Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Two Things.

Two things are on my mind, this extra day in February, 2012.  

The first thing is the kitchen sink.  Or, more properly, what is in the kitchen sink, that shouldn't be.
Last night, as I was washing up the few dishes from the day, so the kitchen would be a little nicer when John got home from New Brunswick, I noticed that the sink wasn't draining properly.  Hell, it wasn't draining at all.  I finished the plates that were left, and waited to see if the water was just going to sit there, or if it might slowly seep away, as it sometimes does.  If it went down far enough, I wanted to try a household drain cleaner, before resorting to the expense of the plumbers.

The water went away, but the drain cleaner didn't work.  This morning, I made an appointment with the professionals.  They'll be here, far too early tomorrow morning, to clear out that drain, and take care of a few other little odds and ends, here in what I sometimes call 'Boy House'.  Which may, itself, be part of the problem.

Well, think about it.  First, there were all those floods, about which some of you may have read, in earlier postings.  An upwelling of ground water, right through the joints of the concrete basement floor, usually every two or three years.  Which upwelling we've addressed (we hope) by installing the two sump pumps, and the French drain system, around the perimeter of the basement floor.  Some of the basement detritus -- mostly art materials of mine, and pieces of blown glass I made years ago, in one hot shop or another, for as-yet-undreamed-of sculptures -- are still huddled under blue tarps at the far end of the driveway, up against the garage.  A pile which never gets any smaller, because I hate even to look at it, let alone actually touch any of it.    

And I've also noticed that, since John and I have shared a living space, in one city or another, there has  been what I refer to as a 'water event' in our abode.  This stopped-up sink is just the merest sliver of a problem, compared with, for instance, the spectacular failure of the basement water heater in our Rochester apartment, which gave way one night, leaving water all over the floor, of course.  Or, when we'd finished our advanced degrees upstate, and moved back to Jersey City again, the day the ceiling in John's bathroom collapsed.  Luckily, he'd already showered and was at work in New York when this cascade of wreckage fell.  It happened because the upstairs neighbors, instead of using the laundry in the building's basement, installed their own washer/dryer.  More or less.  Proper drainage seeming to be a concept they couldn't quite grasp.  By the time all the plaster and lath and tile and grout had finished dropping into our tub, the remaining hole reminded me of the Russian installation artist, Ilya Kabakov.  It was like having an unwanted skylight.  I kept expecting someone to hand us down an upholstered, wing-back chair, maybe in a dull blue velvet, through the roomy gap, and after relaxing in it for a few hours, we would hand it back up again.  With room to spare.  When repairs finally began, they took months.

I've even joked that, if we ever relocate again, we should choose the most arid spot on earth, because water will find us.  A month after settling in the Atacama Desert, we'd be millionaires, selling off the torrents of water we seem to attract.  As we have, here in South Orange.  (Actually, I just remembered that there was even an ongoing water event, in my place in Hoboken, when John and I met.  I had a fourth-floor walk-up, with the roof right above me, and because the hallway light had filled with brownish water, I'd begun thinking of the fixture as a kind of overhead conceptual aquarium.  It just needed a small catfish, but I never got around to that)

And then, it dawned on me -- we really do live in Boy House!!!  Of course!  We are center stage in the classic yin-yang struggle, the cosmic search for balance, which comes up regularly, just to make our lives a little more interesting!  Why didn't I think of it before?  Here we are, two adult male humans, and two adult male American short haired cats, with nary a spot of whichever the feminine is, of the yin-yang duo.  Of course!

And we are all such boys -- the cats do nothing but sleep all day, and then eat like pigs before going back to bed.   On the human end of things, John and I wonder how two gay men can have so little of the decorating gene we're supposed to inherit, along with impeccable taste in clothing, and the inborn sense of where to dine, and when.  Only last month, after ten years of living with a bare bathroom window, I took down the perfunctory emergency shade -- a sun-bleached purple towel -- and put up actual, real human drapes.  Our naked living room windows still present our lives to the public (thank goodness the front porch is deep, the house is back from the street, and the indoor lighting is bad); neither of us seems to identify personally with the state of the kitchen floor.

So I've started buying fresh flowers, and I try to sweep more often, and really do mean to put the clothes away the same week they're washed and folded.  It's a desperate, haphazard effort to assuage the churning of the yin (I just looked it up), an appeasement of the restless pool of water I just know is lurking, right under the basement floor.           

The other thing.  Very embarrassing.  So, of course, I have to tell you all about it.

It started like this: years ago, the Rochester daily paper ran one of those human-interest pieces that recycle every few years; this one was about local folks who made their living in unusual ways -- channeling the dead, or deciding what a client should eat, based on the numbers in their lives, or by casting astrological charts.  In this case, in a bid for something like respectability, a team of journalists spread out, each visiting one specialist, and reporting back on the experience.  The most compelling report, from a self-professed skeptic, was about the astrologer, who seemed to have an uncanny ability to pin-point life events to within six months of their actual occurring.  So, of course, I contacted this practitioner, and set up an appointment.

[Sidebar here: though I was going to church regularly at the time --and even teaching Sunday school --  I was fascinated by this alternative way of knowing the world, especially as there seemed to be at least some independent corroboration as to a kind of accuracy in this method.  And the way I see it, if there's a Creator out there, caring specifically about me, that Force will use any means possible to be part of my life, wouldn't It?  Why pick only one radio channel for the life-saving broadcast?]

The reading, for me, was both familiar, and intriguing, and the next year, I returned, for an update.  Even after we left Rochester, I stayed in touch with this man, and tried to arrange either a yearly meeting, or at least a taped reading, for the coming eighteen months or so.  Aside from the past life stuff -- things about horses, and unfulfilled religious obligations (!?) -- I have found these readings to be, if not exactly prescient, then at least thought-provoking and generally helpful -- even if only to assure me that whatever horrid thing was happening at the time wouldn't last forever.  And then, there was the forecast for last year.

It was going to be wonderful.  In the precise time-line he prefers to use, this astrologer said, with some emphasis, that between my 64th birthday and six months later, I would experience a tremendous upsurge in interest in, and purchase of, my creative work -- so much so, he said, that I might actually consider changing residences, both to facilitate greater productivity, and because I would be able to afford it.  Who doesn't want to hear that they're going to win the lottery, and by dint of creativity, instead of sheer luck?

And, it seemed, through the beginning of that year, that things were, all by themselves, working in an almost magical way, to prod me toward the possibility of this forecast actually coming true.  I had more exhibits that year than ever before, and had the good fortune (or so it seemed at the time) to stumble upon an entirely new body of work, which I was able to feature, in what I still think was a wonderful a solo exhibit, in Maplewood NJ, for the entire month of October.  Which, of course, was when I turned 64.

Collectors came to the opening.  Gallery folks.  People from major museums.  I gave little private showings, to those who couldn't get there during the scheduled receptions.  The work was documented, and spread all over Facebook.  You've all heard of Facebook, right?  And I kept on working too.  All the while, trying not to notice how often I was looking over my shoulder, expecting... the event.

Which, of course, didn't happen as predicted.  In fact, it didn't happen at all.  If anything, instead of rolling around in art-generated wealth, I've watched my bank balances shrink to where they might be mistaken for shoe sizes.  And how much more embarrassing is it, that I must tell you that I'm still holding out -- maybe there was a mistake in his math?  Maybe, because I was born in the Central Time Zone, and live in the Eastern Time Zone, things will be later?  Is it just me, or does anyone else detect the pungent aroma of desperation?

What I think both of these little tales point to, in different ways, is my longing for something in which to believe, for something which will give me at least a convincing illusion of safety and control.  Some force which, if appeased correctly, will reward me with a little extra margin of safety (and I hasten to note -- I am fully aware that I live a life that, by world standards, is indistinguishable from that of most princes.  And I'm not even nearly in that infamous 1%), as I muddle my way toward the inevitable. 

But, frankly, I know full well that bouquets of flowers and a clean kitchen floor won't stop whatever needs to occur from occurring.  You, of course, knew that all along.  No matter how precise the forecast, I'm still left with the knowledge that my life -- no more or less than any other -- is as fragile as an egg shell, as friable as a day-old sand castle as the wind picks up.  I think I've already mentioned my feelings about the efficacy, at least in my own life, of prayer.  These days, at the oddest, most ordinary moments, it's as if the lights will suddenly go up, and I see, much more clearly than I would like, just how temporary and, in some basic ways, unreliable, all of this business of living is.   

So, in spite of my obvious failure to have appeased the yin, or to have seduced monetary success, I went down to the basement today, and started working on some support systems I'll need, to present three of my suspended figures, for a Lenten program at John's church next month.  In spite of feeling guilty about spending yet more money on things I'm not sure I have room to store, I've set up one of the braces, and plan to sketch together a second one tomorrow.  One unsteady foot in front of the other.  One guarantee-free day at a time.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Tuesday, or What Would You Prescribe?

Well, I thought I knew what I wanted to write about...

I guess it makes sense that, what with all the hoop-la surrounding my recent medical adventures, my creative endeavors have slowed to something approaching a dead stop.  For one thing, the bi-monthly art critique group, for which I will tie myself into knots, in order to bring work to show, had been on winter break, when the drama of the stopping heart revealed itself, first to the medical professionals, and then, at last, to me.  No motivation = no work.  Unlike one of my heroes, Francis Bacon, I do not have the discipline to show up in my studio every morning at 7 am (even though my commute entails walking downstairs to my basement), and start working on... something. 

And, once the implement (which I've dubbed the Li'l Intruder) was installed, there were the temporary physical limitations for me to observe -- no lifting, no reaching, no carrying, no stretching, no sleeping on my left side...  No working at a lathe (which, as I have no lathe, is moot); no hanging around the local power station...  So, I found myself avoiding the basement, where I've been so busy and productive for the past year or so, making desperately unpleasant work that most people feel looks too much like flayed human bodies for their comfort.  Which has been the general idea.

But, the temporary injunctions are about to be lifted, and I may even be able to return to something like a regular workout schedule at the gym.  Whether I'll be able to coerce myself to walk down the basement stairs, however, remains to be seen.

