The Fault in Our Stars and American death.

PLEASE NOTE THAT HEREUNDER BE (mild) SPOILERS.

I think I’ve been pretty open in my admiration for author/internet person John Green. I love his videos, I love his engagement with community, I love his sense of humor, and I love his writing — which is to say: As a reader, I love his stories, and as a writer, I love how he uses language. I claim with pride the mantle of nerdfighter (if you don’t know what that is, go here and/or here) and do my best everyday not to forget to be awesome (here). (I’m also a huge, huge fan of John’s brother Hank, but I digress).

The work for which the elder Green is best known — far and away — is his 2012 book The Fault in Our Stars, recently made into a movie (June 6 release). TFIOS (as the title gets shortened) is a small masterpiece, managing to be neither maudlin, nor treacley, nor false in telling the story of the romance between two teenagers with cancer. It’s an affirmation of the ways in which all lives matter, no matter how few the years or how small the stage, and a reminder of the power of love and joy to create infinity, even when the end of days is all too evident. It’s a thing of beauty, a wonder-ful piece of art that is deeply, deeply human. It’s also been translated into a gajillion languages — I read some of the Hebrew translation in Israel last year and burst into tears as if I’d never read it before — and has inspired an avalanche of TFIOS-inspired fan art, much of it created by the teenaged, YA audience for whom Green originally intended the book.

As you might imagine, the anticipation for the movie is at something of a fever pitch, and when the first trailer was released this week, whole sections of the Internet collectively lost their shit (in a good way). Green (who has been closely involved with the film project from the beginning) asked fans to record their reactions to the trailer, and so many did. One young girl, 13 year old  Naomi Horn, talked about losing her uncle to pancreatic cancer when she was seven, and then just two years later, having to watch her mother face down breast cancer; both the trailer and Naomi’s video are embedded below.

But now, 400 words later, I come to my point.

Watching Naomi’s video last night, it struck me that I’d never really made a mental connection between The Fault in Our Stars and my own father’s death to cancer, when he was only 35 and I was just a baby. Those facts were, I think, too far in the past — and anyway, back when my dad was dying, people didn’t talk about the fact that they were dying. There was no pre-gaming the event, no preparing the family, no writing journals for the children who would come of age without him — just denial. It was the mid-60s, and (my mother tells me) you just didn’t talk about it.

And so it came to me to wonder what kind of difference it might have made in my life if a book like TFIOS had been around when I was Naomi’s age and still very much struggling to accept that I would never know my father — that I could (as I later put it) cry a river, and it would never bring me to him.

But then, an hour or so later, it came to me to wonder what a difference it might have made for my father if he had had a book like TFIOS when he was young — when the idea that he might die at 35 would no doubt have seemed impossible.

We can only live in the slice of history into which we are born. There was no TFIOS in the 1940s when my dad was a teenager (or in the 70s/80s, when I was one) because American culture had to reach a point where we could allow a TFIOS.

But in the moments in which these thoughts came tumbling into my forebrain, I thought of another thing: The Fault in Our Stars is not just a phenomenal book — it is also a turning point in the way that American culture deals with death. It is the turning point — John Green has created a turning point for us, a turning point full of kindness and gentleness and honesty and humanity and deep, deep mattering.

That turning will only be magnified by the movie, which will in turn be magnified by the many, many ways in which the TFIOS community responds and America responds and the people who have read and watched all across the globe respond — but it all started with John Green. With one book that will matter in ways that people reading it today will not know until they are forced to call upon its lessons in the future.

I’m sorry my father couldn’t have had those lessons as he approached his own too-young death, and that I didn’t either, as I tried to grow up without him. But I’m grateful, and a little overawed, as I think about the mighty gift that John Green has given the world in the form of Hazel Grace and Augustus Waters. What a gift. Thank you.

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Absolutely gorgeous flashmob tribute to Nelson Mandela by the Soweto Gospel Choir.

Just watch.

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For the story behind this, and a translation of the lyrics, click here.

And not for nothing, but if you’d like to hear Mandela himself sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” (“which he loved to use as an ice breaker when speaking to wide-eyed four and five year olds”), click here.

To watch his first television interview, in 1961, in which you can hear him begin to hint toward a need to shift away from nonviolence, click here.

And finally, to listen to NPR’s special program, “Nelson Mandela: An Audio History,” click here.

Big h/t and thanks to my internet friend from way back, @Cthulhucachoo.

