Finished the week’s work early today. Had some time to kill, so I decided it was time to replace the DVD / amplifier in the family room. Years ago I bought a Sony home theater system, which has 392 pointless features I don’t need and never use. (The remote flips open to reveal an entirely different set of buttons. I’ve no idea what they control. I don’t care.) Sony has a proprietary plug for the speakers, designed to help people who run shrieking out of the room fluttering their hands when asked to thread a speaker wire into a hole. You just plug in the Proprietary Sony Plug and you’re good to go! Except that Jasperwood came pre-wired for sound. When we moved in, three outlets looked as if small albino octopi had attempted to escape through the rectangular openings: thick white cords dangled out of the holes. Well. It took a while to figure out what controlled what, but I did. But the cables ended in thick copper wires that didn’t go into the Sony plugs, so I cut the wire on the plugs, pulled off the plastic, threaded them together and wrapped them with duct tape. Well, one of the plugs went bad. It’s loose. Doesn’t work. So we’ve had half of a stereo signal on the main TV since my wife lost her job. But now that she’s lawyering away again, it was time to upgrade.

Since it’s been a while since I shopped for components, I’d missed the new styling change. I was aware that things had gone from Black to Silver. But there’s a new twist: mirrored silver. Very 70s. They all look like Cylon pelts. Whoever designed these things does not have close daily contact with small children; all I could see was peanut-butter fingerprints, but I had no choice. Next stop: Home Depot. I think of Hank Hill everytime I go to Home Depot. There’s an episode where he’s mad at the MegaloMart because they started selling propane, and he lost his propane-selling job. (Sorry: propane and propane accessories.) He drives to the store aafter closing hours and throws the batteries he’d bought at the MegaloMart a few days before. After hurling ten batteries at the building he pauses, and says “Man, you sure get a lot of batteries for your money.” I always think of that. I always buy batteries. And I always get a lot of batteries for my money.

But I did not get a lot of light bulbs. I was looking for 25 watt bulbs, a ridiculous wattage, but that’s what the original fixture in the dining room wants. I also wanted some Reveal Globes, which sounds very much like a porn site, I know. The Reveal bulbs shed white light, as opposed to the old-denture hue of plain old bulbs. But they had none. I asked a clerk where the Reveal bulbs were.

“Reveal?” he said. “I never heard of them –“

“They’re GE bulbs.”

“Oh, we don’t have GE bulbs anymore. We don’t have any GE products.” He said he didn’t know why, had something to do with promotion, or something like that. Interesting. I’m guessing it may have had to do with shelf fees – maybe Home Depot wanted a certain amount of money up front to stock GE products, and GE didn’t want to pay that much, and someone decided to walk away from the partnership for a year, or forever. This drama probably occupied the lives of several dozen middle-level execs for a year or so – sleepless nights, missed dinners, contentious teleconference calls, all ending in a few guys sitting in the kitchen at 2 AM with an Amstel wondering if this was going to cost them their job.

That’s the part of the economy we never see or hear or read too much about. There are guys right now who are on serious antacid medication because they’re in charge of the launch for a new ballpoint pen, and Target has been ambivalent about carrying the high-margin single-pen blister pack, but they are leaning towards the four-pen pack, which is good, but it doesn’t establish the brand as a premium brand, because there’s that whole quantity / discount correlation; I mean, we were trying to make this the Haagen-Daaz of pens, and now it’s going to be sold like a popsicle?

I don’t know why there aren’t more novels written about the business world. Probably because most people inclined to write about the anxieties of a man caught up in a ballpoint pen launch would be inclined to see it as an example of conspicuous consumption, a comedy whose empty moral reminds us how hollow life is in this vast machine of production and consumption. But it says more about the world we inhabit than yet another miserable account of growing up with an alcoholic father and dysfunctional siblings and how they were affected when the vermiculite factory laid off seven percent of its workforce in 196.

(Just realized I have something in my Vast Archives that might illustrate my point; we now pause for scanning.)


