Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human centered planet on a five star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’m going to review seventeen--that’s right, seventeen--topics suggested by listeners who emailed me at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com.
Thousands of you have been kind enough to write in despite the email address being nearly impossible to spell. You send suggestions and encouragement. You send your own beautifully written and carefully considered reviews, or you send your worries and fears and hopes. People sometimes write to tell me this podcast has made them cry, so I guess I should reveal in turn that your emails make me cry almost every day--with joy and anger and shared grief. I cry because I am moved by what humans can do for each other, and because I am moved by what we can’t, or don’t, do for each other.
I don’t respond to the emails, which I feel bad about, but it’s not practical to respond to each one and to respond with a form letter would feel wholly insufficient, and so I choose to leave the other end of the line silent. I’m sorry about that, and I hope you’ll forgive me and accept by way of apology this listener suggestion spectacular.
First, twelve-year-old Beatrice wrote in to say that she is bullied at school and wants me to review being a tween. Beatrice, I am sorry that people are being cruel to you. I was also bullied when I was your age, and it was horrible. Bullying is often a trap there’s no simple way out of; it feels like no matter how you respond, they’ll keep ridiculing you, because it’s not about you or your response; it’s about their desire to feel bigger by making you feel smaller. There is a song by my favorite band The Mountain Goats called You Were Cool, and part of it goes, “It’s good to be young, but let’s not kid ourselves / It’s better to pass on through those years / And come out the other side / With our hearts still beating.” Beatrice, you are going to pass on through these years and come out the other side with your heart still beating. It is hard to be between things, so much so that your time of life is named for betweeness. And I’m sorry that being twelve sucks. It will pass, but even so I give tweenness two stars.
Speaking of my favorite band, several of you have written in to recommend that I review The Mountain Goats. I don’t know how to tell you about my love for their music except to say that it is genuinely unconditional. I do not have a favorite Mountain Goats album or song; they are all my favorites. Their songs have been my main musical companion since my friend Lindsay Robertson played me the song “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” half my life ago. The Mountain Goats have shaped the way I think and listen so profoundly that I don’t know who I would be without them, only that I wouldn’t be me. I mean, I don’t want to overstate it, but there are moments in Mountain Goats songs that are almost scriptural to me, in the sense that they give me a guide to the life I want to live and the person I wish to become. Consider, for instance, this couplet: “You were a presence full of light upon this Earth / And I am a witness to your life and to its worth.” That’s a calling to me--to present more light, and to better witness the light in others. Five stars, obviously.
Coco suggested that I review automatic doors. I like that automatic doors open for people, but I also kind of like that they open for other animals? Like, I recently watched a video in which automatic doors opened for a moose, and while I realize it isn’t ideal for the moose or the grocery store to have a moose in a grocery store, I was nonetheless delighted by the underlying idea of doors that will open for literally anything that is large and mobile. I give automatic doors four stars.
Penelope wrote to ask that I review Spoonerisms, a form of wordplay named after the English minister and Oxford Don William Spooner, who was supposedly prone to them. In a spoonerism, sounds at the beginnings of words are swapped--Spooner once supposedly said, for instance, that the lord is a shoving leopard, rather than a loving shepherd, or that it is kisstomary to cuss the bride, rather than customary to kiss the bride. One notable fan of spoonerisms was the Chinese-American linguist Yuen Ren Chao, who invented a widely adopted way of transcribing Chinese words into the Latin alphabet. He also translated or helped translate many books, including the work of his wife, Buwei Yang Chao. She was a doctor who cofounded an obstetrics hospital in China before moving to the U.S. and becoming an author. Buwei Yang Chao’s 1945 book How to Cook and Eat in Chinese helped introduce many Chinese dishes to an American audience; it’s also one of the wittiest cookbooks of all time. About arguing with her daughter, Buwei Yang Chao wrote, “You know how it is with modern daughters and mothers who think we are modern.” How to Cook and Eat in Chinese and Buwei Yang Chao’s equally fascinating memoir Autobiography of a Chinese Woman have been out-of-print for decades, unfortunately, but among those books’ lasting gifts to us are the English terms “stir fry” and “pot sticker.”
Potstickers for me are a solid four and a half star food; stock pickers, of the investment banking variety, I give two and a half stars. As for spoonerisms? Let’s split the difference. Three and a half stars.
