The Intoxication of Poetry

Scorpions On The Face - Again

Two-time Poet Laureate, Howard Nemerov, and celebrated photographer, Diane Arbus, had a great deal in common. This talented brother and sister act shared what I would call an emotionally brittle nature, and a lifelong battle with depression. Arbus, famously, lost that battle at a young age. Her suicide was no desperate plea for help; she intended to go through with it.

It was 1969; I was a 19-year old freshman punk living la vida loca at Haverford College. My father, Ian, was almost at the zenith of his celebrity, turning up with tiresome regularity in every conceivable media outlet, doing his mad-as-a-March hare environmental activist with a thick Scottish brogue shtick. His base of operations was The Department of Landscape Architecture & Regional Planning at The University of Pennsylvania – a department he founded and chaired for decades.

The Professor was completely devoid of parenting skills, but – having written, and published, my first poem at age 6 – even he knew I was an incipient wordflinger. He taught a course entitled Man & Environment. Do not be misled by the apparent hubris of this title; since he did in fact know everything about everything the all-inclusive subject matter posed no problem. Plus, he invited a long string of tweed-jacket wearing, pipe-smoking, degree-wielding intellectual heavy-hitters to help.

In a rare moment of familial camaraderie he called to say Nemerov was giving a guest lecture and if I wanted to meet him I should show up at his office about 11:30.

So here we are, three guys in my father’s office at the U of P. Nemerov is pacing and twitching like a crack addict in a rehab. Finally he says, “Ian, I have got to have a martini.” My dad, enjoying this opportunity to swagger, tells one of his students to go to the bistro across the street, get a pitcher of martinis, and come back. The student points out that this is illegal and impossible for many reasons and my dad starts screaming at him. The terrified student races away – and is back in minutes with a stainless steel pitcher sweating chilly droplets. Nemerov’s eyes twinkle.

So I’m thinking – this is pretty cool – I am going to have a martini with one of the nation’s greatest poets. As this idea is simmering in my mind – Nemerov puts the pitcher to his lips and slowly, easily, drains the entire thing. My father and I look on in wonder, exchanging stunned glances. I will never forget what happened next. Nemerov stopped pacing, talking, twitching, fidgeting, glancing about erratically, and went perfectly calm. I had never seen a veteran, all-in alcoholic in action before; it was hypnotic.

The three of us walked down the corridor and into the lecture hall. Nemerov read his poetry for an hour; he was note-perfect. I doubt there were more than 50 people in the room, and he was a teacher, giving lectures was his bread and butter. It wasn’t about being nervous. Alcoholics get to the point where they need the toxin to be normal.

Death Of 1000 Cuts

How Drunk Do You Havew To Be Cut Your Own Hair

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Escalator Broken Use The Steps

Abandoned mall escalator

In the damp church basements of recovery it is often observed that the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are in the order they’re in for a good reason and one should work them sequentially. This tenet is underscored because, as a rule, alcoholics are belligerent, defiant, and rebellious in an infantile, pointless sort of way.

Celebrating The Right To Be Wrong

Dipsomaniacs simply must do as they please, no matter how much more difficult, time-consuming, and aggravating their idiosyncratic path may be. Whenever “some assembly” is required, rest assured that the very first thing they did after unpacking the contents was throw away the instructions because – well, why on earth would you rely on the opinion of experts when you have your own complete ignorance, honed to perfection over years of not listening to anyone, nearby?

Ready, Fire, Aim!

A while back I worked at a company that employed many engineers. One of them had a sign on his desk that read – Ready, Fire, Aim! Of course, engineers – who live to plan – found this hilarious, but on refection it is amazing to realize how much behavior it describes, especially in an impulsive, indulgent, ADD world.

Never Enough Time To Do It Right; Always Enough Time To Do It Over

On a recent sojourn to the Maine coast, Mrs. McHarg turned my attention to a green box mounted on a pole. We walked over to examine it. It was a doggie poo bag dispenser, installed by the local citizenry to help keep their beach pristine. The box had writing and symbolic images. The writing offered a detailed description of its purpose and, importantly, instructions for bag use.

When All Else Fails; Read The Directions

To assist those for whom poo bag use is not intuitive, sequential images illustrated the proper technique. 1.) Put bag over hand. 2.) Grab poo. 3.) Reverse bag, tie securely, and deposit in an appropriate receptacle.

For Some Of Us, Doing Things The Easy Way Is Difficult

Whether you’re ascending from the cellar in recovery, firing a rifle, or cleaning up after your dog – being in the right place at the right time pays handsome dividends.

dog poop bag dispenser

It Isn’t The Caboose That Kills You

Caboose chessie

Even as a kid I had difficulty managing money. Along with my sketchy friends I’d go to the nearby abandoned coal yard and lay pennies out on the railroad tracks, collecting what remained once the trains were gone. If you’ve ever done this yourself you know that Lincoln is no longer recognizable, what’s left looks like a frozen, wafer-thin copper puddle.

Dancing on and off the tracks, putting our ears against the rails to gauge how far away the trains were; this was all part of the illicit fun. We were young and immortal, mindless to risk.

My parents were immigrants, and loved this country in a way unique to immigrants – awed by the scale and opportunity. They liked to tell me about a trip out west they took as newlyweds. Picnic spread across an Indian blanket, vast expanse of desert splayed out before them, they watched an endless freight train snaking past. For a lark they decided to count the boxcars.

Revealing the number dramatically, as if I hadn’t heard the story a dozen times before, my mother would report, “Two-hundred-and-twenty-eight cars from engines to caboose,” with awe she might have just as easily applied to a description of the Grand Canyon or her first time up The Empire State Building.

