Sunday, September 16, 2018

A Hot Mess, Part One

Scrap Glass, 3D Arts Building Hot Shop, 
Bucks County Community College

[Having inadvertently waded into murky legal waters, I have edited this post to remove names, faces, and artwork that isn't mine. All names that remain are of the instructors I've taken classes from over the years, all of whom deserve public credit for putting up with newbies like me.]

15 September 2018

"You should take a class at Bucks County then come back," Don Gonzalez said as I was halfway through attempting to make a dozen glass ornaments with his help in his Hunterdon County studio.

"No time," I said. That was almost a year and two Wheaton Arts classes ago.  Too far away, too expensive, and too far between, anything I was learning would fade by the time I had my next chance.

The hell with no time. I'd make it work somehow. In April I applied to Bucks County Community College and became a non-credit, non-degree student in order to take Introduction to Glassblowing on Wednesday nights. We'd be required to choose a four-hour "lab" in addition to class time so that we could practice and complete our assignments.

From April to the end of July I was the only person signed up. The instructor wasn't entirely sure the class would happen. Then he was, as the 14 open seats fell to 8 a week before class was to begin.

I was the first student to arrive at 5:45 p.m., nervous, because I figured I'd be that stereotypical old person in a room full of 20-somethings. The instructor and an assistant were sitting at a sagging blue picnic table outside of the open, corrugated metal studio door. I immediately relaxed; both looked to be around my age. The next person to arrive was older still, retired. Two college-aged students, both men, trickled in by 6:15. The fifth registrant, a woman, never showed up.

We sat outside, going over administrative stuff, safety rules, and what work lay ahead of us. There was no glass in the furnace yet; it would be put in on Saturday and it would be ready for our first class the following week.

We were asked to introduce ourselves. My classmates were 1, a young, full-time student who had been a landscaper; 2, a retired Vietnam vet who already knew he'd be missing three classes and had been taking sculpture courses at Bucks; and 3, a full-time student at East Stroudsburg University, enrolled in 8 classes, who needed to fill an art requirement and liked what Bucks had to offer. Karl, our instructor, was part of a long line of American glassblowers.

I stepped back to take some pictures of the studio.

Our homework was to read a handful of textbook chapters and watch a series of instructional videos by the book's author. As I read and my muscle memory kicked in, I could tell exactly where my education had fallen off. As I watched the videos I got less confident and more nervous.

August 29 marked the beginning of another heat wave. I was too nervous to drive, lest I get caught in traffic on the way home from work. Instead I rode my bike to work early, when it was only 70 degrees, and home at 3:30 p.m., when it was 98 with a heat index over 100.

We sat outside for as long as we could. 3, the 8-class student, had dropped, as had the woman who never showed up. We were down to three.

The furnace was full of molten glass held at 2050 degrees Fahrenheit. It emitted a constant, high-decibel roar that melded with the two exhaust fans at the studio door. I fiddled with my hearing aids to figure out which setting would work best. My deficit is in the same frequency range as fans and motors; all of it gets amplified beyond comfort.

Mounted on a first aid box above a sink, about ten feet from the furnace, was a room thermometer. We were standing in 105.6 degrees.

2, who had been welding in sculpture class all day, begged off. That left me and 1 to fumble around with punty rods at the furnace. I can say with all confidence that I had forgotten how to do almost everything. On top of that, the exercise was to "pull a stem," something I'd never done. Starting with a hot blob of glass, we were to round it out on the metal marvering table, then take it to the bench, where we were to use the jacks (think of an outsized pair of tweezers) to grab the end and form a ball while pulling on the hot glass to create a long stem.

Both of us failed miserably, but in different ways. I could make the round marble but the glass would be too cool to pull by the time I'd finished. 1 could pull but his stem would twist and the ball would crush. We each tried a few times until Karl declared that it was too damned hot. "In a normal class of 15 you wouldn't have had this much practice," he said. It was 8:00 p.m. I was drenched.

He told us that our assignment was to draw the equipment in the studio, and to pull stems for our first lab.  'I can't draw," I warned him. He shrugged.

With all the extra time, and with caffeine still in my bloodstream, I took to attempting the assignment before bed.  (I found errors later, after taking this picture, and corrected them, which is why I like to doodle in pencil.)

