Life’s little scratch ticket wins

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The other day I was getting ready for a short trip, and I went online to print out my airline ticket. I was delighted to see the TSA Pre-check designation on it. Pre-check means that you can go through a shorter, faster security line without removing your shoes, belt, computer, and small liquids. It saves some time and hassle and makes a plane trip a little bit more pleasant.

Of course, I could also send Uncle Sam a check and a completed form to fly Pre-check all the time. Maybe I’ll do so, because it does restore a dose of civility to the air travel experience. In the meantime, I greet the printing out of my ticket with hopeful anticipation that I’ll win the Pre-check lotto via whatever process the TSA folks use.

I call Pre-check one of life’s little scratch ticket wins: You know, those lottery tickets or customer cards where you scratch off an opaque covering to see if you’ve won a little something. Maybe it’s a small payout, a free sandwich, or a discount on your next purchase.

Life’s scratch ticket equivalents can pop up anywhere. Maybe you’re running late and you make the next subway train with seconds to spare. Or perhaps you discover that the very thing you want to buy is on sale. Until they went with all-day breakfast, making it to McDonald’s just before the morning menu ended would count, too!

As an educator, I used to think of snow days as being a scratch ticket win. But then came Snowpocalypse 2015 in Boston, with so many class cancellations that we had to have monster make-up classes once we dug out of winter. Suffice it to say, I greet snow days much less enthusiastically than before we got hit with 100+ inches of snow that winter.

Obviously we’d all like to win Mega Millions, but winning scratch tickets can put smiles on our faces as well.

Those random moments when you discover great music

When it comes to discovering my favorite genre of music — old standards by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Sinatra, and the like — I’m a bit of a late bloomer. Not until moving to New York for law school would I start discovering this wonderful music. In fact, I can pinpoint the evening in front of the TV set when began to realize the brilliance of George and Ira Gershwin.

Late in 1991, I was watching “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, and among Johnny’s guests was a young man who sang and played on the piano a couple of classic Gershwin tunes. His name was Michael Feinstein, and he was performing numbers from his first album, “Pure Gershwin.” (Today, of course, Feinstein is a star in his own right, having built a wonderful career out of preserving and promoting the Great American Songbook.)

Well folks, a lightbulb went off. I had been familiar with the works of the Gershwins and enjoyed them, but upon watching Feinstein on TV, I knew that I wanted to listen to more. The next day, I went to Tower Records in the Village and bought the cassette (yup, cassette) version of “Pure Gershwin.” I played that tape to death on my Sony Walkman and eventually had to replace it.

Fast forward to today, I have stacks of CDs containing different renditions of the Gershwins’ music, including Ella Fitzgerald, Maureen McGovern, Sinatra, and more from Feinstein.

In the weekly voice class I take and the periodic open mic cabaret nights I attend, it’s not unusual for me to sing a Gershwin number.

Recently I went to a Boston Pops concert featuring the music of the Gershwins, and the finale was a brilliant, moving performance of George’s masterpiece, “Rhapsody in Blue.”

Boston Pops concert (photo: Adeline Moya)

Boston Pops concert (photo: Adeline Moya)

Okay, so here’s my what-if, time-travelish, is-life-that-random question: What if I had not caught that episode of “The Tonight Show” back in 1991? Would this body of music mean so much to me today? What would my music collection look like? Would I be singing something else in my voice class? Would I even be taking a voice class at all? Are such discoveries completely random or somehow part of a grander scheme?

Class, discuss.

 

Who you gonna call?

Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Bill Murray visit with Jimmy Kimmel

Dan Ackroyd, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts, and Bill Murray visit with Jimmy Kimmel

It’s hard to believe that “Ghostbusters” is 32 years old as of this summer! And with the remake of the movie (and a new, female cast in the leads) scheduled for its theatrical release in July, several actors from the original are making the rounds of TV talk shows to indulge in some nostalgia and to promote the new arrival.

“Ghostbusters” is a great comedy, as one might expect of a flick featuring Bill Murray and Dan Ackroyd in their primes. I also count it among the wonderful New York movies. It made terrific use of the city, and there’s a line by Ernie Hudson at the end — no spoiler necessary — that captures it all: I love this town!!!

