Put it in ink

With so many people using computers these days, you'd think ink pens would've gone the way of kerosene lamps and steamboats and sweaters on dogs.

Anything you might scribble with a pen, you can do neater and probably quicker with a computer, depending on how many times you have to reboot. But no, pens are as popular as ever. We may send greeting cards and condolences by e-mail, but we still need to jot things down. Grocery lists and calendar notations and sudden inspirations.

I'm so spoiled by the computer that I don't write much with a pen anymore, but I recently worked on a project that required me to write eight legal-sized pages in longhand. By the time I was done, my hand had drawn up into a knobby claw. It was a relief to get back to the computer, though it was tough at first, trying to type with my claw.

At our house, nearly every horizontal surface has a pen floating around on it somewhere. The sudden need to jot is followed by a scramble through accumulated newspapers and crashed paper airplanes and dirty socks in search of the pen that must be there somewhere. If the pen can't be found, it's with a heavy sigh that we arise and shamble over to the next-nearest horizontal surface to locate one.

For two decades, I worked for news organizations and I can honestly say I bought fewer than a half-dozen pens in that entire time. Newspapers supply pens to their scribblers, and every reporter in America has a large stockpile of company pens at home. The pens ride home in your pocket, then get dumped on the dresser with the spare change and the gum wrappers and other pocket detritus. Pretty soon, the dresser is buried in pens, which migrate around the house to all the horizontal surfaces.

When I left the newspaper world, I figured I'd accumulated enough pens to get me to old age. But they didn't last nearly as long as I'd thought. A steady diet of crossword puzzles and to-do lists burned up ink like it was gasoline. Pens died and were discarded. Others went through the laundry process and expressed their displeasure by refusing to write anymore. An untold number went off to school with my sons. Eventually, our house was pen-free. Unless I wanted to start pricking my finger every time I had an idea, I had to go buy pens.

Have you seen the pen racks at your typical office goods warehouse? I estimate they have 47 million different models. Fountain pens and rollerballs and ballpoints and felt-tips and razor tips. Fine, medium and thick points. Black ink, red, blue, green, purple. The selection is so large that it produces a crisis of confidence in the consumer. What will my pen choice say about me? Will it change me somehow? If I buy a pen that produces a fat, green line, will I start dotting my "I's" with little hearts or smiley faces?

For some people, pens become status symbols. They spend as much on their writing instruments as they do on their watches and cell phones. We get a monthly catalog at our house from a company called Levenger. It's chock-full of lacquered fountain pens and high-tech ballpoints, all with eye-bulging price tags. At office supply stores, they keep the pricey pens in glass cases, like jewelry.

These are not for me. I'd be afraid to use them, scared I'd lose them or mindlessly gnaw them or otherwise ruin them.

What I wanted was a basic pen, one I could use or lose without feeling bad about it. One fine enough to use addressing envelopes (that first impression is important, and I still haven't learned to run envelopes through my computer printer), but sturdy enough for everyday use on frustrating crossword puzzles.

I settled on a basic pen with a pocket clip and a clicker button on the top. Matte black. Medium point. Retails for 75 cents each. Inconspicuous, sturdy, manly. Perfect for me, really, in every way. Except for the name. Bic Soft-Feel sounds kind of wimpy, doesn't it? I plan to write the folks at Bic and complain. As soon as my claw relaxes.

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