How to Job Search Like a Savage

How to job search like a savage

One week after I got canned, my inbox flooded with companies seeking to meet me. The impetus was a two sentence email written by my friend John:

“My very close friend Alex just entered the job market. He’s a savage- if we needed to bring on a marketing hire right now, there’s no question he’d be it.”

Savage is right. In six weeks, I had 72 interviews—as many as 7 a day—with 33 companies. The list included 22 Y Combinator graduates and some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley. They all shared one thing in common: one year ago, my résumé would have been buried in their queue and forgotten.

It was unbelievable. I started job searching 10 days before Christmas. Most employers were sipping eggnog and planning their holiday parties, not recruiting. But if finding a job is a battle, I stormed JobLand like Attila the Hun.

When the dust settled, three companies offered me jobs, all for incredible positions with a pay raise. Between the hundreds of email chains, phone calls, and coffee meetings, I discovered patterns and tested theories, iterating on blunders and capitalizing on triumphs. And after reading dozens of job searching articles, I concluded that most are useless at best (“show up 15 minutes early!”) or harmful at worst (“gotta take what you can get!”).

I’m now three weeks into my new job. I’d like to share everything I learned from fired to hired.

The 5 Steps

Step Zero: What do you want to do?
Step One: The basics (résumé, cover letter, LinkedIn, Google)
Step Two: Getting the interview
Step Three: The interview
Step Four: After the interview

[Disclaimer: The following is based on my observation, and is thus inherently biased towards 18-35 year-olds (with a slight slant towards tech/startups/SF). If you have kids, a mortgage, or 15-years experience, your priorities and roadmap might differ from mine.]

STEP ZERO: WHAT DO YOU WANT TO DO?

In six weeks, I got so much damn advice that I could put Dear Abby out of print. The most valuable: work on interesting things with interesting people; value learning above all else. Forget the brand name. Forget the title. Forget the paycheck. Learn. Simple as that.

Because of that, 90% of your job search boils down to two questions: What do you want to learn? Who do you want to learn it from? You can ask other questions to get to 100% (i.e. how big is the team? where is the company? what’s the culture like?), but those two initial questions form the bedrock.

In my case, I wanted to continue learning growth hacking, and wanted to study under a veteran VP of Marketing. I also wanted to learn about an industry aligned with one of my passions (books, music, travel, education).

No skipping this step. Otherwise, it’s like hacking through a jungle with a fork and a horoscope.

STEP ONE: THE BASICS

Oriented? Good. Now it’s time to get the books in order. It pains me to admit this, but résumés and cover letters are still relevant. LinkedIn profiles and Google results too. None of these things will win you jobs, but they can lose you interviews.

This step is all about mitigating risk. Here’s how to avoid looking like a dumbass.

The résumé

There’s all kinds of mundane shit I could say about résumés, so here’s something practical: don’t format your résumé like an idiot. Can you use bolded fonts, bullet points, and consistent margins? Do you know the difference between one page and two? Does your Word processor have spell check? Yes, yes, and yes? Congratulations, you passed the idiot test.

The big secret: employers don’t actually read résumés. At least not fully. They’ll glance at the company names, skim a few bullet points, and search for a couple key phrases. They want to quickly decide: is meeting this person worth 30 minutes of my time? The most efficient way to determine otherwise is if the candidate’s résumé resembles a Jackson Pollock painting. I’ve hired for a dozen jobs, and it’s unimaginable how many ostensibly smart people chose to take a shit on their keyboard rather than hit Tab a couple of times.

There are other considerations of course—focus on specific projects, use metrics whenever possible, put the most relevant/impressive bullet point first, and add one interesting personal fact (my buddy puts “amateur dinosaur enthusiast”). But for the love of God, ask a smarter friend to give you the idiot test. If your friends are all fellow idiots (read: college students), email me and I’ll help you out (alexgivesupblog at gmail dot com).

The cover letter

Cover letters are obsolete. At least, a cover letter that exists as a separate document. Whether you know it or not, your first point of written contact is your cover letter. Whenever I see an email with the words “I’ve attached my cover letter,” I immediately think: Clown! That email IS the cover letter!

A cover letter is also not regurgitation of your résumé. Instead of translating bullet points to sentences, elaborate on why you’d like to work for said company. Do some homework. Make it personal. What do you find interesting about their model or role within their industry? What skills do you have that would contribute to their success? It’s fine to spend a few sentences talking about what you’ve worked on, but make the cover letter primarily about them, not about you.

Finally, don’t use language that’s stuffy and formal—it will read better if it sounds like you are writing to a friend. And Jesus Christ, don’t open with “To Whom It May Concern.” Just say “Hi.”

LinkedIn

People have written thousands of words about LinkedIn. Here are the only 27 that count: Complete LinkedIn’s onboarding process. Make sure your profile is up-to-date. Get a former colleague to endorse you. Don’t spell words wrong. Have more than 100 connections. Aaaand you’re done.

Employers always check LinkedIn (it’s often the #1 search result for your name), so spend a little time brushing it up. Bonus points: if you’re a guy, use a picture where you’re not smiling like a goofball. If you’re a girl, pick the hottest possible picture of you in a semi-professional setting. Sexist? Yep. Welcome to the working world.

Google Results

Google yourself. Seriously. Employers will. Search in an incognito window for precision and click the first 10 links. Get rid of anything that makes you look like an imbecile. That means deleting the time you tweeted “#CHRONIC4LIFE” at A$AP Rocky or removing that totally epic beer pong video you submitted to CollegeHumor.

For example, my mom called a week into the job search and we had this wonderfully awkward conversation: “Alex, when you Google your name, why is there a picture of you smoking a joint?” It was a cigarette, and it was complemented by a glass of Fernet and a rose between my teeth (ah… Buenos Aires), but even still, I promptly deleted it.

If your name is common and not derived from an obscure sect of Ukrainians like mine, you can bask in your blandness and skip this step.

STEP TWO: GETTING THE INTERVIEW

The oldest maxim in the book is also the truest: jobs come from people. Not from CareerBuilder, LinkedIn, or Craigslist. At least not the good ones. Somehow that timeless advice has been tangled in a knot of ethernet cords.

In my case, I used a job searching tool or internal application system exactly zero times. My tools and systems were people. Those people led to job opportunities and before I knew it, I had to make a spreadsheet to keep track of all the companies I was speaking with.

Here’s how I did it:

Make a list of friends

The first thing I did after I got fired was make a list of people to call (well… right after scarfing down a mountain of mashed potatoes gurgling with gravy). I jotted down the names of friends, former colleagues, and local acquaintances. Some were VPs and CEOs, but just as many were junior-level. Some had access to mailing lists, but most didn’t. Some had direct industry knowledge, others were tangential at best. When I stopped 20 minutes later, the list was over 40 people long.

In my case, I’m fortunate to have a great network of folks that were ready to help at a moment’s notice. You might not be as lucky, but not to worry—your list list can consist of anyone. Maybe a fellow university alumni works at your dream company. Or maybe your dad’s friend is an expert in your chosen field. It really doesn’t matter—you’ll quickly discover how open people are to help, especially if you’re respectful, honest, and eager. Everyone’s been where you are, and they want to return the favor.

Call.

Here’s where things get interesting: don’t email them. The easy route is crafting the perfect email and bcc’ing 40 names. Don’t get me wrong—that’s better than shotgun blasting your résumé out to Monster.com, but it’s like hitting a ball in deep left and stopping short of first.

Pick up the phone and call. If they don’t answer, don’t leave a voicemail (nobody likes voicemails). Just text: “Hey _____, give me a call when you got a minute? Had a question for you.”

A real human conversation provides so much more nuance and depth than a computer screen. If you can swing meeting for coffee or chatting over a beer, even better. The personal touch makes a world of difference.

Once on the call, respect their time, keep the rambling to a minimum, and have a clear ask for help. I’m not going to script a conversation for you, but if you primarily use your phone to order delivery Chinese, here’s a primer. Bullshit for a bit—30 seconds or whatever feels natural. Then make a simple request: “Hey I’m looking for work, and I could use your advice. Do you have a minute?” You should explain what type of work you’re looking for, or at the very least, what you would like to learn (see Step Zero). It doesn’t have to be precise, but it should be actionable.

People are incredibly willing to help; they just need you to tell them how. You will be inevitably asked, “How can I help?” The answer can be as simple as “Can I send you my résumé? Let me know if you hear of anyone hiring?” Or “Is it alright if I look through your LinkedIn once we get off the phone and ask for a couple intros?” Or maybe “Anyway you could intro me to [Person X] at [Company Y]?” Whatever it is, be specific.

If you’re a keyboard junky that hates using the phone, it’s time to learn. The phone is the most powerful tool in your job searching toolkit.

Follow up

Your work doesn’t end when the call’s over. Right after you hop off the call, shoot them a quick email with a thank you and a tidbit of their advice that you loved. Attach your resume and a 3-5 sentence blurb about you that they can forward along. If you discussed a specific intro, ask for it.

Most importantly, take notes. Buy a notebook (my favorite) and jot down any tips, pearls of wisdom, or companies to consider. This forces you to crystallize the most important things, and you can readily reference it before any future meetings.

A word of cynicism: at least half of these people won’t deliver any promising leads. That’s OK. They gave you their time and their wisdom, and that’s premium value in itself. But talk to enough people and leads will come. Some will provide more than others (the aforementioned John, for example, delivered a whopping 22 leads), but just keep hustling.

From there, wait for the intros to trickle in.

STEP THREE: THE INTERVIEW

Hello, and welcome to Step Three. You done good. A friend got you an intro, and a company wants to interview you. Rub your hands together. Do a little dance. The fun stuff begins.

Prep

“Nah, I’m just gonna wing it,” said no successful job seeker ever. Don’t be an asshole—spend 30 minutes researching. Browse through their company website, read their Wikipedia page, and skim a press piece or two. Write down anything that looks important (value props, size/market cap, company direction, new developments, etc). Stalk your interviewer a bit on LinkedIn so you know who you’re talking to. If the company has a service or a website, sign up and go through the welcome flow. Remember: take notes.

