Not many people's resumes include "pediatrician, medical philanthropy consultant, and cartoon writer"... but Dr. Cliff Harris clearly is a man of many talents. In this episode, he shares how he got started in cartooning (including a very special childhood story involving "Peanuts" creator Charles M. Schulz); how he got connected with "Bizarro" creator Dan Piraro; and how his careers in medicine and philanthropy affected his writing.
We walk through specific cartoons and discuss how Cliff was inspired to write them (he even tests Elizabeth on a word puzzle!); links below.
This is a story about much more than just cartooning. Cliff takes us on a journey of discovery, self-awareness, and finding joy.
Cliff's "Bizarro" cartoons mentioned in this episode:
Dan Piraro's graphic novel: https://peyotecowboy.net/
In this episode:
Cliff's story of talking with Charles M. Schulz as a child (02:02)
How he connected with Dan Piraro of "Bizarro" (06:51)
Connection between hard times and good joke writing (10:38)
A second link to Charles M. Schulz (13:35)
Going through various cartoons and explaining them (20:20)
Describing word puzzles (29:55)
Leaving the practice of medicine (35:17)
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Cliff Harris 0:07
around the kitchen table. Somebody would say something. And I would just go okay, we there's a bizarro in there. Let's keep working on this. What do we how do we massage this into a bizarro?
In case you're not familiar with bizarro cartoons, they're eccentric, surreal, and yes, bizarre looks into everyday life. And they are hilarious, filled with wry humor and puns and very clever wordplay. I'm Elizabeth Pearson Garr and my guest today, Cliff Harris is one of the brilliant minds behind those ideas. He's one of a small team that contributes ideas to Dan piraro. The creator of bizarro, as you'll hear, Cliff began his career as a pediatrician, and he's now a consultant for medical philanthropy and fundraising. Heads up, Cliff and I talk about some of his cartoons in the interview. You can see those cartoons by going to the show notes on our website, go to what it's like to dotnet and click on cliffs box. But no worries if you don't. Even though this episode is called what it's like to write bizarro cartoons. It's about a lot more than just cartoons. Thank you for being here. Dr. Cliff Harris, I appreciate that. May I call you cliff, please? Okay, thank you. Well, I think you have a really fascinating career history because you started as a physician. And now you work in many areas, but among other things you write for cartoons, and you consult in medical philanthropy. So I'm curious about your whole trajectory. You must have had this curious mind this creative mind always, what age were you when you realize that you had this penchant for writing?
Cliff Harris 2:02
So when I was in third grade, I came home from school one day, frustrated, because I had been assigned a task that I thought was going to be impossible, because the task was to interview someone who is in the job that we want to do when we grow up. And at that point, I knew that I wanted to be a cartoonist. And I thought, why don't know how to reach any professional cartoonist, I'm not going to be able to do this assignment. And I was always super concerned about doing the assignment, right. And getting a good grade, which is probably part of the story of how one ends up in medical school. So my mother said, Well, why don't you interview Charles M. Schulz
Cliff Harris 2:54
And I had all the peanuts books, you know, course, this is 1971. So you know, peanuts is everything. They had just huge. The other side of the Apollo module was everywhere. So I said, Well, how can I speak with Charles such as well, I think he lives in Santa Rosa or something. And this is back in the rotary phone days. So she picked up the phone and dials for one one. You remember, information, information? And I hear her say, Hello. Yes. For Santa Rosa. Do you have a number for Charles M. Schulz? And then she says, Oh, yes. And she's writing it down. And then she hangs up and then she dials? And then she says, Hello, she's chosen shields? Yes. Well, my son would like to speak with you. And
I love everything about this. I love your mom. I love that his number was listed. I love that he answered the phone.
