Tag Archive: Community

“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.


By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

American Gods is a pretty wonderful book and I can’t help but think about what a friend said after her husband read it.  He said, “I think this book would have blown my mind if I read it when I was eighteen.”

I can totally relate to that and I don’t mean it as a criticism, it’s just that it’s those years that really are the time when we explore religion.  We take the actual step into adulthood.  Eighteen is the age to go off to college, to find a job, to move out of the house and find your way in the world.  Faced with such a change in lifestyle, we all contemplate what it all means.  Is it money?  Is it happiness?  Money may not buy happiness, but it certainly makes it easier, right?  (I mean, how many of the fights that we saw between our parents were about money?)

If it is money, then we can measure how well we do in life by the amounts of money we make.  There is a measure to tell us how well we are doing.

Then after four weeks working at a campus snack bar, we hope that isn’t true.  Getting to the level of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or Carlos Slim seems to be way out of reach.

So, maybe it is happiness.  Maybe we can find it and “win” at life.  So, we go to the local Christian church to find the joy, the power of an unconditional love and forgiveness.  We know that there will be trials and tribulations on Earth (and we’ve seen that first hand with that first paycheck that will never, ever come close to paying our rent), but if we love our neighbors, if we follow those commandments, if we turn the other cheek, we will find eternal happiness in about 49 years.

However, as teenagers, that seems way too far away and won’t help us at all with the possibility of missing our cell phone payment or a lifetime of chronic masturbation that faces us if we can’t get a date for this weekend.

How do other cultures find happiness?  Soon we look at the stories of heroes, of rebirths, of meditation, of inner peace and we can pick and choose what we like and what we don’t (or maybe we find a religion that suits us perfectly in every which way – though like a political platform, I find that less and less likely.)

Then we come to the realization that we’re the only person that believes in the combination Hindu-Buddist-Norse-Egyptian-Aztec-Judeo-Christian-Flying-Spaghetti-Monster belief system that we’ve described and defined in a three-ring notebook complete with commandments, tenets and a very liberating dogma.  That also means that the weekly prayer meetings are very lonely and dates for many of the following weekends look less and less likely if we keep following this path.

At that point, we look for things that help us to connect with more people.  Instead of being the only person under the age of twenty, thirty or even forty at an Audubon Society meeting, maybe we start to volunteer at the campus radio station.  Instead of constructing a really cool Dungeons and Dragons adventure that will probably never be played by another living soul, but if it was, they would get so many experience points, we sign up to go to football games with a big group from our dorm floor.  Instead of going home right after work, we think that a beer does sound like a good idea with the rest of our co-workers because they know the bartender and he’ll let us drink even though we’re underage.  Instead of living in a dorm, we join a fraternity, an organization that promises friends, lifetime bonds and the chance to meet girls on a regular basis.  Instead of staying home for the weekend, we go to WonderCon, DragonCon or many other trade shows/festivals where there are thousands of people with the same interests.

Soon our beliefs are that there is no way the Yankees will ever miss the playoffs, Batman is so much cooler than Superman and we have had enough dates to actually hold an opinion on the question of whether blondes are better than brunettes. (The answer is brunettes.  For now.)

We have found happiness.  We have surrounded ourselves with friends that like to do the same things, that love to talk about music, movies, comics and sports and we share the cool things that we find with each other.  We are no longer tied around a building where a lone figure talks to us from a stage on Sunday mornings, but rather a bunch of like-minded folks that we connect to on a daily basis, there for us when we need to keep busy to forget about money, break-ups or our other problems.  Sure, there are still those occasional Sunday meetings 6,000 strong in Hall H at San Diego’s Comic-Con listening to Steven Moffat, or the Sunday afternoon 30,000 strong in Dodger Stadium, because we all generally still have that day free to follow what we believe.

We believe in watching our DVR’d episode of Community.  We believe in community.  It may not include a promise of eternal life (or it may because we have just added our faith in the Christian God to our other beliefs) but it is a promise that our days don’t have to be spent in solitude, that as Kurt Vonnegut proudly exclaimed, “Lonesome No More.”

Would this book have been better as I transitioned to being an adult?  Sure.  Is it great now that I have become an adult and can look at all of my beliefs, my loves that I have brought around the world and thought about so furiously (please, please, please, let the St. Louis Cardinals win and let Albert Pujols hit three home runs for my fantasy team; please, please let Hurley survive the island; please, please, please let “Dogtooth” win an Academy Award) and wonder how they would effect the world Neil Gaiman has created?  Absolutely.

