Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Thanks, Steve

I wrote this not too long ago for the Spring 2012 issue of C:JET, the official publication of the Journalism Education Association.
I remember my first computer. It was a VisiGoth xT5600 or some such, and it was meant to “interface” with the University of Texas at Austin’s mainframe computer, thus allowing me to communicate directly with Texas Student Publications, which at the time printed my organization’s monthly newsletter — generally a 12- or 16-page tabloid newspaper best known for publishing the names of all the athletic coaches who’d been reprimanded for cheating or throwing clipboards at football officials.
Someone in my office thought the VisiGoth xT5600 was just what I needed, and it was delivered and plopped on my desk — and it stayed there for two years while I tried desperately to figure out what the hell to do with it and what “interface” meant. A year or so later, I unhooked and unplugged it and crammed it into a closet. I never used it, never found anyone at UT who knew how to use it, never bothered to tell my boss or the person he had deemed our “technology director” that the VisiGoth xT5600 was a piece of junk.
Ironically enough, I had just completed my master’s thesis on job satisfaction and dissatisfaction among Texas high school journalism teachers, and I understood that while my IBM Selectric II typewriter brought me no great satisfaction, the absence of it provoked tremendous dissatisfaction.
So, I returned to the horse-and-buggy days of publishing and decided the personal computer revolution could slide by without me, thanks just the same. I had long resolved my issues with X-acto knives and hot wax — the latter of which at the time was used for entirely different purposes than it is today.
But then, in 1985, I was introduced — by John Cutsinger, I believe — to the Macintosh computer, a boxy, beige piece of exotica about half the size of a motel refrigerator with a screen no bigger than my wallet.
I’m writing this on my new MacBook Air, so it’s hard to believe I’m saying this, but my first Mac was sleek and cute and profoundly cool. Most importantly, it worked. It did what I wanted it to do, which at first was nothing more than to crank out columns of 9-point Times Roman body type and 36-point Helvetica headlines that I could cut and paste onto large sheets of lined paper and deliver to TSP in a format someone had cleverly called “camera ready.”
Wow. It was incredible. It changed my life.
Forever.
Of course, that alone didn’t guarantee its success, especially at a place as bureaucratic and provincial as the University of Texas. Fortunately, Michael Dell was still assembling and selling computers from his dorm room on the UT campus, and IBM and Hewlett-Packard and the other conglomerates were napping because somehow, the entire UT campus became Mac-friendly. Everyone had a Mac SE, and we shared tips and gossip and made fun of the poor schmucks over in the Business School pounding away on a Compaq or a Commodore or an Osborne 1.
We pitied them.
We were first-generation MacAddicts, and by and large, we’ve remained loyal, some of us fiercely so. There was a time in the mid-1990s that I feared Apple might collapse. Steve Jobs had been forced out. Not even Sears would sell Apple computers. For a moment, it looked as if IBM and Microsoft — the twin evil empires — might prevail. My next-door neighbor at the time was a stockbroker, and I once told him I was thinking of buying Apple stock, which at the time had plunged to maybe ten bucks a share.
“We should,” he agreed.
But we didn’t — to my ever-lasting sorrow and regret, because shortly thereafter, Jobs returned, and Apple introduced the iMac and the iPod, and the rest, as they say, is history.
I’ve been a Mac aficionado for almost half my life. One of the worst days of my life came in the summer of 1998. I was teaching in Budapest, Hungary and met with the directors of the Center for Independent Journalism to inspect the computer lab. All PCs — running Quark. I came to understand the true meaning of “Kafkaesque.”
Ten years later, I wrote, edited, designed and paginated a 200-page, 11 x 17 history of the UIL — the organization for whom I worked for almost 30 years — on a 13-inch MacBook Pro. I patched and repaired stacks of vintage photos and cranked out pdfs that I emailed to a publisher in Missouri. The project ruined my posture so bad that I ended up in an emergency room with nerve spasms that required three shots of steroids and a few months of physical therapy, but that was my fault — not the computer’s.
My MacBook Pro performed brilliantly.
This new MacBook Air is working pretty damn well too, but then, I knew it would. The young man assisting me at the Apple Store asked me, “Now, are you familiar with the Macintosh?”
“What year were you born,” I asked in reply.
“1991.”
“I got my first Mac five years before you were born,” I said.
He grinned and gave me a high-five.
Look, I know it’s naïve to gush over Macintosh and Steve Jobs, but I’m going to anyway. Steve gave me the iMac when the rest of the computer world was peddling the VisiGoth xT5600. He created a culture that encouraged “outside the box” thinking long before “outside the box” became a cliché. The culture produced technology that gave us something as simple yet brilliant as a power cord with little hooks and a magnet on the end. What genius!
Steve Jobs was my generation’s Einstein, Edison, Tesla.
He enriched my life and the lives of every person even remotely connected to writing, editing and publishing.
We owe you, pal, and will forever. Rest in peace.