Monday, May 5, 2008

The Temples of Modernity (JM)

Well ladies and gentleman of the blogateria, have you missed me nearly as much as I have missed you? Paris was fantastic with a couple of debaclesque footnotes. I also have contracted some form of 18th century lung disease that is usually found in coal miners, but we have a job to do so I am going to walk it off and deal with this nonsense. The Grey Lady has seen fit to do reviews of all of the finest chain restaurants in existence (with one notably large snub ignoring the finest of these establishments, Pizzeria Uno). A lot of the blagoverse (or rather two of my favorites from the Atlantic) got up in arms about the condescension of this piece, but I am not fussed, most of the reviews are pretty good. I just think most people understand these sorts of places the wrong way.

You see, I love chain restaurants. Not always or often, but certainly on occassion. If someone came to me and said, you can go to either Per Se or the OG (The Olive Garden for those not in the know) I would almost certainly choose Per Se if someone else were paying. That said, there is very clear case to be made for the OG in the long run. Is the food great at the OG or Friday's or Chili's, not especially, but it's definitely not terrible. But they provide something different and more important. A sense of place and community and commonality. In many ways, chain restaurants (along with chain bookstores and malls, which I will get to in a moment) are our modern temples. As we live in a secular, corporatized world we lose one of the very important things that institutionalized religion brought to the table, a sense of common living. In other words, religions bring us together with shared rituals, values and stories. "Hey Jesus, I've heard of him too." is the kind quote that let's us all know that despite living a million miles apart, with different lifestyles and maybe even worldviews, we have some semblance of commonality. So too do we get this out of chain restaurants and their ilk, "Hey Blooming Onion, I've eaten that."

Now obviously this is seemingly a banal connection, but I actually don't think it's any worse or any better than religion or other value systems. It's not just chain restaurants, it's summer blockbuster movies, it's shows like Friends and Sex and the City, it's Borders Books, it's the mall and, yes, it's the freakin' Cheesecake Factory. Admit it, for the most part there is something very comforting about being inside on of these places. When I am stressed or feel alone I will often wander in to a Borders (this also because I am obsessed with books) and find some sense of relief. Not because there are people there, but because we are all sharing some sense of a common experience. Heck, I can walk in to any of these places anywhere I am and feel the exact same experience I would half way across the country. Here's why these types of experiences might be more valid unifiers than religion or nationalism: they are value neutral. The Outback Steakhouse doesn't really care what you believe, you can be a Neo-Nazi so long as you enjoy a decent tasting piece of steak. Borders requires nothing more than a love of pretty decent iced tea and browsing a fairly generic history section. None of these are places or deepness, specificity or perfection, but they do bring us as a people together and ask so very little in return.

Now I suspect many of your objections to this might lie in the fact that this is an implicit celebration of crass, commercial capitalism, so it is in fact unity with a particular value structure. Alright, by many of you I really just mean me and maybe four of you, but that's fine. I think that's probably true in its way, but not overtly and perhaps not as insidiously as the other ways in which corporate commercialism rules our lives. So sure, people wearing GAP t-shirts are not exactly modern day Dalai Lamas, but they do fulfill the similar role of knowing that we are not so different from each other that we cannot have the same day to day experiences. So when I sit down to my next set of unlimited breadsticks at the OG, I will be thinking of all the rest of y'all who have, at one time or another, bitten in to the same generically delicious garlicky goodness and feel a little less alone in this world.

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