Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The Jack Lew Signature Challenge and How to Solve the National Penmanship Crisis

This is an op-ed I submitted a week or so back to the New York Times. They didn't take it, so I'm publishing here.

The funniest moment in President Obama's announcement that he was nominating Jacob "Jack" Lew to succeed Timothy Geithner as Treasury Secretary came when the President said that, when he finally got around to looking at Lew's signature, he considered rescinding the nomination.

The nation can evidently ill-afford Lew's illegible sequence of loops on every piece of printed currency.

This is the second time a Treasury Secretary has been assailed for poor penmanship. Geithner also had to modify his John Hancock.

Compare these failings at the pen with the carefully readable letterforms of former Treasury heads Paul O'Neill and John Snow. Henry Paulson's signature had a decisively rightward lean, but one could still easily discern the "H," the "P," the "M" of his middle name and the "J," in "Jr." (No way was Paulson going to embarrass Dad with a cavalier scribble.)

Even a flamboyant, free-form guy like Larry Summers penned a signature worthy of an accountant. You have to go back to Nicholas Brady in the late 1980s to find a Treasury Secretary whose signature could be seen as a threat to the image of the world's reserve currency.

Given the importance of signatures and penmanship in the founding documents of the republic, you'd think that abstractions of the sort that Lew has been scribbling on documents for his entire career in government would be identified and eliminated early on.

But what about President Obama's signature? You might ask.

It's obviously the signature of an artist.

But Obama isn't making his gigantic loops in his "Bs" and his "O" on the greenback — arguably a more potent symbol of American power than the flag.

The public doesn’t carry bills signed into law in their pockets.

The truth is that this is a generational issue. Geithner (51) and Lew (57) are part of the post-penmanship generation. These are men who haven’t had to write by hand to be read; they transitioned swiftly from typewriters to computers and word processors to BlackBerrys. They might scribble notes in meetings. But they aren't sitting down on the weekends to catch up their letter writing.

And even if they were, they wouldn't be writing in cursive — they'd be employing instead some kind of hybrid scribble of printing and traditional handwriting. A highly individualistic scrawl of their own (possibly unconscious) design. Because with few exceptions, cursive handwriting, with its elegant letterforms and connected loops and lines, stressing not lifting the pen from the paper, has fallen out of favor as a pedagogical subject.

It’s a vestige of a vanished time of inkwells, steel nibs, and personal letterhead reordered annually as the Champagne bubbles subsided and the thank you notes had to go out.

With a few exceptions.

Two of my three kids attend a Montessori school in the Pasadena area. My daughter, Lucia, came from the Los Angeles public schools and one of the first things she had to do was learn cursive, which is an essential part of the curriculum.

She took to it immediately. My son James followed her and, after an initial period of shifting from the printing he'd used in kindergarten, he too discovered the joys of good penmanship.

I'm of roughly the same generation as Geithner and Lew. I was absolutely post-penmanship — although in the distant past, I had been rigorously trained, starting with big dull pencils and pulp practice paper lined to define where the loops, curves, and crosses went. Pens came later. As did the development of a completely illegible scribble and, not incidentally, a signature that was Lew-like: really more of an impatient initialing that something that would convey my identity.

It was a source of humiliation. In the days when I wrote letters, friends banned me from writing them by hand. As a journalist, I often stared at my notebooks, trying to figure out what I had written down during interviews. Later, I developed a system of correcting, clarifying, and annotating my own notes at the end of the day. My notebooks were always two-tone: first take in black or blue, translation in red.

Then, in my forties, I saw how well this penmanship thing was going for my kids and I decided that old-fashioned cursive might be a cure.

It was like light being beamed into a dark cavern.

I could suddenly read what I'd written. My signature became…my name again! Each letter was…a letter! The bold and illegible sweep — more artsy glyph than signature — was gone, replaced by the clearly penned version of my persona.

Best of all, writing felt good again. A shaky scrawl had induced anxiety. But my cursive restoration brought a meditative quality back to my handwriting. I slowed down. I thought about what I was doing. And when taking notes, I noticed no loss of content. And I didn't have to rewrite everything.

The amusing remarks about Lew's signature contain a serious suggestion for the aspiring Treasury Secretaries of the nation (I assume there are a few out there). Perfect your penmanship! Make not your signature a source of ribbing or ridicule! The U.S. currency is a piece of complex graphic design and your handwriting would be an integral part of it! Do you really want the public to think, like Jack Lew, that your name is "Ooooooo?"

Of course not! Cursive is the cure. So get practicing. The economy depends on it.