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The Will to Live

September 4th, 2019

It’s been 10 months since my 21-year-old granddaughter, Kyah Rayne Cohen died from a fatal allergic reaction. There are no words, no explanations, that can describe such a loss, the most profound I have ever experienced.

Not a day goes by that I don’t lament the loss; nor does one go by that I don’t look at her picture above my desk and see her smiling at me. There are times she talks to me; in my dreams, in the sweat lodge, in the voices of others whose words remind me of her precocious wisdom……I hear her saying, It’s OK to slow up and catch your breath Papa; laugh, love, dance.

She died in her mother’s arms, a heartbreak no one should have to endure. My daughter Lisa has survived day to day, sometimes hour by hour, and has found the will to live through the establishment of the Kyah Rayne Foundation (KRF). The KRF mission is to provide emergency allergy treatment programs, promote food allergy legislation, create online educational training programs, support families living with food allergies and educating communities about such preventable tragedies.

Go to the ( kyahraynefoundation.org ) and help us address this national food allergy epidemic. Your tax-deductible donations will ensure that communities have the tools they need so that other families will never have to live through such horror.  

Our goal is big, please help us sustain this vision (donate here

I Speak Freely, Not Fluently

August 19th, 2019

Last week I went to lunch with my daughter, and after being seated by the Hostess our server came over, introduced herself and then asked what we like to drink, when she got to the word drink she began stuttering severely.

There is that awkward moment when you don’t know whether to jump in and say the anticipated word or just wait. When she finished her sentence, I asked her what she preferred, and she said with people she didn’t know she preferred them not to speak for her. With her friends however they bantered back and forth easily.

I said I didn’t need a drink but asked if it was possible to turn the music down because I could hardly hear our conversation. She laughed and said I get that, you’re hard of hearing and I’m hard of speaking. She said indeed there was a private dining room in the back, and it wouldn’t be a problem serving us back there. It was the perfect place, and for the next hour and 1/2 we listened to each other’s stories.

Paige is 22 years old, from a small town in Oklahoma, and had just come to Phoenix eight weeks ago, without a job, place to live, family or friends. In the last 2 months, she found a place to live, and got a job where she had to talk to strangers and face her challenge every day. She acknowledged that some people were insensitive, occasionally even mean-spirited, and if that happened, she’d flash them her tattoo. She raised her forearm to show it to me, on it was tattooed “I speak freely not fluently”. I’m a stutterer she tells them but that’s not all I am; here I am, deal with it.

This beautiful young woman comes to me at this extraordinary time in my life when I need reminders to live joyfully engaged in every moment. Paige is living her truth every day, facing her struggles, and growing in all those ways she dared to imagine. She comes to everyday joyfully, engaged in what she’s doing, and I am reminded that I talk that talk, but walking it is not always easy.

I want to tell my story with Paige’s courage; I want to come from that place where I don’t hide my vulnerabilities but am also not defined by them… Here I am, let’s deal with it.

We discovered each other just at the right time in our lives, and it always happens when you need it most. Every act of creativity/insight is the result of a prepared mind and a serendipitous moment; you find yourself in the right place, at the right time, with the right people, and you learn something you need to know.

First thing I did when I got home was to look her up on YouTube where she told me she had made several videos. She blew me away again, watching and listening to her brought tears to my eyes and courage to my soul.

I asked about her dreams for the future and she said, “I want to be a public speaker.” It just so happens I know something about that and can help her. The right person, in the right place, at the right time and it changes your world.  

Still Punching My Time Card

July 27th, 2019

I’ve been vacationing in the Pacific Northwest over the last several weeks, and in the midst of family joys got this additional great news. A drug specifically designed to treat my type of cardiomyopathy, has just been released on the market.

Tafamidis (Vyndaqel) prevents the continued accumulation of amyloid in the heart muscle. It doesn’t undo the damage already done but it seems to stop its continued production. Like most new drugs for serious diseases this one is also prohibitively expensive ($250,000 a year). 

I don’t personally know anyone who can afford even the co-pay, that insurance doesn’t cover. Fortunately, there are myriad Foundations established to assist patients, and with their help, I just started taking it. Who knows how much longer it will allow me to live, but longevity is less important to me than the quality of my life still remaining. My heart is failing, but I’m coming to every day engaged in the moment, and for the most part joyful. 

