Charlottesville Is Not So Very Far From Home

When I was about 8 or 9 years old, we heard that a chapter of the KKK planned to hold a white supremacy rally in my small Midwestern town. Whether this was planned or just rumored I’m not sure, but we took the threat seriously.

My father heard that concerned citizens intended to protest the rally to show their disapproval of white supremacy, to show the KKK that they could not claim our town as the feeding ground for their vile ideas. My father decided to attend this protest.

I was pretty nervous about this. I’d seen that episode of Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman where the KKK comes to town and terrorizes everyone, and I must have had imagery from the 60s Civil Rights Movement in my head as well, because 9-year-old me imagined the rally and protest devolving into a violent altercation with people being beaten, stabbed, and shot. I further believed this when I heard that our across-the-street neighbor, who was black, would not attend the protest because it made him and his family nervous to put themselves in that situation.

The KKK rally never materialized. They may have cancelled their plans, or it may have been a rumor to begin with. The incident ended without fanfare.

But it stuck with me. Snippets of memories from that time come back to me in pieces.

The shock of realizing that the KKK still exists today.

The fact of my father and his fellow citizens planning to resist.

The knowledge that my black neighbors were nervous for their safety in a town where no one even locked their cars and my parents let me play outside at night by myself.

Part of the reason I assumed the KKK rally would get violent was that I didn’t yet understand what protest was for. I thought my father and his friends were gathering because they expected the KKK to do something vicious, something that able-bodied men must be present to stop.

It hadn’t yet occurred to me that someone would show up to a meeting for the sole purpose of publicly voicing disagreement.

 

So Publicly Voice Your Disagreement!

More than 20 years later, a violent white supremacist meeting made national news. White people, looks like another moment is here—a moment when we choose one of two options.

  • Publicly speak up against the rhetoric of white supremacy.
  • Say nothing publicly, or agree with it privately, or agree with it publicly.

All three things in #2 are functionally equivalent. As a white person, if you do not challenge other white people who hold dangerous ideologies, you are unintentionally contributing to the same force that creates the overt, swastika-waving, Hitler-saluting KKK Nazi.

Oh, I’m sorry, I meant the swastika-waving, Hitler-saluting “disaffected young white men asserting themselves.”

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“They’re not Nazis, just a disaffected political group living in a struggling economy after the war who are asserting their right to take over neighboring countries and execute millions of people in concentration camps, but this kind of name calling pushes them closer to building gas chambers.” –Probably said somewhere in Germany circa 1940.

My fellow white citizens, I know you may not want to believe that your silence is the same thing as overt support, but in today’s political climate, we don’t have the luxury of splitting those hairs.

In terms of the results our actions create, you are either helping to dismantle white supremacy or you are feeding the environment that it needs to thrive—an environment where good men do nothing.

Since yesterday, I have seen many white people condemning the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. Good! Let’s keep that up! Let’s bump that number up from “many white people” to “every white person who isn’t actively a white supremacist.”

And let’s remember that public conversation about this topic is actually the healthiest thing we can do right now. My old college mantra applies here: “The best place for a bad idea is out in the open.”

We’ve seen that white supremacy and Nazi ideology have taken hold of startlingly high numbers of citizens while operating under the radar. We’ve seen that some of our fellow white people are so angry and desperate that they’re willing to reach for this worldview. That’s been happening in the shadows—time to call it out in the light and examine it.

Can the ideas of white supremacy stand up to reality when examined in the light of day? Can Nazi rhetoric survive when a society analyzes it in the context of history? Can desperate, angry men and women cling to their desperation and anger when their friends and neighbors engage them in dialogue, offer an alternative perspective, and firmly refuse to allow their hatred and violence?

Active, direct conversation is better than continuing to allow this to fester while everyone pretends it’s not happening.

 

Awkward Elephant In The Room

There’s another thing we should examine in the light of day, and that is our own complicity in the subtle bad attitudes that float around society.

Our culture is permeated by many conscious and unconscious attitudes that devalue black individuals, culture, and expression in favor of whiteness. We’ve all been taught that prejudice is bad, so we want to believe that we are not those bad prejudiced people…but we hold harmful attitudes toward black citizens in subtle ways, and we hide those attitudes under sensible-sounding excuses.

“I don’t discriminate against black teens. I would be wary of any teen wearing baggy clothes and listening to rap around town at night.” Oh would you? And what’s so bad about baggy clothes and rap, by the way?

“I’m not racist, but I do think that when black people say law enforcement is too harsh on them, they’re just being overly sensitive.” Really?

“I don’t discriminate against black people, but this venue full of young black men and women makes me nervous/is too rowdy/I think some of them might actually be thuggish.” Hmm.

“Maybe if that [insert name of black teenager] had been more respectful, authority figures wouldn’t have had to be so rough with her.”  Uh….

