Book Break: The Relative Un-Importance of Being Earnest

Jodi and I used to watch a lot of Seinfeld. In relatively small doses, the show struck us as amusing to flat-out hilarious, although occasionally there was an episode that made us cringe or second-guess our choice of entertainment.

When the series finale rolled around, we were there with much of the rest of the country to see how it all would end. The last joke, it turned out, was on us: using courtroom testimony as the vehicle, the final episode chronicled, back-to-back-to-back, what rotten, superficial human beings Jerry and the gang were during the run of the series, then ended with a joke about how they’d already had the final conversation before. Jodi and I looked at each other with the grim realization that we had wasted a tremendous amount of time over the previous several years, to no redeeming end.

Like Seinfeld, Oscar  Wilde’s play The Importance of Being Earnest seems to me to be adamantly about nothing. Of course, like the TV show, the play has to be about something, but it sets the bar so low that it is essentially a three-act setup to a single joke, the punchline of which is a pun. Like a good sitcom episode, it is funny and short. (I read it in an evening.) I would like to say it’s witty, but I’m not sure it’s clever enough for that. It seems to me to be an exercise in style, primarily, with little substance beneath it.

Several years ago now, I read Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. That is a great story, and proof enough  in my book that Wilde was a great writer. At the time, I wrote, “It’s a great story full of people you can’t stand, living in a world of false beauty. … Part of the genius of this book is the sinking feeling that there really are people like these, and we may even know some of them.” That line holds true for Earnest, except the word “great” and the phrase “of the genius.” While I don’t regret reading it (especially given its brevity), I sincerely wish there would have been more to it.

Book Break: Atlas Yawned

Several months back, when I took a break from blogging, I spent many long weeks listening to an audiobook reading of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. From the opening chapter, I wanted to like it — it unfolds like a story that needs telling — but my guard was up: from what little I knew of the book and of Rand, I was certain to find parts of the book’s worldview objectionable.

In hindsight, I still believe there is a great story to be told in Atlas, buried among the monotonous monologues, ham-fisted philosophizing, immense egos, and sexual dysfunction and self-loathing. It is prescient in some ways, and in general, I agree with the dangers of rewarding inability and incompetence, and saw much I recognized in the progressive agenda and the corporate culture of political power, spin, and blame. On the other hand, the insistence upon ability as the sole criterion of the worth of a person, the overly simplistic and roundly negative presentation of religion, and the conflation of lust with love are fundamentally problematic for orthodox Catholics (and should be, I would argue, for Christians in general).
But as a reader and aspiring writer, the problems run deeper (or rather, shallower) than these. The books goes on and on, long after the point is made and the mystery solved. Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden are among the brightest minds of their era, and neither can put these pieces together? The mysterious John Galt; Francisco’s odd, destructive behavior; the disappearance of the captains of industry — and no one gets it except the reader. There is an odd parallel here to The Blair Witch Project, which opened with the knowledge that the protagonists were never seen again, so that the viewer was left with little in which to be interested, except to see how they bought it. In this case, however, we know they haven’t bought it — and we’re waiting to see how long it takes for the heroes to figure it out.

Answer: A long dang time.

Really, the only thing I was a bit uncertain about right up to the reveal was who the nameless rail-worker in the Taggart terminal was, and who he was spying for. Strangely, his primary source, the ever-loyal and reasonably intelligent Eddie Willers, shared no such wonder.
The book could be half as long and thrice as engaging, if only the characters talked less and connected the dots more. I would recommend it only to help people understand the frequent political and cultural references we still hear today. I’m interested in seeing the film version, as even spread across three movies, I have trouble believing the filmmakers could have been so long-winded onscreen. This may be the rare instance in which the movie surpasses the book.

Living with Unbelief

“The new rebel is a Skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. … In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.” – G.K. Chesterton

I have a friend from high school – an intelligent and articulate husband and father who reads widely, is well informed on a wide range of issues, and is fearlessly outspoken. I admire these things about him. He is also the closest to a conspiracy theorist of anyone I know. He appears to be skeptical of the government, the media, and the motives of nearly everyone he encounters who is unknown to him or disagrees with his perspective. I can live with that – but I can’t live like that.

In the Ben Stein documentary Expelled—a interesting film with numerous serious flaws, in my opinion—one of the atheist academics says that he rejects the idea of a higher purpose or meaning to the universe, and indeed, rejects free will. He has suffered a brain tumor, and says if it comes back, he will shoot himself in the head.

