At motherly but lithe Lita’s slippery little bar on Airport Road – which was of the sort found in every corner of Manila – laughing girls in very off the shoulder dresses and men waving guns around in what was usually bluffing, and numbered rooms upstairs that had fairly fresh sheets on the beds – at Lita’s I am on a bar stool and Mercie is wrapped around me and we are downing San Mig beers rapidly, the last round bought by Sergeant Arellano, a policeman who it Lita’s protector, and outside are the familiar haunting shouts – balut, balut, balut – which up till now I have been able to ignore, but Sergeant Arellano days it will be hospitality tonight, and he calls for the outdoor salesman of balut, balut being not quite hatched ducks in their eggs. You knock off the top, and bite into the well developed duck embryo, blood and all and its strangely colored odiferous parts. You take a bite, and look at the veins and the bitten bones of the part that remains, then you are supposed to drink deep from the open shell the liquid in which the now decapitated duck had been hatching. I’ve managed to avoid this so far, though everyone on Airport road knows what a good sport I am, but I just cannot face actual ingestion of balut.
Sergeant Arellano is scowling and talking about Philippine hospitality again, and Mercie is looking really worried, a look I have never seen on her face in this place where there can be so much cause for worry, and so I have the egg in my hand, and I’ve knocked the top off, and I move the egg away thinking maybe this is enough, and then I see that Sergeant Arellano, talking ever more sternly about hospitality, has his revolver out…..
My precarious relationship to food began way back in darkest Connecticut where we had a kind of classic unseasoned Wasp food – overcooked vegetables, stringy liver, oily mackerel, the saving grace being that portions were so small, but even that was not a refuge for there was my also Southern grandmother always present making sure that whatever else we were eating or avoiding we refilled our plates with congealed grits and piles of snot-like okra.
This was in the background a couple of months ago, when I decided that it was time I learned to cook. I had long fancied myself a gourmet, but maybe it was pure bluff, maybe I could not escape my past. Food was supposed to be awful, and men were supposed to be incompetent. Poole men, for instance, could never learn to carve, even for occasions when there really was something to carve. They certainly could not built things – but I took comfort in what I had done when I began to paint 20 years ago. I went to the hardware store over on Seventh Avenue and talked them into precise instructions for what kind of lumber I would need for the shelves I needed to hold my supplies – for I was doing huge things now, including sculpture – and how I could put up heavy shelves without the walls giving in – what I needed to make sure they were level as well as strong. Well, I beat my fate that time, and maybe now I could do it again.
I have found support. In a short time I have put together a library on cooking that is about as large at the almost instant libraries I assembled when I plunged into visual art, and again when I dove into theology. And I have found help with this version of art as I had with others. Classes. Books. But also regular people. With an old friend I did a pork tenderloin that I think would please any connoisseur and sure pleased me. With someone else who had the benefit of an Italian grandmother I did lasagna, several kinds by now, and all sorts of sauces and of course meat balls such as few Wasps has ever seen much less eaten. And I do all sorts of spontaneous mixtures of meat and chicken and vegetables and fish and spices and herbs, always with sauces. I have begun to assemble more equipment such as a heavy meat bounder that I finally found upstairs at Zabar's so that I could flatten out cutlets the way my more unfortunate friends remembered their ethnic grandmothers doing.
Recipes? Instructions from the books? Proper measuring and timing. Proper seasoning – done mostly by instinct and smell and intuition by me who never saw a clove of garlic until he left home. It was like when I started painting – and I got the books and signed up for the courses and learned anatomy and color theory and all the rest but then almost instantly went off on my own whether doing figurative or abstract work, almost immediately going beyond any given plan – which is something it took me so long to discover in writing that when I did I embark on it there, too, everything in my life changed. If feels just like this with cooking. I need rosemary even though the book says I don’t. I need double or triple of any amount of garlic called for, or, really, any amount of anything called for in the plans – cooking turns out to be so much like painting and like writing and like the life I sought for so long.
Thursday, June 25, 2009
As I drove in 1986 looking to unravel the past, my mind was never far from the litany of family horrors, the bad ends to which others in my generation who had roots in the old White Mountains summer community were coming – this litany what was at the center of my talks and rants in the city – sadism and incest and molestation and miscellaneous cruelty, with anti-Semitism and other kinds of exclusion – these matters that were putting the lie to everything that, to me, the White Mountains of New Hampshire was supposed to have meant.
