A Writerly Obsession

At my first for-real job, I was a bookkeeper. “For-real job” means the first job I took with the intention of doing the job for more than a minute, the first job that wasn’t simply a way to finance my next vacation – though I didn’t stay there over-long, and it did finance some vacations.

I kept the financial records of a small professional organization. Real work, not the paper pushing I’d done in my previous job. I can’t imagine anything I could have said in my interview that would have inspired anyone to offer me that position. I didn’t know the first thing about being a bookkeeper … and I wouldn’t have tried to gloss over that fact, as it never occurred to me that possessing the necessary job skills was … you know … necessary.

I was trained by the woman who’d been the works-when-she-feels-like-coming-in part time bookkeeper. Let’s call her Edith. She was a bored lady of leisure, childhood girlfriends with the director of the organization. She had stepped in to help out a couple of days a week. Then the organization had grown, and part time was no longer enough time, but she had no interest in working every day. She was in her mid-forties, and casually glamorous. I remember loving her wedding ring — it was a broad gold band, a crowd of people standing hand-in-hand and arm-in-arm.

The organization’s records were kept in the kind of old-fashioned ledgers I’d only seen in movies. They were awkwardly big. I remember them as enormous, but they were most likely legal size. Thick, hard, cloth covers with leather-wrapped corners, bound on the short end with metal peg-and-clamp fasteners. Edith handled them carefully, as if the slightest jostling might shake the ink loose.

The desk was like any desk, but instead of a chair, there was a tall stool, a backless barstool. And when it was time to teach me how to keep the records, Edith opened the top desk drawer and pulled out a fountain pen.

The pen was an old one, a Parker. The pen may still exist, but I couldn’t find it when I searched. The Parker Vector is similar in cost, so it may be the modern version of my ledger pen. My pen had a silver cap and a dark-but-transparent blue barrel, and it took cartridges.

I’d never used a fountain pen, so Edith gave me a crash course in pen use and maintenance. She gave me the location of the one store she knew of that sold the ink cartridges, showed me what I now know to describe as the nib’s flexibility. And she showed me how to “erase” any errors: lick the corner of your Pink Pearl eraser and rub gently until you’ve worn away enough of the paper that you can write over your mistake. Natch!

And then we got into the books. Edith was patient, never once her losing her mind with anger at my inability to learn even one thing about keeping those books. Because really, I didn’t learn a damn thing. My training ended, and Edith was gone, and I was on my own. I sat on my high stool and leaned way down over my ledger and played at bookkeeping.

And I followed Edith’s rule and used the Parker only for the ledger. And, when that pen died, I didn’t do the perfectly reasonable thing and pick up a ballpoint and get back to work. No. I went out and bought a new Parker. It never occurred to me to use any other pen.

At the turn of the quarter, the accountant came. I handed over my ledgers with pride. I was a little cocky, thought I was doing the job. The accountant took my books into the conference room and sat behind closed doors for a couple of hours. Then he called me in to review.

The accountant, David, was a lovely man – older, stocky, Jewish, with a gentle voice, kind eyes and beautiful wavy silver hair. We chatted for a while. It was our first time meeting, and he wanted us to get to know each other. As our chat wound down, he asked what I’d studied in college. I gave what had already become my standard airy, dismissive wave and smile and said, “French and photography. I know! It’s the perfect training for my job!”

We laughed, and he repeated my answer. “French and photography. I knew it couldn’t have been accounting.”

I won’t lie: I was more than a little surprised. Something was wrong with my books? My precious ledgers weren’t perfect?

David, because he actually was a lovely, kind man, spent the better part of the afternoon giving me a crash course in accounting. Most important and most mind-blowing takeaway? The grand totals of my rows and columns had to match! No, seriously, that was the whole concept of balancing the books.

French and photography. Right.

With David’s patient help, I got to be as good at my job as cocky-first-quarter-me had imagined she was. I stayed in touch with David. We exchanged Hannukah and Christmas cards for several years after I left that organization. Whenever I got a new job, he was sure to ask how my French and photography were helping me out.

Most of that is not my point. I just couldn’t resist telling that story.

The first of my two actual points was about Edith’s set-up for this job: the old-school ledgers, the high stool, the fountain pen. It was as if she thought her job was an audition to play Bob Cratchett.

I liked it, that’s true enough, but it was hardly normal, and it certainly wasn’t necessary. Ledgers had moved into the modern era years before. Everyone in the organization had a desk chair. She could have kept the books with a regular pen. Her insistence on using the fountain pen for the ledger when she used a workaday Bic for everything else was just odd – except in the context of her playing the part of bookkeeper in a period play.

