Ramblings

Television

So, I just got back from a movie called Clockwatchers. In my case, it also could quite accurately have been named How I Spent My Summer Vacation–basically, it’s a month or two in the life of four female temp workers, and it depicts a lot of the stuff which the first issue was about quite vividly. I’m not going to draw out that topic any more at present, but fear not, I shall return to it.

In deference to the requests of several subscribers, this issue will include some more paragraphs for easier reading.

Television is the subject at hand. As some of you know, I am totally fascinated by TV. In fact, as I write, I am taping ER so that I can watch it later and fast-forward through the commercials (although I love commercials, too–but that’s another story). What brings me to this is a conversation I had in a car trip the other day. The idea was put forth that perhaps the reason students today have such a hard time composing structured, complete, balanced arguments (or sentences, for that matter) is that the story-telling they have grown up with is that of TV, which is, by its nature, a kind of story-telling in which the tale is never complete. It has to be a story capable of endless regeneration, sort of like a repeating decimal. Soap operas are the best at this–I mean, soap operas have been going for 20, 25 years, some of them, with the same characters (only now they’re played by different actors–which actually makes soaps more like theatre, where many different actors can play the same role, whereas in a sitcom, only Seinfeld can play Seinfeld).

I had been arguing that sitcoms and dramas are the closest thing to 19th century serialized novels (such as those of Dickens and Thackeray) which exist. And before you jump on me to point out that Beverly Hills 90210 is no Bleak House (though actually, I have neither seen the former nor read the latter, so I can’t really tell you), please remember that there were many many schlocky serial novels written in Victorian England which nobody except PhD candidates reads anymore because they’re not as good as Dickens. Most TV shows will also be forgotten in a century, but I expect that a few will survive. (No, I’m not going to make any predictions on which ones–we’ve all been a little too inundated with 100-best lists for the turn of the millennium lately). But it’s also true what my opponent said–those novels did end, though perhaps their authors weren’t orignally sure when or how that would happen when they started. But they were still in control of their characters–Thackeray didn’t figure himself as the Puppet Master at the beginning of Vanity Fair for nothing. TV shows, on the other hand, don’t really have that luxury. There is rarely one author of the whole thing (though I do get the sense that Chris Carter keeps a pretty tight rein on The X-Files). Actors come and go, producers come and go, shows change location, ratings rise and fall. So eventually (in nine years, if you’re Seinfeld, or nineteen episodes, if you’re My So-Called Life) this story which has been working so hard to expand and regenerate and keep itself going has to end, quite abruptly.

The audience, of course, wants the story to end (Aristotle trained us well, I guess) nicely. Everybody whined about the last episode of Seinfeld–and it was overly showy, grandiose, self-absorbed, and some other stuff. But I did like the very end, which ended with a conversation from the very first episode, and Jerry said, “Wait, haven’t we had this conversation?” It was kinda like Waiting for Godot. (My So-Called Life, on the other hand, didn’t even know it was going to end; it just serendipitously called what turned out to be its last episode “In Dreams Begin Responsiblities” (which, it turns out, is the title of a short story by Delmore Schwartz), which strikes me as pretty apt for a show which a lot of idealistic-types liked which got cancelled ’cause because the world is stupid, to put it briefly).

I still haven’t gotten to my point, which is maybe proving the point I started out with, that our young minds have been poisoned by endless TV plots and we can no longer think in coherent units. But I’m not so sure that’s true, because a lot of sitcoms end up okay each week–I mean, the Simpsons frequently manage to save the world in half an hour (minus time for commercials!) When a movie called Reality Bites (which is basically a music video about some college grads and some slackers and their impoverished full lives) first came out, the bit which the Time magazine review quoted was, “Why can’t everything go back to normal at the end of the half hour like The Brady Bunch?” The reply was, “Well, because Mr. Brady died of AIDS.” At the time (1994), I thought that was a pretty dumb thing to quote, but today it seems quite accurate. I mean, life is pretty much an endless, pointless, often repetitive plot (sometimes its a good plot, luckily). Why should art, or writing, be so different? Even Shakespeare acknowledged that–examples will be provided on request, but this thing is way too long already.

Working Class Heroes

Welcome. You have just received the first issue of The New Rambler, an occasional journal of thought about action to promote action about thought. “Occasional” simply means that it will only be published as often as my anger about the state of the world coincides with time and initiative sufficient to get something written. My father, I am told, was fond of saying that the only man with freedom of the press was he who owned his own press. These days, there’s so much press in the world that I’ve hesitated for a long time about putting my own out. But the hell with it–I may not say anything new, but no one else is going to say precisely what I shall. So here it is. I should mention, I suppose, that this first issue is about work, which has been on my mind a good bit since I joined the masses. If you want to hear more about my job at Table to Table, I’ll tell you, but this journal is in no way related to the organization; I just use our e-mail address ’cause I’m cheap. I’m prefaced out: dig in.

This may sound strange, but I’m really glad that I’ve only been hired for this Table to Table job for 9 months (to start, at any rate). While I enjoy it and even think I’m pretty good at it, I also can’t picture doing it with no sort of conclusion in sight. I think the scariest thing about leaving school is that for the first time, you’re not in a set pattern of steps. I mean, you know that after grade school comes jr. high, after that high school, after that college. . . but then what? I know that I wanted that kind of freedom from limits, and that’s why I didn’t go do a 1-year teach in Japan thing or Peace Corps or what have you–I thought I ought to do something outside the realm of academia for once, and even though technically none of those programs are school, they are mostly populated by current and recent students. I thought I should leave the womb for a bit. But of course the world out here isn’t limitless–it actually has a lot more limits, I think; they’re just of a different sort. I don’t see the working world as a rat race, but rather as a gerbil on a wheel. Race implies some object in mind. I don’t feel that many people are racing anywhere; we’re all just treading water and trying to stay afloat. I’m extremely lucky, and extremely blind, in that for over twenty years it never occurred to me really that work was a grind, that it was something people just had to get up and do every day whether they liked it or not, all to just keep the world moving. I just thought high school was like that. But of course the world doesn’t work without that work–I mean, people have to go to work everyday just so that we can have running water in the morning. I know you know all this, but bear with me–I think I may be getting to a minor revelation here. The problem is that most of us in the US take running water so forgranted. If we woke up one morning and it wasn’t there, we’d be pretty displeased, we’d call up the city (or whoever it is you call up when there’s no water) and some of us would bitch and moan about how now we couldn’t take a shower and we had a job interview or a big court case or whatever today. The problem lies in our sense of entitlement, for entitlement involves an inherent power structure, where those who feel entitled also feeling superior to those who provide, and those who provide being made to feel obligated to provide without due compensation. Oh sure, we pay the water-suppliers and the garbage-collectors and the factory-workers, but we don’t pay them much–and we only pay them in money, not in respect. I frequently point out that in the working world, money is the key to commanding attention, recognition, and respect. But that’s not quite accurate–apparently you have to be paid a certain amount before that sort of thing kicks in. But I don’t think that a minimum-wage salary is enough compensation for living like a worker ant. Volunteers, after all, command more respect than prostitutes.

Thanks for reading.