After the break, we’ll have reviews of dazzle camouflage, headphones, and much more, but first…
Lora wrote to ask I review dazzle camouflage, a brief and strange attempt--mostly during World War I--to camouflage ships using stripes of contrasting colors. Warships were painted like zebras, basically, or like MC Escher artworks. Light and dark stripes would interrupt and intersect each other such that, especially in the distance, dazzle camouflaged warships became a kind of op-art, and the human eye would struggle to figure out which part of the ship was which, or even what kind of ship it was. There is little evidence that dazzle camouflage actually worked, but it still became quite common, especially in the British navy. Mostly, when I think of dazzle camouflage, I think about how strange 1918 must have been. It was an exceptionally deadly year for humans, thanks to World War I, a flu pandemic, and the ongoing horrors of colonialism. Mechanization and internationalization had promised to make human life better, but instead life expectancy was lower on average than it had been in 1908 or 1898. It all must’ve felt so baffling and self-contradictory and absurd. It’s telling to me that one of the lasting images of that era, John Nash’s 1918 painting Over the Top, at first glance appears to be a kind of dazzle camouflage-- dark and light forms intersecting--before you realize it’s a painting of soldiers going over the top of a trench into a snow-covered field. We would like to imagine, of course, that the contradictions of modernity are behind us in this post-modern world, that the dazzle camouflaged past is settled but as William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Who knows which part of the ship is which, especially now. I give dazzle camouflage one and a half stars.
While we’re on the topic of the not-past, so many of you have requested reviews of pandemics. I understand the urge to put a positive spin on negative experience, but I find nothing to recommend about pandemics. I’m not here to criticize other people’s hope, but personally, whenever I hear someone waxing poetic about the silver linings to all these clouds, I think about a wonderful poem by Clint Smith called “When people say ‘we have made it through worse before.” “All I hear is the wind slapping against the gravestones / Of those who did not make it,” the poem begins. I give pandemics one star.
Zeenath wrote me to say that his sister Afifa had introduced him to the podcast--thank you, Afifa--and to ask if I would consider reviewing headphones. Like many of the things I rely on daily and assume to be permanent fixtures of human history, I had never previously thought about headphones. But here’s how new they are: While some headphones were used by radio operators and the like before this, the first stereo headphones for listening to music were developed in 1958 by John C. Koss, a jazz musician who is still alive. Stereo headphones are younger than Burger King. The magic of headphones has always been that you can listen to music nobody else can hear, a private and personal soundtrack to your life. This was especially useful to me as a teenager, but I still rely upon headphones to give me privacy in public settings. The phonograph made music recordable and distributable at a huge scale, but headphones made recorded music--and podcasts--what I often need it to be: unshared and unshareable. Of course, there are downsides to being able to drown out the world, but still, I give headphones four and a half stars.
Chris and Michael wrote to suggest a review of the Times New Roman font. We all have friends who we remain close to because of history and circumstance rather than a deep inherent affinity. Like, yes, on any given day, you might prefer to hang out with Georgia or even Cambria, but Times New Roman has a place in your life, and it has been good to you and reliably legible in times when you needed a font, and so even though it isn’t your first choice font these days, you still give it three stars.
A listener named Tara, or possibly Tara, wrote in to suggest I review that thing people do where they sign their emails with one letter, or just their initials--a habit that by the way I can report that has been adopted by many listeners of this podcast. I used to do this, too--it just felt somehow better or cooler to dash off a quick JMG at the end of the email, as if I were a little too busy to type my name, which is to be fair one entire letter longer than my initials. But then my friend Amy Krouse Rosenthal wrote in one of her books, “I cannot be the only one who finds it slightly self-important to sign emails with one’s initials,” and it is perhaps a further sign of my self-importance that I was pretty sure she was writing at least in part about me, and so I’ve abandoned the practice. But if your name is significantly longer than your initials, I suppose it’s justifiable. Two and a half stars.
