Monday, March 12, 2012

If I Don't Look a Day Over 30, Why Do I Feel So Old? (Hint: It's Noisy, and You Haven't Seen One in Years)

Last night I had dinner with Edward, a 24-year-old guy from Moscow who has seen more of the world than most people his age. He recently returned to Bangkok, where he'd previously lived for two years, around the same time as I did, after spending awhile living and working in Japan. He speaks fluent Russian (naturally), English (with a proper British accent), Japanese, French, and, I gathered, another language or three. He lived through last year's earthquake in Japan, which hit shortly after he arrived in Tokyo, and he once moved halfway across the world (to Bangkok) for a guy he'd known for only three days on holiday.

As life experiences go, he put my 24-year-old self to shame. He's also one of those twentysomethings with highly evolved conversational skills, whose oral communication never betrayed his youth, until the conversation somehow landed on something which, to be honest, I hadn't thought much about since the last time I used one -- circa 1987, which, incidentally, is the year in which Edward was born.

He'd seen and done a lot in just short of two and a half decades, but the one thing he couldn't wrap his head around was the typewriter. Remember those? (And if you do, welcome to the old-folks club.) He'd seen one before, but in his mind, typewriters belonged to the pre-historic age, an era well before cassettes, vinyl records, 8-track tapes (which he'd actually never seen), and that really cool, antique-looking thing that his mother used to play music on.

I wasn't sure if I should say anything, but then decided, why not? I told him that I can remember a time when it was typewriters or nothing. The word processor had begun to emerge by the time I started college, but only the kids whose parents had a lot of money had one. In high school, every paper I ever wrote I wrote on a typewriter. Students were required to take one semester of typing class in order to learn how to use them. That's the only reason why I am able to so rapidly negotiate my way around my laptop keyboard today.

Edward looked at me like I had three heads and was telling him a tall tale set on another planet. "A class where you learn how to type... on a typewriter?" He made it sound so silly. "Yes," I responded. "And in 7th grade, I had to take a sewing class, too." This amused him, and may even have surprised him had he not been so focused on the typing thing.

He couldn't believe how backwards things were back in the '60s. I reminded him that I was a child of the '80s -- and at least we used electric typewriters, not those ancient-looking things you saw in black-and-white movies set in newsrooms or at the Daily Planet offices in the old Superman TV series -- not that he would have known what that was!

"So how did you learn how to type then?" Now I had to know how the younger generation learned how to use a keyboard. Had I thought about it before, I would have figured that typing classes must be a relic of the distant past, but I must have assumed that kids were required to take computer classes during which the mechanics of using a keyboard were taught. Maybe in some countries outside of Russia, they are.

But not for Edward. Spared the requirement of having to learn how to type properly (years of practice has helped him to remember where each letter is on the keyboard), he proudly does it the way people we used to make fun of back in the pre-computer days did: one finger at a time. Later on, when he was Googling the name of that cool, antique-looking thing that his mother used to play music on (a sort of plus-sized cassette, which he wasn't able to find it by its Russian name, so if you have any idea what he was talking about, please let me know), I watched his fingers. He was typing words on my laptop keypad the way he would a message on an iPhone.

I couldn't believe I'd never noticed it before: This must be how all people his age do it. But then, I'd never before had any reason to pay attention to anyone under 30 using a computer keyboard. Usually, I saw them plugging into their phones. I had no idea that's how they used computers, too. It looked as strange and foreign to me as my stories of typing class sounded to him.

If I had to do my job that way, I'd probably have to find another profession. It just wouldn't feel right. Although it would get the work done, it would take at least twice as long. It didn't seem conducive to communicating in more than two or three short sentences at a time. No wonder Generation Z is one of few words when it comes to sending emails. For them, Twitter, with its 140-character limit must be a Godsend.

Although Edward didn't think I looked a day over 30, I felt older when he went home than I had when we'd sat down to dinner. That said, I wouldn't give up my adventures in typing class for anything. It's the reason why I'm doing what I'm doing now -- typing away so early in the morning, sharing this story with anybody who will read it. One word, one sentence, but thank God, not one finger at a time.
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