Friday, June 29, 2012


Last night, in bed, I wanted to be dead. 

Bedtime was earlier than usual.  I'd spent the evening drawing while not paying much attention to the TV, and also making a mess in the den, losing and finding again my three lead pencils and the sharpener I discovered on a shelf upstairs.  I'd played the useless but addictive word game I've begun to think of as oracular, annoyed that one game had gotten to the point of offering me the challenge of making a standard English word out of z,x, g, h, and two r's.  I'd washed the few dishes resulting from a dinner of leftovers from last night's meal.  John had gone on ahead -- he's the lark, and I'm the owl.  Mice and voles beware.

Arriving at the sleeping platform (I'd made the bed earlier, because John likes it that way, and I can do so little, it seems, to be of positive benefit in his life.  Pulling up a couple of blankets shouldn't be beyond my reach), and lying down in gratitude for the air conditioner, I lapsed helplessly into a kind of emotional regurgitation of the day's despair.  Maybe if I'd tried sleeping, sitting up?  I went back to the deep-breathing exercises I'd learned (improperly, I'm sure) from the teachings of some crackpot East Indian mystic named (by himself) Osho -- I found this big, shiny brown hard-bound book in a Philadelphia bookstore years earlier, and it bore the improbable title 'Book of Secrets'.  I was amused that something so big could pretend to be covert.  But it was cheap.  And amusing.

So, I tried anal breathing again, pretending that air was coming in where, logically, it can't, and seeing how far I could inflate my capacious lungs, and wondering if my now-automated heart could react as it used to do -- slowing 'way down, relaxing as it were, from its ceaseless, unappreciated labors.  I was good for about six of these deep breaths before I lost interest, or was again overcome by this useless, tarry grief with which I seem fated to live.

(Maybe I was upset because I'd just told my sister Barbara -- who lives in Florida and, in spite of my early influence, now thinks in terms of Bible readings and the movement of The Spirit -- that I wasn't going to be able to join her on her trip out to Oregon, to see our brother George.  The one who's got lung cancer that he's decided not to treat.  The one who's signed his life over to an acquaintance who comes in to pay his bills and make sure he washes himself.  The one who's always wanted to have written.  The verb tense being of especial importance here.  As in,  'It's too bad I couldn't have blueberries with my breakfast this morning.  I wish I had planted some.'

Even though George and I were especially close during the very earliest years of our childhood -- him being 2 1/2 years younger than me, and so my first in-house playmate -- from about the time he was maybe 6 or so, our lives diverted into different streams, and he became a kind of irritating, irrational stranger to me.  Or maybe I should say that, with the spectacular excesses of his life -- we've lost count of the ex-wives, the children who may or may not have been his own, the guns and hostage negotiations, the dwellings and phone numbers and places of employment -- he merely proved to be who I might have been, if I'd decided to write my entire life in capital letters.  I recoil from who I might have been -- someone from whom, to certain others, I might well be indistinguishable.

So I couldn't see any point, really, in traveling six thousand miles round trip, to look at a man for whom I feel such impatient anger.  To say nothing of the potential horror of looking into my own not-to-distant future, where I, too, am living in a rural setting, in a collapsing trailer, with weeds in the driveway, and cat food in the pantry)

So, possibly resonating to my own hard-heartedness and/or sibling guilt, I lay down on one of the 'magic blankets' -- the polar fleece ones that instantly return warmth -- and decided that maybe, if I concentrated really really hard, I could simply cease to be a living entity.  If I tried to ignore physical sensations, and thoughts, and those annoying little flare-ups of emotion, I might somehow slip out of my own annoying body, and... do whatever the disembodied dead do.

Of course, this didn't work.  I kept slipping into fretful dreams about my computer (this very computer) deciding to cease operation just at the critical point, and then I would startle awake again, to realize that I was still lying on my side, on top of a magic blanket, in the dark bedroom, waiting and hoping that, by sheer concentration, I could cancel what has lately become a deeply unsatisfying subscription to this whole bad inhale/exhale comedy.

Then I went to sleep in earnest (quel surprise -- I'm sure you didn't see that coming), and woke up later in the middle of the middle of a vigorous storm of thunder and lightning.  What you might expect, as a child, if your parents came home, unexpectedly, and drunk. and find you dancing around the house naked but for your step-mother's costume jewelry, with the stereo playing the Peer Gynt suite at ear-splitting levels, and with saltines spread with peanut butter all over the kitchen counter... Among other things.  An explosion in every room.  The bright light indistinguishable from being slapped across the face with a strong, open hand.  And waiting for the next one.  Do we have a fire escape plan?  Or is it every cat for himself?

The storm passes.  And then there's the dream.  If you're like me, and hate to read about other people's dreams, just stop here, now.

I am in a dense, crude village -- an old place, bearing the marks of much trade.  I am searching for a particular establishment, and stop into many others in my progress.  I have a companion -- a woman, I think, though her gender seems unemphasized by her garments, her femininity betrayed only in her slight, sharp features and a kind of piercing quality to her intelligent questions and pointed arguments.
To make my own point, in this long dispute, I resort to a little book, hardly the size of the palm of my hand.  It's a kind of hybrid volume -- some of the pages seem to be of mica instead of paper, and I'm not particularly amazed that, when I turn one leaf or another, I'm looking into the book instead of at it.  It changes sizes as we walk and argue.  When I reach the book's end, I simply flip it over and begin again, the other direction, and it shows a completely new series of images and problems.

I stop, with my companion, outside a noisy establishment.  There's a low, broad table at the entrance, and an array of drinking vessels spread out for the patrons.  I pick two, one slightly larger than the other, and watch as they're filled with a dark, thick brew.  I'm tempted to take the more generous portion, but there's something about the way the smaller glass sheds a layer from its side, like a crystal cleaving with no one touching it, and I choose this little glass to bring with me.  I go down three steps, and duck into the thick-walled entrance way.  The heavy windowless door opens.

I'm in a space filled with warm, honey-colored light.  The many inner spaces, opening one into another with an enviable ease, are populated solely by men.  Youngish men, in their thirties or early forties perhaps.  All closely-shorn red-heads (so you know it's a dream), dressed like some of the more important extras in a Scots-themed film with maybe Brad Pitt in it, so the costume budget is good.  And lying on another wide plank table, off to one side from the entrance, is a naked, red-headed man, with that translucent, opal-blue skin of the fair-haired.  He lies there in complete, sumptuous unconcern, and his flagrant, statuesque nakedness seems unremarkable to his fellow guests. 

The air is thick with energized talk.  I've reached one of the inner spaces, and overcome with a wordless, but powerful emotion, I simply take my place at an open spot in the center of the floor, and raise my damaged, but still-brimming glass.  In a wordless moment, all glasses there, and throughout this place, are brought up at arms' length, and high.  There is a peak of tense, virile expectation.

And there you are.  At the ungodly hour of six am, I wake up from this unusually rich inner escapade (I know there were other rooms and other encounters, but what little I can remember of them is dark and blurred), obviously still not dead, and feeling powerfully moved by these images, and the emotions that have come with them.

I don't want to analyze this dream, because that seems disrespectful, and a waste of time.  Like trying to pin down an uninjured goshawk with a handful of straight pins.

I feel a particular kind of grief -- as though I've just discovered a club I'm now too old to join.  I feel voraciously hungry, on a symbolic level.  I find myself wondering about the other men in the fairy tales -- the elder brothers who were humorless and cruel.  What were their later lives like?  What happened to the magic potential that seemed, on occasion, to peek through into my own life?  I seem to feel a need for a kind of sub-verbal companionship, or a potentially carnal experience, to which I've never felt entitled.  I've been so afraid, much of my life.  I've made many embarrassing emotional mistakes, because I wouldn't listen to what I was clearly being told.  And of course, what I'm remembering now, and resonating to, was a dream, with all the benefits that dreams bring, and as with genuine dreams, none of the mechanisms for translating -- who knows what?  A cramped leg?  A breeze from the air conditioner?  A half-digested almond? -- the dream's most potent, poignant essence into something that can bear common touch, or withstand the light of day.

I still want to be dead.  Maybe this was an unanticipated preview of the kind of heaven I might create for myself.  I don't think it's a subconscious call to relocate to Glasgow.  But none of us will ever know, will we?  This morning, if I thought prayer would help, I would grovel on my face without shame, to find the way back.       

 ©    2012   Walter Zimmerman

The Y Chromosome, Revisited

As the next round of home repairs reaches its end...

When the house was painted just a couple of weeks ago, we agreed with the painters that the old (copper) gutters were in very bad shape -- twisted, sagging, and in need of more repair than we could afford.  So we opted to have the old gutters taken down (I quickly laid claim to the metal, though God only knows what I'll do with still more crap, strewn across the back of the driveway...), to be replaced with new ones, made with... dental floss?  Tin foil?  I don't know.  But they're almost all up, and look much better, so far.  And best of all, the guy doing the work has offered to give us an estimate on what it would take, to channel the gutter downspouts, and the sump pump output, toward the front yard and into the street.  What a miracle.  All I have to do. while all this is happening, is to sit here and listen to various clankings and whirrings, and then write a check.

While I wait, I thought I would write a bit more about my father -- that last entry was more about what I didn't know, in terms of his personal history.  The tidbits that he had let drop, during the course of my living in his house.  But there are three more brief interchanges with him, that I'd like to describe, if only to keep their memory a little clearer in my own mind.

First though, let me seem to diverge.

