Thursday, June 23, 2011


My twin brother, who keeps his versions of the past in order, would think my credentials for finding out what really happened are as suspect as the credentials of a conspiracy theorist. For when I am looking for proof or citing proof it often now has to do with what I see in art work that I look at in my head or in museums, and that remains forever in my psyche. My past in visual terms, the paintings I see, and then my visual images of the places from my life and what can be known from these places of the people who inhabited them. A full world that is now more real to me in visual than in verbal terms.

Real in much the same way as the paintings in museums that, since this search began, have told me so much about my own story. The deep dark forbidding woods of Hobbema capturing the deep dark woods I knew when very young and tried to believe for so long were comforting. The knife’s edge sexual horror and slasher death in Gorky so much like things buried deep in my memory, maybe too deep to ever coax out of darkness. And then memories entailing hope that come with the colors in a Deibenkorn abstraction, or the sight of a Matisse bronze girl, or light and color in anything by Monet, or the life in the Hellenic era statuary of the ancients when sculpture could for a time get beyond the merely ideal, or in everything in life, hopeful and horrible, seen in the eyes of Bellini Madonnas. These images in museums in some ways on a footing with the strong visual pictures I retain of actual people and places. I am not big on allegory or myth, nor on the archetypal, and yet I know as much as I know anything that where visual images lead me has taken me as far as, or farther than, any other versions I have known or concocted.

Partly as an insomniac and partly out of fascination I would when young retrace in my head patterns of life. As in looking close at every girl of every stripe that I had ever slept with, and then every one that I had wanted, the way right now I look at each of these new people in this unexpected time of change. And then I would, and still do, run through the rooms of museums where I am moved, knowing exactly what painting is where, knowing when to look right or left, knowing what is ahead.

Lying awake I am standing before the not quite finished Andrea del Sarto holy family painting in the Met, and then his small Madonna which is apparently the pretty young wife who deserted him when he caught the plague. Looking at the images and knowing that Andrea del Sarto knew more than anyone in his time what was there – knew the world and its possibilities and pitfalls. I know this just in the Met without hunting him down in the Louvre or in frescos in Florence. Know it even if the critics and art historians run from it the way people with doctorates in literature run when they encounter life in writing. The way I know the location of every Hobbema in the Met and the Frick, and know that the critics, the art historians, got this wrong too, for they fled from Hobbema for the correctness, even niceness, of van Ruisdale. I still know, still can see, where Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’Herbe, artists and models picnicking, was hung. Know the exact placement still as I could see them ahead of me, high up there on a wall while I was in an adjoining room of the Jeu de Paum when I was 16, and also still know precisely where I shall see his glorious young Olympia. And I see Hopper’s Night Hawks exactly where they were placed in the Chicago Art Institute when I was 21. I also know precisely where in New York museums the Picassos are, even though I hate them, know what I hate almost as well as I know the exact placement of the Matisse’s and the Courbets and Pissaros and a lone Sisley, and then Daubigny in Brooklyn and in rural Massachusetts.

And in the same way I walk through, while not sleeping yet, the rooms of the places I write about. Old and new. And I know not just where every chair and clock was in every one of the many rooms in White Pines but also what was on the Steinway what was in every drawer of every desk and end table. I almost always know these sights. Usually confident that I will know what I will see when I travel in my head this way. Usually starting out confident I will know what I will see when I write about these places from memory. Maybe.

And here I pause… And wait… And look…

Thursday, June 2, 2011


The reason I was in Colorado in the summer after sophomore year was that Itchy van Dornick and I had this plan to hiltchike around the country. To get started, we had gotten a ride with a friend of his named Frank, who had just finisehd his fianal year at Princeton and was ;driving out to San Antonio to make good on his ROTC commitment to the Air Force. Frank represented the worst of many worlds. He had grown up in the town of Princeton with Itchy before he was in the university, where he joined Tiger Inn, which was one of the five most exclusive eating clubs, this one mainly for ignorant athletes, the kind who abused all non-athletes in their path on their way through Princeton as if they were still high riding bullies in high school or prep school.

