Sunday, October 30, 2011

Trick or Treat

Why do they keep ringing the doorbell?

I'm not stupid--I know it's Halloween. But I've done everything to keep them away. The porch lights are off. In fact, every light in the house is off. It's dark. No sign of anyone or anything here in the house.

And still, they keep ringing the doorbell.

I hear the usual Halloween sounds. The giggles of little children, their exuberance tempered by their parents' advising comments. "Watch your step!" "Ring the bell!" "When they open the door, say trick or treat, okay?"

The sounds of older children. "Open the door! Trick or treat!" they proclaim boldly, as if crudeness and confrontation might succeed where childlike glee had failed.

"This sucks, man. Who's not home on Halloween?"

"Maybe they're taking their kids out to trick or treat."

"Ain't no kids here. I used to walk past this house on my way to school; there weren't any kids here. Never saw anybody, in fact. Nah, they gotta be here.

"If you never saw anybody, maybe the house is empty..."

"No, it's not. Never has had a 'for sale' sign in the yard. Still has furniture in it. Just some old asshole who's probably sitting in there ignoring us right now. Open the door! Trick or treat! Give us some damn candy!"

After a while, he leaves.

More children. More teenagers. A few more heavy knocks on the door, even though the trick-or-treaters can hear the doorbell ringing, even through the door. But kids don't like to give up.

I remember what it was like. I was on the other side of that door once. I was dressed in my Batman costume, eager to show off in return for Snickers and Reese's and Skittles. It was my last Halloween to trick or treat, my parents had said. I was twelve, and Dad said that teenagers didn't trick or treat, so this was my last shot at getting all the free candy that I could get.

So I was doing the same things these kids are doing, determined not to take no for an answer. I kept pounding on the door, ringing the bell, rustling through the shrubs to tap on the picture window to the darkened dining room.

"I know you're in there. Open the door! It's Halloween! TRICK OR TREAT!"

I was about to give up when I saw the silhouette of a figure in the hallway. There was someone home--someone who refused to open the door. And I was determined to get what was coming to me. It was Halloween, and he was going to open that door and he was going to give me candy.

I pounded on the glass. "I see you in there! Trick or treat!" I imagine that I was as annoying as the teenager earlier this evening. I went back to the door. I rang the bell. I knocked. I had seen my Halloweeen prey in the darkness, and I wasn't leaving.

"Go away." It was a soft voice, childlike.

"It's Halloween. Open the door. You're supposed to give me candy."

"No. I can't. Go away."

"Go to the house down at the corner--they have good candy. Bit-o-Honey. They have candy apples. They're good people. Go over there." The voice still sounded so young, so childlike, but the words sounded old and tired.

"Nobody gives out apples," I said. "Unless they put razor blades in them. And my mom wouldn't let me eat them anyway. She always said don't take anything that isn't already wrapped and sealed. And 'sides, there isn't anyone across the street. That's the old Litesey house, and they died year before last."

"Dead? I didn't know that." He almost sounded surprised... and sad.

"Just open the door and give me some candy. It's Halloween. I'm not leaving until you give me something!"

There was a long silence. I rang the doorbell six times in a row; I pounded on the door harshly, over and over again. I accepted the challenge, determined to get the candy that was owed me.

I waited a few moments. I repeated the pattern again. A third time. A fourth. I wasn't going anywhere. I no longer argued; no reason to say anything else. I just kept ringing and pounding. I don't know why I didn't just leave; I could have gotten a lot more candy if I'd just kept on walking through the neighborhood.

But I wasn't leaving, even though it was almost midnight. This was a matter of childlike pride, which isn't that much different than stubbornness,

And then I heard the click of a latch. The doorknob turned slowly. The door opened slightly.

"Go away, I said." I couldn't see the face clearly, but I recognized the outline of a cowboy hat, gray against the darkness of the hallway. The person wearing it was no taller than me.

"You're just a kid!" I guess that explained why the voice sounded so young.

"Go somewhere else," he said again.

"I'm not going anywhere. You're keeping all the candy for yourself, aren't you? That ain't right--it's Halloween, and you're supposed to give me some candy." And with that, I shouldered into the doorway, knocking it open a bit.

"NO!" He tried to push the door shut again, but I was bigger and heavier than he was, and I forced my way in.

