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John Green reviews Indianapolis and the concept of love at first sight.

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Hello and welcome to The Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast reviewing different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green, and today I’ll be reviewing my hometown of Indianapolis and the concept of love at first sight, a phenomenon that I don’t believe in and yet have experienced.

Let’s begin with the city of Indianapolis, the sixteenth largest city in the U.S. by both population and land area. My wife Sarah and I moved here in the summer of 2007.

We drove a U-Haul with all our worldly belongings from the corner of 88th and Columbus in New York City to the corner of 86th and Ditch Road in Indianapolis, an incredibly stressful 16-hour drive. When we finally arrived in Indianapolis, we unpacked all our stuff and slept on an air mattress in our new home, the first place we’d ever owned. We were in our late 20s, and we’d bought this house a few weeks earlier after spending maybe a half hour inside of it. The house had three bedrooms, two and a half baths, and a half-finished basement, and our mortgage payment was a third of what our New York rent had been.

I couldn’t get over how quiet and dark the house was that first night. I kept telling Sarah that someone could be standing right outside our bedroom window and we wouldn’t even know, and then Sarah would say, “Well, but probably not.” And I’m just not the sort of person who is effectively comforted by probablys, so several times through the night I got up from the air mattress and pressed my face against the glass of the bedroom window, expecting to see eyes staring back at me but instead finding only darkness.

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The next morning I insisted that we buy some curtains, but first we had to drop off that U-Haul. At the U-Haul return place, a guy handed us some paperwork to fill out, and asked us where were coming from. Sarah explained that we’d moved from New York for her job at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and the guy said he’d been to the museum once as a kid, and then Sarah said, “So what do you think of Indianapolis?” And then the guy standing behind the counter at the U-Haul place paused for a moment and said, “Well, you gotta live somewhere.”

Indianapolis has tried on a lot of mottoes and catchphrases over the years. Indianapolis is “Raising the Game.” “You put the ‘I’ in Indy.” “Honest to Goodness Indiana.” But I’d propose a different motto: “Indianapolis: You gotta live somewhere.”

There’s no getting around Indianapolis’s many imperfections. We are situated on the White River, a non-navigable waterway, which is endlessly resonant as metaphor but problematic as geography. Furthermore, that river is filthy, because our ageing water treatment system frequently overflows and dumps raw sewage directly into the river. The city sprawls in every direction—endless minimalls and parking lots and nondescript office buildings. We don’t invest enough in the arts or public transportation. One of our major thoroughfares is named Ditch Road, for God’s sakes. Ditch Road. We could name it anything—Kurt Vonnegut Drive, CJ Walker Way, Roady McRoadface—but we don’t. We accept Ditch.

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Someone once told me that Indianapolis is among the nation’s leading test markets for new restaurant chains, because the city is so thoroughly average. Indeed, it ranks among the top so-called “microcosm cities,” because Indianapolis is more averagely American than almost any other place. We are spectacular in our ordinariness. The city’s nicknames include “Naptown,” because it’s boring, and “India-no-place.”

When we first moved here, I would often write in the mornings at my neighborhood Starbucks, at the corner of 86th and Ditch, and I would marvel at the fact that all four corners of that intersection contain strip malls. It was all so horrifying to me—even though I lived less than a half-mile from that Starbucks, I had to drive because there were no sidewalks. All the land had been given over to cars, to sprawl, to the flat-roofed soullessness of the American minimall.

I was disgusted by it. Living in a tiny apartment in New York City where we could never quite eradicate the mice, I had romanticized home ownership. But now that we actually had a house, I hated it. Indianapolis’s favorite literary son, Kurt Vonnegut, wrote that one of the flaws in the human character “is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” Home ownership was all maintenance. There were always window treatments to install and doorknobs to change. The water heater kept breaking. And most of all, there was the lawn. God I hated mowing the lawn. My next door neighbor came over once while I was mowing, and said, “You know, when the Kaufmanns lived here this was the nicest lawn in the neighborhood.” I hated that lawn. 

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I hated that I wasn’t good at mowing the lawn and I hated that I wasn’t like the Kaufmanns, and I also hated the Kaufmanns for being like they were. The lawn and the minimalls of 86th and Ditch became the two poles of my resentment. I couldn’t wait for Sarah to get a job somewhere else.

