Finding balance in the second half of life

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Fountain Pen Fetish

In Fulfillment on April 5, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I have been on a bender, a toot. I’ve been carousing stationers online and off, and have returned, a bit drunken and debauched to write about it. My newest fetish — fountain pens. I am so in love, in fact, and so thoroughly, that I feel the need to proselytize, with all the obnoxious energy of a new convert.

Let’s see if I can even be convincing, because, of course, there are very good reasons fountain pens fell out of fashion when new pen inventions came along. Inky fingers. Fussiness. Fountain pens require bathing and feeding. We have long lost the talent for encouraging our writing tools to work. But the reward, I have found, completely overshadows the effort. Writing with a fountain pen is a wholly separate writing experience.

Sometimes progress isn’t.

With the rise of the easy-to-use, easy-t0-care-for ballpoint pen, and then the disposable ballpoint, we have come to think of writing utensils as trash almost as soon as we pick them up. In the States alone, nearly 6 billion pens go into landfills every year. Plastics and metals alltogether in unrecoverable comingling. That number is a rough estimate that doesn’t even factor in the 2 billion pens that are even now clogging up the drawers in your kitchen.

Writing with ballpoints requires pressure and a firm grip. It might seem like a very little bit of pressure, and slight grip, but this static use of your muscles over long periods of time, hurts. If you are arthritic, that pressure is impossible to sustain for more than a signature here or there.

Fountain pens flow. They are all about achieving and controling the flow of ink as it meets paper. The experience of having and using them becomes something of a game. Something to think about. Lots of people simply won’t want to spend time thinking about their tools. Pencil users, for instance, claim to be avoiding the whole question.


New fountain pen users are very much on the scene. These are people who are come to these pens in droves through the art-journal craze, and the moleskine craze, and through cartooning, and because their favorite writer uses one.

How are they finding their way? Well, even as we in the Americas turned our backs on the old fountain pen, round about around the middle of the last century, our European and Asian family did not. They have continued to use them, to invent and reinvent them. In the United States, where I live, there is a healthy and entirely entertaining fountain pen holdout community participating in the worldwide Fountain Pen discussion where enthusiasts, and craftpersons and mad scientists keep the flame from guttering out completely in this part of the world.

My own path began with an illness that makes it hard for me to stare for too long at a computer screen. I am learning to write again with ink and paper, and when that happens, my ink (Noodlers Beaver) and paper (Miquelrius Graph notebook) and pen (Lamy — so far almost any Lamy) became very important. Procrastinating, the boon and bane of any writer, is easy to rationalize when you are procrastinating in search of the perfect points of what Fountain Pen people call The Trifecta of fountain pen happiness:

The Pen.

The Ink.

The Paper.

Change out any one of these elements, and the writing experience changes utterly. So you can see, can’t you, how finding your own Trifecta can take time, experimentation, consideration, and can be affected by purpose and mood, and change by season, or moon phase, or whim. Every fountain pen person you meet has her own preferences for pen smoothness or scratch, for paper silkiness or tooth, for ink characteristics too many to finish a nice parallel construction here.

Your Pen(s).

When you decide to dip into this well, you soon find tribes of users. Pen tribes take many forms. There are the gold-nib people and the steel-nib people. The vintage flex people and the Waterman-only-please-even-if-it-writes-like-a-toenail people. You can find incredibly inexpensive pens from China that work quite well straight out of the box for less than $10US, and a following for these instruments. You can find people who will happily pay thousands for pens that have to be babied and fussed over to deliver a single reliable line, but are limited-edition collectors’ items. Happy collectors abound.

Are you an obsessive hunter of a line so fine you’d use a single-bristle brush to get it? Look to Japan, where you will be ceaselessly reminded, when you fall for these pens, that a single Kanji character can take as many as 20 pen strokes to render. Of course they know how to make a fine-fine, so-fine fountain pen nib, and the ink to deliver it.

