What Is A Friend?

axe

At sixteen I went on a 1,200-mile canoe trip down the Albany River to Hudson Bay, two months of whitewater with nine other guys my age, Pete, our group leader, and an Ojibwa Indian guide. Absolute wilderness, our only company the occasional bear or moose. My best friend’s name was Terry.

Every evening we set up a new site, cut tent poles and firewood, and cooked dinner. One evening, after a long, exhausting day of paddling in the rain, we found a site and I went to chop firewood. My axe glanced off a wet tree, through my sock, and deep into my left ankle. (We kept our axes sharp!)

Warm blood soaked my sock; the milky-white anklebone was clearly visible. Pete made me lie down on the ground face up so he could sew the wound back together using a curved needle, nylon thread, and fishing knots he knew. I was close to passing out. He gave me a piece of wood to bite on so I wouldn’t swallow my tongue and said, “When it starts to hurt, bite down.”

I looked up and saw a neat circle of faces looking down at me, a combination of sympathy and morbid fascination on their faces. Everyone was there, except Terry. I felt betrayed, let down by my best friend when I was already so hurt. No one spoke as Pete began sewing and I tried my best not to scream, the only sound was a faint, steady chipping in the background.

When they carried me back to my tent, Terry presented me with a beautiful cane he had just carved. Everything I knew, or have come to know, about friendship reverberated in that moment.

Study Links Bipolar Disorder, Genius, Creativity & Idiocy

Portraits In Stupidity - Bare-chested At The Top Of The World

If you’ve ever met an actual genius – or worse – if you are one – you know that: those in need of garden-variety stupidity are advised to seek out a moron – but – those in search of world-class idiocy should go the extra mile and track down a genius.

“Those who believe that intelligence alone can cure all ills possess either too little of it or to much.” Taz Mopula

The link between Manic Depression and intelligence has been widely discussed, as has the link between Manic Depression and creativity. Because the illness has a genetic component, descending through generations like a toxic heirloom, this cannot be considered exactly shocking.

“Sometimes it seems like the inmates are running the asylum. Then again, would a sane person want that job?” Taz Mopula

The net is that, intelligence and artistic creativity track higher among Bipolars than the general population. This does not mean that all Bipolars are brilliant and creative – that would be like saying that all alcoholics are great writers simply because many great writers are alcoholics.

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

(By the way, I’ve tried this myself – trust me – becoming an alcoholic does not make you a great writer. I was horrified to learn that the only way to become a great writer is by becoming a great writer, which, I assure you, involves a lot more effort than becoming an alcoholic.)

“Writing is the easiest part of being a writer; the most difficult part is becoming a writer.” Taz Mopula

One thing I’ve observed over a decade of meetings in church basements is that – there are a lot of really brilliant, successful, charming, creative alcoholics. As we say, “It was my best thinking that bought me this chair.” Likewise, there are many brilliant – genius level – crackerpants coocoobirds in mental hospitals, prisons, and cemeteries.

“Learn humility first; all the other important lessons come so much more easily when you do.” Taz Mopula

For both groups, intelligence and success pose the greatest obstacle to recovery. Convinced of their own superiority to others, these hubris-stoked, arrogant twits believe they are equipped to master whatever comes their way, even life’s most bizarre, horrific challenges. They are too smart to realize how incredibly stupid they are being.

“To live happily it either is or is not essential that one learns to embrace self-contradictory concepts.” Taz Mopula

A mentally ill person – whether Bipolar, alcoholic, or both – that believes in the mythology of self-sufficiency – who is actually willing to risk it all on his ability to scale Everest alone in his underwear – is no mere dimwit – that takes world-class stupidity. For that you need a genius.

Nothing Recedes Like Success

B.B. King

My father received the National Medal of Arts in September of 1990; other recipients included Jasper Johns, Beverly Sills, Merce Cunningham, Hume Cronyn, and blues legend, B.B. King.

The ceremony took place at The White House, President Bush and wife Barbara (much scarier in person) officiating. Afterwards a select group of 50 or so attendees was invited to stay for lunch (lamb).

I almost didn’t make it in. Even though I’d been formally invited my name triggered an alarm when I arrived at the gate because short months prior to the occasion I’d been involuntarily admitted into a state mental hospital – for a curiously refreshing account of these events CLICK HERE to order Invisible Driving, my bipolar memoir.

The White House was much smaller inside than I’d imagined and I was delighted to find a complete set of Nixon’s memoirs in one of the bathrooms.

I had no desire to call attention to myself and didn’t want to do anything that might embarrass The Professor; it was his day after all. However, at the mix and mingle, right before sitting down to lunch, when I saw B.B. King schmoozing with then Attorney General Richard Thornburg, I simply had to introduce myself. (Frankly I’ve never been terribly impressed by King as a musician, although I do like his voice.)

We chatted very amiably for a while and then I stopped for a moment and said, “You know, unlike pretty much everybody else here,” with that I swept my arm across the sea of predominately white, male, humorless, Republican, conservative, uptight twits, sycophants, and unctuous opportunists, “I actually own some albums by you.”

(This was true; a terrific effort with horns called Blues On Top Of Blues and a dreadful 2-album Buddha reissue pairing him with old friend Bobbie “Blue” Bland. In high school I’d purchased an appalling album called Lucille and given it away after listening to it twice.)

