Monday, March 22, 2010

With A Little Help from Friends

The funny thing about pop culture is the way we amalgamate pieces of it into our lives. When I was a teenager, my best friend and I would ask each other "Do you feel lucky?" years after Dirty Harry was released. To this day, I don't have to be standing knee-deep in galactic garbage to intone, "I have a bad feeling about this, Han Solo."

Furthermore, it's something we never outgrow. Even before the series ended, my wife and I had started incorporating bits and pieces of Friends into our lives. That's not surprising — not only was it was a funny, popular show for ten years, but it was one of the first TV shows to have all ten seasons available on DVD. (Some of us are still waiting for the complete Perry Mason and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.) And of course, its reruns are as ubiquitous as I Love Lucy once was.

That's why I frequently ask cattily, "Did I say that out loud?" like Chandler, and my wife echoes Jack Geller by insisting, "I’m just saying." Occasionally, we'll quote Phoebe by shrieking, "This is madness … MADNESS!"

But the best thing we've extracted from Friends — and the one most germane to the theme of this blog — actually comes from a minor character: Mr. Heckles, the downstairs neighbor. Mr. Heckles was the neighborhood curmudgeon; even his name connoted someone bothersome. Played with hangdog perfection by character actor Larry Hankin (pictured), he had, among other traits, a bizarre attraction to animals. He claimed that the cat that belonged to Rachel's paramour Paolo was actually his, and he dressed Ross' capuchin monkey Marcel in outlandish outfits.

But mostly Mr. Heckles complained about the noise that came not only from Monica and Rachel's apartment, but from all the friends in general. When he died of a heart attack, leaving all his belongings to "the noisy girls upstairs," they discovered that Mr. Heckles kept a meticulous journal, nicely embossed with the words My Big Book of Grievances.

In this journal, he recorded all of his aggravations. "Italian guy [Joey] comes home late; excessive noise." "Italian guy’s gay roommate [Chandler] brings dry cleaning home; excessive noise."

This is the pop-culture concept we have taken into our hearts.

Mr. Heckles' book is the perfect antidote to the aggravations of life. When someone cuts me off in traffic, my wife says gently, "Put it in the Big Book." When a checkout line isn't moving fast enough, or when dinner doesn't look anything like the picture that accompanies the recipe, we simply look at each other and chime, "Big Book!"

It is the perfect release, a realization that most aggravations in life are not only transitory, but insignificant. And the mental image of recording something in an imaginary book has the exact opposite effect of actually writing it down on a piece of paper — instead of remembering it forever, it vanishes almost immediately. Instead of remembering the slight, we simply remember the Big Book.

That’s what Friends is for.

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