Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Of Course You Know He Dies in the End

Several things have happened over the last few weeks that have caused me to spend a fair amount of time reminiscing about my childhood friend, the late Proctor.

We met when we were both in middle school in the early 1970s. I was in 7th grade, Proctor was in 8th grade. Despite the single grade difference between us, he was actually 3 years older than me; his parents, both educators, had held him back twice in grade school. We did not have any classes together, but we were both members of the after school Drama Club, which is where we met.

Proctor was tall, painfully thin, gangly and (despite his precocious facial hair) very effeminate. While I have since learned that outward traits and behavior are not certain indicators of sexual preference, Proctor was, in fact, gay. He was not comfortable with this fact until after high school graduation, so during our earliest friendship he was fighting his orientation fiercely, a fact that caused me no end of confusion during my early teens. Did he ‘like’ me? Did he ‘LIKE like’ me?

For the record, he did ‘like’ me but did not ‘LIKE like’ me. Our decades-long friendship was never subjected to the possibly corrosive dimension of sexual acting-out, which is probably one of the reasons that it endured. In fact, I firmly believe that all young women should cultivate gay male friends—or at least one. It is like having an ambassador to a foreign country.

Speaking of fighting…both individually and together, Proctor and I proved to be irresistible to the bullies at our middle school. I was a deeply square, brainy girl long before it was hip (Big Bang Theory, where were you when I really needed you?) and Proctor endured constant harassment due to his dearth of manliness. Comparing notes on the various verbal and (sad to say) physical attacks that we had endured was one of the things that cemented our friendship early on.

My Mom was always welcoming to our friends when my sisters and I were growing up, so Proctor became a frequent visitor to our home. When the afternoon would grow late and Mom would ask, “Proctor, do you want to stay for dinner?” his response was invariably “What are you having?” He would then phone his mother to ask the same question and make his decision based on which meal sounded more appealing. Believe it or not, he made this process seem endearing rather than insulting.

We both loved movies and went to the new multi-plex at our local mall often with our group of fellow theater nerds. On one occasion I had a piano recital and missed a weekend matinee. Proctor phoned me that evening to tell me that I had, just HAD, to see the movie as soon as possible. It was great, he enthused, telling me about the anti-hero plot line. “Of course you know,” he inserted casually “he dies in the end”. Argh! Of course I didn’t know that! Proctor’s tendency to be a walking spoiler was, somehow, another paradoxically charming thing about him. Despite “of course you know he dies in the end” there was no malice in this revelation. He was just so carried away by the story that he couldn’t help himself.

My family and Proctor’s family belonged to the same church, so I knew his parents slightly. Proctor’s dad was unshakably convinced that his son would one day (as he put it) ‘wake up’ and decide to marry me. In the very first years of our friendship, such a suggestion made me swoon. Later, it made us both smile and shrug.

Proctor was the first of our circle of friends to get his driver’s license, which meant many trips to Disneyland and to Los Angeles for theater, museums and galleries. During one memorable summer, Proctor and I attended improv comedy shows in several tiny theaters around Hollywood. One of the comedy troupes featured a very young, pre-fame Robin Williams, who was an absolute force of nature on the small stage. Proctor joined the actors during the show at their urging to play an improv game called ‘freeze tag’ and he was so good that he got an invitation to audition for the company. When Williams appeared later that year on an episode of Happy Days, I phoned Proctor and instructed him to turn on the TV and tune to channel 2. We watched the goofy guy with suspenders with whom Proctor had very recently shared a stage and babbled excitedly to each other through the entire episode.

During high school, just a few months shy of graduation, Proctor became deeply depressed. He frequently spoke of his conflicts with his father, who seemed to be realizing that Proctor was not going to ‘wake up’. Often Proctor was his usual buoyant self, but every once in a while he would phone late at night and talk about killing himself. I compared notes with other mutual friends, and they reported similar telephone calls. I have no idea how this might of ended had not my beloved composition teacher, Mrs. G, given the class an assignment to write a persuasive paper. One of the suggestions on the list provided for the assignment was ‘Write a letter to a friend and talk him or her out of committing suicide’. A no-brainer—this was the prompt I followed for my paper.

A week later, Mrs. G asked me to stay after class. She had my paper on her desk, a passionate plea to Proctor that struck every note I could think of to convince him to stay alive. Stabbing at the paper with her index finger, Mrs. G said “This is beautifully written, and I can’t believe that it is completely invented. Who needs help?”

