Friday, March 7, 2014

I don’t ever wanna feel, like I did that day.

It's hard to believe
That there's nobody out there
It's hard to believe
That I'm all alone
At least I have her love
The city she loves me
Lonely as I am
Together we cry

I don't ever wanna feel
Like I did that day

Under the Bridge-Red Hot Chili Peppers

I was in LA recently to do a TV show. It was kind of a big deal for me. While I was there, I hung out in Hollywood, saw a great show, and met some really cool people who invited me to be on their show.

But that’s not the end of the story.

While riding the Red line in the city, I noticed we were approaching a stop. MacArthur Park. Instinctively, I hopped off the train. There was something I wanted to do there.

Specifically, I wanted to spend some time under a bridge. Weird, I know. But it wasn’t just any bridge. It was the bridge Anthony Keidis of the Red Hot Chili Peppers wrote about in his famous song “Under the Bridge.” With a little research, I found the spot.

The song was personal to me. Particularly the lyric , “I don’t ever wanna feel like I did that day.” I’ve thought of it often during some very low moments of my life. In the book “Scar Tissue” by Kiedis, he discuses how the song came out of a sense of loneliness, loss, and isolation.

I know what that feels like.

For Kiedis, under the bridge was a place he shot heroin with gangsters and thieves. It was rock bottom for him, and he never wanted to go back there again. I think we all have our own version of “under the bridge.” A place or maybe a moment or a time that we desperately hope we never have to return to. I know I certainly have some of these darker places in my memory bank.

It may seem strange to want to visit this place, but I wanted to do so when I was experiencing a really good moment in my life. It reminded me that life can change. That even in our darkest moments, there’s a chance we can turn our lives around. That whatever hope we can gather in these moments is not in vain.

The story has a happy ending. For Kiedis and for me as well. But it was a great meditative moment. As a psychologist I see people in the middle of their darkest hours, and a large part of my job is the installation of hope.  My trip under the bridge reminded me that whatever advice I have to dispense has been hard-earned. It was important to remember.

Eventually my great day came to an end. They always do. They don’t last forever any more than the awful days do. Maybe in the end this is the most important lesson.

Good, bad, victory, defeat, they are all temporary and transitory states of being.

This too shall pass…

My little trip under the bridge was a great reminder…

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Goddamnit, you've got to be kind


n. the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own—populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, worries and inherited craziness—an epic story that continues invisibly around you like an anthill sprawling deep underground, with elaborate passageways to thousands of other lives that you’ll never know existed, in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.

I recently learned a new word.

Sonder. The description is above

It’s a concept I’ve been familiar with since I was a kid. I just didn’t know there was a word for it.

I remember riding in the car with my grandparents so many years ago, looking out the window at the lights in old country houses, wondering what was going on behind those doors. I remember my first couple of weeks in Chicago, looking up at the high rises, wondering what stories were unfolding up there just out of range of my observation. 

I’ve been curious about this my whole life. It’s why I started writing at a young age. I was always intensely curious about other people’s lives.

And now I’m a psychologist. I get to hear a lot about the stories behind the lights. Sometimes I wonder if I should have been more careful about what I wished for..

But I think there’s a more powerful lesson to consider about this concept. Maybe this sense of sonder can make us more understanding, more thoughtful, and more compassionate about the invisible and complex joys and sorrows that the strangers on the street are experiencing. Perhaps this can make us more willing to forgive a small indiscretion, a moment of irritation, a less than polite response. God knows we all been on the wrong end of these transactions a time or two. 

It's kind of a profound idea if you think a little more about it. The harried barista at Starbucks? The troubled looking cashier at Walgreens? The elderly guy that pours your coffee at Dunkin Donuts? All of these people are starring in a complex movie that you know almost nothing about. You're just an inconvenient extra in their lives. Maybe they are genuinely happy to see you, or maybe they are forcing a smile. Either way, you're not on center stage. There are much deeper hopes and dreams and worries and loves and heartbreaks in their lives that you will never know a thing about. 

