Monday, December 28, 2015

In appreciation for a gift - an essay

I moved out of my parent’s house in 1995. You know what I miss the most from the house? I mean the house itself, not the family who lived with me, or the occasions & events that happened there.

I miss the pencil sharpener. It was a 1960’s vintage mechanical hand-crank type, in technical terms a "planetary sharpener". It was mounted on the wall in the basement room where I hung out as a teenager.

The room was square, wood walls and floor, no carpet, no windows and no door. But right there by the doorway was the pencil sharpener. 
Sharpening Old School, baby!

I graduated from high school in the late 80’s, in the days before the Internet and Microsoft Word. At least it was at my house. So, I wrote all of my book reports and did all of my homework on paper, with a pencil. I tried to avoid pen because my handwriting is terrible and I had to go back and erase a lot.

Now, that should explain why I used the pencil sharpener, but why was that the thing I miss the most?
It didn’t talk or make music while it chewed away at the business end of my Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2. It did not dispense advice, or listen to my problems, not that I ever even though of talking to it like a person. It just hung there, on the wall, waiting for me to turn its crank and create more pencil shavings and graphite dust.

I still use pencils a lot when I write, both at home and at work (in a library). I find my ideas flow more freely when I’m using a pencil than they do when I’m typing on a keyboard. I often decide to revise my sentences mid-sentence. I find that is easier to do with a pencil. Just flip it over, erase erase erase and the line is clear for my newly-constructed thought.

The pencil sharpener was my favorite thing from the house for one simple reason:

It did only one thing, but it did that one job very well.

I have had scores of pencil sharpeners over the years: lots of hand-held ‘prism’ sharpeners which fit in briefcase pockets, electric table-mounted ones which are simply a prism with a motor, some with a compartment to catch the shavings and some without so you’d better have a trash can handy.
You know the type.
Most of them have been terrible.

The prism sharpeners, which are a razor blade and a round hole in a small plastic case, are nearly worthless. After just a few sharpenings the blade is dulled, and for some reason they keep snapping the point off, forcing me to keep twisting in the hope that the next length of graphite won’t share its fate. Some pencils I’ve shaved down to a pocket-sized nub before the point survived.

At the library where I work we go through pencil sharpeners like facial tissues at a romantic drama movie. Mostly we buy the electrical desktop models –insert pencil and a little motor activates, and the critter start to chow down on your pencil. It is almost as though there’s a little wood and graphite eating gremlin inside who hasn’t eaten for a week.  You get your pencil back, and sometimes it’s sharp, but usually half of it is gone. It works, but it seems wasteful to me.

With my old sharpener, though, I could crank five or six times and have needle point that you could perform surgery with. My handwriting, as I’ve said, is terrible and a blunt pencil point just makes it look worse. So I go back and re-sharpen a lot. The old sharpener would be like “Dull point again?  No sweat! grind-grind-grind Here you go, don’t put anyone’s eye out with that.”  And my writing would continue.

There was even a little game every time I had to empty out the oval canister that collected the shavings. I had to carefully remove it and get it to the trash can without getting the graphite dust on my hands and everything else. Printer toner is pencil shavings’ poor country cousin when it comes to getting on everything and smudging it black. Yet for all that I actually liked emptying the canister. It meant that I had gotten stuff done – the writing, I mean.

That pencil sharpener still lives. My mom moved to a different house, but, knowing a good thing when she saw it, she took the pencil sharpener with her. New(ish) basement, but it is still going strong. That’s another thing I liked so much about it. It was reliable. Insert pencil, get sharp point. Every time.

The electric sharpeners at the library get replaced frequently because they keep breaking. I have no idea how one can over-use or misuse an object with no external moving parts, not even a button, and which has only one hole of a small enough diameter to keep things like fingers and keys out. But somehow the poor things drop like flies semester after semester. I have no idea how much Dad paid for it back in the 1960’s, but I bet it was a lot less than what we’ve paid in one semester for pencil sharpeners.

In a world where so many things are meant to be disposable and so are made cheaply, and where technology seems to get more complex without being more durable, it is a comfort to have something that you can rely on to get its work done. I asked my Mom if I could have the old pencil sharpener, but she said no. She’s still using it, and I couldn’t really argue with that. 

So, last year my Mom bought me a pencil sharpener. It’s made of metal. It is hand crank operated. It has an adjustable ring on the face to properly align pencils of different sizes. It has two cylindrical helical cutting heads which rotate around the pencil and create a point that you’ll draw blood with. It is mounted on the wall in my basement, and my boys and I sharpen our pencils with it. So far, it’s done a great job, but it has quite the reputation to live up to. I think it’s going to succeed.

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