Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 5 – MIDLIFE CRISIS?

Books were being written about something called a midlife crisis and by some reckonings I was in midlife if 50 is old enough to count. I was surely going through a crisis in the sense that everything in the landscape of my life, past, and clearly present, and even more clearly future, was suddenly other than I had always seen it to be. The old reference points had become as flimsy as those antique chairs you fear will crumble if you sit in one of them.

But I was not so concerned yet about any mysteries I might be entering, for my interpretation of midlife crisis was just the way it was presented by the popular writers – something that was far more literal than spiritual – a hot subject that had to do not with entering areas of mystery but with straight-line solutions to problems.

The crisis part rang true. Maybe I wasn’t suicidal but it felt like the end of the word to me. A new affair with a glamorous French woman did not feel like the romance she assured me it was. This book on the Philippines I wrote with Max was in the stores still and getting a little attention, but it had not changed my life the way I had expected. All my books, I now knew for sure, had been the wrong books, just as my marriage had been he wrong marriage.

Change, in the midlife crisis theories as I read them, meant working hard to get to wherever I was supposed to be – which I thought was roughly where I had been in the first place. Maybe for some it would mean changing how you brought in money, but that didn’t seem to apply either. I was no corporate drone. I was a writer, as friends reassured me every time I thought to do something else. Writers are meant to write, they said. Getting past this dark midlife time would partly be a matter of doing more writing, like a writer should.

Getting back did mean change in the sense that I would look for new places that were the places I ought to explore, and I would look for a woman that I ought to have had in the first place. This was so clear I could see the places and the woman with no evidence that they existed. But my ideas about books became a little more concrete. My agent sent out in all directions new book proposals that I labored on. One was for that light book about my family that an editor had suggested and a publisher seemed about ready to sign. Another was for a piece of travel writing that mean I would close my eyes and breath deep and do what most travel writers do, which is to take air tickets and hotel rooms and food and drink as bribes to say nice things that might not be of any interest at all to the writer. And there was an idea for a book about great rivers of the world, most of which I had already seen and some of which I had explored. And then one that would make fun of things in California – from New Age to free-flowing sex to new politics – including things I actually found appealing but would treat with irony verging on contempt.

So I did try to bring the midlife crisis to an end. I did try to write a happy, funny book about family that seemed neither happy nor funny to me. And I tried to find women when I could find the energy.

And the depression got worse. There was this dread writers block which I did not know yet almost never occurs unless the writer is trying to write something false.

I started with a young therapist who wore a yarmulke whom I had encountered by mistake thinking it was a way to placate my ex-wife, who was no more Jewish then me but had a line into the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, where the sliding scale fees were reasonable. Long ago I had pushed for couples counseling – not that I knew much about counseling – and I had been rebuffed. But now that our marriage no longer existed, she called to hold me to the promise.

So there I was, doing the charade of seeing the therapist separately, after a joint session that proved too volatile . And I soon found the young therapist was brilliant and empathetic. The young guy asked about my family and I said my father had recently died. I also found myself telling him about something I had not spoken about before to anyone in the busy near year since I saw my father’s body – about the details of the death, about how my father had died in great pain in a fifth rate Gulf Coast Florida hospital deserted by his wife, my mother, and by my brother the good twin, who came down but then fled the scene, and by his Anglo daughter-in-law and also his only remaining sibling and by anyone who might have still after these last years been considered an old friend – deserted by everyone except my about to be ex-wife and me, who saw him through to death, his entire chest an oozing red and yellow open cancer wound. His reaction to the pain was interpreted as a final coma by the people who would not come to see him – though probably not by the doctor, who refused enough morphine for apparent fear of a malpractice suit. The young therapist asked me how I felt about my father’s death , which was the kind of question I had never been asked before. I was certain I felt nothing beyond a little safe sympathy, and yet I was sobbing now, me a man who had not sobbed in the many years since he had stopped drinking, sobbing now as if it would never stop.