“All this ‘white privilege’ stuff is just people with too much time on their hands over-analyzing everything. Inherited cultural trends don’t affect how I live or think at all, I’m a totally self-made person.” You just keep telling yourself that.

“For the last time, I’m not racist! I’m just sick of people mooching off of food stamps, and here’s a photo meme of that on Facebook that portrays all welfare queens as black without a single white person in the photo.” Yup, no prejudice here.

“Of course black people are valuable, but why should they ask us to care about police killing them when they have gang culture and high abortion rates?” Excuse me? Sit down.

“I know that many non-white individuals believed that Trump was directly contributing to dangerous rhetoric in our country that made them unsafe, but honestly, my more objective opinion told me that he was a better choice because…” I don’t care how that sentence ends.

And, my personal favorite:

“I will do whatever I can to help stamp out racism, except for believing the stories non-white people tell me about how racism operates, because they are too subjective to give me accurate information.”

And the embarrassing part is that I have been guilty of some of these at different points in my life, and will probably continue to put my foot into my oversized mouth once in a while until the day I die.

How can the widespread existence of these attitudes not aid and abet the agenda of violent white supremacy? It’s our job to reflect on the subtle racist attitudes that get passed around in our circle (and our own brains) because the longer those go unchallenged, the faster violent white supremacy grows.

This WILL Be On The Test

So let’s review:

Publicly decry white supremacy and be ready to engage in real dialogue about why racism and Nazi beliefs are a dangerous dead-end.

Don’t pretend this isn’t happening.

Examine your own internal processing for prejudices you might not even realize you’re holding. Be enough of a grownup to own that and change.

That is all for now.

What 80s Babies Know About Balancing Technology

 

ob ginger thumbnailBack in November, I wrote a blog post about how much the internet has taken over our lives, and never got around to Part 2. I couldn’t figure out where to go from there—until I ran across the recent article “Why 80’s Babies Are Different Than Other Millennials,” and realized that 80s babies are actually the secret weapon to figuring out this modern technology conundrum.

No, seriously. I’m becoming convinced that my generation of Millennials—the earliest Millennials, the 80s born-and-raised Millennials—are the Rosetta Stone needed to decode this mess of technology vs. real-world experience. If you’ve ever said, “I need and love technology, but I kind of miss using my legs to walk around, and I haven’t seen a human face since Christmas,” then find yourself someone who was born between 1977 and 1985.

The article that clued me into this (and which I will reference as the source of many of my ideas) has this to say about 1980s babies:

A big part of what makes us the square peg in the round hole of named generations is our strange relationship with technology and the Internet. We came of age just as the very essence of communication was experiencing a seismic shift, and it’s given us a unique perspective that’s half analog old school and half digital new school.

The article is a nostalgic backwards look at what it means to come of age during the technology revolution—not before, not after, but during. I belong to that group. Our childhood was analog, our adulthood is digital, and the teen years were a mix.

 

Due to our unique place on this timeline, I believe 80s babies have an intrinsic understanding of how to balance technology and the rest of life in a healthy way.

 

We may not realize we have this knowledge. We may not always live it out. But we were forged in the analog fires, toughened through the gauntlet of 90s chat rooms, and came as adults to the sandstorm of social media—our past and our instincts can, and will, tell us how to appreciate and use technology without being eaten alive by it.

So let’s review what we’ve learned, shall we?

 

80s Babies Lesson 1: The Internet Should Be An Event, Not A Lifestyle

We were the first group of kids who grew up with household computers, but still novel enough to elicit confusion and wonder.

Remember when the computer was a fun new diversion? Most families had one, and getting on the internet was a once-per-day event. You removed yourself from the main flow of household activity and went to the computer station (in my house, the dining room), listened to the dial-up screeee at you for awhile, and did your inter-netting for the day. If you had permissive parents, you might be allowed up to two hours of inter-netting, but then they really did need the phone back. If you had siblings, like my husband did, everyone got an allotment of inter-netting per week (and learned how to beg, borrow, and steal each other’s minutes).

You signed off, and then you were done.

No answering e-mail endless times. No five-hour chat session that waxed and waned with your attention span. No looking things up throughout the evening as they occurred to you. The internet was a thing you had to go to at certain times.

This made the internet feel like a hobby, or a specific tool. You fitted it into your schedule and spent the rest of the day doing other things. You knew exactly how much time you’d devoted to it.

Today, the internet is ever-present. Between computers, phones, and tablets, it’s no longer an event, but the background of life. But it’s a crappy background. Most of us can’t even begin to tally up the random minutes we spend checking it throughout the day, and we give away with both hands massive amounts of time to its hungry maw.

(Do you know how long I’ve waited to use the phrase “hungry maw” in a blog post?)

