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The Moving Finger Writes…

It’s been too long since I got out my fountain pens. I was already thinking that even before I read an essay by the novelist Henriette Lazaridis about the fountain pen she inherited from an uncle by way of her aunt, which is probably the best way to get a fountain pen. I have some, all given to me by my wife–getting a new fountain pen as a gift is the second best way to get one. My favorite is a design called Pericles. That’s the one with the cap off in the picture. Pericles was a pretty cool person, at least according to Thucydides, but I also like the pen because it’s heavy. Writing with a heavy pen makes me feel like the words themselves have extra weight. The downside of heavy pens is they tend to be more expensive, and, believe me, fountain pens can get really expensive. I wouldn’t want a $14,500 pen even as a gift–I’d be terrified to write with the damn thing.

Writing with a fountain pen also forces me to slow down because fountain pen ink ain’t like what’s in your standard ballpoint. It’s more viscous and, behind a southpaw, I have to be careful not to drag my hand through it while it’s still wet.

Fountain pens also have to be refilled by hand, a process I think is akin to a drug user’s routine, although generally safer, and really like using a syringe in reverse. I don’t mind getting ink on my fingers, either. I think of it as the mark of a writer. I just have to make sure not to use red ink.

My wife has her own collection of fountain pens. Some she’s gotten as gifts, but some she’s purchased for herself–the third best way of getting fountain pens. She’s bought some new ones but also picked up some antique ones at second-hand stores. Some of those are so old they’re not even usable anymore, their ink bladders, made of, I don’t know, rat intestines treated with antimony or something, long since desiccated.  

She even uses them for work, which I can’t do with my own fountain pens. Well, I could, but I like keeping them for my own personal writing.

I know writing by hand is a disappearing art, and it’s ironic that I’ve typed all of this into a computer, but then all this typing just makes me appreciate my fountain pens that much more.

He’s Coming Clean.

Hello Everybody,

The holidays are finally here. It’s my time to take up my usual position watching over everything. Most of you set me up to keep an eye on your kids. I do, but I’m watching you too. Some of you obviously know that. Some of you do things I wish I hadn’t seen. Some of you do some pretty awful things just because you know I’m watching.

I want you to know how much I hate all of you.

I didn’t even want this job. This was supposed to be temporary, or a compromise. The Boss couldn’t keep an eye on everybody all the time, in spite of what you’ve heard. Every year the list gets longer and double-checking it is hard enough. I was supposed to only have this job while I was studying for dental school but somehow it’s ended up being a full-time occupation.

Maybe it was because I was always a rule-follower, unlike most of my peers. I was a misfit, if you will, but the wrong kind of misfit. I wasn’t the cool kind of misfit, the kind everyone admires and even aspires to be. Almost everyone. That type is overrated, if you ask me, and a menace. That’s why I was the one who reported that gang smoking behind the gym. Addiction, lung cancer, not to mention the danger of starting a fire. I tried to be discreet about it but since I’d told them to stop first it was obvious who reported them.

I had to develop my own coping strategies after that, like always being sick on days when we played dodgeball.

For the same reason I tried to turn in my senior class for the prank they were planning to pull. The adults didn’t take that nearly as seriously as I thought they should, but who did they think was going to clean up all that shaving cream? Being on school property after hours was no joke either.  

Sometimes I think this is all a punishment, but I can’t believe the Boss is that vindictive. Look at how he still put Rudolph in charge after all the trouble he caused. There’s a real misfit for you.

I also know the dislike is, in many cases, mutual. Some of you don’t even want me around. Some of you think I’m creepy, or that I’m teaching kids to be too casual about surveillance. Well, you can’t be too careful, but, gradually, I’ve come to think that there might be some things that can be allowed to slide. There are some secrets I’ll keep from the Boss, depending on what they are.

It wouldn’t hurt if you’d pass some of the milk and cookies my way once in a while too.

Sincerely,

The Elf On The Shelf

There Goes The Neighborhood.