I think it's grief, still.  I hate to sound wimpy and complaining all the time -- I'm eager, more often than these posts might indicate, to proclaim my unexpected, probably undeserved good fortune in my life.   But emotions, I've come to observe, operate by a totally different set of rules, disconnected from objective reality.  The prettiest people, with the plumpest bank balances, and living in the nicest houses, aren't necessarily the happiest ones on the planet.  And, in spite of my very good fortune, in having discovered this cardiac problem, and having had such a splendid team of doctors to perform the necessary intervention, I must admit that the prevalent feelings with which I'm left, are those of the grief I've mentioned, shock and shame.

And ordinarily, I would strive to follow these less-than-pleasant emotional companions, to see where they might lead me.  Which materials might most convincingly mirror what I feel like?  What motor activities will create the most immediate sense, for me and, I hope, for the viewer, of a three-dimensional snapshot, if you will, of my inner workings at the moment?  The latest body of work, with the layered, stretched films of plastic, taut over bulging knots of tube and wire, and coated with sanguine shellac, has been particularly eloquent, in capturing my misgivings about physicality, and my desperate need somehow to mend things that can't possibly be fixed.

So, why, at this point, with my incision healing nicely, and the subcutaneous swelling going away, and the underlying Li'l Intruder beginning to look not so li'l after all, do I balk?  Is it all too close?  This would make sense.

Years ago, when I was taking course work in art therapy (I so hoped to be able, finally, to have a job with the word 'art' in the title, and an actual paycheck every so often, all at the same time...), my class was given an assignment: paint a portrait of your family.  And, I heard the teacher say, have it finished in two weeks.

Some of you, having read other postings of mine, might understand what a terrifically loaded bit of homework this would be.  And I had just two weeks, in which to produce something so potentially wrenching.  But, as the good student I was determined to be, I plunged ahead.  I gathered what few family photographs I had, chose a large piece of paint-friendly board, and started to work.

Down the center of the paper, I painted a wide black line.  On the left would be my original family -- my mother and sister only in vague outline, as I had no photos of them at the time; then the faces of my three brothers.  In the center, bridging that black divider, was my father's face, and the right side of the painting was for his second family: my stepmother, her mother (whom I have dubbed, in something of an understatement, my 'horrid grandmother'), and my two half-sisters.  At the bottom, in the lower left-hand corner, is the self-portrait the completes the grouping.  I worked on this steadily, every day when I came home from my job at the investment bank.  Changing out of my work clothes, I would set up my easel in my kitchen, get out my acrylic paints, and pick up where I'd left off the day before.  The clock ticking... two weeks...

The thing I discovered about painting, especially painting portraits of actual people, is its intimacy -- the sense, in fact, of touching that person, as the face begins to emerge from smears of paint.  It was a kind of poignant torture, really, to paint the faces of my three brothers, whose lives were so wrecked, and whom I betrayed so shamefully.  It was uncomfortable, to paint my father's familiar face, with all the mixed feelings that arose as his features clarified.  It was grotesque, to lavish such tender care, to touch with such sensitivity, the section of paper I had to transform into the likenesses of the women who never forgave my father for bringing 'those boys' into their lives.  My own face, painted with the help of a cheap mirror propped on the kitchen table, is done in starkly different colors from the rest of the group, almost as though I'm dreaming everything else on the surface.  I guess it won't surprise anyone that I tended to cry a lot while I was working.

And then, when class time came around again, I wrapped my painting in plastic, and took it into Manhattan, down to Spring St., where we met, and I wondered why, as the rest of the students assembled, I was the only one with his homework.  It turned out that, instead of two weeks, as I had understood the due date of the assignment, we had been given ten weeks to do this family portrait.  I still think that, knowing on some level how explosive this effort would be, I deliberately mis-heard the teacher -- if I'd had ten full weeks, to stare at this terrible group of faces, I might never have finished -- I might never have gone back to class at all.

Everyone laughed at my mistake.  We looked at what I'd done.  We had our lesson, probably about how people suffering from brain damage can benefit from making art.  And, as usual in this ar-centered class, we had to make some of our own art.  And for this particular class, instead of having an assignment (draw some beads; draw a picture with a tree, a house, and a person in it) we were permitted to do whatever we wanted.  I chose to cover my paper with rows of wavy crayon lines, layered over each other, to create the feeling of looking into a rippling teal/aqua/lavender pool of shallow water.  When it was time to put all our work up, another student commented that my work seemed 'defensive', in that this screen of color acted as a kind of barrier, hiding the creator from the viewer.

But my teacher saw it differently.  She pointed out that, in having completed my family portrait, which we'd all discussed earlier, I had undertaken a creative journey into very difficult territory.  After such an effort, she said, it was completely reasonable -- and in fact, healthy -- for me to fall back, as it were, and invest some effort in protecting myself.

Which brings me, at last, back to my current creative quandary, and my apparent inability to pick up where I left off, perhaps six weeks ago, when I thought my heart was fine, and when it was easier, for some reason, to make graphically disturbing things.  Now, really, I don't quite know what to do.  It feels as though, if I start tying plastic things together, and covering them with shellac again, I'll just be making literal self-portraits, at a time when I'm not sure I can bear that.  But if not that, what on earth will I do?

One possibility, I just realized.  While waiting for one of the many doctors I consulted with, during this cardiac adventure of mine, I started a page of odd, scribble-like doodles, about the size of the tip of my little finger, and looking much as if I'd dipped that fingertip into some ink, and pressed it against the tan paper, in more or less neat rows, all across the page.  Rows of nine, rows of seven, ninety to a page, or eighty-one.  Pages of them.  The doctor was quite late.  And, as I did these little scribbles, I saw them as wrapped things, about the size of my fist.  As I look at them now, they look like hearts, don't they?  Row after row of -- not the Valentine's, but the organic -- hearts.

They say my heart, itself, is strong -- really strong.  So, maybe now, I have the thing I can do -- making work, not about the wound, but about the strength beneath it.  It's worth a try, don't you think?   

Monday, February 27, 2012

Sunday on Monday, or Quanta of Belief

I went to church yesterday.  It was the parish's annual Black Heritage Sunday, and also the first Sunday in Lent.  The choir I'm in was singing an anthem after Communion, and I treat these occasions to perform as seriously as if I were in a theatrical production -- there is no acceptable excuse, short of dismemberment, for being late to rehearsal, or missing a performance.  Plus, one of the basses had a new choir robe, that fit across the shoulders, but was far too long, so I offered to alter it for him.  After too many adventures with the sewing machine, I got it hemmed it to the right length, and he needed it for the morning.  Obligations, instead of anything more sublime, propelled me down the Garden State at dizzying speeds.  Well, and I did want Starbucks too, before getting started...

At about the middle of the mass, there is the opportunity for those in need of healing to come forward, stand at the Communion rail, and receive a special blessing and prayer.  I usually use this time to doodle in one of my ever-present drawing pads, wondering how long it's going to take for the priest to make it through the line-up this week.  Although I try to dress nicely for church, I must admit that at times, I'm not especially noble.

But yesterday, as I was moving around in the little chapel where my group was sitting, so someone else could go up for a blessing, I realized -- wait -- I've had heart surgery.  There's a three-inch incision, healing nicely, along my left collarbone, and underneath that, I'm seeing more clearly, every day, the outline of The Device.  I've been telling everyone it's like having a ravioli under my skin, but now, as the swelling subsides, it doesn't look cute and potentially edible at all.  So, somewhat to my own surprise, I went up and stood in line with the rest of the penitents, feeling especially conspicuous (a 200 lb man, 6'2" tall, shock of greying hair, and wearing a long-sleeved, ankle-length polyester choir robe, in cardinal red, is not exactly going to "blend in") and fraudulent.  Across the sanctuary, the stained-glass windows were back-lit by our unseasonably strong sunshine, and I reflexively scanned these images, partly as a critic -- how wooden the figures in this tableau seem -- why are the colors in this scene so harsh -- but also looking for something. In a kind of low-key panic, I was hoping to find some reminder, a hint of anything at all that would put me in a more 'believing state of mind' -- and fast -- as blessing, posing a different problem altogether, slowly made its way toward me.

Now as I'm sure I've said before, it's not as though I don't believe in things -- it's just that, with respect to that particular ecclesiastical environment, I feel -- oh I don't know -- like a mud pie artist at a baker's convention -- trying to hide my low, crude creations, which are all I can make, and which bear only a very very distant similarity to the colorful football party confections and towering wedding cakes around me.
My beliefs, I think, are more like a vineyard at the end of the harvest -- everything of value has been plucked and taken off, foliage has been stripped, and the year's new growth has been severed.  Only some dark twists of apparently dead wood are left, sticking up, in a kind of confused way, out of the dirt.  It must be something of a shock, even for  plant, to have been supporting any amount of lush, twining growth, and struggling hard to soak in water, and then urgently sending out nutrients to unknowable destinations (what can blind grape roots actually know of their own offspring -- of tendrils and leaves and clusters of fruit, after all?), and then, just when the work begins to seem a little less demanding, there's the slick cut of a blade, and all weight and cooling shelter falls away, and there one stands, wounded, exposed, and not knowing whether healing exists.

When I was a boy, I really was like a grape vine, if you'll excuse me.  No, really -- I think that one of my truly remarkable innate capacities was that of belief.  I believed like steel -- I believed like a door bolted in three places.  I believed like the force of gravity at the bottom of the roller-coaster ride, when you're pushed down into your seat and can barely move.  I soaked up the stories that were provided -- I read the lessons, I colored the pictures of the olive trees and the disciples.  (I also colored pictures of Lady and the Tramp, and their cute puppies, and the nasty Siamese cats, which I suppose was another, not altogether alien system of belief)  I knew, with the certainty that can completely occupy a nine-year-old boy's physical frame, that there was Help.  That I could just pray, and Jesus would figure out a way to make things all right.  I knew this, like I knew the sun would come up on that October morning in 1955, when we were woken up early, in our new house, surrounded by packing boxes again, even though we'd just moved in a few months earlier.  I knew Jesus would help, as we got in the black car and drove off, leaving my mother and sister standing in the doorway, waving.

