Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Ah, Wednesday...

Well, isn't life a mystery -- like anyone needs to be reminded of that.  Here I sit, slurping down my second giant cup of coffee, and squabbling with myself about what I should write today -- something new?  Or should I post one of the things I've cached away?  Decisions, decisions...

But,  oddly enough, the fact that it's Wednesday has an unexpected resonance.  Let's just see where this takes us.  I might not be so surprised, but some of you might be.  (Oh, just knowing that someone's out there -- priceless...)

Wednesday -- Wodin/Odin's day.  King of the Norse Gods.  Wounded and still in charge.  Interesting, now that I think of it, that the Vikings would worship a one-eyed god, a god who sacrificed his vision, for the sake of wisdom.  I guess I shouldn't complain about needing reading glasses.

I was born on a Wednesday.  This is supposed to make Wednesday a day of special significance for me.  I'm not sure how that has played out, in general, over my lifetime.  (I've always prefered Fridays, to be perfectly honest)

I was born on Wednesday, October 16th, as a matter of fact.  (Not trolling for birthday greetings, just meandering along)  At 3:40 in the afternoon, in St. Margaret's Hospital, in Montgomery Alabama.  St. Margaret, by the way, is the patron saint of childbirth, and in early Renaissance paintings, she often shows up as a dragon.  Having only heard, once, on the radio, a live broadcast from a maternity ward, with the announcer blandly going on about something, and one woman in the background screaming incoherently, in a fashion I had never thought possible from a human being, I think a dragon is pretty appropriate.

On October 16th, from about the age of five or six, I was allowed to pick what I wanted for my special birthday dinner that night.  In spite of her fairly universal plan of parental neglect, my mother did seem interested or amused enough to follow through with my preferences: breaded, french-fried shrimps, french fried potatoes, and lima beans.  All of which, to my eternal shame, I would douse with ketchup.  (It was Illinois in the 50's -- I don't think Grey Poupon had crossed the Atlantic just yet)

The highlight of the meal, however, once the ketchup had been wiped from the face, was The Cake -- a white angel food cake, with pink, almond-flavored frosting.  I have no idea how I discovered angel food cake, but with its spring airiness, it has always struck me as almost abstract -- an imaginary food, like manna in the dessert.  Only sweet.  The pink frosting was, in some way I think, an inducement for my mother to follow through with her promises for once -- pink being her favorite color, as she freely admitted all the time.  "I'm going to have a big pink Cadillac," she would say, in her cultivated, slightly skewed Southern accent, "and live in an apartment in New York City, right there on Park Avenue."  (Tennessee Williams might not have loved my mother, had he known her, but he certainly would have found room for her in at least one scene or another)

The almond flavoring?  It smelled the same as my mother's Jergen's Lotion.  I suppose, in some sense, I was creating my own primitive version of communion, once a year -- consumed with love for a woman whose chief attribute was indifference, I had at least one annual chance to act out that passion,  to build up, inside myself, a reserve of this adored woman, who seemed determined to distance herself as much as possible.  The Park Avenue apartment (wherever that was), wouldn't have room for children.

(I did have one birthday party, on Oct. 16th -- probably not a Wednesday, but still -- and there were maybe five other little kids there, from my second-grade class, plus Wanda, the girl next door, whose nasty blond cocker spaniel, though always chained outside to the garage, was the terror of the neighborhood.  At some point during this party, maybe while the plates were being cleared away and the pink, candle-lit cake was floating down, one of those kids passed a bit of chicken pox along to everyone else.  Including me.  And my three brothers and my sister.  Meaning that, within days, my brothers and I were locked in a dark bedroom, until the itching stopped and the blotches went away) 

(No birthday parties after that.  Ever)

Wednesday, October 16th.

Years later, long after the chicken pox, I was living in western Pennsylvania, in the smallish three-bedroom house (one bath, for... 6 people?  How did we do it?) my father and step-mother had bought with the proceeds of the sale of my step-mother's prized maroon Mercury convertible.  Which exchange was made, so that my three brothers could be brought from the United Presbyterian Children's Orphanage, and we would all surely have a nice, Disney-style suburban life.  Reading circles were envisioned.

But things didn't go so well, after the car-house swap.  My father lost his new job, filling vending machines with candy bars, and stocking coffee makers in office buildings in Pittsburgh -- he brought the used coffee grounds home, and we had a pile of them outside the outside basement door, which grounds were to become compost, which was never put to any use that I can recall.  And at about the same time my father was bringing home the last of the free compost material, my step-mother became pregnant with her first child.           

