January 17 2014
LIVING WITH INSANITY
A Presentation by Ashleigh Brilliant
Co-Sponsored by Santa Barbara City College and the Council for Self-Esteem
© Ashleigh Brilliant 2014
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I'm very happy to be invited here today by the Self-Esteem Council, because although speaking in public is said to be a very fearful experience to many people, just being asked to do so is calculated to boost anyone's own self-esteem, especially if the circumstances are such as to make it seem like some kind of honor. I will therefore gloss over the fact that after all these years in which so many genuine local dignitaries have preceded me in addressing this group, it might be said that you are now scraping the bottom of the barrel.
With that in mind, however, I can only hope that when I've finished, your thoughts about this speech won't resemble the comment made by the great Dr. Samuel Johnson when he was rejecting some no doubt unsolicited manuscript: "Dear Sir, Your work is both good and original. But the parts that are original are not good, and the parts that are good are not original."
Anyway, we might as well get the Self-Esteem part of this presentation out of the way, before we attack today's main subject, which is Insanity. So here are a few pieces of my work, looking at Self-Esteem from different angles.
5562_I'm human, mortal, and fallible, but, within those limits, I can be boundlessly wonderful.
6454_The more I learn about other people, the more I like myself.
6813_There's only one person in the world who can give you self-esteem.
7025_How to keep me happy could take you a lifetime to learn, and still be worth it.
7065_My life is a story of triumph -- it's about all the things that have triumphed over me.
7079_One reason I trust myself is that I'm always here when I need me.
7103_I want to be loved for what I am -- not in spite of what I am.
7402_My self-esteem, though heavily fortified, is still vulnerable to a direct hit.
7722_Having no respect for myself is all the more reason why I need some respect from you.
8882_Only one person in the world can have a good self-image of me.
Now on with our main topic. The title I have chosen for this talk today is: "LIVING WITH INSANITY." You may ask "What does insanity have to do with self-esteem?" In answer, let me just refer you to the nearest madhouse. Such places are now called "mental health facilities" and "psycho wards," and as it happens, there's one just down the street, at Cottage Hospital, where I myself have spent a little time. In these institutions you will find about half the inmates suffering from too little self-esteem, and the other half from too much.
I need hardly remind you that our culture is rich with stories of people afflicted with madness. Our History and Literature are, so to speak, chock full of nuts. Everywhere you look, nutty people are doing nutty things. My wife Dorothy (whom I dearly love, but who surely merits her own special niche in the Nutty Hall of Fame) just recently finished having me read to her a deservedly famous novel, by Charlotte Bronte, called "Jane Eyre." If you've read it, you probably recall that one of its big mysteries concerns the top floor of the large house to which our heroine, Jane, has come as a governess. Only gradually do we learn that the inhabitant of that isolated and forbidden space is a raving lunatic of the worst and most dangerous sort - one who periodically escapes from her confinement to do very nasty things, such as setting people's beds on fire. Then comes the kicker: This murderous madwoman is none other than the legal wife of Mr. Rochester himself, the owner of the house and the employer of Jane Eyre, who, before she discovers any of this, has fallen madly in love with him, and is in fact about to marry him.
But that's only the beginning of the craziness. This wife, we learn, did not go insane just recently, but ten years earlier -- and not in England, where the story is set, but in the West Indies, where Rochester had met and married her. Then she went crazy, and only THEN, (if you can believe this) did he decide to bring her back with him to England. (I can't even imagine - and Charlotte Bronte doesn't tell us -- what a long voyage with that deranged woman in a sailing ship would have been like). And Rochester has kept her locked up and hidden away in his house ever since.
But wait, there's more! This wealthy Mr. Rochester is just as ga-ga over Jane Eyre as she is over him. He wants her to go off with him somewhere, anywhere, and live together happily ever after -- and he makes this proposition extremely attractive, especially for a girl who, up to this point in her young life, has had, to put it mildly, a very rough time of it. But Jane herself has insane moral scruples. Happiness be damned! This after all is the Victorian Age. Edward Rochester has a living wife. Never mind anything else. Jane is so afraid of yielding to his tempting but totally sinful offer that she runs off, penniless, in the middle of the night, only to endure a series of most ghastly hardships.