I remember the summer when “Ghostbusters” opened. I had finished my second year of law school at NYU, and I was working as a summer associate at one of the big law firms in Chicago. This was something of a test for me: To try out the corporate legal sector and to return to the Midwest. Well, as I’ve reminisced here previously, I felt like a fish out of water. The world of what is now called BigLaw wasn’t for me, and I badly missed New York. The city scenes in “Ghostbusters” made me pine ever more for the streets of Manhattan.

The theme music from “Ghostbusters” would become a hit single. I remember buying the movie soundtrack and playing it often on my cassette Walkman, which would serve as my “stereo system” until I finally cobbled together enough money to buy a nice boom box.

Oh gawd, once again my sense of time gets all distorted here. In the time machine that is my nostalgic brain, that summer remains a vivid memory. And yet there are stretches of my life from, say, 6 or 12 or 20 years past, that seem like epochs ago. Weird.

The new boarding houses: Dorm life for graduates

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Okay, college graduates, if you could continue dormitory-type living even after leaving school, would you opt to do so? If your answer is “yes,” then you may be pleased to see this option developing in certain cities.

WeWork, a company that has pioneered the concept of co-working rental office space for entrepreneurial start-ups, is now branching out with WeLive, “communal housing” rentals aimed at recent graduates and young professionals who may find themselves priced out of the housing market in expensive urban areas. Melody Hahm, writing for Yahoo! Finance, explored the new WeLive space in Manhattan:

I thought my college years were behind me. But I’m seriously reconsidering the dorm life since visiting Manhattan’s first-ever location of communal living startup WeLive.

Of course, the concept of communal housing isn’t novel. . . .

But this isn’t your typical dorm situation: You have your own apartment but get access to a chef’s kitchen, yoga studio, conference room, laundry/arcade room, and neighbors who actually want to talk to you.

In many ways, WeLive looks and sounds like a post-graduate residence hall, at a premium price:

The layouts in WeLive’s 400 units range from small studios to four-bedrooms, and all apartments come fully furnished. Per-tenant pricing begins at $1,375 but if you want a bit more privacy, you’ll have to dole out at least $2,000 per month. The most common setup is the “studio plus,” which comes with two beds (one is a Murphy hidden in the wall); these range from $2,500 to $2,800. A flat monthly utilities payment of $125 covers electric, water, cable, wifi and cleaning costs (yes, housekeeping is included).

Here’s how WeLive describes itself on its website:

WeLive is a new way of living built upon community, flexibility, and a fundamental belief that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with. We know life is better when we are part of a community that believes in something larger than itself. From mailrooms and laundry rooms that double as bars and event spaces to communal kitchens, roof decks, and hot tubs, WeLive challenges traditional apartment living through physical spaces that foster meaningful relationships. Whether for a day, a week, a month, or a year, by joining WeLive – you’ll be psyched to be alive.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, then you know that I’m fond of sharing nostalgic moments from my college and law school years. I can even get a little soggy over memories of dorm life. At Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, my undergraduate alma mater, I lived in dormitories, with the exception of a final semester spent in a study abroad program. At New York University in Manhattan, my legal alma mater, I lived in law school residence halls throughout my stay there.

When I graduated from NYU Law, bound and determined to save the world as a Legal Aid lawyer (and with a $20,000 salary to remind me of my lofty idealism), my Manhattan housing options were practically non-existent. Consequently, I followed the trail blazed by other young denizens of the city’s non-profit sector and crossed the bridge into Brooklyn for a relatively cheap apartment share and a long subway ride to work. My first place was a three-bedroom apartment share. I believe the total rent, split three ways, was $1,000.

Those affordable Park Slope apartment shares are no more. The brownstone rentals so popular among my fellow Legal Aid colleagues and others similarly situated are now homes commanding high six and even seven figures in the current real estate market.

And so comes the market opportunity for WeLive. With more bohemian living options no longer available in places like New York, WeLive steps into the void and offers young, hip, and conveniently located housing options aimed at Millennials. Measured against the cost of living standards of almost any other area, WeLive is still pretty expensive. But to find a comparable rental in New York, your daily commute might start to resemble a sojourn.

