How To Tell A Genius From An Imbecile

twins

If you’ve ever known any truly stupid people you’ve undoubtedly noticed that there’s something quite disarming and adorable about them.

The genuinely slow don’t really want or expect much from life; avoiding the spotlight’s glare in favor of simple, repetitive activities which, while certain to bore the likes of us to tears, provide them with endless hours of meaningless, idiotic entertainment. Indeed, the stupid in our midst almost never cause real trouble unless they are prompted to do so by unscrupulous, manipulative smarties.

As a group, dolts, dummies, and dimbulbs are quick to acknowledge their limitations and freely admit that they have much to be humble about. They are comfortable soliciting help and guidance, which, ironically, demonstrates a highly accurate sense of self and an endearing degree of humility.

The same cannot be of the highly intelligent who live surrounded by funhouse mirrors exquisitely designed to deny them the sweet comfort – and wisdom – of humility.

Smarty pants are always surprised, and impressed, by their own intelligence and consequently hold it in higher and higher esteem until, at last, they assume themselves to be the final authority in all things and therefore in no need of education of any sort. At this point they delight in making themselves feel larger still by reminding the stupid of how stupid they actually are, and the stupid, being stupid, and agreeable, play along. Thus is the cycle of arrogance and ignorance stoked like a furnace.

Unfortunately, any individual who asserts that he is omniscient, has irrefutably demonstrated idiocy, and therefore cannot be said to be brilliant. 

More to the point, increasing intelligence and wisdom leads irrevocably to increased humility and admission of ignorance until the only possible proof of true brilliance and wisdom would be utter humility which would posit the significance of what one does not know and the insignificance of what one does know. 

This would mean that only the brilliant man would know and admit how stupid he is, while the man convinced of his own brilliance would not yet be wise enough to be stupid.

Gallows Humor Swings

Fearless Frontiers Of Ventriloquism

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

If you’ve been blessed/cursed with Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) you’ll be spending time off the beaten track, in some cases, far off – for example, you might find yourself lying face down in a drainage ditch paralleling the beaten track, being pecked on the head by an irate duck.

At moments like this you can weep and shake your fists at the sky, or you can scratch your head in wonder at the dizzying, diverse smorgasbord of experience life has set before you, and laugh with bemused disbelief. Both options have merit, but healthy bipolar bears benefit from developing a resilient sense of humor predicated on perspective.

“The world is most certainly not a fair place, which, for the vast majority of us, is very fortunate indeed.” Taz Mopula

Laughter sheds light on a dark situation, creates distance, and generates power. Indeed, seeing the absurdity and irony of threatening situations is a great way to make them less intimidating. Courtrooms, prison cells, mental hospitals, distraught loved ones, and the offices of therapists are not intrinsically funny – however – the most beautiful lotus emerges from the darkest mud.

“People are always finding God in prisons and mental hospitals; but try finding a gift shop.” Taz Mopula

Becoming better at doing this means developing an ability to find humor in the most unpleasant, disagreeable situations life has to offer, because these will be the moments when it is most desperately needed. This may serve to further estrange you from those who have never strayed onto the shoulder of the beaten track, much less off of it. At this point you can pretend that your view is not as wide as it is, or acknowledge the distinction and let them deal with it.

“Pretending not to know the obvious is exhausting.” Taz Mopula

In a politically correct environment like ours, where the consensus holds that pretending a duck-billed platypus is a swan will make it so, there are those who believe Tourette’s Syndrome is comedy gold, ripe with satiric potential – and those that believe it is always wrong to make fun of the disabled.

“Political Correctness: An experiment in social engineering which holds that renaming dung mousse au chocolat makes it edible.” Taz Mopula 

The problem with this, dear reader, is that bipolar bears ARE disabled, we have already learned that, when it comes to comedy, all of life is fair game, especially ourselves. Indeed, we know that being able to see the humor and absurdity in our own pain, our bizarre affliction; is a key ingredient of healing.

“The better your vision becomes, the harder you laugh.” Taz Mopula

The Main Thing WWII Taught My Dad

Battleship Burning2

My father was a gifted storyteller. If I was good he would tell me one at bedtime. My favorite concerned a troop ship anchored in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy. This is how it went.

He and his men were asleep; it was late at night and silent. (My dad fought through the entirety of WWII, he was a Major in the British Army and commanded the 2nd Parachute Squadron of Royal Engineers.) Suddenly they were awoken by a horrific explosion that caused the ship to burst into flames, throwing shrapnel in every direction.