Years ago, when I was an undergraduate at Penn State, there was a photography show in the Zoeller Gallery, then the main art venue for the State College campus.  I remember one photo in particular, and wish I had bought it, it was so powerful and ambiguous, in its apparent clarity.  This black and white photo was of modest size -- certainly no bigger than 8 1/2" x 11" -- and would be classified as a portrait, I guess.  Very close to the picture plain, we see a young boy's face -- he's maybe 10 at the oldest, with straight blond hair he might just have brushed out of his big, dark eyes.  There's a sunburnt quality to his face, and the sense that he's just eaten something -- a sandwich, or an apple -- his mouth looks active, as though he's about to speak.  Held up close, beside his face, is a photograph.  The boy is holding it, not at one corner, with thumb and forefinger, as he would a flimsy piece of paper, but as though the image were printed on a piece of board, or a plate of glass -- we see the ends of his fingers along the top of the picture, and his thumb down at the bottom.  The image of this photograph-within-a-photograph is of an old, old man, shrunken and weak-looking, wrapped in a standard hospital gown, and lying in a hospital bed.  A feeding sack off to one side, I seem to recall.  Some various tubes draped down onto the bed behind him.

To most viewers, I suppose, it would seem an ordinary enough image.  But I found it riveting.  There was a frank directness in that young boy's gaze -- a directness in those great dark eyes that seemed to include a foreboding, some difficulty he sensed was on its way, but some distance off yet, maybe back there, behind the photographer's head.  The way the boy held that photograph, and the implied solidity, or inflexibility of the image, made me wonder if perhaps the boy was holding a mirror, and  the camera was in that hospital room, with the old man sitting there, waiting.  Or -- and this possibility was the most exciting of all, because it was both impossible and somehow true  -- I thought that maybe this boy was holding up his own photograph, from deep in his own future, or that this mirror he held showed what he himself was looking back at with such a poignant gaze: he himself, sitting on rumpled sheets, and peering near-sightedly at his younger self.

One further extension of the possibilities -- the whole image, the whole photograph was a reflective surface, showing me, the viewer, how I might have looked, twenty-some years before, and staring the dissolution of my own body straight in the face (having grabbed a cookie, in case there wouldn't be any more); grimly holding up the smaller mirror, which of course gives the dreaded preview of some decades into the future, into a different sort of dissolution.   The involuntary one, involving the cave-in of the vehicle itself, with the occupant is still trapped inside, bewildered, unable to release the seat belt or open the window far enough, so he can climb out, before submersion is complete...

And now, without the benefit of photographs, or magic shards of mirror...

Once, my father took my brothers and me on a drive into Pittsburgh.  We rarely went so far from home, except to visit his sister, my Aunt Marie, who lived up near the orphanage, in Butler County.  Today's trip would be closer to home.

My brothers and I didn't like being together in the car much -- there were four of us, and even with someone in the front seat beside our father (me, because I was the oldest), there would be some teasing or torment, or bickering, or joking -- we were always being yelled at, which only drove the mischief deeper, where, under pressure, it was sure to come exploding out again in a few minutes, because one of us had looked at the other, and a geyser of giggles and squirming would burst out.  Pittsburgh is a twenty-mile drive from where we lived at the time -- there was much yelling, sulking, and sputtering of suppressed laughter by the time we'd reached the first of the tunnels we had to drive through, to get into Pittsburgh itself.

I hated the tunnels.   Like most, our car didn't have air conditioning, and the tunnels themselves weren't ventilated to the extent that's standard today.  I hated the exhaust smell, and the brownish fog hanging at the tunnel's entry and exit.  I made it a standard practice to hold my breath for as long as possible, while we were underground.  On a recent drive through Pittsburgh, my full-grown lungs easily held me, all the way through.  As a kid, I usually gasped out my failure about 3/4 of the way through, and then tasted the harsh, rust-colored, incoming vapors.   These could do no one any good.

We seemed to be just wandering around, not going to any of the few usual places we went.  Then my father slowed down and came to a stop in front of a row of two-story, yellow brick homes, in the Mt. Lebanon section of the city.  These houses were barely detached, with narrow sidewalks between them, where it's doubtful any sun ever shone.  There were little bricked-in front porches facing the street, and three or four steps down to the common city sidewalk.  To me, these little houses looked identical.  Dark roofs.  Windows with drawn curtains.  Nobody talking a stroll, or walking a dog.  No sign of kids -- a bicycle or something.

Then my father said, "Here's where I used to live."  And that was all.  Nothing else.  We just sat there in the back seat, looking.  We didn't even know which of these buildings was The One.  We didn't know when he'd lived there, or who'd lived next door.  Were there any adventures he remembered?  How deep did the snow get in the winter?  How hot was it in the summer?  Was there a yard in the back, or a playground nearby?  How far away was the school?  Did he change, between grade school and high school?  Which window was his?

We sat silent, and I remember watching my father watch his old house, trying to catch, somehow, some microscopic change in his posture, or some turn of his head, to indicate that he was having a particular kind of thought right then.  I couldn't imagine my brothers and me, sitting in front of our old house in Belleville, without breaking into hoots of laughter.   We'd spied on the neighbor across the street as he mowed his lawn, and made up stories about all sorts of violent things he must have done, judging him solely by the vicious way he pushed his stubborn little mower.  Mr. Man, we called him.  Did my father had a similar bogey man in his past?

He never said.  We sat, for something between five and ten minutes, I'd say.  Then my dad started the car again, and we drove away.  We never went back there again.

Years later, my father's house was in McKeesport -- a two-and-a-half story detached brick building, with a small brick-walled front porch.  Painted yellow.  At the time, my father was dying of cancer.  My brothers and sisters and I had all come to town, for a kind of pre-funereal reunion I guess you could say, if you were heartless like me.  And the whole family (the 'whole shooting match', as my father would say) was supposed to go to the famous local amusement park, for a day of rides and bad food.  But Dad came down with a slight case of pneumonia, so he had to spend a couple of days in the hospital, just when we were all there for this special event.  Our stepmother decided that, if he wasn't going, she'd stay home too.

So there were at least the six of us -- one of my brothers couldn't make it.  Barbara was pregnant with her second child.  Michelle's husband Gregg was along for the day.  I remember was George being insulted that I would rather go on any number of roller-coasters, than take in a flying lesson with him.  The day held no particular revelations.  I don't think I even got sunburnt.

But before I went back home, I visited my Dad in his hospital room.  He was sitting in a chair near the bed.  As usual, he didn't have much to say.  We just looked at each other.

I was trying to work up the courage to tell him that I was gay -- which couldn't have been much of a shock at that point, as I'd already been living with John for a few years, and I'd told my father, during one of our tri-monthly phone calls, that John and I were looking to buy a house in Minneapolis, or Columbus, or Eau Claire, or any of the various places we'd gone to visit John's friends.  One doesn't buy houses with a casual buddy.   

And my father had long seemed preoccupied with my sexual orientation, I guess you'd say.  At the time, at six or so, I didn't know why he and my mother seemed so worried, so focused and attentive, but only about specific parts of my life.  Which side I parted my hair on.  How the 's' sound came out of my mouth.  Which of the toys they'd brought into the house were my favorite playthings.  Whatever it was I did, I knew something was wrong.  Something very wrong.  There was, and always would be,  just... some... something... wrong.
So all these years later, long after the Stonewall Riots (about which I'm sure my father knew absolutely nothing), sitting in a hospital room in McKeesport PA, I still found it impossible to open my mouth and say 'Dad, I'm gay.'  I couldn't do it.  I was uncomfortable, sitting in yet another hospital chair and silently facing him.  I'm sure the expression on my face approximated that of a careless motorist who'd just run over someone's prize-winning cat,, much more closely than it did a grown-up son, trying to voice to his own father a commonly-known fact about the son's own life.  I was still frightened of him.  Where would he send me this time?

And him?  He just looked at me -- was it the illness?  The medication?  Or the vulgar, careless health I brought with me into the room?  The sheer plenitude of life-expectancy I carried so carelessly?  I was certainly unaware, personally, of having in my possession anything that could benefit anyone, least of all to myself.  Something with me being... wrong, after all.  Still, he looked at me, and I recall most clearly the coldness of his eyes -- watery, hazel green eyes, always seen behind his glasses -- I felt, right then, that I was up to the bridge of my nose in a deep pool of warm murky water, and across from me, lying on a half-submerged log, was a great, ancient and dispassionate crocodile.  Waiting to decide what to destroy next.

I kept my open secret to myself.

And finally, less than a year later, there was the one last visit I would have with my father.  John and I had planned and paid for our second-ever trip to Europe -- we were going to see American friends in Germany, French friends in France, and, unexpectedly, a famous painting in Colmar.  While packing, I was particularly aware that on this trip, I would finally be in Paris.   Then I got a phone call from my father's house -- my youngest sister, telling me that our father was in the hospital again, and that this time, the doctors gave him between three days and three weeks to live.

I put aside Paris, threw some things in a smaller bag, and flew to Pittsburgh, then drove out to McKeesport, to my father's house.  My two sisters and one of my brothers were there.  My step-mother's mother was still alive, holding sway over the kitchen as usual.  All the televisions in the house were on, tuned to different channels.  My brothers and sisters and step-grandmother were all shouting at each other.  I agreed maybe too eagerly when my stepmother asked me to spend the afternoon in the hospital with my father, so she could do some errands.  I could come back again the next day, she said, if I decided to stay over.

Propped up in his bed in the cancer ward, he instantly knew who I was, which I'd been warned might not be the case, as he was getting intravenous morphine for the pain.  He told me, so clearly and certainly, that my sister Barbara had won $3 million in the Florida lottery, that I forgot I'd been warned about his delusions, and especially, this particular one. 

Other than that, there wasn't much to do or say.  I found a chair and sat down.  He lay back against his pillows.  He would gasp with pain now and wrench to one side, exclaiming 'O Sweet Jesus'.  I couldn't imagine what it might feel like, with or without the drugs.

The doctor stopped in for just a moment.  I introduced myself ('Is there no end of this family?', he may well have thought), and repeated what I'd been told.  "My sister says he looks much better today.  He just needed more salt."

"The man is dying," the doctor said flatly, and his look was stern, pitiless, almost contemptuous, as though I'd brought him a sparrow that was run over by a truck, and was standing there with it lying in my extended hand, waiting for him to fix it.  Clearly, I and all my kind were just wasting his time.  He was out the door again.

