I have yet to find a great deal of fame or fortune as a writer. (In truth, I don't care about the former, but the latter might be nice.) Still, writing is something that occupies a good deal of my time, so I'm willing to call myself a writer, in the same sense that I occasionally call myself a singer; that is, I am one who writes, and occasionally I am one who sings.
Every writer, I imagine, comes up with their own way to write. Some writers don't really write much at all, but rather wait until they are hit with inspiration, and then rush to record it in a single sitting. I am more of a writer who deals in perspiration; if I create something, it usually comes into existence somewhere around the third draft or later. The second and all subsequent drafts happen on a computer, but the first draft almost always begins with my old friend, the typewriter.
I love typewriters. Even before I was born, my mother worked in a clerical capacity and learned to type. The first several years of my existence came in a house that also contained a huge black Royal 10. I remember my mother lugging it to the kitchen table and showing me the keys. You had to work to type on that monster; as a kid I couldn't lift it, and it hurt my fingers to press hard enough to actually make a mark on the page. At that age, my favorite thing about a typewriter was simply listening to it, the ways the keys click-clacked under my mother's graceful fingers, the sound of the bell when she came to the end of a row, the large thunk of the carriage return as she moved on to whatever line was next.
My high school offered typing and shorthand classes, and I took both--not because I envisioned a clerical future for myself, but because most of the people who took those classes were girls, and as a young man who had no clue how to meet women, I figured that was as good a place to start as any. I don't know why such statistics stick in my head, but I very clearly remember that at the end of Typing 1 I could type 55 words per minute, and at the end of Shorthand 1, I was clocked at 80 words per minute. (I still wasn't dating anyone.) I took no further training, and eventually abandoned the shorthand entirely. But I kept typing, and my speed improved, and now I'm closer to 80 words a minute there, too, as long as those words contain no numerals; the mystery of the numbers and symbols at the top row of the keyboard were reserved for Typing 2.
I can still remember the first typewriter I bought for myself, a Smith-Corona portable, made when Smith-Corona was manufacturing some of the ugliest typewriters known to man. The first picture in this post shows a Smith-Corona Electric of a similar vintage; take away the electric and make it a manual, make the body of it a sort of dark babyshit-brown and put olive green keys on it, and you'll have a mental image of my first typewriter, purchased at a secondhand store for five dollars. It was ugly as sin, but the rise was just perfect, and the clickety-clack was quite soothing, and the bell gave a sharp ding! that let you know it might be old, but that typewriter meant business. I wrote my first short story on that typewriter, and my second and third. I didn't even realize that typewriter was turning me into a writer, nor that it would spark an interest that has never really gone away.
I wish I could tell you what happened to that typewriter. I suspect it was merely abandoned, as I was a young man who moved a lot, constantly in search of cheaper housing, since money was a constant lack. With no typewriter, I did no writing, but at the time that was OK, because I was dating, and eventually engaged, and then married. I got a job managing an apartment complex, which gave us a little bit of money and free place to stay, which seemed luxurious after some of the places I had lived. The head of maintenance at that apartment complex had just discovered this new website called eBay; he and his wife spent their weekends going to auctions and secondhand stores, hoping to find things they could sell on eBay for profit, and he asked if my wife and I might like to come along. We had nothing going on, so we did.
And there it was: A typewriter case, sitting on top of a dusty nightstand, waiting to go under the hammer. I opened the case and saw a drop-dead gorgeous Remington 3 portable, white keys with nickel-plated rims set in a frame of two-tone blue (just like the one in the picture to the left). Comparing it to the babyshit-brown Smith Corona of previous days was like comparing Cinderella at the ball to her ugly stepsisters, and I was every bit as smitten as Prince Charming. After a brief round of bidding, I bought that typewriter for fifteen dollars.
And that began a love affair that still hasn't ended. At that time, more and more people were buying personal computers; typewriters were things of the past, and could be procured relatively cheaply, and I soon came to a place where I owned 90 of them. My wife and I eventually moved out of our rent-free apartment and bought our first house, and one entire room was dedicated to typewriters. Some I used (I was writing again) and some I just looked at; I could have done that for quite some time, except that I had decided it was time to stop having jobs and start having a career. I wanted to go back to school to become a Social Studies Teacher. Doing so would mean I would have drop down to part-time work, which meant I would have to come up with some money from somewhere.
