Subtitle: A letter for Henry
I have decided to break out the Perkins braillewriter. Henry and I are going to exchange braille letters with the hope of improving my braille skills. As the novice, I must write the first of these missives. Henry says this will force me to remember my skills, but I suspect he wants me to write first, so he can chuckle over my garish braille spelling.
I’ve cleared a space for the machine on my desk and pulled out four sheets of thick braille paper. The paper measures 8.5 x 11 inches and already has holes punched along the left margin. I flip back the two levers on the brailler and slide the first sheet of paper between the long, thin rollers. I flip the levers forward, securing the paper. I begin to turn the knobs on either side of the machine, causing the paper to retract into place.
There’s nothing glamorous about a Perkins brailler. It’s a sturdy, no-nonsense machine, built for endurance. Made of a dull, bluish-gray metal, it offers two rows of three keys, much like the Home Row on a print keyboard. Just before these rows sits the space bar. The “backspace” key sits in the “shift” position to the right of the two rows, and the “next line” key sits in the “shift” position on the left. To go to the next line, I press down on the small carriage and slide it to the left, across the front of the brailler. It dings just like a typewriter, but the click-click of the braille keys is lower, deeper, more sonorous.
The first row of three keys corresponds to dots 1, 2, and 3 of the braille cell. The second row of keys embosses dots 4, 5, and 6. Since the keys are arranged horizontally on the brailler and the dots are arranged vertically inside the braille cell, typing the correct letters requires a specific set of cerebral gymnastics.
With my paper in place, I begin my letter. October 9, 2012. I press dot 6 for a capital sign and dots 1, 3, and 5 for an o. Perfect, this is easier than I thought. Thinking of the word “October,” I type a t (dots 2, 3, 4, and 5)—and realize that I’ve already missed a letter. Immediately, I remember Henry’s stern commandment:
“You must think in braille, not in print.”
I realize that I have been thinking about the holistic look of the word October, not how it feels, letter-by-letter. I reach over the keys and feel the o, perfectly embossed, and the t, which shouldn’t be there. Carefully, I use the nail of my left index finger to scratch out the extraneous dots (2, 3, and 5). Then I press the “backspace” key and emboss a dot 1. Now, I have a c (dots 1 and 4), but, as I type the rest of the word, I remember another piece of our conversation:
Henry, grinning with the enjoyment of his superior knowledge, tells me not to bother with a braille eraser (a small wooden tool with a blunt tip for rubbing out extra dots). “Just press all 6 keys over your mistake,” he says calmly. “That will cross it out.” His tone becomes admonishing, “Don’t you dare try to scratch out your mistakes with a fingernail! I’ll know—I’ll be able to feel that for sure!”
Well, I am certainly not going to cross out a word on the very first line of my letter! I’ll leave the fingernail marks in there, just to see if he’s paying attention.
I continue with the letter, trying to imagine each word in braille before I type it. My fingers hesitate over the two rows, the balls of my fingers nestling into the indentations on each key. I feel like a four-year-old at the piano, excited and reticent all at once. As I move into the first paragraph, I am amazed at the effort needed to press each key. My fingers start to ache, and I’ve only typed three sentences!
However, the brailler offers certain aesthetic compensations. Each time I complete a line, I am rewarded by the musical ding of the brailler bell—which adds a strange spatial awareness to my epistolary efforts. I find myself choosing different words because I know their size and contractions. I choose shorter words when I’m nearing the end of the line. The hesitation and deliberation over each letter forces me to meditate on the words I emboss. When my thinking becomes too fast, I slip back into print and make careless mistakes. I type an sh (dots 1, 4, and 6) instead of an -ing (dots 3, 4, and 6). I must think word by word—breaking each word into phonemes, or sound-components.
In the middle of the second paragraph, I realize that I am typing much more quickly. Contractions I learned years ago are dancing into my conscious mind; I easily recall the shorthand for the, have, this, and just. The click of the brailler keys synchronizes with the rhythm of my thoughts, and the melodious ding at the end of each line keeps me aware of my place on the page. My mind fills with the notions of space and texture, and I occasionally check my progress with the index finger of my right hand.
At the bottom of the first page, I decide to stop. My hesitant thoughts have given way to cramped fingers. I feel a sense of relief, amazed that the braille seems so familiar after only a page of embossing.
I cannot ignore the contrast between my slow, deliberate embossing and the rapid, intuitive process of typing on my familiar laptop keyboard. Something is blossoming in my consciousness: an awareness of the effects of the medium on the process of writing. It is not that the brailler makes me think more slowly or choose different words; using the brailler, exerting more physical effort when I write, changes the shape of my thoughts.
Now, I want to attempt a writing task using different media—pen, computer, brailler, and even slate and stylus (the pen and paper method for braille) to see how each would change the timbre of my writing.