Food Wars

ImageWhat happens when a “Foodie” gets together with someone who says, early in their courtship, “You don’t call yourself a ‘Foodie,’ do you?”

Tempra’s Food Profile

Age: 40

Ancestry: Russian and Romanian Jews on my mom’s side

Food History: Became a vegetarian for three years after reading Diet for a New America while in college. Fell off the wagon one fateful Thanksgiving (there’s a photo of me fervidly gnawing a turkey drumstick with glazed over eyes). Spice rack always includes cumin, coriander, smoked paprika, and turmeric. Doubles the garlic in any recipe. Chico’s Spice Creek is favorite local restaurant.

Current Favorite Recipes: A short-cut Chicken Marbella (it requires no overnight marinating) and North Indian Chicken with Spinach and Mushrooms (from Sunset magazine).

Not a Fan: Raw oysters; duck; green beans (it’s a long story involving the slimy frozen variety that barely resembled anything edible and torturous hours as a child left sitting at the dinner table while everyone else watched t.v.)

David’ Food Profile

Age: 50

Ancestry: English, Irish and German (in his words: “Euro-mutt”)

Food History: Became adept at hiding food in his napkin, or under the ledge of the dining room table, to be found later by his mom. Alternately wretched and starved while traveling through the Ukraine as a 20-something (no way to hide food in the napkin while staying with his host family—“you’ll have another serving of the fish head…eat, eat!”).

Favorite Foods: Most fruits; mac and cheese; pizza; peanut butter, eggs and homestyle potatoes.

Not a Fan: Where do I start?

When David and I first started dating, I had a deep-seated urge to feed him that I can only explain by way of “apples not falling far from their trees.” When I was a kid in San Diego, we would visit my Jewish Gramma, who lived alone in her tiny one bedroom condo in Leisure World in Long Beach. Though she was long past the age where she cooked much, the first thing she’d do when we walked in the door was go to her fridge and find something for us to eat. It wasn’t like we drove all night and weren’t about to go out to lunch within a half hour of our arrival. But for some reason, my Gramma had it in her head that no one would starve on her watch. She usually had a half a corned beef sandwich from the Jewish deli to share, or some roles, and the ubiquitous dill pickles. If we went out to lunch and there were not dill pickles placed on the table within minutes of our seating, my Gram was grumbling.  But I digress (I miss my Gram).

So I asked David early on if there were any foods that he didn’t eat. “Oh, I eat everything!” was his quick and emphatic response. I’ve often repeated this to him, and it sticks in my mind so strongly because it is so contrary to the truth, which I discovered right away. On our first real date (beyond hitting tennis balls together at the public park, where he’d spotted me…that’s another blog), I wanted to share a light supper before going to an early concert. It was fall, the summer vegetables were waning, and the root veggies were coming on. So I went for homemade carrot soup, crusty bread, and a beet and goat cheese salad.

When I told my mom about this plan over the phone, she audibly gasped. “You are NOT going to feed him beet salad!!!” To her, that sounded like absolute torture. My mom is also a somewhat picky eater with a limited range (think: Midwesterner). To her, beets just taste like dirt. Plus they are messy and stain things. What, really, is the point of their existence? I could also hear my stepdad in the background, “She’s making him dinner on the first date???!!” OK, so maybe it was a little forward. And presumptuous.

He was polite—you’d have to be, first date and all. But he dawdled with the soup a bit too long. Picked at the salad. The bread disappeared quite fast. He did compliment the bread—the one part of the meal I didn’t actually make. I brushed this off. OK, it wasn’t the manliest of meals. I’ll cop to that. I plotted my next opportunity. Chicken enchiladas maybe? Fish tacos?

A few days later, he invited me to stop by his ceramics studio. I offered to bring lunch. I stopped by Upper Crust to pick up some pre-made smoked turkey with garlic aioli on ciabatta, one of my favorites out of their case at that time. What I didn’t know was David’s abhorrence of mayonnaise. These were, admittedly, somewhat slathered in the aioli (primary ingredient: mayo). I think David choked down a few swallows before giving up. I confronted him.