No? You like  a line that is indelibly present, would take 200 generations to fade out, and can be got entirely fuss-free? The Germans still hand fountain pens to their children, and have engineered them into child-proof ease of use.

But just let’s say you have pulled out Granddad’s set. Have cleaned and inked every pen you can find, and can’t find a pen body (the look, the weight, the grip) that makes you perfectly happy, or if you did find the perfect pen body, you hated the line and feel of its nib.

Enter the nib-meister. These folks are the farriers of this world, replacing nibs, mending feed systems, rebuilding or refurbishing your vintage and new pens, or maybe grinding your boring old medium nib into flights of italic fancy, or left-handed friendliness or…. Well it’s kind of between you and your nib-meister, really. Think of these pen groomers as a cross between a priest and a valet for pen nuts. They come to understand you and your needs and preferences, and help to keep you and your instruments working and happy.

Your Ink.

When you do find your pen, you have to feed it.

Cartridges of ink make ink changes painless, and are always a great way to begin your fountain pen life. Cartridges allow you to adopt a fountain pen without getting fussy about inks by taking the ink manufactured for the pen and providing a mess-free method for refill.

Cartridges are, however, an expensive way to buy ink. Particularly if you write a great deal. But pens that take cartridges almost always also take converters. These are cartridges fitted with a piston mechanism for filling and refilling a pen without disposing of cartridges.

There are pens designed without cartridges, made to be filled from ink bottles. These might have bladders or barrels that are squeezed or levered for refilling. And there is a craze these days for hacking pens with o-rings and tweezers and patience, so you can fill the entire pen body with ink, using an eyedropper.

When you fall in love with inks other than those made by your pen company, consider yourself lost in this world. Ink is the wine of fountain pen existence: the choices endless, the qualities vary by the batch, the presentations often precious, the prices wildly differing. And as with wine, the price is not a reliable sign of quality. You have ink that shades, as my Noodlers Beaver does, and ink that lays down a serious, dead-weight color. (J. Herbin Perle Noir is just perfect for charts, graphs, nihilists, and industrial and graphic designers ever in search of a blacker black.) There are scented inks and inks for people who live in sub-freezing climates and want to use their pens in that fishing shanty/writing sheds. There are inks only visible under black light, and inks that won’t smudge on thermal paper or plastic. There are inks for glass and dry-erase boards. Recipes for making your own inks from iron gall and pokeberry abound.

Many ink collectors are in it not so much for performance characteristics as for the vast and rich colors offered. Fountain pen inks come in in many shades, and some are designed especially so that you can mix your own shades. The ink boards wax rhapsodic about these colors which stand on paper in vivid and moving tonalities that cannot be duplicated by any other substance.

The most important newbie lesson is that art inks — india inks, carbon inks, and dip-pen/calligraphy inks — are dangerous for your fountain pen. These inks have ingredients or additives that can corrode at worst, irretrievably clog at best, a fountain pen. A few nano-carbon inks have been developed that give artists the pigment-based inks they want for fountain pen use. But their performance has been uneven inside pens. People who want to use them for artwork do best to use inexpensive fountain pens with these inks, or pens with nibs that can be replaced without too much expense.  I use my Lamy Safari pen with Platinum Carbon ink for sketching that may receive water color later on. The Lamy nibs can be replaced easily without any expertise required, and the pen is light and groovy. Really a great first pen for anyone.

A single bottle of ink can feed even a prolific writer’s pen for years. Finding your preferred ink would be a wasteful act if it weren’t for ink vendors like the Goulet Pen Company and Pear Tree Pens. The Goulets themselves are great representatives of the fountain pen resurgence, offering a humongous selection of inks, very reasonably priced pens, sumptuous papers, and all the instruction a new pen user could use in media newly minted people love.

They have worked hard to develop color swatches of inks, and sell 2ml vials for sampling, enough ink to write dozens of journal pages, certainly enough to know how you feel about it before springing for an entire bottle, which will last… a long time. How long depends on your writing and drawing life.

Your Paper.

