Thursday, February 28, 2013

So Near, And Yet So Far...

Worn out, from so much dawdling...

This was supposed to be a day of ferocious creative productivity.  I have my list of steps that need to be taken, in order to bring this new item to completion, and lists like these usually serve as a kind of prompt -- there's always something I can do, while the latest coat of paint is drying, or the hot glue is cooling off enough, so I can shape it the way I like. 

But today, not so much.  I managed, rather reluctantly, to drag myself downstairs, and could bear to spend maybe fifteen or twenty minutes, dabbling away at one thing or another, and then I had to take a break.  A long break.  Maybe half and hour, or forty-five minutes.  During which time I also managed to watch a great deal of TV (most of which I'd already seen before), and maybe think about either making another pot of coffee, or drinking another cup of the coffee I'd just convinced myself I needed to make, in order both to avoid doing any of the real creative work I'd set out to do, and to fuel myself for doing the real creative work...

Still, I did manage to add yet another complete layer of thick latex paint to the cart portion of this work.  I did manage to make a final selection of the seven dark pieces of glass that will hand, suspended, like a bunch of malign grapes, between the top shelf of the cart, and the plastic bin of dried paint that I'm so excited about using.  I attached metal fittings to these pieces of glass, to make it possible to take the work apart, for easier and safer transportation. And I've begun adding a layer of hot glue, around these metal fittings (really, the metal connectors electricians use to bring wires into a circuit box -- for some reason, the openings in my glass pieces are just right for attaching these objects), to create a more organic shape, and to imply a kind of fleshy fatness to these pieces. 

And tomorrow -- secure the wheels; coat of shellac; attach top shelf somehow; begin arranging all the tubing that I'll need; when the shellac's dry, throw on the first coat of thinned-down latex paint; begin arranging the hanging group of glass thingies -- it must be maddening, reading about all of this, and not being able to see what I'm talking about.  Perhaps only slightly more maddening that having to deal with these things in real life, I think.

When I used to do a lot of writing, I noticed that, every time I began a new piece, I was always somewhat surprised and annoyed that there was so much work involved.  It seemed that, no matter how many stories I concocted, I would always forget how much work it had taken, to make that last story seem so effortless and natural. 

And I might say the same thing about the creative process in which I now find myself engaged, except that there's an added level of disinterest and cynicism that is, I think, new to the way I make things.  When I make things.  If I make things.  I'm allowing myself to be a good deal more... slap-dash, shall we say?  Less concerned with complete linear perfection, in something that's going to look old and abused anyway.  Less interested in how completely a coat of paint covers the last coat.  Sort of indifferent, really, about how the finished work will actually look -- maybe because I don't think it's going to be particularly challenging (except in the matter of tricking myself into doing some actual work, that is), and maybe because I've finally realized that the expectation of reward, which I've both carefully nursed, and kept hidden from myself, will only be disappointed, when my work is met by the viewing public.  Other artists will perhaps express some admiration; collectors will not seem to see what I've done, and will buy another half-dozen colorful paperweights, complaining all the while that there's nothing new in the glass art world.

I suppose that, at times, there's a kind of excitement and gratification, in this building of my sculpture, but mostly I spend a lot of time cursing, and cutting my fingers, and burning myself, and inhaling fumes from melting plastic (no lung cancer yet, it seems), and on and on...  Perhaps the fact that I've somehow discovered that this newest work is actually a kind of symbolic portrait of my mother, my sister, and the seven husbands (or is it eight?) they've had between them, has lent this work an undercurrent of nastiness and resentment that I've grown unfamiliar with, in the past couple of years.  In a way, making work about the physical toll of modern warfare, while grim, is easier for me, and less emotionally taxing, than this hopeless thing I'm constructing, for a hopeless exhibition opportunity...

Well, the month of March will begin soon, and I think I'll now turn my attention to washing the day's dishes -- usually a soothing activity for me, and beneficial, in that my fingernails always get so clean. I'll continue the struggle tomorrow, and Saturday, and part of Monday too, and Tuesday, until about 6 pm, when I'll decide whether or not to take this newest confection over to the bi-weekly critique group meeting.  I don't think I've ever taken work like this in, for them to see.  I'm pretty sure I'm the only artist there who's ever worked with blown glass, and I'll be interested in hearing what people have to say.

Actually, no I won't.  I'll just be feeling superior.  Maybe I should have given up creating for Lent.

(And maybe, if I can figure out whether it's possible, and then figure out how to do it, I can create some photos of this work, and add them to an upcoming post, you'll have a better idea of what I've been nattering on about.  You should be so lucky...) 

©       2013           Walter Zimmerman

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Creative Vectors, Again...

Oh my...

We had our first read-through of 'The Full Monty' this evening, at the Baird Center, down near the baseball fields in South Orange.  This, as the saying goes, is going to be... interesting.

At first, I thought we were all there to sign a treaty or something -- there was a great arrangement of tables and chairs, with white binders at each place -- could I be in the wrong room?  Was this a summit on nuclear disarmament, instead of a readthrough about a bunch of unemployed men taking their clothes off?

But of course it was the right place, and I ended up sitting in a corner with a bunch of left-handers.  I was interested, of course, in seeing just how much of a role I've got to play, and I hadn't heard all the music yet, nor did I really know how much difference there was, between the original movie, set in Birmingham England I think, and this Americanized version. 

I'm going to be onstage a fair amount, but I don't have an overwhelming number of lines -- nothing like the non-stop ranting I had to produce, as the Puritanical Judge Danforth, in last fall's production of 'The Crucible'.  I have one song -- actually a duet, but the two of us sing our own verses -- and then I'm kind of chorus for a couple other numbers.  The music is actually quite complex and challenging, I think -- I'm wondering how it's all going to come off.  And then, of course, there's all the choreography too.  I see long, long rehearsals in my future...

But the group seems congenial and warm, so I think it should be fine, overall.  My major concerns, right now, are the size of the stage (teensy), the proximity of the first row to the actors (thisclose), and the likelihood that the director is going to insist on more nudity than is called for in the script.  (I also think, if I remember correctly, that my character actually sings about having pimples on his butt?  I hope it's a nightmare scene, and I don't have to go around, in the scenes where we're less clothed than otherwise, with red dots all over my back end.  Oh, for the days when I used to be one of the leads, instead of a pimply character...

On other fronts, I actually made some actual progress on the piece of sculpture I seem to be committed to delivering and installing, at the WheatonArts Museum of American Glass, a week from tomorrow...  I wanted to continue painting the cart, and hoped to put on a coat of black gesso, but I couldn't find my black gesso -- no real surprise there, as the basement really might as well have been turned upside-down at this point.  I found another can of paint, and used that instead -- white, of course, and I still have to complete this coat, by turning the cart upside-down and making sure every surface is covered.  I'm still not sure which pieces of glass I want to use; I'm still not sure how level the cart actually is (if at all), and how I might be able to make it at least look more level than it may really be. 

I used to be kind of good at these things.  In this case, though, I'm kind of tempted to take the construction out into the driveway, and run it over with the van.  If I weren't afraid of doing damage to the tires, it would be difficult to talk myself out of it.  There being, in a way, a contradiction between the situations I like to imply or create, with my weird choice of materials, and how rock-solid and secure the underpinnings always are.  The closest I've gotten to something really expressive, in terms of support structures, was the cart-like object I made for my show at the GAS Gallery last year.  I decided to use plastic tubing instead of copper (well, the copper prices had sky-rocketed, plus I already have the plastic), and at first I was distressed that the plastic wasn't as rigid and self-supporting as I had expected it to be -- but then I decided that I liked the slight bulge and bend the piece took on -- it seemed more ominous and threatening.  As if the refrigerator were to begin listing forward at maybe fifteen degrees...

Back to the glass selection, for a moment -- I've brought in about twice as many pieces as I want to use, and I'm not really sure how I'm going to make up my mind.  I may just have to start working, and create the collection bit by bit, instead of all ahead of time, the way I prefer.  In spite of what I think I was saying yesterday (or was it the day before?) about hoarding favorite items for use in something better, there's a particular piece of glass I've hated since I made it, and I'm pretty sure it's going to be centrally-located in this work.  It's a bit on the thin side, and may already have a small crack in it (glass that isn't compromised gives a ringing 'ping' when struck by something like my wedding ring; anything with a crack in it sounds kind of thud-like and a bit dead), so I'm already bracing myself for the need to wrap the whole thing in some old terry-cloth towels, just to keep it from shattering.  I guess I could put some expandable foam in it, and see if that stabilizes it, but I haven't really left time for that kind of experimentation.

How impractical -- here I am, embarking on another (non-monetarily rewarding) theater experience, while I spend time and (I'm so thankful) minimal amounts of money for supplies, so I can make yet another piece of sculpture that people will ooh and aaah about, and then go buy a paperweight, like the other thousand they already own.  And then I'll have to go back down to Millville, retrieve my work (I'm thinking of pricing it at somewhere between $215 and $572), lug it back north here, and then try to figure out where the hell this thing is going to live.

It's kind of funny, in a totally unamusing way, that I should find myself in this unanticipated predicament.  I think of all the advice I was so free to distribute, when I was teaching; the problem of having no place to put the work one desires, more than anything, to create, isn't something I'd ever thought about -- in spite of the many many opportunities I've had, over the years, to stop and look at my seemingly ever-expanding collection of 'art materials', and wonder when I was going to reach an all-too-foreseeable limit.  I don't recall any fairy tales or legends or myths that cover this kind of territory.  Maybe King Midas, but somehow his problems don't really seem germane.  I think about death all the time -- about my death, specifically, of course -- and I work very hard to keep myself from imploding physically (how difficult I've been finding it, of late, simply to stand up straight.  I think I'm finally beginning to feel the burden of trying to walk upright, with gravity pulling at me relentlessly, for over sixty years), and here I sit, surrounded by a wealth of sheer artmaking stuff, and I can't seem to justify making the effort -- it just seems so stupid, even if it's also painful, if not immoral, to have stopped making things. 

