Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Steve Jobs and the Myth of the Exceptional American

Image courtesy of fuzzimo
Steve Jobs deserves all of the adjectives ascribed to him by the media.

He was indeed a genius, innovator, and pioneer. I’m writing this on a Macbook in close proximity to my iPhone, two iPods, while listening to a decade’s worth of songs downloaded from iTunes, so I don’t have to be sold on Jobs’ place in the Pantheon of America’s best minds.

However, the word I’ve had the most trouble with has been exceptional. I’ve always had issues with this word anyway, even more so when coupled with the adjective American. I’m as patriotic as they come, but to defend the idea that my fellow citizens and I are exceptional considering that we glorify the casts of Jersey Shore and The Real Housewives of Orange County, can’t get out of our own ways politically, and barely notice we’re still fighting two wars overseas that have claimed more an untold number of lives on both sides is as dangerous as it is stupid.

In my opinion, we are all exceptional—regardless of ethnicity, color, or creed—just by being alive. When our ancestors left the cave and stood on two feet—and if you believe recent studies ran, not walked, to outlast our stronger and smarter Neanderthal competitors—they left us a legacy of being able to tame the earth and cast our own destinies. One could argue that war and pollution have tarnished that legacy, but the fact that we’re still moving forward in time despite our differences is indeed exceptional.

I’m not saying that there haven’t been moments when American achievements have outshone those of the rest of the world. We built railroads to connect our distance coastlines; we took to the road, air, and the reaches of outer space in the spirit of efficiency, adventure, and discovery; we harnessed the power of steel, wiped out smallpox and polio, and—thanks in large part to Jobs—changed the way we listen to music, read magazines and books, and interact with one another. But after only 235 years of existence, can we really say that our exceptional moments are greater than those of the countries we share this world with?

Were Martin Luther King’s peaceful efforts to move the civil rights movement along during the 1960s more significant and inspiring than Gandhi peacefully inspiring a country to shake off the yolk of British imperialism? Franklin D. Roosevelt steadied a country during World War II, but was it more exceptional than Winston Churchill holding his country together with twine and Duct tape while enduring constant bombardment from Hitler’s Luftwaffe? Is anything any of our brightest and most talented innovators, leaders, or business people are doing right now illuminating our world more than those that live in societies whose existences endure through war, famine, and choice? Or has the fact that America has accomplished so much in such a short period of time an indicator that we’re exceptional?

I don’t have good answers for any of these questions. In fact, I have no answers. All I know is that Jobs wasn’t much different than any of us when he thought up a good idea. The difference is that he, like so many great minds throughout history, didn’t let those ideas go down the shower drain where they were born; he had the courage, will, and persistence to see their birth. We all have this exceptional ability to change our world no matter what country we were born into. We all need to start thinking of the next big idea, the next step forward. Steve Jobs himself said it best in his address to Stanford University’s graduating class in 2005:

Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma, which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice, heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Image courtesy of grace176
To put the bigger picture back in American terms, our world didn’t go dark after the passing of Thomas Edison, statesmanship didn’t perish along with Benjamin Franklin, journalistic standards didn’t erode when the world lost Nellie Bly, and our idealism wasn’t tempered by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It wasn’t that Jobs was exceptional. Like the influential men and women that came before him, he was just better able to figure out what was exceptional about the rest of us.

Which is why I’ll go to sleep easily at night even though his light has been extinguished. I’m content knowing that the next great innovator is out there somewhere, ready to not only redefine what we want, but who we are. I won’t care what nationality, race, religion, or sexual orientation he or she is; as long as they can read the tea leaves as well as Jobs did and point us toward our next collective exceptional moment.

But I hope he or she hurries. Because of Jobs, we’re all a little impatient.

*I was told when I was writing this that I was pretty daft if I believed there were no other American innovators on the level of Steve Jobs. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just saying that Americans don’t have a monopoly on being exceptional, now or ever. I’m just kick-starting a debate, so forgive any shortcomings this post might have.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Blanchette Blood: Moving Uncle Bobby

"This hasn’t moved out of here for 27 years,” Uncle Bobby said. “It belonged to your grandfather."

He’s pointing to an old toolbox that looks every bit its age. I had been ready to make a crack about how many dead bodies he had hidden in there. As it turns out, it contained Blanchette ghosts instead. My mother’s father, Arthur, had built the toolbox in upstate Maine on a day that no one can remember. All of my mom’s brothers—Roland, Clifford, and Jimmy—had possessed it at one point before it came to rest in Uncle Bobby’s basement. Inside this nostalgia treasure box were tools that the Blanchette men had touched, used, and, more likely than not, spilled blood on. It was a connection to a generation of family that I admired and respected above all others.

