Episode 22: An Absolutely Remarkable Thing – Or so we try to be…
Okay, I’m pretty sure you are all assuming that this is some sort of bait and switch, right? I’ve been setting up for it. For one, my reviews have never been anything close to timely. The only one that comes close is my To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before review, but even that wasn’t really about the recently released Netflix movie, so much as it was the book, which had been out for a while. Whereas this book came out last Tuesday.
Second, the introduction for the last episode included a call back to the one bait and switch intro I tried to do and assured you that I’d never actually be able to do it. So obviously, you should be on guard for the next time a title looks too recent to be true.
Well, nope. This review is going to be exactly what I say it is.
Let me just explain why there’s normally such a long delay between release of ‘thing’ and my review of ‘thing.’ For one, the premise of the show is that I want to talk about media that had a profound and subjective effect on my life or relevance to my life. Those are the sort of things that only reveals themselves in time. And on the other hand, the only appliance in my mental kitchen for thoughts is seemingly a slow cooker. Anything that gets generated quickly is generally something I can’t stand with long term. Or the larger logical schema underlying it is not consistent. Whereas, I’m usually proud of the thoughts that take a long time to come out. Usually.
But I think the type of week I’ve had at work sped up the thought process. What kind of week did I have, you may be asking? Well, I came home one day from work and stress ate a pack of tortillas completely straight. Nothing in them and nothing on them. Completely plain. Oh, and I didn’t have tortillas in my apartment. I had to go to the store and buy tortillas, just so I could go home and eat a bunch of them without anything in them or on them. So yeah, not objectively bad but frustrating enough to moderately rewire my brain for far longer than I would have liked.
However, pondering just how my life took the subtle but absurd turn that is eating a bunch of recently purchased tortillas likely jump started the baking of these other ideas. Which I guess would be a win. I’m not sure, but at the very least, the thoughts you are about to hear used to be vaporous clouds in my mind that finally have a focal point around which to solidify. Odds are, this isn’t going to be a half-baked and logically inconsistent rambling, but I mean, they aren’t great odds.
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Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 22.
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An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is Hank Green’s debut novel, released on what is—for me making this episode—last Tuesday, but if you are listening to this in the future… Hi. Hopefully, you’re having a good day. It was released in late 2018, by the way.
It’s the story of twenty-three-year-old April May who fell into the chaotic life of online celebrity when she finds a ten-foot-tall robot wearing Samurai-esque armor on the street at three in the morning. Okay, well that’s missing a step. Together with her friend Andy, she makes a YouTube video of the event which then goes viral. Which is what makes her an online celebrity. Sure, she’s got a great online personality for online video, but it helps that these Carls, as she calls them, have mysteriously shown up in cities all over the world and not only do they seemingly refuse to obey social conventions about where it is you can stop and take up exorbitant amounts of space in a public area, they also refuse to obey the laws of physics.
Now, if you didn’t know, Hank Green knows a lot about digital life and the pitfalls of being in the digital spotlight. He and his brother John Green have something akin to a digital empire what with the amount of popular Youtube channels between the two of them: vlogbrothers, Crash Course, hankgames, Sci Show, predominantly. And podcasts like Dear Hank and John and Delete This. Also Vidcon, which is the point at which so much digital content converges. And Podcon, which is getting there in so far as the wild west of the podcast world could converge onto one point.
But digital stardom, if you could permit the use of the term, is a weird phenomena, and one that even someone who has experienced it might struggle to explain. So for Hank Green putting such a profound and increasingly socially relevant experience like this into a novel makes complete sense. There’s an expansive literature on the virtue of using storytelling as a communicative tool, though for my master’s thesis, I had to focus on the therapeutic aspect of this, so there’s a lot I never got around to reading.
However, it does put the issue of understanding squarely on the reader’s shoulders. Which is a statement that might not make sense. Because, yes, listeners in conversations or lectures do have some responsibility to try and comprehend what words are coming at them. But I’d argue it’s different when it comes to a story. With a story, not only do I have to understand the words that are coming at me, I also need to make sense of an entire reality that another person has devised as a reflection of their own. There’s a lot more punch to the words just because some of the premises we would likely share in a conversation are now out the window. In other words, we can see a complete stranger’s reality, but now, we have to understand it, usually by using our own as a frame of reference.
