Monday, January 31, 2011

Riding On A Runaway Train

When manic depressives refuse to take their medicine because they fear giving up the wild surge of creativity they experience when high, this is what they are talking about. The great lie, of course, is that this is real, productive creativity. In truth it is more like riding on a runaway train, hanging on for dear life. These self-deluding individuals don’t see that the illness is controlling them, not vice versa.

The following is an excerpt from INVISIBLE DRIVING, my bipolar memoir. 

             I’m constantly picking things up.  Not valuable things.  Souvenirs.  Things that capture my attention.  Documenting where I’ve been.  Sometimes things just appeal to me and I tuck them into my pockets.  Periodically I empty my pockets onto a periodic table, a most extraordinary experience, if elementary.  The dandiest things show up.  Of course, matches from my favorite spots, the swankest watering holes in Philadelphia.  The Four Seasons.  The Bellevue.  The Barclay.  The Rittenhouse.  I especially like hotels.  Then there are the small restaurants, I’m building up quite a tour.  This is my circuit, it’s short, and highly charged.  Get it?  I’ve put myself on a talk show circuit, performing at the best restaurants and hotels in the area.  I’ve thrust myself into the spotlight, entertaining daily, nightly, constantly.
Your trash is my art.  Wire has begun to attract my eye, there’s a lot of it lying on the street, especially around construction sites.  I pick it up and start working it with my hands, usually without breaking my stride, when I do break my stride I have to put it into a cast of thousands.  I make elaborate snake sculptures out of the pieces.  The brightly colored plastic coatings of electrical wire are cheerful.  The beauty of copper wire is irresistible.  Phone wire makes excellent braid.  Silver wire, the kind that holds together wooden packing crates, looks expensive.  Working the wire gives me something to do with my hands besides smoking.  The snake sculptures are proliferating.  My pockets are full of snakes and my fingertips are in ribbons with little wire cuts.  I have peaceful snakes, coiled in repose.  I have mean cobras with arched backs, standing tall and ready to strike, for higher wages, of sin.  (Wow, that was a good one, even for me).  How do I come up with this stuff?  I was always funny, but I never used to be this funny.
I have elegant, long snakes whose bodies sway back and forth like a windy road.  Not a windy road, a windy road.  Fearing that they might multiply in my pockets I leave them in strategic locations.  Unsigned.  Little objets d’art which I hope will hit the bull’s eye.  Something unexpected.  To be found by someone who would say, “What the hell is this?” or “isn’t that pretty” or, dread the thought, nothing at all.  I have a heart as big as all Manhattan, leaving my little wire reptiles to delight the multitudes.  Art into life, make my life my art, performance art.
Moving things from one pocket to another, throwing things out and accumulating new things, is a constant process.  It’s as though my hands have a life of their own.  At any given moment I’m carrying four or five lighters, for the constant cigarettes and joints, and of course, to light the cigarettes of women, God what a gentleman I am.  The very picture of a gentleman.  Deferential and accommodating to women, witty, interested in them.  Admiring.  Finding things in my pockets.  The matches from the swank spots.  Useful for showing that I know where the best spots are.  Useful as giveaways.  “By the way, if you want to try another really sweet spot, here.”  Then press the selected matchbook into the palm.  Our little secret amulet.  She then knows that it’s good, and that she can find me there too.  Generous.  Sharing my knowledge of what is good.  An intense desire to please, entirely selfless.  I find pleasure in pleasing others.
The humor comes from this.  What better thing to give a person than a laugh, even if it is hard to wrap.  Finding things in my pockets.  Bonus points.  Bonus points are washers.  I see them on the street, looking like little lost zeros.  If I see an interesting one, particularly large or small or perfectly formed, I pick it up and pocket it.  I have plastic ones that are brightly colored and metal ones that weigh me down.  If someone does or says something that impresses me, if somebody connects with a joke or somehow demonstrates brain activity, I award a bonus point.  The gesture is usually received with bemused appreciation.  Who is this guy with the pockets that never end?  Women are so accustomed to being hit on by conventional guys at bars in conventional ways that something odd can be disarming.  Especially if the guy is only looking for an appreciative audience, not to get laid.  Not that I only give them out to women.  Bartenders, especially at the tonier spots, tend to be a world-weary, wise, sarcastic lot, well cast for my brand of humor.  I’ve assigned several bonus points to bartenders.  I’ve skipped a few on the blackened Delaware River too during the darkest hours of the night as I wondered if this was all some sort of dream run amuck.
My pockets have enough business cards to start three rolodexes.  Cards with women’s names and phone numbers scribbled on the back.  Cards of musicians.  Cards from limousine companies, restaurants, bars, strangers I’ve met at bars.  I have cards of magicians, mimes, (mimes need business cards more than the average professional and a mime is a terrible thing to waste), florists, erotic lingerie vendors, others, everything you’d need to start a nightclub, an escort service, a limousine company, or a troupe of rogue performance artists.  The cards too keep changing, like a river passing through my pockets, that’s it, that’s why I’m always fishing in my pockets, at last I’ve figured it out.  Always upgrading, only the best will do.  Joints, yes there are always joints and roaches floating around in my pockets.  I’ve made some wonderful roach clips out of found wire too.  Packs of cigarettes, naturally.  Photographs.  Bits and pieces I intend to use in collages.  Ah, one day, I will retire to the country and do only collage, unless of course I exhaust the medium, and break her crystal ball, and graduate from collage.  But not today.  Photographs torn from magazines.  Receipts from money access machines, automatic tellers, like me, an automatic truth teller.  I’m searching the universe for clues to explain my next move.  The one thing that my pockets are free of is money.  But there is value.  Surely knowing where all the best spots are is a valuable knowledge.  But not something I can convert to cash.  Not without becoming a pimp, or an escort.  And I haven’t fallen to that.  Sex is for pleasure, so marvelous that it shouldn’t be ruined by money.  If you want to know what you should be doing for a living, look to the things you do for free.  Those are the things you love the best.  And I’m living for a living, pushing the envelope of discovery.


