter Six

In this excerpt from Chapter Six, I introduce three psychological tricks you can use to get yourself into the mindset for achieving a healthier lifestyle.

The first three steps to a new you

How did your first diary entry go? Because you did that, right? Good. Now this chapter is going to give you three specific things to do that will help you get into the new mindset necessary to go on this journey and make it easy. We have a lot of old habits and lifetime programming to undo, and a lot of new ways to learn until they’re second nature.

Don’t let that sound daunting to you, because it isn’t as scary or difficult as it seems. I’ve got a nice analogy to explain the process to you, and it comes from my summer camp adventure as well.

We jammed a lot of activities into that weekend, and two of them were things that I’d never done before: canoeing and zip-lining. Now, the old me would have just said, “Well, I don’t know how to work a canoe and dangling on a cable is scary, so I’ll be in my cabin.”

New me was all about it, and a funny thing happened once I got out on that lake. It was a three man canoe, with me in the front, another paddler in the back, and a passenger in the middle — and I found that being able to control that boat was almost intuitive. Before we got out there, I’d thought that it was going to be difficult, we’d hardly move anywhere, maybe we’d wind up going in circles. Nope. We got that canoe going a lot faster than I’d thought possible, and I was doing most of the steering, maneuvering around the lake and avoiding other canoes and people who were fishing.

When that experience was over, I was let down only by the fact that it had been way too brief a trip. I could have paddled all over that lake all day long.

So the lesson there is don’t judge the difficulty of an experience before you’ve tried it, because you may be totally wrong. But the bigger lesson came in the zip-lining.

That experience was somewhat like my first time on Space Mountain — a lot of build-up to the big moment. The staff at camp had to teach us about safety, fit the harnesses and helmets on us, make sure everything was secure, then send us on our hike around a meadow and up to the launch platforms.

Funny how much higher up those platforms seemed from on top of them, but by that point I’d committed. If you’ve never zip-lined, it works like this: You’ve basically got your legs in a harness, and that’s what’s holding you up. This is connected to a rope that has a huge carabineer on the other end, and that carabineer hooks onto the zip-line itself.

All of that’s the easy part. The hard part is literally a leap of faith, because nothing happens until you step off of that platform, and that’s the bit that really takes trust, courage, and maybe a little bit of stupidity. The first time I went, I hesitated for a second or two, and then just let go.

And that’s where the real lesson comes and the magic happens, because once you start going on that zip-line, everything else is physics and gravity. The hard work is done, and your only job is to enjoy the ride and hit the ground running.

I must have liked it, because I went around five times and, again, would have gone more, but we’d hit the time limit for the event. And while taking that first step was always a little weird, it got a lot less scary, but the fun and the adrenaline rush was entirely worth it.

Following the steps I’m going to give you is just like zip-lining. I’m going to provide the instructions and the harness and point you on the way. Then it’s up to you to step off that platform and enjoy the ride. The first step is the hardest, but once you take it, the rest of it follows right from the rules of nature.

For the impatient sorts, so you don’t have to peek ahead, here are the short forms of those steps:

  1. Get out of your routine
  2. Get out of your space
  3. Try something new

One important thing to remember: Some of these may work very well for you and some of them may not. You don’t have to use all three. If you can, great — but if you find one that really does the trick, then stick with it and don’t worry about the others.

Are you ready? Okay. Strap on your helmet and let’s step off the edge.

* * *

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

The one-finger memory aid

I started using the following trick when I was just a kid, and it’s worked since then and through my entire adult life. I didn’t learn it from anybody, but do any of you already do this, too?

I don’t know why I started doing this as a kid, but it’s always worked for me as a simple way to remember something in the morning when I think of it in bed but don’t feel like getting up and hunting for some way to leave myself a note. It’s going to sound stupid but, like I’ve said, it does work.

All you need for it is your dominant hand and one part of your body — no, not what you’re thinking. In my case, I always used my right hand and my forehead, although I’ve tested it with my right hand and my left forearm and that works too.