My first thought was, “Will he?”

How does he know? What if the chemicals and synapses line up differently? What if his neurons compel him to look into the sight organs of those of his species with whom he has chemically bonded, and some subconscious part of his brain gives rise to the unbidden hallucination that these “others” matter to him? Will he override those impulses, knowing that they are false and irrational?

I suppose he won’t. He has no free will, so he can’t override anything. I’m not sure how he professes to believe anything. His choices (er, potential life paths) are two, as far as I can see: either choose nothing, ever, to see whither his impulses lead (they will perhaps compel him to eat, drink, breed, and die, like an animal) or to insist upon his beliefs, but act otherwise – to live as though he had decisions to make, even as he says he doesn’t. He will regard this as perfectly rational. And if he kills himself, those who love him shouldn’t mourn or blame him. It’s nobody’s fault.

I see a similar (not identical) problem with the diehard skeptics and conspiracy theorists. It is reasonable, especially these days, to look around and think the deck is stacked against us. It is prudent, then, to proceed with caution and with our eyes open, doing our best to build a good life, and protect what we have and those we care about. But how much is too much? When you see the government, and those who are wealthy or powerful, and the political structure, and the healthcare system, all as false or corrupt; when you are ready to quit participating in government “of the people,” however flawed it may be; when you are skeptical of transcendental Truth and dismissive of religion – what’s the next step? Secession? Revolution? Or marriage? Can you justify bringing children into such circumstances? I admire my friend’s tenacity in uncovering possible lies and conspiracies, but how, then, does he live his knowledge? On which false information does he act? And what will he teach to his children?

In my college days, I called myself agnostic, thinking this was the most intelligent way to regard God. After all, how could anyone know the unknowable? Only later did I realize that I was hedging – that I didn’t have the courage to believe in God or not. I found, over time, that I could not disbelieve and believe at the same time. I could claim to be an agnostic, but I had to live as a believer or a non-believer.

Devout skepticism, like hard determinism, diminishes the possibility of a credible life without contradiction. The diehard skeptic knows only that he’s skeptical – everything else is uncertain. But I suspect that my friend, like me, has made his choice. He’s a good man, a devoted husband and father, and he genuinely cares about others. He must see something of value in this world, in this country, in his marriage and family, which makes him persist in the face of his doubts. Is it God? Love? Freedom? I don’t know. But he doesn’t behave like an unbeliever. I believe he wants to make the world a better place – and to that extent, his heart is a believer’s heart. It’s a step – forward, in my opinion.

The Second Third, Week 25: No News Is Good News

Blogger’s Note (unnecessary): This Second Third post was supposed to come before last week’s post. Last week’s post wasn’t posted until yesterday. And both are a slow build of sorts, toward a completely different post that needs more time and stewing. In my head, it’s going to be great.

I mentioned in “Less TV Is Good TV” that I used to love to watch This Week with Sam and Cokie. I used to devour news: I worked as a journalist, then as a media relations manager; I watched Peter Jennings (and sometimes Tom Brokaw); I listened to Morning Edition and All Things Considered and supported NPR with my ears and my dollars. I daydreamed about launching a Slashdot-style web site trafficking in political news and rumors instead of tech stuff. I even had a name and a URL at one time: Rabblerooster. Get it? Like a “rabble-rouser” combined with a rooster…wake up and smell the coffee!

I used to get emotionally wrapped up in the news. Still do, in fact. I get angry, or choked up, or joyfully buoyant based on things happening half a world away, to complete strangers. And that’s beautiful…to a point. But over time I’ve come to realize that A) we’ve got plenty of news and compelling stories unfolding right next to us, and B) nobody’s got the straight scoop, so nobody’s giving it. I’d get riled about stories that were only half true, and wonder what I could really know for sure about what’s going on in the world…then realize that the only thing I can really understand and influence is what’s going on with me, right here, and to a lesser extent, with my family, neighborhood, and community. As a result, I installed tighter filters and began to tune out.

The timing was perfect, actually. TV news is entertainment now, and there are so many faster, easier sources of information. I try to track a variety of online news sources enough to keep tabs on what’s happening out there, and when something catches my eye or interest, I try to read accounts from the Right and the Left, then make sense of it myself. And I ignore a lot more “news” that I once would’ve obsessed over. And my heart is at peace.

