Livin’ In the Scrawl

When I was thirteen or so, I made a major life decision one day. Apropos of nothing, I decided it was time I developed my own distinctive signature. I had always looked in admiration and semi-awe at the loops and squiggles, illegible by intent, that grownups used to formally affix their name to some or other document. That was part of the allure at thirteen. A signature was something adults wielded; lacking one indicated a lack of maturity, of still being “just a kid” — anathema to any self-respecting teenager desperately crafting a sense of self. Moreover, the magic of a signature lay not in its decipherability, but rather in its snowflake-like uniqueness. Penmanship wasn’t then, hasn’t been, and isn’t now my forte — in elementary school, when “Handwriting” was a topic on par with math, social studies, science et al and for which one received a letter grade on one’s report card, I routinely received “C’s.” At best, I made it to a “C+.” A signature in its idiosyncratic scrawl would make all that irrelevant. You can’t grade a signature.

So, armed with notebook and pens, I sat down at the kitchen table and set to work, trying down different styles and accoutrements. Should I sign as “Benjamin Taylor?” “Benji Taylor?” “Benjamin N. Taylor?” These were pressing and vitally important questions that would define me for the rest of my life. So far, just to note, that’s been the case; some minor modifications aside — a curlicue here, a flourish of a tail there — my signature in its rudiments has changed very little in the intervening twenty years. Were you to see my signature in 2018 and then see it from 1998, you’d instantly recognize that they came from the same hand.

A signature is — or has been — one of the most indelible ways in which we present ourselves to the world. Our selves. I delight in my signature, and use it whenever I can, even when a signature might seem unnecessary or out of place, as in a holiday card or after the final sentence of a blue book exam. I’m secretly disappointed when I pay for something with a credit card in person and am not asked for a signature. You can keep the receipt, but for gods’ sakes, let me sign something! I love my signature because it is mine. willed it into life. gave it breath. honed it and refined it, and I alone can wield it. It is mine. It is me. I consider it as much a part of me as my DNA. For the time being at least (I have no doubt whatsoever that this will change, and likely sooner than we think), I can be identified by my signature more quickly than and as equally reliably as a genome scan.

Beyond the satisfaction of presenting to the world something unique to me and only me, the physical act of putting pen to paper and executing the strokes and slashes so diligently practiced that they long ago entered into muscle memory, finishing with aplomb gives me joy. The act of writing itself — pen to paper or stylus to clay — is and should be an exuberant action. The ability to write constitutes one of the deepest and most ancient differences between Homo sapiens and all other known living things. (For an excellent gloss on the importance of tangible writing, check out Amy Goodman’s 2004 interview on Democracy Now! with the late Utah Phillips, pacifist, musician, labor and peace activist, storyteller and onetime archivist — also a personal hero of mine). I still keep my journal, write out my “to-do” lists, scribble notes or flashes of an idea, even write my first drafts by putting pen to paper. I don’t go anywhere without at least two pens on my person and a notepad. But I digress.

Thus it was with great sadness that I read Steven Petrow’s op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Why Signatures Matter.” Please read it (if you still have free articles remaining). I share with him the sense of loss occasioned by the accelerating death of the personal signature, the connection between scrawled ink and the deeper memories of another person that a chip in a card or under one’s skin can never distill.


~ by Benji on April 11, 2018.

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