Thursday, December 30, 2010

Memories of Dad: The Bedtime Story

My father was a gifted storyteller. If I was good he would tell me one at bedtime. My favorite concerned a troop ship anchored in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy. This is how it went.

He and his men were asleep; it was late at night and silent. (My dad fought through the entirety of WWII, he was a Major in the British Army and commanded the 2nd Parachute Squadron of Royal Engineers.) Suddenly they were awoken by a horrific explosion that caused the ship to burst into flames, throwing shrapnel in every direction. He painted a picture of the madness in glowing detail, terrified men racing to get on deck before the ship sank, men torn open by flying bits of debris, screaming men whose clothes were ablaze, men leaping overboard into the cold water.

He described jumping into the sea and watching as the ship became engulfed in red, yellow, orange, blue, black and white until, in short minutes, everyone on it was dead. Then, he turned his gaze to the dark water around him, looking for anything he could use to stay afloat. Doing so he noticed a fellow soldier flailing his arms wildly and screaming desperately for help. My dad swam to him and gripped his collar, hoping to keep the man’s mouth above water level.

But – (my dad always slowed down for this part and went sotto voce) – what he hadn’t counted on was that the man did not know how to swim and was in a state of irrational, hysterical fear. Madly, desperately, the man grabbed onto my father as if he were mere flotsam, and in so doing began pulling the both of them, by now entwined like doomed serpents, below the water.

At this point, my dad confessed, it was his turn to panic. He understood there was no saving this man, and attempting to do so would simply bump the body count from one to two. He described the complex moral soul searching that occurred in mere seconds before he bit the man’s fingers in order to break the death grip, finally separating the two of them. A few strong kicks got him far enough away to be safe; he watched the man’s hands churn water until at last he fell to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea and into an unmarked grave.

Then my dad would gently brush the hair off my forehead and whisper, “The best way to help the dead is by not being one of them.”


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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Be Your Own Best Friend – It’s More Convenient!

As the year wheezes to a close it is mete and just to tip one’s chapeau in the direction of what’s occurred and speculate about what’s to be doobee doobee do. For me, no backwards glance would be complete without a hearty vote of thanks to the inimitable Taz Mopula who has provided me with so much wit and wisdom. Indeed, starting this blog would have been unthinkable without his pithy, provocative, and prolific postulates.

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

In the church basements we say that – those who do not drop to their knees voluntarily will surely be knocked to their knees. They also point out that pride leads the parade referred to as The Seven Deadly Sins.

The following is an excerpt from WASHED UP, my deliciously wicked deconstruction of alcoholism, recovery, and spiritual evolution.

