I can’t help myself.

A yet-unshot photo concept in my navy blue cahier

Loveless women have their shoes.
Men with no people skills have their sports equipment. Their cars. Their electronic do-dads.

I have journals.

I can’t help myself. I walk into a bookstore intending to acquire some work of advice, always in the same subjects: cycling, motorcycling, advertising, photography, Mandarin chinese. But in the end I always wind up standing in front of them:

Moleskines.

The Photo District News magazine I’m carrying isn’t really an excuse for being in the store. I will read it, or at least thumb through it with more than a casual interest. The books on crafting your own cycling workout “for people over 40” catch my intention because I really would like to ride faster.

…but the Moleskines!

It’s not “mole skins,” by the way. It’s pronounced, “MO lah SKEE neh.” Perfectly sized little journals and sketchbooks, with stich binding: Those that open like standard books, those that have grids, those with regular notebook-styled ruling lines. But my favorites have always been the faux-leather reporter-style sketchbooks, 5 1/2” x 7” or so. The cover flips up, not to the right, and there are no silly lines.

What? You didn’t have penmanship classes when you were in school? That’s the trouble with education today. There’s no art, no craft in writing, or image-making, for that matter. Creating with words and images is as much physical as it is mental. It requires muscle and texture and scent.

If I had a cane, I’d shake it as I bark in rank disapproval of those who go straight to a computer to type or make shapes in a program.

You want to move people? Start with a human process. Pick up a pencil. Jesus.

Holy vs. Sanctified
One of my first professors in my advertising layout classes was a certain short, middle-aged character or Irish descent; Mr. Smalley. My closest mates referred to him as “Sergeant Rock.” A full head of dark hair, tweed jackets, a firm jaw, stout build. He, like nearly all of my professors, held authoritarian positions in the local ad community. Sarge was a co-owner of a small agency.

On the first day of classes, he had us pull out our layout pads. 11” x 14” with black construction-paper covers.

Holding one above his head, it’s clear plastic shrink wrap still tightly in place, he said, “This…is where you think. It’s a mirror of what’s going on in your mind. It isn’t a precious thing. It’s paper. CHEAP paper.”

With an X-Acto blade, he made a quick, surgeon’s swipe across the cover and puled away with plastic with one hand that quickly drew the clear stuff up in to a crumpled fist.

We all followed suit, however, much less slowly, and with less conviction.

He then held the pad, suspended by it’s cover, as if holding a cat by the nape of the neck.

“Until you get past the pristine quality of this thing, it won’t do any of you any good. Now rip off the cover.” And with a violent yank, he indiscriminately decapitated that perfect pad of snow white paper, and with a sound reminiscent of my cane-less bark, did away with the lifeless cover in one of the large metal trash bins near the door.

Although none of the new students made a sound, you could tell, we were all gasping inside.

Slowly, at first one at a time, and then in small pockets, the covers began to pull away.

Remember when your dad said to just pull the Band-Aid off quickly, without thinking, and it wouldn’t hurt so much? Remember how, instead, you tentatively, slowly, 1/16th of an inch at a time pulled, suffered, then pulled a little bit more? That’s what most of the students did, until it became apparent that, if you didn’t man-up and just dive in head first, you’d be one of the last with a cover on. And that meant ridicule from the Sarge.

I can do that now with a sketch pad, and start attacking each sheet with a sex-offender’s abandon. I prefer china markers. Big, blunt, waxy marks that you can just scrub into the sheet with a kind of visual rage. It manhandles the paper. Your thoughts become scapes and wide swaths of color in immediate swipes.

When the cover comes off, that pad has been sanctified. It’s been circumcised. Made holy; a tool prepared for divine use.

But the Moleskine is holy, right there, on the bookstore rack. It’s pure. And pure things reflect power because they are already pregnant with possibility.

And who wants to fuck that up? From virginal to guilt, all in the stroke of a pen?

That’s probably why I always bought Moleskine rip-offs. Wannabes. Posers. Almost as expensive stand-in’s from Staples. That way, if the writing and sketches I put in them were sub-par, I wouldn’t feel nearly as bad.

I have this tiny one. The classic on-the-beat notebook. The kind you see Joe Friday making notes in near the chalk-outline of the body. I got it precisely because it was so small. Kind of like why I always preferred to date short, tiny women: they made me feel taller and more muscled, cyclist’s build that I have.

