The Problem of the Pencil Sharpener

In 2002 my boyfriend and I bought a house together and shortly after that we got married. Sometime soon after that, he bought a pencil sharpener. He bought, in fact, this very pencil sharpener. It is the kind of pencil sharpener that many of us had in our households when we were little kids. Our responsible parents installedPencil Sharpener them in sensible locations: in the doorway near the kitchen closet, in the basement near the workbench, and so on. They installed pencil sharpeners so that everyone in the household would know what to do when a pencil got dull and needed to be sharpened. You would go to the pencil sharpener — which was not too high up on the wall, but placed in such a way that both adults and school-age children could use it — and sharpen your pencil. It wasn’t a big deal, really, but it was definitely fun. Everyone knows that pencil sharpeners are fun. And then there’s the pleasure of using a freshly sharpened pencil.

My husband and I are both fans of pencils, freshly-sharpened pencils in particular, and we have strong feelings about what types of pencils are best. We’re kind of snobs about it, in my opinion — perhaps my husband would protest and say, “I’m not a snob about pencils!” but let me tell you: anyone who mail orders boxes of pencils so that they only have the kind of pencil they like best is definitely a snob about pencils — and part of that is caring about how the pencil is sharpened. We agree that for on-the-go sharpening, the small metal jobs you get at art supply stores are necessary (and I keep one in my wallet). We agree that the plastic ones you find at drug stores and the like are inevitably mediocre; supermarket ones with the little plastic enclosures that catch the shavings are useless. You’re better off just having the naked metal sharpener and holding it over the wastebasket when you’re using it.

So we were both very pleased with ourselves when we got this pencil sharpener. The problem was, we could never figure out where to install it. So we lived in that house for a decade — ten years, folks — and never installed it anywhere. It lived on a shelf in the pantry for that whole time, unused. Much loved, mind you, but unused.

When we moved house in 2011, I carefully packed everything on those pantry shelves. Tiny glass bottles that got dug out of the backyard during the misguided attempts at gardening; strange salt and pepper shakers that were given to us as wedding gifts; a jar of silver polish; a can of Nevr-Dull, which is terrifying stuff but really, really effective for cleaning metal; the iron that my husband acquired at the Hadassah in Boston; the pencil sharpener. These items, and more, were packed into a large Rubbermaid bin and hauled over to the new apartment, and because we no longer had a pantry, and we no longer had shelves on which to store these items, they’ve stayed in the Rubbermaid bin for five years now. I’ve had occasion to take out the can of Nevr-Dull (we got a copper coffee table and decided to polish it, which is a whole other story), but the rest of the stuff’s just been sitting there all this time.

But a few days ago, readers will recall, I had occasion to pull out the iron, which now, by the way, lives in a bucket near the washing machine. And in pulling out the iron, I stumbled on the pencil sharpener, which is a thing we’ve all been thinking about a lot because our daughter is now at an age where she does a lot of homework and can sharpen her own pencils. For three years she’s been doing homework and in all those years we’ve been relying on the pencil sharpener I carry in my wallet. It’s fine; my wallet is usually handy. But frankly, it’s also annoying that every time my daughter does homework, I have to reach for my wallet. “We should really install that pencil sharpener,” I’ve said to my husband probably once a month for the last two years. “Yeah,” he’s said. “I’d install if if I knew where it was.” “It’s in a box in the basement,” I’d always say helpfully. There the conversation would end, because, of course, while he could go to the basement and look for the pencil sharpener in the Rubbermaid bin, this is really my domain, and he doesn’t encroach on my Personal Space that way.

However, when I saw the sharpener sitting there next to the iron, I seized the moment and cannily took both useful items upstairs, out of the basement. That evening I said to my husband, “I found the pencil sharpener, we should figure out a place to install it.”
“Cool,” he said. “Yeah, we should think of a place.”

The pencil sharpener, in all its well-built glory, has been sitting on the kitchen table uselessly for about a week now. I’m taking bets on how long it will sit there. And I’m trying to think of a good place to install it. We have no kitchen closet. There is no workbench in the basement. So far, it’s looking like the only practical option is rather unappealing aesthetically: on the kitchen wall above the garbage can. Which is also next to the toaster, and the countertop where we do most of our kitchen prep work. It’s not a great location for a pencil sharpener, but it’s the one place that makes sense.

Probably when the sharpener gets installed we should do two things: one, pour ourselves a couple of drinks to recover from the shock, and two, have a giant party to celebrate. Anything that’s taken that long to achieve — we’re talking 15 years now — is worth celebrating.

The Thing You Need is Always in a Box in the Basement

I suppose that wouldn’t hold true for people whose houses don’t have basements, but I live in New England, where most houses (and most apartment buildings, even) have basements. And I can tell you, probably 7 times out of ten, when you’re looking for something, it’s almost always in a box in the basement.

Lately I’ve been thinking about this because it came to my attention that we have been living in this row house apartment for five years now. In those five years, we’ve maintained a steady collection of Rubbermaid bins in our basement, neatly stacked on the floor and lined up on big heavy shelves assembled by my husband in a fit of organizational mania. The bins hold many many objects which are of either sentimental or practical value, and I have to go through them on a regular basis as a result. Without exception, the items in these bins are things that I’ve never managed to find a place for in one of the actual rooms of the apartment, not even in a closet. This is a nice row house we have, but it is not exactly brilliantly designed. Storage is a real problem. This is why I thank god for the basement and for the Rubbermaid bins, which I mocked my husband for buying, originally, when we were packing up the old place. Mea culpa: he was right, the bins are super-useful.