Cliff Harris 3:56
Right, all those things. So I have my list of questions. And what actually happened in the conversation at this point, whatever we're talking 50 years later, it's somewhat a blur, but what I remember is that he was in no hurry. He was happy to answer all my questions. He told me about how he starts in pencil, lightly and then he uses his very special pen that they didn't make anymore. And so he bought out the company so we could make sure he'd always have those special nibs and it was a real pen that he dip in an inkwell, and that he tended to do the Monday through Saturday, all in one go. And then he would do the Sunday separately, and how he got started and he went to this art school and it was just, I remember that, and I don't remember what my teacher thought or if she even believed me when I turned in a report. So that was that I had I had this fantastic experience that obviously stayed with us my whole life. And then, by the time I got to high school, there was a pediatrician in town, who was my hero. And he let me tag along with him and attend some deliveries and go to his office. So by 16, I knew I wanted to be a pediatrician. And the cartooning thing was always just I would just do two long pieces of paper, and I would draw pictures of the kids, when I did become a pediatrician, but it was just a fun thing.
And everyone would say, Oh, you're such a good artist, when people give you a lot of kudos for that. To be
Cliff Harris 5:38
honest, I'm not a great artist. I'm good enough. And I took a couple of cartooning classes. But I think it was very clear to me that that was not a way I'd ever be able to feed myself. So then we skip ahead through the years of being a pediatrician, and through the years of the career transition and midlife crisis, which we'll talk about later. But I'm going to fast forward us to 2007 because all through my life, I've always had little jokes and ponds that pop into my head. And it actually, frankly, I think helped me in medical school because it helped me to memorize things because I would find little, jokey wordplay, things that would help me remember things. And most of these little puns and things I would keep to myself, sometimes I would voice them if someone was nearby, and sometimes they would laugh. Of course, I love the far side cartoons and I love his wordplay. And then bizarro came along, which was a little more surreal, but also, he clearly had a pension for wordplay. So in 2007, I said to a colleague of mine, have got this idea for a kind of New Yorker, one panel cartoon. And I told him the idea. He said, You know, that's funny, and I think it's the kind of thing that Dan piraro would probably do in bizarro, he has a blog, and he has an open connection to his fans, you should send in that joke idea. I figured I had nothing to lose. So I sent in the idea,
you figure you'd already called Charles M. Schultz. Why not contact and
Cliff Harris 7:22
when it was like 40 years earlier, I had nothing to lose. So he wrote back. And essentially his message was, I get a lot of joke ideas from people that I turned down. But in fact, this is my kind of humor. Can you verify that this is an original gag? And if so I'd like to draw it. So obviously, that was thrilling. And he did. And so that was my first one in late 2007. And then, I had a few more ideas pop into my head, I sent those, he liked one or two of those. And then it turned out he was coming up to San Francisco to do a stand up routine at a comedy club. So I arranged to meet him. And we just really hit it off.
Was it a big joke fest? You guys are just kidding around the whole time.
Cliff Harris 8:11
Yeah, he just you know, when you find someone who has your sense of humor, it's the best, pretty great. And I also had as an ulterior motive, children's book manuscript that I needed an artist for. And as soon as he accepted the cartoon idea, my wife and I were thinking, Oh, maybe this guy would illustrate the children's book. And the children's book was based on letter puzzles. So I brought along my manuscript of that when I met him. And he also loves brain teasers and puzzles, and he was into it. So we started a relationship where he and I worked together on that children's book manuscript. And I joined this small handful of Gag writers, for him most of the stuff, he would write himself and draw, but it's a pretty tough order to come up with a joke every day, sir, he has been doing it, like 40 years, something. Wow.
Yeah, that's a lot. You can't sort of force that creativity to just keep coming keep coming day after day.
Cliff Harris 9:19
So it was a real value to him to have a few jokes, kind of in the drawer that he could just pull from if he was having a dry spell. Yeah. So I now had a reason to write down every little funny gag or idea that came into my mind or even to hang on to the ideas that I thought might be the germ of some kind of a cartoon gag. So it became a really fun thing with my family in 2007 2008. My kids were five and eight, and so around the kitchen table, so But he would say something. And I would just go, Okay, we will wait. There's a bizarro in there. Let's keep working on this. But we massage this into a bizarro. And both of my boys had a couple of their jokes that came to them that became bizarro.
