Jun 292014

I have a love affair with pens. Despite the fact that I use a keyboard more than I write longhand, the look and feel of my writing implements are important to me. How smoothly the tip glides over paper, the size of the pen tip, the grip of the pen and its weight, and the appearance of the ink are important factors to the pleasure I experience when I write. And you don’t always have to spend a lot of money to find a pen that’s just right for you, that makes you want to open up your journal and scribble away.

From left to right, from most to least, are my favorite ballpoint pens: Schneider Slider Rave XB, Cross Century II Classic Black, Cotapaxi Clifton with Stylus, and an early version of a Paper Mate that uses a PhD refill.

From left to right, from most to least, are my favorite ballpoint pens: Schneider Slider Rave XB, Cross Century II Classic Black, Cotapaxi Clifton with Stylus, and an early version of a slim Paper Mate pen that uses a PhD refill.

Pens are often associated with recognition. My husband has a collection of Cross pens he received as awards for various career achievements. President Obama follows the tradition of many other U.S. presidents when he signs bills; he has used as many as 22 pens to sign a document, with each pen being gifted to someone who played a role in the legislation. National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed Jim Kratsas, Deputy Director of the Gerald R. Ford Museum, about the practice in A History of the Presidential Signing Pen. Kratsas reports that signing documents with multiple pens has been going on since President Truman.

“Well, it was my understanding,” he says, “that Harry Truman was the first one to have a box of pens, kind of like giveaways. And it was actually started by somebody who sent President Truman a box of pens that said, ‘I swiped this from Harry Truman’s desk.’ But the tradition has been, ever since then, that each president that comes into office, they get multiple boxes of these pens.”

In a world where keyboards and touch screens proliferate, you might think that pens are becoming relics of the past. Certainly there are signs everywhere that people seldom take pens to paper to jot down notes, write letters or take meeting minutes. I’m guilty myself, as I type reminders in my iPhone’s Notes and Reminders apps. The few letters I write are signed with a pen, but composed on a laptop. And during the 12 years I was a Board member of Students for a Creative Iowa, I observed that fellow Board members gradually moved away from note-taking on lined legal pads to typing on a laptop or electronic tablet. In today’s schools, Common Core Standards dominate the curriculum, emphasizing keyboard proficiency over cursive writing skills. Many school districts, according to Cory Turner of National Public Radio (NPR)’s “All Things Considered,” have already dropped cursive handwriting from the curriculum.

“The new Common Core State Standards now being implemented in most states never mention the word ‘cursive,'” writes Turner in Does The Fight For A Cursive Comeback Miss The Point?

While many people maintain the loss of handwriting really doesn’t matter, others point to the importance of handwriting for cultural and heritage reasons, citing the necessity of being able to read older relatives’ letters, notes, and journals. I do think there is some validity to this argument. When my father grew up in World War II Germany, he learned to read and write the handwriting of his parents, Sütterlinschrift, where spindly letters and sharp slashes bear little resemblance to the Palmer method I learned as a child. You can see a sample of this handwriting in my mother’s family Bible. She, too, grew up in Germany.


Another argument in favor of the importance of handwriting is one that points to how the brain develops as a result of learning how to form your letters.

“The more variety of things you do in the fine motor domain, the more variety of hand movements you make, will improve your dexterity,” says Professor Amy Bastian, a motor neuroscientist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, who was interviewed by Turner.

She points out, however, that it really doesn’t matter whether children are taught handwriting or printing.

Maria Konnikova in her New York Times post, What’s lost as handwriting fades, describes psychologists’ and neuroscientists’ belief that there is still much research that needs to be completed about how handwriting affects the brain. Among those she interviewed was Stanislas Dehaene, a psychologist at the Collège de France in Paris.

“When we write, a unique neural circuit is automatically activated,” says Dehaene. “There is a core recognition of the gesture in the written word, a sort of recognition by mental simulation in your brain.”