He painted a picture of the madness in glowing detail, terrified men racing to get on deck before the ship sank, men torn open by flying bits of debris, screaming men whose clothes were ablaze, men leaping overboard into the cold water.

He described jumping into the sea and watching as the ship became engulfed in red, yellow, orange, blue, black and white until, in short minutes, everyone on it was dead. Then, he turned his gaze to the dark water around him, looking for anything he could use to stay afloat. Doing so he noticed a fellow soldier flailing his arms wildly and screaming for help. My dad swam to him and gripped his collar, hoping to keep the man’s mouth above water level.

But – (my dad always slowed down for this part and went sotto voce) – what he hadn’t counted on was that the man did not know how to swim and was in a state of irrational, hysterical fear. Madly, desperately, the man grabbed onto my father as if he were mere flotsam, and in so doing began pulling the both of them, by now entwined like doomed serpents, below the water.

At this point, my dad confessed, it was his turn to panic. He understood there was no saving this man, and attempting to do so would simply bump the body count from one to two. He described the complex moral soul searching that occurred in mere seconds before he bit the man’s fingers in order to break the death grip, finally separating the two of them. A few strong kicks got him far enough away to be safe; he watched the man’s hands churn water until at last he fell to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea and into an unmarked grave.

Then my dad would gently brush the hair off my forehead and whisper, “The best way to help the dead is by not being one of them.”

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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Chuckles the Depressed Clown

Chuckles Depressed Clown

Years ago I was traveling from Philly to L.A. on business and found myself seated next to an unremarkable gentleman – mid-40s, clean-shaven, tall, closely-cropped hair, dressed casually but in all regards neat and presentable. One is captive on a plane and I hoped he understood the difference between friendly and intrusive.

Half an hour later this is what I knew about him. He was a clown who went by the name Chuckles and made a modest living working birthday parties, fairs, etc. Over the past year he had become involved in a legal contest with a rival clown, Lord Chumley, who he’d accused of stealing his make-up.

Chuckles explained to me at some length that every clown develops his/her unique look, as individual as a fingerprint. For one clown to steal the look of another clown was egregious. At this point he’d produced a very slick portfolio containing dozens of photographs showing him in full clown regalia – his make-up was so absolutely generic that I could not imagine anybody stealing it unless the aim was to resemble every other clown in the world.

But, as it turned out, larcenous colleagues provided only the beginning of a sad tale Chuckles told with hideous, obligatory persistence worthy of the ancient mariner. The crux of it was as old as time, love gone wrong, a broken heart. It turned out that Mrs. Chuckles had been wooed by a juggler and abandoned my traveling companion, leaving only a note. As Chuckles began to launch into this part of his story he gradually lost all semblance of composure and soon was crying convulsively, unable to complete a sentence without gasping for breath once or twice between sobs.

I am comfortable with the dark side of humor; but, one has limits. Certainly there was something deliciously ironic about a clown named Chuckles entangled in a copyright dispute with another clown, so shattered by romance on the rocks he could not contain his despondence; yes, but there was also something creepy and disturbing about it – and the flight was long. So, feeling only slightly guilty, I excused myself and found another seat, two rows further back.

For the balance of the trip I watched Chuckles make balloon animals which were passed from one person to the next and retained as desired. I suppose he made about fifty before becoming so lightheaded he had to take a nap. Dachshunds, hippopotami, giraffes, alligators, whales – he really was quite remarkable…and I thought to myself, this is a metaphor for life.

A colleague steals your act, a juggler steals your girl – if you’re the clown for the job, you don’t let it get you. You lace up the inflatable shoes, stick on the red nose, and make your goddamn balloon animals just like any other day. You rock, Chuckles.

But what I remember most from that trip is what happened after we landed. Row after row of passengers stood up, collected their carry on articles from the overhead compartments, and gathered themselves for the walk ahead. The kids, sure, I got that, and the teenagers too. But even the hot shot executives, smart as could be in 3-piece suits with leather attaché cases – they too all had their souvenir, brightly colored balloon animals tucked neatly under their arms, like irreplaceable, collectible artifacts. They looked absolutely preposterous, of course, especially because, without exception, not one of them was smiling.

Imprisoned Primates Escape Into Addiction

gorilla

When I was a very young lad living in Edinburgh, I would go on perambulations with my mother. Edinburgh is a grand city for walking, and we explored it at length. (As a Dutch woman recently transplanted from Amsterdam I think she found it as exotic as I did.) Edinburgh Castle, with its steep, cobblestone ascent, was a regular haunt. I loved the expansive train station, spewing steam as if the arched glass roof concealed a nest of restless dragons. And then there was the zoo.

