Penman No. 219: The Chase and the Company

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Penman for Monday, October 3, 2016

 

THERE COMES a time in every collector’s life when he or she realizes that the road has suddenly ended—that there’s hardly anything more to be found, no further byway to be explored. It’s a sad acknowledgment but also in some ways a relief, knowing that one’s disposable income (and better yet, one’s savings) can go to more prosaic but in all likelihood more practical objects—a roof repair, or new tires for the car, or a larger fridge, all long overdue.

None of those, of course, will quite compare with the gleam of a 1786 Carolus III dos reales or an early edition of the Noli or Fili, or a 1950s Mercedes 180 (nothing too special, just one of my favorites) tucked away in an old garage. Or, in my case, a 1936 Wahl Eversharp Coronet, widely upheld to be the “acme of Art Deco pen design.” I’ve lusted after a Coronet in more than 30 years of pen collecting, even keeping a picture of it in my burned-out Faculty Center office, and maybe came close to acquiring it once. But like all “grail” pens, it remained a wisp of a dream, within tantalizing sight but always beyond one’s feeble grasp.

I knew I’d come to the end of my collecting road when the thought struck me the other day that if a Coronet were to be offered to me tomorrow for a reasonable price, I would probably smile and politely decline, preferring to keep it a pretty phantom forever. If I actually held it in my hand it might seem dull and stale, its Pyralin inserts (whimsically described as “Dubonnet red”) somehow lacking in the fire of fantasy.

Come to think of it, I’ve bought only two or three pens over the past three months—at least one of them for resale—when I used to acquire one almost every week. At its peak three or four years ago, my collection of vintage and modern pens numbered more than 300, ranging from the 1890s to the present and representing many of the best pens of every period (excepting the Coronet), by brand and model. It was a collection put together over many years of patient pursuit, of moving up from one model to the next tier, of selling five average pens to buy a first-rate one, of foregoing ampler lunches in my grad-school days in the American Midwest to be able to afford mid-range Parker Duofolds, Vacumatics, and 51s.

Some of those early buys turned out to be bargains and lifetime keepers. Back in 1987, I agonized for a week over whether to purchase an ebony Wahl Eversharp Doric from 1934—another Art-Deco icon, with a 12-sided cap and barrel and a latticed cap band—for the princely sum of $28. Thankfully beauty won over economy and I still keep the Doric, now easily ten times its purchase price.

Another classic I found at a Milwaukee antique shop in 1990 for a small fraction of its true value was a Parker Duofold Senior in Mandarin Yellow, a large fat pen from the mid-1920s, much sought after for the rarity of its color. Bought for $68, I had to resell it a year later for $380—still well below what it would fetch today—when I was living on turkey backs and trash fish on my meager stipend. And how can I forget the gorgeous 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red which I found in Edinburgh in 1994 and based my “Penmanship” story on?

It was stories like these that kept my interest in collecting alive, almost as much as the pens themselves, the remaining 150 or so of which I can’t possibly all use and learn to love, even if I rotated them every other day. I still value my best pens as marvels of both art and engineering, which also just happen to lay exquisitely shaded lines and whorls of glorious ink on fallow paper.

I suppose the end began a couple of years ago, when I turned 60. I started selling pens from my collection—even pens I had kept for over 25 years—to allow the members of our pen club, especially our millennial newbies, the privilege of owning and writing with something their grandparents may have used. That’s also when I began using my best pens, like the Montblanc Agatha Christie, on a regular basis—a bit like driving a Rolls to the 7-11—but my reasoning was, as we UP people like to say, if not now, when? What might have been ostentation at age 35 can now only be fondness in a senior, and the silver-snake-clipped Agatha gives me sublime pleasure even in the pocket, and many times more so when I sign my name—even on office forms—with its double-broad stub nib and sepia ink.

Such, I think, are the pleasures of aging, when one turns from sheer accumulation to discernment, and to the dawning acceptance of the finitude of all things, including and especially material objects, no matter how lovely and intricate and painstakingly acquired, be they pens, cars, watches, or Persian carpets.

Whereas I used to check eBay literally a dozen times a day (employing a special search term to ferret out the most desirable vintage pens), today I hardly blink when, say, a 1928 Parker Big Red sails under my nose for less than $100—let someone enjoy the bargain, as I’ve done myself many times. It was the hunt that kept me in the game, but I’ve learned that spotting the target but letting someone else take the shot could be just as satisfying.

In what was likely my last big pen adventure, a few months ago, I found another of my “grail” pens—the much-coveted Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992—being sold online for about half its usual price (if you really want to know how much these babies cost, try Google). The seller was in Malaysia—reason, perhaps, for Western buyers suspicious of anything too far East to shy away, but to me a heaven-sent circumstance.

