President Obama’s Farewell Speech

On Tuesday evening, as I watched President Obama make the final rounds with Michelle and Malia, waving at the crowd, I was flooded with dread. I was reminded of those rare occasions when I was very young, when Mom dropped Deanna and I off at a family member’s house so she could run a quick personal errand, and we cried and cried, pleading, “Please don’t goooooooo!” For the past eight years, I’ve found comfort in Obama’s patience, confidence, and compassion, in the fact that he, of all people, proved again and again to be honest, intelligent, steady, forceful, and kind in the face of both tragedy and achievement. I dreaded the void Obama was leaving behind, and how it shortly was going to be filled with someone already proven to be base, short-sighted, vindictive, and vain.

Indeed, when I reread the transcript of Obama’s speech the following morning, I realized how cautionary his message was. He enumerated a number of specific threats to our democracy that we need to confront with urgency and sincerity, lest we severely weaken ourselves from within.

He spoke about the threat of partisanship:
“Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.”

The threat of economic inequality:
“Stark inequality is…corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1% has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind. The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills, convinced that the game is fixed against them, that their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.”

The threat of sectarianism:
“For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.”

The threat of the compromising of our American values:
“The fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism and chauvinism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”

The threat of taking our democracy for granted:
“Whether or not we stand up for our freedoms, whether or not we respect and enforce the rule of law, that’s up to us. America is no fragile thing, but the gains of our long journey to freedom are not assured.”

And the resulting threat of our present political situation:

“America, we weaken those ties [that make us when we allow our political dialogue to become so corrosive that people of good character aren’t even willing to enter into public service. So course with rancor that Americans with whom we disagree are seen, not just as misguided, but as malevolent. We weaken those ties when we define some of us as more American than others. When we write off the whole system as inevitably corrupt. And when we sit back and blame the leaders we elect without examining our own role in electing them.”

Thankfully, Obama didn’t just express caution, nor did he leave an empty void. He enumerated as many, if not more, practical solutions to these threats: from reforming the tax code to coming face-to-face with our trolls. He called it “the call to citizenship.” And he reminded us that, historically, we Americans have always risen to the occasion, that just in the past eight years we’ve made great strides.

And Obama did what all good father figures do: he patted us on the back and handed over the reins. “My fellow Americans, it has been the honor of my life to serve you,” he said. “I won’t stop; in fact, I will be right there with you, as a citizen, for all my remaining days.” As soon as he said this, I realized just how much I—and so many others like me—needed to hear it. We needed to know that we weren’t entirely orphaned, that there were still good people with good ideas in our midst.

So despite my dread, I ultimately came away feeling like I always do after I hear Obama speak: warm, teary-eyed, clear-headed, reassured. Because, as Chris murmured, goosebumps prickling both of our arms, “Obama is just so much more mature than EVERYBODY.”

Published by the West Seattle Herald 01/16/2016.

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The market for millennials

I grew up within walking distance of almost my entire extended family. Oma and Opa, aunts and uncles, Mom and Dad—all were within reach, settled between SW 106th St and the Alaska Junction. This arrangement left a lasting impression on me: my notion of family is not limited to the nuclear unit; interaction is abundant and interdependence is instinctual. I suppose this is equivalent to small town mentality: it may not be much, but here are my people, here is my place.

As such, I’d always imagined I’d stay in West Seattle. I’d travel for sure, live in other cities, other countries even, but I was sure I’d eventually settle close to home, and raise my own kids within walking distance of my mom, sisters, and cousins. Why would I deny my children the great gift I received from my parents and adult relatives: shared time and resources, a formidable network of support to fall back on, unconditional love from so many directions in close proximity? Of course, it never occurred to me that when the time came, I might not be able to afford to do this.

When my mom bought her home in Arbor Heights in 1989, the nearly 10,000 square foot property (and the little 800 square foot two-bedroom house which stood upon it) cost $88,000. She was able to afford the down payment and mortgage as a 27-year-old single mother of two on a teacher’s salary. Calculating for inflation, $88,000 in 1989 had the value of $172,731 today. But as my realtor friend Will Sears points out, “You’d be hard-pressed to find a house in West Seattle for $400K these days. You’re more likely to spend between $500-750K, and even then, you should expect to make compromises—accessibility, square footage, laminate countertops, etc.” Zillow puts the current median home value in Seattle proper at $612,000, or $415 per ft2. How am I—and millennials like me—supposed to stay close to home?