I won't burden you here with any more details of this particular mishmash of madness. My point - in case you don't already find it crystal clear - is that like poor Mr. Rochester, we are all, in some way, or often in many ways, living with insanity.
But it's not always obvious just who belongs on which side of the loony-bin walls. Did you know, for example, that Richard Feynman, the physicist, and probably one of the finest minds our society has produced, was rejected for military service by a board of Army psychiatrists? And this was a man who had already been one of the scientists who produced the atomic bomb!
But before going any further into this mental morass, the word "insanity" has little meaning unless we can come to some agreement about the meaning of SANITY itself. We all know that it has to do with health, just like all those other health words such as SANitation, SANitarium, and of course SANta Barbara. Remember that Latin slogan, which used to be inscribed over college entrances in the days when educated people could still understand Latin: "MENS SANA IN CORPORE SANO," - which means "a healthy mind in a healthy body." But what exactly is a healthy mind?" Surely there must be some kind of widely recognized test to establish whether or not a person is sane.
Well if you think you can easily find any type of reliable answers just by looking up "sanity tests" on Google, I'm afraid you've got another think coming. I gave it a serious try, but none of the tests I could find seemed at all legitimate, and some are obviously just meant to be funny.
One thing I did learn from Google is that the word "sanity," appears to have been hijacked by computer people, like so many other formerly innocent expressions, such as "mouse" and "cookie." "Sanity" now has a very specialized meaning to programmers, quite different from our ordinary usage of the term. It has to do with the way computer programs calculate. But maybe that's not really such a stretch, considering how the human mind seems to be in the process of becoming increasingly inseparable from the computers which it created. I'm sure we all remember HAL, the super-computer in the movie "2001" who actually does go crazy, and turns against his masters while he and they are all traveling in outer space. Total disaster is averted only when somebody manages to pull HAL's plug, causing his mind, before our very eyes and ears, to succumb to something like a computer version of Alzheimer's. The last we hear of HAL, he has lost all his intelligence (dare I say his "sanity"?) and is babbling nursery rhymes.
But we still need some simple straightforward means of dividing the sane from the insane. Otherwise there's no telling how much crazier our society would be than it already is. Take our military for example. We can't have insane people fighting our wars, can we? -- even if the wars themselves are insane. That's why people who've been drafted into the army against their will often quite understandably try to get out of it, by giving the impression that they've gone off their rockers. Most of us, I'm sure, remember Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," in which anyone trying to get out of flying combat missions by being found insane is considered to be thereby proving that he really is sane, since only a crazy person would willingly go on such missions.
And long before I read "Catch-22," I heard another story, about a recent draftee who started behaving very strangely, going around, picking up every piece of paper he saw on the ground. He would hold the paper, stand and stare at it, then shake his head and throw it away, saying "That's not it!" Then he'd go and find another piece, saying "That's not it," "That's not it" over and over again. This went on for weeks, until eventually, the army doctors decided to recommend him for a medical discharge. When the discharge paper finally came, he took one look at it, and leaped in the air, shouting "That's it! That's it!"
But we still have to get at the roots of this problem of sanity. When people are not sure about your mental condition, what are the first questions they usually ask? I know, because this actually happened to me just three years ago, after I was hit by a car while crossing one of our peaceful local streets. Besides a broken leg and a mangled gut, my head was one of my parts that got banged up. A lady who evidently specializes in mental assessment, was sent to my bedside, where she started by asking things like "Do you know your name?" "Do you know where you are?" "What year is it?" "Who is the current president?" Fortunately I had no problem with any of these questions. But of course a person could get all the answers to such penetrating brain-teasers right, and still be nutty as a fruitcake.
But don't think I'm not aware of all the psycho-jargon labels which a whole mob of psychiatrists and psychologists now stick haphazardly on many of us: -- labels like "schizophrenia," "bipolar," "psychotic," "dementia," and a whole melange of manias. What bothers me is that there's no room left in the medical literature any more for just calling somebody plain CRAZY.
