Friday, December 30, 2011

Musings on Pocket Change

Every Christmas season, while I was still living in my father's house, two year-end rituals were observed.  One involved a priest from a nearby Catholic church.  He would come into the house and go to the kitchen.  He would climb up on the kitchen step-stool, by the door we used most often, and wipe away the letters, C G M, written in chalk on the lintel there.  Then he would write the same letters, over again, in chalk, right in the same place.  He would climb down from the step-stool, was handed an envelope, and then he would leave.  Presbyterians, such as I was being instructed to be, don't do such things, but no one in that household was very good at meaningful, positive communication, so it took me a long time to puzzle out that these letters stood for the names of the Three Wise Men.  I suppose they were to be a kind of blessing.  I'm pretty sure the only person blessed in any meaningful way, by these initials on a green wooden plank, was the priest.

As New Year's Eve approached, a loaf of bread and some paper money, bundled together with saran wrap, would appear on the dining room table.  This, I learned, was to ensure there would be food and prosperity for the coming year.   This seemed reasonable enough as a stated goal, I thought, but it also felt more than a little pagan -- wrapping bread and money in plastic engenders prosperity?

I'm sure this isn't unusual, but my family had very distinct, and quite contradictory ideas about money.  I knew that we had very little, but I never knew, in any quantitative sense, what that meant, other than the fact that we always had the cheapest of everything.  I knew that other people had more -- often, much more -- my paternal grandfather was rumored to have made fortune after fortune, and my Aunt Marie lived in a lovely home with a piano -- but the mechanics of money never seemed clear.

And there was a TV show on at the time, 'The Millionaire'.  We watched it every week.  The show revolved around a mysterious man -- John Beresford Tipton was his name -- with untold wealth at his disposal.  Every week, Mr. Tipton chose a new person -- a total stranger -- as the recipient of a check, in the sum on One Million Dollars.  We never saw more of Mr. Tipton than his aristocratic hands, passing this life-altering amount of money to his deputy, who would set off to find this individual in question, and the drama would begin.

Looking back now, I think we really watched this show as a kind of religious experience.  I can remember the sense of genuine yearning in the room -- even the grown-ups seemed unguardedly engaged in what was unfolding on the black and white screen -- the wise, the generous, the foolish, the self-destructive choices these newly-rich characters would make.  'Oh, I would never do that,' someone would say, and we would all have to agree.  Often enough, the stories ended on a sour note, as, in spite of this unlooked-for gift of an unimaginable sum of money, the main character plunged into horrible despair.  This was the sort of ending my family enjoyed most.  (Did everyone?)

Money, in our house, was the most important thing in the world, but we were not supposed to talk about it.  And if it must be mentioned, it must be talked about it in a certain way -- like a creed, it now seems to me.  It went something like this:

Money is the most important thing in the world.
If at all possible, we are never to mention money, and certainly never in polite company.
We always want and need more money.  We never have enough.
Working hard is the only way to make any meaningful amount of money.
Working hard does not mean one will earn any meaningful amount of money.
Having a lot of money is a very good thing.  It will protect its possessors from harm and need.
Having a lot of money is a very bad thing. It will attract bad luck and punishment
Having money is a sign of God's good will.
Having money is morally suspect; most rich people have money because they are dishonest.
Wanting and needing money is more desirable than having enough money.  Those who want and need more money are normal and acceptable; those who have more than the barest amount of money necessary for survival should be regarded with suspicion.
People who look prosperous and self-confident are suspect, and open to mockery.  Our proper demeanor is a kind of humiliated, thread-bare cleanliness.  

Of course, my family didn't make all this up on their own.  Thess, and other money-centric attitudes have boiled up and sifted down through cultures all over the world, and there were probably similarly contradictory feelings afoot when the major medium of exchange was a handful of feathers, or some cocoa beans.  What I find bothersome (to say the least) is the residual impact that these beliefs have had in my life -- the way a peculiar, unexamined tangle of mysterious attitudes has kept me in a self-perpetuating knot for far too long. 

My own earliest experiences of money, as both debt and asset, began when I was seven years old.  It was 1955, in Belleville IL, and I was in the second grade.  I was often sent to the grocery store, to pick up a few extra things for my mother.  We had an account there, and I would order some lunch meat or a bottle of milk.  No money changed hands, and for some reason I decided this meant I could add an occasional treat for myself -- usually a package of those chocolatey cupcakes with the squiggly frosting and the creamy filling.  On the way home, I would wolf the cupcakes down, and then, because I knew I wasn't supposed to have extra snacks, I would use the rear-view mirror of a parked car, to wipe any chocolate smears from my face.  I was shocked when, maybe two months into my cupcake binge, my mother accosted me with these thefts.  I hadn't understood that, even without actual bills or coins involved, there was an eventual accountability.  (Once in a while, I get a yen for those cupcakes, but now they don't taste the same)

At the same time, I got weekly 'allowance', of $2, late very Saturday morning.   With that money in my pocket, I went the two blocks, to the center of town, where I was to spend all of it.  For a seven-year-old boy, in 1955, $2 was a considerable sum.  A movie -- even a double feature -- might cost 35 cents.  After movie, I still had more than a dollar and a half, so I went to the 5 & 10 cent store (God, I feel prehistoric), to climb up on a seat at the soda fountain and have a hot fudge sundae.  I especially like the cherry on top, and saved it for last.  Then I wandered through the toy section of the store, where the goods were arrayed in open bins, beveled glass slats separating the whistles from the yo-yos, the price of each item noted by a tag, held in a metal clip-on frame.  I pored over my options, usually picking out something I'd already bought before, but that my younger brothers had broken.  Boxes of 48 crayons were a must.  Or  I would buy a gold fish or two, to carry home in a paper carton and, in about a week, to flush down the toilet or bury in the back yard.  With all my purchases, and a stomach full of fudge and ice cream, I would finally walk home.

I never got the sense, with this weekly income, that I might save anything, or that there was anything to save the money for.  Nor did this weekly spending spree bring me joy.  Only years later did I piece together the rest of the picture -- the money didn't come from my father, as I'd taught myself to remember.  The money came from a different man, who wanted me to go away from our house, for a good long time, so he and my mother could be alone.  As a result, and as I was whiling away a Saturday afternoon, spending money, there was a kind of guilt, beneath the surface of this compulsory gratification.  I felt complicit, and part of something bad.  I was being a good boy.  I was doing as I was told. I was involved in betrayal.  I was reaping enviable benefits.  I was somehow doing the wrong thing, but how was I to do the right thing, without being bad?  I still hate going to the movies alone.

Meanwhile, money -- and more particularly, the lack of it -- was increasingly the topic of bitter arguments, when my parents were at home together.  My father had a job in St. Louis, but I had no idea how much money we would need, so my parents wouldn't scream at each other, and throw things, and threaten to get whatever a divorce was.  Money was a very powerful thing; it could make me do confusing things, and its scarcity could drive adults mad.

In the orphanage, money was never an issue, because we never had any.   Afterwards, living with my father's second family, I had the obligatory restaurant-cleaning job, for which I was nominally paid, but which money was never really mine.  My parents decided when I would spend it, what I would buy, and when I would buy it.  I have no idea how much a round-trip bus ticket between Pittsburgh PA and Clearwater FL was, in 1959; I have no idea what I might have bought with that money, instead.

And in what seems a recurring life-theme, there was no more prosperity in this new family than there had been in the original one.  My three brothers had all just come from the orphanage (they lived there for at least a year longer than I did) when my stepmother learned that she was pregnant with her first child, and my father lost his job.  The only thing we had in abundance, for the next seven years, were stress, anger, violence and recrimination.  Underneath it all, there was the intense yearning for money.  Money, we were all forced to agree, is the root of all evil, and it can't buy happiness, but it could buy real milk, instead of the powdered kind, or cheese that didn't come in a green, government-issue surplus can, or shoes that didn't fall apart in the rain.  

By now, I was a freshman in high school.  I was smart.  Very smart.  I knew it.  The teachers knew it.  The other kids knew it.  I got another money lesson.

Every six weeks, in our freshman science class, each student was required to hand in a notebook, on a subject assigned by the teacher.  I think I already had a reputation as a guy who would do other people's homework (how else could I get them to like me?), so maybe I shouldn't have been surprised when, partway through the first half of that year, a kid from across the room, where the D students sat, came up to me during lunch period, with a proposal.  "If you do my notebook for me," he said, "I'll pay you $20."

Twenty dollars?  Hell, I would do his notebook today for $20.  Twenty... dollars?  He got the most beautifully-crafted science notebook known to humankind.  And after class, in the hallway, he handed me a twenty dollar bill.

Of course I had seen such a thing before -- there were one or two $20 bills in the cash register at the family restaurant, but they were practically mythic; no one actually touched them.  And now, I had one, right in my own hands.  Twenty dollars.

What was I going to do with it?  I couldn't take it home with me -- all our things were searched on a regular basis, our clothes drawers inspected, the contents of our pockets open for questioning.  Even if it had occurred to me to put it in a bank, we weren't allowed out of school during the day, and I took a bus back and forth -- even if I took the later bus home, there still wasn't enough time to get downtown to open an account, and besides, all the banks closed at 3 pm.  And wouldn't I get a statement in the mail, before I could get home to destroy it?  How would I explain that?  Twenty dollars.

So I spent it all.

There were a couple of small businesses near enough to the school that, after classes were out, I could run and maybe spend some money, before the last school bus left for my neighborhood.  I discovered a little jewelry shop, and I went in, to pore over the costume baubles I could afford.  There were a couple of girls at school that I decided that I 'liked' (in the remote 'seeing someone across a crowded hormone-laden classroom' sense), and I decided to use my $20 to buy them presents.  A cultured pearl bracelet.  A rhinestone pin.  A locket.  Because I created a few six-week science notebooks for my patron, I became almost a regular customer in this little shop. And every one of my purchases was handed, in a hasty, embarrassed way, to the unsuspecting, bemused object of my imagined affections.  Mission accomplished: money earned, money dispersed.   
Finally, two more recent monetary tales, for the time being.  (The topic, it seems, is inexhaustible)

In 1982, at the end of a season of summer theater, I broke my leg.  Tendons and ligaments in my foot were torn, and had to be sewn back into place, and the doctors also needed to insert a pin, to hold the bone in together while it healed.  Because my health insurance wasn't active at the time, I ended up with a sizable bill for the surgery.  Every two weeks, I would make a stop at the doctor's office, in Greenwich Village, to make another payment.  Sometimes the doctor was in, and sometimes he would say hello to me.  My leg had already healed, so these greetings were purely social, but it still felt nice to see him -- after all, he'd cut off the cast I wore for three months (home at the time was a fourth-floor walk-up?), and I still felt grateful.

