by Randall Van Nostrand
I like pencils because life changes. I write an appointment in my datebook- old school I know, shoot me- 3:00 coffee. If I write it in pencil and change my mind or something happens, I can erase it and the space is reclaimed.
Certain relatives say I avoid commitment. I say a loose approach is best, especially when discussing overdue visits home. I prefer, “let’s pencil that in,” to my mother’s more rigid, “I’m writing this in ink.”
Ink is indelible. If you want to delete ink it’s a cross out. Ink leaves recriminations, “You said you would and now you won’t.” Ink leaves evidence of change and non-commitment.
Life’s easier with a pencil. An appointment is erased and voila, space is reopened and full of possibilities. Anything could go there. Or nothing. Nothing might mean a free afternoon, wide as the sky, with room to do whatever you please. I had an hour yesterday and made an avatar for a story I’m working on. The program didn’t give enough choices for how my character looks- not complaining, it’s free- but it was a good exercise. I now know he has a long nose, and sideburns, and wears military dog tags that aren’t his or anyone he knows. He’s that un-cool. The tricky part was saving it. Unlike an indelible pen, computer programs if not handled correctly, will disappear your work faster than a gnat jumping off a hairbrush. Press the wrong key and everything is disappeared, vanished, kaput, gone, no more. Not so with a pencil. A pencil won’t erase without you.
Sure there are erasable pens. I say, don’t bother. They don’t work. They’re pens trying to be pencils and making a damn poor job of it. The same goes for White-out, a good friend to typists for over fifty years. Hardly anyone uses it now. I used to go through bottles of the stuff. White-out is like a drip of bird poop. It hides a mistake but no one’s fooled. Everyone knows there’s a mistake and the only thing you prove is you know it too.
Consider the perfection of pencils, a piece of lead surrounded by wood, topped with a metal cuff and a pink eraser. It’s genius. Everything a writer needs except the sharpener. And sharpeners don’t have to be fancy. You can sharpen your pencil as finely with a Fred Flintstone pencil sharpener as with an electric one, or the more modest mechanical kind. You know, the kind you crank as if you’re making ice cream? If there’s no pencil sharpener, a knife will do nicely and possibly make you look cool.
Pencils aren’t wasteful like pens. The pen I like is a Jetstream 101. It writes smoothly without bleeding ink. Even so, when the ink is gone there’s an empty pen to throw away. A pencil is good until it’s barely a nub. Carry it in your pocket and you can mark your birder’s checklist that yes, you saw a yellow warbler. When your friend points to the happy check mark and says, in his condescending way, it was a goldfinch your cheeks may heat but you can erase it. Nobody else needs to know. The mistake is intimate. He isn’t going to remember and you’ll have learned something. Never again will you mistake a warbler for a finch and you’ll always bring a pencil.
Which leads me to erasers. The best is a pink eraser, firm but not so firm it crumbles the first time you rub out the name of ‘he who will no longer be mentioned,’ from your datebook. You know the guy you thought you’d make a passel of babies with and buy a little starter home in Queens? You don’t want an eraser to give out as you’re disappearing the lunches, dinners, and weekends at the Cape. A pen would leave painful reminders while a good pink eraser will make it all go away. And for God’s sake, don’t use one of those hard, white erasers. You and I both know it will tear the paper and leave holes from one week to the next. Buy a standalone eraser. You know the kind I’m talking about, they’re trapezoidal (a word I rarely get to write so am having a word-tingle). Keep it in the drawer with your calendar and Fred Flintstone pencil sharpener. These are critical supplies to have on hand for when that good looking man at the laundromat asks you out for coffee. You know how it is, you’re bored out of your mind, stuck in a plastic turquoise chair, watching a machine wash the bedding the dog puked on because Lord knows if you don’t watch it someone will steal it. And a man sits in the chair next to you looking all George Clooneyish (it’s not George, but close enough) and you’re pretty sure he’s not gay because he keeps looking at you and starting small talk about how many quarters the dryers take, and before you know it you’re comparing notes about the Freida Kahlo exhibit, and where to get the best chocolate ice cream. Before leaving, he invites you for coffee on Wednesday and you say yes. Then you hurry home with your still damp bedding and run up the five flights of stairs to get to your datebook- yes, I know it’s old school, shoot me- and you pick up a pen. But you stop. Breathe, you say, be smart. You put the pen down - a Jetstream 101- and pick up a pencil. You write- 3:00 coffee with Charles (George Clooney look-alike) at Peets.
And that’s what we call wisdom my friend, hard earned and true. Wisdom. Because you’ve been around the block and you know things change.
Which is why I like pencils.