How Bruce Springsteen inhabits a song

Jungleland wasn’t built in a day

Though in a sense every song that is released is complete, Bruce Springsteen’s “Jungleland” fulfills the deepest meaning of the word. From January 1974 to July 1975 Springsteen gradually chiseled the true character of the track out of its possibilities. He revised lyrics, rearranged movements, cut and added instruments and refined the track’s evolving compositions in rehearsals, recordings and performances with the E Street Band. The reward was a complete song, a “Jungleland” in thematic harmony with its album and with itself.

To achieve this they had to compose music true to Springsteen’s lyrics and the story and world within them. He tells of the Magic Rat, an army ranger who returns from Vietnam to a “homecoming in Harlem,” heads to New Jersey and picks up a “barefoot girl” for a “stab at romance.” They journey through a rock and roll underworld, encountering kids who “flash guitars…like switchblades” and bands that “face off…in the street.” The couple’s night ends in a “bedroom locked,” and the Rat then returns to the hustle of the city, where he is shot and wounded by his “own dream.” In the last verse Springsteen deplores the story’s circumstances and aftermath, and the curtain falls. It is a dark tale, and to realize its potential Springsteen needed its musical complement.

In a July 1974 recording we hear the process of their search. A glittering keyboard guides the Rat into Jersey, and a four-on-the-floor drumbeat and springing saxophone mark the couple’s arrival in Jungleland. After four verses Springsteen cedes to a joyous jam-session of guitar, saxophone and organ, which retreats behind a screeching guitar solo and then returns as a swinging jazz movement. Before the song’s fifth verse this fades; the keyboard accompanies Springsteen for a short-lived moment of reflection that vanishes into a bright burst of saxophone. A few more verses skip atop an upbeat rock movement, and then amid sweet saxophone and the glittering keyboard the song dissipates. The last we hear from Springsteen is a whistle farewell.

Although this rendition slaps, it is tinged with dissonance and squanders the thematic potential of the lyrics. The guitar solo, which alone speaks to the Rat’s desperation, clashes with the rock and jazz movements on either side of it. And the verses that describe the Rat’s fate and Jungleland’s failings—the verses that should form the song’s climax—forfeit their potential magnitude: they have only a twinkling keyboard as accompaniment, Springsteen sings them without much intensity and, because they do not conclude the song, they deliver no resolution.

Overall the sound is reminiscent of Springsteen’s earlier work, notably “Rosalita” and “Spirit in the Night.” Both also tell of couples on midnight missions in unfriendly worlds but remain playful via shuffling drum rhythms, swinging saxophone harmonies and Springsteen’s voice, which at times borders on goofy. The “Jungleland” of July 1974 feels like a tentative step away from this style. Springsteen was experimenting, mixing new and darker themes with old sounds and struggling to achieve unity.

To get there he reworked almost the entirety of the track. For the final cut Suki Lahav contributes her violin to the previously keyboard-only intro, clarifying the song’s storybook identity: we hear, clearly now, Once upon a time in Jungleland. Soft background strings follow and lift the curtains on the Rat as he returns from war, rides to Jersey and meets the barefoot girl. Upon their arrival in the city a guitar strikes; power chords flash like faulty streetlights and expose the “opera out on the turnpike” and the “ballet being fought…in the alley.” The ensuing rock movement expresses a musical montage of scenes from Jungleland.

The Rat, absent from these scenes’ lyrics, blends into the nightlife. As in the 1974 rendition Springsteen then spotlights a guitar solo; instead of sorrow, however, it rings here of action, of cash swept off a backroom table, an ignited engine and a lovers’ hand-in-hand dash from one midnight thrill to another. The solo coheres with the musical and lyrical narrative and disappears organically into the next verses, in which the “lonely-hearted lovers” flee Jungleland’s clubs and streets. When Springsteen declares “they’re gone,” the rock movement vanishes with them.

Bright and sudden as a lighthouse Clarence Clemons takes over. His saxophone solo, supported by cymbals and a cycle of octaves on the keyboard, flies the Rat and the barefoot girl from the city to the shore. The mood momentarily swells with hope and freedom, but at the song’s halfway mark the Rat’s respite peaks; as if hooked by the return of a four-count drumbeat, the hitherto pure notes of Clemons’ solo intensify into cries of resistance against the hook of circumstance, which reels the Rat back to Jungleland. Clemons finishes his solo with renewed clarity, but it fades into a haunting organ, and keyboard chords struck in a stumbling rhythm evoke leaden drunken footsteps.

