25 September 2001

”Make no mistake; the American Revolution
 was not fought to obtain freedom, but to
 preserve the liberties that Americans
 already had as colonials. Independence
was no conscious goal, secretly nurtured
 in cellar or jungle by bearded conspirators,
 but a reluctant last resort, to preserve
 “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” "

  - The Oxford History of the American People

Every day has its own little oddity to bring to the dinner table. A couple of days ago, the oddity at my table was a remark I made about a recently reported news item: as a result of their in-flight misconduct, three people were banned from air travel by two major airlines. I said I was glad to know these people weren’t likely to be on future flights, and I applauded the airlines for the courage to ban them. I said that since the airlines were private enterprises, they should be allowed to set rules for who can or cannot purchase tickets for travel. They should be applauded for keeping known troublemakers off the planes.

I was promptly met by a firestorm of criticism and invective from my spouse, a person whose opinions matter to me. The things my beloved said included casting aspersions on my loyalties as a patriotic American; my addictive, mindless agreement with filthy capitalists (these were the airlines); and my seeming determination to undermine the very foundations upon which this great country are built. Curious about the vehemence with which this outburst was delivered, I asked for help in making me understand where my logic was flawed. Why should an airline be forced to sell a ticket to a person who is a known, documented troublemaker?

My spouse offered, “If I get really drunk and abusive, and I decide to scream at or threaten the cabin crew, or defecate on a serving tray in full view of everyone in first class, just like that executive did a few years ago, that doesn’t give you the right to tell me I can’t fly any more. All you can do is remove me from the plane, have me arrested, and sue me for the expenses incurred as a result of my actions. You can’t stop me from flying, especially if I have to fly to make my living--that’s against the Constitution!”

I asked specifically which Constitutional right was being infringed by the ban. “Why, the freedom of movement, that’s which right. Nobody can stop me from traveling in the country--it’s against the law!”

I did the only thing I could do in the circumstances. I decided to go straight to the source.

Last spring, MightyWords offered a significant online writing competition, open to all U.S. citizens. The subject of the competition was the first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the “Bill of Rights.” Contestants were invited to write about what the Bill of Rights meant to them in today’s world, in no fewer than 1,000 and no more than 5,000 words. The first prize was $15,000. The winning essays would be selected by Jonathan Kellerman, Doris Kearns Goodwin, and Richard Goodwin. The winning essays would be announced and published on Independence Day, July 4th.

To facilitate the contestants’ creative impulses, MightyWords provided additional material. There was a reprint of a brief history of the Bill of Rights by the American Civil Liberties Union, the complete text of the Bill of Rights as ratified on December 15, 1791, and a collection of “eMatter” essays titled “American Perspectives," with each Amendment considered by a contemporary thinker.

I read all the material, thinking I could easily write an award-winning essay. After all, once I picked an Amendment, the rest would come easily to me. I even went a step further, poring over my 1968 “College Outline Series” edition of the U.S. Constitution. I studied the origins, the Virginia Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution, cases involving Federal legislation declared Unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the Qualfications and Powers of government officials, and a list of when the states were admitted into the Union. I also read all of the “eMatter” essays.

The trouble was, by the time I finished reading all the source material, I came away from the research overwhelmed. The essay I’d hoped to write wasn’t going to be the snappy serving up of patriotic jingoism I’d expected. I realized I felt deeply about the things I read. I got closest to the truth in my opening statements: “The effect of the Bill of Rights is such an integral part of my life, so tightly woven into the fabric of my daily existence, I am not certain I can extricate myself from it in order to examine it as a thing apart from me. I feel as if I’ve been asked to examine the meaning and value of the air that moves in and out of my lungs.”

I may not have won $15,000 as the result of my writing, but I learned a whole lot more than I ever expected to about the underpinning principles of the U.S. government. Sitting at my dinner table, I was preparing to discuss and defend what freedoms and rights we as citizens actually possessed.

Amendment One says, “Congress that make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This means Congress can’t legislate religion, prevent free speech by individuals or the press, or prevent peaceful gatherings or the right to ask the Government to intervene in wrongs. Nothing at all dealing with the right to climb aboard a public vehicle in that one, so I moved on.

