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.
The World is Outside
Days after it begins, I find myself missing Disneyland. I sit in a chair in front of my television, longer in diagonal than it is tall, and I don a headset. It is a heavy thing that covers my eyes and bands my head. I adjust its fit with dials until a television floats in front of me in the void, clear as though I sat in an empty cinema. I haven’t been to a cinema in a while. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go again.
Speakers ring my room, seven-dot-one of them, and when I select a video on my console, sound engulfs me from all of them. Within the headset, the TV has yielded to a lifelike environment. A 360 video where I can turn my head and the sounds will follow. I stand on a quiet street of Disneyland, on the way to critter country, in the blue early morning when most would avoid Splash Mountain.
From my chair, I walk up the line. I look up, down, left, right. I’m aware I’m not in control, but I feel like a passenger along with someone else, and we take the line briskly. It’s warm in my house but I remember how cool the air flows in the line for Splash. I have walked past those lights in reality, in the before times, when queues were packed and I could be drowned in an ocean of overheard conversation.
My home theater smells faintly of popcorn; with the scent memory comes along churros, turkey legs, hot pavement. I’m really sitting in the log ride now. I’m going on the flume. The ride sings and sways around me, and even though I don’t get wet on the final drop, my heart thrills in anticipation.
The video ends there, when we’re climbing off the log at the end. Taking off my headset is disappointing the way it’s disappointing to step off a ride. You have done the good part. You waited in line 35 minutes for a 4-minute thrill. The headset slides away and I remember I’m still in my dim home theater, with neither churro nor Mickey. My Echo dot rim shines orange. Another delivery from Amazon. Everything is deliveries now. Everything comes to me here, in my fortress.
Later, my children wear the headset for the ride. They giggle and shriek through it. To the imaginative child, it is all real. I hold my five year old in my lap, nose pressed to his hair, and I imagine that I’m really in Disneyland with my kids, that everything is fine, that humanity is connected.
I needed more nicotine, so I prepared to go outside. I would ride my hoverboard today. It extends the trip, turning ten minutes there-and-back into an hour, and will give me priceless exposure to sunlight.
To leave, I prepare. I remove my face mask from the cloth bag where it’s sat for the last week, airing out. I tie the top straps above my ponytail to relieve my ears of the pressure. I tie the other one low, and the mask it long enough that it conforms to my chin. I tuck the upper hem under the rim of my glasses.
Atop that, I wear a hat. And then there is sunscreen. My backpack. My boots. I leave.
I soar over the sidewalk through a mile of quiet suburb. When I see people coming, I get onto the street to offer space. Some of them are wearing masks. Some aren’t. People jog, walk their dogs, walk their children. The parents look exhausted. The retirees look angry.
My second mile parallels an arterial road feeding the golf resort. It’s quiet too. Handfuls of cars pass, each as distant from each other as though their pickups are afraid to inhale each other’s fumes. When I wait at stoplights, I do little circles on my hoverboard, swirling in place. I press the crosswalk button with my knuckle and scrub the skin furiously on my shorts.
It’s one step onto the hoverboard at the beginning of my trip and one step off at the gas station. I use my cell phone to lock the hoverboard and leave it tucked behind the bench. Even now, this neighborhood is low on property crime.
I get a bottle of wine, candy for my children, a Gatorade. I wait in line for the register on one of the floor’s blue marks, indicating every six feet. When it’s my turn to pay, I request refills for my electronic cigarette, and show my government ID through a plastic sheet to the cashier. She’s not wearing any protection. Her eyes are bruised.
With my backpack loaded, I step back onto the hoverboard. It’s quiet on the way back home, along a mile of artery and a mile of suburb. I step off at home. I leave it by the front door. I remove my shoes before coming inside. I take everything out of its packaging and hang my backpack by the front door. I wash my hands, thoroughly, while singing Mr. Brightside under my breath. A strawberry plant hangs over me at the kitchen sink, shriveling from lack of sunlight.
Then I refill my electronic cigarette and inhale the taste of Virginia tobacco, stinging on my tongue, exhaling in plumes.
I’m lying on the bed in my home loft. I recline against a beanbag chair, my legs propped up by a pillow. A detective show is cast upon the white wall next to me. The image is so large that the people are real-sized. I’m sitting just beneath them, a silent observer to their investigation, in a time and place where the streets were crowded and people only wore gloves at crime scenes.
The room is dark besides; I’ve put a blanket over one window and tucked a jacket under the blinds of the other. The projector hums quietly, puffing warm air into a warm room. The ceiling fan sketches lazy loops on the ceiling in shadow. My only company is my cat. She purrs against my hip.
