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13 Songs to Warm Your Frozen Soul: A Life-Affirming Playlist for Companionless Car Trips

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.”

https://metro.co.uk/2016/09/23/dont-stop-me-now-by-queen-is-officially-the-worlds-happiest-song-according-to-science-6146872/

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”

Lines to shout into the void: “MY BODY WAS MADE IN THIS PARTICULAR WAY. THERE’S REALLY NOTHING ANY OLD PATRICIAN CAN SAY. YOU SOCIAL POLICE CAN JUST GET OUT OF MY FACE. MY BODY WAS MADE.”  

 

  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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r3mS0M88ZQE

Also see: “Fiya Wata (Live)”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hOmRc80-drM

Lines to shout into the void: “ONLY ONE DESIRE THAT’S LEFT IN ME. I WANT THE WHOLE DAMN WORLD TO COME DANCE WITH ME.”

 

  1. “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago

A quick trip to Genius.com 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.

Lines to shout into the void: “WAITING FOR THE BREAK OF DAY. SEARCHING FOR SOMETHING TO SAY. DANCING LIGHTS AGAINST THE SKY. GIVING UP I CLOSE MY EYES.”

 

  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.

Lines to shout into the void:I AM MOTHER NATURE’S SON. AND I’M THE ONLY ONE. I DO WHAT I WANT AND I WANT WHAT I SEE. COULD ONLY HAPPEN TO ME. I’M SO FREE.”

 

  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”  

Lines to shout into the void: “SOMBRITA DE REFLEJO. DÁME ALGO TIERNO. ME COMO TU AMOR Y CAGO EL INFIERNO.”

 

  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.

Lines to shout into the void: “BUT SOME THINGS YOU CAN’T EXPLAIN AWAY. BUT THE HEARTACHE’S IN ME TIL THIS DAY.”

 

  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.

Lines to shout into the void: “YOU MAY NEVER COME DOWN. IT TOOK THIS LONG TO GET THIS HIGH OFF THE GROUND.”

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”

Lines to shout into the void: “I’M GONNA NEED SOMEONE TO HELP ME. I’M GONNA NEED SOMEBODY’S HAND. I’M GONNA NEED SOMEONE TO HOLD ME DOWN. I’M GONNA NEED SOMEONE TO CARE. “

 

  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.

Lines to shout into the void: “NOW PICK ME UP WITH GOLDEN HAND. I MAY SEE YOU. I MAY TELL YOU TO RUN. YOU WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT THE YOUNG.”

 

  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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=edmYvkdlqSI

Lines to shout into void: “I’M SO CONFUSED, AM I NORMAL PERSON? YOU KNOW, I CAN’T TELL IF I’M A NORMAL PERSON. IT’S TRUE, I THINK I’M COOL ENOUGH. BUT AM I CRUEL ENOUGH. AM I CRUEL ENOUGH FOR YOU?”

 

  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.

Lines to shout into the void: “SO FEEL THIS DRUM BEAT. AS IT BEATS WITHIN. FEELING THE RHYTHM. FIGHTING AGAINST THE ISM & SCHISM.”

 

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.  

 

Notes

*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.

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What If We Asked Each Other About the Loneliest We Have Ever Been?

 

This post is 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?”

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/10/whats-the-loneliest-youve-ever-felt/557549/  

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 break up 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 cliches, 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.

 

Footnotes

* 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,” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QzPbY9ufnQY )and Sam Berns, an incredible young man with progeria. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=36m1o-tM05g.

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

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

https://www.dalkeyarchive.com/a-conversation-with-david-foster-wallace-by-larry-mccaffery/

 

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 berthamasonsattic@gmail.com.

 

I Applied to 200 Jobs and All I Got Was This Moderate-Severe Depression

“And when everything else is gone, you can be rich in loss.”

– Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

 

About Me, Your Friendly Neighborhood Millennial:

I was your garden-variety smart kid, shuffled through GATE programs of every type from kindergarten onward. In sixth grade, I left the classroom in the afternoons to study Latin roots with our school’s principal for the spelling bee circuit. As you can probably imagine, I was bullied a lot (Apparently, no one likes a first-grader who says “in addition to” instead of “and.”). I went to a competitive high school near Silicon Valley, where– with my AP courses– I had a 4.0 cumulative GPA, but was not in the top 10% of my class.

After getting summarily rejected from the Ivies, I went to a small university in Oregon, where I worked harder than I thought possible to graduate a year early with two degrees. My reasons for adhering to this less-than-brilliant plan were the following: 1) the astronomical cost of college tuition, and 2) the desire to move to New York to be with my high school boyfriend, who ended up ghosting me at the end of my sophomore year in college (s/o to my ex, you heartless used gym sock*). Here comes the controversial part: I got both of my degrees in the humanities. I know, I know. I was young and naive. But I loved writing and reading more than anything else, and I wasn’t sure, especially given my intensifying feelings of loneliness and depression, that I would be able to graduate if I wasn’t doing something loved. I tacked on the Spanish degree because I loved studying the language, and hoped it would make me more marketable later on. Like most ambitious English majors, I hoped I would find work in either teaching or writing after graduation.

