Christmas is always a challenge for my family, which annually furrows its collected brow trying to figure out what to give me. Results in the past have been entertaining, including the lethal exploding soda-making machine; the thirty pound hardbound tome of Caslon typography with full page illustrations of every letter, punctuation and diacritical mark in every language, including Korean; and a breadmaking machine that required approximately two hours of prep time to produce a loaf the size of a dinner roll.
This year was equally productive, although much more subtle. In the end, the major outlier was the fountain pen.
You may not have even seen one of these in your lifetime, and for good reason. Essentially, a fountain pen is only one step removed from a goose quill, which was the standard writing implement of western civilization (the Asians used brushes) for about 1800 years, supplanting the somewhat more cumbersome and time-consuming wax tablet/wooden stylus methodology of Greek and Roman times. Before that, it was chisel on stone, which, if nothing else, encouraged economy of expression and careful planning. There was no “stone-out.”
To use the goose quill, one required an inkwell, and the fountain pen eliminated that. The fountain pen allows the bearer to carry ink around in the barrel of the pen, relying on gravity, capillary action and a very finely-machined nib to transfer the ink to paper. Thus the fountain pen was considered a major advance in calligraphic technology, and it ruled for many, many years, until finally supplanted by the less elegant but more foolproof ballpoint.
Still, fountain pens recall an era of grace and graphic style now long forgotten. Some wielders could roll out line after line of copperplate art, whose fluid look and careful blend of thick line with thin line spoke of a dexterity generally found only in operating theaters, and conveyed a gravity to the words it set down that may have well exceeded the actual content expressed thereby. In today’s world of keyboards, thumb-texting and the general abandonment of teaching handwritten script in favor of printing, fountain pens seem as obsolete as water mills and carbon paper.
So this Christmas morning, when I opened a small, slim box that contained a beautiful clear latest-tech Pilot fountain pen, the years rolled back, and I was enchanted. It was like finding an old friend from a long-lost past. I had used a fountain pen throughout high school, and even then, it was considered an oddity, if not an affectation. I even went to the extreme of blending my own ink, mixing green and black to create a rich olive color, and red with blue for an impressive maroon. Today this would most likely be considered clear evidence of gender confusion; happily, in the school I attended, eccentricities were not only tolerated but even encouraged, as we all grappled with how best to express our individuality without resorting to tattoos, piercings, Mohawks or the destruction of property.
But by college, the general mess and functional drawbacks of these sometimes-leaky, always dangerous instruments, along with their propensity for running dry at critical moments, led me to the inevitability of the ballpoint, and the subsequent appearance of the Pilot razorpoint pen seemed to have won me over for all time. But then, I got my Pilot Namiki.
Well, it was love at first sight. And today, after finally getting back home after a long holiday hejira, I decided to fire it up.
Hmmmm. So — what do you do with this thing? Well, you have to fill it with ink, and, having received a bottle of major-pedigree dark green fluid with the pen, I wisely went to the kitchen, where I opened up the ink. I looked at the pen. I unscrewed it. Consulted the instructions. Hmmmm again. What the hell are they talking about?
Well, apparently we have a choice here — we can buy some highly-convenient cartridges, but that seems hopelessly low-tech and plastic. What we need is to fill this hummer with this here green kink from this fancy bottle. But how? Well, here’s a clear plastic cartridge sort of thing, which, if we screw into the nib, will obviously fill with ink if we dip it in the bottle and and squeeze it, and then let it go – just like a miniature turkey bulb-baster.
We take the plastic cartridge thingie and push it in. We give it an exploratory squeeze. Instantly, a jet of blue ink shoots from the nib and sprays my trousers. Is this stuff washable? I guess we’ll find out. Apparently the cartridge, which seemed to be empty, was simply opaque, and already loaded with ammo. Now much of it is arrayed in an interesting if distressing Jackson Pollack distribution on my expensive pants. Okay.
Back to the instructions. Well, it appears that, if we keep reading, there are several alternatives to the cartridge, including (amazingly) the one that I have, which is a kind of hydraulic screw construct. I dip the pen into the inkwell and begin to operate the screw. I am elated as the barrel begins to fill with ink. When the screw-operated plunger has reached its fully-retracted position, the pen appears to be filled with ink.
So are my fingers, parts of my palms, and, for all I know, an earlobe or two. I try scrubbing it off. Believe me, this stuff is not coming out of my trousers unless we use pinking shears. Now I’m walking around looking like a frostbite victim, dark green extremities wiggling like so many gangrenous worms.
As for the pen, I dunno. Now that we’ve got it screwed shut and contained, it’s probably harmless. I did try writing a few words with it, and it worked fine. But you never know. The last thing I want to see is a dark green stain spreading across the chest of my suit jacket. My guess is we’ll leave it on the desk and use it for thank you notes. And while the prospect of waiting for my epidermis to wear down to the next layer before my fingers return to a less macabre color is not wonderful, it’s still a small price to pay for style. And compared to the damage inflicted on my kitchen by the chemical catastrophic of the soda machine, we got away from this one easy. Unless those green footprints on my carpet..oh, dear.
Merry Christmas, nemo.