Listeners, until now regaled by the Rat’s odyssey and slash-and-dash world, must in Springsteen’s final verses confront the chasm between “flesh and…fantasy.” The Rat is gunned down not in pursuit of his dream; he is gunned down by his dream. “No one watches…the ambulance pull away,” and in response the poets of Jungleland silently “stand back and let it all be,” choosing instead in the “quick of the night” to “try to make an honest stand.” Ultimately, however, they lose their race for meaning or martyrdom: the Rat and those like him “wind up wounded / not even dead.”

In the end we are delivered musical and plot resolution but no salvation. The lyrics ride a wave of keyboard, organ and strings that crests and falls, and Springsteen succeeds his last line with a thunder of howls that fuse character to setting: the Rat’s story represents, is Jungleland; and Springsteen’s screams toll the bell for both of their hopes. Finally the racing piano outlasts his breath, and an organ chord like the lingering glint of lightning fades to black.

Inhabiting Jungleland

The track’s 19 month evolution demonstrates one of Springsteen’s musical maxims. To be a “believable and convincing” singer, he says, one must “inhabit [their] song.” For him this practice, more than a naturally powerful voice, leads to greatness. Singing is storytelling, and “if you can inhabit your song, you can communicate.”

The lack of harmony in the 1974 recording reveals the labors of this inhabitation process. In that July Springsteen had yet to recognize that the Rat’s story and world were grittier than his style afforded. A Jungleland of swing or jazz was untrue, and a Rat whose soundtrack ignored his fate was a phony, a cartoon. To intimate them truthfully within the confines of a single song, Springsteen still needed to chart their emotional topographies, to know them beyond what he would or could ever tell us in lyric.

He and the E Street Band used their year of editing for this purpose. They discarded false arrangements and summoned the courage to axe what they had spent months mastering in order to compose and tweak movements that better realized the “Jungleland” idea. Even in the last three days of recording Springsteen and Clemons held a sixteen hour studio session in which, according to Springsteen, they workshopped the saxophone solo “phrase by phrase.” (“‘All we could do was…smoke a lot of pot and try to stay calm,’ said Clemons.”) Sonic congruence between every note on every instrument and thematic cohesion between the soul and sound of the song—that was the endgame of their inhabitation, their definition of complete, and they struck it.

Record making

Without this inhabited “Jungleland,” Born to Run would be incomplete. It punctuates the album’s conversation. On “Thunder Road,” for example, Springsteen asks us to “show a little faith there’s magic in the night,” but in the “hallways in the night” the Rat is gunned down by his faith in a dream. And if on “Born to Run” dreams of escape from a “death trap…suicide wrap” hometown are fueled by a cheering glockenspiel and thrumming bass, the illusion of such a flight shatters with the screaming tail of Clemons’ saxophone solo, during which the Rat’s falls back to his city and his fate. As Born to Run’s last track and emotional exclamation point,“Jungleland” has the last word over the songs before it.

Is the hope burning throughout the record for nothing, then? No. Born to Run explores the yin and yang nature of hope and despair. For Springsteen each exists within and follows the other; i.e. we could say despair pushes one to skip town, and we could say hope is the beacon one follows out. The harmony “Jungleland” brings to Born to Run is then not in despair’s annihilation of hope, but in its encapsulation of their interconnectedness.

Springsteen’s final, self-proclaimed “knife-in-the-back wail” is the cradle of this paradox. It is the sound of a failed audition, a busted engine and a broken heart, and in that way it relieves Born to Run’s dreamers—and us—of a part of our pain. Our hopes may crumble under merciless circumstances, and in the ruins we may despair; but when we hear Springsteen’s howls we need not feel alone, because in them we can hear ourselves. In his emotion we might discover that apathy is the negation of hope, not despair; and from the solace of our feeling we might chance a look up.


Photo by Wendy Wei on Pexels

The philosophy of an earring

Fashionable motivations: a dialogue set in ancient Greece

Lysistrata and Hippolytus sit at a small, wooden table outside a narrow café in Athens and chat while they wait for their friend, Philo.

Lysistrata: I am skeptical.

Hippolytus: You think it would look bad.

Lysistrata: I am skeptical because I want to know why.

Hippolytus: Why get an earring? Because I want one.

Lysistrata: If that were enough your ears would be sparkling already. Why the delay?

Hippolytus: No delay, I simply—

Lys: I call your bluff, Hippolytus.

