“From men, I learned to praise the thickness of walls./From women,/ I learned to praise”

– Ocean Vuong, “To My Father/ To My Unborn Son”

“The moment of queer pride is a refusal to be shamed by witnessing the other as being ashamed of you.”

– Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

I am not the first person to point out that a lot of folks’ first exposure to any kind of gender-bending in popular media was the freaky sewn-corpse bodysuit scene in The Silence of the Lambs. And I am certainly not the first person to assert that this is not a good thing. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how many stories, images, and characters our culture will need to create (and consume) in order to replace the frightening image of a serial killer tucking his penis behind his legs with something complicated and real in its stead.

I think the answer to that is: a whole damn lot of them.
In this article, I would like to show you some scenes from TV and film that made me think more critically– and in some cases, more lovingly– about gender. I’m not saying that any of these scenes are perfect. They aren’t. But they meant something to me when I watched them, and they inspired me to be a better activist, partner, and human being.

As Pride 2019 loses its summery luster, leaving behind its ever-lengthening trail of corporate advertisements shrouded in glitter and rainbows, I encourage you to consider the perennial gifts of these cinematic moments. They all deal either implicitly or explicitly with some aspect of gender presentation, performance, or identity, and they all have made unique and powerful impressions on my mind. I consider these characters and the shapes of their lives often; I’m hoping that perhaps they’ll inspire you, too.

1. Breaking Bad: Hank Schrader Panics in an Elevator, Cries


I recently consulted Wikipedia to confirm my suspicion that Hank Schrader, Breaking Bad’s finest DEA agent/brother-in-law, was created as a kind of bro-y, charismatic foil to Walter White (who, as you probably know, does not quite possess either of those qualities. Case in point, Walter’s infamous excuse for ending up half-naked in the hospital, “I was in a fugue state!” has become a popular justification for selfish acts of wrongdoing in my house.*)

Apparently, Hank’s character was originally designed to function as pure comic relief, devoid of the characteristic dimensionality of the show’s complex cast of characters. However, over time, inspired by actor Dean Norris’ real-life intelligence and sensitivity, the show’s creators began to add nuance to the character, focusing on the ways in which the unadulterated masculinity required of his job and the psychological trauma of gun violence affected his well-being. Go figure.

In “Breakage,” the fifth episode of the series’ second season, Hank enters the elevator of his office building after receiving a promotion. His boss has just compared him to a great white shark, suggesting that his pursuit of local druglords has earned him a spot at the top of the police department’s proverbial food chain. His colleagues congratulate him as he walks down the hallway; his partner ribs him for getting a big head– all of this while he struts around like a rooster in a hen house. But the moment Hank realizes he’s alone in the elevator, the doors closing him up in that small and private space, he is struck by the airless intensity of a panic attack.

It’s worth noting here that the viewer is hardly prepared for this moment. It presents itself, just like panic does, as a kind of narrative shock. It’s also worth noting that, generally speaking, Hank appears unrattled throughout his daily encounters with drug cartels and hitmen; that is, he tends to favor making racist, macho, and misogynistic jokes about those around him over confronting the realities of his job with sincerity. But there in the offices of the Albuquerque Police Department, after a particularly violent shootout with a meth distributor named Tuco, he unexpectedly snaps, allowing the viewers to witness his cool exterior give way to fear and trauma.

Ultimately, this moment is not an isolated event. Hank takes a hiatus from work, enters a kind of depression spiral, and develops a passion for aesthetically-pleasing rocks. Yeah, we’ve all been there. The domino effect that results from the panic attack thus becomes a cascade of shame and failure, all messy and vulnerable and human.

While the season two elevator scene was scripted, it shares its emotional resonance with another moment in Breaking Bad. This one takes place during Season 3. While filming the episode “One Minute,” Dean Norris began to cry too much for director Michelle MacLaren’s liking. According to the Wikpedia entry, which I am not ashamed to cite,** “Norris felt that Hank’s self-realization in the episode was the turning point toward his becoming a better man, and set the stage for his decisions later in the series: [Norris] opined that ‘Hank wants a clean soul.’” The entry also notes that the director was unable to elicit the kind of stoicism she was looking for in the scene, and that “Norris was eventually filmed from the side to obscure the fact that he was crying.”

Simply put, the elevator scene is important to me because we are taught that boys don’t cry. Except that they actually do–especially, you know, when they are hurting, feeling vulnerable, and suffering from PTSD.

2. Transparent: A Young Maura Pfefferman Plays in a Bomb Shelter


The shadow that has been cast over Transparent in the last year*** is one of the great sadnesses of my art-loving life. This show meant a lot to my family when someone close to us came out, and we were able to have a lot of important discussions about gender, class, and sexuality after happily binge-watching it together on our beat-up leather couch.