The background noise to this leg of our trip was Frank shouting fuck or piss or shit at other drivers or to punctuate his vocalized memories of dealing with weak people. Scoffing at beauty, chortling at perceived weakness until we got to New Orleans, and for one evening went our separate ways, which led us each separately to a spic and span whorehouse where a lovely girl who called me “Sugar” gave me a blow job before I could tell her I really wanted, well, you know, couldn’t she do it the regular way? The blow job took a nanosecond. I was 19, an age at which it was not unusual to be a virgin in America in 1954.

Frank left us in San Antonio before driving off to his base. I had only been the driver for an hour before Frank deemed me too unskilled to trust at the wheel. At one point in Louisiana an incredible girl in the shortest of shorts and skimpiest of tee shirts, sweating prettily, had been the gas station attendant who filled up Frank’s car. I said something I thought either my brother or someone at college might say about having seen an Erskine Caldwell girl, referring to a Southern author who had initiated much of our generation into masturbation. It led to Frank talking on and on about helpless little intellectuals who avoided real life.

Itchy and I walked through the picturesque waterway part of San Antonio, then headed north. Our first ride was with a Mexican man in a broken down car who announced he was just out of prison and was drunk. This seemed like adventure far superior to traveling with the foul Princeton athlete.

We went first to Denver where Itchy had an uncle, a mining engineer whom Itchy warned me was a born again Christian. Denver was mostly ugly rows of little one-story houses with little suburban lawns that needed constant watering since this was not a place where grass would grow naturally. This area of sad lawns was surrounded by high and wild mountains. The uncle drove us out to the edge of town to see the mountains better. He wanted us to see them because of the minerals they contained. He kept cataloging minerals that he knew were up there. No sign he saw beauty or majesty or anything like it. And he rambled on about his religion. He was a student of religion, he said. He did not take anything at face value, he said, such as that the Catholic church was evil. He had gone through a Knights of Columbus correspondence course which had had the unintentional effect of showing him the reasons why Catholics were not Christians.

Our next destination was a place we had heard of called Boulder. It was late at night when we were left at the start of a mountain pass that was suppodedly not far from Boulder. We unrolled our sleeping bags by the side of the road. In the morning two heavily bearded men came barreling out of the pass in a rusty pickup packed with large wooly dogs. They were shouting words like “hey-haw” and “whoo-pee” that I knew only from Western movies. One of them said it was their first time out of the mountains since the late spring thaw. Where were we going? they asked.

Our next ride was with a man so non-descript he could have been a Rotarian from central casting or from one of those dull businesses in the real America that were in an out of novels I read. Maybe a branch bank manager. Maybe a bookkeeper. Maybe a seed salesman, I thought, with no idea why I thought it. Anyway, certainly a fussy little man who was losing his hair. But when we got into the car his demeanor changed. He reached down and picked up a, heavy monkey wrench, raised it as if to strike something, said, “Look at this, boys, remember this if you’re thinking of trying anything.” Then he put it down and was just a fussy little man again, actually a pleasant little man who asked us about ourselves as if he were really interested, and gave no indication he thought either that we would kill him or that he would have to kill us.

In one town that was only a gas station we got a ride in the evening with a man who said he had to turn off to another town in 40 miles but we were welcome to come with him. We decided to leave him at the turnoff and stay on the main highway. Which seemed not so good when we had been walking for more than an hour and no vehicles had appeared going either way. We kept on walking, and after hour or two with still no vehicles we decided we better stop for the night. We hadn’t slept much for days and now it was nearly midnight and we were out of the desert and into the middle of some sort of endless flat farm country. I hadn’t realized Colorado had farms. Everything was extremely interesting.

We stepped off the side of the road, which meant going down a short but steep bank, and we rolled out our sleeping bags right where we were. The next thing I knew I heard men talking. Happens this way too much, way too much, one man was saying. Another said you can tell what happened by the way these boys are lying. They wouldn’t have seen it coming. Probably felt almost nothing. Struck from behind by a truck or something, and down the bank and that was all. I opened my eyes. Daylight! I sat up. Oh, a man said, we were sure you were dead. And I could see how it would have looked like two people had been propelled like rag dolls off the highway.

