I’ll coruscate for you, if you want me to; I know you’ve been lonely in lightless liminality so long. When my spine bends the body twists and light travels where your fingers once wanted to go. I’ll coruscate. You’ll watch. We’ll stand apart, separated by photons and a few breaths and beads. When the light comes in, I’ll shine it your way, if you promise to look. Lift your head up and open your eyes until you see.
Some years ago, I had major depression explained to me in terms of rivers trickling down a hillside. The rivers are feelings. Your brain is the hill. Wherever those rivers run, they’ll dig furrows over the years, and become so entrenched that rerouting them is difficult. When you’re depressed, those your river-thoughts dig horrible trenches, black and deep, and the longer it runs, the deeper it cuts. Therapy means more than taking pills to improve the water quality; it also means learning to fill in the old trenches and dig new ones. The work is difficult. It’s dirty. It never ends.
I spent a lot of time writing as a child. I hit upon feverish obsession in elementary school, drafting lengthy stories about the things that interested me. When I was twelve, I wrote a 105,000-word epic fantasy tome that was slightly worse than Eragon, narrowly, and realized this would be my life. I had plans. I’d have published novels by the time I was eighteen, like my idol Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, and never need another job. My life would exist in the space between myself and the blinking cursor.
Writing remained a retreat through my teenage years. I moved from high fantasy to horror to science fiction, then urban fantasy when Anita Blake started raising zombies in my brain. My second original novel–and most of the next sixty-plus novels–would remain urban fantasy, and the first of them were written when I was in high school. I wrote and rewrote those books, painfully aware they didn’t yet meet standards. I relentlessly hunted agents. I joined critique groups to pick apart my style and learned what it feels like to bleed over fiction.
Sometimes I didn’t go to school because I wanted to write. At school, I was lonely. I felt like a lazy fool because I couldn’t track deadlines, organize my binders, backpack, or locker, and I made as much effort to survive as it took to be a straight-C student. Writing at home was different. I sat in a dark room with my heels up on a desk, just me and a glowing CRT monitor, and I wrote stories about tough women who killed evil.
I don’t think I was ever actually diagnosed with depression. The word floated around because my mother and sibling were diagnosed with it, so I knew what it looked like, and eventually I went into doctors’ appointments, informed them I had depression, and requested a prescription. They assented. If I wanted a dose change, I told them and got it. My depression was self-managed for years.
My survival through that time is impressive, looking back. I had a total failure of executive dysfunction and seldom got off the couch. Cleaning was a non-starter. Yet I always had clothes and bus fare, I kept a job, and I never had a major breakdown at work.
I must have written my first dozen published novels at that job. I worked at an isolated desk on a computer room floor, and my job was primarily monitoring, so there was nothing to do unless something broke. As a lightly supervised young adult with vague job requirements, I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I never saw sunlight. I worked weird shifts. I couldn’t keep friendships.
But I had the books.
Perception is reality to the mind. Without enough serotonin, the world is terrible, has always been terrible, and always will be terrible. With too much cortisol, we’re all going to die and it will definitely be sooner than we hope. With a boost of dopamine, we’re in love with life, eternally perfect, always happy.
For most people, these chemicals are stable enough to function with normal life. There are emotions, but you’re not consumed by them in perpetuity. When it rains, the rivers of your feelings will flow down the hillside, sometimes spilling into sadness or worry or joy. They’re always moving, though. Eventually it melds into the lake of your long-term memory.
For the depressed mind, more feelings means more rivers going down dark trenches. It means the water floods, trapped within the deepest holes.
You’re living in the bottom of that hole. You can drown in two inches of water. And people often do, if the trenches are deep enough or if it rains too much.
My waking hours are consumed by writing, even now. If not the act of writing, then planning my books. I’ve developed myriad ways to imitate a normal life while living in my fantasy world. I listen to playlists when I drive so I can daydream creative ways to murder innocents. I’ll talk about the plots with my dog on our walks. Every time I watch a movie, I’m thinking about how I’d improve on it, or how I could tell the same story except with demons.
When I go to bars for a few drinks, because I can’t stand being sober, I strike up conversations with people to get inspired for characters. I’m sexually harassed in reality and kill another man in my books. When I’m in the hospital, I make an inventory of sensations, smells, sounds. I get discharged and go home to write a character gravely wounded.
