At the age of 42, I got ready to take a week-long intensive glassblowing class at the Pittsburgh Glass Center after having studied and loved glassblowing since I was 10. It was going to involve 15-hour days and lots of learning, exhaustion and sweat. The end.)
My week in Pittsburgh at PGC was exactly what I’d expected. Almost.
When I say it was what I’d expected, I mean I gained lots of experience, practice, and studied the masters. I spent my afternoons and evenings trying to improve my judgement and skills. As I knew would happen, most of my pieces ended up kissing the concrete floor rather than riding back to Baltimore with me. In fact, the number of pieces I brought home added up to exactly zero.
I spent my dinner breaks searching for any scraps of meat within walking distance. That was a spectacular failure. I don’t understand it, but every place around PGC was vegetarian, or worse – VEGAN!!! I mean, this was PITTSBURGH, for god’s sake! I’m sure 7 blocks away they’d not only be okay with serving meat – they’d probably be happy roasting a Ravens fan on a spit or serving Baltimorean Tartar, but noooooo…not near the Glass Center. Anyhow, I digress…
So, I was doing everything I’d planned and been excited about. I was practicing for hours on end, I was watching amazing teachers, working with my partner, and hanging out with great glassblowing people. I saw improvement in certain basic aspects of my technique. I lost most of the pieces, but truly, that didn’t bother me. As I said before, I didn’t come to this class hoping to produce. Somehow, as the week went on, though, I felt more and more sad.
I couldn’t figure it out. What about this class was disappointing me so? Wasn’t I doing everything I wanted? I started to agonize about this by Wednesday night. In typical hyper-analytical fashion, I obsessed and began to dissect. Slowly, on Thursday, it ate away at me. I spent less time focusing on my work and more time looking at those around me. Here’s what I saw:
Most everyone else was better than I was. So many of my classmates had many things I wish I had. More muscles. More coordination. More intuitive understanding of how the glass worked. More ability to assist their partner. Smaller jeans sizes and faster metabolisms. (I mean, hey, while I’m at it, why not beat myself up about the extra weight, too?) I kept hearing this line from “A Christmas Story” over and over in my head. It was Ralphie, after he gets his Christmas theme back, and he had gotten a C+. “I was surrounded by HAPPY children who were all going to get what THEY wanted for Christmas…”
By Thursday afternoon, I was a mess. I did what any mature, well-educated, clear-thinking adult would do. I had a tantrum. It was a quiet tantrum, but as I was re-heating my piece in the glory hole, I felt tears on my cheeks and my lip kind of quivering. I excused myself, took one of the teachers aside and told him I wasn’t feeling well and had to go for a bit (and to please not make a big deal or worry) and I left. Walking back to where I was staying, I felt like Buddy the Elf after he finds out he’s not really an elf. I probably looked just as ridiculous, but I wasn’t wearing yellow tights or curly shoes. (What is the DEAL with me channeling all these boys from Christmas movies???) I cried my eyes out and took a nap.
I wish I could say it made me feel better, but I was still thinking dark thoughts as I went to that evening’s practice session. At the end of the night, the teachers sat us all down for the nightly wrap-up. Both Ben and Alex emphasized how GREAT they all thought we were doing – how much improvement they see, and they couldn’t understand how we couldn’t see it ourselves. They said they’d never met a group of students so hard on themselves, which had me looking around, thinking, “Wait, I’m not the only one who’s bummed here?” Then came the kicker. Ben said something meant to cheer us up, like, “Lighten up! You guys are in such great positions! You’re doing this for fun, you’re doing it to learn, and nothing major is riding on it. Not a job, not a grade – nothing major depends on this for you guys, so enjoy yourselves!”
What??? Nothing major depends on this??? Didn’t they realize that I had all these professional and artistic aspirations stemming from my childhood dream riding on this? That when I signed up for this class, I was hoping to find out that I had what it takes to be a glassblower professionally? That I was expecting something to click and for me to realize, “Hey! Yeah! I can totally do this with my life! Boy, Wait ’till people at the studio see my mad glass skillz when I get back to Baltimore! YES! I TOTALLY have what it takes!!!” And that all I’m discovering is that I DON’T have what it takes??? And that I don’t have the ability, time and/or money to make it so that I do? I mean, what is WRONG with these teachers, don’t they know ANYTHING?????
Oh. Wait a minute. Ooooooooooooooooooh. Now I get it. Hm. I thought, “THAT’S why I’m so bummed.” Clearly, I infused this class with more meaning than I realized. I wasn’t being honest about my expectations, or at least, I wasn’t consciously aware of them until that point. If I wanted to go to MICA for a degree in Fine Arts, I could be a glassblower. If I could turn time back and locate myself near a studio from the time I was 14 and work there 40 hours a week for 15 years, like Ben had, I could be a glassblower. If I could change my DNA so that I was taller, stronger, more naturally gifted in this art form, I could be a glassblower. But I needed to come to terms with the fact that none of those things was going to happen. And how best to do that? I did what any mature, well-educated, clear-thinking adult would do. I got blitzed. But not until the next day.
Well, my friends, Friday we had class in the morning, cleaned up the shop in the afternoon, and we all went to a place that served BURGERS and got totally wasted. Let me tell you. I bar-hopped like I hadn’t since college (sorry, Mom and Dad) and ate like the carnivore I am. Not only did I eat a bacon-cheeseburger. I ate fries. I drank appletinis. For dessert, I had alcoholic root beer floats. (Yes, you read that right. PLURAL.) A week of 15-hours a day in front of a 2500-degree furnace, a week of being away from my family, and a week of eating vegan had combined to break me and turn me into the Alaskan Bullworm from Spongebob, eating and drinking anything that had the misfortune to cross my path. It was decadent, ugly release.
Miraculously, I awoke sans hangover. I put the Ravens magnet back on my car BEFORE I left Pittsburgh (I KNOW! I’m crazy like that…) and could not WAIT to be back with my family, who thought I was cool regardless of my imagined failure. I didn’t blow glass again for eight months. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want to think about it. I did, though, want to write about it. Eventually.
To be continued…stay tuned for the finale.