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I closed the deal (drawing deeply on my savings, but what the heck, a Hemingway appreciates better than a time deposit) and, in a moment of inspiration, I did some quick computing and figured that it was only marginally more expensive and a lot safer to fly out to KL on a budget fare and pick up the pen personally the next day than to entrust everything to PayPal and a courier service. And that’s what I did. I always enjoy KL for whatever excuse takes me there, but I daresay no Argonaut ever crossed the South China Sea just to pick up an orphaned Hemingway and bring it home. (To be honest, it’s my second Hemingway—I use the other one, the gift of a generous friend, exclusively to grade student papers, in a bright orange ink.)

Over the next few years, I’ll be trying to bring down my remaining stash to an absolute core of about two dozen pens, which will be our daughter Demi’s inheritance from me (sorry, anak, no tracts of sugarland or bubbleback Rolexes here). They won’t necessarily be the most expensive pens—Demi can sell those off, if I don’t—but the ones most laden with story, blobbing like ink at the very top of the nib, eager to be disgorged. It’s been a privilege playing steward to these fine shapers of fine words, and I may miss the chase but not yet the company.

Penman No. 188: Risk and Reward in the Collectibles Market

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Penman for Monday, February 22, 2016

 

 

I’M GOING to be talking a lot about pens in the next paragraphs, so you might think of turning away if they hold no interest for you, but this is really about collecting and purchasing decisions as a whole, and could just as well apply to cars, watches, Star Wars figurines, and whatever else people hoard in their inner sanctums. If you’ve been bitten by the collecting bug, do read on.

Dr. Jonathon Deans is an Australian economist who specializes in the study of energy and commodity markets, and who teaches economics at the University of Newcastle. But away from his day job, Jonathon pursues a hobby with equal passion: collecting fountain pens. And unlike most of his fellow stylophiles (the fancy word for the addiction) who simply chase after and gloat over their inky toys, Dr. Deans has managed to merge his two interests by running a highly regarded blog on “Pen Economics” (www.peneconomics.com), tracking and discussing the vicissitudes of the global market for writing instruments.

Jonathon happened to be in town these past two months to accompany his partner Lisa, a Colombo Plan fellow and Development Economics student at De La Salle University, whose Economics department is headed by Dr. Gerardo “Bombit” Largoza—by uncanny coincidence, another fountain-pen collector and fellow member of Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org). This happy confluence led to DLSU sponsoring a well-attended lecture two Saturdays ago by Dr. Deans at La Salle on “Adventures in the Fountain Pen Economy.” (He’s left for now, but will be back in April.)

Jonathon explained that central to the economics of the matter is the idea of price vs. value, and where value (how strongly we desire the product) exceeds price, a purchase will likely be made. I listened with great interest and some amusement to his observation that many buyers of modern pens are risk-averse. He admitted that he was one such person himself, and noted further that he valued a close relationship with his favorite pen dealer—even at the cost of paying a certain premium over regular prices—because of the many benefits afforded by such relationships, chiefly personalized service and unparalleled solicitude.

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I couldn’t agree more with Jonathon (who gave a brilliantly comprehensive and insightful overview of the global fountain pen industry and particularly of our behavior as consumers). My amusement, however, came from my realization that while we thought alike on many important things (like our shared love of the Montblanc Ernest Hemingway, a pen considered a “holy grail” by many collectors), we differed in a few basic respects, particularly my greater willingness to take risks, to navigate the choppy waters of eBay to fish for rare species of vintage pens. But then, of course, I’m a poker player, so am more comfortable with taking calculated risks (and losing as well, because of over-optimistic calculations). My collection contains mostly vintage Parkers and modern Montblancs, so I found myself asking, what makes consumers favor one over the other?

The risks in buying, say, a 1928 Parker Duofold vs. a brand-new Parker Premier seem obvious. The modern pen should be shiny and trouble-free, and if it shows any problems or defects will be replaced under warranty. Being older than your grandfather, a vintage pen could be broken, leaky, warped, or missing parts, or otherwise difficult to operate, maintain, and repair.

So why do vintage buyers and collectors seem more willing to take more risks, and even court them? One trade-off is a generally lower cost. If the items work or if you can make them work, then they will likely be well worth their price. But there are also unquantifiable values to be added to vintage objects, values that help account for their allure: the cachet of age and relative scarcity or even rarity, the history of the object itself and its provenance, and materials and workmanship you won’t find on the modern factory floor.

In buying vintage collectibles, risk can be reduced by knowledge. For the highly knowledgeable buyer or collector, who will be aware of the common pitfalls of the vintage trade, the opportunity of acquiring a rare object at low or reasonable cost far outweighs the risk of receiving an object not as described, with no return option, or needing service. (Those risks will be even more diminished in direct physical sales, not online. But even online, the risks of buying pens long-distance—whether vintage or modern—are drastically reduced by eBay’s built-in money-back guarantee: if you don’t get the product as advertised, your money will be refunded.)

