july 11th, 2016
cripples, bastards, and broken things
"...in the same way that one could ignore the barking of an old dog that barked all the time."
— Joe Abercrombie
I always felt like a bastard son, despite technically not being one. For reasons I might be ready to take a shot at explaining in, oh, another decade or two. I’m also technically not a cripple, as my back has mysteriously refused to go out for an entire year now. But in my mind I’m kind of crippled — or, perhaps more accurately, hobbled — because this streak requires constant vigilance to maintain. Constant. Like so many other things. And I am seriously starting to wonder about the brokenness.
There are weird disconnects; things that don’t add up; pieces that should fit and work and yet seem to keep stripping their gears or fraying their ends. As if something hidden inside is broken | | something you can’t quite see or put your finger on, but that sneakily prevents all the other parts from working properly. Something real, just not diagnosed yet. “Oh oh oh, ah ah. | | Ah.”
There has to be a reason that Taylor Swift is the only thing keeping me going this summer. The only thing.
Maybe that broken thing is a simple as my refusal to do faith. How many people are genuinely hopeful without it? I mean, if each of us is merely a piece in the larger machine (with all our pieces, broken and otherwise, as subcomponents of that whole), how could we not be broken when it so clearly is? The self-protective rationalizing argument is I’m fine, but everything outside of me, external to my flimsily-defined identity-as-shell, is broken; and so therefore those flaws are cascading inwards. Gods and devils, historical forces, fiction. It’s not my fault, oh no.
Fuck all. Of course it is.
Maybe — or maybe, I should say — or maybe it’s my reflexive impulse to do the opposite; to row against the flow, cut across the grain? To be a potter instead of a cubicle serf | to try to make things instead of merely consuming them | to reject the norms and commonest Walmart attitudes | to take my daughter to Chinese food instead of church | to steer towards some selected pop culture and away from others, as if that qualifies as weird enough to compose a personality. Personally. (however illusory)
Or maybe it’s that I’m still just a child with terrible impulse control; yet another man-boy who never really learned deferred gratification. That I want what I want now, and despite my flailing and high-minded attempts to not live on credit, on loan, in the past… I do anyways, over and over again. And then complain about it. “I only got to make pots for two days this week.” “I only get to take two weeks of ‘vacation’ this summer.” “I only want this one thing now, because I really need this TV/new tool/iced coffee, and I swear that’ll keep me satisfied for a good, long while.” Yeah, sure.
So. So so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so so .
Yep, you’re right. I could go to a meat mechanic, or a shrink-shaman, or a wholistic immersive artists’ retreatism, sure. I mean, that seems to be what people do, right? “Poets, priests and politicians. Have words to thank for their positions.”
But I’m pretty sure that in the end — and after great expense of one kind of another — they’d each tell me what I already know: that broken part ain’t fixable without first executing a massive retreat. Like undoing years and years of stupid luck and misguided choices. Sucking it up hard, paying off that accumulated life debt, surrendering to the places that I’ve come to fear the most.
And who’s got time for that shit? How am I supposed to make some goddamn art in the midst of a full overhaul, a gut remodel of my self? How do you live in a house as you lift it off its foundations and move it across town? How do you legitimize a bastard when there’s no crown or god or congress to authorize it?
Better to just ride it out, I say. If you can limp through the next forty or fifty years, you’re golden.
january 13th, 2016
hopefully, luckily; more time.
"You live another day and then get up and do it again. Hope is oxygen to someone who is suffocating on despair." — David Carr
I should mention, in case it passed your notice, that Carr is dead now. What would he have traded, if such a thing were possible, for just a few moments of the mass of time I’m staring at, begrudgingly? Almost everything?
It seems churlish, ungrateful, and small of character to lament the rest of my unlived life. To dread the titanic crush of it; to focus on the gradual erosion of all the parts I used to like.
I am guilty of all those things. And yet, as usual, I’m compelled to admit to them here. Maybe I do so because I know you know this feeling; even if you don’t give in to it often, or dwell long in that space when you’ve stumbled into it. You wouldn’t be reading this if you didn’t know what I’m talking about. That disquieting, automatic reaction to becoming conscious on a new day, and thinking, “Fuck, another one?”
Of course, you also know about The Dream, or dreams in general, and negentropy and making things in the face of oblivion; and hope. If it was only and always despair, we wouldn’t write and read about it, would we? And so, these hours ping pong between those poles. Days of Xs shuffled in amongst days of Os.
I try to bracket my thoughts these days with the fact that Januarys are always bad for me. Mid-winter in Indiana sucks. Unreliable furnace, unplowed gravel roads, school delays, sickness, too little sun, relentless cold. So some of this is just that.
I suspect my Viking ancestors stockpiled firewood and pickled fish during the summers and falls so they could deep dive into a few months of seasonal affect disorder this time of year. Sitting in a corner by the fire, drinking steadily, and staring out into the lingering gloom. Considering the unlikely odds of an afterlife. My DNA seems to call out for it.
Which — I dare submit, while acknowledging my ongoing ignorance on the subject — is not the same as depression, per se. More like anticipating Ragnarok with a grimace.
And… here I feel the need to head off any potential “are you ok?” emails. As the punk singer and all-around-interesting-human Henry Rollins said recently, “This is not a cry for help — I’m just fine.” In fact, I’m weirdly content as I write this, despite having any number of things that at the moment could be seriously bumming me out. Maybe writing down the bones helps. Go figure.
Anyways, I’d also say that wishing a comet would come along and just speed up the inevitable is subtley, but crucially, different than being suicidal. My familial commitments, not to mention my extremely well-socialized capacity for pre-emptive guilt, are far too strong for that. I’m a quitter, but not that kind of quitter.
Oh my god, why am I writing this on my pottery site? So weird. Old habits.
Please hang with me for a seeming digression about American Football.
From 2006-13 — not coincidentally, the prime of Peyton Manning’s career — I was a huge NFL fan; much more so at than I am these days. But also, that era started with getting a DVR, so that I could record each game and then watch it at my convenience — for example, not interrupting a perfectly good studio Sunday to go watch TV. Even better, this amazing technology let me skip all the commercials, time outs, and time-filling bits when some barely literate former player tries to explain why things are happening on the field as they are. A 3.5 hour corporate-fueled marathon distilled down to a breezy 2 hour sprint.
But for Colts games (and, later, Broncos games), I still watched every snap of every game. A dull two yard run up the middle in the first quarter might mean Peyton was close to getting the play action game going. Omaha! Wide! These details seemed important.
Lately, with Manning fading away (and the league mired in an endless procession of controversies, inscrutable rules and worrisome head injuries), even during a game I’m interested in, I find myself using the skip button a lot. Because everything’s already recorded, the future history of the game on tap, I can move ahead in time at will.
So I go: play > skip 30 seconds, past the chatter and the huddle > play > skip > play > skip. In addition to commercials, I skip all kickoffs, most punts, coaches’ challenges, referee reviews, stats packages, human interest featurettes, and player highlights. If it’s not close at the half, I rev up the FF through the entire third quarter, checking the status line for any significant changes. And often, when a game just slogs to its likely conclusion, I just cruise all the way through to the end and delete it. Like W: Mission Accomplished.
