Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?

This is annoying as hell. My dogs, Tim and Joe, are obsessed with the trash chute in our vestibule. Whenever I drop a bag of garbage down the chute, they go nuts, growling and barking and trying to leap up and into the chute in pursuit of the disappearing bag. This has been going on for years. In fact, it’s so obsessive that whenever we open the garbage can in the kitchen or even the dishwasher next to it, they go scrambling to the chute, waiting for something that’s just. Not. Going. To happen. It’s a habit, a pure, Pavlovian habit.

Habits can be a pain, like biting your cuticles or forgetting to floss, but they can also be a real boon to a creative person. They are a little subroutine we can plug into to our neck-top computers to make sure we draw or write or play the dulcimer on a regular basis, a basis that will make us more skilled, more expressive and happier with our work.

Habits have three basic parts. First, there’s what I call ‘the Spark’. That’s the event that triggers the habit. In my dogs’ case, it’s anything to do with throwing out garbage. Garbage in, the madness begins.

Next, there’s the habitual behavior. In this case, running like a lunatic across the apartment and gnashing your teeth at a small steel door in the wall.

Third, is the reward. Tim and Joe never actually get the reward which must be diving down the garbage’s burrow to throttle it deep in the ground (they are dachshunds after all, bred to kill badgers in their lairs). Or maybe it’s just the thrill of the chase.

In any case, think of those three steps in setting up whatever brain program you want to write. Let’s say you want to find time to draw on a regular basis but the monkey voice in your head tells you to watch TV instead. So let’s create a habit. 1. Put your sketchbook on the coffee table next to the remote. When a commercial comes, (spark), grab the remote, mute the TV, pick up your sketchbook and draw whatever’s in front of you (your feet, your coffee table, your slumbering Rottweiler, scenes from the commercial on the screen)  (habit) until you fill you up your sketchbook with awesome drawings (reward).

Think of other sparks you could link to habits. Every time you make a pot of coffee (spark), draw the view out the kitchen window (habit). Every time you sit on the toilet (spark), draw on a sheet of toilet paper (habit). Every time Donald Trump says “Mexican”(spark), draw your neighbor’s Chihuahua (habit).

Or, subscribe to my blog (sign up in the column on the right) and get an email three times a week when I post (spark), and do a drawing based on my featured image (habit). That will be rewarding for us both.

My heroin addiction.

When I was thirteen, they showed a movie in morning assembly that fucked me up. We had moved to America less than a year before and I was clueless about virtually everything that wasn’t to be found on the shelves of my grandfather’s library in Lahore. I knew about hunting ocelots, excising neck tumors, and the pretenders to the Romanian throne, but nothing about rock ‘n’ roll, heroin or afro picks. This movie taught me about all three.

It was a black and white 16 mm, faux documentary about a young Puerto Rican boy’s short and tragic life. The movie opened in an alley as Chico and his homies squatted on an abandoned car, passing a joint. In the next scene, this gateway led Chico to a party where he and older pals sniffed white powder while a portable record player blasted a screeching guitar solo. Soon Chico was snorting, skin popping, then mainlining junk, dope, smack, skag, and horse. Various other madcap adventures ensued, leading to the final scene in which Chico ODs in a shower. The film closed with a slow iris down centering on Chico’s lifeless eyeball.

“What?!” he said and pushed me up against the wall. “Where are you getting the stuff? Give me names!”

That night I knocked on the door of my mother’s bedroom. My second stepfather opened it, looking bleary and irritated. I told him I couldn’t sleep because I was afraid I was a heroin addict.


“What?!” he said and pushed me up against the wall. “Where are you getting the stuff? Give me names!” My mother joined us and my stepfather told her I was a dope fiend. “Names!” he hissed again. “Who’s your dealer?!”

“I don’t know,” I whined. “I don’t know where I get it. I don’t remember anything.” I told them about the movie and how insidious heroin addiction could be. “I think I’m such a junky I can’t remember anything about it. It’s like I must be leading a parallel life or something. Seriously.”

They looked at each other, eyes rolling. “Jesus! Go back to bed,” my stepfather groaned and turned on his heel. The door slammed.

The film had a long-term effect on me. A) It was very effective in deterring me from being a heroin addict. Forty years later, I am still clean.

B) It also left me with a life-time aversion to wailing guitar solos. Unlike all my normal friends who would air guitar to Zeppelin, who loved heavy metal, hair metal, death metal, Metallica, Megadeath, Motorhead, Maiden, Sabbath and Priest — metal freaks me out. That first whining shriek still seizes my bowels like Malcolm McDowell, making me anxious and tense and waiting for hell to break loose. It’s the thin edge of the wedge, man — a couple of Motley Crue tracks and next thing ya know, it’s mainlining and toe-injecting and selling my butt in the street.


I have no particular aesthetic reason not to like heavy metal. I love punk, after all, which is far more nihilistic and loud. I like abstraction. I like the blues. I even like spandex on men.

I can only attribute this aversion to a Pavlovian response wired into me back in the dark of the assembly hall in ’73, a reprogramming of my limbic system that still holds sway.

I have other long-seated childhood aversions that I still trip over. Sweet and sour pork. Shredded wet paper towels. Bitter-sweet chocolate. Trigonometry. Cilantro.

In my never-ending quest for mild self-improvement, I have begun to question these knee-jerk repulsions and am working on reprogramming myself. I refuse any longer to be haunted by these ancient specters, especially the one whose origins I know, origins that are absurd to be enslaved by when you are a man of my age and dwindling hair. So I am watching Dianne Wiest movies, eating Filets-o-Fish, even drawing with a soft pencil. And blasting Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” ’round the clock.

I am stronger than my weaknesses — and I shall prevail.