Friday, December 21, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 48 - Indianapolis

When I was growing up the family stories were set piece stories that never changed, even though the family got its identity from a writer.

And maybe they never changed because he was a writer and the stories were written just once and forever – so enshrined that they were meant to always stay in place – unlike stories so alive they grow and change each time an artist steps into them.

Some of my grandfather’s stories were in place before he was born – the woman who would be his mother a heroine in the great Chicago fire, his father a self-made rich man on the Wheat Exchange who read the classics and got his strength from heroic happenings in the Civil War. And some of the stories came straight from my grandfather’s his own life. What he wrote of as a glorious time of leisure and privilege in huge houses on Lake Michigan before everything was thrown into doubt and chaos by the First World War – and also the stories about the settlement house movement and his Socialist politics and the Russian Revolution. All such stories apparently stayed in place in the years when he was politically radical, and were still in place in his final years when his base was a very formal “restricted” summer community in the White Mountains of New Hampshire – one of the last places you would expect to find a serious artist.

As a child I looked forward to having set piece stories of my own that would be as unchangeable as my grandfather’s, and like my grandfather’s would stay in place for me and those who followed me, solid things to keep in mind wherever we might be.

One of them had to do with when at 21 – after years of East Coast life and short happy spells in Europe – I became a wire service newsman and saw for myself that there could be nothing so silly and rear-guard as the flat city of Indianapolis, where I had a room in a brick building next to a Toddle House diner and where I covered mostly McCarthyite right-wing politics, this place where so recently you could not start a political career unless you with the Ku Klux Klan.

And so it was a surprise that I should wind up in Indianapolis when I started writing of places I had loved – places I later lived while young where I would leave my house or apartment in the morning saying to myself I am happy now, here now, in the sort of place I know I should inhabit. Something inside me soared as I walked out from these places.

Walking out of the airy teak house where I lived with Sunisar and then Barbara in Thonburi to step into a small ferry at my river landing across from the palaces and temples of Bangkok. Walking out of my our one-room white-washed house, where I lived with Vannie, my girlfriend from New York, high on the side of the Acropolis. Coming out of a sea-view place to walk along a blue bay in the devious Levantine city of Beirut in a time otherwise of frenetic desperation and deep depression. At these moments – when my spirit soared and I felt I was stepping into a kind of happiness – I would always on some be level be thinking with pleasure and excitement of coming out of the brick rooming house in that most mundane of all cities – Indianapolis – where for the first time in my life I felt free.

But this was something I did not know until I typed it while sitting at an unfamiliar new desktop computer in my mountain view house in Woodstock. Indianapolis, where I was first on my own, covering crazed right-wing politics, making weekend forays into Beat-era bohemia in Chicago, going into a trance in a tiny museum while standing in front of its main attraction, a Cezanne painting, full of mystery, exploring red tile roofs going up a European hillside – in Indianapolis making my own living, dealing with journalists and politicians and labor organizers and girls of the day and of the night, free from family, it seemed, and free from enforced schooling – strangely angry about that family – writing a novel at night when not exploring gloriously seedy night places, and all the while sending off letters to the East making fun of the Midwest. And then years later it all came back while I was writing – how my heart was leaping each time I stepped out of my brick rooming house into places that had no precedent in family lore.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 47 - The Betrothal

That was in 1951, that summer with the Impressionists in Paris. And when everything started to change again three and a half decades later I found myself once more in museum rooms. And again while lying in bed at night I could walk through such rooms and see everything that was on every wall – mostly in bigger museums this time, but much the same thing as in 1951.

It started one morning when I woke up in my small but light-filled one-bedroom Chelsea apartment with a tall, sweet-faced woman younger than me named Bonnie whom I had met recently in an Adult Children of Alcoholics meeting – which was something I was doing that until now would have seemed hopelessly out of character. I had turned my answering machine off before she arrived. When in the night I heard the mechanical, though not the audio, part of it moving I was convinced it was my brother calling to say my mother was dying and I would have to go to Florida to take charge. Me, who was not ruled by family. There was no such call from my brother, though I knew there might have been. The actual call on the machine was from a guy who, like me not long before, had split with his wife. He was wondering if he could sleep for a time in my living room.

Bonnie and I went up to the Met that morning. She had a Walkman, something new to me, but not to many by the mid-80s. We passed it back and forth in the E and number 6 trains. I knew I would remember her if not the Mozart. From 86th and Lex we walked over to the Metropolitan. “Let’s go up to the Met,” I had said, it seeming a properly romantic move since I would be showing her a crucial part of what I thought of, with at this point perhaps insubstantial evidence, as myself.

I felt better than I had felt for years. I was silently thanking someone or something for the fact that I could have yet another adventure like this in this new time when everything was changing . We walked with arms around each other’s waists, something I knew a lot about from thirty years back but not so much as it got closer to the present. In the museum I was going to show her my favorite paintings. But what I found instead was how very narrow my scope was.

I had always, ever since Paris, gone to museums, though I realized on this morning that it had been five years or more since I had been in a museum or a gallery. And I realized that I had not really been a constant museum goer since my first time in New York when my first New York girlfriend, who wore black tights, had been an action painter. That was at the end of the fifties and the start of the sixties, a few crucial years after my time in the Jeu de Paum, years that had spanned college, the army, and a rapid career in wire service journalism.

I led Bonnie to the Impressionists. I don’t know if she saw I was intensely embarrassed. I was embarrassed because I did not know where the 19th century paintings were hung even though I had told her how important 19th century paintings were to me. I asked a guard, just like an out-of-touch tourist would, and we found the Impressionists. And then we went to see the Rembrandts, since I knew Rembrandt from another teenage summer, one that I had spent in Holland. Then I tried to find the Hoppers. I knew Hopper from when I was 21 and a journalist in Indianapolis and roaming Chicago on weekends. I would look in on the Art Institute – where I became fixated upon “The Night Hawks,” that intense and lonely diner scene in late night light that seemed to say everything I had wanted to say about about loneliness and fragile hope in seedy but alluring towns.

There were no Hoppers on display at the Met in 1986. And I had nothing else to show Bonnie. It did not occur to me to ask what she wanted to see. I was hit hard by the admission to myself that I knew so little, did not know what was meant by the High Middle Ages or the High Renaissance, had no idea of what a Rafael or Fra Angelico or a Donatello would look like, and I did not know their places in time. I loved art, but I did not know what I loved.

A few days later I was walking uptown from a dentist’s office on 57th Street. On the radio while he was filling a cavity there had been bulletins about the space shuttle explosion that had just taken place – the space shuttle that carried an appealing woman who was really a New Hampshire schoolteacher. When I was on Madison nearing 75th street I saw I was passing the Whitney. Rather I saw the Whitney had its own building, and had probably had it since some point in the early sixties when I had last seen it in its old small home, which you entered from the Museum of Modern Art. Now it had this big but gentle reddish modern building that for some reason was new to me. And inside I was suddenly listening to a happy old man who said he was a retired banker and was here as a volunteer docent. I followed him, though I had spent most of my life traveling and had always managed to avoid tour guides. He said he had loved art since he was a young man in the city and had gotten to know an artist named Sheeler, who was apparently famous but new to me. I now saw Sheeler’s surprisingly deep and romantic treatments of industrial scenes. And then I came upon Hoppers like those I had sought in vain at the Met. And after that I was standing in front of Arshile Gorky’s portrait of himself as a small child with his mother in Armenia shortly before the mother starved to death in the Turkish genocide. And then I was looking at an abstract Gorky called “The Betrothal," which seemed to be about danger and betrayal, and was more literal than abstract to me, and I knew I was getting connected visually again, to the bad and to the good, in ways I had always wanted. Getting information by induction not deduction. And I did not stop looking in museums and galleries for many, many months, and I only paused in the times, starting a year later, that I was myself drawing and painting.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 46 - Literary Magnolias

I read Keats as if these poems were my Bible. And I thought I could follow the old romantic poets at the same time I tried for the world of F. Scott Fitzgerald. I thought I could bring literature and life together in this mixed literary way.

When I first began winning debate tournaments I began to think that I would one day be President. But now in this last year of boarding school I was dreaming that one day I would live in one of those garrets of lore in Paris and become a great poet with all that that implied for love and sex and beauty.

I had actually said this to parents while in Paris that I wanted to stay in Paris, and that had set off more ridicule , so I pulled myself inside myself to wait for my time.

These dreams in the midst of this period when so much was falling apart – my young love affair as well as my pride in how I could use logic for noble ends, which had become part of my identity, even though I had not hesitated to override what I believed when I was in a debate tournament.

I would step out of this world, I decided. I was already seeing other girls in vacation times. And also during the vacations I haunted the 4th Avenue used book stores in the city, and found all the books that F. Scott Fitzgerald had published, including the out-of-print short story collections, which to a large extent were about romantic encounters in a romantic version of the South. I was there with Zelda and the magnolia.

At school I became friends with a new boy who joined our class in the last year. I had only contempt for most of his ideas, but who fascinated me, Hans Larson. He was from what he described as a place for the socially prominent, Tuxedo Park. He had gotten his parents to send him to him to prep school because he was making himself into the a facsimile of the sort of people he admired in that rich town. He related without irony, in fact with pride, how they had held celebratory cocktal parties the day Roosevelt died – while he was stuck in an immigrant Norwegian family that ran a plebeian car dealership. He looked just like the rich kids and not at all like the kids in the public schools. A real Jay Gatsby. Hans. I would edit out his politics and his prejudice, things I hated more than ever. Working through the kitchen help, we got our hands on bourbon and drank it in our dormitory late at night.

