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"Be all that you can be," says the Army.
Well, Iím not in the Army and I donít know how likely
it is I'll ever be all that I can be, but I
would like to be more of what I can be. So, I decided
a while ago to try some self-improvement regimens.
Below are the results.
PSYCHOTHERAPY: A few years ago I tried
some weekly therapy lessons here in L.A. I did not
have health insurance when I started, and because
good therapists can cost 60 to a 120
bucks per hour, I was forced to go to a very
affordable discount mental health clinic, in
Beverly Hills of all places. Being located in one
of the capitals of extreme wealth and extremely expensive
psychotherapy, it felt as if we clinic patients got
the second-hand-but-still-good therapy that was
discarded by the rich and slightly unhappy in the
hills above. Sort of like going to the thrift clothing
store on the edge of a nice neighborhood full of
The clinic also had wealthy benefactors whose
names were on metal plaques on the wall. In a university,
museum or library, you know which hall, wing or building
was paid for by whose contribution. In the clinic,
each major contributor sponsors the treatment of a
specific psychological problem: "The generosity
of Bernard Goldglass has enabled us to address
Father Issues,". "Due to the wonderful
gift of Estelle Walters, in 2003 the Maple Center
will begin deconstruction on various complexes,
including the Napoleonic, the Oedipal and the
I had been sent to a therapist as a youth in
Boston and by far my strongest memory was beating
the therapist-- Sheldon Miller-- about the face
and body with a giant Styrofoam jousting stick.
Which meant that I had a lot of excess aggression
and resentment and probably could have been one
of Robin Hoodís Merry Men.
The discount mental health center was all right,
but I think that, due to itís reduced prices,
the patient was expected to essentially "locate,
bag and process" his own problem. Kind of like
a Costco or a food co-op. There wasnít a lot of fancy
customer service running around helping you to find
stuff or to put it together once you did find it.
You could say that this was the Ikea of mental health.
I got some stuff to take home with me, but I just
didnít know how to put it all together.
Once during a session, my therapist Chuck-- who
looked like a sprightly, kind-hearted troll-- blurted out:
"The way youíre dressed today... are you serious?".
I had come from a long-term temp job where my attire
had slipped into extreme casualness, to say the least.
I think it was my combination of scuffed, beat up shoes
and light socks that particularly offended Chuckís
sensibilities. An awkward exchange followed.
"Oh, I guess Iím not dressed real well today, huh?"
I asked. "Iím sorry!" Chuck eagerly replied.
"That was inappropriate. I shouldnít have said that.
Are you offended?" I told him that I wasnít really
offended but that maybe he could give me some specific
pointers on slacks and footwear.
My sessions with Chuck ended when he had to move
his office several miles west to Santa Monica, which
would have created a difficult, time-consuming
post-work drive, had I stayed with him. Thus,
it wasnít a lack of compatibility or a failure to acheive
progress that ended that period of psychotherapy.
It was bad rush-hour traffic.
YOGA: The gym Iíve been going to for years
near Hollywood offers various workout classes in
the mat room. There is "High-Powered Aerobics,"
"Super Kickboxing," "Heavy-Duty
Spinning," "Extreme Dancercise,"
"Strength, Stretch and Movement" and
"Ultra Mega-Pilates." There is also Yoga.
"Beginning Yoga", which is exactly my speed,
but is unfortunately offered at seven in the morning.
And I will only wake up at 6:30 AM to drive
a friend to the airport, drive myself to the airport,
or puke out my Jaegermeister and french fries from
the night before. So I showed up for one
of the "Power Yoga" classes instead,
offered at the very reasonable 7 PM.
What turned out to be not reasonable about
"Power Yoga" was everything we had to do
in the class. It seemed perfectly reasonable for
the super-human, plastic pretzel-people who were
obviously regulars in there. The regulars-- and they
were all regulars except me-- each had their own mats,
an ant-like ability to lift their own body weight
at will, and more skeletal flexibility than a centipede
I tried my best to follow along for an hour and was sure
I looked like a clown sent in to provide comic relief-- for
an activity not known for itís comedy. Imagine
Roberto Benigni, in full slapstick mode, attempting
the "Downward Facing Dog." Imagine
"Mr. Beanís Ashram Adventure." Imagine
"Ernest Saves Yoga." This pretty much
describes me that day.
I gained a lot of respect for the physical strength
and agility of the Indian people. In fact, no sane
country on Earth should ever want to mess with these people.
Can you imagine if India sent a wave of one million
soldiers walking over the landscape on their hands,
rifles held in their feet, backs arched like a perfect
bow-- somehow moving their mats with them as they went.
Theyíd be reciting their Hindu Yoga chants and theyíd
be accompanied by a marching sitar section, playing their
instruments with their toes.
They could use relaxation and will-power techniques
to allow bullets to pass right through them. Every
solider would be carrying an 80-lb. backpack
on each earlobe, and in hand-to-hand combat they would
be completely unbeatable. Trying to fight an expert
Yoga practitioner is like trying to wrestle with a
flounder made out of rubber bands.
Although the class was made up mostly of white
Americans, they had clearly absorbed the skills of
high-level Yoga and probably could hold their own
in any class in India. I, however, could not. I did
my best to lift my body with my hands, bend my back,
reach my toes, and stay stretched out in an elongated
pushup position until I felt as if my upper body
was being ripped apart by dinosaur claws.
