Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Best of Times

It really had nothing to do with the death of Steve Jobs. I was eligible for an upgrade. My iphone 3 had started to freeze up on me causing my blood pressure to spike as I punched at the touch screen in a futile attempt to text, scroll, or email. Perhaps most irritating of all was my attempt to hit snooze at 5:15 a.m. when the marimba hammered its staccato melody into my morning dreams. The frozen screen, combined with the occasional skip in the marimba beat - like a stuck needle on a vinyl album - was making for a less than peaceful beginning to my day. So, I'd had it. I marched myself over to Best Buy and placed a pre-order for the new iphone 4s. Very cool. Very with it. Very early adopter of me.

I put my $50 deposit down in return for a plastic Best Buy Gift Card that I could use toward the purchase of the new phone - a step I thought rather silly and a waste of a good gift card. Why in the world couldn't they just apply my $50 to the purchase right then and there, I wondered. But, in the new world order where the young and techno-savvy sales clerks rule, who was I to question this practice?

I received a call mid-week from one of those techno-savvy kids to set an appointment time to come in to Best Buy on October 14th to pick up my new iphone 4s. They were trying to control the flow of the crowds that were sure to descend on the store. We who had wisely pre-ordered our new phones would get priority. Very cool. Very with it. Very in the know of me, I thought. My nephew, who is a true earlier adopter, is one to get in line on the first day of the new release of whatever the new technology is - but this was the first time I'd ever been in the "get your new iphone on the day of its release" category.
So I made my appointment for 6:30 p.m. on Friday October 14th.
Did I want to trade in my old iphone? Sure, I said. What use is it to me? How much money would I be able to apply to my new phone? Depends on a number of variables (my word not hers ...she said things)
Did I want the shield?
Harder question. The shield is one of those things that irks me. Why do they make a screen on a $700 phone that needs at $16.00 shield that has to be rolled on ever so carefully with a damp sponge? Were it left to me to apply the thin plastic shield, I'd have one holy mess on my hands - being all thumbs - so this task is best left to the techno-savvy kid.
OK. I guess I should have it.
Do I want the non smudge or the original?
The smudges did bug me as did the fact that over time the shield started to peel off at the bottom.
Well, which one is better? I ask.
The new smudgeless screen makes the iphone harder to read, she says.
Forget that, I think. I'll live with smudges. I have a hard enough time seeing the thing as it is.
Give me the original.

All done. My order complete, I waited for the big day to arrive.

So last night, Steve and I drove directly to Best Buy. The balloons around the center of the store told us that we were headed in the right direction - the balloons - an empty promise of a festive time.
Let's just say the balloons contrasted with the blank, non-expressive - no affect - faces of the techno-savvy kids waiting on a few forlorn looking customers who sat or stood at the registers, some slumped over looking as if they'd been there for hours.

Oh no, I thought. Why had I made this appointment before dinner?

I have a 6:30 appointment, I say, obediently, as if checking in at a doctor's office. I followed the rules, I think. I am not one of those people who thinks they can just waltz right in and walk out with their new iphone 4s. I pre-ordered. I have an appointment! I think to myself. I'm a little early, I add, apologetically.
It was actually 6:15 but I am always a few minutes early for an appointment, a habit drilled into me by my years of theatre discipline.

The flat voiced techno-savvy kid didn't seem to care. My appointment didn't really seem to matter.
She needed a key to get into the cabinet where my prized new iphone was waiting.

Finally, out comes the little white box with the silver apple logo.
Do you need a case?
Yes! I want one that is rubbery so it won't slide off my car seat.

Gel cases are no more. And my old one of course won't fit the new iphone 4s because it is a different shape.

I search the aisle for one that I feel I can live with. There is something called an Otter Box - so if I drop my iphone 4s it won't break. But there is a hard plastic front cover that changes the touch screen.
No way. The touch screen is the whole point, right?

I settle for a blue case without the rubberized finish. I know this is going to drive me crazy.

So now we move to the register, where the expressionless techno-savvy kid stares into a computer screen and punches her keyboard over and over. The protection plan on my old phone had to be canceled. The new one started up. She had to call Best Buy (from Best Buy) on her cell phone to do this.

Then it was time for the trade in. Oh boy I think. This is like turning in your old Buick for a new Volvo!
She punches the keyboard. Stares at the screen.
Looks up expressionlessly and says, Your phone has no trade in value.


I am actually sort of glad that I won't have to turn in the old phone. I'm still a little skeptical that all of my data would be cleared from it. Like an old computer hard drive - best to leave it in the garage with all the other discarded devices that we don't know what to do with.

Then it was time for the data transfer. Off my techno-savvy kid goes to get some other computer thing that she hooks to my new and old phones. She stares down at it. Punches a bunch of very little keys. It's running slow, she says.

Of course it is.

Anyone who says that all of this technology makes things more efficient is crazy. Half the time, I can't take roll, print, or get on line because my computer is running slow. So we wait.

I look more closely at this kid. She is pretty. Fair skinned. A small diamond piercing her nose. La De Da De Da - we wait. She is from Northern California. Moved here a year ago. She shows me a picture on her phone of a dog her parents have just adopted after her family pet had to be put down. I sympathize and ooh and awe over the picture. She is going to graduate from college this spring. She wants to travel in Europe. Maybe teach English. Good idea, I think approvingly. So you want to do something other than data transfers at Best Buy? Yes, this is her college job. She has considered a Masters in Communication.

Communication?!! Good heavens, this must be a case of opposites attracting. At the very least, this kid needs to learn how to speak with some inflection - and occasionally show some expression on her face.
I wish she would speak with at least some melody in her voice. She needs a drama class, I think.
She stares down at the computer thing.
It's still running slow.

In the world of Best Buy where the mocking presence of balloons heralds a good time - I was descending into the abyss.
It was 8:00 p.m. Almost two hours had passed. I was hungry.

My 562 photos successfully transferred. My 265 contacts transferred.
We were finished.

Good thing it is the weekend. Because now I get to re-set my alarm, the weather in NY, Pittsburgh, Seattle and all the other cities where loved ones live, figure out how to make the photos come up when someone calls, select my apps, add my screen saver, set up my email and sync my calendar. Fun times.

But I am so cool. So with it. So early adopter!

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Bitter Fruit

This morning in the Wall Street Journal, Andy Crouch's essay, The Secular Prophet, asserts that among Steve Jobs' many qualities was his ability to "articulate a perfectly secular form of hope." Referring to the iconic image of the bitten apple as a sign of "promise and progress," Crouch claims that "all technology implicitly promises to reverse the (Biblical) curse (referring to the Fall of man) easing the burden of creaturely existence." He goes on, "Technology is most celebrated when the machinery is completely hidden combining godlike effortlessness with blissful ignorance about the mechanisms that deliver our disburdened lives."

Crouch takes a critical look at the text of Jobs' now wide-spread Stanford speech referring to it as Gospel of Self Fulfillment requiring stability and privilege. He takes a shot at Jobs' conversion to Zen Buddhism, and with this, the true subtext of his essay bubbles to the surface. By comparing what he claims to be Jobs' brand of evangelism as secular hope to that of Martin Luther King's - whose hope did not rely on self fulfillment, but rather to reach the promised land - Crouch's comparison between the two draws on the idea that one is essentially of a higher call, more noble, and while not overtly stating this, divinely inspired. It is an unfair and inappropriate comparison made through Crouch's use of the word "evangelist." While acknowledging that our troubled world needs hope and the hope that someone like Martin Luther King offered was a hope centered on God while Steve Jobs' hope was one centered on self-fulfillment and the empty promise of technology - the argument is in itself empty . Asking, "Is technology enough?" is a ridiculous question.

The suggestion that listening to one's inner voice or intuition on the quest for self-fulfillment is somehow a rejection of social responsibility and that technology is merely an empty promise of hope in the face of the world's ills, seems to me to be a distortion of Steve Jobs' legacy, words, and creative genius. Compare this essay, to an article in the LA Times quoting Stevie Wonder.
"The one thing people aren't talking about is how he has made his technology accessible to the blind and the deaf and people who are quadriplegics and paraplegics. He has affected not just my world but the world of millions of people who without that technology would not be able to discover the world."