Several years ago a friend of mine was visiting from Cincinnati and I said, “Hey, let’s walk down Elliston Place.” We didn’t get very far before we found ourselves in a dive called The Gold Rush where we played some pool, talked about old times, and drank us some beers before sitting down and having some excellent fried catfish. Just a few doors down from The Gold Rush is the Elliston Place Soda Shop where, more recently, Ann Koplow and I had lunch.

I used to walk down Elliston Place almost every day on my way to the bus stop. It was a nice place to walk through. Here’s The Gold Rush now:

In fact most of the block is coming down. Here it is from the back:

Elliston Place is part of a historic neighborhood. It’s where you’ll find the famed Exit/In where a young Steve Martin would get the entire audience really worked up then lead them out and down the street to McDonald’s where he’d order three-hundred burgers, then abruptly change that to “one small fries”.

It’s a few blocks away from Centennial Park, and when Dave Attell filmed an episode of his show Insomniac in Nashville he rode down Elliston Place in the back of a pickup truck for the final shot.

It’s strange to walk down the sidewalk there and see empty lots behind the storefronts. I don’t know if they’re leaving the facades for reasons of safety—maybe there’s a plan to block off the sidewalk at some point and knock the rest down—or if they’re being preserved. I hope it’s the latter. Neighborhoods change. I get that. Elliston Place is no longer the place goth kids go to hang out on the weekends, which it was when I was in high school, and the English pub is now a hookah bar. The pizza place is, well, still a pizza place, but there’s another former pizza place that now sells bubble tea.

Some of these changes seem like improvements but I’m still sad to see some of the history go.

A Little Acceptance.

Just in the month of October I had four pieces rejected by various publications. It’s not hard to do the math and realize that’s an average of one per week. Back in the last days of 2019 I set myself a resolution for 2020, even before I realized what a year that would be, that I’d submit at least one piece per month. I’ve pretty much kept to that goal although October was exceptional and significantly raised the average. The problem, of course, is that more submissions also means more rejections, and although I was thrilled to have a piece accepted by DarkWinter Literary Magazine there were also a lot of doors slammed in my face. Metaphorically speaking, of course. Getting more rejections doesn’t make them any easier either, making October a particularly tough month.

Then a funny thing happened. For a lot of my submissions I use a website called Submittable. It’s useful for finding publishers who may or may not be looking for the sort of things I write—although mostly not—and for keeping track of what I’ve submitted and where. I’ve been using it for several years now and, while I have had some things published, I’ve never gotten an acceptance on something I submitted through Submittable.

A friend contacted me to share that a place called Unstamatic was having an open submission call. Everything submitted within a twenty-minute period would be accepted. I quickly polished a piece that had been rejected a few times and that, really, didn’t seem to fit anywhere, and, because I was so nervous I forgot that Missoula, Montana is an hour behind Nashville, not an hour ahead. Not that it matters since I was up three hours early anyway, but that’s another story.

The window opened, I slipped my piece in, breathed a sigh of relief, then panicked all over again, worried that I’d done something incorrectly. Then I got an email confirming that my submission was received and, for the first time in the four years I’ve been using Submittable, I got an “Accepted”. Then I got this:

Thanks, editors. I needed that. You can read my piece here.

Thanks, 2022.

It seems like only a year ago I last shared this annual tradition, and thanks to WordPress’s nifty scheduling function I had this set to go three years ago without knowing what the 1091 days in between would bring. Anyway happy Thanksgiving to everyone except those in countries that don’t celebrate it and the Canadians who are heathens who have Thanksgiving before Halloween.

It has been celebrated as a federal holiday every year since 1863, when, during the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens,” to be celebrated on the last Thursday in November.