I have the tiniest sliver of hope that, somehow, I'll round some emotional corner, and pick up more or less where I left off.  But at the same time, the notion of doing almost anything creative makes me feel sick to my stomach.  I talk a lot about behaving as though I've already died -- what if this isn't such a far-fetched idea after all?  What do musicians, or dancers, or actors do, when they run into an insurmountable physical blockade?  I've heard snippets of stories about Maria Callas, near the end of her life, sitting alone in an all-but empty apartment in Paris and listening over and over again to recordings of her operatic performances.  I might have been in my late twenties when I first heard about this, and I remember feeling a kind of contempt -- how self-indulgent.  How sad, in a not too smart way.  Now, of course, thirty-plus years later, the same image calls up far different emotions: empathy, dread, incredible sadness...

Well, dread and sadness or not, I'm going to continue doing a very bad job on this latest excursion into the laughable world of sculpture, and to hell with everything else.  At least with the theatrical endeavors, there's nothing to fold and put away -- nothing to hang up or wrap for safekeeping.  Poof -- it's like being a soap-maker, I guess, or a baker -- all the best and most beautiful creations are meant to disappear.  Maybe I should start making my work out of chocolate...

©      2013             Walter Zimmerman  

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Progress Report...

Slowly, very very slowly.  And not all that surely...

Today was to have been a heavy-duty work day, so I could make amazing headway with the new piece of sculpture I'm planning to deliver to the WheatonArts Museum of American Glass next week.  Hours and hours of uninterrupted creative time, at the end of which I would be able to stand back, amazed at my progress. 

Well, maybe not so very much.

I did get some actual work done -- a procedure that may or may not make any difference to anyone viewing the work, and probably doesn't give me enough of a visual bang to justify the labor-intensive process involved.  But would that stop me?  Oh, no...  I spent hours, wrapping lengths of hardware cloth around the cart's 3/4" copper tube structure.  When this is painted over and over (if I have the time), it tends to make the piece look as though it's made of rebar, although what I really like is just the additional texture this mesh provides, and the way the washes of thinned paint gather in all the little indentations between the mesh and the copper itself.  What I really don't like is working with the hardware cloth itself -- it's spiky and uncooperative, and after a couple of hours wrestling with this hateful material, my hands always look and feel as though vicious birds have been pecking at them with their sharp little beaks.  Tens of nasty little nicks.

But that part is, more or less, over, and I've thrown on a first coat of paint.  I usually use the mis-mixed paint from Home Despot, and I had a vast selection of these high-quality weird colors in the basement, but when we had all our flooding drama however many years ago it's been now, I moved all those cans of paint out into the garage, where they were to stay temporarily, until I had a chance to move them back into the basement again.  Which hasn't happened yet.  Which means that all that water-based paint has frozen and thawed and frozen again, over and over, and will be of no use to anyone, at least as far as painting goes.  So I picked up a couple of new cans of mistake paint last week, and opened the big can of dark brown, only to discover, upon beginning to stir it up, that it has the consistency of... maybe fudge?  Something quite viscous, and more like spackle than paint.  So I slathered some onto one section of copper, figuring I could at least see if it ever dries.  If it works, it'll sure be easy to build up a heavy layer of underpainting.  Then I used what I think is a more normal kind of paint for the rest of the cart, and then moved it to stand in front of a floor fan, to encourage rapid drying.

Then I began to gather the glass pieces I'm 'auditioning' for the work.  I brought in some pieces that have been lying in some plastic bins, in the driveway, for about as long as the latex paint has been enjoying the change of seasons in the garage.  Now that we've had a bit of a thaw, I could actually prize some of the glass pieces free of their icy matrix, to bring into the house.  One piece is sitting more or less upside down in the basement utility sink, so the ice inside it can melt and empty down the drain.  Then tomorrow, I'll continue making some choices about which glass objects I'll include, and which I'll have to wrap in paper towels or bubble wrap, and reshelve, until the next time.  If such an eventuality ever arises again, that is.

A couple of interesting things happen, reliably, as I go through this selection process.  First, I'm often pleasantly surprised by what I uncover, as I look through one shelf after another, hoping to find a group of things that will look right together.  I often feel a sense of wonderment, at what I've been able to do with this strange and wonderful material, through the strange and wonderful processes that go into making glass in the first place.  In many ways, it's as though I'm seeing these things for the first time.  Then, sometimes I can remember exactly when and where I made a particular shape.  So this process quickly stops being work, and starts feeling more like opening presents I've made for myself.

The other, less productive behavior I notice, as I paw through my collection of glass oddments, is my tendency to 'save' the 'good pieces' for... what, exactly?  Even though I'm choosing these things in order to make a piece of my own sculpture (which will be mine forever, I suspect), I'm often stingy with myself, not wanting to commit a particularly handsome or unusual glass shape to the project immediately at hand.  I often react the same way to the cache of found materials with which I'm so richly blessed.  Or dismally cursed, depending on one's point of view, I guess.

Every once in a great while, I'll manage to sidestep this hoarding mechanism, and put some glass or a bit of weird hi-tech waste to immediate use.  I can't say that I've ever regretted these choices, if I can even remember what they were, and when I made them.  I do know, though, that as I work with something freshly acquired or created, there's a different feeling during the process -- maybe a heightened sense of expectation, or the feeling that there's something more at risk with this work, than there might be when I'm using things that have been lying around, gathering dust for years.

The challenge I know I'm going to face, over these next few remaining days I have, for finishing this thing, is the struggle I always have, with... finishing this thing.  Or that thing.  Or the other thing.  I used to feel that this was a sign of intractable laziness on my part, and an indication of some deep moral flaw that was going to consign me to... something bad, anyhow.  But I think it was while I was in grad school, in Rochester, that I became aware of the Meyers-Briggs typology tests, and being a sucker for such things (because they're such reliable ways of wasting time), I took a self-administered version, to find out... what you find out when you take this test.

It was quite a revelation, really.  I discovered that I am, according to the test results, an ENFP, and that one of the hallmarks of this typology is a reluctance, to the point of actual pain or panic, when it comes to finishing things.  I much prefer to daydream about what I want to do, instead of actually doing it.  I actually hate making progress in a work, because every step forward is one more step toward that place where the work has its own life, and I'm now superfluous.

Of course, knowing this 'fact' doesn't make my reluctance any less difficult and dense -- but I don't spend as much time excoriating myself for sin, when it's really just the way I'm put together.

Oh, and this also tends to mean that, if at all possible, I will delay finishing something until the last possible micro-second.  So, instead of using an extra day to put in eight more hours of good solid work, I'll do the same amount of work as normal, but spread out over more time, and interspersed with far more TV breaks, or trips to the hardware store, or finishing a difficult crossword puzzle.

Now, I've got one week, during which to finish the list of itemized steps that need to be checked off, in order for this latest work to be as complete as it will ever be.  Of course, there are also lots of other things that have to be done during this week, as well.  I'll just have to be extra clever about, say, splashing another coat of paint on, before I run out to do an errand, or keep an appointment -- so the work will continue to advance, even if I'm nowhere near the work space.  I'll also have to think about how detachable I want the glass objects to be -- it's easier to move my work if the glass can be taken off and packed separately, but it's far more work, both in the preparatory stages, and also when it comes to the actual moving and installing processes.  I'd like to figure out a way to make bubble wrap a convincing part of a piece of work, so wrapping and unwrapping would become obsolete.  As it is, I suspect that the glass pieces I'll be using will have little bits of cloth hung around them, to keep glass from rubbing against glass.  I just hate the thought of that.

Oh.  I had to title the work, for the curators.  I've recently made a list of possible titles for upcoming works, with the idea that these titles might be like the little sayings you see on those Valentine's Day heart candies -- quips like, 'You Win', or 'Dream Come True', or 'Best Bet' or 'Congratulations!'.  In a fit of ironic self-laceration, I've named this newest work 'Best In Show'.  I just think that's hilarious.  

It's raining.  I can hear the spatter of drops against the kitchen window John and I both hate.  I love going to sleep when it's raining, so I think I'm going to end this, and creep up the stairs and crawl under the covers, and listen to the patter of precipitation on the front porch roof.  And try not to worry about whether the gutters have stayed clean or not.  Rosanne Rosanadana was so right -- it is always something.

©   2013                Walter Zimmerman    


Monday, February 25, 2013

A Little Reality Check, Perhaps?

I think it was the bananas this time.

John and I stopped at the supermarket, on our way home from New Brunswick and our Monday choir rehearsal.  I'd done a bit of shopping earlier in the day, but the store closest to our house doesn't carry some things -- like 2 liter bottles of seltzer, and today, there were about seven bananas available for purchase, all of which looked as though they'd been kicked to New Jersey from Costa Rica, or wherever they were from.

So we did the second of the day's provision runs, and because of the way the store is laid out, produce is just inside the front door, and there, a few aisles in from the apple display, was a great heap of beautiful bananas -- some rather green, others in that wonderful stage between unripe inedibility and the brown-dot stage, when I find the fruit to be too mentholated, somehow.  I selected the perfect bunch and we went on to search out the other items on our little list. 

When we got home, I laid this bunch of picturesque yellow fruit on top of the glorious red apples I was able to find at our nearby supermarket.  The bananas looked so luscious, I just had to have one.  It was perfect, and delicious, the flesh in that state of almost abstract firmness, that makes me almost believe that the fruit is some artificial confection.

Why would eating a perfect banana make me suddenly feel so incredibly fortunate?  Who can understand how, at times, the apparent banality of my life will suddenly take on an enviable polish and grace that is almost jarring.  When all is said and done, for all the challenges about which I'm sometimes too eager to complain, I still live like a prince.  Or better, actually.

Sometimes, when one of these moods arises, I find myself comparing my life with that of some incredibly romanticized, iconic historical figure.  Henry VIII is often the comparison I find myself choosing, maybe because of all those wives, or because I happen to know just a little bit more about him than I do about other equally eminent persons.

I'm pretty sure, for instance, that Henry VIII couldn't take a hot shower, even if he'd wanted to.  He enjoyed practically no privacy whatsoever.  (I'm not even going to do the tedious listing of high-tech wonders; I think we all know what they are, beginning with cars and televisions and working our way up the chain of miracles)  Dental care?  Medical attention?  The luxury of being able to find nearly any foodstuff I might want, at any time of the year, whether there's an apple tree in leaf within 500 miles or not.  Well, I guess Mallomars are an exception, but still...

