Thursday, January 24, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 64 - East-West Epic

I did try to get it right. My editor had been talking about the sales possibilities for the sort of sweeping romantic East-West adventure romance that comes along very few years - Tai-Pan (which he had discovered and edited), The World of Suzie Wong, Love is a Many Splendored Thing.

My new wife and I were living in a no-man's land, the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, which was actually run by brilliant Chinese entrepreneurs, assisted by brilliant Chinese criminals, all working with and sometimes submitting to, the dread Communists of the mainland. None of them had anything but contempt for most of the colonial masters, the overpaid British, whom I knew as people who faked their accents. There was no life for the British outside their government-owned houses and their clubs, no life in public where someone might say your upper class accent is fake.

In some cities in Southeast Asia everyone mingled – Bangkok, Singapore, even Djakarta – an often confused mixture – polyglot was the word I thought of – along with such words as erotic and subtle and picaresque – of people thrown together, as I was now, not entirely sure what they are doing here but liking it here and staying.

Not Hong Kong. Mingling was hard in Hong Kong. You could have Chinsese friends, but it was not likely in the English society that had been imposed on the colony. The Brits had been so nasty that even at the foreign correspondents club you rarely saw a Chinese man, and when you did it was likely to be an Oriental Uncle Tom who talked funny and made jokes about his race because that was expected of him – rather like, I suspect, the professional greeters of mainland tourists in Hawaii. Hong Kong is an adjunct of that part of southern China, called Canton when I was there, that did all things physical well, especially food, which they did better than anyone else.

In other cities in the region you would eat a lot of your meals, wonderful meals, at food stalls outdoors. Not in Hong Kong, where you probably would not be served at a food stall if you looked white. Not in Hong Kong, where if you were about to cross a working man’s path, he might spit on the ground in front of you and sneer the words Gwei-low, meaning foreign devil.

This is where Emily Zhang and I set up housekeeping after we got married in Manila and I was able to get her out of the Philippines, where the dictator had put a ban on foreign travel that applied to everyone except the very rich. Everyone was hearing from billboards and television the joys of what the dictator and his wife called “The New Society.”

We had gotten married in a cheerful fat judge’s chambers behind the big colonial era city hall in Manila, a city that was always sweaty and humid and often with strange smells coming in from Manila Bay. A rough and tumble journalist I knew, Sonny Plaino, came along as a witness and also as our chief fixer. It was us and Sonny and Emily’ mother, and her young brother who was actually her son – and the mother’s sister, Emily’s aunt, Mrs. Murillo, who often provided the money to keep the family going but was usually denied by the family because she made her living running a place for sex with prostitutes, whereas Emily’s mother made her living as a gambler, operating out of Quezon City a floating Mahjong game that had been going non-stop for many years. This should have been a tip-off to what would go wrong, for Emily had hidden the fact that she had, horrors, a child out of wedlock, and she was not amused, seemed ashamed, by the professional lives of her mother and aunt.

The immediate problem, though, was that there were so many conflicting martial law edicts in effect then that, when trying to get things done, even the best of fixers was often baffled. We had all sorts of papers in order when we went before the judge, and we were about to get started, and then a retainer whispered something in his ear, and he said we needed one more document. According to martial law edict such and such, any man getting married in Manila now had to show proof that in the past six months he had participated in a government-approved, six-week parenthood planning course. I of course had not been in Manila, much less in such a course, in any time period that would cover this. The judge laughed and said the edict was ridiculous, but his hands were tied.

Then Mrs. Murillo, who looked like a cheerful gray-haired lady born to be a favorite aunt, stepped forward and said she had a solution. For some reason some of the officials in Manila were incorruptible on this planned parenthood thing – which was an obsession of the country’s egregious First Lady, a high-powered former beauty queen. It confused everyone – especially the judge and Sonny Plaino. But Mrs. Murillo said she knew the right people in a satellite municipality on the outskirts called Pasay City. So she and I got into a shaky little rust-covered taxi and headed off to that hopefully corruptible Pasay City Hall on the outskirts, and sure enough for only a small bribe we got the document saying I had been in Manila and done the course, and we started back in high heat and humidity and bone-crushing traffic to the judge’s quarters behind the surprisingly, on this subject anyway, incorruptible Manila City hall.

And the taxi of course broke down. No gas, it turned out. So Mrs. Murillo and I, on the last lap to my wedding, are covered with dust and what feels like an oil slick and we are pushing the little taxi, and in front to us there is an old wooden-bodied bus that is belching black smoke from two big exhaust pipes up on the roof. And I am trying to concentrate on how this is a love story. And on the back of the bus is a sign that says “Love your New Society.”

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 63 - Bonnie

It started early in my time Asia - in Chiengmai, a sparkling royal city in the northeast of Thailand – Chiengmai, where for strange reasons that had nothing to do with anything serious, I was the English-language P.R. man for the World Council of Buddhists' international conference. A Burmese acquaintance of mine at Reuter's in Bangkok made Bonnie their correspondent for the event. And up in Chiengmai Bonnie and I were the talk of the town. When we called for room service in the Railway Hotel the entire staff crowded into our room, where we were naked in bed as a chef flambéed our dinner for us.

In Thailand, the land of the beautiful women, Bonnie – who was not Thai but came from New Jersey via Texas, Ohio and Tokyo – had my full attention from the start. Tall, dark, green eyes, silky hair - I thought of the resolutions so many Western men out here had made to avoid Western women. Not me, yet.

Now at last, the proper drama in life. Twenty-two now, Bonnie had gone to Tokyo as a junior to teach English for a semester in Antioch's work-study program. She had wound up working as a lure for Japanese men, paid well to stand just inside a nightclub door wearing a low gown that showed the syrupy smooth skin that would make me almost forget Thai women.

The drama continued. She had come to Bangkok with a slimy, high-living American government agent who had been next door in Vietnam, where the awful war raged, and who now wanted to kill me because she moved into my house on the wide Chao Phrya River.

It was all drama – spooks chasing spooks. Nobody was what they said they were. And with us, departures in the night, fights, a suicide try – a time in jail, which was a cage, in Sungei Golok, a jungle smuggler's town. And it got worse before it was over – a final scene in Kabul after a terminal trip through the Khyber Pass.

But that was not the way it was at the start in Chiengmai.

That night in the little hotel we had ordered everything on the new Western menu (this the year Western food, a novelty category then in Thailand, having caught on with the cool people). Our meal was brought right into the room, where the floor and sofa were covered with big, recently dead, black bugs because we'd forgotten to close the screen door to the terrace. The women and men came right in and formed a semi-circle around us – pretty smiling waitresses, also pretty housemaids, smiling waiters, smiling bus boys, three grinning guys with tall white comic strip chef's hats. They paraded in, and we were naked and not quite covered by the sheets. One of the chefs uncovered a huge platter of what looked like shish kebab, another poured Mekong rice whisky on it, a third lit it with a Zippo that featured the words "Semper Fi" and the Marine Corps logo – and there was a black cloud of smoke, then a sparkling yellow, bouncing flame – Bonnie so tantalizing in this light – and everybody in the room was clapping.

Monday, January 21, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 62 - Willie Nelson

I drive and drive through these hills and mountains of New Hampshire, on the trail, in the summer in ’86, of what had happened to them all – the cousins dead or dying or drugged out or molested – but not just the cousins of my generation in this family I came from but all of them in those grand houses in the White Mountains where everything was supposed to be so in order, though no one in my childhood time seemed to honor much that had happened since the turn of the century except maybe World War I, and the non-Marxist phase of the Russian revolution, covered by my grandfather the writer – which meant there was no room for another writer in this family – these rarefied people in these formal summer houses – where the men tended to have neckties on at breakfast.

That world seemed the enemy now. The cousins, who died, seemed my allies. But the version of the past that had held in these houses I was revisiting – driving and driving that summer – this was more dead than the mere dead bodies of cousin Paul and Cousin Elka and Cousin Margaret, or the battered body of my favorite, Cousin Lauryn.

And yet I had never felt more alive than in this time. I had stopped my writing, which was too controlled to be of any use to me as night became day and day night and gentle places became dangerous places and my mother and brother betrayed me and I too could have died – my brother revealing himself as a C.I.A. man in Manila , where I had been there under death threat dealing with the opposition to the Marcos dictatorship the CIA had helped set up, in this time when the heroes of my writing were being murdered. In Manila , where my brother swore he’d never been. And it was exhilarating too, new freedom, new worlds opening up to me. I had stopped writing but I was about to start painting. In ways I had never considered, never realized were there, I stepped into art – seeing things I had never seen before, from Piero della Francesa to Arshile Gorky – and nature – noticing for instance how it was not just new leaves coming in, the tree were billowing.

I said more than once to new people coming into my life that it would not be all that bad if I died now for now at last in 1986, though I did not feel being in my fifties made me old, at last I knew things I could so easily, like the others in the family I came from, gone to my death never knowing – art and life. It is true I would wake up some mornings in my Chelsea apartment putting all this new knowledge out of mind – the death of the family version and the deaths of the cousins - thinking at first that if I kept it all away, none of these things would have happened – so long as I could hold off remembering. Yet when I remembered it, I was elated.

