Monday, April 30, 2012

Little Offshoots...

I may have a twenty minute window of opportunity here, before I must leave to drive myself to New Brunswick, for this evening's choir rehearsal.  And of course there are about three billion other things I should be doing, instead of using this twenty minute window of opportunity for writing about who knows what.  But when have I ever made a wise choice, with regard to using my time?

And, because I can't really luxuriate in any particular topic right now, I want to mention two silly things that have given me unusually pleasant feelings recently.  Both these events (?) involve planted things.

Two years ago, when I had my autumn exhibit in the space generously lent to me for the purpose, by Bryan Christie, I had originally intended to use the great empty space (right above the Maplewood Movie Theater marquee, within spitting distance of the train station if you're a really good spitter), as both a construction space and a gallery, but it soon became clear that I would never have enough time and energy to haul everything I would need, out of my basement, pack it into the van, and then haul it all up the stairs in Maplewood, only to have to remove it all again when the work would be shown.  So, at first, all I mostly did, those early days in October, was to crank open the windows over the black-topped roof of the marquee, and look out at the trees in the park.  There was some detritus on the roof, as will happen, and one of the things I found was a plastic florist's pot, with what looked like a sad onion in it.  I stretched a little, to pick it up, and suspected that, at one time, it had been an amaryllis.  Whether it was still viable or not remained to be seen.  And really, if the only investment necessary is a bit of water from time to time, I was pretty sure I could manage that.

So I brought it home, put some real dirt into the pot, set the bulb-like thing in place, and put it in the sun room, next to another amaryllis I'd inherited from a neighbor.  It had died too.  I don't so much grow things as I try to resurrect them.  Usually, the efforts are what one would expect, if one were to bring a twig into the house and get it to bud, just by sprinkling water on it occasionally.

But in this case, both bulbs proved to be tougher than I would have expected.  The one from the movie marquee, which I would have thought had been fried more or less all the way through, sent up green leaves first.  Then the other followed suit.  And now, much to my everlasting amazement, the marquee bulb has lofted a lovely, mysterious, folded green gesture, at the end of an extending stalk.  I just checked -- the flowers are going to be a salmony-red color.  How amazing to me.

Likewise, a couple of years ago, a neighbor offered me an old climbing rose that wasn't fitting in with the new garden design.  Sure, I said -- I'll just stick it here along the driveway, where there's plenty of light in the afternoon.  The long, curved and very thorny stem made a nice rhythmic curve against the neighbor's chain-link fence.  I nestled the roots down deep, added a little rose food, tamped the soil back into place, did the watering thing, and went on to other things.

Well, it had apparently failed to make the transition from one side of Sinclair Terrace to the other, because all that year, and all the next, there was nary a sprig of green from where I full well remembered having planted that climbing rose.  The long swirly thorn sprig broke off while the squirrels were clambering around.  I turned my attention to trying to figure out how to resuscitate a hydrangea I'd moved from the front yard to the back, were it was failing to thrive.  I always feel so guilty.

But the third year after being moved, that tough old rose root sent up a little signal -- not dead yet.  I was fiercely protective of this, even though I wasn't sure I had correctly identified the leaves.  It has taken two more years of this semi-tender-hearted tending, but when last I checked, I saw a little bud on one of this year's new branches -- which means that, unless I run it over with the van, there will be an actual rose blooming where none had been expected, ever again.

This is deeply satisfying.  This is almost defiantly gratifying.  Now, if only this coming January, when I go to separate the Christmas tree from its plastic stand, I can find the merest hint of root threads from the balsam's trunk, I will be, I think, a truly happy, if somewhat bemused, man.

That's all.  Time to go harmonize...

    (I'm trying to add the copyright sign, but Google has apparently improved this site, so I can't do that.  Don't you love it when things get so much better that they don't work at all?)

Well, anyway, please consider the above content to have been copyrighted by Walter Zimmerman, in the year 2012.  And Google?  You've got spinach in your teeth.

Walter Zimmerman © 2012

Friday, April 13, 2012

Upside Downside

An adventurous week.  If only I had about three more days between tonight and tomorrow morning.  (Who hasn't said that at one time or another?)

On Wednesday, I went to Philadelphia, to give a talk to the glass students at Tyler, and then do a hot-shop demonstration.  Because it's exhibition time for the students, I wanted to focus more on installation challenges and solutions, than simply talking about when I made this piece and how big it is.  I wasn't as pleased with my presentation as I had hoped to be, but the students paid attention, and asked some pertinent and interesting questions when the slide show was done. 

As it's been over a year since I've last done any hot glass work, I was ambivalent about doing the demo.  But I had, after all, brought two buckets from home, filled with oddments I use, to make my weird, odd-looking glass things; when I was assured that my work would be of value and interest to the junior class (oh, God, I want to be a college junior for eternity...), I went to the car and brought up my goodies/baddies.  A swatch of fiberglass fabric.  Some plumbing fittings.  A belt clamp.  Some copper wire.  A length of what I've been sure is fiberglass cord.  And, most important of all, my basin of dried scrapings from the saw bed in a cold shop -- the equivalent of sawdust, I always say, but... glass!  As the bench was being set up, I went into Jes Julius' office, to change into the work clothes I'd brought.  (Another indication that I really wanted to work, I guess)  I discovered that the grey t-shirt I grabbed from my clothing pile was my special one, from Eddie Bernard's Wet Dog Glass Works, and then I felt that this event was going to be okay.  I tend to think like that sometimes.

The students and I were gathered by the workbench, discussing materials as I dragged them out of the buckets.  I also called attention to my lucky t-shirt, even though I wasn't sure any of the students would know about Eddie, and Wet Dog, maker of some of the finest glassmaking equipment in the world.  Ah, youth.

And then... what on earth was I thinking?  I took my t-shirt off, and showed these students the scar from my pacemaker surgery, and the little bulging outline of the implement itself.  I described, with some relish, the insertion of the wires, through my veins (their young eyes got even wider than usual), and into the right auricle and ventricle.  'Where', I said, making little illustrative gestures, 'the wires were twisted in place, so the sharpened, corkscrew ends would burrow their way into the flesh of my heart.'  Bigger eyes than ever.  'And scar tissue will form, to hold the wires in my heart, until the whole thing needs to be replaced.  Now, let's blow some glass...'  I'll bet they've never had an artist demo quite like this one.  

The working went better than I'd expected, and I made three acceptable examples of my work.  Later, I had dinner with Jes and my dearest darling Emma Salamon -- we met at 7:30 pm, at a place in South Phila., and didn't leave there until 11!  We laughed all the time -- it was wonderful.

I stayed overnight in a truly ghastly little hotel (accommodations were nearly impossible to find -- a reservation clerk suggested that it was because of graduation, but schools don't wind down for three weeks yet.  I think it was a gathering of the American Guild of Undertakers and Morticians -- they love Philadelphia, for reasons known only to themselves...), and on Thursday morning, I went back to Tyler to talk with the graduate students in the glass program.   When they thanked me for my time, I told them that I was grateful for the chance to come and visit, to look at things, and, I hope, to be of some benefit to them and their work.  I said that, for the most part, when I'm at home, I'm like a room filled with clothing no one ever wears.

Today, however, I've been in an all-but murderous rage.  Because...

At the end of my talk on Wednesday, while I was answering some late-breaking questions, a student came into the lecture room, apologizing for having taken so long to give me... a check for $500!  I literally could not believe it!  I had thought that this visit was completely my own idea, and was willing to take the hit on the hotel room and the endless charges to park in Philadelphia (talk about adding insult to injury...), just to be able to reach out, again, to young artists who might find something I say to be useful.  I think my face turned ketchup red, and I howled with surprised laughter.  $500?  How could this be?

And although there are a million and one things I could spend that money on, John suggested I simply cash the check.  Which I did today, on one of my errand runs.  $500.  Nothing like a fortune, but still.  It's far more money than I normally carry.  Even when I was teaching, and amused myself by having ridiculous amounts of cash in my pocket, I don't think I ever toted around this ducal sum.  (A princely sum, for those who are interested, would have a lot more zeros)

Then, as I left the bank, I noticed the anger.  As I've written before, I have a truly twisted emotional relationship with money, personal value, and rewards.  Money, as I've mentioned, is something I'm supposed to want, but never to have.  When I find myself in possession of what seems to be 'too much' money, I become tense and irritable.  I feel a powerful need to get rid of this cash, so I can go back to pining for it.  So screwed up.