I drove mostly in Vermont, where I had this sort of safe base camp in the house of an old friend in Rutland whom I had known most of my life first in Connecticut and then in the city, and who had escaped to Vermont many years back and then escaped even alcoholism. I went with him to a political meeting where I met the governor, who was actually a woman, actually a Democrat, which in 1986 across the border in New Hampshire were credentials that would end any contemplated political career. There was excited talk among my friends in Rutland that, thanks partly to their senator Patrick Leahy, who many of them knew, the Democrats were about to take the U.S. Senate from the perverse Reaganites, and maybe the world would be back on track.
And meanwhile health food stores and organic and vegetarian and vegan restaurants were opening all over the state, and reformed businessmen from the cities were raising arugula and goats, and on the village greens there were kids playing music as if it were 1966, not 1986. To put the stamp on it, Brattleboro had a gay bar. If there were gays in New Hampshire, they were so careful you did not see them. If there was health food it was kept a secret. The closest thing I saw in my forays across the border to New Hampshire to what was happening in he rest of the world was that diner menu in Littleton that proclaimed the specialty of the day to be cheeseburger quiche.
And another thing, everyone in the Rutland crowd was in therapy, almost all of them at this moment in groups conducted, oddly, by a group of progressive nuns who had come to town and set up shop practicing something called transactional analysis, which I had heard of in the past only as something silly. In this very quick-fix therapy, members of the Rutland groups, billed as short-term, were apparently supposed to confront people all the time by telling them what was rally going on with them. And everything had a neater-than-real-life label. An adherent among adherents could win an argument by saying something like, “Ah, I hear the little professor speaking.” These people seemed as certain of their lightweight categorizing of others as I was of what seemed to me my deep and everlasting new understanding of the wolves in sheep’s clothing of my family past.
What made the nun’s group worse was that transactional analysis was what had sparked a widely ridiculed (in my New York circles) a popular self-help book called I’m Okay, You’re Okay. But even the silliness seemed to put Vermont once again far ahead of New Hampshire. In the White Mountains, so far as I knew, therapists were as rare as Communists.
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
In this time when I had to know not what was happening in situations I had been close to – not what the thugs called tonton marcouts were doing to the best people in Haiti on behalf of the dictator Duvalier who ruled by voodoo and blood, and not what Batista had done in Cuba, or the colonels in Greece, or the makers of Vietnam policy, or the puffed up Somozas in Nicaragua, or the egregiously cruel Marcos’s in my recent wife’s homeland, not was happening in situations to which I had been an observer but not a party, but rather to what I knew best but had investigated least -- my family.
I had made early attempts to connect dots – for example this question of why no one in my parent’s generation could hold on to a job. But in the biggest matters I had not made connections any more than the others did, though the connections had already been coming before I picked up the Aqua Mustang and used it for time travel.
At first it was Cousin Elizabeth, in Sloane Kettering with cancer, not lung cancer but her parents and her husband were blaming it all on her smoking, Elizabeth one of the alive ones, and an artist, a real artist, not like her mother who the family thought so talented because of the family and pet portraits she had done when young before the Junior League took all her time. Before children arrived, Elizabeth was at the Art Students League, which they all said proved she was nothing because anyone could go there and take classes, unlike, for instance, Smith and Radcliff and Vassar. And a year before this time driving in northern New England I had been working night and day on a project that took me down to the Bahamas, and I had made time in the city to go over to Sloane Kettering every day or two. I had seen poems in which Elizabeth told of her pre-cancer suffering, but I had only skimmed them. She had an apparently successful bone marrow operation, and then announced that she wanted to die, and talked what both her mother, who competed with her for men, and her father had done to her, and then one day she was on a respirator, her head swelled up like a deep blue balloon, this just after she had said she wanted to die because of what had happened. And soon after that Cousin Anna hung herself out in San Diego where her husband Cousin Mark was being an academic anthropologist having finally gotten his education after being thrown out of Exeter and then Williams for stealing. And Mark, who was so obese by now he practically could not travel by air, had been with a surprise mistress while the suicide was taking pace, and then borrowed from my brother the Farm House, the last of the big family houses to stay anywhere in the family, so that he could have his honeymoon, as he had always dreamt, in the White Mountains. It was awhile before an order of protection was out to keep him away from his daughter – and a while longer before he shot himself.
