If these guys can fix their lives, you can, too

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - SRID­HAR PAPPU

It was dark when Shay Nartker drove to a quiet spot along­side the Ohio River. Ear­lier that day, he had met with a friend who had driven down from Colum­bus, Ohio, to Cincinnati to speak with him about his con­cerns over what was, or what wasn’t, hap­pen­ing in Nartker’s life.

His friend saw un­re­al­ized po­ten­tial in him. But Nartker, who was di­vorced from a woman he had mar­ried in his early 20s, was drink­ing too much, and his diet con­sisted of the fast food he ate while fall­ing asleep to Net­flix. He trudged through his job as a con­tent cre­ator for an eye­wear com­pany, do­ing semi-ad­e­quate work.

Hours af­ter the talk with his friend, he sat in rel­a­tive calm on the river­side.

“I think it re­ally hit hard for me, that he would take that much time to see me,” Nartker, now 27, said. “It was im­por­tant to sit me down and give me the hard truth, not sugar-coat it, but just say, ‘Hey, you have to get it back to­gether and pull your­self up.’”

To do so re­quired the small, in­cre­men­tal changes that we of­ten prom­ise to make but never seem to get around to. But there are those who have man­aged to pull it off, like Nartker.

He soon joined a gym and started ex­er­cis­ing up to four times a week. He de­cided he wouldn’t keep any al­co­hol in the house and would cut back his drink­ing to an oc­ca­sional beer or wine at so­cial events. He stocked his kitchen with fruits and veg­eta­bles, and avoided any­thing with added sugar. Soon the idea of fast food re­pulsed him.

The phys­i­cal and emo­tional changes were al­most au­to­matic. His weight dropped to 198 pounds from 230. He re­con­nected with old friends. He had more en­ergy and was more fo­cused in his work. His con­fi­dence im­proved enough that he ap­plied for, and got, a job build­ing pro­mo­tional con­tent at Mad Tree Brew­ing Co.

“I had a re­newed sense of pur­pose, be­cause I had fi­nally cut out all the bad stuff,” Nartker said of the new job. “And since I made all those other changes, I had the mo­ti­va­tion to push through and go af­ter it. You have to take care of your­self.”

Un­like Nartker, Jamil Muhaisen, 42, didn’t start his self-im­prove­ment pro­gram from scratch. In 2007, he and his wife, Dee-Anne Bullard, left Brook­lyn, New York, and moved to Austin, Texas, where they be­came part own­ers of a suc­cess­ful sand­wich shop, Fri­cano’s Deli & Cater­ing. They had a child and a re­ward­ing life to­gether. All the same, Muhaisen de­cided it was time for him “to fix my life,” as he put it.

It started with his weight. Af­ter watch­ing his wife shed the pounds she had gained dur­ing preg­nancy, he de­cided he didn’t want to be a “fat blob.” By lim­it­ing his por­tions and ex­er­cis­ing, he dropped to 185 pounds from 215. He found him­self more fo­cused at work, with enough en­ergy to tackle var­i­ous projects he would not have taken on be­fore.

“It just had this snow­ball ef­fect of con­fi­dence and prob­lem solv­ing and self-im­prove­ment,” Muhaisen said. When the deli’s soda foun­tain broke down, he learned how to build one him­self. Then he re­paired an in­dus­trial-grade toi­let. At home, he learned how to re­pair his wash­ing ma­chine and dish­washer.

“I’ve done more fixing and fig­ur­ing out things on my own af­ter I lost the weight,” Muhaisen said. “I think I have had more con­fi­dence to tackle projects and fig­ure stuff out. We re­floored our house Christ­mas Day a year ago, and I saved thou­sands of dol­lars by do­ing it my­self. I never put a floor in be­fore, but I fig­ured it out.”

“I al­ways like to be my own boss,” he added. “I guess that’s the same idea, as far as self-im­prove­ment — do­ing it my­self. Self-im­prove­ment. Life­style im­prove­ment. Home im­prove­ment. It’s all im­prove­ment.”