I decided I would go to Princeton, like Fitzgerald and like others in my very non-Fitzgeraldian family – though I was still a socialist and pacifist. I did not admire anything much that Hans admired except pretty girls. But I would not let anything limit me, I told myself. On some level, I was sure, Princeton would be under the Fitzgerald influence, more Old South than Tuxedo Park. I forgot to check if Negroes would be in my class – segregation in boarding schools being something I had railed against in our school paper. Princeton, in my fantasy would be a dreamy romantic place as far removed as you could be – as far as Tahiti maybe – from the wind-swept Hampshire lake country. Not the gray conservative place I suspected it might be. Hans himself was rejected by Princeton and was headed to what he considered the next best ting, the University of Virginia.

I was in Europe again the summer before college – going on a Holland-American line student dormitory ship to spend the summer in an exchange program in Holland (a venture that took me back to Paris for one last look in the Jeu de Paum). In the ship back I met two welcoming and amusing guys who had just ended their first year at Harvard. They really liked one of the two Holderness boys I knew who were in their class —Dmitri Nabokov , my debate colleague, the wild and brilliant son of a famous father. They couldn’t stand the other, Al Dawson, who was one of the dumb, sadistic, delusional school athletes. I knew for sure that at Princeton it would have been the other way around. I had made a horrible mistake. This would be no place for someone who liked Keats.

But the night before going to Princeton I read my grandfather’s admiring account of the place – admiring even though he was out of step with the would-be aristocratic Southerners who dominated. He seemed to think that on some level they were right and he was wrong. And then I read Fitzgerald’s romantic version of Princeton in This Side of Paradise – and I tensed up, clenched my teeth and all sphincters and concentrated hard to make myself believe that I and the world were not what I really did know us to be.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 45 - Debating & Writing IV

I go into these stories again and again, which is necessary if you are suspicious of pat endings. I have written about that summer in Paris with my parents, my mother’s mother and their favorite, my twin brother Peter, just before our last year at a boarding school in New Hampshire where it had seemed so certain to me that I had come into my own. I go back into old places and write about growing up as the bad twin – unable to read until near the end of second grade whereas the good twin was reading when he was four, and when we started at that boarding school, Georgian buildings in the lake country of New Hampshire, it was just like those English novels I had started to read about the horror of boarding schools, the sadistic athletes, the conspiring masters. I have written about how my life at Holderness had for the first year and a half been like in one of those novels. They ridiculed me and the boys beat me. I knew those English school novels because I had time on my hands in compulsory evening study hall, which was only for the dullest boys. There I was reading – pretending to study but going in secret into Browning and Keats and Shakespeare. I was reading but I was failing all my courses, except English, and they seemed to hate me - not just the boys but also the Latin master who was as sadistic as the boys, the algebra teacher who was really the football coach, the basketball coach who taught history and had us read a text book I could already see was too simple and wrong in its patriotism. And then suddenly my world changed.

This was when I was taken under the wing of the English teacher who was also the debating coach.This was when I began winning all my debates, and simultaneously I started to do well in all my subjects – except Latin which I refused to tolerate. I did so well that I soon had the highest grades in the school, higher than my brother’s. And before the 4th form was over – 4th form being the equivalent in Anglophile boarding school language to the American sophomore year, before that year was out I was on the varsity debate team and I stayed there for three years and led it into bigger places than the little school has every known as I won and won again in each of three years the New England debating championship, and practically no one dared make fun of me anymore.

As I keep writing about it now I tell of how I also found a girlfriend who made me the envy of even the dull athletes. And I write of how in that summer abroad, back with the family again,it seemed I had gone nowhere, my good-boy twin was at the center still and again. My grandmother said my debate triumphs were all very well but maybe it would have been different if Peter had put the same effort into it and then he, not Fred, would be the best debater in New England. And how strange, they said, that Fred has the pretty girlfriend.

I keep going back in my writing into that time in Paris. My world did get bigger then, but being with the family so much closed down. I would wander on my own. It was a stimulating walk through the Place de la Concorde from our hotel on Rue St. Honoré to the Jeu de Pam, which was where the Impressionists were. The Impressionists, whom I had never heard of before that summer abroad. I had never thought much about art beyond Saturday Evening Post covers and the Varga girls in Esquire. It was my mother who first took me to see the Impressionists – which she knew from long ago when she spent her junior year from Smith abroad. But otherwise these painters were outside any context I knew. There was nothing like this on the walls at school or at home. Neither my mother nor any of my elders had before this ever even talked about art.

Sometimes I would go off to a theater I discovered on the Rue de Capuchins where, though only 16 and looking younger, I could see actual naked girls proudly dancing. My main destination, however, did not change. I would go again and again to the Jeu de Paum.

Writing about it years later I am right there looking at Renoir’s girl on a swing who seems to be a girl for me whom I have encountered on a path. I am right there again, and I still see every wall of the museum and still have in my head the precise location of each painting – the exact location still the same for me, though they moved them all to the Gar St. Lazare in the eighties. I am still standing before Monet’s rows of hay stacks and rows of poplars in shifting light and his various aspects of Chartres and the Houses of Parliament – and I am in the South Seas with Gaugin as far from New Hampshire as you can get, but no farther than where van Gogh takes me
to places right herein France. And then Manet, that wonderful girl on on her back on the bed, I still know just where she is. And I know that in the far end of the next room, if I look up and to the left, there will be those picnicking artists again with their stately nude model. My eyes are open.

Writing about that summer, I then come to my last year, 6th form yeard, at school when I again won the big debating championships, and had the top grades, but did it by bluff now, my reputation such that if the judges saw I has unprepared they would not trust what they saw and would vote for my side anyway. And the masters who graded my slick papers for classes, other than English, could not get the conception I had stopped doing the reading .

I write about this time in Paris and my last year in school to understand what had happened because of that summer when it was as if I was back trapped in the place where I had begun. In that last year I even walked way from my girlfriend, it was that bleak and confusing

But as I keep going into the story the emphasis shifts, for I keep bringing the paintings back. As I write, it is not just being thrown into a suffocating place with the parents and grandmother and the good boy brother, thrown back into my old sad place in the world. As I write I spend more time each time with the paintings. As I write, it is as if what really happened had to do with the limits of debating – the ability to look at everything only from the standpoint of logic, to only honor the purely linear, being willing and able to argue with equal cogency and vigor any side of any subject with almost no reference to anything I hold dear. As I write, going back into the story for the hundredth time, it is the taste of art – more than the limits of family – that in Paris brings this phase of my life to an end.

Friday, December 14, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 44 - Debating & Writing III

I and Mr. Abbey, our coach, and Dmitri, my debate partner, left the self-contained boarding school campus long before sunrise and headed off on salted New Hampshire state highways and snow-covered mountain roads in Mr. Abbey's new Ford – the new 1951 model! – so up to date it had a middle headlight that turned when you turned the steering wheel.

We stopped for breakfast at a diner. We took a booth. The snow outside had drifted up to the frosted-covered, chrome-edged windows. I ordered a hot dog – this was freedom!

Waiting for our order, Dmitri and Mr. Abbey were talking and I was looking towards the counter, admiring a soft, sweet-faced, tousle-haired local girl who was sipping something through a straw. Over a fluffy sweater she was wearing a silk jacket with a dragon on the back – clearly from a local boyfriend drafted into the war in Korea.

I am feeling free and I am admiring this sweet local girl in the diner. This is the year I have been bringing back to the school all those plastic and wood and brass trophies, each topped by brass woman, naked though without nipples, who holds a laurel wreath high above her head – these trophies towering over the minor second and third place trophies for ball games that were – before I came along – all that could be found in the school trophy case.

Eating my hotdog, drinking coffee, thinking of the debate tournament ahead, feeling I had climbed high. And over at the pinball machine there is a big local guy my age in a red-checkered ear-flap hat and army surplus field coat. He is looking toward our booth – as if he knows us.

He does. It is Harold. He's coming over. Harold, last seen wearing a necktie and school blazer when he'd been in our 4th form class. Harold.

I'd known he was from a New Hampshire town. Most boys in the school were from more advanced states. And he had disappeared, not come back for 5th form – had been sucked back into this wind-swept landscape.

Harold had been my assigned roommate in Niles House in the worst time. This had been before I learned I could be seen as smart. We had started to become friends, but when the popular boys on the floor poured into our room to beat me, he'd stepped aside and watched, then egged them on. And then – worse than the beatings – he'd moved out on me because I was so unpopular. Leaving me the only boy in the school without a roommate.

In the diner I see Harold walking over from the pinball machine. He has his hand out tentatively, shyly, smiling at us – friendly. Supplication.

In 4th form he'd never been a shy outsider like me. But this time Harold is so clearly not from our prep school, but rather from the landscape outside it.

Harold – so easy to dismiss now in the diner, as easy as it had been to dismiss me before I was smart,

Before girls liked me,

Before I was a reader and a writer and a champion debater who traveled.

