By Mike O’Brien
When I was about 8 years old, I learned cursive handwriting. I recall my fingers getting sore from practice; the puffy nub of raw, inflamed skin that built up on the first knuckle of my middle finger as I slowly wrote line after line after line of cursive script.
Four of the eight children in my family are left-handed, which is rare, given the fact that neither of our parents nor our grandparents were lefties. Although today a bias against using one’s left hand exists in only a few cultures, my mother came from an earlier era, when being left-handed could be seen as a mark of evil. For a while, she tried to get my older sisters to use their right hands, but she didn’t push me.
Handwriting was not a big deal until I was around 9. While on a family cross-country driving vacation, a bit of dazzling handwriting caught my eye and changed my interest in penmanship forever. Somewhere along the deserted highway east of the Rockies, while visiting a rock shop, I spotted it. (How lucky my parents were on that trip that I had a found a new hobby in collecting rocks, and so pestered them to stop at all the “Rocks Here” gift shops we spotted.)
While leaving this particular shop burdened with a few new specimens I’d coaxed my folks into letting me buy, I happened to notice my very own nickname written on a sign in a phone booth. Never before had my name looked like this. I was mesmerized.
“Mike” was written beautifully, with loops before and after, and an amazing flourish underneath. I had never seen my name look so cool. After the “e,” the flowing, cursive line continued, looping and then rising up to make a small circle just above the “i.” After that, the line continued downward between the “i” and the “k” to underscore the entire creation with an end-piece of angular relish. As I held my coveted rocks, I stared, ignoring my family’s call to get back to the car. I burned this bold signature into memory, vowing to make it my own.
I remembered it exactly and practiced intently until I could claim it. At that moment,
I felt transformed, becoming a hip “Mike” instead of the definitely uncool “Michael.”
From that point forward, more changes occurred: Peach pomade became a part of my hairdo, and I began rolling the ends of my shirtsleeves and jeans up. All from a signature scrawled in a phone booth.
Although I tired of my unique signature after a couple of years, my practice in handwriting paid off, at least in terms of being legible and my receiving compliments on it for years. But that is no longer the case. Today, I rarely use my penmanship. Instead I stab for hours each day at keyboards, using only about three fingers and a thumb. (I did not take typing in school, and when faced with all sorts of papers to write in high school, I began to hunt and peck on my own and have never typed any other way. I am enormously inefficient at it and about 20 percent of my keystrokes are wrong.)
The notes that I do write by hand are beginning to remind me of the linear scribble that my mom ended up with near the end of her life, despite the beautiful writing she possessed for so long. What’s worse, within minutes of using a pen, my fingers begin to hurt. But I quit before that painful nub of puffy skin builds up.