le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, July 28, 2011

John & Hank Green [should?] Take Over the World, Part Two

Part One of this unexpectedly multi-part series concludes with a set of statements and queries:
So a couple of nerds with a big teenage following have had commercial success. Those same teenagers sent one of those nerds a few hundred bucks for his birthday.

So what? Why's it matter?
To find out why, stay tuned for part two.
One perceptive reader left a comment suggesting a "why," and s/he is absolutely correct, of course. There are a number of reasons why it matters, of course, but my question was one of those sneaky teachery questions, where there's a specific answer I have in mind.

One way to begin answering this, coincidentally enough, is by watching John's latest vlogbrothers video, posted on 27 July, 2011.  John runs down a quick (and abbreviated) list of nerdfighter accomplishments: raised $150,000 in 48 hours in the Project for Awesome; gave money (along with the Harry Potter Alliance) to charter airplanes of relief supplies to post-earthquake Haiti; got Helen Hunt to hear the Helen Hunt Song, etc.

Nerdfighters are pretty intensely invested in fighting world suck, the official term for - well, erm, world suck, which really shouldn't need any further defining. They make videos, they write songs, they do art, they knit monsters, they do whatever needs doing, or whatever they are moved to do. Sometimes the decreasing of world suck is a low-level kind of thing: being kind to one other person can do it. The everpresent acronym DFTBA reminds them and us and anyone listening to be awesome, the direct antithesis of sucking.
Not precisely highly nuanced, academic discourse, but not very many people except academics are very interested in - or, honestly, moved by - highly nuanced, academic discourse. The Brothers Green and their nerdy band of awesome followers managed to figure out what the national Democratic Party has failed to enact: quick n easy soundbites WORK.

Along with the art and the internet activity and the chat and nerdfighter love stories (of which there are plenty, it seems, up to and including at least one marriage proposal via John Green in a vlog, a marriage which has resulted in at least one new baby nerdfighter) and reading books and singing goofy songs and listening to wizard rock (because the crossover between nerdfighters and HP geeks is enormous), one of the other things nerdfighters - who, again, are largely teenagers or college kids! - seem to do very well is donate money. They're fundraisers of a prodigious nature, on either the collecting or giving end, and the funds they raise go to ferociously good causes - clean water in Haiti. Via the Project for Awesome (actually a vlogbrothers invention, if I understand correctly; alas, thus far Nerdfighteria lacks a dedicated historian with enormous quantities of time and resources for research and compilation), Shawn Ahmed's uncultured project which has done things like rebuild a school and provide clean water supplies in Bangladesh.

 More recently, and sadly, nerdfighters have been donating to the This Star Won't Go Out Foundation via the purchase of this star won't go out bracelets. The "Star" is Esther Earle, a Harry Potter devotee, HPA member and dedicated nerdfighter with a tremendous internet presence, who died a little less than a year ago from cancer. Esther is celebrated and memorialized and honored all over nerdfighteria (google "nerdfighter" + "Esther" to see how many folks who never met the girl in person are making Esther part of the awesome they don't forget); in fact, John Green's upcoming novel The Fault in our Stars is dedicated to Esther.
Esther was a huge part of Potter fandom, and her family attended LeakyCon2011 this summer as guests of the conference. Esther's father, Wayne Earle, wrote about it on his blog, and in fact it was reading what Mr. Earle wrote that prompted me to finally sit down and begin writing this blog post, which I have been contemplating and working on and mulling over for months. To wit:
Everyone at the conference was given a This Star Won't Go Out bracelet and I usually found a way to mention to the wearer that I was Esther's dad! We were witnesses to love in action.

The "fandom" as it's called, is huge and has made a gigantic imprint for good on the lives of this generation. It was Esther's world so we tried to give her space to make friends and be herself. Now that she is gone, her friends have become our friends. No surprise there. And they are awesome. They know how to give hope and accept one another. They are eager to show compassion and love without restraint. They know how to tell a story and they know how to celebrate life! They proved that by rocking out last Saturday night during the "Esther Earl Rocking Charity Ball." The ball ended with chants of "Esther! Esther! Esther!" She was also remembered at three other events there, one of which was when I read from the first chapter of my Esther book.
Remember again: a lot of LeakyCon attendees are younger people (not all, and probably not even most, though). And I mean young: college-age and younger. And here is the middle-aged dad turning up and being literally and metaphorically embraced by these folks, simply because he's Esther's dad, and they loved Esther, and because, as Mr. Earle says, "they are awesome. They know how to give hope and accept one another. They are eager to show compassion and love without restraint."