In the old days, it used to be pretty clear who belonged in the booby-hatch, and who didn't. One sign that you had a screw loose was if you kept hearing voices in your head. There was of course that celebrated case of a certain young French peasant girl known as Joan of Arc, who claimed that she heard voices telling her to go and save France. As you may recall, that was just exactly what she went out and did. And after she had saved France, her grateful countrymen burned her as a witch. Now they worship her as a saint. How sane is any of that?
Then there's our old friend the Mad Hatter. Yes, it's true that people who made hats did sometimes behave very strangely -- and we can't blame it all on "Alice In Wonderland." There actually was a certain kind of madness which particularly afflicted hat-makers. It seems that inhaling the fumes given off by mercury can actually cause people to behave in bizarre ways. And mercury was for many years used in the making of felt hats. Of course this wasn't the only new mental illness we can attribute to the glorious Industrial Revolution. One of my personal favorites was called "Phossy Jaw" a horrible disease affecting the bones as well as the mind, caused by the phosphorus used in making matches.
Another famous mad person was actually a king of England - George the Third. He's best known for losing the American Colonies - but he accomplished that heroic deed while he was still sane. Among the things he did after he went mad was to become the longest-reigning King of England. By 1810 he had completely lost his marbles, but he stayed officially king until 1820. This gave him a total of nearly 60 years on the throne - a record that was beaten only by Queen Victoria. I personally can never forgive George III for that, because it was the answer to a question on a radio quiz show I was once on: "Which king of England had the longest reign?" Getting it wrong cost me $1000. So you can see I have good reasons of my own for being mad at that mad king.
But nowadays we all hear voices -. They come from all kinds of pads, pods, smart phones, and other devilish devices that we carry around with us. And at the same time OURS are the voices being heard in other people's heads! Actually, of all the changes in my lifetime, the hardest for me to get used to has been the bizarre sight of people walking around, apparently talking to themselves.
But that's only a small part of the madness this whole world
seems to be caught up in.
What person in his or her right mind today would not feel that war and mass killing are insane? But these human activities, which should have gone out with the stone age, are now almost considered an art form. And don't even get me started on art and insanity. Never mind what we all know about poor old Van Gogh. A visit to any display of modern art will surely convince you that today anything goes if you call it art.
Then at the same time, look what has happened to religion. It used to be OK to die for your beliefs - That was crazy enough. But now it hardly counts, unless you take as many other people as possible with you, preferably innocent people whom you don't know, and who have nothing whatever to do with your particular issue.
What's really insane is that we no longer even call such conduct crazy. It has become a new normal. We dare not stigmatize suicide bombers as lunatics - the worst we can say about them is that they are "fanatics" or misguided religious zealots. They have their own rationale for mass murder, and who is to say that blowing yourself up on behalf of a cause you really believe in is not as logical as getting yourself marked for life with tattoos, or jumping out of airplanes for fun, or listening to amplified music until you go deaf?
But what right have I to harangue you on these weighty matters? If I'm going to talk about insanity, you need to know my credentials. It's time for me to get up close and personal, to take the gloves off, and start hitting myself in the only place where it really counts - below the belt.
Let's start with a few facts. First, to answer the first question I always get asked: Yes, Ashleigh Brilliant is my real name. As of last December 9, I'm eighty years old, which means I was born in 1933, the same year that Adolf Hitler and Franklin Roosevelt both came to power. I was also born - just in case this may have some significance -- in the very same month that Prohibition, which had lasted for 12 years, came to an end in the United States. As it happened, Hitler and Roosevelt both also kicked their respective buckets twelve years later in 1945, when I was 12 years old. So I spent my childhood being quite sure of the answer to what must surely be life's most important question -- especially if you come in in the middle of the picture, as in fact we all do --: Who are the Good Guys and who are the Bad Guys? On this splendid ethical and intellectual foundation I base my own claim to have been of sound mind, at least up to the age of 12. The only question is, what went wrong between 12 and 80?
Let me say that matters were definitely complicated by the fact I was born both British and Jewish. But that could only have had a positive effect on my mental health. After all, everybody knew that God was an Englishman, and that the Jews were God's Chosen People.