All you do is this: Use your index finger to “write” out what you want to remember on your selected body part and after each phrase — i.e., as much as will fit — “wipe” the space with your hand and continue to write and wipe as necessary.

The important part is that your finger makes the shape of the letters and that your body feels it. It’s very similar to taking notes in class helping you remember what you were taught, whether you ever look at those notes again or not. The physical act of forming the words helps cement the memory in place for later. I always thought of the wiping part as pushing the words into my head rather than erasing them, by the way.

And sure enough, in the morning, the idea will pop back into your head all by itself. How do you think I reminded myself late last night to write this article in the first place?

Have you ever used this trick before and, if so, how did you learn it? Do you have your own memory tricks that help you? Share in the comments!

Can’t live / in fear

One of the most important things you can do for youself is to let go of your fear — it will open doors you never imagined even existed. Today, it put me in a music video.

A subject that I’ll discuss a lot in my book is how fear holds us back — whether it’s keeping us from going to the doctor, from having new experiences, or overcoming addictions.

In my post about my fear of roller coasters, I mentioned that I finally conquered this fear after a group of friends shamed me into taking a ride only for me to find out that I actually love roller coasters, but I think that peer pressure might be an early theme for me.

Fortunately, I had peers who mostly pressured me into good things.

One other thing they talked me into back in the day was auditioning for a play in college. Now, beyond third grade plays that don’t really count, I hadn’t really acted on stage before. I had taken one disastrous drama class in middle school and had played in the combos for a few small musicals, but part of the point of being in the backing band is that you aren’t on stage.

I figured, “Well, I haven’t done this before, there’s no way I’m going to get cast, and it’ll stop my friends from bugging me to get involved in theatre,” so I auditioned.

I got cast. In a featured speaking role. With lines and everything. I went from afraid to terrified, but I had already committed, so there was only one way to go…

And that, dear readers is how the acting bug bit me. Not that I ever wanted to pursue it as a profession — I prefer playing odd supporting roles and leaving the real work to the real pros, and I’ve certainly done some odd ones. If I had to pick favorites, they’d be the depressed unicycle riding bear in an adaptation of a John Irving short story, The Pension Grillparzer, The Dreamer in Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real, a leather-clad Jesus figure leading his blind mother along and whose dialogue is entirely in Spanish, and basically every spear-carrier in The Comedy of Errors rolled into one in the form of a slightly greedy, slightly drunk, river-dancing Irish cop, but which doesn’t seem to have any reviews online..

At least the L.A. times did say something nice about me: “Jon Bastian’s bear and Matt Ryan’s hand-walking man own the house…”

Along the way, I’ve also done extra work in film and T.V., and a series of flash theater performances put on by L.A.’s own Playwrights’ Arena over the course of a year in celebration of their 20th anniversary. I think I managed to do thirteen of those, which were all live in various locations around the city, and very much right up close and personal with the audiences.

None of this would have happened if I had let fear stop me from auditioning for that first play way back in college. And it hasn’t just been about the experience acting on stage. I’ve made a lot of close friends through all these various shows and performances, and every so often I get to help an artist make a statement.

That’s what I was doing today, for a music video for a song by Deidra Edwards called “We Already Know,” which involved a large and very diverse group of people singing in a park in an act of political resistance, and then some studio follow-up shooting. I’m very excited about this one because of the message, and because it’s also both a real and symbolic return to performing for me, which is something I’ve been working my way back into over the course of this year.

One of the lines we sang in the song says, “Can’t live in fear,” and that is certainly the case. It’s something that I think we already know, but we also like to resist the thought and let our fears win out.

But when we don’t let them win, magic happens.

Chapter One

And here it is, my faithful fans — the first chapter of the book. Viddy and enjoy and share.

“All right. I’m admitting you to the hospital via the emergency room.”

These are not exactly the words I was expecting to hear late on a Friday morning in summer. It was August 26, 2016, to be precise. It was the day before my boss’ birthday, and I was supposed to go into the office that afternoon to record a group video message to him. And, besides…

“Can I go make arrangements for my dog first at least?” I asked.