Then it was time for the last payment.  I wrote out the check, handed it over to the receptionist, and was startled to feel a sudden up-rush of anger.  I'm sure my face turned bright red.  I wanted to yell at her, or hit her, but I couldn't figure out why, until days later, when I had... the realization.  This debt (and, I've come to learn, others like it) formed a connection between me and the man who had been so kind, and had healed me.  This debt felt to me like a family bond -- a personal asset, making me valuable and of interest to an otherwise overworked surgeon in a city filled with people needing his help.  With my bill paid in full, I was being set adrift, back out into a sea of indistinguishable faces.   Even now, I live with the sad suspicion that when I am in debt, someone somewhere has a slight, accounts-receivable-style interest in my continued existence.  Debt- and obligation-free, I tend to feel vulnerable, ungrounded, expendable and almost disembodied.  This is a problem.    

And finally (for today):  One late spring day, I was walking on Washington St. in Hoboken NJ, at the corner of 10th., right by Tucker's Drug Store.  I looked down at the ground, thinking I'd spotted a dollar bill.  Or maybe $5?  It was $100.

I spent the next hour, going in and out of any open businesses that were open, asking if someone had come in recently, looking for cash they might have lost.  I felt burdened.  The business owners all said no.  I felt guilty.

For months, I kept the bill hidden in my wallet, folded up like some secret spy transmission.  Later that summer, John and I were camping in Vermont, and while we were out biking one afternoon, we passed a local firehouse, having its Famous Annual Chicken Barbecue Dinner.  Maybe $5 per person, I don't really recall.  I do know we were hungry, and we thought: Vermont chicken barbecue? At a firehouse?  How hot is that?  It was going to be terrific.  But we didn't seem to have quite enough cash in our bike packs... until I remembered the secret spy transmission.

I finally broke the $100 bill.  The barbecue wasn't all that great.

©  2011   Walter Zimmerman 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Desperation in Five Pound Increments

After a four-month absence, I decided that today I was going to take myself to the gym, if it killed me.  And do a work-out.  If.  It.  Killed.  Me.

What a sad drive, on the way over.  I've discovered a route to the Summit YMCA, that takes me through Milburn, part of Short Hills, and then across the highway into a very upscale part of Summit.  For me, it's usually a dream-drive -- imagine living in one of these spectacular homes, separated from the road -- and real life -- by a great expanse of perfectly manicured lawn.  Today all I could see was the huge gulf between me and the kind of people who can actually live in homes like these.

There was more traffic than I'd expected, and it took longer than usual to get to the metered parking lot next to the Y.  I found a space, but I realized I hadn't brought any quarters.  I went in to beg a dollar's change, but the desk help said they'd just given out their last quarters.  They offered me some dimes and nickels, but because of the way the meter system is set up, even with a dollar's worth of coins, I wouldn't have enough time to do the workout I was increasingly uninterested in doing anyway.

I took the change anyway, and went to the vending machine.  Then I noticed that they'd finally fixed the credit card option -- and it amused me to think of running up yet another charge on my Amex account -- for an entire seventy-five cents.  The process took longer than plugging in quarters (note to self: bag of change in glove compartment, tomorrow!), and I was sure it would fail, but somehow I managed to get my receipt, and was actually cleared, now, for the dread exercise regimen itself.

Now, one thing that must be mentioned is the sheer improbability of me voluntarily, and at my own expense, approaching anything like a gym, and actually going in, through the door, to do anything remotely resembling exercise.  As a child, I was strictly an indoor, bookish boy.  The most athletic thing I can remember doing was an irrigation project I conceived, when I was about seven, and my father bought a small pile of sand for a home repair.  I didn't know what the sand was for -- and my father didn't seem to be doing anything in particular with any of it anyway, as such effort would have interfered with his much beloved naps.  So, there being a garden hose nearby, connected to an outdoor faucet, I proceeded, over the course of several days, to build one imaginary city after another.  Each one had a big lake in the middle, and a series of canals and little streams, and there would be accidents and buildings collapsing, and sudden floods -- I got pleasantly dirty, in a kind of sanitary way, and by the end of the week, the sand was all gone, having washed all the way down the back yard walk, and out into the brick-paved alley.

When I was older, the only athletic thing I liked to do was to run, preferably away from everything and anything.  And I was pretty fast.  But none of the schools I attended had any track programs, and of course, high school gym class was just torment twice a week for four years.  When I joined the military, and went through the compulsory day of training on the obstacle course (I spent the night before, praying for rain.  As so often happens -- particularly in Texas -- the weather stayed bright and fiercely hot)  I was the only one from my group to fall from the overhead-ladder bridge into a shallow stream of what turned out to be mostly mud, and was an object of soggy shame on the bus ride back to the barracks.

In college, thanks to my military service, I wasn't required to take any phys ed classes, for which I was deeply grateful.  I think I tossed a football five times during my college years -- I actually did it rather well, even though I didn't really care who caught it -- and there was an occasional game of badminton or something else equally undemanding.  I luxuriated in being, basically, just fit enough to get into my little red VW and drive where I had to go.

I didn't actually start taking any real interest in myself, physically, until I was in my mid-30's.  My first relationship-like experience was at its bitter end (I later realized that, with this first serious boyfriend, it was as if there were two movie projectors in a room, pointed at each other, and running at full speed, but showing completely different movies), but one thing this first boyfriend had introduced into our routine was some desultory weightlifting -- the kind you can do in the kitchen of a fourth-floor walk up in Hoboken.   The boyfriend and the weights soon left, but my interest was sufficiently piqued -- I joined a gym, and started doing what I considered serious work on myself.

Most of which was wrong, as it turns out -- but even wrong exercise can be beneficial -- if it's not positively crippling, that is.  What fascinated me most was the obvious change in my appearance, and in my own strength.  I'd felt, for so long, that I was more or less doomed to life as a tall skinny guy without much stamina.  But these new physical changes were indisputable, and gave me more confidence, and I even thought that they might herald the possibility of emotional changes as well.

So -- what is it, 30 years later now?  During which time, for the most part, I've managed to keep some kind of exercise regimen going, for the most part.  But of course, we do live on this annoyingly time-centered, gravity-laden planet, in these bothersome fleshy bodies.  And just this past summer, while on vacation on Block Island, while I'd been feeling especially fit (in spite of a twisted knee), and thought I noticed some admiring glances from other tourists, John was taking photos of the trip.  And there I was, to my amazement, looking more like a sofa than a director's chair.  Maybe I should have laughed it off, but I found it shocking, that I'd been so deceived by my own perception.  Beautiful though this little get-away was, on the trip home, I felt strangely sobered.

And then, in October, I turned 65 -- just one year younger than my father when he died.  My youngest brother has died already.  My father's older sister died long ago, at the age of 57.  And where am I, in all this... living, and then not-living?  When did I reach whatever might be considered an apex?  When did I achieve the most I will ever have done?  When was I the strongest?  How long can I keep the inevitable decline at arm's length?  This has been a very difficult, difficult time.  Going into an environment where lush young men, totally and maybe necessarily unconscious, are coming into full bloom, was just something I couldn't face.

Until, I guess, today.  Today, in spite of teensy little annoyances and what amounted to having a handful sand thrown in my general direction, I did manage to get myself into the necessary clothes, and borrow a pen (I like to keep track of my little accomplishments), and walk into the exercise room, with all the 'Strive' equipment.  I found my workout chart, with its last entry in late August.  I put today's date in the next column, and started the cycle.

And then, an hour or so later, I was finished.  I am astonished to say that it wasn't as bad as I had feared -- I didn't have to reduce the weights by half, or anything like that.  I did a bit of walking on a treadmill, cautious still of that twisted knee that's still nagging a bit.  I wasn't as bothered, oddly enough, by the youths strutting through and throwing massive amounts of weight around.  Instead, I was interested in the men with the greying hair -- what are they doing?  How do they look?  How long do they think they have?

In my sad, losing desperation, for today all I can seem to muster, in the way of self-motivation, is a kind of grim determination to steel myself, to remain calm but alert and disciplined, and in a way that I can only glimpse out of the corner of my mind's eye, turn myself into some sort of coldly angry missile, living to the fullest extent I can manage, in spite of the treachery of the very corporeality with which I'm forming these thoughts, and seeing this screen, and typing these words.

I'm remembering two things.  One is a slogan on a t-shirt that was a gift for my 50th birthday:  "Youth is a gift of nature; middle age is a work of art."  I want to add to that something like, "Old age is a triumph of will."  The second thing is a bit of advice, given by a therapist to her patients, all of whom were struggling with one major life grief or another: "If you live long enough," she told them, "you'll lose everything."

The rest of the trip veers, it seems, between two pole stars -- fallible will, and inevitable loss.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Trying to Be Like Jesus, or Lost in Charity

Well, really, at this time of year, you can't really avoid it -- the carols, and the trimmings, TV commercials and the tinsel.  I decorated our tree yesterday, and just managed to brush against the edge of nostalgia, as I wondered where all these old ornaments came from, anyway?  (I even pressed into use some old lengths of forlorn garland, that have a kind of stale smell if you pay close attention)  Across the street, where our neighbors have at least one daughter who still believes in Santa, a brightly-lit tree has been up for a month.  Someone came by a few days ago, and attached a big floppy red bow to the gas lamp out in front of our house.  Ho ho ho. 

