Monday, January 30, 2017

Mr Moonlight



 
 
I heard the shout from outside the shop. Being a curious kinda guy, I peeked my head out the back door, only to look up and see the moon scowling down at me.

"I wasn't watching where I was going and a rammed my foot right into this cloud here" he frowned. Then he pointed to the cloud.

I was skeptical. "Why would you need to watch where you're going anyway?" I asked. "Don't you pretty much circle the same sky every night? Besides, it doesn't look to me like you have any feet."

"I do, though" he said. "I have feet. And toes. And my big one is killing me."

"Really?" I asked, still skeptical. "I don't see feet but I'll take you at your word. You've never lied to me before. But....a cloud? Aren't clouds really, really soft?"

"Apparently not this one."

"Well, I hope your toe gets better. Your light is particularly pleasant this evening. You are really putting on a wonderful show tonight. I was enjoying it through my shop window before ... you know ... I heard you...before you stubbed your toe. But your toe's pain is my gain. You kicked that cloud pretty far across the sky now, and that means more of your wonderful silvery light tonight. Maybe I'll walk along beneath you for a while. The pots can wait."

"Harumph" he said. But I could see he was smiling at my compliment as he resumed his arc across the sky.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Monday, January 16, 2017

Inseparable

This is how the ebay listing reads. (I share it here 'cause it's a pretty good story):

I don't mean for this listing to be confusing, but the images are of two different but nearly identical jugs. One has the blue "2" Bee-stinger decoration and is marked with a large "M" at the back of the base. The other is plain and unmarked.

Obviously they represent the work of the same pottery -- the same shape, the same lip, the same color clay, and the same perfect, luscious salt glaze. That's one reason why I want to sell them as a pair. I could no sooner break them up than I could send twins off to live in separate homes.

Neither have chips or cracks of any kind.

The one with the blue decoration: I was walking out the door of an antique store on highway 12 in southern Michigan when I noticed a man carrying the jug toward the door I'd just exited. The jug was only distinguishable by the shape. There was absolutely nothing of color or decoration visible through the thick layer of barn dirt that completely covered the surface. It was a dull, oily, thick, grey-brown.

But I knew what it was. I couldn't help myself. I asked the fellow what he was going to do with the jug. He said he intended to go into the antique store and see what they'd give him for the jug.

I gave him a price right then and there. I waited outside in hopeful anticipation of what I knew would be a strong probability -- my offer would be better than the store's.

I was right. I handed the man my money and drove home with the jug in my truck. When I got home I cleaned it up. As the grey-brown washed down the drain and the brilliant blue began to appear, I knew I had made one of "those" purchases -- the buy of a lifetime.

Many years later I came across the other, plain jug in the loft of a collector. I knew I had to have it. The two jugs belonged together. 

 They still do.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

The Great Extraction

The great extraction begins.  Seriously, I knew this day was coming.  If you've followed my blog for any length of time, you know that four years ago I signaled it.  Still, in the past few years hence I've figured out small and large ways to continue to survive.

It's been a big puzzle.  It's one thing to know that you're coming to the end of something.  It's another thing to know how to shape what's coming next.

So, you know that the biggest burden and hindrance to your survival is the place you live.  So you simply leave and set up elsewhere, right?

Well, maybe.  But what if where you live is also central to how you make whatever living you're capable of making?  What if you can't make a greater annual income -- no matter what you do?  What if you are 60 years old and have never been employed at anything else...so you're essentially unemployable at anything else anyway....

....unless somehow you can survive on a whole lot less?  What if the problem isn't how much you're capable of making so much as it is that your circumstances -- the very circumstances you require to make your living -- take too much of what you make?  In the words of Yul Brynner: "Is a puzzlement!"


Well, I now have an outside source of income.  And it involves doing what I do.  I still make pots.  I just don't make MY pots anymore.  Oh, I do make my pots still -- or, at least I will until I finally move from this place, at which point I won't make my pots anymore unless I can figure out a way to set back up.

