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Over there in a corner of my little office over the garage sits a Smith-Corona portable typewriter. It’s the manual sort, not electrified, so you really have to hammer at the keys. Writing on that thing is to word processing as logging is to polishing furniture. I use it to bang out a rough draft now and then. I like the rhythm and rumble of it, and the satisfying ding! at the end of each line. I also find that the inability to cut-and-paste and revise on the fly helps me maintain forward motion, which is the key to writing and life.

The other handy thing about that Smith-Corona is it predates the Alt key, and no matter how many times per minute I reflexively hit the Caps-Tab combination to check my email and social media, the screen never changes. This forces my focus and also saves on Internet usage, which on our dead-end farm is a precious and throttled commodity.

But let’s not get all 12-pound Sears catalog nostalgic here. In the main, I am a fan of electrons and smart phones and apps, especially those that enhance the odds of sustaining successful self-employment while maintaining residence deep in the heartland and 10 minutes from an operational feed mill. I’ve never been what they call “an early adapter,” but I think you could call me a “happy adapter.” I’m always pleasantly surprised to discover virtual tools I can use—especially of the more fundamental sort.

For instance, very early into the life of my first smart phone, our little family was just settling into its first evening’s stay in a small lake cabin when a storm knocked out the power.

“We need a flashlight app,” I joked. Then I checked my new phone’s app menu. And there it was. One download, and 60 seconds later my phone was a flashlight and the kids could find their sleeping bags. I couldn’t have been more delighted had I suddenly discovered that my phone allowed me to control the Mars rover.

Not long after that, I was working in the chicken coop and found myself in need of a carpenter’s level. I own two of them, but they were both down in the pole barn. Again, on a whim, I tapped into the apps and found, yep, a level app. I stood right there with my boots in the you-know-what and downloaded the thing. It came complete with the oblong green bubble, faux wood-grain effects, and illuminated x-y axes, the whole deal. And it worked great. Perhaps the finish carpenters among you would find it unacceptable, but it does the job for a nail-bender like me.

I know there are far more impressive phone features and functions than a flashlight and a level. But they’re my favorite type. It’s one thing to have a mystery digital toy that can track Grandma’s flight from Chicago in real time, or kill digital zombies with the flick of a finger, or allow you to deposit a check in the bank while you’re parked in the recliner. This is the sort of magic you expect from an electronic doo-dad. But to be able to download a tool that will help you rig a roost so all the chickens won’t all wind up sliding down to the same end? That’s technology I can believe in.

There is the argument that Grandpa’s wholly tangible wooden level never froze up if you double-tapped it wrong, nor did it require software updates, and it certainly didn’t hassle you with pop-up ads. And of course there are some things you just can’t app. A good pair of boots. A pitchfork. A toilet plunger. A quality jackknife (although I suppose a phone-mounted cutting laser isn’t out of the question). Also, even as I was typing this column I Alt-Tabbed over to my Twitter feed just as a friend Tweeted, “where’s my great idea app?” Some things still require old-school gray matter.

My 6-year-old daughter was born the same year as the first version of a certain very popular smartphone and has been known to help Dad troubleshoot tech issues. The other day she asked me to show her how to use the typewriter. I set her up, rolled in a sheet of paper, and turned her loose while I went back to work on my laptop.

She had been at it quite a while when she stopped. “Dad?”


“Does this use a lot of electricity or a lot of Internet?”

“Nope. None.”

“Well that’s good,” she said, and then it was back to rappety-tackety-tap.

Readers know I am recursive in my determination to avoid becoming Mr. InMyDay PorchYeller, but as I listened to my app-savvy tot knocking out the alphabet on a WiFi-unenabled antique I was reminded that progress doesn’t always take us forward and soon I ought to take her down to the pole barn and show her how to operate a tangible carpenter’s level.


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An original “Roughneck Grace” column exclusive to the Wisconsin State Journal. For more of Michael Perry’s writing, visit Perry photo by Andi Stempniak, Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.