–Wikipedia

November 25th, 1864

It was even worse than last year. I know every time my family gets together we fall into certain patterns, but that never makes it easier. This time it was even worse because just getting to my parents’ house was such a pain. I thought I’d carriagepool with my younger brother and his wife, but they went up early so that fell through. Then I thought I’d beat the traffic by setting out at dawn, which was such a great idea everybody else in Richmond had it at the same time and the horses were nose to tail, stop and trot, for miles. Finally I got there a little after ten in the morning and my older sister came out already holding a glass of blackberry wine and when she hugged me I could tell it wasn’t her first one. She asked me how things were going and then didn’t wait for an answer and ran back into the house to tell everyone I was there.

I should have known I’d be walking into an argument in the foyer, the way my family is. It’s just what it was about that threw me. My kid brother had this crazy idea for a new way to cook a turkey, leaving the feathers still on and roasting it in the coals of a fire. Well, it sounded pretty stupid to me, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that the neighbors tried the same thing last year and burned down their stable. But I didn’t want to side with my father either. So I said it had been a long trip and I needed to visit the outhouse and slipped out. Well, there was a line at the outhouse: two of my nieces, three cousins, all four of my brothers, and my sister was already in there getting rid of some of that blackberry wine. So I went back inside to see what was going on.

In the parlor my mother was putting together some kind of monstrosity with dead leaves and dried berries that she said she was going to put in the middle of the table.

“Where’s the food going to go?” I asked.

“Well, we’ll move it before we eat.”

I was going to ask why she’d bother to put it in the middle of the table if she was just going to move it again but decided against having that discussion, so instead I sat down and leafed through a broadsheet that was handy.

“The other men are organizing a game,” she said. “It’s some new sport called foot-ball. You should go and join them.”

Well, she knows I’ve never been athletic, but when I protested she got put out with me and said, “It’s your Uncle Wilkes’s idea. You know you’ve always been his favorite. You really should go and do it just to please him.”

FINE.

Well, when I came back in my sister just cackled and toasted me with another glass of blackberry wine. All my mother could say was “Don’t get any blood on the carpet,” and my older brother kept telling me to stop being a sissy and just put some salve on it. Then Aunt Gerda said pinch the back of my neck and tilt my head forward and Uncle Wilkes said no, put pressure between the eyes and lean back, and then my cousins got into it so there had to be a family brawl about that. A day later and I’m still bleeding. So much for the salve. I’ll have to make an appointment with Dr. Samuel Mudd when I get back.

 Then Uncle Aloysius had to start in Daniel about supporting the Whigs and Elizabeth about Suffragettes, just trying to start an argument. Fortunately they didn’t rise to the bait.

Then I tried to head off another argument about who’d have to chaperone the kids’ table by volunteering, but my father cut that off.

“No, no, I want John seated here on my left. After I sent him to that fancy and very expensive school so he could waste his time studying the dramatic arts and oratory he should be well-equipped to deliver the traditional Booth family prayer of thanks.”

Traditional since last year, he means. Then my kid brother kicked me in the shins which I know was his way of saying “Don’t start anything”. I kicked him twice as hard in the shins which was my way of saying, “I wasn’t going to,” and then kicked him again to say, “Hurts, don’t it?”

All this might have been a little more bearable if my sister had let me have some of the blackberry wine.

I swear I’m going to get that Lincoln for making us do this.

On The Roof.

It’s gotten extremely cold here, at least in the mornings, so that now we’re in that confusing time of year when I need a heavy coat on first thing when I go out but by the time the afternoon rolls around the most I need is a light jacket, and even that might be too much. Of course I completely forgot that this morning because I’m still not used to actually going in to the office. By the time I get really settled into the routine of one day in the old building and four days at home, followed by the weekend, things will probably have changed so much that suddenly I’ll have to switch to working in the office full time, or at least more than once a week, and I’ll have a whole new routine to learn.

This morning it was really cold, too. That’s not a surprise—it’s been really cold for at least a couple of weeks now, especially in the mornings. I usually get up just before dawn which I was once told is the coldest time—it’s when the sun has been gone longest and the last remains of the day’s heat have finally been sucked out into space. Things start to warm up again once the sun rises but it’s November so they haven’t exactly been warm.

This morning I went out in my hat and gloves and started the car a few minutes before I left, which I haven’t done since some time last winter, and even when I got in the car it was still cold. I was halfway to work when the heater finally started producing warmth rather than just blowing cold air in my face. And then I had this brilliant idea. In spite of the cold it was still a clear, sunny morning, and I thought, hey, if I park on the roof of the parking garage the car will be nice and toasty by the time I set off for home.

I also kind of wanted to go back to the roof of the parking garage. Back in the old days when I needed a quick break, when it was either before or after lunch but I needed to get away from my desk and clear my head, I’d go to the parking garage next door and run up one flight of stairs all the way to the roof, walk around a bit, take in the view, then go back down a different flight of stairs. It was a nice way to get some exercise and that breath of air at the top, whether hot or cold, was a treat.

So I parked the car on the roof this morning, warmed by the thought of how warm I’d be this afternoon, and it didn’t occur to me that it gets warm during the day. In fact when I went out for lunch my hat and gloves and heavy coat were too much. When I finally go back to the car it’s going to be unpleasantly hot.

And there’s no way to carry that over until next Monday.

Under The Sea.

Orion is clearly visible in the southeast in the evenings now, the hunter rising each night through the bare branches of trees as the deer behind our house snort and stomp off to find a place to sleep. I was thinking about how we’re now in the hunting season when I read an article about a fisherman in the town of Talamone, Italy, who’s gotten sculptors to create an underwater art gallery to stop fishing. Specifically the underwater sculptures are there to block trawlers which scrape the bottom, dredging up everything to harvest a few more fish and to do it more cheaply than traditional net fishing. Trawlers are illegal close to the coast but the local authorities weren’t doing anything to stop them, especially when they’d go out and do their trawling in the middle of the night, so a local fisherman named Paolo Fanciulli, who sounds like a pretty cool guy, started going after them himself. First he scared them away with a big spotlight, but that was only a temporary solution. Then he got the brilliant idea of sinking large blocks of marble in the bay to block the trawlers. And sculptors stepped up to make the blocks of marble works of art, like this one:

Source: Casa dei Pesci

There are thirty-nine blocks in the bay now.

It’s not just preventing illegal fishing. It’s allowing sea grass, which traps large amounts of carbon and which had been destroyed by the trawlers, to come back and flourish, which, in turn, creates a healthy environment for fish which is what fishermen want.

Of course fishermen also pull fish out of the water and kill them because, hey, we’ve all gotta eat, and that’s just the nature of, well, nature: something has to die so something else can live, but there also has to be a balance, a harmony to it–a way to create space for new life. Trawling isn’t sustainable and it’s the only thing that should die permanently.

Pass The Stuffing.

Fall is the season of death and sleep. It’s also the season of the harvest, which is why we put all the feasting holidays at the end of the year. It also used to be the time when the place where I worked would have an annual challenge for employees to maintain our weight. They called it “Hold The Stuffing”. We’d gather in various locations to be weighed and then, in January, we’d be weighed again, and if we hadn’t gained more than two pounds over the holidays we’d get a prize. That’s how it started, anyway. The first few years everyone who kept their weight gain under the limit got a gift card. Then it got downgraded to a keychain or a pen. Then they decided even that was too expensive so they changed it so that there was no longer an automatic reward. Instead everyone who didn’t gain was entered in a raffle for a gift card. Looking back I wish I’d stuck with it because at that point so many people dropped out that my chances of winning were pretty good, but then they were raffling off five gift cards and only five people entered so they dropped the program entirely.

Besides fall and winter are a time when it’s natural that we should put on a few extra pounds—maybe even more than two. As the weather gets colder we start layering on sweaters and hats and wool socks and electric blankets and it makes sense that our bodies add on a few extra layers too. We also burn more calories in cold weather, since our bodies need fuel to fire up the core when the surrounding temperature drops, and with all the holiday goodies that get set out it can be really easy to overcompensate for the loss.