My father dozed.  I was ill at ease, and a little light-headed.  As usual, I hadn't eaten breakfast, and I needed something in my system or I was sure I'd pass out.  But I was afraid that if I left the room, to take care of my vulgar personal needs, he would pick that particular moment to die, and how would I explain that to everybody?  Finally, I steeled myself for a dash to the cafeteria, which was closed between breakfast and lunch, so I had to make my selection from the hodge-podge of junk in the vending machines.  My hands full, I ran back to the elevator and to his room, where he was still sleeping comfortable.  I ate peanut-butter-and-cheese crackers, self-conscious about the crinkling of wrappers and splaying of crumbs.  Then I settled into a kind of rhythm -- turn my head to the right, and watch my dying father sleep, then turn my head to the left, to take in what little I could see of the old, unoccupied steel mills, lying sprawled along the river, a few blocks away.

My father's face seemed unaffected by his illness -- though his hair looked as though he'd been given a buzz cut, it was still growing back in after the last round of chemotherapy (would it be blond again this time, or grey, or nut-brown?  Chemo can be so whimsical)  Otherwise, his coloring was fairly good, and there were no surface traces of the deep pain that made him gasp.  I thought it quietly ironic, that printed on the flimsy hospital gown, as a decorative pattern, were little shields, arranged in pairs.  Pathetic, I thought -- but also dimly resonant, given the way people used to revere such symbols -- here they were, thinned-down, shrunken remnants of a once-robust faith, powerful shields now demoted to guard duty on these flimsy bits of mock clothing.

And then I was considered the mills, lining all available riverbanks in the area.  They had raged, day and night, when I first saw them, decades earlier.  The industry I knew of, in Illinois, lay in great green fields of corn.  But in McKeesport, the night sky was a sullen, cloudy, orange-black, always.  My father's house -- his next-to-last one, that is, blue clapboard, with the open front porch no one ever used -- sat in a neighborhood deep in the first valley behind the steep hills running along the rivers.   Looking out the attic window, where I slept at night, I had a hellish view -- the silhouette of the height opposite, looking like a long, diseased gum line, punctuated with crooked teeth.  Impenetrable, powdery black.  Backed by brick-colored clouds that blossomed into orange and scarlet, and then gave out even brighter bursts, great searing belches of light, up and down the valley, all through every night.

Now, that day, as I saw if from my father's hospital room, it all lay cold and inert.  The fires had long since been put out.  You might even be able to see stars overhead at night now, instead of some full-scale preview of the underworld.  All there was left now were vast expanses of corroding metal, the mill roofs, tilted at that one particular shallow angle, designed that way for a purpose, to shelter great working, but now with all their life gone out of them.  I wondered how long would it take for the miles and miles of these rusting relics to break down?  I guessed it would look, by then, as though years of night clouds had been summoned back into gassy existence, then compressed, and scraped out of the sky, to fall, useless, to the ground. 

A nurse brought in a lunch tray, and at the noise, my father woke up.  It was just a simple meal -- a hamburger, some french fries, and strawberry jello.  He wanted the jello first, but couldn't manage the spoon, so I fed him -- thereby completing the circle so many come to know, thenow-adult child caring for the parent.  He seemed unaffected by this switch in our roles.  He managed the finger food much better, and I was actually startled by the sharpness of his appetite -- the attention with which he focused on the sliced tomatoes, the vigor of his biting and chewing that bit of ground meat.  There was not trace of some romanticized Victorian delicacy here -- just a man unapologetically eating a meal.  As he might, if he were alone, at a camp site, down by the river perhaps, with the next day's journey in mind.

By the time he'd finished, and I wiped his chin with a napkin, my stepmother was back, and it was time for me to go back to the house.  When I told my dad I was leaving, he scurried to get out of bed, because he thought he was coming too.  I was surprised at my own pain, seeing him clambering there, with the morphine tubing still in place, a living thing wanting out of its box.

Back at the house, I asked my brothers and sisters if should I stay for the last days of my father's life, or go ahead with the planned trip, staying in touch for what we all knew was inevitable?  They all asked that there be a phone number available, wherever John and I would stay.  They thought that, having seen my father alive, I had bestowed whatever little gift was left in my power to give.

So, I flew back to Jersey City.  We flew to Europe.  I lay in our hotel bed in Paris, watching reruns of 'The Avengers' on TV -- in English, with French subtitles.  And my father died while I was away, on the very last day of the trip, when we were already on our way home.      

Now, years later, I think about that photgraph from long ago, and wonder what a photo of my father and me might have looked like -- a magic picture like the one I didn't have the wisdom to grab when I saw it.  Would it show my face, as a tense, dirty nine-year-old with stolen chocolate on his cheek, holding up the mirror to show the dark delusional man, lying in a hospital bed in a town where the skies used to be red at night?  Or would it be his face, as the bewildered boy with the yellow brick house, his mother gone off to be insane, his father gone off to make another fortune, leaving him -- the only son -- to hold up the mirror to show a sad, bewildered man, hair awry, moustache shocked white, sitting at a kitchen table, in tears because he can't ever seem to understand anything anymore, and because the world won't hold still long enough for him to get a better look. 

©    2012               Walter Zimmerman

Monday, June 25, 2012

Distraction, or Illusion? You Be the Judge...

This is supposed to be good for me, I guess -- this writing, I mean.  It's certainly a distraction.

But it's not always such a pleasant endeavor.  I teeter between a self-protective discretion, and an almost willfully embarrassing self-disclosure, all the while dreading that somehow, I might commit the worst sin of all, in my private religion -- the sin of repeating myself.

Things seem strange to me, now.  John says it's because of my medication -- either the new dosages haven't yet begun to have the expected positive effect (we should wait until... Easter maybe?), or the drugs aren't working at all.  I don't really much care -- I find myself more concerned, for instance, that I usually find myself crying while I'm driving to Trader Joe's, or the gym.  My tears having nothing to do with whatever destination.  In my continuing struggle with looming death, I find myself wanting to reject how I experience my own body, and how that body in turn experiences the world.  The one you live in.

Because I'm so visual (and this may be no different from any other binocular human on the planet -- I've just never talked with anyone about it), I seem to operate in life as though "I" were a little mannikin inside my own head, sitting just behind and between my eyes, and looking out, by some kind of transubstantiation, through bone and skin, and protected by an invisible, horizontally-oriented, dome-like lens.  See: Men In Black, the scene in the morgue, when Will Smith pulls the ear of the dead jeweler, the head opens like the gull wing of a Mercedes E class, and there's a mortally wounded alien princeling inside.  Only I don't have a princeling.  Just some sort of energetic principle, with a flawed memory chip, a set of seemingly arbitrary operating rules, and no map whatsoever -- just the equivalent of a blank sheet of paper with a huge black X on it, and the understanding that this X (we all know what this represents) must somehow be avoided at all costs -- even though it's the actual, inevitable destination toward which this entire confabulation of bond and blood and tissue is heading.

No new here, is there?  Why on earth, you are probably wondering, is this person going on and on about The Thing we all have in common?  I guess it's like a bad advertizing jingle that I've got in my head, and I can't get rid of it.  I guess I'm trying, desperately, to find some way (as I've sometimes been lucky enough to do), to use the gravitational pull of this Death thing to my advantage -- the way those savvy space pilots use the Earth's mass to fling them out of danger, far better and further than their own engines could do. 

But my deeper suspicion is that, no, there's no way to work this one to my advantage.  No way to, maybe, put a millwheel in the stream, and channel the death march,, cleverly converting it into the means of creating sustenance.  

Instead, lately, what I seem to feel is a need to recede -- a wish to pull back from this fascinating perch behind my eyes, and start to find a way to see my own physical mechanism in a more detached way.  The way, perhaps, a person securely belted into a new car might look around at the uphosterly, the dashboard, the steering wheel, and feel differently about it all, in the few seconds between starting to skid, and hitting the cement buttress.  I find, also, that what I'm used to experiencing, and treating, and interacting with, as a consistent whole, a reliable array of phenomena choosing to distinguish themselves for me as: a maple tree; a rose bush; a small dog pooping in my rose bush; a paved road; another vehicle; another person; a whole crowd of other persons... all these various manifestations of life itself now start to seem more like a kind of animated wallpaper, adhered somehow to the outside of that comforting facial dome I feel I must vacate as soon as possible.  I keep expecting the illusion of solidity to rip.  In what I think is the most compassionate manner possible, I find myself looking at the man walking down the street, talking on his cell phone, and thinking 'He's going to be dead, sooner or later.  And as a matter of fact, from the looks of things, it's going to be sooner.'

I feel that, for me, it's too late already -- there's no possibility for me to complete the roster of tasks that should be properly completed, and swept up after, at least a week before anyone is shopping for my casket.  You might think that, things in general seeming so illusory, the re-ordering of all my various accumulations would be a virtual snap, since they don't really exist anyway.  But, in the Perversity of How Things Are, I seem to find that, if it's beneficial, it's evanescent (isn't that a great word?  I can almost smell it, like gingerale); if it's burdensome or difficult, it becomes leaden and resistant to change.  I drink coffee for all I'm worth -- I may as well pour it on the driveway, for all the vigor and stamina and (fleeting) energy it provides.  I fear failure.  I feel that failure is already stamped all over my body -- that I'm a living work of stitchery, and every knot has 'failure' worked into it somehow.

John says this is shame.  He may be right.  There are certainly many things of which I am ashamed -- some over which I had no control, others of which I deliberately set in motion, and still others which were inadvertent, but no less harmful to myself and others.  John says I need to forgive myself.  I wholeheartedly agree with him, but when I look for the mechanism (is there a mechanism?), I can't seem to find it, or even imagine how it would look, or what it would do, or when it would start, or how I would set it in motion.

I remember my stepmother, during one of her daily rages, screaming at my brothers and me as we were getting home from school, "You know what the trouble is with you?  You've never forgiven your father for putting you in the orphanage!" I can't know how my brothers felt, but I was dumbfounded -- first, because 'orphanage' was a word that, by some unspoken agreement, was never to be spoken in our house, and second, because quite simply, our father had never said that he felt one way or another about our stint in an institution, let alone that he was sorry.  And he never, ever did.

