29 January 2024

Made by hand.

            I never learned how to create on a typewriter.  I tried, but I just couldn’t do it.  Instead, I wrote in tiny cursive so I could fit as much as possible on a yellow pad, since pads were expensive when you didn’t have much money. 

            I eventually evolved a useful compromise, where I would advance the work as far as I could by hand, then type it up, double-spaced, which I would continue revising through subsequent drafts.  But I could never conjure those first words and sentences solely through mechanical means. 

             (Ironically, I’d learned touch typing in high school to such a proficiency that I could work as a Kelly Girl, leading to a nice gig at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, but that’s another story.)

            But then I was introduced to my first word processor.  It was a Wang, which no one under fifty remembers, but was the de riguer method of digital composition in its heyday.  I immediately fell in love with that sickening green screen and those pixilated, poorly kerned characters.  The real beauty was you could modify and correct on the fly, balance out the formatting and be able to read the polished result as soon as it emerged from the printer.  This was sorcery, a seamless blend of human imagination and electronic technology.  I never wrote creatively in longhand again, unless it was to sign my federal tax return.

            Another wonder was the speed you could achieve with a computer.  Even the slickest IBM Selectric felt clunky and under-powered in comparison.  That you could quickly repair all the typos and mangled constructions caused by such reckless haste, in real time, only encouraged more daredevil velocity. 

            Since the Wang was modeled on the minicomputer, you worked on a (nearly) dumb terminal hooked up to a central disc storage unit in a secret room somewhere in the office, lorded over by the emerging class of IT professionals just beginning to hone their technical and interpersonal skills.  I once lost a whole day of work because a tech wanted to scoot out early and just flicked off the machine.  In a reverse Big Bang, pages of copy, due the next day, collapsed into one tiny green dot in the middle of the screen, forever irretrievable.

             Unlike disasters faced by earlier pioneers, no one was killed in the catastrophe, though the thought crossed my mind.

            Now that we’ve reached the point where Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” is nearly realized, all you hear is people bitching about technology.  Official magicians like Gandalf and Saruman the White never had to put up with that kind of kvetching.  No matter how powerful, how convenient, how fast and furious our devices become, they’re never good enough.  You can have virtually the entirety of human knowledge at the tips of your fingers, but really, only 60 Hz -110 PPI screen refresh rate?   What is this, the Middle ages?


I’ve been known to hurl invective at any number of glowing screens, but in my heart, I’m actually grateful.  I feel the same way about air travel, even when snaking through the TSA line at JFK.  It doesn’t seem possible that all I have to do is be hungry, sleepless and crippled by leg cramps for only a little over six hours and I’m in Ireland.  Tell that to the ragged refuse making the reverse trip in steerage. 

            But my deepest gratitude is toward my laptop, which feels like an extension of my inner being.  I avail myself of only a tiny fraction of its functionality, and I’m often lost in the simplest management of files, formats, upgrades, applications and other torments that gush at me on a relentless basis, but what really matters is how fast and easy it is to convert my cacophonous jumble of thoughts and feelings into words on the page, with only the limitation of talent to stand in the way. 



  1. On the morning of 27th of March 1979, nuclear control room operator Jonathon Finkles phoned his chief at Three Mile Island.

    “Boss, I’m looking over today’s schedule…”

    “If you’re asking about the Brownie Scouts tour, it’s a cover for the joint CIA-DoD task force. Just don’t tell anyone.”

    “Uh, I didn’t know about that. Anyway, the schedule at noon says, twelve-hundred: Launch. I’m certain Chris meant ‘lunch’, but…”

    “Hey, if Chris typed launch, he meant launch.”

    “But we’re a power plant, not a weapons site.”

    “Silly boy. Remember the DoD and CIA guys? God knows what all’s hidden here. The public only thinks the AEC runs this place.”

    “But I don’t have a launch button.”

    “Did you try typing it in? You need Chris here to teach you to keyboard?”

    “Keyboard? Is that a real verb?”

    “You got anything else, son? Did you call a repair tech for the Mr. Coffee machine?”l

    “Well, another thing, Boss. At oh-four-hundred, the schedule says, ‘TM-2, pressurize coal loop. Boss, a nuclear plant ain’t got coal. I’m pretty sure he meant cool.”

    “You and your schedule. Johnny boy, I may be only a political appointee, but if Chris typed ‘coal’, he meant coal. In the meantime, don’t call me unless Mr Coffee gets fixed.”

    1. I actually do harbor a deeply hidden concern that one of my typos was the cause of the whole thing. I was fast on the keyboard, but only intermittently accurate. The engineers I worked for held me in very low esteem, though they seemed to accept my work product as flawless.

  2. Oh no, Velma’s back from sabbatical.

    >…hone their technical and interpersonal skills.

    Hey! Who’re you insulting? Actually, that’s hilarious.

    I went through much the same route as you, although I had access to lots of legal pads. I used them throughout the editing process until the final draft to that Selectric you mention. A hand-holding-pen has a more direct connection between inner thoughts and emotions, and paper. Best of all, we no longer have to chisel stone tablets.

  3. An IT friend once told me years ago that some day nerds would rule the world. Oh, wait a minute. They do.


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