Your ballpoint ink, and much of your disposable-pen ink, congeals on top of most paper. That’s what it was engineered to do. The ballpont pen is built to lay down one amount of ink in a consistent line, and that ink to dry quickly in place without moving about at all.

Fountain pens work just a little differently, and very differently from one another, putting down ink in different ways depending on your nib’s design, your ink, the pressure you use when you write, your handwriting style, the weather, the altitude.  Some pen-and-ink combinations are very wet, putting down a thick line. And some run dry, scratching quill-like along the page. These nuances can be enhanced or arrested by the nature of the paper you choose to use.

Paper, the third point of the trifecta, is easily as complicated as the first two. Maybe moreso, because paper changes with occasion. Your journal is not your stationery is not your school essay is not your quarterly report or legal brief or thank you note or baby announcement.

Papers you like for all of these purposes can be inexpensive, absorbent, pulpy, or they can be highly bleached, or made of recycled fabrics or plastics. Some papers don’t play nicely with some inks, causing the ink to feather, and fray, or take too, too long to dry. Paper can be sized to deliver silk-smooth surface that holds ink above its surface, making it easier to use both sides of the paper, or made without additives to absorb inks and watercolors deep into its fabric.  Paper can be pressed to provide the tooth and consistency of old linen, or include the pulp or elements or petals or seeds of the plants used in its making. And, of course, papers may serve archival purposes, specially formulated without the acid content that will eat paper alive over time.

Your life, your work, your job, your influence on society large or small, your need to be remembered for all eternity, your concern about the resources that go into your paper, so many decisions feed your choice of paper that may go well beyond trend or fashion.

I have not scratched the surface. I work in a design firm that regularly works with paper people. A really informed paper person makes a great advisor if you have particular paper needs. My own need for paper is actually kind of basic. I need a good writing paper in book form, and that book of paper needs to play nicely with the pens and inks I use to write for long, long stretches.

Highly-sized, graph-paper journals work for all of my projects — drawing, writing, and knitting. I have found three favorites that vary a lot by cost and performance, but all of them work with all of my pens. My best writing friend is the Miquelrius Graph Paper Leather-Look notebook, which I find easily at my local B&N, where I wait to buy a bunch using a sale coupon, then plant them in my lovely Oberon cover. Faithful, cheap, chubby, a skillion pages sewn together so they can flatten reasonably. But also, huge, unwieldy. Exacompta and Rhodia are the more sophisticated and expensive cousins. But I think too much of them to just write or draw willy nilly in their pages. These kinds of distinctions matter. If you have paid more for any of your tools than your budget really allows, you might not use them, and what good is that?

The Trifecta at work.

So. Trifecta in place after a long lot of research, I was writing again, long-hand, after spending the past 35 or so years at a keyboard. What a strange experience that is all by itself. Trying to do that with any old pen soon crippled my hand, which is almost useless toward the end of the day even without speeding along the pain with the wrong tools.

But with the right tools? Bliss.

In this moment, a Lamy Nexx M loaded with Noodlers Beaver, looping shades of cedar bark along the smooth graph pages. A fountain pen requires absolutely no pressure. You learn to write all over again, the way you learn to draw, using fluid movements that might emanate from your shoulder or elbow rather than your fingers or wrist. The writing seems to flow not from your hand or arm at all but straight from your mind to the ink as it lays itself down without any effort at all.

And that’s the attraction for so many writers. Despite all the attention you put into it, the fountain pen has a way of disappearing under your hand, allowing you to write without fatigue, for hours and hours.

It’s an added bonus that the result is often quite beautiful, offering a kind of presence that no amount of typing can really give you.

You can see, can’t you, that these writing instruments present the possibility of several kinds of obsession, if not addiction. And while the first hit is not free, it can be very, very cheap. Are you convinced to consider the possibility of such a device in your life? If so, I commend to you the Lamy Safari. For very little investment, it will give you a terrific first pen that could easily be the only pen you ever need.

Yeah, right.

