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.”

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 27 - Forcing All Stories

When I was on vacation from my boozy college an alert, personable friend from home, Bruce Agnew, a guy who like me wanted to be a writer, and unlike me had been considered the smartest kid in our eighth grade class, told me he had just gotten the word from the famous author Robert Penn Warren in a seminar he had just taken at Yale. The word was that something had to change in every story. If nothing changed, you did not have a story.

This was very bad news, the way I took it, for it seemed to mean you had to follow other people's versions of reality in reporting change that did not sexist. Or worse, follow entire patterns of stories as ordered up by the literary establishment. Kill off your own version - conform to what others in power, if not Warren himself, wanted for you.

Well I had a few triumphs behind me, pre-college triumphs in the boarding school years, where I had started at the bottom of my class and wound up at the top, even sometimes passing my twin brother Peter, the good twin whom I had perhaps put under siege causing him to fight for his life to maintain his family-awarded titles of good twin, socially adept twin, smart twin.

And then there were changes during vacations, especially during the long summers up in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I had wondered if I would ever have girlfriends like guys in novels and movies did, and sure enough I came to know heart-warming necking that made the antics of Doris Day and Jimmy Stewart look like kindergarten stuff. There were girls, but mainly there was this one girl – too nice and too good looking to be true – this one girl who seemed to be the right girl and who seemed to return my love. And meanwhile down at the Holderness School in the New Hampshire lake country, the school’s trophy case had been filling up with trophies I had won on the New England debating circuit – big plastic and wood objects each topped with a naked, sylized brass woman who held a laurel wreath high above her head. And I had just about the best grades in the school now, whereas I had started with the very worst, so bad I had had to sit with the slow boys in compulsory evening study hall every weekday night.

There was poetry now, that I read and also that I wrote and that went into the school paper, which was edited by my twin brother and me now, whereas so recently everyone would have laughed at the thought of me having such a position. The boys had stopped laughing at me now. A number of them were becoming my friends. I knew deep down that any success I had was only provisional. I could still, as in the past, start making missteps that would cause everyone to forget everything about me except that I was shy and slow and bad at sports. One misstep and I would again be known as “Speedy,” the cruel school nickname that had dogged me in the beginning.

There had been all these changes back in boarding school, so maybe, I thought briefly, considering the Yale version of compulsory change, there might be something here for me to write about.

I wondered about it, but the answer in my head was a harsh “No!” – for this was not fit material for a story that would work. My experience at Holderness would not qualify as literature.

I had already found in my reading that there was a tradition in fine novels, usually British novels, of telling stories about the horrors of boarding schools. And I had horror stories. But our school still did not fit neatly into this literary category. For one thing, it was too small. And
although there was some cruelty and bullying brutality, I was not convinced at the end that it was as horrible as such places in correct fiction. And so I did not think that these changes in my life would really count as the change needed in a story as stories are supposed to be written.

And now college, which was a famous and much bigger place – heralded by authors ranging from F. Scott Fitzgerald to my grandfather – and in fact seemed dreary and conformist and stuffy and silly. How could I write about this college and get in the Robert Penn Warren-mandated change. For surely, some voice was telling me, change in a correct college story should be for the better.

And how could I write about the world around me if I could not put change into the story?

The world. The awful Eisenhower, who spoke only in clichés and hated all art, cheered on by so many at my college. And two years back the strutting General Macarthur had attempted treason for working to invade and drop the big bomb on China, and when relieved of his command had come home to a hero’s welcome. . Nothing changed. The crazed, mendacious Senator McCarthy, who was ruining lives of the sort of people I admired from a distance, was riding high, and the press and almost all politicians treated him as a serious and legitimate political figure. An earnest Jewish couple, the Rosenberg’s had gone to jail for treason because of their efforts to prevent use of atomic weapons, and then, like in a bad movie about other times, they had been executed. The Rosenbergs were dead and so nothing in the world changed, unless you counted their deaths.

I didn’t really think all stories had to have happy endings. But I had fallen for this very limiting idea that without change you did not have a story - with the rider that change meant following some triumphal notion of how things are supposed to be.

When I first went to Princeton I put my boarding school time away, not as in life but into a literary wax museum version. In the college time I tried even to like spectator sports while also focusing on my own interests, stirring writing and radical politics and nightlife. I drank heavily to get around how distant what was around me was from anything that deep down I honored. As for my boarding school time, which had given me life, I dismissed it. I picked up on a college roommate’s label for the place, “Holderness in the wilderness,” which helped me bury the story.

Many years later when the Authentic Writing program was in full swing the school mandates for correct stories had been refined even further. Now kids where being taught something called rhetorical modes, which seemed like something from the 19th century, and there were classes where you were told that every story had to have two elements that in fact are but rarely found in life – an epiphany and a resolution.

By the time I heard these new dictates I was quite willing to admit that college was as bad as it seemed. And that it had seemed bad in large part because I had had something else to compare it to - which was the period in boarding school when I came into my own, and chords in literature resonated with who I was and what I wanted. I had had such a big experience in boarding school that I was not ready to accept social nastiness and pretentious academic attempts to control art as my yardstick for measuring what I came to know. I was not ready to become a good, gray Princeton man. But I was not ready either to completely give up the fictional disparagement of what loved or the fictional glorification of what I hated. And so I drank.

The boarding school story had indeed contained more change than any writing teacher could order up – but I had not seen it as the correct story for is did not fit the classic boarding school story. And eventually I realized I had walked away from my early girlfriend for the same reasons I had tried to falsify the school and college times – mainly because she was too real for fiction.

And so more time would go by before I was able to write from the inside, from my own true version of reality, not someone else’s.

Monday, November 19, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 26 - Where to Begin?

Almost everything on the south side of Atlanta was unfashionable, including this ranch house where I had just rented a room, the house near the only thing on the south side that seemed to have style, which strangely was Ft. McPherson, which looked like a stage set but was an actual army installation where I was nominally posted as an actual draftee. Third Army Headquarters. Tidy brick buildings with big screen porches built around what was now mainly a parade ground but was intended as a place for polo matches.

I was supposed to be here at Ft. McPherson writing press releases which were often sent to home town papers saying some peacetime private had completed some phase of some silly training program for something unneeded, but more and more they were releases that used selective quotes to attack the Air Force’s missile program. There was no NASA yet and Russia had sent up Sputnik and taken what seemed like a insurmountable lead in what was now called “the space race,” and the army like the air force had had its old Nazi scientists working away on rockets, and now maybe the regular army – which got no respect from the draftees – would have something to keep its reluctant citizan-soldiers employed in this time well after Korea and well before Vietnam.

