Sunday, May 1, 2016

You can't put your arms around a memory

Nostalgia - it's delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, "nostalgia" literally means "the pain from an old wound." It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn't a spaceship, it's a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards... it takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It's not called the wheel, it's called the carousel. It let's us travel the way a child travels - around and around, and back home again, to a place where we know are loved.

Don Draper- Mad Men

The Greek word for "return" is nostos. Algos means "suffering." So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return.

Milan Kundera


One of the things I hear most often as a therapist is people talking about the past and all of the things they have lost. And fair enough. Depression is highly correlated with loss, and it’s something we can all relate to. We’ve all lost something. Maybe it’s our youth, or our looks, or someone we loved.


Where we can make a mistake I think, is when we look at the past as some kind of magical time we can never replace and never return to. A belief that we had it good and we’ll never have it that good again. This is not, I believe healthy thinking.


I had this lesson presented to me recently on a Christmas trip to the lovely island of Rarotonga, when I scheduled a walk with the local guru who guides people up into the mountains of the islands and shares local knowledge of plants, herbs, and local legends. Although I was happy to be learning so much and enjoying the beautiful views of the island, he sensed a heaviness in me, and asked what was wrong.

And truthfully, there was something wrong. I was thinking about Christmas back in the United States, and all of the memories of snow, and food, and presents, and family and my heart was getting a little heavy. I felt that nostalgia, the “pain from an old wound” regarding Christmases gone by, and was all at once overwhelmed by the urge to travel back in time.

“Let me tell you something, doctor,’ my new friend began. “I can see you’re thinking about Christmases past and how you’d like to go back there.” (How did he know that!?) “But let me tell you something from one of your American songs. You can’t put your arms around a memory.”

I did indeed know that song, a classic from the 70’s by Johnny Thunders. It was used in the shows Californication and The Sopranos and a number of other shows I enjoyed, but I’d never really stopped to consider the full implications. Seeing as I had a real life guru here, I asked him to explain a little more.


“I’ve been all around the world my friend. And I can tell you I’ve had romances, family, children, and experiences in a number of the places I’ve lived and travelled. And this walk we’re doing now? I’ve done it over 4000 times over the years. And every time I see something different or meet someone new that forces me to think about life in a new way.”


That gave me pause. And there was certainly a good lesson about keeping our eyes open for new experiences every day. I could hear my patients arguing with this idea in my head. “But I’ll never be young again.” “No one wants to date an old lady!” “I don't have the energy to start over." "She was the only person that ever understood me.” 

All of these litanies are indicative of a “yes, but” approach to life. Yes, that sounds like good advice, but it just isn’t applicable to my life. My circumstances are uniquely special you see.

And now I was doing that shit too.

It’s strange where you learn things in life. Sometimes it’s in a book, or in a classroom, and sometimes it’s while you’re panting and weezing your way up a mountain on a little island in the middle of an ocean.


You can’t put your arms around a memory. Meaning, what’s gone is gone. It seems like a sad thing, but I’m not really sure that it is. Maybe when we stop “aching” to return to the past we can surrender and let these remembrances crystalize into fond memories.

You can only start where you are in life. Right here, and right now. That’s day 1. The only day you’ll ever have control over and the only chance to start putting one foot in front of the other again.


So the rest of this trip was quite a Christmas extravaganza, I realized I still had a lot of years left to create some memories, and I couldn’t wait to start. There were pigs to roast, islanders to dance with, and girls still left to disappoint.


And let me tell you something, it was a one hell of a memorable Christmas. And I'm sure one day I'll be dying to come back and do it all again.

But honestly I probably never will.

Because you can't put your arms around a memory..

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

My Jim Valvano St. Patrick's Day

When people say to me how do you get through life or each day, it’s the same thing. To me, there are three things we all should do every day. We should do this every day of our lives. Number one is laugh. You should laugh every day. Number two is think. You should spend some time in thought. Number three is, you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. But think about it. If you laugh, you think, and you cry, that’s a full day. That’s a heck of a day.
 Jim Valvano

For those of you that don’t know, Jim Valvano was a college basketball coach back in the 80’s.  He was a classic, passionate, expressive, crazy, Italian man, and at the age of 47 he died of bone cancer. He gave the speech that includes this quote 8 weeks before he died in 1993 at the Espy’s.