Edith’s random oddities are responsible for my second and more important point: my introduction to fountain pens! She planted the seed. My bookkeeping job made me familiar and comfortable with fountain pens. And today, I own many too many, so many that I probably need an intervention.

After my stint with the books, I didn’t find my way back to fountain pens for three or four years. I was in Kate’s Paperie and found myself at the pen counter, practically drooling over the loveliness under the glass. I went back to the same pen again and again. The saleswoman, clearly sensing that I needed only the gentlest of nudges to turn me from a looker to a buyer, inked the display pen and let me write a few lines to see how it felt. Well, of course, it felt wonderful. Smooth across the notepad she’d placed in front of me. Clean, thick line – not bold but assertive. I walked out with that pen, a black-with-gold-trim Pelikan M250 – piston-filled, thick but lightweight, logo at the end of the cap.

Pelikan M250

I was reading Natalie Goldberg then, my first go-round with Writing Down the Bones. So I was doing a lot of writing, filling pages, filling notebooks. And the Pelikan was an excellent companion on that journey, so fluid my words spilled out effortlessly across all those pages.

A year later, I was back in Kate’s buying a ridiculously over-priced birthday gift for my new love (the start of my saga with The Morphine Man) — a gorgeous hand-bound notebook with a birch bark cover and thick, ultra-smooth, creamy paper. A notebook like that deserved a fine writing implement, so I moved slowly down the gleaming pen case until I found a deep green Waterman – slender but heavy, it’s green a dark, marbled resin. I bought it for The Morphine Man … but I knew before I got home that it was really for me. And so it was. (He loved the notebook. Was none the wiser about the pen.)

I used to think pens were necessary, disposable, interchangeable tools. If you lost one, you picked up a new one and moved on. I had favorites – the Pilot Precise rollerball was a particular love – but I wasn’t attached to any pen. The Pelikan changed that. I have only lost one pen in the 30 years since I bought that Pelikan. One. And I agonized over that loss, still occasionally kick myself over my carelessness and hope the person who found my gorgeous Levenger True Writer Kyoto took good care of it and wrote well with it.

And my handwriting has changed. It was never truly terrible — despite the bad penmanship marks I got in grade school — but it is definitely nicer now. This seemed a strange fact at first, but then, the last year that I was teaching, my students helped me solve the mystery. One of the goals that bubbled up at the start of the year was that a lot of the younger students wanted to improve their handwriting. No one had ever asked about good handwriting before. I started researching … and writing with a fountain pen was one of the top recommendations. It was all about ease of ink flow eliminating the need to exert force with the pen, allowing the writer to loosen their grip and write more comfortably.

I bought a set of student pens and gave a little tutorial on how to hold it, how to write with it. No one had every used a fountain pen, and most hadn’t noticed that I always wrote with one. We had a lot of discussion about that. Sadly, I’d been writing with a fountain pen for so long at that point, I had no “before” examples, no pre-fountain writing to show the difference.

My students thought the pens were funny, and the novelty made encouraged practice. Not everyone stuck with it, but the ones who did saw that their writing changed. And they noticed, as I had after switching to fountain pens, that they could write for longer periods of time without their hands hurting. I wonder if they stuck with fountains long enough to see their hands change, too. The tip of the middle finger on my right hand used to have an ugly, rough, half-callused indentation. It doesn’t anymore.

That year of Bob Cratchett playacting had quite the long-term effect. I don’t actually know how many fountain pens I own – I’ll make a conservative guess and say four dozen. Sailors, Esterbrooks, Pilots, Platinums, Pelikans, and any number of other brands, big names and unknowns, fancy and expensive, and three-dollar beauties. It’s fair to say I have a pen problem, but there are far worse vices, so I give myself a pass.

I wonder what made Edith choose that Parker, why she didn’t keep the ledgers with whatever pen was on hand. Was it really about the choice to turn her work into a game – setting herself up like a Dickensian clerk on her high stool with her tiny numbers noted down on those wide green “eye-ease” sheets? Whatever her game, I’m grateful to her. I’d surely have been introduced to fountain pens eventually, but maybe by that future time, I’d have been so entrenched in my writing habits, complete with a favorite pen, that fountains would have been just an interesting curiosity. Edith and her Parker came along at the exact right moment!


(The pen in my GriotGrind image is my perfect little Sailor pocket pen. I have a crazy number of pocket pens, mostly Platinums and Pilot Elites, but my Sailor with it’s excellent blue-black ink is a go-to fave!)