So of course, I was thinking of Christmas this morning, on my way home from the doctor's office.  Ho ho ho.  I wouldn't have been all that surprised if the lab technician who took my blood -- the only medical reason for the trip -- had been wearing a floppy red flannel hat, some jingly bells, and a fake cotton beard.  Jaundiced as I seem to be of late, I tend to notice the dissonance others also mention, as they're eying another roll of wrapping paper, or angling for that packaging tape that's on sale: why aren't people nicer to each other, at this particular time of year? After all, it's supposed to be about a lonely family and one little baby, lying on a bed of straw.  As the carols say.

But... how might this Seasonal Niceness manifest itself, in a culture much more mobile and, at least from a technological standpoint, inarguably more complex that what comprised by 'going about your business' in December, year 0, CE? 

Today itself, for instance.   While on my way to aforementioned medical appointment, and feeling out an alternate approach to Jersey City, because my usual route has come to resemble the bombed-out ruins of some unfortunate city in the Middle East, leaving just the one lane open to approach both the Holland Tunnel and the one local exit leading to my doctor's office, I found myself behind a teeny, mousy brown car on Newark's Ferry St.  Said vehicle's driver seemingly incapable of depressing the mousy brown gas pedal just a thought more aggressively.  During Newark's version of 'rush hour', on a two-lane street in the most densely populated portion of the United States of America.  Where driving is something of a blood sport.  No one need to guess which direction my blood pressure was heading. 

Mousy vehicle cautiously poked its way down a long, long, long street, pausing at every intersection (red light?  Stop sign?  Dead animal?  Inchoate inner yearning?  Apparently, anything would instigate this respectful pause), while other vehicles nosed their way across and past and in front of, said mousiness.  While, directly behind this exemplar of vehicular timidity, the little sanity I can ordinarily claim had virtually boiled out of my ears.  I Have a Doctor's Appointment, for God's Sake!  And instead of clipping along Ferry St. at a reasonable pace (aren't I clever having thought of this), I'm traveling at roughly six miles per hour, while some land snails, visiting from Cuba, sail along smoothly on the sidewalk up ahead, laughing at me and leaving me far in their slimy wake.

Finally I found myself freed, released the doom of following this vehicular equivalent of a visually-impaired arthritic nonagenarian, tentatively tapping to find a safe way across pavement that might blow up at any moment.  But, as I gave inward thanks for my release, and watched with gratitude as this little brown thing trundled off to the south, I also realized that I had no idea where I was.  On a rainy day, with no clues available from the sun.  Half an hour before my appointment.  I hate to be late.

Thanks to the fact that nearly every square yard of this part of New Jersey is paved, and the fact that I knew I had to cross at least one river, I managed to navigate myself to my destination.  And not only was I was on time, I was actually early.  But, as I waited for my blood pressure to subside, I couldn't help reflecting -- would it have been so much to ask, for the mouse driver to... speed up a little?  That's what I would have done.  Or was this seeming cautiousness actually this person's equivalent of the Christmas Spirit -- giving vehicular preference to everyone else on the road -- except, of course, the driver in back -- who was, in this case, me?  What, in this context, would Jesus have done?  I was still mulling this over, as I held the bandaid on my new little blood-test boo-boo, wished everyone a Merry Christmas, and tried to figure out how I was going to get back home again.  .

What would Jesus have done?

Compared with my inbound trek (I know those snails are still laughing at me), getting out of Jersey City was a snap.  I'm still a little stunned to realize that I know all the roads there like the back of my age-spotted hand.  I even let a couple of drivers make their left turns ahead of me, because after all, I'm in no hurry now, it's the holidays, and who cares if an enormous fifteen-ton tow-truck has hogged the lane I need, so I can get where I'm going?  Season's greetings.  It's all good.

I hit my Christmas snag, at the very end of my brief sprint along 280, where East Orange begins.  Off to the side, blocking the right-hand lane of a steep, two-lane exit ramp, sat an dingy-looking, decrepit white delivery truck.  The truck's left front wheel was jutting out at an unhealthy angle, and there was white powder all over the asphalt.  A dark-featured man, in grey parka almost indistinguishable from the color of the van, stood there forlornly.  As I approached, he waved me away from the back of his truck, as though I couldn't see the blinking lights.  Or that crumpled wheel.  Or whatever it was, all over the roadway.  Of course, I swerved further left that strictly necessary, to let him know I saw him, and then continued on my way, just minutes now from the gas light with the red bow on it, and my nice comfy home, with a tree full of stale tinsel.

At about the second light past the exit, it struck me -- The Christmas thing, and What Would Jesus Do?  Behind me -- about half a mile back by now -- was a fellow human being, trapped and alone with his totally incapacitated vehicle.  Standing there by himself, in the light rain that was now falling, and waving dispiritedly, as one car after another sped past with no apparent concern.  WWJD?  And here I am, I realized, with yards and yards of... stretchy red jersey fabric lying in the back of the van.  (Best not to ask why)  Just one of those pieces of cloth, I decided, could -- maybe, hang from the back of the truck?  Stand in for a flag, while this man waits for... whoever might come to give him meaningful help?  I didn't know.  We would think of something, this driver and me.  What I did know, in my heart, was that the baby Jesus would be crying in his straw bed, if I didn't at least try to do what little I could.

So.  Where I always turn left, I turned right, hoping that, once I'd driven back toward the man in distress, I would find just the one legal parking space.  And, miraculously, I did, right next to a weed-filled empty lot, a convenience store with large men hanging around in front, and just across the street from burned-out pet store.  Among other picturesque things.  Making a mental note of these landmarks, I squeezed my van into place, selected what I hoped would be a useful length of this tomato-hued cloth, and set out on my mission of mercy. 

I knew I'd seen the disabled truck's flashing yellow warning lights up ahead, but it seemed further than I thought.  I wasn't sure there would be a sidewalk, or any other safe-ish place for pedestrianism, with my fellow New Jerseyans speeding blindly toward me, transfixed by the fact that only x hours remained before the holiday itself, and blinded by visions of gift certificates dancing in their heads.  I did learn, though, on my mission of mercy, that Queen Anne's lace grows wild in this part of the state,  needing a crack in the sidewalk as an opportunity to luxuriate.   Ragweed thrives too, unsurprisingly, plus some tall, prickly things with sturdy branches that resist all efforts to pass by.  To judge by the flattened evidence, I learned that I could buy an amount of rum in convenient recyclable plastic bottles.  I saw CD's shattered into the most interesting shapes.  The learning of which, however, distracted me enough so that I passed my turn-off.

This red cloth certainly was bulky.  And now I had to walk two long blocks back, across busy, tortured intersections (wouldn't be surprised to see a cemetery devoted solely to victims of traffic patterns here), before I would be finally going in the right direction.  And then, I would hand off this modest, yet helpful gift (maybe we could tear it in two, and it could drape over the back of the truck, and be a warning flag?  Brilliant!), a totally unlooked-for gift, a testament to the brotherhood of humanity.  How this man would smile in disbelief, that someone had come back to see to his needs.  How he would embroider this tale, which this poor man would certainly relate over and over again, whenever he saw his family next.  Whichever continent they might live on.  How do you say 'stretch jersey' in Arabic?

Today, of course, I wonder if Jesus was paying any attention at all to the fact that, as I was out walking in the rain, getting myself all sweaty, compromising my newly-bandaged boo-boo, and lugging around what now seemed like my own weight in red cloth, the supposedly helpless truck driver was using his cell phone to call a tow truck?  Because, when I finally glimpsed the broken truck again, down at the bottom of the ramp, there were two men standing there instead of one, and as I picked up my pace, they both climbed into the cab of what I now realized was a tow truck, and... that both the tow truck, and the broken truck, were now moving.  Toward me.  Slowly but surely driving past me, with the waving man, now a passenger, looking out at me with a pitying glance.  Me standing there on the narrow pavement, a big old white guy, wearing a bright blue jacket that used to be a bunch of soda bottles, and carrying under his arm, for God only knows what reason, a big wad of red cloth. 

I tried to laugh, and tell myself that this was a fortunate development, but really I just felt incredibly stupid.  And now it was raining harder.  And I had to walk all the way back to my own car.  The one without the dislocated front wheel.  But I couldn't find it.  How many burned-out pet stores can one town have?  And why are there so many vans, exactly the same color as mine, parked along a street where, to judge by the ample evidence, there seem to have been three recent tornados and a small flood?  With me, a lone post-disaster visitor, walking around like some elderly, slightly gimpy toreador-in-training, trailing red temptingly in my wake...

Of course I found the van -- it was such a relief when the key clicker set off the backup lights -- and my book bag was still lying there -- temptation itself -- in plain sight on the front seat, because of course I'd forgotten to lock the car as I went off on my mission of mercy.  I gratefully slid into the seat, started the engine and headed off in the completely, totally, all-but irretrievably wrong direction.   Wondering, all the while, during the next hour of what should have been a five-minute ride, what Jesus would have done.

Tomorrow, I'm going to do a little research, and look into the possibilities of a holiday observing the under-rated event of Jesus Driving the Merchants from the Temple.  Call it, perhaps, the Festival of Holy Terror?  I could really get behind that one.          

© 2011   Walter Zimmerman

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Reveille, or The Quilt from Hell

(The hour -- an ungodly 5:49 am, long before the coffee maker is set to begin producing its life-sustaining elixir.  The day -- the Tuesday before Christmas, and the to-do list of pre-holiday preparations seems, oddly enough, to grow longer instead of shorter.  The location -- a suburban kitchen, with a white tile floor that turns treacherous when wet, a fridge that keeps threatening to turn into an archaeological goldmine of prehistoric comestibles, and a kitchen table, piled high with heaven only knows what, but with just enough room for one laptop computer, and two arms, poised and uneasy with their approaching task...)

I think it was the quilts that woke me up.  Not actual quilts, of course -- that, we could at least explain away -- or at least remedy, either by banning said coverlets to the basement, or simply burning them.  These sleep-shattering quilts are almost completely imaginary, or perhaps more correctly, are very much still in utero.

