Month: January 2019


Splat

A few weeks ago I wrote about how, years after getting sober, I finally started trying to get fit. That newsletter prompted a big pile of emails, including several from readers who shared my desire not to die of heart disease but not (they said) my enthusiasm for the gym.

Anyone who knew me in my drinking days is already laughing.

This past Monday, Sarah and I shuffled down a narrow hallway, behind a dozen other shoeless souls, to have ourselves weighed and measured. We have signed up for a “Transformation Challenge” an eight week long ordeal, organized by our local “Orange Theory Fitness” gym, during which we are expected to participate in a minimum of 24 hour-long classes (three per week) involving weights, rowing machines, treadmills and the like.

At the end of the challenge we’ll be re-weighed and re-measured to reveal how much weight we’ve lost and how much muscle we’ve gained. Apparently the most impressive loser/gainer gets a cash prize.

Of course, I’m not doing it for the money, and not only because I have less than zero chance of winning (last year’s national winner dropped 28 pounds). Rather I’m doing it because… well, because I can’t help myself.

And yet.

Until maybe three years ago, I had never set foot in a gym or on any kind of playing field. At school, I found any excuse to avoid PE. As an adult, even running for a bus was a push too far for my booze-sodden cardiovascular system. At the height of my drinking I topped the scales at something like 200lbs, none of which was muscle.  Climbing a flight of stairs without dying was a meaningful achievement, worthy of a drink.

After quitting drinking, I started walking to work, and cut down on pizza, and I lost a lot of weight. I looked skinny and healthy. In reality, I still barely had any muscle, nor stamina.

It wasn’t until 2016, when Sarah gently goaded me into attending a SoulCycle class, that I got my first taste of an actual workout. And my first understanding of how out of shape I still was.

By God that first class nearly killed me. I literally couldn’t walk for four days afterwards.

But still I went back for a second class, and a third.

Three years have passed since that first SoulCycle ordeal and I still frequently take three or more classes a week. When I travel, I seek out nearby studios or alternatives like CycleBar. If you were to have walked into the Las Vegas SoulCycle studio last weekend and seen me keeping perfect time with the other riders, with my resistance wheel cranked all the way to the right, you might very well have mistaken me for a naturally healthy person (and maybe even an American.)

The speed with which I got hooked on SoulCycle helped me understand something else: That perhaps my so-called ‘addictive personality’ – a polite way of saying my (genetic?) propensity for addiction – might be channeled to better use. That the same impulse which once made it impossible for me to refuse a second drink, or a third, could be the key to getting myself hooked on better habits.

When Sarah discovered Orange Theory, and uttered the fateful words ‘I think you’d like it’, I knew I was in trouble.

Orange Theory, she explained, was an hour long work-out, involving some combination of circuit training and high intensity interval training (is there a difference? I truly have no idea.) Better still, participants wear a heart rate monitor during the class, to track how often they spend in the so-called “orange zone” – the optimum heart rate for fat burning/muscle building. For every minute or so spent in this special zone, they award you a “splat point,” the aim being to get 12 or more. Then they send you a fun email afterwards…

(That was from Monday.)

Barely two months after my first class, I have my special Orange Theory wristband (which measures your calorie burn and maximum heart rate and projects them on a screen for all to see) packed along with my special gym shoes and special gym shorts, in my special gym bag, ready to be grabbed at a moment’s notice if I find myself with an hour to kill. Eight weeks ago, I’d never set foot on a treadmill or a sat on a rowing machine. Literally had no idea how either worked. Now I have personal bests: times, outputs, elevations, speeds. This after a lifetime (starting at elementary school) avoiding physical exercise. This from a standing start ten years ago, aged 29.

I’m hooked on Orange Theory, just as I’m still hooked on SoulCycle*. Or, you might say, addicted. Except, unlike drinking, this addiction is unlikely to kill me, and might even extend my life by a few years.

If this post has any “inspiring” message, it’s this: If I can do it – whether ‘it’ be getting in the best shape of my life, starting a successful company, getting my Green Card, finding a wonderful partner and helping to raise two incredible children… – then I absolutely promise that you can too. And – remarkably – being an addict, or at least an obsessive, might even help you.

I’d hate for any of this, written ten years in to a very long journey, to make it sound easy. If I could travel back in time ten years and tell my flabby, broke, drunk, single 29 year old self that one day he’d be positively excited about the prospect of 24 hours of high intensity gym time in addition to my three weekly spin classes… well, he’d likely fall off his chair laughing. And then be unable to get up. 

I’d also hate to suggest that the only way to get fit is to spend a small fortune on trendy spin classes. SoulCycle and Orange Theory work for me, but quite honestly I’d likely get the exact same benefits from simply riding a bike or going for a run. I know plenty of former/recovering alcoholics who have got addicted to running, or rock climbing, or tap dancing. The key is to find something you enjoy – something healthy that gives you a rush of endorphins – and then keep doing it until you’re hooked.  

* No, neither OTF or SoulCycle are paying me. But they bloody should.