And just to explain why I’m not inclined to think this is easy, I’m firmly in the Nelson Goodman camp, who tries to explain across his work that there is a sense of relativity in all we understand. That our worldview is often based on a vocabulary we learned throughout our lives and surprisingly isn’t as universal as we may think, but I’m getting ahead of myself and to a project Miscellany Media Studios doesn’t have the resources to start just yet. So if you want to put a pin in that, don’t use a pin you’ll need any time in the next year.
The point I wanted to make, is that readers have a somewhat arduous task of not just understanding what the author is trying to say but how the author understands the world and how their world connects to the world as we know it. Reading is a test in empathy, and as with all exams, it’s never THAT difficult to fall flat on your face.
And for a while, as I was stress eating the aforementioned tortillas, it seemed inevitable that this was going to happen, that in reading An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, I wasn’t going to understand the point because I am someone who finds comfort in my cosmic insignificance.
And that’s a pretty controversial opinion.
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AART [the acronym of the book, just to clarify] is about April May’s desire to be seen as remarkable or to just matter. She got this chance to claim a stake in the world, and she took it. Whereas, I like that the inevitable heat death of the universe is going to erase all trace of my existence of the time I tripped down a couple steps in the college dining hall or the complete implosion that was the last week at work or a certain aspect of my senior year in college. Or even the years in high school that I spent in an extracurricular activity that I swear up and down only damaged my mental health long term rather than being a life enriching activity that produced life-long friendship. Which was the thing I was promised.
Ultimately, April and I have two different perspectives. She wants to cherish all the amazing things she’s done while I’m hyper-aware that my stupid mistakes (ones I didn’t list here) likely had effects on other people, and I hate to think I have hurt anyone in the course of my life. Wipe the cosmic slate clean and both are gone.
But look, setting my potentially problematic world view aside for the rest of this review… When I first read, AART, I wondered if it didn’t accidentally disprove the whole “there’s only x number of potential plots in literature” but melting them down into one. Namely, person versus their own powerlessness and cosmic insignificance. But that quickly falls apart when you realize that powerlessness has to just be innate in all narratives because I doubt an all-powerful being would put up with an inciting force that creates conflict. You need to limitations to have conflict, i.e. plot. And so this can’t be a conflict type in and of itself. It’s just the sort of thing conflict is made of.
But that creates its own set of questions for me because if we are aware on some level that we are powerless, why are we trying to fight it so hard? Which is not a fair question but a question born from my at times problematic world view that I apparently can’t set aside. Of course we want to fight it because it scares us. If we aren’t in control of anything, bad things can and probably will happen.
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In college, I had a professor whose wife was a pediatric nurse, and she told him who then told me that her patients tended to believe that their illnesses—no matter what they were—were punishments of one kind or another or somehow their fault. That their misfortunates were the product of their behavior and while that’s a troubling thought, there’s something nice about being able to believe this simply because it means you still have control. Stop being bad, and you will stop being sick. And this can be expanded to cover any number of things. Stop being insecure, and you’ll have a romantic partner. Stop being so unworthy, and your parents will finally love you. Stop being uncool, and you’ll have friends. Stop being negative, and you won’t have depression. Stop being anxious, and won’t have any more panic attacks. Take on the burden of responsibility, and suddenly, this problem won’t be something you have to deal with.
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And it’s not like there wasn’t a time when I didn’t believe this too. The nihilism didn’t set in until college. But even now, it’s not on 100 percent of the time.
Part of my job is event coordination, and you can bet when things fall apart, I still want to believe that it was a mistake I could have avoided and will be able to avoid next time.
But the relevant thing is, that this need to be in control when you have no chance of being control has taken on a new face in the digital age. Well, it isn’t exactly a new face but a heavily revised old face.
Namely, we do not have control over the consequences of our digital actions. But the stakes are absurdly high. Like global and the rest of your life high.
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Premise to this argument and something I’ve mentioned before. I’m a firm believer that there’s a difference between intention and effect. For example, a professor once gave me a copy of a book he wrote, one of many copies that he had taking up a great deal of space in his office. Intention: neat thing for a student to have that answers the vague and poorly articulated question she threw at me and also declutters my office.
But it turned out to be the final push I needed to live my own life without guilt or second thoughts. It pushed me to enter the graduate program I wanted without fear of the social repercussions that I knew were coming.