And though this has been said a lot, it bears repeating—one consequence is that you can remove yourself from the flow around you at any moment, for any length of time. Disappearing into the computer room used to be a decision, a noticeable decision that your parents or spouse or kids could hound you about. A haze of distraction about your phone or laptop that never completely dissipates is much harder to combat.

 

The 80s Instincts Kick In

So what do we do about this? Here are some humble suggestions for making the internet an event again instead of a lifestyle.

  1. Choose a time and place to use the internet at home. Keep the laptop or tablet at a desk or table. Go to that spot for internet-related tasks, then shut the computer off and leave.
  2. Maybe actually turn it off, too, as opposed to sleeping or hibernating. This recreates the sense of inconvenience we used to feel about constantly jumping on and off.
  3. Consider what internet “background noise” you can cut. I’m trying to replace Youtube videos with book reading during meals and bedtime routine. The other day, I turned on the radio instead of Netflix while I worked on my graphic novel pages. Find small things you can replace with “real-life” events.
  4. If your hobbies necessitate the computer, can you still turn off the WiFi to get them done? For instance, when writing a blog post, I could copy and paste what I need to quote from other articles, then spend some quality time with my Word Processor without Twitter peering over my shoulder every three minutes.
  5. Set boundaries for your phone. Choose a location for it to live, and leave it there. Go to that place to deal with calls and notifications, rather than carrying the phone from room to room.  (If you need to take the phone with you when going upstairs or downstairs, make one phone location for each level of the house).Make your phone space feel like a temporary work station rather than a place to settle in—this cuts the temptation to wait around for a text or idly surf the web. Remember when phones used to hang next to the kitchen doorway? Yeah. No one stood there waiting for a call, unless you were 15 and had a new boyfriend.
  6. Let notifications build up. You don’t have to check every noise your phone makes. You don’t have to sit with your finger hovering over the Facebook notification icon. Set a couple of times to check these things, and limit yourself to that. Better yet, do what I did this week and announce that you will only use your social media account for event invites and private messages.
  7. Tell close friends and loved ones to call if it’s important or time-sensitive. Tell them you won’t be responding to texts and social media as quickly, so if they need something right away, calling is best. Then you won’t have to spring at every text and babysit your social media account to keep from missing things.

These tips may be easier said than done. It may mean a lifestyle change in some areas. But we must set boundaries on how much of our lives the internet can invade. If we reach the point where the internet (rather than us) decides that it will be the background, and we have no say, then the robot takeover has already begun!

Come back on Friday (or use the Subscribe button above) for 80s Babies Lesson 2: Technology May Need Boundaries, But It’s Pretty Wonderful.

Blessed Are Those Who Don’t Need No Therapy–and other things Jesus never said.

I’m not pulling punches on this one.

I was incredibly sad to see Robin Williams go this week. It’s even more terrible and tragic that his death came at his own hand. And it’s even worse that some people called him a coward, or belittled his supposed lack of willpower in powering through life. I’d like to see some of these people spend 63 years in constant mental pain and then see who’s the coward.

There’s been some talk in the Christian blogosphere (from bloggers who I won’t link to because it would only increase their traffic and reward their unloving, click bait behavior) to the effect that depression is a spiritual malady best treated with joyful thoughts, and that too much talk of brain chemistry and medical treatment is a modern distraction. Christians should, so these people say, view suicide as a conscious choice to reject all the good in this world, and the rest of us should therefore place suicide victims outside the “victim” category because it was really just their own selfish choice.


Despite all the available information about the medical side of depression, I’m upset to see so many people sharing these sentiments and going right along with them. The lack of nuance in the conversations is worrying the bejeebers out of me, and I’d like to have a chat about it with you.

Modern psychology has known for awhile now that depression is a complex animal with many factors. Life circumstance, habits of thought, brain chemicals, and physical ailments can all contribute to depression, and each might be explored as part of a treatment plan to alleviate it. As a Christ follower, I also believe that spirituality interacts with our depression. But then, as a Christ follower, I believe that all our experiences have a spiritual component to them, so this is almost as obvious as saying that the meaning of life has a spiritual component to it, or that the love for a child has a spiritual component to it. As we used to say back in the 90s, “Duh!”

Yet some people take this further, stretching the implications of this truth way too far. They get suspicious of medication and psycotherapy as real answers, stressing instead the need for God’s joy and spiritual healing as the “real” answer over and against the “false” answer of depression as a medical condition. This makes little sense to me. Saying that we should downplay the role of brain chemistry in depression just because we know a spiritual component exists is like saying that a cancer patient should downplay chemo just because we know that nutrition helps fight cancer, too.