A friend said to me, that I seemed to be handling my situation with aplomb. I don’t hear that word used much anymore), it means to be poised, collected and composed. I’m not sure that’s the right adjective to describe my current status; I mean there are surely times when I’m collected and composed, but there are also times when I am filled with uncertainty, and the awareness of my gradual losses. I don’t hang on to those lamentations, not because I’m cool and/or self-assured, it’s more because I’m growing reconciled with my fate, and moving down a path I was always meant to follow.

I am writing, learning, teaching, and playing, and surrounded by a loving family and community who keep me grounded in the present. I got this pink slip, but I’m still punching my time card every day.

Summer Camp Capitalists

June 10th, 2019

The New York Times Styles Section (May 26, 2019) featured this lead article entitled Starting Them Young with Capitalism. It reported that parents are sending their children to summer camps that are specifically designed to stimulate their entrepreneurial mindset. Kids as young as 8, are taught howto monetize their hobbies, create a personal brand, and write a business plan. 

Tell me I’m not the only one who thinks there’s something wrong with this picture?  Summer camps used to be about getting away from doing what you ordinarily do and get exposed to something you haven’t done or even imagined before.

I went to Scout Camp for the first time when I was 11, it was a life changing experience. I learned how to escape from an overturned canoe and felt like a hero when I’d accomplished it; and how to find my way out of the deep woods at night using only a compass; how to listen to stories sitting around the campfire. hypnotized by the flickering flames, listening to the wood crackle and watching the sparks exploding into the night sky… I was a NYC boy, raised in a tenement and had never seen the sky so brilliantly illuminated before. 

My troop leader was a WW II tank commander and when he told campfire stories, they were replete with sounds, gestures and actions that could make me tremble. It is where I first learned about the power of story, rituals and ceremonies in launching the imagination…of course it was long before the IPhone, Internet, even TV were invented.

I may be an old hippie romantic, but I think instead of sending kids to camp and teaching them how to better use technology to acquire wealth, we send them to camps that teach them how to live happier and healthier lives. A life more in balance, where the heart and spirit are opened to exploring the depth of one’s humanity. The pursuit of capital gains as life’s purpose, breeds a culture that makes greed and corruption tolerated, even socially acceptable. 

Our children are exposed to it every day; send your kids instead to a camp that will expand their repertoire of what else their purpose and passion might be. There are lots of camps that still do this and do it well; camps where kids leave their computers and internet connections behind and discover new ways of experiencing joy. Among these are places like Camp Winnarainbow founded by another old hippie, it teaches kids circus and theatrical acts, songwriting, poetry, ecology, crafts, and taking new risks in an atmosphere of mutual encouragement and respect.

Before we make our kids titans of industry, let’s teach them that there is more to life than monetizing it. If we can teach them loving kindness, we can change the course of history. 

Tears and Laughter

May 28th, 2019

This last month has been a roller coaster ride of celebration and sorrow. My 80th birthday party was an epic Roast that featured a hilarious stage show in which I was grilled, fried, and par-boiled by family and friends… and never felt more loved. 

Last week my family attended my recently deceased granddaughters’ graduation from the University of Arizona. The University awarded Kyah her degree posthumously, and reserved seats for us in the front row of the McKale Center. The graduates were sitting directly in front of us, and as they marched by, I saw the light of anticipation in their eyes. 

Here they were, at the beginning of their adulthood, the richness of the rest of their lives ahead of them, and all I could see was my granddaughter who would know nothing other than the life behind her. My tears welled but did not fall. 

When her department was called up Kyah’s name appeared on the big screen with the date of her birth and death, and underneath the words …Love, Live, and Dance. Her brother, wearing her gown, walked across the stage to accept her diploma, I wept and sobbed openly, maybe for the first time bin public.

Afterwards, we had dinner with a group of her close friends, drank pitchers of margaritas while wearing her treasured Grateful Dead T-shirts, and remembered her sparkle. Emotionally exhausted, we decided to spend the night in Tucson with two of our daughters where we got the last room in the city. We squeezed into two queen sized beds, not particularly comfortable for two tall people but it turned out to be the highlight of a long, draining day. 

I crawled into bed and the ladies talked into the night. I rolled over on my side with my good ear on the pillow but couldn’t fall asleep because I could hear them cackling even with my deaf ear. I raised my head and pleaded that surely, they could babble more softly. They laughed until they cried shouting It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle! He can hear in his deaf ear! I joined in the hysteria and laughed and fell asleep smiling.

“Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all”.   

Laura Ingalls Wilder

My Handicapped Permit

April 14th, 2019

I have a handicapped permit; it comes in handy when I have to park far away from my destination. Last week I parked in a handicapped space, put the placard on my rearview mirror, and went to a meeting. When I returned 2 hours later it was gone

I had left the car open and somebody reached in and took it. Initially, I stood in wide-mouthed disbelief and then I got angry (not good for my heart which starts beating faster with any adrenaline rush, and leaves me short of breath), thinking how much lower can you go than stealing a handicapped persons parking permit.

Not everybody was as flabbergasted and outraged as I was. When I told my grandkids about it they thought it was funny, and my son the lawyer said “what did you expect, you left the car open, somebody saw it as a free pass at concert venues and crowded parking lots, and they know you can get it replaced”. I looked at him incredulously and said you wouldn’t do that and said he wouldn’t but assured me that lots of people would and find a way to justify it to themselves. 

Am I missing something here? It’s wrong to steal a handicapped persons disabled parking permit. Alas, in our culture what’s right and wrong is determined by what you can get away with. This is true at the highest levels of government, business, and is sadly becoming the common thread line that binds us together as a civilization. You can say/do/take whatever you want, because if you don’t somebody else will. 

When it comes to the point that where any means can justify your desired end then as a culture, we have subordinated morality to expediency; that’s pretty much where we are as a society at the moment. I understand that greed, violence, and exploitation have been with us since recorded history, but we have always had an understanding about shared values that inspire our humanity and remind us of the nobility of the human spirit.

One of the most important decisions one has to make in life, is what kind of society do you want to help create. How are we going to raise the bar for acceptable behaviors instead of continuing to find ways to lower it? We must have some sort of moral contract that reminds us of our best selves.

This is an old story, and one that hasn’t been improved upon; do onto others as you want them to do to you; respect everything and everyone that walks alongside you on this earth; remember there is an end to this life and we will not be taking anything with us,_the really important things are those we leave behind.

Tell this story around the family dinner table, at tribal gatherings, in Courts, and legislatures, and let us live it in our daily lives.  We must continue to make our voices heard because if we cannot learn how to behave in society, we will all become handicapped.

Kraft, Kamala, and Other April Fool’s

April 1st, 2019

The NFL owners met in Phoenix last week and reporters peppered them about the Kraft affair. Unless you’ve been in meditative seclusion, there isn’t anyone in America who’s unaware that Robert Kraft, the 77-year-old billionaire and owner of the New England Patriots was arrested for soliciting prostitution in a Florida massage parlor. The massage parlor, unbeknownst to him, was under investigation as a front in the sex trafficking trade.

Kraft, who by all accounts is a caring, kind, generous man, and respectful of women, was married for 50 years to his childhood sweetheart who died in 2011 of ovarian cancer. Kraft apologized for the hurt, and disappointment to his family, friends, co-workers and said he should rightfully be held to a higher standard.

 But, is he a criminal? The real crime here is the criminalization of prostitution, which encourages pimping and human trafficking, and for that there is an answer. Kamala Harris, the U.S. senator from California, has announced her candidacy for the Presidency. Among other things I like about her, in addition to spending more on education and not accepting donations from corporate PAC’s, is that she is an advocate for the decriminalization of prostitution. What a great idea; get rid of the pimps, traffickers, and make an honest business of the world’s oldest profession. 

I say, let’s expand the availability of prostitutes as a preventive health measure. There are lots of people, men and women, who’d feel better if they had easier access to sexual satisfaction. Think about the people in old age homes and institutions for the chronically mentally ill where acting out behaviors are common and solely treated by mind-numbing medications that render residents virtually unconscious. 

Instead of punishing unacceptable behaviors through chemically straightjacketing, why not give people an incentive for good behaviors? If you conduct yourself appropriately, you get to cash in your goody points at the snack bar for a massage with a happy ending. 

The entrepreneurial possibilities are endless, if there is no available space in the institution these healthy, self-employed working girls, would staff a mobile trailer. For those who would prefer no human contact there is the option of the new, robotic, life-sized dolls. And once it’s legal the government can collect taxes that could be used to pay teachers a living wage.

Kraft has been publicly shamed and will carry it with him, but he is still an ordinary man with ordinary needs. Lighten up, it’s April Fool’s Day, and we are all fools.