(The blocks are wrong : the handles are 90 degrees from where I drew them. 
This is important. Here I drew ladles. I fixed it later.)

I'd chosen Mondays for my studio evenings. The first Monday was Labor Day, so my make-up class was the next day. We were in another heat wave. The temperature in the studio was 108.3 degrees at 5:00 p.m.

There were two advanced glassblowers working at the other bench. My temporary lab partner was a fourth-semester glassblower. He wanted to make ornaments, which he said he'd never done before. This confused me because I had done it before. Well, not all of it. I'd never made the loops. It was then I realized just how slow the pacing would be, and just how much and how long it takes to really master the medium.

"It takes years just to get bad," said one of the advanced glassblowers.

While my temporary lab partner asked me to help him by blowing and turning the glass, when it came to my stem pulling, I was on my own. The heat was too much for him. He left for a while to return a library book. Sometimes one of the advanced glassblowers would offer a vague suggestion, but mostly I pulled without being able to figure out how to get a round end and a long stem at the same time.

It was so hot that we took frequent breaks, standing outside in the 90-something degree humidity to cool off. I watched everyone else.

I must have pulled 25 stems, 16 of which I thought would be good enough to show Karl, even though not one of them was correct. All of the ends were squashed. I didn't know what would be expected of me. (At home I turned them into a single pdf.)

We'd used so much glass that the level in the furnace had dropped visibly. Gathering was now a painfully hot proposition, as we had to reach deeper and there was more hot air to reach into.

Even though I was sweat-soaked and screwing up, I was having fun. My temporary lab partner had his share of mistakes too.

At the end of the night one of the advanced glasslbowers asked me, "Wanna make an icicle?"


This was easier than making a stem. All I had to do was stretch the glass out, fold it back on itself, grab the far end with tweezers, and roll the rod to twist the hot glass. He cut the glass from the rod and fire-polished the end. He let it cool on the bench, certain that it was small enough to anneal without a 24-hour cool-down in the oven.

When it was cool enough to touch he wrapped it in newspaper in case it decided to explode, and we all set about cleaning the studio, which had cooled to 97.9 degrees.

One of the assistants came in at the end to refill the furnace.

The chips looked like beads to me. "Can I keep a few?" I asked. The assistant said I could, so I did. Here they are at home, with a pair of needle nose pliers for scale. I'm thinking I'll link them together with silver wire to make a necklace and save two for earrings.

Wednesday was just as hot outside. Inside was only 104 degrees. I was now making a point to take a picture of the thermometer as soon as I arrived.

Next to our work bench was a sieve covered with chips of colored glass. I don't know what it was for; we were told we would not be working with color this semester.

2 had dropped the class. Now it was just me and classmate 1. We sat at the sagging, blue picnic table for as long as we could. Tom reported that his first lab went well and that his partner was a big help.

Wait, what? "I was left to fend for myself," I said. Karl was not happy about this. "I'm gonna yell at them," he said. "It's everybody's job to help the beginners. They know better." I hoped he was being hyperbolic about the yelling part. I didn't want to get anyone in trouble. At the same time, though, I was angry as well. I'm paying for this class, and it seems I'd wasted four hours of it.

I showed Karl the photos of my lousy stems. "I never got it right," I said. He reassured me that my real lab partner, whom I'd meet on Monday, was great.

Eventually we couldn't put off entering the studio any longer. Karl said he was going to grade us on our stems. We'd get one practice stem and one real one.

I squashed the ball again on the first one, but the length was good and the stem was smooth.

The second time the ball was good but the glass cooled before I could get more than an inch or so out of the stem.

He graded me first, then my classmate. We both did well enough, but he did better. All of a sudden I was a high school student again, angry at myself for imperfection, feeling stupid and competitive. I had to talk myself back to reality. For fuck's sake, I'm not even taking this class for a grade, let alone credit. Jeez.

I needed to be more like the rubber ducks chilling in the pipe cooler.

My classmate, left-handed, was trying to decide if he should switch hands. "Better to do it now before you get used to it. If you stay a lefty you'll never be able to work in another studio." For fun, Karl decided to try to pull a stem left-handed. "Don't pinch!" he yelled at himself as he squashed the end.

