Keith Eubanks II

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The Pencil Sharpener

In Dreams on March 6, 2009 at 3:45 am

The Rocket Ship Pencil Sharpener - photo by Keith Eubanks II

The value of a thing is often judged in the weight of memory it carries – a father’s watch, a wedding dress cherished and sealed in plastic, a box of handwritten recipes, the comfort of a hand-made blanket. These are modern artifacts, talismans, touchstones of memory. I sometimes look at the things that surround me and wonder what will remain. What object will, for someone, hold a magic – a memory- that will elevate the ordinary to the sacred?

I do all of my writing with pencils. I prefer mechanical pencils because I like the fine line, and I have, by happy accident, come to appreciate once more those orange American Number Two pencils we all know from grade school. I am a notoriously bad speller and in my work as an English Professor that can draw some attention, and for obvious reasons. This is why I cannot commit to ink. I frequently erase.

A few years back my wife, Brooke, gave me a silver pencil sharpener/paperweight. It is shaped like a rocket, very retro, and a nod to my love of science fiction. It sits on my desk and for a long time it went unused. I don’t think anyone even knew what it was. Then one day I ran out of the 0.5mm lead refills I use in my mechanical pencils. All I had in my desk was a neglected American number two.

I found after a few moments that I actually liked writing with this pencil. It felt like an old friend – or an old nemesis I could now get to know better. I liked the feel of it in my hand. Soon, the tip began to lose its edge. It would need sharpening. This was the reason, I remembered,  that I didn’t like using the number 2 pencils.

As I sat in my office, I remembered raising my hand as a young boy, asking the teacher for permission to cross the shiny tiled floor and I remembered grinding the pencil to a fine sharp point. It was a favored and frequent distraction and these pleasant memories crossed my mind as I rummaged through a desk drawer searching for a pencil sharpener, and finding none.  Reaching for a pen, my eyes came to rest on the paperweight rocketship.

I liked working the pencil into the sharpener and I liked the smell of the shavings. In fact, I found that sharpening the pencil gave me time to think. I like unscrewing the nose of the rocket to empty the shavings and I like cleaning the blade. I like holding the sharpener in my hand and feeling its weight and shape and smooth edges.

I tell my composition students to never try and compose anything on the computer. Looking at all of the dead white space on the screen can really kill the writing process. There is a pressure in that space to say something profound, or to think in a focused linear way. But that isn’t writing. I tell them to jot things down and in no particular order. Just write down a few ideas -no pressure there. I sometimes show them my note pads and they are surprised to see that I don’t even write in the lines. I tell them to show me the rule that requires me to do so. I’m a scribbler. It gets me thinking. I can organize it later.

A student gave me a very fine writing instrument to compliment my sharpener a couple weeks ago. He saw it in a museum gift shop and thought of me. It is a Russian Space Pen. The package prominently displays a Soviet era rocket. The back of the package explains how NASA -early in the space program- realized that ballpoint pens don’t work in zero gravity. They spent two years and one million dollars creating a pen that would write upside down and in temperatures below 300 degrees celsius.

The Russians, confronted with the same problem, used a pencil. And there’s the joke. The Russian Space Pen is a red number two pencil. It does everything the American version can do for well under one million dollars.

The rocket ship pencil sharpener is the kind of gift that can become what we call a touchstone – connected to memory and time and place. This one has traveled with me from one side of the country to the other. It is well-worn, but that’s OK, it has become something in the process and I like it better for all its imperfections. The blade is losing its edge, but I am already trying to find a way to replace it.

I like to imagine that one day when I am gone – hopefully in the very distant future- a grandchild of mine will look past all of my possessions and ask for that pencil sharpener – a modern reliquary. Preserved  inside the delicate curved shavings of wood that once held my words.

“Why that old thing?” someone might ask.

“Because there’s something of him still in it,” might be the reply.

Until that day comes, I’ll keep it sharp and ready.


Beware of Romulans Bearing Gifts

In Dreams on March 3, 2009 at 1:46 pm

wrathkhanStar Trek fans overwhelmingly consider The Wrath of Khan to be the best of the Trek films, and it may very well be the best. It has an inspired premise, some great action and a heart-rending conclusion.  And while I have always enjoyed the film, it isn’t my favorite. Something about it has always bothered me.  Specifically, the character development of James Kirk that deals with his advancing age. In an early scene, Dr. McCoy brings Kirk a bottle of Romulan Ale and a pair of reading glasses as a birthday gift. Kirk, however, is not coping well and is in no mood to celebrate his birthday. He is clearly depressed and all of this is very un-Kirk-like behavior.  A frustrated McCoy says, “Damn it, Jim, other people have birthdays. Why are we treating yours like a funeral?” Good question, I thought. I always liked that doctor.