One thing I really love about the show is that most of its characters are desperately lonely and problematic, uncertain and passionate and desperate for comfort. Lately, it seems like when people call out for the representation of marginalized people in art, they (justly) want the characters representing those people to be complex– but also, often implicitly, to be observably good. Otherwise, it feels like a step in the wrong direction. I get this. We don’t want a repeat of Buffalo Bill, or grotesque racist tropes like Mickey Rooney’s landlord in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But the problem with wanting all of the characters representing marginalized people to be generous, put-together, and morally righteous is that marginalized people, just like any people, are not always purely good, and making them appear so upright and flawless can deny them of their human complexity.

In other words, I loved Transparent because of its chaotic messiness, not in spite of it. I appreciated its insistence that love and support can exist even when they fail to resemble our ideal versions of them. When Maura’s kids learn that she is transgender, for example, they mess up a lot (a lot a lot a lot). But they still fight for her. In this scene, for example, Maura’s eldest daughter Sarah calls out a stuffy, transphobic soccer mom for telling Maura that she can’t pee in the girl’s bathroom. “This is my father, and he’s a woman. And he has every right to be here,” she says angrily. Sara messes up by misgendering Maura here, but her immediate impulse is to stand up for her parent with loving ferocity. And that feels real to me.


I want to include dozens of scenes from Transparent on this list (like this one, where Maura deals with the aggressive bureaucracy of the TSA while trying to fly to Israel). But the scene I’ve chosen is a flashback to Maura’s childhood in the 1950s. Here, a young Maura–who was assigned male at birth–reads quietly and plays dress-up in the privacy of her grandfather’s bomb shelter. Sarah Vaughn’s “Make Yourself Comfortable” plays in the background. The scene is characterized by a kind of peace and quiet that is rare on the show. Maura’s child-self appears wholly content, as if she feels safe for the first time in her young life. In some ways, the scene connects to a moment later on in the season, when Maura decides to get rid of the constricting, uncomfortable shapewear that she has been wearing to achieve a more feminine body type. The insistence on comfort— rather than appearance or performance– as the ideal antithesis of dysphoria is striking to me. Maura is a woman, but like so many women, she is tired of making herself suffer in order to appear stereotypically womanly in public. The peace that she appears to feel as her shapewear floats down to the sea is the kind of peace I wish everyone could feel in their bodies.

3. Destroyer: Erin Bell Bleeds, Beats People Up


Ever since I stepped out of the movie theater after seeing Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, I have been practically grabbing people off of the street to get them to see this film, mostly because it features a tough female character who is not strong in a palatable, modelesque way, but in a real, painful way not principally constructed for the male gaze. Destroyer is about cruelty and autonomy and sacrifice, but, like Transparent, it’s also about what happens when people who are hurt continue to love one another. When love doesn’t quite look like love, but exists anyway.

In an article about the film for The Guardian, Guy Lodge wrote, “Genre films like Destroyer are rarely framed around female characters; when they are, the heroine tends to be portrayed as dully indestructible, her feminine attributes either pushed aside in favour of ‘one of the boys’ toughness or flattened into a one-dimensional form of girl power.” I agree, and it’s for that reason that after seeing Destroyer for the first time, I described it to a friend as “True Detective, but femme. And dimensionally so.” I’m all for girl power, but Erin Bell’s brand of power, like the Pfeffermans’ messy advocacy, looks more like something I would see in real life. And perhaps I’m alone in this, but representation seems less effective as a tool of advocacy if characters only function as two-dimensional renderings of actual human beings.
I didn’t choose one scene in particular for this film because it’s really Erin Bell as a character– her movements and hesitations, her tenderness and aggression– that strikes me more profoundly than any moment by itself. In many ways, Erin Bell reminds me of Detective Sarah Linden, the protagonist in Netflix’s dark cop-drama The Killing. That character, played by (the forever underrated) Mirielle Enos, wears minimal makeup, a near-permanent frown, and a series of hideous cowl-neck sweaters in neutral tones as she attempts to solve the violent murder of a young girl. While I think it’s important to see glamorous women in strong roles on screen, it’s something like a relief to see Linden, a depressed single mother in dire financial straits, looks somewhat believably look like both of those things. I wish I had seen more women like Erin Bell and Detective Linden when I was younger, and understood that strength does not always and need not always coincide with external beauty.

4. Dallas Buyers Club: Rayon Goes to See Her Dad, Tells Him She is Dying


Despite its status as an awards season darling, Dallas Buyers Club has garnered a lot of flak since its release. The criticism levied upon the film has not only addressed the writers’ depiction of Ron Woodroof, who apparently was not the homophobic asshole the film made him out to be (for effect), but also of Jared Leto’s portrayal of a trans woman named Rayon, who did not actually exist (but does in the world of the film…for effect!). For a breakdown of some of the most cogent arguments surrounding this film’s problems, check out “The Trouble with Representing HIV-AIDS in the Very Troublesome Dallas Buyers Club” and “Don’t Applaud Jared Leto’s Transgender Mammy.”