Now, in all honesty, I thought this was a slow pitch, an opportunity for us to be amused by the irony together. It is hard to imagine George Bush moanin’ about goin’ to Memphis to get his hambone boiled, or Barbara cryin’ ‘cause she need a hot dog for her roll. I doubt that pooling the entire group would have produced more B.B. King albums than Jasper Johns paintings. And yet, nothing at all from The King, just a sour puss indicating I’d given him the blues.

Then it dawned on me, when it comes to egomania there is no such thing as success, there is never enough approbation to satisfy the appetite. King was unable to be amused by the irony because he wouldn’t be satisfied until the whole world had albums by him. But the bad part is, even then it wouldn’t be enough.

I saw this with my father; ultimately the fame meant nothing. As it says in the play Deathtrap, “Nothing recedes like success.” And when it does recede, if you’ve got nothing substantial to fall back on, nothing in the center to nourish you, it gets mighty lonely out there.

Everybody wants to know, why I sing the blues, I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve really paid my blues.

Dismantling The Vatican

vatican

My father was beyond judgmental; he was an imperious iconoclast with opinions about absolutely everything. The Professor expressed thoughts in the form of edicts and proclamations, as if to say disagreement was a pointless exercise. One did not have discussions with the old man, much less debates. One was educated.

My family traveled a great deal when I was young, and my dad, an architect and aficionado of esthetics, among other things, was fond of dragging us to cultural touchstones like cathedrals, gardens, and art galleries. He would explain, with signature irreverence, (much to the horror of passersby), and we would listen with appropriate respect, if we knew what was good for us.

The Vatican

I remember walking through the Vatican with him. Together we examined every gilt detail of this opulent, overwrought warehouse, admiring the way it oozed wretched excess at once gaudy and operatic, carefully designed to intimidate and lure with meretricious sparkle. Sweeping his arm in grand theatricality he exhaled loudly and sneered, “Cecil B. DeMille”.

The Snarling Atheist

My father was no mere agnostic, I should point out, but a snarling atheist who put nature in the place frequently occupied by God. Still, he admired cathedrals from an architectural standpoint and an artistic one. He was much taken by the cathedrals in France and took great pains to point out that the men who built them often worked their entire lives without seeing the finished product, indeed, many of these monuments required centuries to complete, and, generations of stone carvers toiled in anonymity, devoting their skill, art, passion and best energies to a higher calling.

No Guarantee Of Reward

How does the old saw go about the man who plants a tree knowing that he will never live to sit in its shade?

I Know Why The Alligator Hides

Writer Reads Rejection Slip

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

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

I Know Why The Alligator Hides

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

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

To purchase any or all of my books CLICK HERE.

The Rising Tide Of Wretched Detritus

landfill bulldozer

My father had no friends. He had fans, sycophants, students, hostages, admirers, toadies, followers, victims, listeners and viewers – but no friends. He and my mother did, however, have a select circle of acquaintances. Without exception the men were Type A, driven, and – like my father – leaders in their respective fields. The women were, also without exception, extremely bright, high born, nice, and beautiful.

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

This “fast set” socialized regularly and their parties were love songs to designer decadence. Alcohol flowed like blood in the streets of Pamplona, as did testosterone. Ego and intellect, style and substance, need for attention and inflated self-image battled it out for supremacy; with the passing of time came increasing volume and hilarity.

“Instant, universal communication has made it impossible to know if anyone is saying anything valuable.” Taz Mopula

As a child I marveled at these circuses, and noticed that my father and male friends always spoke simultaneously; these were not conversations, they were shouting matches. I learned the reason why at his funeral. One of the few remaining lions revealed that, since they had no intention of listening to one another, speaking all at once saved time.

“At what point does communication become air pollution?” Taz Mopula

Without paternal guidance, I had to learn what having a friend is all about on my own, and there were many stumbles. For example, narcissism and friendship don’t mix. The axiom that goes – to have a friend you must be a friend – became meaningful. This, I discovered, involved learning about the needs and wants of other people, and placing them above your own – a strange concept for an alcoholic! And yet, like a child with a learning disability, the penny dropped eventually.

“Why is it called the age of communication when nobody listens?” Taz Mopula

Of all the skills required, perhaps the most foreign was listening. I knew about scoring points for talking, even singing; but listening was something very different. Harder still was listening to quiet without feeling an intense need to violate it. But, my Quaker education served me well. Although I am a slave to the savage charms of music, natural orchestras of all descriptions, and the allure of my own voice, I now understand silence to be the only perfect sound.

“You have the right to remain silent, and listen. Might be advisable to exercise it before they take that one away, too.” Taz Mopula

Tuning out clutter, both external (motorcycles, wild turkeys, etc.) and internal (ego, fear, anger, etc.), enables me to really listen. Becoming an empty vessel makes it possible to fully witness other people and absorb the eloquent silences.

“It doesn’t qualify as listening if you’re busy thinking what to say next.” Taz Mopula

The irony, of course, is that I find myself in what is commonly referred to as the age of communication – which I think of as the age of digital pollution. Today we are besieged with information and, to pick a number from a hat, about 99% of it is rubbish. While it may not be inherently evil, we are left with the challenge of defending ourselves against the deluge and sifting through what’s left on the odd chance of finding something nourishing.