Indeed this ratio of risk to reward forms a great part of the thrill and satisfaction of vintage acquisition. While buying a new car from a dealership can be pleasurable, it’s hard to equal the excitement of finding, say, a 1952 Volkswagen Hebmuller tucked away in an old garage. While these two buyers will likely be two different people buying for different motives, many collectors will weigh both options, anticipating and investing in the collectibles of the future as shrewdly as they assemble the best pieces from the past.

With very few exceptions, vintage pens can only be bought on the second-hand market, where warranties and returns normally don’t apply. They are often sourced by enthusiasts and pickers in the wild, from estate sales, yard sales, resale shops, pawnshops, and small, out-of-the way antique shops. Eventually many get aggregated by dealers who sell online, on eBay and in their Web stores. The transition from a sale at the flea market to one concluded via PayPal is important, because here a certain measure of security can be afforded the buyer, not to mention the possibility of paying less for a prized pen at auction. (I’d typically pick up a $200 pen for $50, and resell it for $100 to finance other purchases.)

In fact, as far as eBay is concerned, I’ve probably had 1,000 transactions on eBay these past 19 years, and in the two or three times I’ve had to avail myself of its money-back guarantee, it worked without a hitch. This leaves just the risk of being disappointed and of being inconvenienced by the refund process.

Knowing this, the knowledgeable eBay buyer can take even more risks with the pen itself—that poorly photographed Vacumatic could be a sought-after Oversize, and therefore worth paying $50 more for. While the eBay guarantee will not refund the buyer in case the pen turns out not to be the desired Oversize (if it wasn’t advertised as such), it can give the buyer an extra boost of confidence to make a purchase, any purchase, in the way that gamblers may tend to play more aggressively in comfortable and well-secured casinos.

So yes, there are indeed more risks involved in buying vintage, and buying online; but the rewards, both physical and psychic, are also potentially great, and as Dr. Deans emphasized in his talk, when the buyer perceives value exceeding price, a purchase will be most likely happen, to the dismay of our bank accounts and hapless partners.

[Photo of Jonathon by Chito Gregorio]

Penman No. 173: Lines and Letters

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Penman for Monday, November 2, 2015

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about my favorite pastime (aside from my weekly poker binges and my foot-massage-and-movie dates with Beng), so indulge me this break from the headaches of literature and politics and let me talk about those obscure objects of my writerly desire—pens and all things appurtenant thereto, as my lawyer friends would say.

We have, not incidentally, a good many lawyers among our members at the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (FPN-P), which isn’t surprising, given how lawyers have traditionally used pens in their work, and at least in taking their bar examinations. Those pen-wielding members of the Philippine bar include Undersecretaries Albert Muyot, Ronnie Geron, and Rey Cruz; SEC Chairperson Tess Herbosa and SEC lawyer Joanne Ranada; pro-gun advocate Ticky Tabujara; former ACCRA lawyer Elsa Divinagracia; and Aboitiz lawyer Anthony Goquingco. While he hasn’t formally signed up with FPN-P, Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen, an avid pen user, has turned up at a meeting or two.

We also have a sizeable representation of doctors—among others, Novartis executive Aileeen Dualan, surgeons Jojo Hosaka, Joy Grace Jerusalem, and Leo Ona III, Healthway Medical head Eleanor Bengco-Tan, barrio doctors Edrie Alcanzare and Jim Lopez, Dagupan-based rehab specialist Hazel Gazmen, company physician Kristine Arabaca, and new Med graduate Mark del Rosario. Predictably, there’s a special thread in our forum devoted to providing specimens of our doctors’ handwriting—the more unreadable, the more impressive.

Alongside these professionals come teachers, writers, artists, businessmen, bankers, students, and all manner of writing enthusiast, drawn to the group if not by pens then by inks, papers, calligraphy, or drawing. What started out in my front yard in Diliman seven years ago with less than 20 people has grown to over 500 members on our dedicated website at http://www.fpn-p.org/, and more than 2,000 on our Facebook page (being FB-averse, I stay out of that group, but you’re welcome to sign up there if FB’s your thing).

Once or twice a month, we get together—typically for a long Saturday lunch in a Makati or Ortigas restaurant—to play with our pens and to doodle away in wild abandon. While we may talk politics in the corners of the meeting and devote some attention to tangential interests like watches and knives (you’d be surprised how many pen people have one or the other or even both as secondary hobbies), the focus is clearly on fountain pens, inks, and papers.

Whatever for? There’s no better way I can explain it than group therapy. As I’ve said in this column many times, it’s the sheer tactile pleasure of laying down lines and letters on a page, of watching the ink spread through the paper’s fibers, creating networks of meaning, or otherwise an impression of beauty, an entirely handmade beauty at that. This is what you can’t get from a ballpoint or a rollerball—a soft or shaped nib that can create breathtaking line variations from from extra-fine to triple-broad, that can be so sensitive to the touch that the merest tremor can betray some deep-seated emotion. With every stroke of the pen, another worldly care is banished, another rampant anxiety quelled. There’s nothing more intimate yet more revealing than that stroke, the physical commitment of thought to paper.