When I moved to New York in the 1980s, gentrification and higher living costs were very much a part of the civic dialogue. Today, however, the housing costs are mind boggling. New York is not alone in this reality, at least among high demand urban places. This is definitely the case here in Boston.

It’s why ventures like WeLive are getting attention. In reality they are expensive versions of what 50 or 75 years ago would’ve been called boarding houses, with a dose of social selectiveness built into the marketing: WeLive is a new way of living built upon community, flexibility, and a fundamental belief that we are only as good as the people we surround ourselves with.

Personally, I’d rather have affordable apartment shares in Brooklyn, but I realize that time has passed.

A door stopper of a look at Stephen King’s body of work

I stumbled upon George Beahm’s The Stephen King Companion (2015) at one of the local bookstores earlier this week. After checking out the table of contents and skimming a few chapters, I knew I was going to buy it. This is an exhaustive (just under 600 pp.) examination of King’s body of work and life, and a much needed update of Beahm’s original 1989 edition. You don’t have to be a fanatic devotee of King’s books to appreciate this volume; earnest fandom will do.

If you want to gauge the influence of, and regard for, a contemporary writer, check out whether others are writing books and articles about the author that go beyond reviews of their latest work. If the answer is yes, it means that their work — however “popular” or grounded in a certain genre — has achieved a certain literary quality. There are plenty of writers who continually churn out bestsellers. Few of them, however, inspire others to write books and articles about their books. J.K. Rowling has achieved this status with Harry Potter and Co. The late Stieg Larsson has managed to do so with only three books, his Millennium trilogy crime novels published posthumously.

And then, of course, there’s Stephen King. Here’s a snippet of what I wrote about King’s work last November:

On Facebook I have had exchanges with friends on the question of who is our generation’s Charles Dickens, and King’s name comes up quickly and enthusiastically. . . . King’s work is much more than a generational passing fancy. Like that of Dickens, people will be reading his stuff for many decades to come.

What distinguishes these authors from other writers of best sellers is that their work has a level of intellectual depth — perhaps with a psychological, social, historical, or philosophical angle — that invites commentary, speculation, and discussion.

So . . . let’s say you’re an avid reader who, like me, has trouble sticking with the classics or the “Great Books.” But you also may not want to spend your time on books that are here today, gone tomorrow. If Shakespeare, the ancient Greek philosophers, Jane Austen, or even Dickens aren’t commanding your attention span, then you could do much worse than spending quality time with modern authors whose work has invited commentary, speculation, and discussion.

Origins of book geekdom

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This Facebook meme from Buzzfeed caught my attention over the weekend, leading with the tagline “Your dream was to have a gigantic library in your home when you grew up.”

Now, I have to admit that I was not a classic child bookworm. In fact, my reading tastes as a kid were far from being “literary,” and once I got beyond the storybooks our parents would read with us, I resisted just about any type of fiction. In grade school, I preferred books about history, trains, planes, tornadoes, and science. As I went into high school and then college, books about sports and politics appeared on my radar screen. In college I would discover horror, mystery, and suspense novels.

It wasn’t until well until my adult years, in any case, when I started referring to my book collection as a personal library. This was due in part to the fact that the (then cheap) Brooklyn apartment shares I lived in didn’t lend themselves to the use of such lofty labels. But as the dozens of books grew into the hundreds of books, a library they were becoming.

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These memories were tapped the other day when I received the latest catalog from bookseller Edward R. Hamilton, a company that has been in business for many decades, specializing in sales of remaindered books. When I was in college, I would pore over their book catalogs in search of bargains that would stretch the dollars I saved up from working at a local drugstore chain. Several times a year, I would make my selections ever-so-carefully, write them down on the order form, and mail it away. I then eagerly waited for my books to be delivered.

Growing up in northwest Indiana, there wasn’t much in the way of bookstores. A major shopping mall had these tiny, hole-in-the-wall B.Dalton and Waldenbooks stores, but their selections were limited. Mail order booksellers like Edward R. Hamilton and Barnes & Noble (then exclusively based in New York City) were a revelation. I would actually feel my pulse race when their hefty catalogs arrived.

