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Faith in Vermont: Typewriters, and the Future of Vermont

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Posted on January 16, 2018 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



Last Sunday afternoon, a friend invited me to accompany her to a screening of Doug Nichol’s new documentary film, “California Typewriter,” at Middlebury’s Town Hall Theater.

Sunday afternoons are usually times I set aside to write this column, but the opportunity to go with an (adult!) friend to watch a film (for adults!) was too good to pass up.

As you may have guessed, I don’t get out much. The last film I saw in a theater was the animated Disney feature, “Moana,” watched a year ago in the company of my children. So you may take my film criticism with a grain of salt, but I’d encourage anyone who’s able to see “California Typewriter” to do so. It’s a beautifully made and thought provoking documentary -- an excellent way to spend two winter hours.

“California Typewriter” is a love song to typewriters, specifically the manual typewriter. Its praises are sung by voices including actor Tom Hanks, musician John Mayer, historian David McCullough, and playwright Sam Shepard. The film’s title is taken from the name of a family-run typewriter store in Berkeley, California -- one of the last standing typewriter repair shops in America. And the tension that the film explores is: Will the peculiar retro charm of the typewriter enable it to endure (and California Typewriter to remain in business) in our fast-paced digital culture?

I grew up with one foot in the typewriter era, and one in the dawning computer age. From my late elementary school years on, our family had a boxy Commodore 64 computer, on which I played ancient games like “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” and used the “Print Shop” program to create pointillist greeting cards with our dot matrix printer.  But I typed most of my papers and my college applications on our electric typewriter. My high school keyboarding class (on electric typewriters) remains one of the most useful courses I ever took.

Once I reached college, however, the typewriter sank into the mists of the past. Suddenly, everything was happening on computers. Typewriters barely crossed my mind – until my daughters started to love them.

My daughters encountered their first typewriter at their grandparents’ house. My parents, who take excellent care of everything, still have my mother’s old manual typewriter. One day they brought it out for the girls, and it was an immediate hit: My eldest daughter sat down and typed her entire life story (to date.)

A short time later, my youngest daughter’s preschool brought out a small collection of typewriters for students to experiment with. At this point, I started wondering about the attraction between children and typewriters.

The most obvious draw of typewriters is their immediacy: hit a key, and an inked letter instantly appears on the paper in front of you. When you’re finished typing, you can hold the finished product in your hands at once.

I understand why this is appealing to children, who like immediate gratification and tangible objects; apparently it’s also appealing to adults. In “California Typewriter,” every celebrity voice lauds the sense of creation that happens on a typewriter, the fact that you’re putting words on paper rather than pixels on a screen. Also frequently mentioned: The tactile and auditory pleasure of striking the keys and hearing the clicks. Tom Hanks insists that a typewritten note implies more thought and effort than an email, John Mayer prefers to compose on a typewriter because he can get his thoughts down without worrying about spellcheck, and David McCullough laments that computers make things too easy. Ease isn’t good for people, McCullough believes; therefore “because [the typewriter] is more difficult, it produces a better result.”

The typewriter’s appeal is depicted so seductively in “California Typewriter” that I went home and immediately started researching typewriters (I’m guessing I’m not the only one.)

As it turns out, typewriters are neither as easy to procure, nor as inexpensive, as their status as outdated technology might suggest. And that’s when it hit me that the typewriter could be an apt metaphor for Vermont.

Like typewriters, Vermont has a certain retro charm: It’s a small state (second smallest by population in the nation) that’s remained relatively undeveloped, with strict zoning laws that outlaw billboards and make life difficult for big-box stores. Vermont is a state of rolling green hills, red barns, and grazing herds of Holstein cows; a state associated with maple syrup, skiing, Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, and Bernie Sanders.

All of which made me fall in love with Vermont when our family moved here seven years ago. Now I’m forced to admit that, as with typewriters, the tension is whether Vermont will be able to endure in our fast-paced digital culture.

This is not to say that social media and smartphones have yet to reach Vermont: they have (and meetings are being held now to discuss the issue of smartphones in our school district's classrooms.) But a few years ago, a friend in the San Francisco Bay Area described how, when her family got together with other families, all of the children sat in a separate room playing games on their personal tablets. I may be hanging out with the wrong crowd, but when we gather with other families, all of the children run around like maniacs until we toss them outside. This anecdote encapsulates the differences I see between Vermont culture and what’s becoming normal in urban and suburban cultures elsewhere in the country. And, frankly, I’m grateful that I get to raise my children here.

Still, there’s a price to being a holdout in the prevailing culture, and Vermont hasn’t quite figured out how to pay. It’s all well and good to be a small, scenic state, but people need to be able to work in order to live. Although there are some success stories, it’s clear that Vermont’s small family farms can’t compete against massive agribusinesses elsewhere in the country. Strict zoning laws that keep overdevelopment at bay keep new business – and jobs – away, too. A small and decreasing population means a higher tax burden on those who remain. And high taxes and housing costs drive away young families, so shrinking schools are forced to close and consolidate, all of which further discourages young families from settling here.

Driving past our local sporting goods store this week, I saw a t-shirt in the window: Under Bernie Sanders’s trademark shock of white hair was the motto, “Make America Vermont Again.”

A year ago, I might have chuckled and nodded agreement. I still agree with the underlying sentiment: I would love nothing more than to see America embrace the best of Vermont by becoming a country that values undeveloped natural spaces, ethical and sustainable agriculture, and communities where people know and care for each other. I’m glad that Vermont resists becoming just another bland, overdeveloped, retail-brand-centric suburb.

But “Make America Vermont Again” has an ugly underbelly. Do we really want America to be a place of prohibitively high taxes, shuttered schools, young people who leave for jobs elsewhere, and a raging opiate crisis? To say nothing of the fact that Vermont is the second whitest state in the nation?

Cynicism in “California Typewriter” is embodied by Jeremy Mayer, an artist who takes apart old typewriters to create dazzling sculptures. After installing one of his sculptures in the San Francisco penthouse of a Silicon Valley executive, Mayer muses about a dystopian future in which there will be a few people with most of the money, who use technology to render themselves immortal. On the opposite end of the spectrum, he predicts, will be those who eschew technology and live in nature, “trying to remember what it is to be human.”

Later, standing on a beach in India, Mayer speaks with scorn about people who idealize the past. The human race has always been driven to apply its knowledge in the pursuit of progress, he says; the only way to look is forward into the future.

Is this really our choice? To look only future-ward, embracing technology until we merge with it, or to remain human by living in a pre-industrial bubble of denial? Put in Vermont terms: Must we choose between turning fields into office parks and strip malls, versus a slow death of failing farms and fleeing youth?

In the end, the California Typewriter store fights its way back from the brink of closure by embracing technology: the store’s owners start a website. That simple act – creating an online presence – is enough to keep the business afloat by attracting those for whom the technology of the past still has an appeal.

It's an elegant middle way; rejecting neither the past nor the future, but melding the two so that they support each other. I wonder whether such a solution is possible for Vermont: Can we remain a state of scenic beauty, small-scale agriculture, and caring communities, while also using the best of modern technology to create the jobs and housing that are needed to attract and retain future Vermonters?

This is not an easy concession for me to make: I’d rather be the ludite living among the trees, remembering what it is to be human. But I recognize this reaction isn’t in the best interest of all.

So perhaps, if we think creatively, we can make Vermont Vermont again.

(And while I’m not giving up my laptop just yet, if anybody out there has a working manual typewriter they’d like to sell for a reasonable price, I’m interested.)

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, four daughters, assorted chickens and ducks, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her "free time," she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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