Thursday, February 25, 2010


(Excerpted from Getting Real: the Road to Personal Remption by Dick Todd & Kevin Robinson)

There is a political correctness mantra going around today that, in myriad terminologies, suggests that it is bad to be judgmental. There are many truths involved at the core of this issue. “Judge not that ye be not judged” and “until you’ve walked in another man’s shoes” are but two sound pieces of historic admonition on the subject. And, for the most part, I am in hearty agreement with most societal warnings about being quick to “judge” the actions or character of another human being. But.

There is an important baby that often gets thrown out when that particular bath water is tossed. It’s the whole concept of personal discernment. Passing judgment and exercising discernment are, to my mind at least, two separate ideas. The first is often harmful to everyone involved, and the latter is an essential element of growing as an individual, a couple, a business, or a society. Judgment has the implicit weight of sentencing, punishment, and/or recrimination to it. There is the element of “now you’re going to get it” just under the surface. And, of course, in the world of law, when it comes to crimes against individuals and/or “society,” then there is a very appropriate place for judgment.

But in this book, Dick and I are trying to stay focused on how we, as individuals, can get real. And, in my opinion, it is impossible to get real without exercising personal discernment. We will never have perfect discernment, we will make mistakes which we must be prepared to acknowledge and make right, but we must find a way to consistently try to distinguish good from bad, right from wrong, and fact from fiction. If we fail, the idea of getting real is moot. As we’ve discussed in the previous chapters, some people are our friends, but most are not. A few people might actually love us, but most never will. Millions of people experience a wedding without ever creating a marriage. It takes clear discernment to recognize the differences between what is real and what is not, in these areas, and in virtually every other area of our lives. And, sadly, it is often much easier to examine the lives of others than it is to be discerning about our own lives and or own truth.

I think it’s fair to say that judging others often has to do with a desire to condemn, and can be a means of venting anger or hostility of some sort. It can also be about trying to justify our feelings and/or actions in the eyes of others. Hence, this business of judgment can do far more harm than good on a personal and a corporate level. In my own life, I’ve observed a very disturbing pattern. First, my experience with a particular individual, or even just some gut-level “instinct,” tells me that I don’t want to proceed any farther with the relationship. Then, at some point, a third party or parties innocently invites me to participate in some activity with the individual who set off my internal warning buzzers. I have basically two choices at that point: (1) ignore my strange warning signals and go along, or (2) just say “No Thanks.”

Whether my reluctance is based on an actual negative encounter, or is based solely on “bad vibes,” going along is, in my experience, almost always a mistake. As far as “vibes” go, I have slowly learned to trust these feelings of ill ease that I get sometimes. I have no explanation for how or why I get them, but they are (whether I like it or not) part of my truth. So, for the sake of this example anyway, let’s jump to my second choice. And here’s where I get in trouble far more often than I like to admit. In most cases of this nature, a simple “no thanks” is usually followed directly by the question: “Why?” And that’s where I usually screw up. Some subconscious insecurity makes me feel like I have to justify my decision in the eyes of the questioner, so I shift automatically into “lawyer mode” and start laying out my case. In other words, I start passing judgment. Even if my reasons and my instincts are 100% correct (Not likely under the best of circumstances!), this course of action never produces a positive outcome. In the first place, whether I intend it to be or not, it’s an attack. In the second place, it’s a cowardly attack because I’m doing it behind the person’s back. In the third place, even if everything I say is true as it relates to my experience, it makes me look like the bad guy, a judgmental S.O.B. with a real bad attitude. . .especially if the person I’m talking to never experienced any of the stuff that set off my bells and whistles. (And if s/he has just invited me to pal around with the person I’m putting down, how likely is it that anyway?)

But let me suggest again that discernment, on the other hand, is very different. Discernment is about the lines we draw in the sand for ourselves. And I believe that it is a very healthy (even essential) exercise in creating appropriate boundaries around our own lives. Had I chosen discernment in the example above, I could have offered a polite refusal and left it at that. Part of being real, part of standing in one’s own truth, is growing out of the need to justify our every decision in the eyes of others. Why didn’t I go along? If I’m being judgmental, the answer has to do with a list of negative evaluations aimed and launched at someone else. And these words are usually accompanied by facial expressions and body language that automatically causes other people to recoil emotionally. . . if not physically. If I’m exercising discernment, however, it’s just because “I didn’t feel like it.” That’s it. Period. No attacks. No negative words. No unflattering images of me or of others left in the mind of the innocent third party. I am, after all, allowed to feel anything I, well, feel. That’s what feelings are all about. But nothing says I have to explain or justify my feelings to anyone.

