An Exchange of Posts: Fragments of a Biography

The following is an exchange between the author and his half-sister, whom he has never met. The two became acquainted via Internet, and in this correspondence the writer comments on portions of an e-mail he received from her. The text he is comment on is set off by quotes.

When computers first were widely used for purposes of communication in
Phuket — and elsewhere, too , I suppose — the form of reply was
often inter-linear. I used frequently to muse at the folly of
abandoning the practice, as it was an obvious aid to precision and
facilitated understanding.

Well…in retrospect I can only conclude the folly is mine, because
the entire world can’t be wrong, can it?

However, as your missive of 4th April was thick with points and
observations deserving of response, I’ll address them in the old
inter-linear manner. Your original statements are set off by quotes.
The following is rather long, I’m afraid, being written in two
installments, the first half last Thursday, the second today:

“There’s a lot of things that go through my mind during the day to say
to you but when I sit down  to write it’s not so easy.”

The yogis say that the object of meditation is to make one’s mind like
a still pond, ripple-free. My mind is never like a still pond. Always
a torrent of thought pours through it, of greater or lesser intensity,
and my problem as a writer is to keep up with what I am thinking.
What’s worse is that the mundane tasks preparatory to committing an
idea in writing (we used to say ‘on paper’, but who writes anymore on
paper?) — turning on the computer, waiting for it to boot, placing
the keyboard, saving the file, etc. — tend to interrupt one’s train
of thought.

I used to think that using a recorder would allow me without fuss to
think out loud and thus have a record of my idea as it ran through my
head.

That didn’t work either, though I admit I never gave it much of a
chance. My unvarnished ideas, hesitantly enunciated, seemed to lose
all their charm upon replay, and the details I hoped would be there
were nonetheless dropped during the transformation of thought into
speech.

What I’m trying to say here is that I, too, forget what I intend to
say when I’m writing, or follow a path of logic leading to a different
conclusion than the one I intend. The times I have written just what I
thought must be few in number.

You say, “things that go through my mind during the day”: I imagine
that’s while you’re silently at work on some head or hands or face, or
waiting for a process to finish of itself — then you’ve time to
think, haven’t you, and many things come to mind; but the bulk of ’em
are lost by the time you’ve a chance to write.

Take heart, you’ll think of them again. Perhaps even in converse
they’d fail of fruition. Certainly that’s my experience. But
persistence pays off and eventually one’s ideas make their debut more
or less complete.

“Anyway, I wish we could have known each other from the beginning but
it wasn’t meant to be.”

Goodness! A statement so innocently arrived at, but with deep
philosophical and social implications. For us to have known each other
from the beginning, my dear, had required our respective mothers to
dwell in the same house and share the same man, and the state to
legalize bigamy.

RMR must have had a charm greater than what is normally accorded
mortals to achieve such an agenda.

“It wasn’t meant to be” is a phrase that accords well with Newtonian
physics (“Every action results in an equal and opposite reaction”),
but in its fatalism casts doubt on the very concept of quantum
mechanics (which demands the occasional introduction of freak changes
into the orderly progress of Newtonian physics) and negates free will.

Great God, Cindy! What have you said? You just wiped out God — who
will the Christians worship? — and free will, meaning you cannot
choose to eat a chocolate, you MUST. That’s a bit hard on people who
might like to diet. On the other hand, it means we were fated to know
each other at some time and exchange these e-mails.

Ultimately, however, it makes understanding meaningless. What is the
point of understanding anything when all is fated to be as it is? One
may as well turn off the news and turn on the game show — which, of
course, many people do, and it makes not the slightest difference in
their lives.

That’s why physicists fall into two categories: the dismal Newtonians
who revel in having discovered that nothing you think or do can
benefit the world one whit; and the quantum guys, who tend to believe
single-payer medical insurance really is a possibility.

“But this part of our lives we can.”

By your reasoning, this part of our lives we must. I dare say, dismal
as the conclusions are that Newtonian physics implies, I can’t help
but agree. It is only by appeal to an absence of free will I can
explain all the crazy wars that adumbrate our existence. No sane,
reasoning, well-informed people would do the things that have been
done if they had a real choice.