Ah, that was felt great. That was so sweet.
Cliff Harris 10:21
So over the years, I think I've had about 120 that he accepted. And probably my hit rate is about 25%, maybe. So I would typically send him four or five ideas, and he might take one. And it's been fascinating in retrospect, because I realized now that there were a couple of years, I'd say, 2012 1314, when I was particularly prolific, with the joke ideas, always sending things to him. And I think I had about 25 per year accepted in that timeframe. And those were probably some of the most miserable years of my life. We had just all kinds of very stressful things happening in the families with deaths and illnesses. And between my family, my wife's family, and the other one with a medical background. So I was always called in to, you know, liaison with the doctors and helped make tough decisions. And yeah, so the years after that, I'd say 2017 1819. And on, I've been much better for my own mental health, and a lot slower for the joke, ideas, spontaneity, not so much. I mean, I think in conversation or at work or whatever, I feel the same. But I feel like maybe I was purposely looking for opportunities to get a joke, crafted, perfected, submitted, accepted, published, because it was always such a thrill. And I needed that as that little icing, that little thrill. Maybe that's what it's about. I mean, also, when you look at interviews or memoirs, with comedians, a lot of the time they tend to be pretty troubled people. That's right. And Charles Schultz himself, was lifelong depressed and had a very challenging childhood. You know, he was small for his age, and he was super bright, and his parents put him forward to grades. So he was always tiny. And he really was Charlie Brown.
He was, I was gonna say, I thought he was the model for Charlie Brown, the pathetic little kid.
Cliff Harris 12:45
Yeah, you know, and there was a real little red haired girl. So I guess what I can say is that, because I've been happier, been less prolific as a joke writer, but every so often now, it's now I don't feel the urge to keep them coming. It's really just an Easter egg. When I find one in my brain, or somebody says something. And I'll think, oh, wait a minute, if you twist that, or you make a spoonerism out of it, or you, you know, whatever. That could be a bizarro.
I was thinking when you're talking about that art or yours, almost your brain looking for some light, or some levity, or some joy in those dark times. It's interesting how the mind could have worked.
Cliff Harris 13:35
The pattern is undeniable, as I look back on it. There is a sort of fascinating linking chapter to the Charles Schultz story, which is that about six or seven years ago, I was reading a book about the life of Charles M. Schultz, who was known as Sparky to his friends. That's what everybody called him. So the books called Sparky. It was written after he died. And it was written based on interviews with his widow, Jeanne Schultz, and his children. And one of the things that the author writes, is how Sparky was always keen to mentor young cartoonists and would always go out of his way to help them spend time with them. And that this was something very meaningful to him. So I'm sitting on the couch reading the book, my older son is sitting next to me. And I read this line in the book that says, in fact, Sparky even answered the phone one day to find an eight year old, budding cartoonist eager to interview him.
Cliff Harris 14:50
and I'm getting goosebumps now again, as I tell the story, and of course, at the moment that I read that I thought, that's gotta be me. That was me. Wait
He remembered me. Yeah.
Cliff Harris 15:03
So one of the cartoonists who he had mentored was Dan piraro. Is that right? So I contacted Dan told them this whole story. And I said, Is there a way you could get a message to Jeanne shots? So he said, Yeah, I should wait all this stuff down and afford the email to her. And then she can write back to you if she wants to. So I did. And I told her, Okay, this would have been fall of 1971, and tried to give her more of the particulars. And she wrote back and said, yes, that all adds up. That must have been you. So here's the other part of it. I would have thought that this happened every day to him. But why did this stand out? I don't think there was anything particular about me or the questions I asked him or anything. When I was eight, maybe I still had a British accent, I don't know, it was probably gone by that point. But clearly, he didn't get these calls every day. And my mother, she had a lot of catspaw. And she didn't hesitate, obviously, to advocate for her son, or to call someone she didn't know, even if they were famous. And so having his phone number be listed was, I guess, not a nuisance for him, at least in 1971. Because he didn't have the number unlisted yet. And he must not have gotten calls from a lot of kids, because he remembered that, and he must have not only remembered it, but remembered it and retold the story to his children or his wife, because they're the ones who were interviewed for the book.