Christians accept the role of medicine alongside faith in just about every other type of ailment, without seeing the two as being pitted against each other. Mention a serious ailment like Lukemia, AIDS, Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s, and most Christians will immediately say “I’ll pray for you,” indicating that faith and prayer are part of the healing. Those same people would not, however, say, “I’ll pray for you, so that means you don’t need to take your medication or follow your doctor’s orders.” Rather, they accept that faith, prayer, and modern medicine are going to work together in harmony–not competition.

It seems that some of the bloggers and nay-sayers who talk about depression are assuming that if feelings are happening inside your head, rather than outwardly on your body or organs, then those feelings can’t possibly be tied to physical processes; they’re all spiritual. And we know from science that it’s simply more complex than that. There are physical and spiritual forces at play in our brains; thus you need physical and spiritual healing to deal with it.

Next up–what’s with this insistence that enough faith and enough joy will allow or facilitate healing from depression? Isn’t that dancing at the edge of being a prosperity gospel, one in which God rewards you like a slot machine for putting in enough Faith or Joy tokens?

When I was 17, someone apparently entered my name in the Anxiety Lottery without my permission, and sadly, my number was picked. I became the lucky recipient of an obsessive worry problem that I’ll likely be managing for the rest of my life. At that young age, I didn’t understand why my feelings were so out-of-control, so I prayed about it constantly. When God didn’t heal my fears and obsessions and phobias, I began to suspect that He had rejected me. What other assumption could I make? Why wasn’t He fixing the problem?

During this time, my parents taught me something that I count among the top five pieces of life advice I have ever received. They pointed out to me that I was asking God to heal me immediately from my fears, the way one might ask God to heal a broken leg overnight or make a new job drop in your lap. Sure, they said, miracles are possible, but do we really walk around expecting God to zap our every prayer into being immediately? Doesn’t God usually work over time, in various ways, without revealing the end of the path? Why should that be different just because the problem is in our head, and not something outwardly physical? Did I expect Him to reach down and magically rearrange my brain wiring when maybe His plan involved leading me through a process of healing?

I’m not saying that’s any kind of easy answer. When your brain feels like it’s doing time in Hell’s version of Alcatraz, of course any rational person would wish for immediate healing. There is legitimate grief, anger, and confusion when emotional healing doesn’t come fast. But the point is, we mustn’t get unrealistic expectations about how God works. A person with a broken leg expects to go to physical therapy and stay off the leg for awhile and receive strength and patience from God during the healing period. A person who needs a job sends out job applications and pray that God guides them to the right place.

By the same token, it’s normal to need professional help and medication, and to take time to heal, and to feel like utter crap while doing so. It doesn’t mean you’re doing faith wrong. It doesn’t mean God rejected you. It doesn’t mean you’re wasting your time with medication while you should be sitting on your couch waiting for Joy-with-a-capital-J to show up.

For the record, my own treatment for anxiety involves a professional therapist, supportive friends and family, exercise, keeping a job outside the home, and the Holy Spirit. Should medication ever need to enter the picture, I won’t hesitate.

We also need to address this pernicious (and baffling) idea making the rounds that depression and joy cannot co-exist in the same mind, and that joy is therefore a cure for depression. I’m not sure why anyone would ever think this, but here is a good resource by a Christian woman for dispelling that myth. If you’re still unsure, ask around with people who have been depressed. I’m sure they can give you many more personal examples of joy and utter depresson coexisting. Life is nuanced. Life is gray. Get used to that.

No discussion of this subject could be complete without addressing this next point: is depression-induced suicide a refusal to see the goodness in life?

Besides being needlessly antagonistic and utterly insensitive to grieving family members left behind, this statement is just plain wrong. Taking one’s own life is not based on the refusal to see life as good. It’s based on the belief that you cannot attain life’s goodness.

When you know you should be able to enjoy things, but literally can’t–when you know loved ones care for you, but they can’t sit in your pain with you–when you see other people functioning, but can’t get yourself to function–you are painfully aware of how good life is…for everyone else. You just can’t get there yourself.

This, by the way, is why depression is so isolating. You look outside of yourself and see a happy world full of happy people. But you can’t be there with them, and they can’t come inside the depression with you. It’s not a lack of desire to see joy and have hope; it’s an inability to break down a wall that your brain created without your permission.

To say that someone who is depressed or suicidal is refusing to see life’s goodness is like saying that a slave who can’t escape a captor is refusing to know what freedom is. You may know it, you may want it, but you don’t believe you can get to it.

I mean, let’s stop and think about this for one second. One second. Who on earth would ever choose to be miserable enough to kill themselves? Who on earth would ever say, “I’m in so much pain I want to die. There’s an answer in the form of hope and happiness and joy and good things, and all of those sound lovely, but….nah. I’m too lazy. I think I’ll just painfully cut my wrists open, or strangle to death on the end of a rope, rather than regain happiness.” Who says that??