Harold hardly suitable material for the life I would lead and the books I would write about it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 43 - Debating & Writing II

I looked around the big meeting room in Livermore Hall - f
olding chairs lined up with leather sofas - and realized more than half of this small boarding school’s students, maybe 50 boys and also eight faculty members, were here. Such a crowd, it seemed, that I might have been speaking in a coliseum. And for all I knew they were as bloodthirsty as crowds at the ancient world's deadly Roman games.

I knew this room well for this was where we assembled to hear outside speakers – some of them silly, like a burly man who was to give an anti-Communism talk but wound up doing card tricks – and some were deadly serious, like the a tall, thin Quaker who knew what was what in China, including that Mao was popular and would win and Chiang Kai-shek was a discredited warlord that Harry Truman should not be supporting. But now I myself was about to speak here, leading off for the affirmative side on whether our government should provide free health care and higher education. I was 15. My voice had not finished changing. A year earlier I had been considered the dumbest kid in the school and was treated that way by everyone except a key teacher – we called them masters – and two guys who had become my friends in spite of how I had been so slow and unpopular. “Speedy.”

But by the time I was poised to speak in Livermore I had,suddenly, and mysteriously, risen right to the top of my class. I had just made the varsity debate team though I was two years younger than even the brightest varsity debaters in other years.

The room was so familiar. Not just for speakers but also as the place the whole school gathered after dinner every night to sing a hymn and hear a prayer. On the walls were murals showing this rolling-hill part of New Hampshire in autumn colors with figures of the future thrown in – a streamlined train and an airplane with four propellers and nautical-style portholes.

Often that year and the next two years I would be standing in this room surrounded by these gentle murals, building up my case, demolishing my opponents, all the while practicing careful eye contact, my oratory soaring to the point where at moments it was as if I could own the room. That’s how it felt. My words covering over the hymns and prayers that had been here – this meeting room across a hall from a smaller meeting room where mail was handed out in the morning – where now I would almost always find a scented letter in a pastel envelope from Sandie, who like me was 15, an hour away in our sister school, St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains – the envelope’s stamp, as on my letters to her, upside down to show the writer was so distracted by love it was not possible to get things right side up – and on the back of the envelope in capital letters, S.W.A.K., which according to custom stood for “Sealed With A Kiss” – something far beyond anything I had thought could happen to me - for less than a year ago I had been the slowest, most unpopular boy in this school, ridiculed with that nickname “Speedy” – me the slow and bad twin, in the same class here with Peter, the smart, good twin – and by some miracle I had drawn even, and in some but not all crucial ways I had passed him. At one moment I’d been flunking my courses, the next I’d shot to the top of the class just as I became a member of this varsity debate team.

And a girlfriend! And I was finally seen as bright. Not popular yet, still often ostracized,but not totally despised – and now here I was, on the spot in this familiar room filled with boys and masters lined up on folding chairs – standing before them – and I had to make the opening speech. Could I carry it off with a voice that was still changing, a voice that had recently gone from alto to baritone and might still crack as it headed down to base? And would I be ridiculed and ostracized even further for presuming that I could get away with it?

Right in front of me were the judges. Mrs. Homer, a woman with a pretty monkey face who was the mother of my confident-seeming classmate Bob Homer and also president of the League of Women Voters in the nearby town of Plymouth – she and two other Plymouth League of Women Voters women, these two very gray, were to judge this debate that would begin the moment I opened my mouth – if I could open my mouth.

Behind me at our table was my debate colleague and friend Ken Kaplan, who was a sixth former, the equivalent of senior, while I was just a fourth former. And at the other table behind me was the Portland, Maine team – Lois and Michael – who last year had carried back to Portland some major debating trophies. These two - the legendary Lois, a beautiful, stately colored girl, though you forgot that fast, and sturdy Michael - the New England debating champions, coached by a craggy man named Mr. Walsh who produced a handbook on each year’s national subject that went out to debaters all over America. The strongest team in New England, and their famous coach too, right here in this room where I was in front of this crowd at this school of mine where I still might be an outcast.

Me – a fourth former – Speedy – lucky to be where I was, lucky to have a girlfriend who necked on those rare occasions we got up to her school or they got down to ours – it all being almost as if I were one of the popular guys. And now my life hinged on this moment in this familiar room with the fall foliage murals where, my mouth dry, I did begin to speak even while remembering that I was the slow, dumb, shy guy who would not know what to say.

Very early on the morning after my victory – we’d won and the League of Women Voters women had named me Best Speaker – I and all the school debaters on all levels were off in a school van with our coach to a practice tournament at a southern New Hampshire high school. No one was calling me Speedy today. They seemed to have dropped the word. Finally!

Peter, who was always prompt, was already in the van when I climbed in. He gave me a long look and said something about a swelled head. He shook his own head, and through a sour smile he said, “Hi Speedy.”

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 42 - Chapter One

I am in the open ward at St. Mary’s hospital on the island side of the old colony of Hong Kong. I am in this tattered, sprawling open ward for people brought in suddenly – and also, it seems, for charity cases, but non-charity cases too – a place in this overcrowded enclave where you can get a bed quickly and where a doctor, the latest in a series of doctors, allopathic and otherwise, thought I should be.

My new wife was in this same place recently. The rows of beds here must hold 60 or 70 people. For her it was an overdose of hashish, for which I was blamed because the marriage is so flimsy. My bed is almost exactly where hers had been. Across from me there are very old, shrinking people peeking out from their sheets. Chinese people. I am the only foreign devil here – a term not used much in other Chinese cities but still in use here because of the way the colonial British, even at this late date, presume to carry themselves.

When my wife was here it was more interesting across the way. In a bed there, then, was a pale, delicate starlet who, like my wife, had overdosed. The starlet was looking at the ceiling, ignoring the visit of a suave boyfriend, who like the leading men in so many Hong Kong and Taiwan movies, except those that entailed magic, knew how to show his appeal and authority by the way he could half stand and half lean as he watched the irony of life unfold around him. The Hong Kong equivalent of men in French movies who wear their sports jackets draped over their shoulders like shawls. It radiates sophistication and cool, to wear a jacket that way with a half smile on your face, as it does in Hong Kong to lean with confidence and detachment, whether against a table or the back of chair or the head of a hospital bed – with some sad, lovely girl in your view.

But I have no one to look at but the shriveled men and women peeking out of their sheets. And no one seems to know exactly why I am here. I have a low grade fever, have had it for weeks, which my last doctor – a former combat surgeon in a Seventh Day Adventist hospital – said was such a dire sign that, without tests, he put me on an arduous treatment for typhoid. But the nurses here at old St. Mary’s say low grade does not count, so it looks like I am not sick, though the doctor making rounds, a modest grandfatherly Chinese man, wants to look for cancer. I am in a dark haze, unable to collect my thoughts. The one thing no one has said is that all these are physical signs of my deep depression. I do not even know the word. Looking back later it seemed I had all the symptoms, except serious plotting for suicide, and maybe that was because it was so hard for me to pull together coherent thoughts, much less act on them.

I do not know the word “depression.” But I know these mysterious dark times, which can come just as everything is working out, and just as everything is falling apart. These book contracts I carry that define me give me no safety – have nothing anymore to do with me. No more than does my history.

I live nowhere permanently. A few exciting years in Bangkok, a few cloudy years in Beirut, a few in the Balkans, a few in Singapore and now Hong Kong, where I have been before, which I already knew was a two-week city, like Beirut – an artistically barren place where everyone is after money and there are no green parks. In between these times – times of fireworks, times I remember now as being so mysterious as to let in joy – between these foreign times always a few years in New York City, which I think of as my home – sometimes the East Village, sometimes the West Village, sometimes the Upper West Side, anywhere in Manhattan except my forebears’ East Side places. And I am puzzled each time in New York when I head off to adventure in all these thrilling foreign zones (not counting Beirut and Hong Kong), puzzled that I have to push myself through heavy darkness that pours down, each time with no warning that I can catch, and nearly paralyzes me.

And it got worse, for it was never so dark and hopeless as in the time just before I began to look not at these foreign places but at the places of my origin that I had edited out and replaced with foreign places, often war zone places, that I thought could bring definition and safety.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 41 - Debating & Writing I

Not long after Mr. Abbey had let me know I did not have to be seen as dumb and slow and a lesser figure than my brother, he announced in his first year English class that we were going to stage a debate. To us, this was a little like saying we were going to conduct a football game, since debating was the only competition in which this little school had been able, in recent memory, to add to its trophy case.

Joe Abbey, who was both the debate coach and the English teacher, now announced that in only two weeks four of us would actually be in an actual debate. It was only a debate in English class, but it would be judged just as if it were one of those big-time debates in which our varsity debaters took on and beat rival debaters and brought the sort of glory to our school that its sports teams could not manage.

I was teamed up with a kid called Fishbone, so named because he once swallowed a fishbone and it stuck in his throat and he did not tell anyone until weeks has passed and he was hardly eating. Fishbone read a lot, but like me was so behind in his classes that he had to go to evening study hall. Fish Bone and Speedy were teamed up against two boys who had the best grades in the class. One of them was my assigned roommate Peter Churchill, on his way already as a future president of the school – the dark, popular if not happy, son of a big time Boston heart surgeon. The other was my smart twin, Peter Poole, who was shorter than me but always looked people in the eye and always walked with the stride of someone who knows where he is going.