Raising a Glass of Tea to the Women of Iran

In Community on March 8, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Today is International Women’s Day. And today I’m thinking about the women of Iran, and women all over the world, who are protesting peacefully in the streets, taking great risks to stand up for equal rights for themselves, their daughters, their mothers.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Iranian women these past few months since I began auditing a course in graphic novel writing at our nearby college. In the course we are exploring long-form storytelling in sequential art forms, and of course reading great graphic novels as we go. This has me rereading Marjane Satrapi’s amazing novels: Persepolis, Persepolis 2, Embroideries, Chicken with Plums.

My mind is reeling with memories of my own college years, which coincided with the events in her first book — Satrapi is 10 years my junior (just a kid, really.) And also, my work includes writing about the sexuality of midlife women, and so Embroideries has long been on my radar. It’s a wonderful revelation of woman-talk around the Samovar. What happens when the men leave the room and the subject turns to sex. Of course sexual politics in Iran are intense and unsettling in ways that are different from the intense and unsettling sexual politics of the Midwest United States. But it’s easy to feel kinship and recognize sisters and mothers and daughters across miles and cultures.

And the samovar is an important character in this book. The tea is a character. I had a bunch of folks over the other day and, inspired by Satrapi’s Embroideries, I decided to make what my mother called “Persian-style” tea. What she meant by that was simply that you brew up a super-intense tea-brew, and then mix it with hot water throughout the day to make stronger or weaker tea as you or your visitors wish. This was a trick she picked up as a girl in Istanbul, where tea was made, as it is still made in many areas of Iran and in Russia, in a Samovar.

A Samovar is essentially a big water boiler with a spigot. There is generally room at the top to hold a teapotful of intense tea, keeping it warm. And tea from a samovar would be made just this way, a bit of the super-dark tea poured into a tea-glass, hot water added to reach the preferred consistency for the drinker, and then sugar lumps or honey or milk or cream offered, along with, of course, tea treats. The tea itself was the hostesses’s performance. She might have her secret recipe, her tea may be wonderful or awful. Reputations made and dashed on her ability to carry off a good cup.

Samovars themselves can be quite ornate, quite beautiful, a small fortune in silver or brass, or rather simple, homely, tin devices. They generally carry a central chamber where fuel, which might be charcoal, burns to keep the water around that chamber, hot. Nowadays they are, of course, powered by electricity or gas or have a chamber for a concentrated fuel. I approximate the samovar with a Zojirushi hot water pot and a teapot I keep warm on the stove.

Because of the way the tea is brewed, the flavors are really very different. For some reason the resulting tea is more smooth. That’s the best way I can explain it. Smoother tea. A friend describes it as a deeper flavor. Smooth and deep. That seems right.

Now the recipes for samovar-style tea can be as varied as for any steep. One of my favorites is just black tea with rose petals. Another favorite, which I’m sipping as I write, is Moroccan style — green tea (I use a Sencha) with peppermint. And then you can have a blast trying all sorts of chemistry experiments in the chai-style teas by boiling spices in your water before adding tea, to make a rich, spicy tea-brew. And there is no reason to flavor your tea at all. Especially if it’s a really great tea. You can pre-sweeten your tea mix with sugar or honey, but I leave it unsweetened, adding stevia drops to my tea to sweeten any of them, but especially the chai, whose spices will be very shy without sweetness to bring them out on the tongue.

Brewing tea in this way can be a great deal more convenient if you’re apt to drink a lot of tea throughout the day at home or at the office. Brewing your tea just once in the morning and then mixing spoonfuls of your tea brew with hot water throughout the day, or making iced tea by mixing the brew with cold water, is just a very fast and efficient way to make great tea quickly.

The tea brew, absent a samovar, can sit in a teapot on the warm top of my stove while serving friends, or I might mix it up in the morning and put it in a small pitcher in the fridge, where I can pour off a few ounces at a time throughout the day, to mix with hot or cold water, depending on how I want to consume or serve tea in the moment. I usually toss the morning’s brew at the end of the day, because I was told once by a Japanese friend that next-day tea is very bad for you. She told me this with such conviction that I shook in my boots and developed a kind of phobia about it.

