Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Pen is Sexier Than the Keyboard

There was this certain writer with whom this certain journalist was certainly acquainted that was kind of a Big Deal. He was kind of a Big Deal because his CV boasted the kinds of talking points that certain journalists in certain far-off lands, and certain other journalists in certain other distant, or not so distant, or quasi-distant, or semi-distant, or equi-distant locales dreamed of, one day, including in their own. Including in their own CVs, that is. One day. Not yet, but one day. Soon. One day when they were Big Deals, too, that is. Soon. One day.

Anyway, this certain writer with whom a certain journalist was certainly acquainted was such a Big Deal that, truth be told, he didn’t really have a CV. Not on paper, at least. His was more of a virtual curriculum vitae, only the talking points listed weren’t merely the virtual truth but the straight up, out-and-out, honest-to-goodness, accurate, unexaggerated, unmassaged, unaltered, unmodified Real Thing. He wrote for Big Deal magazines, magazines that people flipped through and read and liked and shared. Some would even archive them in that very special spot, that very practical spot, you know the one, that very special, practical, sacred spot in the bathroom, sometimes spread out on a clothes hamper, sometimes thrown haphazardly on the counter, sometimes carefully filed in one of those folding stands made especially for the purpose, sometimes in one of those Ikea racks designed to be affixed to the wall, it doesn’t matter in or on what really, but most of the time, most likely anyway, most certainly anyway, most definitely anyway, almost always they were mostly kept next to the toilet.

He had written for Big Deal newspapers, too; respected ones, at least they were respected back in the day, back at a time when newspapers were run not by MBAs or wannabe MBAs or MBAs-in-training or those considering enrollment in an MBA program, or even anyone who had acquaintances that had friends that were MBAs, but old-school newspapermen that sat in old-school offices and wore old-school fedoras and worked old-school phones, phones that were so old-school that they had to be patched through to a switchboard. Back when smoking was still allowed in the workplace. Back when it was allowed everywhere, really. Back when the hum of fluorescent lights and the clickety-clack of typewriters was the standard newsroom soundtrack. Back when instinct, and not Excel spreadsheets, existed and was allowed to flourish, and sales figures generated by some corporate jargon-spewing middle manager, one who probably suffered from some kind of MBA envy, didn’t determine what went on the front page. Back when the likes of Britney Spears wasn’t considered hard news. Back when the term “info-tainment” had yet to be coined by some (corporate jargon spewing), well, MBA. Back when celebrity publicists didn’t pre-approve interview questions. Back when reporters embedded themselves in breaking stories without waiting for the government’s permission. Ah, back in the day. The good old days. Way back when.

So no, this certain Big Deal writer didn’t have a CV, not on paper at least, because he had seen all this, breathed all this, lived all this, reveled in all this, worked in all this. Wrote through it, the whole time. He had enough clippings and tales and anecdotes and connections and inside scoops to speak for themselves. Need he have said more? No, he needed have not.

He went to the flea market.

One day he went to the flea market, a well-known flea market, actually, a very famous flea market, actually, the most famous flea market in a most famous town (well technically, it was on the border of a most famous town, relegating it to the most infamous suburbs, actually, but it was just a matter of crossing the street from town to suburb so everyone just considered it to be part of the most famous town to be done with it…actually); a flea market that was so famous that it was at the top of the list in all of the tourism guides. People would come from all over, from cities and towns whether reputed or not, from suburbs and villages whether chic or rough-and-tumble, from postal codes and zip codes and calling codes and country codes whether prestigious or proletarian. Here they would come, and stroll through, and stop, and have a gander at, and admire and ooh-and-ahh over the antique furniture and vintage books and refurbished stereo equipment and previously-worn clothing and trinkets and trunks and posters and key chains and dishes and bric-a-brac dating from, appropriately enough, back in the day. There was brand-new merchandise, too, at this very famous flea market, things like tee shirts and sweatshirts and weeny-teeny, bitsy-itsy yellow and blue and red bikini panties, even some with polka dots on them, all stretched out like starfish on these circular hanger thingies fabricated, apparently, specifically, for this purpose, giving one a wedgie just from looking at them. (The panties, not the hangers, that is.) But that’s not what all of these people came for. Or should have come for. No, the committed collectors, the tried-and-true deal seekers, the boldfaced bargainers, the real flea market frequenters apparently, specifically, went there for the old stuff. Because for some people, some people with taste, some people who respect traditions, old is the new, well, new.

