In Praise of Ambiguity and Respect for Tools

In Praise of Ambiguity or Respect for Tools

T’s desk was built for a telegraph office sometime around the turn of the twentieth century. The telegraph agent stood behind such a desk; it was a standing desk, not fashionable until many years later. T had acquired a tall stool so he could sit behind it; it was T’s style, this lofty perch peering over the top at whomever came into the room.

T wrote at that desk. He wrote longhand with fountain pens, big fat Sheaffer pens with stub nose nibs which left trails of broad, black ink on the white legal pads he filled with words. The pen was the Sheaffer PFM, Pen For Men, because it was big and hefty and in its day it was the most complicated fountain pen made, basically a variation of a simple mechanism.

The pen that T preferred was the all American Sheaffer, with what is called a stub nib. Stub nibs are flat across the end and rounded at the corners, so you get a good thick line and some variation in horizontal and vertical strokes. He always used black ink, Sheaffer ink because it had a little detergent element in it to keep the pen lubricated so to speak and the ink flowing a river of words.

T prized the Sheaffer PFM pens. They were introduced in 1959 and Sheaffer made them for about ten years in five models. They were hefty, wagging in your hand like a stubby finger, and came with a variety of nibs. T had a half dozen of them, different pieces, all with the same stub nose nibs, none of which you could buy anymore. At the time there was one man in town, Mr. Froelich, who owned a notions and gift store with a pen counter and had the tools and materials to adjust and make repairs. He was the only one in town who could repair T’s beloved Sheaffer PFM pens, and they often needed adjustment.

I saw old Mr. Froelich’s pen work bench once in the back of his store and it was magic.

T introduced me to these pens when I was still writing with old Parkers and whatever else I could get my hands on. I had already fallen into fountain pens so I was a willing student, manifesting a fondness for the word written black and broad on white paper. I have a respect for tools. I have a similar feel for the fountain pen that I do for the classical guitar, I like the tactile feel of ink on paper as I prefer the feel of finger and fingernail on nylon strings. I like to plunge my hands into mud too.

I wanted one of those Sheaffer PFM pens with the stub nib and as I fell under T’s influence he promised one day in a moment of atypical sentimentality – he may have been drunk — that he would give me one of his blessed fire writing sky drawing pens. But he never coughed it over. Whenever I was visiting with him, he sitting high behind his telegraph operator’s desk myself meekly in front like a Dickens office scene Bob Cratchit and Scrooge at work, I would follow his hand into his pocket and return with that stumpy sixth finger and watch every movement as he uncapped it — the flash of the fine gold nib the flat stub nib — I followed every movement as hand and pen applied the black gold to the white paper.

This was not only a matter of tools, it was a matter of competence. He was a wonderful writer. He wrote sermons as if Faulkner had fallen on and off on and off the wagon and took to religion, he wrote about his childhood home in a near southern former coal mining region in a coal mining state that he had survived by earning a basketball scholarship to a noble southern University. He was tall.

He was a mentor to me in many ways. He had skills that no one else I knew had, and I felt that if I paid close enough attention, I had the potential to acquire some of those skills. So I watched him and emblematic of our relationship and the transfer of skills was that pen. I wanted one of those pens.

I happened to be at his place of work one Sunday morning when he was not prepared or not fit to deliver the sermon and he asked me to step in and I spontaneously arose to the occasion and from the pulpit reminded him in front of his church full of witnesses that he had promised me the fire writing pen but had never delivered and no doubt due to the public nature of the challenge he marched into his office and brought back a fine version of the Sheaffer PFM stub nose pen, one of about a half a dozen in his collection, a working man’s pen this no collector’s item and I pocketed it in front of everyone and made a hasty exit before he came to his senses and asked for it back.

He would later ask for it back but I was careful never to appear in his presence with that pen in my pocket though I used it often and prized it as if it were the holy grail or the magic bat Wonderboy. I also wrote with that pen.

I would like to say that our relationship, teacher to student myself the student, continued and I acquired the skills from him I wanted in addition to the noble tool he had given me, a symbol of the giving over of energies skills talents as it were that I wanted and I knew he had. It was not meant to be.

