Sunday, January 31, 2010

#44 – DESIRE

It was hard to realize it had been so recent that my Philippines book appeared and gave me no satisfaction, that I had been to the Bahamas with the sleek blond photographer lady from Rome, and that that was no better, and then to New Hampshire where I saw my nearest and dearest as they really were, and then the blackest of black depressions, not quite cured by a trip to Vermont, but then this program where people of all ages, and with no preconditions moved deep into the sort of past that I had thought could cut off life. And now, just a few months later, I knew more people than I had known in places where I was connected, even here in New York. Also, I was aware of how, despite people I had known for years, I had spent so much of my time alone. And, mysteriously or not, I had in these months gone longer without depression than I could ever remember anywhere on any of the continents I had lived on, or seas I had sailed on, or places to which I had traveled in my head.

One thing about these meetings, everyone seemed interesting, which was not the way I had thought of people in groups. And moreover, there was no lack of appealing women. It was not just Annie and Janet and Tina and Susannah and Bonnie and Bonnie’s soap opera friend. There was Mary, who looked a little like a Scandinavian doll, and in a meeting talked about a waking dream in which she was in fact a doll and lashed to the front of a tractor-trailer truck that kept crashing into all vehicles in its way. I saw her one day standing, looking pert and ready as if headed out on a date, at the open door of a #6 subway car that I had just left by another door at the 51st Street stop. As we were connecting, her door slid shut and she was smiling a “What can I do?” smile as the train pulled away.

A touching woman in her late thirties who had moved out of New York and away from the Manhattan ACOA meetings, appeared at Smithers, and announced she was back and had just signed a contract to do a children’s book. “And that’s pretty neat,” she said, with a smile that seemed a smile though tears.

A big bouncy girl had all male, and quite a few female, eyes locked on her as she described her difficulty with relationships, but this within the framework of describing how at first she and her current boyfriend had rolled around like puppies. And a very young, tightly wound, girl at the Thursday Corlears meeting sat there looking calm and very pretty, even when a new guy who said he was a “recovering sex addict” moved his chair close to hers and stared at her chest.

And then on a Sunday evening I saw someone new in the circle at the Sunday Corlears meeting. A blonde woman. A blonde girl. Wearing what looked like thrift store clothes. She did not seem beaten down. The clothes seemed to drape, rather than hide, what was underneath. An expression of interest and amusement and curiosity on her young seeming face. Not saying much – just her name, Gillian, when people gave their names at the start of a meeting – but letting it be known she had recently been living in India. A girl/woman with a body that, though covered, seemed to flow as she sat there playing with the tresses of her hair, twisting a lock between thumb and forefinger, pulling the hair up, then letting it fall down, rippling over her shoulders and, like her clothing, around her breasts. I hoped no one noticed that I was not paying attention to anything else going on in the room.

Saturday, January 30, 2010


I bought books about art. This was out of my old book reading habits. The books were mostly worthless. It was like the way I took notebooks with me to those meetings. I did make some notes in them, but the notes were as useless as the linear art histories, for what I was hearing in meetings, and seeing in paintings, was not some linear thing to figure out and categorize with simple insights. These meetings, these paintings, were always about a life, with all the mystery found inside a life.

Art was for me so clearly about this mystery of life. If I read the gray critics and art historians it was from force of habit in the same way I might scan reviews of books by literary critics trapped in theory.

I did sometimes look up the artists I was following. And I even read some silly reviews of some of the art I was experiencing. A man named Russell in the Times had just done what he apparently considered a major piece in which he told New Yorkers that they should forget the Impressionists, who were good for nothing except maudlin middle class sentimentality, and instead they should focus now on things like a large, gruesome, realistic Titian that showed a man being flayed alive. For their own good.

My education in visual art in this time I took the plunge was entirely visual. I had no words for the way Andrea del Sarto used black in his depiction at the Met of the Holy Family, but black took me into Murillo, the only classical Spanish painter with whom I connected then, though the academics insisted I should love Velázquez. And Murillo’s black took me to Goya, and black also took me into Manet, which in the Met also led me into those wonderful women of flesh in Courbet, who understood black too.

Andréa del Sarto’s young women, sometimes Madonnas, based on his girl/woman wife, could move a viewer to tears without the viewer having to know as I knew (well I did find it in books) that he loved her passionately and that when he fell ill with plague she deserted him. I did not know who the Venetian woman was who appeared over and over in the form of Bellini Madonas, but there was a heightened reality for me here. There was something here I knew and often sensed in nudes. And I found myself returning to a woman who appeared in Madonna paintings by Francia. She had a face like I had only seen in life once before, the face of my friend, nearly girlfriend, Linda (pronounced Leenda), whom I had meet in a strange back street office in Amman, Jordan.