“Oh. You don’t like your sandwich?”

“I’m sorry, I forgot to mention that I don’t like mayonnaise.”

“Darn, I wished I knew that ahead of time. Hmm, what else don’t you like?”


A lot, as it turns out. David’s “no” list includes the following:

  • Mayo, mustard, ketchup, salad dressing, sour cream, guacamole, anything with vinegar in it…basically all condiments except soy sauce and salsa (mild) in small quantities.
  • Spices (particularly those used in Indian and Asian cuisine).
  • What he calls “slimy vegetables,” including winter squash and pumpkin (except in pie), summer squash, mushrooms, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, radishes, turnips, bell peppers, onions (except in very small quantities, minced), avocado, arugula, sweet potatoes/yams. (Excitingly, I’ve gotten him to come around to grated raw beets in salad and juiced beets!)
  • Crab and most other shellfish (shrimp excepted, except that I can no longer feel good about buying shrimp since it’s unsustainable).

To get to the bottom of it all, I created a chart to test David’s food sensitivity. Here’s a sample:


As time went on, though, I discovered plenty of foods that David will eat (the Chicken Marbella being one of them), and he loves my cooking. I know what I can include and what to omit, and I’ll make condiments or sides in one-serving amounts just for me (such as guacamole). Sometimes though I just crave a good Thai or Indian curry. I save up for times he is out of town and then I cook up a weekend’s worth of mushy vegetables like a madwoman.

Ethnic cuisine is dangerous territory for David (weird spices, weird vegetables). Case in point: 10-Day Silent Meditation Retreat at the California Vipassana Center. We decided to embark on this little adventure together and it was a wonderful experience. Men and women are of course separated for the duration of the course, so it wasn’t until afterwards that I got to ask David how he felt about the meals. They were completely vegetarian—mostly vegan—and consisted of only two meals a day—breakfast and lunch. He later described it as “Mushy Vegetables from Around the World.” I found it delicious. And, in fact, I have never felt so healthy. I lost seven pounds and vowed to keep that eating regimen, and the meditation, going. I did neither, and so I gained the weight back and remain unenlightened.

In the end, though, I’ve found the food differences to be no big deal. Yeah, some of my foodie friends have commented that my partner has the palate of a five-year-old. But as David will point out, taste is relative, and it cannot really be judged. You can’t like what you don’t like. You can’t tell me I am a plebeian because I don’t enjoy the feeling of rubbery, slimy raw oysters sliding down my throat. You can’t say one person’s taste for food is right and another’s is wrong.

But, really, not liking guacamole is just wrong.

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A Crappella

ImageIf you derive your sense of self worth only from things you can do well, your life is going to be a series of disappointments.

I have always wanted to sing, but have always lacked the confidence to do it. It all started when I was cut from the sixth grade choir…and hardly anyone was cut. And yet, I love hearing beautiful, soulful music, and I love singing along with it. There is something deeply satisfying in it. Because I felt that, being judged from such a young age, that I was no good, I never pursued singing and therefore got no practice. The world of music is actually a mystery to me. Of course I can’t read music, but I don’t even know the difference between the keys. I could not sing a “d flat” if you asked me to. All I can do is try and imitate what I hear…and apparently I don’t do that so well.

Case in point: I decided to try out a local singing choir that bills itself on being inclusive, a safe place for amateurs, and a place to practice. I self-selected with the altos, and when we started learning the parts, I didn’t realize that I should just listen, or maybe hum along quietly to start. I thought, “hell, I can hear it. I can do it.”

Not exactly.

When the director singled me out and asked me to just listen, I felt the exact same shame I had felt in sixth grade. But worse, when the altos sang their part without me among them, it sounded so…incredibly…beautiful. Beyond words beautiful. Without me.

