Notes from the Cancer Wars: Countdown to Day Negative Zero

•March 27, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Also known as “the part where things get real.”

You can tell a lot of the story through pictures. This photo is from March 14, 2009, when we did a medieval history reeanactment at the Children’s Museum. One of my all-time favorite photos of Armand. Bright, happy, cheerful, with those big floppy locks of hair that we loved so much.

He was a ticking time bomb.

Fifty-five days prior to diagnosis. Something was already wrong, and he knew it. He was a little slower, a little too quick to nap, everything a little off. We knew it and he knew it, but at that early point, we believed  that his tendency towards ear infections was getting a little worse, and anyway – his doctor told us – two-year-olds will change moods and speeds very quickly. Nothing to worry about.

The cancer had probably already started; if nothing else, it had taken root in his adrenal gland and was crawling around getting ready to explode. One of our oncology physicians, Dr. Razzouk, once told us that neuroblastoma hits like a bomb; it sits there for months or years and does nothing, and then explodes from “microscopic” to “bloody well everywhere” in four to eight weeks. It was already there, too small to be seen by the naked eye, but Armand’s adrenal gland was feeling the strain. Any day now it’s going to explode.

This set of photos haunts me more than any other from that year.

Armand’s second birthday party, on or about April 18, 2009. He is dying in slow motion. This photo is a relic of history, a dispatch from another time. It is the last photo I know of that predates the diagnosis. Twenty-one days from now, we’re going to learn how bad it really is. To me, this photo is the last flickering image of the life that once was, as distant as a faded photo from the 1940s.

We’re at one of the family fun places, playing video games and riding mini race cars and generally having a good time. We took these images at the photo booth, mostly because the day was almost over and we were trying to use up credits. The photos stick with me more than any others, up to and including the horrific first hospital ones.

Because he knows. You can tell just looking at him. He knows something is very wrong. So do we, but we still think it’s his ears. Right around this time we called in an appointment with a specialist to consider surgery, probably tubes in his ears. Set for May 15, 2009. We never made it to that appointment.

The nasty thing about early cancer detection – and I’ve heard this from many other parents – is that for so long, it can be explained away as something else. We brought Armand to the doctor four times in six weeks before it became clear how bad it was. One of those occasions was his two-year physical examination, and still nothing. For those two strange months, Armand acted exactly like he did when he had an ear infection. So easy to explain.

Right now the cancer is at least the size of a golf ball, maybe larger. Those eyes haunt me. That little boy who was normally so full of energy, and still enjoying himself on the rides (such as he did; he never actually showed a lot of enthusiasm until he was done), but sooo slooowweeed down, conserving energy, finding workarounds. Because that was the way he dealt with problems. Armand refused to admit defeat, ever. If the way was blocked, he’d find another way. And if his energy level was ebbing, he learned methods to pace himself, draw it out to maximize playtime without crashing and burning. Brilliant kid. If he’d ever acted as tired as he actually was, we might have discovered this a lot earlier.

The bomb has already gone off, exploding in super-slow-motion in his stomach, taking over everything. Slow-motion, and so is he. April 18, 2009. My son is two years old and he doesn’t know what dying means, but he knows what it feels like.

More soon.

Paul F. P. Pogue


One year later: Dreams of my father

•May 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

My father, Paul Oliver Pogue, died a year ago May 14. I loved him and knew him as well as I could, or at least as well as anybody could. He had this thing for distance.

A typical moment: Katrina and I visited home some months after Armand’s birth, for what would be his first meeting with his grandfather. My father suffered from emphysema and didn’t leave the house much, with a breathing tank near him most of the time. This didn’t actually hold up his emotional involvement, largely because he was not exactly what you would call emotionally engaged even before he fell ill. Getting five words of emotion out of him was a rare thing.

Anyway, he sort of looked at Armand and said “He seems to be a healthy baby,” which is what passes for approval from him. The afternoon went on, Kat and I talked to my mom, ham and mashed potatoes were eaten, that sort of thing.

At some point Armand was sitting upright in the doorway to the kitchen, just looking around with that lost-tourist thing infants often do, and Dad walks up to him. Armand looks up at him. Dad leans down a little bit, as much as he could do, anyway, and sort of smiles. In the next room, all of us stood stock still, as if a breath would ruin the moment. Someone leaned over and whispered, in their best National Geographic narrator voice, “Let’s watch as the eldest alpha male of the monkey tribe recognizes his newest offspring and acknowledges it as a member of the clan.”