I dwell on it, I wallow. Even the brightest days can be shadowed by threat of infernal apocalypse at the back of my mind, reminding me I have more to write.
One time I wrote the death of a three-year-old while I was on vacation at a lagoon, gazing out at a perfect sunset. I had a three-year-old. I was pregnant. It hurt to write, like slipping razors over my tenderest skin, but I wrote it, wondering why all the while.
Somehow, writing doesn’t feel like an escape. It feels urgent. Like I *have* to be writing, or thinking about writing, all the time. If I don’t, then I have to live in reality. I have to be myself, in my body, in my brain, in this world.
Cognitive-behavioral therapy is a whole-life approach to treating depression, among other things. The idea is that you must get chemical support in the form of medications and then adjust your life to avoid deepening the trenches. You go to talk therapy. You learn to identify your emotions as you experience them: This is sadness, this is anger, this is fear. You desensitize to traumatic memories. Sometimes it means getting away from abusers, exercising more, or eating differently.
Ideally, the result is that medication gets you out of the trenches of ill mental health so they can fill in. The rain forms new, different rivers, following easier paths. You have learned to argue without yelling. You take a walk once a day so the sunlight can purify you. You sleep more, talk about your feelings more, and stop dwelling in darkness. After a while, the dark places just aren’t as dark. You get to see the sunlight whenever there’s a break in the rain.
I started taking antidepressants when my first son was a baby, eight years ago. I didn’t cry as much when left alone with him. That was good. I took them until my second pregnancy, then began again afterward. My medication remained managed by my general practitioner. One helpful GP changed my medication when I complained of low libido, and the experimental antidepressant threw me into wild panic attacks. I spent a week in a mental hospital.
Since then, my medication has been managed by a psychiatrist, and things have been generally more stable. I’m more functional, anyway. Sometimes I get out of my hole to play with the kids, drive to appointments, and go to the gym. I clean the house occasionally. I’m raising a puppy, which requires a daily commitment to wearing pants and going on walks. Though I was fired by my last therapist for being argumentative, I did do several years of therapy, and my communication has vastly improved along with my understanding of self.
Still, there are holes, and they are dark as ever. My eating disorder struggle reached a special level this year. I’m still seldom sober. I started using nicotine. My books are getting darker too. I’m trying to traditionally publish dark psychological suspense, with graphic depictions of abuse unlike any I’ve written before. And when I’m doing it, I feel that razor feeling again. The one that’s bad but good and irresistible. Perception is reality. It hurts right to write like this. But it also hurt right to starve myself, to bite my fingers until they bled, to drink until blacking out in public spaces.
I attribute some of this to the nonlinear path of managing a chronic illness. Diabetics can stay on top of their insulin and still have problems. I have major depression even if I’m on bupropion, escitalopram, and alprazolam to manage it.
Yet perception is reality. My reality remains between my body and the blinking cursor. When I write, I’m immersed in it, convinced on some primal level that these things are real. Old books feel like memories to me now, they’re so vivid, but faded. Some years of my life, I can only really remember what happened in my books. I’ve chosen to populate those memories with demons, hellfire, and death.
Will I remember this year by the rapes I’ve written? Or will I remember going to the gym two or three times a week, walking my dog, and building LEGO with my children? Am I filling trenches with medication while digging deeper with my writing?
I don’t know. I don’t know when I’ll find out, either. As I finish writing this, I’m already drifting to the problem I have to fix in my current manuscript, wondering how I can worsen my heroine’s life in a low-impact scene. There are wildfires in my head. I am filled with smoke. And I don’t know if I’ll ever quite find peace like this, or what life on the surface looks like if I do.
I am 31.5 years old, and with the onset of the thirties comes relentless reminders that I’m aging. I’ve accepted my crow’s feet because they look sexy, and the general firmness lacking from my skin is unavoidable, so I don’t stress it.
Unfortunately, with the onset of the thirties also comes a certain surrender to unhealthy coping mechanisms, such as vaping nicotine. I started doing it this year. I don’t recommend it. (Prior to this, my only nicotine exposure was occasional social hookah, as you do in your glowing twenties.)
Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, meaning it basically dries you up like a big walking corpse. Perhaps you can get away with being shriveled by poison in your youth (I wouldn’t know, I waited until a responsible age to start destroying myself) but in your thirties, it makes fine lines rather promptly. In the last ~6 months since I started vaping nicotine, my mouth has developed pucker lines. They are small but noticeable to me.
Sooooo I am quitting nicotine because suffering vanity is much more obvious than whatever hellstorm I’m making in my throat/lungs. I need another coping mechanism that won’t make me look like Aunt Bertha who lives at your neighborhood bar. But still, I have these lines, the beginning of them, and now I can’t see anything else in the mirror.
Being that I am a clever, dogged, calculated Aunt Bertha, I immediately researched What The Fuck To Do About This, assuming the answer is Botox. It turns out that Botox is ONE answer, but there are cheaper, less botulismy methods to remedy this as well.
I got an inexpensive high frequency device and a micro derma roller. The science on whether or not these actually DO what they claim is still out, as far as I can tell, because a cursory Googling yielded only clickbait and no scientific papers. My assumption is that they’re utter hogwash, but maybe if I believe hard enough, the placebo effect will plump my skin.
The high frequency device looks like a phallus where you insert a delicate glass wand and then poke yourself in the face. Did you ever play with those plasma balls, where you touch the glass and it lights up? It’s like that but for your face. You can turn the frequency high enough (what frequency is it talking about anyway?) that it feels like constant static electricity. Apparently this does something. Like it microwaves under your skin to terrify your body into making more collagen. Yes you put this on your face.
The other thing is the micro derma roller, which is like a handheld iron maiden, also for your face. It’s a ball covered in spikes and you rub it on your face. It feels the way you would expect it feels to rub spikes on your face. Then you follow up with a soothing acid treatment, which can now penetrate deeper because you cut holes. Into your face.
I’ve now done both of these rituals once, and I suppose I plan to do them again, and at least once or twice a week for a few months. Whether or not they work, I’m optimistic that 31.5 years old is young enough that I’ll produce more collagen and fill out these lines to a small degree with time anyway, as long as I stop filling my lungs with nicotine clouds. The effect of the devices may be strictly placebo but time is not.
Some resentful cave-feminist within me is nonstop irate with this, running some high frequency wand over my lips and then jabbing myself in the face with needles. It doesn’t escape my notice that they both hurt. You can feasibly jab yourself with the needles hard enough to bleed, which may or may not be a desired effect. (Kardashians bleed from micro derma rolling but Kardashians also marry people like Kanye so I live a less extreme life.)
There’s something to be said about beauty rituals raging against the inexorable march of time and the consequences of our bad decisions being so painful. On one hand, it feels like the beauty industry is laughing at the stupid things people will pay to do to themselves. On the other hand, it feels like an illusory gauntlet through which many of us pass on our way to accepting middle age; it hurts, so it must be doing something, it must be changing me.
Sometimes I look at getting plastic surgery done. Or even just Botox. I look at the websites, I look at the prices, I read about healing difficulties. I could probably do it. Then I remember that learning to love myself has zero cost and zero recovery time, and we’re all aging at the same speed anyway. So I won’t do that, probably. But I will spend forty dollars for the privilege of scraping my face with tiny needles and then dripping hyaluronic into my cavernous pores, bleeding my fear of aging in fine red lines down either side of my mouth.
The neighborhood in which Sara and I reside takes decorating for Christmas very seriously. And it is Christmas; there is nary a menorah, or any other hint of another culture or tradition, in sight. Snowflakes and snowmen and Christmas trees and red and green projections abound. Having an inflatable decoration is what counts as quirky in a place like this. Our cul-de-sac is almost a perfect loop of lights and Christmas cheer.
The terrible next-door neighbors, who rev bikes and cackle loudly and have friends with visible pistols in our driveway in the middle of the night but complain about the noise of chickens, are a perfect example. They have fake candles in every window in the front of their house. They’ve crammed decorations in every bit of the small patch of grass that comprises their front yard. They even have wicker-looking reindeer decorations carefully placed in their backyard, near their soldier-kneeling-near-a-cross statue, which you can see from the path that runs behind.
Here is what’s in the front yard of our house:
Two white reindeer, one with its head detached from its body and lying on the ground. Both were lying on the ground in general for most of December, but someone who lives in the house had an enterprising moment and righted them again. (The head was not reattached.)
Strings of lights that normally hang on the front of the house but are currently lying in a pile on the grass. They’re connected to a timer, so the clump dutifully lights up and turns off at the same time every night. What time is that? I have no idea. I’d have to look at the time or ask my brother-in-law, and who has the energy for that?
I’m not sure if the Thomas the Tank Engine inflatable is still there. It was unhooked from its cables the other day, when we had a decent windstorm, and I stuck it in the little bit of porch we have to give it at least a little shelter. But I had a cold that day, and I still have a cold, and I just can’t make myself care if Thomas and Sir Topham Hatt are still here and didn’t soar away on the Nevada gusts.
(I probably should have brought it inside the house. Oh well.)
A line of plastic candy canes stuck in the ground with stakes and illuminated from the inside by lights. This should be the straightforward decoration—it doesn’t take the setup that every other decoration takes, after all—but what was a neat border is now haphazard, tilted, knocked askew by either children or weather or both.
A holiday Schnauzer decoration, purchased to represent the actual Miniature Schnauzer residing in the house, lying on its back in the grass and dead leaves that we, of course, didn’t rake up.
Now, I should say that this is not every year for us. Our decorations are sparing or slightly askew on busier years, of which we’ve had plenty as of late, but if we put decorations outside, we usually have them up in a manner somewhat acceptable to the neighborhood. But I have never been happier with our nod to the holiday than I am this year. You see them, and you think, Well, it looks like they’re going through something.
Decorations don’t convey specifics. Our yard doesn’t say “Our eldest cat is recovering through a chain mastectomy she received to treat cancer, the youngest human in the house brought home head lice and swallowed a coin that earned him two hospital visits, Sara puked up blood twice and spent an entire week in the hospital while we waited for the doctors to take her internal bleeding seriously”, but you look at it, and you know something that reflects our reality. Our yard is a mess, a cry for help.
I smile every single time I see it.
But really, I’m not giving the other houses credit. I have no idea what their lives are like, and maybe that’s the point. Maybe they’re keeping their circumstances to themselves by fitting in. Maybe it’s a perfect expression of who they are as a family.
Maybe they want a little light and normality while things are completely and utterly terrible.
Our indoor decorations, by the way, are delightful. The fake tree is beautiful, there are strings of lights that keep the interior aglow even after the main lights are turned off for the night, and Sara’s eldest put ornaments on the drawer pulls (which, yes, are now scattering everywhere, but in that delightful child-chaos that the holiday season should be about). Don’t tell the kids, but I’m serving as their Elf on the Shelf, moving the toy around nightly in ways that I try to make more about fun and silliness and less about the surveillance state and holding children to an unrealistic standard of behavior. I even put a terrible joke on a board last night:
What do you call a annoying reindeer? Rude-olph.
(I had to put “a” annoying reindeer because I ran out of the letter n.)
We have our competent bits, is what I’m trying to say. And there’s nothing wrong with making those bits the parts the world sees. But there’s also nothing wrong with keeping those parts to yourself, and showing the world that not everything is curated and perfect. That the lack of light outside can exacerbate the mental illness that was already exacerbated by a traumatic autumn.
That, oddly, some of the brightest cheer can come from the biggest messes.
Happy holidays, from someone who doesn’t want to celebrate the holidays but somehow ends up doing so anyway.
I don’t remember very much about my first appointment with my therapist, Colleen. It was primarily a screening, I think. She asked me all the standard questions: Do I have little interest or pleasure in doing things? Trouble concentrating? Thoughts of hurting myself?
At the time, I hadn’t yet been held on suicide watch at a mental hospital, so I was very trusting. Every question made me spew answers because I have so much to say about my experience as a person with depression. I monologued about my life for nigh unto the full hour.
After listening to the slurry of babble, Colleen asked only one question: “Where does your guilt come from?” she asked. “Who modeled it for you?”
Before that first appointment, I’d never thought of myself as having a guilty conscience. As soon as she said it, I saw it everywhere. The way that I blame myself for everything. The sense of being responsible for my entire environment and also most others’ environments. The way that someone else will bump me in a crowd, and I will still be the first to say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry, I’m so clumsy.”
