Low Carb Almond Flour Bowls

After nearly 10 months of low-carb/ketogenic eating, I’m officially a believer.  20 lbs of body fat gone.  Chronic acid-reflux gone.  Chronic fatigue…not quite gone, but seriously diminished.  I do not believe that there is a one-size fits all food program suited for every individual.  Much or our cultural heritage dictates our dietary needs.  Asians tend to be lactose intolerant because dairy cattle were not a significant part of their historical agriculture trends.  Some people can’t eat nuts of any kind.  I have a pet theory that those of us who have negative reactions to grains and starches come from a longer hunter-gatherer tradition than those whose ancestors farmed cereal grains for hundreds of years.

While that last assessment may be completely inaccurate, I can safely say that my body just doesn’t do well with staple food items that make up the bulk of a grain-oriented agricultural tradition.  If you’re like me, here are some recipe suggestions that can help keep you on a low-carb, grain-free path without missing out on the “good stuff.”  You will notice a few processed food items on this list.  As a general rule, I try to eat organic whole foods almost exclusively.  But sometimes I just don’t wanna, dammit.

I don’t expect to achieve immortality by limiting myself to free-range tofu and grass-fed salt.  Every once in a while I drink diet soda sweetened with aspartame.  If I’m in a hurry, I’ll get a fast food cheeseburger and toss the bun.  I also used to smoke two packs of cigarettes per day, so I’d say my occasionally imperfect eating routine is progress.  I’m also not a chef, and all of these recipes involve a microwave.  I keep hearing that microwaves denature food and can lead to the formation of free-radicals.  I just don’t care.

When I lived in Los Angeles, I always found it amusing how obsessive people could become about food purity over lunch at a restaurant, after spending the previous hour jogging behind a city bus in some of the worst smog in America.  It would probably be safer to live in Montana and eat chewing tobacco for breakfast.  But…I’m getting sidetracked.

Here are the “recipes.”  It is not an exhaustive list.  You can basically make these adjustments with anything that might otherwise involve bread.  The foundation for each recipe is an almond flour cake that functions as a neutral base:

2 tbsp. butter, melted

2 tbsp. almond flour (not almond meal)

pinch of salt

1 egg

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

Stir it all up in a bowl and microwave for 75 to 90 seconds, depending on what consistency you prefer.

TOPPING OPTION IDEAS:

— Eggs, any style, with cheese, chives, and bacon pieces.

— Sugar free, low carb pancake syrup

— fresh raspberries and heavy cream

— Bacon, Lettuce, and Tomato with mayo.

— marinara sauce, pepperoni, and mozzarella.

— ground beef, cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato, and mustard

— roast beef, sautéed onions and peppers, cheese, mayo

— clam chowder, minus potatoes. Sub white flour with almond flour.

— Lox, cream cheese, red onion, and capers

These are just a handful of ideas, but for me they are a lifesaver.  Sometimes I feel like I’ll jump out of my skin if I don’t get my hands on some bread or pancakes.  Any of these treats will do the trick just fine.

 

Reflections on 10 Years of Sobriety

     Technically, I will not have an official decade of uninterrupted sobriety until Saturday, March 10th.  However, I think I can confidently say that I am unlikely to start drinking again over the next three days, and at this point in my life I don’t have a great deal of free time to sit down and write.  I originally started this blog to share my past experience with substance abuse, and from there it has sort of bounced around.  But it seems fitting to take a look at the past decade in a brief summary.  Hopefully something I share here will help someone find a solution that has been eluding them.
     My own journey toward real sobriety started with an interview I read in an online magazine in 2008.  I had previously been able to abstain from alcohol and drugs intermittently, but inevitably I would succumb to the notion that I was probably just going through a phase.  That never ended well…a fact that I seemed to forget every time I started up again.
     The above picture is a cast photo from the play, “Bill W. and Dr. Bob,” circa 2004.  It is the story about the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous.  I had a small part as an alcoholic lawyer who was on his last legs.  It was an easy role, because my own life was also falling apart.  I was extremely drunk during every performance.  Someone from the cast would invariably have to wake me up during the intermission.  That’s me on the far left, intoxicated.  I don’t recall taking this photo.  I couldn’t even recall taking it when it was emailed to me 14 years ago.  When I managed to stay sober for subsequent acting jobs, it became clear that I was actually a barely mediocre actor.  Probably because I rarely did any of the work required to become a decent one.
     I was a functional alcoholic.  Generally I was able to hold down a job, participate in creative ventures, and maintain relationships (for the most part).  But I took a lot of risks.  I am not an intrepid person by nature.  Under the influence of alcohol, however, I was extremely reckless.  It is hard for me to understand why I was never arrested for DUI, public intoxication, or worse.  I was lucky to some degree, but since I never suffered any legal consequences, the avalanche kept growing.  There was nothing to stop me.  I fell asleep at the wheel…got lost on foot at night in a dangerous neighborhood…was threatened by a drug dealer…nearly ruined a short film that the director had poured his life savings into.  I was an “edu-tainer” for elementary school programs that featured drug and alcohol prevention strategies.  During the vast majority of those presentations, I was either hungover or still intoxicated from the night before.
     As my alcoholism deteriorated, the material aspects of my life somehow managed to improve.  I paid off debts, secured more interesting and better-paying jobs, met my future wife, and moved into a comfortable apartment.  But, internally, I was falling into a black chasm.  An eternal fall.  That feeling you have during a dream in which you have lost your balance on the edge of a cliff, and your mind is trying to decide whether or not you’re dreaming.  That feeling generally became the only “emotion” I was capable of experiencing.
     As I sat in the little office room of our apartment on March 9, 2008, something happened.  It was a beautiful southern California day.  I was finishing up some music composition for a show that seemed to be gathering momentum.  It was the first genuinely good day I could recall having in a while.  Why not have a couple of beers to celebrate?  Surely most of my previous problems with alcohol had been merely situational.  Things were really looking up now.  I could enjoy a nice cold one like a regular grown-up, right?
     By the 3rd bottle, a heavy darkness began to settle over the room.  The sunshine became dull.  The work I had been doing all morning ceased to be important.  The falling sensation began to gain speed.  “This is never going to get better.”
     I do not know exactly what motivated me to take the following step.  I am a natural isolator.  Especially with a few drinks in me.  But I was overcome with a compulsion to reach out to someone whom I had never met.  We would be doing some work together in a few days, and I had no way of knowing how he might react.  Here is the text of the email I sent to him, edited to protect anonymity:
“This email is unrelated to the upcoming (music) show.  It may even seem too personal or just generally strange, and for that I apologize in advance.  I don’t know if there is a God or just random chance, but I’m going to go out on a limb.
I understand that you had some problems with alcohol while you were with (a band). And I read an interview in which you stated that you had been clean and sober for 15 years.
I have struggled with alcohol for most of my adult life.  I have tried everything to stop.  I spent some time in AA, worked most of the steps, and I guess I just gave up.  I don’t know.  I guess the only reason I am writing you is because I have been praying to whatever figment of the imagination of whatever God there may or may not be for some kind of solution.  And the only thing that keeps coming into my brain is, “Maybe you should tell (this person) what’s going on.”  That seemed ridiculous to me, because you and I have never met, and I didn’t want to seem like some nobody musician who is just trying to get chummy with someone who was in a legendary band.
But the same thought keeps coming to mind.  I know where AA meetings are.  I can’t seem to go.  People I knew in AA call me.  I don’t call them back.  I isolate.  I hide.  I pretend that everything is just fine.
Again, I really have to say that I’m sorry if this seems nuts and it makes you feel weird being in the band this month.  I just don’t know what else to do right now.
Frankly, it just doesn’t matter that you were in (a band) in regards to this email.  I just keep hearing the same voice that tells me to tell you what’s going on.  If it was a voice that was telling me to tell the bum at our dumpster, or the minister at the church down
the street, then I would do that.  But I’m not hearing that advice.
The writing is on the wall.  I’m perfectly functional.  I run 20 miles per week.  I have a beautiful girlfriend, whom you will meet at rehearsal.  I have a great family.  I have every opportunity in Los Angeles just waiting for me to grab it.  Friends.  Love from
others.  An audience.  Employment.  Enough money to pay the bills.
And for the past week, every day, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about why it would just be better to be dead.  And whether or not I should bother to write a note.  To be clear, I wouldn’t be writing you if I was actively planning suicide, because I would be busy planning suicide.  I’m too much of a pussy to take my own life.  So I hang out in some sort of limbo. Drinking just enough to try to shut out the resentments and fear, but not enough to get caught by people who are checking up on me.  And I keep praying.
And hoping that one day actual sobriety will be appealing to me.  Because now I can’t stand drunkenness or sobriety.  And I hang out somewhere in between.
I’m going to send this now.  I may regret it.  But I know that if something doesn’t change I will end up like my grandfather — dead in his mid-50s.  From the same thing — a total inability to admit that we are completely powerless over alcohol.
— Adam”
     Almost immediately, this person responded with a willingness, if not eagerness, to help me.  A total stranger.  For the first time in my life, I decided to let someone else do the driving.  I couldn’t drive anymore.  Whatever he told me to do, I did.  I didn’t question it.  I didn’t modify it.  As a result, I never picked up another drink.
     Things are very different now.  Sobriety doesn’t necessarily make life easier.  There have been moments during which the situational aspects of my life became dramatically worse than at any point in my drinking career.  Life is hard.  But I have a toolbox that I use to solve problems now.  A toolbox that was passed down to me, and that I pass down to others.  My wife and I address difficulties together, as a team.  I am able to be present for my young children.  I very rarely worry about what happened yesterday.  I don’t get everything that I want, and that’s okay.  I have learned to let go of things I can’t control (most of the time).
     I am not going to live forever, but I am probably not going to die from alcoholism.  There is a solution…