Viva

In 2011, barely two years after I quit drinking, I abruptly quit my job at TechCrunch and moved to Vegas to start NSFWCORP.

Vegas. A town that floats on a sea of vodka-Redbull; where daytime drunkenness is almost mandatory, and cocktails are served in six foot long plastic penises. Can you imagine a worse place for a former alcoholic to live?

In fact, moving to Vegas was (I suspect) a large part of what helped keep me sober in those first couple of years.

Getting wasted in Vegas is a singularly unpleasant experience. The drinks are comically expensive, but also weak enough to facilitate all day consumption while still remaining vertical – after all, comatose people can’t spend money.  I lived downtown, in the Ogden building, and there was literally nothing about seeing a gang of bros waddling down Fremont St, dressed ‘ironically’ and identically as Zach Galifianakis in the Hangover and clutching plastic WHAT HAPPENS IN VEGAS alcophalluses, that made me think ‘Man, I wish I could still do that.’

 In San Francisco, New York or – god help me – London, drinking is cool. Wine tasting in Napa, sipping a full-bodied red over dinner in Manhattan, downing a pint or six after work outside a West End pub in summertime. These are the things I missed from my drinking days. Chucking a snot-colored shot from a tiny Eiffel Tower, not so much. 

Despite the ugly parts, and occasionally because of them, I soon fell love with the city. I’m not sure if it’s because Vegas is such a transient place, or because it gets so much bad press, but never in my life have I felt so quickly embraced as a resident. The people; the weather; the almost British levels of self-deprecation shown by locals about their town, all made me feel instantly at home. Unlike most locals, I even fell in love with the Strip – as only a former magician who literally wrote the book on living in hotels can. 

It was also the perfect place to build NSFWCORP. In Vegas, I quickly discovered, no idea is too ridiculous, no dream too big (see most recently: The success of the Vegas Knights), no office space too unaffordable. All this with no state income tax, for people or corporations.  

I moved back to San Francisco in 2014, when Pando bought NSFWCORP – but I try to get back to the city whenever I can.

This past weekend the stars aligned when the kids went to stay with their dad and Sarah went on a gal’s trip to Tahoe, leaving me and my new car with no reason not to go on a nine hour road trip into the desert.

Even better, it turns out the Cosmopolitan now accepts Starwood/Marriott points so I was able to trade roughly a year’s worth of loyalty for a ludicrous suite replete with wraparound view of the Strip. Last time I stayed in a room that size at the Cosmo was for NSFWCORP’s 24 hour election coverage broadcast. On that occasion we crammed maybe 50 people into the room. This weekend it was just me.

Not that I spent much time in my enormous room. The moment I arrived, Tony Hsieh summoned me to his hipster trailer park off Fremont Street to hear about his latest wheeze: A 26 day diet in which each day he only eats food beginning with the same letter of the alphabet (Jan 1st: Apples, apricots, albatross… Jan 2nd: Bacon, beef, Benadryl… and so on). Tony has, apparently, lost six pounds already, although he admits that might be water weight. He has also bought himself a pet sloth.

Plus il change, plus il fait la même chose.

I was looking forward to spending a few hours browsing The Writers’ Block, the best Vegas book shop (/world’s tallest midget) owned by my friends Drew and Scott. Normally I only have carry-on bags when I visit Vegas, this time I had a whole car trunk to fill with books! Imagine my gnashing of teeth, then, when Dayvid Figler told me the store is closed for relocation to a larger space. Great timing, Drew and Scott!

Instead, I went to Soul Cycle’s Vegas studio at the Wynn. Impressively, they’ve found a way to make the experience even more nightclubby than normal Soul studios – think strobe lights and urgent entreaties to “make some noise” at 9am. Would it have killed them to pump a little dry ice into the room? (Would it have killed me had they done so?)

To recover from the pedaling I got a Swedish massage at the Cosmo’s “Sahra Spa & Hammam” which was so relaxing that it took me two hours to realize that Sahra is an anagram of Sarah.

Then I went to see Penn and Teller’s revamped show. They’ve been at the Rio for 21 years now but, unlike poor old David Copperfield at the MGM, the 70! year old magicians show absolutely no signs of fatigue – or of going through the motions for $$$. The show is so good I’m willing to overlook their insufferable politics and affiliation with the fucking Cato institute.

I arrived home on Sunday evening, an hour after Sarah got in from Tahoe. It’s a tired old cliché that couples should maintain their own interests and hobbies and that occasional time apart is important and healthy. I’m sure that’s true but, even after four years of dating, I still love every minute we spend together. Travelling with her is always more fun than the alternative.

But the point of my solo trip to Vegas wasn’t really about having my own space, nor was it entirely about seeing friends or revisiting a city I love. It was also about doing something fun, impractical, and entirely selfish, just because I could.

I urge all recovering addicts to do the same.  To occasionally allow yourself a spontaneous trip, or treat: Something ridiculous and decadent that feels almost sinful in its self-indulgence. For me, one of the great appeals of unmoderated drinking was the ridiculous adventures that often along with it. The escape from normalcy; the lack of accountability. If there’s something I miss from my drinking days, it’s that freedom.

