A blog about nothing.

Friday, April 29, 2016

POSTSCRIPT FROM PARADISE



Change is nice sometimes. When I was thirty I picked up and went to school abroad, leaving everything behind. Girlfriend, car, nice apartment and most of my possessions. Don't worry, my girlfriend had already moved on by the time we had broken up. I mean into the arms of another. Good for her. You win some, you love someone else, as they say. 

Before I left town my friend DJ, whom I hadn't seen in a while, came over and took a look at my new digs, the digs I was about to leave behind. Rent-controlled apartment by the beach, tastefully furnished and with reasonably new carpet. And the soon-to-be ex and I had painted the place in a soothing shade of yellow which we had dubbed "instant good mood." He took a long look at Shannon and said, "She's fine." Meaning hot. I had a good job, though I wasn't crazy about it. But teaching paid the bills and left enough over for me to take the occasional vacay, take my baby out to dinner, and save some money besides. And after my six-hour-stint in the classroom enough time in the day remained for me to fit in a workout and work on my novel, which if I could ever finish maybe would let me quit my day job. And sure, the Mercedes Benz coup I was leasing was overpriced and way too flashy for the inner-city adult school, but it was practically new so I didn't have to worry about it breaking down in the 3 years I was contracted to drive it, and though $550 was what we were paying in rent, the monthly payment did include insurance. 

"Why do you want to give all this up?" DJ wanted to know. Your life is the shit, he seemed to be saying, meaning good. But did I have the life? The apartment itself, though affordably situated just 2 miles from the beach, was a hand-me-down from a friend who had just purchased a condo and wanted a fall-back plan unless escrow fell through. So we could lose it at any time. Coming home at night and stopping to retrieve the mail I would often catch myself looking over my shoulder to see if some nameless landlord was watching me with suspicion. But yes, I was somewhat comfortable; I just wasn't fulfilled. And I knew this only 4 months into our month-to-month. If I kept at it I'd gain weight and get complacent and lose my spirit, and by then I'd be so dependent on the paycheck and so set in my ways that getting up and going would no longer be an option. I had to strike while the iron was hot, jump through my window of opportunity before it closed. Et cetera.  I didn't know it at the time but I was in the company of a great many artists, Picasso among them, who'd pick up and move on just as things got "cush." It seems too much comfort is the enemy of inspiration. Of course I was set to become a scientist, not an artist, and inspiration is not a necessity in this field. And the little island I was moving to was surrounded by the quiet Caribbean Sea, so I was exchanging traffic for the sound of the sea breeze, which appealed to me more than it did DJ. Ever the city boy, DJ's idea of a good time is smoking weed and eating barbecued wings. And I too was becoming a city boy, judging by my habits, which included these as well as smoking cigarettes and drinking more than my conscience condoned. Even doing crystal meth whenever my gal pal could get her hands on it. All in the name of fun. A hangover is not that. I couldn't wait for my soon-to-be former life to end.

And so I went to my "island in the sun" before Weezer's song of that name with whatever I could carry on my back - as well as the couple bags I checked. The island was warm, so my clothes were shorts and Ts and flipflops mostly. I took some toiletries, an alarm clock, some CDs and my old computer. First-term students had to stay in the dorms. Having lived at home for college, the dorm experience was new to me, and initially not pleasant. The place was little bigger than a prison cell, and just as drab. A cot and a bed and air-conditioning was what each student got, and not as cheap as what you can find in prison. But I met a nice guy from New York, an Indian fellow named Raja, and fate paired us up. After a couple weeks we arranged that Raja do the cooking and I be the maid. The arrangement worked out perfectly because he had packed a rice cooker and hot plate and I just some CDs and my old computer and some Comet. Raja would heat up some vacuum-packed Indian food - chana masala, saag paneer - and we'd take our paper plates to our beds and talk about our old lives. Just like they do in prison. We both had lived in New York, and if you've ever been to this great city, you know its citizens stick together. Afterwards I'd wash the cookware off in the bathroom sink. Thank God for Comet. Drinking in the dorm was forbidden but in the course of our conversations it came up that we shared a love for Scotch, so on weekends Raja and I would smuggle in some Johnnie Walker black label and drink two fingers' worth each out of plastic cups before heading to the island's only disco to let off some steam, because it really was humid.

The dorm was 2 miles from school so I bought an old mountain bike off one of the professors for cheap. Thank God for wheels! This meant freedom. Yes you could say going from an overpriced coup to a rusty Trek bike was downgrading, but I was just happy to be able to travel to the market without waiting for the bus which hardly came. Everything at the market was overpriced, but I discovered canned beans, which paired well with the Skippy peanut butter Raja brought from home. Ah, the good life. Simple. Everything I owned fit into a coffin-sized closet. And exercise was built into transportation. And free time - when I wasn't studying. But classes only went for about 3 hours a day, with 2 hours of homework. Five hours was less work than I had put in as a writer/teacher, and no traffic or for that matter TV. After school if I had the room to myself I'd lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling, the quiet hum of the air conditioner to complement my breathing. Sometimes I'd stop at the nearby resort hotel, park my bike in the sand and sway in a hammock beneath the shade of a palm tree, watching the fronds flutter in the wind and listening to the sea breeze - or Queen's greatest hits, which was the only CD I remembered to pack. I can still sing Fat-bottomed Girls word for word, though I haven't heard the song in over a decade. "Can anybody find me somebody to love?" became my anthem. 

The water was warm enough to wade into at any time of day. At night after studying and in lieu of the entertainment a city dweller takes for granted (movies and mini-malls, massage parlors and Internet porn) I'd walk back down to the waves and stroll along the shore, conversing with myself. It seemed I wasn't as over my ex-girlfriend as I thought. As Prince sang, "I love you more than I did when you were mine." So true! But I was content in my island paradise, and other than the occasional bout of sentimentality, for which there was Scotch, I never looked back.

As a country, however, all too often we do look back. In the political arena there is talk of the disappearance of the middle class. The middle class has been defined by the U.S. Commerce Department not so much by its position on the economic scale but by its aspirations: homeownership, a car for each adult, health security, a college education for each child, retirement security, and a family vacation each year. But as Neal Gabler writing for The Atlantic points out, a recent analysis by USA Today concluded that to achieve this version of the American dream requires an income of just more than $130,000 a year for an average family of four. Whereas the median family income is roughly half that. 

So the middle class has been absorbed into the upper class and the American dream is vanishing. Which is to say the dream is not for everyone. It wasn't for me, but by choice. I don't think we should use aspirations as a predictor of happiness or their fulfillment as a sign of success. Before medical school I was the middle class. My annual income of $65,000 qualified. I had health insurance through the school district, though this should be less an aspiration of some and more a universal for everyone. I had my college degree and part of my salary was deducted for my retirement. And not six months before leaving town I had gone on a trip to Hawaii. Learned to surf on the beaches of Kauai, or at least to stand up. I had my car and Shannon and I had enough to make a down payment on a home or whatever the correct terminology is for saddling yourself with a 30-year mortgage you can expect never to pay off in a city where the cost of living is as overpriced as it is in LA. But guess what? This American dream was my version of a nightmare. I was tethered to a desk in a class that smelled like teenage flatus (a particularly noxious breed I assure you) pushing papers around as I tried to will my hangover out of existence. Newsflash: The real dream is not how much you make and what you own or rent or lease but how content you can be with less, and how much free time you enjoy. Free time is where the money is at, I mean value. Because leisure is at a real premium in today's world. Usually it comes when you retire from that desk job which has left you too stiff too enjoy those waves of Hawaii. Good luck surfing then!