After I read Mr. Earle's blog post, which is also a testament to the power of reading and communities of readers, and is also intensely moving (ie, tear-inducing), I thought: "YES. THIS is what nerdfighters do. This is why they matter. This is power."

Because it is power.

But this isn't just a feelgood story about how Today's Youth aren't as bad as we think they are, or a counter to all those "We have no empathy" stories floating around out there. It functions that way, of course, but it would also be easy to write off nerdfighteria as a bunch of "good kids," nerdy readers of books who were always already going to Do Good Deeds. Nothing remarkable or praiseworthy because expected, and because expected, as if it had already been done.
And I expect that to an extent this is true. Probably a lot of nerdfighters are Good Kids (I was one myself, to be honest, though in a sarcastic, possibly sullen sort of way). They're a self-selected, self-selecting group, in a sense; readers of certain kinds of books, drawn to likeminded others who have also read those books.
But there are well over half a million youtube subscribers, and over a million people who follow John Green on twitter, and probably any number of people who have read one or more of his books or participate on the ning and don't subscribe or follow.  And I somehow doubt that every single one of those people is a Good Kid. Probably a lot of them are just regular old people, neither Good nor Bad. Probably a lot of them forget to be awesome on a regular basis. Probably a lot of them don't devote their out of school hours to charity work, to visiting nursing homes and hospitals, to working at soup kitchens or animal shelters or wherever. Probably most of them pocket their allowances or their babysitting money or their paychecks from crappy minimum-wage type jobs, and then blow that money on iTunes or ringtones or movies or technogadgets or taco bell or cute shoes or nice jeans or whatever else it is that teenagers spend money on.
But sometimes, they kick in some of that money to causes. Good causes, causes with tangible, real-world effects. They give money when they don't get anything at all back from it - no gimmicky bracelet (except the lovely this star won't go out, which I find far less obnoxious than many of the gimmicky bracelets, something I attribute to the use of lower-case letters). no reusable shopping bag, no "entered to win an autographed whatever," no t-shirt, no sticker or postcard or anything. Just because they can, and they want to, and they've remembered to be awesome.

And so nerdfighters can say, cheerfully and honestly, that they have rebuilt a school in Bangladesh and provided wells and clean water in Haiti and Bangladesh, that they chartered a plane full of medicine and essential supplies for Haiti during the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, that they help support families affected by children with cancer. And probably any number of other projects that I don't know about.
Meanwhile, they make videos and write songs and read books and chat on the internet about the weather and school and teachers and families and friends, and make art and knit animals and make music and get excited and get sad and don't forget to be awesome. Because mostly, they're young: teenagers, college kids, maybe kids in their early 20s.
But they are young.

Which is where I will end Part Two of this series. Part Three, hopefully the final part, will bring it all together and explain why all of this is worth thinking about seriously.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

John and Hank Green [could] Take Over the World, Part 1

Part the First: A brief history of my discovery of John Green and Nerdfighteria; a brief recent history of the accomplishments of the Brothers Green

The first thing I read by John Green was Will Grayson, Will Grayson, which I picked up because I liked David Levithan and because I knew it had gay characters. Up to that point, Green's name was just a name to me, a name I knew was semi-important in my chosen field of study; a name on my very long to-read-someday list.
After reading WG, WG, which I loved, I intentionally sought out Green's other books: An Abundance of Katherines, Looking for Alaska and Paper Towns, this last which I only read this summer. I poked the internet with a long stick to see what would surface when Googling Green's name - I got about as far as "nerdfighters," and moved on. I had courses to plan, life to live, a dissertation to procrastinate on (and be confused by), back pain to contend with. I taught WG, WG  in the fall, making the rare choice to require my students to purchase a book still only available in hardcover. They liked the book quite a lot; I was gratified by this, and by many of them reporting that they had previously read Green's books. I was also gratified when they told me, some of them rather excitedly, that John Green would be speaking at the public library in January. I shelled out the $20-some for a ticket, after hemming and hawing - I am on an absurdly tight budget, and even a $20 ticket is a big expenditure. But I decided that John Green is an Important YA Author - and Award Winner!! - and how often do those kinds of writers appear at my local public library? So I went, and mentioned it in passing here. And the talk was terrific, though I was baffled: what was with the audience hollering "Good morning, Hank?" while the Guest of Honor filmed it all with a little video camera? All the references to "nerdfighteria?" And so on - baffling. I felt conspicuously old and out of place, but I didn't mind, really; I was delighted to see an auditorium full of teenagers, on a Friday night, come to listen to a writer. Teenagers who were chattering giddily and being excited and and being dropped off by their parents, for an evening at the public library. I grinned for a moment, thinking of those parents, who must have been delighted when their teenagers asked to attend an author's talk at the public library. On a Friday night. After the talk, Green signed books for the throng for hours. Again: teenagers, many of them easily in the mid-to-upper reaches of teenagerness, hanging out happily at the library, talking to friends and new acquaintances and buying books (John Green's, and Siobhan Vivian's, who teaches writing at Pitt and with whom I am very happily acquainted; her books sold out before the night was half-over, the news of which she received with a dropped jaw and delight). I think there was music in the Teen Room; there may have been some kind of drinks and/or snacks of a low level. All of this activity centering on an author. A good author, even - Green's books are very smart, and very well-written. On a Friday night.

