Monday, May 07, 2007

Obsessions: The Bag Lady, The Pen Freak, and The Bone Collector

If you’re wondering what to get me for Mother’s Day, I could use a bag. Not to worry, I’m not talking about one of those obese leather designer bags, or the tiny jeweled ones shaped like animals that ring up at $3,000. I’m talking backpack or messenger bag – tops sixty bucks.

Wait. Perhaps I should be clearer. I don’t really need a bag; I already have more than a dozen. And that’s not counting the handful I’ve already bequeathed to others or sold on e-Bay. It’s more like I can’t stop myself from acquiring more and more and more -- trying to find the perfect bag. That one bag, with the ideal dimensions, correct number of compartments, durable material, nifty design. It’s an obsession.

But I’m not the only one with an odd compulsion. Husband and wife contributors, Kevin Davis and Martie Sanders, let us in on their strange collections, too. Kevin is a Chicago-based journalist and author whose book, “Defending the Damned: Inside Chicago's Cook County Public Defender's Office,” was released from Atria Books in April.

And Martie is a Chicago actress who is currently rehearsing "Criminal Hearts" for Apple Tree Theatre's summer season.

But first, my own backpack/messinger bag nuttiness: I’m not sure why I prefer to strap a 30-pound load on my back, or weigh my right shoulder down with an equal burden, rather than opt for a leather purse more appropriate for someone my age. But I have a theory: I’m the sort of a person who lives her life in “what ifs.” What if I wind up somewhere – let’s say a doctor’s office, emergency room, police station, or other setting where a wait is inevitable, information is urgently needed, and data must be recorded? I’m prepared.

Clever me will have stuffed on her person: a paperback book, cell phone, iPod, electronic and paper address book and calendar, water bottle, snacks, pens, pencils, marking pens, highlighter, lined notebook, cosmetics, mirror, Advil, Tylenol, Gas-X, Band-Aids, wet cloths, digital camera with extra batteries, Post-it flags, a Chicago street directory, and a rubber-banded batch of The Division Street Princess postcards.

Before you chuckle at the above list, consider the answer my daughter Jill gives to those stumped by my refusal to stow my gear. “Why doesn’t she park her bag at home, in the car, or with the coat check?” they’ll ask, shaking their heads at Jill’s loony mother.

She responds, “After the Armageddon, when we’re all living on cots in the high school gymnasium, my mom will be the most popular person in the place. She’ll be surrounded by desperate souls, offering to trade, bribe, or beg their way to her backpack.”

My other daughter has an equally sanguine view of her mother’s schlepping system. In fact, Faith wears one of my forsaken bags on her delicate frame and awaits others I toss on the discard pile.

Now, let's hear from Kevin Davis, who says he took most of his notes for his new book using black ink Papermate Fine Point pens. He titles his contribution, “Awash in a River of Ink”:

For someone who does most of his writing on a computer, I have an absurdly huge collection of pens. I cannot stop hoarding them. I have a sickness and think I need help.

I shouldn’t really call it a collection. It’s an accumulation. There are hundreds, maybe as many as three million pens in my house. I never counted. I cannot resist taking free pens from hotel rooms, offices, seminars or promotional booths at street fairs.

I pick pens off the floors of coffee shops, on the train or the bus. I have enough ink to copy the entire contents of the Chicago Public Library–including every branch and bookmobile.

My collection includes all genres of novelty pens, most of which are rarely clicked open or uncapped. Among my favorites is a green, torpedo-shaped, soft rubbery Zyrtec pen I got from my Mom, who gets tons of these from the pharmaceutical reps at the doctor’s office where she works. She also gave me a pink Ultram ER pen (extended release tablets).

I have a pen commemorating Robert Ebert’s Overlooked Film Festival from 2002, an American flag pen from a video store, one from a Bangkok hotel and a blue light-up pen from a lawyer friend. I have never used these for writing anything.

Most of these pens sit hidden and untouched. I store them in old coffee cups, in desk drawers, shoe boxes, art boxes, on my nightstand, in my car glove compartment, inside jackets and coats, briefcases and backpacks. I shall never be without one. Or five. Yet I continue to buy more pens because I can never find the right one, that perfect pen that combines grip comfort with a smooth, rolling glide, even ink flow and a sharp finish. I recently bought a box of “Office Depot Rubberized Barrels” for everyday use. Not bad. But not perfect.

Maybe it’s time to go with the flow. There’s no reason for all this plastic and unused ink to sit around. I should treat pens like my most frequently used writing tool: my computer keyboard. Squeeze the life out of it. I will type until the keys are worn, coated with enough crud and dead skin so that I can’t see the letters any more, or they get stuck or break. Then I buy a new one. It’s time to drain some ink and flick some Bics.

Now Martie Sanders shares the story of her scary stockpile. Watch for her solo monologues in Live Bait Theater's "Filet of Solo Festival 2007," and for the fall show of the Sweat Girls, a group Martie co-founded. Listen up:

I collect bones, but only bones I find. Ribs, vertebrae, skulls. I consider seashells bones, too. And cobblestones...and beach glass. I suppose my bone collection could be defined as intriguing objects that won't disintegrate in my lifetime. It wasn't until well into collecting that I learned you are really not supposed to take a bone from its sacred resting place. Since I lived so many years completely ignorant to this, I'm hoping the Gods will let me live a few more.

I guess my bone collection is my mother's influence. Among my mom’s many collections is an expansive gathering of animal-themed art and tchotchkes. Upon visiting my childhood home, one of my friends said "Wow! Have you ever tried to count the number of pairs of eyes in your parents home? It's boggling!"

But I suppose my mother's biggest collection is quirks. And "quirks" being just as expansive by definition as "bones." Mom loves oddball people, bizarre food, mystical experiences, and wacky jokes. She has been known to gather all of these in the same setting and call it "a party."

When one of the deer skulls I found needed a place to weather and sun to get rid of its gamey stench, I decided to bring it to Mom's backyard. As I was traveling by plane to get back to Detroit, I had to pass through the airport’s x-ray baggage check. I got stopped. The guards were alarmed by the skull -- probably wondering what kind of psycho travels with a head in a plastic Jewel grocery bag. "It's for my mom who's an anthropologist... uh archeologist,” I lied.

And really, it was for Mom because she unflinchingly gave my deer skull a respectable shrine in the sun. As the two of us posted the skull on a stick above Dad’s prized bed of tulips and daffodils. It looked so "Lord of the Flies" we giggled, just imagining Dad's reaction. Which eventually was, “For God's sake. What the hell is that in my flowers?”

So dear readers, spare your pity for Kevin’s, Martie’s, and my harmless afflictions and instead fess up to your own assortment of irresistible whatnots. We’ll start with my husband, Tommy, and the packages of golf balls he’s unable to pass up.