tools of the trade

Yesterday morning I ran into a “seasoned” colleague who was looking for his t-square in a back closet behind a back room. Earlier in the week I ran into him in the bookstore, when I was looking for pens with caps on them. He was shopping for more graphite and pencils. He stated that he felt best writing out research papers by hand, before typing them up. (I’m afraid he’s going to make someone else do his typing.) I’m fond of t-squares and graphite, myself. I will still profess that my technical drawing class in high school, complete with drafting table, t-square, graphite, and a large white eraser, was one of my formative experiences.

In my colleague’s case, I took the humorous view. But I also worry that his example might be a prophecy of my own future state of existence, 30 years from now. Will I be spending my sabbatical writing out a “research” piece (yes, I’m so pithy that I’ll put “research” in quotes) in pencil? Will I be searching common department space for a lost t-square, saying I may have left it back “when I was Chair.” (I’m committed to never be department Chair.) Who among us believes that the department will store relatively obsolete personal pieces of equipment for individuals for 15 years? Well, my colleague does. And I’m sure he’s not alone in this general perspective.

So, maybe, 30 years from now, I’ll have the same kind of attitude. My own commitment to certain tools, although not t-squares, is no less archaic. Lately I’ve been scrambling to figure out what to do about pens, since I decided I can’t be trusted with retractable tips — too tempting to put in my pocket, fiddle with, and ruin another pair of trousers. My own visit to the bookstore the other day was a search for capped versions, but after none of them had the right feel, cushion, flow, or balance, I remembered the fountain pen that Karyn bought for me in Germany almost 20 years ago. The pen, and its bottle of ink, are safely stowed in my desk, and I felt a renewed commitment to returning to the elegant, and safely capped, writing device.

After spilling ink all over my hands (but not my pants!), I finally decided to order a new pen, and it should arrive today. This one has the option of loading non-spill, self contained cartridges of ink, such that no reviewer has experienced excess ink on paper, hands, or pants.

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On the same day I placed that order, Karyn researched and found that my precious pants — necessary for doing science — were no longer available in that color/size/style … EXCEPT they were available on sale, on the online equivalent of the discount rack.  Thoughtfully, knowingly, she ordered two pairs.

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This all seemed very silly to me after just a little bit of thought. I spent half an hour agonizing over writing devices in the aisles of the bookstore. I mourned a relatively generic pair of khaki pants, ones that are no different than any of the others I own to the outside observer. Yet, these are the tools of my trade.  A good pen and a pair of pants.  Everything else — shirt, computer, books, office, coffee mug, beaker, ruler, t-square, etc. — are fairly ancillary.  Accompanying the right pen or pencil is a leathered cased notebook; holding up the pants is a leather belt. Beyond this, I don’t need too much else. [Insert disturbing imagery of me teaching without a shirt here.] Except maybe a forgiving spouse who introduces me to fountain pens, with caps, and investigates sale racks for replacement clothing.

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