The following day was exquisite. It was Sunday and June was showing off. The region was swarming with activity. Houses of worship inhaled congregations and blew them back onto the pavement. Neighborhood parks were infused with random energy, basketball, baseball, children chasing Frisbees and squealing with unqualified pleasure. Well-dressed joggers methodically puffed, patiently outrunning their concerns. But towering over everything else was the enterprise referred to as chores. Gardening, cleaning, pruning trees, scraping, sanding, and painting. People who earned in an hour what a laborer made in a day put on the grubbiest clothes they could find, grunted and groaned like professional wrestlers and worked up an honest sweat. The steady beat of hammers, groaning of drills and the high-pitched whining of circular saws melded into one long, continuous sound, a symphony of suburbia.
The Stillwater residence was very old, Provençal, and fashioned from stone. It had grandeur in abundance but was short on care. The tall French windows with their leaded frames had a habit of rusting at the hinges. The cobblestone driveway, seemingly designed for the imminent arrival of a princess by carriage, heaved and shifted every winter as water seeped between the cubes, froze, expanded, and widened the fissures. The slate roof was beautiful but leaky, the chimney was cracking like a well-worn shoe, and the swimming pool had taken on a life of its own. From its setting on a rather steep embankment it was gradually beginning to migrate, or, to put it more precisely, part of it was heading west, leaving the remainder to fend for itself. The result was a highly impressive crack that rendered the pool less than watertight. If the progress of the crack continued unabated, it wouldn’t be long before the pool’s outer half slid into the neighbor’s yard.
Danni was very much a Styckney at heart, daddy’s little girl. She understood that every single one of these faults could be remedied by sturdy wee workers. This idea was abhorrent to her. Regardless of how rich she actually was, and she wasn’t even sure exactly, she detested the idea of burning money up simply because it was possible. The way that she explained it was pure CS: “I’d rather give it all to charity than watch it disappear down the drain.” Her philosophy extended further. Why would you hire somebody else if you can do the job yourself? Work was good for the soul, she thought, noble and virtuous. Good for the body, too, for that matter. She was staggeringly unsuccessful in selling this philosophy to Ned. He seemed to be committed to the principle that in order to make certain a thing is never done, one must first put it off until tomorrow.
Ned devoted vast amounts of energy, time, and imagination to avoiding even the simplest of tasks. For weeks Danni had been pleading with him to pay some attention to the door. It wouldn’t close correctly and it couldn’t be locked. Instead of grabbing onto the problem, Ned was thinking of a poem. He hadn’t started writing it yet, of course, but he was certainly considering it. After Ned developed an idea, he jotted down some notes on a napkin, then he stuffed the napkin into a drawer. Finishing a poem might lead to someone seeing it and then he’d be judged on the results! This grisly prospect kept the napkins in the drawer. If anybody, anywhere, referred to his work as anything less than superb, the result would be an absolute catastrophe. If they described it as lousy he’d be ruined for life. If they called it mediocre he would hang himself. These were the risks of going to the public. But when it came to thinking of a poem, considering how it might go, Ned wasn’t merely at the top of the heap. Ned was in a league of his own.
The subject of the poem was the seven deadly sins. With a gift for discovering significance where there was none to be had, Ned had observed that the number of sins was equal to the number of days in a week. A previous observation, that the number of disciples matched the number of months, was discarded early on in the process because of the apparently insoluble challenge of finding a good home for Judas. Ned felt certain that his deadly sin idea would prove to be a more productive vein. The protagonist committed all seven sins in the span of only seven days. Then he imagined the sequence of the sins, lined up in ascending intensity, ending with a glorious damnation. After quite a bit of time thinking about it, time he could have spent repairing the door, he settled on a sequence with which he was satisfied. Sunday: sloth, primeval man, wallowing in the swamp. Monday: gluttony, bestial man awakes, conscious of his basest appetite. With Tuesday comes awareness of others, and hunger for what they possess. Wednesday: envy, corruption expands as desire turns into resentment. Thursday: lust, nostrils flare, madness, shrieks of domination. Friday: pride and separation, the man regards the world with disdain and contempt. Saturday: anger, bloodshed, he believes that he’s entitled to everything he sees, everything he desires. When denied, he replies with furious vengeance; death is his pleasure and his reward.
Ned enjoyed the elegant compression, a highway to eternal damnation. Briefly he considered damnation itself, a concept that meant little to him. Eternal damnation, Ned believed, would be listening to Barbra Streisand performing a medley of her favorite songs written by Andrew Lloyd Weber. He tried to recollect an old expression: In hell, the engineers are Italian, all the greatest chefs are from Britain, opera is composed exclusively by Germans, and comedians are shuttled in from Switzerland. The doctrine he adhered to had been learned at the feet of the jazz musicians he worshipped. “Hell’s here on earth,” they were fond of repeating, “it can only get better after this.” These artists paid dearly for their cynicism, compelled by their profession as they were to routinely encounter nightclub owners and recording company executives.
Ned’s cynicism was different; it was borrowed rather than earned. He was owned by Danni and her father, a velvet prison cell he’d constructed for himself. His complaining was relentlessly inventive; no matter what the problem was, it wasn’t his fault. In fantasies he remedied his deep dissatisfaction by carefully eliminating Danni. This didn’t mean he didn’t love her; he did, in his own peculiar way. He loved the idea of loving her. Danni was everything: beautiful, cultured, rich, and good to him. But that didn’t make enough of a difference. Ned didn’t truly love anyone, including himself. He dreamt of killing Danni for reasons of expedience. Without her in the picture, he could stash the twins in boarding school and go to Paris where he belonged, play a horn as cool as Chet Baker, write pugilistic prose like Papa Hemingway, and dabble in a glamorous lifestyle that might include a heroin habit and knock-down-drag-out fights with alcohol. He could see it all so clearly that he almost ached. How handsome and dissolute he’d look; hip, scrufty, cavalier. Art required very great sacrifices, and as long as others made them, it was okay with Ned. Guns, knives, crescent wrenches, all of them were out of the question. Obvious, messy; most of all, outré. Pills were an attractive alternative but Ned preferred the purity of drowning. There was something fine and mythical about it. Water is the source of our living, he thought; we’re actually made out of water. Water is the essence and the origin of life; death by drowning would be Danni’s voyage home. Keeping her submerged for a couple of minutes wouldn’t be a problem at all, no screaming, no blood, no evidence. Danni would look marvelous under water; long red hair fanned out like a mermaid. Disposing of the body would be quite another story. God, thought Ned, really, everything is so much trouble! He studied the defective door carefully and determined it did not require mending. It was functional, after a fashion, and burglary was very unlikely. He tested its utility by entering the house, went to the living room, dug out something tasty by Lester Young and threw his body onto the couch.


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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

You Can Always Tell A Harvard Man

“You can always tell a Harvard man; but you can’t tell him much.”

In the program they like to ask, “Would you rather be right, or happy?” It’s a profound question.

(Believe it or not I actually know a person who chose right; which is to say, wrong, i.e. incorrectly, or at the very least, stupidly.)

