Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Handwriting, Adieu

It seems odd now that I'm commenting on this. Today, Time magazine pulled this story to its front (web) page, in which Claire Suddath mourns the passing of handwriting as a skill taught in school and learned by school children. She wrote it back in August 2009 which is, in the Internet lifespan, aeons ago. But still, I will comment.

Unlike Suddath, I remember how to make the capital Z in cursive. That and the capital Q and the capital L were my favorites. Nevertheless, I print, and have printed since the fourth grade, the year I learned how to write in cursive and got "unsatisfactory" marks in cursive writing the entire year. I havent' used cursive since. So when I do write in cursive -- mostly doodling these days -- I revert back to that fourth-grade script. It's obvious I don't remember how many humps the lower-case m's and n's are supposed to have, nor when I'm supposed to crick up the next connected letter because the preceding one -- notably B -- requires that I not descend to the baseline in order to start the next letter. I didn't master that in the fourth grade, and I'm certainly not going to master it now.

But then I see letters and journal entries and notes for the grocery store that my father wrote, and my handwriting -- passable as it is -- breaks my heart.

He grew up in the Netherlands, nad had his education cut short by World War II. He finished the third grade, and that was it. But he writes a beautiful hand. His capital H's leave me near tears. After many years of imitating his cursive, I can reproduce the H -- but none of the other letters he crafts with such ease. I remember vividly watching him sign checks, waiting for the scripted letters to flow out. First, he'd take two up and down practice strokes, never varying, before the pen hit the paper. Then the M for Marinus would flow. The capital J for his middle name soared from the baseline like a sequoia. Then the swooping D, followed by the scribble that was the "avidson" in Davidson. If I had one of those canceleld checks today, I'd frame it.

But we don't even get cancelled checks any more. Not that it would matter. I never sign them. I just get teased at work because my hadn-written editorial markups are often illegible. I used to work as a journalist, and knew that if I didn't get back to my hand-written notes in 48 hours, they'd be lost to me. I can't read my own handwriting -- done in haste when interviewing on the phone, with my own invented shorthand -- if too much time passes. Seems a pity. But now I know how Bilbo Baggins feels: He enjoys runes and cunning writing, J.R.R. Tolkein writes in "The Hobbit," but when he wrote himself, it was a bit thin and spidery. That's me.

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