The draftees had it easy because the officers' futures was hazy and many believed that among the draftees were young, educated men they would have to approach when looking for jobs one day soon. And I had done a deal with the first sergeant – one of a group of bright and worldly old NCOs, sersious World War II soldiers and also skilled adminstrators, who had maneuvered their way to Fort McPherson and were in the army as their best possible career choice because of finding themselves back in the twenties or thirties in dust bowl places and worse. I was the troop information officer, though I had not made PFC. I gave lectures each week in exchange for which I could do pretty much anything I wanted, including living away form the post. In the lectures I drove everyone crazy by talking about how the awful Eisenhower was spending his days with rich segregationists on South Carolina golf courses while here in the deep South, the Klan was castrating and hanging black men and no troops had arrived yet to enforce the still fairly new law of the land that forbade school segregation.

And I was working full time too at the old United Press, which was one of the places to which they sent the press releases I occasionally wrote during my occasional appearances in the Third Army Public Information Office. I had the releases sent to the newsroom at UP, and when they arrived I threw them out along with the usual stack of releases about losing ventures that were on my desk. And I was covering the packed civil rights movement meetings, held in black churches, meetings which practically no one else in white journalism in Atlanta had covered yet. And sometimes I went north to Buckhead for dinner with socialite cousins, Jack and Mary Izard, who talked at their festive dinner table about how happy the darkies were in the South, talking this way while being served by their own darkles, one of whom I thought I recognized, and thought may have recognized me, from the civil rights meetings.

Through the cousins I was going to debutante parties – the idea for me being girls like girls in Fitzgerald novels. And there was beautiful Bunny, the Coca Cola heiress, married to my college friend Tony, who was put in charge of the big old Atlanta Biltmore Hotel, which was owned by her family and where we spent many evenings listening to a burly, cornball singer – and also did wakes at their suite the two times that a baby of Bunny’s died. And it was also to the Atlanta Biltmore that I would go late at night to pick up Ann, a platinum blonde from Connecticut whom I first saw professionally and then as her sort of boyfriend, picked her up late at the Biltmore after she had been turning tricks there. And although I seemed to be working all the time I also had time for a tragic love affair with a glowing, misunderstood olive-skin wife of an army friend.

I found a tiny basement apartment with its own entrance in the back of a big Victorian building that faced on Peachtree Street – this basement the sort of bohemian setting that seemed right for who I wanted to be. But at the start I had that room in that mere ranch house. The landlady was the perennially hung-over widow of a major. The place was filled with glass cases containing cheap curios they had collected while posted to Bavaria – figures of little lederhosen-clad men with accordions and also cute pre-Nazi German soldiers and dear little bears and kittens. And another room was rented to a draftee from Alabama who drove a pink Chevrolet with wide fins. Before I stopped going anywhere with him – stopping because he had taken to yelling “Nigger” from his car window – I had double dated with him, two delicate, sweet-smelling blonde girls. One of them said she had flunked out of Eastern Airline’s stewardess school. I said that was lucky since stewardesses were such shallow people – which was not something I believed but something my twin brother had said recently. I was shocked, not just because as I spoke I saw all chance of sex disappearing but also because I had heard my own brother speaking through my voice.

I was feeling old. I thought of my summers in Europe, and of my brief career as a journalist covering right-wing politics in Indiana and also plunging into the new, to me, beat generation world up in Chicago – jazz and political humor as well as strip bars. I wrote snotty letters east about the pitiful state of people who did not have a base in New York.

I wanted to be a writer. I was far, far from so many stories but I would, however, work on it. I would start with my roots – not with colleage age adventurse, or times in Europe, or the McCarthyite Midwest, or the time just before the army in Cuba looking for Castro, or this amazing time right now Atlanta. Instead I would go back to the root of all family legends, the White Mountains of new Hampshire, where I had spent so many summers, and first fallen in love. I decided I had to capture every sight and sound – Mount Lafayette looming in the distance, the long formal dining table in the huge family summer house White Pines, where servants made the ice cream turning a crank by hand on the back pantry porch and the family people put on tuxedos and gowns for dinner – the smell of coal by the steps leading to the house’s restaurant size kitchen – sights and sounds from childhood, not even getting into love and discovery and trouble in adolescence. I thought if I could get the family setting right I would really have done something on the road to being a novelist. Actually I had written an unpublishable novel while in Indianpolis, but I was still at the starting point.

My big distraction from writing, those nights after UPI when I locked myself away to make myself this great writer, was reading Irish history – not even thinking about how my mother ranted, to my horror when I was very small in Connecticut, about the dirty Irish. Everything was hopeless in her boozy rantings. The war would never end and no one would ever be happy, and if the Irish did not take over the world the Jews or worse would. I didn’t even put my mother in this grand house in New Hampshire I was writing about. I left her in our less formal house in Connecticut. And although I read Irish history, I did not write a word about my times upstairs alone with the radio in the Connecticut house, where there was almost no music—only a living room radio tuned to the Metropolitan on Saturday afternoons when my father lay on a sofa with an ice pack on his head. I did not write a word about how I had fastened onto the Irish music that was so much on the air waves then – so far from anything in that family. Swinging on a gate with my sister Kate (I had no sister) when Irish eyes are smiling(I knew no real Irish much less smiling ones ) – seeing the sun go down on Galway Bay (though in this family it is supposed to be the mountains, not the sea).

Ireland from my distant past with the radio – nothing comparable to the formal mountain house. And I didn’t write about Indianapolis or Atlanta, or even my boarding school days, boarding school where I discovered I would not forever be seen as bad and dumb.

And just now between Indianapolis and Atlanta I had been defying death in Cuba on the tiny fishing boats that go out past sight of land, or the Sierre Maestra where fat sweating Batista men surrounded herded me in with their tommy guns. And the bars and brothels and dance halls. But in the night I read Irish history, and though of Irish music, even if not ready yet to openly take on music I loved.

I was bogged down trying to write about the White Mountians. White Pines had made much sense in my head, and on paper was a quagmire.

Then I started writing about that guy’s wife – so smart and lovely and so ready for the world – this clouded love affair I was in. For a time I was able to forget all the rest.

Friday, November 16, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 25 - Stories to Hide Stories

Umbrellas appear that put real stories in the shade. Such an umbrella might be an official family story that is repeated over and over and never changes. The umbrella story might be about things done long ago that can never be matched, or maybe about paths chosen, a path to failure or a path to respectability from which one must not stray. Or it might be a catchall system into which all stories are supposed to fit – an inner child system or a family-systems system or a Jungian system, or a yogic one or a patriotic one. Or something from inside that is so badly wanted it must be true.