Aunt Alice, who said she kind of liked Lauryn’s batterer, and anyway Lauryn brought it on herself for she was too pretty, too appealing. And just after this my mother said she had talked with Mark’s mother, who had talked with Anna’s mother, who agreed that Anna’s death was all to the good for she had been such a problem to both families, and now Mark could get on with his life.
And in this same time, Cousin Lawrence and his wife Cynthia had just told me of a strange thing that happened when they were up in the mountains for Christmas with Lawrence’s mother, my Aunt Alice – who had moved long ago not to a family house – she was too much of a black sheep for that – but to a small company house in a nearby decaying mill town. She had gone there with her daughter Lauryn, who was in the Lysée in New York and almost full time with the ballet, because Lauryn’s brother Paul had gotten so deeply in trouble they had to flee. The trouble involved sawed off shotguns and kidnapping and apparently rape – and had still been going on up in new Hampshire when a judge let him off only if he would join the army. While Aunt Alice and her children Lawrence and Lauryn were watching television that Christmas there was a TV movie about sexual abuse and to their surprise – as if this had come form nowhere – Lauryn started screaming. Lawrence told me about it, but said it was that she had actually been raped by Paul once.
And then Lauryn wound up in a battered women’s shelter in Minneapolis, just at the time I was in the midst of my exploration of New Hampshire. Aunt Alice had been phoning me in the autumn, I heard her voice when I called my answering machine, but I did not return the call. I was busy in a deeply sexual tryst with a very pretty blonde woman, which seemed a natural extension of my investigations. I knew her from Adult Children of Alcoholics, where her stories were sufficiently horrendous. She knew the sort of world I had been born into, and even had one of those fake British accents, though she had apparently learned it during a time studying in England.
At this point the pat was completely in the present – and clear visual images came to me of what had happened to me. They came to me when I was back in New York and picked up the phone and heard Aunt Alice saying a horrible thing had happened to her, Aunt Alice, which was that Lauryn had been battered– and it turned out that Paul had been beating her from the time she was very young – Aunt Alice, Lauryn told me had to have seen the deep whip marks and blood when she was in the bath. Full rape has begun as soon as she was large enough for Paul to enter, and it went on for years It and it would never have ended, she knew, if Paul had not been killed in a single-vehicle motorcycle accident – which in the family they said was so strange, a motorcycle, for nothing like that had ever happened to any of us.
I had been in the Philippines, which I knew far too well, doing a book about the Marcos's and the horrors of martial law – village square beheadings by the constabulary, for instance – in those thickly populated islands. The book was written with a journalist friend from my years in Asia, with the help of a major player, a liberal Marcos rival who had spend eight years in prison, and was killed, shot in the back of the head by government men, before the book was finished, and soon our allies were being assassinated at a rate of horror. And I was under death threat, called in the night in Manila and San Francisco, by figures said to be from the Marcos military.
And just now at this time with Anna and Lauryn and Elizabeth and the memory of Paul it came to light that my brother Peter was working in the Philippines for the CIA at the very time I was there more or less underground with the old-line opposition and also the Maoist New People's’ Army, and he never told me, and we both could have been killed because of it.
This and much more was on my mind as I drove about northern New England looking for what had happened in what has once been the most safe of all places – a little stuffy these people, maybe, but with great accomplishments too – all in the past – in this part of the world that to so many in the family it seemed the family owned.
I was on the track now – and for the first time in my life had gone for a year without depression.
Monday, June 15, 2009
In August of 1970 I decided to finish my picaresque novel in the White Mountains, which, strangely, I thought would not distract me from this basically true story I had sold to Harper’s of my wildly unsafe adventures in the night world of Bangkok. So now I was staying partly at White Wings with Mickie and her new husband Charlie and partly at Lovett’s, the restaurant and high end cabin complex at the corner where you turn off for the Profile Club.