While I understand and care about Dallas Buyers’ problems, in truth, I did not think about them when I was a lonely teenager watching this movie in the theater. What I did think about was how much a single scene, Rayon’s visit to her dad’s law office, seemed to wipe out all others in the wake of its sheer emotional pain. During this exchange, Rayon’s father remarks that he supposes he should thank her for wearing men’s clothes that day, to which Rayon responds,

“Are you ashamed of me? Because I hadn’t realized.”
“God help me,” the father responds, rolling his eyes in response.

“He is helping you,” Rayon says, “I have AIDS.”

Rayon’s confident words here, her father’s smug rejection, her visible awkwardness as she occupies an ill-fitting suit– it all meant something to me. Right there in the theater, the scene made me silently commit myself to fighting for trans people however I could, even though I had no idea at the time what that might look like or require.

5. Tangerine: Alexandra Gives Sin-Dee Her Wig


In graduate school, I wrote a term paper about Sean Baker’s 2015 film Tangerine, which is an amazing project for at least two reasons: 1) It was entirely shot on an Iphone 5, and 2) It features two actresses who (like Dean Norris of Breaking Bad) helped inspire dialogue and character development in the script simply because of who they were.
I’ll spare you the academic details of my paper, but the point of my argument was this: most of the films we see about transgender people are undeniably tragic. From Boys Don’t Cry (1999), which depicts the violent murder of Brandon Teena, to Dallas Buyers Club, which I’ve discussed above, audiences are provided with consistent reminders that transness is inevitably linked with suffering and death. And of course, historically speaking, this is true. But it does contribute to a kind of one-dimensionality that makes transgender people appear less like everyday folks and more like exotic spectacles– stange, abnormal creatures worthy of our pity.

In Tangerine, Baker challenges one-note trans narratives by following a day in the life of two trans sex workers in Los Angeles, Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella (played by Mya Taylor and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez). The plot is constructed of two narrative lines: one follows Sin-Dee and Alexandra as they look for Chester, Sin-Dee’s pimp and boyfriend. The other follows an Armenian cab driver, Razmik, as he hides his interest in transgender women from his family. Despite the clear presence of poverty and transphobia in both of these narratives, the atmosphere of Sin-Dee Rella and Alexandra’s adventures is often undeniably comedic. As the women walk—quickly, with quirky, experimental electronic music (often chosen by the actresses) playing loudly in the background– they banter, argue, gossip, and laugh. In several interviews, Sean Baker has noted that some of the funniest lines in the film were written by Taylor and Rodriguez, who also called him out when lines in his original script contained language they would never use in real life.

For some of the same reasons that I loved Transparent, I like the messiness of this film. It strays away from sentimentality without abandoning sincerity, a tone that can be difficult to accomplish when grappling with the bleak heaviness of marginalization and trauma.

At the end of Tangerine, after a particularly funny confluence of each of the film’s characters in a Highland Ave. Donut Time, a group of men driving by our protagonists throw urine on Sin-Dee, shouting slurs through the window and ruining her wig. The scene then shifts. Sin-Dee and Alexandra are sitting together on a late-night public bus. Without speaking, Alexandra slowly pulls off her wig and hands it to her friend. After yelling and bickering throughout the movie, the women smile at one another, saying nothing. The frantic energy and chaos of the film seem to coalesce and then disappear, fading into the softness of this single quiet moment.
To be honest, before this point, I felt like I didn’t understand what this film was trying to accomplish. But when I saw Alexandra pull off her wig and give it to Sin-Dee, I felt myself saying Oh in my head. And it felt like a little prayer.

6. Phantom Thread: Alma Cooks DDL a Vaguely Feminist Omelette


When I was a preteen, I read Jane Eyre, and I have to confess that pretty much every feminist, moral, and socioeconomic critique it contained was lost on me. Sorry, Charlotte. I didn’t notice a single element of literary mastery in the narrative because I found the story so unbearably romantic. Knowing this, you can imagine my disappointment when I reread the book years later, and my favorite English professor savagely roasted Mr. Rochester by pointing out that he only allows Jane a modicum of power when he becomes physically incapacitated.****

The same interpersonal dynamics present in Jane Eyre rear their ugly, misogynistic heads in Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2017 masterpiece, Phantom Thread. Like Brontë, PTA provides viewers with a host of pretty distractions: drool-worthy gowns, incredible music, and a breakfast meet-cute for the ages. I loved all of it, of course. I would have loved it on the merit of Jonny Greenwood’s score alone.