That big trip, and soon to leave the age of 26 forever, which meant it might be the last time to do more of those things I had dreamed of doing. Dreamed of doing these things, which seemed like the proper things to have been doing – as if there were a correct form that I had discovered and was following – and dreaming in the right way was a part of filling that form. But it took effort to maintain that form, and, beyond dreams, fill that form the way I had decided it should be filled.

Steve and Berta, Vannie’s old college roommate, came to Athens, buying a VW bug in Germany on the way, and brought cognac to the hospital over near Lykavatos where I had just had my appendix out. I didn’t need them to bring anything for this was a hospital where the nurses expected tips, and the services for which you tipped them included drink if you wanted it and always that thick black coffee that I knew to be Turkish coffee but humored the nurses by saying was Greek coffee.

I had spent the year in Yugoslavia and Greece, even though Kennedy had beat Nixon and it seemed almost reasonable to assume America would leave the dull, stagnation of the Eisenhower years – become more like a place really ought to be – but anyway I had left for the Balkans, and now Steve and Berta were here, and Vannie – my pretty, touching, smart, artistic and sometimes tortured girlfriend from New York who had joined me in Athens – Vannie and I defied the fifties and lived together in a small white-washed house – electricity but no indoor plumbing and I wrote and wrote and also sometimes filled the place with carousing expatriates, a place that was on the side of the Acropolis – fitting matters to go into the form.

We drove around through Turkey and Syria and over the mountains into Beirut where I left them all – for reasons not quite clear but certain, as if ordered by some authority on the subject, that I had to move into the rest of my life alone – sailed off to Alexandria, from there some Nasser-era Egyptian adventures and on to the main rail line from Cairo and down all the way to Aswan and then on one of the old steamships that Kitchener had used in his vain attempt to save Gordon from death at the hands of the Mahdi – or was it Gordon trying to relieve Kitchener? – from Khartoum across the Sudan, off on a new railroad with old steam engines, into the west, ten days to go 800 miles, and then a number of days riding defective vehicles in Sudanese military convoys in which, for purposes of their training, you could not carry water - nearly dying of thirst, it seemed.

And many more days then in market trucks going through the sand on the French side, where there were no roads between grass-hut villages, just shifting tracks in the sand – with the men on the back relieved of their spears before the truck’s captain, Bashir Ramadan, who like them had a face decorated with tribal scars, would start the engine. The men sitting up high on a big stack of dura beans in this truck that operated like a tramp steamer in the grand sweep of the savannah – and me in the cab reloading a rifle for Bashir as he careened between huge trees while shooting out the window at antelope on which we lived – and everything was new but also like a movie like it should be – sometimes but not always comic – and there was a cinematic armed showdown in a dispute with tribes people who appeared from nowhere and wanted our fresh antelope carcass –

All those scenes. Drinking hard in the middle of nowhere and a man showing me the power of dura bean liquor by pouring some on the ground and putting a match to it, which caused a loud popping sound, a blue and yellow flash, a smell like burning gasoline, and thick black smoke that I would describe in stories later as looking like a mushroom cloud. And the torch-lit communal dancing.

And in Abeché sleeping the a Foreign Legion widow’s sofa in this house to which she brought who acquired live lines and let the roam free. The face of lioness first thing in the morning. Then being given the mayor’s house because it would annoy the French, who had ordered me out of town, though nowhere to go, then a little man in a General deGaulle hat circling around and around all night as a visitor from Dakar, the chef de cabinet there, and I drank Pernot on the front veranda before I went back to sleep with lions. And behind me all those days without water, parched like in a story of people dying in a desert

And then I’d made my way down to Brazzaville, and skirting Leopoldville on to Bangui and then into Angola where Holden Roberto’s revolution against the Portuguese was underway, cat and mouse games with the Portugese, nights spent in secret safe house since I was on the anti-colonial side.

VV And then I was doing anything way down in Angola, fitting the form, moving around the dangerous countryside - a sacred mound of skulls, skulking rapacious Belgian and English mining company agents – and I stayed out of sight of the Portuguese enforcers by using obscure safe-house stations where Roberto’s rebels sometimes hid.

I escaped finally on a freighter that went non-stop all the way to the North Sea, which still had World War II mines in it, me on the bridge learning to read the charts that kept us from the mines, like Walter Mitty living out a dream. By the time I reached Emden and started back down to Greece overland I had the feeling that now I could do anything.

This I wrote, when back in Athens, in letters to friends in New York, letters which also included talk of girls I had met that eventful year – girls with whom, I said in the letters, I fell in love – lush Dutch Ina, who appeared suddenly in Athens with children and a beat lover, and whom I had known, had necked with, she
expelled like so many Dutch from Indonesia, appearing with shaved legs and lipstick and a non-Dutch tan nine years back when I was a teenager on an exchange program in Holland – and up in Slovenia just before Athena a Croat heart-breaker, Inga, a perennial teenager now who never mentioned that her mother and father had been lined up and shot when Tito took over –

But the thing was that much as I liked Ina and Inga, and at moments had thought either would fit the form, even if neither was an action painter like Vannie – I did not have affairs with, much less fall in love with, either Ina or Inga — and I did not mention night activities with the girls of the Pireaus waterfront, and back when I reached Ft. Lamy I was happy to be alive but certainly not certain that now I could do anything. Rather, riddled with dysentery and 50 pounds lighter than my New York weight, and dreaming of so many other possible lives. And through the nights typing away back in Greece in a hunters’ cabin in Lagrena down the coast, typing away at what I hoped would bring me fame. And steering clear of seeming evidence that there was no such thing as love – no-such-thing-as-love being the way it should be for a properly world weary young man, but I did not find it satisfying, and I drank and fought and wrote, none of which seemed enough to save me from helpless sinking. A dark time – unlike my stated version of it as a time of triumph.

In old-time Portuguese Angola in the revolution, those safe stations for rebels where I hid - I did not mention in the letters to New York that they had been run by Methodists.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 24 - Professors of English

My college, Princeton, was a gray, reactionary, intensely alcoholic and snobbish place where those in power frequently tried to ape what they saw as their betters on the other side of the Atlantic. Physically, it was a Disneyland version of 800-year-old Oxbridge buildings set down in New Jersey. Across Nassau Street there was a more American stage set, a Williamsburg sort of town – uniform buildings of plastic-looking red brick with white pillars.

There on Nassau Street you could buy white bucks and Oxford gray suits and leather covered flasks to take to football games, but no books and no art supplies. Back behind the Williamsburg façade the place was as segregated as if this were Alabama – narrow streets behind Nassau Street filled with black people, many of whom worked at the college and in the eating clubs, which were Princeton’s version of fraternities. The presence of black servants was often given as the reason most of the clubs would not take black students as members – though by the time I got there things had opened up the point where each class had an actual Negro in it. They had to be kept out the clubs, it was said, not because the college men were bigoted but because, club officers claimed, the loyal Negroes doing the serving would be the first to object to integration.