Fountain pen collectors (among other creatures infected by the same virus of compulsive acquisition) often speak of their “grail” pen, that one elusive, near-unattainable pen that calls to them in their dreams and shimmers like a mirage on the horizon of their consciousness. That pen could be as simple as a Parker 51 that they recall their father used, or as weighty as the Montblanc 149 favored by Supreme Court Justices, or as uncommon as a custom-made Nakaya or Hakase epitomizing the finest of Japanese craftsmanship.

Over the past 30 years of immersing myself in the hobby, I’ve had many such “grail” pens cross my fevered brain, and have actually had the good fortune of realizing most of them—a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy, a Parker “Big Red” Duofold from 1926, a Montblanc Agatha Christie from 1993, and, most recently, a Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992. Almost as interesting as the pens themselves, each of these pens has a story behind it, a near-mythical chase across decades and continents.

Unlike many collectors, I don’t keep my best pens in a case, under lock and key. I rotate them for daily use, praying that I’ll never lose one, although that’s almost a statistical certainty. It isn’t ostentation that impels me to do this, but rather an acute and growing awareness of time passing—of the sense that, at my age, I probably have another ten good years left, and what a waste they would be if I let my happiest acquisitions moulder away in some dark drawer, never having kissed paper.

If all this talk of pens makes you want to reach for one—whether in memory of a long-forgotten practice or in anticipation of a novel experience—then join us this Saturday, November 7, at the Cinema VIP Lounge of Century City Mall on Kalayaan Avenue in Makati as we celebrate International Fountain Pen Day (yes, such a day exists) around the theme of “Celebrating Analog Writing in a Digital Age.”

Open to the general public, the day’s events will include a pen-and-ink art exhibit, a calligraphy workshop, a sketching session, as well as an introduction to fountain pens for children. Guests may also avail themselves of services such as vintage pen restoration, appraisals, and nib tuning.

For supporting this project, FPN-P would like to thank Manila’s leading purveyors of quality writing instruments such as Everything Calligraphy, Faber‐Castell, Lamy, Parker, Scribe Writing Essentials, Sheaffer and Wahl‐Eversharp/PenGrafik. Our special thanks go as well to Asia Brewery for their assistance.

Entrance is free, so take those leaky old pens out of your grandfather’s desk drawer and bring them to us for a cleaning and a good chat. But I warn you: fountain pen use can be highly addictive, and leave your fingers stained in the most wonderful colors.

Penman No. 160: Hemingway in Manila

HemingwayManilaPenman for Monday, August 3, 2015

THE LAST time I thought about Ernest Hemingway, it was a few weeks ago when I was teaching his controversial 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of my all-time favorites for its compactness and subtlety, not to mention its grasp of human psychology.

Coincidentally, when I was giving that lecture, one of the pens in my pocket was an Ernest Hemingway—the first in a series that Montblanc called its Writers Edition pens, issued in 1993. Considered one of the “holy grails” of pen collectors, it had been generously given to me by a fellow member of the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org); we had a small business arrangement, but the cost of my own service was so negligible that the pen was practically a gift, most thankfully accepted.

My pen’s inscribed with Hemingway’s signature, but ironically, I don’t think Hemingway was ever much of a fountain-pen person, and being the practical, outdoorsy person he was, would probably have disdained carrying anything fancier than a Parker Jotter. He was actually known to favor pencils and typewriters—Angelina Jolie bought his 1926 Underwood as a wedding gift to Brad Pitt—and he wrote this down to explain why:

“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.”

I’ve since located an online sample of Hemingway’s handwriting—likely in pencil—which has him drawing up a list of recommended readings for young writers (among them, Stephen Crane’s short stories, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Oxford Book of English Verse). It’s comforting to know that his penmanship is a lot like mine—cramped, stiff, and generally ugly.

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One of the things that I forgot to mention to my audience—a group of English teachers—was that Hemingway once visited Manila, in February 1941, with the clouds of war already hovering above Europe, where the young Ernest had served as an ambulance driver in World War I. (Ambulance driving seemed to be strangely attractive to young men who would soon make a name for themselves in the arts and letters. Aside from Hemingway, these illustrious WWI volunteers included the writers John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, W. Somerset Maugham, and Archibald MacLeish, the composer Maurice Ravel, and the filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney.)

In another uncanny connection to fountain pens, Hemingway and Dos Passos served in Italy close to the factory of the Montegrappa fountain pen company, as Montegrappa continues to recall on its website: “Close to the Elmo-Montegrappa factory was situated the Villa Azzalin, which during the conflict. was converted into a field hospital. Two volunteer ambulance drivers for the Italian Red Cross at that time were the famous writers Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, both of whom spent many happy hours visiting the factory and experimenting and testing various Montegrappa fountain pens, and availing themselves of the Company’s after-sales service.”

