Friday, July 31, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 95 – EVOCATIONS

As I drove here in Vermont by bright fields in various green hues of grasses and grains and vegetables, drove past orchards and up and down and around and over hills, beneath surpassingly gentle mountains, sometimes driving beside that rushing mountain water – as I drove, the scenes from nature that surrounded me this summer were raising emotions in me that made me feel again the emotions that had first seemed so right as evoked when I read Wordsworth at 14. And as I drove, I was right back there beyond Wordsworth in the distant summer of Kitty and the Playhouse and the our summer gang.

I stopped in Rutland for takeout coffee at a Burger King among strip malls and gas stations in a part of the small Vermont city that could have been anywhere. A wide-eyed young girl with an overbite, all eager smiles, served me and said how nice it was to see me. And again I was full of feelings that brought me into scenes so many years ago when I was coming into life. These many years later I again longed for connection (again also wanting life to be open ended).

Kitty, with her special smile, and the playhouse with our gang, and Gaga with his floppy sun hat and cane and rows of books he had written. Kitty and Gaga, and the mountains changing from harsh black and grey to steely blue to soft green and back again.

These scenes of the White Mountains, which actually were only three hours away from Rutland. These scenes from way back that as I drove alone were superimposed on visual scenes from after childhood to just now that were also in head:

Wild Havana, all bright colors and suspicion, in the final days of Batista, the Upper Nile on a boat that may have been one of the boats Kitchener took into the Sudan in his vain attempt rescue Gordon from the Mahdi. A wild girl in a dark room (she had cigarette burn scars on her smooth back from apparent gang retribution) near Prince Sihanouk’s strange casinos outside Phnom Phen. The Thai and Chinese temples and the stupas and palaces, and the royal barge house across the river in Bangkok from where I lived with Sunisar and then Bonnie.

And more, fading in and now, in Vermont, fading out as if overtaken by the nature I and Wordsworth had celebrated. In and out, Athens stretching out before me from the doorway of my whitewashed house where Vannie and I had lived on the side of the Acropolis. A dark minaret blasting a scratched recorded call to prayer and half blocking the view from my terrace in a bad year at the Levantine end of the Mediterranean. The deadly if comic fat man Somoza’s beaten-down Mangua in earthquake rubble around a lake with freshwater sharks, the even deadlier Duvalier's lovely but crumbling Port-au-Prince, then the girls Santo Domingo. Great Kinabalu rising straight up all alone over northern Sabah. The also great Kapuas River that I took nearly to its source, Conrad style, into the heart of Borneo. And Luanda when, despite the start of revolution, it was still a bright, white's only, Portuguese Mediterranean city misplaced in Africa far below the equator.

At nighttime on a Norwegian freighter where they let me take the wheel and follow on a chart of the North Sea the places still to avoid because of World War II mines. The untamed mountains of Slovenia circling a city with a river and a castle. In Switzerland a landscape nearly made quaint (they brought the bodies from the Matterhorn through Zermatt at night so that so no one could see). And times of hope in San Francisco and Paris and Singapore.

And then there was a fading of these scenes that were still coming in from the years between childhood and this year now when everything in the landscape of my past life was unfolding in new ways.

And I was back at the Holderness School in the New Hampshire lake country down below the White Mountains, alone in a small but crucial library on the second floor of Livermore Hall, looking out over woods and valleys with hills – foothills not mountains – out there against the sky and I was seeing things no one had ever seen before – the coldness of death after five months of a world covered in snow, and that earth coming to life, at first nothing tangible but life in the air, and then the bare branches, the bare twigs, taking on a reddish hue, something I had never heard mentioned, something I might have been the first person to ever see, and then the light green-yellow shoots of reborn flora.

And then summer in the mountains.

And fifty years later a girl in a Burger King.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 94 – BRONZE GIRL

And I was thinking maybe I was being a little ridiculous. I had heard that almost all young people who did well in debating had this thought that one day they would be President. Actually I had dismissed what I had heard as having nothing to do with me, just something for silly people, many of whom were social outcasts, as I had so recently been myself. And so I when I was15 I did dare to think that this would lead to the Presidency one day, and I was also sure that I was the only one who had thought this realistically. And something was out of control, for I was surely the only one who felt a surge of sexual longing when he thought of how well he was doing at winning arguments.