Hipp: By Zeus, fine! I can’t find the Why and it’s killing me. Now, woman, what do you want from me?

Lys: Only to help you find your reason. We should have enough time to do that before Philo arrives.

Hipp (hesitantly): On the condition you don’t push your usual answer.

Lys: I promise to at least investigate the idea first. (Hippolytus frowns, then nods.) So: Is attention the reason?

Hipp: You think higher of me than that, don’t you?

Lys: Tell me honestly, then, that you have not pictured this scene: You enter a room, you feel yourself a new person, you smile at a colleague. He sees you, sees the earring and says, ‘Have I fallen from Olympus or is that Hippolytus? You look positively Spartan! Well done!’

Hipp: Perhaps the thought has breezed through.

Lys: And there is no shame in it. But, and please help me here, why is that reason insufficient? What will happen when all of Piraeus has seen you with your earring?

Hipp: They’d stop mentioning it.

Lys: Or if the majority of feedback you receive is negative—If even 51 of your 100 mates on the docks thought you better off without?

Hipp: It’s my decision, Lysistrata. For all I care, they can—

Lys: I aim merely to follow the logic. If positive attention or approval is your motivation, then a collective Nay from the good Athenian people should be reason enough to remove the earring. If you grant them the power to judge for you, you grant them the power to decide for you as well.

Hipp: And if I just want to see what they think of me? With a surprise you jar some honesty out of people. What do the good Athenian people think of their plain, safe, dependable Hippolytus? Sporting a new look, I could learn that from them…and I could learn something about myself, too.

Lys: That seems an abundance of work. Instead you might ask your friends for their opinions.

Hipp: Don’t be so pious and naïve, Lysistrata. For the sport of it we might play serious when given another’s decision to weigh as our own, but we never consider it with the sincerity of the decider himself. No, the best way to capture their honest opinion is by ambush.

Lys: I think you would find in your ambushes what you expect from them, what you project onto them beforehand. And when, later, you reach for the memories of their reactions, you will only have the feeling; you will lose their words, tone and expression; you will have made the memory beforehand because, initially, you were searching for something.

Hipp: What something?

Lys: You tell me—acceptance, attention, approval? I do wonder, though: why is the earring the trick? Why not a new dye in your robe, or a trim of the beard?

Hipp: Because I want the earring.

Lys: Then—

Hipp: Stop! You said you wouldn’t give your usual advice.

Lys: I am not there, not yet. We have work still to do. So, do you believe your argument so far? Is attention the reason?

Hipp (sighs): No, I don’t think it is. For better or for worse I’m not so shallow as that. Perhaps I laid the reason on the outside world because the inner world is more frightening. After all, why would I want an earring? I’m healthy, young, educated, employed; I understand intellectually that an earring’s meaning, apart from its pure aesthetic value, comes from culture. So why does the idea burn for long hours in my mind? Is it an evolutionary sense of beauty calling for fulfillment, or an attraction between my psyche and the cultural connotation of an earring? Are the mind and body the Gods have given me insufficient without being stuck with a metal thorn?

Lys (thinking, runs a hand through her hair): Remind me what you do down on the docks?

Hipp: I take the accounts for our olive exports to the Isles, you know that. What’s that to do with my dilemma?

Lys: Do you still play the lute?

Hipp: No, I don’t play nearly enough. Thank you for the reminder. Again, what’s this to do with—

Lys: I wonder if this earring idea is not a mistranslated message from the Muses. Perhaps your creative energy is looking for a way out.

Hipp: Are you implying that my creativity is like a boil that needs draining?

Lys: I would never offend the Muses with such a comparison. But maybe you might tighten and tune your strings, or spend a few afternoons with the potters…

Their third, Philo, rounds the corner at the head of the street and saunters toward their table outside the café. Lysistrata and Hippolytus rise and wave, Philo embraces them one by one and sits himself in the remaining wicker chair. Lysistrata and Hippolytus do the same.

Philo: So sorry I’m late, terribly sorry, deep in discussion and then lost in thought. All in a rush. Makes one takes a false turn in this city, you know.

Hipp: Worry not, Philo. We’re glad you found us.

Philo: Then by the Gods, my friends, what did I interrupt? Let us get back to it!

Lys (points to Hippolytus): This one wants an earring but knows not why.

Hipp (points to Lysistrata): This one is trying to talk me out of it!

Lys: I merely suggested that relearning some of the old hymns on his lute might be more productive than an earring and achieve the same results.