Stress fought with oxygen for dominance in the atmosphere of that house, and oxygen didn't always win.  In an on-going effort to control four young boys -- I was the only one over ten -- my desperate parents devised and revised and implemented and revisited a wide range of rules and regulations and specific behaviors and prohibitions, none of which seemed to last for more than a few days at most, many of which contradicted those of the week before, and none of which my little brothers could obey.  Punishments came and went.  Beatings were showered upon little shoulders and butts and legs.  There was an egg timer on the dining room table, and we ate to its ticking -- woe, should there be an unswallowed mouthful when the timer went off.

(I'm getting to the Wednesday part again, you know) (Even Wednesday, October 16th)

My chief refuge at the time was school -- a one-story brick elementary school, a short bus-ride from the top of our hill.  I flourished at school -- there, the rules were dependable, the rewards consistent, the results of effort reliable, and the relief from the relentless tension in my home beyond telling.  The school had a little library, and I could take home a book or two, every week, to use as shelter (as long as I appeared to have homework, I was somehow exempt from the madness that was otherwise steady and rampant).  For some reason, for a while I picked my reading from a series of short biographies, aimed at children, about famous women in world history.  I learned about Marie Curie and radium.  I studied about Cleopatra, wondered at death by asp, and even gave a paper about her to my class.  The next one in the series, bound in a pale green cloth cover, was the life of Marie Antoinette.   

Glamorous.  Silly.  Dazzling, with all those diamonds.  Unnervingly tragic, with that near-escape at Varennes, caused in part by dithering, and in part because she couldn't understand not traveling in regal style. (I still accuse myself of belonging to the 'Marie Antoinette school of packing', which means that, when I travel, I take along everything within reach)  Harrowing, with her family's imprisonment in Paris.  And ultimately, unbearable, with the image of her sitting, her cropped hair white now with grief instead of powder, sitting in a plain wooden cart with her arms secured behind her back, lurching along the cobblestone streets, to her execution.  At about 10 am, on a Wednesday, the 16th of October, 1793.

I must have read that book at least eight or ten times, hoping, somehow, that it would end differently.  The coincidence of day and date -- her gruesome dying, my dragon-guarded birth, even if they were centuries and cultures apart -- made me feel somehow guilty, and complicit.  I suppose that, on some romantic level, and despite the difference in gender, I identified with this unfortunate woman, who, without effort or care, through mere accident of birth, had had so much, and then had it all taken away from her, to the very breaking of her body.  

But back now to the hills of western Pennsylvania, 1959, as the steel mills churned, and and our home life careened madly along...

As I mentioned, the rules under which my brothers and I lived were so whimsical and ever-changing that, even with my best efforts, I couldn't avoid breaking some of them myself.  And as I suppose is natural, I developed a preference for some punishments arising from the breaking of these rules and regulations.   My favorite -- if you can call it that -- was to be sent to the room I shared with two of my brothers, and my step-mother's cousin Gerard (the only real orphan in the family, and who never saw an institution, that I know of), where for an allotted time, or until someone decided that I'd learned my lesson, I had to sit, alone. 

Alone.  All alone.  All, all alone.

Or so they thought.  What 'lesson' was to be learned, I could never understand.  But I as soon as I sat down, on the grey kitchen chair with the torn vinyl covering, I began to relax.  I would look up into the corner, where the  white ceiling met the pale blue walls, and begin saying, over and over to myself, 'Marionette, Marie Antoinette, marionette, Marie Antoinette, marionette...'  Over and over.  Over and over. 

I don't know how long it took, or how it happened, but that litany of words reliably transported me, every single time, to someplace far, far away.  I can't tell you, now, what I saw, or what I did, or where I might have been.  Someplace, perhaps, where helpless dolls escaped from their strings, or where pretty, doomed women gave their merciless pursuers the slip.  Maybe a lush royal garden, with a fountain in the background, and a game of badminton on the lawn, and off to one side, sitting on a little table, cherry-scented pink cakes.  Wherever it was that I went, though, that torn grey vinyl chair was as effective for me as the most luxurious magic carpet.  Whatever day it was, whatever the weather, that little mantra was a rope ladder, going up into the light.  And the allotted time, the onerous duration of this dread punishment for some trivial, imaginary offense?  It was never long enough.

© 2011   Walter Zimmerman

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some Random Things

Ah.  I feel so good, sitting here, typing stuff into this little box, and suspecting that someone will soon be reading it.  Thanks to all of you, who have been so kind, and have enjoyed my posts thus far.

But I believe I'm going to take something of a break today, from the deep delving I've been doing into my own history.  (Don't for a moment think, however, that the topic has been anything like exhausted.  Oh no.....)  Instead, I'm thinking of a couple of random observations, some prompted by the time of year, and some by... well, you'll see.

