Friday, June 28, 2013

Street Corner Wisdom: A Chat with Don Ward, New York City’s “Shoeshine Dude”

“You do this long enough, you really learn to read people.”...Don Ward

It’s Wednesday evening and we are wandering around Times Square in NYC looking for the Ed Sullivan Theater so we can bask in the illusion of close proximity to David Letterman.

We are back east for my 35th high school reunion, which will be held in the suburban county I lived in when I was a teenager. My husband, who likes getting his shoes shined whenever we are at the airport, is a little frustrated. We had anticipated a lengthy layover at DFW, where he planned to get his traditional airport ritual shoeshine. Fortunately for us, American Airlines was able to put us on an earlier flight to Laguardia. Unfortunately for his shoes, this obstructed his plans for that DFW shoeshine.

Our early arrival allowed us to head into Manhattan for some sightseeing and dinner. We decide to seek out the Ed Sullivan Theater to see if the “Hello Deli”, which has featured prominently on the Letterman show, might be open for dinner. So long as we have TV shows on the brain, we stroll in the direction of 30 Rock. Lo and behold, on a nearby corner, there is a cheerful fellow briskly shining the shoes of a contented gentleman comfortably perched in the chair of a bright blue shoeshine stand.

As my husband takes his turn in the “hot seat”, the shoeshiner applies himself to the task at hand and we begin to chat. It turns out we are both NYC natives, although he is from Brooklyn while I am originally from the Bronx. He tells us his name is Don Ward. He has been shining shoes for over 20 years, after trying his hand at several other professions, which he found did not suit him. The intersection of 47th street and 6th Avenue is “his corner.” His broad smile is infectious and his jokester gregariousness is captivating. And he is full of wonderful stories. In fact, he is such a gifted raconteur that it is an unbridled pleasure to simply listen to him talk. Eventually, I mention that I am a psychologist and he perks up significantly beyond his usual perky baseline. He speaks eloquently and soulfully of what he’s gleaned from his years of experience meeting people, shining their shoes and keenly observing the action as pedestrians traverse “his corner”.  In fact, he proudly flourishes a magazine article written about him, which prompts me to listen even more carefully to what he has to say.

As a psychologist, listening to and understanding people is what I do. As a shoe shiner, listening to and understanding people augments Mr. Ward’s obvious pleasure in a shoe well shined, a job well done and the creation of yet another happy customer.  Mr. Ward, it turns out, is far more than a shoe shining professional; he is a silver-tongued shoe shining philosopher and a very interesting one to boot (get the pun?). His good-natured acceptance of the value of hard work, his well-honed commitment to personal excellence and his earnest respect for looking polished and taking good care of yourself have provided him with a treasure trove of wisdom, which he is delighted to share with all comers. He has uncannily accurate intuition about what a person is really like based on only a brief snippet of observation. Over time, he has cultivated an astute understanding of what makes a good person good. With humble eloquence, he shares fascinating stories and observations to illustrate his insights. Mr. Ward exudes good cheer, confidence and humanism. His life has clearly not been easy, but he firmly believes it has been unequivocally good. His 48 years rest lightly on his shoulders, as he looks much younger than his stated age. He has pulled himself up by his own bootstraps (forgive me for yet another pun). His shoeshine business has a devoted clientele whose loyalty is likely based on his sparkling personality as much as on the sparkling footwear he bequeaths to his customers. In fact, in one of his most inspiring stories, he tells of coming to work one day and finding his shoeshine stand had vanished during the night. In his own words, “When you work outside on a corner in New York City, you know that eventually, this is going to happen to you. So you don’t get upset, you simply rebuild.” With a little help from his friends he was back in business in no time. “Besides,” he points out, “I really like the blue stand, my previous one was brown and this one is much nicer looking.” Wow. Isn’t that a brilliant example of making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear?

When your toes no longer twinkle, your spats have lost their spiff, your soul is weary and you need happy feet, you have many options. Psychotherapy is one possibility. A chance encounter with a street corner sage can be another. If you find yourself in Manhattan needing a smile and glossy footwear, remember to stop by Don Ward’s corner for the best shoeshine of your life, with a little wisdom and good cheer thrown in for no extra charge. You will come away well heeled in more ways than you probably anticipated.  Don’t be surprised to find a grin on your face and a spring in your step that has little to do with shiny shoes. That is the magic of Don Ward, “The shoeshine dude” and streetcorner philosopher of 47th and 6th streets, NYC.