I Don’t Have Time To Workout!

We’ve all been there.  Most of the time I’m there.  I spend my days taking other people through workouts, and whatever energy I have left goes into chasing my kids around.  To solve this time/energy problem, I have been selecting a few intense exercises and doing them in short bursts.

Before Anne and I had children, we did 10 mile runs every Saturday and I’d spend 6 to 9 hours per week doing some sort of martial arts training.  That’s just not realistic anymore.  Plus, I hate running.

I am always trying to maintain balance in my body.  I spent a lot of years getting injured due to the fact that I would hyperfocus on one thing at a time.  That worked for a while in my 20s, but eventually the repetitive stress can start to add up.  Distance runners and powerlifters usually have some sort of chronic pain issue.  It’s a trade-off.  To win, you have to focus.  Elite athletes know what they’re getting into.

I can’t afford to be injured anymore.  My little boys expect me to carry them when they’re too tired to walk, and I won’t be able to demonstrate proper pushups if I have a torn rotator cuff.  I also don’t have as much tolerance for discomfort as I once did.

If you are also the type of person who feels obligated to train every system, but can’t seem to find enough opportunity, give this a try for a few months:

*It goes without saying that if you are new to exercise, get checked by a doctor, have someone show you proper technique, and WARM UP!!

1X PER WEEK — DEADLIFTS.  Ramping up to a heavy set of 5 reps.  (Around 30 minutes)

2X PER WEEK — BURPEES (with pushups and jumps).  You’ll know when you’re done.  In sets or all at once. (10 or so minutes)

2X PER WEEK — MONKEY BAR HANG.  Until your hands won’t close anymore. Do pull-ups if you’re strong enough.  (10 or so minutes)

2X PER WEEK — STRETCH AND FOAM ROLL THE LEAST MOBILE PART OF YOUR BODY.  I mean dedicated stretching.  Focus on that one area.  (15 to 20 minutes)

That’s it.

There are always going to be naysayers.  “You’ll never finish an ultramarathon with that workout.”  “Yeah, but what can you bench brah?”  “That’s not enough volume to separate all 36 deltoid heads…brah.”

Let me just get out in front of that in this closing.  This is not a bodybulding, powerlifting, or endurance sport routine.  If you’re worried about your delt head separation, then you probably also get 8 hours of sleep, go to things like Happy Hour, and aren’t concerned about running out of diapers.

Deadlifts build maximal strength throughout the entire body.  Every muscle.  I used to think that the chest is neglected here, but anytime I go heavy, one of my pecs will usually spasm.

Burpees will improve endurance, power, speed, and agility, along with working every muscle. (Tell me which ones aren’t burning after a hard round of burpees)

Monkey bar hangs will improve grip and upper body strength, along with shoulder and back mobility.  Working in pullups will only improve upon that.

Dedicated mobility work in a troublesome spot is pretty self-explanatory.

If you decide to give this a go, I’d love to hear about your results.

 

Fitness Standards For Regular Folks

When people first begin the journey toward improved fitness and overall health, I find that they often don’t have a specific path toward a clearly defined goal.  This is perfectly understandable.  If a person has never really tested the capacity of their own body, fine details can seem pretty elusive.  Generally the goals entail “looking better,” or “losing weight.”  Along that road, some sort of exercise will be involved.  With that in mind, it is helpful to establish progress along an exercise continuum.

First and foremost, I am a proponent of finding something that a person is willing to do consistently.  If all someone ever wants to do is hop on an elliptical machine, that’s terrific.  Does it ignore a genuine need for strength training?  Yes.  Does it forgo the benefits of mobility work?  Yes.  Is it better than sitting in front of a computer for 8 hours, sitting in a car for 1 hour, and then sitting on the couch for 3 hours?  Emphatically, yes.  We could all be doing more, but simply doing something is a great place to start.

If a person is new to the idea of a dedicated fitness program, they might start with a simple Google search.  This can quickly devolve into a rabbit hole of overwhelming frustration.  I often run across strength training forums where I commonly see the standard, “Good strength goals for men are a 300 bench, 400 squat, and 500 deadlift.”  For the average person just starting out, this isn’t realistic, and it can be downright discouraging.  Most people can’t squat properly with any weight at all.  I personally know only 5 people on a first-name basis who can deadlift over 400 lbs, and 3 of us are fitness trainers.  Few people are doing any deadlifting at the family gym I attend.  Obviously the average powerlifter is going to hit those numbers, but powerlifters are not the intended audience of this post.

There are some terrific sites with fitness standards out there.  I personally test myself against a lot of the Crossfit standards, even though I’m not a Crossfitter.  But for the average person with little exercise knowledge, who is just looking for a basic template of realistic goals, the Crossfit standards can seem a bit esoteric and daunting.  So…if you are new to all of this, and have managed to train past the window between a New Year’s resolution and Valentine’s Day, here are some well-rounded, medium term goals that can help build a foundation toward any higher level fitness achievement.

— Finish a 5k without walking.  Barely jogging is acceptable.

— Pushups (chin to floor, perfectly planked):  Men, over 20.  Women, over 5.

— Inverted row from floor (legs straight, perfect plank):  Men, over 10.  Women, over 3.