The sadness of that fact overwhelmed me.

I tried to hold it together, but after about 15 more minutes it became mortifyingly clear that I was completely helpless to stop the hot tears that kept filling the corners of my eyes and spilling down my face. I had to get out of there. As they were still practicing the sections of an incredibly beautiful and moving South African folk song, I got up and croaked to the girl next to me that I was having an allergy attack. She said “ohhh” empathetically. She knew. And as I got up and tried to leave, the director asked if I was going, and I had to answer that I’d try and come back next time, in my shaking voice.

Now everyone knew.

That was when a woman I knew from my work life got up and met me outside, and of course I started to bawl uncontrollably, mumbling, “I’m so sorry…It’s so embarrassing,” in between sobs. She told me how singing is such a trigger for her too, and it hits on very deep emotions. Indeed. Another woman joined us outside and implored me to come back next time. They were so understanding and encouraging. I think I will go back. And of course I have a plan for next time – as in, shut the fuck up and listen.

I don’t know why I should be shocked, to go into an a cappella group with no experience and think I could just sing. Who does that?

So the sad truth is I am going to have to practice this…a lot…by myself and with a trainer, if I hope to get anywhere. And part of me is not sure it’s worth it, but another part of me is sick of just listening to music. I want to participate. But I need someone to tell me when it’s right. It’s like tennis, you need some lessons in order to improve your form. It’s pretty hard to do that all by yourself.

So I embarrassed myself in front of a room full of strangers – a nearly 40-year-old woman – bursting into tears like a child after a man, quite gently really, told her to stop singing and listen. Jesus. Happy Monday.

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My Life With Dog: A Journal

KittyJasper1Chapter One: Onslaught of Slobber

Last night

Jasper smells like a combination of the fish emulsion David uses in his garden and just plain oily dog. He’s sitting next to me on the couch, licking his hindquarters. He just finished licking my upper arm, which out of affection for him I waited three seconds KittyJasper2before wiping off with a used Kleenex. (Since allergy season started, tissues are never far from me, and are more like an extension of my body at this point. But oddly, all the congestion and nose running and sneezing do nothing to damper my keen sense of smell.)

I didn’t give Jasper enough attention so he’s moved over to the chair opposite me, where he lays, looking at me with, it seems, a sort of reproachful forlorn. At least he’s not chewing the chair again. David and I have had Jasper for three months. He’s six months old now and still teething. He’s now licking the arm of the chair and glancing at me. I tell him to stop. “Licking is a gateway drug,” I tell him.

This morning

It’s 7:30 a.m. and the park is full. It’s going to be another hot day. I see my neighbor while walking Jasper. I see everyone while walking Jasper. I am wearing what I slept in and my hair has not been washed or brushed. I have J-dog on a short leash as there are so many distractions. My extremely fit neighbor jogs by in her easy way, with her curly-haired dog trotting along calmly next to her, unleashed. “You need to just let him run around sometimes, Tempra!” she cheerfully yells back as she swooshes by. Hmm. OK, you try that, with no voice control and a dog that jumps on everybody. Somehow I feel like a failing parent.

This afternoon

Jasper keeps sliming me. So this experiment’s initial results are in: Getting a dog has definitely not turned me into a dog person. I’ve always had cats, which can handle long periods of being ignored. (Also, they lick themselves, not you.) When David is gone for the weekend, I feel a lot like I did babysitting as a teenager: counting the minutes and hours to my freedom and finding ways to occupy my charge that didn’t actually involve me.

I’m just not that into puppy games. It’s too hot to play outside right now. He fetches once and then lays down in the shade. That leaves tug-o-war with a slimy toy, or me watching him chew on a toy, or him continuously pushing his slobbery chew toy onto my bare legs. I have always had a distinctly low tolerance for saliva touching my skin. The fact that Jasper’s breath often smells like old fish does nothing to improve the situation.

