Wednesday, July 29, 2009
Kung Fu Surgeon
Somewhere in my home is a letter I received from a Shaolin priest, one of five (so I was told) 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 honcho. With its beautiful calligraphy and that timeless seal, I've thought of having it framed.
The temple is in another country. The master came to me, 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, he taught only a select few, and demonstrated his skills only in private. The referring person, who had been a student of kung fu (but not of the master), described to me the man's ability to toss a group of attackers like fish, and other unearthly wonders. The priest was in his seventies.
I'm not sure what I expected. An aura? Rays of light? Surely, 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 admit I let myself imagine special things.
He arrived in my office dressed like a Florida retiree. Looking age-appropriately fit, but neither athletic nor powerful, he was of no more than medium stature. Less surprised than embarrassed for my silliness, I immediately discarded my dream and proceeded into my usual doctor/patient partnership, treated him like everyone else, operated in due course, saw to his recovery, and he returned to his homeland.
The letter, which compared my art and skill favorably to his, arrived with a package. Really, the elegance of the letter was more than enough. Once again, I entertained a brief fantasy of what might be in the box.
It was a Mont Blanc fountain pen.
I'm not sure I'd heard of them before that. Very expensive, for a pen. 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 you need to push hard enough for several copies. Nor was I interested in lugging around 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 so, along with its exotic ink bottle. Then I wrote a book, got it published, gave a few readings, did some book signings. Wow, it eventually occurred to me. It's karma, or whatever Shaolin priest kung fu masters believe in. He forsaw it, it was perfect, meaning revealed. I took it to the next signing. With its elegant gold nib, its meaty heft, its characteristic emblem, the soft lines of ink it imparted to the page, perfect for a signature and a few well-chosen words. The mark of a writer of distinction.
After reading from and commenting on the book (I will humbly say my readings were always a hit: I'm enough of a ham to enjoy it and get plenty of laughs -- the first time I did one, it was at a fairly fancy book fair in Portland, called "Wordstock." My reading, in a small room, was at the same time as Gore Vidal's, in a much larger one. "This is my first reading of my first book," I told the audience. "So I'm really looking forward to hearing what I have to say.") I sat at a table and proceeded to sign books for people, bringing out the newly-glorious pen, studiously acting as if it were as normal as breathing.
It leaked all over my hands, and wildly smudged the first book I signed.