A book through the eyes of a child, a teen and an adult can be three very different things.  I may not know how American Gods would have affected my younger self, but I do know that it made for some really cool reflections and an enjoyable read right now.

By Jason McClain (@jtorreyMcClain) 

The movie starts out with images.  The Eiffel Tower.  The Arc De Triomphe.  The Louvre.  Le Sacre Coeur.  The Seine. Familiar looking streets to your eye if you’ve ever seen anything filmed in Paris.  Of course like any big city, there were cafes on screen that I don’t remember having seen in any image before so it provided new glimpses of a city familiar to all of us from the increasingly small world through movies and television.

Midnight in Paris had me right then and I didn’t even know it.

My thoughts drifted to my all too brief time in Paris.  Walking the streets.  Stopping by carts to pick up lunch.  Looking forward to the morning with coffee, baguettes and strawberry jam.  Letting my feet take me where they wanted to go with only the memories of my tour book to guide me as the physical copy was left behind in my hostel room so that my walk was unencumbered by backpacks or books.  Yes, I missed seeing things.  Yes, I ended up in a cemetery and realized I had no use seeing gravestones, not that there’s anything wrong with it, it just wasn’t my cup of tea.  (White, no sugar.)  Still, I saw as much as I could from the vantage point of the many different random streets that go in every which way to make up the Paris city center.

Soon after leaving, I dreamt of visiting again or, even better, of living in Paris for a year, because I had fallen in love with a city and the people.  Finally using the language that had made enough of an imprint in high school and college so that I could still pick up on just enough of someone’s speech to make me smile at my ability to decipher a special code of tens of millions of people.  The language that I used on a train to talk to a couple who helped me along, that were kind enough to take the time to listen to my halting words and help me to understand that my struggle could show benefits.  Sitting every morning near the banks of the Seine, enjoying a coffee seems like it would be a cool way to spend a year.  Though the dream is now many years old, it is still one that I cherish, the thought of becoming a secret agent of France.

Minutes later during the movie, I realized I was not alone in this dream, for this was the dream of the protagonist played by Owen Wilson.

After the movie, I realized how much more universal the theme is.

Temporal displacement.

Geographic displacement.

Interpersonal displacement.

Entertainment allows us to explore those fantasies of finding a place, a time and people that we truly love.  Finding a place, a time and people where we don’t feel like we are rushing to keep up with all that is around us, but rather the flow of our world buoys us to the surface of its stream and we casually float along in peace, knowing that everything will be ok in the end.  Athletes call it “the zone,” and I’m not sure what the term would be in regular life, but in tribute to Bryan Cranston, Walter White and Vince Gilligan, I think it could just be called “breaking good.”

Spending time with those people that truly get us, that know what it means to meet a deadline for a project, or to write the perfect sentence or to find that missing dollar that balances the books in the midst of millions is something that seems easy.  We can find those people.  We can join clubs.  We can find a cool place to work.  We can take classes.  We can call, email, IM or visit friends.  We can control our interpersonal placement as much as we can control anything. Still, when the casts of Community or Torchwood appear on the television, I think a lot of us would jump at the chance to go to Greendale Community College and play paintball or to work in secrecy under the streets of Cardiff examining alien artifacts and saving the world.  We’d still keep in touch though.  Of course we would.

There are times when I think that the solitary life of a trapper in early 1800s, exploring the west for the first time would be the perfect life.  It probably comes from my father’s DNA, as “Jeremiah Johnson” is one of his favorite films. There are times that I think a mountain town calls my name to return to that small town, big peaks life.  There are other times that I know that L.A. is the perfect place for me.  Ask me any day of the week and I’d give you a different answer, depending on the traffic, the sunshine, or the dreams of snow in June.

I’m not sure where, when or who my perfect existence would encompass.  Paris in the ‘20s with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway might be pretty darn cool as it showed that world during my viewing of Midnight in Paris.  It certainly would help to explain why Doctor Who has become a favorite of mine.  Not only is all of the past open to the Doctor, but all of time and space as well. You could sample everywhere, every when and every who.  Why not?  How do you know what is your perfect time and space unless you look around a bit? Well, unless you think that your life has peaked and that there isn’t much else out there.  The glory days have passed you by and Bruce Springsteen’s song haunts your nights, as your beers never have a chance to get warm.  I hope that isn’t your truth and maybe seeing Midnight in Paris will convince you otherwise.  You might just need a displacement to give you a fresh outlook on life, if only in your dreams.

Midnight in Paris is a fantasy/comedy and is in theaters now.  Starring Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams.