Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A consoling thought for the beginning of another year of grad school

"One should therefore consider that practically everything has been discovered on many occasions--or rather an infinity of occasions--in the course of time...Hence, one should use what has been adequately discovered while attempting to seek out what has been passed over."

--Aristotle, Politics, 1329b24-35

Some of you might notice that a certain later thinker either found this old idea about new ideas to be one that had been detrimentally passed over, or else re-discovered it herself.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Life according to TV (might not exist in the space between NYC and CA), and other idle queries

I was watching some Bob Newhart the other day and it occurred to me that there were more shows from the Nick at Nite era (or at least those that made it to Nick at Nite) that were anchored in American cities which are now almost totally unrepresented on network TV. For example, Chicago is featured prominently in Bob Newhart; in I Dream of Jeannie, the show relies on proximity to Cape Canaveral. In The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary moves from New York to--wait for it--Minneapolis to make it. Laverne and Shirley is in Milwaukee, Good Times is in Chicago, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood is in Pittsburgh (ok, peeps, I had to resort to Wikipedia here...). Since the 1990s, network series and especially network sitcoms, seem to have been set in one of three places: 1) New York, 2) California, or 3) a generic suburb that is intended to represent Anytown, USA. This third setting is sometimes given a fictional name and a vague location in the course of the series, but it doesn't rely on being anyplace in particular (except sometimes a place where it could plausibly snow, so the characters can sometimes be seen in stylish coats). In contrast, New York and California shows have tended to be very setting-specific in the sense that Friends or Sex and the City or Seinfeld or Mad Men could not be anywhere but New York, Veronica Mars is thoroughly Southern California, etc.

For obvious industry reasons, New York and California were always staples of network TV (now network+HBO), but they weren't the only places where, according to TV, endearing and sympathetic people live. Since the 1990s, there have still been shows set outside these places (Seb points out that ER was in Chicago--fair enough), but I haven't come across very many that make their settings central to the plot. I can think of a few shows prominently set outside the NY/CA Zone of Hipness, but most of them are set in outer space. Of those which aren't, almost all of them are geographical laments in one way or another: The Wire, which hardly paints a livable picture of Baltimore, or Glee, where everyone wants to get out of Lima so much, or a bunch of reality shows that demonstrate (to viewers if not participants) how hideous the real inhabitants of other places are. (Some of the NY/CA shows criticize their locations too). If aliens from outer space (or from the shows taking place in outer space) were to try to piece together an account of contemporary America from its network TV, they would think that 95 percent of the country lived in New York or California, there were no other cities, and the remaining five percent was spread out in indistinguishable suburban flyover country between them. In this vast, empty in-between dwelled a handful of exasperated, ironic individuals who had all the good lines but the misfortune of not being dropped off in the cool places, while everyone else went about their dull lives in sweater sets.

Seb does not agree with my argument here on the grounds that I don't watch enough TV to know one way or another about its trends, and that my readers will immediately prove me wrong. Also, while we were looking at Wikipedia's (very incomplete) list of shows by setting, he was quite satisfied that the setting in Boston of the "very important show" Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place demonstrated decisively that my analysis was incorrect. It's true that I don't watch enough TV to get a good sample, so you are free to disprove away.

And in case you went a step further in this argument, yes, this is a call for shows set in Skokie.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Calls for creative thinking

Thanks to the wedding gift generosity of everyone we know, most of our apartment is now set up:

But we have one remaining problem: no couch. No couch and a cavernous, empty living room currently occupied by some bookshelves and a cat litter box. So today, we went to Bob's Discount Furniture ("no gimmicks"), a place that includes an indoor fish pond, and a cafe where all the "food" is free and Disney movies play non-stop, and salespeople who never stop hounding you. We found an acceptable couch, but then we had a thought: our front door is only 32 inches wide. The couch would never fit. In fact, possibly no couch will ever fit. So we went home.

Now we are stumped. The only solution I have come up with is Ikea, which has some affordable couches that are shorter than 32 inches. But these couches look bizarre and hard. What else can we do for very little money? Is there some way to move furniture that is wider in every dimension than the door through which it must travel?

School starts next week, so we are on a couch deadline.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Department of Bad Ideas: Emerging Adulthood

There is an interesting, possibly Hegelian, probably insane assumption underlying the NYT Mag piece on 20-somethings. It seems that in the very recent past, human life was inauthentic and un-free because it was constrained by necessity. People had to marry and bear children young, start working early and never stop, and otherwise do things that we now put off, because otherwise, they would starve to death or be eaten by bears. Now, however, we have "emerging adulthood," an indicator that we live in a blessed age when those necessities no longer apply, and the resulting lives we forge in their absence are therefore more authentically human and free.

The first evidence of this new freedom was adolescence, which was discovered when the necessity of child labor was peeled away to reveal the angsty, rebellious, hormonal but authentic 14-year-old within. This asshole of a creature demonstrated that the previous incarnation of the 14-year-old--the one who worked in the mines or the fields or the kitchens--was a product of necessity and not truth. The adolescent was now liberated. But necessity still bound everyone beyond adolescence. Now emerging adulthood is here to advance the upper limits of human freedom by a few more years by casting off later necessities: "fewer entry-level jobs even after all that schooling; young people feeling less rush to marry because of the general acceptance of premarital sex, cohabitation and birth control; and young women feeling less rush to have babies given their wide range of career options and their access to assisted reproductive technology if they delay pregnancy beyond their most fertile years." Newly free from these externally applied burdens, we 20-somethings have more space to shape our lives according to our own arbitrary wills. We are free! We are authentic! And what have we made of ourselves in light of all this? Well, it seems that at present, the self-realization of the will manifests itself in...hipsters. But ok, no matter.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Quebec, considered

Quebec is a great place, and in particular, Montreal. It's like the best kind of foreign country there can be--nearby, easy to get to, and very similar to America. You can attempt to practice your French but switch to English when you fail and still be understood, and nearly all the social rules and brand names remain recognizable. It has good coffee and rent-able bikes and--truly the best thing ever--bike lanes separated from traffic! Plus, it is pretty! And it has moose! I can't believe it was not earlier and more thoroughly impressed on me that I should visit it. When can I go back?

