My first face-to-face with Steve Jobs

One of my company VPs got the measles in Spring of 1985, and I was sent in his place to a “secret” unveiling of postscript for developers. It took place in Cupertino at Apple HQ. Presenters were Steve Jobs and John Warnock. Jobs gave an incredible demo of postscript (all by entering code; there were no SW applications yet), and he clearly had a visionary “handle” on how PS and the coming birth of DTP would transform our lives.

Most of the audience were programmers from Microsoft and Silicon Valley developers. There was a mild pattering of applause from a crowd who had no idea what a historic shift they were witnessing. I was one of only two people in the room who had a background in typesetting and graphic arts. I then knew how Silent Movie stars felt when they saw their first talking picture.

It was the end of an Era, but the beginning of “everyone’s a publisher” and the eventual free-flow of information that used to required highly trained (and expensive) gate keepers. I had a brief hand shake with Jobs and told him what I thought his LaserWriter and postscript would do to the world. Evidently he kept my biz card because I was contacted a few days later by a member of his entourage, seeking my advice on what to charge for fonts. “We’re thinking of $25 per font FAMILY.” At the time, a single typeface like Helvetica Light Condensed Italic cost $149 from Mergenthaler! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, but I explained that fonts could become a cash cow and that a moderate, but higher price was warranted. ::duh!::  If only fonts WERE that cheap!

There were other encounters with Mr. Jobs over the next 10 years. Although he could seem cool, even rude “off stage” when prepping for a product roll out, once he stepped on stage he was capable of inciting an audience to do anything. I saw him influence people to run out and buy the “NeXT” computer during his hiatus from Apple. (With dual Motorola processors, the cube was slower than molasses, but was sexier than anything on the planet.)

If there was one way to describe Jobs in a historical perspective, it would be as if Nikolai Tesla had Madison Avenue or social networking skills to persuade and engage his potential customers and empower them to embrace a technology that was 10-15 years ahead of his time. And to be fully appreciated for his vision and genius while he was alive.

It’s hard to imagine that he isn’t with us anymore. Although Jobs will still be with us; every time we fit 5,000 songs into our pockets, or read digitally “alive” content via WiFi on something as thin as a clipboard. We may never see the likes of him in this lifetime. But he has influenced 1,000,000s who will follow in his footsteps and never be content with “the way things are.”

Thanks to Jobs, change will always be “the new normal.”

Grammie’s Blog: 1909-1919

Most of us take blogs for granted as much as phone communications or TV. Although blogs educate, persuade and inform an audience, perhaps their most important function is to let readers connect on a very human level with the author. As wonderful as modern technology is, that connection has been around for a long time.grammie_19091

The blogs I’m writing about tonight weren’t written on a computer, they were written with a metal point pen dipped in an inkwell. The author started writing by kerosene lanterns, and ended the blogs by electric light shortly after WWI. The author was my maternal grandmother, years before she met my grandfather. She was a remarkable young woman that I’ve come to know through her writing via recently discovered journals.

“Grammie” was my best friend until her death 35 years ago. She lived next door to me during most of my childhood and teen-aged years and had far more influence on me than both of my parents put together. She hated cooking and all things domestic. She was vain, outrageous, and prone to wearing too much jewelry. She was more like “Auntie Mame” than anyone’s idea of a grandmother. In other words, she was fabulous.

A few years ago, while settling my father’s estate, I came across a trunk that had belonged to Grammie. There, in that false-bottom trunk, I found nearly a dozen of my grandmother’s journals, dating back to 1909. I held in my hands a ten-year record of the private thoughts of the most remarkable woman I had ever met. These journals were her “blogs”, and I want to share some of what I learned from them.

A little background: I only remember my grandmother in her very energetic 60s, 70s and early 80s. Grammie and I were the black sheep of the family; we were secret conspirators against the rest of our family, who pretty much lived in a “no fun” zone. We were both considered a little too eccentric, a little too on the fringe, a “little too much”, as I heard one aunt whisper as we were leaving the room.

By the time I was 5 years old, Grammie took me with her on “secret” shopping excursions. She/we would buy things that my mother and uncle didn’t approve of.  That charcoal and pink poodle skirt? Who cares if it was made for teen aged girls; it made Grammie happy and I encouraged her to buy it. I even convinced her to have her hair done in a pony tail like Lucille Ball. The antique black lacquer tea cups, the Art Deco travel clock that she couldn’t afford during the 1930s, all of these treasures came home, to be hidden. When I dropped by her house on the way home from school, Grammie would pull out these treasures that her adult children could never appreciate, and we would enjoy them together.

