Day 30: Going Deep Into the Onion

“I’m just trying to go deep, deep into the onion,” said singer D’Angelo during a 2014 interview with filmmaker Nelson George. D’angelo was describing his process of recording vocals; he essentially creates a fort with no light, save for the glowing tip of his cigarette. It’s just him and the microphone, keyboard, and an ashtray inside of a black tarp. All other distractions are shut out. No one sees him, he sees no one.

The concept of going “deep, deep into the onion” had fascinated me since watching this interview. I’m not a singer – ask anyone walking down Lawrence Avenue today who heard me passing the time by singing some tunes by Evan Dando and Jason Isbell – but I love the giving and taking of senses. Perhaps that is a large part of what went into my interest in this month’s challenge as I cut out added sugar, alcohol, caffeine, refined carbs, and most social media

When the easiest pleasures are peeled away from life’s onion, the deeper layers seem to reveal obvious truths that were previously obscured from view. Nothing out of the ordinary happened this month. Here’s a quick list of what I noticed:

  • I slept better, longer, and more easily – turns out drinking a lot of caffeine hurt my ability to sleep well.
  • I’m less fat – turns out cutting added sugar, alcohol, and refined carbohydrates chops inches off my waistline. Also, fruit like pineapple tastes incredible now. Almost too sweet, really. Even broccoli tasted sweet the other day. I wondered if I was having a stroke at first. Nope, just eating broccoli.
  • My attention span is better – this month, I’ve been writing a lot by hand. I’ve also been thinking to myself a lot more. Turns out the constant needling of social media was hurting my ability to have those moments of unmitigated pain, pleasure, and focus that are so uniquely human.

Here’s something less obvious: I find that when I have more stone-sober time to myself, my mind and emotions are sat together bargaining table to work things out.

I’m not sure how much this meeting of mind and feeling was happening as much before April. After all, it was pretty easy to allow my emotions to say, “I’m bored, let’s have a drink” or “WHOA, that topic is too fucking sad. Why not browse Facebook and see how happy or riled up everyone is” or “Yeah, that was a long day. You deserve to fuck some ice cream into your face.”

It’s also very easy for my brain to logic and reason my way out of how I feel. Many feelings simply don’t make logical sense. If the brain takes over, I can force myself to feel something else – often nothing in particular. Unfortunately, logic and feelings are often at odds for good reason. What’s logical about love? Why does there need to be a logical reason behind hurt feelings – don’t they exist either way? Does sadness and grief need to be logical or can’t it be an irrational wave of pain that is experienced? Does something have to make sense to be funny?

Separately, these two sides of me can be a full person, one who thinks or feels or does both from time to time. But over the last month, I’ve noticed that they’re both much stronger together.

Here’s the thing: the brain is likely going to win more than 80% of the time. It’s just how it goes for me. I don’t think emotional decisions are very good over time. They tend to be rash and not based entirely in reality. Feelings can also change very easily – much more easily than a sound decision. However, ignoring emotions is an errand made for fools to run (I think of it as the brain’s version of going to Subway and getting angry that the food is bad). I’m going to want what I want and feel how I feel, sometimes for silly reasons. Perhaps allowing a better meeting between the intellect and the emotional state will work to drive better decisions – smart with heart.

My hypothesis is that as these two adversarial decision making systems – emotion and mind – work better together, they become one. They each strengthen each other with practice and, over time, become a fine-tuned team.

So after learning all of this, what the hell am I going to do next? Some thoughts:

After finishing Guy Taubes’ “The Case Against Sugar” this week, I’ll likely keep sugary treats as just what the second word of the phrase “sugary treats” implies: a treat. One who knows me might say, “But Hal, you love ice cream! And cake. And candy bars. And..” OK OK I get it, I like a lot of sweets. But so what? Enjoying sugar is wired into the human brain. It’s a survival mechanism that is outdated, good as it may taste. I may love sugar, but I’d probably love heroin too. Does that mean I should start mainlining smack into my forearm once a week? I give that a resounding “no.”

Refined/added sugar will be mindfully watched: a special occasion treat, not one consumed out of boredom.

As for coffee, that will also be relegated to the land of the treat as well. As nice as it is to wake up and have a hot cup (or four) of bean juice in my face, it’s nicer to be able to lie down whenever my body feels tired at night and sleep uninterrupted. It’s also nice to be free of the radiating feeling of panic that jets through my body whenever I’ve overstepped the line from “fucked up on coffee” to “holy shit, you’re way too fucked up on coffee.”

Coffee will be a once in a while treat, if that. I quite like the taste of herbal tea and water, anyway.

Alcohol is a bit trickier. As nice as it is to wake up after a night out with a net balance of $0 in bar tabs and a completely hangover-free head, people in Chicago like to drink for fun. A LOT. I’ve turned down free drinks in more places than I’d care to admit over the last month. I’ve been to rock shows, comedy shows, writing workshops, conferences, holidays, friend’s places, and work events where it seemed like everyone but me had a cold one. Just the other day, I listened to a guy break down the virtues of a Manhattan ingredient by ingredient and I start of wanted to scream ALRIGHT ALREADY WE GET IT THEY’RE GREAT and swig a LaCroix in one swallow.

So I think the deal I’ll make with myself in the immediate future – until my trip to Spain later in May – is that I wont drink alone at all. No post-work beer or glass of bourbon or red wine with a book. My drinking will be as a social lubricant for the time being. And I’ll be less afraid to say, “No, I’m not drinking” when I don’t feel like it – which, quite frankly, is a lot more since I’ve turned 30. Turns out old people weren’t lying when they say hangovers get progressively worse as time moves forward. I figured it was just a scare tactic that wouldn’t work, like DARE.

What about social media? It’s the reason any of you are probably reading this right now. It’s the sucker of time, inviter of Farmvilles, shower of babies and cats, vortex of ideology, and the place were common courtesy goes to die…. but it’s also a place where I can keep in touch with friends, find new information, hear new music, and have a laugh or two at the latest bizarre story, GIF, or video of a little kid on drugs (admit it, those are always great).

Even so, my plan right now is to continue restricting social media use. I now have Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, YouTube, and LinkedIn all locked down into a 30 minute (total) window on my personal laptop. All the apps will remain deleted. My quick browses now don’t leave me with the same mixed up feeling of entertained and wondering where the fuck the last hour went as previous leisurely browses did. It gives me more time to be human with a great amount of time to use entertainment.

There’s no easy way to sum all of this up. Peeling away at the onion seems to be a long journey. Maybe that’s why D’Angelo’s albums always take so fucking long to be released.

I’m happy to be peeling back layers of the onion. I see it as addition by subtraction, trial and error, and living a life observed.

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