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Meet Dick Lessman

Note to reader: If you are easily offended by slang references and frank discussion related to the male genitalia, the following essay may not be your cup of tea.

“And that’s the important thing to remember,” Paul said to Larry and the television audience. “The songs we were writing, they were all about love.  It was all about love.”

I lay sprawled on my bed on the 19th floor of the Marriott Hotel & Marina in San Diego, California.  It was not exactly by choice.  In fact it was my last choice of hotels when registering for the 45th annual International Conference on Fundraising, sponsored by the Association of Fundraising Professionals.  Not only did I end up in the most expensive hotel on the list, but I had a harbor-view, the most expensive room in the most expensive hotel on the list.  Here I was, lounging in one of the nicest rooms in one of the nicest hotels in one of the most beautiful cities in the entire world, watching Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono, Olivia (Mrs. George) Harrison, and the founder of Cirque de Soleil reminisce with Larry King about the Beatles as they celebrated the first anniversary of the Cirque de Soleil production, Love.

There was a disconnect between Paul’s proclamation — “It was all about love” — and the two-week-old verdict on what Sir Paul would be required to pay his ex-wife, Heather, in the way of a divorce settlement.  Where was the love?

This was the same Paul McCartney who had sued his fellow band-mates in 1970 after his songwriting partner, John Lennon, had declared, “I want a divorce.”

Where was the love?

Where is the love knowing that even after Paul pays Heather the $48 million settlement he still remains a billionaire while hundreds of millions of children go to bed hungry tonight – if they even have a bed to sleep in?  I don’t question Paul’s generosity when it comes to charitable contributions.  But is love measured by how much you give away?  Or is it measured by how much you keep for yourself?

Earlier that evening I had amused myself by reading the names of the yachts as I walked along the San Diego harbor (M.I.A. Again, Anti-depressant, High Spirits, Therapy, Wet Dream, Cash Flow II, Great Expectations, Never Enough).  I stood and stared for some time at one in particular.  Oddly enough it had no name.  It was a mega-yacht, a super-sized Hummer in a world of Jeep Wranglers.  Dramatically ordained in black and white, its proportions were similar to the Chrysler Crossfire.  A long, sleek hull stretched out from the cabin like a cat waking from a nap.  Sophisticated satellite dishes and antennae perched on top of the cabin like peacocks on the roof of a Sag Harbor beach house.  Behind the cabin was an elaborate seating area with what looked like a hookah pipe anchored to a sea-salt-resistant table.  Along the starboard hull were several portals and one large window that exposed a plush living room below deck. This was no houseboat, it was a floating McMansion; a party-cruiser big enough to accommodate fifty people or more.  And it was sitting empty – along with hundreds more empty houseboats in the harbor – while the homeless lay wrapped in Salvation Army blankets on park benches less than a mile away.

As I self-righteously condemned the hypocrisy of Sir Paul and his cohort, I realized that I too was lying in the lap of luxury.  Their hypocrisy was a magnified reflection of my own.

I do not doubt the sincerity or the significance of the Beatles’ swan song: All You Need Is Love.  Unfortunately we bought into much more than their vinyl collaborations.  The entire human race is infected with greed, jealousy, malice, and countless other negative afflictions.  Yes, we are capable of committing random acts of kindness.  We are capable of creating beautiful works of art.  I adore the music of the Beatles.  But Einstein’s theory of relativity is universal: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.*  If we give something away we expect to receive something in return, even if it is merely a warm, fuzzy feeling. We are incapable of doing anything that is bonafide beneficence or absolutely altruistic.

It is when we forget or deny this truth that we get into trouble.  To think that on our own we can do anything truly good or worthwhile is folly.  Compare any of the solo work of the Beatles to the body of work they created as a group, a band, a team, and you begin to see what I mean.  None of the individual Beatles was virtuostic in their musicianship or songwriting.  But they came together in the right place at the right time and rode the crest of the right wave as long as they could.  As a result pop music and pop culture were dramatically transformed.