And I was in.

"You shouldn't have done that," he said.

"Why? Am I going to get in trouble? Are you going to tell on me?" Then I saw, in the gloom of the hallway, a tattered trick or treat bag. "Just what I thought," I said. "You are keeping all the candy for yourself."

I reached for the bag, and he did nothing to stop me. I grabbed the first piece of candy, unwrapped it, and bit into it.

Old. Stale. It tasted musty. I spat it back into my hand.

"This is crap!" I said angrily. "Why do you have this old candy? Where's the good stuff?"

"That's all there is," he said. "It's all I got before I came here."

I dug a little bit more, hoping the better candy was at the bottom of the bag. Next thing I knew, the handle of the bag tore away, and the candy scattered across the floor. I bent over, feeling along the hardwood.

And at that moment, the boy in the cowboy hat stepped out through the partially opened door, pulling it shut behind him.

"Hey!" I said. "Come back here!" I tugged at the doorknob. Nothing. I turned, but the latch didn't let do; the door was stuck. "Open the door!"

"I can't," he said from the porch. "It's after midnight now. Door's shut. It'll stay shut 'til next year."

"Let me out of here or I'm calling the cops," I said.

"Can't. There ain't a phone in there. I tried that."

"Then I'm breaking the window and coming out there and beating your ass."

"Can't do that, either. I tried that, too. I tried every door. I tried every window. I tried yelling. No one ever hears you. Except on Halloween."

My face was getting sweaty under my Batman mask, so I pulled it off. I was mad and scared and about two seconds away from crying. "Let me out of here!"

"I told you to go away. Just like he told me to go away. I was just like you, though. Look what it got me.

"Don't worry, though. The house takes care of you good. You won't get hungry. You won't get thirsty. You won't get old. You'll just sit there and wait, just like I did. Next year, there'll be some kids trick or treating, and you can decide what to do. The first few months, I told myself I'd open the door right away. I'd run out the door and run home.

"But the house told me that it was home now. This was where I belonged, it said. And I started to believe it. So when the kids came around the next year, I didn't open the door. I let 'em knock and yell and ring the doorbell, and I sat here, just like I always do. After a while, they went away. Then it got quiet. Quiet for a whole year. Then they came back. But they always gave up and left. Well, all of them but you..."

"This isn't funny any more!" I knew I was crying, but I didn't care. "Let me out! I want to go home!"

"You got the candy. You got what you wanted. It's all yours. I did my time. I tried to get you to leave, but you wouldn't do it. You should have listened to me, but you wouldn't do it, would you?"

His voice was a little bit softer now, a little more distant.

"Hey, wait! You ain't leaving, are you?!"

"Guess so," he said. "Don't know where I'm going, but I'm leaving. Can't go home any more. You said Mom and Dad were dead now."

"The Liteseys? They were your parents? But they were old people--they didn't have any kids!"

"They did... once. I was their son. They were so worried when I didn't come home. I saw 'em through the window, looking for me. Mom was crying. Dad looked mad and confused and worried all at the same time. I heard them yelling, but they never heard me. They'd walk past here every day. The police would, too, looking for me--I guess that's what they were doing, anyway. And then, after a while, they quit."

His voice retreated a little more, and I ran to the dining room window so that I could see him on the sidewalk. He saw me, too, and he waved. I could see now that he had on a cowboy costume, not just a hat. In the streetlight, the top of his silver gun shone in the holster, and I could see the glint of spurs on his boots.

"You got a year to make up your mind what to do," he said. "You can stay there, or you can trade. Let someone else in, you can go out. Don't know what you'll do, but I can tell you that it's not so bad in there, really. After a while, you get used to it. That's why I stayed for so long."

"What do you mean, so long?" I asked, my voice trembling.

"What year is it, anyway?" he asked.

"What do you mean? It's 2010!" I said, almost frantic.

"2010? I got 47 Halloweens to make up for," he said. And with that, he walked out of the glow of the streetlight and faded into the darkness.


I cried. I yelled. I knew that my parents would find me. I saw them looking for me, just like he said his parents did. But no one ever saw me at the window, no one heard me. It was like I wasn't there. No one ever came to let me out.