So I junked the midlife crisis books, sure now that I was no more a candidate for a correct midlife crisis than in school days I had been a candidate for organizations that did trivial things with various sizes of balls. And I started making some wild new moves, entering visual rather than verbal worlds, even joining groups of people on the same sort of hunt I was thrilled to be on, all of them angry and at the same time most of them exhilarated as we made our way out and into our lives. The crisis was not over yet. There were still more attempts to get back to where I had been. But by the following summer everything was so different that I was in the aqua Mustang, moving through nature without a map, and hardly a care in the moment though I knew that at some not too distant moment I would be crossing a frontier into the landscape where it had all begun.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008


A naked, sweet-voiced girl telling of a lighthearted trip to the beach while lying upstairs at three in the morning over a steamy waterfront bar in Batista’s Havana, and the blacked out windows in Kuala Lumpur when there were snipers, and the black and white smoke from old steam engines in the White Mountains and in Jordan and the western Sudan and Slovenia. And my places with views – over Athens to the monastery mountain Lykvatos, or up through a maze of tenements and office buildings to the Empire State Building, or over the mother of rivers to Bangkok palaces, or past a minaret to the eastern Mediterranean. All those views returning and all those girls still young. Susan cooking me an obscure fish as I looked south over Manhattan almost to the Battery. Sandie kissing me deeply in the shadows when we escaped the segregation of our New Hampshire boarding schools. Startling surprises of light and life in the Jeu de Paume off the Place de la Concorde. These and an infinite number of other places over the years with loves and would-be loves – and Kitty, who embodied the dreamt-of culmination, and then the dangerous time with Cathy, and then talented Vannie, whose sweet face was in my mind and heart as I wandered alone, even when passing graveyards, and the dangerous and obsessive time with Judy, and the lovely and furious days with gorgeous, syrupy Bonnie, and later another sweet Bonnie, and all those times in all those bars, and also times far from bars. And Anne Marie, whom I met at the old Corso, and Mary Anne, whom I met at a Manila restaurant where the waiters were dwarfs – Mary Anne my now ex-wife – these and so many girls and women I knew or tried to know – and all the food and drink consumed – the life-giving warm bile from a just killed snake in a Hong Kong alley, or rosé in Macao, or awful Turkish vodka, or Pernot if not absinthe in Paris – and Musaka in Delphi, or raw liver from a throat-slit goat in a sweltering grass hut village, or cevapcisi outdoors in Llubliana, or raw herring in Amsterdam, or the perfect crepe in Paris, or anything offered in Tuscany and Umbria, or succotash in Indianapolis – and so much else in so many other places, and then all the ships – the Cunard and Italian and Holland-American line liners in the deep past, the old Messageries Maritime in the Far East, a Portuguese liner in West Africa, a Thai liner on the equator, a Turkish liner where everyone was expected to throw up, the Norwegian ship I worked on to get out of Portuguese Angola – ships and more ships back into my very young days – and those treks through Borneo and West Africa and other unlikely places including the White Mountains of New Hamsphire which were always threading their way through memory, and jails for unruly behavior and also one for doing good in Mississippi in civil rights days. And all that writing, good and bad and real and fake and rarely as close as I wished it to be. And that staunch but dangerous if often interesting family I came from that set up a life-long rivalry between me and my twin that could have finished us off when the battle moved from childhood to separate warring sides in Southeast Asia. My recurring attempts to send up fireworks in even the most peaceful places, which was what I was accused of by safer people – this life into which I had wanted to put the excitement that it seemed I needed if I were to be what I thought I should be – maybe modeled on the fiction that I still read.

Though now I was free of fiction, I believed and prayed. The excitement and the affairs and the houses and marriage and girlfriends even in times I had neither wife nor live-in girl, but the almost forgotten long times, interminable times alone in strange landscapes, too often a blur, sometimes so wonderfully sharp and clear, or too sharp and too clear. Drinking or sober alone in damp rooms as well as airy places with views – alone on the streets of places like Sarajevo and Grand Canaria where I spoke none of the languages, times alone that did not seem like mere interludes though on the surface it might appear there was always excitement and constant movement over and between continents.

All this and so much more flashed before me as I drove up and down and back and forth all over Vermont that summer of 1986, listening to music from the lighthearted aqua Mustang’s tape deck. Morning has broken like the first morning, Blackbird has spoken like the first bird… She is wearing rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters… Dear Lord above, don’t you know I’m crying? … Each step wakes a memory as freely I roam. On paths and beside lakes with a regular-people’s Walkman – but mostly inside the aqua Mustang this summer in Vermont, an interlude in the car with a heart-breaking girl who had a story and nearly loved me, but most of the time in the car happy enough alone.

This the new time, 1986. This the time I am finally finding ways to live that had not been in my outlines for constructed excitement. Everything now coming to the fore. My life flashing before me as I glide though the soft hills of Vermont with no clear destination.

My entire life flashing before me not as the old saw would have it because I am about to die but rather because I am feeling so alive now that I have recently said several times to people I know from this new present that I, never consciously suicidal in spite of near ultimate depressions, said now that I would not mind dying now because at last now I have tasted how much more the world could have for me.