In my hands, a game console. While murders are solved above me, I harvest fruit in a digital world. I shake it from trees and pick it up from the ground. The graphics are sterile. There’s no dirt under my nails, there are no spots on the fruit, and they never fall rotten. There is value to the stylized act of digging and picking and building in this game. Every little task is monetized. It feels productive.
When my five-year-old climbs onto the bed, I realize it’s gotten dark and I’ve had a migraine unnoticed for hours. My head is heavy. The child wants to snuggle. I gather him against my body, abandon the console, abandon the detectives, and slither between the covers of my bed with him.
He sings while he falls asleep. When he’s limp, I engulf myself in a bathrobe and step out onto the balcony. The lights of suburbia spread below me. The horizon’s still a tiny bit orange-blue where twilight surrenders to nighttime black. The artificial stream in my back yard gurgles cheerfully, and the real frogs croak loudly. They briefly silence when I press the button on my plasma lighter to light my pipe. The buzz of its arc disturbs them.
I’ve already been at my computer for hours when my nine-year-old wakes in the morning. I stare at two monitors: one shows a news feed updating me on statistics, deaths, responses across the country; the other showing a game of Frostpunk, where I struggle to keep two hundred-some survivors alive in an apocalyptic blizzard.
“I’m cold,” my child complains.
I shuck my robe and wrap them in it. We stand beside my open window, hugging each other sleepily, without words. I’m so tired. I can’t sleep because I’ve had too much nicotine and caffeine. My body won’t calm down. But there is a measure of rest in holding and being held.
The birds are especially loud in the mornings these days. I don’t think they’ve always been so loud. I think they like how fewer cars there are, how the world’s intensity has been turned down a few degrees. Still, there are sounds of human activity; the spring breeze carries the grumble of car engines and lawnmowers to us.
“Don’t you love how the morning sounds?” I asked my child, who is so tall that I can rest my cheek upon their head.
“No,” they said. “Because it reminds me the world is still out there.”
I don’t like those reminders either. I was anxious to leave the world, but became even more anxious to return to it. There are more cars starting than there were a month ago. Businesses are beginning to open. People have to work. It’s safer inside, it’s safer away, but the world is still out there.
Seven Ways to be Stoned
You’re in New York City for the first time. Your friend’s walk-up is cluttered and cozy, as homey as it should be, and it smells like weed. She smokes a lot. She eats even more. You haven’t done much before, but she offers a bowl to you, so you clumsily navigate lighter and pipe.
Truthfully, you’re scared to have a lighter that close to your face. But you’re in your twenties, your friend is in her thirties, she’s like your big sister. You want to look like you know what you’re doing. So you light it–flick–and your nose gets warm while you touch the flame to a corner of the herb. You inhale as it smolders. You get a little smoke. You think.
You go out on her balcony, which is small and made of wood so wobbly you’re not sure it can hold your weight, much less a charcoal barbecue. Neither of you know how to use a charcoal barbecue. You laugh a lot trying to get it to light in the wind. You keep a fire extinguisher on hand just in case.
You feel the warmth after another hit on the pipe. The vegetables you grilled with your best friend taste better. You laugh a little louder.
It’s cold outside, but you don’t want to smoke inside. You put on a balaclava. You wrap yourself in a bathrobe. You put on slipper socks. You huddle under a blanket on your balcony and light your bong, hands cupped around the pipe to shelter it from the wind. It still won’t light and your fingers are getting stiff. Grab the plasma lighter. It’s not as good, somehow, but it will make your herb burn even when the wind is blasting.
You take a couple deep hits that make you cough plumes into the chilly night, and the smoke is sucked away to disperse against the crystalline starlight. The harsh hits are bad for your lungs. You go inside, take a shot of Pepto to soothe your throat, puff on the inhaler to open your lungs. You settle into bed with a cold nose, cold fingers, and a dizziness that makes the room sway in the wind with you comfortable in its womb.
You’ve gotten good at baking with cannabis. People like your cookies–some of them say you can’t taste the weed on it, which isn’t true, because your husband cringes to nibble. But many people like the skunky taste. You like the skunky taste.
You’re careful with the cookies. You can’t have children getting into them, so you entomb them in a bag, carefully label it with contents and date, and stash it in the very back of the deep freezer. Since you’ve filled it with almond slivers, oats, and raisins, your kids won’t eat them even if they find them. But you want to be sure. You want to be responsible.
You’re so responsible that you don’t try the dough or the cookies. The butter must be infused, and the cookies baked, cooled, and stored, before your kids come home from school. You don’t want to be stoned when they get here.
Once they’re safe, you clean the skillet where you made cannabis ghee and prepare an omelet. It doesn’t taste like weed. Only when you’re sprawled on the couch in awe of the music melting through your muscles do you realize you didn’t clean the pan enough, and now you’re very, very stoned despite your naive efforts. On the bright side, while your cookies do taste like weed, your omelet did not.
It’s a cold, windy night on the Pacific coast. It’s so dark that the beach and the ocean are indistinguishable from each other. You’re in love with the woman at your side, sneaking onto the boardwalk amid the dunes. You haven’t told her about this big warm secret coiled in your belly. Your bodies hold warmth between them while you shelter the pipe. It’s the second pipe you bought on this vacation. The first one wasn’t properly drilled with holes, and it weighs down your pocket. It’s pressing against her thigh. She smells like coconut oil and she’s beaming at you when flickering lighter shines gold on her face.
You both inhale. You take all the smoke inside of you and breathe with each other, seated on the sandy steps. The ocean roars slower than your breath. There’s a dark shape on the shore. You can’t be sure if it’s a signpost or a man coming to bust you for getting stoned on the beach in the middle of the night. It’s scary. But being scared is funny.
Her skin is so soft, so smooth. You don’t know it yet but six months later, you won’t be talking. This moment that makes you giddy with the joy and desire will be only a memory. The shape on the beach is a signpost. Nobody cares you’re smoking in the dunes. You’ll still have the pipe without a hole drilled properly, and sometimes you’ll hold it in your hand and remember how her braids felt against your lips.
This morning, your cat died. She was in your arms, swaddled in a towel, while a gentle veterinarian injected the medicine to stop her heart. You carried your kitty to the car so she could be cremated. You set her in the back seat on the towel. That pile of fluff is all that remains of a life you loved and cherished and tended your entire adult life. When the car drives away, she’s gone.
There are cannabis cookies in the freezer, carefully labeled and stored out of reach. Each one has about fifteen milligrams of THC, you estimate based on how they make you feel. You eat two, three, four. You keep eating them until you feel nothing but dizzy warmth. Until your eyes are too dry to cry. It’s not healthy, you’re not coping, but maybe you don’t have to cope right now.
A couple of days later, your baby is brought back in an urn. You hold her. She weighs nothing. She no longer purrs and rolls over to get belly rubs. She doesn’t put a paw on your arm while you’re using the computer mouse. You make a shrine to her because she’s so big inside you, some of that feeling has to be set down somewhere else.
Two more cookies, three more, four. The months pass and you’re always stoned. But by the end of it, you can hold her urn and cry. You stop taking so much weed. The emotions come back and you live in a life without your cat. Somehow you handle it. You have to. Grief doesn’t feel better when you’re stoned, not the way that love and music do.
It’s an afternoon on the weekend. Your kids want to play LEGO. You popped a chocolate earlier, so you’re mellow, and life’s stresses have faded away. The house needs to be cleaned. The yard’s a mess. You haven’t showered. But now you’re on the couch, cozy and floating, so it’s easy to give yourself permission to fuck off and play LEGO.
Your son gives you the broken minifig without arms. He plays the one with long hair. You climb walls and jump off with silly cries and your children laugh and laugh and laugh. It feels good and simple, the way childhood felt. Anything can happen. The couch can become canyons. The pillows are trampolines. When your kids bounce, you bounce too, and their kisses feel like going to heaven. If only they could always be this happy. If only you could always let yourself be this happy.
It’s raining. It doesn’t do that much around there. You grab the papers, the grinder, the funnel, a lighter. You settle under a blanket on the couch in your gazebo. Rain dribbles off the edges while you pack a joint.
Life’s been hard, and you’re tempted demolish that joint in one go. Suck it down until there’s nothing but a roach too annoying to smoke.
But you take it slow. A couple good hits and you stub it out. Then you lay back on the couch, close your eyes, and listen to the rain, knowing that there’s nothing to do today. The rain is like music. It feels good when you hear it. Sometimes the wind blows drops against your cheek. Your husband is with the children, your dogs are warm on your legs, and there’s nothing but you and a few puffs of smoke on a wet gray day.
The Gauntlet of Beauty
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.
