March 21st, 2008

My friend George asks why there is no provision for reader feedback on this web site. Well, two reasons: One, my son the webmaster decided it wasn’t necessary. Two, the only feedback I ever get comes from English majors eager to point out numerous misspellings, grammatical errors and typos.

Which hurts! It so happens that I, too, majored in English in college with an emphasis on creative writing. In high school I edited the newspaper; in junior high I was the only pupil in Mrs. Bertelsen’s class who understood the difference between it’s and its. Whose and who’s. Lay and lie.

In grade school I was the all-time best speller in the history of Warren G. Harding Elementary. I learned to spell by the now antiquated look-say method, which worked just fine for me. Once I have seen a word, I can spell it as well as if I were holding a crib sheet. Whenever Miss Wilson hosted a spelling bee, I was always the last one standing. My reward? I was handed a nickel to buy an ice cream bar and allowed to go home before the afternoon bell.

Antidisestablishmentarianism, thou art to mine ears sweet as an Eskimo Pie upon my tongue!

Fast forward thirty years. My wife, who holds a master’s degree in English, gives birth to a baby boy, presumably mine. By all that is holy, Alexander should be the best speller in his class—but wait! Turns out he is dyslexic, and spends his elementary school years in a special program for slow learners known as “resource.” By the time he hits junior high he still can’t spell his own name, and so is known to his classmates simply as “Al.” One of his favorite bedtime books is titled HEY,AL! It’s about an impoverished janitor who lives in a closet, and although my son is now in eighth grade, I still have to read it to him.

Just as we were about to give up all hope that our son would ever amount to anything other than a monosyllabic peon, he got his first computer. Alex took to computing like a fish to water and in no time at all had mastered Biolofsky’s First Software. Then one day he discovered Spell Check, a program that has done for him what the voice synthesizer did for Stephen Hawking. It has enabled him to communicate with the outside world!

Alex went on to graduate first in his class in computer science. Statewide, he was a Sterling Scholar finalist. Last year he graduated from the University of Texas with honors and today works as a satellite programmer at Cal Tech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. His starting salary is more than what his father has earned over a lifetime of writing magazine articles and books. In fact, according to my most recent royalty statement, I owe my publisher four dollars and fourteen cents!

And now, just as it appears that my self-esteem couldn’t possibly get any lower, I get e-mails from readers pointing out multiple misspellings on my web site. Friends, I would fix it if I could, but alas, anything I do at this end will be automatically nullified at the other. Because Alex has written the software, there is nothing I can do. I just don’t understand computers or computer language. When others speak of RAM and DOS, I think of Baba Ram Dass, confederate of Timothy Leary, who once urged young people of my generation to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

What I should have done was switch majors. Or invest in Apple.

-Richard Menzies