And this, I recognize as I write, is one huge chunk of the edifice of shame behind which I feel so trapped.  (When I'm not peeking out of my porthole, that is)  The enduring shame of have been judged worth only the least amount of tepid care, as long as that sliver of tepid caring was provided by someone else.   How do I manage to care for myself, in any meaningful way, when the model provided for me was so devastatingly frank, in telling me that I wasn't good enough, wasn't really good at all?  Sometimes defiance helps for a while, but it can be exhausting, keeping up the front.

Well, here I still sit.  The thunderstorms seem to have passed us, so I guess I'll go across the street and haul the hose reel to the back, try to find the spot where the plants and not the driveway get most of the water, and turn on the faucet.  I can be a little bit useful, from time to time.  This is something of a help.  Plus, I get to look at our house from across the street, and the row of rose bushes by the fire hydrant.  Even if they are an illusion.  

©   2012           Walter Zimmerman     

Friday, June 22, 2012

31 Across

(If this were prompted by the recent greeting-card, neck-tie 'holiday', it would be a belated tribute of sorts.  But, as a matter of fact...)

Yesterday's NYTimes crossword puzzle jogged some memories loose.  At 31 Across, the clue was "Savvy?".  The correct answer being, 'dig'.  (I hope I haven't spoiled anything.  It was yesterday's, after all)

Savvy?  Dig?  Improbable or not, this made me think of my father, and about how very little I know of him and his life.

That my life should have turned out to be so very different from his seems, to me, to be completely self-evident, given the fact that, as all lives do, mine unspooled itself with so little forethought, leading me in no particular direction, regardless of how hard I might try to apply the reins.  His life, on the other hand, because there had already been so much more of it, seemed to me to be solid and factual, and knowable, like a history from which a student might learn something profitable.

But my father never betrayed much curiosity about who I was or what I might be doing.  While I had always been interested in who he was, and what he had been doing.  Which interest, coming from me, seems not to have mattered all that much to him.

He was born in Pittsburgh PA, in the Mt. Lebanon section, in July of 1926.  He was the youngest of three children, and my grandparents' only son.  He was named Walter William Zimmerman Jr.

He had dark, straight hair that he combed straight back on his head.  His eyes were hazel green, and his complexion tended to be sallow.  He tanned very easily.  He was of average stature, by adulthood standing 5' 10".  He was particularly proud of having a 28" waist, which I never understood as something a man would brag about (although, at the same time, I felt self-conscious and somewhat overweight, because by the time I was in my late teens, my waist had already reached 32", and it didn't seem as though it would ever get any smaller); he had a lean build, more or less devoid of hair.

He smoked.  And drank.

A few things I know about his youth: his mother had had a 'nervous breakdown' during the Great Depression, when my grandfather apparently lost whatever fortune he'd accumulated, and as a result, my father was raised for a time by his two older sisters, Dorothy and Marie.   He hated rutabagas, because his family had grown them in their Victory Gardens during WWII.  Once, during high school, his class was giving a play that required that a lantern be lit onstage.  But this was against the city's fire codes -- a lighted match was okay, but an actual lantern was forbidden.  My father disassembled a flashlight, repositioning the bulb, socket and batteries inside the lantern, so the actress, on cue, could strike her match, and then reach inside and twist the bulb, so the lantern would light, and the show could go on.  He told me about this several times, over many years.

He enlisted with the US Army Air Corps, just as the European conflict was winding down.  I believe he was training to be a tail gunner, and had one training mission that flew over both the Gulf of Mexico and some of Mexico itself.  He joked about that being his only visit to a foreign country.

Right about then, at the end of the war, he met my mother, in Montgomery AL.  They married at 19.  My father left the military, worked for a while installing telephones -- a job he got with help from my grandfather  -- and then rejoined the Air Force as a Lieutenant.  Somewhere, I have a photograph of him, in uniform.  He looks dark and virile.

And it was at this time that I entered the picture -- or, to be more precise, as this is all necessarily from my point of view, it was at this point that my father coalesced as a central figure in my world.

One of my earliest memories is of a nightmare about a nasty monster, which turned into my bedside clown lamp as I woke, screaming,  My father came into my room and picked me up.  I held onto him so tightly, my fingernails cut his neck.

My father sometimes tickled me, when we were walking down South Jackson St., in Belleville Illinois.  I thrilled to the helplessness of laughing so hard, and I begged him to stop.  When he did, and I'd regained my composure, I would try to bump into him, to prompt another tickle attack.  Sometimes he fell for my seduction.  Sometimes he didn't.

When it was time for me to have my first grown-up haircut, my father took my to his barber.  I wanted to keep my long blond hair, but my parents had strict ideas about how their first-born son needed to appear, and to behave.  It's embarrassing to admit that, six decades later, I still take pride in being able to sit so still in the barber's chair.

Just before my parents divorced, my father spent more and more time away from home.  When he was at home, he was usually repairing something -- most often, the great black Buick that would soon take us all on such a fateful ride.  Greasy, wearing old khakis and a smeared white tee shirt, he would come into the house and wash up in the kitchen sink.

And this is the period that the crossword clue recalls for me.  When my dad was trying to explain something to my brothers and me, which he could rarely do with much patience, he would punctuate his instructions with what sounded to me like "First A?  First A?"  He repeated this over and over, as though he needed a response from me at least, since I was the oldest. "First A?" 

"Verstehen?"  That's what he meant to ask.  "Do you understand?", a seven-year old German boy could grasp.  But my brothers and I were all American, we had no idea what Germany was, and we were living in Illinois.     

I suppose it should be funny, that he was asking his little boys 'Do you understand?' in a language they couldn't understand.  But this curious tone-deafness on my father's part interests me.  I think it points to the centrality, for my father, of his military experience, even though it was so brief, and fractured into two separate parts.  There was always a certain impatient rigidity about him, struggling with an eternal desire to lie down and take a nap.  I'm guessing here, because so little was ever said in my family, but I think that, set against the never-ending struggle my dad had with his own father, the military had presented him with a reassuring alternative for masculine relationship -- a setting in which my father, Walter Jr., rather than his father, Walter Sr., was in control.  How else to explain that, without thinking, my father would treat his children as though they were not only members of the military, but also as though they were the enemy.  Would you ask an American 'First A?'

My father had a best friend, a man he'd met in the Air Corps.  The specialness of this man's friendship was such that, forty years later, and without ever having met him, my step-mother knew his name.  None of us ever saw him.  At least I never did.
With his marriage to my mother breaking apart, my father spent more and more time away from our house.  Perhaps he was in St. Louis, closer to his job of selling used cars?  When he was at home, he was most often taking a nap.  It's as though he had become a sort of human landscape, lying on the sofa -- a low, soft mountain range, softly heaving with every breath.  My brothers and I learned, very early, to be silent in our house.

Just before my ninth birthday, and after we'd moved into the last house we would share as a family, I had a dream about my father.  He was a ravening tiger, and to protect myself and my mother, I had to kill him.  Whether or not I succeeded in the dream, I don't recall, but I somehow saw what my dream was really saying.  I still remember feeling guilt, for a violence I'd wanted to commit against my father, in my sleep.

Finally, when the family unit had fractured beyond repair, my brothers and I were piled into that black Buick my dad had spent so much time repairing.  He drove us to Pennsylvania, saw us settled into the orphanage, and then disappeared for months at a time.  On occasion, he sent candy bars, enough to put one by each plate in the communal dining room.

Even after he'd settled into his second marriage, my father continued to disappear, in a sense, working (when he could find a job) afternoon or night shifts.  He'd always wanted to be an electrical engineer, he would say, but he couldn't go to college because of us kids.  So he had to settle for working as a transformer repairman.  Also, when his schedule allowed, he would tend bar at the neighborhood watering hole down the street from our house.  It was a small joint my stepmother owned, because her father had signed his liquor license over to her.  I spent most of my Sunday afternoons there, after church, cleaning the peanut shells, cigarette butts and other materials off the linoleum floor.

At this point, my relationship with my dad centered on my being the time-keeper.  It was a role I hated.

"Wake me up in twenty minutes," he would say, and then turn on his side on the bed he shared with my stepmother.  I hated this job.  I would watch the kitchen clock as though my life depended on it,  waiting until the second hand had made its full sweep, ticking off every one of the sixty little black marks.  Then I would go up the back stairs, knock on the door, call him, and then look in, to make sure he'd woken up.

He always had.  He always glared at me, in the darkened room.  It felt like knives going through me.  "Just give me five more minutes," he'd say, as though I was the one insisting that he get up.  I hated this.

After three or four brief reprieves, he would rouse himself and go across the street, to pour beers and shots, and make pizza.  One night, a regular customer -- a handsome, hulking mill-worker -- picked my father up and threw him through the glass-paneled front door.  My father landed on the sidewalk, improbably uninjured.  A couple of days later, the two men were sharing drinks.     

As I've said, my father rarely spoke to me, at least not about anything substantive.  There were the blanket warnings -- almost mantras, really -- that (a) I had to get good grades, so I could go to college, and (b) if I misbehaved, I would be sent back to the orphanage.

But there was one story, from his military career, that he repeated more than once, about a 'queer' he and his fellow junior-grade officers had discovered in their platoon, and how they'd decided that, rather than turn the guy in, they'd leave him alone.  After all, my dad would say, he wasn't hurting anyone.  Given that he had been, from the time I was in first grade, particularly concerned about whether or not I was parting my hair on the correct side, like the other boys did, or whether I was standing at the toilet when I peed, or if I might have developed a lisp, I've always wondered whether he was repeating this tale for my benefit.  To let me know that he'd known a queer once, and he'd left the man alone.  As long as he wasn't hurting anyone.  Whatever that might mean. 
First A?