Done with the basics? Good. Slide on your creativity cap. Brainstorm 1-2 things that they should be doing in your field (the ideas don’t have to be good—the process is the important part). If applicable, pinpoint one aspect of their web presence that you can improve. Reflect on why you’d like to work for them.

Mark my words: you will be asked one of the following two questions, if not both, in your first interview:

”What do you know about our company?”
”Why do you want to work for our company?”

The reason? It’s an amazing predictor of a candidate’s genuine interest. When that question comes, and it will: boom. Fastball down the motherfucking middle.

Directly before the interview

When it comes to what to wear, follow the herd. If you’re interviewing at an investment bank, don’t wear a t-shirt—wear a suit. If you’re interviewing at a 5-person startup, ditch the tie—you’ll be more comfortable in a hoodie. [And no, I did not dress in jorsts and a sleeveless button-down for any interviews.]

Don’t be late. Obviously. But just as bad: the clown who feigns initiative and arrives at the interview 20 minutes early. Stop. It’s annoying. Interviewers are busy—they want to finish their hour’s task without Tweedle Dee dorking around in the lobby. Arrive early, but if you’re too early, take a walk around the block. I usually like to arrive at the address 10-15 minutes early and walk through the door 1-3 minutes before the interview starts.

Above all else: RELAX. You’re not disarming a bomb. Listen to your favorite song. Read an inspiring article. Watch a stupid cat video. It’s just a job interview. You’ll be fine.

Once the interview starts

This is it. The big moment. Introductions commenced (smile; look them in the eye), handshakes were exchanged (no limp wrists), and you’re sitting in a black-backed swivel chair. You now have one job and one job only: bullshit for as long as possible.

What most interviewees fail to grasp is that the success of a job interview is determined by two factors, often in this order: A) Do I like this person? B) Is this person competent for the job?

You’re not going to win any likability battles with your knowledge of balance sheets, cost per acquisition metrics, or jQuery. You will, however, win points for chatting through your mutual love of Argentina, or about that Niners win, or about a great book that you’re reading.

Interviewers need to get a feel for you as a person before they can envision working with you as an employee. If your interviewer wants to shoot the shit, she’s trying to get to know you. But if the interviewer clearly hates small talk, don’t force it—let him dictate the pace. The point is not to be the one who transitions into serious interview mode.

At some point, you’ll feel the conversation turn a corner. The following five words will decide the next 20 minutes.

“So… tell me about yourself.”

This is the first “real” question 90% of the time, and its an open invitation to pitch yourself. Everyone’s pitch is different. In general, talk for more than 30 seconds but less 3 minutes.

Stories matter. People forget facts; they’ll remember stories. Avoid listing stats like you’re a Pokemon card and craft your own personal narrative. Tie in projects that you’ve worked on and skills you’ve developed. Anticipate questions (like “why did you leave [x job]?”) and answer them in advance.

In my case, I wanted to emphasize that I’m both creative and analytical (an important blend in my field), so I always started my answer with, “Well the best place to start is my freshman year of college when I was picking between a math major and an English major.” I got terribly sick of that line, but it was effective—it neatly framed my journey as math major to entrepreneur to book marketer to startup growth marketer.

The interviewer might ask you follow up questions about each project to gauge how you work and think. Just answer honestly, be authentic, and don’t overinflate your role. If you’ve worked on interesting things with interesting people, the rest will work itself out. If you haven’t, it should be clear why you need to start now.

Common questions

You’ll get asked a ton of industry- and company-specific questions that I can’t help with (this is why we prep, class). That said, generic questions are frequent as well. Here are 4 common ones that can trip you up without some care.

1. “You’ve been given a project about [x]. Where do you start?”

Most times, you’ll have no fucking clue. And that’s fine. In fact, that’s the point. The interviewer wants to see how you react to uncertainty. Even further, the interviewer is possibly struggling with this project and wants an outside perspective. There’s no right answer, but there is a right approach. Ask questions immediately for more detail (e.g. What’s the objective? How do you measure that?) Then discuss your process for digesting and implementing new information into action. Mine consists of a little bit of research, talking with a ton of smart people, starting before I’m ready, and constantly iterating. Yours might be different, but be comfortable talking through it.

2. “What do you see yourself doing in five years?”

At first, this question drove me to fits. Five years?! I’ll be 30 in five years. I guess praying that my hairline doesn’t recede and my back hair doesn’t spread? Unfortunately, this question requires a better answer than flippant references to mid-adulthood puberty. Here’s why: if the job in question does nothing to advance your long-term goals, that’s a major red flag. Your five-year plan doesn’t need to be precise (in fact, it’s better if it’s somewhat open-ended), but this next move should be one rung in a ladder, not a shot on a dartboard. If you’re struggling to put together any sort of answer, revert back to Step Zero: what do you want to learn in the next 5 years?

3. “Tell me about a time that you failed”

Here’s your chance to win respect for sucking. Don’t hold back—the more epic the fail, the better. Failure is life’s great teacher; if you can show that you learned from that time you cataclysmically face-planted, that’s 10x better than bragging about the one time you did something right. Done with thoughtfulness and authenticity, this tactic can be incredibly disarming.

4. “What salary are you targeting?”

Before the interview starts, project a yearly salary. Add another $5,000. Say that number. Now shut the fuck up. No, no, no—don’t rationalize. Don’t give more detail. Shut the fuck up. Immediately justifying your number shows insecurity. Save the explanation for any possible follow-up questions. If they want to negotiate (and they might), you’ll already be $5,000 ahead.

“Do you have any questions for me?”

Doofus McDumbass will take this golden opportunity to ask about the hours, the paycheck, and the vacation policy. Don’t be Doofus McDumbass. This is your last chance to to glean key information and wow the person sitting across from you.

I care about a company’s culture and values. Whenever I asked what those were outright, however, I received a canned response. These two questions give more authentic insight:

1. “What’s been your favorite day at the company?”

2. “Who is the best person that you’ve worked with?”

By forcing the interview out of rote responses, I learned much more about the culture and type of people within the company. The answers were filled with illuminating stories, not modified PowerPoint slides. These questions are also overwhelmingly positive and chances are the interviewer will love reminiscing. Not a bad note to end an interview with, eh?

I also like to employ the sneaky catch-all:

Are there any other questions that you think I should be asking?

A note on body language

I won’t be so bold as to reduce an entire mode of communication to a paragraph (if you’d like a book, this is a good one). On second thought, you’re damn right I will. Here’s the 80/20: when talking, don’t touch your face, neck, head, or opposite shoulder. At best, it shows insecurity. At worst, it looks like you’re lying. Keep things simple and leave your hands on your knees or the desk in front of you.

STEP FOUR: AFTER THE INTERVIEW

The good news: you’re through the thick of it. The bad news: at this point, things are mostly out of your control.

Immediately following the interview, take notes. What are the position’s responsibilities? Any notable bits of info about the company? Questions you stumbled on? This will be an invaluable reference.

Follow-up notes are overrated, but they help move the conversation along. The next day, send a quick message, “Hey ____, really enjoyed speaking today. Would love to keep talking, let me know any next steps?” Unless, of course, ____ sucked and you have zero interesting in continuing the discussion.

The goal of most second, third, and fourth round interviews is for the rest of the team to vet you, and make sure that they can work well with you. And to prove that you’re not completely full of shit. To prepare, review your notes, brainstorm a few initiatives, relax, and hope that people like you.

To maintain your sanity, keep this in mind: most job opportunities won’t pan out. There could be any number of reasons: someone else has more experience, the field is unfamiliar, more specialized skills are required, the position ceases to exist, whatever. Don’t get hung up. In fact, if you’re batting above .500 on job opportunities, you’re selling yourself short and need to cast your net wider. My “success rate” was less than 10%. Even though I turned down a number of second round interviews, I also didn’t get offers from some top choices. And you know what? It all worked itself out—my new job is amazing.

Above all, remember this: when the offers start coming—and they will—don’t choose the higher salary. Don’t choose the prestigious title. Don’t choose the safe career move. When the time comes to walk a new path, there is only one question worth answering:

What will you be paid to learn?

I Got Fired Last Week. That’s a Good Thing. Here’s Why.

Christmas

“We’d like to help you transition out of the company.”

As the conversation progressed and reality sunk in, my ears slammed shut and blood streamed to my head. And since I neglected to bring a jacket for what I thought was a routine Friday morning coffee meeting with my CEO, it was cold and now I was shivering like a dumbass.

I joined the company eight months ago when it was just three guys with laptops, and I’d watched it successfully launch, raise $3.7M in funding, and expand from 3 employees to 13—three of which I’d recruited and hired. I was proud of my first 8 months at work. I ran a viral email campaign that signed up a person a minute for the week preceding launch, and then generated a firestorm of media coverage when the product opened for business. Shit, I had just released a new version of our website two days prior that improved on-site conversions by 400%.

What happened?

It’s painfully simple. I excelled at the company’s growth stage because I had a ton of hustle, a lightning fast ability to learn, and the entrepreneurial wherewithal to juggle 30 skills at once. Now, the company had blossomed, hired a new VP of Marketing with twenty-five years experience, and had reached a point where it “needed specialists instead of generalists.”

The irony did not escape me: as the company’s Director of Growth, I grew the company to the point where it had outgrown me. Twelve days before Christmas.

The walk back to my apartment was long. I called my parents in tears and relived every misstep, looking entirely out of place in the midst of the morning hustle and bustle. When I got back to my apartment at the ripe hour of 9:30am, I strongly considered draining a bottle of whiskey on my balcony and blacking out before noon. But after a hefty lunch, where I specifically asked for a dinner plate “with extra gravy,” that plan changed. Dramatically.

Here I am one week later. I’ve had a dozen interviews, a job offer, and am now actively turning down work instead of looking for it.

It’s possible that getting shit-canned was the best thing to happen to me in 2013. Here’s why:

1. Getting fired lights a fire

This is not the first time I’ve been fired. It’s the second. After the first, I fulfilled a lifelong dream to start my own company (it also inadvertently inspired another epic undertaking). This was not a coincidence. Every late night was fueled by a frenetic energy to prove those doubters wrong. I wanted them to view letting me go as the biggest mistake in their company’s history. It wasn’t of course—not even close—but after every personal victory, I still felt like Reggie Miller raining 3’s in Spike Lee’s weasely face.

