Sometimes a Tree is Just a Tree, But Not Always

Over the holidays, my older son (read his blog here) introduced my wife and I to Sherlock, the British tv crime drama. Benedict Cumberlatch (is there a more British name on the planet?) offers viewers a contemporary adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Each episode is 90 minutes long and, quite frankly, they offer some of the best entertainment on tv (or on Netflix as the case may be). It’s always nice to know that your kids have decent taste in tv and movies.

What’s unique about the series, especially to someone used to American television broken into 22 or 40 minute episodes, is that each episode is a mini-movie. At 90 minutes, without commercials, each show offers us a relatively complete look at both Sherlock and the supporting characters. There is, simply put, heft to this show that trusts its audiences’ intelligence while willingly challenging their intellect.

My wife and I are only about four episodes into the series (each season has only 3 episodes so cut us some slack), but I found myself discussing “Sherlock” this morning in class during a conversation about Sarah Orne Jewett’s excellent short story “The White Heron.”

If you don’t know Jewett’s story, you can read the story here. (Go ahead. I’ll stop writing while you read.) Jewett’s story is a great one to teach. On the one hand, she crafts this artistic piece that flows quite nicely, but like most great art, Jewett’s story transcends art to speak to something elemental about human nature. At the time she wrote, Jewett was considered a regionalist much like Twain, Stowe, and others. Of course, as the “anthology” of American literature began to solidify in the post-WW II era and scholars began to define great American writers, Jewett got trapped by her regionalist label while Twain somehow managed to transcend his. That’s a shame, too, but we’ll save the politics of defining a country’s literature for another day.

“A White Heron,” though, is a story that moves well beyond the concerns of the New England woods. Little Sylvia moves to the woods to help her grandmother manage her house and cow. In this story, a John Audubon-type character shows up carrying a gun and a bag full of birds he will stuff and study at a later date. His singular goal on this trip is to find the white heron, a bird Sylvia has seen. One morning, she gets up early, climbs a ridiculously tall pine tree and locates the nest. FYI–if you are afraid of heights, Jewett’s narrative of Sylvia climbing the tree will cause your palms to sweat and your stomach to flutter.

Climbing the tree causes issues for Sylvia, as well. As we all know, sometimes a gun is just a gun and sometimes a tree is just a tree.

Not in this story. You don’t have to be a Freudian devotee to read Jewett’s description and realize that Sylvia’s decision to find the heron and tell the young man carrying his gun around for the whole world to see is about a lot more than just getting sap on her clothes and scratches on her hand.

In fact, Jewett offers us a pretty clear sense that Sylvia is right at that age where she must choose to follow the young man or remain a sylvan creature of the woods. Certainly, there’s nothing real complex about reading the story. Sylvia (sylvan) is at home in the woods. The woods allow her to remain innocent and childlike. The guy shows up with a gun, she climbs a tree, and she’s got sap all over her after her climb.

But, and here is where I think Jewett is so good, Sylvia has a choice. She can see that following the young man, giving in to that slight flutter in her stomach (and other areas), will take her from that sylvan world and force her into the violent, industrial experience of adulthood. In doing so, we also know that Sylvia will lose not just that innocent purity. We know she will also lose that innate, natural intelligence that comes from not being an adult.

Or at least an adult like the ornithologist. He has to kill the birds to study them. He literally murders innocent creatures in the pursuit of knowledge.

In Jewett’s story, we discussed in class today, sexual awakenings and sexuality is one step away from “knowing” and experiencing, but those responsibilities and that information doesn’t necessarily make us smarter. Just more experienced. After all, the young man (even with his fully loaded gun–wink, wink, insert your own joke here) has no idea where the heron might rest but Sylvia does.

Which led me to a brief discussion of Sherlock today. The last episode my wife and I watched, “A Scandal in Belgravia,” is incredibly sexually charged. Irene Adler, a dominatrix, has taken some comprising photos of a client and Holmes is tasked with finding the photos. Throughout the episode, there is the implication that Holmes is at best a virgin and at worst an asexual character who doesn’t have time for human relationships.

We have, in some ways, Jewett’s concept in reverse. Throughout the episode, the more Holmes engages with the hyper-sexualized Adler, the more addled he becomes.

In essence, sex and sexual tension works to decrease his intellectual ability. Much like Sylvia, Holmes must decide, at one point in the show, to reject Adler’s advances so that he can hold on to his intellect.

Which, one of my students pointed out, makes sense. Adam and Eve, we noted, get punished when they eat fruit from the tree of knowledge and the first thing they notice is their nudity. They will labor in the fields and in child birth. The human curse, I tell my students, isn’t just getting kicked out of the Garden of Eden so that they have to sit in my class at 8:00 am twice a week. The human curse is forcing us to become slaves to our physical desires. We are eternally cursed to experience both the pleasure and pain of the body’s desire and those desires distract us from our innocence and the intellectual purity implied. Meditation, prayer, breathing deeply–these are all designed to help us reject, ignore, and reduce those passions.

