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Can I Borrow a Pen?

Posted by Dirck on 8 April, 2010

Words to strike fear in the heart of a fountain pen user. I’ve previously considered the conundrum which faces someone who is inclined to spread mannenhistu-do, but in that situation the pen-owner is the object of the action. When the pen-holder becomes the subject of the action, when pounced upon by a penless person in need of writing, the conundrum gains an element of politics.

I can picture the scenario from the other side. Here I am, with something in my head that burns to be written down. “That chap has a pen!” A polite request is met with… a puzzling and possibly psychotic pause. “May I borrow that pen?” is after all not the same sort of question as “Did I see you dragging a coffin into your cellar?”

From the potential donor’s side, of course, there is a cascade of considerations. How fragile is my pen? What are the possible consequences of denial? Is this considering pause making me look (more) insane (than I usually do)? Do I have any other sort of writing implement to sacrifice in place of my beloved pen?

We stylophiles are not unaware of our own oddity, nor are we entirely blind to the modern general attitude towards pens– somewhat in the same order as the attitude towards tooth-picks, in that they’ll be used as needed, and heedlessly tossed away when the need is assuaged. The potential borrower is entirely unlikely to have any sense that there is such a thing as a pen which is expensive, delicate, and precious to the owner. There are stories of pens momentarily unattended being snatched off desks, smashed into uselessness by someone who’s never seen such a thing, declared junk, and tossed into a wastebasket– stories told by the grieving survivor. This is frequently a boss-type performing the destruction, so raises and continued employment have been contingent on not smashing a chair over their head or saying, “I’ll have $200 to get that replaced, thanks!”

This current consideration is prompted by a friend’s story; she found herself in a class, where a sign-in sheet had been brought, but no one else had a pen. We must wonder about the instructor of the class, and I suppose must assume some kind of computer note-taking by the other participants. The friend, having signed in, was asked if she’d circulate her pen with the sheet. The Pause occurred, with a room full of staring, anticipatory eyes, a room full of people who are so uncomfortable with hand writing that they did not think to bring a pen to a class. A spectral Dennis Hopper appears, crying out, “What do you do?”*

If you are not a fountain pen user, whatever are you doing reading this? I urge you to make sure to carry some kind of pen or pencil of your own. You may save a fountain pen user a stroke as they try to rapidly estimate the pros and cons of handing over.

For my own part, I have a very quick hand-pocket reaction (some will simply grab at the pen without asking– under the Criminal Code of Canada, this can be construed as assault and theft), and a couple of responses that I practice regularly to overcome The Pause. If I’m carrying something of unknown durability as I am today or something of known flimsiness as yesterday, I will instantly say, “This one is too fragile. I dare not lend it.” This confirms that I’m a raving lunatic to the average inquirer, but that’s fine with me. If I’m carrying something that I think can withstand all but a directed effort at destruction, like Tuesday’s choice, I will hand it over, saying, “It’s a fountain pen. Use it carefully.” Also confirms me as a raving lunatic, and frequently leads to the request being withdrawn, and that’s also fine with me (if the person is willing to persist, they might be the sort to enter into mannenhitsu-do). Others promote the myth of the adaptive fountain pen– “Oh, this is a fountain pen; it’s shaped to my way of writing, and won’t work for you.” Evaluate the sanity of the statement as you will, unless you know how fountain pens work, it’s hard to argue against.

There are some who carry a throw-away pen that they can lend without hesitation, but to me this has as much potential for interpersonal ugliness as the simple negative response. The observant borrower, having seen a gold-tipped, marbled-body confection in your hand a minute earlier, may take it unkindly to be handed a nasty old goop-filled Bic.

To finish my friend’s story– unwilling to let the pen travel through all those untutored hands, she decided to, as she describes the event, impress upon them the fragile nature of the pen in terms shaped to modern understanding. The irony of the statement caused me to kick my feet in delight: “Actually, this pen is kind of high-tech.”

Today’s marvel of technology, not for untrained use: Conklin Signature
Today’s ink, very dangerous, are you WHIMS-certified?: Private Reserve Burgundy Mist

*This is not to be taken as an endorsement of the film in which Hopper spoke the line, nor of any of the works in which star of that film, a well-known and oddly named block of Canadian hardwood, has acted.

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4 Responses to “Can I Borrow a Pen?”

  1. Zena said

    For a bit of extra clarity: it wasn’t actually a class, but a meeting of students, and I was the chair. I’m pretty sure they all would have brought a pen to class, but they’re not yet mature enough to realise that writing often happens at meetings.

    The lesson they take away is that you never know when you’ll need a pen. The lesson I take away is that you never know when someone else will need a pen. Like a sacrificial wallet to give to muggers in New York, I need to bring pen that I won’t mind seeing the back of. I’m thinking of the annual “Johnnie’s Tailor Shop” sample that arrives despite the fact that my workplace has not housed JTS since 2002.

  2. […] have previously gone on at some length about the problems in lending a pen that a current fountain pen user faces. Yet, after less that the […]

  3. […] persistent reader of the back-numbers of this effort will know that’s a question I have wrestled with in the past, and I was thus ready to respond without a moments notice– the constant drilling has paid […]

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