So. If you’d like to try this, here are a few quick starter-recipies. Keep in mind that you should feel very free to adjust and experiment to find a tea-brew style that suits your tastes. These suit mine. If you don’t like my tea, feel free to whisper behind my back about it. Heh. Or better yet, write in the comments, because I am neither Persian nor Moroccan, and suffer no pretense that I’ve got it remotely right. I live to learn.

Right. Start with a good loose-leaf tea. We have some local spice merchants who sell nice ones. I like Mighty Leaf right now, and use their Ceylon and Sencha for these recipes. I start by waking the tea up by rinsing the leaves in a covered teacup. You can do this with a cup and small saucer, but the best tool I have found is a gaiwan, which is a simple Chinese tool for brewing tea. I place about 8-9 teaspoons of tea leaves in the gaiwan, fill it with hot water, and after just a few seconds, pour off that water. I have awakened the leaves and also washed away a bunch of caffeine.

Then I fill an 8-cup stainless pot with 5-6 cups of water. If I’m going to make chai-style tea, I place the spices in the cold water, and bring the water to boil, letting the water boil for a full five minutes with the spices before adding the tea. Longer is fine. I tend to lose patience. If I’m not going to spice the tea, I simply bring the water up to a boil for black tea, up to steaming for green tea (never to boiling for green tea), then place the tea and flavoring herbs or flowers into the pot, reduce the heat under the pot to its  very lowest setting, and let the tea sit to steep/cook for 5 full minutes for black tea, 3 minutes for green.

Then I pour this very dense, dark tea through a tea strainer into the holding pot. And that’s about it. When I want to pour a cup of tea to drink, I pour about a quarter of the cup full of tea brew, three quarters with hot water (or make it as strong as you like it), add stevia to sweeten, milk if I’m in the mood, and… delicious!

Moroccan style: 8 rounded tsp. Sencha, 4 rounded T. Dried peppermint.

Rose Ceylon: 8 rounded tsp. Ceylon, 3 rounded T. Dried rose petals (culinary grade) (Lavender is lovely too.)

Chai style: 8 rounded tsp. Darjeeling or Ceylon. In the water: 3 cloves, 3 Cardamon pods, crushed, half a stick of cinnamon crushed, a pinch of fennel seed, a pinch of cumin, 3 black peppercorns, and a T. of grated fresh ginger.  Instead of adding any water to a chai mix, you could add warm milk, or heat the chai mix with the milk together in a microwave.

There. Experiment with it. Invite a bunch of women over. Talk about sex. And when you have your tea in hand, I hope you will raise a cup to the women all over the world who have risked their lives to stand up for their rights today.

I Love My Shirt

In Survival on December 27, 2010 at 11:50 pm

“I love my shirt. I love my shirt. My shirt is so comfortably lovely.”

So goes the old song . But Donovan is not the reason I rock my Brooks Brothers’ forward-point collar, pinpoint cotton, white, dress shirts. He can’t decode my reasons for wearing them nearly every day, nearly everywhere.

My 10 white shirts are going through the laundry now, part of a cycle that begins with me quickly sweeping up the shirts where they have landed in laundry room, bedroom, closet, gym, and bath, mixing up the bluing agent I use in lieu of bleach. These suckers cost me around $75 a pop when I can get them on sale, and I do everything I can to keep them in circulation. So bluing and washing. But they will air-dry on plastic hangers, and serve me for years before I buy the next batch, the brand, model, and size all saved on a list of my sartorial standards and shopping links (I buy all my clothes online), which I keep in an EverNote file for safe keeping.

Hanging next to my 10 laundered shirts are my black pants, made by a designer who understands how to drape a normal female body (Here’s looking at you Eileen Fisher. Please don’t abandon us.). My underthings, too, are uniform. And my shoes.

