Ode to the Mechanical Pencil

I have a small college-ruled notebook that I use to scribble notes for blogs, copy recipes I find elsewhere, keep phone numbers–you know, write down whatever.  It took me a while to establish the habit of writing down ideas in the moment I have them, rather than ruminating on the thought, giving myself a satisfied “Huh,” and forgetting it ten minutes later.  Now I can actually put together informed writing based on something that jumped in my head two or three days ago.  But there’s an additional perk to the notebook.

It gives me the opportunity to admire my own handwriting.

I’m sure that sounds a bit vain.  Hell, it is vain.  But I have developed an admirably sketchy scrawl, a style of my own.  It sure took me long enough.  My penmanship has never been stellar, and in my youth it was often downright ugly.  But over time, I have adapted some of the qualities in others’ writing–the casual uniformity of my middle school math teacher’s all-capital style, the occasional bubbliness of a typical girl’s writing, and the hybrid print/cursive we all develop out of laziness and impatience–into something that has been consistently my own for a few years now.

My participation in debate impacted my writing the most.  You have to be able to keep legible notes at a rapid pace, while understanding the thoughts behind what you wrote later.  But as I stopped competing and only judged, I focused on organizing my “flow” (the term used to describe the set of notes kept during a debate) and ensuring it had a certain organized beauty to it by the end of the round.  Clean printing and clean lines–I need clean lines–and I had a flow that had, well, flow.  My preferred weapon of choice was and still is the Pilot G-2, preferably the 0.5 mm thickness.  Before that, I rocked the Uniball Vision.

The two pens contrast each other nicely.  The Vision is a thicker pen with a cap, and the roller tip has a gritty feel, so you know you’re really writing when you scribble.  The sharp tip prevents bleeding, but it also dilutes any stylistic flourish you may add when you have more contour to your writing piece.  You’re left with a strict examination of the formation of your letters (how high is the loop in your lower case ‘e’?  how low do you cross your ‘t’?) with no evidence of your pen movement.  The Pilot G-2 is a clicky (don’t know the correct term for this) gel pen, meaning thicker strokes of ink on your pad, but also an increased probability of smear.  Counterintuitively, it is a bit more sensitive to pressure, so you get thickness diversity.  The tip glides (“You takin’ the glide back!?”†) better,  so what starts as printed letters on your page you can’t help but turn into the hybrid.  It almost forces you to develop your style further.

This commercial is infuriating on so many levels.  First of all, what kind of locker room looks like that?  Giant swaths of open space, and mirrors with lighting in a Hollywood dressing room style?  “Gillette–I’m ready for my close-up.”  Then this guy barges in, full of fabricated verve, telling all these big bad macho men about HOW MUCH IT HURTS WHEN THEY SHAVE, and OWIE I THINK I STUBBED MY TOE, and WOULD YOU PLEASE SLICE THE CRUST OFF THE BREAD WHEN YOU MAKE MY PEANUT BUTTER AND JELLY SANDWICH!?  Then these douchebags, whom we’re supposed to assume these crazy “challengers” have caught totally off guard, offer glowing praise for another ridiculous shaving product.  Then the jerkoff at the end–“you takin’ the glide back?” gives us the most excruciatingly rehearsed but supposedly non-rehearsed personal endorsement I’ve probably ever seen on TV.  The guy looks ashamed for having to blurt out that phony blabber.  Recent versions of the commercial have edited this guy out, maybe just keeping his “wow” statement.  In fact, in a recent clip, some guy says “it, like, really glides.”  Only slightly subtler than those old HeadOn clips.  End rant.

But these days I don’t judge too many debates anymore, and the only time I’m  writing anything (besides in my notebook) is when I’m completing crossword puzzles.  And I don’t like using ink on a crossword puzzle.  You make two or even three mistakes in one block, and you’re left with the only option of basically filling in the entire block and rewriting the correct answer in contrasting correctional fluid.  So I’ve swapped my pen collection for the most artsy, stylish, feel-friendly writing utensil of them all–the mechanical pencil.

I lean toward the mechanical pencil over the standard wood pencil for a few reasons.  First of all, obviously,  is the convenience of the mechanical.  You never need to sharpen.  Beyond that, though, the lead tip of a mechanical offers greater uniformity over time than does a wooden pencil.  The amount of lead in a wooden pencil is downright wasteful.  You start with a the tiniest, sharpest tip and watch it slowly expand until your letters turn to mush.  Then you get up, find a sharpener (where, I have no idea), and start the whole process over.  Sometimes you go too far and feel the wood press against the paper, and it makes that terrible scraping sound, and AHHHHH  I JUST CAN’T HANDLE THAT.  Beyond all that, the gummy mechanical eraser is always better than the gritty crappy pink wooden eraser.  Sometimes the pink ones leave giant pink streaks on your paper–who the hell wants that?  Don’t they test these things first?  Then you have to find an eraser to erase your eraser marks.  No thanks.