The doctor, who was an Indian woman currently giving me the stern look worthy of a disapproving Indira Gandhi, shook her head. “Would you like to die?” she asked, matter-of-factly.

Well, that was not good news.

I tried bargaining, but she was firm. She couldn’t exactly detain me against my will, but she urged my compliance in the strictest of terms. I tried to tell her why it was important that I go into the office briefly and arrange for someone to look after my dog. She was having none of it.

“Will anyone die if you don’t go to work?” she demanded.

“No…”

“Do you have friends you can call to go take care of your dog?”

“I… yes.”

In retrospect, it shouldn’t have even been a question, but even up to that point I was trying to deny the obvious. I was dying. I probably even should have been dead. But, like too many stubborn men, I had put off paying attention to the warning signs for way too long. And, like too many men, it wasn’t until whatever was going wrong with me affected my junk that I finally paid attention.

See, by this point, I had been rapidly gaining weight — nearly 45 pounds since the beginning of the year. I knew this and still know it now because I’d been tracking my weight since September of 2013, in an effort to lose some. In that first entry, from September 13, 2013, I logged a morning weight of 227.8 lbs. Even at 6’2”, that’s a BMI decidedly in the obese range already, and although I’d been taking steps to lose weight and tracking things diligently, my body decided at the beginning of 2016 to give me a hearty, “Screw you and your diet efforts!”

Hell, I’d stopped eating red meat entirely the October before. Wasn’t I supposed to start shrinking because of that? I was only eating poultry. I was doing fast days. Hell, there were weeks when I only had energy bars for lunch, and still I was swelling up like Violet Beauregard at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.

By late August, I’d actually been sleeping sitting upright in my office chair rolled into my bedroom for a few months, wrapped in a comforter, because I could not breathe when I lay down. I could barely walk — not only because my legs were so swollen, but because almost any effort sent me gasping for air. The dog suffered because of it. We used to go up and down the neighborhood and around several blocks. Now, I’d sneak her outside and ten feet away to do her business, then right back in.

Now you’d think that a rational person would have taken any one of those things as a sign and gone right to the doctor, but I had two strikes against me in that regard. First was that whole natural male stubbornness.

“Oh, it’ll get better.”

“Oh, I’m not that sick.”

“What? I feel fine!”

Right.

Second was a bit more personal, but I’m sure a lot of people can relate to this. I suffered a severe case of what is technically called iatrophobia — fear of doctors — although, in my case, it wasn’t so much a phobia as it was a deep-seated mistrust, and it went straight back to a series of events that affected me deeply in my teenage years.

I won’t go too much into it here (out of respect) except to say that my mother fell victim to a mystery illness. In retrospect, it may have been lupus, or not. But the very short version of a too long story is that she died when I was way too young after a series of doctors seemed to basically scratch their heads and try a ton of medications. Ultimately, I think their ill-informed attempts to treat her symptoms rather than find the cause are what killed her. She’d been injected with steroids, given pain-killers and anti-inflammatories, poked and prodded and, mostly, ignored.

I specifically remember her complaining to me once that she had told her (exclusively male) doctors many times that her symptoms got worse whenever it was her time of the month. She told me this not very long after I’d learned what “time of the month” was in Sex Ed in the first place, by the way. But her male doctors just told her, “Oh, it’s all in your head.”

Yeah, I can hear the record-scratch for a modern audience on that absolute mind-boggler of a sexist statement, but nobody would have caught onto that in the late 80s. Of course hormones have an effect on medicine and how you’re feeling and everything else. Incidentally, to this day, most medicines are only tested and normalized based on men.

See, women get excluded from clinical trials because of the idea that they might one day get pregnant, so there’s no data whatsoever on the effect a lot of meds might have on women. Lather, rinse, repeat the vicious circle.

Sigh.

Anyway… I lost my mom and my dad lost his best friend and partner, and so I really never went to doctors. I can count on less than one hand the times that I ever did as an adult, whether I had health insurance or not — and too many of those times were bad experiences.