Up in our attic -- Tremble All, at the Mere Mention of this Place -- stowed in the cubbyholes a previous owner thoughtfully built along the south-facing wall, are perhaps hundreds of square yards of fabric, roughly arranged in some demented idea of color relationship, but mostly just piled together to make stacks that are more or less neat-ish.  Many of these 'yards of fabric' are actually little vendors' samples, which were always available, for a quarter apiece (ten for $2!) at a legendary mecca for sewing enthusiasts -- Fabrics and Findings, on Goodman St., in Rochester NY.  I had an art studio nearby, and before getting down to some actual work, I would stop by F'n'F, for what I now realize was the textile equivalent of a nose full of colorful, all-silk, jacquard-weave, brocaded crack.

But how could I not?  They were all so cute.  They were like flat, soft, pliable kittens, abandoned in an animal shelter -- only these little adoptees would never need to be fed, or develop distemper, or complain that their litter box hadn't been cleaned since the last Presidential election.  (or was it the one before?)  And such a bargain!  I could never leave without spending at least $8 (do the math), plus maybe a few yards of some remnant I'd bumped  into on the way to the cash register (oh, I'm sorry -- did I disturb you, you little three-yard swath of sheer tan synthetic silk blend?  Let me make it up to you by taking you to my house) -- and all, understand, with the very best, the finest, the most sterling of intentions.

I was going to make a quilt.  Granted, by the time I'd begun to taper off on my regularly-scheduled fabric fixes (which didn't happen until long after we'd moved from Rochester, and I'd shifted my allegiance from the redoubtable Fabrics and Findings to a much closer equivalent, The Rag Shop)  (Said establishment, sadly -- yet, for me, fortunately -- now no longer in business) (Or I probably wouldn't really know what color the kitchen tile is), I'd accumulated enough material to make a quilt that, I estimate, would probably keep much of New Jersey's Essex County nice and toasty for the coming winter.  But just at first, I was going to start small, and work my way up.  The way you do.

And there was even a call, from a Rochester shelter, for quilts for those in need!  Nothing fancy, just something simple.  I knew I could do that.

Indeed, I did actually begin the quilt-making process.  I selected some drab, inoffensive colors (if no one is enticed actually to look at the quilt, they won't notice the bad workmanship, right?), and bought a large remnant of something soft, to use as backing.  I selected a pattern that was relatively simple, but not so simple that I'd be bored, and at a scale that seemed manageable.  (Have you ever seen one of those 19th century silk quilts, made out of scraps of mens' neckties, and bits of fancy gowns?  I think they're called postage stamp quilts, because the squares are so small.  About a million little squares in each bed-sized piece of work.  Ah, life before 'Dancing with Almost Anyone More Famous Than You'.. .)

So, mirabile, I began to work.  There certainly was a lot of measuring and cutting, I discovered.  And measuring again, and recutting.  And fitting, and pinning, and comparing...  Re-freakin'-pinning.  Don't even mention the ironing.  When do we get to the actual sewing part around here? 

Well, I'm sure the first distraction was perfectly legitimate -- perhaps one of the blizzards John and I enjoyed while we were living in Monroe County.  The next impediment might have been a little less compelling -- must have a gallon of milk, must make a trip to the pharmacy, to pick up extra insulin for our beloved, diabetic cat Princely.  Later delays were caused by, say, the persistence of gravity, or because the sun had come up, or the mere fact that I was still breathing.  I'm ashamed to say that no one less fortunate than I has yet to benefit from a little lap robe made by me.  Somewhere, buried amidst other more promising color combinations and neatly-folded fabric treasures, are those fifteen or so squares of drab green and I think it was some kind of dull violet, that had been destined, I had hoped, for some shivering soul in Upstate New York.  Sadly enough, even if this insufficient collection of squares were ever actually attached to each other -- never mind tied to their backing, wherever that is -- not only would they completely fail to give the slightest warmth to Essex County, but I doubt they would even make much of an impact on this kitchen table.

But you know, I really do have good intentions.  (To such an extent that, should any of you be so unfortunate as to find yourselves spending an afterlife in The Bad Place, you'll probably see a sign, on your way down there, "The Next Five Hundred Miles of The Road To Hell Paved by the Good Intentions of Walter Zimmerman.  No Littering.  You'll Just Make Things Worse for Yourself}  There is a genuine, child-like delight, for me, in finding treasures like those swatches of otherwise useless fabric -- and so reasonably priced! -- and in then supplying myself with the wherewithal to realize an idea.  My problem, it seems, is one I've already mentioned, but which I'm afraid will be revisited many times -- that of the treacherous snake in a clown's hat: hope.

I really hope to turn these pieces of cloth into something useful and even more lovely, in combination, than they already are all alone.  Having seen many quilting exhibits -- one in Philadelphia, of work by a group of women from Alabama, nearly blew my socks off, it was so radically exciting -- I have truly felt that investing time and energy in essentially painting with cloth is a worthy activity for someone who aspires to an identity as a 'real' artist.  I have a friend whose life has been transformed through his involvement in the quilting world (yes, there is one); he gives lessons; can be seen, radiant and proud in front of a splendid sunburst of his own work; and has reorganized his apartment to accommodate a professional-grade quilting machine.  It can be done.

But, apparently, not by me.  As I sit here, wrapped in synthetic-cloth blankets and desperate for the coffee machine to start perking, I see that I'm more in love with the idea of making, the potential of creating, than with the actual labor of transforming one thing into something else.  I have done much the same thing with art materials, it shames me to say -- I have lately grasped that fact, by looking squarely at my stash of paper, my matched sets of oil paint, boxes of crayons and pencil, cups full of brushes.   I have mistaken 'having art materials' with 'being an artist'.  I've only understood, recently (!) that the real sign of a working maker of art is the emptied paint tube, the stained and stroke-worn brush, the stacks and stacks of pieces of fine French paper -- with something actually on each and every one of them.

But let's not just stop here.  Let's dig a little more.  Beneath my love of the potential instead of the realized, my truly joyous accumulation of materials holding so much promise in their state of pristine newness, I detect the contours of two other, very different impulses.  One, I believe, is the desire to rescue myself, symbolically and long after the fact, from that dark institution in which, with those other child castoffs, I was warehoused for 18 months.  In the scrap of heavy, richly patterned brocade,  I see a glimmer. both of who I was, and of who I would still like to be.  I simultaneously recognize and adopt a bit of myself, and then try to affix that beautiful thing to the shamed, insufficient person I experience as myself, from the inside, looking out.

Finally, inevitably, there is death.  As I think I've already said, in one long blather or another, I understand now that all this stuff with which I've succeeded in surrounding myself is actually a materialization of panic.  All this stuff could be seen as the physical, tangible, three-dimensional equivalent of the flailings of a drowning man.  Every desperate splash solidifying into a bit of detritus that only makes things worse.

Or no.  More aptly, let me here identify this variegated accumulation -- the fabric and plastic, the hand-blown glass and copper fittings, the bruised bits of plastic and lengths of TV cable picked up from the side of the road -- as my clumsy attempt at creating a vast, flexing, improbable life raft for myself, some flimsy thing to keep me afloat on a sea of blackest oblivion that, impersonally but implacably, desires my drowning.  And will have it.          

© 2011    Walter Zimmerman

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Do You Like Your Clothes? I Love My Clothes.

(Or, Digression Within Digression...)

Well after all, I just finished reading (yes -- all the way through!) Laurence Sterne's classic weird novel, 'The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman'.  Much of it being absorbed during October's power outage, me lying in bed and poring over the pages by candle light, as Sterne, writing in the 1770's, might have done.  (I especially like the chapter consisting, totally, of one entire page, completely black)  As this entire work consists of one digression after another, and since I'm so easily impressed, stylistically, by whatever I've recently read... digress away, I say...  (Like I've got a choice?)

John and I were having a lovely dinner, maybe these ten years ago, with Ralph Lee and Casey Compton, the heart and soul of the Mettawee River Theater Company, and with whom I worked, as an actor, many years ago.  Also on hand was their lovely young daughter, Dorothy, who was running about the art-filled WestBeth loft in her bare feet.  As we took our seats as the table, Dorothy turned to me.  "Do you like your feet?" she asked, all direct childlike seriousness.  "I love my feet."

I'm sure Dorothy promptly forgot this little exchange, certainly by the next day at least.   But I love that this happened for me.

This morning, in late 2011, as I dragged my sorry butt out of bed (terrible night -- congestion, alarming falling-asleep sensations, eventual need to resort to middle-of-the-night-Quil, which for me is akin to swallowing opium), I pulled on some relatively presentable garb, from the heap of things I collect on my side of the bedroom.  Which shirt to combine with... whatever I'd pulled on over my legs?  There were (only) a couple of shirts on the chair where I seem to drop garment upon garment (if you pile up clothing deep enough and long enough, and the pressure is great enough and the heat high enough, could you end up with a diamond undershirt?), but only one -- or perhaps two -- would do.

Well, I wore this cream/blue/black shirt last night, so it's still clean.  And I usually only wear the sad old drab beige/brown/green coarse-weave shirt when I'm working in the basement, because it's sort of become my work garb, and I don't care if I spill anything on it.  Then there's the lovely, autumnal orange-through-rust-to-coffee plaid shirt I bought at Daffy's while I was still working in Philadelphia -- my usual locale for the retail therapy I came to need during that stressful period.  (Point of departure for a digression?  Certainly.  But... not this time)

And then I thought about a game some rakishly witty summer acquaintances of mine used to play among themselves, years and years ago.  (I always felt especially stupid with these people, and I don't even remember their names any more.  The game, however...)  At any moment, whenever they were all together, someone would start:  'I bought this blouse at the boutique on Spring St.  My belt belonged to my neighbor, who left it behind when she moved.  My shoes...", etc., until the genealogy of every garment had been traced to point of origin.  Turn questioningly to the person on the right.  And so it went, around the circle.

