Friday, March 25, 2011

Lunch With B.B. King At The White House

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 an entertaining recounting of this tale CLICK HERE). 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.

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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Have Issues – Will Travel

When my daughter was born I wanted the safest ride available, so I purchased the first of my five Volvos, the only new car I’ve ever owned. (That car would later be immortalized in my bipolar memoir, Invisible Driving, click HERE learn more.) 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.”

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Rage, Horses & Impulse Control

Bipolar, alcoholic, and fathered by a maniacal rage-a-holic, I have been slow coming to terms with my inability to process anger in a healthy way. Whether directed inwards or out, white-hot fury is toxic for my ilk, and the source of much suffering. My program for dipsomaniacal misfits has done wonders on this score, over the past decade I have extinguished much of the fire that used to smolder within. Recently I was reminded of an episode from the old days that illustrates the hazards of irritability and insufficient impulse control.

In the early 1970s I lived briefly in Kentucky, working for the Louisville Courier Journal & Times. There I made the acquaintance of a U of P graduate we’ll call Nigel Frampton. Nigel was living on his grandmother’s farm in Shelbyville, a modest affair of several hundred acres where he grew tobacco, raised Simmental cattle, drank bourbon, and smoked pot. Technically the property qualified as a “gentleman’s farm” – meaning laborers did all the work while Nigel occupied the main building, built in 1807 and packed with exquisite antiques, behaving in a way which was anything but gentlemanly, while his grandmother visited friends in Virginia.

Nigel was a charming, highly intelligent individual who wrestled with anger and impulse control. One fine Saturday in spring I went for a visit and found him in the barn with a mutual friend, Ronald Reginald Van Stockum III, who we referred to as Reggie. The two of them were attempting to saddle Sergeant, Nigel’s most belligerent, stubborn horse. Reggie faced Sargent while Nigel stood next to the massive beast’s left front leg, attempting to adjust the bit.

The battle for supremacy escalated; Sargent was steadfastly uncooperative causing Nigel to grow increasingly enflamed and ill tempered. At last, Sergeant reared up his leg and planted it squarely on Nigel’s foot; prompting a horrified scream sufficient to startle all four of us. Then silence, a frozen tableau on a lovely Kentucky farm in spring; lasting just an instant.

“Motherfucker!” yelled Nigel in automatic fury. All instinct, rage, and righteous indignation he balled his fist and punched Sergeant in the shoulder as hard as he possibly could. Sergeant was a solid mass of muscle so the blow had no effect at all, you might have thought a fly had landed on his shoulder judging by the lack of response.

“Motherfucker!” Nigel screamed again, confronting the full horror of this self-inflicted injury for the first time and pressing his damaged hand between his knees. (Later we discover that, while there were no injuries to his foot, he’d succeed in breaking many of the bones in his hand.)

Reggie and I, to our eternal discredit, laughed mercilessly.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Artists on Art: Find The Inaccurate Attribution(s)!

Ours is a slovenly age where being loudest actually trumps being right. Long before I discovered Taz Mopula, whose sage utterances so frequently grace these virtual pages, it became evident to me that misattribution of quotes had reached epidemic proportions and the day was fast approaching when Chuck E. Cheese would be getting credit for, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

In an attempt to return decorum, and intellectual good faith, to the practice of quoting exceptional people for general edification, I have gathered some profound observations on the subject of art. Your challenge is to locate the disingenuous one(s). Good luck!

“Mediocre art misrepresents reality; great art obliterates it.”  Leroy Neiman

“My fondest wish is that I have contributed nothing to the art world.”  Andy Warhol

“Fear is the motivating force behind all great art. Artists achieve greatness not because they set out to, but because they desperately fear mediocrity.” Pier Paolo Pasolini

“The great triumph of art is its purposelessness.” Salvador Dali

“Critics are to artists as cats are to fish; fascinated by their movements up to the very moment they devour them.” Pablo Picasso

“It is art, not science, that most convincingly shores up the imaginary wall allowing Man to believe he is qualitatively superior to the lower beasts; slugs for example.” Samuel Beckett

“When you find an enterprise for which there is no satisfactory category, all that remains is to call it Art.” Christo Vladimirov Javacheff

“To ensure success, always treat your audience the way you would treat a retarded baby.” Alfred Hitchcock

“In a perfect world there would be no art; it would be superfluous.” Jackson Pollock

“Paint, musical notes, and words are not the raw materials of art; the raw materials of art are fear, resentment, and free time.” Albert Camus

“Art may be best understood as the shortest distance from Point A to Point B in all cases when Point A resides in the material realm - therefore enabling it to be proscribed by sensory analysis - and Point B resides in a realm which is at once unknown and unknowable.” Jean Paul Sartre

“The artist is not compelled to earn the audience's respect; quite the contrary, it is the responsibility of the audience to erode the contempt naturally felt for it by the artist.” Richard Wagner

“The difference between lavatory attendants and art critics is that lavatory attendants provide a valuable service to society.” Rene Magritte

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Monday, March 21, 2011

Dancing With Your Bipolar Bear

One of life’s great lessons is to accept, master, and ultimately enjoy that which cannot be avoided. Chances are you already know that bipolar disorder is incurable, however, there is a vast spectrum of experience in between being a victim of the illness and living a full, productive, and happy life that includes it. Over the four decades since my first manic episode I have gone from one extreme to the other.