The subject of the debate was federal world government. The time was less than five years after World War II and there were many people saying the world should now be organized in a different way. Fishbone and I were to speak in favor of world government. Peter and Peter against Fishbone and Speedy.

Everyone except the teacher, Mr. Abbey, laughed when I got up to speak. Someone in the back said the word "Speedy," and someone else said "Study Hall versus Room Study."

But we won quite easily.

And two months after winning the debate I was at the top of the class, not the bottom, and going to Saturday events at high schools in other towns where debaters at all levels could took part in practice debates with other schools. At this time I asked to retake my IQ test and jumped ahead 40 points. Suddenly I was on room study. I could spend my evenings doing what I wanted so long as I stayed indoors. I quit Latin and scored high enough in other subjects to rival my twin brother.

But I was still called Speedy that year, and the next year, 4th form year, it got worse. This was when the organized torture went on each night, and my roommate moved out so as not be tarred by my unpopularity. But I kept going to these practice debate events. Mr. Abbey would not, I knew, have included me on those Saturday trips if he did not think I had potential.

I was not winning much. I was shy. Judges said they had trouble hearing me. And yet I was doing it, and Joe Abbey had faith. And I could hardly remember ever not having been on room study.

I was becoming a young master of linear thinking.

Monday, December 10, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 40 - While I Was Away

I was like someone who has sojourned far from a familiar place, and when that person returns he finds there have been earthquakes and forest fires and hurricanes, and although the place has been quickly and carefully rebuilt to cover up the damage, nothing remains the same.

My subject matter, what I had to write about when I returned to writing, bore little resemblance to what my subject matter had been back when I thought I could write an amusing book about the family. Back when I was most interested in my stories that entailed exotic and erotic adventures in foreign lands far from any home or childhood.

While I was off on this sojourn, there had been a great deal of death, some of it metaphorical and some of it literal, as in the suicide of my Cousin Elka, who hung herself in San Diego where her absent husband had been teaching anthropology. I got the news while spending a few duty days in my mother’s brand-new West Coast Florida condominium, which looked like a prison from the outside, the building was so barren, and on the inside if you turned a door knob there was a good chance it would come off in your hand. My mother came into the tiny guest room – where three years back I had left my father dying in a rented hospital bed beside a rented steel contraption called a Hoyer Lift.

My mother had been speaking on the phone with Elka’s mother, my very correct Aunt Peggy, who had called from Scarsdale with the news. I called Elka’s husband, my obese, pedigreed cousin Fitz John Porter Poole. He spoke as if from a hollow place. He seemed to me more resigned than disturbed, and it sounded like it was due less to shock than that the event for him had a matter-of-fact quality to it.

A few hours later my mother came looking for me. She was drinking and beaming. It’s all right, she said. Peggy called me again. My Aunt Peggy had just spoken to Elka’s mother, who had decided everything was for the best. Elka had been such a trial to her family. And now, Aunt Peggy said, she and Elka’s mother were happy that the way was clear for Fitz John to get on with his life.

It was another twenty years before Fitz John shot himself, but I had plenty of new material to work with long before that when I went back to writing.

Friday, December 7, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 39 - Writing of a Sort

I realized later that during that time I was away from writing I never stopped all versions of writing, I carried notebooks with me when I was in museums or in ACOA meetings, or roaming in city and country places I had known in the past, or new places, like Arrezzo and Urbino, that I had never seen before and that I was absorbing visually. I would have an idea and I would write it down. And it would stay there in my notebook just the way I had conceived it in my head.

And so even though I was filling up notebooks with thoughts, writing was still not very useful to me. It did not, like painting now, unravel my life – the only life I knew well enough to place at the center of my art.

By writing down insights and reminders to myself I was not writing. I was journaling – which has become a popular pastime, right up there with scrap-booking. Sometimes it yields results, for it can give an accurate picture of what is happening in the head, and it can be a way to deal with the most crucial matters of the moment in an ongoing life. It can also be useful for future writing. But journaling - unless faked to fool a teacher - means writing for the writer's own self only, and so there is no need to recreate scenes.
Some rigid academics who glorify linear thinking and despise the intuitive still put a journaling requirement in their courses, they consider it that safe.

It is in the process of recreating reality that an artist strikes gold. In the process of going from head to canvas or paper a fixed idea in the head is transformed into something much more.

Towards the end of the non-writing time I went to a weekend “inner child” retreat in which we were all told to “Write a letter to yourself as a child.” I wasn’t writing any more, I thought, but I went walking by a river and I wrote this letter to myself with some emotion and great sympathy, wondering where I had been all these years. And when I read this piece I choked up. But something was lacking. At end of what I wrote I was precisely where I had been when I started. There had not been discovery, just a reiteration of matters already known.

I read the piece aloud and the retreat leader gave a wise look and said “You are writing again.” And later he was still taking credit for my return to writing. But I knew at the retreat that this was not writing yet.

That letter-to-a-child thing. It only went so far – this kind of therapy writing. For it is usually directed, sometimes quite subtly, by the one who gives the assignment. It starts with a conclusion.

And then there was the dark scaly stranger. He had appeared in another therapy writing exercise. You were supposed to write about an encounter with some fearsome stranger who has always been around. So I made the stranger this one-dimensional ugly, bullying bigot. How very satisfying.

A few weeks later, when alone in my studio, I tried a visual response. This was when I started that painting that was supposed to be of this scaly, bigoted stranger who had haunted me all my life. A stranger so simple as to be dismissed. But when I painted him I could not keep him so simple that I could dismiss him and never miss him. I could not keep this stranger in such a safe place. A much more formidable person appeared in the place of the scaly man – this woman with glorious bare shoulders who was looking down on a mysterious, exotic, at the same time lovely and craggy landscape – a landscape which to enter would mean entering the unknown.

In the retreat leader/therapist's simplistic world it would have been said I had found that the stranger was myself. But I was not that woman, although if she were not important to me, were not part of me, she would not have appeared in my art. What I was finding was too complicated for smug psychological dictums. Complicated in the mind when clear in the heart.

All painting at this point was exciting to me. What I did not know quite yet was that writing could be too – which was what I had thought about writing in the first place before the years of living by writing.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 38 - This Strangely Familiar Place

I was almost late the first morning. The very early first period had not quite begun and the halls were crazed – everyone in boots or sneakers, not the grown-up shined shoes we had had to wear in boarding school. And the boys with hair over their ears, or pony tails, not our old regulation short hair. And there were raucous shouts. No mid-century boarding school suits or sport coats or gray flannels or blazers. Everyone rushing, or taking up room being casual. Walkmen. Backwards baseball caps. Lockers loudly rattled. And pretty girls – girls! – many with long silky hair, some in make-up, some with their belly buttons showing –

Teachers as well as kids had to walk around a place in one hall where a boy and girl, the boy the school's only black person, were locked together, here in the early morning, French kissing.

And then a bell and then three squat, thick-necked middle-aged men with crew cuts – looking and sounding like beery drill sergeants – were running through the halls. They were pushing people and screaming orders –
"Keep movin'!"

"Go ta ya classroom!"

Who were they?

Then I realized that these had to be the hall monitors of lore. To me, who had never before been inside a public high school on a weekday, they were like a team of strike-breakers, or Teamsters hired to beat up peace demonstrators.

In my innocence of actual high schools, I'd thought, till now, that hall monitors were the same thing as our floor leaders and house leaders and proctors back in boarding school – well-dressed, crew-cut boys in conservative, diagonally striped silk neckties, chosen from the ranks of the pathologically well-mannered.

I never mentioned Rhetorical Modes in these early morning classes. By this time in my life real stories were a passion with me – not to be messed with, not to be ruined by little constipating tricks of the how-to-write industry.

And just as I never mentioned Rhetorical Modes, I never assigned what the pinch-faced principal wanted – deadly dry, straight-jacketed research papers.

For us, no introduction.

Just the body of the work, wherever it leads.

No foregone conclusions.

And none of the bizarre old rules of grammar – such as not starting sentences with conjunctions and not ending them with prepositions.

No musty school-teacher piety for these girls and boys. Instead, they were taking chances – writing scenes and stories from their own actual lives, stories of hate – love – triumph – abuse – despair – hope – sex – sports – betrayal.

They were getting right at what it had taken me decades to get to in my own writing – writing in which, when I'd finally let it organically unfold, the landscape of my past life had radically changed.

In my own writing, neo-Victorian family members – intelligent, sometimes honored, cautiously Ivy League – family members who had seemed at worst comic in their stuffiness had turned into people who now seemed like characters in horror stories. Despite their veneer, they had left in their wake molestation and addiction and hopeless depression, and the often violent early deaths of sons and daughters.

That was my own writing. In the English class essays I invited I now – within firm bounds of confidentiality – learned of rural, alcoholic, molesting parents – and sometimes real-seeming warm and happy parents too – and the way the school principal had covered up a big drug bust to save his career, and I knew what teacher was faking academic and even sports records for his child, and I knew what girl was going out on the sly with what other girl's boyfriend, and who fucked who and who didn't –

And I also knew from the writing who was having fun, off on adventures through these hills in favorite old trucks and cars, or snow-boarding expeditions, or drug times and shoplifting times, or the up side of dating.

