A Couple Cool Things from October: Discovering Dick Francis

There was this hot minute where I wondered whether this should be the year I tried NaNoWriMo, which challenges a writer to write 50,000 of a novel during the month of November.

The answer is “Nope. ‘Tis not to be that kind of November.” There’s a lot of life-stuff happening.

BUT I will be revisiting a 10,000 word novelette I started a while back, no doubt re-ordering each sentence four or five times — which math-wise, is like 50,000 words!

But before those things take up all my brain space and I forget — a quick gratitude-y post of a couple cool things from October.

30 Days of Yoga IRL.
A yoga studio that opened by us ran an introductory special: Unlimited classes for 30 days for 30 bucks. At this place the default cost per class is $25, so obvi the 30 for $30 is a deal!

Studio yoga classes are expensive for me right now, but in general I think they can be worth their cost. My first yoga experiences happened at a time before it was mainstream, so doing it at all meant doing it at a dedicated studio with dedicated teachers. Good training early on gave me a solid and long-lived practice. Once you have a strong foundation, you can get greater value out of free yoga classes taught by aerobics instructors at low-rent gyms, or on YouTube during the pandemic.

And it enables you to recognize a well-lead class and really appreciate it, which I’ve been doing! I took about 15 classes in 30 days. In the near future, I’ll pick up a few “Community Classes” (classes a studio gives to the community at a lesser price) for the next couple months and it looks like next year will contain a couple months between producing gigs where extra time and extra money coincide and I’ll buy their month subscription then.

Dick Francis (and probably Mary Francis, too)
One of my current writing assignments — the digital comic I’ve mentioned — involves horse racing and the kind of shenanigans that an ex-mafia guy in need of some extra currency might get up to at a horse-racing track. It’s up to me to figure out the details of what these shenanigans might be, so I’ve been researching, interviewing acquaintances who are into racing, reading books and articles about betting, watching old movies like “Let It Ride.” All these have been somewhat educational but not inspiring.

But then I stumbled onto the novels of Dick Francis… and they are so. much. fun! Like if Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett had a love child and he was a British steeplechase jockey… which is what Dick Francis was before embarking on his second career as a crime thriller writer. From 1962 to his death in 2010, he wrote 42 books. So far I’ve stayed up to into the wee hours reading his debut novel, Dead Cert, as well as all his books that feature his only recurring protagonist, Sid Halley – a one-handed ex-jockey-turned-crack-investigator who pursues his perps despite being haunted by personal demons. I’ll be looking for a couple Dick Francis novels to download to my Kindle before my upcoming 15-hour flight to Istanbul!

The library book I read didn’t have the cool Trevor Denning illustration of this first edition, but was just as fun between the covers.

P.S. I enjoyed this article on by author John Fram about rediscovering Dick Francis during an extended illness. I might check out his book too!

What’s Going On (Random Life Stuff)

Welp, I’ve let a couple months go by without posting, and now enough has happened that it’s difficult to pick any one thing to talk about, so I guess I’ll just ramble and see what comes out.

Right now, Paul and I are babysitting for our three and a half year old nephew. It’s a fun age to spend time with kids because they tend to be very loving and enthusiastic about the familiar adults in their lives. But it’s also an age where they demand lot of attention. Today’s original plan was to arrive around 6pm, and our assumption was that we’d eat and play and nephew would stay up an extra hour or so (that was a big deal when I was a kid!), and be asleep around 8:30ish. My original plan had been to work on one of my current gigs —story for a digital comic— for a couple hours in the afternoon, and then a couple more after nephew went to bed.

It turned out we actually needed to come earlier —around 3pm. When we got there, my brother-in-law informed us, that because it was special baby-sitter night, there were no rules! Our nephew had permission to watch TV or play as late as he wanted, etc… and they had let him have an extra long nap in preparation.

I’m sure you see where this is going…

At 3pm, our nephew was literally shrieking in excitement at our arrival. He couldn’t wait to show us his new plastic black widow spider.

The beloved Black Widow Spider

Eight hours later, we’ve played about a hundred games that involve hiding the spider, going for walks with the spider, building a cushion cave for the spider, playing “the floor is lava” with the spider. My nephew informed me at one point that the spider has “had a very good day.” It’s going on 11pm now, and I can report that while the spider’s battery seems to be depleting, my nephew’s energy is unflagging. Right now, he and Paul and the spider are watching You-tube videos set to repetitive carnival-like music and I’m stealing some laptop time to write this and send grateful thoughts and psychic reinforcement to all parents, teachers and childcare providers in the world… (more tomorrow).

Dopamine, Anticipation, Capitalism, Hollywood, and What Happens if Charlie Brown Never Kicks the Football?

