“Community,” Steve Jobs, and Us

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

On Wednesday, October 6th, Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 56.  I found out when I looked at my Twitter feed for talk from Cardinals and Phillies writers as I watched game 4 of the NLDS.  I looked for other people sharing the same game that I watched and found quite a different experience.

The pithy sentiments expressing sorrow appeared almost immediately and the most poignant found themselves retweeted post haste.  There was genuine outrage from a writer I enjoy, Brian Hickey, because of such remorse for a man no one really knows while people in your community, on the obituary page in your local paper, go unnoticed.  That the cult of celebrity in all its forms has made it easier for us to care about people that we’ll never have to get to know, that we’ll never see past their carefully cultivated public image, while the people next door argue at all times of the night and drive too fast will go unmourned when they pass.  I get that and it makes a lot of sense.  Then again, so does mourning Steve Jobs, Dennis Hopper, Amy Winehouse and so many others as we all try to understand our own future, our own last scene.

I first started to think about death when I was seven or so.  I hated to go to bed at night.  I equated death with sleep.  You don’t remember anything of the night and your life as you know it, (reading, watching TV, running around) stops during that time.  What’s to keep it from stopping it forever?  What if I don’t wake up? To this day, when I’m feeling bad, non-migraine edition, I fight to stay awake and will try to find anything that will keep me alert, keep me going until my body’s clock wins and I collapse from exhaustion.  Most nights the show Community fills that need.

I’m not sure how I started to watch this show, but I know that immediately it shot up to the coveted #1 spot on my DVR priority list.  (Coveted by television marketers everywhere; I hear they use it on Community advertisements in Sierra Leone.)  I can’t wait until I get to watch it on Thursdays.  I need to buy the DVDs, but for now, I just keep episodes saved on my DVR if I need a fix. “Contemporary American Poultry.” “Modern Warfare.” “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.” “Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas.” “Mixology Certification.”  “Cooperative Calligraphy.”  Depending on my mood for the day, they can all entertain me for that extra half hour, that extra bit of time to coax total exhaustion out of my body, or I can start watching early in the evening and run them all in a row, reliving the growth in the relationships of the characters.

Even though the characters of Community aren’t real, they are there for us every Thursday promptly at 8 pm.  They aren’t delayed by traffic.  Their babysitter didn’t abruptly cancel.  They didn’t happen to get a date for the night.  They flirt with us, share pop-culture references with us, set us straight, give us a caring shoulder or just make us laugh and we can forget about whatever else for a few minutes.  They are there for us.

Kind of like Steve Jobs.  I don’t know him.  I don’t even know all of his accomplishments.  I know that his company, with all of its engineers, technicians, programmers and salespeople got to me the MacBook Pro on which I write.  I couldn’t tell you what he liked to eat or watch on TV or his favorite movie, but his presence is here, in my life on a daily basis.  Without his leadership, would my laptop, iPods or iPhones be possible?  Without the unwavering faith that the capital markets had in his vision, would these chances to make portable computers and portable music machines no bigger than a thick postcard have happened?

The world is a big, big place with billions of people living in it, most of whom we will never even know.  With all of our technology though, we can get from Los Angeles to London in ten hours.  That’s over 5000 miles in less than half a day. We can travel even faster to see or hear our loved ones via cell phones, iChat or Skype.  If we don’t have time to talk, we can text or email.  Even as we walk along the train tracks outside Amboy, California in the middle of the Mojave Desert looking for railroad marbles, we can just check in with friends.  (You don’t walk along train tracks near Amboy, CA?  Huh.  Well, that explains why I didn’t see anyone else out there.)

Even as it becomes so easy to stay in touch, there’s still a lot of time away from each other.  There’s still time spent around people we don’t know while sitting in the middle seat of a plane, looking at the cars stuck next to us in the traffic jam or waiting in the checkout line. We fill these times with entertainment in all its glorious forms and create our own bubble universes.

My favorite bubble comes while watching Community.  For the half hour of that show, I’m hanging out with friends, back in college, no worries except which flavor of ramen noodles I should eat for a snack, how many glasses of milk I should get in the cafeteria and when my next test happens.  If I don’t have to study tonight, maybe I’ll watch “Kickpuncher.”  Maybe I’ll go check out the Model UN off to see how my friends do.  Maybe I’ll play one of the best games of Dungeons & Dragons ever played, and I can bring along my were-tiger fighter.  Maybe I’ll just sympathize with a friend that feels so alone for the holidays as he can’t be with his family.

This week my bubble contained an intruder, an outsider, a Todd.  The other seven and I knew he couldn’t be a part of the group.  He had to go and in that moment, they became a group unto themselves, separate from the rest of the class.

Yes, I know just writing all of the last two paragraphs is the very definition of vicarious living.  Isn’t everything?  The sorrow we feel for others for the loss of their loved ones, the joy we feel when friends get married, the anger at injustice after another round of layoffs.  Our empathy for others extends to those we see on TV, whether they are real or fictional.

We feel for other people.  We feel for those close to us and we feel for those far away.  We make room in our hearts for people in other countries when the stories of famine, revolt and disasters come in through the different airwaves.  We give the $10 to the Red Cross and exhort others to join us in our various social media platforms.  We volunteer our time.  We donate blood.  Through the democratic process, we try to elect the leaders that we think will do the best job at helping those in need.  Maybe it’s even easier to do it with fictional people that have familiar problems invented by writers that have presumably experienced the same things in their lives.

I can feel the loneliness of trying to make a connection with strangers on the first day of work or class.  I can feel the fear of not keeping together my core group of friends as life, careers and relationships move us in different directions.  I can feel the fear of rejection when unintentionally excluding people because I know that could be me next time given a new set of circumstances.

Then again, I can experience the same problems with lower personal stakes from my television “Community” and feel those same emotions all the while holding my breath hoping that the study group will all be together next week with a new adventure.  (I follow entertainment news.  I know they are under contract for the whole season in the deep recesses of my mind and I feel safer.)

It’s easier to live with the emotions and forgive injustices in this vicarious life than it is with a person you’ve known for fifteen years.  You can go back and watch the good points of a television character again and again, while the good points of an acquaintance fade with age and you can just dwell on the negative emotions associated with losing touch and not really understanding their divergent life.  For those just met, you don’t even have to go further and can just start the forgetting process right away.

I used to not understand mourning people you had never met.  I understand that now.  The fear of the uncertainty of death carries so much meaning to each of us in our own lives, perhaps more than our many other emotions like joy, ecstasy or pain.  Even if it is from afar, sometimes it feels good just to feel those things, to practice if you will, to know you can handle it when it happens closer to home.  Knowing that you can respond and things will work out.  You can find a friend nearby and give them a comforting hug.  You can post about your own personal viewpoint and sadness and send it out into the ether, to share with all the other people grieving.  You can just find someone via your cell, iChat or Skype and just talk about how much that person meant to you. If you can’t, then maybe just staying up with your “Community” of friends on your DVR can make it easier for tomorrow and you can try again.

Though, as much as I would want to join, I, like Todd, like the rest of Greendale, like the rest of the watchers of Community must stay perched on the outside.  We can never be part of that study group.  But, we can be part of the greater community that shares compassion for a fellow human, be it Steve Jobs or anyone that touches our lives in some way.

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