What went wrong? How the hell am I supposed to know? What I do know is that I’m sitting in my apartment for the third day in a row, staring at my computer screen, which I think I’ve been doing for almost 10 minutes. To be honest, it’s actually like 15 minutes. Come to think of it, 20 minutes.
OK, I’ll level with you: It’s been six years.
But on this particular day, or as I like to call it, The Day of Revelation, the screen on my laptop is opened up to a Microsoft Word document. A blank one. I can’t think of anything to write and, in fact, I don’t even remember what I’m supposed to be writing.
To my left are two cats. They’re mine, of course, and they’re getting fat because I’ve been overfeeding them, letting them sit around with me all-day long. The gray one is awake, staring at the closet door. The orange one is fast asleep. On this particular day, I feel like there’s nothing left to write. I’m out of words.
It gets worse. I wear sweatpants. I have three pairs that I switch out. When I leave the house for coffee, I’ve acquired a fear of crossing the street at crosswalks because I don’t like when people in cars look at me. It’s an irrational fear I’ve developed, like my fear of running into people I kind of know. Groups of children frighten me. I don’t like going into retail stores where there are fashionable young people. I’m allergic to cologne. Fat people with running shoes repulse me. With all these hang-ups and fears, as I get older, I keep thinking, “Man, the younger me would really hate the older me.”
And this is where it started, the idea that I need to do something different. My routine—sitting at home, reading poetry books, writing all day—often seems like an ideal way to live, but, ultimately, it’s suffocating. I’m turning into a bubble boy by my own doing.
In short, I feel like I need to change everything about myself.
Enter George Costanza
I just got the fifth season of Seinfeld on Netflix because my pre-midlife crisis reminds me of the episode where the character George Costanza has a similar revelation. When Jerry Seinfeld and Costanza are sitting in Monk’s Cafe, about to order some food, Costanza says, “It’s not working, Jerry. It’s just not working.”
“What is it that isn’t working?” Seinfeld asks.
“Why did it all turn out like this for me? I had so much promise. I was personable. I was bright. Oh, maybe not academically speaking, but I was perceptive. I always know when someone’s uncomfortable at a party. It all became very clear to me sitting out there that every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. Every instinct I have in every aspect of life, be it something to wear or something to eat, it’s all been wrong. Every one.”
The waitress arrives and suggests Constanza’s usual order.
“Tuna on toast, coleslaw, cup of coffee?” she says.
He thinks for a second and says: “Yeah. No, no, no, wait a minute. I always have tuna on toast. Nothing’s ever worked out for me with tuna on toast. I want the complete opposite of tuna on toast. Chicken salad. On rye. Untoasted. With a side of potato salad and a cup of tea!”
“Holy Christ,” I think, as I lean back on my couch. “I can do that!”
How hard can it be to put on a pair of slacks, cross the street, hang out at a middle school, go to the mall and douse myself with Axe?
Well, maybe I should stay away from middle schools.
Time for a lifehack
In his 1946 book Man’s Search for Meaning, Holocaust survivor and renowned psychiatrist Viktor E. Frankl outlined a theory called paradoxical intention, which works like this: You practice your habits or fears in order to remove them.
In his book, Frankl tells the story of a young man—a physician—who had a fear of perspiration. The idea of sweating made him so nervous that whenever he talked to certain people, he’d just start dripping sweat. So he called upon Frankl to help him. Frankl advised the young man to use paradoxical intention. He told the young man instead of shying away from sweat, embrace it: Show people exactly how much you can sweat. The young man reported back to Frankl a few days later and said that when he met someone he thought would make him perspire, he challenged himself. Instead of becoming nervous about sweating, he simply dared himself to sweat more than he ever had in his life. It was the opposite of everything his instincts told him to do. According to Frankl, “The result was that, after suffering from his phobia for four years, he was able, after a single session, to free himself permanently of it within one week.”
Wellness blogger Derek Ralston subscribes to Frankl’s paradoxical intention idea and he even relates the theory to George Costanza’s personal challenge to do the opposite of his instinct. “What George inadvertently discovers is [Viktor] Frankl’s lifehack for overcoming fear and anxiety,” he writes.
“Unable to maintain your diet due to fear of food binging? Eat as much as you can next week. Unable to fall asleep due to fear of sleeplessness? Try to stay awake as long as possible. The pure absurdity and humor of such suggestions are what allows one to put himself at a distance from his own fear and anxiety.”
Of course, paradoxical intention does sound absurd. Add to that simplistic, unrealistic and even a little bit stupid. Which makes it exactly my kind of challenge.
