Tomorrow's newspaper column, today. A happy break from Trump and Trumpisim, by way of my Surgeonsblog.
Somewhere in my home is a letter I received from a Shaolin priest, at the time one of five (so I was told) highest grand masters of the martial art of kung fu on the planet. The letter is embossed with the gold seal of the temple of which he was the head (if that’s the word). With its beautiful calligraphy and that timeless seal, I should have had it framed. Sadly, at the moment it’s missing in inaction.
The master came to me from another country, that I -- and only I -- might operate upon him. (To put it a little more dramatically than circumstances might warrant.) According to the man who sent him to me, he taught very few select pupils, and demonstrated his skills only in private. The referring person, a student of kung fu (but not of the master), had had the opportunity to witness the man's ability to toss a group of attackers like Pike Place fish, and other unearthly wonders. The priest was in his sixties, as I recall.
I'm not sure what I expected. A spectral aura? Levitation? A shimmering cone of calm? Surely, though, were I to give satisfactory care, I'd be granted some sort of special status, maybe presented with a holy relic, invited to the temple for a secret ceremony rooted in ages past. I let myself imagine wondrous things. Truths revealed. Powers conferred.
He arrived in my office dressed like a Florida retiree. Age-appropriately fit, but appearing neither athletic nor powerful, he was of unimposing stature. Less surprised than embarrassed for my silliness, I put aside my fantasies and proceeded into my usual doctor/patient partnership, treated him like everyone else, operated in due course and saw to his recovery, after which he returned to his homeland.
The letter, which lavishly compared my commitment and work to that of great artists, was accompanied by a package. The elegance (and flattery) of the letter was more than enough; but, once again, I unloosed my imagination, now at what might be in the box, which I opened with partially contained expectation.
It was a Montblanc fountain pen.
I'd not heard of them. Very expensive for a pen, I discovered, and quite beautiful. A nice gesture, no doubt, but of not much use to me. A little too showy, it was also impossible to use for writing orders at the hospital, because (before computerized records) I needed to push hard enough for several copies. Nor was I interested in lugging a bottle of ink on rounds. I confess to being disappointed. It seemed so impractical, so materialistic, so... unlike a Shaolin priest. Not that I had any information other than a TV show.
In its elegant box, the pen sat on my bedside table for a decade or more, alongside its exotic and suggestively erotic ink bottle. Then I wrote a book, found an actual publisher, gave some readings, did book signings. And it occurred to me: it was karma, or whatever kung fu masters believe in. He foresaw this moment, it was perfect, meaning and purpose of the gift revealed.
I took it to my first reading. With its elegant, filigreed gold nib, its meaty heft, its unmistakable emblem, the silky lines of ink it imparted to the page, it’d be perfect for a signature and a few well-chosen words. Testimony to a writer of distinction.
On stage, I read choice bits and answered questions. Humbly, I say my readings were mutual fun. I'm enough of a ham to enjoy it and get plenty of laughs. That first one was at “Wordstock,” a book fair of some renown in Portland. My presentation, in a small side room, was at the same time as Gore Vidal's, in an appropriately huge one. “This is my first reading of my first book," I told the audience, "So I'm looking forward to hearing what I have to say."
When I finished, by then an old pro, sitting at a table stacked with books ready to be signed and inscribed for purchasers, I took up that auriferous pen as if having it were normal as breathing.
It leaked all over my hands. The first book I signed was so smudged I had to throw it away.[Image source]