Philo: That result being?

Hipp: She thinks I’ve so denied the Muses’ call to action that they’ve resorted to demanding I materially alter my person in order to release my clogged-up creativity. But a few plucked strings and I’ll be back to normal—empty once again! And the idea of an earring will simply fade away.

Lys: It was one theory. What do you say, Philo?

Phil: I’m reminded of a jolly rich aunt of mine.

Hipp: Everything all right with her?

Phil: Stubbornly healthy. A singer, this aunt, and the owner of some of the finest robes I’ve ever seen. Magenta, the blue of Poseidon’s deep, Apollo’s sunny gold—take your pick, my friends. An astonishing collection of robes, astonishing. And what a voice! I cannot remember this aunt without hearing that surprising, stirring baritone, and I also cannot remember her without seeing a dazzling robe wrapped around her enduring figure. I wonder, friends: Are the lute-playing and the earring halves of an either-or?

Lys: We never said they were.

Phil: I mean, my friends, that the luxury of fashion might indeed be a mode of expression, but certainly it doesn’t consume all the air of the creative flame. How could it? A color, an earring—these are passive choices! One actively wears an earring—

Hipp: But one’s earring-wearing is no activity.

Phil: Yes! When my aunt sings, her whole being, her soul engages the task. The Muses flutter invisibly around her neck and shoulders and their together-made music booms jubilantly into the world. Of such expression a dyed robe or an earring is incapable, my friends. I claim the energies are of different class entirely; neither the robe nor the singing discounts the validity of the other.

Lys (to Hippolytus): You ought to just choose one way or the other; either get the earring, or do not. Only regret will come from too long a reflection before the decision. It is only an earring. What I would respect you for, Hippolytus—regardless of how you looked—would be the conviction with which you wore it. With that you convince the good people of Athens, myself included.

Hipp: Finally, out it comes! By Zeus, Lysistrata, always you call on your conviction and decision as though they can be summoned on a whim.

Phil: I agree, Lysistrata. If it were only an earring our Hippolytus wouldn’t spill so much wine over the matter. Clearly it is something more.

Lys: Perhaps I am impatient, but it is a decision, like everything else. What more is there? Reasons always pale to conviction in the moment one decides. Attention, aesthetics, expression—all motivations fade and blend into the lived experience of the decision. We can never truly remember the original Why; we retain only biased and frayed trimmings of that thread. (To Hippolytus) If you chose for the earring, wore it into the next harvest season, then decided it was not for you, should your new decision be made with last season’s information? Not at all! Your new decision should be made anew with new conviction.

Phil: By the Gods, Lysistrata, you may’ve struck the sequence of events, but I fear you miss too much in the process. (To Hippolytus) Would you like an earring?

Hipp: I believe so.

Phil: Can you be indifferent to the idea, my friend? Can you drop it from your thoughts as the overripe olive falls from the tree?

Lys: But no one is indifferent to the idea, Philo. I have opinions on earrings; that’s why I have them.

Phil: Ah, dear Lysistrata! Your indifference is disguised as the ease with which you made your decision. To easy choices we are all indifferent. Our Hippolytus’s difficulty lies in his uncertainty.

Hipp: The wavering has lasted quite a while.

Phil: For me, my friend, the word Wavering doesn’t quite fit. Let’s name it Negotiating. (Hippolytus and Lysistrata wrinkle their brows.) Yes, yes. Earlier we said fashion was a mode of expression; it is however a peculiar mode because, my friends, fashion’s highest goal is to express one’s identity. And while in music, poetry and drama, identity is ever present and inexorably expressed, it is rarely an artwork’s ultimate goal. Even as the teller of an epic describes his hero, the time and technique required to supply a description and realize an identity preclude the immediacy that fashion achieves. To wear an earring, dear friends, is to express one’s identity in real time to the world, under all the pressure of our conventions, culture and the human laws of attraction. So I find our Hippolytus’s hesitance an understandable inner negotiation over the answer to a crucial question: Does an earring bring him closer to or farther from his destination?

Hipp: And where would that be?

Phil: Yourself, of course! In this inner discussion you’ve vaguely recognized the spiritual pairing between what one wears and what one is.

Lys: But Philo, I thought you were anti-material! To claim the spirit can develop out of fashion is lazy, even vulgar. Not ten nights ago we were in agreement: she who has become herself can have everything taken from her and still have everything.

