On Christmas Cards and the Death of Handwriting

Christmas cards—if they possess any utility other than excuses for networking or sleeves for staged photos and obnoxious form-letters about little Allen's success on the soccer field and getting over his chronic butt cyst—act as a kind of benchmark. Buying a box and sending some out makes you feel like you've stepped into an adult world. You have an address book. You buy stamps in bulk. You now acknowledge calendar events days before they happen.

Suddenly, you have grown-up quandaries. Are you close enough with your friends to sign "love" at the end? Do you and a significant other write to your respective families and then have the other co-sign? Do you have to send a card to that cousin who sends you that three-page Comic Sans missive about butt cysts?

The most important question to ask is this: "Can I even write letters of the alphabet like a non-idiot anymore?"

I can't, unless I set aside five minutes to get my writing hand back in shape. The ratio of words I write on paper to words I type is about 1:10,000. Without formal typing training, I've developed a muscle memory for my laptop and reached a words-per-minute rate that makes hand writing anything a waste of my time and anyone else's. Compared to typing, using a pen and paper to record an idea is just a few steps less stupid than calling Western Union and dictating, "HEY STOP WHAT'S UP STOP FRISKY FELLOW LOOKING FOR NSA FROLIC STOP A/S/L STOP," then asking them to telegram it to AOL headquarters and have an intern paste it into a chatroom.

What little unshitty proficiency I had with a pen—the intelligible adequacy that got me from childhood to countless college blue books—has cratered. You could use scans of the occasional notes I take to stand-in for a knockoff of "Flowers for Algernon," when the main character's brain starts to degrade again. The other day, I signed my name to a document and transposed syllables while writing all the E's as 3's. It looked like a webcomic where the artist simulates the letters that come out when his cat amorously mounts his warm keyboard.

It worried me enough to Google terms like "unlearning handwriting," which revealed that there's a kind of annual WHAT'S TO BE DONE handwringing about how THE CHILDREN don't write good anymore.

This complaint typically diagnoses no significant problems of mental acuity or physical dexterity, and it doesn't compare hard data between typing and hand-writing in terms of effective and intelligible word output. It's just middle-aged people picking a culture-war and generational-war topic about our national moral and aesthetic decrepitude that offers anodyne "things were better" versus "stuff sux" analysis without touching on topics important enough that senior citizens might cancel their newspaper subscriptions. Tellingly, this regular lamentation omits a broad appreciation of effective writing form and instead whines about what happened to cursive.

Unlike "printing," cursive gets held up as a kind of national cultural apotheosis, especially the Palmer Method, which saw America through Abe Lincoln to the Go-Gos. Cursive engenders blanket approval for being more "attractive"—although God help you if your sample is the crabbed alphabet-murder of guys and the loopy whorl of girls from every school I went to—but it's also praised as more efficient. And maybe it was, if you worried about snapping your pen nib, wanted to write out the reservoir of ink you'd gathered from the inkwell or needed to normalize the pen-stroke widths that could vary by pressing a nib to the paper. It would be easy to say these kinds of distinctions are academic, if denunciations of modern writing standards tended to have an academic bases for them.

For an existential cultural crisis, there don't seem to be many correctives available. Most American kids are taught cursive in the third grade, required to write in it for several years, then left to choose cursive or "printing" by high school and its timed-writing exercises. (For the record, most people I know resorted to "printing" at this point. It was easier and faster. Like me, everyone had simply been practicing it longer.) Good luck if you're an adult. If you have handwriting classes available in your area, they're probably devoted to Spencerian "Y'ALL WRITIN ALL FANCY" Script or calligraphy. You can't find a class where someone helps you unfuck the bulbous mess of basic cursive you learned in third grade—which was then alternately chided or ignored for a few years of school, until it atrophied and brought you to this dead end.

Out of curiosity, I started casting about for potential negative consequences to writing like a total moron. For example, I've been signing tons of legal papers lately. (I'm being sued for performing sex too wonderfully while "fronting" as my Barth-Powell headspace Tonberry otherkin "Big Mark Brendle".) After about 15 pages of initials and signatures, whatever I'm currently putting down as MY NAME bears zero resemblance to what I started with. It's a paper-bound gradual transformation that replicates the instant "whatthefuck?" result of giving FedEx or UPS your digital "signature" with one of those tiny plastic toy-javelins/mini-dildos they hand you. If you're old enough, you might think of this as the Arsenio signature phenomenon: just a big A, a squiggle and a dot. For the rest, think of it as Dad Signature: two robust capital letters followed by two seconds of an EKG.

I asked a lawyer friend of mine if people are obliged to present a signature with actual letters and thought put into it, and evidently it doesn't matter. "I sign so many things that my signature has been reduced to just a swoosh that has no semblance to any letters in my name," he said. "Even the swoosh is binding, since a signature is just a physical manifestation of an intent to be bound, and the actual contents of the signature only come into play if there's a dispute about the intent. In court, they'd just have an expert state: 'He was tired from signing so much, but that's still his signature.'" You're screwed either way, so skip the effort.

As for those Christmas cards, there is no remedy. You can't find a basic class to clean up your mess, and there's no time now anyway. The only solution I can suggest is this: when you're threatening to fly back home to pummel your little brother with your bare hands unless he snaps his copy of Fun.'s "We Are Young" in two and starts listening to the copy of London Calling that you got him two years ago, just write slowly and in all caps.

Image by Jim Cooke.