The only real, specific reference to travel came from Article Four of the Articles of Confederation, effective March 1, 1781. The Article says, “The better to secure and perpetuate mutual friendship and intercourse among the different people of the different states in this union, the free inhabitants of each of these states, paupers, vagabonds and fugitives from justice excepted, shall be entitled to all privileges and immunities of free citizens in the several states; and the people of each state shall have free engress and regress to and from any other state...” In other words, anyone has a right to enter or leave any state they like. The Article does not, however, address itself to the how of that entry or exit. Nothing at all about having a right to climb aboard a public vehicle to effect the desired travel. It’s only the right to come and go that gets addressed. How a citizen comes or goes is entirely up to the citizen and his or her means.

When I finished reading, I said that a refusal to sell me a ticket based on my own bad behavior did not reflect discrimination or a Constitutional infringement -- it merely meant the company was looking out for the safety and welfare of its passengers. They were behaving responsibly and in the public interest if they refused me admission, when they knew I was a troublemaker. I pointed out that nobody was saying the people who’d been banned couldn’t go anywhere they wanted -- they just couldn’t do it on the named airlines. I said the airlines weren’t infringing those people’s rights. They were protecting mine.

When the discussion ended, my beloved left me sitting alone at the table. I thought about the many recently reported cases of air rage, and how in several of those cases, the offenders had nearly succeeded in bringing about disasters. I wondered if anyone would want to see those same offenders sitting in the adjacent seat on a future flight.

Excuse me. I’m going to finish my Bill of Rights essay. I think I know now what I want to say.


22 September 2001

"What mighty contests rise from trivial things!"
   - A. Pope, The Rape of the Lock, canto I

Albert Camus wrote L'Etranger, known also as "The Stranger." The book was an immediate bestseller when it was released, because the theme of being a social outcast, a misfit, an outsider, struck a chord with readers. The book became a cult classic. All the great poets and writers were wrapped in their mantles of existential angst. Outsiders were in. Aliens were admired for their tortured spirits.

I don't know why we need SETI. The organization purports to seek out extraterrestrial intelligence in the galaxies, but I say why bother spending millions on equipment and research, when we have aliens right here on our own terra firma? Why should we have to go out into the cosmos hunting for alien intelligence, when it's right under our noses, and visible with the thumb-press of a remote control?
I'm speaking, of course, about the three Big Brother 2 finalists on CBS television. For those of you who might live in remote places that don't have access to newspapers, TV Guide, or electricity, let me explain.

CBS network decided to run Big Brother to compete with the ratings successes of NBC's wildly popular Survivor, which gave the term "voted off the island" a place in our national consciousness. CBS built a house on a sound studio, furnished it, and then wired every available inch with cables for microphones and hidden cameras, the better to capture endless footage of people going about the business of living in a confined space with strangers. They next invited twelve contestants to enter the house as residents for a twelve-week period, with the proviso that all contestants would remain sequestered from contact with the world outside the domicile until they were either evicted by a majority vote of the others, or they spontaneously self-combusted.

Each week, two people were nominated for exile, and the hour-long television broadcast showed the world the drama of the political maneuvering among the contestants as the contestants readied their votes. Each week, a news-style host offered commentary on the action in the house, and speculation about what the coming week's events would reveal. The game ended when only two contestants remained in the house, at which time, all the evictees returned and cast one final vote, for the "winner."

Millions of people watched the second airing of this show, and at the same time, many also tuned in to watch the contestants on the Internet via spy cameras positioned strategically throughout the house. After all, who wouldn't jump at the chance to sit in front of the computer for several hours a day, watching grown men and women being driven mad with boredom and mistrust? The hope was always that something bad or nasty would erupt, and the viewer would be rewarded with a scandal in real-time? Nobody seemed to find it ironic that behavior which would normally be the grounds for an injunction or an arrest -- being a peeping Tom -- was now being actively encouraged for the sake of ratings.

Weeks passed; alliances and strategies were formed and abandoned; contestants made confessions about their fears and mistrust in the "isolation booth;" consciences were pricked; votes were cast; tears were shed; housemates left under clouds of curses, or holding their heads defiantly high. As the number of residents diminished, the struggle to remain intensified, and the ratings rose. Interest grew in the public mind. Would Monica be able to outlast Nicole and defeat Will? Would Will find another lie to incite Nicole to rash action? Would Nicole sacrifice herself in order to get back to her husband, who a few weeks earlier rented an airplane to fly overhead with a message to her about his displeasure at something he saw or heard involving her? What would happen? Who would be in the final week?