It was at the Edinburgh Zoo that I rode my first elephant; and one never forgets one’s first pachyderm; nor do they forget you for that matter. There was no shortage of star attractions, but by far the most popular was Charlie the Gorilla, so named in honor of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Charlie was a 400-pound, silverback gorilla from the Congo. Even as a small child I was moved by his soulful face, power, and imprisonment. But crowds did not gather to marvel at his size and strength; they came to see him smoke.

In post-war Scotland, cigarettes were a scarce and expensive luxury. Even so, working class types would toss lit cigarettes into the cage and Charlie would puff on them furtively, carefully secreting them behind his back when his keeper arrived. (This Heckle and Jeckle routine was as ancient as vaudeville itself. Charlie would exhale clouds flamboyantly, exhibiting satisfaction Bob Marley might have envied. Then, when his keeper looked over, the cigarette vanished into a large, furry hand. The act never got old, and when the keeper knitted his eyebrows in disapproval, the kids howled with delight.)

In those days my parents were barely scraping by, even so, cigarettes were a line item in the family budget. My dad bought them in packs of 5. Later, he smoked the way waitresses chew gum, obsessively, constantly, thoughtlessly. As a youth I quickly came to understand that smoking was something cool people did, and I was physically and psychologically addicted well before leaving high school. Cigarettes were my one, true friend through it all. I smoked in prison and in mental hospitals, on the desolate streets of North Philadelphia at midnight; I even smoked at The White House.

Education, mercilessly delivered at the business end of a Louisville Slugger, pushed vices away from my grasp, as a ship gradually drifts away from the dock. Alcohol and drugs, abandoned over a decade ago, now seem foreign and counter-productive. But smoking clung to me like a tick, it was the last to leave, just a little over two years ago.

I’d like to go back to Edinburgh and tell Charlie, “You’re a 400 pound silverback gorilla from the Congo. You’re fabulous. You don’t need cigarettes to be cool. You’re already pretty damn cool.”

Dealing With The Loss Of Mental Illness

Waving goodbye to mental illness

All good things must come to an end, according to the sage of old, but did you know this also applies to bad things? That’s right! Here’s the shocker; when it comes time to bid a fond adieu to your particular mental health challenge, you may find yourself dragging your heels, gnashing your teeth, dotting your tees, and crossing your eyes.

Ridiculous, you say? Stifling the urge to cough derisive laughter up your sleeve? Well don’t let a little counter-intuition embolden you overly; allow me to share a personal vignette for illustrative purposes.

As many of you know, Bipolar Disorder is my particular albatross and it ruled and wrecked my landscape like a series of Old Testament plagues. For years, life was defined by my relationship to this demon and I graduated from mere survival to combat to mastery until, at last, it lay in a heap at my feet, vanquished.

(Aficionados will point out that Bipolar Disorder is incurable. While true, I must add that one can reduce it to inconsequence and insignificance so that, for all intents and purposes, it is neutralized.)

When Bipolar Disorder was in full flower it made me zany, newsworthy, and interesting beyond my wildest dreams. This splashy, sensational illness became something like a really bizarre, all-consuming hobby with a huge payoff, continued existence! It even provided the subject matter for my first book, Invisible Driving, the original bipolar memoir. There were times I wondered what I did for entertainment before the onset of my “fine madness”.

Seventeen years in therapy raced by until, before I knew what hit me, sanity arrived and with it, the challenge of adapting to normal society as an insider. No longer shivering in the rain beneath a tattered blanket, marooned on the outskirts of town, I bravely faced a life of acceptance.

The thought of being ordinary was oddly unnerving. It was then that I experienced what trendy psychologists in California refer to as “the wrong goodbye”, grieving for the loss of mental illness.

Remarkably the process broke out over the classic 5-phase grief confrontation process identified by Kübler-Ross in 1969.

1. Denial – I refused to believe that insanity had abandoned me.

2. Anger – I was furious at losing my most marketable attribute.

3. Bargaining – I furiously crafted disingenuous deals with a deity I did not believe in.

4. Depression – I tried to rekindle the illness by immersing myself in depression.

5. Acceptance – Began insisting on being accepted as a sane person and threatened insane reprisals if I was not. 

Only by going through this 5-step process in good faith did I come to understand that saying goodbye to insanity can be a good thing; and that sanity can be a lot more messed up than one might imagine.

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.