When You Meet Your Demon, Please Be Gentle

Barbie Anti-Christ

The summer of 1969 found me in McGrath, Alaska, which is only a little further from the moon than it is from Woodstock, New York. I was working for the BLM (Bureau of Land Management) as an EFF (Emergency Fire Fighter), being dropped by helicopters into the middle of active forest fires throughout the state. Specifically, I was on a back-burning crew, traipsing through dry forests with a flamethrower, fighting oncoming forest fires by depriving them of their fuel. I am glad to report this is the closest I’ve ever come to war.

McGrath, at the time, was little more than a Government airstrip, some BLM barracks, and a handful of small buildings connected by wooden sidewalks. The pride of McGrath was a log cabin that served passably as a bar in an area where, with no women to be found, blue-collar men could drink to their satisfaction. A massive moose head, antlers adorned with tinsel, dominated the bar area and the opposing wall featured a full-sized stuffed grizzly bear forbiddingly poised next to the jukebox.

One evening, in-between assignments, I was passing time with Jake, a fellow EFF. We had money, time, and absolutely no responsibilities – consequently, the phrase about idle hands being the devil’s workshop came alive until at last we were drunk; not inebriated, tipsy, three sheets to the wind – not even tight as a boiled owl – just good old fashioned, funky monkey drunk.

Jake excused himself to use The Little Firefighters Room and I was left with the moose who, looking even more glassy-eyed than I did, stared at me with the gloomy insistence so frequently observed among the beheaded. Long minutes later I heard riotous laughter to my right and saw Jake emerging from the bathroom. He lunged and lurched back and threw himself down on his stool, clutching his right hand which was bleeding profusely

“What happened?” I asked.
“I was washing my hands and I stared at the face looking back at me and it was just so fucking ugly I had to punch it.” He laughed enthusiastically until tears began to form.

The bartender looked on wordlessly. I walked Jake back to the barracks and dressed his wounds.

Show Time Is No Time For Mercy

opera house from stage

For twelve consecutive years I occupied space in an academic hothouse we’ll call Throckmorton Academy, an oasis of genteel entitlement located, improbably, in a Philadelphia neighborhood called Germantown. Germantown was very chic in the horse and carriage days, today it is known for its cobblestone streets, colonial architecture, urban decay, and crime.

All Throckmorton Academy graduates went on to name-brand colleges and universities, universally admired marquee status institutions. This tradition was accepted as law, like gravity, or the idea that everybody likes Italian food. While quality standards were high throughout, Throckmorton Academy was particularly proud of its music department which enjoyed an international reputation. Indeed, its choir would routinely embark on European tours, working rooms like York Minster, widely considered the world’s greatest Gothic cathedral.

Presiding over the music department with the subtlety Idi Amin brought to the task of governing Uganda, and standing just five feet tall, Abigail Urqhardt – Miss Urqhardt to us – was built like a fireplug. Childless and single she ate, slept, sneezed, and certainly dreamed music which was no mere career for her but a language with which one could express the ineffable, a transcendent world where miracles were always nearby. A merciless perfectionist she beat us like a rented mule inspiring resentment, fear, admiration, and fierce loyalty.

Miss Urqhardt was fanatical about punctuality and begrudgingly endured an endless succession of excuses for tardiness, often penned by doting parents keen to grease the skids for children already suffering from a surfeit of privilege and indulgence. One day during choir practice a young lady swept into the room late and demonstrated a level of contrition insufficient to satisfy Miss Urqhardt. She froze, scanned the entire room silently – chilling us in turn, and spoke at last.

“The day will come when you are on stage performing this piece with a room full of people looking right at you. You will be judged on your performance alone. You will not have the opportunity to say to the audience – I’m sorry this performance isn’t better but my mom had a flat tire and I got to rehearsal late – I’m sorry my entrances are shabby but my brother stole my sheet music – I’m sorry that what you’re about to hear isn’t as good as it could be but I had lacrosse practice. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

We looked at the floor, avoiding her eyes. “Excuses,” she said at last, “are for amateurs” – practically spitting the final word.