I would go so far as encouraging everyone to get their ass handed to them along with an Employee Termination Letter at least once in their life. It’s an unforgettable feeling, and getting kicked in the gut by the unforgiving boot of unemployment is a beautiful thing. As long as you have the resilience to counter it with a roundhouse kick to the face.

2. I learned to appreciate my friends

You remember friends, right? Those things you pushed aside in favor of late work nights? You know, something other than your laptop’s blueish hue? I thought I did too—but after getting canned, that view changed.

After that fateful Friday lunch, I immediately started calling friends. Close friends. Old friends. New friends. Friends in high places. Friends in low places. I talked to over 40 people in 4 days. So many were unbelievably willing to help. They readily dispensed advice, made intros, and lent sympathetic ears. It was tremendously humbling

Those friends knew friends—CEOs, recruiters, employers, and more. That led to job opportunities, which led to interviews, which led to offers. I knew this intuitively, but it’s true: jobs come from people. Not the internet. Not job boards. And if nothing else, when’s the last time you grabbed a consolatory beer with a Craigslist post?

3. I’m a jack of all trades, but a master of none. 

This was a tough one to swallow. But look at the facts: I’m a math major who writes in his spare time for fuck’s sake—I wear more hats than a balding magician. Although I’m very good at a dozen different things, I’m an expert in none of them. And that’s dangerous.

Yes, employees are greater than the sum of their skills, and most organizations—especially small ones—need people who can fill the roles of 2 or 3 people. But get this through your head: if you’re not the best at something, you’re replaceable.

This was brutally true for me. Other than being an affable goofball, there was not one thing I was best at in this last company. Our designer is a better designer. Our engineers are better coders. Our CEO is a better marketer. Our Chief of Staff is a better leader. Yes, I was very good at those things, but was I the best at any one of them? No. Painful, but true.

In other words: I was expendable. That phrase “we need specialists instead of generalists,” already haunts me. It will also be the last time I hear those words. Think I’m going to become a master in my next job? Yep. Better fucking believe it.

4. The grass is greener, goddamnit!

I can’t tell you the number of times I heard some variant of that phrase in the last week. “Something bigger and better is out there waiting for you.” “These things happen for a reason.” “You’ll find something even more exciting.” At first, I wrote it off as conciliatory bullshit. Those pearls of advice are so hackneyed that my stomach acid swirled at every utterance.

But when I took stock of my life and reflected on every failure, there’s a pattern: I’ve rebounded like Dennis Rodman on amphetamines. That failed Chemistry class? Highest GPA next quarter. Fired from my first job? Started my own company. Lost control of that company? Life-changing three month journey through Europe.

So contrary to my cliché aversion, I know this time will be no different. The signs are strong. I can’t see it yet, but I can feel the florescent green, Hulk-strength grass ready to shoot through the soil.

Over the last week, I’ve viewed this exit from every angle. Losing your job will facilitate that type of introspection. But one thought has prevailed over all the self-pity, anger, and dejection:

What an amazing Christmas present.

Bonne Année!

738270_10152367269525597_321094140_o

On a cold January day, I tightened my peacoat and trudged through snow-sprinkled backstreets en route to Place Verte, my favorite Parisian café.

Near the end of December, I flew halfway around the world with no return in sight. After getting crushed by the entrepreneurial roller coaster, I exited the company I helped co-found with enough money to fund a 10-city Europe trip, starting with Paris. And for the last week, my only daily obligation was to sit huddled in a corner, sip on a café crème, and write.

It took a 5,000 mile plane flight to begin making sense of 2012. Throughout the year, I had jotted scattered notes about each month’s experiment. But every time I tried to write more than a couple paragraphs, I quit in a flap of frustration. My first draft of January’s resolution, for example, was so monumentally awful (actual original hook: “Us Californians are pretty liberal about weed”) that I didn’t write a single word for the next two months.

I thought the most important year of my life would be relegated to memories and bar stories.

But a little voice grew louder, amplified by the questions from friends. “Why aren’t you writing about this?”

I rationalized this several ways. I would have to honestly address some unsavory characteristics (see: smoking, drinking, swearing). I’m not a natural writer, and I knew that translating those 12 months into words would be like birthing a hedgehog. I had no time or energy after 60- and 70-hour workweeks. Most damning, I would have to document my masturbatory tales (if you were wondering, yes, I made it through the last 3 days of December, and yes, releasing that load three hours into New Year’s Morning felt goddamn amazing).

But thousands of miles from home, those excuses held no weight. I never expected to write about my life, mainly because before I felt like I had nothing to say.

Now I did.

I combed through memories from the last 12 months as I watched the coffee steam mingle with my frosted breath. I started the year baked on my mattress in the living room of my apartment in San Francisco, and ended it in someone else’s living room at a New Year’s party swarming with Frenchies. Somewhere in between there was a story.

Over the course of those few weeks, disconnected thoughts coalesced into a narrative. Patterns formed. Ruthless self-examination uncovered my bedrock characteristics: the need for a challenge, pigheaded stubbornness, and the complete neglect towards the whims of other people.

There are habits that have stuck. I read on public transportation instead of mindlessly swiping my iPhone. I eat more vegetables. I walk more. Other habits have fallen by the wayside. This blog is evidence that, much to my parent’s disappointment, I still swear like a motherfucker. I haven’t touched a Bible in over a year. I still jerk off.

The process to create new routines is both brutally simple and excruciatingly complex: a frantic burst of initial willpower and then a slow burn of steady persistence. For me, a change was cemented in 3 days. From there on out, it was maintenance.

But each month was different. Months that involved a change in body chemistry (e.g. giving up meat, masturbating) caused a sharp shock to my system (e.g. violent shits, sleepless nights). Experiments that involved a shift in communication (e.g. no Facebook, no phone) were pleasantly refreshing and easiest to maintain. Trials that challenged fundamental daily practices (e.g. no transportation, no music, no spending) were a grind that left me exhausted by the end of each month.

It was also fascinating to watch the bottomless well of grit and self-control spill out into other aspects of my life. I approached the turbulent process of running my own company with a steely stoicism. I rededicated myself to daily piano practice. And most importantly, the wealth in willpower fueled my grueling quest to write.

While formulating the introduction to Alex Gives Up as Parisians floated in a blur of scarves and cigarette smoke, I thought back to the beginning. It sounds weird to say, but that post break-up Facebook stalk fundamentally changed my life. Because I realized something. Something I knew theoretically but had now lived so vividly.

I can change my habits.

 

December: Masturbation

photo (1)

Let’s just get this out of the way now: everybody masturbates. Women masturbate. Men masturbate. Old people masturbate. Sexually mature twelve year-olds masturbate. Kindergarten teachers masturbate, doctors masturbate, and you bet your ass that when the Ice Queen’s not putting out, Obama masturbates.

For how much time is spent choking the chicken—in aggregate, Americans spend over one million hours a day jerking off—the subject is still largely taboo. Maybe it’s religious zealotry. Or maybe it’s overbearing parents. But I have a theory: it’s jealousy. As a society, men refuse to concede their phallic inferiority to a gigantic, buzzing dick, and women are bitter that their handjobs are always worse than the ones men can give themselves.

By now, it should come as no surprise that I too masturbate. Regularly. It’s not a fact that I particularly care to advertise—let alone discuss for 2,000 words—but it’s true. And goshdarnit, I like masturbating.

Initially, I deemed a “no masturbation” month impossible. A decade’s worth of sexual maturity had ingrained the act to more than just a habit—it was a natural part of living. So for the entire year, I vacillated on December’s move of self-deprivation. I considered no gluten (too trendy and boring). Then I considered no negativity (too abstract).

But then I reflected on the year. Where I had come since January. All the roadblocks and speed bumps—the triumphs and defeats. And it was clear that there was only one way to end this. The final boss awaited.

So on the last day of November, I unceremoniously rubbed one out in the shower and watched my last hope of any self-inflicted ecstasy swirl down the drain.

December started off easy. For 99% of the day, not masturbating was a nonissue. It’s not like I had the sudden impulse to pull up PornHub and go to town in the middle of a client meeting. Days one and two passed without incident.

But like anything, night was when the sirens sang and the demons danced.

For years, I’ve engaged in some quick hand-to-gland combat before bed. It’s my nightly routine. Masturbating is a legitimate sleep aid—the act releases a sleepytime cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins—and I fucking take advantage of science. I’ll follow up the dirty by watching a TV show, and within minutes, I conk out.

Night three, however, did not follow the script.

I had just gotten used to my new nightly routine: in bed by 11 with a book, read for 20 minutes, and then an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

Usually, I’ll fall asleep in minutes to the sweet sounds of Danny DeVito’s slurred grumbles. But after a 22-minute episode, my eyes hadn’t drooped a millimeter. I rolled over and started another.

Twenty-two minutes later: nothing. It was already past midnight. My frustration swelled. I closed my laptop, hoping to find solace in silence.

I spent the next 90 minutes devising useless mental lists, shifting side to side, and trying to think about anything not related to sex and women. Especially not boobs. Definitely nothing to do with boobs—boobs complemented with a slender hourglass figure, round ass, coy smile, devious eyes, and luscious, supple boobs.

Goddammit, stop thinking about boobs!

I prayed for sleep’s sweet release. Willed for it with every fiber of my being. But my dick had ruthlessly hijacked my brain and was not letting up on the controls.

I checked the time. 2:00am. I had to be awake in five hours.

Is this actually happening? Did my best friend just become my worst enemy?

That epic, age-old struggle between dick and brain played out in real-time beneath my cool bed sheets. But my brain had been pinned, left gasping for air and clawing desperately to avoid the knockout punch from his primitive foe. And then finally…

“Fuck it.”

I whipped out my laptop, a box of tissues, and four minutes later, the deed was done. Fittingly, another five minutes after that, I was sound asleep.

I didn’t have time to reflect on the humiliating defeat until next morning. Three days. Three fucking days!

Pathetic.

