WATER AND SMOKE
I trailed my hand in the water as my grandfather rowed. My grandmother was in the front of the boat, wearing high heels as always. I was four or five, and this was spring 1943 at the latest; we were still in Chicago.
Fuzzy shapes passed underneath. I studied the water's crystal softness. The water was opening around my fingers, gently passing around them, then closing again behind.
I considered the different places in the water and the connections between them, the places that at one instant were next to each other, then separated as my fingers passed. They rejoined, but no longer in the same way.
How is it, I wondered, that every instant's arrangement, in the water and the world, can be so much the same as before and yet so different? How could even the best words express what systems of relationships were the same and different? And how many relationships were there?
I could not have said "relationships" or "systems" then, let alone "higher-level commonalities," but those were my exact concerns. My questions and confusions were always exact, and fine distinctions concerned me greatly. They still do. In this book I will try to say exactly what I was thinking at different times: exactly, that is, in my vocabulary of now.
This is the story of my life and thoughts, and of connections, and it is about the connections all-amongst life and thought.
And how, you might ask, do I remember those floating swirling thoughts of fifty years ago? Because these matters I have thought about ever since, thousands of different ways, and I reconnect them even now with that early moment of floating crystalline study, rattle of oarlocks, sun-twinkle on the water, my grandmother clearing her throat, the thump of oars, my grandfather's earnestness; all with me as I write in the eternal Now and Then.
fifth grade, at age nine, was my only good year in school. Our teacher was Mr. Vanderwall, who had piercing eyes, drilled us on the correct spellings of "surreptitious" and "supersede," and read histrionically from Coleridge. Though so far I had lived my life under the name Theodor Holm II, Mr. Vanderwall pointed out that my father's name was actually Nelson. Oops. But I was to acquire a deeper sense of identity that year.
We studied with Mr. Bessenger in the last fifteen minutes before lunch. Mr. Bessenger was a fat man with a reputation for throwing books at you. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he taught us Geography, and we had to learn to say all forty-eight states
in one breath. Tuesdays and Thursdays he taught us Opera. We were required to learn the major plots.
When we got to "La Boheme" I was confused. "What is a Bohemian?" I asked. "Look it up!" snapped Mr. Bessenger.
Now it happened that our library had Murger's The Bohemians of the Left-Bank, on which the opera was based, but that book
was unclear to me. I did better with Albert Parry's History of Bohemianism in America. That too was vague in key aspects, for
many things could not be said directly in those days; but Bohemianism sounded like the right kind of life to me.
According to the book, Bohemianism meant not caring what people thought of you, and I was tired of everyone's constant
ridicule. Bohemianism meant not having to keep up elaborate appearances, the pretense that everything was all right, which I
felt a great burden in such an evil world.
And though it was hard to tell exactly from the book, the idea of sexual liberation glinted through the heavy wording, and
sex was a matter always in my mind, of which I dared not speak.
It was clear: when I grew up, I was going to be a Bohemian.
So the next thing was to find this place in New York called Greenwich Village, where the happy Bohemians lived in coldwater
flats and wore turtleneck sweaters. I thought it must be somewhere nearby, since we lived on Washington Square. But where
I lived people wore suits, and kept up
grinding the small screwdriver to a sharp point. it was my plan to stab Mr. H. in the shoulderblade.
I had always hated school, and thought of burning the buildings down, but now in the seventh grade my hatred turned to
action. I did not intend to kill him, but merely to inflict a profound and memorable wound. It seemed only reciprocal. My
friend Randy encouraged me in my plan.
Mr. H. personified everything I hated about teachers. Teachers were the anointed propogandists for all things shallow,
conventional, pompous and smug, and they had the prerogative of insulting and imprisoning you. Other teachers I could stand (a
few I had even liked), but Mr. H.'s nastiness went too far. He was out to break me. That would not happen.
Now at the gymnasium I circled Mr. H. slowly, homing in.
It was some sort of a conference before basketball practice. Hating sports, I usually stayed aloof from such gatherings; but
now I moved slowly through the group, weapon held secretly, studying Mr. H.'s shoulders for the right place to stab,
maneuvering for a good swing. I think I may have planned to shout "SicSemper Tyrannis!", like Booth after shooting Lincoln.
But I hesitated. Then I decided against it.
Mr. H. did not know what he had missed, nor how my hatred burned.
I still think that Mr. H. deserved it. In a way I still regret that I didn't do it. But at that moment I realized the personal dangers of direct counter-attack, and what might happen to me.
From that moment in my life, that readiness and the realization that followed, I have always stayed within the system
(but just barely within the system), fighting the oppressions and stupidities of the world from just almost within the bounds of
The next day Mr. H. sent me again from the room, expecting me to wait outside as usual; and I went from the room in the
I did not know as I walked out of the room that I would go down the stairs. I did not know as I went down the stairs that I
would go out the door of
grandfather and I had usually gone to about one movie a week together, at one of the fine foreign-movie theaters nearby. But now, in 1951, Tenth Grade, I branched out. I joined an organization called Cinema 16, which showed so-called Art Films. Some of the films were older and European, some showed body parts that were illegal in those days. Some of the films were surrealistic, like "The Bells of Atlantis," with Anais Nin. The films were made by devoted film-makers outside the studio system.