There came a time in our relationship that I made a clumsy attempt to adjust our relation, I thought I was doing something good for him, but sometimes that works out sometimes it doesn’t. In this story, it did not. He kicked me out of his life, I challenged him on something he would not allow challenge and our friendship was over. But not the tutelage.

Every time I put my hand into my pocket and drew out the Sheaffer PFM stub nose fountain pen I thought of him, and when I put black gold onto white paper I often thought of him as well, though I think that in the passage of years student exceeded master and I felt more competent in ways that I could not have learned from him. He may have contributed to my beginning but I had exceeded my teacher. Still I owed him. I thought of him. I always remembered him.

We had one friend in common, his secretary I guess I would call her, though she was more than that. H took care of him, understood him, typed up his beautiful longhand missives, kept his files, etc., kept his work life together for the time she was with him she had to run a lot of interference because he didn’t always behave so well with people. He drove people away and she brought people close. She was invaluable to his life and I’m not sure how many people knew that.

H died in June, 2014. I had kept up a friendship with her through the years, T had disappeared from my life. I actually thought at one time he was dead, or living with one of his children in a spare bedroom out of town, I hadn’t heard from him or about him in many years. I was not accustomed to hearing from him, but I ceased hearing about him.

When H died in a small town in a rural part of our state, her family home, I drove out there on a Saturday in the summer of 2014 and went to her Memorial at the local church. At the Memorial was T’s first wife, who I chatted with. I asked her if she knew where he was and he was in a facility I visited at least once a week. I had no idea he was there. You should go see him, she said, but don’t expect much.

T was hardly mentioned at the memorial and I thought that was an odd omission, H figured so large in his life, he so large in hers. I knew this and I’m sure other people knew this but T had faded from everyone’s consciousness it seemed over the years; I determined to go see him when I returned home.

The next week was Tisha B’Av, the nadir of the Jewish year and the deepest dip in the Jewish spiritual trip. I scheduled nothing for that day. I fasted though because I take medicine I am not required to but I appreciate the visions and insights and proximity to the sea of God that fasting encourages. I went to Starbuck’s on the way to T’s nursing facility, my favorite Starbuck’s at the time, and sat in a comfy chair facing the door with a book and my papers and computer and one of the pens in my pocket that T had introduced me to, intending to go visit him. I felt a little timid; I was working myself into it.

Walked in one of my pals who looked at me and asked, how you doing? Fine fine, we chatted. Another pal wandered in whom I am closer to, how you doing, he asked me, fine fine. No you’re not, he said, and I told him briefly the story of T and I was working up to visit him. Go visit him, he said, get up and on with it.

I got up and went. I found him at the facility down a corridor that was locked because there was a virus on the floor and I had to gown up to go in but I came and I did. He was in his room. He said hi as if we had chatted each other up last week, he was watching some God Hour preacher from Texas on TV and he had a pretty nice room for such places. He also had a silly hat, a good sign, he always had a big silly hat that added as much to his mystique as that big desk and in much the same way. A matter of scale.

I sat down in a wheel chair by the bed. He couldn’t walk by himself. Want to go for a ride, I asked, I saw there’s a door outside at the end of the corridor. We could go outside, it’s nice out. Sure.

I helped him into the wheel chair and pushed him down the hall. He teased all the women who work the floor even patting some of them as we passed. So far: the same old guy.

We went outside and sat in the sun. It wasn’t that hot that day. We started talking about folks we knew from the days when we hung out together, especially our friend H who just died. He told me some things about her he shouldn’t have but that was always his way. He talked about his childhood in that dying coal mountain town and I asked him questions about where he went from there and what it was like in all the places he had been and we chatted away for two hours as if it were twenty years earlier maybe twenty five before our separation. It was as if he had never kicked me out of his life and we picked up where we were and I became his student again though I had exceeded what he had given me a long time ago. Still, I am loyal to my beginnings.

And who knows I may be there one day myself and someone may come visit me who learned something from me and far exceeded my sense of influence in their lives. Whatever it was it was delicious. I had my friend and mentor back as if nothing had come between us. I even had one of the pens with me and I drew it out of my pocket and shined it in his direction. Ah – the Sheaffer, he said, the cheap one. This was a later knock-off of the original PFM that Sheaffer made and he introduced me to that one too. Of course I would not bring the original though I still have it, he might snatch it back from me.