Before we could find out, we were overtaken by events. However, the members of the house were not. CBS maintained its moratorium on outside contacts, and kept the housemates ignorant of the extent of the blood-curdling tragedy of September 11th. They were affected directly, and did not know it. Monica's cousin was in one of the NYC towers, and presumed dead, having not been seen since the morning of the collapses. Questions arose in the forums and in the news -- should the moratorium be lifted? Should the housemates be allowed to participate in what was happening in the world outside the confines of their house?

The network executives and producers decided to keep silent, and to keep the contestants in the dark. They made the decision to hold back information, so as to not "contaminate" the game. Even though the episode was pre-empted by urgent news reports, CBS's spy cameras continued to roll.

But what were the cameras seeing? Aliens, that's what. Creatures so removed from the connection to everyday life and society that their conversations, their thoughts, and the actions they took while under the camera's all-seeing eye, could not have seemed more bizarre or incomprehensible to us than if they'd just landed on Earth from Alpha Centauri. They weren't any more real to us than ET, or the mummified carcass at Roswell, New Mexico.

The politics, back-stabbing, and shifty allegiances just didn't seem all that important or relevant to us, given what we were being collectively forced to process, out in the "real" world. Our lives were changed. Their lives were trivialized, in a way none of them probably deserved. Who won the game? 

Who really cares?

Excuse me. I have to ask Scotty to beam me up. There's no intelligent life down here.


21 September 2001

"I don't care about the word isolationism, and I
 don't care about the word appeasement.  I'm
 interested in the rights and needs and
responsibilities of the United States. We
 are not the policemen of mankind. We are
 not able to run the world, and we shouldn't
 pretend that we can.  Let us tend to our own
 business, which is great enough as it is. 
It's very great.  We have neglected our own
 affairs.  Our education is inadequate, our
 cities are badly built, our social arrangements
are unsatisfactory.  We can't wait another
 generation.  Unless we can surmount this crisis,
 and work and get going onto the path of a
settlement in Asia, and a settlement in Europe,
 all of these plans of the Great Society here
 at home, all the plans for the rebuilding of
 backward countries in other continents will
 all be put on the shelf, because war interrupts
 everything like that."

  - Conversations with Walter Lippmann (1965). 
    Lippman and Sevareid, February 22, 1965
For more than a week now, I've been taking in the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures of the world around me in a new way. I've wrapped my thoughts around the horrors we are daily reporting in our news media, and pinned my hopes on the slender possibility there will be more miracles, more good than bad, coming out of the wreckage. I've read and heard many people's ideas about how their lives and mine are going to change as a result of what happened on September 11, 2001.

Nobody seems to be discussing how our lives are going to change as a result of what happens today, what we think and do today, in this minute, as we exist right now. It's as if we are willing to negate our own Zeitgeist, our collective interpretation of the world at an unconscious, or perhaps preconscious, level. Why do you suppose that is?

I'll tell you what I think it is: we're afraid of being held fully accountable for what we do, think, and say. We are immobilized by our unreasoning belief that something we did or said somehow caused these terrible things to happen. Well, guess what? We did, when we refused to act in the name of goodness, preferring to ignore the growing problems. We did, when we declined to look squarely at what frightens or disgusts us--our ignorance feeds our fear, and gives evil purchase in our lives. We did, when we chose to disengage, rather than engage, hoping the horrors would magically disappear, or that somebody else would take care of it for us.

I'd be willing to bet many people are already nostalgic for our "lost innocence," and they wish for a return to the halcyon days of unquestioned invincibility and power in the world. I wish for that, too. I grew up at a time when the threat of nuclear destruction seemed everywhere, a time when my teachers spent time instructing me in the "duck and cover" maneuver to take in the event of an incoming missile. I even have a photograph of that drill, with my nine- and ten-year-old classmates peering out from under their desks, waiting for the all clear signal from the teacher. The faces are smiling, but I remember how anxious I felt, curled into a ball on the hardwood floor, waiting.

And this is what some people now yearn for--a return to that anxiety, and a chance to raise another generation of fearful children who hide from megaton bombs under pressed wood platforms. Others yearn for an end to the violence and hatred, but with somebody else in charge.

Me? I yearn for every person who has a family, a vote, a voice, to make himself or herself heard, and to participate actively in the process of rebuilding ourselves and healing the wounds that cripple us. I want people to put their money, time, and energy into choosing what they will support in this world. I want people to understand that what they feel, think, say, and do really matters, and can make a difference.