Escalator Broken Use The Steps

Abandoned mall escalator

In the damp church basements of recovery it is often observed that the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are in the order they’re in for a good reason and one should work them sequentially. This tenet is underscored because, as a rule, alcoholics are belligerent, defiant, and rebellious in an infantile, pointless sort of way.

Celebrating The Right To Be Wrong

Dipsomaniacs simply must do as they please, no matter how much more difficult, time-consuming, and aggravating their idiosyncratic path may be. Whenever “some assembly” is required, rest assured that the very first thing they did after unpacking the contents was throw away the instructions because – well, why on earth would you rely on the opinion of experts when you have your own complete ignorance, honed to perfection over years of not listening to anyone, nearby?

Ready, Fire, Aim!

A while back I worked at a company that employed many engineers. One of them had a sign on his desk that read – Ready, Fire, Aim! Of course, engineers – who live to plan – found this hilarious, but on refection it is amazing to realize how much behavior it describes, especially in an impulsive, indulgent, ADD world.

Never Enough Time To Do It Right; Always Enough Time To Do It Over

On a recent sojourn to the Maine coast, Mrs. McHarg turned my attention to a green box mounted on a pole. We walked over to examine it. It was a doggie poo bag dispenser, installed by the local citizenry to help keep their beach pristine. The box had writing and symbolic images. The writing offered a detailed description of its purpose and, importantly, instructions for bag use.

When All Else Fails; Read The Directions

To assist those for whom poo bag use is not intuitive, sequential images illustrated the proper technique. 1.) Put bag over hand. 2.) Grab poo. 3.) Reverse bag, tie securely, and deposit in an appropriate receptacle.

For Some Of Us, Doing Things The Easy Way Is Difficult

Whether you’re ascending from the cellar in recovery, firing a rifle, or cleaning up after your dog – being in the right place at the right time pays handsome dividends.

dog poop bag dispenser

Righteous Rage In The Sky

Stormy sky righteous rage

On April 4, 1968, my father was returning home from a speaking engagement in Grand Junction, Colorado – connecting with a flight from Denver to Philadelphia. His regular flight had been cancelled and he’d been forced to hop a twin-engine puddle-jumper.

A volatile storm system had parked itself over the continental divide, a two-mile high Rocky Mountain Ridge bisecting the state on a North/South axis. The pilots were disinclined to make the trip, especially since my father was the only passenger in their 8-seater. Dad, a former British Army Major and paratrooper, was not easily denied. The three of them ascended.

It wasn’t long before the pilot and co-pilot regretted their decision. With only mountains below them, and no available place to land, they pressed on into an increasingly violent, turbulent storm – swimming in rain-whipped blackness, tossed about by sudden shifts of wind and terrified as lightning strikes grew closer and closer, scarring the dark like heavenly spears.

The pilot and copilot were hanging on every word crackling from the radio. My father, anxious to make certain they did their very best, was in the cockpit with them. Then, an urgent voice broke into the control tower feed with the astonishing announcement that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated. For an instant the three men, precariously suspended above mountaintops, went silent. At last the pilot broke the silence with these words, “Finally! They finally took care of that fucking uppity nigger!”

At that moment my father did not think, he acted. Hand out he grabbed the pilot’s collar and pulled him forward. Then, fueled with the irresistible intoxicant we call righteous rage; he punched the pilot full force in the face, knocking him across the cabin. He reached out and repeated the procedure until finally the man, screaming in fear and disbelief, placed both hands on his face to stop the stream of blood pouring from his nose. With authority and conviction that were normal for him my father told the co-pilot to make do without his partner and walked to the back of the small, trembling plane.

There is something wonderfully insane about someone who would mercilessly beat a man whose well-being was instrumental to continued life, based only on moral outrage. There is also something wildly ironic about defending the memory of a pacifist icon with brute violence. I confess, like Dr. King, I believe passionately in non-violence. And yet, dear reader, there are moments when I ache to be that person, the brute my father was, raining down divine retribution upon sinners with terrible, swift justice.

Even today I miss Dr. King. Not just for what he did, but especially how he did it. It is the how of it that holds the greatest nobility.

