Sunday, March 7, 2010

For some reason I was thinking about Tom Fleming tonight. He was one of my closest childhood friends, from pre-school on. Lived about a half-mile into Hopkins, MN - easy walking distance. His father was for many years the state epidemiologist for Minnesota; his mother was Scottish. Dr. Fleming, a native of Canada, had enlisted in his country's Air Force at the beginning of WW 2. As he was debarking from his plane in Scotland, his future wife (then a WAC or WAVE) was standing on the tarmac... & as he stepped down the ramp, she said to a friend, "I'm going to marry that man." Such is fate. She ended up in Minnesota, had 3 sons, John, Steven & Tom (the youngest). John & Steve both became excellent high school hockey players. Tom, it turned out, was gay - & died of AIDS, in SF, in the early 1990s, in his late 30s.

Memory is mysterious... I was reading a spy novel (The Spanish Game, by Charles Cumming) this afternoon, which reminded me of my 1st visit to Paris, on a trip with Tom after our sophomore year at college (he went to Stanford, & I went to Brown). We had spent 2 weeks at his mother's family home in southern Scotland (they were Campbells, local aristocrats, friends of the British Prime Minister).

I had a terrible 2 weeks at the Campbell estate in Scotland (except for the pub visits - there was a tiny 1-room joint nearby, where the locals had a prenuptial habit of soaking the groom's feet in black TAR & holding him upside down as he walked across the pub's CEILING... then there was the young Scottish nationalist tenant farmer, living in a trailer by himself in the middle of a field, in the middle of nowhere... his trailer filled to the brim with Scottish flags & political posters, & U.S. music albums...). The only time I relaxed was during the day, when we worked out in their fields, baling hay with the tenant farmers. They were very nice people, but Scottish - that is, no-nonsense. & I was extremely shy & awkward & introverted there. Paranoid. Hid in my room. Didn't know how to talk to anyone. Tom told me later (in France) that they said I was a "nice boy who had gone bad." I couldn't argue with that.

Anyway, I began thinking of Tom & me, traveling through Europe that summer, hitchiking, taking trains... eventually we split up in Provence, after visiting Italy (tired of each other's company, finally). Tom stayed on in Europe & spent the fall there on an exchange program. I went back to Providence.

All that time I had no idea he was gay. Maybe he didn't either. It never came up. I remember wandering around Aix-en-Provence, trying to find a place to crash... not easy. A lot of rip-off tourist dumps for traveling students. We wanted to go visit Cezanne's home, which was on a road outside of town... but it was closed for the season.

But the thing that triggered this memory was something in the novel, The Spanish Game, where the narrator is talking about sharing a hotel room. For some reason this reminded me of a youth hostel Tom & I stayed at outside Paris. We were the only boys there, it seemed. We spent the night in a totally swamped overcrowded room full of girls in sleeping bags. Tom & I were on the floor. Somehow I finagled my way into the sleeping bag of the girl next to me... & she let me stay there, though she wouldn't let me touch her... in fact, finally, she pushed me out ("stupid boy!"). I was very sheepish about it at breakfast next morning, surrounded by all those young women... Yes, what triggered this memory (of a 57-yr-old man) was the sheer suspense of lying naked, ALL NIGHT, in a sleeping bag next to a beautiful stranger... who was wise enough, in that early Paris dawn, to shove me (finally) onto the floor...

Tuesday, March 10, 2009


(The (re)discovery of a pretty convincing portrait of William Shakespeare has reminded me of my long-ago psychic encounter with the Bard. It's a long story. My apologies to those who've heard it before.)

In the fall of 1972 I was a junior at Brown University, majoring in the new discipline of "Semiotics" (which meant, for me, taking poetry-writing seminars). I had come to Brown in 1970 on the strength (I believe) of a college application essay which was actually a long poem, inspired by the New York School poets, especially (Rhode Island native) Ted Berrigan. (I was not new to poetry : had been writing it since junior high.) During my first two years there I was very prolific, really blooming as a "NY School" ephebe. I won the two poetry awards which were to be won on campus.

But by the fall of '72, I was losing confidence & peace of mind; became depressed & withdrawn. I had broken off two love relationships in quick succession, & was feeling ashamed & guilty. Poetic effusions were not coming so easily (I was reading more). Then in early December, my cousin of the same age, Juliet, jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. This left me badly shaken & sad.

