John Green reviews the Notes app and the strange phenomenon of sports rivalries.
John Green reviews the Notes app and the strange phenomenon of sports rivalries.
Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. My name’s John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing the Notes app for iPhones, and the strange phenomenon of sports rivalries.
But let’s begin with the Notes App, which debuted with the first iPhone in 2007. Back then, the app’s default font looked vaguely handwriting-y, and had a yellow background with horizontal lines between each row of text, an attempt to call to mind the ubiquitous yellow legal pads used for note-taking. Even now, the Notes App has a slightly textured background that mimics paper, an example of what’s called skeuomorphic design, where a derivative object--say, an app--retains now-obsolete elements of the original object’s design. Casino slot machines, for instance, no longer need a pullable arm, but most still have one. And many apps use skeuomorphic design--our calculator apps are calculator-shaped; our digital watches have minute and hour hands--perhaps all of this is done in the hopes that we won’t notice just how quickly everything is changing.
For most of my life, I took notes in the margins of whatever book I happened to be reading. I’ve never been the kind of person to carry a notebook around; I want to be a person who journals, who sits on park benches and has wonderful thoughts that must be immediately captured. But I usually found that my thoughts could wait, and if for some reason they couldn’t, I always had a book with me, and a pen in my pocket.
There are grocery lists in my copy of Song of Solomon, and directions to my great aunt’s house in The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. On page 241 of All the King’s Men, I wrote at the bottom of the page, “It rains for two days straight,” an idea I had for the plot of my first novel, Looking for Alaska. There are many other references to my stories in books I was reading. Sometimes it’s only a few words: FERAL HOG HUNT, scrawled in the margins of Our Southern Highlands, became part of the climactic scene in my book An Abundance of Katherines.
But when I reread those old books, most of my marginalia just baffles me. Why, on page 84 of my copy of Jane Eyre, did I write, You have never been so lonely? Was I even the you of that sentence? The notes depend on a context I now lack; they imagined I would remember the goings on of my daily life while I was reading Jane Eyre in college, when in fact all I remember is Jane herself, how Rochester called her “my sympathy,” how Jane said the way to avoid hell was “to keep in good health and not die.” I don’t remember why I was lonely, or even if I was.
These days, of course, a lot of reading happens on e-readers and phones and laptops, and I almost never have a pen in my pocket. But the problem of having neither pen nor paper was both caused and solved by the iPhone. It occurs to me that technology often brags about solving the problems it caused, but at any rate, the moment I acquired an iPhone in late 2007, I had a notetaking device with me all the time, not that my notes became any more comprehensible. Why, for instance, did I write in 2011, “They’re painting the ceiling of the Rijksmuseum?” Were they painting the ceiling of the Rijksmuseum? Or did I think that was a good line for a story? I have no idea.
But I can still parse some of the notes, and taken together they do form a strange kind of autobiography, a way into knowing myself through the lens of what I cared about. So here at the end of the twenty teens, I’d like to share with you one note I wrote into the Notes App from each year of this low dishonest decade.
2019: “Send Sarah Donald Hall quote.” My friend Kaveh had recently shared with me an essay called, “The Third Thing,” which Donald Hall wrote after the death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon. “We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention.” For Sarah and me, third things include our children, the Sunday New York Times crossword, and art, and I wanted to tell her about this essay and acknowledge and celebrate our third things. But I don’t know if I ever actually sent it to her. Things in the Notes app have a way of not getting done.
2018: “Discontinuity of tense and perspective hallmark of your time.” I have no idea what those words mean, but there they are, typed by me in March of 2018 with no further context.
2017: “Driving alone at night is heartbreak without the agony.” I had this thought while driving alone at night, and then I pulled over to write it down, which ruined the feeling.
2016: “No bright line between imagination and memory.” According to my Google calendar, when I wrote this I was at the home of my best friends, Chris and Marina. I suspect Sarah probably said a version of that line in conversation, and then I stole it. At any rate, it ended up in my book Turtles All the Way Down, which is about a kid who is constantly remembering what she imagined and imagining what she remembers.
2015: “This bar has lights everywhere but you can’t see anybody’s face.” One of the times I’m most likely to use the Notes app is when I’m uncomfortable in a social situation. I often feel like I can’t properly participate in conversation, because everything I say and hear has to be filtered through the sieve of my anxiety, and so by the time I understand what someone has just said to me and how I ought to respond, my laughter or whatever seems weirdly delayed. The fact that I know this will happen makes my anxiety worse, which in turn makes the problem worse, but I sometimes deal with this by constructing myself not as part of great conversations but instead as a chronicler of them. “This bar has lights everywhere but you can’t see anybody’s face” is something a movie star’s publicist said to my publicist at the bar of the Ritz Carlton in Cleveland, Ohio. I liked the line a lot and I’ll probably try to use it in a novel someday.