So this is what I want for my life. A way to skip ahead 30 seconds, no harm done. Or several hours; or to just burn along at a blistering FFx4 until something good happens. To cruise past the tedium and waiting and today’s unique blend of mild suffering; to escape the days where consciousness itself feels like a curse. To skip ahead, and see if what happens next is worth actually sitting through in real time.
To actually live less of the life I’ve got coming.
Pathetic, right? David Carr would be disgusted.
OK, don’t worry — I’m not going to leave you there.
So Maggie Pixel still uses the word “hopefully” when she means “luckily”; eg. “Hopefully, it didn’t snow for the sale this year.”
It’s one of the few grammatical artifacts left from her previous era of learning to talk; a sweet reminder that she used to toddle around in a diaper and say stuff like, “Duct tape never lies.” and “We're best friends. And our heads come off.”.
Now that she’s done the hard work of decoding most of the rules and subrules and hidden caveats in our wacky language, these revealing mistakes become rarer. Soon, they’ll stop completely and I’ll miss them. I’m glad I didn’t fast forward through all of that, even though it was often miserable. Absence of evidence.
Anyways, there’s something about the way she mixed up the tenses — using the word “hopefully” to describe things that have already happened. It actually makes sense. Possibly a lot more sense than the way we’re supposed to use it.
Maybe hope is best reserved for looking backwards; for gratitude rather than expectation. Except for the occasional amazing play, no one rewinds a football game to go back and rewatch things they’ve already seen. But there are no guarantees that the next play won’t be a disaster.
And maybe “luckily” is a good word, a good concept, to replace it. Change the baseline assumption from hope that things will turn out great to certainty that we’ll need luck for things to just be survivable. Alms for Oblivion.
Hopefully, we survived last year. Luckily, we’ll make it through this year, too. Without needing to skip ahead too much.
december 22nd, 2015
finite state entropy
"What do you want for Christmas, Daddy?" — Maggie Pixel
“Infinite time and infinite money,” I said. Not a great answer for a seven-year-old. You see, I try not to respond to her questions with sarcasm, irony or cynicism, because that’s like trampling the flowers for spite of the weeds. But as those are my default modes of communication with almost everyone else — including the ongoing monologue in my head — it’s hard not to use them with her. Sorry, honey; I was tired.
Thinking more about what prompted that kneejerk answer. The infinite money is obvious — because, you know, capitalism. (Cue up the Lottery Winner fantasy. That one never gets old.) And while having infinite money would definitely make the prospect of unlimited time more appealing, with my actual, current cash on hand I’m pretty ambivalent about the idea of more time. OK, worse than ambivalent — I’m opposed to it.
I look back and see that I’ve zombie-walked through weeks, entire months. Days like rotten cordwood stacked on the bonfire of my vanity. This past year’s calendar is scribbled with more angry black squares than happy circles, and the rest are mostly just generic Xs.
Marking off the days, like a sentence.
And there seems to be so little gained from the experience. Where are the insights, the breakthroughs? Or at least some hard-won character-building? My to-do app says I completed 993 items this year. Which is a virtually worthless number, as it includes everything from the hardest and biggest projects (build a new website; apply for that job) down to the tiniest and most trivial (call PT; IMG>FB). It sounds like so many, but feels like so few.
Well, OK, I guess there were a few insights and lessons learned — but not nearly enough to balance out their cost; all the rest was a relentless, despairing slog. Sorry.
And yeah, I get it. There’s the belief that life is fundamentally about suffering. Every passing moment is another chance to get with the program and embrace Buddhism. “Just accept it buddy; you lost power, dude.” That despair, they say, is not only the way of the universe, but it builds character; wisdom; humility. In some faiths, it might even pave the way to a better, different, redemptive life. (Yeah, right. I don’t believe that for a goddamn second, and I never will.)
I think that the hopes for a “long life” expressed in our rites and rituals — (not to mention our omnipresent media tropes: “He died in his sleep at 97, surrounded by his children and grandchildren and lying on a pile of unspent, ethically-earned wealth.”) — I think that desire for a long life is like a history written by the victors. Survivorship bias as psychological warfare, inflicted upon the rest of us.
Alternately, there’s the unsettling perspective — because it’s based on, like, facts and logic — that I’ve got it better than 99% of people who’ve ever lived. Possibly better than 99% of people alive today. That this really is as good as it gets.
So: suck it up and stop complaining. Settle for less, try harder. Settle for less, try harder.
“It’s a big world out there,” you say. I hear you. I really do. That’s a rational argument, a reasonable one. But I just don’t seem able to feel it in my gut, you know? And, as much as I wish logic could always rule the day, without the gut it’s hard to put something like that into practice. At least, it is for me. So there’s yet another slice of self-blaming failure to add to my trembling stack.
Perhaps my upcoming days will be worth slogging through in real-time: watching the clock tick away; counting the grains of sand as they fall. But, I want to know, at what cost? Do I really need to experience more time waiting around for a new kiln? As if I haven’t had enough of that already? Or more hours on the job, at the desk; more reps of conscientious stretching, careful strengthening; more laps around the yard on the mower, illnesses to lie through, errands to run, crap to fix, cards to deal out? It feels like looking ahead to a long session of grinding kiln shelves in the hot sun, with just momentary relief from stray passing clouds.
So no, I’m not excited about the idea of more time. Scratch that off your list of things to get me. Better and freer use of the time I’ve got left, sure. Sign me up, and put a pretty bow on it. That would be terrific. But just more of it?
"One reason failure is such an irresistible subject is that it scares us. In a society that worships success… few things are more disquieting than the prospect of a blighted career and all the attendant personal, social, and financial woes." — Giles Harvey
december 8th, 2015
broken wing theory
"The cage is open but she’s no desire to fly." — XTC
"Believe it. And leave it, leave it all behind." — R.E.M.
But how do you free a bird with a broken wing? Is that even conscionable?
With windows, the theory goes that if you keep all the little things tidy and in control — ostensibly unbroken — then the bigger things will take care of themselves. That the appearance of order and functional institutions can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fake it ’til you make it; dress for the job you want.
As if you can create a culture from an orderly pile of twigs.
So with wings, the theory would say to just pretend you can fly until you do. Risk it all on that first leap, either from the cage or nest. If you crash and burn, then Darwin will sort it out on the next loop. Too bad for you, of course, but that’s how the system works.
There’s a lot of dead birds on the pavement, friends. More than we’d know, because the powers that be are awfully good at cleaning up their little corpses.
You don’t have to balance your checkbook before you can make art, no; but it’s also hard to make anything after you’ve run out of money. They told us things — or at least strongly implied them — that I’ve found to be simply untrue. Fancy sounding, wonderful things. Academic aspirations and overlays on a world that hadn’t actually been lived through, merely intellectualized into soundbites. The legacy of lectures. Other people, the ones who actually had lived it, tried to tell us, but we weren’t listening. Or at least I wasn't. I still had my unbroken wings deliberately covering my ears.
“I can see now why it would have been hard.” - Warren MacKenzie
“Pottery is all about luck,” my seven-year-old says, and while my first impulse is to explain all the ways she’s wrong, my second is to admit that maybe she has a point. Not the kind of luck she’s thinking of — as if hard-won skill plays no part, or that magic just happens in the kiln. (OK, sometimes it does happen, but not often enough to base a religion on it.)