And then, instead of these comparisons that leave me feeling so incredibly fortunate, I like to change my perspective, as it were -- imagining that I can rise up high enough to be able to see the chain of activities that unfold, in order for a bunch of bananas to come through our door, and find their place in the fruit bowl, along with lemons and heads of garlic, blood oranges and apples all the way from New Zealand.  How many hands are involved, from harvest, through transportation and then out of the back of a truck and onto a heap in the air-conditioned comfort of a place simply over-running with things edible, utile or simply novel.  That I should find myself anywhere in this continuum would be wonderful enough -- but to see that I'm at the farthest end of this chain, where everyone else's burden becomes my sustenance -- is fairly incredible. 

To be honest, though, I'm not sure whether this heightened state of awareness, about the interconnectedness of so many individual humans, none of whom will ever so much as say hello to each other, is something that can be borne on more than the comparatively rare occasion.  I think. I already seem to have enough trouble, feeling fully integrated and present in my own life -- if I were to add this way of seeing, in which no single thing is merely itself, but is instead the sum total of all the efforts that went into creating, for instance, a can of kitchen cleanser, or a bottle of maple syrup, or a jar of mayonnaise.

Every day, though, I do try to voice some kind of gratitude, out loud -- not that anyone's listening, but because maybe everyone's listening somehow.  Thanks.  I hope I would have the good sense and strength and character, to be able to do the same for you.

©   2013            Walter Zimmerman     

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Whine, Whine, Whine...

Well, I wasn't.  But then I decided I had to.

At last night's New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra concert, the audience was introduced to the artist who created something that was used as part of the program cover.  The work in question was prominently displayed on an easel at the front of the sanctuary, nicely lit, so everyone could see it.  Alas. 

According to the program notes, said artist has work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the British Museum, and the National Art Gallery in Sydney, Australia.  And has taught at Princeton, Grown, and another college. 

And here's why I wasn't, but decided, after a day of occasional rumination on said artwork,  I've decided that I can't be silent.

This work was crap.

I wouldn't give a passing grade to this work if it were submitted as fulfillment of a sophomore assignment in the University of the Arts' Projects curriculum.  I would be quite surprised if this work (and the others, which had been gratuitously hung in the reception room -- the portrait of a former rector, whose nail was now being used by something else, having been slung onto the nearest sofa) would have been given a passing grade in a freshman Foundations class.

Muddy colors.  Careless application.  Crude and unnecessary hand numbering.  Thoughtless color choices, supposed to be symbolic, but in fact awkward and misinformed.  Banal treatment of a classic topic, which could so easily have inspired something truly wonderful.  If this composition had even a scintilla of energy, or even irony, it was so well-concealed as to be indiscernible.  Used on the concert's program cover, the image was effective, simply because we couldn't see all of it.  The only good thing I can say about this work is that it wasn't any larger.

So.  That there is bad art in the world is no mystery to me.  Bad art, and plenty of it.  That much of this bad art receives unwarranted attention is hardly news.  But frankly, I am stunned, in this case, by the immeasurable gap between the actual physical object, that flat piece of paper with some pigment smeared on it, and the eclat with which it was being presented.  I am stunned that not only has this artist apparently been acclaimed and collected, but that this artist, apparently of at least average intelligence, seems unable to see the work's miserable lack of any redeeming aesthetic value.

Perhaps my reaction is so heightened because, in so many ways, I have steadfastly refused to accept or promote my own work, because I feel it falls so far short of those examples of world-class art, to which standard of excellence I think it's not unreasonable to expect any artist worth the name to aspire.  In this particular case, I could have made better art with my feet.

Oh dear.  Even at my advanced age, I still retain the capacity to be surprised and disappointed when I'm confronted so directly with what I consider a gross injustice.  It's difficult not to take such things personally, but I'm also simply dumbfounded that, if I'm to believe the program notes, examples of this artist's work has been collected by the prestigious institutions already mentioned.  I guess I'm feeling a bit like a superannuated version of the little boy in the big parade, who cries out, as the Emperor strides past, 'But he's not wearing any clothes!'

Which brings me smack back to the dilemma with which I've been confronted, to such a crippling degree, for the past two years -- why on earth should I continue to make artwork, when..?  It's not even as if I'm complaining about the painters who get notoriety for doing unstable, stupid work with broken crockery that falls off behind the collectors' sofas before the piece is a year old.  I just find myself weary, weary, weary -- and if there were a useful lesson to be learned from this, I would be ever so grateful to know what that lesson might be.  Life isn't fair?  That's such a useless observation, and begs the question -- am I crazy?  Am I delusional?  And if I'm not, what does this say about the folks who ladle accolades on an artist such as the one to whom I've been referring?    

It just makes me crazy. 

Well, blogspot is now telling me that I'm no longer signed in here -- is this another nudge from the universe, suggesting that I simply shut up and..?  So, I guess I'll just quit here, while I can still write a complete sentence, and if I get any more ideas on this topic, I'll just add them later.

Whine, whine, whine.   

©     2013                Walter Zimmerman




Saturday, February 23, 2013

Weariness Is As Weariness Does...

Goodness, I'm tired.

Went to the gym today, in spite of my current spate of moustache loss-related self-loathing.  I keep expecting people to burst into uncontrollable guffaws when they see me.  This hasn't happened.  Yet.

From the inside, of course, I still look the same as always.  I used to tell my students that, when I was still teaching, and it really was true -- I was only reminded of who I'd actually become when I'd go into the restroom, and be confronted with the face of an old man...  But the ideas inside seem much the same, and the interests and peeves, preferences and aversions.  So I went about my routine at the gym in much the same way as always.  It was only when it was time to do one of the loathsome leg exercises that I came face-to-whose-face-is-that with myself, in the big mirror across the room.  Squinting and blurring my eyes didn't help much. 

Well, even John said he's found my new visage disconcerting -- he's been listening to the voice, which sounds exactly the same, but without really turning around to see who's talking. 

After my workout, I just had time to stop for a cup of extraordinarily strong coffee at a place down the street from Starbux, and then came home to get ready for this evening's orchestral concert, down in New Brunswick, at Christ Church.  We went to the Skylark Diner for a meal before the program -- we were both disappointed with our meals, which is unusual, at least for me, there.  Maybe the real cook is out sick or something.

The concert was wonderful -- The New Brunswick Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Mark Hyczko.  There were four works, and I spent some time crying during the more searching moments, especially a set of variations by Astor Piazzola -- his musical language is alternatingly yearning and spicy.  As the music unfolded, I found myself thinking of all the wonderful creative gifts with which I've been blessed, and how slovenly I've been, in nurturing these, in a way that might be beneficial, either to me or to others.  Of course, vows of self-improvement made under the spell of cello music aren't known for being particularly easy to keep.  We'll see what happens, won't we?

After the concert was over -- standing ovation for all concerned, quite well-deserved, I thought -- I got to touch, ever so briefly, the violin soloist's Guarnieri.  I was sure she wouldn't let me.  I guess I looked harmless enough.  I wondered if this was perhaps the most valuable item that had ever been in that space.  During the post-concert reception, I found out that I don't have to drive a fellow parishioner down to Philadelphia on Thursday after all -- meaning I have one more entire day during which to avoid doing any meaningful work on the sculpture I both want to see finished, and would just as soon push out into the middle of the street, so one of the cars that come speeding through in the morning will reduce it to a twisted mess of copper tubing and not much else.  Or at least this is how it seems at this moment.

Tomorrow, I'll be at Christ Church again, to sing for the 10:30 Eucharist service with one of John's choirs, and then as soon as the service is over, I'll dart out the door and drive like a madman, up to Branchburg, to catch the tail end of the Combat Paper adventure -- Eli and David spent a week at Walter Reed Hospital recently, and we haven't heard about the experience yet.  I'm feeling a little stuck, with regard to my book project -- I need at least to start another print, or get serious about rewriting the existing text, so it'll look better on the page.  Or something. Maybe I'll take some of my pink fabric, and see about creating some more pulp, to make more paper.  So far, I think I have six sheets, and I only need about... 114 more.  That's a lot of handmade paper...

Well, it occurs to me that there's precious little here that's of real consequence.  I might have been better off, transcribing the notes I made, waiting for the concert to begin, and waiting afterwards, for John to be ready to head home.  Of course, I was still bemoaning my aversion to my new face, and the lengths to which I might feel compelled to go, to assuage this seemingly unstoppable negative reaction to the part of my body that's hanging off the front of my head and holding my brain in.  How someone with such low self-esteem, and such a poor self-image, can be so wrapped up in his appearance, is really a mystery to me.  How odd, that I've spent so much effort, over the course of my life, to try to look my best, even though I've not so secretly believed that my best wasn't anything particularly wonderful.  A friend of mine used to say that paradoxes are inherently true.  Perhaps this is an example of this maxim.

And now, having fulfilled my self-imposed discipline of writing something -- anything -- each day for the coming year, I'm going to excuse myself and drag myself off to bed.  Morning, and travel, and parading down the center aisle of the church, with my naked face showing, await.  And will arrive, I'm afraid, all too soon.

©   2013            Walter Zimmerman

Friday, February 22, 2013

Approach? Avoid? Or...?

As the day ebbs...

Well, I was mainly supposed to be working on the new piece of sculpture I've committed to creating for an upcoming exhibit at WheatonArts, in Millville NJ.  Former fellowship residents of the Creative Glass Center of America program are being invited to participate in this show, and even though I've been a resident glass artist there twice, I was still flattered when I was asked to be a part of this. 


It's been like pulling my own teeth without anaesthesia, to get myself to go downstairs and, oh I don't know, pick up a tool or something, and... what's the word again?  Oh yes -- work. 

Of course, the work is due in Millville next week.  And, as I dimly remember from such efforts in the past, there is always far more to do than I originally expect, even if I think I know exactly what I want to make.  Today, I did manage to drill seven holes through a piece of metal, and have kind of gotten most of the way through attaching a piece of hardware cloth to the copper tubing.  I hate hardware cloth.