It wasn’t just a couple of men talking. When I stood up I saw a caravan. I didn’t know what the huge machine with the horizontal blades was, but I quickly learned it was something called a combine that was used to cut great quantities of wheat, and separate the grains from the stalks, creating great mounds of grain that rode up a sort of climbing treadmill into some wagon or truck. In addition to wagons and trucks for the wheat, there were trucks and trailers for all the people it took to man the combine and keep track of, and shovel, the wheat. And there were trailers for them to sleep in as the caravan made it way tacross America, harvesting wheat that really was out there as far as the eye could see – just like in books and movies. They said they needed a couple more hands for a big job they were starting. They could give us work for a few days if that’s what we wanted.

This was amazing for we had no money at all. Itchy kept pushing to take our last dollar and get a place to sleep. I argued that we use it for any food it would buy us. I had won the last round, picking up multiple candy bars at the last gas station, which was why we slept down there in that wheat field looking like corpses, and why we had run into this amazing opportunity.

It was a full world, this caravan. The man who led it was a vigorous, loud high school principal in the winter, something new to my experience since I had gone to a New England boarding school where instead of a principal we had a headmaster, and ours was a kindly absent minded clergyman. This principal was clearly an efficient man of action, running this operation with all this equipment and all these people crossing what I guessed must be the elusive real America. The athletic looking young men along were as full of energy as their boss, and like their boss tall and hearty. Neither Itchy nor I had the athletic look, which didn’t seem to bother anyone. Unlike Itchy, who stopped frequently, I had endurance. Itchy had to rest a lot but I kept going shoveling as long as they wanted me to do it. Shoveling grain from one truck to another. From a wagon behind the combine into a truck. From a truck into a basket on another truck. I had no idea of why the wheat was being moved around.

But I felt things I had never felt before, here using muscles or at least growing them, here under the hot sun in these never ending wheat fields. We ate big hearty meals at a long table in one of the trailers. Always thick steaks. We were joined there by a tall and fit pretty girl who was along as a sort of secretary to the high school principal, helping keep records on the wheat. And she let it be known that she was spending the trip in a trailer sleeping with her boyfriend, who was one of the athletic looking members of the crew. This wheat caravan, seen from my corner of 1954, was far wilder than that place in New Orleans.

Thursday, February 24, 2011


I was in Cyprus, in a bare boards pension right on the green line separating edgy Turks from edgy Greeks in Nicosia. I would cross the line, going through an opening in a wall there, nod at the Canadian or Irish UN soldiers, who never nodded back – on to a big cheap meal, heavy on red meat and very cheap wine, and sometimes then on to one of the more depressing, by world if not small island standards, red light districts. In the day I would sometimes roam about the more functioning Greek side of Nicosia, my only contact there usually being with foreign cult people – Moonies or Children of God proselytizers who for some reason congregated here. I never did see the Moral Re-armament people who were said to be all around.

Jeff Price, old drinking buddy, appeared in Cyprus. He was about to switch from his job with the Baltimore Sun in Beirut to the same thing in Jerusalem. He had to go by way of Cyprus because Arab countries would not clear planes for Israel. We connected on the morning after his arrival and a man at an outdoor coffee stand looked at us, shook his head, and poured us morning brandies. I saw Jeff off, going from the vagueness of the Levant into the hands of the Israeli’s at the El Al section of the airport – who did everything so fast and efficient, checking everyone for bombs or weapons or evil intentions, that you could hardly see how much they accomplished to stay alive in a part of the world where so many people wanted to kill them.

I got drunk one night with a vibrant Canadian journalist wife I knew from Cairo. I don’t know what I said to her or did, but when I called the pool at her hotel the next day, and called again and again, she would not come to the phone

At the same time I was avoiding an Australian couple, friends of friends, who drank hard and seemed always on the verge of splitting up, and had a teenage daughter who smiled like a warm hearted, freckled Madonna and kept the family going, despite her mother’s penchant for swarthy Greek men. I was ashamed of myself for feeling relief that they were Australian, not English, for if they were not English, it seemed, I could let my guard down.

They had introduced me to an amazingly smart and trim English girl who worked as a D.J. for the Cyprus radio station. I was in a coffee pace with a Moonie I could not get rid of when she came in to tell me she was canceling our date for that night because she was going back to England soon and this was no time for new relationships.

The horoscope column in a little English language daily in Nicosia spoke to me each day about what I should expect at home with loved ones and in the office with co-workers.

