If These Be Nerds, May Their Number Increase…

John and Hank Green 4As readers of my recent Facebook page re-postings have already learned, the Internet rabbit-hole I’ve been exploring most recently is a site called vlogbrothers.

Montana-based Hank Green is, among other things, a musician; his brother John Green, who lives in Indiana, is, among other things, a writer whose bestselling novel The Fault in Our Stars is being made into a now-much-anticipated-by-me movie that will be released next year.

Somehow these two very busy people found the time and energy to begin routinely (about once a week, I think?) exchanging with each other – and, through the magic of the Internet, with us fellow Internet users – their videoed rants (or occasionally in Hank’s case, songs) about a multitude of topics.

However, when I’m watching/marveling at John’s or Hank’s videos, I don’t feel like either of them is ranting. Rants are what Rush Limbaugh does. Hank’s and John’s videos are more like – well, it’s difficult for me to desribe them. For me, these videos are hugely enjoyable and hugely edifying manic astonishments.

What John and Hank do is seize upon some single (and usually vexing or mysterious-to-most-of-us) fragment of our complicated universe – some poorly understood scientific factoid, say, or some war on the other side of the globe that the United States government has mired itself in or is currently slouching toward.

Then Hank or John suddenly hurls in your general direction a torrent of heretofore largely unreported/ undereported/ poorly reported-by-the-mass-media concentrated bits of intelligence and/or gratifying strands of common sense.

Every vlogbrothers video that I’ve selected to watch quickly grabs – and holds my complete attention. Within seconds, I consistently find myself smiling, and then laughing, and then thinking harder than usual about whatever John or Hank has chosen to talk about. Then, for the umteenth time, I realize how extraordinarily talented – and entertaining – these guys are at tackling complex subjects.

Their videos are cogent, succinct, information-rich commentaries on topics ranging from mass media news stories (or pseudo-stories) to social issues to scientific data or scientific theory to sundry the odd personal obsession.

Both Greens are indisputably intelligent, creative, articulate – and hilarious. But be warned: they both talk very, very fast, and pack a lot o’ information (laced with exquisite sarcastic asides) into always-exhuberant, gesticulation-saturated videos.

Some people might call John’s and Hank’s style nerdy or geeky, although I regard them as full-blown geniuses.  (And, hey, they are handsome, too.) They also seem to be inordinately good-hearted.

My own conversion from never-heard-of-these-guys to vblogbrothers fanboy happened through watching a semi-random sample of their giant collection of the videos they’ve made so far.

Instead of in the reverse chronological order you that you’ll find them displayed at YouTube’s vlogbrothers channel), here’s the order in which I came upon the ones I’ve watched so far:

John’s Why Are Americans’ Health Care Costs So High?

Hank’s presentation of intriguing maps – 42 of the dang things crammed into less than four minutes of video:

Hank’s 17 Rants in 4 Minutes:

Hank’s Syria in Five Minutes:

Hank’s 17 Air Travel Tips:

John’s Why Does Congress Suck?

Hank’s What is The Strongest Force on Earth?

Hank’s North Korea: Explained

Hank’s Why The Rich Pay Lower Taxes

Of course, I adored John’s oh-so-sensible Religion and Gay Marriage:

And here’s Hank, equally cogent (and equally entertaining) on that same issue:

In addition to watching these vlogbrothers videos, I’ve also watched another batch of videos John has been making about the fascinating and moving process of filming The Fault in Our Stars; taken as a whole, they transformed my notion of John from simply being Obviously An Amazing Guy to the higher status of One of Cal’s Favorite Living Americans.

Then there are the two videos Hank made that convinced me he, like his brother John, is a thoroughly decent person, and, also like John, is among the best as well as among the brightest of American citizens:

The day after a disturbed 20-year-old Connecticut male with access to his mom’s high-powered automatic rifle killed his mother and then walked in to Sandtown Elementary School and massacred twenty children, six adults, and, finally, himself, Hank posted this video:

The second video Hank made that testifies to Hank’s generosity and insightfulness is this delightful burst of free association:

Fortunately for you and me, there are dozens of vblogbrother videos still to watch.