This isn’t the same issue as millennials’ dwindling hopes of achieving the American Dream, a.k.a. earning more money than our parents. It’s a problem of supply and demand. According to Redfin, there are a couple of factors that are determining the rise in price of property in Seattle proper: (1) our economy is increasingly strong, but Seattle remains (for now) the most affordable major city on the west coast, so (2) it’s attractive to students, investors, the tech industry, and international buyers alike. (3) Sellers are hesitant to cash in because they’re worried about finding and affording a new place to live, and in the meantime, (4) renters are finding themselves compelled to look into buying a home simply because mortgage payments are becoming less expensive than rising rent prices.

“The inventory is just not there,” Will explained to me. “Nor is the geographic layout for new homes.”

Phil Greely, a realtor for Realogics Sothby’s International Realty, suggests millennials should reset our expectations. It used to be that you graduated from college, settled into your career, got married, bought a car, bought a house, got a dog. At least, that’s what many of our parents did. But according to Greely, millennials make the mistake of thinking that our first home has to be our forever home. He says, “Unless you have tons of money, that’s not the case. You will be sacrificing, settling for something smaller—a starter home.”

If that sounds a lot like renting, but with more hassle and legal fees attached, you’re right, sort of. Except, “by owning, you’ll at least be reaping the benefit of the appreciating marketplace,” says Greely. “By renting, you’re just buying patience.”

Both Will Sears and Phil Greely assured me it’s not all doom and gloom. A young family with good credit and financial stability, who shops around for financial options and makes strong relationships with their realtor and mortgage loan professionals, and who starts planning three to six months in advance of viewing homes, will still be able to afford to buy a decent house. It just might not be their first choice. Or check all their boxes. And it will be difficult.

I don’t know. It sure sounds a lot like it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 01/09/2017.

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Ethnic

On the morning of December 21st I scanned my Twitter feed as usual and came across this video. Like many other Twitter users, I was alarmed by what I saw: two young Muslim-American men were being escorted against their will off their Delta flight. One of the men, Adam Saleh, explained that the reason he and his friend were being kicked off was because neighboring passengers had overheard them speaking Arabic and had protested to the flight staff that this made them uncomfortable. Saleh’s camera panned over these passengers, who waved Saleh and his friend off the plane with glee. The camera then panned over other passengers who looked embarrassed and bewildered, and still others who proclaimed their dismay over how Saleh and his friend were being mistreated. “Because I was speaking a different language, you feel uncomfortable?” cried Saleh. “This is 2016! I’m about to cry right now!”

Like many other Twitter users, I immediately retweeted Saleh’s video as a gesture of solidarity. Xenoglossophobia—the fear of foreign languages—pangs me personally. It’s the reason I didn’t grow up speaking German, despite the fact that I’m only second-generation immigrant; my mom was born in Germany to an American father and German mother, and immigrated to the U.S. in the late sixties, when she was still a child. Back then, Oma was embraced for being proficient in English before ever setting foot in the States, but discouraged from speaking German to her children. “They need to be perfect at English because that’s what they’re going to live with,” Oma recalls my uncle Mickey’s first grade teacher explaining. “At that time, a bilingual kid was not very much understood.”

So my mom didn’t grow up bilingual, and as result, neither did I. This did not entirely prevent Oma from passing on her culture, however. I grew up eating goulash, rotkraut, zwetschgenknödel and landjaeger. During the winter holidays, we light real candles on the Christmas tree, sing Kling Glöckchen, and drink feuerzangenbowle. As a result, despite the fact that I’ve never lived in Germany and don’t speak German, I’m still considered by many of my fellow Americans to be culturally “ethnic,” for better and for worse. On the one hand, I grew up with curiosity and respect for other cultures and languages, blessed with an inherent comfort with the fact that different people do things in different ways, and in turn, people who come into my life have been curious and respectful of my inherited tastes and traditions. On the other hand, it seems to come easy to some people to call me a Nazi when it suits them.

It struck me hard when I discovered that the Adam Saleh incident might be a hoax, and that Saleh is a professional provocateur who regularly engages in race baiting and fear mongering. For example, in this video, again on a plane, Saleh and his friend loudly count down from ten in Arabic, knowing that counting down in any language on a plane—as if to time an explosion—is the equivalent of yelling, “Fire!” in a crowded theater. In light of these facts, the Saleh incident is at best an instance of the boy who cried wolf, at worst a con that degraded people’s genuine empathy for those who are actually mistreated because of their perceived “otherness.” The jury’s still out, but it’s unlikely the truth will matter compared to the scandal.