This past weekend was my periodic reminder that it’s possible to be just as solipsistic, and to have just as much fun as I did a decade ago, but without a bottle in my hand. 


Mexico

“What do you get from a glut of TV
A pain in the neck and an IQ of three
Why don’t you try simply reading a book
Or could you just not bear to look
You’ll get no
       You’ll get no
            You’ll get no
                 You’ll get no…”

– Oompa Loompas


I just landed from a week-long vacation in Mexico and my brain isn’t quite fit for writing (or thinking) in complete sentences. Sorry.

Sarah booked the trip for my birthday – seven whole days in a ridiculous penthouse Airbnb in the hills of Sayulita with absolutely no itinerary. Just a week of wandering and lounging and reading and playing cards and eating and drinking and, yunno, couple stuff. Strictly no work. No emails.

Absent the usual distractions, the vacation gave us both a lot of time to think and to make plans and set resolutions for 2019.

And so it was, about halfway through the trip, I found myself thinking about the news. Specifically the news cycle. The news tornado that’s heading right for us. The news clusterfuck that’s only going to get clusterier and fuckier as we roll into the new year.

We all know what’s coming. There are going to be investigations and committees and shutdowns and subpoenas and Mueller reports and calls for impeachment and outraged headlines and indictments and BREAKING NEWS alerts ever five minutes. And, if you’re anything like me – which is to say, an addict – your brain is going to want to click on every headline and every alert, hundreds or thousands of times a day.

That’s the way I’m wired. I need that next fix of outrage, can’t bear the idea of missing out. Christ, non-addicts can’t ween themselves off the dopamine rush of checking CNN.com or Facebook headlines or Twitter, so what chance do I have?

And yet.

In ten years of sobriety, I’ve gotten pretty good at knowing when my old addictive habits are coming back to bite me, and figuring out ways to protect myself. I know when I’m getting sucked into vortexes of harmful behavior and need to pull myself out before it’s too late. I’ve also learned that, for me at least, moderation rarely works: Just like it never worked when I told myself (dozens, maybe hundreds, of times) that I’d cut down on drinking, or only drink at parties, or only drink beer and wine – never spirits.

Sitting on our patio in Mexico, listening to the feral dogs arguing with a mariachi band, I realized that the news cycle has become one of those vortexes for me. I’m not on any social media so, on an average day, I start the day on CNN or Washingtonpost.com, telling myself that I’m just going to check the headlines and then start my morning. Twenty minutes later, I’m listening to CNN radio on Sirius on the way to my office, just to make sure I didn’t miss anything. Then I get a news alert from the NYTimes app, and another from the BBC. By midnight, according to the handy usage tracker on my phone,  I’ve spent four or five hours a day either reading or streaming news.  

And what have I gained from all this sound and fury? Nothing I couldn’t have gained from spending five minutes reading a newspaper every morning, or ten minutes listening to NPR news each night. Nothing, that is, except for all that wonderful dopamine.

But not in Mexico.

Before we left home, I’d put my Smartphone in my bedside drawer and transferred my SIM card into an ancient dumbphone for emergency use only. That meant, for those seven days in Mexico, I didn’t read a single news article. I didn’t see a newspaper, at least not one I had the language skills to understand. There was no CNN and no Rachel Maddow. I literally had no idea if the government was still shut down, or if Trump had been impeached, or if the Queen had spontaneously combusted. The only dopamine came from street food and catching up on my reading. (And from Sarah, of course.)

Now. I know the argument. We have a civic responsibility to keep up with world events. I agree. It’s important to know when a meteor is heading right for the earth. Quite bloody right!

But here’s the thing: Last evening, after we landed at SFO, I picked up a copy of the New York Times and, in less than twenty minutes, I was up to date with everything I had missed in the past seven days. Twenty minutes, versus maybe forty hours of empty clicking and spikes and troughs of fury and sadness and excitement and disappointment. (Spoiler: There was no meteor. Trump is still quietly fuming in the White House and Her Majesty remains in rude health.)

Which pretty much settled it. I’m back at my desk in San Francisco, but my smartphone is staying in the drawer. I’ve unsubscribed from all my email news alerts, and cleansed my tablets of all things BREAKING NEWS. CNN and MSNBC are gone from my Sirius car radio.

We already get the Times delivered on Sunday but I’ve just upgraded our print subscription to weekdays and Saturday too. I’ve rescued my old-skool radio from the garage and tuned it to NPR for the evening news.   My plan: To ride out the 2019 newstornadoclusterfuck by only reading the news once in the morning and listening to it once at night.

Now, will any of this actually work? Will I really be able to survive 2019 without the rush of breaking news apps and furious pundits streaming into my ears 24-7? Or will my addictive brain chemistry persuade me that checking just one news site is enough, and that it’s my civic duty to listen to CNN today of all days? We. Shall. See.

Here’s what I know for sure: For me, recovery isn’t just about avoiding the things that do me physical harm, but those that affect my mental health too. Often the two are intertwined, but not always.

I’ll keep you posted on my success or failure as the year progresses, meteors notwithstanding.

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