Friday, March 29, 2013


Well, I've certainly fallen down on my pledge to myself, to post something here every day for a year.  I'll try to figure out just how bad I should feel, maybe in November. 

Today, a quiet day at home, mostly spent in the den, amid all my paper-making supplies, in a heap that would horrify normal visitors.  I lay on the couch, with one of the cats asleep next to me, and a bag of ice perched on my sore right shoulder, while I took men's pink shirts apart with a knife, and watched 1940's B-grade movies about 'The Doctor Detective'.  Idle hands being the devil's workshop, after all...

The movies -- totally unremarkable, fairly typical of the period, were interesting to me because the plots were so transparent, the exposition unspooled as artlessly and unselfconsciously as possible, and life seemed incredibly unsophisticated or suspicious, in spite of the prevalence of bad guys in ugly hotel rooms that all looked the same.  Were the lives of my parents and their contemporaries really mirrored in these films?  Did these movies really reflect the expectations of adults in post-WWII America?  If so, I think, if I had been born thirty years earlier, I might have been the biggest, most successful crook in human history.

I also found the women's clothes -- especially the hats -- mesmerizing.  Even in cheap movies like these, every female seen out of doors was wearing a fairly complicated chapeau.  There seemed to be a vaguely architectural/science fiction flavor to them.  I can only imagine what colors they might have been, black and white being so clever at disguising orange as green, etc etc etc.

Then I had two jobs to do: clean out the fridge, and make sure there was something to eat for dinner.  The fridge part was relatively quick and easy -- I just grabbed everything that had been lurking on one shelf or another for longer than absolutely necessary, and threw it out.  Why we insist on keeping cooked broccoli, when we so rarely eat same, may always remain a mystery to me.

Shopping.  I've promised to bring scalloped potatoes to the potluck Easter lunch John and I are attending, so I needed all the ingredients, plus the odd this and that, like... more broccoli.  In no time, my little blue plastic hand basket was filled to the brim, and I was semi-regretful of not having chosen a cart instead.  Especially with my sore arm.

I also found myself thinking, again, about being dead.  Actually, I'd started thinking about being dead right at the intersection of South Center St. and South Orange Avenue, on my way to the market.  I don't know what prompts these little bouts of... not exactly gloom, but maybe more like a longing for disconnection, I guess.  When I had finally picked up the final (non-essential) item for this particular trip, I stood in line for checkout, and had a pretty intense dizzy spell -- one of the first I've had outside the house.  And of course, while the wooziness swept over me, and then ebbed away, I thought about dying -- was this going to be it?  Was I going to die in public, in the checkout line in the South Orange supermarket, where Dionne Warwick is known to have shopped?  What might I be thinking about, lying on the linoleum and looking up at all the baskets they've hung from the ceiling?  What might I say, to disconcerted customers and panic-stricken cashiers?

No one could tell, of course, and I just did my usual joking during the ringing up process, asking if it makes any difference if I put produce before packaged goods, or the other way 'round.  Lugging the groceries back to the van -- more food than many villages in Africa probably see in an average month, I'll bet -- I had to change which arm I used, because the injured shoulder was finally complaining.  I decided to put the bags of groceries on the passenger seat, buckled them in snuggly, and set about extricating myself from the parking dungeon.

And while I was maneuvering around concrete pillars and other parked cars, I drifted back to what seemed to be the topic du jour, at least for this little errand: death.  Or more specifically, being dead.  It may truly be that what I fear and/or dread most about this stupid inevitable transition (if we're being optimistic.  I think), is not knowing how that actual transition will feel.  Will there be pain?  I'm not especially heroic about pain. 

I'm also squeamish about my appearance in public, and knowing what I do about death and its impact on the human body, I dread what seems to be an involuntary, inelegant mess, upon deceasing.  When we lived in Rochester, I happened to meet, through a folk-singing group, a Presbyterian minister who, apparently, was frequently called upon to witness the death of a member of his congregation, and he would from time to time make a mordant comment, indicating the frequency with which the deceased was discovered 'straining at stool'.  I would say that all of my suicide fantasies take messiness into account, as a high-priority item on the agenda.

But, while I waited for the light at South Orange Avenue and Scotland Road to turn green, so I could proceed on my one-mile westward drive to our house, I looked at my hands on the steering wheel and thought again about Proust's observation: 'Dying is easy -- people do it every day.  Thinking about death -- especially one's own death -- is impossible.'  Can I actually imagine my not being physically present on the planet?           

There's a meditation I found, in a book called 'The Secret' (which title I find hilarious, given how bulky the volume is, with conspicuous gold lettering on the cover and down the spine), in which I'm asked to imagine that I don't have a head.  I think that, when I first read it, I thought this, too, was hilarious, and then impossible.  But when I tried to put this into practice -- mostly on my commute down to Philadelphia when I was still somewhat meaningfully employed -- I found it to be curiously refreshing and diverting.  I tried to pretend that whatever I was seeing or thinking was actually taking place right about where my sternum is.  And as a matter of fact, I came to like this weird exercise, which must be impossible to do correctly, which of course means it's also impossible to do wrong.

But the reason I bring this up -- this purported imagining that I'm dead (which is probably, more truthfully, imagining that I'm imagining that I'm dead) led me to think about the possible benefits of being dead.  Which I thought I'd kind of list here:

Benefits of Being Dead.   (A Short List; A Complete Compilation Possibly Being Impossible)

Never having to do anything ever again.
Never losing anything ever again.
Not having to buy anything ever again.
Not having to worry about how I look.
Not having to worry about forgetting someone else's name, or anything else, for that matter.
Not having to worry about being late.
Not having to worry about being a failure.
Not having to worry about getting sick.
Not having to think about the odds of getting shot on any particular day.
Never having to drive anywhere for anything ever again.
In fact, never having to travel anywhere ever, ever again.
Never having to worry about getting older and more infirm.
Never having to think about what's for dinner.
Never having to think about deodorant or exercising, ever again.
Not having to worry about being polite.
Not worrying anymore about money.
Not thinking about the weather, or what to wear.
Not having to worry about being gay or not.
Not having to think about unfulfilled potential anymore.
No burping or farting.
Not having to spend time with people I don't like.
Not having to worry about misspelling things, or repeating myself.
Not having to be either particularly smart, or particularly stupid or clumsy.
Not having to worry about forgetting the house's security code, or anything else, for that matter.
Not having to worry about sin.
Not having to worry about death by tsunami, or meteor collision, or nuclear war, or plague.
Not having to think about death anymore.
Not worrying about halitosis.
Not worrying about never having sex again, or that the reason I'll never have sex again is that no one is particularly interested in me... that way.  Or, at least no one in whom I'm at least slightly interested... that way.

I think I'll leave this list on this prurient note, as John has arrived home, and I think I need to make motions similar to those one makes if one is going to make dinner.  About which, when I'm dead, I will never have to worry ever again. 

There seems to be a movie by Federico Fellini on TV now, and it seems to be about Napoleon.  Sometimes I prefer just to listen to movies from another room.  It's kind of like overhearing a conversation at Starbux. 

Happy Easter, or whatever.

©    2013               Walter Zimmerman

Monday, March 25, 2013

Angry House...

How things emerge.

John thought he'd left his wallet, and his driver's license, in his suit jacket at church yesterday, and asked me to drive him to the train station this morning, and could I pick him up tonight?  All I needed was half a cup of coffee, I decided, and I was good to go. 

As we were getting ready to leave the house, John found his wallet in his overcoat pocket.  So he could safely drive to New Brunswick and back after all.  But, on second thought, would I mind taking him in to Newark Penn Station anyway, and getting him again at around 10 pm?  The weather report looked grim, and driving on the Garden State at night is less than picnic-like, even in the best of conditions.  Of course I could be there.  And so, off we drove.

There was virtually no traffic -- it being spring break or something.  I love driving into downtown Newark on days when school is out, or it's especially cold -- the trip seems so simple and direct, like slicing butter.  Even the four dread center-city blocks, between Washington St. and the McCarter Highway, can seem manageable, lumbering buses and all.  I enjoy the low-grade challenge of keeping an eye on all the moving parts of the puzzle, so both to avoid contact and maintain maximum vehicular quickness.  Sort of like a computer game, I guess, but in Sens-U-Round. 

Two little near-misses jolted me.  The door of a double-parked van suddenly opened as we were passing, and I may have missed it by mere inches.  The drop-off stand at the station was unusually crowded; when John got out, I had to back up a bit to get back into the exit lane, and I realized, at the last second, that someone was crossing the street behind me.  Although this pedestrian evidenced no immediate concern about physical safety, I had one of those moments of dizziness that follow such reprieves.  Which, as it passed, seemed to give me a different perspective on the emotional state in which I have found myself recently -- that of bated breath, a sense of dread, of impending doom or punishment, of the imminent fraying of what looks like so well-knit a life. 

Why would such a frame of mind impose itself?  I mean, I think I'm pretty much just as pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding as the next human being -- where would the adoption of such an unpleasant internal posture come from?  As is usual for me, I looked into my own personal history, to see what I might be able to ferret out.

In an odd way, perhaps as Theseus might have used the thread Ariadne gave him, to find his way out of the labyrinth -- but heading in the opposite direction -- I followed that inner discomfort back to the span of time I lived with my father and his second family.  About seven years of unending tension, of free-floating anxiety and the sense, as they say, of waiting for the other shoe to drop.  (Which expression, though perfectly clear in its meaning, otherwise makes no sense.  Why does it make me see myself hiding under a bed, while a lumbering, evil man makes the mattress creak over me, as he struggles to unlace his other boot...?)  And today, in a twist that seems unusual to me, I continued to follow that thread of tension, back into the lives of the three major actors in our sour family drama.
What I think I realized was that, instead of a primary fear at work, this tension thread became a triple cord of deep, perhaps unquenchable anger.