In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Expiration Dates

Years ago, a Ouija board told me I would die at 17. I was able to use the board alone, so no one had seen that answer spell itself out, and I told no one. I was 15, in the 10th grade. The idea of dying at 17 seemed both crazy and entirely possible and believable. What purpose could the spirit on that board have for lying about such a thing? So, I believed it. Two years to live.

Believing I knew I was dying didn’t change anything in the way I went through my life. I thought about it, but I didn’t do anything about it or do anything because of knowing it. The board had said I’d die of leukemia, which should have given me the idea of seeing my doctor. But I didn’t, and I didn’t spend any time in the reference section of the library reading up on the disease I was supposed to be dying from. I did nothing.

Except tell a friend, maybe two. Whoever I told didn’t hold onto my secret, and soon a lot of people knew – more of my friends, other kids at school, their parents, my mother.

My mother came home from some parent meeting asking questions. The next day in social studies, a girl sneered as she passed my desk and said, “That was some leukemia you had, huh?”

The scandal of being revealed as a liar blew over ridiculously quickly. My nonsense was news for perhaps the span of a class period. At home, I told my mother where my diagnosis had come from, and she promptly revoked my Ouija board privileges. End of story.

But I never actually stopped believing I was dying. My mother telling the moms at the PTA meeting that I didn’t have leukemia didn’t mean I wasn’t about to be stricken with the disease and go into rapid decline. I stopped talking about my soon-coming death but held onto the certainty of it.

Until I forgot about it. I finished high school. I went to college. During the summer of my junior year, on a train through the Pyrenees, it dawned on me that I was twenty years old, three years past the age I was supposed to have died.

 

Why was it so easy for me to believe some random hocus pocus about having a disease I would surely have been aware of having? Leukemia is no silent killer, sneaking up on its victims and snatching them in an instant. How could I convince myself I was sick when there was nothing abnormal happening in my body? I must have wanted to believe it, or it wouldn’t have been such an easy sell. What made me want to believe such a thing?

And how did I then just forget, move on as if nothing had happened and only years later realize I’d lived past my deadline?

 

In my late 30s, I needed fibroid surgery. Nine years earlier, I’d had a batch of tumors excised from my abdomen. My experience with that first surgery had been difficult, but I’d come through swimmingly. The closer I got to the second surgery, however, the more convinced I became that I wouldn’t survive. There was no reason for my certainty, but I was frozen by it. I could barely function for thinking about my soon-coming death. I never knew I had such a terror of dying until that summer.

When I was at the point of canceling the surgery, I told my sister. I told her because I wanted her to help me prepare for death, for what would happen after I was gone. I wanted her to promise to go through my apartment and clear out things I didn’t want my mother to have to see or deal with in her grief – my journals, my sex toys, etc.

My sister agreed to do a pre-parent sweep of my house. She suggested a handy system for me to use for organizing her sweep: put a sticky note on anything I wanted thrown out, and she’d take care of it. She didn’t spend a lot of time trying to convince me I was going to be fine. She assured me that the sticky-note plan wouldn’t be necessary, but she also immediately agreed to help me. Together, we would spare my mother learning things about me it would hurt or sadden her to know.

I started tacking notes to things around the house, but I didn’t get far. Somehow, as improbable as it still seems to me, my sister’s participation in my planning was exactly what I needed. I started labeling my belongings and then, almost immediately, I forgot about it, and forgot about my impending demise.

I had my surgery. It went perfectly well. I recuperated.  I went back to my day-to-day. About a year later I was hunting through an old journal hunting up a story-start I wanted to flesh out, and I found the plan I’d written out for my funeral – what songs to play, who I hoped would speak, what I didn’t want folks to do. I didn’t remember having sketched it out, had entirely forgotten my certainty that the surgery would be the end of me.

 

Twice in my life, I have been entirely convinced that I was soon to die … and just as quickly, I have completely forgotten about my impending death and blithely moved on to some other thing. How is that possible? What is that?


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

To be or not to be … a person who stops.

It’s Tuesday, Slice of Life day, and I posted this “slice” on FB earlier (CW for language):

Went out to pick up some lunch. My plan was to buy something then walk over to Poet’s House to eat and write and stare at the water. I turned the corner and saw an elderly Black man on the ground, half rolled up in a carpet. He didn’t respond when I tried to rouse him, and I couldn’t tell if he was breathing. I called 911. 911 wanted to send the police, but I kept asking for medical help. Finally she connected me to EMS at the fire department. While I was on with EMS, the man moved his leg, slightly. That dispatcher said she’d have a truck out as quickly as possible. A young woman asked if I was calling 911, and said she’d wait with me for the ambulance.