But back to Hemingway in Manila.

An article by Brown University Prof. George Monteiro in The Hemingway Review (Fall 2010) talks about Hemingway’s short 1941 visit, a stopover on his longer assignment to China as a journalist. Accompanying Hemingway then was his third wife Martha Gellhorn, herself a distinguished writer, a novelist and a war correspondent. (Annoyed by her frequent absences—she would be the only woman to land with the Allied troops on D-Day—Ernest wrote her to ask, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” She led a long and colorful life after her divorce from Hemingway, and tragically, like Ernest, died by her own hand at the age of 89 in 1998.)

Flying to Hong Kong by Pan Am Clipper from San Francisco via Honolulu and Guam, Ernest and Martha stopped by in Manila for a few days and stayed at the Manila Hotel, and managed to meet with representatives of the Philippine Writers League, which was then led by Federico Mangahas. There’s a picture in the Flickr photo gallery maintained by Malacañang’s Presidential Museum and Library (whose Director, Edgar Ryan Faustino, just happens to be a member of FPN-P), taken from A.V.H. Hartendorp’s Philippine Magazine, showing Hemingway meeting with Filipino writers.

Seeing it reminded me of a similar picture of the big white Ernest looming over a small brown young Filipino named Nestor—a picture that NVM Gonzalez himself showed me in the 1990s, which sadly may have been lost in the fire that later razed the Gonzalez home in Diliman. Monteiro’s account mentions that Hemingway shared this bit of wisdom with his Filipino counterparts: “I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly.”

Unfortunately I couldn’t access the rest of the Monteiro article online (you need membership access to Project MUSE), but I read enough of it to understand that brief as it was, Hemingway’s stopover created quite an impact, enough for the Manila Hotel to use a quote from the big guy as one of its taglines: “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” The bayside hotel, founded in 1912, has of course hosted other luminaries such as Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles, aside from another popular postwar writer, James Michener.

As we all know, Hemingway killed himself with his favorite shotgun in July 1961, seven years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, in a fit of depression. It was a sad ending to a many-splendored life that we were privileged to glimpse, however briefly.

Penman No. 157: Dandy Doodles

14100168582_2191dbaffc_zPenman for Monday, July 13, 2015

YOU’LL UNDERSTAND if I’m mighty proud of my fountain pen collection, built up painstakingly over the past 30 years. Now numbering about 200, it contains some of the world’s rarest and most desirable vintage and modern pens, and I’m still upgrading it, bringing down the numbers while raising the quality, hoping to downsize it to about 30 of the very best that I can pass on to our daughter Demi not too long from now.

At least that’s the press release. What I’m not saying, and what I’m not too proud of, is how awful my penmanship is, a trail of chicken tracks worthy at best of a Bic ballpoint. We have members in our fountain pen club like advertising executive Leigh Reyes and designer Fozzy Dayrit who can carve out whole new careers as professional calligraphers should they want to, so artfully do they put nib to paper. Oafs like me just wear our pens like others might sport brooches and hats, as body décor to look more substantial and interesting, especially as our other charms wane with age.

The fact is, I can’t write more than half a page of anything with a fountain pen before my fingers start crimping with fatigue, more accustomed as they’ve become to tapping on a keyboard with whispery ease. The saddest part of the story is, the only time my fountain pens get any real exercise is when, joylessly, I have to write out checks to pay for the credit cards and the utility bills.

It’s not as if fountain pens are alien, certainly not to me. We used them as grade-school kids in La Salle, where we also wrote loopy letters for Penmanship class, and where an inkstain on one’s shirtfront was just a blue badge of honor (or so I told myself, to mitigate the embarrassment). But as the world has since moved from writing in cursive to block letters, and from the pen to the computer, our writing muscles have atrophied, and the feathery Fs and coily Qs that garnished our forebears’ documents are a barely legible memory.

So how do I derive pleasure from my pens beyond the sheer, avaricious thrill of ownership? When the day comes to cart away my papers and my trash, they’ll find stacks of well-used notepads in my drawers and cabinets, and the nosy rummager might well imagine discovering some private snippets, or passages from an unfinished novel, among my scribbles. I hate to disappoint the snoops, but they’ll find nothing of the sort; instead, all they’ll come across will be a trail of doodles—page after page of doodles in every color of ink and width of nib. And that’s going to be the big dark secret out of my bag: I buy fancy pens not to craft great literature with, but just to doodle all day, wasting time, ink, and paper on nothing grander than the pursuit of pointless happiness.

My dictionary defines “doodle” as “To draw or sketch aimlessly, especially when preoccupied,” which isn’t too far from Wikipedia’s take on it, which sees a doodle as “a drawing made while a person’s attention is otherwise occupied.”