Oh God, I'm conflicted about making this.  For one thing, it's just another object to store someplace, when I bring it back from Millville in July or August or whenever the show ends.  (I'm thinking of pricing it at $14, which is less than the copper itself is worth, just to see what happens) (I also titled the piece 'Best in Show', because I think it's so bitterly hilarious)  And as I've already explained, I'm less than motivated to plunge ahead with the effort required to make what will only turn out to be yet another bit of my self-generated burden.  I'd much rather watch old Rita Hayworth movies on TV.

Oddly enough, I seem to 'know' what this piece is about.  A bit of family history, of course -- the source which never seems to fail me.  But knowing which, makes the notion of finishing it just a teensy bit more intriguing.  In a way, because I think I can see the finished work, I'm fooling myself into believing that it's already finished.  This is never a good thing. 

At least I've finally got all the materials I'm going to need, so there shouldn't be any more hour-long shopping trips to Home Despot.  And I've proposed to the show's curators that I deliver the work to them late in the first week of March, giving me almost ten more days to avoid doing any meaningful work on this thing I don't want to do in the first place. 

Meanwhile, I'm in raptures about getting the part I wanted, in 'The Full Monty', even though I still can't bear looking at my naked upper lip in the mirror -- or any other reflective surface, for that matter.  This reaction could be chalked up to some kind of hysteria, if it weren't for the fact that I'm a visual artist, and that looking at things, and seeing things, is more or less my job.  And if I think I look revolting, it's because I look revolting.  And I'm afraid that, even with the noticeable suntan I'll have to get (it's in the script -- thank God there aren't any lines about my character's Abs of Steel...), I'm still going to have more or less the same reaction to my own face.  The only difference being a shift from seeing a pink turtle in the bathroom mirror, to seeing an orange turtle there.

Balancing this self-loathing is the knowledge that I'll have a chance to use the despair with which I've been living, for these last couple of years, as fuel for my character.  And isn't this exactly like what I do with my bitter memories of my childhood -- trying to redeem those awful events by transforming them into the underpinnings for my sculpture?  The nice thing about the theatrical version of this repurposing is this -- there's nothing to store afterwards.

This reminds me of a talk I had with Robin Rice, a writer who was interviewing CGCA fellows about a decade ago.  As is usual when people talk with me about personal things, things like the orphanage come up, and the subsequent abuse in the house with my father's second family.  But while taking with Robin, I tried to make it clear that of course I knew that everybody suffers in life, to one extent or another.  And that, in my case, I was actually fortunate in my misfortune -- left physically intact, with a seemingly inexhaustible store of reliable, easily available creative motivation.  It's just a shame that I couldn't have become a composer, or one of those sculptors whose work I see on Facebook all the time now -- carving detailed depictions of Ganesha, for instance, from a graphite pencil point.

Well, it's time to take the red clothes out of the drier, and the white clothes in, and then wash up the dinner dishes, and get ready to go to bed.  I've got a busy day ahead of me tomorrow, trying to get as much creative avoidance in as possible, before it's time to wash up the dinner dishes and get ready to go to bed. 

Maybe, in the mean time, someone will have done some historical research, and discover that, as the result of some long-forgotten treaty, I actually own several of the larger, emptier counties in the state of Delaware.  Thus ending forever my storage concerns.  I wonder what that would be like? 

 ©    2013                 Walter Zimmerman   


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Triviality on Parade...

For me, apparently, it's all about appearances.  Mainly, my appearance(s).  Or, perhaps more correctly, it's about fooling myself about my appearance(s).  And ever-more-frequent failure to do so.  Fool myself, that is. 

When last we were rummaging around in these entries, I believe I revealed that, because I'd been successful in my bid for a much-coveted acting role in arguably one of the most potentially humiliating plays I've ever read or seen, I shaved off my facial hair.  Well, not the eyebrows and lashes.  And disposing of the little teased-out patch of white on my chin wasn't all that upsetting.  I wasn't even so devastated by clearing away the tag of whiteness hanging off the center of my lower lip.  These tidbits of my secondary sexual characteristics were really there only to provide distraction from, and balance to, my nose of enormous proportions and bulbosity.  Easy come, easy go, I thought.

The moustache, however, proved to be another matter altogether.  I've had a moustache since at least 1979.  Many people I know weren't even born then, and so have no idea that, when it first began to make its reluctant appearance, my moustache, such as it was, was brown.  I may have grown it for an acting role, as a matter of fact.  That would be a convincing prompt, for me.

And somehow, over the years, even with all the other theatrical roles I've done, I've never been called upon to remove this little strip of sub-nasal hair.  (Could it be, he suddenly wonders, years after the answer 'yes' would make a difference, that this explains in part my lack of success in theatrical productions that didn't require a mask?)  I've grown accustomed to my face.

Even when it turned stark white -- which was a process that startled me only when it was mostly over already -- it still seemed to do the face-balancing job as nicely as I could want, without resorting to major cosmetic surgery.  I'd always said that, if shaving were necessary for a role, I would do it, but inside I was always praying, 'Please say no, please say no, please say no...'  I doubt that these petitions had anything to do with the matter, but it does indicate my less-than-detached opinion of my facial hair.

The little additions, mentioned as easily discarded, came later.  I've been accused of having ironic facial hair.  I've confessed that, given the twisted way my hair grows on my head, some of it is a devious comb-over.

Now.  A couple of years ago, John and I took a summer vacation that wasn't in California.  We decided, on his suggestion, on spending a week on Block Island, RI.  Even though I'd lived for some years in Newport and Providence, I'd only seen Block Island, in the mist, while standing on the south-facing second-floor balcony of the restaurant I was working in.  The one run by self-destructive alcoholics, but that's for another time.  In any event, it was clearly time to see this place from much closer.
We had a great time, in spite of having arrived just as the legendary earthquake was rattling the East Coast (we didn't feel a thing because we were still an eighth of a mile out to sea, on our way to the dock); we rented bikes and toted our bit of luggage up to the little cabin John had found for us, not too close to town, not too far.  Our little veranda looked out on a pond bordered on one side by thick bushes, that would be perfect cover for songbirds.  At night, the sky was utterly clear.

We spent a lot of time biking -- a cruel amount of time, I thought while trying to pump my way up yet another totally unnecessary hill, on our way to see one of the two lighthouses that form the main tourist attractions on the place.  Plus the Statue of Temperance, which you can only look at for so long.  We had to bike down the hill for our groceries (eggs: $7 each!  This isn't exactly true, but that's how it felt, to pay into the heavy double digits for one little plastic bag of edibles), we were just biking fools.  I remember one afternoon, when we were (finally) taking a bit of a breather from our exertions, and I was lounging on a bench, and some other bikers rode past, and I thought that one of the women looked at me... that way.  Like, not dismissively.   

I was completely sure, for some reason, that she was right.  I'd been having an unusual spate of self-assurance, and was sure I'd been losing weight, and that I was looking more fit than I had in a long time.  On one of our last treks, we'd climbed down a long, winding set of stairs, from a considerable height, all the way down to the narrow beach.  It was almost as good as something you'd see in a children's book.  I got to play in the surf for a bit, and examine, up close, some of the many simple rock cairns sprouting here and there, as far as I could see, in either direction.  John, as sometimes happens, was taking pictures.  For once, I didn't think I minded.  In fact, after we'd climbed back up the twisty stairs (which lose some of their charm when gravity is working against one), had cleaned up and then biked out for our last island dinner, I allowed John to take a picture of me, in the sunset light, while I was waiting for my lobster mac'n'cheese to arrive.

Later, when we were back home (leaving the island just as Hurricane Irene was making its way up the Eastern Seaboard, not because we were afraid of the storm, but because that's when our reservations ran out), John either developed or posted those photos of Block Island -- the maze of old contraptions inside one of the light-houses, panoramic views of the harbor, a shot of one of the more charming marinas, a surprising picture of a sea elephant that had somehow gotten tangled up, improbably enough, in a man's athletic shirt...  A photo of someone who resembled me, but instead of looking rested and triumphant, looked wrung out and grey.

Oh wait.  Those were me.

Well, I may as well get this out of the way right now, though it can be of no surprise to anyone who's read more than one of these tiresome entries: of me, I think it can be said, with absolutely no irony at all, that when it comes to my appearance, I am profoundly shallow.

I wouldn't go swimming as a teen, because I was too skinny.  I made college board scores significantly lower than would otherwise have been expected, because I was wearing the wrong trousers to school that day.  While I was in the Air Force, in Iceland, I found a pencil self-portrait I'd done while I was still in Pennsylvania, and I was truly jolted at the strength of the self-hate that burst off the page.  Me confronting my own face.  Luckily, that drawing has been lost forever... 

But not all of my misgivings about myself are imaginary or evidence of body dysmorphia.  Both my face and my body seem to be divided into two distinct parts.  On my face, my eyes and my (let's call it... assertive) nose seem more or less suited for each other.  But beginning just below my nostrils, my face sort of shrinks in on itself, and I really do look like the result of an interbreeding experiment involving a green sea turtle, and my mother.

My body has pretty much the same division line -- the arms and torso seem to match, while just below my rib cage, my hips widen, and I look like a freshman art student's last-minute effort at a life-size model of a human body in clay.

The body thing can be compensated for with clothing, of course,  Even a well-chosen swimming suit can disguise this discontinuity.  But the face is another matter.

Granted, I could decide to wear a ski mask for the rest of my life, although it might make summers more unpleasant than they already are.  I've been doing... upper lip exercises (do such things exist?  Someone had to think of yoga the first time, didn't they?), so this expanse of featureless skin might at least lay claim to some character.  I'm planning to visit a little clinic I know of, to discuss the feasibility (read: cost) of possibly injecting botox into my aggressively emphatic naso-labial folds.  If that's not advisable, maybe I can just get some really sturdy office clips -- the black ones made of springy steel, with the silvery flipping grips -- and attach one behind each ear, thus giving me the same results as a much more expensive mini face-lift.  It couldn't be much worse than clip-on earrings.       

