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16 Oct. 2006
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The Third Pen

Many of you know that I'm a "three-pen nerd."  It's not a subject I often discuss; my display of three magic markers on the neck of my T-shirt is tacit testimony to this fairly exalted status, but when asked about my accession, I never discuss it in detail.  Why?  Because I've been sworn to secrecy!  Am I going to break my silence today?  Only in small part, and only because a faithful correspondent unknowingly made the suggestion that led me to it. 

As I pointed out on logical yesterday, I've been creating eBay reviews and guides as an experiment and for a contest.  If you haven't looked at them, please do and "vote" for their "helpfulness" if you feel they are worthy.  On the appearance of that blogitem, Deb of the Delectable Chocolate, who knows of my fondness for Tom Lehrer, recommended I do a review for "That Was the Year That Was (1965), which I consider to be one of his three canonical albums.  (The others are "An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer - 1959, and "Songs By Tom Lehrer - 1953.)  Unlike the apparently obscure items I normally review, it turns out that the Lehrer albums had received reviews already.  Rather than simply adding my voice to the chorus, pointing out that he's funny and witty and clever and amusing and satirical (which I hereby do), I thought I'd tell a story.

Although I can easily tell a story about each of the albumsindeed have one for almost every songI thought one would be especially poignant.  But to tell it, I must depart from Deb's suggestion and review An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer instead.  An Evening Wasted proudly sports the following tracks:

  • 1. Poisoning Pigeons In The Park

  • 2. Bright College Days

  • 3. A Christmas Carol

  • 4. The Elements

  • 5. Oedipus Rex

  • 6. In Old Mexico

  • 7. Clementine

  • 8. It Makes A Fellow Proud To Be A Soldier

  • 9. She's My Girl

  • 10. The Masochism Tango

  • 11. We Will All Go Together When We Go

All the titles that sound bizarre are precisely that.  All the titles that don't sound bizarre are just as bizarre as the ones that do.  This leaves The Elements with a somewhat ambiguous status.  Bizarre or not?  Well, here's how it begins:

The Element Song

There's antimony arsenic aluminum selenium, and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium... It continues through nobelium, sung to a jaunty piano rendition of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Modern Major General" song.  I assume you've made your "bizarre or not" decision by now.  Another example of bizarre:  I didn't look up those lyrics.  I have committed the song, such as it is, to memory!  I did it back in my high-school days, along with many of the songs on this and on his other albums.  Why?  Even then I didn't let my class work interfere with my education.  Did I ever expect the ability to sing the names of the chemical elements to be useful?  <Satire>Sure I did.  I would sing them at my presidential inaugural address, right after emerging from the armored limousine in a Mao suit.</Satire>

But, remarkably, it has proved useful, for it led directly to my three-pen-nerd status referred to in the first paragraph.  The nerd hierarchy is similar to the "stars" of a general, although there are no corresponding lower ranks.  If you have the Calling, you automatically start out with one pen ("star").  This isn't a great distinction; pretty much anyone who has assembled a Heathkit, subverted his parents computer, or built a rudimentary stun gun is entitled to a single pen on his own recognizance.  It's a "starter."  The second pen isn't an enormous challenge, either.  Although you have to apply to the Board, it's pretty routine - you fill out a form with your nerdish accomplishments, attach a photograph of yourself, and send it in.  People are rarely turned down; when they are, it's usually some guy who is not only posing but isn't smart enough to have put a little tape on his glasses to get some extra points. 

The third pen, however, is quite an honor.  You don't just write to the Board, you appear before them.  You have previously filed a fairly lengthy application which details your years of experience, demonstrates, preferably photographically, your accomplishments, and asks for some pretty detailed information.  If they decide you might qualify, you then attend them in person.  Needless to say, it's a nervous-making ordeal.  You're put to the Question about not just your accomplishmentsit helped that I had good nerd-products on the market and could prove itbut also about your attitude.  I was told that I shouldn't report too much about these questions for obvious reasons, i.e., others will be following and it should be a surprise.  But at the end of the hour-long interview, I was asked if there was any final thing I wanted them to consider.  I didn't, really, since I thought we had covered it all.  But I had an inspiration!  Yes:  I burst into The Element Song!  Smiles all around from the Examiners, and when I left the room for their deliberations I felt that I was a shoo-in.  Sure enough, they invited me back in just a few minutes, handed me my ceremonial pen, and issued their congratulations.  Whew!

Higher Nerd Rank?

I'm sure you're wondering:  Will I ever achieve a fourth or even fifth pen?  Almost certainly not.  Even though I achieved pen #3 at a relatively early age, it gets much harder after that.  In fact, the fifth pen is often awarded posthumously, either as a reward for extraordinary accomplishments or, occasionally, along with a Darwin award.  There are probably hundreds of four-pen nerds extant, but they are people of great achievement; one reaches that rank only by enormous striving and even greater luck.  Also, one doesn't applyan invitation is required.  I'm not holding my breath.

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