So it was a few degrees of separation, it must have been that's how it impacts No,
Cliff Harris 16:59
kind of a little story, like I remember when that kid called me, or I don't know. So it actually all links back, also, Elizabeth, to my work now in medical philanthropy, and fundraising. Because one of the things I've come to learn, and I talk about this a lot in the consulting work I do, which is mainly focused on helping doctors understand that if someone expresses interest in supporting their work, it's a service to that person to facilitate their support, that it's not something manipulative, or coercive, and that people who give, find meaning in their giving, and joy in their giving. And so if they say they want to give, help them do that, you're doing it for them, you're not doing it to them. So for me to ask, Can I have some of your time and ask you these questions, and for him to choose to give me his time, it must have been something that had meaning for him, and that he enjoyed doing. And so it stays for me as a great reminder of why we shouldn't hesitate to ask, because sometimes, if the person has what we need, and it's meaningful to them to be able to give, they'll always remember it, and it'll be meaningful to them.
I think that's something that we understand more as we get older, too. I think as younger people, we think, Oh, we're just taking from them, or why would they want to share but as you get older, you realize you have knowledge experience, and you want to share what you have the desire to be a mentor or to give some of your life experience, your money, your wisdom, whatever it might be. We want to pass that on. And you don't understand that as much as a young person. Yeah. That is just a beautiful story. It actually brought tears to my eyes, the thought of him remembering you. I think a little more credit is due to you. As a young kid, you probably asked some pretty impactful questions. That conversation was not just two questions, you probably really thought through things that you wanted to ask him about. You were clearly interested in the topic and interested in him. So was a meaningful experience both ways.
Cliff Harris 19:24
Both ways. Yeah. That was a rare, remarkable moment of all these things converging my life.
I wanted to read you a quote from Dan piraro. I don't know if you've heard this one before. But he wrote this about you. It was actually about a strip that the two of you made together, you wrote and he illustrated. This idea came from my good friend, Cliff Harris, who is a wordsmith extraordinaire. He plays with words in unusual ways, writes word puzzles, write stories in puzzle form, and Just generally defies the laws of language in ways that make me wonder if he was dropped on his head as a baby. Funny guy, yeah, I am just wondering where the ideas come from for you. You mentioned that sometimes they're just pop into your head. But do
Cliff Harris 20:19
you hear something I thought we might do if I can share my screen? Yeah, I know it's a podcast, but you and I can be looking at a cartoon and I can tell you about where the ideas came from for these. So here's someone I'll just
read this is a gentleman filling out a form and another. The first guy says Name, Cliff Harris, a dress, no a suit.
Cliff Harris 20:43
Where did this come from? This just came from somebody said that to me like a dress. And I just heard it as this as like a dress. So here's here's another part of perhaps where these come from. I have a genetic hearing loss and wear hearing aids. Sometimes I mis-hear things. And I'll mis-hear them in a funny way. There's a cartoon. One man is shoving a box of the cereal Grape Nuts at the chest of a second man. And he says, some are born to Grape Nuts, some achieved Grape Nuts, and some have Grape Nuts thrust upon them. This came from there was a interview with a football captain and trying to inspire him. And he said, You've got to be pissed off for greatness. And I heard Grape Nuts, and pissed off for Grape Nuts. But at the same time, I heard that. And so then I'm, I'm left with greatness and greatness. And of course, where does my mind go except the Shakespeare quote, right? That's thrust upon
them. So good. Do you want to describe this one?