I continued to know, to know, to just know, that if I prayed just a bit harder, or figured out a better order of the words, that Jesus would surely do something to help -- not just me, but my brothers too, as we tried to make sense of this new place we found ourselves in -- where old women came to pinch us at bed-time, where strange kids gawked at us and called us names, where even worse punishments gathered and crashed over us, like the way we imagined a wave at the beach might do, if we were ever to live to see the ocean in real life.  Real life for us, at the time, feature beatings and worse things.  Oh, there was church on Sunday.  Mid-week worship services, with us younger kids sitting on the wide formal staircase, as the cruel housemother played the upright piano, treating the piano keys with more tenderness than she would ever show us.  Rolling  chords, simple, reassuring songs, and after all, we were singing to Jesus.  And a little while later, being beaten again.

One night, as I lay in my bed, in the windowless north attic alcove, three stories above grey stone porch where visitors would pull up on weekends, I came wearily to a conclusion.  I wasn't thinking, in particular, about the 1950 + years that Christians all over the world had been waiting for the Promised Return.  I was just nine after all, and had only a nine-year-old's limited sense of time, and a nine-year-old's limited sense of strength, and right then I found myself deep down in a well of confusion and cruelty that was more than I could bear.  I had prayed all that I possible could.  Not silly praying -- not asking for stupid things like toys or a new car.  These were prayers of life and death -- praying for physical safety; praying to know where my parents were; praying to be released from this awful place.  But I was still here anyway, lying on my left side, facing the wall.  Everything bad still thriving, still firmly in place.  So, in the kind of desperate clarity I think only a child can manage to summon, I decided to pray just one more time.

But not to Jesus.

I lay there, on my left side, in the little bed, and I prayed to the Devil.  Or Satan, or whatever you want to call whatever you think this entity is, if you believe this entity exists.  I surely didn't know myself, at the time., and I really didn't care.  I just knew that there were far more bad things than good, for me, right then, and it seemed that, if the Prince of Goodness wasn't going to pay any attention (of course there were better, more interesting boys and girls all over the world), why should I not try to reason with the Force of Darkness itself?  Even a bad effort is better than no effort at all.  So I lay there, trying at first to locate a genuine sense of connection with... that great Evil Something, and then -- in spite of getting no answer there either -- trying to... to reason?  To figure out the possible benefit, for example, of boys being beaten?  "Why do you want these things?" I asked.  "Do you get pleasure from us getting the razor strap?  How could this mean anything to you?"  Other related queries arose, as they occurred to me.  I never slept well in the orphanage anyway; it didn't matter how long I lay there, half-awake, trying to use all my little mind and my little heart to create, in this overwhelming mass of evil I perceived, just the thinnest possible leading edge of a narrowest blade of compassion -- the tiniest sliver of some relief, for all of us in the Junior Boys, really -- even Danny Reed, who I hated because he was the only boy who could run faster than me.  I really believe that, if I had burst into flames then, and left a pile of greasy ash and bone on the cheap green blanket, for the housemother to find the next morning, I wouldn't have cared, if it had made a difference.

Which, as it should surprise no one at all, it did not.         

And now, more than fifty years later, I live in a state I never thought of as a little boy, and I'm standing up in front of a crowed church, wearing a long red robe and waiting for someone to come down the line and.... heal me?  Are you kidding?

And in spite of my soured expectations, something did happen, it annoys me to say.  As I stood there waiting, I had been admitting, incontrovertibly, to myself and to others, that I had been wounded, and that I needed to be helped.  That awareness alone shocked me a little, and made me wonder for a moment -- if I am so automatically and even eagerly tender to someone who might need a little help, might I somehow manage to rechannel some of that same compassion, for myself?  Even though that feels bad and wrong?

When it really was my turn, for the laying on of hands and the anointing and stuff, something -- another, further thing -- happened.  No deep electric jolt (after all, the technician just reset my Li'l Intruder last week, so that shouldn't be happening any more); there were no white lights and doves -- just the keen eye contact between, as it happened, two men: the priest, and me.  And the priest himself has just had a medical event himself, so when he gripped my head, he looked at me in a way that, honestly, I would love to have been looked at by my own father, even once.  Nothing soppy -- just a clear, acknowledging glance.  And then he said a little prayer -- easily, almost inconspicuously, his hands still gentle on my new haircut.  It wasn't supercharged, as though he was trying to force anything into me -- he just said a few things, in a familiar petition form, and then he said something smart and fresh and wonderful -- he hoped that this renewed energy he called on, would be used 'recklessly', for creativity.  What a perfect word!  And exactly what I myself would hope for -- now, and far in the future (really, really far, by the way) -- that I had used my life to create... recklessly.

So, back again, to beliefs, and believing.   Reflecting on what I've written in this collection,  I'm actually perplexed that so much has been about what I guess I'd call religious topics.  And honestly, I had hoped that these bits of writing would be outrageously funny, enough to make someone inordinately powerful decide I need to be on TV, and then soon I would have even more cars than Jay Leno... You know, the usual grown-up, mature mind set of a recent, forcible retiree.

But the challenge of believing is central to me, maybe because I feel I've been in the fitting room, if you will with so many of these prepared religious solutions, only to find each of them a bad fit. What I need, simply, is a dependable means of navigating across the abyss of everyday life, where, in spite of appearances, treachery and betrayal can be behind that hydrangea, or lurking in the lower right ventricle of my own heart.  And in the cases of improbable inevitability -- one's younger brother dies, years ahead of schedule, for instance -- what can I take into my hand, to feel steadied for the next few steps?

I would have to say, just for today, that the steadying thing is the nearest person.  And that person may well be you.  Whether you're sitting next to me on the bus  (I've got that story all ready), or standing in line for coffee, or walking to your car with a bag of groceries...  Or, sitting in a room I'll never see, reading these words on a computer screen.
I'll try to be of help to you, wherever you are.  And if you can, you try to be of help to me, even if I don't look familiar.   Doves and earthquakes and fiery chariots are all well and good, but I think this simple pact is enough of a miracle for now, and maybe just what I've been praying for, all along.  

©  2012           Walter Zimmerman

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Further Ruminations on Writing, or Pardon My Cud

[Whereas, today, I have almost six hours, to compose and publish the daily Lenten-tide posting.  You'd think that would make things easier...] [You'd think]

Years ago, while John and I were still living in Rochester NY, I came upon Julia Cameron's
'The Artist's Way', and snapped that book up so fast...  And then, as often happens to me with self-help books, I kind of bogged down about three chapters in -- maybe something else came up, or I really had to polish my shoes.  Whatever.  The thing I did latch onto, though, and continued to practice for quite some time, was the discipline of daily writing.  The 'Morning Pages'. 

And Ms. Cameron was quite specific about what was required, for this exercise to produce maximum benefits: first, do this writing as soon as possible, after waking up; the pages had to be written long-hand; there must be three sides completely filled before I was done.  And, the pages had to be at least letter-sized.  No little post-it notes need apply here.  So, being the sensualist that I am, I stocked up on yellow, spiral bound legal pads (with the spiral across the top -- as a left-hander, I hate writing across what feels like a springy egg slicer), and boxes of medium-point black ball point pens, and set to work. 

Other than these few specifics about the 'Morning Pages", the only requirement was... to do them.  Whether I wanted to or not.  Even if, on occasion, one might end up filling three yellow pieces of 8 1/2 x 11 paper with 'I hate doing this', over and over again.  Sometimes, some of my pages began in that vein, but they rarely ended there. 

It was the most curious thing, to wake up (shudder) and have to start... making sense?  But what I noticed happening was that, in spite of my tendency to cynicism, these exercises actually... worked?  In that, for the most part, by the time I'd gotten to the end of my required pages, I was (a) actually awake, and (b) actually aware of... something.  Something that was bothering me, something I needed to do, something I wanted to do, but was hesitant to attempt...  The list goes on.

In this way, the writing actually served as an oracle, not so dissimilar from more arcane practices like looking into crystal balls, or pouring a pool of ink into a saucer, and 'scrying' an important message.  I start with something blank, and words pour out.  If I'm attentive, I might notice some nagging resistance, some bothersome question or (more often) complaint that rises to the surface, because I'm putting words together.  As with so many beneficial disciplines, though, I steadfastly forget the benefits that almost infallibly accrue, as a result of this simple activity, and have to drag myself, kicking and screaming, to do the thing that is so good for me.  Every single time.

I've forgotten where the lovely Cameron volume has gotten to (under something, no doubt), but I did manage to coerce myself into doing this daily exercise for years (there must be a box of those notebooks somewhere in the attic...); interestingly enough, when I began my brief career as a college professor, I abruptly stopped this helpful discipline, at a time when it might have been especially helpful.  At the time, I blamed it on a temporary lack of privacy, and a different schedule than I usually kept -- the usual self-serving excuses.  From time to time, I might make a few written entries in one of my myriad sketch books, but it just wasn't the same.

Where I do continue to use this reliable writing tool, though, is in my creative process.  When my newest work grinds to a halt, because fickle inspiration had decided to go on a two-week cruise in the Caribbean, I've discovered that, by sitting and writing, I usually get myself back on something like the correct track.  What I find interesting, in these instances, is how much more helpful it is, if I focus on what I don't want to see in this particular piece of work.  It seemed odd to me, when I discovered this 'quirk', but it has proved to be a very reliable tool.  When I remember that it's in there with the heat gun and glue sticks, that is.
And now we have... le blogue.  There is a difference, as Julia Cameron wisely noted, between writing with a pen, and using a keyboard.  Sometimes, by making the wrong keystroke, I allow what I might have meant to say to take a slightly different tack -- just because I'm too lazy to backspace and say what I (think I) really wanted to express.  But... writing is writing, isn't it?  And it's so much faster this way.

The major difference, though, between my old way of writing, and this newer version, is the implicit contact with someone else -- with you, who are reading this now.  In those notebooks squirreled away in a box upstairs, I frequently directed my comments to the unknown reader, who had no way to respond directly to those thoughts and questions of mine, jotted down on yellow paper.  Here, in the newer world we've made, some of you will, from time to time, respond.  And I think that's something of a miracle -- to have a kind of public/private conversation, unrolling things I'm reluctant to remember, or exclaiming over some new discovery (rogue planets!  Details at 11!) or noteworthy event (fabulous concert at Christ Church New Brunswick last night, by the way -- kudos to Marvin Mills, organist nonpareil, and Marlissa Hudson, transcendent soprano!), or just, as seems to be the case today, ruminating.  About ruminating.

