A Handsome Black Pencil (1)

An iconic pencil must be assigned an iconic color. It is certainly the case with most flagship pencils. That said, black often seems to be the paint of choice when a manufacturer wants to signal that a particular pencil is a cut above the rest.

The packaging’s only a paper sleeve, but what a sleeve! There is an additional sheet inside that keeps the pencils tight, and what’s more amazing, keeps them facing a certain way – the pointed tip of the hexagon points upwards, so the printing on the pencil shows to its best advantage.

I first saw the Commerce on Contrapuntalism (here, for example), a treasure trove of all things EF. I’m glad I got a chance to know this one, since it is so far one of only two Eberhard Faber pencils in which the lead feels related in any way to the Blackwing, unlike its more famous, similarly ferruled cousins, the Van Dyke and the Microtomic. The shade is perfect, the edges crisp, the silver print classy. A most handsome pencil.

A Good Mechanical Pencil Is Hard to Find

One of the great things about belonging to a larger community of fellow enthusiasts is that you get to learn a lot about even the things that didn’t interest you at the outset. Thank you, friends, for educating me enough to pick out a new mechanical pencil for a fifth-grader :)

The Pentel P205 in black and gold.

By the way I recently read a book in which the author kept referring to “retractable pencils”, by which I suppose she meant mechanical pencils.  Or would there have been another kind? It has too many names :(

Postcards From the Edge

This is still a pencil blog, but I’m aware that a certain travelogue-like vibe has crept in these past few months, on account of my having moved to a pretty exotic place which I’m still discovering for myself. But I do try to stick to the subject, and while I would love to comment on the awesome chivito that I had yesterday or the fresh eggs wrapped in newspaper at the Saturday open-air market, I do my best to rein in the impulse. But the mystery surrounding the postal system in this country merits some discussion, especially since the post, if you think of it, is an important public service that helps sustain our various analogue activities. If one were to talk about an infrastructure necessary for the culture of writing by hand to flourish, which in turn sustains the well-being of the stationery industry (at least in part), surely the post would occupy a significant place. In addition, it brings those small delights from around the world to our doorstep. But after five months in Uruguay, I’m asking myself: how is it possible for such an essential service to be so invisible?

When we first arrived, one of the things that struck me was the absence of post offices in the city. You could ride a bus for thirty minutes, an hour, and not see a single post office. I’ve lived in big cities for most of my life, where post offices are as a rule very visible, and never far away. The lack was such that I began to wonder whether “Tiempost” was the national postal carrier – it wasn’t, it was just a private courier service. I wanted to send some postcards upon my arrival in a new country, and thought that if there weren’t any post offices nearby, I could maybe buy some stamps or get some from my husband’s office, and put them in a postbox. But that wasn’t so easy either: there were no shops selling stamps or processing the post on behalf of the postal service (as is the practice in many other countries – drugstores, convenience stores, etc.) apart from the post offices proper.* Moreover, there was not a single postbox to be seen on the streets. Even after five months I have yet to see one. On top of that it took me quite a while just to get hold of some postcards! This is the first country where I have had to hunt these things down with such single-minded determination. I found them at last in a bookstore, not a souvenir shop, where the accordion-folded packs were stored well away from the customer’s eye and looked like they hadn’t sold for quite some time. 

 Even the Bradt guide on Uruguay, which claims to be “the only dedicated English-language guide to this small but characterful country”, comments, “Uruguayans don’t seem to use the postal service much”. This is really a mystery, since internet banking doesn’t seem widely developed or used, and bills still arrive in the post. (On the other hand, online shopping doesn’t seem widespread either, which would obviate the need to develop delivery services further… or is it the very lack of such services that hobble the development of e-commerce?) In an era where post carriers around the world have had to adapt to new realities in order to survive, Correo Uruguayo seems to hang on by offering only the minimum of services. A Google map search brings up less than ten branches in Montevideo, a city of 1.3 million, and most are small and tucked away in the middle of nowhere except for a large building up north where the customs office is housed within, and where they hold packages from abroad hostage and ransom them for exorbitant amounts (sorry, I’ve been there, I had to say this :(). I’ve spotted real postmen in the street once or twice but have never seen a postal van. It is a mystery how things get delivered at all. I wonder if this situation is unique to Uruguay, or is South America as a whole more or less similar?