That was obviously the only way to make movies, outside the system. Because the studio system murdered talent and art, as I
learned in some detail.
About that time I read a long piece in the New Yorker that touched my core, that shaped my world, that burnt my soul. It was
by Lillian Ross, and concerned the recent making of Huston's film "The Red Badge of Courage." She had followed the production from
its inception, detailing the gradual corruption of Huston's art as the film made its way through the Hollywood labyrinth. Huston the artist was the victim of treachery in the corridors. Finally she revealed the culprit, the spoiler, as Louis B. Mayer himself, the film's executive producer.
That made the system plain to me: crass commercial creeps stood in the way of doing things right. Artistic and creative
freedom--freedom to do a thing right--meant doing it yourself, outside the system.
And you could. You could make movies yourself; Cinema 16 was about that kind of true creativity.
Most people just didn't understand about movie-making. They thought it took big companies. But I got hold of a copy of the
American Cinematographer Manual and read it over and over. It was perfectly plain how to do it all. You needed money, of
course, but not millions.
An electrifying film that appeared about this time was a Japanese film called "Rasho-Mon." It told the same story over and
over from different
bantering about the film we were going to make. There were strains already: he wanted the hero to be named Furlow, I
preferred the name Slocum. But in the morning Tony was shivering badly, and I drove him to the infirmary.
In Parrish Hall I got a surprising call from my father. It seemed he was nearby, in Philadelphia, directing a play headed
for New York. It was "The Man in the Dog Suit," a comedy with Hume Cronyn, and my father asked me if I could fill the balcony
with college students.
My father and I had spoken a few times since the previous summer's harshness: he had set up my tryout for the Broadway lead
in "Look Homeward, Angel." But things were still tense. At that time I was still trying to please him. I hustled all day.
Onto the late afternoon train climbed a theater party of about seventy-five Swarthmore students, ready for a night on the
town. We fanned out through Chinatown to eat, then saw the play.
It was another comedy about Conformity, thought to be a great issue in those days of the fifties. This bypassed the real
question, conformity to what? (Everyone conforms to something. These are our life choices. And inane talk of generalized
"conformity" simply ignored deep issues of the social sciences. To me the social sciences were always breathingly close to
everyday life, in an invisible dimension others somehow could not see.) Nonetheless the play was amusing.
I said hello to my father, but the last train left soon after. The other kids were in a good mood. It had been and unusual break from the schoolwork. Merry revellers we, chatting and seat-hopping. Until I got off the train.
David Baltimore stood on the asphalt, and put out his arm to bar my way. "I gotta speak to you," he said.
Baltimore and I had an awkward history. As the technical director of my rock musical a year before, he had led a revolt, trying to make changes at the last minute, but I had faced him down. So our relationship was strained, but we respected each other. What was this about?
the Department, with its merry and varied professors; and Harvard Square, with its beautiful long-haired women.
But then all my plans changed, for there came to me a great revelation: a revelation which tied together most of the ideas I ever had before. In a few sweeping weeks of luminous excitement, I would find a new unity for the fascinations and ideas of my life--
Here would be a place for my Ambition, Idealism, Desire to Do Good, Lust to Innovate, Need for Autonomy, Yearning for Greatness, Movie-Making, Writing, Artistic Aspirations, Intellectual Aspirations.
And here was a place for the ideals of my great heroes-- Buckminster Fuller, Bertrand Russell, Orson Welles, and Walt Disney.
And especially, especially, Joe Gould.
As those week of fall 1960 passed, I tried to tell everyone my growing vision. It was obvious, unified and cosmic.
We would not be reading from paper any more. The computer screen, with its instant access, would make paper distribution of
Best of all, no longer would we be stuck with linear text, but we could create whole new gardens of interconnected text and
graphics for the user to explore! (It would be several years before I would choose the word "hypertext' for this vision.) users would sit holding a light-pen to the screen, making choices, browsing, exploring, making decisions.
This would free education from the tyranny of teachers! It would free authors and artists from the tyranny of publishers! A new world of art! knowledge! populism! freedom! The very opposite of what everyone thought computers were about!
People I talked to were nonplussed.
My computers professor tried to be helpful. "You should speak to so-and-so," he said, listing several so-and-sos.
But I was pressing on in my vision. I wasn't interested in talking to any so-and-sos; I had to deal with my overwhelming
ideas, which were swirling almost to fast to write them down. I designed into the night.
There would have to be feeder computers all over the world, all tied together. Books would be obsolete 1962. I would start a
company, the General Creative Corporation, and go into business the following semester.