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Penicullus Tardus

May 9, 2007

From Ambivablog, April 15, 2005

No, that’s not the name of some obscure sexual dysfunction. Read on.

I just did something very curious and quaint. I wrote a letter.

My mother gave me what turned out to be, by an accident of timing, a birthday gift of stationery. She sent my signature to calligrapher (or “letterist,” as she calls herself) Eliza Holliday, both a fine artist and a commercial designer, who let it inspire her personalized design. (I’ll scan and post a sheet tomorrow.) After an enjoyable back-and-forth in which Eliza sent me an assortment of samples and musings and I told her what I liked best, the finished paper and envelopes arrived today. I couldn’t very well send my mom an e-mail thank-you note. So I sat down to the unaccustomed and awkward task of writing an actual letter with a pen on paper – an act that used to be second nature to me, in fact one of my favorite things to do.

Several things struck me as uncomfortable about it. How do you start?? The paper itself seemed to demand the formal beginning “Dear ________,” but while that form ironically feels right for a business letter – to someone who isn’t “dear” to you at all – it seems absurdly posed and mannered for talking with anyone who is dear. So I just plunged in without a salutation. Like . . . like an e-mail.

Then — how slow the pen is! There ought to be a Latin motto, like “Ars longa, vita brevis,” that says “Life is fast (or the mind is fast), but the pen is slow.” “Vita celer (or mens celer), penicullus tardus,” or something like that. The pen is tardier than the word.

And what do you say? To feel like you’re “just talking” in any medium, you have to forget the medium. How were we ever able to forget pen and paper? They’re so physical. Writing by hand is, not surprisingly, a handcraft. It’s more like woodcarving than it is like thinking or talking. That used to be one of its great pleasures. How easily and arrogantly the mind cast that off! Writing on the computer feels almost as unfettered as aerobatics. The illusion of utter freedom is directly proportionate to the complexity of the technology you depend on.

Finally, there’s – an end to the page! It makes you think about cutting your letter short, or even preplanning it to fit the Procrustean dimensions of the paper. Your thought is subject to an external constraint, analogous to society’s roles and manners before it became so indulgent, if not adoring, of the individual. A letter on stationery sets self-expression within bounds, within a conventional frame.

Hell, even putting it in the envelope feels clumsy. And going downstairs to the mailbox? And waiting for the recipient to get it??

I’m a little shocked at how adaptable and faithless I’ve turned out to be. With this stationery, I hope to rediscover the pleasures of writing a letter, and to get a better sense of what I’ve lost, as well as gained, by taking up a new instrument.

by Amba

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  1. May 15, 2007 at 10:58 am

    (o)

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