When it comes to habits, the key takeaway is this: dopamine is released not only when you experience pleasure, but also when you anticipate it. Gambling addicts have a dopamine spike right before they place a bet, not after they win. Cocaine addicts get a surge of dopamine when they see the powder, not after they take it. Whenever you predict that an opportunity will be rewarding, your levels of dopamine spike in anticipation. And whenever dopamine rises, so does your motivation to act.

It is the anticipation of a reward—not the fulfillment of it—that gets us to take action.

Atomic Habits, by James Clear, p 106

I’ve been thinking about anticipation in our society. About how dopamine keeps flowing for a person who believes a reward is coming—and how capitalism is great at instilling belief in rewards by showing us other people receiving rewards and selling the idea that with enough work, it will be our turn, or at least our children’s turn. And, if that seems too obviously unrealistic, Christianity offers the back-up belief that rewards will be offered in the life to come, if we are good.

For our economic system (or those who profit by it), it’s good for people to believe in capitalism, religion, or both because it keeps them anticipating a reward. If people stop anticipating— because they stop believing the reward will manifest, or in the value of the reward — their dopamine levels could drop to such an extent that (like the rats mentioned in my previous post) they stop working. Which would be bad, because everyone striving for their individual rewards within the system, is the system.

The pandemic has shown, in a small way, how when people can’t / won’t service the system, it becomes inconvenient for the people who need a new bathroom vanities, cling peaches or car parts, and it also becomes threatening to the people who normally profit from all these transactions. I’m far from the first to theorize that in order to keep things running, the system might ultimately have to provide rewards of actual value — like workplace safety, higher wages and maybe some other things, like respect and appreciation for one’s contributions and skills…etc.

Oops — I think most of that was a tangent. The real topic of this post (of course) is me.

Who am I? I’m a subset of people: i.e. a writer, existing in a subsector of the capitalist system: i.e. the entertainment industry. The rewards I want are the same boring things most people in my industry who aren’t sociopaths want: creative opportunities, a living wage, functional work relationships, etc. For a fair while, I’ve sustained myself with the anticipation of obtaining these, because I had some belief that it was possible. Like its parent system, Hollywood is great at saying “look at all these other people getting treats—if they can do it, you can too!”— and also selling the idea that if you are just good enough, God (or someone) will pick you and lift you up to heaven (or at least higher up the food chain). You can anticipate this happening at any moment…Dopamine!

The thing is, one starts to lose one’s ability to anticipate a bright future if this keeps happening:

If you don’t want to kick the ball anymore, CB, there’s thousands of writers out there who would kill for the chance.

Please know, that, within my field, I am in no way unique and this football-yanking happens to lots and lots of people, all the time. So this is not a plea for sympathy, inasmuch as a preamble for some self interrogation, wherein I ask:

Who’s at fault in the situation pictured above?

Is it Lucy, for being a jerk? For sure. But. Is it also Charlie Brown? Why does CB repeatedly come back to Lucy and her ball? Doesn’t he have any other friends who treat him better? Is Lucy so much more glamorous and interesting than those friends? Or, is Lucy his only acquaintance with a football, and a football is the only kind of ball he wants to kick?

What’s with Charlie Brown’s obsession with that dumb football anyway? That question is facetious — I know the answer. He feels like he’s meant to kick that football. If he could just have that one chance, where the ball didn’t get pulled away, and his foot could connect — he can feel in his bones how that football would go flying! (And once that ball was in the air, the world would know, and soon he’d have his face on a cereal box or at least be kicking footballs everyday for money. It’s just one kick between him and living the dream!)

But who are we kidding? It’s in Lucy’s nature to pull the ball away. Like the proverbial scorpion who has to sting, or like Jessica Rabbit, who’s just drawn that way, Lucy is literally incapable of not fucking with the ball.

So the question becomes, what should Charlie Brown do now? I mean, shouldn’t he try playing some other game that doesn’t include Lucy? Like baseball or soccer, or Yahtzee? Or maybe he could start mowing lawns, and just buy his own football?

Hell, he could start a lawn-mowing franchise and eventually buy a whole football team. By then he’d be past the prime for football-kicking himself, but he’d likely have friends who are more loyal than Lucy, clients who truly appreciate (and pay for) their evenly-cut lawns, and co-workers who invite him to BBQs and their kids’ birthday parties where they share inside jokes and compare lawn mowers.

Possibly, he could have a happy life with plenty of anticipation and dopamine despite never kicking a football!