Unlike Bronte though, Paul Thomas Anderson clearly establishes a critique of his male protagonist’s controlling nature and icy misogyny throughout the course of the narrative.”You have the ideal shape,” he tells his love-interest Alma as he conflates her with a lifeless dress form. Gag. Ultimately, PTA acknowledges that in order for Alma to achieve anything that looks like autonomy in her relationship, she needs to perform the same function as the Thornfield house fire in Jane Eyre; that is, by incapacitating the man she loves in order to survive his methods of control. Grim, I know. What is particularly incredible about the way Alma’s plan plays out in this scene is the way in which PTA slowly unveils the fact that Woodcock knows precisely what Alma is trying to do to him. And because he also knows that he will not be able to relinquish control on his own, he willingly drinks your milkshake–the omelette Alma cooks for him– and becomes complicit in his own poisoning. The film ends in the shadow of this meal, an act of mutual concession both shockingly brutal and surprisingly pragmatic.

Brief & Honorable Mentions: Under the Skin, Ex Machina, and Neon Demon




I am placing these three films in a posthuman/science-fiction category of their own here, primarily because a) I don’t have the space to write about them, and b) because they all contribute to the idea that womanhood… can kind of suck.***** In fact, as the films’ narratives suggest, the experience of being a woman is a lot like being a powerful alien that is still ultimately unsafe, a robot controlled and objectified by men, and an insecure teen who has to feed from others in order to become successful herself. Good stuff. Would recommend.

Notes & Further Reading:

1) Along with, of course, “I am The Danger!” which maintains a comedic potential that can never be overstated.
2) In K-12 and college, we were always taught not to cite Wikipedia. In graduate school, we were discouraged from letting our students use it. The Norris passage I quote from is mostly derived from this Vulture interview, but I like the freedom of citing a resource so academically taboo. S/o to Wikipedia, my darling & muse.

3) Andrea Long Chu wrote a great article for affidavit about Transparent’s creator, Jill Soloway, and the role she played in Transparent’s fall from grace.
4) TLDR: Mr. Rochester becomes burned and blinded in a house fire (mansion fire?) set by Bertha Antoinetta Mason, mental-illness sufferer, kidnapping victim, and purveyor of this very attic.
5) It’s also worthwhile, of course, to mention Spike Jonze’s Her and HBO’s Westworld in this regard, but those two get so much buzz that they don’t merit as much attention here.
The text of the section on Sean Baker’s Tangerine was adapted from my 2016 paper, “Aberrations in Tangerine: The ‘Pleasure and Alrightness’ of Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella,” written for the 2016 PCA/ACA Conference in San Diego, California.


This post is dedicated to my dad, who taught me to sing in the car with my whole voice, use the steering wheel as a percussion instrument, and consider any room too quiet without music.

You know that moment when “Karma Police” comes on the radio, and it’s definitely far from your favorite Radiohead song (sorry, Thom Yorke), but then, somehow, you find yourself careening down a country road belting “I’VE GIVEN ALL I CAN AND IT’S NOT ENOUGH” all teary-eyed and croaky-voiced?  

I may know something about that.

I’ve always believed that music is both powerful and corporeal, a true force of nature. I think many of us believe that. Bob Marley’s famous line from “Trench Town Rock, “One good thing about music…when it hits you, you feel no pain” may be a popular quotation on Instagram bios, but I’ve experienced quite the opposite. I feel a lot of pain when I listen to music, and a great deal of of joy, too– indeed, often a whole host of emotions that feel much more imbedded into my skin than abstractly produced in my brain. I love that something inanimate is capable of that.

Science Leads Us to Freddie Mercury, as It Should

According to a 2013 study conducted by the University of Missouri. Queen’s 1978 hit “Don’t Stop Me Now” is the “world’s happiest song.”

I don’t have much to say about this particular study (To be honest, I prefer the soaring joy of “Ooh you make me live!” in You’re My Best Friend.”), but this viral news item got me thinking about the music I find life-affirming. Though I owe a great debt to those artists’ whose songs have at times saved my life,* and certainly to the music that has allowed me a good laugh on a gloomy day,** I have compiled a list of upbeat anthems more suited for driving along the highway, singing aloud to the anonymous humans moving beside you in traffic, rather than laying in your bed and staring at the ceiling after 2.5 glasses of wine. I hope you get what I mean.

There’s no reason, of course, why you can’t listen to this music with a partner or a car full of friends. But for me, they are especially resonant when played full-blast on a solitary and/or quarter-life-crisis-induced car trip. These songs make me feel more joyful, more alive, more confident, and more human. Some are a little angry, but for generally submissive people-pleasers like me, a little anger can be surprisingly good for the soul. In this lonely century, with depression at a national high and self-esteem at a national low, I think that many of us could use more of all of these powerful feelings. So here are just a handful of songs that animate my easily tired bones and my sometimes heavy heart. I hope some of them do the same for you.

  1. “Body Was Made” by Ezra Furman (& the Boy-Friends)

“Body Was Made” is a defiant manifesto about celebrating your soul and your body in the face of ~the man~. In fact, the entirety of Perpetual Motion People, the raw*** and ecstatic album that features this song, is particularly well-suited to times when you are feeling bad about yourself, your appearance, or culture at large. The truth is that I don’t know a single thing about music, but I think that Ezra Furman is one of the most creative rock artists working today.

