Tuesday, December 16, 2014

And that's how I got to Memphis

If you love somebody enough you'll follow wherever they go
That's how I got to Memphis, that's how I got to Memphis
If you love somebody enough you'll go where your heart wants to go
That's how I got to Memphis, that's how I got to Memphis

Tom T. Hall

Small Aside (Who starts with an aside?). If you don’t know who Tom T. Hall is, please find out. He’s an icon in my family. All of us. He was an enduring piece of our childhood. Listen to him. It will make you feel good.

Okay. Now. Small disclaimer. I was inspired to write this essay after watching the series finale of The Newsroom.  If you watched it you’ll recognize the song. If you didn’t, no matter. I’ll explain. 

One of the characters on the show carefully explains to another that “Memphis” in this scenario is a metaphor for how someone got to where they are supposed to be in life. In the song he follows someone there that he loves. That’s a good “Memphis”. For someone else it may be their children, their career, or maybe even a desire to return home again.

But you get the idea. It’s an explanation as to how you got where you are now. What was the driving force? The passion? The calling?

It’s such a great question really. And I bet a lot of happy people can answer it. 

I’ve tried. And failed. And tried.

I’m still trying.

But the question itself has a lot of meaning. Are you just plodding along in your life, or is there something you’ve always wanted to do? Is there someone you love with all your heart but can’t quite summon up the courage to take a chance on? Do you have a dream that might take you somewhere? If you can answer that, I suggest you don’t waste another second. Nothing else really matters that much. No one will be too impressed with a tombstone that reads, “he met his obligations” or “she kept a stiff upper lip.”

Who cares about that stuff??

We all do. Sometimes we all do.

And yet, we all have our version of Memphis as well. Maybe we’re already there and haven’t stopped to count our blessings. Maybe we haven’t looked back at where we’re at and all the work and time and relationship building we’ve done to get where we are.

All of our lives are somewhere at the end of a romantic comedy. The part where the movie is over and after the credits have rolled. When the couple doesn’t have sex all the time, and starts wearing sweatpants and gains weight and stops worrying about holding in their gas.

That part doesn’t sell many tickets.

I had a good chance to think about all this the other day when I was sitting in Auckland by myself in a bar. A man approached me, and asked me to join him and some of his friends. I politely declined.

I never politely decline.

It got me thinking about what exactly I was doing here in a remote corner of the world, 9000 miles from home, not really knowing anyone and flying pretty blind for the past six months.

And in that moment I thought of Bill Clinton. Not his women or love of Big Macs or anything like that, but something he said to himself when he had gotten off message during an election. “It’s the economy stupid.” Meaning, don’t get distracted by other things. Talk about the economy. It’s what’s important.

I had a similar talk with myself in that moment.

“It’s the people stupid.”

Meaning, everything that drives me as a therapist and a traveler and as a human being, starts with courageous interactions with other people. If I’m quiet, or fearful, or not willing to take a chance, I’m not going to be good at any of that, and for me it’s all tied together.

I quickly grabbed an armload of beers and joined the table. I remembered now. I’m here to dive in, not stand in a fucking corner like a wallflower. That’s where the experiences originate from. Getting past your fear, and reticence, and not regretting the hand you didn’t shake, the laugh you never had, or the adventure you didn’t take.  It’s why I have a lot of stories and have had a lot of fun. It’s how I worked up the courage to jump across an ocean in the first place. Chances, risk, a desire to take on a new world.

So instead of sitting around in a corner all night, I made a bunch of new friends and came away with a few great stories.

It reminded me what the hell I was doing here. In New Zealand. In Auckland. On this planet.

And that’s how I got to Memphis.

The newsroom- That's How I Got to Memphis

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ferguson Missouri, (Just my two cents)

In 1992, as Los Angeles burned in response to the Rodney King verdict, I wrote a letter to the editor to the paper in my little hometown. I was just a kid really. Full of ideals, a sense of fairness and justice, and a desire to change the world. My letter expressed my outrage at the idea that police officers were acquitted after beating a man, on camera, in front of the entire world. I was so proud of myself in that moment. I stood up for something. Something that was important to me.

Later I heard another side of the story. Rodney King was driving like a madman eluding the police in a high speed chase. He was on parole for a previous robbery. He had a long history of criminal offenses. Did he deserve to get beaten like he did? By my viewing, no, he didn’t.

But I wasn’t there. I only know what I saw.

Why is this important?

The answer lies in the idea of critical thinking. How do we arrive at what our personal “truth” is? It’s a combination of our upbringing, our values, our experiences, our parents, and a thousand other variables. Sometimes these things make us quickly rush to judgment and jump to conclusions. At our worst as human beings we get emotional, pick a side, and dig in deep. And God forgive you if you disagree. We have names for those who disagree with us. Both sides. You’re a bigot, a racist, an idiotic liberal, a hippie, a tree-hugger, a nazi, an uneducated republican, a dumbocrat.

And on and on it goes..

But can we get back to me for a second??

Sweet home Chicago. I lived in the city for 18 years. It’s one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. I’ve had beers with black friends on the south side of Chicago in one of the worst ghettos in this country. I’ve had beers many times with my numerous cop friends in the Irish bars in the city. I saw more crime than I could ever care to remember perpetrated in the black neighborhoods in Chicago. I saw some cops do some very dirty and dishonest things. Mostly though I saw and befriended, and drank and lived and died with a lot of good people from all races trying to do the best they could in a complicated and difficult city with a hundred years of difficult race relations baked into its history.

Most of the people were good though.

