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Mourning Steve Jobs

In 1997, our friend Cary Lu, one of the pre-eminent Macintosh writers of the 1980s and 1990s, died of cancer (see “Cary Lu Remembered,” 29 September 1997). During his last few months, in which we spent more time with Cary than when he was healthy, he commented that some people reacted to his impending death by pulling away, whereas others became closer. The same was true in the immediate aftermath, with several of us collaborating to finish Cary’s final book (see “The Race for Bandwidth,” 21 September 1998).

With Steve Jobs passing away this past week (see “Steve Jobs Dead at 56,” 5 October 2011), I found myself thinking of Cary’s death, trying to figure out just what it was I did feel. It wasn’t exactly sadness, because unlike Cary, Jobs wasn’t a personal friend, and I was no more aware of his physical condition than anyone else. I met Jobs only twice, once in the late 1980s at the opening of the first public room of NeXT machines at Cornell University when Tonya and I were undergraduate student supervisors of the computer rooms, and once again briefly on the floor of Macworld Expo when he was walking around with my friend Jeff Robbin, whose SoundJam had been purchased by Apple as the basis for iTunes. I don’t think I spoke to Jobs the first time, and if I said anything on the second occasion, it was a simple thank you.

So sadness isn’t the right emotion — I didn’t know Steve Jobs, and he didn’t know me. I have no idea if he even ever saw TidBITS, though it’s possible, since we do count other high-ranking Apple executives among our readers.

And yet, after the rush to post our coverage of Jobs’s death on Wednesday night, I had trouble accomplishing anything productive on Thursday and Friday, an experience shared by numerous others who have spent years orbiting Apple. While I couldn’t bring myself to write anything then, I couldn’t resist reading every article about Jobs I saw shared on Twitter, and I found myself wanting to collect and curate them, as if by bringing together the most eloquent and interesting articles I could somehow fill the void in my life that had opened up. You can see my efforts in the comments on our coverage.

Ironically, it was a Windows-using friend from college who made me realize why the loss of Jobs was so... unsettling. It was telling that such a friend, with whom we exchange email only a few times a year and see once a year at most, thought the event significant enough to send us a note of condolence. And in further discussion, he pointed out that Jobs and Apple were front and center in the computer revolution of the 1980s, such that he was an iconic figure for everyone who came to computers during that decade, regardless of whether they used Macs. Our generation wasn’t alone — while the founding of Apple was a pivotal moment in the computer revolution for the geeks of the 1980s, Jobs’s return to Apple in 1996 and Apple’s subsequent success with the Mac, iPod, iPhone, and iPad meant that Apple was, if anything, more prominent in the lives of many millions of people coming of age over the last 15 years.

It’s not that any of us really knew him, or even felt that we did, it’s that he was always there, always coming out with the next big thing, always offering a reliable touchstone for design and innovation.

That feeling was echoed by another friend, who reminded us that Tonya and I were the first people she knew who she met at Macworld Boston in 1995 after hearing that Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead died. We asked, merely by way of making conversation, how she was doing and she replied, “I don’t know yet. I just heard Jerry Garcia died, and I’m a deadhead.” In her email to us the day after Jobs died, she said the feeling was exactly the same, that life had just changed and while it was hard to see how, it was, and always would be, different in some way.

None of this is to imply that I have any fear for the future of Apple, Inc. I have too much respect for the abilities of the people who work at Apple to think the company will change in any significant way in the foreseeable future. We’ve been through those arguments before, when Jobs took medical leaves of absence, and when he resigned from the CEO post, and there’s no reason to believe that Apple’s overall direction will change this time.

But the fact remains that Steve Jobs is gone, and regardless of how well he has inculcated his way of thinking and working into Apple, the technology industry has lost a much-needed part of its soul. At the risk of sounding even geekier than I actually am, Steve Jobs’s death truly is a disturbance in the Force. That’s why so many of us have felt aimless and unfocused since, and if you’re feeling a similar sense of loss, just know that you’re not alone and that it will slowly become the new normal.

After two days of being unable to work effectively at the Mac, I spent Saturday outside in the autumn sunshine with Tonya and Tristan. We shook hundreds of pounds of apples out of our trees, went over to a neighbor’s house, and pressed cider for the rest of the afternoon. I won’t pretend that I’m fully engaged yet, but working with the fruit of our land, preparing food for the upcoming winter, was a good reminder that loss — that feeling of emptiness as something comes to an end — is an essential part of the cycle of life.