Of course, today it’s all different, with book buying options galore. And now that I live in Boston — a city tailor made for book lovers — the local choices are plentiful, even in this era of decline for brick-and-mortar bookstores.

Watching a show within a show: “The Day After” on “The Americans”

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If you’re wondering whether we’re still in a Golden Age of television drama, then look no further than “The Americans” on FX. The show stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as deep-planted Soviet spies, fronting as parents of an All-American family living outside of Washington D.C. during the early 1980s.

During its first three years, I’ve regarded it as an excellent drama, though perhaps a step below iconic classics such as “The Wire.” In the current season four, however, “The Americans” has moved to the next level. It is delivering other-worldly acting, morally complex storylines, and the look-and-feel of 1980s America and the last decade of the Cold War. It is riveting entertainment.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you’re a regular viewer but haven’t caught the recent episodes, you might want to come back to this later!)

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In the last episode, many of the major characters find themselves gathered around their television screens, watching the November 1983 airing of “The Day After,” an ABC made-for-TV movie depicting the devastating effects of a Russian nuclear attack on America, centering on the small city of Lawrence, Kansas. Here’s how reviewer Hank Stuever described the episode for the Washington Post:

On “The Americans,” the characters all watch in stunned silence, including secret Soviet spies Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) and their kids, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati), and their friendly next-door FBI agent, Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his son, Matthew (Daniel Flaherty). Even the Russians who work at the Rezidentura in Washington tune in – Oleg Burov and Tatiana Ruslanova (Costa Ronin and Vera Cherny) watched it curled up on the bed.

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In real life, watching “The Day After” was a very similar experience. The Post‘s Stuever writes:

As seen on . . . “The Americans,” people really did set everything aside on the night of Sunday, Nov. 20, 1983, to watch ABC’s depressingly sober TV movie “The Day After.” It told the story of a handful of people in and around Lawrence, Kan., who had the misfortune of surviving an all-out nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Please understand: This was a television event in a way that we’ll probably never see again. You see, when it comes to watching stuff on screens, we’ve become increasingly atomized (pun intended). A century ago, a theater would bring together hundreds of people to watch movies and newsreels. Fifty years ago, folks watched programs with family and friends in front of television sets. Today, we often watch TV programs and movies in different rooms of the house or stream them on our various devices.

Americans viewed “The Day After” huddled together in front of our television sets. I was in my second year of law school at NYU, and a big group of us gathered to watch it in one of our dorm rooms. Today, with so many actual horrors captured on video and posted to social media, it may be difficult to grasp that this fictional movie was jarring and upsetting to many. But such was the case. We talked about it for days.

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The threat of nuclear annihilation was very real during this final decade of the Cold War. That same academic year, I was on the staff of NYU’s international law journal, one of several student-edited law reviews published at the law school. A few weeks before the airing of “The Day After,” our journal hosted a panel discussion on nuclear arms control, moderated by McGeorge Bundy (National Security Advisor to President Kennedy) and featuring a prominent group of diplomatic and military policy experts.

The subject matter of the panel extended way beyond mere academic speculation, and I recall a tone of seriousness in the dialogue among the speakers. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game around the world. “The Day After” would show us what that meant with more dramatic effect. This episode of “The Americans” brilliantly brought back those memories.

I save way too much stuff. I should've been an archivist.

I save way too much stuff. I should’ve been an archivist.

***

A personal note: At NYU Law, I volunteered to help out with that nuclear arms program. By doing so, I got to join the pre-panel dinner with the speakers in the faculty dining room. I mostly kept my mouth shut out of fear of saying something stupid. Nevertheless, I was thrilled — I was sharing a meal with some heavy hitters — this was cool stuff for me!

In return for this perk, however, I was handed a lot of grunt work by the senior editors, for our main post-panel task was to transcribe and edit the proceedings for publication. I was assigned to proofread the transcript and to generate dozens of footnotes documenting facts and events described by the panelists, a hefty pre-Internet research project that ate up countless hours in the dungeon level of the law library.

