Saturday, December 21, 2019

Mystery of the pens

Life is full of mysteries, great and small. But none are so vast, so unfathomable, so inscrutable as the mystery of the pens.

Well, actually a few are, but we're going to be discussing the one about the pens either way, so what say we just move it right along?

Every once in awhile I'll get a bunch of fake flowers at the library I work at. There were some very real looking and feeling lilies I once bought. I think they were latex. And a few years ago someone mysteriously abandoned a large grocery bag full of nice red fabric roses. I've been working my way slowly through those and recently just finished using the last eight of them over the weekend.

What do I do with these fake flowers?

I tape them to pens.

As anyone working with the public can tell you, pens disappear. That one fact is fine and obvious; people unconsciously wander away with the pen they use. But from there things start to get weird.

For instance, you might know that people also abandon pens, though not as often. So as our pens bleed out they are partly replaced by stray pens, and crayons, dried markers, and pencil bits. These pens and markmaking detritus are always a little bit worse than our original pens and they don't keep up with our losses. So there is an attritional rate to our pens becoming both steadily worse and fewer. However, bizarrely, certain pens, regardless of quality, never go anywhere. So we might have one or, if we're lucky, two pens that are quite nice that stay at the desk for months while hundreds of nearly identical pens come and go, and all the while all kinds of terrible stray pen and crayon junk fills in the space around them.

As the supply person for my library sometimes all of this is too much for me to take. So to try to change the dynamic I sit down and securely tape flowers to a series of the nice pens we use at the desk. These "nice" pens are gel writing pens, Sharpie fine point clickables, and Sharpie ultra fine point clickables. Each pen costs us a little over a dollar each, what with discounts and purchasing by the box. The flowers are ostentatious and make the pens a little less pleasant to use, but, theoretically, they make walking away with one of them really weird and hard to do as well.

So like I said, I flower up all these pens. Then I take them out to the front desk. I confiscate every single other pen that's out there. Then I stock each station at the front desk. There are two stations, and sort of one auxiliary station. Each station gets:

One Sharpie Clickable Fine Point, with a rose attached
One Sharpie Clickable Ultra Fine Point (Both of these mainly for card signing according to preference), with a rose attached
One Gel Pen (Blue or Black), with a rose attached
Two of our standard issue ballpoint pens, no rose (less than a dime each and so expendable)
One new pencil, sharpened, with fresh eraser, no rose

This is all a bit of a production, but I always feel very satisfied when I've done it. It seems orderly, protective of our supplies, and well balanced.

Then I go away and do whatever it is I do.

After a couple hours, for whatever reason, I invariably return to the desk.

The head of one rose has been ripped violently off its stem, like by a cow who ate it not knowing it was synthetic or that roses aren't really very nutritious. Two of the pens with roses are missing and nowhere to be found. Nearly all of the standard issue ballpoint pens are gone. Two pretty good but not new pencils, with about half erasers, have been added in to our collection. One weird new pen that doesn't work has also been added in. We also have a yellow crayon. And almost everything we do have has been collected at one station making it awash in writing implements. The other stations are close to bare.

This is where I despair. This is where I cry "What's the point?!" This is where I tell the agonizing story of what happened to every co-worker I can find. To a person they shrug and say "Eh. What can you do?" And then they change the subject.

I remember then why I only rarely put flowers on pens. 

Then I have a nervous breakdown and miss several days of work in a row.

I take good care of myself. I get back to seeing the long view of things. I breathe. I have calming warm beverages. And I return quietly to work.

I go to the front desk.

Pretty much all the pens with flowers are where they're supposed to be, all nine, except the one with the rose chewed off still doesn't have a rose. Most of our standard issue pens and pencils are in place as well and looking only slightly worse for wear. Outside of one bonus pencil there is nothing extra at the desk, and the pens are all well distributed across the three stations.  

And that is the mystery of the pens.


  1. Just wanted to let you know that "markmaking detritus" is a very nice phrase. And to assure you, I am still reading the blog daily.


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