Proctor got help. Whether because of Mrs. G’s intervention or some other influence, he went into therapy. His black moods receded. “My therapist says that my suicidal impulses are no longer a problem,” he would say over lunch in the cafeteria, “but he does insist that I pay in advance.” The late night calls stopped being about suicide and once again started being about the movie showing on television that night. He graduated from high school and moved to San Francisco to get his college degree. I moved away to college, too, and our in-person friendship was replaced by letters and postcards and occasional telephone calls. This was, please recall, pre-Internet, pre-Skype, pre-social media. Our lives diverged and we touched base now and then, but there was none of the constant contact that is available today, and certainly none of the day-to-day communication that we had enjoyed for the five years that we had known each other through middle- and high-school.

Fast forward several years. I was married and living in the prototypical Southern California planned community with three young children, Proctor was living in a nearby city with his partner of several years. In 1991 I got a Christmas card from him that chilled me to the bone: he was suffering with repeated bouts of pneumonia and had resigned from his job because he lacked the strength to work.

I phoned him immediately. We never said ‘HIV’ or ‘AIDS’ to each other because we both knew what he was trying to tell me in his Christmas card. I wanted to visit him immediately, and he asked if everyone in my house was healthy.

Well, no, they weren’t, actually. I had three elementary school aged children and they were entering a truly unprecedented stretch of illness. I called Proctor at least twice a week to report on the latest sniffles that had seized my children. We chatted until he was too tired to continue talking on the phone, and I promised to come and see him as soon as my household was not a seething cauldron of germs.

Then, light at the end of the tunnel: No one had been sick with a cold for several days. I phoned Proctor and made plans to go and see him that coming weekend. That is, until one of the children returned home from school and blossomed into chicken pox that same evening.

One child with chicken pox turned into two, and then three. I had a trio of spotty, cranky children to tend to, and there was no way I was going to bring a new virus into Proctor’s home. We rode out the chicken pox with lots of help from my Mom and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and at last, AT LAST, everyone was well.

When I phoned Proctor’s home, I got the answering machine several times in a row. Then, the Monday after Mother’s Day, my home phone rang. I was close to an extension but did not pick up the receiver, because I knew what the call was about. Proctor’s mother left a message on my answering machine: he had died on Mother’s Day, the pneumonia finally drowning him in his hospital bed.

Despite my despair at missing the chance to visit face to face with Proctor during his last days, I took comfort in the strong bond we had formed when we were barely out of childhood. The memorial service was full of new friends who spoke of his generous nature and quirky sense of humor. I listened to them and, though I was sorry that I had not spent more time with the adult Proctor, he sounded an awful lot like the tall, gawky, awkward kid I had met decades before in Drama Club.

When I went to hug Proctor’s mother and offer her my condolences after the memorial service, she thanked me for being Proctor’s friend at a time in his life when friends were scarce. I told her that he had been the same for me. She told me that her son had tried to comfort her as his life slipped away by singing to her.

What has reminded me so strongly of my old friend recently? An intense conversation with one of my daughters about the singer/songwriter Elliott Smith, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Proctor and who also battled depression. An invitation from my Bunco buddy, Misty, to watch her young daughter in a community theater production of Joseph & The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which was the last play that I ever watched Proctor perform in. A box of old photos that my Mom gave me that contains some snapshots of Proctor and me at Disneyland, both of us wearing the absurd fashions of the 1970s and grinning like loons. The news that one of the Gruffalo’s childhood friends died yesterday on the other side of the world.

Of course you know he dies in the end. But he doesn’t, really. The friends that we make when we are young and vulnerable stay with us, no matter what.

It isn’t always about beads, everyone. And I hope you don’t mind.

8/11/14: ETA RIP Robin Williams

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Green Goddess dressing

This is a bracelet that I made for the TACA show last December. It did not sell at that show, however I did sell it afterwards as a Christmas gift for a friend's wife.

The bracelet is made from tile beads in two colors of green, one opaque and one translucent. There are also bronze tile beads sprinkled in, small green seed beads in the border on upper side and bronze drop beads in the border on the opposite (lower) side. The width makes it a dramatic item, just perfect for the woman who received it as a holiday gift.

The purpose of this post (besides showing off a finished project that I really think is pretty) is to pass along a few bits of advice about making jewelry when you do not know who the final owner will be.