Prior to this visit, in fact, I had a nightmare adventure visiting an urgent care center that shall remain nameless (except: Not Kaiser) because of a sore finger, where I was utterly misdiagnosed with gout, and then they lost my blood samples after I left. Oh yeah — in order to get to that urgent care, I had to convince the insurance company, which had misplaced my primary care hospital nearly forty miles from home, that I in fact did not live in Huntington Beach, but in North Hollywood.

Good thing for me that I had mostly been healthy enough to feel immortal, right?

So this is why your humble narrator slept sitting up for a few months and tried to deny that he was in real trouble, and didn’t seek medical care until, as mentioned above, things started to affect his favorite things — which were those bits between his legs.

* * *

Oh, balls

If you’re an average male, your scrotum is about the size of a plum, depending on the weather. If you’re gifted, maybe a lemon, and if you’re a freak, a baseball. If you get up to stuff like pumping or inflating… well, you shouldn’t, but even then, that was nothing on what happened to me.

Imagine a nice, big cantaloupe. Now try to hold one of those between your thighs and walk. Also, try to imagine that this surprise set of elephant nuts is trying to strangle your penis. No — it’s trying to make your penis disappear, which makes it really awkward when it’s time to pee.

That was me on the Saturday night before I wound up in the hospital, when I insisted on driving all the way over to the West Side to see a friend’s staged reading of their musical in progress. How or why I did it, I have no idea — but fortunately the friends of mine in attendance who saw me and to whom I confided the truth had some advice for me.

“You should be in the goddamn hospital right now.”

Yeah, I guess I should have been. So the following morning I went to urgent care where, ironically, I met my primary care physician for the first time because he happened to be on rounds. I don’t think he was all that happy to see me. But, as I said in the intro, I’m sure that his first impression was not a good one: “I hope this fat sack doesn’t expect me to pull a miracle out of my ass when he hasn’t bothered to even show up despite being insured.”

Honestly, I totally deserved it if that is what he thought.

Of course, what really happened was that he ran a couple of tests — as it turned out, for an infection and an STI — prescribed some antibiotics, and sent me on my way. Probably standard procedure, but possibly also a different kind of test of me. I’d pretty much confessed my iatrophobia to him on first sight, and he didn’t seem impressed by that.

But a funny thing happened on my part when Dr. Williams came into that room. My fear of doctors vanished. He was a nice guy. He seemed to be a bit annoyed with me but, at the same time, was not at all judgmental. He listened. He explained. Nothing scary or nasty happened. He was clearly there to help, and there was a course of action. Maybe everything was going to be okay.

So I filled the prescription, headed home, and hoped for the best.

By Wednesday, my scrotum had gotten even bigger — what’s next up from a cantaloupe? And I wasn’t breathing better, and wasn’t feeling better, so I called Dr. Williams. He scheduled an echocardiogram for Friday morning, so that’s where I went. And it was after that test that the cardiologist gave me the life-changing news.

“You’re going to hospital now, or you’re going to die.”

Well, all right then…

* * *

How hearts fail

If this were a one-person show instead of a book, this is the point when the sound of a heartbeat would fill the theater and the lights would go to black, then the heartbeat would gradually get slower and more labored as slides projected in the darkness with a voiceover.

Congestive heart failure happens when the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs. Congestive is exactly what it sounds like: traffic gets backed up, so your blood cells can’t get to where they need to go. Symptoms include fatigue, diminished ability to move around, shortness of breath, and swelling.

Guess which of those symptoms I had. Yeah, it’d be all of them.

In my case, my doctors told me that my heart function was at 15%. In a normal person, it’s expected to be 55% or above. So, while 15% isn’t as bad as it could be against a hundred, it’s still pretty bad. This percentage represents the ejection fraction — that, is the amount of blood that the left ventricle actually manages to squirt upward per beat. In a sense, this is your heart’s money shot, and the higher the better.