But after I was 12, I'm sorry to say - after my wartime heroes and villains were all gone -- the world for me started to become a little less safe and sane, and a lot harder to figure out. I had been safe because my family had spent the wartime years on this side of the Atlantic. But when the war was over, my father's British government job took us all back over there, to a land of ruins, rationing, and rain. We had a house in Edgware, a far northwest suburb of London, but nothing for me was ever again quite so secure or certain - or sane.
For one thing, our glorious Russian allies soon somehow became our evil Cold War adversaries, who now had what used to be exclusively OUR atom bomb. Meanwhile our former enemies, the Germans and Japanese, who had respectively slaughtered Jews, and cut off the heads of captured Americans, became our good friends who made clever cameras and cute cars, and in the process grew very prosperous. But the promise of a true world of Peace, which we children had been told would be our heritage -- because that, after all, was what our parents were fighting for -- turned into a hollow joke. Almost before I knew it, I myself was of age to be conscripted into the British Army. What helped me to avoid that fate was the fact that, in the middle of my college career at the University of London, I went a little crazy. (In those days it was called a nervous breakdown.) I never did actually get drafted, so I didn't reach the point of having to go around picking up pieces of paper and saying "That's not it!"
Instead, I did actually, then and later, pick up some other papers saying I was a Bachelor of Arts and then a Master of Arts, and finally a Doctor of Philosophy - but I never found out what any of that meant. Anyway, just to be on the safe side, I left Britain altogether in 1955, crossed the Atlantic once again, and eventually became an American - not without some difficulty because I had forgotten to switch sides when everybody else did. I still thought of the Russians as good people, and actually had the nerve to visit their country, which caused my U.S. citizenship to be delayed for about 9 years.
But here in America, it was a whole new ball game - quite literally, since nobody knew a thing about cricket. For one thing, I found that I could live quite comfortably on what other people threw away. I also found that Americans are crazy about GUNS - so crazy that I dare not ever reveal my own feelings on this subject for fear of being shot by somebody. And I found that it was a greater crime to partake of certain harmless substances than to commit real offenses like bothering your neighbors with leaf-blowers, or throwing litter carelessly on the ground for somebody else to pick up, or polluting your neighborhood with graffiti.
In fact I found this whole society so insane that I was able to make an entire career out of simply writing crazy expressions and selling them -- first on postcards, then in newspapers and books, on Tshirts, tote-bags, and any other appropriate surface. One of the first postcards I ever published, back in 1967, was a beautiful expression of insanity - and a total put-down of the whole idea of self-esteem. It says "WAIT! COME BACK! - THERE'S A PART OF MY FACE YOU HAVEN'T STEPPED ON YET!"
But that message also exemplifies the relationship between insanity and LOVE - a connection I'm sure we're all familiar with, and not just from expressions like "I'm crazy about you." I wrote it when I was trying to recover from a love affair which I knew was really over, but which I kept trying to revive, and as a result kept getting slapped down. I think somebody once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over, but expecting a different result.
Yet strangely enough there are those who suffer from other types of insanity which come about not through feeling too strongly, about love or anything else, but through not feeling enough at all -- especially not relating enough to the feelings of other people, and therefore often doing nasty things without any sense of guilt, shame, or remorse. These are the so-called "Psychopaths" so popular with our crime novelists and movie-makers.
But wait! There's more! In fact, the line I just quoted about getting your face stepped on is only number 3 of a series of more or less insane expressions I wrote and published, which now total Ten Thousand.
Anyway, for those of you who for some inexcusable reason are not yet at all familiar with my work, let me give you a random sampling of the kind of screwball utterances I'm talking about, which I've been churning out for about the last 40 years:
0003 Wait! Come back! There's a part of my face you haven't
stepped on yet!
0028_Only 30 more nothings until the big nothing!
0116_Before burning these papers, let me make sure they're in alphabetical order.
1865_I'm so tired of everybody believing in me!
2455_Something about me must give lasting satisfaction, because I'm very rarely asked to come again.
2658_Somewhere there ought to be a club for anti-social people.
4634_How distressing! I can't remember whether or not I'm satisfied.
4898_Now is the time to do everything!
5498_Fortunately, the news of our defeat didn't arrive until after we'd held our victory parade.
7335_In the international cheating competition, I scored eleven out of a possible ten.