My point is it's sometimes nice to hit the refresh button on life. To start over with little more than the shirt on your back. Sometimes life manages this for you. You lose a job or your home or get divorced. But these transitions can be rough and filled with animosity which leaves you reeling and in no mood to enjoy your new-found free time. So take matters into your own hands. You could say I had a head-start on the simple life, an inclination to head that way having teemed beneath the surface of my blank stare for many a year prior to my departure outta Dodge. I never really liked driving and I had gone years before without owning a car. And periodically I would get rid of all my stuff, just call Goodwill and have them carry it all away. Or toss it into the recycle bin. Snakes shed their skin, birds leave their nests. Try to ditch your digs if not once in a while, then at least once in your adult life. Talk about being born again. If you do, that is simplify, you'll find you wind up with spare time, a clear head, and if you move to the proper locale, one helluva tan. Just go easy on the Scotch.

The postscript from paradise goes like this: After graduating med school it was back to my middling existence as a resident physician. With an income of $50,000 to be $130,000 (enough to support a wife and a couple kids), a car, good health insurance, retirement, and enough left over to make it home for the holidays. But I was so tired after long days doctoring that I had no time or energy to enjoy the perks of being reasonably well off. All I wanted to do was sleep. But I couldn't. There was laundry to wash, and grocery shopping, and cooking for the forthcoming week. And my apartment sure wasn't going to clean itself. Forget about working out. My joints hurt too much to run more than a couple miles anyway. My body was breaking down. I knew that the only way I could keep up my high performance life was to find a partner to shoulder the load or at least hire a maid to do it. In other words I needed to find a mate. Someone to see to the cooking and cleaning and shirt pressing. I'd give the wifey all the money she wanted if only I could sleep in for a change! But more and more women of today's world want careers themselves, so the barefoot and pregnant housewife is a mirage drifting into the ever more distant past. That's redundant, but it has a ring. I was on the fence about having kids but knew that if I got myself a wife, she'd definitely get pregnant. That's just what couples do. They breed. And then I'd really by in dutch, that is to say trapped. Good luck being a beach bum when your family relies on you to put food on the table and clothes on their backs, lest we forget private schools and cars at sixteen, remember the American dream. And this is how we become slaves to our so-called aspirations.

So after a year doctoring in Denver I as they say shed my skin again. Which is to say shed my lab-coat. Which is to say, if the shoe doesn't fit, go barefoot. And I say to you: Leave the American dream behind and forge your own way. Do it in the noon of your life rather than in life's twilight when all you're left with is a sigh at what you've left behind. The good life doesn't have to include a wife, unless she comes with. If she does, you've chosen a keeper. Unlike me.



Wednesday, April 27, 2016

TEST QUESTION



Today's question is, Should the average male with no health conditions take supplemental testosterone? The answer is clearly no. 

Why is it, then, that everywhere I turn these days guys are telling me they are thinking about "getting on some 'test'"? 

First my dad emails me saying he's looking into some bioidentical testosterone. And my neighbor says he's having trouble losing the belly flab so he wants to get on some T. Another friend loves how taking testosterone lets him have sex with his woman all night, and ejaculate several times in as many hours. Something I haven't done with a girl since I was 17, and that's the night I lost my virginity. But this friend's woman is now pregnant with twins, so she'll be placing fewer demands on his manhood (presumably). My advice: ditch the script and save your mane. 

As a gym rat in college I had several friends who took steroids. A couple baseball players did it to bulk up in the preseason. Another guy fancied himself an amateur bodybuilder. I had a few roommates who took an oral version just to see how big and strong they could get one summer. I declined to take any. Instead I ate red meat and everybody swore I was on "the juice" myself. Which in a way I was, since beef is full of testosterone. But I never wanted to take "Dbol" out of fear over what it would do to my insides, and my complexion, and my hair. I was too vain to walk around pock-marked and prematurely bald, even with bulbous pecs and a 315-lb bench press. I made it to 295 lbs the natural way, I'm proud to say. 


Back then testosterone was a thing only the freaks at Gold's Gym did - and a handful of baseball players who started crushing pitches out of the park. Mr. Olympia doesn't drug test. It is assumed that all the competitors 'roid up because there is no way in hell they could get so big and strong otherwise. But ballplayers were persecuted for taking performance enhancing drugs in a sport in which they are banned because it provides an unfair advantage. Lance Armstrong was raked over the coals and publicly humiliated for blood doping, losing his fortune, his reputation and his numerous titles. Yet many of the guys who are against the use of performance enhancing drugs in athletics are the very ones tempted to use them in the game of life. More than ever men are turning to testosterone replacement therapy in the belief that the drug will combat aging and serve as a substitute for good old-fashioned attention and effort, be it in the gym or at the dinner table. Weren't you paying attention when Bonds got busted, boys? Don't you know cheaters never prosper?

On the surface, it is easy to understand why record numbers of males want the quick fix testosterone offers. Exogenous testosterone provides fast and effective relief for many of the issues that keep guys up at night, because they all have to do with virility: erections, sex drive, body fat and muscle tone. Yes, taking testosterone will increase the firmness and frequency of erections, it will make you extra horny, while decreasing body fat and increasing musculature. These all seem to be good things, but they are not without a price. There are many side effects to taking testosterone, which are even seen in men whose levels are chronically low. Things like heart attacks, strokes and blood clots are known to occur with greater frequency in a "test" taker. 

It's the same with women. There was a time in the not-too-distant past that HRT (hormone replacement therapy) was all the rage. If you were living in the late 20th century and you were premenopausal, your doctor would likely prescribe some estrogen to counteract some of the side effects of going through the change of life, things like hot flashes and irritability. This was standard procedure, until it came out that estrogen increases a woman's risk for certain cancers. You'd think the threat of cancer would be enough to deter guys from taking test, but men are notoriously brave (read: foolhardy). Reckless bravado, anyone? If this is not you, read on 'cause I ain't done.

Testosterone is converted to the metabolite 5-DHT. Dihydrotestosterone causes male pattern baldness and prostate enlargement, a condition that not infrequently progresses to cancer. Taking testosterone can reduce the ability of the testicles to make viable sperm, so it can adversely affect fertility. Of course too little testosterone can reduce fertility as well. Which is why the only men who should take testosterone are those whose levels are low. And these individuals are few. Yes, testosterone goes down as you age. It is nature's way of saying chill out on the sex, because sex leads to babies, and there are too many people around already. I'm kidding. Nature doesn't say this. But I do. Anyway why does a middle age guy want to artificially elevate levels on par with a teenager or twenty something? Remember how it felt to be a teen? How oversexed you were at all times? For nearly a decade sex was practically the only thing on my mind. It amazes me how I managed to graduate college. I for one am glad to have left that stage behind. 

If you have trouble getting aroused around your wife, you probably get a lot of flack. But tell her this is normal. Sex with the same partner is just not as exciting once the novelty wears off (see the Coolidge effect). It's okay to have less sex. Tell her that higher levels of test will just make you more likely to have an affair. Testosterone levels are related to risk-taking behaviors. Besides, there are other ways to say I love you than sticking it in. Tongues can be erect regardless of how old you are. But nobody likes to be jabbed in the gums. Don't you know how to kiss by now?

And even if you have low T or find your levels plummeting with each passing decade, drugs are not necessarily the answer. There are natural ways to keep the male hormone normal or closer to normal. Lift weights. Lean up. Fat cells make estrogen from testosterone, which causes levels of the latter to drop markedly. Of course a lot of endurance running can deplete "test," which explains why when you come home from a long run the last thing you're rearing to do is get nasty. And since animal products, red meat especially, provide testosterone, abstaining in favor of plant foods is another way to keep your levels from reaching the sky, which you don't want. Wait, you say. I thought this was about avoiding low testosterone, or increasing levels that are too low? Forget about that. Let nature take its course. Just eat clean and be lean. The upside of doing this is maintaining a full head of hair and keeping PSA levels super low. And not being a slave to anything. Taking testosterone is a life-long thing, once you start. Your body shuts down production, so if you get off the stuff your levels will be next to nothing, and you'll really have a problem. It's called iatrogenic. Look it up.