 ©  2012            Walter Zimmerman

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Conflict of Interest

So, I've been practicing being dead, as far as Facebook is concerned, and actually have time to do something other than read another list of steps to being unbearably happy, in under fifteen minutes, guaranteed (the kitten is free), I've been thinking about, oh, maybe a million other things. 

Here's one of the million things.  Twelve days ago, I was part of a public poetry reading, put together by Mr. Forest F. White, as a promotion for his new book of poetry, and also to benefit the Combat Paper project, in which we have both become involved within the last few months.  The reading was on a Saturday afternoon, in a big room on the fourth floor of the Newark Public Library.  I brought, for my portion of the afternoon, a poem I wrote as a kind of accompaniment to one of my favorite pieces of my own sculpture (talk about self-referential), a haiku I still wasn't sure about, and, actually, a slightly re-written post from this very blogue itself.  The one about Wednesday. 

Having arrived a bit early, and taking a place in the front row, I didn't realize, until I stood up to read, that the room was actually almost half full -- some were folks I knew, but most weren't.  And here I was, at a benefit for a veteran-based organization, about to read a personal essay that featured, not digi-camo uniforms, MRE's and night raids, but pink angel-food cake and Marie Antoinette.  There being, however, nothing for it, I plunged ahead.  As I read, I could tell that the audience was really listening -- there was even a pause and a kind of gasp at just the right place in the narrative.  It was quite gratifying.

Of course, as I've mentioned before, praise makes me nervous, and I tend to seek ways to self-destruct, assuaging the crippling anxiety that comes with having done something that garners public approval.  I listened politely, when the reading was over, as two or three listeners enthused about their favorite parts of the essay.  No criticisms about the lack of military precision, or weapons inspections.  Surely that would come later, I decided.

This wave of approval continued, I'm afraid to say, the next day, when I went out to Branchburg, to do my weekly deconstruction of donated uniforms, for the Combat Paper project.  David Keefe, one of the founders of this chapter, even suggested that I think about printing this piece, on Combat Paper.  I protested -- what does pink frosting and an October beheading have to do with the Iraq and Afghan conflicts?  He laughed and said it didn't make any difference.  Maybe we could do a small edition, he said -- perhaps five copies, tops.  I could even thrown in some pink fabric, since the color is featured in the work.  (Which suggestion both intrigues and troubles me) (The pink triangle thing, don't you know)

So, I'm trying to decide whether I'm thrilled with the prospect of this project -- which I'm sure will be far more labor-intensive than I could ever expect -- or hoping it will be allowed to die a discreet, quiet death, in a corner by the kerosene and used tarletan.  But I've been drawing.  I've made a list of what I think would make four effective plates for this book; first, I want a dragon, the symbol of St. Margaret, patron of childbirth.  I've seen a reproduction of an early Northern Renaissance painting, featuring a woman, and at her feet, a little green-headed dragon, that I've decided was probably a mocking portrait of the nasty, annoying pet doted on by the artist's girl friend.  I haven't been able to find that painting online -- but my memory, though unspecific, is still reliable:  when I went to see the Alexander McQueen exhibit at the Met, there was, printed on silk for one of his jackets, the very twisted crucifixion I'd been looking.  As for the dragon, I've gone ahead and made two versions.  One is too small to be converted to a lino-cut (if that's what I'll be doing); the second one, done last night, seems more promising, but would still probably mean at least two week's worth of careful carving.  So, I have a train to catch or something?

The other illustrations: a caduceus, instead of a 1957 Mercury, because I hate drawing cars; a reproduction of Jean Louis David's sketch of Marie Antoinette on her way to the guillotine; and perhaps an adaptation of an illustration from a favorite childhood book, with dancing marionettes in 18th-century dress.  Or maybe I can find out which of the innumerable saints is the patron of puppeteers, and use that instead.

All of this by way of a very indirect introduction to the topic I really want to address here -- which topic being: The Moral Underpinnings, If Any, of Creativity and The Artist's Calling.  (Now I may take a break to put in the air conditioner -- I never did like a direct line between two points)

Ah, incipient coolness.  I wonder who's the patron saint of air conditioning. 

Well, it goes something like this.  I had lunch this week with a wonderful young painter named Frank O'Leary.  I saw and was shocked by his large painting in what I suspect will have been the last ever juried Essex Exposed exhibit, at the Pierro Gallery in South Orange.  Frank had submitted a large self-portrait that showed a riveting blend of painterly sureness and spontaneity.  I would have understood if he'd won one of the juror's awards.  

Anyway, now Frank has built his studio, and is getting ready to begin a new series of works, he says.  I mostly see him in his job as manager for Coda, a restaurant in Maplewood when John and I like to go for a quiet Sunday evening meal.  Frank works in the restaurant three days a week.  He has recently graduated with an art degree -- I don't know whether it's a BA or MFA.

I suggested a late-morning coffee to Frank, because I like his work so much, and I also sense a seriousness in him that might make it less uncomfortable for me, a man easily old enough to be his father, to reveal the struggles I'm still having with some very basic issues about making art.   Mostly, I wanted to know what he thought -- is there, after all, some kind of spiritual component to creativity,  obliging those who bear it, to use it?

Now, what I seem to know about my own vein of creativity is this: I must do... something or other, or I'll really get sick.  This is not a joke.  I've tried, often in the past -- mostly when I was in the military, or while I was in college -- to stop drawing and painting, for one reason or another.  To make less of a mess in my room in the Air Force, and be less at risk, during surprise inspections, I was told.  To focus more on the acting I was doing at Penn State, it was suggested.  I would invariably develop some nervous tic or stomach pains, that stopped as soon as I allowed myself access to paper and something with which to make a mark.  Sculpture, now, seems to work in much the same way, only bigger, in three dimensions, and exponentially harder to store.

Frank said that, when it came time for him to make a choice, regarding school, there was no question of what he would pursue -- he wanted to be an artist.  His parents were laudably supportive, as long as he was still taking classes.  When graduation came and went, they began, as is inevitable I suppose, to worry about... what comes next?  How do you... make a living, now that you've got that art degree?  (These days, would it make that much difference, if it were a degree in accounting?  Maybe only marginally)

I also had a very early focus, or insight, about the idea of my being an artist -- even though, at the time, I really didn't know what that meant.  One particular childhood event stands out, in this regard.

My principal artistic expression, when I was seven, was filling up coloring books I would buy with my stained allowance every Saturday.  Most of the books were taken from the latest Disney cartoon feature -- Lady and the Tramp had just come out, I saw Alice in Wonderland and loved the talking flowers, and my father and another man took me to see Peter Pan.  I would lavish endless effort on these pictures -- I think I bought the Lady and the Tramp book more than once, I so loved coloring in the round gold tag that hung from her turquoise dog collar.

I also had drawing assignments in school -- I've talked about Miss Winkler and the Life Magazine illustrations she brought in, for us to look at and use as examples for our own work.  I was intrigued by the deep-sea creatures, living down where there's no natural light, gleaming with their own ghostly phosphorescence.  The grim hatchet fish fascinated me, with their huge jaws full of nasty sharp teeth.  I recall a large undersea picture I worked on for three weeks in school; when I brought it home, my mother put it in the front hall closet, where it ended up on the floor, under the boots.

But now, The Event.  One afternoon my mother and I were visiting a neighbor.  We were sitting in her kitchen.  There was a red-and-white checked cloth on the table, and a large bird cage, with either a canary in it, stood nearby.  The grown-ups talked about what they talk about.  I was looking very closely at both the table cloth and the bird in its cage.  Looking very, very closely.  And then, it came to me, like a little inner sunrise -- in the real world, in real life, there aren't black lines around everything!  I can still vaguely recall the surge of excitement that must have risen up, when this thought formed in my head.

Of course, everybody knows this, I suppose -- but my point, in telling this little story to Frank, was that it's not the sort of thing a seven-year-old usually thinks about, in such deliberate terms.  To me, it points to an innate focus on the visual, a different level of intellectual focus, and a prefiguring of a life spent pursuing artistic interests.  But, did it bring with it a moral imperative?    

Much later, and many hundreds of miles away, I would spend hours up in the attic, where I slept, writing the word 'Artist' over and over again in one of my notebooks.  I would also write the names of famous artists, like Leonardo and Michelangelo, as though these names had an incantatory power that would seep through the white paper, and infect me with some wondrous artistic malady.  I never wrote my own name.  
At the time, I'd never met any practicing artists -- and this at a time when, say, Andy Warhol was still drawing shoes for newspaper ads, and such options were still viable.  The only exposure I'd had to 'real art' was during our Art Class field trips to Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum.  I used to get almost sick with excitement, just seeing the skyline open up as we got near Oakland.  And by far, the central experience of my art life to that point was seeing one of the earliest of the 'traveling blockbuster' exhibits -- a great collection of Vincent van Gogh's works.  I might as well have been hooked up to a car battery, I was so jolted by the raw power of these paintings, in person.  (Don't tell, but as these were the days before laser sensors, I took advantage of distracted guards on more than one occasion, and actually touched one or two pictures -- expecting, I think, that the paint would still be moist and pliant, it looked so alive and squirmy on the canvas.

van Gogh as an example.  Terrible.  I immediately entered my own, seemingly obligatory 'van Gogh   
period', working on small canvas-covered boards, with paints I bought, much to my parents' disapproval, at the art store right at the bus station in downtown McKeesport.  I dimly recall one particular city scape, a view up the alley behind our house, of some of the neighboring buildings.  As I worked, there seemed to be an urgent expressivity to this row of houses -- one squeezed between the others, and seemingly trying to make more room for itself.  I was so unnerved by what I then thought was work that was 'too good', that I stopped.

And, now that I think about it, I've been making and exhibiting artworks -- mostly drawings and paintings, with glass-centered sculpture coming later -- for almost fifty years.  How dogged.  How... faithful, if we're talking about something spiritual? 

