To An Ungrateful Steve Jobs

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on September 22, 2011, and in the Fairfield Sun on September 29, 2011, both in my  “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)

AUTHOR’S NOTE: This was written after Steve Jobs announced his retirement as head of Apple, but before he passed away.

I deserve better than this, Steve. We go way back, after all: Remember when “going to the Dark Side” meant using a Windows product? How quaint. Now Microsoft is the kid brother who tries to tag along wherever you go.

Have you forgotten our history? I was weaned on your Apple II computers at Tomlinson Junior High, those beige metal boxes that had all the computing power of today’s Hallmark cards. You were my first, a DOS programming experience that resulted in games where players were faced with ever-worsening options to avoid an inevitably gruesome death. You had me hooked despite your lack of graphics or your white typeface on that daunting black screen. Like dogs, Apple never computed in color.

By comparison, my brother’s IBM PCjr was a white monstrosity that took up our entire desk and weighed almost thirty pounds. Simply clicking on the keyboard made the tabletop wobble like a cartoon chicken. My dad, who’d only recently ushered in the technology era for the Walsh household with a surprise Atari purchase at Christmas, made me fall in love with you all over again when he bought the first Macintosh computer. Apple had changed the game by replacing the black screen/white typeface with… (wait for it) blue screen/black typeface. Still, it was a fraction of the size of the IBM, didn’t require DOS programming to run commands, and it had a mouse. It didn’t do much, but it made a nice clicking noise that sounded like progress.

I’ll admit I’ve had my doubts about you over the years. When my brother brought home the Macintosh II, I felt like the stodgy nun watching Whoopi Goldberg singing and dancing around the convent. Who needed all those pictures, all that color? Computers were for coding. If you wanted flash, watch TV! I stuck with your more pedestrian fare, sinking the last of my student loan money into one of your PowerBook 100 laptops. With a screen the size of my iPhone and the processing speed of my cocker spaniel, it allowed me the freedom to wait for the 10-minute boot-up procedure any place I chose… as long as it came before the 30-minute battery died. All this without all that troublesome color.

Like Leo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic, we clung to each other in a sea of technological change as Bill Gates turned Windows into the industry standard. Companies simply stopped making software for Apple computers. You swore you’d never let go… until you did. When you left Apple, I left. I bought my first Windows computer shortly thereafter, feeling dirty and alone. In the nineties, the dwindling pool of knuckle-draggers who clung to their Macs were mocked much like Betamax users were a decade before.

Unlike Leo, however, you did come back. You tried to woo me with the glitzy iMac and G4 Cube, but it was your iPod that reminded me what we once had together. In an act of surrender that would make Winslet proud, I’ve given myself completely to you over these past ten years, with iPods leading to iMacs leading to iPhones leading to iPads. I have shown you the monogamy you failed to uphold when you first left in 1985, only to see that you’re leaving me again with unfinished business. When you announced your resignation last month, you renounced the ability to right the wrong you have committed against me these last four years: the butchering of my very name.

If you, like me, have succumbed to the charms of Jobs and his iPhone, you can see for yourself: Every time I write “Rob” in my texts, it is changed to “Ron” using auto-correct. I know there are other Robs out there who feel as I do, mainly that Rons are not important enough to merit this “correction.” I mean, outside of the occasional Weasley, Howard, Popeil or MacDonald, how many famous Rons have there been? Robs are not only better represented throughout history, but the word itself functions as both a proper noun AND a verb! Defined in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language as, “To deprive unjustly of something belonging to, desired by, or legally due someone,” it’s clear I deserve better at your hands, Steve. Don’t rob me of my name.

Regardless, I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Yours truly,

Ron

Shadows over Connecticut

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on September 8, 2011, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

“Mr. Walsh, someone just bombed the Empire State Building!”

When you’re a middle school teacher, you get used to statements like this as you start your day. “Settle down, Edward, and take out your homework log.” The words tumbled effortlessly from my mouth as students continued to file in from the hallway for first period.

“It was a plane,” added Luwanda, holding her books tightly to her chest. “They are interviewing eyewitnesses on the Morning Zoo. Nobody’s playing music. They’re saying someone flew a plane into the Twin Towers.”