"Now you know how we feel," I said.

He was still sitting at the bench when I said something (whatever it was escapes me now, but it must have been one of my typical, nervous, insecure comments). He looked up at me in a way that was far too familiar, perplexed and humored at the same time.

I grinned. "What?"

"We're gonna have to work on your confidence," he said.

"I'm 52. Good luck with that."

"I like a challenge."

When I was a junior in college I took a writing class from a professor who told me, "Laura, you're the most peculiar mix of confidence and lack of confidence I've ever seen." I didn't like her much. "She deserves to be baffled," I told my roommate.

We were done with the stem thing. It was on to starter bubbles, jack lines, and flattening. Having done some of this before, I felt as if  I were back on firmer territory, Karl created a demonstration piece, making the whole thing look easy. My classmate and I fumbled around again, making a few squat little bubbles.

We took a break at the picnic table, where the 90-something degree heat felt refreshing. I asked if Karl wanted to see our notebook drawings he'd assigned us last week. I pushed mine over. He squinted. "Too small!" He got up and dug out his own notebook, filled with sketches of pieces, one to a page.  My classmate had forgotten completely about the assignment. He had yet to get himself a sketch book.  Score one for me, competition-face.

Back in the studio we had another go at vessels. Karl corrected my rolling technique, and something he said to Tom made something click in my head about how to use a block. I felt more confident.

Karl drew our studio assignment on the blackboard, beneath his message to the advanced students who had scummed up the marver with water and colored glass frit.

I caught up to my classmate as we were leaving campus. "This is like the Hunger Games," I said. "People keep dropping out. Now one of us is going to have to kill the other."

Week four came around quick. I'd gone over and over in my head the steps from the first gather to the starter bubble to the second gather to blocking, the jack line, cooling the bottom, blowing out the bubble, reheating, lengthening. By now I'd figured out how to dress and how much to drink (jeans, t-shirt, bandanna, hair up, arm protectors; one bottle of water, two bottles with Nuun electrolyte tablets).

I got to the studio early and went straight to the thermometer.  85!  Why, that's downright comfortable!

Once again there were two advanced glassblowers already in the studio, different ones; let's call them A and B. My assigned lab partner arrived and I made sure to tell her that I'd need lots of help. I needn't have worried. She was, as advertised, great at explaining everything. Four years in, and coming back after a year off, she was feeling a little rusty herself. She decided to make a few practice vessels along with me.

She explained how to get an even starter bubble and why it was so important: mistakes stay with you and get amplified through the entire process. An uneven bubble at the beginning would mean uneven heating of the glass and an off-center piece.

We took turns. She made elegant, graceful practice vessels. I made a doorknob.

She made another practice vessel. I made a, well, a something.

The third time's the charm. I liked the shape of it enough that we decided to go beyond the assignment by affixing a punty, breaking it off the blowpipe, smoothing out the opening, breaking it off the punty, and putting it in the annealer. We got to the last step when the piece cracked.

She decided she wanted to make a pumkin. "Pumpkins are fun!" she said. We got it all the way to the punty stage. I stood up to carry it to the glory hole to warm it up and the piece fell off the punty, shattering on the floor. A, working at the other bench, lifted his feet as the pieces, still quadruple-digit hot, skittered across the floor. We swept up the scraps. "I owe you a pumpkin," I said.

Meanwhile, A was making hexagonal drinking glasses from a mold, and B was taking gather upon gather in multi-colored layers to create flattened vases with cris-crossing lines of color on an opaque gradient background. "This one is five gathers," he said.

He and A got to the last step, where the piece gets knocked off the punty and quickly carried to the annealer. I watched as A gently knocked the pipe with a wooden rod. The punty came away, but with it was a jagged halo of glass from the bottom of the vase.

"What happened?" I asked.

"The bottom was too thin," Jason said.

B wasn't going to try again. "One disaster a night is enough," he said, and got to work on something smaller.

Meanwhile, I made another vessel, longer this time. B looked over. "You have a really good feel for this for a beginner," he said.

I looked up sheepishly. "I've done this before."


It was getting late. We had less than half an hour left. "Let's pull some stems!" my lab partner said. Hers were, of course, perfect.