The certain Big Deal writer, however, sidelined all of this. He didn’t much go in for tourism guides (he only used them as a resource to assist him in avoiding tourists, which he didn’t much go in for, either) and on that particular day, he wasn’t in the market for antique furniture or previously-worn clothing or tee shirts or sweatshirts or weeny-teeny wedgie panties. (Even though he thought the hangers to be somewhat intriguing.) (Somewhat.) (In one of those hey-there’s-a-car-accident-I-can’t-help-but-look kinds of ways.) (Only it wasn’t a car accident; it was wedgie panties.) (On circular hangers that made the panties look all stretched out like starfish.) But what interested him, really, truly interested him at that particular hour, on that particular day, in that particular town/suburb, at this particular flea market, at this particular very famous flea market, was junk. Other people’s junk. The junk that other people laid out on threadbare blankets and makeshift tables and under shabby tents at the very edges of this very famous flea market. On the no-man’s land bordering the main event, a place not for the faint of heart, a gauntlet of hand-me-downs and pick-me-ups and don’t-even-think-of-bringing-that-home’s. An outdoor corridor sure to inspire domestic disputes – worse than you see at Ikea on Saturday afternoon, worse than you hear through your thin apartment walls on long weekends when people are getting caught up on their do-it-yourself projects, worse than you encounter at the paint-and-wallpaper store when the wife wants to buy that peach-colored border accented with blue fishes and the husband stares longingly out the storefront window at the Corvette that’s parked next to his…mini-van…wondering why he ever left his dorm room, the one he had back in college, the one where he dedicated his entire final semester to creating a statue made entirely of empty beer cans and the only fish in the place was the half-filet of battered cod that had been rotting for a month or so in the Styrofoam take-out box lined with some Big Deal newspaper – among couples that had veered off the beaten path. The junk of one man, two men…two hundred-and-fifty men. A treasure trove.

That’s when he stumbled upon the pens.

Well, actually, he didn’t really stumble upon them. More like stopped, looked down, and there they were. Five green plastic pens, calligraphy plume-style, glinting in the sunlight. A box of cartridges filled with purple ink. One euro, with the refills thrown in. At that rate, at that price, on that day, beside this very famous flea market, on the border of it anyway, in the no-man’s land on the frontier of the main event that linked suburb with town, a certain Big Deal writer didn’t see the need for bargaining. He was sold!

Oh, to go back to the time when the pen really was mightier than the sword. Back to when scribes actually scribbled, when words weren’t assembled with drags and drops and points and clicks. Back to when the crafting of sentences was a sensual experience, when blots and smudges and scratches and ink stains were the signs of hard labor, the signifiers of the mystical, magical, heady, goosebump-inspiring, whirly-swirly connection between mind and hands. Back to when it wasn’t politically incorrect to go through reams and reams of paper, when, if it had existed, the term “reboot” meant crumpling up a sheet of foolscap and scratching up a new one. Back to when updating one’s system did not involve spending hours in a darkened room in front of a screen displaying window after window of techno-speak authored by people who considered the latest Microsoft manual to be worthy beach reading…back when “reformatting” meant a trip to the corner office supplies store. Back to when emoticons were reserved exclusively for 14 year-old girls. Back when they weren't even called emoticons. Need a certain journalist say more? Yes, she must. Ah, way back when!

