Life on the Half Shell: Whatever happened to good penmanship?

Over the holidays I found a writing assignment from my grade school years and saw that my 4th-grade signature was perfection. After years of struggling mightily to learn cursive writing (a form of torture, because I’m left-handed) I achieved the looping “h” and flat-topped “r” that had eluded me for so long.

What a waste of time! Now that email, thumbprint-scanning and facial recognition have replaced pen and paper, I don’t need to write legibly, and on those rare occasions of ceremonial signing, I can create a mark that looks like the flight path of a bumblebee, and no one cares.

Today, a person’s signature is less a mark of authenticity than of self-expression, and no one expresses himself more stridently than the current President of the United States, a man whose John Hancock has been described as looking like something that scrolled off a seismograph registering an 8.2 temblor.

The presidential signature is so distinctive that when the First Family’s 2019 Christmas cards arrived, recipients could not help noticing that the jagged peaks and valleys of Donald’s signature were exactly reproduced in Melania’s signature, just below her husband’s, at half the size. The similarity in style raised the possibility that Donald forged his own wife’s signature on their holiday greeting cards. Or that she copied his.

Most of us don’t have to sign things as often as the president, and when we do it’s often on a pad or electronic device, with a bare finger, a gesture that feels as ridiculous as being sworn into office with your left hand on a book of round-trip North Ferry tickets.

Shelter Island Historical Society Director, Nanette Lawrenson told me these days, most of her signatures are applied with a finger to the screen of an iPad, as she had done the night before when she paid for dinner. “The N was sort of recognizable, followed by blobs for the rest of my name.” She confessed that her lovely penmanship, once a source of pride, is now awful. “My hand and wrist don’t even remember the movement of writing.”

Julia Labrozzi recently signed a contract for her student-teaching practicum that she’s completing at the Shelter Island School this January, just a few years after having graduated from the same school.

She regrets that her signature is not more distinctive. “Frankly, I think I have a pretty bad signature because I never learned to write in script. I don’t know if this is a bad or a good thing,” Julia said. “It’s a little sad to older generations, as writing used to be valued much more than it is now, but technology progresses, and we must adapt.”

Gina Kraus says she lives in the dark ages and likes it that way. “I still pay my mortgage every month with a signed paper and pen check,” she said. “When I sign a keypad for a credit card it looks like a 2-year old signed it, so what’s the point?”

Not everybody is ready to let go of the signature as a valid form of identification. To Virginia Gerardi, an administrator at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm, and a notary public, signatures are serious business. “It is vital to our personal security and autonomy that there be a foolproof way to identify ourselves when issuing directives and forming agreements.”

But Ginny (the name she goes by when she’s organizing wintertime volunteers to feed the Sylvester Manor chickens) is a pragmatist, so when she’s asked to sign something that is not notarized, she’s fine with e-signed documents like tax returns and real estate agreements, and she’s even made an image of her signature to insert into her emails.

Some have a wardrobe of signatures, to use as they deem appropriate. John Kaasik is preparing to start rehearsals for the school’s spring musical, which he directs, and says the last time he had to sign something was the royalty contract for Matilda, the witty, heartwarming show that is this year’s production.

“I have two signatures,” John said. “One which is legible for important documents and an unreadable scribble that I use when I’m lazy, or don’t want people to know it’s me signing.”

John says he’s O.K. with written signatures giving way to electronic identification. “The purpose of a signature is to substantiate intent — it makes sense to use a more reliable and scientific method,” he said. “I’m not ashamed of science and progress unlike many of our political leaders.”

I have no idea who John is pointing his quill pen at, but I can report that the president is also known for creating such a large signature that it takes up at least a half page of paper for the presidential moniker, thus increasing the presidential carbon footprint.

I say he should sign with his finger like the rest of us.