Anyway, as I said, the great extraction has begun.  I'm selling off stuff.  I'm going to have to learn to be a nomad.  No more grand old house with the two kilns out back.  No more pastoral poetry about life in this old place with its wooded acre and 40 acre conservancy across the street allowing me to feel as though I'm in the country.  No more poplar floors that I refinished with a belt sander.  No more 11 foot ceilings and 12" baseboards and 6" mouldings with wooden shuttered windows that I made.

And I can't see lugging my pottery collection around.  40 years of collecting things that simply don't fit in a nomadic lifestyle of cheap rental houses.  The antique furniture will mostly go off to live with the next generation of my family if they want them.

I remember hearing someone saying something like, "I hold the things I own lightly, that way it won't hurt so bad when they are someday pried out of my fingers."  It was good advice.

I'll be trying ebay to sell off the pots.  I have a few of them up right now (it's a long process).


Uphill Climb



I was the one. 

I was the one who decided to run the risk of being misunderstood as taking a "side" in the debate leading up to the passage of the ACA years ago. I did so to raise the awareness among my artist friends that, because of our inherently erratic income, we were particularly vulnerable to a strange aspect of the way the ACA is set up.

I shouldn't have wasted my breath because no matter how much I pointed out that I wasn't arguing for or against the ACA, that's the only filter through which people have come to understand discussions about the particulars of any public issue. We're tribal now. We don't discuss issues and decide. We know which side we're on and from there we then learn from our tribe's sources how we're supposed to frame the discussion.
But there I was warning about the possible financial dangers inherent in the ACA's subsidy system to my artist friends. Nobody listened. I was just another person who wanted them to die without health insurance.
Well, poetic justice happens. I'm stuck in exactly the situation I warned about.

I've been struggling to get out from under a perfect storm of financial circumstances ever since the big crash of 2008. And, no, it's not that I was invested in the market and lost a bunch (if that had been the case, that would have been sort of self-healing, right? I mean, if that was the case, allI would have had to do was stay invested and I'd not only have recovered -- I'd be better off than ever. TARP was a fix for those who HAVE.). 

No, it's that the market crash marked a decided drop in buying in that final quarter of that year...and like many art fair artists, I rely -- to an unsafe degree -- on making a good bit of income from the sales in the final quarter and a half each year.

That year I didn't. And I was too close to the edge, financially. For the first time in 30 years, I went into the new year already in debt.

And I've been struggling with that ever since. If it's ever happened to you, you're painfully aware that you pay off a previous year's debt with the current year's income. If you happen to be so close to the line of solvency that you barely make it each year, you can figure out the consequences -- when you pay off the previous year's debt, the IRS says that you made that significant amount of income more than the previous year and suddenly you owe the IRS even more than the debt you paid off.

And the perverse thing is that the ACA doubles that problem.

It works something like this:
You get a subsidy based on the previous year's income level. You make more the next year. Now, not only do you owe more in taxes for which, as a self-employed artist you may or may not be prepared, but you also have to pay back the previous year's ACA subsidy. WHAM-WHAM, the one-two punch of higher taxes and the subsidy payback.

It appears from what I read on facebook that many are blithely unaware of how much their subsidy for the ACA is. I'm guessing this only because I witness conversation after conversation in which one party is complaining about the degree to which their health insurance premiums have gone up...only to get the response that the respondent's premium either hasn't gone up, or has gone up from, say $17 to $85 a month.
In other words, blithely unaware that the $17-$85 a month premium is ACTUALLY a premium of in excess of $1,000 -- for which the other taxpayers are paying the bulk.

But should you have the good fortune as I of making significantly more in a year than you have in a previous year -- good for you. But neither the government nor the ACA give a damn -- whether, or for how long, or how it happened -- that you are still in debt. They expect you to pay your increased taxes AND pay back the $10,000 you got in subsidies the previous year.

