August 19, 2013

When all the answers, they don't amount to much.

The logical thing to do was start dating.

We'd gone out numerous times, from drinks to movies to dinner and back again. On a physical level, she was very much my type. And she seemed to like me, at least enough to occasionally get naked in my presence.

For a while, in that nebulous period between college and true adulthood -- when you're underpaid and overworked and just trying to cover the cable and Internet bill every month -- it seemed like that might be enough.

But of course, it wasn't. This is not to slight her in the least; she was a very enjoyable and attractive young woman. But she wasn't what I was looking for; nor was I anything close to her soul mate. And in the back of our minds, where sweet logic that we didn't want to hear was whispered, we both knew this.

But it's easy to shut those little lingering voices up with wine, or mild drug use, or by closing yourselves off to reality and keeping busy. So that's what we did. We saw each other a few times a week, every outing as mildly pleasant as the last, and eventually forged a bond built on acceptance that this all was fine for now.

And it's not that dating for fun's sake is wrong; every relationship doesn't need to have the long haul as its end game. But to ignore this, or to realize the truth with great clarity but refuse to address it, can bring about a lot of strange and lonesome days.

I remember one happy hour with her work friends; it was clear from the moment we walked in the door that I didn't really feel like meeting them (and she didn't really feel like introducing me). But we went through the motions, smiling and sipping beers as if it were the most enjoyable evening in the world.

At the end of the night, she turned to me and said, "So I guess we should be a couple."

"I guess so," I responded. And there it was.

Fast forward a few weeks, and all my college friends are planning a night on the town. They want to meet my new lady, and I find this plan to be acceptable. I'm not sure if I want to show her off, but there doesn't seem to be much wiggle room.

So we head to my friend's place, and then to a bar. Drinks and witty banter are flowing freely, at least between some of us. She was clearly uncomfortable, and that made me unhappy. I recall trying to include her in the conversation, but I'm sure my efforts were transparent and forced. I drank heavily to compensate, and ended up extremely intoxicated.

Eventually, we left a bit early to head home. She made the very reasonable suggestion to get a cab; I disagreed. She pointed out that we were miles from our apartments and she was in very uncomfortable shoes; I demanded that we walk for at least a few minutes.

She rightly accused me of being a jerk. I wrongly, and loudly, accused her of being an idiot. She turned her back, got in the next cab, and left without me. I walked home at 2 AM, fully convinced I was in the right.

I woke up at about 11 AM, fully convinced I was in the wrong. I brought her flowers and apologized for being an asshole. She accepted my apology, politely asked me to leave a few minutes later, and broke up with me over Gchat the next day.

I never saw her again. Additional text message and email apologies, mostly delivered out of lingering guilt, were accepted but unremarked upon.

I was the bad guy; this is undeniable. I don't think I've ever been that directly responsible for the end of a relationship, before or since. But no less than two months later, I met the girl that I would end up dating for over three years. And I remembered that it's OK to aim high; that being young and confused about where you'll end up doesn't mean it's wise to ground yourself with any sort of unsatisfying anchor.

Every relationship is a learning experience, especially when they end with you screaming in the street.

August 6, 2013

House of Cards and the end of television's golden era.

To paraphrase Krusty the Klown:

1923: John Logie Baird invents the television.

1927: Philo Farnsworth invents the television...again.

Then, for a long time, nothing happened. Until 1999.

That's when The Sopranos started airing on HBO, and that's when TV changed forever.

More eloquent men than I have examined how and why this happened, but suffice it to say that television's potential was suddenly unlocked; everyone realized what a perfect medium it was for long-form, intelligent stories.

Suddenly, TV became character-driven. And not just any characters...flawed characters.

Tony Soprano was a sociopathic bear of a man who alternatively raged against, and embraced, the life he was born into. Vic Mackey found himself unable to change his needlessly aggressive ways, even as his friends perished and his family abandoned him. Al Swearengen learned to live within a society and curtail his murderous instincts...or, at least, use them for more productive purposes. Walter White, although his story has yet to be completed, became the worst human being in the world.

But Frank Underwood, the House of Cards protagonist so ably portrayed by Kevin Spacey? He's just a rich powerful politician who hopes to remain both rich and powerful.

Nucky Thompson, the main character on HBO's Boardwalk Empire, lives in constant fear that...he'll lose control of his unofficial post as big boss of Atlantic City? That someone will burst past his half-dozen bodyguards and run up the stairs of his large expensive home to (maybe) shoot him in the head? That he won't get to continue having sex with attractive women?

Will McAvoy, the "hero" of on HBO's The Newsroom, is a rich and famous newscaster who's had it up to here with modern America, and he's gonna tell you all about it. He's got some serious, no-bullshit things to say...about oft-dissected events that occurred several years ago. And if nobody listens, well, life will go on. Because it did, because these events all occurred in the recent past. And did I mention he's also rich, and famous, and pretty much untouchable?

All three roles are played by spectacular actors who I've enjoyed in numerous films, and all three of their shows are varying levels of blah. These particular programs pass themselves off as substantial when, at best, they're relatively entertaining.

House of Cards, The Newsroom and Boardwalk Empire are soap operas. There are no stakes, unless you count the (picture perfect) health and (relatively unassailable) livelihood of some fictional human beings. It does not matter whether the main characters succeed or fail, or even if they struggle in the process. They do not exist to shine a light on society, or as a commentary against a certain type of individual. They're empty pods, filled with subpar attempts to recreate what's made TV so great over the last 14 years without actually trying.

To enjoy these shows is almost voyeuristic: "Watch the rich white people be rich and white," only in varying time periods. Assigning any other value to them is being dishonest. They're not expected to be docudramas, but good art has at least a hint of truth to it. No one involved in the creation of these shows is plumbing for any hidden understandings of life or culture. There are no David Chases or David Milchs at the helm.

I've railed against Boardwalk Empire's flaws in the past, and The Newsroom is such a vessel for Aaron Sorkin's opinions (and neuroses) that it's a waste of time to accuse his show of being anything other than "a way to get all this shit off my chest." He's getting paid to produce his own televised therapy.

But House of Cards, the more recent sensation of the three, continues the trend of existing only as a cheap thrill. It's slickly produced and well acted, but almost in an attempt to confuse those who might otherwise notice that it sucks. It doesn't seem any more consequential than Scandal, except Scandal openly admits what it is and House of Cards puffs its chest out as a Television Event. It's big, bombastic and about an Important Subject like politics. For some, I suppose that's enough.

Ultimately, I'm growing concerned that this is the new direction television is headed. With Netflix, Hulu Plus and countless cable channels, there's an unquenchable demand for content, and only so many ideas (and brilliant minds) available to create what's needed. Isn't it easier to throw a few bucks at some Hollywood stars, slap on a respected name like David Fincher as producer and pump out some flashy, meaningless programming?

Probably. And it's working. Netflix has now made a boatload of bucks on a very ordinary political drama and an even crappier season of the greatest sitcom in modern history. I would not be surprised to look back in 10 years and realize that the era of televised excellence ended around 2013; House of Cards is Jaws. Now that that competent mediocrity has gotten a foothold in television, there may be no going back.

August 4, 2013

And kid, you better get the picture.

In the winter of my sophomore year at college, I became single for the first time.

This was new terrain. I was like a small house cat, raised in captivity and then released into the wild. My instincts were telling me to go out, be free, meet people. But I knew how to do none of those things; I was both enthusiastic and fearful that I'd find myself halfway up a tree before realizing I didn't know how to get down.

A friend who I'd long been attracted to invited me over one Friday night. She was having a house party at her off-campus apartment, and it was clear from the start that she was interested in me. Any apprehension was swallowed by adrenaline and alcohol; we spent the evening chatting away. It probably also helped that she was well on her way to falling-down drunk.

As the party ended, she walked me to the front door, and then into the street. We started making out in front of her building. Eventually her friends dragged her back inside; I found out later that she had been sorta seeing someone else at the time.

But that's no matter to a young man on the prowl. Still fueled by excitement and confused curiosity, I was invited over again a few days later to drink wine and watch Sex and the City. One thing led to another, and I ended up staying the night. It all felt relatively organic and natural. Sure, things were moving very fast, but it wasn't like we were strangers.

You'd think that I'd be on cloud nine; a few weeks after breaking up with my girlfriend, I'd stumbled upon a new lady who seemed to like me a whole lot. Talk about the perfect rebound, right?

Nope. In fact, just the opposite. Suddenly, I was petrified of everything. A switch had flipped in my head; for me, the game had changed. Things were going well, sure, but I had no idea what was happening or how I'd managed to back my way into such a wonderful scenario. Therefore, I was sure that I'd screw it all up.

So I tried to tread lightly. I couldn't call her to shoot the shit or even ask her out for dinner; I was too afraid. Too much pressure, too much room for error. What do you say to girls on the phone?! When I was in a relationship, my answers had felt predetermined. "Sure, let's go there tonight." Now I'd have to think on my feet, be clever. Was I even capable of that?

And my parents hadn't yet paid for a text message package; this was 2005, America was still on the cusp of the SMS revolution. So I couldn't send the casual "what are you up to tonight" messages that now drive 98% of all burgeoning sexual and romantic relationships worldwide.

So I'd send her texts through AOL Instant Messenger; this was back in the service's heyday, and one of its features allowed for messaging to mobile numbers. But you had to be by your computer to compose (or receive) them. So on Thursday nights, when she was presumably out in the world, I'd try and find out what she was up to.

And then I'd wait. I wasn't exactly chained to my laptop, waiting for a message from her with my heart in my throat. But I'd be hanging out with my friends in the other room, only to leap up every 10 minutes or so to peek at my messages. Sometimes, there'd be a reply. Most of the time, radio silence.

Occasionally, I'd summon up the courage to invite her to parties. But the only off-campus friends I had threw big, sweaty affairs that were barely fun for guys, let alone girls. There's nothing impressive about dragging a lady to a humid apartment with seven beers in the fridge and a bunch of dudes staring at whoever walks through the door.

Or I'd drunk dial her; nothing gets your courage (temporarily) up like a few domestic light lagers. But our conversations were far from substantial; even though drinking helped me dial her number, it didn't offer any advice on what to say once she picked up. My liquor-fueled ramblings ended up hurting more than they helped. It became obvious, certainly to me and probably to her, that single me was meek and sad.

Eventually, our "relationship" petered out. I still saw her every now and then; a few years later, it seemed like the spark between us might light up again. Alas, it was not to be. I suspect that, ever since our awkward string of interactions, even my mature and reasonable advances were colored by the memory of an utter inability to hold a normal conversation with a fun person. I took myself out at the knees.

Luckily, I can look back on this whole turn of events now and laugh. I went through at 19 what most people go through at 15; I suspect the whole thing would've been a lot easier if beer and college hadn't been involved. Battling against crippling insecurities are a young (and sober) man's game.

But, as a self-aware person who uses his painful mistakes to promote growth, I learned a lot. My inexperience with the opposite sex was bound to torpedo my existence eventually; in retrospect, I'm pleased that it happened so quickly. And pretty soon after, I talked my parents into the unlimited text package. There's always a silver lining.