I bought this at an estate sale several years ago. A late 60s pen, original package, one buck? Sure. It's an interesting little artifact. Consider the model, experiencing some sort of public sexual ecstacy at the features of this new Scripto invention. Mod hair. Mod earrings. Very mod eyeshadow. Was her picture purchased from a stock-photo ad company? Was this shot specifically commissioned? And who was she, anyway? Maybe this was as far as her career ever went, and now she’s a grandmother in Dayton OH who collects small ceramic frogs and just loves Dr. Phil. No doubt she gives little thought to that strange year where she could find her picture in every drug store and grocery store and stationery store and sometimes hanging in the gift shops at hotels. And no doubt no one ever said “hey, you’re the girl on the pen package.” Ubiquity and anonymity: what an odd combination.

There’s the groovy typeface, with its nod to the with-it, hip, turn-on / tune-in generation. You can turn it on, and you can turn it off. It’s straight out of a Playmate data sheet. Turn ons: the top button. Turn offs: the button on the shirt-pocket clip. (I’m sure the academics who study the socio-sexual dynamics of industrial design would write 23 impenetrable pages about the genital implications of that red turn-off button, as well as the phallocentric violence inherent in the word “impenetrable.” Sorry.)

All this work for a mere pen. The photographer, the package designer, the people who crafted the pen’s interface - they all took it seriously, I’m sure, because one level above them was a humorless taskmaster who took it very seriously. This was a new paradigm in pen production. Really. Consider: old ball-points had your basic clicker at the top. Click: the ball deploys. Click: the ball retracts. The Action Pen, however, doubled the number of buttons. One click on the top button to deploy; one click on the clip-button to retract.

What was the advantage?

You have to ask? TWO BUTTON ACTION. It would be apparent to anyone. One button good, two buttons must be better, since that’s double the number of buttons.

But no one pointed out the obvious fact that two buttons were, in fact, worse. The simple in-out, up-down nature of the old pen was superior. It was functional. This new two-button scheme appealed only to guys who wanted to push buttons and see something happen – i.e., the other button popped up. Cool! James Bond would dig it.

Meetings, memos, slide shows, sales meetings, brochures, launch parties, bonuses to territorial sales reps, ulcers, three martini lunches, men caught up in the cutthroat world of writing implements, frustrated to the point of spiritual agony that they were married to a woman who had sixteen pens in the drawer in the kitchen and didn’t care which one she used. He’d even explained it to her: don’t keep the pens you take from the hotels. They don’t fill the nib. Here. Let me take it apart. See? They expect you’re going to take it, so they only fill the plastic sleeve up three quarters of an inch.

I don’t care, she said. When it goes dry, I’ll throw it away. I like using it because it reminds me of Hawaii, if that’s okay with you.

And so he finds himself in a bar chaining Winstons, sucking back the Cutty, looking at the sales figures for the Action Pen, and wondering why it hasn’t taken off. It had two buttons! It had a great broad on the pack. It had market-tested mod appeal. The youth market alone should have made it work. He has a pen in his right hand, and he’s clicking it over and over. It’s what he does when he’s nervous. Drives his wife nuts. But it’s satisfying. It’s like speed-eating bar nuts. Takes the edge off. Click click. Click click. Click click. One pen one thumb one action one sound.

One button.

He gets a sick feeling in his stomach; he takes out an Action Pen. Tries the old rapid nervous-clicking routine with the new two-button model. It feels wrong. It adds a step.

We didn’t think about that. We never even started to think about that.

So now what. Get ahead of it now, write a memo, petition the boss to drop it before they lose millions? Yes. Yes. Be a hero. Stand up. Take the bullets, but they’ll know you’re right. Unless . . .

Unless Johanson, the guy who pushed this project, hates the nervous double-click. That was his goal all along. Maybe that’s how they pitched it to the inner party. Gentlemen, we have developed an innovation that will ban forever the bane of the common office.

Maybe those who speak up against it will find themselves on the wrong side of the ledger, and then -


Pardon me – I’m off to start a new novel.
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