On Equal Footing

Winter Break is one of the best occupational perks that comes with a teaching career. It's never truly a "break," but it allows me to step back to reflect on the year and develop a plan for next year. You may have noticed the slump in my writing output on this blog, which came as a result of a dramatic turn inward, along with the grueling end of fall semester and a dash of laziness. During this winter hermitage, I stumbled upon Chris Guillebeau's annual review process and decided to give pieces of it a go. The part of the reflection that most resonated with me included listing the major things that went poorly over the last year. It turns out that I'm great at thinking of all of the things that go wrong in my life, so coming up with a list was pretty easy. There were quite a few, and some of them felt monumental.

Over the last year I:

  • Had to cancel a new course, due to lack of student interest.
  • Finalized a workload policy for my organization, two years in the making, which was swiftly dismissed and discarded.
  • Applied for my dream job and lost in the final interview round.
  • Watched a ton of mindless Netflix and wasted several hours a day flipping through my phone, while laying on the couch. This included reading a lot of "articles" with titles containing "You Won't Believe What Happens Next."

It's very easy for my mind to focus on the negative. In fact, that short list of the things that went poorly dominated my mind in 2016. I internalized the failed course as a sign that I didn't know what I was doing and had finally been discovered. The charade was over. I felt guilty for wasting so much time playing with my phone and consuming media mindlessly. This self-produced anxiety led me to do even more mindless browsing. I spent several months in the dumps over the lost dream job. Fortunately, the review didn't stop here, as it also required me to come up with a list of all of the things that went well in the last year.

Over the last year I:

  • Published my first refereed paper of my career and had to present it by myself, when the primary co-author was unable to attend the international conference due to a lost passport. It received almost unanimously positive evaluations.
  • Successfully surpassed the one year mark of writing for A Better Desk. This is the longest that I've ever stuck with a writing project.
  • Started writing a novel and finished the first 100 pages over the summer.
  • Read six books in December alone, which is more than I've read in the other months of the year combined, by an order of magnitude. One of these books had been in my "To Read" stack since 2005.
  • Received a $5000 grant to develop a new course in Ireland.
  • Developed an entire strategic plan for international program growth within my organization, with the help of an amazing group of people.

My "Things that Went Well" list turned out to be much longer than expected, and the items on it were much more meaningful to me than anything on the negative list. While I fixated on the negatives, my unconscious apparently moved on to bigger and better things. Sure, I wasted some time, and some things didn't work out, but I was truly surprised by how most of the successes eclipsed, or were even born from, the failures. I used the knowledge gained from the failed course to develop a successful grant proposal for a new course. The failed workload policy project allowed me to develop my leadership skills and taught me how to guide a group of very differently-minded people through a complex project. This experience helped me to lead the development of the international strategic plan. Even the excessive phone usage led me to spend December reading and digging to the roots of my self-soothing media consumption. These realizations left me energized.

In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday writes:

It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation, and fear. But it's worth it, for what's left is truth.

At the heart of Ryan's point is the idea that events aren't inherently good or bad. We assign value to them, and Ryan argues that this is a choice that we're not obligated to make.

In practical terms it's difficult, if not impossible, to decide to think differently; it takes practice and rewiring. It takes a habit, and I realized that I had already taken the first step to forming one with the annual review. All that I needed to do was to make this a daily practice. What didn't go well today? What went well today? What am I looking forward to tomorrow? These are a few of the simple questions that I try to ask myself daily, and most days the positives outweigh the negatives. Most importantly, this practice forces me to put my achievements and failures out in the open, where my brain has to look at them objectively and can't select what it wants to remember. It also reminds me that many of the negatives lead into the positives, exposing my brain's unrealistic judgements.

My daily practice is admittedly unstable at this point. Some days I write the answers to these questions in a journal, other days they go into a digital note, and sometimes I just think of the answers on my drive home. Other days I forget completely. Either way, I've already noticed the mental benefits of this practice. This is not to say that it has turned me into a bouncing optimist, rather it has stabilized both my view of my accomplishments as well as my overall mood.