— Front Plank (flat as a board):  90 seconds

— Bodyweight squats (below parallel):  75

— Single Leg Hip Bridge (full extension, controlled pace):  25 per leg

There will be any number of varying reactions to these standards:  “That’s weak sauce, bro,” or “Pushups are impossible!”  It is of the utmost importance to note that these standards are not going to break any fitness records — that isn’t the point.  Second, most people that I start with have severe strength imbalances:  35 perfect pushups on day one, but can’t do one squat to parallel without rounding the back and coming up on the toes.  I have also come to recognize that genetic factors for women can be all over the map in terms of upper body strength.  Petite women with shorter appendages usually have no trouble hitting 20 or more pushups in a fairly short amount of time.  Tall women with longer arms may struggle for a year just to get one good pushup.

The larger point that I want to make is that it is important to work on our weaknesses.  If you can sprint a 5k, but can’t hold a plank for 30 seconds, less time on the treadmill and more time on the floor can really benefit you long-term.  I’m a perfect example of this.  Lifting heavy things has always come pretty naturally for me.  But until I started running in my 30s, I couldn’t jog one mile without resting along the way, and it would take me hours to recover (chain-smoking didn’t help).  As I became more dedicated to martial arts training, my early progress was slowed by the fact that I simply had no stamina whatsoever.  When I switched my focus from something I could already do well, to something that had always been a struggle, it changed everything.

Not every man will be able to bench press 300 lbs.  Not every woman will be able to run a marathon.  But, over time, you should acquire enough strength and stamina to increase the odds of saving your own life in an emergency.  I have mentioned similar scenarios in previous blog posts, but I think it is important to reiterate them:

— Car breaks down in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone reception.  Are you fit enough to walk several miles back to civilization, possibly carrying a small child?  If you can jog an entire 5k, your odds are better.

— An overloaded bookshelf falls on top of you.  Can you use your arms and hips to get yourself free?  If you can do 5 good pushups, and 25 single leg bridges, your odds are better.

— A loose dog is coming after you.  Can you climb over a fence to safety?  If you can do 3 horizontal inverted rows, your odds are better.

Physical strength won’t save us in every emergency.  Surviving a plane crash or chemical plant explosion will mostly come down to severity and luck, but these things are exceedingly rare.  Most of us have experienced, or personally know someone who has experienced, something similar to one of the 3 scenarios I described above.  For people who spend time on the most basic levels of general fitness, hiking 5 miles to a gas station in the desert will feel like a challenging workout.  For people who don’t, it can become a life or death situation.

Practical Fitness Tips

…There are precisely 368,994,103 fitness tips in existence.  Here are a few more:

— You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.  If that includes exercise and healthy eating, you will eventually be in a lot of pain and probably die prematurely.  Everyone has their own ideas about pastime.

— If you are chronically stressed, it is an emergency.  Fix it.  First priority.  It makes no difference what you have to give up in order to do so.  (Note: Doing what you are already doing, only more frantically, will not fix it).

— Obesity is not a disability.  It is a treatable condition.  If food addiction is causing the obesity, that is also a treatable condition.

— Find a physical activity you enjoy and do it as often as possible.  If you hate running, don’t run.  If you hate gyms, don’t go to one.  If you like flying kites, do that.  If you don’t know what a kite is, stop looking at your phone.

— Make yourself do something that is challenging at least once per week.  Pushups, lap swimming, Zumba.  Pick one.

— If do you go to a gym, don’t drive around the parking lot looking for a spot closest to the door to avoid excess walking in order to enter a building in which you are going to get on a machine and walk.

— Stop eating fruit flavored candy.  Fruit tastes just like fruit.

— If you do today what you did yesterday, you will feel just like you did yesterday.

— If you do tomorrow what you did today, you can finish this sentence and put it on a stock photo of a person climbing a mountain.  Or vomiting into a mall trash can.  Depends on what you plan to do tomorrow.

— Stop obsessing about every little health detail that may add an extra 14 hours to the end of your life.  Obsessing about it cancels out any perceived benefit.  (RE: Stress + exhausting all of your friends).

— If you’re 52, stop hanging on to 22.  If you’re 22, stop calling Nirvana “classic rock.”

— If you are expecting that the preceding tips will make you look like a fitness magazine cover, they won’t.  But these things will:

Deadlifts…heavy.  Sprints…until death seems preferable.  Planks, sit-ups, crunches, leg lifts…laughing isn’t worth the pain anymore.  Pushups…all of them.  Pull-ups…until it feels like cardio.  Chicken, avocado, spinach…always.  Cake…never.  Happy hour…nope.  Twinkies…yes, if you fill them with razor blades.

Everything exists on a spectrum.

The State of American Healthcare

After receiving another notice from our insurance company that a payment for service was denied, I thought it was time to share my family’s experience with the American healthcare system. I’m not going to get political about it. Individuals will define root causes based on where they lie on the political spectrum. I am not interested in placing blame, because it is far too convoluted. I am more concerned about how the disarray built in to the American healthcare system is going to give an otherwise healthy individual like me, a stroke.

I am not a healthcare expert, nor a political pundit. But I am one of those Americans who falls in that gray area that none of our politicians seems to know what to do with. I’m self-employed, and I make about as much as a public school teacher. My wife Anne is in graduate school full-time along with an unpaid internship, so as a family of four, we’re making just enough to shave by. Thankfully we have some savings from a house sale, along with a thoughtful extended family. Many Americans in our situation don’t have those safety nets to utilize in the case of an emergency. I don’t really know how they can manage.

15% of my gross income goes toward healthcare expenses, after the subsidy. If it weren’t for the subsidy, it would be 30% or more. The important thing to note here is that we are a healthy family. Outside of routine checkups, there is the occasional issue that Anne and I have to deal with as part of the normal aging process. We don’t have cancer or kidney disease. The good news is that, as a small business owner, I can write off a chunk of those expenses. The bad news is that when there is a billing dispute between a provider and the health insurance company, I take on a second job as a liaison, despite having no experience or qualifications to do so. If I lose the negotiation, then we’re fronting another few thousand dollars that might otherwise go into that thing that people keep talking about. I forget what it’s called. Oh yeah, “savings.”

A couple of years back I listened to an interview with a healthcare economist who described her experience after a cancer diagnosis. I am paraphrasing her statement, but it went something like this, “I am a healthcare economist with a PhD, and I don’t understand the bills and letters that I am getting from my insurance company. So if I can’t understand it, then it will definitely be impossible for anyone not in this field to understand it.” I continually have this experience with what should be routine procedures for a 42 year old man in generally good shape. I never know if I commit to a procedure whether it’s going to cost me $0 or $7,000. Here is a copy of a letter I wrote to a vascular surgeon after receiving a varicose vein diagnosis. I’ve omitted the first couple of paragraphs because they’re just boring details about the procedure:

“…To be perfectly frank, out-of-pocket medical fees have just been killing us for the past 3 years. It never lets up. I spent an hour on Friday trying to get someone at the imaging facility/health insurance company to give me a general idea of what I would be paying for just the MRI/MRA, and no one was able to give me any kind of answer. Our savings is dwindling, and I’m still negotiating other hospital bills. I’m not mentioning this because your office has anything to do with that stuff, as I realize you all have to deal with the same health insurance billing frustrations that I do as a small business owner. Your team is simply practicing safe care and presenting me with viable options. I’m mentioning it because my wife will be done with grad school and working in a couple of years…right about the time we stop paying $1,500 per month to put two kids through preschool. Point being — if this can wait a couple of years without doing irreversible damage do my leg, then it needs to wait. But if I’m playing with fire then I just have to suck it up and move forward into this year’s medical cost black hole. So I need an honest opinion about what my wiggle room is here.”