Long story short, I ended up graduating magna cum laude, won my department’s award, and learned that no one really wants to talk about E.M. Forster while playing beer pong. Go figure.

Post-graduation, I attended a fully-funded MA program in English with the hope of seeing if academia was a viable field for me. Though my most promising offer was from Boston College, I could not attend the program for financial reasons. Even as a fully-funded candidate, there is no way I could have afforded to live in the Boston metro area as a full-time student, and I already had an undergraduate student loan. I ended up accepting an offer from Oregon State University, where I would get to teach English Composition for a generous stipend.

Another long story short: It was fantastic. I loved it. But as many of my readers know, there are simply no jobs in the humanities, especially in English Lit. Like every baby academic who is just beginning to fall in love with Eve Sedgwick and affect theory, I wanted to continue on to my PhD, but I was also reaching graduation knowing that my future would likely end up like this:

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/sep/28/adjunct-professors-homeless-sex-work-academia-poverty

or this:

https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2017/08/28/more-humanities-phds-are-awarded-job-openings-are-disappearing

 

The Job Search:

Before I finished graduate school, I met with a career counselor at OSU and explained that I might like to pursue a career where I could remain part of university life, i.e. as a low-level administrator. For jobs even at that tier, she told me I would likely need another MA in “Higher Education Administration”. Really? Another MA? That I would have to pay in full for? To use the same programs and software that I had already been using as an instructor at OSU? Okay.

I heard her, but I also ended up applying to a lot of entry-level admin jobs, most of which amounted to working as a receptionist. I didn’t get any interviews.

After a summer of job searching, and increasingly desperate for cash, I began working retail at a local bookstore, thinking that I could continue looking for a position while I earned minimum wage. I ended up there for a year. Every few months, I was given tasks that increased in complexity and responsibility– everything from daily bookkeeping to making bank deposits for the store– while being told it wasn’t likely I would ever get a raise beyond a cashier’s minimum wage. At the store, nearly all of us had a college education or more, but we were treated like high schoolers with little to no intelligence. For example, one member of upper management referred to us as “the blind leading the blind.” Another, when I gave my two weeks notice, assumed it was because I was starting college as a freshman in the fall, expressing utter shock after she learned that I was 24 with an MA degree. In addition to those comments, there was the daily drudgery of being condescended to and degraded by everyone’s favorite I-must-speak-to-the-manager-immediately shoppers, who a) routinely berate you for store policies you have no control over and b) treat you like a thoughtless robot.

 

Some ~special highlights~ from a couple of my favorite customers:

“Oh, I take everything a woman says with a pound and a half of salt.”

“I’m looking for books about the USSR. I bet you don’t know what that is, do you?”

“The fact that you don’t keep track of everything your customers purchase is just ridiculous. You know, it’s because of you that Jeff Bezos is winning. Because. Of. You.”

Later that year, I moved with my partner to a town about 40 minutes away from the bookstore. At that time, the owners of the store were running skeleton crew, and had almost no one to close the store at 9 PM.They were going to “promote me” for 25 cents more an hour to “be in charge” at night. In other words, they were going to ensure that I took mostly closing shifts by trying to inflate my ego with…a quarter (Hang in there fellow retail workers. Solidarity.).

 


Hitting 150:

While working at the bookstore, I applied to dozens of positions. But now, with no income, I had to increase the rate and quantity of my job applications. Anyone who has conducted a less-than-casual job search in 2018 will be familiar with the tedious nature of applying to jobs over the internet. You attach a resume and cover letter to whichever portal is associated with that position, then you have to re-insert every item of on your resume, including job experiences, references, demographic information, and educational experiences, into algorithm-friendly online forms, and then answer a variety of supplemental questions. I suppose all that makes a kind of sense. But lately, the process has become even more ridiculous.

For example, Indeed.com, my job search platform of choice, now has its own assessment quizzes according to job type. I’ve applied to a lot of receptionist positions, for example, where the company asks you to take a “Receptionist Quiz” filled with questions like “If this is Steve’s schedule, and this is Sarah’s, what time can they both meet with Client X?” and “How would you label a folder than contains information about Printer Setup?” I have taken this “Receptionist Assessment” about 15 times. None of the companies I took the quiz for ever met me in person, and I doubt a human being even looked at my application materials. I have also taken dozens of in-house corporate assessments, where you are asked to spend about 45 minutes rating your personal attributes on a 7-point Likert scale and then respond to multiple-choice questions about everything from shoplifting to coworker drug abuse. Again, for the ultimate reward of that sweet, sweet minimum wage.

In interviews, I am rarely asked anything about myself or my experiences, but instead given a list of corporate-sounding and depersonalized questions. I understand that for large businesses and universities, some of this is designed to eliminate bias in the interview process. That’s good. But more often than not, the result is an interview where you walk away feeling like your interviewers still don’t know a single thing about you or what you can offer them. Which is…kind of the point of an interview.