Here's another sliver of apparently irrelevant relevance.  When my parents were divorced, my mother took my little sister with her -- the girl half of a set of fraternal twins.  (The boy died, about fifty years later, never having seen his mother again)  I don't think she could have known that this would be so -- my sister was only four at the time, and looked like a dark-haired little girl.  My brothers and I, of course, went with my father, even though the divorce had been granted on the grounds of physical cruelty.  I guess the presiding judge thought that giving my angry father some easier targets at home might prevent him from causing damage in public?  Who can read the legal mind?

Years later, and after I was out of the Air Force, I located the Philadelphia suburban address the Red Cross had provided me, dialed the phone number they'd given me, and arranged to take a train and a bus to meet this woman and this girl.  Our rendez-vous spot was to be the pet shop in a little strip mall right by the bus stop.  As soon as I stepped out into the night air, and saw the two expectant faces, and met them at the door, with the smell of cedar chips pouring out after them, I had one of those realizations that must be what it's like to cleave a precious stone.  I realized that, whether or not they knew this on any level, my parents had each taken with them the child who looked most like their divorced parent. 

Seeing my mother, this tiny woman in a dark cloth coat, explained like retroactive magic all the pained glances I would get from my dad, for no particular reason at all -- why he could sit and stare at me with cold, reptilian eyes, until for once I would invent a chore for myself, just to get away from him.   Who knows how my sister had borne her unasked-for resemblance to a man she grew up, in some ways with, and in some ways, without.  My mother could be unsubtle when it served her purposes.

So, in addition to everything else, here's my mother once again looking back at me from whatever reflective surface I happen to face.  Time heals all wounds, say those for whom time has healed all the wounds they happen to be paying attention to.  For me, time seems more to pick away at, and expose, and provide opportunity for infection of, all wounds.  While sapping whatever psychic strength might be necessary to fight off the picking, and wipe away the pus.

Who knew that a little strip of bristly white hairs could do so much?  Who knew that the removal of this modest facial adornment could stir up so much?  But then, consider:  because one of the Louis -- most likely Louis XIV, the deluge one -- had begun to lose his hair at age 17, and was self-conscious about it, the entire industry of peruquiererrie for men arose and flourished.

The play will be over by the end of May.  And I'm still glad that I'm doing it.  But I'll stop shaving with the final curtain.  And perhaps, for the next couple of months, I can just spend an unusual amount of time, using the largest possible bandana, and blowing my nose.     

©    2013        Walter Zimmerman

Wednesday, February 20, 2013


So, yes, in spite of having lost my car keys (as an act of subconscious self-sabotage, I've been saying), I called John, who told me where the extra Honda ignition key hung.  Which meant that I did get to the call-backs on time, and ultimately got the role I was hoping for, in 'The Full Monty'.  It was so exciting to hear the news on Tuesday morning, in a phone call from the director, that when that call was over, I hung up and shouted for delight.

But of course, there was still the matter of the lost keys.  Not only was the Honda key on that bunch, but also my YMCA pass, the keys to the Newark storage space, and perhaps even more importantly, the keys to my two storage spaces in Rochester NY.  Okay, so I get there once every ten years, but it's still nice to be able to get in, if I do happen to make the trip.

Plus, there was the matter of initiating the new device, allegedly prescribed for my by the surgeon who installed my pacemaker.  I'd been getting pestering phone calls from this weird company, threatening me with unspecific punishments if I didn't 'open the box and initialize the device'.  What -- have these people never watched a spy movie? 

But I did finally call them back, and spoke with a very cheerful, buoyant operative -- I mean, customer service representative, who explained most of what I needed to know, so I promised her that, once my audition was over, I would submit to this latest technological indignity.  I just didn't want to be stripping off my clothes and revealing a set of extra metallic nipples.

I could have done the computer tutorial, but instead I took the much dreaded box up to the bedroom, and opted to do things the old-fashioned way -- by reading a pamphlet.  Even though there was no particular explanation of what this device -- or, really, this set of devices -- would do, or why it had to be physically attached to my skin, the pictorial guiding me through the process seemed clear enough.  And after all, there were all those smiling faces on the pamphlet's back cover -- they'd all had terrific experiences with the Heart-o-Vention, hadn't they?  How bad could it be? The one guy even looked older than me!  (Walter sometimes forgets that there are such things as paid models, and stock photos.  Such is the lure of a narrative for a life...)

Once the three little gummy electrode pads were in place, and I'd let them settle for about twenty minutes -- who knew these sensors would have to be warmed up to body temperature? -- it was time to put a battery into the little grey transmitter device, and put it over my head, so it would rest in the middle of my chest, like a scapular, only without the holiness.  The only problem was that the illustration showed a different configuration of suspending cords, and none of the cords were attached to the transmitter, and there was no gummy back on it, so I really had to figure out what to do.  Finally, after maybe five minutes of fiddling with various possibilities, I discovered the secret, slipped the cords over my head, and then plugged the sensor heads into the electrodes.  Trying not to notice just how much those sensor attachments resembled leeches, or remoras.

Then I had to activate another, larger grey rectangular device, somewhat larger than an old cell phone, but with a little antenna on the top, like what I'd expect to see on a policeman's cheap walkie-talkie.  More switches, and prompts to follow, and zingo!  In only twenty-five minutes, I was now wired for... whatever this thing was supposed to do.

The only clues I had to its purpose were the use of 'cardio' in the (real) name of the company, the fact that a heart surgeon had apparently prescribed it for me, and I've got a pacemaker installed, right near where one of the electrodes was supposed to be glued.  The white one, I think.  But, according to the walkie-talkie's screen, I was supposed to go through some process if I had an event.  Well, I won't have a birthday party until October, if then, and I don't know if choir rehearsals count.  I did lose one of my favorite gloves (during my lost car key episode); maybe finding it could be considered an event.  Who knew?

And I had to re-attach the red electrode, because it was apparently causing a red warning light and a stern read-out on the walkie-talkie.  I kept trying places until the desired green light was pulsing regularly.  I was a little tentative about moving very much.  I felt like I was taking care of a colicky baby.  A grey one.

Then the walkie-talkie began beeping, because it needed its transmitter -- another grey plastic thing with another antenna built into it.  This one looks sort of like a space-age rat trap, but without an obvious neck-breaking spring.  This one would use some other death ray or something.  When I set the walkie-talkie into the open space where the dead rat would otherwise be, all seemed well.  For a while.  The little green light was blinking, which meant that all was (temporarily) well.

Who remembers what one was doing, when yet another alarm beepy thing went off, which the walkie-talkie told me, via its flat grey screen, meant that now the rat trap was running out of energy, and needed to be plugged in.  I found the recharger, found the correct port, and an open socket near where I was hoping to sit for part of the evening, eating dinner.  Once again, all seemed quiet. 

But it began to be apparent to me that two weeks (!) of tending to this set of wires and readers and electric devices was going to put a serious crimp in my activities.  Would I want to go to the gym with these things hanging all over me, under my tee-shirt?  What would happen if I should break a sweat?  Although I knew I could (temporarily) detach the electrodes from my supernumerary nipples, for bathing, I didn't know how long it would be before the beeping resumed.  And in these troubled times, having something beeping in a mens' locker room isn't the coolest thing on earth.  Would I constantly have to look for electrical outlets, when I was grocery shopping, for instance?  More imminently important -- was I supposed to sleep with this tangle on me? 

Well, in fact I did sleep in the intrusive embrace of this device that was reading what was going on in my body, and telling other people about it.  It wasn't a good sleep, but it was something.  I woke up with a headache and a sense of dread about this being only the second day of a fourteen-day ordeal.  I felt a little like a Parisian, during the German Occupation.  Only without the cheese.

How fortuitous was it, then, that at 9:30, I got a call from the surgeon's office, reminding me of today's morning appointment with him.  Usually I remember these things, but this had completely slipped my mind.  Maybe I was distracted by wanting to audition for a play that, if I were cast, would require me to take off all my clothes in public?  In any event, I used my new technique of being almost an hour early for my appointment, and even though I'd taken a moment to eat an apple in the van, before going into the office, it turned out that, when I did make my entrance I was next!  And my pal, Mike the Tech Guy, was there, unlike the last two appointments when his presence was sort of central, and he hadn't been notified of either.

Mike did his semi-sadistic 'let me just try this' routine -- 'Oh, I really have to 'pace' you.  Let me know if you feel anything...'  Yow!  Suddenly it feels as if there's some angry little razor creature trying to burrow its way straight out of my chest.  'Okay, well, let me just see what this...'  Now the razor creature has been replaced by a sharp spinning wheel that seems prepared to slice me in half, laterally. Mike tells me that, in many if not most cases, his clients don't notice any of these alterations in the pacemaker settings -- no reaction at all.  Perhaps he's working with more zombies than he realizes.  I didn't have the heart to mention it -- he seems like such a clean, well-groomed guy. 

But the wonderful outcome of this forgotten appointment was Dr. V.'s instant brushing aside of the need for my newly-installed device from Hell.  Mike said they're monitoring me regularly enough, and that everything is as it should be.  So I could peel off the electrodes, pry loose the information-sucking parasite plugs, and ship all of it back to wherever it came from.

Rarely, if ever, has a trip to Jersey City seemed so worth it.

Oh, and I found the missing car keys -- for reasons unknowable (right), I had dropped them on my work space in the basement, where, because of the surface clutter, they functionally disappeared.  The glove is still missing.  It's probably taped to my forehead.

Now, because the acting role I'm playing in the upcoming strip-a-thon requires me to be clean shaven, and because I've already taken the big razor-driven plunge, uncovering skin that hasn't seen daylight in thirty years, the thing I'm currently semi-obsessed with is my upper lip.  Which pale, characterless  topic we can leave for another time, perhaps.     

I just know you can't wait...

©      2013          Walter Zimmerman

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

If It's Not One Thing...

Well, we've got that out of the way...

Yesterday was my call-back audition for 'The Full Monty', which meant that (a) I would be seeing my direct competition for the role of Harold (the only character for which I'm remotely correct, age-wise), and (b) I would be... stripping, at least down to my underwear, and possibly all... the... way...


It's impossible for me to know, in any objective way, whether or not my self-image is worse than average, better than average, or about average, for men of my age.  I would say though, that it's far more comfortable for me to belittle myself, and to think I'm ungainly and fat, than to think otherwise. 

