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Once a Word Processor . . .


When I was a high school senior, I took the Beginning Typing course for students, mostly girls, hoping to become office workers. I hadn't done well in shop classes training mechanics but typing also counted as "occupational education." To get me enough graduation credits, counselors placed me in other courses usually taken sophomore year, including Latin I, adding to my two years of German as a foreign language concentration, and Basic Art, as well as English and History, required subjects no one could major in.


Every chair was filled in the typing class, every manual typewriter occupied. Another boy was in the room, a good-looking, athletic sophomore, and around twenty sophomore girls, one of them his girlfriend. Mr. Myers, our elderly instructor, instructed us about where to place our fingers, how to hold our hands, and how to concentrate on the text we were copying rather than watching the keyboard or the page being created. Surprisingly, I did well in the class.


I had hunted and pecked often on my mother's typewriter or my own, but Mr. Myers made a typist out of me. I adapted his methods to my portable's keyboard, worrying little about perfect accuracy and accepting the need for corrective strikeovers. In college I was more conscientious when submitting assignments to professors or columns and articles to school paper editors, retyping whole pages when errors were too troublesome. In grad school my electric typewriter with dual ribbons allowing easy error correction made me less self-conscious about my typing.


Then technology began to challenge my typing skills. The university department where I taught required ditto masters for course handouts, which couldn't be corrected by strikeovers and needed full replacements. Eventually we were assigned computers, Apple IIe models with floppy disk drives. Our faculty training session was in a former typing lab now filled with computers. Typewriters required pulling the carriage return lever at the end of each line to start another line one space lower; computers automatically moved on to the next line, line after line, until you needed a new indented paragraph. That took some adjustment—at least one colleague hit the return button regularly, as if on his typewriter, and hated the choppy look of his paragraphs. Somehow, eventually, the new approach made sense to me. I said out loud, "Oh, my god, I get it." My colleague glared at me.


That moment might have been forty years ago. If I ever think of myself as a typist, it's force of habit. I'm a word processor now, though my MacBook Pro keyboard—I think they still call them "keys"—looks much like my old Smith-Corona, except that it's flatter and smaller and has an interactive bar across the top that changes with whatever program I'm using. I often hit some unnamed key that makes a panel appear asking "What can I help you with? Go ahead, I'm listening." I stop what I'm writing to turn off the list it displays before it can talk to me. Like those unexpected ads that show up on Facebook, I don't know what the internet thinks it knows about me and what it thinks I'll fall for.


My fingers aren't as nimble as they once were, and the keys aren't so individual that I can get through a paragraph without error but often—not always—the word processing program will correct my spelling without my notice. Lately, it's decided where I should put commas and hyphens and highlights the locations—it wants a comma after "nimble" above. When I write email the program tries to add additional words for a cliché it's sure I intend, to make me sound more like everyone else. Now I not only have to edit myself, I have to edit the word-processing program's revisions.


Word processing is frequently more aggravating than typing ever was. I can't trust my fingering as much as I once did; I check my transcription more often to correct what the program won't. Many errors are those I'd never make on a typewriter—the letter "m" instead of a comma, a comma instead of a period, a sudden rush of capital letters, an unintended return command mid-sentence or even mid-word, an unintended deletion of a paragraph. Unlike my old typewriter, my laptop doesn't seem to be completely on my side.


This morning, in response to the clatter and thumping of the roof repair around me, I wrote a journal entry by hand. I don't journal often but when I do, I don't think I'm processing words. I think I'm . . . what would you call it? Composing? Recording? Maybe I was simply writing. Just the words and me working thoughtfully together. I was glad I took the opportunity to do it.


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