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Ross & friends
So no one told you life was gonna be this way. Also, 7 other things worth knowing today.
I never really watched the television show, Friends except for a few episodes here and there. But, I’m grateful for it by extension. The reason why has to do with a story from my book, In a Time of War.
One of the real-life characters in IATOW was a young war widow in her 20s named Jen, whose sister moved in with her after her husband was killed in action in 2003.
When Jen’s grief became too much to bear in those early weeks and months, she told me, she and her sister would escape together in 22-minute increments, binge-watching the show until they could breathe enough to do whatever came next.
I recently came across a different take on Friends—an author who argues that show triggered the downfall of Western Civilization. And while I laughed at the premise, I started thinking …
Thanks to David Hopkins for his contribution, below. Here’s David (edited for space/style):
The one where anti-intellectualism becomes a thing
My wife and I have been binge-watching a popular TV show from years ago.
It’s the story of a family man, a man of science, a genius who falls in with the wrong crowd. He slowly descends into madness and desperation, led by his own egotism. Eventually, he becomes a monster.
I’m talking, of course, about Friends and its tragic hero, Ross Geller.
You may see Friends as a comedy, but I cannot laugh. My theory is that Friends may have triggered the downfall of western civilization, with its embrace of anti-intellectualism, in which a gifted and intelligent man is persecuted by his idiot compatriots.
Let’s back up to be sure we’re on the same page. If you remember the 1990s and early 2000s, and you lived near a television set, then you probably remember Friends.
This was the Thursday night primetime, “must-see-TV” event featuring the most likable ensemble ever assembled by a casting agent: young, middle class, white, straight, attractive (but approachable), morally and politically bland, and equipped with easily digestible personas.
Joey was the goofball.
Chandler was the sarcastic one.
Monica was obsessive-compulsive.
Phoebe was the hippie.
Rachel … um, Rachel liked to shop.
Then there was Ross. Ross was the intellectual and the romantic.
Eventually, the Friends audience numbered 52.5 million people, and all of them turned on Ross. But the show’s characters were pitted against him from the beginning.
Whenever Ross said anything interesting—talking about his studies, his ideas, his profession—one of his “friends” was sure to groan about how boring Ross was, and that nobody cared. (Cue the laughter of the live studio audience.)
This gag went on for 10 seasons. Meanwhile, like a Greek tragedy, our hero was caught in an unavoidable prophecy.
The show’s producers declared that Ross must end up with Rachel, the one who shops. Honestly, I think he could’ve done better.
Why such sympathy for Ross?
Friends ended in 2004. This was the same year that Facebook launched, that George W. Bush was re-elected, and that reality television became a dominant force in pop culture.
It was the year that Paris Hilton started a “lifestyle brand” and Joey Tribbiani got a spin-off TV show. The rejection of Ross marked the moment America groaned, mid-sentence, at the very idea of a voice of reason.
I was a teacher in 2004. I coached our school’s chess club. My students were smart. They were huge nerds, and they were in hostile, unfriendly territory. They were picked on and bullied. Other students wait outside my room to ambush the chess club members who met in my room every day at lunch.
I gained the reputation of “slayer of bullies” and “defender of nerds,” but I couldn’t be everywhere.
Perhaps intellectuals have always been persecuted and shoved in lockers, but something in my gut tells me we’re at a low point—a time when social media interaction has replaced genuine debate and political discourse, when politicians are judged by whether we’d want to have a beer with them, when scientific consensus is rejected, when scientific research is underfunded, and when journalism is drowning in celebrity gossip.
Fortunately, there’s a resistance forming. People with grit, who aren’t afraid to begin a sentence with “Did you know…?”
These are the Rosses of the world. I saw them in my chess club. And I see them in my city, hiding at the art museum, crouching at used book stores, exchanging sideways glances at the public libraries and coffee houses, and sneaking around at our schools, community colleges, and universities.
So, how do we retain our sanity in a dumb, dumb world? I wouldn’t be a good teacher if I didn’t come prepared with a few ideas.
No. 1: Read a book.
The New School for Social Research in New York suggests that reading literature improves empathy. So, read often. Read difficult books. Read controversial books. Read a book that makes you cry. Read something fun. But read.
No. 2: Learn something.
Professors from colleges like Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and Stanford are offering their lectures online for free. Think of what you could learn. One of my greatest challenges as a teacher was convincing students they were smart after someone had told them they were dumb.
No. 3: Stop buying so much.
I’m convinced consumer culture and idiot culture are closely linked. So, I suggest simplifying life. When we thoughtfully consider what we bring into our home, we are less likely to be manipulated by empty impulses.
Finally: Protect the nerds.
Nerds create vaccines. Nerds engineer bridges and roadways. Nerds become teachers and librarians. We need those obnoxiously smart people, because they make the world a better place. We can’t have them cowering before a society that rolls their eyes at every word they say.
The Rosses of the world need better friends.
7 other things worth knowing today
Russia unleashed its most widespread strikes in months against multiple Ukrainian cities, smashing civilian targets, knocking out power and water, shattering buildings and killing at least 14 people and wounding hundreds. It’s apparently retaliation for an attack on a critical bridge it claimed was carried out by Ukraine. (AP)
In a real-life saga with plot twists straight out of Hollywood, federal authorities believe a man locked away in a Georgia maximum security prison used contraband cell phones and assumed the identity of a 94-year-old California billionaire, stealing $11 million from Kimmel’s Charles Schwab account. (AJC)
California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that forces supermarkets to phase out the single-use plastic produce bags, called pre-checkout bags, that are often seen near the fruits and vegetables section by Jan. 1, 2025. Stores will have to use recycled paper bags or compostable bags instead. (SF Gate)
Residents of a small community in Vermont were blindsided last month by news that one official in their water department quietly lowered fluoride levels nearly four years ago, giving rise to worries about their children’s dental health and transparent government—and highlighting the enduring misinformation around water fluoridation. (AP)
A man shot and killed a 21-year-old Dallas woman because he was angry that she’d won a basketball game against him, her family says. First responders found Asia Womack on a sidewalk in South Dallas with multiple gunshot wounds on Monday evening, said the Dallas Police Department. She died that evening in a local hospital. (Buzzfeed News)
Actor William Shatner, known first to the world as Captain Kirk from Star Trek, on what it was like for him to travel to space with Blue Origin: "I had thought that going into space would be the ultimate catharsis of that connection I had been looking for between all living things—that being up there would be the next beautiful step to understanding the harmony of the universe. ... I had a different experience, because I discovered that the beauty isn’t out there, it’s down here, with all of us. Leaving that behind made my connection to our tiny planet even more profound. It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered." (Variety)
You’re never too old for a Happy Meal, or at least that’s what McDonald’s is banking on. The fast food juggernaut last week announced plans to introduce adult-oriented meals—complete with a free toy—in an initiative designed to work off of the nostalgia of the restaurant’s famous red cardboard boxes. (CNBC)
Thanks for reading, and thanks again to David Hopkins. See you in the comments!