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Comments about Mourning Steve Jobs
(Comments are closed.)

Mike Burda  2011-10-10 22:09

In the passing of Mr. Jobs and the rush by the media to comment on Mr. Jobs' passing, I found myself looking for your comments. As always, they are measured and meaningful. Thanks for taking the time to compose and share.

Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2011-10-10 22:27
Thanks, Mike. It's always hard to know what to say in situations like this, and mere words can never express the enormity of the situation.
Jeff Hecht  2011-10-11 00:02
I also thought of Cary Lu when I heard of Steve's death. I had known Cary vaguely when were at Caltech, but got to know him better when I was writing for the late, great High Technology magazine in the 1980s. Cary was excited about the Mac, and his comments and my younger daughter's experience with a Mac at the (Boston) Computer Museum got me into the Mac orbit. Both had much they could have contributed when they died too young.
Amandus  2011-10-11 00:27
If Jobs was a Buddist I can understand his drive to perfection.
Jim Reed  2011-10-11 00:57
"Lives of great men all remind us,
We can make our lives sublime,
And, in passing, leave behind us,
Footprints on the sands of time."
... Longfellow
Wonderful thought from HWL. It's what all of us strive for. Steve's footprints were larger than most.
Charles Robert Hayden-Gilbert  2011-10-11 01:46
Steve was a visionary who changed the world and the world is a much poorer place for his passing. He touched millions of lives and even those who'd never met him regarded him as their closest friend. His passing was a sad day for all of us.
Steve Joyner  2011-10-11 02:16

Thanks for distilling the Zeitgeist for so many of us:

We "felt aimless and unfocused since" learning of his death.

I've been in an odd, aimless funk for nearly a week now, but I couldn't articulate for myself.

Like Steve himself, you have captured the essence of the thing. And I don't mean that in a small way, I mean that in a big way. ;)
Arthur Greenwald  2011-10-11 02:21
At first I thought the close of your touching piece was a fanciful metaphor. From this point forward it's up to "the rest of us" to shake Apples out of trees. It was great to see so many references to Jobs wonderful speech to Stanford grads and the Think Different campaign. Creative inspiration as much as invention will forever be part of Steve's legacy.
You described almost exactly what I have been feeling. I heard the news near the end of my workday. I'm glad I had the next day off as I was unsure how I was emotionally, because, later, watching Leo Laporte's live TWIT stream, I found myself tearing up at what many people were expressing. Like many others, I didn't know him. My company did contract work with Apple Computer after the intro of the first Macs; I saw him in line at the Palo Alto Whole Foods (waiting in the checkout line like everyone else); and later I freelanced there. I've always admired the way the company ran while he was in charge, with perfection as the ruler. I lusted to be an employee. While I never got in as a graphic designer, I am happily employed at one of the retail stores, helping people with their mobile devices and training new owners how to use their Macs. I don't feel like I've lost a boss, it's way more than that. We've all lost one of the most interesting, important people in history.
Grant McNabb  2011-10-11 03:34
Thanks for this. I have been feeling the same. Appreciate you putting it into words. I still have my Macs and iPhones to remind me how much he will be missed.
Judith Sullivan  2011-10-11 03:57
"An aimless funk" is what happened to me too, feeling sad and sort of depressed and not being able t get off the couch. I agree that he was an Edison, and a Ford, and a visionary, but he was also an artist. Every Apple product I have ever had I loved to look at and to feel. I always feel happy sitting down to work on my Mac. I appreciate my iPhone every time I use it. My Air is Amazing in its look and feel. Jobs thought beauty was an important part of his product--not just that it worked better than anything else. I think that this is what I loved most about him.
My tribute to Mr Steve Jobs - His life with Facebook timeline
Drummond Reed  2011-10-11 04:05
Adam, I too thought of you and Tonya when I heard the news. And although like you I've read many pieces about Steve over the past few days -- many of them excellent -- yours did the most to capture the essence of the loss: "...the technology industry has lost a much-needed part of its soul".

The size of the tribute to his legacy gives me great hope. Like an anthill of Luke Skywalkers, we're already starting to repair the disturbance in the Force. May his soul be with us all.
Susan Grose  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2011-10-11 09:00
I, too, am one of those very sad.
Steve Jobs has given me over 30 years of Computer Joy. He worked hard at it and obviously thought about what he did a lot and very carefully.

