Thursday, July 19, 2012


Because my last post was so difficult, and because this other matter has been on my mind, I thought I'd take a little side-trip (again) before I finish up the overview of my military career.

This may also be a repeat of something I've already written -- I can barely get myself to put these words out there, let alone re-read my blogue posts.  If this begins to sound familiar, go watch some reruns on TV.  That's what I would do.

Years ago, while I was completing a month-long art-making residency in Buffalo NY, at Hallwalls, I was lucky enough to meet and get to know Ron Ehmke (em-key, stress on first syllable), archivist and general administrative genius.  I was flattered and amused that, when reviewing some of my work, he observed a distinct disconnect between my public persona, and the relentlessly dark work I made at the time (it's only gotten worse, by the way).  And as I know I've mentioned, I shared with him my reservations about my journal writing -- how un-literary it was, how filled with petty complaints.  He laughed and said that all diaries and journals are, by nature, whiny.  I heaved a sigh of (temporary) relief.

But that relief doesn't mean that I enjoy the thought of seeming like some spoiled brat who's upset because the chocolate milkshake isn't cold enough.  And they made it with chocolate ice cream, instead of coffee, like I ordered.  So I want to try to be more specific about what I think I'm doing with all of this...

As usual with me, even this attempt at clarification will be orotund and indirect.  Get a sandwich.

When I was a little boy, in Illinois in the 1950's, grocers and butchers and bakers still used thin white cotton twine, to secure a package of pork chops, or a boxed pie, or anything else that seemed to need a little extra security.  One of my favorite things, as a seven-year-old, was to find a bundle of this string, all seemingly irretrievably knotted up, and then sit alone and carefully, diligently loosen the tangle, until I had the whole string freed of its snarls.  What I did with the untied string after that, I have no idea.  It was the untying that was the point.

And, in a way that reminds me of a lesson from a fairy tale, I learned that pulling hard on that string, out of frustration or impatience, would only make the knots smaller and tighter.  Where, if I was gentle and patient, and kind of massaged the central bundle of string, I could coax things to unwind.  It worked almost all the time.  I enjoyed the process deeply.

From the perspective from which I'm currently observing it, my own life seems to be very much like one of those tangles of string.  Some of the knots I recognize.  Some of them I remember tying myself.  Some are buried so deeply that I can barely feel their buried presence, under the outer layers of snarls and twists and confusion.

Another digression.  (Maybe I have an Italian soul?  I've been told that, in Rome, the shortest distance between two points is an elaborately twisted, curving spiral)

During another art-making residency, I was speaking with a wonderful writer, Robin Rice.  As so often happens in these instances, Robin was fascinated by the gruesome story of my childhood, which led me to make the completely obvious and unoriginal observation that we are all wounded somehow, and that we all suffer.  Then I found myself stumbling upon a newer realization: that, for the greater part -- to the extent that I can know this -- I feel that I have actually been fortunate in my woundedness.  That I am essentially whole, physically (maybe a bit moreso, with the addition of the little pacemaking device) and intellectually (or so I think), and that I have, often, managed to take what were misfortunes, and somehow to convert the emotional energies entangled them into either the motivation, or the inner guidance I needed at the time, in order to make work with the inner consistency and what I thought of at the time as emotional truthfulness.  There are times, while working on an emerging bit of work, when any old bit of red cloth will do; there are other times when, as far as I'm concerned, making an arbitrary choice fatally deflates that work's essential inner tension.  And in cases like these, rationality doesn't work with nearly the clarity as emotional recall, and the harnessing of past misfortune to do what I hope will be something positive this time.

Doesn't this sound more like an artist's statement, instead of what I'd been aiming for -- something more like the calm reflections of someone clinging to some wreckage after a boating disaster -- physically unharmed, provided by fortune with a bit of buoyant flotsam, and but still facing a certain blistering, thirsty death -- much, much sooner than later?

But back to the main thread again.  This psychic untangling isn't (I hope) just a kind of motor compulsion, like the person waiting in the doctor's office and incapable of sitting still.  What I hope to do is to uncurl the fortunate and unfortunate events, the events I experienced as a victim and the events I perpetrated as the villain, knots that signify important personal choices (why, for instance, did I refuse the offer of an introduction to Joe Papp, in the very early 1980's, after I'd done some theater work with a cousin of his in Rhode Island?  Did I really think this was 'cheating', when it was the result of a bit of solid theatrical work?) and knots marking my serious bout of strep throat in 1982, and my broken leg two years later.  And then (as if this were possible), when things are more or less tidily laid out, I want to see where I went wrong.