I had a weird-looking, huge old standard typewriter with "Daugherty Visible" written across the top. It was old; so old, it sat on a wooden board, and the case that came down over the top of it was solid metal. I had found it in an antique store, buried under some other stuff in the back corner (pro tip to typewriter hunters; they're heavy, so they tend to be on the floor), and paid fifteen dollars for it. It didn't work, or didn't work well; I had only bought it because I hadn't seen a typewriter quite like it, and it was cheap. But I needed money, and it took up a lot of space, so I took some photos of it and put it on eBay, just to see what would happen. What happened was that seven days later the auction was complete, and I sold it to a guy in Germany for over a thousand dollars. It turned out, I had been ahead of the curve, and typewriters were now collectibles.
If you're curious, shipping typewriters is a colossal pain in the ass. Just finding boxes big enough is a challenge, and then you need enough bubble wrap and packing peanuts to make sure it mostly arrives in one piece. Then you lug it to the post office or a shipping company, where you discover the sheer weight of it makes for an expensive package. Still, that was what I did, over and over again, selling almost everything, including the two-toned blue Remington 3 that had started the collection. Typewriters, therefore, made me what I am today; I made enough money selling that collection (and pinching pennies everywhere else) to complete my teaching degree, which has been my livelihood ever since.
And, now that I'm fifteen years into a teaching career, I'm writing a lot more. My typewriter collection began again, once I had enough money saved up. It's a smaller collection, and it ebbs and flows. A number of my former students have shown interest in my typewriters, and several have therefore become gifts; it's always good to spread dorky joy whenever you can. As it stands, I think I have about 35 (some are in the storage unit, so an exact count is impossible at this moment). I don't own anything too valuable or extravagant, because I'm not really a typewriter collector as much as I am a writer. I want a machine that is ready to go to work, and not just one that looks pretty on a shelf.
Someday, perhaps some of that writing will reach a broader audience. Someday, I'll post about typewriters again, and explain why all of my first drafts happen that way. Mostly, as I age, I find I miss the sound of a typewriter in another room, just as I miss the mother who used to type on it.
All hobbies are screwy to those who don't share them, but this hobby is mine, and my life has been better for it. If you think you'd like to try it, let me know, because I probably have a few typewriters I could bear to part with, and dorky joy is still joy. Thanks for reading.
Heroes are tricky.
Almost all of us have been guilty of hero worship to some degree or another. My heroes tend to be writers like Neil Gaiman or activists like Rosa Parks, or those blessed few who can be both, like James Baldwin. But even then, my hero worship is pretty low-key. I might want to be as involved as Rosa Parks, but I don't have a shrine to her in my house; I certainly wish I could write as well as Neil Gaiman, but I wouldn't pay $300 for a pair of his old socks.
My best friend gets far more serious about his hero worship. I can still remember his admiration for Lance Armstrong, back in the day. He read books about Lance Armstrong, and books by Lance Armstrong. He watched films about Lance Armstrong, taped the Tour de France so he could keep up with Lance Armstrong on each leg of the race. He even signed up for a charity event and became one of a couple thousand people who once took a bike ride with Lance Armstrong. And when he found out Lance Armstrong cheated, it was a blow to his system. Heroes are tricky, because sometimes they fall.
I say all this because -- if you haven't already figured it out -- I am, by profession, a public school teacher. Specifically, I teach high school Social Studies, which means that after the events yesterday at the U.S. Capitol, I got to hang out with school-age young people today as they processed what went on there.
Some were outraged, as you might imagine. Some, of course, had no idea what had transpired because politics is B-O-R-I-N-G. But a number of them ranged from a bit put out to downright shell-shocked. Between myself and some of my colleagues, here's a brief sample of some of the things we heard:
A number of yesterday's outcomes were negative. People lost their lives. Federal property was destroyed. The democratic process was delayed (though not overcome). But I have to wonder if the President considered what the outcome would be for some school-age children, who finally found out he was not as popular as they had been told, who finally saw through messages that had been fed to them by a biased media, who finally recognized that even their heroes could go too far. It's said that lessons like these are part of building character, and since almost any experience helps build character, I suppose that's true. But a lot of young people had a painful lesson in growing up today, and as someone who was in the building with them, that wasn't easy to see. No one likes watching dreams die, and young people should remain young as long as they possibly can.
You've seen the news by now, so you already know the story: today, a group of terrorists stormed the United States Capitol Building in a coordinated attack that left at least one individual dead. Urged on by incendiary words from the leader of their cult, their attack was designed to show their love for America and their respect for this nation's freedoms by interfering with the democratic process by which America selects a President.
Members of the terrorist cell. Creator: SAUL LOEB | Credit: AFP via Getty Images
I'd call these people Republicans, but that doesn't seem like an accurate term. Certainly, we can blame Republicans. Many members of the Republican Party coddled this cult leader for the past four years; they've allowed him to nurse at the breast of the GOP elephant in hopes that he would become one of their own. In exchange, they got campaign contributions and Supreme Court Justices, and all it cost them was the Presidency, control of the House, control of the Senate, and the soul of the Republican Party.
