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The Key To Life

May 11, 2010

I used to drive a taxi here in New York. This was long before I turned 40 in 1989 and decided on a career as a psychotherapist. But looking back, I consider my passengers to have been my first patients. Only more often than not, they were the ones teaching me. (Actually, that’s pretty much still the case). I spoke to them all – this was the time before cell phones, and before headphones, and besides, it was the only way I could stay sane.

The city was full of philosophers in those days: In work shirts and business suits, they all had something to say. One passenger coming out of an after-hours club at 5:00 am on a Sunday morning, during a long ride up to Harlem, laid it down for me thusly:

“The key to life is simple, my man,” he said. “All you gotta do is learn to turn anything that happens to you to your advantage.”

And there it was: Simple, elegant, only too obvious. I’ve spent the last 40 years trying to learn how.

What I like about this idea is that it presumes another key principle: We have no power over what happens to us, but all power over how to respond.

This helped me a few years later, in 1973. I was at sea. Hippiedom had died a long and tortured death. I had thought there was going to be total societal breakdown; revolution. So I had dropped out of school, and was stumbled through my early twenties, roaming the streets in my yellow jalopy. I was completely unprepared to face what everyone around me was now calling “the real world”. Debby, my lover for over 4 years, had finally had enough with my stagnation (as a pothead, and as something out of a Harry Chapin song), and left me. She was tired of being different, she said, and wanted to “grow up and become normal”. My friends had all split for one part of the country or another to make a life for themselves. I was lost, abandoned, bereft.

Looking back on it now, my life began then.

I clung to that Dylan lyric: “And here I sit so patiently/wondering what price/One has to pay to get out of/going through all these things twice.” – Memphis Blues Again.

Figuring the price might be the pain of facing myself, I put myself into therapy. I started writing my own songs. Seeking an end to my darkness, I switched to the day shift. Soon after, a passenger (Elly Shatzkin, who along with her husband Leonard Shatzkin was a legend in the publishing world) saw something in me and offered right from the back seat to hire me as a secretary for her company. I jumped at it. It took years, but Debby’s leaving me turned into a blessing in disguise. Actually, I  turned it into a blessing.   

It’s a neat trick when you can turn things around like that – akin to intercepting a touchdown pass. But sometimes, it seems, the other team just scores. Like now, for instance.

Those who read me know I like to stay positive and optimistic. But to be honest, this ageing thing sometimes just gets me down.  Oh I know how to turn it to my advantage. As a therapist who could pass (with my big gray goatee) for even 5 or 10 years older than I am, people come to me for counsel and wisdom…wisdom I didn’t have even 5 or 10 years ago.

But my age doesn’t feel like much of an advantage when I just can’t think of that word I’m trying to find to make my point. Or when I can’t perform in the sack like I could even a year ago. Or when I sometimes start looking for something that’s staring me right there in the face.  Or when I go into the bedroom looking for…uh, what was it again?  Or when some damn fool is talking some right wing trash but I can’t formulate my rebuttal fast enough to matter. (Or when I use the phrase, “some damn fool”. When did that start?) 

Somebody tell me how to turn those kinds of things to my advantage, please.

Actually, (damn) fool that I am, I still believe there’s a way. One of my heroes, Ram Dass, did just that after his stroke. It paralyzed and almost totally debilitated him. (And almost killed him.) A few years later he wrote a book about it and called it Still Here, as a pun on his plight. It’s a wonderfully useful read for anyone needing to learn how to deal with ageing or even turn it into an asset. I read it over and over.

But sometimes, ageing just gets the better of me. It seems to be completely out of my control, which I hate. That’s why I dig that Buddhist book with its title, When You’re Falling, Dive. Yes, that’s the way to do it!

But sometimes when I’m falling — like into old age — I just panic and start screaming bloody murder.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 11, 2010 11:04 am

    I have called that principle, for some years, “turning a bug into a feature.” It is the most important life skill I know. It might be Marthat Stewart’s motto as well, but WTF.

    Pharmaceutical aside. Between Paxil, blood pressure meds and cholesterol meds, the population is being emasculated. Think about it.

    As to aging….the progress of acceptance is slow, and goes by the route of the view from mortality hill. But I’m finding good things.

    • May 12, 2010 4:53 am

      Interesting thought! It’s as if the pharma researchers think — “So the old farts won’t screw — who cares?”

  2. May 11, 2010 1:39 pm

    Welcome to the long–or short–downhill slide into dependence. misery, sickness and death….but that’s only if you’re one of the LUCKY ones! I feel for you Charley, you old coot. Remember, you can always count on me to be here to bolster your worst fears.

  3. May 11, 2010 4:06 pm

    Try to read Erik Erickson’s Seven Stages of Life. He has something interesting to say about the later stage, such as you are going through. As an older man I can basically say that creativity is the answer. (Incidentally, I’m struck by the fact that you worked for Len Schatzkin and his wife. Years earlier, I worked for them when they started a new venture called Collier Books, which later fell apart. Small world, isn’t it?)

    • May 12, 2010 4:55 am

      Creativity IS the answer!

      Uh…what was the question?

      Oh yes — it IS the answer! Why do you think I’m writing?

  4. Barbara DiAdamo permalink
    May 13, 2010 7:54 pm

    Hi Charley, I promised I’d begin to read your emails!

    Re aging (I just checked google – I’ve been spelling it aging – they said either spelling is OK). I so far like the compensations. I’m saner than I’ve ever been, I finally think I’m beautiful (ironic isn’t it since my youthful looks have faded), I give myself more room to breathe, I like my friends more. And after 62 national parks are free – a nice perk. And I finally found work that mattered to me and I was good at. There’s some other perks but that’s enough for now.

  5. May 14, 2010 9:03 pm

    I’m about ten years behind you, nor am I a therapist, so I’m not speaking from experience, but it seems to me you might be able to turn your age into an advantage by treating the growing population of aging boomers.

    As for aging in general, I thought there have been several studies showing that middle aged people suffer from the highest levels of depression and that rates of depression actually drop with age. On the other hand, among the leading causes of suicide are terminal illnesses such as those the elderly are more likely to suffer.

    It seems to me that most of human consciousness consists of memory, and although we lose our capacity to form new memories as we age, the older we get the more memories we enjoy. I know that may not be comforting to people who have lived their entire lives in our action-oriented, future-directed culture, but our culture may undervalue memory and the past.

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