Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Addresses of of Lost Pens

A year of so after my father left a job to move our family back to the Midwest, his old boss sent me the gift of a Parker ballpoint pen. A reflexive exaggeration would be for me to say I've had the pen forever, but when I stop to sift time through the rational sieve of a calendar, it seems the pen and I have been together--more or less--for about 45 years. In common with many Parker ballpoints from the era, this retractable has no button but is operated by pushing the back end toward the front, and it's a mechanism that has provided me a little amusement over the years when strangers have asked to borrow the pen, and a moment of not knowing passes their faces.

I've latched on to a number of objects for inexplicable reasons: a found salt shaker top, a piece of a tree's calyx that happened to fall into my jacket pocket during an autumn walk, an eraser from sixth grade. The Parker pen remains the longest-lasting and most practical of the material attachments, since I have chosen it to be the implement for all the writing I've done creatively until just a few years ago. Then I changed to a Parker fountain pen. The choice of a fountain and its smoothness of action was made as a gesture to what I believe is increasing arthritis that is worse when my hand bears down. The choice of a Parker I made for no other reason than sentimentality for the brand with its trademark Apollonian arrow.

What's remarkable about my pen's history, part of which I imagine as the straightened line of cursive writing it has laid down expressed as a ratio of the distance from here to the Moon, is the bald fact that I have not lost it. Many times the pen has turned up missing only to appear again under a magazine or in another desk or next to the salt shaker top or, most dramatically--and this has happened several times--having survived the washing machine and dryer. I usually spend the time between lost and found in a state of agitation and find the pen's bright steel body only after having given up plowing stacks of books, papers and clothes.

This morning I again found myself at a loss for my ballpoint. After bustling back in from the air of yet another Indiana polar vortex to search my car for the pParker, I complained all-too-piously to my Zen teacher of the silliness of being attached to pens. "But they help you write," he replied. Then he suggested that if I clean my room, I might find my pen. Yes, that's right. I live in a Zen temple and my room looks like it barely contained the blast of a fragmentation grenade. A bit of shaming and not-terribly-original-wisdom in my school is that a disordered room reflects a disordered mind. My only rejoinder to this is to note that, yes, every single time I sit down to meditate, I see a disordered mind. But my reply to my teacher lacked sassy energy. "Maybe. But I think I lost it at that print shop, not in my room."

Yes, the "print shop," because yesterday I went to an appointment at one to investigate an unsolicited and vague offer of a work opportunity. Having finally put on my suit with pocketed pen and allowing a computer algorithm to select a route for me to this place I'd never been, I smartly embarked. But the algorithm knew places to turn on streets that didn't seem to exist, and my detours around these questionable avenues lead to further detours caused by Indianapolis's unending roadwork. Slowly I drifted across the grid of streets to a utility-line-and-railroad-scarred section of town, running late on that cold and glaring afternoon.

On instinct, and not because I saw any sign indicating the name of the final street to my destination, I turned into a small, light-industrial campus that housed several business interests, all of which had the same name, "Chronos", but with different subdivisions: Chronos Engineering, Chronos Marketing, Chronos Storage. The campus showed no activity on its neat, little streets, and I drove around trying to find my destination. Picking a door that had the word "reprographics" on it, I entered a clean, workshop with a number of copiers, printers and high-end scanners. No one else seemed present. Doors to the right led to clean, unoccupied offices. Doors to the left led to a warehouse full of objects I could not identify, and it too was abandoned. Feeling frustrated in this industrial ghost town I cried, "Hello! Is there anyone here?"

Just as I was about to get back into my car, someone appeared at the reprographics door and asked what I needed. "Chronos Press?" He indicated a building across the street that, as far as I was concerned, had appeared only when I then turned to see it.

"I think I have a one o'clock appointment with Mr. Chronos," I told his receptionist. Much of my confidence had fled by now and left me the expectation of the unexpected. Expecting the unexpected, it arrived. Probably because of our cramped communication via LinkedIn, and also probably due to my suit-wearing, pen-loving manners of the previous century, I had failed to understand that today's conversation was meant to happen on the telephone. Chronos himself was not in the office today, but I spoke to him for a while from a phone in a vacant office on the premises. And all this is more than anyone needs to know about my adventure to the Chronos print shop, except perhaps to say that this morning I imagined my Parker pen lying abandoned there on a desk in a room off the lobby of those echoey premises.

And such were my thoughts upon returning to my room after breakfast this morning to plow my room over once more in search of my ballpoint. A few minutes later, having resigned to waiting for the pen to turn up in its own sweet time or to become an eternal part of the mysterious Chronos Group's office supplies, I walked out my door to see the pen lying just outside in the depression between the threshold and the hallway carpet.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote of his fictional world of Tlön that:

 "[c]enturies and centuries of idealism [there] have not failed to influence reality. In the most ancient regions of Tlön, the duplication of lost objects is not infrequent. Two persons look for a pencil; the first finds it and says nothing; the second finds a second pencil, no less real, but closer to his expectations. These secondary objects are called hrönir and are, though awkward in form, somewhat longer."*

Borges explains that the usual ways in which hrönir are produced are "distractions and forgetfulness." My pen has been lost and found so many times--and today it has appeared in a most improbable location--that it's easy to entertain the idea it is no longer the original pen my father's boss gave me, but is in fact another object. Perhaps it appears in my life to call attention to some kind of discontinuity in time and space. Perhaps tit indicates a grand unity of the cosmos in which a difference in location is a mere shift of the mind. One moment the pen lies on the clean, cool desk of a printing sales rep; the next it lies at my feet pretending that all along I had been walking back and forth over it in my frantic search. Perhaps it whispers that  location is a toggle in reality, the difference between, say, Chronos Photography and Chronos Catering, separated more by a word than by a windy, empty street. A shift in words; a change in address. Or perhaps, as that marvelous American blowhard Charles Fort suggested, there is another realm lost things go to, a "Super Sargasso Sea" full of our lost pencils, socks and paper clips that occasionally break free of those mystic waters and beach themselves back in our equally lint-filled reality.

Fanciful thoughts aside, I'm glad to have my ballpoint back, and will probably get another, new Parker ball pen to serve traveling writing needs. Why continue to put a beloved antique at risk of loss?

One day, though, I will reach for it, and it will have retired at last from existence.. It will be where lost things go, and stay there. In the meantime, my workhorse pen is the fountain. As I said, over the years writing with the ball point has become more awkward and painful, even though the pen itself has grown unaccountably more attractive.

*Jorge Luis Borges, "Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius", James E. Irby, tr., Labyrinths, New Directions, 1964, p 13.

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