But in this Information Age, in this era of connectivity, in this culture of keyboards and touchpads and touchscreens and GUIs and thin clients and mobile devices and intelligent intuitive interactive interfaces, it’s rather gauche, kind of kitsch, definitely old-school, positively passé to get all hot and bothered about five lousy pens. Or a stack of notebooks, for that matter. Or foolscap. Or, especially, a package of typewriter ribbons. Or, especially, typewriters themselves. Especially if you’re a Big Deal writer and especially if efficiency is the name of the game and especially if you’re always on deadline, as Big Deal writers always are, and especially if you need to get the story told fast. Because let’s come clean, let’s face it, let’s fess up, let’s (grudgingly, unwillingly) admit it right now: sometimes writing – even if you’re a Big Deal writer, even if you’re such hot shit that you don’t need a CV, not on paper, at least – can be slow. Sometimes especially so. Sometimes painfully so. Sometimes excruciatingly so. Sometimes why-the-hell-couldn’t-I-be-a-better waitress so. Sometimes just plain s-l-o-w. So. One must concede (grudgingly, unwillingly) that pens and pencils and paper and typewriter ribbons and typewriters themselves don’t exactly help much in speeding things up.

But we’re talking romance and passion and sensuality and lust here, not practicality. We’re talking matters of the heart, and other parts. And, like the real flea market-frequenters, for some writers, for lots of writers, actually, for heaps of writers, actually, for droves of writers, actually, for scores of writers, writers that write scores and writers that write poems and writers that write articles and writers that write epistles and even for writers that write anything and everything, even just blurbs because they are such lousy waiters and waitresses that writing is the only thing that puts (modest, writerly amounts) of food on the table…actually…everything that’s old is, well, like a fondly-remembered ex…or a centerfold in a soft porn rag.

There’s the sentimental nostalgic: “Oh, how I miss American-style legal pads – they don’t have them here in France! Think you could bring a few back the next time you go home?”

There’s the religiously reminiscent: “Some of my best times have been spent in office supply shops. Oh yes, those were the days, when I used to do that. If I die and go to heaven, heaven will be Staples. Or Gibert Jeune. Or maybe an independent stationery retailer that sells lots and lots of different kinds of pens. Yes, that’s it. A pen boutique. That’s where I want to spend Eternity.”

And then there’s the shallow lover: “I can only write in turquoise ink. I don’t know why. I just can’t seem to connect with anything else.”

The serial monogamist: “I miss Paris for its Clairfontaine notebooks. How smooth they are to the touch! For a long time I felt like I was cheating over here in London, with nothing but Oxford to write on. It makes me feel kind of dirty – I’m really not that kind of person, you know.”

The player: “I like to pass my notebook around at parties to see what other people write in it. My inspiration comes from using it as a medium to test my chemistry with lots of different people to see what they have to say.”

And then there’s the fetishist: “I love buying a new notebook, but I can’t use it right away. I have to throw it against the pavement a few times and maybe whip it against the wall before I can feel like we’re familiar enough for me to write in it.”

The flea market was coming to a close. The merchants – the ones who had displayed their wares on threadbare blankets and makeshift tables and under shabby tents in the no-man’s land on the border of the main event, on the frontier of the aforementioned very famous flea market – were starting to pack up. And a certain Big Deal writer was starting to feel a certain twinge, just a small one, so small he hardly noticed it, so tiny it could barely be classified as a twinge, but it was there, twinging away, twitching away, itching away, ever so subtly: that twinge/twitch/itch of pressure. Professional pressure. Deadline pressure. Big Deal deadline pressure. As in, he had to file a Big Deal story with a Big Deal magazine within the next few hours. No big deal - good thing he had just bought all those pens!

“Pens?” he said, eyebrows raised. “Oh, you mean to write my article. Nah – these are no big deal. They’re just for doodling. My favorite way to write is on the computer.”

*Editor’s Note: A certain journalist, a certain journalist who RESPECTS traditions, wishes to clarify that the initial draft of this blog entry was written on contraband legal-size foolscap in Number 2 pencil.