But did their hippie dreams result in world peace?  No, not any more than the World War that spawned them.  Back then it was the travesty of an unjust war that motivated the cultural revolutionaries of the Sixties.  Backlash against prudish, unhealthy attitudes toward sex inaugurated the free love movement, which unleashed the multi-billion dollar porn industry.  It is this blatant disregard for human dignity and the beauty of sexuality that disgusts so many of the Islamic faith, leading some to declare jihad and fly suicide missions into World Trade Towers.  Who would have thought, “Make love not war,” would become an invitation to terrorism?

For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The battle doesn’t just rage between individuals and cultures.  It rages within each of us as individuals.

In Abba’s Child, author Brennan Manning wrote extensively about the Impostor.  The Impostor and the True Self personify the duplicity that exists in every human being.  Manning named his Impostor PeeWee; readers in turn are encouraged to name their Impostors.

To name an entity one must know the entity.  I remember contemplating my Impostor in the wee hours of one particular morning.  The image of Les Nessman came to mind; a fictional radio news reporter in the Seventies’ sitcom WKRP.  Portrayed by the actor Richard Sanders, he and I might have been twins separated at birth.  Everything was a potential news story to Les, and he bought into sensationalist journalism hook, line and sinker.  One memorable episode featured a “turkey drop” as part of the station’s Thanksgiving promotion.  Les was on sight describing the event in detail as turkeys were thrown from an airplane and pummeled streets, sidewalks, cars and pedestrians.

“Oh, the humanity!” he cried in imitation of Herbert Morrison’s famous eyewitness radio report on the crash of the Hindenburg.

“As God is my witness,” said station manager Arthur Carlson “I thought turkeys could fly.”

There is more of Les Nessman in me that I care to admit.  I magnify my self-importance.  I am overly dramatic.  I mimic the words and actions of celebrated heroes.  As I lay in bed that morning, contemplating my Impostor, the name “Dick Lessman” appeared. As in, dickless man.

“No,” I thought.  “Manning says we must embrace the Impostor.  I detest the name Dick.  My Impostor needs a name that I can love.” And my thoughts drifted off to another tangent.

Where did the name Dick come from, and how was it derived from Richard?  It was common in the mid-20th century: Dick Nixon was President, Dick Butkus was a football player for the Packers, Dick Martin was half of the Rowan & Martin comedy team that anchored Laugh In.  In elementary school I was exposed to stories like Dick Washington’s Cat and Dirty Dick.

Along about fifth grade (1969-70) I became aware that the word “dick” was also slang for penis. Horrified, I tried to convince my classmates to call me by my middle name, Mark.  “I’ll call you Mark-on-the-dick!” said Loren, a pioneer of the childhood obesity movement.  So much for that approach.

Until about 1972 I assumed the word dick was only rarely used to describe penis.  That was the year my parents took me to see my first R-rated movie, The Godfather.  I remember the hot redness that crept up my neck as Michael Corleone was coached to commit his first murder.  Another family member would plant the murder weapon, a pistol, in the restroom of a restaurant.  “Just make sure you put it in the right stall,” they advised. “We don’t want Mikey coming out of the can with nothin’ but his dick in his hand.”

What the…?  How prevalent is this?  Does the whole world consider the words “dick” and “penis” interchangeable?  What were my parents thinking when they labeled me?!? As I grew older I would try to make light of it with comments like, “My dad named me after his favorite organ.”  And even though I did not believe Mom and Dad would have intentionally burdened me with such a re-dick-ulous monicker, from that point on I almost always felt a sting of embarrassment whenever my name was uttered.

For years, any attempt to change my name proved futile.  When I started college in 1978, dorm mates Mark and Stu refused to call me Dick and for a time I was Rich.  But the habit of introducing myself as Dick was deeply ingrained.  I might forget the sting for a while but it didn’t take long to encounter a reminder. In a climactic scene from the 1984 movie Ghostbusters, Dan Ackroyd declares everything was fine “until the power grid was shut off by Dickless over here.”