All you need to know about the Harvard man is that he is always right; especially when he is wrong. But I put this question to him, “Which is more important, being right, or making certain everyone knows you are?”

Insecurity takes all forms, and namedropping is an especially unattractive one. My father, a Harvard man, taught me well. For example, I recall the time when B.B. King, Jasper Johns, President G.H.W. Bush, and I were having lunch at the White House – along with a few other people I can’t remember right now. (The lunch, by the way, was good.) In some respects it resembled the time I sat in my dad’s office at The University of Pennsylvania and watched in stunned disbelief as Poet Laureate Howard Nemerov downed an entire pitcher of martinis in less than 2 minutes.

These are both interesting stories, but not the way I told them here. Here they are merely a shabby attempt to make myself appear to be more interesting and credible than I actually am by basking in the reflected glow of well known, accomplished people. It is a rather heavy-handed form of bullying, really.

One would imagine that accomplishment and confidence would render such desperate, revolting behavior déclassé but nothing could be further from the case. Indeed, for the Harvard man being right is a drug and, like a drug, the more he gets the more he needs. Namedropping is a quick, cheap, and shameless way to remind listeners he is superior and cannot be questioned.

I do not mean to imply that Harvard graduates are necessarily narcissistic, insecure idiots. However, it fascinates me how hubris and ego can render gifted individuals indistinguishable from idiots, prisoners of their self-image.


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Monday, December 27, 2010

Irony Overload

Picture a glorious living room on Christmas Day. Magnificent high ceiling, cozy fire, exquisite tree, vast windows overlooking thick woods. Now imagine it filled with various members of an extended, albeit cattywhumpus, family, many of whom have not seen each other for a year or more.

Now imagine that any conversation taking place is a tossed-off afterthought; the primary occupation of nearly all inhabitants is cell phone manipulation.

Now, to me, talking on or playing with a phone while in the presence of another person is rude beyond imagination. To be fair, my parents were both from Europe and very opinionated on this subject, consequently I have an old-fashioned sense of good-manners, propriety, and behavior predicated on respect for self and others. I am no longer surprised to watch civility slip into the mist where it can comfortably join the dodo. So, while I find the incivility appalling, I am not surprised by it.

What does surprise me is the almost thundering irony. This astonishing device – no longer anything resembling a phone but rather a palm-sized communications network – has apparently robbed us of our ability to simply be – to enjoy the presence of another – savoring stillness, silence, and calm – to listen, and then, having listened and considered – to respond thoughtfully and politely.

In a word, it seems as though our need to constantly fetch and transmit information has profoundly damaged if not destroyed our ability to converse. (Once again, these people are close relatives and have not seen each other for a long time; Christmas in this case is more than a pseudo-religious shindig, it is an important opportunity to revitalize old bonds and forge new ones.)   

When I go into an AA meeting the chairman reminds all of us that cell phones must be turned off. The reason is simple, what we are doing is a matter of life and death and requires absolute concentration. (I will again quote Taz Mopula who said, “Multi-tasking is the art of doing many things badly at the same time.”)

Our obsession with gadgets has caused us to forget what many of us never went to the trouble of learning in the first place, that is – the most essential element of conversation is listening and if you are thinking about what you will say next after the other person finally shuts up you’re not listening, you’re treading water.

To simply witness the life of a loved one, to be with them, is a priceless gift that demands elimination of ego, however briefly. Hard to do that with a horrid monster in your pocket, constantly demanding attention.

Is there anybody left who still believes these little machines serve us, or is it now clear to all we serve them? 


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Thursday, December 23, 2010

Had I Known

All the gifts I could ever want or need I already have – there’s nothing important under that tree.

Had I Known

Had I known
It could be
Like this
For me
Not wretched
Not perfect
Just right
In the center
Not apart
Just a part
All that I see
Had I known
This was all
I needed

Alistair McHarg

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

It’s The Most Hideous Day Of The Year

 If you have ever hated Christmas you will be delighted by this excerpt from INVISIBLE DRIVING in which the full fury of my mania, with all its terror, intensity, rage, speed, brutality, bitterness, cruelty, and sadistic charm is brought to bear on this loveliest, and gentlest, of all holidays.