Mary.  My stepmother's mother.  The woman I feel completely justified in calling 'my horrid grandmother'.  A truly powerful and baleful presence, this woman seemed at first like a nasty moon in a disturbingly intimate orbit around the family my father and stepmother were trying to make, mostly with the shards of his first marriage.   Which shards would be my brothers and me.  And then, as if the orbit wasn't convenient enough, she moved in, and her gravitational field wielded an even more constant and sour impact.  What was she angry about?  I can only guess.

She'd lived through the Depression, and its events were embedded deeply.  She seemed unaware of the lingering impact of what had happened nearly a quarter of a century earlier; she hoarded and resented and begrudged.  Never particularly self-revealing, she did, annually, remind my brothers and me of how grateful we should be, to be getting any gifts at all at Christmas, because all she got as a child was an orange.  I could never tell whether this was a coded request for a whole bushel of oranges for a change, or never to see an orange again as long as she lived.  And she wasn't the sort of person one could turn to, for clarification.

She may have been attractive in her young womanhood -- there weren't many photos, but the ones I saw showed a face with a kind of distant kinship with Loretta Young's.  Who knows what immoderate dreams spring up, fed by one's own fleeting loveliness -- dreams that, seemingly forgotten, still linger, giving off whiffs of toxicity that go almost unnoticed, but not unfelt?   She had also seen her only daughter, her eldest child, make two regrettable marriages -- one early fling that, according to family legend, had been annulled, and the second marriage, to a smoking, drinking, cursing divorced Protestant man with four young boys from his own failed first marriage. 

Mary never had a kind word for my father, that I can recall, and took special delight in finding something pointedly unpleasant to say to my brothers and me, as often as possible.  I still remember, with a kind of stunned disbelief, her taking me aside one afternoon, in the kitchen of the house on Grover St., and beginning, in a confidential tone, one of her little instances of 'just telling the truth'.  'You know,' she said, looking at me closely, 'of all the boys, you're the ugliest one.'  Living with her was like living in a closely-planted mine-field -- it wasn't a question of whether one would sustain damage on any particular day, but rather just how extensive the inevitable damage might be.

Walter, my father.  The third and youngest, the only son of a prosperous man and his nervous wife who seemed ill-prepared for life.  My father, too, had lived through the Depression, though it seemed he was sheltered somewhat by his father's prosperity -- which apparently was stripped away, as was that of so many people -- and diligence -- because my grandfather allegedly rebuilt his financial stability, in the worst of times.  The only lingering impact from my dad's childhood, about which I knew anything at all, was his aversion to rutabagas (brought on by what was apparently a surfeit of these root vegetables during the Victory Garden phase of WWII), and a kind of wistful sadness seemingly centered around a 'nervous breakdown' his mother had, during the 30's, which had meant that my dad's upbringing fell to his older sisters.  He seemed molded, by this modified maternal abandonment, to fit most comfortably with decisive, domineering women, whether he actually liked it or not.

But the anger?  Oh, it was there, though so deeply buried and so tightly controlled that it usually only rose to the surface, in full force, on rare and dreadful occasions.  I never did understand what was at the core of what I'm tempted to call the enmity between my father and his own dad -- because my grandparents lived in New Jersey, so far from our homes in Illinois or Pennsylvania, visits between the two men seldom took place.  And the one or two I recall having seen (to the extent of sitting out in the hallway, listening to muffled voices behind closed doors), were tense and unpleasant.  My grandfather seeming angry and stern, my father seeming angry and cringing.

So, my dad took his anger out, it seems, on authority figures, and on his own life, I think.  He was hot-tempered at work, and I mordantly joke that we moved so often in my childhood because, first, my father was in the military, and then, that he had a bad temper.  He had trouble keeping jobs.  And I think his steadfast embrace of a kind of life-failure was a dangerous angry gesture toward the father who couldn't give him whatever it was he needed.  Though there certainly weren't many opportunities, in his singularly luckless employment history, for my father to have taken a leap to someplace more financially rewarding and personally enriching, whenever they arose, he would turn them down.

And my father took his anger out on us, my brothers and me.  Mostly my brothers.  And mostly, I'm pretty sure, at the prompting of my horrid grandmother, and of Joan, my stepmother.  Beatings, mostly, and then the period of time when my brothers were chained in bed at night, and I was given custody of the padlock key.  We were also locked in the basement from time to time, my brothers sitting on a red-wood picnic bench, with their wrists circled in dog-lead chain, the other end of the chains wrapped around the joist supports in the basement ceiling, and me sitting on a red-wood picnic bench across the floor, on guard duty.  With assigned times for lunch (no unlocking for that), and for bathroom use.  Though I rarely talk about this sliver of my past, when I do, the question arises -- 'Well, why didn't you just unlock them, and let them go?'  The sad truth of the kind of vicious system in which we boys found ourselves is that, if I had undone the padlocks, so we could run around the basement and play darts with the canned goods, one of my brothers would inevitably have reported this lapse on my part, to gain favor, and to bring down even more terrible punishment on my head.  We were like a little aquarium of doomed sharklets, waiting to devour each other.

Joan.  My stepmother.  The oldest of three children, the only girl, and the darling of her parents Mary and Sam.  Sam, my step-grandfather, was a non-practicing Jew from Philadelphia who'd spent part of WWII in the Merchant Marine, and loved to watch war-era sea stories on TV.  Mary, of horrid grandmotherhood, was from McKeesport, of Croatian Catholic stock.  Aside from her legacy of psychic scars, she left as her estate a tall, two-doored metal cabinet in the basement, stuffed with brown paper bags.  Joan was lovely, with a kind of svelte, Elizabeth Taylor air, in spite of her one bad eye -- the result of a playtime accident as a child, when her brother Jimmy threw a dart at her, and it stuck.  Photographed from the right angle, this didn't show at all.  She had nice, manageable hair and long, well-tended fingernails, at least in the one studio-type portrait I remember, taken of her just before she met my father when they both worked for Nationwide Insurance, in Pittsburgh.

Joan had a wonderful car -- a huge maroon Mercury convertible.  I think it had white sidewall tires, which were among the most ne plus ultra of automotive luxuries at the time.  I don't remember actually riding in this, but I knew she had it, and it was kind of like an enormous gem, sparkling carelessly in the parking lot of the restaurant/truck stop her parents ran, in Mckeesport PA, within walking distance of one of the many local steel mills.  She and my father decided, after I'd already been removed/released/rescued from the orphanage, to sell her grand car, to get the money necessary for the downpayment on a house big enough for my brothers to come home from the orphanage too.  The arrangement with the orphanage being that my brothers and I were to be removed from there if and when my father remarried.  I was removed under false pretenses, but that's a different story.

Oh, I forgot to mention, my stepmother was 21 when she married my father -- ten years younger than her new husband, and ten years older than her eldest soon-to-be stepson.

The car sale went through -- who wouldn't want a maroon Mercury convertible with white sidewall tires, that had been owned by a semi-glamorous young woman-about-town?  There was tension about the mortgage on the new house -- a three-bedroom, one bath home far out in the country, up in the hills above the river valleys where the mills worked 24 hours a day, keeping the sky orange at night.  But the loan was finally approved, and almost as soon as the furniture was put into place, and my parents made the trip to Mars PA (you can't make these things up), to get my brothers and settle them into their little bunk beds, and everything would be like a Louisa May Alcott story, everything began to fall apart.

My brothers misbehaved, and were rebellious.  I only recently learned that they mistakenly believed that Joan had seduced my father away from our mother, and that it was her fault we'd been in the orphanage in the first place.  My father lost his job as a restocker of vending-machines and refiller of coffee makers in office buildings scattered through downtown Pittsburgh.  My stepmother became pregnant with the first of their two daughters.  The life of material security and warm promise suddenly curdled, and there was no home recipe for turning it sweet again.

So, I think, Joan's anger was fresher and more vigorous, and closer to hand.  Her resentments hadn't festered for years, under the thumb of a strict, domineering father, or because of wide-spread economic woes no one could fully understand.  No, hers was quite easy to trace to its recent origins -- how easy to see her beautiful Mercury in the driveway, instead of the beat-up old Plymouth, hand painted a dull 'dusty rose' color, so it looked like an enormous sofa one the road.  How simple to grasp that she'd find it unpleasant to learn that one of her new stepsons had soiled his underwear at school, and by attempting to flush the garment down the toilet, had caused flooding all over the one-level building.  How immediately sensible that she would feel rubbed raw because, in the space of less than a year, she'd gone from the long, glistening nails, lovingly polished whenever necessary, to short, unpainted nails more suitable for waiting on tables at her resentful mother's truckstop restaurant.  Every serving of stuffed cabbages she carried having been handed to her with a silent reproach.  'I told you so.  I told you not to marry him.  All those children'

And, in what is I guess the way of someone who's experienced being indulged, and not having to put up with what she doesn't want, my stepmother somewhat belatedly decided that... she didn't want to have someone else's children in her house.  She just didn't want them.  She couldn't bear to see them.  Whatever they did, at any level more complicated than breathing, was an irritation, that sent her into screaming, incoherent tirades.  I managed to duck some of this vitriol by grabbing whichever baby was closest; even thus shielded, I still had to listen to these vicious tongue lashings.