Who knows which one of us will be the one hundredth monkey?

Excuse me. I have a sudden urge to go wash a sweet potato.


17 September 2001

"Who if I cried out, would hear me among the
angels' hierarchies? and even if one of them
pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming
- Rainer Maria Rilke,  Duino Elegies, I

I've been speaking this last week with people all over the world, and I have yet to encounter even one person who has not been sad, horrified, and anxious about what might happen next. The nuclear clock moves toward midnight, and we all worry, even when we can't express our fears directly. I'm as worried as the next person, believe me. I've been like a butterfly all week long, trying to settle onto something, but flitting back and forth nervously, tentative and touchy, unable to focus on anything long enough to stay still and reflect.

That is, until today. Today, I found a poem by Stephen Dobyns, which comes from his 1977 collection of poems, Heat Death. I am only going to quote part of that poem in this forum, as it pertains to what I felt, but the entire thing is certainly worth reading. The poem is titled "The Delicate, Plummeting Bodies." It tells the story of how Death withdrew from the world, tired of the complaining men who never seemed satisfied by anything Death did. This is what finally came to pass when a delegation of men went and begged Death to return.

How Death was restored to his people: At first the smallest creatures began to die -- bacteria and certain insects. No one noticed. Then fish began to float to the surface; lizards and tree toads toppled from sun-warmed rocks. Still no one saw them. 
Then birds began tumbling out of the air, and as sunlight flickered on the blue feathers of the jay, brown of the hawk, white of the dove, then people lifted their heads and pointed to the sky and from the thirsty streets cries of welcome rose up like a net to catch the delicate and plummeting bodies.

I also spent some time with my old friend Joseph Campbell this afternoon. He was nearing the end of his own life when he spoke of what faith means, and where divinity resides. He said the real eternity is in the immediate now, this very moment, and it is our job as human beings to live as fully as we can in this moment, and honor the divinity in "the other." Who is the other? Why, it's the stranger sitting next to you on the subway or bus. It's the child screaming with glee on a flying swing. It's the man who sells you a newspaper on the street corner. It's the woman who pushes a shopping cart through the city streets at midnight. It's you. According to Campbell, what's up to me is to honor the divinity I see in each and every one of you, every moment I can see and sense it.

Life endures, as does death. What also endures is our indomitable spirit, and our prayers.

Excuse me. I may be on my knees right now, but I'm definitely going to rise again. And in the meantime, I'll say a prayer while I'm down here.


14 September 2001

"Across time 
 and space 
 for all 
   - White Feather

I'm trying to make sense of the events of the past week, just like everyone else in the world. Not much does make sense, unfortunately. All the philosophy, all the flag-waving, all the religion -- none of it addresses the real issue for me, which is connected to all those people who stepped out of time and into eternity on September 11, 2001.

What feels right for me is what I wrote on December 31, 1999. It's right out of my journal, so if it feels raw, that's because it is. I'm throwing it out into the Universe, hoping it feels right to somebody else, too.

* * * * *
31 December 1999
I just watched the Millennium Celebration from Sydney, Australia, more than sixteen hours in advance of our own celebrations -- what a blow-out. They had Tchaikovsky on the Opera House loudspeakers, and a kilometer-wide fireworks display, lasting more than half an hour. There were also fireworks lighting the sky from several skyscrapers, and then, at the very end, they showed us something really wonderful, really human, something to thread us together in our hopes for the future. As the final fireworks were blasting off and the closing strains of the music began to die down, the Australian news commentator told us a story.

In the 1950's and 1960's, a recovering alcoholic was inspired by what he believed was a revelation from God. From the moment of the revelation on, he spent all the years remaining in his life spreading the divine message around Sydney. He went everywhere, writing "Eternity" in chalk on every surface he encountered. Sidewalks, buildings, park benches -- everywhere. The commentator said the man wrote the word at least fifty times each day, 365 days each year, which resulted in a staggering total of at least 40,000 times before his death. The man was a local legend in Sydney, and over time, word about him spread throughout Australia.

What touched me in the story was how astonishingly apt it was for the moment. At the very instant when every heart and every mind was focused on the passing of time -- the second, the hour, the century, the millennium -- the Australians decided to illuminate the one word that represents timelessness, and being out of time. "Eternity" blazed golden in the darkness beneath the bridge, shining brightly over the dark harbor, as the bells rang a triumphant carillon.