            Well let’s see to begin with Christ was a soul brother so all the black hating so called Christians can get off the fucking bus at the next stop look at the part of the world he was from who the hell do they think he looked like, Basil Rathbone?  Lawrence freakin’ Olivier?  Leslie be a good fellow and pass the bleedin’ Rothmans Howard?  Why can’t they get with the program he was olive skinned to begin with at the very least and spent most of his life outdoors soaking up the desert sun.  How irritating when reality refuses to conform to prejudice.
            And of course Christ was a Jew, Christians are people who believe in the teachings of Christ, Christ, however, was of the Jewish persuasion, why am I the only person willing to point this out?  So that means that all the anti-Semites are also invited to remove their misbegotten bottoms from the fucking bus.  A person cannot be anti-Semitic and be a Christian at the same time, this is a square circle, a thing which cannot be, by definition.  My mind understands great truths, truths which others either cannot see or refuse to see.  My mind has all the answers, is there anything you need to know?
            Can you understand the painful weight of being wise when all of those around you are blind?
            The Christ of the Bible would have been offended, not to say nauseated, nauseated, there I’ve said it anyway, by the way we celebrate his birth, an orgy of meaningless gift exchange.  He would recommend something less difficult, like buying dinner for a homeless person, or spending an evening reading to someone dying of AIDS.
            We spend one day a year celebrating the birth of Christ, the other three hundred sixty four we spend celebrating the birth of Satan.
            When Christ was born, he was in stable condition.
            According to the best scientific evidence available Christ was born in the summer we celebrate his birth in the winter because early Christians hoping to increase their popularity through the use of clever marketing co-opted existing pagan rituals focused around surviving through the cold to see another spring boy did it work.
            The Jews did not kill Christ imagine being punished for two thousand years for a crime you didn’t commit the Romans killed Christ to make things worse as if killing Christ wasn’t bad enough they didn’t even want to shrewd politicians that they were they knew a martyr was more difficult to defuse than a live hero Christ practically forced them into it.
            Ah the tender charm of Christmas carols.
            Zealots roasting in an open fire
            The Inquisitor is tearing off a nose
            Holiday songs being sung by a choir
            And soldiers are gambling for your clothes
            Everybody knows
            That’s one you won’t be hearing on the top forty real soon that’s the kind of music you can only hear on my radio station WART all reptile music all the time with no commercial interruptions.
            Let’s put the Christ back in Christmas and the Hgghhgg back in Chanukah.
            One small candle can start a fire to light the heavens there are many doors into the temple it doesn’t matter which one you enter everyone knows it but they’re just afraid to say it I know that everything I say is brilliant but sometimes I just don’t know why yet we celebrate His birthday now because it’s a gloomy time of year and we need to reaffirm the spirit of life of hope but he’s gone real gone solid gone out the door rabazibby gone checked out no forwarding address gone never to return gone and whosoever really loves Christ and wants to find him to honor him to rejoice in him shouldn’t look under a tree they should go to a prison a loony bin a ghetto a hospice or just get onto the streets and look under the blankets there by the steam vents forgetting about buying things giving things away instead to people they don’t know better still not give things away give self away as He did finding the people nobody else wants the cripples the lepers the debauched degraded decadent sinners because Christmas and money are oil and water the more people spend the less they know about Christmas God assuming there is one sent us his Son He didn’t send us a set of toy trains let’s just change the name to Giftmas and drop the pretension altogether or get with the program get real roll up our sleeves and get on with the deal.
            Let’s be brave grown up puppies and kittens and admit the horrible truth God didn’t make Man in his own image Man made God in his own image it makes so much more sense it explains so much God’s not real man’s hunger for God is real because without the conceit of believing in a God who makes sense the world is actually the chaotic cruel place it seems to be the unjust place where kindness is punished and cruelty is rewarded a place where virtue really is its own reward its lowly reward its only reward.
            Let’s expose heaven for what it actually is the greatest marketing gimmick of all time the perfectly unsubstantiatable claim can anyone prove it doesn’t exist well there you are.
            It goes like this.  One priest is talking to another.
            “We’ll take these ignorant peasants and convince them there’s a heaven.  That’ll give them something to dream about.  But, we’ll tell them that they’ll never get there if they don’t obey all the laws we give them.  We can make the rules as fuckin’ goofy as we like.  It’s gonna be great.  We can restrict their diet.  Tell them whom to marry.  Here’s a good one, we’ll get ‘em to mutilate their peckers with rusty knives!  And of course, we can get them to give us their money!  We’ll make them recite really wacky prayers and stand up and kneel down a lot.  We’ll give them a lot of shit to memorize.  We’ll convince them that they’re dirt if they don’t listen to us.  And, here’s the best part, we’ll convince them that they’re born guilty so they’ve got no chance of getting to heaven if they don’t do what we tell them.”
            Sometimes the most insane ideas work the best.


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Monday, December 20, 2010

The Best Present

They say that, for alcoholics in recovery, every morning is Christmas morning and every evening is Thanksgiving. If that sounds like a wonderful way to live, trust me, it is. We start the day delighted – even amazed – to have a day, and close it out in humble gratitude – no matter the challenges rained down upon us.

Christmas - that Winter Wonderland of Dysfunction - that Tournament of Neuroses parade - is fueled by an intense concentration of wildly unrealistic expectations arising from what we hope to get and what we believe we must deliver. Resentments fly and pressure mounts – those of us still drinking enter a hideous, toxic fog from which we emerge only after the last dreary scrap of cretinous Super Bowl commentary has been shared.