You could call it Catholic guilt, I guess. I come from a Catholic background. Self-flagellation is the name of the game in Catholicism, and we relentlessly practice self-martyring, which feels like a dreadfully responsible thing to do. If we don’t feel guilty about the ills of the world—about our sins—then we’re definitely going to Hell.
Like most Millennials, the first thing I do upon returning to consciousness after a night of sleep is grab my phone. As soon as Do Not Disturb comes off, the alerts come up.
It comes through Apple News—both WaPo and Time want me to know that America is detaining migrant children. Twitter makes sure that I know it too, not just because it’s in my friends’ list, but because they now alert me to big news stories as they pass. It’s on Facebook, from my local newspaper; it’s on NPR when I ask Alexa to read me the news.
Even though the world has only just learned about it, there are lengthy think-pieces on the matter. I take the time to read The Atlantic’s hot takes. I like The Atlantic. It’s regarded as being moderate by more liberal critics, and offensively liberal by conservative critics, which means that it’s about as balanced as you’ll get in the country.
The Atlantic has excellent writers on staff, so reading about the way that children are detained is vivid and visceral. I’m beside myself. I can’t go to sleep that night.
A few weeks before we learned about the detained migrant children, I had been in the mental hospital. “I think I’m only so messed up about this because I’m relating to it too much,” I tell my husband. “I’m only sympathizing because I feel like I’ve been in a similar place.” Left loudly unspoken is my self-evaluation that I’m human slime for being able to empathize with these children, who remind me of my own children, only because I have mentally centered myself in the situation.
If I were a better person, I’d feel guilty for everything America does wrong, not just this one particularly horrifying thing.
On Twitter, one of the brilliant women of color I follow has tweeted a lengthy thread about white supremacy. She explains how many migrant children, abducted from their families, are entering the American adoption system. People are profiting off of this separation. It’s really insightful.
I’m horrified. I want to contribute to the conversation. I draft a reply.
Then I think about what I’m writing.
Nothing that I type seems to have the proper emotional gravity, despite my initial tweet beginning with the words “yeah, ugh” and a frowning emoji. I launch into an explanation of my experiences as relevant to the topic (like a time I saw something bad happening to someone else) and how the world Just Shouldn’t Be Like That.
But the world is Like That, and my role in this world is different from hers. Her perspective is more relevant than mine—she is from a migrant family, she has a law background—and I don’t need to derail the conversation by calling attention to my irrelevant perspective. Especially not right now.
In fact, I don’t need to reply at all.
And I don’t that time, even though I often have in the past, blindly stumbling through conversations with my good intentions swinging wild right hooks every which way.
Instead, I retweet. I decenter myself. I hope that the conversation, led by the original poster, will be more fruitful without me in it. And I quietly hate myself for not being one of the victims, but one of the people who has contributed to making the world worse for them.
Decentering whiteness is a key aspect of social justice in this era. America’s built on white supremacist bones wrapped in the snuggly-wuggly flesh of something that doesn’t look like white supremacy, but has been grown on the scaffolding of it. White people can’t begin to unpack and attack our complicity until we admit that it’s there. It’s on the surface level, it’s at the core, it’s everything.
Of course, if a white person chooses not to unpack this, there’s nothing that will force it to happen. Other white people aren’t going to make you do it. White people really like being in a happy white bubble. It’s awkward to point out how your son’s public school is reinforcing white supremacy, and we can’t have this awkwardness, that feeling of guilt forced upon us exogenously by white people breaking the patterns of white conversation that happily skirt around the rotten heart of white America. This is not civilization.
Decentering ourselves is difficult. It’s an inherently selfless thing, and white people don’t really know how to be selfless.
We’ve been raised on a narrative of white America fixing the world’s problems. We are fluent in it.
In elementary school, we hear about how white colonists arrived in the Americas, made friends with the natives, and then something-something-something happens and all of a sudden, after Thanksgiving and something involving redcoats, we’ve made a country. A free country filled with religious liberty and native princess Halloween costumes and little narrow strips of land where surviving natives are graciously permitted to live, for now.
