Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Pot Culture

National Public Radio's Morning Edition had a short piece about Vince Guaraldi, the jazz pianist who did the music for the "Charlie Brown - Peanuts" television specials. And it brought back lots of memories - of pottery

Several years ago I practiced it at a studio in the basement level of a small retail mall in a neighboring town. The workspace was owned and run by two women: L, a freelance graphic designer in her mid to late thirties, and J, perhaps five to ten years younger. Both were married and L had a young son. Unlike L, this studio was J's only job.

They offered lessons for children and young adults, and also organized craft parties for youngsters who were celebrating various occasions - birthdays, etc. And one night a week they had a session for adults. J was the teacher.

I had previously studied pottery for several years at Wesleyan Potters - a very professional studio modeled after the crafts guilds of earlier times. This time I wasn't looking to take a class but just to use the equipment (wheels, glazes, kilns), get some coaching and advice, and make a few pots. It was a good deal for both of us. J got a really low-maintenance, paying customer and I got one night a week of unfettered time to play with the clay.

I was there for about nine months and Mars and I got, among other pieces of stoneware, a complete set of dishes that we now use as our everyday china. Each class was six weeks in duration and limited to five people, with most students taking only one session, so there was a pretty much continuous parade of new faces.

There were a couple of women about my age (late fifties at that time) who came for about two lessons. All but one of the remainder were married women and, like J, members of Generation X - "the generation born after that of the baby boomers (roughly from the early 1960s to mid 1970s), often perceived to be disaffected and directionless." as defined by my online dictionary. And, based upon what I saw at these classes, totally immersed in the popular culture that has surrounded them since birth.

Sitting invisibly in the far corner of the room, working quietly on my own private projects, I quickly realized that these evening sessions were less about increasing the revenue of the business and more about J's need for adult conversation. Conversation of the feminine Gen X variety that usually started with the previous week's episode of television's Ally McBeal and slid back and forth between her fictional dilemmas and J's real-life ones so seamlessly that sometimes I wasn't certain what the correct context was - although the main subject was always J.

I never saw the TV show. Not being of the appropriate age group, I felt I was much better off listening to the translated version - kind of a play about a play performed unknowingly for an unnoticed audience in the back of the hall.

Only once did the actors actually break through the wall and involve me in their psychodrama. J abruptly interrupted their conversation and asked how long I had been married. At that time the answer was probably thirty-five years. She and her fellow performers looked both impressed and baffled by the possibility of such longevity. I remember hearing "wow!", and "that's really great!" couched in tones of disbelief.

There was always music in the studio from whatever CDs J thought were suitable for the mood of that evening. No one seemed to listen - but music being such a constant presence in their lives I'm certain that somehow they heard every single note. Occasionally I tried to use the rhythm of some song to help control the pace of my pottery work. But mostly I just wasn't aware of it.

Then one night during the weekly re-telling and subtextualization of Ally McBeal, J began to play what she announced was "just the best" album ever. It was one of the Vince Guaraldi "Charlie Brown Christmas" CDs and the simple, clear, bittersweet piano notes immediately brought the class to silence, and kept them there for several minutes. There might have been a little nods of recognition exchanged but that was the only interpersonal communication.

Everyone, including me, just kind of stopped and stared - some wistfully, others with small smiles.

Popular culture is like the water that's used to soften and shape the clay on a potter's wheel. Most of it is superfluous and is spun off immediately. Some is absorbed and temporarily retained as the object is taking shape. And a very, very small amount, just what is really necessary in order for the pot to actually become a pot, survives the final firing and remains a part of the objet d'art forever.

Like other essential relationships - some of which even last for thirty-five years, or more.

1 comment:

Bram said...

'Round this house, the holiday season doesn't start until Charlie Brown Christmas gets played — maybe a legacy of the days when it was our only Christmas CD.

Guaraldi article at the Post today.