And then as I drove through New England on this hunt for what had happened, with some side pleasure too, I felt that kind of freedom that I knew goes along with the end of a prolonged dying – like when my father died three years back, deserted by all his close relatives and friends except for me and my about to be ex-wife, whose picture he carried with him in his last moves from nursing home to home care to hospital, to home care, to nursing home to hospital, and on and on. Deserted by all except my then wife and also by me, which may not have counted for I was never considered in step with this family that enclosed them all.

And now I was free. As I drove through New England with Willie Nelson on the tape deck singing songs I knew from my hidden radio in childhood – “Stormy weather,” “Don’t Get around much anymore,” “I’m gonna sit right down and write myself a letter,” “Old fashioned love,” “Someone exactly like you.”

Thursday, January 17, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 61 – High School

Despite the early morning chaos before and as the hall monitors rushed in, everything else was fixed in place. Rules posted everywhere – no chewing gum, no speaking unless called upon, no leaving the building. An angry announcement came over loudspeakers which could not be turned off. It was the principal talking. Students had been seen on school grounds playing games when school was not in session. This would not be allowed.

Classroom walls stopped two feet short of the ceiling. I and most of my class skipped the pledge of allegiance when the PA system demanded it. (But in other classrooms this could mean trouble.)

One morning a girl was reading aloud about a situation in her town in which, flag-flying patriots were doing nasty things. She was interrupted by the principal's loudspeaker voice. "Don't forget, Friday is the deadline for the VFW annual 'I Am Proud To Be An American' essay contest."

Teachers, and even the sullen librarian and school nurse, had to be addressed (as long ago at my boarding school) by last name and as Mr., Mrs., Miss, Ms., and there were no exceptions. They even addressed each other that way. While kids only had first names.

Here at the high school there was no place for casual meetings of faculty and students. Back at my generally rigid boarding school it was during such informal, natural-seeming meetings that I found I could be something other than the slowest, dumbest kid.

The Cairo-Durham teachers retreated between classes to a lounge where the coffee was awful, and where students were forbidden and talked about as the enemy.

Kids today.

Kids today are like wild animals, I heard it said.

The first time I started to go into a lavatory I was stopped. It was a boy who stopped me. He said, "You must be new here."

He pointed to a sign on the door. "Boys". Then he led me to another door that said "Men".

This was close not so much to what I'd known when I was in boarding school as to what I'd found in 1964 Apartheid Mississippi.

Real stories kept breaking through. Instead of a silly ordeal, this early morning class had become an anything-goes writing place – really a workshop, and not to learn irrelevant theory about writing but rather a workshop in which everyone was writing.

Absolute proof that the moment someone finds the courage and accepts a convincing invitation to write their deepest stories – the moment someone starts to write actual scenes from actual lives – the writing becomes fine writing, profoundly grammatical – flowing.

And I was thinking, if I can carry this off here at the Cairo-Durham Central High School, I can do it anywhere!

For I had been told by the English chairpersons at both the college and the high school that the high school kids would have to be cajoled with a heavy hand if they were ever to learn writing. I had been told it was something they would never want to do.

And I was finding out otherwise. And by now, down in Woodstock, and moving into New York City, I had begun my Authentic Writing workshops , which had become my new vocation. Workshop participants were mostly older, generally a great deal older, than the kids of Cairo-Durham, but both groups had in common feelings and memories ready to overflow on the page if begrudgers of writing would get out of the way.

So much of what happened way back in New Hampshire days was coming back to me now at Cairo-Durham – now that I was in this kind of mountain landscape, not just looking out at it.

It was true I had not gone to public high school myself. But back in New Hampshire I had seen high schools. I had been inside high schools. Not during the school week but on weekends back when I was young and away from home. Back when I was a star – the star of the closest thing to a sport that our little Anglophile New Hampshire boarding school could excel at – competitive debating.

So much had changed for me so quickly at Holderness that I became the top debater, honored in tournaments as the New England champion. On most Saturdays I would escape the boarding school and travel to debating tournaments, sometimes held at colleges for kids my age, but more often at high schools.

Off we would go, me and my varsity debate partner - one year Ken, the next Dmitri, then Bill - and the debate coach, Mr. Abbey, "Joe" Abbey, who was the first person who told me it was not necessary any longer that I be seen as retarded.

At Cairo-Durham it all came back – how very much had been at stake for me in that New Hampshire time –

And then how much was still at stake in this new time when my life was so in the air.

I stayed on shaky ground with the Cairo-Durham Central High School authorities. But mostly I managed to avoid them. I continued these hit-and-run attacks, driving up from Woodstock in the dark with coffee and Claude the dog. Coming in and then leaving while it was still so very early in the morning.

And they found out from the college that no one in my classes ever received any semester grade except A. And they must have known that although at the end of the semester I turned in attendance reports, I faked the forms – much like faking an expense diary in case the IRS pulls an audit on you.

The last day of class in my second and last year came in late May, for we were on the college schedule, not the school's. Everyone brought in things they had written, personal essays and poems that went far beyond anything possible if we'd gone for the accepted Rhetorical Modes nonsense. They read their favorite poems aloud. I read a poem of my own called "Dog Dreaming" – something I had written in this very tricky time of my life.

"I wake from vibrant dreams and there lying on his back, with his head on my pillow, his mouth open, is my close friend Claude the dog. And I think how sometimes Claude gets bored here after the cats Gracie and Mousie have left on tracking expeditions –

"And if I've gone north for the day without him.

"We get up long before sunrise and he places himself in the breakfast line behind cats with more self-assertiveness training than he knows. While my coffee drips and bacon sizzles I turn on the computer, not Claude's favorite pastime.

"And no one has planned trips for him into woods and fields, he thinks, no swimming in the Sawkill, no dodging the warden at Cooper Lake, not even a mailman to chase. And I think how Claude would enjoy the chance to fart under the desks of the tormentors while Gracie harangues and Mousie cuts the phone lines – playtime, not pastime – how Claude would love to chase sandpipers on beaches and ride cable cars to the high lands of mountain goats, and look over new homes, and dig holes for his cat friends to sit in.

"And if Claude were put into such an exchange program, we would see the mountain beneath the moon that lights the apple trees where the deer gather, see it from the window which lets in the lilac and the earth smells, while birds caw and sing and woodpeckers excavate, a skunk forages, a groundhog stands up for a better look, and the ground heaves.

"In the middle of one thick cold night there is twitching and stirring beside me on my bed. Claude is dreaming. I wonder if he's frightened. I wonder what he thinks and knows about this risky time.

"He's shaking. He's crying.

"I have to get up and comfort Claude,

"Tell him it's all right, we're all still here, Claude, it was only a dream, Claude, no programs have been canceled, and we refuse to die."

One of the girls said, "I'm so sad the class is all over. I wish we could have met Claude."

"As a matter of fact," I said, "Claude's out in the parking lot."

So we went out in full spring to this parking lot at the top of that hill above the shamrock bars.

Claude, who usually sleeps when left alone in a car, had his paws on the ledge of the back window, and his tail was up and wagging.

One boy said he'd heard on the way out that the principal was being summoned.

But that wasn't Claude's problem. Nor ours. Claude was out of the car and the girls were stroking him, three at once, and the guys were telling him what a fine boy he was.

Now the principal was standing 30 yards away in the school's main doorway. There was fear on his face. But you could smell the earth and the trees. A warm breeze. Birds crossing over. The sky still the deep blue of a winter sky, but the air soft spring air – and so clear the hills and mountains, across fields and woods in all directions, were sharp and real.

The principal in the doorway was wringing his hands. But he was too late. We'd gotten to Claude –

And he was only a nervous school system bureaucrat, while we were writers.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 60 - The Way It Was

Walking down the short avenue called Irving Place one evening ten years ago – so full of color suddenly where once there had only been one public place, Pete's Tavern, the place where O. Henry drank – only Pete’s where now there were layers of places, mirrors and sharp colored lights, like Tokyo, vertical now, upstairs and downstairs, wine shops, a wine bar, a plush coffee house, two layers of northern Italian restaurant, a store with a walk-in humidor for costly cigars, the kind you knew a real cigar person would enter knowing that in the mix of Honduran and Jamaican there will be, hidden somewhere, illegal Cuban too – and a Japanese restaurant, or was it two Japanese restaurants on top of each other? And an array of take-out places – caviar in one, delicate dumplings in another - and shiny, fashionable, new hard-core bars filled past capacity with pretty girls and carefully tailored conventional young men all standing and all talking at the same time. And then a place called Friend of the Farmer.

Almost overnight this had happened, it seemed. During the previous decades that I'd had known Irving Place nothing had changed, though in memory it had always been full of color – from the Gramercy Square Park end, with outside gas lights at the Player's Club and people heading into the Ben Sonnenberg mansion, and the more solid and safe it a little dull National Arts Club – down to 14th Street, where Luchow's had been – in the days still of the bock beer festivals, and also an old second story dime-a-dance hall with low colored lights, powder and perfume smells of hustling, aging girls – with a dance band so wonderfully dispirited the drummer had just enough energy to lift his drum sticks and hold them lightly as they fell down.

And in between Gramercy Park and 14th Street those quite solid old buildings, none except Pete’s commercial – and none of them tall – brownstones and other kinds of stone, and some Georgian – where for a time I'd stayed with Anne Marie – a willowy girl who stopped traffic and was Haitian besides – lay with her in a front room that had French doors leading out to a narrow balcony. Very late at night, coming in through the open doorways, there would be the clip clop of horse hooves on the still remaining cobblestones as still remaining mounted police returned to still remaining stables.