Productivity tools for the discerning writerDo you write? The answer is probably no, even (especially) if you consider yourself a writer. Why write when you could do your dishes or wash the floors? Well, it’s time to neglect your house because in our age, there are fewer excuses to ignore the blank page than ever before. Here are some of the best aids to the storytellers out there.A good pen. Start with the basics, right? You can go as simple or fancy as you want. Quill and ink is a classic for a reason, just as the evolved and less messy versions have appeared for their own reasons. Having a writing implement at hand is the easiest way to make sure you can get those ideas down when you have them. You can’t use the excuse that you don’t remember when you can scribble on whatever’s handy!A good notebook. And why use loose-leaf paper if you don’t have to? Bound books keep it all together in one place, both so you can travel with your notes and so you’ll have them all in one place! Just make sure not to get too many or the notebook you’re looking for will be buried under a pile of half-filled copies, and cleaning away from your workspace will look a whole lot more appealing than writing.A page marker. Save time by using a bit of ribbon or paper to show yourself where you left off. You can get creative with this, too; some leaves work for this really well and have fun differences in texture. Watch the passage of time as your bookmark goes from fresh and vital and green to brown and well-loved to crumbling to dust. Feel the passage of time as you hibernate in the winter and await a fresh crop of leaves. Try to avoid thinking about how you’ll be part of the ground you walk on before too long.A good carrying bag. Crafters can do wonders with a bit of fabric and imagination. Your pen and journal probably doesn’t need more than a pouch with a couple of straps, but you can go as big as you need. Bags of holding are very popular in the writing community for the portable workspace – very helpful when you’re traveling, as it can double as a bedchamber if you tuck it out of view just right – but make sure you don’t get one used and uncleansed. The whispers in your head will let you know if it’s new or not, and if you need to see someone to clear your dreams again.A reliable scrying tool. Sometimes, the ideas in your head aren’t enough. There are a variety of options to commune with the spiritual force of your choice. If you’re traveling light, a good set of cards or a coin might do the trick. If you need more complicated help, a ball or mirror, supplemented with the herbs and spells of choice, can bring a full advisor to bounce that difficult plot point off of. Just cast a circle if you don’t have a direct line to your god or spirit; you never know who else might be listening.A ritual knife. When you’re really in a tricky spot, blood must be spilt. Your own can do in a pinch – make sure to not drag the blade across one of your palms, or it’ll make writing harder – but small vermin is usually ideal for both its accessibility and utility, if your mouser isn’t keeping up. A big plot tangle might need more of a hunting trip, but use your knife to slit the buck’s throat before you take the antlers for your purpose.A flask. Sometimes, you can’t use the blood you’ve gathered right away. You don’t need a fancy tool to paint the blood on yourself – fingers always do – but a crystal vial or a forged tin is necessary to keep blood for later, especially if you’re on the move. Infused flasks can give the blood power to destroy your enemies…or make your manuscripts more visible to seeking editors.A good attitude. Whether you live in the bogs where the dead never rest, or the deserts where the wind will leach your soul at first opportunity, having a can-do mindset will get you far! (Just don’t go too far, especially at the turn of the day and night, or you might not come back.)
The art of the library hold
I want a book.
Okay, truthfully, I want many books. Anyone who Reads (capital R necessary) never wants just one. For this exercise, I’m going to pick one. Maybe I’ve had my eye on it since I saw its author talk about its release on Twitter. Maybe I watched a movie or television adaptation and I want to learn more about the source. Maybe there’s a TV show coming out and I want to reread the source. Maybe I was just skimming along and the summary grabbed me. The source is different, the intensity of the want may vary, but the yearning is always the same.
I want a book, and I almost never have the means to buy it or borrow it immediately. Money for book buying doesn’t really exist. I live in the second-largest population center in the state, but its population is sparse and on the older, whiter side of things. I want queer literature. I want SFFH. I want authors of color. They want mysteries.
If the book isn’t in the library, I put it in the requests area and hope for the best. I’m not terrible at requesting books the library is inclined to get, but there are still several covers that have been there for months and will probably be there for months more, if not longer. I will look at them and pine every now and then, but I try to keep my expectations realistic.
When the book is in the library—more importantly for an agoraphobic person who can’t drive, when it’s in ebook form—that’s when the game begins.
Sometimes, the book is only in audiobook form, or the ebook has a wait while the audiobook doesn’t. That’s when I really start to ask: how much do I want this book? I read fast when text is involved, in little pockets of my day. Short audiobooks are doable, if challenging. My day is text and children, and those are two spheres that don’t allow for leisurely listening when I need to pay close attention. Long audiobooks…all other hobbies and non-essential tasks have go by the wayside for the better part of a month.
Often, when there is an ebook, there’s a wait. A week or two isn’t bad.
A month, or more…
My hometown was small enough that I didn’t realize libraries could have multiple branches in a single city when I was a kid. Said town was big enough that the one library it did have was large, considering, but a place like the New York Public Library would have blown my tiny child mind. As I grew older and visited branches in the larger city to the north, the idea was fuzzy, but it was there. You could live in a place, have a library close to you, and have other libraries in the same town if you wanted a change of pace.
