22 March 2007
The pen is flightier than the sword

By the time I'd gotten to third grade, my penmanship had improved from Utterly Godawful to Below Average, and it continued to get better for the next few years; by the time I was given a Social Security number — yes, children, there was a time when they didn't make you get one the day you were born — I was able to sign the little card in clear, flowing, legible strokes.

Then I got one of these:

Royal Safari

Actually, the machine I had bore the Singer (as in "sewing machine") name, but it was obviously a rebadged Royal Safari; just the same, my penmanship has pretty much stunk ever since.

And apparently I'm not alone:

In high school, everything was typed. Homework, reports, college applications, essays for scholarships, you name it and it was typed. The influx of easily typed documents have caused the entire population's handwriting skills to diminish so thoroughly that many canít even remember how to form some of the cursive letters. Personally, if I write a cursive G, it looks like a kindergartener trying to scribble.

Merchants have looked askance at my signature before; I assure them, "If you can actually read it, it's a forgery." The numbers were the last to go: until a couple of years ago, I could still do reasonably-readable digits, but even those are getting a bit difficult.

(My second typewriter was one of these; my third is one of those soulless electronic models. Still, it gets used on a regular basis, for things that are just too short to justify firing up the word processor.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:47 AM)
2 April 2007
Of Brownies and Breck girls

Present-day revisionists have managed to inculcate the notion that the post-JFK 1960s and the Nixon 1970s were all revolution, all the time, and the fact that I don't remember it that way at all doesn't count, because after all I've sold out to The Man. (Actually, I just live down the street from him.)

One thing I did remember learning during that period is that I didn't understand the female half of the species at all, a situation which has changed hardly at all in the intervening decades.

With the dubious and possibly unattainable goal of addressing both of these issues at once, I have made a small investment in research material: I bought about a hundred back issues, roughly 1964 to 1975, of American Girl, a monthly magazine published (until 1979) by the Girl Scouts of America, and I will be going through them over the next few months looking for stuff that might possibly be relevant in some small way to my 21st-century existence. And, of course, whatever I find, I will duly wedge into this little text box.

In the meantime, here's a pertinent observation by David Warren, dated yesterday:

I tell younger people sometimes that "I was there at the fall" — that I can remember a time before the Western world finished going crazy. They don't believe me. They think everyone remembers the end of his childhood that way. But no: they are wrong and I am right. The nadir was achieved around 1969, when all the gulls of the 'sixties came home to roost. On the exposed hull of the ship, as it were.

He finds evidence in his old high-school yearbooks:

[T]wo years later, and the teachers are a mess. The ties are disappearing, and some of the men are growing beards. One is actually wearing sunglasses. The younger female teachers are dressing to kill. Longhairs have started to roam the corridors; several of the kids look drugged. Group photos are chaotic, and the photographers should have been sued for half the mug shots. Hippie-dippie graphics have invaded the yearbook itself. The comments with the graduates' pictures have become dangerously risqué and smartass.

This corresponds precisely to what I remember. At the end of the earlier school year, the old principal had been fired: he was a drill sergeant (literally, ex-military). The new principal was a "reformer": a nice guy, a sensitive guy. Overnight, Ontario's Hall-Dennis Report had also swept through, with its smug title, "Living and Learning." Half the subjects had become "electives": 300 pupils in Grade IX Latin became four pupils in Grade X. The bottom had fallen out of educational standards that had already been slung very low.

All these changes happened (not quite literally) overnight. Yet within a year or two, nobody could remember that anything had ever been any different. Or rather, nobody would dare remember. For suddenly we were living in that brave new world, and anyone who doubted it was marked as irredeemably "square."

As the Beach Boys never sang, "Help me, rhombus."

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:34 AM)
3 April 2007
The proper passenger

By now, everyone knows how to get out of a car gracefully without showing your underwear. Maybe. Used to be, the tricky part was getting into the car:

Make your entrance gracefully. The best way to make a transition from pedestrian to passenger is by putting your left foot on the floor of the car and then easing into the car in a sitting position. If it's one of the low-slung models, though, you'll need to change your approach completely. First, sit sideways on the seat with your feet outside the car and swivel forward. Let your body form a gentle "S" curve, with your legs crossed at the ankles.

At the time, there presumably weren't any high-slung models, so don't try this with a Ford F-150.