Cliff Harris 21:59
This is a little boy and a very old man sitting on a couch, watching TV. And there's a commercial on TV. It says Finally, for ages four to 104. And both the little boy and the old man think to themselves. Clearly the boy must be three and a man must be 105. So this is just one of these things that you know, you've heard that all your life. Yeah. Wages pay to add. occurred to me when were you excluding here? Yeah. And this is a great example of after we published this, Dan and I were talking about it. And we realized there was an opportunity missed, that there's often an opportunity missed after it's published. But here it would have been see this little dog sleeping next to the old man, right? What if commercial said, fun for people ages four to 100, then all three of them could be thinking.
Right? That is funny. Here's an
Cliff Harris 22:57
example of one. That was my younger son's idea. Christmas morning, and maybe 10 year old boy opens a box which appears to be empty. He says, oh, boy, a new air guitar. And his little brother says, Can I have your old one? This was just something that my younger son said he was opening a box. And he goes, Oh, it's an air guitar.
He's got your sense of humor. He does.
Cliff Harris 23:23
So here's one, here's an operating theatre and the doctor says I shall now amputate the patient's legs with my bare hands. And the nurse thinks I don't think he can pull it off. Is the kind of thing that I love the most, when there's a common phrase. And I'll think about applying the common phrase in an unusual situation that would make it funny. Yes, you can take I don't think he can pull it off. What must have happened in this case is I heard somebody say that. And then I thought, we'll pull it off. Maybe what if? Yeah, so you get,
it's almost like when you hear someone learning English as a second language, and they'll say, What do you mean by that, you know, when you can pull that off, and we don't really mean actually pull it off. It's not a literal phrase. So you're using it both ways, the sort of idiom and then literally,
Cliff Harris 24:19
this is a great point. And this may be part of why my brain works this way. When I was in pediatric practice, my niche in the community was Spanish speaking families. I had worked and studied some in Mexico and Central America. And 31 years ago, I met my wife who is from rural Mexico herself, and came here at age eight. And so I've been living around Spanish speakers for a long time. And often, I will say to my wife, you know, this idiom in Spanish where when you say this, this doesn't sound like why do you say it that way? And then she got you to I never thought of it that way. Or she will come to me and she'll question an idiom, and say that That sounds so weird that you say it that way. And then I'll think, Oh, I never thought of it. Yeah. Here's a peanuts themed one as a patient in a psychiatrist's office, and the patient says, my sister treats me like Lucy treats Linus. And the psychiatrist says, sounds like you've got an allergy to peanut.
This one, I was rolling on the floor.
Cliff Harris 25:22
This is where I just heard the word analogy and thought to myself, the fear like from New York analogy, I've got analogy. Then often the pawn comes first. And then the question is, how do you build on it and make a scene out of it, where it makes sense within the universe of that little world? So that's something that the Emperor always pushes for, is that it has to be a coherent little universe, where there's some reason why this is happening. It makes sense in itself.
And you brought in your peanuts connection, your Charles M. Schultz.
Cliff Harris 26:01
Yeah. Okay, here's a patient, who, of course, is wearing a gown, which is open at the backside. And his doctors wearing a white coat that's open at the backside. He's got his coat turned backwards to the patient says, Thanks, Doctor, I feel like you really understand me. And what happened with this is, of course, it occurred to me when I was in the doctor's office. When this was published, someone wrote and complained that they had published a cartoon with this idea. And they sent it to Dan. And it was basically this premise, a little different scenario. But the same concept of Wouldn't it be funny, if a doctor were there white coat backward the way we were the patient gowns backwards. And it was published in a small newsletter for some organization and never went beyond that. So there really was no way that we would have seen it. But what it shows you is that with 8 billion people in the world, someone's going to think of your joke. Yes, I would say easily. For every one joke idea that I send in, I probably actually have to joke ideas. But I have to google them first. And look for them in Google Images to see if a cartoons been done. And some of the most frustrating ones are Western realize that someone did do it before. Like, I'll get some pawn it like okay, I was thinking of Easter Island. And instead of the heads poking up, what if there were buts, and it was keister Island. All right. It's silly little thing. You know, the word keister is funny. Yeah, and anyway, it'll make it through the censors, because it's keister, and it's probably gonna be just fine. But someone had already done. And what Dan said is, you know, 20 years ago, you'd never had to worry about that. Because unless you're in the Sunday funnies in the newspaper, how were you supposed to have read every book that's out there, or Since you weren't? But now that you can know? Or do your research, you're expected to do your research, which is a bummer.
So when something comes to you like that, like, oh, Easter keister? Hmm, do you just have a little notebook that you carry around with you and keep notes of your Yeah,
Cliff Harris 28:23
I usually email them to myself, I don't do it now. Because as I said, it's not as active. But in my really active years, I kept a running list. And I would wait till I had five or six of them, and I would test them out with friends. In fact, I have a friend who you see, once you begin an opportunity like this to be a joke writer for a comic strip, then your friends start sending their joke ideas to you.
They want to be in on it. Yeah. And
Cliff Harris 28:52
so I get these from a variety of friends, is one friend, my best friend in particular, is pretty funny guy. And I like some of his ideas. So sometimes, I have taken his ideas and sent them on to Dan saying this is from my friend, Jerry. And I've even said, Could you put his name in the signature line instead of mine. But that was a reach too far. So he's putting in my name. And so what Jerry and I will do is we will text each other joke ideas. And then the format is the response to the text is a number between one and 10. And if it's above 7.0, that means send it in. If it's less than 7.0 means don't send it in. It's not good enough.
It's a little rating system. Often I'll send him
Cliff Harris 29:39
an idea. And he'll text back 6.9998 I love you Clifford. This is cute, but don't send it out.
Keep working on this idea. Yeah.
Cliff Harris 29:55
So those letter puzzles that came from Do you know William Stein spoke CDB. Yes. I loved that dog when I was a kid, as we all did. And I guess I got reacquainted with it after I had children. And I thought to myself, wouldn't it be cool to write a whole book with a plot that uses these letter puzzles for the dialogue, like if you had a sort of a graphic novel? At that point, I was living in the Oakland area, I was working in Oakland, children's. And then I started working for Stanford, and I was commuting, so I have this long commute on a bus every day. And I would sit there and I made this grid of all the letters in the alphabet, and combine them to see what might sound like words. So it was a B, a C, AD AD, well, that sounds like at ad A E. And so I came up with this list of maybe 200, fairly complex, sometimes polysyllabic words that I could say, in that format, where you say the name of the letter. And then of course, you add numbers into the mix, and you have more variety. So I had this whole vocabulary.
It's like looking at vanity license plates. My nephew's name is Nate. And I often thought if you just put an N and the number eight, that's Nate. Exactly. So it's that sort of thing.
Cliff Harris 31:23
So first, I had this idea for a fairly simple book, a children's book. And that didn't end up going anywhere. But then with Dan's partnership, it turned into more of a book that was like a graphic novel, not specifically geared to children. And so we could be a lot broader with the themes. So I came up with a script for this graphic novel, all in letter puzzle format. And Dan loved it. And he drew up some pages, his agent loved it. And we thought we were off to the races. But we had this fascinating experience of the publishing companies that the agent sent the manuscript and the sample pages to, there would usually be one or two people at that publishing house that would say, Oh, this is brilliant. I love it. It's so much fun. And then there'll be two or three people who say, Oh, my God, this gives me a headache. Are you kidding? A whole book? Oh, and it seemed like it was very polarizing. You thought it was great. Or it just gave them a headache. And they couldn't understand why people liked it.
