Thursday, October 06, 2011

Corporate Grief

I just learned that Steve Jobs died on Wednesday.  A shame.  He did a lot to make our world what our world is today.  The good parts of the world today, that is.

When I worked at a group home in the early 80s, one of my duties was scheduling our 24 hour program. I was complaining to a coworker at the agency about this onerous task.  A psychologist there said, "You can use my computer to schedule."

When he said "computer", he meant a monstrous piece of machinery, about the size of a portable refrigerator, with a black screen and green LED characters (in one font, probably He_Terminal).  It probably ran on DOS, although I had no idea what an OS was then.  Data was input via a floppy disc that was really floppy, really a disc, and relatively big  (there had been one larger size during the PC era, from what I understand, this was the first step down). 

I was not anti-computer, but I was skeptical that a computer could come up with a schedule that worked.  I pictured everyone being assigned to random shifts.  "No," I said, "I think the staff of prefers to rely on the kindness of their coworkers."

"But you can program kindness into it!"  he pleaded. 

Fast forward to 1989.  I'm in my first year of graduate school.  My job at the university  comes with a computer: a Macintosh, one of the first variety.  It was the first time I had experienced an interactive graphic interface.  I was hooked.  It was during that year that Bill Gates came to UM to talk about a new operating system that Microsoft was designing that would also use a mouse and graphics.  When I graduated and it was time to buy my own computer, I decided to buy a PC instead of a Mac, based primarily on price. 

Fast forward again to last year, when I bought my first iPhone.  Wow.  I switched from a Palm Pilot, and I've found the iPhone 3gs can handle not only all the things I did with that better, there are some things I prefer to do on the iPhone than on my Dell PC, which runs on Vista.  I am so fond of my iPhone (I now have an iPhone 4) that I plan on trading in my Dell for an iMac or even a MacBook when it gets annoying enough. 

I've never really tried to program kindness into any kind of computer, but I can imagine it being done these days. (Don't they have an app for that?) And scheduling .... I can't imagine doing that without a computer.

I saw the old Macintosh ad, the first one, aired during the SuperBowl in 1984 or 1985 recently in a film on advertising.  You know, the one with a scene that looks uncannily like the "Two Minute Hate" in 1984, with the woman running through it with a sledge hammer?

Yeah, that's the one.

What really gets me is that the athletic wear the woman is wearing does not seem very old fashioned to me.  But a 1984 Macintosh most certainly does. 

So I lift a glass to Mr. Jobs, who together with worthy competitor Bill Gates changed the world several times over.

But that's not what I wanted to talk about.

I wanted to talk about Borders.  I got an e-mail yesterday from Barnes & Noble advising me that they'd purchased a list from Borders with my name on it, and if I wanted to opt out they told me how.  And I found myself feeling the ugly gut level punch that I remember when reminded of a friend or relative who'd passed away recently.  I am experiencing real, pure, unadulterated grief about Borders.

I know this is different because Borders is like the gazillionth business that has gone belly up in Michigan over the last 10 years.  And I occasionally feel sad, or frustrated, that I can't get a free birthday cake at Bill Knapps, or coffee at Elias Brothers, or get my Clinique bonuses at Jacobsens.  But I don't mourn these places. 

The news that Borders was closing hit me in the gut.  I wasn't able to go to any of the clearance sales, the idea made me too sad.  I really do feel like I've lost a friend.  I've gone through all the classic stages (except that acceptance one), I've cried, I've gotten physically ill. 

What's funny is that I rarely went to Borders in the last 10 years.  Around that time I discovered Starbucks, and that Barnes & Noble served it in their in-store cafe, and Borders didn't.  I also liked the service at Barnes & Noble.  They don't stock as much as Borders did in the way of merchandise, but anything they didn't have I could easily get on Amazon, another suitor of mine that managed to edge out the home town place in my heart.  Now I wish I'd spent more time among the endless racks of books and CDs at the flagship store downtown, or lounging in a comfy chair or the cafe reading a copy of Mental Floss that I might or might not buy (one  Ann Arbor record shop in the 70s, long gone, used to put a map pointing the way to the library near its kiosk of magazines.  Never Borders). 

Remember that group home I worked at in the mid-80s?  It was in Allegan, clear on the other side of the state.  My roots were in the Detroit metro area, and whenever I went home I looked forward to a visit to Borders.  A couple of times, I drove to Ann Arbor solely to go to Borders.  The original, which was sold before Borders went nationwide.  It stood sort of kitty corner from where they relocated. A lot of people missed that place and the exclusivity of the original Ann Arbor location when Borders expanded...I didn't then, but I sure miss it now.

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