Dan Shaver fell into a rut of a dif­fer­ent kind in the late 1990s. He was do­ing well in his job as di­rec­tor of mar­ket­ing at the Sigma Chi Fra­ter­nity head­quar­ters in Evanston, Illi­nois, and had started his own busi­ness en­forc­ing trade­mark rights on the side. But some­how he felt adrift. His per­sonal life needed work.

“I was very am­bi­tion-fo­cused at that time,” said Shaver, 46, who now lives out­side of San Diego with his wife, Ka­rina, and their two chil­dren. “I achieved these things at work. I was prob­a­bly drink­ing too much in those days and just had this feel­ing of, ‘Is this re­ally what life has in store for me?’ I had this over­whelm­ing feel­ing that it wasn’t enough.”

One af­ter­noon while in the Up­town neigh­bour­hood in Chicago, Shaver stood star­ing at a scene out­side the bay win­dow of the con­do­minium he and a friend had bought. Chil­dren from a nearby hous­ing project had found an old mat­tress and were us­ing it as a tram­po­line. He felt en­vi­ous. These chil­dren had found a way to make their own hap­pi­ness. He needed to do the same.

Self-im­prove­ment for him didn’t mean chang­ing his diet or work­ing out. It meant train­ing him­self to look be­yond his own self­ish con­cerns. Af­ter much vet­ting, he joined Big Brothers Big Sis­ters of Amer­ica, which matched him with a 9-year-old boy. The two were in­sep­a­ra­ble and shared much — Shaver even­tu­ally helped him go to col­lege — and they have con­tin­ued the re­la­tion­ship to this day.

The rou­tine of be­ing there for some­one else made a dif­fer­ence. Shaver no­ticed that he was chang­ing, that he was more pa­tient with other peo­ple. When he met the woman whom he would even­tu­ally marry, she could see in him the kind of fa­ther he might be­come some­day. Work­ing as a vol­un­teer had re­vealed some­thing in Shaver that he may not have re­al­ized was there.

“I ab­so­lutely think you can trans­form your life though a se­ries of rit­u­als, even when they are un­in­tended,” he said. “And in this case, it wasn’t some­thing like the rit­ual of go­ing to a church or go­ing to med­i­ta­tion or go­ing for a mas­sage. I would call this an ac­ci­den­tal rit­ual that I ended up fall­ing in love with, and it re­ally re­de­fined a stage of my life that ended up chang­ing how I feel about my­self.”

In 2008, Chris Ta­mas, re­cently di­vorced, lost his job as a lab tech­ni­cian at a Toronto hospi­tal and be­gan liv­ing off his eight-month sev­er­ance pay. He was now free. But to what end? It didn’t go well at first.

“I did not take care of my­self,” Ta­mas said. “At dif­fer­ent points, I stayed at home for two weeks straight, just or­der­ing piz­zas and stuff like that. There were def­i­nitely pe­ri­ods of hope­less­ness.”

When the eight months were nearly up, Ta­mas, 37, knew he had to act. He de­cided to pur­sue his pas­sion: pho­tog­ra­phy. He built a port­fo­lio while re­gain­ing healthy habits. This in­cluded the un­der­stand­ing that he needed to treat what many see as a hobby like a pro­fes­sion. Now, he said, he earns more as a free­lance photographer than he did as a lab tech­ni­cian.

“I looked at other peo­ple,” Ta­mas said, “and ev­ery­one is com­plain­ing about how they are fi­nan­cially in a bad sit­u­a­tion and can’t af­ford any­thing, but they are drink­ing all night long and sleep­ing in re­ally late. I just de­cided that I was get­ting too old for that.

“Now I get up early and I get tired by 10 p.m., so I go to sleep,” he con­tin­ued. “Just over­all, ev­ery­thing feels bet­ter. I feel bet­ter, and my life is com­pletely in or­der. Ev­ery­thing gets done.”

Dan Shaver: “You can trans­form your life through a se­ries of rit­u­als.”

Jamil Mul­haisen: “Life­style im­prove­ment. Home im­prove­ment. It’s all im­prove­ment.”

Chris Ta­mas: “Now I get up early and I get tired by 10 p.m.”

Shay Nartker: “It’s like this whole new mo­ti­va­tion I have.”

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