An example of Why the Bins are Useful: a few weeks ago my husband asked me if I knew where his chess set was. “What chess set?” I asked. I know perfectly well that he owns many objects that are complete surprises to me: when our daughter was about two, I learned one weekend afternoon that he had been keeping secret from me, since 1999, the presence of a violin and a clarinet in our house. In our house. I’d never known we had these things. Not that I cared, but — you’d think I’d’ve noticed. But no, I had not. So I wasn’t particularly thrown by the chess set query. I just asked, “What chess set?” “You know, the Yankees-Red Sox chess set,” he reminded me. This rang a bell, and I said, “Right, right, I remember that. It’s in a bin in the basement.” At the old house, it lived on a shelf in the coat closet, because that’s where we kept the three games we owned. (For no good reason; we never played any of them.)

The next time I had occasion to go downstairs, I moved my husband’s bicycle aside and a box of air conditioner air filters and there was the chess set, full-frontal view, through the side of a big Rubbermaid bin. I brought it upstairs and tossed it nonchalantly on the couch, where he was seated playing chess on his phone. “It was right there, wasn’t it,” he said. “Pretty much,” I said.

So the Rubbermaid bins are good.

They’re good because they allow me to keep track of things that I don’t need in an immediate sense but which I know I will need in the fullness of time. In the “fullness of time” category — very high on the list –: an ancient iron that my husband got at a Hadassah in Boston sometime before he moved to New Haven. I don’t know if he’s ever used it, but for several years  used it to iron the things we had that I really believed benefitted from ironing. Once in a great while I would iron a shirt, but overwhelmingly the items I felt warranted ironing were small things like handkerchiefs, napkins, and certain pillowcases. The occasional very handsome dishtowel. I used to devote great care to maintaining these things so that they were pleasant to use and pleasant to behold. I used the crappy old iron and I used a really phenomenally crappy ironing board that we found in the attic of our old house when we moved in. I hated that ironing board, but it was functional, and so I never bought a new one. When we moved out five years ago, I left it behind in the attic, because it was not worth relocating to our new place, and, to be honest, it was totally unclear to me where we could store it even if we brought it here. A full-height, full-length ironing board is not a trivial thing to store. If you store it incorrectly, you will not use it, because it’ll be such a nuisance to get at. If it’s at hand, you’re much likelier to use it. (At the old house, I kept it in a bedroom closet, which was ugly, but it was a closet only I used, and so I was the only one bothered by its presence. I got away with murder with that closet.) This is a variant form of the axiom that you should join the gym closest to where you live so that you’ll be more likely to actually go to the gym. I’ve never joined a gym, so I don’t have personal experience with this axiom, but I’ve heard people talk about it. So.

Once a year or so, I’ve lamented audibly the fact that we have no ironing board, and my husband has said optimistically, “I could make one for you. I could build one so that you could fold it out from the wall, it would store itself.” This is the kind of thing he says with pounds of good intentions but I know it will never happen. He’s a great person but he is not really what you’d call “handy,” let alone a skilled enough DIY person that I’d actually let such a project move forward. If I really wanted a built-in, fold-down ironing board, I know exactly who I’d call to build it, and so does my husband. But it would probably cost $300, and it’s not worth it. (Well, maybe it is, come to think of it. Maybe I should look into this.)

So we’ve lived in this place for five years, and in those five years I’ve ironed things precisely once. I managed it, once, on the dining room table, after covering the table with numerous layers of towels and newspaper and things like that, and it was such a pain in the ass, I never did it again. But I’ve wished, all these years, that I had an ironing board that I could at least use to do the napkins and the hankies. They are so much nicer to use when they’re ironed! It’s just better when the edges are flat and smooth. I suppose it’s a frill (no pun intended), but on the other hand, there are not enough small pleasures in life; if an ironed handkerchief makes me happy, let me enjoy it.

I recently attended a big tag sale at my daughter’s old nursery school. At this tag sale, all sorts of remarkable housewares can be found for dirt cheap. One year I found a hand-made child-size bar cart, a relic of the days when normal people had bar carts at home and someone thought it was a good idea to build a child-size one for their kid to play with. (It did not come with child-size Martini glasses, unfortunately, but the cart itself is a delight and has provided many children with hours and hours of entertainment and I expect to own it forever.)

This year, I found, for two dollars, a small table-top ironing board. It would be useless to me if I needed to iron tablecloths, but for the occasional napkin, hanky, or dishtowel (yes, I own dishtowels that benefit from ironing), it’ll be just dandy. Its foam pad had flattened to dust, and my daughter dropped it in mud as we were carrying it home, but no matter. I laundered the cover and made a new pad for it out of an old towel, and now it’s fully-operational. All I had to do today, when I wanted to start ironing, was go to the basement and find the iron. Mere child’s play, thanks to the Rubbermaid bin. I could see the iron as I entered the basement — it was about two feet over from the bin that held my husband’s chess set. Within half an hour, the freshly laundered hankies looked better than they have in five years.

I bet my husband won’t notice, but I will.


Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