Fortunately, she responded by telling me that this condition has a slow progression, and unless certain symptoms begin to arise, there is no rush. But this is the standard medical routine in my experience. Specifically, with this vein diagnosis:

– Step 1. See a PCP about an issue, where I sit in the waiting room for almost an hour.

– Step 2. 3 weeks later, take 3 hours off work and drive 45 mins to see a specialist. Get a diagnosis.

– Step 3. 3 weeks later, take 3 hours off work and drive 45 mins to get an ultrasound.

– Step 4. 3 months later, take 3 hours off work and drive 45 mins to get a follow up about the ultrasound. Get a prescription for an MRI.

– Step 5. Start paying the out-of-pocket expenses for the previous 4 doctor visits and the ultrasound.

– Step 6. Contact the hospital that does the MRI to find out how much it might cost me out of pocket. Get transferred to a billing estimate place. Get transferred to a billing counselor. Call my insurance company. Find out absolutely nothing.

– Step 7. Ask the doctor if I can put this process off for a couple of years.

– Step 8. Cancel the MRI.

Four months, a couple hundred dollars, and about 12 combined hours of driving, waiting, consulting, and calling. The only thing that has changed since step 1 is that I bought one pair of vein compression hose for $70. Insurance doesn’t pay for that after all. I mean, how else are they supposed to rake in billions of dollars in profits?

Two days ago, we received a new notice from our insurance company stating that they are denying payment for a procedure that my wife had done last May in the amount of $4,500. The reason for the denial is that the claim was not submitted by the hospital in a timely enough manner, despite being in-network, and previously approved. Nevermind that insurance companies and hospitals can send the patient a bill out of the blue whenever they feel like it. Apparently those rules don’t apply if it’s a major corporation billing another major corporation.

I’ve been through this song and dance before. Ultimately what this means is that the hospital will now send us a bill for $4,500. I will then spend hours working my way up the chain to explain to a disinterested supervisor that, “I did my part. I pay my premiums on time. We made sure that the procedure was in network, and that it was approved. I don’t file insurance claims, you do. If I had known that a billing window was closing, I would have filed it myself. But I did not know this. No one tells me these things.” To which they will reply that since the insurance company isn’t paying, I will have to take it up with my insurance company, or pay the bill myself. To which my insurance company will reply that the hospital did not submit the claim in a timely manner, and I will have to take it up with the hospital.

I already went through this last summer over Anne’s same procedure. The insurance company denied a claim for the testing of a tissue sample, because the lab wasn’t in network, so we received a bill from the lab for around $1,000. I called the hospital, lab, and insurance company to find out why, if we had chosen a doctor in-network, a tissue sample would be sent to a lab that was not in-network. Turns out that the lab was in network when the tissue sample was sent, but it was no longer in network when they billed the insurance company. So…naturally, after all of these companies finish arguing over who is supposed to pay whom, I get the bill. To which I patiently and calmly responded to the last person I spoke with, “I know that you personally are not the orchestrator of this confusion, but please put yourself in my shoes, and then explain to me WHY THE FUCK any of this is my responsibility.” “Sir…I can understand your frustration…”

This situation wasn’t actually resolved. It is under review. I was told it could take 9 to 12 months before a resolution is reached. I assume that once I’ve completely forgotten about this whole thing, and just as I’m thinking about doing something wacky crazy like putting some money into an IRA, I’ll get another bill for $1,000. Because, why shouldn’t I? I don’t have a team of lawyers to fight this screw up. I’m the low-hanging fruit. It’s easy for the hospital, or insurance company, or lab, to sue me if I refuse to pay it. They have a lot less to lose. So I’ll just pay it, and then cynically wait for the next costly expense that I didn’t know was coming. Oh, wait, there already is one!

For this same procedure, we also received another bill last fall from the hospital for around $5,000 (separate from the most recent insurance company denial). Look, I know that we are required to pay a certain amount of money out of pocket each year to meet our deductible. We paid a $500 co-pay, along with another amount up front that I can’t remember. But this was all really starting to add up. The bill indicated that the hospital had been trying to collect the money from the insurance company to no avail, and that I needed to call my insurance company to try to get them to pay. You know, my volunteer job as a debt collector when I’m not at my actual job, trying to raise my children, or on the phone with some other medical organization about another bill that doesn’t seem quite right.

Insurance company — “They aren’t supposed to send you a bill for that amount. Your responsibility is $200 something plus your $500 co-pay.”

Me — “But they did send me this bill.”

Insurance company — “But they’re not supposed to. You’ll have to call them.”

Hospital — “The amount due is $5,000.”

Me — “The insurance company said it’s $200.”

Hospital — “It’s $5,000.”

Me — “Here’s a crazy idea. I know this is totally insane, but how about if YOU call the insurance company. Here is their phone number. They have customer service representatives available 24 hours per day.”

Hospital — “We don’t do that.”

Me — “You don’t talk to the insurance company?”

Hospital — “No. But what we can do is submit this for review, which could take about 9 to 12 months…”

If you’ve made it this far through this rant, I’ll go ahead and share a final medical anecdote from a couple of years ago. We had just relocated to Texas, and most of our life was imploding due to circumstances outside our control. I’ll spare the details, but it was getting pretty ugly. One afternoon, Anne decided to take our son Parker to my Mom’s house so that Anne and I could try to figure some things out without downloading all of the stress onto our 3 year old. A few minutes after she left the house, as I was walking down our hallway I began to experience stabbing chest pains and pressure that pulsed in time with my heartbeat. This had to be a heart attack. I quickly chewed a baby aspirin and drove to the ER a half mile away. In hindsight I probably should have called 911, but you just do what you do in those situations.

The staff quickly hooked me up to a bunch of monitors, gave me some medication to ostensibly calm the effects of a possible heart attack, and conducted a prompt interview. Within a few minutes I was sent through a battery of medical tests. After the doctor reviewed the information he concluded that my heart was fine, and that I had probably pinched a nerve somewhere in my thoracic cavity due to the extreme stress, which was mimicking the symptoms of a heart attack. Whew! What a relief. He also told me that the symptoms I was describing were either a pinched nerve, or an aortic dissection, which would have killed me within a few minutes. Thankfully he didn’t tell me that until after I was in the clear.

Well, it’s a good thing I have health insurance and that the ER is only a half mile away. Sometimes there are happy endings. Oh, wait…the ER isn’t in network and it cost me $2,500. Since the source of our stress was a near disastrous financial situation, I had to ask myself, if I had known in advance that it would have cost me $2,500 to go to the ER for what I thought might be a heart attack, would I have gone? Might I have just taken the aspirin and waited around until I was sure it was a heart attack? Then what? My wife finds me dead on the living room floor? Or maybe I was supposed to call around to different hospitals, and wait on hold with the insurance company, to see which provider was in network, all while possibly in the midst of having a heart attack. If I had called 911, would the cost have doubled or tripled for the ambulance ride?

I am well aware that there are countries which have no hospitals at all. Many don’t even have safe drinking water. I have much for which to be grateful (no debtor’s prison in the U.S. for one). But I can’t help but think that in one of the wealthiest, advanced, and most powerful nations in the history of the world, something is seriously wrong here. To be perfectly honest, I often think about what I could do to help people who aren’t as lucky as I am. Unfortunately, when I have any sliver of free time or extra money that might be dedicated to such a cause, it gets parasitically absorbed by this kind of bullshit.

Stay healthy! (No, I mean really stay healthy so that you don’t have to go see a doctor for any reason…ever).

The Secret To A Healthy Bodyweight

As a good friend likes to say about most things in life…”It’s simple, but it’s not easy.”  There is no secret to maintaining a healthy bodyweight.  Unless there is an underlying metabolic issue (rare), or an addiction that requires mental health treatment, we generally just have to become more conscious about our daily habits.  I often hear people approaching this subject as if there is an ancient magical formula that can only be found by searching the farthest reaches of some tropical jungle.