Linda had just come up for a few says from Washington, where she had gone while married and where she now worked for a Palestinian organization. I had first known her in Amman and Lebanon, where her curiosity had led to fascination. This time when we met we went to the museums together. One look at a Hobbema and she knew what it was all about. And this had made me wonder if there were not more than the Hobbema summer day I had to give up.

A day later, alone, I looked at the Constable White Horse that hung near a Hobbema in the Frick, Constable’s scene by a mill where you smell the hay and muddy water and the horse. It was one of the paintings in my now regular rounds of New York museums that had given me great hope – like the late midieval nudes of Cravath, anatomically incorrect but so loving as to be real, or like Matisse’s small bronze nudes, or Alfred Lord Stevens’ evocations of his love for everything he painted.

Standing face to face with the Constable I made a sad farewell, thinking for a time that if I could not have the summer day in Hobbema I could not have it anywhere. Hobbema whose dark Dutch woods, had led me in memory into the darkness of the White Mountains. And now the darkness of the White Mountains seemed so complete that it left no room for anything anywhere that said otherwise.

It seemed to me for a time that, although Constable had made a try at covering up horror that lay underneath, his attempts were not good enough. And for a time now I could not look at Monet, my favorite since I was 16, without seeing what he did with pure color as deceptive, even when he took you into darkness in his big water lily panorama at the Modern. A nice try, and I wished I could stay with it. Wished I did not have to trash Monet in the manner almost of a dead critic, and leave Monet in the same place as the sentimental art used by bullies, whether in Nazi Germany or in Life Magazine, to cover up their grim deeds.

I thought for a time
that I had fewer choices now that I saw Hobbema's summer day in terms of darkness and betrayal. And it was as if all the best landscape painters were now leading me to the darkness of old New Hampshire as surely as black led to Manet.

So it seemed I had to say farewell to Constable. So much had changed in the landscape of my own past. If the apparent warm beauty of the White Mountains had never been what it seemed, and could not be trusted, neither could Constable’s version of natural beauty.

And I kept thinking of how Linda on another trip two years back had introduced me to Alice Miller. Also to Freud’s Melancholia and Mourning, but especially to Alice Miller. And then I was thinking of a time in 1973 after I left Amman, and Linda was caught there in the Yom Kippur War, and afterwards had come to Beirut and stayed with me and we had almost been a couple, and again once when she stayed with me in New York and very briefly we acted like lovers but did not become a couple there either.

And now the lack of connection in my past life seemed to have something to do with the earth shaking connection I was experiencing between aqua and blood red – the aqua skies in early Flemish paintings that were on my now regular route though the Met’s European painting section and the blood red with which the skiles were streaked. Aqua and blood red leading me, as black did too, not just from one artist to another but from one part of life to another, from one present time into past times. In the East Village I saw aqua and blood red again in a harsh and biting feminist artist’s depiction of a woman crucified. Such razor-edge sexually that it could have been Gorky that got her, or me, there.

And then in the East Village I came upon not Hans Hoffman but someone who had studied with Hans Hoffman and I knew these colors, that seemed to change positions and relationships as I looked, were important to me even if I could not quite catch them now. And maybe I had tried too hard intellectually to catch the abstract paintings Vannie had done that I liked so much so very long ago when I was first living in New York.

In another East Village gallery I saw paintings by a man who did not start painting until he was 80, and could bring life even to a depiction of a tile-covered building in ways that could escape a more carefully trained artist. And I was thinking that I am a mere kid compared to this guy.

And also in the East Village all these story paintings that I had not known anyone was doing. A series done by a couple – actually two people co-existing, to my amazement, on the same canvas – that had K-Marts and Indian canoes mixed up with each other in no longer innocent landscapes. And there were several series of paintings that had to do with what was most on my mind – the mystery and entrapment and torture of childhood.

I came back to these amazing East Village galleries many times without Suzanna. And more than once a gallery owner said she or he assumed that I was an artist.



Suzanna the actress was the one who said how good I looked in the white jacket. In the meeting just ended she had given a vivid and sexually loaded picture of hunting up her younger boyfriend at a café in Park Slope where she knew he would be eating breakfast.
Suzanna was glamour.

She wore her black hair sometimes partly down and sometimes partly up with what looked to me like incense sticks in it, which felt to me either black or white magic. A week before this I had gone to see her current production, a one-woman off-Broadway show way over on West 43rd Street. She played a series of famous woman athletes, yet stayed totally feminine, and more appealing than ever as she moved about the stage like a trained dancer, raising her arms above her head to show a victory but seeming to me, who had so little use for athletes, more like an unusually graceful woman taking joy in her triumphs.