And Pete's with its outdoor tables in summer back when outdoor café life was usually only for European summers, and we'd all meet there at Pete's each hot summer night, back when no one had air conditioners – meet there, walking up from our floor-through tenement flats with bathtubs in the kitchens.

As I walked down Irving place, passed beneath that remembered balcony, I would always imagine as it was back then when it never changed – wild and colorful in my mind if calm and silent and without the colored lights and mirrors – still feel it even this time while working my way through this new Tokyo version.

Kept it intact until later that evening when I started to write about it – for as I wrote, the color went away – as it sometimes did too when I wrote about that same time period in Paris and Bangkok and Dubrovnik.

Turning to gray as if the color had never been there –

Maybe faded,

Maybe never been there,

Maybe it was something I had to leave behind.

And a few years later after that first walk down the new Tokyo version of Irving Place it was not that the deep past time had really been a time done in black and white, but rather that there was some reason later that – like other things – like supposedly happy childhood summers and some young lover affairs and some carefully constructed ambitions - it had become necessary to see those parts as less than they had seemed – side with the New Tokyo version and erase the other versions if not just leave them behind. Turn them into black and white. Erase them.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 59 - Summation – Play within a Play

Sometimes in literature there is a play within a play, as in Hamlet, or Kiss Me Kate or A Chorus Line, or memoirs that take in the making of this or that production – as in Bob Fosse's life, or Clair Bloome's, or Francis Ford Coppola's. Some people in the workshops have written stories in which there are key subsidiary stories about studying with Stella Adler or Martha Graham. Some write stories in which the story inside the story is what is most important. In one notable case the destruction of the World Trade Center in the present, framed the murder in the past by Klansmen of the author's father. And to some readers there is always a play within a play -- an inner play, like an inner child, or something called the shadow side, or the capital "S" Subtext.

This book that is coming to an end is about the experience of writing – what helps, what hinders – and it is certainly better than those many books by people, many of them terrible writers, who think literary theory is the cat’s pajamas – dramatic arc, and rhetorical modes and things like the Seven Rules of Narrative, and the need for wrap everything up so neatly that every story contains the sort of closure that never exists in life. Wrap them up ever more tightly until they die.

There is a usually unbridgeable gap between theory and practice in writing – the gap between the art itself and the intellectualization of that art – a gap as big at that between a vibrant, echoing Hans Hoffman painting and a monograph by an art historian – or between a Beethoven sonata and a volume on music theory or appreciation – that gap between what is aroused by the works of Tolstoy or Graham Greene or Frank McCourt and the prattling of academic critics

And so within this book about writing there is the writer's story, the play within the play, which here is more important than the play in which it resides. For if writing is an art on a level with other forms of art it must have life. And the only life a writer can really know with any certain thoroughness is the writer's own.

I have written here about how my time in visual art – where line and form and color unfold in ways that always surprise the artist – taught me about writing. And that is something the carefully measured English professors in their ersatz Gothic lairs can never do.

I have told some of my own adventure stories and some of my own harder stories, and some of my coming to life stories. I have tried to depict some of the places of my past – bearing in mind Flannery O'Connor's dictum that the only writing that should be dismissed as pornography is writing that is not true to concrete reality, the medium by which the spiritual can be approached. Writing actual scenes that come form inside the writer is a definition of the spiritual – for this entails stepping into places of mystery where you cannot know beforehand what you will find.

I have written of the way I was invited when not yet 14 by an unusual teacher to go ahead and enter literature, let it roll through me, which was really how I first learned about writing – this teacher in my early adolescence was so different from the cold fish who handled literature in college. And I have written about the time much later when I passed as a professor, entering enemy territory in disguise. And then these years with the Authentic Writing workshops, where we have been able to get to the heart of things without having to bother, as in college or MFA programs, with circumventing silly rules that create barbed-wire barriers to necessary confusion between which person is the teacher and which the learner.

And I return again and again to the ancient version of what publishing is – which is simply reading aloud what you have written to a group, which can be tiny or huge. Robert Frost, perhaps the most published by conventional publishers of anyone in America, always spoke of this ancient version as the publishing he took seriously – as opposed to the publishing houses that rejected everything he wrote for more than two decades.

I have tried to bring to life some my own most pivotal scenes, the scenes that led to change – my father abandoned at death, the family party where everyone was pretending to be British as they verbally hunted down and tried to kill everything I – and maybe they too – loved. I have written about dangerous breeches of national and family loyalty. I have written of fake stories -- fake war heroes as well as fake English people. I have written about surprises entailing new love.

What I have done here is try share scenes that to me gained importance when I wrote them but might have been forgotten if I had not written them, had dismissed or forgotten them, forgotten as if these scenes were like unidentified bodies left on nearly tidied-up battlefields. Might have forgotten them if I stuck to verbal stories, stories worked out in my head, stories that did not need telling since they were wrapped up before I told them. Might have forgotten them if I had not been able to get new pieces to the stories, and revised pieces, and new versions of endings that are constantly supplanting old endings as they are seen on the page, though rarely just in the head, changing when approached on the page again and again from slightly varying perspectives, sometimes turned turned upside down as the context is filled in.

The scenes. Such as me a scraggly swamp rat, forgotten in my family, coming out of a Florida jungle to photographed by passing tourists. Scenes that came in uninvited when I sat down to write.

The constantly recounted, set-piece family scene still there of that night before I was born when a lightning bolt came down a chimney and out a city-like fireplace at that formal mountain house called White Pines – and traveled 100 feet past silk and tassels, costly hardwood, a Steinway, a Nefertiti head, all the way to the far end the formal main room and then went into another formal fireplace and up another chimney, into the cold raw night where there was no protection from the high and raw mountains that this house had seemed designed to nullify.

Back and forth over scenes, and the scenes always changing – if I wrote them. That perfect family place and perfect family becoming, when moving to the page, a place of evil inhabited by monsters – then another time becoming somehow solid, if not so right as before – a place that could remain in the landscape of my life as the past unfolded from the present (as did the future unfold from the present). The perfect place becoming a wasteland, and then another time becoming populated, and then another become a place of first love, and then again a place of awful danger. This as my boarding school from long ago was changing too – because of writing – from being a nightmare place to a life-saving place – and back and forth. These changes.

And more scenes come, and I wait for something new to unfold from them. Turkish soldiers using a live cat as a football, circling the cat, kicking it to death... Then a Javanese soldier way upriver in Kalimantan in a time of ritual cannibalism saying he'll take care of dinner, going out behind the tribal longhouse, putting three dum-dum bullets into the last chicken... In the lobby of the Merlin Hotel, filled with refugees from the Kuala Lumpur’s race riots, Western school girls singing “Please Mrs. Robinson” as a sickly new Prime Minister strides in waving a submachine gun while outside his Malays are shooting 10,000 Chinese... Walking through dark city streets in times of curfew, knowing that being some of those black windows there are snipers. Lying one floor up from Irving Place in New York City, warm in summer, my arms around smooth, silky Anne Marie as through French doors come the 3 a.m.. sounds of horses hooves on cobblestone... Or in a raw Taiwan winter with a lithe young rural bathhouse-massage girl, the two of us fighting for the covers, like cranky middle aged married people in the suburbs...

An outdoor wedding that seems very much like a childhood dream way back in Connecticut -- the dream of a wedding in which I am old enough to leave my noisy house of peril and start my life, this dream in which I am on an actual green hill that I can see from my actual childhood bed. I can see it through a screen door opening to a wobbly outdoor staircase that goes down and out towards the greenery – a private staircase because the room had been a unit of a rural Connecticut boarding house before the commuters snapped up all such places... This dream that broke up recurring dreams of poison rain and torturer-jailers – this dream that as a child had never seemed completely false, never seemed like one of those good-little-boy things that adults thought I would like – as in much later times adults thought I could like stories written with ironic detachment that helped the authors flee form the realities that frightened them.

And I have written about how when I left the cold practice of following outlines (which had gotten me published, which at best may on a few occasions have led to sex I might otherwise have missed), how when I left this cold and safe version of writing, there was no writing theory that could get me back to writing. For by now art, to me, was not clever plans, like those concocted by the octopus of the How-to-Write Industry or the bottom-feeding academics who rise to the surface to gobble up art. Art by this time in my life was a matter of life and death.

I had to find out what had happened -- especially the complex story at the center of so much I had to tell – the story of my brother the good twin and me the bad twin, the two of us winding up, as if in extension of our childhood, on opposites sides in actual wars – each of us having to fight for a corner of life, though at other times surfacing as actual human beings with even hope, but then again coming back to the peril we were in. Am it could have led to my death when he was with the Reagan C.I.A. and I was sometimes underground with the opponents of America's favorite dictators -- Somoza, Chiang, Suharto, Marcos. We both were in extreme danger.

If I could not get to this story and beyond it then I was not practicing art, and if there was no art, only logic, than my work and life would have narrowed down so far that nothing mattered. The much dreaded disease called Writers Block would have been the least of it.