I did better than I had last week:

"Let's make caterpillars!" she said. Hers was, of course, perfect.  I'd never done one before; she said it was pretty good for my first time. The glass got cold before I could put the last jack line in.

Meanwhile, A had made a large gather and was standing on the bench, holding the pipe over his head and letting the glass drip down towards the floor.

"You're going to need a bigger annealer," I said.

It was swaying a little, so B steadied it with tweezers. It left a little mark, and as the glass cooled it weakened there, breaking and dropping to the floor. "Take it," A said. B grabbed a pair of gloves, scooped it up, and put it in the annealer.

"Next week we'll make pumpkins," my lab partner said. 

"Cool! I owe you a pumpkin," I replied.

We cleaned the studio, putting all of the tools away, sweeping the floor, and emptying the water buckets. I left feeling better about the whole thing.

Two days later I got caught in traffic and was 15 minutes late for class. In the hallway on my way back from the bathroom I spotted B's work from last week, minus the cracked piece, in an open locker. I can't show them, so here's Moxie instead.

Then I was off to the thermometer to record the working environment. Okay; still double-digits.

Karl taught us how to make punties. Having made a dozen or so down at Wheaton, I figured this would be easy work. Unfortunately, what Skitch had wanted us to make for him was not at all what Karl wanted us to make for class, and I had to start from zero.  Fortunately, making a punty is easier than making a stem.

We made vessels again, this time affixing punties, knocking the pieces off the blowpipes, and opening the necks to make little bowls.

I was sitting next to the bench, as my classmate's assistant, while he was heating his piece at the glory hole. Karl was sitting near the other side of the bench. On the table behind him was a sculpture bowl with a reflective silver color in the center, a yellow lip wrap, and a gradation of orange to blue on the outside. He turned to look at the piece and wrinkled his nose. I can't show it, so here's Mojo instead:

"Is that yours?"


"You don't like it?"


"Ain't nothin' wrong with it," I said.  He shook his head.

My classmate came back and I helped him blow out the bubble. When he went to take another heat I caught Karl looking back at the bowl, sticking his tongue out at it.

My classmate came back with his piece collapsed onto itself.

It was my turn to be the gaffer. Things went well enough until I tried to open it up with the jacks. It went all wobbly on me. Clearly I was missing something about how to control the glass. I went to reheat it and Karl took over. He showed me how to get it hotter than I'd been getting it, how to heat only the part I was going to work with, and how to open the top by rotating the pipe with long, slow passes. He turned my lumpy mess into an even bowl.

We put it in the annealer.

My classmate took another turn and opened his bowl exactly as it should be done.

It was my turn again, the last for the evening. My second gather was smaller than I'd wanted it to be, but the small size gave me more control. I was able to lengthen it as I wanted to, and open it smoothly. It was tiny, but it was complete, and I'd done it by myself, save for the blowing, but even that had been at my direction.

My classmate tried again. I'd served him the punty a little skewed, and he'd affixed it without correcting the centering. He decided not to keep it.  We cleaned up.

As we were about to leave a praying mantis flew in and landed far above our heads, on the supporting rods that held the vent above the glory hole.

Our assignment was to make more bowls. My ideas far surpassing my skills, I decided I would ask my lab partner if, time and success permitting, I could make a bowl from the pumpkin mold. I probably should draw some things in my notebook first.

Monday, September 3, 2018

Dialing It Back, Parts Three and Four

Emery's Blueberry Farm

Part Three: #56 is What a Century Should Feel Like

The heat wave came back on Wednesday, just in time for glassblowing class. Outside the studio was a humid 90-something degrees. Inside was a dry 105. Between them were three exhaust fans. The trick was to find the current while the instructor was lecturing. The class of 5 had dwindled to 3, and one of our number, who had been welding in his sculpture studio, begged off as soon as we moved toward the furnace. The remaining two of us spent our time making mistakes until all of the clean punty rods were gone and the instructor declared that class was over. It was early still, but we had a homework assignment: draw what we saw in the studio. 

"I can't draw," I warned him. I can, however, doodle and snark. At home I filled a page while I downed my third electrolyte drink* of the day.

The beauty of pencil is that I can erase my mistakes. I've found several since I made this drawing. I made corrections; this is the final draft, I hope.

