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The Language of the Great Spirit

August 24th, 2015

I’ve just returned from my annual clown trip to Iquitos Peru, with Patch Adams and 100 clowns from all over the world to participate in an international healthcare project in an impoverished community.

The clowns come from different countries, backgrounds, ages, education, jobs, but we come together here and become one tribe. We gather in welcome, hugging, dancing, and chanting we initiate ourselves into a community that does healing work 12 hours a day.

For the last seven years I have participated because… I am reminded of the parts of me I like best… and because it gives me hope for humanity. The experience is always transformative, and sometimes it’s transcendent; those are moments when you’re moved beyond ordinary consciousness, so present that every cell in your body feels alive, and feeling one with the cosmos.

I made a home visit to a middle aged woman I saw in one of our mental health Street clinics last year. She was so suicidal I thought she needed to be hospitalized, but of course there are none for poor patients. She made a “no-suicide” contract with me and promised to see me again at the next street clinic.

When she arrived, it was with her two daughters, and all shared a story of profound mental and physical abuse. We made a real connection, we don’t have drugs, and instead I gifted each with a sacred amulet and a blessing.

This year, I asked our clinic coordinator if she could find them again, and it took awhile; they had left the abusive home and were in their own “house”; a wooden platform lashed to an abandoned water tower, partially covered with a tin roof. I brought along some nonperishable grocery items and we sat and talked. They are happy to be living together, feeling good and getting by. They showed me their amulets I’d given them, and when it was time to leave we hugged amidst tears. They thanked me repeatedly, and it had far less to do with the groceries I’d brought, than it did for having remembered the specialness of our connection. In that moment I felt our shared humanity.

Such a moment happened again on the final day after returning to our hotel following the closing parade. This spectacular farewell is always an electric high, and the clowns were dancing, singing, and drumming in the plaza in front of the hotel. I went in to take a shower, and they were still going strong when I got out. I walked to the balcony window, and looking down joined in the movement. Suddenly, without any signal, everyone turned around, looked up at me and began chanting; in that transcendent moment understood that we are the language of the Great Spirit.

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21st Century Cures Act

August 3rd, 2015

In May 2015, the 21st Century Cures Act was introduced in the US House of Representatives. It has a lovely ring doesn’t it? I mean who could be against Cures, and indeed the House Committee approved it unanimously. Its goal is to promote the development and speeding the approval of new drugs and medical devices.

This bill is championed by the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and device industries (collectively Big Pharma) who want to encourage the use of “shorter or smaller clinical trials” to accelerate approval of their new products. The underlying premise of the bill is that the current process is too slow and inefficient, but that is simply not true.

The fact is, more than two thirds of new drugs are approved on the basis of studies lasting six months or less. A third of new drugs are currently approved on the basis of a single pivotal trial, the median size of which is just 760 patients (flimsy scientific evidence), and there is no proof that they work any better than the ones they are replacing. We also don’t know anything about their long-term side effects because they haven’t been around long enough.

What we can predict with absolute certainty is a slick marketing campaign promoting these new, improved, updated (but basically similar) versions of their products, and that they will cost more than the current inventory.

We do not need shorter or smaller clinical trials; we need bigger and longer ones. The 21st Century Cures Act is not about curing at all; it’s a sales promotion strategy. Let us instead fund the NIH (whose budget has been stagnant for years) and give them enough to fund independent research (not Big Pharma sponsored research), and create more efficient ways to disseminate those results. Don’t pass this bill.

Putting Maggie Down

July 19th, 2015

I just spent a glorious week disconnecting from my ordinary workaday world and escaped to paradise… northern Lake Kootenay in the Canadian Rockies.  I was there with my wife and dear family friends staying in a gorgeous mountain home where our major decisions were whether we had wine and hors d’oeuvres before or after the bocce-ball game, or what garden greens to pick for that evening’s meal.

Along with the house came with three big dogs, including Maggie, a 20 year old Black Lab mix nearing the end of her life. She was virtually immobile, spent the day sleeping only getting up to eat, drink or relieve herself. She struggled to get up, moaning in obvious discomfort. Watching her, filled me with pain and I thought I would’ve put her down long ago, but the family said she was eating, drinking, surrounded by love, and they didn’t want to hasten her demise.

Seeing her every day made me reflect on what is a good death, and I think it’s dying at home surrounded by loving family. As a dog we could relieve Maggies’ suffering but that’s not an option for humans. We seem unable to end the current epidemic of unnecessary end-of-life suffering in people who are dying. Our technology allows us to subject people to unending tortures that may fend off death, but that do not restore health.

