One memorable moment in my high school life was the day I was Chuck Eichten’s assistant. The ever-fabulous Chuck was our student body president and valedictorian. He was also the acting Principle in an administration sanctioned “Freaky Friday” day in which the student council ran the school (could that ever happen now?). I don’t recall why my 1980’s feathered-hair coiffed self chose this role, but I do remember that I was a big fan of Chuck. He was our leader. I remember him as smart, funny and kind. I don’t remember much ado about his diabetes, only that it was not in the forefront of his personality. So after 30 years of avoiding the dreaded high school reunion, it was a true pleasure to find him at the one I decided would be fun (in my mind…thirty years being the perfect reunion to attend–people “are who they are” by this time, so you miss the years they pretended to be someone else.). In what turned out to be a wonderful day of re-connection with so many old friends, learning that Chuck was/is a designer for Nike and writing a book about diabetes was of no surprise.
The Book of Better–Life with Diabetes Can’t Be Perfect–Make it Better, like its author, offers a witty and ardent view of the disease using a fresh approach. Through amusing graphics and ultra-positive prose, Chuck gets to the heart of being a diabetic. This is the anti-text book look on living with diabetes. But don’t look for sympathy here, Chuck wants you to get over yourself and get a grip on how you can make it better, in spite of your diagnosis. He has made mistakes and offers them up as “road kill” so you don’t have to do the same. His self-deprecating humor and strategically placed artwork is entertaining for the reader. It’s as if he is saying…”Now that I have your attention…let me hi-light the seriousness of what you must do (to make it better)”. Ask for help, know your doctor, get a pump, and assume control of your illness before it controls you–all important advice given in an honest tough love manner. He puts forth a call to action that requires you to step up to your own plate, because with this disease (unlike most others), you can actually do something about controlling its effects. You should continue to support the cause, do what you can to facilitate change, donate to research–but ultimately, be your own hero. Love it.
Chuck also wants you to MOVE your body. As runners we all know the importance of thoughtfully fueling our bodies and making them move. This book sings to all our obsessive callings for eating in moderation, embracing routine and digging deep when we are exhausted. If you have diabetes, I am sure you will be inspired by this pep-talk of a book and if you don’t you will just enjoy learning more about a disease that affects so many of our friends and family in a simple entertaining way.
And speaking of high school…I think this book would be a great addition to any high school, middle school or college library. It’s the graphic novel of diabetes books. My teenagers thought it was pretty cool. Great job Chuck! And for those of us who love to use mantras for racing…I found one here for life: “Make it Better, man*” (*circa-1980).
10 Questions for Chuck Eichten author of “The Book of Better—Life with Diabetes Can’t Be Perfect—Make it Better”
1. What is your idea of the perfect run? Details please…when, where and with whom?
The perfect run is always early in the morning, everyone knows that. I bring Zipper the black lab and we go for a run in the hilly forests around our home in Portland. The forest is thick with this sense that you are not alone. Not scary sense, just this feeling that there are other living things around. I love it. And an early morning run feels like you are getting away with something –this great experience is yours for the taking and the rest of the sleeping world doesn’t even realize they are missing anything. Makes no sense to anyone who likes to sleep in the morning. If you come to Oregon we will go for a run in the forest early in the morning and undoubtedly you will see exactly what I mean, Monica.
2. Do you race and what other forms of training/exercise do you do? What one training tool/item/gear can you not live without?
No I don’t race! That is far too taxing for me! Running for me is more of a personal experience than a community one. Oh, and I am too slow.
I figured out a couple years after I was diagnosed that moving regularly made a huge difference in managing my blood sugars. That was 30+ years ago. Since then I’ve done some form of exercise every single day. I’ve probably missed 10 days. Pretty obsessive.
I love to bike. I used to bike every day. It’s a great workout, easier on the knees. And I really like the idea of actually going somewhere. But running of course is more portable and clearly less equipment-dependent so I do far more running than biking. Plus the dog gets to run, and he, like me, needs the workout.
In terms of gear, I’m not a real gear guy, but I don’t know if I could get along without some Nike trail running footwear. Where I live, in Portland Oregon, it is wet maybe 80% of the year. I know wet feet never killed anyone, but the longer my feet stay dry, the better my run. I think Nike makes the best stuff, but—full disclosure—that is where I work.
