Turning Error Into Art

Hawker Hurricane
The Art of War?

When I was a young child, I used too much glue whenever I put together a model airplane. I could see the fine details—the erect plastic nipples on each tab A, the receptive bellybuttons on each slot B, the ridges, the cutouts and the seams—but I couldn’t manage the combination of patience and coordination required to apply just enough pressure to the tube to release a tiny droplet of epoxy. Instead, I squeezed too hard, and clear sap leaked all over the wing, jammed up the landing gear and blurred the pilot’s windshield.

It’s not easy to wipe glue off plastic. Paper towels are useless—they tear and shred, and leave unattractive tatters of themselves behind—and cotton cloths aren’t much better. The glue thickens as it breathes, so you have to wipe fast, although even with a rapid swiping motion you can never get to all of it before scar tissue forms on the fuselage. Still, I tried my best to make my models neat and clean.

I used paper towels on the B-52, and cotton cloths on the Hawker Hurricane; and then, out of frustration with the inevitable, smeared deviation from exactitude—and out of respect for the Spitfire’s legend—I tossed the towels and cloths and I developed my own method for turning error into art.

I unscrewed the cap of the next soft-metal tube, pinched its bottom end, then rolled my thumb and index finger along its body, from foot to nozzle, over and over again, until all of the tube’s transparent blood oozed, seeped, ran and coated the model’s surface. Next, with the tip of one finger, I pressed, pulled and drew the thickening glue into a level sheen, as if I were painting the airplane without a brush. When I got it all as smooth and even as I could, I used an artisan’s razor to etch a few signature details. A bolt of zigzag lightning on the nose, the rough outline of a seductive lady under the window, my initials on the tail.

These lines that I drew folded in on themselves, changed course by force of gravity, and all but disappeared as the glue congealed like tired lava and then dried and flaked like a bad skin condition; but I knew what I’d meant to say by slicing them there.

My friends and brothers laughed at the results of my experiments. Back then I could not absorb ridicule any better than glue, so I gave up building the machines of war. I threw away the B-52, the Hurricane and the Spitfire; and in a fit of passive, inward temper, I declared that I’d hated airplanes all along and that I much preferred the force of nature to the power of weapons.

And yet, you cannot stop a spy from guarding secrets, nor keep a determined athlete from his sport, and so I soon replaced my glue-and-plastic art form with another exercise, this next adventure more forgiving of a young boy’s errant glance toward what delights him. I took up digging for Saturday-morning worms to use as lure for mindless catfish fed and swimming in the lake that lies below the highest hill in Bronwell Corners. I traveled muddy paths through wooded marsh at sunrise, filled my lungs with the erotic aroma of rotting vegetation, spied the flick and swoosh of rabbits darting through the reeds, nicked my fingertip on the sharp point of a fishhook, sucked the blood and cast the line.

I sat down beneath a canopy of maple leaves, listened to proud cardinals singing, and felt the summertime shadows run through me. I stared beyond the grassy bank, slipped off my shoes and socks, pushed my legs forward and let them dangle over the edge. My toes touched and then broke the lake’s cool surface. I shivered as the red cedar water tickled my ankles. I closed my eyes and imagined that a raft made of tree limbs and thick vines floated just a few hundred feet from where I rested.

A tall man dressed in a burlap toga, and wearing a straw hat on his head, rowed the raft. He smiled at me. His teeth were white and his eyes were yellow. When he’d moved the raft nearer to the shoreline, the man threw me one end of a vine.

“Tie me up, boy,” he hollered. “I have something to say to you.”

I stood up, grabbed the strong, green rope and tethered it to the tree trunk behind me. I tugged hard at the vine, letting the slack fall in circles at my feet, until the raft floated close enough to the bank that the man could jump ashore.

“You fishing or dreaming, son?” he asked.

“A little of both, I guess. It’s better than building model airplanes.”

“That’s why I’m here, boy,” he said.

I think my expression told him that I felt puzzled, because the tall man shook with a round belly laugh and then went on to explain what he meant.

“Was it the glue or the ridicule that drove you to dangle your feet in red cedar water?”

“I never really liked airplanes.”

“But you enjoy the aroma of rotting vegetation, and the flick and swoosh of rabbits reminds you that you can run like a frightened beast. That’s right, isn’t it? Flick and swoosh is what you called it, no?”