Phil: Surely! But let’s ask—why do they clothe the prisoners all in gray? (To Hippolytus) I support you in your negotiations with this decision. Either way, old friend, it is a stepping stone. And Lysistrata is right: when you make the decision, make it with the greatest conviction you can muster! And try to live detached from your reflection. If you discover that your earring edifies you, that you feel freer and truer without needing to say a word, then you’ll have progressed in your journey toward yourself, and all the anger, doubt and annoyance spurred by the initial glances and commentary will pale to the feeling flowing clean and bright inside of you as you walk through your day. And if not, perhaps the earring was a mirage, and you can leave it behind. But if it edifies you, if it edifies you!

Hipp: But how can I be sure?

Lys: Choose!


Featured photo by Ashithosh U from Pexels

The creation of J.M.W. Turner

Brush strokes, personal growth

Creation, self-actualization—for the Englishman and Romantic-era painter J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851), these two tasks were one. Turner practiced a mode of expression true to his inner nature and purified by choice, and through his practice refined a style capable of realizing his singular perspective. More than the technical mastery of his medium, it is this commitment to himself and to his vision that makes Turner the ideal artist and a timeless model of self-development.

He recognized that between ourselves and honest living and expression stands a field of obstacles; art, as it is for many, served as compass and consolation while he navigated through. With each work in which he committed to himself, Turner practiced his honesty, rid himself of a fear, lie, envy, or nagging criticism, and enriched his knowledge of the forms and flows of his internal and the external world.

The result was a gradual purification. His field of obstacles thinned, and those that remained he embraced, either because he chose them, or because they were inherent to his craft. Always he needed to lay the right brush stroke, to mix pigments on a palette, to sketch despite a biting wind; but these challenges he loved, and he met them as one meets the few friends kept close at the end of a life long with noise. He opened himself to them, enjoyed their influence on him, stayed true to them, and thereby became and stayed true to himself. Turner’s development is this commitment, the repeated choice to pursue his own perspective and choose his own challenges.

Fishermen at Sea exhibited 1796 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01585

Fishermen at Sea (1796, above) exemplifies Turner at an early stage along this journey. Already he has chiseled his talent into skill, identified the elements of English national myth, and equipped himself with the technical and storytelling lessons of his predecessors. In Fishermen he deploys this education with precision: the sea swells into white ridges lucid and crisp, the moon’s focused radiance casts the sailors as protagonists, and save for the sharply framed, orange lantern glowing aboard the central ship, Turner grounds his palette in the solemn emerald of midnight brine. Looking over the scene we shiver in the fishermen’s cold, dread the darkness into which the rightward boat fades, pray their flickering civilization lasts the night. Into this sympathy Turner delivers his simple yet stirring narrative: although home calls, duty remains; port, warmth, and safety must wait.

Fishermen’s emotional accessibility and technical grace earned Turner more than high praise. Three years later at age 24 he was admitted to Britain’s leading cultural institution, the Royal Academy of the Arts. With membership’s accompanying connections and funding, Turner traveled extensively and brought himself into conversation with a diversity of landscapes, cultures, and ideas. But despite the privileges he now had, he avoided the elitist air that often intoxicated his contemporaries and influenced their creative output. As a result, he could keep what he liked in Fishermen and move—stylistically and inwardly—further on.

Sunset in the Rockies exhibited c.1866 Albert Bierstadt 1830-1902 https://www.artrenewal.org/artworks/sunset-in-the-rockies/albert-bierstadt/26205

To demonstrate, let’s compare Turner’s Sun Setting Over a Lake (1840, below) with Albert Bierstadt’s Sunset in the Rockies (1866, above). Bierstadt, also a painter of landscape influenced by Romanticism, delivers a style reminiscent of Turner’s in Fishermen. He replicates the natural relationship between light’s source and its reflectors, his brushwork appears deliberate, and the scene glimmers with detail. Bierstadt may dramatize the warm glow of the canyon, but we can still step into it, skip an rock across the sunlit river, pick from a bush or tree a single leaf. With this realism Bierstadt, like Turner, mythologizes: Sunset in the Rockies preaches the glory of the American West in an accessible visual language, one which serves to ingrain or reinforce in its viewers the notion of America as beautiful, the Beautiful. It’s a language we naturally understand, whose precision we can admire, a language that perhaps convinces us to donate to the Sierra Club or rent a cabin in Colorado.

