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Jessie Raymond: The (hand)writing is on the wall

One day a few years ago I found myself holding a tattered piece of paper embellished with mysterious writing.
The words, one or two per line, appeared to be in code. English? Perhaps. But I couldn’t make out what they said. Was this a ransom note? A warning? The secret formula for Coca-Cola?
Well, no, actually. It was my grocery list.
I had jotted the items down earlier in the week. But none of the words looked familiar. The lines rambled like the path of an inebriated beetle in the throes of a Charley horse.
I squinted at it.
Beyond a few easily decoded items, such as “OJ,” I had to make educated guesses based on parts of words I thought I recognized, cross-referenced with items I vaguely remembered we had run out of.
In cases of confusion I hedged my bets. I threw both Cheerios and cheese, for example, into my cart. Then, for insurance, I grabbed a package of chorizo.
One item on the list, however, escaped me altogether. Dog crate? Dry cow? Day care? Nope. None of those would fit in my pantry.
Finally, out of desperation, I brought my list to the sales clerk and asked if she had any insight. She furrowed her brow. She looked for patterns. She sounded out a few things.
Then her eyes lit up and she said, “Dry cat.”
Hallelujah.
No, I was not in the market for a dry cat. I already had a dry cat. (Who would want a wet cat? They’re so ornery.) It was shorthand for “dry cat food.”
I thanked the woman for her amazing code-breaking skills, but I went home dejected. The sad truth was I could no longer read my own handwriting.
It hadn’t always been so. In elementary school, we learned penmanship — the Rhinehart method, specifically — and we were tested regularly. Though I aspired to master the graceful slanted script, I never quite got it. By high school, my cursive letters had grown cartoonishly plump and perfectly vertical. One glance and you could tell I was a Teen Beat subscriber.
My penmanship was never elegant, but it was legible, and I relied on it for everything from notes passed in class to pages-long compare-and-contrast essays. What had happened over the years to turn my handwriting from a means of communication into a form of abstract art?
Sometimes I’m tempted to blame my aging hands. But then I realize that (a) I have friends who can still read their own writing, and (b) I’m just as adept at fine motor tasks as ever, even if I can no longer see what I’m doing.
So then I blame disuse. I write nearly everything on a computer (or iPhone) these days. For the past decade, in fact, the extent of my handwriting has been limited to signing checks and a few legal documents and filling out the occasional greeting card.
I’m sure being out of practice plays a part. But recently, in a real effort to make my cursive come across less like the ramblings of a disturbed orangutan, I hit on the main problem: Handwriting is just too slow to keep up with my brain.
My mind races constantly. I estimate I generate close to a hundred thoughts per minute — more if I’ve had too much coffee. My keyboard skills aren’t quite that good, but typing comes a lot closer than writing longhand.
No matter how methodically I intend to make a shopping list, for instance, once I get past M-I-L-K — my God, I’m getting bored just thinking about having to articulate four individual letters by hand — I’ve already forgotten the three ingredients I needed for dinner. Before long, the list looks like I wrote it while running from an enraged rhinoceros.
I know it’s difficult for the people who have to read my writing. At work, I use a distinctive green pen for the benefit of my coworkers; although they have no idea what I’ve scribbled in the margins of a page, they at least know who to come to for a verbal explanation.
Should you ever receive a greeting card from me, assume that my sentiments are appropriate to the occasion. What looks like “Goat sells oars” probably means “Get well soon,” and “Beet withers for goose picture” is likely “Best wishes for your future.”
And if I ever write you a whole letter —
Never mind. We’ll both save a lot of time and frustration if I just shoot you an email.

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