Painting helped. I learned to write in better ways in mid-life by painting, a place where it was natural to leave the linear, and where I did not have the illusion I had had in writing that I was in control of, and knew, everything that logically I needed to know. In painting, material came so certainly from those mysterious places that are accessible only in the course of creating art. Later, in the same way, it was singing that allowed me to go deeper on the page.

The closest thing to theory that helped was, actually, theology – which starts not, as in philosophy, with cold logic, but starts with leaps of faith and imagination, which are then held up to logic but go even further beyond logic. In mid-life I was racing between art schools in New York, and also museums and galleries, from early each morning till late each night – until the point where I had to go to Italy to see art not in museums but in the context of its natural places. Then, a couple of years later, I was still painting but I was also roaming around theology departments in Boston and Cambridge. And I found a mentor – the theologian Thomas Groome. Tom, who became my spiritual director, was the person who gave as crucial spiritual advice, "Fuck the begrudgers," and Tom also wrote and spoke of stories as sacred, a person's actual stories, reflections upon stories, stories played off against other stories, stories changing – and guided me as I bluffed the academic affairs people to get credit for writing stories where they normally would require dry research papers.

Tom Groome, who helped open up to me the late theologian Karl Rahner, who was in and out with the Vatican but fortunately in at the time Pope John XXIII arose, that brief time when everything seemed possible in the Catholic Church.

One night as I sat reading, something happened that was the equivalent of seeing sunshine after years of living in underground caverns. I read a definition of sin:

"That which is not authentic."

And then an encounter with the creative Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann, whose take on the Exodus story is that the Israelites, unlike most enslaved peoples, caught on that the version of reality in which they were living out their lives was nothing more than clever theater designed to keep the nobles and the slave masters on top.

Then and now, a writer’s own true version of reality is always subversive and counter-cultural to some triumphal version of some very powerful national or family dictator. Dictators who have no trouble with logic, but are deathly afraid of art.

Monday, January 14, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 58 - Debating and Writing VII - The Movie

I had never heard of anyone besides me who wrote about competitive debating. And so I had to go to the multi-plex at our mall when I heard there was a new movie on this very subject called The Great Debaters.

These debaters in this movie are debaters in college, while my debating had been in the prep school years, but it was the same thing and the movie is mostly accurate about this little known field of endeavor. That time when you are standing alone before a large audience and everything depends on how persuasive you alone can be with oratory and logic.

I was the anchor for the debate team of a very small, fairly Anglophile prep school in the scraggly New Hampshire countryside in the 1950s. The debaters of the movie are in a small black college, Wiley College, in the roughest most racist part of West Texas in the 1930s. They are supposed to be the underdogs, but we know they will be the champions – which was much the way it was in New Hampshire. They come out of a dangerous place where there are lynchings and where local police and Texas rangers combine forces to beat up people who get in the way of how things are supposed to be. At our little school, and the town it adjoined, everyone was white. Yet there was danger in those gentle Georgian buildings.

I thought I would have broken bones from being beaten for being non –athletic and, as it seemed at first, slow. One day they held me down and Ted Clifford went to get the Japanese sword his father had brought home as a war souvenir from the Pacific. They held me down and ran the sword blade across my throat. They did not kill me but I had no way of knowing they wouldn’t.

I became passionately interested in the subjects we were debating – coming down on the side of peace and civil disobedience and pacifism – also socialism in this time of the Red Scare. Just like in the movie. It all seemed immediate to me, though I was in New Hampshire, which was merely reactionary, not facing violent racism in West Texas. Still, it did seem just as dangerous. And somehow I became a vehement opponent of racism – there was enough the air taunting a blind boy, calling out “Kike” to a Jewish boy – so that I knew how boys of color might fare if there had been boys of color in the school. I got into deep trouble for writing in our school paper in favor of Negroes coming to Holderness. All copies were confiscated, and the headmaster at his own expense had a new edition printed that substituted for my editorial an appeal to the alumni for donations. It turned out he had been planning all along to send this issue to the alumni, and I had ruined the plan.

Small stuff – but it seemed life and death at the time.

The Texas debate team – Wiley College – actually got to debate Harvard and won. It was a grand scale version of my beating the aristocratic debaters down in Boston at Milton Academy.

The movie was inaccurate in that it did not emphasize that all competitive debaters have to be willing to shift sides, though it did show that in the Harvard debate the Wiley team did not know until shortly before the debate which side they were supposed to take. And the movie also showed how a young debater’s intense connection with issues could connnect to passionate beliefs.

I keep going back to that glorious time in New Hampshire that I write about often from different perspectives. It is an old story to me, but sitting in the movie it was hard not to cry when social justice came up. These debaters favored civil disobedience, just like me. And it was hard not to cry when the small school came out on top, and hardest not to cry when certain memories that had been tucked away out of sight all these years suddenly surfaced. I was not the only potential outcast saved by the unlikely world of debating. My first big triumph was against the hottest school in New England, and the anchor of that team, from Portland, Maine, was an actual Negro girl. And for two years our toughest competition came from the Laconia team, which was anchored by an albino. Laconia remained strong after her graduation.

And when we beat them in the last debate – the finals of the championship – I could see that my opposite number in Laconia, with whom I had been competing for three years, knew he would now never beat me, which was rough, for I believed that his self image was as wrapped up with debating as was mine.

And one of the top debaters in northern New England was a hunched-over guy from such poverty that he had green mold on his front teeth. He talked like a worldly academic when it was his turn to speak. He was dressed in a three piece suit, each piece different shades of gray to which they had faded when worn separately by his elders over many years.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 57 - Debating and Writing VI - "1… 2… 3…"

In debating, the judges were always making notes, making sure you were consistent, making sure that you not only had good points of your own that you could back up but also that you could ably handle all points made by your opponents. When I got up to speak - whether in an Anglophile prep school or before a Rotary Club or in a bare bones rural high school - I would begin by introducing what I was going to say. I would list the items, saying that now I am going to say "1... 2... 3..." Then I would go through each item, "1... 2... 3..." – bringing in statistics and a few quotes – which I would get from my frequently updated card file of quotes and statistics that I had on hand for any eventuality. My newly baritone-base voice would soar as I went along. Then at the end I would note, calmly if triumphantly, that I had thoroughly taken care of "1... 2... 3..."

I was exalting logic, linear thinking, deductive reasoning, and leaving no room for induction, intuition, unfolding. I was, though I did not know it at the time, right in the tradition that began with the art-hating Greek philosophers and still dominates in the Western academic world.

There were some glorious moments in my young days in New Hampshire when I used debating to get out the box in which family and school had placed me. But I suspected it was not glorious to knock the life out of important subjects - this way of approaching a subject so that there would be no loose ends, no room for the opposing side to breathe, no way out.

Whatever the subject under debate, it was no longer a living subject that could grow and take surprising directions. I had successfully contained it. "1... 2... 3..." And so I would return to my boarding school with our latest trophy – topped by another bronze woman, holding high a laurel wreath, this naked bronze girl who would tower over the little sports trophies in the school's trophy case.

Meanwhile I got my top grades by excelling in writing answers to essay exam questions and in doing term papers that followed the debate formula. An introduction saying I will say "1... 2... 3..." Then the body of the work in which I say "1... 2... 3..." And then the conclusion in which I say I have said "1... 2... 3..."

Many years later when I was teaching, to my surprise, a college course, English 101, inside a northern Catskills high school, this old "1... 2... 3..." stuff was just what a hectoring high school principal and a pompous English Department chairman tried in vain to get me to have students do over and over again – those old straight-jacketed research papers that are so honored in academe. I found with these students, who seemed to me much brighter than the principal or the chairman, what I had found with myself so many years back when I was a big debater. I found that with these kids in the Catskills, as it had been with me way back in New Hampshire, it was easy to do winning papers and exam essays if you were ready to falsify something complicated by giving the illusion of wrapping it up neatly. And I found they craved much more.So I got out of the way of what the really wanted and need to write.

That principal and that English chairman told me in memos how important it was to falsify as preparation for college. This was another sad truth, and made me remember how deadly, and easy, college writing had been. For I had found at college that if I was uninterested in a class – as I usually was - I could still figure out what was wanted and scrape by with winning logic, even when unprepared - a little like the way I did it when I was winning debates whether or not I believed in the side I was taking. And very much like my last year in boarding school when I had lost interest and went into debates unprepared, but kept to the linear forms and won anyway.

Back in New Hampshire in the years I prepared thoroughly I had made convincing cases that world government was the wave of the future, which I hoped, and that world government was a foreign idea to bring America down, which I found a contemptible proposition. I argued for universal health care, which seemed an obviously good thing to me, and did just as well if not better when I argued against it, citing really dumb ideas about free enterprise that gullible people swallowed.

I would hate for students to lose such a useful tool as silly linear logic for dealing with silly or malevolent professors. Just as I would hate to have them give up the practice, which is sometimes needed to placate professors, of throwing in a lot of extraneous footnotes. The footnotes, however, are not as valued as the "l... 2... 3..." system. If you get a particularly insular and rigid and maybe bigoted professor, often all you have to do is put his bigoted opinions in "l... 2... 3..." form and hand them back to him.

I wonder how real professors can keep on reading this awful, linear, unneeded writing. Maybe it is because so many of them are numb from having to write and publish similar nonsense in their little-read academic journals in order to get tenure - and remain so frightened afterwards that they still feel they have to do it.