I rarely watch TV news at all anymore. (I did flip it on the other night; I was in bed, setting my cell-phone alarm, when a friend posted something on Facebook about Bin Laden’s death. My laptop was already packed up for the morning commute, so I flipped on the tube.) I still listen to the news on the radio — I’ve always been an auditory learner (hence my regular attendance of college classes and lack of reading) and love good radio — but today I balance my NPR with Relevant Radio and Garage Logic, and keep my filters clean. And sometimes I willfully secede from the news stream. On a beautiful spring day like this one, for example, no news is good news.

The Second Third, Week 24: Less TV Is Good TV


Remember when your parents told you TV would rot your brain? I think perhaps the most compelling evidence of the truth of this statement is what passes for TV today. Those who are passionate enough about television to choose to make it their career were likely exposed to it as children, and the fact that their brains were affected negatively is evidenced by what they produce.

For example: until I rented a Looney Tunes DVD, my kids didn’t know TV cartoons were meant to be laugh-out-loud funny. Everything they had seen up to that point either A) taught them Important Life Lessons and Thinking Skills, B) counteracted A with brainless humor and bodily functions, or C) was primarily meant to sell collectible cards and toys. Bugs Bunny, Yosemite Sam, Daffy Duck, and the Roadrunner were comic revelations (not to mention the music)! They laughed until they fell from the futon, laughed until tears fell from their eyes, laughed until they hurt and begged between great gasping breaths for more.*

Then we sent the DVD back, and they returned to Blue’s Clues, Dragon Tales, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Sponge-Bob.

Earlier in our marriage, Jodi and I watched a handful of shows regularly. Most were sitcoms: Seinfeld and Friends, the short-lived Sports Night, Mad About You, Everybody Loves Raymond. We were hooked on Alias for a few years, and I used to love This Week (with Sam Donaldson, Cokie Roberts, and George Will) each Sunday morning, just to get the juices flowing.

I remember the Seinfeld finale: how the joke was on us; how it drove home that we had spent countless hours over the past countless years watching four awful people behaving like selfish children and hurting those around them. The friends on Friends were also whiny and self-centered, and Raymond made a career out of the miseries of married life. Don’t get me wrong: I laughed at these shows — but sometimes afterward I wondered why.

Today my bride and I watch two sitcoms: The Office and Community. We used to watch 30 Rock, but found the humor less and less to our liking. Community is now in the same tailspin for me. It’s still funny at times, but some of the jokes are beginning to clog my filters. Like 30 Rock this year, next year I suspect I won’t miss missing it. The Office edges into that territory from time to time, then redeems itself…we may stick with that one.

So this spring we found another show. They hooked our whole family with a free burrito at Chipotle. (Good bait.) We watched America’s Next Great Restaurant on NBC, a reality show in which people with ideas for a restaurant competed for the chance to partner with four chef/restauranteur/investors to open a new chain of restaurants in NYC, LA, and (yes!) Minneapolis. Aside from about 43-too-many jokes about the Joey’s original name for his meatball shop (Saucy Balls, which ultimately became Brooklyn Meatball Company after the 43-too-many jokes), the show was clean, the food was good, the winner had a great story: his father rescued him from a bad spot with his mother when he was little, and the soul food recipes that helped him win were his Dad’s. The winner was the favorite of all of us except Trevor (he was Trevor’s second pick); a great cheer went up in the Thorp house when he won; and Emma has asked that her belated birthday dinner be at the new Soul Daddy in Mall of America.

And now it’s over. We enjoy a few other shows that we watch online or on demand — History Channel’s American Pickers and Top Shot and Travel Channel’s Man v. Food, in particular. They are fun, interesting, educational…but they insist (in the case of Pickers and MvF) to edge toward adult humor at least once an episode, or (in the case of Top Shot), machismo and obscenities (bleeped and unbleeped). I used to watch Nature on PBS as a kid, which was narrated with a sense of wonder and mystery; the recent LIFE series on Discovery Channel (with Oprah narrating) seemed to relish describing the mating habits of the creatures they filmed as though both the subjects and audience were lusty teenagers.

I want a TV show in which I never have to say, “Okay, gang — what that guy just said? Never say that.” Or, “Yeah, you don’t need to worry about what she meant just yet.” Or, “Sorry, Trevvy, if he was your favorite character; nice people don’t act like that.”

Yeah, I know. I’m getting older, and older-fashioned. The good news is, in my Second Third, we watch way less TV than we used to. And I don’t miss it.

Now get off my lawn.