My own version of this, of course, is much less precise, and I never impose it on anyone else.  (Well, not yet, anyway)  In my case, this genealogical aspect of my clothes -- most especially my shirts -- comes up when I open the closet to decide what to wear (imagine that?).  Or, when the seasons have changed, and either the summer or the winter shirts are up in the attic (and, truth to tell, there's a kind of all-season selection going up there, most of the time, in spite of the best intentions), I lumber up the stairs and paw through the selection on the rack.  I'm looking for... color?  Weight?  Pattern?  I see... thrift store in Pennsauken; aforementioned Daffy's; thrift store in Harrisburg PA, or perhaps it was Gabriel Brothers (aka 'The Stinky Store')?  Goodwill on Rte. 22.  Joseph A. Banks, on Market St., when they had that ridiculous two-for-one sale.  Or the Izod Store, at the Short Hills Mall -- making this long-sleeved pink-striped shirt one of the most expensive garments I've ever owned, and it was half off.  And on and on.

I wonder what it would be like, to arrange all these garments geographically?  What kind of quilt would that make?  (I already try to arrange them by color, but it's not as easy as it sounds)  Or perhaps, hang them in chronological order, by date of acquisition?  I think about an essay by Oliver Sacks, and the single wish of the main character (whose particular disability, of course, I've forgotten), which was to own one shirt for every day of the year.  In spite of the fact that this man had a daunting psychological impairment, I was still envious of this personal clarity, and the balance of luxury and rationality.  A wild wish that's still within one's grasp, perhaps.

One shirt for every day of the year?  Outrageous!  But then, is that any more unreasonable than folks who have garages full of antique automobiles?  Or collections of... whatever bizarrenesses people collect?  I like his idea, of an array of choices guaranteeing him an almost limitless expanse of choices, but still fitting within a human scale of time and place.  Plus, perhaps most important of all, a stopping point.  How much room -- how many more clothes racks -- would I need, to accommodate almost 400 shirts?  (How many have I already managed to squirrel away, to start with?)

And now, the digression, and its nearly obligatory swerve into a dark, sad past.

It's the summer of 1963, between my junior and senior years of high school.  Somehow (we already know that details escape me) I had blundered onto caddying, at a nearby country club, as my summer job.  In spite of my complete disinterest in the game, and my spindly build (my unofficial nickname, in the caddy holding pen was 'Stick'), I had managed to save up just enough money to go to one of the mid-level men's stores in the Olympia Park shopping center (all the rage!), and buy myself some new trousers, and maybe a sport coat, for the coming school year.

The trousers were especially important.  When I'd started high school, my step-grandfather had taken me with him, to a tailor shop on the east end of McKeesport, where I was measured for two pairs of made-to-order slacks.  One a dark grey, the other, deep forest green.  I picked out the colors myself, and when they were ready, they fit perfectly.  Even though they were a little heavy for the warm September weather, I still decided to wear the green ones to my first day of high school.

And the very first thing anyone said to me, on my first day, in this new school (miles from home, a half-hour bus ride down long winding western Pennsylvania roads -- no chance to run home...), were casually uttered, rather loudly, by one of the coolest kids I'd ever seen.  He looked me up and down.  "I didn't know they still made pants with pleats."  In the kind of tone one might use, to observe, "I didn't know people from your neighborhood still rubbed themselves with bacon grease."

I immediately sat down.  Other kids came in, the bell rang, and the torment of high school began.

No one need be surprised, then, that I instantly hated these trousers, and to the limited extent of my ability to make any choices for myself (in a house where the concept of 'boundary' applied only to entities of a geographic or political nature), I refused to wear them.  My parents, thinking only of how much these pants had cost, were equally, and more potently adamant that, oh yes you will wear those pants, or you know what will happen. 

So, I wore the pants.  Feeling like my midsection was in a spotlight from the moment I left the house in the morning, until I got off the school bus that afternoon, to walk home with my books in front of me, like a girl.
But now, three tormented years later, at the end of August, with school revving up and the all-important senior year about to start, I've got the chance to redeem myself, to some extent, at least in terms sartorial.  (One kid in this new high school -- we'd moved again, new school again -- drove a Jaguar to school; I knew how high to aspire)  My step mother drove me to the mall, to the store of my wildest aspirations, and I got... two pairs of trousers -- emphatically flat-fronted -- and a check jacket that looked good with both.  Alterations would be done in two days; I could have my new clothes a week before Labor Day.

It was only when I'd gotten these new duds home, and was unwrapping them up in the attic, where my brothers and I slept, that the proclamation came.  My father called to me, from the bottom of the attic stairs, to come down to the kitchen, and to bring my new clothes with me.  The nice mid-weight, three-season jacket, tones of tan and olive and grey, fitting like a glove.  The slate grey and charcoal green slacks, neatly cuffed and trim in the front.  ("I didn't know they still made pants with pleats.")

In the kitchen, my father and step-mother, aided by my Horrid Grandmother, who had wedged herself into a chair between the wall and the table, informed me that, because I'd given them so much trouble about wearing 'those pants your grandfather bought for you', they were going to keep my new clothes in their bedroom closet.  And if I wanted to wear them, I had to ask permission.

Here, imagine my own small equivalent of a page, all in black.  

And now, we will draw the curtain over that scene, and all that ensued.  Which ensuing events may be  revisited, perhaps, another time.  Suffice it to say then, that my 'issues' with clothing have deep and twisted roots.  We might find it odd, that my main sartorial focus has been with shirts, though, instead of trousers.  Jeans -- preferably black -- will do, for nearly every occasion requiring decent covering of the lower extremities.  Shirts, however, are another matter.  One for every day of the year..?

So.  Today.  I chose that cream/black/blue check, at first.  When I sat down at the computer though, with my cup of coffee here by my left hand, I realized that I might spill something on it, and it's such a nice shirt, still.  (Pennsauken Goodwill, I'm pretty sure)  So I changed into the work shirt (in case I need to go down to the basement, and glue something onto something else, and slop shellac over everything in sight), and then, daringly, I put that autumn one right on top of it.  Both from Daffy's, as it happens, I'm certain.  Ah.   

Do you like your clothes?  In spite of the way I sometimes treat them, in spite of the piles of them I seem doomed to leave everywhere, I love my clothes.  (Plus, now, I can wear them whenever I want)

©  2011    Walter Zimmerman

Friday, December 16, 2011

Open House, or An Astrological Interpretation

Some people, if they know that there's more to a horoscope than just a sun sign, get their astrological chart calculated.  And then, when they look at their horoscope, some people see a lot of symbols in a circle.  One day, I decided to see my chart as a place, full of characters, and maybe a bit of a story.

Open House

Okay, well, here we are, and it's just about time for tea -- if anybody around here drank tea, that is.  It's nice that it's still light out, isn't it?   It's a little strange, though, there's nobody around.  The front yard's never empty like this, and somebody or other is always trying to climb the catalpa tree.  Yesterday I was out here, there's a neighbor's stupid cat trying to claw her way under the front porch or something.

Anyway, mind that loose step, and -- hello, the front door's unlocked.  Well, I guess at least somebody's home.  And by the way, this little hallway table here?  It's supposed to be really valuable, some Chippen-something, maybe the most valuable thing in the whole house, but they still just leave it here by the window, with this stupid goldfish bowl on it.   There used to be  more than just two.  You ever  wonder what it's like, just circling around like that, so slow in that murky water?  Somebody should change it.  Maybe later. 

This in here is the parlor.  It's usually always empty, just like this, and they just always keep the curtains drawn.  I'm not really sure what color they are.  And across the hall here we have the dining room, except I don't know why we call it that.  Because we never eat here.  You ever see a colder blue?  Huh?  Oh, about the man at the table, who's working?  Well, first of all, that table is where I used to do all my homework -- and that man is our crazy neighbor.  His wife won't let him tinker like this in their house, so he gives my dad a couple dollars.  We call him 'The Inventor'.  And that strange contraption he's got -- oh, don't worry, he never pays attention to anybody else -- anyway, it's  something he says is going to change the world.  He drags things like that into the house all the time.   For I don't know how long, and I really don't think the world has changed that much yet.

Anyway, the kitchen's back this way, in here -- but be quiet -- my mother's in there, by the sink.  She gets like that sometimes, just standing there and staring into her mirror.   She hung it there herself, a long time ago.  So she could watch herself doing chores, she says.  Like the dishes and stuff.  But mostly she just stands there and stares, and she hums some old song or other.  I even seen tears on her cheeks once.  It kind of reminds me of Lot's wife, you know, like in the Bible?  For some reason.  No, I do not think it's a good idea to ask her what she's crying about.  Anyway, she'd just lie about it. 

Let's go up the front stairs -- they don't squeak as much as the back ones.  Yeah, for a house that looks kind of small from the outside, there are a lot of rooms, once you get inside of it.  Now this room, for instance, here on our right, it used to be the nursery, when there were still some little kids in the house.  That's why it's yellow, I guess.  And they've still got a crib set up, although if you ask me, I think it would be a really weird miracle -- well, almost a tragedy, really -- if there was another baby born here.  And that man is my grandfather -- don't worry, he's almost blind, and so deaf, I don't think he can even hear the loudest screams.  He likes to come up here every day -- I think he likes it 'cause it's warm.  He used to say he was watching traffic down in the street, but all he ever did was run his fingers over the slats on the crib, like he's doing now.

(Oh, did you see that?  The clothes closet door there-- it just moved a little. There it is again.  I bet it's that delinquent brother of mine again.  He's always in there, hiding in the winter coats -- they catch him in there all the time.  It's pretty gross, and I probably shouldn't tell you, but anyway, when they pull the door open real fast, they catch him just standing there, with his fly open, and he's holding my sister's old parka tight against him, but just the sleeve part, and his face goes all red, and then he's kind of shaking, like he's having a convulsion or something.  And it doesn't really matter how much they threaten him or give him a beating, he'll just sneak right back, like some stupid thief)

Anyway, this over here is my room -- it's kind of a mess, I'm still only about halfway done with all the moving and stuff.  And yes, believe it or not, that is my same old television.  I have to keep the volume down.  My stupid crabby aunt sleeps across the hall, and she'd just love to come barging in, saying I'm ruining her sleep or something.  One time -- this is so funny -- I actually surprised her -- I pulled the door wide open and  she nearly fell, right on her face, in my room.  I knew I was hearing her out there in the hall, right up against the door, so she could try to surprise me doing something nasty.  Like I was somebody else.  Anyway, I just laughed, and I showed her what I was watching, with the sound practically off -- and I clicked back and forth with the remote, so she could see for herself, between those old reruns of Sea Hunt, and that one new magic show, that's kind of cheesy?  You know the one I mean?  I never knew anybody could smile so much. 

