“All he did was a little respiration work.”

This statement comes from one of many student essays on the case of a self-taught restorer of stained-glass windows who extracted a sagging Tiffany window from a crumbling mausoleum, refurbished it, and sold it to an antiques dealer (and fence) who was already under surveillance for trafficking in stolen art. For the story, you can seek out the several entries I’ve already done for sentences dealing with the case. Here’s one to get you started.

My student here is defending the window thief, one of the options for the assigned essay. She just has a strange idea of what he actually did.

It’s only a typo. Or a misspelling. Or a bad word choice…

by way of which she turned our lad from a crooked craftsman into a fitness trainer, health-care worker, or yogi.

She could have said “repair work.” She could have made a somewhat ambiguous choice and said “reparation work”—that would have gotten by. The assignment sheet, which includes a case summary, uses the word “restoration,” which, to anyone even remotely familiar with antiques and art, is the most accurate choice of the three: it describes his intention, his process, and his product.

He was a lover of Tiffany’s works, a self-taught student of the windows especially, and also a student of stained glass construction and repair (one adult-education class and then more self-education). In his job of cemetery caretaker, he noticed the forgotten mausoleum and its sagging window. Time is not kind to stained-glass windows: as the came (the lead that holds the pieces of glass in place) expands and contracts during years of summers and winters, it becomes stretched and sometimes brittle, and the glass thereby becomes looser in its setting. Given enough time, the window can release the glass fragments like a hand opening and scattering so many coins, and what was once a pictorial or decorative work of art or high craft is transformed into a meaningless pile of shards.

The window in question was nine feet tall and proportionately heavy. He painstakingly removed it, took it home, and spent six years restoring it. Where pieces of glass had been lost or cracked, he sought out and purchased appropriate replacements. He replaced the came. When a client of his purchaser’s asked if a rising sun could be inserted into the scene (said client was a “Japanese collector,” which may explain his whim), our craftsman refused to violate Tiffany’s design. The finished window fetched him $60,000 from the fence; the Japanese client in turn paid $240,000 for it. And the craftsman was arrested for (and convicted of) trafficking in stolen art, grand larceny, and perhaps vandalism.

His defenders among my students said he was a hero, saving a work of art from certain ruin and enabling it to be seen again (the purchaser reportedly gave or sold the window to a Japanese museum). Or he was a good man, heart-broken to see something beautiful decay. Or he was an art-lover whose passion had overcome his reason. Several students pointed out that the window was, in effect, worthless before he restored it, and so the charge of grand larceny seemed inappropriate.

This particular student wanted to know what the man had done that was all that bad. After all, he hadn’t harmed anyone or anything. All he did was…yes, alas, a little “respiration work.”

We are left with the picture of a man crouched over a window, or kneeling before it, breathing on it. The breath of life, perhaps? Was he sighing, panting, gasping, holding his breath, blowing dust away? All of these would qualify as respiration work, I imagine. Hard to imagine how any of those activities would do much for a deteriorating stained-glass window, though. Could he have been some kind of “window whisperer”?

If she didn’t know the word “restoration,” and didn’t notice it used repeatedly on the assignment sheet and therefore feel compelled to look it up, surely she did already know the word “respiration.” Where was the internal editor that should have asked “BREATHING??? What does that have to do with it????” and driven her at least to reread the sheet? I am sure she did not mean “breathing,” in any of its forms. Even if he was INspired by Tiffany, the fact that he was REspiring at the time is totally beside any rational point.

The saddest part of the whole thing is that we did a lot of small-group work with the drafts of this essay. Unless “respiration” was a last-minute addition during the polishing of the final draft, more eyes than hers gazed upon it in its little sentence and noticed nothing amiss.

Or else perhaps someone in the peer process suggested the word? If that was the case, though, where (again) was my student’s internal editor to ask “Are you out of your mind?”

As for me, when I read the paper I laughed, shook my head, wrote “wrong word” in the margin, took a deep breath…and moved on.

Advertisements

About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

8 responses to ““All he did was a little respiration work.”

Leave a Reply or Share a Horror.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: