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Pencil Pusher

Laptops are liberating, but the No. 2 represents writing at its most human. You can also chew them.

December 17, 2006|Jervey Tervalon | Jervey Tervalon has written five novels. His story "The Battling Priests of Corpus Christi" will appear in the upcoming anthology "New Orleans Noir."

Each school morning I walk my daughter Elise to her kindergarten class, and each morning she reaches for a No. 2 pencil and holds it left-handed and carefully and diligently inscribes her name on paper as though she's gilding an illuminated text.

The No. 2 pencil is an object of beauty, still wonderfully useful and simple; no need to worry about reading the manual or finding the right menu or, as with the pen, running out of ink. It's intuitive in the best sense of the word. In the right hands or fingers, the No. 2 pencil enables its owner to write, sketch or do pretty much whatever its owner wants to do. As a highly tactile and orally inclined first grader, No. 2 pencils were never safe with me. I couldn't stop mutilating them. I worried them like a neurotic puppy, gnawing away until their perfect geometry was ruined with teeth marks. I never suspected that this tortured object of my affection would one day come to be the means of how I earned my living, more or less.

It is true that because of my horrible penmanship and spelling, I felt liberated by laptops; for me they were equivalent of Jack Kirby's Mother Box, the iPods of the 22nd century that do "everything" for those comic-book techno hippies, the Forever People. For me, everything is the joy of writing to music at the coffee house of my choice and having a spell check that keeps editors from thinking I'm an idiot.

But when I lose a document on my computer or I misplace my cellphone and all of those phone numbers that I don't bother to write down with a No. 2 pencil, I wonder why I'm so naive to put my full faith and trust into such fragile and ephemeral technology. How lazy I've become! I've forgotten how wonderfully permanent life with a pencil can be, especially if you've bitten off the eraser. One of my most precious treasures is a decades-old postcard I received from a close friend vacationing in London with his difficult girlfriend. With a No. 2 pencil he wrote, on the back of a picture postcard of a lovely Sade, these memorable and moving lines:

*

Dear Jervey,

I'm in Trafalgar Park sitting with K. I'm trying to breath deep, rounded breaths because I've been told that she finds my breathing to be shallow and raspy. My breathing annoys her and I need to do something about it.

*

I look at his penmanship, and I see Bob's neat hand and the control it must have taken to write those sad lines of a love gone really, really wrong. Did she want him to suffocate himself to spare her more annoyance? No way could these sentiments be conveyed with an e-mail or, God forbid, a text message.

I wouldn't have this postcard to ponder love and heartbreak if it wasn't for the No. 2 pencil, that humble but vital instrument that helps me to live and write at a human scale.

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