Even today, a number of "Republicans" planned to object to the electoral votes of various states, but I have to put that term in quotes because a number of other Republicans told them not to. So the Republicans as a whole cannot be blamed. Maybe we can blame those who planned to object to the electoral vote, who hoped to rally the base and pass the collection plate one more time before the cult leader is forced to leave the pulpit. But even if that's true, these terrorists do not represent the whole of the Republican Party. I don't know what we should call them. Boko Hawley? The Cruz Klux Klan? I'll stick with terrorists, thank you, and leave it at that.
But if we're looking to blame anyone for today's events, we don't have to look far. We blame those who committed the actions; we blame the terrorists themselves. We point out that the willful destruction of federal property is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. We remind the terrorists that as a result of their actions, at least one person who was alive this morning isn't alive tonight.
And of course: we have to blame the cult leader. Would there have been terrorist activity in our nation's capitol if he had not incited it? I don't know, and neither do you. But this cult leader did tell the Proud Boys to 'stand back and stand by' in the middle of Presidential debate. He did feed false and misleading claims about election fraud to his most rabid base. He did hold a rally only this very morning, in which he promised to join the terrorists (before abandoning them and retreating to the White House), and he did finally give in to President-Elect Biden's demand to appear in person, when he once again claimed to have been cheated before telling everyone to go home. This one is on you, Mr. Trump. Credit where credit is due.
(P.S. Just for the record, when it comes to inciting riots in the District of Columbia: "If in the course and as a result of a riot a person suffers serious bodily harm or there is property damage in excess of $5,000, every person who willfully incited or urged others to engage in the riot shall be punished by imprisonment for not more than 10 years or a fine of not more than the amount set forth in § 22-3571.01, or both." (Source here.))
America is a deeply divided nation. I know this, because I wanted to write a blog entry about how deeply divided America is as a nation, so I Googled "America deeply divided," and found the following:
That's a relief, as you might imagine. I'm comforted to know I'm right, mostly because I very much want people who disagree with me to be wrong. And even if, by some weird twist of fate, I'm the one who happens to be wrong, I'm just going to go on believing that I'm right, because my version of the world is the kind of world I want. I can't really say for sure what kind of world the people who disagree with me might want--not like I'm going to ask them, or anything--but I know enough to know it's not my version, which means it has to be wrong. After all, the internet just proved I'm right, right?
The people who disagree with me will probably want to fight me on this. Misguided as they are, they no doubt prefer their version of the world to mine. But I fear their version (mostly because it isn't my version; it's not like I've asked them what their version might be), so I have no choice but to do everything in my power to stand in opposition to them; keeping silent would be letting them win, and what kind of world will this be if they win?
What's that you say? You want me to define my version of the world? Wow: I mean, that's a big ask. It's not that I'm unwilling, and it's certainly not that I don't have a clear idea as to what my version of the world might be. It's just that my version is so incredibly detailed and nuanced, and trying to explain it is both difficult and time-consuming, so let me just sum up by saying that my version of the world is not their version, and my version is good. The internet already proved I'm right, so I'm just going to have to ask you to trust me on this. You don't really have to understand either side, as long as we can agree that my side is the side you want to be on.
Now that you're on my side (and thank you, by the way: it's how I know you're a good person), there are a few simple rules:
Sure, there are drawbacks to being on our side. You'll eventually have disdain for at least half of the population, and probably closer to three-quarters. You'll begin to grow angry and/or bitter with less and less provocation. Chances are, you'll develop a sort of lifelong, low-grade paranoia, until you will only be comfortable with a very small group of people who have absolutely proven they are on our side. Still: isn't that a whole lot better than being on their side? I think so, and the internet has proven I'm right. Right?
First of all, congratulations. If you're reading this, you made it to 2021, and after the year we just left behind, that alone seems like an accomplishment. Well done.
However, leaving one year behind means we find ourselves on New Year's Day, and if you're like many people, you've already prepared a list of New Year's Resolutions. We all know how this works: we take a good long look at our lives; reflect on where we've been and where we want to be; perhaps remember how old we are, and recognize that another year's passing means we have that much less time than we did at this point last year; and, when all that is done, we begin to catalog the various things we don't like about ourselves, and then resolve to fix them.
I am not immune to this. Every year at this time I set my own mini-goals for the time ahead. This process gets easier as I age, because most of the goals I set in previous years might as well be goals this year, too, since I did nothing to accomplish any of them in the previous 12 months. And there are always new and perfectly legitimate things I hope to achieve. For instance, as a public school teacher in a district with a significant Hispanic population, I would very much like to learn Spanish. My high school only taught French (et non, je ne suis pas tres doue pour ca non plus, merci beaucoup), which has not come in quite as handy as one might expect here in rural Wisconsin. I am bothered that I can't speak with all of my students as well as I might (and, I confess, sometimes wondering if words being spoken are critiques of my instruction).