Post-talk, I realized I needed to do some deeper research into this whole "nerdfighter" business. The internet, as always, was my friend, because this is where Nerdfighteria lives (sort of?) and where John and his brother Hank have cultivated a veritable army of nerdfighters.
They vlog. They post, three times a week, short videos on some subject. Each brother does a post in turn. They have done this since 2007, when, evidently, they began this as a project to stay in touch in different ways. Vlogbrothers has its own youtube channel, and has accrued millions of views (152+million upload views). The channel has well over half a million subscribers (including me). Videos that I personally have watched have covered everything from the uselessness of pennies to religion to finance to history to science to NASA. Nerdiness of all kinds, with the catchy and useful slogan "Don't Forget To Be Awesome" (DFTBA, which also has a hand/"gang" sign which, due to my inability to separate my middle and ring fingers from each other, I cannot throw down).

So, no big news here, right? Some geeky dudes making videos which a bunch of teenagers watch. That's basically the definition of the entire internet.

the effect the brothers Green have had are staggering. I realized I was in the presence of something genuinely awesome when Hank opened his birthday gifts on youtube, livestreaming it. Yes. Nerdfighters galore sent cards - mostly handmade - and gifts (likewise handmade, including a remarkably awesome anglerfish hat which someone promptly dubbed Hanklerfish) to Hank for his birthday. After much debate around the internets prior to the birthday, John & Nerdfighteria agreed that, for Hank's birthday, the appropriate gift was to send a dollar (or more - no limit specified) to Hank so he could donate it to the charity of his choosing. So on his actual birthday, Hank Green spent hours livestreaming himself opening cards and gifts sent to him by strangers (except in nerdfighteria, we're all neighbors, I guess). Strangers who were, for the most part, half his age. Strangers who sent dollars - singly, in pairs, in handfuls. Foreign currency came in as well, in considerable quantities. I sat, mesmerized, and watched for well over an hour (and I came in after at least an hour had gone by) as Hank opened, and read out, cards. He commented on them, he checked in on the chat window, occasionally responding to remarks there. He enthused over every. single. item. None of it felt forced, or fake. None of it condescended, in any way. I only stopped watching because I had to go to something - a meeting, maybe? an appointment? But I could have watched for hours, happily.

It was after Hank's birthday that I started thinking seriously about Nerdfighteria, and nerdfighters, and the brothers Green. After collecting up his birthday dollars, and then kicking in matching funds, Hank donated over $1200 to the water.org project he's "adopted" in Haiti at Savann Tabak.

This may not be massive fundraising, but it's the output of essentially one-day fundraising: dollars for Hank's birthday (aka Hanko de Mayo). even allowing for Hank's doubling, it's not a bad chunk of change from what's essentially a gaggle of teenagers.

I follow both John and Hank Green on twitter; only this summer, John's upcoming book The Fault in Our Stars became the number-one book on amazon and barnes & noble.com: nearly one year before it is scheduled to be released. When the book went up for pre-ordering, it had just a black & white placeholder instead of an image of the cover art, because cover art had yet to be created. The Wall Street Journal ran a story about this feat of best-selling, with the (offensive to my mind) title "Tweeting from a La-Z-Boy, An Unfinished Book Hits #1." Just this week, I discover that the release date for The Fault In Our Stars has now been pushed forward (that is, earlier) by a good four+ months, evidently due to the high demand. John Green, in what I can only conceive of as a fit of masochism, has committed to sign every. single. book. in the first run, which will be 150,000 books. (Questions about what books will be signed? Go here).

