The Rising Tide Of Wretched Detritus

landfill bulldozer

My father had no friends. He had fans, sycophants, students, hostages, admirers, toadies, followers, victims, listeners and viewers – but no friends. He and my mother did, however, have a select circle of acquaintances. Without exception the men were Type A, driven, and – like my father – leaders in their respective fields. The women were, also without exception, extremely bright, high born, nice, and beautiful.

“Technology has democratized the tools of creativity, resulting in a tsunami even more cretinous and loathsome than anticipated.” Taz Mopula

This “fast set” socialized regularly and their parties were love songs to designer decadence. Alcohol flowed like blood in the streets of Pamplona, as did testosterone. Ego and intellect, style and substance, need for attention and inflated self-image battled it out for supremacy; with the passing of time came increasing volume and hilarity.

“Instant, universal communication has made it impossible to know if anyone is saying anything valuable.” Taz Mopula

As a child I marveled at these circuses, and noticed that my father and male friends always spoke simultaneously; these were not conversations, they were shouting matches. I learned the reason why at his funeral. One of the few remaining lions revealed that, since they had no intention of listening to one another, speaking all at once saved time.

“At what point does communication become air pollution?” Taz Mopula

Without paternal guidance, I had to learn what having a friend is all about on my own, and there were many stumbles. For example, narcissism and friendship don’t mix. The axiom that goes – to have a friend you must be a friend – became meaningful. This, I discovered, involved learning about the needs and wants of other people, and placing them above your own – a strange concept for an alcoholic! And yet, like a child with a learning disability, the penny dropped eventually.

“Why is it called the age of communication when nobody listens?” Taz Mopula

Of all the skills required, perhaps the most foreign was listening. I knew about scoring points for talking, even singing; but listening was something very different. Harder still was listening to quiet without feeling an intense need to violate it. But, my Quaker education served me well. Although I am a slave to the savage charms of music, natural orchestras of all descriptions, and the allure of my own voice, I now understand silence to be the only perfect sound.

“You have the right to remain silent, and listen. Might be advisable to exercise it before they take that one away, too.” Taz Mopula

Tuning out clutter, both external (motorcycles, wild turkeys, etc.) and internal (ego, fear, anger, etc.), enables me to really listen. Becoming an empty vessel makes it possible to fully witness other people and absorb the eloquent silences.

“It doesn’t qualify as listening if you’re busy thinking what to say next.” Taz Mopula

The irony, of course, is that I find myself in what is commonly referred to as the age of communication – which I think of as the age of digital pollution. Today we are besieged with information and, to pick a number from a hat, about 99% of it is rubbish. While it may not be inherently evil, we are left with the challenge of defending ourselves against the deluge and sifting through what’s left on the odd chance of finding something nourishing.

Portrait Of The Artist As A Short Man

Alistair Sheriff Cropped

By the time I arrived in Philadelphia at age six I had already lived in three different countries and learned two very different languages. My writerly personality – detached, solitary, depressed, thoughtful, lonely, mercurial, disingenuous, acquiescent, analytical, misanthropic and insecure – was already well in place. Drug abuse, chronic isolation, and a rich assortment of self-destructive behaviors lurked just around the bend.

I once asked a professor what it took to make a living as a writer. Without pausing he said, “You have to give up any hope of leading a normal life.” When I asked him that question I thought I had a choice, I did not understand that the decision had already been made for me. I was a serious wee lad, a miniature adult; the world was too much upon me. By six I was already scribbling poetry about God, death, and the meaning of life.

Time allowed me to grow up, or down, into my image of an aspiring, young artist – miraculously I never owned a beret, probably because I do not wear hats well. I pursued sensual indulgence, cheap thrills, and bourgeois decadence with relish.

I enjoyed the feeling of squandering talent, wasting opportunities, and pissing away gifts others might have killed to enjoy. It was an era of bad boys and anti-heroes and although I did indeed turn bad it never made me a hero. Also, somewhere along the way I stopped writing anything more culturally consequential than an ad for foot powder.

After you read Invisible Driving you will come to understand that it was only through traversing the burning landscapes of manic depression (bipolar disorder) that I was forced to break my personality down to its most primary elements and reconstruct. That process, hard as it was, gave me so many glorious gifts, among them the ability to have fun and play.