For my birthday, would you be so kind….

emily-and-daddy-cropped-13September 21 is my birthday.

It is also the second anniversary of the execution of Troy Davis by the state of Georgia, and also day #921 in the Syrian civil war, which has forced about six and a half million people to run from their homes into an unknowable and deeply frightening future.

Every year on his birthday, actor Nathan Fillion (Buffy, Waitress, Castle, and most importantly: Firefly) asks people to give to his favorite water charity; it’s a lovely thing, and some years, I’ve even done as he asked. And so, inspired by Mr. Fillion, I’ve decided to do a similar thing, if on a much smaller scale (I mean – I know you love me as much as you love Nathan Fillion. There are just a few million fewer of you. Is all).

If you enjoy this blog, or my writing over at The Daily Beast, or the piece I just ran on xoJane (of which, by the way, there will be more in the future), or if you like my Tweets, or, heck, maybe you know me personally and maybe I make you laugh every now and then — and if you have a little spare dosh to pass around — please consider celebrating my birthday in one of the two following ways:

  1. troy davis suitIn Troy’s memory, please purchase I Am Troy Davis, published this week and written by my good friend Jen Marlowe and Troy’s sister, Martina Correia-Davis, who died of breast cancer soon after her brother was killed. It’s the story of Troy, his remarkable family, and the on-going struggle to end the death penalty. (And not for nothing, but Jen is a hell of a writer). Can’t say it better than Susan Sarandon: “I Am Troy Davis is a painful yet very important book” — unless it’s Maya Angelou: “Here is a shout for human rights and for the abolition of the death penalty. This book, I Am Troy Davis, should be read and cherished.” If you make your purchase through the non-profit publisher, Haymarket Books, it’ll cost you $18.
  2. There are more than six million Syrians who have run from their homes in fear. About two million of them have crossed international borders; more than four million remain within their war-torn country, trying desperately to get by. There is so little that we can do to reach out and help the Syrian people — but we can reach out to support the folks working night and day to support them: Please donate to the UN Refugee effort. This is how I’ll be honoring my own birthday, and all who have raised and loved me so far.

    Syrian refugees filling their buckets at Atmeh refugee camp, in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, Syria, Apr. 5, 2013 source

    Syrian refugees filling their buckets at Atmeh refugee camp, in the northern Syrian province of Idlib, Syria, Apr. 5, 2013 source

And hey, if you happen to be Nathan Fillion? Thanks for everything, man. And please celebrate my birthday with me.

This is VidCon, too.

vidconI haven’t been around virtually because I’ve been away physically: The boy wanted to go to VidCon, dedicated his bar mitzvah money to that precise purpose, and this past weekend, that’s where we were.

And if you’re unfamiliar with VidCon (as every single person I know in Meat Space appears to be), reading “we were at VidCon” won’t tell you much, so A) you might want to click the link I embedded above, and B) I’mma tell you a little something about it.

VidCon is an annual gathering of YouTube creators and their fans, founded by The Vlogbrothers, Hank and John Green, in 2009. It started out in a hotel basement; this year, there were about 11,500 attendees. The content created by all those YouTube creators ranges from daily vlogging, to dissemination of the news (from gossip to politics), to Harry Potter parodies, to Disney parodies (watchthiswatchthiswatchthis: “After Ever After”), to music, to scifi, to imaginary rap battles between cultural icons, to chemistry explorations/explosions, to… well, whatever you can think of and then something else you’ve never imagined.

Hank Green – self-described “Internet Guy” — is also a biochemist and environmental scientist, and John Green is also a mega-author whose The Fault in Our Stars is being made into a movie, kind of as we speak. But what they are, really, is wonderfully creative and generous people who have taken bold steps and made great stuff (such as the Crash Course series, in which John teaches literature and history, and Hank teaches science), and occasionally done very silly things, too (and, you know, not always in the good sense of “silly”…), and at every step of the way, every single moment at which their own stars have burned even just a little brighter, they have caught the hands of other people and brought them along.

And this is where we get to my point: In the course of creating what became The Vlogbrothers, John and Hank also created Nerdfighteria, the notional transglobal hometown of Nerds who fight to decrease world suck and increase world awesome — which, while not (perhaps) the most elegant way of putting things, has a way of cutting right through to the heart of the matter.