It reminds me to be as compassionate with others as I would hope they would be with me. I’m just a bit player in the complex production that is their lives. It reminds me to keep a little perspective. To slow down. To listen a little more closely.

Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut said it best in “God bless you Mr. Rosewater”

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies-Goddamnit, you've got to be kind.”


Friday, December 27, 2013

Doing Time on Maple Drive

The reason we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.
Steve Furtick

Just returned from two weeks back home for the holidays. Two weeks is a long visit. Longer than a “polite” visit anyway. No, in two weeks you get a little peek behind the curtain. And YOUR warts begin to show as well. Particularly when it comes to families. They’re all a little crazy. Mine included..

While contemplating this idea, I remembered an old movie of the week I saw years ago called, “Doing Time on Maple Drive.” I always loved that title, and think about it often when I work with families. Doing time on Maple Drive. Meaning, life behind the curtain is often messy. Sometimes even really messy. In this particular movie, we see a seemingly idyllic family begin  to crumble. A faithful son struggles with alcohol problems. The family’s golden boy is a closeted gay man, crippled with shame about sharing this with his family. Meanwhile the mother of the family works very hard to maintain the image that they are the perfect family.

But they’re not.

Because it doesn’t exist.

Living in the Facebook age, this is sometimes hard to believe. All we see are nice-looking people on vacation, smiling happily, enjoying beautiful places, having a great time with their families. And we compare ourselves to that. How could we not?

I love the quote by Steve Furtick at the beginning of this essay. We’re insecure because we’re looking at a highlight reel. People’s best moments. We don’t hear about the kids who were caught drinking and brought home by the police, or the cutting or the eating disorders or the constant defiance.

But they happen, I assure you. They happen in almost every family.

Speaking as a therapist, I think it’s an important point for parents to realize. The perfect family doesn’t exist, and yours isn’t somehow broken or flawed or damaged because you’re going through some hard times. Everyone does. Although I’d love to tell you to forget about the social comparisons, you probably can’t. They’re everywhere these days.

Impression management is a concept all of us at times struggle with. Putting our “best” selves out there. Whatever the hell that means. We work hard at telling people about our best accomplishments, showing them our best pictures, and showcasing the best version of our lives for everyone to examine. It reminds me of a famous Chris Rock quote about relationships, how we’re not dating someone during the first six months of a relationship, we’re actually dating their representative.

It’s important food for thought.

So as we start a new year, I offer a little cheers and a word of encouragement to all of the parents out there who think they must be doing something wrong because their kids don’t measure up to the seemingly perfect lives all around them. Don’t buy into the myth. Every mom has heard “You’re ruining my life!!” at some point, and encountered the defiance, and the disrespect, and the thinking that they must have missed something in the parenting manual.

We all have some blemishes. Every family. Every one of us..

If you’re a struggling mom, or a harried dad, hang in there. 
If you need to come to counseling, please know there is no shame in that. It can be a tremendous relief to finally drop the struggle to maintain the image, and find the courage to be imperfect.

We’ve all been there…

No matter what you see on Facebook…

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Our Time/Revisiting the Goonies at Christmas

Don’t you realize, The next time you see sky, it'll be over another town. The next time you take a test, it'll be in some other school. Our parents, they want the bestest stuff for us. But right now they gotta do what's right for them, 'cause it's their time. Their time, up there. Down here it's our time. It's our time down here. That's all over the second we ride up Troy's bucket.
Mikey Walsh- The Goonies

Back home for a couple of weeks for Christmas, and revisiting some of my own old haunts. It always puts me in a nostalgic mood, and I try and remember the good times.

There’s something else though. With each passing year I feel a little less in the Christmas spirit, and I often think about why that is. Has something changed about the holiday, or has something changed about me? Granted, the children in my family are getting older, and Santa Claus and Christmas songs have slowly been replaced by Iphones and Instagram. So it goes.