I’ve never forgotten it.

It really made me stop and think. What makes a great day anyway? How do you measure it?

Jimmy V seems to nail it here.

I recently had a chance to think about this as I celebrated my first St. Patrick’s Day overseas. Having lived in Chicago for 20 years (and managing a nightclub for ten of those), I know a little about St. Patrick’s Day. In Chicago it’s a green Armageddon, and I’ve had a lifetime of memories originate from those experiences.

So I wasn’t expecting much from Auckland.  It’s a big city and all, but it’s no Chicago.

But boy was I wrong.

Getting an early start, I walked into O’Hagans on the Viaduct and heard some great Irish music playing and hundreds of people singing and dancing along. 

I was home!

So I jumped in with full gusto. To the front of the dance floor! I met a couple crazy Irish guys who were arguing who got there first. They both started at like 8 in the morning, so really it was kind of a moot point. But God was it funny, and I ended up laughing my ass off with these guys.

Valvano point 1? You should laugh every day? Check

The day turned into night, and the musicians launched into some traditional Irish music. These two little ladies aged 75 and 92 slowly addled to the dance floor, determined to dance like they did back in Ireland when they were young girls back in the old country. It was a wonderful lesson for me. Never stop dancing. And I’m not ashamed to admit I cried watching about those little old ladies doing an Irish jig thousands of miles from home.

Valvano point 3? (Yes I know I’m out of order here) You should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy. Check.

Later some American friends met me and we sang and laughed and danced the night away.

It didn’t seem like a good time for thinking, but believe it or not I summoned the power at the end of that wonderful day.

And what I thought about? Life always has the capacity to surprise you. Even though I’m a little older now and a long way from home, I still had an amazing St. Patrick’s Day.

Life is what you make of it. That’s a fact.

Valvano point 2? Think. You should spend some time in thought. Check

And that my friends was a heck of a day.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Healing Power of Music

The year was 2007 and for an evening at least, I was beaten.

I was working as an intern as a therapist at the time, and had a series of bosses who I didn't exactly care for. I was constantly hearing, ‘settle down’, ‘tone it down’, and other pieces of advice that ran contrary to my instincts. I was demoralized. Had I taken a wrong turn somewhere? Chosen the wrong career field?

I decided to drown my sorrows. After my 5th Jack and coke I started the long walk home. For a night at least, I felt like a failed therapist and a failed man, unable to fight the system and unable to access my own creative freedom.

And then....Something caught my ear. I heard a song. It was Dylan. The last time I heard this particular song was 1992 and it was my first year working in the national parks. I was young, adventurous, and venturing into the great unknown for the first time. I was traveling west with a friend and we had stopped at his father's bar, which was literally in the middle of nowhere in a small Montana town. I was young, scared, excited, brash, and brave and on the cusp of a great adventure.

I always remembered a line from the movie Field of Dreams, that we don't realize the most significant moments of our lives while they are happening. So, at that moment, when I heard Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" when we walked into the bar, I didn't know the effect on me it would eventually have. I wandered over to the jukebox, trying to look cool as a cherub-faced kid in a room full of tough guys in cowboy boots and ten-gallon hats. I registered the name of the song that was playing and etched it into my memory. Lay Lady Lay

And so.. Cut to 2007. I heard this song again and I was completely back in this moment again. Mesmerized, amazed, confused, and hopeful. Something about the song had called me back to another time and place. But why? What was it?

In that moment I took a crumbled piece of paper I carried around with me at the time with a line from Albert Camus. "In the midst of winter, I finally found there was within me an invincible summer.”

An invisible summer. It sounded so promising!

I stepped into the bar and took a look. There was a kid singing "Lay Lady Lay.” He was passionate and enthusiastic. I looked up at him and smiled, nodding slowly and looking back. Over the next several years he would become a great friend of mine.

It took me some time to examine what had transpired that night, but eventually it started to crystalize. I had, for that one night, been saved by music.

And I can think of a thousand other times music healed by troubled soul like this.


Driving my old Volkswagen Bus up from California back home to Washington. I’d just lost all of my money in Lake Tahoe and given Plasma for some gas money. I popped in David Bowie’s Space Oddity.

Hearing ‘Ground control to Major Tom’ made me laugh hysterically. It strangely reflected that SOS moment in my life.