And baked right into decreasing world suck and increasing world awesome is being generous, and bringing others along, and building up rather than tearing down, and celebrating delight. It’s about being human and humane and allowing the best of everyone to emerge and not telling anyone who they are or how they must be, but letting people tell their own stories and own their own truth. And when Nerdfighteria is at VidCon, it’s not about the inevitable distance between creator and audience, but about climbing over that wall, about collaboration, and inclusion, and engagement. (Ok, here’s an example: Hank and John are forever saying that they got into all this by being impressed and moved by a different vlogger, Ze Frank [I particularly recommend his Sad Cat Diary and Human Tests], and thus all credit for the entire thing belongs to him).

This was a group of 11,000-12,000 people hugging each other, being kind to each other, feting each other’s talent and joy, and laughing a lot. I can’t tell you — I mean, I really can’t, I don’t begin to have enough of the right words for it — what it means as a parent to watch my just-barely-not-14-year-old boy move into the world through that door. The boy and I spent a lot of time entirely apart on Friday and Saturday (I was there, after all, as a facilitation device, not as a boon companion) and at any given moment, when I looked into those vast crowds, I knew he was fine. I knew he was surrounded by people who were kind and generous and laughing.

Kind and generous and laughing and mutually supportive in ways that really matter — here’s another example: At Saturday’s panel on Educational Content on YouTube (on the panel: Emily Graslie of The Brain Scoop, Derek Muller of Veritasium, Destin of Smarter Every Day, and John Green, in this case wearing his Crash Course hat), John fielded a question about his plans for future Crash Course History videos, and in among the response was a sentence that went something like this: “Here’s the problem – as a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered male, I need to acknowledge that…”. I mean, seriously. This guy and his brother (who created this why-haven’t-you-watched-it-yet video on human sexuality) are the people who founded this thing, and this is the way they talk.

Cut to the next day — the boy and I are in line at Disneyland, and he’s staring into the middle distance. Suddenly: “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“I’ve thought of another reason that men need feminism.”

The reason boiled down to the fact that our culture doesn’t allow men to unironically enjoy experiences that aren’t deemed “masculine” — but he had just emerged from two and a half days in which men all around him were doing that, and supporting women in doing whatever they want to do. Which is to say: While the boy is right that men need feminism as much as women do, he’s able to see and articulate that better after watching feminist men and women in action.

Soon after this exchange, while waiting to get on a different ride, I tweeted this:

and of all things, John Green (!) himself replied, thusly:

But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Good parenting (and the husband and I are good parents, I have no doubt about that and will wrestle to the ground anyone who says otherwise, though possibly not in front of the children, because: Role Models!) is very, very important and yes, we talk with both of our kids about all of these things, all the time.

But #vidcon — and by extension, all culture and any community that supports the kind of world-suck-decreasing-world-awesome-increasing humanity that we’re trying to teach our children — is buried deep in a moment like that one my son and I had as we waited to get on the Indiana Jones Adventure. It takes a village, for real, and VidCon isn’t just an opportunity to squeal upon seeing one’s favorite YouTubers (the boy and I didn’t squeal, but trust: there was squealing), it’s also a culture and a community that teaches 14 year old boys to think in ways that the broader culture often fails to do.

And I mean, sure: VidCon was also very, very long lines. It was also pretty Caucasian (though efforts are being made on that front, as well). It was also (if you ask me) way too much veneration of Disney musicals. And I suspect that if you were looking for it, it was also debauchery and people making the occasional bad choice, too.

But mostly it was enthusiasm and intelligence and generosity and celebrating delight and all kinds of things that I want more of in my own life, not to mention the boy’s (the girl’s).

VidCon is an annual gathering of YouTube creators and their fans – but this is VidCon, too.

And that’s my report for today. As they say in my hometown: Don’t forget to be awesome.

nerdfighter-logo

Update: Apparently there were some isolated cases of young girls being harassed/assaulted (I hope it was more the latter than the former, though I don’t know, and Lord knows the former is sufficiently terrible) at the Con — here’s John Green’s response thus far, and based on previous exposure to both Vlogbrothers, there will likely be more forthcoming.

Because I’m pretty sure that in its heart, that coat is brown.

wendy davis big damn hero

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Obligatory link for those who don’t get the reference: Firefly, “Big damn heroes, sir.”

Photo source: Patrick Michels /TexasObserver.org 

UPDATE: Please note this comment by Neocortex just made in the previous thread – all those folks in the gallery last night who yelled and stomped and cheered and brought it home in the last 10-15 minutes are giant Big Damn Heroes, too. Can’t stop the signal!