Here we see that the key idea behind doodling is distraction: you’re thinking about something but don’t really want to think about it, so you do something else, and if there’s a pen in your hand, that pen will have a mind of itself and start making squares and circles and lines that lead nowhere and everywhere. In my case, I know exactly what it is I’m running away from: work! I’m so drowning in book projects that I have no proper business doing anything else—not even writing a column like this—but it’s when things get tough that the doodles get going.

I’m sure that psychologists have a perfect explanation for this, but I’m convinced that there’s a symbiotic relationship between work and distraction, and that doodling actually helps me get my work done by letting me relax while my brain processes headache-inducing conundra like “How can we pass an anti-dynasty bill when 14 out of our 24 senators belong to a dynasty?” You’ll agree that it’s more fun to deal with questions like “Hmm, should I go with the Rohrer & Klingner Sepia in the Montblanc Oscar Wilde or the Diamine Oxblood in the Parker Vacumatic? Heck, let’s do both!”

To some others, doodles are more serious business—or at least halfway-serious, as the Google Doodles illustrate. You may not have heard of them as such, but you’ve surely seen them if you’ve ever used Google, because they’re the quirky, funny, topical drawings that periodically festoon the Google landing page to mark an anniversary, a birthday, or some other cause for celebration.

Googling around, I discovered that there’s actually something called the Doodle Arts Magazine (www.doodleartsmagazine.com), which happens to be Philippine-based. The people behind the website organized Doodle Fest 2015 a few months ago, and you can still catch the artwork online. If you want to see how good doodle art can get all around the world, have a look at http://www.creativebloq.com/illustration/doodle-art-912775.

Me, I’m happy with my squiggles and X’es and endless iterations of “This is a 1928 Duofold” and “This is a Sheaffer Balance” and “This is Carlo Collodi ink” and “This is a fine pen.” Maybe if I wrote something more sensible like “I come from a country without snow and without raspberries,” I could get another novel going and done in no time, but that sounds too much like real work, which apparently was never what these glorious pens and inks were meant to do.

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Flotsam & Jetsam No. 43: My Midori

FOR THE past 18 months or so, I’ve been using a Midori notebook. I like it because it’s slim and can fit into my shirt or coat pocket, like a passport; it’s fountain pen-friendly, and I can always put in a new refill. I’ve had other notebooks but this is the most practical one for me, again because of its size and slimness (and that leather really ages nicely).

Penman No. 109: Ode to the 149

IMG_4575Penman for Monday, August 11, 2014

 

FOR THE past few decades, nothing has declared “I’m a fountain pen!” more emphatically than the Montblanc 149, also known as the Diplomat. This is the daddy of modern pens, the big kahuna, the standard by which other pens—fairly or unfairly—are measured. You’ll know a 149 when you see it. It’s as long and as fat as a cigar, which is probably why it’s been traditionally considered the quintessential man’s pen, the kind you’d find in the pockets of Supreme Court Justices, oldtime newspaper editors, and connoisseurs such as my friend the architect Toti Villalon, although fashionable but feisty ladies have been known to sport one.

You’ll also know that that big black pen is a Montblanc because of the white star (sometimes also called the “snowflake”) on top of its cap. Montblanc, which started out in Germany in 1908 as the Simplo Filler Pen Co., later chose the now-iconic white star to suggest the snow-capped peak of Mont Blanc (“white mountain”), the highest massif in the Alps. You’ll see the number 4810 on a Montblanc nib because that’s the height, in meters, of the mountain. (Montblanc, the pen or the pen company, is always spelled as one word; Mont Blanc the mountain is always two.) Some 149s also will have a white diamond—or even nothing—in lieu of the “snowflake,” which can be construed as the Star of David: not good for sales in many places in the Middle East.

The 149’s cap ring (like that of the 146, its junior sibling) will have “Meisterstuck” engraved on it; that’s German for “masterpiece.” This year, Montblanc marks the 90th anniversary of the Meisterstuck line, of which the 149—introduced in the 1950s—remains the flagship; appropriately enough, a special 149 with rose-gold trim was produced to mark the event.

If imitation is the best form of flattery, then there’s no pen more admired—because none more copied—on earth than the 149 (or, more accurately, the slightly smaller 146, but most people wouldn’t know the difference). You can almost be sure that, somewhere in Shenzhen, there are shops and families devoted to one and one thing only: the production of fake Montblancs, for sale in such places as Shanghai’s Nanjing Road or for export by the container van to countries like the Philippines, where they will be sold as cheap corporate giveaways or passed off as the real thing to unsuspecting buyers. Given this traffic, there are websites and pages just as ardently dedicated to spotting Montblanc fakes (here’s a quick tip: if your “Montblanc”’s nib says anything like “Iridium Point Germany,” it’s fake—that’s a generic steel nib employed by many Chinese makers.)

