The Gilded Age

We’ve started watching The Gilded Age, a new HBO drama about New York City in the 1880s. The show is a prototypical period drama about an era when fortunes were being made and spent, the gap between the lifestyles of the poor and the wealthy became an immense gulf, the wealthy wore elaborate outfits (and changed multiple times a day) and adopted elaborate manners, and some people, at least, cared deeply and passionately about high society pecking orders and codes of conduct.

The series focuses on the households of the Van Rhijns and the Russells, who just happen to live across the street from each other in one of New York’s toniest neighborhoods. The Van Rhijns are old money and old New York, with all of the uber-snobbishness that attends that status, whereas the Russells are new money–lots and lots of new money, in fact–and have built an enormous mansion and happily engage in ostentatious displays of super-wealth, just to get some attention. In short, the Russells desperately want to be accepted into New York society, and at least some of the Van Rhijns are equally desperate to prevent that from ever happening.

As with any period drama, a lot of what’s interesting about the show relates to the setting and the recreation of the attire and practices of the era. The creators of The Gilded Age have done a meticulous job in that regard; the “production value” of the series is obvious, and the show is worth watching just for the ladies’ elaborate hats. But the incessant social scheming is entertaining, too, as is the upstairs-downstairs interaction between and among servants and served. Throw in overt insider trading in the unregulated post-Civil War era and business activities designed specifically to crush rivals and leave them ruined and destitute, and you’ve got a winner in my book.

Carrie Coon (an Ohio native who we first saw in The Leftovers) deftly plays Bertha Russell, who will do whatever it takes to claw her way into the highest levels of society, and Christine Baranski is delightfully snooty and formidable as Agnes Van Rhijn, the matriarch of the Van Rhijn contingent. The kids in each household act as a kind of buffer between that irresistible force and immovable object. My favorite characters so far are George Russell, played by Morgan Spector, the railroad baron who is good-humored home but implacably ruthless as the head of the Russell Trust Company, and Denee Benton as Peggy Scott, shown in the photo above, a smart and sensible young woman who has the talent and ambition to be a successful writer but will have to overcome the racism and sexism of her time to do it.

It’s hard to imagine there was a time when people cared so much about social conventions and family lineage, but one of the joys of period pieces is catching a glimpse of those long-ago worlds during their heyday. The Gilded Age does an excellent, and entertaining, job of recreating the era that gave the show its name.

Indexers And Thumbers

Have you ever noticed that people send texts in two different ways?  (And I’m not talking about overuse of emoticons, either.)  Some people use their index fingers to tap out their messages, whereas other people use their thumbs.  And people never seems to vary how they do the texting, either.  You’re either a thumber, or an indexer.

stop-texting-with-people-when-youre-not-interestedWhen you think about it, it’s a bit odd that there is no universally accepted method for efficiently and correctly performing what is now a widely used form of modern communication.  It’s like watching someone sit down at a keyboard and then use a totally unknown approach to quickly and accurately typing out a document — say, by positioning their hands at each side of the keyboard or coming in from the top, rather than the bottom.  Or handing someone a cell phone and watching them use the buttons to send a message in Morse code rather than speaking.

Both the thumb approach and the index approach seem to be equally functional — although, being a thumber myself, I firmly believe that the thumb method allows faster messaging.  I wonder if the two methods exist side-by-side because texting is still a relatively new form of communication and we’re in the VHS versus Beta phase, where standardization hasn’t set in.  The fact that there isn’t vocational training on texting — at least, to my knowledge, not yet — probably also contributes to texters having more freedom to develop their own favored method.

One thing is clear, however — thumbing versus indexing definitely has a different look.  The index approach to tapping out a message is far more genteel and elegant, with the three unused fingers of the hand dangling to the side of the phone, giving the same kind of look projected by blue-haired sophisticates who sip their tea from delicate china cups with the pinky extended.  The thumb approach, in contrast, treats the cell phone like a sturdy hand tool that you grip tightly and use to mash out a message without a second thought.

One approach is high society, the other is blue collar.  Me, I’m a blue-collar guy.