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Ralph Gardner Jr: The Pleasure Of A Well-Sharpened Pencil

Ralph Gardner Jr.
Ralph's happy pencil holder

Life, especially these days, turns on the ability to appreciate small pleasures. But might there be pleasures too small to appreciate? And even if not, then too small to waste listeners’ time by crafting a commentary about them? My wife thought so when I told her the subject of this week’s analysis. I think not, though a bit of justification may be required because is there any more solemn responsibility than not boring people within the sound of your voice?

I’m not sure how I embarked on the project in question Tuesday afternoon. I blame it on two factors. Or three. I’d worked as much as I could that day and the weather was terrible  -- a slurry of snow, sleet and ice -- so I wasn’t tempted to leave the house. Also, there was no insurrection, impeachment trial or other national travesty to keep one glued to the TV.

So I decided to sharpen all the pencils in the house. If this sounds like a solution in search of a problem I plead very guilty. I don’t even use pencils. Haven’t since school. Perhaps because their negative associations include failing third grade math tests, fighting with my parents, and facing the very real possibility that I wouldn’t be promoted to the next grade.

That said there are few things as elegant and efficient, or that embody perfection in all its simplicity, and with as little effort, as a perfectly sharpened pencil. That’s the other thing. I was employing an electric pencil sharpener. I know there are pencil purists who consider that cheating. The probably believe that well honed graphite, with a point as defined as the pinnacle of the Empire State Building, requires the control afforded by a handheld pencil sharpener or better yet an adjustable wall or desk mounted crank sharpener of the kind associated with grammar schools nationwide.

While the assignment consumed no more than half an hour even with an electric sharpener – OK, forty-five minutes because I had to gather all the pencils far and wide – the exercise turned into something more profound. No, not separating the colored pencils from the iconic black lead Ticonderoga #2 pencils and their ilk. Though that, too. Or then, in homage to my father, assembling the colored ones in an Ovaltine mug that had once belonged to him because he was a master of minutiae.

Its profundity resided in the realization that once I’d attacked the pencils I couldn’t very well ignore our pantheon of pens. Because pens and pencils usually travel together and it occurred to me that one of life’s modest annoyances – if happiness turns on celebrating life’s small pleasures does that mean that misery is the sum total of its petty aggravations? – are pens that won’t write or if they do sputter because they’re so old and addled or low on ink.

All it takes is one to make you doubt the reliability of all of them. I should note that I live in an inherited multigenerational home so I have pens dating back almost to the birth of the ballpoint pen in the late 1800’s. Pens with the logos of banks and other merchants long gone. Cheap plastic Bic pens. Fancy Cross pens. Parker pens with their rakish arrow clips. Even an inexpensive U.S. House of Representatives stick pen I acquired in Washington, D.C. while interning for then congressman and future New York City mayor Edward I. Koch in the spring of 1974. Needless to say, that writing implement and personal history artifact no longer works and it’s not refillable but I can’t bear to part with it.

And then there’s the whole universe of markers – both magic and reality-based. If a pen that doesn’t write is a disappointment then a marker that fails to live up to expectations is almost more deflating. It’s hard not to be moved by the frictionless way it glides across the page when operating smoothly, facilitating thoughts, encouraging logic and creativity.

In the end over forty pens went into the recycling bin. Not a single pencil, of course. Again, there’s room for disagreement here but my belief is that as long as you can grasp a pencil it would be sacrilegious to discard it. Of course, this opens up an entirely new can of worms which you may have already anticipated and if you haven’t that’s most likely because you have a life: if the eraser’s been worn to a nub, bitten off, or grown so old and dry that it’s no longer up to the challenge of abolishing your errors must the entire pencil be discarded?

I decided not. That’s the glorious thing about pencils, some of their erasers notwithstanding. A freshly sharpened pencil, no matter how ancient, performs as reliably as a brand new pencil. It’s the stationary equivalent – ery not ary -- of the fountain of youth.

I didn’t count how many pencils I sharpened because while I’m a loser I like to think I’m not a total loser. But it was several dozen. I’d be lying if I didn’t report a modest spike in my self-confidence and an unmistakable sensation of well-being. It’s empowering to know that now wherever I roam our home and whenever I need a writing implement a pen or a pencil is at the ready and prepared to operate to specifications. It won’t disappoint. The only thing holding me back is me.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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