But... thank you.  For being wherever you are, and bearing witness to all of this.  That, I think, is most important of all for me.  Thank you very much.   

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Just In Time...

[Ooooh -- it's going to be close this time.  I have exactly 54 minutes in which to compose and publish my daily post.  Oooooh...]

There used to be a weekly TV show called 'Queen for a Day', back when all television broadcasts were in black and white, and owning more than one TV set would have been unthinkable.  The premise for 'Queen for a Day' was simple, if brutal: we the viewers at home, and a studio audience, would be introduced to five women, one by one.  Plain women, badly dressed, without any benefit of makeup or stylists.  And each of these women, in turn, would tell her heart-rending tale of misfortune: poverty, illness, unemployment, eviction, whatever.  One tale after another.  With commercial breaks, possibly for evaporated milk or something.  And when all the stories had been unfolded, the suave emcee, Bob Bailey, would turn to the live studio audience, and ask them, by their applause, to signal which of these sad women would be...

And as the clapping swelled and built, of spattered and dwindled, we would see a close-up of each face -- in black and white, remember, and not flattered by pancake and mascara -- as the Applause-o-Meter registered just how poignant and moving this particular story was.  Some women could tell, right away, that their hope for a new washing machine had just gone down the drain.  Some women looked dazed, perhaps at the realization that they had just exposed their personal lives to countless strangers, perhaps only in reaction to the spotlights.  But in the end, only one of these women would emerge as the beneficiary of the audience's sympathy.  And then Bob would tell us what this lucky Queen was going to take home with her.  A new iron!  A set of pots and pans!  (Expectations in the world of black and white were much lower than at present)  I think the losers got a board game.

This is on my mind, because of the nature of much of what I write.  My greatest desire -- aside from living to a hale and healthy 700 years old, without looking a day older than I do now -- is to be amusing.  I love it when people laugh at something I've said.  It's better than sunshine to me.

But much of my life, as you know, has been less than idyllic, and I have conflicts about what I reveal, and how I reveal it.   I don't, for instance, want to come across as a latter-day contestant on that dreary Woe-a-Thon, where the goal was to have had a more miserable life than anyone else.  A friend calls this 'orphan status' -- and given how many handicapped cards I see hanging from rear-view mirrors, I suspect that there are many who do find value in being badly off, or unhealthy.  I know too many people who introduce themselves with their ailments before they've told me their names.

I also feel a twinge of guilt, at doing that 'washing laundry in public' -- such a no-no.  The question of whether this laundry is going to be washed at all never seems to come up.  And there's shame mixed in there too -- if I had been a better... whatever... these things wouldn't have happened to me.  I could have had a normal life, and we would be talking about something else entirely.  Like, for instance, the orchids that bloom underground.  Did you know that?

But here, I fall back on the basic precepts of Buddhism, and on my literary lodestone, Viktor Frankl's 'Man's Search for Meaning'.  We all suffer.  I believe that every life has its measure of disappointment and damage -- to greater or lesser degrees, apparently, but still within the legitimate bounds of suffering.  That, of course, is the Buddha part.  (I'm pretty sure he never said he was divine, by the way, which I find interesting)  The Frankl part is the observation that each of us has an innate capacity for suffering -- sort of like perfect pitch, except for things that are sad or painful.  He also observed that suffering itself might be thought of as having something like a gaseous nature -- that, like oxygen in a room, suffering will expand to fill the space that is available to it.  Which explains why two people can experience the same event, and one can walk away relatively unscathed, while the other is left in tatters. 

Well, all of this may seem pitifully self-evident, but here's how I think it ties in with what I seem to be unfolding for you to read here.  I have had this one particular -- and rather peculiar -- life.  In uncovering the cruelties, both deliberate and inadvertent, with which I've wrestled, I'm not really trying to score higher than anyone else on the Applause-o-Meter.  (Although we really could use a new dishwasher)  These are the real things that happened, and for decades, I've tried to obscure these events, certainly in terms of the general public, but also in terms of my own self-awareness.  Which is one reason I have so many dreams from which I wake up, holding my breath, because in that dream, I've been crying harder than I ever thought possible.

So, in a way, I'm trying to save what's left of my life, by looking frankly at the underpinnings of who I am, and how I've become this person.  But there's also the hope, sometimes buoyed by kind comments from those who take the time to read what I write, that even the awful experiences I've had might be of some value to someone else.  The way, I suppose, that Viktor Frankl's unsparing, unsentimentalized account of his experiences -- far, far worse, of course, than anything I endured -- has given me a kind of retrospective strength, and a kind of encouragement to continue, patiently unpacking the huge sack of bad memories I've dragged behind me for most of my life -- hoping no one would notice it, but unable to abandon, because unpleasant and unfortunate as so much of my childhood was, it is still my own history, and is woven into my identity.

Let me at least be a bad example for you.  Okay?        


Friday, February 24, 2012

Dine Like A Pauper

Friday night.  8:20 pm.  For dinner, I'm eating a bowl of oatmeal (organic and steel-cut, no less), with raisins, chopped walnuts and dried cranberries mixed in.  A little buckwheat honey drizzled over everything, then some milk.  Chewy, crunchy, a little sweet, a little tart.  Gratifying.

There are plenty of other things in the house -- more normal, dinner-ish possibilities, but... meh.  And let me stress, my choice has nothing to do with Lent.  I guess oatmeal just qualifies as 'So Easy to Make', requiring nothing more than a pot for boiling the oats, and a spoon and a bowl for eating.  From a nutritional standpoint, the oats qualify as vaguely virtuous, I supposed (well, there are the walnuts), but I'm not sure that dietary propriety is the issue.

And now that I think about it, the easiness of preparation is the point, after all.  Falling, as it does, under the general heading of self-care, where I still tend to miss the mark much of the time.  Especially when it comes to feeding myself.

I have an annoying and wasteful habit, I'm surprised to find myself revealing, of buying nice foodstuffs -- mostly lovely fruits and beautiful veggies -- and then, when I'm back from the store, I carefully put these delicious things away, and then proceed, for the most part, to... look at them.  To watch them, day after day.  As the shine goes off the apple, and the pepper begins to cave in.  There will be the periodic archaeological search through the vegetable bin, in hope of finding survivors -- carrots are especially sturdy, it seems.  The items which are well and truly on their way to becoming something else (mostly compost) are discarded.  And, much to my chagrin, I begin again.

For a while, when I was still a college professor, and had some more or less disposable income, I toyed with the idea of buying plastic fruit and vegetables, so the fridge would look well-stocked, but nothing would actually go bad.  I could always throw in something actually edible, in case of an emergency, but for the most part, it would be all show, no actual decay.

But fake food is really expensive -- especially if you're going to fool yourself for a long time.  And I'm so picky about what I look at.  So, it was back to the same routine.  More or less.

Of course, I know where this compulsion comes from.  (And, if you've read much of what I've written about my childhood, I'm suspecting you've got a pretty good idea of where I'm going)  There was hunger in my house, when I was a boy.  My three brothers were chained in bed at night, to keep them from sneaking into the kitchen to eat whatever they could scrounge.  I would often resort to sneaking wrapped baked goods from the freezer, and chewing off just a bit, and carefully rewrapping the item, so I wouldn't be found out.  Which never worked, as it happens.  Punishment for everyone inevitably followed. 

But this hunger was only for some of us.  In our house, there was a two-tiered dining plan, as it were.  'They' had things like fresh cherries in season, or containers filled with cubed honeydew melon, or plates of fatty chicken thighs.  'We' were indulged with pretzels and potato chips from my step-grandmother's restaurant.  There was always a dish full of candy, which we were not free to sample  We might have a banana or an orange from time to time.  And if it was an orange, we would hear my step-grandmother's Great Depression 'all I got for Christmas was an orange' story.  Making even the juiciest orange a little hard to swallow.  And at the dinner table, I became a master at navigating the crevices in the back of whatever unlucky bird was feeding my brothers and me.

Sometimes our meals -- those of us on Plan B, if you will -- were augmented with government surplus foods that arrived from someplace or other -- long military green tins of cheese-flavored food product, or peanut butter.  When we weren't in school, my brothers and I had lunch in the dining room -- sandwiches of bread spread with that square peanut butter.  And there was a timer sitting on the table, to make sure we ate quickly enough.  Meanwhile, our fridge would often be full.  It's just that most of that food wasn't for us.

Of course I was tempted.  I stole cherries, and with my mouth full, tried to plump up the remaining pile, so it would look untouched.  Same thing for the melon chunks.  As the chicken thighs were served at the table, there was no chance of pilfering.  We got to watch.

For the most part, though, I treated the fridge as though it were the cliched fancy restaurant, and I was a poor kid pressing his nose against the glass.  A poor kid who knew there was a cop walking the beat, a cop who only got an orange for Christmas, and who was carrying a billy club just for me.

The threatened punishment for transgressions great and small, by the way, was being sent back to the orphanage.  As we had already experienced institutional life, this threat was not an empty one.  And, not long after the bed-chaining period, my three brothers were actually sent away.  So the lure of forbidden foods in the fridge was only one part of the drama of home life.  And this was how it was, for the greater part of the seven years I lived as part of my father's second family.

When I joined the Air Force, at 17 years of age, I was over 6' tall, and weighed 150 lb.  I gained nearly thirty pounds in the first six months of active duty, and still looked kind of skinny.  I once bought myself a cantaloupe, and ate it all, all at once.  And an hour later, got humiliatingly sick.  These days, I buy myself big bags of cherries in season, and make a glutton of myself.  Some of the things I stow in the fridge aren't just for display.

And really, for all my hyperbole, I've gotten much better at actually 'allowing' myself to eat the fruit I buy.  But still, I feel a tug of guilt and resistance, when I look for something to eat.  I myself buy these foods, but at some level, they're still really for someone else.  I even tend to ask John for permission to eat one thing or another.  It must still sound weird to him, but the seven years of training I endured -- even though it took place nearly fifty years ago now -- have left what seems to be an indelible mark.
The oatmeal was delicious, by the way.  And in a while, I think I'll have an apple.

