Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The elite get to pica their poison

It seems that I've been retreating headlong into the past lately.

Part of it, I guess, is some sort of rebellion against the ugliness of today's prevailing culture . . . the ugliness of what passes for civilization today, period.

Another part of it is sheer weariness at the banality and stupidity of the popular culture that's actually popular.

Most of it is boredom. I find the present dull. Radio is dull. TV is dull, most of it. Too much of music is dull.

Drudge is tedious; cable news isn't. Isn't news, that is -- cable "news" is tedious with a capital "T."

Consumer products are boring, too, but it doesn't matter because they'll be obsolete in a year, anyway.

And whatever happened to great industrial design?

Maybe I'm not the only one bored, though. Maybe lots of people are, Maybe that's why typewriters are making a comeback. Vinyl records, too.

I just bought a 1959 Olympia manual portable typewriter. All it is is a printer with elbow grease, except that it doesn't "do" artwork, but it's a lot prettier than my computer. And unlike my computer, it will still be useful in another couple of years.

It doesn't crash unless I drop it, and it works just fine when the power goes out.

I can pound away at the keyboard with two angry fingers without worry. Nothing's going to splinter, and it sounds really cool.

I can feel my words going onto paper. I am connected. I am, quite literally, "in touch."

I can pound out a literary masterpiece much as I did three decades ago on a similar device in the ancient, clamorous and quite alive newsroom of
The Daily Reveille, when all of Louisiana State University could marvel at all the news I saw fit to pound onto an 8
½-by-11-inch newsprint sheet secure in the bowels of an ancient Royal.

Or Underwood. Or Olympia. Maybe Olivetti.

You'd be amazed how fast you can type with two fingers.
(Or maybe you wouldn't be. It's like texting with your index fingers and not your thumbs. Only much more forcefully.)

You'd also be amazed at how typing on an old Olympia, or Royal, or Underwood, or Remington is no fit pursuit for sissified fingers.

The whole process is
sooooooooo not postmodern. And that's my point. Postmodern is dull and vaguely uncivilized. We have become dull . . . and vaguely uncivilized.

out of balance. We, somewhere in our moral BIOS, know this -- thus our boredom. Thus our youngsters' newfound fascination with the low-tech hi-tech of their elders' youth. Thus, I am happy I found my 1959 Olympia at an Omaha estate sale for $5, grabbing a piece of how I used to "kick it old school back in the day" in advance of hipster-inflated pricing.

If I were in New York, for example, I would be so screwed. Exhibit A is this New York Times article from March 30:
Shoppers peered at the display, excited but hesitant, as if they’d stumbled upon a trove of strange inventions from a Jules Verne fantasy. Some snapped pictures with their iPhones.

“Can I touch it?” a young woman asked. Permission granted, she poked two buttons at once. The machine jammed. She recoiled as if it had bitten her.

“I’m in love with all of them,” said Louis Smith, 28, a lanky drummer from Williamsburg. Five minutes later, he had bought a dark blue 1968 Smith Corona Galaxie II for $150. “It’s about permanence, not being able to hit delete,” he explained. “You have to have some conviction in your thoughts. And that’s my whole philosophy of typewriters.”

Whether he knew it or not, Mr. Smith had joined a growing movement. Manual typewriters aren’t going gently into the good night of the digital era. The machines have been attracting fresh converts, many too young to be nostalgic for spooled ribbons, ink-smudged fingers and corrective fluid. And unlike the typists of yore, these folks aren’t clacking away in solitude.

They’re fetishizing old Underwoods, Smith Coronas and Remingtons, recognizing them as well designed, functional and beautiful machines, swapping them and showing them off to friends. At a series of events called “type-ins,” they’ve been gathering in bars and bookstores to flaunt a sort of post-digital style and gravitas, tapping out letters to send via snail mail and competing to see who can bang away the fastest.

IT MAY HORRIFY many of these hip young folk that they could be well on their way to becoming Catholic. Praying with rosary beads. Going to old churches with lots of statues. Lighting prayer candles. Saving prayer cards. Eating Christ.


You know, tangibility. Making abstraction
tactile. Making it real.

Today, we have abstracted ourselves to death, in the sense of making everything theoretical and living one's life in a state of metaphysical detachment. Words, music, interpersonal communications . . . God. It's all the same.

They exist in the cloud. In cyberspace. As hypotheticals. Anywhere but here and now.

It's positively Protestant in the Calvinist-est sense, if not downright atheist.

MP3s and iPods and iPads and laptops are all very Protestant -- perhaps even megachurch in the Joel Osteen-est sense, only without the "praising" and stuff. They're functional, utilitarian, quite non-mystical (not counting the occasional incantation in hopes of warding off a Blue Screen of Death), promise you "your best life now," and we usually have a good explanation for how it all represents "progress."

Vacuum tubes, phonographs, records and typewriters, on the other hand, are Catholic. You have to touch them, and you get "smells and bells." Especially when you get to the right margin.


You can't hear your favorite music without first touching it. You have to do something tangible beyond trolling a menu. And you get to see what you hear -- the music goes round and round, then it comes out here.

You can't express your thoughts without touching them. They are literally without form until you strike a key, which then hammers your point home -- to a sheet of paper. Which you lovingly pull from the machine and send into the great beyond, out of which it emerges to be touched -- and read -- by another human.

All very Catholic, we ancient believers in the "communion of saints," "smells and bells," statues of our heroes in the faith . . . and in feasting on the body and blood of the Creator of the universe and Savior of us all.

Good Protestants have Jesus in their hearts. We Catholics have Him in our stomachs, too. See John 6.

iPods vs. phonographs. MacBooks vs. typewriters.

MY COMPUTER and my hard drives full of music are expediencies.
Tools. Purely functional and utilitarian.

My typewriter and my old record changer -- my old records -- those are affairs of the heart. I've known that since I was 4. Some young folks are just discovering it.

Sometimes, being in touch requires being
in touch.

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