Here’s the straight talk:  All of us can do this, but most of us don’t want to.  In a culture that prides itself on abundance and indulgence, we expect our struggles to be overcome in a passive manner that is seriously lacking accountability.  “The Cheesecake Factory should have known that I couldn’t resist a second helping of dessert.  I’ll sue them.”

What do you really want?  Do you want to look and feel good?  Or do you want to binge watch Netflix while polishing off a king sized bag of M&Ms every night?  The choice is yours, and so is the result.  Healthy people do healthy things.  Now…before you fall into the “Easy for you to say personal trainer and colossal douche” mind-trap, it is important to re-state where I came from:  Pack of Marlboro reds, 3 pints of vodka, Double Quarter Pounder with Cheese meal (super-sized) — every day for years.  After watching my life crumble from the inside out, I decided I wanted something different, and then I did something different.

Here’s an anecdote that one of my former clients shared with me a few years back.  She and her husband went on a spring trip to Boston with another couple.  My client couldn’t wait to walk around the city and take in its rich history.  The other couple wouldn’t have it.  Their legs were in too much pain as a result of diabetes and obesity.  So the couple offered an alternative: During lunch, they would spend all of their time discussing options for dinner.

Nothing will ever happen if you “start tomorrow,” and you will never have time if you don’t make time.  Incidentally, you do have time.  You just don’t want to give up resentful Facebook rabbit-holes in which you conclude that everyone else’s life is better than yours (it’s not).  Just stop it.

Without further ado, here are the keys to a healthy bodyweight (and a healthier mind for that matter).

— Drink a gallon of water per day.

— Use My Fitness Pal.

— Keep your net carbs at 100 grams or less (total carbs minus fiber).

— Get at least 7 hours of sleep.  (Turn off the screens 8 hours before your alarm is set to go off, and get into bed).

— Meditate 10 minutes every day.  (Headspace is a great way to start learning).

— Get your 10,000 steps.  (There are plenty of wearable fitness devices that can help you track).

That’s it.  6 things.  Here’s the Stephen Hawking scientific explanation:  It works if you do it.  It does not work if you do not do it.

 

 

Fudge Cakes

This is the second year in a row that we decided to drive to California to visit Anne’s family and our friends.  We enjoyed the adventure last year, so we became determined to make it a permanent tradition.  Next year we will fly.

I am mostly responsible for the reason we have thus far opted to drive.  #1 — It is generally more cost-effective.  #2 — Our five-year-old Parker is on the autism spectrum (high functioning, but unpredictable), and our two-year-old Max has developed a sense of obstinacy that rivals a mule moonlighting as a nightclub doorman.

I am anxious about flying now.  I don’t really know why.  It isn’t a fear of the flying itself.  It’s a kind of people-claustrophobia that has settled in at this stage of life.  I can’t do crowds anymore.  Crowds + uncomfortable seats + disease-tube with wings + out of control children = me looking for the emergency exit at 30,000 feet.

I am the pessimist of the family.  I like to think of myself as the “realist,” but after 10 years with my perpetually optimistic wife, I have come to the conclusion that all pessimists make that same assertion to justify their pessimism.  Even after a decade of sobriety, I possess a natural pre-disposition toward disaster.  This movie is just going to end badly.  I know it is, so you shut up.  I’m not afraid that the plane will crash, and I expect that my children will behave like any small children on a 3 hour flight — stretches of quiet sprinkled with piercing bursts of insufferable chaos.  What I am most afraid of… is me.

In a general sense, I think I project a fairly patient and calm demeanor.  It isn’t likely that anyone would describe me as volatile or aggressive.  I tend to de-escalate conflict if I am able.  However, I have come to recognize a pattern in terms of how I respond to stress:  If I can influence the outcome of a stressful situation, I’ll take a measured approach toward a solution.  If I cannot influence the outcome, then a tiny little creature opens its eyes somewhere down deep.  And it starts to feed.  And it grows.  A dense heat begins to build into a molten core.  Lava slowly begins to seep out.  Pressure builds.  Combine all of this with the natural protective instincts of any parent with small children, particularly if one of those children is navigating life in an unusual way, and all it will take is one asshole on his 3rd Jack Daniels to open his mouth about my kids just before I find myself zip-tied by an air marshal.

If you don’t know what it’s like to be an alcoholic (sober or not), then this scenario probably seems a bit dramatic and irrational.  If you do, then you will instinctively know that this is EXACTLY WHAT WILL HAPPEN, STOP TELLING ME IT WON’T, WHY DON’T YOU LEARN TO LIVE IN THE REAL WORLD!!!  (Did I just say that out loud to myself in the olives/pickles/salad dressing aisle?  Quick, just turn it into a mumbled song that you were humming…*nodding, smiling* “How do you do ma’am?”…*walking away, whistling*).

The first leg of the 3 day drive to California was more or less uneventful.  There isn’t much to see along the I-20 and I-10 through West Texas, though I have become fascinated by the near ghost-towns encountered along the freeway in the middle of vast expanses of nothingness.  The town of Toyah is perfect example.  It genuinely resembles a constructed film set for a post-apocalyptic movie.  Enough infrastructure (or skeletal remains thereof) exists to have supported around 1,000 people at one time perhaps, but I was convinced that no one could possibly live there anymore.  Shockingly, the population is around 90.  I cannot fathom what people do in Toyah.  Most of the buildings are abandoned and crumbling.  A handful of El Caminos dot the landscape, but they don’t appear to have been driven for some time.  It’s as if the people living there either cannot leave, or don’t realize that anything else exists.  I so badly wanted to drive through the town for a closer look, but something about it felt ominous.  I don’t take unnecessary risks with my children in the car.

By the end of Day 1, the boys were done.  The trip was about 90 minutes too long, and they weren’t having it anymore.  Anne and I remarked that long drives in the car with small children is a lot like our past lives as restaurant waiters.  For the record, this is PRECISELY what waiting tables is like:

Parker — “Mommy I want water.”

Anne — “Okay, just a second.”

Parker — “Daddy I want water.”

Me — “Your Mommy is getting it for you.”

(Anne hands Parker water)

Parker — “But I want milk.”

Anne — “We don’t have milk.”

Parker — “I want milk!”

Max — “I want milk too!”

Anne — “We don’t have milk.”

(Max cries)

Parker, to Max — “Are you sad?”

Max — “No!” (still crying)

Parker — “Yes you are.”

Max — “NO!!!” (crying harder)

Parker — “Mommy I want milk…”

We stayed at the Casino Del Sol in Tucson along the way.  The room prices were as cheap as a La Quinta, and the valet service was free.  The building is massive and truly beautiful.  The casino floor ceiling is painted like a bright Arizona sky, and the restaurants and shops are adorned with faux roofs.  I did a double-take when I first looked up, before remembering that it was 9pm.  Maybe that’s the effect they’re going for.  “I’ve been gambling for 18 hours straight, but it’s still morning.  Plenty of time before dinner!”

For all of its beauty, the casino is filled with a subtle darkness.  I guess all casinos are.  I am a stanch supporter of personal freedom and accountability.  If people want to gamble, drink, and smoke all day, so be it.  I was never a gambler, though I certainly did plenty of drinking and smoking.  The problems that arose because of it were my own to solve.  But I can’t help thinking that Native Americans would have been much better off if we had never shown up here.  Arguments for manifest destiny aside, Native Americans gave us Thanksgiving and survival skills.  We gave them hedonism and diabetes.