Also, this reward came as a result of my doing that thing which was, I think, the pinnacle of my professional life -- ably fulfilling the job requirements of a full-time college art professor. To be perfectly candid, I was inured, at UArts, to being underpaid and taken for granted.  College professor?  Furniture mover?  Janitor?  Faculty member?  All purpose, ultimately expendable utensil?  Stop -- you're all right! 

So this unlooked-for stipend unsettled my inner life as Mr. Low Self-Esteem.  As happens when a benefit accrues, or an award is forthcoming, or an acknowledgement surfaces, I find myself disoriented for a little while.  And then I begin to seethe with anger.  The only rationale I can find for this counter-intuitive response is this: when I'm valued by outside forces, I'm forced to see, clearly, how I've well I've managed, for most of my life, to undermine legitimate, timely and lasting success.  I can allow myself to be 'lucky', as with the exhibit in Syracuse, and the Sculpture Magazine article.  But when I'm brought face-to-face with someone else's evaluation of my accomplishments, it becomes glaringly apparent, even to me, that I could have done so very much better, in my creative life, my professional endeavors, or in that 'art career' which, like money, I seem always to want, without allowing myself to pursue it. 

And the anger is almost overpowering.  I become more impatient than usual, and look for opportunities to vent my seething rage on some poor unsuspecting victim.  If we're all lucky, I do my depressurizing while I'm alone in the car -- the only danger being the corrosion of the interior paint, as I curse and sulk.

I also wanted to mention, in connection with this struggle, another conundrum with which I wrestled, while I was a teenager, living with my father's second family.  My school performance was always supposed to be stellar; I was expected to bring home excellent grades, which were never good enough.  Explaining that an A+ didn't exist made no impression on my stolid father.  Fortunately, I loved school, had a mind like a slightly damp sponge, ready to absorb any amount of trivia (the name of Magellan's ship, on his voyage around the globe?  Why, the Victoria, as everyone knows...), and generally excelled without breaking a sweat.

But woe betide me, if I should actually use any of this learning at home.  I loved my English classes, couldn't seem to read enough, and delighted in raking in new vocabulary words, like some croupier at a verbal roulette wheel.  Which brought snarls of 'Who do you think you are?' and 'You think you're so much better than everyone else.', and other charges, when my learning seeped out into our dark house.
While I was still in eighth grade, a friend of my step-mother asked if he could administer an IQ test to me, as part of his requirements for a college psychology course.  Sure, my parents said.  So one Saturday afternoon, I sat at our dining room table, while Chuck (blond crew-cut, white shirt and chinos -- so cute I could barely stand it) handed me forms and a pencil, and then timed me while I went through the different sections of the test.  As a Saturday occupation, it was certainly better than cleaning things, or raking things, or doing some other series of never-ending chores.  As far as I was concerned, the test didn't last long enough.

A few weeks later, Chuck stopped by the house to talk with my parents.  The three of them sat in the dining room, at the test table.  I don't think anyone remembered that, at the moment, I was being punished -- sitting in my bedroom.  Which meant I was in prime listening position, as Chuck talked about the results of my test.  He said that, as he was grading it, he thought he was making mistakes, because the results weren't what he expected.  He went to his psych professor, and the two of them went over my test together.  It turned out, Chuck hadn't been making mistakes after all.  'Your son,' he told my parents, in a low, conspiratorial tone, 'is in eighth grade, right?  Well, his test scores put him on a level with a smart college sophomore.'

My parents' reaction was 'Oh no.'  The results were never mentioned to me directly.  Chuck took me for a walk later that day, and we found one of the old apple trees, and sat on the sun-bleached grass.  He waxed philosophic about life from outer space, and I just wanted him to let me take off his clothes.  I was a rather precocious 13-year-old in many ways, I guess.

(On a tangential tack, there has been one success that perfectly fits this twisted model by which I've forced myself to live.  In the late 1980's, I had a brief stint as a published author, under the pen name Bill Carpenter.  I wrote -- how does the joke go?  I write erotica; you write pornography; she writes smut.  Take your pick.  Two dozen published stories, in magazines aimed at men with certain... tastes.  Once a year, one of the magazines would publish two illustrations, and solicit entries to 'flesh out' the pictures, if you will.  I won first prize three years in a row.  And also won a similar contest from another publication, garnering me a year's subscription to a magazine that John was horrified to have in the house.  Perfection itself -- success I can't tell anyone about.  Success I can be ashamed of!) 

Then my father died, and for some reason, the writing ceased.

Here we are, then.  Conflicts about success.  (All this, from $500?  What if I were to earn real money?)  As I've said, I'm supposed to work very very hard, but fail.  That's what feels most comfortable.  But now, as my opportunities shrivel, and the Zimmerman life-span seems to be reaching its fulfillment, I'm angry and grief-mad that I've allowed myself to be fooled by all these misguided lessons on how life 'really works'.  It's an anger that seems relentless, potent and pointless -- I feel like a diseased animal in a cage, wasting my energy trying to chew through the bars -- there is no cure, and only one escape.

©   2012     Walter Zimmerman     


Monday, April 9, 2012

Dream Time

Well, I suppose it was bound to happen.  Having disciplined (?) myself to make un coup de blogue every day, for the duration of Lent, I now find myself feeling obligated to... write something today.  I guess it's the equivalent of getting up at 5 am for fifty years, and then having a week off.  Guess when we'll automatically wake up...

I have persistent sadness, in spite of the gorgeous weather.  Even though I managed to drag myself outside, and half-heartedly savored the fresh wind while I was dumping jugs of water onto the volunteer butterfly bush I transplanted a couple of weeks ago -- for a plant that's essentially a weed, it's been looking distinctly forlorn, what with our recent dry weather.  Then I decided to use my new little shears to dead-head the hydrangeas.  And then, since I was already carrying water about, I gave my new little birch tree a drink as well.  The oregano I planted last year -- a gift from Camille, across the street -- is flourishing at the foot of the little birch.  The lupine I put there too shows no sign of reappearing.  So much for perennials.

Most of the day, though, I've been here in the kitchen, metaphorically trawling the internet for something of substance.  From Facebook, to email, to breaking news, to Facebook.  Dragging my net, my starving brain growling for sustenance.  Maybe I should try to fool myself into believing that sitting here, hour after hour, in front of the computer, is an actual job, so I will instantly begin to slack off, and find other things to do instead...

I continue to mull over the upcoming art exhibit to which I've committed to contribute three separate works.  (What a dolt I can be sometimes)  I've been trying out my plexiglass box, by laying it across the utility sink in the basement, and filling it with water, to see if it leaks.  Which it seems not to do.  I also sank a couple of pieces of my weird blown glass into the water, to see what they might look like, and whether or not I could make something meaningful.  I've decided (I think) to be very aesthetically disciplined, and to avoid any color at all in this 'work' -- using just clear glass, black 'things', in clear water, in the clear plexi box, supported on a black-pipe stand (which I'm convinced will tip over as soon as I leave the room...).  Not that these preliminary choices guarantee that what I concoct will be 'art', but...

I'm also avoiding preparation for my upcoming visit to Philadelphia -- I'm to drive down on Wednesday morning, give a talk for which I have done exactly zero preparation (haven't I said all this already?  I hate repeating myself, even to myself), do something weird in the hot glass studio, stay overnight in some disreputable mid-town motel, and then go back to Tyler to do studio visits for most of the day.  The parking alone will cost me nearly $40.  I hate being in Philadelphia. 

Here's what it is.  Something is missing from my life, is what it is.  I'm missing a dream.  I'm missing a sense of futurity, except when futurity entails obligations and duty. 

Dreaming didn't used to be a problem.  My inner life was lousy with dreams and dreaming.  I was yelled at, on a daily basis, when I was still living in my father's house -- 'You live in a dream world!'  I think they took it in turns, to accuse me of this.  And, actually, I knew that in this case, they were perfectly correct.  But the real problem was the fact that my parents and my horrid grandmother were living in a dream world too -- and our dream worlds didn't coincide at all.

