I was having lunch with some friends the other day. One of these friends brought a bag of books with him which he was passing along to another member of our happy little group. The recipient of the books (a retired judge - a very fine one too - and a huge fan of Flannery O'Connor) announced that he had read 74 books this year (I thought I detected a certain melancholy in his voice at having so much time on his hands after leaving the bench) and he was quite pleased to have some new ones in his reading queue. The conversation began with books - what each of us was reading, what we had just finished - but wandered inevitably to politics - a subject which usually gives me indigestion and not, to my mind, a fit topic over lunch - which eventually settled into a discussion about the present state of our educational system - a topic which gives me heartburn - and then gradually, but inevitably, meandered into what schools used to teach but no longer do.
And so the litany began: "Music," decried one. "Civics," another. "Spelling," said a third. "Penmanship," I offered. Three sets of steely, wise old eyes turned toward me, and a quiet descended as my lunch companions pondered penmanship. "I haven't even heard the word, penmanship, in decades," one murmured. "We used to call it cursive writing," mused another. I had recently downloaded "Not That It Matters," by A.A. Milne, a collection of essays; and, as luck would have it, had just finished reading, "The Pleasure of Writing." This lovely serendipity filled me with a certain smug self-assurance that I could contribute something semi-intelligent to the conversation (for I was in the company of some very heavy-duty thinkers.)
"Milne," said I, "wrote about his joy in going straight from breakfast to his blotting-paper and a fresh piece of foolscap and brand new pen nib." They listened, perhaps only politely, but perhaps interested in what A.A. Milne had to say about the act of putting pen to paper. "He said, 'When poets and idiots talk of the pleasure of writing, they mean the pleasure of giving a piece of their minds to the public; with an old nib a tedious business'." The attention of my luncheon companions seemingly secured, I continued. "He wrote that they do not mean, as he did, the pleasure of the artist in seeing beautifully shaped "k's" and sinuous "s's" grow beneath his pen nib...or how a new sheet of paper filled itself magically with a stream of blue-black words." Silence for a few moments. I was depressing everyone, I feared. "Cursive writing is lost, I'm afraid," said the judge, sadly shaking his head and raising his martini glass. I think I saw a glint of a tear.
We sat quietly contemplating how wrong things had gone and how fast they had gotten there. I wished I had never mentioned penmanship, never started the conversation going in the direction of the lost art of letter writing, of the laziness of saying OMG, or IMHO, or LOL instead of using a correct sentence. The gist of the conversation rocked along those lines, and I began to feel like an old stick in the mud. Someone who doesn't know who - well, here I was going to insert the name of some rock group, proving I was totally "cool." But I can't think of one, so I guess I prove my own point. Trying to turn the mood around, I pulled out my Kindle and pointed out how incredible it was to be able to download an entire library into one slim device. How lovely is technology! We didn't have technology back in the penmanship days. "Why can't we have both?" someone replied. We sat in silence for a little while longer. Another round of drinks came, and then lunch.
We were eating at an inn that is centuries old, in the part of the building that used to be the vast wine cellar, with its walls and arched doorways of red brick. The tables are set with heavy silver and linen table cloths and napkins. There was a time when, to get a table for lunch, one had to arrive well before noon. But on this day, my three companions and I dined alone. We worried that perhaps this lovely old inn might one day simply fade away. Perhaps, like penmanship, it must make way for something else.