The English department was full of celebrated experts on modern American literature who seemed to hate literature – the Frost expert who wrote a book about how Robert Frost was only a minor poet and, worse, no gentleman; the Hemingway expert whom Hemingway said should be avoided; the Melville expert who wrote a book about how this Moby Dick was a homoerotic treatise, celebrating the joy of sinking your fist into white blubber.

I wrote a column on The Daily Princetonian – assigning it to myself since I was editorial chairman (something I did in the free time I had created by not going to classes) – a column saying these English professors had no feel for writing, for anything aesthetic or moving – mentioning their claims heard so often in class that there were right and wrong answers about the meaning of any given work of literature, that you could really understand a novel if you saw one of their blackboard outlines of it – their unspoken claim that literature was a dry subject where emotion had no place. I said in my Princetonian column that all this awful stuff was light years away from the experience of walking along the green banks of Princeton’s Carnegie Lake in springtime – an experience foreign to these tweedy professors.

Carlos Baker, the Hemingway expert, was the English Department chairman (gender always specific at this place back then when women were never seen except when dates came down on some weekends). Carlos Baker called a special meeting of all the preceptors (the Anglo term for instructors, such British-sounding terms favored here the same way fake Gothic architecture was favored). He gave them talking points to refute this young Fred Poole person – for how can you know anything about literature if you do not follow those who so bravely analyze it and analyze and analyze it. Then he clinched his argument by showing them the transcript of my grades, which I thought were not bad considering I spent most of my time away from the campus and hardly ever went to classes and still managed to pass sometimes – but which he thought would be the clincher that would prevent Fred Poole and anyone else who thought the way young Poole did from further corrupting the students. He told his preceptors to show copies of the transcript to everyone in their preceptorials.

I spent a lot of time away from classes and had a lot of adventures in all the wrong parts of New York and one year the wrong parts of European cities. Then after college I was in places where the young people were not right-wingers networking to set up their post-college corporate lives. Sometimes I was in sybaritic places and sometimes artistic places and sometimes war-zone places, and sometimes all three at once, but never a place where you could base a world on fake architecture.

Once was in what seemed to me the real world at last, for thirty years I never considered taking a course from anyone – not until I had this physical pull into visual versions of reality. In one of my first classes at the Art Students League, where I was following the classic path of drawing from life , one night while drawing a girl whose lines were not interrupted by clothing, I was at an easel beside the actor Peter Falk’s easel. When he was between films in California he always came East to draw here. I saw the sort of passion I had never seen the last time I was in classrooms. Peter Falk could be furiously vocal if a teacher were late – more direct displeasure than shown by the subtle detective he played on television.
Before art school places I did not know there was such a thing as a student who was not overjoyed to find a teacher absent – but then my last experience with education, thirty years back, had been in a place that was more boarding school than many boarding schools – no cars or girls allowed, compulsory chapel, huge pressure to attend athletic displays. As if that were not enough, the students were infantilized further for the greater glory of their country. “Princeton in the nation’s service” was the grim motto of the school – and almost every time through the years that I heard about someone really awful in the American government it would turn out to be a fellow alumnus of Princeton – Eisenhower’s devious attorney general Herb Brownell, Nixon’s respectable front men, Reagan’s war-loving bully Casper Weinberger, who seemed to get a sexual joy out of bombing small defenseless countries, or George Schultz, who had a hidden Princeton tiger tattoo, or the older George Bush's consigliore Jim Baker who afterwards maneuvered the drugged-out Bush son into power after an election the son had lost – not to mention the old Princetonian Donald Rumsfeld, veteran of various cruel administrations who came back again to start and oversee of the murderous devastation of Iraq, which included the inauguration of torture, and the use of mercenaries. as American policy.

In addition to athletics, corporate networking, binge drinking and preparation for government, there was some creative writing honored at Princeton when I was there. One person in my class praised by many in the English department was a brawler named Mark who wrote imitation Hemingway, mostly about drunken fights, though, unlike Hemingway, fights in places it felt like Mark had never seen. And the aesthete Norman who wrote imitation Faulkner, with the same sort of deep South settings that Faulkner, though apparently not the anglophile Norman, saw as home.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 23 - A Surprising Appearance

Back when my painting was becoming precise, a time just after late-in-life art school, when I was becoming increasingly sure with light and shade, color and form, perspective and anatomy, back at a time when I had moved to Woodstock and thought I would never write again – one day back then I began to draw an imaginary but real seeming lizard-like armored male figure.

Quite real, I thought, for back then, like much of the time now, I feared the overuse of archetypes.

This figure, which I saw with clarity before I started, would be a compilation of what I hated most. A huge black lizard-like man standing in my way, a lizard in slimy titanium skin and filled with hypocrisy and bigotry, bullying and boorishness, sadism and stupid militarism – a lizard who had suddenly appeared on my most familiar path through the wooded area I loved most in what was now my town, Woodstock.
It had started as a suggested therapeutic writing enterprise – clinical therapy more than art – in which I had selected the villain and written towards my conclusion. A moving exercise in which it felt like something was happening. But it was my old style of writing, the writing I had at this time rejected in favor drawing and painting. The kind of writing in which you are always moving towards a pre-determined conclusion. This particular conclusion did not stay in place long even in that kind of writing, and in painting there was almost instant transformation.

I knew, as I formed the conception, that some people would have different ideas about such a chance meeting with some stranger so unlike what they thought of as themselves. Some might think first that such a meeting would really be an encounter with fine, untapped aspects of themselves. Not me. To me it was clear who and what the enemy was.

Then one day I started on a blank 24- by 36-inch canvas to do the lizard-like figure with a sable-hair brush in a black fast-drying kind of oil paint thinned to transparency with turpentine. This figure that in my head was so clear.

But on the canvas what I started quickly became something else. The black bully figure was supplanted by a quite luscious and mysterious woman.

Involuntarily, it seemed, I moved into color, and what seemed to me a huge, strong woman's face and fine bare shoulders appeared in the foreground, and she was surveying a world I did not recall ever having seen.

This world, this landscape stretching out under her mysterious gaze, looked South American to me – maybe the South America that Pizarro and Cortez found – though that was a continent I had never visited.

And I did not know if I hated or liked this woman. And my anger, so carefully directed at greedy, racist, violence-prone right-wingers and other abusers, was becoming something far more profound that, it seemed now, had always been centered on myself.