“I don’t want to hear Captain Kirk whine about his age,” I remember thinking. “You aren’t old. Now, get out there and kick some ass!” The glasses really bothered me, too.  Seriously, is nothing sacred? Suddenly, I could imagine Kirk at fifty, seducing a sexy green woman, and then having to stop and dose himself with Viagra. Cut to a commercial for thirty-six hour Cialis, so you can be ready when she is -no matter what planet you are on. Just make sure that McCoy says you are healthy enough for sexual activity.

Khan, of course, doesn’t seem to be having any problems at this point. He has a real hard-on for Kirk.

Anyway, then I turned forty and started rethinking that film.  At forty-six I am beginning to get it. Two weeks ago I had to get reading glasses and I didn’t like it.  And I’m sure one day it will be something else.  So what’s an aging Captain to do?

Well, for starters, shut-up and drink the Ale. It just might lend some perspective.

Here’s what I have learned in my forty-six years to date: The universe will always need saving. Your relevance will always be in your willingness to step-up to the plate. You can whine about your problems, or boldly go.

Here are the battles I fight daily: Only twenty-five percent of adult Americans have a four year degree.  That’s one-in-four  – and that is educated America. More than half of Americans are functionally illiterate, and over fifty percent of college graduates surveyed last year could not process a lengthy news editorial. Translation: More than half couldn’t understand it. And only one-half of college students that begin a course of study will make it to graduation.

This is the state of the universe I live in, and it is in decline.

The deeper metaphor within the Wrath of Khan is the Kobayashi Maru -a test for which there is no possible solution. A no-win scenario. It is revealed later in the film that James T. Kirk was the only cadet to ever successfully pass the test. But let’s cut to the chase. He cheated. This is why Kirk needs glasses. He isn’t seeing things very clearly.

Life is the no-win scenario, and to quote another Jim (Morrison), “No one here gets out alive.”

Well, that sobering thought simplifies things quite nicely. Good thing we have the Romulan Ale. And this is why The Wrath of Khan bothers me. I don’t think it was all that well written. The James T. Kirk I have known my entire life isn’t complaining about his age. He is kicking ass and taking numbers all across the universe.

I will wake-up early Wednesday morning, March fourth – my birthday – and boldly go. I won’t be taking the day off or complaining about having to work. In fact, I have a night class, so its going to be a very long day for me with little celebration. There will be time for that later.  When I get home, around 9:30 that night, I will be met at the door by my wife. She will have a glass of good wine and a decadent piece of chocolate cake waiting for me.  If she has painted her body green I will consider this a bonus.

She will no doubt ask me the question that is on McCoy’s mind as he hands Kirk the birthday gifts.

“How do you feel?”

And I will answer the question the way Kirk should have answered it the first time:

“I feel young.”

See you around the galaxy . . .

Why Facebook? Why now?

In Dreams on March 1, 2009 at 9:05 pm
"Bitterman, give her a hundred dollars. She came in second."

"Bitterman, give her a hundred dollars. She came in second."

This morning I grabbed my iPod and downloaded “The Best That You Can Do,” by Christopher Cross. I jumped into the car and headed down the loop 202 on the way to my favorite Starbucks -a Sunday morning ritual.  I wasn’t alone. Appearing in the seat next to me was Misty, an old friend I reconnected with on Facebook. I haven’t seen her in 13 years, by her count. I refuse to think about this because she just might be wrong -it could be longer. We are laughing and trying to have a conversation, but we can’t. Dudley Moore is in the backseat drinking scotch on the rocks, laughing hysterically and demanding that we drive through “the park.”  I don’t know of any parks in the area, but what the hell -I’ve missed this guy and he really loves the park. Misty is up for it -she always was.

Of course, none of this really happened. It’s a shadow from another life, but it is becoming more real by the second. Another old friend from the past, Bobby Dye, told me that Facebook is like a time warp. I’ve been thinking about that -a lot. Just call me the “time-tripper” because I am seriously tripping out.

The beautiful thing about Facebook is that we are actually out there looking for each other and that we are learning that technology doesn’t have to be cold and impersonal and that it hasn’t killed our ability to communicate. In fact, the first letter I have written in years was written on Facebook. I communicate more frequently and I say things I might not say in person.

The iPod was another of those great inventions and it certainly revolutionized the way we listen to music. I carry every song I own with me – everywhere. I am still amazed at this.  Our music and the playlists we create, are the soundtracks of our lives. They are connected to people and memory. Facebook is bringing that soundtrack to life in unexpected ways.  It is adding words to the music and making these old songs and feelings relevant, meaningful, and vibrant once again.

I understand Bob’s definition perfectly. I think, this morning, that Dudley Moore really was in the backseat of my car and I think Misty and I really were laughing with him.  And it was more than nice, and in the past few weeks that I have been on Facebook there have been many such conversations.  Another friend wrote, “If you could see me right now -I am jumping up and down screaming” and I was jumping up and down too. And screaming.

There are others out there somewhere and I hope I can find them. I hope we can find them. People are literally reappearing into each other’s lives and I hope you, too, are jumping up and down – and screaming.

When you get caught between the moon and New York City, it’s the best that you can do.

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