I Know Why The Alligator Hides

Writer Reads Rejection Slip

I began writing INVISIBLE DRIVING in 1990 and ultimately self-published it in 2007 – that was 4 literary agents and 100s of rejection slips ago. I learned that there is something harder than surviving Manic Depression, harder even than writing a book about it – that is publishing a book about it. The torrent of abuse and rejection was epic – at times – even comical. (My step-grandmother founded and owned W.W. Norton – a very prestigious publishing house – even they wouldn’t publish it!)

The process was at once humbling and character-building. I knew what I had was good, I knew it surpassed the competition, I knew these unimaginative, lazy publishers were the ones missing out. I came to truly “get” that life is not a meritocracy, and that acceptance does not flow naturally from quality and hard work. I grew accustomed to the feeling that jazz musicians must experience when they see Kenny G in a Ferrari; a mélange of rage, envy, frustration, mystification and absolute certainty that there is no God.

I Know Why The Alligator Hides

After a long hiatus, I began writing poetry again during this period and was being published in one of the country’s most celebrated – and bizarre – online literary journals – EXQUISITE CORPSE. One day a friend said, “Your stuff is really getting good, you should send it to The New Yorker.” Against my better judgment I finally did send them one of the best. Weeks later I got the obligatory rejection slip. Without a moment’s hesitation I turned it over and wrote, “Dear Sirs: I was saddened to learn of your recent loss. Sincerely, Alistair McHarg” and mailed it back to them.

Childish? Perhaps. Passive/aggressive? Most definitely. But let me tell all of you out there – I know why the alligator hides and I know why he needs his hide. If you are mentally ill, you are going to take some abuse, even if you are trying your best to get better. If you are an alcoholic in recovery, don’t expect a parade. And if you are a committed artist, you can hope for the best – that’s good, even necessary – but plan for the worst and expect it. Remember that the rain falls equally on the just and unjust and the biggest mistake you can make is looking up at heaven and shaking your fist. The answer to the question “Why me?” is always “Why not?”

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Share Your Self – It’s Unavailable Elsewhere

Share Your Self Unavailable Elsewhere

One encounters a Whitman’s Sampler of humanity in the rooms of AA -“Yale-to-jail” as they say. Early one Sunday morning, nearly a decade ago, I was sitting in a bitterly cold, dimly lit AA clubhouse with a small flock of fellow dipsomaniacs. Large, heavily tattooed, and dressed in full biker regalia, a woefully inarticulate ex-con unleashed an incomprehensible, though passionate, soliloquy.

“How drunk do you have to be before cutting your own hair starts to seem like a good idea?” Taz Mopula

After many minutes of wrestling with the language, and losing, he paused, becoming quiet and still. Then, unable to contain his frustration any longer, he blurted out this memorable phrase with clarity and impact, “I just want to be one of God’s employees!”

“Arguing about God is like screaming about silence.” Taz Mopula

I imagined a man in work clothes, aluminum hardhat and steel-toed boots, arriving at a factory, punching the time clock and awaiting instructions. He has no will at all, he does not know what the day’s work order will be, and he doesn’t care. He only knows that he will carry it out to the best of his ability.

“A knowable God wouldn’t be; any more than a square circle would.” Taz Mopula

Like so many Americans, I am frequently pulled away from the important things of life by the insane mythology that there is a direct link between worthy accomplishment, fame, and material prosperity. Even as I write these words they seem to belong together, but just a cursory look at our culture quickly reveals that fame and prosperity are rarely associated with merit – indeed, they have become goals, not byproducts, which is shallow and very sad.

Never confuse fame with artistic quality, or wealth with value. Society gets what it wants, not what it needs.” Taz Mopula

It was in the rooms that I first truly understood that each of us has the capacity to provide something unique, something useful, something that can change a life, even save one. When we look to convert that activity into cash we’re already way off the mark. One does it because it’s the right thing to do.

“Share your self; it’s the only thing you have to offer that isn’t readily available elsewhere.” Taz Mopula

As a writer in an age when people don’t read, I don’t expect to be a household word anytime soon. I’ll settle for sweeping the nation …  one sidewalk at a time.

The Inevitable Failure Of Technology

We Devise New Technologies To Serve Us And In Our Boundless

A few days ago I was in Salem, Massachusetts. Whenever I visit this charming hamlet I am acutely aware that short centuries ago people like me, (who manifest mental illness in splashy, colorful ways), were subjected to questionable judicial proceedings, found to be practitioners of witchcraft, and summarily executed. When I leave, after a day of enjoyable tourism, I do so with a sense of gratitude that I live in a more enlightened age.

In the climate controlled splendor of the Peabody Essex Museum I found myself examining a page from an original Gutenberg Bible. Now, we will leave the absurd, disturbing subject matter of this dense, complex book for another day and focus instead on the descriptive text next to the glass case which read, in part – Johannes Gutenberg – 1395-1468 – Named “Man of the Millennium” by TIME Magazine in recognition of his profoundly significant contribution to world culture.

Naturally my first thought after reading this was – wow, who knew TIME Magazine was still in business?

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

While we think of movable type as something related to literature and philosophy, it is in fact a technological breakthrough. Let’s say, more engineering than art.  As such, it could never qualify as the most important achievement of the millennium because it did not improve the soul of man. Indeed, by putting the bible in the hands of millions it may easily be argued that it set human evolution back several millennia.

“Humans can repair mechanical problems; but machines cannot repair human problems, only manifest them in new forms.” Taz Mopula

For some time, humanity has put its faith in technology, with catastrophic results. TIME Magazine’s deification of Gutenberg is an excellent example of this, as is the recent Steve Jobs adulation orgy. Jobs was flamboyant and had an uncanny gift for marketing and developing machines that look and behave the way people want them to look and behave. But again, the consequence of his contribution is strictly technological, not spiritual, and therefore cannot be considered deeply important.