©  2012    Walter Zimmerman

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Resistance Being, After All, Futile...

[Well, I just know you'd laugh yourself silly, if you could see me right now, sitting at the kitchen table, wolfing down a plate of sliced apple and cheddar cheese.  Or, to be more precise, you'd laugh yourself silly if you knew why I was wolfing down said snack, as though I hadn't eaten in recent memory.  (When, truth to tell, I'm still slightly stuffed from my dinner at the ever-reliable VIP Diner, one of Jersey City's landmarks, at the corner of Sip Ave and JFK Boulevard.  My fallback position, when I can't face the daunting traffic heading over the hills from the Hudson, and fanning out West toward the setting sun.  But very, very slowly] 

As for me, even though I know why I've now consumed about two day's worth of food, I'm a little alarmed.  If I were in the office of one of my many former therapists, and something similar had just occurred -- I'm half an hour late; I burst through the door in a snit about something totally extraneous...  we would both agree that... Walter is avoiding something. 

Well.  We wonder what it might be.

So, let's see...   I've spent part of the day being tended to, mostly by men, as it happens.  And while I haven't been allowing myself to be the center of attention, I've been traveling to and fro, in the very gas-hungry Honda Odyssey -- an appropriately-named vehicle for a day in which I never seemed to be able to reach my destination without breaking at least one rule of the road...

I had a haircut.  The barber I've seen, for the past 10+ years, is Geno, of Geno's Barberia, on Greenwich St. (I think), in the Village.  I see Geno about once a month, usually as close as possible to the new moon, because someone once said that was a good time for a haircut.  And since I need trimming on a regular basis, this gives me a reason for checking the phases of the moon, on the daily NYTimes weather page.  Last night, the moon was a tiny pale nail paring, hanging in the sky.  Time to see Geno.

I also have an annoying, yet non-fatal scalp 'situation', which I make worse by picking at myself until I bleed.  Very penitential, but otherwise not terribly useful as an activity.  Because I'm so embarrassed about this, I only trust Geno to be the one who actually sees these results of my inability to keep from digging into my scalp.  He never says a thing.

Instead, we talk, sometimes about his new shop, or about his parents, visiting from Montenegro, where Geno and his brother and their sister grew up.  Sometimes Geno has a brief conversation with a co-worker, in what may be Albanian, or Russian, or Italian -- he's got a patchwork of languages at his beck and call.  When we were talking about Lent and Ramadan once, he said that, although he's an observant Muslim, his family used to be Christian.  500 years ago, he said, without a trace of irony.

And of course, while we talk, he cuts and clips and sprays and applies a little warm lather, and shaves the back of my neck.  Never a nick.  He uses a nice brush, and a big dryer, and makes me look like a world-class financier, or a big-shot lawyer.  For reasons I can't grasp, he really seems to like cutting my hair.  It can't be all that different from the hundreds of heads he clips and combs each week.  But he seems genuinely pleased, when he brings the mirror over, and shows me what the back of my head looks like.  'Beautiful', I always say, and I mean it.  It looks so nice, I wish I could turn my head and walk down the street backwards.

Today, because it's the first time I've seen him since the operation, I mentioned the surgery to him, and his eyes got big.  This was a topic of conversation that was a bit beyond both of us.  So we settled for not much of anything at all.  I was tempted to offer to pull down the collar of my t-shirt, and show him my scar, and the lump where the pacemaker is wedged under my skin, but the moment didn't seem to present itself.  Besides, he's seen my scalp, which I'm sure is far scarier.

Geno.  Once a month, for ten years.  More often than I see my brothers.

The other ministration had less to do with appearances, and more to do with what I think I'll be calling my Li'l Intruder.  I had an appointment with the cardiac specialist who patiently convinced me, with prognoses and likelihoods and actuarial statistics -- all with an unmistakable undertone of genuine caring -- that I really needed to have this procedure done.  Today marks the one-month anniversary of my new state of Borg-hood, and Dr Benz wanted to have a look.

I had intended to bring him bunches of flowers -- lilies, if possible, because they last so long, and because there's that heady, drug-like scent that I find so alluring.  I was certain I would burst into tears when I saw him.  I toyed with the idea of prostrating myself at his feet, or kissing his shoes.  This is, after all, the man who had overcome my ambivalence about my continued existence; the man who might legitimately be said to have saved  my life..  Surely a display of some sort was called for. 

But... I couldn't squeeze a trip to the florist's into my odyssey; I'd only been able to cobble together the same tired package of printed materials I've had for the past fourteen years, to show Dr. Benz what my art looks like.  As though he would care.  When he came into the office, my eyes did sting a little, but no noticeable water works.  (I'd snagged a paper towel from the rest room, just in case)  The consulting room was actually too small for me to do much prostrating.  His shoes were nice, and black, and expensive-looking.  I thought better about the kissing.

He thinks the incision is healing nicely.  He asked about pain, or other bothersome things.  I told him about some intense clutchings, deep in my chest, that I'd been having, mostly when I'm lying down.  Then, in my way, I suggested that I had assumed that these pains were part of the new territory -- that, like saints-in-the-making, I had to accept a certain amount of auxiliary suffering.  He made some notes.

Then he took a few minutes to look through the package of materials I brought him.  Then took a few minutes more.  He seemed genuinely impressed, and even made one of those charming statements that most of my artist friends and I have to roll our eyes at, and smile about -- "This work is wonderful!  You should have an exhibit somewhere!"  I forgave him instantly.  Then he telephoned the surgeon who inserted my little hi-tech guest, and wrangled me an appointment for tomorrow, to see about those pains I've been having.  "We care about our patients,' Dr. Benz said as I was leaving.  'We worry -- is Walter okay?'  I believe him.

(His suit, by the way, was amazing... well, it'll sound lurid but it was quite beautiful -- made of a corded green material, with a slight sheen -- like sheaves of slightly sunburned grasses.  He has a rich dark complexion; he looked off-handedly regal, I think) 

Ah, and now I think we're getting someplace, because it's becoming a little difficult for me to see the screen.  Where's that paper towel?  There's one more case of ministering that I'd like to include.  In this case, I was only an eavesdropper, but...

Last week, here at our house, John hosted a Master Class for one of his harp students, and John's former teacher, the redoubtable Ray Pool.  We live roughly halfway between the respective residences of student and Master, so it made all the sense in the world.  That, and the fact that there are four harps in the house, and someone should play them all as often as possible.

The student -- a young man of maybe 13 -- was chauffeured to the lesson by his father.  They also  brought a nice bouquet (lilies!), with a simple vase for the flowers.  (Talk about coals to Newcastle...)  I did the hostly thing, taking coats and asking if anyone needed anything to drink.  Everyone was fine.  John and Ray, student and student's father all went into the harp room, John to observe.  The student's father was videotaping the lesson.  I sat here at the kitchen table, playing my scrabble game like a crazed alphabet junkie (must... make.... more.... points....), and waiting for someone to need a glass of apple juice.

It was when this thirteen-year-old began rattling off the (correct!) names of each of the chords that he was about to play, that I started to cry.  (What a wuss I must seem to be...)  Not because this boy knew what he was about to play, but because his father fully supported his child.  This father was in the room with his son.  Paying attention to this son of his.  Supporting him, so the youngster would know the names of these minor seventh chords.  Making considerable efforts -- this wasn't the first music trip of theirs, nor will it be the last, I'm sure -- to help his son groom the talent he's been given.

What was happening in the next room was acting as a kind of life-mirror.  How could I not inevitably compare what I knew to be going on, with harps, to my own experience -- that of parents suspicious of intelligence, of a father who, more than once, literally discarded his sons? 

And I think this is the reason a day like today, a day of being ministered to by men, is both intoxicating, and painful.  How can I be worth this?  How was I not worth this... long ago?  Who might I have become if, instead of resistance and suppression, hostility and resentment, I had had... even one week of the kind of attention in which that young harp student was immersed, probably without even noticing it?    

Oh well, I'm sure we can all 'go there', and with enough rooting about, find things to regret.  On the plus side, I can say that I have been a full-time college art professor, instead of the garbage man my family assiduously suggested should be my vocational goal.  I've gotten standing ovations.  I've had solo art exhibits. 

But I never tell anyone in my family.

Tomorrow, another man will minister to me -- looking at his handiwork, maybe adjusting the voltage, so my heart doesn't cook from the inside out.  Chatting with me in his pleasant, sunny way.  I'm pretty sure I'll feel guilty, for taking up his time.  Hesitant to bring out the list of (still more) questions about how to live with live wires running into my heart.  And I'll feel awkward too, because I still don't believe I deserve this kind of valuing.

Some of the pain in my chest can be dealt with, I think, with a simple adjustment on that fat computer they use, to 'talk' with the Li'l Intruder.  (It's wifi!  Can you believe it?)  But some of the pain I'll have to handle, in some other way, as best I can.

© 2012         Walter Zimmerman     


Wednesday, February 22, 2012

My Dirty Face, or 40 Days and Counting...

Well, here it is again, posing the same problems for me that it has for the past several years:  Lent.  What to do; what not to do.  What to 'give up'; what to 'take on'.  And behind it all, for me at least, the discomforting sense that way up high, where I can't clearly see it, some window has been opened, and a host of keenly interested eyes are following every move (you know, they can see through walls and stuff), and keeping close record of the many failings, omissions, forgettings and other myriad styles of sin to which, according to the internalized code with which I struggle, I seem inescapably chained.  Sigh.  Again?  Forty freakin' days?  Man.

It didn't used to be this way, for me.  As I've mentioned more than once, I was taught to grow up as a Presbyterian, and because one of my more notable youthful capacities was that of unquestioning belief (okay, usually unquestioning.  I mean, some of the stuff was just too stupid, even for a seven year old to swallow), it's almost as though I willingly exchanged my naturally-occurring skeletal system for a more orthodox, predestination-centric model.  And I'm sure that, if Lent were really important to the Presbyterians, I would have known about it.