My first option for mechanical pencil was a massive 24-pack of cheapo Bics, because I manage to lose pens and pencils at about the same rate Colts players are placed on Injured Reserve.  Sure enough, 24 became 17, which became 12, which became 8, which became 2, and now they’re all gone.  So I decided to lean toward quality rather than quality, and picked up a two-pack of Paper Mate ComfortMate ULTRA with 0.7mm lead and extra lead and erasers, which I diligently leave in the same space in my messenger bag after each use.  It is probably the most awesome writing instrument I’ve experienced so far.  The grip is just right in my hand.  The eraser clears any writing in its entirety.  When I work the angle of the pencil just so, it gives my notes an authoritative sketchiness.  I could write “purple jalopey dinosaur” fifteen times in a row, but if you took a glance at the page, you’d initially think, “Oooh, this guy has some deep thoughts.”

I was inspired to write this post when, after having noted my passion for this pencil on my Gmail status today, a friend of mine sent me a quick note debating my lead thickness of choice.  He denigrated the lowly erasable pen, and I started forming a response, when I realized how much I enjoy seeing words on paper.  Words formed by humans.   We’re slowly turning into a world where the literal written word (not typed or texted or whatever) becomes obsolete.  At some point, we’ll probably be able to think of letters and see them simultaneously placed on electronic paper.  But writing words out has a feel that is irreplaceable.  Sometimes the act of putting words to paper sparks a chain of thoughts or ideas in the mind that typing can’t foster.  I recently read that Pauline Kael, the celebrated movie critic, always hand-wrote her reviews.  I can understand why.

So thank you, Paper Mate, and Pilot, and Uniball.  When I see my notes, or my crossword puzzles, or my signature on a check, I can embrace the physical connection to our language.  And I’m sorry I didn’t use any of you to create this blog.

UPDATE:  I ain’t just whistlin’ Dixie.  The Week says so.


Haiku News, November 5, 2010

I don’t miss much about Indianapolis, but I do remember the days of sitting at the Qdoba near IUPUI, chowing down on a giant plate of nachos (chicken, with pinto beans, hot salsa, sour cream, cheese, and a little bit of rice, please) and reading a NUVO Newsweekly (think the Indy version of the Chicago Reader).  To my memory, it is the only prominent news outlet for local artists and musicians, while incorporating investigative reporting from a left-leaning perspective–something otherwise tough to find in a blue-collar, NASCAR-lovin’, beer-swillin’ hotbed of ‘Publicanism†.

As a tribute to NUVO, here is my take on a staple of theirs:  haiku news.

Cranky electors/Vote out the incumbents but/Can’t remember why

Olbermann donates/MSNBC makes clear/”We are not Fox News!”

LBJ debuts/Fans watch games, then normalcy/NBA ignored

Colbert and Stewart/Rally thousands to fight fear/And earn blame from Dems

Mark earns victory/Alexi salutes with beer/Barack licks his wounds

Fifteen scores, two picks/Peyton shows that Father Time/Is a deadbeat dad

“Saw 7” premieres/Whose fate is worse:  slaughtered cast/Or tasteful film fan

Cans of Four Loko/Next scare on college campus/Red Bull still legal

†Update:  My friend Neil (hi Neil) asked me an excellent question on facebook:  “wuts rong with beer swillin’?”  While I’m assuming a tongue-in-cheekness with the spelling and all, I must clarify:  there is nothing wrong with beer swillin’.  I love swillin’ beer.  I swilled a beer tonight.  (If High Life counts.)  I mean no disrespect to those who swill beer–nay, I invite everyone to swill a beer.  To beer swillin’!

On a (barely) more serious note, I don’t want to come across as one of those jerks that moves off to The Big City™ and suddenly washes himself of the people and place from whence he came.  My family still lives in Indy, as do many of my closest friends.  I value a lot of relationships I made there to this day, and am proud of the work I did with former students and my old high school.  And, of course, the pride of the city, the Colts.  I think most of my readers understand the balance of affection and immense frustration with the city/state and share my views.

So go beer, go Horse, go…Pacers?  Do we still have the Pacers?

Mario Mindfreak!

Courtesy of a review of the “Super Mario Bros” tag at kottke.org:  some guy found this crazy, nearly impossible Super Mario World level hack and tried to beat it.  134 times.  Watch the craziest plumber slaughter you’ll ever see.