Driving across Idaho after the death of Jerry Garcia. I was unsure what to do with my life and feeling old and rudderless. I heard ‘Touch of Grey’ by the Grateful Dead and had a wonderful moment.

‘Every silver lining’s got a, touch of grey’

Just lost my girlfriend and my job and stuck in a little town in Indiana. I put ‘Fernando’ on by Abba on the jukebox and sat, cried in my beer, and contemplated the absurdity of listening to Abba in a hick town in the middle of nowhere. Laughing at myself and signing along to that song was strangely therapeutic.

It’s not just me that’s been healed by music either. I worked in nursing homes for a few years and saw some of the most remarkable things I’d ever seen with the help of music. Take a look at this video. Look at his eyes!! This is the effect music has on a brain that’s been dormant for years!

 Oliver Sacks has done some wonderful research on this topic, and his book 'Musicophilia' is a wonderful read. In talking with my patients now, I almost always ask them what role music plays in their lives. It's one of the most diagnostic questions you can ask actually.

Music soothes, heals, inspires, motivates, energizes, ignites, and remembers.

Nietzsche said, ‘Without music life would be a mistake.’

Nietzsche was right.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The stories that we tell ourselves

“At the end of the day, your life is just a story. If you don't like the direction it's going, change it. Rewrite it. When you rewrite a sentence, you erase it and start over until you get it right. Yes, it's a little more complicated with a life, but the principle is the same. And remember, don't let anyone ever tell you that your revisions are not the truth.” 
Tyler Jones

“Before you can live a part of you has to die. You have to let go of what could have been, how you should have acted and what you wish you would have said differently. You have to accept that you can’t change the past experiences, opinions of others at that moment in time or outcomes from their choices or yours. When you finally recognize that truth then you will understand the true meaning of forgiveness of yourself and others. From this point you will finally be free.” 
Shannon Adler

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” 
― Maya AngelouI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

(Warning, this story begins with a math problem.)

The other day I was adding up my expense report, and screwed it up like 3 times. A co-worker came by and laughed, (it was like 3rd grade math. I’m definitely not smarter than a 5th grader).

“I’m no good at math,” I told her with a self deprecating laugh.

But really that’s just a story.

Beause I used to be pretty awesome at math actually. I totally dominated those math contests back in the day. Up to like 3rd grade anyway. After that the wheels came off.

Later, in High School and beyond, I started telling myself that story. “I’m no good at math.” Lots of people can sympathize with that one. But really it was just a story. And a pretty common one at that.

Here are some other others I hear a lot. 

“I’ll always be a fat girl. Everyone in my family is fat. It’s just the way things are.”

“People in my family don’t go to college.”

“I’m too old to go back to school. That moment has passed for me.”

You get the idea.

Lets take a moment to explore the difference between facts and stories.

You know that little voice in your head? The one that sounds so convincing when it reminds you of all those things you can’t do? That’s a storyteller. And a biased one at that. And yet we take that voice for a fact all the time.

We wouldn’t let someone speak to our loved ones like that. Hell we probably wouldn’t let someone speak to a stranger like that. But we let that little voice speak to us like that whenever it pleases.

So where does that voice come from exactly?

In part it comes from the way people spoke to us as a child. It’s a critical thing for a parent to remember. The way you speak to a child becomes the voice in their heads later on. 

Other things contribute as well. Maybe we were bullied as a child and never got those taunts out of our heads. Maybe it’s a message we got from TV or advertising or a million other messages we are bombarded with every day that there’s something wrong with us that needs to be improved. Lots of things can contribute to this voice.

But those stories seems to stick. They’re very stubborn like that.

I challenge you to think about the stories that exist in YOUR head today. Maybe they’re seemingly silly things like “I’m a bad cook” or “I’m a terrible dancer.” But really examine those things. Who told you that? How do you know?

One thing research tells us is “talent,” or our belief that we have inherent traits we are born with that makes us good at things is wayyyy overrated. Take a read here and see for yourself. You would be amazed what people can learn when they put in the time. Even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

Somewhere along the way these stories become self-fulfilling prophecies, and we start to believe them though.

So what’s your story?
(Single women send me their response. Guys, just think about it. )

It’s never too late to create a new narrative, a new story, a new chapter.

So get writing!!!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Some enchanted evening..