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Sunday, January 30, 2011

Mens Sana In Corpore Sano

My father told me that one cannot define something simply by saying it is not its opposite; for example, health isn’t merely the absence of illness. He admitted that health itself was difficult to define, but he guessed that one of the properties of a healthy organism would be, in addition to environmental fitness, active seeking out of problems and challenges. At the time I was eager to avoid problems and challenges altogether, consequently, his observation had little allure for me.

When the time came for me to get serious about my own mental health, I unwittingly set foot on the path of spiritual evolution. It began by going through, not around, my bipolar disorder – a turbulent voyage of self-discovery. That led to sobriety, a transformational experience that set the stage for a spiritual awakening.

Today, my sense of it is that health is more about my relationship with myself than it is my relationship with the environment, I do not seek challenges today, the challenges arrive in envelopes under the door each morning; I simply carry the assignments out to the best of my ability.

I have the strange sense that this poem may be relevant.

Late For Dinner

Rustle in the underbrush
Predator of love
Lives on a diet of heart
Lithe and lovely carcasses
Bear his signature
Victims of his hunt
For the cure
To the hunger
That is eating him alive

Beggar holding battered cup
Leans against the temple
Heap of jagged silhouettes
And shadows
Crying out as colors crash
And race disjointedly

Humble servant
Washing windows
Sweeping off the steps
Making sure the house is
Clean and vacant
Sunlight warming wooden floors
Balmy breezes come and go
Like kisses from a very patient angel

Alistair McHarg

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Friday, January 28, 2011

Sailing Off The Edge Of The Sea

There is so much mythology regarding the relationship between mental illness and artistic creativity, to say nothing of drug abuse and artistic creativity. Manic depressives, hungering for the torrent of mad inspiration they associate with mania, often skip meds. As to drugs and alcohol, well, the dissolute artiste – sacrificing health on the altar of art, is a cliché so tired it’s exhausted.

No alcoholic – drug addict – can love; not another person, or even an enterprise – because the addiction will always come first. If you want to be great – (as great as you can be) – you must dive into your work without attachments – you cannot commit to your work if you are a slave – and drug-dependent people are slaves. (I was reminded of this when I gave up my last addiction – cigarettes.)

With mental illness the illusion is more complex. Manic depressives imagine that in their manic state they have heightened powers of imagination and originality. This is a dangerous illusion. They do have more energy, but it is pointless, undirected energy.

Once, at a meeting, someone said, “Maybe God isn’t a force on the outside we are trying to reach, maybe God is a force inside that is trying to get out.”

For me, the same can be said of artistic creativity. I have always been facile with words, music, etc. – I was adept at parlor tricks. But I didn’t become a real artist until I stopped hiding behind technique and artifice, understood myself, freed myself from the enslavement of addiction, and became able to get out of my own way. 

Harbor Lights

Outside looming harbor gates
Lightning scars the dark
Winds that shriek a cold lament
Of spirits lost and drowned
Whip the ocean into froth while
Raindrops strike like shot

Giants slumber by a wharf
Massive engines purr
Pushing only running lights
Mast and window, aft and fore
Not a soul dare leave the port
No man lifts a chain

Down the plank of one great ship
Several sailors tread
Collars turned against the storm
Navigating cobblestones
To seek camaraderie
In foreign vessels flying foreign flags

Dank and grimy dining room
Smoky, cramped, and warm
Weathered men drink far too much
Laugh too hard, and sing too loud
In tongues unknown to them

Pump your wheezy
Squeezebox please
Chipped and yellow ivories
Clap your hands ‘til dawn
This night all are safe
And one
Soon the sea will claim us

Alistair McHarg

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Thursday, January 27, 2011

Spare A Little Pity For The Winter

We are unjustly harsh in our opinion of winter, as we are too generous in our assessment of spring.

Spiritual growth, even life itself, would be impossible without the purity and terror of absolute zero.