My dreams involved... beauty, mostly.  Me, creating beautiful things.  Me, becoming... whatever it is that becoming an artist means.  Me, surrounding myself with the kinds of things that... well, that I could only dream about, living as we did, on government assistance and unemployment checks.  I dreamed that, instead of having to wear the cheapest possible shoes, purchased from the cheapest possible shoe store -- rubber objects that had strange linear treads on the soles, which left odd footprints in the snow, which of course all the other kids noticed, and mocked -- or hand-me-down shoes, which I had to wear in the orphanage --  instead of these, I dreamed of fine footwear, discrete and impeccable.

I dreamed of becoming a find physical specimen of a man, a far cry from the beanpole who, at 17, was over 6' tall and weighed 150 lb.  I dreamed of becoming a successful actor.  I dreamed of making a workable career as a recording artist, reading books aloud.  I dreamed, while I was in college, of becoming a professional musician -- a singer on the order of Joan Baez, but with different plumbing.  Or John Jacob Niles, without the falsetto.  (That particular dream, however, I filed under 'unfulfillable' relatively early, just after The Doors' Jim Morrison died.  I was in my bedroom, in the country house for which my roommates and I paid $43 in rent per month, and I was reading an overview of Morrison's life in Rolling Stone, and I almost choked and fell off the bed, when I read that Morrison had had a taste for the intimate company of young men.  How on earth, I thought, back in the antedeluvian age that was my world some 40 years ago, could I hope to be successful at singing mournful, arcane songs about people dying of disappointment, if... I'm gay?  I decided that I couldn't)

Not that there was much likelihood of this musical fantasy, or any of my other dreams, coming true.  But still...

I dreamed of waking up one morning with fluent French at my command.  I dreamed of having a retrospective of my artwork at the Louvre.  (Dream big.  It costs the same) I dreamed of becoming a published professional writer.  I dreamed and dreamed and dreamed, for decades.  I'm not sure that I realized, as those decades elapsed, that there wasn't even the remotest possibility that any of these dreams would go through the osmotic process, crossing the membrane barrier from ether to matter.  But I'm not sure, either, that realizing this impossibility would have mattered.  I was a fertile progenitor of dreams.  Newer dreams always cropped up, without any effort on my part.

Until now.  Now, for reasons that evade me, I seem to have become dream-free.  Could this dearth of dreams have been caused by the installation of my little pace-maker?  Were they finally blotted out by the cruel depression through which I slogged for most of the past year?  (Not the most pleasant way to drop 20 lb.)  Was it my turning 65 years of age, just one year younger than my father was, when he died on a rented hospital bed in his house in McKeesport?  How does one autopsy a raft of dead illusions?  Is there a forensic science for determining cause of demise?  And is such investigation worth the effort?

I'm tempted to say that yes, it is worth the effort, because as I review this parade of fantasies, I realize that even though they had a stunningly small chance of coming true, they were nonetheless a source of energy.  I couldn't stop drawing, and I actually had exhibitions.  I took myself to auditions, and actually performed.  (I was even a dancing Tyrannosaurus Rex, on the stage at BAM, years ago)  I sought other venues for the use of my book recording achievements (which efforts, however, fell flat...).  I sought out situations in which I felt obliged to create art work, and did so.  And saw my work featured in an article in Sculpture magazine?  Not too shabby at all, really.  All of this propelled, I think, at least in part by those dreams that were supposed to be so bad for me.

Today, I looked at what I know full well to be the wonder of spring -- the hostas pushing their way up through what just last week looked like hopelessly inert soil.  The tender bright leaves on the newly-watered birch tree, where small birds feel comfortable perching.  The ring of volunteer daffodils (squirrels must have planted them, because I didn't -- finally a benefit from all those rats with good hair) that has erupted at the base of the flowering cherry tree, in the front yard of the most beautiful house I've ever lived in. 

But for me, now, it all seems flat.  In some odd way, I suspect that I'm actually dead already, but my stupid body just hasn't caught on.  I feel as though, this year, none of this burgeoning of new and returning life has anything at all to do with me.  I notice that, in place of those once-rampant dreams, I now have a lush, poisonous crop of things to dread.  More than ever now, I see myself alone in a little bark canoe, drifting past a place that looks lovely enough, but I'm unable to stop and enjoy any of it.  Instead, I must coast on, toward the terrible things that lie ahead.

©    2012       Walter Zimmerman         


Sunday, April 8, 2012

Stupid on Easter

But before I launch into today's winding disquisition, I must either excuse myself for not having written my obligatory entry on Saturday, or claim an exemption. 

The excuse is... too much to do, too little time to do it all, and besides, I forgot how to make the oven turn on and broil things.  This, combined with two trays of raw chicken, will distract even the most stalwart blogeur, I suspect.  With the chicken promised as part of an Easter buffet meal hosted by wonderful friends, I felt sure that, bright as these folks are, they would recognize raw chicken right away.  So, struggle with the oven, or write a blog post?  Sit at the computer, or chop plum tomatoes for my doctored salsa (also promised for this munificent spread everyone enjoyed perhaps a little more than was good for us, I suspect)?  Type away madly, or iron the shirts I would need for my several public appearances at church?  As I doggedly whittled away at the Saturday to-do list, I kept counting on what I hoped would be at least an hour, after the Easter Vigil, when I could fulfill my self-imposed promise -- one-entry-per-day-during-Lent.  Even though, technically, by the time John and I got to our hotel room (we stayed overnight in New Brunswick -- why waste another hour, driving back and forth to South Orange, when we both had to be back at church on Sunday morning, six hours after we left on Saturday night?) it was nearly midnight, and I barely had the strength to fall onto the bed.

The exemption -- if Sundays don't count, and I posted on Sundays, then I reserve the right to shift one of those entries to the final day of Lent.  So call it legalistic.  If you don't like it, sue me.

But now, I'm afraid I must dive into the topic of the day, which is, of course, death.

Happy Easter.  We had wonderful services, last night and this morning.  Much ritual drama, much haunting and festive music.  Rousing hymns, sublime anthems, splendid instrumental performances.  Four choirs sang at the 10:30 service this morning.  There was much kissing and hugging, though there weren't as many resplendent ladies' hats as I had hoped to see.  To make up for this visual disappointment, at least in part, there was a red-headed Scotsman in full kilted regalia, with his family in variations of plaid.

But I confess -- which I've already done, but when is one ever done confessing? -- I felt distanced from everything around me at church, as though there were a film of thin, transparent, utterly impermeable material, stretched between me and everyone and everything else around me.  Or, maybe it was the other way around -- there I sat, too fleshy to abide myself, and confronting a 'reality' that seemed no more substantial than the shell of an egg.  All the ritual, all the vestments, all the colored light streaming through the stained glass windows -- no more than a brittle crust over a central emptiness I was engaged in trying to deny.

As the hymns were sung, I thought about death.  As the readings were being delivered, I thought about death.  As the Gospel was read, I thought about...  You get the picture.

And then, because I'm not particularly good at paying attention during sermons, as the priest stood at the pulpit, I wandered off on this train of thought: where were my German ancestors, 2000 years ago?  Were they brutal tribesmen, wrapped in pelts and worshiping war gods?  Which of my ancestors first become a Christian?  Was it by decree, a la Charlemagne?  Or was it a matter of personal choice and spiritual conviction?

Did I have ancestors who were heretics (in which case, I might at least have an excuse.  When in doubt, blame genetics) -- Albigensians, or Gnostics, Arianists or Pelagianists?  Or all of the above, if possible?  When did my forebears turn to Protestantism?  How did I inherit the role of a Protestant?

And I thought about that 2000 years again -- what that means, in terms of generations.  Counting by the traditional 30 years per, this means 66 generations, from the time of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and today.  (This doesn't really seem like enough, but there you are)  I could have a party for 66 people in my back yard, if I could get the oven to work.  And all of them, but one, would be dead, at least as of today.  And even that one is a little worse for the wear. 

So, I'm sitting in the side chapel, in my red choir robe, doing these little bits of mental mathematics, as the sermon goes on, and we've sung about the death of Death, and I have to confess -- yet again -- that I felt like the stupidest person on earth.  Or at least the stupidest person in that crowded church.  Because, for all this talking and singing...