It Isn’t The Caboose That Kills You

Caboose chessie

Even as a kid I had difficulty managing money. Along with my sketchy friends I’d go to the nearby abandoned coal yard and lay pennies out on the railroad tracks, collecting what remained once the trains were gone. If you’ve ever done this yourself you know that Lincoln is no longer recognizable, what’s left looks like a frozen, wafer-thin copper puddle.

Dancing on and off the tracks, putting our ears against the rails to gauge how far away the trains were; this was all part of the illicit fun. We were young and immortal, mindless to risk.

My parents were immigrants, and loved this country in a way unique to immigrants – awed by the scale and opportunity. They liked to tell me about a trip out west they took as newlyweds. Picnic spread across an Indian blanket, vast expanse of desert splayed out before them, they watched an endless freight train snaking past. For a lark they decided to count the boxcars.

Revealing the number dramatically, as if I hadn’t heard the story a dozen times before, my mother would report, “Two-hundred-and-twenty-eight cars from engines to caboose,” with awe she might have just as easily applied to a description of the Grand Canyon or her first time up The Empire State Building.

The vast wealth and scale of their adopted nation lay in stunning contrast to the post-war Holland my mother had left, and my father’s native Scotland, not especially prosperous even in the best of times.

One of the particularly American habits my parents adopted in their zeal to be real U.S. citizens was drinking martinis. I can see them now, on the patio behind the kitchen, overlooking Fairmount Park, my father pouring from a silver shaker into glasses reserved for these occasions. They each had two, always with a twist of lemon peel.

If they were feeling especially jolly, my father would carefully strain out what was left at the bottom of the shaker, mingled in with the melting ice. This was enough for half a martini each, which my father referred to as – “the Dean’s half” – in honor of Sir Peter Shepherd, acting Dean of my father’s department at U of P.

My family tree is thick with accomplishment on both sides, but I am the very first to achieve the title of “alcoholic”. Dad was mad as a March hare, workaholic, and manic depressive; but no drunk. He understood on a cellular level something I never did, specifically, that martinis are like women’s breasts; one isn’t enough and three are too many.

And so, when I entered the rooms of AA on my hands and knees, utterly defeated, scared beyond all reason, and somebody said, “It isn’t the caboose that kills you man, it’s the locomotive,” I knew exactly what they meant.

Manic Depression: Jimi Hendrix

Hendrix

I was just 17 on March 31, 1968, the night I saw Jimi Hendrix in a tiny, converted tire warehouse in Philadelphia. Hendrix is iconic today, so I don’t need to describe the show. But back then he was absolutely new, unlike anything anybody had ever seen before. Playing with the guitar behind his head, plucking the strings with his teeth – it was astonishing. But most of all it was loud – we’re talking air raid siren loud. It overwhelmed like an Old Testament rain of fire.

When Hendrix sang his signature hit, Manic Depression, I had absolutely no idea what the term meant, much less that it would soon come to define my life. That concert was, perhaps, my first look at mania – real mania – the kind of mania that says – “I am about to set the world on fire and if you don’t like it you better get the fuck out of my way.” It was thrilling and overwhelming. Of course none of us knew then that Hendrix was like a meteor, burning up right before our eyes, and that he would be dead just two years later.

Hendrix was certainly not the only musical genius I’ve seen perform, but the experience was unique all the same. It is difficult to explain. A year later, in the summer of 1969, I worked for the Bureau Of Land Management in Alaska, fighting forest fires. I was part of a back-burning crew, meaning I walked through burning forests carrying a flamethrower. It was like that. A few years later, in Louisville, Kentucky, I watched a tornado tear through the city like hellfire, tossing houses into the air before smashing them to splinters like a fist. It was like that.

The tragedy of Hendrix is that we get to enjoy his work but he doesn’t. He stepped onto the Bipolar Express and never got off, hitting the wall at 100 mph. The poor guy was 27 when he died, with just 4 completed albums to his name.

In the years separating 1968 and 2012 I have come to understand mania only too well, and the music of Jimi Hendrix is encoded in my DNA. One of the many, many reasons I have to be grateful is that fame and adulation did not fuel my illness as they did for Hendrix; I would certainly be dead if they had.

Manic Depression is a frustratin’ mess!

Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower Your Expectations Of The River

Why Raise The Bridge Expectations Of River

You may find that recovery road is every bit as lonely as the road to ruin; but do not let this deter you. It all comes back to expectations, if you don’t expect a parade you can’t be disappointed when the boulevard is empty and there is no confetti in the air.

“Why raise the bridge when you can lower your expectations of the river?” Taz Mopula

Naturally, the mentally ill don’t really expect effusive gratitude and praise as they traipse the corridors of deserted carnival funhouses at night, staring into mirrors carefully constructed to distort reality in countless ways. We don’t expect it because we don’t think about others at all, much less how they perceive us; the solitary cul-de-sac we inhabit is world enough.

“For the sake of convenience be your own best friend. It’s always easy to get in touch with you.” Taz Mopula

The same applies for those of us who drink alcoholically, or take drugs – we may have some awareness of how our behavior torments others but in the end, who cares? The hungers of a callous demon, residing within a Byzantine labyrinth of twisted emotions, take precedence over all else.

“Before you learn to run you learn to walk; before that you learn to fall on your face, crawl, and summon the grit to get up.” Taz Mopula

The luckiest among us begin a journey away from the dark and into the light, and in so doing, develop improved self-esteem. (Some folks even dislocate their shoulders as they enthusiastically pat themselves on the back.)

“Be nice to your enemies; you just might be one of them.” Taz Mopula

In the fellowship one often encounters newly sober individuals who express disappointment because they are not getting the recognition they feel is appropriate. Happily, there is usually an old-timer nearby to ask them why they expect praise for doing what they should have been doing all along.

“Entitlement is a fraudulent concept. We are none of us entitled to anything. Even that next breath you crave is a gift.” Taz Mopula

Whether it’s mental illness you battle, or addiction – or, as is the case for so many of us, both – it pays to remember that you are doing it for yourself. You are changing, the people around you may not be, worse still, they may be heavily invested in having things stay just as they’ve always been.

“Looking for self-worth in someone else’s eyes is like trying to breathe with someone else’s lungs.” Taz Mopula

They may love you as a loser and fear, even despise, you as a winner. It is not unknown for friends and family members to actively undermine recovery, or at the very least, attempt to belittle, or negate, it. Do not judge your progress according to the presence or absence of brass bands.

“There is only one truly authentic way to enjoy success; that is by remaining indifferent to it.” Taz Mopula

Texas Introduces Whites Only Death Penalty

whites only death penalty

In what has been called, “a milestone of reverse discrimination”, “social engineering at its absolute best”, and “political correctness on steroids”, the Texas Department of Corrections announced today that the death penalty will now be reserved exclusively for white inmates.

Bubba “Bar-B-Q” Brewster, Warden at Armadillo Flats Supermax Security Center & Rehabilitation Facility explained, “We have learned that it is simply impossible for a black man to get a fair trial in America. Prejudice, stupidity, racism, and xenophobia taint the jury pool until impartiality is an unrealistic expectation.

“Now, 77% of Texas prisoners are African American while African Americans constitute only 11% of the state’s population. When a playing field is that far from level, you’ve got to take the death penalty off the table.”

Chauncy Frampton, President of the Texas ACLU, vowed to take on the case, maintaining it denies African American prisoners the “right to a speedy death”, guaranteed by the Constitution. In an almost instantaneous rebuttal, designated prisoner representative Antwan “Pig’s Foot” Cleveland said, “Tell that white devil Frampton we don’t need his help.”

Jesse Jackson, currently recording the collected works of Dr. Seuss, could not be reached for comment.

The Great Affirmation Quiz

Just say no to affirmations

The Internet seems to be surfing on an endless wave of affirmations. It’s as if everyone on the web is eager to tell everyone else how to achieve happiness, which, presumably, is a lot easier than finding it for themselves.

These uplifting sentiments are almost always retreads, snatched from questionable sources and presented so that others may pass them along yet again. But what’s so bad about affirmations? Well, passionately believing insane nonsense isn’t good for one’s mental health. When it comes time to separate gold from dross, unsentimental scrutiny and sound analysis are essential.

It is useful to consider the source; is the mind that spun this confection rational, reputable, and reliable? To help you sharpen your skills I’ve assembled 20 of the most compelling affirmations I could find on the Internet. For each I’ve listed 4 possible authors. Correct answers will be posted in tomorrow’s blog – good luck!