I wrote the following poem for a young nurse who once took wonderful care of me. She is my daughter’s age and has my daughter’s emotional temperament. Her heart’s desire was to be seen as a “nice” person, and she was forever letting insensitive and unenlightened young men walk all over her feelings. She ignored every inner misgiving because she believed, on some warped level, that a “nice” person gives everyone the benefit of the doubt, looks the other way, if you will. And while she would fight like a protective mother to protect her friends, she deliberately chose not to exercise discernment about those individuals in a position to hurt her. She got hurt a lot. Emotionally and physically.


You can spend all your time riding fences
You can survey the borders all day
You can understand all of the boundaries
But that won’t keep intruders away
You can wish that the world would respect you
You can even behave as you should
You can honor the boundaries of others
But all that will do you no good
You can try to pretend that it’s okay
You can put your own needs on the shelf
You can wish there were troops on your borders
But you still have to guard them yourself
You’ve been trampled by folks who don’t like you
You’ve watched others who swear that they do
You’ve felt every backstabbing knife thrust
But you still can’t decide what to do
You want to be known as a nice guy
You don’t want to be seen as a rat
You just lie there in front of your doorway
But don’t know why they treat you like that
You ask me why I’m acting different
You see a new look on my face
You act like I’m one of the bad guys
But I’m only protecting my space
You know we’ve both let people hurt us
Your heart knows they hadn’t the right
You know that we should have just stopped them
But we just never had that much fight
You can go on taking punches
You’ll get used to abuse and neglect
You don’t have to stand up and oppose them
But I’m going to earn some respect

Earning respect requires discernment, as does every other aspect of personal growth. A desire to look, and a desire to see. Even if the stuff in the mirror, and the stuff all around us, isn’t very pleasant to look at. If you do not respect yourself enough to set up personal boundaries, and if you can’t make decisions based on how you really feel, you will live your life with a target on your back. For everybody’s sake, avoid being judgmental. But for your sake, and for the sake of everyone you love, learn to exercise discernment.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Dead Weight

After sitting in on blues harp (harmonica) with most of the best Kansas City blues bands of the mid-90’s, I moved to New York and joined the Dallas Fisher Band. Besides Dallas, I was always the only original band member, and since dozens of players came and went during my tenure, I liked to think of myself as the band’s “anchor.” As with most ego-based, self-delusional behavior, the actual truth lies somewhat left-of-center. And, depending on whom you ask, the term “dead weight” pops up with uncomfortable frequency.

I was, in fact, often trundled around like just another beat up and ugly looking amplifier, and because most performance stages have no ramps, I had to accept the fact that my dignity would, from time-to-time, suffer at the hands of whomsoever’s hands were helping me “get to work.” The first major adjustment I had to make was reinstalling handles on my wheelchair.

In 1976, during my first visit to Craig Rehab Hospital in Denver, I was taking a leisurely spin down a sidewalk out in back, and some well-meaning therapist/aid/do-gooder/who knows? must have decided that I was going too fast for my own good. Without saying a word, she ran up behind my chair, grabbed my handles firmly, and stopped the old E&J on the proverbial dime. Of course I came to a stop several yards farther down the sidewalk, with more than a few concrete raspberries on my hands and arms. Onlookers were, to say the least, aghast. Ten minutes later, I was sitting in an office chair down in the basement shop, watching a maintenance guy hacksaw off my handles. (Nobody had ever mentioned how much easier it would be to put on shirts, jackets and/or coats!)

Twenty four years (and several new chairs) later, after a bass player and a guitar player nearly hurt themselves hauling me on stage at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock, NY, I dug out the handles that came with my Quickie and bolted them back on. (Don’t let anybody tell you I didn’t suffer for my art!) But even having handles doesn’t always help all that much. In the late 90’s, we performed at the Walden Days Festival, a street fest in the town where my grandparents lived some 30+ years before. The stage was set up in the town square, right in front of the building where I spent a summer answering to 60 female factory workers doing “piece work,” women who called me many names that had nothing whatsoever to do with my own.