In this time when I was not writing.

In this time when there was still so much of my life that I had not written about.

This time when I had not approached any conscious knowledge that the strange place in which I had come into life was a matriarchy where there was little room for maneuver – and also a place where I was meant to be exiled beyond locked doors to cold dark streets.

I had, before art school, stopped writing after 30 years of professional writing because I could no longer follow my plans through writing, because I wanted to find out what had happened and what was happening, not put it into some constructed book outline.

I had turned to painting, something I did not remember ever having done, for it was in visual realms now, where I had little control, as opposed to where I had the allusion of control as a professional writer, that the landscape of my life unfolded and changed.

Every once in a while I bring out this painting, look at that full-color, smooth, tanned enigmatic woman whom I'd meant to be an armored, slippery, sharp-clawed poison-fanged man. I look at this woman and the mysterious scene that began to unfold beneath her as long forgotten stories, concrete stories, from early in my life fought their way back into the life I was living in the present. This smooth woman, who made the sharp-edged reptilian man seem tame

I was busy in this time. New friends. New interests. Travel. Art and nature. A life in art. And in the raw material of theology. And I knew whatever was happening – in this step into mystery – it was only just beginning. Knew it at the moment that the planned lizard became something for which I did not yet have words.

It was not so long before I was writing again and all sorts of mysterious actual people and places appeared – though since then my painting has become increasingly more abstract as my writing has become more concrete.

And then I remembered how much had been happening in my writing, not just my painting, even in these years when I no longer thought of myself as a writer and hardly knew I was still putting words on paper.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 22 - Other People

There were plenty of things not to speak about much less write about in the quite rich Connecticut suburb where I lived as a child in fall, winter and spring with my parents and twin brother and Southern grandmother. Things I never considered writing though I sometimes dreamt of being a writer like my honored grandfather up in the White Mountains. I was slow in school and always getting into trouble – hooky and larceny, peeking Tom ventures with other bad kids, explorations of forbidden cliffs and rivers and reservoirs, plus secret trips to city places. And I felt I would never break out of this place I was in, this person I was who was seen as too dumb and bad.

The adults seemed to think they themselves were all right. My father commuted into the city each day. By now city commuters owned the majority of the houses. People around me rarely talked about anything seriously wrong out here in what we called the country. There was only one house where, neighbors said, the wife and children were battered.

The father in that house was an unshaven handyman who rarely worked. Alcohol caused him to slur his ungrammatical words. Paint was peeling and boards were buckled on the house's outside walls. None of us ever saw the inside. The front porch was nearly rotted away. The yard was filled with discarded tin cans and old beer and whisky bottles.

The oldest of five children in that house was a slow-moving, sullen though really pretty 13-year-old girl with bad teeth. She of course never wore the tennis whites or the Bermuda shorts other girls in the town wore in summer. For reasons no one knew, she was not in school. We boys went out of our way to pass her dilapidated house, hoping to get glimpses of her in the shorts she did wear, shorts that had been made by cutting the legs off old work pants. She wore them high from the thigh. She was always alone, always sullen and silent. She was never seen without a hunting knife in a belt sheath. Neighbors were not very surprised when this bad girl got pregnant, but they were shocked when the state police came to arrest her battering father for being the one who had impregnated her.

When this was talked about it was always added that nowhere in the town except in that dingy, run-down house could any such thing have happened. We kids tended to go along with this version of events even though we knew more. We knew how much drinking went on in this suburb, and we knew about marriages breaking up, and the boys told each other stories about parents doing the sorts of things outside their marriages that we all wanted to do when we became old enough. Some kids would occasionally show up in school with black and blue marks they may have gotten at home. But even those of us who secretly felt sympathy for the sullen girl in cut-off shorts still tended to go along with the grown-ups' story that this one poor house was the only place in the town where really bad things could take place.

This was at mid-century, when certain things were almost never talked about openly in American towns such as ours. It was as if then there were no battered women in America. There certainly were no battered women's shelters. And you hardly ever heard anyone speak about abused children.

There were no therapists serving as counselors in our schools. One boy, who sometimes acted angry when there was no apparent cause for anger, went for weekly sessions with a psychiatrist, but when he talked about the experience it seemed the point of his therapy was to get him to adjust to what his parents wanted, which was to become a son who would not be out of place in Hotchkiss or Yale.

Monday, November 12, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 21 - Stories Not to Tell

By the time I was in the 8th grade I had also become extremely careful about telling the family anything I knew from the world outside the family.

I didn't tell them about stealing the rowboat and going over a high waterfall in it, or the day I was all the way down in the city in Times Square (looking at the half-man, half-woman in the freak Show at Hubert's Flea Circus) when they thought I was at Compo Beach in Westport, Connecticut, or the two-year blackjack game, spanning 7th and 8th grades, that I was part of – nor the girlie magazines we hid in the barn, nor the time I fell off a cliff, saved by saplings on a lower ledge I nearly passed on the fall down. There was almost nothing I could tell them about safely. I rarely discussed my friends – Jeff Aldrich, whose father lived in a cabin with a porch behind their house and sat on the porch drinking whisky all day and cursing softly, Jeff who I hid in our old chicken coop barn when he ran away from home – or Dan McHenry, who was open and friendly even though he was the school's best athlete, and who had actually more or less fucked with an actual woman, an older girl who he and a friend, he said, stripped and held down (which, despite the impossible dream of actual fucking, seemed to me connected to horrible things Dan did routinely, like torturing and killing frogs and kittens). Or Herman, who carried a concealed revolver. I did not tell them about Jared Delong, who was the one who discovered the principal's secretary didn't call your home until you'd been absent from school for two days in a row, meaning it was safe to play hooky and travel every other day.

I did not tell them these things so I would not get into trouble, but it was also to spare them from too many facts. And sometimes I told them things I did not believe because it would make them more comfortable and on my side. Sometimes at the dinner table at home I told them I found someone outside the family to be stupid, or cranky or clumsy – keeping my hand in family conversation, imitating the way they talked about outsiders – too shy, too alert, too ugly or dumb, too smart or good looking for their own good.

So I relayed what Jared told me about his mother, Rosemary Delong, because I often heard my parents talking, while they were drinking, about what awful drunks the elder Delongs were.

Jared and I had been sitting on a roof of the former wartime chicken house at our place in Weston and Jared was telling with glee what he'd seen the night before at the Aspetuck Club dinner dance. His mother, Rosemary, and his father, also named Jared Delong but called Jerry, had been drunk and fighting and while they were on the dance floor, sometimes dancing, sometimes shouting and waving their arms at each other, Rosemary's dress kept falling down. She was too drunk to stop it – her breasts popping out for everyone to see.