Ugh, I just passed 1000 words! I didn’t want to do that. How can I wrap this up? Okay, here:

  • Capitalism is deeply flawed but seems poised to persist.
  • Given the fact that I’m not Neo, and can’t unplug from the Matrix, I need to live in it. (Matrix=capitalist system. I didn’t set up that metaphor in this mini-essay, but it’s so commonly used I don’t need to, right?)
  • Within the capitalist system, my stubborn commitment to football kicking (i.e. screenwriting) seems increasingly likely to end with me living underneath an overpass (at least between police sweeps), while Lucy / Hollywood forgets I ever existed and doesn’t feel the least bit guilty.
  • However, Hollywood is just one subsector of the big capitalist machine, and if I can quit sulking about the not-getting-to-kick-the-football thing, I could look for a different sector that doesn’t lead to the whole overpass scenario.
  • And in the process, I could even look for a sector with work-life balance, respect for my skills, and getting compensated happily and fairly instead of grudgingly and as little as possible. (I don’t know if this place actually exists, but what is life without a search for mythical lands?)
  • All of which would help renew my faith in humanity and the capitalist whole reward system, which would reset my ability anticipate good things, triggering the release of dopamine…

Introducing ATOMIC HABITS

Quick health update: I’m almost six weeks out from my surgery and feeling much better. Some aches and pains will work themselves out for a few months and deep healing is a process, but, as of now, no more daily needles in my belly, the glue is slowly peeling off the wounds, and I wake in the morning with more energy…

So… cool! I guess that means I can get back to what I was doing I when I got distracted, like…. six months ago? What was I doing again?

Oh, right, planning my best life ever in 2022! 😹

As 2021 came to a close, I decided to build the new year around two books: Joy at Work, co-authored by Marie Kondo, and Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear. My plan was to pre-read these books before the end of 2021, then, in the new year, to go back through them in a more active way, using the advice and doing the exercises until I emerged anew— organized, in control, productive and operating at maximum satisfaction.

Of course, I understood that reconfiguring a lifetime of not-great habits wouldn’t be quick. It might take all year! Though, secretly, I hoped for less. Maybe I would achieve my optimal life in half that time—like by June, or even May!

Hahahahahahaha.

God

Consider this a prequel to some upcoming posts wherein I will reference Atomic Habits in the context of ruminating about life and purpose.

Updates from Limbo – Decision Made

Still traversing this expanse of time between diagnosis and colectomy surgery. It’s been about five months which which seems crazy. The length of time is partly on me — hopping providers and looking for options— and then due to crowded schedule of my surgeons.

This window of time—before the event and the after of the event—has a limbo-like quality. I’m living my day-to-day life in a completely normal way, but also I’m distracted by the waiting. I appreciate this time, because I feel good now, and I might not feel so good after. But also, there’s an element of wanting to get on with it — to get to the other side of the uncertainty about how life is going to be.

But the time has also given me time to process, and even change my mind about stuff. For instance: After much consideration, the ovaries are going to stay.

When all of this is behind me, I have no doubt that I look back at these months that have produced absolutely no screenwriting and wonder “what the hell did I do for all that time?” I will state for the record that I spent many hours researching, both statistics related to my specific situation, and menopause in general. (This is deserving of its own post that I’ll hopefully write in the future, but in the meantime, read or listen to this book.)

Then I had a meeting with my surgeon where I cried twice while presenting my various facts and figures, and neuroses. She was super-nice, saying that there were valid reasons for either keeping my ovaries or removing them and she’d support whatever decision I wanted to make. She was also super-smart in giving me a deadline for a decision. We both wanted her to be able to give her surgery slot to someone else if I wasn’t going to use it — and she could probably see the likelihood of me digging a research hole into the center of the earth if someone didn’t stop me. She told me to let her know in a week and I agreed.

During that week, I talked to two women, both friends-of-friends, who have gone through surgical menopause, and they shared their experiences. During this time, I’ve been so inspired hearing from people who have gone through their own unique struggles and emerged on the other side. I’m repeatedly amazed by people’s strength and resilience and their emotional generosity in sharing their stories with me just because I ask.

Both of the women I talked to noted that my decision, in the end, would come down to “trusting my gut.” This is difficult, because my gut and I have a long history of communication problems. Is it that I’m not a good listener I’ve wondered, or is my gut a little dysfuntional? (Since my soon-to-be-removed colon is part of my gut, I know there’s some kind of metaphorically snarky comment just asking to be made here, but I don’t know exactly what it is.)

In hopes that my gut would pull back on giving me the silent-treatment, I decided that on decision day, from the moment I woke up, I would not speak to anyone, not look at any screen of any kind, not read or even write until I made a decision.

I woke at about 7:30.

A little after 2:30, I turned on my computer in order to message my surgeon with my decision.

The seven hours in between were very… interesting. Interesting and a little boring. Elongated and super-slow, but also not slow. A relief, but also mildly excruciating.

I don’t know if my gut ever shouted, but in the end I felt happy with my decision—or happy to have it made. And my half-day experiment gave me a tiny sample of a new adventure I am planning, with both anticipation and dread… a 10-day Vipassana course.

(Ummm, yeah, this is is also worthy of a separate post in the future— stay tuned!)