It’s frustrating, because a con that exasperates people’s worst instincts and degrades people’s best instincts is the opposite of what we need right now. Dictionary.com selected “xenophobia” and “post-truth” as the two terms that define 2016, and these are the very last terms I want to define what comes next.

Last New Years, Chris introduced me to the practice of choosing a word to define my approach to the year ahead. Anticipating my first year of freedom from persecution, of proactivity and production, I chose “courage.” Little did I realize that courage was also what I would need to face the social and political climate that matured over the course of 2016. Looking forward to 2017, I’ve chosen “vision.” Because clarity is hard won, perspective is a gift we share with each other, and the future is an opportunity.

Published by The West Seattle Herald 01/02/2017.

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Newsletter

Oh, but it is funny!
—this end-of-the-year newsletter,
Dad jokes, winks and wordplay
littered about, “Here’s the year
in a nut shell” looney-tuney.
And don’t forget it’s true!

Tim cracked his ribs twice,
golfing, hanging Xmas lights.
Kyle bought a jousting horse,
to everyone’s surprise.
Tim thought, Were we ever thirty?
Eileen went to Sheboygan
for her mother’s 94th.

How do we fill a year of boxes?
Golf balls putter into holes,
beer caps crack, lips pucker.
July shows Kyle’s sword impact
on Jordin’s axe, Leila’s armor.
Cackling, Chris and Gavin
write their zany worlds.

Some footnotes provide
hints of incredulity—
that parental color. For miles,
Kyle and Jordin drove
Seattle to Massachusetts
(to pick up Leila). Chris and Kyle
got inked with “brother” tattoos.

Why are there times of life?
Why do some things turn out?
Why, oh why, do others not?
(The Newsletter, with breezy script,
with welcome winks, accepts,
and proudly accumulates the days.)

They celebrated my birthday.
They chronicled my travels,
the Robinsons. They
rearranged their holidays
around words like:
“feuerzangenbowle”
because that’s what my family likes.
Somebody slap me.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 12/26/2016.

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Turning down the heat

West Seattle HeraldAccording to Wikipedia, the Cold War was “cold” because the U.S. and Russia never engaged in open conflict. Instead, they exerted their super political and military influence over lesser powers to outplay each other on a global scale, all the while upholding the threat of mutually assured destruction. It was a race of ideologies—West vs. East, capitalism vs. communism, democracy vs. dictatorship—with real stakes that were ever-present for everyone who was alive and aware between 1945 and 1991.

Not me, then. I was born in 1987, and the Cold War has always been a part of the past for me. I didn’t grow up with civil defense sirens, or get drilled in school about what to do in case of a nuclear attack. “The Russian threat” was a James Bond trope. In real life, I never felt like Russia was any more threatening than any other foreign country. The game was over. Democracy had won.

Except, with the confirmation of Russian meddling in our election process, for the first time ever, I feel a cold breath against the back of my neck. It’s not so much because Russia hacked us. Everyone hacks. We hack. It’s bad that Russia was able to hack us, but the real reason I’m chilled to the bone is because Russia’s hacking worked. Russia strategically exposed the DNC to negative publicity, stayed strategically silent about the RNC and candidate Trump, and in so doing, managed to manipulate large swaths of Americans, influence our election, and undermine our democracy.

Having directly benefitted from Russian interference, President-elect Trump asks: why shouldn’t the U.S. and Russia be friends?

Because Russia governs itself by dictatorship. Because Putin imprisons his political opponents. Because Russian hacking purposefully interfered with our democratic process at the highest level. Because “friendship”—the lifting of sanctions and the acceptance of Russia’s political and military influence on the world—is what Russia needs to gain ground as our ideological rival.

If the Electoral College confirms Mr. Trump’s election today, the question Americans need to start asking themselves is: what does a friendship between the U.S. and Russia look like? What does that friendship mean for the rest of the world? For N.A.T.O.? For I.S.I.S.? For Muslims? For L.G.B.T.Q.? For climate change? For democracy?

