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Decameron 2020: The Undertaker

The Undertaker
By Art Cerf

Having nothing to do with this story, here’s a Revolutionary War memorial to the patriots massacred at Fort Griswold in Groton, Conn., by British soldiers under the command of the traitorous Benedict Arnold.

Businesses across America were crashing but not Buddy Seldon’s. You see, Buddy was a mortician, inheritor of a small family business. And business was soaring.

Buddy was working seven days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day, preparing up to four funerals a day, due to the Covid pandemic. By the time he would head home at night, he just had time to feed his cat, Abby, and throw a frozen dinner into the microwave. After eating, he would fall asleep from exhaustion, sometimes on the couch unable to make it to bed.

He had no personal life. What started as a promising relationship with Rachel Morrison died when he no longer had time to spend with her.

His only solace was the money was pouring in. He was clearing six figures after expenses every month. At this rate, he figured he’d be a millionaire within a few more months. Then he’d sell this profitable operation for even more money and then go live the life he wanted.

And that day finally came. He signed the sale papers, deposited the check and started making plans.

He called his travel agent and told her to book a month-long tour of Great Britain, from Scotland to Southhampton, from London to Wales.

The agent replied, “Sorry, Buddy, but you can’t travel to Britain…there’s a two week quarantine for all travelers.”

“Okay,” said Buddy, “Then make it a tour of Europe.”

“No can do,” said the agent. The EU has banned American tourists.

“How about Australia and New Zealand?”

“Same story,” said the agent. “Canada is out, too.”

She added, “I could still get you into Brazil, but I don’t think that would be very wise at this moment.”

Buddy said: “Okay…how about travel in the States. I’d love to have a spree in New York City.”

Again, the agent paused. “You live in one of the states from which New York is not accepting visitors, unless you quarantine for two weeks. And you don’t want to go to Florida or any other Southern states, Texas, Arizona or California.”

Buddy thanked her, opened a beer and had no idea what to do next.

We’ve Moved…Again…& Whatever Happened to the Great American Motel?

We have a guard toad, so watch out. He might spray you with toxins. Nature lover that I am, I love having an “American toad” living on and near our front porch.

Greetings from Gales Ferry, Connecticut! What a crazy, unpredictable journey life is. My fiancé found her dream job, and I sure wouldn’t say no. I have now lived from coast to coast. When I was just a lad, I used to spend a lot of my summers on the East Coast. My dad is from New Jersey, and we’d visit relatives most summers, with a final destination often in Cape Cod, Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. My Great Aunt Florence lived in Connecticut, and while I remember visiting her and her sister Helen with regularity, I can’t say I really remembered much of Connecticut besides them and Florence’s rambunctious dog.

(Even as a really little kid I was a total history buff, and I loved that Florence and Helen–who lived deep into their 90s–were the daughters of a Civil War veteran. Their dad, who fought for the Union at Manassas and Gettysburg, was in his forties or fifties when they were born, and their earliest memories were playing Teddy Roosevelt charging San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders. I loved listening to their stories, and they loved having a little kid around who would actually sit and listen to them.)

In all fairness, the last time I was in Connecticut was likely 35 years ago. I really don’t remember it being this hilly…and natural! I lived in Montana for nearly a decade, and it took me years to see as much wildlife as I’ve seen in a week in Connecticut. I swear. Although I haven’t seen them, yet, I’ve heard at least two owls hooting up a magnificent storm over several nights now. There are plenty of deer. My fiancé has seen a fox. We have bats eating all of our bugs at night. A marble salamander lives in our backyard and an American toad lives on our front porch. Little red crabs live not 5 miles from here in the brackish waters of the mouth of the Thames River as it connects to the Atlantic Ocean. And to think I was expecting massive urban sprawl from New York City. I love it.

Best of all, even though it is hot and humid, people understand that wearing masks in public during a pandemic will save lives! The results: yesterday made two days in a row with Connecticut not reporting any Covid-19 deaths. When we drove through Ohio virtually nobody we saw was wearing a mask. Virtually everybody we’ve seen wears a mask in New York, Massachusetts and Connecticut. Aside from grocery runs, we’ve had to quarantine for 14 days, but that’s nothing compared to the lockdown this past spring. We have far too much to do unpacking our lives and the pen business.

Our move was a bit harrowing, especially driving through Tropical Storm Fay. Yet, what really got me was the decline of the classic American motel…and hotels, in general. Pre-Covid I traveled the country to at least 7 different pen shows a year. Plus, I have done a ton of traveling throughout much of my life.

We found this Marble Salamander living in our backyard. I had never seen a real, live wild salamander before. This place is awesome.

As a kid in the 1980s, we traveled every summer by car. We stayed at motels all of the time. Days Inn, Super 8, Holiday Inn, Knights Inn and any number of mom & pop operations were the norm from Midwest to the East Coast to the Deep South to the vast expanse of California. With only one or two exceptions, they were all clean, safe and homey. Yeah, the towels, sheets and blankets were a little scratchy from too much bleach. No, we didn’t have all the space to lay stuff out like at home. BUT, there was no mold, the paint was never peeling from anything, we never worried about bedbugs or cockroaches, everything worked as it should…and if something didn’t, they sent a maintenance man right away to fix it. These establishments were definitely nice enough to want to go out and explore the great American highway, but they were also just different enough that you’d also be super happy to be back home in your own bed by the end of the trip. Even though the value of a dollar was different in the 1980s, you could get a good, respectable room for about $30 a night in 1985…which comes out to about $65 today.

On this specific trip, we couldn’t find a hotel room for less than $100 a night. (Admittedly, we were traveling with a cat, which I never did as a kid.) Yet, every hotel we stayed in was bad to terrible. Apparently, nobody wants to bleach out a hotel bathroom any more. Every single motel had a ton of mold in the bathroom. Even at pen shows in Double Tree and Hilton hotels, which are supposed to be the classy joints, I find mold all around the bathtub…and those places start at charging around $150 a night. On our trip we stayed at mostly name-brand motels. Paint was peeling off the showers and walls. Stains were all over the carpets. One hotel where we ultimately didn’t stay had boogers all over the wall of one bathroom and mud in the bottom of the tub. In the second room they offered us the room had cockroaches. All for the low, low price of $100 a night plus taxes! We had another hotel where the A/C didn’t work.

While I am grateful there were any places open at all during a pandemic…and while I appreciate labor isn’t cheap…a gallon of bleach isn’t going to set anyone back. I’ve cleaned enough bathrooms to know that even just squirting bleach on mold will likely kill it and maybe even remove it without much, if any, scrubbing. I would think that a bucket of paint and a steam-cleaning rug vacuum would be pretty standard motel and hotel items. For $100 to $200 a night, a clean, mold-free room doesn’t seem too much to ask.

When we got to our new house, the old tenants had left behind a glossy travel magazine whose issue was dedicated to hotel glamour. Dawn and I laughed. The magazine spoke so lovingly about the comforts and joys of hotel living, and all we could think of was how the writers and editors clearly haven’t stayed in an average hotel or motel in ages.

How Do I Restore a Conklin Crescent

We are by no means done with the Decameron 2020 Project. However, I felt like getting back to pens for a posting. If you’ve been mostly coming for the storytelling, who knows, maybe you’ll get a kick out of a deeper dive into old fountain pens.

Here is a Conklin Crescent 2NL fountain pen in need of restoration.