Ken Kaplan and I won the new England championship in the annual high school debating tournament at Boston University – my first bit victory and I was two years younger than Ken and my opponents. We came back in a school van late at night with a trophy so big it would tower over the pitiful second and third place minor sports trophies that were all my former tormenters at the little boarding school could get. And then I had this surge of sexual feeling while thinking at night about this big trophy, and not just because it was topped with an abstracted but also very clear young bronze woman with no clothes on who was holding a bronze laurel wreath high above her lovely head?

Well I couldn’t tell anyone, but I probably was going to be President. I would even go to law school so that I could go into politics prepared. Strangely the law school part set well with the family. They did not know the rest. I would be a lawyer and I would go to the top. No matter that the poems of Wordsworth moved me more than any good arguments.

It was in the summer after the first big win that I met Kitty at a swimming place beside a Waspily rustic golf course in the mountains. That summer was the time our summer gang was coming together. We had a sort of clubhouse, for we refurbished the old Poole Playhouse – which in what our elders described as better times had been a place for a amateur theatricals and quite formal dances with orchestras. A place covered with brown wooden shingles that had no lower class slickness to it. It was falling apart now, though the dances were so recent I could remember seeing the preparations for one when I was six and too young to stay up for it. Right here in the present there were still anachronistic (a recently learned word) round cardboard containers of cornmeal which could be spread on the smooth floor to make it even smoother for the dancers.

We replaced panes of glass on the French doors that circled the Playhouse on three sides. Nana hired a carpenter to replace some rotting boards on the circular terrace those doors opened out on. And soon we were in the world of the moment, not the world of our forbears that the older people who were forever talking about how things in the past were so much better than anything would ever be again. We did not have fancy dances with orchestras in this new version of the Playhouse. What we had was a portable phonograph playing slow songs to which you could dance in a way no one ever had before us, it seemed. Dance with the girl pressed against you, feel her, kiss her, be kissed back, move you hands way down on her backside, hardly moving your feet, pulling her up to you in the dark, and she reaching up, one hand on my shoulder, the other touching the back of my neck, which I felt in my groin, pulling herself up. I loved her like a lover in fiction, and also I wanted my life to be as opened ended as the lives of my family members were closed. And anyway, who could be trusted? Our feet hardly moved, so we had no need for the cornmeal from a fabled time that was not our time.

And it seemed to me there was a clear link between my winning in debating and the fact that now girls seemed to like me. A link not between my success at secondary school debating and my chance for being President, but rather a link between my having the better arguments on the debate circuit and now, just afterwards, me, so recently a near complete outcast in school and family, me now necking with the most appealing girl I had ever seen.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Aqua Mustang 93 – JUSTICE

I was not worried any more about my parents seeing my report cards that were sent down to Connecticut from the Holderness School in the far north. My grades now were no longer the lowest in the school. They were suddenly the highest, higher even than my twin brother’s. I wondered if I had not by now supplanted him as the twin the family would admire.

But when I was home my mother gave me a look that said we can see through you. Then she read me the comment from the boarding school’s headmaster, the rector, Mr. Weld. “Fred is very concerned with social justice in the abstract, but he is a thorn in his floor leader’s side.”

The problem with the floor leader, Terry Weathers, who had been one of my friends when I thought I had no friends in the school, was that I was never on time for anything, always collecting demerits, which for some reason made our floor look bad. And in the room inspections carried out by Mrs. Chase, the basketball coach’s busybody wife, the grade given to my never neat enough room brought down the floor’s rating. And that wasn’t the only thing. I passed out heavy instant coffee that I made from the hot water tap in the communal shower/lavatory. Also, I would often leave the dorm without permission during study times, and it was suspected, though they had not caught me yet, that I was even leaving the dorm after lights out.

But shouldn’t my parents and the headmaster be happy that I was attuned to justice and injustice not just in the school but in the big world that I would enter one day?

Having political views, particularly about justice, was coming to seem like an identity for me. It may have started, this justice thing, back before all the changes when I was the school’s most unpopular boy. It also may have had to do with my connection to the Social Studies teacher, Archie Stark, who was a Quaker and hated McCarthyism and put me in touch with A.J. Muste’s Fellowship for Reconciliation.

Or maybe it was because I read Dickens and Steinbeck, and had quickly learned that people like school bullies were despised in bigger worlds. Also, books showed me that it was not unusual that people who counted in life and politics had been ridiculed and sometimes beaten by the sort of people who had ganged up on me, ridiculing and beating met at this school. Even Ghandi had had his bad early days. Nothing abstract here.

But what really got me going was my rapid rise in the debating world – the dumb kid in the school one day, and another day the number one debater in New England while not yet 16. Rising by winning arguments.

