How To Manage Bullies

Inside Every Bully Is A Coward

Concern about bullies is trendy today, so much so that Hollywood, (where having an original idea can actually destroy your career), has jumped on the bandwagon with its incredibly annoying “It Gets Better” Campaign. (You and I know that in fact it doesn’t get better, indeed, it doesn’t change at all. What happens is that you either get used to it or you learn how to master it.)

Bullies are a time-honored personality type. (To be honest, we are all bullies to some degree, or at least, capable of being bullies.) Bullies are instinctively drawn to the weak and defenseless; mentally ill folk always make the list. Left unchecked; bullies morph into monsters, I know. Philly, my home town, is among the nation’s deadliest cities, thug violence is commonplace. Indeed, I was once beaten unconscious with lead pipes and left for dead in a snowbank.

Back when I was cab driving, a hard-bitten veteran told me, “There is only one way to deal with a gang of “punks” coming for you. You don’t run, you don’t talk, and you don’t make deals. You figure out which one is the leader and you stick a knife in his face.” My own mother, a reasonable and patient individual, once tried to run my father over with a 1956 Pontiac Chieftan (a very large car) simply because she could not endure being bullied any longer.

“Inside every bully is a coward; dread the weak, not the mighty.” Taz Mopula

The confrontation approach may win short-term but always fails long-term for the simple reason that it plays to the bully’s area of strength; violent brutality. To defeat the bully you must understand, and eliminate, your fear of him. When he realizes you will accept a beat-down if you must, the power he holds over you slips in between his fingers. When he looks into your eyes and sees you looking back, the mean, sadistic thrill he craves is gone. At that point he will seek out a more timid individual.

That is the joyful power and freedom that come from going toe-to-toe, and not flinching. If that is not enough for you, if you are full of hate and resentment, if you dream of reducing this wretched excuse for a human being to a quivering, pathetic blob of sopping flotsam; then it is time to remove the ruthless sword of humor from its sheath.

When you make it obvious you find the bully pathetic and laughable, he is vanquished. And it’s a very reasonable assessment because bullies are the very antithesis of what they appear to be. Coming across mean and rough is merely their way of masking cowardice and self-loathing.

Nothing ever just gets better; what happens is; if you’re lucky, you get better.

I Sing Because I’m Happy, I Sing Because I’m Free

North Philly

I felt as though the air had grown thick; I navigated it laboriously, as one walks through knee-deep water. Sweetness and flavor were gone; colors had faded into a thousand gray variations. I was 26 and thoroughly adrift. In need of employment I followed a path worn smooth by thousands of over-educated lost souls before me, complete immersion in a dead-end, service sector job.

Penn Radio Cab was a poorly managed, independently owned taxi company that prospered by transporting Philadelphia’s under-served population throughout its most distressed neighborhoods. We were not Yellow, parked in front of swish hotels, on our way to the airport, oh no. Our days and nights were spent prowling the forbidding landscapes of North and West Philadelphia where money was scarce and life was cheap.

The management at Penn Radio exploited its drivers mercilessly – 12-hour shifts, 6-days a week, weekends mandatory, no exceptions. Saturdays were okay, but Sundays were useless, no fares, no money. Rolling the desolate, trash-lined streets, awash in post-apocalyptic rubble, cars on cinderblocks, hookers, junkies, cops, and newspaper delivery trucks, we ate donuts, drank coffee, and smoked cigarettes.

Early one Sunday morning in April, gritty city trees in graffiti-smeared planters bravely pushing buds out into the carbon-monoxide, I answered a radio call in North Philly. It was a slim brick row house in a block of identical dwellings distinguished by the presence of bright green Astro-turf on the front steps. Out of the house, moving with precise determination; came a distinguished, buttoned-up black nurse. She got in the cab.

Philadelphia is known for its hospitals, so when she gave me the address of a Baptist Church I was confused. In my innocence I asked her if she was attending church on her way to work. She said no, she worked at the church. More curious still I asked her why a church would need to have a nurse on hand.

She said, “You know, in case somebody gets too happy.”

Then it all came to me, like a wave. Being a choirboy at St. Martin’s in the Fields, my mom driving me and my friends to the service on Sunday, listening to the live feed on WHAT from The Cornerstone Baptist Church at 33rd & Diamond Streets and the way the entire congregation sang with a completely unqualified euphoria of jubilee shout halleluiah until we couldn’t figure out why the building was still standing and even then I ached for that kind of belief, that faith, that mad commitment and wondered how it must feel to give yourself up to the divine and surrender and then we would go to St. Martin’s in the Fields and sing and men in tweed with their women in mink would fall asleep and I thought this can’t be what religion is.