Not me. I was teaching as an underpaid auxiliary professor - operating as if underground, disguised as a professor, doing it because my finances were in such disarray that a bank was about to seize my house. But I had already started the Authentic Writing Workshops. I was not going to do any of the things professors are scared into doing. It was hardly laying the groundwork for an academic career. And anyway the money wasn't much.

I decided I would strive for honesty in this faux academic career, and make up for the times I had been dishonest by writing to order when I was living on free-lance work.

Friday, January 11, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 56 - Inconvenient Stories

Although I never expected the job to last, for the moment all was well. This was because the rural community college, which paid me, was fifteen miles away from the high school, where I gave the course - far away enough so they could have little idea of what I was doing. As for the high school authorities – the principal's secretary let me know – with great glee – how easy it would be to ignore her bosses. I knew they wouldn't like it. But I was there only three times a week, and I moved in and out of the school so fast in the early morning that it might be awhile before they caught me. It was a cloak and dagger time, me infiltrating the enemy camp, making contract with the detainees, posing all the while as a professor.

Me and these high school kids – and in the background always my own adolescence. Life and hope here in the beautiful hills of this dying area, which was leading into memories of hopelessness and hope in the landscape of my past.

In old New Hampshire the summer towns had excluded non-whites and non-Christians. Here 40 years later in the far northern Catskills it got more complicated – as I learned from what these kids wrote.

Each village the central high school served centered on a single ethnicity of descent – Italian, or black-haired dumpling-eating German, or blonde potato-eating German, or Polish, or Irish – each tight little crumbling village isolated from the others.

And yet, as in old New Hampshire, there could in this landscape be the chance of so much more. A girl whose parents were from Scotland, a girl whose face showed everything she was feeling, wrote about applause caressing and enveloping her in the school auditorium – feeling strong and beautiful as the lead, Nellie Forbush, in "South Pacific." And she wrote of how she was going to have a truly glamorous life, once she got out of here. Though some days she said she was too angry to write.

One boy, who wrote as a poet about nature and love, also wrote about his family-ordained, planned-out future as an engineer. When he received early acceptance to prestigious Rensselaer Polytechnic, his parents withdrew him from our advanced placement English class. It was a waste of money, they said, since Rensselaer was a serious non-artsy place. But this boy kept on coming to our class anyway – and writing poetry.

Two of the girls, best friends since second grade, wrote of their summer jobs now as Can Can dancers in a roadside Old West attraction called Carson City. That was the little rickety Western amusement place, the sight of which lifted the spirits of Claude the dog and me on our many drives north.

In the class we read – D.H. Lawrence, Robert Frost, Chekhov, Nelson Algren, Wordsworth, Irish short stories. Often I showed movies.

I made some mistakes. I tried Camus and I liked the humanity of The Plague but found that his romantic glorification of despair, aloneness and absurdity, which had once seemed so advanced to me, now seemed kind of silly. Two girls liked the alienation parts, but I was the only one in the room who enjoyed The Plague's story.

I had the kids buy Strunk & White's Elements of Style, thinking the old New Yorker standby E.B. White would be a help when he talked of how to handle the language. But I found him now to be in a league with the more recent Rhetorical Modes people in his insistence on rules of grammar and his horror of anyone using the passive voice. Another mistake was that I showed, without watching it first, a documentary about Sylvia Plath, which turned out to be mostly Plath's awful mother's version of what happened, backed up by interviews with very correct and pompous literary-academic friends who tried to sugar coat all the factors, the mother's role included, on Plath's road to suicide. They were out to again bury Plath, who apparentlly scared them even when she was dead.

Sometimes I read poems aloud, and sometimes kids wrote poetry. I read them Plath's horrendous "Daddy," about her Nazi-like father. That morning a together-seeming, good-girl seeming, short-haired blonde girl, who always sat quiet and composed at the front – that morning that good girl wrote just as horrendously about her own German father.

One lanky boy, always quiet, sitting off to the side – alone – no clique but connected to this room – he wrote first of books. He had discovered books. And he was coming to see a future beyond this region – and not the usual way out of joining the military or at best going to a very local chiropractor school. He was thinking of those bigger worlds that books had brought him.

Quite like how 40 years back in New Hampshire – when books told me more than some people thought was good for me – I too had wanted out, but not by the usual routes in our circles, not as a professor or a lawyer or a Foreign Service officer.

This quiet boy in the Catskills was coming to see himself as maybe, probably, certainly, a writer!

Every bit as much as the Scottish girl could feel at her core that she could be a star.

An every bit as much as, when in boarding school,
I came to believe in a previously only dreamt of future.

One morning I did meet with the high school's English department chairman, a tightly wound, balding city-seeming man of studied casualness. He told me his own sad story – and also that I was wasting my time. Long ago he'd been a star at Brooklyn College, he said, and been accepted to medical school, but had decided instead to be an idealistic English teacher. And it had been a horrible mistake – just horrible! A wasted life. There was no respect anymore for learning. Not here. Actually not anywhere.

And, oh yes, had he told me he could have gone to medical school?

One girl brought in a story she had also given to her junior year English teacher. She said she had a reason for wanting me to read it too.

It was in the third person but clearly much of it was about herself. In it she called herself Darlene.Darlene's mother, who was Italian, had fallen in love with a handsome Irishman who got her pregnant. The mother's mother, the yet unborn Darlene's grandmother, had hated the Irishman – knowing him by small-town reputation as a drunk and scoundrel. Then Darlene was born, and there had been no marriage. The grandmother said that as far as she was concerned her daughter was dead. So mother and baby moved to the father's town 20 miles away.

The grandmother, it turned out, had been sort of right. The handsome Irishman ran off to Florida. The only way Darlene's mother could support herself and her child was by cleaning rooms and toilets at the dingy little tourist cabin complex that still dotted this dying resort area. But the worst part was that Darlene and her mother were like stateless people. They could not go home, for the grandmother had banished them. They had no place here.

In each of these towns everyone was connected – many by blood, all as extended family. But Darlene's mother, expelled from her own town, had no close friends here, and no hope of making any. And neither did Darlene. School children stayed away from her. Her father's family refused to recognize her.

But then something changed. The mother and grandmother were suddenly exchanging notes and calls. It was decided they would try a reconciliation.

So one day Darlene found herself over at her grandmother's house for their first-ever meeting – Darlene's first possible close connection.

No longer, she thought, would children shun her as an outsider. She and her mother would probably, she thought, move in with her grandmother – live together in a place where they would be accepted by everyone around them.

Darlene spotted something so fine and fascinating on the grandmother's side porch she thought it heralded this anticipated new life. It was a tufted white bird in a light green wicker cage.

But then as suddenly as these new possibilities had appeared, the dream ended. The reconciliation, it turned out, was only because the grandmother had cancer.The grandmother had seen to it that Darlene and her mother would always be outcastes.

The grandmother died before there were any more trips to her house – though she did make sure that someone took the white bird in the green wicker cage over to Darlene.

The story ended with the words:

"And every time Darlene looked at her bird, she knew for sure how alone she was, and how alone she would always be."

This had clearly frightened Darlene's junior year English teacher, who had written "B+" in red pencil on the last page – and in red pencil she'd crossed out the last sentence and written it the way it should be written:

"And every time Darlene looked at the bird her heart grew warm and she was happy as she thought of her loving family."

Thursday, January 10, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 55 – Debating and Writing V - Payoff

I was still shy, and speaking hesitantly, and not winning as often as I thought I could. But Dmitri took me aside, in an act of great kindness, and pointed out that I did not need to worry about performing badly in these outlying towns since no one who saw me in practice debates in small New Hampshire high schools was likely to ever see me again. I should just speak right out, he said. I should keep in mind that I had nothing to lose.

So I started booming out my arguments at these practice debates. My voice suddenly stopped cracking. It was moving down into baritone and towards bass. To my surprise, people told me it was resonate like a radio announcer's. Me, 15, the weakling outcast. Suddenly I was winning.

Moreover, debating took me inside our sister School, St. Mary’s-in-the-Mountains. Four of us were driven up there late one afternoon by our English teacher and debate coach, Joe Abbey, so we could stage a debate for the St. Mary’s girls.Their English teacher, who had nice breasts and wore fluffy sweaters, was considering starting a debate team with the girls. The rumor was that she was dating Joe.

The debate went well – here in this soft feminine place. As well as my debates were going in raw-bone high school rooms. We came, and we orated, and we had sandwiches and cocoa, but we left without any one-on-one contact with any of the girls. Though I did notice during the debate that a brown-eyed girl was looking my way even when I was not speaking.

Two months later, I went along in freezing cold in a school van to an early Sunday evening dance up at St. Mary's, which was in the White Mountains, where mysteriously in the summers I was as popular as I was unpopular the rest of the year in school.

St. Mary's, now in this northern winter, feels like a warm place. The room where they have the dance, it is all soft colors and gentle lights – not at all like our school’s place for rare social gatherings, which is a room in Livermore Hall where there is almost no color, a cold linoleum floor, harsh lights and black leather chairs.

Now, from one end of this girl-like room at St. Mary’s we boys burst in from the cold. And we see at the other end these girls in girl clothes, some, like Joe’s teacher friend, with soft sweaters that follow their girl shapes, including, sometimes, as with Joe's friend, actual breasts. It is art and it is poetry and it is music!