Stevie Wonder sheds light on the immense good that came from Steve Jobs' following his "intuition." Where Andy Crouch calls Steve Jobs' message a "limited gospel of secularism, offering people of a secular age all the hope they need. People of another age would have considered it a set of beautifully empty promises not withstanding all its magical results."

Crouch says that "upon close inspection, this gospel offers no hope that you cannot generate yourself and only the comfort of having been true to yourself. In the face of tragedy and evil this is strangely inert."

Tell that to Stevie Wonder. Empty promises? Inert?

This is where self righteous over simplification cloaked in religious language is not only misleading, but dangerous.

While Jobs' Zen Buddhist beliefs may have kept him from claiming a higher power beyond his own genius, does that change the result of his work? Or lessen the impact? I think not.

I firmly reject the notion that Jobs' speech to those Stanford graduates was full of empty promises - or that by listening to one's inner voice somehow lessens the potential for good. As Stevie Wonder puts it,

" I'm just hoping that his life and what he did in his life will encourage those who are living still and those who will be born, that it will encourage them and challenge them to do what he has done... That will then create a world that will be accessible to anyone with any physical disability..."

So, because Steve Jobs was a Zen Buddhist, does this make his life less meaningful? Was his creative curiosity, iconically captured in the bite of the forbidden fruit, used as an agent of good? Are we as a society - as a world - better for it? I think one must argue that the answer is yes.

Is technology the answer to all of the world's woes? No. But to insinuate that by following what Crouch cynically calls the "gospel of self fulfillment" is an inert and empty promise, is purely religious propaganda and a shameful distortion of the good that comes from what I would assert as God's call for each of us to use our gifts and talents for the greater good.

That's my language, not Steve Jobs'. The fact that death motivated him to make "a dent" in the universe while he was on the earth, is what matters to me - not whether he believed in a heaven or not.

The result of his actions was the same. He made a difference. Crouch can discredit the form of hope Steve Jobs may have provided - but as far as I'm concerned, "Actions speak louder than words." Jobs lifted "the burden of creaturely existence" for many disabled human beings like Stevie Wonder. His technology has brought them more than hope. It has made them part of the conversation and given them unprecedented access.

To some, like Andy Crouch, who cling to a distorted religious rhetoric, the apple continues to be a threat to those who view self fulfillment and following one's intuition as reason to be cast out of the garden.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Job Well Done

It was 5:30 p.m. today during my rehearsal for The Diary of Anne Frank, that my stage manager announced, "Steve Jobs died today."
My reaction startled me. "What?" I barked. Then, to my complete surprise, I started to cry. There, in the middle of my rehearsal, with kids who never knew a world before Apple, never listened to music on anything but an iPod, who take smart phones for granted - I cried.

"Steve Jobs changed the world," I choked. "How many of you have iPhones? An Apple computer? An iPod?" They all raised their phones and iPods in the air. "Steve Jobs' creative genius made as much difference as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. Steve Jobs revolutionized how we communicate. Kids, we have all been witnesses to history."

I cried some more. "I'm sorry," I said. "I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm just so moved that this man has touched us all with his creativity."

My students then immediately swarmed me with a group hug. And then, we said a prayer. "May he rest in peace," I said.

What in the world happened to me?

I mourn Steve Jobs. I mourn our lost future. But more than anything, I am grateful.
I was late to come to Apple - but Gillian was such a huge fan, she converted me into an Apple person. I am writing this blog on my MacBook. I love my Apple. Love it. Apple changed my life. Maybe that's why I feel Steve Jobs' death as if he was someone I knew personally. He impacted my life in a very personal way.

As I stood with my students in the middle of my rehearsal, Steve Jobs' death at fifty-six somehow made me face my own mortality. There in the midst of youth, I paused to consider that a life of such impact had come to an end. I felt sad for all of us. What more might he have invented had he lived? On the other hand, one could argue that he did more than his share with is short life.

I had never heard his speech to the Stanford University graduates. But hearing his prophetic and profound words, made me realize once again that we must live our lives every day as if it was our last.