The real 149 is a classic, and deservedly so. Montblanc and the 149 gained popularity in the 1950s and the 1960s, as Americans returning from the War and from their growing contact with postwar Europe became more familiar and comfortable with things German, and with the high quality of German goods. There’s a story that when John F. Kennedy visited what was then West Germany to sign a treaty with his counterpart, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, the German fumbled around for a pen, and JFK sprang to the rescue by offering his—a 149.

(Image from dujour.com)

That 149, wherever it is now, should fetch a princely sum on the collectors’ market (like the big red Parker Duofold that Douglas MacArthur signed Japan’s surrender papers with). Indeed, even a new 149 (you can check it out locally at Rustan’s, the authorized dealer for the Philippines) will set most people back a few months’ wages. You can get a thousand cheap ballpoints for one 149—if a writing tool is all you’re looking for. Clearly, that’s not what 149 fanciers—yep, I’m one of them—have in mind.

Among 149 collectors, the pens to go for are not the shiny ones you can grab at the MB boutique, but the vintage ones made of celluloid from the 1950s and 1960s. The old, tricolor (gold-platinum-gold) nibs are also thought to be more desirable because they flex—the tines are soft and can spread apart, producing line variations that most modern fountain pens and certainly no ballpoints and rollerballs can.

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At one time or another, I’ve had maybe ten 149s in the collection, which isn’t too strange because I buy and sell pens to support the habit. I usually pick them up on eBay for a whole lot less than they’d go for in the store, which also means I assume a lot of risks that newbies would be well advised to steer clear of. I’ve kept three of these, and regularly use one. When people ask me why I go around with such a fancy and expensive pen in my pocket, I tell them that it’s because it makes me feel like a real writer, and because I’m 60, and should be able to use and enjoy what I damn well please before I croak.

Not everyone is a fan of Montblanc and of the 149. There are legions of rabid Montblanc haters who eschew the brand in the belief (somewhat justified) that many people buy Montblanc to acquire instant status, and that the company itself has encouraged this pretentiousness by marketing the 149’s plastic as “precious resin.” Detractors see this as pure hype, designed to rack up sales among ambitious junior lawyers and middle managers.

Do you think I care what they say? I’ll never be able to afford the Range Rover or the rose-gold IWC Portuguese of my big-boy fantasies, but when I make loopy figure 8s with my vintage 149—found online for next to nothing at a small auction house in Ohio—I feel like there’s justice in the universe, after all.

Penman No. 104: The Psychology of Collecting

48VacumaticsPenman for Monday, July 7, 2014

 

EVERY OTHER month or so, I take the 200+ contents of my fountain pen collection out of their wooden boxes and leather cases—a few of which reside in a fireproof safe—to ink, doodle with, clean, and reorganize. It’s a ritual that invariably leaves me pleased and at peace. Sometimes I reorganize the pens by age, sometimes by maker, sometimes by color or material.

Any serious collector of, well, seriously anything will recognize this behavior. And I do mean anything—I’ve met people who collect not just the usual stamps or coins or even watches and cars but barbed wire and tractor seats. (I met the tractor-seat fellow 25 years ago in a barn full of antiques in Ohio; when I expressed astonishment at his specialty, he turned around and said, with scholarly disdain at my ignorance, “There’s a fanny for every seat!”)

In the pen forums I inhabit, there’s a never-ending discussion about being either a “user” or a “collector,” the implication being that collectors are simply moneyed hoarders while users are simple, practical-minded folk who’ve never forgotten what things are for. I propose that the truth, as it often does, lies somewhere in between; many users are wannabe collectors, and most collectors have never stopped being users. It’s pointless to think of, say, a 1925 Waterman Sheraton or a 1934 Wahl Eversharp Doric as being just a pen you can write with, like a cheap ballpoint; they may have been utilitarian tools once, but somewhere along the way they crossed the line and became jewelry and art object.

At least that’s how I excuse amassing and periodically gloating over, say, my dozens of Parker Vacumatics, a 1930s-40s pen that forms the core of my collection. This was the pen I wrote my 1994 short story “Penmanship” about. (It’s a story about a story that I’ve often told, but the sum of it is that I found this 1938 Vacumatic Oversize in a pen shop in Edinburgh, paid a month’s salary for it, suffered buyer’s remorse, then decided to write a story about the pen, which won first prize in a contest that made me back my salary.) I know enough about Vacs that I can put you to sleep by mumbling mantras such as “Vac nomenclature covers a fascinating maze of models and colors—the Junior, the Major, the Standard, the Slender, the Debutante, the Oversize, the Senior, which is not to be confused with the Senior Maxima, since the Senior came out only in 1936….”