No, the luck I’m thinking of is all the extra-studio stuff that largely determines the chances of success for the intra-studio stuff: the class you’re born into, and how much protection it gives you from the harshest elements; the support, or lack of support, from parents and friends; early opportunities to make and build things; getting to college or art school with your brain and motivation intact; getting out without an immovable mountain of debt. (And with your brain and motivation intact, LOL). Those first few breaks in the arena of selling for real money; finding enough mentoring to save you from the most fatal mistakes but not so much that you get imprinted into nothing more than a follower; health; support; encouragement. Maybe a grant to help build that first kiln. Living in interesting, yet not dangerous, times.
Myself, I live now under the dark cloud of assumption that my luck was too little and ran out, or that I used it up on the wrong things. That I’m squawking around with a broken wing, begging to get out, but with no hope of ever reaching the higher thermals again.
But still — the sneaky counter-theory says — but still…
Maybe if you just hold tight long enough, work those core muscles to oblivion, pay down debt, debt, debt, spend less, less, less, and just keep cranking at the office. Just. Keep. Cranking. Fire those kilns! Don’t rest! No breaks! Discipline, you lazy bastard, discipline. Oh, and get lucky with doctors and home repairs and the ever-mystical sway of global economic forces (and, dear god, not to mention the fickle and ever changing desires of the buying public). Maybe if you execute your Broken Wing Theory just right, the bigger things will take care of themselves.
A new kiln appears, productivity increases, skills blossom, reknown spreads, sales rebound.
Things have been just as bad, and much worse, for me in the past. I believed in that theory once, just barely enough, that I tried to fly. I returned to earth (and my damned cage) pretty quickly, but it didn’t kill me. Yet. Dare I think it’s worth another try?
And what about my Raven? Are my current circumstances so bad that I should leave it caged? Is there any reasonable chance that things will improve soon enough to save it? Or am I just hoping to roll a natural 20?
And if I can't dare to believe it, and things won't just improve on their own, and I can't luck my way out of this, am I really content to sit here and wait it out for 30 or 40 more years? Am I?
I cranked through five firings for sale this Fall. My back didn’t explode this time. I had a really good turnout, so there’s money in the bank, but not nearly enough to step off the ledge with confidence, or turn the key. I see a sliver of daylight, out there on the horizon. So, so tempting to try to fly to it. But I doubt it will remain open long enough for me to get there.
"I just want to find it. Just want to see where the sky meets the earth."
october 21st, 2015
I’m not sure why the caged bird stares at me like it wants to peck my fucking eyes out
"We were raised by wolves, and we are still wild
and we howl when the troubled winds blow." — A.A. Bondy
"Rook, rook, read in the book, if there’s a secret can I be part of it?" — XTC
We sit in our respective cages, me and the bird. Waiting to get out.
It’s there at my elbow, all day long, hoping I’ll open the door. Not understanding what reasons I might possibly have for keeping it closed; and for staying in my own cage. Abstracted priorities and deferred gratification mean nothing to it.
I don’t know what kind of bird Maya Angelou had — and I should apologize for slaughtering her wonderful title — but mine is a Raven. It sits there, locked up, its malevolent black eyes boring holes in my will. “Let me out. Just let me out. I’ll go back in; I promise.”
Sometimes it turns its head sideways and pinches the bars in its beak, as if sheer desire were enough to break through. Or cleverness; a futile attempt at lockpicking.
How to maintain hope without faith?
Actually, I’m pretty sure I do know why. The bird is my creativity. My artistic impulse. My unwavering desire to make things, bottle-fed from a fragile chick to this majestic specimen; trained early to expect to roam, explore, breathe. It so rarely gets to fly free now. This captivity spawns hatred and disgust. It blames me and, I’m sorry to say, rightly so.
See, I chose my cage. And I built its. Ironically, with my own two hands. Every step along the way; money and time, money and time. Even a series of regrettable, naive mistakes is still choice. Nevermore.
Playing a bit of a game between breakfast and packing up for the day, singing a snatch of song on the drive to town, planning tomorrow’s throwing while stirring pasta, daydreaming about the next glaze over the horizon while scraping kiln shelves or stacking firewood — none of these are true flight. Pecking around on the ground for spare bits, at best. Even many of my hours in the studio, supposedly free, are tethered. Constrained.
So maybe not a raven… More like a hooded falcon, obsequiously trained to its bell and tamed enough to not eat its own kill. Not really free. Roaming is rare, dangerous, expensive.
How to maintain belief in that bigger world out there when almost every hour is spent hunched forward, staring into the myopic present? I can’t see the forest for the bars of the cage; can’t dream anymore of things for which evidence has not yet presented itself. As if we couldn’t live without our respective cages.
The disparity between momentarily soaring overhead on currents of exploration and hours sitting huddled next to its own food and shit is practically schizophrenic. It makes a bird crazy. What’s the point of wings if you hardly ever fly?
And so it gazes at me, ravenously. “You are fucking this up, Scott. I mean: really, really fucking this up.” A disturbing squawk. The bang of metal as it jumps closer. Right up to the bars: this is as personal as it gets. “Make a change before it’s too late! Do you think I can live in here forever?”
Unbearable. I think that’s the word that he used to describe a life without making things. de Staebler. A life without actively — and I’ll add regularly — creating something. Preferably something that exists in the world, in three dimensions, with mass and taking up some space. A declaration of existence. Heck, even some inventive words and images would be better than nothing. A quick flight around the block.
What will happen when the caged life becomes unbearable? To my stockpile of fears, I will now add one where I open the door some day and it just flies off, away from me. For good.
"And all the people you meet, down in the street, may be good but they don’t want to know. So they cover their eyes, for who wants to be sad? Life is good, at the bottom of the sea."
september 15th, 2015
let me go
"Today was gonna be the day but they’ll never throw it back to you." — Oasis
I’m pretty sure there is no other object in my life that I’ve loved more than my treadle wheel. None I’ve been more emotionally tied and committed to. None I was more sorry to stop using. But the writing seemed pretty clearly on the wall — in BIG ALL CAPS — and so I decided to let it go.
And so now… gone like a train.
I first tried a Leach wheel at Clary Illian’s studio, summer of ’94, reluctantly. I’d borrowed an electric wheel from the U — I think it was a old Shimpo, but that photographic evidence was much before the digital era, so I’d have to go digging through shoeboxes and paper albums to be sure. Anyways, my first professor generously loaned me one, after having even more generously pointed me towards Clary’s and the opening for a summer assistant, and I took it there with me and set it up in the side studio, next to the back screen door where Alice the dog would sit and ask me to come play instead of messing around with that pottery business.
At that point, with only three years of ceramics under my belt and barely two years throwing — mostly on a Lockerbie kick wheel — I got off to a rocky start: couldn’t center for a while, all the mechanics seemed off, it was hard to adjust to a different studio for the first time, as all of my experience thus far had been at the U.
