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.