No one alive in the world has ever known such a friendship. As a nation, we need to be fit to look that friendship squarely in the face. Relationships only function if either (1) they have a solid foundation in truth and trust, and show courage in communication and self-awareness; or (2) they are thoroughly and honestly policed for accountability. President-elect Trump has so far failed in that regard; he carefully misrepresents Putin’s qualities, redefining dictatorship as “strong leadership.” But as Chris pointed out to me, “It’s like calling a piece of shit ‘rich in flavor.’ Technically that’s true.” Which means, as much as we Americans will need to police our new and precarious friendship with Russia, we will need to do a much more thorough, honest, and courageous job at policing our own leadership.

As the great Albus Dumbledore once said, “We must choose between what is easy and what is right.” (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Scholastic, 2000). That means we need to stop acting silly and actually do our homework, America.

Published by the West Seattle Herald 12/19/2016.

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“Spring Breakers”

 

Henri Matisse, "The Dance"
Henri Matisse, “The Dance”

When Chris mentioned this great film we should watch called “Spring Breakers,” I made a face. The title brought to mind an easy, lewd, slap-stick romantic-comedy, like “Bridesmaids” or “Wedding Crashers” except, instead of a dirtied-up wedding, it’d be a cleaned-up episode of “Girls Gone Wild.” Not a bad genre of film, seeing as films like that seem to entertain a lot more people than they bore, and find reiteration year after year. But certainly not my piece of cake.

But seeing as Chris and I had been pleasantly surprised by the ingenious meta-comedy of “Dave and Tucker Vs. Evil” just last week, I decided to trust Chris and give “Spring Breakers” a shot. Sure enough, it was a film that followed four young hotties clad in candy-colored bikinis hell-bent on partying hard, playing rough, and letting loose on a criminal rampage. But while this log-line describes the kind of film I typically HATE, “Spring Breakers” is now one of my favorite films EVER.

Richard Brody of The New Yorker wrote an insightful review, observing that the film is less about “sun-scathed bacchanalia” than black-white identity politics and the “slippery slope of crime.” Brody was struck by how director Harmony Korine made his own film-version of Norman Mailer’s essay “The White Negro”—the four white girls and their underworld guide, a white drug dealer nicknamed Alien, take on stereotypically black “gangsta” personas, and at the climax of the film, when the girls shoot down a drug kingpin, a black light darkens their skin “in a cinematographic version of blackface.” Brody observes that the four girls were little more than liars—they lied to their parents, white-washing and sugar-coating the details of their trip in their calls back home, and they lied to themselves, because they had the privilege of ducking in and out of a Dionysian life of excess and crime “relatively unscathed.”

I mention this reading of “Spring Breakers” because, while insightful, it is not remotely how I experienced the film, which goes to show how brilliantly Korine interwove many complex ideas. I did not pick up on the racial aspect of the film so much as the gender aspect, and I couldn’t disagree more with Brody’s take on Faith, Cotty, Brit and Candy (the girls have names, albeit obnoxious ones). Indeed, I would argue that it was above all their complex and highly-personal journey that made the film singularly brilliant.

“Spring Breakers” is like “Alice in Wonderland.” The girls commit a transgression (Alice abandons her reading and pursues the White Rabbit; Cotty, Brit and Candy commit a robbery), and as a result, find themselves in a dream-like fantasy world. At first sight, the fantasy world is wonderful. In Wonderland, Alice can alter her dimensions by eating cakes, talk to animals, and encounter mythical beasts. At spring break in St. Petersburg, FL, Faith, Cotty, Brit and Candy can do whatever they want—snort, smoke and drink to excess, party with countless other revelers, flaunt their sexuality, even wield weapons and commit violent crimes.

But the wonders of Wonderland are frivolous, lawless, dangerous nonsense. And the wonders of spring break, under Korine’s astute lens, are grotesque. He lingers uncomfortably long on waggling breasts, bong shots, and gunshot wounds. Revelers writhe, regurgitate beer all over themselves, and dissolve into a pulpy, drug-induced haze. The crimes are bloody. The scenes blur together and the dialogue loops hypnotically.

But where Lewis Carroll draws a clear line between the real world and Wonderland, Korine layers the absurdity of spring break on top of Faith, Cotty, Brit and Candy’s reality. Every step along their fantastical journey is  a step too far, and it makes watching “Spring Breakers” all the more mesmerizing and uncomfortable because, for all its psychopathic un-believability, it remains relatable.