And just like he said, after a while, my parents seemed to quit looking. I didn't see them any more. I was alone, just me and the house. And it took care of me. I began to think of this as home. The house became my world; the unyielding door didn't matter after a while. And I had my own trick or treat bag, and it had candy in it. Lots of candy. And it never seemed to go empty, no matter how much I ate.

Then one night the doorbell rang. "Trick or treat!" A year goes by faster than you'd think. I ignored them.

I began to understand why the cowboy stayed. This was home now. And I had my candy, and I wasn't going to share it with anybody, no matter how hard they knocked or how many times they rang the doorbell...

Oh Wow.

I said that I said all I would say about Steve Jobs.

I reserve the right to change my mind, of course--and I have.

Here is a moving tribute to Steve Jobs from his sister, who knew him far better than almost anyone else. What a remarkable tribute it is...

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Allusions of Grandeur

One final thing that reading the Steve Jobs biography has made me realize (and I promise this is the last thing I'll say about that book, although this isn't really about the book itself):

We often don't realize the greatness of those around us as we witness their greatness unfold.

I had only one direct dealing with Steve Jobs, and that related to the problematic Powerbook 5300C computer; I bought one of the units, and it was a dud, filled with hardware issues. I wrote Steve Jobs, whose email address has always been public knowledge, and explained my problems.

Steve Jobs wrote back with a brief email, and he indicated someone would contact me to straighten the problem out. The next day, someone did. Two days later, I had a brand new computer.

I wrote Steve Jobs a half dozen other times about various things, and heard back from him on two other occasions; again, they were brief emails, but I was impressed that he took the time to write at all.

At the time, I knew that Steve Jobs was a visionary; I didn't realize how much I would come to admire him as a genius later on, and I now am pleased to have had even the briefest of contacts with the man.

I have had the opportunity to be around other great people from time to time, although I didn't realize their greatness until long afterwards. Thomas Burnett Swann, the brilliant fantasist and observer of human nature; Jeffrey Jones, the inspired painter and illustrator; Jack Kirby, the visionary who energized an artform; Stephen King, who shared an hour in a poolside talk one morning at a small Nashville convention, before most of the world had ever heard of Stephen King; Will Eisner, the man I credit with creating the modern graphic novel with his Signal From Space.

These are just a small number of the great people I have been lucky enough to have met and to have known to one degree or another. Life has been pretty darn good to me, when I think back on it...

Sic Transit...

One more thing regarding Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs...

I knew this was a book I would have to read as soon as I received it; the day the book was available for order, I had placed my Amazon Prime order for the book, since they said I would have it on release day. Amazon Prime is remarkably reliable; in all the years I've used the service, I've only had two items arrive late, and both of those were carrier-related issues during peak holiday delivery dates.

So I worked diligently on Comic Shop News, wrapping up the issue days early because I wanted to be free to devote myself to the biography when it arrived on Tuesday, October 25th. The issue was done, store orders were finished, personal tasks completed in order that I could read all night without any nagging feeling that I should be doing something else.

Of course, you can guess what happened: for only the third time in my personal history with Amazon Prime, I didn't get the item on the day Amazon said I should. Instead, I received it on Wednesday--my busiest day of the week, and the day I have virtually no free reading time.

I very nearly purchased the book from Apple to read on my iPad, but I'm still a physical book guy. So I patiently waited, and didn't get to begin the book until almost 11pm on Wednesday night. I read a couple of hundred pages on Wednesday night, then read another 275 or so on Thursday night between Comic Shop News revisions and last-minute corrections, and finally finished it up this evening as soon as I got home from the store.

I remain convinced, however, that the likelihood of delayed delivery increases in direct proportion to one's desire for the product being delivered...

"...And say to all the world, This was a man!"

I finished Walter Isaacson's Steve Jobs earlier this evening, and I wanted to take a few hours to ruminate on it before writing about it. There's so much in here, so many facets of Jobs' personality, that upon completing its almost 600 pages of text, I needed to take a little time to get my thoughts together.

