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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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.

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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.

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