In 1985, a theater friend of mine, John Henry Nichols, was walking down Broadway, on a fairly nice day, on his way to an audition.  I'd run into him just the week before, by chance, in a music store in mid-town, and he told me of his plans to move to London in a few months, to study acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.  I told him how exciting that sounded, while inside I shriveled a little, comparing the clarity of his plans with my current situation: working as a part-time file clerk in an investment bank in the Exxon Building, of all places.  (The Valdez spill was still resonating)  I mean, I'd moved to New York to pursue an acting career, and the closest I'd come was sitting in a cedar closet in a fourth-floor walk-up in Hoboken New Jersey, tape recording books about Malta.

But John had the looks, the stature, the vision, the determination and the commitment to become a remarkable performer.  Think of a blond Colin Farrell, with bright blue eyes.  And I'm hazarding a guess, but I'd bet this coalescing plan was on his mind, as he walked down Broadway, just as a two-by-four fell from an open fifteenth-floor construction site, rocketed down and destroyed John Henry Nichols' beautiful blond head, as though it had been a melon.

Suddenly, the question of whether or not I needed health insurance seemed unimportant. 

An acquaintance from my acting days in upstate New York was driving from her job in the city, to the country home she was meticulously refurbishing.  Her name was Carol.  She lived down the dirt road from where our acting troupe lived, and she would come over to share a communal dinner from time to time.  She was a nurse.  And while she was driving behind a truck carrying a load of steel beams, one of these great cold things came loose, slid backwards, and shot through her windshield.

My aunt Marie -- the artistic one, who had a piano in her house, and had made a mosaic coffee table top by herself, and had taken her Girl Scout troop to Paris on the proceeds of cookie sales (!) -- died of liver cancer when she was 57.  My family being what it is, I learsned this after her illness had been diagnosed, after she had begun to fail, after she had died, after the funeral, and after she had already been buried.

When I went to visit my glass-making friend Mark that last time, I wasn't prepared for how swollen and distorted he was.  He'd been diagnosed as incurable, with cancer raging through his body.  Rather than sitting in his apartment to talk, we walked down the street to a Chinese restaurant, where he told me, over and over, how guilty he felt, how sure he was that he had brought this on himself somehow.  'What did I do wrong?', he said he kept asking himself. 

Mostly though, he said, he grieved at leaving his son behind, to grow up without a father.  I ate my food as though I hadn't had a meal in a month -- I shoved food into my face as though my eating would either cure him, or protect me.  When I had gulped down the last noodle, we shuffled back to Mark's place, where it took him nearly ten minutes to walk back up the two flights of stairs.  Then we sat in his living room, eating some of the ginger snap cookies I'd brought him from Philadelphia.  Ginger being good for you, you know.

His home health care worker arrived, and I had to leave.  I hugged Mark, and told him -- meaning it -- that I wished I could take some of his illness on myself.  He said, 'Oh no, you don't.'  Which one of us was right, I wonder? 

Within two weeks, he was dead.    

And on, and on.  Still, I hear, annually, as I'm surrounded by lilies and chocolate, about the destruction of death, and I have no idea what that is supposed to mean.  At every funeral I've attended, where the casket is rolled down the aisle, and people come by to touch it, there is a dead, dead body, right there, sealed in a cold metal box.  Seems pretty real to me.  Pretty unconquered, to me.

So, having maundered, where am I?  I'm waiting, I suppose, to be the first of that string of 66 generations to enjoy the promised release from death that I've been hearing so much about.  But of course, this is a stupid thing to hope for -- just as hoping to be rescued from that orphanage was a stupid thing.  But I suppose I'm living proof (currently) that sheer stupidity doesn't preclude the eruption of hope. 

On the other hand, death being the inescapable reality we all know it to be, how do I separate out the parts of Christianity in which I do firmly believe -- issues of service, of responsible action in the world, of the value of a communal expression of basic hunger, among others -- from the parts that, to me, seem preposterous?  Is there, perhaps, some... discipline?  meditation? practice? -- that might stand even the slenderest chance of helping me quiet the Death Flu grief that seems to be with me now, non-stop (yes, even when I'm laughing, or making a rude joke), everywhere?  If I could, I would study in a Tibetan monastery, where fledgling monks do their contemplation in the charnel yards.  Tibet being mostly made of stone, our style of burial is impossible, so their dead are left on high wooden platforms, for carrion birds to come and strip the flesh away.  That might be an inoculation of sorts.  The travel visa could be a problem.  

Which brings me right back again, to the same central issue, especially prominent at Easter-tide.

One Resurrection.  One?  No, no, no.  I want thousands.  Thousands!  They can live in Wyoming.

©   2012        Walter Zimmerman          

Friday, April 6, 2012

Two Holiday Stories. Without Bunnies.

For years, I've wanted to observe three hours of silence, from noon until 3 pm, on Good Friday.  I think this desire arose from the superstitious belief that, if I were able to do this tiny bit of... something remotely like penance, I would get extra spiritual brownie points for later on, when I would really need them.  Like now, for instance. 

Much later, I started thinking less about one particular Sacrifice, and more about Sacrifice in general -- the every-day, voluntary and mandated setting aside of individual preference, or safety, or even personal survival, in service of a larger good.  This more constant and wide-spread version of Sacrifice seemed a worth-while topic for contemplation, for a couple of hours, once a year.      

But whatever level or degree of Sacrifice I might want to honor, I never seemed able to work a three hour period of silence into my schedule, no matter how I tried.  After all, even a long lunch only lasts from noon until two.   

And then we arrive, finally, after all these years, to... today.  Where, by some act of magic and/or determination, I managed to get the cat food purchased, and bought some ingredients for my contribution to a Sunday brunch, and made a short, verbally-active visit with some friends, and still got myself back home in time for my personal vigil.  (Actually, when the clock struck twelve, I was at the corner of Prospect and South Orange Avenue, waiting for yet another person to make the illegal left turn, across double yellow lines, into the Rite-Aid parking lot.  But my lips were sealed.  Sour and disapproving lips perhaps, but sealed)

And now, barely half an hour into this longed-for experience, here I am, typing away like mad, because I don't think I can stand it.  It's either this or take a nap.  And what if I talk in my sleep?  So, in an effort at least to keep to the general topic of my failed effort, I'll focus my day's comments on the holiday season, by recounting two personal Easter-tide experiences.  Starting with the relatively recent past...

Well, What Does He Look Like? 

In the spring of 1995, I was one of four artist residents, at a glass-blowing facility in Millville NJ.  It was just a year after I'd graduated with my MFA in glassblowing from RIT, and I had a commitment to  put together a solo show in the spring of 1996, so the timing of this residency was a Godsend for me.  Plenty of time for me to make plenty of glass, and then plenty of time to create plenty of work.

I was scheduled to be in the hot shop, glassblowing, on Good Friday morning.  Even though we had 24-hour access to the facility, and could make as much work as we wanted, I didn't want to give up any hot shop time.  But I was also much more religiously observant at the time, so I wanted to leave the hot shop floor and drive the perhaps two miles into town, for the noon service in the dismal little Episcopal chapel. 

I'd been startled, the first time I went in -- in part because everyone present turned around and gaped at me as I entered, as though instead of being at worship, they were all standing at some country cross roads, and I were a  neighbor's stray cow.  The worship space itself was dark and unkempt, with little natural light, and a high altar backed by three niches filled with lopsided arrangements of pink artificial flowers, lit from the side and underneath by what seemed to be green theatrical gels.  It felt more like a funeral parlor than a church, and struck me as the sort of place where unnatural things could happen at any time, without anyone particularly noticing. 

But it was the only Episcopal place of worship within reach, so I decided it would have to do.  And on this Good Friday morning, with everyone at work, I thought getting there on time would be a snap.

But glass-blowing is an hypnotic, all-absorbing and sometimes unpredictable discipline, and I become fixated on the material and processes as I work.  The heat is practically narcotic.  Contact with the hot glass, via a water-soaked pad of newsprint, charring like a campfire as it shapes this new, emerging object, is compelling and intimate.  As a result, instead of leaving myself an adequate window of opportunity, before leaving for church, to rinse my head and brush off my clothes, I looked up at the studio clock and realized that I was going to be late.  I shut down the glory hole, flicked away the bigger chunks of residue -- wondering why I'd been so stupid as to wear all black that morning, and in the hot shop no less -- and then I raced off. 

I got in the sanctuary door, and found a seat toward the back, just as the little organ up front was wheezing to the close of the first hymn.  As usual, everyone present turned around and stared at me, never losing a beat as they sang of some Christian virtue while looking resentfully askance at this stranger.   Today, perhaps because it was Good Friday, they seemed especially sour and vigilant.