The effort to which we went to avoid cracking up was EPIC.

Persons with much more knowledge than me – by which I mean “doctorates and/or years of direct experience” – have speculated that he had a form of undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. Maybe he did. It would certainly make a lot of things make a lot more sense.

Whatever the case, he was certainly a distant sort. I’ve learned a lot about my father in the last year. Not because it was secret, per se, but because he just didn’t seem inclined to chat much. He was a talkative person about a lot of things, but not about himself –- or, in fact, his family. Once I asked him what his own father did for a living and it took him a couple of days to come up with an answer.

Much of what I’ve learned about him comes from faded photos from the 1950s and 1960s, surreal images from the ages of “Rebel Without A Cause” and “Mad Men” and “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.”

(Okay, now I know where my whole “smirk while standing mischievously” pose comes from.)

(Seriously, military uniforms of the era make ANYONE look cool.)

And his military discharge papers, from which I learned more factual information about him in one sheet of paper than I did from him in an entire lifetime. He was a combat engineer in the 299th Combat Engineer Battalion from 1954 through 1957, secondary specialty “heavy equipment driver.”

The 299th was a highly regarded unit; their unofficial motto was “First on Omaha,” due to the dubious yet extremely awesome distinction of being the first group to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, demolishing barriers while being shot at by Nazis. The “combat” part of “combat engineer” is no exaggeration.

In the 1950s they were assigned to Hoechst, Germany, building bridges and roads, which is when my father served. The 299th’s primary vehicle throughout their German years was a 2-ton M-series dump truck, which means the vehicle my father drove was probably something like this:

Being a child of the 80s and still just a little bit of the sort who thought his dad was ten feet tall, of course, my mental image of what I’d like to think he drove looks something more like this:

(Little fun fact for you: Ward Cleaver, dad to the Beaver, served in WWII as one of the combat engineer’s close cousins, the Navy Seabee. Yes, I just totally invoked “Leave it to Beaver” continuity. Shut up.)

And here’s a fun pic of what service actually WAS like:

None of this is anything I learned from my father, mind you; he never talked about his military service. Not out of any reticence regarding the military, but rather that he pretty much never talked about himself. Which is one habit of his I, er, never quite picked up. I think the most I ever got out of him was that he did several years in Germany.

But look at those years! My father was very much a child of the 1950s. Even the photographs of him in the Hoechst streets evoke a certain James Dean feel, a young man trying his best to embrace what he felt was cool.

And check out the horse! (Seriously, am I the only one who thinks he looks like Rick Astley here?) No wonder his youngest grandson, Armand, seems so comfortable on horseback. Was there just something about that time that made cool come by nature? And I don’t say this because as a kid I thought my dad was uncool; rather, my beloved father was thoroughly and completely uncool by any objective measure. By the time I was growing up in the 1980s, he was a different kind of 1950s archetype, equal parts Ward Cleaver and the Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. I don’t know if a lifetime as a loan branch manager was particularly fulfilling, but it paid the bills, and he came from a generation that expected to stick with the same job all their lives, which was why he was so surprised to get laid off after 29 years.

(I once melted down pretty heavily after getting laid off from a job I liked. I’m a bit ashamed to say I never talked to Dad about it.)

To this day there’s still a lot I don’t know. I don’t know why he became Catholic, for instance; I mean, I know he converted after meeting my mother, but I don’t know if it was just that. He was a remarkably dedicated convert, certainly; he was also relentlessly intelligent, an uncanny mind that I’ve rarely seen matched.

I was not as devout a Catholic as he was, not after college. Not that this stopped us from talking out (read: arguing) religion at the dinner table, usually during holiday gatherings. Everyone else knew things had gotten out of hand when we started pulling out Greek or Aramaic on each other. (I knew maybe five words in each language, but we both sure knew how to wield them.)

But when I was young I was very Catholic, to the point I planned on becoming a priest. When I was a pre-teen, maybe 11 or 12, I headed to church every Saturday morning with him. Like I said, he was a ridiculously devout churchgoer. I was fairly devout myself, but it was also the only time I ever really had to myself with him. We always ended up reading the newspaper at McDonald’s afterwards, and I would usually hustle him for a few quarters for the arcade at the next-door mall, but mostly I remember those quiet mornings over Egg McMuffins, when we would likely as not exchange maybe five words unless there was something particularly interesting in the paper. Still, they’re some of my best memories with him.