Also see: “Take off Your Sunglasses,” “Ordinary Life,” and “Haunted Head”


  1. “Man on Fire” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros

Since high school, I have turned to this song for its gentle sense of optimism and community. For an especially tender and light-filled version of “Man on Fire”– rendered in all its magic during a Bloody Sunday Sessions shoot in New Orleans, check out this video:

Also see: “Fiya Wata (Live)”


  1. “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago

A quick trip to has verified that this song is probably about LSD. But the horn section on this thing. Wow. It gets me. It sounds like the purity of happiness before it gets ruined by life. This one has some nostalgic connotations for me, because it’s one of my dad’s favorite songs. As the dedication in this post indicates, my dad is an excellent car-singer and dancer. It is because of him that I take pride in my own ability to pretend to play brass instruments.


  1. “Smooth Sailin” by Leon Bridges

This is probably the least self-interested song of the bunch, but Leon Bridges’ music makes me feel so good that I had to share it in this playlist. His nods to artists like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke never feel forced or trite, and his style– a fresh-sounding take on old school soul and R&B– is damn catchy. I have danced to Bridges’ debut album more times than I can count, and I nearly always feel better after doing so.

Also see: “Better Man”

Lines to shout into the void: “I LIKE THE WAY YOU SAIL YOUR SHIP. LET ME BE YOUR CARGO.”

  1. “The World Ender” by Lord Huron

In graduate school, my partner Evan taught me what it means to go on a drive. I’m from California, where if you are not driving along the coast, you probably have somewhere to be. And that somewhere often involves a sea of honking cars on I-5. So when I was introduced to the expansive magic that is driving through Oregon woods on a spring afternoon, both getaway car and its passengers dappled in light, after three hours of brain-melting literary theory, I became an instant fan of going on drives without destinations.

On our drives through the woods, we have a few favorite albums we like to play. One of these is Lord Huron’s Strange Trails. “The World Ender” offers not only excellent descriptions of revivification and reanimation– always handy during a depressive episode– but there is also just a lot of yelping and yowling in it. I have found yelping and yowling to be good for the spirit.

Also see: “Louisa”

Lines to shout into the void: “I’M A WORLD ENDER, BABY AND I’M BACK FROM THE GRAVE.”  

  1. “I’m So Free” by Lou Reed

Someday, I would like to write a book-length essay called “Stuff Grunge King Boyfriends Like.” **** In the meantime, though, I will skip a rant about unread copies of Infinite Jest and focus on grunge king boyfriend favorite Lou Reed– in particular, the freeway-friendly majesty of his 1972 song “I’m So Free.” This song isn’t exactly subtle about its thematic relationship to this playlist, but c’est la vie, okay? This is my playlist, and I am not going to be subtle about it.


  1. “Carmensita” by Devendra Banhart

I love the quirky chaos of Devendra Banhart’s music. Like Ezra Furman, his creativity is marked by courage. He writes abstract lyrics, sings, dances, and dresses in feminine ways, and always seems to be experimenting with unconventional themes and sounds. I admire him a lot. Though some of his songs are strikingly beautiful, “Carmensita” is better described as an anthem of wild and undisciplined joy. It isn’t obvious to me whether the lyrics of this song are profound or just absurd for absurdity’s sake, and I like that. The video for the song, ft. Natalie Portman, is notably odd, too.

Also see: “Shabop Shalom”  


  1. “Train in Vain” by The Clash

I knew I would include The Clash in this playlist, but I have to say it was a toss-up between “Rudie Can’t Fail,” which I highly recommend singing to with your own name in place of “Rudie,” and “Train in Vain” I settled on the latter because it’s a classic of self-satisfied anger, and it feels good to sing it with someone who has wronged you in mind as you sail down the American highway. Do you find that petty and/or immature? That’s okay. You are probably a bigger person than me.


  1. “Come Down” by Anderson Paak

Like Leon Bridges, Anderson Paak makes me want to dance. The first time I heard this song, I felt my brain sigh and say Thanks, universe. This is exactly what I needed in this very moment. It’s not necessarily the lyrics in this song that revive me, but its perfect, bouncy rhythm– the kind that only belongs to genres like hip-hop and soul.


Also see: “Celebrate”

  1. S.O.B.” by Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats

I’ll admit that Nathaniel Rateliff’s “S.O.B.” is actually pretty great song to jam to with other folks, so if you want a break from the downward spiral of solipsism, I would pick this one. I love when my Evan and I are tapping out the beat to this song, humming along, and then, as the chorus approaches, we suddenly look over at each other and shout “Son of a Bitch!” It’s cathartic. And communal.