This all came back into my head as I was driving near Astoria Washington, home of the infamous “Goonies” and close to all of the places they had their adventures. The above speech about that piece of their childhoods being “our time” hit especially close to home. Adults plan, and count, and worry, trying to keep the trains running on time, but that means very little to a kid.

No, to a kid time works a little differently. Putting together a Christmas list may be the most important thing they do that year. For little kids the combined terror and anticipation of seeing Santa Claus can be enough to trigger an anxiety attack, (in both the parents as well as the children). The night before Christmas, time comes to a virtual halt and the anticipation becomes almost too much to bear. I was up at 4 A.M for 20 straight years as a kid. That’s a true story.

As a child psychologist, I get to watch all of this stuff happen every year, and it always makes me smile. It’s their time. Especially at Christmas. But perhaps even beyond that, we as counselors, teachers and parents, need to understand that childhood IS their time. All of this stuff, the first trip to Santa Claus, the first year seeing the shiny new bike in the living room, and all those memories of Christmas, are happening only once for them, even as we as the adults stress, and worry, and count, and budget. If we don’t make childhood special for children, they don’t get more time.

It goes pretty fast..

So this year I’m going to remember that, although I’m no longer a child experiencing all of these memories for the first time, perhaps I can learn to live on the good ones I have of Christmases’ past. I was fortunate enough to have some wonderful Christmases, and people took the time to make it nice for me. Me being cynical and grumpy as an adult doesn’t add one ounce of cheer to the season, and I have a lot to be grateful for. And perhaps it’s not over for us adults either. Personally I packed a number of Christmas outfits to wear just in case. So I’ll be the jackass dressed as Cousin Eddy wearing deer antlers at the Christmas party.

I was kind of a jackass anyway..

Merry Christmas..

Ya filthy animals…

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

In search of the Heart of Gold-(A Thanksgiving Essay)

I want to live,
I want to give
I've been a miner
for a heart of gold.
It's these expressions
I never give
That keep me searching
for a heart of gold
And I'm getting old.
Neil Young- Heart of Gold

For the last several years, I’ve made a point of writing one of these essays on Thanksgiving. It’s one of those holidays that inspires a little deeper thinking. At least for me. It makes you take stock of where you are, who you’re spending time with, and the things you are grateful for. This year is no different.

But let me back up a little…

My whole life I’ve been haunted by a song.

The song is ‘Heart of Gold’ by Neil Young. It’s followed me around. I remember hearing it on a long and lonely road trip across the country when I was 21. I heard it again on a bus on the way to my father’s funeral. It’s popped up again and again in my life at strange times, and it’s always made me stop and think about my life and where it was I was going.

There must be a reason.

Cut to a decade ago. I was in a major transitionary period in my life and feeling a little lost. Although I had just finished a Master’s degree, I had no real career plans, and decided to spend the summer up on Mackinac Island to try and figure it all out. I was sitting in a bar having a beer too many, and trying hard not to think about my life and my progressive sense of self-pity. I looked up and saw a singer on a stage, he looked like a pleasant enough fellow and I stopped to give him my attention. His first song?

Heart of Gold by Neil Young.

I thought about the song in detail in that moment. It’s about a man getting older who is searching for some kind of goodness in life. A heart of gold.

I finally got it. That’s what I wanted too. It’s why I decided to study psychology and be a counselor in the first place. I wanted something real. Something good. It seemed like I was meeting too many mean people. Seeing too much indifference. Encountering too much selfishness.

It occurred to me as I was sitting there having those beers, that I was guilty of all of those things myself. That perhaps the way I saw other people was simply a reflection of something going on inside myself. We view the world through our own distorted lens, and often we find what we expect to find. At that moment, it occurred to me that I needed to change. Not the world. Not the people I was meeting. Myself. My way of looking at the world..

At the end of that summer I began volunteering in nursing homes. I was poor, I drove a shitty car, and I lived in a little apartment facing a brick wall.