On top of this, I also apparently had a bit of mitral valve backwash. That is, blood that was trying to make it up and out that left ventricle was pouring back down instead. End result: Fluid gathering, first in my legs, then in my ass, finally, washing up into my torso and back down into my scrotum.

In retrospect, I think that the doctor who had admitted me was right. I probably would not have lived more than another week if I hadn’t gone into the hospital right that moment. As it was, I spent about the next ten hours in the emergency room, in a private room on a gurney, hooked up to a Furosemide IV.

Furosemide is a powerful diuretic. A diuretic makes you urinate — and that I did, about every fifteen minutes for most of that weekend. Now, since they were monitoring fluid in and fluid out, I had to use a plastic urinal, and I couldn’t count how many times I filled one of those things over the next three days. All I do know is that I walked out of that hospital 45 lbs lighter than I’d been when I walked in.

* * *

In hospital

As a patient, I’d only been in a hospital one other time in my life — the first sixteen days after I was born two months premature, so I don’t remember any of it. I was a frequent hospital visitor as both of my parents were dying, though, so I did not have great associations with the places.

Ironically, my original ambition had been to be a doctor, although I just didn’t have the math aptitude to pursue a scientific profession. I also volunteered in a hospital in high school and then worked in two during and just after college, and these experiences did not help enamor me of the location, either.

Hospitals are full of sick people and they never really quiet down. I had learned that one firsthand working as a security guard while I was in college, when first the swing guy didn’t show up and then the night shift guy didn’t show up, so I worked a twenty-four hour shift. Hey, it was a small hospital.

Did I mention that the fine people I worked for at the time screwed me out of the ridiculous overtime on that one, by the way? Although in retrospect I could have screwed them back fifteen ways from Sunday in a lawsuit. But I didn’t. (I didn’t work for the hospital, by the way — it was a contractor that staffed multiple hospitals, and the people who ran the company were dicks, in the modern and film noir meanings of the word.)

But I do digress…

I found the entire hospital experience that summer to be surprisingly… pleasant, actually. And yes, that was a surprise to me. I actually had two IV lines in me — one in my left hand and the other in my right arm — and the biggest surprise there was that they didn’t bother me at all.

I had always wondered how people could put up with having needles in them for a long period of time, and now I know. Part of the reason, of course, is that an IV isn’t a needle in your arm, it’s a cannula, which is a very thin and flexible tube that’s actually inserted via a hypodermic needle. I didn’t realize this until they finally pulled it out and bent it.

In a lot of ways, being in a private hospital room is a lot like being in a very fancy, although very boring, hotel. There’s also a magnificent staff available 24/7 to wait on you, and a parade of doctors. When they need to do tests or take X-rays, one of the wonderful nurses will give you a ride, either flat on a gurney or in a wheelchair. There’s even cable and WiFi!

One of the most interesting changes I’ve noticed in medicine from my days working in hospitals is how much everything has become geared toward modesty, which is a sad side-effect of America’s returning puritanism and sexual repression that began in the ‘90s. Even when my doctor was examining my scrotum out of necessity — cantaloupe, remember? — I still had on my underwear and a gown, and he only uncovered what he actually needed to see. This was also true when they did an ultrasound on the same place in the hospital — the tech was basically groping around under a towel.

Now, I’m not a particularly shy person, so these kinds of concessions don’t really mean a lot to me, but if you’re the kind of person who avoids medical care because of modesty, it looks like that issue has been minimized if not all but eliminated. Of course, I never had to have a catheter, so there wasn’t any reason for doctors or nurses to poke around down there in the first place. In fact, they told me to keep my underwear on when I changed into the hospital gown.

That part wasn’t so pleasant after three days straight, by the way.

* * *

Not that bad, really

The hardest part of the experience was that first day, really, and mainly because I spent about ten hours in the emergency room before they took me up to the hospital proper. By the time I got up there, the kitchen had closed and I hadn’t eaten anything before the test, so by that point it had been well over twenty-four hours since I’d had food. “Dinner” on the first night consisted of graham crackers and juice, although I was limited during my stay to a maximum of 1.2 liters of fluid per day — which ain’t a lot.