Let’s look at one of the oldest “self-filling” fountain pen filling systems. In the earliest days of fillable fountain pens, any pen with a bladder or ink sac was considered self-filling. Before that you had dips and eyedroppers. Conklin invented the crescent filler in 1898. For as cumbersome as it looks, it was an insanely simple design. The pen is hollow like an eyedropper, but there is a rubber ink sac affixed to the nipple of the section. A crescent is fitted to a flat steel bar, and when the safety ring is rotated into the proper position, the crescent can be depressed, flattening the rubber ink sac within. The rubber ink sac wants to re-inflate, which fills the sac with ink and pushes the crescent back out of the barrel. Way less messy than an eyedropper, it was an instant hit. Even the famed American author Mark Twain was hired to be an advertising spokesman for the pen.

Don’t soak a Conklin hard rubber pen for very long, as it will discolor the old hard rubber. Be sure to get the water over the end of the section and on to the barrel threads.

If you already read our “How Do I Re-Sac a Vintage Pen” article, this isn’t very different. However, most of these pens are made from black hard rubber more than 100 years ago, and they are very brittle. You want to make sure you are pretty comfortable with restoring plastic/celluloid pens first. These early Conklins are getting much older and harder to find, and they break much more easily.

As with before, you will need some ink sacs, a pair of spark-plug/section pliers, a long dental pick, sac shellac or rubber cement, scissors that can cut through rubber ink sacs, a jar or cup, clean water, polish, a cloth rag, paper towels, a hairdryer, a razor blade and an ultra-sonic cleaner.

  1. Always start by soaking the nib in room temperature water over the threads of the barrel. Now the trick with old hard rubber is that water discolors it quickly. A shiny black will quickly turn to a chocolate brown haze. Don’t soak it for long, just enough to start to leech out old ink and maybe lubricate the friction fit of the section into the barrel. I certainly wouldn’t soak it for more than an hour. I’d probably soak it for much shorter a time.
  2. Next, remove the nib and section from the water and dry them off.
  3. Warm them up just a little with the hair dryer or heat gun. You only want them to be warm to the touch. Heat will also discolor the hard rubber. Plus, it can melt it.
  4. Scrape the dead ink sac out of the barrel. Be sure to be especially careful shaving the ink sac remains off the section nipple.

    Using your section pliers, gently grip and twist the section counter clockwise in an unscrewing motion. Sometimes it takes nerves of steel, patience and experience to discern the difference between the old ink sac inside the pen cracking and the barrel of the pen cracking. If the barrel cracks, you’ve likely killed the pen and made it nothing more than a parts donor.

  5. Once you get the section to start coming out, gentle, small wiggles can work it out without further stressing it from twisting. Very small wiggles. You can easily break the barrel, especially when the section looks as if it is almost out of the barrel. The more the section wiggles, the more it can act as a lever to crack the barrel. Some people choose the give the nib and section a sonic cleaning and others don’t. The sonic action can destroy the part if there is a crack already starting in it. More than 30 seconds to a minute will start discoloring the rubber. However, I’ve also found that pens this old often are filled with sediment-based inks that need something special like a sonic cleaning to remove the caked-in old ink.
  6. After the section is out, the rest is fairly easy. Scrape out all of the old ink sac from inside the barrel and very gently shave off the remaining sac on the nipple. Your razor can easily cut the nipple or cave in a wall of the nipple. Go super slow and easy with only small motions.
  7. Polishing old hard rubber is difficult. You can wear away a lot of rubber very quickly, ruining imprints and chasing.

    With everything cleaned out and disassembled, that is when I like to polish the pen and parts. You cannot go as rough on century-old hard rubber as you can plastics. I like to use MAAS metal polish on a soft terry cloth rag. Mostly I just give a light going over of the pen and cap with the polish and rag because both strip away the top layers of the rubber and can remove chasing and other imprints. It also removes some of the chocolate hazing. Using a Q-tip, I also polish the nib and crescent.

  8. Reinstall the crescent filler and lock it in place with the safety ring.
  9. Dust the ink sac in talcum power to help preserve it.

    Size and trim an ink sac that isn’t too snug inside the barrel. If you don’t have the crescent filler with the bar reinstalled first, you won’t get the proper fit.

  10. Use orange shellac to attach the sac to the section nipple.
  11. Dust the sac in pure talcum powder
  12. Very gently and slowly reinstall the sac and section into the barrel. This is another high-risk move that can crack the barrel so take it easy. You might even want to warm-up the barrel a bit.

Wait 24 hours for the shellac to dry before filling the pen. Then you are ready to write.

The finished pen should look much cleaner and be ready to write.

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 2

Among my many careers, I was a fencing portrait photographer. The following are photos I used as advertising and pose options. I own the copyright to all of them, so please don’t steal them, without permission.

Latching the floor cord to the D-ring just above Jill’s left hip, Dan took a moment to appreciate that he was standing in her shoes only 20 short years earlier.

When Jill finished plugging in her favorite electric foil that she named Annibelle the Cannibelle, she rushed to get to her en garde line and start the final bout of the women’s national foil tournament.

Seeing her haste, Dan grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to him.

The 18-year-old was bright and smiling from the joy of fencing for the title, but Dan could also see the nervous tension around her eyes. He had butterflies in his stomach, but he didn’t show it.

Placing his hands on her shoulders, he looked deeply into her brown eyes for a second before speaking.

“It feels just like yesterday that I was teaching some skinny little 11-year-old girl how to kick the asses of 2 17-year-old boys twice her size.”

She exhaled a laugh, and the tension left her face. “If they could see me now.”

“They’d shit their pants and be grateful you didn’t kill them.”

She laughed, again.

Now that her nerves were steadied, Dan helped her focus: “Don’t think about the title. Only think about the touch in the moment.”

She nodded.

“How are you going to beat this girl?”

“First, I’m going to figure out how the director calls right-of-way. Then, I’m going to test her distance, comfort zone and weaknesses.”

“Good,” Dan encouraged. “What else?”

“Fence for only 1-light touches. There’s no trusting the call on double-light actions,” Jill replied. “Oh, and listen to her coach give away her strategy.”

“Excellent,” he said. “What do you do if your attacks stop working?”

“Play defense.”

“And if your defense isn’t working?”

“Go on attack.”

“Perfect,” he said. “So, in other words, this is just a normal bout for you.”

She nodded.

“Good. Just keep in mind one more thing. Give yourself a little extra space until you know her reach and abilities. Never hesitate. You have the best instincts in the game. Trust yourself.”

“Got it, Coach.”

“Good. Stay grizzly.”

She gave him a low, menacing growl with a lop-sided grin.

He winked back at her. “You’re ready. Go kick her ass.”

Jill turned on her heel and strode confidently to her en garde line, her sweaty brown pony tail swaying with each step.

He watched her from the coach’s box like a proud father. Jill was not his daughter, but she had become very much like the daughter he never had.

***

Upon winning the silver medal at the national championship, Dan was more determined than ever to take home the gold. He trained like a man possessed. He won countless tournaments and defeated many world-class competitors, but, at the following national foil championship, he failed to make the semi-finals.

And so he would preserver in the years to come. Through bad romances and good, economic boom times and bust, his love of fencing never wavered. Back in college, he assumed adulthood would be glamorous. With a professional career would come professional paychecks that would finally pay for the travel and gear that he could not afford in college.

What he did not count on was that a professional career also required far more time out of his day. The more he succeeded at work, the less time he was able to devote to training. While he remained one of the most gifted naturals in the sport, the general effects of age and the inability to train and travel as much as in college cost him his dream of a national title.

Still devoted to the sport and fly-over country, Dan began helping out more at a local park district club, like where he first learned.