The baby faux-Moleskine

That tiny black book never got more than a quarter of the way filled. Sure, it was well-intentioned writing: my first book’s proposed outline, plenty of thoughts for launching my freelance photo business. But in the end, two things did it in: I realized the tiny size was an excuse, and…

…it wasn’t a real Moleskine.

Later, I did become a Moleskine owner. Sort of.

Among the various styles of notebooks Moleskine makes, are thin, full-sided notebooks that are stich-bound, of few pages, and very flexible. They come in colors. They are so thIn that they come in bundles of three. They are called “cahiers.”

I always thought of them as “starter Moleskines.”

In Manhattan one day for a job interview, I was in a bookstore with a friend who was there both for moral support, and because she could never say no to a tag-along journey to the land of Bobby, Frank, and Dean. To her, New York was at it’s best during the days when Everyone Wore Hats.

My friend also fancies herself a writer. The difference being, she actually writes. As in finishes things. Or at least has fully-formed concepts. And like me, she prefers to start with marks on paper.

She needed a new notebook, and I, taking immediately to her enabling, proceeded to go straight to the Moleskine shelf. Having as little cash as me, she reached for a couple of bundles of three, one in navy blue, the other in a kind of electric green.

“If you buy ‘em, I’ll let you have one.”

Tease.

It's navy blue. It doesn't have a cardboard cover.

We got the navy blue ones, with the standard cream paper. (Such fabulous paper.) They were rule-less, which I preferred, but not of the flip-up, reporter’s style. (Another forsaken detail that allowed me to go through with the deal.) I was so excited to have a real Moleskine, if not only one of the cheapie cahier books, that I bought one of my favorite roller-ball pens to use with it.

This too, was another little self-flagellation.

You see, the “real” Moleskines must only be written in with a soft, 7mm mechanical pencil.

I know. I know. I need help.

40% Off
During Thanksgiving week, a local Borders Books announced that they were going out of business. “20% off EVERYTHING” posters leered at me from the windows, printed in mammoth type, in construction helmet yellow and black. Knowing that I’d spend all my gas money and probably money required for things like the electric bill, toilet paper, and milk, I resisted. However, this past week, the “20” was replaced with a “30,” and again in the company of the enabling writer-friend, I found myself soon standing in front of my favorite trick.

Only, the shelf was devoid of a single Moleskine. In fact, it resembled a yard sale.

“This is good,” I reasoned. “I won’t disappoint myself, again.”

Armed with a drastically reduced Beginner’s Mandarin CD-ROM set and the latest copy of PDN, I waltzed back through where the pens and the flower and paisley-covered journals usually were. You know, the cheesy ones. A woman reached for a burgundy leather journal, the kind with gilt edges, and when she lifted it, there it was: a black, traditional, full-sized Moleskine notebook. As far as I could tell, it was the last one in the store. It’s mark-down history was evident, three layers of it, in multicolored stickers with UPC codes.

This little treasure was going to set me back only twelve bucks.

I added it to my armload of devalued merchandise, and rather than making a confident beeline for the checkout queue, which had doubled back on itself like a serpentine conga line, I did what any conflicted gemini would do: I ambled about the store in an attempt to talk myself out of the purchase.

“It has rules.”

“And it’s not reporter-style. My right hand will smudge the writing when I’m working on a left-facing page. God. I hate that.”

As yet unsmudged

Mine, all mine
In the end, common sense won out.

I returned the Mandarin course to it’s original shelf, needing to say “excuse me” to a young woman of Asian heritage. Walking away, I took a look back to see if, by chance, she picked it up, somehow providentially proving that my intention to buy the smudge-doomed and idiot-ruled Moleskine was indeed the right thing to do.

She did not.

I did, however, keep the Photo District News.

You may be curious to know, that not a word of this blog was birthed onto the page of the Moleskine.

I typed it all on my trusty MacBook, using Apple Pages software, and nearly every word while on board a plane heading to my new job, in my new city.

All the while, the Moleskine slept in my carryon bag, securely tucked under the seat in front of me. Holy. Untouched. Awaiting brilliance.

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2 thoughts on “I can’t help myself.

  1. I love this, mostly because I have the same illness. I keep buying notebooks but I have so many sitting here, waiting for me. I’ve stopped writing as much since I’ve stopped writing in notebooks. I need to get back to it. I miss it.

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