Also see: “Howling at Nothing”


  1. “Send Me on My Way” by Rusted Root

Anyone who knows anything knows that the soundtrack to the film Matilda is a work of art on its own merit, Maybe I just love this song because it reminds me of little Matilda successfully cooking a hearty American breakfast when she can hardly reach the counter, one of the few happy moments in the film’s portrayal of her childhood. But I think it also makes me happy because of the song’s carefree vibes and Burning Man-esque music video.


  1. Normal Person” by Arcade Fire

It was difficult to choose among my favorite Arcade Fire songs. “Wake Up,” though pretty much perfect for these purposes, felt a little too on the nose (even for me), and “The Suburbs”– one of my old high school favorites– a little too reminiscent of the disenchanted hipster. In any case, this song comes from an album that incorporates some disco vibes, White Stripes-y guitar, and teen angst about feeling different. And if that doesn’t call out to the core of my being, I just don’t know what does.

See also: “We Exist” and this fantastic video of “Here Comes the Night TIme,” which features Win Butler’s excellent dance moves and Michael Cera speaking some halfway-decent Spanish:


  1. “One Drop” by Bob Marley

When I was a teenager, my self-care routine primarily consisted of splitting an entire cookie sheet of tater tots with my brother while listening to the entirety of Bob Marley’s Kaya.

Another trip to Genius suggests that “One Drop” refers both to “a reggae-style drum beat popularized by Carlton Barret, the drummer for Bob Marley and the Wailers” and the “one drop rule” used to classify black Americans in the United States’ legal system. As a kid, I did not know about either of these definitions, but I loved the song. I thought that “One Drop” meant something like a soul, a little encapsulation of everything good and holy about you that nothing physical could ever touch. I thought that the “One Drop” could be accessed by feeling the drum beat that Marley sings about in this song.

Also see: “Coming in From The Cold”, “Soul Rebel” … really anything from the Bob Marley & the Wailers discography. Reggae is often so full of joy, and certainly good for these purposes.


Honorable & Miscellaneous Mentions

Kishi Bashi’s “Manchester” (“I haven’t felt this alive in a long time.”), Kendrick Lamar’s “i” (“I love myself.”), The Wild Reeds’ “Where I am Going” (“You think you know where I’m going. The truth is you haven’t got a clue.”), and Kurt Vile’s Pretty Pimpin (“I could be 1,000 miles away. But still mean what I say.”)

An Approximation of a Conclusion

Please comment below with songs of justified anger and unabashed self-love that you might sing on a crowded interstate, with an eye toward what you might play alone or on a spontaneous, beatnik-y sort of field trip to regain your sense of self. Maybe we can create a little archive for those who need to harness the restorative properties of music during a difficult time.  


*The Tallest Man on Earth, Lucy Dacus, Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Fleet Foxes, and Wagner, to name a few

** Namely, The Darkness’ “I Believe in a Thing Called Love,” the entire oeuvre of Sugar Ray, and the theme song to the teen drama One Tree Hill, Gavin DeGraw’s “I Don’t Wanna Be.” If you don’t feel better after singing “I DON’T WANNA BE ANYTHING OTHER THAN WHAT I’VE BEEN TRYING TO BE, LATELY” at the top of your lungs, then we have some work to do.

*** I have started to hate the use of this word as a synonym for “gritty” vulnerability, but I can’t think of a better one to describe Furman’s unique blend of roughness and sincerity.

**** Subtitle: “You Don’t Have to Like Them Just Because Your Grunge King Boyfriend Does.” Audience: Me at 17.


Dedicated to the memory of Leelah Alcorn (11/15/97- 12/28/14), who I never had the privilege to know, and Christian Medved (05/13/94- 02/06/13), who I did.

“Without community, there can be no liberation.”

– Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”

Dear John & Paul, We Kind of Do Know Where All the Lonely People Come From

This month, a writer and publisher named Kristen Radtke came out with an article in The Atlantic called “What’s the Loneliest You’ve Ever Felt?”

Describing the occasion of her research about loneliness, Radtke explains that Americans continue to suffer under the influence of “notions of self-reliance and the attendant bootstrap-pulling, frontier-conquering, and make-it-on-your-own ideologies.” She writes,

Researchers claim that loneliness will be classified an epidemic by 2030, and the former U.S. Surgeon General has described loneliness as one of the country’s most pressing health risks. The effects of social isolation are so severe that studies have shown that it actually has the power to remap the makeup of human cells. So what happens to a society in which independence is so often the goal and isolation is frequently the result?

I came across Radtke’s project at a time when I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ways in which loneliness and social justice intertwine (hey 2018, you unapologetically fascist tapeworm). The topic has been on my mind even more often lately because I have been reading David Wojnarowicz’s incredible memoir Close to the Knives, and considering the ways in which the AIDS epidemic produced a generation of lonely people by taking their friends, partners, and loved ones away from them.*

Thinking about loneliness in the context of the world around me also makes me think of the immigrant families who are ripped apart from each other by deportation or the threat of starvation and violence in their home countries. I once read about the immigrant mothers who work housekeeping jobs in the U.S. and spend the entire day with FaceTime open so that they can feel like they are at home with their kids. I cannot imagine a deeper kind of missing: the obligation to take care of another person’s home, and perhaps even their children, so that your own can survive another day.

