No Man Is A Hero To His Valet

butlers and valets portrait

Long ago I was employed by a massive corporation in the business of manufacturing fabulously expensive, mediocre products that were virtually obsolete before installation had been finalized. Within this corporation was a department, enigmatically referred to as Human Resources, consisting exclusively of individuals thoroughly unqualified for meaningful employment.

One day, desperately casting about for ways to justify its existence, the HR Department announced Bring Your Daughter To Work Day. With uncharacteristic esprit de corps I chose to participate in this disingenuous exercise. My daughter, let’s call her Guadalupe, was eight at the time, and very like me.

At one point my manager; let’s call him Chumley Throckmorton, called her into his office. Chumley was a lovely man, painfully sincere, unassuming, and a subscriber to that delicious myth that it is possible, even desirable, to please everyone.

He told her to sit down in his visitor’s chair. She did. Looking at her and exuding all the gravitas he could muster Chumley said, “Guadalupe, I just want to tell you that your father is the funniest man I have ever met.”

My daughter’s legs did not reach the industrial grade carpeting on the floor of his cramped office and she swung her feet back and forth thoughtlessly, contemplating the ubiquitous baseball memorabilia.

Finally she looked Chumley square in the eye and, with a deadpan expression worthy of Buster Keaton asked, “Get out much?”

Earth Day

Alan Ginsberg

Allen Ginsberg – Beat Poet

When I think about Philadelphia’s Belmont Plateau on April 22, 1970, I don’t think about thousands of stoned out hippies basking in the sun, reveling in the nation’s first Earth Day. I don’t think about Ralph Nader, Dune author Frank Herbert, Nobel Prize winning Harvard Biochemist, George Wald, or Senator Ed Muskie.

What I do recall is an enthusiastic set by Native American rock group, Redbone; a bizarre, almost disturbing appearance by Beat Poet legend, Allen Ginsberg; and a characteristically inflammatory performance by my father, Ian McHarg. My dad, let it be said, cut a dashing figure and was at the very zenith of his popularity at the time. Ginsberg listened to every word like a man entranced. As my father stepped away from the podium, Ginsberg leaped from his chair, wrapped him in a bear hug and planted an enthusiastic, heartfelt kiss of appreciation right on his lips.

There, before God and thousands of witnesses, my father lived his worst nightmare. On the one hand, he was receiving adulation from a bona fide legend, and my dad was impressed by celebrity in a way that is, perhaps, unique to celebrities; people who dearly believe in the idea that being known has intrinsic value. So, feigning happiness was mandatory. On the other hand, he was a fearsome individual with a passion for intimidation – war hero, bully, tough guy – homophobia was woven into his tweed. Indeed, he once admitted that, if he had to choose, he would prefer a mentally retarded child to a gay one.

It would be many years before I came to understand that we hate what we fear and we build castles of rationalization around our fears to justify the hate. I can only speculate what there was lurking deep in my father’s subconscious that nurtured this very particular dread. He was not, as a rule, given to xenophobia; in general the rich contempt he felt for all humanity was spread equally across its sub-categories. I have also learned, painfully, that such disdain is always predicated on self-hatred.

My father’s shock was, at least, not incomprehensible. Ginsberg was almost certainly tripping on LSD that day, his eyes were the size of pie plates and I did not see him blink. Never a handsome man, Mr. Beat Poet was in the full-bearded phase of his career, an entire family of red-winged blackbirds might have broken it up into condos. He resembled nothing more closely than a wretched alcoholic living beneath a bridge.

Unlike the other speakers who, for the most part, were painfully cerebral and sincere to the point of tedium – even for hippies – Ginsberg was whacked. I have never been a fan of the Beats, who damaged American poetry so badly that its battered remains went to die on the lips of rappers; but even a tepid rendition of Howl would have been preferable to twenty minutes of chanting, harmonium squeezing and staring into the audience. I don’t think there was any part of my dad’s consciousness that could find common ground with that.

At his funeral I made the observation, “Wherever he is, he’s probably still trying to wipe that kiss off.”

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Death Of 1000 Cuts

How Drunk Do You Havew To Be Cut Your Own Hair

Long ago, I had a hypothetical girlfriend we’ll call Prunella Entwhistle. Indeed, it was so long ago I was not yet sober and still cheerfully diving headfirst into debauchery as one might leap into a swimming pool. This was during that blissfully ignorant period in my life when I believed that, as a result of facing down bipolar disorder and defeating it, I had become bulletproof.