This refusal-to-see-the-good-life idea is such utter, complete, ignorant, cruel, ridiculous tripe that there aren’t enough words in the English language to criticize it, or to describe the careless stupidity one must possess to spout it in judgment two days after a beloved actor has left a grieving family behind. And that’s saying something, because do you know how vast and descriptive the English language is?

Now to the final bit. It has come to my attention that some people are playing the Personal Experience card to de-legitimize other people’s experiences. Here’s how it works. Person X says, “Depression feels insurmountable; people who kill themselves must have been in so much pain.” Person Y says, “Oh yeah? Well I’ve struggled with these issues, too, so I can say from experience that you can get out of depression with this spiritual formula.”

Well, if we’re going to play the Personal Experience card, guess what? I have one of those cards too.

Having dealt with anxiety since I was a teenager, I’ve had my fair share of bouts with depression. Here’s the interesting part: my depression is usually a byproduct of anxiety (in fact, I hesitate to even call it depression because of that, but let’s do for the sake of argument). Because it’s a product of my anxiety, my attempts to fix my anxiety by changing thoughts and changing focus usually go a long way to alleviate the depression. So in a way, I could fit the profile that many of these bloggers want everyone to believe–the profile of the depressed person who finds a way to pull herself back into joy.

Yet even I, someone who found ways to pull myself out of depressed feelings, completely affirm the reality that many cases of clinical depression are too debilitating for people to fix on their own, and cannot be solved with enough joyful thoughts, especially if they’re due to chemical imbalance. Even I, who should fit these bloggers’ categories, believe their theories about depression are complete poo.

I could use my personal experience to belittle and blame people who have a different depressive experience than I do, but I don’t. You know why? Well, first, because I’m not a jerk. But second, it’s because I recognize that my experience is very particular to me, and that I have not experienced the kind of severe, brain-chemistry based clinical depression that some people struggle with. And I would not want those other people to tell me how my anxiety-driven depression should work, or to make predictions about how to fix it. What’s useful is to learn from each other’s experiences, recognize the differences, and support each other. So let’s drop this charade that heaving dealt with “these issues” somehow gives us insight into the experience of every depressed person. Shall we?

If I sound angrier than usual, it’s because I have finally lost patience for people hurting each other. I will grieve for Robin Williams and the millions like him in the world who suffer from a silent hell, and I will not be polite when people say ignorant things about them.

Book To Movie: Fault In Our Stars


After two sets of rearranged plans and many adventures getting to the theater, I finally completed my summer goal and saw the movie version of A Fault In Our Stars,which was easily my favorite read of the past year.

And yes, it was awesome. Shailene Woodley is an amazing actress and really nailed the character of Hazel, right down to the haircut. Ansel Elgort did a better job as Gus than I pictured him doing after seeing his character in Divergent, so I was well pleased. Many of the best lines from the book were spoken verbatim, they hit the important plot points, and everything down to the personalities of Hazel’s parents was just about pitch perfect (I adored Laura Dern’s performance as Mom Lancaster!).
So what are my main thoughts about this book-to-movie translation? Taking into account that these are two different genres struggling to tell the same story, what were the differences, and how do they affect the audience—from a storyteller’s perspective?
The main difference I felt was that the movie emphasized hopeful themes more strongly—or rather, less ambiguously—than the novel did. Some may disagree with me on this, which is fine; FIOS is anything but a simplistic story, and I’m sure there are many ways to read it. But I felt a clearer focus on hope sitting in the theater than I did reading the book. That doesn’t mean one or the other is better; they’re just different.
It’s common for movies to have a slightly more positive ring than their book counterparts (for an example, read and then watch What’s Eating Gilbert Grape). Partly it’s because movies must appeal to the popcorn munching masses. But in FIOS, it’s also due to the movie being told outside Hazel’s narration rather than inside it.
Hazel does get more voice-over time than most movie protagonists, but compare that to the book, where 100% of non-dialogue text is Hazel’s direct thought. Movies can’t maintain that kind of intense focus through a narrator’s personal “lens,” because we’re watching the events from outside the narrator’s head. Observing Hazel’s life, rather than listening to her tell it, allows for some actor, director, and audience interpretation, too.
For my part as an interpreting audience member, Hazel’s life felt happier in the movie and darker in the novel. Throughout the book, her narration keeps us focused on the frustration and meaninglessness of her situation. Even as funny and everyday things go on outside of her, we’re constantly pulled back to reminders that her illness is senseless and that people’s positivity is grating to her. In the movie, however, it’s easier to “see” the good fortune she has. Her home is populated by two loving parents. She has nice things and a nice bedroom. Her body is still mobile, she’s surrounded by people her age (albeit Support Group people), she smiles a lot. The sky is sunny and the trees in bloom. These things may feel like small details, but they cast a different light on her situation than her narration often does.
Plus, because the story must move fast to reach the main conflict, her circumstances seem to just “fall into place” for the first third of the film. A boy she likes finds the e-mail of her favorite author, arranges a meeting with said author, offers her a no-strings-attached European vacation to meet him. In fact, all of this happens so fast that I feared moviegoers who hadn’t read the book would think it was a sappy love story without enough conflict.
Another main contributor to the film’s lighter feel was the sanitized portrayal of hospital scenes—particularly the flashbacks to the night 13-year-old Hazel almost died. In the novel, that night is described as a scene of horror; Hazel’s lungs fill with fluid and her parents watch her start to drown. In the movie, the actress playing 13-year-old Hazel appears to be wearing makeup and lies calm in bed for the most part, without a bodily fluid in sight. In fact, the only time anything in the movie feels graphic or scary or gross is the scene at the gas station with Gus’ infected G-tube.
I know why they did it this way; bodies fighting cancer do some gnarly things, and that’s not what teens and parents want to see when they sit down at a romance movie. Still, it can’t help but affect the tone.
Aside from all that, there were also obvious choices on the part of script writers to make the buoyant lessons more prominent and minimize the negative slant. Take, for instance, the scene where Hazel chews Gus out for wanting to be famous before he dies. The novel shows it this way:

I was so frustrated with him. “I just want to be enough for you, but I never can be. This can never be enough for you. But this is all you get. You get me, and your family, and this world. This is your life. I’m sorry if it sucks. But you’re not going to be the first man on Mars, and you’re not going to be an NBA star, and you’re not going to hunt Nazis. I mean, look at yourself, Gus.”

The scene ends with both of them feeling sour.

He didn’t respond. “I don’t mean—” I started.
“Oh, you meant it,” he interrupted. I started to apologize and he said, “No, I’m sorry. You’re right. Let’s just play.”
So we just played.

You get the feeling Gus still doesn’t agree with Hazel. It’s ambiguous whether she’s telling him a truth he needs to hear, or is just angry at him for being less stoic and more idealistic than she is.
However, when this same conversation happens in the film, Gus immediately apologizes and affirms, “It’s a good life” to her. We’re given a more pleasant slant; not only does Gus feel better, but Hazel’s view is portrayed as a positive one, capable of giving a dying boy positive perspective.
The script writers also changed the story’s effect on the audience by what they left out. I remember being weighed down as a reader by the scene where Hazel is brushing her teeth after Gus’ funeral:

Appraising myself in the mirror as I brushed my teeth, I kept thinking there were two kinds of adults: There were Peter Van Houtens—miserable creatures who scoured the earth in search of something to hurt. And then there were people like my parents, who walked around zombically, doing whatever they had to do to keep walking around.
Neither of these futures struck me as particularly desirable. It seemed to me that I had already seen everything pure and good in the world, and I was beginning to suspect that even if death didn’t get in the way, the kind of love that Augustus and I share could never last. So dawn goes down to day, the poet wrote. Nothing gold can stay.

The emotional catharsis of letting Gus go has led Hazel back to her usual conclusion: oblivion is coming for all good things. We have to keep looking through that lens with Hazel except for a couple of moments, when she sees kids playing at the park and thinks, “Who am I to say that these things might not be forever? Who is Peter Van Houten to assert as fact the conjecture that our labor is temporary?” and at the end when she reads the eulogy Gus wrote her.
By contrast, in the film, Gus’ funeral is a tipping point after which things change. Aside from her obvious grief, we don’t see more moments of Hazel slipping back to her somewhat nihilistic lens; her emotional journey skips right to the shift, when she reads the eulogy Gus wrote her and affirms the goodness of what they shared.
Even the visuals at the end of the film add to the positive implications, by showing Hazel in a white dress looking at the stars, smiling. The pretty music helps, too.
I want to stress again that I’m not trying to promote one version of the story as being better than the other. Actually, I’m pretty split. The book had, as my sister-in-law said, “more soul.” I enjoyed it more, and there were so many more funny lines and rich moments of insight, even whole scenes and characters that gave the book depth. At the same time, I have always struggled with Hazel’s bend toward gloom (even though, yes, I have watched people die from cancer, and yes, Hazel is right that it’s no one’s Cancer Patient Fairytale). In that way, the movie was easier for me to take.
One thing remains consistent between the two, however, the most important messages of the story: You have a choice in how you react to death.
Whether you see life in a positive way, a negative way, a meaningful way, a nihilistic way, whatever, you must pick a response when someone you love slips out of your grasp.
You can forever focus on the loss. You can let that person become defined by the fact that you no longer have them.
Or, you can realize how lucky you were to experience them in your life.
Hazel puts it this way:

“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1, and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinites are bigger than other infinities….There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”

We’ve all lost a loved one—or many loved ones—about whom we could say this. All of us. You know who yours is. I’m thinking about mine right now. We wish their infinities had been bigger, but the point is not that this person went away; the point is that this person was there, and you were privileged to know them well enough for their absence to hurt.
I think that message is at the heart of both the book and the movie, and that’s why I can happily recommend each. But please, take tissues to the theater.
Take all the tissues.