I for one prefer not to be a slave to my nether regions. Which is why I don't mind that endurance training and munching on vegetables lower my testosterone which softens erections and reduces my libido. It's not like I'm out to stud, or anything. A boner can be a real distraction, and I have enough of these in my life. As it is I can't bring myself to stop gazing at Katy Perry's butt crack! Damn girl, you as fine from behind as you is from the front. Skin like porcelain, haunches like a stallion. A porcelain stallion, who's a girl. A mare. A white mare, with no hair. An alabaster, bare-backed beauty with a ponytail, who I'd like to ride... See what I mean? Distractions!!!


Tuesday, April 26, 2016

THE BIOGRAPHY OF MY BELLY



When I was sixteen I noticed the early signs of a six pack. I'm not talking about beer but this has some of that too. I attributed the creases and striations that had suddenly appeared below my pecs and alongside my navel to my new-found sit-up habit. On the floor at the foot of my bed, knees elevated to a 90 degree angle, elbows touching knees was one rep. Three sets of 35, three times a week was my work-out. 

But I'd later learn that sit-ups do little to lean-up the torso or for that matter strengthen the lower back. In fact abdominal exercises can actually cause back problems by tightening the hip flexors (groin muscles) which then put excessive strain on the back. Sit-ups hardly qualify as a good core work-out. Really any full-body exercise - pull-ups, push-ups, squats, shoulder presses - activates and strengthens the abdominals while also building beach muscles. In a recent poll published by GQ girls voted biceps as their favorite constrictor. I have always been partial to shoulders, chest and triceps. I'd say penis, but it isn't a muscle. I'm here to tell you that the trick to achieving and maintaining a six-pack lies in proper diet with or without cardiovascular exercise. It has nothing to do with sit-ups. Just ask Mick Jagger, who hasn't done one. It's no coincidence that my six-pack appeared when I started playing soccer.


When I was in my medical residency a colleague asked for my definition of success. I said it was always having a ripped stomach. The moment I developed a gut I'd consider myself a failure. Since the age of sixteen I have maintained my six-pack. Even when my diet was not proper, when I was drinking and smoking and eating meat and processed carbohydrates, even when I wasn't exercising. Though sometimes it has been reduced to a two-pack, the slightest hint of muscles at the mid-line right below the sternum. Once those go there is no coming back. 

Why this response? Was it vanity? No. I could have said keeping my hair or not going gray or being wrinkle free. But these are less under a person's control than belly flab, although too much testosterone in the diet can induce pattern baldness. I just felt that a successful life is one whose lifestyle is clean and pure, and a trim mid-riff is evidence of this. I could make a lot of money, or save a lot of lives, but if my lifestyle went to shit, and my linea semilunaris with it, none of it would matter to me. My health is a greater sacrifice than I'm willing to give to anything or anybody.

Now, though I haven't done a sit-up in a half a dozen years my six-pack is more pronounced than ever. At an age when most fathers are developing their unique brand of "dad bod," I am as lean as I've ever been. But I am not a father, which may have something to do with it. The only dads I know of who remain razor-sharp well into middle age are those for whom diet, exercise, image or some combination of these is their livelihood. And being an actor alone does not suffice, as Brendan can attest. You gotta move some.


Take a guy like ultra runner Dean Karnazes, who has completed 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. He's a father of two and happily married to boot. Probably because he's never home. Marathon champion Meb Keflezighi is practically my age and has the body of a teenager with testosterone at its peak. He's also a dad. But many professional athletes look like schlubs. Not just NFL quarterbacks, but practically all baseball players look like they spend way too much time at Mickey Ds. As a former varsity infielder myself I am ashamed. The baggy clothes these dudes wear don't help.
 
It makes a former fan long for the days of Ozzie Smith, even the steroid era with its bash brothers, Canseco and McQwire, whose physiques rivaled bodybuilders. Now the average person is heavier and this includes many individuals who are active for a living, though soccer players and basketball players are famously trim, at least in their playing days. But David Beckham, one of the greatest soccer players of all time, has been retired for a couple years and still looks tight. He's a father of three and during interviews often eats burgers and drinks Guinness. The lucky bastard. But I've done the same. Enjoyed burgers and beers and managed to maintain skin thin enough to expose the underlying musculature. Because really, we all have six-packs underneath that flab. The stomach muscles, rectus abdominus, transversus, obliques and serrati, are among the most frequently used of all the body parts. So exposing what you already have is merely a matter of clearing the weeds so the tulips can crown your garden, or of removing the "junk in your front." 

There have been periods in my life when I don't exercise for months at a time. This is usually when I'm injured, but sometimes I just get lazy. When I was in my mid-twenties I did nothing for a couple months. It was a particularly hot summer and all I really wanted to do, other than write my novel, was drink beer. I also drank about a bottle of wine a night, often with some combination of sushi, KFC or McDonald's - that is when we were out of frozen pizza. I held on to my sculpted torso, but only barely. 

In medical school I was on a budget and the store was miles away. So it was easy to fall into the habit of eating Skippy peanut butter sandwiches on Wonder bread, grilled cheese sandwiches, and as many Rice Crispy treats as I could find in the cupboard. And there were a lot, since my roommate's parents sent him a suitcase filled with these goodies every semester. I filled out, to be sure. I stopped running because it hurt too much to move at any appreciable speed. I was just too heavy. My thighs would rub against each other and chafe, and the sweat would make my skin sting. My joints hurt from all that pounding. And did I mention it was hot? So I cut out the processed foods and substituted banana berry smoothies for eggs and cheese and it was back to the endurance habit. 

Really, the biggest threat to my flat tummy has been romantic relationships. With girlfriends I'd eat out more, and even health food prepared by another is drenched in hidden fats and sodium. Though healthy snacks weren't on my mind when a sweetheart and I would visit a Jerry's Deli or Chaya on Venice. In general couples order in more, enjoy big meals in bed, and for physical exertion choose sex. I almost lost my six-pack when with Isabella I'd spend Friday nights eating chocolate covered raisins and laughing out loud to buddy comedies. Beatriz and I liked to patronize McDonald's before and sometimes also after movies at the mall. Shannon and I favored Pizza Hut and El Pollo Loco, with Baskin Robbins for dessert. After about a year of this she commented that my pecs were turning into tits. But I blame the weed. It was only with Kerstin that eating in took the place of ordering out (for the most part) and cooking together became a shared pleasure. Our trim tummies were grateful, but clean-up is a bitch. It is the case that many lovers simply lose the incentive to be fit and look trim once they've found the one. Once you are in a stable relationship with someone who loves you for who you are, whether rotund or V-shaped, if diet and exercise aren't ingrained, they can easily give way to Sizzler and more sex. I appreciate this point of view but I do not share it. I don't consider myself very lovable when I am soft and flabby. Guys are visual creatures, and gazing at cellulite-ridden thighs is not my idea of an aphrodisiac. I don't love you for your perky breasts but your perky breasts are part of you that I happen to find really hot, so let's do what we can that ours don't sag, shall we?