And so I drove the nurse to her church.

What’s Wrong With Being Not Right For Everyone?

The Audience Is  Never Wrong Wrong Theater

My father leveraged his iconoclastic, condescending personality into an asset; and rode it to celebrity. Only much later did I come to see that he craved approval, even adulation, the way an addict craves narcotics. Like an addict, his hunger was insatiable; the more validation he received the more he needed. Watching in terrified awe, I grew up believing that mass acceptance is highly desirable, and a reliable barometer of value.

“Never confuse fame with artistic quality, or wealth with value. Society gets what it wants, not what it needs.” Taz Mopula

He lived in the spotlight; I lived in the shadow. Growing up in the dark taught me to love the cool, quiet of oblivion, where I was safe from the horrors of accomplishment and the judgment that went with it. If I wasn’t known to anyone, (the logic went), I couldn’t disappoint. The death of a thousand (self-administered) cuts was well underway.

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

Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) stole the anonymity that cloaked me; fits of mania splattered my once secret torment across the front page, I soon became a nasty joke everyone had heard. For years I labored to understand and remedy what madness had revealed – learning to love the real me. In time I came to understand that honesty is the very bedrock of all recovery.

“It’s not that I don’t love you, I do love you; I just don’t love you enough to lie to you.” Taz Mopula

That is precisely when I ceased being a dilettante and began taking myself seriously as a creative artist. I wrote my bipolar memoir, applying a searching, fearless honesty which some regard as brutal. From then on the die was cast, in subsequent books, poems, cartoons – even Taz Mopulisms – truth, in other words – what I understand to be the truth – trumped all.

“The audience is never wrong; that said, one does occasionally wander into the wrong theater.” Taz Mopula

Everything about my experience is eccentric, and so, as you might expect, I have many unorthodox beliefs and opinions which I share freely. I certainly don’t set out to upset or offend, it’s merely an unintended consequence. There is no alternative. I don’t expect universal acceptance – honestly, that would almost be a bad sign – I am merely offering freely to all and looking for my audience.

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

Nursing A Grudge Will Not Make It Healthy

No Matter How Long You Nurse A Grudge

If you’ve ever gotten divorced you know that, as soon as it happens your married friends start avoiding you as if the inability to maintain a relationship is some sort of bizarre, highly contagious skin condition. The fate of those fighting serious mental health issues, including addiction, is far worse.

“Not all human sacrifice is equally noble; it depends a little on which human is being sacrificed.” Taz Mopula

The road leading out of Bedlam seems endlessly challenging but we trudge it all the same, then, at the finish line, in place of that brass band we expect there is an angry mob. It seems beastly unkind, especially after the hard work, but before you start nursing a grudge, understand a few things about who and what you’ve become and why the new you is bringing out the very worst this wretched refuse has to offer.

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

The day you went skidding off the road and right into downtown Cuckoopantsatopolis was the day you reminded every straight arrow of your acquaintance that none of us is ever truly safe. Sanity itself, that sine qua non for the bourgeois, mediocre, pointless life ostensibly guaranteed by the Constitution, is as vulnerable as a Fabergé egg. Nobody wants to be reminded of that, and yet you do.

“Ever noticed that people who claim to be crazy never are; and people who actually are crazy always claim to be sane?” Taz Mopula

“But wait,” you say, in that adorably naïve tone of voice you apply to questions that illustrate your innocence, “do I not also teach, i.e. show, that by facing down these unholy perils one can evolve spiritually and grow stronger, actually emerging as a better, more morally grounded person in the process?”

“Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach, teach anyway.” Taz Mopula

Yes, yes you do, Sparky, and this is precisely why that mob is roughly as happy to see you as they were to see Frankenstein.

“Give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day. Teach that man to fish and you have given him a way to hide a drinking problem.” Taz Mopula

They say in the rooms that a pickle can never return to its previous incarnation as a cucumber. While you may be a reformed devil transformed into an angel, one thing is certain, you will never again be just another Bozo on the bus in the eyes of outsiders; the tired, the poor, the slow, the dim. Fellow insiders know better, they know that all of us are merely Bozos on the bus, but that is another story.