We waited and fairly quickly a fire truck arrived. We thanked them for coming so fast. All the pretty young men poured out and surrounded the man on the ground. They roused him and it turned out that he was drunk and most likely homeless, not sick or injured. One of the firemen teased me for calling 911. “Are you from here?” he asked. “You don’t seem like you’re from here.”

I thanked them again for coming quickly and said I was glad I’d been able to have them come and not the police. “They protect you, too, you know,” one of the firemen said. And I said yes, that was sometimes true but that there was no denying the good reason for my reluctance to call them. (I mean, seriously? Are we going to pretend that there’s no reason for Black folks to think twice about calling the cops? Are we?)

The young woman and I started to leave and an older woman came up and asked if we had called. She said she’d run home for her phone and was coming back to see if she should call.

Because 911 had been called, the firemen said, the man would have to move. This displeased him enormously. He started to get up and started cursing me. Please know that there are three of us now standing there: me, the older woman who is white, and the young woman who is white Latinx. The only one singled out for abuse is me.

He called me a stupid whore, called me an ugly cow, called me a dumb nigger bitch. I was already walking away, so I didn’t hear what else he had to say, though I could hear that he kept going. I’ve been called out of my name before, but this felt uglier. I didn’t turn back and look at him, mostly because I didn’t know how volatile he might be and didn’t want to inspire him to come after me … but also because I didn’t want to see the firemen, see them not doing anything to stop that, see them maybe even laughing at the thanks I got for doing what I thought was the right thing to do.

The older woman told me to forget about it. “The important thing is that you cared enough to stop and do something.” Is that the important thing? I want to think so, but I’m not so sure.

I bought my lunch then went back to my desk feeling deflated, conflicted, overly-sensitive, sad.

#sigh

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But here’s the thing. I posted this on FB because of course. And I got a lot of loving responses from my loving friends. Also of course. My friends are kind and beautiful people who don’t enjoy seeing me upset about things.

Yes, I was grateful for their kind responses because I really was feeling sad as I walked back to my office, couldn’t even magic up a fake smile for my favorite security guard. But mostly … I am a fraud.

Trust me that this isn’t La Impostora, this is for realz. I pass people on the street all the time, people who maybe need the help this man didn’t. Sometimes I call, but mostly I don’t. And there’s no logic to my decisions about when to call, about who really needs to interact with first responders or the healthcare system and who should be left in peace. Sometimes I call, but mostly I don’t.

And today, the whole time I was on the phone and then waiting for EMS, I was thinking uncharitable thoughts about the sea of people who just kept walking, who barely shifted their steps so as not to step on the man, who walked on the carpet as if they couldn’t see that a person was rolled up in it.

But I am those people. Just about every day of my life I am those people. How dare I act all holier than thou because this one time I decided to stop.

In truth, I’m not surprised by what happened today. I’ve seen this happen to other people, and I’ve had it happen to me. Maybe I was particularly hurt by this man simply because I wasn’t prepared. Because I’d been dreaming myself into the library at Poet’s House, already letting my mind wander, already choosing which of the four fountain pens in my bag I’d choose to write with.

And the man on the street makes sense to me. I can understand where he was coming from. How much abuse does he face on a daily basis? How difficult must it be for him to have one lousy interaction with strangers after another? And how frightening and disorienting must it be to wake up and see five large uniformed men standing over you and talking loudly into your face, touching you without your permission? Were that me, my first reaction might be to lash out, too. Sure, I would probably not lash out in the way he did, not with those precise words, but still.

None of that makes what happened today any less unpleasant. It makes me think about my own choices, however. I chose to stop today and see about that man. Why did I stop? Why don’t I stop every time? I usually try to see if the person is breathing, if there is a clear visible ailment or wound, if someone else is already stopping to see about them.

Which makes me think about that young Latinx woman. When I confirmed that I was on the phone with 911, she immediately said, “Well, I will wait with you.” I thought that was lovely. She didn’t need to do that, for him or for me. I appreciated having her there, especially when the firemen seemed to question why I would bother calling 911 for the man on the ground. (“You call about every person you see on the street? In this city?” one of the fire fighters asked me.)

So she was also a person who stops. I wonder if she always stops, or if she is like me and employs some random-ish set of criteria to determine whether she will stop.

*

Will I continue to be a person who stops? I will. Of course. Nothing that happened today makes me think I shouldn’t stop. Will today actually make me stop more? Maybe now I’ll see that my ridiculous calculus of when to stop is just that: ridiculous.

