Friday, September 3, 2010

fritz wasser and the magic stroke

This is how I remember him: He was very very tall and angular. His zygomatic stuck out sharp enough to hurt somebody. I think of him with blue blue eyes. He was skinny, with skinny clothes, pencil-thin pants, and he wore a sear-sucker jacket. He had a short short flat top of fine brown hair. Everything was very very. His sports car was an angular little convertible. I want to say it was a Mercedes, but it wasn't, was it? For all the sharpness of the angles I remember, my memory actually sucks.

I want to say it was 1962, but it wasn't. Maybe 1960. At the most, 1961. I was in Junior High School. In, of all places on the planet Earth, Oakland, California. A very scary place called McChesney Junior High. Where girls got into fights before or after school, wearing their blue gym clothes backwards so the snaps wouldn't just rip open with the first grab and throw. Where the blonde school bully wore razor blades in her hair. Girl fights were notorious for hair grabbing. But no one was gonna grab hers. I'm actually still scared of her. I can tell: I remember her name.

I don't know how I ended up in that little hellhole of a universe. There was the torment of the girl fights, and the fainting lessons in the girls' bathrooms, the slam-books, and sadistic teachers. The words lurid and leering come to mind when I think about that place. There were some truly terrible teachers there. But the kids didn't make it easy, either. At the end of the school year, there was the annual 'race riot' — that's what the kids called it. It took place, as most of the fights did at the time, in the parking lot of Temple Beth Jacob, a block or two away. And who won the annual race riot depended on which side the "Mexicans" took. It was all very friendly, as I recall, with no real animosity, just another excuse to fight. Welcome to Oakland.

Into all this came Mr. Fritz Wasser.

I mean, how the hell did he end up there? What was he doing there? With his perfectly scraped angular chin, and his perfect little sports car? He could have been anywhere, couldn't he? How the hell did he end up there? I never really asked that question before. I wish I could ask it in earnest. Track him down, and say, why?

Fritz Wasser was the new art teacher. And he introduced us to different mediums (not media) that I don't remember at all. All I remember was watercolor.

Watercolor is a very very difficult medium. It takes tremendous control with the brush, attention to just how much liquid there is on the brush, just exactly how the colors are mixed, and how not to wreck your watercolor paper by waterlogging it. Mr. Wasser explained and demonstrated how fickle was the art of watercolor, and just how much control it took. It was a lesson in focused attention.

I looked down at my white white paper, dipped my brush first in the water (carefully wiping off the excess) and then in a few colors together. I made a stroke on the page. And another. And another. Repeat the process.

And she emerged.

I had no idea what I was doing. But there she was, in three-quarter view. She had long, wavy tangled dark hair writhing like snakes. Alabaster skin, and a faint blush on her cheek. I gasped.

Mr. Wasser walked over to my table and looked down at my paper. He said nothing, but he took my brush, dipped it deftly into god only knows what substance, and drew one stroke on my painting — and bam, she came to life! She was fully fully animate, and I fell head over heels in love. She was perfect. and I never forgot her. And I often wondered what happened to that Junior High piece of paper that washed away the violence of my school. Where had she disappeared to?

* * * * *

It was a dark night, but with the pale moon shining through her window. She had been ill and needed her sleep, and I knew I needed to be very still. Me, and my insomnia. And so I sat up quietly, and just watched the shadows in the room filter through her lace curtains. I was on the inside, trapped there on this shelf of a bed. If I got up I'd have to climb over her, I'd wake her, and she had been ill... And so I sat there, and stared into the night.

And there she was, lying next to me — my painting, all come to life. That same Medusa hair, same nose, same blush upon her cheek. For all I know, she had a fever. For all I know, I didn't see color at all in the moonlight. It wasn't the first vision I had, looking into her face. And it wasn't the last, either. But I do know that that night my watercolor returned in full blush and brush stroke.

I had fallen in love with her first time round just about exactly when she was getting herself born. Sometime in those months, this beautiful creature came into the world — and I was already smitten with her image.

My mom remembers it differently. She says that her birth exactly coincides with my infant sister's death. And that that's why I love her. For if my sister had lived and grown and thrived, Tina is exactly what my mother would have expected. A Medusa beauty, who could sing, and paint, and think and reason. As smart as a whip, with a wicked lip. A Capricorn. A Caprican. A stickler for details and for delight.

It's not like I can say I dreamed her up. Or conjured her. Or drew her. Oh wait, that last one I can indeed claim. I did, I drew her in all senses of the word. And as I drew her, I was drawn.

But it was Mr. Wasser brought her to life.

And that's what made me decide not to be an artist. Because that genius stroke of his animistic brush was something I knew I could never achieve. No painting I ever made since came to life the way she did. I knew I'd never have that magic stroke.

Instead, I created the old fashioned way: I procreated. And what beauties I brought forth! But that doesn't make me an artist.

Or does it?

I've made my son. I've made my daughter. And when I was a child, my watercolor.

Seeing you last night brought it all back. And so, I throw into the universe (wherever he might be), belated thanks to Mr. Fritz Wasser and to the art he helped me see.


  1. Thank you, Miraleh. I'm very moved by reading the entire story, and feel honored (and sort of shyly humbled) by your vision of me.

    I don't know if your painting was a heads-up foreshadowing to you or if it actually played a part in calling me into being embodied - but you definitely called me into being in *your* life, and the artistic strokes of your thinking play a large role in the delight that drew me. So regardless, thanks are due.

    But I remember the moment of your coming to awareness as a different one: We were about to have supper in your living room, and I was lighting the (Shabbos?) candles. Suddenly you gasped, "don't move!" I froze, scared, wondering if a big bug was on me or something... then you said rather breathlessly, "it was you!" and revealed the story.

    I also remember how both funny and cosmic it felt when your mom very matter-of-factly decided that I might indeed be her reincarnated second child - and then started treating me like that too. Oy.

    It's truly a delight to have joined you in the tribe of snaky women.

    Love, Tina

  2. You're probably right about time and place — but I have this very clear moonlight image in my head from Stella's place. One of many nights watching you sleep, and seeing that image and being overcome by it. So I must have conflated the memories into one.

    And yah, my mother is still telling me to tell you what to do (from her...). Oy indeed.

  3. this is amazing as Fritz Wasser is my cousin. He is in his 80's and still does his art. He now lives in Corning, NY

    1. Well, I would be grateful if you read your cousin my little tribute. I've thought of him often over the decades, and still wonder what his story was, and how on earth he ended up in an Oakland Junior High School. Please send my deepest regards. And please convey that I've had a long and fruitful life in anthropology as a university professor, have now retired, and I'm now a filmmaker, bringing images to life — with artists and their brushes, and me with my words.