Since I was alone most of the time, I thought of many other places – romantic times as in living on the side of the acropolis in Greece or on the river in Bangkok, abandoned times in Bangkok too, and Taipei, wonderfully dangerous times in Haiti and Beirut, Cuba and Laos, and while going overland all the way across Africa at the time of the Congo troubles and up a great river into the heart of Borneo where headhunters were on the march. I did not think about the family I had come from, only a little about past girlfriends, and I did not think at all about what were branded on my brain as happy young days in the White Mountains of new Hampshire.

I was too broke to go around to the Nicosia Flying Club, though I knew everyone there for I had come over from Beirut to get my pilot’s license in Nicosia a year ago. It had been handed to me by Nikos, the co-owner of the club, where you paid to learn how to fly before being checked out for your license. Nikos gave kickbacks to Michelle Abboud at the Aeroclub de Liban in a deal whereby Abboud flunked people taking their written flying tests in Lebanon and told them to go to Cyprus. Nikos was also the official inspector who checked you out for your license, and in addition he ran the control tower at Nicosia’s small international airport, where hijackers had been known to set down for refueling. I didn’t go to the club now, but I did go to a party given by Milton, who handled flight instruction with Nikos and was also part owner of the flying club and worked as an air traffic controller in Nikos’s control tower. The party was outdoors at night at a for-profit place Milton owned that was the first old folks home in Cyprus, a big old tile-roofed building with a walled garden. Folding chairs were in an oblong pattern in the darkened garden, with men all together on one side, the women all together on the other. No one speaking much and then only to others in their segregated side. Milton, would go around, apparently treading softly because some of the old people beyond the garden still had their hearing, moving from person to person with a bottle of scotch that had a stopper in it with a replica of the Brussels pissing boy statue. As he poured, the whisky came out the boys penis and each time people receiving their drinks snickered.

I went to outdoor movies and I used the American propaganda library for reference. I was being supported by an American manufacturer in Beirut who asked me to ghost write his story of being on one of the planes recently hi-jacked by the Palestinians. I had gone quickly to New York on Lufthansa, the airline he had been hi-jacked on and that because of it gave him unlimited free tickets. While in New York, while getting the hijack book project moving, I also put together the start of two plans for new books of my own – one that was a publisher’s idea about American ambassadors, the other my idea, a book about American expatriates making them more interesting then in the ways they were usually presented.

While in the American library in Nicosia I looked through an article about the guy who had recently shot George Wallace. He had all the signs of a potential assassin, according to academic studies. He was alone far too much of the time for it to be healthy. And, moreover, he spent his time quite happily in countries, like me here in Cypus (or Greece or Thailand or Egypt) where he did not speak the language. I was reminded of the time a doctor had given me a drug that was incorrectly labeled as being for alcoholics.

Once I got wildly drunk, even for me, on the Turkish side, where the restaurant I went to had thick purple wine that tasted like prone juice. I was throwing up all night at the pension, where the board walls were thin. So all this was heard by the others staying there, who that night had been soft-voiced members of yet another group out to bring peace to this part of the world, a Canadian Quaker delegation trying to help in places so uninterested in peace as Greek Cyprus, and Maronite Lebanon. The next day the Canadians were kind to me, almost indulgent. I seemed to be just the sort of unenlightened person they were looking for.

Later in the day, feeling better, I laid down in my bare room here on the green line, turned on a radio, listened to a BBC play about young Indians in love, drifted off hearing words of, of all unlikely people, my distant mother saying “ It’s time you had a really good rest.”

It felt as if she were seeing me off, as gently as possible, into my death. This was in 1973 when I was very old. 39.

Saturday, January 15, 2011


As I write I think I have to keep underscoring the dramatic things – Deidre repeatedly fucked and beaten by her brother, Elka and Fitz John and perhaps also Paul killing themselves, and other the horrible endings, drugged out and/or choosing to die, to so many still young lives. And there must be ties to what must have been going on when they were really young, decades go, in a perfect seeming summer place surrounded by familiar parents and uncles and aunts and grandparents and great uncles and great aunts and all those sometimes accomplished cousins – the rotating people of my blood who filled the dinner table slots at White Pines, all of whom knew what to do with finger bowls.

This sort of gothic novel version that was emerging from the perfect summer place version of childhood summers in the rarefied White Mountains. This being the proof I needed not so much to convince myself that there had been something wrong but to be able to convince anyone else. These dark memories that were there all along, joined by even darker ones that came into focus only as I wrote.