Because they were frustrated. They were, their mind doesn't think that when
Cliff Harris 32:41
I came to realize that it's almost like some kind of a, maybe a personality test, because it's not intelligence, it's just does your brain work in a way where you can comfortably look at the letters and read them as their letter names without reading them as a word? And then sound it out and listen to what you're saying? So that if you have x, and then the number 10, and then the letter U, and then the number eight, can you say that's Oh, that's extenuate. Or we also Dan and I published a few of these in bizarro, we would usually do them on a Sunday panel, because he had more space. We saw the same thing in the comments on the blog, there would be I'm gonna say half the people who would say please do more of these. It's so much fun. My family and I sat down and had a great time figuring this out. And there'll be other people say never do this again. Are you crazy? This is a hate this.
I find it very satisfying. I think it's fun. It's like it's a little challenge and you feel like you've conquered something like I did it. I figured that out.
Cliff Harris 33:55
Well, there you go. You're my kind of person. So suffice it to say that book Never got published. 10 polarizing. Yeah. This is a recent one. The way he drew this panel, the I don't know man or woman who's really irritating the other client just looks so annoying. As she says, Can you decipher this one?
Let's see. ESAT No. Yes. Is that KK QR? Uh huh. eaten? Oh, is that cake? Cake you are eaten? Is that is that is that cake? Er. Is that cake? You are eating your cake you're eating? And he's clearly it is He is eating.
Cliff Harris 34:40
He's eating? Yes, yes. If I ever get a tattoo, which I don't think I will, but if ever do I think I am gonna get the number eight, the ad symbol and the number two so it reads a tattoo.
You have to stay true to your craft. That's right. I'm one wondering, is there some intersection among all of your different strains of work? You know, doing that and your consultant work for medical fundraising and what you used to do as a physician? How do you see them all align? Or are they different parts of your personality, different parts of your brain.
Cliff Harris 35:17
So maybe in a different hour or some other venue, I'll talk to you more in depth about how I came to leave the practice of medicine. But suffice it to say, they became too stressful, basically, I loved it, loved it, loved it. And then once I had my own kids, the experience of taking care of other people's sick children became too stressful in the process, when I started realizing how it was affecting me, the increased stress and I toyed with the idea of maybe I gotta find a different niche in medicine that's not on the front lines. One of my partners in the practice, said to me, you know, it's okay, if you quit. I've seen how miserable you become in the past year. And that was such a lightbulb moment for me. And I came home and said to my wife, would you be okay, if I'm not a doctor anymore, and she's like, I just want you to be the happy guy that I married, do whatever you need to do. So that night, I had this dream. I'm at this, like a dungeon, long table in a medieval castle. And there's all these Vikings with fur vests and horned helmets. And I'm at the head of the table. And all the Vikings have these goblets of red wine. And they are all have their arms around each other. And they're carousing, and they're toasting me at the head of the table. And they're chanting, he's leaving, Madison is leaving.
Cliff Harris 37:02
and I literally sat up in a sweat, just like in the movies, panting from a dream. And I just said to the voices of those men around the table, okay, I hear you, I promise, I'm going to do it. I didn't know what the next step was going to be. I just knew that I had to do this. I had to honor what my body was telling me. And now what my psyche was telling me. And it was a mourning period, hanging out the stethoscope, and that image of myself as a pediatrician, which I had had since I was a teenager, and it was a lot of stuff going on. And so I said to a friend of mine, I don't think I need to pay $250 To have a psychiatrist help me interpret this dream, I think is pretty clear. And my friend said, Yeah, but who were the people around the table?
Oh, the nuance? Yeah.