He played chess, and quite well. I only beat him once over the course of ten years playing. When he died, the only possession of his I really wanted was the chess set he taught me on. (I ended up getting more than that, because SOMEONE had to claim all those history books, but the chess set is the real emotional hook to me.)

And he could write, oh, god, he could write. I remember once my old mentor, Peg Richards, speech and drama teacher at the high school, directed a stage version of “Grease” that received a certain amount of negative attention from those who felt the subject matter was inappropriate for a high school. They suggested that Peg should be punished for going too far. They made their concerns known in the local paper. Firing, letters of apology, and perhaps a public tarring and feathering were mentioned. (Mind you, this is small-town Indiana 1989, so one of her sins in their eyes was using a play with the dialogue “knocked up.”)

My father, whom I had previously pegged as the squarest person in the universe, disagreed. Rather strongly, in fact. He respected Peg greatly and was very proud of my association with her. Not that I could tell from the way he acted most of the time. But he penned a letter to the local newspaper in her defense. It was perfectly polite and cordial, written in the same clipped tone he used when he spoke, but at the same time merciless, relentless and an utter public disassembling of every single point they had made. I mean, this thing was brutal; it was the paper-and-ink equivalent of Ward Cleaver suddenly getting fed up and taking out the town bully with a single haymaker. Nobody ever made an issue of the “Grease” matter again.

I had no idea he had done it until it appeared in the paper. That day, Peg came up and hugged me because she thought I’d written it. That she thought THAT letter had come from MY pen remains one of the four or five greatest compliments of my life.

Here’s the thing, and sometimes it takes my old friends to remind me: My father genuinely cared about his family. That’s the flip side of the Gray Flannel Suit archetype – putting aside all your desires and maybe even your dreams and putting another group of people’s welfare entirely ahead of your own. He was always up for a game of wiffle ball or some such in the evenings, sometimes with the neighborhood kids, and usually did a pretty good job of not showing how completely wiped out he was. I looked forward to his two week-long vacations every year because it meant doing something with Dad every day. In my youth it didn’t occur to me that maybe his own personal desire had more to do with “lots of sleep.” But he was still there, taking us out to something or other every day, whether it be swimming or a day at the park. He was always there.

Emphysema got him in the end. The other flip side of the 1950s cigarette-infused coolness.

The last time we spoke was a week before his death. I went into the conversation knowing full well it would be the last, and I’m quite certain he knew it too. Partially this was a pragmatic approach; he was in a VA palliative care unit and could conceivably die at any time, including five minutes after I left. But I also approached it rationally; my father was not a talkative man, nor did I expect him to be. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons we got along so well; I’ve never expected much emotion out of him and wasn’t liable to be disappointed by wanting something that wasn’t going to come.

He said three things that day – First he asked me for the newspaper, then asked me to help him figure out a word in the crossword puzzle. (Ironically, the word was “elder.”)  I’m told he hadn’t done the puzzle in quite a while, so maybe things were going pretty well that day.

In the course of about two hours, this passed for serious conversation. It was like those old days after church in McDonald’s, childhood moments I hadn’t thought about in years.

Before I left, I updated him on how the kids were doing, and confided that I’d always thought he had been a good dad, even if I hadn’t always said so. And that one of my hopes as a parent was that I could live up to be anywhere near as good as he and my mother had been.

He gave me what passes for a smile from a dying man and said his last words to me, in a ragged tone through the breathing mask, “You did fine.”

I’ve always wondered about that phrasing, particularly the past-tense part. My father was a lot more mystically inclined and in tune with things than he often let on. Not for the first time in my life, but as it turned out, for the last, I was left to ponder exactly what it was my father knew that I didn’t.

“You did fine” in itself would actually be a remarkable thing on its own, but the last thing my father ever did in my presence really surprised me. When Kat hugged him and said goodbye, he responded with a crooked smile and that funny hipster gesture that’s half thumbs-up and half pointing-finger-like-a-gun. I didn’t think Dad knew that gesture even existed, let alone that he would actually do it. I still don’t actually know what he meant, except that apparently he liked Katrina a whole lot.

Most importantly, I’m grateful it ended on the note it did. I said what I needed to say and he said what he had to say, and I don’t think there was any unfinished business between us. I’ve known too many people who ended things with too much unresolved not to know how valuable that is.