First, I'm thinking, curiously enough, about genetically-modified food stuffs, and lawn care.

To be perfectly honest, I don't really know all that much, factually, about genetically-modified food, except for what I glean from postings on Facebook.  But I seem, dimly, to understand that, somehow or other, in nice clean labs that don't at all resemble a place where you'd find Boris Karloff lying about, legitimate scientists have figured out how to graft genetic material from, oh mice it was, I think, onto the genetic material of, I believe it was tomatoes, wasn't it?  Mouse tomatoes.  Or maybe it was the corn.  Something like that.

(As an aside, I do find this a bit disturbing, probably because I don't really understand it, but also because, oh I don't know, it just seems jarring, this mixing of rodents and salad.  I mean, we don't have tomato traps, do we?  I know the justifications are principally economic -- extra freshness as those woody, pale round reddish things are dragged across continents, to be arranged in luminous piles in the produce sections of high-end supermarkets -- you know they light the tomatoes differently, don't you?  To make them look redder?  I just don't want to be the first one to make the Weird News section, because I sliced open my wooden tomato, to find an inverted mouse hide inside) (Just sayin')

But, all things tomato (or possibly corn) aside, I do think they have something, these splice-meisters, with their high-powered microscopes and their beentsy instruments all lined up in their shiny labs.  I just think they need to think along slightly different lines.  Here's one humble suggestion: army ants, and deciduous trees.
It's November here in North Jersey, and my little neighborhood of about 200 homes isn't situated in the depths of a pine forest.  No, we have lots and lots and lots of trees.  Poplars and oaks and maples and sweet gum, beech and choke cherry and elm -- you get the picture.  Lots of luscious shade in the summer.  Lots of color, when the weather cooperates, in the fall.  And then, almost immediately after the spectacular, breathtaking exhibition of autumn splendor, the sidewalk and driveway and front yard and back yard (don't ask about the gutters) are hip-to-thigh deep in leaves.  (I know, it's boring and banal to complain about, but still)  The neighbor's sycamore, for instance -- which, every spring, we suspect has finally died, but which, every spring, proves to be in radiant health.  Again -- produces a literal ton of huge brown and green leaves, the size of dinner plates, but with, alas, nothing delicious left over on them.  

And, because we don't live in the actual country country, where a clear patch of green at this time of year would raise suspicions of alien activity, we all, en masse, must manage to get these leaf deposits  (can't they be monetized?  Dubbed drachmas or something?) from their various inconvenient resting places, and out to the curb.   Where they blow about, usually, back to where they started.  And so on and so forth.

(The other alternative, of course, being the oh-so melodious, fume-spewing leaf blower, which topic we will leave for another, quieter time...)

So here's where that idling band of thumb-twiddling splice-meisters comes into play.  I suggest that they get some nice, healthy, gene-rich army ants (you see, perhaps, where this is going?), and scrape or pluck or otherwise extract some of the genetic material that encourages those orderly processions we've all seen in the nature shows (without the biting.  No biting, please), and then arrange, brilliantly and economically, a method of... injecting?  Ground feeding?  (Not spraying -- think of the children, marching, marching...) Some way of blending this benign bit of ant orderliness into the genetic material of deciduous trees.  It could be so simple.  Maybe a nice bark salve?  With aloe?

And then we'd have a much different experience (until, of course, things go horribly, horribly wrong). At the peak of the fall color, instead of that dismal reminder of mortality, and that all things must pass and all that, we would watch as each little leaf, obeying its newly-rearranged inner genetic code, would gently disengage itself from twig and branch, and patiently-- even eagerly -- make its little way down, down, down to the ground (imagine how lovely, folks, the trickle of golden poplar leaves, the stream of vibrant red maple...), and then -- driven by forces they understand not -- they hop and bounce their orderly parade, all the way out to the damned curb.  Where they will stack themselves up neatly, and lie there patiently, dammit, until the city sends the trucks around to pick them up.  (Cross-town leaf processions would cause another whole set of problems -- let's just not go there)

It's such a simple thing.  (Yes, yes, I know the lawn-care industry would be up in arms, or rakes, or pruning hooks, but they have all summer to work, and maybe they could create a whole new industry for themselves -- combing the bare branches into arboreal coifs, for instance, so their children could eat and wear clothing) (Unless, of course, they live in Alabama, where they've got a whole 'nother set of issues)
In any event, I think it's a doable thing.  I maintain that, ultimately, it could be made cost-effective.  And it would need almost none of that nasty human testing that's eventually so embarrassing.  (I do want to encourage the splice-meisters, however, not to mix up the ant genes with the mouse stuff -- the thought of millions of little furry-hearted leaves trying desperately, at all costs, to get into my basement and eat my emergency store of peanut butter, does not please me)  Otherwise, though, this seems worth investigation and investment.  A public service -- a perfectly miraculous and, yes, beneficial bit of scientific magic.  I'll leave it to others to contact their congressional representatives, etc. etc.   