Cliff Harris 37:58
So I said, Oh, okay, I guess I do need to go. Figure that out. What I came to realize is that those were the parts of me that had been submerged and suppressed and tucked into a corner, perhaps because of the intensity of my chosen profession at that point. Wow, that's huge. It was certainly was all consuming. And I loved it. But free time, I was reading medical journals, and I was I had other things to music. And it was extremely satisfying. But it was also consuming. It was a huge consuming. Yeah. And so there was parts of me, I guess, the part that wanted to be more goofy. So I can say that I don't think this would have emerged in the same way. During the years I was practicing medicine, maybe because I wouldn't have just had the space in my head to really relish and dive into and seek opportunities for play. Like this wordplay.
And that makes sense to and also why those guys with the Stein's and the furry coats come out. Because when you're so devoted to something, you have to sometimes close other things out, especially a really intense career. you devote so much time study yours, that's your identity for so long. You put that cloak on and you just have to focus and so I think your analysis it all make sense. You have to sort of untypical yourself
Cliff Harris 39:35
and accomplish it. Maybe it's something about my personality or an intensity or something. For me, it was all consuming. Yeah.
And I think also some people can compartmentalize things more than others. Some people can juggle a lot more like I can't juggle a lot of things. I can multitask, but when I devote myself to something I like to really devote myself to it. different personality types can handle different things. means at different times. And as long as you know yourself really well, it's great that you had that reflective time and took a big step. Sounds like that's what
Cliff Harris 40:08
you got out of why that separation between treating ill or critically ill children, and having my own babies at home. I wasn't able to compartmentalize that. And that's part of why it all spilled over. And it just became untenable. So thank goodness for bizarro.
Yeah. Well, I think when you're a creative person, can't really stifle it forever. It's got to have an outlet. Yeah.
Cliff Harris 40:41
I can't talk about bizarro on your podcast without giving a little plug to what Dan Pereira was doing now. He's working on a graphic novel, which is fascinating and beautiful. And he's publishing it serially. He's taking so much time on the artwork that he publishes maybe one chapter, every chapter is maybe 10 or 12 images. That's it, but maybe one a month, but the artwork is just next level. It's just beautiful. And the story is crazy, wacky. And in I mean, like, it's a sort of a twilight zone, kind of a western theme. So it's called peyote cowboy. Highly recommended. He's a phenomenal talent.
And you'll just keep working with him. As long as you want to know, maybe this
Cliff Harris 41:37
year, I've had two or three. And that's fine. As I said, I don't feel compelled. I really used to in those very productive years. If I had some downtime, I would like actively try to think of cartoon ideas. And now, I don't feel that urgency about it.
I think these things come when they come. That's the creative spirit. The Muse. Yes. Well, thank you so much cliff. It's just been so fascinating. I love all of these stories. It's been a joy for me. So thank you for taking the time.
Cliff Harris 42:18
Thanks so much for being interested and for asking.
I was so moved by Cliff's stories and reflections and by his ability to find through lines among the many chapters of his life. Here are some of my takeaways from our conversation. Number one, take initiative, make the phone call reach out to someone take a risk. You never know what might happen to if someone reaches out to you for assistance or advice. Consider being that patient, generous, humble mentor, Charles M. Schultz was to Cliff. Three. Remember that people who give find meaning and joy in their giving, we shouldn't hesitate to ask for honor what your body is telling you what your psyche is telling you and what your dreams are telling you. Especially if they include big Viking men, chanting at you with furry vests and goblets, five. Make some space to evaluate where you are and what you need. Take a big step if it's time to make a change. And finally, number six, dive into seek and relish opportunities for play. be goofy. I can't thank Cliff Harris enough for joining me. As I mentioned at the top of the show, the cartoons that cliff and I talked and laughed about during the interview are linked to the show notes on our website, what it's like to dotnet we've also posted the link to Dan Ferraro's new book pod cowboy there. Please follow us on social media and tell a few friends about our podcast too. And if you'd like to contribute to this podcast, please click on the button support the show at the bottom of the show notes page. I'm Elizabeth Pearson. Gar thanks for being curious about what it's like.