Working on this journal was my introduction to graduate-level scholarly work. I can’t say that the experience of developing footnotes from scratch to verify the accuracy of the panelists’ remarks was all that enjoyable! In fact, it persuaded me to pass up an opportunity to serve as a senior editor during my third and final year of law school. I didn’t want to spend my last year at NYU editing more manuscripts and chasing down more sources in the library.

Now, of course, I’m writing hundreds of footnotes for my own scholarly articles. What a twist! Let’s just say that this was not a foreseeable development during my more anti-authoritarian law school days.

Year two at Hogwarts

Last week I finished Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first in the series. A few days ago I started in on book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I’ve never been one for fantasy literature. But I’m now comprehending what the Harry Potter hype has been all about. J.K. Rowling is a brilliant, clever, imaginative, and socially intelligent story teller. And going from book one to two, I am bearing witness to her growth as a writer.

Of course, I may be biased because the stories are placed in a school setting. Hogwarts is basically a junior high and high school boarding institution, albeit a quite unusual one. But because of ongoing references to specific books and courses — a wonderfully imagined “curriculum” on Rowling’s part — it also feels like a sort of Cambridge or Oxford for junior apprentice witches and wizards.

I don’t know if I’ll read the entire series straight through, but I’m betting that I will finish the books by sometime in the fall. It’s fun to lose myself in that world, so I’ll savor the stories rather than speed through them. No need for a Nimbus two thousand here.

***

I may be just embarking on year two at Hogwarts, but in real life I’m finishing another academic year. Grading final exams and papers isn’t nearly as bad as taking them, but nevertheless I still manage to summon the procrastinatory habits that served me so well steadily in college and law school. This has been an exhausting semester for reasons that have little to do with my courses or students — let’s just say that the internal politics and drama of academic institutions can be very draining and unnecessary — so I will be happy to close it out.

On a local note, we’re finally seeing some real spring weather here in Boston. I shot the picture below on late Wednesday afternoon. It’s right outside my subway stop in Jamaica Plain, and after exiting the station I sat down on one of the benches and did a bit of reading and catching up on e-mails. For a while I forgot about the pile of exams and papers awaiting me!

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Will I ever again be a Mad Scientist?

One of my favorite boyhood books was Bertrand R. Brinley’s The Mad Scientists’ Club (1965), a collection of short stories about a group of young science geeks in the fictional town of Mammoth Falls. The boys of the club used their scientific know-how to get in and out of various adventures. They had a clubhouse, scientific equipment scrounged up from here and there, and enough outdoor gear to support their explorations.

With stories like “The Strange Sea Monster of Strawberry Lake,” “Night Rescue,” and “The Big Egg,” The Mad Scientists’ Club takes us back to a time when kids created their own fun, without having every hour scheduled and coordinated by adults. The unstructured time enabled children to improvise and imagine. More often than not, they, nay, we managed to do so without getting into too much trouble!

Grade school years are a wonderful time to stoke curiosities about science, and The Mad Scientists’ Club captures that fascination. But I know that things have changed. Today, I’m afraid, keyboards, screens, and smartphones might overcome the exploratory instincts of yore.

I caught the science bug early. My first view was to the skies. I became interested in astronomy early in grade school. This was, after all, the early heyday of America’s space program, and our young imaginations were filled with wonder over what might exist above. What would it be like to travel in a space capsule? Is there life on Mars? Do UFOs exist?

Soon my fascination turned toward the invisible, and those curiosities required a microscope. A birthday present in the form of a student microscope (much like the one pictured above) brought enough magnifying power to observe the activities of one-celled animals — protozoa — such as amoeba and paramecia. I read up on early pioneers such as Anton van Leeuwenhoek, the 17th century Dutch scientist who used his own hand-crafted microscopes to explore the world of microorganisms.

The microscope gave me many hours of fun exploration, especially when I made slides filled with stagnant water, blood, tiny brine shrimp, plant cuttings, and other objects. The cheap metal case that came with the microscope opened to form my own little lab in the bedroom I shared with my brother Jeff.

I think it’s more than nostalgia for my childhood — which wasn’t nearly as dramatic or exciting as that portrayed in The Mad Scientists’ Club — that has caused me to go online at times to price out student microscopes and biology kits. I live within walking distance of a pond where I could collect all sorts of specimens to view through a microscope, and I sometimes wonder if I could lose myself in a hobby that appeals to the little kid in me.

