A pointed memoir

Being a kid in the ’50s has left me with vivid mid-century memories of things now long gone. Among them are Saturday matinees, spinster schoolmarms, penny candies (that really did cost a penny), huge July 4th parades, and of course fast cars and slow food.

But one of my strongest memories of that time was all the predictions for the year 2000.

Back then, any mention of the year 2000 conjured up the most fantastic images of The Glorious Future we’d all inherit. That 2000 was just an arbitrary number was lost on us, probably because it seemed impossibly far away, and thus anything, no matter how far-fetched, was believable.

Among the predictions: a flying car in every garage; unlimited safe, cheap power, thanks to our best pal, atomic energy; 10-hour work weeks; the elimination of poverty and hunger; television as the greatest education tool known to humankind; and, although rockets were in their infancy, the idea of interplanetary travel and colonization was a given.

I can’t remember if cellphones and personal computers were in the mix. The only computer I knew of was UNIVAC, which was as big as a battleship and, compared to today’s computers, ridiculously slow and incapable of many functions. So the idea of a computer you could put in your pocket and outperform UNIVAC by a factor of who-knows-how-much was just too much for my baby brain to process. (And as a further note, UNIVACs cost around a million-and-a-half bucks — in 1950 dollars!)

Cellphones were in the same category. The smallest communication device I knew of was walkie-talkies, which, compared to cellphones, were gigantic, cumbersome to shlep, and pretty inefficient. Of course there was Dick Tracy and his wrist radio, but the idea of it becoming reality never dawned on me.

As we all know, while some of those predictions more or less came true, most were out-and-out bumpf. And the ones that did happen often came with an unexpected and steep price — for example, television as The Great Educator, or extending the lifespan being an unalloyed and pain-free delight.

The chase is on

There’s something called Hansen’s Law, which applies to immigrants and their descendents. Simply stated: What the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember. In other words, the children of immigrants try their level best to assimilate to the new culture and ignore if not forget their parents’. But then their children become interested in their grandparents’ lives and values, and often try to revive them in their own lives.

Hansen’s Law is less a law than a generalization and, like all of them, has its exceptions. Or maybe more exactly in this case, the grandchildren might pick and choose what they want to value and/or adopt. Certainly, that’s the case with me.

The culture I want to groove on most assuredly is not from Eastern Europe during The Bad Old Days. There was a reason my forebears split from those realms, and it was not because they’d been in the lap of luxury so long they wanted to do some literal New World slumming for a refreshing change of pace.

No, what I have an affection for is not a place but an era — specifically early to mid 20th century. I love old movies, old cars, old fashions, design and architecture. And how could I not? The greatest movie ever made? “Casablanca,” of course. The most dapper look? Pleated pants, double-breasted jackets, always topped with a fedora.

And so I decided in my Golden Years to buy one of the mainstays of those times — a fountain pen.

Since I do all my writing by hand, a pen is not a mere prop or an affectation. Instead, it’s a necessary tool. And as such, close enough is NOT good enough. I’ve got serious performance standards, and if a pen fails to meet any of them, it’s not just history, it’s ancient history.

First, it can’t skip — ever! If I’m scribbling along, in the zone, one sentence flowing seamlessly into the next and — To Hell! — the pen skips, I am instantly one step away from homicidal rage. Of course I don’t act on the impulse — at least not with living things — but you can bet that pen immediately goes in the trash bin. You can also bet I’ll never look at that model again, much less deign to pick it up.

Next, it has to fit in my hand comfortably. It can’t be too thick, too thin, too heavy, too light, too anything except perfect.

Third, it must be refillable. To me, disposable pens are anathema, just like disposable razors (which is why my razor is a 1955 Gillette).

Finally, it has to have an extra-fine point.

If you think that when it comes to writing tools I’m fussy to the point of uber-finickiness, you’re right. And so my search for a fountain pen went on for a while.

With fountain pens, as with just about everything else, cheap is cheap. There are no bargains. Get a cheap pen and while it’ll work, it won’t work as smoothly or as long as a good one. (Keep in mind, if you take care of a good fountain pen, it can last generations.)

On the other hand, there’s a limit to the price/effectiveness equation: While a cheap pen won’t be as good as an expensive one, simply because a pen costs five or 10 times more than a good one doesn’t mean it’ll write any better. It might look better, have a sapphire in the cap and a hand-engraved clip, and impress your snotty friends to no end, but none of that will mean doodle-poop when nib meets paper. An appropriate analogy is the current fad of “designer dogs.” They may cost a king’s ransom, but no matter how anyone spins it, they’re mutts, with as elevated parentage, IQ and disposition as all the furballs in the local shelter.

A Dope of letters

My search for my ideal pen wasn’t all that lengthy, for one good reason: Since I wanted a nib that wrote the finest line, it had to be either a Japanese or Chinese pen. The label “extra-fine” has no specific criteria — they can vary from super fine (which I wanted) to really broad (which I abhor). But because the Japanese and Chinese write pictograms, they need to have the finest of extra-fines.

So after a bunch of looking over the field, I settled on a low-end Sailor model, which met all my standards beautifully. And an inadvertent reward came with my purchase. My handwriting had always been a level above sloppy, at best, so I printed everything. But now that I had an old-timey fountain pen, I decided to complement it with old-timey lettering.

It was an easy goal to pursue: I just ordered a book on cursive alphabets, looked them over, picked one, and practiced till I could do it well and consistently. No secrets there, fer shure.

So now that I have my fancy-shmancy pen and handwriting that’d make my Great Aunt Gertie turn green with envy, have my columns improved? Has writing become easier? Have I become a more skilled, more effective, more efficient writer? Of course not.

But while the work of writing itself is no easier and the product no better, I’m having more fun doing it. And as far as I’m concerned, if I can have more fun with anything, especially a job, it’s a win-win all-around.


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