Let’s stop fighting for maximum longevity and start providing a good death for people; to live at home for as long as you can with pain managed, support, kindness, and surrounded by love; not a prolonged struggle in a hospital surrounded by doctors, nurses and machines.

How is that going to happen? We need less interventional care and more palliative care doctors, and we need to pay them more. Medicare pays meagerly for palliative care, but they will pay over $100,000 for open heart surgery on a patient who may be too fragile to survive it; they will pay an oncologist a 4.3% markup on drugs they administer (some costing more than $10,000 per dose) but they will not reimburse hospice without first requiring patients to forgo whatever other treatments they are currently on.

Finally, watching Maggie’s struggle, reminds me that all life is relational; stay connected to those you love in life and in death… leave an emotional legacy that includes witnessing death at home and dying with dignity.

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Grateful Dead: Fare Thee Well

July 5th, 2015

It’s been 50 years since the Grateful Dead have been making music, and this was going to be their last gig. The Fare Thee Well concert was scheduled for the 4th of July weekend in Chicago, as a long time fan, I sent away for tickets in the usual Dead fashion paying up front, mailing it in a colorful envelope with an added plea to give this old man one more chance to hear the music live; I didn’t get picked.

Ticket demand was so overwhelming that they scheduled 2 more appearances closer to their San Francisco home on the weekend before. I followed the same routine and didn’t get picked again…but lots of tickets became available at the end, and got a plane ticket and hotel room and went up for the night.

I’m wearing a Grateful Dead T-shirt in the lobby of the hotel and a tall, husky, bearded, heavily-accented, younger man comes over to me and asks me if I’m going to the concert, and that I can catch a ride with him.  Jussi, is a 42-year-old father, record producer, from Finland who has loved the Dead’s music but never attended a live concert.

We talked on the way down, about music and history, an intimate conversation punctuated by the awareness that he was going to his first concert, and I to my last. When we got to the parking lot I put on my old piano hat, clown nose and a Grateful Dead mask tied onto the back of my head. Together, Jossi, and I wandered the lot which is different nowadays; the food selections are less gourmet inspired and the baked goodies unavailable, but the vibe is the same, that sense of family, and the buzz of anticipation.

At the gate, everyone got a long-stemmed red rose, a postcard with a picture of Jerry on it and an empty play-list on the back that you could fill-in. I didn’t know anyone around me, but it’s a Dead concert, all-inclusive, and everybody dancing. Although Jerry Garcia the former lead guitarist has been dead for 20 years, his place was filled by Trey Anastasio, the lead guitarist of the band Phish, and he was absolutely sensational. The crowd was rocking, the big screen flashed on Bill Walton and the crowd roared.

The sun was setting, and suddenly a brilliant rainbow appeared over the stadium, and slowly everyone looked skyward. I stood in wide-mouthed awe, and felt Jerry looking down saying to us all, Fare Thee Well.

Looking around at this community of shared spirit feeling grateful to this rainbow warrior of peace and creative possibilities, and thinking what a legacy you’ve left behind.

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In Over My Head

June 23rd, 2015

As often as I ramble about being in the moment and that the way it was is not the way it is. Talking about it has always been a lot easier than doing it. I’m in over my head with the Clown Town Healing Fest (CTHF). Organizing this inaugural event (clowntownhealingfest.com) is getting overwhelming; I’m in over my head and need help.

I’m a good ideas, I can share the vision with passion but it’s the organizational work I’ve always had difficulty with, the following through, managing the details, dealing with endless bureaucracies, that stuff actually makes my skin crawl.

But asking for help has never been easy for me; it’s hard for me to acknowledge my neediness. It’s not that I don’t feel it it’s just that I don’t like being reminded of it; so my style is to hope somebody recognizes my neediness without having to ask to have my needs met more directly.

The CTHF is getting bigger; I have so many plates twirling in the air that it’s waking me up in the middle of the night. In my distress, I asked all kinds of people to help me. Friends old and new made it easy, whether or not they shared the vision; they shared the joy of my purpose and passion in making it happen. I felt neither ashamed nor embarrassed in acknowledging my overwhelm, quite the contrary… my friends thanked me for giving them an opportunity to help me make my dream happen.

This whole experience has allowed me to create a new ending to that old dysfunctional story of how to face my neediness. It couldn’t come at a better time because age tames the ego, you either acknowledge your slowing capacities or you live miserably.

I want to say thank you to all of you who’ve joined me on this road for helping me to look again at the old landscape and be able to see it with new eyes. I resolve not to wait until I’m drowning before I reach out next time. Your truth will set you free and it’s a blessing not only to those who ask but also for those who respond.