It wasn’t like this was some unconscious blunder—like my hand just accidentally brushed against my dick several dozen times—it was a conscious acknowledgement of defeat. It was humiliating—the arguable low point in the entire Alex Gives Up experiment.

But I wasn’t ready to completely throw in the towel on December. I had to pick myself up the mat and go another round. I just needed a strategy.

That strategy? Women.

I’ve never been particularly awesome with women—usually my subconscious gets the best of me, and I rationalize my way out of making any sort of move. But this time around was different. My back was against the wall—there was no hand waiting to greet me if I struck out. I had one choice to make sexual gratification a reality: lower my standards, hit on as many girls as possible, and hope one was gullible enough to come home with me.

The first weekend, however, did not go according to plan. A wave of nervousness accompanied each female approach. There were stakes! If I didn’t succeed, then prayers for wet dreams were my best and only hope.

My only success was making out with a mildly terrifying Zimbabwean girl 6 years my senior, who promptly rejected my super smooth line of “so… you wanna get out of here?”

On Sunday morning, I took stock of my “strategy” and realized that it sucked. Or rather, I sucked. I spent the next few days texting 14-months’ worth of one-night stands and irregular hook-ups trying desperately to get something going. Most ignored me (and rightfully so) but one, whom we’ll call “Jennifer,” took the bait.

Jennifer was mediocre. Even though she was a nice enough girl and kinda cute, we had zero chemistry. But hey, I had gone six days without jerking off. Cupid’s arrow had struck me right in the dick.

I invited her over for dinner, and proceeded to wow her taste buds with a delicious lamb shank oso bucco and prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, which we cooked in tandem. My usual brand of sheepish charm and self-deprecating wit was firing on all cylinders, and we followed up dinner with Modern Family and a dessert of fruity Dum Dum lollipops.

The time to make a move was upon me. I took a long look at her mango lollipop, reflected on my choice of strawberry, and proceeded to use possibly the least suave line in the history of courtship:

“So… I wonder how strawberry and mango would taste (wait for it… wait for it…) together?”

She laughed. I leaned in. She leaned in. The game was on.

We wasted no time moving the fruit-melded kissing from the living room to the bedroom. Shirts came off. Bra came off. After a few more minutes of kissing and heavy petting, her lips left mine and slowly moved down to my, ahem, nether regions.

My mind raced. This was it! I had done it! I had found December’s loophole!

She started in, and it felt amazing. Twenty seconds later:

Oh shit. This feels a little too amazing.

I tried to hold back, but a week of neglect led to a magmatic explosion.

Thirty seconds. I had lasted thirty seconds.

Jennifer was visibly confused. I wasn’t sure whether to apologize, explain the scenario, or thank her for her service. Instead, I settled on just saying nothing.

She left shortly thereafter.

Under any other circumstance, this would have been horribly embarrassing. Well, it was horribly embarrassing, but more importantly, my penis was happy. And thus, so was I.

That should have been the end of the Jennifer Saga. But for reasons which continue to baffle me, she agreed to a second date the following week.

We went out for a post-work drink. When she casually mentioned that she had never seen Ratatouille—my favorite movie—I reacted with incredulity and invited her back to my place to watch Pixar’s finest.

After another scoreless week, I was in dire need of an easy basket. And figuring that since she had agreed to see me even after the half-minute in heaven, I thought I had a lay-up.

Right after Remy met Linguini, I made another suave suggestion, “Hey, I don’t want to bug my roommate—do you think we could watch this on my laptop in my room?” She agreed. I was back in business.

But when we settled on the bed, a funny thing happened: she assumed the spooning position, as I watched the movie from over her shoulder. I wanted to make a move, but I was stumped.

Do I just start kissing her neck? Can I grab her boob? Is that weird? Yeah… that seems a little rape-y. 

I decided that sex could wait—Ratatouille took priority.

Before I knew it, I was fully engrossed. Not wanting to miss Anton Ego’s epic closing monologue, I waited a full two hours until the credits rolled before initiating. And then, just as things were heating up she pulled back and dropped a bomb: “Hey, it’s already 11. I have to be at work by 6 tomorrow… I should probably go.”

I cajoled. I pleaded. But after several polite turn-downs, I swallowed the bitter truth:

I had just been blue-balled by Ratatouille.

The door barely slammed shut before I broke down for the second time. And that would be the end of the Jennifer Saga.

Luckily, there were other women.

In late December, I met a hot girl at a grocery store. We chit chatted at the fresh food aisle, and when she flashed a coy smile, I knew I was in. I’m not exactly sure what I said to win her over, but before I knew it, we were back at my place. Kissing ensued, clothes came off, and sex was a tangible possibility.

And then I woke up.

Face down on my mattress, saliva pooling on the pillow. I tried in vain to fall back asleep in search of the literal girl of my dreams. For the first time since Junior High, I hoped that dream would be wet. But sleep would not come. And neither would I.

December sucked. There’s no other way to put it. It just fucking sucked. I noticed the absence biologically. Masturbation is more than just a habit—it’s an animalistic urge. I thought about it constantly. The pressure climbed with each passing day. It was the only experiment that got harder as the month went on (obligatory “that’s what she said”).

New Years’ Eve was in sight, however. And all things considered, only two fuck ups, especially on a month I initially declared “impossible” was pretty damn good. I was on an upswing, twelve months of self-inflicted, borderline-psychotic experimentation in my rearview mirror. Sweet relief was near. It looked like I would finish strong.

If only it was that simple.

Because with 3 days left in 2012, I bid the U.S. adieu and punched a one way ticket to Paris.

Alex’s Guide to Cheap, Shitty Fast Food

Market Meadows Stock Shoot

In the month of November 2012, I had a goal to spend only $8 a day. Within this goal, I layered on a mini-experiment: I wanted to try the cheapest, most calorically-efficient item at every fast food establishment. So over the course of 22 workday lunches, I punted any semblance of healthy eating and tried them all.

Without further ado, let’s meet the contestants.

Burger King Spicy CHICK’N CRISP® Sandwich
Calories: 460
Cost: $1.29
Calories/dollar: 357
Pros: Hah.
Cons: These should be labeled with a biohazard sticker. The spicy breading—not spicy enough for flavor, but just spicy enough to induce cold sweats—conceals a whitish-grey chicken mush sandwiched between two white buns, a slathering of mayo, and a leathery leaf of iceberg lettuce. In a related event, I had to shit an hour after consumption.
Grade: F

Jack in the Box Tacos
Calories: 361
Cost: $1.00
Calories/dollar: 361
Pros: A fair price. A liberal application of Jack in the Box’s delightful hot sauce masks any flavoring quirks. I also didn’t have to shit immediately afterwards.
Cons: I don’t know how, but the yellowed taco shells are simultaneously mushy and stale. The only strength of the Frankenmeat soy/beef concoction is that it could be considered edible. I’m about to shatter delusions for frat boys everywhere, because here’s the reality: Jack in the Box tacos are painfully mediocre.
Grade: C+ 

Jack in the Box Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger
Calories: 400
Cost: $1.49
Calories/dollar: 246
Pros: Bacon.
Cons: All bacon is not created equal, and Jack in the Box clearly sources their bacon from the pigs that subsist on a diet of their own shit.
Grade: B-

KFC Chicken Little
Calories: 380
Cost: $1.19
Calories/dollar: 319
Pros: Tasty breading, juicy chicken, and a sesame bun.
Cons: Comically small. Literally finished it in 3 bites.
Grade: B

Taco Bell Soft Taco
Calories: 180
Cost: $1.19
Calories/dollar: 151
Pros: Taco Bell sets the bar for fast food tacos. The meat is salty, and the tortilla, cheese, and lettuce are recognizable, which is as close a compliment one could give to fast food ingredients.
Cons: In a growing list of things I thought I’d never say, Taco Bell is fucking expensive. At a paltry 151 calories per dollar, I had a wave of buyer’s remorse after consuming a taco.
Grade: B-

Taco Bell Bean and Cheese Burrito
Calories: 380
Cost: $1.19
Cost/dollar: 319
Pros: Generally looks like a burrito.
Cons: Its color and consistency are uncannily reminiscent of dog shit, making it the only item on this list which is both literally and figuratively shitty. And yes, I realize I’m already at 4 shit jokes.
Grade: C-

McDonald’s McDouble
Calories: 390
Price: $1.00
Calories/dollar: 390
Pros: The most artfully crafted cheap item on any value menu—two sumptuous meat patties, beautifully melted cheese, toasted fluffy buns, all rounded out by a winning supporting cast of ketchup, mustard, onions, and pickles. The gold standard for cheap fast food—in many ways, I feel more of an attachment to the McDouble than most people I see on a regular basis.
Cons: After 20+ McDoubles consumed in the month of November, I started having a bizarre Pavlovian effect where my mouth started tasting like McDoubles any time I passed by a McDonalds.
Grade: A+

McDonald’s McChicken
Calories: 360
Price: $1.00
Calories/dollar: 360
Pros: The winner of a competitive racket of fast food chicken sandwiches. Has a nice zesty breading on the aforementioned fluffy buns. Actually tastes like chicken.
Cons: A nice complement to the breadwinner of the McDonalds family, the mighty McDouble, but still not worthy of upper echelon status.
Grade: B+

Del Taco Regular Taco
Calories: 200
Cost: $0.59
Calories/dollar: 339
Pros: It is a taco, and I like tacos. Also, for some bizarre reason, I used to love Del Taco when I was 8 years-old, so Del Taco garners bonus points for childhood nostalgia.
Cons: Surprise surprise, eight year-olds are not renowned for their reliable judgment of food quality. Del Taco is fighting tooth-and-nail with Burger King for the shit crown (known cross categorically as “The Nickleback Award”) for worst fast food establishment. Del Taco’s underwhelming taco is emblematic of this achievement.
Grade: C

Del Taco Bean and Cheese Burrito
Calories: 440
Cost: $1.00
Calories/dollar: 440
Pros: Cheap. Very cheap.
Cons: In a shocking turn of events, it’s cheap because it sucks.
Grade: D-

November: Spending

602618_10152217014635597_846835904_n

“Have you eaten lunch?”