When South American loggers perform deforestation in the rainforest, Captain Planet (surely a white guy under his metallic skin, given his mullet and high levels of intervention) rolls in with his team of carefully diverse children to fix that shit, because that’s what we do.
Even in science fiction, cultures that are essentially Space Americans (like the United Federation of Planets, But Mostly Earth, Because Fuck Those Other Guys) rove the galaxy to seek justice and make worlds better. The Prime Directive is meant to prevent some level of interference, but it doesn’t really stop our heroic crew from intervening in what they decide are injustices, infecting planets galaxy-wide with Space American Values.
Our culture is built around colonization. Our brains have grown in that vat.
So when white Americans arrive in social justice spaces, we’re ready to fix it all, just the way that we’ve always “fixed” things. We want to colonize the movements started by the marginalized. We want to make it all better.
That’s what we do.
The fact that we think we have to use our power For the Better is part of the rot in America.
In fact, we must cede power.
We have to choose not to be the loudest voice in the room. We have to make ourselves less.
When we’ve spent your entire life privileged, deliberately trying to push even the most unearned privilege away is really goddamn uncomfortable.
No matter how uncomfortable it feels to realize I’ve spent my entire life benefiting from and feeding into a system that dehumanizes, exploits, and often actively kills people who don’t fit into a narrow privileged class, it’s less uncomfortable than being a small child taken from one’s parents and sold to an American family.
For nights on end, I dream of peeling paint surrounding doorways blocked only by shower curtains on pins so weak that they won’t stay up for the duration of a shower, much less allow me to hang myself. I’m bored without pens, computers, shoelaces. I pace the lightless hallway on non-skid socks and note that the building is sinking. The end dormitories are several inches lower than the fore.
I wake with panic attacks. There are children being kept in inhospitable, sometimes clinical environments. They miss their parents. They don’t know when they’ll get to see them again. I didn’t get to see my children for almost a week and spent so many hours weeping that I was a husk by the time I went home.
Something needs to happen with those children.
Naturally, because I pick up my phone as soon as I awaken, I’ve seen alerts for conversations about this on Twitter. I should tweet about it too. I make repeated attempts to distill the existential scream inside my soul to 280 characters. I delete about a dozen drafts.
Then I retweet a lawyer offering a site that will donate to twelve migrant-supporting organizations at once, and then I also donate my own money.
I try to draft a tweet about my donation.
It sounds self-aggrandizing. I delete it.
I’ve opened my wallet to help these children, but it doesn’t really feel like help. If I were a better person, I would be on the border finding a way to get involved. I wouldn’t be sitting on my phone in the predawn morning trying to draft tweets and hating myself for always say the wrong thing.
At some point I’ll have to say something, won’t I? The world is burning down.
My Twitter feed can’t always be retweets, and it can’t always be politics. At some point I stop looking at my feed. I turn off all alerts for Twitter, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Apple News so that I can pick my phone up without remembering how much horror there is in the world.
I think about what I’ve done today. I give myself permission to tweet about something that I know perfectly well.
“Wow that was a poop for the history books,” I finally tweet.
It’s true, I had a pretty great poop. It’s firmly in my wheelhouse. It’s my lived experience. I have absolute authority to talk about it, although the tastefulness is somewhat more controversial.
I feel guilty for tweeting levity instead of the existential screaming in my soul. If I were better, I would climb onto a crucifix on behalf of those children. I’d give them all my money instead of small recurring monthly donations. I’d really do something.
My stupid tweet gets five likes. Two of my friends talk with me. They’ve also had wonderful, historic poops this week, and I’m happy for them. I can be happy while creeping along constant low-level guilt. It’s not like our willingness to discuss poops means we’re blind to the horrors of the world. But I feel like my ability to even enjoy these moments of levity is a sign of enormous privilege—one more way that the system benefits me while grinding others into dust. Guilt and puerile joy have become bedfellows.
“If it’s outside your control, there’s no reason to feel guilty,” Therapist Colleen told me once, to paraphrase. “Once you’ve done your best and taken care of the things in your immediate control, you have my permission to be proud of yourself.”
She acknowledged that this was nigh impossible with anxiety, and I haven’t stopped hating myself for failing to be a great martyr.
