Using an electric pencil sharpener is an industrious activity, and yet you just stand there in front of it doing nothing but holding the pencil. For busy people, this is lovely idle time! I remember standing in front of a fax machine waiting for it to send, and in the days of old, this was suspenseful. Would the data fly through the wires, through the sky, like Charlie in the great glass elevator? I came to faxing late, when I was a file clerk at the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Francisco, as a temp with the Western agency. Ed, an old railroad man who collected railroad-themed china plates and had a long beard suited to the back woods or a former era, was surprised that the temp girl didn’t know how to use that machine. In the San Francisco office building, he was surrounded by new guys, smooth blond environmental engineers. Ed taught me patiently, and in time I mastered Excel spreadsheets and cleaned up their whole filing system. (Was it paradoxical to clean up a filing system devoted to toxic spill sites?) I tell my college students who are graduating and jobless that my first post-college job was law firm receptionist, and this makes them feel better. I tell my students applying to MFA programs that with my MFA in hand, I was a thirty-year-old pregnant file clerk, and they get a nauseated look on their faces as if surely they will do better. I hope they do. Anyway, using the electric pencil sharpener gives one hope.
A sharpened pencil, a fresh sheet of paper, rolled-up sleeves and the fall season together create a sense of purpose. School has just started and everything is possible. Middle child might become a historian, or an engineer, or take up boxing. I sharpen a pencil. Sticking it in the sharpener, hearing the grinding whine, I am interrupting the play-by-play of the basbeall game my husband is watching on TV, but no matter. One feels the triumph of Chesterton in this moment, who wanted white chalk for his drawing, only to realize that the land he sat on was made entirely of chalk and he could just break off a piece. Describing his moment of epiphany, he writes, “Then I suddenly stood up and roared with laughter, again and again, so that the cows stared at me and called a committee. Imagine a man in the Sahara regretting that he had no sand for his hourglass. Imagine a gentleman in mid-ocean wishing that he had brought some salt water with him for his chemical experiments. I was sitting on an immense warehouse of white chalk.” A sharpened pencil makes me feel that I have everything I need. Striding into the kitchen, I hand the pencil to youngest child. He must do his homework in lowly graphite. I actually get to use a pen.
Yet the desire for a sharpened pencil is an elemental pleasure, even as youngest child is saving up to buy a mechanical one. He may miss the wood encasing graphite, and the tight metal cuff that holds a rubber eraser. Wood, graphite, metal, rubber. I think of the old histories I was told, of men tapping trees for rubber, of lumberjacks and miners. Ed the railroad man was a character out of those histories, with a checked shirt and a woodstove, and a tobacco pipe he couldn’t smoke in the building anymore. Youngest child won’t miss those histories, the coal smoke and steam of the nineteenth century drifting into the twentieth. I still think of them, though, sharpening a yellow Ticonderoga pencil. Judging from the fact that my middle child is wearing an argyle sweater vest in his highschool photo, I imagine that he’ll think of those histories, too. He owns bowties and suspenders, a Swiss army knife, and a dozen fedoras.