A theme in Tolstoy's 'War and Peace' spells out -- along with the whimsical nature of unfolding historical events, which he saw as impacted far more deeply by, for instance, the fatigue or inattention of a soldier on the front line, than by decisions made by tables full of generals --  the impossibility of any person's knowing, with any degree of certainty, just how that person's own life figures, either among contemporaries and or among the lives to follow.  (I should know for sure that he said this, having read the work at least three times, to prepare for recording the opus, and then once more to correct a pronunciation mistake I'd been too arrogant to check -- I'll never think of hussars in quite the same way again)  And yet, in spite of this clear (and frustrating) admonition -- made, I always remind myself, by an hereditary Russian nobleman, writing an enormous literary work following on the heels of 'Anna Karenina', among others, so how insecure of history could he be, realistically? -- at this point in my life I consider myself to have failed deplorably and irremediably, through a host of personal flaws and a mass of ignorance which has always been ready for my own personal use at any moment. 

Where did I go wrong?  In a biography of Marie Antoinette, written by British author Hillaire Belloc, a bit more than a century after her life was ended, we read what I found to be the breath-taking breakdown of a failure, by just fifteen minutes, of the King's escape vehicle to meet with and fall under the protection of a rescuing guard of horsemen.  Which (particular) fifteen minutes changed (this particular bit of) history.  In my own microscopic-level experience of human life on earth, I suspect that there have been quite a few such slips and omissions, missed connections and unanswered phone calls, unwitting blunders and lapses in manners.  And I feel the need to balance these against the assurances, from many people, that I 'could do anything you want.', to quote my high-school art teacher, Leonore Weaver. 

As from others.  My eighth-grade teacher, Howard Mayfield, an intellect squandered in a back-country school outside of Pittsburgh, called me 'George'; he said I was another George Westinghouse, not another Walter Pidgeon.  I did flourish in the classroom, with ease in fact.  This led, of course, to the scornful, sneering chorus I heard at home, for some seven years of my young life -- "You think you're better than everyone else."  Well, judging by the only standards that I knew, in the only environment in which I spent as much time as I did at home, I was better (scholastically speaking) than (nearly) everyone else.   I was singled out, with some coarse, barked verbal abuse during basic training, because my aptitude test scores, which would determine my career field, could barely have been higher.  My scores on the language aptitude tests were so high that I could have claimed a passing score, and then divided the left-over points between two friends, to give them passing scores too.  (I didn't go to language school because I didn't have the then-current address of the airman with whom my mother had run off after my parents' divorce.  Hardly Louis XVI's fifteen minutes, but still...)  If all these scholastic achievements had been bankable, I would have entered young adulthood comfortably solvent.  But of course...

On the creative front, too, I've done better than might have been expected.  I had great credibility, among my peers during my undergraduate years, as both an artist and an actor, but my applications for graduate study weren't successful -- because in one case, as I was told by an official in a position to know, because I had been the protege of an unpopular member of the art faculty, his teaching colleagues would do nothing to gratify my professor in any fashion.  One way or another, I've continued pursuing some means of creative expression or another -- I even managed to make art on the copier machines at Morgan Stanley, and joined a group called (mouthful alert) The International Society for Copier Artists.  With printed editions in libraries around the globe.  I got an Equity card within six months of moving to New York, and joked that it just made it possible for me to be rejected by a better class of people.

And then, of course, there was the glass adventure.  To show for which, on the material level, I have in my attic, boxes filled with hundreds of the 'Chihuly' catalog, from my little show at the Everson Museum, in Syracuse NY, in 1997.  Plus innumerable pieces of blown glass, on shelves practically everywhere I look.  Except for the refrigerator.  

And then, of course, there was the brief, semi-accidental, semi-gratifying, semi-embittering college teaching career.  To show for which, on the material level, I have a couple of very nice watches.  Which, as it happens, were not awarded, in appreciation of anything, by anyone.   

So, whiny whiny whiny whiny -- I think the underlying mission on which I've embarked in this writing is as follows: The Discovery, If Possible, of the (Probably Many Places) Where I Went Wrong.  I'm not remotely hoping for a course-correction, or the discovery of a radical new dietary supplement, or the belated emergence of a long-lost, stupidly generous and wealthy-as-Croesus blood relative.  This all feels to me, now, as a kind of pre-mortem autopsy -- the examination of a life that just happens to be still residually warm from use, but from which we can only hope, at this point, to make forensic discoveries.  Sorry if this offends, or flies in the face of the support granted by my more-than-long-suffering spouse, and my attendant, admittedly more than adequate material privileges,  but as I've already observed (and continue to think is true), depression eats logic and wealth, luck and stamina, faith and intellect, all with equal relish, and with no apparent loss of appetite. 

So I'm setting my sights on what I think I can manage, realistically -- and I like the pre-mortem autopsy idea.  Sounds kind of like Law'n'Order lingo, with a twist.  I have the distinct impression that, by the time I've poked through the greater part of the remains, there'll be no one else left in the room, taking notes.  Can't say I blame you.  Close the door any way you like.

©       2012             Walter Zimmerman

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