I was in the home of a mega-bestselling author, who had just contracted my company to run the online marketing launch for his newest book. The book, a soon-to-be bestseller centered in the world of food and cooking, was a follow-up to his #1 bestselling tome about health, fitness, and dieting. The man was not only one of my favorite authors, but a certifiable health guru and bonafide foodie—I had just picked up his lunch which consisted of duck confit and a Moroccan bean salad.

Well… this is going to be awkward.

Setting aside any shred of social tact, I replied to his lunch query. “Nah, I’m alright. I have some Top Ramen in my backpack.”

I was lying. It was knock-off Top Ramen. Actual Top Ramen wasn’t in my price range.

He raised a quizzical eyebrow. I took a deep breath and launched into my well-rehearsed spiel. “I’m doing this experiment where I give up something new every month. This month I’m giving up unnecessary spending, so I only have $8 a day to spend. Hence the, uh, Top Ramen.”

He laughed, shook his head, and walked over to his kitchen. He reached into the cabinets and with a wry smile, handed me a jar of protein powder.

“Take this. I need your brain to work this month.”

I thanked him profusely. But while working at his dining room table later, I still sheepishly munched my raw block of noodles sprinkled with yellow chicken seasoning.

November was my first legitimate brush with poverty. I was born extremely lucky. My parents are two working professionals who loved and provided generously for their two sons. I never went to bed on empty stomach. Never had to worry if there would be any presents under the tree. Never felt crippled under the weight of student loans.

But even with a privileged upbringing, my parents still instilled a sense of financial cognizance and responsibility. I’ve saved in a bank account since I was in first grade. I would never be caught dead wearing designer jeans, driving a Range Rover, or drinking Fiji water. In fact, my dad, who frequently asserts the superiority of generic-brand food items, insists that Grey Goose is for “wimps” and proudly consumes cheap, plastic-bottle vodka—Vitali, Gordon’s, and Popov—which you’d be more likely to find at a frat house than a suburban home.

So it was armed with my dad’s ingrained frugality that I strolled into the grocery store on November 1st with a $40 weekly budget and a head brimming with confidence. I knew that this trip would be different from my vegetarian buttfucking in February. I love grocery shopping, which coupled with a degree in mathematics, meant that I was ready to make Safeway my bitch.

As a clarifying sidenote: the rules for this month were to spend an average of eight dollars a day, or $240 for the month This did not include my rent, utilities, or bus pass. To those of you who kneejerk react with “that’s cheating—you’re not following the rules!” I respond thusly: Bitch, I make the fucking rules.

I needed to consume at least 2,000 calories a day, so arithmetic inferred that each dollar spent had to net at least 250 calories. This invoked hard dietary restrictions.

First to go were fruits and vegetables. These food groups, lauded by health professionals as a “nutritional necessity,” were an unjustifiable caloric luxury. My mom was less than pleased about this development. My inner nine-year old was stoked.

Next to go were all name brands. Later Nabisco, see ya Hillshire Farms, and suck it Kraft. I stuck purely to Safeway brands.

As I walked through the aisles, I did more nutrition-fact-checking than an overbearing yoga mom. In one instance, I cataloged the number of calories on 10 different cheeses, setting each down before I found the golden ticket—an unassuming pack of Safeway-brand American Cheese Singles.

My cart filled as I meandered through the rows. A five pound hunk of ground beef here (600 cals/$). Four packs of spaghetti noodles (1500 cals/$) and two jugs of generic spaghetti sauce (237 cals/$) there. I picked up, debated, and begrudgingly put back a 4 gallon tub of vanilla ice cream, even though it was an astonishing deal at 900 calories per dollar (I was poor, not a fatass). Cans of beans (450 cals/$), marble slabs of watered-down ham (137 cals/$), squished loaves of bread (600 cals/$), and the aforementioned knock-off Top Ramen (470 cals/$) rounded out the rest.

Ninety minutes later, I strolled out of Safeway with two bags, a few coins to spare, and a victory pump. However, the high from my super savings trip crashed once I set the bags down at my refrigerator.

Well, now I guess I have to eat this shit.

I put away the bags and got to work, whipping up a gigantic vat of spaghetti sauce and a web of noodles. This would be my dinner… for tonight, and tomorrow night, and five more consecutive nights following. When I felt like I splurging, I sprinkled on bits of American cheese.

It was boring, but effective. Lunch, in contrast, couldn’t have been less monotonous.

When the month started, I knew that I didn’t want to concede my downtown San Francisco workday lunches. The place is a food mecca, with options that are diverse, healthy, and—if you bring your Yelp A-Game—goddamn delicious.

I very well could have just brought a ham and cheese sandwich in a paper bag lunch and called it a day, but I had something in mind. A mini-experiment…

If I was truly going to do this poor thing, I had to penny pinch with the best of them. Other than schizophrenia, it’s rare that homeless people are the best at anything, but when it comes to getting a deal at a fast food restaurant, they’re at the top of the pecking order. And after taking Safeway for a ride, it was time to show the lower class how it’s done.

I embarked on a quest. I wanted to find the tastiest cheap deals at every major fast food chain. So over the course of 22 weekday lunches, I tried them all.

SIDEBAR: After I surpassed 750 words dissecting fast food minutia, I realized that I required an appendix. So if you choose, I highly recommend reading the aptly titled “Alex’s Guide to Cheap, Shitty Fast Food.”

If I had to condense 750 words of fast food wisdom into one, I would just say this: McDoubles. Goddamnit I love McDoubles. At a ridiculous 390 calories per dollar, they’re not an only absurd deal, but are sumptuously delicious and contain 5 of 5 food groups (if you’re poor and/or homeless, ketchup counts as a fruit and pickles as a vegetable).

I can’t pretend like I made it through November only with frugal spending. I had help. A lot of help.

My friends were incredibly supportive. They picked up my tabs, treated me to lunch, and bought me enough alcohol to get a hippo hammered. One friend (hi Nico!) paid for an entire night’s worth of food, transportation, and drinks. My cousin gave me $20 to Whole Foods with the instructions “eat some vegetables!” The aforementioned author constantly loaded me up with food from his pantry. Their generosity was humbling, even if I cashed in on years of favors in a quick 30 days.

Not everyone was supportive, however. One friend, who had justifiably grown quite sick of my shenanigans (we’ll call her—oh, I don’t know—“Julia”), refused to let her then boyfriend buy me a late night slice of pizza. And then got in a fight with him when he bought me one anyway. The moral of the story is that pizza always wins.

To be fair, I didn’t necessarily return all the goodwill flying my way.

Midway through November, I got blasted on drinks exclusively bought by friends. The night ended in a haze.

Next thing I knew, I woke up on a friend’s couch with the glaring sun piercing my bleary eyes. I had a splitting headache, a queasy stomach, and was not enthused about the prospect of moving.

I explained this back in January, but marijuana is the undisputed champ of hangover cures. And like a sign from God, roughly one foot from my face was a bubbler and a Tupperware container of weed.

My friends, however, were asleep in the other room. I was faced with a dilemma. My own personal supply had run dry and I couldn’t exactly afford to allocate a portion of my monthly budget towards weed. After an internal battle, I realized what was happening:

Am I really about to just… steal drugs?

Yes. Yes I am.

I looked left. Looked right. The perimeter was clear. I cautiously opened the container and scooped out a nug of weed. When I went to put the lid back on, I hesitated, thinking, “well… I might as well play it safe and replenish the supply.” I scooped out a few more buds, snapped the top back on, and slipped out the door like a thief into the night.

To the illustrious list of accomplishments from the “Alex Gives Up” experiment, I can now add “was poor; stole drugs.” From my friends. Who are girls. And didn’t tell them until a month later.

Whoops.

Although I took frugality to new levels–like never paying for group taxi rides, groveling for drinks, and consuming the same bland but efficient dinner 7 days in a row–I still had a couple splurge moments. For example, I blew $2.49 on a Colt 45 Tall Boy because I wanted to day drink with my friends. And then gulped it out of a paper bag. Talk about living the high life.

It was little moments like those–the pleasure that only a deserved sip of malt liquor brings–that made November my favorite experiment of 2012. Each dollar saved, each penny pinched, brought a little jolt of adrenaline. I went entire days spending exactly $0. It was fun–a diversion from the financially reckless lifestyle of the common American twenty something.

It was also humbling. At Safeway, I got stuck behind a family paying for their groceries with foodstamps. The mom–a middle-aged black woman–stared straight ahead as the cashier took 15 minutes totaling everything while her kids fidgeted with increasing intensity. Although her head was held high, the mother’s tired eyes betrayed a harsh reality: I chose to limit my spending. Many had no choice.

With two days left in November, I still had $50 in my wallet. I had saved vigorously, and I wanted to buy something I could put on the mantle–a trophy of my second successful month of the year.

So I blew a three day paycheck on a ferocious toy dinosaur. I fucking earned that stegosaurus—it was one of the most satisfying purchases of my life to date.

After the last poor supper (aka two delicious McDoubles), I still had $22 left to spend. With newfound wisdom, I recognized that the pathway to success was through reasonable judgment and big ambitions, so I deposited the rest into my bank account.

Just kidding. I bought lotto tickets. Twenty two of ‘em!

I could see the headlines: “Man attempts social experiment and wins big.” The classic rags to riches story. I rubbed my hands together, preparing to make it rain. Dollar. Dollar. Bills ya’ll.

I woke up next morning and giddily checked the winning numbers. I grabbed my first lotto ticket. No dice. Next one? Nothing. Each ticket brought a little bit more disappointment. In a matter of seconds, my entire stack lay on the floor, discarded and dejected. One ticket actually won $2, but I was so disappointed that I left it crumpled on the ground.

But now was not the time for disappointment. I spent 30 days clawing tooth and nail, and I ended the month at a net of exactly $0. By any objective standard, I dominated November.

The year, however, was not over. The month of December would be long and hard, the previous 11 months a crescendo of pressure and buildup. It would not be an easy finish.

Have the puns tipped you off yet?

December’s trial was the granddaddy of them all: no masturbation.

 

Read the appendix: Alex’s Guide to Cheap, Shitty Fast Food

October: Transportation

rsz_alex_and_scott

“Alex, you’re a bit of a nut, you know that?”

