Sunday, October 30, 2011

Middle Class

At one point, the phrase 'how the other half live' was accurate. More than half of Americans were making much better than a living wage, and could afford certain luxuries, like weekends, and retirements.

I came across a graphic in the New York Times, and the whole system was spelled out before me in statistics. There are so many in the country who are wondering what happened that led us to the Occupy movement, and at the core of their disbelief and arrogance is a myth that everything was chugging along nicely until the housing market crashed.

They fail to look at WHY the market crashed. In its simplest terms, people were borrowing money that they didn't have and couldn't ever pay back. Most would then shrug their shoulders, and blame deadbeat Americans for trying to hoodwink a system, or better yet, to blame the banks for lending money they knew their clients couldn't pay back. I don't lay blame, because there are so many people involved, that it is an entire system at fault. People acting in their best interests spiralled out of control. The system is broken, and it is always, throughout history, the government's job to fix it. Banks will not regulate themselves. People will not stop borrowing if it is convenient, and companies will not pay living wages unless forced.

So where does the problem really lie? Cash flow. The American people are no longer making a living wage.  I couldn't illustrate that last point better than the New York Times (you'll have to click it, then click 'show original' in the bottom left, then zoom in):

And I've been asked why I work for a labour Union? Because organizing workers is the only chance we have of getting the middle class back.

Fingers crossed, I wait to see what's going to happen.

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
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Kindle US
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Arab spring ... American fall?

In the news there are parallels being drawn about the Arab spring and the Occupy Wall St. protest that developed weeks ago. My first reaction was an eye-rolling 'come on'. The differences are numerous and vast. In America, with a true, albeit flawed, democracy, the protest is against the rich, where in the Arab world, the protest is against the entire Government system of tyrrany and corruption that has given rise to fundamentalism, terrorism, and the stifling of any secular economy. Any parallel to me seemed cartoonish at best, and this is the very perception that Wall Street and the bankers and money-men themselves have. So I thought I'd look farther into it.

What exactly is the same between the two regions?

Well, for one, fundamentalism. The Arab world is tired of their tax dollars (oil dollars, same thing) going into government systems that support terror and violence when it is so blatantly not condoned in their religion. Fundamentalism is just as much a threat to the US as it is in the Arab world. The difference is that the ignorance and violence take root and grow in the Arab world because of their vast poverty. While the profits of their corporations are used for the top percentage of  people to stay on top and be international 'players', the lower ninety percent live in relative poverty, in fear of police and military crackdowns.

In the US fundamentalism is kept in check by the differences between political parties. There are police crackdown, profits increasing at the same time as poverty, and the same somewhat corrupt elite, but in the US, there is a liberal left to counter the 'corporatism' that is developing.

Yes, I said 'corporatism'. It comes from a quote by Benito Mussolini "Fascism should rightfully be called corporatism, because it is the merging of state and corporate interest."

In the Arab world, and in most dictatorships, they took the short road to corporatism after the second world war. When the European powers withdrew in the decades following, the Arab states enveloped corporations that were necessary to national security, and, following the model set out by Hitler, used them for nefarious purposes, including but not limited to the domination of natural resources, and the control of population.

It is always about control.

In the US, it is developing the other way around. The corporations, in pushing for fifty years for less regulation under the guise of competition, have enveloped government, using the very democratic institutions they purport to love. They chip away, using filibusters, appointments to high positions, arguments ad nauseum, and other more or less legal legislative processes, to support their goal of control. Every argument they have is simply a technique that in reduction becomes this: The wealthy create jobs that pay for all other stuff, so let the wealthy pursue their wealth unrestricted, and the money will 'trickle down' and take care of the rest of us.

Except it doesn't.

The narrow segment of society controlling the wealth, are also steadily narrowing. Even though they are, themselves, the party of the rich, they have to be careful when they defend the interests of 1% of the American population who hold most of the wealth.Yet they still need the support of the other 45% of the population who identify as republicans but don't hold their core ideas to be true. These are the salt-of-the-earth types, and the Republican party needs to sell them on ideas that seem crazy to people outside the US; the UN is creating a new world order; immigrants are ruining their system, the war on drugs, war on terror. They would have to reject the Republican ideal that public health care would fail them (as if their public system doesn't...) that everyone is out to disarm them and take away their 'freedom'.