Day 1: Attend a crowded sporting event
It’s not that I’m afraid of basketball; I’d just rather be at home, away from crowds of sports fans. Whenever I’m in that kind of crowd, I end up feeling the homicidal pangs as I stand in the midst of the concentrated sociological experiment that perfectly emulates “the American way” on a smaller scale—to get ahead, no matter whose toes you step on, even if you’re just trying to get a paper plate full of stale nachos.
It might be relevant to state that the last basketball game I attended was the Boston Celtics vs. the Philadelphia 76ers. It was 1985 and I was 10. Then, I remember sitting in my seat in Boston Garden, thinking, “Oh, God, this hot dog is good,” and then I looked down just as Robert Parish was coming out of the locker room. He was 10 feet away, waving at me. His hands were huge, bigger than my head. I remember thinking he could lift me up off the ground in one of his hands and then set me on his gigantic head. I don’t remember what happened during the game. I just remember going home and writing a short story about Robert Parish’s hands.
So here I am, 25 years later, sitting in Arco Arena, simply because I’d rather not be. The arena is three-quarters full of Golden State Warriors fans, and I’m having a huge amount of fun, caught up in the excitement of screaming people. It’s good to be out of the house. The hot dogs are so delicious that I eat three of them.
When I get home I realize that nothing bad happened to me. I wasn’t bored. For a few moments (even after the Kings lost in overtime), I forgot about what I was supposed to be writing, and about the tedious work of trying to string words together for money.
So far, the challenge feels nice.
Day 2: Don’t use Facebook for a week
Facebook is my nemesis. For every page of real writing that I plan to publish, I might have another page of status updates. I’ve tried to rationalize my use of the social network with other people by saying, “I’m a writer, and I use it as a tool.” But that’s simply not the truth.
The truth is, Facebook, for me, is a constantly changing landscape of procrastination. Not only can I keep track of my friends (who are all sick and mentally deranged, in a good way), but I can also entertain them and myself from the comfort of my own home. For instance, the other morning I was at home, eating some Bold Wasabi and Soy Sauce flavored almonds. I popped one in my mouth and thought, “Man, these really are really bold.”
My next thought was, “This would be a great Facebook comment.”
For further proof, I looked back at some of my status updates from 2010:
“Happy Passover, Jewz!”
“ That sound you heard was Jesus coming back. You guys are fucked!”
“ I didn’t know I was friends with so many Matisyahu fans.”
“ How many patrons have to get stabbed to death at Benny’s before people realize that place stopped being fun years ago?”
“ Is killing people still illegal?”
“ I feel like my cats are just on the brink of understanding English.”
“ My fingers are too greasy for touch screen.”
So, as you can see, Facebook wastes a lot of my time. If my instinct says, “Post that on Facebook!” I’m not going to—even if something profound happens, like when I drove to Roseville to pick up a piece of furniture from a girl on Craigslist and her left boob fell out of her tank top several times.
Day 3: Talk to a stranger
As much as I want to stay home, I go back to the Starbucks and sit next to the man whom I’ll introduce myself to. He seems to be out of sorts, with messy hair and thick, unfashionable glasses. He has two manila envelopes (which I’ve often associated with mental insanity), and he pulls out a stack of notes, setting them on the table. He looks through the notes and then puts them away five times. And then he gets up and asks me if there’s a time limit on the parking lot.
“Nope,” I say.
“OK,” he says, and then goes over to the counter to ask the barista the same question.
“No,” she says.
He comes back and takes his notes out of the envelope and then puts them back. I want to try and figure out his mental disorder. He reminds me of my biological father, a schizophrenic, who for the last 30 years has written a manifesto of horrifying religious nonsense. My instinct—to continue working and to not bother the man—is exactly what Frankl (and Costanza) would warn against. So I suck it up and ask what he’s writing.
“Notes,” he responds angrily, as if I had just barged into the front door of his home and took a shit on his brand-new carpet.
But I press on: “What kind of notes?”
He shoots me a look that can only be described as complete shock that someone would have the nerve to question him. The way his head jerks back and his eyes squint indicate that I’ve crossed some imaginary ethical boundary.
“I’m a doctor,” he says. “These are my notes.”
“Ah, a doctor,” I say, embarrassed, and slink away, back home, defeated.
Costanza has better luck in these kinds of situations. When he introduces himself to a beautiful woman sitting at a counter, he says, “My name is George. I’m unemployed, and I live with my parents.”
“I’m Victoria,” she says, smiling. “Hi.”