The best policy regarding gifts is – assume you will not get any - concentrate your energies on giving them routinely - with no quo on the quid's other side. (This mirrors your reality, since you receive gifts daily which are offered with no expectation of return.) One of the reasons Christmas is the most dreaded and despised time of the year is that presents – things - are expected to redeem a year of disappointment. This is a curious bit of idiocy, one wonders how it can survive.

When you give, give of yourself. As the great Taz Mopula reminds us, “That is the only present you can give that is not readily available elsewhere.” Give little gifts every day; don’t focus on one behemoth at the glittery time of year to save a lost cause.   

Flat Tire

Solitary walks through quiet neighborhoods
Me, birds, my thoughts, and the one that created
Them all, a little heaven, this particular sky
This particular breeze, the gift of now
Great swift strides up sloping streets
Chubby puffing geezer, straining hard
To sweat away the suitcase that I carry
Stuffed to nearly bursting with ham and melted cheese
Caught up by the sheer delight of serendipity
Lucky penny on the pavement, winks flirtatiously
Drop the omen in my pocket, barely skip a step
Now and then a sleepy nail arrests me
Raw and rusted, oozing malice, poised to pierce a tire
Find a safe and fitting home where it can do no harm
At my back a long parade of hurts I cannot mend
In front of me the certainty of more
But here, today, this instant, I ache for one pure thing
Perfect in its sweetness, modesty, and grace
To aid another on the way, but never call attention
And guarantee no benefit to me
Perhaps one day I’ll be content
To keep it to myself

Alistair McHarg

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Friday, December 17, 2010

You Don’t Learn By Talking

The proliferation of gizmos has caused pundits to erroneously label this the “age of communication” when nothing could be further from the truth. It is in fact the age of infantilism; pure ego fueling maniacal shrieks expressing one sentiment only – eyes on me now, I want, I am.

It is an axiom in sales that the way to get people interested in you is by being interested in them. Narcissism has advanced to the point where we are not even willing to feign interest in others. When everybody talks and nobody listens what you get is a tidal wave of pointless noise.

It has been said of Thelonious Monk that the true genius of his music lay not in the notes themselves but in the empty spaces between them. With angularity and dissonance reminiscent of Braque and Duchamps, Monk framed an entirely new landscape so, when you arrived at silent moments within his pieces they were not identical to silences in snow-covered forests at midnight, they were specific to the emotional framework he’d established.

Silence is the perfect sound, and you can only hear it if you listen very, very carefully. Like black, which contains all color, it contains all sound. If you hear nothing but the sound of blood moving through your ears you are listening to a concert by the greatest composer of all time. If you must speak, if you really are compelled to violate the silence, at least have the decency to make it matter. You will never learn anything by talking, you learn by listening. A million babies screaming simultaneously is not communication in any sense of the word, it is mere cacophony. 

White Lace Handkerchief

Once, in Delft, a humble young woman
Gazed upon lush silken fabric cut square
And saw within a perfect place that
Longed to be discovered
Pointed pins like tiny arrows pierced a velvet cushion
Miniature scissors in hand, bits of thread fell like snow
Remove, reveal, loop, twist, braid, again, again, again
And so, pattern and symmetry fashioned the cloth into
A song; flourishes and trills evoking wonder and delight
But in between the sparkling notes, in silences and gaps
A small tattoo is etched upon the heart

In Amsterdam a fine lady surrendered the white handkerchief
And watched it fall into the grasp of a gentleman
Did she think of that humble young woman in Delft?
Did she know that what is unsaid speaks most clearly?

Alistair McHarg

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lunch Pail, Hard Hat, Work Boots, Time Clock

Ultimately it isn’t so complicated. Keep looking until you understand what you were put on earth to do. When you find it, cling onto it like cold on ice. Never confuse your will with God’s will for you, remember, you don’t get to choose who you help. Just show up for work on time, punch the time clock, and leave what remains for the critics. It’s all here, in the poem. Let’s just say I dreamed of being Keith Jarrett and became Sun Ra instead.

Last Call

Waitresses who all come from
The island of lost blondes
Move with purpose in between the tables
Starched white blouses, tightly pegged
Recommend their youth
Legs emerge from short black skirts they’re
Anxious to get off
Clink the glasses onto trays
Gather up the last requests

Lonely and heroic, burning in the spot
A man is standing still without expression
Glances briefly at the band
Time to wrap it up
They nod, and he begins
To nurse a ballad

Soft and smooth as buttermilk
Tone so lush and warm
It almost tucks the patrons into bed

A ballad soaked in sadness
Like a pear in old cognac
Joy and moonbeams
Love and loss, sweetness laced
With zest

A ballad they take with them
As they go back to their homes
Like a pair of woolen mittens
For the winter

A ballad that seduces them
And loves them without question
Like a friend who lifts them up
And asks for nothing in return

A ballad built to make them glad
To cry a little bit
Bite their lips and crinkle up
The corners of their mouths
Draw their lovers closer for a kiss
They won’t forget

The crooning troubadour was who
I always dreamt of being
But fate threw different cards
Into my hand

I was singled out to be
The ashes in your soup
The wooden leg
Your father dances on

I was singled out to be
The pile of burning tires
Beneath the rainbow’s end

Alistair McHarg

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Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No Good Dude Goes Unpunished

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.