Caught Pants Down

March 4th, 2019

A dear friend is the Board Chairman of a foundation that provides free dental care to the homeless and underserved, asked me if I’d deliver the invocation to open their Annual Meeting. It’s no big deal he said, just three minutes, but it is at 8 AM. I tried to get out of it by saying, it’s much too early for me, I don’t speak until an hour after I’m up, yada, yada, yada, but the real reason was that I could feel my breathing becoming more labored. Just talking about doing an opening prayer was enough to get my heart pumping. I told him I’d think about it and let him know.

Delivering a prayer is for me more anxiety provoking than delivering a one- hour Keynote Address. When I speak, I think about what I’m going to say, organize its flow, I think about it and come prepared.  A prayer is a spontaneous evocation of my soul; when I pray, I don’t think about what I’m saying and trust my words will come directly from my heart to my lips. I have faith that something will come to me without having to think about it.

I’m thinking, if my heart is beating fast just talking to a beloved friend, how much more intense could it become if I was in front of 200 people. What if the words don’t flow and I struggle, am I willing to reveal my truth so publicly? I don’t deal well with surprises anymore? My heart is already working as hard as it can just to keep up with every day activities. Any challenges that trigger an adrenaline surge, can leave me breathless.

But I also believe that telling your truth will keep you healthy in mind, body and spirit. The truth is when what you say with your words, what you feel and believe in your heart, and reveal by your actions, are all telling the same story. I’ve been telling this story for the last 50 years and I believe it, yet here I am afraid to tell my truth at this moment. I don’t want to stand up in public and if I struggle, be seen as a pale reflection of the deep-throated warbler I once was, or worse, be pitied. I loathe pity. So, after thinking about it I decided I had to be real and called my friend and said I would do it. 

That night I had an intense dream, I was at the hotel where I would be delivering the invocation. I’m in the pool cleaning the tiles, and while doing it, wondering why me and not the hotel staff? I asked to speak to the Manager, and he took me into his huge, ballroom-sized office where we sit at his desk in one corner of this enormous room. After the requisite introductions, he took a telephone call and told me he had to take care of this and left.

In his absence I explored the room, and in the corner furthest away, I see a toilet. I suddenly had the urge to use it and went over, dropped my pants and sat down. Looking straight ahead I saw glass patio doors outside of which I saw people walking up a path towards me. I got up quickly but was unable to pull up my pants and started breathing heavily. I bent over to catch my breath and at my feet saw a feather; when I picked it up my breath became less labored. 

The dream seems pretty self-explanatory; I’m caught with my pants down, completely exposed. This is my current struggle as I face growing limitations. Can I tame my ego enough to allow myself to be this vulnerable? But this dream is not just about the struggle, it is also about salvation, it provides a solution. When I pick up the feather it helps me breathe again.

I knew on awakening that I would begin my invocation with my Eagle feather; it’s a potent symbol for me, it helps me create a space where I can separate myself from ordinary time and place, open my soul and see the landscape with new eyes. I use an eagle feather, but virtually any object can be invested with this kind of power. It could be an amulet, animal, song, prayer shawl, crystal, or a teddy bear, but they have to be a symbol that reminds you are connected to something other than yourself that strengthens you and makes you feel whole(ly).

On the morning of the invocation, I sat on the stage so I wouldn’t have to walk up the steps after my introduction. When I approached the lectern, my hand was trembling, and I picked up the eagle feather and lit some sage. I waved the fragrant smoke over the audience to bless them, and as I did my hand no longer felt shaky, it simply became a wave.  I felt my anxiety lighten and had no problem after that. I spoke a little more slowly, but I’ve found that as I speak less, people listen more (wish I’d learned that sooner).

My life continues to unfold around me; I am totally engaged in the here and now, surrounded by love, and in my nakedness and trembling hands, my eyes are wide open and still entranced by the rapture of being alive. 

Come to every day with joy. I say this for All My Relations, Mi Takuye Oyasin

The Digisexuals

February 10th, 2019

My grandchildren have been educating me about my archaic view of human sexuality. They have expanded my old binary view, that boys are boys, girls are girls, and gender also determines sexuality. I have learned to add to my menu of sexual identities and understand there are many ways people express themselves sexually without viewing them as pathologic.

