In the Manner of Stylish Characters

March 10, 2009

Jennifer held the pen in her right hand and wrote. The letters formed
perfectly, just like they were supposed to, the way they do in the handwriting books and on the placards my
teacher had up around the classroom. Round, curved, leaning right, each form flowing into the next, smoothly. I was enthralled, mesmerized, never before had I seen such effortless and perfect penmanship. I was getting C’s in Handwriting – my lowest grades and no matter how hard I practiced my letters still looked lumpy and out of sorts, too upright, too tight, too loose -a sore point and discouragement, especially with a big sister who wrote so perfectly. As I watched her, in admiration and longing, I suddenly noticed
her pen. It was new and a kind I had never seen before.

The shape was exactly the same as a Bic pen, a hexagonal barrel, long,
straight, just like a pencil, but the plastic wasn’t transparent but a hard glassy orange opaque and the tip was sharp, sharp like a pin. The Bic pen was still a new product in 1964, the first disposable pen, at least the first that I remember, the first of a wave of disposability, pens that you can’t refill, a pen designed to be trashed when “finished.” Jennifer’s pen was,
of course, a Bic, the first fine point I had ever seen, and it worked flawlessly.

“Where did you get that?” I asked. “At the Ben Franklin. “Really?” I said
with glee, knowing that my salvation was at hand. I gathered my allowance and walked/ran the half mile along the old railroad tracks that bordered our Virginia backyard down to the ditch behind the shopping center and bought an identical pen, and rushed home to try it.

It worked. The first letter formed perfectly, just like Jennifer’s and the
writing book’s. The second letter was pretty good. But by the end of the first word it was painfully clear that the pen was not going to improve my handwriting. By the second word it had completely reverted to C quality. Aaargghhh.

Today I carry around a Targa. I have three of them – you can only buy them on eBay now. A calligrapher friend recommended it. Made by Sheaffer and discontinued years ago – a good writing pen – good ink flow – good nibs. I’ve carried one around for years, usually clipped into the neck of my undershirt, dangling against my sternum. When I reach for it it is always warm, ready for use, but that is mostly all I’ve done – had it at hand, ready, full of ink. If I can’t/don’t/won’t write at least I have a good pen…. to not write with??

The tool stands in, a substitute, a fetish, replacing the flesh and blood, the
flesh and nerve, the flesh and neuron. Tool ownership becomes a substitute for tool use, for self-expression, self-mastery, storytelling, myth-making, myth-breaking. The pen hangs, warm and ready, but remains a symbol, drenched in hope and “someday.”

In the mean time I discover (uncover, remove the cover from) words and their twisting, branching pathways. I find that the most abstract and high-falutin words began as humble useful objects, things, body parts. Style – now she’s got style – he’s a stylish character. Style, yes, from stylus, meaning pen, writing instrument. The word for the tool migrates and comes to mean the manner in which one uses the tool, one’s
Handwriting style. From there the word is loosed and is used to describe one’s hair, one’s clothing, one’s speech or way of designing. And before stylus? the root of stylus? It meant stick (in fact stick has the same root), a sharp stick used by some to make marks in the ground.

And character ? Questions of character…. does so and so have the right
character to be President? Before it was some deep, integral, and individual essence, character was, (and still is) a letter, a mark, Chinese, Egyptian, Greek, cuneiform, each character being unique and distinct from every other, on account of its characteristics. And its meaning migrates from “distinct mark” to marks of distinction in the human personality. But where does character begin its journey? As kharax, a really old Greek word meaning, you guessed it, sharp stick, a mark maker, a different root from that of stylus but with the same original meaning.

Or manner. From Latin manus, meaning “hand.” One’s manner is literally how one handles oneself, how one holds oneself, the hand being the original and greatest of tools whether or not one’s cursive is perfect or whether you carry a sharpened carpenter’s pencil, a disposable ball point, or a pretentious fountain pen.


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