I always thought my dad was boring. And he was. Boring, uninteresting, gray flannel, uncool, blasé and when we needed him he was ALWAYS THERE. If I turn out anywhere near as boring and uncool as him I’ll consider myself to be a successful father.

Paul F. P. Pogue, May 13, 2011

“Everything ends”: RIP Elisabeth Sladen

•April 20, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Elisabeth Sladen passed away yesterday at the age of 63. It was a shock to the entire fandom world, most of whom had no idea she was even ill.

Sladen is best known, of course, as Sarah Jane Smith from Doctor Who. To say she was a legend was an understatement. She was one of the finest and most important actors in one of the greatest sci-fi series in history. Sladen was second only to her friend Nicholas Courtney – who died recently as well – in the sheer amount of history she had with the Doctor. She interacted with five different Doctors in her time – seven if you count the crowd scenes in “The Five Doctors.” I don’t know the count for sure, but she has probably appeared in more Doctor Who screen stories than anyone else – a lengthy run in the Pertwee and Baker years, two standalone specials, numerous appearances in the modern series and four years of her own show.

Then and now:

To American audiences in the 1970s and 1980s, Sladen defined Doctor Who as much as Tom Baker did. I still remember watching grainy, fuzzy PBS feeds of “The Time Warrior” in black-and-white in 1987 with a TV that had a coat hanger for an antenna. To me, she was every bit as essential to Who as the TARDIS and the sonic screwdriver. You never forget your first Doctor; you also never forget your first companion.

In a profession where everyone gossips and someone’s always got a grudge against someone else, Sladen was grace personified. In three decades of reading every article about Doctor Who I could find, I never once saw a negative word spoken about her, and she never had an unkind word for her colleagues. (Except the K9 prop. Damn tin dog was a total diva.)

She wasn’t the first sidekick, she was far from the last, but in many ways, she served as the template for all of them. There’s a deleted scene from the most recent series, in which Matt Smith as the Eleventh Doctor tells his companion that he needs a young human around to help him catch what he can no longer see. Sarah Jane ESTABLISHED that archetype; she helped raise up the companion role from an exposition receptacle to a full-on partner.

In a way, she didn’t so much change the concept of the sidekick as she did refine it to its original point. Aside from being exposition-bait, sidekick characters in genre fiction were generally meant as “audience identification” characters – the ordinary person alongside the Doctor, the partner helping out the superhero. I suppose the whole point of Robin was so kids could imagine they were right there alongside Batman saving the day.

But really, these tended to crash and burn. Who thought Robin was cool back in the day? Kids didn’t want to imagine tagging along after Batman; they wanted to BE Batman. And few Doctor Who fans were enthralled by the idea of the wide-eyed naïf whose whole job was to say “But I don’t understand, Doctor, what’s going on?”

And most of the time the text has Sladen doing exactly that. It looks to be deeply frustrating, and to be sure. But she always found ways to make it something better. The Doctor liked to call her “My Sarah Jane,” but she really became “our Sarah Jane.” Because she was one of us, an ordinary person caught up in the madness of the Doctor’s wake who saw amazing things and ultimately put it all to use to become a better person and go on to become amazing herself. We could see ourselves alongside SJS, very easily; she’s the person you’d most want at your back at the apocalypse. Which was of course a weekly event in Doctor Who.

There’s a bit between her and Tom Baker in “The Pyramids of Mars” which is like a one-minute master class in mining the material for gold character flakes. It’s from 2:50 to 4:00 in the video below. Go ahead, I’ll wait:

If you were to read the words on the page, the intent is perfectly clear: The Doctor is mysterious and important and Sarah Jane is flighty and distracted. But the way she and Baker PLAY it, it’s completely inverted: The Doctor is pompous and full of himself, and Sarah Jane is totally not buying it for a single second. She’s the only person in the universe who knows who he really is. It’s a fairly standard opening for the series at that time, a bit of quick establishment to have them talking about something when the story gets rolling, but they play it brilliantly. Now this seemingly throwaway scene is considered one of the best moments for both Baker and Sladen.

Most of the development of the companion didn’t really take place until decades later, but it all still started with Sldaen. Nowadays, the companion character is equally as important as the Doctor. Hell, when Billie Piper left Who, BBC brass were worried that nobody would watch it just for David Tennant. The sidekicks have taken over the show, and in a lot of ways it’s because of Lis Sladen.