Now, as it happened, my stepmother and, I suspect, her mother, managed to get their wish, and my three brothers were re-institutionalized.  I was kept around because I was helpful.  But the three streams of anger that had intertwined to eject my brothers from that unhappy little house, seemed to find no appeasement in this achievement.  It's as though, once release and allowed to run free, this torrent of grudge and vitriol couldn't be recaptured, or put to peaceful purposes.  In the ensuing five years, until I was old enough to be enlisted in the military, life at home was mostly typified by holding ones breath between outbreaks of one kind of anger or another.

And I was angry too, certainly.  But mine was an impotent anger, directed mostly in toward myself.  It certainly wasn't safe to express my own anger out in the open, as it wouldn't flow quite so nicely with the torrent already in place.  Mine was an opposing, resentful, sneering anger.  I couldn't believe how mean our lives were, how inferior everything seemed, how stupid they all were, but as far as I knew, expressing these opinions openly would lead to one thing: Back to the Orphanage.  And in our house, this threat was not idle.  It happened over and over again -- from the first expulsion of my three brothers, through repeated subsequent attempts to bring one or another back, only to have one of the other fail to meet the stringent rules and regulations.  So my fearful, adolescent anger found its only outlet in a facial expression of weary self-resignation (This again?  I can't believe we're having canned peas... again...  That sort of thing).  That, and a ceaseless inner cataloging of my own shortcomings; better I should excoriate myself first, and get it over with, than be surprised by a new snipe attack by Mary or Joan.  My father rarely saying anything, as he was usually taking a nap.

So, seven years, total, of a life more or less like this.  High tension, high drama, abuse, dire want, humiliation, feeling unsafe, unloved, unnecessary.  One can learn a lot in seven years.  If the years are early enough, they can form the foundation of a whole life-expectancy, as it were.  This is how the world operates.  This is the duration of your lull of peace.  This is the probable intensity of the next outbreak of havoc.  Seven years, I think, is less time than some people serve in prison for involuntary manslaughter, and for that. there's an actual dead human being involved.

I just read, in this morning's paper, in an article about the handling of charitable donations to those who've suffered some grievous event, like the shootings a Columbine High School, this quote, from Frank DeAngelis, former principal at that school in Colorado:  "What I've learned as time goes by, is that there are going to be needs that no one ever anticipates.  It's never over.  I think people believe that you're going to wake up some morning and everything is back to normal."  'Normal', unfortunately, is not the same thing as usual, or average, or ordinary. 

For me, a life of dread was normal.  A hyper-awareness was an automatic response to the likelihood of something dangerous taking place, and seemed necessary for my own safety.  And the dance of violence, fueled by all that anger, meant there was never a lull of any length, before the shrill music goaded us back onto our feet, for yet another grim quadrille.   Sad to say, this is still pretty much what I expect to burst out and take over again, every single day.

©   2013                       Walter Zimmerman                     

Sunday, March 24, 2013

For No Good Reason...

Why things take these turns, I guess I'll never know.

I'm now officially two days behind in my 'daily' postings here, with no other excuse than a sudden, in explicable upwelling of deep sadness, dismay and self-loathing.  (This, in spite of the daily regimen of... let me see, nine pills a day, of five different medications specifically aimed at reducing my depression.  And not counting the occasional acetaminophen for that shoulder injury I've been so wild about...)  As, as seems always to be the case when these eruptions happen, no amount of logic or rationalization, no counting of blessings or comparisons of my enviable life as compared with those of so many other humans on the planet, will make a bit of difference -- any more than the application of even the most closely-reasoned logic will fend off a thunderstorm.

As for causes -- well, the search for these might seem to be just as futile as my attempts at effecting some kind of intellectually-powered mood reversal, but actually, I think that at this juncture, I can actually point to one or two possible motivators leading, possibly, to this funk.

Play rehearsals.  We're learning the choreography for one of about a billion musical numbers -- it being a musical, after all -- and I'm lagging behind everyone else, in picking up the timing of the chairs slamming against the floor, or when I'm supposed to tap my heels, or how many times I'm supposed to turn my head to the right...  And there's the flipping from the script to the score, and back again, hoping to find the proper place to note the twists and hops -- and then, when I've got the general trend of things noted, I can't see what I've written, because I won't be wearing my glasses in the show, and besides, I can't dance with my script in my hands.  Not that I can dance with the script out of my hands, but that's a different tale altogether.  I was so eager to be cast in this show.  What I guess I didn't count on was, having been cast, that I would actually have to... perform in it. 

My physical appearance these days.  I had thought I would be used to the nude upper lip by now, but I still shudder when I see myself in a mirror.  This is not fun.  This is not good.  This is not enjoyable in the least.  And in spite of what I've already noted, I keep trying to displace this gut reaction with the liberal application of half-hearted encouragements, none of which I believe in the slightest.  Even my recent adoption of a tanning regimen (well, in the script, someone asks my character why he's so brown -- and the idea of applying all-over makeup makes me cringe...) hasn't done that much to make me look, to myself at least, any less ghastly.  John says I have body dysmorphia, which may or may not be the case, but I've always experienced myself as visually disappointing, even as I am capable of spending inordinate amounts of time trying to make myself look just so...  And this focus on my appearance seems to operate more or less constantly, even when it seems as though I'm actually involved in something else -- it's like living in a sniper zone, and although I have somehow to go about my daily business, I'm always on the brink of cringing at the outbreak of gunfire.  Or, in my case, the flash of a reflective surface.  What do I do about this?  I might as well try to change my eye color.

My life in general -- or, more specifically, the lavishly disordered, multitudinously thing-laden, materials-populated life, over which I seem to have no control, other than the ability to make things worse.  Every once in a while, it seems as if a very bright light is turned on, and everything I've done, and made, and picked up from a dumpster or gutter, is shown in the harshest, most unflattering detail.  And even though I know better than to think globally, I am instantly overwhelmed by the enormity of trying even to impose a bit of order on this upwelling of stuff I feel incapable of using, but of which I'm too fond, to allow myself simply to throw it all away.  Denial sets in -- maybe I'll have a chance to use this old refrigerator coil before I die.  Maybe I'll be able to redeem that huge sheet of copper I cadged off a neighbor.  Maybe I'll be able to salvage some of the shellac that's been freezing and thawing in the garage for two winters.  What I have actually been able to accomplish -- clearing the garage end of the driveway of an accumulation of stuff that's been stacked there for two years at least -- seems pathetic, when compared with the sheer volume of work that would still lie ahead, if I were able to muster the strength to tackle what has taken, seemingly, no effort at all to create.  If I were more merciless, I would follow through on my feeble threats of pretending I'm already dead, and just calling in some junk dealers to simply empty the garage of everything, no matter what it is.  And then have them tackle what I laughingly call 'the guest room' -- available only to the disembodied, I'm afraid -- and the attic, and the basement...

(This reminds me of our move from Jersey City, eleven years ago.  I'd been packing and packing, as fast as my little fingers could manage, hampered of course by the ever-invisible free end of the transparent packing tape.  But still, by the time the movers we'd hired had arrived, and in spite of my assurances to them that, by the time they'd gotten the boxes and furniture into their truck, I would be finished with what was left, it was soon apparent even to me that I couldn't do it.  So I had to turn over the remaining packing to these strangers.  For whom nothing they touched had any particular meaning at all, of course.  How nice for them.

But it became clear that I was only in the way, as they worked, so I forced myself to take a long walk, around the block, and through the leafy entrance to Lincoln Park.  As I walked down the long hill toward the park itself, I realized that I felt as though I were having some sort of surgery -- that the skin and subcutaneous tissues of my gut had been cut and pulled back, and my innards were open to light and air, and to the poking and prodding of disinterested professional.  It was an uncanny sensation, and not something I'd be eager to experience again anytime soon.  Which feeling, of course, would most likely resurrect itself, if I really were to fling the garage door open, and let the trash men have their way...)

(I also wonder why I use parentheses here)

And, underneath all of this, I'm afraid, is my favorite, inescapable eventuality -- death.  Good old death.  It's almost as though I'm wearing the worst possible kind of magic glasses, that allow me -- or, more appropriately, that force me -- to see the question of death beside every face I see.  I'm worried, all the time now, that I'm going to get a call from New Brunswick, telling me that John's had a heart attack.  Even this morning, during the sermon at church (the choir I sing with had an anthem today, so I was in attendance, as is not usually the case), and without any particular malice toward the priest, I found myself marveling that we don't all just drop dead at once.   Or at least see, on a more or less regular basis, people falling dead all over the place.  I even worry about which of the cats will be the first to die.  The only things for whose mortality I don't seem especially concerned are the hostas.  And if I don't find the strength to divide them this spring, I'm afraid even they might be imperiled.  

The same old same old, I guess.  I had a relatively productive day, out at Combat Paper, and got a kind of revised schedule set, for producing this hand-made book I seem to be making, and David asked me how many copies I wanted to make -- 'What do you want to do with this book?' he asked.  And I was completely stumped.  In some ways, I feel more like a draught horse, harnessed to a goal that's largely someone else's.  I'm focused on hauling these bags of cotton cloth around, and hand-tearing the excess off the sheets of paper I've pulled, and trying to figure out how the text should be laid out; the notion of a finished product actually catches me by surprise.  And, honestly, almost annoys me.  Because, won't this just be one more thing (or three, or five more things) that I'll have to worry about -- where to put it; will it be safe where I put it; will I remember where I put it; will it make any difference, no matter where I put it?