In this meeting just over I had been talking about my adventures with paintings and the memories they aroused. I spoke of how I was getting my information visually now, and hardly ever through words on paper though my identity had been so tied to my being a writer. I said I was wondering how much the writer idea had had to do with showing the family I was not the small figure they took me to be, showing them by going for success in a field that, for the family, was still dominated by my late grandfather. Also, how much it had had to do with competition with my brother, whom I had been sure the family thought would be the successor to the grandfather.

Susan asked now if I had been in the galleries in the East Village. There had not been much of a gallery scene when I had last lived there 24 years back, which was before the name East Village had been created. If there had been galleries Vannie and I would have been in them fast. I was only vaguely aware that there were galleries now. My wife had known someone doing something with beads down there but it did not seem serious. And I had not been to the small theaters for years. I had known that some exile Filipinos who came into my last book were involved with the theater called La Mama, which was on the block of 4th Street where I had seen so many plays so many years ago. But I had thought,without checking, that La Mama now would be both shriveled and pretentious. I had stayed away from the East Village until this new time when I was revisiting the area because of weekly ACOA meetings – after that very crucial New Year’s Eve meeting on St. Mark’s Place. Which was why I did not know all these galleries had sprung up. I had been focusing on church basements, and a small a Polish restaurant where we went afterwards to talk and eat Kielbasa.

On my way to and from meetings I tended to be more in the past than in the present when I was in this part of town, imagining the Phoenix Theater still alive in the years before it became the Fillmore East, and imaging that the old Yiddish Theater and Molly Pican were still in operation on Second Avenue, and it was almost as if I could still see the big old dairy restaurants Ratners and Rappaport’s. And I thought of the young Vannie down on 4th Street, and the other girls I knew back then, including Alma whom I had first known in college when she was a hustling, delicate girl who looked powdered and pampered and fresh amongst more worn-out dance hall women at the Tango Palace on the north end of Times Square.

For a brief time while I was in college my parents had a small basement studio apartment on 10th Street in case they wanted to spend a night in the city, and since they rarely did I could use it sometimes. It was across from an Episcopal church that, the neighborhood notwithstanding, was so classy it called itself St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie – Bouwerie not Bowery. That one-room place was not exactly where I lost my virginity, but close enough. I had paid Alma by endorsing over the modest check that had been my Christmas gift from my parents. And seven years later she spent a night in my tenement building, which fronted on the 11th Street side of the church.

When I was in White Pines in New Hampshire I had always been aware that I was moving in the present in a place set in the past. But in my place on East 11th it never seemed to me that this was in territory that had been parents’. Any more than it occurred to me now with
Suzanna, though I would hear my brother somewhere saying we should pull ourselves together and stop complaining.

But it was so clear that this past that was on my mind now was my past, not theirs.
And now
Suzanna was saying I really did have to see these galleries in the East village. And if I’d like, she’d meet me there and show me around.

So on a crisp, bright day we met at a new espresso/vegetarian place down on Tompkins Square, and as we roamed she told me some of her story – a rich and harsh doctor father who loved sailing and took his boat to Bahamaian island called Green Turtle Quay, one of the little known small islands populated by very pale descendants of Scotsmen who had been shipwrecked in the previous century. This all-white place being one of the places I had been to so recently, yet so far in the past it already seemed, with the stylish blonde photographer.

In bright daylight everything about the East Village was new to me. Vast stretches of condemned buildings, some of them “liberated,” by squatters who proudly announced what they were doing on big signs. And in several places between buildings vacant lots had been turned into people's parks complete with heavy vegetation and graffiti slogans and mural paintings of Ché Guevara. And young people everywhere.

A present I could not smother or confuse with any past. And oh my God, the new galleries were a feast!

Sunday, January 17, 2010


At the head of the long table in that darkened hospital conference room
what I was doing was presenting my first qualification in ACOA before a group of actual adult children of alcoholics or worse.

They called it “qualifying,” I was not sure why. It was a term carried over from AA, where the language in the literature seemed to be the irony-free language of Midwestern Rotarians. When you led a meeting you were to start by giving a talk about your own experience – like what I was doing for the first time this Sunday afternoon.

You might be behind a podium, or on a chair in a circle, or, like I was now, at a long table filled with adult children, with many more on folding chars in rows down from the end of the table. To one side of me was a scroll that listed the 12 steps to recovery – this AA thing that many of us in ACOA ignored. Another scroll containing numbered items was headed “The 12 Traditions,” and seemed to consist of rules for good behavior in AA and other programs. This was not relevant either, since Manhattan ACOA people took pride in circumventing rules.

After you spoke, a meeting would turn into a sort of forum that you led, calling on people with raised hands who wanted to share matters from their own experience. What hit me hardest was that so many people’s stories appeared when they heard my stories.

My problems with my twin brother – who, I repeated, was in the CIA – might lead to a tearful Germanic lady’s problems with her lesbian lover. The snobbery in my family’s old summer domain might lead to a Vietnam veteran’s chilling tale of being odd man out, apparently dispensable, in a combat brigade. It was as if there were more truth to my own stories than I had believed could ever be made evident.