Part of this stems from that central maternal judgement I failed when I was nine years old.  Because I wasn't being beaten 24/7 at the orphanage -- even Mrs. Hunter's great arms got tired every so often -- I then had time to ruminate on the thing I thought about most -- how I had failed to be worthy of Selection.  I knew I had been good -- one of the most sacred, most important rules of the Zimmerman household was maintaining silence, so my father could take a nap, and often my mother would express surprise that I was at home, because I was in my room, reading, and not... making... a... sound.  I ate all my food, even the supremely disgusting canned peas that lolled about on my plate from time to time.  I got excellent grades at school.  (Well, there was that one 'M' I got in arithmetic, which still haunts me.  I remember my mother, looking with stricken disbelief at my report card, while I pleaded that M meant 'average', and that average wasn't actually bad, if you thought about it.  She looked especially tall at that moment, like Athena as she ponders what wreckage to wreak next)  I was almost preternaturally obedient and helpful -- hadn't I come out into the living room, the night after my parents had had an especially violent fight, and without disturbing my mother's sleep on the sofa, quietly righted the floor lamp, and swept up the broken glass?  All of these things were clearly true, and if true, then they were obviously not the reason(s) I had been rejected.

So I decided that the problem was how I looked.  I decided that I was so ugly that my mother couldn't stand to look at me, and that had sealed the deal.

Now, I've never been particularly photogenic.  Unlike, say, Jimmy Cagney, who was reputedly the most unnoticeable man on the planet, until he stepped in front of a camera.  In my entire life of avoiding being photographed, I can remember perhaps three pictures of myself which I can actually look at without shuddering.  But more important than how the photo lens projects my image onto its retina, was my determination, once I'd reached my conclusion about my looks, to be ugly.  Because if my ugliness was the reason I'd been de-selected, then I'd better really be ugly, so my mother's choice would make some sense.  So she would have been right, even if this rightness on her part was going to be one of the major life wounds with which I would have to struggle.  I had to experience myself as unsightly, while at the same time trying to be as attractive as my limited means would allow, but never really reaching that goal, because being good-looking was forbidden.  I guess a shrink would call this facial approach-avoidance.

And part of this stems from going to the gym, and even though the locker-room etiquette stops just short of willfully blinding oneself, in order to pretend that there has never been anything remotely resembling a naked man in those halls and locker aisles and shower stalls, I admit to having, on occasion, peeked.  These cursory glances have been, maybe 6 times out of 10, more or less reassuring.  More.  Or less.  There have been, of course, the exceptions both to the 'do not look' rule, and to the '6 out of 10 reassurance' ratio.  When John and I used to use the YMCA on the Upper West Side in Manhattan (do other cities talk about having Upper West Sides?), there was a 30-something man, with pale skin and dark hair, who spent a greater amount of time than most, walking around the locker/shower area naked, as though the concept of towels hadn't yet arisen in the history of human inventiveness.  The reason for this casual, almost luxurious parade, need not, I think, be graphically described, but if he had been wearing a downward-pointing arrow on his chest, and two upward-pointing arrows on his knees, it would have been about as subtle.

I never knew whether any of the other men who were going about their business, showering after a workout, changing into their gym clothes, shaving at the row of sinks, had any opinions or observations or, I don't know... thoughts in general, about this clear evidence of what we might think of as an extra helping of Nature's goodness, bestowed on this young man.  There being the rule, after all, of not seein' nuttin' at the gym.  I did find out, one afternoon, when Mr. Endowment had finally dressed, that he was a sommelier at a local restaurant.  Or so he said.  I felt an odd sense of relief at hearing this, at finding out that the scales of life weren't entirely tipped in his favor.  Besides, he wasn't really that tall, either.

In any event, at the call-backs last night, the director let all the men know that, indeed, we were going 'The Full Monty', at least for this audition.  He swore over and over again that the images being recorded on the little digital camera would be destroyed immediately, and I'm willing to wager that they've already been hacked, and are making a less-than-spectacular splash on either Facebook or YouTube, or both.  This exercise in naturalism would take place at the very end of the evening, and after the women under casting consideration had gone home.  We even learned a dance, which had included, during the rehearsals, miming the... unveiling, as it were.  And, when the hour had finally arrived, we were brought in, two by two, for our little moment of what I think of as MGE, or Maximum Groin Exposure. 

For once, I thought, perhaps wisely, perhaps not, that having a name beginning with a Z might actually be handy.  And as there was an odd number of men being seen, I was lined up with two other guys, thus mitigating, perhaps, the likelihood of my... falling short, as it were.  But while the second group was doing their gyrations, those of us still waiting our turn, heard a loud whoop from the audition room, and then the music started again.  I figured that perhaps another of nature's wonders had been discovered, but when those guys came back to pick up their coats and stuff, one of them confessed that the exclamation was a reaction to him.  Because, at the fateful moment, he completely forgot... to drop his drawers.  Blanked.  Just... didn't... do it.  Until, that is, the second go-round.  The rest of us laughed nervously.  I felt as though I'd just been dunked, up to my waist, in icy water.  Again.

As these things will do, my turn arrived, and I went to my fate as manfully as was possible.  The only difference between me and my comrades was that they chose to dance in their stocking feet, while I kept my shoes on.  Like that's going to be a distraction.  And, although I'm sure I looked like an arthritic turkey, I did get the middle hopping part right, and the hands slapped on the hips part, and the bending over forward while pulling on a strip of elastic part, and then the slow, full, rising extension, with arms held wide and higher than my cardiologist recommends, and then a quick arm retraction, to modestly cover what will, forevermore, never seem quite the same.  Bingo.  Done.  For good or ill.  Damn the (other) torpedoes.

Just minutes into my short drive home, while waiting at a red light, I realized that I couldn't remember if I'd actually... done it.  I couldn't remember.  I thought that was hilarious.  I knew that, if I'd unintentionally balked, as the other guy had, our group would've danced the Dance of Shame all over again, but we didn't have to.  So...  But for me, it was a complete blackout, without the expense of all that scotch.

Now, we're told, the cast list will be posted by Wednesday at the latest.  How can I be so eager to find out if I'm going to have the chance to do something that, in most peoples' dreams, is a horribly humiliating and confusing thing -- being naked in public?  At least I won't have to give a lecture.

But now, let's backtrack a bit -- one of the wonders of writing, this reckless re-ordering of chronology -- and watch Walter as he gets ready to leave the house for the audition about which you probably already know far too much.  He's dressed in shirt and tie and jacket, as that's what his character would wear.  He's got his little black bag from the Alexander McQueen exhibit, with notepads and sketch books and a novel to read, just in case.  Plus assorted throat lozenges.  (I had toyed with the idea of bringing along an uncooked hot dog to secret in my drawers, to see what reaction I'd get, but I forgot)  So all he has to do is gather his keys, alarm the house, and get across town in ten minutes or so.  Which would still make him a bit early, but...

Except that, in the space of about three hours in the house, I had managed to... Lose.  My.  Car.  Keys.

This is difficult enough for me to face, when all I've got to do is drive to the store for some milk and cottage cheese, and maybe a bag of carrots.  But I'd been looking forward to -- maybe it's better to say, anticipating -- this callback for two weeks.  I'd learned the song they wanted to hear me sing.  I'd ironed two shirts, because I realized that the first one was the wrong color.  I'd changed my a-shirt, because the one I'd put on after my workout at the gym, earlier in the day, had a few little rust stains on it.  Shaved, gelled, deodorized.  And now... no keys.

No, specifically, no CAR keys.

I keep the house keys in one clump, which 'lives' on a coat hook just inside the back door.  And if any keys are likely to be misplaced, it's usually them.  The car keys, along with the keys to the Newark studio space I virtually never use as a studio, 'live' in the right front pocket of whatever trousers I'm wearing.  I check, several times a day, to make sure they're still there.

Needless to say, I was beside myself with anger.  John says, sometimes, that I'm too unforgiving of myself, but this 'losing' the car keys, before this audition, is, I think, inexcusable.  I might as well have misplaced my own feet.  I quickly scoured the kitchen table, repository for all manner of small things, but no keys there.  I didn't have time to do an attic-to-basement search.  I knew there was an extra key someplace, but the one I found on top of the microwave wasn't it.  Fortunately, John was available, and told me right where the second Honda key should be.  Which it was.  So I could drive myself to Maplewood, instead of trying to figure out how to call one of South Orange's virtually non-existent, exorbitantly expensive cabs, to get me to the church on time.

And now, still seething, I'm trying to imagine where the (expletive deleted) those (expletive deleted) keys are, for (expletive deleted)'s sake.  I have looked in: the cheese and egg drawer, the vegetable drawer, and the lunch meat drawer in the fridge; in the bowl of apples and bananas on the kitchen counter; in the microwave, and every drawer, including the one where we keep the cat food.  I have gone through, peel by peel, coffee filter by coffee filter, the day's trash.  I ransacked my gym bag, and combed the basement area around it.  I took a flashlight last night, and searched the driveway and the leaf-filled side yard below the kitchen window John and I both hate.  The upstairs bathroom.  The bedroom.  The den.  I haven't yet x-rayed the cats.

Things like this make me crazy, and it's too much of a 'coincidence' that, in the brief respite between walking on a treadmill in Summit NJ, at a 4.2 mph pace, and having completely changed my clothes and prepared to go out, these keys should have just vanished.   I.  Hate.  This.

And, irrational or not, I blame myself.  As I believe I've already written, I have a kind of suspicion that, in my unconscious, is something that really hates me, and enjoys making me suffer, as much as possible, at the worst conceivable times.  It makes me feel insane, as though, as I know I've said, I'm not on my own side.  I'm not my own advocate.  On some uncontrollable level, I'm lying in wait, ready to tie my own ankles together, just before the big race.

The only slightly good thing I can say is that, after having slammed the back door hard enough to shatter glass (not a problem with this door, however, as a previous owner long ago replaced the original glass with burglar-proof plexi), I somehow changed gears, pulling myself out of the nose-dive for which I was poised, and found a way to circumscribe this torture.  I did get the extra keys.  I did arrive in plenty of time for the audition -- in fact, I helped another actor find the door we were to use, to get into the building.  And, for the time I was there, I either forgot the murderous thoughts I had, about my self-sabotage, and easily focused on the work at hand.

