the semiotics of the pen

It turns out I wrote most of this article over a decade ago. I may as well pick up where I left off. Not long after the 0.38 G2 became a thing, I drifted into a Japanese stationery store at Santana Row and found a Uni-Ball retractable in 0.38mm, featuring a never-before-seen blue-black ink. And that immediately became my pen. Granted, I rarely actually needed a pen, but I snatched it up anyway – to the point that when I went to Japan in 2015, I raided Tokyo Hands for over a dozen of them, in both retractable and non-retractable varieties (including a couple of 0.28mm, which frankly are only good for tearing the paper, you may as well write with a razor blade).

And sometime in the last four years, I found a very agreeable stick rollerball at Muji, in the same blue-black and 0.38, for $1.49 each. I bought a handful of them, and good thing, because Muji seems to have gone by the boards. And in the meantime, my everyday carry pen became a brass retractable from Machine Era, an American company specializing in the kind of mechanical manufacturing that doesn’t often get done in the country any more. I have a bolt-action retractable in stainless steel that uses any Parker refill, and the smaller brass one that takes the mini-refill, and is optimized for travel abroad with a Moleskine notebook – and which incidentally works out ideally in a pandemic world as a germ-resistant means of poking buttons. After all, in a world where there’s one cup of pens or pencils that says “SANITIZED” and another that says “DIRTY”, how much better to pull out your own writing instrument where required?

I still keep the Moleskine notebooks for travel, but mostly haven’t used them domestically for years. Time was, that was how I did a brain dump, and in some ways I still do – my desk needs a legal pad and a pen for me to work out thoughts, make lists, diagram the flow of how I want things to work. It’s easier to make notes on the fly with Evernote or the Notes app on the phone, but for some reason, my brain just processes better if I have the weight of a pen in one hand (thus the particular appeal of the Machine Era pens) and a broad blank page to work with.

It still feels like a necessary implement. The world has worn the contents of my pocket down to keys, wallet and phone, plus my AirPods and handkerchief, and so many of the things I needed to carry in the past are either by the boards (headphones, iPod, lighter, pipe, Swiss Army knife) or no longer particularly useful (no need for the Leatherman on you when you never leave the house, and the pen can stay on the desk, and honestly for most of the past year everything but the phone could be left on top of the dresser most days without incident). 

But taking up that pen and pad feels like readiness. Like i’m preparing to think, to figure things out, to make notes, to create. I need a pen because deep down, who I am is someone that has need of a pen. 

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