My back, for one, would be so, so grateful.

(Tomorrow, God willing, I want to talk about... the national epidemic of obesity, and automobile design.  Be afraid)

© 2011   Walter Zimmerman

Monday, November 28, 2011

Three Words I Learned (and for real, this time)

November 28, 2011             Sinclair Terrace, South Orange NJ               8:34 am

(Here, is the post I'd prepared for yesterday.  John helped me get it from one place to another in the wonderful cyberworld that seems, daily, to be leaving me in its wake.  Boo-hoo) 

Thinking about things, as usual.

I think I’ll call this ‘Three Words I Learned’.

It's probably obvious, by now, that I love words – the juicier, the more arcane or difficult to pronounce, the better.  Having attended relatively good schools, in an era when learning was decidedly more vigorously supported, I found many chances to add to my vocabulary.  Some opportunities, of course, came with a threat, or the inducement of a (possibly) good grade.  Others arose simply from my love of reading.  In any case, by the time I was in high school, verbal gems like vermilion, synapse, gyrate, opalescence, probity, and anathema cavorted in my little personal herd of what I felt was a species of living terminology.  

But, of all the perhaps thousands of words I’ve shepherded through the nooks and crannies of my brain, there are three particular, and personally important words, each of which I recall learning at a particular time and place.

The first, sadly, is the Word which I can’t actually use in polite discourse.  It’s that abrupt Anglo-Saxon fricative, indicative of efforts furthering the future of the species, but also used as a curse, and which was once completely verboten in public (though I must admit that one of my more startling experiences was hearing this term, in a loud female voice, practically shouted out, in a rush-hour elevator in the Exxon Building in 1984).  My own introduction to this potent Word happened, however, much earlier, in my childhood. 

I was 6 and it was the summer between first and second grades.  We had moved again, and I would be attending the George Washington School, down the alley and around the corner from the squat, side-by-side duplex we now called home, in Belleville IL.  New to yet another neighborhood, I had met a boy named Eddie.  Eddie was perhaps two or three years older than me, and was, I later realized, unusually precocious in matters carnal – at least in terms of the type of banal carnality which even the most inventive of nine-year olds could ferret out, in the flat, mid-summer heat of southern Illinois in the mid-1950’s. 

In any case, over that summer between first and second grades, Eddie took me under his wing, and after a few days of desultory catch and tag and hide-and-seek, he elected to share with me the hidden treasures he’d unearthed, the select glimpses he had discovered, into the distinctly forbidden world of real grown up men. 

Usually, we would start in the early afternoon, when everyone would be having lunch, and away from their desks, and off their guard.  We would sneak down a couple of streets, find the right alleyway, and duck behind the local electrician’s shop.   Because of the warm weather, the back door would be open, and if the coast was clear, we could get a glimpse of his calendar, hung by a nail up above his dark workbench.  There, embellishing one month or another, and portrayed sitting on a large stone in a shady opening in the woods, sat a luminously naked, dark-haired adult lady, who, as I remember, seemed almost to look back at us, with no concern either for her lack of clothing, or the fact that someone was probably looking right at her.  

At the first stirrings from the front of the shop, we dashed through some bushes, into the alley, and ran as fast as we could.

Another locale of interest to Eddie was the local tavern, where, in the summer time, a graveled back yard was set with picnic tables.  From a sliding window at the back of the bar, you could buy a cold, frosted mug of root beer.  It cost a nickel.   Of course Eddie appreciated the root beer, but having placed his order, and while the bartender was digging another mug out of the cooler, Eddie would squirm up as close as he could get to the window, and then duck his head down just a bit, so he could see the set of large, colorful posters, hanging on walls above the bar.   Then Eddie tugged at my arm, to get my head at the right angle, making sure that I could see too -- a painting of a nearly-naked woman, sitting in a wooden wash tub, her shapely legs tucked up under her, and her great buoyant breasts decorated out at their ends with two tiny dabs of soap suds.  Or a big, blonde young lady, with her hair in braids, trying to climb over a fence, and getting her blouse pulled open by some wire, in a revealing way that didn't seem to dismay her at all. 

All these glimpses were of course brief, even when, at the little window, Eddie got me to order my root beer separately, so the bartender had to make two trips to the cooler.  Afterwards, I was perfectly content, sitting under the yellow lights over the white-graveled yard, drinking my root beer with a straw.  I did find the secrecy thrilling; these slightly dangerous peeps into the world of grown men, and Eddie’s interest in them, and his willingness to share them with me, was very exciting.  As for the undressed women, however, for me they seemed a remote curiosity. 

The Word, however, was another matter. 

One day late in same summer, as we were lazing under one of the arched lattice-work rose trellises in Eddie’s back yard, Eddie told me he was going to share something really important with me.  He told me that there was a certain Word, that had a terrible power, was only used by grownups, and meant awful, improbable and inspiring things. 

As Eddie was explaining everything the Word signified -- so far as he understood it -- I couldn’t really get a clear grasp of what he meant.  But then he said it.  He may even have spelled it.  As a sound, though, it was less impressive that I had expected, given everything Eddie said it meant.  He made me say it.  It wasn’t particularly lovely, though there was a nice feeling of bite at the end.  I blithely said it over and over again, to get used to it.  And then there we lay, on the cool grass, with the smell of roses in the air, taking turns in making up a long serial adventure story – a long, sprawling story full of pirates and horses and naked women, great sailing ships and and wild Indians,  chests of treasure and more naked women -- all the while interlacing our shared fantasy with as many utterances of that brisk chewy Word as we could possibly manage.

Later that same day, we went swimming in his family’s big wading pool.  Afterwards, in the garage, standing by his dad’s station wagon, we wriggled out of our wet little bathing suits, and I was overcome with curiosity, wanting to see if Eddie, naked, looked anything like me.  He impatiently turned away from my curious glance, and quickly finished dressing.  I thought I had somehow done something even worse than everything the Word  ( which, only an hour or so earlier, we’d bandied back and forth so extravagantly) was supposed to mean. 

Shortly after that, before the end of August, Eddie and his family moved away.

(Expletive deleted)

My second special word entered the collection the next school year.  I was in second grade now, and we had a wonderful young teacher, Miss Winkler.  Although I don’t have a clear memory of her in general, I recall her being slender and energized, generous and attentive.  (Nothing at all, it now occurs to me, like the pneumatic fantasies I’d been sneaking peeks at all summer)  At the time, Life Magazine was featuring a serialized pictorial exploration of ocean life -- the odd spindly creatures teeming under wooden pilings where ships would be tied; the slick metallic tuna and hungry-looking barracuda; the bizarre, but delicately transparent monstrosities that glowed their lives out in the deepest of waters.  Each time a new set of illustrations was issued, Miss Winkler would bring them into class.  She taped these detailed artist’s illustrations to the blackboard at the front of the room, handed out paper and crayons, and we each chose some area of the picture, and made our own interpretation.  I remember the clusters of violet-blue mussel shells, draped with olive green sea weed, clinging to weathered pilings.  Or the flat, lurid, dangerous-looking hatchet fish, pale and fragile as glass, floating in the darkest darkness.  I worked diligently on my drawings, wondering – like the land-locked Illinois boy I was – what it might be like, actually seeing the ocean, and all these wondrous creatures. 

One of my drawings piqued Miss Winkler’s particular interest – I had been layering color over color, orange over yellow, and then adding the brightest red I could make, to capture both the color edging the shell of a blue crab, and also the gleaming cerise of the lipstick Miss Winkler always wore.  ‘Oh my,’ she said with obvious appreciation, pointing to my drawing, ‘that’s very vivid.’  I felt very warm and successful, as she gave me a little private vocabulary lesson, and then moved on to the next student. 

Vivid.  I think I was the only one in the class who got that word.   Vivid.  An attentive look, a little word, a caring gesture.  Miss Winkler had given me an incorruptible gift.   

The last word is orphanage, and in a sense, no one taught me this one.  But I learned it nonetheless. 

My parents were fighting, more and more.  My father would come home, and sit on the sofa in the living room, pleading with my mother about ‘the divorce’.  From my chair across the room, where I would draw horses and swans, I watched the secret smile on my mother’s face, and I knew that she had already made up her mind.

One afternoon, during one of his visits (I never did know where he was sleeping then), my father took me into our bathroom, for privacy.  He leaned down so his face was level with mine, and declared, ‘No matter what, you will never live in an orphanage.’  Impressed by his obvious urgency, as well as the fact that he was actually talking to me, I nodded, as though I understood. 

I mean, I knew what an orphan was – it was someone without any parents.  And even though they didn’t get along, I did still have a mother and a father.  In a way, my father might as well have told me, in that serious tone of his, I was never going to live in an aviary, or an aquarium.  But this clearly wasn’t a moment for a chat.