More recently injuries have put me out of commission twice in as many years. By this time I had become a vegan. After being hit by a car I was bed-ridden for a couple months. And though my diet was sharp I was still enjoying beer and wine every night, usually two glasses of each. But despite forced inactivity and low-grade insobriety, I was still shredded. "Cindys" sure helped. This exercise consists of 5 pullups, 10 pushups and 15 squats, as many rounds as you can manage in 15 minutes. When I broke my leg biking, I was unable to even do Cindys. By this time I had given up alcohol, and even though I was eating chocolate and peanut butter and granola bars more often than I care to admit, the "sixer" was in full effect.

My experience tells me that if you want a six-pack, start early, and don't lose it, because it's hard to get back. Also, drink moderately if at all, and avoid processed foods. Work out but don't let this take the place of a clean diet. And drink water. I cannot stress this enough. Even when my diet is perfect and includes a lot of juicy fruit, even when I run tons and lift a lot, I notice that if I don't drink at least 6 cups of water a day, I put on weight around my mid-section. The reason for this is two-fold. First, it is easy to confuse thirst with hunger. In other words, dehydration can lead you to reach for food you'd shun if you weren't so thirsty. Food does provide some water, but you probably don't need the extra calories. Also, the body seems to store fat more easily when it is dehydrated, so even if you exercise and eat clean and moderately you may carry more weight than you would otherwise if only you treated yourself to a little more H20, which is free in more ways than one.

Mrs. Obama got a lot of flack when she recommended that kids simply drink more water. Not just in place of soda but just because. It's unfortunate, because she was definitely onto something. We as a country, maybe even as a species, are walking around in a persistently dehydrated state, and the results can be catastrophic. Not just weight gain, food cravings and energy lulls, but even depression and cancer, if you believe Dr. "Batman." 

Some may smirk at your catering to your appearance and call you vain, but if vanity leads you to do what is necessary to maintain your flat tummy and this includes drinking more water, then you are serving your health. And without health, there is no wealth or happiness. There is no success. That is why being healthy is a form of success. Which the IRS cannot take from you, or sweethearts who break your heart. No matter how much money you make or fame you have, you can't enjoy it unless your insides are right. We are told not to judge a book by its cover, and appearances aren't everything, but a car that looks cherry on the outside is often just as peachy under the hood. Because the owner cares. So, care. Attend to both your outside and your insides and the best way to do this is by hydrating.

Whether you are single or spoken for, make staying in shape a priority. Your six-pack may brand you as a dandy. It may not make you millions, unless you're a David Gandy. But the fact that he is barely holding onto a two-pack hasn't hurt his income. Ah the good life. It's what happens with too many six-packs, of beer that is.

Monday, April 25, 2016

WHY DO YOU DO WHAT YOU DO?


Why do you do what you do? As anyone who has ever felt the pangs of hunger knows, it is often out of need. But necessity is just one of several reasons to explain your actions. We do things out of duty; we do things because we fear the consequences of not doing them; many people go to work to make money, so a job is often a means to an end; we do things from habit; or out of a sense of compulsion. Some of our daily activities are done for pure enjoyment. Lying under the shade of a sycamore tree, humming a soothing melody, gazing at the sunset over the Pacific blue, masturbation: these are ends in and of themselves. We do them because they give us pleasure.

Sadly, many busybodies are such simply as a way of distracting themselves from one or more of the following: their own thoughts, the existential pain of being human, the emptiness that rots in the center of their souls. So they text an acquaintance, or watch Parks & Recreation re-runs. I confess!

I think the most exalted endeavors are the philosopher's, the artist's and the mystic's, in ascending order of awesomeness. The philosopher seeks to understand truth, to view it as a concept from all angles, to penetrate its unfathomable depths by argument and logic. The ancient Greeks come to mind, as well as the dauntless torch bearers who have practiced the love of wisdom in the centuries since Socrates rocked his toga. The artist seeks to realize truth in her work, to achieve beauty - on the canvass, in the chorus, within a chapter. This line of work can be very fulfilling, especially if you do it well. Why else would virtuosos like Mozart and Michelangelo and more recently Michael Jackson and Madonna, create as prolifically as they have, unless it was supremely fulfilling? Yes the pay is good, and the fame and glory. The mystic has no knowledge of these blandishments. He recognizes that he is the very truth that others seek to debate or to draw. His life is his art, and rather than understand with the mind, he transcends the mind entirely for the thoughtless tranquility that dwells in his heart, and in the heart of everyone. 

But how much of your day is spent realizing truth and beauty, in being the philosopher or artist or mystic? If you are lucky, at least some. But it takes more than luck. You have at times to fight for your right to party (a stand in for doing what you love, or being who you are), as the Beastie Boys sang. It's so easy to spend our time at the lower levels of existence. Lower because animals do them, and also because we are closer to the ground, as in our infancy. The infant is motivated by pure necessity. Most of its existence is spent satisfying the needs of the body. It cries for mother's breast when it's hungry, or when it needs to sleep. And it sleeps a lot, some 20 hours a day: that is all of the time it is not eating or eliminating. Or needing to be coddled. One of life's oft-neglected needs. Just to be hugged.

We move from four legs to two, from a crawl to a walk and then we graduate into the world of enjoyment. To be a kid is to play. Kids want to have fun. They love to laugh, to spend the whole day enjoying themselves, their environment, others. Life is pleasurable. Full of suprises and adventure. Then we are dragged kicking and screaming to grade school and play time is limited to 15 minutes in the morning and maybe 30 minutes after lunch. Our motivation for doing becomes fear and compulsion. Compulsion is when you're forced to do something. Like homework. It's a free country. You can certainly choose not to do your homework. But then you must suffer the consequence of being called out in class, labeled a dunce and standing in the corner. Or so I'm told. Fear of being the brunt of your classmates' teasing, of being publicly shamed, makes you do what you'd otherwise not do. Studying. Because really, if the world were truly free you'd spend your time climbing trees and playing doctor instead of dissecting leaves and learning Latin American capitals. 

Then after years of compulsory education, of doing things we are forced to do through fear or not and suffering ridicule and failure, we go into the real world and the cycle perpetuates itself. We sit at a desk and perform tasks we don't care about and instead of scoring a passing mark, the carrot at the end of the grade-schooler's string, we earn a bimonthly check. So work now becomes a means of making a living. Often nothing else. 

The point is we are conditioned away from our love of play first by parents and teachers, then the message is reinforced by the boss, the government, the media, the "man." So how do philosophers/artists/mystics escape this cycle? Are they genetically superior? An alien race? Just smarter than us dullards? Well, many of these "universal individuals" were never on the cycle in the first place. The formal education of many musicians, for instance, ends with high school graduation. How many prodigies took college musicology? I can't think of one, at least not one singer I listen to. Prince, MJ, Billie Joe Armstrong all barely scraped through high school, if that. The same goes for mystics, who often-times left school even earlier than their artsy peers. The Indian sages I love to read about were out of class by the time they turned 14 or 15. And the real philosophers, the men who wrote the books that moderns base their courses on, the books other books are based on, like Plato and Socrates, and the Hindu rishis, really had no formal higher education in the way we understand the term. There were no universities when Christ walked the Earth. These avant guardians taught themselves how to think, by observing things around them and themselves and learning from close association with local elders. Who may have also sodomized them. The world's not perfect. But paying $100,000 for a degree you don't use is arguably worse than getting f#%#ed in the ass, though this offers no consolation to those of us who have jumped through the hoop. Oh well, live and learn (at ungodly interest rates - or so I'm told).

