Blackwing Volume 10.

Just in at HQ: the latest limited release from Blackwing. Volume 10 refers to the essay “10 Days in a Mad-House” by Nellie Bly. The summer 2019 offering is a tribute to investigative journalism. I love this theme.

In a different and more courageous life, I would have loved to pursue a career in such brave writing, such boots on the ground journalism. Studying philosophy, we searched for Truth or the truth as a undergraduates. Then we searched for spots in PhD programs during our MA years, and after that, we searched for jobs teaching at universities. There, we would write fancy book reports and sometimes read them at conferences to 17 people, some of whom might have actually read what we wrote before asking questions that were designed to make themselves look intelligent or to make us look stupid or, best, both. The search for what is true or Truth got ignored and left to enthusiastic undergrads who would, in turn, ignore it. I finished my doctorate and jumped ship, though I’d jumped ship in my heart years earlier. To quote Nietzsche (how pretentious! get to the pencils!) from Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

For this is the truth: I have departed from the house of the scholars, and the door have I also slammed behind me.

I developed a taste for Sebastian Junger, Jon Krakauer, even the perhaps less truthful Bruce Chatwin. Thoreau became my model of the philosopher, the investigative truth-seeker whose search for meaning involves going inside and also outside into the world. If I had a time machine, I’d go back in time and hoard the 2004 version of the Ticonderoga “Black” and also study journalism. So this theme really grabs me.

I also love the oblique mental health angle. I know there are cries of bandwagon lately surrounding mental health awareness, especially when companies attempt to cash in and are guilty of the equivalent of green-washing. Nonetheless, the stigma around mental illness is not going anywhere without awareness, and every little bit helps. I appreciate that Blackwing mentioned mental health and did not harp on it too much. Miss Bly’s piece shed light on common misconceptions of people who suffer from mental illness and their relation to the rest of society. How many misconceptions still exist in 2019?

I couldn’t get these into my grubby hands quickly enough.

In the end, I feel the opposite that I felt over Volume 1. That pencil was so pretty that I didn’t care that the theme was a musician that I find, honestly, boring. This time, I don’t care that much what the pencil looks like because I like the theme so much. First libraries, and now journalism? Blackwing has me paying attention. I don’t know how I actually feel about the looks yet. Or, at least, I’m not sure how to form an opinion that is at all divorced from how much I love this theme.

The pencil sports a “matte grey newsprint finish” with a silver ferrule and [new] dark grey eraser. The imprint is dark grey, and the 10 really stands out for on this no-frills barrel, even more than the #1 did on Volume 1. The core is the extra firm that we have seem now on the 24, the 530, the rare 1917, the 54, and the Natural. I love the texture of the matte finish, and the rather cool grey is a lovely tone. The eraser is dark enough that it looks black; they probably could have saved some money by just using black erasers. What’s really interesting is how much the color of the cedar is set off by the design of this pencil after you sharpen it.

The subscriber extra is a facsimile of a newspaper that is a hard copy of Miss Bly’s essay, complete with a thoughtful surprise at the end that I won’t spoil here.

Some folks have expressed disappointment that the pencil is so…muted or boring. There are already a slew of white, black, and grey Blackwings, in the regular line-up and the Volumes series. I’m not bothered by it. I’d love to see a yellow pencil, some more blue, definitely a purple pencil. But what color would have worked for this theme? Should Blackwing have excluded this theme because no bright colors or interestingly shaped pencils would match it? It’s drab. But is that a bad thing?

Distillation and Archiving.

I have kept a lot of pocket notebooks over the last few years, since my very first Field Notes notebook. Before that, I largely used Moleskine notebooks, usually the hardbound pocket style. Once full, they were handy to sit down with and peruse at a later date, remembering ideas I had for projects, snippets of poetry, chronicles of adventures both large and small, and philosophical paragraphs that I thought I might not keep to myself. Before I had kids, a small Moleskine would last me at least a few months. (I have filled 3/5 of my current notebook, a lined pocket Moleskine, in 3 weeks; I wrote less back then).

The benefit of softbound pocket notebooks is that they’re very portable, and I fill them up very quickly. But their format and their sheer number make going back through these tiny volumes somewhat difficult. I’ve had my distillation and archiving project in mind for a long time, but I’ve never mustered the energy to start it. I am endeavoring to edit and transfer the contents from nearly a decade of pocket notebooks into large hardcover journals.

