Fear Is A Revolving Door; Fate’s A Boulevard

ian mcharg

My late father, Ian McHarg, was ensconced in Who’s Who before I made it into high school; by the time I went to college he’d been featured in LIFE Magazine. Later on, President H.W. Bush presented him with The National Medal of Arts and the government of Japan gave him a lifetime achievement award that came with a million dollar check. Not bad for a poor kid from Glasgow.

Breath, fame, and fortune have all vanished like mist on a lake, leaving me to sort it out. Though dismissive on the subject of celebrity, he craved it like an addict in an alley; and like that addict, no amount of more was ever enough. As they say, “nothing recedes like success” – and my father chased a steady stream of students, fans, and sycophants.

After the latest Wall Street Journal cover story or TV chat show guest appearance he’d regale me with insider celebrity tidbits in such a way as to demonstrate how little it all meant to him. Even then I knew the smell of horseshit, but I pretended to take him seriously all the same.

“One day, Alistair” he would say, “I will come to be known not as Ian McHarg but as the father of Alistair McHarg.”

In these rare moments of camaraderie we laughed heartily, enjoying this preposterous fiction as if there was a scrap of authenticity to it. The fact was, no one rose above my father and lived to tell of it.

I traveled under a double curse; as his son I was expected to reflect his glory but always defer to it. Had I attempted to surpass him I would have been crushed. And so, I turned my anger inwards and set out upon a life of self-destruction, depression, alcoholism, and failure. (You might be surprised to learn that real failure requires dedication.)

“Disingenuous self-deprecation is an especially distasteful manifestation of vanity.” Taz Mopula

Fear defined my entire relationship with him. Fear of failure, fear of success. Since the lesson one refuses to learn constantly re-presents itself, I was stuck in a revolving door. One day the door had had enough and spat me out as contemptuously as a fish rejecting a lure. I was left only with fate – and fate had plans for me that did not include ruin. There was service in my future.

This poem, Winter Birds, is recent, and tracks this father and son act back to the days when he would impress me into service in the garden, moving rocks, transplanting trees, stealing ferns from the woods. No man ever worked harder to make nature more perfect than it already is.

When it was done I reread it and understood at last how, finally able to see him life-sized, and honor him accordingly, I really am free to let fate have its way with me. I don’t know if there is anyone left who remembers his contributions but I do know this – I will never again think of him as Ian McHarg. He is the father of Alistair McHarg, which, from my vantage point, is a far greater accomplishment.

Winter Birds

My father was a foreigner no matter where he went
I stumbled in the shadow of his odyssey, shifting lands
And languages like agents on a mission, hiding in
Plain sight for all to see and none to know

He had to add a garden onto every new address
Pencil scratching paper scrap, knees upon the earth
Ferns and bricks and gravel paths, ponds and rhododendrons
Sprawled upon the ground like a flamboyant signature

He taught me the gentle ceremony, sapling uprooted
Burlap, fingers, spade, bearing it away to meet
Unfamiliar soil, transplanted, reaching to embrace the sun
And rain so it could drive its roots into the earth, like anchors

Water blessed, nested, tree we would admire how the sweat
Of our labors had borne fruit, then, flash of lightning like
Bird appeared to grasp a branch and claim possession of it
As if he had been watching us, aching for the chance

My father never told me that, without the weight, hollow bones
And feathers, nervous eyes alert, one small bird swaying
On a slender branch, earth itself, unbalanced, would wander
From its axis and vanish in the cold expanse of space

Alistair McHarg

CLICK HERE TO ORDER BOOKS WRITTEN BY ALISTAIR McHARG (Do NOT Click Here To Order Books By Ian McHarg)

Killer In The Dining Room

ira einhorn

Moonlit Tours is a dark comedy that begins with a fundamental question – are human beings intrinsically good and evil – or – is evil behavior the consequence of increasingly questionable choices? There are many interwoven storylines involving incremental falls from grace, where essentially decent people find themselves committing unspeakable acts – including murder.