After the class ended, the pretty blonde, but
athletically intense, instructor commended me for even
lasting through the entire hour. She said that many
people couldnít or wouldnít even have tried to follow
along. I didnít tell her this, but I was just glad
that I didnít crash into the person next to me or have
my underwear rip wide open.
Although it requires the strength of a gymnast
or ballet dancer and the focus of a zen monk,
Yoga, above all, requires flexibility. I am not very
physically flexible. And I may never be. But I am
flexible in the sense of being up for going to almost
any restaurant, bar or movie, or in my ability to get
a good nightís sleep on a futon, a couch or somebodyís
linoleum-tiled back hall. And maybe thatís the only
kind of flexibility I need.
ACUPUNCTURE: I have a fairly common condition
called Generalized Anxiety Disorder. This means that at
times I have a physiological reaction to my stress
and anxiety and I experience a sensation of numbness
and detachment. It also probably means that I could work
on making my anxiety a little more specific. A medication
called Paxil helps a lot with it, but not wanting to
rely solely on a pill made by science to attack the anxiety,
I recently sought acupuncture.
I had tried acupuncture many years ago in Boston
for an eye problem. As a side effect it gave me
this refreshing, invigorating feeling as if electricity
from a wall socket was shooting through my veins. I wanted
to experience this sensation of well-being again,
but was told that itís not safe to recreate it by jamming
a butter knife into a wall socket.
I found a great college of Far Eastern medicine right
here in L.A., and because they have advanced students
doing the treatments as part of their hands-on medical
training, the price is incredibly reasonable.
Some people in treatment hate the needles. They find
them extremely painful. Often the mere idea of their skin
being punctured freaks them out. I donít mind the needles
at all. In fact, I kind of like them. When people ask me
if it really hurts I tell them that it doesnít sting
that much compared to, say, when a friend betrays you
or a girl you just met doesnít return your calls.
The clinicís professors and students are almost
all fairly recent immigrants from Korea and China,
and when they speak their native languages in my presence,
it makes the experience feel even more authentic
and reassuring. What may sound precise and scientific
in English sounds completely mystical and magical
in the gutteral tones of Cantonese or Korean.
They have to check various physical indicators
on the patient before each and every treatment,
and I have learned that my tongue is always purple
and my Chinese pulse is "weak." It does bother
me a little when the supervising doctor pronounces
"Pulse a weak," when he could just as easily
say "Pulse a not overpowering,"
"Pulse a subtle," or "Pulse a sublime."
I guess I do give him credit for being a straight shooter.
Several sessions into my treatment at the college
clinic, the doctors made it clear that they were going
to be adding a new puncture point that I had not had
before. They began to talk animatedly amongst themselves
about "P-8." Each point has a name in Chinese
and in English, and I was hearing them say things like
"Heís a getting P-8? I havenít given
a P-8 before!" and then just "P-8!"
followed by nervous laughter.
I wondered where this P-8 point would go. Would it be
in my eyeball? In my eardrum? Into my scrotum? It turned
out not to be so bad. P-8 goes through the middle of the palm.
After the initial shock of having large pins jammed
through the centers of my hands, they asked me how it felt.
I said it was OK, not bad. In fact it felt better than all right.
It felt good. I felt like a king. To be specific, I felt
like the King Of The Jews. They didnít quite understand
my little religious joke, but they said they understood
how King Of The Jews could be a stressful,
I am staying with the acupuncture and finding
that it is still helping me to achieve a feeling of
general well-being a good deal of the time. It is also
helping me to withstand having needles stuck into almost
any part of my body. And for twenty bucks a week,
thatís not a bad skill to acquire.
MEDITATION: I am barely qualified to write
about my meditation experience, because I have basically
never meditated. But Iíve come close enough to be able
to write about why I am unable to meditate. Plain and simple,
meditation requires sitting there, doing nothing
and not thinking. Iím good at sitting there and good
at doing nothing, but horrible at not thinking.
Thatís probably one of my biggest problems. My brain
is like one of those two-stroke motocross dirt bike
engines that revs really high and needs special oil
to not overheat and burn itself out. The gears of my
mind constantly spin like a steam-powered turbine,
chewing up things that have happened, that didnít happen,
that could happen, will happen, wonít happen,
probably might not happen, should happen, on and on and on.
Meditation would be perfect for me. I know that.
Itís just that Iím unable to meditate.
Because whenever I would start to meditate, I would
think about all the things I was supposed to not be
thinking about. And then I would think about the people
who were really good at meditation because they were able
to actually not think about anything, and Iíd find
myself not thinking about actual things, but thinking
about how jealous I was of the people who didnít think
about things. And thatís not good.
People have given me meditation tapes. And most
of them Iíve never even listened to. Because when I
write at home or organize my apartment or do any such task,
I put on music to help me relax and concentrate. And before
I put in the meditation tape, I go put in my favorite CD
and crank it up, figuring that this is pretty good
meditation background music. And then I realize I canít
have both on at the same time. I canít crank The Verve Pipe
or Ben Folds Five and meditate in the same moment.
I mean, physically itís impossible cause I only have
one tape player. For the record, Iím not ruling out
ever doing meditation. Iíll just have to think about it.
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