This afternoon, on my way back home from Branchburg (at least I think that's where I was), I was trying to find a way to describe how I was feeling, and it came to me that it was as though I was trying to scream, but I was trapped in a bed of tar, that made it impossible for the sound to come out.  Just a kind of gummy, floating entrapment.  Right now, it's as though a boulder is lying on my stomach.  Not much fun being had by all.

But I'll bestir myself, and wash the dinner dishes, and maybe do one or two other things, and then take the last of the day's medicines, and go lie down.  Hoping that my sore shoulder won't keep my awake again.  And them, tomorrow, I'll get up, and face it all, again.

Oh rapture.

©         2013                 Walter Zimmerman     

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Then, and Now...

Well, the first thing on my conscience, this morning, is my... failure to publish a post here, yesterday.  My feeble excuse?  The internet was down, or broken, or lost, or something.  It's difficult to think about something so non-substance-related as being able to break, but, seemingly, it did. 

I could've written something anyway, I suppose -- but it's the publishing something every day that seems, to me, more important than when whatever is airing was actually written.  (Maybe I'm just saying that because the internet failure gives me a supporting alibi?)  But in all actuality, in terms of providing fodder for writing, yesterday wasn't particularly generous. 

(I'm writing this in the Starbux on Rte. 22, next door to the Vitamin Shoppe and the Boston Market.  And because my comfy seat is right by the big picture window, I'm suddenly hyper-selfconscious about how... much cat hair richly festoons the keyboard, and clings to the screen.  Which also bears the greasy marks of the keyboard cover I use, to keep said cat hair, and other non-essentials, from working their way down into the workings of this technological wonder, and rendering it useless, except perhaps as a brooch that's far too large for practical wear...)

But back to yesterday.   I think what was most memorable was my little tally, made as I walked to the van after my last in-town errand was completed, of how many people I'd talked with, in the course of this unremarkable Wednesday.  I think it came to a grand total of ten, which is actually pretty impressive, given that none of my activities required that I speak anyone at all, really.

And there was one conversation, at the gym, that seemed as though it was possibly going to develop into an art connection, until the artist in question shared, via the wonders of a smart phone, photos of some recent efforts at sculpture.  And waxed enthusiastic about these achievements, drawn from the 'Birth of Venus' -- an impeccable artistic reference, one would think.  All I thought, under my veneer of culturally-necessitated approval, bolstered with a question or two, to learn more about how these... things... had been made.  And mentally calculating the impact of the many cast reproductions of these... works, once the artist had the necessary all set up in the studio.  I had mentioned that I had a piece of work in the Museum of Arts and Design, right not -- no curiosity was forthcoming, and it wasn't until later, really, that it even occurred to me that this was a little curious.  I also wondered, later, why people think that, by dabbling about with a few ounces of clay, one can be said to be producing sculpture.   In one's spare time.  After one's 'real' job has wound up for the day.

I guess this bothered me.  Though mostly retroactively, it seems.  My built-in engine for self-effacement and ego-reducing is so automatic and powerful that I don't even hear it switch on.

And I suppose brief interaction this qualifies as a kind of event in an otherwise placid day.  The only other time I remarked on anything like a rise in emotional temperature was on my drive home, when I got stuck behind a little vehicle that seemed incapable of operating at speeds of over 5 miles per hour.  Instead of stewing and twitching, and trying to figure out if I could take a very little detour over a neighboring lawn, and back onto the road, so I could resume driving at the speed to which I've become accustomed.  But this time I uncomfortably imagined that I was one of the two figures in this little dinky car, and then I started trying to calculate just how long it would take, for this transformation to have taken place.  And wondering if I would be aware of this shift in social roles, either while the metamorphosis was taking place, or after I've become a crabby, cranky, bitter old man people cringe to see...

Ah, but all this was yesterday.

Today, I'm sprawling in as much comfort as is possible, given Starbux general atmosphere of fake collegiality, especially when perched on a narrow neck of land between streams of traffic yearning to... take a detour over the neighbor's lawn, as it were.  I've just had one of their fat-laden sausage-egg-and-cheese sandwiches, and the largest possible coffee sits within easy reach.  How mundane, one might think.  How unremarkable.  How cliche.

Oh, there's jazz too.

But... this morning, at 8:15 am, I was to have reported to the Essex County Courthouse, wedged between the uncomfortable merger of Market St. and South Orange Ave., in downtown Newark, for the first of two days of mandatory, unavoidable, legally requisite Jury Duty.  I'd planned, in my mind's eye, how I was going to dress, in order to present a mute but undeniable statement of my eminent unsuitability for any of the upcoming trials for which I might be called.  Something slightly stuffy, but a little weird.  Like a retired college art professor might wear, without even thinking about it.

Enter, late last night, as we were preparing for sleep, my heroic boyfriend, Dr. John Sheridan, who wondered if I wasn't supposed to do something, re: jury duty.  Something like... call the night before, to check in, or something?  I'd been so scarred by the notion that I had no choice in this use of two irreplaceable days of my too-fleeting life, that I hadn't read anything on the form before I struck it to the fridge, with our 'Exactly How Much Fun Can I Have Before I Go To Hell?' magnet.  So I went downstairs to fetch same, and he located an appropriate phone number, and dialed it up.  And we both had to listen twice, to make sure that the voice said that 'Jurors in Group 19, with numbers between 00080 and 003990, were excused from duty, until such duty could be reassigned'.  I was in Group 19.  My number was 003752.  Maybe we should call again, to make sure the date of the recording was right?

Hallelujah!  I know it's liturgically incorrect to use this exultation for at least another ten days, but I can barely express how thrilled I am.  They say that one of the best gifts one working adult can give another is to cancel a business meeting; multiply this joy by a factor of 16, plus not having to get to the courthouse and back again, plus negotiating what wonders might be on hand for lunch...

So, I've got laundry languishing in the washer at home, and I've just done a bit more shopping, for men's pink garments, at the local Goodwill Outlet, and now, when I've finished my truly unnecessary coffee, I'm driving up the road to stop into the Barnes and Noble, to see if they have on hand a mystery by Carl Hiaasen that I haven't read, and buy it.  If it doesn't seem too bitterly cold -- spring having legally sprung yesterday, I think -- I might even dare to make a stab at delving into the portal of Hell known as our garage, in search of boxes filled with a particular selection of artworks.

And, if not today, I could always do that tomorrow.  Because, well, I'll certainly have the time...

©    2013                   Walter Zimmerman

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Search and Rescue...

So call me crazy, or whiny, or ungrateful, but I've long suspected that for every silver lining, there's a cloud...

On Sunday, the curator of an upcoming craft-centered group exhibit came by the house, to look at my work and see what pieces, if any, he might want for the show.  I'd rummaged through the smaller works strewn around in the basement, and also brought out some smaller glass-centered wall pieces I thought he might like.  It's always a crap shoot, in a way.

Well, the glass things were a yes, as long as I can come up with five of them with dark backgrounds.  But the things that really fascinated this man were the pieces of glass I have, lying about the place, on almost every available flat surface, and/or underneath an available flat surface... He asked if I would be interested in bringing in a bunch of these -- especially the ones that are in metal restraints, or show other kinds of restriction.  He wants to have a big table in the gallery, with these random glass objects on it, either in some kind of orderly display, or just artfully dumped there. 

Well, oddly enough, this kind of works for me, even though I mostly try to put these glass objects into some kind of context -- conjuring up visions of uncompleted medical procedures, or experiments gone wrong.  But the idea of letting these objects speak for themselves, without any additional information, intrigues me.  Because, of course, I often do think these pieces of glass are fascinating in and of themselves.  And often my challenge, in these cases, is to dream up a situation in which the glass will be displayed as prominently as possible, while still fulfilling its role as an actor in a mute drama.

So.  Gathering the single glass pieces will be (relatively) easy.  Packing them for transport to the gallery will be the usual pain in the butt.  I don't think this will be a case where I can get away with wrapping these things in a quilt and then just tossing them into a clothes basket.

But the challenge, I'm discovering, is locating the boxed pieces.  I think I have about twenty of them, and although I've located seven, they all have the lighter backgrounds.  And after searching the basement, attic, the back porch, and the storage space in Newark, I am left to the only other option that, alas, makes any sense (drum roll please): the garage.  Also known as the South Orange Pit of Despair.

The last time these pieces were exhibited was in a show in Idaho, three years ago.  When all the work came back from the gallery, I stowed most of it... in the garage.  (Which, at the time, was at least somewhat less jam-packed with objects with great potential as art materials)  And of course, in the intervening three years, the amount of stuff crammed into that little space has not diminished, at all.  When we had the last basement flood (my mind goes blank, trying to place these things in terms of month or year), I dragged the uncontaminated stuff up the basement stairs, and... put it in the garage.  After the flood was over, I put much of the stuff back into the basement again, only to have to move it once more, back to the garage, when cleaners came in to super-sanitize the basement.  And of course, when we decided that, in order to avoid any more such basement/water adventures, we needed to have a French drain and sump pumps installed, whatever had once again migrated to the basement (did I mention that this is where I do most of my useless artwork?), had gone back to the garage.  Where it has stayed ever since, with the addition of any amount of extra stuff.

And now...  Well, at least the weather seems to have begun to change for the better, since I'm going to have to drag many cubic feet of what, to the untrained eye, will look like garbage, out onto the driveway, in hopes that the missing boxes of artwork are relatively close to the front of the mess behind the mess.