But that's not why you came here. You came here to listen to me yammer on about Tom's Swamp Ride. He and I had a brief email exchange earlier in the week. My mind was too full of hot glass to think about a hot ride, and since Miss Piggy's replacement tire hadn't arrived I would have had to swap tires and spares in a messy circus of talcum powder and tools; Piggy has no spare wheels. I didn't have the mental energy for that, so Tom graciously planned a flat metric to New Egypt instead.

Well, a 64-mile ride from Mercer County Park is a 79-mile ride from my house, and all I would need to do is find 21 extra miles to redeem myself from early August's ill-fated century. All would depend on how I felt at the end of the official ride, of course, but I packed two sandwiches and five Nuun tablets* just in case.

I rode over by myself, Jack H being somewhere in Colorado even though he'd registered for Tom's ride. The two of them have, apparently, spent the summer needling each other.

Tom looked at me and said, "Going for a hundred today?"

"No. I don't know. We'll see."

Plain Jim was also traveling. In his place was the spare Jim, who I had only heard about and seen in a middle-fingered photo. Ricky had ridden in from home, as had Andrew. Joe M joined us again. Chris was there, wearing this year's Ride Leader jersey (it's good to see that the fit worked out, more or less, for at least one of us).

A handful of miles out we picked up Rebecca G, who was riding solo on her new, sparkling red Liv. The paint job on her bike absolutely pops. I was instantly envious, despite being on Kermit, who has the best paint job ever.  (Here's a picture, but the photo doesn't do it justice.)

Chris, in his inimitable fashion, decided that there was something wrong with Kermit's cassette body. He said he saw it wiggle when I coasted. I checked and checked and checked again but didn't see a thing. I wasn't going to worry about it; the part was new. What did go wrong, though, happened as Rebecca and I were chatting on the little rise out on the east side of the Assunpink WMA. I tried to shift into the small ring but the front derailleur didn't move. This would not bode well if I were to go on for 100 miles.

I finally got the derailleur to move as we were coasting down a slight grade. Playing it safe, I stayed in the small ring, and was glad I did, because it was much less tiring there.

Rebecca left us in Imlaystown. We continued south towards New Egypt.

I even got a do-over with the longhorn cattle on Brindletown Road. They were huddled closer to the fence this time. Spare Jim stopped with me.

Emery's Blueberry Farm, usually packed, was empty. This being a holiday weekend and, for once, cool and dry, it wasn't too much of a surprise. I don't much like Emery's as a rest stop. The only available water is in small bottles, there's little else in the way of drinks, there's no coffee, and the bathroom is a porta-john. The muffins are good though. I also bought a frosted sugar cookie, hot-pink, in the shape of an octopus, and put it in my bag for later.

Outside was a herd of propane-tank pigs, some of them with wings.

This teaches us the important lesson that a thing can be at once cute and ugly.

Our next stop was at Saint Vladimir Memorial Church in Cassville. I'd taken pictures of the church before. It was the abandoned restaurant that caught my eye this time.

"Laura!" Tom called. "We need to take the picture for Jim!"

Ricky used his phone while we posed with heart-hands. Chris refused, hollering "Read between the lines!" instead.

I took a picture of the church.

Then the group posed again, more compliant this time.

We went north, through Turkey Swamp and up to Millstone. Tom had a second rest stop in mind that he wouldn't divulge until we were nearly there.

"We're going to where Roy's used to be."

This is a sentence that only makes sense if you've been riding in the area for more than 7 years.

Where Roy's used to be is now the Copper Ladle. It was closed for the holiday. We rode across the street to Vesuvio's.

I was still feeling good. I decided to go for the hundred miles. From Millstone we only had 11 back to the park. I followed Tom to his house instead. There, I pet his dog, chatted with his wife, filled my water bottle, and ate the hot-pink octopus sugar cookie.

"Best octopus I've ever eaten," I said, and pushed off towards Allentown. I rode through the center of town and up past the lake, heading for Stonebridge Deli or 85 miles, whichever came first. They arrived at the same time and the deli was closed, so I turned back and stopped at Bruno's instead. A bought a drink and a new pack of Nuun tablets*. Jim Bruno and I chatted for a few minutes. I was the first person in the shop in hours; Allentown had been dead quiet all day too. "I do better on rainy days," he said. "People  get bored."

