When I was younger, I was a storytelling champion. I loved imagining and constructing new worlds, in part because I was an only child. I also needed an escape from my “Bronx is burning” surroundings. One special Christmas, my aunt gave me a typewriter and I joyfully wrote and wrote till my little fingers were bent. I wrote several novels that never were published, but served as nighttime reading pleasure. I felt good about getting the words out. I enjoyed a good tale. Then writing became about deadlines, critical feedback and a grade. The joy of writing was a bit busted. In college I found joy again in writing, writing about film that is. It served as a distinct counterpoint to the dry and heavily-scripted ways of writing in psychology. PhD writing came thereafter and with it came a new purpose: to get a degree that provided me with credentials. A doctoral dissertation only vaguely resembles the English language. Sadly, writing soon became about authorship of peer-reviewed articles. Snoozefest was more like it. What a way to kill creativity and inspiration. Academic writing is, at times, no more than paint by numbers with an attitude. Half the time the findings’ importance is stretched in order to save face as opposed to information dissemination to achieve the state of an informed public. Might as well read your peer-reviewed articles out loud before a mirror after which you state “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and gosh darn it people like me“. It could take you to the heights of being a senator from Minnesota if you were so inclined to leave the Ivory Tower.
All that time, though, writing was still a function of mind, fingers and purpose. However, there then came along all these bells and whistles that alert you to grammatically incorrect sentences, wrongly spelled words and incorrect language. People don’t even seem to try to spell things correctly anymore, assuming the computer will just fix it. I guess it helps in getting our thoughts quickly out onto paper (the computer word processer, that is), yet it seems that we do not even process what we write anymore. I used to also be a spelling bee champion. Now, there are times when even spellcheck can’t figure out what I am trying to type. I am at the point where I wonder how my spelling prowess deteriorates so markedly. Hell, many schools don’t even teach cursive writing anymore. Look at Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, who testified she couldn’t even read the letter she had sent to his parents in the wake of his death. She was nationally mocked, but think about how many others of her generation would say the same. Even my own handwriting has atrophied to the point that a colleague trying to transcribe my handwritten notes swore my document was in Cyrillic.
Thus, while I do use spellcheck for word documents and the like, I have tended to turn off spellcheck (automatic suggestions) on my phone. It was my personal compromise. Sure, I sent some wackily spelled text messages and emails but it was my writing, my thoughts. Then two weeks ago, I bought a new phone that I fell in love with. Unfortunately, this is only a slight exaggeration. But I was so in love that I forgot to disable spellcheck and its corresponding mechanisms. I had been working fairly steadily from 6am to about 10pm each day for 30 days straight on a grant. Speak of tedious, boring writing. I have been so engaged and mired in this grant writing mode that I sent out email updates in rapid fire succession without processing what it was that I wrote. When I sent an email meaning to state, “I’m so behind, I would rather not fly. f*ck, this, I even already got upgraded to first class and all.” Instead, courtesy of autocorrect, I sent out an email that said “I’m so behind, I would rather not fly. Duck this…” I caught the mistake just as I hit the send button.
Spellcheck, while distorting my writing, gave my sentiments a new, funny, and appropriate meaning. Spellcheck, that function that so often distances us from our words actually brought me back to feeling something for my professional writing. It was my favorite writing mistake. Thereafter, it was duck, duck, ducks on my mind. It was as if I were living Tony Soprano’s life. The character of Tony Soprano lived a dream life as well as a nightmare. Ducks would appear in his dreams as readily as they did on his estate. He didn’t know what to do with them. Part of that dual reality, life fabric was embedded in his property’s Duck pond. They made his estate homey and joyful, but also represented the ambivalence he had for his life’s work (you know, that of being a mobster). A family of ducks fly onto his property causing Tony Soprano’s first panic attack in the television series. In his session with Dr Melfi, the first duck dream he describes is that in which the ducks fly away with his penis. The ducks, while oftentimes calm and serene, will also leave their sickly behind to fend for themselves. The ducks in his dreams and in real life represented the tension between nature and nurture. And for me the use of the word ducks couldn’t be more appropriate. Later that night a colleague sent me a text message from the meeting I was missing (that I referenced in the email above). The meeting was horrible, consisting of a series of attempted one-upmanships by egotistical, lazy community members, government officials and academics. I was thrilled to not have been a part of that meeting. Thus, in response to that hideously crass environment, I texted my colleague with the following “I can’t imagine being there. You literally can’t pay me to hang with those duckers.” My colleague agreed that was a good choice of autocorrect. Those individuals were not at said meeting to help address health disparities, but instead were there to ensure they got a bigger piece of the pie; engaging in, unfortunately, a zero-sum game. Such duckers! Who knew a quack here or there could be so profound. Speaking of which. One of the most outrageously egotistical, nonsensical maniacs I have come in the non-profit world now has a new duck-related nickname. But I will leave that between me and my autocorrect.
As those in Hong Kong, celebrate the return of their giant, once deflated, duck, I too have come to appreciate the majesty of the duck. A “ducking” spellcheck error brightened my day and made me take time to process my emails. I didn’t actually just rely on the machine to catch my mistakes. And when the machine created its own mistake, in the words of Paula Abdul, I made it my own.
So, as I sit in my lonely office, typing away hour upon hour with occasional insane ducking requests, I have also come to realize that these pretzels are making me thirsty.