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?

 

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The Precious Ordinary: A Review of Kent Haruf’s novel Benediction

When I teach Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, my students are often befuddled by the play’s simplicity. Nothing, they tell me, really happens in Grover’s Corners. People are born, get married, and die. 

Well, I say in my most professorial voice, they also have breakfast, eat lunch, go to school, kiss, drink beer, sing in the choir, and sleep late whenever possible. Those are pretty easy to forget, though.

Like the people in Grover’s Corners, I point out, it’s easy to read past the simple seeking the complex. Too many people, Wilder argues, spend their lives looking for the extra-ordinary event, expecting magic and excitement. We forget, as his characters remind us, that the bulk of our existence is dominated by the average and everyday. 

How many hours are in a week? A year? Twenty years? I ask.

How many hours of those hours are exciting and magical?

It’s often a disconcerting answer for 18 year old students when they realize they will spend more of their lives eating breakfast on Monday mornings than experiencing life-changing events. And you should see their faces when I ask them how many hours they spend in the bathroom.

We must, Wilder seems to propose, remember to appreciate the ordinary moments. What makes Wilder’s play such a fine work of art, though, is his ability to craft a work whose form supports and mirrors its function. The stage is stripped bare, the characters simple. The dialogue reflects the core values of the play.

It is a mistake, though, to assume Wilder is imploring us to adopt a kind of carpe diem philosophy. Appreciating and valuing the ordinary is different from seizing the day. Everyday life, Grover’s Corners shows us, isn’t great and wonderful. But we must live all of our days, not just the fun ones.

In many ways, American writer Kent Haruf carries on Wilder’s literary tradition. His novels, all set in the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, reflect the flat lands of eastern Colorado. The characters embody the cold, dry plains of an American mid-west that consistently sees itself outside the mainstream of cultural change. His language is sparse, direct, and driven by narrative necessity. We might encounter philosophical moments in Haruf’s novels, but we rarely find philosophical characters. The narratives of these character’s lives are built in the concrete particulars of their actions. 

His novels aren’t driven by politics or complex, self-reflective characters searching for truth in troubling times. Like Wilder, Haruf focuses on story and character, allowing us to witness the every day, ordinary, simple lives of the men and women who people his novels.

Benediction (2013) begins as Dad Lewis and his longtime wife Mary learn he has cancer. The opening chapter ends with Dad telling his wife he “might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. . . . If I can get it around here.” His follows this dry humor with the simple observation that “he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of the summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.”

It’s a powerful opening that holds throughout the novel as we witness Dad Lewis’ final days. His wife Mary and his daughter Lorraine, on leave from her job in Denver, help ease his passing. There is an emphasis on Dad’s failing bodily functions and his wife’s willingness to help him maintain some semblance of dignity. As the days pass, we learn about Dad’s life via his visitors, flashbacks, other characters in the town. Intermingled with Dad’s story, we read about Berta May and her granddaughter, Reverend Rob Lyle and his family, and Willa and Alene. Everyone, Haruf shows us, has a story and these lives are a part of the tapestry of daily life in Holt.

No one, though, is perfect. Reverend Lyle’s family is slowly falling apart and his sermon about faith and forgiveness in a time of war costs him his congregation and his family. Alice lives with Berta May after her mother dies; Alene has moved in with her mother after teaching elementary school and having a long-time affair with a married man.

And we learn that Dad Lewis and Mary have a homosexual son who has been effectively banished by intolerance and ignorance. Franklin Lewis looms large as an absent presence throughout the narrative. He visits Dad’s hallucinatory memories. Dad admits, at the end and too late, his ignorance and he realizes what he lost.

At the same time, though, Haruf reminds us such deathbed conversions aren’t so simple and we have to be careful judging people too harshly. Dad Lewis’ life was one filled with success, hard work, and he has “come a long way” from his hardscrabble childhood on a Kansas farm. He abandoned his son, but we also know he saved other lives. Life, we realize reading the novel, isn’t a simple ledger where we subtract the negatives from the positives and hope we come out with more checks than minuses. Throughout the novel, in fact, we recognize in the simple daily lives of the characters that the men and women here are simply trying to live day to day.

There is no doubt there is pain in Haruf’s world. Dad Lewis’s son abandons the family after being bullied and rejected, Rob Lyle is attacked one night and his son attempts suicide. Alene and Lorraine live, in many ways, lives of quiet desperation wondering why they can’t find the same loving companionship their parents had.

Like Wilder’s Grover’s Corners, though, Dad Lewis and others are too often missing something. Late in the novel, Rob Lyle is wondering the streets late at night. He “stood in front of houses  . . . watching people. The little drama, the routine moments.” He goes out that night hoping, he tells a local policeman who stops to question him, to “recapture something.” He thought he would see “people being hurtful.” Instead, he finds “the sweet kindness of one person to another. Just time passing on a summer’s night.”