But I might have been crossing a dangerous mountain pass to get to that end of the room where the girls were standing, looking unconcerned – where this girl was standing. Smiling. Brown hair and brown eyes. Chubby, which was okay. Actually nice. Big sad eyes that she turned to me and then averted. White teeth. The girl who had watched me so closely during the debate.

She asked me to dance. That was the way it was done here. The girls would do the asking the first time around here on their home ground.

She came over and said, "My name is Cindy." I said, "I'm Fred." She said, "Would you dance with me?" Otherwise, we did not speak. I followed her out to the dance floor area, which seemed suddenly a really glamorous place though it was just the floor of St. Mary's big lounge room with the tables pushed back.

It quickly became clear that this girl with the averted eyes and the new breasts knew things people like us had to learn outside the formal white-glove dancing classes to which parents like ours had sent us on Friday evenings back in Connecticut.

Without conversation now, my outstretched left arm and her outstretched right arm gave way at precisely the same time. Her right hand, which had no glove on it, was now turned and cupped in my left hand against my school blazer shoulder. My right hand was way out of dancing-class position, way down her soft back. Our bodies were together – and this “cheek to cheek” thing began, me leaning down and she pulling herself up. And the fingers of her left hand, oh God, touched the back of my neck. And as we swayed, her leg went between mine and pressed against me.

The next week I overheard one of the popular athletes say, "Speedy’s in love… Speedy has a pig…. The girl who necked with Marty last year." But I was becoming just confident enough now to see at least a small element of jealousy. For it was rare now that they used that nickname “Speedy” that had haunted me until I began to seem a winner.

I saw Cindy again when there was a joint Holderness-St.Mary's glee club concert at Plymouth State Teachers College. It seemed magical, though I had to watch from the back of the darkened hall because the Holderness glee club director, Mr. English, had rejected me. But I did speak to Cindy and invited her down to our spring dance weekend, which was one of only three such Holderness weekends with girls each school year.

By the spring I had behind me a debate before the entire school against last year's New England championship team from Portland, Maine. We not only won but the judges, members of the Plymouth branch of the League of Women Voters, named me "Best Speaker." Something unprecedented for a third former. And soon afterwards I was on the team that won this year's New England championship at Boston University.

For the moment I had stopped thinking about my debating career. Cindy and I now were in the old school gym, which had been decorated with blue and silver-like bunting, our school colors. All the boys were in dinner jackets, rented from a place on the edge of Plymouth across from a shoe-tree factory, and all the girls were in formal gowns. The girls all had gardenia corsages, which had been given out at the door. The smell of gardenias overwhelmed the usual fart and sweat smells of the gym.

And here I was with Cindy for a second time. This time Cindy was in a dress held up by what looked to be flimsy strings. Her leg was between my legs again, her leg frankly against my hard penis – my hand now sliding down her partially bare back, her fingers linked at my neck – her gown such that when I drew back just enough to look down as we swayed it was easy to imagine my real life had begun and I was with an actual naked woman. I was a very long way away from cold hard debater's facts.

But it seemed certain to me that without debating I would not be in this position. With cold logic, I attributed Cindy to my increasing success with cold logic in debating.

Debating was taking me out that hollow shell in which I had felt trapped all my life, and Cindy, it seemed, had been waiting for me outside the shell. It really seemed like it was my ability to be coldly logical that got me here.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 54 – Another Try at Fiction

In this desperate time, I went to the old version of Abercrombie & Fitch – which was in its last days costuming members of the camp and cottage world for things that would look like adventure. It was close to Ivy League-inspired Brooks Brother’s on Madison, near Grand Central and the Biltmore, where the last young men preparing for these declining worlds still met their dates under the clock. I went to Abercrombie's to get ominous tinted glasses, which seemed to be something that would give me cachet in the old movie scenes I planned to stage on the Eastern Mediterranean – the wily Levant.

I was going in and out of the city from a small cottage on the water in Northport, Long Island, where I had retreated without a phone and without a car, for good reason, in this time I had been getting to the parties with the famous people but making desperate phone calls all over the world late at night.

"Hi," said a man in the private elevator, holding his hand out -- "I'm Dave Rockefeller."

And with Bill Moyers, who was on the spring list with me at Harper's Magazine Press, I picked up on a conversation about Singapore that we'd begun a week before over beer with our mutual editor, and then with another Texan I heard how Johnson had kept spies in the war room because he thought so many of the generals and admirals were dangerous crazies.

At Abercrombie & Fitch I bought a tan bush suit and canvas shoes. Then I went to the new editor of Harper's Magazine – an unassuming man who had been brought in recently when the owners fired the untameable Willie Morris, whose patronage had taken me to front tables at Elaine's. I sold the new editor on the idea of a story about Beirut as the romantic new center of the Levant, scene for devious complications involving picaresque people from all corners of the world – the equivalent, I said, of the pre-Nasser Alexandria of the Lawrence Durrell novels that I liked so much.

I got a tiny advance from my book editor at Harper's to get working on another novel of my own. Then through a dubious agent who had handled my previous pseudonymous Bangkok After Dark, Taipei After Dark and Manila After Dark, I signed a contract to write Beirut After Dark – this in the declining days of not just Abercrombie's, Brooks and the Biltmore but also soft core porn.

(I signed even though I knew better, for I had once been in Beirut and had had trouble getting a hotel room because my girlfriend and I were not married. I had found Beirut crowded and small minded, and Alexandria I knew as a gone-to-seed backwater, but that was not what I told the editor - or myself.)

Sometimes I would stay over in the city at the Statler Hilton, partly because the idea of Hiltons offended the good-taste people, and partly because it was an efficient place from which to buy tickets, send cables, put things in storage.

From a pay phone in Northport I contacted Marian, recently divorced from my friend John: she was playing the ingénue to Jane Russell's lead in the Stephen Sondheim musical Company. I went in, slept through the show (I'd been drinking on the train) but picked her up backstage in my bush suit and tinted glasses, and was pretty certain people were staring at me, not just at Marian, as we walked over to Sardi’s.

Marian. A contract to start another novel. A foreign correspondent assignment. Tinted glasses. A soft core paperback deal in overvalued U.S. dollars. A bush jacket. I headed to the airport on the day I was supposed to be addressing the Breadloaf Writer's Conference. I had hoped Breadloaf would be full of lithe literary groupies, but recently I had been told otherwise. Now, I decided, I would regain my fortunes in Beirut. At this time I still believed in fiction.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 53 – Me and Not Me

Time-Life took me on because I gave them text blocks for a picture essay that turned out to be a test given to many applicants – a competition that, to my discredit, I won – a spread about the life of the awful Eisenhower, in which I made him appear almost heroic, at least crazy like a fox, in his bland deviousness, as if I were really unconscious of how detached and unscrupulous, and how blinded by ambition and how reactionary he was. This horrified me, that I could write in such a way that made Eisenhower (whom I knew Time-Life would still like) appear to be someone admirable.

The prize was a job as an in-house free-lancer that would lead to a full staff position. The wanted me to stay, which had played into why I was in Bangkok ahead of schedule. The mere mention of my staying was enough to make me run, as if fleeing for my life.

In this time, turning 30, after newspaper work and after writing unpublished novels in Indianapolis, Atlanta, Slovenia and Greece, I’d been fired from a job said to have a future at a quite prissy New York City place called American Heritage, which produced books and a magazines that said nice things about grim American people and places of the past, including nice things about the violent American Old West and just about every American president and every American. war.

The day I was fired at Heritage I walked up a few blocks and was taken on by Time-Life Books, which paid much more than anyone else, and had constant catered parties – caviar and roasts carved and served by polite uniformed waiters while other uniformed servants mixed drinks and poured wine – a different universe from the one in which office parties meant Lay’s potato chips and warm drinks served in water cooler cups.

And moreover it seemed that writers, who here had offices with views from Rockefeller Center all the way into other boroughs or New Jersey, were tacitly expected to sleep with researchers, who had their desks and book cases in corridor areas that were at least more specious than the cubicles forced upon people in lesser companies. The writers were almost all men, the researchers almost all women, who tended to be sharper than the writers and seemed to have been hired on looks as well as ability.

And my life was complicated enough already. In the East Village I got the crabs from a least likely source, who I had loved but left, and there was a girl living near my ground floor Waverly Place apartment whom I had just missed when I left Greece two years back a month before she arrived there but now was back and living on Greenwich Avenue - and we began to make up for the missed connections. Not to mention girls picked up in a range of low-life places. And not to mention the sexiest women in the world, who was from the South – a friend’s wife when I met her, an affair that now spanned everything else that had happened. I was in bed one morning
on Waverly Place with the girl I had almost known in Greece when the sexiest woman in the world came in a window with a wild, determined if ironic, look.

Everything was false in those six months of often erotic drifting and drinking that seemed like six years. Everything I wrote in the two or three hours a day I put in – arriving late, and then off early to a long boozy luncheon with other Time-Life people – everything I wrote was about people and places and I had never seen – not just Eisenhower but also Outer Mongolia and Venezuela – wrote from material provided me by researchers who were so unimportant that they were sent out to see what should be seen and conduct any interviews that were needed. So unimportant that they had to deal with actual experience.

This is not me. I don’t want to be what I seem to be. I am not really here in this place.