I don’t know if I’m a “good person” for stopping, for calling 911. Because what does that mean, really, anyway? I mean, sure, I’m okay enough (depending on the day) but that’s not the point of any of this. Stopping is the right thing to do … the right thing for me. Calling 911 isn’t always the right second move, but stopping and taking a moment to assess in more than a cursory way that still sounds right.

Assessing in more than a cursory way. That’s what I wanted the firemen to do. I said the man on the ground turned out to be drunk and maybe homeless, but I don’t know that. I only know that he was able to sit up, able to talk, able to get up with difficulty and start walking away (while cursing me). But the EMTs didn’t examine him at all, not even a quick once-over, and that’s what the situation seemed to warrant. Why was it enough for them to show up and rouse him but not actually tend to him? Granted, he was in no mood for accepting much of anything, but does that automatically mean he didn’t need anything?

So my title isn’t a real question at all. I know full well that I will continue to stop (we’ll have to wait and see if, as I said, I stop more than I have in the past). Here’s hoping today was the worst of the responses to my nosy-body, good-neighbor behavior.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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original-slicer-girlgriot

And yes, as I said up top: It’s Slice of Life Tuesday.
Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers have going on.

Pour me a cold one?

Maybe I’ve been indulging in Thirst Aid Kit more than I should? I don’t know, but …

For weeks now, my PT routine has been Tuesdays with Jared and Fridays with Jeremy. Occasionally Yu-Lan has been slotted in on Fridays if Jeremy wasn’t able to see me, but mostly I’ve been Jared and Jeremy, Jared and Jeremy. (It’s been interesting working with different therapists. They have different styles, different things they do with my arm, different ways of talking about what’s going on with my arm. I feel as if I’m getting more from my sessions by having more than one therapist.)

On Tuesdays when I get to the PT gym, Jeremy is there, getting in a workout before his shift starts. He smiles and waves, sometimes salutes, as I head for the changing room, then gets back to work.

When I first wrote about Jeremy, I mentioned that, while I can see that people would find him attractive, he’s not the kind of attractive that does it for me. My favorite of the PT boys — because they are all ridiculously young — was Daniel, who turned my head by looking like Takeshi Kaneshiro. Jeremy is a little too BMOC jock dude-bro. Not a type I go for. He has a big, overtly-muscular body, also not a type I go for.

In these last weeks I’ve discovered that I am, in fact, a liar. That it’s my burning pants setting off the smoke detectors in here.

Seeing Jeremy working out has been a revelation. Seeing sweaty Jeremy post-workout on his way to shower … well … yes.

(Yes, I do feel 100 percent inappropriate!)

This morning, I discovered that I am not alone. I was sitting under a giant ice pack as one does after a session. Jeremy came down for his shower, and the woman beside me expressed disappointment that she’d have to wait for her own shower. Yu-Lan told her not to worry, that Jeremy would be quick. She looked at Jeremy for confirmation, and he nodded.

“I just need a few minutes,” he said. “I have no hair.”

And the woman — surely involuntarily, surely without thinking about how it would look to the rest of us — ran her eyes down his body. Slowly. Yu-Lan, Jeremy, and I burst out laughing.

“On my head!” Jeremy said, still laughing. “On my head! Everyone: get your minds out of the gutter!”

Yeah.

The woman was younger than I am, maybe in her mid-forties? After Jeremy ducked into the shower room, she shrugged. “What’s the point of filtering?” she asked. “I’ve lived long enough to see that censoring myself hasn’t gotten me  anywhere. Men  certainly don’t worry about filters!”

I nodded. Yu-Lan laughed and gave a thumbs up.

This doesn’t mean I’ll be showing up at Friday PT sessions with my nose wide open. As if. It did make for an an amusing start to my Tuesday, however. And it’s interesting to see that — given the proper circumstances — a type of guy I didn’t find attractive can suddenly look like a tasty treat!


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

The Cure for Cranky

I was a bit off this morning. Wrong side of the bed and all that. Listening to music wasn’t working to snap me out of it, so I scrolled through my podcast subscriptions … and found the answer: Buzzfeed’s Thirst Aid Kit! Bim and Nichole make me laugh, make me blush, make me shake my head in wonder. I don’t always agree with their thirst object choices, but I love everything they have to say about those choices. If you want a good laugh, a quality pick-me-up on a cold, cranky morning, these ladies might have just what you need. They certainly did the trick for me today, sent me out of the house with a smile on my face and some residual giggles in the back of my throat.

(Fair warning: this podcast isn’t for the excessively prim, the overly faint of heart, the easily scandalized … and it’s definitely NSFW and not to be played when young children are in the room!)


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!