A return to an inky peace.

I’ve invested my career and much of my personal time working with computers and writing code. In the last few months, I’ve been reflecting on how far removed this activity is from the life skills I acquired as a child at school (1970s and 80s). I can’t recall the last time I did long hand division or tried to calculate the length of the hypotenuse without electronic support.

I’m experiencing an existential but visceral, generational angst.

What got me thinking about this was trying to take notes with a particularly nasty ballpoint pen on an office notepad. I was getting increasingly frustrated at how inconsistently the pen laid down inky blobs while having to press so hard to get anything onto the page at all. The crappy pen and even crappier paper, combined with my terrible handwriting left me with an almost indecipherable collection of scratchy, hieroglyphs and pictographs.

As a child I had relatively tight and neat handwriting. Where had it gone?

My childhood training in cursive script had become a messy scrawl, made increasingly illegible by modern writing tools. Tools so commoditized and disposable that quality had quietly evaporated. All while I was busy pursuing the most comfortable keyboard and most legible sans serif fonts to contain my RSI and eyestrain.

Later that same day I attempted to write the alphabet, A through Z in cursive script without lifting the pen from paper until Z and then only to dot my I’s and cross my T’s. The results were disappointing; the concentration and effort was high and the experience unnatural. Try it.

It took several attempts to come up with something I wasn’t embarrassed to call mine.

My Crappy Cursive

Since this experiment I have found much academic research suggesting positive effects on the brain of cursive handwriting; from hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills to creativity and memory improvement. Areas I have noticed fading as I age.

It didn’t take me long to decide to relearn my fading skill before I become too demented and mal-coordinated to even try.

For several days I hunted for a pen that flattered my slowly improving handwriting and didn’t feel unpleasant to use. I threw out anything that wasn’t satisfying or flattering. I learned in this process that I needed ink to flow smoothly and evenly irrespective of the texture of the paper. I soon abandoned ballpoint pens; particularly the free variety sporting advertising, with their evil, lightweight, leak-proof, disposable convenience.

Eventually I shelled out $18 for a Schaffer 100 Rollerball from Staples. I was officially a big spending, pen snob.

Schaffer 100 Rollerball, Matt Black

I carried the Schaffer with me everywhere for a few months using it to take notes, doodle, journal and sign things. The matt finish became smooth and glossy with use and it quickly became familiar and comfortable.

After losing the white pearl insert on the clip it acquired sufficient character to be considered truly “mine”. It is a handsome utilitarian pen for the money; the Helvetica of the mid-range, modern pen world. It also seemed to make my handwriting look acceptable.

Everything was good until I stumbled across something on eBay that induced flashbacks of my long deceased father from the early 1970s. It was a Parker 75 Sterling “Cisele” fountain pen. I recall dad using one while sat at an old fashioned writing bureau. A whole new world opened; one of nostalgic, vintage (almost) antiques with a personal connection. I knew I had to have one and that my handwriting would never be as good as I remembered, unless I did.

It turned out to be the beginning of an infatuation, which has since matured into a deep love.

I got a nice example from eBay with an Extra Fine (XF) nib. I subsequently learned they have a reputation for being scratchy to write with compared to the Medium nib. I personally found XF to be a wet and smooth writer for my slow and deliberate writing style.

It’s a slender pen set apart from the modern trend for fat, oversize fountain pens (Mont Blanc, Waterman, Pelican). The heavy sterling silver is satisfying and solid to hold while the “guilloche” cross grid pattern has a remarkably tactile and sensuous feel in the hand.

It wasn’t long before I knew I had to have a set of the “Four Horsemen”, which include a mechanical pencil, ballpoint pen and a long out of production, felt tip. If I could just “get the band together” I could forego and discard every other writing instrument cluttering my life.

Assembling a matching set is not a simple task due to the many minor design tweaks that were introduced between 1964 and 1998. While there are many examples for sale, finding good examples at reasonable prices takes patience.

I’m pleased to say that I’ve now acquired this set (at not inconsiderable expense) and learned some of the many nuances of this famous product line, thanks in large part to Parker75.com. I’ve also discovered a subculture of knowledgeable Cisele collectors and experts at fpgeeks.com.

I love writing with this pen. It provides me a sense of peace and satisfaction unlike anything my modern gadgets can offer.

I’m also pleased to report that my cursive has greatly improved.