Wednesday, December 21, 2011

There's Something Special About Ink on Paper

What follows is a rerun of an earlier blog. I thought I'd dust if off after receiving a thank you note in the mail from the Southwest Louisiana Pulpwood Queens Book Club. Because there is nothing quite as special as ink on paper...I'll rerun this blog in honor of the Pulpwood Queens.

I wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season.


It's 1995 and I am working as a financial analyst in the strategy and marketing division of a major greeting card company. When people first hear that I work for this company, they smile and say, “Oh, are you a writer?” I shake my head. “No, an accountant.” And their smile instantly fades.

I am corporate, which is to say I wear a suit to work every day. I wear a silk blouse, gold earrings the size of half dollars (because it is the 1990s) and pantyhose. The corporate men wear the comparable uniform—blue suit, red tie, starched cotton shirt. We represent the business cogs—accounting, purchasing, sales, inventory control, the jobs that are no fun at cocktail parties. And then there are the artists and writers and the sculptures who design the Christmas ornaments. They wear jeans, even those with holes in the knees, let their sideburns grow long and wear sneakers. They go on retreats to country estates where they find inspiration. We corporate types find our inspiration from inside a 6X8 cubicle where we drink vending-machine coffee.

Occasionally, these two worlds meet so that the artist and writers can present their upcoming product lines. Sitting in the back of the room during one of these meetings, I watch as various designs of gift wrap are displayed. The artists are excited about a brown and gold fish design. I think it’s rather unattractive, but I’m an accountant, and my opinion doesn’t matter. Instead, I concern myself with brand equity and product placement, branding and breakeven points. As the artists begin a parade of the latest greeting card designs, I wonder about the cost of the flocking, flitter and gold embossing on the front of the cards. Each process will drive up production costs and down profit margins. One of the cards that is held up with pride pictures a tiny yellow bird nestled in a patch of long, green grass. The women in the audience smile and a few oooos and ahhhhhs leak out. The copy inside the card reads….You’re One Cute Chick. A few chuckles and on to the next card.

The products are beautiful, creative, born from the very best artists and writers in the industry. They are the company’s best hope of fighting a trend we all fear is coming. More and more people are beginning to use email, and even a few are starting to send their thank you and birthday greetings via internet cards. Cell phones are more common. One day, they might be small enough to carry in our pockets. People seem busier, more haggard. They don’t take time to write anymore. Some don’t even bother sending anniversary cards or thank you notes. Units are falling. Costs are rising. Not a good trend.

After the gift wrap and greeting cards have been presented, the merchandisers show-off a new plan for product display that is sure to entice our customers back to the card aisle. Next, we see the expertly coordinated party goods line, but is it enough to draw our customers out of Wal Mart and back to the card shops? We accountants think about our forecasts and our profit and loss statements and we consider what these lovely products might mean to our shareholders’ equity. We are sad to think that greeting cards might go the way of typewriters and record players.

As the meeting draws to an end, one of the blue-suited accountants sitting in the back of the room raises his hand. “Can you go back to the card with the bird on the front?” he says. He is a tall, handsome fellow, broad through the shoulders, sharp square jaw, clear blue eyes. I can say these things because he is my husband. The artists and writers fish around for the card, and one of them lifts it proudly. He shows us the art work and then reads it to us like a teacher reading to his class. The handsome fellow grew up on a farm in western Kansas. He knows about birds. “That’s a baby duck on the front of your card. Not a baby chicken,” the handsome fellow says. The smiles fade, replaced by pinched brows. “It’s a cute duckling,” he says. “Not a cute chick.”

It’s many years later, and I haven’t worked for that company since shortly after the chicken and duck debacle. I’m the writer now, no longer the accountant. Sometimes I even wear jeans with holes in the keens. I suppose the greeting card industry has continued to suffer as E-vites and E-cards are now commonplace. But over the last several months, I have found myself in the position of thanking a good many people as my novel has worked its way through the publication process. These are important thank yous, ones that I know I can’t properly express, but I do know they belong on a heavy-stock greeting card or crisp sheet of stationery—handwritten, signed and addressed. A lithographer does not design an email, a text has no flocking and a facebook posting will never have a handcrafted beveled edge.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Nurse

It's the middle of the afternoon. I pick up a text. It's The Nurse asking if I have time for coffee. Since 7:30a.m., I have sat at my desk, accompanied only by multicolored post-it notes, timelines scribbled out on a whiteboard and a 1958 Sears catalog. I could use some fresh air and human contact. Writing is a lonely business.

I meet The Nurse at Panera. It's Monday, the day she works as school nurse for her kids' school, so she wears royal blue scrubs and gray Nike tennis shoes. Before leaving the house, I managed a shower and to change out of my yoga pants into a pair of Levi’s. We order coffee, and I get a shortbread cookie. Nothing sweet for The Nurse. Behind us, a heavy wooden door opens and in walks a woman with her daughter. The girl is five, maybe six, and wears a green short-sleeved polo and a khaki skort. It's her school uniform, the same uniform The Nurse's children wear. The same uniform my children wear. The girl tugs on her mother's wrist, waves at her to bend down and whispers something in her ear. The Nurse waves at the girl and gives her a wink. The girl first dips her chin and then smiles up at her mother. Her cheeks take on a red glow. The girl is blushing at the sight of a celebrity.

Literature, film, television and history have all given us famous nurses. Ken Kesey created the memorable and enduring Nurse Mildred Ratched in his ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO'S NEST, and we have Hemingway's Catherine Barkley. There is Major Houlihan, all those nurses from ER, and Gaylor Focker, the male nurse brought to life by Ben Stiller. There are also, and most importantly, real life nurses to consider-Florence Nightingale, Helen Fairchild, Margaret Sanger, Clara Barton and Walt Whitman, who was a volunteer nurse. Each of these nurses rises out of different setting and a different point-of-view. Perhaps we meet him or her on a battleground, at a wounded soldier's bedside, visiting the suburbs, working the overnight shift in the emergency room or ruling McMurphy's ward in an Oregon psychiatric hospital. We know these nurses by what we are told. We know them because of what we have read, what we have seen on the big screen or the little screen, what the history books have reported. We know them because someone with a point-of-view--a patient, an inmate, a soldier, an author, a historian--has told us.

The little girl still holds her mother's hand. The Nurse gives a second wave as we pass by with our coffee and my cookie. The little girl knows The Nurse is the one who can best wrap an icepack in a white towel before pressing it to a tiny forehead that aches. The little girl knows The Nurse can swap out a green polo that smells like puke for one that is fresh, clean and just the right size. The Nurse is the one who talks in a quiet, sweet voice even when blood drips from a banged-up knee or a finger bends the wrong way after a fall from the swings. The Nurse knows when to call Mom and when the stomach ache will feel better after a few minutes spent laying on a cot. The little girl smiles again and says to her mother, "That's the school nurse." A celebrity to be sure.