What makes all this extra-specially dreadful -- aside from the sheer physical labor involved, with no certainty of finding what I'm looking for -- is knowing that my next-door neighbor has his house up for sale, and if I didn't already feel like a blight on the neighborhood (and on my life with John too, as a matter of fact), how am I going to make this ugliness look respectable somehow?  I find it mortifying, to consider that my creative life is once again going to cost someone money.

The cloud behind the silver lining.

©    2013          Walter Zimmerman      

Monday, March 18, 2013

A Day in the Life...

Let me see if I can get this right...

Today, I went to the gym. 

I didn't really want to, all that much.  In the first place, my right shoulder is still sore, from my stupid mistake during a workout last week.  And I'm sure there were better things I could have been doing.  But, honestly, I knew that if I didn't go to the gym, I would just waste the day, waiting until it was time to drive to New Brunswick for choir rehearsal, so I packed my bag, and dragged myself out to the car. 

Besides, I needed to get some prescriptions filled, and why not drop them off on the way to Summit, and pick them up on the way back?  How environmentally responsible of me.

And here's the part I want to try to get right -- which is: what really goes on at the gym, at least for me.   Aside from my resentment at having to pay to park anywhere near the building, that is.

I sort of like arriving at the gym -- I've been there often enough that people at the front desk seem to recognize me, which I find pleasant.  Then I go downstairs to the men's locker room.  Which is not so pleasant.

Not that there's anything wrong with it -- it's been refurbished recently, with new lockers and new shower stalls and I think they took up the problematic indoor-outdoor carpeting, and laid a new tile floor.  No, it's just the men's locker room thing in general, for me.

First, I do not look at anyone, even though I yearn to watch each and every man there.  And not just because I'm a gay man, either -- most of them aren't really that interesting, physical-specimen-wise.  No, what I'm interested in is seeing what these men do.  How they approach the simple operation of changing clothes, or arranging their locker, or engaging (or not engaging) with the other men who might be there.  If I'm there, and there's another man using a locker in the same row I've chosen, I almost always kind of pretend that I'm all by myself.  In my peripheral vision, I can kind of tell what he's doing, or where he is, and whether he's dressed or not.  But otherwise, I have no idea whether he takes his clean underwear out of his gym bag, and stows it on the top shelf of the locker, like I do, or if he leaves everything in his gym bag until he's done with his workout.

This may seem unimportant, but in fact I don't really know a lot about how other men do things.  I remember, years ago, when I first began working out, in Hoboken, and the t-shirts with the sleeves torn off became the cool look at the gym, and I had no idea how these guys all managed to adopt the same look -- a kind of studied yet careless, casual yet highly inflected choice of costume.  How did they figure out what to do, to get their shirts to do that particular drape-y thing?  I never did find out.

After I dress, I generally use the bathroom before going up to the workout rooms, and here too I tend to hide myself.  I feel very self-conscious in men's rooms, and dread making any sound of any kind.  This can often present problems.

When I'm upstairs again, in my workout clothes -- generally the t-shirt I was wearing on the way in, plus a pair of disreputable, paint-stained shorts, of which I have so many.  Old Adidas sneakers, only worn for the gym.  Those little white socks that don't show about the shoe tops.  A pen in one pocket of my shorts, a pair of glasses in another.  The Y provides nice workout towels, and I always grab one, on the way into... The Strive® Room.

At this point, I begin to operate in a kind of trance, in a way -- the routine is so set -- the way I pull my workout record sheet from the filing cabinet, and jot down all the day's weight settings, and attach everything to a clip board.  But I'm also keeping an eye on the room itself, noting who's where, and what he or she is doing.  I'm very territorial in the gym, and almost always feel as though I'm going to get into an argument with someone at any time.

I'm hyper-aware of those folks who come in and don't use the equipment in the proper order, as laid out in the signage on the wall.  I'm alert for those who might as well not be exercising at all, their form is so bad on whatever machine I'm using.  I feel old and decrepit, if there's a younger guy using this particular room -- which, usually, there isn't.  I feel strange and embarrassed, if I'm younger than the other exercisers.  I feel slightly defensive, because after I'm done using a piece of equipment, I wipe it down with my towel, instead of with a paper towel and that spray stuff that's all the way at the other end of the room.  I rationalize my choice by telling myself that I'm saving paper.  When some other patron makes what I think is a big effort at cleaning the machines, with that paper towel and mystery spray, I feel judged and contaminated.

But because I can pick and choose my schedule, I'm often the only one in the room.  And I zip through in under half an hour, as a rule.

My least favorite part is the portion of the workout done while facing the wall of mirrors covering half of the room.  I don't like looking at myself, but I can't take my eyes away.  I can't judge myself harshly enough, and at the same time, I'm desperate to find something appealing and attractive about myself.  

There are actually two or three men I kind of talk with, if they're around while I'm exercising, but in most cases, I don't know their names.  I suspect that everyone there is a wealthy Republican. 

When I'm done with what would be the 'weight lifting' portion of the routine, I go into the cardo room, and if I'm lucky, I'll take one of the treadmills I prefer, and start a twenty-minute walk. 

I used to think treadmills were among the most useless and stupid possible pieces of equipment, but somehow I've come to prefer these over the elliptical trainers I used to use -- John and I dubbed these 'bizarr-o-trons' because they seem so... bizarre -- and I like to crank the pace up to about 4.5 mph, or so the dial says.  I have to hold onto the side bars at this pace, because I tend to lose my balance a little, but I try to make it plain to everyone who isn't watching me at all, that I'm just touching the rails with the tips of my fingers -- not cheating at all, at all.

And while I walk, I do one of the following things -- or more than one, depending.  I watch the Discovery Channel, even though I don't have earbuds, and so can't hear what they're saying.  Also, I leave the workout progress screen up on the viewing panel, which means that all I see of the Discovery Channel is the top of someone's head, and maybe their shoulders.  Or similar truncated bits of TV viewing.  While I'm sort of looking at this meaningless visual stimulation, I count to myself, usually to 100, and then starting over again.  I might also watch someone else's TV monitor screen -- if there are three or four exercisers in the row in front of me, I'm often amused to note how many people are tuned to the same football game that's being shown on one of the three giant flat-screen TVs suspended from the second-floor railing.   

Today, on one of the big overhead screens, a financial show was being aired, and I was fascinated by what looked like a panel of experts, expounding on what should be happening, and where and how and when.  There was a blonde woman and a brunette, both Caucasian.  There were three Anglo men, one of whom has male pattern baldness.  There was one African American male, dressed nicely like the others, in a conservative suit and tie, and looking dapper, with his silvery hair.  While I watched, there wasn't a single close-up of this man, nor did it appear that he said anything during the entire section that I saw.  I know he was a real person, because he nodded his head once.

Or, I can watch a cooking show, which can be disconcerting.  Today, for instance, a blonde cook breaded and deep-fried some celery sticks, which she then slurped through what must have been a bowl of roquefort dressing, and then rolled her eyes with delight at how it all tasted.  Counting to 100 is often the most interesting part of the exercise.

As often happens with me, once I get over the resistance to starting something, I develop a curious reluctance to stop.  I use the 'five, or even-number' rule, to decide when I'm finished with my walking routine.  Once the twenty minutes are up, I continue walking until the expended calories reach a number ending in five, or zero.  This is largely meaningless, as it rarely takes me more than a minute to round the caloric count up just a bit, but I'm helpless in my compulsions.

Oh, and of course, while I'm walking to nowhere, I'm keeping an eye on all the other guys who are in the room, exercising too.  Some, because what they're doing seems so stupid, some because they seem like gods on earth.  And, as in the locker room and the 'Strive®' room, I talk with no one.

And then it's back to the locker room, to clean up and leave.  This is perhaps the most perilous part of my day at the gym, because I will have to be naked (and judged, I'm sure) by the other men who might be there.

I'm usually good at the getting undressed part, and quickly wrap myself in the big towel I bring from home for the purpose -- the workout towels aren't nearly large enough for any serious drying of the human body, in my opinion.  I hang my towel and locker key on one of the hooks at the near end of the shower room -- self-conscious, a bit, because my key is looped onto a length of pink chalk line, but again, I doubt if anyone has ever noticed -- and pick one of the plein-air showers for my ablutions.  In the remodeling, a row of small stalls was built on one long shower room wall, but they seem too small and cramped for me, so in spite of my trepidations, I shower out in the open.  And, again, because I time my exercise period to come after the lunch-time crowd, and before the after-school influx, I'm often alone in the shower room too.  Everyone once in a while, some guy comes in from the swimming pool, and there's another ritual I can't really watch.  Or men use the steam room, but I've never been inside it.  It's stressful enough, not wanting to watch the other men under the hot water, without being in an enclosed space, with all of us sitting and facing each other.  Too confusing for me.

Once I've washed myself a couple of times, I dry off and weigh myself, and then go back to the locker to dress and get ready to leave.  If anyone is going to show up, it will be about at this point in my visit -- and there seems to be an unwritten, unproven law, dictating that, if there are only two men in a locker room, the lockers they have chosen to use with be right next to each other.  I might make a joke about this, and get a tepid response, and then there's no conversation again.  Under the guise of brushing my semi-wet hair, I sneak a look at myself in one of the big mirrors, and apply some moisturizer, which I'm sure is somehow not quite the done thing, but again, because I don't feel free to watch what other men do, I can't know for sure.