He was completely present the two plus hours I spent with him. And every time I’ve been back – clear and present. He was depressed but he’s always been depressed and he knew it. He told me right away he was waiting to die.

I went to see him almost every week. He only wanted hard candy so I brought him hard candy. Hard candy is not as popular as it used to be by the way. I took him outside or sometimes I sat with him in his room and watched TV, sometimes we talked about old folks from back then or when he did this did that and sometimes I just sat there with him.

He’s not remembered much among people I know, but he is one of the great preaching gesticulating wild man dramatic hollering gifted southern drunks that howled at the gates of hell asking either to get in or get out, gifted and driven and sometimes crazy and always a presence that owned a room when he walked into it. An original.

I know I am him, if not for this if not for that, and whatever happened to him could have happened to me, it didn’t but our roads run off in unexpected directions over thirty or forty years and you cannot imagine where they will take you unless you’re a good writer and a thinker and a hollering crazy man then you might have known something that others didn’t and you may have made more of a mark on those around you than you realize even those you pushed away even individuals you kicked out of your life, not knowing they were watching you and in some ways you launched them and though you didn’t linger to see what became of them you set them off on their course and they owe you they remember you they write about you they honor you.

There are some relationships in life that are authenticating, not the category of love exactly, some other thing that is central and authenticating. You may have had only a few of them in your life but when they are deep and when you learn from them and when they spin you off on your way in a certain direction they are like love, they are central like love, they may not be love but they are crucial and you have one two three such relations in your life and they are so deep so inspiring so directional that’s all you need. That’s all you can manage. That’s enough. Maybe it is love, some kind of goofy love.

You may even get kicked out of someone’s life and that doesn’t diminish the centrality of that relation. It was crucial. It came at what you now know to be the right time. It wasn’t a love thing exactly, it may not have even been a respect thing exactly, it was something else. It was life and it was necessary and it was rare and you celebrate the one or two or three of those stories in their magnificent ambiguity.

What are you to each other? Ambiguous.


T died on May 12, 2017.

A Story of Old Israel

Feeling All Right I’m Not Feeling Too Good Myself

A Story of Old Israel


I fell out of my chair one night at the end of a particularly delicious evening of conversation with my Israeli friends Ahuva, her daughter Meeli, her husband Ronen and their three daughters Adi, Ayelet, Maya, Ayelet’s boyfriend Ilan who we just met and my wife Susie. I sat in my chair at the head of the table where Eliezer of blessed memory, Ahuva’s husband, once sat. I am always aware of that when I sit there. I made a mental note of it and sat down.

Eliezer was one of the pioneering generation and a founding member of the kibbutz. He built Israel. He once shared a room with Hannah Senesh, poet, paratrooper, who left from that kibbutz in 1944 on a secret mission to save Hungarian Jews from death in Auschwitz. She was captured, tortured, and murdered. Her museum is a sweet remembrance of her brief and brilliant life on the kibbutz where we visit and where Susie has deep roots.

That night I had my oud in my lap. I played a little, made up a song in Hebrew involving all of us and some of the occurrences of the last several days, the mysterious appearance of tomatoes outside in the kalnoit [electric cart] etc. and then I sat in the chair for hours listening and talking, clutching the oud to my chest. I felt entirely comfortable and engaged in conversation so I didn’t move at all for two, three hours.

When it was time for me to move, I got up and I think my leg was asleep because my ankle buckled under my feet and I went crashing to the floor, upsetting the items on a small nearby table but saving my [borrowed, expensive] oud from hitting the ground. I must have turned my ankle completely but I didn’t feel it so I surmised the whole south-eastern region of my body was asleep.

Man I went down hard and my ankle began to swell up immediately though it didn’t hurt that much. I iced it all day and the next day it was worse.

I went swimming in the Sea and we all imagined that the Sea had healed me.

I wrapped it up and the next day it was worse. The rest of the group had been delayed in Philadelphia so we had an extra day so to speak to rest. We packed up our things, I bought a heavier brace for my ankle, and went to my oud lesson in Tel Aviv where I didn’t play well. I had played really well in the first lesson but I think I was distracted by my ankle and I was too much up in my head and not enough in my hands.