Hank Green, among other projects (he's an entreprenerd, he's a scientist, he's an eco-geek, he's a musician), just released his latest record, Ellen Hardcastle (evidently named for a nerdfighter; I do not know the story on this one, alas). Turns out that Ellen Hardcastle charted on Billboard.

Hank invented glasses for watching 3D glasses in 2D, which somehow sounds like the punchline to a bad joke (though, to be fair, the 2D glasses got mentioned on cnn.com AND by Roger Ebert, who evidently ordered himself a pair).

So a couple of nerds with a big teenage following have had commercial success. Those same teenagers sent one of those nerds a few hundred bucks for his birthday.

So what? Why's it matter?
To find out why, stay tuned for part two.

[I intended to write just one insightful post on this topic, but one post won't be enough. Thus, a multipart series is born]

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Hermione Granger series and Fat Kid Rules the World at the movies

Two newsy items that have made me happy in the last couple of days.

First! On Global Comment (where the world thinks out loud, apparently), Sady Doyle has this terrific, insightful, genius, witty satire/scathe of the HP series: "In Praise of Joanne Rowling's Hermione Granger series." Doyle hits solidly on the head all the aspects of the series that have troubled me at one point or another (note: I AM a Harry Potter fan! I wrote about Prisoner of Azkaban in my undergraduate senior thesis!).
A choice block quote:
Being special, Rowling tells us, isn’t about where you come from; it’s about what you can do, if you put your mind to it. And what Hermione can do, when she puts her mind to it, is magic.
Ditto for the whole “Chosen One” thing. Look: I’ve enjoyed stories that relied on a “Chosen One” mythology to convince us that the hero is worth our time. ... But it’s hard to deny that “Chosen Ones” are lazy writing. Why is this person the hero? Because everyone says he’s the hero. Why does everyone say he’s the hero? Because everyone says so, shut up, there’s magic.
 This loops back nicely to a post Jonathan Auxier (whose Peter Nimble & his Fantastic Eyes will be coming out very soon) recently had on his blog about prophecy stories; there are a number of very smart comments on the post as well, the very least of which is mine.

Doyle also hammers on the politics of the series in such a sharp paragraph that it draws blood:
As the series developed, its politics did, too. Dumbledore, memorably, falls in love with a younger man in the third installment. Other female characters were introduced, and developed beyond stereotype; we learned to value McGonagall as much as Dumbledore, to stop slagging Lavender Brown off as clingy and gross because she actually wanted her boyfriend to like her, to see the Patil sisters and Luna as something other than flaky, intuitive, girly idiots.

Yes, yes, yes. Most especially to the Dumbledore love plot, which would make Rowling's actual ex post facto "Dumbledore's gay" have some meaning, instead of being the vapid, empty, offensive remark that it is.
Doyle's entire article is so vastly worth the read that I'm linking again! Go read it!

Second! Movie adaptation news that I find actually pretty cool and potentially awesome: K.L. Going's Fat Kid Rules the World is being filmed NOW, evidently in Seattle. Matthew Lillard directs; most excitingly, Jacob Wysocki (aka Dante Piznarski on ABCFamily's maddeningly short-lived, brilliant "Huge") is starring as Troy Billings, the eponymous Fat Kid.

I've read Fat Kid Rules the World several times, though not since last summer, and I like it quite a bit.  Since my last reading of it, I've read a fair bit of Fat Studies work, which makes me wonder how the novel will hold up when I read it again. But I like Going's work in general; I've taught King of the Screwups twice, and it was very well received by both classes of mostly uninterested undergrads. More recently (this summer) I read Going's very curious early novel Saint Iggy. I confess I'm not quite sure what to do with the book yet - I think it'll need at least one more read to really sink in - but my reaction is not negative.

