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     


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