Sun Setting over a Lake c.1840 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N04665

Sun Setting over a Lake, however, urges a more intuitive interpretation. Turner has seen the embers behind the cold science of sight, and he reaches around the images born to our cameras and corneas to rip the smolder of fading daylight to the fore. Rather than inspecting Sun Setting or accepting the blurb from a tour guide, Turner asks us to stand before his fire until thought dims and feeling ignites, until the passing of time becomes visceral.

This revelation realism struggles to deliver. Conscious of its limitations, Turner chooses a less accurate, more honest mode. He balances his knowledge with his senses, wades through the noise of thought, brings that which was truest in him to the truth always latent in nature, and then deploys his medium to articulate it. The process is relational, an exchange: the scene flows from the external, meets Turner’s spirit in sincere conversation, and flows back out as an molten alloy of movement and light. The visual language realized, however imprecise, feels rawer, reaches deeper, and enables him to express his purest feelings in dialogue with the universe.

Painting this way Turner achieved originality, the reason his work broadened and enlightened Life. Perhaps we receive light less intensely than he did, miss the misty energies of the atmosphere; but because he painted, we can. Turner’s art enables us to see his insights, to wander in his worlds; it provides a space for our creativities to mingle with his and together imagine and build new roads in our minds. This is why we say great figures in history “pave the way.” Their achievements make possible the settling of a yet further stretch of experience, invent language for the indescribable, hang the lantern higher on our cave wall.

And when we name these figures leaders or heroes, we touch a strand of truth. Turner and every such individual, in their commitments to personal perspective and the discipline of their crafts, essentially win a victory for freedom: they articulate new ways of thinking and living, and new ways of thinking and living must be articulated before they can be thought or led. As if squeezing a key between B and C on the piano their original creations add notes to the manifold of existence, thereby creating greater freedom for us all.

Maybe, though, you feel indifferent to Turner’s perspective, unempowered by his originality, and unmoved by his art. That’s fine: there are other Turners. Instead of him, find your own, someone whose story of singularity reaches you, reveals better for you the meaning of development.

Or perhaps, correctly, you point to Mr. Turner’s privileges, to the lack of friction between his potential and its actualization, and say this lack renders him irrelevant to those who face injustices he never had to consider, who are persecuted for being, let alone becoming themselves. His superlative example of development nevertheless stands. It is in harmony with the task of removing these injustices, and it illuminates its ultimate goal: the undertaking of the challenges that remain after the unjust challenges are gone.

Because at its easiest becoming oneself still requires the responsibility of choice—in theory, in action, and in habit. Turner accepted this responsibility and tailored it to his talents and curiosities. He practiced the discipline to master his craft, engaged sincerely with all he sincerely wanted to engage in, and dropped (as much as he could) all the rest. He chose honesty over praise and singularity over conformity. At his core, he chose to choose.

Dallas Buyers Club and the market forces of death

On day zero of Ron Woodruff’s thirty-days-to-live death sentence, he is in two prostitutes in a muddy bullpen at a bullfighting arena. He is a gambling drunkard running from the trouble he makes for himself. He, aside from the zings and whistles granted by cocaine, whiskey, and ejaculation, is as good as dead. Intellectually, spiritually, emotionally dead.

On day one, an on-the-job electrical accident puts Woodruff in the hospital, where he finds, much to his homophobic, 1985 stereotype-informed disbelief, that he has HIV. He’s a straight man, after all. It’s not possible for him to catch HIV. So he storms out. No way, he thinks, I ain’t gay, and I’m living forever.

But Woodruff is dying. It’s impossible for him to ignore the bloody coughs whirring noises splitting open his head. He goes to the library, reads up on the studies and statistics: the disease spreads through unprotected sex between any carrier and noncarrier, gay or not; it also circulates through shared intravenous needles. Woodruff suddenly remembers a girl he once hired who had pinpricks up and down her arm, and accepts he has HIV.

He does not, however, accept the thirty day sentence. Woodruff is a stubborn, sharp cowboy: he researches the drugs that clinics worldwide are trying on the disease; he discovers a Dallas hospital is hosting a 90-day double-blind placebic trial of the newest, latest and greatest drug, AZT; and he bypasses authority in order to obtain it. But his inside man at the hospital quits, and a fainting fit puts him back in the sick house, at the mercy of doctors contractually bound to test AZT on behalf of big pharma.

It is there, alone and inches from death on a hospital gurney, that Woodruff breaks the cliché of the terminally ill bucket lister. He has neither the cash for some tour of Europe, nor the embrace of his own end such a before-I-die trip implies. The immediacy of death instead alights in him anger and determination.

