I am not an artist.
Paints, charcoals, pastels, crayons…it doesn’t matter. Ask me to make a picture of something, and I will do an awful job. I just can’t make things look like other things, and I can make them look un-like in the right ways. When I was teaching in Korea, even my five-year-olds made fun of me.
(The exception to this is cake decorating with candy: I am getting good at that.)
Anyway, this is only a problem for me on rare occasions. Usually, I cruise through life feeling pretty good about myself, but every once and a while, I run into some blank paper, and I start feeling substandard.
I’ve learned to combat that feeling of artist helplessness. I’ve discovered that writing by hand is nearly as satisfying. When I hear blank paper calling to me, I can fill it up with words. It’s my version of art.
So I buy markers and crayons and pencil crayons, and I write with them. I have notebooks full of complete nonsense, and when I have an office, it is covered with white bristol board and coloured words.
One day, I discovered Vi Hart, of vihart.com. A self-professed mathemusician, Vi makes youtube videos about how awesome math is, despite your high school’s best attempts to make it ridiculous (she also does public speaking and other events). I really recommend her videos. They are interesting and fun.
Now, I am not half the musician Vi is, and I am certainly not a mathematician, but many of her vids centre on doodling (and candy), and since her doodles are math related, they are ordered enough that even I can do them.
About the same time I discovered Vi Hart, the company I was working for implemented the Monday Staff Meeting. This took place on Mondays, right after lunch, in the warmest room in the office building. Needless to say, sometimes it got a bit drowsy.
After the first week, I started doodling to stay awake. This is a trick I perfected in university, the year my schedule gave me classes until 10PM followed by classes at 8:30 the the morning. I can still pay attention and take notes, but I doodle too.
(Side bar: HOW GREAT is the word “doodle”? There’s a great line in Buffy where Willow says “A doodle. I do doodle. You, too. You do doodle too” and every time I hear it I smile.)
Anyway, so I do math doodles during staff meetings sometimes. A lot of Vi’s doodles involve erasing lines to create layering effects, so I couldn’t really use a pen. I love mechanical pencils, so I always have several of them on hand, but then I remembered something I had seen floating around online, something that was sure to change my life: The Sharpie Pencil.
The idea with the Sharpie Pencil was that you could erase it for three days, and then it became permanent. Oh, and also instead of a lead, it had LIQUID GRAPHITE that was supposed to look like a pencil lead did. Obviously, I was intrigued, so I went to Staples and picked one up.
The Sharpie Pencil is very well balanced. It’s comfortable to hold, and you can click it open and shut in that annoying way when you’re thinking without stretching your fingers too much. The eraser is actually good, well, for the first three days. Then it really does become permanent. It is refillable. It is LIQUID. FREAKING. GRAPHITE.
There’s just one problem*: it writes like crap.
It writes like the cheapest cheap pen you’ve ever found, ten years after you bought it. You know, the one without the lid that you keep in the drawer by the phone? The one you have to scrape across the paper a dozen times before it gives you anything, and even then, it might die at any moment? That pen. It doesn’t just leave out line strokes, it leaves out ENTIRE LETTERS. It’s absolutely awful.
I was devastated. I had been looking forward to this pencil and what it would do for my math doodling for months. I was not the only person to feel this way. If you Google “Sharpie Pencil”, you will find very scathing reviews of it. Heck, even if you search of Google Images, you’ll find written notes about how much the pencil sucks. I was kind of hoping they’d fix the problems and release a mark II, but so far no dice.
I will give Sharpie points for trying. I mean, how often does someone reinvent the pencil? And their pens are so colourful and pretty (and they’ve actually got pretty good at turning down the smell, which is nice).
But the overwhelming feeling was disappointment. I doodled away, with my old trustworthy mechanical pencils, and thought about what might have been.
Since then, I’ve discovered a replacement. It’s not perfect, as it is a pen and not a pencil, but it is very, very pretty. For some reason, no one has taken pictures of this marvel that I can use in this post, but that doesn’t stop me from loving Phidon pens.
I saw it first because a friend had one, and I said something graceful like “OMG, PLEASE LET ME TRY THAT PEN!” (fortunately he understood, probably because I don’t think you buy a $40 pen without appreciating it). It writes like a DREAM. This is a pen that makes me want all the paper in the world, so I can doodle and word my heart out with it.
And it turns out they’re made in Cambridge! Which is very close to where I live. And I should definitely not go into the store where they are sold until I am gainfully employed.
I suppose the moral of this story (because there certainly isn’t a point), is that thinking outside the box – playing with math, doodling to help you think, being disappointed by Sharpie – all of that will lead you to something worthwhile, if you follow it long enough. Sometimes it’s a character you didn’t expect. Sometimes it’s a story you never planned to tell. Sometimes it’s a pen.
And you know what they say about pens.
(Seriously, vihart.com: You will have no regrets.)
*There are actually two problems. The other problem is that the Sharpie Pencil doesn’t make that lovely scratching sound that pencils make. I’m not sure how you could do this with a liquid, but digital cameras makes superfluous sounds, so I don’t see why the pencil can’t.**
**You guys can tell when I’m being ludicrous on purpose, right?