Keaton, a young person in Minnesota, wrote to me, “hello, I am not very good at writing emails but i think you should do a bit on the mineral iron. it is a very good mineral.” I agree, Keaton, and it’s strange to consider that although I myself am made out of chemical elements, I’ve never paused to review one. By mass, iron is the most common element on Earth; it’s also the most common nutritional deficiency in humans. Iron and the steel derived from it make human tools, and also human weapons. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without iron, of course--and indeed, I couldn’t live in such a world, but I have reservations about iron, too--about iron fists and iron curtains, and for that matter, I’m not too keen on spinach or red meat. Still, iron made both the Anthropocene and its residents possible, so I feel like I have to give it five stars.
Kaycee requested a review of bath bombs, which were invented in 1989 by a British woman named Mo Constantine. She was inspired by Alka Seltzer, a tablet that becomes effervescent when placed in water. Mo Constantine was the cofounder of Lush Cosmetics, which remains in my opinion the world’s best purveyor of bath bombs. I love bath bombs, and really anything that makes a warm bath feel special and calming and relaxing. I also use candles and lavender-scented bath salts. I take at least four baths a day and I really, really love them. I can enjoy an excellent shower as well, but in general I find showers to be vastly overrated. I understand that they use less water and in some cases can get you cleaner, but for me taking a shower feels like being attacked by millions of tiny pellets of water. A bath is calm, and enveloping, and most importantly to me, very quiet. In fact, sometimes, I’ll close my eyes and the only sound I’ll hear is the fizzing of the bath bomb and what Sylvia Plath called that old brag of my heart: I am I am I am. I give bath bombs four and a half stars.
A 13-year-old listener in the Philippines named Miguel wrote recently to ask that I review memes, a topic many of you have emailed about. I first encountered what we might now call an Internet meme in 1993 on Compuserve, where users on the teen forums would arrange text characters into figures that would tell jokes, or riff on other jokes, or make arguments, and so on. Now of course I am so old that many contemporary meme formats just baffle me, partly because I don’t know enough about Spongebob, but partly because meme language has become extremely sophisticated and nuanced precisely so that old people won’t understand it, allowing those in-the-know to enjoy their deep fried, metadank meme discourse without idiots like me butting in. I give memes four stars.
Croix, Katherine, and Cameron each wrote to request a review of sporks. The only thing I like about sporks is that in two separate cases, they are one t away from being something wonderful--storks or sports. The fundamental failure of a spork is that, like so many other combinatory inventions, instead of being a spoon that is also a fork, it is a bad spoon that is also a bad fork. Another example is the beer helmet, a one-and-a-half star invention that Charlie asked me to review wherein two cupholders are attached to a helmet. You then drink the beer through a straw that is also attached to the contraption, except 1. The thing never works right, and 2. Who wants to drink beer through a straw? Of course, sometimes combinatory inventions turn out somewhat better--like, as a child, I liked having an alarm clock that was also a radio, and as an adult, I like having a portable telephone that is also a calculator and a portal to vast archives of information and a device for playing Tetris. But for a combinatory invention to work, the alarm clock must not get worse when becoming part of a radio. A spork can neither spoon nor fork as well as its progenitors, so for me it’s two stars.
Alex, Jason, and Kaila were among those who wrote in to suggest I review the moon. When I was young, I found the moon to be a bit maudlin for some reason--it’s just so bright up there, and its phases are a little over the top for my tastes. It’s like, “Look at all my beautiful angles.” Maybe I’ve been soured by reading so many stories in which the beloved is compared to the moon--turning always away, here one day and gone the next, waxing and waning, etc. Anyway, something about the moon always roused my cynicism. But then one night, when I was twenty-two years old, I was working a 24-hour shift as a student chaplain at a children’s hospital, and I went outside to smoke a cigarette around three in the morning. I was sitting on a curb, bone-tired, looking out at this empty playground when I noticed that I could see the playground and the shadows it cast not because of streetlights but because of the moon. I suppose I’d known moonlight existed, but somehow I’d made it to adulthood without ever having a personal experience of it. And there was the world, lit by something that cannot shine light but still finds a way to share light. On that night, and since, I’ve found quite a lot of hope in that fact. So I give the moon four stars, even if it is a little cheesy.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Jenny Lawton. Joe Plourde is our technical director, and Hannis Brown makes the music. And thanks again to all of you who’ve written in over the years, or reviewed the podcast on your local podcast listening service. If you’d like to suggest a review, or just say hi, our address is anthropocene reviewed at gmail dot com. The other end of the line may be silent, but my ear is always to the phone. Thanks again for being here.