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 is an angry mob. It seems beastly unkind, especially after the hard work, but before you start nursing a grudge (p.s. no amount of nursing will ever make a grudge healthy) 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.

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.

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? 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.

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, yearning to eat cheese. Fellow insiders know better, they know that all of us are merely Bozos on the bus, but that is another story.

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.

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. 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.  


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Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Best Christmas Concert – 30th Street Station

I learned how to read and perform choral music a cappella in the damp, chilly basement of St. Martin in the Fields, a swank Episcopal Church in Chestnut Hill, Philadelphia. Without flogging an ailing nag let’s just say that St. Martins is adjacent to the grass tennis courts of The Philadelphia Cricket Club about which, the less said…Ironically, I returned to St. Martins decades later for an AA meeting, indeed, many of “the rooms” are located in the glamourless confines of church basements. But, as ever, I am ahead of myself.

The Choir Master was an intense, closeted homosexual who lived at home with his mother and brother, a countertenor. (His brother’s solos caused us discomfort and wonder.) Mr. Wilkinson was a driven, obsessive perfectionist; he whipped us into shape mercilessly, like a man whipping a rented mule. Because this was a boy’s choir, featuring the pristine, clear sound of male voices not yet cracked by the oncoming deluge of what is laughingly referred to as adulthood, we were all roughly the same age, in the 8-12 bracket. The congregation was accustomed to getting what it wanted and it wanted high-end music. Wilkinson delivered.

We practiced 3 evenings weekly and before service on Sunday. We were paid regularly, in pay envelopes, and got perks like presents and stints at summer camp. In other words, even though we were wisenheimer punks our approach to the music was dispassionately professional – we were not merely tight, we were kettledrum tight.

In that basement I learned music, performance, and Christmas. Ever since those days, really good authentic Christmas music has been my favorite part of the season, for many years it was the only part I could stomach.

The following excerpt from INVISIBLE DRIVING recounts my most memorable Christmas concert ever; I played 30th Street Station in Philadelphia. When I say I “played” 30th Street Station what I mean is; I played 30th Street Station.

            I felt like walking so I parked my car in the lot next to 30th Street Station.  Thirtieth Street Station is an enormous Greek style train station that stands next to an elaborate yard handling freight trains, local trains, and long distance passenger trains.  It’s a conduit for all North/South train travel.  The station recalls a day when great power was based on rail transportation, before cars took over.  But I’m not here to talk about what the station can recall, I’m talking about what I recall.  It’s a massive building with a main hall as large as a football field and a ceiling that’s a hundred feet overhead.  I remember as a child arriving in the station, climbing up the stairs from the train into the great hall, and feeling as though I was outside, the ceiling seemed that remote.  On a whim I walked into the hall.  There were early rising, upwardly mobile businesspeople swirling about, drinking coffee, reading the Wall Street Journal and licking boots just to keep in practice.  Waiting for trains to New York and D.C.  I looked up at the ceiling, puckered, and blew a note.  It rang out in the hall, echoing off the marble, taking forever to decay.
            Some things decay quite quickly, western civilization for example, but the note decayed slowly.  I whistled the same note twice, two short blasts.  Full bore, lots of volume, nicely amplified by the enormous hall.  I drifted into a rousing rendition of “Ding, dong merrily on high.”  Walked around the room and tested the acoustics from different angles.  People were starting to eye me curiously but hey, was that going to bother me?  I found that it actually took so long for the sound to die that I could use the echo as a base and whistle on top of it.  Now I was doing the carol as a round, using the echo as a second voice.  I found this highly amusing, simply droll, just too too funny, trés amusante, and tried it out with several carols.  God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.  Good King Wenceslas.  Joy to the World.  The music intoxicated me.  People were eyeing me suspiciously, as if to say, it’s awfully early in the morning to be so cheerful, what’s wrong with this picture?  I Saw Three Ships.  I was wailing now.
            I kept walking around the room as I performed, harder to hit a moving target.  I knew that sooner or later some long-suffering lowly hod carrier, some factotum, some dolt, some running dog lackey of the petite bourgeoisie would tell me to put a lid on it.  Away In A Manger.  To amuse myself I tried different tones and different speeds.  With turbocharged intensity I whistled as fast as I could.  Then I hit on something that gassed me.  Boparoopie.  The speed made it possible to hang notes in the air long enough to lay another melody on top of them.  So I started whistling discordant pairs of carols.
            First a phrase from Joy To The World.  Then, with those notes floating above the heads of my unsuspecting and defenseless audience like angels with erections, (I should point out that it was the notes that bore a resemblance to angels with erections, not my audience, my audience bore a resemblance to alien zombies just back from a shopping trip to John Wanamaker’s), a phrase from Good King Wenceslas.  Back and forth.  It took some puckering but I was getting such a jolt from it that I just kept going.  An impromptu, improbable, Christmas happening in your face you whitebread corn pone brain dead blockhead.  Something to tell your better half tonight.  This guy, he was whistling two Christmas carols at the same time, it was weird.  Rahsaan Roland Kirk, this is my Christmas present to you.  A tribute to the immensity of your spirit.  A little duty-free gift for the traveler.  Roland Kirk, God rest his soul, should there be one, and if there is, fuck you pal, I’m tired of carrying water, do you hear me, was a wonderful jazz musician who, among other amazing feats too numerous to go into here, although I’m tempted, often played two saxophones at the same time.
            When I hit the end of my number, lightheaded from the expenditure of breath, I headed for the door.  I scanned the faces for responses.  Some grins, mostly from the souls living closer to the cliffs.  Some scowls.  If they can’t take a joke, throw them the hell off the bus.  Some good old-fashioned confusion, what does it mean?  But I felt good.  I knew I’d nailed it to the wall.  Alistair’s extra-normal tribute to Christmas.  Alistair, the man who plays flute, saxophone and train station.  I hit the door without any slatch, no stationmaster’s condemnation.  A perfectly executed piece of performance art.  Out the door he goes.