It also purges his prejudices. This is epitomized in an exchange with his hospital roommate, a trans woman named Rayon who is also HIV-positive. Woodruff initially rebuffs her friendliness, but when she offers to play cards—for cash—he agrees to chat. And when his calf cramps, paralyzing him in pain, he allows her to knead it out. Woodruff’s acceptance of Rayon’s physical help—help given by a person from whom he would never, because of his prejudices, ordinarily accept it—represents a larger theme of Dallas Buyers Club: with life on the line, allies are allies regardless of their identities.

After a trip to Mexico to receive un-FDA-approved treatment, Woodruff returns and teams up with Rayon. The medicine given to him there has shored up his immune system in ways AZT could not, and Woodruff, cash-hungry, has struck a deal with his doctor to sell the cocktail of drugs that put him back on his feet. He gets the goods across the border to Dallas, but cannot breach the mostly-gay market: Woodruff neither knows anything of their community nor can leapfrog the friction of his ingrained prejudices. Without anywhere else to turn, he recruits Rayon to be his sales rep.

Their partnership proves successful, and the combination of moneymaking and self-sustaining that ensues places Woodruff in daily proximity with Dallas’s gay community. It composes the majority of the Dallas Buyers Club, i.e. the HIV-positive population willing to flout FDA law and official medical advice to procure what they believe will help them survive. Woodruff, through the vehicle of his new Buyers Club business, learns these people are much like him: desperate in the face of death, inclined to kindness, and prey to their own weaknesses. His prejudice erodes daily under the mounting evidence that Scout Finch’s timeless observation is true: “there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.”

When the FDA cracks down on the Dallas Buyers Club’s under-the-table operation and its members are barred from obtaining their immunological boosters, Woodruff’s façade—that moneymaking is still his primary motivation—shatters. Rayon, now Woodruff’s valued friend, dies, and his anger with the government’s nonsensical regulation and apparent apathy towards the mostly gay HIV-AIDS community transforms the Buyers Club from a business to a crusade. Woodruff, on the implicit behalf of his HIV-AIDS customers, sues the government for the right to medicate himself and fight against his impending death however he likes.

The heart of Woodruff’s story closes with the result of his lawsuit. He loses to the FDA, but upon returning to his home in Dallas receives an ovation from friends in the Buyers Club, who have gathered to congratulate his efforts. Woodruff, homophobe-turned-profiteer-turned-ally, here asks of us an uncomfortable question: What prevents our acceptance of the Other? Why does it take death to illuminate the ignorance of our prejudices?

Why we love Jim Halpert

It’s more than smirking at the camera

The Big Tuna. Paper salesman at Dunder Mifflin, twenty-something college grad. He’s a prankster, old-school romantic, and the everyman in the nine season sitcom, The Office. Jim, played by the handsome-but-just-ordinary-enough John Krasinski, receives as much screen time as several colleagues, but stands out for his relatability. It is through Jim that we see we’re not alone in enduring the small absurdities of the nine-to-five; we are not alone in feeling confused at our choices and where we’ve ended up. Jim is a portrait of the college grad as a twenty-something and a sympathetic shoulder for the viewers entrenched in the daily war of work.

The other protagonists on The Office—for our consideration, Michael, Dwight, and Pam—play roles we can sort into familiar workplace archetypes: Michael is the unqualified and embarrassing boss; Dwight, the alien, annoying colleague; Pam, the one person around whom we can be ourselves. If you know the show, ask yourself: have you labeled one of your colleagues the Dwight of the office? The Pam? Is your boss the Michael Scott type?

If so, notice through which lens you bestow the label—Jim’s. He is the mirror off of which we interpret the other characters, major and minor. Michael’s hatred for Toby, for example, is comic because it is hyperbolic. But it reflects on Michael and not on Toby, who, compared to his boss’s antics, often seems like a voice of reason. Jim’s distaste for him, however, we understand and believe (e.g. it would be frustrating for the legitimacy of your legal and disclosed office relationship to be questioned by HR). Jim is the touchstone; he connects and relates us to the personalities in his world.

A key reason we feel this way is because of how Jim treats the fourth wall. Though The Office is a mockumentary, which means most characters acknowledge or speak to the camera, Jim looks at us more than anyone. He is the thermometer of The Office; his glances, a snapshot of the temperature. It is John Krasinski’s signature talent that with a mere expression he communicates if a situation is serious or surprising, delighting or disgusting or painfully dull. His glances spark a type of catharsis perfected by The Office: confirmation of the banality and absurdity of the everyday. When we are at work and someone says or does something we find ridiculous, we want a friend to share that moment, someone to whom we can say, “Can you believe she said that?” or “Am I crazy for thinking he’s crazy?” Jim’s glances give that to us; they are comfort that we are neither alone nor out of our minds—they bridge our offices to The Office.