By then I’d recovered from several devastating battles with the terrifying illness referred to at the time as manic depression. I had even written a memoir (Invisible Driving) that chronicled my ordeal. Having walked through fire and survived, I bristled with self-satisfied cockiness and swaggered through life like a cowboy breaking in new jeans.

Prunella and I occupied a modest bungalow where we impersonated adults. I had a mediocre job at an unspeakably dull corporation, and Prunella worked as a sales clerk at the gift shop of a prestigious art museum where she devoted her hours to making personal calls and stealing earrings. We were all about phun, or what we thought of as phun, and hopping the Oblivion Express. Very dry martinis, fine imported wine, and the wackiest tobacco on the planet; this was the formula and it functioned with awe-inspiring inevitability.

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

One Friday evening found us merrily ingesting intoxicants, becoming increasingly boisterous as we did. Prunella and I were sitting in the kitchen after dinner (after all, you need food in your stomach if you want to drink as much and as long as possible). She looked at me and, with that charmingly demented enthusiasm and confidence that were her signature, said, “You need a haircut. I’ll do it.”

Every life has critical moments which, like hinges holding large, creaky doors, mark fundamental endings and beginnings. Should I tell you now that Prunella’s infectious optimism was almost always groundless, and that she instinctively returned to dark alleys and dead end streets with a degree of reliability that might have brought envy to the swallows of Capistrano? Shall I tell you now that it is my nature to trust, even in the complete absence of justification?

Mental illness and intoxicants are like the two bad kids at the back of the classroom. They gravitate towards each other, they are a natural fit, but it is best to separate them. Mental illness alone spells bad decisions, throw in alcohol and you guarantee stupidity.

I knew I was in terrible trouble when Prunella stepped back to admire her handiwork and exploded into hysterical laughter. On Tuesday, I finally got to my barber for damage control. During the intervening eternity I resembled Moe, of the Three Stooges, and felt like him, too.

Why You Should Care About Not Caring

Looking For Self-Worth Eyes Of Others

Many years ago my daughter came crying to me with a tale of cruelty involving her tight circle of very-best girlfriends. In-between sobs she relayed a saga of vicious betrayal unique to the mysterious world of adolescent girls. I listened quietly and, when she was done, took her into my arms and said this.

“Sweetheart, despite your best efforts, people will always talk about you and 90% of what they say will be wrong. I know it’s not fair but the best thing to do is let go.”

I am polishing this chestnut from the McHarg family vault for one reason. No matter where you are in your recovery – (or if you love and support a person with mental illness) – you need to know this:

There is a beautiful place out there beyond fear, beyond shame, beyond inferiority, beyond jealousy, beyond regret, beyond denial, beyond self-loathing and the name of that place is – I Just Don’t Care.

America is a land of immigrants and consequently it is also a land of xenophobia and prejudice. We blow trumpets in praise of democracy but don’t be deceived, there is a very definite pecking order in our culture and the mentally ill are way down at the bottom.

Take it from me, no one is going to give you respect, no one is going to give you equal rights. Square America can’t even understand you; much less know how to bring you inside out of the rain. Do not look to others for your redemption. (If you doubt me, just look to the history of America’s other minority groups.)

I went public as a bipolar person 23 years ago; I even wrote the first bipolar memoir,Invisible Driving. (Click HERE to order.) Nothing could have prepared me for the wave after wave of rejection, fear, and marginalization I faced. (Really, I did expect at least a little respect for what I’d done!)

The point is, if you tie your emotional well being to the opinion others have of you disaster will certainly follow. Keep growing extra layers of skin until stupid comments and remarks bounce right off.

Today I tell people I’m bipolar the same way I might tell them I’m right-handed, it’s a detail that helps them understand me but I am not defined by it. I have absolutely no shame about my history of mental illness and neither should you when it comes time to talking about your particular challenge.

They say that guilt is when you feel bad about something you did but shame is when you feel bad about something you are. You’re a teacher now; let them know just what you are – shamelessly.

If Mental Illnesses Had To Recruit

Autism Rocks

I am proud of all the brave individuals who help stamp out stigma by going public with the details of their mental health challenges. However, lately I’ve been tormented by the strangest hypothetical scenario. What would happen to the most popular mental illnesses if everyone simply shed their embarrassment and shame, opting out of quiet suffering in favor of actively seeking out qualified help at the first sign of trouble?

