Understrokes of a Modern Typer

Monday, March 19, 2012

Posted by Dan Rubin, A.C.T. Publications Manager
With Jordan Harrison's Maple and Vine in rehearsals, there is a lot of talk in the A.C.T. offices about nostalgia. In the play, an unsatisfied urbanite couple decides to trade in their modern-day lifestyle for a 1950s model of suburban happiness. It is a divisive proposal: is our fast-paced, electronics-driven contemporary society something we need to retreat from—and if it is, would 1955 really be where we would look to find relief? As we see below in a post by A.C.T. Publications Manager Dan Rubin, your answer might depend on when you were born.
Maple and Vine
My first typewriter was my mom's. A heavy, suitcase-like apparatus that in the 1990s already felt archaic and impractical compared to our fancy dot matrix printer—which fed paper through its spindles by clawing at little, evenly spaced holes on the disposable, perforated margins that lined each page. Boomers and Gen-Xers (35- to 65-year-olds) shake their heads at this: "You have no idea! We had to lug those typewriters to and from the library! We had to write dissertations on those things. Cut and paste meant scissors and glue. Delete meant white out." Members of Generation Z (20 and younger [Aside: Is that really what we're calling you? Can we call you CyberGens instead?]) don't even have a clue what I'm talking about. They've seen typewriters in museum recreations of historically significant rooms, but when they Google-image search dot matrix, they don't really understand what they're seeing—and there's certainly no way to describe the repetitive clunk/purr/whine a dot matrix printer made when the print head ran back and forth along the page (luckily, we have YouTube).
I loved the weight of those typewriter keys. Typing was work. You pushed metal with your fingertips with nowhere to rest your wrists. Each stroke, each letter was a commitment: ink punched irrevocably into paper. But let's be honest: I never used that typewriter. It was too cumbersome, too unforgiving. Perhaps I turned out an adolescent poem or two, but never a paper for school—that would have been absurdly laborious.
I didn't bring my mom's typewriter with me to college, but when I purchased my first laptop years later, when Windows XP asked me to name my laptop (groan), I baptized it, "Typewriter." But this dorky gesture wasn't enough to quiet my soul, and one day, passing by a garage sale, I spied that familiar, bulky suitcase shape buried in a pile of throwaways. For $5, I bought my second typewriter. And I loved it; I loved owning it. There was something comforting about having it, as if, when the apocalypse eventually arrived and the internet broke and electricity was no longer, I would still be able to pound out prose. Then I realized the ribbon was dry (ribbons were the ink cartridges of yesteryear, dear CyberGens). So I tucked it away in my closet; before moving to a new city, I dropped it off at Goodwill—with the same mileage it had on it when I purchased it years earlier.
Even now, when I see a typewriter at a yard sale, or—as is the Bay Area way—left abandoned on some sidewalk, there is an impulse to adopt it. Even though I know I won't use it, I pine for something that doesn't plug me in, that doesn't connect me, that doesn't distract me. At the first rehearsal for Maple and Vine—in which a married couple escapes modernity by moving to a 1955 recreationist community—playwright Jordan Harrison articulated that this nostalgia defines a large portion of Millennials (20- to 35-year-olds): "I see this impulse in people in their 30s to slow down and to limit their choices."
At the heart of Maple and Vine is a question: What freedoms would you sacrifice for happiness? A.C.T.'s first reading of the play last spring incited a debate that raged for days, largely along generational lines. The Boomers, who grew up fighting for those freedoms, said (screamed) their answer: "None!" The Millennials, however, were more open to believing that the expectations associated with living in an age of unparalleled freedoms and unlimited choices could drive someone to want to flee. We can understand the desire to escape the overwhelming possibilities of a word processor to the confines of a typewriter—but perhaps that is because we never had to lug them back and forth to the library.
 
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