And maybe it was just this doggedness that led me, in my talk with Frank, to wonder aloud about the usefulness of... still working?  It fills me with shame -- almost as though I've sneaked up behind my own back, during the commission of some obscene act -- to discover that I've been operating under the assumption that, eventually, there would be some tangible reward -- some resonance, some stature -- not world fame (those places are always already taken) -- some sense that, for viewers, this hasn't all been a waste of time.  I think I've always secretly hoped -- perhaps have even assumed -- that art would be my equivalent of basketball (have I said this before?), lifting me up from my unpromising surroundings and depositing me in a better place.

(When I was still teaching, at the art school in Philadelphia, I tried to put together a work book for creative folks -- a set of exercises and questions and suggestions and challenges that would, one way or another, keep that need to make things alive and well-nourished.  I thought a great deal about 'strategies', expecting that few if any of these young people would, after walking across the stage in their caps and gowns, find themselves in their own studios, doing their own work and earning a living from it.  As recently as two weeks ago, the idea of such a book resurfaced, as a matter of fact.  I wonder where I've left all my notes)

Frank is certain that this making of paintings is what he needs to be doing, at this point in his life.  And, for him, I couldn't agree more.  I mused about a TV special on the life of Joan Miro.  We were in the artist's studio, a converted horse barn.  In one of the stalls was a row of large canvases, filling the width of the opening.  There was just enough room for Miro to slip his hand in, flip through, and pull out the canvas he wanted for the day.  "This one," he said, placing it on the easel, "I've been working on for twenty years."  Frank thought that was pretty neat.

And when I first saw it, I thought it was pretty neat too.  Now, though, I'm not so sure.  While it's certainly possible, just on genetic terms, that I might survive, physically at least, for another twenty years, I have to admit (confess?) that the thought of making more and more ultimately unnecessary work fills me with shame and despair.  My efforts, to supply myself with one of those strategies I was certain I could cook up for my students, turn out cold and fruitless.  And I'm not looking for bill-board-level, solo show at the Louvre strategies.  I'm talking reasonable, middle-class, with dental, strategy.

Maybe I should have been more specific, all those years ago.  I have a former teaching colleague who openly and vociferously proclaims a personal goal of being 'a famous artist', and is well on the way to achieving this.  But when I wrote 'Artist', over and over again, in my notebook, in that attic dormer looking out over the burning night skies of McKeesport, I truly did not know at all what it meant, and I'm not sure I have that much greater grasp of the enterprise today.  And that spiritual or moral component of the enterprise -- does it have a shelf-life?  Is there a sell-by date on 'a calling'?  Because at this point in my life, continuing the effort of trying to figure it out, while apparently repeating the same mistakes, seems as silly as if I were to begin serious training as a gymnast, or an airline pilot.  I have the feeling that, in terms of this life-long, perhaps pointless struggle, all I may ultimately be able to count on, is having provided, for anyone who might be paying attention, a Grade A, Solid Sterling... bad example.       

©    2012           Walter Zimmerman

Black Plum - No! Tulsa Twilight - Si!

In spite of the fact that they say a conversation becomes boring the moment the topic turns to weather, I'll say it anyway -- withering heat.  I'm sitting in the sealed-up house, with a fan opposite me on the table, while I write and try to gear myself up for the test of installing the air conditioner in the bedroom.  It's not a difficult task; I'm mostly worried about marring the newly-painted window sill.  Which, as it's on the second floor, behind the fifty-foot-high yew tree, I doubt anyone on earth will ever see, until the house is painted again.  And the painter will never tell, I guarantee it.

Yes, the house has been painted, top to bottom -- it was a ten-day process, more or less -- it might have been a month, for all I know.  The only things I had to do were to move the recycling bins and the trash can out of the way, and sweep up some leaves that had accumulated by the side door -- the one we use on a regular basis.  The house had to be open, though, to give the painters access to all the doorway surfaces, and to make it possible for them to use the basement restroom, and the wash-up sink, for cleaning brushes and rollers.  I think we also ran a few extension cords into various outlets, when the sanding was in progress.  Which was fascinating -- it was like being at the dentist's, with the piercing whine and lower-pitched burring, but I could get up and walk around!  After a couple of hours of the steady grinding drone, I fell asleep.  Without Novocaine.

My major responsibility was to be on hand, in case a question came up (in which case I could show off my appalling Spanish) and to be here when the day's work was done, so the house wouldn't be left standing open just as the sun began to fall.  God forbid someone should walk in and begin to put things in order, if only to be able to decide what might be worth stealing.  I also realized, as the job progressed, that this was the first time I'd ever lived in a building that was being painted on the outside.  Interior painting I know about -- it would be the first thing we would do, when we'd made one of our regular household moves.  'You always said you wanted to be an 'artiste'', my father would inevitably say, in what he seemed to think was a joke, 'so here's a roller and some paint.  Get to work.'  Why did that perennial comment always give me a flash of shame, somehow?  I mean, it's not like he walked into the room with a sledge hammer and broke my ankles, but there was still a gratuitous meanness there somehow.

Oh, but back to the transformation of the outside of our house.  And the workers that were swarming all over it -- layers of ladders on one side and then on the other.  Clomping on the roof that wasn't squirrels for a change.  Old gutters coming down, broken panes of glass replaced.  The four fluted columns on the front porch stripped down to the bare wood, whereupon I realized that what I'd thought were probably some plywood imitation structures, cleverly joined to make a convincing vertical tube, were actually solid wood, tooled to have a slightly wider base than crown -- I could see the knots where the branches had been.  And knocking on the bare wood gave that satisfying 'clonk' of respectability.  They could actually hold something up, if it came to that.

There was our one moment of panic -- and I wish I were exaggerating -- when the trim color was first applied to the front door sill, and the living room window sill too.  On the window, it didn't look so bad, but at the door it looked lurid and candy-like -- akin to grape kool-aid (is that a trademark?).  I tried to calm the queasiness in my stomach, assuring myself that, from across the street, it wouldn't look quite so ridiculous.  Then John saw it, and reacted even more strongly than I had, and I realized that, no, I wasn't imagining things -- it really was that bad.  So we had to ask the painters to stop, while we adjusted the trim color.  We looked through the paint chip sampler, and found an ever-so-slightly darker, less glossy purple-brown, and settled on that.  Me apologizing all the while, feeling like the ultimate suburbanite, with yet another First World problem -- like not being able to find fresh raspberries at the market, or discovering that my eyelashes were too long.  While most humans are spending their day looking for clean water within a day's walk.

First World or not, the painters were placidity itself; they got the new paint mixed, and let us see a sample of it, beside the original choice, and -- hey presto! -- we were back on track.  Except for the window sills that had to be repainted, for a minimal additional fee.  Now, though, it's as we had envisioned -- to the casual passers-by, the house looks white with black trim, but on a closer look, that 'black' looks just a little more alive.  I was so thrilled by how well it all turned out (well, one column has to be repainted), and so moved by the improvement, that I cleaned out my underwear drawer.

Tomorrow, another crew will show up (in this heat!), to install new gutters along the front of the house, and part of the back.  Compared with the painting, this should be a snap.  But, with the outside of the house looking so spiffy, I'm concerned by the generous amount of flaking I see on the living room ceiling -- oh dear.  Which flaking is happening (as I discovered when we painted the music room, to make it ready for John's new piano) because the ceiling has only been painted twice, and the original paint is oil-based, and the newer layer is latex, which just doesn't stick over the long run.  So it's scraping all the old paint off, and at least two coats of primer, before we repaint, to make it look as though nothing has happened at all.  I don't expect that I'm going to be able to pull any clever Tom Sawyer-like tricks, to rope in unwitting help -- all my adult friends are far too smart for that, and the children I know are too short.  And in all likelihood, the project will be expanded, to include the front stairwell, and upstairs hallway.  My back is already sore, and that's just from thinking about it.

©  2012        Walter Zimmerman    

Sunday, June 17, 2012


Feeling bland today, in spite of the gorgeous weather, and the fact that I have more or less nothing on earth to do.

Which, of course, doesn't mean there aren't things that need to be done -- far from it.  In fact, on my last little tour across the street, where I can see the newly-painted house, and savor the 'just-right-ness' of the trim John and I finally chose -- not black, but so dark that the casual passer-by would probably register it as black.  While in fact, the color contains just a hint of reserved warmth, a very faint implication of a pulse under the dark exterior.  How distant, how romantic -- anyway, from across the street, I noticed something glinting down by the chimney, among the old leaves from last year, and some trampled rose stems. 

There lay four old storm windows, forgotten by the clean-up crew, who were supposed to stow these back by the garage, with all the others.  And as I looked at these old windows, most probably destined for the town dump, I found myself thinking about... making art.  What would it be like, I wondered, if I were to break these windows out of their frames, and assemble all the resulting shards in one of the baby buggies I've salvaged from here and there over the years?  One such -- a miracle of luxury engineering, with three handsome spoked wheels -- is lying on its side in the driveway this very minute.  I'm reminded of the work of Donald Lipski (just had to spend fifteen minutes searching for his name, as my mind is turning to cheese while I type), who seems to specialize in combining untoward items into possibly eloquent hybrids -- a wheel chair, for instance, comfortably holding an old glass crucible that still has a pool of self-annealed blue glass at its bottom.  A baby buggy filled with broken glass?  That would certainly raise some hackles here in Mommy-ville.   And I think there was another astonishing piece, by Michale Scheiner, from a number of years ago now, which he made apparently just from large, irregularly-shaped panes of glass, somehow joined into a great ominous floor-bound cloud, that managed to look both airy and threatening, as though it might collapse into thousands of shards, just when it was my turn to make sure the exhibit hall stays clean.

It's so easy, germinating these ideas -- they crop up lavishly, most of the time, like those pale inedible mushrooms out on the front lawn.  But, as I've been saying recently, I don't find all of this as interesting as I might have, say, thirty years ago (!).   It's not a matter of lacking the energy -- how much work would it take, after all?  I mean, the materials are within a yard of each other, and all I need is maybe two or three tubes of clear silicone, and -- hey presto -- another wonderful thing that everyone will tell me how much they love, and then I'll have to figure out how to get the damned thing into the van and then down into the Newark storage space. 