Somewhere in there, somehow that I still don’t really understand but am very grateful for, Clary convinced me that I should try her second treadle wheel; one of two she’d brought back with her from the Leach Pottery in the late 60’s. It’s important to say that I was already enraptured by it as a device — watching her throw on it during a visiting artist demo at the U a couple years prior was one of the main reasons I jumped at the chance to work in her studio. But, or perhaps because of that, I was also intimidated beyond reason. It seemed like a very advanced tool for a person I could never hope to be, a thing for famous potters, not fumbling students. The culture of pottery and its provenance were too big, in my eyes, for me to see it as just something made of wood and metal, just another way to try to spin clay ‘round a hole.
And of course, it was a big adjustment — kicking that treadle bar changes almost everything — but an adjustment mitigated somewhat by the slow-motion trainwreck I had going at the electric wheel, which it saved me from. Maybe that’s what she was thinking: “Well, it couldn’t really be going any worse.“ Ha.
Anyways, in my pre-Internet faded memory (no “Life Events” on Facebook to scroll back to for this one) it was awkward and strange and hard, but also empowering and strangely wonderful and… just so different. It went when I went, like the trusty, understandable kick wheel, but it had a different fluidity to it; a shorter, constant rhythm of kick kick kick instead of the intermitant, hard flailing at the concrete flywheel. A faster, slower, faster variation that I had to learn to control, at a constant pace, like dividing your attention in two and then keeping both halves going just right. (I’d estimate now that it takes a new treadler about 100 hours on the seat before that left foot action becomes completely subconscious, so that all your attention can go back to your hands and arms, but that might be off by an order of magnitude in either direction. Maybe for seasoned bike riders it just takes an afternoon.)
It was also vastly different than the electrics I’d tried. The lack of whining motor noise so nice, getting up off the crouch at floor level something of a revelation. The slow(er) speed helped — I think part of my troubles on the Shimpo were the ease of power on the electric (“Speed kills!” - Chuck Hindes). And I loved being able to reverse direction at the mere thought of it, and twisting the wheelhead by hand when stamping or decorating or tweaking, and pausing to lean back against the wall, put my feet up on the frame and take it all in, like a king surveying his lands and future conquests.1
I was going to be a potter.
Fast forward a couple years, mostly spent on other Lockerbies, in Arizona and Colorado. As I learned, and acquired new potter heroes, it was amazingly consistent to discover how many of them used Leach wheels — MacKenzie, Oestrich, Christianson, Simon. (But not Staley, Hill or Keeler. The exceptions, to my young, more-credulous mind, proved the rule.) I learned later that this consistency had a common source — almost all going back to St. Ives, via Minnesota — but lacking that information at the time just made this type of wheel seem even more mythical, magical, monumental.
If all those amazing potters used one, surely I should, too.
So then to SIU Edwardsville and my year of grad school, where the big draws were wood, salt and soda kilns to die for, and a Mark Polglase treadle for every grad student who wanted one. (The few who didn’t want one seemed insane to me, of course.) That was a great year of throwing; in retrospect probably the time where it really started to click for me, with multiple hours in the saddle at least five days a week; where I began to get past the basics and was finally able, often enough, to make what was in my head, and to improvise in real time with positive results.
Then to my own first private studio, where after my first two “home sales”, I had enough money to finally buy a treadle of my own. It arrived in late October, 2001, and I assembled it in the cramped basement room that served as my studio, in the first house we owned on College Street.
A hand-made treadle wheel, the primary tool of all my heroes, was a key component of my Dream. I thought it would take my pots where I wanted them to go, and that those pots would then pull the rest of my life into that rarified space of people who somehow manage to make a sustained living from it. Someday I would have a bigger, better studio, out in the country; with my own gas kilns, a permanent showroom, a steadily growing customer base (just like Clary), and then I’d quit my job and it would all be great. Just great.
That wheel is where I earned hours 5,000-15,000, give or take, and pots… oh, I don’t know — let’s say anywhere from 8 to 12 thousand pots. It’s where I sat for that brief span when I was a full time potter, working every day in the studio. It’s where I absolutely believed I’d sit when I worked my last hour as a potter, hopefully in my 90s, just before dying peacefully in my sleep.
Instead, as you probably know, for the last two years it’s been just a glorified ware rack, a handy place to pull handles, a steady reminder of the life and The Dream I had to give up. I moved it aside to fit in my new Soldner electric last summer — the kind of wheel I’d never liked and thought I’d luckily escaped from back in ’94 — and the treadle now haunts more than it inspires.
So I chose to sell it because I didn’t want it to just keep sitting there gathering dust; a monument to my past failures and disappointments. It was built to work, like a horse or an engine, crafted from a tried and tested design to last for many more repetitions and years than I managed to log on it. I wanted another potter to keep it in use, to take it farther down the road that I’d planned for. And even if I wanted to, I can’t really afford the luxury of keeping it around for old time’s sake, when there are so many other projects around the studio that need funding. I’m hoping to convert that money into part of the new kiln and shed, if This Old House doesn’t eat it first.
So a younger, excited, ready to Dream potter takes it from me now, and I think she’ll do good work on it. That’s cool; much better than just selling it to an anonymous high bidder. I like that I know where it’s going and that I’ll occasionally get to see proof of its use. I like the symmetry of it going back to Iowa, past Clary’s place, along the same route I travelled in ’99 to buy my first wheel — that Lockerbie — from another potter, who was closing up shop. One person’s Dream starts and fades into another.
The original plan was to just roll it out of the studio intact, to simplify the transport, but then I discovered that each of its dimensions was wider than my studio doors. Duh! When we moved the wheel in, on a January day ten years ago, there was an overheard garage door on the studio (then more like a garage) that I replaced with a sliding patio door later. Thirty inches is a lot less forgiving than twelve feet!
So I went looking for the initial instructions, printed on paper, and of course I couldn’t find them. I had the original plywood crate that the flywheel came in, the the one-time-use shims for holding it in place while attaching the bolts to the shaft, but no instructions. Commendably, Mark P. himself answered my cry for help, and explained in detail all the steps to undo what I’d only done that once, 14 years ago.
I found unexpected catharsis in having to take it (somewhat) apart. Repeating the steps in reverse, removing nuts and screws that a vastly different version of myself put on, back when I was boiling with excitement (and anxiety) about it being so new; the culmination of a many-years wish.
It soothed my preemptive regret to remember how each bit of the mechanism worked, as I carefully took it apart, and to appreciate its clever, near-perfect design. It felt proper and also a bit ostentatious, languishing in just giving it all the time the task required, to clean each piece and prepare it for transport. My father in law — a precise, orderly type — came into the studio once, long ago, took one look at my wheel and said, “Don’t you ever clean it?” Ha. Well, yes, I did occasionally, but usually only to switch from one clay to another, and rarely with any completeness or depth.
So kind of like thumbing through an old studio notebook, there was a mix of recollection and regreat at finding bits of dried clay in hidden nooks and corners; clumped particles of decomposed granite that might have first slipped through my fingers all the way back to 2001. Stoneware on porcelain on stoneware on dreams, layered over with a light film of regret.
My 22-year-old self (half a lifetime ago) would be simultaneously awed by all that I’ve accomplished — and acquired — and stunned at how little I’d settled for; how far I’ve fallen from those youthful assumptions that morphed into dreams. What will my 66-year-old self (a third of a lifetime from now) think about today, about giving up that wheel, about this piece of writing? And if I make it to 88, what then? More of the same? Vastly different? Perhaps with continued hindsight I will perpetually look like a foolish wanderer, aiming for targets I can’t possibly hit, trading one piece of craftsman’s daydream for another, hoping for one last kick.
