Sunday, January 21, 2007

Qwerty sisterhood

WHENEVER a senior student digs up the thesis I made as an undergraduate, I lose no time crowing about this one feat: typing by myself all three drafts and four final copies.

Usually the young person looks blankly back at me.

And I am reminded once more how civilization marches inexorably towards obsolescence and forgetting.

There will come a generation that will be so deprived for not having seen, touched or heard that most trusty of a writer’s companions: the typewriter.

In my time, it was unheard of to approach a professor and explain that a research could not be passed because “the hard drive crashed,” “my diskette got infected by a virus,” or “an earthquake in Taiwan shook up the Internet.”

If any of us had been smart enough to think of those possibilities, our teacher would have sent us to the clinic for ingesting too many sci-fi novels.

As well as failed us for missing the assignment.

A typewriter did not claim to be a rival of the human brain. It did not store data, play music, demand peripherals other than the level surface of a table. It did not talk back. It knew when to be quiet. It did the waiting very well.

But when the writer felt ready, the typewriter gave many reassurances that it was ready to go the distance with her: the roller whirred when it took in the paper; the shift key gave a shot like a pedal being pushed when a finger typed the first letter that would, hopefully hours later, be a stream of words, even a deluge.

In high school, we practiced the proper placement of fingers to master the Qwerty arrangement of the keyboard.

Already discovering the joys of rebellion, I privately called the Qwerty Practices as Quirky and Pesky. Why didn’t the inventor just arrange the keys alphabetically and spare us the madness of having to type and retype “The quick brown fox …” without glancing down and making a mistake, to attain the expert typing speed of at least 100 words a minute?

As it turned out, there was method behind the madness. By experimenting in the 1860s, the inventor C. L. Sholes found a way to arrange the keys so that an expert typist didn’t end up entangling the typebars, or rods holding the letters or symbols, and jamming the typewriter.

Sholes, after studying a letter-pair frequency chart, kept on opposite sides of the keyboard those letters that were always coming in pairs, like “th.” As any couple knows, companionship requires intervals of safe distance and separations to avoid clashes.

Compared to a computer, a typewriter is simple and predictable.

It’s not to say it doesn’t hold surprises. The Qwerty order makes typing faster by actually making it slower. Each typebar has a letter or symbol placed upside down. But when the typebar swings up and hits the paper from underneath, the printed mark is clear, upright, incontrovertible.

Remembering her college days as a cub reporter and student balancing a semester’s load of 42 units for a double major in English and history, the museum curator Tonette PaƱares remembers that her portable Olympia rarely left her side.

Tonette’s Olympia hardly lived the sheltered life of the academe. In the halcyon days of campus activism, her typewriter accompanied her in immersion activities for the Students Catholic Action, monitored by the military as a leftist front during the First Quarter Storm.

When the Olympia wasn’t being used to teach catechism to workers in Labangon or teaching a mothers’ class in Barrio Luz, it was “resting” in the office of Sister Nieva.

The eldest of seven girls, Tonette always found the money had run out after she paid off the fees of her sisters. To take her tests, she deposited her Olympia with the nun, with the promise to settle her fees soon.

“I told Sr. Nieva I couldn’t let my younger sisters cry because they had no admission slip for taking the exam. My typewriter was the only valuable thing I owned so I left it with her as a guarantee for my debt,” she recalls.

“But when I remember how she respected my decisions as an adult and allowed me to type my assignments in her office when I still couldn’t redeem my typewriter, I realize now that the Olympia wasn’t after all the most valuable thing in my possession.”

I’ve yet to hear a laptop owner top that story. 0917-3226131

* Published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Jan. 21, 2007 issue

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