I thought my parents would appreciate the story. I gave a quick version of it at dinner, at the narrow oak table in our drafty, wall-papered dining room. I did not say the word "breasts,” but just that the gown fell down and there was nothing underneath. Mother, listening at the head of the table, with a little bell to ring for dessert, Dad at the other end, still stiff in his city suit, switching from a blended whiskey highball to buttermilk. Dad's face was getting red. Mother was starting to quiver with fury.

Mother exploded.

"That's the worst thing I have ever heard, Frederick.

“That was horrible of your friend Jared.

"What an awful person your friend is.

"Never do anything like that.

"Remember,no one should ever say anything like that about their family."

Friday, November 9, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 20 - Extreme Ghostwriting II

There was the intellectual appeal. It would have been a breeze for me if everything this man who became a cult leader said was stupid.

And it would have been a breeze if I had not felt grateful to him for his help, if I had not in certain times of personal crisis attempted to rely on Robin to the point of clinging. And if he had not done certain very useful things, such as helping me to understand group dynamics, which was something I needed for what had become my life’s work.

With some brilliance Robin followed an influential family systems school of therapy started by a man, since deceased, whom family therapists now read when in training – Murray Bowen, who had worked hard to differentiate himself from his own family (which operated a funeral home in Pennsylvania). Differentiation was the important concept – finding out and becoming who you really are, not what a family says you are. It involved keeping up carefully limited contact with that family to as to be able to work on differentiation.

To do this, according to Bowen, you have to figure out what is really wanted for you in your family. You need to unravel the family’s overall theme, for instance, “nothing good can come of anything.” You must understand that part and also understand the very fixed-in-place roles your family system imposes on each family member – good person or bad person or lost person or caretaker person or shifting combinations of these and quite a few other stock characters. This went way beyond those simple pop psychology systems that give you only three or four set choices for a role.

Then, once you determine the operating principle of your family system, and determine what is supposed to be your role in it, then Robin had an answer that went well beyond anything Bowen came up with – Robin's answer being what seemed to me the real stroke of brilliance. Intellectual brilliance. Pastoral nurture too, I thought back then, when Robin seemed to me a caring and caretaking person.

Now for the most grandiose brilliant-seeming part. Once you have figured out the family system and your ordained role in it, then you move on to what Robin called “interventions.” This he touted as his own contribution to the world of therapy. In a Robin intervention, you tell people in the family exactly what they think they want to hear from you – never such things as that you are happy or fulfilled in work or art or love or that your life is unfolding in wonderful ways. Instead you must say, whether you believe it or not, things that fit with the very worst that they may think of you or want for you - such things as that you are hopelessly confused and worthless and morally reprehensible – give them what they want, no matter how cruel and nonsensical it sounds. And by telling them what they want to hear you have achieved the worthy end of putting the shit back where it belongs, which is not with you but with them. You get them to say what they have kept hidden. And what you yourself may on some level have come to believe. And then you can leave your role and live truly as yourself.

It should have been a warning that he was messing with language as it is commonly used. Words get their meanings from how they are employed. The editors of dictionaries read everything they can get their hands on to see how words are being used by writers. At the time Robin put forth his theory, the generally accepted meaning of “an intervention” had become the act of confronting another person with the fact that that person suffers from an affliction, usually an addiction, and needs help. An intervention in this sense means cofrontation to get that person out of denial. Robin, however, meant “an intervention” as a cunning act designed to elicit information from the person who is the object of that act – the ends justifying the lies and even cruelty that are essential to the means.

Language aside, what he put forth might still have continued to make a good deal of sense to me – if only he had stopped there. But then he went way too far and began to dictate the exact words he expected people to use.

And anyway, in the end I really learned nothing I did not know already. I learned nothing important by Robin-instigated baiting of my brother and others (both parents were dead by then) to say what they really thought. Sometimes the responses I got would be unintentionally funny, sometimes quite horrible. But nothing really new to me, for by the time I met Robin I had few illusions about why I had carefully and consciously left home young. And, moreover, at that point I had been going through a long and intense search for my most true stories – for what had happened way back in time and why and how it affected me in the present as well. Probably the most enlightening part came through writing, real writing that had no input from Robin, in which I sought to recreate the scenes of the past – in other words, real writing, the sort that rises to the level of art. Also of great use to me was telling stories from the past in a group - not a group run by Robin - of people angry about the past and determined to live full lives, and of further great use was literally stepping into settings from the past, including trips into the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the physical setting for my family’s most important longings. In addition, for limited but useful periods I had worked with a therapist who was ready to accompany me on the parts of this voyage that involved mental probing and feeling, an empathetic therapist who did not try to take the journey over. And sometimes I learned the most by being alert in even the briefest of intimate relationships in the present to how in these relationships I could be in thrall to dark matters from the deep past.

But if in Robin's method for cracking open family systems I learned nothing big that I did not know, there were still some intriguing surprises – as in my brother, hearing my fake confessions, suggesting I leave everything I loved in my life, including my home and my work and my studies, and send my cat Gracie to the SPCA (he said shelters do not kill cats) so that not even Gracie the cat could keep me from leaving. He also advised me to stay away any girlfriend who was not, he said, too old for sex. And he thought I should move to some very cheap place in the south (he sent me a guide to such places), but be ready to come north to look after aging and dying relatives.This was fascinating, and it did pinpoint matters of use and concern to me - and my fake confessions seemed to make my brother furious. But this version of what family members thought should be my fate was not news to me. And I wondered if my brother’s reaction would have been different if my "interventions" had not been so complete and so fake – if my brother had not trusted me, and I had not entrapped him in the manner of an overzealous cop. And maybe,I thought later, the information I was getting was sometimes as unreliable as information interrogators get when using torture.

Still, even if nothing really new, the information I was getting this way was interesting enough, and maybe enlightening enough, for me to keep on with Robin. And then one day I realized that I was letting him direct me much as he had directed his unusually dependent clients – most of whom had not left home as I had with good reason when young, and had not, before Robin, gone through anything like what I had gone through much later in deeply examining their lives and their family legacy and their past and present relationships.

And at a crucial point that almost slipped by unnoticed by me I found myself doing what all of his other clients were doing and I thought I would never do. I began letting him dictate to me, word by word, and have me read it back to make certain my dictation was accurate, word for word the intervention version of my story that I would then put in the mail to my brother.

Ghost writing as perversity. Robin would sometimes hint that the version he dictated was what the client really believed deep down but could not see, and so should be freed from. Sometimes he had it right. Sometimes, too, there was clever irony in these dictated stories, and grim humor in the hurt they could do to the person receiving the stories. And I did get emotionally entangled in this interventions, which was an indication I had not resolved thes matters fully. But as he heard the words he dictated read back to him there would be a knowing and satisfied smile on his round face. It haunts me still.