At some point during that time, I began reading Shakespeare's Sonnets for the first time. From the perspective of over 30 years, I can't help but think that my response to them had something to do with my mental & emotional state at the time.

The Sonnets had a very strange, uncanny effect on me, which I have never felt before or since (except in reading a few phrases in the book of Ecclesiastes). I felt that Shakespeare, in person, was addressing me - speaking to me alone, in person.

This experience triggered a few days of lightheaded euphoria & wonder. Yet in the midst of it, I was clearly aware of its irrationality. I was not one for ghosts & spirits. It disturbed me so much that within the next few weeks, I decided to renounce poetry altogether. An occult connection with the ghost of Shakespeare was not going to help me emerge from my depression. I changed my major to History, and worked very hard through the spring semester to do well in that new direction. I thought I might take after my father, and become a lawyer, instead of a poet.

Over the following summer, I worked on a ranch in Wyoming with my younger brother Jim, haybaling mostly. It was hard work, & I felt invigorated & confident heading back to Brown in the fall. In the evenings, on the ranch, I had read the Revised Version of the Bible, straight through - and this had perhaps an even deeper (though not exactly "occult") impact on me than did the Sonnets. Indeed, I was so confident, I thought to myself - "What the heck, I'll take another look at the Sonnets. No harm in that."

This was the beginning of what exploded into an intense, manic mental breakdown. I have never experienced anything like it - or even near to it - at any other time. It was in the late afternoon or evening that I began re-reading the Sonnets. Slowly inexorably, the feeling returned : Shakespeare was talking to me. This time the sensation was stronger than it had been the first time. I moved into an overwhelming state of excitement & self-confidence - a kind of mania. I didn't sleep over the course of the next 3-4 days. Soon, I started writing long, rhymed poems about episodes in American history. I started a series of poems on the 50 states. I saw myself as becoming the American Shakespeare, with the blessing of the Bard himself. I distributed my new poems to friends & faculty (in particular, poet & scholar Edwin Honig). I was on cloud nine.

Then, after a day or so, my manic "fury" began its downward spin. I began to doubt myself, my sanity - but most of all my spiritual state. I had been baptized & brought up Episcopalian, but felt no strong Christian leanings until that summer in Wyoming, & reading through the Bible. Some words from Ecclesiastes seemed aimed like arrows directly at me : "And I saw that youth, the second one, he who is to come after : and he was lord over all the people : and yet this too is vanity, and a striving after wind." Suddenly the notion struck me that this Shakespeare ghost was actually a demonic spirit, from the depths - tempting me onto a path of worldly vainglory, and eventual soul-loss & damnation...

I couldn't sleep. I rushed around campus, desperately retrieving the poems I had just passed around. I went to Prof. Honig's house, & his wife, with a quizzical look, let me in; I shuffled through the papers in his study, without success. She told me he was meeting a friend up in Boston. I went directly to the bus station & headed to Cambridge; there, on a hunch, I went to the Grolier Bookshop. The red-haired manager told me Edwin would be arriving shortly. I sat down to wait; when Edwin arrived there with another Brown prof, I accosted him - demanded he return my poems. When Edwin said it would have to wait, I grew agitated, tried to explain the urgency of the situation - eventually broke down in tears... Honig, that very kind man, took me to a Cambridge health clinic. He & his colleague had there dinner there, in the cafeteria, with me : & eventually I calmed down enough to make my way back to Brown.

Back in my dorm, I was still in a manic state. A new paranoid element entered in. I began to worry that Harry, a friend of mine, a fellow-poet & Brown student, might steal my poems - & turn himself into some kind of worldly Poet-Dictator. My thoughts had no rational brake : what I thought would most certainly come to pass. I fell into despair; it seemed the Devil had already fooled & overcome me. I was not to be this glorious American Literatus : instead I was merely an accessory to the coming crime.

The old Faust-story washed over my imagination. At this point, I knelt beside my bed, and began to pray. I begged God to save me, to relieve this mental and moral torment. I remember this very clearly : there was a bedside clock. It was near midnight. And at the very stroke of midnight, there was a knock at the door.

I jumped up, trembling all over. I thought the Devil was at the door, to fetch me. Shouting out, "this is the bravest thing I've ever done!", I cracked open the door.

