Monday

March 27th, 2017

The Village Idiot

Dear Sir or Madam

Jim Mullen

By Jim Mullen

Published May 26, 2015

I just spent two hours writing a letter on my computer that would have taken me a minute and a half on a typewriter. It took another hour to print the envelope.

If I was printing a thousand copies of the letter, and a thousand envelopes, that might have made sense. That's something computers do very well. But to write one unique letter to one person, it was a supreme waste of time -- time I could have wasted surfing the Internet.

But nooooooo, I was stuck learning how to turn off the default paragraph spacing that was causing odd little breaks all over the place. I've seen scam letters from Nigeria that had better formatting than I was getting. No, I don't need bullets, justification, kerning and a thousand other formatting tools, I just want to

make lines that

do

this

instead of

lines

that do

this.

Nothing would work. Clearing formatting didn't work. Highlighting the words and telling them to single space didn't work. The program never did this before, so why is it doing it now? About an hour into the process, I began to long for my old 20-pound IBM Selectric. It would have been so much faster.

Here's how you address a letter with a computer: First, select an envelope template. Not easy. There are hundreds of them. One of them has pictures of cows on it. Another looks like you are sending the letter from the future. Another one uses so much colored ink it will use up two $15 cartridges before it finishes printing the return address.

Finally, you find one that doesn't look over-designed and you type in the information. Then all you have to do is take all the paper out of your printer, adjust the sliding guides to fit your envelope and insert an envelope. Now does the envelope go in right-side-up or upside-down? Who cares; just put in two different envelopes two different ways.

Then you go back to your computer and click "print." I haven't used the printer in a few days, so it decides to do a self-test, which takes a few minutes. Finally it prints one envelope, because I have forgotten to tell it to print two. The envelope has the address and the return address printed perfectly -- on the wrong side. Print another one. This one has the address and the return address printed perfectly -- but upside-down. I'll spare you the rest.

Here's how you do it on a typewriter: Insert an envelope. Type the address.

My goal is not a paper-free office; it is a stress-free, hassle-free life. Sometimes computers are good for that. Sometime they are not.

I would love to never have to waste that much time again, so I went on eBay to see if it was still possible to find an old IBM Selectric and some extra ribbons. Possible? It turns out that there are plenty of them out there, and they still work. Lots of them look almost unused after 50-odd years. Many of them were selling in the $250 range. In the 1960s, brand-new, they sold for around $450, or roughly $3,000 in today's dollars. It wasn't something most people could afford to have in the house.

But today was the first time I've had to write a formal letter on real stationery in years. For all I know, it may have been my last. An email or a handwritten note is usually enough. If I get an old typewriter, will I ever use it? And when it frustrates me, what will I want next? A fountain pen? Carbon paper? Mimeographs?

In the time I wasted looking up typewriters on eBay, I could have learned how to use my word processing program correctly. I'll bet there's an app for that.

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Jim Mullen is the author of "It Takes a Village Idiot: Complicating the Simple Life" and "Baby's First Tattoo."

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