As my entire life flashed before me in this time I was not dying.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Later when I read John Cheever and his imitators and mentors and models there was a recurring story, that seemed so exotic to me, of how a guy kind of drunk returns home late at night and crawls into bed, and then discovers he is in the wrong house. As a child I never lived in a house that could be mistaken for any other. In Connecticut, there was the cramped part with low ceilings and a Dutch oven and small fireplaces and wide old hand split floor boards, and in the more open and rickety parts added later, including a room with many windows called The Big Room, there was so little insulation that in my upstairs bedroom I was in the middle of everything that went on downstairs – the drinking and the fighting and the occasional gaiety – the ceiling downstairs being the same thin boards that were also the floor in the part of the house that had been added in pre-commuter days to form a boarding house.

To my delight, for needs in board house days, there was, from my upstairs room, a wobbly old outside staircase leading down and out into the world beyond this family that often seemed to think so little of me.

In the summers, we were mostly in New Hampshire at White Pines, though sometimes White Wings, or the Farm House or the House on the Hill, but usually White Pines, the biggest, newest and most formal of our grandparents’ places, approached by a long dirt-road twisting driveway that came out on a gravel drive encircling a formal lawn, the gravel drive taking you to the front door of White Pines. In the entry, if you turned left, a big bathroom was one flight down, the telephone room a half flight up, and you passed a cane rack with so many walking sticks it was as if no man ever went walking without one. And from there through French doors into the infinitely long main room at the end near the kitchen and the servants’ dining room and a restaurant size stove and three big pantries, and bins holds a year's supply of rice and sugar and flour – and a box where numbers would drop down showing which of the many bedrooms needed a servant, and then more pantries and the back stairs to the servant’s sleeping rooms, which were barricaded off from the rooms that could make numbers drop down, and then further along past the kitchen was the Boys' Wing, where male children were meant to live, with a nurse when they were young, which was on a second story now because of the configuration of the land, above a big playroom that in turn led to the garage where rested by grandfather's old brown Dodge touring car, and sometimes a much fancier touring car owned by my Great Uncle Jehan, who was a prince from Rajasthan who had been in America for 45 years on a student visa to do a thesis at Colombia.

Then back at the main entrance to White Pines, if you turned right when you walked in you had to tiptoe because you were near the entrance now to my grandfather's study. The big old door on which he wrote on yellow foolscap which would be sent to a clever woman in the village who knew how to operate a typewriter. This exciting room with Socialist Realist drawings of hearty workers in Russia, where my grandfather had been in the Kerensky Revolution, and an “UNCLE SAM WANTS YOU” poster form his patriotic World War I days, and a working crossbow that was never explained, and a Franklin stove – but mainly all those books, some of which brought life to me, such as the works of Turgenev, whom no one had told me about, and some brought fear, especially a child-rearing manual that, judging from its 1910 publication date, was probably used on my father. It said you should discipline boys to sleep with their hands outside the covers and you should sew up their pockets for otherwise they would do nasty things and ruin their minds.

Near the bookcases there was a small iron circular staircase leading up to a trap door that opened into my grandfather’s suite of rooms – men and women never seemed to sleep together in this house – pulling himself up through the trap door to his dressing room and his big bathroom that had a doctor’s scale in it, and his bedroom and, for warm nights, his sleeping porch. His study faced not on the back of the house, where he would have had a spectacular but distracting view of the Franconia Range, but rather faced on the gravel drive that ran around the formal lawn at the front. He was on this side because if he heard a vehicle approaching on the long twisting drive (where drivers honked constantly in case someone was coming the other way) he could look out from behind the blinds to see who it was. And it could well be someone he did not want to see. That was the explanation for the circular iron stairway to the trap door in the ceiling.

Friday, March 7, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 3 - PARKWAYS

I am noticing everything as I drive along in countryside four months after having noticed just too late that the first leaves had appeared.

Seeing how the trees, darker shades of green now, are billowing up and out, billowing as I watch, on either side of the roads I take up into New England and then back again to the city. From Vermont, where I am staying, I shoot down to New York once a week and then return using different routes. One of my favorites is the leg I do on the old Taconic Parkway, which is still in the 1930s as was Connecticut’s old Merritt Parkway when I turned 16 and took the family car, an aging Plymouth convertible, all the way down to Greenwich – so far away, 20 miles, that my parents argued long before letting me make the journey on my own. And then I was on my way, flying solo to this amazing girl, Kitty, whom I had met in the summer of 1950 at a swimming place in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. This girl Kitty who represented for me everything that the future might hold – if I could somehow leave the past behind.