I will vote in a couple of months, and I’ve written several screaming letters to my legislators—less exciting than crucifixion, but slightly more sustainable. I’m not the center of the universe. I can’t fix everything singlehandedly. The world isn’t about me. Sometimes it’s better to get out of the way. Sometimes it’s better to retreat onto a website of one’s making, outside of the public discussion space, and write ironic, navel-gazing think-pieces defying the thesis of the think-piece in the first place.
Just as there’s no ethical consumption in capitalism, there’s also no way for a white person to operate in America without benefiting from white privilege. There’s a lot to feel guilty about. There’s a lot to work on. The end game is still beyond the horizon, and the sun won’t rise there until long after I’m gone.
It’s been a long time since Rory and Sara watched Napoleon Dynamite. It came out in 2004—the year that Rory graduated high school and Sara entered her junior year—and even though the siblings shared much of their social group, the confluence of events still led to them watching it separately.
Rewatching the movie together in 2018 seems both new and familiar. They’ve changed a lot in fourteen years; older, wiser, and having been fatted off the cultural teat of the movie for more than a decade. “I barely remember the movie,” confesses Sara, “even though I’ve never stopped quoting it. Vote for Pedro. Remember that?”
“The llama is the only funny part,” says Rory. “Tina, eat the food!”
“Everyone wore Vote for Pedro shirts.” Sara has gone misty-eyed with nostalgia for a movie that she remembers as mostly very boring.
It’s not a very long movie, but they still don’t plan to commit to it. An hour and a half later, they’ve watched the entire thing.
“Yeah, I still have no idea what I watched.” Sara is switching to a different movie now. Their PS4 is usually little more than an expensive movie-watching device. The icons indicating games they’ve played haven’t been clicked in months.
“It was kind of painful,” Rory said. “I always related too much to Napoleon Dynamite. That awkwardness, the displacement. And everything looks the way I remember from my childhood.”
“Pocket tots is a great idea though,” Sara says. She selects Underworld from 2002, starring Kate Beckinsale. “Now this is a good movie. It makes sense. Napoleon Dynamite made no sense.”
“Nothing happens in it,” agrees Rory.
They are seated on opposite corners of a home movie theater. The fake-leather camel-colored couches match the taupe walls—an offensively desert color schema chosen by the previous homeowners, and which Sara (the homeowner) has never gotten around to changing despite her general sense of ennui in such drab confines.
Both siblings wear thick-framed glasses over noses that are like isosceles triangles sitting on their fat bottoms. They have very little by way of lips, like heroes on BBC Channel dramas.
On the TV, a vampire superhero-jumps to a sidewalk and sashays dramatically amid an unsuspecting human crowd.
“My gender identity is urban fantasy heroine,” says Sara, maneuvering her Roblox character to pick up a treat for her honey-gathering bees. She has been playing Bee Swarm Simulator ever since the beginning of Napoleon Dynamite. “I dress just like Selene.” She’s wearing black leggings from Costco and a t-shirt with spooky cats printed on the chest.
Rory does not reply. They’re currently talking to their Online BFF, who they claim to be a gorgeous queer in Eastern Europe. Sometimes they talk to their Online BFF for hours. It’s very distracting.
“I think I could do a landing like that if I was wearing those big black platform boots,” Sara says thoughtfully. “Not from very far up, mind you. But I could look really cool.” She’s having ideas now, which are taking her far away from the sagebrush-swept hills, hollow under the crisp autumn nighttime sky, so she switches from her laptop to her Hobonichi journal (“Special ordered from Japan,” she told her husband upon ordering its predecessors—she’s now owned five).
“Parts of Napoleon Dynamite were funnier than I remembered,” Rory says suddenly. They’ve zoned out talking to their online friend, but snapped back to the previous conversation. “I don’t like how they were picking on him for being weird.”
“Yeah, but Napoleon is a bad person. Maybe you’re supposed to feel comfortable laughing at his weirdness because he’s bad.”
“He uses, you know, the r-word we don’t like,” Sara says. She’s drawing Lucien, the leader of the werewolves (sorry, the Lycans). She spends a long time shading his upper lip. “He’s a jerk to the girl with the side ponytail. He’s always fighting with his brother. Is it just me, or is Lucien hotter than he used to be?”