All recovery shares the experience of winter to some extent. Distractions are eliminated, props, crutches, and comforts are gone. All that remains is the quiet, and a merciless mirror of ice.


Spare a little pity for the winter
Nature’s yearly festival of death
Vicious winds and leaden days
Salt upon the roads we slide
Sacrament of perfect nothingness

Spare a little pity for the winter
Conjure up the lost and lonely night
You looked upon a silent world
Encased by snow and ice, bathing
In the moonlight silver blue, and
Realized it was not made to love you

Spare a little pity for the winter
Recall a bitter, chilly morning when
You gazed outside to watch the sunlight
Blaze upon the fallen snow so brightly
That you had to shield your eyes
Dazzling, vivid, endless sky
Graced you with its glory

Spare a little pity for the winter
Frigid air is full of fare-thee-well
Weather beaten, naked trees
Reach down deep into the earth
Drab and dreary scenery
Bristles with activity, more
Is taking place than we can know

When the air grows marvelous mad
Dizzy in an orgy of riotous glamor
We once more find earth
To our pleasing, and eagerly forget
Faith, not time, summons spring

Spare a little pity for the winter      

Alistair McHarg 


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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“The Silence Of Footprints Is Eloquent.” Taz Mopula

As a young person I was shy and spoke rarely.

Manic Depression cracked my veneer.

Words escaped with the urgency of terrified tenants fleeing a burning building.

In time I refined speech into an art form, talking became indistinguishable from entertaining.

Now I let my actions do the talking for me.

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Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Uncertainty Is All I Can Rely On

In grad school I once asked a professor what it takes to becomes a writer. He thought briefly then said, “Well, I guess the first thing you need to do is abandon any hopes you have of leading a normal life.”

As a young person I was unwilling to make such a daring commitment. Ultimately it was the “abnormal” life that found me, and the process of dealing with that reality was transformational.

Writing my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING, served as a rite of passage, it ushered me into the world of Manic Depression. There was more, in order to accomplish this mysterious objective I also had to make the evolutionary leap from “promotional copywriter” – (read shoemaker) - to writer, putting it all on the line, discovering strengths I didn’t know I had.

My life until then had been spent one foot on the dock and one in the boat; I committed, at last, to the unknown; I became resigned to it – not in sad way, in a quietly accepting way – I set sail for keeps.

It is a lovely thing to know why one is on earth, and if one is lucky enough to find out, well – how could you look at yourself in the mirror if you couldn’t muster the vinegar to do it?

A Salty Dog

Tattered sails
Swell with breath
My battered boat
Groans and complains
As it’s guided from
Safe harbor to the
Cold and merciless sea
By invisible hands

I am weary of adventures
Scarred from fighting monsters
Hideous ones
Beautiful ones

All I ever wanted was a cat
A hearth, a dram, a meal
A woman who knew how to sew
A roof and wall to guard against
The cruelties of winter

But fate decrees that I am bound
Bound to the mast
Bound to the sea

Whatever rocky coast
Is my new home
I’ll tell my story there

Whatever rocky coast
Is my new home
I’ll tell my story there

Alistair McHarg

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Friday, January 21, 2011

Double-OH-M-G! – License To Spill

Imagine for a moment you’ve been given a license to do absolutely whatever you feel like doing without any repercussions whatsoever. What kind of person would you become? Without the limitations that prevent society from blowing apart, would you be inspiringly noble or hideously indulgent?

That is precisely what happens in the midst of a manic high. Behavior becomes automatic and instinctive, the conscious filters of morality fade into the background as monsters of the id emerge and satisfy their base appetites.

The following is an excerpt from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING. In it you see the subconscious bubbling like jambalaya; fear, humor, rage, and creativity swirl together and are expressed spontaneously, without any control whatsoever.