To give you a glimpse of this remarkable woman, she “surprised” my mother and the congregation by walking down the aisle as a bride, wearing a fuchsia velvet evening gown and gold slippers to her own second wedding in 1950! Things like just weren’t done in Merced, California. Twenty years later, my grandmother’s second husband dropped dead from a heart attack. Like many women of her generation, she had been trained to think that she couldn’t live alone, “without a man in the house.” To end her neurosis, my parents consented to let me “temporarily” move in with Grammie. It was just a few miles away. I stayed for over 2 years.

Away from prying parental eyes, we talked about “everything”. Grammie told me things I know that she never revealed to either of her adult children. We had independently reached some of the same unorthodox theories about life: reincarnation, parallel universes, and that time travel really is possible. She told me many secrets, which I will carry to my grave. Although I was only a junior in high school, over time our relationship evolved into an adult friendship. The two generations of time between us dissolved. My eyes were already fixed on horizons far beyond Merced, and she probably remembered her own youth, when she had dreamed about California looking at lithographs in magazine.

Ironically, she rarely talked about the life she lived as a young woman, before she married my grandfather in 1919. She had been a minister’s daughter, the youngest child, the one who stayed behind to care for her aging parents. Grammie had married late in life (26!) for her day. The nagging fears of spinsterhood haunted her, and thus she preferred to forget those years.

But she speaks of those years to me now as I read her journals. On yellowed pages I see words scratched by a steel pen nib (not yet coated in Iridium) which reveal a remarkably gifted young woman. She might have become an actress, a professional musician or a writer or romance novels had she lived in a different time and place. She was a relentless writer. If she were alive today (at age 117) she would be making podcasts and using Twitter!

Due to the severe restrictions of her religious upbringing (which thankfully, faded over time) she could only dream of the many things that she had the talent to do. As a young woman, Grammie could only go to movies about Jesus (which came along about every 7 years). The theater was strictly forbidden; only “loose” women were seen in places like that!  Like most “decent” women circa 1912,  she couldn’t wear a trace of make-up.

Neither could she wear flashy clothing or bright colors. A pale, greenish brown frock was OK, but coral or lavender were verboten. That plain picture frame hat was acceptable for church, but she couldn’t even try on the one with the birds and the cherries that she really wanted, as her agonized pen now reveals.

The highest profession she could aspire to was being a school teacher, probably in a small, one-room school house.grammie_school

And that is exactly what she became, a teacher. Just beneath the surface, unexpressed talents continued to boil, so Grammie stretched the envelope. She was the first teacher in Merced County to show motion pictures in the classroom. Believe it or not, this was controversial in 1920s, when many “righteous” parents still thought of movies as “the devil’s playthings.” The aspiring young actress found revenge through hundreds of plays and pageants that she produced with her midget actors. Generations of farmers’ children had their 5 minutes of fame on orange crate stages, and got a taste of an audience’s love and the sound of applause. The costumes may have been made of crepe paper, the sets made of cardboard, but Grammie had finally made it to that “theatre” she couldn’t enter as a young woman.

That may sound like a small thing, but it is not. I remember the countless times I was with Grammie on one of our secret shopping sprees when some middle aged woman would ask, “weren’t you Mrs. Huffman, who taught in Washington Elementary School?” The former students weren’t always certain that this elegant older woman in the “Vertigo” suit and furs could be the same teacher they remembered from 30 years ago. Once Grammie admitted who she was, the former student would unleash a torrent of gratitude and memories of what she had learned from Mrs. Huffman.

That middle-aged woman in 1962 may have never made it further in life than working the counter at Woolworth’s. But once-upon-a-time, she had been an “actress” in one of Florence Huffman’s plays. She got to be somebody.

When I first found Grammie’s journals, I leafed forward to April of 1912, hoping to read about the TITANIC. I was disappointed to find no mention of it. Wealthy people and ships the size of office buildings weren’t a part of her world. But I learned that April of 1912 had record rains in rural Illinois, and her devoutly religious father couldn’t make it to his own church for 4 Sundays. The wagon wheels were mired in mud up to the hubs.

But there were other things in these “blogs” that taught me a great deal about Life in general, as well as about the lovely young woman who dreamed of horizons she wasn’t permitted to reach. There are veiled illusions to beaus or suitors that “got away.” The pages reveal the ever present tension and mounting panic over whether she would ever find a husband. She was clearly being reminded by everyone she knew that at 21, 22 and 23 years old, she “wasn’t getting any younger.”