It is a mutual parasitic relationship.

To understand the party is simple. They need the votes to keep them in power, and cater to their vast and varied voter base. They taylor the issue to the electorate they want to win. It is amazing that outlets like Fox News can even cull together any kind of coherent vision from all the different lines of reason in the party. Those votes are bought by more religion in the schools, little gun control, and other hot button anger issues. Once in power, they have the mandate to push military interventionism, oil-colonialism, privatization of public institutions, and union busting.

Understanding the voter is more difficult. In supporting unrestrained capitalism with their votes, Republican voters are ensuring their perpetual poverty. Why would they do this? They feel the Republicans are the only ones listening.

A good example is Alabama's recent crackdown on illegal immigrants, that has thousands of kids pulled from the public schools. They are ripping into their presidential hopeful for even hinting that these immigrant children have rights as Americans. Republicans took this stand because racism and xenophobia are rampant in Alabama, even as un-American as it is because believe you me, it will get them votes. I guess they didn't read the plaque on the Statue of Liberty, or they needed to add a few of their own lines.

"Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me.

I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

...and then slam it in your hispanic face.

At heart, Republican voters are angry about real world problems. Their middle class is disappearing, and they have real fears about the future. There is no social safety net, and they fear that they will have to work until they die without the backing of pensions.

They are afraid to ask for a real solutions though, as it would mean they would have to learn that crime is created by poverty, and can't be fixed by more guns on the streets. Their fear is one whipped up by right wing press. They would rather live in a corporate slave-state than give up their handguns, and that fits right into the Republican corporate agenda.

In reality, all of these ills could be solved with a 3% increase in taxes, and a re-investment into health, education, industry, retraining, and the developing of a middle class. Except they won't do that. Republicans now holding a majority in the house, and in the senate, have been filibustering and thwarting every Democratic effort to fix the rich poor gap. It is going to blow up on them.

A more important question though, is: Have Americans used up their goodwill? Is their empathy broken? What happened to the 'New Deal', forged out of an idea that the States should be  capable of lifting every other country up to its own level? The inherent flaws in this fallacy are that the US has its own radicals, mostly on the right, who want them to return to a sort of corporate run fast-burning industrial powerhouse. Call it a "nostalgic ideal".

Now don't get me wrong, industry is a fantastic force for change in the world, and its products create the world we live in, from iPads to suits to concrete to milk-protein dresses. Industry, done right, is not a problem. It's the right wing "nostalgic ideal" that is the problem. The only time that the nation had ever 'achieved' this was after the civil war. With thousands upon thousands of unemployed soldiers, and an economy newly rebounding and producing technology the rest of the world, and the country itself now found indispensible, the situation was ripe. Labour was undervalued to the point that it created its own form of slavery, culminating in children working in mines, and everyone marching into the industrial yoke, all in the name of corporate profit. Fast forward to today, when the same is happening albeit in slow motion, and we see that the "nostalgic ideal" only works for the few. Yet they are able to sell it to the many by promising, through media and mythology, that everyone can acheive this lifestyle of capital success. Never has that been farther from the truth. The more people buy into the myth, the less it ever becomes possible for them. It is the addiction to envisioning themselves rich that ensures they will always be poor.

Corporations do not feel evil. They look at numbers, and any social problems arising from their choices are not their problem. They see it as a consequence, not an erosion of anything. This is why they are so surprized by the protests. Making money for them is not inherently evil. The system rewards them by allowing them to pay less in taxes. An entire class of society believes in what they are doing because they are now untouchable. Like those who create huge Ponzi schemes, they don't care when they set up something that is doomed to fail, because the only calculation they worry about is the one that puts its collapse after their death. In a way, the whole American system is a complex Ponzi scheme, and the 1% hope to ride it as long as they can. If that means selling a lifestyle paid for by people extending their credit beyond any hope of payback, then so be it. They will already have the money.

How dire is it? We have the same divide between rich and poor that we had in the great depression. Plain and simple. If that's not dire, I don't know what is.