I’m just extrapolating wildly here but I believe holiday feasts date back to when we were still hunter-gatherers, nomadic creatures who hadn’t yet learned to store food for the long term so, like bears, we’d bulk up for the winter months, although we never gained the ability to hibernate since we originated in a pretty warm climate. Still we learned the art of preservation by drying, salting, smoking, and even canning before recorded history, so nibbling, and even occasionally gorging, all through that time of year when the days grow noticeably shorter and the nights get longer, when all the harvesting has been done but it’s still too soon to start planting for the next year.

Fall especially is a transitory time, a time of change, which is why it’s ironic that I’m thinking about how deeply rooted some of our traditions are—how the human tendency to have winter feasts in preparation for the pre-spring famine have been with us maybe as long as we’ve been humans, maybe even longer. And it’s not so ironic that I think about how a dieting program at work went by the wayside, burned away by the harsh realities of dark winter nights when our natural inclination is to gather around the fires and stuff ourselves.

Frosty Morning.

There’s something about this time of year that just saps all the energy out of me. I wonder if it has something to do with the time change. Suddenly we go from starting to get light in the mornings when I get up to it still being dark when I start work. It doesn’t help that the days are getting shorter. It’s as though I’m solar powered and my batteries aren’t getting fully charged.

And yet I like the dark. There’s something special about seeing the sun, that’s moved to the south, set early. The cooler weather makes the sky brighter and clearer; the stars seem closer at this time of year.

The cold doesn’t bother me either. This is the time of year when we switch from cooling the house to heating it. There’s that short period when the furnace fires up for the first time in months and there’s a distinct burning smell that goes through the whole house. That doesn’t sound appealing but somehow it is. It’s the sign that the weather is really changing, that we’re moving into the time of year when the holidays start, when everything winds down, when the pace gets a little slower. School days are far behind me but when I was in school this was a time when even the teachers took a more relaxed attitude. The pace might pick up a bit after Thanksgiving but it would slow down again as Christmas approached. This was in spite of, or maybe because of, final exams—the lessons could drift a bit so we could have time to prepare, to really absorb all that we’d already crammed into the exciting, energetic fall days when everything was still new.

Then, this morning, there was frost on the car’s windshield. I was already running late and it was just one more thing to deal with. And yet I was okay with it. It just meant I had to take a little extra time, relax, and let the car’s engine warm up before I finally set off for work. I was fine with that. It’s that time of year. There was no need to rush.

Comb Over.

Source: The Guardian

It never occurred to me until recently that No-Shave November isn’t just something fun that people can choose to do, like Talk Like A Pirate Day, but an actual organization that people can join and that raises money to treat and fight cancer. I always assumed it was a voluntary activity and I discovered how serious it really is when I went to check and see if it was still something people did. Now I feel guilty for never participating, although, for me, participating would have to mean donating some money to the cause. I have never been blessed with abundant, or even reasonable facial hair. Even if I did quit shaving for thirty days my face would be punctuated with dangly patches.

I don’t mind being baby-faced, though. I had a roommate in college who could walk twenty feet to the dorm bathroom, shave his cheeks and chin completely smooth, and have a five o’clock shadow by the time he got back to the room. I guess the only reason he even bothered to shave is in two days he would have turned into Alan Moore, but that’s another story.

What set me off on this line of thought was the discovery of the world’s oldest known sentence on a comb. The inscription says, “May this tusk root out the lice of the hair and the beard,” and from the louse and egg remnants still clinging to it after almost four-thousand years apparently it worked. And we also now know that cooties weren’t just invented on the playground but have been around a really long time.

Various historians have speculated about what, exactly, allowed our first ancestors to start building civilizations. Some think it was fire, others think it was the transition from a nomadic, hunter-gatherer way of life to an agricultural one. Some have even suggested underarm deodorant.

I think tools had something to do with it. Tools require instruction, not just for their making but for their use. Imagine looking at something as mundane as a comb and having no idea what it was for. And while grooming seems like it’s partly a matter of comfort it’s still important–it’s not something I’d call entirely voluntary.

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