Socks and sweaters, I mostly make.

I wear a uniform, and have done so for years and years. There was a time when this uniform was just for home use. After-work clothes. Weekend wear. But as connectedness chafed, breached, and finally erased the lines of demarcation between my professional and personal life, the idea of maintaining separate wardrobes — particularly when one of those wardrobes was unwieldy, uncomfortable, complicated, time-consuming and expensive — became silly. Just…. silly.

But I have many other reasons for choosing to wear a uniform. I present them here not to try to convert readers to a uniformed existence, but really to make a public explanation, in hope that it may find its way to the people who, I know, are annoyed by my choice. A sartorial apologia, if not an apology.

Buying Time. We are born with one commodity whose measure we can’t take — Time. Time. Time. We know only that we don’t have enough of it. We can increase the time we have to do the things we love by decreasing the time we spend doing things we don’t, or by eliminating unnecessary spinning. We can trade time, but can’t buy more. So, let’s say I spend 15 minutes a day deciding, finding (which belt, which socks, which hose, which bra, which bodyshaper for what shape, which accessories and outerwear), assembling, and donning a single outfit. (And we know it can often take a great deal longer, if you add hand-washing and ironing, and the once- or twice-a-month melt-down into abject despair +/- closet rage.) That tiny amount of time, a radically low estimate, still adds up to about 6 16-hour days every year of my life. Add to that the hours spent shopping for clothes, online, in boutiques and malls, which I will make out to be a conservative 16 hours a month. Now we’re up to 18 full days a year I could be spending re-reading Middlemarch or knitting something lovely while listening to Orlando. Again. This is a good trade. I don’t like managing clothes or shopping for them. At all. Many women do, but I have never been one of them. Not when I was 12. And not now.

Psychological Cost. Especially not now. I am not fit. But even at my most fit, my body was never fashionable. Would have been, in 15th Century Italy. I could have owned that century. But I have a normal female 50-year-old body. I’ve earned my lumps and my droops, and no one designs clothes for me. Or not clothes I would wear. The less time I spend in badly lit dressing rooms trying on clothes that underscore how my body doesn’t fit society’s expectations, the better. By never, ever, going into those stores, or giving that industry my money, I avoid massive psychological costs. I am a happier person. I buy a little smugness. I wear a Cheshire Cat’s grin. Ha. Beat that bad thing. Ground it to dust. Poof! By not paying attention to fashion, it simply disappears.

Waste. I’m not a frugal person. Not by a long shot. I wear Brooks Brothers’ shirts and Eileen Fisher slacks. My shoes, uniform Danskos for half the year, Uggs for Michigan’s other half, are not cheap. I buy expensive wool to knit sweaters whose cost, if we used my hourly earnings as a measure, would stretch into the thousands. But. The Danskos I wear today I bought 4 years ago. The Uggs date from some time before they were fashionable. (I don’t wear them with mini-skirts.) Well-made sweaters last for decades. My shirts go for 6 years if I’m careful. When fashion’s profiles change by the season, not the year, and certainly not the half-decade, the closet turnover of the fashion-forward woman makes me glad only a very tiny minority of us can fit into or afford fashion-forward clothes. Kudos to folks who offer their clothes to resale shops, of course. Fashion trickles down, I realize. But the longer I wear my clothes, the less they cost me and everybody else. I believe. Does that make sense? I think it does. It’s my blog post, so it does. But go ahead and comment to tell me why I’m crazy. I’m ready to hear about it.

Formative Influence. Here, I could cite history. I was raised in the U.S. Navy. (I say in the service rather than by a serviceman, because I completely believe that military kids and spouses serve their country alongside the troop member. Don’t try to argue that one with me. I served for 21 years. I don’t happen to have any medals to show for it.)

Or I might trot out my Roman Catholicism, except that I never attended a Catholic school. I just admired those uniforms from afar. My lust for Tartan plaid was hotter than a Japanese businessman’s.

