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The Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 2
July 2005: In Search of a Blank

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

The most famous dance review of all time was a blank space about six inches long, perhaps three wide, circa 1958. The concert and choreographer were identified and the review was signed but that's all. The "writer" was the publisher of the rag in which it appeared, telling you something. I never had the power or authority to be so smart. Recently I was invited to northeastern Vermont for an "art event" called a fulmination sculpture. The "North East Kingdom," so also known, has always seemed an attractive place to go, if only for its exotic moniker. If I turned the event into a blank, which I have been conflicted about, I could only say I went, and that I have consigned it to blankdom. The look of the thing would be lost -- its brilliant commentary. Anyway it's the sort of literary performance that can only really be done once. A c.s., i.e. coffee shop, friend of mine called Myrta asked me what I would be doing on the weekend. I said I was going to Vermont. She said, "What's that?" She never heard of Vermont. Nor New Hampshire or Maine either, as it turned out. I love that. She is about 55, and came to New York from Puerto Rico when she was 16. Her life is very rich and she doesn't have to go anyplace. Or even know the names of places she doesn't go to. She knows Miami where she drove once with a boyfriend and two other couples. As soon as they arrived, she caught a plane back to New York. I see her at the c.s. only on Fridays when she comes in from Yonkers and then only for twenty minutes at most, provided I manage to get there before she goes to work cleaning houses in my neighborhood, and believe me I look forward to it. Her stories, good ones or bad ones, swell with knowing pleasure and laughter. I doubted that the "fulmination sculpture" in Vermont would be funny. Advertised as a shooting fest with real guns and a poor old standup piano for target, certain remains of the piano, like its cast-iron "harp," would end up as the "sculpture." It was an excuse to go up there. And I know people in the Kingdom, most appreciably artist Patty Mucha, ex-wife of Claes Oldenburg and newly threescore and ten. She invited Ingrid and I to stay overnight at her house. I like seeing people from old lives. Or current lives. Although I am very absorbed in myself, to paraphrase the great Florida Scott-Maxwell when she was 82, a large part of me is constantly occupied with other people. Sometimes I wish I had an investment in cosmology or bees or penguins or something that would take me more away from people. Imagine for instance being part of those obsessive teams of astronomers staying up all night hunting for the smallest, dimmest crumbs of creation, trying to find out whether or not we are alone in the universe. I hope they find out soon, because we really need new company. Penguins are perfectly wonderful (yes I saw the new film about them and their inconceivable 70-mile "March," waddling to breeding grounds in Antarctica), worthier by far no doubt of the zealous attention we reserve for our fellow hummins. And with penguins we share an extraordinary parallel but of course separate history as species that developed somehow into evolutionary disasters. While penguins are simply birds that can't fly, we are creatures who can't die, finding everlasting life in ways of killing each other off. I can't explain the paradox. Call me a writer in search of a blank. In the North East Kingdom the sky is very high, and the vistas stretch to infinity. I love driving around there, and the air is just as pure as its reputation. It was raining all day the day of David Bradshaw's fulmination event. I know David from the past too. Back in 1991 Ingrid and I were in an audience of perhaps five for a dynamiting performance he staged in the hills whereby a large sheet of steel positioned over an excavated hole was rocketed into smoke-borne pieces, the makings I believe of a "sculpture," once they fell back to earth. He is well known in the remote Vermont hills for this activity. Pianos are not his true métier. Before now, he has shot only one to death, and that was unplanned. After staying up all one night as he tells it banging on a piano until the felts were dead, he carried it outside and shot it from 15 yards away with a 44 magnum revolver then terminated it by setting a jug of gasoline on it. I asked him why he did that and he said he didn't know. I would never have told my c.s. friend Myrta about this or why I was going to Vermont. She understands many things, and is altogether much smarter, wiser anyway, than I am, but I wouldn't risk putting our brief weekly meetings to the test. Her life revolves around her family and cleaning houses. Cleaning is a kind of meditation which absorbs her troubles. She gets lost in it. And it's a good living. I asked David how he makes a living and he doesn't know how he does that either. I suppose women take him in because he's hunky and good looking and does inexplicable things. As an expert marksman, he can offer protection, and neighborly help when, say, certain outsider animals have been eating ones that are penned in. Patty told me that David once drove an hour south from Mad Brook Farm -- a surviving outpost of the New Age commune era, close to the Canadian border, where David lives when he's in Vermont, and site of his new piano eradication -- to her house to shoot a raccoon that was threatening her chickens. Patty keeps only ducks now, just two of them. I watched her make deviled duck eggs and place them artfully on a platter, then cover it with tinfoil, as her contribution to a potluck that was scheduled to succeed the death of David's piano. However the piano never died, not while we were there anyway. Forty-five shooters with revolvers, semi-automatic pistols and rifles of different vintages couldn't make it keel over, surely the reliable sign of death for things that stand up. Two or three thousand rounds of ammo were shot at it. This was a plausible disturbance of any peace. I sat in a field with my ears dubiously plugged looking up at the hillside where the 1902 Wheelock, not tuned in many decades, thus somehow deserving of its dreadful destiny, faced us down -- until I felt shellshocked, and went in search of Patty's deviled duck eggs, stowed away for later consumption in a nearby Mad Brook house. Forty or so spectators who milled around in raingear under umbrellas were invited by David to inspect the poor Wheelock after its keyboard had turned into a mass of wood and ivory splinters. I milled a little but was mainly settled into the most divine chair, a ten dollar canvas affair bought by Ingrid at Bed & Bath which folds up and slips into a matching colorfully striped canvas golf-like bag. Patty stayed close by, resplendent in red: red slicker, red boots, red umbrella. The right color obviously for defense against any friendly fire. We made it to her eggs before they were all eaten by the chips & soda guardians, collecting food for the potluck. Ingrid had on an aesthetically faded New Age tie-dye, suitable for Mad Brook, though I wished I had encouraged her to wear her famous Ben Vautier T-shirt that says "I don't want to do art, I want to be happy." Imagine a penguin T-shirt that would read, "I don't want to reproduce, I want to be happy." Am I moving toward the desired blank? After all, though my subject here is not apparently dance or dancing, it is being syndicated in a much bigger website called The Dance Insider, a serious online dance magazine. There were no blanks at Mad Brook. David pressed three crushed bullets into my hand, mementos of his shooting spree, now secreted in my bamboo jewelry box along with some other unusual gems. When I see Myrta again, she will know nothing about all this, as we resume laughing over our lives. Her stories are not really funny per se, it's just the way she tells them, her own amusement over events she has mastered by possessing them so completely. She is, to paraphrase Florida S-M once more, fierce with her own reality.


©Jill Johnston 2005; originally published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.

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