And this is it.  I pack my damp workout clothes in one end of my gym bag, fold my big bath towel and lay it on the outside of the bag, and leave the building.  Tossing my used workout towel in the proper bin.  Enjoying the way I feel when I walk up the steps to the front door.  

I go through this routine, or something close to it, twice a week, if possible.  It's supposed to be good for me, and I'm sure that, on some level, it is.  But this bi-weekly immersion in a strange world I despair ever of understanding, or of feeling entitled even to enter, does take something of a toll, somehow.  Because, no matter how valid my membership is, or how many people say hello when they see me, I still somehow feel like a thief.

©    2013        Walter Zimmerman 


Sunday, March 17, 2013

Day of Rest... Or Not...

Well, of course in a way it was really my fault. 

Lately, my Sundays have been rather simple: get up at about the usual time; linger over coffee; reluctantly begin preparing for my trip to Branchburg and Combat Paper; lose at least three things as I pack the van with all the necessary tools and carved print blocks and paper; set off later than I'd expected to do -- this all the more remarkable as I think I always set off at the same time each week; speed more than I mean to, and then stop at a Starbux close to the Print Center for coffees and milk; and finally, arrive for four hours of... whatever I end up doing.  We have lunch at about 3pm, we clean up at 4 pm, and I drive home again.  Speeding more than I mean to.  Pretty much week in, week out, for the past year or so.

But today, I somehow managed to commit myself to serial obligations, apparently without thinking either ahead of time, or in time to change my schedule -- I'd agreed to read a lesson in church (meaning a trip to New Brunswick); I wanted to get to Combat Paper (meaning I had to take a change of clothes -- one doesn't want to go mucking about with printer's ink in a shirt and tie); I had a meeting set for 5:30, at home, so an art curator could look over some of my work, to select things for an upcoming exhibit in Newark.  Did I mention speeding more than I meant to?

I really love to read aloud, and the acoustic at Christ Church is really marvelous, with the high barrel arch overhead, rolling the sound around and around.  I like reading from the Old Testament -- the language is so chewy and stark.  This morning, I got to read some verses from Isaiah, and I'm very pleased to say that, in spite of the fact that the text was printed in the program leaflet, I saw many people sitting and listening, instead of following along -- I just think it's so much more powerful to hear these words spoken on the human breath stream, rather than in one's own head.  In retrospect, it may have seemed silly, to drive so far (and so fast!), to do a reading that lasted maybe two minutes at most, but there were also some lovely hymns to sing, and John has let me know that he especially enjoys knowing that I'm in the congregation, to observe and appreciate 'the show'.  Which, today, I certainly did.

But no coffee hour for me -- instant flight up the road to Rattlesnake Bridge Road (which I don't really know which road that is, because, in the finest New Jersey signage tradition, there isn't any signage), to the caffeine depot, and then to the Print Center.  I wasn't even all that late.  And because the place was packed, with much activity going on, I ended up working on the second floor, doing a more detailed, life-size mock-up of the book it seems I'll be working on for the next three years.  Every time I turn around, the thing seems to need more pages -- and apparently, I turn around a lot.  I'm already up to 14 pages, and from what I can see, that's not going to do it, by any means.   Given that I can only get six sheets of heavy paper out of each 1 1/2 lb. batch of pulp (all the beater will hold, as it happens), I figure I'll need to feed over 35 lb of cut up pink rag through that mill, to have enough paper for this particular piece of work.  More trips ahead, to various thrift stores in the 20-mile radius, to search out men's pink shirts, and then disassemble them...  More stray threads all over the den.  As though that's a big surprise.

What was a big surprise for me, today, was learning that one of my prints sold at a recent fund-raiser, and the arrangement is that the artist gets 50% of the sale price.  Two things shocked me: the print that sold, while... technically sound, and compositionally competent, is a rather strange image, I think -- being based on a 5th century Norse silver coin, showing Odin healing his six-legged horse, Sleppnir, by pronouncing a magic spell that is shown around the coin's edge, in runes.  Plus, I added a sectional map of the south-east corner of Iceland.  Why on earth would anyone want to look at this?  But they did.  And... shock #2 -- the sale price was $200!  I'm truly baffled, but kind of gratified as well.  It's not as though my life is going to change because I have $100 I didn't expect, but it does give that inner warmth, that I so seldom experience.  Now I want to make more dragon prints, with different designs -- I can't believe my St. Margaret print wasn't the one to get snapped up.  Maybe the next fund-raiser...

And just after I'd been given my share of the profits, in check form, I had to throw all my stuff in the van and hurry back home, to be here for the curator's visit.  Well, to clean up a bit before the curator's visit.  And to find some work for the curator to look at, so the visit wouldn't be a total waste of his time.  Plus I thought it would be decent to sweep the kitchen floor, and give a swift wipe to the upstairs bathroom sink.  And then go rooting around in the basement, looking for the boxes which should hold the wall-mounted work I wanted to suggest as my contribution to this show on... encrustation, I think it was?  What a strange theme.  Plus it's a craft-centered exhibit, which make the idea of encrustation seem even less likely.

But the curator liked the pieces I'd dug out of one of the boxes I hauled up from the basement (don't ask about how many things fell over, and scattered across the floor, as I tugged this container out from under a heap of other things -- who has time to delicately re-arrange things, when time is of the essence?  And even more, he liked the odd pieces of glass lying about -- the stuff that's been on the mantle piece almost from the day we moved in 11 years ago, and some things in the sun room, and I'll also add a few pieces I know he'll like, but hasn't seen yet, because they're in plastic bins in the back yard, tucked away where prospective home buyers, looking at our neighbor's house, won't see them and be frightened off...  So it seems that I'm being asked to contribute five wall-mounted pieces, and then bring in these random, loose glass pieces, and lay them all out on a table-top,without any other contextual information.  I don't know yet whether these things will be lined up in neat rows, or jumbled about -- it doesn't really matter to me, as long as there's not a lot of breakage.  The show opens, in Newark someplace, in late April, and will be up for a month.  How odd, I think, that all of a sudden, I have work in NYC, in southern Jersey, and in a show in Newark.  Plus I'm going a play in which I get to take all my clothes off for my friends, neighbors, and the people I sit next to in the choir stalls.  What a remarkable life, even if, as I suspect, it's pretty much pointless.

Well, now I've got some more housekeeping to do, and then time to turn in for the night, before another careening week begins.

Seemingly non-sequitur-ish...  But since I mentioned church first of all, I did want to mention a sliver of thought that ran through my head, after the adrenaline rush of reading had more or less worn off.  As I was sitting there in the pew, watching all the liturgical activity, and listening to an anthem, and singing hymns, I couldn't help contrast my real inner cynicism with what appears to be a sincere and grounded belief on the part of at least some of the people going through the worship service with me.  I live in a world where, at any moment, any terrible thing might happen -- and the absence of that terrible thing happening at this particular point is mostly a matter of luck and probability, instead of being the 'will' of some agency or other.  The orthodox view, of course, is quite different, if not diametrically opposed to what I can't help believing to be true.  The orthodox view throws out a huge and complex safety net, supported by... Old Testament readings, and New Testament readings, and publicly performed rituals and prayers and sermons filled with conveniently  supportive anecdotes.  And I wondered, for a few seconds, whether there might not be some tangible benefit to be gained from adhering to this wildly unlikely construct we've handed down from generation to generation.  What would it be like, I thought, to participate in the worship activities with the greatest apparent sincerity, even if one doesn't actually believe any of it at all?  Is the easing of existential anxiety, even through a religious pretense openly acknowledged, more valuable and beneficial, than living every day with the sense that, in fifteen minutes, everything might be over?  Or, if not in fifteen minutes, certainly by tomorrow at the very latest?  Does anxiety help me?  Or is delusion more help?

I'll think about this while I wash the dishes and refill the cat food cannister.  While hoping a meteor doesn't come crashing through the ceiling anytime soon...

©      2012               Walter Zimmerman


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Reality Check...

Forgive any repetitions ahead, please...

Years ago, and not long after the disgrace of the 2000 Presidential election, I saw Al Gore in the 30th Street Station, in Philadelphia.  There he stood, big as life, unencumbered by phalanxes of security guards, in the middle of the floor, where the train schedule board hangs.  I couldn't believe my eyes, but I went up to him, and addressed him.

"Mr. Gore?"  He nodded and kind of looked at me out of the corner of of his eye.  "It's an honor to meet you, and I'm so sorry about the election."

I don't remember whether we actually shook hands or not -- it's not like it was flu season or anything -- but I do recall the look on his face, after I mentioned the election.  He just looked off, as though seeing something past the list of arriving and departing trains.  He paused for a moment and then shook his head, saying something like "It's okay," or "It's better off this way," or something to that effect.  As though he knew things that I couldn't possibly be aware of.

Then I had to run to catch my own train.

Al Gore is what I would consider to be a 'real person'.  I, on the other hand, am not.  Or at least, this is how it seems to me.

I know I've written before about my early decision, when our new encyclopedias had arrived, and I discovered that there were no Zimmermans listed in the last volume, that it would be up to me to recitfy that omission.  I know I've written about my disappointment and confusion, surrounding the many unwise life choices I feel I've made, which have resulted in a kind of comfortable, even privileged obscurity, instead of the legitimacy and noteworthiness I felt, at a young age, were my responsibility to attain.

And of course I've written, over and over again, about the terrible betrayal I feel I suffered, at the hands of my indifferent, self-absorbed mother.

But maybe I haven't explored the connections between this grave emotional wound, and what I'm afraid must seem an egocentric need for validated public success and even acclaim.