2014: “Strawberry Hill is not the luxury alcohol experience I remember it being.” I wrote this after I’d had a bottle of Strawberry Hill, a kind of wine I do not recommend.
2013: “Fire fights fire.” This phrase must have mattered to me, because I wrote it three separate times in the Notes app in 2013, but I have absolutely no idea what it meant. It’s a small reminder now that memory is not so much a camera as a filter. The particulates it holds onto are nothing compared to what leaks through.
2012: “Only line meant literally.” One day I was at church, and the gospel reading included Matthew 19:24, which goes, “Again, I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God.” The minister said that people take every line of the Bible literally except for that one, when it is the only line that is meant literally.
2011: “It was kind of a beautiful day -- only saveable sentence.” This one I remember quite vividly, because I was a sobbing mess when I wrote it. I’d spent almost a year working on a novel about six high school students who end up stranded on a desert island. I was stuck with the story so I decided to take a couple weeks away from it and then reread it. And when I went back to it with clear eyes, I found absolutely nothing--no heart, no wit, no joy. It had to be scrapped, except for that one sentence, “It was kind of a beautiful day.” I spent a year of my life for those seven words. I still like that sentence, though. It ended up in The Fault in Our Stars.
2010: “Her eyes on His eyes on” - I assume this note was written when I first noticed the pun inside a lyric from my favorite band, The Mountain Goats. Their song “Jenny” is about a girl in love with a boy who has just acquired a yellow-and-black Kawasaki motorcycle. And one of the song’s couplets goes, “And you pointed your headlamp toward the horizon / We were the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have His eyes on.” I don’t know why, but that line always reminds me of being in eleventh grade, lying in the middle of an open field with three friends I loved ferociously, drinking warm malt liquor, and staring up at the night sky.
Being the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have his eyes gets a solid five stars, but as for the Notes app?
Three and a half.
After the break we’ll turn our attention to football rivalries, but first…
Years ago, after our second child was born, I decided to get a vasectomy, a usually simple procedure that would render me sterile. We knew we didn’t want more kids, and the vasectomy seemed like the best solution, which is how I ended up visiting a hearty-looking, middle-aged doctor in downtown Indianapolis for a pre-procedure consultation.
We talked about the vasectomy and his extensive experience with them. He seemed like a competent professional, and I had been told he was the best vasectomy specialist in town, so I was more or less sold when, as the conversation was wrapping up, the doctor asked me if I was John Green the novelist. And I said I was, and then he said, “You tweet a lot about soccer. You’re a Liverpool fan, right?” And I said I was, and he said, “When I lived in London, I became a big fan of Manchester United,” and I told him that nobody was perfect, and he said, “That’s just what I was thinking about you,” and then we both laughed a little uncomfortably and I chose someone else to do my vasectomy.
I simply could not bear the thought of being rendered infertile by a Manchester United supporter. I know it’s stupid, and irrational, and that sports don’t matter, and that I don’t live in Liverpool anyway, but I have been a Liverpool fan for most of my life, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay a self-identifying Red Devil to press a scalpel against my testes.
What’s beautiful about football is how it brings people together, how a shared love of a team can overcome all other barriers. Like, I don’t particularly like shaking the hands of strangers, let alone hugging them, but a few months ago, I found myself in a bar in New York City just after Liverpool won the European Championship, and a stranger grabbed hold of me and pulled me into an embrace. And after a moment, I noticed he was weeping on my shoulder, and I didn’t know why he was crying until I discovered that I was also crying.
A few months before that, I was in Sierra Leone talking with a young man about football, and although we lived far away from each other and did not share much in the way of language, we found a way to tell each other where we were in 2005, when Liverpool won the Champions League, and we found a way to sing the praises of Liverpool’s Egyptian star, Mohamed Salah. I’ve had similar conversations from Hollywood to Indianapolis. When I meet a Liverpool fan, we don’t need to know each other to be friendly with each other, because we share a third thing.
