The Weekly Spasm on Lined Paper and Pen and Ink

by Willem Lange

EAST MONTPELIER – Just over forty years ago – in April of 1981; the late Marvin Midgette was the Valley News editorial page editor – when I began this weekly spasm, I still fancied that the only way I could compose an essay was the way I always had: on lined paper with pen and ink. So, after I had each week’s column done (I wrote then under a nom de plume), I typed it out and delivered it by hand to the newspaper office, where, I assume, another typist prepared it for edition and printing. This wasn’t quite the Dark Ages; my typewriter was a Smith Corona electric that snapped hungrily at each tap of my fingers, especially the mistakes.

After a while, suspecting that composition on a typewriter might be possible – after all, in my days as a copy boy at the Syracuse Post Standard, I’d composed occasional all-cap billet-doux up to several yards long on the old teletype machine they’d given us peons to play with – I gave it a try. It felt funny at first, but it worked. Unfortunately, my scripts, full of the usual problems of first drafts, still needed to be retyped and still needed to be delivered by hand.

In 1985 I bought a used Mac from a history professor and was elated to find that I could fix typing errors, undangle modifiers, and put the occasional wandering “only” where it belonged. There were no on-line sources available – no such thing yet as on-line – so my ports in storms were Webster’s, Bartlett’s, and the Howe Library reference desk. At least I had a telephone.

Every so often, when the Mac’s memory got overstuffed, I unscrewed its back and plugged in some more capacity. The Kiewit Computation Center at Dartmouth was my emergency help; a young woman there named Molly was especially good at helping a dazed, aging mind that dealt mainly in metaphors to translate its needs into language the old Mac could understand.

Not long after that, the cyberworld exploded and, as John Kemeny once observed, the average Dartmouth student now carried around in his pocket more computing capacity than the computer center possessed. My younger daughter bequeathed me another bulbous Mac; to this day, my hard drive is named Martha. My cell phone was a cigar box-sized unit, plugged into my truck’s cigarette lighter power source with a standard receiver on a coiled black rubber-covered wire.

At some point in this constant progression – I can’t remember when – I was able to buy an external modem that plugged into my computer and, with much buzzing and clicking and an occasional glitch, transmitted my scripts to the newspaper. What a difference! The dark side of that change, as has been noted millions of times since, was the loss of the personal contact with the folks at the office, and the old familiar hubbub of the throbbing, hive-like newsroom.

Then somebody – I heard it was Al Gore – invented the Internet, and ever since, it’s been Katy-bar-the-door. My clunky truck phone shrank into something called a flip phone, which I liked a lot, and then grew into something called a cellphone. I like the cell a lot, but venture very timidly beyond its basic services – rather like a medieval seafarer whose charts bore warnings like, “Here be Monsters!” My new car’s audio won’t work unless the phone is Bluetoothed to it. But I must say I do like its GPS feature – when I can get it to speak loud enough for me to hear it.

Even though Internet users often express, weirdly, nostalgia for the good old days; and even though I’m mystified by most of what’s going on behind the friendly screens of my desktop and iPhone displays, I’m quite delighted with the technological changes in my life over the past forty years. Just this morning, sitting peacefully at my desk, I sent e-mails to friends or family in Oregon, Washington, Albany, Arkansas, Nunavut, and Scotland. I didn’t have to run to the post office to ask how much to send a letter to anywhere. And the answers started coming back within an hour.

About ten feet behind me in the bookcase is a facsimile edition of Charles Dickens’ script of “A Christmas Carol.” It’s so splotched, scratched, and bleary, it’s a wonder anyone ever could set it to type. It’s a constant reminder that, whatever the means by which we communicate, the important element remains content. Liberal doses of accuracy and felicity are pretty good ideas, as well.