The formally educated are seeing their numbers increase by the year. We have learned how to make the grade, but in doing so have forgotten what really matters. We have lost ourselves in the process. In order to step off the cycle of as I call it useless action and devote less time doing because we need to do, feel obligated to do, fear the consequences of not doing, do as a means to an end or from force of habit or out of compulsion or the desire to be distracted - it is essential we deprogram ourselves and then, to use a digital analogy, reprogram and reboot. Your computer crashes, you restore to an earlier date or delete everything and reinstall the merest essentials. I did this with my 5-year-old Dell and it runs like a dream now, only without Microsoft Word. But there are free word-processors available online, I've come to find. Try AbiWrite. To humanize the approach: stop rushing. Right your skewed priorities. Do not act or not act out of fear. Fear is in your mind. There is nothing to fear but fear itself. Let everything you do be done as an end in and of itself, and always view your self as the highest end. You are already what you seek and what you strive to attain. You are perfect, timeless, omnipresent and whole. That's all the philosophy that matters, any additional art is mere airbrushed fluff, even Mozart's symphonies cannot compare, because you don't need an iPod to listen to your heart when your heart speaks the truth, which is that you are the most beautiful in the world.

Focus on what you can call "pleasures in themselves." Running does this for me. I run for its own sake. Not to get to a destination, since I always arrive back where I started. Not to get more fit, since I often run the same route at the same pace and was probably faster 10 years ago than I am today. Not even for the calorie burn, though it is nice to enjoy a few extra bananas after a long haul. Running is unlike, say, playing a musical instrument. Practice playing the guitar and you will get better. Do it enough and you can become the next Prince. I will not be the Prince of runners no matter how far or fast I make myself go. I will only diminish my enjoyment by burning it out. And so I succumb to my inertia, at 6 minutes a mile. Maybe if I spent less time running and more time writing, I'd have been good enough at stringing words together by now to attract a wider audience than just you. But in 20 years I have only spent about 4,000 hours moving in a straight line at a reasonable pace through space. And 4 hours a week isn't much. It's barely two movies. Not even the Matrix trilogy. Running any more for me wouldn't be fun, because I've tried. Or any less either. Because I've tried. With time you find your happy medium, which is pure enjoyment.

Evaluate each day in your life, every minute of every hour. With each action ask yourself, why? You get out of bed and attend to the maintenance of the body by eliminating, bathing, brushing your teeth, breakfasting. A day is like a lifetime, and the morning is like infancy, when necessities have their sway. Then what? Notice how the sense of duty dominates your day. Duty to whom? To your parents, spouses, kids? Where does living for others stop and for your self, your own soul, begin? Is there a hint of compulsion to your actions, and are they done in a perfunctory manner? Do you trudge through the day begrudgingly? I know because I have. Many times. One time too many and I knew it was time to quit. Is it the force of habit that makes you check your phone 50 times a day when you know you hardly ever get texts and the only person who emails you is in the other room - so just pop your head inside and say hi. 

How many of your actions are done as distractions that masquerade as enjoyment? These are trickiest of all. Is the TV show you binge on really entertaining, or does it merely get you out of your own crazy head? How much better might that time be used alone with your thoughts? Or moving though nature and feeling the breeze beneath your feet, for like an hour or even 10 minutes? Or scrubbing the bathtub. Bathtubs need scrubbing. But you are not a child any more. Nobody is making you do what you don't want to do unless it's you. And you can always stop. Even that job. It helps to minimize your desires, so you won't need as much as you think you do. You can make the rules in your life. Are you trying to live up to other people's expectations? Do you do things for fear of being labeled a slacker or a bum if you abstain? Am I beginning to sound like an infomercial? I've been called worse. Like a bum. It doesn't smart a bit. Not like an empty belly that is. And the work you say is so necessary for your existence. The job around which your identity is entwined. If it is just a means to an end, if it is not at least in part an end in itself, like the artist who can earn a living for his song even in the days of instant play on YouTube, then you should consider doing something else. Because you're not getting any younger, sorry to tell you.

Every act is of equal weight in the grand scheme. Consider the cells of your body. I have. It was part of the education leading to my $200,000 degree I never use. If you could be a fly on the wall (of your artery) in a debate about who is most important, you'd hear many opinions. The heart cells would swear that they are number one, since without pumping blood the organs would become oxygen starved and fail, and death the only result. But death will result without the liver to detoxify chemicals, or the kidneys to eliminate them. Without the many metabolic hormones made by your pancreas and thyroid, without the nerves that transmit impulses through your brain. If even one cell or cell line failed to carry out its function, whether pump blood or constrict muscles or think thoughts or make babies, the body would die, and the human race end. So you see, it doesn't really matter what you do or don't do.

But unlike with the human race, there is no question which  line of work a particular cell should engage in. The thyroid is programmed to make hormones and the intestines to make waste. If a cell doesn't know what to do, fails to "become something" and breeds indiscriminately, it is called cancer, and deadly. We are so many undifferentiated cells, walking around not knowing what to do, impelled in the direction of necessity and away from pain, propelled by habit and a sense of duty - to our country, family, friends, convention. And that's okay for a time. But don't become cancer. Don't just get fat and make babies. Isn't this what all too often happens? Find what you love. Do it as much as you can. But remember that just being you is the greatest aim of all. There's no cell without a purpose other than simply to be. No cancer, either. As human, home to the trillions of cells, their god, you can be THAT because you already are. 

You are not in school any more, speaking of which: I remember when I was in seventh grade, at the end of the school year. The grades were in, the report cards had been handed out a day early. So on Friday, all we had to do was show up and clean out our desks. That done, we got to spend the remainder of the day in a consequence-free environment. No assignments. No tests. No homework. Nothing really mattered. Just to play. There were no rules. Of course there were rules. But they couldn't really be enforced. If a student misbehaved, the worst thing that could happen was he (or you, or me) would be sent home and summer vacation would start a couple hours early. So the worst thing wasn't all that bad. It's often like that in life. That Friday was one of the best days for me. Live every day of your life like it's your last day of school just to see what happens. One thing's for certain: there will be no shortage of fun.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

PARTY OVER, OOPS


When I found out Prince died today, I shed a tear. Two, actually. One when I watched his guitar solo tribute to George Harrison at the end of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, 2004, which I had never seen before. A second tear rolled down my cheek as I watched his performance of "Purple Rain" during the Super Bowl halftime show, 2007. That was the only year in Super Bowl history that it rained during the performance, and considering the song's title it couldn't have been more poetic.

Prince shaped my adolescent sexuality, he "brought my manhood alive and made it sing." When I was 12 my mother took my brothers and me to see the movie Purple Rain. She covered my eyes during the sex scene with Apollonia, in which he grabbed her crotch to "When Doves Cry" and they swayed together for the camera as he bit her neck. Mom thought she had me covered, but I could see through the cracks of her fingers. I came home, locked myself in the bathroom with my mother's vibrator and with that scene in my mind it was "erotic city come alive." 

"Erotic City" was the B side to "Let's Go Crazy," another of the film's smash hits. That year Prince would go on to win two Grammy Awards for his efforts, which my mother bought me after we saw the film. I played the record until it was so scratched there wasn't a tune that didn't skip. So when my father stormed into my room one night while I was blasting "Baby I'm a Star" screaming for me to turn off that jungle music and finally broke the record in half, I wasn't as devastated as I might have been. Though I'm still traumatized by the rages of that Mediterranean man (my father) with his thick mustache and wild hair. Come to think of it he looked an awful lot like Prince. I'm sure my parents didn't mean to send me mixed messages, my mother encouraging my musical tastes and my father reprimanding me for catering to my lower chakras (those were his words). Oh, well. 

"Erotic City" wasn't on the album anyway. A classmate of mine made me listen to it with her on the phone. She said she touched herself to the beat and thought of me. So I wasn't the only one whose nether regions were awakened by Prince's "jungle music"! His Royal Badness wouldn't have had a problem with my father's designation. After all Prince wrote "Jungle Love," which was performed in the movie by the Time. I thanked my classmate for her gesture of affection and to return the favor, I thought of her while pleasuring myself to the tune of "Darling Nikki," which also happened to be the name of the girl in question. Like rain during the performance of "Purple Rain," so damn poetic. Thank you, Prince. Call me whenever you wanna grind, indeed.