The keys are still missing.  Along with, as it happens, half of my favorite pair of gloves.  In some ways, I expect to find them, taped to my own forehead.  In some ways, I expect never to see them again.  The crucial thing, however, is my surprising decision to rise above this tempest, and do what was truly important.  The looking will, obviously, keep.  (I wonder if, without realizing it, I stuffed bot the glove and the car keys into the tea kettle?)

And the other crucial thing, which I just learned through the marvels of modern communication, is that.... I got the part!

Nacktheit uber Alles!        


Monday, February 18, 2013

It's A Burden! No, It's A Blessing! Stop -- You're Both Right!

A bit of a break, perhaps, from meditations on death...

Just a minute ago, I was down in the basement/studio/foretaste of Hell, looking at the little piece of glass-occupied sculpture I'm putting together for an exhibit at WheatonArts this spring and summer.  As often happens, the idea, if one can call it that, arose simply from my having placed a couple of my glass bulb-y things on a metal shelf I'd reaped from one discard heap or another.  And I sort of like it because it's much smaller than most of my other work, but still seems to capture the central themes of worth vs worthlessness, or privilege vs. servitude, or beauty vs. ugliness.  Amazingly enough, although I tried to waste prodigious amounts of time yesterday, I still got a lot done on the basic support system, including the attachment of wheels, which never fails to give me a tremendous headache, because at least one usually falls off at the most embarrassing possible time.

In any event,  I'm looking at this nascent work, and then washing the soldering flux off my hands, and as I came up the basement stairs, looking idly at shelf upon shelf of accumulation, stacked every which way because of the various emergencies through which we've lived over the past three years, and for just an instant, instead of feeling oppressed and bad, I felt as I might imagine Howard Carter did, when there was just enough of an opening into King Tut's tomb for him to stand there, at his full height, and confront the mystery of what lay there.  Before all the gold and stuff.  When everything was covered in thousands of years of dust. 

And I thought -- what if, instead of viewing the tasks that unquestionably lie before me -- and which must be accomplished sooner rather than later -- as grievous burdens and shame-inducing admissions of defeat, I were to treat, say, the resurrection of the basement (and the back porch.  And the green 'guest' room.  And the back porch.  And the garage.  And the flood-prone Newark space.  To say nothing of the two packed storage spaces some 350 miles away...)(Have I made my point, I wonder)...  What if I were to treat each of these accumulations as some lost trove of goods from a long-dead civilization?  What if I were to go through these oddments, not looking for ways to increase my already sufficient store of inner self-loathing, but with an almost child-like thrill of discovering something wonderful and strange?  (Because there are certainly wonderful and strange things to be found) 

I think one reason I've been so resistant to undertake this daunting set of tasks -- did Carter do more than one tomb? -- is the assumption that I am going to have to discard absolutely everything -- everything I touch.  Everything I've made.  Everything I've found, whether in a dumpster, or on the street, or in my own driveway.  This radical surgery seems, at least ahead of time, like an evisceration which I would undertake by my own volition, and without anaesthesia.  Wielding the scalpels and bone saws, clamps and hemostats myself. 

Without question, things would have to go.  In fact, I've got an unsightly pile of soaked wood and distressed furniture parts leaning against the chainlink fence by the driveway right now, and feel that I'm trembling on the brink of calling someone to haul it away.  And I feel, at this moment at least, not the slightest interest in what may be lying there, to be hauled away and never seen again, at least by me.  But maybe, if I can at least sort and classify -- and even exult from time to time -- there can be the pretense of salvaging things, as may be what operates behind what I'm told is the custom of Hawaiian homeowners, when a nearby volcano is erupting, and the lava flow is threatening their property.  Instead of merely fleeing madly (unless that's the only option, of course), they remove the possessions they want, and then clean the house.  Sweeping the floors, wiping the shelves, perhaps even putting a flower in a vase on the dining room table.  Thus taking back just a little, from the awful sacrifice that's being exacted from them.  A feeling of dignity and personal autonomy, limited though that might be. 

Well, this is obviously far down the pike for me.  I'd be happy, I think, to be able to go through the contents of, say, one of the many shelf units downstairs, just to see what's there, and whether or not it has any value at all.  Maybe I could keep, for myself, a list of the wonderful things, so there would be another activity and focus superimposed on the one of which I'm so afraid. 

And now I've got to call a bunch of doctors, to find out some information.  I may add to this later in the day, as it looks as though it's going to be an interesting one...

(Later that same day...)

Well, it was interesting.  But I'm burnt out, and want to go to bed now.  So I'll just stop for now, and resume my recitations and reflections tomorrow.  God willing.

©  2013       Walter Zimmerman

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Justify This...

This may be disjointed.  Fasten your mental seat belts.

Of course, I'm still reverberating from yesterday's memorial service for my friend John Willard.  And I suppose this reverberation might continue, off and on, for some time.  Or, the rest of my life.  Obviously, it's too soon to tell.

I thought I would be better, with regard to his illness -- that I would automatically know, somehow, just what I should have been called upon to do.  I thought, given the proliferation of medical marvels these days, that it was going to be only a matter of time before he would be cured.  I excused my seemingly careless absence from this part of his life as my way of saying 'Oh, of course you're fine -- I'll call in a couple of weeks, and check in again'.  I thought that, if I went down to Philadelphia, I would only be in the way, that John would be embarrassed because he hadn't been able to keep his apartment spotless, because he was dying of cancer.  Maybe I thought I would get away with something -- avoid the pain, if I just pretended that nothing in particular was going on.

It's not as though I haven't seen a death before, either.  When I was almost done with high school, my step-grandfather fell ill with emphysema.  He'd had a severe bout of pneumonia a few years earlier, but kept on drinking and smoking, as though nothing had happened.  Except that it had.

When he had pneumonia, he and my horrid grandmother still owned their restaurant with the extra bedrooms upstairs, and he'd been tended to in the largest of those rooms.  I was only allowed to peek in to see him -- why would I be sitting by his bedside at that point? -- and he seemed to be shrunken and pale, almost swallowed up in the bedclothes, and weighted down by the great dark headboard against the wall.  But by the time the emphysema showed up, the restaurant was no longer in business, and there was no place for him to wrestle with this illness, but an improvised bed in our living room.

Here, I was much more involved with his care.  I would look in on him every hour or so, when I was at home, and often re-arrange his pillows, so he would have some fresh coolness against his back.  He always thanked me elaborately, wishing he could give me a million dollars for so simple an effort.  Because he was bedridden, I also had to help him pee -- I think he was still coordinated enough to handle himself, but I had to hold the glass bottle, designed for the purpose, in place.  It was somehow confusing to me, a teenager who was acting on his gay desires whenever it was possible, to be confronted with a grown man's penis, in such a clinical, detached setting.

I also was often in charge of giving my step-grandfather his medication.  Pills of some sort, which he could barely choke down with a glass of water.  I had to hold his head still, and hold the glass too, trying not to tip it too much, and get his sheets wet.  Perhaps the pills were for pain, I'm guessing, because he usually asked me to give him too much.  So he could stop feeling the wracking pain in his chest.  By dying.  I can still recall a kind of cold drenched feeling that would come over me, when he begged me to do this thing, that he clearly thought would be a gift.

Teenagers and young adults have a clear, more or less black-and-white view of their world -- or at least I know I did.  And even though it would have been called a murder, I admit thinking, maybe for a few seconds, or even a minute or two, not so much about the legal or even the moral implications, but about where legality and morality seemed to conflict with compassion.  A fatally-ill man, who, if he'd been capable of crossing the room on his own, probably would have taken those pills himself.
Versus the certain knowledge that he was going to continue lying there, hoping that someone would come into the room soon, to turn his pillows around, and maybe help him to die.

Then he died, all on his own.  Quietly, in the middle of the night, with his wife and my father and my stepmother in the room.

When my father was in the final stages of his losing struggle with bladder and bone cancer, I spent a few hours with him in his hospital room.  He'd been brought there because his blood chemistry was severely out of whack.  Something about a salt imbalance.  When his doctor came in to look at my dad's chart, I asked if there hadn't been some improvement.  'The man is dying,' the doctor said, in much the same tone he might have used to tell me what color his car was.

Because he was obviously so ill, I was afraid even to leave the room to go to the bathroom, in case he should die while I was answering a call of nature.  I finally took the chance, and he was still breathing when I got back.  I wasn't sure, actually, that he even knew I was there.

Then his lunch arrived.  A hamburger with lettuce and tomato, some french fries and a little container of red jello.  I thought this would be a challenge for him, but he attacked the burger with a vigor that I actually found a little off-putting.  Nothing delicate and weak in his table manners.  How could this bother me?  Here's my dying father, devouring the grilled patty and the tomato slice with determination and focus.  Isn't that a good thing?

He did need help with the jello, so I opened the little plastic cup and spoon-fed him, having what may be a feeling for many of us now -- the irony of role-reversal, with me helping my father eat his wriggling red  dessert.   When I had to leave, and he realized I was going back to his house, he jerked alert and started struggling to get out of bed.  This I found especially sad.

Two weeks later, having been sent home again, because there was nothing the hospital could do, he died, with my youngest brother at his side.

I guess I'm trying to justify, somehow, what I'm truly afraid was a terrific betrayal on my part -- a betrayal of someone who meant far more to me, really, than either of these other two dying men.  Yes, John meant even more than my own father.  But instead of taking a trip to Philadelphia, to be helpless by his bedside, I hid.     

Justification.   I think we all know how this usually works out.

©     2013           Walter Zimmerman    


Saturday, February 16, 2013

More Than You Can Handle?

Feeling a bit embarrassed by yesterday's post.  But, one blunders on...

Today, I went into Manhattan, to meet with my artist friend Chris Kienke, and to go to the glass exhibit, 'Playing With Fire', at the Museum of Art and Design at Columbus Circle.  A large installation piece of mine is in the show -- a commission made for a friend and collector.