But there is also an inherent danger in New Year's Resolutions. First, they force us to tally the negatives. New Year's Resolutions often come from a "glass-half-empty" mentality; we approach them with the mindset that something in our life is lacking. After all, it makes no sense to create a goal to fix something if there is no deficiency to be corrected in the first place.
Mostly, though, they come in far too large a quantity. It's perfectly acceptable to say things like, "This year I'd like to begin learning Spanish," or "Let's make this a year I drop a pants size," and so on. But what we often tend to do is use today as the first day in which we plan to totally remake our entire existence. We're going to learn Spanish and drop a pants size and get a gym membership and meditate and be a better correspondent and watch less TV and, and, and . . .
So this year, I'm offering the same encouragement to you that I have tried to learn myself, and that is simply: You ain't so bad. If New Year's Resolutions are your thing, then that's OK, but maybe pick one of them instead of a dozen or more. If you accomplish that one, you can always add a new one in April (just maybe not on April 1, when you'll just be fooling yourself). Give yourself a little grace. You made it this far. You have people in your life that love you, or at the very least like you a lot. And chances are, you're your own worst critic.
If you insist on the big long list of resolutions, then I heartily recommend that for every one you make, you also list one thing about yourself you already consider a positive. That way, you can approach the exercise from both a "glass-half-empty" and a "glass-half-full" mentality. It can also be important to remember that every glass can be emptied, and every glass can be refilled; almost no situation in our lives is permanent if we don't wish it to be.
So Happy New Year and here we go with 2021. Whether you make resolutions or don't, thanks for taking the time to hang out long enough to read this, and allow me to say that I like you, just as you are.
I begin this blog at the close of 2020, a year that a lot of us will be more than happy to leave behind. If you're reading this, you're already well aware of why so many found the past year so difficult. This post is not designed to downplay or trivialize the losses borne by so many in America and around the world in the months just past. Nor is it offered as some sort of pie-in-the-sky pep talk to con you into thinking that 2021 is going to be a whole lot better; we can't know.
To "whistle past the graveyard"--according to Merriam-Webster--means to talk or act as if one is relaxed or unafraid when one is actually afraid or nervous. That's where I find myself at the close of 2020. I would like to say I am unafraid, but that would be a lie; I would like to say I'm pretty relaxed about the future, but I'm plenty nervous. The thing is, though: I'm tired of living like that.
Of all the issues that came out of 2020, one of the largest for me personally--and maybe for you, too--was the issue of Psychic Weight. It just feels like every one of us has been carrying a LOT. Even though I am well aware my burdens have been lighter than many, I worry that a lot of areas in my life simply require more care than I am capable of giving them right now, and maybe you feel that way, too.
So I'm starting a blog, even though I have no idea what it will be, except that it will be my attempt to get out from under that psychic weight, and to move forward with a firmer resolve to seek the positive, even in trying times. I'm starting it now because whether one measures from the Solstice or from the New Year, the last days of December always feel like a turning point, a time when hope returns to our lives at the same time that sunlight returns to our days. (With apologies to those who live on the other side of the globe; as a resident of the Northern Hemisphere, that's how it works up here.) And I'm sharing these thoughts online just in case something I'm feeling is something you're feeling, too; I don't know if anything I say here will help, but if it helps one person--even just a little--that's good enough for me.
The thing is, as naïve as it sounds, hope just feels better than where I've been spending the past months. Sure, we can't know if 2021 will be an improvement, but we can't know it won't be, either, and the arrival of a Solstice and a New Year seems like the perfect time to pretend it just might. Maybe this is the year I'll lose those last 10 pounds, whether they be psychic or actual weight. Maybe this year I'll learn to speak Spanish beyond just the swear words. Maybe I'll write something of value. Maybe I'll get together with large groups of my friends and family and hug every last one of them. Twice.
And as long as I'm dreaming, maybe this is the year the people who decide what to do with public education will actually listen to the people who teach it. Maybe politicians will care more about the people who helped elect them than they do about getting re-elected. Maybe this divided nation will find a way to heal. Maybe all of the various huddled masses will indeed breathe free.
I know, I said this was not designed to a pie-in-the-sky pep talk, and it isn't. I'm still nervous, and I'm still fearful. But I'm going to see what life is like while whistling past the graveyard, and if you feel like you'd like to whistle with me, your company would be most welcome.