The vast wealth and scale of their adopted nation lay in stunning contrast to the post-war Holland my mother had left, and my father’s native Scotland, not especially prosperous even in the best of times.

One of the particularly American habits my parents adopted in their zeal to be real U.S. citizens was drinking martinis. I can see them now, on the patio behind the kitchen, overlooking Fairmount Park, my father pouring from a silver shaker into glasses reserved for these occasions. They each had two, always with a twist of lemon peel.

If they were feeling especially jolly, my father would carefully strain out what was left at the bottom of the shaker, mingled in with the melting ice. This was enough for half a martini each, which my father referred to as – “the Dean’s half” – in honor of Sir Peter Shepherd, acting Dean of my father’s department at U of P.

My family tree is thick with accomplishment on both sides, but I am the very first to achieve the title of “alcoholic”. Dad was mad as a March hare, workaholic, and manic depressive; but no drunk. He understood on a cellular level something I never did, specifically, that martinis are like women’s breasts; one isn’t enough and three are too many.

And so, when I entered the rooms of AA on my hands and knees, utterly defeated, scared beyond all reason, and somebody said, “It isn’t the caboose that kills you man, it’s the locomotive,” I knew exactly what they meant.

Don’t Raise The Bridge, Lower Your Expectations Of The River

Why Raise The Bridge Expectations Of River

You may find that recovery road is every bit as lonely as the road to ruin; but do not let this deter you. It all comes back to expectations, if you don’t expect a parade you can’t be disappointed when the boulevard is empty and there is no confetti in the air.

“Why raise the bridge when you can lower your expectations of the river?” Taz Mopula

Naturally, the mentally ill don’t really expect effusive gratitude and praise as they traipse the corridors of deserted carnival funhouses at night, staring into mirrors carefully constructed to distort reality in countless ways. We don’t expect it because we don’t think about others at all, much less how they perceive us; the solitary cul-de-sac we inhabit is world enough.

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

The same applies for those of us who drink alcoholically, or take drugs – we may have some awareness of how our behavior torments others but in the end, who cares? The hungers of a callous demon, residing within a Byzantine labyrinth of twisted emotions, take precedence over all else.

“Before you learn to run you learn to walk; before that you learn to fall on your face, crawl, and summon the grit to get up.” Taz Mopula

The luckiest among us begin a journey away from the dark and into the light, and in so doing, develop improved self-esteem. (Some folks even dislocate their shoulders as they enthusiastically pat themselves on the back.)

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

In the fellowship one often encounters newly sober individuals who express disappointment because they are not getting the recognition they feel is appropriate. Happily, there is usually an old-timer nearby to ask them why they expect praise for doing what they should have been doing all along.

“Entitlement is a fraudulent concept. We are none of us entitled to anything. Even that next breath you crave is a gift.” Taz Mopula

Whether it’s mental illness you battle, or addiction – or, as is the case for so many of us, both – it pays to remember that you are doing it for yourself. You are changing, the people around you may not be, worse still, they may be heavily invested in having things stay just as they’ve always been.

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

They may love you as a loser and fear, even despise, you as a winner. It is not unknown for friends and family members to actively undermine recovery, or at the very least, attempt to belittle, or negate, it. Do not judge your progress according to the presence or absence of brass bands.

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

Nocturnal Missions And Disappearing Acts

Moonlit Tours Cover

In 1976 I returned to Philadelphia after three years in Louisville where I worked for a newspaper and got an advanced degree. (I discovered later that an M.A. in creative writing virtually assures unemployability.) My mother had died, my father had taken up with a student of his, and I was well into a prolonged clinical depression. I had no family, no job prospects, and more importantly, no will; so I got a job as a cab driver.

There was an existential purity to that job; it was sublimely meaningless, which was deeply appealing.

For 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, a river of unimportant people flowed through the back seat of my cab. I can honestly say I didn’t care about them at all. Some were beautiful, some were ugly, some were entertaining, some were annoying – it didn’t make a difference. They all had one thing in common, the only important thing; they needed to go somewhere and they were willing to give me money if I took them.

One fine spring morning I was dispatched to a Pennsylvania State Liquor Store where I was to collect a fare and proceed to The Alden Park Manor, a stately red brick apartment complex abutting Fairmount Park. I pulled up to the curb and there, holding a brown paper bag and waiting patiently, was an attractive, middle-aged black woman with a wooden leg. (She was wearing a skirt and no stockings; the device was in plain sight.) Neatly dressed and perhaps a bit too thin to be healthy, she looked road-weary and yet oddly serene.

It was a short drive and conversation was minimal. She leaned forward to pay me and whispered.

“Would you like to come upstairs?”
“I really should be going.”
“I’ll give you a drink.” She wiggled the brown paper bag.
“Thanks a lot, but, I can’t drink on the job.”
“I’ll take off my leg,” her voice danced musically, “you can have a look.”
“Um. Well. Well. Um.” I simply could not think of anything appropriate to say.
“I’ll let you touch my stump.” Her smile was warm and generous.
“Yeah, I really do have to go.”
“I’ll pay you, I’ll give you $20.”
“That’s all right, thanks all the same.”
“The other drivers like it.” This was offered with a whiff of bitterness. She opened the door and got out.

I had been living in depression for a very long time, my own pain had become alpha and omega. For that instant she had forced me out of my prison and into hers. I felt the wreckage, the doom, the longing – the strange hunger that would cause a person to abandon all shame and propriety in order to be fed.

The world is larger than you know, I thought to myself.

To Order Moonlit Tours – my dark, comedic novel – Click HERE

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.

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.