And it seemed I could say anything here and these people would receive it without criticism. This even though I had never seen most of them before, and with none of them did I have even as deep a connection as my brief connection with Bonnie. I could say anything, and it was seeming that I could count on support here in this darkened room that I would never have expected outside it. And yet there was a big area that I did not touch, either in my background, or foreground. This area that contained my experience in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

My not talking about NH was not because I did not think what had gone on there was relevant to me. But I was not sure why it was so relevant. And it did not seem possible to make anyone, even these kind and empathetic people, much less myself, understand.

I was still very new to this time in which it was possible to question anything without building up defense for an inevitable backlash. When I qualified I was just days away from my experience with the Hobbema painting that in my mind was meant to be a happy summer day painting but became a painting of a terrifying place, with his dark woods becoming mixed in my dreams with the dark woods of New Hampshire, my life’s central supposed happy summer day place.

One thing I did say in that meeting was that now I was off on the biggest journey of my life. It gave me a chance to throw in matters that I thought would make me seem interesting, my adventures in far off and dangerous and in some cases barely explored places. But this journey underway now, this traveling that was time travel….

I began to tear up as I told these people that it was by far the highest stakes journey in all my travels in years of constantly traveling. And this was hardly something made up to make myself seem interesting, for I had all these premonitions about that place, the White Mountains, and I had only recently begun this time travel trip, to get to what I knew without knowing yet why I knew what I knew, to access why on some nearly hidden level I knew so much about the darkness, the precariousness, the suppressed horror, of that beautiful place.

And it was certainly not because I felt I needed to protect those very correct people in those summer towns, those white glove Episcopalian, like my grandparents. These Republicans,except for my grandparents. But it was just that no one would understand.

My not talking about New Hampshire was because I did not yet think any one could understand such a place. Not because part of it was a rich place, though that was an element even though so many in the family had seemed to think of themselves as verging on poverty. And it was certainly not because I felt I needed to protect these very correct people in those summer owns, those white glove Episcopalian Republicans (except for my grandparents). But just that no one would understand.

My not talking about NH was not because I thought the place was so strange but more that I did not think it possible to get across to any strangers what the place was and meant.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Debbie, Danny'’s early forties ex-girlfriend, had fine legs she showed off with fishnet stockings. Tina, early thirties, had red hair and a butterfly shoulder tattoo on her dark Mediterranean skin. Both had had recent affairs with a predator in his 60s who seemed to get around everywhere in the 12-step world, even here in ACOA, which was barely a 12-step program. Both felt the need afterward for AIDs tests, which was still something quite new.

The beaten down man with the tangled gray beard, who I had found so annoying with his spouting of comfortable clichés, kept turning up at meetings. He was said to be a popular figure in Alanon. He confessed in ACOA now that he really wanted to meet girls younger than himself, for he actually had not had a girlfriend in years – if ever, I thought – but now, he told a meeting, he would have to hold back again, because what was coming to the fore in these meetings was incest.

Anyone who went to these meeting knew it was turning up over and over – these meetings where nothing short of racial bigotry or necrophilia was ever suppressed.

Danny told me about a meeting I had missed where a girl related in a high, careful voice how when she was still at home her father would come back from work and take her straight upstairs for fucking, and after awhile when dinner was nearly ready her timid mother would call up to the father, “Are you finished yet?”

“I have to admit it was stimulating,” said Danny, who so clearly had enjoyed it. He had once been married to a very Wasp woman with whom he had two children who were now adults. He lived on unseasoned macrobiotic rice dishes, and practiced Buddhist meditation. But he was brilliant and witty. He talked of how he came from a family of uneducated Slovaks, Slovaks being, he said, the only ethnic group in Europe that by late in the 19th century still did not have a written language. And moreover, he said, “In my family the men when they come and go kiss each other on the lips.”

Danny talked a lot about time he had spent in Buffalo on business. He said people were different there. He said that if he got married again he would marry a simple girl from Buffalo.

Monday, January 11, 2010


I all too frequently hear some wimpy novelist, whether of the thriller or nice-nice variety, talking on public about how he or she lets the characters take over, and it is just so surprising, these fools say, what they see these mostly made-up characters do in their mostly made-up situations.

And the fawning interviewer often says that this nonsense proves the conventional novelist is brave. The novelist who plays it safe by running fast from anything real.

Recently, as our Paris trip comes closer, we have been moving back to Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Sometimes they get into literary fantasy too, but this is rare, for it is so clear that they – in the manner not so much of novelists as of the best of today’s memoir writers – work hard to find out what is in the concrete reality of their own lives – not some fantasy thing that disturbs no one and makes professors of literature and conventional writing teachers feel safe.