In the final analysis it’s important to remember that uniqueness is about the only thing we all have in common. Taz Mopula

Your very existence says to these apple pie bakers and flag wavers, “My experience is larger than yours, I know terrible truths you dare not admit. Though horribly handicapped I have emerged morally grounded, fearless, strong, and (most upsetting of all) happy.” Trust me, they will never forgive you for that.

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

You have become a teacher, a leader, whether you care to admit it or not. As ever, peace of mind lies in embracing the inevitable, my advice is – learn how to lead by example, make your life a poem, a prayer.

“No matter how long you nurse a grudge it will never become healthy.” Taz Mopula

Look around you; we desperately need leaders. Today we have none, instead we have celebrities who only lead by being cautionary tales, they show us what not to do. Leave footprints.

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.

The Importance Of Being Unimportant

One Cannot Overestimate The Importance Of Fully Grasping

One day, while sitting in my windowless corporate office and trying to imagine it didn’t resemble a jail cell, I picked up my ringing phone to discover the call was not business-related, it was in fact a friend I’ll call Chumley Frampton, although his real name is Syngen Enthwhistle.

Arrogance: What stupidity wants to be when it grows up. Taz Mopula

Now, bear in mind that Chumley is not what you would call a close friend, so I wondered immediately what the purpose of his call might be. I didn’t have to wait long. With fabricated faux urgency for which he is well known, Chumley informed me he was too busy to speak with me right now and had to ring off.

Multi-tasking: The fine art of doing many things badly at the same time.” Taz Mopula

Yes, that’s right. He called me to let me know he was too busy to speak with me, even though we hadn’t spoken in months.

Before you criticize a man, walk half a mile in his shoes, turn around, retrace your steps, and return them to him.” Taz Mopula

I don’t usually deconstruct for the reader’s benefit but let’s look at this briefly. 1.) Apparently he was incorrect, he wasn’t too busy to speak with me – the communication was false. 2.) Had it been accurate, why would I have cared? What possible purpose could have been served? 3.) The exclusive point of this contact was to remind me of his importance. (This quality, by the way, existed only in his mind, assuming that one measures importance by gauging influence, power, achievement, and celebrity, which he did. So, not only was it a tiresome nuisance, it was wildly inaccurate.)

“Celebrity: A state of being where one is not known by a large number of people.” Taz Mopula

As concept humor the story is hard to beat, but there is another reason why I’ve retained it all these years. Long ago a psychiatrist said to me, “It really matters to you that what you do is perceived as important.” This was both true and damning. He didn’t say that it was important to me that I achieved important things – (like Chumley I existed on the periphery of accomplishment but had nothing to show for myself) – he said it was important that I was perceived as having done so. Back in the day, Chumley and I managed our images fastidiously, what others thought of us mattered tremendously, indeed, it determined the value of our stock.

“Humility is nothing to brag about.” Taz Mopula

Today I know with absolute certainty that I am not important. On occasion I may be involved in work that is potentially important, and now and then I may serve the purposes of a very important entity, but that is another matter altogether. If I ever find myself making a case for self-importance I immediately take a time out – recalibrate, and begin again.

“Never underestimate your ability to underestimate others, and overestimate your own capabilities.” Taz Mopula

I am perhaps important to the extent that I have learned the importance of unimportance.

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.

Invisible Baggage

iceberg sailboat

When my daughter was born I wanted the safest car available, so I purchased the first of my five Volvos, the only new automobile I’ve ever owned. Later I discovered the trick of buying high-end Volvos used, right off a lease, thereby scoring a like-new car at half the price.

I cared for my vehicles with a level of obsession only the mentally ill can muster. They were cleaned routinely and kept absolutely empty, indistinguishable from how they’d looked on the showroom floor. These cream puffs were, perhaps, my only material world self-indulgence. One key element of their care regimen involved always, always making certain the doors were locked.

With a slavish, OCD-esque devotion to meaningless, compulsive routine I invariably checked all four door handles, and often the trunk, to make certain the automatic locks had responded appropriately when prompted. (Of course they always had, but one can never be too careful when one’s cheese has slipped far off one’s cracker, no?) I suppose that, after enduring such terror and madness in my manic episodes, I desperately craved mastery over something, even if it was only my car.

Perhaps the sweetest of them all was a burgundy 850, loaded. My then girlfriend, let’s call her Prunella Entwhistle, and I chose to go on holiday to Nova Scotia. Going by car meant we could travel every mile from Philly in THC-enhanced luxury, styling like sophisticated Sybarites. And so we did, all the way to the very northernmost tip of Newfoundland, an isolated promontory mere whistling distance from the Arctic Circle.