So my first contact with the obligations that rolled around every year, to wedge themselves inconveniently into place at a time of year when a little chocolate would go a long way, came in the package that made up my father's second family -- a rigidly-observant group of Catholics, as unforgiving in their way as John Calvin was in his.  In this new family, I wasn't actually required, as a Protestant, to participate in the Catholic observances.  There was, however, a distinctly patronizing air with which my brothers and I were regarded, during the feasts and fasts and other gyrations -- as though we were four clothed chimpanzees that had wandered into human habitat.  Aren't they cute?  Don't let them touch anything.

So, my brothers and I knew there was something going on, but we weren't really sure what it all might mean.  Feast Days?  Days of obligation?  Septuagesima Sunday?  In any event, little of it seemed to involve us boys to any great extent.  Besides, that is, the weekly meals prominently featuring crusty deep-fried rectangular prisms presented as 'fish'.  No amount of ketchup would make them seem to be anything other than cardboard.  Fried.   And the ghastly images hanging here and there, especially in the restaurant my step-grandmother was running into the ground: sad-looking nuns pointing to what looked like signs of eternal heartburn in their transparent chests.  And a lot of candles, the burning of which didn't seem to improve the family luck, or ease the general air of anger and despair.

After graduating from high school, and finding that there was no employer in McKeesport willing to hire and train a 17-year-old youth who had what seemed to be a large target painted on his forehead, with the words 'Cannon Fodder' both above and below the concentric rings, I was 'permitted', with the aid of my father's signature, to join the Air Force.  In the following four years, I think I went to church... once.  Lent?  It referred to a book you never expected to get back.

But of course, there was, within me, that same Presbyterian skeletal structure, informing my days and nights as surely as if I were wearing a long black robe with a stiffly starched ruff, and eating a lot of haggis.  My curiosity about the world's operating manual, and how I might fit into the system, continued to be of interest to me.  I even found, while still in uniform, a seemingly rational, formal religion, which I joined without as much thought as I might have given it.  This belief system had a kind of Lent-like equivalent, which I tried at first to observe.  But after a while, I got tired of hearing about a powerful Deity Who wouldn't like me if I did... oh, I forget what exactly.  And I realized that, in spite of myself, the Christian underpinnings were too deeply buried to be ignored.  So I bowed out of the new, and went back to ignoring the old.  Sundays were once more for sleeping in. 

Now, years and years later, I'm back in a very tenuous relationship with faith again.  It surprises me, in fact, that of the things I write about here -- and I can write whatever I want to, right? -- religion, or something tangential thereto, seems to be a prominent topic for me.  Except, as I think about it, religion isn't the real topic at all.

The real topic of course, as I've been aware, is death. 

And for me, religion is the mesh that has been woven from both the cultural and the personal need to give me something suitably elaborate and distracting, that may help me remain basically sane while I wait for the implacable end of my conscious corporeal existence.  How intriguing, I thought today, that the priest celebrating the noon-day mass I attended, for the imposition of the ashes, made the following revealing slip:  where the priest invites the congregation to make a three-fold declaration centered on death, resurrection and return, this celebrant invited us to proclaim, not the mystery of Faith, but the mystery of Death.  As with most slips of this type, it wasn't even noticed.

Well...  I noticed.  And I thought about it, all the way back to the car, parked somewhat illegally, by the library.  (Another mark on the bad list)

I thought about the familiar image of death, that Bosch painted, or Breughel -- the one Bergman picked, apparently at the last minute, to take advantage of some splendid natural lighting, for the ending of 'The Seventh Seal': a faceless reaper in a black robe, and carrying a scythe as tall as he is.  A scythe that cuts the stalk at the bottom, so what is being harvested may fall and then be gathered up.  Threshed for the valuable seed; bound, as dry remains, to be strewn on barn floors, or baled for feed.

But for me, today, this image is far too benign, tied as it is with the necessity of loss and transformation in the process of nourishment and of life itself.  You only use the scythe on what is ripe.  No, I currently picture death as an underpaid government functionary, possibly with an attention-deficit disorder of some type, which makes reading human expressions impossible.  And this functionary has no investment in this process. or in the persons on the endless roster on the clip board.  There is no relish in the task.  There is no triumph.   There is no ear for inducement to pity.  No eye for the most heart-breaking beauty.  No interest in intelligence, or wealth.   Youth or strength.  Wit or nice nails.  Just a daily, indifferent, plodding tick tick ticking off, wearing down one pencil after another, in the unenthusiastic repetition...

And me?  I guess I feel, at times, as though I'm flying in a military cargo plane, with all available bay doors open, and no illusion of support or protection between me and non-existence.

And... Lent, then? 

Well, I can't be any less susceptible than others, to the lure of that mesh I mentioned -- the protective, delusional set of mummeries to keep us all from going a little crazy.  The rules and regulations and suppositions of men 1700 years ago leave me cold -- but the living contact, between all of us, is something I do fervently respect and try to cultivate, to the extent that I can.  I've even begun, probably in the typical mortal effort to sidestep the unavoidable, to hope that intimate, caring conversation between humans is our only truly meaningful activity, the one truly death-defying act we can perform, just about anytime, anywhere.

So.  For this arbitrary period of 40 days, I'm going to try to make some kind of written statement every day.  It may only be a sentence (right), and who knows what I'll end up talking about.  I'll try, out of respect, to warn, if I suspect that any one day's musings might disturb those who want to read what I put out there.  (I know there's one theme, about Jesus and the mating habits of squids, that would surely have had me burnt at the stake in the 1600's -- no matter how black my robe, or starched my collar)  And, I think I'll try to reach out to at least one person a day.  However that reaching may show itself.  And it would be beyond gratifying, if these little meetings might be even the thinnest, least substantial knots in the sad net holding us all together, against the alternative.

Better a bad knot, I suppose, than no knot at all.

©  2012         Walter Zimmerman            

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Thoughts on Wood-Working, or Sycamore from Heaven

Well, one of the main reasons I want to write this is that there's something justifiably nasty I've longed to say about someone for a long time, and this provides the perfect opportunity.  There may be other, perhaps loftier motivations behind this post as well, but at the moment, the thought of even impotent revenge is deeply satisfying.  It being Valentine's Day.  All those arrows.  But not all of them chocolate.

Twenty years ago (screech of the brakes as we realize... twenty years ago?), I started grad school in Rochester NY, at Rochester Institute of Technology, and specifically at their American School of Crafts.  This school, founded by renowned sculptor and furniture-maker Wendell Castle, was first called the American School of Craftsmen.  The official name had only recently been changed.  I thought this was interesting.  When I applied, many of the students were women, even though, as I later learned, in some areas they were not really welcomed into a formerly all-male enclave.  I had also made it clear, on interviewing with the head of glass studies, that as a gay man (in my mid-40's at the time), I wasn't interested in investing time and money at an institution where my private life would be an issue.  Possibly because I was so much taller, the professor assured me it wouldn't be a problem.  He might have gone on to clarify that it wouldn't be a problem... for me.  But...  

I was an MFA candidate in the Glass Department, and in those first disoriented days -- trying to figure out the way from the outdoor glass hot shop, through the ceramics studios and woodworking areas, and then up to the second-floor classrooms where we had meetings about and lectures on glass -- someone recognized me, said hello, and came out of his studio to shake my hand. 

I'll call him Doug.  He was a tall, lanky guy, with a full head of curly dark brown hair, and a bushy beard that, because he was a wood-working student, was flecked with sawdust.  As I was already confused, I'm not sure he noticed that I didn't really know who he was, but he clarified it anyway -- we had met at his elder brother Alan's wedding, in Manhattan, years earlier.  Of course, being a wedding, there had been a mad whirl of faces, and the only person I knew, besides my partner John, was the person Doug's brother Alan was marrying.  It was a singer John and I had met.  A tenor, named Ron.

Well, I knoew that Ron and Alan were still happily together, though I'd lost track of where they were living at the time -- and I told Doug how nice and kind of homey it was, that I nnow had someone at school I could come and visit, and reminisce with about New York City, while he might be planing a board or something, and I might be carrying an armful of new-made glass up to my studio space.  Doug had a gentle, intelligent sweetness, a nice contrast to my own quick, barbed sharpness.  I was fascinated by the processes involved in fine wood work -- clamps bristling from slabs of fine mahogany, mere planks being forcibly transformed into, say, a chest of drawers, or a folding table, or a bed frame.  Once I ran into the central woodworking studio to borrow a nail, and at the word 'nail', everyone looked up sharply and stared, clearly offended.  'This is fine woodworking', someone said coldly.  'We don't use nails.'

During the school week, I might stop by Doug's studio once or twice.  He was making a model for a merry-go-round figure, by cementing thick sheets of blue or pink insulation foam together, to then carve into the shape he had in mind.  Then he would repeat the process in the wood itself.  Working on such a large scale fascinated to me, and Doug had a funny explanation behind his choice of a roly-poly, approachable figure (I think it was a hippo), instead of a dragon, or a horse breathing fire.  In turn, I showed him the new surface textures on my glass -- things that made the glass less decorative, and more like survivors of some misfortune.  We talked for maybe ten minutes at most.  We would say we should get together for dinner, but he lived in a different part of town, and after school, I was too whipped to do anything but sit and stare until the next day.

So I was taken completely off-guard when, well into the first whirling year of grad school, as I stopped to chat with Doug, he got a pained look on his face.  He put down his chisel and asked me to walk outside with him.  And then he said, practically with tears in his eyes, that I shouldn't stop to talk with him anymore, except if it was later in the day, when the professors had gone home, and there weren't as many people around.

Well of course, I always want to accommodate, but I couldn't help asking what was wrong.  And so I learned that, in spite of whatever reassurances I'd been given, regarding my sexual orientation having no bearing on my experience at RIT, there were members of the teaching establishment who didn't have the same breadth of tolerance.  Or, really, much tolerance at all.  But rather than confronting me (about what, one might wonder), the one particular professor had noticed that one of his woodworking students was kind of friendly with the... well, the joke goes like this:  Question -- What's the definition of a fag?  Answer -- That's what you call the homosexual gentleman who just left the room.

So.  Doug had a friend who was the fag.  And Doug was pretty much tortured, during critiques, with a steady barrage of low-level but relentless badgering, of the standard, generalized 'well, do you two get together and kiss' variety.  Nothing was said to me.  When I brought this up to the head of my department, it was dismissed.  He also pointed out that, as I was only tangentially involved, there really wasn't anything I could do, unless Doug himself complained.  