In Defense of YA, and of Positivity in General


I thought I’d better say something about the infamous “Against YA” article in Slate, since, you know…I have a degree in this subject.
A few days ago, Slate contributor Ruth Graham wrote a piece in which she chided adults for reading young adult fiction. YA is alright for teens, she says, but grown-ups should be “embarrassed” if the bulk of their library consists more of YA than adult literature. She laments that about half of all YA books are purchased by readers who are above the target audience of 12- to 17-year-olds. To her, that’s a problem.

It would be hard to find any article with which I disagree more thoroughly—and not just because I happen to write the genre that she’s suggesting adults abandon. I find her argument flawed in nearly every paragraph, and feel the need to defend a genre that adults are finally beginning to wake up to.
The first thing I disagreed with was her ham-fisted usage of John Green’s novel The Fault In Our Stars, which she simultaneously misinterprets and manipulates to suit her own argument:  

I’m a reader who did not weep, contra every article ever written about the book, when I read The Fault in Our Stars. I thought, Hmm, that’s a nicely written book for 13-year-olds. If I’m being honest, it also left me saying “Oh, brother” out loud more than once. Does this make me heartless? Or does it make me a grown-up? This is, after all, a book that features a devastatingly handsome teen boy who says things like “I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things” to his girlfriend, whom he then tenderly deflowers on a European vacation he arranged.

Absent, of course, is any mention of what Fault In Our Stars is actually about. Props to her for finding the one detail in the book that sounds stereotypically teenage-ish and wording it in the shallowest way possible. She conveniently omits that it’s a book about a teen with cancer who struggles with the knowledge of what her death will mean to her loved ones, and can’t seem to find any meaning in what’s happening to her.
But I guess no one wonders about life and death, or worries about hurting people, or gets cancer past age 13?
It’s actually quite ironic that she uses the age 13. That’s the age I was when I watched my grandmother die of cancer. And all those questions that are central to the book—about the meaning or not-meaning of death, the messiness of death, and our struggle to live with its reality—were not resolved in my mind when my grandmother died. They were only beginning. They never truly got resolved, and they never can be, which is why the book haunts me so at age 30. Why she thinks a preteen is the only one for whom this book is appropriate is beyond me. If she figured out the answers to death at age 14, I sure wish she’d come share it with me.
She also has this to say:

But even the myriad defenders of YA fiction admit that the enjoyment of reading this stuff has to do with escapism, instant gratification, and nostalgia. As the writer Jen Doll, who used to have a column called “YA for Grownups,” put it in an essay last year, “At its heart, YA aims to be pleasurable.”

I’m not sure what she counts as a “myriad” since she doesn’t explain who she polled and/or interviewed, but I don’t know anyone who would self-identify as reading YA for instant gratification. Believe me; anyone who was into Harry Potter while the series was unfinished understands the utter futility of wishing for instant gratification.
But on a serious note, I’m baffled as to why she made this claim. General YA readers truly don’t, in my experience, say that the books allow them instant gratification or are primarily about nostalgia. Most readers of YA read a book because the protagonist is interesting and the story is captivating. Isn’t that why we read anybook? Also, how does the word “pleasurable” imply escapism or nostalgia? I find many adult books “pleasurable” that are far from escapist or nostalgic, and plenty of YA, too.

But crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way.

I’m not even sure what she means here. She seems to imply that viewing the world from a teen perspective becomes obsolete once you gain enough life experience.
But who says? Who says that teens see life in a fundamentally different way from adults? Yes, it’s true that we (hopefully) develop a more nuanced understanding of the world past age 18. We learn to take social slights with a grain of salt, we quit stressing about pimples, we start to see our parents as people rather than decrepit caretakers. But there are many things about life that we do see accurately as teenagers. By the time I went to college, I had done much observing of life and death and hope and spirituality and social dynamics and dreams. Whatever immaturity hang-ups teens have, it doesn’t disqualify them from also knowing good and true things. In fact, sometimes I think I was wiser about certain issues—such as my work-life balance—at 17 than I am at 30.
Ironically, there’s even a scene from Fault In Our Stars that makes this very argument! (The scene in the Ann Frank House, anyone?)
Furthermore, when I’m, say, 50, should I stop reading adult literature that has 30-year-old protagonists? After all, I will have outgrown the 30-year-old perspective on life, according to Graham’s theory. Should we divide adult literature into “middle-age” and “elderly” genres and get snooty about the age groups directly below ours?