We went through the proper ritual of the service, with the readings, and the Gospel.  Then the priest stood up at the pulpit and posed the question that was the topic of his sermon.  "What," he asked sharply, fixing all present with his piercing gaze, and I thought, looking at me a little longer than the others, "What does... the devil... look like?"  

I looked down at myself.  All in black.  Sweaty black.  With soot in my hair and on my hands.  The smell of fresh smoke curling off me.  And my face brightly flushed from standing for three hours before 2000 degrees of radiant heat -- the intensity of which any reasonable person might well mistake for the fires of Hell.  And if I smelled like this to myself, I thought, the others in this tiny space must think I reek...

The sermon came to a close (I don't think I actually heard a word of what the priest was saying), and if the other congregants weren't actually staring straight at me by then, they were certainly using their peripheral vision for all it was worth.  You could practically hear their necks cracking from the strain of opposing forces.  Now it was time for the confession.  The entire congregation knelt, and as I began to bend my knees, my right leg seized up (not enough potassium?) and I couldn't get down into the proper position of penitence.   I was grimacing in some pain, half standing and half-leaning, while the longest prayer of contrition I'd ever heard spun on and on.   I managed, with some involuntary gasps of pain, to massage my leg back into cooperation.  Communion, which came next, went off without a repeat of this inability to kneel, and since the host didn't burst into flames in my hands, I felt just a bit exonerated.  Still, at the end of the service, I quickly left, fearing that if I stayed too long, I would find myself forcibly escorted to the church basement, thrust into a little room with a heavy wooden door, and locked in irons, after which the priest would run upstairs, to begin his triumphant letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury: 

'Your Worship -- Praise be to God, We've got him!'

Easter Tales, Part Two.  Or, 'A Tisket, A Tasket...'

Long before I was ever a glassblower, I was a miserable adolescent, living the life of a Huguenot in a staunchly Catholic household.  Presbyterianism, as I then understood it, wasn't much of a laugh-riot to begin with; the heavy layering of tacit and expressed disapproval made my Protestantism seem both an obligation and a cruel burden.  Or, character-building, Calvin and Knox would likely have said. 

In any event, the major church holidays in my step-mother's house were times of near-orgiastic paroxysms of preparation.  Ritual house-cleanings, elaborate concoctions of special food only eaten at the very holiest times of the year.  It would be my job, among other things, to help my horrid grandmother with the Easter baking -- a lush experience, certainly, with the scent of butter-laden yeasted dough, rising in great aluminum pots left to sit out on the back porch, covered with dish cloths.  I had to punch the dough down two or three times, until it was ready for her to cut it into chunks, and roll it out into poppy-seed rolls, or walnut cookies.  Which she called by harsh-sounding Croatian names.  I was also given the task of grinding the horseradish -- an operation so noxious that it could only be done outdoors, no matter what the weather -- the fumes were all but blinding.  And we were going to put this stuff in our mouths?  

The special even at at Christmas featured the priest coming to the house, to write the initials of the Three Wise Men on the inside lintel of the kitchen door.  At Easter, a particular large wicker basket would be packed, with a sample of all the various foods we would be eating -- ham, kielbasa, boiled eggs, some of that weapons-grade horseradish mixed with beets, selected breads, cookies, and so on.  This basket would go to church to be blessed, and would then come back to the house again.  As a heathen, I wasn't even allowed to witness this sanctification -- I just knew that my horrid grandmother would make a great fuss when the basket had been returned safe and sound and sufficiently holy.

Usually, my step-uncle Jim, the cab driver, did the honors of taking and returning the foodstuffs.  But one year, my step-cousin Gerard was given the responsibility.  He was really my step-mother's cousin, and he lived with us because his parents were both dead.  I hated him, because even though his mother was dead, he knew where she was, which was more than I could say about my own.  Plus, he was fat and spoiled, and he used to pray for my soul.  Which so infuriated me that I used to twist his arm behind his back, and punch him.  Which probably gave him still more reasons to pray for my soul.  But I didn't think of that.  And probably would have punched him, anyway. 

But on this particular day, Gerard was very pleased with himself, to be trusted with the basket.  I think he took the bus downtown.  The basket was way too heavy to carry on foot, and the church too far away.  I was in the kitchen, scrubbing something, when nearly two hours later, Gerard finally came back.  I'd been hoping he'd been kidnapped, and that we wouldn't be able to afford the ransom.  But no such luck.  There he was, clumping loudly and clumsily up the front steps.

'Boy, church was sure crowded!' he said, as he heaved the basket ahead of him down the hallway and into the kitchen.

My horrid grandmother exploded.  'What did I tell you?; she screamed.  'What the (bad word) did I say to you?'  Gerard looked paralyzed with terror.  'You (bad word) (bad word)!  Can't you remember a single (bad word) thing?'

She took Gerard by the elbow, thrust the basket back at him, and shoved him toward the front door.  'Now, you (bad word) (bad word), you take that (bad word) basket,  you (bad word), and you walk at least one (bad word) time around the (bad word) block, and when you come back up the (bad word) steps and walk into this (bad word) (bad word) house, you had better make (bad word) sure that the first (bad word) words out of your (bad word) (bad word) mouth are 'Christ is Risen!  (Bad word) (bad word) you!'

I enjoyed this greatly, partly because for once, the dainty and sacred Gerard was getting yelled at, and also because I was certain that, under this barrage of cursing and the taking of several really important names in vain, whatever official blessings had managed to stick to this wicker symbol of our Easter meal had been completely scoured away. 

Ah, I thought.  A cursed, pagan feast for us all this year.  Perfect.  Just perfect.

(And now, if I can just keep my big mouth shut for twenty more minutes...)

©   2012            Walter Zimmerman

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Dictum, A Corollary, and A Vector Walked into a Bar...

Feeling a bit empty.  Which isn't really all that novel.

I did manage, in spite of this hollowness, to get some things done today.  Took myself to the gym (hooray!), where I even increased the weights I've been working with.  I'm transfixed by physical beauty, and am determined that, before I die, I will whip myself into something approaching my idea of a decent-looking male specimen of a certain age.  (Just don't mind that odd ravioli lump on the upper left chest...)  I also used the dread treadmill to nowhere, and kept walking at a clip of 4.3 miles per hour, according to the screen.  Twenty minutes.  Sweat.  If someone had told me, when I was sixteen, that I would one day pay money to go, voluntarily, to a gym and sweat, I would have known that person was deranged.  How things change.

A little shopping.  Home Despot, for a wire brush (so I can clean up the expandable foam that dropped onto the driveway), some silicone caulk (so I can seal up the plexiglass box I think I want to use for a piece of artwork that should have been done already), a pair of shears (because...), and some more expandable foam,  To keep the cycle going.

Grocery shopping.  A few odds'n'ends for the holiday weekend.  And a can of super spray starch for John's cotta.  (Which always makes me think of cheese)  And a cup of coffee, because I realized, as I was prowling through the store, that I hadn't eaten since early this morning, and even then I only had two slices of toast.  I'm surprised I didn't fill two carts with delicacies, and then break into them on the way to the car.

Back at home, after mostly everything was put away, I decided to test out the silicone caulk, and discovered why the plexi box was leaking.  It had two holes drilled through what I think of as the bottom, but which must have been the back, if this was used as a display case.  I found some bolts that fit the holes, coated them with silicone, and screwed them into place.  When the caulking is set, I'll test the box again -- with any luck, I won't have to recaulk the whole interior.  (Which I may do anyway, what with my water issues...)  I will, of course, have to install two more machine bolts, just to balance things out.  Compulsive?  No...

I also brought in, from the van, the glass I'd plucked from the Newark space yesterday, and have actually placed some of it in that plexi box.  I'm continuing to give myself grief about this entire enterprise -- I think of myself as an emotional vampire, sucking up other people's pain, and then turning it into what I want to think is art.  (One saving example -- which may sound vainglorious, but who else do I know about? -- Picasso's 'Guernica'.  He didn't have to be in the village, while the bombs were falling, to feel and express the outrage, right?)