Intention versus effect. Sometimes they line up, and sometimes they don’t. Because you never know what’s happening in another person’s head. Or life.
It doesn’t help, of course, that things are rarely as simple as one intention and one effect. That’s just normally not the case, and probably not even the case here if you consider how my master’s program went, but that’s a story for another day. Several, actually, but maybe subscribe, and I’ll get there eventually.
Lately, I’ve started envisioning actions or even inactions as drops in the pond that ripple outwards. And the people on the outer most rings have no way of understanding who, never mind why, the person doing the inciting action was or what they were like. You made a choice to act—or not to act, I’ll throw that in there—and the world is slightly changed. Not cosmically, but just slightly in a way that is larger than you.
Ripple effect, it could be called, which is likely unoriginal, but right now, I don’t need it to be original. I need it to help you understand what I’m thinking. So I’m going to borrow from something that happened at a place I worked at to illustrate this. Just to explain, as part of one of my office jobs, I did catering at this office for semi-weekly, office-wide lunches we had.
So, here’s the thing. Someone in the office had a gluten allergy. Celiac disease, which—if you aren’t familiar—is not just a stomachache from eating bread. If you come into contact with gluten, it could cause your intestines to try and escape your body the only way they can. That’s the least graphic way I could put it. Some people need food from a strictly gluten free kitchen. Others just need a gluten free option. We’re talking about someone in the latter group.
Person I replaced never had a gluten-free option. Once again, we aren’t talking about things from a gluten free kitchen. Just ordering something that didn’t have gluten.
Is that more work? Yes, especially if you yourself have a very gluten-intense diet. Which is why I think she didn’t do it, but it certainly is something that can be done.
Now, when this person told me that they had allergies, they weren’t forthcoming about it or about what those allergies may have been. They just kept asking me about the menu until they caught me on a particularly off day, a day when lack of sleep had left me with an eye twitch that looks like is out of annoyance: when it’s really just annoyance that I had to get out of bed at five AM to catch a bus whose driver didn’t have serious road rage issues, but that’s neither here nor there. Seeing that twitch, they told me, after an apology, that they kept asking me because they had a food allergy and needed to know if they should count on skipping lunch or bring their own lunch.
Seeing the guilt on their face, I immediately replied, “I understand.” Which is not a great reply in that context, and you’ll quickly see why.
“Oh you have food allergies too,” they replied.
“No, but I… I can understand.”
What I should have said was “I can imagine,” which is what I meant: but exhaustion. I can imagine, even if it’s not accurately.
I imagine that this was a very frustrating state of being. Because, oh my word, there’s so much gluten in our lives, you have no idea. I imagine that the extra time I need to work out the menu was multiplied by 27 for each of their meals or was when they were first diagnosis. And sure the gluten-free craze likely helped, but the diagnosis probably came before the trend. I imagine that it was isolating, to never be able to eat with everyone else when food was so much a part of the company culture. I imagine that repeated pleas went ignored (rather flippantly if predecessor’s emails were anything to go by) and that made them feel smaller and more insignificant, maybe like no one cared and maybe they didn’t deserve to be cared about. Or that there was no place for them in this office.
And of course, that’s all speculation. Though it didn’t help that this person was not genuinely forthcoming about their allergy. I mean they never explicitly said what it was, but let it slip in excitement when I accidentally got gluten free cookies one day.
I also imagine, the secrecy was deliberate. I imagine that it’s just easier to never open up than it is to be rejected.
But after the cookie incident, I started ordering gluten free, even ordering from an entirely gluten free kitchen once or twice. It helped, of course, that I was stupidly in love with this person. In one of the most ill-advised crushes that there has ever been. [By the way, this wasn’t V but someone else] And I fell in love with their smile first and foremost, which… Gosh, they always smiled when they saw they could have lunch with us. You’ve heard of smiles that reach the eyes. Theirs went from the top of their head to the tip of their toes, making for the sort of absolutely remarkable thing that makes you believe the world isn’t a terrible place after all.
So, no, it wasn’t selfless. I loved that smile. And if we could never be together, fair enough, but that smile gave me life. And I wanted them to know that they were a part of one of the best work environments I’ve ever seen. I wanted them to know that they belonged. I wanted them to know that someone who didn’t really have to care cared for them greatly.