If you're prepared you may be able to figure out some way to borrow the money to pay both. If you're not, you won't. And god help you if you paid off any lingering debt from previous years.

I can't say I didn't warn me.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Damning With Faint Praise


Now don't I dig the big time rock and roll
To sit in the darkness and be somebody else
A time which after all is under control
Crank out the music
Give me music
Let the music fill the air.

"Did you happen to catch the Kennedy Center Honor show last week?" my friend asked as I folded myself down into the passenger seat of his car and off we drove to Saturday breakfast.

And I was off to the races. His question started up a rant in me that's been boiling for weeks now.

I have been bothered by that show ever since I saw it. Okay, I've been able to not obsess about it for a few days now but, doggone it, now my friend done brought it up again.

I'm sure I wouldn't have been bothered by the honors show except that James Taylor happens to be THE musical idol of my entire adult life (and my teens, too).

Music has always been a passion since I first started playing "Oh Suzannah!" on my dad's harmonica at about age 5. I'm pretty typical for my age. I loved the Beatles and the "British Invasion", Motown....basically, all the music of the 60s. I grew up listening to my parent's big band records and soundtracks from all the Broadway Musicals (and can probably still sing every word to every song of every Rogers and Hammerstein musical to ever be struck to vinyl).

But then came Sweet Baby James. And my sister came home with that Apple record with "Carolina In My Mind" and "Brighten Your Night" and "Something In The Way She Moves"...

...and me a blooming guitar player. I became obsessed.

In my teens I learned to play much of the Taylor catalog wrong. In my thirties I started to relearn that catalog "righter". My chord vocabulary grew and I could make the guitar sound a little more like I was hearing it on the recordings.

But lyrically Taylor was also scratching an itch of mine. I love words. Not just literal, journalistic, concrete words, but playful impressionistic words. Words that say things obliquely and yet somehow end up expressing the concept more accurately that way. 

Somehow Taylor always managed to say things as he saw them....but leave just enough room to shoehorn my own experiences into those words and relate.

So I was disappointed by the profoundly underwhelming tribute the Kennedy Center managed to cobble sloppily together to celebrate the career of James Taylor.

First of all, I get it -- a president acting as the emcee for the Taylor segment of the honor show wasn't nothing. But it was the honor turned exactly on its head.

For one thing, Bill Clinton came off as though he was ad libbing his lines....and that, not even well.

But what I mean by the honor turned exactly on its head is that Clinton left the impression that somehow Taylor was the one graced by the attentions of two presidents (Clinton and Obama). It's exactly the opposite. Taylor graced them. Taylor's art will have more, and a more lasting effect on our culture than will presidents. Politicians reflect the culture that the Taylors of the world create.

But beyond that personal annoyance (yeah, I get it that nobody else will understand what I mean by the Taylor and the presidents thing. Maybe I'll take another stab at it some other day), the whole segment was strangely produced as though they had little or no idea who James Taylor was -- or, more to the point, who was the audience he created.

Darius Rucker? Garth Brooks? Are you KIDDING me?!

My boss's husband and I had been talking and speculating anxiously about the program for well over a week. We had gone to a JT concert this past summer and when we heard about the Kennedy Center show, hardly a day went by we didn't talk about it.

We speculated who they might have honor James with performances. After all, James honored Paul Simon -- peers if ever were. And Aretha Franklin honored Carole King. Again, peers if ever were. 

And if honors shows in the past had performers who weren't exactly peers of the honoree -- they at least always seemed to have some obvious and long-standing connection to the honoree. 

But Darius Rucker? And Garth Brooks?

So, Mr Disgruntled Bauman, if you're so smart, how would you have done the Taylor honor segment?

The stage would be dark. The audience quiet. A single spotlight would illuminate a chair sitting at center stage. A lone, anonymous guitarist would walk out into the spotlight, sit down on the chair, spread some papers down on the stage in front of him, lean over the guitar as if reading the sheets of music on the floor....