PS : Since this is primarily a pen and paper blog, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that there's actually a physical journal designed to establish this daily habit with a bit more style. It's pricey, but I've hovered over the Add to Cart button a few times now. I'll be sure to review it on the site, when my resolve inevitably wears thin.

Leuchtterm1917 Notebook Review - A5 Hardcover

I begged my parents for a Mead Composition Book. "What about a spiral notebook? We have a dozen in the closet." My mom clearly didn't understand the severity of the issue. Harriet the Spy didn't write in one of those dime-store spiral notebooks, the ones that they stack up in huge pallets during the Back to School sales at Walmart. She wrote in a Mead Composition Book. Sure, they were a dollar or two, but you can't put a price on keeping the neighborhood safe, or surveilling strategic targets.

My relationship with composition books lasted for several years. I covered each book with a homemade label that said "Private" and filled several books with journal entries, observations, and other personal notes. This was more than a school notebook; it was my companion - an integral part of my daily adventures.

It's been nearly two decades since I felt this fondly for notebooks, which rapidly became cheap commodities in my life. I reached for the cheapest spiral notebooks that I could find during my college years and would often leave them half empty. This changed when I discovered fountain pens, which required higher quality paper. The Midori Traveler's Notebook became my goto, but its skinny pages, while perfect for travel, were just too small for daily use. I loved the appearance of Moleskines, but their elegance was only surface deep. Moleskines stink with fountain pens. The search for a similar form factor brought me to the Leuchtturm1917.

Leuchtturm1917 notebooks come in a range of sizes, colors and rulings. I chose the 249-page orange A5 size with dotted pages. The notebook's hard cover is reminiscent of a Moleskine's cover. Theres an elastic band that wraps around the notebook, to keep it closed. The band seems sturdy enough to stand up to regular wear and tear, and I've carried my notebook loose in a messenger bag for several months, with no damage to the elastic band.

The interior of the Leuchtturm1917 boasts some useful features. The notebook has two bookmark ribbons, with color accents that match the color of the notebook. I can keep a few business and index cards in the built in pocket of the notebook, which runs the length and width of the back cover. The pocket is made from sturdy card-stock and accordions out, to reveal its content. The pocket isn't going to hold dozens of papers, but it's useful for holding a few odds and ends. The notebook also includes archival stickers for the spine and covers, so that you can keep track of exactly what's inside your notebook.

My Leuchtturm1917 lives in my messenger bag and accompanies me to daily meetings and events. The notebook lays flat on a table, without creasing or weighing down the pages. This was a pleasant surprise, moving from the Midori Traveler's Notebook, which flips shut without weights and doesn't sit flat on the table. I prefer to use the Leuchtturm1917 on a table, but it also works well in my lap, due to the support of the hard cover.

The small touches and thoughtful design of the Leuchtturm1917 make it a delight to use, but these flourishes are pointless without high-quality paper. Fortunately, the notebook delivers, with an 80 g/sqm paper that really shines with fountain pen ink. The juicy-fine nib of my Lamy 2000 leaves a lot of ink on the page, but there's never visible bleed through on the other side of the page. The dot pattern is subtle, but provides much needed guidance for writing and sketching.

I feel the same way using the Leuchtturm1917 as I did when I used a Mead Composition Book during my childhood. Sure, these notebooks are about as different as two notebooks could be, but the feeling they give is the same. The Leuchtturm1917 feels like it was made for me. It makes none of the sacrifices that Moleskines make, and it performs perfectly with my favorite fountain pens. I can see myself with a shelf full of these things in a few years, just as I had a shelf full of spy notebooks a few decades ago.

Just Enough to Work

The first few weeks of the school semester are always complete chaos. My calendar is filled to the brim with students, class prep, and meetings, and all of my favorite hobbies and normal healthy habits fall by the wayside. Despite the temporary insanity, this time always reminds me of which systems are tried and true, as well as which tools are vital to my survival. Instead of trying tons of notebooks and pens, it becomes a game of finding just how little I need to get the work done. Over the last year of experimenting, there are a few tools that I come back to over and over again. These are the tools that I turn to, when times get tough. Note, header links link to my reviews if available, and paragraph links may contain affiliate links.

