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Gourd Dancing on Veterans Day

Monday, November 13th, 2017

I went to a Gourd dance on Veterans Day, a yearly event at the Pueblo Grande Museum. This gathering honors Native American warriors who have served in our Armed Forces.

Americans represent only 1% of the country’s population, but comprise 3% of our Armed Forces. American Indians have a warrior tradition, and when called to serve, they respond. When warriors return from battle they are welcomed with a returning warrior ceremony which cleanses and purifies them from any dust of war that might still cling to them.

I was the Chief of Psychiatry at the Phoenix Indian Medical Center during the Vietnam War. I saw very little PTSD in returning warriors who participated in traditional ceremonies. However, those who returned to an urban environment and were not so welcomed, instead they returned to a Nation that did not welcome them with parades, celebrations, appreciation, and respect, but tried to make them invisible.

15% to 20% of the Veterans who fought in Viet Nam, the Gulf Wars, Iraq, and Afghanistan suffer from PTSD. They are treated by a VA system which labels them disabled and heavily medicates them for years. From 2004 to 2009 the Veterans Health Administration spent $3.7 billion treating Vets with PTSD, even though there is little evidence their efforts are working.

If the VA spent a fraction of the money they spend on drugs and instead adapted the Native returning warrior ceremonies, we would see less symptomatology and shorten the traumatic aftermath of war.

We heal better in community; connect with others who respect, appreciate, and remind you of your strengths and resilience, and you will heal.

The Best Day of My Life

Monday, October 30th, 2017

Thirty years ago, my close friend Patch Adams, perhaps the world’s most recognized clown doctor told me this story. As a teenager, he became seriously depressed and was briefly hospitalized. Within the first few days he decided that he would never again have a bad day.

I thought it a bullshit exaggeration. That he was dramatically over emphasizing how much control we had in the unfolding drama of our lives. Things that happen to us that are out of our hands, that influence how we come to every day.

As a younger man, I thought I was doing my life, the sense that I was in control of my destiny; as an older man, I think it’s my life that’s doing me. I am in the midst of lots of changes in my abilities and my life style, and now I finally get that the only control I have in my life is how I choose to come to every day.

A few weeks ago, I was with another beloved friend in Eugene Oregon to celebrate the life of his wife who had just died. One morning we were getting coffee at a drive through coffee stand, and when we got to the window, the barista greeted Jim with a warm “how are you doing”? And Jim responded, “this is the best day of my life”. Once again, just like 30 years ago, that it was a bullshit exaggeration

Jim said it’s real for me… this is who and where I am today. I will treasure every day of my life and say thank you for all that surrounds me. I want to come from that place, and when people ask me how I’m doing, I want to be able to say “this is the best day of my life” with that sense of joyful thanksgiving, even when I am struggling.

I tried it out at a public gathering last week where there were many old friends who asked me how I was doing and I said, “this is the best day of my life”. They looked at me with the same sense of disbelief I once had.

I understand their doubts, but it’s finally become clear that although we might not have control of what happens in our lives, we do have control about how we come to those events…and I’m working on it.

PS: we can talk about this at the next Schlagchat on Thursday, November 9 at 6 PM.


Countdown on Labor Day

Monday, September 4th, 2017

I’m 45 minutes into a video-conferencing call last week, when suddenly a pop-up appears on the screen telling me that I have 10 more minutes before this call will automatically end. BUT, if I buy the upgrade for only $19.95 I could talk to as many people, and for as long as I wanted. Accompanying this announcement was a digital timer ticking off the minutes and seconds I had remaining.

Thought about it afterwards, perhaps because I’m more sensitive nowadays to the fact that my clock is running down, the awareness of this countdown has been enlightening; it has magnified my appreciation of every moment, to love more intensely, to feel the blessings that’s surround me (and have too often taken for granted).

We don’t need a clock counting down our time, and I surely don’t want to know the exact time my screen goes blank. What we do need is to embrace life with fervor every day, to live passionately and without regret. Celebrate the fruits of your labors today, smile, laugh, dance, sing, be ridiculous, and tell those you love how important they are to you.

I say this for all my relations, Mi Takuye Oyacin

P.S. I didn’t buy the upgrade; I figured if it can’t say anything in an hour you need to take a break anyway. But I am doing another SchlagChat on Tues. Sept. 12 @ 6PM and we can talk about this among other things. Join me for an uninhibited 45 minute schmooze.

A Smaller Plate

Tuesday, August 15th, 2017

I haven’t been writing much this last month because I’m in the midst of some challenging changes. Changes not just inside my body, but in my surroundings as well. I am a strong believer in embracing change and being present in every moment (even in the hard times), but at this moment I’m just saying, my plate is full…and it’s a smaller plate.