When I tried to figure it out, I fell back on my days in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, my summers in those big formal family houses. I knew from his books and stories that my grandfather Gaga has been in the first stage of the Russian Revolution. Afterwards he had made a case for Kerensky as being a third way alternative to the Bolsheviks and the Czarists, and no one listened. But I could quote him in debates, compare a possible third way in Russia with a possible third way in China, which had just been overrun by the Communists. Not only would it make some sense, or at least confuse my opponents, it would also tie me to this family where I so often suspected I was an outcast.

I wondered why it should make my mother seem so satisfied that Mr. Weld was looking down on me. I wondered if I could ever right the balance in my family or in the world, or if whatever I did I would still be the bad twin to my brother’s good twin.

Thursday, July 23, 2009



I had gone out for the weekend to the small contained, low ceiling, one-story Connecticut house that my parents had moved into next door to the big and quirky house of my childhood in this township that had been chaotic enough so that I had never felt bound by the commuter and golfer aspects of it. I knew it as a place of fascinating danger and adventure – fighting and fleeing and stealing things, like Mr. Steinberg’s rowboat that took me over a waterfall in what I thought was the end of my life, and like when clinging to rock faces in near wilderness not yet subdivided, or outsmarting the wardens who tried to catch me when I fished for bass in a restricted reservoir – things that made me think while it was going on that my childhood in Connecticut, in its better light, was far more Mark Twain than John Cheever.

Connecticut where, as I have written, the food in our house was a combination between what came out of the hard-edged WASP world of my paternal grandparents – who strangely ate well at their own places – and the Southern world of my maternal grandmother. We had WASPy tasteless vegetables and mean portions of grisly meat plus sickening percolator coffee – supplemented by not bad Southern corn bread that was overshadowed by congealed grits and okra the consistency of snot.

So here I am, all these years later, cooking brown and wild rice for a lunch that features garlicky, lemony sautéed red snapper – all of this with the herbs and spices, and mushrooms too, that I never saw in my formative years in Connecticut. Here I am receiving solace alone in the kitchen, just after the death of Frank McCourt.

Celebrating by violating all the strictures of WASP food, as Frank McCourt violated everything set up by the lifeless old schoolmasters in England, those rules set up by ignorant men in England and then used by the anti-art people to torture sensitive children in Ireland and America.


That cramped little house in Connecticut. 1959. I was out from the city for the weekend with my girlfriend Vannie – about whom I was silently bragging. She knew how to fill leotards. She had bangs and a heart-shaped face that melted men thou it was hard to know if she even knew she was pretty. She had run from Tennessee to Manhattan where at 24, which was also my age, she had become a vibrant action painter. I marveled at the contrast between her and the others in that little house, my parents and my very careful twin brother, who was also out for the weekend.

I had a bad case of flu, and I had spent the night alone on a horsehair couch they had saved from the older, bigger house. It was probable that no-one had ever made love here. They were all going to go for dinner at an Italian restaurant down near the railroad station – a far distant world though only four and a half miles away. Vannie and my brother went to a small supermarket to get something I could eat for dinner since there was nothing to fall back on in the house. Peter said I would probably like a TV dinner. Vannie, who knew more than she maybe needed to know about my tastes, found something that looked a tiny bit, though not much, better – some frozen non-TV dinner that at least had pretensions. Peter talked her out of getting it for me, because it would be an insult to my mother, he said. To bring in a really good frozen dinner would be to say Fred needed something better than he could get at home.

So jumping ahead fifty years, I am finally doing something new about my childhood that I have needed to do for a long time. Something beyond deep probing. This past weekend I returned to that retreat place, the Omega Institute, where Marta and I had been, along with Malachy McCourt, a week earlier with our writing program. But this time it was to take a workshop, not give one, though that line can be thin. This workshop had to to do not with writing but with another version of art. It was given by a man named Thomas Griffiths, otherwise known as Tom or Chef Tom, who teachers at the nearby CIA, which stands for Culinary Institute of America and has no connection that I can detect with my twin bother Peter’s CIA. Chef Tom is one of the 60 persons in the world with the title master chef. He used to be at La Cirque, where he did omelet’s for people like Pavarotti and Diana Ross.

I have the least experience of the 15 people attending this cooking weekend, though I have been reading and Googling and watching cooking videos furiously for a couple of months, also bringing people who know how to cook into our kitchen to coach me, working overtime trying to catch up. It turns out I am the only one at this retreat who did not have at least one grandmother, at the very least a mother, who cooked.