Most importantly, these books consistently indulge in the kind of endings that teenagers want to see, but which adult readers ought to reject as far too simple. YA endings are uniformly satisfying, whether that satisfaction comes through weeping or cheering. These endings are emblematic of the fact that the emotional and moral ambiguity of adult fiction—of the real world—is nowhere in evidence in YA fiction.

I take it she’s never read Hunger Games, which ends with the PTSD-riddled protagonist becoming estranged from the former lover involved in her sister’s death, and struggling to make a relationship with a man who formed a trauma-induced attachment to her.
I guess The Hanged Man is not on her shelf. It’s about a girl who comes to terms with being molested and ends the novel plotting how to save her best friend from a self-destructive fate (we never see the outcome).
Let’s assume she skipped my friend Sara Farizan’s book If You Could Be Mine, which ends on an emotionally devastating note when a character realizes she married someone she can’t love, and can’t do anything about it.
Do these books count as the “nowhere” that the ambiguity of the real world is evidenced in YA fiction?
For that matter, has Graham read any adult fiction? If emotionally “satisfying” endings that look to the future are a sign of immaturity, then we must re-categorize popular adult works like To Kill A Mockingbird, Rosie, Lord of the Rings, and Gilead, as being overly-simplistic YA. All of these have very satisfying endings and thus don’t fit her vision of the supposedly adult, supposedly real, world.
To be honest, this article got my dander up so hard because I hate when satisfaction and hope are seen as childish fantasies that one outgrows. If one seriously believes this, why would one even get up in the morning, let alone stare at a glowing monitor and type a series of symbols in hopes to create meaning and communicate with fellow creatures about the genre of meaning-making symbols they read?
You may think I’m waxing philosophical, but really. We walk around and form attachments and contribute to society because we think there is some spark of hope in what we do, some meaning, and we follow that instinct in spite of ambiguity and hardship. It’s not that kids enjoy hopeful endings because they haven’t learned better; it’s that people enjoy hopeful endings because their hearts just won’t stop yearning that direction.
Let’s finish this train wreck. Graham proves that she hasn’t actually understood Fault In Our Stars when she claims that the protagonist Hazel “finds messy, unresolved stories unacceptably annoying,” (even though Hazel is the character who constantly reminds others that the prospect of death is pointless and messy and irresolvable through platitudes). Graham gives hollow lip service to politeness by claiming that she doesn’t wish to shame anyone’s reading list (this is the blogger’s equivalent of the “No offense, but…” routine, in which yes, one actually does mean offense). She encourages adults to read about protagonists they can’t empathize with (I guess Ann Lamott will now have to be considered a YA writer, because Lamott is famous for stating in her book Bird by Bird that “I like for narrators to be like the people I choose for friends, which is to say that they have a lot of the same flaws as I.”) And finally, she states that adults are “better” than all this satisfying YA crap.
If being an adult means going beyond hope, satisfaction, and empathy, then, my friend, I am not along for the ride. I will remain a young adult for the rest of my life, along with many of the most famous adult writers of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
And that’s really where the subject touches home for me. It’s not just about the lack of knowledge of the YA genre, nor the logical fallacies in her article, nor the frustration of a writer arguing about books she doesn’t understand, or even the hair-tearing at watching someone claim her insults aren’t insulting. This is also about whether adults are allowed to be hopeful—whether cynicism is the mandatory mantle of the high school graduate. She seems to think that with increased intellect and life experience comes decreased satisfaction and hope and pleasure.
Probably the best thing I can say in response to that, is this:
J.R.R. Tolkien was a genius. Really, the man was no dummy. He invented, in one lifetime, the kind of mythology that typically takes centuries to develop. He was fluent in several dead languages, and snored his way through school at Oxford, where he ended up teaching.
This extremely intelligent adult also had a very hard life. He grew up with no father and lost his mother at a young age, forever scarring him emotionally. As a teenage orphan, he was separated from the love of his life for many years due to the short-sighted decision of his legal guardian. When he later found his love and married her, they often had a difficult home life, strained even further when he went away to the horrors of World War I. He saw friends die. He lurched through middle age carrying the emotional battle scars and living what most would consider a drab and unremarkable life, lost his wife years before his own death, and finally passed away without fanfare or trumpets in the 1970s.
Yet this remarkable man, much smarter and more acquainted with the sorrows of the world than I or Ruth Graham will probably ever be, coined the term “eucatastrophe,” which means a sudden and unexpected reversal from bad circumstances into incredibly good ones. It is described as a sudden “turn” from sorrow to joy.
Tolkien once commented on how frequently we experience eucatastrophes in real life…and how infrequently in the modern novel.