It was the happiest year of my life

I still hear the song Heart of Gold from time to time, and when I do I’m reminded of this. It’s so easy to drift towards complacency, to apathy, to stagnation. I’ve done it over and over and over in my life. I have an epiphany, start paying more attention for a while, and then drift back into inaction.

When I do, the universe sends me a song.

So this Thanksgiving, after the Turkey and the stuffing and the bourbon, I’m going to sit quietly and listen again to this song. I’m going to remember that the way I see other people is simply a reflection of the way I’m choosing to live my life. I am going to remind myself that historically periods of sadness, depression, and complacency in my life have been a result of forgetting this lesson. I’m going to celebrate all the people in my life, and make a point of seeing the good things. Even in the people that drive me crazy from time to time. I’m going to remember that as a therapist, it is also my job to explain this to others. That pessimism is a choice. That cynicism is a choice. That If you want something to change. Change something. Complaining never helped someone realize a dream or get the girl or change the world. Action does. OUR action.

Don’t expect the world to come to you. It won’t…

In the meantime, I’ll continue to humbly try and be a better person and remember on this Thanksgiving to count my blessings and be grateful.

I’ll keep on searching for the heart of gold.

And I’m getting’ old… 

Monday, September 30, 2013

Musings on The Grand Canyon

 You ever been to the Grand Canyon? Its pretty, but that’s not the thing of it. You can sit on the edge of that big ol' thing and those rocks... the cliffs and rocks are so old... it took so long for that thing to get like that... and it ain't done either! It happens right there while your watching it. Its happening right now as we are sitting here in this ugly town. When you sit on the edge of that thing, you realize what a joke we people really are... what big heads we have thinking that what we do is gonna matter all that much... thinking that our time here means didly to those rocks. Just a split second we have been here, the whole lot of us. That's a piece of time so small to even get a name. Those rocks are laughing at me right now, me and my worries...

Simon- So What do you think?

Mack (Takes in the Grand Canyon) I think… It’s not all bad…

From The Movie “Grand Canyon

I have a long history with The Grand Canyon.

I remember the letter I got telling me I officially had a job waiting for me there. I was barely 21 years-old, and at the time it seemed like the adventure of a lifetime was waiting for me. So I packed my beaten down little car up and hit the road. I saw Crater Lake, San Francisco, and all stops in between. I felt like a young Jack Kerouac. I was young, free, and I was on the road.

Crossing into Arizona for the first time from California, I took a look around. There were mountains on all sides, and I could see there was nothing but open road in front of me.  

I felt like my life was about to begin.

I ended up working there for about 6 months. I met all kinds of people and had all kinds of experiences. I was in awe the first time I saw the canyon. It was surreal and even a little shocking. I remember thinking, was I really here, or was this just a dream?

Invariably however, I got used to it, and sometimes on my morning walk to work, I would barely glance over at the canyon. I got desensitized to the miracle that was right in front of my eyes. Eventually I terminated my employment there, and just figured I would be back to visit someday.

Time passed, responsibilities came, and I moved all over the place trying to find my way. Eventually I started to get this nagging feeling though. Would I ever make it back to The Grand Canyon? I promised myself I would. I regretted not appreciating it more while I was there, and the pull got stronger and stronger to return. I had left something there. My idealism, some of my youth, and also my sense of appreciation for the awesome power of nature.

I wanted it back. All of it.

So today, finally, I made my return.

I thought about a lot of things in the hours I spent sitting on the rim today. It had been a lifetime since I’d been here. Literally, a lifetime. What happened? How did I get old and how did I lose so much time? Eventually though, all these regrets faded into the back of my mind, and I just started to appreciate what I was seeing again. Everything seemed small. My life, my problems, my worries. Anything seemed possible. But it was my choice. When I’m worried, or sweating the small stuff, or stressing myself about unfinished business, I’m choosing these things.