In looking back to the great depression, we have to see that in the postwar period, the system recovered. It took a world war, which was an immense stimulus spending (and the inspiration for our stimulus of last year that is getting so much flak) The difference is that again we trusted big business to trickle down the money into jobs, which in WW2 was inevitable. in 1939 the money went into goods and industries that had to employ people in order to meet the contracts. Today, it went into bankers pockets, and the people still suffered.

Government spending fixed the economy in 1939, but it won't work this time. This time, policy will have to fix it.

In the 1940's, Labour Unions and Democrats fought and won major policy shifts that put the money back in the hands of the working people. Never was it as good as it was in 1979, when the profitability of corporations peaked  at the same time as the workers increased their share of the pie. Even the bottom quarter of Americans were getting wage increases above the cost of living. The American dream was working for everyone. What happened in 1979?


1980 gave us a shift in American politics that reversed all the trends of the sharing of wealth in the American system that has put the bottom 99% on a slippery slope of spending more while earning less. Today, the bottom quarter sees their share of income actually DE-creasing, at a time when prices increase. This can only end in disaster.

The problem is that the rest of the world is not on this standard, and even though it is catching up, since the 1960's, with the surge of globalization, there has been a steady erosion of jobs from the middle class while the industrialists and corporations exported them overseas to capitalize on the cheap labour and lack of regulations.

What is most insidious is their demonizing of the left, as if human rights, Unions collective bargaining, children having nutritious food, women being safe from domestic violence, immigration, and a host of other issues are "bad", while the free, unrestrained pursuit of wealth, status, power, and influence are "good". They see the lack of control of growing co-ops, people self-sufficient for food, green energy, and all under the umbrella of liberalism, to be a threat to their control of both resources and people.

To understand Occupy Wall St. in the same context of the Arab Spring, one has to see the latter as a revolt, while the former is more like a pushback. The right would be wise to take heed. It could get worse. Of course the people of the great nation to our south are going to protest. It is the same downward slide that successive socialist-leaning governments in Canada have been fighting since Trudeau. And we've been winning, for the most part. Conservatives don't see it, because they believe in the free market. Believe me, if we truly deregulated our market we would be having our own occupy Bay St. protests right now. (at the time of this posting, these protests are beginning in Vancouver and Toronto...)

We have to ask ourselves, though. How long before millions of unemployed people, with the backing and inclusion of every stripe of American society, cross the line between pushback and revolt?

 My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
eBook, pdf, mobi, epub, rtf, lrf, palm, txt
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Kindle UK
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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A question of tone.

"Great minds discuss ideas, small minds discuss people." - Eleanor Roosevelt

I was listening to CBC radio the other day, while driving, and the show was a call-in show about the provincial election in Ontario. The announcer had opened the phone lines to callers, and there was an interesting trend in the calls. For the most part, those who said they voted Liberal (and there were quite a few, owing to the listenership of CBC) were polite, and enthusiastic about another Liberal government term.

One Conservative got on, and started calling Ontario voters idiots, and stupid, and then told the host before being cut off that the people had been bent over a barrel with no lubrication.

If he wanted to argue policy, I would have listened to him. He could have pointed out that Hudak proposed making prisoners work (with which I don't necessarily disagree), or that there's a greater need for tracking sexual predators (good idea), or that there was a need for megaprisons (I don't see it), or he could even to skip the line into Federal politics and argue about Harper's term, to show that Hudak would be more of the same. In fact, I actually would have begged for more air time for him if he could have actually illustrated Hudak's platform, as nobody had been able to do that previously in the whole election.

No, it degenerated into this crap. Call it what you like. Bullyism. Trollism. Vulgarism. Tea Party politics. The best place to find it right now is on the internet. Click on any random news article about an election, or a leader, and scroll down to the comments. Or if you can't find an example, here are a couple:

"Fed up with rising prices, higher taxes, fewer opportunities,  a grim outlook for the future?
Tough shit. In not voting, you voted for it. So eat it."

Again, tone. Some others:

"Don't like Big Daddy Dalton's antics? Education is what I'm all about, and I'm not even a member of a union.  I do it for nothing.  Go figure."
"The disregard for taxpayer's money is discusting. (sic)"

Looking beyond the policies, I believe the problem is that conservatives use anger arguments while liberals use policy arguments. We speak two different languages. Instead of arguing the facts, conservatives use conjecture and rarely back anything up with solid numbers. Liberals put up statistics and references that the average conservative doesn't trust and doesn't read. In the States they are seeing the results of about forty years of anger politics. Their system is a mess. As soon as they opened the door with Nixon, a thug if there ever was one, they ended up with bully politics spoiling the whole thing, and, now, people occupying Wall Street against corporate greed.

That has more to do with what the Conservative party has to offer than what it fights against. They say they support the 'working families' of the province, and then say they'll do away with Collective bargaining, and cancel a green energy program providing over 70,000 jobs. They want to do away with 'wasteful spending', and yet can't say where they would cut the spending. They offer the same divisive crap they've offered since the Reform alliance.

Mulroney is a prime example of attacking the incumbent, then doing whatever he wanted when in power. Harris promised the same cuts and reigning in spending, and was elected on it. While most conservatives forget that he eviscerated our economy under pretense of balancing the budget, with Hudak as one of his MPP's, liberals remember the closing 22 hospitals and education system being gutted; the demonizing of teachers and Unions in the media. These were their neighbours, and friends, and the people who taught their children, and the attacks hit home in a way that Harris didn't intend. Most importantly from that, we expected fiscal prudence, and received $9Bil in defecit. There is a Tory amnesia there, just as there is an unwillingness to acknowledge any of the successes of any Liberal government before or since.

Conservatives rely on the anger vote, and play to this to try to whip up a frenzy. If they didn't, they'd drift from their traditional rural, aged, and angry voter base. In a social democracy though, the anger vote doesn't go very far. As soon as urbanites read the attacks, it falls dead. In cities, consensus is the norm. They are tired of attack politics, where rural people thrive on it.

Hudak attacked 'the taxman' McGuinty (a typical straw-man technique) saying the taxes are already are too high. Well what is defined as too high? Did he look at what we get for those taxes, or did he use generalities to attack without providing examples? It's hard to sell a 'high tax' myth to a people whose overall tax burden is 43rd of all countries in the world, and among the lowest of industrial nations. (That's overall tax burden, as a percentage of GDP, agglomerated from the whole country as reported by the Heritage Foundation. Or, if you like, 33rd in the world for data taken from Ontario, as ranked by Forbes magazine. Similar figures available from the CIA factbook for cross reference if you're interested)

Again, research.

Conservatives point out hat their party has changed. I disagree. It was the anger vote that got Harris in, and if Tim Hudak and John Tory are an indication of Conservative party offerings for the next election as well, we'll have to put up with the same divisive, angry dialogue that conservatives have been showing us for decades. Why? That is how they believe they can win. Without a change in tactics we'll have another Liberal government, and deservedly so.

To win, consistently, the Conservative party has to offer something concrete, not just hatred. If they illustrate a platform that protects healthcare and education (I mean really protected instead of lip-service), that protects collective bargaining and provides the middle class with well-paying jobs, supports green energy and meeting pollution reduction goals, fiscal prudence, all while maintaining the human rights that took centuries to build, then I would vote for them. So would most Liberal supporters.

But they don't. In fact they have, in their actions, proven to take stands exactly the opposite on all those points, while offering fluff gimmick style policies that get the rural votes while ignoring the core societal issues we MUST tackle to survive. The average conservative (and there are many exceptions whom I know very well) seems to be less educated, frustrated with politics in general, with the facts wrong and passions propelling them to hate liberalism for all the reasons the Conservative party gives them. They reject all standard benchmarks of measuring all the systems that matter the most.

How can anyone argue with that?

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

A teaser chapter for my current novel is now up!
Seven Gates

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
eBook, pdf, mobi, epub, rtf, lrf, palm, txt
Kindle US
Kindle UK
Kindle Germany

The above examples of conservative quotes come from here:

(Warning, takes a while to load. I offer it not to increase their traffic, but to give ownership under copyright law where it is due.)

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Death of the letter.

A short while ago, with the folding of the big bookstore chain Borders, all the blog posts and tweets and comments seemed to focus on one outstanding question. What will happen to the book? The consensus, and it was far from unanimous, was that many still loved to have an actual, physical book in their hands, but that the sales just weren't there to back it up. I remember the day that I heard that online sales of books had surpassed the actual physical book sales.