I am in awe that I have lived in the same time as Steve Jobs. And I am sorry that his time has come to an end. "Your time is limited, so don't get caught living someone else's life, " he said to the Stanford Graduates of 2005.

Those are words I will try to live by.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Empty Nesters

"It's just you and me, kid," I said to Steve after it was clear that Brendan wasn't going to be coming home this weekend for dinner. We left the Coliseum after the USC football game and pondered our next move. "Let's go to El Cholo's," I suggested. This, a throwback to our college days of post-game festivities.

Where did thirty years go? I know this question hits everyone at some point, but as my thirtieth college reunion approaches, I'm simply flabbergasted at the passage of time.

Friday, on my way home from school, I had an overwhelming sense of longing for Gillian. It was four o'clock our time. I texted her. "I always seem to miss you at 4:00 on Friday afternoon." The weekend looming, I yearn for mother -daughter time.
A one liner in response.
"I miss you too."
It's finally sinking in.
We, are empty nesters. Our "children" have flown the coop. They have lives distinctly separate from ours.
Their bathroom sits, frozen in time for weeks on end - the towels untouched - waiting. There is no need to stock the fridge with their favorite foods. I air out their bedrooms and notice the piles of stuff left untouched in corners and it hits me. Their rooms are like mini-storage for what they decided they didn't really need. Their rooms have a temporary feel to them awaiting a visit - they are mostly uninhabited.

This week, I began to notice just how much time Steve and I are spending together, especially since we commute in the same car most days.
We wake up - have our first cup of coffee. Glance at the headlines in the newspaper. Get into the car and head off by six fifteen in the morning.
He drops me off at school.
After my rehearsal, he picks me up, we drive home and report to one another about the twelve hours we were apart.

Next, we tackle dinner - if I was proactive over the weekend, there are tuppers filled with hearty soup, a stew in the crock pot, or something marinating, ready to be thrown onto the grill. If I was lazy - we hit Islands, or Super Mex, or Mimi's Cafe for a bite before arriving at home.

By this point in our evening, we've already talked about the day - so conversation turns to politics, the poorly maintained sidewalks in our neighborhood, the collapsing seawall, or some other topic of interest.
We clear the table, clean up the kitchen, and set out for a walk. We come back, sit on our front patio and take in the salt air, happy to be living near water.

We used to treat ourselves to the occasional frozen yogurt from Golden Spoon until the shop closest to our house closed its doors this summer.
Our ultimate goal is to have our heads hit the pillow by nine thirty as a defense against the five- fifteen in the morning alarm.

On the weekend, we often go to the grocery store together. We kayak, read the newspaper, and watch our favorite shows that we have DVR'd during the week like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm, or watch CNN and complain about Anderson Cooper - or pop in a DVD of Madmen or a Ken Burn's documentary . Lately, it's been Baseball. Before that, Jazz.Before that Civil War. We fall asleep to Frasier.

Our two cats, Hobie and Lido, who we fondly refer to as "the boys" are always happy to see us. Bounding down the street at the sound of our car, they greet us as if they were dogs. We talk to them as if they were people. This, I'm quite sure, is a direct result of not having children at home.

No need to shop for school supplies, school clothes, school shoes. No need to calendar all the sports schedules or back to school nights or plan the trip to parent weekend. We are not only empty nesters, we are post-graduate parents - the days of college visitations that dominated our lives for years - behind us. Now, we just open the mail and groan at the student loan hangover. I don't think I'd realized just how all consuming parenting was. I am only now realizing how strange it feels to no longer be "head coach" of our children's lives. Now they have to carry the ball and run to the end zone on their own. We are relegated to the side lines - cheering them on.
We watch our children from afar and wonder where their lives will take them. What choices they will make. Where their careers will lead and where they will end up living.

The empty nest is a new stage of life for us. In some ways it is a return to the beginning - when it was just the two of us. I suppose our parents wondered the same things about us thirty years ago.

In some ways the empty nest is freeing. I just haven't quite gotten used to it yet. All I can say, it's a good thing Steve and I like each other, because for the next thirty, "It's just you and me, kid."