A Work in Progress In Retrospect
I’M SIX YEARS OLD. IT’S a chilly autumn day, with dew still clinging to the grass, a slight breeze in the air—and a lot of people screaming wildly behind me. The street where I stand is buzzing with athletes of all shapes and sizes, dashing for the finish line, cheered on, and, let’s face it, semi-harassed by spectators (though some of the five hundred runners are, to be fair, out of breath and nearly on all fours).
In our family, this day in late September is as eagerly anticipated as Christmas. That’s because my parents, Cheryl and Peter, are the proud organizers of the annual Applefest Scenic 5K Run/Walk, a popular event on the social calendar of La Crescent, Minnesota, up there with the County Fair, Autumn Parade, and many other shamelessly festive small-town events. It’s “scenic” because of the hilly course and golden leaves; it’s an “applefest” because my home city is regarded as the state’s apple capital. Yes, our apples are the shit, and we carry that prestigious title with the utmost pride.
But the point of this story is not apples. The point is that I’m bored and couldn’t care less about all of these sweaty humans speed-walking toward an achievement that most of them will brag about to friends while eating a third doughnut. I prefer to create my own distractions and diversions, which is why my curiosity latches onto the video camera my dad has set up near the finish line to record every second of the madness unfolding on race day. Dad seems forever interested in documenting the things going on in our life. “Home movies,” he calls them. Every occasion—birthdays, Christmas morning, athletic competitions, and school plays—is captured for posterity, as if he doesn’t want to miss a thing. Maybe this explains why I’m mesmerized by this magical box with a blinking red light at the front. You know, like father like son, right?
Usually the camera is glued to his hand, with the strap wrapped around his knuckles. Or sometimes, like today, he’ll leave this bulky piece of technology on a tripod, letting it run until the tape is out. When I say “bulky,” I mean BULKY. This thing looks like a freaking toaster with a telescope attached. But it’s the latest and greatest gadget with matchbox-sized tapes and 2-pixel quality to boot. Wow, what a time to be alive!
I know that I shouldn’t interfere with his filming, but the urge is too great. I take a shifty look around: a pack of runners is bolting down the slope of Northridge—both the race’s biggest hill and final stretch; nearby, Mom is in the midst of a crowd, wearing a permanent smile on her face that hides the stress of organizing such an event, and Dad, unable to stand still for more than two seconds, flits from one runner to the next, issuing hearty congratulations, sarcastic humor, and the occasional medical advice. (He’s a doctor.) Yup, these two pillars of the community are more than preoccupied.
I stand on my tiptoes to peek at what is being recorded, and let me tell you, it wasn’t anything anyone was going to enjoy watching any time soon, though it could potentially be used as a good sleep aid (or a near-coma slumber). So with me being a little attention seeker, I decide to spice things up a little by putting on a spontaneous show for the future audience at home. By “audience,” I mean my family. And by “show,” I mean me talking about nothing for an extended period of time under the assumption that I am funny.
Nothing has changed since then.
I step in front of the camera and begin talking, making it up as I go along. I chat away as if the lens is a person, knowing that it will eventually become a person—an expectant person in my living room, gathered around to see whoever finishes the road race in record time. Instead, when the footage is transferred to the TV—via three different-colored wires connected to the recording device—they will see me goofing off and making some truly brilliant, off-the-cuff, meandering commentary on the snooze-fest unfolding behind me.
I convince myself that I am the far more entertaining option and that everyone will thank me for such an impromptu performance. But that’s the annoying thing about childhood—and actually the rest of life: reality rarely lives up to high expectations.
I can’t say my parents were overly impressed by my unedited act of spontaneity. Nor did I receive thanks for showing initiative.
Not an accurate portrayal of Minnesota nice, Mom and Dad!
But that, my friends, is where it all began. At the age of six. Standing near a finish line when left to my own devices. Talking into a camera.
? ? ?
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER, here I am, writing a book, the happy consequence of talking into a camera. Thanks, Dad!
“Writing a book”—I’m saying that out loud as the words hit the page.
Man, that sounds difficult—and a little daunting, especially when I’m only a few sentences into the experience. But, regardless, here we go.
