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Thank You

We’ve already mentioned that an important Dinosaur Value is putting pen to paper.

Putting a (fountain) pen (with blue-black ink) to a piece of fine stationery, often in the form of a thank-you note, is nearing extinction as much as what happened to we dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

In fact, writing that note in a formal hand, known as cursive writing, is also now subject to the same decline. A college student recently confessed to me that the hardest part of the SAT for him was copying a statement using cursive, as opposed to block letters.

When I was in third grade, Mrs. Floyd, an older, “big-boned,” black-haired woman, taught us the Palmer Method, whose upper- and lower-case letters were displayed on a paper perimeter around the room. The swoops and curves of each letter of the alphabet were delineated on a grid of three lines, to indicate precisely where the loop would begin and end and what lay in between. In fact, acquiring the skill to write cursive was a rite of passage (no pun intended), along with learning, or rather memorizing, your multiplication tables. It meant you could write like a grown-up, and it was a discipline: your Q had to look a certain way, or else you were marked down. Despite my attempt at compliance, I couldn’t do any better than to get a C. My handwriting was average, not beautiful.

Back when I was interviewing people and writing stories for a living, I made my notes on a steno pad, barely looking down so I could keep eye contact with the subject. Having never studied shorthand, I rushed to get down the quote with as much accuracy as possible. (In high-stakes interviews, I used a tape recorder.) And now I think, How on earth can anyone take such hurried notes if you can't scribble in cursive? (And more cynically, do you now meet the person you interview, or is it done on a phone typing notes into your computer, what an editor friend of mine refers to as a "fanny piece"?)

Wartime correspondence is another example of the power of the pen. As wonderful as it is to hear anything at all, whether a text or a phone call, from a loved one, especially if they are on the field of battle, what a treasure it is to have a letter. There’s something extra comforting about holding the letter, re-reading it, poring over every word, that cannot be conveyed digitally. (Back in the Vietnam era, some soldiers and families exchanged tape recordings, and because you could hear everyone’s particular way of speaking, listening to them could be momentous. I give them a pass.)

Parents instruct their children to write thank-you’s to express gratitude for important gifts, usually the ones given for milestone events, like religious rites of passage such as bar and bat mitzvahs, or quinceras, sweet sixteens, and the like. Down the road, those adolescent notes—the forced few lines, per a parent’s ultimatum—give way to perhaps more genuine expressions of gratitude for wedding and baby gifts, and perhaps special birthday presents. It’s nice to see some glimmer of the person’s spirit in the script. And that’s what makes these notes essential.

The spirit animates the hand, and therein resides our humanity. Fellow fossils, let’s continue to put pen to paper and reveal our innermost, distinctive selves to our friends and family. It’s one of the things that can make us Positively Prehistoric.

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