Let me back up. Watching “Spring Breakers,” I felt awestruck and squeamish because of how the unrecognizable fantasy elements were interwoven with the recognizable portrayal of young females. I still have same-sex friendships that are so emotionally and physically intimate (cuddling, etc.) that one might think they flirt with homosexuality. I remember being cornered by older men who tried to intimidate and sweet-talk me out of my boundaries. I remember flaunting my sexuality at frat parties (and I wasn’t alone; there’s a whole industry for sexy Halloween costumes), and in so doing, attempting to invert my fear of being preyed upon. I remember thinking I needed to get out of my hometown and my comfort zone in order to find myself.

I remember singing and dancing along to Britney Spears, having memorized every word and gesture, even as I recognized the song’s message of self-objectification and superficiality all along. That strained, fragile ideology was the model of my adolescence. It was  the model of Faith, Cotty, Brit and Candy’s adolescence, and Korine created a dream-like Wonderland for them to fully embody that ideology, perfectly encapsulated in this scene. The girls are a haunting piece of art—all too real and unreal—wearing their pink unicorn face masks, posing as Matisse’s dancers, aiming shotguns into people’s faces. As Brit says, “Just pretend it’s a video game. Like you’re in a fucking movie.”

Published by the West Seattle Herald 12/12/2016.

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Gift

West Seattle HeraldPublished by the West Seattle Herald 10/05/2016.

I suppose it’s a privilege that I’ve never had to rely on Black Friday to do my Christmas shopping. I know some people get a thrill out of competing to collect big on the best deals, but I don’t like to feel rushed, herded through a crowd, or pressured to make a purchase. The only thrill I get out of Black Friday is the thrill of knowing a bunch of black cats are going to get homes that day, because the Humane Society waives their adoption fees. Nope, Black Friday comes and goes for me without much notice. I tend to stay home, digesting leftovers.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t get into the gift-giving spirit. Post-Thanksgiving, I feel silly with glee at the prospect of stumbling across perfect gifts for people I love over the next month—unexpected, clever, fun, thoughtful, useful gifts. Gifts that will be just what the recipient wanted, without realizing they wanted it. Gifts that are as satisfying as the end of a Sherlock Holmes novel, or a cup of hot chocolate spiced with chili. Gifts that say, “I love you AND I know you,” but which also give the recipient something new to sink their teeth into.

That’s the aim anyway. I almost never manage it. I think the closest I ever came was a painting I made for Deanna of an emo cow, complete with purple hair falling over its face and tears streaming from its eyes, crying out in a caption above it, “Emooooooooooo!” In all my gift-giving attempts ever since, I measure my success against the look of bewildered joy Deanna’s face made when she unwrapped that painting years ago.

Of course, there are shortcuts. The most extravagant Christmas gift I’ve ever seen given was the brand new, crimson, racing-striped mini cooper my stepdad Chris got for my mom. Of course, it was the perfect gift because it was exactly what my mom wanted, and exactly what she wouldn’t splurge on for herself. But that wasn’t the whole of it. If you can afford it, it’s easy to blow someone away with unapologetic generosity. Rather, Chris’s gift-giving genius came in the presentation. He had managed to keep the purchase a secret, and first presented my mom with a toy version of the car to unwrap. He let her sit with the toy version a while, pretending that was the extent of it—“You know, because you like mini coopers!”—before he invited her to go take a look at the real thing parked outside.

Something new for me this year: Christmas cards. Growing up, I was rarely one to give or receive them, because nearly everyone I might send a card to I already spent the winter holidays with in person. All the same, this year I got the wild craving to take the cards Oma collected and gave to me—blank greeting cards from animal shelters with pictures of cats on them—, make them Christmas-y with stickers and gel pens, and send them off to friends across the country. As I get older, a simple gesture of acknowledgement a card represents seems more and more like a truly fine gift—especially if it involves some creative, irreverent orchestration of cat, metallic Sharpie, and glittery snowflake sticker.

The same wild craving is responsible for something else that’s new for me this year: a Christmas tree. Don’t get me wrong; like many other culturally-European Americans, my family has always put up a Christmas tree. Every year, the weekend after Thanksgiving, I pile into my stepdad’s truck and ride the caravan of aunts and uncles out to one of those you-cut tree farms in Maple Valley. While the adults prowl around the grounds, debating height, diameter, trunk size, and dimension (“I want a Jabba-the-Hut-tree!” my stepdad Chris proclaims every year), I wander around absentmindedly, sipping cider and enjoying the fresh air. But not this year. This year, my Chris and I took up the mission and chopped down our very own tree. Like a pair of adults.