First off, I have to say that it's a truly superlative biography, perhaps one of the most informed and informative I have ever read. Isaacson was given unparalleled access to Jobs for several years, almost to his final days; the result is a picture of a man in multiple phases of his life. We see Jobs as a confident, driven, proud genius; we see Jobs as a private, introspective self-analyst; and we ultimately see Jobs as a man aware that his accomplishments and his life are soon to come to an end. But we never see Jobs as a self-pitying, remorseful man--even in moments of unsureness, he is still proud of his life, and rightly so.

Isaacson began talking with Jobs long before his health took its precipitous decline. He also talked to many dozens of Jobs' friends, associates, colleagues, and rivals, and the result is a well-rounded picture of the life of a man who did more to reshape technology than any other person in the past three decades.

It's not wholly flattering; Jobs had many personal flaws, and Isaacson presents them starkly and without apology. But he never loses sight of the fact that Jobs was a genius, and even his personal failings become a part of the complexity of that genius.

The final segment of the book has one of the most moving and haunting statements from Jobs, regarding both Apple and human existence.

I remember sitting in his back yard in his garden one day, and he started talking about God. He said, "Sometimes I don't. It's 50-50. But ever since I've had cancer I've been thinking about it more, and I find myself believing a bit more. Maybe that's because I want to believe in an afterlife, that when you die it doesn't just all disappear. The wisdom you've accumulated, somehow it just lives on." But then he paused for a second and he said, "Yeah but sometimes I think it's like an on-off switch. Click, and you're gone," he said. Paused again and said, "And that's why I don't put on-off switches on Apple devices."

I've had similar thoughts in the past, and have written about them here. But only Steve Jobs managed to let those ruminations become a formative part of the whole Apple experience.

Anyone who knows me realizes that I have been a longtime fan of Apple's blend of technology and aesthetics; as I heard more about how driven Steve Jobs was to blend the two in perfect synergy, I realized now why I have always been drawn to the Apple experience. I have always maintained that the best technology is that which you use without conscious thought; Jobs was a man for whom that level of technology was the ultimate goal. I can't help but wonder how different the world would have been had Jobs' vision expanded into television (he claimed that, shortly before his cancer cut his life short, he "cracked" television technology--let's hope that we someday see what his new take on television would have been), or automobiles, or home appliances.

The book isn't perfect, mind you; I think that more attention could have been given to controversial decisions like the move from OS9 to OSX, with a totally different software architecture. There also could have been more said about the move from the rounded, tranformative, ebullient iMac and iBook of the late 90s to the precise, minimal, sleek visual designs that dominate the Mac line today. I would like to have known more about where Jobs wanted to take the company if had been given another five or ten years.

But the only criticisms I can make are minor criticism of omission; what is here is fascinating reading, and I found myself emotionally moved at several moments in the book. I think I appreciate some of those moments even more because I remember following Jobs' career--his highs and his lows--as those moments occurred, and even then I realized that important things were happening.

You don't have to be a fan of Jobs or Apple to appreciate this book, however; in fact, those who are unaware of Jobs' accomplishments or aloof to Apple's allure will probably find the book just as fascinating, because it will lead them to evaluate his life in new terms.

(And yes, this was composed on a Mac, as is everything I write...)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Yes, Virginia...

Just a couple of weeks ago, I got the penultimate shipment of Virginia Edition volumes of the complete Robert A. Heinlein library. These volumes feature the definitive, carefully restored text of Heinlein's volumes, supplemented with collections of letters, nonfiction, and more. As of now, 41 volumes have shipped, and plans call for the final five volumes to be in the hands of subscribers by the end of the year.

I subscribed to this collection almost two years ago, when not even half the library was in print. The $1500 cost seemed high as a lump sum--but when you consider it's between $30 and $35 a book for deluxe matched leatherbound editions, it's actually remarkably cheap.

It's been a delight to discover the power of Heinlein's fiction again. I haven't re-read every book, but I've revisited a few--Farnham's Freehold, Glory Road, The Puppet Masters, Stranger in a Strange Land--and have found them every bit as powerful as they were the first time I read them. I'm just now savoring the first two volumes of letters, which offer me great insights into Heinlein as a thinker as well as a writer (I've always enjoyed collections of letters; I sometimes feel that they offer the most undiluted vision into an author's psyche).

If you haven't subscribed yet, it's not too late. Drop by and check out the library while it can still be purchased. Once these books sell out in their subscription offerings, the prices for these are going to be much, much higher...