Poor little guy. It’s not his fault. He’s just a dog. He just IS. I’m a human. I smell. I eat and I expel. There’s no difference. Jasper probably thinks my naked, furless body is creepy. No, actually he loves all of me. That’s one of the great things about dogs. They do not have body issues. They do not judge. They are simple, straightforward, and honest.

Later this afternoon

I feel so guilty. I made the dog stay outside alone again so I could “get work done.” Then I’ve spent the last 30 minutes looking at Facebook and eating chocolate covered edamame from Trader Joe’s (damn those are good). He’s being eerily quiet, which may mean that he’s making more headway on the gravel excavation and weed mat shredding project he started earlier today.

I let him back in the house and he immediately goes to where Calamity, our one-year old kitty,  is sleeping, and jumps on top of her. He can now fit her whole head in his mouth. It’s a little disturbing, as I think back to the squirrel he killed when he was only about four months old. I picture him grabbing onto its head and shaking its fat little gray body until its life spins out of it. But he never chomps down too hard on Calamity. He recognizes her as one of his pack…well, the one on the bottom anyway.

When we first got J, he was still a little tyke, and Calamity could out run him, which she just loved. But now the tables have turned and she needs a head start to get away. Jasper takes advantage of this and tackles, sits on, and mouths her until her whole body is glistening with his slobber. Part of me feels bad, and the other part thinks, “better her than me.” To her credit, she doesn’t seem to have the same saliva aversion. Obviously. It’s her primary washing medium. Still, I think she gets a little tired of having her entire head in Jasper’s mouth. It’s definitely cutting into her afternoon nap time. But hey, we’ve all got to sacrifice here.

Stay tuned for more adventures in Life With Dog.

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PARTICIPANTS WANTED: Support Group for Overactive Smellers

Share your stsmelly-shoesories with others, who, like you, cannot escape the fetid, the feet, the dog breath, your own breath, the maple syrup sweat on a hot, first-tank-top-of-the-season Spring day, your co-worker’s signature cheap perfume and hairspray mixture, the dreaded unidentifiable, “but it’s right here!,” the sour sponge, the garbage disposal, the broccoli bits left in the steamer overnight, the windowless bathroom.  

Share your pain. Share a laugh.  We’ll trade homemade cleaning recipes. We’ll discuss mouth breathing techniques. Call 800-NOSMELL.

No perfumes, please.

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A Spoonful of Laughter Makes the Medicine Go Down: A Review of A.J. Jacobs’ Drop Dead Healthy

Laughing is good for your health, which is why you should read humor writer and self-experimenter A.J. Jacobs’ newest book, Drop Dead Healthy.

I’m a fan of Jacobs. I first discovered him while standing in the humor aisle at Barnes and Noble one Christmas, looking for a book for my step dad. The title, The Know-It-All, jumped out at me. I was already smiling at the title’s appropriateness (which did not go unnoticed by my step dad). In this book, Jacobs relays his many months of reading the Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety in an attempt to “become the smartest person in the world.” My ulterior motive of course was that Dad would give me the book after he was done so I could read it too (trying not to think about the fact that the book will have spent the majority of its life in my folks’ master bathroom).

Then I read Jacobs’ My Year of Living Biblically, another hilarious journey, this time through Jacobs’ obsession with living by as many Biblical rules as possible. He engages in stoning adulterers (in Central Park…with pebbles…amazingly while not getting beat up), sacrificing a chicken, letting his beard grow to socially unacceptable grizzliness, and a host of other bizarre practices. Then there was My Life As An Experiment, in which Jacobs conducts a range of self-experiments, including a period of telling no lies (otherwise known as “radical honesty”), living as a woman (online), and outsourcing key elements of his work and home life to India.