Here in the mountains I kept silent about my recent activities except to let them know I planned to put the finishing touches on this novel right here – letting them see I had credentials of my own apart from family heritage. This was no place to talk of how I had spent the eight months between the time I got the contract and this time now, one of my rare returns to the White Mountains.
With the contract in my self consciously battered briefcase I had gone from New York to London, where I had friends from Southeast Asia days and also could check in with Jason Bacon, who I had known since the third grade. Jason was in London running the big money office of Kidder, Peabody. For years I had considered him my only Republican friend.
With overvalued dollars from my advance I took an apartment on the Chelsea embankment with a view of the Thames. Then I left London, where I knew people, for the Canary Islands, where I knew no one – these sad though lovely islands of the Africa coast that are sparsely inhabited with depressed Iberians and overrun by bargain seeking Brits of the sort who start every other sentence with “as it were,” and mark their wine bottles so that between meals the wogish locals who did menial work in the hotels would not sneak drinks which, the “as it were” bargain tourists said, represented “value for money.” My isolation in such a place weighed so heavy that it was sort of a relief after a night when drunk to incoherence to wake up in a jail cell being glared at through the bars by a man in the costume drama uniform of the fascist Guardia Civil.
Then back to London which was full of people coming and going whom I had known in Southeast Asia – which at least was company, though these were journalist war lovers taking a break before deciding whether to go back to the killing fields in Indochina or look for new ones in the Middle East. And then I was off to Malta with an old boozed-up writer friend who knew a famous alcoholic Australian novelist there. The Australian lived in an old ocean-view house with cool tile floors and glass cases containing dead stuffed birds. I had a room that opened on the roof, where I kept forgetting how many sleeping pills I had taken. Our best reason for being there was that the next town over had the sweetest young prostitute on the island which in the circumstances did feel like connection. I twisted my ankle badly coming down the stone steps from her house, but soon could have it fixed with British national health service. This was not something to talk about in the White Mountains.
Next, back to London again and then a sojourn in Frankfort, where I had old friends from Athens days, and on to Zermatt, which was so clearly not at all like what they said it was in the White Mountains where they somehow connected their wild scraggly ranges with the perfectly ordered Swiss Alps. I hiked and wrote, happy to be far away from English food – which was something else that might seem strange if I mentioned it in the White Mountains summer crowd, whose members from Baltimore, Boston and Chicago often talked, in mysterious ersatz aristocratic style, with what sounded like English accents. For two weeks I did not have a drink – though it worried me that if this continued it would prove offensive to the remnants of my family.
Thursday, June 11, 2009
In those years when I was on the hunt for what had happened, and at a crucial point drove into the geographical, and also state-of-mind, place where what I was seeking would have come to pass, drove into the heart of darkness, it seemed, in this time I had become open to changing versions of everything I had believed about myself and the worlds I had been in – this time that seemed so crucial, so loaded, but for which my writing, by which till now I had defined myself, was useless. And so I had turned to visual art, at first hours and hours, often full days, of looking at paintings in the midtown and uptown and Soho and short-lived East Village galleries, and in the Metropolitan, the Modern, the new Drawing Center, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, the Frick, the Brooklyn. I could have walked with my eyes closed into to any of a couple of hundred rooms in those places and known exactly what paintings were where, which were in front of me, which behind, which to the right and which to the left – as well as knowing with my eyes shut the exact placement of each painting on each of those walls. And I was seeing my life, my past history, through what was coming to light as I looked – the hope and the plight of the young boy in Matisse’s piano lesson, the diagram into suicide in the razor edge, thorny and sexually charged supposedly abstract images in Gorky that were not the least bit abstract to me – and other paintings that had the opposite effect, my refuge in Deibenkorn’s arrangements of colors, which were not abstract to me either, and my old fears and warm longings in Bonnard – my recently rediscovered joy in Monet and Cezanne and newly discovered joy, and warmth and longing again in Corot and Courbet, and awe at creation in Rembrandt.
All this before I had done more than think about drawing and painting myself.
