One In A Million... a million people live, work and play in upstate New York's Catskills region. These are their life stories... in their own words.
Series produced by Kent Garrett
Photo editing and website design by Ed Kirstein
Lewis Harrison: Most Interesting Man
Lewis Harrison Transcript:
He owns a B&B in Stamford, New York, is a painter, a sculptor, a bestselling author, founder of the Catskills Arts and Culture Festival, a radio host, a teacher of game theory. He considers himself to be the most interesting man in the Catskills who isn’t in jail. We’re talking about Lewis Harrison.
Here is his story in his own words:
Q – What is the essence of Lewis Harrison?
Real basic stuff: serving other people, being happy. I can’t conceive that you can be happy without serving other people. I think that’s part of the genetic code, reciprocal altruism, tit for tat theory. If you’re just in your own boat, you’re just fucked. If you’re not serving other people—
Q – Well, how did you come to think that?
Oh, that’s really early. I know the exact moment on that one.
Q – Tell me.
My mother worked with cerebral palsy children, so she would go to the local Y and work with cerebral palsy children. I remember, I must’ve six or seven years old, my mother was a real tough broad. She was great. Both my parents were great. My mother was the center for an all-men’s basketball team and in 1940. She was 5’9”. You sort of get the drift on her. She would slug a guy, just tough. So she used to volunteer for cerebral palsy kids, helping them to swim, this and that, and retarded kids.
She came home one day. It’s a seminal remembrance of her calling somebody a moron. She called them a moron because they went into a bathroom and took their kid out because there was a kid in the bathroom that had cerebral palsy. She said, “What kind of moron is afraid that their kid’s going to catch cerebral palsy?” She was really upset about it. By the time I was 13 or 14 I was doing volunteer work.
Q – How did that affect you, I mean, at that moment?
Oh, you know, we learn from our parents, so for me I got very quickly two things: There are a lot of real stupid people in the world, for one, and the other is making a difference in other people’s lives, that’s all that really counts. There’s always that Zen dilemma of I want to serve people, but what’s the cost? Every action you take, what’s the cost? Sometimes your intentions are good, and the end result is not what you were looking for. So, I think people are hierarchical. I think people are competitive. I think it exists in the human genome, the selfish gene. So I think if you go into the game already, it’s I’m going to win this game; I’m going to win. That goes against the Rainbow Gathering, hippies, new agers, doctrinaire socialists, Marxists for sure.
Q – But I mean, do you feel you’ve won? Have you won?
Yeah. You know, what do people want from life? I have a great marriage. I have freedom in my marriage. I can do whatever I want. I mean, if you want to get into polyamory and sexuality in marriage, it depends on how radical you want to get in the conversation. I can do what I want. I could have five girlfriends if I want to. I don’t. It’s not what I want to do, but I don’t have any grief around that kind of stuff. I live in a nice house. I have bestselling books published. Slept with a model, slept with a stripper, had a radio show. Yup, pretty much.
Q – I mean, do you ever worry about fitting in up here in the Catskills?
I never fit in in places like New York where everybody’s a freak. I mean, initially I attempted to fit in, but you can’t really fit in here without starving or running the show.
Q – What do you mean?
Well, you end up on the school board. In other words, if you please enough people, you’re going to end up on the school board. But it becomes you have to give your life up to a committee in order to fit in up here, and the committees are particularly dysfunctional. At the end of the day it’s like gays in Roxbury. At the end of the day, you bring enough money up here, people will just think that you’re like the coolest guy on earth. You give someone a job, help them feed their family, they can get past their homophobia, their racism, their anti-Semitism. They’ll get past that.
Q – I mean, you think that’s happened in Roxbury?
I think it’s happened up here. The woman that lives across from me is a Dominican from the city, and she’s chairman of the school board in Stamford. There ain’t that many African-Americans in Stamford, but you know, she’s smart and she’s distanced from me. We’re very good friends.
Q – So in the big picture, what does that mean? I mean, what does that tell you about the solution?
I think it’s about class. I don’t think it’s about race for the most part.
Q – Well, tell me, what is game theory now? I mean, for the people who are not familiar.