I’m twenty-two years old, and the fact that I’m writing a book feels nothing short of insane to me. Insane, but consistent with the way my life has been panning out of late.
In short, I’m a small-town kid from the Midwest who lived a relatively average life for a majority of my years. Until that day in August 2010 when I stumbled across a little website called YouTube and posted my first video, when no one was looking and no one was interested. Then life got a little weird. Hell, who am I kidding? It got really weird, really quickly.
Four years later, having transitioned from boy to man and from obscurity to something I’m still trying to define, I sit here with millions of subscribers who are, for some reason, captivated by what I’m interested in, what I’m doing, and ultimately what I have to say. One minute I’m talking to myself; the next, I’m talking to more than 4 million people . . . and that number is growing by the thousands every single day. *gets nervous at the thought and internally freaks out*
Out of nowhere, I have an audience that my dad’s home videos would envy—an audience equal to well over half the population of Minnesota, and bigger than North and South Dakota combined, then doubled.
Like I said, life has gotten weird.
I am what the mainstream media refer to as a “YouTuber.” I view myself more vaguely as a content creator using an exciting new platform. People like me beam ourselves into the homes of a younger generation in the same way TV stars did in the 1950s. Back then, I’m sure the older generation—so used to the intimacy, format, and familiarity of radio—was equally baffled at seeing people on a fuzzy black-and-white screen—in just the way that I’m sure there’s a generation of adults out there perplexed by this whole YouTube phenomenon.
It represents the democracy of new media, where people like me can devise, launch, and maintain their own channels—and audiences—via the Internet. Look at them as mini–television shows that fit in your pocket.
What I love about the community I have built is the fact that I can connect with each and every one of them whenever I want, and then interact with them via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or Tumblr. We’re in one big social media room together.
This channel is mine. Don’t touch it.
But really, why does anyone write a blog or upload a vlog? Because they want to share, offer an opinion, vent, provoke thought or, if they’re like me in 2010, simply bored and have nothing better to do.
But the first four reasons are my motivation for sitting down—or pacing around my apartment like a crazy person—to write this book: to expand on the page what I have touched on in many vlogs over the years. To share the challenges I’ve faced in my twenty-two years on earth—some universal, some intensely personal—and hope that they can comfort you, guide you, or just make you feel less alone with your own challenges.
I think I’ve lived quite the unorthodox life so far, but you probably feel that way about yourself too. So much goes untold in our lives. And although I seemingly live mine on the Internet, there’s a lot that people don’t know. I mean, why would you?
Let’s visit the subject of math for a moment—adored by some, hated by me. The window on my world has so far been limited to 5 minutes every Monday. That’s 5 minutes out of the 10,080 minutes available in any week; that means I’ve shared a little under 18 hours, give or take, talking with my subscribers between 2010 and 2014. In other words, I have only scratched the surface of what I want to share with you. And even then, the information has been posted in a well-edited, polished video. I can make a mistake, rewind, and start all over—and I can do that a ridiculously large number of times until I’m happy with how my words are delivered.
Real life isn’t like that. It’s one take, unedited, imperfect, and littered with mistakes that we must repeat until we get it right—a truth for teenagers and adults alike.
A computer screen mimics a TV in that it creates the appearance of a perfect life—or, should I say, “the illusion.” Not unlike a selfie on Instagram or a well-crafted tweet, the computer screen projects the image I choose to portray. We all do it. My life—the glimpse obtained through YouTube—is no more perfect than yours. I’m no different. I’ve struggled with things as monumental as depression and my sexuality and as common as friendship, change, and body image. Some call it growing up. I call it life, and in my experience, it doesn’t necessarily get easier over the years. But the eternal struggle is beautiful, and I’m happy to persevere.
In the following pages, I go beyond those 5 minutes a week that I normally share in a video. I’m going to invite you in a little further the way you do with a friend or with people you know will understand. I hope you’ll be entertained, enlightened, inspired, and/or stirred. I hope I’ll provoke laughter, tears, and everything in between. You’ll hear some funny stories from my past, read a few words of advice regarding difficult times, and see many of the photographs I took along the way.
So here’s to writing something deeper and richer than 140 characters. Here’s to writing this book. Here’s to us.