All this makes me appreciate the post back home so much more. The Korean postal system is cheap, fast, reliable, and delivers on Saturdays too. The Japanese system costs a bit more but is just as efficient. I liked the Canada Post offices (or Postes Canada, in Quebec), with its pleasant interiors, maple-leaf-patterned packaging tape and seasonal stamps featuring Canadian celebrities and hockey players, but they were very expensive. (Despite charging such high fees, they were chronically short of funds, and at a point announced the cessation of home deliveries altogether – all mail to be delivered to a communal locker outside. Well, of course the lockers froze over in the winter and there were stories of people trying to get their mail by pouring antifreeze on the locks. I could go on and on with the Canadian snow and ice stories but I will stop here :))

So, the point of this post is to say the postal system here is weird, but I’ve finally figured it out and won’t let it get in my way. Correo Uruguayo here I come!

*The Bradt guide says some pharmacies with the Correo sign outside sells stamps, but so far I’ve never seen one with any such sign, and even if I found a pharmacy that sold stamps I would have to go to the post office anyway to post the letters. [sigh]

An Unsung Hero of My Desktop

If we’re not above discussing pencils and pencil sharpeners, could I present my Scotch tape dispenser too? I was reaching for this today, as usual, when it struck me just how easy to use it is, how well-made and sturdy. Maybe this is what a good basic should be like: nothing fancy, but works every time. A true stalwart.

One push of the lever rotates the wheel 120° and delivers up pieces of tape sliced 35 milimeters long. I guess there are blades located down below, sharp as ever after four years of service. The length of the tape may seem short at first, but it suffices in most cases (you can even roll it to make it double-sided), and it helps you to not waste tape.

This is how it looks from the back – it takes 12mm or 18mm tapes.

It can be a bit tricky to thread in the tape the first time, but once you understand which way the tape travels, you should be fine ;)

I haven’t seen these kind of dispensers in Canadian Staples, or in any other store abroad for that matter. Have you? But once I found it there was no going back to those flimsy plastic dispensers that crack open every time, or to those other kind of dispensers with metal teeth that you get cuts from and that stretches your tape and leaves the edges jagged. You can easily work it with only one hand, and far fewer fingerprints are left on the tape. I think I got the most out of this dispenser when my son was going through an intensive taping phase in kindergarten and I had neither the time nor the patience to assist him ;)

It’s really nothing, just a tape dispenser, but it makes life just that much easier and more pleasant :)

Pencils, Onscreen and Otherwise

For the dreary winter months down here in the southern hemisphere, I have joined fellow Montevideanos in what seems to be one of their favorite pasttimes: Netflix binge-watching. And pencil-spotting is a sport in itself :)

This is Daniel Craig as Mikael Blomkvist in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. At first I was so excited, thinking that the movie crew made the effort to track down a real Dixon Ticonderoga Millenium for the Millenium series – but upon closer inspection, it turned out to be just an ordinary Ticonderoga Black. What’s a Dixon pencil doing in snowy Sweden anyway? Maybe they just wanted a dark pencil to blend in with the monochromatic color scheme?

I was overjoyed to spot the rare Mongol 480 in Sophie’s Choice. (It may be a regular hexagonal 482, but that barrel looks round to me!) Stingo, the aspiring writer, has a cupful of these beauties on his desk.


And, last but not least: the humble Noris is called up in the service of Art. The soprano Renee Fleming shows how to use a pencil for vocalizing practice (start watching around 1:20; it lasts only a minute or so).

The Saga of the Pentel Super Multi 8

The other day I made a curious discovery at my local Mosca. In a corner of this shop there is a locked glass cabinet holding such desirables as Cross and Lamy ballpoint pens, Parker Jotters, and Pentel P205 mechanical pencils in an array of plasticky colors, and inside it I spotted an unfamiliar Pentel box. It turned out to be 2mm colored lead refills, exactly two to each plastic container. The colors were vivid and enticing (red, yellow, green, blue, purple, black), and the leads were curiously shaped – short, with a metal protector on one end. I asked if they had any Pentel leadholders that would use these, and was told no. The only 2mm leadholders they had were from Sabonis. Thinking I could call up my Staedtler 2mm holder in a pinch, I bought a couple, came home and looked up this lead.

There was a reason this lead looked so funny. It turns out that the Multi8 leads are dedicated refills for the Pentel Super Multi 8 pen, which has eight slots for the lead of your choice. Why does Mosca sell refills for a pen it does not carry? Not the strangest question I have asked myself so far in this country. I ended up ordering the multipen from home, along with some colors I hadn’t seen in the store.