Lamy 2000 Fountain Pen

The Lamy 2000 remains my favorite pen in the arsenal. This is my goto notetaker, and the smooth nib makes writing anything a complete joy. I combine this bad boy with Pilot Iroshizuku Tsukushi ink. The ink's subtle shading properties and slight flex in the 2000's nib work together to produce beautiful shades of brown on the page. The 2000's piston filling system ensures that there's plenty of ink for long writing sessions, and the pen's sleek design makes it appropriate for formal and informal settings.

TWSBI 580AL Silver Fountain Pen

My job involves dozens of resume reviews every semester. Although I do provide some feedback digitally, I mostly rely on analog tools to mark up student documents in one-on-one sessions. The TWSBI 580AL is my favorite pen for this task, due to its huge ink reservoir and consistent performance. I use Diamine Pumpkin, as a more interesting variation of a traditional red. The TWSBI's slightly wider nib and clear body bring out the best aspects of the bright orange Pumpkin ink.

Nock Co. Sinclair Pen Case

I've tried several pen storage options, but the Sinclair beats them all. The top zipper makes it easy to quickly grab a pen, and the three pen slots provide a great balance between capacity and size. I keep my TWSBI, Lamy 2000, and Retro 51 Tornado Slim on deck, and keep a Nock Co. DotDash Notebook, with some Nock Co. DotDash Index Cards in the notebook sleeve. My Sinclair lives in my messenger bag, but I can take it solo when I just need a few pens and a notebook. The only thing that would make this case better would be if it came in a Steel/Mango color way.

Leuchtturm 1917 A5 Notebook

Some of you may be wondering what ever happened to my Midori Traveler's Notebook. I love the Midori, but I find that I enjoy it most when I'm on the go and need a notebook that can hold a pen, business cards, and other goodies. It's great for trips, conferences, and events, but it's just a bit too much for my simple day-to-day needs, when I just want to write. I discovered the Leuchtturm notebook this year, and I'm in love. The dot pattern and fountain-pen-friendly paper work well for my needs. I enjoy the wider A5 sheet, compared to the slimmer Midori paper size. It also helps that the Leuchtturm comes in a brilliant shade of orange, which seems to be a favorite color among pen addicts, myself included.

Retro 51 Tornado Slim Apple Edition

I picked this guy up during my visit to the Apple store on Apple's campus. It's only available at this location, but it's comparable to the standard slim models, which are widely available. I typically use fountain pens, but the Tornado is my favorite alternative, when a fountain pen just won't do. The refill is excellent and the pen's body is the same material as a standard MacBook.

It's fun to experiment with new pens, stationary, and ink, but times of chaos ground me in what's truly necessary to get the job done. These times also provide an opportunity to clear out everything from my pen case to my laptop until I have just enough, just the bare minimum needed to do the work. This culling of the unnecessary provides focus and reminds me that its not about the tools, but rather about the work. When I'm rushed or cranking away, all of the extra stuff just gets in the way.

Jinhao 159 Fountain Pen Review

Made in China

We see these words on a daily basis, on most of the things that we own. The tea mug that I'm drinking from is made in China. The chair that I'm sitting in is made in China. My laptop, iPad and iPhone are made in China. There are only a few places in my life that have been completely free from anything made in China, and one of them has been my pen case. I can't help but feel that Made in China is a dirty phrase in the pen world, especially considering things like the recent Esterbrook controversy, where the revamped American pen company tried to obscure the fact that its revamped pens would be made in China. Despite the negative associations with Chinese pens to poor quality, there's a name that keeps popping up in my news feed and has even made it to mainstream pen sites like Goulet Pens, and that's Jinhao. I set out to test just how well Jinhao held up to its western competitors and wanted to see just how much bang I could get for my buck.

