04 February 2012

Computers? They're Not My "Type"

NOTE: This week I've invited my friend Herschel Cozine to do a guest column. Some of you are already familiar with his work; Herschel's short stories and poems have appeared in AHMM, EQMM, Woman's World, Wolfmont Press's Toys for Tots anthologies, and many national children's magazines. He's also published a number of stories in Orchard Press Mysteries, Mouth Full of Bullets, Untreed Reads, Great Mystery and Suspense, Mysterical-E, and others. His story "A Private Hanging" was a finalist for the Derringer Award. Herschel lives with his wife in Santa Rosa, California, and often serves as my wise but unpaid advisor on literary matters. (Herschel, many thanks! Readers, I'll be back in two weeks.) -- John Floyd

I lived many years BC (Before Computers), and have issues that have yet to be resolved. And I am sure I am not alone; certainly my problem resonates with those in my age group.

Allow me to preface my remarks with an anecdote. I was born in an old Victorian house on Long Island, situated on 180 acres of mostly unimproved land. The house and grounds were owned by J. P. Grace, the multi-millionaire banker and businessman. Mr. Grace stipulated in his will that his estate could neither be sold nor subdivided, so it is still intact today. However, since his death many years ago, the grounds have been neglected by his heirs and have fallen into disrepair. The house and most of the buildings burned to the ground at various times over the years.

Recently I discovered that the local historical society had dispatched a team to map and explore the estate. They dug in the places where the structures had once stood, collecting and cataloguing the relics that they unearthed.

I wasn't prepared for this. How would you feel to discover that the house in which you were born was now an archeological dig site? Old. Very old.

With that in mind, it should come as no surprise that I started writing before the age of computers (or digital clocks for that matter). The writers of the day used typewriters, carbon paper and onionskin paper for their file copies. For those of you too young to remember, carbon paper was not made from carbon, nor was the onionskin made from onions. And the typewriter was a clever device that one learned how to operate in high school. Basic. Easy to master. Uncomplicated. Like many inventions of that era (rumble seats, slide rules), it was too good to last.

The writers started by jotting their musings on foolscap, a legal pad, or whatever suited their needs. Then would come the simple, albeit arduous, task of typing it (using the aforementioned typewriter), onto a clean white sheet of stationery, together with a sheet of carbon paper and a sheet of onionskin. Naturally, mistakes were made. Thus the ever-present bottle of whiteout came to the rescue. A blob of that over the typo and the manuscript was good as new. Of course, the typo was forever preserved on the onionskin copy. But that was for one's file and not a big problem. Eventually the imaginative typewriter folks devised a ribbon that had a strip of whiteout incorporated in the ribbon. One simply positioned the platen so the offending typo was under the striker, typed the letter through the whiteout, and then replaced it with the proper letter. Life was beautiful!

Then the electric typewriter made its appearance. Prior to that the darkness of the letters varied with their position on the keyboard. For example, the letter "a" was usually fainter than a "g" or one of the inner letters because one struck the "a" key with his weaker finger. The electric typewriter took care of that problem as well as the one of capital letters that stood half a line above the rest of the word. Life was now even more beautiful.

Then came the typewriter with a memory. Up to ten lines of typing could be stored on the device so one could edit and correct before committing it to paper. Another ingenious work-saving innovation. It couldn't get any better than this.

Then--the computer! Life will never be the same.

My son had to convince me of the advantages of the computer over my clunky, outdated typewriter. Thus I was pulled into the twentieth century just before it in turn was pulled into the twenty-first. I still have the scars.

To begin with, my first computer informed me that I had performed an "illegal operation." I was appalled. I had never received so much as a parking ticket before. I pleaded with it to tell me what it was that I had done, promising never to do it again. But it just sat there, its cursor blinking at me accusingly.

I swore at it, threatened it. "I'm the intelligent one in this room. You are simply a collection of circuit boards and wires. If it weren't for me you would be languishing in some warehouse in Peking. Show some gratitude!"

No response except for the blinking cursor. To this day I don't know what I did wrong.

Thankfully, my present computer is not that judgmental. I no longer get that message.

But I digress. Since my main reason for getting a computer was to simplify and modernize my writing efforts, I removed my typewriter from the den and turned to the word program. Awesome!

I looked at the screen in bewilderment. The options, features, icons, and symbols boggled my mind. Before I could start writing I had choices to make. What font style: Courier, Gothic, Times New Roman, even fonts that printed in symbols resembling hieroglyphics. I settled on Times New Roman and moved on. Font size--from microscopic to billboard. Did I want bold, italics, underline? What color? Did I want headers or footers, indented paragraphs, right justified margins, single or double spacing? What size paper? How about columns? Graphs? Double spacing before or after paragraphs?

I was overwhelmed. I have a hard time deciding between "over easy" or "scrambled" when I eat out. "Panic" is a little too strong a word to define my mental state. But it will suffice for the purpose of this discussion.

By the time I had set up all the parameters I had forgotten what it was I had started out to write. I have reverted to jotting down the story on foolscap ahead of time. This is progress?

With some trepidation I began to write. Suddenly the font changed from Times New Roman to Lucida. What had I done? I later learned from my son that I had not set my defaults. (I thought that only happened to loans.)

I labored on, enduring the whims and peculiarities of the computer, finally reaching the end.

Having finished for the day, I was ready to save my work. This scenario followed:

Computer: Do you want to save this?

Me: I just went through three cups of coffee, two bathroom breaks, four and a half hours of typing, not to mention the ordeal you put me through. Of course I want to save it, you moron!

Computer: Where?

Me: Someplace where I can find it again. I am still looking for the last one which disappeared without a warning. I even called my computer-savvy son, who told me, "You must have hit the delete button," and then hung up. I suppose I would have done the same if I had been called out of an important meeting. But it seemed a bit rude. After all, I am his father.

Computer: What format? HTML, Doc, PDF, RTF, etc.

Me: UCLA, NASA, FBI, GOP. How the hell should I know? You're the expert. You decide.

I have no idea what format my document is in, nor do I care. All I ask is that it is where I stored it and that it is readable. (I recently opened a file to find nothing but rows and rows of symbols and punctuation marks that ran on for three pages.)

Needless to say, I am not a big fan of Bill Gates.

Of course, I understand that a computer is more than a glorified typewriter, and I should be taking advantage of its versatility. I try. I have 378 friends on Facebook, six of whom I have actually met. I am bombarded with crude jokes, tasteless photos, and messages concerning their bodily functions and sexual prowess. I don't spend a lot of time there.

Then, of course, there is e-mail. There was a time when I had to trudge out to the mailbox to get my junk mail. Now I have it delivered directly to my den. (I wonder if that poor man ever managed to get his money out of Nicaragua.)

Ah, but I am beginning to sound like my father. He was convinced that civilization as we know it would not survive the invention of television. Fate was kind to delay the invention of the computer until after he had passed away.

There is a group of men on Long Island who will unearth a rusted, scorched Underwood typewriter in the rubble of my old house. I wish I could be there when that happens. God, how I miss it!


  1. Herschel, one of these days I'll talk you into switching from Windows to Apple, after which you'll be so pleased you'll forget you ever knew how to spell "typewriter." Or maybe not . . .

  2. D'accord, John. The Mac makes a huge difference except that… MS Word for the Mac still comes from Bill Gates. (sigh) I use the 2004 version because I can never find any damn menu I need in the newer Microsoft Words. Of course you can download the free versions of NeoOffice, LibreOffice, OpenOffice, or even IBM's Symphony. I miss the simple original MacWrite.

    Good article Herschel!

  3. Love the picture which reminds me of my old Underwood - made right down the road from where we lived in Hartford.
    But, I must say unlamented- I was a lousy typist and at least with the computer, one is spared the old white out liquid for corrections.

  4. Herschel and Janice, I too used an Underwood--I wrote dozens and dozens of stories on that thing, and used gallons of Whiteout. I have no idea where it is now--probably in one of our back closets. Good riddance.

    Great column, Herschel!

  5. John,

    Thanks for all your work in putting this together. I couldn't have done it without you. Where did you find that typewriter? It looks just like the one I had, escept yours is in better condition.

  6. My post is a typical example of my problem with computers. Believe me, I did give myself a name, but this infernal gadget refused to acknowledge it!

