Sunday, November 1, 2009

Of Pens

“God bless you, pen of work, pen of drudgery, pen of letters, pen of posings, pen rabid, pen ridiculous, pen glorified. Pray, little pen, be worthy of the love I bear you. . .” Hillaire Belloc, “On the Pleasure of Taking Up One's Pen

I don't go anywhere without a pen, but somehow I never have one. I beg for them all over town: from my students, from strangers, from black-market pen-peddlers with styli in their trenchcoats.

When I get my hands on one I never give it back, either. Attendants at parking garages have felt my thefty skill. I steal (without realizing it) from banks, lube shops, golf courses, and--judging by my motley collection--many, many medical supply chains.

Sometimes when I'm “lent” a pen, I sink my teeth into it before you can say “don't chew on my pen, jerk.” Basically, if I touch a pen it becomes mine. And if it's mine, I'm chomping at the Bic. But it's the first thing I'm lacking almost all the time.

Maybe the small bad karma of lifting pens contributes to the small bad fact that mine are always out of ink.

(If I stole the above pen, I would be committing grand larceny. It's the most expensive ever produced; nine of them have sold for $730,000 each)

I need pens (and ink) so badly because I constantly mark-up my books. If I can't be doing that, I sometimes question why I'm reading at all. My memory for particular lines is so bad that my experience of a book becomes, three days after I've finished it, only what I've had the foresight to mark down. Ulysses, by David Wanczyk, is 7 pages of scribble (and a much easier read than the Joyce version).

As a teacher, I also mark papers for a living, and when I'm without a pen, I feel mateless. Paper-mate-less. I might as well have come to class without the book we're reading or without my ability to (lightly) shame students into studying.

Last Christmas, Megan bought me a box of pens (she has a penchant for choosing just the right gift); but, frankly, unless I velcro the box to my chest, I'm still always in a dire state of penury.

I think I leave the house without my dear friend, pen, because there are too many things that I need: keys, wallet, phone, chargers, pants. It's all too much to keep straight, and I am an absent-minded pre-professor. A few weeks ago, west of St. Louis, I realized that I was without my phone (cellular), my glasses (sun), and my pen (ballpoint). They'd all fallen out of my pocket at the Gateway Arch a half-an-hour before. Rob Strong, with whom I was traveling, declared that I was “no longer allowed to have objects” before dutifully turning the car around.

(It was in the act of snapping this mythic picture that I dropped all of my possessions into a grate. Not pictured: The Mississippi River)

Days earlier, I'd misplaced my license.

I only have one remaining winter glove.

I'd lose my head if I didn't leave it by the front door to trip over.

What did people need when they left the house in 1900? A sugar cube for the horse, maybe, or a knife to fight off tenement hooligans? I'll bet they didn't fill three pockets the way I do. I'm almost used to that now, but I might put my foot down if even more pack-muling becomes necessary to live an in-touch life. As it is, I'm stuffed to the point that, on the rare days when I do have a pen, it gets forced through a hole in the pocket of my pants.

Last week, a nice click-pen specimen dropped out the bottom of my khakis and a frat boy walking by didn't really know what to think of me.

George Costanza of Seinfeld fame had a particular fear of carrying pens, as you'll see in this 28-second video.

Could he have been particularly scared of this pen?

I've never been worried about what he's worried about, but at the end of a day I do sometimes find that I've nervously scratched my thigh with a pen cap and written on myself, too. My arms are always covered in blue and a not insubstantial percentage of my wardrobe has ink stains.

Why don't I just use a pencil? Well, at the turn of the last century, in 1899 and 1900, two folks were killed when they inadvertently jammed pencils through their eyes and into their brains. (People might not have had to carry much to leave the house back then, but they could still be deeply inconvenienced).

I'll stick with a pen. I used to carry a pencil everywhere and I gnawed that too. But the metal around the eraser would get twisted and sharp; pens hold their form better. Plus, I like the confidence I get from penning in a note or a crossword answer. It makes me feel definitive.


When I used to ask Megan on dates, she would say, flirtatiously, "I'll pencil you in." You can imagine my pen-themed, moonstruck response.


The pen-pencil debate emerged for me at my middle school. The dean of studies there, O. Hamilton Brent—who was better-suited to be a tutor at Russian court—always encouraged us to “pwease bwing yo favowit whiting utensu.” I liked the idea that people could have a favorite thing to write with and that it could be called a “utensu.” (O. Hamilton, incidentally, used to crush me at chess while discussing the czars. He was a nice guy. My middle school was a weird place.)

That's about the time I decided I liked writing. I'd write as fast as possible, jealously guarding my output by curling my right hand around it, thereby thwarting those who would cheat off my paper. In this manner, I'd pull the words across the page with a frantic momentum. It felt different to do this than it does to type (maybe in the same way it feels different to receive a post card instead of an e-mail).

The brain, engaged in handwriting, has at least as much time to think as it takes to cross the opening T and dot the closing j. The subsequent sentence will be more deliberate. The whole act, old-fashioned and almost ceremonial.

And the body is just a little bit more a part of the thought that's ending on the paper. The hand makes the loops of the B. We're actually creating as opposed to watching our thoughts appear on a glowing screen.

Plus, it's harder to edit when handwriting, so the cursive thought has to be more carefully formed. Fewer mangled sentences--which sentences, having been mangled, are distracting, reflective of mangled thought, and mostly to be considered unnecessary--slip in.

Hillaire Billoc wrote, with a pen no doubt, “It has been said by very many people that there is a tangible pleasure in the mere act of writing: in choosing and arranging words.” I get that. Though I write prose by keyboard, I always write poems by hand. It feels more artistic.

(The result,
I can assure you, is
anything but).

Sometimes it's easier to get started with a pen because I can imagine an audience for a smudged word more than I can for a Times New Roman one. And it's definitely easier to end. A computer, clearly, allows for the ramble.

"[T]he pen you lay down when you will," wrote Billoc. "At any moment: without remorse, without anxiety, without dishonour."

Following his idea, then, I wanted to take up the quill--my dependable friend--and finish with a little bit of handwriting.


Zach said...

In the movie, "While You Were Sleeping" Peter Gallagher's character lost a testicle in puncturing it with a pencil. This and that Bill Pullman's hair was too long to look right under a baseball cap are pretty much all I remember from the movie. Both of these things, however, have had lasting effects on what I keep very close to my body.

Joe said...

You owe me at least a half a dozen pens.

A pen in the pocket is like a talisman. Without one I feel impotent and caught unawares.