What may save me here, at this juncture of creative quandary, is what I've come to call the Pam Blum Dictum.  Which arrived into my life like this:

While I was in graduate school, I was eager (if not desperate) for feedback on the work I was doing.  One day, I was lucky enough to corral a part-time art history teacher, named Pam Blum, whose opinions I was interested in hearing.  As it happened, much of the work I'd been displaying, for a critique, had been taken down, and the remaining selection of items was scattered across the wall of my studio.  This didn't phase Pam.  She looked, not only at what was still there, but at the traces of what had been there -- and to my amazement, she was right -- even the holes left by the cup hooks I'd used, for a series of wrapped, cocoon-like works, seemed to tell some vague, intriguing story.

After our time in the studio, we went to the campus grill (picture an ill-lit basement room with more fat in the air than nitrogen), for a bite to eat, and to continue our discussion.  Pam is an exceptionally brilliant woman, with a closely-printed two-page disquisition on her office wall, outlining her analysis of the creative process.  I nearly choked on my cheeseburger, knowing I was going to have to confess.  To this most cerebral of audiences.

"Well Pam," I said reluctantly, "most of the time I don't really know what I'm doing..."

"Oh," she said, with a wave of her hand.  "Not knowing is always better than knowing.  But," she said emphatically, "when not knowing doesn't work, you'd better know."

Blessings be upon Pam, wherever she is today.  What an amazing life-preserver she threw to me, and when I'm at my best, I realize that I've never really taken it off my neck -- it's always here, to keep me from sinking into creative oblivion.   Which leads me to what may seem an illogical leap.  Bear with me.

When I was in undergraduate school (decades before my adventures at RIT), I was taking acting classes as part of my flirtation with a theater degree.  One of my teachers, Janet Herron, was a graduate student then, and was appearing in a theater-in-the-round production of Chekhov's 'Three Sisters'.  As the lights came up on the setting -- the stylized interior of a Russian dacha, allowing us to see into all the rooms, each of the sisters was on the stage.  Janet's character was in her bedroom, sitting on her bed, crying.  Every night of the production, she sat on her bed and cried.  Every night.

As neophyte actors, we wondered how she managed to conjure up such a convincing emotional state, night after night, on cue, as the lights came up.  She told us she had a particular memory that she used.  And before anyone could ask, she added that she never, ever talked about this memory, because sharing this bit of inner grief would strip it of its power.  Blessings be upon Janet too.

So.  The Pam Blum Dictum, and the Janet Herron Corollary.   If -- as seems currently to be the case with my self-assigned Combat Paper-related art -- I'm at a creative impasse, I know what personal material I can use, in order to contextualize the choices I'll need to make.  Because of the Herron Corollary, I don't have to tell anyone what the underpinnings of these concrete decisions happen to be. 

(When I was teaching, of course, I broke my own rules, because I felt it was much more important for my students to understand what I was talking about, than for me to maintain some kind of creative talisman for future use)  (Maybe I'll tell you later)  (You won't be surprised)

I'm still left, of course, with the problem of integrating, somehow, the uniform-based paper element that's vectoring in from far left field.  Adding its magnetic pull to time tugging in one direction, the influence of materials tending in another, and all struggling against the impediment of my own indecision and confusion, which wants to drag the whole process off toward a completely different horizon.  I should be used to this by now -- but every time I set out into this mysterious process, I forget that I've ever been through this before, and somehow expect everything to be easy and quick.  Like instant cheese.  And we all know what a treat that is. 

I really hate thinking.  Or, rather, I hate trying to think (a verbal exercise, after all, for the most part) about things that are essentially and even necessarily non-verbal.  After the work is done, I can talk about it until people pass out in stupefaction; beforehand, it seems like trying to describe the exact taste of a vat of homemade soup I haven't even begun to cook.

So.  Tomorrow.  Forward, along some totally unanticipated vector, into covert world of knowing-assisted not-knowing.  I'll let you know.   

©    2012    Walter Zimmerman

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

How Much Is Enough?


Should I try to use my blown glass objects in these hypothetical new pieces I'm supposedly making, for the exhibit that opens in seventeen days?  I did manage, somehow, to get myself over to the Newark storage space today, to drop off some of the stuff that's been sitting in the back yard for... two years, and to root through the Newark accumulation, in the hopes of finding something glassy and useful.  Which, in fact, I did, to some extent.  I found an old piece of work I never liked anyway, and removed some of the glass from it.  And I found a laundry basket filled with damaged glass pods, which for all their imperfections, are exactly what I think I might need.

I also did some pre-foam-injection modifications on some old undershirts (I'll soon be naked, if I keep using my own clothing for my artwork), to see what might happen if there are internal restraints, keeping the foam from expanding as it wants to do.  I unwrapped one of the pieces I made yesterday, and although it seemed exciting as I untied some knots, and saw the way the foam picked up the wrinkling of the fabric, in the end the bare foam is kind of boring.  Maybe I need to damage it somehow? 

So, the plan for tomorrow is to set up a kind of outdoor work station, and make another series of these melon-like shapes, trapped in ribbed fabric.  (Must remember: wear gloves.  I've had a headache all day, and suspect it might be from handling so much of that foam yesterday...)  I'm hoping that, if I can get enough of these weird globules,, they may actually begin to make some kind of visual or emotional sense.  Maybe. 

As for the paper.  Think, think, think -- plot, plot, plot.  I'm reminded of graduate school, where, at the beginning of my glass studies, I had to come up with a different project for each of the ten weeks of the trimester.  No developing themes -- just ten different explorations of... something.  There were just two 'assigned' stipulations: one piece had to use rope, and one piece had to have, as one of its dimensions, my own height.  We were also told that all our work had to consist of at least 50% glass.  My fellow student and I were always trying to figure out just what this meant.  '50% by weight, or by volume?' Pamina would ask.  I wanted to ask -- 50% by cost?  We never did get a coherent answer.

As for the paper.  So, how exactly do I use this paper?  How much paper do I use?  How much do I need to use, in order for all of this work to qualify as 'Combat Paper' art?  The more I work, the less I like the idea of reconstructing these sheets into garments for the weird things I'm making.  What I've begun to like is the notion of labels and identification tags and serial numbers, on everything.  Which of course means finding vinyl letters and numbers, of which I have sheets and sheets... somewhere.  I'd really love a big stamp, that would allow me to produce a kind of soulless, mechanical series of numerals -- that feels the most correct.  The military is always keeping track of things, as a way of avoiding the inevitability of 'acceptable losses', I think.  I might still try to use a sheet of the uniform paper as a containing, sleeve-like restraint for my new foam work, but I'm pretty sure all I'll end up with will be an unappetizing mock cannoli. 

I also located, in my pile of detritus, a long, narrow plexiglass box, possibly from some sort of commercial display, and I instantly thought of those stories of American service personnel drowning in the Euphrates River.  I'm going to see if I can't caulk the box, to make it truly water-tight (in a quick test, it currently leaks like a sieve), and create a 'sample' of water-logged oddments, all with their ID tags of course.  My only concern -- the last time I tried using a plexiglass box, and put water in it, the thing leaked, and created a great dismal spot on the gallery's grey carpet.  Luckily, there was no damage, and it actually made the piece look more 'real', if you will.  The people in Teaneck might not appreciate such liquid verisimilitude, however.  Damn.

Oh, and I almost forgot -- in what may seem to be an unrelated event, I decided to go grocery shopping this evening -- John was out of yogurt, and I thought I'd save him the trouble of having to stop at the market on the way back from another long long day of pre-Easter churching.  I could have gone to the Eden Gourmet, for the yogurt, but I also wanted some loratidine -- in case the headache is spring-allergy-related, and not caused by a growing foam-incited brain tumor -- and some ice cream.  So I drove over to Union, to our favorite market, Shop and Shave, as I like to call it.  I zipped in, filled my cart with oddments, and five more bottles of seltzer (eau de Seltz, in French, don't you know), plus the ice cream, of course, and then had to wait a few extra minutes, because the cashier's printer wasn't working, and she insisted that I take my receipt with me.  How can I say no?

So, groceries in the back of the van, I retrace my path, instead of taking the other way home that John usually prefers.  When I got to the intersection where I leave Vauxhall Road, I was startled to see a large black plastic trash bag, rolling around in the middle of the street.  A large, black plastic trash bag.  It was obviously filled with something lightweight, given the way it moved, and I even thought it must be full of bubble wrap or something.  As there was so little traffic, at nearly 10 pm, I was about to turn and be on my way, when I realized I just couldn't.  Someone might swerve, to avoid this mystery impediment, and have an accident.  (I may have failed the knot-tying test, but I've still been a spiritual Boy Scout all my life, I'm afraid)  I pulled into a lot on the corner, waited until there was no oncoming traffic, and went to retrieve this glistening hazard-in-training.