  7. That IS your old typewriter--I drove out to Long Island and took a picture of the one they dug up. (Just kiddin'.)

    My wife used to have a Royal, which worked better than my Underwood did but it only weighed about half as much. By the way, she just walked in and told me she'd heard on NPR this morning that the first electric typewriter (Smith Corona?) came out on this day in 1957.

    As much editing and rewriting as I do now, I can't imagine not being able to cut, paste, copy, etc. Better that those days are long gone.

  8. Herschel, I enjoyed this. We still have a couple of typewriters somewhere in the house. Yes, dealing with typos was a pain, but I'm convinced we made fewer of them because the speed of typing matched the speed of our thought processes.
    Not true of computers. One woman's opinion, anyway.

  9. Despite my ongoing fight with this thing, John, I'm with you. I really don't miss my typewriter, (which was a Remington actually).

  10. As a guy who revises and revicses and revises, I can tell you that one thing I do not miss at all is having to retype half a dozen pages because i changed one line on the first page.

    Good piece.

  11. Ah, some of us long for the good old days in lots of ways, but I don't really miss having to edit to the exact length on the typed copy, then glue it in place and head out to the copy shop to get a decent print to submit. This was also before the glue stick, so the glue was either Elmer's dripping all over or that nasty old school paste. Thanks for a great article of memories though you left out one of the advantages of computers--they keep my cussing current.

  12. I can relate, I fought giving up the freedom of my portable "Brother" for a stationary desktop. I agree there are way too many choices of styles,fonts and so on and every new version of Windows is like Groundhog Day. Now I only own a laptop. It isn't less confusing, but now if I frustrated with it I can just stick it in a drawer where I don't have to look at it. Sort of a "computer time out".Cindy

  13. Herschel,
    Enjoyed your post. It reminded me of my problem going from a manual to an electric typewriter. I had to get used to touching the keys lightly, and it took me a month to get used to not having to push the carriage back.

    Didn’t have much problem going from typewriter to computer. I think it was because I like tinkering with electronic gadgets. I welcomed the computer, though, like you, I first had to go through all that newfangled stuff. No more whiteout, ribbon changing, and broken keys.

    My Mac made it easer for me to after years of using a PC. I have some complaints about the 2011 Word for Mac and regret giving up the 2004 version. Maybe Leigh, John, and I can persuade you one day to switch to the Mac.

  14. Louis and all,

    The more you guys extol the virtues of Mac, the more interested I become. I bought my current HP just a few months ago and went through hell transferring all the data, etc. from my old one. I'm not ready to go through that again for awhile.

  15. I had an old Royal, kept it for years, also a Smith Corona electric and the little portable Olivetti Lettera 22, which I took to Africa when I joined the Peace Corps in the Sixties--6 pounds was considered light in those days. And guys, I hate to say it, but I remember BEFORE whiteout. You had to discard the page and all the carbon copies (I remember doing as many as nine) every time you made a typo.

  16. I started on a Smith Corona portable typewriter, what I used for a great many years. Wasn't until my kids got their Apple and taught me Appleworks that I switched.

    Jacqueline Seewald

  17. John,

    What you need, sir, is a young relative such as a grandchild, niece or nephew to take pity on you and teach you the ways of the electronic age.

  18. Herschel, you brought back a lot of memories. While in high school, I bought my first typewriter - an Underwood portable in a metal case, about the size of a small laptop today, but thicker. The price was $29. I paid $5 down and $2 a week. After high school, I worked as a stenographer for the B&O RR where I pounded away 8 hours a day on Royals and Underwoods with as many as 12 carbon copies. I gasped in amazement when my wife brought home an IBM Selectric. Remember "golf ball" type gizmos? Ah, the good old days. Warm memories, but thank DOS they're gone.

  19. Earl,

    Ah yes, the IBM selectric. One could even change the font by replacing one golf ball with another. I never used one, but they were the latest technology where I worked. If I recall they were relatively quiet.

  20. I learned to type on a manual my uncle had owned. It was light blue and very compact. My uncle said I had to share it with my sister. I think I let her type a couple of times, but it stayed in my bedroom and she had to get my permission before she used it. I remember pounding on those keys until my fingers were sore. I don't miss that feeling, but I covet the time I spent one-on-one with the machine who recorded my thoughts. Great article! Thanks for the memories you brought back to me.


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