Euphonious Exhortations

My voice is having one of its moments. These come around from time to time. This week I’ve been told not once, not twice, but five times that my voice … “has something.” This morning, I gave a family directions on the subway and both the mom and a random person who overheard me commented on how pretty and comforting my voice is. The homeless man I gave my half sandwich to in Grand Central Market yesterday said I sounded like a fairy godmother. A friend who wants to work with me on a film project hopes I’ll do some narration because I have a good voice. And the young woman who sells me my iced chai every morning told me on Monday that I talk like I’m singing.

I’ve had that last before. A woman once asked if I was a jazz singer because she said my voice sounded like I should be. A coworker once told me I should record bedtime stories because my voice is soothing. A friend’s baby sister told me I could scold her and it wouldn’t feel like scolding because I said everything “in a warm tone.”

It’s not always cute and sweet, however, the reactions to my voice. A man who was trying to date me (quite unsuccessfully, as this will illustrate) insisted I had to be faking my voice, that there was no way I could look like me and have this voice. Clearly, I have a face and figure made for radio! Another man said I should do audio porn, that my “Snow White sound” would make sexy text that much more titillating. Yup.

My voice is fine. It has probably gotten better with time. It certainly used to be glass-shatteringly high. My students used to tease me by repeating my instructions to one another in squeaky mouse voices. I don’t know that I really sounded that awful, but my voice is high. My dream of a Lauren Bacall or Kathleen Turner deep sexiness will never come true, but my voice is fine. Like I said, better with time. I’ve come to terms with it. I think of it the way I think of my face, thoughts perfectly articulated by this limerick:

As a beauty I’m not a star,
There are others more handsome by far.
But my face, I don’t mind it
For I am behind it.
It’s the people in front that I jar.*

I don’t think anyone is particularly horrified by the sight of my face. Certainly, the whole of me has elicited startled responses, but that’s generally about racism, and those folks can’t actually see my face. I’m not always aware of the reactions people have to my face, but reactions to my voice are much more noticeable. I can hear the change in other people’s voices when I’m on the phone, can see people turn and look when I’m out and about. And, of course, there are the folks who just tell me.

I like to say it doesn’t matter, that it’s just how I talk. I know I’m lying, however. I know how I respond to certain voices. And there would be no way to count the number of times I’ve successfully used my voice to impact a situation. It matters. And that seems so unfair. We can’t help the voices we wind up with. Yes, there are classes that teach people to sound different, but why should anyone have to take those classes when they already come equipped with perfectly serviceable voices?

I can’t change that random inequity. But I suppose I can try to use my gift for good, right? What does that mean? Well, maybe it means my friend with the film project is on the right track. That baby who told me that my scolding her didn’t feel like scolding because of my dreamy, “warm tone,” was the clue. Instead of only writing my anger, maybe it’s time to put my voice to it, time to start telling people all the ways they need to step up, just how they can straighten up and fly right, just how fiercely they can work at being anti-racist, at dismantling the structures of racism that are destroying us all.

Let me just clear my throat.

__________

* This limerick credited both to Woodrow Wilson and a poet I never heard of named Anthony Euwer. I have no idea whose poem it actually is, but I am choosing to believe it is Euwer’s poem and that Wilson was known to recite it (I’ve seen two different stories of people saying Wilson recited it for them).


Sending a warm thank you to my friend Lisa at satsumabug.com. Her decision to start making space for short-but-with-a-whole-arc musings was a good push for me. My essays of late have been getting longer and longer and longer … so long that I cannot find my way to the end and so have nothing to post on this blog. So I’m going to try writing shorter pieces, no more than 1,000 words, and see if I can’t get through some of the topics on my pages-long list of essay ideas! If this works, I may catch up with my #52essays challenge by year’s end!

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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.

H is for: Heft

As in lifting something heavy. As in the weight of something heavy. And H is for Heavy. As in something of great weight, difficult to lift, move, or carry. As in of great density, thick or substantial.