Did she really only aspire to become a homemaker? Or was that the only acceptable future laid out for her? If she dreamed of a life of her own, as a single, successful professional woman, she didn’t dare commit such thoughts in writing.

The poems, prose and observations in these time-worn journals reveal that Florence Freeze (her maiden name) was a writer of great promise. She occasionally had a religious or anti-war poem published in some small-town newspaper, but was otherwise unpublished. Left to her own devices (and if she could have worn that hat with the birds and  cherries!) she might have moved to a big city and become a romance novelist or playwright.grammie_deer

But then, she never would have met my grandfather and I never would have been born. Reading between the lines of these journals, seeing what my grandmother might have become, I’m not sure which fate I would prefer for her. If I could travel back in time, would I give her a train ticket to New York so she could have been Fannie Hurst or another Elinor Glyn? The world might have been a richer place if more people had met Florence through her words in print.

So, I will use my blog to periodically publish some of the words and thoughts of Florence Freeze. And if you come back and read what she wrote, and get to know her as I did, I suspect you’ll be a better person. I know that I am.

I love you Grammie. I miss you and think of you every day. Finally, your words will be read by others.  And maybe somebody else in some small place will realize that they too, can be somebody. They too can change hundreds of lives doing what seems like a small thing.

5 Books that changed my Life

A member of one of my Linked In groups posed the question, “Name the 5 books that have changed your life.” What is your list of the slightly less than half dozen books that have made you who you are today? I was surprised at how easy it was to compose my list. Here it is.

(1) Honey from the Rock: An Introduction to Jewish Mysticism by Lawrence Kushner … you don’t have to be Jewish (or even religious) to benefit from this book. Astonishingly simple, Zen-like, yet complex Kaballah-like interpretation of Life’s mysteries. It affirms that there as many answers to a question as there are listeners or witnesses

(2) Birds Without Wings by Louis De Bernieres — historic fiction (novel with some real historic characters making brief appearances.) A heart breaking and unforgettable look at one of the tragic arenas of WWI (what is now Turkey) through the lens of a single village.

Find out how outside foreign powers decided it was better to separate Christians from Muslims and the tragic consequences (including the Armenian holocaust) that resulted.

Moments of astounding beauty that you will never forget, along with the unvarnished brutality of war.

(3) The Holographic Universe by Michael Talbot — though written in 1992, a still up-to-date look at the harmony between physics, mysticism, spirituality and the real possibility of time travel. Technical, yet accessible. A real page turner, hard to put down. I have read this book 6 or 7 times.

(4) The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan — a collection of poems written by high caste Japanese women 1000 to 1100 years ago. Shockingly frank, modern and highly applicable to modern life. You will feel as if someone read your own mind or heart before she wrote these simple lines.Like seeing a sketch artist who can capture all the nuances of a Van Gogh oil painting in a few, perfect brush strokes.

The seaweed gatherer’s weary feet
keep coming back to my shore.
Doesn’t he know
there’s no harvest for him
in this uncaring bay?

(5) Marlene Dietrich by Maria Riva — even if you are not a movie (or Dietrich) fan you will not be disappointed. This is an irresistibly epic and highly researched biography of one of filmdom’s greatest “creations” by Dietrich’s daughter. Maria was with Dietrich, just out of frame, during all of the major films of her glory years. Unlike Marilyn Monroe, Dietrich was very comfortable with the stark chasm between her on-screen and off-screen persona. She was a highly complex, contradictory, maddening and thoroughly lovable person.

This biography gives an unblinking look at a woman who was decades ahead of her time, who travelled thousands of more miles and entertained more many more troops (uncredited, at her own expense) during WWII than Bob Hope. She was behind enemy lines at one point and was in Holland on the ground to greet the first allies who landed by parachute!

In addition, Dietrich met anyone who mattered in virtually all circles: artistic, literary, political and of course, Hollywood. A huge, fat, heavy book that is maddeningly difficult to put down. Warning, once you read this bio, you may find yourself impelled to buy several hundred dollars’ worth of boxed DVD sets on La Dietrich. If you want to buy only one film about her, get “Marlene” (1984), a brilliant documentary by actor/director Maximillian Schell. You won’t be disappointed with either the book or the films. Crazy as it sounds, I have looked at nearly everything differently after seeing the world through the eyes of Marlene.