Day 4: Give to the homeless
For some reason, old homeless people love to lecture me. Once, a disheveled woman had the nerve to scold me for wearing a leather jacket. When I told her it was pleather, she looked at me like I’d just invented a word. Most recently, an old man whose white beard dripped with black grease lectured me on the value of money. “You don’t know what it’s like to work,” he said. And then he asked me for $1.50 and sat down on his cardboard box. A few years ago, I stopped giving homeless people money altogether simply because they started to annoy me.
But not today. There’s a guy who stands on the corner of Del Paso Boulevard and El Camino Avenue who holds a sign that says someone stole his Social Security number, and now he’s broke. I’m not sure who would be stupid enough to steal a homeless man’s identity, but that’s not the point. I decide this would be the day I’d give him money. When I drive by, I stop my car, reach into my wallet, take a deep breath and give him five dollars.
“God bless you,” he says, and walks to the next car.
I spend the rest of the day wondering if he realized that I gave him a $5 bill. “Maybe he thought it was a one?” I think, disappointed in his nonchalance. “Shouldn’t he have been happier? Should I get a special message when I give more than what’s expected? Does everybody give him $5?”
Day 5: Get math help
Sitting around, doing the same old thing is no cure for anxiety, according to Frankl. George Costanza subscribes to that idea, too.
“I used to sit here and do nothing and regret it for the rest of the day,” Costanza says. “So now I will do the opposite and I will do something.”
So here’s where I confess that I know less than the average human. It hurts to admit that because I’ve spent the better part of my 20s trying to convince my peers that I’m smarter than them. But I don’t even have a high-school diploma. It’s a long story that ends with me not knowing how to do math. My instincts to avoid mathematics thus far have kept me fairly comfortable, but uneasy. When I picked graduate schools, I had to skip the ones that required the graduate record examination because my math score would have been zero. Really. The kind of math I know how to do is too basic for any sort of exam that doesn’t involve getting a colored adhesive star at the end. So I turned to the only person I knew who could help—my stepfather, perhaps the smartest man I know. He loves math. He’s a psychiatrist (another can of worms), but he finds utter joy in mathematical equations. I signed up for a tutoring session with him.
I picked a few GRE problems that involved fractions and went to his house in Davis. It’s useless to detail what exactly happened. He tried to teach me math, but I was so uneducated that it was hard for him. It was hard for me. I felt like he was speaking Japanese, and I was a special-needs baby. It was so frustrating for me to feel like I didn’t know anything that my face turned red and like I wanted to crawl inside myself and suck my thumb.
I didn’t remember how to divide fractions, what PEMDAS was, how to subtract fractions, what a numerator was—it was such a painful experience that it must be good for the character, I concluded, and I drove away, eagerly awaiting the lesson to soak in. I’m still waiting.
Day 6: Watch Sarah Palin’s Alaska
There’s no point writing about the repulsive nature of Sarah Palin, so instead I’ll just say: Even though I enjoy a good freak show from time to time, I would never, ever watch her TLC show Sarah Palin’s Alaska.
Except for today. So I sit down and try to really pay attention, to reap whatever reward can be reaped from watching a vapid media whore and her family of delusional monkey children whose sole purpose is to plea with viewers to take them seriously.
I can tell from the show’s intro—rafting, airplanes, rifles, chopping down trees, fish, Bristol, bears fighting—that it’s going to be a long hour. The show begins in the gun shop. Sarah Palin is shopping for a rifle because she’s expecting a visit from Kate Gosselin and her eight children. You might remember Gosselin from the TLC show Jon & Kate Plus 8, the family whose leader—the children’s clueless father, Jon Gosselin—left his tribe to become a nomadic douche bag, only to have his journey stopped dead in its tracks after a few blocks when the world realized he had no talent to speak of. So why, you ask, is the Gosselin family visiting the Palin family? No clue! But it doesn’t matter, because they’re going camping. Palin seems to be right at home in this bizarre reality freak show. Every scene exists to show that the Palins don’t take shortcuts, like the scene where Piper is doing math and her mother creeps up behind her.
“Piper, no calculator,” she says, shaking her head. The lesson: The Palins use their minds, not fancy technology, to solve their problems. Got it? Write that down. Meanwhile, her husband, Todd, wanders around Alaska with a fishing pole, in a haze of confusion, while everybody ignores him. By the end of the show, after the Gosselins cut the camping trip short (“Why would you pretend to be homeless?” Gosselin asks, which really isn’t a bad question when you think about it), I walk away with an even stronger confusion regarding the tenets of the GOP.
I also realize that everything in Palin’s world is constructed by people below her (like her children and husband) to suit her small, unrealistic view of the world, and it becomes abundantly clear that most people in Alaska are functionally retarded.
Day 7: Go to a church
As we drive up to Adventure Christian Church in Roseville, my wife shudders with horror. “Creepy,” she says. She’s right. It’s a rainy day, the church is on a big hill and the electrified cross looks like a neon sign on a big-box outlet. “Shop here,” it seems to say.
Anyone who knows me knows that I can’t stomach religion. Any religion. I don’t even tolerate Buddhism, the most docile of religions. I won’t say “God bless you!” when people sneeze. I’m annoyed by the Bible cups and wrappers at In-N-Out Burger. No matter how pure your religious intentions are, they’re always perverted into some grandiose form of hatred that results in war or sexual predation. Plus, I can’t feel comfortable with the idea of people telling me how to live, especially the Imaginary Man-Creature in the clouds.
Aesthetically, Adventure Church is amazing. We arrive just as it’s getting dark, so the Christmas lights and colored lamps give the building a jazz-club atmosphere. As soon as we get in the door, we’re ushered to an area where the theater is equipped with an impressive sound board, TV-studio-quality camera equipment, two giant screens and a stage where a seven-piece band is playing “I’ll Take You There,” presumably meaning, “God Will Take Your Soul Upon Your Death if You Meet the Specific Requirements.” The band plays for what seems like an hour to a quarter-full theater. The words to the songs projected onto the screens are mostly strange iterations of this: “He is jealous for me. Love is like a hurricane. He is a tree.”
Finally, the main speaker gets onstage. He’s youngish, with spiky hair, dressed like an extra in a movie about college. He talks seriously about being “used by God” while a million anal-sex jokes pop into my head. His stories end in a dramatic sigh. He talks about his “fiery” Italian neighbor, “Jose,” who visited him one day, crying because his girlfriend broke up with him. And then he tells another story about a “gangbanger from San Jose” who magically converts to Jesus. It becomes evident that this man is just making the stories up as he goes along.
My wife and I drink our Jesus juice, eat the wafer and spend the rest of the sermon looking at our watches. But then, while my wife’s looking through the pamphlet, she sees that after the service the church founder Pastor Rick Stedman will be on hand to greet new congregants and lavish us with a special first-timer gift. “Let’s meet him!” she says.
When the service ends, we go out to the lobby to meet Pastor Rick, who on the video for Adventure Church seemed like a nice guy—a very mild-mannered, slightly effeminate man—who is genuinely thrilled about Jesus. We go over to the designated area where the pastor is supposed to be, but the area is dark. Pastor Rick is nowhere to be found.
And in the end …
“This is no longer some crazy notion. This is my religion,” Costanza says. He’s talking about paradoxical intention. In the end of the episode, things work out for George Costanza. Before the credits roll, he shows up to the cafe in an expensive suit, bragging to his friends about his new life, his new job with the New York Yankees, all thanks to Frankl’s theory.
For me, the story isn’t as didactic. I’m still wary of the homeless. After I watched Sarah Palin’s Alaska, I wanted to throw my television into the middle of a tea party rally. Church only solidified my wariness of Jesus and his smarmy followers.
But, on the other hand, I’ve been working on my math a little bit. I can even divide fractions now, and I have another math lesson scheduled for Sunday.
In the end, I braved a few uncomfortable situations and lost five bucks to a homeless man. But there was one noticeable change: The one thing I love to do, which is write, became easier for me, not because I’ve been transformed, but because I wasn’t constantly thinking about writing. When I was at Arco Arena, wading through the crowd of drunken fans in NBA jerseys, the last thing on my mind was putting sentences together.
My stepfather, the psychiatrist, says that placing yourself in different situations and getting yourself out of your element can be a good thing, unless, of course, you do something stupid. Things that are potentially harmful—like going to church or watching Sarah Palin on TV—aren’t going to help me in the long run, because they make no sense within the context of my life.
So on The Day of Revelation, it wasn’t exactly that I needed to do everything differently, it was simply that I was supposed to keep myself engaged with the world. Do I have to change everything about myself? No. Which is great, because that’s too hard. To grow, I simply have to get my ass out of the house.
A day after the challenge was over, I found myself standing in the kitchen with a GRE book, trying to solve a mathematical equation. It was frustrating. I couldn’t figure it out because I’m pretty sure it was impossible. I scribbled out my answers and threw my scratch paper in the trash. But for some reason, I thought of something worth writing down—perhaps it was a line to a poem or a piece of a story. It went: “Sometimes forests burn / and it’s not such a bad thing. Trees are a distraction / if you’re a lover of dirt.”
I’m not sure what it means, but I’m keeping it.