Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Power of the Pen Indeed

We've all, understandably, become used to the notion of seeing computers and other symbols of the Internet and emerging technologies being used as the reigning metaphors for knowledge. And far be it from me to convince you otherwise. The web has increasingly changed my life, and that of most others I know, as it opens new vistas of possibility on just about every avenue of pursuit one can imagine.

Still, regardless of the medium through which they spin their work, most writers naturally harbor a special affinity for the old-fashioned writing instrument known as the pen. We have a tendency to melt in the face of a smooth fine point that glides, frictionless, over a page. We bask in the sensuous embrace of a well balanced pen, whether it be an expensive Montblanc or a 99-cent Bic with an especially fluid feel. Hell, truth be told, we've even been known to occasionally liberate an especially attractive fine-point beauty after taking it for a test spin at the invitation of a waitress who casually, unthinkingly leaves it behind so as to facilitate our signing her credit card slip. Guiltily, we try to protect our own feelings of moral rectitude by the flimsiest self-justification, telling ourselves that such a misdemeanor is offset by the fact that we left a little larger tip in its place.

For years, my collection of favorites grew in lockstep with my attendance at trade shows, where the age-old trick is to lure easy marks into coughing up their business cards, or at least stopping long enough in front of the booth, to pick up a new pen carrying the imprint of that company. When I returned home, I would be met with an automatic question from my good friend Matt Holtz, who's not a writer, but who is very much a fellow fan of good pens. "Okay, whaddayagotfor me?" If I'd found anything worthwhile, I'd better have picked up two. Of course, most were worth nothing, the kind of graphic trash that us hardened penophiles would instantly reject at first glance, except that we also know through long experience that this business can fool you: some of the smoothest pens can be found in some of the most surprising packages. You can't assume that a gold-leafed Cross pen bearing your initials will offer a smoother ride than that plastic cheapie you happened to find on the floor at the mall. You've simply got to try them out.

Anyway, with that as my admitted context, I was both pleased and surprised to happen upon a recent recruitment brochure for a branch of the U.S. military. It was handsome and expensive looking. But most of all, you couldn't miss the big photo of the old-fashioned fountain pen next to the written message, inviting recruits to supplement their civilian learning by signing up for military duty. Hell, if I thought I'd be able to wangle a half dozen of those fine writing instruments to add to my collection, I'd consider packing up and shipping out tomorrow. Of course, I'd first have to try them out on a piece of scratch paper, because you just never know...

Okay, This Was All Leading Somewhere. Ah, so you thought this was merely the self-indulgent rantings of a mad man who's been sniffing too much toxic ink, or perhaps a sly effort to encourage you to be on the lookout on my behalf when next you sign a restaurant credit slip (of course, that would be fine, too). But this exegesis, this rambling disquisition on the pen was actually touched off by a bit of fatherly pride. My Patrick, at the invitation of his teachers, joined a half dozen of his classmates in a fine Saturday extracurricular pursuit known as Power of the Pen. I loved hearing that, having once served as a judge for other kids, and coming away impressed by the organization. After all, who could argue with this mission statement: "It provides teachers with an educational network that shares ideas and instructional materials to improve student's expressive writing skills. Power of the Pen inspires a love for the beauty and power of language for writing as a life skill. It encourages creative and critical thinking, and enriches and enhances the writing curriculum of schools. This is accomplished in a collaborative environment that includes community support and involvement at all levels." Anyway, his team recently learned that they have advanced to the next stage of the competition. But win, lose or draw, I mostly loved that he was just taking part in a wonderful exercise in stretching his mind and learning to value the power of written expression, which can change your life (as producer or consumer or both) no matter what line of work you happen to be in.


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