The only one here with so little experience is a girl named Samantha who is as guarded as she in pretty, in a tanned and sullen way. She has come, at her fiancé’s urging, but she had never wanted to cook. It seems clear that if the fiancé wants good food after marriage he may have to go elsewhere. She adds that maybe Tom can give her some ideas about expensive culinary things to add to her registry.

On the second day Chef Tom is joined by his colleague Chef Freddy B, who, strangely, lives in the next town over from the Connecticut suburb of my bad food childhood. Freddy’s wife is Chinese, which is not so far off from my own first wife. I go to lunch with Jim and his wife Emilia – she too tanned and very good looking and he a pleasantly confident investment banker. And it turns out that too live in Connecticut! About a mile from my food-deprived childhood home.

Jim knows private Cantonese banquets from business trips to Hong Kong where I used to enjoy such feasts thanks to my first big contact there, Martin Wong, who I had known in New York when he was an investment bank trainee, and where we had many friends in common, including appealing girls like Vannie, who knew Martin well. I assumed Jim and Emilia were rich and probably Republican – and I wondered if I could have met them anywhere except in art. They stay in touch with me after the weekend because they want Jim’s father, who is so un-Connecticut he only has a third grade education – to join an Authentic Writing group.

And there is Mel, who knows the Chinese places in Queens. One of the girls we were with in 1959 was Grace Wu, who lived in a part of Queens that was fast becoming an upscale version of Chinatown. Later my first wife, also from the Far East, and her mother would shop for strange seas creatures on Canal Street.

The red snapper I just cooked, I sautéed in the way I learned at Omega, where there was risotto and roast pork, and lobster – which Chef Tom killed with a knife to the head because it is more humane than boiling the creature alive. We chopped and sliced and seasoned and sautéed and roasted and braised and boiled and grilled. We did couscous and quinoa and cauliflower and wild rice and beats. There was chicken for Freddy B's lush stir fry.

And there was a small vegan continent in our group. Lois, a director at Omega who turns out to be working with Marta. Lois has brought her daughter, who writes, and her sister and a close friend. The point she says is to make this a bonding weekend for her little group. They are not so put off as I would have thought by the rest of cooking and eating once living creatures, for they take the time between vegetable activities for bonding sessions – something else that never would have happened in the Connecticut that I knew 50 years ago

Friday, July 17, 2009


Every modern writer I have liked – from James T. Farrell when I was 17 to the one so on my mind all these years later, Frank McCourt – every one of them has been damned up and down and sideways by so many smug prissy critics. McCourt never should have told those things about his mother, and Farrell never should have written about having adolescent sexual feelings for inappropriate girls. There are some things that people just should not say.

We are in a kind of cocoon here, Marta and I, in Authentic Writing, for we don’t have to put up with English Department chairperson prudes – mine when I was in college damned Hemingway for writing about things no gentleman should discuss – mine when I taught at a community college one precarious year said that English 101 students might learn to write by learning the 17 basic rhetorical modes but most of them muffed it anyway by writing about things that interested them that nobody should be allowed to write about – football and worse.

I was once damned in the ponderous New York Review of Books for writing that a famous Reagan-backed dictator I knew all about at first hand, was, well, a dictator. How culturally insensitive this pompous reviewer said.

Marta and I are not entirely sheltered in the cocoon, and wouldn’t want to be, for we do move in worlds other than our own and want to move that way, and know what sheltering does to academics and genteel authors. So we are out beyond cocoon walls a lot – and this sometimes brings us up against the sort of people I usually think are in some suitable hell from which they cannot reach us.

A writing teacher came to Woodstock and announced that she would help people write memoir, making sure they did not say anything bad about their betters, like Frank McCourt reporting sounds of his mother’s fucking, because, she said, “I always tell my students, when you say something not nice about someone it just make you yourself look bad.”

This teacher hires herself out to other writers who are doing nice books.

And then another woman, who lives in a nearby white glove town, was also hiring herself out to fix up other people’s memoirs – work for which her main credential was that she herself once wrote a prophalactically expurgated family memoir.

Such people came to our Woodstock Memoir Festival and heard Marta field a question about how you should go about hiring an editor to fix up your manuscript – as if that’s what real writers commonly did. I had already come under attack for saying I had never found an editor at any company that was publishing me who was of in any real help, but this question now was about hiring an editor before the manuscript is even submitted. Then they heard Marta answer it with a quick eloquent series of fine one liners, such as, Did Faulkner hire an editor? Did Rembrandt hire an editor to fix up his paintings?

And then a teacher/ghost writer and her clients tried get us banned from our own memoir festival..