We met up with the rest of the group and Miri, our madrichah’guide and old friend, thought it best that we get it checked out before the rest of the group arrived and it might be more complex. So at the end of the evening, Miri Susie and I headed for the emergency room (mi-yun) in Haifa. Rambam Hospital. We were about 20 kilometers south of Haifa. We got on the road about 10:30 at night.

Miri is my kind of girl; smart, funny, independent, interested in many things, honest, neurotic and somewhat of a hypochondriac. She once had a blood clot underneath bruising such as was taking over my foot and she thought it best to check it out at the mi-yun in Haifa.

When we arrived we had to choose who was to go with me into the emergency waiting room, we decided Miri would be best because she could translate if I needed it. Susie waited in the outside waiting room and tried the best she could to disguise her angst. She sat next to a criminal in handcuffs and leg braces and a Druze woman.

Inside, Miri and I waited. I was seen first by a nurse from Rocky Horror Picture Show dressed in scrubs. He spoke in a barely discernible voice, had his hair darkened and tastefully tied up into a bun on the top of his head, some nice piercings and a delicate series of bracelets on his wrist.

What happened to you? I think he asked in a soprano and breathy whisper. It was hard to hear him so I am not sure what he said. I fell. When. Two days ago. Why did you wait two days to come in. Take this and wait for the Orthopod, room seven.

Miri and I waited outside room seven, the Orthopod was within, then disappeared and didn’t return for over an hour. There were three or four other patients in the hallway outside the room, some young girls dressed in garish faux leopard tops and stretchy pants way too tight for their shapes, etc., making lots of noise and other personages now including the guy with handcuffs whose finger looked to be broken and with whom the she-cop, one of two who brought him in, seemed to be flirting. She was a blonde Russian woman, this cop, matched with a meek-looking dreamy partner.

It was getting to be close to 2 AM. Finally the Orthopod called my name and he asked what happened. I explained. He looked. Roentgen, he said, x-rays. They took x-rays down the hall. I returned and in about a half an hour he said, not broken. Sprain. Don’t walk on it too much and wrap it.

Poor Miri was I am sure dog tired, it’s hot here and every day takes a lot out of you no matter what you are doing and Miri works hard. It was now past 2 AM and we headed back to where we were staying on the Sea south of Haifa. We gathered Susie up in the outside waiting room and found our car.

Generally I would sleep waiting through such events, but this had been much too interesting for me to sleep. No one of course noticed me at all. I had my nose in everybody’s business and it was as if I was invisible.

On the way home, there was the most curious combination of tunes on the Israeli radio station. I heard Mississippi John Hurt, I explained to Miri who Mississippi John Hurt was, some strange sexy hip hop music, and then a version of a song with the chorus “I’m Feeling All Right I’m Not Feeling Too Good Myself.” I kept thinking about that coming from the hospital.

How are you doing? I’m feeling all right I’m not feeling too good myself. Are you all right or not feeling too good yourself? Both. The ambiguity in that, but here at the Rambam Beit Cholim, house of the sick, in Haifa there was no ambiguity as there is generally around existence. What did you do. When. Why did you wait. Sit over there. Go home.

I thought about the Rambam, Maimonides, Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon the great 12th c. rabbi scholar philosopher healer physician merchant covert writer but what I experienced at your hospital in Haifa was your kind of disguised healing all the ambiguities intact. Rambam, physician your hospital here is wonderful, in the 12th century to make the trek from Cordoba to Fez then Cairo, reinterred according to your yearning and buried in Tiberias. Your hospital is lively. Saving lives every night.

Rambam, not only a hospital but a street in every town in the Land where you are buried. In the future you an Orthopod, or a nurse, a guy with a tasteful bun on top of your head. I saw you holy Rambam – so preoccupied with heavenly matters that you could hardly drip words, barely giving them enough heft to be heard.

There you are passing in the hall, the Rambam, the bracelets announcing your approach. Now you’re gone. Back. How are you feeling, asked the Rambam.

I’m feeling all right I’m not feeling too good myself.

Yes, said the Rambam, that’s the way it is.