My Friend Phileas

My Phileas fountain pen—my constant grading companion over the last ten years or so—is broken. Recently, I retired it… but not without mourning.

Putting the pen aside reminded me of an essay I wrote in response to an assignment I once gave my students.  It’s based on The Catcher in the Rye:

Stradlater’s English teacher gives his class an assignment: write a descriptive essay. Stradlater, busy with Jane Gallagher, asks Holden to help. Holden’s good at English. He knows, according to Stradlater, how to put commas in the right place. Because reality often imitates fiction, you will write something “descriptive as hell.” Be like Holden. Just as Holden describes something important to him—Allie’s left-handed fielder’s mitt—you should describe something important to you. If you pick something that matters, your writing will matter. Your writing will be fueled by your object’s significance.

As I sometimes do, I wrote my own response to this assignment, and, today, I’m updating “My Friend Phileas” to deal with my loss:

People don’t really get to define themselves. Most of the time they reveal themselves when they aren’t trying to, in some mundane task or unconscious gesture. These moments present the observer with a sort of core sample, a random poke in the soil that reveals the quality of the field. In the case of people, a single instant can characterize the whole. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could assure those core samples were always rich earth instead of sand or manure?

Possessions are different. The things you choose to cling to are a deliberate reflection of what you value, and the one thing I’ve gripped over the last decade has been my Waterman fountain pen. The specific model of the pen is Phileas, named after Phileas Fogg, the main character of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, and it looks like a pen he might have carried. It’s suitable for daily use, easy to care for, and—I like to think—not at all weighty or pretentious. It’s sleek and small, not bulbously self-important or anything dignitaries would use to sign legislation or treaties. It’s plastic. The marbled resin of its body looks like stone, and it has three gold bands near the top, the middle, and the bottom, but it isn’t marble or gold. The bottom band includes a decorative tab that looks a little like a crest of the sun rising. My use of the pen has worn some of the gild away. Underneath, it’s stainless steel.

Whenever people commented on my “fancy pen,” I’ve tried to convince them it was a bargain, perhaps because I’m worried they’ll think me extravagant or wasteful. I have to tell them how long I’ve had it and how much I paid for it—$35. I hear myself saying over and over that, at that price, it’s cheaper than losing a ballpoint a week. I like to think of myself as a no-nonsense guy who is entirely un-flashy, and I’m afraid they’ll misunderstand my wielding this weapon of the moneyed class.

Here’s the truth. It’s been a beautiful object in my life and a friend. Every once in a while, I’ll absentmindedly leave it somewhere—my bedside table or my desk at work or next to the copier or some other strange but at the time sensible place. Then I’m lost. So what if I’ve amortized it entirely, its loss would be a tragedy. As an emblem of permanence in turbulent life, it’s irreplaceable. So many other things have drifted off, broken, or become obsolete. My pen hasn’t. My attachment is the desperate grip of an anchor in a storm.

Sometimes I think grading papers would be impossible without it. I use purple ink cartridges and love to watch the pen filling margins with curly purple script. In meetings, the pen insists on formulating expansive and baroque doodles. With every other pen, I press too hard, but Phileas follows lines already there.

Frictionless, its flow of ink steady and reliable, it has always seemed overjoyed at what I ask it to do… until it requests another cartridge.

Objects can’t truly be expressive. We make them do our bidding. But in an eerie sense, the ink in a pen comes from you. A friend who also loves his own fountain pen tells me the particular way a writer angles the point wears the soft gold of its nib in idiosyncratic ways. Fountain pens, he says, are trained to your hand and stubborn and balky in any other. With my Phileas, I wondered who trained whom. My pen felt like me…or, at least, a me I enjoy being.

I have a reason for letting past tense peek through this account. I had to retire my Phileas recently. Everything erodes. Metal isn’t as hard as you think. The nib of the pen has worn to a new shape, and the channel that brings ink now pinches and makes it flow irregularly and gloopily. I’ve denied these changes for a while—along with the cap that slips off much too easily and the shirt clip I have to put back once a day—but I couldn’t anymore.

Maybe it’s silly to mourn objects, but facing the truth hasn’t been easy. The Phileas style is no longer available, so choosing a replacement feels like closing a chapter. I worry I won’t love my new pen as much, and, even more than that, I worry I’m abandoning an old friend. Then there’s the sense the Phileas is me, and I am Phileas.

Do I hide it in a drawer, hoping to encounter it serendipitously with warm feelings later? Do I honor its service with a prominent place?

After losing and rediscovering it so many times, after following it over endless pages and watching its play, I can’t simply let it go. Forgetting would be forgetting part of myself, and I wonder if anyone can ever be ready for that.

1 Comment

Filed under Aging, Doubt, Education, Essays, Gratitude, High School Teaching, Identity, Laments, life, Love, Meditations, Memory, Nostalgia, Teaching, Thoughts, Tributes, Work

One response to “My Friend Phileas

  1. I’m sad for you. I too love my fountain pen, which I lost some time ago. I’ve been putting off replacing it because I think it must be somewhere in this house!

    It might be possible to repair that pen, you know. I’ve had great luck with this man and I think it might be worth the trouble to get in touch with him:

    Thanks for this wonderful essay.

    I thought about repair, and we used to have a store here in Chicago that sold and repaired fountain pens, but they did not survive the economic downturn. Plus, one of my friends who knows pens says mine isn’t very repairable, being as it is a “modest” pen not made for replacing parts.

    Your pen probably is in your house, just waiting to be found again. The longest time mine when AWOL was two weeks, and then I found it under my bed side table, hiding just where it couldn’t be seen.

    Thanks for visiting! David

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