So they must be acting under some imperative.

“It’s a shame Robert never gave fatherhood a chance,  you two could
have had some interesting conversations.”

My mother was bright, brilliant really, when still young. Alas, poor
judgment, drink and a steady stream of romance novels turned her into
a knucklehead. That happened — quite suddenly — when I was about 13.
She caught cold, the cold turned into pneumonia, and she lay for a
month in bed, smoking, drinking and reading romance novels. Thereafter
she was a different person and I began more and more to wonder what
sort of fellow my father was. I knew he painted, knew he had
tremendous self-discipline, knew he despised weakness and the common
foibles of men. I could only imagine what other traits he possessed
deserving respect.

But I never found out. We might have had interesting conversations —
if he could keep his head. The tales I heard suggest he rarely could.
What was your experience? Did you find him hot-headed? Was he a real
thinker or only a wannabe? I hope not the latter. I have always
thought that, whatever else his failings, he was at least an original.

“Instead we get the conversations.”

Such as they are. I can only judge of him now through you. You are the
sole connection between us, and in the back of my head is always the
thought that something of him is in you, in every word you write is
some trace of Bob Rome. So I am interested in anything you might say.
Anything. You needn’t fear I’ll be bored. I have often thought nothing
is boring beneath the sun but we make it so. Creation is a marvel,
and, I tell you frankly, just because of who you are, you are
immensely interesting to me.

“My mom said she saw a picture of your mom and said she was very
beautiful.  Love all the height in your family.  It is strange you
haven’t heard from them.”

My mother’s maiden name is Robinson, from my maternal grandfather,
Bruce Robinson. He was tall, which is why I, my mother and her
siblings are all tall. Bruce was the black sheep of his family, the
youngest, if I recall aright, of three brothers. The other two were
reportedly great successes in business. Bruce, though, took up auto
mechanics. At this he prospered for a time. But he, too, succumbed to
drink, and when he brought home a monkey one day, about 1952, my
grandmother divorced him.

This was hard on the household. With him banished, and my grandmother
working to support her five children, order in the house vanished.
Mike, the youngest, was four or five when that happened, and the
dissolution of what had been a happy home perhaps affected him: he was
in and out of reform schools or prison most of his life, then died
young. How that happened, I have never understood. Mike was not
violent or dishonest. But he didn’t like school, which got him in
trouble with the truant officers, and they put him in prison.

That was the wrong place for him, because Mike was impressionable, and
apparently rudderless in a time of turbulent change. He had strong
loyalties, both to persons and ideas. His sisters all loved him,
showed him a really unfeigned admiration, and mourned terribly when he
died of a drug overdose in 1969, aged 23. It was a great tragedy for
the Robinsons, their darling was dead, and presaged the family’s final
atomization.

Mike was not the only one who fared badly after the divorce. My
grandmother, Mary, or Valerie as she was more commonly known, had been
always hard on the girls, and without the mitigating influence of
Bruce, became for a time insufferable.

My mother was indeed beautiful, but she was also a perfect student
till her last year in school. She painted, played piano, swam, did
everything well and carried herself with an appealingly effortless
grace. School administrators fast-tracked her for a top slot in the
Establishment. She skipped two grades and finished with a scholarship
to Chanard (now Cal Arts) the leading art college on the west coast.

(I may as well interject here, as you asked in another e-mail about
where I grew up, that all the action spoken of takes place in the Los
Angeles area: in Malibu; Altadena, a town in the foothills bordering
Pasadena; and Venice. Home was Venice till I was 7; then Malibu till I
left for the Far East, aged 33. I never visited any other state and
left LA only a few times.)

But the center couldn’t hold, to paraphrase Yeats: boys started
showing interest in my mother. Mary flipped, and put her in a convent
for her last semester at school. She desperately wanted to get married
— anything to get away from Mary — and fell in love with a soldier
named Spickerman. He jilted her, came to the convent demanding his
engagement ring back. She was crushed.