You can trust your book to the cat that has “that look” …

Speaking of books, if you live in the greater Los Angeles area, go to one of the world’s last true independent bookstores. Large space, great selection, and a one-eyed cat. Who could ask for more? Go to the Iliad bookstore in North Hollywood on the north east corner of Cahuenga and Chandler. And tell them “Max sent me.” I bought most of the books on this list there, and miss that place like crazy. At least I have Powell’s in Portland, OR and Beaverton, OR.

When all else fails, use candles

One Autumn when heading to the season close of the  Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon,  I arrived a day early in the midst of a strong electric storm. I decided to attend a near by, “local” theatre to see a musical version of  Tale of Two Cities in a very small, initmate theatre.

Near the end of the first Act, the power went out (for hours) and the actors had to think quickly on their feet. They decided to continue the performance by candle light. The cast or director could easily have decided to cancel the performance and give the audience a refund. Instead, the company decided to just “go with it,” and the results were astonishing.

Since the production was set in the 18th Century, the theatre company happened to have an abundance of working candelabra, so “alternate” lighting was available. With real crashing thunder and lightning for sound effects, the audience had a very memorable night of theatre. Not only did the “realistic” lighting give more edge to the acting, but the actors had to improvise blocking to stay “in frame” (or in candle’s glow) and also not set one another on fire. The actors were on edge (they could no longer see the audience, beyond the candle’s glow) and each member of the cast took on a raw vocal quality that went perfectly with a story set against the backdrop of the French Revolution.

Ironically, the “black out” portion of this play led to a “musical” with no music. The cast had been using recorded music as background to their singing. Now, with no source of power, other than wax candles and vocal chords, each actor had to sing “unplugged”.  Again, there was a raw, haunting quality that gave the lyrics far more impact than in a normal production. The first song sung sans music, was delivered by “Madame deFarge“, harshly lit by one candle directly in front of her face. The lyrics cut like a knife, when delivered without music:

Now is the time to act not alone,
Now is the time to take what we own,
Now is the time to cut to the bone! 

The audience was transfixed. Partly because no one knew what would happen next. Would the lights go back on?We were literally on the edge of our seats. Each lyric and line seemed pregnant with meaning. I got so caught up in this unique production that I forgot how the story ended, although I had read Dickens’ novel at least twice and had seen the 1930s movie 3 or 4 times.

At the end of the production, half the audience stayed to chat with the actors and try to convince them to do all future productions by candle power only. (I have no idea whether Ashland fire laws allowed this.)

This unique night of theatre taught me something that I’ve never forgotten. When a seeming catastrophe happens (e.g. you arrive at a trade show and there is no software, or someone sent you the wrong computer), just “go with it.” Don’t cancel your performance. Give your customers and audience whatever you have to offer, even if you feel like you are performing “naked,” without your familiar props and support systems. Sometimes you actually build a stronger connection with your audience or customers because you have to “make up” your narrative as you go along and your familiar script is no longer available.

Not long after my theatrical inspiration,  I had 5 minutes notice to step in and deliver a substitute presentation to a major potential customer during flu season. My sick co-worker had the PowerPoint presentation at home with him! So, I had to engage my audience for 2 hours with nothing but a white board and 3 colors of dry/erase markers. I connected with the prospects as well as Madame deFarge had with her candles, and we actually closed the sale!

In the midst of a catastrophic economy, when you think you’ve lost the essential tools you need to “go on with the show,” don’t hide in the shadows. Take whatever “candles” you can get your hands on,  go out on stage and share whatever you’ve got.  When you have to perform “unplugged”, with no lights, no sound system, and none of the other tools you thought were essential, you are forced to fall back on just raw talent and work with what you have.

You might be surprised by the results, and your “audience” (or potential employers) may be pleasantly suprised also. During a recession, thunder and lightning can be terrifying, but they also make really great sound effects when you have nothing else to work with.

Strangers on a train: where words don’t work

Over 25 years ago I was unexpectedly thrown into a travel situation where nobody spoke English. Furthermore, nobody spoke a Latin based language, so my semi-fluent Spanish and any verbal communications were out. For four long days, in order to eat, find the bathroom, know when to get back on the train, do “anything”, I had to find alternate means of communication. I was essentially left to the same devices the Phonecians used when they encountered Etruscians for the first time. It was both an elevating and humbling experience.

But I had discovered that on a fundamental, purely human level, language and translation don’t really matter very much.

I’ve been in the translation industry going on 12 years now. Every day SMEs and linguists focus on how to get just the right meaning to transform complex, technical sentences into language that the target audience will grasp, via remote communications. But how do you communicate when neither party has a common language, or any means of verbal communication? For years there have been debates about developing a second “icon/image” based language (think airline safety card.) McDonald’s even created a visual “language” of icons to express nutritional ingredients on packaging worldwide. But overall, little progress has been made in establishing a “standard” set of icons for daily use.