So we are clearly doing many things right. But I’m suddenly as furious as I ever was when I was 17.

Thursday, July 2, 2009


I was in the Met a week ago for a large current show called “The Pictures Generation.” It is not much publicized though it is underwritten by Rockefeller style promoters of the arts. It is a sweeping collection of works by a group of young artists who from the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties were bringing the image back into art in some direct and some very indirect ways – the image having been all but banned by grey, cold critics, who had decided everything had to fit into one of only two acceptable current trends – conceptualism and minimalism. And it was not that the critics now favored vigorous abstract work but rather that they had gotten everything down to what would exist in a critic’s paradise – no images, and no real emotion either. I was furious and sad.

Minimalism and conceptualism hogged all space for new shows at the Modern, and hogged the galleries too, in the mid-seventies when I returned from my latest stay abroad, this last one four uncomfortable years in the Middle East, which, despite some of the sort of adventure I sought, had become a kind of hell for me and not totally because my drinking was more out of hand than ever. I was fed up with so many of the people there with whom I had been involved, particularly in Lebanon which was filled with foreign journalists who had taken on all the worst characteristics – awkward pretentiousness and quite flagrant anti-Semitism.

What I really wanted in coming back was to get in touch with what I had been missing. But back in New York now I found myself as out of sync with the people I had known there as I was with minimalism and conceptualism. Friends from when first in the city were letting their careers define them. Especially the lawyers, who were now embalmed as lawyers, especially the writers as they began to find publishers. As out of sync with these liberal people who had been my friends in past years as I was recently out of sync with the right-wing expatriates in Beirut. And it made me wonder if I had not always been out of sync, whether when growing up in Connecticut and New Hampshire or when roaming most of the world’s continents.

For economy’s sake, I when I got back in the mid-seventies I went to live in a seedy shared apartment whose rooms went mainly to Maoists, Trotskyists, Trotskyites Anarchists and Stalinists, none of which I was. I had no girl friend to give me definition, only occasional cold one-night, or less, encounters. And I felt more trapped than ever by lack of money. Everything in my life seemed to be under a blanket of depression.

I did get up each day, and I did do the necessary footwork to get advance money two new book contracts, which I secretly suspected would not save me. I developed some new interests and like everyone else in the city discovered a latent passion for classic dance, alternating between Suzanne Farrell and Gelsey Kirkland, Balanchine and the American Ballet Theater, with side trips to the Taylor and other modern troupes. I was in an out of Washington doing research for one of the books, which took me to the sad old State Department, a vacant place in what should be a fascinating area. It is true I was meeting all sorts of people in New York and Washington and during brief research forays abroad, mainly because I had my book contracts, which did not stop my drinking from becoming, more than ever, blackout drinking. I was getting bills form Bellevue for having been taken there in a blackout and patched up for some happening that I did not remember.

One of the things I had missed most when away was being in touch with what was happening in art. Visual art had been a part of my happiest times in the city and in Europe too, from the late fifties when I was with this very appealing girlfriend – we were also in Greece together – who was an action painter.

But I had lost touch. And I did not find anything to connect to. I totally missed – as blind perhaps as a critic to what was around me – what was billed in the Met now, 35 years later, as the Pictures Generation. The show takes up many gallery rooms but is not listed on the banners at the front; a man taking entrance money was excited by it, but it was hard to find any signs pointing to it. Yet the moment I stepped into those rooms (located on the way to the 19th century rooms) I found myself in what seemed like a completely familiar, if never before seen, world – something that sometimes happens with a piece of music or a painting or with written evocations of lives. An array here of different approaches by a great many artists working at that mid-seventies time – from a driven young woman’s recording of herself on film to exuberant sketches. I went to see it because I know an extraordinary talented Woodstock guy who is in it, Paul McMahon, who lives now in the same town where I have lived, and even felt connected, for more than 20 years. His work in the show has joy in it – light-hearted and also moving, ranging from writing on maudlin picture postcards to pastel works done on front pages of the Times, with several stops in between, including an inviting poster, “Masters of Love,” and a series of small paintings in which he did red polka dots.

It felt walking through this show that I was in that world I had dreamt of back in the seventies, a world I could not join, did not even find, when I was back looking for something solid after years of disconnection in odd places. That world of people who knew each other, were working together, and were on a mission, rejecting hack work, taking art out of the hands of the linear hecklers and taking it right up to the often precarious edge of life. The sort of group to which it seemed in the mid-seventies that, despite what I believed, I could never really belong.