Then I put my novel online for download.

I figured that there was no sense in bucking a trend, a wave of change that was sweeping through the readership, made available by such interesting techno gadgets as the kindle, and the iPad. There was such an uproar, as if people had sensed the shift, the change in direction of the minnow school, and some were trying to point out the implications for a long loved form of media.

But this isn't about books. I merely bring this up because I see no such uproar coming in support of the humble letter. At a time when postal services around the world are combating lower volumes, who will speak for the letter?

Two hundred years ago, literacy was an aristocratic and privileged thing. Before the outburst of public schooling in the 1800's, letters were a relative rarity, expensive, and usually piggybacking on military dispatches, paid for by the receiver, or carried by relatives or friends or acquaintances between continents for those who were lucky to travel.

In 1840 with the invention of penny postage, private mail services gave way to the cheaper public system, and soon enough letters could be sent nearly worldwide, traveling by rail, ride or sail from anywhere to anywhere. That, coupled with the rise of the public funded school system, led to an explosion of mail. For nearly a century before the invention of the telegraph, the humble letter was the sole means of communication across long distances. People used it to pass news, to do business, and to communicate, to send postcards from exotic locations, or to keep in touch with their loved ones during times of war.

You may find this part of the history facile, almost laughable, as if I'm parodying something that we who were born before the internet take for granted, but before you laugh, consider this. In the US, lettermail between 2006 and 2010 alone dropped by 20%. We see similar numbers for other postal services around the world. We aren't sending letters any more

I blame it all on e-mail.

What, you ask, do I have against e-mail? Online, we all tend to truncate things. We re-write. We edit. We write it as if it has to fit in one page, and that's where its failing lies. A letter can be as long as we want it to.

It's not as if we haven't gone through changes like this before. The invention of the public postal system and public education shifted the focus of our thousands of years old oral traditions to a more unified storytelling experience. The best example is the coagulation of all our traditional views of Sinder Klaus, St. Nicholas (all three of them), and Santa Claus into the red-suited elf we now see on the Coca-Cola ads. People no longer sat down around fires and told stories, instead reading out loud from books.

Books gradually supplanted our oral tradition. Sure, there are still professional storytellers, but the majority of storytelling, the real bulk, shifted to books, then to radio, movies, and television, and now to the internet.

If we compare the modern blog to journal writing of the past centuries, novels to their online counterparts, news to the broadsheets of the past, and the humble letter to its modern e-mail counterpart, we see a continuing trend toward truncation.

In the iPod generation, will we see our children and grandchildren unable to even find books outside museums? Could they become like the parchment scrolls of the middle ages? It's possible.

Even the content of those books is changing. How many of us can conceive of reading War and Peace, with its whopping 560,000 words, let alone writing a novel of that size? That, and Les Miserables at 513,000 words, are two of my favourite novels. Even my first novel, squeakyclean, at only 250,000 words was rejected by many publishers as being 'too long', though it would have been quite normal at the turn of the century. We want our facts quickly, and efficiently, and haven't the time to wander through a story any more.

Books are shorter, partly because the publishing industry is looking for books that fall into the neat confines of a trade paperback, but partly also because the modern writer knows this. They know where to find their audience, which means smaller novel sizes being written and queried. The skills to write an epic novel, like the ability to tell long stories of the previous centuries, are disappearing from our writing communities.

How many of you now are thinking this post is a little long? That's on purpose. We all have a meter in our head, a timer if you will, that subconsciously counts the time we've been spending on one thing, and that's the root of our problem right there. Just as we influence the technology, and become more terse and compact in our production of media, we are also changing the comfort zone of what, as a reader, we accept as long enough to pay attention to. We are producing shorter works, and in turn, shortening our attention spans.

To bring this point back full circle, I believe that just as the epic novel may be wheezing out its slow death rattles, so too we may someday see the end of the letter. We are just not able to hone those skills. It's a shame. I still have letters sent to me years ago, that I can pull out and read, some from people who are long gone, and their script brings them back to me for a few moments. I still have notes thrown back and forth in class from high school. Do kids even do that any more? I would love to think so. There's something very comforting and simple about actual physical communication, and I think in turning away from it we are losing something of our humanity.