As people often told me in early sobriety, “Everyone has a different rock bottom.”  For me, it was just being tired of doing the same thing over and over again with the same bad result.  For some, it is death.  I saw a lot of people just this side of the latter in that casino.  One guy sipped a Coors Light at 6am while breathing from an oxygen tank in a smoke-filled, but otherwise vacant slot machine room.

On our last leg before San Diego, we decided to make a stop in Gila Bend, AZ to find some lunch and a park to hopefully wear the kids out.  An unfortunate theme has emerged among the sparsely populated towns that dot the freeways of the American southwest:  Meth.  Typically one doesn’t associate small towns with high crime, but meth has altered the Norman Rockwell portraits of quaint main streets.  We found a little playground in the middle of a clearly impoverished and substance abuse-impacted neighborhood.  It was the middle of the day and I didn’t get the sense that gangs ran the neighborhood in the way that they do in larger urban areas.  But hollow-eyed people who biked and drove by us gazed suspiciously.  As I surreptitiously combed the sand under the slides for syringes, Anne asked me to keep an eye out for syringes.  Clearly I wasn’t just being paranoid.  The kids didn’t know the difference as I scanned the horizon for possible trouble.  Thankfully no one bothered us while Parker and Max ran in circles on the basketball court.  Once we got back on the road, they were asleep within minutes.

Upon arrival in San Diego, we were pretty spent.  It was nice to see some familiar faces.  Anne’s brother Mike, his wife Courtenay, and their son Clark hosted us for 3 days, which was about how long it took us to recuperate from the drive, just before Anne and I contracted either the flu, or the most virulent cold in history.  She spent Christmas eve, and I spent Christmas day, shivering with fever.  The great thing about southern California is that you can visit the beach during Christmas.  Unfortunately we weren’t in the best shape to enjoy it.

Over the holidays I found out that Anne’s stepmother’s grandson had attended the Las Vegas concert during the shooting spree.  His girlfriend has some affiliation with the concert organizers so they went on a whim.  It is my understanding that she wanted to get closer to the stage, but he wanted to hang back a bit.  She insisted, and they made their way forward.  Seconds later, the first shots landed directly where they had been standing.  Their forward momentum led them under the stage, where they were able to slide out and hide under a bus.  It is truly breathtaking how a completely arbitrary decision saved their lives in a matter of moments.  I badly wanted to ask him about it at the holiday gathering, but it didn’t seem appropriate.  I’m sure that he probably already revisits it every day.

After spending a nearly bed-ridden couple of days at Anne’s mother’s house in Orange County, we made our way up the coast to Los Angeles.  Anne lived in LA from the mid-1990s until 2015, when I dragged her and the kids back to Texas.  I had lived in LA since 2002.  It’s the longest I’ve lived anywhere, and we had both established some solid, lifelong friendships in that city.  In a county that is home to a population of 10 million, along with some of the worst traffic in the country, 3 days isn’t much time to see all of the people we would have liked.  We wished we could have spent much more time with the people we were actually able to see.  On any given day, it can take 1.5 hours to drive 10 miles if one doesn’t plan well.  People in Texas often ask me if I miss the beach.  I never actually had time to go when I lived 7 miles from it.  

There are some stark differences between Los Angeles and McKinney, Texas.  A lot of the things I love about McKinney, I loathe about Los Angeles.  For instance:

The graffiti in our neighborhood park in McKinney is a palm-sized Sharpie scribble under a slide that reads, “FUDGE CAKES.”  In LA it’s “MS-13.”

911 response time in McKinney is minutes.  You often get placed on hold when you call 911 in LA.

$250,000 will buy you a comfortable starter home in McKinney.  In LA, $250,000 will buy you a 900 sq. ft. box overlooking the main intersection of the 1992 riots.

Despite those glaring contrasts that helped influence our decision to relocate once Anne became pregnant with our second child Max, there is something about that city that holds onto you.  Maybe it has something to do with the shared struggle.  I don’t know anyone who lives in LA who isn’t at times overcome by a kind of anxious depression.  The city is generally dysfunctional in very serious ways.  There are too many people using too little infrastructure.  There is no way to reverse engineer the problem and start in the middle somewhere.  You just learn to live with it.  But there is a palpable energy.  An aliveness.  It’s the kind of thing that you also observe in a place like New York, and probably London (never been).

I love McKinney for a vast number of reasons:  We’re close to family; our neighbors are terrific; it’s clean; it’s safe; it’s affordable; the schools are great; it only takes me 15 minutes to drive anywhere; etc.  But my brain has had a tougher time acclimating than I would have thought.  I have a pet theory that each of us possesses a unique and idiosyncratic value in relation to time.  This corresponds to a hypothetical sort of treadmill that people occupy as they move through their day to day lives.  In those tiny towns that barely exist long the I-10 in southern Arizona, the treadmill isn’t even plugged in.  In New York, the treadmill incline is at max and the speed is at sprint.

When I first moved to Los Angeles in 2002, it was completely overwhelming.  I was no stranger to large cities, but this was an entirely foreign experience.  The best analogy I can think of is akin to the reanimation of a 12th century European peasant who is sent for a ride-along in a fighter jet.  The art of turning left at Los Angeles intersections made me nervous from the very beginning.  For a little while, I would only follow directions that allowed right turns that forced me to double-back (wasting vast amounts of time).

After about a year, however, I started to adjust.  I didn’t notice the traffic as much.  Police helicopters functioned like a bedroom noise machine.  Mentally ill drug addicts screaming at the pile in their shopping carts barely registered anymore.  For 12 more years, I got used to the treadmill pace.  My brain is still trying to run at that pace, but the treadmill we’re on here in McKinney only goes up to “saunter.”  We need saunter.  Raising a family of four while Anne is in grad school BEGS for saunter.  However, I think Anne and I have a lot of nervous energy that we can’t quite figure out how to discharge.

On our very first day of driving out to Los Angeles, I recall thinking how quickly the trip had passed the previous year.  Now here we were driving back to Texas after the latest blurred time-warp.  We were ready to head home though.  It’s hard to couch-crash with young children.  On one of the last days of our trip, while staying with our friends Josh and Kirsten, I sipped coffee at the kitchen table as Kirsten made her way into the kitchen before breakfast.  She remarked, “I don’t know how you guys do it.”  3 minutes later, Josh walked into the room and said, “I don’t know how you guys do it.”  Honestly, sometimes I don’t either.  Parenthood has been the best, and hardest thing we’ve ever done.  Half the time Anne and I don’t think we’re doing a very good job.  But I have to remind myself that the most important aspect of parenting is ensuring that our children know they are loved.  After that, everything somehow just works itself out.

On our way out of the city, we thought it wise to make as few stops as possible, but make the stops count.  In other words, stuff the kids with as much food as their capacity permitted and let them run around until they dropped.  We landed in Quartzite on our way back to Tucson.  At first glance, it appeared to be another town that modernity had either passed by, or simply never encountered.  I’m not much of a restaurant reviewer, mostly because I don’t have a very sophisticated palette.  A double quarter pounder with cheese is truly one of my all-time favorite foods.  We decided one can’t go wrong with pizza when you have kids, so we stopped at Silly Al’s.  It was terrific and had that old school pizza vibe from my childhood, which brought back nostalgic memories of the sit-down Pac-man machine and wood/vinyl walls and booths.  The pizza was top-notch, and the bathrooms were spotless.