....and launch into the guitar part for "Fire And Rain" -- just exactly like millions of young men were inspired to do the first time they ever heard the song.

That would be the perfect intro to the segment because that's an important -- almost critical -- part that James Taylor played in our culture. Inspiration to make music. I'll bet James Taylor is responsible for the sale of more guitars than Martin. Okay, maybe a slight exaggeration. But THAT is a big part of James Taylor's influence on our culture.

The other day, Dar, my boss, and my boss's husband were talking. I was kidding around saying "I kept waiting for Taylor (at the concert) to say, 'man are my fingers tired tonight. I've played so many dates in a row, I'm just not sure I can play tonight. Is there anyone in the audience who can do my guitar parts for me tonight?"

Before I could finish with "...and I raised my hand and Taylor said, 'well, come on up here, then"...

...Dar, my boss, and her husband said, in almost perfect unison: "...and half the men in the audience raised their hand."

And they're right. Assemble 50,000 guitar players from age 40 to age 70 and ask them what inspired them to take up guitar. You won't get very far in your inquiry before the name James Taylor will be brought up.

Oh, and a short list of people more appropriate than Darius Rucker or Garth Brooks to be honoring Taylor in music:

Paul McCartney
Carole King
Paul Simon
Ben Taylor/Livingston Taylor/Kate Taylor

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Fox On The Run


I looked up from my work at the trimming wheel yesterday just in time to see a fox running across the frozen lake. For sure it was a fox. It was too low to the ground to be a coyote and far too fast to be a muskrat or groundhog.

Even from my vantage point on a distant shore, though I couldn't make out any details of color or anatomy, I still sensed an urgency to his gait. He was in a hurry and he was going somewhere.

I was immediately more unsettled than amused. Why would a fox be running across the lake in the middle of the day? Was he running to or from something? He was dead center to the lake -- equidistant -- quite distant -- from the safety of any shore. And sure, he was small, agile, and light, but the ice was not only thin in some places -- some of the lake wasn't even yet frozen.

What if he was running from some danger and the lake was his only -- and equally dangerous -- option?

And even if he had just set out into the unknown to forage, it was just as likely he was leaving slim pickins behind for even slimmer.

I started to try to imagine a narrative that might comfort me. Maybe I had looked up just in time to see him returning from mid-lake rather than crossing it. That helped some. If that was the case, most of the imagined fears and dangers of thin ice and unknown territory would be ameliorated. Maybe the fox was returning home.

Or maybe I was simply projecting. It's the beginning of the year. There's a lake to cross. I don't know what's on the other side. I don't know where the good ice is -- or if it is. And I'm running like mad. Like a fox on the run.

I wonder if there was a fox at all?



Saturday, December 3, 2016

Sometimes You See It







“Looks like you’ll be having puppies in a few months!” I shouted over to the next door neighbor. She was carrying a bag of groceries from the driveway to her back door as I was making my way from the kiln in my backyard to my house. 

I was smiling as I shouted it, but there was an underlying anger in my words. I hadn’t been living next door long, but it was long enough to have observed the lack of care they showed their dog, a black and tan “shepherd mix” named Dusty.

The neighbor asked, “How do you know?” 

“That you’re expecting puppies?” I responded.

“Yeah, that.”

That pulled me up short. Since everyone knows how puppies are made, I had to assume she was wondering what I knew that she didn’t. “Well, every male dog in the neighborhood has been visiting Dusty for the past few days now.”

The neighbor took enough steps in my direction to allow a peek around the corner of the garage that was standing between her and Dusty. She looked back at the dog that happened to be, at that very moment, looking hopefully at the back of the house. The woman then let out what I assumed to be a resigned “Huh.” I didn’t actually hear it, but she turned back around wordlessly and walked into the house.