These are the pocket notebooks that I filled from 2011 to 2012, with three books from late 2010. During this period, I also kept a five-year diary and a traditional journal. But I did most of my writing in pocket notebooks, everyday. The stack from 2013 to 2014 is a little larger than this, and the stack that includes writings from 2015 and on has exploded and includes a reasonable number of hardcover notebooks itself. I have a few hundred of these notebooks to sort through.

I have no intention to copy the contents of these notebooks wholesale. I’m setting myself up at the start to be very selective regarding what will make it into the hardcover journal, in this case, a Moleskine expanded edition that I wrote about this spring. I’m not sure what the time commitment for this project will be, but I don’t want it to get out of hand and get in the way of actual capital w Writing.

I have heard the legend repeated that Marcus Aurelius ordered his journals to be burned when he died. A disobedient servant preserved them, and because of that, we have the rich philosophical book today that inspires many people. I am definitely no emperor and philosopher like Aurelius, but I have asked that my journals be burned if something happens to me. (However, I’m wondering if these distilled archives will be exempt from my macabre request.) My best friend and I have a pact that whoever dies first will burn the other’s journals — though I suspect that we will burn them all on a camping trip sometime in the next 30 or 40 years together and then play music to the ashes.

I realize this post is a rambling procrastination before I crack open some notes that are almost 10 years old. I imagine how much paper and ink and graphite I may have wasted complaining about a neighbor, taking notes on when a character uses a certain kind of stationary item in a television series, and just testing writing implements out over and over again. Is it a larger waste of time and resources to scour these various semi-disposable notebooks in an effort to gleen nuggets worth remembering and worth archiving? Will the trip down the proverbial Memory Lane make the entire endeavor worth it?

Am I just creating an egotistic and/or narcissistic commonplace book of my own words?

Neon Tics, already.

My oldest child and I stopped by Staples today on the way home. They had the neon Ticonderoga erasers I’d been looking for and a different pack of th pencils than the ones that contained the sharpener that I found at Office Depot a few months ago. (I also grabbed a box of cedar yellow pencils because FRAGRANT.) The younger two dug in when we got home, and the box, well, it doesn’t look like that anymore.

What I find alarming is that they were in the freaking BACK TO SCHOOL section. My Kindergartner and 4th grader have one and two weeks of school left, respectively. That’s THIS year. I’m not annoyed when the BTS stuff comes out after July 4th, but this is a little bit bananas. But still: LOOK AT THOSE ERASERS! Go find yours!

Check out the review of the neon Tics from our Comrade at The Weekly Pencil!

Reviewing the Dixon Ticonderoga.

A 2004/5 American-made Ticonderoga and a 2010 Chinese-made Ticonderoga, both well-loved.

This is a daunting task. The one and only time we ever published a review of the classic yellow Ticonderoga, it was 2005. The review was written by a professional reporter and photographer. It is still one of the most read posts according to the Magical Stats Machine. But the Ticonderoga is no longer made in the USA, and it’s more expensive now. It’s a completely different pencil.

Over a decade ago, Dixon moved their production out of the United States, and everything changed. Some of this was bad. Some was good. But nothing was consistent. To be honest, by the time my oldest child started school in 2014, the teacher’s insistence on Ticonderoga pencils was basically meaningless. The pencils sporting this brand were made in Mexico and China, and even the color of the barrels was inconsistent. The Mexican-made pencils seemed to have harder cores and sloppier paint jobs. The Chinese-made offerings were darker and softer (and, around 2010, more…yellow). There was Microban on some of the yellow pencils, and there was even a blue model made in Mexico who’s branding profile was that it was coated in that questionable substance.

Matte black Ticonderogas. The current version is glossy and disappointing next to this fragrant beauty.

Before that, the pencils were made in the USA, and there were two other variants. The “Black” has survived, though the Woodgrain is long gone. I owned exactly one pack of the former that I bought at a grocery store in Carbondale, Illinois. I’m fairly certain that this is the only one I have left. The Millennium (pictured) was a gift from Caroline Weaver, and the USA-made “Black” that superseded it might be my all-time favorite Ticonderoga for its matte finish and pleasant memories of fall 2004 and discovering the writing of Bruce Chatwin.

A version of these showed up around a decade ago as an extra in packs of yellow pencils. I’d love to track some down.

Like other manufacturers, Dixon used to make custom pencils with their own quality and branding, rather than the usually junk promotional pencils we see today. Behold, this lovely Baltimore City Government pencil from decades past, and its lovely green foil customization. Imagine having pencils you know will work well with your company’s name on them!