I’m not about to whine about being in the friend zone. Believe me, the saga with V proved that I could be happy for a person I was in love with, while standing on the outside of their lives. If the cards fell in this way but that person was happy, I can deal. Did it before will do it again.
But my message was that they mattered. That they were important. That they were wonderful and absolutely remarkable. Which was—I fear—immediately undercut.
Because yes, obviously no one knew I was in love with this person by sheer virtue of this being a super ill-advised crush. So what everyone thought—what the office narrative became—was that I was just the most considerate, caring person there had ever been. A saint among attorneys, as it were. Whatever I wanted this person hear in the silence above Gluten Free Pad Thai got lost in the stories our coworkers told. And that stung. Because I just wanted them to have a small sliver of affirmation that they were worth the supposed inconvenience and so much more. Instead, this got called my default state, not something I went slightly out of my way to do.
Intention: I want you to know you belong and are worth caring about.
Effect: Everyone collaborates to devise a literary epic. There’s a saint hanging around attorneys, mirroring the gospel stories where Jesus eating amongst the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Aren’t we so cool for coming up with this and also for hiring this person?
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My terrible and non-existent love life aside. AART shows the way intent versus effect and our powerlessness therein has manifested in our new digital age. There’s many ways this could be explained, so there’s probably going to be some follow up episodes that open up with the line “I probably should have waited to do my An Absolutely Remarkable Thing review.” For now, because this review is looking like it could potentially be longer than the other ones I’ve done [because half-baked thoughts, and also the catering story], I’m going to focus on the way this happens in the way we present ourselves. Something that both seems to be the center point of the story and also a great way to justify keeping the catering story.
Because, ultimately, while you can’t control what other people think of you, in a personal, one-on-one interaction, you can control what information gets divulged and when. You’re not necessarily changing yourself, but you’re tailoring the act of revelation in a way that has minimal risk for you in that context. For example, if you’re a man concerned that a seemingly nice person is actually homophobic, don’t mention your boyfriend right away. Or ever if that’s the only conversation you end up having with that person. Or if you are super into heavy metal, you may want to wait until you know what stereotypes that person believes about heavy metal listeners before you gush about your favorite band. Or maybe, in either case, you chose to lead with it. That’s fine too. Totally up to you.
But when you’re on a digital stage or could fall onto that stage at any time—which is technically all of us because of the nature of viral videos—you have or will lose that control once the lights come on. Once you or anything about you or anything you’ve done is put out there, it’s in the public record, and you have no completely effective way of filtering who sees which videos covering what subjects or your tweets about anything.
Take YouTube for example. What drives content discovery on that platform? Not the users. But the algorithm we hear all of our favorite YouTubers lamenting about.
Okay, you might be saying, but what drives the algorithm? That answer can actually be pretty scary. Because yes, engineers made the algorithm, but they can’t control the algorithm. I’ll link a CGP Grey video in the description that explains this better than I can. But the TLDR or TLDW version is that the most effective computer programs or algorithms have to and are able to teach themselves.
But okay, you may be saying if you’re frantically searching for straws, what are the algorithms focused on? Clicks and watch time. There’s no other strategy than that. It’s not about maximizing human relationships or human potential. It’s about keeping people on the site as long as possible and keep the related ad revenue pouring in.
[Just a quick aside, I’m not saying this to mean YouTube shouldn’t try to generate revenue or yell down with advertising. I want to take the argument one step away and just say, there are consequences to this choice—justified or not—that we probably should talk about]
Ultimately, ads don’t care what other people think of you, and really, they only care about you in so far as they can sell you things. Intention is basic. Effects can be profound.
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I once saw a Tumblr post saying something along the lines of “isn’t it weird that there’s potentially thousands of versions of you living in other people’s minds.” And I probably should have tried to find this post again, but Tumblr is a bottomless pit of content: if something falls in, you ain’t getting it back.
But forgetting that for a second, it is a weird thought, though. You know who you are, and you see yourself as an authentic, whole thing that can only occupy one place at any given time. But then you—or in this case, me—think about it for a few more seconds. And you remember the one time you made someone tear up in your master’s program or the time you walked someone eight blocks to their car because it was raining and you happened to have a very large, five person umbrella whereas they had none. Or the time you started a new tradition of ordering gluten free options for the office, out of love, but well, that didn’t land.