Very impressive. Very meaningful. Especially at a time when people around the world are celebrating, commemorating, and greeting the dawn of a new age. All the people who were born before this day, and who see the sun rise tomorrow, have the right to say, "I have a life that spans centuries."

What I write today is part of the 20th century and the second Millennium; what I write tomorrow, the universe willing, will be 21st century, third Millennium words.

People have been so blind. They've been so completely focused on the effect of time's passage relative to computer systems, they've lost the sense of something miraculous happening right in front of us. Everyone is anxious about what they'll do if things they've come to rely upon stop working. What if my car won't start? What will I do without email? What if the columns on my spreadsheet don't add up? What if there is no electricity for my razor/coffeemaker/hedge trimmers? What if the distribution channels dry up? What if our military loses its ability to track enemy aircraft and ships? What if critical maintenance routines fail with the spin of a single digit, a move from '99' to '00,' and cause the systems to believe they're ninety-nine years off-schedule?

What if, what if... but what if we are so focused on our technology, we forget to celebrate our advances, and our accomplishments? What if we forget that our lives aren't dependent upon the binary output of some machine? What if we forget the meaning of time itself, and timelessness? Are we nothing more than the 'wetware' that powers the 'software?' Are we only suited to exist as acolytes of a digital god?

There are people all over the country, and probably all over the world, who live in such terror of the changing century, they are barricading themselves in remote shelters. They've stockpiled goods -- food, clothing, fuel, weapons, wood, candles, batteries, matches, water, and even livestock -- in the expectation of disaster, the complete breakdown of civilization.

For some reason, the fear is that all the infrastructure underpinning our lives is going to suddenly collapse, and the dreaded "Helter Skelter" is finally going to come to pass.

The people who are preparing for the conflagration are consumed by their fears. They believe the center cannot hold, and that society must collapse in fire, warfare, and chaos. They are like the Buddhists who subscribe to the belief that men suffer from 108 evil desires, except they do not believe, as the Buddhists do, that man has any hope for controlling or overcoming those desires. The survivalists believe that Armageddon is arriving, if not at the stroke of midnight, then soon. The only way to ensure safety is to withdraw to the far hills, hunkered down in caves and bunkers, shooting invaders who dare intrude into their staked space.

Why don't those people feel the same hope I did as that incredible word, twenty meters high and one kilometer wide, shone out its message? "Eternity."

* * * * *

We are eternal, and timeless. Terrorists can't take that away from us.


10 September 2001

"The requirement of conspicuous wastefulness is not
commonly present, consciously, in our canons of taste,
but it is none the  less present as a constraining
norm selectively shaping and  sustaining our sense
of what is beautiful, and guiding our discrimination
with respect to what may legitimately be approved
as beautiful and what may not."
           -Thorstein Veblein

From time to time, I get things delivered to my door that actually influence me to think. Thinking is not a natural or common thing, even though I am almost constantly besieged by what passes for thought in my active mind, and throughout my life, my friends and foes alike have urged the process on me, with only limited success. As a result, those rare occasions when it occurs, I invariably pay attention, never knowing when the next real thinking might occur.

Today's thought arrived courtesy of a fountain pen retailer in New York City, who periodically sends me catalogs of the latest, greatest offerings in the store. The catalogs are miracles of the reproduction technology, in high-resolution, 256-color art, on thick, glossy paper stock over which I greedily, happily run my fingers. The photographs of the products are designed to make pen collectors salivate, and I usually do.

In fact, when I get the newest catalog, I feel like a million bucks, which is what I am sure the retailer would like me to spend on my writing implements. Alas, courtesy of my blasted thinking, things have changed.

For the first time ever, I feel as if I never want to acquire another pen.

I went through all the normal routines. I sat down in my comfy chair with a cup of coffee, prepared to enjoy my favorite fountain pen fantasies. These often take the form of me writing checks for exotic vacation homes, or signing autographs for adoring fans who hold copies of my most recent bestseller in their hands. Occasionally, I write checks for charities, to fund medical research, or to endow universities with chairs. However, the best fantasies are the ones in which the mere sight of the rare, expensive, elegant pen in my hand is enough to make onlookers swoon with envy and admiration. It's a wonderful, harmless way to while away half an hour or so in otherwise hectic, cash-strapped days. I opened the catalog and began my drill. That's when my trouble started.

