Back in the early days of this blog I did a lot more ‘editorial’ style posts, about topics and themes rather than just reviews of products. So if you scan down this post and don’t see any pictures, don’t be alarmed: this is meant to be just words!
The oxymoronic attainable grail pen?
I read an interesting post this weekend on London Fountain Pens about the concept of ‘grail pens’ — a topic I’ve mulled over many a time myself. Naturally, grail pens may be defined as forever out of reach based on simple factors like their price and availability, but the post touched on a third reason why grail pens stay forever out of reach: the huge potential for disappointment.
I got somewhat close to this in my review of the London Fog, as the idea of “never meet your heroes”. A grail pen is one you’re actually afraid to buy, because of the huge pressure of anticipation. You know that you’re expecting more of it than it can possibly live up to. This is a fascinating point.
But what does it mean for the pens you actually do buy? Manifestly, they’re not out of reach in terms of price and availability — but how do they score on the third factor? Are they the pens you don’t have high expectations of? How does that make you feel?
Time for a case study.
Incoming parcel. Let the rollercoaster begin.
This weekend I did my usual thing and impulse-ordered a pen, an Aurora Optima Flex in grey. It was on a 30% discount from Iguanasell, and I had been curious about owning an Aurora for some time, because they’re one of the few manufacturers to make their own nibs in-house.
Despite the discount, the Optima is still an expensive pen (over £300) and if you’d asked me a week ago to name my most-desired pens, it wouldn’t have been in my top three (Conid Kingsize, Oldwin Arco, Nakaya Decopod right now, off the top of my head). And I wasn’t even drunk when I pressed the button. The logical thing would have been for me to put the money toward a Conid, but I didn’t.
So it’s an interesting opportunity to observe the cocktail of emotion pervading a purchase like this, from the moment the finger hovers over the ‘buy’ button.
Highs and lows
The thrill of a gamble is a big factor, all bundled up with hope: will this pen blow me away? What will it be like? On the other side of the coin, will I hate it? Will it be broken or defective? Even worse: will I simply be “meh” about it? Will it have a few minor annoyances that relegate it to the drawer until I get around to selling it? These are all, essentially, riffs on the same theme of expectation versus reality. Put simply, have I wasted my money?
But there are plenty of other emotions. Let’s pin them down and diagnose this case.
There’s the smug satisfaction of getting a great bargain, which feeds a sub-emotion of relief that I can likely sell the pen for what I paid for it.
There’s the giddiness and power of spending a wedge just like that. Look at me, I’m rich and successful! (And shoring up my deep insecurity with materialism, yay!)
There’s the genuine childish excitement of waiting for a present to unwrap, which is the lizard-brain addiction behind unboxing videos, and the baser cousin of our more adult curiosity to try a new experience.
There’s the warm and homely expectation of what’s to come: the quiet Sunday-morning tension of deciding what to ink this pretty new pen with (which is not too far removed from the pleasant problem of picking the next chocolate from the box).
And then there’s the bigger fantasy future: of this at last being it: the constant companion, the faithful tool, scratched and battered after years of trips and masterpiece manuscripts, then pen they put in the museum erected in your name.
Needless to say, few of these imaginings will come to pass, but that’s OK.
Now we move to the darker side.
There’s the superficial collector’s pride of lining another specimen up in the drawer, of documenting and photographing, of sharing perfect pictures online and basking in the recognition and admiration of other addicts, the joy of being the one with rare knowledge to share.
There’s the cold shame and quiet dread of knowing just how dumb it is to spend this much on pens. Then, quickly, the defiance and shaky post-hoc rationalisation that there are certainly worse ways to spend your money, like heroin and hookers.
There’s the nagging doubt of the indecisive: should I have bought something else instead, even if it’s just a different colour variation or nib width?
There’s the been-burned-before relief of someone who, at last, managed to hit the “buy” button before a coveted pen went out of stock — banishing the wistful regret about the ones that got away (“I remember one time I saw a London Fog on closeout sale… but I dithered and it was gone“). But the relief is only temporary.
From another angle, that same relief becomes the snarling fist-pump of beating the competition in the ecommerce race, in this world of constant limited editions and flash sales. Some people still have bottles of Lamy Dark Lilac stockpiled, ready to sell for a hundred bucks each.
Take a deep breath
But step back a bit and the overwhelming impression is of excitement, anticipation. When I wake up tomorrow, on the day of delivery, the very first thing I do will be to hit the UPS site and see where my parcel is. That’s why we do this over and over: to get the rush of the new. It’s a rare and lucky person who gets as excited to pick up an old favourite from the drawer as a new pen fresh from the packaging, and who feels no temptation to wander.
The rollercoaster is intense to the point of distracting from work (is this the UPS truck outside?), but I already know it’s a fleeting high.
A couple of weeks later and it’s just another pen, as beloved and well-used as the rest, but no longer the bright and shiny object of sleepless nights.
As humans, society conditions us to always want. Perhaps we shouldn’t always get.