It's quite complex and sizable, and colorful under the gallery lights.  One of the conditions the owner made, in agreeing to lend the piece for the show, was that I be on hand, to dismantle it, pack it up, and reassemble it for the exhibit.  And, of course, to repeat the process in reverse, in April, when the show will be over.  Sometimes I feel less like an artist and more like a day laborer. 

Chris suggested that we have coffee, so we left the museum (going upstairs to 'Robert', the museum's restaurant, seemed out of the question.  'Robert'?  Even a glass of water would be out of my price range), and I thought we would go to the Cosmic Diner, which should have been right down the street.  Except, of course, that the entire neighborhood seems to have been demolished and rebuilt, with no diner, Cosmic or otherwise, in sight.  There was a decent-looking coffee shop, though, and we ducked in there for our refreshment, and a bit more conversation.  Chris is in town for the annual College Art Association convention, where he gave a talk, and looked around for other teaching positions.  It was interesting, from my perspective as an ex-professor, to listen to his interview adventures.  I hope he finds the right job.

And then, as is typical of me, I ran away, to get to a pre-rush hour train home.  Got to Penn Station with two minutes to spare.  Off the train in South Orange, I stopped into the market, for dinner makings, and walked briskly back home.

Now, with dinner over with, I must get ready for tomorrow's ordeal.  Before I go to bed, I want to iron the dress shirt I'll wear, and decide whether to wear trousers, or my black jeans with my black cashmere jacket, and a black tie.  John and I will leave the house by 9:30 at the latest, for Philadelphia, where we'll scramble for a parking space (it's not that I hate Philadelphia per se; many people seem to like it a great deal -- I just hate being there), and then arrive at the church at least half an hour early, for my dear friend John Willard's memorial service.  The third of such services in which I will have participated, in under six weeks.

Each of these memorials has brought its distinct brand of pain.  For John's mother -- the loss of family, of history, of the joy of helping her, even if our visits could only be once a year.  I planted an Arabian lilac bush for her, and when last I saw it, it was still thriving.  For our friend Doug -- the shock of such a sudden, unexpected death, that led most of us to try to remember just how recently we'd been in touch with him, and then -- in an instant, an aneurysm burst, and he was beyond us all.  And now, I'll be sitting in another church, with another group of people, to honor a man who, in my case, has been a part of my life for more than forty years.  A man whose generosity literally changed my life.  I already feel as though an huge chunk of my life has collapsed with his death.

Sobering thoughts, sobering rituals, and I expect that, as I've already said, this is only the beginning of the great exodus of my generation.

Every single day, God (or whatever) gives a great many people much more than they can handle.

©  2013         Walter Zimmerman      

Another Day, Another Funeral...

Well, today was supposed to be the tough one. 

My dear friend, John Willard, with whom I've been a close close friend since 1966, died late last month, after a two-year fight with throat cancer.  Today, there was a memorial service for him, at a lovely Episcopal church in downtown Philadelphia.  Preparing to leave the house, for the 90 mile drive, all I could concentrate on was finding the blackest possible garments to wear.   

My John and I decided that, in order to be on time, we needed to leave the house by 9:30 am.  I drove, which gave me something on which to concentrate, other than death.  There was more traffic that I expected, but thanks to my skill at driving like a barely-in-control maniac, we made it to the parking garage at Walnut and 12th with plenty of time to walk to the church.  Time enough, even, for me to get a coffee. 

Time enough, as a matter of fact, for me to resume obsessing about the fact that, as I was leaving the house, I realized that I didn't have a handkerchief -- the closest related thing I could locate was a huge bandana with a picture of flying quails or something on it, and I couldn't very well pull that out of my pocket and blow my nose.  Not in an Episcopal church in Philadelphia.  The wad of paper towels in my pocket didn't seem quite right either.

We asked for hankies, at some trendy clothier off Broad St., but they didn't deal with such things.  The kind saleswoman suggested, though, that I try the Ralph Lauren shop just down the street.  Which proved to be perfect, if you can't tell the difference between a pocket square and a real hankie.  I bought the only white one they had, and I'll never tell how much it cost.  But at least I had something presentable to soak with grief.

The red doors of the church were wide open.  A few of John's friends were already there.  His sisters had arrived from hither and yon -- I'd met the oldest, Wendy, years ago, and she warmly remembered me.  Steven, the one friend of John's who so steadfastly cared him until the moment when caring was no longer necessary, was there.  Somehow, around him, I always feel like especially rank white trash.  Once our tense little greeting was over, my John and I found seats close to the pulpit, and waited.

It is a splendid old church, full of visual richness.  I was especially intrigued by the nearly symphonic array of reds -- red painted panels on the ceiling above the altar; swaths of red stained glass in the triple altar window; even a few of the mourners were wearing red, under something black of course.  There was an intricately carved railing, of some ivory-colored material, that made me think of what it must have been like, as an illiterate peasant, to be confronted with the splendor of a medieval cathedral -- how overwhelming the stimulus must have been, how fascinating every detail, and how easy it would be to get completely lost in the imagery, and begin making up one's own stories of what was going on, which would probably be wildly different from what the church fathers had in mind.  Just as my own train of thought would probably be frowned upon, come to think of it.

The service began.  The priest chanted as he walked up the center aisle to the front of the church.  We heard Bible texts and personal reminiscences.  We all read the 23rd Psalm together.  We sang a hymn.  We heard a brief sermon, about what happens after we die, which tends to make me furious.  We said the Lord's Prayer.  We heard a song by Debussy.  We stood for a benediction, which John's three sisters sang from the back of the church.  It came out in a kind of charming disarray that resolved itself for the round of Amens.  The organist played a Bach piece as the priest left down the center aisle again, and the service was over.  When I turned around to put on my overcoat, I was surprised to see that practically every pew in the sanctuary was occupied.  Mr. Willard certainly had a lot of friends.  Some of whom, as the service came to a close, were in tears, weeping copiously into their handkerchiefs.

I, however, had remained oddly dry-eyed.  There had been a brief burning flush, a stinging in my eyes, as I had paused just inside those red doors, before entering the church for the service.  But it quickly vanished.  Did I swallow that upwelling?  Did I push it away?  Did I squelch my grieving, again?   All I know is that the handkerchief I'd scurried about to find, remained free of any of the damp stinging saltiness I'd been expecting.

Because, I'm ashamed to say, I think I spent most of my time during that memorial wondering who I was in John Willard's life -- I felt superfluous and invalid and confused.  I couldn't figure out, while we sang and prayed and read, how I could have known this man for over forty years, and not know more than a single handful of the people gathered in this room, all to mourn his passing.  I think I felt unentitled to cry -- as though such a public display would be unseemly, vulgar, and obviously just an effort to call attention to myself -- to brag, as it were, about my sadness.  I'm trying, now, to find some picturesque analogy, to illustrate the degree to which I felt disoriented, but nothing suitable comes to mind.  I felt insignificant, as if the love I felt for this man was really not that important.  And if the love wasn't important, how could the grieving possibly matter?

There was a reception after the service, at one of John's favorite Philadelphia eateries.  The place had been reserved for this gathering, and there were a few hors d'oeuvres out on a table, and an open bar, and I still felt adrift.  My John (I know at least... fifteen Johns, I think -- I sometimes think of my John as JC, or John from California, not to be confused with JA, or John Carter, who was born in Alaska, or JV, Johnny Swing, who lives in Vermont, or JN, John Carter's father-in-law, who lives in New Orleans... you get the picture) got me a glass of red wine, and then we discovered a larger table, further back in the restaurant, with plates and forks and napkins, beside trays of sandwiches, some rice-y looking thing, and little round, possibly fish-related edibles.  We got in line, selected some of this and some of that, and sat at the far end of the longest table in the room.  Eventually, by dint of the fact that there were only so many chairs to go around, some people joined us, and as we were all there because we knew the same man who was now dead, we eventually started those little conversations one has with complete strangers at gatherings like these.  'How did you know John?'  In our case, we'd been joined by a cousin, and assorted relatives thereof.  Pleasant chatting ensued.

My John liked the risotto (it had lobster in it, we discovered) and got himself some more.  I jumped the line and snagged another little pork sandwich, so John could have one of his own.  We debated about another glass of wine.  I had a cup of coffee instead, served by a handsome young waiter whose thinness, emphasized by his tight tight clothes, was actually a little disconcerting.  And as usual, I was ready to leave sooner than almost anyone else.  We exchanged addresses with people I fully expect never to hear from again, said goodbye to John's sisters, another close friend of his, of whom I'd actually heard, and Steven, who seemed warmer by this time -- perhaps a bit of wine had helped? And presto -- the event was over.  We were less than two blocks from the parking garage, and within fifteen minutes, we were on our way back to South Orange again.  Me at the wheel.  To give me something on which to concentrate.

When will I not have something on which to concentrate?  When will this great boulder of stunned sadness I feel in my middle -- the place the Chinese say grief resides -- dislodge itself, and undam what lies behind or beneath or within it?  The man who, no matter what any priest says, is dead now, was one of the first loves of my life.  I wanted to be with him, and him only, when I was 20 years old and he was 27 -- 46 years ago.  And even though he let me know then, as diplomatically as possible, that he wasn't ready for a monandrous relationship, I was still smitten.  He had become -- in an instant, it seemed -- a crucial navigational point in my emotional life.  Although, all along, I couldn't quite believe that he really wanted to spend time with someone like me,who barely knew the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork, and for whom writing a thank you note was a completely alien concept.

And now, the other living half of this central life relationship is dead, and I don't feel equal to the unanticipated task of upholding, alone, the entirety of our history together.  But now, I am the only one who can remember these things, these slivers of memory -- there's no one else into whose brown eyes I can look, and know that, if I mention the little rented rubber boat we almost sank, off the beach in Provincetown all those years ago, he'll know exactly how the water felt.

I'm at home now, slumped on the couch, with little blue-eyed Coco purring on the couch beside me.  The new, still-dry handkerchief is in my pocket.  But I don't really need it -- I'm not in an ornate church full of people I don't know, and who don't know me.  Now I can go ahead and let my cheeks, and my chin, and my shirt get as wet...