On a wall separating a 16th century Dutch gallery room from the grandiose Eberhardt Court there was a Hobbema painting, called Entrance to a Village – a couple of old houses and some very small figures in a woods. I would stand in front of that painting and feel I had stepped right into it, soaking in the atmosphere of fine summer days – until one day when I could see nothing comforting in Entrance to a Village. That day I stood there berating myself for seemingly having lost the ability to rise to perfect summer day. I walked away not sure when I would be back, but in the night I had a lengthy fearsome dream of being in deep, dark, very dangerous woods that seemed to be the Hobbema woods and then were also the deep, dark woods of the White Mountains that started just past the iron streaked rocks behind the biggest of the family houses, and went all the way to woods that climbed up the distant mountains, which were chopped up with ravines and had big brown markings made by trees dead from sudden storms that even in summer caught and killed hikers, all the way to up above the timber line where all was wind-battered rock except some wiry, low lying, desperately clinging miniature pines that hung on in places where there was no apparent earth.
That was the real Hobbema, I was now sure. And that was the long ignored reality of the those supposedly perfect days in the White Mountains.
And so I was learning more from that Hobbema painting and the visual pictures it triggered in my mind, waking and asleep, more than I had learned from writing – about White Pines and what had happened and why the chickens were coming home to roost in places of the past in the far north that were at one time to me as close to perfect summer day places as was that picture, for a time, of the dark clearing in Hobbema’s woods.
Twenty-three eventful, life-changing years later I am in the Met. It is not like that time when I had been there nearly every day and when in my apartment my lampshades had been lined with the colored buttons you wore to prove you had paid the Met’s entrance fee, which could be anything at all if you had not been fooled into believing a big fee was mandated rather than a donation of even a tiny amount. Since I had often been in there many days in a row back then, and without writing had had no income source, I decided a quarter was enough – until I saw students walking away because they did not have the supposed fee, after which I cut my entrance payments to a single cent.
And now after so much change and expansion in my life, I was back. There had been changes in the past year or two in the Met, though none of the changes as substantive as the curators probably thought, for it still had the same paintings. The brightly colored modern eras ones in the redone American Wing were now arranged in a silly way crowded together in numbered glass cases. But the Hobbema was where it had always been and I went straight to it, and again, like the day and night 23 years ago, it had become a different painting.
I saw light now in that village woodland clearing. Light I could have forgotten. I saw a warm glow. But there on the left was a vague, brown and black, hut-like dwelling so vague and dingy it must have to do with the intrusion of death.
Looked at more closely, that dwelling, too, was glowing.
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
I had gone there like a roving, incognito inquisitor, out to get the goods on these people. And I was also finding how much I loved the place, and even how much I longed for the person I had been. My wanting to get back to that person was a part of why I was roaming this mountain countryside. I told myself I was there only to convince the guilty, whether alive or dead. I enjoyed my new anger, railing in these meetings I went to about the people of this past of mine that I had tried to sugarcoat, then tried to ignore, then tried to forget. But now I wanted to remember. Oh God I enjoyed the anger, I enjoyed railing at these people I had once loved almost as if they were in front of me. I called them betrayers. I said they had broken my heart. I cataloged the damage. Whatever it was that had happened back in the White Mountains, there has to be an explanation there for suicide and sexual convolution and molestation and all the rest that was now, so many years later, coming to light in the present. Not knowing exactly what those people to whom we entrusted ourselves had done, I said they all belonged in jail for whatever it was.
Though concrete evidence was sketchy. I was much taken with a young woman, Michelle, in these meetings whose father was a therapist who had turned his practice into a dictatorial cult. I cheered her rage. She said she was looking for evidence. And meanwhile her life had taken a different turn, for she was living in a community of very liberal sisters of St. Joseph nuns. It was a place of safety in the midst of all the change going on – for like me what she had pretended was the best place in the world in which to come of age had become the most dangerous of all possible places. Surely a chamber of horrors. But She need cleared views, clear memories of what had happened to her.
“I want the visuals.” She said.
I wanted the visual too, and I nearly had them and then I would be distracted by other clear memories of the White Mountains, the clouds that sat on Lafayette, the northern birds, and those lawns at White Pines with white, in-ground bird bathes, where I had waded as a soon as I could walk, as documented by my grandfather with a what he called his Kodak, which had a bellows that pushed the lens closer to what was being photographed.