            My second best spot is the Bellevue, the grand dame of Philadelphia’s hotels, best remembered for the infamous Legionnaire’s disease debacle.  Completely restored and resplendent yes he said resplendent when a slatch-head would have said it’s, like, ya’ know, real pretty, with the swankest shops including Gucci’s, Ralph Lauren, and my favorite, Dunhill, it’s arguably the most opulent hotel in Philadelphia.  Operated by Cunnard it exudes a world-class atmosphere that is tainted by stuffiness and frou-frou decor.  Still, on the top floor it affords a sensational view and I can afford the view too though not much more, across historic Philadelphia, across the Delaware River, a cross I can’t bear much longer, far off into the distance.  In fact one is merely gazing across New Jersey, the social equivalent of anti-matter, but the lights of New Jersey blink just as romantically at night as do the lights of Istanbul if one forgets what one is looking at and lets one’s imagination fly freely and I don’t need to let my imagination fly anymore I am imagination.
            The bar on the top floor is somebody’s idea of what a library in an English castle would look like, complete with banks of leather bound books, busts of Greek philosophers and a marble chess set which, God forbid anybody should actually use.  The books too are presumably equally off limits.  I’ve been tempted in fact to see if, like Gatsby’s, they are actually real.  I’ll wager they are and also, like Gatsby’s, simply there for affect.  But the atmosphere is elegant and soothing, the help beautifully attired and attractive, and it fits me like a tailored shirt.  An opulent, world-class elegance that raises me high above petty concerns like phone bills and car payments.
            One evening not long ago I was sitting at the bar at the Bellevue, trying to stop shaking, stop sweating, being waited on by a female bartender I especially like.  A short, slightly tough young woman with closely cropped blond hair.  Crisp demeanor.  Demean her, why, I hardly know her.  But folks.  Quick wit.  Wiry frame.  Very businesslike.  We were talking about dancing and she told me that she didn’t dance.  Then she corrected herself, using a pair of corrective dance slippers, and said with sly mischievousness that the only dancing she did was behind bars.  She even gave me a tantalizing simulation, laughing to herself.  A caged cat, God, I could feel the heat.  But I was merely minding my own business, sorting through the contents of my pockets.  The man with the endless pockets.
            Cigarette lighters, matchbooks from my spots, bonus points, leaflets with phrases I intend to use later in collages, bits of wire, the odd spoon, and, quite incredibly, a full sized railroad spike.  I’d picked it up earlier that day, wandering along railroad tracks by the Schuylkill River.  It looked like a stylized capital letter T, with a marvelous patina.  Old, rusted, pockmarked with wear and weather, it had been irresistible to me.  Unlike some things I pick up I had no idea of what I would do with it.  I just found it marvelous, (oh stop calling me marvelous, you’re embarrassing me), and I had to have it.  It had so much character, I’m developing a sculptor’s eye for form.  Add sculpture to the list of things I’ll be doing successfully in the near future.  It weighed a hell of a lot but I was determined to add it to my increasingly far-reaching collection of found objects d’art.  I laid it on the barstool beside me.
            When the firm and love me tender bartenderette asked me for my drink I ordered my usual martini with a glass of water on the side, a frequent request.  I was sweating a lot and losing water.  The vodka only served to dehydrate me more so I often got water on the side.  Almost before I put in my order it was in front of me.  Clear martini in a clear martini glass, a saucy, wide open V balancing on top of a capital I.  Clear, pure water with ice cubes in a tall, clear, cylindrical glass.  Pure and simple, no frills.  Both glasses sat before me, sweating, just like me.  Then, another tiny brain snorch, a little electronic bridge between two cells.  I started to laugh but then stifled it.  When the bartender was looking away I placed the spike carefully inside the tall water glass.  I sipped some of the martini.  When she shifted her attention back in my direction I hailed her with a theatrical mock formality, “Miss.”  She looked at me.  “Excuse me, Miss,” I went on, in a tone of stilted seriousness, a tone of conspiratorial concern, a tone of tazmopulated squizzification, eyes moving her eyes towards the clear cylinder containing the offending piece of railroad memorabilia, “I believe someone has spiked my drink.”
            She looked at it and completely broke up, her downtown hipster cool kittyness temporarily blown out.
            “Oh my God,” she said, “I’ve never seen that done.”  Why, indeed, would anyone but amazing me do it?  She laughed with real enthusiasm, delighting me.  I began to laugh too, reveling in the sheer absurdity of it.  The perfect weapon to puncture the pompous balloon upon which floats the Bellevue.
            “Can I keep this?” she asked.  “I want to show it to the others.”  I told her of course she could, thrilled to be memorable.  I finished the martini and paid, leaving her a generous tip.  I bade her a very fond adieu as I feigned interest in a very bad fondue, positively beaming at the highlight, get it, celebrating the lapse of appropriateness we’d enjoyed together.  Out the door he goes.  Without an explanation.  Rabazibby.  Who is that guy and why does he do it?  Zot.  Root.  Snootch.  Snazzmatic.  Existing only in your memory.


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Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The International Unintentional Symbol Of Distress: Public Cookoopantsification

What follows is an excerpt from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING. It views manic behavior as a nuanced dance where the subconscious mind actively solicits needed help by commandeering the unwitting cooperation of the conscious mind which resolutely refuses to seek it out.