Another example: In the past year, the majority of my interviews have lasted around 15-25 minutes, and have consisted of an average of 10 questions that almost exclusively provide sample scenarios that you could probably solve a lot more efficiently after receiving training for the position you are applying for. The other questions are always enormously vague, and don’t provide a lot of opportunities to sell yourself. Here’s a great one I got a few weeks ago:

“Name a time where you were given technology that you had never used before, and explain how you overcame that challenge in detail.” Um, I don’t know, I used Google? I figured it out? This is seriously one of ten questions you are going to ask me before you send me out the door?

 

Some ~special highlights~ from interviews I have been on:

  • While interviewing at a local law firm for a receptionist position, I was told in the first portion of the interview that it was clear that I had an introverted and submissive personality, and that it would be in my best interest to alter myself a bit before the lawyers came in to meet me because “they don’t really like people with the kind of personality that I have,” or something to that effect. No call or email back after the interview, even for a rejection.
  • At an interview for a classroom assistant position, I was led into an empty room, asked maybe three questions (while awkwardly standing across from my interviewer– we never even sat down), then thanked and sent on my way. I drove 45 minutes to that interview. For similar interviews that I have been on, I had to miss shifts at work. No call or email back after that interview, either.
  • At a nonprofit nursery for low-income families, I was told after the interview that I needed to apply to the Oregon Registry** as part of the job application process, and that the organization prefers employees to have about a Step 8 on the registry. It was a process that took nearly two months and tons of paperwork. When my registration was approved, I was given a Step 3 on the registry because “it wasn’t clear that I took AP Psychology in high school on my college transcript.” When I emailed the hiring manager about it, she never replied, not even to say that my step was too low for them to hire me, or that they would be pursuing other candidates. This, like most of the positions I have applied to, was a job that did not pay much more than minimum wage.

 

Throughout the year, I applied to positions in several different fields, but most were related to education, nonprofit work, child care, retail, and writing/editing, all of which I have at least some experience in. But it seemed like so many companies were looking for (random) qualifications and (expensive) certificates that I did not possess, like the Oregon Registry requirement. One of the most common qualifications for receptionist positions is an “AA or certificate in Office Occupations.” Okay, fam, I know how to use Excel. I can answer a multi-line phone. I can greet customers. Please. Just put me to work.***

At some point during this mess of a job search, I discerned from the “Applied” section of my Indeed account, my email inbox, and my calendar that I’ve applied to over 150 jobs in just one year. As I write, that number has continued to grow to about 200.

 

Depression Tacos:

To cope with feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and regret that I ever attended college in the first place (when I clearly should have gotten a certificate in Office Occupations instead!), I have eaten a lot of tacos al pastor**** and gone to a lot of therapy. I have also started substitute teaching to make some extra cash while I figure out what I’m doing. Fun fact: they don’t interview you at all, nor do they make you take assessment quizzes, to be in charge of a room full of children. We live in a strange world, my friends.

This humble/ self-indulgent essay will not end in a success story, but it will end on a positive note that recalls Rebecca Solnit’s words in the introduction. As empty and washed out as I sometimes feel, I still believe that there are tangible ways I can contribute to the world around me, even if I do so outside of the workforce. In dark times of my life, I have discovered many ways to experience and share moments of beauty, and I am looking forward to sharing similar moments with you in this blog. At the risk of sounding like a tired cliche, we can be rich in loss together.

 

Resources:

https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists This is the website that my mom, an MFT, recommends for finding a mental health professional that suits your needs. It is also the place where I found the therapist I currently work with. I have been seeing her for three years now, and she has helped me endure the trash fire that is 2018.

https://www.selloutyoursoul.com/2010/11/21/phd-in-english-and-life-after-grad-school/ This blog was influential in my decision not to pursue a PhD. The author tries to get you to buy stuff now, which I’m not a fan of, but that method makes sense given the blog’s premise. Especially if you have grad degrees in the humanities, I would recommend checking out some of the blog’s resources and guest articles.

berthamasonsattic@gmail.com If you are struggling with feelings of loneliness, or even if you just feel like you have become a failure in the eyes of the great machine of capitalism, feel free to shoot me an email. Though I’m obviously no expert on anything except the local taqueria scene, I have learned a few things that might be helpful to you.

 

Footnotes:

* classy insult also courtesy of Rebecca Solnit, my eternal muse

** The registry looks at your work experiences, education, and other skills, and then assigns you a “step” based on how well your experiences align with the goals of Early Childhood Education. My understanding is that some workplaces need to know your step in order to decide what to pay you, but frankly, I still find the whole thing confusing and bureaucratic.

*** I have sincere respect for people doing administrative jobs and working in all kinds of entry-level and service positions in this country. I do not mean to disparage their skills or hard work. But I do believe I have demonstrated that I am capable of doing basic administrative work. If my education does not speak for itself, then I just wish that these businesses would give me a chance to prove that I’m willing to put a lot of effort and care into any task that I’m given.

**** s/o to Carniceria Mi Casita: gracias por todo