Remembering Steve

Steve isn’t dead.

The most physical and perhaps most limited instantiation of him, of course, is gone.  No more will we know that unique conflation of DNA and environment that gave rise to the person we knew as Steve Jobs.

But his larger self, the ripples emanating out from him, those will continue to move people on this earth.

He rode sidecar in the lives of many people.  Or perhaps it was the other way around.  Perhaps it was his motorcycle all along.  Perhaps he gave expression to that motorcycle ride that we all dreamed for and wanted.

How have his ripples moved through me?

1979.  San Diego.  I’m an awkward fourteen year old boy.  It’s the first day of ninth grade and my math teacher Virginia Hamilton ushers me into a room that contains some new equipment which she doesn’t understand and has no idea what to do with.  She shows me a new Apple II.  It’s your’s to play with, she tells me.  Earlier that summer I had read about these two guys, Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs who had invented the first real personal computer.  I understood instantly.  I took the manual home that night and was on the machine the next day tirelessly.  It couldn’t just move numbers and text.  It could play sound.  It had a color screen.   You could do art on it.  It could be a musical keyboard.  It could be a kind of stereo.  I learned to program in hex. I set to writing a program that was like a wordprocessor for music.  Why, a person could play and the computer would transcribe the music for you.

1981.  Reuben H Fleet Science Center.  I sit at a table with the director of their science center.  They had live location data on several satellites orbiting the earth, he explained.  Could I write a program that could visually display where in the sky the satellites would be visible?  Why yes.  The truth was I couldn’t program worth shit.  But I set to it with David Calabrese, a kid I met hanging out in an Apple store.  That was a thing then – kids who couldn’t afford computers would hang out in Apple retailers programming and pimping the machines.

David and I would get together each day and type out code.  We were nuts about Apple computers.  We also debated who was the stronger genius – Wozniak or Jobs?  Jobs was a petulant jerk. And Wozniak was brilliant.  He after all was the real inventor of the guts and OS of the first Apple.  He invented the first magnetic hard drive over a weekend.  But Jobs was the guy who saw what it all was.  He was the one to put it together.  He drove Wozniak relentlessly.  And eventually he drove Wozniak out.  David and I worked on our satellite tracking program. We kind of got it working, but a real programmer ended up finishing the work. I had a crush on David’s sister and I just wanted to make out with her.  I guess I got kind of distracted.

1982.  Biology class.  I borrowed an Apple IIe from a kid – I think his name was Eric Altman.  His family was pretty well off and they could afford the latest toys.  I didn’t have a computer of my own and I needed to do a demo of my science project – something about computer music transcription.  I plugged in the computer with the power switch on and I fried the mother board.  I stood in front of the class and felt like I was going to throw up.  Eric was heartbroken.  I took his machine to the Apple store where I hung out.  I had no money, but the technician worked on it for a week and fixed it for free.  He was so generous, but then he wanted to hang out with me more and I didn’t know what his intention was. I felt the the foreign edge of a grown up world and it scared me.

1983.  I stand in my childhood home, decrepit, filthy, largely stripped of furniture.  I’m seventeen and I no longer have parents.  I hold an acceptance letter in my hand.  Would I have gotten into Yale without all that freakish experience with those Apple computers?  Perhaps.  Perhaps not.  Does technology really make a difference?

1984.  At Yale my college roommate ended up with one of the first Macintoshes.  I could use it whenever I wanted to write papers, he told me.  He basically bribed me with his Mac so I would hang out with him.  Regardless, never again would I write a paper on a typewriter.  And the sheer terror I felt at having to write on the page began to dissipate just a little.  I could write, and erase, and cut and paste.  Back then the words, “cut and paste” still connoted glue and scissors.   How strange to think that in our minds the words now evoke the clicking of a mouse.  And what would the mouse have been without Steve Jobs?  And by extension, to think that our very vocabulary and the parts of our brain that support that vocabulary have been rewired by that one individual.

1987.  I camped out in the basement of our residential college for much of the spring, sitting at a bank of Macintoshes, writing my senior thesis on the Diggers, a counterculture anarchist group in San Francisco.  Why did history have to be constituted only of old stuff, I wondered?  What about recent history?  The 1960’s?  Cultural history?  I wanted to write about something that hadn’t been touched yet.  And so I looked at something so new and so insignificant, that real historians hadn’t gotten to it yet.  For hundreds of hours I stared at the screen of a Mac.  I thought about those machines of loving grace, of how that generation of tech pioneers, Steve in particular,  came out of the counterculture, how parts of their visions were fueled by acid.

1988.  Seattle.  I’m out of college by now.  My first years at trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I didn’t quite realize it at the time, but I was alone in the world, and if I’d ever chanced to look down, I would have been terrified.  I read biographies of Steve Jobs, looking for guidance.

I inherited the stories:

Steve in India being pulled aside by a guru who, laughing hysterically, shorn his hair off.

Steve tracking down his birth mother.  He had little to say publicly about the matter other than that he believed in nurture over nature. I wondered over the years what that encounter must have been like.  Who was she?  What did they share in common?  What did they not?  Why should I even care?  But care I did.

Steve inviting John Scully to his Woodside home.  Over thin crusted pizza, asking if John wanted to continue selling sugar water to children, or if he wanted to change the world?

Steve being exiled to some lone building on the Apple campus.

Steve being fired from his own company and following his departure, retreating to his Woodside home where he raised a pirate flag and another sporting the logo of the NeXT computer.