In each case, you were being who you are. The intention, being that you live our your life authentically—in a manner that was true to how you knew yourself to be—but the effect is completely out of your control. The effect is this supposed self-portrait you have painted in another person’s mind. In a dark room, not knowing what shades of paint the other person will set out for you or what they will make of the color splots and squiggles.
You do your best, but even the best artist can never be entirely sure that their effort will land. And personally—if I play the odds—I don’t think my land to miss ratio is all that great. Partially because my life philosophies and world view affect my actions in a way that can be hard to follow if you are not following my logic, which most people aren’t privy too. But that’s just me.
Let’s go back to the YouTuber who has maybe an array of online content stemming back a couple years. If you watch all the videos sequentially, you get to watch a person grow into themselves. But that’s if the algorithm decides to be kind and push you in that direct. And good luck with that. What the algorithm actually does is throw content at people violently and then jots down notes as to their reaction. By “reaction,” I mean whether or not you watch and how long you watch, not if this video gave you an accurate representation of the person who made it, of their perspective, or of the larger world.
Ultimately, with online content, there isn’t the same discretionary revelation process that we as a society depended on for so long. I can’t control what anyone knows about me. V or gluten free coworker could stumble on this podcast at any time, and because I’ve included conversations we’ve had, welp that’s another complication in my already complicated life. In which case, better buy tortillas in bulk. For a long time.
And yet, I still did this thing. I still made this show and included those stories. Despite all the complications a digital presence can create in our lives, “YouTuber” is still a dream profession for so many people, and you don’t see people chucking their computers out the window into a community wide bonfire. We stay on these platforms, we reveal what we think to be our authentic selves when maybe we shouldn’t. Even when we know we shouldn’t.
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Once again, enter April May to hit the nail on the head. Deep down, we want people to like us. We need their affirmation just to keep us going, as if they are saying that we do have a place in this world and that we do matter. And that we will never be alone. Because ultimately, we aren’t meant to be alone. Of all the figurative batteries in our head that we need to keep charged, there’s a social one as well amongst the ones for food, water, and sleep. Even the most introverted of all introverts have a few core people in their life who don’t drain their energy but instead recharge it.
We aren’t meant to be alone, and deep down, we probably know that this is the most surefire way to destroy us. And honestly, it may be a toss-up whether or not we have complete control over this means of our destruction. Because yes, we can’t make people like us, and sometimes we can’t control what people may think of us. But what we can do is seek out people who think like us or share the same likes or have personalities that click with us. We can search for people and for connections to ground us. We can build up communities with people whom with the technology of fifteen years ago, we had no hope of meeting.
In an age where we are all rootless—see my second podcast medley episode for a fuller argument on that—the digital void is our best hope. We don’t die within fifty miles of where we were born. We don’t share a life journey with a solid collection of people who will always be there for us. That’s a thing of the past. For all it’s charms, modern life made that impossible. And now the internet is our best hope. So as ill-advised as t may be, we’re going to keep exposing ourselves in this digital void. We’re going to keep shooting into the digital void. Especially when Gluten Free Pad Thai or anything like that doesn’t work like we wanted it to.
When you put it that way, I wonder if there’s any price we wouldn’t be willing to pay for an immunity to this specific weakness. To have people around you who will always, you think, love you for you, even when—in reality—it may be for our online persona. But as AART shows, that line can get blurry anyway.
And—as you can tell—this is where the thread that makes up this thought is starting to come undone. I told you, there’s a lot to unpack here. There’s a lot to unpack about our new digital existence anyway, and stories can give us the venue we need to hash out those ideas. Which all probably makes you think I’m a disorganized hot mess.
And you know what? I don’t think you’re wrong about that.
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Oh hey, new but temporary outro. October is coming, and Miscellany Media Studios has two new projects launching this month. One. The long awaited Night and Ink will launch sometime this month. We don’t exactly know when. Two, a surprise project. Shared Diaries-dot-online. Meet Alex, a person who falls in love way too much and needs to audit these failures to have any hope of this new love interest working out. Not a podcast but an online blog. First post goes live on Tuesday, October 2nd. Find it at shared diaries-dot-online. Or on twitter @DiariesShared if you want reminders about when to check out the website for the newest installments to Alex’s story.
Also you can find Miscellany Media Studios on Twitter @miscellanymedia for updates on current and future projects. That part didn’t change.