That said, I have written three actual physical letters, a couple of pages each, and I am sending them. My friend Kirk, in Montreal, who has a paperless office, said it will be like poetry to receive an actual personal piece of lettermail.

That reaction alone tells me that I'm doing the right thing. He'll be getting a letter this week.

 My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

A teaser chapter for my current novel is now up!
Seven Gates

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
eBook, pdf, mobi, epub, rtf, lrf, palm, txt
Kindle US
Kindle UK
Kindle Germany

Fountain of couth...

I was going to write a post about the protests in New York, but after my first draft grew to thousands of words, I thought instead I would blog some fluff and work on the more serious piece during my holiday.

So ... pens.

From left, Waterman, Old Workhorse, Keepsake, Cheapo, and New Workhorse

There's something intriguing and romantic about a fountain pen. They conjure up a bygone era, of writers like Fitzgerald and Hemingway yukking it up in the Cafe Select on the rive gauche, or the stalwart businessman of Chicago, signing documents in real ink, while the typewriters clacked out in the background. I see fountain pens differently. I see them as a necessary modern tool for writing, just like the computer or the ubiquitous paper. For me, they are a guilty pleasure, and very much in step with the new push towards sustainability.

I have been writing with fountain pens for decades now, and the pleasure I get from it is often the difference between sitting down to write, or sitting down to snack and watch television. I have had numerous forgettable pens, and currently have a repertoire of some that I use often, and others that I use rarely, but love.

If you're interested in taking up writing with a fountain pen, you'll find many benefits. First, because they have a mechanism for pulling ink into the well themselves, and few moving parts, they can last for decades with very little waste. Any that I have broken it has usually been through my own stupidity, ie. dropping on the nib on the floor or cracking the casing, or stripping the threads where it screws together by mistreating them.

The fountain pens I use cost anywhere above $30, the most expensive is a Waterman that cost me in the range of $150. In two years I have spent $40 on a new pen (which was technically unnecessary), and two bottles of ink at about $5 apiece. There is no waste to go to landfill. The ink bottle and lid are glass and plastic respectively, and can be recycled. In that time period I wrote many successive drafts of a novel, letters, notes, and drawings.

Compare that to the disposable UniBall roller gels that, over the same time period, I used for my official work notes. (I use both because the ink in disposables is permanent and does not wash out when it gets wet.) In that time, I have filled five books of notes for work, using up six packages at roughly twelve pens each, or about 72 pens worth nearly $50. Every single one of those pens will end up in a landfill, as they can't be recycled.

Another benefit, which I hadn't anticipated, is that the more writing I had to do with the disposables, the more my wrist hurt. I haven't had the results back about my possible nerve damage, but in nearly thirty years of writing with fountain pens, I had no problems, and in the two years since I started writing with rollerballs, I have been put in so much pain that I had to learn to write with my other hand.

Why? It is in the mechanics of the pen itself. A rollerball up close is like a squished tube of very thin metal, like a cake decorators tube, with a ball bearing in the tip. It requires a certain pressure on the ball to create the friction to spin the ball, where the ink then is drawn along the ball surface onto the page as it rolls. More pressure equals more stress on the hand and wrist.

A fountain pen is a completely different mechanism. Up close, it is like a metal ball that is cut in half, pressed from the same heart or triangle shaped flat metal plate that makes up the nib. A channel is cut through the nib, up into the pen, and that's where the liquid ink runs. The ink is actually drawn through capillary action through the channel and into the ball, where, with minimal pressure, it is deposited on the page, wet, and takes a few seconds to dry. It actually writes better with less pressure, and, thus, less stress on the hand and wrist.

Inexpensive, environmentally responsible and ergonomic. Hooked? Here's what to look for:

Without being able to try out pens, it's hard to decide which is right for you. The weight, the nib, and the colour, size, and feel, are all personal choices, but if it's your first you'll want a starter pen that gets the job done without anything frilly or expensive. Try to buy a pen with a metal shaft, as it will last much longer. The ones with plastic casing, like the Cross I have, tend to strip the threads when they are under any sidelong pressure (for example, if left in your pocket and sat on ... ask me how I know) Also, a stainless steel nib will last longer and be more durable than an electroplated nib. For a first pen, until you know what you like for weight and writing style, go with a less expensive pen. They will be easier to part with if you decide its not for you.