For a Youtube glimpse of the charming Don Ward, click on the link below:

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I'm Blogging For Mental Health: How to Start Over

Two weeks after my 21st birthday, I bought a beat up pumpkin colored Mercury Capris and headed west in search of Los Angeles.  It was 1981. There was no internet and there were no cell phones. I didn’t have a credit card. But I'd finished college and it was time to start my life's next chapter. With Wayfarers perched on my nose and the hot summer wind whipping my long hair into a frenzy (no air conditioning either), I drove towards the setting sun. Tears of sadness and fear trickled down my face dampening my lap all the way through the state of Ohio. By the time I reached the Indiana state line, my weeping had run its course and the song, “California Dreaming” trilled from my lips. To this day, that song is still such a favorite that it’s a ringtone on my phone.

While this may appear to have been a foolish and reckless escapade, it was not. The key reason for my adventure’s success, in my opinion, hinged on the fact that the trip was not in the least bit spontaneous. Embarking on my new life was thoroughly considered and carefully planned. I had an acceptance letter to the clinical psychology PhD program at USC tucked in my purse. I had $1000 saved from my summer job. I had an NIMH grant and student loans waiting for me as soon as I registered for classes. My best friend had just moved to LA to start law school so I could crash at her place while searching for an apartment of my own. I had family living 85 miles south of LA in Northern San Diego County. A reputable mechanic had thoroughly checked over my car before I hit the road.  I signed up for an auto club membership so I knew help was just a phone call away if I had car trouble. I had something called a triptik (a prehistoric version of mapquest), which was a little booklet consisting of a series of fold-out maps with my route marked in yellow highlighter, which had been assembled by the auto club before I left, to guide me on my journey. Two male friends were tagging along to split the driving and expenses. It was still a cheaper way for them to get to California than buying a plane ticket, so they were happy share the ride.

My new life in LA turned out well.  Because I’d done my homework and made reasonable plans before committing to the move, my California dreams become my reality.

Over the course of my life I've learned many valuable lessons about starting over. First and foremost, make it your mission to learn as much as you can about where you want to go or what you want to do. Don’t just pray or hope for the best. Things do not generally “just work out.” Take appropriate action so you can be an active agent in making the right things happen at the right time.

Think about what can go wrong and explore solutions ahead of time. At the same time, fuel your confidence by thinking about all that can go right instead of worrying incessantly about all that can go wrong. Evaluate your financial, emotional, social and vocational situation. If necessary, delay your plans while you shore up your resources if at all possible. It is very hard to handle the unexpected when you are running on empty!

Try a practice run. If you want to move to a new city, go visit for an extended stay. If you want to downsize, try getting rid of things. See if you can live on a smaller scale where you already live now. If you want to get divorced, separate first so you can see what things might really be like without your spouse. If you want to change careers, spend some time with people currently doing what you would like to be doing. Ask lots of questions and listen carefully to the answers. Once you’ve collected a lot of information, let your imagination run free. Visualize your best and worst case scenarios. Is the best possible outcome consistent with what you hoped it would be? If the worst happens will you be able to handle it? What options will you have if things don’t work out the way you expected?

Be flexible and ready to think fast on your feet. Plan for contingencies. Roll with the punches and don’t get stuck on rigid expectations. Develop a fine awareness of what really matters to you. Your values can guide you through tough situations or decisions you failed to anticipate. Recognize that no matter how well you plan, unexpected and difficult challenges will rear their heads and require quick action. Don’t expect everything to go smoothly or that you will be happy, confident and self-assured at every turn.

These guidelines even apply when the fresh start is not voluntary. If you are the victim of a natural disaster or other catastrophe, you will have to start over. If you’ve lost your job, you will most certainly be starting over. If you lose your spouse through death or divorce you will gain instant admittance to the starting-over club. Starting over after a serious accident or grave medical diagnosis will require a lot of emotional flexibility and a whole new set of coping skills.

After doing enough research to decide if the change you have in mind is right for you, look for positive role models. When I was considering whether an out of state move was right for me and my family, I reminded myself that people move all the time. San Antonio is a military town. I saw people arrive, buy a house in a weekend, get settled and 2 years later do it again. They moved all the time. They may not have liked it, but they did it. If they could move a whole household every two years, surely I could handle a move too. 

So, in April 2012, I did it again. This time I didn’t head from New York to California in an orange jalopy with no a/c. For this new start, my husband and I caravanned our late model cars across the plains of east Texas through the Rockies to our new home in Colorado’s Vail Valley. Fortunately, I’d learned a thing or two from that long ago journey to California and those lessons have continued to serve me well.

