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Ashamed to be a Doctor

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Don’t Die Broke

May 1st, 2017

I spoke last week at a retreat for the Financial Planning Association in Georgia, and told them this wasn’t a great time to be in their business. The recent recklessness, and some frankly criminal behavior of bankers, Wall Street financiers, and “institutions to big-to-fail”, nearly sank the world’s economy, and besmirched the entire financial services industry.

We are living in volatile, divisive political times; there is a global epidemic of mistrust. Building relationships based on truth-telling has become a myth of yesteryear; what’s right and wrong in our culture is decided by what you can get away with, and it breeds an atmosphere of greed and self-interest.

Today nobody knows what the truth is because “facts” have just become alternative points of view. What you say doesn’t have to be what you mean or believe, and as a result we are drowning in bullshit.

Your greatest asset In these volatile times I told them, had nothing to do with their familiarity of changing regulations, computer savvy, or knowledge of new products. It had everything to do with their integrity, their honor, and character. Their success now, and always, will be based on whether their clients like, believe, and trust them.

I told stories from my work with American Indians….the Navajo word for truth is “Hozho” it is also the word for health, beauty, harmony, balance, and the Great Spirit. In the language of mind/body/spirit medicine I talked about the importance of maintaining our own balance so that we become exemplars of the kind of relationships we like having with others.

Those are sacred relationships, and I have one with my financial planner. We have a real sense of each other, I trust him. Who he says he is, is who he is, it’s the authenticity I am desperate for, and those are the only relationships I want to have.

I challenged them to use their influence to set the standards in the financial industry.  They had a critical role and enormous influence as their clients are living longer and needing financial guidance. People will give you their most treasured possessions, forgive your mistakes and shortcomings, if they believe in you, and trust you will make decisions based on what’s in their best interests not yours.

I love my financial planner and the older I get, the more I depend on him not to go broke before I die.

Time Flies

April 18th, 2017

My firstborn daughter’s birthday is two days before mine, it was the most extraordinary birthday present ever). Every year we do a little celebratory thing together… no big hoo-ha, just a little toast, but this year, maybe because it was Easter/Passover week there were lots of people around. With the efficiency of IPhone immediacy, a party started happening Good Friday afternoon and continued through the weekend.

Prosecco at poolside, the sun setting on Camelback Mountain, family and friends some of whom I hadn’t seen in 30 years; time melted away… wasn’t it just yesterday that these women were in college? The openness of the conversation, an unbroken thread of heartfelt intimacy sharing experiences that shaped all our lives. These beautiful, competent, mature women in the height of their power, working, having raised families, sharing their competence and values with the world.

I become aware how fast the time goes by only when I take a break from the ordinary busyness of living; when I take time to remember where I’ve been, who and what I’ve loved, what I want to be doing more, and what I don’t want to be doing anymore. Life goes by like a bolt of lightning; live it that way and enjoy the ride, and feel the love.

I’m 78 years old today and getting older; slowing down for sure but grateful to be actively participating in my life; telling my stories, writing, teaching, clowning. My creativity still bubbles, and I’m still dancing on the edge of what’s possible.

I want to say thank you relatives, friends, my clown family all over the world; thanks for the memories, for your continued loving presence in my life even if we don’t see or speak often, I carry your imprint on the cave walls of my heart where time does not fly by, but dwells forever.

Holy Spring Rituals

April 3rd, 2017

At the soul level, we are all a tribal people; we like to gather in community to celebrate life in all its manifestations. We create rituals and ceremonies to help tell the stories that sustain us through the good times and bad; they provide the structure that intensify those stories, and make them holy.

I am an ardent ceremonialist and have incorporated lots of rituals and ceremonies into my own spiritual life. Many of them come from my life’s work with Native Americans’, the sacred Sweat Lodge ceremony among them. Ever since the dedication of the traditional sweat lodge grounds at my home 40 years ago, I have prepared myself for the Passover holiday by participating in this Native cleansing/purification/healing ritual; it’s the best way I’ve found to prepare myself to get into the substance of this ancient tale.

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is the defining story of the Jewish people. Every year at this time we are reminded of our enslavement and the path to freedom. We are admonished that we should not just tell the story, but imagine as if we ourselves walked out of Egypt.  To be free of whatever enslaves us (physically or emotionally), we must personally face it… nobody else can do it for us.

In the small, canvas-covered willow lodge, with no more than 15 others, I feel the intensity of the steam billowing off those red-hot lava rocks, and it doesn’t take me long to know that I am walking this journey right now. In the lodge, I can see beyond the darkness and what discomforts me, to the light at the end of the tunnel.

Every culture has its springtime rituals that tell a story about liberation, growth, and rebirth. These holidays create the time and space for us to see beyond the ordinary. Whatever rituals you practice in this annual season of renewal, I hope they open your hearts and minds to free yourself from whatever forces threaten you, and the planet.

Happy Passover, Easter, Solstice…Viva la vida y la Madre Tierra.

Living in Community

March 19th, 2017

After being preoccupied for months with the second ClownTown Healing Fest, I promised Elaine, my tolerant wife, a vacation to her destination of choice, which was someplace with warm water, sandy beaches, and not too far away. We settled on Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, a two-hour flight from Phoenix to Baja California Sur.

Unlike our usual style, which is to book a couple of nights on arrival, and then move around to the places we want to see; this time I booked a beachside condo for four nights to give ourselves more time to acclimate before we hit the road. The condo was lovely, a heated pool for my morning laps, steps away from the beach, and whatever we wanted to see was at most, a day-trip away, so we decided to stay put.

 It required some adjustments, as much as I like to preach about living and healing in community, I like to live in my own house, away from lots of people. There are hundreds of condos in this complex, inhabited by people from over the world, most here for a short time, but many of whom are retirees who live here all year long. There is a communal culture; people will reach out and engage you, but also respect your privacy; the lounge chairs are yours while you’re in them (don’t reserve them and not use them); be respectful and tolerant of differences.

 Elaine loved it, said she could live here, but I’m not so sure. We are selling our home, but my kids are in town and I’m not ready to move away. However, I did learn I could live in this kind of diverse community… and that swimming with poolside bar refreshments does promote an interactional warmth.

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.