There are no grand epiphanies for Haruf’s characters. His novels end quietly, venturing slowly toward the closing pages. As readers, we enter the novel searching, perhaps, for what’s “behind the curtains,” but we find instead “the precious ordinary.” At the end of the day, and the end of the novel, the “days turned cold and the leaves dropped off the trees.” Dad Lewis was buried. Life goes one.

And that ordinariness, that simplicity, Haruf seems to say, is the greatest blessing and, perhaps, the only benediction we need.

The Hard Work of Being Human

booksWhen I tell people I teach English, there is often a pause, followed by a palpable silence. I can see the gears at work as people try to remember junior high English, SAT vocabulary words, or the name of at least one novel they have read (or heard about). I could try to set their minds at ease by saying something grammatically mangled. “Ain’t” is a good word to just throw out in conversation. “Ain’t nothin'” is better. Mostly, I want to tell them I have no plans to judge their speech and I don’t carry a red pen around. The goal of communication is to articulate ideas and there are a variety of paths we can follow to achieve such a goal.

While I’m no grammar nazi, I do appreciate a well-turned phrase and precision in language. I teach my students that they have to master grammar first, then they can go forth and pervert it all they want. The key is control. Know you are writing that fragment. Understand the impact of the repetitive sentences. Recognize the value of pronouns and antecedents.

It doesn’t even bother me when my 15 year old tells me he hates English. I’ve seen the assignments and I’m fairly certain I would hate the class, too. They once spent 6 weeks reading Frankenstein. Shelley probably wrote it faster than that. They read Julius Caesar but didn’t finish the play. He had to find quotes (that’s good) but he had to match them with photos and pictures independent of the play (that’s not good). He’s drawn pictures, pretended to be a contemporary of the author, filled in worksheets, but they rarely discuss the work or try to understand why we might find Shakespeare worth reading in 2013. Worse yet, there were far too many questions asking my 15 year old son about his feelings (because what 15 year old boy isn’t excited about sharing in class?) and not enough questions asking him to actually look at the text.

Even more problematic to me: any writing they do is independent of discussions about, well, writing. Conversations about choosing words, manipulating sentence structure, and rhetorical strategies don’t seem to ever take place. Note that I have a great deal of sympathy for my son’s English teachers. They have too many students and too many external agencies telling them what to teach and what to test. In many ways, we have placed the burden of the arts at the feet of overworked and underpaid teachers while we simultaneously tie their hands with unwieldy mandates by legislators, teachers unions, and parent-advisory groups that are far too often politically motivated.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not someone who has unrealistic expectations regarding reading and writing. Both are time consuming and require an interest in vocabulary, historical understanding, a willingness to engage the language, and practice. I don’t, quite frankly, buy any arguments that contend we can turn all of our students into lifetime readers and lifetime writers. Communication might be an innate element of humanity, but writing and reading are not.

It is no surprise, then, as we begin another semester that many of my students tell me they don’t like to read or have never had to read. (I am always surprised they feel compelled to tell me they don’t like to read, as if somehow that will excuse their future performance. They often also tell me when they turn an essay in that “It’s probably not very good.” I like to respond, “Thanks for letting me know. The grading will go quicker. If it’s not very good, I’ll just slap a D on it and be done.”)

What does bother me is that we have,  in the name of practicality or employment, stopped fighting for the value of the humanities. Sure, we can make the case that every job a college graduate wants requires communication skills. We might argue that literature and art helps us interact with our fellow humans, thereby increasing our ability to survive office politics. Poetry can benefit the professional, they tell us.

But I’m a little tired of listening to those arguments. The value of the arts, quite simply, is that it challenges our expectations of reality by forcing us to simultaneously be introspective within the context of our daily lives while considering our larger social and historical place in the world. We read Shakespeare, I tell my students, because he has the ability to capture his moment in time while also transcending that moment. Good literature reminds us what it means to be human. It’s no accident that much of our early written literature spends an inordinate amount of time showing us mortality. We are not, the ancient texts remind us, god, nor are we meant to be.

Literature and the arts take us on an epistemological and ontological journey where we struggle with how knowledge is passed and where we exist within that transfer. This journey, one that requires both introspection and attention to detail, forces us to dedicate ourselves daily to being a human being. That is our first and most noble identity. Being a banker, teacher, journalist, or our work identity should always be secondary and subservient to our humanity. Our philosophical ideology must be realized in the concrete reality of our daily actions regardless of whether we earn a paycheck.

Being human should be hard work. When we cede our responsibility in the name of practicality or simplicity, we forfeit the very traits that separate us from the other animals on the planet. Blind allegiance, unchecked lust, ideological laziness–these are the signs of a world that stops valuing the arts. Literature isn’t about escape or visiting other worlds: literature is about digging in and getting dirty in the soul of humanity.

And, yes, this will be on the test.