The food for the rest of the weekend really made up for all of it, though.

This is something I thought that I would never say or write, but I actually have fond memories of that weekend in the hospital. Maybe it was being the center of attention — a little bit — but it was also an enormous sense of relief. My health had been going downhill since at least the previous Thanksgiving by that point. Now, suddenly, people were doing something about it and I was feeling better.

One of the most memorable encounters of the weekend happened on Saturday, though, when I first met my cardiologist, Dr. Manela. Keep in mind that this was a Saturday, and the doctor walked into the room wearing a kippah. If you’re a goy, you might know that as a yarmulke, but the key point is that despite the doctor being very Jewish, he’s dropping in on me on the Sabbath, and those two little details really gave me confidence. Long story, which I’ll probably tell elsewhere, but while I’m technically Catholic while raised as a very secular Protestant who ended up a total atheist, I’m also very, very Jewish culturally because all of my closest friends growing up were — so I tend to trust Jews more than I trust any other religious group, because they truly are concerned with life. That, plus they don’t try to convert people, which is a big bonus.

That was exactly the reason that such an observant Jew was able to work on the Sabbath and meet with me, by the way. See, there’s this great little bit in their rules that says, “If what you’re doing will save a life, then you go and work your ass off, and don’t even pay no never mind to whether it’s the Sabbath, or whether it’s kosher.”

Who’d a thunk it — a religion that uses logic. Wow.

The news that Dr. Manela came to give me was this: “Hi. Your heart failed.” And he was then truly shocked by my lack of shock. In fact, he even pointed it out, telling me that most of the time that he told people this, they freaked the hell out. My response to him was that I tended to react that way to bad news, because the only logical response was to say, “Okay, that’s a thing. Now what do I do to fix it?”

I think he appreciated that answer — a little bit then, but a hell of a lot more as time went on, more on which later.

Saturday was also the day that I met one of my weekend nurses who, more than anyone, was really responsible for making my stay a fantastic experience. He was nice, he was caring, he was funny, and he really took his time to explain to me what was going on, and to just sit down and talk. I don’t even remember whether I told him about my whole iatrophobia thing, but I definitely told him about the circumstances (read: swollen nutsack) that brought me there in the first place, and on Sunday he asked me, “Uh… can I see it?”

Keep in mind that he’s straight (sorry, boys), and his interest was strictly professional, but it was actually really endearing. I mean, honestly, in America, elephantiasis is probably not something he’d see every day, or any day, and, while that was not the cause of my produce department sized funbag, it was still an interesting end result, at least.

Like I said, I’m not shy, but this led to one of the most fascinating conversations I’ve ever had. Yeah, we’re talking about my balls, there they are somewhere inside of all that, and how’s your wife again? Definitely a bonding moment.

* * *

About my dog

Now, the observant and animal-lovers among you are probably still wondering one thing. “What about your dog?”

Thanks for asking.

Her name is Sheeba and when I went into the hospital she was eleven years old. While she kind of acts very independent, she’s actually a lot more clingy than she pretends to be, especially to me and especially after her older sister, Shadow, passed away in September 2014. She doesn’t exactly have separation anxiety, but she doesn’t do well on her own.

That’s a kind of interesting side-effect of my day job, which I haven’t mentioned yet. For the last decade, I’d worked for the Dog Whisperer, also known as Cesar Millan, and it was a dog-friendly office. So Sheeba and Shadow always got to go to work with me, and Sheeba especially did so after Shadow was gone — practically every day. But the downside of that one was that when I had to leave her at home alone because I was kind of busy trying not to die, it was not good for her.

I did manage to contact one old friend who knew her from about a decade ago, then give her my keys to go drop in for feeding and walking. The problem was that Sheeba didn’t remember her, so fled and hid behind the bed. So switch-up to a friend Sheeba had dealt with more recently, and he managed to actually get in there and walk her and feed her.