With the wind at my back on Gordon Road, which hardly ever happens, I switched back into my big ring, which did happen. Near the overpass I tried to shift down to the small ring, which didn't happen until I got to the descent, when it did happen. I decided it would be best to stay in the small ring for the ten remaining miles home.

Before I cleaned myself off I put Kermit up on the work stand. I'd had mung in the doins as Jim had so eloquently put it, once before. I dribbled some chain oil on the underside of the derailleur and let it sit while I cleaned myself off. An hour or so later I tried to shift gears. Nothing. I flipped Kermit over and lubricated the other side. Jack and I went out for pizza at Nomad. I tried shifting again when we came back. Nothing.

So Kermit went to Hart's on Sunday, where Oscar proclaimed the derailleur dead. I'm fond of saying that, in the time I've had Kermit, I've changed everything on the frame except the seat post and the front derailleur. It's been more than 40,000 miles. I suppose the seat post will shatter any day now.

Jack and I walked around Doylestown in the afternoon. In the evening I did more glassblowing homework (those videos make it look so damned easy!) and got Rowlf the Colnago ready for the Memorial Day All-Paces ride.

Part Four: All-Paces at a Reasonable Pace

Cheryl, in town for a few days and without a car, met me about a mile from home and we rode to Mercer County Park together. She was on John Powers' old Cannondale. Now that he's dead we've told her that she can't ever get rid of it. It's a heavy little thing, but I was sure that my old Colnago weighed more.

In the years that Cheryl's been gone a lot of new potholes have cropped up on Franklin Corner Road. I made sure to ride in front of her so that she wouldn't fall in.

We got to the park early. There was already a big turnout, with at least three C+ rides going out. I wasn't in any mood to try to keep up with the B group, which, given the time of year, would probably be well into B+ territory. Ron M was offering a C+/B- ride around the Assunpink. Cheryl chose a Team Social Security C+. When I got around to signing into Ron's ride a handful of Hill Slugs were already there, which was good because I hadn't seen Pete or Bob in a while. Tom, Chris, and Joe M were on the ride too. I hadn't seen Mark H since last year's Event century. Winter Larry was among us too. We rolled out as a group of 15.

It was hella humid. I was dripping sweat just standing in the parking lot.

I spent the ride running my mouth as much as moving my legs. That's de rigeur for an All-Paces ride. Even though the route was short, Ron took us to Stonebridge for a rest stop. I was glad for this, as I was nearly out of water.

I rested Rowlf against a large shrub. I took off my helmet and glasses, and then my soaking wet gloves. Somewhere between refilling the bottles and rescuing the glasses, which had fallen into the bush, I lost my rear view mirror. I didn't notice until we were far enough away from the deli that it wasn't worth turning back.

Riding without a mirror is like riding half blind. Already half deaf, I rely on the mirror to know what's coming up behind me, because the crappy hearing aids I wear on the road don't work particularly well. Unable to see the group behind me, I wound up in the front part of the pack, and on Gordon Road we broke apart. At the end of it we merged for a while with another group coming back to the park. In typical flatlander Freewheeler fashion we finished the ride in fragments, trickling back to the lot in groups of two or three.

Ira was walking around with a tray of melting cookies. I drank instead.

"It's hot," Cheryl said. "Let's go." I was more than willing to push off again, not having cooled down enough to make starting up again feel like work.

"I lost my mirror," I told her.

"Uh oh!"

"I have a spare at home."

"I have a house full of spares," she said.

"I keep spare everything," I agreed. You can't have too many tubes, cartridges, gloves, glasses, or mirrors. Or Nuun tablets*.

Without a mirror I didn't want to ride as far as 206, where I'd have to maneuver into a turn lane, so I didn't ride back to where Cheryl is staying. Instead I turned on Princeton Pike, where I'd be safely in the wide shoulder.

So that's the past two weeks. I'm in the glassblowing studio tomorrow. Class is on Wednesday. I still have more textbook reading to do. It wouldn't hurt to watch that how-to-make-a-stem video again either. Moxie isn't lying on the book anymore (he's moved to my other side), so I have no more excuses. 'Bye for now.

(*Nuun is working wonders for me; your mileage may vary.)