Reflection 145: Typewriter Consciousness
August 21, 2009
(Copyright © 2009)
I taught at Abbott Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, from 1969 until the school folded in 1973. Or was folded. Those were the days when single-sex schools were judged to have outlived their time, and were fast disappearing from the landscape. Abbott, a school for girls, was folded into Phillips Academy, the boys school up the hill. That last school year 1972-1973 was stressful because I had no idea where I would go from there. I couldn’t get my mind to focus on any kind of future, either practical or fanciful. What did I want to be when I grew up? I had no idea.
Not one to sit around being anxious, I put all my spare time into my typewriter, not turning out words so much as animal shapes built from words. I needed a new discipline, so I invented one to suit myself, combining my interest in wildlife with my visual nature, turning out monoprints typed one letter at a time, creating a kind of bestiary that gave me particular pleasure during an era in my life when anxiety spoiled the view out every window, so I retreated into my head.
As things worked out, Bart Hayes, Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art, conducted a summer program at the Landmark School aimed at developing the visual comprehension and hand-eye coordination of students with learning disabilities, and I applied my photographic skills to that program during the summer following Abbott’s demise. Which led to my learning to tutor learning-disabled students, and a job at Landmark teaching visual comprehension that lasted the six years until I went for my master’s degree at Boston University. In the meantime, I had a show of my typed animal monoprints at the Addison Gallery, a catalogue from the show, and a brief career as a concrete poet in residence in a number of public schools in Massachusetts.
None of which happened by the conventional route of applying for a job, submitting a resume, going for an interview, and all that. It just came together in an unimaginably complex fashion as a result of my inability to cope with the threatening loss of my job teaching English and humanities at Abbott Academy. Strange business, to drop the phrase I picked up from Robert Graves’ essay on Chinese humor—a phrase that so aptly describes so much of what has happened in my life.
I had no way to justify making typewriter animals—I just typed them out in spite of myself. I had no choice: to be me, I had to do it. Feeling guilty and elated at the same time. Forbidden games! I knew I was wasting time, except as it turned out, I wasn’t. I got a show, I got a catalog, I got a job. Except I didn’t go out and get them, they came to me sitting in my chair, concentrating on where the type hit the platen. That’s where I lived for almost a year, in that tiny space. The font I lived in was called Prestige Pica 72. The world spun around me while I sat with eyes focused just there, not really doing anything but imagining grids of letters, offsetting them one way or the other as I moved down the page, starting upper left, ending lower right, one keystroke at a time. For sure I was abusing my fancy IBM Selectric typewriter, using it for something it wasn’t made to do. Doing something I certainly wasn’t made to do. There I was, leading edge of natural and cultural evolution, turning out images of animals on a machine. Deliberately, patiently, carefully, as if following some plan written in my genes. Putting my conscious mind down on paper—as if that was my job.
Much of what we call rational behavior probably isn’t all that rational. It is simply what we’re used to doing, or to seeing others do, so it makes sense to us. But I couldn’t blame what I was doing on anyone but me. I just invented myself in that particular way at that time in my life. Out of some kind of need to type words in animal shapes one letter at a time. Now where did that come from? Obviously, my mind—and behind it, my brain. My brain made me do it. I was just the medium it used to get the job done. Out of a thousand monkeys typing for a billion years, one might have done the same. The thousandth monkey, that was me.
I couldn’t make sense of it then; I barely can now some 36 years later. But I do know it must have made sense to my unconscious brain, which turned the urge into action, reducing me to a spectator of my own body doing its thing, sitting there typing. Who was living my life if not me? I certainly wasn’t in control. Dissociation that’s called, the opposite of integration. And I can’t blame an angel or devil for whispering in my ear. As a kind of automatic writing, what I was doing was whatever the universe told me to do in furthering its grand design. That’s how it seemed. But of course it wasn’t that. My brain cells made the whole thing up because it suited them. I lacked order in my life so, craving meaningful order, my mind fulfilled itself using my typewriter. I stayed busy and out of trouble. I got through a rough time.
This just in from insight central: As a kid, I knew my father primarily by the sound of his typewriter coming through the study door. His job involved paperclips, pencils, a stapler, a zinc clipboard without the clip—and that upright typewriter banging away night after night. That’s where I was, in that kind of kid space, not understanding—just being there. I had no idea what he was doing, and I didn’t expect to know. Life just happened like that, you weren’t expected to ask what it meant or why it took that particular form. Only later do you wonder about such things. At the time, not making sense made perfect sense. How else could it have been? It was what it was.
That feels right. Under stress, I was doing what I thought my father would have done. Type away. And the animal shapes? I’ve always been taken with animals. They were probably safer than people. I could always relate to animals—project myself into their skins. Eagles, ospreys, squirrels, muskrats—they lived in my world. They were what they were and did what they did; I didn’t ask questions.
I had the typewriter; I had the paper, I had a motive to get out of my head, I had the anxiety—so I made the time to revert to my child self, following the example my father set, which he had no idea he was setting while doing whatever it was that he did behind the door to his study.
Now my older brother types out plays on an upright typewriter, my younger brother poetry on a computer, and me, I blog my life into existence. Strange business, this having a mind that won’t tell you what it’s up to, but does it anyway.