But here’s a story I’ll always remember.

2012 and I’m a psychologist working on the south side in a pretty tough neighborhood. I’m busy with white clients, black clients, and everything in between. One day my buzzer rings and I come to the door. It’s an old friend of mine who is a police officer. A white police officer. He’s with a black kid who is about 16. His pants are hanging low on his waist and he looks pretty pissed off.
I have no idea what they’re doing here.

My cop friend explains to me that he picked the kid up for suspicion of a robbery. The kid told him to go fuck himself. He wanted to smack the kid around. The kid wanted to smack him around. Both of them had deeply rooted ideas about what the other one stood for. This came from a lifetime of socialization, personal experiences, parenting, geography, and a million other little things that lead them to jump to conclusions about one another.

Yet there they stood..

My friend asked me for help. He knew I was a psychologist and knew that there was something about this kid that was worth saving.

He asked for my help. I agreed. The three of us sat down and talked. It didn’t go perfectly, but we all came away with a much deeper understanding of where the other was coming from. No cops, no thugs, no psychologists, but three people that actually took an hour to talk. The kid agreed to come back. I worked with him for two years. When I left Chicago he was enrolled in junior college. He hadn’t been arrested since the day he first came to my office. He was studying criminal justice.

“All cops are racist pigs”

“All young black kids are thugs”

No… Not from my experience. Not even a little bit. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever gotten as a psychologist was that each person is an N of 1.

But mostly I’ll base this on the fact that a cop who cared brought a kid to me who was going nowhere good in a hurry. Perhaps my sample size is too small, and I’m overlooking larger social and cultural forces that go way beyond this.

But I don’t think so..

Back to the critical thinking though.. I don’t know what happened on that fateful day in Ferguson Missouri, and neither do you. You believe what you believe because of a number of social forces, your upbringing, your education, your experiences, etc.

But you weren’t there.

Our justice system ruled on the case. Perhaps they simply weighed the evidence to the best of their ability and made their decision. Perhaps they were wrong. Perhaps there is racism and favoritism baked into the system.

Perhaps, perhaps, and perhaps.

But you weren’t there.

What’s one person to do you might ask? A lot. An awful lot. Maybe you can take a chance on someone like my cop friend did. Maybe you can volunteer at a school in a neighborhood that needs some help. Maybe you can do something as simple as broadening your social circle to include people of another race, religion or creed. Maybe you can start purposely and carefully challenging yourself to argue and debate the opposing side of an issue you are absolutely certain you are right about.

That’s critical thinking. You don’t have all the answers. Neither do I. Neither does anyone.

But in the meantime let’s try and be good to one another.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Always something there to remind me

I walk along the city streets, you used to walk along with me
And every step I take reminds me of just how we used to be
Oh, how can I forget you, girl, when there is
Always something there to remind me
Always something there to remind me

-Naked Eyes (Or Engleburt Humperdinck if you prefer)

“I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, and thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past.”

-Virgina Woolf

 I have a small confession to make.

I have a thing about towers.

My whole life I’ve had profound experiences on the top of a tower somewhere.  I’m not sure what it is exactly. Maybe it’s the view, or the sense of perspective, or the idea that you are on top of life, watching it all go on from up above. I’m not really sure actually.

It all started in 7th grade.

I was still a young kid in my salad days, and hadn’t traveled much of anywhere yet. Our class got to take a trip to the Oregon coast that year, and it might as well have been a trip to the moon. I took it in, every second of it. I remember hustling up the stairs of the tower when we arrived in Astoria in my home state of Washington, wanting to be the first one to the top. Here is a snapshot of the place.

It’s 125 feet tall. At the time it felt like the top of the world. I remember the moment so vividly. “Always something there to remind me” was popular on the radio at the time, and I remember hearing it when I was up there looking at the Colombia River from up above. It was the perfect song in that moment, and at that time I made a deal with myself. I would take a mental snapshot of this time and this place and I would never forget this memory.

And I never did…

There were a lot more moments on towers like that in my life, and it’s fun to connect the dots. 

The Space needle in 1992 as a young man at the cusp of a huge adventure. It felt like anything was possible.

The Hancock tower in 1996 when I first moved to Chicago to be a comedian. I felt like I was about to conquer the world.

Dublin Castle in 2008 when I was just about to become a psychologist. I finally made it to Ireland, the culmination of a lifelong dream!

So it was again on a tower that I found myself contemplating my destiny this weekend in Auckland, the biggest city in my new home of New Zealand. As I hiked up a large hill to get to the tower to take the elevator I was huffing and puffing and feeling pretty old. What the hell happened to me? I used to attack a new city with incredible zeal. Hell I practically ran up hills like this. I was sure of it.

Then I looked at some old pictures of myself.

A chubby guy in a red flannel shirt. Decade after decade.

Time can play tricks on us like that..

So up I went, older, maybe marginally wiser, in a  completely different incarnation in my life. I felt a sudden surge of inspiration and reached down for my phone to find a song.

Always something there to remind me

In the end it was wonderful to take another mental snapshot. As much as my life has changed, I'm still that kid on the top of that little tower in Astoria, craving adventure and excited about what is going to happen next. I looked down at all of the little people down below and felt that old familiar feeling. 

Life folding in on itself. 

I spent a couple hours up there watching the people and looking out at the horizon at places I've never been and people I've never met. Not yet anyway.

There was still a lot of time left. More places to go. More towers to climb. It was nice to be up there though and listen to my song again. It reminded me to look back a little while also taking the time to look ahead. 

Always something there to remind me.