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Monday, December 13, 2010

Intellectual Discipline, Unicorns and Spats

One is gone, one never was, and one is facing extinction.

I had a boss who told me, “Alistair you are a true Sophist.” This was something of a left-handed compliment. As an ad copywriter my ability to argue any side of a point convincingly serves me well. Indeed, I am so skilled in this I can convince a person that is right he is wrong, even though, in his heart of hearts he knows he is right and understands also that I know he’s right. The power to communicate is also the power to deceive. When truth itself becomes slippery one can lose one’s moral center.

In an important sense, we believe today that he who brays loudest is right. On the net everything is true and all information, regardless of source, has the same weight. Evidence supporting any point, no matter how ludicrous, is readily available; our ability to fashion, present and defend a case is weakening like an abandoned muscle. Intellectual slovenliness, a despicable quality, is rampant while intellectual discipline is nearly unknown. This is a terrible problem because we race to truth most quickly when keen, well-tuned minds pursue it, placing intellectual honesty above domination. 

People interested in finding the truth are rare. Those who do must rely upon their own minds, which, ironically, are perfectly configured to stand in their way. Frankly, the most difficult part of the process is not learning new things; it is unlearning old ones. We all carry around an astounding amount of baggage that actively interferes with our quest for truth. Relentless labor gets us closer until we realize that the best we can ever hope for is reaching our own personal truth, what we understand to be real after we have stripped away all ignorance.

If you meet someone who actively practices intellectual discipline and refuses to lapse into slovenly habits – a person that speaks and acts in good faith – you have met an individual worth emulating. If you meet someone who claims certain knowledge of universal truth, ask him to describe what it feels like to ride a unicorn.


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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Strike The Prose!

This poem breaks a few personal rules – for one – poetry about poetry – i.e. – art that is about art – is verboten. Also, sarcasm – always unattractive – is especially unwelcome in poetry. However, it needed to be done.

With the best art, people recognize themselves, and see themselves in new ways. – However, nobody reads this poem and thinks – “Wow, that’s me!” – but they do recognize others, especially people they do not admire.

Title Goes Here

Pithy, evocative detail
Surprisingly described
Unrelated detail
That offers a whiff of malice
Obscure, exotic place name
Female body part
Usually not seen in public
Fin de siecle ennui
Self-indulgent posing
Hipness that is positively painful 
She left him
What a shocker
Considering he’s so cool and all
Something that shows us how cool he is
Perhaps a tattoo on his shoulder
All the words to Louie, Louie
Written in ancient Greek
Bring it all home
With impact
A close
That delivers the payload
And stops on a dime

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Terrible Tyranny of Omniscience

I have spent much of my life among people suffering at the hands of a terrible tyranny, the illusion of omniscience. The curse of alleged omniscience causes them to believe something totally insane, that they are smarter and more knowledgeable than everyone else and consequently, always right. Somewhere along the line these people cross a river; the joy of learning and knowing is supplanted by an aggressive need to demonstrate their all-encompassing knowledge to others – knowledge, for them, is a blunt instrument.

It is hard to calculate precisely what this idiocy costs these unfortunates. For one, their knees buckle under the weight of their own hubris. Also, convinced of their omniscience they are incapable of learning. Arrogance born of insecurity drives away even the nearest and dearest, since narcissism is also part of their profile. They are like addicts except that it is the illusion of superiority that, monster-like, rules behavior by means of its insatiable appetite.