Arthur Blanchette's Toolbox

So, naturally, my first inclination was to make a joke. “I guess I shouldn’t point out that I’m 27 years old, right?” I asked. Uncle Bobby mumbled something in French and gave me a look that said, No, you really shouldn’t.

We picked it up wordlessly and put it in the back of the trailer he had attached to the back of his powerful pickup truck. He shut the doors and we hopped into the cab. We were on our way to his new house, which was also a connection to the past of sorts. He was moving into my Uncle Roland’s house just down the street. He had passed away a few years ago, and Uncle Bobby had just bought the house from his widow.

After moving a table saw that had the density of a felled water buffalo, we moved my grandfather’s toolbox to its new home in the workshop connected to Uncle Bobby’s new garage. It certainly would have plenty of company during its next 27 years.

“It’s going to take me years to figure out where everything is and where all the light switches are,” Uncle Bobby said. He looked around at the vast amount of tools and odds and ends and chuckled. “At least when I go, moving all this shit will be someone else’s problem.”

I should point out here that I didn’t come home to help out my uncle. The story works a lot better if I jumped on a train without thinking after hearing he needed me, but the truth is I came up to run a race in Higganum, Conn. Well, that and have a few beers with my brothers at my nephew’s birthday party. None of this ended up happening. What did happen made the trip that much more worthwhile.

One of the earliest memories of my Uncle Bobby is sword-fighting with him on the steps of my porch using his tape measures. Actually, most of my memories with him involve a porch, a stoop, or a set of stairs. Like all the Blanchette men, he had this unmistakable French accent that colored everything that came out of his mouth—which, more often than not, would include plenty of colorful language.

All of the Blanchette brothers also had their own distinct laughs and eccentricities. I don’t remember my Uncle Clifford—who I’m told I owe my temperament to, which may or may not be a compliment—but I remember Uncle Roland being softer-spoken, and Uncle Jimmy being so loud at times that he scared the crap out of me as a kid. Uncle Bobby is certainly as hardscrabbled and tough as his brothers, but he always seemed to me to be a generous and good-natured man—something he reaffirms every snowstorm when he plows my parents’ driveway.

The Blanchette Men: Roland, Arthur, Jimmy, Clifford, and Bobby

I wasn’t close to him during my teenage years through my early 20s for a variety of reasons, but all that changed this past year. He had remarried a wonderful woman from New Hampshire named Sherri and had reconnected with the remaining members of the Blanchette crew, who couldn’t have been happier to shower him with all the love and attention he’d missed out on over the years. While having a few beers with him at my father’s 60th birthday party, I got the best advice I think I’ve ever been given. “Life’s too short and hard—no use being miserable through the whole thing,” he said. “As long as you’re happy, the rest is bullshit.”

So even though I hadn’t planned on it, helping my uncle an easy decision. As fate would have it, a giant nor’easter was headed toward the East Coast. It was expected to drop 6–12 inches and start right around the time we’d be moving the rest of Uncle Bobby’s stuff to his new house.

“I was telling my mom, I think your brothers might have had something to do with this,” I said after I had arrived early in the morning the following day. “Normally, I’d say Clifford or Jimmy are the culprits, but since you’re moving into his house, Roland might be the one messing with you.”

“You better believe all of them are up there having a good laugh,” Uncle Bobby said, rolling his eyes. “Bastards.”

The threat of the weather fueled our work that morning. We were machines. While Sherri, my mom, and my Tante Peewee—for those wondering, that’s “aunt” in French, and no one knows what the hell a Peewee is—packed up the rest of the house in boxes, the men robotically moved the heavy furniture to the new house. We got everything done just as the snow was starting to really accumulate.

After all the heavy lifting was over, Uncle Bobby ended up sitting on the top step of the small set of stairs to the family room where the rest of us were seated in a variety of rocking chairs. We were happily devouring the lunch my mom had prepared—along with a few well-deserved beers.

“I haven’t had this tomato rice soup in 30 years,” Uncle Bobby said through a mouthful of the steaming soup. “Hits the damn spot, though.” Sherri said something to the effect that she couldn’t get over the fact that my mom had stayed up all night making the bread and thought to bring her Crock-Pot and griddle to feed everyone.

“That’s the type family you married into,” he replied. He’s right. Come hell or high water—or a nor’easter—this family comes together to help one of its own. Usually, that aid comes with a warm meal and homemade Whoopie pies.

When we were leaving, Uncle Bobby shook my hand and thanked me up and down. I joked that I’d call in the favor the next time I moved in New York City. “You say the word, and I’ll be there without fail,” he said. He wasn’t kidding.

Me and Uncle Bobby

My cousin Terry mentioned out at some point that I didn’t have her father’s Mainer accent. “That’s true,” I told her. “But I inherited just about everything else—the height, the stubbornness, the nose, and the temper.”

I wouldn’t have it any other way.