The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dear Brood X cicadas: Welcome back to our messed-up world. Here’s what you missed.

(Amy Ning for The Washington Post)
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Correction: An earlier version of this essay referred to the “millions and millions” of cicada nymphs that burrowed underground in the 2004 Brood X appearance. The number of nymphs is estimated to be in the many billions. This file has been updated.

Cicadas! ’Sup, brooood? You’re here, you’re back.

Already, we’re tempted to add, until we stop to think about what the passing of 17 years truly feels like — the breadth of it, the depth of it, the infrequent highs and morose lows of it — and realize that yes, it’s been a minute. That’s what we say now, as a way of feeling time.

You go strictly by instinct and so do we: Our inclination, on seeing someone we haven’t seen in this many years, is to bring them up to speed, to tell them the news that they’ve missed.

But you’re finding us in such worse shape — emotionally spent, alarmingly discordant and slowly recovering from a fatal virus that killed thousands and thousands of us in the past year and sickened millions. We had the knowledge and the means to curb its spread, which we fought about constantly, and so it spread. It’s tragic and humiliating. There’s a vaccine now and many of us refuse to take it, mostly because we don’t trust one another. We argue all the time, over just about anything.

We’re not how you left us back in 2004, when you burrowed deep into the ground to get away, when you were but billions of innocent little cicada nymphs. We should apologize for the fact that you must put up with our national nervous breakdown while you’re trying to sing your glorious mating songs and get it on. You should know that we only apologize conditionally in 2021. (“To anyone who might have been offended. . . .”)

Instead, it’s Sorry Not Sorry — a phrase, a hit song, a way of life now. Sorry not sorry you have to see us this way.

David Bowie is dead. It feels like we should just get that out of the way. (Prince, too. You might as well hear it from us.) There’s much more of it, boldface RIPs infinitum since you were last here. Bowie’s death seems especially pertinent, thinking now about the harmonic buzz of the universe, the noise that you make and the noise that we make, the patterns in the cacophony.

Some people have wondered if his departure in early 2016 didn’t somehow rend the fabric of space-time and send us hurtling into a dimension of alternate outcomes. How else to explain that we elected Donald Trump president? Indeed, the Donald, the very one. Last you saw him he was hosting “The Apprentice”; the time before that he was a caricature of an egotistical fat-cat in the New York tabloid scene. The whole thing was galling, dumbfounding — except to those in our brood who found it delightful, who heard in Trump’s hyper-patriotic rhetoric some other affirming and riotous buzz. Trump was impeached twice, and never conceded defeat in the last election. He was the king of sorry not sorry.

When it came time to pack up and get ready to go, some of Trump’s most fervent and stirred-up supporters swarmed the Capitol building and tried to prevent Congress from certifying the election results. The riot was hideous and sad. You’ll notice some of the security fences remain; by all means, please use them as a place to come out of your skin. (Lord knows, insurrection made us come out of ours.) Long story short, we quite legally elected and inaugurated Joe Biden as the new president. Remember him from 2004? And 1987 and 1970 and 1953 . . . 1919, 1902 and 1885? Rest assured, he remembers you.

You have questions, of course you do: What led to all this? Would you believe it was because we elected our first Black president in 2008, which you missed? And then elected him again in 2012, which you also missed? And then, after that, we almost elected a woman, who happened to be Hillary Clinton? Backlash is a prevailing theory, the only one that makes real sense.

The Black president and his fabulous wife are now multimedia mega-superstars. You can stream the TV shows and movies they produce and listen to their podcasts. Podcasts were around in 2004, but you probably didn’t notice. They’re radio shows, basically — radio shows that you listen to whenever you want, and then implore other people to listen to, until everyone is sick of hearing everyone else go on about this or that podcast. Soon you’ll be screaming, “Shut up already with the podcasts!” And we’ll be like, “No, you shut up, cicadas! A hundred-plus decibels in Montgomery County — seriously?”

What is Brood X? When do cicadas comes out in 2021? Answering your buggiest questions.

You’ll also notice that we have a lot more TV shows. Nothing can be done about this. Last time you were here we were saying goodbye to “Friends” and had just said so long to “Sex and the City.” It must be a bit alarming to emerge and discover how much we’re still watching both in reruns. When not screeching and mating, please do make time to catch up on the show about the dragons. And the show about the paper-supply branch in Scranton, Pa., and the show about unhappy advertising executives in the 1960s. Oh, and the show about the chemistry teacher who becomes a meth maker. Wait, cicadas, hush — we’re just getting started, we only have about 200 or 300 other shows to foist upon you.