3. I learned more about the role carbohydrates play in diabetes from reading your book. Can you discuss that balance and how you fuel for a run/exercise? What are the greatest challenges to running/exercising as a diabetic?
I love carbs, and I eat a lot of them but they drive up blood sugars. I try to mix carbs with protein and fat. Cheese and bread, trail mix, protein bar. It’s the old balanced diet thing your mom told you about. The combination slows the rate of absorption of the glucose and slows the rise in my blood sugar. The object is to keep blood sugars from going too high but still at a level where I can sustain a workout.
Strenuous moving, like running, is a tremendously helpful tool in managing blood sugars, which is what people with diabetes have to do constantly. The challenge is that when your blood sugar gets too low, the diabetic body says, in no uncertain terms, “STOP AND EAT. NOW.” Athletes think everything is simply “mind over matter.” We get used to overcoming barriers—like pain or heat or cold or hunger. However, food becomes glucose in the body and glucose is what the body uses for fuel. Just like a car, if the fuel runs out—if blood sugars get too low—the vehicle simply won’t go. The body says, “No. You ain’t going.” Athletes aren’t used to anyone telling them they can’t do something.
Monica, I am convinced that all this food stuff is not that complicated. Humans, including humans with diabetes, happily can eat virtually anything they want. That’s the good part. But the hard truth is that we can’t eat AS MUCH as we want, WHENEVER we want. It’s that simple. Sometimes we have to restrain ourselves. Sometimes we have to say, “No, thank you very much. Maybe later.”
4. What compelled you to write this book and why now? How long did the artwork take vs., the writing? Please talk about your journey to writing The Book of Better.
I still love to draw pictures, Monica, just like back in grade school. And I like designing things. That’s what I do in my day job. So I thought maybe I could create a unique voice, through design and illustration and my highly unsophisticated writing style, that might encourage someone to reconsider their diabetes. Maybe, if I talked about diabetes in a different, perhaps more interesting way, I could inspire someone to find a better way to manage their condition. Most stuff designed for people with diabetes looks, well, for me, it looks painful, but maybe a better word is antiseptic.
It took me FOREVER to write and draw and design The Book of Better. Normally, in book publishing, the design and illustration is not handled by the author. Publishers have their own experts to do that. But I convinced my publishers, Random House and Harper Collins Canada, to let me do the whole thing. They were great about it but really once they said yes I was scared to death. The longest document I had ever written or designed before The Book was 40 pages.
So I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had to figure it out as I went. First I tried doing the words separate from the design and illustrations. That failed because each of those elements influences and changes the other, sometimes dramatically. So finally I decided to design and write and draw simultaneously. It was great fun to have all that control. But it was really slow. First, because I am a slow writer, second, because I never liked anything until I had done it over at least three times. Or six times.
But gradually I developed a rhythm, clumsy as it was, and managed to finish the book on time. I really loved the entire process.
5. If you could sum up what you most want a diabetic person to learn from this book, what would that be?
Here it is, The Book in summary: THERE REALLY ARE WAYS TO MAKE THIS DIABETES THING WORK BETTER. SIMPLE WAYS. REALLY.
They’re not easy. But most things worth doing aren’t easy. Most things worth doing take some effort.
I’d love it too, if I could make someone laugh a little. While reading a book about diabetes. That is one of my goals too. No one gets to laugh about diabetes very much.
6. This book could easily translate into a manual for living for any person facing a health challenge and trying to live a normal life. What do you see as some of the life lessons a non-diabetic can take away from this book?
Find some little thing that makes it BETTER. If that little thing makes you even 4% better, HALLELUIA! Take it. And that little tiny Better thing might give you some encouragement to do some other little Better thing. Who knows, you might end up with a whole pile of Better. But even if you do not, you still got your initial 4% Better.
Diabetes, and most everything else in this world, is NOT about PERFECT. We will NEVER get perfect. But we can always get Better.
7. The Book of Better gave me a new respect/empathy for the diabetic person. I couldn’t help but think it must be exhausting. As a runner I like to use a mantra. What tools do you have to get through the tough times?
I’m old enough now that I know I can’t feel too sorry for myself. Almost every day I meet someone, or hear of someone who goes about their life with much worse burdens than what I have to deal with. And often, meeting them, you would never know. I feel very, very fortunate.