Fencing had changed over the years from a mostly adult sport to a mostly kid sport. On the circuit, 12-year-olds just getting into the sport were practically too old to have a chance. The kids who started at age 8 were nationally rated and winning major circuit events by age 12.

Teaching had moved on from classical fencing where students were taught all of the moves until they learned each to perfection and also taught how to think and react under pressure to teaching kids a few basics and then one or two power moves. The power moves were dominant and won tournaments, but the kids knew nothing else and became proud and arrogant in their ignorance.

Most flicking had been eliminated from the sport by stiffening the foil blades, but directors still based their calls almost entirely on footwork, regardless of the way the rules remained written.

Poor sportsmanship was promoted to appalling levels. Dominate young fencers were encouraged as young as 9 to create their own victory dances and war whoops after every touch scored. The days of fencers winning and losing with stoic grace, dignity and honor were long dead.

As Dan began teaching kids, he taught them the old ways. Realizing 90% of the kids he taught were only interested in living out their pirate and Jedi fantasies, he had fun with them, adding more advanced classes for the kids that actually wanted to learn something and try competition.

Dan didn’t remember meeting Jill. She was just another scrawny 11-year-old who was rather shy and quiet. He never really took notice of her until he noticed two of his nearly grown high school students going way too rough on her in the advanced class.

“What on earth are you guys doing over there?” Dan called out across the gym. He left the two younger kids he was helping.

One of the older boys stammered, “She wanted to fence us. She said for us not to go easy on her.”

Dan looked at him doubtfully and asked the girl.

“It’s true,” she agreed enthusiastically. “I’m tired of beating everybody else in the club. These are the only guys I can’t beat, and I want to learn what they’re doing that I can’t beat.”

“You mean you’re beating all of the other students?” he asked doubtfully.

“Haven’t you noticed?” she asked, hurt in her big, brown eyes.

Dan felt horribly because he hadn’t.

“Aren’t these guys hurting you?” he asked.

“Yeah, but it is the only way to see what they are doing so I can beat them.”

Dan looked at her thoughtfully, as she gazed up earnestly. Dan placed a hand on her shoulder and turned her away from the boys, and they walked a few steps.

Squatting in front of her he whispered, “You can’t beat them fencing them like they fence you. You’re too small.”

“I hate being little,” she said. “I can’t wait to grow up.”

“Are you kidding me?” Dan asked. “Being small and fast are the two best things for a fencer to be.”

“No, they’re not,” she dismissed him.

“Yes, they are. You have no target area to stab when you’re small,” he said. “Put your foil down and go en garde.”

She did, and, crouching down to her level, he went en garde, extended his right arm and index finger, gently poking her leading right shoulder.

“Now, extend your arm and finger.”

She did, poking him in the bicep.

“Who is going to win this fight this way?”

“You are,” she said.

“Now, how are you actually going to beat me?”

Jill thought a second and cautiously bent her arm, parried Dan’s arm—which he kept rigid—, stepped closer to him, resting his straight arm across her belly, extended her arm and finger and poked him in the right shoulder.

“Very good,” he said, genuinely impressed, as he stood back up. “You made yourself safe from the tip of my foil and put yourself in a position to stab me repeatedly with impunity. Go over there and kick those boys’ butts.”

Jill smiled and ran back to her en garde line.

Dan stood in the director’s position and loudly told the boys, “I want you to fence your best against Jill and not give her any easy touches. BUT, you also can’t fence to hurt her. There is no reason at your size and skill level that you can’t beat her without ever letting her get close enough to you that you even accidentally leave a mark.”

One of the boys volunteered to go first. Jill scored the first two touches and was beaming at Dan. She then lost 5-2, when the boy changed tactics. Still, that first boost of confidence was there and Jill dug in. At the end of a month, she was an even match against the older boys. At the end of two months, she dominated the boys, who were now taking special instructions from Dan on how to beat her.

Dan added more classes for the kids who wanted to go even further in competition. Plenty of boys and girls signed up, and the group gelled as a team, working together to always get better.

Over the years, several qualified for the national tournament.

Jill had been qualifying since she was 13. Now, at 18, she had gone as far into the championship as her coach, who was barely competing and mostly focusing on his students.

***

Jill snapped a sharp salute with earnest intensity, as her coach had before her.

When the director said go, both women rushed forward.

Jill’s much taller opponent suddenly dropped down with perfect poise and form, scoring a touch on Jill’s 8, just below her sword-arm elbow.

Jill replayed the move in her head. For as surprising and perfectly executed as the move was, Jill noticed the woman’s hips seemingly unhitch, as if she were double jointed. Then the opponent kicked with her front leg and pushed off her back leg, extending it completely until the contours of her left calf and thigh lay flat on the floor, her left bottom cheek smacked the floor and her right thigh angled up to her knee positioned directly over a shin that was perpendicular to the floor. The competitor’s torso was erect, right arm straight as an iron rod that was holding a 35-inch long foil. This woman gracefully covered 10 feet of ground from her back foot to the tip of her foil.

The entire maneuver didn’t take more than a second to execute. When her back side tapped the floor, it gave her the momentum she needed to pop back up into en garde.

Before the director called the point in her favor, the woman unleashed an ear-shattering, primal shriek of a victory cry.

Jill’s parents looked at Dan from the stands, mortified. Neither they nor most of the audience had ever seen a fencer move like that and sound so intimidating.

Dan nodded reassuringly to them.

“Taylor Swift!” is all he shouted to Jill.

Jill performed a little hand-flicking dance move from the “Shake It Off” video, as she reset herself on the en garde line.

Given how closely they listened to opposing coaches screaming and yelling at their fencers, Dan only spoke in code to his fencers at tournaments. He taught them to think and act for themselves. Jill’s little dance move told him she’d seen the woman’s hips unhitch and that she knew what to do.

When fencing resumed, both women rushed off the line. Two steps in, Jill stopped as the other woman’s hips unhitched. Jill waited for what felt like an eternity, as she let her opponent overcommit to the attack. Once the shrieker’s arm was extended, Jill swept down for an almost clumsy parry 8, riposting for a touch in the middle of the opponent’s chest.

Jill was soundless and expressionless, her actions were more intimidating than any screaming.

Dan clapped three loud, rapid times, indicating nice touch. Get back to work.

Jill’s opponent looked back at her coach a little nervously. Nobody had previously denied her the long-lunge touch in 8. Jill heard him tell her to switch attacks, and she knew what was coming.

When her opponent rushed her, sword windmilling counter clockwise, Jill waited, feigned a parry, retreated a couple steps and picked off the attack with ease, riposting and then parrying one last time to guarantee 1 light.

2-1 Jill.

Clearly, this was the shrieker’s second favorite attack, as she did it again. Jill easily defeated it.

3-1 Jill.

The attack came again, but this time Jill skipped a step in her defense. The opponent landed and shrieked.

3-2.

“Don’t get overconfident,” is all Dan told Jill.

Emboldened, the shrieker renewed her efforts with the same attack. Jill recovered her form and defended it easily.

4-2.

Not willing to believe Jill, of Fly-Over Country, could beat her special moves, the opponent asked the director if she could test her foil on Jill. Both acquiesced, and the equipment worked perfectly.

The opponent’s coach was furious with the shrieker, yelling at her to change the direction of the attacks.

The shrieker tried three more attacks from the opposite direction. Jill was waiting for them, and when the first 3-minute period of play came to an end, she was up 7-2.

Jill swaggered over to her coach for the 1-minute break.

“Stop right there!” he reprimanded, handing her her favorite sports drink. “You’ve got nothing to strut about, yet. Right now her coach is plotting your demise, and she didn’t get this far by giving up. What do you think he’s telling her?”