So here I was in Bangkok – having gone off into a snow storm to Idlewild one January day. A graceful, green-eyed Time-Life co-worker, to whom I might have been loyal for life if life were less bizarre, had vanished while I was closing my suitcase, leaving a note that said she could not take another goodbye. And I wanted to go to Bangkok, and when I got there I wanted to stay – those bright green rice fields on the outskirts and then the canals and the river and the graceful and big temples with their sloping roofs and bright red and green tiles and gold leaf – and the grandiose night clubs and bars and massage parlors – and the river, the Chao Phrya, where I had a house that could be reached only by water.

Time-Life had refused to let me resign. The main editor (a gracious man who also wrote his own books) had said that they were giving me an indefinite leave of absence, it apparently being inconceivable that anyone would leave Time-Life in that lush time in its history. Eventually I told them by mail that I was never coming back, and they sent me what, since I was operating in Bangkok with over-valued dollars, was quite a large check which they said was because they had decided to grant me profit-sharing retroactively, even though I had been an in-house free-lancer who did not qualify for benefits.

Before then I knew I wanted to stay in Bangkok, which was nothing like how it was described in either the very few non-academic books out on Thailand (most of them written by CIA people or by embassy wives) – neither those books nor anything in the special research packets that I had ordered up from the Time-Life research department.

I wanted to stay in Bangkok but I did not know about the Time-Life check that would come. In a great hurry I had sent letters to everyone I knew in New York looking for something that would keep me afloat. The result was a steady stream of contracts in the years I was in Southeast Asia, for quite genteel books aimed at school libraries, books giving more or less straight accounts of countries of the region – Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. And at the same time, this being just before there was hard core porn available in America, books for a big paperback house, Macfadden-Bartell, that were soft core but with hard core hints – Bangkok After Dark, Manila After Dark, Taipei After Dark – and paid more than hard core ever would.

This did not seem like real writing yet but I was getting closer. It was a far cry from Time-Life, for I did my own research, even in the middle of the night. Often now I was telling myself this is me, this time, this is really me here in this rich and wild tropical place. This is me now, even though my books were never quite accurate in the crucial sense of filling in context.

And it was a far cry from the writing to which I aspired. And also it was a time I would look back on with longing – in every area of a man’s life except spiritual. I would look back a couple of years later, after I had done that Bankok novel I thought would change everything, and it has been published by a major house, and then I found myself in the claustrophobic, anti-Semitic Middle East, where I kept telling myself, this is not me, this has nothing to do with me.

Monday, January 7, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 52 – The End of a Life

I was suddenly in that place where nothing I loved – except for pretty girls who would appear only on weekends in this gray male bastion – was honored. The air was not filled with poetry and music. No one, it seemed, openly wrote or painted. Most students were little old Republicans in their politics. And usually drunk. As was I – not the Republican part. The English professors stressed cold analysis and went to enormous lengths to kill off any reason for being moved by literature. The fake Oxford-Cambridge Gothic buildings had all the discomfort of England and none of the charm. English style casement windows that let in the cold air, creating that subtle British combination of being stuffy and chilly at the same time. On the surface, Harris tweed and Oxford Gray flannel. Below the surface, communal basement lavatories and showers with mildew and slippery floors that never dried, and for meals the undergraduate “commons” where the meat was blue when it was not green.

Then in an otherwise not very interesting freshman English class I read a portion of the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill, from an anthology you had to buy that was edited by the young professor who taught the course. It seemed at first a happy story.

Mill had succeeded when ridiculously young in doing what I even now, in the face of malaise and paralysis, still hoped to do – get everything in its place. His father was James Mill, an influential political philosopher in the early 19th century. The elder Mill and his best friend, the more renowned political philosopher Jeremy Bentham, decided they would home school the boy, using all the progressive ideas they had developed about education.

Bentham and the older Mill were the creators and chief proponents of what was called Utilitarianism and they and their followers were known as utlitarians. It seemed to me as I read about it the perfect vessel to contain all that might be good in the world. It seemed to me the sort of idea that had saved me when I was a weak and ridiculed adolescent, apparently doomed forever to the an object of schoolboy sadism.

Their central idea was that all action should be directed towards achieving the greatest good – in 19th century language they called it "the greatest happiness" – for the greatest number of people. They looked to the utility of any action or plan or program, which meant always keeping in mind this idea of the greatest happiness for the greatest number. And they were leading increasingly successful fights in Parliament to, among much else, get rid of child labor in mines and factories, clean up the open sewers that ran through city streets, stop the widespread executions carried out in England for small financial crimes.

Just like me, I thought, a 16-year-old socialist and pacifist coming out of the most unlikely place, New Hampshire. So very much like me, this John Stuart Mill, a voice calling for justice, and actually getting recognized – like me, the New England debating champion.

I read on. Just as the Utilitarians thought social conditions could be improved, so did they believe that education could be revolutionized. And Bentham and James Mill decided they would prove their theories by taking over the education of James' son, who would be home schooled.

I had learned to read late, taught by my mother because I could make no sense of school. But otherwise my education has been entrusted to institutions. I read now John Stuart Mill’s account of how, though he never thought of himself as being particularly brilliant, his father and Bentham never pushed lessons that did not interest him; they helped him follow up his interests, and let him drop or postpone what bored him. Young John could read classical Greek by the time he was three. By the time he was eight he had mastered the Greek and Roman classics and all important historical literature. By the time he was 12 he had added economics, philosophy and mathematics. He also learned all the main modern European languages, and covered all the principal works of literature, as well as the science of the day. While still a teenager he was writing and publishing learned articles. He himself had become an important leader in the thriving Utilitarian movement by the time he reached twenty. Just what I had wanted to be.

Then it all fell apart – rather like, it seemed now, the new life I had built up had all fallen apart in my final year at school, the year before entering this intensely unsympathetic, ivy-strangled college. How like me, Mill coming to the end of the road. And how awful that the reasons he gave seemed so clear.

For now my heart sank as I read about what he called his crisis. At the very time he was on top of the world, he asked himself if everything he wanted, all the changes in laws and institutions and education and politics, everything to which he looked forward, suddenly became just what he wanted would this be “a great joy and happiness?” And he found he had to answer no. And he knew he had nothing left to live for.

This knowledge of what lay so close to the surface stayed with me for decades. And it seemed yet another reason explaining why all I had achieved in ambition-fueled prep school days had come to seem so minor that in my last year I had walked away from everything good in my life.

I did not feel my life was over. And in fact there was some real happiness and agreat deal of excitement, not just depression, in the years ahead. But it all felt fragile. Immediately I was in a dark, intense depression, fueled by the alcohol that was so much a part of this university’s identity. What happened immediately would in another setting have been called a nervous breakdown, as would what happened to Mill if the context had been different. A nervous breakdown, with suicidal overtones.

I did not look at the Autobiography again for thirty years. One afternoon I had gone, just before a class at the Art Students League, to my local library in Chelsea to look up the painter Joan Miro, whom I was coming to admire. I wasn’t reading much about art but I was doing an amazing amount of looking, night and day, in museums and galleries, and then for a year and a half in studios in every art school in town and many private drawing sessions, starting my day early at the League and ending it around midnight drawing models in a Soho basement. For some reason I had been thinking about Miro, and wondering if I were wrong that Miro was a man, since the first name was Joan. One of those small nagging things that get into your head. So I went to the “ “Mi” pages in Collier’s Encyclopedia, and by mistake opened to the John Stuart Mill entry.

And I read now what I must have read in the past without it registering on me of how in his dark suicidal period Mill began to see that happiness was not, as he had been taught, something you could get by going after you thought you wanted directly. It had to be a byproduct of something more. And he sensed what that something more would be, and so, as the encyclopedia writer put it, he set out to revive his “atrophied emotions.”

He was drawn for the first time to poetry for pleasure, not to complete an education. He was drawn especially to the Romantics. And he was drawn into nature not for botanical and biological studies but for the pleasure of it. And so too he was now drawn to painting and to music.

He did not change all his views – suddenly move to political conservatism and side with the rapacious English rich – none of that nonsense promulgated later by the possibly drunk Winston Churchill that anyone with a first rate intelligence is liberal when young and conservative when old.

But the change was much greater than any movement across a political spectrum – and this time around, 35 years after Mill had hurled me into a black void, I realized that, without consciously trying, what he did was much like what I was finally doing now.

Friday, January 4, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 51 - A Mentor

As I was coming into my story it was not just my version of the family I came from that changed. For example, I was a person who, for good reason, stayed clear of academic worlds. For further example, for years my profile in Twentieth Century Authors had me down as atheist/agnostic.

I went to Boston College to take a three-week intensive summer course that intrigued me. It was given by David Tracy, a liberal American theologian and priest widely celebrated in theological circles and beyond. His picture had recently been on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. I did not know the terminology of theological studies and I was often lost in the specifics of his lectures. Although I had been doing a lot of reading, theology was new to me, and these lectures were full of terms – such as hermeneutical – that at that point meant nothing to me. What came across, however, was David Tracy’s pastoral presence, a truly good and empathetic man, who had not let logic overwhelm his pastoral bent. He was more interested in life than logic. And so too were the others in the big class, who were of all ages and many backgrounds and not at all what I would have expected in academia.