Something else to remember is to get one with a suction reservoir. The Cross I bought recently did not come with one, and finding the reservoirs afterwards is like searching for hen's teeth. It is better to ensure that they have them already, because otherwise you have a pen that requires you constantly buy the ink refill cartridges that are pen-specific, rather than just bottles of ink. (also negating the environmental responsibility as noted above)

Cartridges from Cross (top), Waterman, and Sheaffer (bottom)
The next thing is the nib. If you like a thicker line, you'll want a Medium, thinner, a Fine. Any other sizes of nib will be harder to find outside of the specialty writing shops, which, themselves are becoming harder to find.

As you can see, dropping pens on their nibs is their kryptonite, and I have done it many times, owing to the circumstances under which I write. That is, all the time, wherever I am. I have lost several pens to clumsiness, the majority to setting it on a flat surface and forgetting that they roll. Since the nib is heavy when they are near empty, that's what hits the floor first.

It is hard to see in this blurry pic, but this is the repaired Waterman nib.
When a nib gets bent, the channel and the halves of this ball on the nib don't match up perfectly any more, and you get it either giving too much ink (the channel is too wide) or dragging fibres off the page, (one half of the ball is lower than the other and the sharp edge is scraping fibres off) I got very lucky with this Waterman, but it is no longer my primary writing pen.

My pen repertoire.

The old workhorse.

I have always loved Shaeffer pens. I have had a succession of three, the first of which was sadly lost in a cafe in Montreal years ago, and was quickly replaced by the first one you see here. This one was about $60 in 1999, owing to the electroplated nib, and is still very useable, though its line has widened from being dropped on the nib several times.

I also had another Shaeffer that I bought around the same time, a red one that was less elegant, with no frilly anything, but cost about $20. I fill with red ink and still, after 12 years, use it for editing my writing.

The new workhorse

I replaced the brown Sheaffer with an all-stainless version of the same pen. This $30 version, with a stainless nib, has withstood nearly five years of my abuse. It is looking its age. I wouldn't trade it for any other pen. It's my old faithful, and though not pretty, it gets the job done year after year after year.

The elegant showoff.

This Waterman is a $150 mid-range pen, which is a wonderful writing tool. I love it. I also dropped this one on its nib many years ago, and quickly used tiny tools to bend the nib back to its (somewhat) original position, so that it writes still very nicely. Have I mentioned that I love this pen?

If I was to buy a very expensive pen (and they go as expensive as one is willing to pay), then I believe it would be a Waterman, just based on the fantastic craftsmanship of this little pen. I think I would go for their Fine nib, though, instead of this one, which is a Medium. I like the thinner lines of a Fine, but not so small (and therefore cloggy) of an Extra Fine.

The cheapo.

Caught without a pen the other day, I went into a Staples and bought a "cheap" Cross pen. It was about $40, and that pricetag is I think more due to the Staples markup than to Cross themselves. It was a bit of a rip-off. It writes nice, being that it has a Fine nib, but the casing is plastic, it didn't come with a suction well, and it just feels, well, cheap. It looked great in the box (buyer beware), and was okay in a fix, but infinitely inferior even to the $30 Shaeffer that I bought many years ago. It will not last as long as that one, I can guarantee.

The unused keepsake.

I inherited this Cross pen from my Aunt Chris, who lived in Duncan BC, and first got me into writing. When I was about twelve years old, she bought me a blank journal, and wrote in fountain pen in the front cover a little dedication about how she likes to write. I still have that journal to this day, and even though this is not the same pen as she had thirty years ago, it was hers. She passed away from Cancer in 2001, and this was what she left me. I have not written with it, as nibs most often are worked down by their writers to be unusable by anyone else. She was hard on pens like I am, and so all I have done with it is wash it and dry it so that the ink didn't corrode it inside. I don't have the heart to do anything else with it.

That's that! Here's hoping there's a lot more interest in these types of pens, because I would hate to see them go the way of the typewriter.

My wife, Jennifer's, blog can be found here:
Cleverly Disguised as Cake

A teaser chapter for my current novel is now up!
Seven Gates

And my first novel, squeakyclean, here:
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