Join me on this healing journey and check out the Clown Town Healing Fest

Making It Happen

June 8th, 2015

It’s happening, our dream is coming true. The Clown Town Healing Fest will happen in downtown Phoenix at the Civic Space Park December 4 – 6, 2015. This is a practical demonstration of how to promote health and healing in community, and help shift our culture from a healthcare delivery model of intervention to one that focuses on prevention.

The Turtle Island Project and the Gesundheit! Institute (both 501c3 non-profits) has been spreading the message of community and preventive health for decades. This is the first time we will come together to bring this paradigm-shifting event to an American city. Clowns will mobilize the healing resources in Phoenix, Arizona, that will include dentists, nurses, and doctors, along with movement/music/dance/narrative/exercise/massage/and pet therapists. Included will be transcultural healers, environmentalists, nutritionists, meditators, and support groups of every description. All these healthcare resources will be telling their stories, demonstrating, educating, and inspiring people to becoming active participants in staying healthy.

Patch Adams MD and I are long-time friends; we have worked and clowned together all over the world. Help these two, aging, Hippie doctors actualize their vision. Go to clowntownhealingfest.com see what we’re doing and make a donation, volunteer, become an exhibitor, if you’re a healthcare professional attend the Clown Healing Workshop.

We are making it happen, and I say thank you.

For All My Relations, Mi Takuye Oyacin.

My Shrinking Circle

May 24th, 2015

My circle of close male friends is shrinking, and it’s not that I’ve ever had that many; it’s been hard for me to reach out for that kind of intimacy and it’s getting harder as I get older.

I lost a dear friend this week, a truly extraordinary guy. David had a PhD in molecular biology, was doing basic research at UC in the sixties. The Viet Nam war was escalating, his government grants wanted him to be doing more practical biological research and he wouldn’t do it so he left academia and become an astrologer. His scientific mind understood the mechanics of the universe, and he delved into the mystical world. He studied Buddhism, Kabbalah, Chinese and East Indian mythologies, and when he gave you a reading it was a compendium of scientific and spiritual wisdom. David had you look at what was happening to you at this time in your life, why it was happening, and point out the choices about how you wanted to come to them. He built a worldwide reputation.

He’d been healthy until 4 years ago when he slipped and fell, they never saw the tiny bone fracture that eventually led to a spinal abscess. He developed serious postoperative complications leaving him blind and unable to taste or smell. It took him a year to recover, and then he went back to work. A year later a mass was discovered in his abdomen that turned out to be a kidney cancer, and was successfully removed. Last year, when he complained of neck and arm pain, doctors found metastases in his bones.

He knew what he was facing, understood the trade offs (suffering/side-effects) in exchange for getting the hoped for benefits, and decided to go for the chemotherapy and radiation. The chemo slowed the spread for a while, but he couldn’t swallow and required a feeding tube. We talked regularly about everything, two old guys schmoozing about how we come to our losses, and the price we are willing to pay to pursue life.

The chemo failed to slow the spread, and for the last year he was in unremitting pain. Last week, he had an afternoon appointment with his oncologist to consider another round of chemo. I saw him that morning; he was in bed and grimaced in pain as he got up to walk to the bathroom. I asked him what he hoped his doctor was going to tell them that would make him willing to continue his suffering, and he said there was nothing the doctor was going to tell him that was worth this. He said I’m not going to keep the appointment; call Hospice. With the same commitment and intensity that he pursued life he also pursued his demise, and died within 24 hours.

I spoke at his funeral, and when I watched him being lowered into the grave had this revelation… I had better be reaching out more to expand my shrinking circle, otherwise there’ll be no one left to talk to me.

Cultivate intimate friends; it is through their eyes that we see ourselves more clearly

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Love Never Dies

May 10th, 2015

We just concluded a two-week road trip through France, Switzerland, northern Italy with our almost 23-year-old granddaughter. Before coming home I sat in a coffee on a drizzly Paris afternoon, while my wife and granddaughter were packing up some of her things to take him with us.

Outside, under a canopy, sipping a real cup of hot chocolate in the 11th arrondissement, I watched a multicultural, multilingual community walk by; Africans in colorful robes, Muslim women in hijabs, haut couture fashionistas, skateboarders, and jugglers, all of whom are dodging dog droppings in the middle of the streets in a culture where no one would ever dream of picking it up.

You can sit in a Paris Café four hours nursing a single drink and nobody bothers you, so I leisurely wrote some reflections about this extraordinary trip.

We took a day to get over our jet lag then went to the car and drove through France, Switzerland and northern Italy. We never stayed longer than two nights in any one place; we visited churches, castles, museums, road gondolas up snow-covered mountains, visited friends, took boat rides in the Lord Gurion C, and ate great food every night.