And what does all of this have to do with my decision to spend this Poetry Month writing chōka? Yes, that would be the rearing of my Little Hater’s ugly head. Let me explain.

Last week, I noticed that I was feeling comfortable with my poetry challenge. Anyone who has read my April writing for more than a minute knows that I have struggled mightily with poetry, with the idea that I can write poetry, with the idea that I would have the nerve to post those poems online, with the idea that I would have the unmitigated gall to call myself a poet. Just about every April since I started my blog, I come here and try to push back against all of that and write poems. I force myself to post them, even when I know they aren’t even good enough to be called mediocre. Because I have to. Because to not do that is giving in to that mean, awful voice that has been telling me since I was 18 years old that I can’t write poems.

Learning a new form sometimes pulls me out of that negative loop very nicely. I don’t know what or why that is. Maybe it takes so much focus for me to wrap my brain around the new patter there isn’t room for my Inner Critic to slip in.

So I was feeling that, feeling pulled away from that mean voice, content to just play with the words.

I’m sure you can guess where this is headed.

Yes. As soon as I noticed that I was feeling comfortable … all that comfort drained away and the tidal wave of doubt flooded in. Of course..

My doubt wasn’t about whether or not the poems were good. Or, rather, not much about that. It is generally a given for me that the poems aren’t particularly good. I am always surprised when I like a poem I’ve written. That is hardly the anticipated result. So I chided myself for not writing good poems — that one from Thursday night is still pretty unforgivable — but then I realized that quality wasn’t what had me thinking negative thoughts about my poems.

No, my Inner Mean Person was kicking my teeth in because my poems were boring. Plain and simple. My poems weren’t about anything substantive. When I did my last year of aruns in 2014, I was just getting into genealogical research, and my poems were about Samuel and finding family and history. When I did prose poems in 2015, my poems were little Black Lives Matter protest songs. In 2009 when I started this April business, I wrote about love, about Sean Bell, about Black death. From the beginning I’ve landed on serious subjects. My poems may not have been good, but they had weight. Heft.

Thursday I wrote a poem about having “Boogie, Oogie, Oogie” as an earworm. Such a piece of fluff as could be carried away by the softest exhalation.

Of course, there are plenty of heavy, serious, somber things to write about. Every. single. day. But I haven’t found my way into those stories, found the way to tell my piece of any of those stories. And so I — and you, dear reader — am stuck here, in this fluffy place. And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe I need to be here, churning out banal chōka to give my brain a rest, a chance to sort through and process all the everything else. Maybe when that’s done, I’ll find my way back to writing poems with heft.

Spring

Smooth, shining spring day
here at last, reminding me
of April in France
Paris opening her arms
no longer stiff, cold
finally welcoming me.
Claude driving us fast
along the Champs Elysees
the air honeyed, light.
Spring reminds me of Ludlow
those days with Walter —
was it pollen in my eyes
blinding me to him?
A later spring, me and Ray
the back of his bike
cruising up the Palisades.

It is again spring
and this old woman’s fancy
turns to thoughts of love
(loves) in the dim long ago —
wringing verses from their bones.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.

(Is this an essay? I’m going to call it one. It needs more work, but it’s enough of a start to give my revision some direction, an idea of where I wanted to go.)



I cook like Olivia Pope.

Yes, you read that right.

I am a single woman. I live alone. And, while I love to cook, sometimes it’s just too much. With just me in the house, some nights the production of dinner-making is taking up time that could be spent … well … on just about anything else. So, that’s what I’m saying. I get her, Olivia Pope. Popcorn and wine is not a lie.

More often, for me, it’s popcorn and herbal tea. Sometimes popcorn and ginger ale. But you get the idea.

I’ve gone through many popper styles — electric, air, microwave. But the best is made on the stove.

I used to have this old-school beauty:

This is the Wabash Valley Farms™ Original Whirley Pop™ Stovetop Popcorn Popper (they clearly needed to use the word “pop” at least one more time). I loved it. And I used it so much, I wore it out. Now I just use an old stock pot. It’s not as fun as turning the crank, but it definitely gets the job done.