I have a thing about public restrooms.  It isn’t a phobia per-say.  It’s just that when I typically enter one, particularly while on a road trip, I am always amazed at the depths that human depravity can reach.  I’ve witnessed some real crimes against humanity in those places.  Now, bring a 5 year old into the carnage.  5 year olds touch everything.  And then they touch their own private parts.  And then they touch their mouths.  Taking Parker into a nearly abandoned gas station restroom in the middle of the desert is like playing whack-a-mole with hepatitis.

“DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING.”

“Okay Daddy.” (touching the filthy urinal)

“I JUST SAID DON’T TOUCH ANYTHING!”

“Oh.” (sticks finger in nose)

“PARKER!”

“WHAT?!!”

“Let me help you with your pants.”

“Okay.” (touches urinal, then my hand)

“Don’t pull your pants all the way down.”

“Okay.” (pulls pants all the way down, where they steep in drifter urine).

When a restaurant, gas station, or truck stop takes the time to care about the condition of their restrooms, it really means a lot.  It’s as if they are doing me a personal favor.  Depending on where we are, I often insist that Anne take Parker into the women’s restroom.  I don’t think she understands what happens on the other side.  The horror.  The savagery.

After the pizza lunch at Silly Al’s, we headed to the only playground in town.  The landscape is much like Gila Bend.  Rows of dilapidated trailers and broken down cars.  But Quartzite had really invested in a quality playground with slides that kept the kids busy for almost an hour.  Just as we were getting ready to leave, I experienced something that still makes my heart heavy.  I think Parker has gotten over it, but it bothers me.  He walked over to a row of monkey bars and said, “Daddy help me.”  I had a handful of trash in my hand and headed over to the trash can to throw it away.  “Okay, give me just a second.”  “DADDY HELP ME!”  Parker can often be a little impatient.  When he knows what he wants, he wants it to transpire on his schedule.  “I’ll be right there Parker.”  “DADDY!!!”  Before I had the chance to turn around, I heard him screaming and ran over to see him flat on his back on the ground under the middle of the monkey bars.  It was a pretty far drop and I’m surprised it didn’t knock the wind out of him.

I felt terrible.  He isn’t the kind of kid to make intrepid decisions, and I couldn’t have imagined he would tire of waiting for me and make his way out alone.  I helped him up, dried his tears, and carried him back to the car.  Anne asked Parker what had happened, and he replied in the most broken child voice, “I called out to Daddy for help, but he never came.”  That absolutely crushed me.  I felt like I had broken his trust.  It’s been harder for me to deal with that than it has been for him.

After spending the night in Tucson again, we started the second leg of the trip home.  It was the shortest leg, so we hoped to make just one stop if possible.  Deming, NM marked the exact mid-point between Los Angeles and McKinney, so it seemed like a good milestone.  I read that Deming had at one time anticipated matching Chicago in size and economic activity, due to its proximity to a major rail line.  Unfortunately it just didn’t pan out that way.  Many of the storefronts are long-empty, and most of the people milling about appeared to be stopping off for a break from their own road trips.  We had hoped to eat at a place called Elisa’s House of Pies.  Any place with a name that bold is worth visiting.  The Google walking directions stopped us 6 feet in front of a screaming meth addict perched in front of an abandoned building.  She didn’t seem to notice us, and the kids didn’t seem bothered by her at all.  Though it could be argued that children ages 5 and under quite often exhibit public behavior that resembles an adult meth addict.  To Parker and Max, the woman probably just appeared to be another kid from class.

I was beginning to feel like Clark Griswold — trying to get the family all excited about upcoming locations, only to be exceedingly disappointed upon arrival.  We strolled along the mostly empty streets of Deming before settling on an Italian place called Marie’s.  The lighting was dim.  There was no background music.  The floors were hardwood, which made it sound like we were dining in an empty warehouse.  There were only a couple other people in the place, so we didn’t expect much.  But we were all hungry.  The food was EXCELLENT and reasonably priced.  The service was great, and the bathroom was clean!  After lunch, while my kids burned off a little energy on the sidewalk out front, I actually beckoned other lost and hungry travelers inside.

We located another little playground on our way out of town and stopped again to exorcise the demons that drive toddlers to invariably lose their minds without warning.  There was a homeless guy occupying one of the benches.  He seemed harmless and didn’t bother us.  But we noticed a guy on his lunch break in an old Ford, alone.  He parked in a tiny lot that faces the playground to eat a cheeseburger.  Who knows?  Maybe no one ever occupies that playground and he just eats there because it is ostensibly the only green space in town.  It seemed borderline molester-y though.  He left just as we put the kids back in the car.

We knew that we were going to hit some rough weather as we passed El Paso on our way back into D/FW.  I mostly grew up in Texas, so I am comfortable driving in heavy rain and a little ice.  Anne usually drives to avoid motion sickness, but we agreed that I should take over for the final stretch.  Ten years ago I drove from Buffalo to Pittsburgh in a blizzard.  The last 150 miles of this California to Texas trip were significantly worse.  Just east of Abilene, black ice covered every lane of the freeway.  Speed was reduced to about 25 mph.  Every 5 to 10 miles, a semi truck was either overturned, or had slid across the median into oncoming traffic.  Frankly, it looked a bit like “The Walking Dead.”  There were often 70 or so cars at a standstill, with a scattering of abandoned cars and trucks out in the frozen grass.  We decided it would be prudent to stay the night in one more hotel.  Unfortunately, everyone else had the same idea, so there were no vacancies anywhere.

My Grandmother lives in southwest Fort Worth, and she invited us to stay overnight.  But we had another 75 miles to go.  That was going to take 3 hours, and it would be dark soon.  The lady from Google maps (Siri? Alexa? Googennifer?) advised us to save 45 minutes by taking an alternate route.  It was well off the freeway into unfamiliar and sparsely populated areas of central Texas.  Fundamentally, the risk of driving on freeway ice in the dark seemed a little greater than the risk of driving on icy backroads in daylight.  In hindsight I’m not sure if I would have made the same decision.

On the plus side, the miniscule towns north of the I-20 were beautiful in their icy suspended animation.  Everything glowed with a rich blue-white.  It was like viewing the negatives of a wintry landscape photo.  On the minus side — we were the only ones who took Googennifer’s recommendation.  The roads were empty, which meant the ice was much thicker than it had been out on the freeway.  There wasn’t much phone reception and there were 8 mile stretches of nothing but frozen road and dead trees.  We were sliding more than I let on, and I was a lot more nervous than I admitted.  It turned out that what I had thought was the responsible decision, was in fact the opposite.  But I have to hand it to the Toyota Prius.  That thing can really handle icy conditions.  I don’t know if it’s the front wheel drive, or the frumpy, emasculating body design.  Whatever the case, it delivered.  By the time we rejoined the rest of the herd on the I-20, it was officially dark.  We drove past one more bad accident, and suddenly the ice cleared as quickly as it had appeared.  I let my Grandmother know that we would be continuing home.  She was a little sad to hear that on New Year’s eve, but I think she understood that we were exhausted, cold, and really wanted to be in our own beds.

After a decent night’s sleep in a familiar environment, New Year’s day felt like more of a fresh start than it ever really has.  At least for me.  In general, New Year’s day just feels like any other day.  But after that trip, it was a capstone of sorts.  The temp outside was 18 degrees so we decided to make it a lazy day.  At around 10:30am we realized that our heater was no longer working.  So we spent our second night back in a hotel room — one mile from our house.

If You Could Only Practice One Martial Art

As I’ve begun to spend more time with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, I am realizing that my opportunities to practice are limited.  I have two small children, a full-time job, and I need extra time to recover from workouts now that I am in my 40s.  For most of my early life I had the tendency to think in all-or-nothing terms.  For example, if I couldn’t become a black belt in every martial art, then I wouldn’t make time to study any of them.  This is a completely self-sabotaging attitude, and it is one that has taken time (and doses of reality) to adjust.

