Sunday, March 2, 2014

Tickling the Keys (In the Category of Want What You Have.)

A writer's toolbox contains many tools, but we each have our favorite. Mine is the keyboard. I tell people that I have been writing ever since I learned to hold a pencil, and that is true. It is also true that soon after I learned to hold a pencil, my sister got a fully functional  "toy" typewriter for Christmas, and I was immediately obsessed. I only got to play with it when Sis wasn't around. She didn't like me to play with her toys even if she wasn't playing with them; we were both too young to be any good at sharing yet.

The body of the typewriter was white, but the keys and the carriage return lever were pink. The whole thing was plastic except for the type levers. It was manual, of course, and the more I wanted to play with it, the better she hid it from me. That may sound mean, but in hindsight, she was correct to do so. A few months after she got it, while I was home from school with a sore throat, I got curious about the typewriter's inner workings and disassembled it. Needless to say, there was no getting the genie back in that bottle.

My second experience with a typewriter was a longer, happier relationship, although it began with pain, dug out from the back of a closet during my dad's clearing of his belongings from our house. The electric Smith Corona resided within a metal case that had a hinged lid. It looked like a mini suitcase, but I couldn't lift it as a scrawny nine year old. Clueless as to exactly what was actually happening, I instead carried Dad's lighter worldly goods to the borrowed van that would take him to his new "bachelor pad."

Dad had no objections to letting me use his typewriter whenever I wanted. Eventually, the typewriter became a fixture in my bedroom at Dad's house. (He was remarried by then, and the bachelor pad had given way to a more domestic scene.) Sis and I spent the month of July with Dad (as well as every weekend), but the three weeks not spent camping could be dull. Daddy's house was in the next city over, but it might as well have been the next state for all the access we had to our friends from school. I spent most of one July writing a short story about a little girl named Sara whose mother died. The father hired a nanny to take care of her, but Sara hated the nanny (mainly because she missed her mother and wanted to accept no substitute). At the climax of the story the house caught fire and the nanny rescued Sara and Sara's father. Tragically, the nanny died of a broken neck, falling from an escape ladder coming from Sara's bedroom on the second story. Sara was filled with remorse and vowed to be a better person.

Pretty heavy stuff for an eleven year old. I swear I still have those typed pages somewhere in my study. (Heck I still have the poems I wrote as a five year old learning to hold a pencil.) I became very proficient at hunt and peck typing, but I wasn't satisfied with using only two fingers. I wanted to tickle the keys with all ten fingers, move swiftly and gracefully across the keyboard like a piano composer, creating sentences rather than sonatas. Eighth grade presented my first opportunity to take a class in touch typing, and I jumped at it. (It is the single most valuable skill I learned in school, and it feeds me to this very day.)
Early Poetry From My Yellow Period
The evolving technology of typewriters never failed to amaze me. I remember going to the office supply store to buy a box of new ribbons and discovering they made typewriter ribbons with correction tape built in. Eureka! Already a fan of erasable bond, correction ribbon changed everything, and saved me big bucks on typing paper. By this time, Dad had acquired a mini word processor made by Texas Instruments, which he proclaimed to be the future of keyboards. It was actually an overlarge scientific calculator with a 10-character LCD display and the tiniest QWERTY keyboard any of us had ever seen. The device could be fitted with a standard 2" roll of paper, allowing one to print out their typed masterpiece ten characters at a time. (It makes Twitter seem positively verbose by comparison.) I adored the tiny keyboard, but the tiny paper wouldn't do. I stuck with the Smith Corona.

When Virginia Tech invited me to become a freshman in 1984, Dad offered to give me the Smith Corona, and I happily accepted. As we dropped it off at the typewriter shop for a good cleaning, lubrication, and a fresh power cord, Dad remarked that its manufacturers would probably be tickled to know that their product had survived two generations of college education. I looked up at him, confused, and he explained that he had taken the Smith Corona to the Naval Academy in 1959 (it was new then). Twenty-five years later, the typewriter worked as well as ever.

Sadly, the old Smith Corona met an even more violent demise than did my sister's toy typewriter. It happened on a Monday morning, final exam week, 1986. I was up early to type the last draft of a paper that was due by 3:30 p.m. that afternoon. It was my third draft of the 15-page paper, and I felt good about it. I was ready to turn it in and start studying for a final in another class. I didn't make it past the opening word, "After," before I noticed that the letter "t" didn't print at all while the letter "e" printed a full half letter-height below the bottoms of all the other letters. I deluded myself briefly by thinking that the professor might not notice, but three lines into the paper, the blank spots and e's that overlapped the letters below them became a mess I could not ignore.

I tinkered, swore, and cried for about thirty minutes until angry acceptance overwhelmed me, and I grabbed the disloyal Smith Corona and dashed it to the floor. Keys flew across the room. This awoke my roommates, one of whom was my sister, both of whom had been using the college's computer labs all along and never understood why I held onto the Smith Corona in the first place. One of them lent me a 5-1/4 inch floppy disk and told me which bus stop I needed to find the computer lab in the basement of Hillcrest. The grudging workstudy student behind the software checkout window acted really annoyed when I came back to ask him if he could just show me how to start a new file. I was lost, sad, confused, and under a deadline. Maybe he felt embarrassed that he had driven me to tears, but he finally showed me enough about Volkswriter (a word processor for the people!)  to get the paper typed, printed, and turned in with literally no minute to spare.

My roommates and I left the carcass of the Smith Corona on the floor for the duration of exam week. We each took turns further smashing it as the stresses of finals week mounted. It proved to be very cathartic.

Like typewriter ribbon with built-in correction tape, the computer keyboard Backspace key changed my life forever. Cut and paste, terms I knew well from my time running my high school newspaper, took on new meanings and quickly became my new best friends. The workstudy guy behind  the software checkout window and I never became first-name friends, but as I bugged him less, he glowered less. We even exchanged nods of recognition when our paths crossed on other parts of campus.

Today, I tickle a variety of keyboards. My work keyboard reminds me of the letter-less model on which I first learned to type. My fingernails have chipped the most common letters away.  My boss hates it, because he never learned to touchtype, so I printed out a cheat sheet he can refer to if needed.
My Work Keyboard Nail-Gouged and Letter-less
I also use a Mac Book whose keyboard has a touchpad in the center. If I accidentally bump it with the edges of my palms, the cursor shoots up into a random paragraph, often without me noticing it for several seconds as I continue to type.

This entire blog piece has been composed on my newest keyboard, a foldable, roll-uppable Bluetooth keyboard that pairs with my Nexus 10 tablet, to create a seriously portable little laptop. My tablet's touchpad keyboard is just a tad too compact for me to get all ten fingers down, tickle the keys with a coordinated touch, first this letter, then that space. With the squishy keys, I can go anywhere and create a soundless score, a melody of metaphors, meter matching tempo. But oh how I miss the clack, clack, clack of the old Smith Corona.
My Latest Keys To Tickle

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