changing the fingers changes the mind

In 1996, my wrists started hurting when I was at a computer. I was a recently-graduated, entry-level, computer geek working for a new and optimistically-named web development company “Utopia,” and friends all around me were developing major problems with RSI (or as MC Frontalot calls it, the “wrist-hurt disease”) caused by a combination of bad ergonomics, long hours, poorly-designed keyboards, and forearms simply not evolved to be held rigid for hours on end making the same teeny motions over and over. Various models of braces, wrist warmers, support devices, and keyboard trays sprang up in our office.

When my right wrist started bothering me, I made the decision to move my mouse to my left side and learn to mouse lefthanded. It took a little time, but I finally developed enough fine motor control on that side to work with Photoshop again. My right wrist improved, but I wanted to do everything I could to prevent things getting worse again. After some reading about the benefits, I switched my keyboard layout from the usual QWERTY to the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard .

Dr. August Dvorak invented this key layout in the ’30s, and it made a lot of sense to me: you put the keys most commonly used in English directly under your fingers. As a result, while typing, you do less reaching around the keyboard. Less reaching meant less hand strain, less strain meant I could hope to avoid injury longer. And it worked – I’d learned to touchtype QWERTY in high school, but after about 2 weeks of slow, painful retraining in late 1996, I got myself to the point where I could see that Dvorak was actually easier on my hands. A month or two later, I was back to being a fairly quick, fairly accurate typist, and for the last 9 years, I’ve only improved. I’ve used Dvorak on every computer I’ve had in that time. (and some computers other people have had, much to their consternation.) Since I’m a computer geek who prefers to use a command line, I use many of the same commands and phrases daily – to maneuver through tools, to read my mail, to write – and these phrases rolled off my fingers with barely any conscious thought. Like driving my same stickshift car with the same familiar clutch for 5 years, the motions necessary to move along had become trivial and nearly automatic.

As I started studying for the GRE some weeks ago, I realized a problem: the essay section of the test would require me to use a QWERTY keyboard. Thinking beyond that, I’d just returned from an information session at one of the graduate schools I’m considering, held in one of their all-digital editing labs. While it’s been trivially easy for me to use Dvorak on my own computers over the years, it suddenly struck me that it might not be as easy to wrangle in lab situations. After some consideration, I decided to bite the bullet and switch back to QWERTY.

Sounds simple, right? “I’ll just switch back to QWERTY.” “I’ll just start going to work every day in drag.” “I’ll just start writing checks with my left hand while blindfolded.” “I’ll just start having conversations on the phone entirely in what I remember of highschool Spanish.” It’s been hard, and no mistake.

First of all, Dvorak really is better designed that QWERTY. In switching back, the amount of extra reaching I’m doing is, yes, making my hands hurt again. (Exacerbated, hopefully only temporarily, by the extra tension I’m holding in my hands as I swear and deliberately force my fingers to hit ‘t’ where they expect ‘y’ to be.) Worse, though, is giving up (again, I pray only temporarily) the fluidity of motion I’ve developed over 9 years. Sorting incoming email, previously a task I could do in seconds, now takes more time and a good deal of conscious thought. Most commands in the tools I use are single letters or characters which I’d stopped mentally filing alphabetically; deleting a message is, or rather was, “right index finger” – now I have to stop, remember that the letter is “d,” quench the automatic impulse to strike with the right index finger, recall that “d” is now under my left middle finger, and force that finger down. Great, that’s one piece of stockmarket spam gone. Next?

Editing text has become similarly wretched. Like many geeks, I use an insanely powerful text editor which can do everything I want it to do with just a few keystrokes… but with the layout change, the keystrokes have changed, and the letters themselves are far from intuitive as I try to dredge them up. The whole process hurts, physically and mentally.

By far the worst part, though, is writing. Before the switch, I counted on my typing ability to pretty much keep up with the pace of my inner voice. If I had something sizable to write, I’d type it, edit it, retype it, edit it, and so on. Now, though, writing this entry, I’m barely crawling along. Every few words I bungle a keystroke, swear, go back and fix it, bungle the next word, swear, grimace. After a week of doing typing drills during breaks and evenings, the process is better than it was, and when I remember to under-my-mental-breath say the letter I’m reaching for, I do better than when I relax and try to run automatically… but the difference it makes mentally is striking and unnerving. I feel profoundly stupid. I can’t think more than a sentence ahead; I can neither make my fingers keep up with my train of thought nor take my conscious attention off the keys I’m reaching for right this very instant, so the train slows to a crawl. This week, everything in my life which requires me to type is damp with the same anxiety I had pulling up to an intersection while 15 and a half years old, my left foot hovering over the clutch, my right palm sweaty as I tried to remember the sequence: foot-off-the-brake-and-onto-the-gas-and at-the-same-time-start-finessing-the-clutch-and oh-don’t-mistake-third-for-first-and crap-isn’t-that-a-city-bus-pulling-up-behind-me. Coworkers who interact with me primarily via email and text chatting start asking if I’m still there as I struggle to finish a sentence I could have sent five times over in the same time, last week. The horrible grinding sound of a mishandled clutch, and then the inevitable honking begins.

I’m scared that I might have made a mistake in deciding to switch back. I probably could have hunted and pecked my way through the GRE, and past that, counted on being able to get access to a Dvorak layout on most of the public computers I’d need to use in school. (Windows and MacOS have had built-in Dvorak support for years.) I’m scared that it’s going to take a long, long time to get my writing fluidity back, and since I’ve got application essays due in a month and a half, that the essays will be just as slow and pedestrian as I feel right now. Worse, I’m scared that my brain’s not as plastic at 33 as it was at 23, and that my ease on a keyboard will never return, that I’ve hopelessly and permanently muddied my mental waters with my experimentation.

But having invested a week of pain in the process of trying to switch back, I’m not going to give up now. I set out this morning to write an entry here, and write it I have. Practice will make, if not perfect, at least better. (Eventually. I hope.) I’ll keep on with the typing drills and remembering a then-strange phenomenon while taking a typing class in high school: every day we learned a little bit more of the keyboard and drilled on it, usually pretty poorly. The next day, we’d start the class with the same drills, and without even having practiced them, we’d all do much better that we had the day before. It just needed some time to sink in.