I set a few parameters for my Jinhao pen search:

  • The total cost of the pen, including shipping, should be less than $5.
  • The pen should be larger. I've always wanted to try a larger pen, but I prefer smaller pens for everyday writing. There's no way that I would spend a large amount on a large pen, but I was willing to spend $5.
  • The pen must be orange. There's no rational reason for this, except that I like orange.

My search led to the Jinhao 159, a large fountain pen with a bright orange enamel. I managed to find one on Amazon for a grand total of, I kid you not, $3.28 including shipping. I chose a medium nib, since the fine-nib version was nearly three times the price. The order came with a month ship time and little guarantee that it would ever arrive. I've been burned by ordering items directly from China in the past, so I had no expectation of ever seeing my bright orange Chinese friend. I was shocked when the pen arrived in less than two weeks, all for the low-low price of $3.28. The Pen Economics blog has an excellent article on how this low pricing might be possible, but I figured that its pricing was just reflective of the pen's crappy quality.

I removed my Jinhao 159 from its cheap shipping envelope and was greeted by a bright orange pen that actually appeared to be well made. The pen's metal body had a surprising heft. The pen has shiny chrome accents that recess nicely into the pen body, and the clip, although not quite my taste aesthetically, is very sturdy. The Jinhao has the appearance of a $50-$100 pen from a distance and mostly holds up to closer scrutiny. There is a small manufacturing defect in the enamel, where the clip meets the pen cap, and the pen has a plastic cap insert that cheapens the look, but these require close inspection to notice.

The Jinhao 159's grip is a standard smooth black plastic grip. It's a fatter grip than I'm used to, but I'm surprised by just how much I enjoy it. Like most smooth plastic grips, the Jinhao's grip becomes very slippery during long writing sessions; however, I'll leave my novel writing to pens like the Lamy 2000.

The cap of the Jinhao 159 has a threaded fit and caps very securely. The pen can be posted, but the cap wobbles too much for it to be comfortable, and ratcheting down the cap will likely damage the enamel. Since the 159 is a large pen, it nestles comfortably in the webbing between my thumb and index finger without the cap.

The Jinhao 159 comes with a standard piston converter, which holds a hilariously small amount of ink, compared to the pen's size. The pen's size can also make it difficult to fill with smaller ink bottles or ink samples, and the grip of the pen is too large to fit in the 30ml bottles of Diamine that I typically use. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to pop the converter out, fill it with an ink bottle, and then pop it back into the pen. This certainly isn't ideal, so make sure you have some larger bottles of ink on hand for easy filling.

I've read some terrible things about the nib quality of Jinhao pens, so I had zero expectations for the nib's performance. I was pleasantly surprised when the medium nib slid smoothly across the page. The nib is hard as nails, but that's to be expected from a steel nib. The Jinhao medium reminds me of a TWSBI fine, which leaves a slightly thicker line than a western fine. There may be manufacturing differences in nib quality, but the one that I received functioned perfectly. After writing an entire article and playing around with the Jinhao 159 for several days, I'm pleasantly surprised by just how will it performs for under $4. Those looking for a better nib quality should turn to a standard replacement #6 nib, which you can find on sites like Goulet Pens.

Although the Jinhao 159 won't make it into my daily rotation, I may keep it in my office, or somewhere where I may need a pen but don't want to risk losing a more expensive one. The Jinhao 159 is certainly worth the $3.00-$5.00 Amazon price tag, and it's even a great value for $10-$15, if you go through official channels like Goulet Pens. It's a great starter pen for those who want to try a cheap fountain pen before moving on to a more expensive model.

Lamy Vista Giveaway Winner

Thanks to everyone who entered the Lamy Vista giveaway! I'm happy to announce that Anne M. is the winner! Be sure to check out the awesome artwork on her Instagram page.

Thanks again to everyone who entered, and thanks to Pen Chalet for sponsoring the giveaway. Pen Chalet is an awesome purveyor of fine pens and inks, and this giveaway wouldn't have been possible without their support.