I came to believe that what Robin was really after was the thing that writers and other artists, and all people everywhere, should realize promotes the death of something sacred – someone else defining a person’s memory, someone else dictating, literally or subtly, a version of a person’s own story.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 19 - Extreme Ghostwriting I

Cults are much on my mind these days as my wife goes public with her beautifully intense memoir of 10 years spent in a burgeoning yogic enterprise.

Families often operate like cults, as my wife says, even though families are supposed to want to keep their members outside cults. You would think all therapists would feel that way too. There was a time, though when I had all too much firsthand experience of a therapist himself morphing into cult leader.

Robin seemed to me the last person who would be a cult leader – and maybe he was more legitimate when I first met him. Maybe he changed over the years.

He was a sometimes twinkly, cherubic little bald psychotherapist who was bright and quick and funny. And the years did slip away until a point when I could no longer ignore that he was working, consciously or not, to keep his followers right where they were, imprisoned by the past he had convinced them he could help them escape. Keep them right there where he could find them and dominate them.

While it was true he did help some to split off from abusive families, and got some others to leave a seminary they had entered too young, he also pushed them all to leave all their deepest relationships, including marriages, even though in his minister role he conducted weddings, sometimes, as I can tell you, more than once for the same client. Eventually it seemed clear to me that he was out to get his clients to leave all relationships that took precedence over their relationship with him.

The often inevitable problems that come up in relationships made for great cover. It could seem that Robin was out to help people to be their true selves, while actually, while helping them run from other relationships, he was implanting false selves - selves that were more Robin than the client.

Not that leaving relationships cannot have its healthy side. That was why it was so hard to see what Robin was up to. At one point I left a brief unhappy marriage that I had hoped would work but was not working. Robin, who had performed the marriage ceremony, told me later that although he had remained silent he had known it would not work. And when the separation at last took place,in a time of anger and sorrow, he said that this was a happy event for now there would be nothing in the way of work he and I would do together. Not me and my wife with Robin. Just me and Robin alone.

And he said the same thiing again whenever I parted from a girlfriend. Later on, he came up against a brick wall when he tried hard to break up my marriage with the love of my life. Unlike the last time, this marriage of deeply connected lovers was thriving. His instincts failed him. As so often happens with dictators who outlive their time, he went too far.

Robin had not suggested I not get into that earlier brief and troubled marriage. But he eventually got quite nasty about other relationships,and not just those that were between lovers. He was sarcastic about the relationship I had with my spiritual director, who is a widely loved and admired figure in liberal Catholic circles.

But Robin was quick and bright, which was a big part of his appeal. Another part had to with how he portrayed himself as a living legend. He could be inspiring, but he was worse than he sounded - as someone once said about grandiose Wagner music. To my discredit, it was a long time before I took seriously enough for action what I knew about the legend part. The legend had, for instance, Robin starting out as a young and brilliant and far-left part-time Methodist preacher who became a major sixties figure. He talked of his role in the networks of well-known Vietnam-era war protesters, one of whom had been a fugitive whom he said he had helped to hide from the FBI. But I talked once with that former fugitive, and later I became good friends with another famous sixties figure with whom Robin claimed a connection, and neither had ever heard of him.

Still, I kept keeping such evidence tucked away. What I was learning could not be what I thought I was learning. For the man was indeed perceptive. And I, much like a devotee of a charming ego-maniac guru, continued to push evidence aside. After all, Robin was my ally. I could lean on him in hard times. When financial disaster struck, he waived his fees.He understood me. Maybe there were some connections in my life that were not what Robin thought they were, but maybe they were just a blip on the screen. I told myself that certain evidence did not matter in light of his overall work.

If it has been less extreme I might have caught on immediately. Where it was most extreme, however, it was connected with a certain kind of intensely personal and fake kind of what struck me as something very much like ghostwriting – a form of writing books in which the real writer, a professional, is not the writer whose name is on the story.

Ghostwriters in the book world sometimes disappear behind words that sound a lot like the author's words. And sometimes they take over and distort what is on the mind of the author. Robin would often tell his clients precisely, word for word, what they should say - pretending these were their own words - when they wrote, at his suggestion, to family and loved ones.

This was quite aside from how awful Robin's own writing was. Although the legend had him as an important poet, what he put on paper was either oblique pretentious nonsense or stories about his family and former wives, portraying them all in ways that kept the stories forever set in place – pieces of carefully worked out analysis that were so dead they could never change, could never grow as art can grow– and the stories were larded with often conventional theological statements that sounded better than they were.

But as cult leader his own writing was not the writing that seemed to me key to Robin's story. I was strangely willing to try to believe that I liked it. And anyway what he did with own stories was overshadowed by what he did with other people’s stories.

Some of his followers had been with him for twenty years and more, some since they were teenagers. I did stay too long, but Robin and his groups were not the absolute center of my life - nothing like the Authentic Writing program. And anyway I was a very long way from literal early youth when I met him, and I was older than he was. And I already was so deep into my own stories that there was nothing basic he could tell me - though he was good at playing up certain details - which would appear in responses that came when he got his clients to tell big lies to people who might not always have their interests at heart but trusted them not to lie.

A very big part of Robin's appeal was that he could read people at a glance – know where they were strong and where weak, and where they lied and where they didn’t lie, where they came from and what they wanted. And when he had no idea what was going on with you he would give a sharp look – rather like Rod Steiger playing a tough but shrewd and kindly Southern sheriff – that could convince you he knew more about what was going on with you than you yourself could ever know. This ability to read people, so useful to a therapist who wants to help people, so dangerous in the hands of a cult leader who wants to both help and enslave people. And this pretense that he knew things he could not know so very dangerous to his followers.

This therapist cult figure – who decided to literally write people’s stories for them – write mine for me. How I came to hate him. This place of tyranny masked as a place of caring - so like the Pharaoh's ancient Egypt slave state.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 18 - The How-to-Write Industry

I suspected the marriage did not stand much of a chance when my then wife thought it was great that my stepson was so pleased with his poetry writing class, which was centered around keeping control of your work by always writing the last line first, then filling in whatever needs to be filled in so that you can get to that last line and nowhere else.

But I can understand the appeal, for if the ending is there before you begin you can pretty well dispense with the anything precarious that might appear while in the writing process. In effect, you have thrown out process. If you already have the ending in place, then nothing bad can happen. And nothing will ever change.