Are you wondering how we find so much time to listen to podcasts and binge TV shows? Easy! We got rid of reading. We got rid of facts and truth. Now we just have cryptic signals, endless narrative arcs, obvious themes. We have superheroes and we have spinoffs of spinoffs of spinoffs. Would you believe you’ve missed four Star Wars movies? Wait, five Star Wars movies? Wait, wait — you’ve missed six Star Wars movies and the Baby Yoda moment? Sorry not sorry.

You’ve no doubt spent all those years down there noticing that the climate is getting weirder, warmer, worse. That’s entirely on us. It’s a fend-for-yourself situation out here, dog-eat-dog, and dog-eat-cicada, and in the bitter end, we all choke on plastic. Given your obsession with mating and tree sap, you’ll probably be all right this round, but just ask the bees — if you can find them — and they’ll tell you the truth: This planet ain’t right anymore. One of these cycles you’re going to crawl up out of the ground and wish you hadn’t. (If you don’t drown first, that is, or roast to a delicious subterranean crisp.)

In the days and weeks to come, you're going to hear a lot about how awful you are, that you are annoying and scary — or worse. There will be links to articles about your noise, your astonishing numbers, your appearance, your genders, your ooky exoskeletons. There will be violence against you, stomping and swatting and screaming. All we can say about that is welcome to life in the 21st century, where even the smallest inconvenience is treated like a major atrocity: daylight saving time, cancel culture, protective masks, DoorDash delays, middle seats in coach.

You thought we were tuned out when you last saw us with our iPod Nanos? Get a load of us now. The incessant sound that you cannot escape is all of us, complaining in short, shrill diatribes about other people, mainly through the use of our thumbs, ticka-tapping our grievances out to social networks, and then yelling at one another on the night’s cable news shows. It’s a hive thing. You thought we talked a lot about ourselves before? The hum from it now will drive you mad. (Oh, almost forgot: Steve Jobs is dead. Another master of sorry not sorry.)

Those jittery adolescents and college kids you left behind in 2004 — we gave up trying to give them the perfect generational sobriquet and instead just followed the demographers’ cue and called them millennials. We blamed them for just about anything that has ever annoyed an older person about a younger person, which usually meant that we resented them for being too much like ourselves. They, in turn, sharply and accurately blamed their elders for ruining the American Dream and the environment. Do you remember all this nonsense, how humans insist on sorting ourselves this way? Surely you must, with a name like Brood X.

The millennials are getting older now, and currently under a state of torment from the new brood, called Gen Z. Watch out for them. They can sting. They’re also supposed to save the world — fingers crossed.

It’s not all bad here in 2021. Gender-nonconforming cicadas will be pleasantly surprised at some of the progress made. Female cicadas might be impressed by the new scrutiny of hideous behaviors that used to be regarded as basic mating rituals. We’re always learning something new about privilege. We will honor your stories. We will make sure that, as proud cicadas, you feel seen and heard.

During your short stay with us, however, you will nevertheless be subjected to erroneous and perhaps hurtful comparisons to biblical plagues and the like. The media land on a presumed narrative and often refuse to get off it. News coverage will probably upset you, as it always has. Lots of people will be quoted saying how much they despise you.

But we know you are not technically a plague. That’s locusts, grasshoppers, frogs; that’s not you. You are a harmless and fascinating phenomenon, coming out into a world that has developed a bad attitude about science. We are trained now to abhor the nuisance in everything, while missing the wonder. We often fail to see the magnificence unfolding in front of us.

When you were here last, we were fond of saying haters gonna hate. Now we live with too much hate. The plague jokes are probably just a symptom of our misery, our self-loathing, our resentment about living in the midst of actual plagues: sickness, storms, unrest.

Your presence here, right now, is well-timed. It reminds us that it is also our turn to take that chance, to obey our deepest instincts and once more commune with one another; to emerge from the holes we’ve dug for ourselves. To rambunctiously sing aloud and proud, to answer nature’s frisky call, to amble about in meandering flights of fancy, to revel in the bizarreness of life.

This pretty much catches you up on our world. Now tell us about yours.