The potential impact on emotional damage resulting from mental illness would be incalculable, leaving behind a small army of unemployed bartenders, phlebotomists, drug dealers, psychiatrists, bookies, self-help gurus, pharmacists, escorts, acupuncturists, and life coaches. One man’s meat, as the old saying quite possibly goes, is another man’s foul; and in the land of unintended consequences no good deed to a model home goes unpunished.

In the interests of clarity, I digress. It may surprise me to tell you that the military was not always voluntary, indeed, young men were arbitrarily entered into a draft and called upon to serve whatever global mischief the government was indulging in at the time. Those who refused were given three options, jail, Canadian citizenship, or conversion to Quakerism – (sometimes known by the more formal handle – Society Of Friends). Faced with such horrific alternatives, even the most weak-kneed raw recruit begged for immediate transfer to Paris Island.

Back then the military did not need to advertise the way it does now. With the arrival of an all-volunteer army came a brand new form of advertising. In a mad scramble for America’s youth, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and the really creepy military branch we’re not supposed to know about – whoops – outdid each other with ludicrous and disingenuous promises of advanced degrees, travel to exotic vacation spots, all night poker games, and retirement packages so lavish they would bring a blush to the cheeks of even the most avaricious and bloodthirsty Fortune 500 CEO.

And so, he said, arriving at last at his point, I wondered what it would be like if mental illnesses became so unpopular they had to advertise. Then I imagined ad campaigns with headlines like these:

Bipolar Disorder: See How The Other Half – Of You – Lives

Odds Are You’ll Fall In Love With Compulsive Gambling

People Can’t Stop Talking About Tourette’s Syndrome

Discover Narcissism – You’ll Find It’s Everything I Thought It Would Be!

Depression! Expect The Worst And You’re Never Disappointed

Come to think of it, might be nice to see these hideous monsters go begging for a change.

Ever-Changing Face Of Drug Abuse

Doctor Cigarettes

Those of us who labor in the heavily intoxicated vineyards of mental illness, mental health, and recovery – those of us who gaze in wonder at the never-ending inventiveness demonstrated by tormented souls scouring the landscape for new mechanisms of self-injury – those of us who chase the lighthouse beacon of serenity as we pitch and toss on a cultural sea of hazards, pitfalls, and demons – those of us who marvel at a world gone mad, a world intent on sabotaging health, moderation, and self-care at every step – those of us who, wracked by ADHD and overburdened by flashy, empty distractions – are united by one profound bit of good news – this sentence is about to come to an end.

Those who followed the recent election probably noticed that pot – also known as grass, weed, reefer, marijuana, and wacky tabacky – is, like the camel that sneaks into a tent one inch at a time – making an impressive play for respectability. Legalization on a state-by-state basis will lead, inevitably, to a national referendum and, with wet finger waving in the wind, one takes the national temperature and concludes that soon Uncle Sam will be dealing dope, elbowing Mexican drug lords off American playgrounds. Thus, an era will end and I, as one who has explored the narrow alleyways of drug abuse in search of happiness, or at least relief, will miss it.

When I was a lad there was really only one way to tell which side of the barricades you were on; did you get high? Pot was our secret handshake, it was more than a mechanism for pretending Grateful Dead music wasn’t appalling, one’s determination to become THC-stupid demonstrated a commitment to outsider status, we showed our determination to undermine the system by rendering ourselves unconscious – it was a sophisticated strategy to say the least. The illegality gave it the whiff of subversion, defiance – we were fearless rebels in the recreation rooms of suburban homes sporting shag carpeting of unimaginable vulgarity.

Ultimately the government always finds a way to ruin fun and such is the case here. Truth be told, pot is really not that interesting, it makes passive, withdrawn people even more passive and withdrawn. Removing the illegality strips it of its most exciting quality. Once it actually becomes legal only the most hopelessly un-cool people will consume it. Can you imagine how dreadfully dull, ordinary and square it would be to line up at the government pot stand so you could get your weed, buy stamps, and renew your passport?

Today’s society is so homogenized that I can only feel sadness for kids who want to be cool because, since their phones do everything for them, the closest they will ever get is by having a cool phone. But there is hope. While pot is doomed to become the exclusive province of the hopelessly uninteresting; you can turn to another weed for the danger and excitement pot once offered. Tobacco.

When I was a kid, if you didn’t smoke cigarettes there was a zero percent chance of you being cool. But the PC police have scared this unattractive habit back to the hinterlands – it now has about as much glamour as leprosy.

Those who crave a taboo drug that says – society, I hold you in contempt – should look no further than the nearest pack of cigarettes, assuming they can find one.