Is there a moral question here?  Is there an ethical issue I'm missing?  As an artist, am I obliged to obey, if you will, the creative voice I so often hear (if, indeed, that's what that voice actually is.  Maybe it's a landlord's voice, taking the roundabout way of forcing me to rent the other half of his leaky basement?)  If I refuse to listen, who am I, after all?  Because I have, more or less willingly, taken on the 'persona' of the artist -- without, it must be said, understanding what that title entails -- am I under some sort of obligation, to continue to produce things, even in the face of fiscal impotence and general indifference?

Anyway, there it is.  A heap of glass.  A baby carriage -- far better built, I think, than the first car I owned.  And there's also a pile of copper gutter, painted white numerous times, but now folded over on itself, in great bony lengths -- I 'saw' another expressive conglomeration, as I was looking down on all this from my second-floor bathroom window:  A free-standing black-pipe support structure (this, in spite of my vow never ever to use black pipe again, because no matter how much I tighten it, it always comes loose again, the treacherous stuff...), and hanging from this, a clump of the copper, white paint still in place, and partly wrapped in plastic, with some glass pod-shapes interspersed, kind of like the odd kidney or spleen...  Sort of a cut-rate, anemic John Chamberlain rip-off (may he rest in peace).  I sort of like the idea of working with the copper, because it's so malleable, because I understand it, and because it has this almost magical, alchemical allegiance with glass, in that the two materials expand and contract at pretty much the same rate, at similar temperatures.  Making the two uniquely compatible, on a physical level.  And I like the idea of making expressive work that's taller than I am -- it makes it seem less incidental, harder to overlook.  (To say nothing of the inevitable struggle with transportation.  I will say no more)

Well, perhaps this week, while John is out of town at a music convention, I'll finally take myself down to the basement, where I've been working for the past year or so, and delve into the inevitable task of cleaning up.  Like the worst imaginable case of atherosclerosis, the little pathway through which I negotiate, from the bottom of the stairs, back past the furnace, and over to the table where my old computer used to sit, until it irrevocably froze up (was it all the shellac I spattered over it?  Why didn't it tell me, for heaven's sake?), like this artery, I repeat, this path has grown so narrowed and twisting -- even though it runs barely twenty feet -- that I need to get it back under something like control.  Who knows how many box cutters I'll find?  How many rolls of electrical tape, or the many other items of which I seem to have multiples, because I can't keep track of their predecessors?  Maybe I'll be cleaning because I'm getting ready for another round of making useless, disgusting things; maybe I'll be cleaning because I've decided, on some level, to pretend that I'm already dead, and I'm just being more polite than most dead people, who leave things in such disarray.   I prefer doing these things when John's away, because, oddly enough, I don't seem to feel entitled to do them when he's at home and might need something.  It's the remains of that protective coloration I learned so long ago -- if I look like I'm not doing anything, at least I'm not doing anything wrong -- when the house is empty, I become like the little mice that come out to see what nourishment might have been dropped on the floor.

So, I guess I"ll think of this period as something like a hiatus -- I think I'm going to disengage the 'make things' gear system, and see what my life looks like to the casual observer.  What would a stranger do, confronted with a supposed guest room upstairs, that holds at least three virginal sets of fine oil paints, pencils and pens without number, and a dazzling array of really good paper -- possibly enough to cover Connecticut, if everyone would hold still?  How would you react, in fact, reaching the top of the attic stairs, and seeing spread before you the sum of thirty years and more of obsessive drawing -- piles of drawings, none finished; piles of notebooks, none with any but the first few pages on either end marked to any extent; piles of fabric, some loosely organized by color, others just stacked every which way?  One lone Singer sewing machine, ironically named the Sparta, off at the far end of the floor, under a sheet of plastic to keep off the dust. 

What would a stranger do, whether I were that stranger or not? 

What, if anything, would that stranger expect to happen, next?

©  2012                                  Walter Zimmerman

Saturday, June 16, 2012

With Your Kind Permission...

It's funny, how these things arise, I think.  For instance...

Yesterday, while the painters were working away, getting nearer the completion of painting the outside of our house, I occupied myself in a more or less desultory manner (I love 'desultory' -- it should taste like olives, I think), by putting away some clean laundry upstairs.  As has happened more than once, one of the suspended baskets holding my tee-shirts has come loose -- because it's overloaded, because I won't take the time to pull everything out of the closet and weed through my clothes.  It seems that I would prefer to curse myself each time I squeeze an extra shirt in here or there, hoping things won't let go...  Until they do.

Standing there, with still more tee-shirts to put away, into an already lop-sided shelf of clothes, I suddenly wake up to the connection here, between this stubborn inability to take even simple actions on my own behalf, and a more general, overall indecision with which I live much of the time.

(Clothes, of course, are more complicated than, for instance, newspapers, or a plateful of chicken bones.  Clothing, with traces of physical intimacy, ties to my past, and I can't believe that I don't have to keep the shirt around, because I remember where I wore it once.  But like a car skidding on thin black ice, even though I set myself out with a clear, unencumbered destination in mind, I usually find myself off on a side road, slightly dizzy, surrounded by heaps of old garments, and not sure of where the time went) 

But there's another element involved in the decision-making, that I don't think I've really considered, to my own amazement (being, I think, the most exhaustively self-examined person of my age in the solar system)  (For all the good it's done, I also think); and that is the issue of permission.  Specifically, what am I allowed to do?  What am I supposed to do?  What am I not allowed to do?  And how will I know the difference?

I think, inevitably, about my particular up-bringing -- the negligence with which my mother treated my brothers and me, while she planned her escape from a marriage that wasn't as romantic as all the songs and movies had promised.   Institutional living, with its leaden suppression.  Life with my father's second family, and the even more specific, relentless application of rules and regulations, time-tables and immutable standards.

In a classic fictional account of such a life, the shift from an orphanage to an actual parent's home would be accompanied by a like shift in the theme music -- playing now in a major key -- as well as a brightening of the color palette, and a more generally upbeat tempo to things in general.  But because the playwright in question was apparently on a coffee break or something, the lives my brothers and I were destined to live didn't conform to cliche, and if anything, in my father's house, there was a more severe and all-searching quality to the discipline under which my brothers and I lived.  And 'normal' quickly becomes that to which one has become inured.

Understand, please, that I'm not complaining here, because my brothers and I weren't allowed to run rampant through the house, screaming and setting things on fire.  What I found oppressive, then and now, was the constant surveillance, the expectation that we were going to misbehave at any moment, and what I still think were unreasonable demands made on little kids.  Using the wrong door, to enter the house, earned a screaming fit of accusation.  We weren't permitted to play with other kids, or have them in our house.  We were criticized for how loudly we chewed our food; we were regularly reminded that we hadn't been wanted by our original family; we had to ask permission to wear certain items of our clothing; laughing or making jokes (who would think we'd be able to?) were forbidden; we were kept busy mostly with either homework or household chores, year-round.  Because I couldn't tell my parents, precisely, every place I would be, if I went to hang out with my friends, I was never permitted to do so.  And, hovering over this mesh of control, like some deformed parade float, was the palpable threat -- already realized once for each of us -- that if we misbehaved, we would be sent right back to the Home.

Maybe it wasn't so much lack of permission that stunted me, as the extinction of hopeful expectation?  

After I'd completed high school, and spent the following summer working in a disreputable local amusement park, I entered the US Air Force, where I spent four years, following still more orders, whether I liked them or not.  Aside from that first truly bad haircut, revealing me to have an unattractive, oddly lumpy skull, the military was a life-saver for me.  The control had home had been relentless and degrading, punctuated with exclamations of impatience and scorn; in the military, the order of the day was refreshingly impersonal.  A job could be done without a corrosive follow-up examination, sure to uncover hidden flaws and overlooked details, which only an idiot would have missed.  You get the idea.

But there was still the matter of needing permission -- permission to leave the base, permission to wear civilian clothing, limitations to what I might want to do and where I might want to go.  Early on in my Air Force career, while my pre-training group was awaiting the beginning of our computer classes, I openly expressed some puzzlement and frustration about having to spend such long portions of each morning picking up cigarette butts, and then the rest of the day marching around pointlessly.  I even expressed the suspicion that the cigarette butts were imported, and scattered over the grounds at night, just to give us something pointless to do the next day -- because, after one day of 'policing' the grounds, I couldn't believe that any airman sufficiently conscious to light a cigarette would then go and toss the butt on the ground.

This bit of independent thinking led to my taking a battery of psychological tests at the base hospital (during which time, I couldn't help noticing, I wasn't picking up cigarette butts).  I did an elaborate drawing for a classic diagnostic tool, the 'house-tree-person' test.  I put captions in the speech balloons of simple cartoons, like the one in which a man's jacket has been splashed by a woman driving past in her car.  I could have taken tests for months.  I wanted to see if I could get the man in the wet jacket and the woman in the car go start going out with each other.  But the battery of examinations ended too soon, and then I had to face the results.

This is really true, by the way.

I was given an appointment, and at the proper time, I entered a doctor's office in the hospital -- someone I hadn't met yet.  He was probably in his 30's, with a florid, sunburnt face, buzz-cut strawberry-blond hair, and bright blue eyes.  He was wearing his dress blues for the day, which meant a blue oxford-cloth shirt and a dark blue necktie, under his white lab coat.  Sitting in a chair across from his desk, watching him look through the folder on his desk, I thought he looked familiar somehow.  As I was trying to place him, the doctor said that, according to the tests, the Air Force wouldn't be good for me.  Before I had the time to feel too smug about that, he added that, conversely, I wouldn't be good for the Air Force.  Which felt more like what I would have expected, really.

"And if you like," he said, leaning forward, in his white coat and blue shirt, with his shining, coppery hair and bright eyes, "we can arrange for you to get out of the service, as soon as you like."

Of course, I thought -- this doctor is the American flag, just... rearranged a little.  That's why I recognize him.  And he's saying I can go home.  And the thought paralyzes me.

