Kaypro 10 computer by Soupmeister at flickr.com
When I was twelve my father enrolled me in a typing course from which I emerged typing with two fingers. That suited me and my cherished Electra 210 Smith-Corona typewriter just fine, even when, some fifty-five years later, I became aware that other writers were talking about a machine called a computer, and strange words like Word Star and Lotus began to float in the air around my head.
One day in 1985, Howard White, my publisher, took me to meet his friend and colleague, Steve Osborne. During the visit, it became apparent that an appointment was being made for me and my chequebook with Steve to acquire a computer and take a lesson.
“What’s wrong with my typewriter?” I asked.
After a pause, during which Steve stroked his beard and stared at me through his glasses, Howie said gently, “We have decided to bring you into the Computer Age.”
I was flattered by their concern, and Howie has been such a great friend. Once during a rodent epidemic he descended into my basement smiling and emptied my rat traps so that I could concentrate on what he had come for: to talk about my work. Another time, when I shamelessly said that I couldn’t write because I didn’t have a proper desk, he built me a serviceable work table right then out of a discarded election signboard he found under my boat shed that said “Vote for Don Lockstead.”
On the appointed day I arrived at Steve’s house, knocked several times, waited, and when nobody answered, walked in. “Is anybody home?” I called out. Deep silence. I sat down. Sitting on a table, also waiting, was a large oblong black box. The side facing me was open. It had a screen on the left and two slots, one above the other, on the right. A keyboard sat in front of the box, attached to it by a wire. Eventually I got up and peeked through an open door. Steve was asleep. I went back in the living room and pondered. Had I come on the wrong day? Should I have come at all?
I found out later—to my subsequent advantage—that Steve is nocturnal. He rises between noon and 1 p.m. and goes to bed shortly before everyone else gets up. That day was no exception and when he woke up, my lesson began. It was rigorous, long and thorough. When I pressed a certain key on the board, the word wait flashed on the screen and stayed there quite a while. Another code, Control-S, saved—for all time, apparently—the phrase Now Is the Time for All Good People to Come to the Aid of the Party, which I had typed onto the screen. Steve explained all of that and a lot more, and repeated everything he said, especially about my end-of-the-world fate if I forgot to save.
I departed from Steve’s house, lugging the heavy Kaypro computer, now mine. I thanked him profusely for his time and effort. What had I learned? I didn’t remember. What was I supposed to do now? The light at the end of this particular tunnel was very dim. All I could remember for sure was wait and save. I felt so ashamed when he had worked so hard. Had I panicked? Was I in a state of denial? I was.
Howie asked me how my lesson had gone. I said, “Wonderful! But I don’t remember much.”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You don’t have to. I only know about ten percent of what a computer can do, but that’s enough for me. For you, too.”
This inspired me to give my Kaypro a try, although I knew that loss of memory at my age made me an endangered species, and computer manuals seem to be written in a different English language than the one I learned, starting with the index. But Steve’s lesson must have seeped into my subconscious, because I had managed somehow to grasp enough of the basics to write. Already I could see where the Kaypro was superior to my Smith-Corona. Gone were those back and neck pains from pounding on a typewriter. The ease with which I could make simple corrections and move words, sentences and whole paragraphs around was most seductive, especially the buttons cut and paste. Most important, since I am dependent on reading what I have just written, the mechanical printer that accompanied the Kaypro whisked my words back to me, clackety-clack. No messy carbon paper either. The only down side was that on those early rack-and-pinion printers, I shed so many tears trying to persuade the paper to keep its punched-in side holes on the feed sprockets that I was sure I was being punished for having a happy childhood.
Back in the 1970s, on assignment for The New Yorker, I had accompanied my late husband John Daly on his troller, the MoreKelp, to record my adventures on a commercial fishing boat. I used to set up my typewriter on a table on the boat and put two pillows, one floater jacket, one Stanfield’s underwear, one blanket and a dishpan behind my back so that I could reach my machine. After John’s death in 1978 I began writing what eventually became the book Fishing with John. I would submit each section as I completed it to my editor, the eccentric and wonderful William Shawn, who would say, “That’s fine. Just keep going.” He estimated that the finished product would be about 75,000 words long.
For some reason I was seized with an unfortunate compulsion to type a perfect page before proceeding to the next one—not an ideal method for a two-fingered typist—and I began to think I might never finish. Suddenly Mr. Shawn, who had edited the magazine for fifty years, announced his imminent retirement. His successor, I thought, might not be so interested in salmon fishing. (He wasn’t.) It was now urgent for me to find a faster way of revising, and when Howie and Steve led me by the hand to a computer, I had my solution.