Who Really Originated These Popular Affirmations?

1. “Never underestimate your ability to underestimate others and overestimate your own capabilities.”
a.) Michele Bachmann
b.) Marcel Proust
c.) Lizzie Borden
d.) Taz Mopula

2. “Live as if you’ll be forgotten only for your deeds, not for your words.”
a.) Nikola Tesla
b.) Taz Mopula
c.) Uri Geller
d.) George Ruth

3. “People are imperfect by nature; if a person you know and love doesn’t disappoint you, you have a right to feel let down.”
a.) Ayn Rand
b.) L. Ron Hubbard
c.) Taz Mopula
d.) Martha Stewart

4. “Being average is a very special gift; find awesome in mediocrity. Do not let anyone talk you out of your right to be ordinary.”
a.) Taz Mopula
b.) Pema Chödrön
c.) Ivan Pavlov
d.) Oprah Winfrey

5. “All emotional torment arises from the inability to extinguish hope.”
a.) Carl Jung
b.) Mary Shelley
c.) Blind Lemon Jefferson
d.) Taz Mopula

6. “Before you criticize a man, walk half a mile in his shoes, turn around, retrace your steps, and return them to him.”
a.) Mikhail Baryshnikov
b.) Cab Calloway
c.) Taz Mopula
d.) Lance Armstrong

7. “Not all human sacrifice is equally noble; it depends a little on which human is being sacrificed.”
a.) Donald Trump
b.) Taz Mopula
c.) Phil Spector
d.) Duane Chapman

8. “For the first time in history mankind has the technological ability to eliminate all human life; so what’s the hold up?”
a.) Richard Gatling
b.) Ferdinand von Zeppelin
c.) Wernher von Braun
d.) Taz Mopula

9. “You can’t fool all of the people all of the time; but why would you even try when they’re so eager to do the job for you?”
a.) Stacy London
b.) Dane Cook
c.) Taz Mopula
d.) Jim Jarmusch

10. “Expect people to disappoint you. Then, when they don’t, you’ll really have something to be disappointed about.”
a.) Taz Mopula
b.) Marilyn Monroe
c.) Wayne Dyer
d.) Andy Kaufman

11. “If you need both hands and both feet to count your dearest friends; don’t do it while you’re driving.”
a.) J.D. Salinger
b.) Taz Mopula
c.) Tomás de Torquemada
d.) Dale Earnhardt

12. “Thinking you are better than other people simply because you are smarter than they are is proof that you aren’t.”
a.) Neil deGrasse Tyson
b.) Ann Coulter
c.) Taz Mopula
d.) Christopher Hitchens

13. “The world is most certainly not a fair place, which, for the vast majority of us, is very fortunate indeed.”
a.) Ed Gein
b.) Barbra Streisand
c.) Taz Mopula
d.) David Berkowitz

14. “In the final analysis it’s important to remember that uniqueness is about the only thing we all have in common.”
a.) Taz Mopula
b.) Idi Amin
c.) Che Guevara
d.) Kim Kardashian

15. “Everything happens for a reason; frequently it’s a very bad reason.”
a.) Isaac Newton
b.) Deepak Chopra
c.) Anna Nicole Smith
d.) Taz Mopula

16. “Independence is theoretically possible, provided you’ve got sufficient support.”
a.) Dalai Lama
b.) Tony Robbins
c.) Taz Mopula
d.) Ethelred the Unready

17. “Uncertainty is all we can rely on.”
a.) Søren Kierkegaard
b.) Marcel Duchamp
c.) Ambrose Bierce
d.) Taz Mopula

18. “There is nothing to fear except you itself.”
a.) Taz Mopula
b.) Virginia Woolf
c.) Nathaniel West
d.) Dorothy Parker

19. “If you want to find your bliss, get yourself some blisters.”
a.) Mark Twain
b.) Taz Mopula
c.) Junior Walker
d.) Johnny Walker

20. “Think twice before burning bridges; you never know when you might want to jump off one of them.”
a.) Hannibal
b.) Spalding Gray
c.) Taz Mopula
d.) H. L. Mencken

See tomorrow’s blog for correct answers.