“I’m not sure if I’m attracted to him or if I want to be him,” Rory says. “That sort of dirty rockstar werewolf thing. Sorry, Lycan thing.”
Sara’s drawing of Lucien is not very attractive. She shows it proudly to her sibling. “I think it’s the best I’ve ever done.”
“Wow,” Rory says supportively.
“I’m getting to be a really good artist.”
“You sure are.”
Their cat, Poe, sneezes loudly. She rolls over so that her paw can rest on Rory’s arm.
On the TV, vampires are fighting Lycans in the hallway.
“I like this movie’s aesthetic,” Sara remarks.
“It was filmed in Eastern Europe.” Rory is an expert in Eastern Europe, movie trivia, and werewolves. “There was one that they filmed in Canada instead of Eastern Europe and it was all wrong.”
“Eastern Europe? You know, that makes sense. I sensed there was something different. It’s so modern-urban, but not American.” Sara fancies herself an expert in literally everything, and she speaks with knowing authority. “Underworld and Napoleon Dynamite have a little in common. They’re both really aesthetic.”
“Yeah, but again…” Rory shrugs. “Napoleon Dynamite makes no sense.”
Whereas Underworld knows exactly what it is, and communicates it clearly. It’s a paranormal romance. It executes every urban fantasy trope flawlessly. “The genres are closely intertwined,” Sara says. “The line gets fuzzy sometimes. Basically you can only tell it’s a paranormal romance if it follows the romance structure, which this just barely doesn’t. It’s pretty solid UF.” UF means urban fantasy. Sara is an author. She can sling terminology around, and does so proudly and frequently.
She’s still shading Lucien’s upper lip.
The movie theater is disappointingly quiet through the most exciting battles of the movie. The surround sound has broken. They haven’t replaced the receiver yet, because they’re expensive. Sometimes Sara shops for them on Amazon and leaves in disgust because it’s either another crappy Onkyo or something that costs actual money.
When Selene opens Viktor’s tomb, it makes a muffled grinding noise that would have sounded great coming out of the subwoofer.
“Maybe Napoleon Dynamite was a fairy tale,” Sara suggests. “Everyone ends up getting what they want. The Creepy Uncle gets a girl. The brother gets Lafawnduh. Napoleon gets the entire school’s adulation with one stupid dance.”
“That’s a thought,” Rory says.
Viktor is annoyed to have been awakened early.
“This is such a great movie,” Rory adds.
“So good,” Sara agrees.
They don’t get to finish Underworld. The kids come home from an outing with their dad, Sara’s husband. The eight-year-old sits through some of it, but bedtime means bedtime, and soon they’re tucking him in.
Sara is still thinking about Napoleon Dynamite later, sitting on her balcony as she paints the sunset using her iPad Pro with the Apple Pencil. She’s been doing five-minute drills painting the sunset from the same spot to get better at digital painting. She always spends too long etching out all the pine needles on the tree, and runs out of time.
“I don’t think the movie has any point at all,” she decides.
At this point, her husband is huddled over Factorio on his laptop, and he turns bleary eyes on her. They are red-rimmed behind thick-framed glasses. His beard is bushy and beginning to show gray hairs among the dark-brown. “What?”
“I don’t think Napoleon Dynamite has any point. I think it’s just some wacky characters doing things. Sometimes it’s funny. But it’s kinda not, too. You’re just looking in on those lives. Haha, look at the weird dorky people.”
“Wow, I haven’t thought about that movie in years,” he says. “Vote for Pedro. Remember how everyone wore shirts like that?”
“I think they’re coming back. Retro nostalgia thing.”
“Wow. We’re getting old.”
“We sure are,” Sara says.
Her alarm goes off. She stops painting. She’s barely rendered the tree, and there is a yellow blur that could arguably be a cloud in front of the sunset.
“Let’s go to bed,” her husband says. “I’m tired.”
She takes one last hit off the bong. “Okay. I’ve gotta get up to go to the gym tomorrow early. I’m getting strong, like an urban fantasy heroine.”
“Sure you are,” he says.
“Wanna see my bicep?”
They file inside through the balcony door. The sky is big and the desert is empty, except for all the autumn-yellow rabbit brush swaying in the nighttime breeze. It’s very quiet. A van drives past.
The door locks behind them.