Sunday, June 26, 2011

Reality Shows and Other Abominations

I have been struck by two phenomena lately, which taken together I find ominous. *Spoiler alert! This is going to be one of those "Things were different when I was young!" essays.* Both trends indicate a dissociation from reality, a distancing. The first is the plethora of "reality shows" on television, especially on the old-line networks. TV is rife with them. The other indicator I see is the increasing use of electronic communication devices and the concomitant use of "social networking". Taken together, these demonstrate a lack of consensual relationships, a fading of the face-to-face interaction which I believe we are designed to experience. Some people think this substitution is inevitable, given the Malthusian pressure we are being forced to cope with. There are just too many people around. That may be a factor, but I don't think it's the only one. Quite a few people are concerned with merely staying alive and eking out a tolerable existence for their families. I'm not talking about them. I'm concerned about the people with discretionary time or money (which, in the end, are the same) who seem to be receding into the background.

Reality shows on TV serve at least two functions. They show us ourselves in situations we wouldn't normally be involved with; and they entertain and titillate by putting Everyman and Everywoman in improbable straits and making us laugh or be horrified. Fictional shows and films do this, of course, but their protagonists are often so idealized that disbelief must be heavily suspended. Reality shows give us our neighbors, warts and all. Our reactions are usually twofold: "Thank God I'm not doing that!" followed by "I wonder how much money they're making?" The movies that show people you might know doing things you might do are called cult classics and are seldom viewed (almost never on television). It wouldn't be so bad if reality shows were real; a few of them seem to be close to everyday life. Taking a bunch of fat people and having them compete to lose weight (I can identify with this!) is not too improbable, though few of us could afford the regimens they undergo. You notice they are carefully screened for orthopedic and medical problems and are usually not sprung chickens. My other pet peeve is the "Survivor" shows. They usually seem to take place in areas where the contestants don't have to wear much clothing. Having one in Finland isn't going to happen. A base part of me wants to see the rejects dumped on a deserted island and hunted by the "survivors"--with spears and knives! Probably a good thing I'm not a producer.

What bothers me about these shows is the "bread and circuses" atmosphere of many of them. You can almost picture Nero giving some poor sweaty fatso the thumbs down--and hear the crowds roaring as motorcyclists whip him with old chains. What really pulls my chain are the sadists who pose as judges and ringmasters. Since we are not in England, I will challenge the libel laws and mention two of my least favorites: Simon Cowell and Gordon Ramsay. Both delight in savaging and humiliating contestants on their reality (talent?) shows. They are certainly not aglow with encouragement. Cowell is debuting a new show. I have never heard him sing; I don't know if he can. Ramsay is a master chef with Michelin stars. He seems to enjoy using verbal cleavers on hapless would-be chefs. What bothers me about these men and their shows is that people watch them. Why? Jesus told us that vicarious (and imagined) sin is the same as the real thing.

You cannot go anywhere these days without seeing people talking on cell phones or texting. They hardly seem to know where they are. My wife complains about my talking to people when I'm out of the house. I can't seem to go far without stopping to talk to someone. Sometimes I know the person; sometimes not. It doesn't matter to me. The interaction matters. I've gotten to the point that I can enjoy a phone conversation--I didn't always. If I'm watching television and someone comes to visit, I will turn the TV off. People are always more important than the idiot box. (Besides, I can catch my shows later on the computer.) I will admit to a mild addiction to surfing the Internet. As with television, I pick what I want to watch or read. I am an information junkie. Mea maxima culpa! My wife sometimes spends considerable time on Facebook. The so-called "social networks" are developing into substitutes for physical proximity to other human beings. A friend or ours was actually ready to move to another state because of an Internet friendship. Having five-hundred "friends" online doesn't substitute for one real person sitting near you, drinking coffee. "Tweeting" your every move to an adoring public is, perhaps, the ultimate narcissism. God help us!

Every other commercial on TV seems to be a sales-pitch for "smart" phones or tablets (those diabolical shrunken computers). Remember, though, the NSA (or Whoever) can probably track you and what you're doing easily. Walk down the street. Turn your gizmos off. Look people in the eye. Smile. Talk. Rejoin the human race.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

R & R

My title doesn't refer to "Rest and Recreation"--a topic for another time. I'm referring here to what mechanics and engineers call "Remove and Replace". This is what might be called the "module" concept of constructing and servicing various devices. I'll use my late freezer as an example. I say "late" because it died last summer, in the middle of a heat wave, presenting us with us with seven or eight cubic feet of defrosting food. My mechanical intuition (which often exceeds my mechanical ability) told me the motor had burned out. The freezer, a small reach-in, was venerable; we were its third owner. I called my father for information. He has forgotten more about mechanical and electrical things than I'll ever know. He told me the motor was part of the compressor unit. In other words, the whole unit had to be replaced; this would cost more than a new freezer. So, in this case, "R & R" meant remove the freezer and get another one.

I find this to be a sign for much of our culture. I knew something was up when I was was twelve. My friend David and I were busy buying our weekly supply of candy from Sav-On in Lancaster. It was about 1960. I saw a new display above the candy: Bic disposable lighters. My father was a Zippo man, involved in rituals of fluid, wick, and flint. As I eyed the colorful plastic lighters, I felt a deep premonition, somewhere in my bowels, that all was not well. I told David that nothing good would come of this. The disposable culture had begun.

I am not against "progress"--far from it. (Though I am not a "progressive"--another column.) What I am against is modularizing our lives and quashing ingenuity and practicality. This mouthful simply means that everything in life cannot be reduced to parts or units that can only be replaced when they fail, never repaired or rebuilt. Thus, curiosity and tinkering can't fix what can't be taken apart. We still triumph sometimes. Two examples: One of my cars had rear wheel bearings that were "sealed". You were supposed to buy new bearings (for a lot of money) and throw the old ones away. I forced the bearing shells apart, found the bearings to be okay, greased them, and put them back together. They worked fine. The oven in our stove was refusing to light. It was nearing Thanksgiving, and my wife was quite upset. I went online and found schematics for the "igniter" circuit (no pilot). I bought a new igniter and got a young friend to help me install it. Gloria was happy; the turkey got roasted. Cost: $90.

The throw-away culture and the R & R principle are one and the same. Progress is like a drug. It should be used when necessary. Drugs, however, often have side-effects; some are addictive, and require ever-larger doses for diminishing returns. For two final examples, I will return first to the automobile. I was taught by my father to do as much of my own maintenance and repair as I could. This way you saved money and knew what you were driving. You can still work on your car, a little, but much of the engine is beyond the abilities and equipment of the average shade-tree mechanic. Modern cars contain increasing amounts of gadgets and electronic devices. Whether we need these things or not, we can't work on them. R & R.

My final example is computers. I use them; I like them. I have assembled my own (with a little help from my son, Thomas). Mine is a desktop. I have tried a laptop--my hands are too big. I haven't tried one of the tablets. We are being told desktops are obsolete. I can't work on a laptop, let alone a tablet. Parts are much more expensive than the ones I have put in my desktop. Perhaps there is no solution or alternative to the throwaway culture. We can't turn the clock back . . . too many people. At some point, the clock will stop working. Then the craftsmanship of its Maker will come back. A quote from T. S. Eliot: "After such knowledge, what forgiveness?"