But I could also choose to remember today. A beautiful fall day in an amazing place where all of my worries seemed to wash away. I could go back here in my mind and remember, and when I did, I could leave all of my little worries and problems behind for a while.

That was my choice too…

An interesting footnote to the story was, at one time I was mildly obsessed with the movie “Grand Canyon.” The movie juxtaposed the stress and crime and fear that existed in Los Angeles with the peace and serenity of the Grand Canyon. One of the characters, Danny Glover becomes fixated on showing his friend Kevin Kline that life was not as bad as he may think, and that there were places on the earth where the world didn’t look so bad. Kline is skeptical.

They finally make it to the Canyon, and Kline has a bit of an epiphany. “It’s not all bad” he says as the movie fades to a panorama of the canyon, and we see that he has absorbed the lesson. That’s how it goes. We learn something, and then we forget it. We appreciate something for a while and then we take it for granted. We love the people in our lives,  but we forget to tell them.

Fortunately there are places on earth that can help us remember. I know I did. At least for today. I sat there for hours until the lesson sank in. Driving back across the Arizona desert, much like I did when I was a 21-year old kid so many years ago, I had one thought run through my mind, It gave me a wonderful sense of peace and contentment.

It’s not all bad.

It’s not all bad..

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Charlie Brown and the grownups

The greatest gift you can give another is the purity of your attention
Richard Moss

 “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” 
Leo Buscaglia

Was flipping through the channels recently and came across an old “Peanuts” episode. I decided to stop for a while and take a trip down memory lane. I have great childhood memories of the great pumpkin, the Charlie Brown Christmas, and even Lucy pulling the football away from poor Charlie Brown.

I could kind of relate to that.

As I was watching, something occurred to me that I never really stopped and thought about before.

The kids can’t hear a word the adults are saying.

Go back and rewatch and it will all come back to you. Any time an adult speaks it just comes out as white noise. Waaah, waaah, waaah, waaah, waaah.


In thinking about this, I came to the realization that it’s not far from how a lot of kids hear the adults in their lives. Too often we talk at them instead of to them, and when we do so, the earflaps go up. Most adults I know have less than perfect listening skills, so it’s no wonder most kids haven’t fully developed theirs yet either. Kids want to talk about THEIR worlds, and simply expecting them to stop and pay attention when we want them to listen, is often an exercise in futility. Sure in a perfect world kids would respect their elders, listen when spoken to, and come the first time they are called. The only time I’ve ever really seen it work like that was in The Sound of Music.

And that guy had a whistle.

I think one of the secrets to getting kids to really hear us is to first model a sense of empathy by becoming interested in their lives, and really listening (not waiting to talk) about what they are trying to tell us. When we give children the purity of our attention, we demonstrate to them that they deserve respect and consideration, while also providing a model as to how they should treat others. When we raise our voices, lose our tempers, and physically punish, we are providing another kind of lesson about how to cope with conflict. I’ve sat with far too many adults who wake up one day and realize they have incorporated traits of their parents they swore they never would. The young mind is like a mirror, and it absorbs the prints of its handlers.

Many parents may read something like this and disagree. They were raised to think children should obey, be seen and not heard, and be disciplined in the same ways they were as a child. And truthfully, I do believe most parents are doing the best they can with the information that is available to them. As a counselor I have sat with dozens of children who don’t listen to me, and I know it can be incredibly frustrating to feel you are simply spinning your wheels. Still, we must consider that children are a work in progress, and often haven’t fully grasped the concepts of listening, sharing, and empathy for another person’s time.

We teach these things by living these things. That’s the way kids learn. By watching us.

So next time you are having problems communicating with a child, consider taking some time to simply sit and listen. Not with advice, not with a life lesson, but instead with both compassion as well as patience. The WAY you listen to them is often just as powerful of a lesson as any kind of advice you have to dispense.

I know I always consider it a victory when a child begins hearing what I say.

Too often I’ve been like the adults in Charlie Brown’s world.

Waaah, waah, waaah, waah, waaah…..