I spent three or four months that winter in a rented furnished apartment in New York City, on the fourth floor of what had once been the mansion of the great early twentieth-century publisher Joseph Pulitzer. I left my typewriter in Canada and took the Kaypro with me. It presided over the impressive living room on a large white bath towel spread over my landlord’s lofty Art Nouveau table. To reach it I bought a high deck chair that was not in keeping with the décor, climbed up into it every morning and set to work. My apparent computer proficiency so impressed my next-door neighbour, a famous artist’s famous agent, that she went out and bought a similar computer. I can still remember my astonishment when she knocked on my door to ask me for guidance.
None of the writers I knew well at The New Yorker were using computers, with one exception, Brendan Gill. “Not to worry,” Brendan said to me. “There is a man called The Computer Tutor on the West Side who rides around on a motorcycle rescuing people like us all over Manhattan. Just pick up the phone when you get into trouble and he’ll be there in a jiffy.” The Computer Tutor was generous with telephone assistance but he only materialized once, a somewhat romantic figure in puttees with a large moustache, who parked his motorcycle on the street below my window.
Then, with only two weeks to go before Mr. Shawn’s departure and my manuscript still unfinished, my good old Kaypro suddenly came to a halt. I rushed it to a computer shop and the examination revealed that one of its two drives was irreparable. No repair parts were available anyway because the Kaypro was being discontinued, and I could not find another Kaypro to replace it.
The Computer Tutor was solidly booked, but he said, “This is an emergency. I will send someone over to see you through.” Two hours later my saviour arrived: a young woman named Cathy, with brown hair, glasses and a reassuring smile.
I was taking a risk. Cathy had to be paid by the hour, I had no idea how many hours she would have to spend, and the apartment rent was absorbing almost all my money. I asked myself, if John Daly’s great Gardner diesel motor had broken down in the middle of fishing season, what would he have done? Myself answered, he would have bought another motor, whatever it cost, and finished the season.
Cathy stayed with me for two weeks, arriving every afternoon at 5 p.m. from her regular job, working through the night and departing every morning at 8:30. She was heroic. I wrote all day on the good drive and had supper waiting for her when she arrived. Then she went to work, inserting new material I had written and retrieving sections of my manuscript from the broken drive, including long passages that had disappeared and surfaced again attached to unconnected text. Sometimes she would wake me up during the night to read one of those lost sections to me so I could tell her where it belonged in the manuscript.
On Friday morning of the week before Mr. Shawn was due to retire, we finished. I paid Cathy two thousand dollars, then ran all the way to Radio City in midtown Manhattan to one of the few commercial copiers big enough at that time to take on an emergency printing of a whole book. I turned in Fishing with John to Mr. Shawn at noon that day, he read it over the weekend, and on Monday morning he called and said, “It works. It’s just fine.” I telephoned the good news to Cathy, who had gone home from my apartment and slept through the entire weekend.
I live now on the Sunshine Coast of B.C., where I have replaced the Computer Tutor with, at various times, a night school course, computer books, several local specialists, my physician, Dr. John Farrer—who, in addition to his medical skills, is a whiz with computers and a patient man—and the Microsoft Help phone located across the border in Washington state. That support is only available from 9 to 5, Monday through Friday.
Usually my troubles start at night when I am tired, make a mistake that arouses the dreaded Error Message and press all the buttons on the keyboard. On one such evening some years ago I was on a tight deadline and the cursor refused to budge. The help phone was of no help because it was after hours, and I had not yet made the acquaintance of the good doctor. As I remember it, something called a dot command was involved, and as usual no manual listing the words dot command included rescue from mistakes. I studied all the computer guidebooks I had. By the time I looked at my watch it was 11 o’clock at night. My deadline was early the next morning. For once, I was beyond tears.
I made a cup of tea. Then I thought, it’s only 11 p.m.! Steve Osborne is in the middle of his day—well, almost the middle. When he answered his phone, my head whirled with relief. I poured out my troubles, sparing nothing. Poor man! He listened patiently, and then for over two hours we slowly went back and forth by telephone over every move I had made that brought me to such a dead end.
Just when we thought we might have to give up, he said, “What kind of a dot command was it?”
“Dot one,” I replied.
“Tell me which keys you are pressing for dot one,” he said.
I named them as I pressed them. “Control, dot, one—”
He interrupted. “Which key are you pressing now?”
I slowly typed a lower case letter L—l—as I have done since I was twelve with my first typewriter, on which the lowercase l served also as the numeral 1. Then I pressed the correct key for the number one—1—on my computer board. The two characters appeared to be identical, but the little people that inhabit my computer knew the difference. They unlocked the door to let me finish my piece.
I looked at my watch. It was now 1:30 in the morning. We were both exhausted, even if it was only the middle, sort of, of Steve’s day.
“Good night,” I said. “Thank you very, very much.”
Wait, save and help are still the keys to the Computer Age—especially help. Thank you, Steve and Howie, Dr. Farrer, the human beings who answer the Microsoft Help numbers, two knowledgeable grandsons of a close friend, and a smorgasbord of others. Thank you everybody, but not Bill Gates.