Vonnegut once said, “What people like about me is Indianapolis.” He said that in Indianapolis, of course, to a crowd full of people from Indianapolis, but Kurt Vonnegut really did hold the city in high esteem. Toward the end of his life, he answered an interviewer’s question by saying, “I’ve wondered where home is, and I realized, it’s not Mars or some place like that, it’s Indianapolis when I was nine years old. I had a brother and a sister, a cat and a dog, and a mother and father and uncles and aunts. And there’s no way I can get there again.” Vonnegut’s greatest novel, Slaughterhouse Five, is about a man who becomes unstuck in time, and how time conspires with consciousness. It’s about war and trauma, but it’s also about not being able to get back to before—before the firebombing of Dresden, before his mother’s suicide, before his sister’s early death. I really do believe that Vonnegut loved Indianapolis. But it’s telling that from the time he could choose to live somewhere, he did not choose to live here.

Late in that first Indianapolis year, Sarah and I became friends with our neighbors Marina and Chris Waters. Chris was a former Peace Corps volunteer, and Marina was a human rights lawyer. And like us, they’d just gotten married, and like us, they were living in their first home.

But unlike us, Chris and Marina really loved Indianapolis. 

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We’d often go to lunch together at Smee’s, a little family-owned restaurant in one of the 86th and Ditch minimalls, and I would complain about the lawncare and the lack of sidewalks, and I remember once Chris said to me, “You know this is one of the most economically and racially diverse zip codes in the United States.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “It is. You can google it.”

I did google it, and he was right. The median home price near 86th and Ditch is $200,000, but there are million dollar houses and $800 a month apartments. At that corner, there are Thai and Chinese and Greek and Mexican restaurants, all independently owned. There’s a bookstore, a fair-trade gift shop, two pharmacies, a bank, a Salvation Army, and a liquor store named after the constitutional amendment that repealed prohibition. Sit outside of Smee’s for an afternoon and you’ll hear English and Spanish, Karin and Burmese, Russian and Italian. The problem was never 86th and Ditch, which turns out to be a great American intersection. The problem was me. And after Chris called my assumptions into question, I began to think differently about the city. I began to see it as a place where big moments in human lives take place. The climactic scenes in my two most recent novels, The Fault in Our Stars and Turtles All the Way Down, both take place at the corner of 86th and Ditch. And I think what people like about those books is Indianapolis.
As with all the best sci fi writers, Kurt Vonnegut was really good at seeing into the future. Way back in 1974, he wrote, “What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” 

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That seems to me an even more important, and more daring, endeavor than it was forty years ago. And when people ask me why I live in Indianapolis when I could live anywhere, that’s what I want to tell them. I am trying to create a stable community in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured, and you gotta do that somewhere. When I am sick with the disease of loneliness, good weather and shimmering skyscrapers do me no good whatsoever, as a writer or as a person. I must be home to do the work I need to do. And yes, home is that house where you no longer live. Home is before, and you live in after. But home is also what you are building and maintaining today, and I feel rather lucky in the end to be making my home just off of Ditch Road.

I give Indianapolis four stars.

After the break, we’ll turn our attention to love, but first…


… And now back to the show.

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If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s never to argue with a linguist. They’re too smart, and also they never stop talking. So I want to be careful here not to say that language creates or structures thought. And I also want to be careful not to say that language does not create or structure thought, because I have a nice life and I don’t want it to be ruined by linguists. “Does love at first sight exist because we know the phrase, or does the phrase exist because we know the experience?” is a question I’m too scared of linguists to address. As for whether cultural constructs create experiences of love at first sight, well, the only people I fear more than linguists are anthropologists. But if we are to review love at first sight, it must be noted that the word “love” is an unmitigated disaster. I mean, I love reading detective novels, and I also love my children, and yet the feeling of reading a detective novel has almost no kinship with the feeling of building Legos with my kids. I love my friends, but not like I love my wife. There are so many loves, and only just the one word in English, a fact brilliantly expressed in one of the best sentences in Ulysses: “Love loves to love love.”

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But when we talk about love at first sight, of course, we’re almost always talking about romantic love and the near-immediate attraction humans sometimes experience. Indeed, studies have shown that people make conclusions about attractiveness almost instantaneously—in less than a second.  But attraction isn’t love. Love requires and demands an intimacy you simply cannot achieve within the first few minutes of encountering a new person.

Just after her husband died, the novelist Dawn Powell wrote in her diary, “Someone asked me about the long marriage to Joe—42 years—and I reflected that he was the only person in the world I found it always a kick to run into on the street. As for his death, this is a curious thing to say but after 42 years of life together—much of it precarious and crushing—we have been through worse disasters together, and I’m sure Joe would feel the same way about me.”

I think that is true love, the kind that not only can survive death, but must. You can’t love like that in a minute, or an hour.

And yet, I think it’s a mistake to dismiss love at first sight as merely make-believe.