I know I should have been more sympathetic to the family next door. Maybe now, as an old man, I would be. I was 24 or 25 at that time and my own hard times were yet to come. But the family next door consisted of that woman -- my age – 24 or 25 herself, but with 4 kids already who appeared to range from about 7 to 9 years of age (I’m guessing not all hers) and a sometimes man. He showed up occasionally. Very occasionally. I can see it now. She had it hard.

The house itself was a tumbledown rental with a garage that leaned badly – much of its skeleton showing through rotted siding and blown off roofing. Rumor had it that the bathroom in the house had a hole in the floor that opened straight down to dirt. Apparently they straddled the hole to stand at the sink.

So the situation was a sad one next door. But there was Dusty. And Dusty was who I saw every day. Every boring dog day. Every boring dog day that progressed from the springtime of our arrival, to the heat of summer and on through that first year of our life on Clark Street.

My pottery was in the basement back in those days. I can remember the warm early summer morning I heard Dar calling me from the backyard, asking me to come quickly. I dried my hands, walked up the stairs, out the door and back to where Dar was kneeling over a proud and smiling Dusty. Six puppies. Mixed lineage.

One or two at a time, somehow the puppies found homes and life returned to boring normal for Dusty.
Dusty’s entire existence was limited to what lay within the reach of her 10 foot chain. Her world was a wooden box for shelter, holes she’d dug for the cool of earth, and a food/water bowl that got filled whenever her owners remembered to do so.

You’d think with four young kids around, Dusty would get some attention and play. Rarely. Every once in a while. Every once in a great while. Mostly she lay around or sat up and perked at the least environmental change that held the possibility of relief from her boredom. 

Perhaps the most painful thing to witness from our distance was Dusty watching as kids played in the backyard, totally oblivious to Dusty’s existence as she sat at rapt and hopeful attention looking on.
But there was that day I heard some shouts of play. I stepped out the back door to the miraculous happening – the kids had let Dusty off of her chain and they were actually throwing a tennis ball for her. And she was retrieving it like a champ. I’m not kidding. Having watched Dusty languish at the end of her chain 24 hours a day, I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. 

She was lightning fast.

One of the kids, noticing me, hollered, “Hey, watch this” So I watched as, with all his might he heaved the ball into the empty lot behind their house. Sure enough, before the tennis ball could bounce twice, Dusty had already grabbed it out of the air and was circling back toward the boy, tennis ball in her mouth and ready for more.

I made my way over to the kids playing and realized that that had become the game – the fact that they couldn’t throw the ball far enough that Dusty couldn’t retrieve it before it bounced twice had become the game. One of them asked me “Hey, mister, you throw it. You can throw it further than we can. See if you can throw it far enough that Dusty can’t get it in one bounce.”

Well, I probably could, but given the confines of the empty lot and the surrounding streets, I wasn’t going to throw it for all I was worth and send Dusty running into traffic. But even throwing it further than the kids could, Dusty did still get every throw before the second bounce. She was amazing.






But the play was too soon over and never happened again that year.

And as that year went on, we didn’t just let the neglect of Dusty happen. Without confrontation or permission, Dar and I just started feeding Dusty and making sure she had water. Her box was only about 30 ft from my kiln shed, so I would talk to her as I loaded firings. 

And if she did happen to ever get loose – like the time that in her terror she broke her chain during a thunderstorm – she didn’t run away. No, she would make her way over to our back stoop and lay on it ‘til we came outside. I never took her back. I made the neighbors come and get her. I couldn’t bring myself to hook her back to her chain. They’d have to do that.

Dusty was a beautiful dog. Really beautiful. She was proportioned nicely – trim and athletic – and in spite of the lack of care, her medium length black coat was glossy and thick with a mahogany underside that added a richness of color. The tan eyebrows made Dusty’s gaze quite expressive.

When we left for shows we hired a young neighbor girl to feed Dusty and make sure she had water. And there was the day Dar shouted down to the basement again. “Come here!” She led me back to Dusty who was lying by her box. Dar talked gently to her and rolled her over to expose a belly absolutely crawling with fleas. So flea dusting became yet another part of our routine.

