Mary Schmich

Life is a daily obstacle course.

(Hang on, dear reader, I have to figure out how to make a paragraph here.)

You wake up, brush your teeth, do whatever else you do to prepare for the adventure of another day, hoping, in defiance of experience, to make it through without trouble.

(Hang on, I have to figure out how to make another paragraph.)

Then it happens. The thing you never expected. Occasionally it's a big, life-changing thing. More often, it's something small, a flea of a problem in the great zoo of existential pests, something you'll hardly remember the day after. And yet that little thing may send you into a panic.

(Do I really need to paragraph here? Unfortunately, yes.)

Panic. Panic! Panic is never a useful response to a problem. We all know that. But it is the essence of panic to override knowledge, and in case it's not obvious yet, the problem facing me today is one that could face any of us at any moment in our techno-dependent age:

My return key broke.

You know, the return key, aka the enter key, on the computer keyboard. The one your baby finger reaches for as reflexively as you blink. A key without which modern life, or at least the paragraph, is so much harder.

Has it has ever occurred to you how much you rely on the return key? No. But let me tell you: You need it. Without it, you would have trouble making that clever comment on someone's Facebook post. Without it, answering email would be an even steeper slog. Without it, if you write for a living, you may as well file for unemployment, because prose without paragraphs is just slop.

My return key stopped working Monday while I was taking notes on my laptop during a phone interview. Suddenly, boom. I couldn't make paragraphs. By the time the interview was done, my notes were as legible as a giant block of hieroglyphics. Never before had I been forced to so fully appreciate the lowly paragraph.

The paragraph is a writing convention designed to make ideas clear and words easier to read. Reasonable people can argue over how long paragraphs should be, but reasonable people do not dispute their value.

(I'm going to switch thoughts so I need to paragraph again. I think I'm getting the hang of doing this without the return key.)

The loss of my return key also made me think about habits. Good habits are the grease that makes everyday life run smoothly. Being able to make a paragraph without thinking about how to do it frees the mind to think about higher things, like: What am I trying to say here?

But when useful things become incorporated into habit, we take those things for granted. We stop appreciating how they make life easier. To crib a line from Joni Mitchell: You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone.

When I finally had to concede that my return key was gone, I stopped by an Apple store for a diagnosis. I was told there was at least a two-hour wait and that I should call Apple instead. I called. I was told I needed to go to a store. I tried to make an in-store appointment online. None available until Friday. So I did what all modern people do in a crisis. I posted my lament on Facebook.

I must have spilled crumbs on my keyboard, several people suggested, and that is not entirely implausible.

(Hang on while I grab my doughnut.)

Nevertheless, I was reluctant to follow the recommendation to remove the return key's cap and find the crumb that might or might not be there. I tried a couple of the other proposed solutions, but, alas, they didn't work.

To make things worse? I couldn't reply to the suggestions because my return key was kaput.

On Tuesday, with my column deadline clock ticking, I went to an Apple store and waited for some help. I was told I needed a new keyboard. I said I couldn't relinquish my laptop because I had a deadline, and it was now. So as a temporary measure, the Apple guy showed me a trick:

Go to the little square icon near the battery meter. Click. Find the keyboard viewer. Click. A functional keyboard, return key included, appears on the screen.

And it was thanks to that unexpected miracle that I was able to solve an unexpected problem, meeting a deadline with a new appreciation for return keys and paragraphs and the small, solvable challenges of the everyday.

May your return key be with you.

(Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune. Contact her at You can follow her on or contact her on


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