Saturday, February 21, 2009

John Green is Not a Paper Man

My favorite author John Green is awesome. He has written three wonderful and enlightening books, he speaks out for the intelligence of teenagers, he makes delightful and hilarious YouTube videos with his brother Hank, and he is extremely generous to his fans. He holds weekly live online shows in which he chats with readers, answers our questions, and reads poetry for literally hours at a time. When asked why he is so eager to connect with his supporters, he says, “It is all a part of having a seat at the table in people’s lives.” I love that. I love that he will talk to his readers, take us seriously, and let us be involved in his life. He is so awesome that I just wish he could have a literal seat at the actual table in my dining room every night. I don’t just want to give him a chair. I want to give him a throne.

This is where it becomes a bit of a problem. Mr. Green is gracious and kind to his readers, but he can only do so much. He can only answer so many questions, or watch so many response videos, or visit so many cities. He can’t literally sit at a table in all of our lives. The social network he and Hank created has over 18,000 members. At one point he exceeded the possible number of friends allowed on Facebook. These numbers used to make me sad. He feels so accessible and is such a great guy that I find myself wanting him to know me. But as much as he may want to, he can’t. His words and ideas have touched me in a real and deep way, so I want to thank him, learn from him, and be a part of his life.

My life is different because of John Green, his books, and his message. He created a community of smart, passionate, mostly young people who can read critically, think deeply, and speak with proper grammar. His recent book Paper Towns is about trying to imagine other people correctly, an idea that is very close to my own m!sundaztood teenage heart. He is a symbol of everything I want to be: both popularly and critically acclaimed, both smart and funny, both mature and young, both humble and sure of himself. I needed to see that growing up does not mean selling one’s soul and that sometimes smart people who work hard are successful. He is, in short, everything I want to be. When I was recently watching a video a fan had made for Mr. Green’s birthday, she thanked him for being her mentor. And I was so jealous! I wanted that! I wanted him to be my mentor, my big brother, my English teacher, and my best friend. But for me to indulge myself with the urge to be close to him, I am imagining him incorrectly. He is not a symbol of something I want. He doesn’t need a throne. He is not a miracle. He is not a fine and precious thing. He is a man.

I needed something from John Green, but he does not need anything from me. The numbers shouldn’t daunt me, I should be ecstatic about them. When I had the chance to ask Mr. Green a question at his event in Phoenix in October, I asked, aren’t you incurably two-dimensional to your fans? Isn’t your fame a betrayal of your pursuit to have everyone try to imagine each other correctly? He said, to paraphrase: “Yes. But I ask my fans, like anyone else, to imagine me as a real guy.” He enjoys and delights in our gifts and videos, but I need to imagine him completely enough to know that he can’t watch them all, and be okay with that. I need to imagine him well enough to be able to share him. I don’t need to be sad that John doesn’t know me personally. I shouldn’t be jealous of a fellow fan because she is closer to him than I am, I should be happy for her and thankful that Mr. Green can be a mentor to someone, no matter if that person is me. I can believe in his movement and be a part of it without him actually sitting at my dining room table. He doesn’t ask for a throne, and he merely suggests that we watch his videos and read his books, even if we get it from the library. I shouldn’t want to give him a throne. I need to try to imagine him in terms of who he is, not in terms of who I am. I need to understand him as a regular man, a well-liked and likable man, who is grateful to have even a folding chair and a can of diet Squirt at the table in my life, even if he – regrettably! – can’t actually sit there very often.

John Green’s life is not drastically different because of me personally. But that’s okay! That’s good! Because my life is different, better, and more completely imagined because of him.

Visit John Green's website at

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A Blabbermouth's Defense

I like to talk. About everything. About current events, past events, books, movies, anything. But I especially like to talk about people. I like to talk to people about themselves, about me, and even about other people. Though I would hardly say that I spread destructive slander (or in this case libel), I like to gossip. And I’m not going to apologize for it. In fact, I have a well-rounded case for talking about people who aren’t in the conversation in which I will prove that talking about people who are not present is not victimization, but an act of mercy.

Firstly, it is a foolish man who thinks it is possible that no one will talk about him ‘behind his back’, and an even more foolish man to want that. I love finding out that people have talked about me when I’m not around, because it means I exist to people other than myself, that I have made an influence on those around me, and that they remembered something I said or did well enough to talk about it later. I used to love finding out that the teachers in the English department had talked about an essay I’d written; I was flattered and delighted that I had made enough of an impression that they would discuss me among colleagues (this happened like, uh, twice). If I am lucky enough to hear what people say about me when I’m not around, I get a rare glance at how people view me. Sure, I know how I want to project myself, but I hardly ever get the chance to see if the signals I send out (so to speak) are the same signals that people pick up. Even if they say less than flattering things about me, if someone is brave enough to tell me about it, I can alter how I act or treat other people so that the next time people talk about me when I’m not around, it will be something I would be glad to hear.

When I talk about someone who is not in the immediate vicinity, I am consciously and absolutely paying him or her a compliment: something you did or said made me think enough to bring it up in conversation. It is much better that people talk about you than NOT talk about you, because that means you’re not making anyone think or laugh or remember. No mature person could possibly think they exist for others only when in direct encounters, or even think to hope for that kind of existence. We are always in existence for everyone we meet, whether close or far away, for each of us has our own unique imagining of every person we meet. If my imagining of a person is vivid enough that it demands attention even when the real person is gone, it is credit to the real person. All I ever hope to gain in talking to others about my imagining of someone is that I will be able to understand them better, to get the image I receive become that much closer to what they as a person really are, or at least what they project to the world.
If someone tries to hide the truth or keep a secret, it says she is conceited and pretentious. It is an act of subtle arrogance to think that you know what is best for a person, to think that you know that it will be better that they not see the truth of whatever silly secret you’re trying to hide. In other words, who are you to decide who hears the truth and who doesn’t? Who are you to decide what is best for others? If you do something you’re ashamed for other people to know, you probably shouldn’t have done it. If you are in some relationship that you don’t want other people to know about, you might need to evaluate just how good that relationship is. Secrets are exercises in absurdity and futility because they are always a pathetic means of drawing attention to an event or situation that deserves no notice, and would have gotten none if it has not been made into an all-important ‘secret’.

Secrets and gossip are ways that people try to elevate themselves over the people around them, and such lofty ambitions should be deflated accordingly. If I talk about something enough, it ceases to be so interesting. If I freely acknowledge and discuss a truth, rather than keeping it a secret, it does not hold such false importance. To hide or obscure the truth is worse than a lie, because it serves only to make the secret-keeper feel more important and garner ill-deserved attention. So when I talk about you when you’re not around, it’s a gift. When I tell others about something you did, it’s a favor. And when I invite you to do the same for me, it’s a challenge.

As always, readers, I invite your feedback and I would love to be proven wrong.