It doesn’t matter to me if you’re heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, or transexual because they all involve human interaction. But it stretched my newfound tolerance when I read about a 35-year-old school administrator in Japan who strolled down the aisle in a white tuxedo to marry a robot.

This new sexual minority are called “digisexuals”; these are people who find it more gratifying to have sex with robots than physical contact with real people. These robots are not just vibrators or external devices that can stimulate the penis and the vulva; these are full-bodied human simulations with textured skin, can be programmed for rudimentary conversations and whisper in your ear those words that stimulate you the most.

You can change their heads and replace them with another that has shorter hair or darker skin. The digisexual’s lover is always available, never has a headache. With virtual reality and Artificial Intelligence these are robots you can fall in love with. This dystopian worldview is already happening in popular movies like “Ex Machina” which feature a fulfilling emotional and sexual relationships with a machine.

This is just the beginning of cybersex. Future generations, raised in the digital age, will never know the distinction between their online lives and off-line. We are creating a future in which people fall in love only with their imagination. Give me a break! a sexuality that objectifies and detaches people from any sense of a relationship will sow the seeds of our dissolution as a species. 

As expanded as my view on sexual identity may be, I’m still a dinosaur when it comes to real skin and loving another human who moans with pleasure because she is all there, rather than programmed to be. Loving another human being just seems like a good way to keep going.

The groom invited his mother to the wedding ceremony insisting the wedding was a triumph of true love after years of feeling ostracized by real-life women. His mother was not among the 40 celebrants, she said “it’s not something to celebrate”. 

Have a great week, I say this for all my relations. Mi Takuye Oyasin 

Loving More Profoundly

January 21st, 2019

Since my granddaughter’s tragic death 6 weeks ago, my heartache has been unrelenting. However there are moments in which the weight of the shroud of despair have been lightened. Surrounded by the unconditional love of my family (immediate and extended) makes me feel better, sometimes even smile.

I got a call from my holy clown brother, Patch Adams, who during the conversation said he’d like to recite a poem by Pablo Neruda, but before doing so he wanted me to imagine that it was Kyah writing it to me. So, I sat back at my desk and looked up at the pictures we had taken just before the tragedy. The tears flowed as I listened to my baby talk to me. I felt her presence as if I was struck by lightning that made my whole body tingle. It was the first time I let a smile through the veil of my tears. (I’ll recite it to you at the end).

I felt that same jolt of her presence a week later when my friend, colleague, and co-author of Healing Ceremonies called to tell me to say that he was as going down to Aravaipa Canyon. Howie, goes to this riparian paradise every December on his annual solo spiritual retreat. Before going, he asked me again if I wanted him to get willows to rebuild the sweat lodge. 

I had been crippled with ambivalence about rebuilding it for the last year. Even though it was brittle, and cracking I just wasn’t sure how much longer I would be able to do this. But when Howie asked me this time, a week after Kyah’s death, and I said yes without any hesitation, because I heard her say clear as day “do it for me, and for you”.  

Participating in this ceremony sustains my spiritual life. Here, in the uncomfortable heat and darkness, a window in my mind is opened that lets me see my world in a different way. It illumines that portion of my mind that allows me to contemplate the divine mystery. This is my holy place. 

We built the lodge on December 16; took three men with a sledgehammer to make the deep holes into which the willows are set. Then they are bent almost in half to create the dome shaped structure. During this process one of them snapped in half with a jarring cracking sound, it happens sometimes even with fresh willows. When the second one snapped it really got my attention because I felt the eeriness of Kyah’s presence. When it happened an unheard of third time, I could hear her speaking Neruda’s words; I am with you in this transparent house whose walls I can pass through so you can see me. 

At the Lodge dedication ceremony before the New Year she was with me again living her heritage of joy and love. To love and be loved unconditionally is the divine message, and people are its expression. We are the language of God, and I have learned how to love more profoundly.

I say this For All My Relations, Mi Takuye Oyasin

Sonnet #94

If I die, survive me with such sheer force
that you waken the furies of the pallid and the cold,
from south to south lift your indelible eyes,
from sun to sun dream through your singing mouth.
I don’t want your laughter or your steps to waver,
I don’t want my heritage of joy to die.
Don’t call up my person. I am absent.
Live in my absence as if in a house.
Absence is a house so vast
that inside you will pass through its walls
and hang pictures on the air
Absence is a house so transparent
that I, lifeless, will see you, living,
and if you suffer, my love, I will die again.

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.