And I came to know from their writing what it was like to be the care-taking daughter of an anti-Semitic state trooper, or the bigoted son of an Aryan supremist druggist, a son who had no place else to put his anger.

And I remembered. My own anger. And so much else. Including seeing the seasons change from my old, tidy Georgian-style boarding school, which was also high on a hill like this homely high school. And discovering Keats and Beethoven and Monet. And, at rare inter-school get-togethers, vertical necking in the name of dancing.

My memories. My own adolescence, now so many years later, coming back to life again here on this hilltop in the Cairo-Durham High School.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 37 - Teaching

It was forty years after my time in study hall, and my time at White Pines, and now I had a problem. I wasn't a teacher. I'd never even considered the academic life. But I was just divorced again, and the money was all gone, and my writing again had stalled, and nothing was coming in. I had to do something. Anything to keep afloat.

I lived now in a bright and airy, recently purchased, heavily mortgaged, mountain-view house just outside the colorful Catskills village of Woodstock, New York. Woodstock, this eccentric place of writing and music and art – sort of like an ideal college town should be. And with the added advantage of having no college in it.

It's also a place with not many ways to make money – and so in my current situation, this lack of a college was also, for the first time, a disadvantage, since it meant one less source of jobs.

So I decided to journey north to a more raw place – the English department of a small community college – low, prefabricated buildings set in a stark and grand northern Catskills area that had once, way back, been marginal farm country. Later it had had a run as a somewhat prosperous summer resort place. That had ended too. And by now it was as impoverished and bleak as some of the New Hampshire landscapes of my youth.

Farmland fallow. Tourist places outdated, dying, deserted – like old New Hampshire.

The English Department chairperson at the Catskills community college looked like someone who had survived it all – tough, gray, ageless, wiry. She was so glad to see me, she said. And wasn't it awful what had happened?

I thought she was referring to the increasing poverty of these lovely but sad and desecrated upstate New York counties her college served (even, somehow, to my own sudden, dangerous poverty and indebtedness).

But it turned out she meant the low quality, everywhere, she said, of present-day young people.

We got my credentials out of the way quickly. I was qualified, it turned out, because recently, pursuing a midlife interest in theology, I had received a masters degree cleverly disguised by the theology department to look like a degree in education.

Then we got on to more immediate matters.

"Kids today are different," she said. "Nobody knows the basics."

She was talking about her specialty courses, English 101 and English 102, both of which entail much student writing. But her students just did not want to write, she said. In desperation she had even asked them to write about what interested them. They had done so, and she had to flunk some of them anyway, including a boy whose interest was, of all things, football.

She had to flunk them because, who cares about young people's self-serving, self-pitying memories?

Then she started talking in a foreign language: "Would you believe," she said, "that young people today don't know the difference between description and narrative?"

I knew the words “narrative” and “description” but had no idea what this woman thought the difference was supposed to be. I knew it could be fatal to writing if you tried to make such a distinction. I was aware, from my own writing, of how a narrative could be propelled by description, and of how a narrative without description would be generalized nonsense. I knew she was talking nonsense – as bad here in this little school as in the supposedly great university I had endured as an undergraduate. Awful, destructive nonsense. But I tried to look solemn. I actually raised an eyebrow. I shook my head in sadness.

"And do you know," she said, "that I hardly see an entering student who can tell the difference between a causal essay and a process essay?"

I put on a look of even deeper sorrow, and said, "This is terrible."

And I was pretty sure I had the job.

At this time I had just begun the Authentic Writing workshops with a weekly group meeting in Woodstock. And I was thinking a lot about my boarding school English teacher Joe Abbey and his love for literature, and the hatred for literature that I had found at Princeton.

And then it turned out that the actual setting of the job was as foreign to me as that mysterious stuff about causal and process essays. I was to teach an accelerated freshman college English course to 16- and 17-year-olds inside something called the Cairo-Durham (pronounced Cay-row-Durham) Central High School.

Three times a week, so early the class would be over by 8 a.m.

Not only had I never been a teacher before this, college or otherwise, I had never attended a public high school.

I went to look at the place. It was a dark, snaking, one-story brick building. It had almost no windows, although it was set high on a hill with what could have been a 360-degree panoramic view of fields and woods and mountains – a hill rising from a village made up of rustic rural bars, all of which had shamrocks on their signs.

These fields and hills and woods and mountains, though not the shamrock bars, so like New Hampshire 40 years back, before I had given up such countryside in favor of, until Woodstock, big cities and war zones.

When I was a teenager and in New Hampshire I had not always seen such landscape directly. I had looked out at southern New Hampshire from the protected grounds of that old-line, Anglophile all-boys boarding school. In the summers in northern New Hampshire I had looked out at it from the protected grounds of the formal summer mountain houses, especially the big house called White Pines, owned by "our kind of people."

Now here I was in the northern Catskills, so many years later, not looking out at such a landscape but actually in it.

I drove up to the college bookstore with my best friend Claude the dog, an intensely personable, low-to-the-ground, adolescent, black-and-white basset hound/terrier. Claude and I now lived alone in my big mountain-view house that the bank wanted back.

I drove up through the northern Catskills thinking of how deep in the past when I'd been in such countryside I'd been an adolescent and my life had seemed worthless, desperate – without hope – until – away from home – a remarkable English teacher saw what other teachers and my Connecticut family had missed – and books and writing saved my life – and the world opened for me.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 36 - The End of Insight

I had lived on writing for thirty years and only been away from it for six. When I came back to the written word I must have thought I could also come back to my old faith in the logic of outcomes. For six years I had been getting my information visually, not from mere words. I had rejoiced in my freedom from writing, which had come to seem such a dry, musty craft. I was a painter and not a writer. And yet now I needed words again, or thought I did.

The changes that had come in my life in this period when I was not writing had led to many surprises, not the least being conscious awareness for the first time of spiritual hunger I felt for realms where I did not have the illusion I could know outcomes before I stepped into them – real life being like real writing in which so much happens that you cannot start with the last line and write into it.

My world had changed so much that at this time I was returning to writing that I was studying at a university – something that for reasons I still respected I would not have gone near in my professional writing years and was very careful about now – and it was a liberal Jesuit place, Boston College – a Catholic world that I had respected intellectually since I first saw it from a tight-ass right-wing Calvinist place -- and also avoided intellectually and now remembered in a warm way because of people I had known people who did not flit the Catholic clichés, people I had known, courageous saint-life activists in places like Taiwan and the Borneo part of Indonesia, and Somoza’s Nicaragua and the Philippines of the cruel Marcoses. And right now I was across the Charles at a place called Weston exploring the 16TH century spiritual exercises of Ignatius of Loyola – and it meant writing again. For the exercises entail stepping right into stories, which might be stories from the past but would inevitably be the writer’s most crucial stories in the present. People I knew now had used the exercises to change their lives – to leave the priesthood or go into it -- to leave or go into marriages – to leave and enter careers -- and I understood the proposition that you could find God’s will if you stepped into your story this way.

But I made a grave error. I thought that with words I could and should bring logic back into my life again now after a vacation from linear thinking. And so I wrote about something that concerned me night and day at this moment. I was about to get married again, this time to a sexually and artistically charged woman with problems covered over by her appeal, a woman with whom I had been conducting an affair. There were obstacles to this connection -- the biggest being the woman’s insufferable good boy son, whom she had had when she was a teenager. I decided I would write about it, and see where I came out.

And I got a good part of the story right. He was indeed a horror, although to his relatives he was a prince. A sociopath maybe. He hung onto his mother like an infant -- a 21 year old infant -- tortured her with tales of blood and disease and masochism in the gay life he led – tortured his sister by working hard to keep up the myth that she was nothing more than a lightweight wild child, when in fact she was not just more attractive than he was, she was smarter, and she was artistically gifted – brains and artistic talent being his own domain, his alone, forbidden for anyone else in his family, much less a vibrant younger sister. I saw signs that he was pushing her, with the help of her strange father, who still looked almost like a teenager himself, in the direction of even street prostitution. Moreover, he was making plans to live with my future wife and me.

And now as I wrote about this – about it more than in it -- I saw an overriding reason why the situation was so upsetting to me that it felt like unmanageable chaos. This awful kid was now pushing the idea he had learned in classes that criticism was superior to art – and that the only good poem, as he had been told at the New School, was one that was written into a well worked out, foregone conclusion. He was the policeman, stopping art and life from breaking out. This son, Jason, had exactly the role in his family that my twin brother, Peter, had had in mine – not the violent sex part but everything else, the good little, the clever little boy who put his sibling in the shade.

And I made the mistake of thinking that this insight was enough – thinking again, as I had before the changes in my life began, that insight ever could be enough. Going against something I knew. And so I did what I had wanted to do in the first place. I went ahead with the marriage, which did not last 18 months.

And I very soon knew I never would never have gotten in it if I had really stepped into the story, which was probably what Ignatius meant – recreated the story rather than buried it in insight.

Monday, December 3, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 35 - The Last Line First

For six mostly happy years I thought I was not a writer.