At their best, team sports--whether you’re on the field or in the stands--are about being together, about celebrating together and grieving together and playing together. At the beginning and end of every game, our fans sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” a showtune from the musical Carousel that was refashioned into a pop song by Gerry and the Pacemakers only to be refashioned again into a hymn by Liverpool fans. “Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart, and you’ll never walk alone,” goes the chorus. I need to feel unalone to make it through this vale of tears, and Liverpool helps me.
But we are not only bound together by a shared sense of what we love. We are also joined by what we revile, and what we revile most is Manchester United. There’s a famous line often attributed--probably incorrectly--to Genghis Khan, that “the greatest joy for a man is to defeat his enemies, to drive them before him, to take from them all they possess, to see those they love in tears, to ride their horses, and to hold their wives and daughters in his arms.” That is a vile way to conceive of joy, fueled by the hatred that has given us the darkest days in the history of our species, and I want nothing to do with it. I am disgusted by the notion that life knows no greater joy than to see one’s enemies laid dead before you.
And yet, that is part of the human story--not just the human story, actually, but also my human story. Melinda Gates has written, “Every society says its outsiders are the problem. But the outsiders are not the problem; the urge to create outsiders is the problem.” I’ve seen how my own religious tradition has created and demonized outsiders to solidify the power and connectedness of insiders. I’ve seen the same thing in Internet communities and music fandoms. And I have certainly seen it in football fandoms, including my own. I’ve often asked myself if I can love Liverpool without hating Manchester United, and the answer I come back to again and again is: Maybe someday, but not today. I’m reminded of St. Augustine’s magnificent prayer: Lord, make me chaste. But not yet.
One of the defenses I see for rivalries is that they’re healthy, or that they sublimate our desires to break up into tribes and kill each other. But it’s astonishing to me how quickly, especially in a group setting, harmless ribbing can turn into dehumanization. Liverpool and Manchester United fans are always singing back and forth to each other harmless and humourous cruelty, but there’s also much else going on. Ninety-six Liverpool fans died in a human crush at Hillsborough Stadium in 1989, which was caused by ”grossly negligent failures by police.” But the Rupert Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper ran a series of false stories claiming that the Hillsborough disaster had been caused by drunken Liverpool fans, and even accusing those fans of robbing the dead, which is why The Sun newspaper is still boycotted throughout Liverpool, and also why it hurts so much to hear United fans sing, “The Sun is right / You’re murderers.”
Manchester United’s darkest day was February 6th, 1958, when eight United players and three staff members died in a plane crash in Munich, Germany, and you will still hear Liverpool fans singing about that. This is the kind of cruelty that we are only capable of when we stop thinking of each other as human beings, whose hearts all break in the same places. And although physical violence between fans is less common now than it was in past decades, hatred--not just toward rival teams but also racism and misogyny and jingoistic nationalism--are deep problems in football, because they are deep problems in the world.
But I don’t believe we need to create outsiders, or dehumanize others. There is a way to be rivals without being enemies. I know this because of American football. When I was in high school in Birmingham, Alabama, about half the school supported Auburn University’s football team, and the other half support the University of Alabama. Those two communities are extremely serious--in high school, I knew a girl whose parents named her Tiger, after the Auburn University mascot. I know people whose grandparents were buried in University of Alabama caskets. And yet, when the two teams play each other on the Saturday after Thanksgiving each year, Auburn and Alabama fans intermingle in many parts of the stadium. Sometimes, they party together. That’s not to say there’s never tension or violence. But by and large, they make fun of each other, and they root against each other, but nobody celebrates anybody else’s tragedies.
So is it possible for a strong us to exist without a hated them? I really believe it is, and I know that will seem naive to many people. It is human for crowds to become mobs, and for banter to become hateful. I don’t mean to deny that. But I think it’s wrong to throw up our hands and say that it’s just human nature to wish to see our enemies laid dead before us. The truth is, we are making up “human nature” as we go along, and “we” always do better when we acknowledge the humanity and the value of “them.”
I give sports rivalries two stars.
Thanks for listening to The Anthropocene Reviewed, which was written by me, edited by Stan Muller, and produced by Rosianna Halse Rojas and Tony Phillips. Joe Plourde is our technical director and Hannis Brown makes the music. Thanks also to Danielle, who suggested a review of sports rivalries. If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, you can email us at anthropocenereviewed at gmail dot com. We’re also on Twitter and Instagram, where you can see Nadim Silverman’s extraordinarily beautiful illustrations for each episode. Thank you again for being here with us. We’ll leave you today with a little reminder that whether you love football or not, you will never walk alone.