But the biggest influence on me came through my first boss. His name was Tom Symons. He was a Northern Michigan Renaissance Man on the order of the original Abercrombie. (What’s become of Abercrombie and Fitch must bother old Tom’s mind as he ties and casts dry flies on some trout stream in the great beyond.) He seemed to channel Teddy Roosevelt and the Buddha and Jackie Gleason all at the same time. He was big and moustached and booming and tough and soft and formidable. I was a bit in love with him. And he wore a uniform. Everything came in the mail from Abercrombie’s Manhattan shop. Khaki pants, blue oxford-cloth, button-down shirts. White socks. Jack Parcels, I think? (Ed: Alert pals have noted my misspelling Purcells. And also noted my addition of a pair of tangarine-colored Vans this summer. Correct, both of you. I have many weaknesses… Otoh, the Vans might become uniform.) Or something very like them. Something warmer in the winter, but I don’t recall. He sent his clothes to the cleaner. My job included taking them in and collecting them. He had sets of maybe 40. That meant 40 long-sleeve shirts, 40 short-sleeve. 40 winter-weight khakis, and 40 summer-weight. The number allowed him to think about laundry just once a month. He’d worn this uniform for so long, no one could remember when he settled on it. We all believed he married his wife in his uniform, though I never had evidence of it. He was the one who taught me that if you find the right clothes once, you really don’t have to repeat the exercise. Why would you do the same thing over and over and over? When you could be catching fish? Or panning for gold? Or camp-hopping in Alaska?

In my work, I found more people who wore and wear uniforms: Ray Eames. Dean Kamen. Steve Jobs. All interesting people so wrapped up in doing what they love they simply couldn’t be bothered to spend time on garment management. I realize I am not a genius, nor contributing in huge ways to the advancement of our civilization. But I’ll take my inspiration from people like these any day.

Irony. I know it’s a cheap form of humor, and a bad basis for inspiration, but I have just discovered that the very people responsible for fashion madness and impossible-for-me couture choose simple uniforms for themselves. The tastemakers. The standard setters. (Blink, blink.) The audacity.

Slipstream. I wake thinking about my day, and my thoughts travel with me, uninterrupted as I fall into my shirt, my slacks, maybe a sweater. I have coffee in hand in minutes, dressed, and ready for my day.

Having decided the outfit is appropriate for everything from washing the dog to meeting with clients has made it so. I work in a creative field, and am expected to have my quirks. In five years since taking my uniform to work, exactly one client has noted my choice. I was a little disappointed to discover that people really didn’t notice at all, unless they were family or close friends. I hoped to have this conversation with someone, much sooner than this. But the truth is, most people pay more attention to what they are wearing — and whether it’s appropriate, fitting, tucked correctly, accessorized appropriately, or not — and not to what you are wearing. My clothes are not nearly as interesting as the reason my clients want to meet with me — which is them and their business, driving their success. And that’s as it should be.

I love my shirt. It really is comfortably lovely. It’s not so much the brand as the artifact of a man’s pinpoint cotton dress shirt. It’s a nearly perfect garment for a busy human. I look nothing like Diane Keaton, but the Annie Hall essence lives in the man’s dress shirt, at least in my head. The softness of the sheets you didn’t want to leave this morning. The endlessly useful breast pocket. I don’t know how other knitters knit without one. I do love the deep red Helvetica laundry tag on the shirt-tail. Unlike 90 percent of the blouses made for women, the buttons stay on for the entire life of the shirt. With laundering, the collar curls in what my mother would call a go-to-hell sort of way. That’s as far as I can rhapsodize. It’s a shirt. A reliable, comfortable shirt. But it has come to stand for independence, freedom from fashion and trend, from wishing for a different body, and a zen-y freedom from want and lust for every new hemline and ruffle. Or maybe it’s become a kind of armor, protecting my soft insides from cultural bullies.

Now, if only I could find a really reliable pair of underwear…. Write if you can recommend anything.

–Julie Ridl