These dark Gothic things were needed. For the small things, that I knew without any further probing, might not be enough. Small things such as those that had caused the supposed lesser brother in the movie, to lose his voice when he needed it – these small things, being the non-favored brother, being detested by caregivers who adored the favored brother – being alone in a place with many cold people – these small things, these were the things that made it impossible for the guy in the movie to speak – or so the brilliant clinical speech expert in the movie discovered. Things that a Bertie never would have talked about until, at the end, unable to speak without a painful stutter, he had to speak and found he could never speak clearly unless he brought these things into the light. My brother ridiculed me, just like Bettie’s brother made cruel fun of him. And in the way the world was seen through my brother, my laugh was merely a nervous attempt at laughing, and the mistakes I made, always telling myself it was for the last time, would forever be repeated.

There were relatives including a grandmother who like people in Bertie’s childhood, adored my brother and mad it clear they did not like me. And this negative version of me was even worse outside the family – where I could not pass a course – so embarrassing to the favored brother to whom academic honors came – me, so slow, and unable to speak at crucial moments, as in meeting almost anyone,. When I could not speak, not even stuttering speech. And it seemed to me later I would never have spoken if I had not been spotted outside the family, if I had not, aware that outsiders would not always see me the way the family did, have gone from silence to a regional debating championship when I was 15, less than year after I was the dumbest kid in the school, just over a year since I had started spending most of my time, not in the family but in boarding school.

These small things. The family slights. It went on well past childhood. It was fixed in place in childhood and never stopped. My brother the chosen one, no matter where I stood in the outside world. These small things. Not incest and molestation and suicide. Just small gestures of cruelty – a cruel nickname, Speedy, relayed to the world by my brother, small slights, such as the time my father went to see an old friend who was dying and took along for company my brother, but pointedly not me.

I see myself in Connecticut. I am in my room, beside a wardrobe decorated by a folk artist the family had hired when they moved into this rather ramshackle old dormer farmhouse and former boarding house and removed the front porch and changed the focus from the road to the back yard. I am in my room, which has a shaky outside staircase left over from boarding house days that do not seem to link in anyway to the house in its current commuter town incarnation.

My mother is telling me sternly that I should have pride in myself, and I don’t believe anything she says. She knows how I am taunted at schools, and probably by the bother too, and she feels the need, apparently, to put something in place. Whatever they say about you in school, she says, you must realize that you are as good as any of them. I cannot believe she believes something so clearly not true.

Years later when I was finally putting the past together in other ways I told her during a visit to Florida that I went through childhood and into adolescence thinking myself so unaccomplished, and despite having many interests, such as learning cartooning and fishing and sleight of hand magic, I went through al those years berating myself for being so stupid. One detail I did not tell her it that for a long time I would under my breath imitate Mortimer Snerd, a comically stupid ventriloquist’s dummy in the popular Sunday night Edgar Bergin radio show in which he was the number two dummy, t he number one being the very sharp and witty Charlie McCarthy. Like Mortimer Snerd I would repeat over and over, but always directed at myself, the words, the sounds , deer dah duh. Dee dah duh, Speedy. In Florida I told my mother for the first time how until I had been away at boarding school for a time and was getting some recognition I had considered myself –in fact and in any person’s possible perception – to be mentally defective.

She drew back and adopted a haughty tone that I remembered from that long ago time when she told me I was as good as anyone else in a way that did not convince me. This time there was touch of anger behind her words. “I don’t know how you could have had such an idea as that, she said. “It certainly did not come from us.”

Wednesday, January 12, 2011



Sometimes I wonder will anyone, even a normally sympathetic reader, hear my stories and not think I am in lala land, building mountains from molehills, feeling sorry for myself. These thoughts come despite all evidence, for somewhere I am being told that a decent person – or maybe a cultured person, or maybe a Poole person – should keep personal matters to himself and that my life is far too small to be taken seriously by anyone except perhaps someone paid to listen.

So the tears began as the movie, The King’s Speech, began. I mentioned this on Facebook and one reaction was from a very old friend from Asian days whom I never see who is now with his final wife in a remote part of Australia. I knew him in the sixties as a wild rebel writer, so I am not sure if he was being facetious: his comment to what I said was that he always tears up during the Queen’s Christmas Day speech. It reminds me of when someone reads something I have written about the formal family I came from and the writing includes some scenes of horror, and the reader says something about how great for me to have come from such worthy and cultured people.