“Play defense,” Jill said, sobering up.

“Right,” Dan said, softening.

“What should I do?”

“Well, do you want to try winning by risking running the time out or by mopping the floor with her dirty-blonde head?”

“Mopping,” she said, with a grim set to her jawline.

“Give her a dose of her own medicine. Finish her off before this period ends. Don’t give her time to think.”

The director called the end of the break.

Jill took a last swig.

“If you’re in such a hurry, old man, you better start filling that bucket with soap and water,” she called back to him, making her way to her en garde line.

Dan loved her moxie, but he hoped it wasn’t overconfidence.

When he saw Jill blaze across the strip, windmilling and flicking with a hard shot to the stomach, he knew Jill was focused and playing for blood. 8-2.

The next attempt had her opponent ready. Another shriek and it was 8-3.

“You’re a shark,” Dan shouted, letting Jill know she froze her feet at the end of her failed attack. After all, sharks and fencers have one thing in common, when they stop moving, they die.

Re-invigorated by the parry-riposte touch she just earned, Jill’s opponent went back to her own windmill attack. Jill was waiting for it. 9-3.

“Crazy Monkey!” Dan called out.

The Crazy Monkey attack was Jill’s own invention. It took the windmill attacks that were so popular to a whole new level. She could land the tip on all four corners of the body and on the back by windmilling, which all top fencers could do. Her special ability was to keep moving forward and reversing the windmill in a heartbeat while also stutter-stepping to throw off the timing of the attack…or more specifically, throwing off the timing of the defense, allowing Jill enough time to pick where she wanted to most safely land. To make it harder to defend, Jill would also change her height from normal to low to up on her tip toes, never stopping forward progression and losing right-of way. It was extremely difficult to parry, until you got used to it.

Jill’s opponent fought with desperation, hypnotized by Jill’s elusive foil point that connected with her again and again.

It was 12-3 now, and Jill was so locked into the zone, she couldn’t hear the spectators. She could barely hear the director. She couldn’t even hear Dan.

As she began running down her opponent on the next action, she noticed the woman backing up far earlier than previously. That’s when she spotted the woman unhitching her hips.

Although it wasn’t what she planned on in her attack, Jill was so focused, she didn’t hesitate to press on, sweep a parry 8, bind her opponent’s blade and throw the entire weapon out of her opponent’s hand before dropping in to lunge dead center on the shrieker’s sternum.

Jill held her lunge for effect, and her opponent stood dumbfounded.

The crowd roared at the thrill of the site. 13-3.

Jill was so focused, she didn’t hear the crowd. She didn’t hear the director. She stalked back to her en garde line, lost in her own thoughts of strategy.

Dan saw it the instant the foil flew out of the hand of the woman across from him.

Jill didn’t see it until after resetting en garde. As her tall adversary tugged at the body cord by her hip to pull her foil back to her hand, Jill could tell she had broken her opponent’s spirit.

For a true warrior, it is both a beautiful site and a little sad. It is fun to be a lion and take down a wildebeest. Yet, there is little joy in putting down a whimpering wounded animal.

“Stay grizzly,” Dan warned. Jill looked back and growled. All he could see were big white teeth behind her black-mesh mask.

Jill made solid attacks that were responsibly cautious, given that her rival was no longer putting up much of an obvious fight. It was quite anti-climactic.

When the director awarded Jill the 15th touch, Jill trotted back to her line, gave a sincere, crisp salute and walked up to her opponent for a customary handshake and whispered, “Good game.”

To the dismay of the fencing officials, Jill never shouted, danced or screamed. She didn’t need to rub it in, as her opponent wept at the side of the strip.

Wearing the biggest grin he had ever seen, Jill swaggered back to her coach, joy radiating. He offered her his customary high five, and she wrapped him in a bear hug.

He hugged her back, picked her up and swung her around. They were then mobbed by her family and teammates.

After the awards and photos, when things started to calm down, Dan asked to hold her medal.

He looked over the enameled front and read the inscription on the back. It wasn’t real gold, but he stared at it wistfully, as he hefted it.

“Thank you,” Jill said. “I never could have done it without you.”

“Nonsense,” he said, looking up at her with a wan smile. “All I said were silly things like ‘Be a shark,’ and “Taylor Swift.'”

“No,” she softly protested. “You took me all the way to the finish line.”

He shook his head. “I shined a flashlight down the path for you. You did all of the work, and I couldn’t be more proud of you.”

She attempted to say something, but Dan held up his hand to stop her.

“I’ve been chasing this damned thing all my life,” he said, as he gently placed the ribbon back around her neck. “And I have to admit that it makes me ten times happier to see it on you than on me.”

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I also never coached any national champions. The passion, strategy, changes and sensations in this story are all true. Fencing has given me 25 years of joy, which I hope I passed on to my students…and maybe you, with these stories. In the event you want to learn, you are never too old to start. Although I’m taking a break from the sport for a little while, I hope to be fencing into my 70s, like my mentor, the great Jack Warner of Spokane, Wash., not Hollywood. If he is still with us today, he’d be about 95 or so years old. Yet, at age 70, with 50 years of fencing under his belt, he’d mop the floor with us cocky 20-somethings who foolishly believed their youth would destroy his experience and strategy. Special thanks goes out to him, Blue-Hair Cathy, Maria D. and Bakhyt for teaching me so much as a competitor and Tracy for teaching me so much as a coach…and to all the many other wonderful friends, teammates and students along the way. It might not sound possible, but you are all the best.

Decameron 2020: The Fencing Champion—Part 1

This is me on the left with my University of Montana fencing mates after we had just kicked the asses of our arch rivals at Montana State…on their turf.

Snapping a crisp salute by bringing his foil blade parallel to his unmasked face—inches from his nose—Dan’s grey eyes sharply gazed upon his opponent across the strip.

It was the final round of the men’s foil championship, and the winner would earn the national title.

Dan’s opponent returned a half-hearted salute without eye contact. It was dismissive and derisive of not only Dan but the moment.

This wasn’t another bout. This was the culmination of a lifetime of drills, learned strategy, conditioning, tournaments and the climax of a day of the most intense swordfighting against the best fencers in the country.

Both men were in peak condition and bone weary. Tired as he might be, Dan was elated to be 15 touches away from the national title. It was his life’s dream and sole desire since he started fencing in high school. He couldn’t wait to cram that weak salute down his opponent’s throat.

The director of the bout called the fencers to “en garde” and began the first of 3, 3-minute periods to 15 touches.

Only a junior in college, Dan understood he was fencing two opponents simultaneously: the man with the foil across from him and the bout director serving as referee.

Although the governing body of the sport in the U.S. rarely admitted it, Dan understood that no two directors interpreted the rulebook the same way, nor did they usually call the rules as they were written. As he hadn’t seen this director all day, Dan decided to take the first couple touches to learn his director’s style of rule interpretation.

His opponent obliged in the most comically sloppy way—a blazing running attack, his arm raised and cocked so far back that the electronic tip on the foil aimed at the wall behind the running fencer, 180-degrees in the opposite direction of Dan.

Dan held his ground and extended his sword arm at the center of his opponent’s exposed chest. The opponent impaled himself, and then flicked his own foil over Dan’s shoulder, landing a touch perfectly at the center of Dan’s back, which was a valid target.

20 years later, some of us UM fencers reunited for an evening of laughs and impalements.

Both men’s scoring lights and buzzers went off, registering valid touches. It was up to the director to decide.

Any spectator could see that in a real duel Dan would have run through his opponent’s heart, without so much as a scratch of damage to himself.