"Backbeat, the word on the street’s that the fire in your heart is out."
1 Incidentally, that room with the treadle wheel, under the window and that one overhead bulb, is where I came up with the name St. Earth Pottery. It seemed like heresy to not follow Clary’s example, and just call it “Scott Cooper Pottery”, but I’ve never liked my name as a title all that much — I mean, when your name is Clary Illian how can you not go with that? — and I’d already spent at least a decade imagining names and logos and tag lines for fake companies, bands and organizations.2 The chance to slap one on a real thing was too good to pass up.
Talk about dreaming; it seemed like a fantasy come real. Ends up it was mostly just a fantasy, but one that sustained me through my first 10,000 hours and then some.
2 In junior high, it was a riff on KISS called Biohazard — a fake band mimicking a fake band — that was also, in retrospect, like half performance art collective. At least, in my head it was.
My opening line to my future wife, in the second week at college, was, “Frostbite Falls — you ever heard of them?” — said while pointing at a large poster we were printing for a band that would never exist, yet already had a name, logo and, well, poster.3 Note to 18 year olds: if you want to marry a future art professor, try something along these lines.
And in high school, my friend Matt and I started a two-person PAC called Anarchy, Inc., which was dedicated to preventing our fellow students from voting in the student council elections. (I still feel bad for our fantastic teacher (and ex-hippie) Mrs. Ormsby, who gave us a stern lecture about the importance of voting and representation. It didn’t really take.)
Anyways, why am I telling you all this here? Wasn’t this the kind of stuff I was supposed to save for the weird ass newslettery thing?
3 This end note lives in the aforementioned newslettery thing, so if you want to read it, you’ll have to go back in time and subscribe to it yesterday.
Hey, I told you you should have signed up for it.
june 22nd, 2015
a show about nothing
"It looks like you’re doing nothing, but you’re really doing something." — Maggie Pixel
One of the things I want to do here is sort out how to deal with loss. Accepting it, routing around the damage, learning to compensate but not overcompensate. Because there’s been more loss for me (lately? the last few years? the last decade? how do you even mark that or count it?) than my existing systems and methods can process. Or maybe different kinds of loss in unfamiliar scenarios, so that those old ways just don’t apply or measure up.
And I hope that if I get anywhere with that, the reason for writing about it publicly, rather than in private, is that maybe it helps you do it too, or something similar. Yes, some of that is definitely grandstanding; that weird “I’m a mess/Hey everybody look at me!” phenomenon. And some of it is simply a goad: knowing that there may be a small audience to read it prompts me to write it. (My private journaling habit, strong and pretty consistent for almost 20 years, has faded to nearly nothing. Let’s blame blogging.)
So that’s rather ambitious on two counts. 1) Self improvement, enhanced self-knowledge and levelling up some core life skills. 2) Share the journey/experience/conclusions with some people whom I haven’t yet scared away from my writing, via the Internet. Probably too ambitious. But it’s at least a start to answering the question “What the fuck am I trying to do here?”. Why a new blog, why this topic, why any stated topic or theme at all? Or, if not an answer, at least a provisional thesis to bang my willpower against until it crystallizes into a solid, or reveals itself to actually be wontpower in disguise.
I’m pretty good at disguises.
So to make a list of the losses in any way that’s plain and clear veers quite close to several ‘third rails’ of blogging; areas that are well-documented hazards, and that experience has taught me to shy away from. Like: Don’t Lose Your Job Because of Your Blog. And, Don’t Alienate Your Friends & Family With Your Blog. Don’t Undermine Your Business With Your Blog. Don’t Overshare Your Medical/Financial/Personal History on Your Blog.
Obviously, the losses only count as losses because they happen within these core areas of my life, in the non-bloggable zones. They take away things that are (were) of great personal significance. You don’t mourn the early deaths of people you’ve never heard of, and no one who hates football cares when the home town team loses the Superbowl.
So there’s a tension here, a reason it’s both hard to blog about and worth blogging about. The closer a particular loss is to my center, the more weight it has for me, the greater the hazard to telling its details. And, of course, time changes a lot — it resets the sliders on the triple-beam of life. When my barn first fell, I had to share it, but it was also so devastating that I could hardly even speak its name. Now, six years nine months + 8 months later, it’s easy. It’s just a pile of broken lumber and forgotten dreams in the side yard of my heart.
(OK, scratch that. That first photo still lands like a donkey kick to the stomach.)
So to run with a fairly innocuous example, this past spring when I rolled out onto the wallyball court again, confident that I’d done the work to strengthen my back — and that I was wise enough to just step back into that space for a few minutes, play cautiously and sparingly, and exit with some new information — it mattered to me. A lot. Much more than you’d think, and it’d be silly for me to try to even explain in full.
Or, at the risk of silliness, you can insert the rather standard paradigm of a middle aged human, closer to decrepitude than birth, attempting to recover a blush of that youthful vigor; an identity in search of a former arena of strength and power; a skillset dying to be used again; an ego seeking that friendly, compartmentalized and ritualized form of sweaty male bonding that anchors so much of boyhood, yet fades so fast it feels like a movie once watched while half asleep.
I planned, I theorized, I convinced myself that one game couldn’t possibly hurt. I imagined a slow, yet steady and ultimately successful comeback, one game per week at a time. I allowed myself to think, again, that I would grow into one of those old guys, playing the stationary game, feet rooted in place yet wacking the ball with spin and wisdom into hallow spots on the court.
And that one game went well — it was fine. As per the averages of a fairly low skill pickup game, I got just one good set, but I crushed it like it was 1991 all over again: almost straight down (very low nets, mind you, and even with no hops, I’m still 6’4”), off the back wall, with enough velocity to float back over to our side. The group takes notice, motes of respect are paid. The adrenaline surge screams YOU ARE ALIVE. It briefly smells like… victory; or teen spirit.
Then I walked off the court, exiting wisely and, clearly, prematurely. “Just one game, guys. Hopefully again next week!” And that night it felt fine, and the next day was pretty good. I got back into the studio and the mowing and whatever, and then the slow unravelling. The shockingly familar twist, from some innocuous yet final straw, where two parts move away or past one another, in a way they most definitely should not move, and then weeks and weeks of pain and attention and strategizing and treatment and limited chores, tasks, goals. Canceled firings, fear for the Sale, almost endless frustration. All from that one, 15 minute game. Or perhaps even that one, 5 second hit.
“Oh please don’t go out on me — don’t go on me now! Never acted up before. Don't go on me now. I swear I never took it for granted. Just thought of it now. I suppose I abused you. Just passing it on. Go! Fuck!” - Pearl Jam
So wallyball is done with me, or I’m done with it. No more test games, no more hope of a comeback. Other guys, guys I introduced to the game and dragged onto the court their first time, will be the old stationary guys, while I’ll be over — hopefully, best-case-scenario — grinding away on the damn elliptical machine and stretching, carefully stretching. So dull, so non-cardio, so monotheistically focused on core strength. So little to look forward to.