Humanity does not have problems; humanity is the problem. If Gutenberg and Jobs have taught us anything at all they have proven beyond debate that more communication is not necessarily better communication and, as ever, the difficulty isn’t the car, it’s the loose nut behind the wheel.

Even Hep Cats Get The Blues

Roland Kirk bright moments

My parents met at a dance for foreign students in Boston. (He was Scottish; she was Dutch.) My mother, who listened almost exclusively to classical music and played the cello, would later confess that, after watching my father perform his rousing Fats Waller impression she wondered if he might be mad. (Only later would she realize the complete accuracy of this hypothesis.)

My father’s love for jazz can be traced back to his childhood in Glasgow where he saved ha’pennies in order to afford 78rpm recordings by Count Basie, Duke Ellington and other American greats. The music seemed wildly exotic and wonderful to him; moving to the States post-war increased his devotion.

As a child I was immersed in the exquisite creations of Satchmo, Billie Holiday, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and others long before The British Invasion. (Every so often my father would regale us with his impression of Coleman Hawkins playing “Body & Soul”. This hilarious homage was delivered using only his lips and included elaborate mugging.)

High school and college were devoted to rock; Hendrix had propelled it to the stars. But by the time I got to graduate school Hendrix was dead and rock was very much in decline. I returned to jazz and found that, while rock does one thing very well, jazz is a complete art form that encompasses all elements of the human spirit. Jazz is not so much a musical style as it is a world.

One of my absolute favorite players was a human three-ring circus named Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Kirk was blind and famous for playing as many as three saxophones simultaneously. But this only scratches the surface. He would play the flute and talk at the same time, launch into “raps” that ranged from bawdy to political. Kirk was not an easy man, but the very definition of a creative genius who could hold his own with John Coltrane, Charlie Parker – anyone!

I saw Kirk perform three times, once at Carnegie Hall, once in a horrid meeting room in Chicago, and once in a tiny Dayton jazz club called Gilly’s. I went there alone and got a seat all the way up front. To my amazement, Kirk came into the room from the back and started working the crowd. He was dressed in an orange jumpsuit covered with hooks and zippers and looked like a human Christmas tree except that instead of ornaments there were saxophones, flutes, whistles, miscellaneous percussion instruments, etc.

He moved with confidence a sighted person wouldn’t have had, Kirk knew every stick of furniture in that room, and he sensed every person. At last he arrived at the front of the room, by the stage, next to my table.

“How you doin’ man?” He faced me and seemed to know I was alone.
“Great,” I answered too eagerly, “I’m really happy about being here.”
“I ain’t.”
“What do you mean?” This confession did not conform to my expectation of the evening. I had been counting the days; some idiot part of me believed that Kirk had also been looking forward to it.
“I ain’t feeling it, man. It’s Sunday night, I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”
“Why would you be doing that when you could be here turning these folks on to your fabulous music?”
“Because, man, just because. I’d rather be at home watching Mary Tyler Moore.”

It wasn’t the idea of a blind man watching TV. It wasn’t the idea of the baddest, hippest jazz musician on the scene watching the squarest, whitest, most apple pie show on TV. It was the idea that even the most incendiary genius could be vulnerable and flat like the rest of us.

He did two sets; being a professional, they were absolutely amazing. But even when he dug so deeply into “If I Loved You” that I felt sure the notes had been stored in the basement next to the cases of beer, it was impossible not to picture Mary in Lou’s office, crying – and Rahsaan saying, “Love is all around, no need to fake it.”

Believe Me When I Tell You I Am Lying

The Art Of Deception Comes Naturally To Those Who Begin

As an advertising copywriter I am adept at making accurate statements in such a way as to allow, even encourage, people to leap towards inaccurate conclusions. As a poet I use words with precision and care until all that remains is emotional truth, expressed with as much elegance and clarity as I can summon. So, the duality of language is familiar to me, it is a sublime tool for concealing as well as revealing.

On the Internet, all statements are true; including this one.” Taz Mopula

I was raised on a steady diet of lies, as if they were an essential food group, a staple, never out of season. When this happens it is not long before lies are no longer recognizable as such, they become facts. This is not quite as dreadful as it sounds, we all believe an astounding variety of preposterous lies and many of them yield beneficial results. However, if you are on the road to recovery lies are not merely impediments, they are mortal enemies determined to eliminate any chance you have.

“Learn to speak the truth; it is helpful to be fluent in a foreign language.” Taz Mopula

Learning how to stop lying to others is a stroll in the park in comparison to unlearning the habit of lying to one’s self. This is almost impossible to do alone – since you are offender, victim, and instructor all at once – it is much better accomplished with the help of fellow offenders. Your brethren in disingenuous locution will be quick to “call you on your merde” – if you can forgive the colorful vernacular – and let you know when, and even why, you are attempting to sell a hot, steaming pile of twaddle to them and to yourself.

“Honesty may be the best policy; but the premiums are sure high.” Taz Mopula

As you become relentless about chasing truth, when you come to crave it like your next breath, life itself will shift on its axis. However, even though you and your world are transformed, the world around you remains intact. Suddenly it will seem as if the skyscrapers are held together with chewing gum and lies, and, like the small child watching the Emperor, you will want to point and shout. Be careful. Just because you have learned to live without lies does not mean that others have. Many people are heavily invested in the Emperor’s wardrobe and will not reward you if you reveal what has suddenly become obvious.

“If you are going to tell me the truth, at least have the decency to buy me dinner first.” Taz Mopula