Yet, this was the 1990s, and even though the rulebook still declared the all-important rule of right-of-way as the first person to extend his or her weapon arm and threaten his or her opponent’s valid target area would have right-of-way and win the point if both fencers scored valid touches at the same time, the director ruled in favor of the now-smug opponent. Dan knew from experience that it was because the other fencer moved his feet first, even though he withdrew not only his arm but his entire foil behind his head. It was a flashier move, and after the 1980s, style always trumped substance.

A purist devotee of the sport, Dan hated the ruling, but he smiled because it only cost him one touch to learn how the rest of the bout needed to be fought.

His rival attacked three more times the same way. Three more times, Dan extended…BUT…at the last possible instant retreated 2 quick little steps, raised his arm and sword into a high tierce parry, dropping his foil back down, ever so gently tapping the electronic button on the tip of his foil into his opponent’s chest in riposte. In the psychological warfare of the moment, Dan said a cheery little “Bink” with each tap, fearlessly antagonizing his opponent.

Stripped of his primary attack, the flick artist wisely held back when fencing resumed. His goal was to draw Dan out to play offense and see if he could handle reverse roles.

With the 3-1 lead in his favor, Dan could afford to run down the clock, but that was hardly honorable, nor the way he wanted to win. The only way to have satisfaction would be a 15-point victory or go down trying.

Dan was a classically trained fencer, and he preferred outwitting his opponents and dominating conversations of blades instead of all-or-nothing power attacks. His first attack was really a cagey defensive maneuver testing both his opponent and his director.

Dan rushed his opponent with perfect footwork and a simple lunge that he knew his opponent could easily defend. Although he triggered the flicker’s defenses, Dan deliberately fell 1 inch short. This allowed Dan to witness his rival’s reaction time and motions, while giving Dan all the time he needed to retreat gracefully out of the way and counterparry-riposte for the point. As an afterthought, Dan’s opponent reached out and tagged Dan without any right-of-way in a move called a remise.

Two valid hit lights went off, and the director called the point for Dan’s opponent without any hesitation.

Disappointed, Dan wasn’t surprised. He knew he had the fastest, tightest parry-riposte reflex in the country and quite possibly the world. This was far from the first director to miss it.

Okay, Dan thought, I’ll just need to make my actions cleaner to the director with a little more style and panache.

Across the strip, Dan heard a little “Bink” in rebuke.

Surprising his opponent, Dan reacted with a deep and genuine laugh that forced him to cock his head back like a defiant Errol Flynn.

Game on, he thought.

In the resumption of play, Dan repeated every move perfectly—only this time holding his opponent’s blade in a slightly prolonged proof of parry before riposting.

Again, the director called the point in favor of the opponent’s remise.

One more time Dan executed to perfection, only parrying his opponent’s blade to the floor where Dan trapped it, made eye contact with the director and then riposted his opponent.

Again, the director credited his opponent’s remise. 3-4 in favor of the opponent.

Dan inhaled sharply and let it out slowly, as he walked back to his en garde line. With another deep breath, he collected himself. There was no such thing as an instant replay in fencing then and he thought to himself, Not at this level.

Then he rationalized, Especially at this level, you idiot.

Dan came to the sport of fencing only a few years earlier. Attending a local park district class in high school and then an extracurricular group at his university, Dan was from what the governing body of the sport and the elites from New York and California callously dismissed as fly-over country.

There were no former Olympians watching over his young career. He was a natural, and he loved the sport. He had an insatiable hunger to prove himself to be the best. His friends would never have considered him an athlete. He was a slow runner and didn’t like team sports. In school, he was a brain. He loved academics.

It was his brain that loved the sport so much, as it was a sport where the physically strongest fencer rarely won. The smartest fencer usually did.

He only enjoyed the conditioning and drills because they allowed his body to do whatever his brain commanded. Unlike so many fencers, he studied the sport inside and out from its history to obsessing over each opponent’s every move and nuance, memorizing them for each future tournament. His memory was deep and agile enough to recall the most minute details about an action and reaction on the strip. If he lost a bout, he always asked his opponents what they did to beat him. Some people might have thought him arrogant, but he wasn’t. He was a sponge constantly learning and very accepting of his own weaknesses, as only they showed him how much more he had to learn and perfect.

In college, the upperclassmen soon taught him everything they knew. He returned the favor by analyzing the team’s performance and creating new drills based on the moves their opponents beat them with. Everybody contributed equally as best they could, and they had the time of their lives together, traveling and competing, working as hard as they could to get better. Dan was so obsessed with the sport he began examining all of his classes for better ways to understand fencing through the lenses of psychology, philosophy, literature, science and more.

Dan improved so quickly that he came to love losing, as it meant there was more to be learned and do better against. The only thing he really hated was losing to bad officiating.

Nevertheless, to prove himself as good as he wanted, he refused to lay all the blame for an “officiating loss” on the director. If he truly wanted to be as good as he could be, that meant he couldn’t give them an excuse to deny his greatness.

With the bout now 4 to 3 against him, Dan realized that this director was never going to award any double-lighted actions in his favor, no matter how well he executed his maneuvers. There was an unspoken bias for fencers from elite academies over nobodies out of nowhere. Only making the task at hand more challenging, and, ultimately, more rewarding, Dan bore down with gritty determination. From this moment forward, he could only engage with actions that guaranteed a one-light resolution in his favor.

His opponent might have been a dismissive snob from an elite New York fencing academy, but Dan had to credit the man with being an amazingly talented competitor.

Together over the next three periods of fencing, they darted, lunged and entwined like rattlesnakes fighting over a mate, immune to one another’s venom.

Dan didn’t win a single point on a parry-riposte exchange that ended with two lights, but he listened to his opponent’s coach’s instructions. More than half the time, the coach gave away his student’s next move, setting up Dan for an easy touch.

As they made their way to a 14-14 tie, Dan discovered his rival’s greatest weakness. He had trouble defending a quadrant of his body fencers refer to as the 8—the rib cage just under this right-handed fencer’s sword-hand elbow.

Dan scored two touches there before realizing what an Achille’s heel it was. He refused to exploit the weakness immediately because he needed an ace to fall back on if he found himself in this very situation.

Chests heaving, their lungs incapable of sucking enough oxygen, uniforms sopped in sweat and muscles fading, both men had reach absolute exhaustion with one touch to go.

Dan gave a little hop at his en garde line, trying to psyche his opponent into thinking he had more energy than he did.

The director gave the command to fight.

Dan fleetly covered the ground between them, measured clockwise circles of his blade timed to his footfalls.

Feigning high toward his opponent’s left shoulder, Dan drew the parry response he wanted. Dan then cut down to the open space below his opponent’s elbow and lunged. His opponent knew Dan had him and freaked out, starting a late counter attack with no right of way. Dan timed his move so well that when his tip hit his opponent’s ribs, it would time out the scoring equipment.

Euphoria flooded Dan’s body for a nano-beat of a time, as he realized he was about to become the national champion.

It seemed like a lifetime of waiting for the point to strike home, and then he recognized his incomplete muscle control from exhaustion.

Dan’s tip was skewing wide. Trying desperately to redirect it into his opponent’s torso, Dan couldn’t override the momentum of his attack.

Time slowed in his whirring head, as his foil missed by less than an inch and his opponent’s act of desperation landed on his uniform.

To the world outside Dan’s mind, it all happened in the blink of an eye.

Dan’s opponent drown out the director’s final call by screaming, fist pumping and dancing about his half of the strip in the worst display of sportsmanship Dan had ever seen…though the governing body of the sport encouraged, as it looked more exciting to the cameras not yet covering the sport.

