Thursday, July 3, 2014

Filling in the blanks

Since her stroke a few years ago, my mother's speech has been like a game of Mad Libs where she'll put the darnedest things in the noun blanks. Apparently that's the magic of some strokes: they wipe out precise parts of the brain. Who knew there was an area devoted specifically to nouns?

But the weird thing about her aphasia is that it doesn't affect her handwriting. It's not that she can write a sentence that makes complete sense (though she comes closer on paper than in speech). It's that her handwriting is still the beautifully embellished copperplate of her youth. This is no labored Palmer penmanship or quavering elder scratch. Her writing is like a rollercoaster with swooping ascenders, dizzying loop-de-loops and thank-you-ma'am descenders. 

See that little squiggle above the loop in the y? That's actually a SECOND loop, with an air drop. 

Look at a whole page of it, and you are dazzled—and a bit dizzy, as if you were looking up at the spire of a skyscraper from below. This is the writing of a woman who is larger than life—even when life has taken seven inches off her height and reduced her sphere of influence from boundless to a room or two. It's also fatiguing to even think about reading page after page of that beautiful crashing script.


Though graphology as a key to character has been discredited, it is hard to dismiss some obvious correlations—neat handwriting with a general penchant for tidiness, say. Graphotherapy, or changing handwriting to change mental processes, is similarly unsupported. Despite all that, I am drawn to the happy optimism of such titles as "Change Your Handwriting, Change Your Life." And who would not want to know more about a technique vended by someone with the name Vishwas Heathcliff, who warns that so powerful are the tools of graphotherapy that "you are NOT supposed to try out any handwriting exercise without consulting a graphologist because if you undertake a wrong exercise, it can backfire. For example, if the self-esteem of a criminal is raised, he will just become a better criminal. Now you know what I mean." Yeah.

Despite the lack of scientific evidence that penmanship predicts personality, it's interesting that so many little girls tinker with their writing in much the way that they try on different mannerisms and clothing styles. I clearly remember my own activities in that area. After I failed to win first prize in the penmanship contest in third grade (I remember little from my childhood, but I can clearly see the name and face of the paragon who edged me into second place), I changed my pretty good Palmer script into a lefty back slant like that of an admired friend. I continued to fiddle with it—consciously—into my college years. Each tweak was in response to a new friend crush. Admiration of a person was not enough to inspire me to emulate her handwriting though. The handwriting itself had to have some engaging quirk or fillip. I was briefly flattered that my daughter seemed to be examining my hand and aping it when she was younger—until I realized she was forging notes to her school to excuse her lateness.

Heart-shaped i dottings and knotted t crossing are long behind me now. I have a hand that is legible but with a studied disregard for neatness. I'm stopping there. In any case, I rarely write anything but shopping lists, and even those I often peck into my iPhone.

There may be little evidence that penmanship predicts personality, but recent research suggests that writing cursive helps you learn and remember—and generate ideas of your own. Typing and printing, not so much. I wonder if there were time enough left in her life, could my mother lay down new neural pathways and recover her lost nouns by actually filling in the Mad Libs blanks—by hand?

*Second sample is from 1990. The first is recent.


Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Calm domestic stability

How could I have forgotten Charles Lamb's background? Here, in the words of Phillip Lopate (To Show and to Tell):

"At the age of twenty, Lamb witnessed a horrific family tragedy: his beloved sister Mary, under a great nervous strain from having to attend to her ailing parents and run the household while taking in needlework, stabbed their mother to death and wounded their father ... Mary was spared prison by the courts and remanded to the custody of her younger brother, who took care of her (as she did him) for the rest of their lives ... Periodically Mary would suffer relapses and have to be readmitted to the madhouse ... In general, however, his sister provided a calm domestic stability that allowed Charles to persist at his tedious clerical job and hone his craft after hours as a writer."

Should I be worried?

A man handed me scrap of paper on Broadway and 42nd Street yesterday. Here's what it says, in part (all sic): "A Lithuanian Terrorist Organization installs a chip in peoples eye and now they hear voices in their head (3 people screaming nonstop at them). They are currently stalking 800 people in an organized manner like this. They follow people around, cuss them out and have even punched them, besides robbing valuables and cash from people's apartments. The Lithuanian Organization introduces themselves as the CIA, NSA, or the FBI ... On August 4th, 2016 gay people will be convinced by voices to start destroying stuff on 9th avenue in Hell's Kitchen, NYC starting at 11:00 pm. Next the German gang will be sent in to kill gay people. Next the black gang will come in and kill whoever is left. The same thing will happen afterwards in Washington D.C. at Dupont Circle on September of 2017. Then it will occur in San Francisco on the Castro in February of 2019 ..."