Ironically, left to my own devices, I found out that an astonishing amount of communication can take place with no words, just gestures, images, and perhaps a heart felt connection with a “stranger on a train.”

It was Spring of 1982 and I had just finished a series of cruises across the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and through the more visited Greek Isles. We were in the midst of a severe recession, I had accumulated 5 weeks of “comp” time and had decided to use it all at once. I had wanted to complete the trip with a visit to friends in the UK and thought “wouldn’t it be fun” to take a train from Athens to Belgium, and then take the ferry to England?

My travel agent had reserved a “first class” compartment on a Greek/Yugloslav train (with dining car) that wouldn’t require a transfer until Munich. Being 1982, this meant going through several Communist countries, including the region that erupted into unimaginable violence after the break up of Yugoslavia. As a result, western tourists were not the norm, and nobody, that is nobody, spoke a Latin-based tongue!  The first class compartment proved to be a cubby hole with bunk beds. Not only was there no dining car, there wasn’t even a food vendor (e.g. somebody in a babushka peddling crackers from a basket) on the train. I soon discovered that I was probably the only person on board without provisions. I had one Greek candy bar to start the trip with.

Being the May day holiday there were about 50 Greek soldiers on board, evidently on some sort of leave. Although none of them spoke a word of English, they were intrigued with the novelty of an American, and shared wine, grapes and cheese. Being a credible artist, I was able to draw a map of the USA, delineate California and draw a bridge for San Franciso. “Oh, Hollywood!” one of them exclaimed. The only English I was to hear for 3 days.

I did have Greek currency, and using hand gestures, pointing at numerals on my watch, was able to decipher how many minutes we would stay at each train station. While sharing the food I’d bought with some of the soldiers, we tried to “explain” to one another what our professional backgrounds were. One young sergeant pantomimed plowing a field (farmer), another was a good enough actor to make make it clear that he had driven a taxi. I was a trainer and sales support person for digital typesetters. Impossible to communicate? Not really … I drew a picture of moveable, metal type (which they all understood) and then drew arrows, putting the type on a computer screen with a keyboard. One young man pretended to type and pointed at the headline of his Greek newspaper. They “got it.”

This was turning out to be too easy.

That trip was memorable for many reasons. Floating through what is now Bosnia / Herzagovia, the passing country side was like a trip back in time. Peasants were dressed in traditional garb; if it weren’t for an occasional automobile, it could have been 1860. Farm women were slaughtering pigs. The apple blossoms were in bloom. It was some of the most heart-achingly beautiful landscape I have seen, before or since.

Ironically, I should have felt lonely and isolated, being the only one who spoke English. But for the next 4 days I made many friends who were determined to draw my attention to points of interest … all without words. As we crossed on bridge, an older man (Slovakian, I think) make gestures to indicate that the bridge had been blown up. Then he drew a swastika and pointed at himself, pushing on the plunger. He wanted me to know that he had been in the resistance and had helped end the war one bridge at a time. I pretended to pin a medal on his breast, and he loved it.

Several soldiers pulled out photos of wives or sweet hearts, and sometimes even used pocket calendars to indicate when an impending marriage was coming. (Gestures showed invisible rings being exchanged.) I gestured throwing rice, which drew blank stares. Oh well, sometimes you do need words when cultural habits vary.

At the end of 4 days, I hadn’t learned a word of Greek / Croatian / Slovakian or Rumanian, and my fellow passengers certainly hadn’t learned a word of English. But in that bubble of time, in the microcosm of that train, we had learned a great deal about one another and had communicated on the most human level I had experienced in my young adult life.

When the time came to change trains in Germany, and we had to part our ways, we said our good byes. One young soldier (the taxi driver who was to get married) took my hand, placed it on his heart, and pointed at me, at him, to indicated that we were friends. And then he used his fingers to indicate “walking” and then pointed up, to “God.” In an instant, I realized that he was telling me to “go with God.” I wasn’t embarassed in the slightest by his kiss on both cheeks. I was humbled and honored. I remember giving him something as a token of friendship. It may have been a keychain, or a trade show chatschka … it may have been worth about 50 cents, but it was American, and it meant something to him. (Does he still have it today?)

Walking towards my next train, I appreciated how important language is. But I had discovered that on a fundamental, purely human level, language and translation don’t really matter very much. Not when we are one-on-one with a “stranger on a train.”