“The only people who talk about learning from failures are people who feel like they’re currently successful.” - Merlin Mann
I guess that’s a pretty good example. Came out better than I expected when I started it. Not too third-raily, I hope. Thanks for suffering through it with me.
Then there was the barn, as I said, and of course the stupid goddamn fucking Dream. “I want to be a real potter! Boo hoo!” The solitary, voluntary, vast expanses of pre-parenting time. The best of days on the dayjob, the house before everything started to break, the budget before it collapsed under its own weight, the hope for a shed and two kilns and a showroom out back, (well, OK, maybe the shed and one kiln — still, just maybe). Friends, family — gone or lost in the distance. That weird, consoling belief that maybe I could be the one to escape this life relatively unscathed, without a full share of suffering; the lucky one, to whom the rules wouldn’t apply. Ha. Dummy.
"Vandelay! Vandelay Industries!"
june 9th, 2015
I will not be owned by my fears
"Oblivion swiftly followed, the universe playing catch-up, as it is wont to do." — John Ashbery
I will respect them, accomodate them as needed, attempt to steer clear of the worst and most dangerous paths. But I refuse to give up, to give in. I’d rather go down with the ship; or, at least, more downwards.
The universe might want to balance the scales and all, but fuck that. It’s not my fault I live in a culture than can barely muster two shits for a person giving everything they have to making the best art-craft-stuff they can. It’s not my fault I’m 6’4” and evolved to walk on my hind legs. It’s not even my fault that I stumbled into a college ceramics class and fell in love. I’m certainly no bystander to those facts, but I won’t take all the blame, either.
So let’s roll. Bring it on, you bastards, everything you’ve got. (Well, OK, maybe not everything.)
“It came to me then that every plan is a tiny prayer to Father Time.” After my sale, I paid to restock my clay supply for the next making cycle; committing to that cycle. I paid for another winter’s worth of firewood for the studio stove, planning to be out there staying warm and keeping wet pots above the frost line and working. I laid down hard plans and numbers for a nearly-10-year-delayed kiln shed, and am just about to break ground on a massive slab of concrete. Gods and fates willing, that’s where my new salt kiln will sit some day.
I will tremble in the face of my fears. I will, on certain days, succumb to them. I will regret this moment of boldness, perhaps just slightly less often than I would regret steering away from it. But fuck you, Oblivion. I’ve paid you some debts. You can have me someday, but for today, for now, I am mine.
june 8th, 2015
"Drink up, dreamers, you’re running dry." — Peter Gabriel
Here at 44, I still measure my big picture in units of The Goddamn Dream. Today sucks because I have to go to the office instead of the studio. Tomorrow will suck because I have to hold those plates a little longer under plastic before I can trim and finish them. Hands on the keyboard, while often good, are no substitute for hands in clay.
Beat. Take a breath. Beat. Think about what you’re really trying to say. No lies, no grandstanding.
Birthdays are supposed to be — generally; at least that’s they way I was raised — congratulatory; a celebration. Hopeful. Mine feel like marks on the wall of a prison cell. Hardly something to cheer about. Marks tallying time served, towards an unknown release date. Really, the marks of the life-long inmate who knows there’s no release coming.
Not very gracious of me, now is it? Ignoring all the positives and small gains and hopeful glimmers to focus on the dark? “If you think this has a happy ending, you haven’t been paying attention.” This is what this is. You’ve been warned. If you want happy positives, go read somewhere else.
The real clusterfuck is trying to imagine what it would take — what would have to change — for 45 or 55 or 95 to be/feel/seem any different. Because it seems like that would require a titanic swell; New Madrid caroming over the landfill; a rewriting of the rules of the universe. Not just a small uptick in my personal circumstances.
So much muck to crawl through to get to the next moment of transcendence.
This is why I’m gradually — sardonically, but sincerely — adopting the label “fatalist”. It seems to me that we’re all screwed, the world is screwed, my own chances at a greater share of joy than misery are screwed: that this is just how it is, and for most people in most places, this has always been true. As true as one perspective can allow.
Proof: that even the depths of this emotion, the intensity of this thought, and my best attempts at expressing it thud home rather than ring. They seem like merely the privileged carping and whining that they likely are, rather than some larger statement about life or humanity. Forty four years in the tank and still only capable of this. Pretty sad.
Oh, but thanks for all the friendly birthday wishes on Facebook. You’re some nice people, you lot.
may 6th, 2015
"I’m not talking about following your dream, either — I never liked the inspirational value of that phrase. Dreaming is a way of trivializing the process, the obsession that carries you through the failure as well as the successes... I mean, if you’re dreaming you’re sleeping, and it’s important, an imperative, to always be awake to your feelings, your possibilities, your ambitions… But you also know this: for your work, for your passion, every day is a rededication. " — Martin Scorsese
Wow, I was on a roll. The annual SAD time had finally given way to spring rains and the return of the color green to the landscape. I cranked through three firings in six weeks — fighting the weather, having a blast. Really good results from the kiln, like I picked up right where I’d left off last fall, rather than having to backtrack and regain lost ground. I had the pots for at least two more loads on deck, and plenty of time before the sale to get them through the kiln. And I was still throwing, at least a little; it finally seemed like I might actually fulfill the goal of extending the making cycle right up to the sale cycle, so that when I returned it wouldn’t be such a harsh, cold restart at the wheel.
Then, as it has so many times before, that flush of optimism prompted a fatal mistake: I tried to reclaim a shard of my former glory on the walleyball court. At the gym for my usual weekly boring session of walking, stretching and working up core strength on various machines, I thought, “Just one game… 20 minutes tops — that can’t hurt, right?”
Smash cut to a week later and my Potter’s Back failing me again. All that momentum screeching to a halt. Oh, hello darkness. My old friend. I’d wondered where you’d gotten to. I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t have enough new material for my blog about Oblivion.
Never fear, there’s always more.
For a few days there it even looked like I was going to have to cancel this sale. (Some things got super crazy, and while I almost never hold back on sharing those kinds of details, in this case I’d better defer. Let’s just leave it at “super crazy”.)
But I am nothing if not stubborn. After 29 consecutive sales, two per year for the last fifteen years, I was not giving up that easily. I did a sale the spring that we moved to the country, ten years ago. I did a sale the winter after Maggie was born, when we were so deep in the baby haze that I could barely see straight. I did a sale the other times I’d torched my back; the time I had oozing swaths of poison ivy going up both arms; the time we were all up sick most of the night before. A little limping around and consistent, nagging back pain, and a dose of “super crazy” weren’t going to break that streak. No sir.
So the sale went on, slowly, lurchingly, cautiously… with generous help from a few friends, and with Cindy picking up my slack. But it went on.
Minus those firings, minus those pots. About 60 fewer new pots than I’d planned, which sucks because they were the most recent ideas, the last executions of details and experiments from the whole winter run of making; and the last firings in the cycle are always the best; the pots I’m most proud of on Saturday morning. The display was OK without them. A little light — we put away a shelf or two and spread things out to fill in he gaps. And they’re still sitting out there in the studio, naked, unfinished, unfired, waiting their chance next December.