Then one day Dusty was gone. Gone was the box and chain. Gone were the neighbors and their children. It wasn’t unexpected, but it was sudden. We were left with an empty feeling. We did what people do – we hoped. We hoped, with no good reason behind that hope that maybe the family would pass Dusty along to some family who could appreciate what they had in a great dog. We wrote ourselves a fiction to pacify our minds. Since we would just never know, maybe the fiction would hold up.

That was my mid-twenties.

In my mid-thirties – some 8-10 years on -- I was teaching a class of youngsters in Sunday School. We were between class and services when I happened to overhear a conversation between two of the young boys in my class…

“…and no matter how hard we throw it, Dusty could always get it in one bounce.”

“What?!” I interrupted the two kids.

“This neighborhood dog. It belongs to an old woman in the neighborhood, but we all play with the dog. You can’t believe how fast this dog is.”

“Seriously?” I asked. I was incredulous. “The dog’s name is “Dusty”?”

“Yeah”

“Well, what does Dusty look like?” I prodded

“She’s kinda like a German Shepherd except she’s kinda smaller and black and brown.”

I didn’t know where this kid lived but got that information from him. I had to know. I mean, sure it’s probably more than ten years later, but what other dog could it be? So I arranged to meet the kid in his neighborhood that next weekend. He promised to show me where the old woman lived with the dog named “Dusty”. 

Dusty was apparently still alive.

I showed up that next weekend and, true to his word, the young boy walked me down the street from his house to the house in question. Along the way some of the other neighborhood kids -- having gotten wind of my curious quest -- joined us. We acquired a small band of young onlookers.

I walked up the short drive and the walkway and pulled open the storm door so I could knock on the wooden front door. After some time the door finally opened. There stood a tiny, fragile, and very frightened older woman who couldn’t imagine what was going on. 

She had the paranoid eyes of someone who has suffered enough in life to know that her worst fears were usually warranted. What good could come from a tall young man standing at her door asking her about the ONE thing in life that gave her joy – her dog?

None. That’s what.

She had no way of knowing.

Thankfully, Dar was along. Dar has a way with older people. I don’t know how to explain it or describe it – I think it’s in Dar’s eyes – but old people are drawn to Dar like gravity. As Dar stepped around me and started talking to the older woman, I could see at least some of the fear melt away. 

And she finally understood the gist of our visit. We weren’t there to take her dog away (though she never totally let go of that fear – continually explaining how she cares for the dog, long after we’d tried to assure her that we only wanted to see the dog we used to care for).

At last she reluctantly let us in the door to see Dusty.

And there she was.  Dusty.  …lying totally spread out and relaxed atop the couch in the middle of the living room -- the obvious center of this old woman’s existence. Dusty had a fan gently blowing across her. A queen on her throne. Cleopatra on her litter. 

A few of the neighborhood kids had barged their way into the door behind us, made their way around us in the small room, and were kneeling around Dusty on the couch and petting her – obviously a common welcome in this home where this woman -- and in this neighborhood where these kids -- loved this dog.
And Dusty was …uh…heavy. Well-fed. Spoiled, even. A little grey around the muzzle, but it was definitely Dusty. 

Allow me the fiction that Dusty looked up at me and smiled?

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

If Poets Were Potters entry #3



If 
by Redware Kipling

If your hands can hold steady while ten pounds of clay
Is spinning and bucking and having its way
If your first concern isn’t “What does it pay?”
And you can work twenty-four hours a day

If you are part painter, part sculptor, part test
Pilot, chemist, plumber, electrical whiz
If you can hope and can dream with the best
But keep that all real to manage a biz

If you can talk to crowds and sell your wares
Treating kings and common alike in the end
If you can serve people who share common cares
Trade glaze recipes or stoke fires with a friend

If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With a mug – thrown and completely done
Once from the Earth, but changed as you spin it
Then you can be a potter, my son

Or daughter

Whatever.