During this period of not writing the whole landscape of my life, past and present, was changing. I moved from New York City up to Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, but that was not the whole story. It seemed to me I had lived too much of my life in a linear world involving words. And then words were suddenly useless, and nothing was happening on a straight line.

This change in direction began in the eighties when, while living in Manhattan, I realized I felt less and less connection with what I thought of as my life. Maybe I had had only moderate success with my writing but my identity was mixed up with being a writer. I had enough money. I had this book my friend Max and I had written on the horror of the Marcos Philippines (one in a string of my published works). It was in a bookstore window I passed on Fifth Avenue. A divorce had come through and my social life was picking up. I still had connection to the literary world. I was putting together plans for new book, including one on great rivers of the world and one making fun of California. An editor was pushing a new project that treated my often very dark childhood and family as amusing and happy. There was no satisfaction in any of the projected writing projects that I had thought I wanted so badly. It all felt more like an ending than a beginning, more like death than life.

I was struck with the realization that it had been twenty years since I had written without a contract and advance money. Worse, it had been nearly as long since I had started a book, fiction or nonfiction, without knowing what I would say in my final chapter. Publishers need outlines before they write checks. The outlines are mainly to convince their hard-headed sales people that there will really be a book one day. They are kind of fake, these outlines. But I had been following actual or imagined outlines for years. And nothing was changing. There was no discovery. I began to think of writing as plodding and distant. With new acquaintances I started to hide what I had done for a living.

And then something else came into focus. I had always thought of myself as being extremely visual, but now I became aware that it had been many years since I had been inside an art museum. So one morning a new girl friend and I took the subway up to the Metropolitan.

Almost immediately I was spending time alone in museums every day – and was still doing it a year later when I signed up for courses at art schools all over town and became, in mid-life, a full-time art student. Now, I thought, as I roamed about town with my portfolio, no one will take me for a writer.

Operating in visual worlds I found I had no control over what I was doing. It was a relief. I could not use paint and colored pencils to force conclusions and keep terror at bay the way I had taught myself to use words. Maybe an artist with years of academic training could keep up the illusion of control with images the way I had done it with words. But I did not have those years of training. Anything could happen.

I would see something in color – for instance, the horror of blood red against a Flemish or Dutch aqua sky – in the Met; I would be led to that same color combination in an angry East Village feminist crucifixion scene, and that mood would lead to the dark dangerous forests of Hobbema at the Frick, landscapes that I had once thought uneasily should be comforting. Hobbema would lead to the sickly landscapes of Theodore Rousseau at the Frick and the Brooklyn, and then on to the sacred, evocative nature scenes of Daubigny at the Brooklyn and back at the Met again, and then on to visual connections resulting from black between Manet and Goya and Murillo, and then the pure color of Monet at the Met and the Guggenheim and the Modern, the same Monet who had moved me decades earlier in Paris and then been lost to me. And from Monet I would go to Hopper's sunlight on buildings and his wife's grand naked body at the Whitney, then into the horror world of Gorky and the chaos of Pollack, and the lively erotic bronze nudes of Matisse and the strangely evocative but stylized bronze nudes of Archipenko, and the terror of Franz Kline abstract figures, and the deep longing in Joan Mitchell abstractions. Surrealism, I learned, could be as real as realism and abstraction could be too. I did not study art history. I did not know if anyone else saw what I saw. I just looked.

And it was now that the art I saw and made became mixed with images in my dreams, and mixed too with my memories of all the scenes of my life. My stories began to change. For example, episodes of family violence, from suicide to child molestation, no longer seemed isolated incidents in overall stories that I had recounted as amusing. I had found that, though it seemed it could be a great career boosting move, I could not write a word of a projected project in which I planned treat myself and my family so lightly that all darkness was removed.

Lies no longer seemed unimportant. And maybe this was why for the first time since adolescence I had a sense that spiritual talk was not always nonsense talk. And so I eased into spiritual areas I had dismissed as not fitting my plans – worlds I had dismissed maybe even to the extent that my family of origin had dismissed people of all races including even the race they thought of as their own. (I had once spoken with pride of how I had spent a total of seven intense years in the Far East without having a single spiritual experience.)

Then art led to nature, and I realized how far I had come from forces whose power had once put me in thrall. It is hard to visit the Brooklyn Museum without going to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, hard to do the Met or the Frick or the Guggenheim without roaming in Central Park. I found myself spending time in nature in a seamless transition from what I had been doing in studio classrooms and in galleries and museums.

I went beyond the parks – to Vermont and New Hampshire, to New England mountains and lakes. And there seemed no good reason not to live in countryside again. One day I drove up to the Catskills to check out the Woodstock School of Art. I found myself in the surrounding mountains, alongside streams and ponds. As it became clear I would stay I started to know joy and terror I had kept at a distance living in cities for so many years. It had been an array of places, from Bangkok to Beirut to Athens, but always cities, always walking on concrete, not real earth, nothing like the dangerous earth I now remembered – as paintings became mixed with recently salvaged memories, and with dreams, and the present reality.

My stories, now out of my control, took many directions. What I had dismissed as silly I now saw as deadly, and what I had thought of as beyond possibility began to seem real. In this way the landscape of my life, past as well as present, changed. Now nothing was more important than getting at the stories that were most real, which were not always the stories that fit into the imposed frameworks I had accepted.

And now when I started writing I never knew exactly what direction the writing would take. What was happening in the writing now was a very concrete version of what had been happening when in a painting I tried to portray enemies with a dark scaly figure of horror – and the painting took such a different direction.

Friday, November 30, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 34 - The New Sentimentality

I was with my girlfriend. At least I thought she was my girlfriend. The right girlfriend, it was beginning to seem. Not only talented but convinced I was talented too. And so pretty and funny. Also brilliant. Life and relationship the way life and relationship should be. We had so much in common – our art work, and for a time the bond of unearned money.

But I had just started the workshops and she had already told me I was doing it all wrong. I was allowing, if not instigating, stories that had no resolution and went into dark territory. She said I should revert to timed exercises, one of which should be to ask workshop participants to describe a bird in flight. Not, she said, that she thought hard stories should be censored. Darkness is real. And I knew enough about her late alcoholic and invasive minor celebrity mother to know she had plenty of raw material for very dark work.

She wasn’t always criticizing the workshops. Although her own writing tended towards very careful poetry, she talked a lot about her really horrible childhood. But she talked sometimes not so much about specific matters in her own stories but about how her stories were the foundation for something important.

Sometimes tears would come as she talked – not when she was stepping into her life stories but rather when she was using the stories to back up conclusions. She began to cry as she said that what we were doing, finding out what really happened in the dark or misty past, was so very important because it would help assure that no child again would have to suffer what we had suffered. She was crying and she was so attractive. A talented, tortured, artistic woman who could not find happiness, could not stay within a community, was always moving on. And sometimes was more comfortable when saying “we” than in saying “I.”

And so tears did not come when she stepped into stories of her tortured childhood the way they flowed when she talked in generalities on other people’s behalf. And this did not seem strange to me. When I was first going after my stories verbally, though not in writing, I had said much the same thing before a group of people looking into the past, and I could not finish what I had to say, I was so overwhelmed with emotion. Emotion that did not last so long as a certain smugness that now I really had the story right. And the smugness did not last long either, for it is impossible to tame a story that is real.

This short-lived smugness that resulted from having everything in place. To my maybe girlfriend the best way to handle this was to often look not at real people but at archetypes. She frequently traveled far to conferences that delved into archetypes.

But what was happening – what tends to happen when a person speaks in generalities – is that actual live people tend to vanish from the story. The people in the stories, including the tellers of the stories, come across as case histories, something tucked away to be brought out to back up points that are being made.

When tears came as I was speaking in generalizations, it was not unlike what my brilliant and sensitive old boarding school English teacher, Joe Abbey, told of his experience when he read aloud really awful sentimental poetry and found tears coming to his eyes in spite of himself. I can also be moved for a very brief time by a lightweight movie where everything works out and the villains are all reformed, and the hero has overcome odds against him to the point where he has a lover now who looks exactly like a movie star.

Tears in the movie theater where everything is simpler than life can ever be, tears when there are archetypes but no people - so different from tears in life. The listener might be moved when hearing the generalizations, but it is not the same thing as being moved when presented with an evocation of something concrete and real.

What can happen when real things are buried in theoretical things is not so unlike a politician standing beside a legless veteran and talking about the need to sacrifice to make the world safe for freedom, democracy and corporate growth.

For there are far more insidious things than shallow crying that result from false shallow stories. False stories take the life out of real stories Without real people in the stories it is easy to manipulate the stories – as so many sociopathic political figures have learned. And then everyone can sing the equivalent of that fake-sentiment Irving Berlin song “God Bless America” while everyone is working towards, or silently colluding in, the most awful atrocities.

I sympathize with those who try to get into the spirit of this false and dangerous nonsense – as I tried so hard once to make things right with that beautiful, tortured artistic woman who wanted to get her stories under control.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 33 - Reading

In those school years I never for a moment thought that when I read Wolfe and Farrell and Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Steinbeck and Faulkner that I was reading fiction. And I found out when I began reading literary biographies that I was right. Just as I knew and had it confirmed later that the places I was reading about in boarding school were actual places - Thomas Grey's country graveyard and Wordsworth's Tintern Abbey, were actual places – and Keats' Grecian urn an actual vase seen by an actual person, the first-person narrator of the poem. As real as the sometimes harsh, sometime gentle New England hills I could see through the old schoolroom windows.