The Montegrappas, Omases, Auroras, Deltas, Michel Perchins, and Namikis weren't exerting their usual pull on my imagination. The Montblancs, Marlens, Duponts, and Hyseks weren't lifting my spirits. They didn't look like anything I wanted. Worse, the lower-cost pens, Crosses, Parkers, Stipulas, Rotrings, and Pelikans, looked positively uninspired, cheaply made, and junky.

Yes, that's the word for it. Junky, cluttered, squatty, ill-proportioned, and ill-conceived, with scarcely more than lip service to the elements of line, design elegance, and utility. What's worse, the cover pen, which is usually the best one in the catalog, was completely unmemorable, a lump of reddish-ocher celluloid, with brassy trim. I stared in disbelief. It was so unattractive, I wondered why they even bothered to manufacture it. I couldn't imagine myself wanting to write with it.

Things got worse. A couple of pages later, another array of pens on a two-page display. These "commemorative" collections are a fairly common marketing trick for pen manufacturers. The idea is to "theme" the pen collection around a person, an event, or a place that inspires the user to thoughts of greatness. A couple of years ago, there was a rash of "Jubilee 50" pens, in honor of the founding of Israel. Last year, there were African-themed collections in honor of Nelson Mandela. In other years, we have seen pen collections that commemorate Nobel Prize winners, animal rights advocates, humanitarians, scientists, writers, and innovators of all stripes, in all areas of human endeavor.

This year, the pickings are slimmer. The first commemoration was for Alfa Romeo, the second, for Federico Fellini.

For the automobile maker, the catalog offered a rather lengthy paragraph regarding the history and accomplishments of the company in its 1950's heyday. There was a single sentence to describe the construction, materials, and configuration of the pen. There was also a per piece price list, in case the buyer's desire didn't extend to the whole collection. A single red resin-cased pen with sterling trim and a gold-plated nib costs $365. The pen isn't particularly beautiful, though, with all the design effort and tooling expended on the silver Alfa Romeo logo on the cap and barrel. I once owned a 1978 Alfa Romeo GTV. I found myself wondering if the pen would be any more reliable than the car had been.

Even more pretentious in design and presentation was the Fellini "Limited Edition" collection. The catalog blurb announced that only 1920 (no comma) Fountain Pens and Rollerballs will be offered worldwide. I read another lengthy, adjective-laden paragraph explaining the "why" of the collection, including praise for Fellini's contribution to film making, and for his insightful portrayals of Italian life and character. There was also a mention of the fact that Fellini is credited with inventing "neorealism" in motion pictures. I wondered if they were describing "Satyricon," or "La Dolce Vita," with enough weird characters and neorealism in them to fuel years of my fever-dreams and nightmares.

Regardless, the fountain pen itself featured a black resin for the cap and the feeder screw and "pearled" ivory resin for the barrel. The cap accents, which consist of a faint design in the form of a three-frame film clip, are vermeil -- gold-plated sterling silver. The pen costs $525. If the manufacturers sell out their entire inventory, it's worth $1,009,010 for their efforts. In addition, there is a "Special Edition" Limited Edition of 920 pieces. These pens are doubly exclusive, fashioned of "hand-turned" resin. They have actual images from Fellini films etched into the three little vermeil film frames on the cap. There is a "lateral lever" filling system, the control mechanism of which is "plated in platinum." For one of these, though, the collector will have to fork over $1,150, giving the manufacturer $1,068,000 more to add to the bottom line. The Special Edition was even gaudier and worse looking than the Limited Edition.

However, these weren't even the most expensive pens in the catalog. The most expensive pens showed up a page later, courtesy of another venerable manufacturer. These pens are part of a collection honoring Russian Czar Nikolai I, whose claim to fame was the insipid, uninspired rule of the country with the assistance and support of the Boyars. Czar Nikolai I's love of pomp and elegance nearly bankrupted the country, more than once. Apparently, the manufacturer decided the Czarist love for the color green as a signature decorating color was worth pursuing, in the form of a chunky design, malachite resin, and "platinum finish." There are two styles of fountain pen, the "LeGrand" and the "Classique," as well as a matching rollerball, ball point, mechanical pencil, cufflinks, key ring, and money clip. For the less opulent-minded, there is a "discounted" Nikolai I collection in hematite and stainless steel. The malachite collection, should a collector fancy it in its entirety, costs $4,650. The hematite collection, although discounted, still rings in at a hefty $3,820. Remarkably, these are not "Limited Edition" collections, which means the manufacturer probably intends to generate as many of these pens, pencils, and accessories as the market will reasonably bear.

