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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 27, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Keyboards, Good-bye to Medium, Harry's Law

When I was growing up, I considered a typewriter to be a household appliance -- because in my house, it was. My mother was a keyboard athlete -- her 100 word-per-minute speed sounded like the whining of a high wind through the eaves of a house.

She was so good at it that she didn't bother with typewriter erasers -- they always left ugly smudges anyway. If she made a mistake on the last letter of a page, she'd pull out the sheet, tear it in half, insert a new one, and type the page over.

"It's faster to retype it than to try to erase it," she said, and for her it was true.

My mother needed to type because her job, whether she worked inside or outside our home, involved that keyboard. She was on the "wrong" side of that vast gulf between bosses and the people who type for them.

She knew shorthand and took dictation, then transcribed it, wordlessly correcting grammatical errors and making incoherent sentences make sense.

By the time I was ten I began to try touch typing on the family's little portable manual typewriter. It was only five times heavier than a good solid laptop today. I ended up doing the four-finger method that most untrained typists eventually develop.

When I was thirteen, my parents enrolled me in an adult typing class in the local university's evening school. By the end of the semester I was at about fifty words a minute. This was back when a keyboard required real strength -- you were pushing downward to mechanically flip a metal lever upward to smack the typewriter ribbon with a letter-shaped chip of metal.

If your rhythm was not perfectly even, two keys would arrive at the same time and jam, so evenness of rhythm was part of being a good typist. Then along came the IBM Selectric typewriter with a little ball covered in letters.

With all the "keys" controlling which face of the ball struck the rhythm, keys never jammed and it took nowhere near as much strength to make the keys work.

"Now anybody can type," my mother once said scornfully. And she was right. But I was still proud of having the strength to get firm, even key imprints from a clunky manual typewriter.

Then computers came along, and a strange thing happened. Yes, secretaries' lives became easier, but then, with email and laptops, the computer moved across that great divide and started showing up on bosses' desks.

The oldest of the old coots aren't using computers, but most of the generation right behind mine is sending their own emails. Typing has become a useful skill for everyone. If you count thumbing texts into a smartphone, almost everyone is typing now.

Most of them are using the primitive-but-natural four-finger method (index and tall finger of both hands, with the typist peering intently at the keyboard rather than the screen). But they're typing, and they're pretty quick.

It's as if my mom and I became experts at an uncommon sport like, say, the discus. And then suddenly the frisbee was invented and now everybody is pitching the discus. Only we're still better than most.

A few months ago, however, I found out that something quite dreadful had happened. My mother couldn't type as easily as she used to. It was keeping her from writing emails. It wasn't about her skill and speed -- those continued unabated.

It was the small letterforms on the computer keyboard.

Now, as a touch typist she shouldn't have needed to see the keys at all, should she? Here's one of the secrets of touch typing: She and I learned to type before there were any function or cursor-control keys. And since every computer keyboard places these keys eccentrically, you have to look at the keyboard to make sure you're finding the right one.

And as her eyes had a harder time changing focus -- even from screen to keyboard -- she just couldn't make out the difference among the keys, especially the ones that all begin with F.

I certainly didn't want to stop getting emails and other writings from my mom. So I went to that great department store called Amazon.com (it's not just about books anymore) and looked for large-print keyboards.

There were several choices, but the ones that seemed best to me were called "Keys-U-See Large Print Keyboards." They came in black with white lettering and white with black lettering. And the letters, numbers, and symbols were so large and clear that you could read them from Nebraska.

Not knowing whether black on white or white on black would be better for her, I ordered both -- they were cheap as can be. My family reported that the quality seemed excellent -- good stroke and tactile feedback, rugged-seeming case, quick electronics.

And not only my mom, but other family members, some of them younger than my mom, reported that the keyboard (they ended up choosing the white letters on black keys) was much easier to read.

It seems to me that if even a wizard touch-typist needs bigger letters on her keyboard, then four-finger and two-finger typists will need it sooner, since they have to look at the keyboard to type simple text, and not just to see the function keys.

*

I don't believe in mediums or psychics; I think the ones that put themselves forward (especially for money) are all fakes. So when the show Medium came on the air in 2005, based on the "real life adventures" of a self-promoting psychic from Phoenix, I dismissed the whole idea with contempt.

Until I was visiting with some friends during the second season and they prevailed on me to watch the latest episode, which they had TiVoed. "Don't think of it as real," they said. "Think of it as fantasy -- if psychics could actually hear from the dead or see visions, what would it be like to live with that gift?"

With that happy attitude in mind, I watched ... and fell in love. Not with the idea of psychics, but with the dead-on realistic family life of Allison Dubois (Patricia Arquette) and her husband Joe (Jake Weber). Their relationship as husband and wife was written and played so believably that I thought there must be at least one writer associated with the show who was actually happily married -- or knew someone who was.

Most of the time Hollywood depicts marriages nastily or so ideally that you can't believe the writers had ever met a married person except for their own parents, whom they had still not forgiven for the crime of being imperfect.

It's either the ideal sticky-sweet marriage of Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver, or it's the savage parody of Married with Children or All in the Family.

Medium also showed them as good-but-human parents from the first episode to the last. Sofia Vassilieva as the oldest daughter, Ariel, and Maria Lark as the tough-talking middle girl, Bridgette, were written as believable kids. Sometimes they could be brats, but they weren't trying to be, and they loved their parents and each other.

The crime-solving-through-dreams-and-visions storylines were always intriguing and resourceful, and if they relied heavily on "visions" that only gave partial answers until the full reveal came right at the end of the episode, hey, that's the way they set up the rules of magic in this fictional universe.

There were missteps and imperfect episodes, but all in all it was handled about as well as a show that pretends fake psychics are real possibly could be.

Last week, as the sixth season ended, so did the whole series. No cliffhangers this time. Somebody had watched the original film version of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and that's the ending they went for, though there was plenty of mystery and courtroom action, too.

That last episode accomplished two wonderful things. First, it flashed forward enough to give us an idea of how everything worked out for all the characters. And, second, it showed us that the family's lives would be so sharply transformed that even if somebody tried to continue the story, it wouldn't work -- the magic of Joe and Allison (of Patricia Arquette and Jake Weber) simply couldn't be there.

No, they accomplished three wonderful things: They left open the door for a spinoff series starring Sofia Vassilieva as the psychic daughter who went off to college.

Vassilieva, like Arquette, is attractive without being a model-like cliche; what matters, though, is that she has the warmth and sparkle and make us want to spend time with a character week after week. As long as the writing is as good as what was saw in Medium, and they don't give her a bunch of stereotype college sidekick characters, I think Vassilieva could carry a series.

Maybe nobody's thinking that way, but I hope they are, and that such a series is in development. If series creator and show runner Glenn Gordon Caron (who also wrote for and ran the best years of Moonlighting) is involved, I think it could be as good as the parent series.

I can hope, can't I? Because finding a good family realistically depicted on television is as rare as finding a realistic and sympathetic Republican character on a David E. Kelley series.

*

Speaking of which, at our house the jury is still out on the new Kathy Bates series Harry's Law. We're serious Kathy Bates fans (loved her guest spots on The Office and she's always better than the movies she's in), and we like the actors playing her supporting cast, especially Nathan Corddry as her volunteer junior partner in her new storefront law practice.

We just aren't sure David E. Kelley can write a watchable series any more.

He's like a born-again Christian who has to make all his episodes bear witness to the faith -- only Kelley's religion is the hatred of all things Republican (though his other series have shown that he has never, for an instant, made an attempt to understand a single idea that is not affirmed by America's extreme-left "intellectual" elite).

It took him a fully year before Boston Legal became unwatchable propaganda, with straw-man conservatives popping up to mouth a bigoted liberal's version of conservative ideas and then get shot down.

But Harry's Law jumped the shark in episode one, where, in the middle of a ridiculously unbelievable courtroom argument (had the judge died? Taken a sleeping pill?) Bates's character goes off on a completely unnecessary Republicans-are-Satan riff.

Here's the thing -- Kelly can't be so stupid as to believe he's actually persuading anybody to believe as he does. All he's doing is guaranteeing that anybody who isn't already a committed, Kool-Aid-drinking member of his fanatical cult will be repulsed.

A smart writer -- a good writer -- with the goal of persuading an audience to embrace a particular (minority) view would write stories that reached out to include everyone and then gently lead them to consider the writer's point of view. Over the length of a season, with characters following the storyline for the sheer delight of it, they might also shift their attitudes.

But Kelley starts out by slapping the conservative plurality of the American viewership right in the face and calling them names. The message couldn't be clearer: We don't want you ugly people who are different from me and my cool friends to sully this show by watching it.

Add to that the over-the-top absurdities of the situation and it's hard to imagine that Kelley will allow me to keep watching these fine actors saying his clever dialogue for more than another episode or two.

If people want to know where the rhetoric of hate comes from in American life, it ain't talk radio -- it's "mainstream" television where the vilifications and deceptions of a writer like Kelley, about people he doesn't like and ideas he doesn't understand, are put on the air, apparently without any network executive even thinking, Don't we actually want some conservative viewers, considering that there are enough of them to have kept electing George W. Bush and the recent House of Representatives?

Well, that's OK. It's just an opportunity for writers like me, who actually want to write, not propaganda, but truthful stories about real characters no matter what their personal beliefs are. You watch -- over the next few years, some of the exciting projects I'm hearing about right now will become publicly available.

No, I'm not talking about rightwing propaganda. I'm talking about non-political fictional programming that doesn't spend all its time spitting in the face of traditional values. The people I'm hearing from and talking to are committed to high quality writing and acting above all. I think they can make it work. I hope I'm part of it.

Meanwhile, Kathy Bates and the other actors in Harry's Law are wonderful, and when he's not ranting, Kelley is still a talented writer. Maybe he can pull something watchable out of this. I'll be watching for a while longer, just to see if he even wants to speak to anyone but the Kool-Aid drinkers.


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