About 15 years ago it wasn’t pens but laptops—yes, Apple Macintosh Powerbooks, particularly the Duo line (the granddaddy of the MacBook Air and all those super-slim laptops people toss into their briefcases today). I had (and still have) about a dozen of these machines, which I used to take apart to upgrade the memory and hard drive (back when 240 megabytes made you king of the hill), before putting them back together again and then pressing the power button to hear that unmistakable startup chime that told me I had done everything right, so I could then step out and face the world and slay dragons and then sign memos.

So why do otherwise presumably sane people like me get our kicks by amassing strange objects most other people wouldn’t give a second look or drag into their homes even if you paid them to do it? I asked myself this question again last week as I changed out the inks (another ritual for the devotee) in my glorified Bics. Why do we take them out week after week, not to write a novel or a draft SONA but endless iterations of “I love this pen I love this pen”?

First of all, you want to be reassured that they’re still there. Collectibles have a way of walking away on little cat feet, and collectors have a sixth sense about what’s missing from the picture.

Second, you want to reassure yourself that you know why they’re there—that the objects have some aesthetic and monetary value. Perhaps that value’s known only to a very few people, which is not a bad thing, because it’s proof of your connoisseurship, of a certain esoteric form of expertise that’s taken you some time and expense to cultivate. It’s like getting a PhD in the truly little, truly fun things (and what’s a PhD these days except a lot of knowledge about very small things, hardly any of which is fun?).

You may be a total loser in nearly every other aspect of life—your face could resemble a well-worn shoe, your family may have deserted you for the coldest parts of Canada, your car could be an escapee from the junkyard—but if you know everything about tourbillons, carburetors, calibers, and (in my case) nibs, then you have good reason to face the world with pride if not arrogance; you have, after all, one of the world’s largest collection of GI Joes, or Tonkas, or Ken dolls, or whatever floats you boat.

Third, let’s go online and ask the experts. Dr. Mark McKinley, in a much-quoted piece on “The Psychology of Collecting” in The National Psychologist, goes back in time to note that “During the 1700s and 1800s there were aristocratic collectors, the landed gentry, who roamed the world in search of fossils, shells, zoological specimens, works of art and books. The collected artifacts were then kept in special rooms (‘cabinets of curiosities’) for safekeeping and private viewing. A ‘cabinet’ was, in part, a symbolic display of the collector’s power and wealth. It was these collectors who established the first museums in Europe, and to a lesser extent in America.”

Since I’m sure I don’t collect Sheaffers and Esterbrooks to show off my power and wealth, let’s see what M. Farouk Radwan (who holds an M. Sc., so who presumably knows what he’s talking about) says about the subject: “Since early years human beings used to collect food in order to feel safe and secure. Because acquiring food was a difficult process with uncertain outcomes humans learned to ease their anxieties by storing the food they needed. The same need, which is to feel secure, is the primary motivating force behind the creation of collections.

“Because life is uncertain and can easily make a person feel helpless some people use their collections to create a private comfort zone that they can control. By arranging and disarranging their collections compulsive hoarders can regain the sense of control over their lives. These actions reduce anxiety and helps those people cope with the uncertainty of the real world.”

So we go back to basic needs and instincts: food and security. McKinley puts these together: “For some, the satisfaction comes from experimenting with arranging, re-arranging, and classifying parts of a-big-world-out-there, which can serve as a means of control to elicit a comfort zone in one’s life, e.g., calming fears, erasing insecurity. The motives are not mutually exclusive, as certainly many motives can combine to create a collector—one does not eat just because of hunger.”

That’s a brilliant insight—“one does not eat just because of hunger”—and it leads to my favorite explanation of the psychology of collecting, propounded by Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein (co-authors of Sparks of Genius, the 13 Thinking Tools of the World’s Most Creative People) in “The Collection Connection to Creativity” (Psychology Today, May 2011):

“The fact is collecting exercises a number of important mental tools necessary for creative thinking. The collector learns to observe acutely, to make fine distinctions and comparisons, to recognize patterns within her collection. These patterns include not only the elements that make up the collection, but the gaps in it as well. Learning how to perceive what isn’t there is as important as knowing what is! And the collector also knows the surprise of finding something that doesn’t fit the collection pattern: Is the mismatch a fake? An exception? Something that belongs in another collection? Broken patterns are often the ones that teach us the most by challenging our preconceptions and expectations.”

Patterns, designs, mismatches, aberrations: early in 1937, just for a few months, Parker came out with a special Vacumatic, with the word “Vacumatic” etched in the gold-filled cap band. It’s one of the holy grails of Parker collectors, one of the rarest and most expensive of finds, and I have one. That should make it the crown jewel of my collection, but it isn’t; it’s the pen that made me write a story about it that’s the rarest one of all, that gives me a lifelong excuse for picking up tubes that squirt inks.

(If you like pens, join us at Fountain Pen Network-Philippines, www.fpn-p.org. We’re marking our sixth anniversary this week!)