Determined to lose with as much grace and dignity as he intended to win, Dan blocked out his emotions, returned to his en garde line, removed his safety mask and snapped a crisp salute—his foil inches from his nose—and held it until his opponent finally made eye contact.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Many of you know I was actively involved in the sport of fencing for 25 years. While the truths of the sport are valid in this story, this story was in no way autobiographical. I was never close to a national title. The best I ever did was 25th out of 200 at the 2001 U.S. Nationals in Div. 3 Men’s Foil. I lost to an elite NYC fencer, and he was actually the nicest guy I met all day, and he went on to take the title. That isn’t to say there aren’t a lot of elite fencers with attitude problems. A future (now former) olympian once brazenly mocked one of my students and cruelly rubbed in her 15 to 1 victory, even though my student was never going to be a threat to her under any circumstances. To my former student’s credit, she cheered on said olympian at the following summer games.

Decameron 2020: Love Against the Odds

“Oh my God, Ray,” said Valentine, sliding into his side of their usual booth with a tumbler of craft bourbon. “I just had the worst date of my life.”

Ray cooly swirled his bourbon around an impossibly oversized single ice cube.

“Worse than the blind date your boss set you up on with a high school student who had never been on a date and showed up with her mom?” Ray asked.

“Technically, she had just graduated,” Val corrected. “But, yes, even worse than that horror show.”

“This ought to be good,” Ray sipped. “Who was it with?”

“Remember that teacher we met at Josh’s New Year’s party? Lexi, his sister?”

Ray laughed, “Yeah. The party that ended when it turned into a drunken vomitorium.”

“That’s the one. But, if you will recall, you, me and Lexi were the only ones who didn’t spew.”

“Yeah,” Ray agreed. “But, I thought you said she could be the one.”

“I did,” said Val, exasperated. “She’s pretty, outgoing, smart, helps people, loves movies and literature. Nobody reads any more, but we spent hours talking and texting about not just books but the classics from the 20th century back to ancient Greece.”

“She sounds perfect for you, so far,” Ray said. “What happened?”

“Well, I set up a nice dinner on the town for our first real date. I put on a jacket and tie. The works. Then, just as I’m walking out the door, she texts that she is at some party her brother is hosting at a sushi place and wants me to meet her there.

“I can’t stand sushi, but I want to look spontaneous and fun. ‘Sure,’ I say.” Val took a sip before continuing. “I stroll into the place like I own it, and a party of two dozen people start cheering me on and welcoming me to the party with handshakes, hugs and encouragements like ‘Go get her, Tiger,’ ‘She really likes you’ and ‘Great to finally meet you.’

“At the end of the gauntlet sits Lexi, red-faced but beaming.”

Ray shrugs, “Aside from the venue-change ambush, not hideous, yet.”

“Hang in there,” Val reassures. “I sit down, and, before I can order a drink, Josh is like, ‘Hey, we should go dancing.’

“You know I’ve got some moves, so I’m down and we all pile into a bunch of cabs. I’m with Lexi, some blonde chick and her boyfriend. Lexi and the blonde are smashed out of their minds and giggling at total nonsense. Me, the driver and the boyfriend are just hopin’ the girls don’t puke before we get to the club.

“Once there, some 60-something-year-old guy with our group gets us all in for free, which is great because the cover was insane, like 50-bucks a head. The inside of the joint is more like a movie night club than a real-life-people-spillin’-drinks-all-over-the-dance-floor night club. It’s clean, swank and chill.

“Before you know it, Lexi’s got me on the floor, and she’s ridin’ my thigh like a derby horse and rubbin’ her breasts on me like she’s trying to set my shirt on fire. Then comes some deep French kissing, and I’m thinking this has to be the best first date ever.”

Ray’s smiling. “That’s what I’m thinking. So, what’s your problem?”

“Well,” Val explains. “The music stops and she whispers, ‘Hey, that guy who got us in looks a little lonely. Mind if I have a dance with him to thank him for getting us in, and then we can get outta here.’

“She gave me a naughty grin, and I said sure with a naughty grin of my own.

“I head for the bar and order a double to catch up a little to her. When I get back to the edge of the dance floor, she starts mackin’ on the old guy.”

“Uh-oh,” Ray interjects.

“Yeah,” spit Val, incredulously. “The dude I rode over with in the cab with the girlfriend is the old guy’s nephew. He looks nervously at me and starts trying to peel Lexi off his uncle.

“Before you know it, Lexi is all over the nephew, and he clearly is not into it as he looks back and forth between me and his girlfriend.”

“Why aren’t you doing anything, man?” Ray asks.

“By now it is like a train wreck, where I can’t stop staring. So then the nephew’s blonde girlfriend intervenes. She and Lexi start dancing like girls sometimes do to ward off unwanted guys…and then they start makin’ out like some kind of porn movie. Deep kissing and aggressively groping each other.

“The nephew and I exchange befuddled what-the-fuck glances, and Josh walks up with his girlfriend and absolute astonishment on their faces.

“Josh says, ‘Oh my God, Val. I have never seen my sister like this before. I swear she talked about nothing but you all dinner.’ His girlfriend agreed with a stutter, ‘It’s true. I’ll, I’ll dance with you if you want.’ But mostly the four of us just stood there staring in disbelief.”

Ray interrupted, “I don’t know, man. Sounds like a lot of fun to me. I can see you going with a nymphomaniac.”

“I wouldn’t mind a nympho,” Val explained, “as long as she was exclusive. Remember, I went into this thing thinking she’d be my future wife and soul mate, not the main attraction at the Playboy mansion. Anyhow, there’s more.”

“There’s more?” Ray asked, signally to the waitress for another round.

“Lexi and the blonde walk over, and Lexi grabs me by the belt and takes me to a table. I knock what’s left of my double back as she catches her breath. ‘I guess nobody puts Baby in a corner,’ I said, regaining my senses, and she laughs. ‘You’re the coolest guy ever,’ she said. ‘Get our coats and take me home.’

“I get our coats, with every intention of pouring her into a cab and sending her home alone. I don’t have a big enough medicine cabinet to cure all that she might be carrying.

“When I get back, our group has put a bunch of tables into an oval for everyone to sit around. It is dark in the club, and I don’t see Lexi at first. Her brother–a dude–holds my hand and asks that I be a gentleman. I promise, he lets go and I spot Lexi with the blonde at the other end of the oval. As I get closer, it is obvious they are Frenching. Standing next to them, I see the blonde has her hand up my date’s sweater, fondling Lexi’s left breast.

“Lexi opens her eyes in near ecstasy and just whispers, ‘Ice.’

“Yes, she’s getting an ice-cube nipple massage in front of a table of 24-people and whoever else is in the club.”

“Holy shit,” says Ray, snorting out a laugh. “Happy wife, happy life. What did you do next?”

“I was kinda still letting it all soak in, when Lexi grabbed my tie, pulls me down, Frenches me and purrs, ‘I hope that wasn’t too weird for you.’

“‘Nah,’ I said. ‘Happens to me all the time. Here’s your coat. I’m outta here.'”

“You didn’t,” Ray cackled. “You coulda had the freakiest sex of your life that night.”

“I didn’t want the freakiest sex of my life,” Val said, still injured from the experience. “I wanted this to be true love. I was in wife-hunting mode not porn-star hunting mode. I was really pissed and hurt.”

“Man,” Ray explained. “That’s your problem. You’re always looking for true love and a wife.”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Nothing, but you’re looking for perfection, a fantasy—not a real woman.”

