When Joan Didion, one of my all-time favorite writers, wrote her essay “Goodbye to All That,” she was talking about something altogether different from my current concern. She was speaking of Manhattan, where she lived in her 20s, first in love with the place, later in despair. It’s a great essay, and its title has been repurposed by countless other writers. She was, in fact, borrowing it herself, from Robert Grave’s autobiography about leaving England following the first World War.
How did I know about Graves and his book? I looked it up online. As a librarian, I cringe when I hear anyone say, “It’s all on the Web,” because 1) that isn’t true, and 2) even if you find whatever it is you’re looking for, it won’t necessarily be free of charge. I hear from physicians who have done their own research online, only to run smack into the brick wall: “For only $58, you can access this article,” helpfully providing a place to type a credit card number. Don’t do it, I tell them; I can get it for you. It’s not that I know some secret way to knock down that brick wall, it’s just that I belong to a network of libraries that share whatever they’ve got with each other. It’s what libraries do.
But there’s another kind of cost to finding things online, one I have not been able to work around no matter what I try. I call it . . . a headache. This headache used to be called “Chronic Migraine,” then “Transformed Migraine,” and, most recently, “New Daily Persistent Headache.” I have a problem with the word “new,” since I’ve had this thing for going on seven years, but I understand that it means, in this case, “sudden onset.” I like to call it “Old Daily Persistent Headache.” It’s my pain; I can call it whatever I want to.
What I can’t do, though, is keep using technology the way I have been without triggering yet another headache. After six years under the care of a motley crew of neurologists, including three stays in a Michigan hospital unit devoted to treating head pain, and a seemingly endless list of medicines and treatments, both conventional and a little bit woowoo, I know my triggers, and I know that number one on the list is that wonder of the digital age, the computer.
On one of which I am writing this very essay. I can’t write by hand; I have the worst case of writer’s cramp you’ve ever seen. It has its own fancy neurological name, dystonia, which always makes me think of some obscure Eastern European country: Hail, Dystonia. This debility forces me to use another way to write my columns, my letters, my notes (if more than a few lines long), and even, yes, my poems.
My first encounter with a computer was love at first sight, much as Didion describes her instant infatuation with New York. Here was a machine infinitely better than even the best electric typewriter – and believe me, I’d had my share. (A manual typewriter is a beautiful thing, but pounding on one requires, well, pounding, which leads to finger pain; and even if one does manage to use a manual at a decent clip, the keys have an annoying way of getting crossed up with each other. Another kind of pain.) My parents gave me my first electric typewriter when I left for college, and I thought I had it made.
But it’s hard to make corrections on a typewriter. And it’s a huge production to add something you forgot a few lines back. An even bigger production is required for changing margins, something I had to do after turning in my undergraduate honors thesis. The college saved student theses in their library, after sending them out for binding. But binding required a larger left margin than usual, and no one had thought to tell me. So I spent a week retyping it, all 136 pages. Unbelievable, I know, for anyone raised once computers became common; you can change a margin with the touch of a key these days. As Shakespeare might have said, O brave new world, that has such creatures in it! (He did say that, but not about laptops.)
With a computer keyboard, I can type like the wind. I’ve often said that typing is my Olympic sport. I don’t even make many mistakes. My typing is one thing I can safely brag about. I can type just about as fast as I think of what I want to say, which seems magical, miraculous. I have sometimes thought that my brainwaves change when I sit down at a keyboard, clicking instantly into Writing Mode.
I’ve learned to change my monitor’s page color from bright white to a soothing grey when I compose. It helps. But when I’m working, or at home looking up the name of the singer from Mumford and Sons, I can’t do that. I can dim the monitor, but it’s still mostly white. I can slip a glare guard over the screen, but it only helps a little. The fact is, if I stare at a monitor long enough, Mr. Headache is going to pay a call.
I love my job, and I love to write. I’m not giving up either one. All I need is to be smarter about using my computer, a machine that brings me equal shares of joy and pain. I may have to do some research . . . on the Internet. Goodbye to all that? Sure; I want to feel better. But hello to – what?