Fred Astaire On Ice

thin ice

Having an unusual name is downright aggravating if you’re the type of person who wants nothing more than to skate through life unnoticed. In Scotland, Alistair is popular (Gaelic for Alexander), but on the unforgiving playgrounds of America it’s virtually unknown. I have grown accustomed to spelling it repeatedly, and even providing pronunciation tips. The most successful of these is pointing out that it rhymes with Fred Astaire.

Astaire was known for his elegant, fluid style; gliding through densely populated art deco sets like a bird. In stark contrast, when it comes to dancing I am two leftover feet. However, growing into a reasonable facsimile of adulthood I too developed a terpsichorean signature – dancing through human relationships without ever touching or connecting. Shark-like, I had to keep moving forward to survive and, also shark-like, I consumed pretty much everything I encountered.

Suffering in the shadow of a larger-than-life father who neutralized anyone reckless enough to compete with him, I aimed low. The atmosphere of fierce, unforgiving intensity and extreme achievement threw a warm, appealing glow onto failure, which beckoned like a welcoming friend.

Understand; I had no appetite for magnificent, fearless failure, far from it. I was drifting towards the quiet desperation Thoreau described as though it was a beach resort.

For many people, life has a rather linear quality. Certainly there are peaks and valleys; moments of triumph interspersed with difficult, challenging episodes. But overall, life is of one piece; there is a philosophy, a rational context, driving it inexorably forward. That, and only that, is what I longed for, safety in the comfort of reason!

Other lives contain a terrible moment of clarity when, either through the auspices of a transformational event, or a revelation of insight, you understand fully that you will not have the life you craved.

For me, this moment did not occur at 20 as I sat in a German prison cell after being pinched at the Austrian border with a kilo of Afghani hashish.

Nor did it occur to me at 26 as I lay in a hospital bed with dozens of stitches in my face, having been beaten and left for dead one winter night after roaming the desolate streets alone on a drunken jag, stewing in depression and rage.

It didn’t even dawn on me at 36 when, divorced and penniless, I wondered why I’d been fired from two corporate jobs in just six months.

My inability to face the inevitable fueled astonishing powers of denial. Despite the long succession of catastrophes I still clung to the precious fantasy of a mediocre, uneventful life where I would be spared the demands of greatness.

In 1989, after a spirited round of fisticuffs with two large police officers who ultimately managed to subdue me, I sat silently as the cruiser approached Norristown State Mental Hospital. At that moment I realized there was no chance of leading a quiet, bland life – and wisdom meant surrendering to the life I was actually living. There was no dancing out of this one.

Fearing Fate

Some Born To Greatness Some Flee It Unsucessfully

Fate is a concept that has fallen from fashion; like honor, morality, and manners. We think of fate as akin to voodoo, primitive twaddle embraced by simple, unsophisticated people. Surrounded by our gadgets, the much-loved amulets and totems of today, we imagine ourselves swimming in free will, shaping our very reality as we go, bending life itself to our wishes. This, of course, is fatuous delusion, the product of our misguided belief that technology will cure the human flaws that have dogged our every step for millennia.

In fact, we are well past the master/slave tipping point and it has become impossible for any serious student of modern life to suggest with a straight face that these machines serve us; our habits and behaviors have simply become grist for the mill they own and operate.

We are the raw material; they are the plantation owners. Candidly, you will have to search far and wide in our society for anything resembling freedom and free will; as was the case in post-bellum America, “volunteered slavery” results when the terrible face of freedom rears its ugly head, we race back to the comfort of shackles, all of us.

Mental illness introduced me to freedom, real freedom, the freedom one experiences wandering alone in the desert at night, pursued by jackals. It is every bit as terrifying and exhilarating as you think it is. But today, now, I am more interested in fate, that force we imagine we’ve outgrown.

I suggest that the only people who would deny the existence of fate are those who have never tried to disobey its merciless judgment, those of us who have never tried to swim upstream, those among us who have never put forth the unpopular, contrarian position just because someone needed to do it and no one else, apparently, had the moxie.

Because, friends, you flee fate at your peril; hide from fate and you enter the old testament world, you get smote with a two-by-four.

Let’s paraphrase Shakespeare. “In my stars I am above thee; but be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some are beaten like rented mules and stepchildren until they finally get a little humility, to say nothing of a clue, and start doing what they’re supposed to do.”

Greatness lurks on both sides of my family tree like a meretricious monster, smiling its disingenuous smile, lying without even saying a word. As a child I did worship it, like other people, but became more conscious of its horrors than its delights, and soon fell into the familiar pattern of fleeing into escape in its myriad forms, drugs, alcohol, mania and depression, indulging hedonistic appetites, the adrenaline rush of reckless thrill seeking, etcetera.

What comes of wrestling with one’s fate, hiding from it, denying it, is simple – and recognizable from far away – you see a man losing a war with himself, a man who has become his worst enemy, a man self-administering the death of 1,000 cuts.

In 1990 I wrote the first draft of my bipolar memoir, Invisible Driving. In the course of doing so I had to confront some hideous realities.

First, of course, came the shame and disgrace of being less than, inferior, crazy. Then there was the ragged history of escape into intoxicants. Worse still was a long string of unpalatable attributes, cowardice, arrogance, entitlement, narcissism and elitism among them.

But, as I slaved to do the impossible, that is, put readers into the unimaginably foreign world of mania, something even more horrible appeared, a quality I’d feared yet always secretly wondered about; greatness.

Once you have done something absolutely new, something clearly impossible, you cannot pretend you haven’t. You know. And if you know, and you fail to act on that knowledge, you are far worse than a slacker – you are too much of a coward to be yourself.

We are put here to love one another, to care for one another. When we don’t, we fuck with fate, and the sickness begins. There are a million ways to be great.

If greatness is your fate, do not flee it; but remember it’s the gift that keeps on taking.” Taz Mopula