Dude, where’s my pen?

I’ve lost my pen.

This might not seem like a disastrous situation to many. After all, while I’m a writer, surely I don’t write everything out with pen and paper. I mean, what century are we in??

Well, it is a big deal. It is my favourite pen. It was a present from my late grandmother, so it has sentimental value. I have appalling handwriting, and there are many pens I just cannot write legibly with, but I have used this one for a long time, so we are as comfortable together as a pair of old shoes. We have also been through a lot together. It accompanied me the whole way through my PhD, underlining key phrases, scribbling fieldnotes, writing notes at conferences, jotting down eureka moments on the move, or at 4am, whenever they struck. It has survived so many demanding research encounters, from infant classrooms to dementia care wards, that now to lose it in my house somewhere is infuriatingly mundane.

The long and the short of it is that I will either need to turn my house upside down in order to find it. Not appealing. Or I will have to go out and find a new pen. Heart wrenching.

There is a point lurking somewhere in this personal tale of woe. I’ve been fairly unsettled by this seemingly slight turn of events, now that might appear silly to some, but the fact is that it’s broken my stride a bit. It’s a little niggling thing that I notice whenever I reach for my pen and it’s not there. It’s like a little scratch that I can’t leave alone so it doesn’t heal. I think it is a part of a delicate thing that we all construct to help us administer our lives, which is routine.

Whether or not we realise it we all have our routines. Little things which we do in the same or similar way, or at the same time, on a regular basis. I would think the majority of people are aware of many of their own little routines – getting up at the same time, to go to work at the same time and place, where we all start the day in the same way, by turning on our computer, hanging up our coat and making ourselves a cup of coffee in our usual mug. Ok, this is a little glib, but you get the idea. But then I think even for those of us who are well aware of our routines, there are still more that lurk somewhere beneath consciousness, things that we are not really aware that we do in a patterned and predictable manner.

I also think we sometimes don’t understand the power of a routine, until we find it is not there anymore.

Routines are immensely powerful little strategies. They enable us to be the productive little nodes that we all can be. And taking them away can bring you to the edge of abyss. They are the rhythms through which we experience our lives, our selves.

I’ve written a fair bit about routine. When I first went into working in infant classrooms for my PhD research, routine was one of the ways I started to make sense of life in the classroom. And that is exactly what they do. They organise, they make sense, they rationalise. Thus the argument that I began to develop was that the manner in which the school child had their day organised for them – the time/space regularities of the school day, the uniform, the rules of interaction, the behaviour codes, etc., were all designed to internalise a sense of the right way to do school, the right way to be. Once there is a clear sense of what is right then those who don’t ‘fit’ are made clearly visible. Thus, routine is a fundamental principle of inclusion and exclusion. If you want to read the full version of this argument you can do so here or there is an older, not as good, but free, version here.

My scholarly interest in routines has also driven a personal love/hate affair with them. While I recognise the productive potential of a routine, and I have many of my own, I am still bothered by the somewhat disembodied nature of the routine. It feels like they require us to place a little bit of control for ourselves, a little bit of our personal sense of agency, into something impersonal, outside ourselves. I worry that we can become overly dependant on these little objectified parts of ourselves. I worry that the web they construct can become a very significant in providing us with an everyday sense of security, a sense of ourselves.

Then there are all the implications of the argument about the routine being a means of inclusion or exclusion. I worry about the manner in which I make myself visible via the routines that I either subconsciously accept or reject. Consumer behaviour makes an obvious example. To what extent can some clever marketer come along and simply map me around a supermarket? Or those ‘reccomendation’ pages that you get on places like Amazon. They bug me.

If routines are essentially about rhythm, then think about the power of the algorithm. Amazon and Last FM might be among the most benign uses of these – what about insurance companies?

Now, it is not my intention to instil a debilitating sense of paranoia in anybody. But, I’ve always thought that paranoia becomes a lot less irrational when we think about the forces well beyond our control or comprehension that we are subject to. So, a productive skepticism about routines, I think, reflects a healthy sense of paranoia.

I still use them of course, but they can be a bit like rights, they can clash.

I know the best times of day for me to write is between about 6am and 10am and the best places to do so is at home. However, I also know that being in the office from 9-5 is the best means of ensuring I’m up to speed with work. And there’s the clash, and one of my fundamental sources of Doctoral Nostalgia – writing gets squeezed out by the day job. True, I could get up at 5am, do three hours writing then get on the train to work and be there by about 9.30. But then I would have to go to bed at about 9pm, and that clashes with my swimming routine, and if I don’t do any exercise I become far too apathetical to even consider 5am a reasonable time to get up in the morning.

Routines can take you beyond yourself. How many clashes does it take before you reach your elastic limit?

Nevertheless, they can be handy little designs for life.

I know that if I read some fiction everyday then I will read more, not less, academic literature as well.

I know that if I do some form of exercise everyday then I will be happier.

I know that my coffee tastes better from my favourite mug.

I know that losing my favourite pen leaves me with a deeply unsettling sense of ontological insecurity.

Odd sort aren’t we?

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4 responses to “Dude, where’s my pen?

  • Jan Henderson (@HealthCulture)

    I love your subject matter, and your essay is beautifully written. Routines (which mug shall I use for my coffee today) supposedly allow us to direct our attention to more important matters (what did I think of the presidential debate last night). But I very much enjoy being aware of my routines. I especially like to make minor adjustments that I consider improvements (by moving a washed and rinsed cup straight out from the sink, moving it over the floor, and then positioning it in the dish strainer on the counter beside the sink, I avoid an accumulation of water drops on the sink’s caulking, which degrades when wet). This probably sounds certifiably OCD or some other related disorder, but it doesn’t strike me that way. I think of it simply as an enjoyable fascination with the details of daily life.

    Your essay also brings back memories of something I wrote over 30 years ago on routines. More precisely, it was on ‘recipe knowledge,’ a concept I found in ‘The Structures of the Life-World’ by Alfred Schutz. It’s posted on a website of mine that’s not quite that old. Perhaps because I like to watch my routines evolve, I find I reinvent myself every few years, and the website is from one of my former lives. “Recipe Knowledge’ http://bit.ly/RF8zwl

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