 

In the Good Old Days

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In January 1993, I was roaming through the Hastings Books and Music store in Huntsville, TX trying to get the most bang for my Christmas gift money. My parents had gone old school and given me cold, hard cash. For $25.00 (a veritable fortune for a graduate student at that time), I could get ten CDs and five or six books if I was willing to put forth the effort. Heck, with the gift card and a trip to the dollar menu at Burger King, I felt like I was living the good life. Of course, this meant shuffling through a veritable smorgasbord of $0.99 CDs (Night Ranger Live in Japan—what a bargain!) and slogging through a remainder bin full of Pat Robertson’s autobiography Shout It from the Housetops (not a bargain at any price) and paperback copies of Jurassic Park.

I can’t remember everything I bought that day, but I do remember finding a hard back copy of McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses and Four Non-Blondes’ Bigger, Better, Faster, More cd. (Don’t be embarrassed if you need Wikipedia to “remember” who they are and what they sang.) It’s an unassuming cover (on the novel—the CD cover is crazy looking): block letters for the title, McCarthy’s name in white with a black background, and a horse’s mane. There’s no National Book Award stamp or photo of Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz on my copy, but the back cover is filled with “Advance Praise” from a who’s who of heavy hitters in American fiction like Peter Matthieson, Jim Harrison, and Shelby Foote. How is it, I wondered with typical graduate student egotism, that I’ve never heard of this guy? And if he’s so good, why is he in the remainder bin already?

Like many readers, All the Pretty Horses was my introduction to McCarthy. The novel opens with an almost clichéd modernist trope as the “candleflame and the image of the candleflame” catch in the glass. This is John Grady’s divided self. Like Robert Frost’s narrator in “After Apple Picking” when he looks through a “pane of glass” he skimmed from the “drinking trough” or James Joyce’s “cracked looking-glass of a servant” in Ulysses, McCarthy opens with a character doubled. But, there is an innocence here when Cole “pressed his thumbprint in the warm wax.” That was the hook for me—Cole witnesses his grandfather’s death and with his passing, an era ends. He listens to the train and later thinks of the Comanche. It’s nostalgic, sad, and mythical in a Hank Williams kind of way. It’s also filled with innocence. This is a boy playing in melted wax at his grandfather’s funeral.

Herein lies, in many ways, McCarthy’s contribution to the western novel. The sun rises and sets, grass grows, and birds fly without regard to the people who create stories, but those things can’t be removed from the stories. Countries differ, not simply because there are different people, but because there is a different climate, hence, a different history. Simply put, people in West Texas are different from people living on the Gulf Coast are different from people in Mexico.

Whether John Grady Cole understands those differences or not might be up for debate. Certainly, when I teach the novel my students are often split with regard to his growth as a character. Does Cole learn a lesson? Does he remain steadfast in his desire for a country full of old waddies running cattle? Is he, we might ask, older and wiser or just older? There is an ambiguity about the ending that resists an easy read. What does seem clear, though, is the overwhelming sense of nostalgia McCarthy’s characters exhibit.

The sometimes apoplectic reaction to the presidential election this last week has put me in a contemplative mood regarding the role of literature and education. We are daily bombarded with information but we seem less and less capable of putting things in perspective. We long for days gone by, or simpler times, or the good old days, forgetting that the good old days where always a memory but never a reality. They were always back in the day.

Part of the power of literature, beyond the artistic beauty and its reminder of our humanity, is its ability to remind us that our concerns are universal. “Gilgamesh,” “Genesis,” Hamlet–at the end of the day, these “ancient” works are about our relationship to the mysteries of life and our human, imperfect response. Literature shows us how incapable humanity is at filling the void, but literature also shows us the value of endurance. Our humanity isn’t defined by our ability to be right or to solve problems: our humanity is in the attempt. That’s the job of great works. Simply put: literature shows us that we are all human but one size doesn’t fit all. Life is impractical, inefficient, and messy.

Students will sometimes ask why a work is “great literature.” My answer is pretty simple: literature, like Eliot’s “The Waste Land” and McCarthy’s novel, are capable of capturing the historical moment in which it is produced and capable of transcending that moment. It’s important, it’s applicable in the parlance of our business oriented culture, because it encourages us to value failure and endurance.

If you travel to San Angelo and stop to eat at Fuentes restaurant downtown, you will see on the wall a photograph of Matt Damon and Henry Thomas. They traveled out this way prior to Billy Bob Thornton’s filming of the novel. Unfortunately, they decided not to film here, choosing Las Vegas, New Mexico and Floresville, TX.

Like the novel, the movie captures a landscape that seems pre-industrial and this pastoral idea feeds the mythos of the west. Cowboys on the open range, sitting by a fire, going to bed tired after an honest day’s work: this is what we want. But McCarthy reminds us this is a place that no longer exists. The wide open spaces are still around, McCarthy seems to say, but our access to them is impacted by more than barbed wire fencing. Metaphorically and symbolically, we are hemmed in by our larger cultural and national relationships with the landscape. But, McCarthy reminds us, we have to keep riding.

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.)

NYT > Politics

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.)

Dilbert Daily Strip

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.)