Pen spinning is about as hard as you think it is, which is to say it is difficult. For my presentation, I am trying to master the thumbaround, which is the cool pen-twirling move where the pen swings around your thumb and you catch it with index finger. It’s supposedly one of the easier moves to do, and it looks impressive when the pen isn’t flying across the room.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I wanted this to be an opportunity to try and activity that helped me think about my hands: why I move them, what I’m doing with them, and ways to channel the anxious movement into something artistic or impressive. Taking it on as an assignment has meant I’m trying to do the thumbaround all day long. I sit down once each evening for about 30 minutes watching various videos, but I’m also trying to do it in these empty waiting periods outside of offices and before meetings. Essentially, I’m using my practice as a time to see whether pen-spinning works as I intend it to in my daily life. And so far, it does! While I think about it a bit more than I would playing with my ring or an elastic or just tapping my fingers on the desk, it’s helped me realize the moments in which I’m compelled to move. It’s also helped me think about what it means to perform in those moments – what does pen-spinning say about me as a person in comparison to drumming my fingers on the table, or clenching my fist? While no one has commented on it yet, someone must’ve noticed me doing this. What do they think about this performance of social anxiety through pens?
Pen-spinning has a large online community of practice – so much so that it’s explicitly mentioned on its Wikipedia page. The peer-to-peer networks Miller mentions in Playing Along have been crucial to the success/awareness of pen-spinning as something more than just a cool trick. In some ways, amateurs’ use of kinesthetic knowledge have created a foundation for the more “professional” venues of competition and artistry that pen-spinning takes on in other countries. The videos I found on YouTube are almost all amateurs in every way – video production, explanation, content. The more professional ones, coming from competitions or “professionals,” don’t necessarily serve as learning material but rather something to inspire others. And the comments on those videos largely come from people outside the community of practice.
One of the things we didn’t talk about in our discussion of communities of practice is who makes up these communities. We have a good idea of who takes on the role of teaching, but less so on who takes up the role of learning. Learning to play guitar online or do yoga or learning to dance is applied to a general public audience. But as a public human, I should know better – public should be defined. So, who else is trying to learn pen spinning? Based on the conversations in the comments and the videos I’ve watched, the audience seems to largely be the following:
- Kids: Mostly middle schoolers trying really hard to impress their peers
- Procrastinators: People looking for something to do in order to avoid what they should be doing (finals, wedding planning, homework, projects at work, etc.)
- Anime fans: Pen-spinning is an art form in Japan, and many commenters reference seeing it in various animated Japanese shows.
Watching the videos has been a challenge in itself. I spent a significant amount of time trying to find a video that a) appeals to me as a user instead of someone like Quinverse, b) gives me a moment to follow the move instead of jumping right into it, and c) doesn’t immediately reference other moves or videos related to the thumbaround.
What I have learned, though, are a lot of the basics to getting it right.
- Don’t actually use a pen to start – work with an unsharpened pencil, which helps you understand the maneuver through balance. You want the heavier end of the pen to be the one you are pushing.
- Don’t focus on the whole move at once. These videos come in two parts: 1) getting the pen around your thumb and 2) catching it. The first part of the video means your pen will be flying everywhere across your room – that’s a good sign! It means you have the momentum to get it around.
- Some commenters suggested not looking at your hand while you’re practicing, which has actually been the most helpful advice from these videos. I wanted to learn this skill in the first place to understand what my fingers are doing in these moments of social anxiety, when I’m playing with rings or elastics and not thinking about the movements. Pen-spinning seems to work the same way. When I’m intently focused on what my hands are trying to do, I get increasingly frustrated with my inability to master the move. But when I do it in place of another social anxiety activity, pen-spinning feels natural.
- Dominant-hand makes a huge difference here. Almost all of the videos I watched focused on right-handed users, with vague suggestions of how it would work for the left hand. For the record, I did try to switch to my left hand, which further defamiliarized myself with that interface. Whereas my right hand already knew how to hold a pen, my left hand seems totally lost.
One of the videos mentioned that it took the three months to master the thumbaround, which does not bode well for my final demonstration. However, I’m practicing a lot and seem to be getting somewhere! In any case, I’ve mastered the art of demonstrating the set-up for a thumbaround & how to teach it to others.