My first reaction was to share the story of the plane that hit the Empire State Building in 1945. “Accidents happen; let’s just hope everyone is all right.” An eerie calm had settled over the room, and I knew it wasn’t the worksheets on conjunctive adverbs I’d assigned them. I had many students whose parents and neighbors worked in that area of New York City. As they settled down to the task in front of them, I tried to sneak a peek at CNN from my computer. The site was down. Not wanting to frighten the students, I resisted the urge to walk across the hall to ask if anyone knew what was really going on.

I was helping a student with a question when Thomas burst into the room with a late pass. “They just bombed another building!” he announced, slumping into his seat. What followed was the longest fifteen minutes of my life as I tried to keep everyone calm. When the period bell rang without any announcement from the principal, I dared to hope that it was nothing serious.

It’s easy to take for granted how far technology has come in ten years; on that day, we had no cable TV in the building, and our internet had already crashed. I rushed to a colleague’s room and found other teachers already huddled around a small radio. “A second plane has just hit the South Tower,” someone said through the static. As one, we realized our world had just snapped its moorings. I’d arrived at school at 6:55 AM, and the big news was the opening day for the United Nations General Assembly; they’d just established September 21 as the International Day of Peace. Now, spared the gruesome images that at that moment were plastered across every TV screen in the country, we quickly assembled a plan to get our students through the day.

We were given the task of trying to maintain normalcy even as Flight 77 crashed into the west side of the Pentagon; even as our principal quietly took each teacher aside to ask us to pull the blinds and gather the children in the middle of the rooms. I led a discussion on Isaac Asimov while trying not to worry about my wife, a mere half-hour outside the city but unreachable by phone. I had to keep it together in order to distract my students from those same thoughts.

By 10:00 AM, the cars began to line up outside the school. The office began interrupting classes with long lists of students whose parents had come to pick them up, and a sense of panic rippled through the student body despite our best efforts. Students who had family in the towers were asked to go down to the office, where they huddled with the school psychologists and guidance counselors while awaiting news. Soon we were asked to turn off all lights, then our computers, as we waited in ten-minute intervals for the next batch of students to be called home. Those students who remained kept sneaking glances at the cell phones hidden in their pockets against school policy, their ringtones an eerie soundtrack of happy jingles as we struggled to read with what little light streamed around the blinds. The songs Pink Floyd once sung about the World War II bombing raids of London suddenly seemed far too real.

As soon as the buses came to pick up the last of the kids at the end of the day, we scurried to our homes, desperate to touch our loved ones and sort through the rubble of the day. My wife and I ate frozen dinners as Aaron Brown, on his first day anchoring the news, guessed which of the teetering buildings around the crumbled towers would fall next. We stayed up all night as various plots were proposed and everyone grappled with what would happen tomorrow. We waited for the call from school that would tell us whether or not to stay home. It never came.

For many of us, 9/11 was not the day that changed our lives; it was 9/12. As the towers fell on that terrible Tuesday, our heads were swimming with the fear of additional attacks. We were numbed with shock, unable to process the empty spaces where the towers once stood. On Wednesday morning we awoke to the realization that the destruction of the skyline in the economic capital of the world was far too… easy. Suddenly, America was not safe from those who opposed her.

As we approach the tenth anniversary of that horrible day, I still have trouble processing those two empty footprints of the World Trade Center towers. The shadows of those doomed planes remain, casting a pall over Ground Zero that no construction crew will ever repair. However, ten years have shown that we are stronger in the places our attackers tried to break us. They did not divide us from our Muslim American community, but rather forced us to better understand and work with it. They did not tear down our way of life, but instead reminded us of its importance. They did not force us to live in fear; they allowed us to rise above our fears and to do that most American of things: to hope.

I saw that hope in our school bake sales in the weeks and months that followed, in the repainted cafeteria of red, white, and blue, and in the way our students rallied to support those in our community who’d been been directly affected. I’ve never been prouder of my students than I was at this uncertain moment in our national history. As sad as I will be to relive the images of September 11, 2001, I will cling to that hope. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, the hope “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

To hope that, eventually, those shadows will pass.