And back here -- oh, all that noise?  No, that is definitely not squirrels.  That is our wonderful attic.   And I would really like take you all the way upstairs to see it -- I mean, that's the whole point, right? -- except that, believe it or not, my fat uncle -- that's his wife who spies on me -- well anyway, my uncle managed, somehow -- he probably got my other brother to help him -- and they squeezed an entire, full-sized pool table up there, and now the rest of us can't get anything else out.  None of our books or any of our other stuff.  Nothing.  And he spends all his time there, smoking his cigars, and making bets over the phone, and then he likes to laugh at his own jokes.  Most of the time my cousin's up there too, when he's around.  He's in the Army now, but he came home on leave last week.  And -- oh yeah, he's definitely up there, 'cause I can hear him arguing with my other brother -- you know, the one with the delivery truck?  They play cards up there for days, and they always try to see who can cheat the most, and my fat uncle, he just lays around smoking and smacks the pool balls around a while for no particular reason.

Well, if you really want to sneak a look, I guess we could go partway up the stairs. The door's in here, way at the back of my parent's bedroom.  Don't touch anything -- we're not supposed to go through here.  Wait a minute -- this is weird -- my mother keeps this door shut real tight, so the smoke stays upstairs.  I'm going to peek --

Oh, now I get it.  Here, take a peek for yourself.  See?  Right where the stairway turns, by the little window?  That's my sister.  Yes, she is beautiful.  She's really the most beautiful one of all of us, I think.  But I feel bad for her lately.  Yeah, lately, she's been sitting up there a lot, just looking out the window.  She was dating a guy -- I think he sold sporting goods or something -- and he promised he was going to take her on a trip or go around to Europe or something.  But then he didn't show up, and she hasn't heard from him, and I think she thinks she'll see his car from up there.  It's red.

Oh man, look what time it is!  We better leave.  Let's get a coffee downtown, okay?  No, well, see, I forgot, my dad's working days this week, and he's home any minute.  It's just better, that's all.  Okay?

Be real quiet on the stairs, okay?  We could always come back.   If you want. 

©  2011   Walter Zimmerman

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Thinking About Rewards, Plus Other Stuff

Last night, I was simultaneously winding down from my compulsive search through Facebook, desperate for content and connection, and mulling over, in the back of my mind, what I might want to write about today.  Then I hit on a brilliant idea.  Brilliant, for me, that is.

I took a creative writing class in Rochester NY, years ago, while I was waiting for John to finish his doctoral work at the Eastman School of Music.  He was studying, oh, 18th century polyphony or something like that; I was sitting with a group of women, learning about the craft of creating a personal essay.  My teacher, a delightful, tiny bird-like woman, with red hair (name, of course, obliterated -- I think I have a piece of kneaded eraser in my head, where name retention normally resides), gave us the most interesting assignments -- most of which, of course, I have also forgotten. (Job security for her, I suppose)  The one I do remember was just this simple: write an essay, and there must be a broom in it.  I still love the piece that I wrote, and if I can ever find it again, I'll put it here, so you can see for yourselves.

So, last night, after I finally wrenched myself away from the great wasteland that is Facebook (I can see it now: a topographical map of cyberspace, with Facebook as an enormous, featureless expanse, like the Sahara across the top of Africa.  Only bigger.  And I'll be out there in the middle somewhere, crawling, crawling...), after I finally clicked on the little inverted triangle, and signed out, I opened a Word document, and began to create... The Hatchery.

In honor of my anonymous, but dearly respected writing teacher, I'm building a repository of notions and themes and ideas, which I hope will serve as springboards for me, at moments like... this, for instance, when the world seems as blank as that cyber map of Facebook.  And I've already spooled out at least eighteen topics, around which, I hope, will coalesce some things of interest for you, the viewer.

Today's topic, then, is going to be 'Rewards'.

But first, a commercial, while I plug... someone else's blog.

Go to 'People I Want to Punch in the Throat', on  I think I love this woman, though if I were to meet her, I'd want to wear a kevlar turtleneck, as I'm sure I'd probably fall into her target audience.  Today, she was expatiating on The Christmas Elf phenomenon, about which (as a childless elderly man) I knew nothing, but the gist of which was easy enough to pick up. 

[My own suggestion for a great way to use the Elf for maximum good-behavior-inducement, with minimum stress on an already holiday-crazed mom: tie said Elf to a non-flammable support surface, and strap little Elf-bombs across his little Elf midsection.  A small timed Elf-detonator would be a nice touch.  At the slightest sign of prepubescent misbehavior, said mom gets to have at the vulnerable little Elf, using a handy household blowtorch (Mapp gas burns especially hot) (or even the mini-version so popular for crisping the top of your creme-brulee, you bourgeois swine), and reducing said Elf to nothing more than a charred midsection, with the inane, grinning head left, lolling off to one side.  Presto!  Deep psychic damage, and no more shopping for presents!  It's that simple!]

But, as usual, I've digressed -- check out 'People I Want to Punch in the Throat...' -- I think she's scary hilarious.

And now, 'Reward', by Walter Zimmerman, at BadSadBlog.  Sponsored by caffeine, indoor plumbing, fluorescent light, and Dr. John Sheridan.

When, I wonder, did I first learn about the concept of 'reward'?  It seems so deeply ingrained, and so simple, I suppose.  But, on closer examination, the mechanism of reward seems, to me at least, to reveal a surprising complexity.

The earliest, and most gratifying rewards I can recall were the good grades I got in school.  (Or, more properly, 'schools', as there were an even dozen of them, before I walked across the stage and got my high school diploma)  And even those rewards were, I think, more like moonlight than sunshine -- for myself, those little letters on a piece of paper called a Report Card were fairly meaningless, but it was clear that, for my parents, these marks had great significance, and I quickly learned to love the reflected pleasure -- I do well in school; I get 'good' grades; parents approve of grades; parents approve of me; I feel good.  It's that easy.

Third grade, however, threw a big monkey wrench (have I ever seen a monkey wrench?) into what I thought was reliably well-oiled machinery.   Actually, at first my third grade teacher (name, of course, forgotten -- I seem to remember a smallish, dark-haired woman with a tendency to scowl) --  wasn't especially unpleasant.  Plus, in addition to the standard report card, she had her own system of rewards -- rewards that didn't involve taking anything home to our parents.  She had sheets of little glue-backed stickers, with any number of pictures on them -- pumpkins or turkeys for the Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving seasons, candy canes or big red stockings for Christmas, butterflies or birds for more generic times of the year -- and when we'd done well on an assignment, there was a sticker, prominently displayed, beside the letter grade, as the papers were returned, passed hand to hand, down the row of little desks.  

As the year developed, however, this teacher grew to seem especially displeased by almost anything I did.  We had to fold our sheets of paper for a spelling test, for instance, creasing them neatly and vertically down the middle to make two columns, but my columns were never straight enough to suit her.  And of course, the harder I tried to make the paper fold evenly, the worse it got.  Then I misspelled my name 'Watler', and she trumpeted my stupidity to the class.  This boy can't even spell his own name!  I wasn't liking the third grade very much at all.  It was going to be a long year.

Arithmetic assignments and tests were particularly bad.  Now I seem able -- to my lingering amazement -- to do simplish multiplications in my head, but back in that third grade class room, I was terrible at arithmetic.  And in what I guess was a mathematical relationship, the more disapproval I felt, the worse I got.  It was just a perfect little storm of 5's and 7's, multiplications and divisions, gathering darkly over that one desk in the back of the classroom.

Worst for me, though, was the empty space at the top of every single arithmetic paper I got back that year.  Because I sat in the back of the class (alphabetical tyranny), I could see my paper making its way down the row -- usually be the only one unadorned, standing out sadly among a crowd of bluebirds or sunflowers.

At first, I stuffed these shaming papers into the space under the seat of my desk, where my textbooks and lunch were supposed to go, and I soon had quite a collection -- a little sideways cyclone of failure.  Then I decided, in a kind of subliminal kinship with non-violent resistance movements everywhere, to create my own pictures.  From then on, on the tops of all my dismal arithmetic papers, I drew the most elaborate designs I could imagine.  Working away with my standard yellow number two pencil, I drew sailing ships, and dragons, and lots of horses -- I was in a big horse phase then -- or swans.  Maybe no one would ever see these drawings, but somehow I had blundered onto a kind of covert reward system, known of, and valued by, me alone.

(And by the way -- in high school? Algebra was a snap)

By the time I was 12, paper stickers wouldn't have been as effective, in terms of validation.  I'd been through some changes that couldn't be easily altered by a picture of a pretty rose, or a robin.  My family had blown apart, and my brothers and I had been institutionalized.  After eighteen months there, I'd been taken out of the orphanage, and a year later, my brothers came home too.  Because I was the oldest, I was given a job, in the restaurant owned by my step-mother's parents.  Every Saturday, I was allowed (as I think it was put) to clean, sweep and mop the restaurant floors.  Some Sundays, I was also taken up the road, to clean the floors in a bar they also owned, next to  bowling alley.  And unfortunately, as with third grade arithmetic --  but with far heavier consequences -- I did a terrible job.

The sweeping went all right -- it was pretty straightforward, and even I could tell where the dirt was, and where it wasn't.  In the orphanage, where all the kids had chores to do, I did my share of clean-up, like everyone else.  But for me, oddly enough, it was the whole mopping thing that I seemed unable to grasp.

