“I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part. And we’re just the guys to do it!”
-Otter and Bluto
from ‘Animal House’
I’ve gotten old. I hit the big five-Oh this Spring, but that’s not what I mean by old. I mean I’ve lost my sense of humor. I drive the speed limit on my Harley. I don’t tell people off as much as I used to. I take things, especially myself, too seriously. I worry about the bills. It takes more to fire me up. I tell myself that I’ve got more to lose and less to prove. I’ve gotten practical, safe, and old.
When I was fifteen, after months in a dismal mental hospital, I finally got my first pass and it was more exciting than a trip to the Grand Canyon. I got to go to K-Mart to buy a new toothbrush! Thrills galore! You know how in K-Mart they announce special sales over the speakers in the ceiling? “OK, K-Mart shoppers, there’s a Blue Light Special on ‘Ravenous, Ravenous Rhino’s’ in Toys on aisle 18.” Whenever they’d do that, I’d put my fists over my ears, hit the ground rolling and scream, “The Voices!! The Voices!!” You HAVE to do it. Trust me. I’d go into the fitting rooms and call out to those poor K-Mart employees, “Hey! You’re out of toilet paper in here!” You have to do it or you’ll go crazy. As Waylon Jennings sang: “I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane.” I didn’t get another pass for about a year, but it was worth it.
For so long, because of both my time in the system with mental illness and Multiple Sclerosis, I had this strength, this power, this fearlessness that came from being totally screwed. What can hurt you or humiliate you when you’ve lived in mental hospitals or have a disease that’s literally eating your spinal cord? People start having fewer expectations of you after you’ve spent nine years in “Snoopy” pajamas.
I was bolder when I and everyone around me thought of me as ‘crazy.’ When I had nothing to lose. When I kept getting hundreds of flyers from some annoying by-mail business, something like, “You too can raise Argentine beef cattle in your hall closet for fun or profit,” or something. I took the return postcard, (“No stamp necessary, postage is guaranteed by law”) taped it to a brick I wrapped in brown paper, and dropped it in a mail- box. Little ways of fighting back. Of waking myself up. Of finding some humor even in the midst of the toughest, hardest, saddest things.
When some of my buddies went to Europe and I wasn’t able to join them because of my MS, I told them that since I knew French and German so well, I’d make up a little “phrase book” for them, to help them get by. You know, “Which way to the rail station?” “How much does that cost?” you get the idea. The truth, of course, is that not only can I not speak French or German, I can barely speak English, and my friends so learned that “Bordello” does not mean “Youth hostel” and the only real French phrase actually meant, “Thank you, no. You are too expensive and you resemble my sister.”
Understand, these things aren’t pranks, they’re practical jokes. Practical meaning necessary or you will die. If you can’t find a way to smile at life, the days and years go by, and none of them are yours.
This last year I’ve gotten about 30 years older. The cuts in human services, the War, my health, Red Lake. Things got to me. I spent too much time on the couch. I watched so many great nature shows on Discovery Channel that I didn’t have time to actually go out into nature. I did so much speaking and teaching to groups of people that I forgot how to talk to a person.
But I’m coming back. I got some good medical help to get me out of the physical pain. I talked honestly to some good friends, one-on-one, that helped me remember myself. Red Lake, the War and the cuts in human services have re-awakened me to remind myself where my talents fit the needs of the world. I’ve re-discovered that even though I ‘gave up’ about eight hundred times, I never had much talent for surrender.
So it’s time for a “Toga Party!” It’s time to spin the rear tire on my Harley, to crank up Jimi Hendrix on the stereo, to invite a bunch of people over and dress up my cats like little butlers. And then get back out there, and re-inspire myself to at least try.
Hey, it’s working. I just turned forty-nine.
Thanks for all you guys do.