The film's success led to an avalanche of older Prince music which stormed the airwaves and TV and which my virgin ears weren't yet familiar with. Songs from the album "1999," like "Delirious" and "Little Red Corvette." Did Prince really have a lion in his pocket? How I wanted to go where the lady's horses ran free. Only if she'd be a "private joy" to me. I heard this song when for my birthday my older brother bought me a Prince album to replace my broken copy of "Purple Rain." I forgot to specify which album so Jason came back with his earlier work, which Rolling Stone magazine called "so erotically self-absorbed that they suggested the reveries of a licentious young libertine." Among the hits were "Do Me, Baby" and "Jack U Off." Whatever you call it, Prince was speaking to the adolescent boy's ripe mind.

The artist never really earned mainstream appeal. Not for any lack of ability. His lyrics were just too risque to win him the popularity of Michael Jackson, the only singer who could match his talent. But that's probably how he wanted it. Excessive commercial success was the territory of the Beach Boys. Beneath him. Controversy was after all the name of the "young libertine's" album. My early exposure to the artist coincided with the advent of MTV, and staying up late one night during a sleepover with friends I got to see the music video for "Kiss," which is still my favorite Prince song of all. "Act your age, momma, not your shoe size and maybe we can do the twirl" is still a line I use with the females. Because how often it applies! 

In high school my first real girlfriend, Neysa, turned me onto "Sign 'O the Times," the follow up to "Parade" and his ninth studio album. My favorite track, "If I Was Your Girlfriend," explored gender identity and the insurmountable barriers between the sexes like no other song before or since. My good friend and soccer teammate, Steve, was a huge Prince fan. He insisted everybody on the team become fans of the artist's work. He was captain of the squad so everybody did as told. We made it to conference finals that year, so the funk must have worked. In college I was on my own, and free to pursue Prince's follow-up to his decade-plus string of hits, or not. Could he outdo himself? They say an artist's best work happens in his twenties and early thirties. Prince turned 33 around the time I graduated high school so the pressure was on. In my early twenties the love affair continued. I was always amazed by the prodigy Prince was, how versatile. He learned piano at like 7 and taught himself guitar in his early teens. No lessons. But it helped that his parents were in a band. There wasn't anything the man couldn't do, musically speaking. He played guitar like Hendrix, could dance like MJ, get funky like James Brown and compose notes with the ease of a modern day Mozart - and play piano just as well. Wrapping the best of all the greats into a signature style that has spawned imitators but cannot be matched. 


And the man himself was so out of this world. I remember thinking early on that Prince had to be gay or at least bisexual, if there is such a thing. His voice could hit those really high notes, like Little Richard he had a penchant for frilly outfits and heavy make-up. He was so sensitive and gentle, with eyes like a dove and soft, kissable lips which with his deep eyes and long lashes would be the envy of any centerfold. But the lips were framed in course dark hair. He was pretty, but also hyper masculine. Man and woman united into an androgynous whole that was all his own. Truly a Gemini. He could talk like a thug you'd meet on the streets in any metropolis. His trimmed beard was the equal of any Puerto Rican you might ride the subway with in NYC. His chest hair and gold chains were straight outta the movie Godfather, and his bouffant hairstyle was something a 60-something high society socialite would drop a couple bills every other week to maintain. And Prince was little, only standing 5'2'', but that didn't stop him from playing hoops as a high schooler, as his broad shoulders could attest; and if you ever laid eyes on the poster that came out with his hit movie's album, you know the man toted a huge shlong. As I'm sure his long line of love interests were intimately acquainted with. 

Between making his guitar orgasm onstage as he pranced around in stilettos he romanced the likes of Madonna and Carmen Electra (whom he named) as well as Kim Basinger and Sheila E, another protegee he discovered. And of course Vanity, whom he had corrupted to such a degree that she renounced her role in Purple Rain and herself became a born-again Christian. It makes one wonder what went on in their boudoir. I once picked up a book about sex with the devil, about Beelzebub himself having a penchant for sodomy and degrading sexual acts. The Catholic schoolboy in me imagined Prince to be a little Lucifer, with otherworldly musical ability, indeed the artistic talent of a half a dozen virtuosos packed into a slight mortal frame. How else to explain such extraordinary ability than by some pact with the devil? Practice just seems so booring! And you know what ensues when you have sex with the devil or his minion and get pregnant, don't you? In the movie Omen Gregory Peck finds out his son Damien is not his own and digs up the grave of Damien's mother to find . . . a jackal. Prince was married twice, and divorced. His son Boy Gregory was born in 1996 with a rare condition known as Pfeiffer syndrome, involving premature fusion of the skull bones, and died shortly after birth. The analogy is not perfect, but was their child the product of sex with the devil? No need to worry, Jesus freaks. For Prince was himself among you. Indeed he often preached most loudly about the Son of God - while also singing about scarlet pussies and horny toads. The man was nothing if not an enigma who wore as many hats as the instruments he played and outfits he changed into onstage and the women he romanced. In the end the opinion you hold says more about you than anyone else. And despite the occasional misgiving, I couldn't stop admiring the guy! (And Mayte, I'm so sorry for your loss.)

I was around when he changed his name to a symbol (androgynous like the author, with the signs of Venus and Mars united around a horn) to protest his record label's greedy handling of the rights to his music, but controversy didn't affect the quality of his work. The "Love Symbol Album" (1992) featured his new name/sign as its title and rocked. "Seven" is a keeper that I still hum to, from memory because like most of Prince's songs, you don't hear them on the radio and because he staunchly opposed music sharing and copyright infringement good luck finding his work on YouTube. He was an eccentric. In his later years he became a Jehovah's Witness and preached about the end of days and conspiracies. I'd say stick to music, Prince, but even his songs got political. But in the early 90's he was still churning out catchy funk/pop, and of that I'm a fan. I bought his album "Come" in 1994 but only compulsively played one song. So it was back to older stuff. Around this time his greatest hits (1993) was released, a three-CD compilation featuring tracks from his self-titled album, "Prince," (1979) through "Diamonds and Pearls" (1991).  Most of the songs were from his heyday in the '80s.

After this my interest in Prince's music waned. His newer stuff seemed drawn out, self-indulgent, with the feel of gospel music, and I'm not big on lengthy guitar solos. So I retired my collection and moved on to heavy metal, which also has lengthy guitar solos. For the last 22 years my only exposure to Prince's music has come courtesy of the radio (which only plays a few fan favs) or whenever I'd go over the soccer captain's house. Steve has remained a loyal fan. At his wedding we dropped ecstasy and got down all night to Prince's hits. It was one of the best nights of my life. The marriage didn't last though. I still haven't called Steve to see how he's taken the news of his idol's death. I fear that he may quickly succeed Prince into the grave. Such was the extent of his adulation. I on the other hand was no die-hard. Once I was offered the opportunity to wait outside the local record store for tickets to an upcoming show. I chose to sleep in.