As a young man I was spared the experience of military service and have seen little of death, much less murder. So, when I was preparing to write I scoured my memories for interactions with killers. The most useful was an uncomfortable familiarity with convicted murderer Ira Einhorn, whose unapologetic expression stared out from front pages across the nation some time back. This is the story of how I came to know him.

People rarely rise to the pinnacle of their profession by accident; usually they are driven by a primal force like greed, competitiveness, or the need for approval. My father, who lived his entire life in a state of hypo-mania, genuinely loved what he did; but the emotional engine powering him was an almost pathological need for validation and respect.

I have no first-hand acquaintance with celebrity but I learned a great deal about it growing up in his shadow. One of the first things I found out is that stars attract sycophants; while some crave only the warmth of reflected limelight, others seek to attach themselves for manipulative, unsavory purposes. Luminaries, because they are accustomed to praise and crave it like morphine; are easily victimized by the latter variety. Meet Ira Einhorn.

Ira Einhorn was a self-styled anti-war, environmental activist who collaborated with Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman. As the first Earth Day approached, he launched an intense lobbying effort to get on my father’s good side so he could claim some of the credit for organizing it.

I remember him sitting at the massive George Nakashima dining table in our house, overlooking Fairmount Park, schmoozing with desperate relentlessness, and my father, clueless as only the truly brilliant can be, falling for it with a broad smile. Einhorn was smart, charming, affable, and determined. He had an unerring instinct for isolating what made people tick, and putting it to his advantage.

Earth Day took place in 1970. In 1977 we learned that Einhorn had murdered his ex-girlfriend, Holly Maddux and stuffed her body in a trunk which he stored in his West Philadelphia apartment. I was surprised and not surprised, having always sensed something unpleasant about him, although even today I don’t know exactly what. He avoided capture for many years and, after some convoluted legal square-dancing, was shipped state-side to face judgment. In one memorable last attempt at prestidigitation he tried to persuade the court that CIA agents had killed Maddux in order to discredit him.

Moonlit Tours explores a world where people do not choose evil; they fail to choose righteousness – where the great crimes of life are committed by unexceptional people, people essentially like us.

Moonlit Tours Cover

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.

Wild Turkey

wild turkey

Philadelphia is one of the nation’s most important cities, culturally iconic, socially complex, eminently livable. Like other major metropolitan centers it has a dark side characterized by heartbreaking poverty, despair, and brute violence.

As readers of my 1st novel – MOONLIT TOURS – will recall, I worked as a cabby there way back when. During that time, one of my fellow drivers was robbed and murdered; shot through the back of his head. They found him wrapped around his steering wheel, brains painted onto the windshield.

A year later I was attacked by a gang of punks, beaten in the face with lead pipes, and dumped in a snow bank to die.

I have spent most of my life in urban settings and consequently developed a rather philosophical attitude towards mortality; a city is a place of police cars, ambulances, fire engines and endless news reports of senseless death described, and illustrated, in lurid detail. One is tempted to sigh and say, “Yes, so it goes.”

But that serene, dispassionate indifference left me when I relocated to the country and had to confront wild animals face to face on a daily basis.

Just over two years ago I moved to a New Hampshire hamlet so small it does not have a stoplight, gas station, or Starbucks. The rallying point of this burg is a tiny post office with an uncertain future. One day I was getting my mail and who should walk in but our Chief Of Police. He recognized me immediately and we exchanged pleasantries. Commanding a full-time force of 4 police officers allows him to take a personal approach to his work.

I began to relate the story of Tom, nicknamed “The Tominator” by my wife, who has a flair for such things. Tom is a rogue wild turkey who, presumably as a result of turkey crimes too terrible to contemplate, has become separated from his tribe and now works alone.

I am accustomed to watching flocks of wild turkeys ambling through the yard, leisurely pecking the ground, but a solo Tom is new. Snood flapping casually, Tom brazenly walks up and down the center of the road in front of our house, a busy thoroughfare where one may see trucks and even school buses. His arrogance and disdain are limitless, and traffic has become increasingly deferential – he is now something of a local celebrity.

We reviewed all this in the Post Office, and the Chief confessed that “dealing with Tom” was high on his To Do list. He revealed that he had a net at home. Tom, we agreed, was a danger to himself and others…it’s just a matter off time…we nodded in unison…Fish & Game had been called.

