On being ... one's signature

There was an article in last Monday’s Toronto Star about the fact that many schoolchildren aren’t being taught cursive writing any more. The article focused on a local father’s shock when he learned his 14-year-old son couldn’t sign his name. The father discovered this when he noticed his son printing – rather than signing – his name on the signature line of a passport application.

This seemingly off-beat story clearly struck a chord with many, including the paper’s editorial board, who formally commented on it the next day. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if your local paper has written about this topic recently too. Why do I say this? Well, this week I also came across an article about it in the current Costco magazine. (I know what you’re thinking: a Costco magazine? Well, there is one and, to my surprise, it isn’t all ads – there are some actual articles in it.) Though it might be a coincidence, I’ll bet that we have some teachers’ association, or maybe a calligrapher’s group, to thank for alerting media outlets to this issue.

Besides the “news” that cursive is no longer taught, some things in the Star’s article simply gave me a chuckle. For example, it said that in today’s “digitally focused curriculum”, schools are teaching keyboarding rather than cursive writing. When did typing become “keyboarding”? When I was in school we learned to type and if we wanted to use a keyboard, we went to the music room.

The article also mentioned another unforeseen consequence of this education crisis: the impact on cake decorating. That’s right – it could well be that in the future there won’t be any bakers skilled enough to “write graceful messages in continuous icing”. But don’t worry about it just yet – the local culinary institute’s pastry instructors are aware of this issue and they’re now requiring students to practice writing things like Congratulations using a pen and paper before they even touch a pastry bag!

On a more serious note, the issue of whether a passport application might be rejected because the signature was printed rather than signed in cursive writing had the lawyer in me scratching my head. It’s been a long time but I seem to recall learning in law school that a will, for example, could be validly executed by someone simply “signing” an X, so long as that’s the signer’s “mark”. (In other words, Zorro would probably get by with just a Z.)

Then again, I suppose the father featured in the article figured there must be a reason a passport application has a line for one’s signature and a line where you’re supposed to print your name. I suspect that’s just to increase the chances of readers being able to actually read the name – after all, even if you learned cursive, it doesn’t mean your handwriting is legible. (Trust me – though I take care to make my signature legible, if I didn’t type – I mean, keyboard – On being…, most of you wouldn’t be able to read it.) Getting back to signature lines on documents – they probably have more to do with the fact that it’s harder to forge a signature than a printed name. But, as the Star’s editorial noted, thanks to finger prints, retinal scans, and other biometric markers, identifying someone by their signature is well on the way to becoming obsolete.

In the Costco article, education experts made interesting arguments about developmental benefits to learning cursive – things like fine motor skills, attention to detail, and so on. But, as other experts point out, these important skills are also developed through other activities, including keyboarding and even playing video games.

Though all the legal and pedagogic pros and cons are interesting, the thought I found myself coming back to all week was the idea that if students aren’t taught cursive, they’ll miss out on the unique pleasures of writing – and receiving – handwritten notes of thanks, support, condolence and – dare I say it – love. That seems a pity…

But of course, hand written notes aren’t the only way people express their feelings toward others. Indeed, my mother’s signature way of showing gratitude, friendship and love has always been delivery of a loaf of her homemade bread – a gesture I know many people have cherished over the years.

So, as handwriting goes the way of hieroglyphics, I guess we’ll just have to come up with other signature ways of communicating compassion and tenderness. What will yours be?

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona


On being … like cicadas

By Ingrid Sapona

Today’s column is inspired by a Mutts comic strip. If you’ve never seen Mutts, you should check it out – it’ a sweet strip featuring Earl, a dog, and Mooch, a cat. There are, of course, a few other characters – most of which are animals – that appear from time-to-time. This past week a cicada has entered Earl and Mooch’s world. In the first frame of today’s* strip Earl and Mooch tell the cicada: “A LOT has changed since you cicadas went underground 17 years ago.” “Really?” says the cicada.

That got me thinking about what’s happened in my life over the past 17 years. I was 36 when the cicadas last made an appearance. I won’t bore you with the details, but I’d certainly have to agree with Earl and Mooch – a lot has changed in my world over the past 17 years.

Reflecting on your life over 17 years provides a very different perspective from the one you get when you look back over just a year, as many of us do at New Years. To borrow a bit from the language of a fiction writer, using a 17-year time frame helps you see more of the arc of the story of your life. If you’re really feeling reflective you might think about the period from 1979 to 1996, which would be two generations of cicadas ago. For me that would be from the time I was 19 until 36 – a particularly formative phase in most folks’ life.

Anyway – back to the Mutts strip. In the second frame the cicada says: “Tell me, is there still war? Greed? Poverty? Famine? Pollution?...” To this, Earl simply says, “Well…” But Mooch, in his endearing, lisp-like voice, admits, “Yesh.” Then, in the last frame, the cicada says to Earl and Mooch, “Sounds the same to me.”

As silly as it may seem, the strip really gave me pause. The creatures’ innocent dialog hit on a reality about the world that’s been getting me down the past few weeks as I’ve reflected on the general public reaction to matters I think we ought to be working harder to change. For example, in a story the other day marking the six month anniversary of the Sandy Hook shootings, the reporter noted that since Sandy Hook, 5,000 more Americans have been killed by gunshots.

As disturbing as that number is, the fact that the topic of gun control has – once again – become a non-topic in the U.S. is even more disturbing. The public clamour that came after Sandy Hook has just petered out. Like the cicadas, I’m sure the subject will re-emerge the next time there’s a large-scale, senseless gun massacre in the U.S. and then there’ll be some noise about gun control but, once again, it will be quickly silenced by the gun lobby.

Then there’s the current outrage about metadata – a term most of us had never heard of until a week ago. I find it interesting that much of the discussion seems to centre around privacy. To the extent this is making people think more about privacy, that’s great. But, framing the issue as merely a matter of privacy is misplaced and somewhat dangerous, especially when people say that we have no one to blame but ourselves because we willingly click on “I accept” when we want to do things on-line.

I think the fundamental issue raised by the story about the government using metadata relates to the adequacy of the checks and balances on power, which is an issue the founding fathers raised in the 1770s. (In other words, over 14 generations of cicadas ago.) In any event, I’m sure peoples’ interest in this will fade and it will find its place among other important – but largely forgotten – matters like the hazards of deep water drilling, the phenomenon of “too big to fail”, the economic disparity that was the focus of the occupy movement, and so on.

You know, maybe humans are more like cicadas than we realize. Periodically something causes us to “awaken” and then we make some noise, but we soon retreat into a place where it seems safe to ignore what’s going on in the world. So, is it any wonder that when we re-awaken, though time has passed, nothing much has changed.

*I’m writing this on June 14, 2013

© 2013 Ingrid Sapona