The biggest change is deciding not to sell our home of 47 years and instead making some extensive renovations. Staying here in the ceremonial center of our family life has filled me with unbridled joy, but it means moving out of my office (which is a separate casita attached to the house), and into a smaller space inside. The move has been stressful, and I wasn’t prepared for the emotional impact of getting rid of much of my library; packing the ceremonial objects collected over a lifetime; and shredding patient files brought lots of nostalgic reflection.

At the same time, I have been learning how to manage a household (management and details are not my strong suit) and it’s a task I have assiduously avoided until now. I’m hiring repairmen, scheduling doctor appointments, making to-do lists, learning how to start the dishwasher, etc. and it’s been a bit overwhelming;

These changes also come at a time when I am usually in Peru. For the last 10 years in the beginning of August I have been in Iquitos Peru for the Festival de Belen; a gathering of clowns from all over the world sharing their gifts with a desperately impoverished community spreading hope, cheer, and health.  This annual pilgrimage has always replenished my soul, restored my faith in humanity, and reminded me of what I like best about who I am. I was surely there in spirit, but my body missed being there.

So, what’s getting me through? I am surrounded by love, and learning a lot about what’s important at this time in my life; moving into this new space is teaching me/ what to hold onto and what to let go of/ how to ask more directly for help/ helped me focus on what I still want to do, what inspires my imagination and dreams of things still to come.

The greatest blessing has been an appreciation of being surrounded by so much love. Love is the essence of a passion-filled life, it is those moments that stand out when you know you really lived. I feel it all around me, and am so grateful, it makes my smaller plate seem bigger.

To all of you, I say thank you…for all my relations, Mi Takuye Oyacin.

If you want to hear more and join the conversation, join my next Schlagchat  on Tuesday , August 22 of 6 PM at zoom.us/j/847539925.

Ashamed to be a Doctor

Monday, July 24th, 2017

The whole world knows that Sen. John McCain has been diagnosed with a malignant brain cancer; it’s one that is aggressive and doesn’t have a good prognosis. The world also knows that John McCain was the 2008 Republican Presidential nominee, a six-time Senator, and was captured and tortured for years during the Viet Nam war. The world knows that John McCain will not give up this struggle easily.

In response to McCain’s serious medical challenge Kelli Ward, the Republican who ran against him in the last Arizona election, she threw her hat in the ring, and asked the Governor to appoint her to complete McCain’s remaining term. Kelli Ward, is also a physician, and she warned that because of the seriousness of what McCain was facing that he should quit now and “step away as quickly as possible”. Anyone who knows John McCain, knows that he will not “go gently into that good night”.

I get that the history of politics is rife with its practitioners stepping over people’s dead bodies to get ahead, but stepping over live ones seems especially callous. Kelli Ward is a doctor, a member of a sacred profession whose practitioners swear an oath to this cardinal rule,  “Primum non nocere” (first, do no harm); I find Kelli Ward an insult to my profession.

Dr. Kelli Ward’s recommendation that McCain walk away from what he loves doing (and still does well), and what gives meaning to his life, to be harmful and demoralizing. I want a Dr. who can tell me the truth, but also inspire me; to remind me that I’ve got “it”, but “it” does not have me. I want a doctor who will explain the choices, explore the options, and help me make a choice about how I want to come to “it” now.

I’m putting my money on John McCain walking down the Senate aisle again, and I think that

Kelli Ward may become a great politician, but to call her a colleague, makes me ashamed to be a doctor.

Lot’s of people with you in prayer and blessing on the journey John, I add mine


Restoring My Balance

Sunday, July 9th, 2017

Just back from our annual Oregon Country Fair (OCF) reunion and it’s always sustaining energy…. couldn’t have come at a better time because I needed it to restore some sense of joyful balance to my life. My recent diagnosis of chronic heart disease was keeping me focused on my limitations; in the practice of medicine, as soon as you give something a name it intensifies its power because it comes with its own language, procedures, and probabilities.

As lay people we surrender to the doctors considerable knowledge, and trust they will help us make good decisions that achieve favorable outcomes. As a physician who understands the basic dynamics I started taking my blood pressure, monitoring my heart rate and slowly my focus became preoccupied with what might happen tomorrow and not what I was living today. At OCF the moment is all there is.

While I was in Eugene I visited my friend David Oaks, a 62-year-old disability activist, and the legendary founder of Mind Freedom International, an international advocacy group for psychiatric survivors. In midlife, David was diagnosed with ankylosing spondylitis which results in the body becoming severely hunched over; despite his condition and chronic pain he worked every day. Five years ago while he was doing some repair work on the roof when he fell off and broke his neck. He was rendered wheelchair-bound and quadriplegic. He manipulates his wheelchair with his right hand, speaks with assisted amplification because his diaphragm is too weak to sustain conversation, and he still works every day. I asked David how he managed to come to every day with such joy and he said, “I don’t look at my life as behind me, and want to create a revolution that illuminate’s injustice in the world”; he helped restore my balance.