Still, when I came home on Monday, it wasn’t pretty. Sheeba practically exploded when I finally came back, she had blown her coat all over the place, and had torn down and chewed up the metal blinds in my bedroom. My absence was clearly a traumatic experience for her, and if there was a downside to my hospital experience, this was it.

I suppose, though, it was better to come back to her three days later than to have never come back at all.

* * *

You gotta have heart…

Your heart is a muscular organ. It’s neither your largest nor your smallest. Those honors belong to your gluteus maximi (in your butt) and the stapedius (in your ear) respectively. However, it’s certainly the most important. You could live without your largest and smallest muscles, although you probably couldn’t walk or hear. Without your heart (or a mechanical replacement) you die.

The heart’s job, which begins about six weeks after conception and ends about eight minutes or so before your death (in most cases), is to move your blood around your body. Your blood has several jobs. One is to bring oxygen to your cells and take carbon dioxide away. Others are to fight infection and close up wounds. It’s also the medium in which nutrients and hormones get around, being distributed from the source organs in your digestive and endocrine systems.

If you have an average resting heart rate of 60 beats per minute, then it will beat 31,557,600 times per year, more or less. Live to the age of three score and ten years mentioned in Psalm 90:10, and it will beat over 2.2 billion times. (Ooh… the atheist just quoted the Bible. Yeah, I’m allowed to do that. It’s a pretty important literary source.)

Ironically, the only other muscles in your body that work as hard or harder are the two diminutive muscles in your inner ear, but only because they are constantly responding to everything that you hear. By the way, some humans still have muscles in their outer ear that allow them to actually move them. I happen to be one of those rare humans who does, and I can wiggle my ears like nobody’s business. That has nothing to do with anything, but it’s fun to brag about and it’s always amused my dogs.

But I do digress…

The average human heart is the size of its human’s fist, and it weighs about 11 ounces. This is far less than the human brain (3 pounds), lungs (1.9 pounds) and liver (3.5 pounds). This is also far, far less than the weight of your skin, which is your biggest organ, clocking in at a probably surprising but impressive 16% of your weight. In my case, that’s 27 pounds now. It used to be 44. Also surprisingly: despite my rapid weight loss, I did not wind up with any extra dangly skin bits.

But the point of all these facts and figures is this: This not particularly large organ that weighs just less than a can of soup and which hides behind your sternum (the bit that connects your ribs) and between your lungs (the left one of which is smaller to accommodate it) starts working before you’re born and cannot rest for a second until you die. When it’s doing its job right, you hardly notice it. But when it isn’t…

Oh yeah. You’ll notice then. The only question is whether you’ll pay attention to what your heart is telling you and live or, like me, ignore the obvious and nearly die.

I’m really fond of the “live” option, personally.

* * *

Fear

There was only thing that had kept me out of that hospital room and out of my doctor’s office: Stupid, useless fear. There’s a famous line in Frank Herbert’s Dune that is a recurring motif because it’s the mantra of a religious order and it begins like this: “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

I’d update that in my case to say that Fear Is the Killer. It kills ambition, it kills progress, and it can kill people. It can prevent us from achieving what is possible and from learning who we are. It stops us from moving forward and locks us in a safe, little box that might as well be a coffin. Fear is the mother of prejudice and the father of hate; the creator of division and the birthplace of ignorance.

The opposite of Fear is Love, and Love is the mother of Hope, Harmony, and Humanity.

Once I got over my fear, amazing things took place, way beyond mere physical healing. See, a funny thing happens when you face one fear and nothing bad happens. You start to face more of them, one after the other, until you’re killing fears left and right.

The incredible doctors and nurses of Kaiser Permanente helped put my heart back together, but then I took that ball and ran with it because I’d been given the greatest thing in the world: A second chance at life.

I think that I’ve lived more in those days since I got out of the hospital than I had in the entire time leading up to them. It’s a great feeling, and now I’m going to tell you how to do it for yourself, but the journey out is a story best begun with the journey in.

* * *

Read an excerpt from Chapter Two