If you want a fresh start, be bold. Don’t let fear determine your course. Don’t get to the end your life harboring feelings of regret because of the all the things you wanted to do but you were too afraid to try. You can start over anytime you want to if you approach change in the right way. The world is your oyster. Where do you want to go next?

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Boston Marathon Bombing: As Mr. Rogers says, "Look for the helpers"

"So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, "The good outnumber you, and we always will."...Patton Oswalt

Once again, we find ourselves watching the television news gripped by clutching fear and horror. The Boston Marathon is usually a day filled with triumph and celebration; instead, it has been corrupted into a day full of shock, grief, and terror.

A question I keep hearing over and over is, “Who would do such a thing?” I believe it is safe to say these bombings were perpetrated by someone who was angry, malevolent and cowardly. We can’t allow people like this bomber to take away our freedom and confidence and destroy what is best in our lives by making us afraid. That is how terrorists really do their dirty work. Remember that dreadful events like those seen at the Boston Marathon are thankfully rare. My heart goes out to the victims and their families but we should not dishonor those so grievously affected by letting our lives be ruled by fear.

What has impressed me the most is not the damage and devastation. Instead, I am deeply inspired by all the people who ran towards those who had been harmed, rather than running away from the carnage. As soon as the blasts went off, first responders were helping the injured and clearing debris. Their calm, capable efforts must have been a tremendous comfort to those who were harmed in the blast.

Bad things happen but good people step forward and do what is needed to help. People who didn’t know each other that fateful Monday went from strangers to family in an instant. The death and injury toll would have been so much higher if ordinary people and first responders had not acted with such courage and dedication. The City of Boston had trained for catastrophe and that preparation paid off with an effective well-orchestrated emergency services response.

As we empathize with the day’s pain and grief, we must also take pride in the many acts of heroism and bravery witnessed as the tragedy unfolded. Uninjured marathoners who had just finished running 26.5 miles went straight to area hospitals to donate blood. National guardsman and other emergency services personnel turned towards the devastation without concern for their own safety. On site medical staff originally expecting to assist participants with nothing worse than twisted ankles and dehydration treated those with severe and life-threatening injuries instead. Hospitals mobilized to provide emergency services and continuous hours of intensive life-saving surgery. The FBI and the Boston City Police collaborated at the crime scene. Individuals and local businesses offered photographs and video footage to assist with the investigation. Bystanders consoled one another while the media provided interviews, information and updates which brought us together in our grief.

It turns out that the Boston Marathon of April 15 2013 was still a day of triumph, just not in the way we had all expected. While the loss and pain leaves us with heavy hearts, the day’s many acts of heroism should be cause for quiet celebration. In the long run, goodness and beneficence will always prevail over evil and malevolence. There are so many more of us then there are of them. This truth is a much greater comfort than might be expected. Hold on to that comfort and it will carry us forward with strength and determination. In the face of our shared courage, virtue, and solidarity, the terrorists will never win. 

Monday, March 18, 2013

Musings on Sheryl Sandberg's book "Leaning In"

“Miracles are to come. I believe in a remembrance of miracles”…e e cummings

Towards the end of my last year in high school, members of the senior class were asked to select personally meaningful quotes to be printed beneath our yearbook pictures. I chose this quote by e e cummings because I believed great things were ahead for me and also, to remind my classmates to be mindful of their own great moments.

Coming of age in the 1970s, riding the wave of the feminist movement with songs from ”Free To Be You and Me” and Helen Reddy jangling in my head, I was convinced Sandra Bem’s androgeny was the purest form of truth and that significant differences (aside from obvious anatomical ones) between men and women didn’t really exist. In my exuberent unexamined opinion, I was convinced that if a man could do it, I should be able to do it too. I was able to happily maintain this illusion through my college years during which I wrote my undergraduate thesis on a research study I performed entitled: “The Role of Attractiveness in People’s Attitudes Towards Sex-Role Inappropriate Behavior." 

However, in graduate school, it grew increasingly difficult to ignore the evidence that the lives of my female professors were quite different from those of my male professors. In particular, none of the women were married or had children. And they all seemed to work constantly and have “no life” outside of their careers. My favorite quote switched from e e cummings to one I read in a Frank and Ernest cartoon: “Don’t forget, everything Fred Astaire did, Ginger Rogers did backwards and in high heels.”