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Horrible Vs Horrifying

I watched the first episode of American Horror Story this evening... and I suspect it'll be the last episode I'll watch. Ryan Murphy, the man responsible for that pedestrian series of stereotypes and cliches known as Glee, decided to bring his "everything but the kitchen sink... and maybe that, too" approach to horror, and thus American Horror Story is born. The problem is, the show is horrible, not horrifying...

The first episode is overly full of horror tropes--a potentially haunted house, ghosts, apparent resurrections, a savant, dead twins, sexual possession, and the quasi-sophistication of foul-mouthed teens, masturbation, bondage, nihilism... the problem is, none of it really comes together as an entertaining story. It's horror by numbers, set to a metronome--and every timing click requires another "shocking" image, none of which are truly shocking at all.

A troubled family moves into a haunted house, looking for a fresh start after a miscarriage has strained their marriage. As the story progresses, we learn that there are other strains on the marriage, including a snotty, pseudo-mature teenage daughter who comes across as a prime candidate for miscarriage. Throw in a Bette-Davis-has-nothing-on-me southern actress with a developmentally disabled daughter, an enigmatic maid, an obsessed former resident of the house, and some very expensive head-to-toe bondage suits left by a previous resident (does no one ever clean out a house before putting it up for sale?), and you have a recipe for... well, it's not a recipe for horror, that's for sure.

I have learned from prior experience with Nip/Tuck and Popular that Murphy suffers from David Kelley syndrome (you know--take a concept that seems to work initially, then overdo it to such an absurd extreme that it became absolutely annoying). This time out, though, he threw in the absurdity from the very beginning. I guess I should be appreciative; it saves me the time of having to watch a few more episodes.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

In Memoriam...

I owe Steve Jobs a debt of gratitude for changing my life for the better. In 1987, my partner and I were able to start a comics industry newsletter, Comic Shop News, because of the capability of the Mac SE, the only computer to offer affordable, user-firendly, comprehensive desktop publishing that made it possible for us to produce a weekly newsletter. Thanks to the success of that newsletter, I was able to expand my career as an educator to include a career as a publisher and journalist.

Years later, as my comic shop grew, a key staff member was able to develop a complex Mac-based Point of Sale system for our store--a system that kept the store profitable during a period of industry turbulence. That system was written in Filemaker--a program that wouldn't have existed were it not for Steve Jobs and Apple. It runs on a network of Macs in our store--a network that has never failed us for more than eleven years, growing to meet our needs.

As an educator, I oversaw a writing lab for several years--a writing lab consisting of 35 Macs. While Windows-based labs required constant maintenance, our Mac lab operated nearly flawlessly day in and day out. I also produced the school yearbook using iMacs, Pagemaker, and a staff of students eager to push the Mac's creative possibilities in new directions. At a time when computers in the classroom were unheard of, I was able to use my classroom Mac to prepare full-screen images that could be displayed on a large classroom monitor; while it sounds mundane today, it was unheard of in 1997. It worked, though, thanks to the reliability and innovation of the Mac.

iPods, iPhones, AppleTVs, iPads... all of them have enhanced my life, improved my productivity, expanded my entertainment horizons, and have made inaccessibility a thing of the past. And throughout the years, I could always count on Apple to push the boundaries to make their system more sophisticated, more elegant, and more reliable. Steve Jobs innovated; other imitated.

The only time I had a problem with a Mac (an ill-fated Powerbook 5300), Steve Jobs personally contacted me about the problem, then had an assistant work with me to replace that computer. I will never forget the fact that the CEO of Apple took time from his schedule to ensure that my problem was solved. That's the kind of person that Steve Jobs was--a visionary who looked at the big picture, and a detail man who never forgot his customers.

In the future, Steve will be seen as a technological genius to stand alongside Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, and others greats who changed American life forever. I only wish he could have been with us far longer, to see how his brilliance and drive have continued to reshape our world.

I felt the same intense sense of loss when hearing of Steve Jobs' death that I felt in 1980 when I learned that John Lennon had passed. A world without each man seems emptier. I did may not have known either personally, but I feel as if I did--their influence on my life has been that great.

Rest in peace and satisfaction, Steve, knowing that you left this world a far better place than it ever would have been without you.