Glass and the art of aging: a birthday tribute to my father
My father, Dr. Robert M. Guion, turns 87 today. I never thought of him as an old man (as opposed to "the old man," perhaps) until he announced that he was retiring from his hobby, glass blowing. That was a few months after he turned 80. (By the way, most of the pictures here come from a retrospective exhibition of his work mounted in his honor by the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, March 11-12, 2005.)
Dad had retired at 62 from his job as professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. By that time he was one of the giants in the field of industrial psychology. I didn't think of him as old as a retiree, largely because he remained vigorous and active. Rural northwestern Ohio is flat as a table top and therefore ideal for bicycling. He was frequently out on his. Besides, by the time he retired he was already well along in his deliberate rebellion against advancing age.
When he turned 50 (or was it 55), he began that rebellion by starting to learn new things. He bought a bassoon and started taking lessons. That, perhaps, was not entirely new. He played trumpet in his youth and on into adulthood, so he already knew something about music and playing instruments, but he hadn't played trupet for years and had never played any woodwind instrument.
I don't remember how long he kept that up. He never got really good at it, and after a while it stopped being fun. No matter, by that time, he had turned 55 (or was it 60?) and decided to learn to fly an airplane. I lived in the Chicago area at the time, and one year he flew to Chicago for a meeting, and I flew back with him. I think that might have been the year I bought a car, having not had one for several years.
Eventually he flunked a physical and the FAA grounded him. I don't remember when that was, either, but right on schedule, he took up a new hobby at 65. Ever since the Sauder Museum had opened, Dad had enjoyed visiting Harry Boyer, who operated the glass blowing exhibit at the time. He made all kinds of beautiful objects, as often as not explaining what he was doing to a sizable and appreciative audience.
I think originally Dad had decided to take up a new hobby and learn something new every five years. Besides trying his hand at composing music, I don't think he kept up that plan after he turned 65. With glass blowing, there was always something new to learn without changing hobbies. Besides, he turned out to be very good at it.
My dad, the glassblower
I, too, had enjoyed watching Boyer's glass-blowing "seminars" and gotten an interest in glass objects. I even had two or three of his works in my then very modest collection by the time Dad decided to take up the hobby. In later years, I often bought glass on vacation trips or to commemorate joyful occasions. When I wasn't in a buying mood, I was often in a studying mood whenever I came across a store that had some for sale.
For several years it was easy for me to see the difference in quality between Dad's efforts and what was selling in various shops. Then, it became more and more difficult. It would take someone much more knowledgeable than I to distinguish the the work of professional artisans from what my favorite glass hobbyist made in his last ten years of working at it.
Needless to say, Christmas became a time of anticipation for more than the usual reasons for the season. What treasures would be waiting for Dad's children and grandchildren under the tree? Christmas of his 79th year, he mentioned that he always made goals for the year ahead, and one of his goals was to be an 80-year-old glass blower.
It's important to recall that glass blowing involves holding on to a very long tube with a glob of molten glass at one end. And, of course, from time to time it it is necessary to remove the glass from the furnace, hold it up so that it doesn't fall off the tube onto the floor, and blow air into it. Imagine the strength it takes to control both the length and the weight of all that. After a while, it becomes very physically taxing. Becoming an 80-year-old glass blower is an astounding achievement.
Another important aspect of glass blowing is that once your creation has come back down to room temperature, it is still not finished. You must saw it from the end of the blowing tube and sand down the bottom in order to give a surface it can rest on with stability. That step requires the same care and precision as the actual creation and shaping of the piece. Otherwise, it is still possible to destroy what you worked so hard on. Dad never enjoyed that part. When the fun part gets to be taxing and the drudgery no less tedious and annoying before, there's no point to keep going.
So the following Christmas, having reached his goal, Dad announced that he was giving up glass blowing. I realized for the first time that he had become an old man. Old, yes, but the rebellion continues. He went out and bought another machine for making different glass objects. It has a name I don't remember off hand, but he can lay a blank piece of glass, round, square, or rectangular, on one of three molds and then artfully arrange chips of variously colored glass on top.
When he's finished, he turns the machine on. The glass heats to the melting point. Everything fuses together, leaving a smooth surface top and bottom. When it cools, he has created a bowl or something else that he has enjoyed making without overly taxing his body. And he doesn't have to cut, sand, or polish anything, either.
Dad has other hobbies that he continues to work at: woodworking, candy making, and photography. I can't remember a time before he started any of those. He had a fall several years ago still refused to act his age. The last couple of pictures express that much better than anything I can think of to say. Now that he even needs the cane in the house, I don't know if he would ever attempt any of those trails again. But in its own way, that gives him something else new, something he's never considered before. Maybe he can spend the rest of his life growing older gracefully. Then again, maybe not. He and Mom, who just turned 90, have a schedule of activities that would wear out many people young enough to be their children.