Don't we all wish there were some channel down which we could shout to ourselves, from time to time -- forward or backward, who care?  Because if there were, I would bust my lungs, yelling to my younger, 18-year-old self, sitting at that desk in Amarillo Texas, opposite an animated flag -- and I would be screaming just one word -- Paris!

But for the moment, all I could feel was failure, the defeat of not even managing to make a go of something as elementary as the military, where you wear the same clothes as everyone else, and marching around pointlessly.  All I could manage to see, in my mind's eye, was me, packing my few civilian clothes into a suitcase I'd had to borrow from my horrid grandmother, and then getting on a bus in downtown Wichita Falls, headed for Pittsburgh.  Then I'd transfer to the 109 for McKeesport, disembark by the art supply store that smelled of oil paints, walk the mile or so up the hill, and go into the house.  From where, within a week at the most, I knew I would jump to my death from the Ravine Street Bridge, like that breathtakingly beautiful high-school colleague of mine had done, just months before.   If he couldn't face the life that was ahead of him, I reasoned, when he was so stunning, and a real young man, instead of what I knew myself to be, what chance in hell did I stand?

Well, my parents would never have allowed me to go to Paris anyway, even if it wasn't really theirs to permit or disallow.  I was so inured to the collar they'd prepared for me that I was less like a son, and more like a fox that had long been caged.  And, once released from my current military commitment, I knew that, like the beaten creature I was, I would almost automatically scent my way back, because I missed the cramping, and my bowl of food, and the dish of water.

Now, please don't get me wrong -- my life has been a wonder, with many amazing things in it, and many thrilling achievements, and exciting adventures.  Compared to most of the inhabitants on this tiny planet, I live like a prince.  Maybe it's ungrateful of me to bring these inward things forward, but for now, I can't help be amazed at the depth of the imprinting that was done, all that long time ago.  So that, really, for a long time after I began to live on my own, if I was having lunch out, I would strive to guess what the waitress wanted me to order.  Gaining permission, dreading the discovery that I've made a mistake, pleasing the closest human -- these are habits that continue to impact to my daily interactions, from the time I enter a room until I leave it again.  To fall back again on metaphor, I finally begin to see how the past continues evidence itself, practically on a physical level.  It's as though, when I was ten, I was fitted with a snug, open-work leather corset that I was never permitted to remove.  So I grew, and I grew, and finally like a tree, I grew out beyond it and around it.  And it's still in there, inseparable from the way I breathe.

The challenge now, I'm surprised to find myself saying, is to learn -- however late in the program it might be -- to dance in spite of the stricture.

©   2012             Walter Zimmerman      

Friday, June 15, 2012

Talkin' 'Bout Ballast...

As the house painting winds down, and John and I agree that the trim color we agreed on is... well, we just can't have it.  (Such a First World problem, I know)  So I'm waiting for the company rep to stop by, and see how much more it will cost us to have a house that we can stand to think about people driving past, on their way to someplace else, in such a hurry that it'd be a miracle if they noticed our house at all.  But still...

And I've been thinking of this and that, as I watch the pile of detritus at the back of the driveway grow larger, rather than smaller, while the house painting project lumbers along.  We're having the gutters replaced, and I insisted on saving the old ones, because God only knows I don't have quite enough stuff with which to clutter my life.  The old storm windows have come off too -- they were attached years ago because the original windows were so drafty, but are now superfluous because of our brand-new, energy-efficient, (we hope) self-insulating double-paned windows; these old panes are all stacked against the pile of old gutters.  Beneath which, is the stuff I myself piled in the driveway about two summers ago, when, with a second basement flood, I at least had an acceptable excuse.  Plus it was raining cats and dogs while I was piling, so who was going to say anything to me?

I've also been making very very very faint-hearted attempts at shifting the bulk of this stuff from the driveway to Newark.  (Most of you know this already. Talk among yourselves while I repeat myself)  The last time I was in Newark (which makes me hear 'The Last Time I Saw Paris...'), as I brought maybe two armloads of this'n'that down into the space, I looked around to see where and how I might be able to install some sort of wall spaces, or other storage options, that would allow me to get my collection up off the floor, and arranged so I can actually see what's there.  The only drawbacks to this plan being (a) expense, in terms of material; (b) expense, in terms of energy, both physical and emotional; and (c) the fact that, once all my materials have been arranged so I can look at them, I will actually have to look at them.  I could impose a 'dark glasses in the studio' rule, but I know I'd only be fooling myself.

Bringing me to today's series of thoughts.

For one thing, what looks like a collection of random junk to any normal person who takes the time to stop at the far end of our driveway, and tries to discern what's tucked away under all those worn out blue plastic tarps back by that sad-looking garage, is for me the equivalent of a few compelling notes scribbled on many, many bits of staff paper, or a thousand quick sketches in a shelf filled with notebooks.  I don't have much trouble at all, I'm sad to say, remembering what each and every oddment was going to produce, when I was certain that I would unquestionably have the time to make the work.  (In the case of hoses and tubes, this isn't so much the case; but they're so useful generally, that they can be excused) Which means that, as I make the effort to weed through things, some of which I can't help saving for yet a while longer, while others I can chuck into the van, for a trip to the town dump, I'm admitting a sour defeat, regarding the work that will never be realized.  Dropping the things off also has a mixed resonance -- a vague, unconvinced pride at having actually accomplished something on the day in question; a feeling of guilt, at abandoning something to which I made a silent promise to put to a better use than it was serving when I found it; and the cold hand of death, as always.

Surely, this predicament isn't odd, is it?  Surely, for every famous sculptor whose name and work has graced the covers of international art magazines, and has commanded solo shows in renowned museums on several continents, there must be hundreds more artists, at the very least, who reach a certain point in their lives when they have to stand up, stretch from their labors, and realize that the sour taste in the mouth is not welding fumes, but rank failure.

I recall being urged, when I was in school, to read the lives of other artists, as a bolstering kind of guidance, I guess.  The specifics behind the urging weren't generally forthcoming.  No more than the clarification that, when I was reading about those other artists, it was understood that I would be reading about famous and successful artists.  With the possible exception of van Gogh and Modigliani, whose stark personal tragedies seem somehow to be treated as exceptions proving the rule.  Which rule seemed to be that good hard work and discipline was all that was needed, in order to stand up there next to Rembrandt or Donatello or Henry Moore and Joan Miro.

And those successful artist biographies would, indeed, have been helpful and instructive, if instead of aesthetic issues and theories, they had covered the patronage, the sales, the gallery representations, the family fortunes that made earning a living beside the point.  As Oscar Wilde is credited with saying, 'When bankers get together, they talk about art.  When artists get together, they talk about money.'  It's the great aerosol support that is both omnipresent, and ignored.  And I, more than many, have been blessed with a supportive partner for most of my creative life -- and it still hasn't been quite... enough...

So now, it seems, it would be far more helpful to have, at hand, a stack of biographies of well-meaning, well-trained, talented and disciplined artists, whose luck simply didn't lead them to the prominence that they might have hoped to achieve.  Because I'd like to know --  at what point, exactly, does one give in?  Is it an all-or-nothing proposition, or can one safely go on dragging out the inevitable defeat, as long as one can afford to make payment on a studio to which one can no longer climb, one's knees being what they are, after all?  I've been around a few folks who were well aware that their earthly days were numbered, and in terms of years, they weren't in double digits any more, and these people were quite frank and open about giving their possessions away.  Not needed anymore.

But these folks were mostly giving away books and furniture and pieces of costume jewelry.  I have, stuck in my esophagus, a great stubborn hook of hope, I guess, that pulls at me when I offload a pile of screening, or some shelves, or... well, pretty much any art-related materiel.  In some real ways, I hate this hoping, as I've said before -- it makes me feel pathetic and ridiculous, like a seventy-year-old showing up with tap shoes, to audition for a place in a chorus line.

And what do I do about all the glass that I've made?  I was so pleased, when we were finally unpacking here in South Orange, to look back at incontrovertible evidence of how hard and how much I'd worked, while I had an ongoing and active access to hot glass facilities.  Now...  What on earth will I do with these mounds of blistered, non-functional stuff?  These will really be painful to discard -- like taking a dull potato peeler to my skin, I would imagine.  Where do I leave it?  In a heap under a highway overpass in Newark?  Giving 'The Last Time I Saw Newark' an even more gruesome connotation.

I could well be working right now (after I've cleaned up the little pathway I've left for myself in the basement, so I'll be able to get from one place to another without falling over, but still...).  I have plenty of materials, and sufficient time, and enough strength and energy at present.  But I don't have the heart for it.  The act of artmaking, for the first time that I can recall, seems foolish, and a great waste of time.  I'm reminded of a bakery shop I know of, on Greenwich St. in NYC, close to Christopher St. -- its windows always filled every day with trays of luscious fresh-baked goodies, all manner of colorful fillings and creamy toppings -- and I'm sure that, every day, much if not all of this supremely desirable foodstuff is simply given away, or tossed into the garbage.  I am reluctant to admit how angry it makes me, to think that, having given my best, I will have succeeded only in creating a more puzzling load of trash for the trash collectors to deal with, on some Tuesday or Friday in the foreseeable future.        

Where do all the failed artists go?  The broken ballerinas?  The orchestral musicians for whom there will never be any chair with their name on it?  Why is it that, today, I seem so certain that, in their stories, maybe more than in the wild tales of household-name successes, lie some grim human treasures -- the remains of unsuccessful sea voyages, found centuries later -- that might, even in their sadness, cast a dim but reassuring light on my struggles -- telling me that it wasn't totally wrong or bad or stupid to hope; nor was it wrong or bad or stupid -- nor easy, nor pleasant -- to reach the end of hoping.  

PS -- please be assured -- this entry isn't a complaint about insufficient fame.  It would be nice, though, to have achieved what the slightly above-average insurance adjustor, or master plumber, aspires to -- say, a nice middle-class existence, with dental. 

©   2012               Walter Zimmerman