It’s just a Ticonderoga.
Wait, no. It’s a Charm City Dixon!

In recent years, we have found different colors of Ticonderoga. There have been Target-exclusive colors twice, neon models available at Staples (recently replaced by greatly improved versions), stripes, metallic paint, natural barrels, even muted hued Ticonderogas. The quality on these has never been consistent. They have been made in different countries. And the wood even varies. It’s frustrating that, for a number of years, you never knew what you were going to get when you bought a box of Ticonderogas. One would hope that such a veritably iconic brand would venture to be somewhat consistent, to maintain a level of quality control that could live up to the reputation of the pencil. But this has not been so.

Breast cancer awareness pencil. My wife’s OB used to keep these around her office.

For instance, while someone in the company has denied this in a Facebook group, another pencil industry insider has confirmed this for me: the back to school Ticonderogas and the large packs available at places like Costco are not the same quality as regular Ticonderogas and are not intended to be (This could certainly no longer be true, and I’d be happy to have this information corrected!). In the past, such pencils have been made of non-cedar wood, and a quick glance spots shoddy paint and badly glued ferrules. These are clearly targeted at teachers and office managers who insist on yellow Dixon Ticonderoga pencils merely through brand recognition. Plus, over the last year, Ticondergas have been showing up with “premium wood,” not cedar. The packaging had been bragging about “American Cedar” for a few years, and I have bought at least one pack of pencils with that package that were very clearly not made of cedar inside over the last few months. With the current shortage of cedar, Dixon has opted for less fragrant wood species.

Three versions of the F grade pencil. Check out the episode we recorded about this special grade on Erasable.

However, in recent years, the quality had been on a considerate and almost consistent up-tick. While from 2009-2017, I would have to hunt around through the Ticonderoga offerings at the store to get a good box, by 2018, I was able to purchase them online and trust that I would get a quality set of pencils. I sent some to my children’s school and was happy that a brand I used to love seemed to be getting their act together. I am particularly talking about the pencils made in China. Production quality is at least as good as the last US-made runs of this pencil, and the cores are unquestionably superior. They are darker, smoother, and even stronger. The paint job is excellent for this price range. The new neon version (with blue, not purple, and matching erasers) is so lovely that I would stock up a gross or two if they were made of cedar.

A “hackwing” Ticonderoga I made from a pencil whose ferrule busted off when someone sat in it.

I still miss the Woodgrain and the matte-finished “Black” (formerly the Millennium), and I hope that Dixon returns to making their pencils from cedar in the near future. But the Ticonderoga pencil is definitely not the same pencil that it was ten years ago. Of course, that’s part of the problem. The well-recognized brand’s pencils only shared that famous ferrule in the last few years. If the quality and consistency stay where they have been for the last year or two, I would be a very happy penciler. We’ll be keeping an eye out and stocking up on the cedar versions that we can find.

A very short and fat My FIrst TIconderoga with a custom clip. This is from around 2010.

Check out Leadfast’s great post on checking out Ticonderoga.

Col. Jack and The Deep.

I hope that I’m not violating any non-disclosure agreement in sharing this. But the folks at Write Notepads & Co related this story to me. It is the real story of The Deep and Col. Jack. No names or places have been changed, with apologies to Col. Jack’s widow Debbie. The following was related to me late one night over seven or eight cups of espresso at the pier in Fell’s Point.

This is a piece of Charm City鈥檚 murky past. This edition is perhaps the most personal one Write has made so far, an homage to the amazing Col. Jack, who taught so many people all about the deep blue sea and also Deep herself.

Deep was an octopus living at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, not far from the Write bindery and print shop. Col. Jack used to visit her there and felt a particular affinity for her and wanted to free her somehow. If you have visited an aquarium, you can see how impossible this would be, but Col. Jack did his best.

He refused to disclose how he found out about the existence of the babies, and he just glared if you asked how he actually procured them. But Col. Jack came to own two of Deep鈥檚 babies. He planned to drive them to Ocean City straight away, rent a boat, and set them free.

No one said it was a good plan.

That night, Col. Jack left the two baby octopuses in a bucket of salt water in the bathtub while he went to the Royal Farm nearest his home in Canton and picked up some Western Fries to have with his supper. When he returned, he found his wife Debbie in the kitchen, frying up dinner. She looked at him and said quickly, 鈥淕ood, hon. Those will go good with these fresh squid you just caught.鈥 Col. Jack was too afraid to tell his wife what he had intended to do, and he ate the dinner she made him, with the mushy fried potatoes. As he swallowed the last bite and washed it down with a Natty Boh, he realized that he had no idea that his wife could cook an octopus.