Which step I urged Doug to take.  After all, I reasoned, he had witnesses.  There had been other students in the room while this stream of humiliating innuendo was being dumped all over him.  But no matter how strongly I suggested this, Doug refused -- reasoning that, if he were to bring this mistreatment out into the open, there was every possibility his teachers would learn that, not only did Doug have... a gay friend, but Doug also had... a gay brother.  Who was married (married?) to another man.  And... a gay man at that.  Doug saw his life in the tight-knit woodworking community slowly but surely circling a bright pink porcelain drain.

He quit.

He left behind all the tuition money he'd borrowed, in order pay for the classes in which he had been forced to breathe in this abuse.  He found a teaching position in another state, and did quite well.  He later moved to a university setting, continuing to teach at a high level.  He has a lovely daughter, who is his treasure.  Doug's gay brother is still married to the same gay man, and I still can't keep track of where they live.

I stayed and finished my degree.  But I carried a painful, impotent fury with me.  I still saw the offending professor (protected by tenure, don't you know.  Remind me to tell you the joke about that topic) around campus, and to my face, he was all smiles and cordiality.  Once, when I'd finished a piece of work for my thesis show, and this professor (not the first or the last) suggested that I make the glass light up from inside, I took great pains to explain to him that, so altered, the work would achieve a level of one-dimensionality that I found uninteresting.  Left unlit, I said, the work was more likely to provoke the individual, private narratives that are what I'm most interested in, with regard to works of art -- that there be no set 'meaning', that the successful work goes on shedding meaning like my cat sheds red fur on the front stairs... continuously and, it is to be hoped, with less sneezing.  This man, whom I despised, considered what I'd said, and then sat down on the floor in the hallway outside my workspace, looking at this assemblage (I call it 'The Lung Box', it's in our basement) for about twenty minutes, finally saying that he agreed with me.  I'd been sitting there too, getting a strange savory feeling from this direct confrontation of his, with the work of the homosexual gentleman who has just left the room.  But l was still hating him every moment. 

So I decided, in my impotence, never to work with wood, ever.  I justified it somewhat, by saying that wood is too organic, that I get a more convincing and disturbing feeling of burgeoning life from inorganic or man-made materials, that wood is too fickle, responding too much to atmospheric changes, while glass only melts if the world is coming to an end.  But the real reason is, I don't want to be reminded of this cruel, smug, heedlessly powerful and heedlessly destructive man, who had encountered no personal or professional resistance, as instead of fostering and encouraging the ambitions of one of his students, he befouled them.

Perhaps foulness was all he really had to give -- that, and a few insights into how to hold a chisel.  Current students are safe; this professor having retired some time ago.  Some of his footprints have been preserved, I believe, in a patch of what was once the soft soil outside the wood department door, and are kept there for the possible wonderment of school children in the future.

And now, finally, we come to the current conundrum. 

Next door to my house, beside my driveway, stands a tall sycamore tree -- the kind with the scaly bark and the huge, dinner-plate-sized leaves that, each autumn, cover said driveway, ankle-deep -- even though, each preceding spring, we have stood around wondering if, finally, that tree isn't dead, because those leaves are taking so long to emerge.  It turns out, this is how they do it. 

They live a long time, these American sycamore trees -- up to 400 or 500 years.  In a general way, I'm jealous, though I'm not sure I'd want to stand in the neighbor's yard that long, what with the succession of pitbulls and their inevitable output, both auditory and post-digestive.

Sycamore is also a rather brittle wood, though I'm told it can make fine furniture, if the planing mill has the patience to pare away all the knarls and knots and twists and turns the trees take in their centuries of growth, and after this paring, come up with a few board-feet of salvageable wood.  What I'm mostly confronted with, in my driveway, are the leaves, and an occasional branch or limb, snapped off by a storm and flung in my general direction.  In spite of my self-imposed wood-prohibition, I have secretly (?) collected these tid-bits for almost as long as we've lived in this house -- there's a pile of them in the basement, and even as I toss another sample on the heap, I try not to look at it.

The problem is that they look... alive.  At the junctures where another twig is going to pop forth, a kind of knuckle or knot forms, and instead of progressing in the graceful arc of an oak or maple, these new fingers of sycamore go off at odd, sharp, and almost mathematically precise linear directions.  Looking up into the bare branches, I'm reminded of the the spidery drawing I'd get, if I let a drop of India ink fall onto a piece of slick, clay-coated paper, and then took a drinking straw and blew at the ink, splashing it out and chasing each little dark tendril around until it was all used up.  It's like wooden fireworks, but frozen.  Excluding smoke and excitement.  And including lots of leaves.

First I thought I'd make a chess set -- even though I dislike the metaphor of the game, and wish the boards were less regular, more undulant, like the real bomb-cratered battle fields we know are out there.  These sycamore knots have that gnomish quality, like nightmares; they might start moving around, or reaching out for me, with nothing good in mind.  So they'd be perfect pawns for the front lines of an army; ideal, in bigger chunks, for the malign powers behind the advancing troops; in even longer, twisted lengths, for those whose own fates hinge on those of the less fortunate.

Then we had that ice storm last October, while plate-sized leaves still hung on brittle branches.  I'm still amazed that either through premonition or presence of mind, I moved both our cars to the street end of the driveway, less that twenty minutes before the first torn sycamore limbs came crashing down, just missing our kitchen window.  When the night was over, most of the driveway was filled head-high with sycamore, the mottled bark making the accumulation look like the aftermath of an arboreal war, the fallen still wrapped in tan/green/brown camouflage.

We had contributions from our other tall wooden neighbors too -- a big chunk of choke-cherry (poisonous for humans); a Norway maple limb; two large sections of red oak, one landing leaves-down, like a deciduous parody of a Christmas tree, but too tall to fit into the house, and another, larger broken limb, hanging like an exhausted trapeze artist, from the fork of two thick limbs, some 90 feet up in the air.  John and I dubbed this our Sword of Damocles, and wondered how much it would cost to have it brought down safely.  In a subsequent wind storm, it too fell into the yard.

And in the yard, working with my little hand saws, I gnawed away at one stack or another.  Starting at the small ends and working toward the large.  Whittling things down to a manageable size.  Trying to decide what might work as firewood, and what I might have to drag out to the curb, in the hope that the town would to remove it.  Oak, and crisp red leaves, in this pile.  Cherry, dark and pitted on the bark, over here.  The maple went to the curb right away.  Then there was all that sycamore.

That took almost three days of steady work -- hack and drag and saw and pull -- to get all this sweet, still living wood out to the street lamp.  And as I was nipping away at this accumulation, I just couldn't help it -- one branch was so graceful -- a little knot was so funny -- who could believe that a tree would grow into a shape like this...  A pile of carefully-selected tidbits grew by the back door, lying amid heaps of plate-sized leaves that, days before, had offered us a nice helping of unseasonable ice.

The great hulking limbs -- some thicker than my thigh -- were out of the way.  The smaller branches were stacked with the rest of the detritus.  Our attention, at the time, was focused mostly on surviving without electricity for what turned out to be a week, followed by a week without cable service, and then another week until the initial faulty electric work was finally fixed.  But I still looked out of the corner of my eye at the pile of wood by the back door.  Weighing and balancing the unquestionable visual lure and curiosity of this material, against my still lingering resentment, and my pledge to avoid this material, as a personal statement against abusive intolerance. 

I sometimes say that I try to stay awake.  By this I mean that, in addition to going about what passes for my daily life, I hope to keep an ear out, or to glimpse from the corner of my eye, in case there's the eruption into the mundane, of something... special -- something like an elbow nudge from what I otherwise think of as a vastly indifferent Universe.  Most often I require a good bash on the head before I stop thinking about how many cans of cat food I should have bought when they were on sale.  And in the case before me now, I had almost been buried in something I said I didn't want, but which I now couldn't deny I found compelling.  If I were one of my own students, and had this challenge, my answer would be simple -- go for it!  See where it leads you!  Life can be a wonderful thing!

Which I fervently believe.  For them.

Well, I'll have to say, if the Universe is interested in me tinkering around with these little pieces of wood, said Universe is going to some lengths to make this interest perfectly clear.  While visiting some folks with a local framing shop and gallery, I mentioned my perturbing stack of wood, wood I'd gathered, without really knowing why, and as we talked, the beginnings of a plan emerged.  Well of course, we still have to work out (a) whether we're all serious about this (b) whether we're all really serious about this, and (c) no, really -- are we all really really serious about this?  It could be a kind of little installation/residency, where,,, whatever is going to emerge... does so over the duration of the residency itself.  A month, say?  We could invite school kids at different grade levels, to see what they might like to do, to help create a visual experience (beside talk on their phones...) out of a freakin' pile of sticks.  (Adults -- duh, so stupid...)

About my friend Doug, I'm still overheated.   I don't want to assign too much significance to a perfectly ordinary driveway full of tree limbs.  (Well, I have used the word 'Universe' rather a lot here) But it seems to me, in this case, I might simultaneously let go -- even though my lingering resentment is perfectly justified -- and grasp -- a material I've shunned, even as I've reluctantly learned far more about it than I would have expected, when I made that inward pledge to myself all those years ago.  I don't enjoy the feel of uncertainty, of not knowing what might emerge, and whether or not it will be worth the effort.  To that same imaginary, inner student, I would say -- that's the nature of our work as artists, in some ways -- a willingness to go into the unknown, to take risks and confront the results.

Yesterday, I found another old sycamore branch.  I dissected it, and the back of the van is filled with twisted gnarled things. And if you see some downed branches with the blotchy, tan/green/grey bark, and the knotted joints where the twigs take different directions, like wooden fireworks -- call me.     

 © 2012        Walter Zimmerman     

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Chapter Two -- Why Are We Here?

'The boys' arrived in late summer, to give them time to get settled, and for family life to reach a kind of normal state, and for everyone to get ready for school in the fall.  'The boys', as they were referred to, always meant Greggy,  Nelson and Elliot.   Sometimes Warren seemed to be included, and sometimes not -- it mostly depended, practically from the start, on who had done something wrong.