Jacobs’ books may not be for everyone. They are indeed irreverent, and require the reader to have, as you might guess, a sense of humor. A friend of mine recently complained after reading My Year of Living Biblically, “it’s just a shtick to get a book deal,” (well, yes), and “if he really wanted to seriously learn about the Bible there are better ways to do it,” (certainly), and finally “I feel sorry for his wife.” (OK, but you aren’t his wife, so who cares? Besides, I imagine his wife appreciates the income from a national bestselling author, and he makes her laugh…at least sometimes.)

Unlike Jacobs’ other books, I read Drop Dead Healthy on my new iPad, which I discover in the book, may be less healthy than reading the regular printed paper variety, at least as far as night time reading goes (the “blue” light from electronic devises and some readers may make it harder to fall asleep, and lack of good sleep is bad for your health.).

These are the kinds of tidbits Jacobs provides, along with the rationale and scientific support (or lack thereof) for every conceivable lifestyle choice or health impact: acupuncture, raw food diets, moderate versus intensive exercise, laughing therapy, posture, worrying, background noise, sexual health, environmental toxics, aromatherapy, using sunscreen, meditation, accident proofing your home, the importance of chewing…and on it goes. He wrote the book nearly entirely on a treadmill, lost a total of 16 pounds, and cut his body fat percentage in half. Pretty good. It makes me feel instantly guilty for sitting here at my desk, typing away in a boring old sedentary fashion. Great. Now I am getting a double whammy of lack of exercise and worrying about lack of exercise. Pretty bad.

Now this website is about writing, not health, and maybe humor writing isn’t what inspires you. But while this book may not make it into the canon of American literature, the way I see it, funny writing is good, descriptive writing. Some examples:

Jacobs is alarmed to find on the Internet that “just about every quarter-baked idea ever conceived still gets traction.” For example, the 8,000 year-old practice of trepanning, in which a hole is drilled in the skull to cure a variety of mental and physical illnesses, is alive (if not well). Jacobs finds the International Trepanation Advocacy Group. “Its website features images of green-tinted brain scans next to doctors in white lab coats writing complicated math equations on a board. Apparently, this is not your caveman’s trepanation. No, this is totally scientifical drilling of holes in your skull.”

Jacobs reveals, unfortunately, that the current immobile lifestyle many of us lead is horrible for our health, or more illustratively: “Sitting and staring at screens all day is bad for you. Really bad, like smoking-unfiltered-menthals-while-eating-cheese-coated-lard-and-screaming-at-your-spouse bad.” (It increases our risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and some types of cancer.) I am getting depressed again just re-reading this.

But on the up side, there are plenty of quirky anecdotes and historical trivia to lift your spirits. For example, did you know that graham crackers were invented by the “chastity-obsessed nineteenth century health guru” Sylvester Graham? They were “intended to quell the passions in hormonal adolescent boys.” (Graham felt that bland foods would help lower the boys’ sex drive and its inevitable consequence, masturbation, which would lead to, obviously, insanity.)

Or for a more current example, an experiment conducted by the Monell Chemical Senses Center, which studies smell and taste, “showed that men’s body odor has a calming effect on women.” Use that how you will.

In the end though, I am inspired to take better care of myself. And the good news is that it’s not really that hard (still comes down to move more, eat less, and stress less). Think of this book as a health digest. In the appendix are tips for eating, exercise, and stress reduction gleaned from two years of research, consultations with Harvard professors, Johns Hopkins researchers, and other important medical types, and self-experimentation. Use it. Some if it is as simple as getting rid of bad habits (like eating in front of the t.v., which studies show can increase the amount we eat by up to 71%).

I love reading stuff that is at once inspiring, important, and hysterical. I am reminded of Dave Barry’s famous story on getting his first colonoscopy after his brother was diagnosed with colon cancer. It’s a missive that encourages everyone over 50 to get this preventive, life-saving procedure, is of course filled with poop jokes, and still makes me laugh every time I read it. That reminds me, there IS a chapter on proper pooping methods in Drop Dead Healthy, and it involves a training device you can install on your toilet that safely allows you to squat. I’ll leave it there for now.