Happily, the pots from those three firings were good. I spent some extra time cleaning them all up — sanding off the little marks from the wadding, polishing them up for their debut. Trying to see the forest for the trees, to get past my expectations and disappointments and see them for what they really were, and to feel how they fit into my bigger picture. I often fail at that, or skip that step, in the rush to get ready. That last bit of philosophizing and feeling and internalizing what I’ve done (and failed to do) and what it means to me, and what I want to do about it next.
Even by my rather high and skeptical standards, they seemed good. Maybe even very good, with a handful of greats. There were more than usual that I don’t want to let go of yet; but I didn’t hold back as many as I wanted to. Most of those sold, because my customers aren't dumb.
And so I had lots of mugs, perhaps more than ever, including some of the largest I’ve ever made. Closing on on legitimate steins. And tumblers, small jars and vases, smallish and medium plates, and new decorative spins on old bowl shapes.
All that white slip I’ve been playing with is paying off big time; exactly what I wanted. It adds a creamy layer of texture and color over the base clay, another bit of complexity and organic fuzziness to the stack. Another material and process that is partially under my control and partially not, and that multiplies the qualities of the other layers — clay, glaze, salt — that it interacts with. My black underglaze brushwork continues to be satisfying, both to do and the results. Lines and dots, dots and lines. Now some little constellations of x’s in glaze pencil. Yellow glaze honeycomb dots. Blue-green celadon over the black, bleeding the black out, gravity and flux dragging the cobalt down the pot, pooling in gloriously dangerous drips near the bottom. The people see blue.
And my “usual” tricks: dots, circles, glaze splashes, slip pours, wax on/sponge off, finger marks, the geometry of wadding, the inheritance of stacking, the weather of the fire. Continuing my quest to never make the exact same pot twice.
People came, customers, in weird patterns and fits and starts, but they came, and they bought pots, and the shelves emptied out about as much as they usually do; at least, as much as they usually do these days: after the boom years of all my working time in the studio and the last pre-bust economy. The new normal; might as well accept it. At least it wasn’t worse.
And it’s done — done for another cycle. I dread and endure the Selling. It only exists to allow the Making. But getting through it allows me to return to the studio, to my usual tricks. With summer and the long half of my annual cycle coming up, that’s good. I can’t fucking wait. I still want to make — desperately, at times. I want to move clay and make my mark and fill wareboards and kilns and cupboards. At least I still have that. Whew. At least I still have that.
march 31st, 2015
"Birds on the roof of my mother’s house. No stones to chase them away. Birds on the roof of my mother’s house, will sit on my own roof someday." — Sting
"We would never have marched so far, to be food for the carrion crows…" — Sting
The turkey vultures are back, the carrion crows. Looking for their former nesting site, up in the second floor of the barn lean-to. They sit, forlorn and confused, on the tallest broken pieces of poplar posts. Roosting there overnight, in the still-cold air. Waiting, it seems, for nature to give them a new hint about what to do now.
Like me. Where do you build your nest when what you’ve known is suddenly gone? Gone like a train, whistling in the distance. Waiting, it seems, for nature to give me a new hint. Awkwardly perched on my post. What the fuck should I do now?
“Too afraid to look behind me, at the feast of the crows.”
“All this time, the river flows.”
Too little. Too much.
<> “The Fisher King reference is most likely to the “wound where a lovely flower grew”, with sentiments woven into the song of being wounded, knowing the nature of the injury, but having nothing inside of oneself to alleviate the pain.”
march 24th, 2015
"Their murmur more like the sigh we sigh, from too much dwelling on what has been."
— Robert Frost
"Many see the magic of throwing a pot and decide then and there they must possess it,
they must learn it." — Clary Illian
If I had a billion dollars, I’d open a rest home for old potters. By which I mean, not a “rest” home but a “work” home — a place for them to have studios and kilns and keep working, as long as they want to and can. It’d be a small live-in campus. Like Penland, with a medical staff.
On the other end of campus, across the small pond from Silica Towers or whatever, would be a day care center, with an emphasis on art and, particularly, clay. Seasoned art teachers, K-12 teachers, and maybe a full-time art therapist to help direct the curriculum, all paid what they’re actually worth.
The old(er) people and young(est) people would interact in the group studios. Seniors who wanted them would have private studios, too, of course. (I mean, with a billion fucking dollars we’re not going to consign them all to the indignities of a gang studio.) The four year olds could come over after morning snack to roll coils with the ninety year olds. The nine year olds could get one-on-one throwing help from the seventy year olds. And so on.
There would be regular classes or workshop sessions during the day for anyone who wanted them — anything from a for-credit semester of Ceramics I to a three hour introduction to maijolica painting. A hands-on after-school program for older kids — needs based, fully funded, expanding to fill whatever demand existed, like Dave Eggars’s 826 Valencia program. Kids could do all the things that used to be somewhat routine in public school art studios but are becoming increasingly rarer, and could learn those things from people who’ve done it and/or taught it their entire lives. Old potters that want to teach could teach; old teachers that want to pot could pot. Kids would learn, not just about clay and glazes and tools and kilns, (and chemistry, construction, pollution, ethics…), but about all the kinds of things you learn when hanging out with adults who are not in your immediate family. Good things.
In addition to a permanent staff, there’d be an internship/apprentice program to fill the age gap in the middle. There has to be someone around to help move the pallets and load the kilns, and nothing teaches the realities of making pots like helping run a studio. We’d pay an actual living wage for a fixed amount of work each week — so it’s not just students whose parents can afford to send them, or who must rush off every spare second for a shift at Pizza Hut. College students on summer break; post-grads looking for somewhere to land while they sort out the next step while still getting to fire in an anagama; kids who never went to college, or quit early, but who have the passion to learn how to make things by hand and want to see if they can make a go of it as an occupation.
And of course the best visiting artist program in the country, lectures, demos, film screenings. A museum, galleries, shop. Good, free coffee. A kiln yard that would make most mud slingers weep with joy at the possiblities. Open events for the public — watch a firing! try to throw a pot! — to introduce (or re-introduce) normal people to the idea of buying handmade pots. A philanthropic wing that sent out a Claymobile, and paid to give pots to kids dying of cancer, and bombarded the media with stories about how awesomely underappreciated ceramics is in the world at large.
If pottery can no longer pay for itself in our wired, sad post-modern society, than someone with ridiculous wealth should help pay for it. After 30,000 continuous years of shaping and being shaped by us, it’s too important to let it die to the unrelenting vagaries of the market. Too important to the people who’ve committed their lives to it to have to give it up just when they’re starting to figure things out. Too important to helping kids grow and learn in ways that few other things can teach.
That’s what I’d do with a billion dollars.
What about you?
february 23rd, 2015
copy, hack, copy
"I’m always focussed on the actual work, and I think that’s a much more succinct way to describe what you care about than any speech I could ever make." — Jony Ive
"To me, an interesting thing about pattern is there isn’t a beginning or an end." — Sarah Jaeger
It’s 6:10am on a Friday. I’m lying in bed awake. My alarm will go off in 20 minutes — thinking about those big mugs I made yesterday — picturing their shapes — wondering what I will do with their surfaces this afternoon — after I put on handles. Tumbling the options over in my imagination; my potter’s eye; trying to see nuances of form with malleable layers of decoration wrapped across/over them. Black on light brown; charcoal on greyish tan. A slideshow carousel of options.