We also spent some time driving every day, and listening to each other’s stories. In spite of the tight space and its occasional provocation of scratching this it was always an atmosphere of loving tolerance. There is a special connection between grandparents and their grandchildren that’s clearly different than the one with your children. My grandkids can say things to me that I don’t hear as well from my kids. I am less defensive if my grandkids tell me something that I may not want to hear or face. Since I was not responsible for raising them and setting the limits we only know each other as playmates. We have fun together and when they confront me about things that I may not want to hear or look at in myself they simplyinspire less defensiveness.

For two memorable weeks we shatter lives and it reminded me again that our survival as a species is not insured through the transmission of our DNA but rather in the transmission of our stories. From generation to generation we learn from each other how to walk a good path in life, and how to love…. And love is the part of us that never dies.

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My GPS

April 29th, 2015

My soon to be 23-year-old granddaughter just finished teaching English to French high-school students for the last year, and suggested the possibility of joining her on a European road trip. We’d never been through southern France, Switzerland and Northern Italy, and her grandmother and I leapt at the opportunity of a couple of weeks with a grandchild who actually wanted to be with us.

I rented the car in Paris not even asking if the vehicle was equipped with a GPS device because I don’t have one in my car and pride myself as an excellent map-reader. Turns out all new cars have them and it would have been a logistical nightmare to travel without one. The GPS a stunning tool, you input your current location, your destination, and whether you want to use the toll roads or not. The device asks what language you prefer and then “Tim” an Englishman then asks you if you want to use the toll roads are not then talks you through the trip while providing visual guidance as well.

I don’t have a GPS system in my car, and you already know that I don’t have an I Phone or handheld computer, so I couldn’t even have turned it on, much less programmed it. My granddaughter however did it in a millisecond, and it soon became clear that without the device, it would have been nearly impossible to get to the obscure destinations we sought out.

The GPS was a godsend but it was exceeded by the human GPS… my Granddaughter Providing Support, because without her we would have been toast. And it was not just the technical capabilities, she knows were slowing down and is had to deal with our growing lessening capacity is like forgetfulness and my inability to hear.

In the best of circumstances my hearing is diminished but in the midst of the allergy season and my upper respiratory stuffiness and spending 11 hours in an airplane going up and down four times I could hardly hear anything with my ears plugged. She knows are limitations, we’ve been old ever since she is no less but this was a bit more than she’d anticipated but her response was what a great situation I’m in I can’t lose she said one of you can’t hear me and the other one forgets what I’ve said, I can’t lose.

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The Price of Shame

April 12th, 2015

Several weeks ago, on the main stage at a TED conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, Monica Lewinsky spoke out for the first time about public humiliation and shame.

You remember Monica, the 22 year-old White House Intern who fell in love with the President of the United States. She confided in a ‘friend’ who recorded their personal conversations and then made them public. Overnight, Monica was transformed into to a one-dimensional bimbo/slut/tramp/ and “that woman”. This once unbroken young woman lost her reputation, dignity, and almost her life.

I watched the video (http://www.ted.com/talks/monica_lewinsky_the_price_of_shame?language=en ), and was moved to tears at the poignancy of her presentation. Monica talked about what it felt like to live a life where not a day went by without being reminded of her mistake. I felt ashamed because I too was guilty of having reduced her to a punch line.

Over the last 19 years she has reinvented herself as a hand-bag designer, tried reality TV, got a Masters Degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics, and is now writing and speaking about the toll that shame has taken on her life, and that of her family’s.

She said stealing people’s private actions, words, photos, conversations and making them public is destructive and becoming commonplace. Shame and humiliation have become an industry; the Internet has amplified its impact because it gets lots of clicks, and the more clicks the more advertising dollars.

She is now speaking about it publically for the first time about because “it’s time for me to stop tiptoeing through my past, and to take back my own life story”. Cyber bullying is becoming rampant and Monica wants to speak up for the tens of thousands of people who are shamed with tragic consequences. Suicides are increasing because humiliation is a more intense emotion then happiness or anger,

Monica pleaded that as a culture we needed to become more compassionate and empathic. She said that our precious right to freedom of expression could not exceed our responsibility for what it is we say. At the end she told the victims of cyber bullying that they can survive it and create new endings to their life’s stories, and got a standing ovation,

Let’s take responsibility for what we say, and try to walk a mile in somebody else’s headline before passing judgment.

Dr. Carl A. Hammerschlag, M.D., CPAE is a psychiatrist, author, and professional keynote speaker. He is an authority in the science of psychoneuroimmunology mind, body, spirit medicine and speaks about health and wellness, healing, leadership and authenticity . He has delivered motivational keynote speeches to corporate and business clients around the world.