Monday, March 28, 2016

In Your Hand

My parents learned to write in the 1920s. Their handwriting bore the distinctive characteristics of those educated in the Palmer Methodprecise, graceful, and easy to read. My mother's handwriting was always better than my fathers. Her lines and loops swooped in a lyrical manner, while my father's was harder edged, with tiny spikes from a tremor in his hand that reminded me of a seismograph charting little earthquakes. His hand shook more as he aged, as had his mother's before him. I can still picture him spilling a cup of coffee like a sprinkler head as he brought it to his lips. I have the same tremor developing in my right handanother legacy I didn't need, like my wide nose, high blood pressure, astigmatism, or my ridiculously thick Irish peasant legs.

For now, my handwriting has not been afflicted, although I know it's only a matter of time. I have a measure of vanity about my writing, which I think is fairly graceful when I'm not in a hurry. (My Cyrillic penmanship is pretty darn nicenicer than my English script, honestly. Just not much call for it these days.) For now, I'm grateful to retain what I have. And, while I have the flaws of my father's side of the family, I echo my mom's side, too. As I agemuch like catching a glimpse of my mother's face as I pass by a mirrormy script looks more and more like mom's handwriting.

Pусский язык самый богатый в мире!

All of my siblings have beautiful cursive and equally cool printing. My late brother Ed had that same spiky cursive that marked our father's writing. I can't remember if he had our father's "architect style" printing, too. It always looked like he was marking blueprints with each letter. I don't think any of us inherited that style. My sister Elizabeth is an artist by nature, and her writing style radiates a very unique creative vibe. I was always envious of that. Her script is half cursive, half print, and unmistakably her own. I am envious.

Back in the dark ages of technology, I was fascinated by the "make your own font in your own handwriting" offers you found in in-flight magazines. Wow! Your handwriting appears on your computer screen! Of course, back then, it was an expensive novelty for executives, and it cost about a hundred bucks. A pipe dream for youngsters with shallow pockets. Now, you can get your font for five bucks (or, hell, for free) in a couple of minutes. Print out a template, draw your letters and numbers, scan them in, and boom - five minutes later, you have your own chicken scratch alphabet to use in Word. It's true. I've done it. I wasn't satisfied with that I created because I couldn't manage the right level of consistency in what I inked into each block. That said, when I use that font, I know it's me.

That's one of the things I love about handwritten letters. I know which one of my friends or family has sent me card or letter just by seeing a few letters on the address. The angles, the curves... how they formed my name or theirs... Who uses cursive? Who prints? Is it in big, bold letters? Is it in the slanted lines of a southpaw? Is it elegant, rounded, and utterly European?

I love that, even though we may have learned with the same techniquein some cases, in the same classroomour letters flow from our hands in forms as unique as the fingerprints on our pens. It is you. Simply you.

And you sent yourself to me.

I feel increasingly like every postcard, every letter, every greeting card written in someone's own hand is an expression of love and appreciation. It may be the lasting love of friendship, the family update, a platonic dialogue that lasts a lifetime, the words of passion between far-flung lovers... it's all pretty damn cool. It's also a piece of art you chose to make and give away. It's not a throwaway text typed carelessly into your phone and autocorrected into nonsense or condensed into 140 characters of abrupt one-liners.

A handwritten missive requires time and attention. Each stroke, each dot, each line, each misspelling you try to cover up with a smudge of ink carries some of youyour creative DNAto the recipient.

A few months ago, I found a massive stockpile of postcardsmany from the 1980sin a box in my closet. At one point, I'd decorated a whole wall in my first Moscow apartment with them, blu-tacked in untidy rows from floor to ceiling. Now, they needed new homes. With the postcards, I found a heap of old, unused postage stamps in various denominations. I had to look them all up on the USPS website, year by year, to see how many I needed to mail a postcard now.

I reached out to friends on Facebook and just asked who would like a postcard, complete with genuine handwritten message. I wasn't sure if anyone would take me up on the offer, but, in the end, I sent out nearly 100 postcards, each with a personalized message in my own scrawl. After a couple of weeks, I started getting postcards in returnsome in familiar hands I'd known for 20, 30, 40 years, while others were new to me. These new "voices" were friends I'd only ever known online, their words typed on screens in the same bland fonts we all use online. It was a revelation to see a lovely piece of these individuals that was hidden in the noise of social media. It was, in a way, like meeting them face-to-face. In delicate letters, bold prints, and even in the goofy script that made me squint, there was a warm, intimate moment that was sweet, kind, graceful, and exciting. Each postcard was a gift. And I was grateful.

It makes me sad to know that some kids don't learn cursive at all anymore. Who needs it? Ugh. Yeah, I've heard the argument. Just time wasted on a dead skill. I hear Obi-Wan Kenobi in my head referring to a lightsaber as "an elegant weapon for a more civilized age," and I think of a pen in that same way. A weapon for the sharpest words, an arrow to the heart of the sweetest love... who will read the letters of an earlier age if no one can read the text? Are we in such a hurry that we cannot stop to express thoughts with our unique marks on the page? Truth is, I don't care if someone uses the finest calligraphy, a scrawl, or block letters, if they send something handwritten. Share yourself. You have no idea how much impact a card or letter can have on someone going through tough times.

You are loved. You are remembered. You are not just a birthday reminder on a Facebook calendar. You mean something to me, and I wanted you to have something more than a catalog and an insurance ad in your mailbox.

Old news: life is uncertain. None of us has any idea when the smile or word we share with someone we love is the last one. I'm not trying to be morbid, but there have been momentsmoments that increase as the clock hands spin the dial and I flip pages on my wall calendarwhen I've wished I had one more time for all sorts of things. A call with my mother. A trip with my sister. A discussion about pop culture with my brother. All gone now. But I still have cards and letters they wrote. I can feel them through impressions made in ball point ink on paper. I can hear them through those curves and angles. I know who they are, and they are not forgotten. Voices in blue and black on white and beige. All precious to me now.