With that the man again began to laugh. This time he laughed so long and hard that he seemed to lose his wind. I watched as he chuckled and snickered, giggled and groaned, sniggered and roared, before he fell to the ground in front of me and rolled side to side, all the while holding on to his middle.

“I won’t ask you why you’re laughing at me,” I said.

I glared at the tall man and I waited. Eventually, he lay still and seemed to regain his composure. He looked at me through watered eyes and winked.

“I know that,” he said. “I know you won’t ask. You won’t even ask me who I am. I’m a little bit of God and a little bit of Jim the slave. I’m the poet you think you are today, and the craftsman you might not become tomorrow.”

“I don’t want to become you,” I said.

“Of course not. Not now that you see that my hat is made of straw and my toga isn’t seamless silk. You thought I’d be sporting a black beret and quoting windbag Whitman, didn’t you?”

“I told you, Mister, I don’t want to become you. I never wanted to become you. I don’t even want to know who you are.”

“I’m a bad-boy poet, son, and I work hard to earn a living. Sometimes I squeeze too much glue along the seams, but I’m too smart and too foolish to take up fishing. If you want to hitch a ride on the raft, then you must leave the windblown, black-beret attitude behind you. You’re too young to sound like a prophet and too old for plastic-model tantrums. And scar tissue, son, scar tissue is part of surgery, so get used to it,” he said.

“I don’t understand you,” I said.

“I think you’ll want to pull in your line now, then tomorrow return to etching zigzag lightning on the nose and a seductive lady or two under the window. There’s not much meat on even a well-fed catfish.”

And then the tall man left me sitting there alone.

Written in February 2000

Writing Contests

ONLY! Remember that. ONLY!

Just yesterday I learned a lesson about entering work in a writing contest.

I’ve never, until recently, submitted any of my stories or poems to a contest. For many years, I sat high in my equine saddle and claimed that because writing is an art form it should therefore not be demeaned by way of competition. Forget the fact that painters yearn to place their up and coming masterpieces inside studios in Beverly Hills and Manhattan. Ignore the fact that art museums are little more than factories for snoots and chic locales for romantic dates meant to lure a partner into bed. Deny the rude reality that the Pulitzer and the National Book Award, not to mention the Newbery and the Caldecott, boost sales for an author, illustrator and publisher.

Avoid at all costs the woeful taint of commercialism. After all, Van Gogh struggled in obscurity and sliced off an earlobe for sake of his ART (oh ART, my ART, the Angels in Heaven weep to know my ART!).

Yes, I, AVT, shall never yield so far as to admit that I am a pedestrian whose footsteps stain cracks that fracture mothers’ backs.

But yield and admit I did this time round the block. I entered two stories and more into a contest held by an online writers critique group.

Two nights ago, I sat tapping my keyboard until three o’clock in the morning, putting the finishing touches on a story. I laughed as I wrote this tale. I liked what I wrote. The story owned what I considered to be a happy ending; and I don’t write many happy stories.

At almost 4:00 am, my time, I submitted the story. At 7:00 am I checked the online board to discover that indeed my story was there for all to see. But with my name attached to it; this fact effectively eliminated my story from the competition.

I felt dismayed, disappointed and frustrated. But not at all angry, because immediately I realized that the person who posted my tale had made a mistake. A mistake, plain and simple. Of course, like every other human being, I make mistakes each and every day of my life. So there was no anger to be savored, no blame to be assigned.

So how should I absorb this experience so as to make it a useful one? Should I return to my snooty pedestal and tell myself “I told you so”? No, I’m too old and gray for that bit of nonsensical self-pity. Will not work.

Should I attempt to deny my sense of bafflement and defeat? Just go back to bed and erase the occurrence by way of a self-induced, pleasant dream? No again. I cannot erase my mind any more than I can erase the ones and zeros from one of my computer’s hard disks.

So okay, then. How did I reinterpret this accident of fate? I rediscovered the notion that the truest purpose of any writers contest is to encourage writers to write, not to declare winners and losers. Next, I sat down and held onto a paper copy of my story and read it out loud, to myself. I read the story as if I were trying to entertain an audience greater than me. I used accents and tones of voice. I waved my hands, Sicilian style, as I spoke.

And I decided that I was glad I entered the contest, because the contest set a deadline for me to compose a story that to this very moment I still like. Even more than that, I’m still laughing as I write this anecdote.

Soon enough, I’ll post that contest story here so that maybe one more person can read it and chuckle.