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Addition to the list below

4. Sword-fighting in the park:

Any ideas?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Three essential but dying elements of Western Civilization that are being preserved in Montreal

1. Cigarette smoking
2. Public payphones
3. Rollerblades

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Global facts

Miss Self-Important, looking for a way to change money in Montreal: There is only one Citibank in Canada, and it's in Toronto.

Mr. Self-Important: Oh. We should publicize that, so people know what they're getting into.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Love, marriage, baby carriage, etc.

Because Pam got married a couple weeks before me, I was avidly following her account of wedding preparations and comparing them to my own. But, clearly, something went wrong between reading this post about crafting excitement, and scrambling to finish my own favor tags and name cards on Microsoft Word, crookedly cutting them out like a third-grader with a pair of safety scissors. An obvious craftiness FAIL. Would this be fatal to the wedding?

Weddings are high-pressure events. They're like the anecdote I was told in my intro econ class in college about long-distance relationships: they almost always fail because expectations are unreasonably inflated by the cost and effort of seeing one another, and few actual experiences together seem to be worth the price. Same with weddings--people expend money and energy to fly in, to stay at a hotel, to buy you gifts. What can you really do to make it worth it for them short of renting an elephant and giving them turns riding it? The traditional motions--ceremony, reception, cake--hardly seem sufficient, especially for the guests most distant--in terms of both friendship and location--from you. This is where the elephant would help. But instead of arranging for elephants, people (and by people, I mean,, which has both guided and terrified me through this whole process) re-double their focus on the details of the traditional things and appraise the curliness of the letters and the straightness of the edges of the favor tags.

My sloppy favor tags were not, I think, fatal. The wedding generally went smoothly and I had a great time. I don't know if all the guests enjoyed it as much as I did, but at least the 5402, fueled by Long Island Iced Teas, danced into the night. But I'm still ambivalent about weddings. Our initial desire last summer was to go to the nearest courthouse, get the license signed, and be done with it. In fact, this was what my then-roommate did around the same time, and it seemed smart. It wasn't that we didn't think much of marriage--quite the opposite--but that we didn't think much of wedding pomp. I just wanted to be married and didn't care so much about how we marked the occasion. But then I started having all these wishy-washy feelings about the public aspect of marriage and the significance of familial and communal celebration and other such dangerous overthinkings.

The problem is that marriage is so uncertain. All the activities of marriage can at present be undertaken outside of it quite easily, so there is little besides a concern with appearances or with politics and ideology to compel us (at least those of us who are not religious) to marry. There are few good examples of actual marriages to which one might aspire (and, ironically, for reasons I won't get into here, publicizing such examples is almost as bad as not having any). None of the obvious answers to "Why get married?" really satisfy, so how convincing can the answers to "Why stay married?" be? The extravagance of weddings seems like an arrogant refusal to admit that all this uncertainty extends to you. You can spend your thousands of dollars, obsess over your hairstyle and the china on your registry for six months, haul all your friends and relatives in from 2,000 miles away, and then split up a few years later. Even if you put aside contemporary social developments, it is a mammoth feat to stay married to and happy with one another for an entire life. I suppose it could be argued that all the immense expense and effort of weddings applies some external pressure to stay together and not look like a fool, but that hardly seems to be borne out by the reality. Wouldn't the more prudent and proportionate response to the great uncertainty of marriage be increased humility? Shouldn't you think not, "Look at us EVERYBODY! We are SO IN LOVE! Our love is UNSTOPPABLE!", but rather, "We are making a go of it amid all this confusion and doubt, this is our small effort, and we hope for the best."

But the very same contemporary developments that make marriage so uncertain seem to work against minimizing wedding pomp, which brings us back to the long-distance relationship conundrum. People move around and away, and even bringing together a few of them to mark one's marriage becomes a big to-do requiring the assistance of a legion of conveniently specialized and extremely expensive services dedicated to such events. One thing that occurred to me this year was that there is no such thing as a small wedding. Once the army of wedding specialists gets involved, it no longer matters much whether you have 30 guests or 300--the logistics and absurdity are nearly commensurate. The result is an unresolvable contradiction between the impulse to publicize and celebrate marriage, and to remain humble in the face of powerful countervailing forces.

But, at any rate, now that all this wedding business is over, I will go back to keeping up with the Pamses next week when I get return from our honeymoon, clean up the gigantic pile of boxes accumulating in my kitchen, and indulge my own (and, I swear, pre-existing!) Smitten Kitchen aspirations. I will also try to finish up these incompletes from last year and, you know, think about Aristotle in addition to banana bread...

Oh, and I was just kidding about the baby carriage. That's not happening yet.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Status update

I've been gone for awhile, but I had good reason. There was Publius, then College Summit, then this:

This is a slightly politically incorrect photo since I'm not wearing my glasses as I am in all the others, but Julia took it and my mother really liked it, so we'll have to leave it be. Anyway, in real life, I'm changing my name, but in blog-life, you may now refer to me as Mrs. Self-Important.