The arguments escalated.  Lamps were thrown.  Glass was broken.  I lay in my bunk bed, praying to Jesus to fix my family.  Weeks after that praying, my three brothers and I had been piled into my father’s black Buick, with the odd breathing holes on the side, and as the car left the driveway, we watched my mother and sister, in matching pink bathrobes, waving to us from the front door. 

We crossed Illinois, Indiana, Ohio.  My father drove in the dark.  I sat in the front seat.  I watched, holding my breath as, trying to pass a slow truck on a night of driving rain, my father nearly ran  head-on into another truck barreling toward us in the oncoming lane.  Finally, we were in Pennsylvania, and at my Aunt Marie’s house, where she and her family were getting ready for the Thanksgiving of 1955. 

My brothers and I went to a new school.  It was my second fourth grade.  To me, the classroom seemed to have no lights in it.  At Aunt Marie's house, we all got the flu – my brothers and me, and my three cousins too.  There were mattresses laid out on the kitchen floor.  By the time we were all well, it was nearly Christmas.  Aunt Marie’s tree was in the big room with her piano.  Even with all the strung lights and tinsel, it seemed dark there too.  

Before school started again, my father gathered my brothers and me into the black car, but for a shorter drive this time.   Through the open, snowy countryside, seeming always to get closer and closer to a large dark building lurking in the near distance, on top of a low hill.  We turned into a long curved driveway edged by dense, thorny hedges with red berries.  Vivid berries.  We pulled to a stop.  

There was no time for questions or explanations.  We piled out of the car.  My father had to leave, he said; my brothers and I were led into the great dark building, and up some stairs, where we were shown where we would sleep.  We saw where we would eat.  Where we would store our coats and galoshes.  Where, in the narrow store room, lit by a single bulb overhead, we would each put our own small stack of folded clothes. 

So we stayed there that night, and we kept on staying there, for many nights after that.  We went to a school, right down the hill, where other kids seemed to know there was something wrong with all of us.  With all the other children staying in the dark house, we did homework in a large, echoingly empty gymnasium. And while we were in that dark house, we had rules to obey and many jobs to do.

One week, I was assigned to fetch the soiled laundry – dirty bed sheets and pillow cases, diapers and towels – from the attic-level nursery (where the pre-school children stayed), to carry it all the way through the great house, and finally to bring it downstairs to the steamy basement washing room.  I pushed open the nursery door, my arms filled with bundled white cloth.  I had to be careful making my way down the narrow back stairs. 

As I reached the main stairway, it was easier to see where I was going.  I turned the corner, onto the landing at the top of the central, doublewide staircase.  Behind me was a large stained-glass window.  And above my head, on a half-wall facing the stained glass, was a bronze plaque I’d never seen before.  It was impressive – larger even than the bundle of laundry in my arms.  The bottom part was filled with the names of people who must have been important at one time or another.  But I was fixed on the large letters across the top, and I read them over and over to myself, trying to make them mean something different.  But the raised metal letters were sturdy,  unflinching, and unambiguous.  ‘The United Presbyterian Children’s Orphanage’, it said.

Then, I learned the word, and some other things too -- but in a new way, an inward way, the way the little boy in The Snow Queen learned to love that cold woman in white, because a sliver of her iciness had pierced his heart.  I’ve always felt, looking back to the boy standing frozen on the stairs, with dirty laundry in his arms, that that one hard bronze word deftly found its way into  him -- burrowing in, hunting out, and freezing the place where a bit of hope and childish denial still were cowering.     


© 2011  Walter Zimmerman

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Three Words I Learned -- No, Dieu et Mon Chat

Well, anyway, Three Words I Learned is what I'm calling the next blog entry I hope to make, if I can manage to figure out how to get one document from one place to another without erasing everything.  I don't understand why I seem to be the only person on the planet for whom these cyber-mechanisms are definitely not intuitive.  (So sorry for the lame ranting, but...)

Dashboard?  That's where you check to see if you're going to be pulled over by that State Trooper.

I am not a patient person.  I am not a gracious person.  I hate asking for help.  I worked very hard on this newest entry, and it's cheek-bitingly frustrating not to be able to put it out into the wider world.

So.  I've pledged myself to make a blog entry every single day (we'll see how long that lasts), and as far as I'm concerned, this one doesn't count.

But... wait.

It just occurred to me.

It's Sunday, isn't it?  And I actually have, in the back of my mind, a little set of thoughts that, for a Sunday, might be remotely (if unpleasantly) germane.  (For my friends of the Jewish faith, pretend you've just come from Temple)

I think of this as 'Dieu et Mon Chat'.

