Glassblowing and Writing

Today I tried glassblowing for the first time. It was in a beautiful studio in western Massachusetts. The brown autumn leaves outside were illuminated by the sun, fire tinged. Red, orange, like the glow of the glory hole. The day was perfect, the northeast holding its breath before the Frankenstorm.

I swung a long metal pole, preheated, its tip glowing into the glory hole. The glory hole was so hot that at first I could not differentiate the surface of the molten glass from the orange glow of the crucible containing it from the heat of the burning propane. I felt it through the pole first, as a blind man taps the earth before him with his cane: the treacle tacky resistance of the molten glass.

I pulled some of the glass out, forgetting to turn the pole, so that I glopped some of the glass onto the lintel of the portal — a huge chunk of fire brick on rollers, guarding the entrance — where the orange liquid instantaneously turned into recognizable glass. As if chocolate sauce had suddenly frozen onto ice cream.

Relative temperatures. Earlier I’d asked a glassblower how much he could expand a glass bubble. He’d obliged, and exploded one for me. The superheated glass popped in the air, where it instantaneously solidified and broke further into pieces on the ground. I was reminded of stories of people urinating in very cold places — so cold that the urine freezes into a piece of ice midair and breaks into pieces on the ground. The glassblower was able to pick up the superthin shards immediately. I was surprised to find they were flexible and springy.

The first day, all I did was watch, and then play with a solid piece of molten glass — making a ring, a marble, and a “snowman.” A “snowman” is a solid piece of glass that you practice rolling out into a rotationally symmetric head, body, and abdomen.

The next day, I watched again. This time a glassblower with 22 years of experience.  She produced ornament after ornament in a choreographed dance.

Finally, my first attempt: at first I could not even produce a bubble in the molten glass, blowing as hard as I could. But then I did produce a bubble. I produced a shape that looked like a cross between a condom and a pear. This shape then collapsed into a crinkle like a mashed up candy bar wrapper, or a Frank Gehry. It’s a start!

You will blow and you will blow and then, someday, you will still blow. But you won’t need to blow as hard because you will understand better the heat energy and the forces involved.

You will understand when to apply a force and how. To gain this understanding, you must watch, read, and make mistakes. Then, instead of blasting away at what has already cooled, you will catch it when it is hot, and it will be ready for you.

Meeting a poet

I met a poet today. He told me that he held onto all his drafts of his poems. I asked him how many drafts he wrote.

He said he wrote sixty or seventy drafts for a poem. The least number of drafts he ever went through for one poem was two.

He told me to take a risk. Afterwards, the first risk I took was to write in his book. It was quite tame, but a start. The second risk was writing a message to a friend.

The poet marveled at the improbability of existence. At the way that one event can explode into a life trajectory. At the tragedy of the holocaust, and how many generational lines were cut short. At the unlikely survival of his ancestor who served during the entire Civil War, who saw the ironsides clanging munitions off each other’s plates, refusing to sink. The fellow surviving, surviving, even after contracting TB in a prison camp.

He recommended to me, “The Poetics of Space.” After a brief scan of one chapter, “Shells,” one line leaps out: “Wolves in shells are crueler than stray ones.” There’s a lot going on there. That’s what I love about poetry, its ability to distill.

My current favorite artist is William Steig. He was a cartoonist, a painter, and a writer. You may have heard of him because he wrote Shrek.

You’ll come to a fork, the poet said. Take it.

William Steig offers a little more help than that. He pens a toothy alligator witch doctor giving trail beta, and a catfish to give the protagonist a spear.

Declaration of Rights

“Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible.” (Article 29, #1)

Drafting Committee of the Universal Declaration of Human RightsThese are some of the writers of a profound philosophical assertion, written in reaction to WWII, called the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

Is this as radical as I think it is?! There is so much going on in this one statement. It needs to be “unpacked.” What did they mean?! Especially if there are unsavory, psychotic personalities out there. Remember, this declaration was written in response to a warring world.

Even so, I believe this doctrine presumes not only an innate goodness in people but an active willingness to give back to the community which nourishes your true, healthy personality. Without this innate social drive, how could society function? It would starve. It seems to draw no traditional boundary lines — you have duties ONLY to the community which serves the essential you.

The reality we bump into, especially if we’ve ever lost someone close to us, is: our individual lives are short, limited by death. So short, actually, that it seems you might be best off by nourishing your personality through your duties. That way, the relationship is always a mutual one. If writing was the way you best expressed yourself, you would serve society through your writing as best you could.

Though I suppose you could also take turns, performing duties for your community in return for the way it enables your personality to blossom… Say, working as a mechanic, a postal worker (there are some lovely ones, too, from my experience), or a teacher, while writing creatively on the side. What do you think works best?

FULL development of you as a person. This is quite a beautiful idea.