I hope you'll agree that some of those Brilliant Thoughts are pretty crazy. But besides writing crazy thoughts, I do also write comparatively sane thoughts on the subject of insanity. So here are a few examples of those:
POT-SHOTS ABOUT INSANITY
0951_It's good to know that, if I behave strangely enough,
society will take full responsibility for me.
0958_How can I prove I'm not crazy to people who are?
1794_It's only by appearing to be sane that I can keep a firm grip on my madness.
2491_There never was any insanity in my family, until I got married.
5291_It shouldn't have been necessary to go crazy in order to give meaning to my life.
6279_Losing your mind can be less painful than watching somebody else lose theirs.
7054_Here's a good recipe for insanity: keep trying to answer questions which you know are unanswerable.
7058_Think too little, and people will call you stupid -- think too much, and they'll call you crazy.
9331_People who act as if nothing matters are usually considered insane (although they may actually be right).
4701_Once we fall asleep, we all become insane.
That last one is a good reminder that DREAMING is a form of insanity which most of us suffer from. Psychiatrists actually define a "PSYCHOSIS" as a loss of contact with reality - which of course is exactly what dreaming is all about. And yet paradoxically -and isn't this crazy?-- dreaming is considered an important part of good mental health!
But getting back to my own life and career: I didn't start out as a writer of very short expressions. (Just for the record, the technical term is epigrams -- in my case they are limited to a maximum of 17 words. And I am officially the world's only known full-time professional EPIGRAMMATIST.) After spending four years at Berkeley, I began my brief but exciting adventures in the academic world as a teacher, first on dry land, at a small college in Oregon, then on board a converted cruise ship, a so-called "Floating University," sailing twice around the world, for 3 ½ months on each voyage.
As you can perhaps imagine, there was something pleasantly crazy for me as a very single young man, about being paid to take world cruises with a shipload of mostly nubile young women - and it was all under the auspices of a supposedly Christian institution then called Chapman College, (it's now Chapman University) based in Orange County, the notoriously conservative heart of Southern California. I wish I could tell you that I took full advantage of this situation - but the most I dare say, with my wife sitting here among you, is that it was there on that ship that she and I actually met.
One crazy thing I did on those voyages, besides pretending
to be a teacher, was to write songs about the places we visited,
and perform them at various shows we had on board.
As a sample, here's a song I wrote about our visit to Malaysia. First, just a few facts to help you understand it:
After leaving what was then still called Bombay in India, where some of us had bad reactions to the local food, we docked in a place called Port Swettenham (naturally nicknamed Port Sweat), and were driven to the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, (familiarly known as KL). There the students particularly enjoyed congregating downtown around the famous Merlin Hotel, and were also delighted to discover an actual A & W Root Beer stand. One day, we were all required to attend a special reception, in the new air-conditioned Parliament building. This was really crazy because alcohol was a no-no on our ship, but it was a big feature of the reception, where of course we were all expected to be polite and follow the local customs. So all these elements got put together in my Kuala Lumpur song, whose tune ["Oklahoma"] I'm sure you'll recognize:
Because it's Ku-u-u-ala Lumpur, where the sticky heat may trouble
But it beats Bombay 'cause the food's OK, and the Root Beer's A and W!
Oh yes it's K-u-u-u-ala Lumpur, with its brand-new Parliament so cool,
Though the drinks flow free, it's compulsory! What a groovy way to go to school!
Well I think that Malaysia is swell, from Port Sweat to the
And I love Ku-u-u-u-ala Lumpur, dear old Ku-u-u-ala Lumpur,
In all Asia, you can't beat Malaysia,
Kuala Lumpur - K.L!
That was the best teaching job I ever had - or could ever hope to have. Unfortunately, however, it was not the sort of thing you could go on and on doing indefinitely. But once you had been round the world a couple of times, where else was there to go? I had to find a new career - in fact, I needed to completely reinvent myself. By good fortune, this happened to be the very best time for making such an attempt. It was 1967, the year of the celebrated Summer of Love, the heyday of the hippie movement. I soon found myself at its heart, in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury district, playing the role of a sort of mock-guru. It was then that I began reciting and publishing the seemingly endless series of inspired utterances which I called Pot-Shots, and which I somehow eventually built into a whole career.