I am, of course, oversimplifying a little but we certainly, I told my class, want to pay some attention to the relationship between sex, experience, and intellectual insight as we read through the stories in our class. Physical desire is, simply put, distracting and intellectual debilitating.

 

Which is why, I told them as we finished class, you should never sit next to someone attractive when you are taking a test.

My Anti-Social Tendencies

Late in David Eggers’ fine new novel The Circle a character drives off a cliff to avoid the aggressive attack of total strangers demanding that he “be our friend.” Eggers’ portrays a kind of dystopian world where fictional social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, etc. have infiltrated every nook and cranny of daily life, and he raises serious and legitimate questions about what Ellen Ullman in her New York Times Sunday Review calls the “tyranny of transparency.” In the novel, Mae Holland works for the Circle, a company determined to convince an all too willing public that “Secrets are Lies” and “Privacy is theft.” The Circle manages to reduce humanity and human interactions to various algorithms and patterns, tracing, predicting, and anticipating the hopes and desires of just about everyone. The goal, of course, is to make the world a better place. Totalitarianism always seems to begin with such noble goals.

As with so many of these kinds of novels, the scariest part isn’t how easily the technology might be mastered to pull off such a feat.

The frightening part is how willingly humanity participates in its own annihilation.

Eggers’ novel, to be fair, doesn’t actually end with the death of humanity, but he certainly seems to imply that things like secrecy and privacy are, in fact, vital to being human. In The Circle, tuning out is not only rude but indicative of some vaguely defined evil. Politicians begin wearing cameras and every interaction is recorded. Those who refuse simply don’t get elected. Voting, by the end of the novel, is mandatory through a Circle account; hence, citizenship requires an account. That account requires other accounts and the inputting of various pieces of personal data. Privacy implies, the Circle says, guilt. We are our online identity and our online avatar is us. The Circle closes as the lines of demarcation between who we physically are who we are online collapse.

Characters share (and share and share and share) every last detail of their lives. In many ways, Eggers imagines a world where our self-esteem outpaces our discretion and we imagine that because mom told us we were special (and little league gave us a ribbon for showing up at the fields twice a week) our opinions matter, regardless of our qualifications. In essence, not telling people what you like or don’t like is equivalent to robbing your friends and neighbors of valuable data, even if you are ill-informed, idiotic, or imbecilic.

It used to be rude to speak out of turn. In Eggers’ novel, it’s always your turn. And my turn. And his turn. And her turn.

There is, I realize, a certain amount of irony involved in blogging about the possible dangers of social media. Once I post this blog, I will add a link on my twitter account that automatically posts to my Facebook account, creating a digital trail leading folks back to the blog. Each of those sites will troll for data, searching for key words, collecting frequencies, and making assumptions about what ads to send to my email and what images to stick on the left hand corner of my next google search. Each morning the little elves in my computer will do everything possible to trick my mouse into clicking on the pretty pictures, thereby adding to the digital database that is John Wegner.

And if you are reading this sentence, WordPress has already gotten everything they need from you. Feel free to click on any ads you see if you want, but the cookie crumbs are already working their way into the belly of the beast.

“Based on your search history, we just know you will also enjoy  . . . Click here.” Please and Thank you.

Anyone who reads my blog, though, might notice how infrequently I’ve posted lately. Even before I read Eggers’ novel, I knew my writing would slack off heading into the holidays. I had a major project for work to complete, and, since I spend too much of my workday staring at little pixels, my goal was to take about a month off. Let the fingers rest, I told myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I’ve enjoyed blogging, and, quite honestly, writing twice a week for a year has helped me write much more gooder :). I’ve written around 150,ooo words in a little over a year. That’s a novel full of essays.

Not a very good novel, mind you, but you get the idea. Writing well, I tell my students, takes three things: Practice, More Practice, and Practicing again. Blogging certainly provides such a thing.

But I also realize the truth of Eggers’ novel. Every key stroke makes my life far more public than I might have ever imagined. Each search, tweet, post, “like,” or click creates an identity and gives external forces opportunities to shape my internal desires. I’m a red-blooded American, heterosexual male: of course I want to see Scarlet Johanson’s wardrobe malfunction and Beyonce in that sheer, see-through dress. 

Am I better person if I avoid the temptation? Or am I a bad person when I don’t click because I’m not being true to myself? If it’s NSFW is it Safe For Home (unless my wife finds out)?

Our public identity has always been a construct in which we “prepare a face to meet the faces that [we] meet,” as J. Alfred Prufrock tells us, but never before, it seems to me, have we so willingly invited the public into our own private space. Our face is in a constant state of preparation or, perhaps more aptly put, constantly being constructed and reconstructed for us with each and every click. When are we every ourselves? Or, Eggers certainly seems to ask, are we every really supposed to be ourselves? 

I could, I guess, turn off, tune out, and power down.

But what would my friends think if I did?

 

A Night on the Town By Ourselves

I really don’t like Dallas. It’s nothing personal, though, because I’m not a big fan of Texas’ other cities, either.