The sounds of northern nature, the hum of the deep woods. The times the mountains looked green, not cold gray and blue, and gave the feeling in life that you got when looking at old postcards that had the mountains on linen stock and they looked so very soft, and safe – for on these postcards, as in some memories, you did not see the craggy granite cliffs, nor the avalanche scars.
But the cool mountain mornings in mid-summer, with fires in the evening in late August.
The awe they all expressed a the very thought of my celebrated grandfather Gaga. And my grandmother Nana a leader too, and kind. And everyone spoke of her too with awe – except their old housekeeper Mrs. Miner whom I have just found – or who just found me, after all those years and who is so clear about what happened, and why she had to leave that world, but keeps keep stopping just short of filling in the final details.
Wednesday, June 3, 2009
I was here in this particular present and at the same time feeling I was here in my past as I stood outside the house called White Wings. White Wings, where I had spent summers when I was three and four years old at the end of the 1930s. I was leaning up now, speaking to this familiar, now graying woman Mickie, dressed in the clothes she wore for cleaning her barn, her face strained with the annoyance of a marijuana hangover. I saw her at this moment in her work clothes, and I could also see her as a spirited girl in a bathing suit halter, a flirtatious smile continuing the perhaps unintentionally taunting promise of her partially bare young body.
In her middle age version now she was standing on the upstairs outside walkway that connected the house’s two wings. And though this was 1986, it was just as much the summer of 1951 when Mickie was 14, just a touch younger than me, and Mickie’s parents had come in from Grosse point to put the finishing touches on their new summer house, which had been one of our summer houses, and she was such an appealing and promising girl, so smooth, as cute as she was sinuous, her legs, her breasts, a seeming avatar of a new sphere I might enter. At that time I had recently had my first experiences with puppy love, and also had begun masturbating, and had not till Mickie’s arrival in the mountains seen much connection between the two.
Behind me right now were the familiar mountains of the Franconia range. They were partially obscured by trees that had been allowed to grow freely by the raw outsider who now owned the infinite acres of White Pines, the biggest of our family’s old formal houses. And yet I could see the mountains as if they were not yet blocked by untamed trees, see this old view in this present as if I were in the deep past when the woods were more controlled.
To my left was the wing that had been my grandfather’s writing place, near which no one could talk for the great man might be in the midst of another formidable novel. It was the only part of the house they had substantially changed when Mickie’s family came in from Grosse Point – this family that the old-time summer people treated with some suspicion, as they did with anyone new. But I didn’t care what anyone thought about Mickie’s parents.
They had ripped apart this forbidding place where the great man had worked in silence, and they had had the floors sanded to light shiny wood, and the old dark wall paper had been removed and everything painted white and the place had been dedicated not to an old writer but to gorgeous Mickie and her little brother. It was not like the children’s ghetto houses that the old families had, not like the Boys’ Wing down at White Pines. It was somehow a part of a bigger world, a world beyond these summer places.
That was then. Now in this time I was still seeing the young Mickie while leaning up to talk with this rough aging woman version of Mickie on the walkway. The wing that had been light was now dark again. The walls inside were now gray and splintery. There was a country person’s old wood stove there now. The floor was encrusted with dirt, and a dozen dogs were in residence, and also a young handyman whom Mickie had brought to her bed, saving him from abuse on one of the sparse local farms, which had mongrel cows on rented rocky land and no money even to maintain silos.
To Mickie’s left, as she stood on the walkway, my right from down below, was the shuttered main wing. Her mother talked on the phone almost daily from her latest rehab in Michigan to the one-man Sugar Hill police force to get reassurance that Mickie, though living here now, would be arrested if she broke into that main wing.
And that part of the house had not changed, as I found when we broke into the wing together. They had lived in it but kept it as a museum honoring the same past my grandparents worshipped. A complete set of Gaga’s books was in there. The same wallpaper – a pattern of pagodas – had been preserved from some distant time when Nana had been on the crest of new things and decorated their houses with fashionable chinoiserie. Out front was a new replica of the old striped awning that I remembered.
And the mountain air was as refreshing as ever, and it had the sent of balsam, and the northern birds still sang the songs of their brief summertimes.