The state as a whole has an interlibrary loan system. This, again, was something I knew academically because of signs in the library. It was rare that I would search a book on the computer’s card catalog, find it was only in a tiny library most of a day’s drive away, and still want it. How many books were worth bothering people for? The wait wasn’t what bothered me—back in the days before Twitter and Netflix, my attention span was much better—but the idea of making librarians work harder to get a book to me. The one time I spilled milk on a library book, I was mortified and upset for weeks.
Thanks to my mom, who still lives there, I know my hometown library system still doesn’t have an ebook system. The economics of such are complicated, and a smaller place probably can’t justify the cost or the headaches. I moved north with my sister, and my library possibilities expanded dramatically.
But with more options came more hunger.
I watched a lot of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown months after his death. Getting perspective on little-seen places around the world with a great narration and amazing-looking food…what’s not to love? People shortly after his death talked about his voice in particular, in conjunction with his writing, and I figured I would check out Kitchen Confidential and see how it worked for me.
The library had Kitchen Confidential in its ebook circulation. It also had a newer book, with a shorter wait. I put both in my holds and went back to watching Netflix.
Weeks passed. I started a reread of the Wheel of Time series, since my hold for Eye of the World came in. The 10-year anniversary of Twilight’s release happened—the movie, I believe—so I had my mom bring my copy to me. I was plotting a story for NaNoWriMo, my long-awaited hold for Sharp Objects came in…
…and that was when the library gave me two Anthony Bourdain books to read, within a week of each other.
I made some decent progress on the newer one. It wasn’t bad. Not super into the fat-shaming elements, but there were gems that rang the same bells for me that the show did. But the yearning had receded, and the second book checking out killed it altogether. I returned them both, unfinished.
To put effective holds in the library, you need to know two things well: the library, and yourself. But “the library”, in this instance, isn’t a building or the people who staff it; it’s an app created by people who have never been to your physical library locations, and it’s the people who check out all the books.
There is no way to know the library because you have to know each specific individual in line in front of you. What are their tastes? Their reading style, their speed? The max time to have a book is universal, and people can’t renew, but counting the people in front of you and counting the max possible time will do you no good. Sometimes, if the demand is high, the library will purchase more copies, the one time the staff really comes into play. Most times, people read faster or return things partially read or unread. I can receive a hold tomorrow, or I can receive it in three weeks.
I do know myself, however, and I know three things: I am reasonably patient, and I am broke, but I am also very busy. If I get too much at once, I have to carve time in my day for the books. Feeling resentful that I can’t fit everything I do in my day kills the passion, the fire. I have a hard time getting past first chapters at the best of times.
Believe it or not, though, this is improvement. It used to be I would get books, realize I wasn’t in the place to read them, and beat myself up for it. You have this opportunity now, and you’re wasting it. You’re a terrible reader, a terrible writer (for a writer reads constantly when they’re not writing, didn’t you know), and you’re letting your fellow writers down. You’re letting your library down. You’re letting yourself down.
Now, it’s “ugh, will I ever be better at placing holds”, but relative resignation and quick return. It isn’t despair; half my loans do get finished. It’s the idea that a book to be read takes up space in the back of my head that I always desperately need, and maybe the person behind me in line could use the book more than I could.
Very occasionally, when I have the resources, I’ll buy a book. Usually it’s an ebook, because it’s simpler to carry around a library in a small device than it is to cart around the four books I’m reading at once, but sometimes it’s paper. Sometimes, I get the book exactly when I need it, and it’s devoured within hours or days. Sometimes, when that happens, I love the book. There is no purer bliss, no greater satisfaction than that.
More often, when a book is purchased, it sits around for a long time. I almost always get to them eventually. My patience is infinite when I can plan times to try a book, set it aside if I’m not quite in the mood for it, and plan to try it again. Most of my paper books don’t even live with me; I have little room, so they sit in a bookcase at my mom’s. It’s an interstate library of my very own, for the moment. Knowing my Kindle library or my old room at home have experiences tucked away for later isn’t quite the joy that the right book at the right time is, but it’s occasionally flashes of warmth.
Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy good book timing. And isn’t that the same thing, in the end?
In the meantime—and for always, I hope, even if I have the money for a larger personal collection—I have the library. Getting a book on hold at the right time isn’t quite as easy as buying a book when you have the money, but it is sublime and worth every single hold returned unread.
Maybe, in a couple months, Anthony Bourdain will make his way back onto my holds. In the meantime, I have Sharp Objects to read.
Tweeting in the Time of Burning Screaming Apocalypse
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.
Nothing Happens in Napoleon Dynamite
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.