What makes me smile

I begin here, with what makes me smile today: my cousin Charles McPhee.


Charles McPhee, the Dream Doctor, who until 2006 had a syndicated radio program called The Dream Doctor Show.  A Princeton graduate, he has devoted his life to amassing the largest dream database on earth, over 600,000 dreams, because he believes that dreams are windows into the soul and he wants to help unlock their meanings for those who are baffled and confused and care to understand.  (You can find out more about Charles and his dreams www.dreamdoctor.com.)

Charles is my handsome, dashing, Adonis-like cousin on whom I had an enormous crush as a young girl—in fact, I still do.  A freshman at Princeton, Charles and a friend of his, Russ Morrow (also handsome and dashing) took my best friend, Kate, and me to our high school’s junior prom because we didn’t have dates.  Some cousin!  If we didn’t think about how embarrassing it was to have a cousin and his friend take us to our prom, it was grand: Charles and Russ the most sophisticated, fun, and best-looking boys in the room.

In June of 2006 Charles was diagnosed with an aggressive form of ALS—Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.  As the disease advances patients become increasingly paralyzed.  (For more information see www.alsa.org and read a wonderful essay Charles wrote for the Princeton Alumni Magazine.)


The other day, after a long stretch of not hearing from Charles, knowing that he was now in a wheel chair and had lost the mobility of his hands, I received an email from him which contained a song, Wicked Hangover from Timmy.

Wicked Hangover from Timmy

I loved that he had made this, loved the song, and asked for another:

My Dad

I was astonished and told him so, asked questions.  How was he accomplishing this, when, with whom?  You need to understand that his voice was the first thing he lost.  Fans called into his radio show, complaining to him, worried about him because he was slurring his words and they thought he was drunk on the air.  This led him to the doctor.  Now he can’t speak.

In response to my questions, he wrote:

“it really is one of the most fun things ive ever done. the songs are all recorded on a four track tape recorder (fancy) by my very good friend rod barr , with whom I used to write and play music when we were at princeton together the trick is that he’s never heard these songs . I wrote them after pu. so I write out the lyrics and chords , and then we go through this process of  adjusting rhythm tempo, feel tone phrasing attitude emphasis etc. fortunately rod is the most gifted musician i know and our communication is excellent and vaguely telepathic after so many years of friendship that it all goes quickly. funny, when facing death, this was one of the most important things for me , that the art be realized, and not be lost for ever. so I am having double fun with it , because of the ridiculous circumstances , and because it reunites me and rod, doing what we always loved doing together .and because we are getting the art out.

xx your psychedelic cuz”

How, physically do you get it out? I ask.  He responds:

i write with a reflective dot on my forehead read by a camera that moves a cursor and when I hold it steady it selects a letter on a keyboard on the computer screen.  it is ingenuous.  some of my best country redneck ya yas

The Rain Song

Talking with his sister Larkin, she paraphrased Victor Frankl who wrote that real suffering isn’t physical suffering, real suffering is when you have no meaning in life.  These songs are pouring from my cousin Charles, filled with meaning and purpose, deliberate and determined.  He is my hero.

The Rain Song

(lyrics and chords written by Charles with his reflective dot)

G                        F                                                C

when I look out on this dry August road

I see the heat comin down in waves

and there’s one thing I got to know

when the man come an take it away

when will the rain come

when will it fall

when will it bust these walls

and lift us up

you’re ma favorite girl

and you know i’ve always loved you true

but now there’s another girl

and I want her too

here I am I’ve put up half of my life

and I’ve bet to lose

just for the chance to ride a palamino mare

I don’t understand it either

Em F

well I’ve tried and I’ve tried

Em F C

but I still can’t find why

Em F D

why I do these things that I do

well I’ve cried and I’ve cried (same chords )

cause I see what I’m doing

girl I’m breaking us both in two

After first chorus , want to try 4 measures of

g to F, then key shift to A G D for 2 measures , then repeat chorus in Em F C, etc . Lead will be above key changes.

for forty days and for forty nights

the war was waged in my heart

and I come out feeling like a broke down Ford

wid somebody kicked in the lights

well Lord knows I ain’t no A student

and I ain’t too fine with the words

I’m just a man with a restless heart

searching for his own world

ya know the morning sun is calling me on

and like a fish to the water I’m drawn

I got to keep on keeping on

it’s the only way I know

so baby sing it

c’mon and sing it

sing it with me

(a capella with multi-cowboy boot foot stomp on wooden plank)

when will the rain come

when will it fall

when will it flood this town

and lift us up

when will the rain come

when will it fall

when will it bust these walls

and lift us up

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6 thoughts on “What makes me smile

  1. This is incredible. It is amazing how our clunky and complex world of technology can do something as delicate and magical as unlocking the soul. I just interviewed this opera singer turned public school teacher in Oakland who works with technology to help students with severe physical disabilities to communicate. This approach is called Augmentative Learning. These amazing computers are giving voice to her students who have a lot to say. Here’s how she describes her work:

    “Kids come into my classroom and they have habituated being voiceless. They have had very little communicative success. Once you begin to unlayer the communication within them, it’s wonderful to see the little personalities blossom inside of them. You get a kid that’s devoid of response, with a little bit of time, they develop a sense of humor and an impishness. The kids have this amazing level of thinking and creativity that is trapped in their own bodies and unrecognized and untapped. My job is great. I get to tap into the essence of that child and help them find their voice.” — Mrs. Stephanie Taymuree, Oakland CA

    She says her job is to unlock children from their own bodies. It sounds spiritual. I have always thought of technology as antithetical to the spirit, but in fact they have so much in common. They both enable us to transcend and connect.

  2. Martha….I just re-read this post and it is so moving and inspiring — what a great way to start the day. Your cousin sounds amazing.

    I’m working with an author right now who’s 23 years old and was born without legs. The book is called Double Take. He uses a skateboard…..not a wheelchair. He’s a master skiier and climber and athlete…..and does not feel sorry for himself at all. In fact, he’s got a great sense of humor. He made this video the other day for his book: http://kevinmichaelconnolly.tumblr.com/post/206748485/just-released-the-trailer-for-my-upcoming-book

    When I feel down and cranky, I’m going to go back and read this post again. Thanks for sharing his story.

  3. Is it possible to correspond with Charles by email? I would love to send him a note.

    Thank you,
    Joy in GA

  4. I went to high school with Charles, in Bethesda, MD- He was a lovely man in so many ways; The loss of him is great- Amy

    1. Thank you for reaching out. It means so much. He was incredible. Was — the past tense will always sit so uncomfortably. I’m glad you knew him. Martha

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