It’s ironic sometimes how art works out. Nobody wrote Sarah Jane expecting her to be great, certainly not a four-decade favorite; she was just the latest disposable partner. But sometimes coincidence piles on coincidence. She was closer to the Doctor than most of his friends, first like a daughter in the Jon Pertwee era and later like a sister to Tom Baker. She even shared his name – he often went by Doctor John Smith when he needed an alias. By the time of her own series, S. Jane Smith had a sonic screwdriver, two android sidekicks and a passel of young wards to teach the ways of the universe.

I doubt anyone remotely had that in mind when they created the role. But in the end she was the closest thing the Doctor ever had to an equal; she’s the closest thing fandom has ever had to a female Doctor.

Sladen once said that she treated every modern Who appearance as if it were her last, but was always pleasantly surprised to get another go-round. But it was appropriate; her latter-day character was steeped in regret and loss, and her greatest lesson was to learn from loss and grow to greater things. In her first modern appearance, after spending most of the episode pining away for the Doctor and mourning ages long past, feeling as if her life has been wasted, she gets it together and delivers one of my favorite televison speeches about moving on from loss:

“The universe has to move forward. Pain and loss, they define us as much as happiness or love. Whether it’s a world, or a relationship … Everything has its time. And everything ends.”

Everything ends. And sometimes we value things the most precisely because we know they’ll end. Goodbye, Elisabeth Sladen; goodbye, our Sarah Jane Smith. We’ll never forget you.

•April 18, 2011 • 1 Comment

Just got back from the hospital for Armand’s quarterly scans, in which we run through a battery of tests to see if the cancer is coming back. So far, everything is back but some of the chemical testing, and shows Armand to be completely clean. Always happy to get that confirmed :).

Since I’m trying to assemble an early-days-of-cancer scrapbook, I asked for a copy of the CT scan from that first day, the one that confirmed all this was going on. It’s a bit eerie to look at it again, a mass of gray and white and black, and then nothing but a great big white blotch representing the tumor that had taken over everything. The really weird part — which I didn’t fully grasp first time around — was that all his abdominal organs were squeezed and squished down to one quadrant of his abdomen. Sometimes I think to myself that I mentally exaggerate the size as the years go by. Turns out I do not — it is, in fact, BIGGER than I remember. Looking again at those scans, I find it hard to believe any human could have so huge a growth around so many vital organs and remain alive. It’s a testament to modern medicine and borderline-supernatural that he still is.

More pics of that later, once I figure out how to upload them to my own drive. In the meantime, to counteract all the heavy stuff, here’s a photo of tumor-free Armand smiling on his swingset today, after the scans were done. He always wears his Mr. Bones skeleton shirt to scan days. The oncology and medical imaging staff members find this hilarious.

Five rounds rapid

•February 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Nicholas Courtney, known to at least three or four generations of “Doctor Who” fans as the Brigadier, died yesterday at 82. He was the only actor to work with all eight of the Doctor’s incarnations prior to the 2005 series revival.

Courtney was noteworthy for his ability to stand up as a worthy foil for the Doctor — not easy when your character’s defining trait is his stiff upper lip and the Doctor is a scene-chewing role that tends to bring out the manic side of actors. Even visibly weakened in his final appearance, in “The Sarah Jane Adventures” in 2008, he dominated the screen with his oddly endearing combination of grace and stiffness.

I could go endlessly, but instead I’ll turn things over to Kirk, a military man for whom I have much respect, to talk about one of television’s finest military men:

Farewell to the Brig. Five rounds rapid in your honor.

— Paul F. P. Pogue

Thanks for everything, Dwayne McDuffie

•February 23, 2011 • 2 Comments

Dwayne McDuffie passed away today. In the fields of comics and animation, he was a tremendous talent who leaves behind a remarkable body of work.

Dwayne was also an enormously classy fellow, who was a frequent contributor to several comics forums I frequent. He could be counted on to tell it like it is in the industry. This sometimes got him in trouble with the higher-ups, but fans always appreciated his candor and generosity.

I also saw him show a near-unearthly level of tolerance when dealing with racist crap. I won’t dignify the critics by repeating their arguments here; merely state that the unearned flak he took at times made me frankly ashamed to be a comics nerd. But he was endlessly patient when dealing with that stuff; it just slid right off him. I really respect that level of self-control.