For some reason that I can't really verbalize, I have always regarded the people whose faces I see in magazines and on TV, and read about in the newspaper or online, as 'real' people, in a way that I am not.  Which is why, when I happen to meet someone of established public stature, I often feel a little dizzy, and also have this crazy desire, somehow to... I don't know... secret myself in one of their pockets, so I might be smuggled into that 'real' world.

My drive -- perplexed and self-sabotaged as it is -- for some sort of validation springs, quite obviously, from the hope that, if I were able to establish myself as a 'real' person, then my mother would, finally, be forced to admit that she had been mistaken, in not choosing me all these decades ago.  And somehow, there would be a residual emotional paycheck, some infusion of retroactive love, that would make all the struggles of the intervening years lose their sting.

Of course, even when I have managed, either by accident or by dint of strenuous effort (accidents being by far the more prevalent), to snag some column inches in a newspaper, or in a magazine article, that hasn't been nearly enough.  Once, early in our budding relationship, John and I took a train up to New Haven, to the British Collection, to see an exhibit there.  During our ride out of New York, and as we talked about this and that, I happened to leaf through my newest issue of Readers' Digest (does anyone remember...?), which I'd brought along in case the conversation should ebb.  And it so happened that, in that particular issue, was an article about recorded books on tape, and how popular they were becoming.  This being 1986, after all.  And there, in print, in an edition of one of the most widely-distributed publications in the world, was... my name!  In a brief recap of a review of my recording of 'Moby Dick', as written up by Charles Champlin of the LA Times.

As usual, it didn't seem to have the longed-for impact.  And, actually, even if it had, how could I have shown this achievement off, to that mother of mine, who didn't want to admit that she'd had any children other than my sister in the first place?

When that reality -- the realization that any efforts I had made, and any success I might have achieved, would have made exactly no difference -- when that awareness sank in, after I saw my mother again, after forty years --  I don't think it's possible for me to describe the utter devastation I felt.  With this new, hardly surprising, yet totally shocking realization staring me in the face (with her blank eyes and total lack of affect), virtually every decision in my life fell apart, and seemed to be revealed as either wrong-headed, or pointless.  It's as though, having navigated faithfully toward a much-desired goal, and spending years on the voyage, I discovered that the compass had never worked, from the start.  As though every rivet and bolt, every nut and nail and glue joint and bit of cement holding  my history together had all failed at the same time.

Now, a piece of my sculpture is sitting on display, in an exhibit of glass art, in what must at least be one of the secondary museums in New York City, and for me, it's essentially meaningless, on the deepest emotional level.  The only artwork, of what I would consider any significance, that I've been able to pull together in the past year or so, is something I promised to make for the upcoming Glass Weekend in Millville NJ -- and if I hadn't felt so flattered at being invited, it never would have occurred to me to make anything at all.  As much as I'm concerned about basic practicalities, such as storage challenges, I also feel a near-total lack of purpose beyond the mere activity of making art (which isn't always as much of a laugh-riot as people seem to think).  Why should I bother?  The over-arching goal, stupid though it may always have been, has finally been revealed to me as a sham, and I haven't been clever enough yet, to replace this deep-seated, misguided yearning with something else -- something one hopes would be more grounded in what most of us consider to be reality.

It's funny -- one of the illustrations I've sort of planned, for the imaginary book I'm supposedly working on with Combat Paper (which project exists, I think, only so I can please others -- not so different from what I've been talking about all along, is it?), will include a marionette with its strings cut.  Free?  Sure.  But impotent and bereft of any real mobility.  It hadn't occurred to me, as I roughly sketched my way through this book about birthday cakes, pink icing, abusive parenting practices and Marie Antoinette, that this particular image would come so close to being at least a psychological self-portrait.

Where is the real world now, I find myself wondering.

©     2013             Walter Zimmerman   



Friday, March 15, 2013

A Matter of Scale...

You'd think that, by now, I would have figured this out...

Every day, I swear I get at least twenty really great ideas for this blogue (as I insist on calling it); every day, I swear I get the time actually to write something, and it's as though I've never formed an idea with this brain, ever before, in my entire life... 

Oh, there's one.  I knew if I complained bitterly enough, something would turn up...

So, today John and I went into NYC, on purpose, to visit the Museum of Arts and Design, and the exhibit on the third floor, called 'Playing with Fire; Fifty Years on the American Studio Glass Movement".  Or something like that.  I may be making that part up.

But there's definitely a show, and it's definitely on the third floor (the indoor facilities being on the sixth floor, which I seem determined to forget every time I go into the building), and it's definitely a glass exhibit -- though whether it's all strictly American, or from the first 50 years of the American Studio Glass Movement are debatable points -- and a piece of my work is definitely on display there, along with... most of the bigger names in American glass  Plus work by other artists who probably don't know me either. 

I was there earlier this month (or was it late February?  It all bleeds together anymore), and I had more or less the same reaction today as I did the first time I visited the exhibit, after all the other work had been delivered and arranged.  I thought the space was too dark -- or there was no attention paid to redirecting whatever lights there are.  A couple of the pieces still had the dusty finger prints that I saw the first time -- I mentioned this to a guard today, who later came up to me to tell me she'd spoken with one of the curators, who promised to see that this was taken care of -- and that all the work was to be dusted once a week.  Someone's getting high on 58th street when they're supposed to be wielding a feather duster upstairs...

I also felt that strange dissociation I've mentioned -- the odd sensation of an incredibly intimate association with my piece -- knowing how much each glass shape weighs, how it was to create it, how I came to decide whether to use this piece, or something similar -- and this familiarity clashes head-on with a kind of eerie detachment, like being at my own funeral.  The work is what is visible here; the artist is incidental, and in many ways, irrelevant.  While I was standing around while John attempted to get some pictures of the work -- it's kind of big, and a challenge to document -- a couple probably my age got off the elevator and, talking rather loudly, began going through the show, exclaiming over the work of artists whose names were familiar to them ('Oh, we've got two Chihulys, and a piece by Mark Peiser...'  That kind of thing), wondering out loud, about how Toots Zynsky 'gets all that color in' the glass filaments she uses in her slumped bowl pieces.  I could have interrupted them, and given them a lesson, but I really didn't feel up to it. 

Then they went around the corner, to the space where my work is installed, and installed themselves on a low, short metal backless bench, so they could watch and listen to a video loop, done with great clarity and economy, by William Gudenrath, one of my first glass teachers.  So they sat, watching Bill create a length of blue, black and white murrine, slump a plate of murrine, and cut murrine and pick up chunks on the outside of a clear bubble.  The work of other artist was featured.  And when we'd finally learned the basics of yet another discipine, the tape simple and seamlessly began to repeat itself.  I love listening to Bil's voice, as a matter of fact, but again, it made me feel extra useless, as the living creator of arguably on of the biggest piece of work, featuring blown glass elements, in the show, standing behind a few of the few visitors, who might as well have been at home in their living rooms (on an unimaginably uncomfortable sofa) looking at a special on PBS. 

I ended up sitting on an empty bench at the other end of the gallery -- where there was no one else, possibly because there was no TV going on there -- and finishing today's NYTimes crossword puzzle, while John did as much documentation as he could, while the bench below the TV screen held first one butt and then another, but always someone's.  I did sneak another peek, while he was tinkering with the camera, and was tempted to suggest this shot or that, but decided against this intrusion. 

I think it was while I was again so near to my own piece, spread out as it is over a sizable portion of a low carpeted display shelf out of sight of the elevators, that I had a sliver of an art-related memory.

Years ago, after I'd visited State College PA for one arcane reason or another, I was driving back southward, to Philadelphia, I think, taking the only major route I know, winding down through a range of the soft outliers of the Appalachian Mountains.  It must have been summer, because the hillsides were lush and green, with no hint of the exhaustion of August in the foliage.  It was as I was taking one of the longer swooping curves, that had me driving in a south-bound clockwise turn, with the north-bound lanes down below me, to my left, that the unimpeded view of that one hillside struck me in a totally unexpected way.

There it was -- just a modest old mountain side, really -- clad in an almost unbroken expanse of leafery -- one of probably thousands of such expanses, reaching back through Pennsylvania, through West Virginia, and into Tennessee and Kentucky, hill after hill, one carpet of green blurring into the next.  And for some reason, I was trying to picture my art work -- all of it, drawings, paintings, three-dimensional work -- lying on that hillside, beneath those leafy branches.  And thinking of how negligible an impact my work would make -- a laughable little heap of oddments, some more colorful than others, but nothing really monumental, or probably, even visible, from this perspective across the valley floor.

And as if to make it worse, I went on to try to figure out how much space the entire output of Dale Chihuly, Glass God Extraordinaire, would take up on that same hillside.  Even now, years after this trip, I'm fairly sure that, although his heap would be exponentially larger than the one I could muster, the Chihuly accumulation of bright, colorful objects wouldn't make that much of a significant visual impact, if gathered on this one hillside.

And, of course, I felt smaller than ever, and more futile than ever, in my daydreams of making an impact, a name for myself in the world of glass art.  Such a puny 'body of work'.  Such a slender, insecure thread on which to hang a name.

I wonder, if the circumstances of my life had been radically different, and if I had grown up in the Bronx instead of McKeesport PA, whether or not I would have been drawn to the graffiti crowd, and how brazen and insistent I might have been, in trying to attract attention to myself, to stand out from an indifferent background that had every intention of sucking me back down into anonymity.  I wonder, too, whose work would make an impact on just that one hillside in Pennsylvania.