It’s Just One of Those Days…

Well folks, it looks like we’ve come full circle.  Rage and shame stemming from disasterous Bush II era leadership and policy led to the Obama election a couple of years ago.  Our first black president, the first step to a post-racial America.  The promise of “change” and progression in society.  We’d repair our diplomatic image and regain international respect.  We would reverse course on our economic philosophy by no longer favoring the rich or the massively incorporated.  We cast our gaze on the horizon and saw imminent “hope.”  Yes we can!

Turns out all we can do is be angry.  It’s America’s new pastime.  Fred Durst is our poet laureate:  “Everything is fucked/Everybody sucks.”  Remember the inauguration?  Throngs of people across the country, taking to the streets under an umbrella of unity and positivity, crying and hugging total strangers because a certain spirit had been recaptured–the metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel.  Well, swap that now with pure vitriol.  White, middle- to upper-middle-class Christians seething with manufactured anger at the nebulous and ever-lasting right-wing gripe “big government” and “wasteful spending,” which apparently Obama managed to put together in 22 months.  Certainly none of this anger is inspired by racism!  (Would it kill one of these motherfuckers to use some block lettering or stencils or something other than their inbred chicken scratch?  Me write pretty one day!)

I am stunned daily at the extent to which large groups of American citizens have developed an unbridled rage at the exact problems George W. Bush created over eight years.  I can’t help but scoff anytime I hear a rationalization of this anger.  Bush slashed government revenue, spent insane amounts of money in an unjustified war (although don’t tell that to the untold numbers who still believe, even when it requires some self-delusion, that Saddam Hussein orchestrated the World Trade Center attacks), and stalked his citizenry with illegal wiretapping and even library monitoring.  Where was the outrage then?  If this fringe movement really has any semblance of principle, they should have formed a good 8 years ago.  But why, when you got a white-as-hell good ole boy in office, a guy you wanna drink beer with?  I hereby nominate my alcoholic Uncle Lenny for President.

Somehow a sqaudron of the least intellectual political leaders in history–Sarah Palin and her Pied Pipettes Mama Grizzlies, paternally coddled hangers-on like Rand Paul and Ben Quayle (thanks, Dad!), and weepy no-mongers like John Boehner (who has already conveniently set his party up for two more years of “No”)–have instructed a brainless, insecure populace to reload and unleash waves of ignorant white noise over a non-plussed voting population.  Even when it’s difficult to determine which specific policy initiative set everyone off, they’re MAD AS HELL and can’t take it anymore, and now the House is in their hands.  Meanwhile, weakling Democrats are left shrugging their shoulders and agreeing that, well, Obama isn’t that great.  If the Obama election was one giant liberal orgasm, we’re smack in the middle of a four-year refractory period.  Half the country is still lazing in bed smoking a cigarette–aw, c’mon baby, I’m tired, that was sooooo good–and the other half is raving around the bedroom, furious that they paid for dinner and the movie tickets.

As a liberal myself (didja figure that out yet), I’m left asking, “What the hell happened?  What exactly did he do?”  Well, you can look for yourself here (link courtesy of Jason Mikula–hi Jason–so check out his blog).  Ending predatory lending practices, increasing funding to fight violence against women, expanding insurance for children and the poor, removing restrictions to student financial aid.  What an asshole!  These are the policies the Ignorami (our modern version of the Illuminati) reject and abhor–but do they warrant comparisons to Hitler (not to mention Karl Marx, Satan, and that creepy child molester-looking guy on the third floor–oh, no, wait, that’s just Brad Childress)?  Are we in the fucking Twilight Zone?  And when will these people realize you cannot be a facsist and a socialist at the same time?

From my perspective, Obama had a mandate (as much as any national election represents any sort of right to make sweeping change–that itself is debatable) after November 2008 for more liberal politices.  He should have immediately closed Gitmo, repealed DADT, rescinded the tax cuts for the wealthy, and demanded a public option.  But our political spectrum is so skewed–liberals are really toward the center here, and conservatives are damn near Puritan–that any slip away from the fictional middle sparks the hyperbole.  He’s tyrannical, he’s a Marxist, etc.  (This little gem might be the most laughable piece of absurdity yet.  As much as I wish I lived in Arizona, holy hell, am I glad I don’t live in Arizona.  Ever heard of Richard Nixon, you idiot fuck?  Or YOUR DAD?  I guess that’s how he has a keen sense of what is the worst; the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.  And yes, I AM GOING TO CALL YOU A CLOSET HOMO, HOMO!  Here’s the second part of that ad.)