Dieu et Mon Chat.  By Walter Zimmerman. (who thanks you for your patience)

Usually, I start these things kind of at the end, but this time, it might be better to start more in the middle.

I had a wonderful cat, named Princely.  We met on my porch steps, outside my fourth floor walk-up in Hoboken NJ, in 1982.  I had just come back from New York and visiting a co-worker in the hospital, in intensive care, with AIDS.  (There was little I could do, visiting Bill, but sing songs -- which I'm afraid actually annoyed him -- and wipe the saliva from around the breathing tube in his neck)  Feeling a little drained, for many reasons, I sat down on the concrete stoop, and up jumped this brown and grey cat, right onto my lap.  Purring and rubbing, and purring and kneading.

So I opened the outer door, and then the inner door, and sure enough, this grey and brown cat followed me all the way up the stairs, and into my disheveled apartment. (I'm firmly of the Quentin Crisp school of housekeeping -- he maintained that, after the first five years of not dusting, it never gets any worse)  Kitty seemed hungry, so I scrambled him an egg.  (I'm cooking for A CAT?)  This did not please.  I ran downstairs and next door, to La Vaquita, the handy bodega with everything from plastic mouse traps to votive candles for some of the grimmer saints.  I bought just one -- repeat, one -- can of cat food.  When served, this sufficed.

I had every intention of posting 'Found' ads, in the local laundromat, and on various utility poles in the neighborhood, really I did.  But when my friend Neil stopped by one April day, to help me with my taxes, (which, as it turned out, were much simpler than I had feared), he took one look at this grey and brown kitty and said, 'This cat needs a bath'.  Whatever.  I gave Neil a bottle of shampoo.  He took the cat and the soap into the bathroom and closed the door, telling me, "No matter what you hear, don't open this door."

Water running.  Splishing.  Splashing.  Nothing particularly blood-curdling.  Then Neil's voice, with some warmth and admiration -- 'Walter, this cat is a real sweetheart.'  They both emerged, Neil only a little wet, and kitty wrapped in a towel.

That night, Neil camped out on my living room sofa, and kitty slept with him.  The next morning, I got up to make coffee, and in walked this pristine orange and white cat, practically glistening.  'Why, don't you look princely.' I said.  And of course, then I knew I would be saving a fortune in copying costs, because this cat wasn't going anywhere.  This Princely cat was going to stay with me.

He was really more canine than feline, actually.  Very affectionate.  Growled and ran to the door if he heard noises in the hall.  When we were together in the country that summer, he went on long walks with me.  Loved to spend the days outdoors, stalking the neighborhood peacocks (don't ask), but at night, he wanted to be on the bed, curled up behind my knees.  I felt very fortunate, either to have found, or to have been found by, him.

That's most of the 'Mon Chat' part.  Now we approach the 'Dieu' section.  Gird yourself.

So, one day, a couple of years later, living in a different apartment, in Jersey City, I came home from another draining day in the city.  Not with Bill in the hospital -- he had died long ago by then -- but from my job at an investment bank, working for a boss who was proud to be known as The Dragon Lady.  But it was employment, and I'd just drawn some cash from the ATM up the street.  Still thinking about that transaction, I walked through the door, and Princely came to meet me, as pretty as always, if a bit chunkier around the middle.  Alert, attentive, even inquisitive-looking, and certainly ready to sit on my lap and be petted.  After just a little snack.

And then I had this... leap, I guess it was.  I was looking at my sweet, sentient kitty, and I was feeling the folded cash in my pocket, and I thought -- for all his wiles and survival skills (he still had his claws), for all his instincts and extraordinary natural gifts -- was there any way on earth that I would be able to explain, to this bright-eyed cat, the principles behind, and the necessity for, an ATM machine?

(I also had a flash memory then, of bringing a friend's sullen black half-Siamese cat home from the vet, and crossing the street as a garbage truck lumbered toward us.  The cat froze in terror, and for one weird instant, I think I actually saw the garbage truck the way the cat did -- some vast, incomprehensible, ravening monster, grinding and roaring, closer and closer, and up to no good)

It was then, dear friend, that I thought about God.

I could have thought, in a general way, about all the lessons I'd learned, in all the Sunday schools, through all the rambling sermons, from all the scripture reading, even from World History class, and of course, from TV news.   Layer upon layer, a great sedimentary deposit of pronouncements and laws, suppositions and canonical decisions, all about the nature of, or the capacities for, or the tastes and preferences held by, this almighty Deity.  Who God is and What God wants.

