Thursday, May 15, 2008

The Ball-Point Pen Pal or Pariah

After suffering a series of ruinous disasters, I forswore ball-point pens in favor of the lesser disasters and greater elegance of the fountain pen. The ruinous disasters were, as you might suspect, ink stains on shirts. (Why do ball-point pens never seem to leak on less favored shirts?) There were two cases of ball-point pens leaking in pockets of jackets, one of which was visible only on the inner panels of the jacket, the other of which was ultimately dispatched by the dry cleaning process.

This is not to say that fountain pens are leak-free nor, indeed that the use of a fountain pen dies not expose the user to the risk of ink-stained fingers. This is to say that the choice being made--fountain pen versus ball-point--has wedged me into yet another way of recognizing a fundamental schism in the human condition. Other schisms involve tea versus coffee, dogs versus cats, Red Sox versus Yankees, Borders versus Barnes and Noble, small cars versus larger models, and of course the true American notion of suspecting the rest of the world is invested in Democrats versus Republicans.

Having received yet another catalog from yet another purveyor of fountain pens, more or less congruent with the pocket clip of a ball-point pen breaking off a ball-point pen given me by the College of Letters, Arts and Sciences of the university where I teach, I took a few moments to formulate a further vision of humanity which I record here, in the true, research-oriented spirit of essaying where the vision will take me. The vision is that all of humanity, even the brush-wielding calligraphers of Asia, is divided into two types, the ball-point pen type and the fountain pen type.

Most ball-point pens, models of technical Darwinism, work pretty well; their cartridges are accessible for replacement, and those that do not have replaceable cartridges are easily duplicated from the same advertising source that produced the first one. They are, in effect, planned obsolescence. If I were going to commit the pathetic fallacy in which I humanize an animate object, I would say that these give-away ball-point pens know they are going to be lost or forgotten or borrowed and not returned to the owner. Or I could liken them to hookers, available for multiple use. In any case, a sensible person could go for some considerable time without having to buy a ball=point pen, knowing they are available gratis at banks, pharmaceutical purveyors,barber shops, beauty salons, automotive dealers, insurance agencies, even gasoline stations. They are perfectly good for signing checks, receipts, autographs, death certificates, prescriptions, and a laundry list of other applications. They have sophisticated designs and mercifully plain, functional ones, informing their being with a kind of technological mysticism. (Would a devout Hindu consider a ball-point pen as maya?) They are all about us, waiting to leak on shirts, jackets, vests, and other items of clothing. They are the stationery equivalent of relatives who have overstayed their visit.

The fountain pen type loves gadgets, is somewhat on the pompous side, is more interested in expressing individual traits as demonstrated in the ability to secure fountain pens with all manner of nib width, beginning with the extra fine of the splendid Namiki and Sailor founten pens through the mere fine nib, the medium nib, the broad nib, the flexible calligraphic nib, the music-writing nib. Although it is possible to secure ball-point pens in blue, green, red, and black ink, the fountain pen offers an entire and sophisticated panoply, my own favorite being a mocha or variation on the theme of brown.

Ball-point pen persons in our life may come our way by accident, gift, advertising, referral. They may prove to be valuable tools and conveniences, and they may never leak on our shirt or other garment. They may be of the right heft and balance so that we respond well to them, care for them, put them to tasks, commend them to others. But there is always the resident sense of warning Somehow, their function and availability notwithstanding, they will fail us, not really through any egregious fault of their own but rather because they have run out of something. As is the ball-point pen, these individuals are a product of The Industrial Revolution, where the cynicism if not the actual fact of planned obsolescence is a factor.

With all its inherent difficulties, the fountain pen reaches to our roots of consciousness, requesting us to have a care for their welfare. They must occasionally be cleaned, fed. But with them as with individuals such as they, we maintain the sense of our own personality, our own handwriting, our own difference.

8 comments:

Lori Witzel said...

If I could, I'd write this comment with a ball-point, not fountain, pen.

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Wild Iris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wild Iris said...

Cats vs. Dogs? Why not both? Coffee or Tea? Well what time of day does it happen to be? I like my coffee in the morning tea in the evening, unless there is dessert, because dessert warrants a cup of coffee to wash it down don't you know. Red Sox vs. Yankees... well I must say I am lost on that one. Borders vs. Barnes and Noble, I have to go with the latter simply because of a lack of familiarity with the other. But the pen-ultimate question... (O.k. so for this post it's the ultimate, but you know,I couldn't resist the chance at a play on words.) Ball-point vs. Fountain, I have to say Ball-point. I find them less disastrous than their fountain counterparts, but perhaps that is because I do not carry mine in my pocket or jacket, but rather in my purse, or tucked however is convenient with it's corresponding notebook or journal. I have two favorite brands that I feel guilty for shelling out the expense on, but treat them like prized possessions until they manage to grow legs and walk off into the ether, never to be seen again. Those cheaply made barrels with no inviting grips that you find at banks and pharmacies are terrible substitutes, only used when there is little other choice.

Perhaps the question of ball-point vs. fountain may be divided by gender, and how the pen is transported and put to use on a regular basis.

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