Tom has not been seen for many days, and I like to imagine that he has been captured and relocated to the tourist country of northern New Hampshire where he now resides in a resort for wayward, unruly wild turkeys. I can accept nothing less, because, as a daily visitor who liked to sneak snacks from beneath our bird feeder, he was practically a family member. But this is not where the story ends.

A few days ago I was driving down a back road and had to stop as a large flock of wild turkeys, perhaps twenty, crossed. If you have never seen one of these magnificent animals, which Benjamin Franklin nominated over the bald eagle for National Bird status, they are amazing. Imagine a blue-collar peacock, stately, slow, immense, with a truly commanding presence.

Absentmindedly I followed each one as it ambled to the other side, wondering about Tom. I noticed a long, cylindrical shaft protruding from the feathers of one. At first I thought it was a random feather refusing to lie down next to the rest, then I realized I was looking at the back half of an arrow. Not a nice, wooden arrow from the colonial era. No, this was a state-of-the-art, fluorescent green missile made of high-performance polymers, bouncing as the turkey walked.

Clearly it was embedded enough to remain, but not enough to injure the bird.

I considered trying to remove the dreadful thing but thought better of it. Then we made eye contact and I imagined him saying these words to me.

“What’s the matter, moron, never saw anyone shot in the ass before? New in town? This shit happens, buddy. No sense being sentimental about it. I’m wild, can you dig it? That’s why they call me a wild turkey. Takes more than a little DuPont plastic in the hands of some half-blind, half-drunk hunter to slow this bad boy down. Now quit staring and piss off.”

Extreme High School

Where You Go To College Is Unimportant

Mark Zuckerberg believes I have 304 friends, which only goes to show that even brilliant people make idiotic mistakes.

Anyone who has ever had a real friendship knows it is only possible to maintain a small handful at any one time. Friendships are like pets; they require constant care and nourishment to survive. One may have innumerable familiar relationships which could, under the right circumstances, easily be reanimated; but this is something else altogether.

Although I am no expert in these matters, I do know that – To have a friend you must be a friend. I’ve also come to understand that friendship is inherently selfless; one person places another person’s wants, needs, and desires above his own. (This would help to explain the paucity.)

The ubiquity of Facebook, with its relentless emphasis on intensely superficial social interaction, (where nothing of value is sacrificed), would seem to bring insights about friendship in its wake. While it does, they are perhaps not the ones we would have hoped to see. Indeed, as we bump masks and publish carefully crafted press clippings we wrote ourselves, the unavoidable lesson of Facebook is as follows:

“It really doesn’t matter which college you attend. However, where you go to high school is crucial; because they will never let you leave.” Taz Mopula

Remember how happy you were to graduate high school, remember the relief you felt? Facebook is here to remind you that the toys have grown more expensive and the jowls are drooping a bit but social stratification and playground games are more fashionable than ever.

Naturally, I am interested in this fabulously disappointing phenomenon from the perspective of recovery.

People struggling with mental illness are notoriously inept at making and maintaining friendships. Caring for others, self-sacrifice – these are activities of the healthy; the chronically ill tend to be very self-focused. Also, many of them attempt to protect themselves with anonymity, by remaining unknown. They believe that – to know them is to loathe them – so they don’t give people the chance. Their principal way of handling relationships is by leaving them.

However, as people grow and evolve in recovery they often encounter a very different reason to sever ties with individuals they once thought of as friends. As they learn to share themselves, their lives, their gifts with others, they may find that enthusiasm often interferes with judgment. They sometimes overlook questionable motives in people once considered comrades.

Frequently they fail to remember that, while they have grown, others may not have been so fortunate. They often find there really wasn’t much in common to begin with. Most important of all, they feel deeply that, however lamentable it may be, some people are simply toxic for them; breathing their air makes them ill and jeopardizes the mental health they struggled so hard to attain.

At these moments the old tapes will tell them that politeness demands they continue to nourish these vestigial friendships. (They will instinctively perpetuate these cheery illusions, essentially setting mousetraps in their own house and then crying when their toes are snapped.) Those tapes must be burned.