Actually, I'd never mopped a floor.  At the orphanage, we'd done all the floor cleaning on our hands and knees, with a rag and bucket, Annie-style.  And, whenever we had to scrub, we only cleaned our own narrow upstairs hallway, or the bathroom where we all brushed our teeth in the morning.  This restaurant I had to clean each week was, by comparison, vast, and complex.  There were the booths to contend with, and tables and chairs in the back room.  The greasy, high-traffic space behind the counter, where the grilling was done, and where there were sinks and shelves and other things that got in the way.  The whole back-kitchen area, with the big industrial mixers, and the slop sinks and ovens, posed a maze of things to work around and under and behind.  Every Saturday.

I did the best I could.  I suppose I thought that everyone else knew how to do this, kind of automatically, and I just had to figure it out for myself.  I filled the big metal double bucket, with the squeezy-thing on one end, to wring out the mop.  I added some soap, to make it sudsy.  Pulled the sloshing thing to the far end of the restaurant, and started working.  Pushed with that heavy old mop, squeezed it dry, dipped it in the water (which was already getting murkier by the minute) and started again.  Intermittently hauling everything back toward the slop sink, so I could haul the bucket up over the edge, spill out the dirty water, add some clean, and pick up where I'd left off.  (Violins, please?  I'm not hearing any here...)

I don't remember how long the job took, on average.  Sometimes, during bad weather, the floors were dirtier than usual.  When the restaurant had begun to fail, there was less and less foot traffic, so my job was, comparatively, easier.  But it always took the better part of the day.  And it was never done correctly, according to the woman I will forever refer to as my Horrid Grandmother.  She would stalk around the place, hands on her hips, shaking her head and clucking her tongue.  Not good enough.  Not clean enough.  'When it's done right, the water in the bucket should be clean,' she said in disapproval, week in and week out, and often enough I had to do it all over again, still not grasping the concept of mop water turning clean.  Jesus, in spite of the water-into-wine stuff, wasn't about to bother Himself with my mop-water problem.  

There was a reward for this work, though.   I was paid $5 every week.  The money went into a bank account, in my name.  The closest I came to having any actual contact with this reward was a weekly trip to the local bank branch, with a passbook, and a $5 bill.  The summer after I'd completed the eighth grade, and still couldn't mop the floors correctly, I was directed to take all that money out of the bank, and to use it to purchase a round-trip bus ticket to Clearwater FL, for a two-week visit with my father's parents.  The trip took 3 days, and the sandwiches I had to eat, prepared ahead of time at home and packed into my step-mother's blue vinyl vanity case, tasted of lipstick and perfume.  When my Florida stay ended, I begged my grandfather to let me stay.  The request seemed to pain him.  He said no.

There had been one silly little reward, though, in all that sweeping and piling of chairs, all the scrubbing and mopping -- a reward something like the drawings I did on my failed arithmetic papers.  While I was laboriously doing everything wrong, I decided to use the restaurant floor as a kind of checker-board canvas.  With the soapy mop and the grey water, I created swooping, impermanent paintings -- swirls of soap suds swishing this way and that over the dingy red-and-white squares.  The celery-stalk shapes I could make were especially gratifying, both physically and aesthetically -- you push the mop and soap up away from yourself, jiggle the mop-head around a little, side to side, and then pull the mophead back toward yourself.  A quick pull made crisp lines; a leisurely pull left a soapy trail of something softer and more languorous.  Celery!  I would make rows of these bubbly shapes, and then pile other suds marks on top of them, until I had to obliterate it all, and move on.  I also stole ice cream sandwiches out of the back freezer, hoping no one would take inventory, but who could count the number of celery marks I made, every week?  They were mine.

(Note to self: potential autobiography title -- 'Laugh, or Die')

One last reward for today.

It was the late spring of 1964, and I was finished with high school.  I had done well enough, I guess.  I'd been made a member of the National Honor Society, and on the day of the announcements, the gym teacher himself excused me from class, so I knew that was special.  I'd been considered for a scholarship from a local civic group, but because I didn't have any funding yet for college, they gave the money to someone else.  I also got a Letter of Commendation from some scholastic achievement group, along with an invitation to attend, with my parents, a big award ceremony, to be held in Pittsburgh, on the University of Pittsburgh campus, in the Cathedral of Learning.  The thought of entering that mythic building nearly made me sick with awe.  Much more to my surprise, both my father and my stepmother not only agreed that I could go, but decided to take me there themselves.  (Evening bus service between McKeesport and Pittsburgh being what it was in those days, I guess)  The ceremony was to begin late on a weekday afternoon.  The trip to Pittsburgh, with traffic, would take an hour.

I'd loved going into Pittsburgh, on my own, on Saturdays, on the rare occasion when I was given permission.  I always went to the Carnegie Museum, to look at the natural history displays.  I was drawn to the dioramas of ferocious beasts.  Hulking bison.  Saber-toothed tigers attacking giant sloths in pits of tar.  It all seemed dreamlike and strangely reassuring to me.

I was in a very different place in my life now.  I'd been lectured, from eighth grade, on the importance of earning good grades so I could go to college.  But when I started that last year of high school, the concept of college seemed to have vanished.  The word was never spoken.  There seemed no possibility that 'college' could be a topic of discussion.  With the help of my high-school art teacher, I'd managed to complete and mail in one application form, but months later, I heard from that school that I'd omitted something important from my package.  I had to beg my parents for the $10 application fee; by the time it got to the school, the next fall's applicants had already been chosen.

So.  Now I was done with school, and classes and homework were no longer useful as a shelter, any talk in our house, referring to me and my future, circled more and more tightly around two options: get a job by the end of August, or enlist in the military.  The most guidance I got was my father's assurance, as I was looking through local want ads ("Stock boy wanted, local menswear shop"), that I could support myself on $60 a month.  I had no idea what that meant.   

So, on that drive into Pittsburgh, I was wrapping a lot of hope around this letter of commendation, and on the awards that were to be handed out that evening.  As usual, I held my breath when we drove through the Squirrel Hill tunnel, and I kept a lookout, first for the Orthodox Cathedral, with its odd cross, over to our left, and then for the cleft in the hills on the right, framing Oakland, and the Cathedral of Learning.  We arrived in plenty of time, for a change, and found some seats up on the third tier of the main hallway.  There was already a group of students up on the stage with the announcer.  I hoped that didn't mean what I was pretty sure it did.

Who could remember what anyone said, or who got what prize?  Who stumbled over his chair, or who put her hand over her face, and so on and so forth?  I do know, though, that I was strained to near bursting with expectation.  I was certain that, any minute now, they would open the special hidden envelope, tucked under the podium, and holding two or three extra-special names. kept for the very last.  One name, even.  One.

The tone and rhythms on the stage signaled that the ceremony was about to end.  I'd seen one other kid I knew -- a really smart boy, from the sixth grade I'd attended -- sitting with his folks, down on the ground floor.  His name hadn't been called.  Neither had mine. My father wanted to go and get to the car before traffic got too bad.  I hung back.  I kept looking through those tall sandstone openings, still hoping that there would be one last surprise -- a surprise that would give me a third choice, instead of having as my alternative these two: either shelving shirts and sweaters in a men's store, or putting on a uniform.

To all appearances, certainly, there was no reward for me that night (aside from that useless letter) -- not even as desperate as my home-made arithmetic drawings, or those sudsy shapes on the restaurant floor.  In late June, I did get a summer job, working in a ratty local amusement park.  In September, when the park closed for the season, my father took me downtown to the Air Force enlistment office.  He signed the papers committing me, at 17, to a four-year tour of duty.

Now as it happens, I've come to believe that, if I'd gone to college immediately after high school, I might have experienced a kind of 'dry bends' -- that the sudden release of the relentless control and disapproval with which I'd lived at home might have proved either toxic, or fatal.  Death by freedom?  Is that possible?  What I do know, for sure, was that military life was considerably less constrained than living under my parents' roof, and later, my service provided actual monetary support, when I did finally go to college.

But on that spring night in Pittsburgh, leaving the cool stone halls in the Cathedral of Learning, I felt abandoned.  I was experiencing, I guess, a kind of dreamer's disappointment.  It might seem surprising that, given what I knew about life and betrayal by that time, I would still entertain much of anything in the way of expectation.  I seem to be a very fertile ground, though, for the propagation of hope.  Hope, that I once described in a letter as 'a snake in a clown's hat'.   Now I think of it as an unreliable weed, an alluring but toxic sort of raspberry/poison ivy hybrid of the soul, digging in and popping up, stubborn and prickly, in the least likely places.  I wouldn't even mind its perennial failures, if it were just a little more productive of something nourishing -- something just a little bit amusing, or with a prettier bloom.  When hope does turn treacherous -- as I'm sure happens to most of us -- I have at least been able, sometimes, to cobble together a clumsy proxy as a consolation prize, even if it's only made of a few pencil lines, or impermanent patterns of dirty, soapy water.  And then, sometimes, not.     

© 2011     Walter Zimmerman

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Under the Weather, and What That Entails...

Today, we seem to be engaged in the latest episode of 'Sinus Wars', and I'm on the losing side.  Plus, I'm playing host to a bi of that oh-so-amusing bronchial congestion we all enjoy so much.  My voice currently sounds like two dry large rocks being rubbed together...

But then, it's not congestive heart failure, either, to be sure.  (And here, I'm afraid, I begin to swerve into dangerous territory)  (Or... not)  Which reminds me (and I know you knew it would) of a human interest story I read, a few years ago, about a woman who had been diagnosed with a severe, but treatable form of cancer.  According to the story, while she went through the rigors of treatment, she was also given a particular instruction, from her physician --  "Medical regimen aside, if you want to do something, do it.  And if you don't, don't."   The article went on to explore how this simple prescription, along with the rigors of chemotherapy, altered her life.

The thing that I found interesting was my reaction -- not to the challenges of the disease, but rather, to this doctor's advice.  I found myself feeling a little jealous.  Why couldn't I 'get away' with something so simple, as doing what I wanted, and not doing what I didn't?  Why would I need the permission of someone else -- though, in my world, the word of a doctor does carry a certain appreciable weight -- to live, essentially, my own life?  And can this kind of leeway only be granted in the case of serious illness?