Ultimately, thinking about the social and political sources of loneliness makes the moments in which I have felt most lonely seem shallow in comparison. Eating lunch alone, for example, is nothing like watching purple sores form on the unlined face of the love of your life, to see him dead by winter, or watching your children’s stomachs bloat from malnutrition. Not to mention countless other examples of deep, expansive aloneness in this country of ours: the dehumanization of Native Americans as they were shorn like sheep, forbidden to speak their own languages, violated, and killed until many were the last survivors of their tribes; the isolation of trans women like Leelah Alcorn, who killed herself at 17 after her homophobic parents put her in conversion therapy; and the alienation of the brave people who endure bullying and prejudice as a result of living with disabilities.** But if I have learned anything from my years in therapy, it is that the politics of the oppression Olympics are never productive. They do not help ourselves or those enduring situations that we perceive to be worse. In other words, we can acknowledge our advantages at the same time as we acknowledge that our suffering is very real to us. In light of that idea, I will (nervously) share some of my loneliest days with you all.

Peep My Privileged Malaise: An Opera in Three Acts

I grew up in a loving family, so most of my experiences with loneliness resulted from the difficulty I had making friends in school and forging the kind of connections I wanted with others. It isn’t easy to write about these moments, but I think that what is beautiful about Radtke’s project is its capacity to bring us together through a very elemental human experience. In these “divided times” (a cliche I find fitting here, but also somewhat gross-sounding), we need to practice vulnerability more than ever, so I will write a few of them here–even if it chips away at my pride a little bit.  

1) In eighth grade, we went a class trip to tour colleges. With “alarming specificity”, as Radtke suggests, I remember sitting alone in the back of the bus on an eight hour bus ride listening to Modest Mouse’s “Dramamine” (a song that appropriately featured on the 1996 album This a Long Drive for Someone with Nothing to Think About) on repeat on my pink iPod Video. I remember being stuck on one line of that song in particular: “I think I knew my geography pretty damn well,” even though I didn’t quite understand what it meant. Everyone was singing and laughing together in the front of the bus, a scene that was pretty familiar to me at the time, and I remember feeling like I would never know what it was like to have fun with people my own age. That sixteen-hour trip felt like the longest and quietest period of my life, a single, aching moment stretched over the state of California. Today, it makes me sad that I gave up so quickly on the possibility of an existence that included companionship.

2) I went through a pretty exquisitely painful breakup in my sophomore year of college. At the time, I was living in a house that was relatively far away from campus, and I used to walk for thirty-five minutes or so to get to and from my classes. Most days, I would walk to campus, go to class, and then come home to read before sleeping. Sometimes, I would take the bus downtown, so I could walk along the waterfront or go to the bookstore, but other than that, I barely went anywhere or saw anyone socially. During this ghosting era of my relationship, my ex-boyfriend would occasionally leave me messages in the drafts of a joint email account that we used to send each other messages and music. My day-to-day life felt wholly centered on walking to school in the morning and constantly refreshing that email account at night. I was waiting for any kind of message from the person that I loved, feeling pathetic and crazy and lost. At some point, I felt like I was losing the ability to talk to other people casually, as if I could not pretend to relate to their normal, busy lives.  

3) I had the opportunity to study abroad as a junior in college, and ended up choosing to live in Granada, Spain. There, I lived with one of my best friends in a host family’s piso near the Plaza de Toros. One night, we were all at a club that catered to American international students. Lately, I had been feeling like a lot of my friends didn’t actually want to experience the country, its culture, or what people in town were really like, but instead just wanted to party in a foreign city with cheaper drinks. It was sort of frustrating, but the reality was, I was letting my own bitterness exaggerate that reality. In fact, there were a lot of beautiful, exploratory people in my program, I was just too blind and self-interested to see things for what they really were.

Anyway, that night, I left this club feeling sort of angry and off and alone. I was kind of tired of ~the greatest hits of Pitbull***~ and middle-aged pulpos yanking strands of my hair as I walked by. And though I was sober as a judge (as a gopher? as a church mouse? I’m not sure which it is, but the point is was I not drinking at that time.), of course I got lost. Even though I wasn’t all that far from home, and the streets were filled with people, I was already feeling on edge that day, and after rooting around for the right narrow street for a while, I started panicking at some point, tripping over cobblestones in my heels and getting all teary-eyed. It was one of those moments where the trigger for an existential crisis isn’t itself something major, you just find yourself in an inconvenient situation and then, all of the sudden, you find yourself asking what am I doing here?, why am I the way that I am?, and why you can’t I seem to talk or act or exist in the precise way that I want to? It was the straw that broke the lonely camel’s back, or something like that.