But I was also still writing songs, this time about all the
strange things I saw happening around me in that insane hippie
environment, which was largely driven by mind-altering drugs,
in particular by LSD - a drug which, as you may know, was originally
a focus of scientific attention, because it was thought to reproduce
the symptoms of schizophrenia.
Here's an example of one of those songs, which I called "TOOK A LITTLE TRIP.' You may recognize the tune. In Harry Belafonte's version he "Left a Little Girl in Kingston Town:"
In the State by the Golden Gate, there's a lovely city with
a street named Haight.
People see where there's liberty, and they never want to leave Haight-Ashbury.
And I'm glad to say, I'm here to stay - happiness has come my way,
My mind is open, and my heart is free,
Since I took a little trip on LSD.
It's too soon to embrace the Moon, but the Earth's delightful
in the afternoon.
You could hate the world and seek Heaven above -
But when you're in Haight-Ashbury, Haight means Love.
So I'm glad to say, I'm here to stay - happiness has come my
My mind is open, and my heart is free,
Since I took a little trip on LSD.
But of course, LSD was not the only mind-altering material in circulation which produced a sort of temporary insanity. There was one other which has never lost its popularity -- and not only with the younger generation. I celebrated it in this next song, using an old melody which I hope you remember as "My Grandfather's Clock." My version is called "MY GRANDFATHER'S POT," and you may even consider it something of a cautionary tale:
My Grandfather's pot was too hot for the shelf -
It was kept in a hole in the floor.
And when Granny and he had a smoke with their tea,
They would lock every window and door.
For they trembled with fright that their clandestine delight
Would scandalize all of the town -
So they died, high, too afraid to cry,
When the house burned down.
Ninety years timid turning-on, pity-pot, pity-pot,
Their home brightly burning on, pity-pot, pity-pot,
They died high, too afraid to cry,
When the house burned down.
So how on earth did I finish up in Santa Barbara? Obviously, any sane person with my talents and background would have gone to Hollywood or New York or back to London - someplace where my genius could be fully recognized and appreciated. But my wife wanted to be near her mother and her aunts, who were getting on in years. That whole family had been living here for generations, and Dorothy has always had a fondness for taking care of old people. So we came here to Santa Barbara, where there are always plenty of elderly, -- a group of whom we ourselves have somehow now become members.
But of course that's not the whole story. I'm a sucker for a pleasant climate and attractive scenery, and it was really just as easy to propagate my insane messages from here as from anywhere else. And since that didn't take too much of my time, I soon found myself getting involved in local politics, and actually ran twice for City Council.
The first time, I conducted my entire campaign in song, and I can't resist this opportunity to share some of that craziness with you. There were 4 seats open on the Council, and a large field of candidates, so to make things easier for the voters, I wrote a song, which I performed at every candidates' forum, telling everybody just how to cast their ballots:
"Who should I vote for?" - your answer should be
Reynolds and Conklin and Miller and Me -
Who'll save our town? Well, we all must agree,
It's Reynolds and Conklin and Miller and Me.
You can expect us, if you will elect us,
To love and protect from the hills to the sea -
It means better living, when trust you are giving
To Reynolds and Conklin and Miller and Me!
But wait! That's not all! I then wrote a play, which was actually performed locally. I called it "Begetting" and it was set in a place very much like Santa Barbara. A main theme was the conflict between those who were in favor of population growth in our community, and those against. At that time, there was a proposition on our local ballot to limit growth, and I actually put a song about it into the play [to the tune of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing!]
Proposition A must pass - help to keep our City small!
Fight the concrete - save the grass! - Never let our standards fall.
Santa Barbara's life is beauty - help to save her - it's your duty!
Learn the lesson of L.A. - she grew from Small to Smell today.
Keep the good life here to stay - YES on Proposition A!
Well, I didn't win the election, but Reynolds, Conklin, and Miller did - and Proposition A actually did pass - so just as the voices heard by Joan of Arc helped her to save France, my voice may have helped save Santa Barbara.