“I am not,” Val protested. “I have tons of quirks, and I want a quirky woman who matches my quirks while being perfectly funny, charming, brilliant, hard-working, carefree and witty.”

“Right,” said Ray. “You want a character in a movie—someone played by Meg Ryan, Reese Witherspoon or Drew Barrymore—not even the real women who play those characters—you just want the characters.”

“Hey, if somebody can write and portray those types of characters, there has to be some basis in reality for them,” Val countered.

“No there doesn’t,” Ray disagreed. “Only Germans go to movies to see hard, cold reality. Most people want to escape. They want fantasy. Those romantic comedies are huge hits because they are about what we all want to experience and believe.”

Val gave Ray a dubious look, so Ray pressed ahead.

“Did you ever study psychology in college, Val?”

“No. Not really.”

“It was my major,” Ray explained. “The number one thing it taught me is that we’re all crazy. Crazy isn’t a girl thing. It isn’t a guy thing. Everyone is bat-shit crazy. I kinda like the term, fith. Fucked In The Head.”

“No we’re not,” Val blew Ray off.

“Seriously,” Ray said. “Who knows? Lexi and that blonde probably think that you’re off your rocker. Why? Because you are crazy. I’m crazy. Everyone in this bar is crazy in some way or another.”

Val looked around the intimate setting of the trendy, urban bourbon distillery and shook his head. “The only insane person here is you.”

“Emotionally disturbed would be the more politically correct phrase to use, but to counter your point: No. We all are.”

“How?” Val asked.

Ray finished his drink and ordered another round, thinking about his answer. After a minute, he asked, “Let’s say you can magically find true love in this bar tonight. Okay?”

Val shrugged. “Sure. I’ll play along.”

“Okay,” Ray said. “Let’s calculate the odds. First, it should be noted that this a not a well-represented selection of the American public at large. While it is close to a 50/50 split of men and women, they range from their late twenties to early forties, appear single and affluent enough to blow $15 per rocks glass on hand-crafted bourbon in a major American metropolis.”

“That’s a fair assessment,” Val agreed.

“How many people do you think are in here?” Ray asked.

“Maybe around 100.”

“Perfect,” Ray said. “Now, can I assume you’re still straight?”

“Be my guest,” Val invited.

“Great. Let’s get started,” Ray began, while scanning the room. “Right away we can eliminate 50 people from this room as mates because you don’t want to sleep with a dude. But, the odds are that roughly 10% of people are gay. That eliminates 5 women who would never want to sleep with you.”

“My gaydar isn’t perfect,” Val confessed, surveying the bar, “But, you haven’t lost me, yet.”

“Did you know that reports show and predict between 25% and 75% of women and 10% to 50% of men will experience sexual abuse in their lifetimes. That alone will mess with anybody’s mind, but that doesn’t even begin to factor in other forms of abuse and issues with somebody’s parental upbringing, religion, peer-to-peer problems and simple biochemistry. That doesn’t mean that anybody who experiences any of these problems can’t love, enjoy sex or be the perfect lover for you or me—or we them. BUT, most people aren’t going to be the problem-free people we see portrayed on screen in rom-coms.”

“Really? That many people are abused?” Val asked, squinting to see if he could identify the people in the crowd who might be victims.

“Sadly, yes, the numbers are high, but it isn’t as if everyone is going to wear a badge proclaiming what happened to them.”

“Huh,” was all Val said, letting the information sink in.

“Of course,” Ray said, with a dark little laugh. “The statistics get pretty outrageous when you do the math.”

“What do you mean?”

Ray took a deep breath and wound himself up.

“I love stats, and, well, I’m kinda obsessed. In fact, did you know that about 1 in 100 people have obsessive-compulsive disorder, 2.5% have Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, 2% are bipolar, nearly 10% are dealing with some other clinical form of depression, up to 2% have separation anxiety, up to 1% have selective mutism where they won’t talk under various circumstances, up to 9% have a specific phobia like spiders or heights, 7% have social anxiety disorder—they likely self-selected out of this sample set, up to 3% of people have random panic attacks, nearly 3% have general anxiety disorder, 1.7% agorophobic—again, self-selecting out of this bar, 9% have post-traumatic stress disorder and up to another 20% are dealing with a milder form of PTSD, 1.5% have multiple personalities, nearly 2% of people have some sort of amnesia, up to 7% are hypocondriacs, roughly 3% of people have eating disorders, up to 10% have insomnia and 1% are hypersomnolent, 3.6% sleepwalk, up to 15% have sleep apnea, oh, this one’s fun…1% of American adults pee on themselves at least 3 times a week when there is nothing wrong with their urinary tracks…like bedwetting or even peeing on themselves in the middle of the day.”

Ray took a breath before rattling off more. “3% are oppositional defiant, up to 7% have clinically significant anger issues, 1% are pyromaniacs, 4% have addicitions—again, we might have a skewed sample set here, up to 4% are paranoid, roughly 13% have anti-social issues, up to 6% are narcissists, up to another 6% are impulsive and unstable to the point they can’t maintain a consistent, meaningful long-term relationship of any kind, up to 30% of men are frotteuristic, up to 30% of people get off on sexual sadism and it is estimated that up to 33% of Americans have at least one sexually transmitted disease.”

Ray took a drink. “And don’t get me started on diseases. Did you know that 10% of Americans have toenail fungus, 10% diabetes, up to 15% irritable bowel syndrome and 23% arthritis. I’ve also read that 7% of Americans don’t bathe, 6% can’t ride a bike, 33% of adults sleep with a comfort object like a Teddy bear or security blanket, 15% honestly believe that the world will end during their lifetime, 45% believe ghosts and demons are real, 25% still think the sun goes around the earth and, for Christ’s sake, 2% of Americans really think Sen. Mitt Romney’s real first name is Mittens!

“Do you know how many percents of America all of that adds up to?” Ray asked, cooling down and taking another sip of bourbon for effect.

“A lot of percent,” Val said, still trying to catch up.

“That’s 443.3%,” Ray stated.

“How’s that even possible?” Val asked. “I thought you can only have 100% of anything.”

“There are more problems and diagnoses than people,” Ray explained. “Maybe that blonde over there is a sexual sadist with irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia and explosive anger issues. Perhaps that redhead is a hypochondriac who is terrified of bunny rabbits and sets fires while losing control of her bladder. Maybe that brunette is a depressed alcoholic who will fight you for the next 4 hours, insisting that Mitt Romney is really Mittens Romney, not Willard.”

Val laughed.

“Okay, Ray. What’s the point? True love doesn’t exist?”

“That’s not the point,” Ray replied. “While I admit Lexi probably isn’t the right girl for you, you’ve got to stop looking for perfection and accept that everybody if fith in one way or another. Look for the crazy that matches your crazy, and you might find some lasting happiness.”

Author’s Note: The statistics cited in this story come from the American Psychiatric Association, Centers for Disease Control, National Institute of Health and other reputable sources. Also, if Val’s dates sound too unrealistic, although the names and places have changed, those really were dates I went on. No other details were changed. Thank goodness I’ve finally met a woman as charmingly crazy as myself to marry.

The Decameron 2020 Project

Even under the age of 10, I was one morbid kid with a dark sense of humor that would have suited me to be leading member of the Addams family. Among my youthful obsessions was the Bubonic Plague that wiped out a third of Europe in the middle of the 14th century. It terrified and fascinated me. I comforted myself as a kid that a pandemic like that could never happen in my lifetime. It has been about 100 years since the Spanish Flu pandemic and modern medicine and sanitation have come so far. Oops. How wrong I was.

Since when did a respiratory disease need this much toilet paper? People be crazy, but you can help keep your sanity by following our project called “The Decameron 2020.”

