Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Who's hand is that writing on my paper, anyway?

Many people have experienced looking in the mirror one day only to be confronted with their parent's image. As I've gotten older, I've often been surprised to realize how similar my mannerisms, gate, and speech patterns are to my fathers. Forget about saying things like "close the door, will ya? What'dya think I'm paying to cool the whole outdoors?"

But what frightens me the most is looking at a note that I write to leave for my kids on the refrigerator and seeing something that looks like my dad wrote. Then an instant later shaking my head and thinking, "no, that is exactly the way that Grandma's writing looked on letters and birthday cards she's send me when I was little. Amazing. I didn't deliberately practice forging my dad's handwriting. He didn't sit down with me and train me in how to cross a "t" and loop and slant an "l."

This phenomena is intriguing from a nurture/nature standpoint. From another standpoint I suppose that it's comforting in a way, because just as I see my Dad's piercing brown irises in the mirror, I see their handwriting on papers that my own hand has touched. It's a way to still have Grandma here although she passed away decades ago. It's a way to have Dad here in Iowa with me even though he's home in Phoenix, 2,600 miles away.

But from another standpoint it's fairly disturbing. It's as if I have no control over how I express myself, like I am being controlled by someone else beyond where I can see or hear them. As if I am just part of some long continuum of hands with the same style of cursive writing centuries, perhaps eons long and I am powerless over my own destiny and very identity, let alone my own expression and choice of style.

Then again as disturbing as that is, it has it's own way of being intriguing and comforting. I am part of a long continuum of hands that share a style, share an identity. I am not alone, I am part of something bigger than myself.

But mostly it's disturbing so I revert to not writing in long-hand. You might assume that it's laziness or the ubiquitous keyboard that today's technology obliges, but you'd only be partly right. I gave up writing in cursive almost as soon as I had mastered it.

My five year old is thrilled to be learning how to write in "courage" as she calls it, from her older sisters. I found it tedious and frustrating. We had just taken two years to learn how to print and now the second grade teacher was demanding that we learn this whole other system? Why was it necessary? Wasn't printing efficient enough? Who ever actually wrote in this long, flowy, flowery, all-connected-together-like-neon-tubing style of writing anyway? Grandmas, that's who!

My cursive must've been pretty difficult to read because in fifth or sixth grade my mother volunteered me for a calligraphy class. I was tricked into wanting to take it because it was this mysterious, cryptic medieval thing that meant using a messy ink fountain pen. It also meant giving up recess to work on handwriting skills with the teacher and one other kid.

Fifth or sixth grade was also the time that I decided what I wanted to do with my life. I was determined to become a professional cartoonist. I read every book about cartooning at three different branches of the Phoenix Public Library and the school library. Naturally that also meant reading every anthology of comics or cartoons at all of these libraries too.

First I was published in the church youth group newsletter. Then in my high school newspaper and in the weekly teen section of the Phoenix Gazette. My parents even encouraged this madness by enrolling me in a summer course on cartooning at a local community college taught by an illustrator for a greeting card company.

Cursive was no longer an issue. As a cartoonist, printing was my native tongue (er, finger?) Then one day I ran into a problem at the bank. I had had a savings account since I could walk, but now as a Sophomore in high school I had a part time job and gasoline to buy, so I opened a checking account.

The teller looked at my signature incredulously.

"I'm sorry sir, but I need your SIGNATURE on this, not your printed name."

What? That IS my signature,  you Cretan. Don't you know who I am? I'm THE "MALLORY" of the weekly comic strip that appears in the teen section of a major metro daily! I had been perfecting and practicing that printed, professional-cartoonist-style signature for the past five years! Didn't she understand that? She was impugning my very sense of identity, my individuality, my voice as an arteeest.

"No sir, I really need a cursive signature."

Sigh. I reluctantly scribbled out a haphazard excuse for what could be interpreted as my name. You couldn't tell if the "T" was a "T" or an "F." The middle initial "J" looked an awful lot like a cursive "S," and the "r" and the "y" sort of got lost in each other so that one might misread it as a cursive "z."

Try as I might to take more time and pay more attention, that signature hasn't improved much over the years. Almost invariably whether I sign a credit card receipt or a hall pass, merchants and students feel obliged to tell me how I should've been a doctor because my signature is so messy.

My students tell me how much they like my printing on the board and when I write comments on their assignments. The only real problem I have with my printing is when I fall into using all capital letters. I have had some students tell me that it is a little unnerving because it looks to them as if I am shouting.

Ironically, my mother, my wife, that community college class instructor and a few editors have admonished me for needing to have printing that is neater and easier to read. Just as well, after sending three kinds of cartoons out to ten different syndicates I received nothing but rejection letters. When I stopped writing a weekly column for our local newspaper, I rarely cartoon anymore.

But now I have this peculiar form of multiple-personality-disorder. When I write in cursive very quickly and haphazardly, it is my dyslexic mother writing. When I write as carefully and meticulously as good penmanship requires, it is my father and/or grandmother writing. When I print, either quickly or carefully, it is me, the self-made, determiner of who I am and how I want to present myself.

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