But instead, I thought about the comparison between myself and my cat, and then a similar contrast between myself and that great force, or being, or whatever one might want to call It/Him/Her/Them.   I thought -- I really love my cat.  I try very hard to do good things for him.  (Alright, he really should go on a diet, but still)  He seems to feel something like affection for me -- he does cuddle behind my knees at night, and seeks me out for petting, when he could just sleep under the piano all the time.  But there is still an incalculably vast gap between what my cat, smart as he was, could grasp, and the world in which I lived, with internal combustion engines and electron microscopes, and other continents.  Moon missions, computers and alarm clocks.  Republicans.  Traffic.  The subway.  Trapeze artists.  Anything at all, 20% off.

And then I thought of the similarly immeasurable gap there necessarily must be, between me, with my nearly two-dimensional experience of my own planet, my limited vision and hearing, my constraints in terms of time, strength, endurance, balance, capacity, and that great... Force.  Comprehender, it might reasonably seem, of clouds of star-shedding gas.  Engineer of the submicroscopic mites on my eyelashes.  (We all have them)  Conciever of orchids that bloom underground.  Designer of birth, in all its various guises.  One could, of course, go on.

So how, I wondered in that instant of... whatever it was -- clarity?  befuddlement?... how can I tell myself, or anyone else, what God wants, or hates, or will or won't do at any given time?  How could I determine scope, or reach, or intent, when I'm no more privy to the extent and reality of what I'm for convenience calling God, than my cat could conceivably be, of my quite mundane and unexceptional life?

I certainly don't discount inspiration, or wonder, or those other transcendent states people associate with their closeness to God -- that would, in effect, just as limiting, on my part, as those mean-spirited pronouncements of hurricanes as punishment for a gay party at a public amusement park.   I just think, for what it's worth, that each of us is, in fact, the clearest window, the closest connection, the surest way of contacting that God thing -- that, by treating each other as though we are all in the midst of some great emergency, and need tender care, is perhaps the best way to understand, on an individual level, who God might be, and what He/She/It/They might have in mind for us, today.

Well.  There you have it.  Dieu et Mon Chat.  (Which is, in fact, a play on Dieu et Mon Droit,  a royal motto of some sort or other.  But that, perhaps, is for another time)


©  2011    Walter Zimmerman

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Take Your Ticket, Line Forms on the Right...

Bad Sad Blog, #1

November 25, 2011             Sinclair Terrace, S. Orange NJ                      5:16 am

Can’t sleep.  Wracked with grief. 

So, I thought I would talk about my idea,, which came to me as I lay in my squalid little litter in the den, waiting for the blue pill to do its work.
I’m wondering, since I’ve been advised to write, write, write, if I could try to get past my aversion to the term ‘blog’ (which I continue to insist sounds like a moist nasal obstruction one might remove by sneezing emphatically), and see if I can set up a blog site (tentatively titled ‘Bad Sad Blog’, to use as a kind of dumping ground/autopsy lab, for all the many lurid and unfortunate things with which my life seems, now, to be overstocked.  I feel, sometimes, as though I’m suffocating with sadness – last night, a propos of what, I’ve forgotten, I descended once again into one of those truly frightening crying jags, when I thought I would begin vomiting woe, or that I would suffocate because, heaving and groaning, I couldn’t seem to inhale.  I might as well have been giving birth, through my mouth, to some dark, wet, hairy thing that’s been patiently growing inside me for decades, like a partially ingested twin I’ve heard some people discover they’ve been carrying with them, behind their sternums, all their lives. 

Writing might be better.  I don’t really know.  I can’t seem to sleep anyway, and I’m not quite ready to take another sliver of blue pill just yet.  And, even if I do actually (against all probability) manage to arrange some sort of permanent platform for this indecent and immodest, shamefully unmasculine display of emotion, it occurs to me that, for whoever blunders into this hall of distorted memory, there really are no dependable guarantees.  I may, on the one hand, be using these ruminations like bits of hand-twisted cord, to fashion a line with which to pull myself out of this awful place in which I find myself.  On the other hand,, that line may just as well come to serve another function.  The knot always goes on the left, under the jaw.

So (imagining this to be some ad hoc welcome mat for the incautious), come right in.  Climb the winding, rickety stairs, to the high platform overlooking the local landscape (can you see your house from here?), get your damp vinyl cushion firmly under you, and take a deep breath.  We’re at the top of a wild, slick, perhaps ultimately unsafe water slide, and there’s really no telling what we’ll all see, what jolts we’ll encounter, whirring along, twisting down and around, and heading, inevitably, into the unattractive, saline accumulation at the bottom.   You’ll be safer than you think.  I’m going first.

©  2011    Walter Zimmerman