With diabetes, fortunately there are a lot of things we can do, as I say over and over, to make it Better. Nevertheless, we never have CONTROL over our diabetes. But because there are things we can do, it is easy to blame ourselves every time our diabetes veers away from perfect, which is almost always.
I like that idea of a Mantra. For people with a chronic condition like diabetes, it might be this: IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. Just because your diabetes isn’t behaving as you asked it to, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT. HOWEVER, IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY to make it Better. You owe it to yourself and you owe it to the people who love you, to work to make it Better. No one else can take that responsibility, and you wouldn’t want to give it up, even if you could.
8. One of my favorite lines in the book (and I think the word diabetes could be substituted for almost anything) is: “IT WOULD BE SPECTACULAR IF THEY CURED DIABETES “But until then: Live a spectacular life—with diabetes”.
Well said Chuck. What are some of the spectacular things in your life?
Of course, my three spectacular kids. I’m sure like your kids teach you, Monica, I learn so much from them. Not always stuff I want to know, but almost always stuff I need to know. Their perspective on life is invaluable. They just look at things differently and it constantly reminds me that I don’t know everything. And believe me, they don’t miss an opportunity to let me know that.
9. What are some of your favorite resources/go-to for news, innovation and information on diabetes? Do you watch Diabetes TV? (By the way…they could really use your design skills on that show!).
The diabetes online community is amazing. These people are so connected, and so dedicated and knowledgeable. Some, just like the rest of us, are a little nutty, or irritating, but generally they just want to understand and they want to make it Better.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Diabetesdaily.com (Great diabetes news site)
Tudiabetes.org (The Diabetes Hands organization is terrific. Very dedicated folks.)
Diabetesmine.com (One of the earliest online diabetes voices.)
childrenwithdiabetes.com (Active online community but also develops outstanding diabetes events around the country focused on kids and families.)
No, I don’t watch Diabetes TV. Diabetes communication, like medical communication in general, could use a helping design hand. Design has never really been part of the medical culture, which is too bad, because I think good design can make us feel better about ourselves and our situation.
10. On that personal note…What are some of your favorite authors, the best book you have read lately and what is on your night stand right now?
Oh what a great question! I could go on forever, but here are a few authors that have made me think:
Thomas Friedman, New York Times columnist and author, is a wonderful writer and extremely thoughtful about some the most important issues of our times.
I’m re-reading the very first Harry Potter, “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” with my daughter, who is eight. She loves it. I love it. Some books are like dessert—you can hardly wait to get to them. What a stunning, revolutionary author is J.K. Rowling. There is no greater reason for her success than her absolute determination, talent and imagination. Inspired and inspiring.
I’ve lived virtually all of my left in the Western U.S.—Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle Washington and now Portland. Wallace Stegner was the first author I read who I felt captured the spirit of living in the contemporary West. His work was startling to me because everything I grew up reading was always set in New York, or New England somewhere, about people born and raised in the eastern United States. Bizarrely— publishers, and authors, it seemed, ignored the left half of the continent. Stegner forced everyone to take notice.
Extra credit: My next book will be about….
I’ll continue to write about diabetes, because it is so mysterious. The general consensus is that diabetes is an autoimmune disease. Caused by the body attacking itself. And the incidence of diabetes, and other autoimmune conditions, appears to be increasing. Why would that be? How intriguing.
I’d love to write about creativity. Creativity used to be a word applied only to those in the “arts.” You know—painters, dancers, writers, fashion designers. But OF COURSE—everyone you know is creative, just in different areas of their life. A creative business person, a creative mom, a creative land use planner. They all have to come up with unique ways to solve the unique challenges that they face every day. It is fascinating to see how someone resolves a challenge in a way I never would have thought of, because my brain doesn’t work like their brain does.
I’ve found I enjoy talking to smart people about complicated things, try to understand what they are saying, and then write about the complicated stuff in an uncomplicated way. I think it works because I am not a very complicated thinker.
Thanks for all the fabulous questions, Monica. It would be great to go on a run together sometime after you are already really tired out, so I could keep up with you.
(If you care to mention, the book is available at:
iTunes (digital version)
Barnes + Noble (stores or online)
Powells (stores or powells.com)