As soon as I touched it, I knew what was inside -- pieces of that coarse, blue packing foam that I usually see in boxes for electronics.  How odd, I thought, that I should almost literally stumble upon a bag full of material I use for my artwork, and that, in deciding to perform a public service, I am 'rewarded' with yet more stuff to play with.  Instead of looking for a trash receptacle into which I could stuff this wayward sack, I tossed it into the van with the groceries, and continued on my way home.  Thinking... what are the odds?  Is this... a sign?  Or, more likely, just a bag of trash?
So.  In spite of 'lucky' finds of possibly helpful materials, I'm still groping.  I'm trying to find a way to make some art work that makes sense to me.  I feel stupid.  I don't really have enough time, and in spite of that, I keep coming up with new options, new notions, new variations on a theme I can't even articulate yet.  If only I'd started working on this a year ago, he says. If only I felt more energetic and positive.  If only I could figure out how to take the easy way out, instead of continually making things more difficult for myself.

And I feel ghoulish, really, in that, at the Combat Paper workshop, there are veterans with tangible, verifiable disabilities (my own 'unspecified 10% service-connected disability' seems, by comparison, like me complaining about my terrible hangnail, to patients in the cancer ward), and I'm plotting to hijack this art event, to 'wow' the viewers with artwork I suspect will be at a different level from most of what they'll be seeing.  To 'steal the show', as it were.  Of course, the joke could well be on me.  As it has a long-standing habit of being, now that I come to think of it.   

©   2012       Walter Zimmerman

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


So, I stood there, in the workshop in North Branch, and like a dope, I said, "Sure, I'll have work ready for that show in April."

"In fact," I went on, "I'll have three pieces..." 

The show in question will be in Teaneck NJ, and it's featuring works of the group with whom I'm spending as many Sundays as possible -- the Combat Paper project.  April 21st is the opening for the exhibit.  I'll be there earlier, to help with installation.  But, as of now, I have exactly zero work of my own to contribute.  Zero.  As in, nothing.  Not a single thing.  Zip. 

We'll leave the question of why I would make such an outrageous declaration for later.  Right now, I want to lay out the challenge as it currently appears to me.  You, poor reader, may go slowly out of your mind, but remember, you can always just switch off your computer, or go have a cheeseburger.  Lucky you.  I'll be wrestling with this, whether you're paying attention or not.  Lucky you.

My original idea was to find some of the blown glass pieces I made, during my second residency at Wheaton Village and the Creative Glass Center of America.  This particular period of artistic isolation happened to begin on Sept. 11, 2001, and while the other artist-in-residence and I were being filled in on when to put out our recyclables, someone came into the conference room and mentioned that a small plane had hit the World Trade Center.  Things quickly went downhill from there.

Beth, my co-resident, managed to leave Millville for her newly-wed husband and their home in New Hampshire, getting on the road early enough to avoid the turnpike shut-downs that followed.  I was left by myself, in the house residents shared, sitting in front of the TV set.   I wanted to turn it off, but the local workmen, who were repairing the washing machine in the basement, and painting the stairwell, wanted to watch the world collapse while they worked.  So I sat, watching the world collapse.  The next day, I managed to rent a van, and got myself back to Jersey City (towers, not of steel, but of smoke, marking the city horizon as I came north over the hills), to pick up John and his harp and bring them to Millville with me for a week.

But I still had to work.  I still had to make glass.  It just seemed so stupid.  But I had to do it, because... that was why I was there.  Plus, we had a new tankful of wonderful white glass, and it would be a crime to let that go to waste.  So I started, and made very small pieces -- little white glass objects you could fit into the pocket of a good winter coat.  And these white things had patches of red or black on them, and little 'X' marks, made of strips of fiberglass cloth.  Like bandages.  Over and over, I made these little things.

Now, eleven years later, I thought I would dig out those little forms, and create some sort of uniform-like covering for them, from the Combat Paper.  Uniform to paper to uniform -- the cycle continues, I thought.  Knowing all the while, of course, that I really shouldn't think about my art at all.
But of course, as with so many other things in my life -- a pair of jeans?  A tool?  A box of books?  A copy of my grad school thesis? -- I can't find those little glass things.  Who knows where they are?  In the garage?  In the Newark studio?  Still hidden under a tarp in the driveway for these two years?  I've already searched the basement, with no luck.  I might be able to wrench myself from the house, and make a stab at finding these evasive things in the space on Emmet St.  But I don't hold out much hope.

Besides, I think this is a bad idea.  Like most of my ideas.

What I have managed to do though, that seems to be somewhat promising, is to play with the expandable foam that lots of artists have been using for years now, but which I've only just recently allowed myself to investigate.  I've had four or five cans of the stuff for at least a year, as a matter of fact, but in a way, like the food I hoard, this material didn't seem to be for my use, really.  Then about ten days ago, I threw caution to the wind, made some loose vessel-like holders for the foam, and just went a little crazy.  Filled several small plastic baggies (only to learn that the material needs contact with air in order to cure properly); filled an old sock with a hole in the toe.  Cursed and swore, trying to get some foam into an A-shirt that I'd tied off at one end -- as I spurted the foam into the opening, the shirt kept collapsing in on itself, and I didn't want to come into contact with the goo, it being wickedly adhesive.  i finally just gave up, grabbed the cloth and tied another knot, and hung the whole mess up, like a new cheese.

The next morning -- voila!  A terrible new form had emerged.  That underwear thing had swollen to look like the heart of some terrible beast, covered in a crude dirty bandage.  I liked it so much, I took it to my Tuesday night critique group, and everyone was a little grossed out, which is the best news possible.  Which meant, of course...

Four more cans of foam.  A table set up outside, in today's eerily bright sunshine.  Swathes of cloth of different sorts, whipping about in the wind.  Bits of paper, likewise.  Wire and scissors and twine -- the usual conglomeration of tools.  I still don't quite understand how much the foam actually expands, so I just used my (poor) judgement, and created another seven or eight shapes, all a bit larger than the one I liked so much from my earlier experiments.  They're all hanging in the basement now, to achieve their final hardened shells.  By this time next week, I may have no undershirts, but I'm surely going to make some more of these shapes tomorrow.  How they're going to relate to Combat Paper, I still have no idea at all.

I do have one notion I think I can pull off.  I found, somewhere or other, a heavy woven wire tray, a long low rectangle, maybe 18" by 8", and 3" deep.  I'm thinking of filling it with oddments, shrink wrapping it in place, shellacking it, and then applying a layer of paper over it all, using small sheets wired together like an insubstantial skin.  With luck, the shellac will seep through the paper, staining it from the back.  I may throw some coffee over it all, to make things a little more depressing.  Who knows?  I want the paper to be both obviously itself, and also to have an active task -- in this case, holding things.  Like a uniform does, come to think of it.

This, I'm afraid, will be bad art.  The thing I'm most interested in is the self-supporting stand I want to make, to display these oddments.  This is likely to make a bigger impact than the objects themselves.  I may also want to create a similar stand for the open tray piece, if it works out.

I don't know.  Maybe my real interest in the Combat Paper experience is just the sense of purpose (even if, as I've already mentioned, I really feel somewhat ineligible, and alien.  A life problem), and the companionship of others whose experiences seem so much more gruesome and wrenching than anything I've ever experienced as an adult.  Maybe I just like to be busy with my hands.  Maybe I'd really need to have about fifty thousand sheets of paper, instead of fifteen (which still seems like a wealth of material, considering the amount of work going into their creation).  Maybe I need to use this next few days, wide with my much-beloved 'unstructured time', and simply (?) potter about like crazy, to see what these materials do, when put into contact with each other.  And to see whether, with the experiments barely dry, I can manage to pull things into something that seems to make some sort of gut-level sense. 