            I’ve been in the advertising business for sixteen years.  It’s a fun way to make a living.  You meet a lot of really intelligent, really original, and really bizarre people.  That’s the best part.  You also get paid for being creative, that’s what got me into it in the first place.  I’ve written ads for racehorses, antique clocks, tax shelters, vintage automobiles, hot air balloon weekends, even bulletproof vests.  I’ve worked for DuPont, TV Guide, Prudential, CertainTeed, various small ad agencies, and of course, Honeywell.  I’ve written and produced about every kind of advertising there is, from lavish videos to business cards.  I’ve seen a lot of advertising.
            The Manic behavior of that fearsome winter was a form of advertising unique in my experience.  It was as though my subconscious mind was doing everything in its power to get help for itself.  To get help for me.  All my actions seemed tailor-made to draw attention, to lead people to the conclusion that I was mad.  My insanity was not invisible, I didn’t lock myself up safely in a tower, out of harm’s way.  I flaunted my madness, almost daring anyone to point out the obvious.  Was my subconscious mind that smart?  I think it was.  I think it got help for me at last.  But first it needed to get my attention.  That required a fist, a boot, and a very mean man.
            When I was Manic I was the world’s worst listener.  The defensive wall of bizarre behavior I built around myself, the battlements, did not allow words in.  They only allowed a constant torrent of words out.  I knew everything.  I was endlessly entertaining.  The important question was the extent to which everyone was being delighted by me and acknowledging it.  The idea that another person had a piece of useful advice that I might want to listen to was ludicrous.  I didn’t need advice.  I gave advice.
            But if I knew so much and was so sure of myself, why was my behavior so desperate?  So needy?  It was just the false confidence of Mania.  True confidence, so they say, is so quiet that it’s practically silent.  I had no confidence at all, about anything.  My daughter, my home, my livelihood, my safety, my health, my income, my future.  Nothing.  I was flailing like a drowning man who grabs onto anything around him.  Flailing wildly because inside my soul, inside my heart, was a temple of pure terror.  The terror of the man who has walked to the edge of the cliff and gazed down into the burning eternity of Hell.  Then turns around only to stare into Satan’s eyes.  Panic.  Terror.
            I’m just an amateur.  Just because I see a shrink doesn’t mean that I am a shrink.  But this is how I see it.  My subconscious mind, accustomed to working in murky, indirect ways, took time to notice the change in me.  After all, it left the day-to-day care and feeding of Alistair McHarg to the conscious mind which had a very good track record of being reliable.  But this sudden change of style was impossible to deny.  All the self-preservation techniques seemed to be gone.  In their place, only self-destructive behavior.
            At last, the subconscious mind said, “That’s it!  I’ve had enough of this bullshit to last me a lifetime!  I’ve got to get this crazy motherfucker out from behind the wheel fast or he’s gonna’ get all of us killed.”  But every action had to be passed through the filter of the demented, conscious mind.
            So, to the conscious mind, Invisible Driving was a brilliant and fun piece of performance art.  To the subconscious mind, Invisible Driving was a way of flying a giant distress flag, sending an SOS across the airwaves, shooting up flares at night.  It hoped to draw the attention of someone who would put an end to the madness.  A sympathetic soul, who understood the pain of mental illness.  A knowledgeable soul, who knew the difference between out-of-control and evil.  A kind soul, who understood that I was merely a victim of my own genetic design.
            The wild humor, the endless laughter, took the place of crying.  All the acting out was a kind of crying.  The kind of crying which evokes sympathy.  The kind of crying which evokes a hug.  Except that when expressed this way it evoked no sympathy at all.
            My emotions were so volatile that at one moment I could be ecstatically supercharged happy, then, a poignant song on the radio would plunge me instantly into fits of sobbing.  There was an aching core of hurt in me, of sorrow and of pain.  It was causing me to go to the outer edge of sanity.  I needed somebody to see that I needed help, but I didn’t know how to ask.  I was crying for help, but it didn’t look like it.
            My malfunctioning mind was telling me I was fine.  In fact I was in desperate shape.  My subconscious mind at last found a way to get the help I needed.


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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Sad Truth About Comedy

The following is an excerpt from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING. In it I reveal the shocking, and sad, truth about comedy.        