Some enchanted evening
You may see a stranger,
you may see a stranger
Across a crowded room
And somehow you know,
You know even then
That somewhere you'll see her
Again and again.

Who can explain it?
Who can tell you why?
Fools give you reasons,
Wise men never try.

South Pacific

“You can’t be lonely, if you like the person you’re alone with.”
Wayne Dyer

Damn. It’s New Year’s again. It really kind of shines a light on things doesn’t it? I always feel kind of like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz when she sits at the fork in the road trying to figure out what to do next. We know what’s behind us, and what we DON’T want to do again. We’re hopeful about where we want to end up. But sometimes we don’t know what road to start on. The Gym? Tinder? A financial advisor? A Tarot Card Reader?

I’m going to start in 1992.

It was the first real “big boy” summer of my life. I was working in Yellowstone Park after many days, (and months, and years) idling away the time. It was an incredible adventure for me at that juncture of my life. Montana! Wyoming! I couldn’t believe it when I saw the signs pass by on the road.

I had started my life...

I was working at Yellowstone Lake that summer, and next door was the world famous Yellowstone Hotel. I’d never seen anything quite like it. Although I was far from an uptown kind of guy, I used to sneak over on many evenings and listen to this beautiful string quartet that played with the backdrop of the lake and the park behind it. I’d order a beer, find a chair, and just kind of close my eyes and get lost in the music. There was one song I particularly enjoyed called “Some enchanted evening” from the movie South Pacific. It captured the romance and beauty of travel and discovery so well. This is kind of what the scene looked like.

But there was something else about the song that grabbed me. Here I was, somewhere between a kid and an adult, and I’d never really BEEN anywhere. Never fallen in love. Never wandered away to some exotic place. I couldn’t even COMPREHEND the South Pacific.

But I was ready. My mind was clear and my heart was open.

And as is the case often in life, when the student is ready, the teacher appears.

And with the soundtrack of that string quartet playing that summer, I fell in love for the first time. And traveled. And explored. And found out a lot about life I never knew existed.

It seems like a “some enchanted evening” kind of story.

But it isn’t.

Reflecting back on that time, I realized it was because I was ready that I was able to attract all of those things to my life. I wasn’t chasing or desperate to be “in” love.

But I was ready. And I was open to that.

I wasn’t desperate to travel to “find” something I was missing. I simply enjoyed every second of the ride that summer. 

So why am I telling you this?

As with most things in life, we toss the riddles that perplex us out into the universe like a giant boomerang.

And sometimes, when we least expect it, that boomerang comes spiraling back around and smacks us in the head.

So that’s what happened to me.

Almost one lifetime later, I found myself in the strangest place this Christmas.

In the middle of the South Pacific! And you know what happened? I walked in, ordered a beer at one of the nicer hotels, and guess what song I heard playing softly in the background?

Some enchanted evening.

It’s an amazing thing about memory, but nothing quite wakes up those dormant parts of our hearts and minds like a song. I hadn’t thought about that summer or that song in a long time, but in that moment it all came flooding back to me.

I sat down and thought about the synchronicity of it all. I was in an eerily similar situation to the first time I ever heard the song; Alone, in a place I’d never been before, and very much by myself feeling I was on the cusp of a new adventure.

But maybe my younger self had something to teach me. I thought back to my state of mind that summer, and realized it was because of that state of mind that I was able to attract so many great things to my life. What was different now? I asked myself some questions I think we all need to ask ourselves from time to time when we find ourselves in transition. Am I open to a new person coming into my life, or am I still hanging on to baggage from the past? Am I here, in this moment, enjoying the ride, or am I looking too far ahead or too far behind? Am I focused on outcomes or moments?

You don’t even have to think about that shit when you’re a 20 year old kid.

But as adults, these are the knots we tie ourselves up in.

Eventually though, I settled in to a calm peace and enjoyed the music, the beer, and the beautiful ocean. It was nice to untie some knots and simply be in such a wonderful moment.

I knew I was ready again for what comes next. At peace with the past, not worried so much about the future, and ready to play another hand.

And yes, I did meet some ladies on this trip. And crazy island people. And Americans and Germans, and Australians, and everyone else I had a chance to speak to.

This story doesn’t end with a love connection. Not this trip. Not this time.

But some enchanted evening…