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I AM CHARLIE KAUFMAN… Except for being a woman who is not a famous or successful screen writer -or- THE LIFE OF THE SELF-EMPLOYED

Sometimes I feel like I AM Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. I sit here needing to write for work—a grant proposal for a client that is hard to please and I don’t quite know how to do it. So I procrastinate. I open the document and look at it. I do a couple of easy edits. Then I get up and think, “I should go for a run.” I am pulling my running clothes out of the drawer and thinking about how cold it is outside. I decide I don’t really feel like running. I really need to focus on work. My consulting checks were shit last month because I couldn’t focus. I need to focus. Taxes are coming around next month. I need money to be able to pay them. As I walk back to my desk I notice crumbs all over the kitchen floor and the dirty breakfast dishes in the sink. “It will clear my mind to just get this taken care of. Then I can write.” After loading the dishwasher and sweeping the floor, I sit back down to my document. I glance down at the tiny time clock at the lower right corner of my screen. It’s almost lunch time. It’s been three hours since breakfast. “That Chinese food last night was pretty good. There’s more in the fridge. Let me just eat a little bit of it. Eating helps me focus.” I make a small plate and put it in the microwave. As I take it out and carry it to my desk, I immediately feel guilty for not only not running but eating when I am not really hungry. Then I feel depressed and ashamed. Instead of turning to my document I look up Charlie Kaufman on IMBd and watch a trailer for Synecdoche, New York. Looks like another smart Kaufman film with awesome writing and acting and a great neurotic character who discovers the meaning of life. I email David to tell him we should see it together. “OK, I have GOT to work now.” I pull up my document and instead of words it just looks like a jumble of black and white letters falling down the page. “It’s too late in the morning to be any good at this.” Also, that laundry’s not going to wash itself. I think I forgot to brush my teeth.

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LETTING GO OF EGO: On Tennis, Writing, and Living Your True Creative Life

“Why am I such an idiot? Because you’re an idiot.”

I said these exact words out loud in the middle of a recent tennis match, after screwing up yet another easy shot. You can guess the outcome of the match. But what’s important here, is that missing an easy shot does not mean I’m an idiot. It simply means that I lost focus in that particular moment. That’s all. This may not sound like news, but it’s taken me a few years to figure it out.

I was thinking about this in the shower. OK, I need to digress for a minute. I love the shower. I do some great thinking in there. I’ve been told it’s something about the water and negative ions…changes the chemicals in the brain. Whatever it is, it’s awesome. I am like Kramer on Seinfeld. If given the choice, I would stay in the shower 24/7, installing a garbage disposal so I could do things like make fresh salads.

So I was thinking, what’s really behind calling myself an idiot on the tennis court, is the fear, germinated in childhood, that I am un-athletic and crappy at sports and always will be. I think I know when this all began. It was about third grade and I had no concept of sports. This was probably because I was a girl and I didn’t seem to show a natural inclination toward sports, and my mom hated sports anyway but loved dancing, so thought I should take dance classes instead. I could go on. So in third grade, it’s suddenly “softball day” during P.E. Well, I had never played softball. I come up to bat, and through some miraculous fluke of nature, I actually hit the ball and make it to first base. Cool. But then, the next batter hits and starts running. I know I’m supposed to run to the next base, but I don’t really understand which direction. So I go straight from first to third. (this, too, was probably the first manifestation of my total lack of a sense of direction, which has never gone away, though now I just laugh about it and carry a GPS everywhere I go). Anyway, of course everyone on the field started screaming at me. It was completely humiliating.

From that moment on, I hated P.E. Well, mostly I just hated the dreaded “team sports” days. Fuck team sports. The agonizing pressure to not fail your teammates was unbearable. And I think we all remember the process of letting the kids choose their own teams. Wow, whose great idea of childhood self-esteem-building was that? It apparently worked wonders for me.