Then I dropped my wife off at her sister’s home in Olympia, WA. and I took a 3-day fishing trip with my beloved friend John Koriath. A psychobiologist, learning theorist, and co-founder of the Turtle Island Project, we fished a little, and talked and walked endlessly. We were on the Makah Indian Reservation in Neah Bay, Washington, and decided to walk one of the great scenic trails in America and stand at Cape Flattery, the Western-most point in the continental United States. The trail is about a mile long with some steep inclines, on a very uneven footpath. Knowing I had to walk back, and puffing heavily I decided to stop just before the Trails end. I felt a bit disappointed that I couldn’t finish, but lay down on a bench that overlooked an exquisite scene. Tree-topped cliffs that plunge hundreds of feet down into the rolling surf. Enormous stone monolith’s that from the sea floor etched by wind and water into arches and caves; spectacularly beautiful.

John continued on, and when he returned I said “ I can probably make it down now”. He looked at me incredulously and asked if I was out of my mind. “Take a look around you, have you ever seen anything more beautiful, and look at how far you’ve come; you better pray that you make it back up because I don’t want to have to call Elaine”.

I’m in better balance now; say “thank you” more; ask for support when I’m light-headed getting up. I am grateful that I can still walk, flap my lips and still tell stories. It’s the same old story about facing whatever you’ve got and understanding it is you who have it, not it that has you.

Choose to live in the now and surround yourself with joyful, loving people who’ll make because they’ll restore your balance and fill your cup with joy, today.

Flamingo Slowed not Stopped

Monday, June 19th, 2017

Last week’s announcement of my newfound cardiac condition elicited such an outpouring of loving support that moved me deeply, and I want to respond to you in community since I can’t do it personally.

I’m wearing my Flamingo hat to remind you that despite last week’s attempt at clarity, some of you are still afraid I’m departing tomorrow. I’m working, playing, clowning and I’m doing it with a chronic illness that my doctor says will be with me for years to come. Last Thursday I spoke to the Arizona Community Health Workers in Tucson, where I planted the seeds for the next ClownTown Healing workshop that’s coming in late October. We spent the weekend with friends and danced our asses off; in a couple weeks, Elaine and I will be in Oregon for our annual Oregon Country Fair family reunion, after which I’m going salmon fishing.

I’m living every day, and I’m going to continue to tell my story as openly in my closing chapters, as I have in the ones that came before. I’m an old storyteller, you are hanging around my fireplace, I welcome you into my circle and I will tell you the story as it unfolds. It will be about my life and not a progress report on my disease, which I am living with and learning from.

Thank you for your outpouring of love which lifted me to stratospheric highs… I felt your presence, could see your faces, remembered the places we’ve been and danced. For the last week I’ve still been floating, you rekindle my dreams that it is possible for people of many tribes and nations to connect in shared humanity.

Your energy was the perfect antidote to my daily dose of global news that features isolation, division, and despair. I’m thinking what a gift it would be if this week (maybe even right now), you write to somebody who has positively impacted you and tell them the difference they’ve made in your life. It changed my life, it’ll change theirs, and like the flap of a single butterflies wings could create the change we dare to imagine in the world… a community of shared loving spirit

I say this for All My Relations, Mi Takuye Oyacin.

My Pink Slip

Sunday, June 11th, 2017

Dear Friends and Relatives:

This is a difficult Schlagbyte…I am reluctant to share this story because I am afraid you will see me in a different way; but this is the reality of my life and I want to face it openly.

Over the past several months I’ve been getting easily fatigued, and short of breath with only the mildest exertion. I’ve had high blood pressure for years but controlled and closely followed, but now my heart beat is irregular. Thorough diagnostic evaluation including biopsies, reveal my heart is working harder because of a rare disease called Cardiac Amyloidosis. My heart muscle is slowly being replaced by the buildup of an abnormal protein called Amyloid. This disease comes in several forms, some treatable but not often curable.

My type has been developing over years, shows up in the elderly, and generally continues for years; so, my demise is not imminent and I don’t want you to hear or read this as a farewell letter. I just have a diagnosis; don’t let it create an expectation that I have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel. I’m living and still have a story to tell, I’m exercising, writing, clowning, and not so short of breath that it’s stopped me from flapping my lips albeit not quite as fast as goose droppings through a slide trombone.

How do I feel? Like I’ve just gotten a pink slip in my pay envelope informing me that there is a termination date for my employment in this life; the reality of what’s happening inside me has changed my world. I treasure my independence and like to believe I have some control of my destiny even though I understand it’s by and large illusory.