McDuffie was a highly regarded comic writer, which if it seems I’m glossing over with faint praise, is only because I haven’t read a whole lot of what he’s written. He was instrumental in the Milestone line over at DC, and wrote “Damage Control” for Marvel, one of the first really clever deconstructionist takes on “what the hell happens after the heroes leave the scene?” But my personal knowledge ends there, so I’ll leave it to people more well-versed in his comics canon to speak highly of what he did.

But I was very familiar with his work as an animation writer and producer, specifically “Static Shock” and “Justice League/Justice League Unlimited.” And I will say without hyperbole: Dwayne McDuffie was the finest writer to ever work on superhero animation. He had a deep understanding of what made animation tick, and what made superheroes tick, and most importantly, how to make them both work together. (This is harder than it seems. Some incredibly talented television writers have taken shots at superhero comics, with mixed results, and plenty of fantastic comic writers have done only middling work on TV.)

He was an early writer on “Justice League,” and it was under his guidance as story editor in the back end of season 2 that the series really began to shine. In particular, a string of episodes starting with “Hereafter” and rolling through the end of that season were what really made us take notice – when the show went from “You know, this is really quite good and a lot of fun” to “People are going to remember this one for YEARS.”

He followed up with “Justice League Unlimited,” which expanded the show’s cast and universe. The two seasons he produced are each masterclasses in structure and how to create a coherent season arc. In particular, the first “JLU” season was a thing of pristine beauty, which a tightly wound story that ramped up smoothly over the course of the season tied together plot points and callbacks that went all the way back to the first shot of the first episode of “Batman: The Animated Series.” Hell, he even brought back the Phantasm. But even as people like me reveled in the nerdiness (seriously, you’re a pretty hardcore nerd even you even know who the Phantasm IS), it was done in a way that made sense to anyone who didn’t have a Ph.D in continuityology.

How well did it all work out? Let’s put it this way: For 13 years the DC Animated Universe ran nearly continuously with a hopscotching continuity through Batman, Superman, Batman Beyond, Static Shock, Justice League and no doubt one or two others I’m forgetting. (There were other DC shows and still are, but they’re disconnected from this particular long-form univdrse.)  It was nerd glory. And by the time JLU was wrapping up that first season, it looked poised to end; indeed, McDuffie and company thought it was over when they created the final episode, “Epilogue.”

It was likely his finest animation hour – a wrapped-up bow and exclamation point at the tail end of the DC animated canon. And when it was over, I said “You know, if this is where it all ends, I’m actually kind of cool with that.” Because it was that good, a pitch-perfect conclusion.

But as it turns out, it wasn’t quite the end; higher-ups ordered another season of JLU very late in the game, and McDuffie turned out one more wacky season. After the careful plotting of his previous story, it seemed like his approach was “What the hell, let’s just go crazy.” And go crazy he did, creating a 12-episode romp that gleefully folded in everything from the Super Friends to the Seven Soldiers of Victory. Hell, he predicated his series finale on a KISS in-joke. It all closed out on one of the greatest superhero fight scenes ever portrayed on-screen, with Darkseid vs. everyone, a good half-dozen “hell yeah!” moments, culminating in the bit where Superman – ah, screw it, I’ll just link to the scene:



Detractors point out that Superman promptly got his butt whupped after this and needed Batman to make the save, but still. HOW. HARDCORE. IS. THAT?

Anyway. I digress. The point is that McDuffie, as an animation writer, was structurally disciplined and extremely technically sound, and while those sound like faint praise, I assure you they are very big deals. Most importantly, his work was a whole hell of a lot of fun.

Rest in peace, Dwayne McDuffie. All my condolences to your family and loved ones. On behalf of nerddom united, thanks for some great rides.

— Paul F. P. Pogue


On behalf of the Mac faithful

•February 22, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Those of us who have been following Apple for more than a decade have been dealing with a bit of cognitive dissonance in the last couple of years, and I feel inclined to give a few words on behalf of the long-term Mac-heads.

Apple is acting pretty much like the Evil Empire these days, everything they railed against in the famed “1984” commercial, locking down their systems and creating the “walled garden.” I am hardly the first and probably not even the millionth to point this out. And Apple faithful have been accused, with a certain amount of validity, of a certain cult-like devotion to everything the Maximum Leader says, as if Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field had been extended to millions of people at once.