I know we're all busy. I know carving out time to sit quietly and write a few words can seem like the bottom of the priority barrel. But we can all do it. Get some paper, grab some cards (I highly recommend handmade letterpress cards from Model Citizen Press and I admit to being 100% happily biased on that count), dig out the old postcards you never sent on vacation. Go to the library, sit outside on a sunny day, or hit your local Starbucks and get yourself a coffee. Pull out a pen, and write a few lines. Hand cramps from lack of use? Write one a day, or one a week, or a couple each month. You are a storyteller. We all are storytellers. Surprise someone. Tell someone something funny, something mysterious, just something about your day, or what they mean to you. Write your life. Indelible, uncommon, rare... because it's you, and there is no other you out there. Leave a little bit of your heart in a mailbox. Leave a little bit of your soul with a friend. I swear, you'll feel a rush when you let it out in the wild with a letter carrier. Just don't forget the stamp. 

Sunday, March 20, 2016



Random Thoughts at the Coffee Shop

9 p.m.

I'm looking through a coffee shop window out into the darkness and a wet, short March snowfall.The snow won't stick. It's not cold enough. But, in the brightness thrown by light poles across the parking lot, the white stuff is beautifulbig flakes that swirl and rain down in a snow globe shaker shower.

The coffee shop is humming with conversations in Spanish and Korean. Ringtones annoy. A baby burbles, counteracting the cellphones. A barista is aggressively squeezing the trigger on a container of kitchen cleaner. There can't be any left in the bottle by the time she's done. Despite the overdose of chemical freshness, I smell coffee brewing, and I know in the wet cold of the evening, I will carry that scent home with me, soaked into the knit loops of my scarf and the fabric of my shirt. I'm fine with that. I love it when I carry the smell of memory with me.

When I lived in Moscow, I loved arriving home after a weekend at the dacha, my clothes infused with wood smoke from the potbelly stove in the corner of the little living room. I would hold up shirts to my nose for days after returning to my apartment, breathing in the sweet, heady remnants of a good adventure. I closed my eyes and could hear a friend playing guitar, doing his best Vysotsky impression, and the sound of laughter from the small deck out back overlooking the river that separated us from the Young Pioneer camp on the other bank. The camp came alive and fell to sleep again every day with a bugle call we heard through the birch and pine trees. We would listen and stoke the fire in our cabin and curl up together in the dying lighta pile of friends disconnected from the chaos of the city just a few kilometers away, but deeply connected together for a moment before the week began again. I wish I had something saturated with that lovely smoke right now.

It's different here. No smoke. Just coffee. Not a bucolic and quiet setting like the dacha at Serebryany Bor. Yet I am with my friend, and that is good.

Traffic hisses on wet pavement outside. A chill rises each time the door opens with people arriving to buy overpriced lattes and Cherry Blossom frappuccinos. There is a red glow outside from the neon signs lining the strip mall. Clearly management wanted something uniform, and nearly every business has red neon signage to lure in customers. There is a large Asian community here, from Korea and China, and the signs remind me of a brief visit to Seoul many years ago, en route to Vladivostok. At night the city was dotted in crimson illumination, with red crosses rising into the darkness above the city's numerous Christian churches. I wonder if the red neon was chosen specifically for our local community, but I never ask. I don't want to appear rude or culturally ignorant. The signs are big and bright. They provide a constant light show, obscuring the stars in the sky with manmade glare.

I have an infatuation with neon. They are the carnival midway show of suburbia here, radiating warmth, but also tossing visual chaos and clutter at passers-by. Tonight, I'm fascinated with the one exception to the red neonan enormous green frog lighting up a yogurt shop across the lot. Framed by beer and sub shop signs on either side, the frog seems ridiculously out of place, yet refreshing against the monotony of the rest of the stores and cafes. It has bulbous eyes and reminds me of a mid-century kit-cat clock. I keep expecting his eyes to swing back and forth, tick tock, tick tock.


Before the night is out, I will snag his picture. My hand is shaky, and I am an increasingly awful cellphone photographer. I'll have to take a heap of photos in the hopes of getting one non-blurry needle in my camera haystack. No matter. It will amuse me. The same ten people who like all my Instagram photos will hopefully enjoy froggie in the window. Who could ask for anything more?

My vision is eroding. It's been encroached upon by a flaw in my design that first appeared when I was a teenager. Now it's eating my peripheral vision in nibbles and, sometimes, mouthfuls. I hate it when people walk down hallways at work with me and they are just a smidge too far away for me to keep them in my sight. It makes me feel awkward and uneasy. My vision loss is progressing, and I think of the bites missing as being eaten up by some little Pac-Man in my head. Waka, waka, screw you, buddy!

I take more photos now and draw all the time. Increased practice has not really improved the quality of my efforts, honestly. Doesn't matter. I snap away. I scribble. What I produce is distinctly mine. Not exactly a legacy to leave behindjust stuff I enjoy making and something by which my friends can identify me. "Yeah, that's her. Kinda blurry..."

Life is a blur. I just have to either speed up to see more of it or grow accustomed to life being a hum in my ears as it rushes by, unseen in my periphery.

Best speed it up, sister. Get with the program.  Don't let anything rush by. Don't miss out. Advice for us all, really.

10 p.m. Time to go.

They turned the frog light off.


Tomorrow, Scarlett. Yes, tomorrow. After all, tomorrow is another day, and that damn frog isn't going anywhere.

Yes, I looked up "Scarlett O'Hara + frog" on Google.
God bless Google. I knew you wouldn't fail me. ;)