I knew things that are easily forgotten if you fall for the idea that fiction is superior to actuality.

Joe Abbey, the English teacher who made all the difference for me, read to us from Keats and Wordsworth and Grey. He brought us Robert Browning's awful duke describing how he'd worked over his beautiful young duchess who then died. I knew that whether this was fact or fiction it was at worst a disguised version of what Browning knew from his own life, for the people in the poem were so true to actual life. There was no prettied up ending here. I loved the young duchess in my mind, where I also saw lovers stopped on Keats’ Grecian urn, stopped there before life went on and they could grab each other and anyone could ruin it for them.

Thomas Grey vanishing in the past, “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air..." An old (late twenties) Wordsworth above Tintern Abbey thinking of the optimistic young Wordsworth, "...when first/I came among these hills;/ When like a roe/I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides/Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,/Wherever nature led: more like a man/Flying from something that he dreads, than one/Who sought the thing he loved." And Keats telling the young man he sees on the urn “Bold Lover, never, never canst thou kiss,/ Though winning near the goal - yet do not grieve;/She cannot fade, though thou hadst not thy bliss,/Forever wilt thou love, and she be fair!”

I found it so easy to make connections when reading these versions of reality. I found I loved nature, and longed for girls, and had learned that hope was illusive, and I knew people who were much like the people in the poems. And I made connections when Joe Abbey introduced us to Dickens and talked of how Dickens wrote so convincingly about being spurned in love because he himself had been spurned in love.

He had us read Galsworthy, The Forsyte Saga, which depicted men and women who seemed to me completely true to life as I knew it in the summers, though they were upper middle class English, not supposedly upper class American. Through Galsworthy I could see my grandmother Nana in sun hat and white dress coming in from her sunlit gardens at White Pines with her arms full of long-stemmed flowers she had just cut – Nana handing these over to a servant in one of the three pantries at White Pines, this pantry apparently there solely so that a servant could receive, and arrange, flowers.

Our 3rd form – this being an Anglified school that called what we were in “3rd form” rather than 9th grade or freshman year – our 3rd form English class went into the nearby old river town of Plymouth to see the new movie of Hamlet, the Lawrence Olivier version in which these people from Shakespeare seem like real people, speaking their lines as if in actual conversation and conflict. Again, as a few weeks earlier when I read Julius Caesar on my own, it seemed that Shakespeare knew as much about actual challenges in actual life as Dickens or the modern Americans. Hamlet confused as to action, and angry. These Shakespeare characters were so real that I was in love with Jean Simmons’ Ophelia, and felt I knew everything there was to know about loss and longing and craziness when she turned insane, sang a sweet nonsense song, and then drifted down a stream to her death, with flowers floating beside her.

I knew Joe Abbey loved what he read to us. He loved the words and the rhythms and the life and lives and places that were evoked. This was clear. And he was down on what he considered got in the way of this true art that was the literature he presented. He treated with contempt poetry and prose that had nothing concrete in it, as in the popular Joyce Kilmer drivel: "I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree...."

It was drivel to Joe if there were no actual tree anywhere to be found in sentimental talk about trees.

He spoke of the then corny poet Edgar Guest, of whom, he said, Dorothy Parker wrote "I'd rather flunk my Wasserman test/Then read the poems of Eddie Guest." It was, he said, a reference to the feared test for the deadly venereal disease of syphilis, Guest was that bad.

But even though Joe shared Dorothy Parker's view of Edgar Guest, he had found once when reading Guest aloud as an example of trite and false poetry that tears began to come to his eyes, the power of fake emotions is that strong.

And I saw a connection here with what I knew by instinct was wrong with most patriotic sentiments, and with calls for school spirit, and with faking love where there is no love.

Kilmer and Guest got reactions, Joe said, because they were good at calling up stock responses. Like the sentimental lines in Hallmark cards. Reponses to writing in which there is no real sentiment because there is nothing real that is being dealt with. Just raw maudlin tears that have no real object. Like weeping over soap operas that have a lot going on in them but no people who are real, and no serious connection with anything in the life of the listener even though the listener is crying.

What this is – emotion based on stock responses rather than anything real – has nothing to do with sentiment, he said. It is sentimentality, which is something completely different.

And with Joe's help I was leaping over the trite and the false and reveling in the real writing I was discovering, the writing that went to the heart and avoided easy outs, the writing that first made me realize I was not alone in the world, and then made me want to be a writer – whatever else the family planned for me. And I could not possibly have had all this if I had been reading writers who, like so many current novelists, followed the dictates of play-it-safe writing teachers and ended all stories with neat resolutions.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007


And now that I was 14 I was really trapped. Now I was not just in school from 9 to 3 and it was not the Connecticut public school, which had been an easy place from which to play hooky. Now I was exiled to brick buildings in the southern New Hampshire countryside in this very different and very regimented place and I was here 24 hours a day, with someone always watching me or trying to watch me. I might get off the school grounds for as much as a few hours, but I always had to come back. And there were clouds over the future. It would be years before I was released, and by then it might be too late.

There were these other bigger and better worlds somewhere. They were certainly there in movies and books. I suspected there was something truly fine about the mysterious places from which came the pretty girls who very occasionally visited at our school. Actually, bad as my life got, almost anything new would bring a surge of hope – as in the hymns sung loudly by the whole school, in assembly before the first classes of the day started and after dinner at prayers in Livermore Hall.

“Once to every man and nation, comes a moment to decide…”

Then there were the occasional evenings when the whole school would form into an audience in Livermore to watch two seniors demolish another two-person debating team from some rival, and always much bigger, school. I was amazed that something besides sports could be received so enthusiastically.

The school nurse, a tight, wrinkled woman with what might have been a wise look, Mrs. Krebs, made it still worse for me when she said, "You shouldn't feel bad because your brother's smarter than you. It's all right. Some people are just a little slow. Nothing wrong with that."

This seemed about right to me, these words of Mrs. Krebs, an accurate reflection not of who I was but of how I might always be perceived. Everyone said I was slow. And I was failing all my courses except English. And the boys, with cruel irony, had given me the school’s worst nickname – “Speedy.”

But one morning in the dining hall at the end of breakfast, Mr. Abbey, who taught English, was lingering over coffee and had a cigarette going. He was in charge of the table to which I'd been assigned and was now clearing. He asked me to sit down. He said he had something he had to say.

He was the master – we had "masters" here, not mere "teachers" – whom I enjoyed, for he read poems and stories aloud in his class. He was also the only master with a first name. "Joe." He frequently laughed, and he moved with confidence. A balding man who seemed ageless to me. His actual name was T. Charles Abbey. But the boys could, and did, sometimes call him Joe – in a place where every other adult (not counting workmen) was a "mister," a place where the boys were addressed by masters not with Mr. but not with first names either. So here I was usually “Speedy” to the boys, and “Poole” to the masters. At this point I was hardly ever “Fred.”

“Fred,” Joe said. There is something I've wanted to say to you. I think that somehow you’re convinced you're not smart like your brother. But you know, you are just as smart, maybe smarter."

Everything did start to change after that – and yet it wasn't hope that I felt at the breakfast table. On reflection I felt as if the skies had opened. But at first I was furious. I did not know why yet. I was as angry as when, years later, it was suggested to me in Manila that I write about the time when I was a forgotten child in Florida.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 31 - Franny

A literature professor at Princeton could put ten numbered sentences on a blackboard and expect no one to question that this told you what a book meant, what it really meant. And the students sat there in their tweed or Oxford gray jackets, smoking Camels or Phillip Morrises, looking at the professor sometimes as if he were a boring fool and sometimes as if he partook of the divine.

And so on an exam I could write a nonsense essay parroting back those ten points. It was not necessary to read the book. Reading the book could be a disadvantage, since real literature, like all real art, gets into mystery, and to these professors there was no mystery. I was do discouraged with them that I stopped taking English courses. But some of the boys in my class were the stars of the English department. They won the prizes for critical endeavors, and might parlay this nonsense into Rhodes Scholarships before making entering the corporate world that was so honored at this gray place.

Would anyone ever understand what was wrong with these English professors? They were like the people Sinclair Lewis called "men of measured merriment,” but they has power for they were the official critics of Lewis and so many more of their betters.

And then suddenly there was a ray of hope. And again the hope came from J.D. Salinger, whose The Catcher in the Rye had been so welcome when I was in boarding school. And now he had done it again with his new New Yorker magazine story “Franny.”

Franny, this warm and sexy and brilliantly empathetic girl. In the story she is coming from her women’s college to a place which is surely this college that I am in. Coming for a visit, since no girls study and no women teach here. She is coming for a weekend, a goddamn football weekend. And Franny’s date, who meets her at the train, is one of these English Department stars. He is talking on and on about the meaning of this book and that book and why that other book is deservedly out of style, and about how his life is a constant series of triumphs against people who have no feel for correct literary theory. He is a boor.

Franny starts to complain about her own gray academic literature teachers and their followers. And he dismisses her words as error. And Fanny is feeling faint. Does faint. Throws up. Faints again. Which seems to me an appropriate reaction to her date and his world.