No, no, no, no, maybe, no, well… no.
Bam! Oh wait. Yeah, there’s one. Ooh — that’s a beaut. Nice. The way it… yeah, and if I… uh-huh. We might have a winner here, folks. Oh, and if I have the front side and the back side meet up just so, before fading off at the base…
Now I’m motivated to get up.
So I do, and then I do (stretches & calisthenics), and I do (go out to stoke up the stove from the overnight coals), and I do (get Maggie ready for school), and I do (eat breakfast), and I do (check-in on the iPad), and I do (prep, form, pull handles), and I do (some other crap), and I do (eat lunch), and I do, finally (paint on that pattern in black underglaze). I sit back to admire it in the flesh, in three real dimensions, and I’m pleased. Surprisingly. It’s better than I’d even expected. I grab the camera to document my little victory and snap a few frames. I lean back and obsess on the results in the viewfinder.
And then I see it.
Oh well. If you’re gonna copy, you may as well copy the best.
february 16th, 2015
"Regardless of what happened to me, I rarely stopped typing.
Perhaps I was worried I would disappear altogether if I did." — David Carr
Trying something new with images:
february 15th, 2015
dream season, vol 1: gone
"All of my daydreams are disasters…" — Jeff Tweedy
Last night I dreampt that my studio burned down. Some sort of accident with a welder or something. My fault.
It was awful. The sense of guilt, of unchangeable error, of despair. Flavors of the night the barn died. Subliminal echos of the constant, background noise-level fear about kilns and wood stoves. Memories of Oestrich saying both he and MacKenzie lost studios to fire; and of that kiln I saw once with big scorch marks up on the rafters.
Then I woke up, ten minutes before my alarm went off.
What a great way to start the day.
And here’s where, if I was still writing tw@se, I’d feel obliged to take it and turn it. To ask: what does this dream mean for me, as a potter? What are the larger implications; lessons to be learned? How might it apply to others, to all of us? Blah blah blah.
But you know what? Fuck it. “It’s important to retain the ability to say, ‘Fuck it.’”
"Rivers burn and then run backwards. For her, that’s enough."
february 11th, 2015
"Life is worth living by a score of 51-49." — Don Pilcher
"One by one, the sweetest days of life go by." — Woody Gutherie
"Yesterday’s dust and heartache." — Son Volt
I don’t know when it occurred to me that I could mark up the calendar with not just the passage of time but as a record of the quality of that time, but I started doing it consistently sometime in the middle of last year. Usually in the evening, after dinner, in the little space between the side of the fridge where the calendar hangs and the hallowed routine of pre-loading the coffee maker. Rather than just crossing off each day, I use three different marks: a little code of sorts. An X for an average, run-of-the-mill, we’re-all-gonna-die-someday-but-we-managed-to-get-through-this-one day. An O for a good, productive, hopeful or (genuinely) enjoyable day. And a solid block of scribbling — with as much overlap and violence as feels warranted — for the days of angst, overwhelming frustration, or despair.
As I started this system around the same time that I killed tw@se and ginned up the idea for a blog called Alms for Oblivion, it should come as no surprise that at the end of each of those months, the page showed vast swaths of scribbled-in darkness. Each week there were at least a few Xs, and only the rare, lucky O. Lots and lots of hard-won ink.
So for most of the Fall, and probably a lot of last Summer1, the wise Professor Pilcher had it wrong: the score, for me, was more like 6-94.
”…trapped in a slowly unraveling dream that never came true."
Say, have I mentioned that this is probably not the blog you’re looking for? That my intent here is to purposefully focus on the bleakness, those dark days, the not-pots times? It seems like I’d already said so, but looking down at what’s actually made its way from my sprawling notes and drafts to the public screen, I guess I haven’t. So here’s a sloppy, after-the-fact manifesto of sorts: if tw@se was a blog about making pots, AfO will be a blog about not making pots. With or without you, I will wade straight into all the dust and heartache that accrues around the bleak, dark, not-making and see if there’s anything there worth exploring further. That is, rather than following the usual custom of running from this stuff as if it’s contagious, or pretending it doesn’t constantly linger just outside the margins of publicly-presentable self-image and personal branding.
Stephen De Staebler: "A life without making things that tell you who you are and what you feel is not enough. So I make things.”2
Also, have I mentioned that there will be some occasional fucking swearing along the way? Because when life gets bleak, I definitely start swearing. OK, swearing more. And because, after seven-plus years of writing a PG-13 blog, I’m more than ready to earn the occasional R.
“You won’t see me… catching on.”>
So, it was a few months of scribbling and swearing.3 Probably some moaning, too. And then last week — strangely, unexpectedly — a string of five Os in a row. Os are good. Where in the hell did you come from, five Os?
Well, four solid, productive, uninterrupted, gratifying days in the studio — that’s where. Engaged time at the wheel: the universal cure-all. Cheaper than therapy. And capped by a fun, not-sick, non-exhausting family day, which included squeezing in a successful plumbing repair, lunch out, and some goofing around at the indoor pool.
“These are days, to remember.”
There are more dark scribble times ahead — I can feel it. Lots more Xs than Os coming; the past is prologue. But maybe, maybe, maybe not quite as many? Maybe a chance to dig out a little, to stand in the sun a while, to make and remember and… dare I say… hope? Happiness is controlling the contents of consciousness Happiness is controlling the contents of consciousness Happiness is controlling the contents of consciousness I AM NOT A BOT
"Happiness is controlling the contents of consciousness."<loop>
1 I could dig the 2014 calendar out of the archival paper pile in the office, but am not really ready to survey the history in that much detail yet. Also, an image of it might be a bit too self-incriminating even for me.
2 Man, did I have to do some deep Googling to resurface that quote. I was absolutely sure I'd used it on tw@se at some point, but apparently not. Come to think of it, maybe I'm remembering a partial page torn out of an ancient CM and taped to a former studio wall? (When something doesn’t appear in the first page of search results, I now doubt my memory more than the machine, which says a lot about what the Internet is doing to our brains.)
3 Maybe even a few years; I dunno. Nothing’s really been the same since that trip to Penland, two years ago. Plenty of small things have certainly gotten better in that time, but many others have gotten, or remained, worse.
february 3rd, 2015
"And… yeah! How long must you wait for it? Yeah, how long must you pay for it?" — Coldplay
I’ve lived through 42 Februarys, 25 of them in cold climates. So far, only one has been spent making pots at Penland.
Which seems like a cruel joke. Like an extreme confusion of priorities. Like the pottery gods are not on my side.
I won’t get there again this year. Or next year. No early morning walk around the long bend in the road, first person into a hushed and dark studio. No creaking of the treadle with its unfamiliar rhythm, no warming snippets of conversation or walks through crisp sunlight for a coffee refill. No strange, familial escape to a different world, practicing all our usual routines in a very not usual place. No new faces, new friends, new connections. No pots in the salt, pots in the soda, pots pots everywhere pots. In my brain, 23 1/2 hours a day; in my eyes, constantly; in my hands, so much more than at home, so much more than now.
The way things are going, I will not get back there — probably not — for several more years. If ever.
january 14th, 2015
"…out there in the dark and the noise." — Glenn Macdonald
There's nothing here yet, but it's getting a little closer to becoming something.