Our most common contemporary metaphor holds that we fall in love, falling usually being quick and surprising and also scary and disorienting. Older images for love include being pierced by an arrow, or overcome by a fever. These are all sudden and overwhelming experiences, and not entirely pleasant ones.

Instantaneous love is also a very old idea. Half a sentence after Jacob first sees Rebekah in the Book of Genesis, he is kissing her and lifting up his voice and weeping.

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In the second century, Achilles Tatius wrote, “As soon as I had seen her, I was lost. For beauty’s wound is sharper than any weapon.” Christopher Marlowe famously wrote, “Whoever loved that loved not at first sight,” which like anything written in iambic pentameter at least sounds true.

But I have to confess that my own worldview is closer to that of the great romance novelist Danielle Steel, who once said while being interviewed in her beachfront villa, “I believe in love at first sight for houses, but not for people.”

The closest I’ve ever come to seeing romantic love at first sight happened my junior year at Kenyon College. So much of the school year was so cold that spring in Ohio always felt like an actual revelation. The miracle of spring to me is that it happens every year, and yet somehow I never see it coming. So it was spring, and I was astonished by it, by the re-emergence of Birkenstocks and t-shirts and green grass and final exams. It was the day before I had a final in this biology class, and I was sitting alone on a half-wall outside the library, smoking a cigarette, when a friend I’ll call James walked up to me and announced, in song, “I AM IN LOVE.” He proceeded to tell me that two days earlier, he’d been studying in one of the student lounges when a girl I’ll call Ellen happened to enter the same lounge. They exchanged some pleasantries, and then started to talk a bit, and then started to talk a lot, and then fell in love, and then kissed, and then stayed up all night, and then spent the entire next day being in love, and then stayed up all night again and then James had to go take a final in Buddhist Thought and Practice. 

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And then it was now, and she was going to meet him at the library shortly, and he was so tired, but he was also—he sang again—SO IN LOVE.

I asked him how the final had gone, and he told me that it went great considering that he had been up for two and a half days and that the only potential problem with the final was that he had not answered any of the essay questions but had instead written an essay about falling in love with Ellen and how perfect, infinite, instantaneous love really did exist, because he had experienced it. And I asked him if he’d tried to, y’know, tie the essay back to Buddhist Thought and Practice at all, and James said no, not really, except now he understood how Buddhist non-attachment really works, and then Ellen showed up and they embraced like a long-separated lovers reuniting at the airport, and I finished my cigarette and went back to studying meiosis.

Needless to say, James failed his Buddhist Thought and Practice exam. In the end, the love did not prove infinite—he and Ellen broke up a year later—but every time I saw them together through that year, I was struck by the irrational profundity of their connection. It was real love, and it had happened more or less instantly, and it rendered them both absolutely insane.

I think the mistake is when we conflate the kind of love that makes us fail Buddhist Thought and Practice exams with the kind of love that can share the great upheavals of a human life. The one is a fever or a fall. The other sees you through fevers and falls. When love at first sight becomes over time deeply rooted love, we can view it as a continuum—but I think it only looks that way in retrospect.

But maybe that’s too cold and unfeeling of me. Love is a chemical experience in the human brain, but of course it’s also something else. 

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There may not be anything supernatural about love’s magic, but it is magic, and the spells it puts us under do often last a lifetime. And I don’t just mean romantic love. In fact, while I was immediately attracted to the person I ended up marrying, and while I fell for her hard and quickly, I’ve only felt love at first sight twice in my life—when I saw my children for the first time. Those maddening, difficult, intense first few months of parenting leave you dizzy, exhausted, overwhelmed. In love.

I give love at first sight four stars.

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. Hannis Brown made the music. Joe Plourde is our technical director. Thanks also to Jessie, who suggested I review Indianapolis, and Theo, who suggested a review of love at first sight, and also asked, “Could you be like a llliiiittttllle less somber?” Alas, Theo, I regret to inform you that this voice only plays one note.  

If you’d like to suggest a topic for review, or just say hi, please email us at Anthropocene reviewed at gmail dot com. My favorite fact that didn’t make it into today’s reviews is the story of Kurt Vonnegut’s first Indianapolis ancestor, who wanted to sell silk to the people of this fine city but found business only in hardware. We’ll leave you today with Vonnegut telling that story himself. Thanks again for listening.  

Kurt Vonnegut: My first ancestor named Vonnegut arrived in Indianapolis slightly before the Civil War, uh 1855, perhaps. And he was a merchant.  

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Kurt Vonnegut: And he proposed to sell silk and I believe everything he wore except his shoes was made of silk when he arrived in Indianapolis, showing how much he believed in that substance. Ah, but he since started a general store selling shovels and pick axes and rifles and all that.