My twin brother at this time is in the city at Columbia. He is in a fraternity and his roommate is Lou Cornell who was at Taft when we were at Holderness. Lou was one of the people who gloated with me when The Catcher in the Rye arrived. And also Lou is part of our summer world – the Cornells and Pooles in their big formal houses in the White Mountains.

Lou has decided that he will not enter the family business. He is majoring in English at Columbia. He plans to be a professor.

I called Peter about Franny and Peter was strict with me on the phone. He said I obviously had misread the Salinger story. What was clearly happening in the story, he said, was that Franny was pregnant. Her reaction to correct English department people had nothing to do with it. And far more important to both Peter Poole and Lou Cornell was that Lou’s formidable mother, Mary Cornell, had already pronounced upon it. There was family authority behind the she’s-pregnant explanation. So, Peter was letting me know, English departments had nothing to fear, and neither did Pooles and Cornells– for a summer colony matriarch had certified Franny’s pregnancy and thereby dismissed her heretical views.

The lines back then between warring worlds in family and school could be exceedingly thin.

(Years later Salinger, who almost never went public on anything, issued a public statement that Franny was not pregnant.)

Monday, November 26, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 30 - Literature Exam

I signed up for upper class courses because they did not take attendance in them. I signed up for one on the French novel in the Modern Languages department – not realizing that it would be given in French.

I didn’t understand a word in the lectures, and so it made no difference that I stopped going to them. And read none of the assigned reading, for I already knew the actual books had little to do with what literature courses were all about.

I did take the precaution before the final exam of looking up most of the course books in 500 Masterpieces of Literature in Digest Form – but the exam contained only one question, an essay question, and it was on a book I had not looked up – Stendhal's The Red and the Black (or as it said in the exam question, Le Rouge et Le Noir). You could write the exam essay in English or French – but the question was posed only in French.

I caught the title Le Rouge et Le Noir but nothing else except a name I assumed was of a main character – Julian Sorel.Although the question ended with a quote, "Faites vous pret" (which meant nothing to me) I assumed the idea was to relate this mysterious book and this Julian person to this mysterious quoted statement. A few years later I finally did read the book and with considerable pleasure and found out that “Faites vous pret” meant make yourself into a priest, which was something Julian Sorel did as something that would help make him a success in the world. But I did not know this at the time of the final exam.

I wrote for two hours, every literature class cliché of the time – getting more and more eloquent about how this Julian Soret was eptomized “man discovering himself” – all of which, I wrote, is so beautifully heightened and summed up by....

And then I copied the words, letter by letter – like transcribing Ancient Egyptian before the Rosetta Stone – copied letter by letter the quote in French, "Faites vous pret."

My A on the exam made up for total failure in the course up till then – and meant that my overall average that semester would be high enough to just avoid flunking out –

Which in retrospect – the avoiding it – was my big mistake.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 29 - Without Writing

It is not because I am on strike or vacation that what was in earlier entries occasionally reappears in enhanced versions and/or new contexts. These entries that appear under WRITTEN WORD are in the context of a book on writing that is unfolding. Contrary to the bad advice given by some who presume to teach, a book does not work that merely ties together past pieces with clever transitions.  A full work grows organically. And that is why it is so necessary to do what artists instinctively do - which is to keep on stepping  back into the story to see what else it there. If the story is alive, it will continue to change in tone and and grow in its expanding context

To not write it, nor paint it, nor sing it, is to sit on it, sit on it, sit on it. Is to let it hang there, hang there, hang there. Is to let it block out everything else.

To not write it, I am left looking out through bars in a Spanish jail which I know is Spanish because the ornately uniformed keeper wears the tri-corner hat of Franco's Guardia Civil.

To not write I am left a thousand miles up the Kapuas River in Borneo with a party including a four-foot Ambonese spy, and an irregular soldier with a Tommy gun who shoots chickens for fun and a wiry flunky who rolls our cigarettes, all of us surrounded by grim men in white robes who climb into the stilt house at 3 a.m., wake us on the bamboo floor, turn lantern light on a treasured sacred kris they carry to prove some point.

Without writing, I am left forever behind an open air dance place in a Haitian brothel shack where they put me and one of the girls to lie safely while out under colored lights on the dance floor armed men in Hawaiian shirts spot a student leader, beat him, carry him away

I am left on a dark street in Kuala Lumpur, when a race war is on, knowing there can be snipers at any of the unlit windows and wondering why I put myself here.

Without writing or painting or singing I am forever on the floor of the Murdock¹s Park Avenue apartment where sixth grade classmates cheer as the rich bully I had challenged pins me, pummels me.

Without writing, I can so easily slip through time and land again on the floor at the Murdock's. And here again - as I was down and pinned and he was still hitting me and they were still jeering and cheering - I was even then slipping back still further through other scenes of terror, all the way back to the scene of my first memory which took place on an old steam-driven train headed to New Hampshire, in a Pullman drawing room that smells of whisky with Mother in despair,Grandmother Clark making shouts and gurgles, Peter screaming, as I try to call for help but know in my bones that it is over and no help will come - something I will know again and again and never escape until I write about it. I did not know the smell was whisky until years later it wafted in again when someone opened a bottle in strange circumstances in Angola. I did not know the other smell was human blood until a man on the ground floor of my West 25th Street building was slashed up and down and crosswise.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 28 - Writing as Duty

By the time I got out of the army, 24 years old, I felt I had really made a start in living, which to me was the same thing as thinking I had made the right moves to be a writer.

For nine months I had been a wire service journalist, flown out to Indianapolis, at 21, the day after graduation from college to join the old United Press, for which I was immediately covering politics, which in Indiana meant very extreme right-wing politics, a situation that began to fall into place when I realized that nearly everyone whom I was following – the governor, both senators, most of the legislative leaders – had been around since the thirties, when the Klan ran the state and you could no more embark on a political career without the Klan in Indiana than you could, just a few years before this, have a career in government in Germany if you were not with the Nazis.

Writing news stores was fascinating, putting all these things into words that would pass my bureau chief, who had always been in Indiana. I had to figure how to get in my contempt for what was happening and still give the appearance of objectivity. Being a strict grammarian, he gave me some outs. When I was writing about anti-labor legislation, which went hand if glove with everything else the 4-to-1 Republican legislature was passing – such as expanding the death penalty so that it could be used on juveniles who commit night time burglary – I could get away with saying a bill just signed by the governor was for a new “so-called” right-to-work law. This union-busting bill. "So-called." I may have gotten away with it for to get a real feel for the adjective “so-called” you have to hear it said with a Brooklyn or Bronx accent. My editor, Boyd Gill (men I met in Indiana tended to be named Boyd), who was so a part of the place that his lapel pin identified him as a past president of Kiwanis, said “so-called” was okay because it just meant that something was called something.

From Indiana I, now 22 years old, went straight to Cuba, looking for Castro and his Robin Hood-like band. I was in and out of a Bastista jail on the edge of the Sierra Maestra, and then in and out of tiny fishing boats that went out of sight of land in the hunt for fish bigger than the boats, and in and out of brothels that put in the shade even the whorehouses in Indianapolis when the legislature was in session. Then I was in Atlanta, nominally in the draft-filled peacetime army but also working full time for United Press again. And on the edge of history, it seemed, here at the start of the civil rights movement.

I summarized my first years. A Klan-run state, a foreign revolution, the civil rights movement – the sort of things that should go on a young author’s dust jacket. And, moreover, a searing affair with a married woman, and to top it off, an affair with a call girl. How like a legendary writer.

And I almost started a magazine that had the immodest goal of supplanted the tired old New Yorker. And then I was living in New York on the Lower East Side, still a good deal of drama, and back to wire service journalism again. And for the first time since I had decided firmly not to go to law school I asked myself if this was really what I wanted. And then I got this idea that I could be like the man in that recent movie The Blackboard Jungle. I could go teach in some inner New York City school – for I knew the crucial racial matters that were in the air in this time, not just in the south but up here too. I would get into the middle of it as a real person, not as a bystander reporter.

No one thought this was a good idea. My former college roommate, who had been an outspoken near Socialist, was in the city starting as an associate with an old-line Wall Street law firm, Cravath Swain & Moore, working on corporate tax matters. He said that under no circumstance should I throw my life away like this.

That reaction so surprised me. Even Jim saying to play it safe. And then years later there was something similar. I had abandoned projects for which I had been paid advances, two books that were meant to be big books, and I, 44 now, was in a marriage with a girl I thought would be so different from what I came form, not only a non-Wasp but a non-American, a non-white person, a non-alcoholic – and then I had that trite experience I had heard so much about and thought this could never happen to me. I woke up beside her one morning and realized she was, for my life now, what my mother had been long ago under dark clouds in Connecticut.

And I thought for the first time in 20 years that now I must really make a break with what fate planned for me. I didn’t like what I was writing. I didn’t like my life. I just could not finish what I was writing. I didn’t like what I had become.

And now the old inner school teaching idea came up again, And all my old friends in the city – Walter, who was becoming a celebrated political writer, Alex, the very successful author of wine books, John, who climbed mountains and no longer talked of being a playwright – they seemed to recoil in horror, just like my old college roommate long ago. Alex and John were on the same page with Walter, who said firmly that “Writers are supposed to write.”