There was this decorative lattice-work wall that zig-zagged at the rear of the stage, but only after being hauled up the back stairway did we realize that it was nailed and screwed into place. Neither the zigs nor the zags were ADA standard, and only by flying was I apt to get past them. Before I could ponder my options, our latest guitar player said “Give me this!” The “this” in question was my right rear wheel. I had barely time to hang on, and looking back, I suspect that stunt car driver, Joey Chitwood never performed a more hair-raising two-side-wheels maneuver.

It’s little wonder that our new guitar player was so cavalier about tossing me around; turned out he installed office safes in NYC during the day. What’s a 170 pound gimp in a 20 pound wheelchair? But I swear to you that a hush fell over the crowd that day. They held their collective breath while I teetered precariously around that stage set on my left wheels. Once they let out that collective breath with a collective sigh of relief, I could apparently do no wrong. In an hour’s time I went from being the guy nobody ever notices, to getting more applause and compliments than I’d gotten during my entire tenure with the band.

I was definitely onto something there. Unless you’re James Cotton or John Popper, harp players are largely dead weight anyway, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had a van, and my publicity/promotion company supplied all the band’s posters and press kits, I would probably have been dropped long before. But suddenly I saw all that changing. Picture it: a red-white-and-blue sequined jumpsuit and a long silk scarf. Each entrance more dramatic than the one before. An ambulance standing by. Audience members wagering amongst themselves on whether or not I would live long enough to play my harps at all. I figured we could build ramps and jumps like the skateboarders and trick bike riders use. There could be thin cables and pulleys, and, well, you get the idea.

Okay, so my fifteen minutes of rock star fame probably came and went right there in front of the Civil War Memorial, on the otherwise quiet streets of Walden, NY. That’s not such a bad thing. And for an old gimp playing harmonica, I guess it was a little like flying: Any landing you roll away from is a good one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Same, Same

I met a very nice lady recently who is originally from Estonia, a small country on the Baltic Sea, at the very northwestern edge of the former U.S.S.R. She was a teacher there, and we had an interesting conversation about cultural matters. Whenever something, good or bad, about our homelands was markedly similar, she would say: “Same, same.” There was something so profoundly black and white about this turn of phrase, it appealed to me immediately.

I’m a black and white kinda guy. I have a hard time with “gray areas.” Letting one’s “yea be yea, and nay be nay” has always seemed to me to be very much preferable to “spin.” I hate spin. The Jim Carey movie Liar, Liar is one of my favorites, and if I could make all the lawyers and politicians speak the truth, I would gladly endure the ensuing calamity! But it’s the day-to-day spin that affects us most directly, and the only way I’ve come up with to begin getting a handle on it is asking the question: “Is it same, same?” Apples, oranges, both, or neither?

From the politicians to the local dollar store, everybody’s selling something, and it’s seldom easy to be a smart shopper. From the get-go, it’s all about smoke and mirrors, and if there’s one way to keep consumers from being able to compare and contrast, I suspect there are thousands. Take your neighborhood home improvement store, for example. Simply by altering a product’s model number system from one retailer to the next, the sellers slow down our efforts to shop wisely. “Well, of course it’s cheaper at our competitor,” says the sales associate, “they sell the 607B, and it has far fewer features than the 607A that we sell.”

And even when something appears same, same, it ain’t necessarily so. An acquaintance in the lighting business tells me that although the lights for sale in his shop look identical to those in the big chain home improvement store, the manufacturer builds an entirely different grade/quality product in order to meet the low price target mandated by the big guys. Small shops like his, he assures me, carry only the top-of-the-line light fixtures. How would we ever know?

The internet adds a whole new dimension to the problem of determining same, same. There, we have a picture, essentially 1,000 words worth of evidence that we’re looking at what we want. Until it arrives. I bought a boat hook replacement for my docking pole recently, and it looked for-all-the world like every other boat hook, on every other docking pole in the Florida Keys. Until it arrived. Perhaps the Shriners do boat parades too, their boats built to the same scale as their little cars. Who knew?

Anyway, in the words of Mac McAnally, “it’s a crazy world, but I live here. And if you can hear me singin’, so do you.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re same, same.