Undeterred, I was committed to dancing backwards in high heels and having no one notice I was doing anything different from the guys. I set lofty goals, although I prudently started paying attention to differences in how men and women behaved in the workplace. I watched the men and followed their lead. In meetings, I always made sure to sit at or near the head of the conference table. I voiced concerns when they came up without hanging back. Whenever I was at a conference with a large audience, I dashed to the microphone to ask one of the first questions. If a task came up that was usually assigned to a man, I volunteered first.  If the task was one traditionally fulfilled by a woman, I let someone else do it. I made a point of letting people know I loved math and science and computer programming. I was gracious but assertive and direct. I wanted people to know I was smart and competent and could handle any crisis.

Then I had children. Once I was juggling a profession and a family, my confidence faltered.  Regrettably, my first husband was not much of a partner. As a result, I was horrified to realize my reliability was not what it needed to be. My kids occasionally got sick. They had school functions I wanted to attend during work hours. When I traveled for business the logistics were daunting. Sometimes things at home would break and I would have to leave work to take care of them. I found myself joking with more than a mild degree of bitterness, “I guess everybody needs a wife!” My marriage deteriorated and ended in divorce, which felt like a dreadful personal failure on my part. Fortunately, after the divorce, I met a wonderful man who was committed to me personally and professionally. We were deeply in love. He was devoted to my children. He took pride in my career and my professional accomplishments. I chose to "lean in" and we got married. We adopted a child who turned out to have special needs. When faced with this challenge, my husband quit his job to stay at home with our children. My income and commitment to career were significantly higher than his. On his resume his job title for the 8 years he stayed home is "Mr. Mom to three kids." This arrangement was not particularly popular in socially conservative San Antonio, Texas. I found myself frequently rebuffed by other mothers in my neighborhood. I felt disapproval from my kids' teachers.  One neighbor approached me at a block party and with saccharin southern charm informed me that my daughter had been the only child in her class who’s mother had failed to attend a school event. In what I have come to consider to be one of my finer moments, my rejoinder was, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t realize EVERY OTHER child in her class had BOTH parents at the event. Had I known both parents were expected to attend, I most certainly would have been there. Or perhaps you are trying to let me know that my daughter was lucky enough to be the only one with her Daddy there? How cool is that? Thanks for letting me know.” This didn’t help me win any popularity contests in the PTA, but at least the neighborhood “ladies” backed off.

Confident of my husband’s support on the home front, I decided to go into business for my self and opened my own clinical psychology private practice. I strove to be an innovator and never shied away from a challenge, particularly if it was one that was traditionally accomplished by men. As an inveterate techie, I embraced every technological advance that allowed me to run my practice efficiently and effectively. I maintained the same priorities as my male colleagues with the goal of providing excellent quality services while achieving ambitious financial goals and running my business in a way that was consistent with the highest ethical and professional standards.  I developed expertise in practice management for psychologists and mentored early career psychologists. I became a resource for others starting out in private practice.  I served as Treasurer of our local psychological association (BCPA), partly to highlight my abilities in math and business, strengths not typical of most mental health professionals. Then, I served as president of BCPA. When my term was up, I ran for the Board of Trustees of the Texas Psychological Association. When I won my seat on the board, I felt tremendous pride.

Last year, my husband had the opportunity to take a job in Colorado’s Vail Valley. This move would require me to start my practice over from scratch. Once again, I chose to “lean in.” I closed my San Antonio practice. What I had done once, I could do again. We sold our house and boldly moved on to the next chapter of our lives. We’ve been here in the Vail Valley for almost a year. I’ve continued to work with some of my San Antonio clients online while establishing my new practice in Eagle Colorado. I’ve been marketing my practice and networking to get to know my new community.  I’ve also been doing a lot of professional writing and participating in psychology at a national level. So far, everything is going well, even better than I had envisioned. This month, I was asked to serve as Treasurer on the board of the local suicide prevention coalition. I feel very proud.

My advice to female colleagues and clients appears simple on the surface. It mirrors the message of Sheryl Sandberg’s new book “Leaning In.” Be bold. Speak up. Aspire to greatness. Take risks. Cultivate equality and partnership at home. For the time being, we must take our professional lead from what works well for men, while remaining personally grounded in what it means to be a woman. We don’t have to pretend to be men, but we must embrace the standards of success in our culture as currently defined by men.  We must insist on our “place at the table.” out world! After a 20 year hiatus, change is in the air and great things are ahead. “Miracles are to come and I believe in a remembrance of miracles.” It turns out to still be true, after all these years. Who would have guessed?