Once, leaving a relationship was a sign of sickness; but it can just as easily be a sign of health.

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

Just Say NO To Nihilism

In An Age Where Anti-Matter Matters More And More

When you spend a life haunting the dark corridors of mental illness, chemical dependency, and art – well – suicide is always near, rather like those bright red fire extinguisher cases with the label that reads, “In case of emergency break glass.”

Losing a long parade of loved ones to this merciless toll taker eliminates the awe, the terror; glamour and luster retreat. (Notably, many people choose to purchase their suicide on the installment plan.)

If you need mania to be creative, then maybe creativity isn’t for you.” Taz Mopula

My generation fell in love with a mythology that linked madness (frequently drug-induced), self-destruction, and the complete abandonment of all our society held dear. Our special gift back to the society so busy attempting to spoil us was contempt. Our battle cry – sex, drugs, rock & roll – simply translates to – hedonism.

(Need I say we had no alternatives to offer? We romanced nihilism like it was going out of style, which, thankfully, it did.)

Mediocre art misrepresents reality; great art obliterates it.” Taz Mopula

This atmosphere proved to be an ideal breeding ground for artistes who perfected the empty pose, and empty prose that went along with it. Kerouac and Burroughs were early adapters, Hunter Thompson threw himself into the fray, and today Tom Waits is a living homage.

Even now these icons of hip negativity and gleeful self-destruction are taken seriously, revered by people who should know better.

Art matters most when it reminds people they might.” Taz Mopula

I am very fortunate to have outlived my cynicism, sarcasm, and nihilism. Today I find negativity lazy, cowardly, and worst of all – dull. Any imbecile can say no – it’s a trick we all learn at the age of two.

To be fair, I also have no time for those who turn away from the world’s darkness, paint on a photograph smile, and stupidly say yes.

But time is running out, and things certainly aren’t getting better. I seek the people who have looked Satan right in the eye and say yes anyway. They are my heroes.

Beware of Sellebrity

Celebrity Not Known Many People

When I was in the throes of mania I imagined myself a world-class genius artiste who – if not rich and famous at the time – would certainly be both at any moment. When I had drifted deep into the dark quagmire of depression I imagined that I was neither rich nor famous – and blindingly incompetent in navigating life.

In both cases of course the truth was far less interesting; I was merely a worker among workers, another Bozo on the bus, trying to make sense of an insane world like all the other citizens – and having a bit of a rough patch.

As a young person I had been misled about wealth and fame; and learned at last that neither one is particularly desirable. Importantly, both stand in the way of happiness, contrary to popular opinion. Having “enough” money is essential; having more than enough is a recipe for disaster. Fame is different, even a little bit of fame can be deadly – at the very least it is a distraction from the important things of life.

As a bipolar nitwit I believed that the happiness I lacked could be found outside, elsewhere; in the approval of others, admiration, success, wealth, etc. In my naiveté it never dawned on me that the creative geniuses I admired – like Van Gogh, Coltrane, Beckett – to select three examples at random – were not particularly happy people. Importantly, I had the relationship between art and success backwards – I was looking at the success, not the art.

As my great friend HG said of my bipolar memoir; “The true success is that you survived the events described and that you wrote about them – everything that happens from now on is extra.”

This so called “culture” of ours is obsessed with celebrity, as if being known were an end in itself. But it isn’t, at least not a worthwhile end. One should find what one is meant to do and then do it as well as humanly possible. If you find your audience, and they give you money, we may say huzzah. But the moment you start straying from the knitting and make celebrity your goal, there is virtually no chance at all you will contribute anything worthwhile to a society in need of all kinds of help.

Today I am happy to let my books, poetry, cartoons etc. do the talking for me. I would be delighted to see them earning money and gaining approbation. I did not create them to be shy, hiding from the spotlight. They are old enough to hold jobs, they have much to offer – and they enjoy attention. I will stand aside, like a father, and continue to regard the camera as a succubus.