I sat staring at the pages, and the thoughts began to surface, one after another, in quick succession. 

Who in his right mind is going to spend more than $1,000 for a fountain pen that is in no way rare? A fountain pen which has been manufactured expressly for the purpose of appealing to some bizarre sense of entitlement, or affinity with a long-dead, profligate Russian ruler?

It occurred to me I would be certifiably insane if I spent $500 for a single mechanical pencil, or a ball point, unless the pencil was made of solid gold, and then, would I dare risk carrying it about in my pocket? I was struck by how shameless and naked the marketing ploy truly was, with its blatant attempt to appeal to snobbery and elitism. I wondered what exactly they were trying to pull off with the advertisement, and who exactly it was they believed was dumb enough to fall for it?

I wasn't just thinking about the manufacturer, either. I also considered the retailer's part in this questionable display of taste. The greed is rampant, from one end of the process, straight through to the other. In that moment, I realized things have gotten way out of hand in the past decade or so, where pen collecting is concerned.

I think pen collectors and manufacturers should be ashamed of what has happened to what was once a nice little hobby for a few people who have long been in love with writing tools. It's become just another money-grubbing, selfish, and self-aggrandizing way for a lot of people to boast publicly about their own worth. It's ridiculous, when you get right down to it. Who really cares how many pens a person possesses, or where those expensive tools were purchased? Who has any interest at all in the dollar value of a pen, unless it is also a pen that has been used to write a poem, a letter, a prescription that saved a life, a best-selling book, or the memoirs of a person whose grace and genius touched and transformed the world, and the way people think?

The pens in the catalog are all brand new, uninked, unmarked, fresh from the manufacturer factories. 

They don't qualify as works of art, because they are mass-produced. They are as impersonal as the stones in a riverbed. Why, then, are so many people so willing to spend so much money? There is a
threshold of aesthetics and taste, to be sure, but really, is the $1,000 fountain pen going to actually do anything its $10 counterpart won't? The taste is acquired. The aesthetics are what drive up the price.

Thorstein Veblein had a point.

Excuse me. I have a $10 bill in my pocket, burning a hole. I've changed my mind. think I may need a new pen.


04 September 2001

"You are what you do.  You can recreate yourself
every second of your life." 
   -Xena, Warrior Princess
'm in a quandary. I just discovered I am handicapped for a position I want, not because I am not qualified (I am), but because I have spent too many years doing something for which I have considerably less qualification, and being far too successful at doing it.

In other words, I'm underqualified for what I'm qualified to be, because I'm overqualified in my performance at something for which I have no qualifications.

Does this make sense to you? I didn't think so. I'm still trying to sort it out in my own head, and it's me we're discussing.

My options feel limited at this moment. According to the man who delivered this astonishing bit of logic to me, had I spent less time doing what I did, or even been less spectacularly successful while doing it, I'd have been hired in a heartbeat. My past success is limiting my future in a way I never expected.

After he delivered this news, the man told me it was "a real pleasure" to meet somebody who had done "as much" as I apparently had, and he "knew" he and I would be well-suited to working together. He also said he hoped I wouldn't consider this a definitive no -- if nobody better showed up soon, he would be in touch with me. He just thought I'd be a "hard sell" to the other employees in the organization.

His suggestion was that I should go all the way back to the bottom rung of the ladder I now want to be on, and spend some time as an unpaid intern, so I could point to my stint as "paying my dues" in my new, desired field of endeavor. It doesn't seem to matter that all the skills I possess are exactly the skills he purports to want, or that I have decades of experience.

What seems to matter is the paying of dues.

I don't know when we decided to charge admission and membership fees to competent, bright men and women looking for gainful employment. There was a time we took those people on willingly, and rewarded them for initiative, pluck, and gumption. If they failed, we ushered them out the door, thanking them for the effort they made. If they succeeded, well, after a lifetime of service and accomplishment, there was a banquet and a gold watch. We did not talk then about "paying dues." 

Instead, we talked about performance, and results. Do what you say you'll do, and keep your promises. Do your best, and rewards will follow. Pay attention, learn, and keep on learning, until you are ready to teach somebody else what you know.

Excuse me. I need to go reinvent myself for this new, strange age. Maybe then I'll have the right qualifications for the job.