Two years ago in 2012, writes Konnikova, psychologist Karin James at Indiana University conducted an experiment in which children who had not yet learned how to read were given a letter or a shape and asked to reproduce it in one of three ways: by tracing it on paper with a dotted line, by drawing it on a blank sheet of paper, or typing it on a computer. Then the children were placed in a brain scanner and given the letter or shape again. Researchers discovered that when the children drew letters freehand, activity increased in three areas of the brain that are activated in adults when they read and write. The same was not true when the letter or shape was traced, or when it was typed on a computer. James says that we can prepare very young children for reading by having them freehand-draw the letters, and then these children eventually learn to read faster and better than those who trace letters, type letters or observe others drawing letters.

According to another study, Early development of language by hand: composing, reading, listening, and speaking connections; three letter-writing modes; and fast mapping in spelling, conducted by psychologist Virginia Berninger from the University of Washington and described by Konnikova, second through fifth graders demonstrated that there is distinct and different brain activity for printing, cursive writing, and typing on a keyboard, with different outcomes. When children were asked to generate ideas for a written composition, those with better handwriting showed greater brain activity in areas associated with working memory, and increased activity in the areas associated with reading and writing.

Berninger suggests that for various disabilities related to reading and writing, there are differences in the way that the brain processes cursive writing versus printing. In dysgraphia, for example, a condition where the ability to write is impaired (particularly after a brain injury), a person’s ability to write cursively is sometimes retained, and printing is not—or exactly the opposite. In alexia, or impaired reading ability, the same is true.

Konnikova spoke with psychologists Pam Mueller of Princeton University and Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California, who report that students learn better in both lab settings and in the real world when they take handwritten notes versus typewritten ones. My husband, who spends all day in front of a laptop for his job, admits that for him this is true.

“I go through a lot of memo pads,” he says. “I remember things better that way.”

If you are interested in learning more about Konnikova’s interviews with researchers and psychologists about cursive writing, you can download the podcast, Your brain on cursive, from iTunes, or you can play the podcast from the NPR page HERE.

The summer after second grade, when my brother and I learned cursive handwriting, my mother required that we copy a published poem of our choice every day after lunch before we could go outside and play. This practice certainly cemented our newly-learned skill, but I suspect it also encouraged us to appreciate the written word. Years later, when our family relocated from southern California to Wisconsin, I wrote lengthy longhand letters to a friend, and she wrote back. Who knows if the emotional bond that grew—that still exists today, more than four decades later—wasn’t reinforced by the connections between the curved letters we formed? I do know that I treasure handwritten notes over typed ones. My mother, who was not confident about her ability to write in English, seldom wrote anything down, so when I discovered a few of her recipes one day years after she had passed away, I felt as if I had hit the jackpot.


When NPR’s Cory Turner contacted Steve Graham, who studies children’s writing and teaches education at Arizona State University, Graham pointed out that he believes the argument about whether or not to teach handwriting, or whether to teach handwriting versus printing, is silly and doesn’t need to be legislated. He claims that the argument misses the real point, that not enough writing—handwritten, printed or keyboard—is taking place in the classroom.

“We don’t see much writing going on at all across the school day,” Graham says. Instead, they are “filling in blanks on worksheets. One-sentence responses to questions, maybe in a short response summarizing information.”

While I agree with Graham about the importance of truly composing anything in the classroom, I can’t help thinking that students are missing something critical if they don’t learn cursive handwriting. For me, above all, handwriting is associated with memories, not just my own, but those that came before me. Reason enough!


© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Jun 242014

I remember the year my husband’s first mouse died—his corded computer mouse, that is. John grabbed his scissors, snipped the cord, and in a flash of humor, in the spirit of creativity gone astray, or maybe just plain old relief, he hung it from the ceiling in our basement, where our home office was located.

“I’m hanging it in effigy,” he declared.

Well, I can’t say I did the same thing when my beloved Logitech mouse died recently, but I did take a memorial photo of sorts, as it has been with me through at least two desktops and three laptops. How do you know when your mouse has to be replaced? When it stops highlighting text and can’t use a scroll bar, it is time to be retired.