Incidentally, each brother also posts frequently to his separate Tumblr site: Hank’s is here, and John’s is here.  And here’s a quickie history of the phenomenon of the Green brothers’s video bllogging project:

It’s because of creations like Hank’s and John’s videos that I feel lucky and grateful to be alive during the infancy of the Internet – and financially able to afford Internet access. Whatever else the Internet is or becomes, it provides a platform where creative and intelligent and hilarious people like these guys can share their heartfelt enthusiasms and helpful explanations of a complicated, annoying, dangerous, and exciting world with literally millions of appreciative fellow world-dwellers.

I also must credit the much-maligned Facebook for facilitating my discovery of the Green brothers. It was a Facebook friend’s posting of one of John’s videos that served as the portal to all the other ones.

After you thank me for bringing to your attention the vlogbrother videos, I’d love to hear from you about your own most startling and/or helpful Internet discoveries. Despite the thousand of hours I’ve spent surfing the Internet both before and after my retirement six months ago, entire regions of this vast digital resource remain completely unexplored by me; I’d love your help – as well as Mr. Google’s and Mr. Bing’s – in more efficiently unearthing the Internet’s treasures.

Meanwhile, as I discover them, I’ll continue posting to the sidebar of my blog various links to my favorite Interent sites, and from time to devoting entire blogposts to sites I particularly enjoy or otherwise benefit from.

If you’ll glance over at my blogroll – if you can find it over there underneath all those comments about the books I’m reading when I’m not surfing the Internet – you’ll notice that I’ve duly installed a hyperlink to vlogbrothers in the “Enthralling Personal Blogs” category. I’d be surprised if many of you don’t add vlogbrothers to your list of Internet favorites (or, if you blog, to your own blogroll). Yep, you could do that.

June 3, 2014 Postscript: The June 9th issue of the New Yorker features an article by Margaret Talbot about John Green, coinciding with the premiere of the movie version of John’s book The Fault in Our Stars.

Retirement Reflections: The Six Month Mark

who-cares-im-retired-clock

As of a few days ago, I’ve been A Retired Wage-Earner for an entire six months. Time for another brief self-check to record what this new era in my life feels like, compared to what it felt like the day after I retired, a week latertwo weeks after that, and three months ago.

My only other six-month-long hiatus from working full time was a leave of absence from work 30 years ago. (That long-ago break was a backpacking adventure in Europe with my partner at that time, who wanted to grandly celebrate his having finished grad school.) That magical interlude (apart from the freezing weather for the first half of it – we started out in the winter!) we spent amid a series of novel and therefore completely unfamiliar surroundings, and we spent most of that six months outdoors.

By contrast, I’ve spent this latest work-free six month period un-partnered, mostly (with the exception of two out-of-state trips: to Mexico in April and to California in July) in very familiar surroundings, and largely indoors, where Atlanta’s heat, humidity, and mosquitoes drive me into my air-conditioned house from about mid-June to mid-September. Plus I am 30 years older this year than I was in 1983.

One bit of retirement advice I feel completely confident to pass along is that one would be wise to be sure one likes the house and the neighborhood ones lives in, as – unless you can afford frequent trips away – you’re likely to be spending a lot of time in that house and in that neighborhood.

Precisely because I am fortunate in loving both my abode (tiny as it is) and my neighborhood, the first generalization to mention about my overall reaction to the past six months is that retirement still feels – most days – like a gloriously extended vacation, only a vacation spent at home, or at least in one’s home city. I’ve happened to have spent much of that time alone: my temporary house-mate Brad often house-sits elsewhere for extended periods. This is quite different from gallivanting around European capitals with a Beloved One.

Despite the differences in the two widely separated six month hiatuses from working during my adult life, I have begun to dimly sense that Not Working A Full Time Job has, finally become The New Norm for Calvin. Woe to anyone who might try to lure – let alone force – me back into the full-time work force – or even to a tempting job as a part-time worker!