So somehow, all these years later, I have finally found a sport that I like, and can actually play (somewhat)—tennis. What I didn’t realize is how tennis really reveals one’s personality. All of the good things about me come out in my tennis game…and all of the bad. I encourage my doubles partners, congratulate good shots on both sides of the net, crack jokes, and good-humoredly tease my opponents. I work hard and have some ability. But my impatience, ego, and short temper also flare up, over and over again. I’m impatient with my slow progress, my weak backhand, and my weaker serve. And when I’m playing poorly, I feel like I have no value. I’m that uncoordinated third grade girl again, except that I know a lot more curse words now. I mumble, grumble, curse, and yell (and sometimes shriek) when I make bad shots and commit unforced errors. I’ve also been known to slam my racquet into the net and sometimes the back fence. Completely immature and embarrassing. My tennis friends who are reading this might even chime in with some choice anecdotes of their own. On second thought…please don’t.

At one point, one of my Sunday morning doubles partners told me that he spends more energy trying to cheer me up then actually playing tennis. That’s when I know I am screwing up…my bad attitude is affecting everyone else on the court. So one day, he hands me this book and says, “I think you should read this.” It’s The Inner Game of Tennis, by W. Timothy Gallwey, written in 1974 and reprinted many times. Ah, a classic. So I take it home and start reading.

Gallwey says “the player of the inner game comes to value the art of relaxed concentration above all other skills.” I have another friend, who has also read this book, and who has been putting time into “the inner game.” On the tennis court in practice, he is patient, exacting, and calm. He gets into a zone in which a part of the mind—the “telling” part, as Gallwey puts it, is turned off. Gallwey also calls into question the virtue of “trying hard.” That is typically how we go about learning a new task and becoming good at something. But the problem with this, is that while the telling brain is coaching the body in what to do, the body cannot be free to do well. We usually get impatient and start berating ourselves, which just makes our muscles tighten up, and we play even worse.

In some ways, this sounds a lot like turning off the “left” brain, the side of us that is more verbal and judgmental, and getting in touch with the “right” brain, which is the creative, feeling side, and which may be more in tune with the body. Unfortunately I often live in my left brain—in my controlling, judgmental, and critical “telling” (and writing) self. So I spent a few years getting quite mad out on the court. I loved tennis but at the same time I hated that I wasn’t as good at it as I wanted to be. Slowly, over time, I have less reason to get angry, as my game has improved.

But had I read the Inner Game sooner, things might have improved a lot more quickly. This book may be the best non-self-help self-help book I’ve ever read. It’s all about letting go of ego…of the desires that make us crazy…the attachment that leads to suffering. Sounds more like Buddhism than tennis, which in some ways is exactly right. It’s all the same thing. For me, letting go of ego in my life…for my desire for affirmation and attention from others (like “let’s see how many hits my blog got today”) is probably the thing that will make me the most happy. I’m not there yet. I obsess over all kinds of things. I still have a strong desire for everyone, everywhere, to like me…to think I am cute, smart, talented, and above all, funny. It’s beyond pathetic.

What Gallwey explains so well is the need to trust ourselves. And I think that is what is at the root of my problems on and off the court. My nagging insecurities and self-doubt seem boundless, all going back to my need for affirmation in order to reassure myself of my own value. An important point in the book is that in order to reach your peak performance, you must turn off the “thinking” mind—the part of you that scolds, berates, judges, tells, instructs—and the one that praises, too. I can’t count how many times I am in the “zone,” and playing great, only to get complimented during a break, and to immediately come back out and bomb the next three returns.

The other day in the Interclub league, I started out playing badly. I missed several easy shots and I couldn’t seem to find a rhythm. Worse, I kept talking about it, apologizing to my partner, calling myself an idiot, and berating myself. “What are you doing?” I would repeatedly mutter. We lost the first set 1-6. Then in the second set I settled down and focused. I stopped talking. My mind got quiet and I just played. We won 6-3. In the third set, everyone buckled down, and we lost in a close 5-7. But losing didn’t matter. I felt great about those last two sets.

