‘Thank you, Steve Jobs.’
God, I never thought I would say those words.
For decades, I have been both infuriated and seduced by the man; alternating between curious and angry, enamored and resentful. I idolized and villainized him. His products have both helped and hijacked my career and personal life – devouring my time, my attention and my bank account. For all of his grand invention, he was at the core just a ‘dealer’, feeding society’s ‘more, please, now’ addiction. By blurring technologies with toys, he hooked billions with a ‘shiny new, faster, more colorful’ lure.
Ironically, he considered himself Buddhist but masterminded products that disconnect us from our minds instead of settling us deeper into them.
Like many, I grew tired of his rhetoric and bravado, his secrets and sweatshops. But when I watched the now famous 60 minutes interview where he rejected his birth father as a mere sperm bank – and vowed to never meet the man, I was actually sad. Here was the man responsible for helping billions connect and he couldn’t (wouldn’t) connect to the one man with whom he shares DNA.
So when it comes to Mr. Jobs, I have felt many things – but grateful? Never. Not until last week. The week that my own father turned 83.
A poet named David Whyte writes about asking the ‘close-in’ questions; the important inquires we want to – need to – long to – make. The ones we trip over while falling into mundane chit-chats like, ‘how is the weather? or ‘how’s your hip?’
So I asked my father a very close-in question: Is there something you want to do before you die?
When he was 70, I bought plane tickets to Sweden and we journeyed to the small northern-most island (Oland) from where his ancestors emigrated. It was our first venture into creating a new relationship that is present and erases history by creating new memories. As we stood side by side in front of the old red barn where his grandparents were born and married, a stones throw from the sea, we were connected to each other, our DNA, our genetic birthright. And in that one moment, the world got much smaller.
These were the days before iPads, iPhones, WI-FI, Facebook or Facetime. The days when you said, ‘You had to be there’, and you really meant it.
More than a decade later, he said there’s only one thing he wants to experience. As a volunteer driver, he transports veterans and handicapped folks to hospital and medical appointments from the small town where he lives to the big city. For a dozen years, he has been traveling the same stretch of country road, a few miles west of Portland Oregon, watching glider planes soar through the air, thinking: I want to do that. So for his birthday, his kids, the five of us, gave him a gift certificate to take the glider ride. He was moved by the gesture.
But on the actual morning of his 83rd birthday, over coffee at the local Starbucks, he confessed that there was something else he wanted.
For some reason, this frightened me more than the plane ride. He could have asked to go nude skydiving while getting stoned and it would have felt safer and more sane than this. But it was his day. So we set off in search of the device.
Where I live in Los Angeles, the city is littered with apple products. They’re ubiquitous. But in the small coastal blue collar-farming town where I grew up, I wasn’t even sure we would find one. As it turned out, partially because of Apple’s impending announcement of the new product launches and because farmers, loggers and truck drivers don’t seem to connect to the apple brand, there were plenty of iPads for purchase; they were even on sale.
An hour later, we sat at Starbucks, a half-cup of luke warm coffee and an unopened factory sealed iPad between us.
He stared at it. Would he fail at this? Was he too old? Would his inability to do this be the true indicator of just how old he was, proof that he was outdated, his mental operating system too old or slow to upgrade?
I stared at him and wondered, what must it feel like to have raised five kids, dozens of grandchildren, been married 56 years to the same woman, driven over a million miles in a freightliner delivery truck, retire, then spent the next 17 years delivering thousands of ailing and elderly people to doctor’s appointments? What must it feel like to see friends and family members fade and fail and fall and be hauled off to homes that are not their own homes because they can’t seem to remember their name or address?
I realized that for him, this product was not a luxury or a toy; it was about survival. An impulse to thrive. He had a clear choice: to sit in his La Z Boy and stare out the window while the world he used to be a vital part of passes by or to gaze into a virtual new world on a lightweight 9 x 7 screen. Newly retired from his post retirement volunteer gig – he knew he was going to have a lot of time on his blue-collar hands.
His hands are big and worn, beautifully stained with decades of hard, physical work; non iPad work. He has first generation immigrant fingers. They had never touched an Apple product until that day.
They fell heavy on the delicate glass. A thud almost.
At first, he couldn’t find the right touch. He was pushing everything; smearing the screen with his fingerprints and with one poke opening every single app on his home page. iTunes started to play when all he wanted was to send an email. The Reader’s Digest app open when he pushed Sports Illustrated. I heard him say to himself, ‘What the hell is a Safari and what do I need that on here for?’
He was frustrated.
‘Where the hell did it go? I lost my google. I can’t find my goggle.’
The joy of anticipation disappeared as quickly as it had flooded in.
This was going to suck. For both of us.
But then something happened.
His big, thick fingers found just the right touch. They found a groove and slid intuitively across the screen; soaring and gliding up and down and across. It was as if someone from the other side had taken over and was guiding his old mans’ fingers.
Then he discovered Facetime. He immediately dialed his oldest daughter, my sister. And that’s when he really came to life. He entered a new generation.
‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ He exclaimed.
It must have brought back the memory of being a young man, seeing his first child and holding her for the first time; now, here he was 50 years later, holding her in those same hands.
‘I see you.’ He said. And we saw him.
My mother, who made a vow to get off this planet without touching a computer or a smart phone, peeked around the corner to see what all the commotion was about. When she saw her daughter’s face on the screen – she just stood back and waved, still not sure about all of this.
My father spent his whole birthday Facetiming, e-mailing and Facebooking dozens of people – his children, friends, brothers and sisters. He connected to the world. He learned something new.
His brain was activated.
Then we rested.
We forgot all about the glider that day. He was too busy soaring through technology. I was proud to help him cross over – to be there with him when he took off – to connect with him as his world got bigger and smaller with the touch of a fingertip.
The next week, when Apple made its first big product announcements since Jobs passed away, I felt a pang of compassion for this guy I have never met. Steve Jobs left this planet without ever saying to his father – or having his father say to him – ‘I see you’.
But every morning, thanks to him, I get to see my father – even though I live a thousand miles away.
A few days later, Maurice Olson went on his glider ride.
I wasn’t there, but my sister was. His first-born watched him get air bourne. And almost simultaneously, they sent photos and video of the big ride. At the bottom of the email it read, you guessed it, ‘sent from my iPad’.
As it turns out, I guess you don’t have to be there to experience it after all.
And for that, Mr. Jobs, I am grateful.