It gets the job done because it’s popcorn, and it’s really not that serious … except that, maybe it is. If you fire up the Google, you will, in fact, get 47,900,000 hits for “how to make popcorn.” Really. Nearly 48 million hits. But sadly, only 3,400,000 returns for “how to make caramel popcorn.” Why so few? How are we living, people? Surely, caramel corn should play a larger role in our lives. And the results tumble down from there. Only 1,880,000 for kettle corn.

So yes, all of this is quite silly. But it’s also reminding me of popcorn balls (7,040,000 hits!), specifically, the popcorn balls my grandmother used to make. She didn’t make them often, so they were an extra especial treat. And they seemed like magic. No one else ever had them, and I never actually saw how she made them, so they just seemed to become … there’d be a big bowl of popcorn, and then <snap of fingers> there’d be popcorn balls! She was a kitchen magician.

And now I have my pick of recipes, and I might have to give them a try.

Um …

But not tonight. If I can’t work up the gumption to boil some pasta and throw on some bottled sauce, am I really going to take on the decadent extravagance of popcorn balls?! I think not.

I am more likely to go on the hunt for the Brooklyn Popcorn truck!



original-slicer-girlgriot

It’s the Slice of Life Story Challenge — posting a little bit of something every day in March!

Go check out the hundreds of slicers over at Two Writing Teachers!

Where’s Gordon Ramsay when I need him?

Today I had brunch. Today I ordered scrambled eggs with home fries. Today I received a plate of half raw, half burnt home fries and two eggs made into an unseasoned omelette. This is the second time this year that I’ve ordered eggs and been served something with no salt, no pepper, no parsley — not even as garnish. And when I’ve complained, I’ve been told, “You didn’t ask for that.”

Seriously?

The first season-less omelette was whisked away from me when it was clear that I wasn’t going to accept the “You didn’t ask for that” response. The cook came to my table and asked what was wrong with the eggs. He had a little bit of attitude when he came out, but he accepted my complaint and went back to the kitchen and made me a new omelette — complete with salt, pepper, and parsley.

But I am cranky thinking about today’s food fiasco. When I told my server that the potatoes were both- under and over-cooked and that the eggs a) weren’t scrambled, and b) were tasteless, he just shrugged.

“It’s what you ordered.”

“I didn’t order raw potatoes mixed with burnt potatoes. And I didn’t order a bland omelette.”

“I don’t know what you want me to do.”

“I want you to take it back and ask the cook to make it again, correctly.”

“Oh, he won’t do that.” (And he actually had the temerity to begin turning away from me, as if the conversation had ended.)

“Of course he’ll do that. I’m not going to eat this. And I’m not going to pay for it.”

“It’s what you ordered.”

“Please bring the manager over.”

He gave me some Grade A side eye, but went and got the manager. As they walked over, I heard him explaining that I was a troublemaker. (And that’s okay, actually. I am a bit of a troublemaker. And, while I’m not usually a person who sends food back to the kitchen, sometimes I am. And when I send food back, I have a good reason, and I’m happy to make some trouble until I’m properly served. This isn’t about being hangry. It’s about the fact that those eggs and potatoes were going to cost me $12, and for that price tag, they needed to be as close to magnificently delicious as possible.)

The manager had a little side eye of his own, already prepared to be annoyed with me, seeing as I was a troublemaker and all. I smiled my sweet smile and used my nice voice and told him what I’d ordered and what was wrong with what I’d been served. I even invited him to try the raw potatoes. I said I was surprised to find that it was a problem to have the food made to my liking. I told him it was good to know the restaurant’s policy so that I could be sure to stay away … and let all my friends know.

Which had the desired effect of inspiring him to have the food taken away and a new order prepared.

Why was this so difficult? It is a thing now to serve entirely bland eggs? Do people no longer know what scrambled eggs are? Have the days of pleasing the customer gone the way of the Dodo? Is Chef Ramsay looking for a new establishment to highlight on Kitchen Nightmares?


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

SOL image 2014