Steve throwing crying fits, insisting that the robotic arms assembling NeXT be painted the proper shade, and then his eyes welling up again as he watched those arms moving in unison.  Thinking machines building other thinking machines.  This was poetry.  This was art.

Steve commenting years later that technology in the end doesn’t change the world.  People live for an instant and then they die.  What does technology really change?  All those widgets and gadgets and gizmos, they make the world different.  But do they really make it better?

1989.   I sat in an auditorium in Seattle as Steve Jobs unveiled the NeXT computer.  I saw OS X in it’s very first incarnation.  It had a Unix kernel and full sound and graphics and an amped up graphic interface.  Why did I still care about this stuff?  I wasn’t a computer guy anymore.  But I loved Jobs.  Watching that demo, I wondered why no one wanted to buy it?  None of us knew that 10 years later we all would.

1994.  I have an MFA by now.  I’m writing.  I scratch out a living with low-end desktop publishing.  Why that and not something else?  Because I have loads of experience on a Mac.   All on Mac’s.  Steve made the best tools I have ever touched.  I have a Sheffield digging fork.  And an Apple.  And in a way they are the very same thing.  They allow me to do most of the work I do.

1996.  Vermont.  My wife and I have just moved to the northeast.  I’m referred to a woman who’s having problems with her Mac and needs some tech support.  I end up helping her and afterwards we go for a walk and she asks about my life and she listens in a way that ranks that afternoon on the shores of Lake Champlain as one of the most important conversations of my life.  I tell her that I don’t sleep at night because there are too many things left undone.  Left undone, she said.  One day that will be the title of your autobiography.  We had a chance encounter because of a screwed up Mac and our deep friendship has lasted to this day.  What difference, really, does technology make?

1996.  Vermont. Driving through the snow with my wife.  I had heard about a new codec called MP3 and was thinking through the implications. The physical medium for content was now obsolete, I told my wife.  We no longer needed vinyl or CD’s or tapes.  All music could be shared digitally.  I wrote out a 2 page summary for a digital jukebox that would exist online, and you could purchase songs and play them on some device. I tried to find interested people.  I met with some guy from the Media Lab.  I got a job working for a start up telecom company, thinking it would help.  I was employee number 7.  The company took off and I dropped my idea, an idea which I now realize I was in no position to execute.

1998.  Steve returns to Apple.  It’s not the hardware.  It’s the software, he insists.  And the dictum becomes apparent.   There’s no reason to have buttons and physical widgets on our devices.  Practically all of it can be done by software.  The ideal computer wouldn’t even exist physically.  It would be pure software.  Pure instruction.  Pure energy.

2001.  Apple releases the iPod.

Why did Steve Jobs do it?  And why not me?  Well, because he was Steve Jobs.  And I am me.

2007.  The company I worked for got the contract to provision the iPhone on the AT&T network.   And the company screwed it up immeasurably.  Probably the single greatest failure of the iPhone release was AT&T’s botched turn up of the service.  A small number of former coworkers  got pretty rich off it, though.  But I had already left three years before and had moved to the Hopi reservation.

2005.  I stand in a parking lot in Flagstaff before a meeting with a prospective funder.  I’m trying to get money for a youth farming project.  I have my Mac Powerbook on the trunk of my car and I select 30 photos, choose a Hopi planting song, and within seconds have a slideshow.  I sit with the funder as luscious images materialized on the screen, showing kids planting ancient terrace gardens.  At the end of the slideshow he sits there in silence and then announces  that he’ll commit ten thousand dollars.

2009.  I have a recurrence of a tumor on my parotid gland and am undergoing radiation treatment in San Francisco.  Unbeknownst to me Steve Jobs is getting his liver transplant in Knoxville.  Late one night I hole up in a sushi bar in the Sunset district, seeking some morsel of food that won’t make me sick.  I chat with a woman next to me – an attorney specializing in real estate law. Her boyfriend is an oncologist in Palo Alto.  He’s been working with Steve.  It’s not good, she tells me.  But didn’t we all know that? Not just for him, but for all of us?  Isn’t life itself a terminal condition?  I drink my sake and eat my toro.  I don’t want him to go.

2011.  Sebastopol where l now live with my family.  I have struggled for the last few weeks to buy an apple orchard next door, but my efforts come to late.  It’s sold to a vintner.  Several days later bulldozers arrive and plow down the 80 year old trees.  Even as I write I can hear the sound of the dozers.  I take a break to watch a movie on my daughter’s Macbook Pro about the mining of blood minerals used in cellphones and wonder what Apple’s stance on the issue is.  I think of small boys mining colton deep underground with small hammers.  Of women being raped and mercenary groups demanding taxes on the minerals used in all our electronic devices.  Small drops of blood tainting perhaps even the devices popularized by Steve Jobs.  Does technology change the world?  Ask the boys in the mines.  I consider their lives and their terminal conditions.

I turn on the radio and learn that Steve Jobs has died.

1955 – 2011.  Apple could have said it so many ways.  What was the most simple?  They could have said, “2011”.  But that just tells you that he died.  It doesn’t tell you that he was. They could have displayed the exact month and the day of his birth and death.  But what really do those other pieces of information add?  Nothing really.

Steve Jobs.  1955 – 2011.  He lived.  And now he is dead.

I once wanted to be Steve Jobs.

And in the end we all will be.  Steve admonished that life is about the detours.  That we never know how those detours will add up.  But what if your life has been composed entirely of detours?

It took me too long of a time to realize that Steve Jobs was not the life I was born into.  I can have visions with the best of them.  But everything depends on execution.  And in the end, focus.


Intense, excruciating focus.