At the end of the Tracy course there was a paper due on the subject of “God Talk.” I did not know where to start. And anyway I was no longer a writer. Others spoke of doing such subjects as “God talk in narrative” or “God talk in the synoptic gospels.” Well, there was no reason why I had to write if I had nothing to say. This experience so far had been like day to the night of my college years, when having nothing to say would never have gotten in the way of writing nonsense that echoed a professor's bias.

I was enjoying myself and I was game. I drove up to New Hampshire to take a look around the scenes of my deep past. I came back. I sat down to write. I had a portable typewriter with me for I had been absent when computers finally took over – that was how remote from writing I had become.

I sat down, wondering what to write, and then suddenly I was in the Roman room at the Metropolitan. And I had my subject - visual God talk.

I had been affected so deeply by that visual experience in the Met, that visual demonstration of a people who had come to a dead end, that I was now immersed in theology – something I had never thought about before in any way except to dismiss it. It is true that shortly before going to Boston I had been talking about the time in the Roman Room. But I had never brought the experience to light in the way I did in this supposed academic paper that had become a piece of memoir. I was there finally in that room I had managed to pass through without seeing, there looking at those faces staring out of a cruel ancient world that were as familiar to me as the faces of all the people I knew and, worse, all the people I had wanted to know.

Not having been raised in a Catholic place or by Catholic people, I had missed a lot but I had been spared exposure to the strain in Catholicism that entailed memorization of catechisms and hatred of sexuality. I had never met a nun who wielded her ruler like an instrument of torture. I now knew beautiful nuns, artistic nuns, freedom fighter nuns, nuns you might not know were nuns. The Catholic world I had entered recently at a Hudson Valley retreat center, and now in Boston, was a world of new openings that was the reverse of catechism set-piece nonsense. It was not my first experience of this kind of Catholic world. Upon examination it turned out I had been getting glimpses for many years of worlds that went beyond my set piece stories.

The paper that I wrote - visual God talk - was circulated at Boston College, with a note that it came out an advanced theology course that by mistake this neophyte had joined. The theologian Thomas Groome, who was a celebrity in these circles, asked to see me. I had a mentor – a real mentor – something that had never happened in this way. I had had something like that relationship in my Southeast Asia years with Jack Jones, author of A Woman of Bangkok, but that was about as far as you could get from an academic setting.

And I was invited to stay on at Boston College, and I let what had started with what was meant to be an academic paper continue – letting my life unfold now on the page.

And then in one of Tom’s classes he said that poetry would be as acceptable as a formal academic reflection or research paper.What I would have thought of as the least likely of all places to do real writing turned out then to be just right.

I was surrounded by faces that never would have made it as cold Roman art.

I did not come here to place myself in the tradition of famous authors,from Graham Greene to Walker Percy who had converted to Catholicism. And anyway I did not think that this was the only source of revelation. It was the source I found most congenial. I was, thankfully, operating without a master plan. And I suspected that eventually when I wrote there would be no more outlines to get in the way of whatever might unfold from mystery.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 50 - Stories That Never Change

I was in a deserted, deteriorating colonial hotel on a mountainside halfway between Djakarta and Punchak Pass and a poisonous centipede was clacking across the tiles. Alone in a no-man's land, usually with a tropical fever, practically no human contact except with a bluff Chinese owner and elderly Javanese houseboys in native dress who brought huge bottles of local beer and replicas of colonial Dutch food - the only other human contact being with an intense, bespectacled Soviet "journalist" who was obviously a spook and thought I was a spook and had been assigned the job of traveling up here to find out what I was really up to.

Part of this end-of-life feeling that engulfed me here in this non-place came from my having no good story to hide from the Eastern bloc spy. No story that was good in the sense that it followed a plan.No story that went according to plan. No good reason why I was here. No story that was as it should be. And no such life either.

I was so far down it was as if I had nothing to lose, which may be why when I started to write, cross-legged on the tiles, I could not follow a plan and so went, as if guided, to scenes on the Chao Phrya River across from Bangkok where so much of my recent life had come into focus. A time cut off in time which had ended in near violent boozy chaos with the end of what I had hoped would be my ultimate love affair. A smooth, willowy, sometimes troubled, sensual, sometimes brilliant young woman it seemed I would never see again. There in Bangkok among beautiful people in a land of sweeping temples and palaces, electric green fields, and sparkling fresh water canals. So far from prettty paid girls in fever-ridden back allies in the fetid unending slum city Djakarta. An open wound. Scenes from Bangkok I did not know went beyond safe surface beauty until I wrote them. Scenes that did not fit any of my plans for novels. And it was some of the best and toughest writing I had done up till now.

Though it was far from the only writing I did in that deserted hotel. I wrote to an old friend from New York who was now in the Philippines telling him about my recent adventures a thousand miles up the Kapuas River, like something out of Conrad, in Indonesian Borneo. I wrote to another old friend, this one from happy days in Athens,who now lived and wrote in Frankfurt, telling him not that my life seemed at an end but that it was one continual adventure. I wrote what I thought were amusing notes to friends still in New York, assuring them I would be back there soon and meanwhile my life was on track - partly devoted to adventure and partly to writing about adventure.

I was pleased about how the Bangkok scenes were coming out, but I hoped this would be a prelude to something much more. Something that really counted. Stories that would be so solid I would only have to write them once. Stories that would never change.Like the stories I tried to tell in lying letters

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

WRITTEN WORD 49 - Without Embalming Fluid

My non-writing time was at an end but I did not know it for sure until I began to work with Tom Groome – Thomas H. Groome – this wonderful Irish raconteur and theologian who is the world’s leading theorist and practitioner of religious education. He does it in the context of amazing wit and spirituality and caring and natural poetry.This was at Boston College’s Institute of Religious Education and Pastoral Ministry. This part of Boston College was not a place to get a doctorate in English or an MFA – it was far too creative for that.

I had found myself drawn to Boston and theology in the time I was living outside verbal realms. I was not finished with the art schools, but now there was something else that was just as surprising and just as powerful and seemed all of a piece with this opening into mystery that was opening up my life.

So here I was at an actual academic institution – something I never would have gone near if I had managed, as in my writing years, to keep ideas in the head intact by keeping them away from full reliance on intuition and emotion and the unfolding of mystery. Those days when I could take a chunk of remembered reality and pump it full of intellectual embalming fluid in proper literary fashion so as to keep these thoughts in my head looking like life. I may have been right in the first place about the limits of academia. But this was different.

Tom became my spiritual director and also my academic adviser – a combination that would horrify orthodox academic people. I also took all his courses. And I took him up on his suggestion that maybe for me a pure academic paper was not the thing. And so now I was really writing about my life.

And almost immediately I was 15 years old, not 56, and I was in New Hampshire, happily lost on the page to an even a greater extent than I had been happily lost on canvas.

I was in New Hampshire, where one day from a makeshift diving board by a sluice way I, in swimming trunks but wearing a canvas fedora, saw, across the pond, the Grout sisters, who had just come from the train with a cousin visiting for the first time – a smooth girl with new breasts and skin tanned the color of maple sugar. And now I saw across the pond from the diving board that the girls were walking into the water – a scene I knew I would never forget. She was laughing. She was splashing.

I was so excited I dove in, showing off, plunged in with my canvas hat on, and I swam underwater, and I came up, with my hat still on, beside this amazing new girl – Kitty.

And then there was another scene that had almost been over-ridden, almost drowned in constructed forgetfulness. It was a weekday afternoon at White Pines and the place was as empty as death. Through French doors at the living room end of the 80-foot main room I could see bird baths and flowers, but there were no people in the view – which stretched across iron streaked rocks, and blueberry and thorn fields, out to woods owned by my grandparents – leading to the high mountains, which rose so sharply they seemed to cut off the sun –

Inside, no one is ever around in mid-afternoon – except today. I am here. And Kitty is here. This girl named Kitty who I'd met while I was showing off at a swimming place –

Now at this end of the long room at White Pines I have my blue leatherette portable dorm room record player – still called a Victrola in this house where there is no other record player of any kind. Kitty has brought LPs. 'Twenties songs. The 'twenties revival in the 'fifties. Boop boop a doop. And the Charleston. Everyone she knows at home (where she is about to go into 10th grade at Greenwich Country Day), everyone is doing the Charleston, she says. The 'twenties are back. And she'll teach me.

And there I am, now flicking my feet out, operating with hands on knees like Ray Bolger in the movies, as if my legs are rubber and also can cross through each other. We are doing the Charleston.

Peter, my twin, strides through the room, throwing out a new set remark. "I see," he says, "Miss Kitty's Dancing Class. Heh Heh."

But we keep going! Although I cannot really believe that White Pines is a place for such music,

Maybe not. Or maybe it is.

The Charleston, the Charleston. There'll be a back number when the Charleston, the new Charleston, down in South Caroline... The Charleston... the Charleston.....

So there I was, the past still alive,with Kitty again. But to many stories that appeared were hardly Kitty stories. These other stories that has once seemed safe now became horror stories when I got them out of my head and onto paper. Context was being filled in now, and the stories were changing.

Often now parts that had stayed in the head led, when written, into dark and dangerous territory. But also, it turned out, non-written stories in my head could leave out the most warm and life-giving versions, as in some Kitty times, of what was in the landscape of my life.

Either way, frozen stories are dangerous.