My wife gave me and my two sons Mavericks versus Clippers tickets as a Christmas present so we could have a “guys’ weekend.” When we ordered the tickets, she told me “Maybe you guys could do this every year” and I could almost see the parenthetical (because then I can control the remote for 24 hours). My wife loves to travel and she loves her boys, but there’s enough gas in a middle-aged, slightly out of shape man and two teenage boys to give America energy independence if we just knew how to harness the power. I feel certain she’s at home with the windows open and Sleepless in Seattle on a continuous loop on the t.v.

It’s a win/win for everyone.

We booked a room within walking distance of American Airlines Arena in the historic West End. The Springhill Suites off North Lamar is a quiet, serviceable hotel with nice spacious rooms. I can’t speak for the full buffet breakfast yet but the coffee is decent.

The problem with Dallas isn’t the truly awful traffic, made worse by the least helpful road signs and exit notifications in the country, but the way the city is spread across miles and miles of space. Houston, San Antonio, and Austin, in many ways, suffers the same emphasis on suburban development. All three cities are simply hubs for the residential areas that surround them and none of them have any kind of public transportation system.

The problem is, I think, most clearly symbolized in the placement of major sports venues. While our hotel is a 12 minute walk from American Airlines Arena, we are a 30 minute drive (if traffic is okay) from the Dallas Cowboys $1.2 billion facility and Rangers Ballpark. Last night, Dallas had two winning basketball teams playing and the Cotton Bowl, a game with 80,000 fans packing the stadium to watch a very exciting game between Missouri and Oklahoma State.

Yet, when my two boys and I went out to eat, we walked across the street into Ellen’s Southern Kitchen. It’s Friday night in the historic West End, five blocks from Dealey plaza with two major sporting events in town and we walked in, sat down, and finished our meal 45 minutes later. No wait, no fuss, no rush.

Don’t get me wrong. It was nice, but it was also a little depressing. The excitement of going to a sporting event is the critical mass of people cheering and connecting within the moment. When Blake Griffin, Deandre Jordan, or Dirk Nowitzki make a great play, the entire crowd cheers (or groans, depending on the score). Colleges subsidize sports programs and cities utilize taxes to build stadiums to both help draw people to their campus or city, but also in order to create that intangible, difficult to measure emotional connection to place.

Sports, like churches, marriages, and family reunions, give us a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves and, as disturbing as many people might find the claim, sports engenders a loyalty that supersedes almost every other community. Later today, 85,000 people will pile into Lombardi Field in almost sub-zero temperatures to watch the Green Bay Packers play a football game. I doubt most people would suffer through such conditions to listen to the minister talk about Paul’s Letters to the Romans and if you would do that for a family reunion, your Aunt Suzie’s fruit salad must be pretty damn tasty or you have better looking cousins than the rest of us.

And, let’s be honest, when you cheer for the Packers (or Cowboys/49ers/etc) no one cares about your sexual orientation, who you voted for, or your stance on the Affordable Care Act.

About five years ago, my family and I went to a Yankees game. I hate the Yankees, but riding the subway with thousands of strangers and then walking down the street, heading into the ballpark was, to use the easy cliche, electric. Two years ago, I was in Atlanta riding the wave of fans heading into a Georgia Tech/Clemson football game. Seattle has both its baseball and football stadiums next door to each other, allowing bars, restaurants and street vendors to line the curbs. Even Detroit, the largest bankrupt city in America, had enough sense to build their football, baseball, and basketball arenas within walking distance of each other. These cities help create a kind of carnival atmosphere that helps its fans form an emotional bond and develop an irrational loyalty as a community.

Last night in Dallas, fans drove in, had fun, and drove off. There was no large communal moment in the streets, in the bars, or even in the hotel hallways. There was no sustained emotional connection drawing strangers together because all the venues are so far apart and disconnected from the city itself.

My sons and I have had a great time. The Mavericks lost, but we saw some exciting basketball and some acrobatic dunks. Ellen’s Southern Kitchen is worth a dinner date. My younger son had the Big Ole’ Breakfast (eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits and gravy and “the best hash browns ever” he told us). The older boy, suffering from a head cold, had the blackened catfish that looked delicious and with enough spice for him to actually taste and just enough so it didn’t taste like fish. My prime meatloaf was loaded with crispy onions, red, and green peppers. Too often, meatloaf can be too moist and the vegetables get hidden by tomato sauce, but at Ellen’s they pour just a little pan gravy on the top. Dipped in the mashed potatoes, each bite allowed four different, complementary flavors to mingle and linger on the tongue. Even better were the green beans sauteed in bacon and tomatoes. I think even the most hardcore carnivore would eat those vegetables.

I can imagine turning a Mavericks game into a family tradition for the Wegner men. American Airlines Arena is a nice venue and there is a balletic quality to 7 foot men running the court and leaping through the air in what should be physically impossible things to do. But, I kind of hope next year we have to wait longer before we eat and there’s a little more chaos in the streets after the game.

Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)