There are actually several versions of this pen. The PH802 is “for checking” and holds only colored lead: the set comes with red, blue, green, yellow, orange and brown leads, plus two kinds of non-copying leads. The PH803 is a true multipen, with red, blue and black ballpoints, graphite lead in HB, plus fluorescent yellow, fluorescent pink, red, and one non-copying lead. You could conceivably get either and use it for whatever refill or color you want, except that the refill names are printed on the body of the pen and you might not like the legend over the purple lead saying “ballpoint”.

The pen is not really attractively designed; I wouldn’t have noticed it or recognized it for what it was on a display stand. Maybe it was fortunate that I saw the lead first. I don’t need any more 2mm colored lead holders; I prefer to use up my colored pencils whenever possible, and I wasn’t tempted by the Caran d’Ache or Koh-I-Noor holders up till now, but there was something very appealing about using Pentel lead, the granddaddy of polymer leads. I also liked the idea of being able to carry around multiple colors in one instrument instead of an unwieldy tin.

The leads are on the soft side, and although they come with a lead sharpener, I don’t see myself using it. The non-copy leads are very faint and not very pleasant to write with. Also, you have to be careful when you rotate the clip to select the lead – the plastic parts don’t feel very sturdy.

The “instruction manual” is very strict. Note where it says “Practice selecting and advancing lead” ;)

All told, this pen, with its complicated insides and provenance, has come to signify something larger than itself for me. I was reminded of this, funnily enough, when (re-) reading Adam Gopnik’s essay on the culture of coffee in Iceland. Did you know that one of the more fanatical nations on earth, when it comes to coffee, is faraway Iceland? And has been so for several hundred years?  Or what about the fact that the Frisian islands (off the northern coast of Germany), of all places, always rank first or second when it comes to tea consumption per capita? As Gopnik says:

…unconscious cosmopolitanism is the key to civilization—when you don’t bother to stop to think how much your way of life depends on distant places, intricate trade, and hidden chains of supply. Going to a beautiful, remote place reminds us, above all, how relentlessly interdependent the world is and always has been in supplying pleasures that are, almost by definition, imports. 

Wouldn’t you think this applied to stationery too? The small, ingeniously designed pieces that delight us with their varied function and the often exotic thinking behind their design? Living in a very protectionist part of the globe, I sometimes wonder what kind of world we would find ourselves in if only coffee-producing nations were allowed to drink it.

Nanami Seven Seas Writer Notebook

The “Writer” notebook that the online shop Nanami sells under their Seven Seas brand is already in its fourth edition and a lot has been written about it already, so I will only note for the purposes of this review that it is a solid 480-page block of Tomoe River paper, stitched and bound in a soft cover, that comes in its own casing. I liked it enough to buy again. I’m a bit intimidated by thick bound journals – I usually go for spiral-bound notebooks that you can tear pages off of – but the Writer has worked beautifully for me as a transcribing notebook (more on this below). 

The thick stack of onionskin paper opens completely flat, and the layers form a cushion beneath the fountain pen nib; I really feel that Tomoe River paper looks and feels its best at volumes like this (as with the Hobonichi planner). When I first started the notebook I was concerned about the translucency, especially since the ruled lines were sometimes misaligned front and back and you could see it. So for the first half of the notebook I only wrote on the front, but I got over that later on (which was fortunate, because the back side was actually smoother and more pleasant to write on).

The only downside to this notebook is that the shipping costs are prohibitive when ordering from outside the U.S. Paper is heavy, and it usually costs at least as much as the notebook itself to ship, if not more, so it takes a lot of commitment. But on the plus side, the Writer has a lot of pages so I am all set for the next couple of years :)

(Oh, one more shortcoming is that you sometimes find creases inside around the stitching. It’s probably because of the sheer volume of paper being folded and pressed together, but I’ve learned to forgive this.)

This is my first try at uploading a video and the resolution doesn’t seem that great… but hopefully my video skills will improve. I really had fun writing in this notebook! It’s not a diary but a receptacle for literary quotes and passages I wanted to save from online sources and books borrowed from the library. In Korea students of literature routinely transcribe works of their favorite authors, regardless of whether you own the book or not. The act of transcribing is seen as a sort of meditative effort to understand the oeuvre better. I wonder if similar practices exist in the West?