Even my own mother was questioning my sanity.

I had just told her October’s resolution, which was no gas- and electric-powered transportation. That meant no cars. No taxis. No buses. No subways. And since I’m irrationally terrified of city biking and haven’t ridden a Razor scooter since Junior High, that left just walking.

As a friend put it, “What started off as a noble endeavor is quickly spiraling into self-inflicted torture.” This month was way out of character. The only outdoorsy thing about me is my lumberjack-like chest hair. I’m not particularly environmentally conscious (in high school, I “protested” Travel Green Day by driving to school twice and spraying aerosol cans when classmates complained). In fact, as a teenager, I lamented that Italy sucked because there was “too much walking.”

So yeah, I’m a gas-guzzling, electricity-draining, spoiled American. As September transitioned to October, I was prepared for a real kick in nuts.

On October 1st, I laced up my Vans, slung on my backpack, and trudged off for work.

It was a rare hot, sunny day in San Francisco—a good omen, I thought. I needed to drop something off, so I detoured 15 minutes south before rerouting towards the office.

There are days when you realize how beautiful your city is, and this was one of them. I strolled by green grasses, gazed at the pastel-colored Victorian houses, and made goofy faces at the dogs passing by.

At around the time I passed my second park I thought, “Weird… I should be able to see downtown by now.”

I walked another block. No closer. In fact, it felt like I was moving further away.

Shiiii-iiit.

I had just walked three-quarters of a mile in the wrong direction.

I’ve jokingly referred to my sense of direction as my worst quality, but there was nothing funny about that moment. My pleasant stroll turned into a labored slog—the beautiful sunshine now just hot solar radiation.

One hour and 3 miles after leaving my apartment, I stumbled into work. I looked like Death’s sweaty cousin. My backpack stuck to my drenched shirt as beads of sweat poured down my face.

I slumped into a chair, kicked off my Vans, and took a deep breath. My back was sore. My feet were sorer. My pride was sorest.

To be fair, if I had any internal compass whatsoever, October might have gotten off to a better start. But the ramifications hit me—I was stuck. I could go only as far as my legs would take me. Now everywhere had to be evaluated by its walkability.

And I needed to change my fucking shoes. I gladly subbed out my Vans for more functional running shoes, even if I lost style points for sporting them with jeans (a.k.a the “Jerry Seinfeld”).

Those shoes would soon be tested.

On the first Saturday in October, UCLA football was playing Berkeley. Thanks to September’s resolution, I had not watched a second of my alma mater’s football program. I wanted to go. One problem:

A 5 mile body of water called the San Francisco Bay.

I checked to see if bikes were allowed on the Bay Bridge. They weren’t. BART used electricity. Unless I wanted to swim, I was out of options. And then suddenly:

Sailboat.

It just popped into my head. Wind power! I was in business!

But where to get said sailboat on 5 days’ notice?

I asked friends that sailed. I Googled. I Craigslisted. Three rejections and two hours later, I had reached an agreement with a fellow by the name of “Captain Josh” to sail myself and 10 friends across the San Francisco Bay at $40 a pop. And alcohol was allowed on board.

Here we go sailgating! Initiate fistpump!

When the day arrived, I laced up my new pair of Nikes and ran two miles to meet Captain Josh. After getting lost (shocker) with just five minutes to spare, I broke into a dead sprint. I wasn’t going to be late. I had a sailboat to catch, goddamnit!

Luckily, I arrived on time and introduced myself and the group to Captain Josh, a mid-thirties guy with Top Siders and a sweaty upper lip. We boarded and headed out, ready for a luxurious booze cruise. Unfortunately, Captain Josh had to use his gas motor to navigate out of the pier—strike one. After five minutes, he said, “so we can turn off the motor and put up the sail now, but just so you know, the wind will basically tilt us sideways.”

I took stock of our group. One of my friends—to preserve her identity, we’ll call her “Shelley”—was already turning shades of green from the rocky waters. Her boyfriend, we’ll call him “Todd,” was shoveling Cheez-Its into his face by the handful, his drunken eyes moving independently like a chameleon’s. We were not fit for a 45 degree tilt.

So I took one for the team. “Fuck it. Let’s use the motor.”

The next 90 minutes were gorgeous—blue seas and bluer skies. I didn’t care that we used more gas than an SUV—the opportunity to enjoy the ocean breeze underneath the majestic Bay Bridge was too good to pass up. Exceptions needed to be made.

But the trip didn’t end when I hit dry land. While everyone else loaded into cabs en route to the stadium, I stretched for my second run of the day. I was not in good shape—my muscles were tired and the post-workout meal of Maker’s Mark and Coke was not exactly replenishing. But I gave myself a quick little pep talk and off I went.

A few minutes into my jog, my brother—who could barely form full sentences at that point—ditched his cab and came barreling onto the sidewalk. I was glad to have a companion for the 3 mile trek ahead. But what followed was one of the dumbest, and most dangerous things I’ve ever done.

Running three miles when you’re out of shape is dumb. Running three miles when you’re out of shape and hammered is dumber. Running three miles over bridges with tiny sidewalks, heavy traffic, and laughably small “guardrails,” all while out of shape and hammered is just fucking moronic. There were several moments when I pictured my mother’s reaction after being notified that her only two sons were lying in adjacent hospital beds.

But an hour later, we made it. It took a 2 mile run, a sailboat, another 3 mile run, and several near-misses, but for a brief few hours, I was king of stupidity at the Berkeley game.

Captain Josh offered to give us a discounted ride back, but I opted for BART. When faced with the option of breaking October’s resolution or enduring The Amazing Race Part II, the decision was quite clear. Fuck. That.

After the ill-fated first try, my later walks to work were less sweaty, but much… well, livelier. One of San Francisco’s defining characteristics is its multitude of districts, which change in a matter of blocks. Case in point: five minutes into my morning walk to downtown, I went from a quiet residential neighborhood to smack dab in the middle of the Tenderloin.

I hate to be coarse (not really), but if San Francisco was the human body, the Tenderloin would be the unwashed butthole after a battle with a spicy bean and cheese burrito. In fact, it’s not particularly uncommon to walk through the Tenderloin and see a scraggly homeless man wiping his actual butthole with discarded trash. Nor is it uncommon to see the ground littered with dirty needles, urine puddles, and human blobs rolled in patchwork carpets.

So twice a day for 31 days, I got to mingle with San Francisco’s best and brightest. Needless to say, I walked quickly.

It could’ve been the environment, but I found walking to work to be a mixed bag. Doubling my morning commute time—especially when things at work were heating up—added stress. I couldn’t get into that Zen-like meditative state. Watching bus after bus whoosh by—on one walk, I counted seven—did not particularly help matters. But there were positive aspects. I lost 5 pounds in 31 days. My day was brightened each morning while exchanging friendly “hello’s” with a kind-faced, older gentlemen lounging on his front porch. And I got to experience the sights and sounds of my city in a new light.

Weekends were another beast altogether and I was usually forced to play the role of social outcast. Birthday party for a close friend in Napa? “Yeah… not gonna make it.” Roommate needs a ride from the airport? “Really wish I could, but my hands are tied.” Friday night outing in distant North Beach? “I think I’ll just go to McTeague’s.”

As the remaining October days dwindled, I reflected on my progress. I could knock out 2 mile walks no problem and my calves had turned rock-hard. In aggregate, I walked over 120 miles in a month—enough to make it from Los Angeles to Santa Barbara. No transportation wasn’t as soul-crushing as no music, nor as psychologically taxing as no swearing, but it was hard-core. When November 1st came, I was more than happy to resume my post along the 38 bus line.

Unfortunately, things would not get easier. Not by a longshot.

In November, I would take penny pinching to a new extreme and attempt to live off of $8 a day.

September: TV & Movies

TV_and_movies2

Picture this scene: two friends are lounging on a couch watching TV. Another walks into the room. Instead of occupying the empty seat on the couch, the newcomer pulls up a chair, flips it opposite the couch, and sits with his back to the TV.

For one month, that weird-ass newcomer was me.

In September, I couldn’t watch TV and movies. This month was at the core of the Alex Gives Up experiment—shedding bad habits in the search for new ones. TV offers cheap laughs, vicarious thrills, and mind-numbing distraction—not much beyond entertainment. Lucky for me, I had practiced low levels of television for years.

When I was a kid, my parents established a strict no TV, movies, and videogames on weeknights policy. To use a Biblical allusion from last month, TV was the forbidden fruit, my parents were God, I was Eve, and Rugrats on Tuesday nights was the snake. There were no morning cartoons before school. No Nick at Nite after homework was done. No late-night softcore porn on Cinemax (internet to the rescue!). Although I hated it at the time, the rule was a shrewd move by the ‘rents, and I did well scholastically partly because of it.

So when September 1st arrived, I was ready to revert back to that 5th grade mentality

The first day of September fell on a Saturday. I groggily pulled myself out of bed to smells of a sausage, onion, and spinach omelet wafting from the kitchen and a high-frequency buzz emanating from the living room. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted my roommate planted on the couch watching pixelated images from my new rectangular nemesis.

I walked into the living room with my head down like a guilty kid about to be scolded by his parents. Keeping the TV firmly out of view, I walked past the couch and sat in a chair opposite our coffee table.

And this would become my life for the next month.

I initially thought that taking a break from TV would be a breeze. But I underestimated TV’s value as a social activity. When friends are hanging out with nothing to do, TV provides a solid backdrop. It could be high school buddies enjoying a beer over The Game. It could be girls giddily gossiping over the newest steaming pile of shit that network execs have cleverly disguised as reality television. Whatever it is, TV is the social glue for Americans everywhere.

When you look at the numbers, the average American spends 34 hours a week watching TV. That’s insane. That’s like watching half of an NFL team’s regular season in a week or, if you’re a particularly delusional girl with terrible taste in men, the first four seasons of The Bachelor. It’s as close to a national malady as they come, right up there with NASCAR and will.i.am.

So whenever I hung out at a friend’s house, the de facto activity was watching TV. If I wasn’t already a social outcast, my backwards seat embossed that scarlet letter. It was annoying as shit. While my friends chuckled along with the newest episode of Workaholics, I sat there and dicked around on my phone. Or stared at the wall. Or as one friend put it, “awkwardly watched everyone else.”