It was not the Devil. It was Arnold Weinstein, Brown English professor, who happened also to be the resident dorm advisor. I heaved a great sigh, full of gratitude & relief. He invited me down to his rooms, introduced me to his family, calmed me down... The next day, the college advised me to go home for a week, rest, & get a psychiatric evaluation before coming back. My parents happened to be coming East to visit my mother's old college friend - Alexandra Weinstein (no relation); so I went back home with them.

However, the battle was not over. The paranoid, apocalyptic fixed idea - that my friend Harry would steal my poems, use them for evil purposes of world domination - was planted deep. I rested up at home; I met with a psychiatrist, & put him at ease. (I showed him some of the poems I had recently written, including a long one about the duel between Hamilton & Burr. He told me he wasn't much of a poetry reader, & that he might be a little biased, since he was a direct descendant of Aaron Burr.) Meanwhile, I went and bought a pistol. I had formed a test. If, when I got back to Brown, I discovered that Harry had broken into my room & taken my manuscripts, I would do away with both him & myself.

The night before I was to go back, I was down in my parent's basement (where I was staying) with my younger brother Mike; sitting together on the bed, I told him the entire story, including my plan. By the time I was finished, we were both trembling. (All my life I have been ashamed of the fact that I laid the burden of that knowledge on my little brother.)

As I was going to sleep that night, I seemed to regress into a more childlike state. In the midst of my fevered imagination, I was afraid of what was coming. I didn't want to hurt anyone; I didn't want to die. I started crying quietly. My kind father came down the stairs; he rested his hand on my forehead, told me everything would be all right. I went to sleep. The next morning, just as I was waking up, I heard a voice, not my own - seemingly emerging from my chest. The voice was saying the Lord's Prayer. ("Our Father, who art in heaven...")

When I got back to my dorm room at Brown, no one had broken in. I threw the pistol in the Seekonk River, where I suppose it remains to this day. I tried to start up with school again, and lasted about a month. The strange & charismatic experiences I had undergone were too overpowering for me to continue. My holy-fool/Jesus-freak wandering times were about to begin. I threw my record collection and most of my belongings in a dumpster. I worked a couple weeks as a cook in a local Pancake House to earn a little money. Then I took my guitar & set out on the road.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

54. In the late 70s I was running a food coop in Providence, called Kneecap Natural Foods. We had over 600 members at one point. The coop lasted about 7 years in all (I left after about 5). Around '79 we got some grants to build a solar greenhouse in Fox Point, on some land donated by Brown University. We had CETA kids & Brown student volunteers pitching in. It was a huge project (for us). The greenhouse was designed with the latest solar technology - & we built it in the shape of a "vesica", to some mystical dimensions out of John Michell's books. It took a full year to build, because after the CETA grant finished (which was a 1-summer program) it was all spare-time volunteer labor.

Two weeks after the grand opening (filmed for local TV news - lots of people there), we got a letter from Brown University. The greenhouse would have to be taken down, as they were selling the property to a developer. We put up a fuss - they eventually gave the food coop some money for our trouble. But one of the biggest regrets of my life is that I didn't put up a bigger fuss. We could have rallied the community, taken them to court... The truth was, I had already moved on. I was very busy with young family, 2 low-paying but very hectic jobs (VISTA volunteer, produce supplier for other coops)... I didn't have the strength to fight them.

That was the first "community solar greenhouse" built in Rhode Island. It lasted two weeks. (There's a little picture of the greenhouse, with me standing next to it, in the corner of the collage on the Spuyten Duyvil edition (2000) of Stubborn Grew.)

Monday, February 16, 2009

53. I had a number of goofy adventures during my "Jesus freak" days (early-mid 70s). The hairiest ones I've probably suppressed (in memory). But I remember once I was sitting in a McDonald's, in Providence, and was approached by a young devotee of one of those obscure "meditation" cults that were always scrounging the streets for converts back then. He invited me to a "retreat" (indoctrination) in upstate New York somewhere. I decided to go along for a lark - to infiltrate them (because I was very firm in my own faith at that point). I played along. I was taken in a car with 3-4 other young people on a drive upstate. Winter, very snowy & cold. At one point we were blindfolded so we couldn't see where we were going. I remember a sprawling, newish house, with a lot of land enclosed in a chain-link fence, sort of like an army base. I have a vague memory of sitting on a floor with a crowd of young people, submitting to seemingly endless mumbo-jumbo harangues by some sub-Leader or other. Food & sleep deprivation. When finally they let us toddle off to bed, I waited til just before dawn, & then snuck out. A very cold hitchhike back to Providence, but I was happy to have escaped.
52. I used to hitchhike a lot. Often up north, in the summer, where I worked with my brothers & friends on a cabin my father was building near the Canadian border. Once I was crossing a bridge on foot in the town of Cloquet (famous for its odorous paper mills, and a gas station designed by Frank Lloyd Wright). It was windy on the bridge. I was wearing a backpack with all my poetry/fiction notebooks. Somehow - I don't remember how - I managed to drop the knapsack off the bridge, into the river. So much for my youthful masterworks.