But beneath this immediate creative quandary in which I find myself, lurks a darker impediment, something ponderous, that makes even walking down the stairs to the work space seem an exertion.  And that is the feeling that, in terms that may only make sense to me, my life is in fact already over.  That, when I succumbed to the poisonous miasma of academia, I stepped out of the track of usefulness, and that now I'm more or less a relic, hanging around out of sheer animal stupidity and lack of wit.  Very little seems to be of much importance to me.  I certainly don't harbor the old fantasies that drove me, earlier on (even though, I probably worked harder on failing than I ever did on achieving even modest success); maybe this is why this current experiment -- even with the added incentive of the Combat Paper element --  seems so flat.  I feel as though I'm putting myself through some stupid mime exercise, knowing that there'll be no audience to speak of, so it won't really matter if, from time to time, my hand seems to go through the invisible wall.

©    2012          Walter Zimmerman


Monday, April 2, 2012

Here and There...

(Note to those who think that, because I didn't post anything yesterday, I've broken my pledge of posting every day in Lent:  I've been informed, by the most authoritative of sources, that Sundays don't count)

Which was a terrific relief, because I was exhausted yesterday.  John and I went to Rochester on Friday, with our friend Doug Frue, to attend the funeral of David Craighead, with whom both John and Doug had studied while at The Eastman School of Music.  After the reception following the Mass, we piled back into the car and came back here.  Doug stayed the night (he plays for a Presbyterian church here in South Orange -- why go all the way back to the Bronx, and then...?); Sunday morning, John left at something like 6 am, to prepare himself for the Palm Sunday 'stravaganza.  And just before he got his coat and bag, to drive off, I told him about...

I got a Facebook message from David Keefe, of Combat Paper, on Friday, telling me that PBS would be coming to do some taping, at about 10 am on... April 1st.   Could I be there too, he asked.  On Palm Sunday.  When I was committed to be singing an anthem in New Brunswick.  I felt torn.  John offered to make an excuse for me, but after thinking about this late-breaking conflict, I chose to do the least harm possible.  I so love the group of singers in Canticum Novum, and not only did I feel that I would be letting them down, but I would also miss singing with them.

So I constructed a compromise, thanks to the sage advice of a my friend Rhoda Fairman.  She always says that, when faced with a choice between two seemingly conflicting options, see if you can't do both.  I decided to get to church for rehearsal, sing the anthem (a real old war-horse of a song, that made me feel as though all the men should be in frock coats, and the women wearing bustles), and then, at the earliest polite moment, I would absent myself, and head off to North Branch, to find out what the PBS people had done.  I was certain they would have long since gone by the time I arrived.

John had given me directions -- just go up Easton Road, and get on 287.  Which sounded simple, until I realized that I wasn't sure which direction I should be going on 287.   I know North Branch is, well, north of New Brunswick, so...  But of course, where I met the highway, the designations were 287 East and West.  (Why don't they just make it 287 Giraffe and Scallop, as it gives me about the same amount of helpful information?)  I guessed that I needed to go toward Morristown, and then tortured myself with doubt until I actually connected with Rt. 78, just where John had said I would.  I didn't even stop for Starbucks -- just drove directly to the Print Center.  A couple of cars in the parking lot.  I'd obviously missed everything.

Except -- I hadn't.  When I got in, there were only a couple of the usual Combat Paper crew on hand -- David, one of the founders, wasn't even there yet, as he was giving a fundraising talk at a local church.  There was a cameraman and a man with a microphone in the main work room, and they were hovering in the background, waiting for something to happen.  I was still in my dress shirt and tie from church -- I went upstairs to change into something I could get dirty, and came back down, to start taking uniforms apart.

I guess watching fabric being cut into strips is slightly better than nothing, so the TV guys drifted over to where I was working, and then we drifted into a conversation -- why was I doing things just this way, how long had I been involved with Combat Paper, what did it mean to me, to be taking military uniforms apart and turning them into paper?  I had to tell them that, for me, the uniforms, per se, were just garments to be deconstructed.  It didn't occur to me until later that the garments we'd been working with were either Army or Marine issue -- my ancient Air Force garb was either a set of green work fatigues, a light tan chino shirt and trousers, or the dressier blue uniform I usually wore --so of course I would be less impacted by the sight of the modern pixilated version of desert camouflage.  I told them that my own military service was relatively benign -- forgetting, conveniently, the whole issue of discovering, at 18, the true direction of my sexual orientation within an organization that forbade men like me from serving. 

I did bring up, as I often do, the terrible thing that has happened to a friend's only son, while he was on his third tour of duty in Afghanistan two years ago.  I described watching, as what is left of this barely conscious young man was lifted from his hospital bed, and strapped into a chair-like device, commonly used in treating burn victims.  The burnt human body wants to curl in on itself; the special chair pulls against this unthinking reaction, forcing the arms and legs back, stretching the chest and groin.  My friend's son looked crucified.  And, as I cut strips of cloth into smaller bits, I mentioned realizing that, as the stretching took place, I was witnessing the agony in a single room, in one hospital filled with rooms in which similar events were taking place.  And across the country, how many rooms in how many hospitals are filled with shattered service men and women?  And this is why I cut uniforms into little pieces.

Then I got a bagel.

More folks showed up, including a few I'd never met, and soon the room was more alive than I've ever seen it -- lots of cutting and talking and laughing, and sometimes not so much laughing.  David and Sarah -- a military nurse who served in Somalia, an action that even the Veterans' Administration has trouble admitting was an actual war zone -- were being interviewed, with bright lights and clip-on microphones.  Another veteran from Teaneck had some things to say.  I kept undoing seams in a pair of camouflage trousers, while a relatively new member of the group told me a stream of things about his life, pretty much non-stop.  Pizza arrived, but I hadn't finished my bagel.  Among the lot of us, we created a heap of cloth scraps for the pulping mill.  More paper is on its way.

Then, at least an hour later than usual, I left for home.  As I passed the farm with the longhorn cattle, I noticed that not only do they have at least one llama, but there was also an emu on the premises.  But in spite of this novelty, for some reason as I drove, I was haunted by an old feeling of inauthenticity -- the best description I can manage, of this unpleasant sensation, is this: think of a cold knife running around the inside of a small loaf of bread that's just cool enough to remove from its pan.  What I experience is a cold, slithering loss of contact, a separation that's not immediately visible.  I may be in the same room with all these people, but I feel a distance intensely real and unbridgeable.  It is a grievous feeling, and I don't know what, if anything, I can do about it.

So, it was something of a comfort, yesterday, to be able to take a little break from all this introspection, and simply to lie about on the couch like a pig, watching trashy movies on TV and doing old crossword puzzles.

This morning, I decided that, because I had no choir rehearsal today, I would change my schedule even further, and instead of waiting until Tuesday, take myself to the gym.   Unwisely though, I looked through my email before leaving the house, and discovered another note from my sister Barbara, about her plans to contact some County Courthouse, in Oregon, having jurisdiction over my brother's weird case.  Which led me to reexamine the public record that Barbara uncovered, retailing the nature of George's illnesses, his recent delusions, and some vague description of the temporary guardian who either is or isn't doing what the court requires.  Which led me to begin obsessing about virtually anything and everything even vaguely connected with this distant nightmare.

Should I be concerned that, in this public document, my family is described as 'distant' and 'estranged'? How do we construct a meaningful and productive working relationship with the woman George has said is the only person in the world that he trusts.  Can we, from the distances separating us from Oregon, find a reputable legal representative for George?  Would he make use of this counsel?  Is it wise for the Glenn, Barbara and I to go all the way out there, to see this wreck of our brother?  I did call the Court House, to see what we can possible arrange, only to discover that, because of budget cuts, the family services department is only open part-time.  I'll have to call back tomorrow, to begin wrestling. long distance, with state bureaucracy.  I can't wait.

Meanwhile, I've made a list of the things I want to try, with my paper project, so I'll have some work to contribute to a Combat Paper exhibit in Teaneck later this month.  I bought some expandable foam today, and want to make some more tests, to see if this stuff can give me results even remotely similar to those I get with glass.  It's a little strange, really, to find that I have to schedule 'playing', but that's actually how I work best.  I generate questionable ideas; I have, often, lucky accidents.

John says it's possible to add pictures to this blogue thing.  If I can figure out how to do this, maybe I'll include some images of... whatever I manage to produce.  I'm actually kind of excited about what I'm imagining.  We'll see how long that lasts.

And life goes on.  Until it doesn't.   


©    2012               Walter Zimmerman