I read once that it is never too late to have a happy childhood – and I have taken that as my mantra. As far as I am concerned – He who dies having had the most fun wins. I learned at last that having fun is not difficult, complex or costly – it is simply a matter of knowing yourself, being yourself, and enjoying being yourself.

There is a coda to this song. You allow other people to enjoy you enjoying being yourself, too.

I wish I could tell the little boy in that photograph he needn’t be afraid.

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It’s Lonely At The Top

It's Lonely At Top

The students who attend Tucson University, America’s most prestigious online learning resource, are scattered throughout the country. Consequently, a traditional graduation ceremony is both logistically challenging and inappropriate.

This year’s graduation ceremony was special indeed. Because Tucson, (sometimes referred to as Virtual U), finds its entire existence in digital ether; featured guest speaker Taz Mopula delivered his remarks in a series of tweets.

They appear below.

Tucson University 2012 Commencement Tweets – Taz Mopula

Class of 2012. As you explore what is arguably the world, remember:

It’s lonely at the top. Then again, it’s lonely at the bottom too, plus, the service is really bad.

There is nothing to fear except you itself.

If I could only give you one piece of advice it would be this: Do not, under any circumstances, take my advice.

The moment you are certain that you’ve got it all worked out is precisely when you finally not do.

If you think education is expensive, try insolence.

Why raise the bridge when you can lower your expectations of the river?

Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach, teach anyway.

How can you think outside of the box when the box is inside your head?

There is no shame in ignorance; then again, it’s no cause for celebration, either.

The more you learn the less you know for certain; the less you know for certain the more you learn.

Be nice to your enemies; you just might be one of them.

Your college selection is irrelevant. However, where you go to high school is crucial; because they will never let you leave.

Thank you.

Stigma Is A Two-Way Street

People Are Always Finding God Prison Gift Shop

As a long-term professional writer, I am very careful, and selective, about what I do and do not say. Like a spy, I know how to offer only the appearance of self-disclosure. As a mentally ill person moving incognito among “sane” citizens, one becomes a skillful actor.

However, I am temporarily discarding this policy. Shamelessness has been a wonderful byproduct of my recovery and there is little I am not willing to do in the battle against mental health stigma.

When I began writing Invisible Driving in 1990, I realized there was no longer any room for privacy, anonymity, and secrets. Terrified, confused, and completely overwhelmed, I painstakingly recreated the bizarre and harrowing odyssey, thereby taking charge of my own healing. That, dear friends, was transformational.

The journey lasted many years; I worked hard. In diverse settings I received kindness, guidance, and wisdom from a wide spectrum of wonderful people. Triumph over fear and shame, acceptance of life as it is, celebration of self, and peace of mind, grew gradually through the incremental process of recovery.

I began life at the very top of the food chain and learned early that – when everything is designed to fit you, and society itself is doing backflips to please you, it is easy to succeed. It is easy to believe you did it yourself. It is easy to believe you are entitled to it. When the world is beneath you, everybody carries just a whiff of stigma, and the mentally ill are at the very bottom of the heap.

But life beat me down, way down, all the way down to the streets, the prisons and of course, the madhouses. There is no lonely like the lonely of a madhouse. Everything was taken from me and I had to rebuild from zero many times. It was a process that might have killed me, but instead, it made me. Today, I live a life beyond my wildest dreams; I am the only person I envy.

Madness took me places most folks could not spell, much less imagine. I had every stupid scrap of entitlement, superiority, and prejudice ripped away – I was reeducated in the realities of life, of being a moral person, of daring to be the very best me, the me that finds joy in contributing to this world without the expectation of benefit. Of all the unexpected blessings of life, ironically it was mental illness that gave me most.

At this point, I regard the desire to stigmatize as a public admission of fear, insecurity, and unapologetic idiocy – like a self-administered learning disability. (We fear what we do not understand, and, to be fair to the apple pie crowd, insanity really is hard to fathom when viewed from the outside. Of course, that’s why I wrote Invisible Driving – to give a name to the unknowable.)

My problem today is an intense desire to stigmatize those who actually believe they are superior to people suffering from an illness. This cruel illusion is revolting and ludicrous; almost like believing one person is better than another because of their skin color. I mean, can you imagine?