There is a vast industry that tends to silence real artists and that I believe is based on fear. I call it the How-to-Write Industry. It is something like what Leonard Bernstein called “the music appreciation racket.” Non-artists take over, promote criticism above creativity, and set up rules and limits to what artists can or should do. And thus art, including the art of writing, becomes something so safe it threatens no fossilized ideas.

The How-to-Write industry can make itself felt in academic writing programs, starting with English 101, where silly rules often come in and the silliness of such things as learning rhetorical modes. Its rules are often felt in back-biting M.F.A. programs in Creative Writing, in many of the commercial writing workshops and the huge number of on-line writing courses a web search turns up, as well as in writing magazines for the public and little writing journals for the academics. In all these areas there are sympathetic, empathetic teachers that one would be fortunate to encounter. But there are many more teachers who exalt criticism at the expense of art and do not welcome real stories. In many of these courses, as in a majority of books about writing, it is as if nothing is real, everything is an exercise or a system for writing-to-order. And writing is meant to be such an ordeal that there are programs that use the word “boot camp” in their titles or promotional materials.

But though writing can be hard, the pure-ordeal notion cannot be taken seriously by a writer who is actually writing from what that writer knows, sees, feels and finds inside herself or himself. In fact, in the Authentic Writing workshops and in our private client sessions it often seems that the very best writing comes in ways that feel natural and even easy. It is the falsification involved in the writing-to-order kind of writing – in writing meant to fit someone else’s version of reality – that causes anguish and blockage – like a time during dark days I tried to turn a searing family story into a happy story for a book editor, or write about State Department people as if I admired them – myself then like all those people who will not admit that what they are trying to write has nothing to do with what they believe or who they are.

The How-to-Write industry keeps coming up with new techniques to stop writing from going anywhere unexpected, anywhere that would cause anxiety to those in power. This industry is like a religion that finds death more appealing than life.

As in a cult, there are How-to-Write laws rooted in dubious scholarship
such as the rules, based on Latin, not English, to never start a sentence with a conjunction, never split an infinitive, never end a sentence with a preposition. These rules are calls to stop doing things that all the best writers constantly do when they allow the writing itself to take over. And there are other rules constantly violated in major literature that, if followed to the letter, are just as bad – such as "Avoid the passive voice" or "Adhere strictly to your outline." These are things that at best might be somewhat helpful as fixed rules if your only ambition were to write catalog blurbs or small appliance assembly instructions.

One thing my brother did as my writing was taking off again was sign me up, forging my signature, in the Writer’s Digest Book Club. And just then the Writer’s Digest magazine’s special memoir issue came out. It was filled with advice for writing memoir by writing only about people you had known, really interesting people, rather than about yourself.

Much in the manner of those prissy grade school teachers who ban the use of “I” –for who would be interested in such as you?

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

WRITTEN WORD 17 - Bad News in the Family

All writers should be warned that real writing – writing that goes beyond predictable matters, or pure genre hokum, or fluffy, teddy bear stories – real writing invariably means war.

It is almost never good news to a family that a family member is writing. It is terrible news that someone may go public with, among other things, his or her version of events in the family or some other cult in which he or she once lived.

It is not just the possibility that family members might be portrayed as less than heroic characters – it is also that the entire surface world as they know it – everything seen as good and moral and everything that could be seen as deserving protection – might turn out to be nothing more than clever theater designed to solidify and enhance and enforce whatever the position of the family’s most triumphal members.

When I was 36 and I got a contract and advance money from a major publisher to complete a novel, my brother let it be known I was behaving in really bad taste because I was celebrating the contract with Don Perignan and Beluga caviar. Our family had not had a writer since my grandfather, who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1917, and I – more innocent than I was ready to admit – thought that my success would please them. But it was just the opposite. The family already had its writer. It was presumptuous for anyone to try.

I wrote off my twin’s reaction to jealousy, he being the good twin who was expected to be rewarded for being good. I found it sad and touching that he was telling people I should not have gotten such a contract because I had done all the wrong things in life, most notably never having had the benefit of graduate school.

My father’s reaction was just as negative, even though he was a publisher, or maybe because he was a publisher. He took me to lunch at the staid old Century Club to tell me I had become the family’s number-one problem since I did not have a proper job. I had thought the lunch was to celebrate my triumph. And as for a job, I had my book advance.

“Your grandfather never took a cent until the book was in print,” my father said. As a writer I was around writers and publishing people for years and I never heard of any other case of a writer refusing a book advance until after the book was done. Maybe it was because my grandfather, unlike me and most writers, had an independent income. But I don’t really think that explains it – so here is yet something more about this strange family to explore.

This opposition to writing from my family was especially blunt and blatant – but in kinder, gentler families than mine it is also common that the opposition is there. Whether it comes in the form of “please write something inspirational ” or “Go back to school for your teaching certificate, or “Better go get your real estate license.”

Recently I made the mistake of showing my brother what I had written about that time during the war when they forgot about us in Florida, and although he stayed at the beach hotel and got credit for looking at the fourth grade textbooks, I became a bleached hair scraggly swamp rat, roaming the jungles and finding ways to get coins to play the slot machines at Max’s tavern, where at the age of nine I was a regular. I thought it portrayed his position as much more difficult than mine, he being called upon to be the perfect child while I was, in comparison, free in my family scapegoat role.

I showed the story to my brother – about the mildest story I had ever written in which he appeared – I showed if even though I knew better.

“I can see that writing memoir is a real struggle for you,” he said. “And I deeply resent your writing this Florida story this way.”

There was another way I could and should have written, he said. I should have written that he too played the slot machines at Max’s and roamed the jungles and got into rotten citrus fruit fights with local urchins. That he was more than just the trapped good little boy I had portrayed. And now he was angry, repeating his put-down, “A real struggle for you.”

And he sent me a letter, now not in anger, saying that in any case memoir is not the proper course. The problem with memoir, he said, is that you cannot resolve people’s stories if you stick only to what actually happened. In memoir there are no proper endings.

I showed him my little story even though I knew enough by now never to show anything I wrote to a relative. I had seen it happen over and over – the reaction that nearly always means trouble. Sometimes it comes as something said sweetly,
such as you should be commended for trying even though it proves to be too much of a struggle. Sometimes the reaction is fierce, as in how can you say such things about me or your mother (or father or brother or, sister or grandparents or country or cult leader)? – the way critics were upset that the McCourt brothers did not depict their mother as if she were a mummified saint.

I have seen people from our workshops yanked away to another part of the country to keep them from writing. Or maybe, out of the blue, it time to have another child, or maybe this is the moment to turn your life over to caring for dying relatives, which is what my brother wanted me to do, or time to take a course in something decent like children’s literature or technical writing – anything except writing about your life.