For now, I’ve got plenty of good stuff to keep me busy, and I’m not sure where I’d find the time to add another hobby. But I’ll definitely keep this on my radar screen.

On typing and typewriters

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No power needed, except that of your fingers and your mind. (Vintage typewriter courtesy of Adeline Moya)

For many years I’ve quipped that Introduction to Typing and Driver’s Education were the two most valuable courses I took in high school. Actually it’s more than a quip. If you toss my junior year American History course into the mix, I think you’d have the academic holy trinity of my high school career. (Yes, I was something of a rebellious underachiever in high school.)

Anyway, back to typing class: I really wanted to learn how to type. Even as an adolescent, I felt that typing out my thoughts and ideas would somehow render them more, well, significant. Once I learned how to type, I would use my mom’s old Royal manual typewriter to bang out term papers for school. And when I got involved in the student council, I would learn how to cut mimeograph stencils for printing out the council newsletter.

Of course, just because I enjoyed typing doesn’t mean I was good at it. I made lots of mistakes…and still do. In the ancient era before word processing programs and home computers, that usually meant using either liquid paper or Ko-rec-type to cover up one’s mistakes and then type over them. I did this a lot, and it slowed down my typing speed.

Off to college

When I went off to college at Valparaiso University, my main off-to-school present was a Smith-Corona electric typewriter. Whoa…..I was now moving up in the world! This model used ribbon cartridges instead of old-fashioned spooled ribbons. If you made a typing error, you could swap out the ribbon cartridge for a correcting cartridge that would white out the mistake. It is a miracle that I did not develop a repetitive stress injury swapping out those cartridges.

My typing life changed when I joined the staff of my college newspaper, The Torch. You see, the newspaper office had two IBM correcting Selectric typewriters. Typing on those machines was a sublime experience. During down times when folks weren’t working on stories, we were free to commandeer the typewriters for our papers and projects. The presence of those typewriters is one of the reasons why that office became our unofficial hangout, even when we weren’t working on the newspaper.

Now, those of later generations might not fully appreciate these challenges, but writing term papers and other assignments in the B.C. era (Before Computers) was a very, very different experience, especially when minimum or maximum page limits were in play. Most of us would first write out our papers in long hand, and then estimate if the cumulative sheafs of paper would, when typed up, potentially run afoul of the page limits. If you didn’t have a good sense of how your cursive writing translated into typed pages, you might be in for some unpleasant surprises, leading to late nights before papers were due.

Lugging it to NYC

I took my Smith Corona with me to law school at NYU. I cannot recall how I got that heavy, bulky machine to its destination, but I may have even checked it as part of my baggage for the flight from Chicago to New York. In some ways, these challenges have not changed; even in the digital era, there are only so many ways to move one’s belongings from here to there.

This was right before the home computer revolution, and very few of my classmates had PCs. Most of us continued to type our papers, with added challenges in terms of margins and page length when writing out practice versions of legal documents. By this time, we were overlapping with the emerging age of computers. At NYU I worked on one of our scholarly law journals and on the law school student newspaper, and we had computer word processing capabilities for both publications.

A computer of my own

I would not own a personal computer until several years after graduating from law school, a Commodore 64 that supported a superb game library and rudimentary word processing programs. I would later move up to an IBM PC compatible machine, and at that point I transitioned from typewriter to word processing. I became enamored of the wonderful, awesome WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS program, which remains to me the best ever software package for writing productivity. In fact, ever since being more or less forced into using the tyrannical, control-freakish, and cumbersome Microsoft Word, my writing efficiency has declined.

Today, I’ve morphed over to Apple products, but I’m still stuck with Microsoft Word. Someday I’d like to give a serious tryout to Scrivener, a word processing program that has a fiercely devoted following. As for my blogs, I use the WordPress platform, which I find easy to navigate.

Changing technologies aside, it’s clear to me that my original motivation for learning how type — to share my thoughts and ideas — remains the main reason why I’m sitting before a keyboard today. And thank goodness that you, kind reader, get to read what’s on my mind with (most of) the typos cleaned up.

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