The Plymouth had been green, which is close to the aqua of the Mustang. And the Merritt Parkway, in Connecticut, was so like the Taconic, up in New York state. This new present on the Taconic in the aqua Mustang when everything seems possible, and that other present, years back in time, when I had traveled the Merritt Parkway in a family Plymouth. It had been much like now, the way the world had been opening up for me.

These pioneering four-lane highways seen in actuality but always having the feel of something seen in a book. Nothing like the trucker lobby’s Eisenhower interstates that came after I was first driving. These old parkways with their landscaping – passages into nature rather than detours around commercial strips. And surely on these roads were people of my future – beautiful sophisticated people on their way to restaurants or roadhouses or summer theaters in Fairfield County or Westchester – and of course on beyond to the mountains which are called green in Vermont, and white in New Hampshire, which refers to winter time, but in summer are sometimes green, sometimes more like blue, when not gray granite.

And in each of these present times, in the fifties and in the eighties, there were these dreamlike elements. And there was something else too – something from yet another past time intruding. For life in the fifties, as again now in the eighties, could get back in unexpected ways to what I had first known – an appealing if static world of big formal houses with striped awnings and white birdbaths beneath the granite mountains.

New Hampshire was a constant. I did not harp on it like other members of my family did. I had never returned to live there, or even set up a summer place there. Yet I had to admit New Hampshire offered the security of a place that would not go away – those summer places and summer people so mired in the past – always there somewhere inside me – this summer side of Franconia, New Hampshire, filled with distinguished old men and women covered with liver spots – this static summer place where I nonetheless had young friends at swimming holes, climbed mountains with girls and boys, fell out of love with a girl from my prep school’s sister school, and in love with Kitty.

The White Mountains, where the grownups talk was so much about the past – 19th century days in lakeside mansions north of Chicago, or “tramping” (the upper class word for hiking) in Bavaria, or my grandfather in the glorious days of World War I, which he saw first from the German and then from the Allied side. My grandfather in the Russian Revolution, and then as a Socialist in the radical settlement house movement in New York. So unlikely, it sometimes seemed, that past when he was a Socialist that they talked about here in this very Republican summer place which was so tight that Jews were not allowed in the hotels – not even his old doctor friend Harry Lorbar from settlement house days. And it was not just the hidebound summer people, for there was a parallel Republican world of actual year-round people, working people whose families had been here forever and were known to my family as quaint New Englanders, or simply as "natives."

But in the Mustang the past went out of consciousness as smoothly as it came in and seemed of little weight. The Taconic in 1986 seemed a passage through a kind of wonderland. This was just before California-style entrances and exits were added. Rather, there were still little lanes going off at right angles into bowers that were recesses in the billowing trees.

Surely there would be strip malls and fast food places on the other sides of the bowers, but the several times I turned off and went through a bower to look, I found myself in an area of rolling hills, or one of little white picket fence villages, or one of fields with red barns and cows or horses or sheep. This was how it was that summer of 1986. It would have been fantasy if I had not been so aware of the reality of all sights and sounds and smells.

But, bowers to the contrary, the past and its darkness never stayed away for long. Across the border from Vermont was the last of our family’s big old formal summer houses, this one a rambling building with antique furniture called The Farm House. And there I had a twin brother, who was the good twin when we were growing up. He had been locked into the role of the good little boy who said cute things for the pleasure of the elders, a role he must have found suffocating, he the boy who learned to read before he went to school and pleased his teachers almost as much as he pleased his parents and grandparents – as much as I displeased them all. He was such a joy to them – making up for me, the slow, bad-boy, non-identical twin brother who got the worst grades in the same schools where the good twin got the best grades, was picked last where his brother was picked first, was constantly in trouble for lethargy or worse.

Things changed when I came into my own in boarding school where I was far away from home, but there was always this dangerous dichotomy. A hopeful present. A formidable past that was meant to wipe out any present. And now that my twin and I were getting into our middle years it was much the same and even worse. I had a book out about the Philippines, written and researched in situations of great danger with my journalist friend Max Vanzi. Much of what it portrayed as seen by us from the embattled opposition side, especially from the New People’s Army, Maoist rebels that were in every province in this former U.S. colony that was now run by an egregious dictator and his wife, old friends of our own ruling Reagans, and where America still had its biggest overseas military bases.

Earlier in this same year I was to buy the Mustang in Vermont, my brother had turned up in the Philippines with the CIA. After half a century our childhood rivalry was still being played out, now in places where it could easily lead to the death of either or both or us

He was probably on the New Hampshire side right now, since it was summer. He was probably sitting on his screen porch with his English wife, possibly wearing a necktie and argyle socks, looking out toward the mountains, just like we did when we were infants.