Newfoundland is a raw, desolate place; apart from the slender road there was no evidence of “civilization” whatsoever.

We parked. Before us lay a vast vista, the chilly North Atlantic, not far from the Titanic’s final resting place, and there, right in the center of our view was a massive iceberg not half a mile offshore, glowing with that transcendent blue one sees nowhere else. Hush, an immense silence made even quieter by the ambient sounds of waves dragging along the stone beach, wind, and the occasional bird. We burned yet another J and gazed in a kind of rapture, then got out for a better view of the frozen mountain, floating so peacefully.

Prunella zipped up her jacket. I got out, squeezed the remote door lock, and checked all four handles. Then I rapped on the window of every door with my knuckle to make certain it was up all the way, (I kept the windows so clean it was impossible to tell if they were open or closed.) Prunella watched with disbelief and then blurted out. “What the hell are you doing? Moron; the nearest human being is fifty miles away!”

My father, quite famously, was blissfully unaware of his inner life, but he did get off a good one-liner from time to time. He liked to tell me, “No matter where you go, you take your problems with you.”

One For The Money

Even The Greatest Paintings Are Flat

“Take no prisoners!” That’s what legendary singer Billy Paul used to tell his band right before going on stage.

I’ve been a performer all my life, singer, poet, comedian, lecturer, maniacal street celebrity. (HIDEOUS DETAILS AVAILABLE HERE).

For much of what I laughingly refer to as “my career” I regarded assassins as the apex of professionalism – heartless and methodical, all business, all technique.

Over the years my attitude about performance has transformed, closely tracking my recovery.

At first I thought of “the act” as a mask I clung onto with white knuckles, until one could not tell where it ended and my face began.

As I became more comfortable and facile in front of a crowd, moving with glib, even condescending confidence, I polished the mask until it shone so brightly even the people sitting in the very last row needed sunglasses.

Then something happened, I grew more confident still and suddenly craft and “art” became less fascinating.

I must credit a few very special people for carrying me across the river; by watching these world class artists perform I discovered that craft is only a tool.

Real art, I came to understand, lies in opening up your true self and sharing what you have, whatever it is that makes you special, whatever it is that’s unavailable anywhere else.

Lily Tomlin, Richard Pryor, Keith Jarrett, Sarah Vaughan, Sun Ra, and Jimi Hendrix.

When these people left the stage they didn’t take anything with them, they gave it all. All of them shared one essential quality; fearless generosity.

Craft is just something you internalize until you can forget it altogether and be yourself – cool, relaxed, smile on your face – bathing in the spotlight’s unforgiving chill.

Straight Jackets Made Here

straight jacket

How is it that a culture able to conceive and create over 100 different types of toothpaste has managed to develop just one vision of the afterlife?

Heaven: puffy clouds, harps, angels floating lazily. Hell: flames, smell of sulfur, pitchfork-wielding demons.

Humanity really enjoys patting its collective back on the subject of inventiveness and creativity, but here, in a matter demanding its full powers and greatest reach, we are stuck with clichés so mundane they’re better suited to greeting cards than theological constructs.

Once again, imagination fails precisely when we need it most.

Heaven is actually very easy to find – (in a difficult sort of way) – but I will save that discussion for another day.

Hell, by contrast, finds you – and for those of us who labor under the disadvantage of mental illness, this concept has a very special meaning indeed.

You see, there is nothing generic about hell; it is not a “one-size-fits-all” experience. To view it this way is to grossly underestimate the exquisite construction of nature, in general, and the human mind in particular.

In fits of mental illness, your best friend – (you, one hopes) – turns traitor and becomes your worst enemy. This is very bad news since your newfound nemesis knows absolutely everything about you – darkest hungers, terrors, insecurities, shame, self-loathing, resentments, rage, unwholesome needs.

In other words, there is an entire dungeon full of devices to select from in order to devise a torture ideally suited to hurt and damage you as much as possible. One must admire the elegance of this construct, assuming one is blessed with the luxury of distance from it.

They say that the lesson you most need to learn is the one that will continue to confront you, reappearing endlessly until you deal with it. Mental illness is frequently a way to make certain this rule is enforced.

Your straight jacket will not be “off-the-rack” – it is custom-tailored to accentuate precisely those qualities you would prefer to hide from the world, and yourself.