Balancing a Pencil
Copyright (c) 2005 J.D. Chapman All Rights Reserved
Men have challenged the extreme frontiers of measurement far and wide all through history. The speed of light, the force of gravity, and the mass of atoms have consumed the best years of effort from thousands of senior scientists. One could argue however that no measurement is more demanding than that self-compelled by the act of balancing. After work scientists that slave away at the laser table and micrometer go out to the tavern and throw darts; the concept is identical. The intrinsic beauty of balancing is that the model of measurement is both exceedingly simple and strikingly precise. We can gauge our accomplishments by how long our endeavors stay balanced or if we can increase the height or complexity of our edifice. If we fail to balance an object it collapses like the 1907 Quebec Bridge crashed into the St. Lawrence River; balancing is the dartboard of measurement with a severely convincing standard. Gravity certainly does not understate its judgment.
My mind is serene like a Zen master. I sit like a knight in History class (a class that I care a rat's ass about: a class that has no influence on my life now or at any time in my future) and charm the bored maidens who sit at my sides. I consider what I can balance as a small demonstration of my powers of control. The knight rifles through his satchel: here's an eraser, it's pink trapezoidal, rounded corners, and rather challenging due to its softness and small irregularities. No, balancing an eraser is as bad as balancing an hour-old slice of pizza... soggy and pliant with congealed cheese and floating pepperoni. I've already tried balancing an eraser on-edge numerous times before; it is absolutely impossible except on the flattened parallel sides.
Janine taps me a message on my Trio: "u watching boyz 'nite?" I smile and briefly look up at the teacher. I type back "duh." The teacher is boring the hell out of me — colonial history — yada yada blah blah blah. Two desks over from me Jeff is holding a yellow number two around the eraser like his penis grasped by thumb and finger; the pencil dangles with the point almost touching the table. What the fuck. His intense concentration is distracting me — why should I care about the pencil obsession of a geeky dork? But his fixation on whatever he is attempting is more impressive than all the years of rote learning and parchment degrees from the history teacher. Jeff is up to something momentarily intense.
Far from a device to proscribe time, balancing is neither a point of pride nor of ego. Those who polish the craft enter a rare and respected honor roll where the top performers recognize one another like the great daredevils, jugglers, magicians, or tycoons. Balancing is the palpable demonstration that given sufficient willpower, psychics, self-control, and focus, it is possible to achieve the sublime.
I should try something that is physically harder, rigid, solid. My pencil. On it's point. Oh it's not impossible: after all the point is not microscopically atomic (it is not pointy down to the last molecule of graphite). It will be the sword, my Excalibur, the proof that I deserve to inherit the throne and rule this kingdom. I hold the pencil straight vertically over a piece of scratch paper and gently fill in a small irregular shape, flattening out the lead just imperceptibly, being especially careful to hold it exactly perpendicular to the page. Okay, this is the Ultimate Test: the Grand Challenge. I nod to the maidens in the amphitheater — the crowd grows quiet.
He is absolutely motionless in his own little world, very gradually lowering the point to within a millimeter of the table top, half a millimeter, a hair's breadth. What an asshole. I take out a rubber band and think about how much fun it will be to hit him in the back of the neck. I pull back and aim, stretching and releasing and stretching a couple times. He touches down, contemplates letting go, and loosens his grip just slightly, but it takes about a second for the pencil to decide to lean into his thumb and he tightens his grip again. I put down the rubber band and instead pick up my Trio and type to Janine "pencil act row 6". "Huh?" she replies. "Jeff and number 2 pencil". I hear her pop a bubble of gum; the teacher continues uninterrupted, but I recognize this as Janine's wink that she is watching the geek pencil show.
I grasp the metal eraserhead rim between my thumb and finger and allow the pencil to oscillate to a balanced plumb equilibrium. The Damascus steel shimmers in the torchlight. I contemplate how to execute this maneuver; I suppose that the trick is to avoid imparting any kind of torque or side force by releasing the tip just a paper's width above the surface. I need to place it as gently as seducing the Princess, as gently as laying her on the royal canopy bed. I try the smallest of drops and notice that it takes a little hop — a tiny infinitesimal bounce before it leans against my thumb. I envision an ice-cream cone stack... the eraser is top-heavy like that last scoop of strawberry-cream over the pencil-cone. Maybe if I'm lucky I can just place it and release. I lift about a quarter inch again, gravity plumb, slowly closer, closer, is that it? I open my grip a bit but the top adheres to the moisture on my finger. I try again, but it adheres to the moisture on my thumb. I curl my lips and close an eye slightly while the crowd sighs with impatience.
Some objects are naturally easier to balance than others. Longtime favorites include blocks, dominoes, coins, books, dice, rulers, playing cards, poker chips, and sugar cubes. A common pastime is to take dominoes, for example, and pile them atop one another — short end to short end — perhaps six, seven, eight high. The art of balance is both demanding and subtle: it is not a grand philosophical statement and yet it is human intervention at the near molecular level. A steady hand simultaneously requires developing personal body control and a certain amount of inner peace: a calm and quiet mind. The most accomplished have a Buddhist resolution to them, existing at the chaste spiritual praxis of management without existence.
I place my elbows on the table and make a little corral around the top of the eraserhead: a miniature square pen bounded by my two thumbs and fingers. I nod gently to the crowd — hey I've got this thing figured out, just watch. I can keep my fingers rigid in space as long as I anchor my elbows to the table. I adjust the separation of my arms so the corral moves down to the wood a bit — my moist fingers stick less to the wood than to the metallic eraser sleeve. I can slightly rock the pencil side to side; the trick now is getting the square pen directly above the pencil's center of gravity. In my head I start a parallel vision of a pong video game — the ball bouncing randomly with Brownian motion between the two paddles; the key will be the subtle manipulation of all directions at once while reading the jittery trajectory.
The painter details the still life oranges down to the level of a pore, the insides of a pore, the ridges and textures of a seed. He balances the intensity of revealing exacting detail with the familiarity of a common object. A cultivated balanceur does more than top the stack with the fourth billiard ball — he must extol the delineation of the stripe around the nine-ball as well as the flavor of absurd detail lavished upon its placement. His exhibition should inspire the viewer to appreciate the microscopic support from the felt underlayment as well as the smell of the hidden cigar smoke.
Geekizoid tries again — this time with both hands. I stare into the back of his brain as he rests his elbows on the table for support, leans over, cradles the top of the pencil, and seems to study it forever. After what seems like half the period his hands are free (his elbows though are still on the table). I notice him breathing again — he inhales once, holds his breath, and quietly lifts his elbows. I type on my Trio "Ta-da!" Two rows back Janine give out a small shriek of laughter and then catches herself. By the time the teacher looks over Janine fakes a straight face and bluffs like she's following along in the textbook.
We balance because at some time in our lives we exalt a goal — we will excel at math, evolve some new theory or explication, find and marry a rich husband, or make the Olympics. No particular desire is more fetching for the universe than any other; whether our goal is to climb Mt. Everest or marry the Duke of Grafton the "point" is to confront ourselves and then to vanquish the challenge.
Then magic: the pencil is balanced — I am not
touching it — I open the finger-corral but keep my elbows fixed. In a
hypnotic trance I very deliberately lift my elbows from the table. The
pencil stands alone on its point. This is the only time that I will ever
do this in my life, there you go, I've shown that indeed it is possible.
The crowd cheers, I bow my head in modesty, the princesses kiss me on
my cheeks. There you go.