With Miss Perfect under a cloud, and practically incarcerated by the
Church, the other girls had to bear the brunt of Mary’s fury. They
were mere mortals, so they did what any dog does who gets beaten too
often, they ran away. Tracked down and brought home, they ran away
again and again and again. Finally, my great-grandmother, Philbie,
interceded, and during the next seven years or so, all of them —
sometimes all at the same time — lived for varying periods in
Philbie’s one-bedroom house on the Grand Canal in Venice.

My mother was first. Released from the convent, she moved in with
‘Gram’, as we called her. The beach was a short walk away and Muscle
Beach not too far for a lonely 16-year-old girl with much to think
over as she strolled amid admiring glances along the strand. At Muscle
Beach in those days, there was a fad for ‘adagio dancing’ — which was
not dancing at all as we understand it, but the building of human
pyramids. Joanne, with a chest any bodybuilder might envy, was invited
to grace the apex, and among those whose hands hoisted her thereto was
one, Bob Rome, whose penchant for things Greco-Roman led him cherish
so enchanting a nymph.

I arrived on the scene some nine months later. By that time the
enchantment had entirely worn off. Bob wanted out. He had ideas about
eating and when one should rise wholly at variance with my mother’s.
She was annoyed by his jealousy and appalled at his taste for
paintings on velvet.

They lived in a cheap apartment in Venice next to Gram’s house. This
was a first for Joanne, who was brought up in fine houses. So she
spent all her free time at Gram’s, which was not such a fine house as
she’d lived in before, but compensated by having in it Gram — who was
famously wise among the family and a great cook in the bargain; her
sisters, Marilyn and Kathy; and occasionally Bernadette and Mike.

Bruce visited often. He, whatever his failings, was much beloved by
all his children. He took his daughter’s part whenever she fought with
Bob, which was, as near as I can tell, every day. Poor Bob. He was far
from his Minneapolis home. He took a job making, as I recall, vacuums
to support his little family. But when he got home, his wife was gone
and no supper was waiting. When he went next door to fetch his wife,
he was met by a gang of hostile women and an irate father not chary of
coming to blows with him.

I suppose that’s what caused the final split.

My mother went running to Daddy (that’s what the girls still call him,
never ‘Father’ or ‘my father’, just ‘Daddy’) after Bob frightened her.
Bruce went to investigate who was terrorizing his ‘bobwhite’ (he
bestowed on and always referred to the girls by such nicknames). But
Bob was in no mood for interference. The two fought, Bob left, and my
mother refused to follow him. I gather some small attempts at
reconciliation were made but my mother was adamant — no more
paintings on velvet for her.

They divorced seven or eight months after I was born. How long they
actually lived together I don’t know. Perhaps only a few months,
perhaps less. My mother talked about Bob Rome as if he were a
stranger, she knew no more about him than she knew about anyone she
had dinner with a few times. The girls seemed to know nothing much of
him either. He was rarely spoken of, not because the subject was
verboten but because his time among them was so brief.

My mother was cold to him, maybe that’s the real underlying reason why
he left. She said he had only one testicle. Perhaps they had problems,
intimate problems having nothing to do with taste in art. Joanne was
not hard to woo, was not by nature cold to men. When she fell in love
she gave her all.

Have you ever noticed it is embarrassing to tell someone you don’t
love him? I imagine so. My mother couldn’t stand that embarrassment.
She married thrice, twice to men she was cold to.

Curiously, she never suffered for lovers any save those she loved.
Husbands she could be cold to, lovers never.

That’s what I mean when I say she had poor judgment. A woman has to be
practical in matters of love, but my mother wasn’t. By ‘practical’ I
don’t mean venal. I mean, it’s insipid to marry a fellow because the
sight of him weeping is too much to bear. Such marriages must rarely
be happy.

So there you have it — such was the scene, as far as I know it, of
the principals and supporting cast who watched over my birth, which
took place in Saint John’s Hospital, Santa Monica, on Wednesday, the
13th of April, in the year of our Lord 1955.

 

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