And yes, there are instructions on debarking:

When you're ready for your exit, take the most attractive way out by sliding along the seat until you can put a foot on the ground. Lower your head and slip out smoothly.

This would seem to imply a bench seat. Interestingly, the illustration accompanying this wisdom seems to be a drawing of a Jaguar E-type, in which case, um, well, you're on your own, sweetheart.

[From "Key to Car Dates" by Kitt Gerard, American Girl, August 1968.]

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:33 AM)
6 April 2007
Ruffley handled

The last few lines of Bus:

see the happy moron he doesn't give a damn I wish I was a moron my God maybe I am
you can search around the world and when you return you'll find that what you were looking for was right where you started
as soon as I get to Boston I'm taking the bus back to New York.

By Alison E. Ruffley, then thirteen, of Tenafly, New Jersey, in American Girl, May 1971. I have no idea if it was this Alison E. Ruffley, or even this one, but it's the thought that counts, right?

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:48 AM)
12 April 2007
Cut and paste and paste again

Just in case you thought Ben Domenech or Kaavya Viswanathan or the CBS Evening News staff invented the concept:

Readers let us know that [a story in the March 1973 issue] was taken almost word for word from a feature that appeared in a Harvey comic book. Unfortunately, [it] isn't an isolated incident. We have an entire file of letters from girls who noticed that a contributor's "original" story was stolen from another source.

As you can tell, plagiarism is a major problem here. We're trying to stop it, but with little luck. For example, we ran an article in the August '72 issue of AG asking you to stop taking other people's works and submitting them as your own. The result: two girls got plagiarized stories printed in the January '73 and March '73 issues. We've done all that we can ... the rest is up to you!

Toni Lorenz, then a fifteen-year-old intern, wrote that for the May 1973 issue of American Girl.

Permalink to this item (posted at 6:30 AM)
19 April 2007
That do-your-own-thing thing

"What they do with songs, you can do with clothes," said the ad:

The Cream, The Stones, The Beatles, The Others, they're all saying something. About Love. And Peace. And Happiness.

But just because you haven't got the talent to play the guitar, and sing your brains out, doesn't mean you can't say something about yourself.

Because with a Simplicity pattern you can express yourself in the way you look, either way out, or way in, or whatever.

Love, peace and happiness may be ephemeral, but "whatever" is apparently eternal.

(Found in American Girl, April 1970.)

Permalink to this item (posted at 11:56 AM)
26 April 2007
Help me — rhombus

There's an unwritten law somewhere which says that at least twice a year every magazine aimed at adolescent girls must print a variation of this:

I am a square. I get good grades, know how to cook and sew, wear long skirts, and do as the teachers tell me. I have only one real friend. The others won't associate with a square because they would be teased. What should I do?

The answer is usually something like this:

Try to develop a new image without sacrificing your assets. There's nothing square about getting good grades or cooking and sewing. Actually, it's quite cool. Having one good friend is a very good beginning. You may add one or two more as soon as you begin to dress in a more youthful way. It wouldn't be a good idea to defy your teachers — but be on your guard against being too much of a goody-goody.

(From "What's On Your Mind," American Girl, March 1972. The young polygon is now forty-eight years old. Is she still a square?)

Permalink to this item (posted at 8:16 AM)
29 May 2007
This side of the Sound

A girl is moved to write about her hometown:

Seattle is a trail of small footprints on a grey, deserted beach ... fallen, rotted logs on wet sand ... the harsh cries of sea birds gliding on currents of sea air. Ice water flowing over skin, gritty and oozing between toes, and wind slapping you is Seattle.

Seattle is a grey, tangled tree covered with fresh green leaves, the sweet smell of newly cut grass, rich, soft dirt that crumbles in your hand and spills through tightly-clenched fingers, a drop of water trembling on a flower petal.

Seattle has the scent of burning wood, the mingled sound of cars and voices, the taste of raindrops on your tongue, the sight of battered houses with staring, broken windows.

Seattle is rain running over faces and soaking through shoes as you run down a deserted road, walking through an overgrown field singing elf songs, sitting under a tree eating green apples, or rolling down a steep, grassy hill.

It goes on for a couple more paragraphs: just from the sound of it I am persuaded that Shelley Brittingham, who wrote this when she was 16, did all t