I know I have the capacity for feeling and getting in touch with the right brain, but too often I intellectualize things. I cogitate over and over again about what I did wrong, and how I should do better. I regret bad decisions and I can’t let them go. It occurred to me that my two brothers and my mom are exactly the same way. Perhaps it’s genetic. So I delved into some brain research to try and understand what’s going on. Daniel Amen, M.D., is a clinical neuroscientist who has been doing research in SPECT (single photon emission computed tomography), which measures blood flow to certain regions of the brain and the accompanying brain activity that occurs while patients are asked to do a variety of tasks. The research has been instrumental in ADD diagnosis and treatment, among other behavioral issues.

OK, I know I just lost about 30% of my readers, including my mother, but stay with me on this. In Amen’s Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (an actual self-help book), there’s a chapter called “Looking Into Worry and Obsessiveness.” Hmm. That might just apply to me. According to Amen, problems with repetitive negative thoughts, worries, and obsessions come from a region of the brain called the cingulate gyrus (I know, that sounds a little dirty, in a medical textbook sort of way). When the cingulate gyrus is not working correctly, “people have a tendency to get stuck on things, locked into things, to rethink the same thought over and over. They may become worriers and continually obsess on the same thought. They may hold on to hurts or grudges from the past, unable to let them go.” Oddly at this point in the book there was an old photo of my family.

Unfortunately Dr. Amen is a big proponent of pharmaceuticals—so his solution here—is Prozac. Hmm. It’s possible that starting a Prozac regimen to help my tennis game might be going a bit too far. A better solution would be meditation. It doesn’t immediately sound like a connection, though it does sound like a good book title: “Meditate Your Way to a Better Tennis Game…and Sex Life!” I’ll make millions. But if it’s my overactive cingulate system/judgmental telling self/left brain/ego that is preventing me from getting in the zone and playing well, the way my body knows or can learn how to do, then it would appear that quieting the mind, as Gallwey suggests, would help. What better way to achieve this than through a meditation practice? The problem with this is that I can’t ever seem to actually get around to meditation. There’s always something else to do, and I’m almost always hyped up on caffeine, which makes quieting the mind next to impossible. But I think it’s about time I tried again.

Gallwey also uses great art as an example of getting in the zone, saying that it comes from an unconscious place—a wordless place. It makes me wonder, then, where does great writing come from? It seems that writing requires this thinking, telling brain. How do we tap into the beauty and truth that can be found in good writing? Obviously both the right and left brains need to be engaged. But I also think that it comes from motivation.

As Brenda Ueland says in her classic 1938 book, If You Want to Write, good writing cannot be motivated by wanting to impress others, or by writing what we think others want to read. That writing will be crap…or at least not as authentic or truly interesting. You have to write what is in your heart, and what you want to write—what makes you happy. That’s the only way it will be true, and therefore, good. But don’t try to write what is good. That’s just more judging and ego-self getting in the way. This is all material for another blog, but the point is that it’s the same thing on the tennis court.

It seems that the best motivation for any creative act—any act worth doing—is internal. As soon as you have a goal of winning or beating someone else, or of pleasing someone, or of producing something you think will be mass-marketable, you lose something. You lose that brilliant gem of inspired originality and creativity that makes the thing worth doing in the first place. As Gillian Welch sings, “I’m gonna do it anyway, even if it doesn’t pay.” Deep down we all know this is true. It’s just so hard to follow this advice. There have been times when I have been inspired by and resented in equal measures those artists among us who live their lives in a fashion that fully supports them creatively with no regard for making a decent living, pleasing other people, or contributing in any way that does not also feed their souls. But when it’s done right, this type of life enriches us all because it brings forth such amazing beauty and truth into our world.

In the best possible world, we would all be, unquestioningly, supported in being our most creative selves possible. Think of how amazing life would be if this were the case? And we’d all be playing much better tennis.

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