... He was a perfectionist and cared about making his/Apple's products something that would function and work exquisitely with minimal negative issues for people. Steve Jobs did that for me (and many others) and I appreciate it. I wish I could have told him so.
Our family's first was an Apple II my scientist husband, bought in about 1981. Our then 4 year-old son played little brick out and pong (I think) and learned keyboarding on that Apple II. I programmed in Applesoft Basic on an Apple II in the mid 1980s. I used it to analyze monkey blood pressure. First MAC 512K enhanced. Heaven ever since with Mac Classic, SE, IIcx, a 6500, 7100, Desktop G4, Aluminum 12" powerbook, MacPro Desktop, iPod, iPod Touch, iPad, and a 13 inch Macbook Air. Now Sprint will have iPhones and so will I. Thank you, Steve! 30
Richard Theriault   2011-10-11 14:12
"The technology industry has lost a much-needed part of its soul." Right there, Adam, you have distilled it all. And the amazing symbolism of shaking apples from the trees to make cider could not have been more perfect. Many of us felt as you did; you crystallized it. Thank you for this piece, and for the myriad ways you have helped make our community what it is. (Comment in lieu of email -- you have enough of those to handle.)
Michael Morrissey  2011-10-11 14:33
Hi Adam,
I, like many of the other commenters, feel a similar sense of loss.
Perhaps, it is that we are of a certain age where it resonates more. We have all been on the journey with Apple. I was studying Seymour Papert and was looking at how Logo could be used in primary education. This was on an Apple II in the late 70s. I got my first Mac in 91. Somehow, I subscribed to TidBITS around then (via Compuserve?) Now I write this comment on my iPhone.
So for over 30 years I have followed the fortunes of Apple. And now the embodiment of Apple - Steve Jobs - lies at rest in some corner of Santa Clara county.

Here's to the Crazy One.
Charlie  An apple icon for a TidBITS Benefactor 2011-10-11 18:20
Adam, thanks for sharing your thought.

Like many other long-time users of Apple products many of us have been reflecting on the influence they have had own our lives. One of my earliest remembrances was reading Cary Lu's First "Apple Macintosh Book". I can't remember being ever being so excited by an item of technology as I was after reading Cary's book - thanks to Steve Jobs' great computer and Cary's great writing. As soon as I could I sold some antique guns I had inherited and used the money to buy a Fat Mac.

I no longer have the book and I had forgotten Cary's name until you reminded me of it in your article. Thanks for that.
David Scott  2011-10-11 18:31
In all the analysis of why we are so affected by Steve's death around the net (much of it I think is valid), I've not seen mention of the emotional impact of seeing someone waste away from cancer. Steve became increasingly frail and we watched that over the past year in particular. To see him clearly so close to death was heartbreaking. It's always difficult to reconcile the suffering and physiological changes wrought by this dreadful disease with someone who was so vital and powerful. We can't help but confront our own mortality in witnessing a life so sadly ebbing away and with every new appearance we try desperately not to believe what we know to be true. Had Steve died suddenly having been well it would have been a greater shock of course, but as it is the sadness is overwhelming at times.
bebreen  2011-10-11 22:22
Thanks for the very appropriate article on Steve Jobs. I will never forget, or ever discard, the e-mail which Steve took the time to send me when I had my liver transplant. He not only possessed all the technical, leadership, and managerial skills about which so many people have written, he was a very empathetic and caring human being. We shared thoughts of what goes through your head when you face a surgical event from which you might not awake. I can tell you he was very compassionate, despite his own serious health issues.

I feel as though I communicated with such a profound human being, like reaching out to touch something beyond my capability, and so I will not forget Steve Jobs, although it had nothing to do with Apple or technology.

Rest gently Steve; your light will never be extinguished.

Barry Breen
For technophiles, Mr. Jobs curated some of the greatest distractions from the reality of our own mortality. With him dying, it endangers what we've enjoyed for so long. More significantly, it reminds all of us that our time here is limited and exposes the true superficiality of the gadgets and software.
i felt and likened steve passing to the way i felt when jerry died too. very important people in my life.

Richie  2011-10-14 14:33
Steve's death being a "disturbance in the Force" is aptly put. I too have not felt right with the world since he died. I thought it was just me being silly, but knowing others feel this big empty void as well is comforting.

I too saw Steve's demo of his NeXT computer at Bailey Auditorium at Cornell, (I saved the handout from that day) and lucky to see him at 3 Macworld Keynotes.

I never got to see any of the Beatles live on stage, but I did get to see Steve. I think that makes up for missing out on The Beatles! : )
I am glad I wasn't the only one. I have no idea why, but it just felt like there was a hole now, inside somewhere.