Fat Kid is a great book because it gives us weird protagonists who remain weird, and unlikely, even as they progress and develop in the book. Marcus is always an unknown quantity, and Troy doesn't suddenly become skinny (and I LOVE whoever made the casting decisions, because Jacob Wysocki is probably the exact perfect size for Troy; too often, "fat" gets translated as either cartoonish or as very slightly pudgy. Early photos from the set show that Troy just looks like your average normal fat kid, neither terrifyingly Other nor terrifyingly prettified). There are valuable lessons about Life and Love, but they aren't painfully didactic, and just because those lessons occur, doesn't mean that everyone's life gets better. It's entirely possible that the lessons occur, but not every character was taking notes that day. Going's very good at writing smallish transitions that end up being hugely important (or the opposite: huge transitions that end up having little to no effect).

I'm also a fan of Jacob Wysocki; I loved his character on "Huge," and in some of the sketches he's done with Bath Boys Comedy (of which he is a member). In particular, I'm very fond of  "Puppet Suicide" , a PSA advocating awareness of, and an end to, puppet suicide [which I thought of not long ago when I heard about the Vent Haven Museum of Ventriloquism, which evidently functions as a kind of final resting place for ventriloquist dummies]  My favorite, though, is "Seeing Eye Big Guy," an ad for, well, a seeing-eye big guy (if you're allergic to a seeing-eye dog, try the Big Guy! he wears a loud shirt!). Bath Boys' stuff is pretty amusing, especially the more pop-culturey stuff, but it can also be quite...well...the Bath Boys are all around ages 20-22 or so, and there's a decided 20-ish-year-old dude mentality to some of the sketches. Others are just brilliant.
Wysocki is also starring in Terri with John C Reilly, which is currently playing in selected cities NONE OF WHICH ARE PITTSBURGH CAN WE PLEASE DO SOMETHING ABOUT THAT?  Terri looks like a pretty good, possibly insightful, movie about adolescence and outsiders and oddness, and has gotten very good reviews. And I would like to see it very much. 

Lots of very cool things going on these days. Definitely read Doyle's piece on the Hermione Granger series, and definitely prepare for the Fat Kid  movie.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Schrodinger's cat is trendy

There seems to be quite the trend in fiction - especially? YA - to reference old Schrodinger's cat and the thought experiment it denotes. It comes up in Will Grayson, Will Grayson (because, atheistically bless his little heart, John Green is one doozie of a nerd). It comes up elsewhere, and I really thought I'd been keeping some kind of count or record, but searching this site gives me nothing. I'll try to scrape the barrel of my memory to recall.
It just popped up again, sans Schrodinger, in something I recently read (which of course I no longer recall, since I've crammed books into my brain lately like a fiend). Possibly it was Libba Bray's Beauty Queens; equally possibly, but less likely, is Holly Black's very awesome White Cat. Regardless, there was the experiment, laid out in tidy, non-jargony prose.
For awhile, Maxwell's Demon, entropy, and the second law of thermodynamics kept cropping up as well. Maxwell's Demon first wandered into my life when I read The Crying of Lot 49 for the first time. That demon has since popped up from time to time in other fictional locales.

It makes me wonder about these odd, pop-science "metaphors." Neither was necessarily a popular science idea until they started cropping up in fiction of one kind or another (or internet memes). But how and when did that transition happen? And why the desire to use the scientifick metaphor?
It just reminds me, as humanities-wrought scientific metaphors always do, of Eliot's essay on "Tradition and the Individual Talent," and his weak (very weak, as some chemistry/physics majors told me) effort at scientific metaphor - and how, when we read Eliot's essay for my first-ever critical theory class way back in 1999, the professor mentioned the insecurity of theory, of literature - and the way literature and critical theory try to appropriate the language of science to disguise or legitimate themselves.
I'll need to keep better track of these references, unless some enterprising and extremely bored soul has already made a list or database online.

EDIT: Douglas Adams' Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency makes use of old Schrodinger and his imaginary cat.

EDIT: Catherynne M. Valente's amazing The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making makes reference to the principles behind Schrodinger's cat [no cat, no Schrodinger, but the issue of all possibilities as actualities until one observes/knows the outcome].

Friday, July 08, 2011

from an Almost Anywhere

found this odd candelabra in a thrift store in Pittsburgh. I grabbed it up immediately, because it reminded me of one of the gifts Christopher Chant brings back through the Place Between.
"he went to an Anywhere where a man under a yellow umbrella gave him a sort of candlestick of little bells" (The Lives of Christopher Chant, Diana Wynne Jones).

It doesn't chime - it's just a candlestick, really, no bells at all - but it looks very like I picture Christopher's much more lovely and otherworldly chiming bells. And so I had to have it for myself.