I.The Orange Paper
The house I grew up in was attached to a medical facility where my father worked as a general practitioner. His offices during the day would serve as my playgrounds in the evenings, especially on those bitterly cold mid-winter Buffalo nights when going outside was forbidden.
The layout of the facility was simple and designed for efficiency. After entering the large rectangular patient's waiting area, one came upon a long narrow hallway with a shiny green linoleum floor on either side of which were small rooms with purposes specific to the patient's treatment: the consultation room, the examination room, the laboratory with its sterilized medical instruments, and then the larger emergency room. In this room, where more than a few times I watched (with a kind of cocky glee) my father sew up the torn knee or elbow of a playmate, was a large X-ray machine. Looking vaguely like a modernized version of something out of Dr. Frankenstein's lab, this imposing hulk of metal and green marble slab with a complicated sliding overhead contraption afforded me the opportunity to lie down and envision various science fiction fantasies or nightmarish scenarios of a medical nature.
(When I did happen to venture outside in the full moonlight of those freezing nights, my footprints in the snow resembled the ghostly, spectral glow of X rays).
When my imagination was exhausted, I would then make my way to a small alcove which contained neatly compartmentalized stacks of the patients' medical histories, and, next to them, their X-rays. And separating each X-ray would be a piece of bright orange paper. In addition to the separate sheets between the X-rays, there were several tall piles of it arranged monolithically nearby.
I would take a hefty ream and carry it into the family room, and with my pencils and special box of 100 Crayola crayons, would draw and color for hours on this paper. It came in small sheets, about the size of an address book, and larger ones, like Life magazine size, and was of good quality. The drawings' subjects would usually range from Jetson-like futuristic houses or the design of next year's new Plymouth or Imperial (my uncles Dan and Jerry ran a Chrysler dealership across the street), to more abstract compositions featuring spiraling, pinwheel forms; Catherine wheels of primary colors, improvised patterns and directional marks.
I would almost always hang these drawings on the wood paneled walls of my upstairs bedroom when finished. For some reason this made me feel less alone.
On Saturdays I would watch my father open up a week's worth of mail on the black formica kitchen table with his special jade-handled letter opener. Most of the mail he would discard, but there was one item that arrived every few weeks I would eagerly anticipate: the Journal of the American Medical Association magazine (JAMA). The cover would often feature a reproduction of a painting by a well known (usually contemporary) artist, which was fitting, given that my father was a fairly accomplished amateur painter.
For the squeamish, the intimacy of the photos inside could be jarring: microscopic views of strange lumps and cysts, or swollen, cancerous pustules that oozed volcanically, or the flayed, lacerating red flesh of a burn victim. But for me, their luridness was beautiful, their disorderly forms were intriguing and the colors were extraordinary.
I would pore over these journals with the kind of wide-eyed gaze that my friends had when looking through a kaleidoscope; my eyes hungry for more and stranger eruptions, more organic violations and more saturated hues.
My large collection of fossils was kept in oversize tin buckets in the attic near my bedroom. My fascination with their beauty was tempered by what they seemed to signify to me.A fossil was evidence of something once alive, preserved for hundreds or sometimes even thousands of years, swimming and crawling and struggling and eking out its little square inch of brief existence in the great impersonal world. The diversity and complexity of trilobites and gastropods spoke of a world of mysterious activity long gone, unexamined and unknowable by human beings. That I could now enjoy these mute labyrinthine patterns so many years later filled me with genuine wonder and a palpable sadness that I did not understand until much later on. I also collected glittering minerals that I would send away for in the mail, roughly hewn arrowheads from local Indian tribes that I would find in Mrs. Keel's garden patch, and just plain homely rocks that I found around the yard that seemed interesting for one reason or another.But it was the fossils that held my attention the most and that I would always return to.
The formative childhood events--our relationship to our parents and siblings, the death of a grandparent, varied rites of passage--these are understandably given great importance in the annals of early human development.
But what of those private reveries from long ago, deeply embedded, fossil-like,in our consciousness, our memory banks? That these three childhood occupations would come to have significant ramifications in my later life and work was of course not something I could foresee. In ways I am still coming to understand, their essences have carried over to become essential components in my creative process.