My dignity is important to me; debility, immobilization and vegetative states are unacceptable. I want to have some say in how I approach my final chapter, and I’m thinking telling this story may be my most meaningful legacy. Actually, it’s the same story I’ve been telling for years: success in life has nothing to do with what happens to you, but rather the choices you make about how you come to what’s happened; that it’s you who have it not it that has you; and that it’s possible to be healed even if not cured.

So that’s my story and this is how I’m coming to it. I surely want your prayers and blessings but please don’t hover over me, or deluge me with potential cures, because I am in good hands. I’ll keep you informed periodically, meanwhile I’m living my life to the fullest.

I am enormously grateful for the experience of my life and have been so blessed to be surrounded by love, purpose and the opportunity to do my dance. Dance with me, let’s laugh, and celebrate the ridiculous together, while I walk a talk that I’ve shared for years.

Thank you all for being with me….. I say this for all my relations, Mi Takuye Oyacin


Going Mad on Memorial Day

Monday, May 29th, 2017

Every day, the leadership of this Nation is intensifying our divided Nation. The unfolding of shocking revelations about the sharing of classified intelligence with Russia, the firing of FBI director James Comey (and potential charges of obstruction of justice), the “G” 7 impasses on trade, our refusal to sign the Paris Climate Accords prioritizing the health of the planet as a goal, all leave me feeling sick and demoralized.   

By refusing to release his income tax returns, or become transparent in relinquishing his business interests, the President is defining our morality. He is telling us that in this Country the difference between right and wrong is determined by what you can get away with.

There are no longer penalties for wrongdoing. Devon Energy was fined for illegally emitting 80 tons of hazardous chemicals that were known carcinogens. The penalty was changed in February after Scott Pruitt became the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt, the former Oklahoma Attorney General with close ties to Devon and the Energy Industry, just rolled back Devon’s fine. This decision is being hailed by other energy companies because it provides a template for future environmental noncompliance.

Government officials, lobbyists, and lawyers who once battled every federal regulation in virtually every industry are now running the agencies they once clashed with. The result is a government in organizational chaos, creating an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust that is crippling us.

I am a community psychiatrist and in my professional opinion I think we are going mad. I spent much of my professional life understanding how people survive in rapidly changing cultures. I  discovered that when culture loses its path, when it no longer transmits sustaining values, or provides an ethical path upon which one walks on the earth, then it becomes vulnerable; disconnected from a path of meaning the society becomes despairing, hopeless, addicted, and violent.

Can we save ourselves? Only if we stop making our differences seem so irreconcilable. Congress must find some way to talk to each other, and define some common goals. They must tell us we are still a Nation that prides itself on a belief in equality, justice, freedom, and equal opportunity.

Get involved locally and nationally, write to your legislators and tell them you expect them to set an example and find the thread line that can unite us. And do it today Memorial Day, when we honor our Warriors of every color and creed who died so that we can live the American Dream. We either come together in a community that cares for and respects each other, or we will go mad.

Don’t Forget Your Mother

Monday, May 15th, 2017

On Mother’s Day weekend, I watched my second grandson graduate from the University of Arizona; my mother would have loved to be there. My mother had a fanatical commitment to education “nobody can ever take it away from you” she droned endlessly. She worked as a waitress in NYC luncheonettes to put her children through college and graduate schools. An extraordinary woman who survived the Great Depression and the Holocaust, and never lost her passion and joy for life.

I look down at the sea of graduates trying to single out my grandson who unfortunately wore no distinguishing regalia. He could have picked me out though, decked out in a top hat and a “U of A Bagel” (red/white/and blue) hanging around my neck on which I wrote his name…he saw us.

The graduation speaker was a baby-boomer media entrepreneur, who shared his wisdom about how to succeed in the world. I found myself wondering what Mom would have said about that? Her values and punch lines were great…don’t live with regrets; when in doubt… party; laugh more; life is not all about you; stop taking yourself so seriously; what you acquire is less important than what you leave behind.

Still profound teachings, and the latter a plea is also from the greatest Mother of them all; the Earth Mother who is warning us of the devastation we are leaving behind because we are not taking good care of the place we live. The rapacious plundering of the earth’s resources, the burning of fossil fuels are polluting air and waters. Global warming, desertification, melting ice caps are flooding the land mass.

We are ignoring scientific evidence in an age of “alternative facts”, where every opinion no matter how crackpot, is given equal validity. People believe whatever they want to, and can always find somebody who supports their point of view. Scientific reliability is now just another alternative fact, so scientists nowadays not only must provide the burden of proof, they must march in public to get heard.

Stop voting for public officials that are defunding programs that sustain a healthy planet. I’m just saying, don’t forget your Mother on Mother’s Day because she’ll never forget you.

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.