Even after six months of it, I still find myself enjoying waking up and not knowing instantly the likely shape of that particular day. Even on the days that pass without my doing much of anything very interesting, there’s no chance that my occasional, fleeting nostalgic memories of “productive” work at the library system where I came into brief contact with so many people (colleagues and customers) are going to make me “miss” the termination of that long, long – and for the first half of it, satisfying – era of my adult years.

Shortly before I retired, I read somewhere that new retirees would be wise not to take on any major new volunteer responsibilities – and/or any part-time job – for at least six months. I decided to take that advice. My only weekly obligations these past six months were activities already undertaken before I retired in mid-March: Monday’s square dance class, Thursday’s T’ai Chi class, the Sunday silent meditation service at the local Quaker Meetinghouse. Once a month, I’ve continued to have lunch with some library colleagues, and I attend a monthly meeting of a GLBTQ archives awareness network.

Other than those five things – and decamping to the co-owned cabin in Blue Ridge, Georgia approximately one (extended) weekend per month, I’ve been making up my “daily schedule” as I go along. I haven’t even managed to start planning – and therefore be able to look forward to – another out-of-state trip of some sort.

What I’ve done with much of the free time since I’ve retired (well, after the spring gardening season ended, and the bugs arrived) won’t surprise anyone who knows me or takes a glance at the record of my book reading in the sidebar of this blog: I have had my nose in a lots of books.

After looking forward for decades to having the leisure to tackle, say, a dozen different books at once, picking and choosing from multiple titles what I happened to be in the mood to read, I’ve finally been able to do just that! Still reeling from the thrill of the recently commenced Era of Reading Voraciously, I’ve even gone so far as to create a list of Books That Cal Wants to Read – gleefully adding more titles to it every week, and not caring a whit about how lengthy this list has already gotten!

These past six months of self-imposed and rather stubborn lacksidaisicality/semi-idleness seem to have elapsed rather quickly, which has only added to the at-times rather disorienting nature of this longish spell of haphazardly planning – and often lazily spending – my days. (I still keep having to remind myself on some of my Sunday nights that I will not be heading back to work on Monday morning!) And I have sensed during the final three months of my six-months so far of retirement that my deliberately indefinite/nonexistent daily routine, while wonderful in its way, isn’t perfectly suited to my (apparently vaguely production-based) temperament.

What I envision emerging sometime later this fall – besides (Allah be praised) a return, very soon, to piddling around for hours at a time in the back yard (aka my garden) – is at least one ramped-up volunteer commitment (many more hours devoted to revamping the Quaker Meetinghouse library), and experimenting with at least one newly created activity (exploring Atlanta’s bicycle paths with the used bicycle I bought the last week of August, the day after setting foot for the first time on a paved portion of the Atlanta Beltline, and shortly before taking the three-hour bus tour of the entire projected Beltline).

Perhaps because of all those years I spent in school terms that always began in September, I’ve always felt that the new year really begins every autumn instead of on January 1st. With its cooler temperatures and fewer bugs and gardening opportunities and other occasions for being outdoors, fall is certainly my favorite season, so coming up on another one is filling me up as it usually does with a general feeling of excitement and optimism. The big difference this year will be that I’ll be spending the autumn months – however I choose to spend them – already relaxed instead of handicapped by the stresses and time-constraints of full-time work.

In short, retirement, for me, at the six-month mark anyway, remains A Very Welcome and Congenial Thing. I am lucky to be physically and financially healthy enough to continue to enjoy it, and I hope I find myself resourceful enough to eventually establish a better balance between too much and too little “scheduled” time and between too much and too little time alone.

Stay tuned: I should know more about these matters a year from now.

Another Exciting Book Festival!

