THIS IS MY SECOND attempt at writing this column. The first attempt ended in total disaster when all of my bons mots were devoured before my eyes by the machine upon which they were being written. The machine, as you might have guessed, is not my beloved and trusted typewriter which did nothing more than faithfully record words on paper with only a few misspellings. No, not anymore. The machine in question is a computer, a sleek new presence which is familiar to all the folks who watch the Lou Grant show, but which I should tell you right off, is not familiar to a lot of the folks who work in the newsroom of The Washington Post.
We've known for several years now that the computers were coming, but there were enough delays along the way that we got lulled into a false sense of security. The future was not yet now.But it became clear during this past spring and summer that the end of the typewriter age was in sight. Workmen invaded the newsroom, rewiring things, digging up floors and tearing out ceilings. By the beginning of August, hundreds of terminals that looked like Japanese televisions appeared. The word was out: By September we would all be working on computers. The option was such that computers were no longer a joking matter.
For those of us who have been reluctant to leap into the 21st century, the computers have been a source of deep and abiding anxiety. We have all been hearing stories from colleagues on other newspapers about how computers have "aborted" their stories, (a genteel computer term for killed, or lost them or mixed them up with other people's stories. My husband, who wrote for years on a typewriter, switched to a computer at his newpaper and began calling home saying he would be late for dinner because "the computer was down." One time it swallowed two-thirds of his column.
When I got back from vacation, I found a memo in my mailbox informing me that I was to attend the second week of computer training classes. For the next few days I watched with a mixture of dread and curiosity as colleague after colleague vanished from the newsroom for the first round of course and reappeared bearing thick red books filled with arcane instructions about how to work the computer. Reporters and editors who had heretofore shown an appreciation and even, in some cases, a love for the English language came back spouting a whole new vocabulary that you knew right off interfaced with computers. They talked about being in the read mode, not to mention the edit mode, and when they got carried away with their new skills they would dabble on the machines in the newsroom and go into the insert mode right before your very eyes.
(I almost got in terrible trouble right then. I pushed the "store" button when I should have pushed the "record" button and the machine abruptly flashed a message on the screen that I was "INVALID IN THE READ/WRITE MODE." The last time I did that I lost the beginning of the column entirely. Since being invalid is obviously better than being killed, I must be getting better.)
To continue. I began having computer anxiety attacks, similar to the math anxiety attacks I had in high school. What if I couldn't understand the computers? What if I couldn't make them work? What would I do for a living that didn't involve computers? What was to become of me?
The first class did not go well. One of our earliest exercises involved writing our bylines into the computer and following that with the phrase "Washington Post Staff Writer." I misspelled about half of that and then tried to repair the errors and the next thing I knew things were falshing widly on the screen and our instructor was throwing up his hands and signaling the computer to "abort" the entire effort. To my humiliation, I had to start all over.
But I got better at it. When it came time to make some letters in bold roman type I did it without a hitch. I learned how to delete characters and define graphs and how to find old stories and how to hide my personal documents so that editors summoning up a column would not find themselves looking at my grocery list.
By the end of the second class I had gotten over a lot of my anxiety and mastered the technique of writing in my name and the name of the story. By then, of course, the class had gone onto far more sophisticated modes and some showoffs were talking about "list parameters" and transferring messages to each other and "changing headers" and splitting screens and scrolling up and scrolling down and they were asking questions that you knew were designed, not to elicit information, but to make the rest of us look like dummies.
But for better or for worse, we have entered the computer age and those who have gone before us in the newsroom have sent back rave reviews. And so far, they seem to be right. Writing this column was a piece of cake: I lost three lead paragraphs, the machine froze on me three times, and two printing machines refused to print copies of what I had written. I kept storing things so that they would vanish off the screen instead of recording them. The machine refused repeatedly to honor my commands to abort and to clear, not to mention my orders to execute and scroll down. And in the end when the machine stopped functioning dead in its tracks, it was not much of a comfort when the technician who came over to rescue me fixed me with a flinty look and said: "What did you do to it?"
Something tells me now is the time to move into the pray mode.