Like a family. Because the only discernable difference about this year is that Chris and I are together, and never before outside of the family I grew up in have I ever felt so a part of a family. It’s our unexpected, incredible gift to ourselves.

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Sharing Harry and Fantastic Beasts

West Seattle HeraldI’m actually glad Chris was just too old to be into Harry Potter back in the day. Although he was a fantasy and sci-fi nerd who read voraciously and regularly played Dungeons and Dragons, in 1997—when Sorcerer’s Stone was published—he was also fifteen. There were limits.

I, on the other hand, was the perfect age—ten. Thanks to the fact that my mom was an elementary school teacher who stayed apace of children’s literature, I received a U.S. first edition copy for my birthday just a month after it was published, and straight away, I read it all the way through. For the release of every book in the series since, I made a point of standing hours in line at Barnes and Noble, dressed in a hand-made purple cloak, waiting for midnight to strike so I could purchase my copy and stay up all night reading. I matured alongside the books. They made me laugh, cry, think. I returned to them again and again, read them in German and Italian. I even studied the supplemental material—Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Quidditch Through the Ages—and I gratefully absorbed Eliezer Yudkowsky’s epic fanfiction, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

Now I get to return to them again, this time with special purpose: Chris. We’re listening to the audiobooks in the car, while eating meals, before going to bed. I’m enjoying witnessing the dichotomous way he approaches the story: on the one hand, with a certain adult detachment as the writer in him takes note of narrative cues (“Snape’s looking pretty suspicious… Too suspicious to be the real bad guy… But what about that Gilderoy Lockhart?!”). On the other hand, he’s boyish and emotionally invested, clenching his fists and muttering darkly whenever Draco Malfoy enters the scene. I love that he can be both—adult and child—at the same time.

For my part, I get to enjoy omniscience—I’m always raising my eyebrows suggestively, gleefully squeezing Chris’s hand, and smirking knowingly. But even more than that, coming back to the series as an adult after already absorbing it as a child, I’m enjoying understanding aspects of the story that I overlooked before, simply because I didn’t yet have the requisite life experience to appreciate them.

Take The Prisoner of Azkaban, which Chris and I just finished. There’s political intrigue, betrayal, heartbreak…and on top of all that, Dementors:

Dementors…drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them. Even Muggles feel their presence, though they can’t see them. Get too near a Dementor and every good feeling, every happy memory will be sucked out of you…You’ll be left with nothing but the worst experiences of your life.*

Back when I was a kid, I didn’t really understand the Dementors beyond that they were terrifying monsters that can drain the magic out of wizards. It never occurred to me that what a Dementor did to people in the world dreamed up by J.K. Rowling could have anything to do with what people experience in the real world, like it never occurred to me how to relate to a werewolf.

Only since having lived a bit more do I recognize that Dementors are a magical manifestation of something very real and relatable—depression. Get too close to a Dementor, and you’ll be trapped in a cold, sad loop of panic and hopelessness, haunted by your worst life experiences and fears. Everyone feels that now and again; I felt that for the better portion of a day just last week. What I love about J.K. Rowling’s metaphor for depression—a soul-sucking monster—is how it accurately reflects a person’s ability to unwillingly but unavoidably obsess over our worst fears and memories, and lose sight of a better, more balanced perspective.

Just today, Chris and I went to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, in which J.K. Rowling introduces a whole new monster: the Obscurus. It’s a magical parasite that forms in a young witch or wizard when they are forced to suppress their magical powers, especially under traumatic circumstances. The Obscurus eventually takes over its host, dissolving them into a cloud of silky, black ash that lashes out and destroys anything in its path. Like the Dementor, the Obscurus is not just a monster. It is a magical manifestation of the kind of dissociative and aggressive mental illness that a person can suffer as a result of abuse, neglect, and self-repression.

Yes! As terribly tragic as the Obscurus is, it’s real. It means something. This is the take-away of the series, as I return to it again and again: Harry Potter is rooted in a deep, searching compassion for the human condition. And that’s a story I’ll never get tired of, especially if the world happens to be inhabited by Nibblers, Phoenixes, and the Weasley twins. On the drive home, we put on Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

* J.K. Rowling. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Scholastic 1999.

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