In the movie the royal family’s regular dinner table in the palace looked exactly like the dinner table at White Pines, the seat of my family’s self image. The queen placed at the head, just like my grandmother, and on either side a half dozen lesser people in evening clothes. Of course the dinner table at White Pines would be like the table in England, my wife said, for that was their model.

And it is all there in the movie. Patriarchs and matriarchs defining the limits to life.

And the children, two boys, in this awful rivalry. One of them stutters badly, and other children make fun of him, and his elders think they can will him to stop. His brother, the favored brother, the one who is in line to be king, this brother chortles and himself makes fun of his stuttering sibling.

That’s why in that scene I was I crying. One of the reasons this movie got to me.

I wasn’t going to see it. More channel 13 anglo-envy hogwash about genteel people in past times in England, I assumed. But I had to go for it was written by a very old friend of mine, David Seidler who now seems on the verge of an Academy Award. David and I saw each other often long ago when roaming about sixties New York – before we went off for various writing reasons, he to do a TV pilot in the South Seas, me to go to Bangkok. I see him about every 10 or 15 years, but we keep up through a mutual friend, really two mutual friends, through whom we met.

I was not going to see his movie because I can’t stand fictionalized versions of anything, genteel Brits or not. And yet this I did know: That the movie is about the royal family’s second son who may be thrust into being king, but who has never been able to do what he wants and needs to do because he stutters so badly. His public appearances are an embarrassment.

And meanwhile the best writers write what they know. It should come as no surprise to someone not obsessed with fiction that David Seidler had been a stutterer.


Bertie, the disparaged son who stutters, Bertie who will become King George VI, even his older brother makes fun of him. His father seems to take his stuttering as evidence of weakness. Bertie tries. He goes before an audience, an event repeated over and again, and he is expected to say a few words to the crowd, and he can’t.

I had so many times when I simply could not speak. Not even a stutter. Until I amazed them all by going from the bottom of the school to the top and winning trophies that said I was the best debater in New England. There was a turning point day when the whole school was assembled to see my team take on the best in New England, which was from Portland, Maine where they had a coach who wrote a book on each year's debate topic that was used by secondary school debaters and their coaches all over America. I was on the varsity debate team even though I was only a fourth former, which translates as sophomore. And not only did we win but the judges, nice ladies from the Plymouth, New Hampshire, League of Woman Voters chapter, named me the best speaker.

The next morning, a Saturday, I was waiting in a school van to go to a more casual debating event to which all the school’s debaters on all levels would also be going. My brother, the anointed twin, looked in the van and said “Speedy,” much the way Bertie’s brother mocked his stuttering. Speedy was the nickname I had nearly escaped but had suffered with for a year and a half when I was the most despised and dumbest boy in the whole little Anglophile boys boarding school.

Earlier that season one person had spoken to me much the same way the stuttering expert had spoken to Bertie in the movie. In my case it was a debate coach, in his a more clinical speech expert. The coach had said it was not true that I was doomed to forever be slow and dull, always lagging behind my twin, who was at the top of the class and I was failing. When the speech expert told Bertie that it was traumatic things his past that kept him from speaking, Bertie had at first been angry but not long afterwards he had started talking for the first time about such things as being close as a child not to family but to a nanny, and that the main nanny of his childhood adored his brother and did not like him. Reminded me not to much of my nanny – though I had such a thing. (We were so refined we called them nurses rather than nannies.) Not so much of my nanny as of the grandmother who lived with us, my mother’s mother, not one of the Pooles but a languid Southern lady who drank a great deal and was our baby sitter after a certain point and adored my brother and detested me.

These were the sorts of things Bertie never spoke of to anyone until he was egged on to do so by that speech expert – who said there was no such thing as a baby who stuttered when he first started talking.

I never talked about such things – not counting some drunken rambles – until I had passed 50, until this time I write about, 1986, when it became a matter of life and death to find out what had happened.

Once the investigation was underway, I had thought that the parts about suicide and molestation, incest and grand scale betrayal, would be the evidence that would be convincing. But nothing was bigger than the small things I knew all along but never talked about.