Game theory works on the concept that in the same way that someone would say, I’m Jewish, I’m black, I’m a born-again Christian, I’m short, I’m tall, it’s the way they define themselves, that you’re actually defining your life as if it’s like Monopoly. There’s a decision you make about what kind of life you want to have, and you recognize that in order to act to make those things a reality you’re going to have to make choices. Well, if you make choices with a blindfold over your mind, how can you make an effective choice, especially because human beings are social animals. So you have to make choices based on the fact that there are other players in a situation and there are environments in a situation.
So once you know there are other players and other environments and you know who you are, you can then strategize. You can strategize from a good place: Oh, I’m a Christian. I want to serve mankind and live my life the way Jesus did. But then if you are an excessive masturbator, you have a problem. You’re going to hell. So you’d better pick a game where the rules you’re playing by fit who you are and how you want to play because otherwise you end up being neurotic, like most people, and unhappy, like most people, and imprisoned psychologically, like most people. They believe in things that in the end only serve their self-loathing for the most part.
Q – You help people make these decisions?
Oh, I coach people. People pay me a flat fee per month, 600 bucks per month, and they get a lesson every day on strategy. They actually have to study the lesson.
Q – So let’s say if I were one of your clients, I mean—
Well, what do you want?
Q – What would happen today, for example? I mean, what would I do today?
I would say, Kent, what do you want that you don’t have?
Q – But what if I said, well, I’d like to have a Cadillac car?
Right. Then I would say to you, and how does this apply game theory, as part of a game that I play is ruthless self-assessment. Where’s the payoff for you in having a Cadillac? I make you define it, a Seville, you know.
Q – Alright, yeah. So let’s say a Seville.
So I would say, why do you want it?
Q – I’d say because I like the way they drive. I like the way it looks. It gives me status.
Okay. So one of my rules is short-term gratification is the road to hell. That’s in Harrison’s game theory, so anything that I do simply for short-term gratification. In fact, you can rent a Seville and have them think it’s yours.
Q – That’s how you would—?
Well, I mean if you really need to have status, if you want to get real status, find out a problem that that guy has that he can’t solve and solve his problem for him. Then when he says to you, oh, that was great of you for doing that. You go, don’t worry about it. Make it seem like you do that 50 times a day. That gives you status. Wanting a Cadillac is always a really stupid choice unless it’s really going to do something for you, unless you can say it’s like—you know what it’s like? It’s like going to a strip club like Tiger Woods and just getting off for 30 seconds with some stupid stripper. Short-term gratification without any clear payoff is the road to hell every time.
Q – But I mean, you know, I could argue that a lot of religions say that.
Well, they’re wrong. No, they’re right.
Q – They’re right, yeah.
Oh, hell yeah, they’re right, hell yeah.
Q – So how does game theory differ from—?
Because religion makes up a bunch of rules that can’t be supported in any real time. Jesus died on the cross. How about a stalk of corn? You know, all the pieces of the stalk blew off or some Yoruba legend or Santeria. I mean, look, religion has no logic. The only logical thing about religion is we have a human genome for faith. We believe. We have faith, faith in Obama. Some conspirators have faith in Santorum. You know, you have faith. You have to have faith. There’s no escape from faith.
Q – So does one have faith in game theory?
Well, yeah, but not because game theory’s right, because you have to have faith in something. I don’t have faith in game theory because game theory is right. I have faith in game theory because I have to have faith in something. The idea that my ancestors were at Mount Sinai or that Jesus died on the cross for me or that Mohammed rode on a horse with the Angel Gabriel to get 72 virgins, hey, my story’s as good as theirs, you know, and at least mine is rational.
Q – Your story being?
Oh, game theory. Game theory’s rational. It’s an attempt at logic. I mean, you take all the religion out of the Jesus story, what is it? It’s a guy who’s great at game theory. He was smart. He was kind. He was loving. He was nurturing. He believed in good things and people doing well and being compassionate and empathetic. I mean, what’s wrong with this story? Then sometimes you have Sophie’s choice: Either sell your soul to the devil or we will crucify you.
Q – Ten years from now, what are you going to be doing? What do you want to be doing 10 years from now?
There are two things I would like to have, a guarantee of economic independence, whatever I have now, more of a guarantee. I’d like to have a biological child and just one or a couple of regular lovers to fulfill my every hedonistic requirement, with my wife’s permission. That would probably be it.