In the years I haven't followed Prince the artist had been his usual prolific self, composing a prodigious quantity of music for a vault that nobody has heard, and performing live, often at his house in Minnesota, where he was found dead. The man who once sang "Are we gonna let the elevator break us down?" died in an elevator. I'd call that irony but I'm not even sure it is. Over these final decades the hits were few and far between. I watched with a wince as my idol aged, walked with a cane, became puffy in the face. His hair thinned, and was that a paunch? He didn't look too good. Despite being a vegan/vegetarian who didn't drink, smoke or do drugs. But if his only exercise came from his carnival antics on stage, he slowed down a lot starting in the late 90s. The cause of our hero's death hasn't been revealed and may not be known for weeks. But for a black man in his late 50s, diabetes and heart disease are possible, as is a pulmonary embolism due to all those long flights travelling to shows. He had been battling a lung condition which his publicist called the flu. Reports are that he was treated for an opiate overdose at the hospital days before he died. He may have had AIDS. What does it really matter.

I walked around in a depression until I realized that Prince is probably better off. His life was his music. He was getting old. The best songs were behind him. He had no children to live through, no wife to cuddle up next to. Not everyone is meant to reach the life expectancy. There are those, artists especially, who burn bright and fade fast. And I won't miss Prince. Because his music, the songs I grew up with, will be played more often now that he is gone. Just the way Michael Jackson's songs still are. The tribute to these great performers will probably last until after I'm gone.

Prince never wanted to be a slave. He once wrote the word on his face in a gesture of protest to the fat cats who got filthy rich off his catchy riffs. Had Prince lived he would have continued to be a slave to his fame, and like us all a prisoner of this fragile flesh and blood capsule we call home. The human body. His was breaking down. But before it did he blasted off into "Space." Which, after "Kiss," is my favorite song. And "party over, oops, out of time" my second favorite line.

Prince, with your supernatural talent and shockadelic funk, you inspired me to be creative the only way I know how. I may not write as well as you. But there aren't many who do. And I can't think of a better way of saying thank you.



Tuesday, April 19, 2016

THE BEST JOB ON EARTH



I recently found myself browsing profiles on a dating site. More than once I encountered the phrase "I have the greatest job on earth." These girls worked for the environment or lobbied for animal rights or equality in the workplace or else did fundraising for their favorite charities and other sorts of girlie things. So, being a guy, I asked myself what I thought was the best job around. What could I do that would make me so proud as to brag about it on social media without sounding like a total goober?

When I was a kid I thought it would be great to be a rock star. I grew up idolizing hair bands like Warrant and Skid Row. These guys got all the chicks, and even had a lot of male fans who went to their shows to score chicks. Like me. Sebastian Bach and Bret Michaels and Tommy Lee et al didn't just have talent. They had great hair. They had great style. Even the piercings I could go in for, having subjected myself to the pain of ear and nose and navel and nipple piercings myself. And even though tattoos aren't my thing - too permanent - I can admire body ink the way I do street art under the bridge. Which reminds me of the Chili Peppers' song, which reminds me of them. Another great group. And Flea and Kiedis and crew are still rocking to this day, so they got to love what they do, because they surely don't need the money. How cool would it be to get paid millions for being creative. Writing and playing an instrument and singing. Some guys, like Green Day's Billy Joe Armstrong, can do all three. 

This was until I learned that before groups like Motley Crue and the Rolling Stones made it big they spent years performing in seedy, smoke-filled bars and clubs. I wonder how much Johnnie Walker you have to drink for the groupie with the frizzy hair and the overbite in the front row who hurls her stained panties in your face to finally look attractive. How many beers make beer goggles. I don't know, but I have sensitive ears. Just going to a Dodgers game leaves my ears ringing for like two days. And with most bands, the record labels wind up owning most of their stuff anyway. This means execs with bad hair and paunch bellies who can't carry a tune to save their lives. Prince was in a decade-long fued with Warner Bros over the rights to his music. That's why he changed his name to a symbol and wrote the word "slave" on his face. Besides, playing the same old tunes for decades feels stale. How long do you have to sing "I can't get no satisfaction" before it finally sinks in? When you're a grandpa, doesn't jumping around onstage like a teeny-bopper make you merely a laughing stock? And wearing eye-liner all your life? News for you, fellas, after say 50 you start to look like a saddlebag with eye shadow. I don't mean to be cruel. I'm my own worst critic. It helped I had no musical ability and am basically tone deaf. So rock on Rolling Stones and wear that pleather and those feathers to your merry hearts' content.



As a Little Leaguer I dreamed of being a pro athlete. But the thought of spending my adult life playing a child's game, getting dirty and wearing tight pants and chomping bubble gum and jumping up and down because I scored stopped holding any appeal basically when I stopped being a kid. Scoring with girls, now that's something to hurrah about. 

Living in LA I went through the "I think maybe I'll be an actor" phase. Don't we all? But the chance of making it as a thespian is the same as winning the lottery, which is to say impossible unless you're twenty with perfect skin and a rack who's willing to blow for a role, and that wasn't me even when I was twenty. I'm much too modest. Which is probably why I played baseball in high school over taking drama. And even if I were to become a star I could never justify the $20 million dollar paycheck I'd be paid for material that does nobody any good. That's how much Nicholas Cage made back in the day for the largely forgettable Gone in Sixty Seconds. Some fans loved the film, but I'm not a car guy. I did enjoy his performance as a suicidal alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, but - and this is not to nitpick - what kind of message is he sending? If nothing else that movie drove me to the bottle, and with a vengeance. Watching Cage sashay his way through a six-pack and onto the hard stuff while he wooed the hooker with a heart of gold and I was seduced.

Of course if you use your celebrity to fuel altruistic ventures then that's a fringe benefit. Sean Penn used his star appeal to get an interview with the Mexican drug lord El Chapo when nobody else could. The guy was the FBI's most wanted person and only Spicoli can speak with him face to face? Now that's power. The product of their tete a tete was a lengthy article in Rolling Stone Magazine which lacked all literary merit. Too long-winded. Stick to acting Sean, and leave the writing to...I would say me, but I can't get a gig, so who am I to judge. 

Let's see. Rocket scientist. The saying "it's not rocket science," which means "it doesn't take a genius," which means rocket scientists are geniuses makes this job seem super ego-gratifying. But a rocket scientist is basically an astronaut and I dislike confined spaces. And spending any appreciable length of time in a weightless environment is really bad for your bones. Not to mention all that processed food! Good luck meeting your daily requirement of fruit while orbiting the moon. 

There are a lot of hidden cons to even the most glorious professions, most of which are spent almost entirely indoors. Which sucks if you're a nature boy like me. My med school roommate Mehdi became a neurosurgeon. These guys get paid tons and have bragging rights, sure. But after a decade-long training period with work days starting at dawn and often including weekends, all I'd be looking for was a place in the sun to pass out, with a Pina Colada and a Dan Brown book, which always puts me to sleep. And forget technology. Your spending all your days in the dark staring at a screen. What does it matter if like the inventor of Oculus Rift you get bought by Facebook for $2 billion. After nerding out for so long you are not fit to spend the money on anything but ... more virtual reality. And when I sit too long I start to fidget. 

What about those outdoorsy jobs? There is gardener. I wouldn't tolerate mowing other people's lawns when I'd never mow my own. Pool man. But in this water shortage owning a pool is inexcusable, so excuse me. Tree trimmers are the fittest fuckers on the planet. They toil all day in the baking heat wearing three layers of clothing to protect them from poison ivy while climbing towering oaks with super sharp loud-as-hell power tools - and they're drunk. I mean it. I have gone out to the mountainside after the guys are done for the day to find cases of Dos Equis in their wake. I'd need to be hammered to get through that work too. The fact that they can finish the job and still be standing makes them much more manly than me. Construction worker? I pass these guys on my runs and they are forced into ill-fitting clothes breaking their backs building other people's dreams. And let's not forget my sensitive ears.