It is not my intention to underestimate or romanticize this rude adversary. I’ve done cracker factory time, engaged in all manner of reckless behavior, and rebuilt my ruined life over and over again. It’s a wonder I’m here at all. That said, let me urge you to hold on tight to this one bit of advice while trudging through the foreign and forbidding landscapes – embrace your bipolar bear and take it dancing.

The epigraph for my bipolar memoir, Invisible Driving, is by Rainer Marie Rilke, “Perhaps everything that is terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” Only through dealing with the illness did I come to understand myself and lose my fear of life. Learning why I was susceptible caused me to evolve in ways I never would have otherwise. Bipolar disorder has given me far more than it ever took; because of it I achieved the peace of mind and gratitude I enjoy today.

If you are new to the illness your instinct will be to deny and forget it – don’t. If you are new to recovery you may think you are “cured” and stop taking your meds – don’t. If you are early in therapy and meeting the demons responsible for your manic episodes you will want to turn away – don’t. If you feel stigma, if you feel “less than” because of the broken genes you carry – don’t.

The problem you refuse to face is the problem that will continually present itself until you do. Bipolar disorder is not a cute little foe; it is a monster you must not battle alone. Embrace it; let it teach you and guide you to places so called normal folk cannot spell, much less imagine. Befriend your bipolar bear, it is part of you, embrace it and take it dancing.

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(First appeared in Bipolar Happens

Friday, March 18, 2011

Spare A Little Pity For The Poor Lothario

To create with passion and vision is to create what one must; not what one selects. Consequently, the artist is always unintentionally revealing himself. If his exploration goes deep enough he will discover elements so basic they are commonly shared and the final product may be relevant to all, or at least understandable. Certainly it will have value for anyone interested in the artist himself.

There is a minor, unintended consequence of all this. Because the voyage of seeking is necessarily an unguarded one, the artist will, in retrospect, reveal himself to himself. This must not be the primary objective; the primary objective is to serve the audience. To this end, the truly accomplished artist never cuts corners or tries to skip past technique and craft. He also never forgets that beauty is one of the primary responsibilities of art; all great art is, among other things, decorative.

Red Velvet Smoking Jacket

Black Bugatti tunneling
Through a lane of oaks
Tires grind the gravel down
Like bones

Silver cigarette case
Throwing moonlight off
Feet that hide in crocodile
Stride on marble steps

Cloistered in the library
Warming by the fire
Watching as the gargoyles leer
And glow suggestively

In his palm a snifter made
Of glass so thin and fine
An irritated glance
Would shatter it

Failing to recall her name
Returns the tiger’s stare
Hunted down in Burma
Stuffed and mounted

Lady so and so he thinks
Perhaps the Baron’s wife
Maze of hedges, Dom Perignon
Whisper of Chanel

Baby’s breath that floated
Over sweeps of raven hair
Bustier laced snugly
Swelling of her breasts

Neck like Nefertiti
Draped in satin, lily white
Marble statue brought to life
Stockings glistening

Seized her
Had his way with her
Left her there
For dead
Pictures how
Her head would look
Protruding from his wall

Alistair McHarg

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Thursday, March 17, 2011

"The beauty destroys you, not the pain." Taz Mopula

Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) has bestowed innumerable gifts upon me; one of the most practical, and wonderful, is the ability to cry. Like so many other mundane aspects of life, I was slow to appreciate this primal activity. My parents came from cultures where the display of emotion was anathema, a grotesque admission of defeat and worse, bad form. To compound the problem, both spent their formative years in a daily battle for existence, making Stoicism utilitarian as well as philosophical. Essentially their position was; if you must experience emotions then at least have the decency to keep them to yourself.

Like so many of us, I discovered that emotions could be hidden under layer upon layer of illusion until they became invisible to all. The spontaneous, involuntary expression of feelings seemed like the province of simple, unsophisticated people. Oddly, I thought of laughter as an intellectual activity, I did not yet understand it as the mirror image of weeping.

I was wrapped so tightly with repression back then that I believed, on some subliminal level, that if, at long last, I did cry – I would never be able to stop. I was a stranger to emotion; for decades I didn’t think I had any feelings at all. But mania cracked me open and bats covered the landscape. Fear, rage, resentment, envy, shame; it was overwhelming and undeniable.

Mania can be thought of as a state of being where instinct overrules all of one’s governing forces. In this respect one sees, and feels, one’s true emotional landscape with vivid clarity, whether one wants to or not. In mania, and intense depression, one’s nerves and feelings are on the outside of one’s skin, one experiences everything intensely. How you respond is almost unimportant, what is important is that you are unable to process stimuli successfully.

The world is always the same, whether you laugh or cry is up to you – these are simply two different ways of reacting. But if you believe you feel nothing, you are kidding yourself; you are a stranger to yourself.

Everything Makes You Cry

Morning mist enveloping
Silent lake at dawn

Letter in the flowing hand
Of someone who is gone

Slow approach of
Footsteps crunching
On a gravel path

Waves of fireflies ascend
Into endless dark

Far too precious and
Lovely to endure

Everything makes you cry

Alistair McHarg

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