Probably those men whose art is hidden in plain sight, and probably from they themselves -- the guys in coveralls pouring concrete for the arching curves of highway interchanges.  The teams of men struggling to thread the gigantic turnbuckles that hold taut the cables holding, in their turn, the weight of one bridge or another.  The guys who build battleships.  Or football stadiums.  Airports.  All those visual and structural gems that, because of their scale, and the way we relate to them, practically disappear just because they are so monumental.

That was quite a drive, that one where I meditated, for a relatively short time, really, on where I fit, physically speaking, on a scale of creative magnitude.  Down at the shallow end of the sine curve, without a doubt.  In spite of what seems, at times, to be an inconceivable accumulation of crap, too vast and complex for me ever to sort or arrange...  To say nothing of actually using the stuff.

Then, at times, all I can do is shrug, and make up some justification for this paucity -- mass and expanse aren't what make art significant.  Look at the output of (fill in the name of any artist you choose.  Even Richard Serra), and there'll be the same diminution of scale, when compared with even an ordinary hillside.  It's about communication, and the redemption of materials, and the honoring of things I know to be true, that matter more than how many square feet of real estate I could claim, if all my work were laid end to end.  (Thinking of Dorothy Parker...)

So.  Why do I do anything at all, if I'm doomed to insignificance?  I guess I'm a firm believer in that aphorism of Gandhi's -- what you do, as a contribution to the world, is probably not important, but it is essential that you do it.  That's what I seem to need -- a kind of ennobled hopelessness.  A kingship denoted by a crown made of ice, certain, quickly, to melt.

And that's one of the things I thought about today, to write in this space.  So I did.  Maybe I'll recall the others in a while, and maybe I won't.  For the time being, this will have to do.

©     2013             Walter Zimmerman  



Thursday, March 14, 2013

Source Material...

Some days, it just seems to be like this.

For no reason that I can discern, I've been crying a lot today.  Not wracking sobs or anything -- just the slow squeezing of tears that roll down my face, almost as though I'm an incidental part of their journey, out of my innards and into the Atlantic Ocean.

I'm not aware of any particular sadness I'm feeling -- nothing that arises, verbally, that would explain this surfeit of salt water.  I don't think this is an anniversary of a momentous loss, or any other sobering event.  As a matter of fact, it's been a lovely day, if a bit on the cold side, and the only real responsibilities I'm facing is the usual weekly laundry, augmented just a bit by my decision to wash all the polar fleece blankets we've been using.

It's not allergies either.

I do have to admit that, this morning, when John slept much longer than is usual for him, I was sure that he was dead.  Because I had decided to sleep downstairs, where the icepack on my shoulder would make less of a mess, so when he had his (insert fatal medical trauma here), I was blissfully unaware.  But thoughts like these are, unfortunately, not especially rare.  I regularly expect to get a phone call from the police, some evening when he's driving home from New Brunswick later than usual, in worse weather than usual, on a football weekend or something.  I have to admit that I live with a more or less constant dread occupying... a significant portion of... whatever place we have inside... that's full of the things we're full of.

So maybe this tear-fest is a normal (as in, physiologically and maybe even psychologically normal) response to my socially unusual focus on my own fragility, mortality, and a kind of global uncertainty that, because I've harbored it for so long, seems perfectly... normal?  I am an unreliable witness in this matter, I'm afraid, being indistinguishable from the subject matter.

Well, there is one thing that's a possible trigger, possibly, for all the water-works.  (Besides my bum shoulder, about which I'm afraid to consult a doctor, and about which I'm annoyed, that I might have to consult her anyway.  I feel like I should just give in and stow a roll-out cot with my name on it in the men's room...)  I might have mentioned that an amazing doctor/artist/activist, Dr. Eric Avery, visited with our Combat Paper group two weeks ago, to talk about the exhibit he has on display.  He was remarkably clear and focused and eloquent, I felt, about the various prints he'd included in the show, weaving from technical insights to the emotional underpinnings of this work or that.

One of the older works was a large black-and-white self-portrait, done either while he was working at a Somalian refugee camp, or just after he'd returned from his tour there.  With what I think was remarkable clarity, he sketched out what his first few minutes at the camp were like, and then gave us some insights into his routine for the year he spent, fighting rampant disease and starvation.  The work is powerful enough on its own, but these skillfully-chosen details sank like stones into my imagination, and for the past week or so, I've been... nagged, I guess... by the inkling that I wanted (or needed) to write a poem about this man, and his experiences, and on and on.  I did go online (thank you, exo-cranium) to look up the particular camp in question, and discovered excerpts of Dr. Avery's journals about it, in the book 'Para-Sites'.  (Which I almost immediately bought from Amazon, unsurprisingly...)  More details.  More insights.  More little stones, sinking and sinking.

So, today, I finally gave in, and put something down on paper.  I don't know how finished it is -- it feels pretty done to me, now, but these new works can change, can't they?  And as usual with these things, I feel lecherous, like what I call an emotional vampire, sucking creative sustenance from the misfortunes of others.  It seems indecent.  But at the same time, it's as though, after those details, that I likened to stones, disappear beneath the surface of daily memory, something new and different, yet clearly related, seeks to push its way back up and out, into broad daylight.

Sometimes, I regret to say, I am more successful than I would like to be, in quashing these urgings.  Other times, though -- as with this new work, which I think of as a tribute to Dr. Avery -- I'm either not as clever, or not as brutal, with myself, and something does emerge.  I've reworked it a tiny bit, and am still unsure of whether I need all of it or not.

I feel somewhat cheeky doing this, but I think I'll transcribe it here anyway, just to see...

Song (from the Somali)              In Thanks, to Dr. Eric Avery

There you were, in the sun,
Looking so soft and plump
And so... unbaked.
You seemed, to me,
Like some stray canine
Caught in a house,
Eating what it shouldn't --
Its body cringing one way,
Its head another,
Its loyalties torn
Somewhere in between.

You took your first step
Across the transparent border line
That we all know
To separate a viewer
From what is being viewed.
You took your initiation
Better than most,
Up to your ankles
In the oozing mix
Of the raw easrth
That we had not yet been able to consume,
And the raw remains
Of what we had.

You took a breath --
A sharp, quick intake
(Even I could hear it,
Far across the dark, runny field)
Your mouth the gape of disbelief
That most newcomers wear,
When -- zip and zip -- in went that fly!
I thought I would choke
Like you were doing --
But you were struck with shock,
And me with silly laughter!
What a first morsel
For you to take,
Before you could be sure
Just what, exactly, you were doing here!

(And by the way --
That fly you ate for lunch?
He had a name,
You know.
I called him Foo-foo.
He had a sister, Loo-loo,
And a brother too,
Named Va-va,
And many many cousins,
Too many to count.
They all had names
And they would come
To visit with me
Every day,
To make a living, magic carpet
That would crawl across my face,
And I would give them gifts
Made up of what I had,
Which was myself.
It's so much easier, I've found,
To give,
Than to feel that one is being

After that,
When I saw you,
Sometimes your hands were on my head
Or on my tender belly.
You were across the way,
And slightly reeling,
It seemed,
Off balance, it seemed,
Like a rock
That's in the process
Of being ground
Against a greater, harder stone,
And getting smaller
All the time.

I really tried to understand
The gifts you brought --
The strange adornments
I was supposed
To choke upon, or wear inside myself.
The colorless wrappings and pinnings,
The foods, from sources
I could not grasp.
And in exchange,
I made sure
We gave you all we had --
Cracked skin.
I think you called it.
I think you said it was.
Everything we had --
A stunning numberlessness,
Our adamantine hunger,
An inexhaustible poverty,
The plentiful ailments,
The most exquisite helplessness --
All like a handful
Of the rarest gems
Left to you, to set
Into their proper crown.

And you did what
You felt you had to do --
Prying at me,
Opening my mouth
With your fingers,
And pouring something in,
And not being pleased at all
When all that I could do was give it back again.
Not pleased at all --
I read it in your eyes,
And in the way your face would get,
Like a tired, clenched fist.
You might have tried again,
But another cried,
Then others, more and more,
And you went to him, or her,
Or them.
And Foo-foo's aunt
And everybody else
Came flying back to visit me,
So what I dimly felt
Would be our final banquet
Could begin.

And afterwards?
It really didn't matter so much,
I hope you know that.
What would I have done?
Where would I have gone?
What could I have known?
Who could I have been?
You did your own beautiful best,
Your own shit-besmeared best,
Your own broken, sickness-bedazzled best.
And me?  I just happened to be one of those
Who slithered through the desperate net
You spread for us,
So cleverly,
And so diligently,
Every day.

But nothing ever really leaves,
You know.
No one ever really leaves
A sump of woe like this.
Even now,
I am becoming part of the semi-solid place
On which you first put down your incredulous foot.
I rise up again -- this time, without a face --
To mix myself
With what my beaten,
Unnamed family
Has been unable to digest,
Of the little that I've been able
To provide
For them
To eat.

You're here too,
You know --
I told you no one can
Escape --
But I think that, since you still have
Your body on,
You get off easier.
You're being one of
Foo-foo's distant cousins,
Fanning another little girl's face,
Just the tiniest bit,
But the best you can --
Which relief
May well be all
That keeps her here
Another day or two,
While she looks up at the harsh dry sky
And tries to grasp
Just who it is
That she should thank.

Now I think I'll go check on the laundry again.  And cry a bit more, in all likelihood.

©         2013       Walter Zimmerman