            Comedy is like landing a fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in the middle of the night.  When it’s done by those with no aptitude, experience, or timing, the results are hideous to behold and hard to clean up.
            To be funny, you have to be funny.  Any moron can learn a handful of nasty, racist, sexist jokes.  Many do.  A smaller number of morons can deliver them with that most elusive of comedy prerequisites, good timing.  But to actually be funny you need to think funny.  You need to see the world askew, you need a warped perspective.  You need to be bent.  That can’t be faked and it can’t be learned.
            I don’t remember exactly when I first realized I was funny, but I do know where I got it.  My father was extremely funny.  He was a masterful storyteller and entertainer.  Also, he was a ruthless iconoclast, with no respect for anything.  His madness too was a great contributor.  Frequently he’d burst into song, making up absurdly comical lyrics as he went, sprinkling in hilarious fabricated words like mackooshla, glutch, and scradznitch.  His perspective was uniquely his own, he skewered convention gleefully and pointed out absurdities at every available opportunity.
            The more I viewed life as an outsider, the funnier I became.  The more I refused to get serious about life, get ambitious, get greedy, get fiercely competitive, the funnier I became.  Instead of engaging fully in the contests of life, I made fun of them.  I was far too liberal to engage in cheap shots, no racial, religious, or sexist humor for me.  I went for humor that ridiculed all of humanity.  And I only told other people’s jokes when I was desperate.  Normally I created my own jokes.  My favorite humor was situational, made up on the spot in response to something somebody said.  People do enjoy this, but sometimes it has a way of pissing them off.  If they want me to take them seriously, they don’t need my constant wisecracks.  Sometimes they feel like I’m ridiculing them directly.
            Humor plays an absolutely essential role in my life.  It’s as important to me as music, it’s a reason to live.  At its best, it’s a way for me to be happy and to make other people happy.  It’s a way to celebrate the fundamental lunacy and absurdity of life.  It’s a wonderful way to say outrageous things and get away with it.  It’s also a way to tell the truth and get away with it, and truth means everything to me.
            These are the nobler aspects, as always, there are also murkier qualities.
            Humor is a way for me to get attention and keep people at a safe distance at the same time.  It’s also a safe way to have power over other people.  I tell a story, they’re under my spell.  I make them laugh when I want to, I control them, I control their responses.  It’s a benign power trip.  Real power would be too frightening.  It’s also a very safe way for me to show off, I command the spotlight, but I can easily relinquish it whenever I want.  As a comic I have complete control.  If I bomb, it’s my fault.  If I kill, I get all the approbation.  It’s a safe way to be on stage, to face the judges, and come out a winner.  And of course, it’s a safe way to get approval.
            But there’s a deep hostility in humor.  At times it’s a way for me to build a wall around myself.  If I dazzle you with funny smoke and mirrors, I distract you from my unwillingness to open up.  I seem pleasant, because I’m funny and personable.  In fact, I’ve wrapped my anti-social nature and my aggressive feelings in a velvet glove.  This falsehood, this lie of comedy, penetrates many of my relationships with people.
            In my normal life I make jokes constantly.  I tell funny stories, I even have a few impressions up my sleeve.  This can be a device to hide my power.  By playing the buffoon, I tell people that I’m non-threatening.  This, I hope, will keep them from being mean to me.  As long as I’m funny, people don’t have to take me seriously so I never provoke a showdown.  Unfortunately, this technique paints me into a corner.  When I do want people to take me seriously, they’re disappointed that I’m not being funny.  And that’s a frustration, because under all the jokes is a very serious person, a person with strong beliefs and strong opinions.  They do say that comics are the most serious people of all, the most serious, and the most damaged.
            But, live by the rubber chicken and you die by the rubber chicken.
            All comedy has its origins in pain, he said, dragging out the heavily bandaged remains of an observation first made in the time of Heraclitus.  And life is pain.  You laugh or you cry, it doesn’t matter which.  I’ve chosen laughter.  It’s been a way to make the pain tolerable.  In my daily life, my humor is freewheeling and fun.  When I was Manic, it roared like a chain saw.  It was relentless, often cruel, and completely out of control.  A massive edifice, keeping people out.  It felt like my brain’s way of amusing itself, I barely directed it at all.  I was more the vehicle for, than the originator of, the humor.  For much of the time I was every bit as surprised by my jokes as my audience.
            My bewitched, bothered, and bewildered audience.
            Well, that really wasn’t very funny after all.

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Monday, January 17, 2011

Mad Is The New Black

Dr. M.L. King’s birthday is remembered today. I grew up being inspired by him; he was truly heroic. Dr. King had something almost unknown today, moral courage. He is remembered for his oratory, but I remember him for his actions – leaders lead with their feet, not their mouths.

Dr. King was long dead when I was inducted into that most despised of all minority groups, the insane. Saying goodbye to the dream of normality and hello to the hinterlands made me see him anew, and better understand his awe-inspiring bravery.

I have always battled prejudice; it touches a very sensitive nerve in me. But when it came time for me to launch my own attack against the walls of ignorance surrounding mental illness I knew I would need the same kind of moral fearlessness I’d seen in Dr. King.

I won’t say I achieved it; but I will say that, without the memory of Dr. King, I wouldn’t even have known how it’s done. If nothing else, in writing INVISIBLE DRIVING – my bipolar memoir - I gave absolutely everything I had to give, regardless of the cost.

Hopefully the poem and cartoon below will help to broaden the picture a bit for you. As Roland Kirk used to say, “I’m not bitter; I’m bittersweet.”   

Black & Blue

They can’t tell I’m white inside
They don’t see the bruise            
Black and blue
Billie’s first profession was the oldest
Long before she purred and cooed
Soft and smooth as satin
Badass Bird soared high above
Icarus-like, swooping down he
Came to rest, on a spike
Trane’s blazing fury summoned our creator 
The brief incandescence of a meteor
If genius is a blessing
It is bittersweet at best
Even in a perfect world
Where Dolphy plays the flute
A world where Billie won’t recoil
Discovering strange fruit

Alistair McHarg

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Friday, January 14, 2011

Mad About Mania!

Many have marveled at the prodigious, furious fire of mania – the wild blast furnace of energy – and wondered at its source. Naturally it is different for everyone, but clearly, anger plays a role. What follows is an excerpt from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING.