A Life Of Crime Begins Inauspiciously

The World Is Not Fair For Most Of Us That's Good

I have failed in many ways, which helps explain my success. One of my most notable is crime. I’m not exactly certain which element of the criminal character I lack, perhaps if I’d thought about it first I could have studied. Certainly I have the sloth, entitlement, lack of ambition, and contempt for authority needed to excel, but for some reason life on the wrong side of the law never worked out for me.

Like many before me I dabbled in drug smuggling, which seems ideally suited to unimaginative slackers. A brief, and ill-fated, career began in Izmir, a Turkish city on the Mediterranean. My traveling companion and I secured a kilogram of hashish, neatly wrapped in transparent wax paper and ready to travel. We were on our way back into Greece.

Drug buys tend to be anxiety-ridden events, especially when they involve strangers; being in a foreign country just made it that much worse. So we were naturally relieved after the exchange was complete to be on our way back up the coast. Giddy with the elation of “getting away with it” we purchased a bottle of unbelievably nasty wine from a roadside vendor. Our route to Athens was a winding road that hugged the seashore and offered spectacular views as it did.

The two of us relished our gangster lifestyle, smoking hash, drinking wine, and enjoying the scenery. It got dark and we discussed pulling over for a while but, with signature manic intensity, I insisted on going until we were back in Athens where I believed we would be safer. We continued, my buddy drifted off to sleep and I struggled to keep my eyelids from drooping. Black night, black sea, no sound or lights to poke me awake, only the waving pair of parallel white lines.

Blubadubablubadubadub. The car was at rest in the furrows of a plowed field. We checked to see if it still moved and it did. We checked ourselves for cuts and broken bones; there were none. And so, we finally went to sleep properly, it seemed like the thing to do.

The next morning I surveyed the scene properly. We were only a few feet off the road. On the other side of the road was a long, sheer drop to the sea, certainly 70 feet. I looked at the waves slapping against the stony beach and realized – this was only the toss of a coin. My stomach tightened like a fist, I fell to my knees right in the middle of the road and kissed the pavement.

Irony Overload

Multi-tasking The Fine Art Of Doing Many Things Badly

Picture a glorious living room on Christmas Day. Magnificent high ceiling, cozy fire, exquisite tree, vast windows overlooking thick woods. Now imagine it filled with various members of an extended, albeit cattywhumpus, family, many of whom have not seen each other for a year or more.

Now imagine that any conversation taking place is a tossed-off afterthought; the primary occupation of nearly all inhabitants is cell phone manipulation.

Now, to me, talking on or playing with a phone while in the presence of another person is rude beyond imagination. To be fair, my parents were both from Europe and very opinionated on this subject, consequently I have an old-fashioned sense of good-manners, propriety, and behavior predicated on respect for self and others. I am no longer surprised to watch civility slip into the mist where it can comfortably join the dodo. So, while I find the incivility appalling, I am not surprised by it.

What does surprise me is the almost thundering irony. This astonishing device – no longer anything resembling a phone but rather a palm-sized communications network – has apparently robbed us of our ability to simply be – to enjoy the presence of another – savoring stillness, silence, and calm – to listen, and then, having listened and considered – to respond thoughtfully and politely.

In a word, it seems as though our need to constantly fetch and transmit information has profoundly damaged if not destroyed our ability to converse. (Once again, these people are close relatives and have not seen each other for a long time; Christmas in this case is more than a pseudo-religious shindig, it is an important opportunity to revitalize old bonds and forge new ones.)

When I go into an AA meeting the chairman reminds all of us that cell phones must be turned off. The reason is simple, what we are doing is a matter of life and death and requires absolute concentration. (I will again quote Taz Mopula who said, “Multi-tasking is the art of doing many things badly at the same time.”)

Our obsession with gadgets has caused us to forget what many of us never went to the trouble of learning in the first place, that is – the most essential element of conversation is listening and if you are thinking about what you will say next after the other person finally shuts up you’re not listening, you’re treading water.

To simply witness the life of a loved one, to be with them, is a priceless gift that demands elimination of ego, however briefly. Hard to do that with a horrid monster in your pocket, constantly demanding attention.

Is there anybody left who still believes these little machines serve us, or is it now clear to all we serve them?