When I make a piece like this to sell (as opposed to a gift for a specific person), I always make it a little shorter than I think it needs to be. It is always easier to add rows to a needle woven piece that is too short than to unweave (is that even a word?) rows when something is too long.

Most bead weaving instructions will tell you to start a new length of thread when you are adding edging or a border, but they never say why. It is very tempting to keep using the working thread to add edging to a piece. To switch gears and add in new thread takes time and stops the creative work in its tracks, but it makes for better longevity for your jewelry. If something is going to catch on a button or a door handle or the edge of a desk, it is the border. While I use very strong fishing line for my bead weaving, it is not indestructible. If part of the border rips away and it was added with a new length of thread, repairs are much easier; you are only repairing the border. If the working thread is continued into the border edging and you need to make a repair, the architecture of the main body of the piece is threatened and the repair work will almost certainly take longer.

When adding a clasp or other closure, it is also advisable to work in a new length of thread for that step. The Green Goddess bracelet pictured above was just a tiny bit too tight for my friend's wife. I only needed to add two rows of tile beads, about 1/2 inch of extra length, to make it perfect for her. Since I had added the clasp with a separate piece of thread, I did not have to worry about the main body of the bracelet coming apart when I snipped the thread to remove one piece of the clasp. After I added two rows, this bracelet was just right for the woman who will certainly turn heads when she wears it.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My Clay-m to Fame

Most jewelry makers start out with one technique. For me it was single needle bead weaving. I learned as many stitches as I could; peyote, herringbone, the dreaded right angle weave (RAW to beaders) and brick stitch were all added to my repertoire via basic classes at my local bead store.

And most jewelry makers will learn new techniques, often because what they see in their imagination does not exist (yet) in the real world.

For example, I have heard the following from my fellow jewelry making students in one class or another:

“I'm taking a class in Art Clay silver because I couldn’t find clasps that I liked and I decided to learn how to make my own.”

“I studied polymer clay because I couldn’t find marbled beads in the color combination I wanted.”

“I’m going to take a class in knotting so I can update my Grandmother’s pearl necklace with crystals.”

The point of departure from my beloved seed beads arrived over the long New Year’s weekend. I searched the internet and local retail sources for a bead or a focal piece with a primitive-looking roadrunner image to add to my Tila tile necklace called, well, Roadrunner.

This necklace has lots of shine:

So I wanted a focal piece with a flat or matte finish. I could not find anything anywhere that matched the idea I had for this embellishment.

On New Year’s Day I searched through my supply closet and uncovered a package of epoxy clay that I had purchased a while ago and never opened. The product comes in two parts (A & B) which are mixed together in equal parts to make moldable clay that remains flexible for about 90 minutes. Finished items air-dry and cure in 12 -24 hours with no baking required, which is a plus because I do not own a kiln (yet – heh!). I chose the copper color clay to work with for my experiment in making my own focal for the Roadrunner piece.

Here are the packages prior to mixing:

Once the two parts were mixed I rolled out the clay and made a flat oval shape that would fit in the center of the Roadrunner necklace. The smooth sides were roughed up with the round side of an awl. I used this same tool to make two holes through the top of the focal so that I could string it after it was cured.

Then came the really challenging and time-consuming part. I have very little training in drawing, so I made several sketches of a stylized roadrunner that were spectacularly unsuccessful. At first I was making the sketches the same size as the oval bead. After lots of tiny squiggles that looked nothing like any bird known to man, I hit upon the idea of using technology. I made some full-page sketches and used a printer/copier to reduce the size of the best image so it would fit on my clay blank.

I placed the small printed image over the clay blank and used a sewing pin to pierce through the paper into the clay all around the outline of the roadrunner image. After I peeled off the paper I made sure that the holes were all of uniform depth. I added some cross-hatching in the background with the side of the same sewing pin and embedded a small crystal in the clay for the roadrunner’s eye.

This is the focal before it dried completely:


Once the clay was completely dry and cured, I mixed up a wash of light orange acrylic paint and brushed it over the focal. I wiped off most of the wash so that there was more paint in the depressions than on the surface. This is the final result:


For a first-time effort with clay, I am happy. I imagine this would have been much easier if I had actual clay tools but it was also fun to improvise with the items I had available. After I have stitched this oval focal piece to the Roadrunner necklace, I will show you how it looks when it is all put together.