That night, Col. Jack sweated in bed with dyspepsia and horrible guilt. Channel 13 reported that Deep the octopus had died, very suddenly, but she lived on in Col. Jack鈥檚 dreams, where she appeared as a silvery mist against cloudy blue water. Old Col. Jack said that she just floated there, and he could no longer stomach seafood or the Western Fries from Royal Farm.

Col. Jack took to consuming coffee by the gallon in order to avoid sleep and the dreams about the octopus he wronged by accident. Some tourists found him floating face-down near Pier 4, outside of the Aquarium. He and Deep are both said to haunt the area around Mr. Trash Wheel to this day.

Write Notepads The Deep.

The 15th limited edition (counting the Thoreau and Keats books) pocket notebook set from Write Notepads & Co is here. The Deep is, frankly, another example of the carefully-made notebooks that Write puts out.

The covers are a textured dark blue, ahem, a deep blue stock, with a silver octopus letter-pressed onto the cover. Hell, this is so pretty that I’d be interested in buying a sheet of this to frame. It’s creepy and lovely at the same time. It’s shame that a notebook requires a binding and that staples had to invade this image.

Notable here is the complete lack of branding on the notebooks. The bellybands (very cool, though I think a white background would have been a little more…marine looking — but that could be because the first look I got was a PDF of the band that had a white background) have the usual branding, but that’s it. It’s pretty gutsy to put notebooks into the world without branding them at all, in my view.

The paper is the usual Write paper. It’s close to perfect for pencil. We’ve talked about this before. There are no lines this go around. I don’t mind. This is the first time that Write has released a pocket notebook with saddle-stitching and blank paper. The available canvas feels huge, as is the case with their slightly-wider and wide-open books. Still, the blank paper enhances this feeling to some extent.

I did not write this review until I’d carried a book in my pocket for most of a week, and it held up well to my butt and chairs and lots of walking. These are books that are every bit as well-made and well-designed as the previous fourteen editions. It’s a great start to Volume IV, and you can still get some now. (Stay tuned tomorrow, as we share the real story behind this edition, if we can escape legal or mortal peril in so doing.)

[Disclaimer: While I bought these books with my own money (and they were even delayed because they fell out of Chris’s car on the way to the PO), I have been writing for Write’s blog and am, in some small capacity, on their payroll. This does not influence my reviews; I’m not sure that Chris and Jon read this blog. But I thought I’d put it out there. (See my first two pieces here and here.)]

Moleskine Expanded: The Fat New Classic Notebook.

I cannot remember from where I caught wind of two (in my opinion) big developments from Moleskine for 2019. The first, which I jumped on first, is the “expanded” Moleskine. For Moleskine users who have longed for a book the size of their “large” daily planner/diary, there is the new 400 page A5-ish Expanded edition. This sucker is big, no chaser.

In addition to having a — excuse me — shit-ton of pages on which to draw, write, paste, or whatever, there are now two bookmarks. I know, Leuchtturm1917 has had those for years. But it’s not like they have invented the market for these elastic-bound notebooks, amiright? Ahem.

What’s more, these fat new Moleskines already come in lined, squared, dotted, and plain. I chose dot-grid because Moleskine does a nice job in that format. And I think that 400 pages of anything else would probably annoy me by the end. You can pick from hardcover or softcover, though I don’t know what I would use something this thick with a less durable cover for.

How do they perform? Fine, just fine. If you like Molekines and want, frankly, a big-assed Moleskine, get one of these. I imagine that the corners of the spine will show more wear after 400 pages than your average notebook. If you insist on pristine notebooks, you might want fewer pages or to otherwise write really big to fill it up more quickly. Me, I like mine a little busted. I am actually not sure what I want a second bookmark for. I suspect that Bullet Journalers will have a use for this, but my notebooks tend to be…linear enough that one bookmark works fine for me.

I am happy about this development, but I have one request of Moleskine: make a 400 book in the pocket format. That would possibly be the end-all of my Moleskine use. I’d get a freaking case of them. I’d go Full Chatwin.

At Jenni Bick last week (and, holy smokes, if you have access to Washington DC at all, go there; it’s basically a huge journal store), I also picked up the other new Moleskine that popped up on my radar this year, the MEDIUM notebook, which we’ll look at next time.