As yet, Coronavirus is no Black Death, but it doesn’t look pleasant, either. The 24/7 coverage of the disease sure isn’t setting many of our minds at ease.

To alleviate our stress and worries, I want to completely take my mind (and hopefully yours) off the dreadful subject.

To do that I want to turn back to the Black Plague for guidance. More specifically, I want to rekindle the memory of a brilliant Italian author named Giovanni Boccaccio. Not only did he survive the Black Death, he wrote one of the most modern, journalistic narratives of it to survive. He included it at the start of his famous book, “The Decameron.”

After the first 80 pages of the book describe the lead-up, duration and aftermath of the plague, he wrote the European equivalent of “101 Arabian Nights.” The remainder of his hefty tome is the story of 10 young nobles (7 women and 3 men) in Italy who decide to survive the plague by sequestering themselves together, feasting at their various estates for 10 days while telling each other stories. Every single day, each person had to tell one story. 10 stories a day for 10 days.

I finally read the complete “Decameron” in my 30s and was stunned by its humor, honesty and humanity. So much classic literature from that era feels stilted and formal but not Boccaccio. While I only found about 15 of the 100 stories to be profoundly entertaining, I was amazed how dirty and hilarious some of those stories were. (The book was mostly completed by the end of the Black Death in 1352, but Boccaccio’s revisions of 1370-71 are what got saved and handed down.) Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen would have actually been a huge hit in the late 14th century, just as they were in the beginning of the 21st century.

I spent my early years yearning to be a professional writer. I earned my master’s in journalism and worked in newspapers. I wrote a novel that got published and 2 that didn’t. I’ve been missing my storytelling ways for the past couple years. And, well…

I want to flex my storytelling muscles, once again. As we ride out our sequestrations and quarantines, I hope to entertain you with some brand new short stories. I also hope to entertain you with some short stories from my talented friends and parents—both of whom made their livings as professional writers.

With luck, my project will take your mind off your worries for a few minutes and make these days a little brighter.

As I’m no Boccaccio, I won’t be able to come up with 10 stories a day or even 1 story a day, but I hope to keep these Drippy Musing updating on a somewhat regular basis with fiction and fun for everyone. Pen news and research will continue once the crisis has abated.

In the meantime, check in regularly, be safe and stay well.

Arkansas Pen Show Cheats Covid-19

Have you ever lived through a hurricane? I was visiting my grandmother in Cocoa Beach, Florida, in 1995 when Hurricane Erin struck. It was a minor, catagory 1 hurricane, but it was impressive for this Midwestern boy to witness and experience.

Whereas hurricanes strike a much smaller location than a global pandemic, hurricanes were all I could think of as I drove from Wausau, Wis., to Little Rock, Ark., and back.

Keeping busy with friends at the Arkansas Pen Show in 2020. It was a great show in spite of the pending pandemic.

There was a nervous tension and anxiousness in the air. Everybody knew what was coming, but nobody knew exactly what, where or how. Panic buying. Cautious interactions between strangers bracing for the worst and some remarkably kind and gracious interactions between others. And, yet, a hollow sense of dread and waiting persisted in the quiet moments or as people listened to or watched broadcasts of the latest news.

The pending pandemic of coronavirus felt a lot like waiting for Hurricane Erin to strike that coastal community 25 years ago.

And like before, during and after that hurricane, the folks at the Arkansas Pen Show rallied for one heck of an experience. Tim Joiner and the other folks who helped at the Arkansas Pen Club kept a steady hand on the tiller for a smooth operating show that was a lot of fun. The vendors and attendees pushed past their concerns about the pending pandemic to enjoy the passion for pens that brings us together through thick and thin.

Lisa and Mike Vanness, of Vanness Pen Shop, hosted an incredible after-party Friday. Taking much stricter health precautions into account, they still delivered great food and drink for a genuinely joyous evening dedicated to pens and, especially, ink.

Good friends from as far as San Francisco, Houston and Memphis stopped by to say hello and/or share a drink.

Little Rock, itself, was greening up beautifully. The temperature upon arrival was 70-degrees Fahrenheit. The grass was green. Flowers were blooming, and trees were blossoming. After a cold winter with up to 5-feet of snow on the ground, Little Rock was enchanting.

As Covid-19 now sweeps the country, it looks as if the Arkansas Pen Show might very well be the final pen show of the season. While we hate to see the other shows go dark for the year, we appreciate the courage of the show owners for making the wise decision to keep their vendors and patrons safe, and we can’t wait to return when the disease has run its course. In the meantime, I want to thank every single person who made the Arkansas Pen Show such a fun show to slip in ahead of the pandemic.

Arkansas Pen Show or Bust!

Honestly, I haven’t even caught my breath from the Baltimore Pen Show, and now I’m heading out the door to attend the Arkansas Pen Show in Little Rock! Wowzers!

If you are anywhere within a few hundred miles of Little Rock this weekend (March 13 – 15), you have got to come out and see the Arkansas Pen Show. It is the biggest little pen show in the world! It is

A.) Hyperfriendly
B.) Very Well Organized
C.) Loaded with Amazing Vintage & Modern Writing Instruments & Ephemera
D.) Chocolate Bacon! Vanness Pens, who is the most famous ink seller online, hosts an after-hours party in its shop every year, and they always have a healthy supply of chocolate-dipped bacon. If you have never had such a delicacy, I can understand if you are skeptical. But, once you’ve had one bite, you will be addicted and a choco-bacon believer.
E.) Springtime! Every year I attend, flowers are blooming in Little Rock. Greenery is coming back to life. If you’re tired of winter, get your frozen butt down here to enjoy a little of what us northerners won’t see for another month or two.

As for pens, we’ve reloaded with dozens of new pens not yet available online. From vintage third-tier pens to Sheaffer TouchDowns and Snorkels to Parker Vacumatics to preowned luxury Waterman and Yard O Led, we’ve got tons to please pen lovers in the western portion of the American South.

I told you. I haven’t had a chance to catch my breath since the Baltimore Show. And Baltimore put on a fine pen show, indeed. This was my first year in attendance, and I was amazed by the organization, friendliness and crowds. Bert Oser and his crew put on a delightful event that was great for shaking off the winter rust as pen show season springs back to life.

Customers I’ve known for years but have never met in person came to say hi. We met a lot of new-to-us pen lovers. And it was great seeing so many younger, newer-to-collecting pen enthusiasts at the show. It was a blast introducing people to vintage pens, while learning about the tastes of more seasoned veterans in the world of pens.

Thanks to all those who made Baltimore so special, and I can’t wait to see y’all in Little Rock!

Baltimore Pen Show, Here We Come!

For the last several years, we have heard about the splendor of the Baltimore Pen Show. This is what we’ve heard: It is well organized by our buddy Bert Oser. It is a premier place to buy and sell premier luxury pens. It is well advertised to the public, and it is becoming the premier pen show in the country.

This year, we are going to experience it for ourselves to see if it is all true. We have spent the past month restoring dozens of vintage pens and prepping never-before-seen-on-our-site luxury pens.

PLUS, for showgoers, we have dropped some of our prices to clear out some of our luxury inventory.

On a personal level, this is my first trip to Baltimore. I bemoan the fact the Orioles aren’t yet playing, as I’d love to see a game at Camden Yards, but I hope to have some fun exploring the waterfront and old Fort McHenry, home of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” if there’s time.

And, of course, the very best part will be getting to hang out with old friends at a new location, while also making new friends at a show I’ve never seen before. Please be sure to come check it out and say, “Hi.”