“Is that true?” the district attorney asks Bill Murray.

“Yes, it’s true. This man has no dick.”

When my wife, Tracy, and I were dating it was noted that our names invoked the comic strip detective, Dick Tracy.  The movie with Warren Beatty and Madonna came out the year after we were married, and we did have some fun with it.  But I was never comfortable.

Dale Carnegie, author of such classics as How To Win Friends and Influence People and How To Stop Worrying and Start Living, believed a person’s name was the sweetest word in the world to that person.  Oh really?  Would he feel the same if his name were Penis Carnegie?

Make no mistake.  I am very fond of my penis. It has provided moments of intense, indescribable pleasure.  But it has also been the cause of tremendous embarrassment.  During puberty an erection occurs something like every 90 minutes.  There is no way to predict when or where it will occur, and no control over when it will go away.  The only thing an adolescent male can count on is that the erection will arrive at the most inopportune moment, like when the teacher calls you to the front of the class or it’s time to stand up and sing a hymn in church.  On hot, sticky summer days, the pubic hair can get wrapped around your erection. It’s difficult to keep silent as you rise from your seat and the hair is ripped out by its roots.

Thus it is easy to understand why a man acting like an idiot is often referred to as a dick.  Our sexual appendages have minds of their own, and they are far from Einsteins.

It took 300 miles of separation from the town of my birth to finally free myself.  In 1997 my new boss suggested I drop the nickname, “and pretty soon no one will ever remember you were ever a dick.”  He was mostly right.  With rare exceptions I am now Richard.

But as I considered a name for my Impostor, Dick Lessman was simply too distasteful.  Yes, my Impostor is a wretch.  I can embrace a wretch, but not a dickless wretch.  My Impostor shall be known as… Wretchard! And it was a good and proper name — for a season.

Books like Abba’s Child are intended to hold a mirror in front of you.  If the book is especially good, like Abba’s Child, the image becomes clearer every time you read it.  Good recordings are similar.  I have listened to the Beatles’ Abbey Road hundreds of times and regularly hear something new, some percussive embellishment or vocal nuance that I not noticed before.  The music becomes more beautiful, more precious.  The depth of the performance is more appreciated.

I consider myself a Christian.  But like the word “dick”, the label “Christian” has negative connotations.  For many people it is severely negative, and who can blame them?  Unbelievably horrible things have been done in the name of Christ in every one of the 2000+ years since He was crucified.  Why?  Because His church is led by depraved, duplicitous human beings.  The worst of Christians are those who deny their depravity.

In my third or fourth time through Abba’s Child I grew to more fully appreciate the depth of my depravity. I thought I had clearly understood it in the past, hence the naming of my Impostor, Wretchard.  But the closer I studied my reflection in the mirror of Abba’s Child, the greater my shock at my utter, complete depravity.  My unwillingness to embrace Dick Lessman, the dickless man, was a refusal of unconditional love.  I realized that if I would not open my arms to my Impostor, I would not open my arms to a fellow, fallen human being.  And I would never come to know my True Self.

Richard Potter, meet Dick Lessman; Dick, Richard. We are one and the same.

Rather than sinking into a pit of despair I found this realization uplifting.  It took the pressure off.  Of course I am a dick, an asshole, an idiot.  And I am not alone!  Even Sir Paul McCartney, hero of my adolescence, is a dick.  He does stupid things like having a child at sixty-something and then divorcing the child’s mother.  We all do stupid things, and we all deny that we do stupid things.  But we fool only ourselves.  Everybody else can clearly see our stupidity.  The ground is level when we embrace our stupidity unconditionally.  The grandest of illusions is to think the ground is not level, to convince ourselves that we are not stupid and hence we are above others.

But wait.  If I’m not stupid, then what if there are others who are even not stupider than I am?  I must scramble for position!

But if I am stupid, and I know I’m stupid, and I can embrace myself in all my stupid, depraved duplicity, then I am more willing and able to embrace others, despite our shared depravity. Or perhaps because of our shared depravity.