DBF 2013

For the past several years, I’ve been deliberately staying in town over the Labor Day weekend so I can attend the annual Decatur Book Festival. A few years back, the DBF morphed into one of the largest literary festivals in the United States, and sampling the hundreds of author appearances and panel discussions each year has become a much-anticipated treat.

Saturday Highlights

Having missed Friday evening’s Festival keynote speech by Congressman John Lewis, co-author of the recently-published graphic novel March, I plunged into the Festival’s festivities by scootering over to the Decatur library’s early Saturday morning Friends’ book sale, held outdoors in front of the main library. Snagging my usual half-dozen bargain books – including, to my amazement and delight, a hardback copy of the best book I’ve read so far this year –  I stashed them in the storage tank of my scooter and threaded my way through the gradually-burgeoning crowds of festival-goers to the far edge of the Festival, where I listened to Justin Lee talk about his book Torn: Recovering the Gospels from the Gay-vs.-Christians Debate. Expecting an earnest, rather predictable diatribe, Justin charmed me with his thoughtful, often humorous,  humble, and quite unusual take on this issue. I also was impressed by David Helminiak’s generous and thoughtful introduction of Justin’s talk.

Rushing back to the other side of downtown Decatur, I joined the already full house poised to hear poet Richard Blanco, the gay Latino poet selected by President Obama to read at Obama’s second inauguration ceremony. Blanco’s stories about his Cuban parents’ and grandparents’ heritage and his journey as a writer and first-generation American was quite moving, and I was glad to hear him recite several excellent – and also moving – poems, including the poem he wrote for the inaugural, which I had heard about, but never actually heard or read. Blanco certainly deserved the standing ovation he received and I could’ve listened to a lot more of his poems had he been allotted more time to speak.

Having sat with friends to listen to Blanco, I followed them back across downtown Decatur to listen to India-born Manil Suri talk about his newest novel, The City of Devi, aided by a clever, special effects-laden PowerPoint presentation. Afterwards, a group of seven of us Festival-goers joined Manil for lunch before he had to leave to catch a plane back to Maryland where he teaches mathematics, the subject of Manil’s next book.

After lunch, most of us headed over to listen to a live interview of gay critic and writer Wayne Koestenbaum. My friend Franklin, in his own emailed re-cap of the Festival events that he attended, describes Koestenbaum perfectly as “the lovechild of John Waters and Woody Allen (or maybe PeeWee Herman), smart, funny, cute, peculiar” – certainly completely different than I’d imagined him from what little I’d read about him. Koestenbaum’s newest book is My 1980’s and Other Essays.

My next treat was a talk by Linda Hershman, author of Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution. Delightful in every respect, Hershman seems the quintessential Jewish/Marxist Grandmother, and her remarks on what she believes are the three essential ingredients of a successful social revolution were intriguing, and delivered with erudition and humor. I especially appreciated her overview of some not-well-known Supreme Court decisions related to gay rights and her interpretation – even more cynical than my own – of why President Obama (finally) lent his support to the cause of legalizing gay marriages in this country.

My final session for the first day of the Festival  involved another trek across Decatur to hear Georgia State University professor Jonathan Herman talk about his book Taoism for Dummies. Although Herman’s presentation style betrayed his classroom-presiding habits, he is obviously a humane and humorous guy, and he certainly did a good job of correcting the mostly-misinformation I’d picked up over the years about Taoism.

Sunday Highlights

Today’s first event was the only disappointing one of the entire Festival, and only mildly so. What was billed as a panel called “Do Book Reviews Matter?” was actually a vivid description of the selection and ethical dilemmas facing the five professional book reviewers who made up the panel. Hardly any time or attention was given to the new world of bloggers who review books, which is what I was hoping to hear more about. Still, each of the panelists (including novelist and critic Lev Grossman) were articulate and informative.

