You can’t ruin Allen Klein’s day. Don’t even try.
Klein, 77, explains why in “You Can’t Ruin My Day: 52 Wake-Up Calls to Turn Any Situation Around,” his 25th book on the power of humor.
“There is no inherent meaning in any thought or action,” Klein writes, suggesting it is how we react that determines whether we experience our thoughts and experiences as blessings or bummers. Even at the very worst moments in life, “you are still in charge of your attitude,” Klein said in an interview.
Viktor Frankl talked about this idea, Klein said, referencing the Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the Holocaust. “He found humor while in a concentration camp. If he could do that, the rest of us can turn anything around.”
Klein is a motivational speaker, writer and self-described “jollytologist,” who has homes in San Francisco and Sebastopol. As part of the Contra Costa Jewish Book and Arts Festival last month, Klein spoke at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville.
He told the crowd that Jewish people have always used the power of humor to cope with adversity.
“There is an old saying — I think it’s Hassidic — ‘If your heart aches, laugh it off,’ ” he said. “A more modern version is ‘Cancer, schmancer, as long as I’m healthy.’ ”
Growing up in the Bronx, Klein said he was influenced by his mother’s sense of humor and willingness to look at the lighter side of any situation. He frequently shares a story about one of her visits to the doctor’s office.
After the appointment, the van from her assisted-living residence didn’t arrive to pick her up. The doctor’s receptionist said the office had to close, but she would take Mrs. Klein downstairs to a pizza place for a soft drink while she waited for the van.
“So my mother goes to the counter and asks if the restaurant delivers” to her neighborhood, Klein said. “They do, so my mother says, ‘I want a pepperoni pizza, and I want to go with it.’ ”
Klein’s mission to get people to lighten up wasn’t his original life plan. Long ago he designed sets for national TV shows such as “Captain Kangaroo,” “The Merv Griffin Show” and “The Jackie Gleason Show.” He also worked in theaters and moved to San Francisco with his wife 39 years ago to design opera sets. Later, he owned a silk-screen business.
“When my wife became ill with a rare liver disease and died at 34, something in me said silk screening is not what I am supposed to do in the world,” Klein said.
He sold his business and attended a program on death and dying at the now-defunct Holistic Life University in San Francisco. Klein later directed that program and also became a licensed home health care aide and hospice worker.
“As I worked with people, I noticed how often humor played a big part in their lives, yet no one had written about this,” Klein said. “I became fascinated with the part humor plays in death and dying, and that totally changed my life.”
He went back to school to study the healing power of humor, earning a master’s degree at Saint Mary’s University in Winona, Minnesota. It was an external program, he said, which allowed him to do all of his work in the Bay Area under the direction of Stanford University’s William Fry Jr., a leading researcher in the field of therapeutic humor.
Klein has taken his message to audiences in 48 states as well as in Israel and Australia.
“I used to do 50 to 75 programs a year, but it’s time to slow down,” he said. “Now I want to work in my garden and write more books.”
The Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor has honored Klein with a lifetime achievement award. He also has received a Toastmasters Communication and Leadership Award and a Certified Speaking Professional designation from the National Speakers Association.
In “You Can’t Ruin My Day,” Klein draws on cross-cultural wisdom from rabbis, Japanese proverbs, Desmond Tutu, Chinese philosophers, American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, and even 18th-century poet Alexander Pope. Some quotes are straight out of the tradition of Borscht Belt comedy.
“Quotations inspire me, and they also say what I want to say, only in fewer words,” Klein said. “I use them at the beginning of my chapters to give readers an idea of what’s coming up.”
Klein summed up the central tenet of his latest book in one succinct line: “You are the only person who can ruin your day.”
And why would anyone want to do that?
For more about Allen Klein and his books, visit www.allenklein.com.