Gary Conkling Life Notes

Mostly whimsical reflections on life

The Disappearance of “John Hancock”

The demise of handwriting is written on the wall. Nowhere is it more obvious than those annoying point-of-sale signatures.

John HancockA person’s “John Hancock” singles them out from everyone else. It is unique and a clue to someone’s personality. A signature with flourishes means a person is artistic. Accountants have signatures that are regimented and legible. Scribbles that are totally indecipherable belong to doctors.

Most of all, a great signature reflected someone with decent handwriting. Or at least someone who was forced to practice handwriting.

The computer and touch-screens have rendered handwriting virtually obsolete, except in the paradoxical circumstance of signing your name to verify an online sale. This strange requirement forces people who barely know how to hold a pencil to scratch their name, often at odd angles, with a stylus or a finger.

Before the advent of touch-screen signings, the last time I scrawled my name with my finger was in kindergarten.

Speaking of school, handwriting was my Achilles heel. My first “C” was in handwriting, and it may have been a mercy grade. My handwriting, as my father noted with disgust, stunk.

My father had great handwriting, which he attributed to learning the Palmer Method, which trained people to use their arms, not just their fingers, to produce a rhythmic motion and attractive rounded letters and numbers.

By the time I went to school, the only Palmer anyone mentioned was Arnold Palmer. Penmanship was subordinated to writing for self-expression. What you meant to say was more important than whether anyone could read what you wrote.

Students today barely bother to learn handwriting. Cursive has been relegated to the scrapheap as young people do pretty much everything, from homework to dating, online.

While handwriting was never my forté, signatures always fascinated me. Initially, I tried to copy my father’s sleek, clear signature. Clearly, his penmanship gene wasn’t passed along.

Then I experimented with more exotic signatures, with an exaggerated “G” and “C” and an “L” that looked like the couplet for railcars. Somewhere along the line, my signature became one, elongated scribble. Once I started, my pen never left the surface.

The trouble with this approach was the inevitable hand cramp that made for unpredictable, frenetic signature endings, sometimes extending off the edge of the page. I fretted this may appear as if was having a nervous breakdown or trying to impersonate Salvador Dali.

I settled on a signature that had the character of a hand ballet. I wrote my first name and last name with my middle initial in between as a kind of pirouette.

Over the years, my signature evolved. Enough so that the county clerk wondered if I was the same person and made me come in to register a new “official” signature. I get very nervous every time I have to sign my vote-by-mail secrecy envelope, worrying whether my signature has evolved some more.

At work, I consented to an electronic signature that could be used in rare occasions when my signature was needed, but I wasn’t around. This proved somewhat awkward when my sample signatures all looked noticeably different. We only use my electronic signature when we send something to somebody who doesn’t know me.

In previous occupations, I was called upon to act as the official “signer.” This required marathon signing sessions of at times hundreds of individual letters. And the signature wasn’t my own, but an attempt at an accurate forgery of my boss. This led to occasional identity confusion as I would absentmindedly sign my own checks with someone else’s name.

GBM_SignatureScreen_FINAL_for_pr-642x500My signature deteriorated when I first was forced to sign on those small, stubborn POS screens. Most require a couple of taps before the stylus is activated, so my balletic rhythm is thrown off.  It took awhile before my conscience allowed me to scribble without regard to whether it resembled my real signature.

The Apple store is even more challenging because the nomadic clerks handle the entire transaction on iPhones, including your signature using your finger. The result looks like something I did in kindergarten using the same finger.

I foresee a world not far away where signatures will be a thing of the past. We will identify ourselves with arcane passwords or eye prints. Handwriting will go the way of quilting, only performed by people who yearn for the past and can’t figure out computers. Handwriting samples will become the province of geeks and collectors. Diaries will be composed on electronic watches that keep track of how many steps you take each day and the time zone in Bhutan.

The signature, elegant or ecstatic, will slip into history as an useless relic and  an endearing quirk of the wrist. Another chip out of our humanity.









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