Time Out from Technology

I first encountered fountain pens in grade school. Decades ago in Catholic classrooms in New Jersey, taught by nuns, we kids learned our penmanship with a fountain pen. Although ballpoint pens existed then, they were heresy and thus forbidden. Of course, these fountain pens were cheap plastic models with a lever on the side that sucked ink into a rubber holder designed to leak upon first use. Even so, our ability to smear ink all over our hands, faces, and hair, was mind-boggling.

I abandoned the tribulations of fountain pens and ink-stained hands when I reached public high school. It wasn’t until deep into middle age when all life, it seemed, turned high tech that a gnawing discontent began to creep into my mind. Life felt mechanized. I spent serious amounts of time in my office pushing buttons, typing, clicking, and shoving a palm-sized plastic rodent around flat surfaces. Home was not much different.

I don't recall exactly when the notion gripped me of a fountain pen as a hedge against this growing onslaught of technology. But there I was one day in a fine stationery store pondering a row of elegant fountain pens quietly reposing on satin in a glass case. Should I indulge myself? And would I even use a fountain pen in real life? Putting aside sensible but negative voices, I opted to rebel. I bought the fountain pen.

With my new pen and bottle of blue ink, I envisioned transformation. Indeed, with pen in hand my creative juices did flow more generously. My handwriting became elegant. I wrote with increased intelligence. Perhaps I exaggerate.

Bravely, I took my pen to the office and used it forthrightly. More than once someone would spot me writing a memo longhand, and with gentle pity ask, “Why don’t you use the computer?” as if they had discovered me sitting there with a roll of parchment and a bird quill.

Once, a colleague smugly showed me his Bic and said, “Cost me a buck,” as he wryly observed my $150 fountain pen. And I, with a steely glint in my eye, asked him, “What kind of car do you drive? A used Yugo?” I knew the answer. He drove a Lexus, and so I asked why he would drive such an expensive car when cheaper ones abounded. As he walked away, I knew I had made a point but not a convert.

The reason we write with fountain pens has more to do with art and spirit than utility. It is to experience the subtle sensuality of an elegant pen in hand while ink flows gracefully over a gold nib. Fountain pens, they say, take on the character of the writer in a way a Bic is hopeless to reflect. We choose from small and delicate to large and heavy, from simple and sleek to wildly ornate to suit what our soul is trying to express. Over time, the nib itself bends to our unique style of writing. This cannot be said of a keyboard.

Fountain pens, treated with respect, can serve us for a lifetime. My computer, even as I write, is advancing relentlessly to senility and will no doubt need to be replaced before I finish this essay.

I do not propose either personal revolt or mass social protest against modern technology. Neither do I suggest that we abandon our computers and return en masse to fountain pens and linen stationery. Computers and cell phones and DVDs are as embedded in our lives as refrigerators and flush toilets. One cannot soberly conceive of their absence. Most of us would gladly choose a root canal over relinquishing our laptops. But, as technology grows more invasive filling every corner of our lives and seeming to alter our very brain cells, I, for one, feel compelled to carve out a small counter-cultural oasis. My fountain pens, low tech and lovely, with quirky individual personalities and a leisurely pace, fill this need.

-- Cynthia White