The next session I attended was, for me, probably the highlight of this year’s festival. It featured Alysia Abbott, author of the riveting memoir Fairyland:  A Memoir of My Father, which I read with pleasure shortly after it was published earlier this yearHaving assumed that Abbott would be merely reading selections from her excellent book, I was amazed and very impressed that Abbott instead narrated a slide show about her father – and former Atlanta resident – Steve Abbott ‘s career, with special attention to his activities in high school and to his time as a student at Emory as a gay activist. Since Alysia’s book – and an NPR radio interview with her – includes descriptions of her various personal struggles as Steve’s daughter, I’d expected her Festival talk to be mostly about how his life had affected hers. I was so wrong: her entire talk was a well-researched and moving tribute to her dad and his contributions to gay liberation. Once again, as so often happens at this festival, I came away more impressed by an author than I had been before I’d seen and listened to him/her speak from a podium.

After Alysia’s presentation, I left the Festival to make a pit stop at the annual sale at Books Again, a used book store located across from Decatur High School. Usually I find books to buy there, but not this year: the only temptation – even on sale, beyond my price range – was a coffee-table book about the canals of France. At next year’s sale, perhaps it would behoove me to take along with me to the bookstore my recently-begun list of Books Cal Wants to Read?

My final session for the day, and of the festival, was another wonderful experience: Clyde Edgerton’s reading from his hysterically funny Pappadaddy’s Book for New Fathers: Advice to Dads of All Ages. It’s been a long time since I laughed out loud so many times during such a short talk. Edgerton preceded and followed his reading and his extemporised remarks by singing a few songs he’d recently written, accompanying himself on guitar. One song was something about mamas not letting their children play with chickens; another was entitled “How Does a Glass Eye Work?” Hilarious.

Later on Saturday, I joined several of Franklin Abbott’s friends for dinner at Franklin’s house to talk about our respective Festival experiences. It was certainly interesting to hear about the sessions others had attended that I had missed, and to compare notes about our reactions to the sessions we’d all enjoyed together. The Festival sessions are so stimulating that being able to “de-brief” with other Festival-goers – especially such congenial ones – was an extra Festival-related treat this year.

Why I Love The DBF

Atlanta hosts numerous festivals each year, most of which have become so crowded with human festival-goers and so stroller- and/or pet-infested that I avoid them. There are several reasons I make sure I’m around every year to attend the Decatur Book Festival:

  • The authors and panelists are always excellent, and often surprisingly entertaining and creative and surprising.
  • Authors from the South are often featured, and bring with them that “Southren” sensibility that’s fun to revel in from time to time.
  • The sheer amount and variety of talent assembled: over 300 (!) authors of every kind of book you can imagine – detective novels, romance novels, literary fiction, children’s picture books, biography, religion, self-help, all manner of nonfiction, literary criticism, poetry. There’s so much to choose from, and so much of personal interest that I always end up being exposed to a mere fraction of the people I’d’ve liked to have heard.
  • The sheer festiveness of the Festival – the vendors’ tents, the food on offer, and the diversity – ethnicity-wise, age-wise, gender-wise – and high spirits of the attendees. This year, there were more performance arts (dance and theatre) events mixed in with the literary sessions than in previous festivals – although, inexplicably, there were no street musicians (like the Celtic harpists, for example, who I had thoroughly enjoyed in previous years).
  • Seeing – all during a single weekend – people from disparate arenas in my life – all of us simulaneously enjoying the same festive Festival.
  • Realizing how many people there are in this town who apparently still value books and who still apparently read the damn things! (Maybe the effort I invest in maintaining my Atlanta Booklover’s Blog isn’t a total waste of time?)
  • The festival’s convenient and pleasant environment. All DBF events take place within a single (if somewhat sprawling) pedestrian-friendly area with plenty of shade; one can park one’s vehicle once (or take MARTA); and despite the crowds, it’s possible to find a restaurant (or a food truck) to have lunch at without leaving the Festival area.
  • How well-organized the Festival is. The legions of volunteers responsible for getting the Festival events started (and ended) on time are obviously well-trained, and the Festival’s website is comprehensive and reliable.

It was great fun attending the DBF this year, I’ve enjoyed it in years past, and I hope the Festival has a long run in years to come.