It was fascinating to observe the two surviving Beatles as they interacted with Larry King.  Paul McCartney is the one who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth.  Paul is the more prolific songwriter.  Paul has far more financial wealth.  But Ringo was visibly more gregarious, more outgoing, more engaged in the conversation.  In a word, he appeared happier.  Why is that?

Ringo and his wife, Barbara Bach, have been through drug and alcohol rehabilitation.  Ringo watched his good friend and fellow rock drummer Keith Moon (of The Who) slide away into drug and alcohol induced oblivion and die in 1978.  Even though Paul and John wrote the words, it was Ringo who sang “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Perhaps Ringo is more aware of his depravity.  Could that be why he appeared happier than Sir Paul?

It is counter-intuitive.  But with each trip I make around the sun I am more convinced that intuition is over rated.  Am I actually advising that embracing your depravity leads to self-actualization? Yes, the path that leads into the pit of despair is the path that leads to the summit. Remember, Martin Luther King Jr. did not declare to the world that he had seen the mountaintop until after he had written his Letter From a Birmingham Jail.

As I explored these concepts, surrounded by material excess on the 19th floor of the San Diego Marriott, I allowed myself to sink further into despair.  How can I enjoy these surroundings when there are homeless people just outside my door?  And even if I was endowed with the position and material wealth of Paul McCartney and chose to give it all away to charity, it would not make a noticeable difference in the fight against poverty.

Would that be charitable?  What is charity anyway?

“Tossing a bone to the dog is not charity,” Jack London wrote.  “Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog.”

“Charity” is derived from the Latin word caritas, meaning “affection.”  Arthur Brooks, author of Who Really Cares, defines charity in the following way:

Imagine I meet a man with no home.  If he forces his way into my home against my will, this is trespassing.  If I force him to stay with me against his will, this is kidnapping.  But if I invite him to sleep at my house and he accepts, this is charity.

Brooks describes two communities of need: 1) the community of those who need to receive (food, clothing, shelter, etc.), and 2) the community of those who need to give.  If I give something away without understanding my need to give, I am doing it under the illusion that I am above the receiver.  The ground, in my mind, is not level.  That is not charity.  When I give it away with the realization that I am just as depraved as the receiver, that what I have is just as much a matter of chance and circumstance as what he has not, then that is charity. Charity, affection, love, philanthropy, these are all two-way streets.  In the act of giving the giver receives, and in the act of receiving the receiver gives.

The ground is also level with regard to the Impostor and the True Self.  As much as I want to believe changing my name to Richard was a means of acknowledging my true self, it was also an attempt to deny my past.  Dick is part of my life and always will be; to pretend he does not exist is to live a fractured life.  Manning realized that he created PeeWee as a defense against the realities of a world we weren’t designed to endure.  PeeWee had Brennan’s best interest at heart; Dick had Richard’s best interest at heart.  But the creation of an Impostor, a mask worn to protect the True Self from the pain of deep disappointments, ends up isolating the True Self from the joy of deep, intimate relationships.

“As we come to grips with our own selfishness and stupidity,” Manning writes, “we make friends with the impostor and accept that we are impoverished and broken and realize that, if we were not, we would be God. The art of gentleness toward ourselves leads to being gentle with others – and is a natural prerequisite for our presence to God in prayer.”

Charity must be demonstrated between the True Self and the Impostor.  To extend affection to that which we despise most about ourselves is a necessary first step toward extending charity to our neighbors and to the world.

Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  That means all aspects of your self, not just the image you manage in order to impress those who are too busy managing their own images to notice the image you manage in order to impress those who are too busy managing their own images to notice the image you manage in order to impress those who are too busy managing their own images to notice the image you manage.

Drop the burden. Love your neighbor as your self, and remember:

… in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

The Beatles

* Editor’s note, January 31, 2011: My daughter the physics nerd tells me this is actually Newton’s 3rd Law of Motion. And, having read the above, she will no doubt have plenty to discuss with her future therapist.

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