Really there's not much I would do, if I could do anything. Write, of course. You choose when to do it and where and if lucky get to select your own subject matter. Like sex, which sells (and therefore pays). Like Fifty Shades of Grey author E.L. James, who made $95 million one year, you could make a ton of money. But I've hardly made a dime for my literary efforts, and after 20 years of trying I'm not about to stop. That's not exactly a rosy reflection on my intelligence, I'm aware. When I was studying medicine in the Caribbean I met a guy who I thought had a pretty ideal life. Reggie was a professional triathlete who worked at a bike shop by a beach resort and supplemented his income by giving bike tours to visitors staying at the hotel. The work was scarce but his needs were simple and included in his pay were huge lunches from the restaurant buffet. Reggie had a lot of time to train. He swam miles in the gentle waters of the Caribbean and biked and ran kilometers around the 36 square mile island that was his home. And not just any home. A cherished destination to vacationers world-wide. On weekends Reggie would often travel to nearby islands to compete in endurance events. Reggie was a Rastafarian who loved Reggae (don't they all?) and smoking weed. He was also a vegan and I'm pretty sure a celibate too, because I never saw him with a female who wasn't just a client. But doing the same thing over and over day in and out for the rest of your life seems like a death sentence, doesn't it? Or a lot like life. I suppose if you love what you're doing, whether laps around your house or putting words on a page, then the monotony doesn't matter. Hell, maybe it's even comforting. 

Lessee, yoga instructor? I would but I'm not at all flexible. I suppose parenting is the most rewarding job, but being a parent requires you to work another job in order to support your family, or else be married to someone who does. And really, it's not a job if you do it for free. Which brings us to the only logical conclusion: the best job is no job at all. So when you're child becomes the next big thing and needs a biography, you know where to find me, right where nobody's reading.



A SIP FROM THE CUP OF ETERNAL YOU



What is your purpose in life? Why are you here? If you don't stop and ask yourself that at least once in a while, then you're probably not living it. Is your purpose to procreate? No, that is your pecker's purpose. And to pee. 

Think of yourself as a flower. A delicate rose. What is the rose's reason for being? It depends on whom you ask. The bumble bee and the hummingbird will say the flower exists to provide food. The bee then turns pollen into honey for us, so we turn around and say the bee's purpose is to sweeten our tea. If I were the bee I'd take offense, and the queen bee would beg to differ, saying all bees are made to serve her. The nature-loving bystander would say the flower is to provide beauty, to be a source of admiration and wonder. This is poetic and feel-good, the apple would say, but the flower only exists to be replaced by the fruit, which has the biggest job of all: providing humans and animals alike with nourishment and carrying the seed for the next generation of trees. 

Nah-ah, says the leaves, looking down on the flower and the fruit from their breezy perch high atop the tree's crown. You serve no purpose as great as mine, for I clean the air. I may not be pretty or tasty but I recycle the carbon dioxide and supply the atmosphere with oxygen, without which there would be no flower or fruit or for that matter human being or tree. 

Clearly, the flower has as many purposes as those you ask. But the flower's true purpose is merely to exist. Its beingness. It is its own purpose. Even if there is no one to admire it or to eat the fruit which it brings forth. And despite what the leaves might say. In this way the flower is divine. Like God. What's God's purpose? To succor the righteous and punish the wicked? Obviously not, since there was a time when humans weren't around. To make the planets circle the sun? No, since before the Big Bang there were neither planets nor stars. When there was just God, just some Divine Being, pure Awareness, the only purpose was what it still is: existence. 

It is easy allowing yourself to just be when you don't have so many things to do. Maybe even for God, before there was work to be done in the form of planets, stars, us. Which is why I ask you to simplify your life. Much of what you must do is a product of one thing: desire. The money you make, the kids you bear, the possessions you own, the chores and responsibilities not to mention the pastimes and pleasures. Rather than our motto being "I am" it seems to have become "I want" and then "I do." 

Well, don't. Just be. Spend an entire afternoon sitting in silence. No phone or Internet, no TV or light reading. Just make like a tree and BE. Extend this to an entire day. Watch the thoughts that flit in and out of your mind. Of the things you need to do. Of how useless you are just sitting there. This is all society's conditioning. Most of us do what our elders tell us. We get the job society tells us we need, and drive the gas-guzzler and buy the firearm and patronize the restaurants and consume the products that we are supposed to, as manly men or metrosexuals or whatever we may be. I had this conversation with my dad's wife, the owner of a successful line of health food supplements. The long hard daily grind is grinding her down. She suffers many symptoms of exhaustion, including dizziness, fatigue and headaches. But each time she lies down to rest she hears her father's voice in her head saying, "You can rest when you're dead." And she will soon, because so much incessant (and unnecessary) activity is killing her. And isn't it unnecessary? She has more money than she needs and the world clearly has enough energy bars, because I'm not eating them (though they do taste yummy). I say get off the wheel. It goes around without end, it goes nowhere. And as my step-mother can attest, the effects can be quite dizzying, and not in a good way. 

I speak from experience. When I look back on my life I wonder at all that unnecessary action. Many years I seemed to scramble through my days like a chicken with its head cut off. The six months in New York at the turn of the millennium, in case the world ended and I could go out with a bang. The stint in Brazil to write a novel that nobody cared about, not even me. The odd jobs, bar-tending, catering, teaching. Even earning a medical degree was so many years of excruciating effort, and for what: a degree I never really used. The relationships, with this girl and with that, knowing full well I'd never get married or have kids. All the struggles, living with messy roommates in cramped quarters on noisy thoroughfares. Why why why? It surely wasn't for enjoyment, because much of it wasn't very fun. Was it for the experience? The growth? Who is growing? The one who is born and ultimately dies? Since there's an end, and it is coming soon, even decades away isn't that far in the future, so what does it all matter anyway? Maybe all the living I did was just to fulfill curiosity and expend energy, so that when I finally decided to simply be I could do so without guilt about all that I was missing because I had played my part. 

But guess what: all the living I was supposed to do was just an illusion foisted upon me by society, parents, peers, elders and educators. By what I thought was expected of me. By the evil genius inside telling me to drink deep of the cup of life even if it drives me crazy. When really, your birthright is to be. You don't have to earn peace by struggling until you're exhausted and old and can do nothing but collapse. Remember the infant you once were. Yes we come into this world crying, but the babe is often-times supremely content. I look at pictures of me and know this is true. Be like this me. Not the one devouring life like a greasy cheeseburger and then feeling sick. Learn from my mistakes and forego as many unnecessary experiences as you can by ridding yourself of desire and asking why. Even if you do this, you'll still make mistakes of your own. It's just a part of life, until it no longer is. Until then, I'm proud to say I've managed to give up Q-tips which are really unnecessary and to replace facial soap and body wash and shampoo (three bottles) with a 3-in-1 variety that costs less and takes up a fraction of the space. I have let my phone die, since the only calls I get are telemarketers who drain my balance. This is my way of saying goodbye. But I'm not finished.

Sit with yourself. Start early and make this your mainstay. Commune with your own nature. You can do this in nature, or in the silence of your own room or if you must, on a crowded beach or in a noisy restaurant. Remaining still is one of the hardest things on earth to do. Take it from someone who has often been so restless: it is also the most rewarding.

There are lots of supplements out there and all promise a sip from the cup of eternal youth. But the awareness that is your real nature is always young and ever free. Whether you are a little babe or a decrepit old fogey or running around like me, you can connect with the divine within. It's simpler than bars and powders, and easy on your waistline.

We'll never be able to ask the rose what it feels like to be a flower. To know the rose you must be the rose. It's the same with being human. And maybe in living and learning, in striving and succeeding, and failing too, you get to know what it means to be you. Such is life, without whose adventures, there'd be far fewer memories. And no barefoot running and ocean swimming for a guy like me. So here's to having no regrets.