I was on the Vermont side and everything was different here. And yet there was a voiceover from somewhere playing my head that could appear at the oddest moments. It was my brother’s voice reporting on what I was seeing. Not exactly what I was seeing, but what he was telling me I was seeing. His version of reality, not mine.

Little in the landscape had changed since we were children. But one exception was that in the best farmland, which was almost all on the Vermont side, the picturesque old silos, made of wood and built much the way the old coopers built barrels, had very recently been replaced by shiny dark blue silos apparently made of Plexiglas. I was seeing this change myself for the first time. And I was also hearing my brother’s voice telling me I would see it – as if he were right here in the car and I had not arrived yet. Reality being not what I saw but more like what I read in a book, whose author would have to be my rival twin brother. The one entrusted by the family with its story the way they wanted it to be told – entrusted to cover up most of what would be in any version of reality that was my own.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Aqua Mustang 2 - FOOTHILLS

It is April 1st, 1986, April Fools Days, which would have been my 9th annivesary if that marriage had lasted, which is why I remember it is April 1. I am walking along West 25th Street between the dark old VA building at the 7th Avenue end and this small newer place, near 8th, which, strangely, has a concrete latticed façade that looks Venetian, and from which I have a view down over a neglected garden and up and out almost to the Battery, this place where I live alone if not lonely now that I am looking into new sides of life. An exciting time of new beginnings. As I walk on my block now I notice that one of the trees – there are a lot of small trees on the block, easily not noticed, protected by small iron fixtures around them in the small squares of earth in the sidewalk. As I look up, I notice for the first time that the first light green embryonic leaves have already started coming out. And I wonder if on any year I had noticed the actual moment the leaves first peeped out, me so attuned to nature, I thought, though so suddenly aware this year that I have been living in cities all my adult life – using countryside only for clear-cut adventure, in cities sometimes where there is death in the streets and sometimes cities where there are outdoor cafés everywhere, but always cities. So attuned to nature, I thought, but maybe I was wrong. For I had missed this crucial moment of the leaves’ birth – April 1 this year. Have I ever caught such a crucial moment? But I swear I will never miss it again.

And I am thinking of this four months later as I drive in Vermont in the amusing old aqua Mustang I got on the spur of the moment – a chrome relief of a wild horse on the front, a hard top since it is a hardtop convertible, a convertible built so that it can never be converted. And on the instrument panel is a gauge that shows me exactly how fast the engine is turning over, the sort of information I would need if I were a race car driver whose life depended on very, very precise timing of the shifting of gears – except that this convertible, that has no top that can go down, has an automatic transmission and hence no gears that can be manuallly shifted – just the dashboard gauge that I would need if it did. And I love this car and its lessons in the non-linear. I am remembering a girl named Sue – we both worked at Time-Life and of course slept together – Sue telling me as we ate Belgian waffles at the 1964 New York Worlds Fair about this silly new car, called a Mustang, for safe suburban people who want to seem like they are daring sports car people but get it wrong. The subject came up as we were talking about the silly mechanical Abraham Lincoln we had just seen in the Disney pavilion.

I am driving along now in Vermont, where I do not have good reason to be – though there is an old friend up here, and Vermont is definitely not New Hampshire, scene of my sometimes hopeful and often perilous youth, but these matters, a friend nearby and a place that is not New Hampshire, were not sufficient-seeming reasons. I knew many people everywhere and I knew a million places that were not New Hampshire. I was cruising around without a reason after all those years of traveling in which there was never a trip for which I did not have a reason whether it was to catch a war in West Africa, or research a book I might or might not write in Burma, or interview a central American dictator, or get laid on an island, but now no reason, moving through Vermont where I have no history, and the tapes are always playing on the Mustang's tape deck, playing songs I missed when I was away, some of the best of them now heard for the first time, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, though not actually Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell for I never heard of them in the places were I was, but their songs, filtered now in the aqua Mustang through the more cornball Roger Whittaker and Judy Collins, but giving me the taste of it, of what I had missed and who I was, and as I drove along, up and down foothills of the Green Mountians and round and round corners, sometimes following water that rushes over smooth stones, stepping hard on the gas pedal when I hit a rare straight stretch with no one coming the other way, drove without a plan with the music playing – ersatz versions maybe, but nonetheless important to me – feeling excited yet more peaceful than I ever had before, though knowing my life depended on what I could encounter in this new world for which I had no plans.