This whole entry is one of those “If I only had time to practice one martial art, what would it be?” thought experiments.  Bret Contreras has a terrific article along these lines regarding strength training.  https://bretcontreras.com/if-you-could-only-do-one-lift/.  My conclusions with the martial arts are certainly up for debate.  I’m not a professional, or even amateur fighter.  However, martial arts have been a significant part of most of my life, and I have trained and sparred with professional fighters over the years.  I won’t be inside the UFC cage anytime soon, but everyone has their own path.

This isn’t necessarily written for those with UFC aspirations.  It is written for those with time and budget limitations who would like a good command of some practical, effective aspects of martial arts training.  So, here is my ranking of martial arts combinations in the style of Bret Contreras.  Feel free to tear this whole thing down with your own opinions.  After all, it is purely my own hypothetical experiment.  Ultimately, it is the martial artist, rather than the martial art, that wins a fight.

If you could only do one and you start young…

Wrestling:  This is the art that can branch off into anything else rather easily.  The transition from Wrestling to BJJ is much easier than the transition from Taekwondo to BJJ.  I added the qualifier “and you start young” because it is challenging to find a gym focused exclusively on Wrestling that caters to adults.  Most kids start and compete in school settings.  There is something other-worldly about wrestlers who start as children that is hard to articulate — this immense speed and power that you just can’t develop if you start in your 30s.  You can learn to wrestle at any age of course, but a lifelong wrestler is just going to put you wherever he or she likes in most cases.  They will take a boxer with no grappling experience to the ground with ease.

While there aren’t any submissions in the type of wrestling that kids learn as a sport, the concept of “ground and pound” has been used by a number of decorated mixed martial artists at the highest levels.  The transition into a mixed martial arts journey has, in my opinion, a shorter learning curve when you start here.  *Note…I am not a wrestler, and this is why I am convinced it should be #1 if you are young and looking to start a martial arts path.  I’m also not a powerlifter, but I am rather strong at 195 lbs and I have over a decade of experience with Muay Thai, along with a couple of years of BJJ.  Lifelong wrestlers 40 lbs lighter can throw me around like a ragdoll.  I honestly don’t understand how it happens.  The physics don’t seem to make sense.  But they do it every time.

If you could only do one and you start after age 21…

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu:  Most street situations eventually end up on the ground.  It is entirely possible for a much smaller person to completely incapacitate a larger person with this highly technical martial art.  It is particularly good for women in self-defense situations.  In fact, I recommend that if women could only pick one form of EXERCISE, this should be it.  The two limitations here are 1 — If someone is punching you in the face, and you are unable to take them to the ground, you will have a problem.  Luckily, most BJJ gyms are incorporating some kind of takedown practice now.  2 — You ideally don’t want to stay on the ground for too long in a self-defense situation, because bad guys can multiply on you.  But in most circumstances, dedicated BJJ training will give you a significant advantage over any (unarmed) attacker with no martial arts training, regardless of size and strength.

If you could only do 2:

Muay Thai and Judo:  The first question you might ask is, why not Muay Thai and BJJ, or Boxing and Wrestling?  Those are a terrific combinations, and the former is actually the combination that I spend most of my time training.  We also get some practice with Wrestling and Judo along the way.  However, when I factor in my general time constraints, if I could go to one gym that focused exclusively on Muay Thai and Judo, that would honestly be my dream team.  The rationale is that both of these martial arts combined create the most well-rounded approach if a person doesn’t have the time or opportunity to effectively train what I would consider to be the “Big 5” when it comes to MMA style training:  Boxing, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Muay Thai, and Wrestling.

A Muay Thai Fighter is not likely to outpunch a boxer.  But Muay Thai offers tactics from the clinch that deliver significant damage to an opponent, along with incorporating takedowns and trips to send the opponent to the ground, while keeping the Muay Thai fighter on their feet.  A Judo practitioner will likely have a tough time on the ground with a BJJ practitioner at the same level of experience.  However, like Wrestling, Judo’s takedown and throw defense makes it possible to keep a fight standing up should the Judo practitioner want to avoid ending up on the ground.  Unlike Wrestling, Judo incorporates submission moves from the top position that can quickly be executed following a brutal slam to the ground in a self defense situation.  With a foundation in Muay Thai and Judo, the addition of any of the other “Big 5” arts will not be terribly foreign.  Muay Thai fighters already know how to punch, and Judo practitioners already know how to grapple.

If you could only do 3:

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu…PLUS…Boxing OR Muay Thai…PLUS…Judo OR Wrestling.  There is really nothing that replaces Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when it comes to ground fighting.  There are other grappling arts that incorporate many similar movements (Sambo, Shootfighting, Catch Wrestling), but when was the last time you drove by a Sambo gym?  While it is true that seasoned wrestlers have dominated BJJ champions in mixed martial arts fights at high levels, the important thing to note here is that the wrestlers are using BJJ in conjunction with, rather than instead of, their wrestling background.  A strict wrestler with no knowledge of BJJ defense will eventually run into trouble if the fight ends up on the ground.  Let’s look at some other scenarios:

If a Muay Thai fighter is getting blasted by a boxer’s left hooks over and over, the Muay Thai Fighter can use Judo or Wrestling to take the boxer to the ground, and then use BJJ to finish the fight.

If a boxer is totally comfortable with BJJ, but is fighting on barroom floor covered with broken glass, then the boxer would rather use Wrestling or Judo skill to keep the fight standing up to avoid injuries unrelated to the fight itself.

There is no question that any legitimate martial arts training can give you a fighting chance in a self-defense scenario.  UFC fighters have incorporated Taekwondo, Karate, and even Aikido into their skill-set.  In my experience, however, I have found that with the “Big 5” you either know it, or you don’t.  You can’t fake wrestling.  While there are plenty of YouTube videos showing Taekwondo practitioners beat up big bullies, many of the more “traditional” martial arts schools often focus too much on the tradition part, and not enough on the fighting part.  As a yellow belt in Taekwondo at age 16 I was out-sparring a few of the senior belts at the TKD school in the local Kroger shopping center.  That never happens in BJJ.  Without any martial arts experience, it is often hard to know whether the martial arts school you are attending is any good at all.  One thing is certain, however…if you walk into a Boxing gym, Muay Thai gym, BJJ gym, Wrestling gym, or Judo dojo, you will see people fighting.  Not pretending to fight…fighting.

But just for the sake of argument, let’s say you wanted to develop a mixed martial arts approach using only traditional Japanese martial arts.  If you spend enough time with Karate, Judo, Aikido, and Japanese Jiu Jitsu, there’s no reason you can’t win an MMA fight or protect yourself on the street.

You may decide, for whatever reason, to focus only on martial arts featured in the Olympics:  Boxing, Taekwondo, Judo, and Wrestling.  Again, you really can’t go wrong with this combination either.

To sum up…Royce Gracie took the world by storm with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu when he decimated the practitioners of virtually every other martial art back in the early 90s.  Then wrestlers and kickboxers starting learning BJJ and used it to beat other veteran martial artists.  Then boxers learned enough wrestling to keep themselves out of the vice-grip of a BJJ black belt.  Then Royce Gracie was beaten by a wrestler with BJJ skill.  Same goes for the Judo practitioners in Japan who learned to strike and go on to have stellar MMA careers.  “The Big 5” are no joke, and either of the striking arts combined with any of the three grappling arts becomes a dangerous combination.

What do you think of these rankings, and how would you rank them if you could only choose 1, 2, or 3 martial arts to practice at any given time?