Abstaining from movies was slightly easier. I had to turn down a few invites to see September releases, namely Looper, End of Watch, and The Master, but I didn’t consider any to be must-sees. This was partly by design. I picked September because it’s generally a movie no-mans-land—the piece of bologna sandwiched between summer blockbusters and Oscar-bait indies.

But TV is omnipresent. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s at bars, in restaurants, in store windows, and in so many other places I’d never noticed until I actively attempted to avoid it.

So slip-ups were imminent. At bars, my eyes would flicker and I’d catch a second of television. On one occasion, I crawled onto the couch after a particularly unforgiving workday and accidentally watched 7 seconds of ESPN. I immediately scolded myself and resumed my post at the backwards chair.

But for the most part, I stuck to the resolution. My post-work routine changed dramatically. Instead of wasting those nighttime hours with SportsCenter or a fifth re-watch of 50/50, I read. I played piano. I went to the gym. My nights were peaceful, more productive, and that TV-induced malaise at the end of the day was gone.

However, falling asleep took some getting used to.

For the majority of my teenage years, I had mild insomnia. I would lie in bed for hours, my mind running like a Kenyan from child rebel soldiers. After college, I started watching a TV show—usually It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—before bed. It was like the grown-up version of a bedtime story, and it worked. Before long, my eyelids would droop in tune with the show’s opening theme song (fittingly, it was also the first time I noticed the effect new habits have on my well-being).

So with no TV, I turned to music videos before bed. It technically wasn’t television, and it wasn’t a movie, so my internal referee gave motioned “play on.” And before long, that worked too—I had no trouble falling asleep.

One of the funnier aspects of a television-poor diet was the pop culture ignorance. In particular, I missed every single bad call in the replacement refs era in the NFL, including the infamous Packers-Seahawks game (which had such a legendarily bad call to end the game that it has its own Wikipedia page). Listening to incredulous commentators with just my imagination and the ceiling as visual clues was hilarious—mainly because I had no clue what everyone was so upset about. Some things just have to be seen.

When September came to a close, I was proud of the effort I put forth. I lost a few battles to twitching eyes, but it was one of my most successful months to date and provided a clear benefit—I really was more productive. But I was still happy to have my old friends back.

I also invested in a new pair of running shoes. They would see a lot of use. Because I would spend the entire month of October without transportation.

August: Atheism

In my eyes, religion is like gay sex. It’s a beautiful, essential part of life for some people, however, it’s just not something in which I like to partake.

At heart, I’m a scientist. I believe that life and the universe can be explained with physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics. Although there are minor exceptions, I find that A Brief History of Time and On the Origin of Species give a more adequate model for how our world works than stories of apples, snakes, and floods.

However, I dislike labeling myself as an atheist. The word has a know-it-all, in-your-face stigma about it, and thanks to a vocal minority of obnoxious douche bags, that tone is justified. But hey, if I’m already disclosing that I drunkenly ruined someone else’s laptop with my own piss, I’d say it’s fair to admit that I don’t believe in God.

So when August came, I wanted a peek at the other side of the story. I decided to roll the cosmic dice and renounce atheism in favor of Christianity. In reality, I could have picked any religion, but for the sake of general familiarity, I sided with Jesus.

Since I had to become a good God-fearing Christian literally overnight, I defined a few strict parameters:

  1. Attend church on Sundays.
  2. Read the Bible every day.
  3. Pray every night.

There is much more to Christianity—as I would soon learn—but the guidelines gave me a push in the right direction.

I started my nightly Bible readings on August 1st in a rented studio in New Orleans.

Since I neglected to pack a Bible as part of my travel essentials, I opened the month hoping God wouldn’t smite me for copyright infringement and participated in Biblical internet piracy.

First came the task of picking a Bible. There are two main ones to choose from: the King James Bible which was translated in 1611, and the New International Version which was translated in 1978. I wanted to go full Christian—all the old-school thee/thou/hath business. King James it was.

Since I wanted to get to know my main man Jesus, I started at the beginning of The New Testament: Matthew.

After reading a few passages, a truth became apparent—as a writer, Matthew lucked out. The guy was a mediocre wordsmith at best but was giftwrapped the greatest orator ever to walk the earth as his literary subject.

Let’s take one of Jesus’s most well-known miracles: walking on water. In my head, the scene looked like this: Jesus descends gracefully from a boat, tiptoes across a still ocean surface as ripples radiate from his feet, and shines with a faint gold aura as dolphins gleefully leap around him and stunned villagers watch in awed silence.

You know how it actually reads? From Matthew 14:25-26, “But the ship was now in the midst of the Sea, tossed with waves: for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night, Jesus went unto them, walking on the Sea.” Peter then joins Jesus, starts sinking, and they walk back onto the boat. That’s it.

I know it’s supposed to be a parable for doubt in the Lord, but let’s get real Matthew—you reduced one of the greatest miracles in mankind to a terse four words. How about some description? A little pizzazz? Not to take anything away from bossman, water-walking Jesus, but if we’re calling a spade a spade, Matthew’s kind of a chump.

The Bible and I got off to a rocky start. But with The Book in the books so to speak, it was time for step two: praying.

I didn’t have the first clue on how to pray authentically. Sure, I “prayed” for a Playstation when I was 9 (and I fucking got one!), but as for actual honest-to-God praying instead of narration to the ceiling? No idea.

So I turned to my previous Lord and Savior: The Almighty Internet. After scouring Wikihow, I was ready to give it a shot.

I clasped my hands on the bed, lowered my head, and got down on my knees. Doing my best to ignore that this would be a great porno opener, I began to pray: “Dear God, I want to thank you for this day.” I then recapped my day, enumerated each challenge for which I needed His help, and mentioned all the people I was thankful for and why. I closed with a simple “In Jesus’s name, Amen” and that was that.

And you know what? I felt better. A lot better. It was humbling to consciously acknowledge how much of life was out of my control. Praying took literally two minutes and was a great decompression—like wrapping a bow on the day’s gift. I liked it immediately.

After a few more weekdays of Biblical passages and nightly prayers, it was time to pick a church. Although I went to Sunday School a few times when I was in 1st grade, I had attended church for the last time at 16 when my mom dragged my dad, brother and me to a Christmas Day sermon (which led to my dad pounding his fist on the steering wheel of our Honda stationwagon and exclaiming, “Alright God, here come the heathens!”).

I wish I could say that I embarked on a journey to discover the brand of Christianity that resonated with my core, but I opted for convenience. There was a Catholic church a few hundred feet from my apartment. So unceremoniously, I became a Catholic.

After a respectable night of Saturday sinning, it was time for my first mass.

I can’t say I was enthusiastic to hear the alarm ring at 8:20 when I had arrived at my apartment only 6 hours earlier. I dragged myself out of bed, gulped down a few bites of cereal, and splashed some water on my body. I didn’t want to be the schlub who showed up for his first Mass underdressed, so I pulled out the heavy artillery: my best button down (to be fair, I own two), slacks, and dress shoes. At the last second, I added a tie.

As I walked outside, it felt like the morning sun illuminated the path from my apartment to church. This particular church was imposing—hundreds of feet of vertical alabaster marble adorned with an austere cross and bronze doors big enough for several Andre the Giants. Serious business.

When I entered the church, I heard the soft sounds of an organ and smelled the musky scent of incense. I watched the elderly man in front of me solemnly submerge his fingers in a bowl of water and trace an unmistakable Hail Mary.

Not wanting to be outed as an imposter, I followed suit.

I dipped my index and middle fingers into the water, touched my forehead, then my sternum, and then froze.

Shit.

Is it right left, or left right? For the first and last time in my life, I wished for Tim Tebow.

Hoping that no one was watching, I rushed out a quick right-left and shuffled to a seat in the second-to-last pew.

As I admired the stained glass and waited for the other church-goers to file in, I noticed something: I was the best dressed person at church. By far. Most people were wearing jeans—maybe a nice sweater. One guy was even wearing shorts!

The irony was thick—in trying my best to fit in with the crowd, I stuck out like a sore thumb. I nervously fiddled with my tie and waited for the sermon to start.

A dramatic shift in the organ and a motion from the back of the church signaled the opening. Up through the center of the room came a line of five or so clergyman, led by a preacher. He was everything I hoped he would be: white hair, full beard, flowing white robes, and a dignified cane to top it all off. He bellowed forth in a tenor vibrato while I fumbled with my song pamphlet, hoping that I wasn’t making the adjacent women’s ears bleed with my tone-deaf grumble.

After a slew of hymns in Latin, a few awkward exchanges of “and peace unto you,” and what seemed like fifty arbitrary swings of the incense pot—which I quite enjoyed—the preacher opened his sermon.

This was a crucial moment for me. From a bystander’s point-of-view, there are a number of things to dislike about the Catholic faith—in particular, its strict emphasis on outdated rules, its joylessness, and its oppressive ideologies. I put on my cynic cap, ready to reject some ridiculous message about abortion or homosexuality.

But then the preacher began to speak.

He opened with a Nazi gestapo on his death bed. The Nazi gestapo had done terrible things in his life—killed people, watched passively as men and children died, and ritually drank the blood of Jews (just kidding). While feeling Death perched over his shoulder, he consulted a clergyman, expressed his deep sorrow and regret, and asked for his forgiveness.

The clergyman deliberated. He then responded, “I can’t forgive you. No man can forgive you for these atrocities. Only God can forgive you.”

Je-zus. If I wasn’t already awake at 9:45am, the preacher’s words hit me like a bucket of water to the face.

After a few more Halleleuh’s and an almost botched communion (fun fact, you’re supposed to eat the wafer before drinking the wine), church was dismissed and I walked out into the world.

My step had a hop to it. I felt better. My Sunday mornings were often worthless, but this spiritual productivity was a nice boost early in the day. It was weird to admit, but I kinda liked Church.

But the Bible and I still weren’t seeing eye to eye.