Even if I thought that being ill or disabled might be to my advantage, I've never been particularly 'good', at sickness.  Some people make wonderful patients -- cooperative, agreeable, obedient, not prone to running about with IV drips behind them.  In my own case, as an adult, I'm pretty sure I'm less than ideal, under doctor's care.  I get cranky, and just want to be left alone.   Luckily, I've enjoyed good physical health for most of my life, so this less-attractive side of my personality has remained largely unrevealed.  Even my very earliest illnesses, however serious, didn't present much of a challenge, to remain civil while being ill.

When I was just six, and we had just completed our fifth move as a family -- this time, from East St. Louis, to an outlying suburb -- I came down with pneumonia.  Because I was only a little boy, I had no idea how ill I was.  What I recall mostly was sleeping out on the living room sofa, and my mother's tender solicitude, the doctor's visits (in that antediluvian era when physicians actually left their offices from time to time) and the pills he prescribed for me to -- big pills, yellow ones and white ones, that had a bad smell, and were hard to swallow.  I stayed home from school for weeks.  When I was well enough to sit up, but not yet well enough to go to school, I ate my breakfast of oatmeal and milk in front of the television, watching Hopalong Cassidy, and the Cisco Kid.  When there weren't cowboy shows for my amusement, I would look through my first grade reader -- I must have brought it home with me before I got sick, and I was excited to be able to read.

As I later learned, that winter I almost died.  (Is that why my mother was so caring, because of the drama?)   Of course, I had no idea how sick I was -- and what would a child do with such knowledge anyway?  I did know that, because I had missed so much school, I might have to repeat the first grade.  My teacher's greatest concern, she said, was that I wouldn't be able to keep up with the next year's reading.  My parents arranged a special visit with her, and as my father stood by, the teacher and I sat at a little table and I read that first-grade reader I'd had at home.  All the way through.  All by myself.  Every word, correct.  I could go to second grade after all.  I can still recall that little-boy pride, but I'm also afraid that, at some level, I still expect my mother to show up now, when I'm ill now -- an expectation that fills me with dismay.


I've turned nine years old, my bout of pneumonia is just a vague memory, and I'm living in the great dark house on the hill.  It's my week for kitchen duty, and  this morning, I'm pouring the milk.   With a big, cold aluminum pitcher, filled to the brim, I go from table to table, filling the other children's glasses, or maybe pouring a little milk into a housemother's coffee cup.  At the table nearest the kitchen door, the handyman, Mr Phyffe, holds out his bowl of the strange, coarse brown cereal he brings to the table every morning, in a white envelope in his jacket pocket.  There are many rumors about what properties this cereal must have.  I add milk until he lets me know it's enough, and then I turn to fill the glass held out by one of the older boys.  He snatches it back, before I can get the pitcher into position.

'Get away from me,' he yells.  'I ain't drinkin' that milk!  You got the mumps!'  I start to cry, and run into the kitchen, the remaining milk sloshing in the pitcher.

I'd been afraid of this.  There had been a minor outbreak of mumps at The Home. Lots of the kids had gotten them, and rumors about what mumps meant, and what they could do, were in heavy circulation.  We heard who had them on one side of their neck, or the other.  Who'd had them on both, and was that better or worse?  And then that morning, when I'd been brushing my teeth, I thought my neck looked a little taut and swollen.  Felt a little warm.  But I had hoped it wasn't so -- I hoped no one would notice.  It would probably be my fault, and I would get in trouble.  And now here I was, standing in the warm kitchen, with Mrs. Boyce, the cook, gently holding my head, and asking me to turn from side to side.
'You'd better go on down to the infirmary,' she said, and she pointed me toward the back door.

Sick kids at The Home didn't stay in the main building.  They were housed in a separate facility, an old, two-story white clapboard house, down a steep, narrow side service driveway, and across the road.  To me, it felt strange and dangerous, walking down there that morning, all by myself, with no one watching me.  There were cornfields nearby, with dried stalks still standing, tall enough maybe to hide someone.  There was a thin bit of treeless woods beyond, a dip in the landscape, and then another, larger, denser forest.  I thought about many things, as I crossed the two-lane road.  

Where would I go?  Without my jacket.  With the mumps?  My face felt hot.  My throat hurt.  I knocked on the Infirmary door, and the nurse led me in.

What a reprieve.  What a miracle.  Because most of the other kids had already been sick, and had recovered, I was in a room all by myself, in a big cool clean bed, with smooth sheets, a soft pillow, and an extra blanket.  The nurse brought me my meals.  I drank big glasses of orange juice.  During the day, when I wasn't eating in bed or resting in that bright room, there were books to read, and I had  a box of crayons, and some blank paper.  It makes me laugh to remember what I drew -- ball gowns.  Empty, uninhabited, self-supporting ball gowns.  Each of them had the same heart-shaped neckline, and a full, billowing skirt.  I put my very best efforts into these fashion fantasies, making up stories for each color combination.  It was deeply gratifying.  And at night, when the shades had been pulled down, the sheer white curtains drawn, and lights put out, it was quiet.  Here, in this house at least, no one had a razor strap. No one got beaten.  In this instance, my illness brought me to shelter and safety, when it was sorely needed.

And much more recently, I had a health challenge that probably disturbed John more than it did me.  We were living in Jersey City at the time, and I'd been hired, for one semester, to teach glass-blowing classes at an arts university in Philadelphia.  I had visited the place, and knew that these classes would keep me on my feet, for six hours at a stretch, in, essentially, a factory setting -- which prominently featured a concrete floor.  Two of these classes were for beginners, so I knew I'd be moving almost constantly about on that concrete floor, as I tried to help each student understand, and succeed at, the mystery of glassblowing.

For a year before, though, I'd been having minor trouble with my left leg, and with some veins that had begun to throb and protrude.  A surgeon recommended stripping out this pre-varicose venation, and it made sense to do this as a preventive measure, rather than possibly incurring a semester's worth of damage.  The doctor said this would be, at most, a half-day procedure, and that I just had to make sure someone could drive me home afterwards.  No problem.  For better or for worse, right? 

The surgery was a snap, as these things go.  I had a spinal block, instead of general anaesthesia (we'll talk about that another time, perhaps), so I was awake, more or less, during the procedure.  Capable of, say, shifting myself on the table, if the doctor wanted my leg in a different position.  They'd draped a blue curtain across my chest -- I was hoping there would be a puppet show-- so mostly I looked at the ceiling, and I remember thinking they really should attend to the acoustic tiles up there -- some of them were broken, or discolored, or water-damaged, and I could see up the suspension system up above them.  Only later did it occur to me that this should have given me pause.  But as I was also being given a valium drip, I suspect that, had a small, manageable-looking one-alarm fire had broken out in the room, I wouldn't have been too upset.

Later, I woke up (when did I go to sleep, I wondered?) in different ward, in another bed, hooked up to an IV drip, with one of those wheeled poles we see so often on TV.  John was due, in a few minutes, to pick me up, but I still had to regain sensation in my legs, and prove to the nurse that my excretory system was fully under my control, before I could be released.  My legs proved to be remarkably uncooperative -- perhaps they liked being asleep?  Maybe they needed the rest?  I kept pounding on them, to see if anyone was home, but the response was negligible.  And of course, until the legs decided to reanimate themselves, that other little quiz was out of the question.  Pound, wriggle, jiggle, pound.  Wiggle wiggle wiggle.  I think one of my toes was first to acknowledge its allegiance to, and connection with, a larger entity.

This is how John found me, dressed in that flimsy paper hospital drape (don't tell me it's a gown.  I drew real gowns when I had the mumps.  I know gowns), still hooked up to tubes and hanging plastic sacks, with that goofy metal holder lurking by the bed.  I was thinking that, at that moment, I looked more than ever like the strange glass/mixed media sculpture I'd been doing (it always did have a medical/industrial flavor), but from the stunned look on John's face, I was reminded that this isn't who he recognizes as me.  I'm the one, after all, who likes to joke around, picking him up at the waist and bouncing him there.  Now, I couldn't even stand up.  My legs were only beginning to respond to nerve impulses, and I still had a bathroom exam to pass.

It took just over an hour to get things back to something approaching normal, so we could go home.  I think that, by then, John had gotten over most of his initial shock, but his completely understandable reaction still resonated.  He was patient, about having to do all the driving for a while.  A month later, after some surprisingly painful therapy (mainly involving, simply going for a twenty-minute walk twice a day), I was more or less recovered, and didn't anticipate any trouble with the upcoming teaching challenge.  At least, not with my legs.

But, to get back to some of my original thoughts, and my general trepidation about being ill -- I depend, to a greater extent than I'm comfortable admitting, on my general health and heartiness, and even on a certain degree of physical strength, for a very significant part of my self-worth.  I'm literally afraid of not being able to 'pull my own weight'.  Perhaps, having been found to be literally disposable, I tend to work that much harder to maintain both a store of physical hardiness, as well as something like an observable value to society in general.  The woman I read about, who had her battle with cancer, was given a kind of reprieve from this particular challenge, I suppose -- though admittedly the cost to her was terrible, and I'm certain she would just as soon have been healthy, and loaded with obligations, instead of ill and permitted to do as she pleased.

For me, though -- as I suspect may be true for others as well -- incapacity is truly terrifying.  No matter how many blue disability tags I might have hanging from my rear-view mirror, I have the sense that, if I exhibit any observable loss of capacity, I become like prey.  No one wants to know about my inner dialogue, when I recently twisted my knee, and was hobbling around in public.  Is it any surprise, then, that as I plummet into my seniority (I'm afraid my 'golden years' will prove to contain more brass than not), I have major trepidations.  Falling in the tub?  Slipping on the stairs?  I'm beginning to wonder if I shouldn't just create a huge rubbery beach-ball suit for myself, and try to start at trend.

For today, though, it's just the annoyance of a head cold, some stuffy sinus drama, and an attendant bit of chest congestion.  On the semi-brighter side -- if there is such a thing -- I'm singing in church next Sunday, and as I have the bass part, I should sound particularly resonant.  There will, however, be no cart-wheels, hand-stands, or low front rolls as an encore.   

© 2011  Walter Zimmerman