Why is this? I cannot speak for the new folks, by which I mean anyone whose first Apple product was post-1997. I’m thinking here of the lost tribe, the ones who made it through the 1990s and Apple’s dark period, the ones you can always tell from the way their eyes involuntarily twitch at the name “John Sculley.”

Here’s the deal. We still haven’t figured out, on an emotional level, that Apple is even in a position to BE the evil empire. Apple blew it in the mid-1980s when they let Windows take over pretty much the entire computing world and consigned themselves to an eternity as a third-class operating system, tolerated with bland amusement by the Microsoft masses and occasionally thrown a bone from the table in the form of an Apple port of Myst six months after everyone else had already played it. We watched the slow-motion train wreck over the course of the decade, starting not long after Steve Jobs’ ouster and continuing through the Sculley and Amelio eras and the interminable period where the question wasn’t whether Apple would go completely bankrupt, but how many months they could still hold out. These are the years where the Apple TV – not the little box you think of now, but an ugly console that merged a crappy computer with a crappier TV tuner – was an actual thing that actual executives thought would make money.

And in the midst of all this in the mid-1990s you had Steve Jobs doing his thing in what we all assumed to be a garage while mumbling to himself, because he was INSANE. Every so often some tech publication would do a sympathy interview with him that basically took the tack of “Silicon Valley chewed him up and spit him out and now he’s just a crazy man.” This would go double whenever Steve would go wild babble about integrated design and forcing mechanisms and the “internet appliance,” whatever the hell THAT was, because the only thing we could figure out was he was ranting about some magic device that would pick up the Internet from thin air and could be carried from room to room in your pocket.

Keep in mind that this is the same era when AOL was not entirely a joke, college students had to walk to the computer lab to log on, and the only people with cable modems were ph.d candidates in computer science who more often than not had to tutor the cable support guys in how they worked.

So in a way, we felt sorry for Steve, and we felt that things would have gone better with him rather than without him, but it was pretty clear he was just one bad day away from sitting on a street corner wearing a tinfoil hat and you wouldn’t put Mr. Internet Appliance in charge of a mall opening. So we contented ourselves with bitching about Amelio, resigned ourselves to the fact that Apple was doomed, and reminiscing about how great it might have been if Steve were still running things. If we got really drunk, we might spend some bull sessions talking about the wacky things Jobs was talking about and speculate how cool it would be if they actually existed, but even then the discussion would invariably turn to whether this kind of stuff was flat-out impossible or merely highly improbable.

Then came the big return of Jobs in 1997 and the iMac and the iBook and the iEra, and everything seemed right with the world. We bitched about OSX, because as Mac nerds we will always bitch about change, but in the end embraced it too. For several years we had the Apple we always wanted – doing quite well, but still the crazy renegade outsiders with their weird ideas.

And along comes the iPhone and the App Store and the iPod Touch and the iPad and in the course of a few short years – really, just since 2007 – Apple goes from a high-end luxury to a complete mainstream product that EVERYONE has to have. The Internet Appliance is a reality. Most valuable tech company on earth. Somewhere along the line, Apple became the evil empire, locking down their systems, showing a shockingly tone-deaf response to the Death Grip, and pretty much becoming the “1984” commercial. As above, I’m not the first one to say this – but I think for a lot of Mac devotees, this still hasn’t registered. We don’t know what it’s LIKE for our stuff to be popular.

In our minds we’re still the crazy ones in the wilderness. We always knew Apple was a fatally flawed thing; hell, the inherent tragedy of everything going back to Jobs vs. Sculley was part of the appeal for some of us. So certainly few balked when Jobs starting running things in a distinctly defensive manner that on some psychological level seemed to be an attempt to stick it to Sculley – “I can screw over the others before they screw me this time.” It made sense; it was the nerds taking over the high school and beating up the jocks. But there comes a point where you have to realize – hey, Apple really IS the most valuable tech company on earth. Even five years ago this seemed unthinkable, and in 1997 it was ridiculous to even speculate. And we have to deal with the fallout from things like Apple’s baldfaced lying with Antennagate (“Turns out all along we showed the wrong number of bars” – really, guys? REALLY?) and the current disaster of the 30 percent subscription cut that still might accidentally hamstring the App Store.

After all this time, Apple really has changed the world, and we have no idea what to make of it.