Where is the liberal rage?  I’m furious about the direction in which MY country is going.  I for one love things like desegregation, affordable health care, reproductive rights for women (I love it when old white men tell women what to do with their uteri).  When will a chunk of the population stand, with legible, grammatically correct picket signs, and express their fury?  It sure as hell didn’t happen in this election.  Maybe we have to wait until 2012, when Vladmir Putin Sarah Palin rears her ugly head, and we’re faced with a serious decision about leaving the country.  I don’t know what else could mobilize the left.

It will be a few months before we feel the full effect of these elections.  I expect the next few legislative months to be lame (duck) as hell.  We live in a 24-hour campaign cycle, and even though a good chunk of House Dems have lost their seats, surely they’re already thinking about 2012.  So we’ll see more bland, unimpactful and superfluous legislation that, while in essence accomplishes nothing, will somehow piss some sect of the political spectrum off.  Then the new GOPers will take their seats, and Congress will accomplish absolutely nothing.  Good luck with all that, Barry.

Sigh.  Politics.  It’s all about the he-said she-said bullshit.

“It’s an All-Day Affair!”

I believe Mary Carillo is the best sports analyst of our time.  Apologies to John Madden or Jack Buck, but she combines experience with verbal wit, timing, and a sense of observation that I find unparalleled.  As I was searching for her comments regarding on-court coaching in women’s tennis (and you KNOW she has thoughts on that), I found on Huffington Post this amazing video regarding everyone’s favorite summertime backyard sport, badminton.  Ridiculously accurate, smoothly deadpanned.  I could watch this woman commentate a potato sack race.  Enjoy:

Ladies and Gentlemen, Randy Quaid!

Normally I don’t get caught up in this kinda stuff, but this is priceless.  Watch out, Mel!

Eatz: Cajun Chicken (or Shrimp, I Guess)

I recently discussed with a friend the expansion of Food Network’s influence on television.  If you haven’t heard, they’ve created a new channel called the Cooking Channel.  You may be a bit confused–don’t they cook on Food Network?–but there are some differences.  My friend Carrie (hi Carrie) aptly compared the new network to MTV; once MTV figuratively eliminated the M from MTV (this before they literally did it), they created a new channel, MTV2, for videos.  I’m waiting to see if the Cooking Channel, which supposedly serves the true foodie set, devolves into more clownish Guy Fieri-style fast-food TV and spawns yet another channel.  (Apparently MTV2 has ditched videos as well.)

Anyway.  I haven’t yet caught any of the Cooking Channel, although the program lineup looks serviceable.  But our conversation reminded me of the handful of recipes from Food Network that are decent, if unsophisticated.  I took the time one day to prepare one of Paula Deen’s butterfests; the recipe (check it out here) calls for shrimp, but I’ve never been a big fan of the sinewy chewiness of shrimp, so I substituted chicken.

Yes, the recipe calls for a shitload of butter.  More butter than any person (or group of people) should really consume.  But if the woman knows anything, it’s that butter is damn good.  And fat is good.  Sometimes you need to strip away the carpaccios (carpaccia?) and the tartares and the foams and just dig in to some comfort food.  And the simple combination of the buttery base with the zing of lemon and hot sauce (and also lots of black pepper) infuses a simple chicken breast with great moisture and flavor.  (I stabbed the chicken a lot before I slathered the sauce over.) It helps to add a bit more hot sauce than she calls for; in fact, I recall pouring somewhere near half a bottle into the pan.  Otherwise, the butter predominates, rather than pulls the other flavors together.  Remember, nuance is not Paula Deen’s strong suit.

Adding some sliced bell pepper strips (I used red and yellow) to the dish before baking gives you a flavorful texture alternative with the meatz.  Oh, and I highly recommend using the sauce left over in the pan from baking as a topping to a heaping pile of mashed potatoes.  Holy hell, can I go to town on some mashed potatoes. It’s also great with some crusty bread.

So you may need to spend 6 hours in the gym to work off this one meal.  (No truth to the rumor, though, that you should wash this all down with a raw egg and a mug of warm half-and-half.)  But it sure is worth it, especially as the days grow shorter and colder and the comfort food comes calling.    Three cheers for dairy products!

Because Being a Belgian Sports Idol Wasn’t Enough

Unfortunate footage of Justine Henin 2.0:

“I’m Sorry for Making You Stomp on My Head.”

I…I don’t know what is real anymore.  Please read this, and explain America to me, if you can.

“We’ll Getcha a Tiny Cannon.”

Another awesome video from kottke.org (if you regularly read this, you definitely should make this site a daily stop).