Signing Autographs, and Other Things

Commentator Andrei Codrescu weighs the issue, pro and con, of signing lots of autographs. He recalls — or, imagines — that Josef Stalin had to sign so many, that he needed to soak his hand in cold vodka. The cramping probably saved some people from labor camps, because they remained on the bottom of the pile.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's the end of the school year and commentator Andrei Codrescu was thinking back to his school days and a punishment he once endured.

ANDREI CODRESCU reporting:

I had to sign my name 400 times. It's great mediation practice. The last time I had to do it was in elementary school as punishment for pulling Rodrica's pigtails. I had to write, “I'm sorry, Rodrica,” and sign my name on the blackboard 100 times. The blackboard could only take it about 10 times before I had to erase it and start all over. It took the whole hour and my writing got bigger and bigger until I used the whole board just three times.

When the bell rang I still owed the teacher 55 I'm sorrys with signatures. She never pressed the issue, so I still owe her. I learned two things from that experience. If you pull Rodrica's pigtails, you get to tell her I'm sorry many times and sign your name to it. I really liked her, which is why I pulled her pigtails.

And secondly, that you can entertain people by just writing your name on the blackboard, making the letters bigger or smaller depending on how entertaining you want to be.

Signing my name this many times made me also think of people who do this compulsively. Like girls in love who practice putting their first names together with their beloved's last name over and over through several grades of school until it's time to graduate.

Another example of someone who signed his name over and over is Stalin. He signed death warrants, so many of them at times that his hand went numb and he had to soak it in iced vodka. A number of people got to live simply because Stalin's hand was too numb to sign any death warrants on a particular day and they ended up at the bottom of the pile under the fresh warrants that came in next day.

The first man to deal sensibly with the problem of signature exhaustion was Andy Warhol. Warhol made a stamp of his signature and then got one of his henchmen to stamp his works. After the signature stamp, Andy figured out other ways to reproduce his work and his image, thus making the signature stamp a productive idea as well as a means of reducing fatigue.

During the process of signing my name 400 times, I also noticed that my signature changed after awhile so I wasn't sure whose signature it was anymore. Then, I started to wonder about my name and what it meant, if anything.

About 150 signatures later, my name started to lose all meaning and turn into a purely mechanical squiggle. The reasons for having this name vanished. I could not remember why I carried this name and why it had so many funny letters in it.

A few signatures later, I considered every letter separately and I became interested in why it slanted this or that way. I was also quite baffled by the connection between these ink traces and the person they were supposedly referencing, i.e. me.

About 400 signatures in, I was fully invested in self-analysis and psychoanalyzed myself until I severed all connection to my name and decided that the hand doing the signing was operating all on its own, like a rogue KGB agent.

I knew what it felt like to have a transplanted hand, like Orlock, the piano player with the hand of a murderer. Signing your name repeatedly for a whole day at least is good therapy and excellent training for eventual bestseller-dom. I was just doing the therapy.

BLOCK: Andrei Codrescu lives in New Orleans.

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