Within living memory.

suffragette force fedWithin living memory, the unalienable right of a particular class of Americans to vote had not yet been legally recognized by the American legal system. That particular class of Americans represented fully half of the country’s inhabitants.

They were women.

Now, I will grant you that applying the phrase “within living memory” to a 94 year old fact is a little bit of a stretch — but there are American women alive today who were born into a world in which women couldn’t vote, and plenty more who were raised by such women.

Ninety-four years ago today, that all changed, with the US Congress voting to pass the 19th Amendment: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex.”

Some history:

Between 1878, when the amendment was first introduced in Congress, and August 18, 1920, when it was ratified [by three-quarters of the states, as all Constitutional Amendments must be], champions of voting rights for women worked tirelessly, but strategies for achieving their goal varied. Some pursued a strategy of passing suffrage acts in each state–nine western states adopted woman suffrage legislation by 1912. Others challenged male-only voting laws in the courts. Militant suffragists used tactics such as parades, silent vigils, and hunger strikes. Often supporters met fierce resistance. Opponents heckled, jailed, and sometimes physically abused them.

So, yeah. To the women in positions of cultural, social, and/or political power who declare themselves “not a feminist, or anything,” even as they live and work in a world to which they would not have any access were it not for the work of our foremothers and -fathers, I say: If you’re not a feminist, I’d like you to grab a time machine and go back to 1919 to explain to the suffragettes why, exactly.

I’m sure they’d love to hear it. Just as soon as they have a moment to spare.

For more on Miss Paul (above), click here

President Obama at the Newtown vigil.

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Please – call the White House and Congress and tell them that you support good gun legislation. We have to flood them with our support, and we have to do it right now. Please.

White House: 202-456-1111

US Representatives & Senators: 202-224-3121

The President would like a word.

Bo wishes you a Happy Thanksgiving.

I do, too. “Today we give thanks for blessings that are all too rare in this world.” Amen, amen.

Gratitude and Sandy.

A random and completely incomplete list of things for which I’ve found myself suddenly, heartpoundingly grateful, in the wake of Superstorm Sandy (which, let’s not forget, was all of eleven days ago):

  1. The chance to have a fight with my 9 year old daughter about what jacket she should wear.
  2. The temperature of my shower water.
  3. The ability to get online and have Peapod deliver boxes of food to my front door.
  4. The fact of my front door.
  5. The access of everyone in my family to the various medications we take.
  6. Holding my children in my arms.
  7. The opportunity to run something over to the middle school because my 13 year old boy irritated the crap out of me by forgetting it.
  8. My thermostat.
  9. My family photo albums, dry, complete, and all in one place.
  10. A tank of gas.

It has been easy, in this week of nail-biting elections and joyous outcome to forget that tens of thousands of American citizens are currently living under conditions that are third-world in nature, without any of the coping skills, mechanisms, or networks that third-world citizens must necessarily develop to survive. It’s always awful to have your access to food and clean water and mobility washed away — there’s something particularly perverse to having it happen when you live 20 floors up, a circumstance only made possible by the assumption that all of that can never happen.

I’ve made donations to the Red Cross, have made an appointment to give blood, and I have urged others to do the same. Out here in the middle of the country, I feel like it’s just about the best I can do — but please note that there is a lively conversation going on in the comments of yesterday’s open thread, offering information from the ground, and alternative outlets for help (thank you Neocortex, Nora Munro, and watson42).

I remain very, very worried for the individual people still living in such awful want, and about the implications for New York City and the rest of the country going forward. I think we have a long way to go before we really understand the full impact of this storm (and the followup northeaster), and I fear it’s going to be worse than we may have even feared.

If you can help, please do. In the meantime, I’ll be over here counting my blessings.

Shabbat shalom to all.

UPDATE: The Rumpus has just posted a Hurricane Sandy Relief Effort Roundup which folks might also find helpful.

My President is a mensch.

Watch President Obama thanking the folks at Obama For America yesterday. Just watch:

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The husband will occasionally say to me “Disagree with him on politics or policy or whatever, but how can you not like him?” I like our President, and I am so proud to have played a part, however miniscule, in the last three election cycles. A few days out pounding the pavement, a few donations, 75 phone calls on this most recent election day — it really wasn’t much, but I did what I could, and I did it with gratitude, and a kind of love.

I’m so proud that this man is our President.

via @yahelc, Senior Digital Analyst, Obama for America.

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