Monday, December 14, 2009

Ditto that!

I remember it vividly. About exactly a month ago, I woke up to the image of a sheet of carbon paper left over from some dream in the early morning hours and, too, to the smell of fresh school copies made on cranked copiers. Strange nostalgia! I don't remember ever seeing one of those machines -- whatever they were called-- and I had to ask around if anyone remembered them.

As a kid, I was always suspicious of a test if the page didn't stain my fingers with that warm, light blue or purple ink. It wasn't fresh enough, was it? But more importantly, no hand-out, no test, was really that important or that good, if it didn't have that intoxicating smell you remember if you are of my generation. The ditto sheets, made by spirit duplicators, belonged in our childhood classrooms. We did our French verb conjugations on them. Churches had them too, if you were so inclined. And, yes, it may just have been "the spirit", yes that intoxicating smell of alcohols in the solvents used as "inks" that eventually banned the "Banda" machines from schools. As much that, as the "high-volume xerox copiers" that displaced them. The memory of those spirits still excites us.

But why all this nostalgia?

Just reading the Wikipedia entry on the ditto sheet, had my friend Chris and I nearly in tears.

For my part, at least, looking back, there was an atmosphere surrounding those ditto sheets that never really returned after I was done with school. I remember the sheets in my college classrooms, too. Vaguely. But it was the collective ritual of raising up the sheet and smelling the spirit of the verbs to be conjugated; the ritual of standing outside in the school yard in the freezing cold, wrapped in our hats and gloves, and feeling the wet snow pressing through our leather boots and our thick woolen socks and talking and talking and talking endlessly over the answers to the questions on the test, as some smoked and some cuddled and massaged, or jumped up and down to stay warm... It was that whole sense of belonging to each other, to that place, to that light, to that piercing northern air, and to that moment. All of that was summed up in the fragrance of the ditto sheet. And as strange as this sounds: There was aura there, reproduced over and over and over again, as my world turned.

I clung to every single one of those sheets we got in school, put them carefully in my folder, and kept them perfectly neat through all my years in Norway.

Today, even the most important xeroxed papers get left behind after my faculty meetings. I insist to have the URL of the website to "what-ever-it-is" rather than lug another pile of paper home, folded, soiled with chewing gum and torn up here and there for a to-do list, an email address, or a book mark.

The generation before ours doesn't really have that nostalgia for the ditto sheet. Not really. They remember cutting, I mean literally cutting and pasting paragraphs together to write their essays with scissors and glue. That generation gets worked up by the sound of the typewriter. And frankly it doesn't care much for our texting habit.