            My father used to speak of something called a “Celtic rage.”  It was a sort of fit, a blast of furious energy responsible for winning many a battle in the Scottish Highlands.  I’ve always felt connected to those mountains, those ancient times.  Those wild, fierce souls.  The sound of bagpipes gives me the chills.  Each time I visit the Highlands I wonder why I don’t live there, I feel such a sense of belonging.  I look like I’m from Scotland.  I have that same lonely independence.  That dour, I’ll suffer anything mentality.  And I certainly have that same Celtic rage coursing through my veins.
            My father used to lecture almost constantly, and his stage presence was remarkable.  Time after time he would rail against the degradation of the environment.  Then he would identify the culprits.  Big business.  Short-sighted, greedy developers.  He was especially fond of recommending ritual disembowelment for all members of the Army Corps of Engineers.  No invective was too cruel, no statement too outrageous.
            As he built up to a full head of steam, his Scottish brogue unfurled and his mustache bristling, he began to resemble a possessed fundamentalist preacher.  He spoke of this hideous destruction with breathtaking, self-righteous, moral outrage.  There was no mistaking his certitude.  He knew he was right.  He was furious.  He knew who the guilty parties were and he knew why they did it.  It worked.  People loved it.  It was great show business.  But it was scary.  It had the look of madness.
            What, in fact, was he really so angry about?  What, in fact, was I so angry about?  When I was Manic I smoldered with a sense of righteous indignation, furiously defending the undefended.  Was I really just defending me, without knowing it?  As with everything else, having my anger on the surface like that was a unique creation of the illness.  Normally I could go for a decade without losing my temper, I was wrapped that tight.  The child of European parents, I was so well-mannered that it was almost a problem.  Friends told me to loosen up, relax, do something spontaneous.  Expressing anger, even having angry thoughts, these activities simply weren’t in my emotional portfolio.  On those rare instances when I did express anger, it was expressed self-destructively, so that I wouldn’t hurt anyone else.
            Consciously, of course, the Manic me thought I was on top of the world.  But in the real emotional household, far from the out-of- control brain, I was so, so hurt.  Most of all I was hurt because I’d played by the rules and been a good person and it hadn’t made a damn bit of difference.  I’d struggled so hard on my own, gradually reconstructing my life after the divorce and the first Manic episode.  I’d been a good father, really loving and responsible when it wasn’t easy, and it hadn’t made a damn bit of difference.  One wave of the layoff wand and it all went away, including my sanity.
            Of course if you dug a little deeper there was plenty I was hurt and angry about.  I was really torn up about what had happened to my marriage.  I was brutally hurt, and angry with the kind of anger that makes you shake your fists and scream at the Gods, by my mother’s horrible death.  My father’s preoccupation with himself was another source of anger.  It really bit me.  It bit me because it made me feel small and unimportant.
            That seems like enough, but it goes even deeper than that.  Some anger, some pain, comes right from the center of my soul.  Some of this I was born with.  I’m rarely aware of it, I almost never express it.  I am, perhaps, afraid of it in the same way that I’m afraid of assuming the power which I have and which I shamefully squander in my stupid excuse for a job.  It’s far too deep to have been entirely learned.  Call it Celtic Rage.  Call it a holy fire of fierce intolerance, contempt for evil, disdain for stupidity.  Call it what you want, but beware of provoking it.
            That anger, which had been living in a wet, dark dungeon most of my life, had a field day when I was Manic.  Though I felt like I was riding high, real viciousness was never far away.  Even my jokes, though I thought they were funny, had a razor’s edge to them.  I was more anxious to make people squirm than make them feel good.  It was payback time, and I had a whole lot of venting to do.  The Mania transformed me into a bizarre reincarnation of my father.  I had the furious fire.

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Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Future - Fun Place To Visit, Bad Place To Live

The program is the land of practical wisdom, teeming with slogans, aphorisms, analogies, similes, metaphors, and pedagogical vignettes. For me the wisest of them all is – One Day At A Time. In the dank church basements I learned that – while the past and future may be appealing in a theoretical sort of way – they do not actually exist – and spending time in a place that does not exist just ain’t healthy. To live, really live, one must invest one’s self in the present – that is where the action is. The following poem may or may not be relevant.

In Time

Was the cottage
Built too soon, or were
They slow to find it?
Spirits wandering in
Time, catching up at
Last with one another
How long did it take
To snare this moment?

Smooth, wide trail cut
Through an ancient forest
River meadow marsh
Shadow path of phantom
Tracks, train that left
The station, full of never was
Goodbye, and, in your dreams
Every remnant hauled away
For use in applications, more
Suited to contemporary fashion

Trees are busy
Modifying wardrobes
Breezes whisper secrets
Water undulates
Clouds crawl imperceptibly
Like hour hands at night

Heron anchored in a pond
Thin as six o’clock, feathers
Spreading wings unfolding
Outwards yet again, shaded blue
Slate gray, and white, horizontal
Stripe from tip to tip

Not a word between them
Not a motion, whoosh
And the feet emerge
Falling water drops
Whoosh, the ascension
Out of season, out of time

Alistair McHarg

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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I Promise I Will Always Lie To You

As an advertising copywriter I am adept at making accurate statements in such a way as to allow, even encourage, people to leap towards inaccurate conclusions. As a poet I use words with precision and care until all that remains is emotional truth, expressed with as much elegance and clarity as I can summon. So, the duality of language is familiar to me, it is a sublime tool for concealing as well as revealing.

