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Type, tripe and hype

October 24, 2008
By Bob Seidenstein,

That most dreaded time of the semester had rolled around - starting research papers - and I was going over proposed topics with my students.

Per usual, they ran the gamut, from the hackneyed to the horrific - from the History of the Ford Galaxy (no) to French Revolution Torture Techniques (NO!), from the Kennedy Assassination (sure, why not) to Origins of Beer (absolutely not).

They marched before me in a mind-numbing parade - The White Tailed Deer, Bigfoot, Capital Punishment, Psychics and Astrology, Breast Implants, Bubonic Plague, Drugs in Sports, Drugs in Hollywood, Drugs in the Workplace, Drugs in Drugs.

Suddenly, I snapped out of my coma. There was a subject that I'd not only never seen, but was interesting to boot: "How the Typewriter Is Superior to the Computer."

"Where'd you get this idea?" I asked the gal who'd submitted it.

"Oh, I saw an article about it," she said. "It was pretty funny."

"So how would you develop it?"

"I don't know," she said. "Like how could I develop it?"

"Well, first it'd depend on what you know about typewriters," I said. "So what do you know?"

"Nothing," she said.

"Nothing?" I asked. "Nothing at all?"

"Uh-uh," she said. "I mean, I've never seen one."

"You mean you never used one, right?"

"No," she said. "I've never seen one."

I went into shock. Never seen a typewriter? Wasn't that like never having seen a clock or a television or a car?

And, of course, it wasn't. Once the shock wore off, reality hit me: The typewriter is as dead and long-gone as Hupmobiles and Hudson Hornets. And why wouldn't it be? It's a simple fact of life that once a superior technology replaces its predecessor, that's all she wrote. And so it was with the typewriter, having been banished to the hinterlands of history by the computer.

Still, it rankled. I thought young people should have at least seen a typewriter. But then I realized it would've been like saying when I was her age I should've seen ear trumpets, ice boxes and whalebone corsets - technologies long defunct before I opened my eyes (though I'm not so sure about the corset: Given the generally cinched-up and frugal state of the old babes of my youth, probably a bunch of them were wearing whalebone corsets).

Of course, my reactions were due only to my prejudices, having had a five-decade love affair with the typewriter.

Love at first sight

It started with my earliest memories, watching my mother type. She was a teacher, first of hearing-impaired people and later of Head Start, so she was always typing lesson after lesson. And while I didn't care at all about the lessons, I was fascinated by her typewriter. It was a real beaut - a Smith Corona portable with a pebbled gray body and dark green keys that made a musical zing whenever the type hit the platen.

My mother took scrupulous care of her typewriter, taking it out of its case only when she used it and putting it away immediately after she was done. But one day when I was around 12, she got distracted and left it on the table while she did some chore in the next room. I immediately hopped up in the chair and started playing with it. Of course she heard me and was back in a flash.

"Hands off, shtunk," she said.

Then she put it in its case and put the case in its usual storage place - the closet. After that, she came back and spoke to me.

"If someone is using a typewriter and doesn't know how to do it right, they'll damage it," she said. "So you need to leave it alone, understand?"

I told her I did, and she went on.

"But if you really want to type, I'll tell you what. You learn how to touch type, and I'll buy you your own machine. How's that?"

To me right then, that was the Deal of the Century.

Now all I had to do was learn how to touch type, something that proved to be a lot easier said than done.

First, my mother rented a typewriter from Munn's and got me a Gregg Teach Yourself Typing book. I tried, but truth be told, only halfheartedly, and you can figure the results or lack thereof.

Skills and thrills

I gave up on my typewriter fixation till I was 14, when I decided to take a typing course at school, and I ended up in Mrs. Adelaide Coyne's class.

Mrs. Coyne was a real character. She was a rugged old gal who wore only Pendleton shirts and men's suit pants with suspenders. She had steel-grey hair so thick and slick that for all I know it was steel. When a few years later I found out she smoked cigars, I wasn't the least surprised.

But in addition to her being an authentic gender-bender, she was a magnificent teacher who'd figured out the pace and progression of the course to perfection. Each class followed the previous one clearly, logically and more difficultly. So I was always challenged and always learning.

And beyond that, I enjoyed her class: It seemed as if none of the material was repetitive and all of it was interesting. I can remember only one specific lesson, which was writing up an international telegram, using specialized format and abbreviations. With my overactive imagination, it made me feel like I was a diplomat, a spy, or some other such man of intrigue.

The course was only a half-year long - entirely too short, considering how much I liked it. But it wasn't only fun and games, because by its end I was a competent typist.

This in turn signified two great milestones in my life: One, I'd now have my own typewriter. And two, I'd begin writing my novel and other great fiction.

I did indeed get the typewriter. But as for writing the novel, I'd made a major miscalculation - I confused the ability to type with the ability to write. Not that I didn't start to write my novel and short stories and essays and plays - I sure did.

But the sad truth is that for years and years I wrote nothing but unmitigated swill.

Of course, that's still what I do but at least now I get paid for it.



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