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 8, 2011

Preview of Sid Sanford Lives
Chapter One: Pastime
Part 2


In August 2009, I posted a selection from the first chapter of my long-languishing novel. For those of you new to the blog—or for those of you who don’t have memories that long—my book centers on the life of Sid Sanford who happens to have a striking resemblance to…well…me. What I wrote back then still applies: For better or worse, he’s become my alter ego and I keep coming up with ideas for him that keep me from finally putting down my pen. For the last couple of weeks I’ve been tapping into something that has allowed me to seriously make a run at putting the final touches on this novel. Sid’s story needs to be heard in its entirety, and I plan to do my best to make that a reality. Originally this story was a lot shorter, but I realized I had to do a better job of introducing all the characters if I wanted this book to work. So far in these previews, Sid has made an appearance only in the background, but I promise you he’ll get his moment in the spotlight soon. In the meantime, here’s part 2 of the first chapter of Sid Sanford Lives.

She took a deep breath before she started moving again.

There was so much that had to get done and she didn’t know where to start. She had to get the hamburgers prepared and seasoned before her husband threw them on the grill, she had to get all the fixins her men liked ready to go, and she had to get all the paper plates and utensils on the table. Then, she had to throw together her famous potato salad, make rice for her oldest son Tom’s bland palate, and start making her boys’ lunches for the next day. School had just started and she always liked to make sure they ate well that first week. They were on their own after that.

What am I doing thinking instead of moving, she thought. Focus, focus!

The first thing she did was fill her soda cup—which her men teased her about, calling it her “bubba.” She was particular about it, yes, preferring to fill it all the way up with ice first and then pour in as much Diet Coke as the cup would allow. That way, she had a perfectly chilled drink for hours, which was especially handy if she got sucked into a Lifetime movie and didn’t feel like trudging back into the kitchen. She wouldn’t let her husband or sons refill it for her no matter how many times they offered. They never got the combination right and she was left with either a watered down Diet Coke or a lukewarm one within the hour. No thank you fellas.
She took a deep pull and felt ready to tackle everything.

Focus, focus!

She tied her apron on. She started with the hamburger meat she had left out to thaw when she got home from work. She washed her hands, opened the packaging, and dropped the meat into one of her favorite glass mixing bowls. She put in the right mixture of spices and squished the meat around so that it all was fully coated. She scooped out a little bit at a time and formed the perfect patties, which she laid on her serving plate with the rooster on it.

“’Kay!” she exclaimed happily. Her boys teased her when she said that. It was her French slang for “There, done!” It was a mix between “okay” and gibberish. She grew up hearing her mother and brothers and sisters saying it, so she said it too. It amused her to no end when she caught any of the Sanford men muttering it after completing a task.

A Ronnie Milsap song came on the radio.

“Woo,” she yelled to the empty kitchen.

She rushed to turn up the volume. She be-bopped to the fast-paced country tune for a moment and then set out to accomplish the rest of her goals. Between the music and the Diet Coke, she got everything done in plenty of time before her husband made his way down the stairs. In fact, she was at the kitchen table reading her book when she heard him shuffle into the kitchen.

“Wow!” Ken said when he saw everything laid out for him. “You make it so easy for me.”

“Lord knows I have to,” she replied without looking up from her book. “If I didn’t, none of you Sanford would be of any use to society.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” said her husband, grabbing the tray of hamburgers haphazardly.

Gail cringed.

“Use two hands.”

“I’ve got it.”

“No you don’t.”

“I do too.”

It was at that moment that Ken tripped over his own feet, causing the tray to slip out of his hand and crash back down on the counter. Gail was on her feet in a flash after yelling out nervously. She got there as one of the patties jumped ship and landed next to the coffee pot.

“Told you that you didn’t have it.”

Ken’s face got red and he put his head down.

“Doesn’t mean I don’t love you to pieces,” she said. She put everything back to the way it was supposed to be, kissed him on the cheek, and tousled his graying hair. “Why don’t you start up the grill, say hello to Sid and Patrick, and I’ll send these out with Tom in a couple of minutes.”

Ken nodded and opened the door to the back porch.

“Take your dog with you!” Gail said.

At the mention of his name, Sam wormed his way out from under the kitchen table, nearly knocked her over, and bounded happily after his owner. The dog barreled his way past her husband and barked excitedly at the screen door. Ken chuckled and went to follow his loyal canine, but his wife stopped him.

“I almost forgot!” she said walking over to the fridge. “I made my man a drink!”

“Thanks,” Ken replied, trying to summon up some enthusiasm. “I could really use it after today.”

“What happened? What’s wrong?” she asked wearily, handing him his gin and tonic.

“Nothing, just one of those days.”

“You sure?”

“Yes.”

“You’d tell me if something happened, right?”

“Yes.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“OK, get to work,” she said satisfied with his answer for now.

She watched as he walked away from her.

She didn’t mean to worry so much.

She could sense something in him today though. There was weariness in his voice and body language. She didn’t know how he did it every day dealing with all those customers. She had her own struggles dealing with patients at the doctor’s office where she worked, but they were lambs compared to his grocery store clientele. She knew how much of the burden he heaved on his shoulders in providing for this family day in and day out and hated to see him get down on himself. She was the one that paid the bills, so she knew how tight things were and how little they had to show for all their hard work sometimes.

You’re my rock Ken Sanford, she thought. I can’t help but worried when my rock starts to show signs of wear and tear.

Her mother had been a worrier. She had vowed never to be like that. She tried her best to be as even-keeled as her husband, but it never quite worked out that way. It just didn’t fit her personality. She had accepted that to some degree, but it didn’t mean she felt good about it.

She had some legitimate reasons for worrying as much as she did. Both she and her husband had suffered through one job after another that might have been fulfilling if it weren’t for the people they worked under. While Gail had finally found a doctor that not only realized her value but also was as useless without her as the Sanford men were; Ken, meanwhile, hadn’t been so lucky. He was one of the hardest workers she’d ever known, but he just couldn’t catch a break. There was always someone else who had all of the flash and got all the promotions, yet Ken had the substance and got left behind. It wasn’t in his nature to fight back, even when she urged him to start ripping people’s heads off. He knew that he was doing a good job and the best that he could, no matter how crappy he was treated at times. He made her believe that they could withstand anything for their three boys.

However, that didn’t stop her from wanting to scream some days. They were making it work now, but at what cost? How long could they keep this up? How were they going to move beyond putting food on the table and clothes on their backs to putting their three brilliant kids through college? When was their bad luck finally going to get the best of them? Neither she nor her husband was above working the occasional odd second job, but all it did was keep them away from these boys they both loved with everything they had.

Focus, focus!

Before she went to get Tom, Gail Sanford looked out of the bay window and observed her two other sons chasing after each other in the backyard. Someone had hit the Wiffle ball in Sam’s direction and he had made off with it. They chased him down, pulled the slimy ball out of his mouth, and raced back to their positions. She smiled, knowing at some point she’d have to break them up after one or the other melted down over a silly argument. But for now, she watched as the dog trudged back to the deck and collapsed in a happy heap next to her husband.

My boys.

Read Part 1 Read Part 3.

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.