During the remaining weeks of summer, Warren took his brothers around the neighborhood, showing them the places he liked best for playing, or for being alone.  He introduced them to the kids across the street, and a couple other boys who lived up the hill.  The other kids seemed kind of polite, but ill at ease.  Warren supposed it was because, in most families, kids didn't just show up, three at a time, from someplace else. 

In the house, Warren shared the front blue bedroom with Elliot, and Greggy and Nelson shared the middle room, the pale green one, that you had to walk through, to get to their parents' room.  This middle room always seemed darker than the others, and more crowded, because it only had one small window, and the two twin beds had to be arranged to leave a pathway.  In Warren's room, there was room for a dresser and an extra chair, and the clothes closet was pretty big.  Warren thought things were arranged this way because he was the oldest, but he couldn't be sure.

At the very first, things seemed all right.  During the days, Warren and his brothers played outdoors, or in the big unfinished basement, if it was raining out.  They would have a quick lunch, which Jane seemed to like fixing for them, and bringing to the brothers sitting at the formica dining room table.  Warren liked to trace the soft triangle shapes in the dark grey and pink surface as he ate.  The table had an extra section, in case they had guests, and needed more room.  It mostly stayed in the hall closet, though, beside the vacuum cleaner. 

On Sundays, Warren would lead his brothers on the two-mile walk to the nearest Presbyterian church (in bad weather, their Dad would drive them, but they knew he didn't like to), where they would go to their separate Sunday school rooms, and when that was over, they would all walk back home.  Sometimes Elliot would stay at home; he was the shortest, and it was hard for him to keep up.   In the early afternoon, the whole family would drive down to Myrna and Sam's restaurant, about five miles away, on the outskirts of downtown McKeesport.  Across the street from the restaurant, there was a great dark steel mill, and busy railroad tracks.  You would never know there was a river less than half a mile away.  There were a lot of trucks driving everywhere too, and Myrna rented rooms on the restaurant's second floor, for drivers who needed someplace to sleep at night.       

This Sunday meal was eaten in two of the booths by the restaurant's front windows.  The grown-ups would sit at one table -- Warren's father and Jane, Myrna and Saul, and Jane's younger brother Tim.  'The boys' sat together in the next booth.  The red upholstery could be sticky in damp hot weather, and Elliott had to strain to reach his food, until Myrna got a phone book for him to sit on.  She didn't seem to like the boys as much as Jane did, although Warren couldn't figure out why -- after all, she only saw them once a week, for this big dinner.

Saul did most of the cooking, and there was always plenty to eat, even if what was served seemed strange to Warren and his brothers.  The stuffed cabbages were particularly difficult to understand -- having grown up, thus far anyway, on mostly meat loaf and variations of pot roast, the boys all found these translucent, pale green objects, organic-looking in their reddish sauce with sauerkraut mixed in,  unappealing.  The fact that there was a little knot of meat and rice, tucked away inside the rolled up leaves, seemed to mean something, like a riddle in a fairy tale, but Warren wasn't sure what that meaning was.  He was pretty sure it wasn't good, though.

Sometimes, after dinner, the boys were sent out to play in the vacant lot between the restaurant and another business that sold tanks of oxygen and other industrial things.  The open flat area was usually full of parked trucks, and there was a sharp kind of gravel underfoot.  In the rest of the lot, there were tall weeds, hiding broken cinder blocks and trash.  There was an old, neglected apple tree at the end of the lot where the gas tanks were kept, and the boys preferred to play there.  It wasn't difficult to turn that twisted tree into almost anything, and the rest of the world around them seemed to vanish.  And after they were called inside, when it was getting late, sometimes they stayed overnight at the restaurant, one each in the upstairs rooms, if there weren't truckers asleep.  At night, the sky never got dark -- it stayed a moody orange, flaring up sometimes, and then subsiding to that same dull fiery glow.  Trains ran all night too, a steady rumbling with the occasional whistle.

And so it went.  In September, school began, and Warren and his brothers joined the other kids along their narrow street, climbing the steep hill to the bus stop right at the top.  The school was maybe two miles from their house -- though the trip seemed longer, because there were other stops on the way to the school yard -- and Warren had that usual sense of wariness, from having already moved so many times, and having had to meet so many new kids.  At this school -- a one-story brick building, newly built -- Warren was going into the 7th grade.  Greggy would be in 5th, Nelson in 4th, and Elliot in 2nd.  Now things would be normal.

And for a while, they were, almost.  Elliot would sometimes pee his bed, and Jane was becoming more and more impatient with this.  Because Warren did so well in school. his brothers were scolded for not measuring up to their older brother's achievements.  Sometimes the younger boys would fight, or break something, or spill their milk at the dinner table -- things that seemed to be normal on TV, but in this house, the reactions were much more shrill.  Because Warren's dad was now working at strange times of the day and night, Jane was left alone with the boys most of the time, and she gradually looked more and more impatient.  When something went wrong -- which seemed to happen almost daily as the school year progressed -- she began to behave like a radio with only two volumes: normal, and screaming.  This only made Warren and his brothers flinch -- screaming like this, in the orphanage, was always followed by a beating.

Suddenly and quickly, things began to fall apart.  Just after that first Christmas together as an entire family, Jane realized that she was going to have a baby.  Myrna and Saul were overjoyed -- Jane was their oldest, and their only daughter, and her new child would be their first 'real' grandchild.  But at home, there was more tension than usual, and Jane seemed to use the loud volume setting more often.  School, for Warren, continued to be a shelter, and he longed for weekends to be over, so he could return to the safest place available.

And then, as Jane was gaining weight from the new baby, Warren's father came home from his job in Pittsburgh, much earlier than usual, and took Jane into their bedroom.  Warren could hear crying, and his father's high, sharp voice, almost as loud as Jane's now.  That night, dinner was silent, with bitterness in the dark dining room.  Greggy asked for another piece of bread, and Jane yelled at him -- at all of them, really -- that they were just going to have to learn to do without from now on, because their father had just lost his job.  Her voice was like knives now, and Warren's dad sat silent, looking at his plate.

Warren clung to school now, more than ever.  Being at home was fearful.  Mealtimes were especially terrible.  Warren's father barely ate anything at all, and Jane watched Warren and his brothers as though she was counting every bite they took, of the meals that shrank from day to day.  Four boys to feed.  Four boys who were, really, someone else's.  Four boys who, every day it seemed, were more of a burden.  Warren started having trouble with his school work. 

One spring evening, Warren's parents went out, leaving him in charge of his brothers, with instructions to get everyone into bed by nine.  Having long since learned how vitally important it was to be obedient, Warren followed his instructions to the letter.  Greggy and Nelson went to bed in their pale green room.  Warren and Elliot went to bed in the room painted blue.  Warren worried that his youngest brother might wet the bed again.

Later that night, Warren woke up.  His parents had come home, and they were yelling in another room, and he thought he heard Greggy's voice, and someone else crying.  The crying got louder, and Warren figured out that his brothers had gotten out of bed, and they had been doing something bad, and now there was going to be more trouble.  The next day, on their way up the hill to the bus stop, Warren asked Greggy what had happened.  'We were hungry,' Greggy said.  So he and Nelson had gotten out of bed, gone to the kitchen, and found a box of saltine crackers.  They were so busy eating, that they didn't hear our parents come in, and... well, Warren knew the rest.

When school was over for the day, Warren didn't want to get on the bus to go back home.  But what else could he and his brothers do?  Their stop was the last on the route.  They walked together down the steep hill to their home.

Jane was in the master bedroom.  Warren's dad was in the basement, doing something at his workbench.  The boys changed out of their school clothes, and then sat together at the dining room table, doing their homework.  Sometimes Greggy would ask Warren a question, in a hoarse whisper, and Warren tried to answer without making any noise at all.  When their homework was all done, they continued to sit quietly in the dining room.  Warren drew pictures of swans and horses on a piece of tablet paper.

Jane came out of her bedroom to get dinner ready, and screamed at the boys for sitting in the dining room, when it was going to be time to eat in a few minutes.  They gathered their books and papers, and went to their bedrooms.  In a few minutes, it was time to go back to the table, for another silent, meager meal.

With the meal finished and when Warren and Greggy had finished washing and drying the dishes, their father told the boys to get ready for bed, even though it was barely 7 pm.  When they'd put on their pajamas, he called them into the living room.  He had a big paper bag in his hands.  Jane was sitting on the couch, looking out the front window.  The sun was just beginning to set. 

'Since we can't trust you boys to behave yourselves,' Warren's dad said, 'we're going to have to start a new regime around here.  Come with me.'  He led his sons into the pale green bedroom, and told Greggy and Nelson to get into bed -- but not under the covers yet.  Then he reached into the paper bag, and pulled out two lengths of metal chain -- the kind you'd use for walking a dog, maybe, if you didn't have a nice leash.  He pulled out four small padlocks, the kind that need a key.  While Greggy and Nelson lay in bed, and Warren and Elliot stood watching, their father looped one end of a length of chain around a leg of Greggy's bed, and padlocked it into place.  Then he took the other end, and looped it, tight, around Greggy's ankle, and clipped another lock into place.  Then he went through the same operation with Nelson.

'Come here,' he said, and Warren and Elliot went with their father into the pale blue room.  'Lie down.' Elliot got onto his bed, and his father repeated the shackling.  Warren felt dizzy and sick to his stomach.

But the paper bag was empty now.  And instead of securing Warren to his narrow bed, Warren's father handed his oldest son three small keys.  'I'm putting you in charge,' he said.  'Every weekday, as soon as your brothers are done with their homework, they are to get into bed, and you will chain them there, just like I showed you.  And you will not unlock them until it's time to get up for school in the morning.'

And this is how it was.  Warren kept the keys in the drawer of the nightstand between his bed and Elliot's.  The second night, as Warren was locking the chain around his youngest brother's pale ankle, Elliot begged him to make the loop big enough to get his foot free.  'I don't want to pee the bed, Whizzy.  I'll be quiet in the bathroom, I promise.'  Quietly, Warren refitted the chain, to make sure there was enough room for an easy escape.  Then he put the keys back into the drawer, and went to sleep.
These are things that happened, just at the very beginning of the bad time.