I was raised on a steady diet of lies, as if they were an essential food group, a staple, never out of season. When this happens it is not long before lies are no longer recognizable as such, they become facts. This is not quite as dreadful as it sounds, we all believe an astounding variety of preposterous lies and many of them yield beneficial results. However, if you are on the road to recovery lies are not merely impediments, they are mortal enemies determined to eliminate any chance you have.

Learning how to stop lying to others is a stroll in the park in comparison to unlearning the habit of lying to one’s self. This is almost impossible to do alone – since you are offender, victim, and instructor all at once – it is much better accomplished with the help of fellow offenders. Your brethren in disingenuous locution will be quick to “call you on your merde” – if you can forgive the colorful vernacular – and let you know when, and even why, you are attempting to sell a hot, steaming pile of twaddle to them and to yourself.

As you become relentless about chasing truth, when you come to crave it like your next breath, life itself will shift on its axis. However, even though you and your world are transformed, the world around you remains intact. Suddenly it will seem as if the skyscrapers are held together with chewing gum and lies, and, like the small child watching the Emperor, you will want to point and shout. Be careful. Just because you have learned to live without lies does not mean that others have. Many people are heavily invested in the Emperor’s wardrobe and will not reward you if you reveal what has suddenly become obvious.

As the great Taz Mopula once said, “If you are going to tell me the truth, at least have the decency to buy me dinner first.” 


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Monday, January 10, 2011

Do As I Do, Not As I Say

As a young person I knew with absolute certainty that I did not want to be a leader or example of any kind. While many asserted I was naturally suited to this lofty status, utility as a cautionary tale was as close as I cared to get. My downward slide into debauchery and moral oblivion was well under way before I was even out of my teens; having evolved from confused kid to sneering nihilist.

By the time I reached my majority I’d achieved a level of decadence and decay that would have taken a lesser man years of dedication. At that point I began living life in reverse, becoming more innocent, not less, with the passage of time. My war with Manic Depression necessitated a complete reconstruction of my character, while sobriety welcomed me into a spiritual world that brought with it an entirely different way of being human. In retrospect it all seems like a long process of education, rehabilitation, and evolution.

A year ago I stopped smoking cigarettes, an act which told me a lot about myself.

In the past I had style without content, my actions could not withstand scrutiny. Today the opposite is true, content is all, style is important only to the extent that it helps to reveal content. I have become so suspicious of lies that I examine all talk with dispassionate care, especially when it is overly smooth and facile. If you want to know what a man believes, don’t listen to what he says; watch what he does. If you want to lead, lead by example. Make your life a poem that will be read by others when they are weak, sad, and frightened – looking for inspiration and guidance.

Leave footprints in the snow that can be easily followed; their silence is eloquent.


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Sunday, January 9, 2011

How To Tell A Genius From An Imbecile

If you’ve ever known any truly stupid people you’ve undoubtedly noticed that there’s something quite disarming and adorable about them. The genuinely slow don’t really want or expect much from life; avoiding the spotlight’s glare in favor of simple, repetitive activities which, while certain to bore the likes of us to tears, provide them with endless hours of meaningless, idiotic entertainment. Indeed, the stupid in our midst almost never cause real trouble unless they are prompted to do so by unscrupulous, manipulative smarties.

As a group, dolts, dummies, and dimbulbs are quick to acknowledge their limitations and freely admit that they have much to be humble about. They are comfortable soliciting help and guidance, which, ironically, demonstrates a highly accurate sense of self and an endearing degree of humility.

The same cannot be of the highly intelligent who live surrounded by funhouse mirrors exquisitely designed to deny them the sweet comfort – and wisdom – of humility.

Clever boots are always surprised, and impressed, by their own intelligence and consequently hold it in higher and higher esteem until, at last, they assume themselves to be the final authority in all things and therefore in no need of education of any sort. At this point they delight in making themselves feel larger still by reminding the stupid of how stupid they actually are, and the stupid, being stupid, and agreeable, play along. Thus is the cycle of arrogance and ignorance stoked like a furnace.

Unfortunately, any individual who asserts that he is omniscient, has irrefutably demonstrated idiocy, and therefore cannot be said to be brilliant. More to the point, increasing intelligence and wisdom leads irrevocably to increased humility and admission of ignorance until the only possible proof of true brilliance and wisdom would be utter humility which would posit the significance of what one does not know and the insignificance of what one does know. This would mean that only the brilliant man would know and admit how stupid he is, while the man convinced of his own brilliance would not yet be wise enough to be stupid.


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