I did run again for City Council, some years later - and that second effort may have been the least crazy thing I have ever done. It was tied in with a campaign to get a ban on gas-powered leaf-blowers - and this time the insanity was all on the side of my opponents - those who could see no harm in making noise, blowing dirt, and spreading pollution. We actually did win the election and got a ban passed - but insanity is not defeated so easily. Sadly -- and madly -- you will still often see and hear those monstrosities in use around our town, if only to prove how crazy the world still is.
Still, that was some kind of a triumph - and I wish there were a whole parade of other triumphs in my life with which I could regale you in this rare opportunity to publicly puff up my self-esteem. But the truth is that most of the things I've ever really wanted I've somehow failed to get. When I was at school in England, my big dream was to get admitted to one of the prestige universities, Oxford or Cambridge. I tried very hard - even took Latin, which was a requirement for admission to those institutions in those days - but I never made it -- which may have had something to do with that "nervous breakdown" I told you about. Then more recently, believe it or not, my great ambition was to be chosen as the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, a paid position which actually exists, and for which, when it became available, I applied in vain, after twisting the arms of numerous supposedly influential people to get them to write letters of recommendation in my behalf.
Why did it mean so much to me? Because, unless you count this notable if belated honor today, I have received amazingly little recognition from my own community.
How much less likely then that I will ever receive what I have always said is my ultimate goal - the Nobel Prize in Literature. Actually that is a good reason for staying alive (and I must admit I often feel I need one), because Nobel Prizes are awarded only to people who are still living -- (unlike our coins and stamps, which you have to be dead to appear on.) So far, however, although there have been many Nobel awards for novels, drama, short stories, and even poetry, that eminent Committee hasn't yet gotten around to recognizing the Epigram as a prize-worthy form of literature.
But let's not blame just the Nobel people. Even the Pulitzers have failed to cast an eye in my direction. In fact, so far the only legitimate paid award I have ever received (and alas I am not getting paid anything even for today's dazzling performance) was back in 1987 from an obscure committee in Kansas City, who made me that year's recipient of the Bragg Award for Humanism in the Arts. I was never even sure what that meant, but it was worth $2000, and a free trip to Kansas City for me and Dorothy to accept the prize.
There are of course many other kinds of recognition - but so far I have never even made it onto network TV. It's true that CNN and A&E have taken some notice of me, and I actually was once featured in PEOPLE magazine, to say nothing of the London Times Literary Supplement, and -- I kid you not - the front page of the Wall Street Journal. - But what should all that, or any of that, matter to a person who is secure and confident in his own self-esteem?
We all know that fame is fleeting. What really matters is not what other people think of you, but what you think of yourself. But that can work in both directions -- and worrying too much about it from any direction can bring us back to insanity again. The craziest people in the world are those who care too little or too much about the opinions of other people - or, for that matter, about anything else.
So what is the answer? For that matter, what was the question? I think the most important question at this point is how do I end this speech, and get out of this place alive? If you can stand it, I'm going to finish up with another hippy song, which in a way has become my theme-song. It's called THE HAIGH-ASHBURY FAREWELL, and was actually the last offering in my "Haight-Ashbury Songbook."
My excuse for winding up with it here is that it's really
all about what is identified in the very last line of the song
as "the world in your head." At the time I wrote it,
some of the people who had come to San Francisco attracted by
the Hippie phenomenon knew they had found what they were looking
for -- and the song is written from their point of view. But
others were leaving, feeling that there were more important things
going on in the world, which they wanted to be part of, such as
the Vietnam War Protests and the Civil Rights Movement in the
South. It was, if you like, just one more conflict between sanity
and insanity - but as to which was which, I'll leave the final
judgment to you. In any case, I'm sure you'll recognize the melody,
of "Red River Valley" - so please feel free to join
in the chorus:
From this City they say you are going
I am sorry you feel you must flee
But remember your friends who were hippies
And stayed in the Haight-Ashbury.
Chorus: So come sit in the park one more hour
It was here you first opened your mind
And in friendship I'll give you a flower
To remind you of love left behind.
Oh I hear you've been talking of Justice
Of improving the world and all men,
But I tell you, that road is a circle
Leading back to yourself once again.
If you love this old world and wish truly
To improve it before you are dead
You don't have to press others unduly -
Better start with the world in your head. ##