After slogging through Matthew, I skipped to Revelations. If you’re unfamiliar, Revelations describes a catastrophic battle between good and evil and it’s like a massively horrific shroom trip. Here’s an actual passage: “And I stood upon the sand of the sea, and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having seven heads and ten horns, and upon his horns ten crowns, and upon his heads the name of blasphemy” –Revelations 13:1.

John the Apostle: tripping balls since 95 AD. It did not make good bedtime reading.

Since I was on the verge of Biblically striking out, I consulted with a Christian buddy for a new section, who recommended a part of the Old Testament called Ecclesiastes.

And I turned a corner. Ecclesiastes beautifully illuminated the meaning of life and how to live. I found wisdom on every page, thoughtful passages about youth, death, vanity, and luck. Days later, lines still bounced around in my head (“Better is a poor and a wise child than an old and foolish king” -Ecclesiastes 4:13).

After a few weeks of practice, I think I made a pretty good Christian. I’ve always treated people well, but with Jesus on my side, I went a bit further. I gave money to homeless people. I called my parents more often. I didn’t miss a day with my Bible and dutifully prayed each night. And most impressively, I made it to church on the third morning of Outside Lands, a three day music festival. I’m not saying I’d waltz my way through the Pearly Gates, but I think St. Peter would at least grant me an interview.

However, I don’t think he’d be pleased when he unearthed some of my more, shall we say, less-than-holy moments. I had to work one Sunday and skipped church (and felt guiltier than a priest in a playground). I prayed a couple nights while slightly intoxicated. Worse still, I eased a Sunday morning hangover with a bowl of weed just minutes before church (if you’re wondering, yes, attending Church while stoned is extremely sacrilegious but still quite enlightening). And most damning of all, I was always cognizant that I was tethered to a month long experiment instead of a full spiritual immersion with God.

But despite my many sins, I gave Christianity a fair shot and learned quite a bit. In particular, I realized that atheists have a blindspot when it comes to Christianity. Naively, I had thought that Christianity existed simply as a vehicle to explain the universe’s mysteries in a series of overblown fairytales.

But that is a minor detail.

The religious rituals—praying, reading the Bible, and attending church—give many a sense of purpose, a certainty anchor in life’s turbulent seas. Religion teaches to respect and revere all of life’s uncontrollable ups and downs. And the Bible, mediocre writing and all, is the most profound book ever written on life and death and chronicles one of the coolest cats to walk the planet, Jesus Christ.

Even still, for me, the benefits of religion do not outweigh those of atheism.

Atheism trained me to think critically, to never accept truth without fact, and to respect others as fellow human beings. It imbued me with a powerful sense of self-reliance, moral responsibility, and humility. And most importantly, atheism taught me to make the most out of every moment because once I’m gone, I’m gone. I am a better friend, son, and man because of atheism.

But as August came to a close, I felt bittersweet. Sure it would be nice to gain a couple hours of extra sleep on Sunday mornings, but I genuinely enjoyed the time spent with God, Jesus, and the whole gang. Although they might hover over my shoulder for the rest of my life, I knew that the friendship had probably irrevocably turned one-way.

Which was disappointing, because I was about to lose another set of close friends.

In September, I would cut ties with my good buddies, television and movies.

July: Music

music2“Hey Al, what’s up?”
“Dad, I’m not gonna make it. I think I’m getting depressed.”

I called my dad on July 2nd while I swiveled in an office chair at work. For the last 5 hours, my Apple earbuds had transmitted sounds of trickling waterfalls and pattering rain drops. I thought this would be soothing. Instead, it was literally water torture.

I was only two days into my new life without music, and I was already going insane.

Thanks to my dad, I grew up in a household governed by music. One of his few splurge purchases was a gigantic set of oak speakers, of which he made good use. I watched him start many a Friday night by slicking back his hair, pouring a generous rum and coke, lounging on the couch, and blasting “Come Together” by The Beatles. Mashed potato and turkey dinners frequently featured a side of James Taylor’s Greatest Hits.  It was not uncommon for the household to have three sources of music at a given moment, even if the cacophony of rap, nu-metal, and 4-minute bass solos (another Dad special) made my mom’s ears bleed.

Even with that said, it’s tough to describe the role music has played in my life. Obsession fetishizes it. Addiction cheapens it. Habit doesn’t cover the depth. It sounds weird to say, but the closest word I can find is companion. Music was there when I was an awkward teenager alone in my room. It was there in college preserving my sanity while I pored over archaic math proofs. It’s there when I’m working out, or folding laundry, or recovering from a hangover. In fact, almost every word on Alex Gives Up was written with music playing in the background.

So I’m not sure what compelled me to list “music” as one of the 12 items to give up back in January. But I did. And the incredulity from friends was nearly unanimous.

“Music?!” they would gasp, and you could feel the exclamation point puncture the question mark. “Why?!”

My only legitimate response was “to see if I can do it.” It was sheer naive audacity—masochism, pure and simple.

The rule was that I couldn’t listen to music on my own accord. That meant no headphones, no speakers, and no instruments. But since music is so pervasive, if I heard it on the street, at a friend’s house, or in the background of a TV show, I wasn’t going to sprint away with my fingers pressed in both ears.

Since July 1st fell on a Sunday, I didn’t start to feel the effects until work on Monday.

My work habits are entirely dictated by music. Doesn’t matter where I am, I haven’t reached the office until my headphones are plugged in and music is streaming. I listen to it literally all day. At its best, it sharpens my focus and helps work flow.

But in my most unproductive moments, I’m easily distracted by picking a song. Hours in aggregate have been wasted finding obscure songs on YouTube. So I thought there might be a chance that abstaining from music would have some benefit.

Within a few hours, that chance plummeted to nearly zero. I couldn’t focus. My face was molded into a constant grimace. In a move of visual exasperation, I slumped face first onto my keyboard. It was around this time that I called my dad and boldly self-diagnosed depression.

If this was Harry Potter, bullshit ambient noises would have been the dementor sucking the life out of me. I needed to switch tactics. Something rhythmic, but with a little more variation.

What about speeches? I Googled “famous speeches in history” and started with a portly, fiery chap who had trouble pronouncing his r’s: Winston Churchill.

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall NEVER surrender.”

Fuck yeah Winston! You ‘n me buddy! It was just the jolt I needed.

Famous historical speeches became my savior. Good speeches have two primary components: what is said and how it’s delivered. A speech like “I Have A Dream” by MLK has a beautiful cadence and I’d heard the words enough times that I could lose myself in the rhythm and work. JFK became my Justice, Malcolm X my Mos Def, and FDR my Flosstradamus. In fact, I found a new rhetorical hero in none other than Richard Nixon who delivered the best speech of the 20th century with “Checkers,” a flawless dictation of his financial history featuring a spotted black-and-white puppy as the emotional high point.

But life without music was still dismal. I craved music like Christina Aguilera craves tubs of ice cream. I missed my Spotify and Hype Machine accounts (holla at sh’boy akorch16!), and my post-work ritual of playing piano to radio pop songs was dully replaced with TV. I nearly lost my shit any time a YouTube video was preceded with an advertisement for a new VEVO music video, possibly the first time in YouTube’s existence that someone has voluntarily watched the full 30 second ad instead of skipping through after 5. I didn’t even complain when my roommates would play country music, even if the sound of Southern drawls and twangy guitars still made me want to pitchfork Toby Keith right in the dick.

I knew that these were grey areas, but on paper I was still following the rules. However, it didn’t take long before I found the line and leaped over it.

On the first weekend of July, Fillmore Street was host to San Francisco’s Jazz Festival. “Well I walk down Fillmore all the time. This time, jazz music just happens to be playing,” I told myself.

File that one under “self-deluding bullshit.”

But goddamn did that bullshit sound amazing. There was a 20-piece band, complete with blaring horns, pounding congo drums, and booming bass. A few blocks up, a throwback rap duo laid down rhymes over smooth saxes and funky beats. You couldn’t walk more than a hundred feet without hearing the sweet sounds of jazz music.

It was bliss.

And it was cheating. But it was also the best I’d felt in a week.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the only exception.

In May (fucking May), I learned that the San Francisco Symphony would perform a suite of Pixar music in July. In other words, one of the most renowned symphonies in the world would play music from my favorite movies on Earth. If I believed in God, his name would be Gusteau and his gospel would be Ratatouille. No way was I passing this up.

In late July, the day arrived. As I strolled inside, it felt like I had been transported to 18th century Vienna. The symphony hall was absolutely gorgeous: dimmed amber lights accented the flowing white pillars and crimson seats. Rows upon rows of musicians filled center stage. Even though I was slapping July’s resolution in the face, I was giddy with anticipation.

And then the music started.

The symphony opened with songs from Toy Story, the music simmering below an enormous screen silently showing scenes with Buzz and Woody. By the time the theme music from Ratatouille began playing, the tears were streaming down my cheeks. It was just so goddamned beautiful. The strings rose and fell as timpanis pounded and flutes crescendoed, each note illuminating Remy’s scampering footsteps. The two-hour set was mesmerizing and was the most remarkable live performance I’ve ever seen—definitely aided by the fact that I hadn’t listened to music in weeks (and was also fairly baked).

But even with those two breaks, July was still miserable. With other resolutions—meat and Facebook in particular—after a few days I hardly noticed their absence. Not music.

I never got used to it. Like the light had been sucked from my life. I hadn’t noticed until it was gone, but so much of my daily mood is intertwined with music—I have quiet, ethereal instrumentals for mornings, thumping electronic beats for daytime work, and laid-back rap for nights and parties. Instead, I was stuck with white noise and scattered sounds from the city streets. Pick any synonym for “depressed”—melancholic, glum, despondent—I had them all in spades. If it hadn’t been for Winston, Martin, and Franklin, the month would have been a total loss. It sucked. No… scratch that: it fucking sucked.

But I stuck to it. After 31 painfully long days, I was free. When August 1st arrived, I played my usual morning music and breathed a deep sigh of relief.

The worst monthly resolution to date was in the books. There would be rough (and embarrassing) times ahead, but my psyche would not take a pummeling like July’s again.

And for the first time in a while, I was excited for next month.

No longer would I be a godless heathen. In August, I would rid my soul of atheism and get buddy-buddy with the most famous man in history: Jesus.