Friday, February 13, 2009

51. I'm a camp counselor at a camp for disadvantaged kids, in Minneapolis. It's about 1967. I'm about 15. I'm extremely shy with the other counselors - it's like an illness, very stressful & depressing. I feel paranoid much of the time. I'm better with the kids. I'm sitting in a rowboat, at the oars, in the middle of the lake, with about 3-4 of them. One of the girls says to me, "You're Jewish, aren't you?" I say no, I'm not. She doesn't believe me - says, "You're name's Jewish. You look Jewish..." It's one of those days. The sun is beating down. I don't tell her that I'm sort of proud to be mistaken for a Jewish person. & I realize later that she's just curious, trying to interact.
45. I heard Jimi Hendrix play in Minneapolis, one very cold December, around 1970. I remember a very steep indoor auditorium, raucous crowd. Hendrix was subdued. I think this must have been one of his last concerts. I was already coming down with something, & felt ill the whole time. Starting the next day I had a very bad case of pneumonia.

46. When I was a little boy, I was infatuated with a girl my age, blonde Heidi Johnson. Heidi lived across the street with her big family, including blonde Holly Johnson, her near-twin sister. They were future cheerleaders, homecoming queens. Her dad was a burly chicken farmer. Her mother, Blanche, one day, accidentally ran over my baby brother Bill's leg with her station wagon. (Bill was playing in their driveway. I don't know where everybody else was.) Amazingly, Bill was unhurt.

Heidi & I both took piano lessons. We could hear each other practicing across the street. I used to play while imagining she was listening.

Once Heidi came to our back door & asked if I wanted to come out & play. I came to the door, & said no. I was too shy, or nervous. My mother looked at me & said, "Oh, Henry." (Somehow this memory stayed with me 50 years.)

47. My uncles George and Edward, my father's older brothers, fought in WW 2. They parachuted into France. Uncle George had a stash of German Army trophies which he kept in a basement closet. My father enlisted as soon as he was old enough, in the Navy (my father always did things differently from his older brothers Ed & George). But before he finished training, sailing around on Lake Superior, the war was over.

48. One of my favorite activities, as a youngster - perhaps my most favorite - was playing "Army". All the boys did in those days (late 1950s). Revolutionary War, Civil War, WW 2... we roamed the neighborhood with our toy rifles, going "pching! pching!" and rolling around in the yards, the bushes. Strategy, tactics. Hide & seek (that poem by Vallejo, about his little brother, playing hide & seek & never coming back...). Make-believe does something to the landscape. When you're in the middle of an intense battle, you see your surroundings more vividly, feel them more palpably. You see what you want to see, anyway... (now all that nonsense is online).

49. The first story I wrote (I must have been around six or seven?) - nonfiction - was about a walk I had taken with my friend Jamie and his older sister Mary, through the woods. Jamie got scared & ran home. I kept going with Mary. We came over a ridge & suddenly came upon a pastoral vista - big valley with cows in the distance. I was proud of myself - & I liked Mary, too. My very first prose brag, I guess.

50. We lived in a new suburb, among the remnants of old farms. There was a layer of older, somewhat dilapidated houses in our area, a little bit raised up on hillocks over the rest of us - there were three of these houses. Each one was owned by a member of the Bye family, who used to farm the area. The Byes themselves were remnants of an earlier time - rough & ready old farm folks. Their children & grandchildren messed around with old cars & machinery most of the time. A whole genre of myth & rumor circulated among the many children in the neighborhood, about the Byes. They were mean, they were scary, they kidnapped kids... etc.etc. All of it complete bunk, I believe. Their houses were set back behind trees. They maintained extensive vegetable gardens. The elder Bye home had a very old, quite large goldfish pond, made of crumbling dark concrete, hidden in the shade, still inhabited by goldfish. If you were brave, you accepted the dare of other kids, to go & look at the Byes' pond.