To be honest, my new mouse doesn’t look all that different from the old one. It’s a hair shorter, uses an advanced optical sensor versus the laser sensor on the old mouse, but basically, it’s new, shiny and it WORKS. And they both have one failing, too. Neither mouse works on a glass surface. There is a Logitech model that is designed to work on glass, but wouldn’t you know it, I don’t like its size or shape. A mouse, after all, either fits your hand like a shoe does a foot, or it doesn’t.


Both of my mice have a scrolling wheel on top that is multi-directional: up, down, left, right. That’s tremendously useful in a spreadsheet, but I discovered today that the side-to-side motion takes me in a flash from the top of my Etsy screen to the bottom. On my laptop, using that little wheel, I can flick back and forth between the home page of my Web site (as you see it) to the composing screen in front of me right now. Nifty! And it gets better. On Facebook the side-to-side motion of the scrolling wheel takes me from my news timeline to my business page, and back. As Hannibal in the old The A-Team television series used to say, “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Some of my younger readers might be wondering why I bother using a mouse if I have a laptop with a touch pad. Or a laptop with a touch screen. I have both. “A mouse is old technology,” I hear you muttering under your breath. The answer is that I like all of my keyboard devices—not only a mouse, touch pad and touch screen—but also keyboard shortcuts. I grew up on WordPerfect, where keyboard shortcuts were your first, middle and last name. In fact, I have customized my WordPerfect keyboard so that with certain combinations of keys, I get such German characters as Ä, ä, Ö, ö, Ü, ü, and ß. It’s a lot faster, for example, to perform Ctrl + s for the ß character, than it is to scroll through a visual representation of a modified keyboard to locate that character, and then click on it. And yes, I use Microsoft Word, too, in case you think I am so old-fashioned that I don’t use standard office productivity software.


When you’re in your 50s, it’s fun to think back to Pre-Mouse Era, when offices were just being automated. My first job out of college was as the administrative assistant to the president of Kalmbach Publishing Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Those were the days of the IBM Selectric typewriter, when Wang computers were used mainly in bookkeeping departments, and when photocopiers were just beginning to replace mimeograph machines. My boss insisted that I type everything in triplicate using carbon paper because he wanted to cut down on the cost of photocopier toner. He also didn’t believe the head of the billing department when she said that one day computers would be used to write letters. Those same letters were dictated for me to transcribe from a belt, probably magnetic tape, about six inches in width that I slipped onto a Dictaphone drum, and marked with a wax pencil to indicate start and stop dictation times.

We’ve come a long way since then, and though computer mice are part of computing history, they are not yet dead. Rest in peace, Little Mouse.

© 2014 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.

Sep 132013

The past couple of weeks have been extraordinarily busy as the 2013-14 season of Destination Imagination begins, the organization for which I volunteer as a member of Iowa’s state Board. In concrete terms, that means I’ve been updating our Web site, writing blog posts, updating documents such as Frequently Asked Questions and Official Participation Costs, planning a conference presentation with another Board member, and the list goes on. At the same time, I’ve been continuing to work on a thick stack of handmade books, a process that crawls along at a snail’s pace but is thoroughly enjoyable.

Making books by hand is a laborious, time-intensive process, in general, but it is certainly faster today than it was during the Middle Ages. At that time, pages were made from animal skins that were soaked in a lime solution to remove the fur, and then scraped and stretched to form parchment. While most people don’t have to go to this extent to create books, some of the steps in book assembly today are not too different from the steps followed centuries ago. Yesterday’s “gatherings” are similar to today’s signatures, for example.

For me the pleasure of bookmaking lies in the details, and I appreciate what others accomplish just as much as I do my own results. The books below have covers that are made out of wood, or a combination of wood and leather. Some are engraved using a laser engraver, others are carved, some are painted, but all of them are interesting and unique—and probably took more than a few days to complete. Feel free to click on each photo to zoom in on the details.

[sh-etsy-treasury treasury=”NjIyMjQyNHwyNzIyNDE4NTcz” size=”large” columns=”4″ display=”complete”]

If you’re interested, you can read further about the process of bookmaking during the Middle Ages by clicking on the links below:

© 2013 Judy Nolan. All rights reserved.