Why am I such an expert on the subject? I studied at the feet of such an individual and became a reasonable facsimile thereof. This poem charts my evolution out of the ooze and into the light. As ever, the mantra is – less quantity, more quality.

Thunder Bugs

When I woke
A doctor spanked my bottom
Offended, I slapped him in the face
At two, I wore a three-piece suit
With tie and matching hankie
Watching and observing
Through a magnifying glass
Scratching my notations in a binder
Understanding everything there was
To understand
Magic was the business of
A misdirecting hand
Form itself existed to be bent unto my will
My will, I want, I want, I will control my universe

Time evaporated
Like a puddle in the sun
Each year as it passes finds me younger
Every time I take a train
The porters lose my luggage
And so, I tread upon the earth
More lightly, with more care
Burglars, vagabonds, and thieves
Break into my home
Leaving strange and lovely gifts
More precious than their swag

Now the tyranny of knowing
Feels a little silly
Soon I will think rarely, if at all
Except perhaps when I go out
Onto the grass at evening
In summertime, when days
Are lush and soothing
To watch the waves of lightning bugs
Rise from the lawn like embers
And wonder where the thunder bugs
Have gone

Alistair McHarg

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Friday, December 10, 2010

It’s The Hope That Kills You

I am essentially apolitical since I trust politicians about as much as I trust priests, prostitutes, and used car salesmen. But, I live in faith today, and occasionally that faith morphs into hope. (This is bad because it is acceptance, not hope, that assures peace of mind.) As John Cleese says in the movie Clockwise, “It’s not the despair, I can handle the despair; it’s the hope I can’t stand.”

I have strong feelings about the relationship between art and propaganda. Art must reveal truth, propaganda reveals and promotes an agenda; it is political advertising, which is to say, it uses the tools of art to lie. So, when I was asked to write a “protest poem” during the 1st Desert Storm, I initially resisted. In the end, I did write one, attempting to stay in the universal and out of the particular. It might have been entitled Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Chose, but that would have been affected, even for me.

Politicians are the ultimate cynics, believing in nothing but the emptiness of their pockets. And yet, their stock and trade is pretending to have beliefs, thus, they behave as though they do. This elaborate, disingenuous dance causes them to put adherence to purported beliefs before actual utility and so, like clergy, they become far more dangerous than garden-variety criminals.

Forward March

Femur in a furry hand
At the end of a stick
Dagger that slips
Through muscle
Like a spy slips
Through enemy lines
Suits of steel
Fit for a prince
Rifle, bullet
Silver fortress
High above

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Truth Is…Unwelcome

The truth is we are born into a world of pain and devote most our brief existence to satisfying base needs. Over time we are damaged, diminished, and ultimately destroyed. Instead of coexisting peacefully with the earth and each other our best energies are consumed by hatred, fear, violence, greed, and self-destruction.

We abhor truth and love lies. Lies are the air we breathe, the earth we tread upon, the foundations of our buildings. Most are so deeply ingrained we no longer even think of them as lies, indeed, we no longer think at all. Politicians, priests, and corporate representatives spoon-feed lies to the masses because people want to be lied to; lies win elections, build cathedrals, and sell soap.

This is human nature, and I am not so foolish as to attempt a modification of that. However, I will frame it in a context of recovery, because, for the likes of us, recognizing and facing truth can be a matter of life or death.

Lunatics, wing nuts, and whackos – like me – are incapable of distinguishing reality from fantasy. We don’t want to live in an abandoned funhouse full of wavy mirrors misrepresenting reality; we just can’t help it. Dipsomaniacs, drug addicts, and adrenaline junkies – like me – are capable of distinguishing reality from fantasy, but we steadfastly refuse to try. No one hates truth quite as passionately as we do, and when it comes to lying, well; we are the masters.

Mental health involves a long, arduous process that begins by identifying the truth about yourself. This is followed by a hard look at where you are, where you would like to be, and what it will take to get there. Brutal, often painful, honesty is an absolute requisite for this journey. For many of us, living a life of constant self-examination and ruthless honesty is rather like learning a new language. But, we tend to be determined, sometimes obsessive, people and what was once anathema can become a familiar, valued way of life. The benefits of rigorous honesty are everywhere, so we grow to love it.

Then, we get a horrible surprise. Mental illness and addiction have already marginalized us, we have always lived on the outskirts of town. But our newfound commitment to honesty and truth has put us in a ghetto on the outskirts of the outskirts of town. Remember, you have changed but the world has not. You have benefited from merciless self-evaluation and willingness to address your faults, but the world has not. Your modus operandi has changed, but take it from me, truth is just as unpopular on the outside as it has ever been.

Enjoy the quiet satisfaction and peace of mind it affords you, but, as ever, your ticker tape parade has been canceled.


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