By Brian George
At the beginning of the second stage, I had been out of touch with my father for 11 years, while he was trying to build a new life for himself and his second family on Avenida de los Insurgentes, in Mexico City, Mexico, in a 24-room mansion. As we were walking from the train I pointed out a car, a silver Mercedes, which I saw as a model of good design and style. It turned out to be the exact type of car that he owned. We also shared a taste for butcher block furniture, for shells and other objects from the ocean. We both preferred small instrumental groups over symphonies.
This was, however, a period of some conflict. We inhabited different worlds. He was devoted to business. I wanted to practice yoga and develop my creative powers, at that time in poetry. At one point he mentioned that he had shown samples of my writing to his most educated friends, all of whom thought it was terrible. One of them even described it as “a form of grandiose masturbation.” Perhaps I would like some money to go back to school to study business? No. He believed that I should “take my place in the world as a man among men”— his phrasing. He approached my conversion from poetry with the intensity of a locomotive. In 1984, after a particularly big blowout, I broke off any contact for perhaps a year and a half. In 1989, I began doing some visual work again. We were both surprised, if not shocked, to find that he liked the art as much as he hated the poetry. Perhaps I was not wasting my time, and might have some idea of what I was doing after all.
But the conflicts of this period were not so much resolved as put aside. We came to realize how much we both looked forward to our visits, how much we simply enjoyed spending time together. We had been divided by our similar, and very willful, natures. For far too many years, each would not give the other permission to be who and what he was, and then, more or less suddenly, a truce had been declared. I should also mention that, during psychodrama of this period, Judith was a key humanizing influence, moderating between us, and helping to establish the calm breathing space into which we would later move.
In describing the first stage I would like to share a few memories from childhood.
I remember driving up winding roads, at 80 miles an hour, on a rainy day to Tanglewood. My father had borrowed a 1950s Triumph sports car from a friend. My seat was tilted back, and I was very much aware that I was sitting no more than six inches over the road. Let me put it a different way: the road was speeding by about six inches underneath me. The fog was dense. Rabbits, deer, foxes, and pheasants would pop up, only to disappear a split-second before we hit them. With its smudges of green and gray, the landscape was as insubstantial as the fog. It was only there, perhaps, because we had both agreed to see it. On certain hairpin turns, I decided to perform a test: there was nothing beyond us when I closed my eyes. Still, I knew that one wrong move could result in our spinning off the road, flipping over, or hurtling into a tree. I was scared, yes, but my father was driving. The car hugged the road, and I knew that we would get to Tanglewood soon.
Tanglewood, an out-door music center in the Berkshires, was the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. My father was proud to have such a highly cultured son, for I insisted on going to Tanglewood at every available opportunity. He assumed that this was due to a love of classical music. Not quite, or, at least, not yet. I liked the smell of pine trees and being far away from the city. But, in fact, my secret reason was that I loved the box lunches that they sold there. The sandwiches were great. The cardboard boxes that they came in were beautifully constructed. Even then, I liked to make things, and boxes were one of my favorite things to make. That year, for my birthday, my father sent me a recording of Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony. The symphony, which premiered, in 1952, as part of a radio programme for a Soviet youth orchestra, is supposedly in Prokofiev’s “simplest” style, although, oddly, it is also in C sharp minor, one of the bleakest of all keys. It may have been written for a youth orchestra, but only an adult would think of it as a child-friendly piece. I played the record once. I didn’t listen to it again for eight years—when the seed that my father had planted came, at long last, to fruition.
On a trip, we stayed in a white motel by the ocean. We woke up at dawn to go fishing. The smell was a complex one: salt air, disinfectant from the motel, frying eggs and bacon, gasoline from the boat motors, weathered wood, dead fish. You could hear the cables creaking, and the foghorns from the tugboats. When we left the motel, already, the fog had started to thin out; it would soon be no more than a thin film on the water. The sun was red, but the overnight temperature had not yet risen much. Bouncing up and down on our toes, we zipped up our spring jackets.
There were seagulls everywhere. They perched on roofs, and on telephone wires, and on most of the posts of the wharf. They had sharp beaks, and we watched as they competed to rip apart a pigeon, which was almost, but not 100 percent, dead. The frozen fish packing plant was their base of operations. We asked, “Do they call it a base or a town hall or a church?” We speculated that they had grouped there to perform their civic duties. My father said something like, “They are probably voting on how much fish to eat!” In retrospect, I can only wonder if their purpose was more serious: They were voting on the number of sailors that they should escort to the other world. There was no part of the beach that they did not patrol, and, even miles out from the shore, you could see them circling the commercial fishing boats, as they set off for the day or returned after a week-long voyage with their catch.
On the dock, we stepped into a shop with weathered planks, where we rented a small motor boat. We spent a half hour looking at the deep-sea fishing lures, with their colorful jointed bodies, staring eyes, naturalistic details, and three-pronged, razor-sharp hooks. I was hoping that we would go with a few of these. But no; instead, we bought two cans of worms. No fan of worms to begin with, I was horrified by the type of multi-legged sea worms that we bought, which kept biting and writhing and wrapping themselves around us. We never did catch any fish, but I will never forget how fearlessly my father handled the sea worms, as he leaned down to unwrap them from my fingers.
And, finally, let me turn to one of the earliest of my memories: It was another overcast day. We traveled in a Jaguar with cracked leather seats to a museum that was located somewhere in Rhode Island. It was old, and had ivy climbing up the walls. I think that this was probably the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale, built in 1866, and featuring, or so it is said, over “12 million specimens and objects from Anthropology to Entomology to Zoology to Paleontology”—although, to be honest, I don’t quite remember the name. In any event, we went there, and we stayed for the whole day. The museum was cavernous, and it echoed. Ring after ring of balconies surrounded the central atrium, within which were arranged the reconstructed skeletons of some of the biggest dinosaurs. These were held together with wire, glue, and metal braces. To me, the braces did not look very strong at all, whereas the dinosaurs still did. Almost certainly, they could free themselves, and it seemed as if they were getting ready to step towards us at any moment.
So fascinated were we by the ancient bones, and so influenced by the spell they cast, that we somehow lost all track of time, and managed to get locked in at closing. At some point, we noticed that the lights had been shut off. We had heard the clank of the switches being thrown, but we were still talking about the head of the Tyranosaurus Rex, whose jaws gaped open a few feet from where we stood. The doors at the bottom of all of the stairwells had been locked. One after the other, we went down each of them, only to have to climb back up again. Only a few bulbs were still lit. It was so quite that you could hear the footsteps of a mouse—yet the space was not actually that quiet: it was as resonant as the inside of a shell. My father could turn even a small misfortune into the biggest of adventures. As we wandered around a balcony, we decided that we liked the skeleton of the brontosaurus best. He was, perhaps, an ambassador, who had been chosen to travel from the Mesozoic Era to our own. I was very much content to be there for the night, and did not especially want the guard to let us out.
At this point, I have reached a temporary limit of my ability to regress. Let me close with a few lines from the 13th Century Turkish poet Jelaluddin Rumi, the founder of the Whirling Dervishes of Konya, and one of the most articulate of visionaries. The excerpt reads:
Noise and action on every side,
fires and torches, tonight
this pregnant world gives birth to eternity.
I have no stone in my hand,
no quarrel with anyone.
I rebuke no man, but possess
the sweetness of the rose garden.
My eye is from that Source,
from another universe.
One world on this side, another on that
as I sit on the threshold.
On the threshold are they alone
whose language is silence.
Enough has been uttered; say no more; hold back the tongue.
(Illustration: Giorgio de Chirico, The Child's Brain)