At that moment, a young man and his partner, a beautiful woman with a wide, smile, approached me on the street and asked me if I was okay. I said yes, but we both agreed that the answer was probably no. This couple was–incredibly–from Sinaloa, the state in Mexico where I spent the happiest days of my childhood, a sure sign from the powers that be.  It’s hard to explain now, but in the most non-creepy way you can possibly imagine, the man wiped a few tears from my temple, pointed me the way home, and asked me if I needed help finding a taxi.

I end on this slightly maudlin tear-wiping scene to assert that thankfully, not all of the loneliest moments of our lives end in flatness or tragedy or even a more intense form of loneliness, though all of those progressions are common. Instead, by talking and writing about them, comparing them, and studying their contours– the ways in which they are caused by both our own actions and the things about society that we can’t hope to control– maybe we can see something worthwhile in the loneliest moments of our lives.

How Can We Be There for One Another?

We are given so many opportunities to reach out to one another. Just last week, I was substitute teaching at a local elementary school, and I saw a student sitting alone on the blacktop at recess, her eyes full of tears that had not fallen yet. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that she felt left out, and like no one really wanted to play with her. I could actually hear my heart cracking while I thrummed my fingers on the blacktop, thinking of how to respond. I thought of vague platitudes that I heard, sitting alone on a low fence at my own elementary recesses (“Of course they want to play with you!” “Have you asked that group of kids over there if they want to play?”), but I couldn’t bring myself to say any of them to her, knowing exactly how useless they would seem. I sat her with silently, trying to give her company without clichés, thinking of other times I had failed to comfort another solitary human being. Once, for example, in college, another freshman asked to sit down with me at lunch, and I gave a stupid, nervous excuse without thinking about leaving in a just a minute. As I went back to my dorm that day, I felt like a hypocrite. The universe was giving me this chance to show someone community– to remind him that although every person contains a complex and singular universe, our elemental differences are ultimately negligible– and I rejected him because I felt momentarily awkward.

As I drove home from teaching that day, I vowed that I would work harder to extend my hand and heart to those who feel like they have no one and who are convinced that they are insignificant. Sometimes, this requires us to give up little pieces of our own pride– kind of like the old Rainbow Fish methodology, but in a way that allows those pieces of pride to transform, to be worn as a feeling of comfort or solidarity on the skin of someone else. Though he was talking about creating art at the time, David Foster Wallace once wrote about “having the discipline to talk out the part of yourself that can love rather than the part of yourself that wants to be loved.”**** In my mind, as we confront this epidemic of loneliness, that kind of discipline feels less like a virtue and more like an obligation.


* There are so many incredible pieces of art devoted to the AIDS epidemic. For those who may not be interested in Wojnarowicz’s lyrical memoir, I highly recommend the documentary How to Survive a Plague, which focuses primarily on ACT UP. If you are an American who cares at all about issues of public health, the creation of legislation, governmental corruption, and human rights, I believe that this documentary is required reading.

** Some particularly inspiring people in my life have been Lizzie Velasquez, a woman with Marfanoid-progeroid-lipodystrophy syndrome, who internet trolls labeled the “Ugliest Woman in the World,”and Sam Berns, an amazing young man who lived with progeria

***Caveat: “Timber” is the greatest pop song of 2013. Change my mind.

**** This quotation comes to us from an interview with DFW originally published in The Review of Contemporary Fiction:

Further Reading

Though I could include some classic *white-man-experiences-existential-dread* texts here (i.e. Notes from Underground, Walden, or really anything from the Western canon), for further reading on loneliness, I am going to suggest just a few books here that explore uncommon angles of the phenomenon.

Exile and Pride by Eli Clare: I keep returning to this book, especially as the Trump Administration continues to denigrate and devalue the lives of transgender people. Clare does an incredible job talking about what it is like to grow up queer and disabled in a rural town (Port Orford, Oregon), and importantly highlights the ways in which queer Americans living outside of urban centers have survived isolation and exile.

Stranger in the Woods, by Michael Finkel: This work of nonfiction is Finkel’s account of Christopher Knight, who lived in the woods of Maine for 27 years without speaking to another person (with the exception of one brief “hello” to a hiker passing by). Finkel examines famous hermits both religious and secular to examine why Knight may have retreated to the woods. The most fascinating element of the story, though, is the way in which Knight resists classification and negates our attempts to save him from his alleged psychological distress– so much so, in fact, that removing him from his peaceful solitude feels less like a rescue and more like a kind of violence. An easy but provocative piece.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit: This book, which I also featured in my last post, made me rethink what it means to be both lost and alone. With her impeccable attention to historical and political detail, Solnit examines everything from Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca’s life among the indigenous peoples of the Americas to the color blue in order to explore facets of aloneness that you may never have considered before.

A Note

If you feel comfortable, share your loneliest moment(s) with me at