Another link is Jim’s disposition towards Dunder Mifflin. In season one he says,

“Right now, this is a job. If I advance any higher in this company, this would be my career. And if this were my career, I’d have to throw myself in front of a train.”

We might be fortunate enough not to have one of those jobs, or perhaps we haven’t yet realized ours is indeed one of them; but the feeling is familiar, and so is Jim’s response: he stays put. He might not like selling reams (on reams on reams) of paper, but he’s unsure what else he would do.

His uncertainty reflects a paradox of career-building: we need experience to discover or create our careers (i.e. what we like to do, credentials), yet to choose a first or second job with a future that appeals to us, we need to already have an outline of the career we’d like. (Not to mention we usually just need a job, period.) Jim’s career confusion and his ambivalence toward Dunder Mifflin reflect the dilemma that unsatisfied twenty-somethings everywhere carry in the back of their minds.

Perhaps these bridges of empathy earn Jim his popularity. Six years after its series finale, The Office remains Netflix’s most-streamed show, accounting for 7% of its 139 million subscribers’ views. For Millennials and Gen Z, The Office may have been a first peek into any workplace, real or fiction. It may have set expectations for the working world, and it might continue to be a coping mechanism for it. Yes, in the course of the show, Michael finds love; Dwight, compassion; Pam, courage; and a host of other characters win our sympathies. We can learn from all of them. But Jim, from pilot till finale, is the rock.

He reminds us we are not alone in our frustration or confusion; he shows us that although we may be faced with boredom and absurdity, little victories can buoy us through the day. While we probably should avoid placing anyone’s office supplies in a vending machine, we can take some helpful cues from Jim: make an effort to find (not necessarily marry) someone with whom we can shoot the breeze, understand when a job is just a job, realize it’s okay to not know yet what we want to do, and try to respond to the weirdness of the working world with humor—maybe with a smirk at an imaginary camera.

Replace the pursuit of Happiness

Thomas Jefferson’s bedrock American right has harmfully merged with the pursuit of material wealth

 On Route 15, northbound, a billboard welcomes travelers to Pennsylvania. “Pursue Your Happiness,” it reads. Several miles later, another sign calls attention. Beside golden arches, a Big Mac, and a sweating cola it offers a related sentiment: “Pursue Your Thirstiness.” The Declaration of Independence, ratified in nearby Philadelphia, is implicit in both boards. Jefferson’s words continue to resonate in the American consciousness so strongly, it seems, that they endow McDonalds with the ability to compel drivers off the highway. To Americans, such corporate usurpation of the words and ideas that years ago delivered and then organized freedom in a tyrannized land feels natural. It is trite, even.

But before the Declaration’s contents were commercialized, it accomplished two rather large tasks for the Thirteen Colonies. First, it unanimously declared war against Britain; and second, it explained the Colonies’ grounds for freedom and stated key principles for their eventual government.

Jefferson owes much of the Declaration’s thinking to his philosophical ancestor, the Englishman John Locke, whose Second Treatise of Government is the basis for both the grounds and the principles. Jefferson’s “self-evident” truths of human equality and unalienable rights match Locke’s natural rights, which are self-evident in that they are deducible with God-given reason. Jefferson’s assertion that government exists to protect such rights is also Locke’s that government exists to mitigate the inconveniences of the state of nature, not infringe upon its freedoms. That government derives its powers from the “consent of the governed” echoes Locke’s argument that, for it to be legitimate, individuals must consent to participation in a political body.

The thrust of the Declaration is also borrowed. Jefferson writes than when government “becomes destructive of these [previously stated] ends” it becomes the right and duty of the people to “alter or abolish it.” Analogously in the Second Treatise, Locke writes: “by this breach of trust [government] forfeits the power the people had put into [its] hands…and the power devolves to the people, who have a right to resume their original liberty.” The bulk of the Declaration thereafter lists evidence of King George III’s tyranny, justifying and compelling the Colonies’ revolution and actualizing the theory laid out in Locke’s Second Treatise.

It is plain that Locke informed Jefferson. The Declaration hinges on his ideas, and at times the former President is a word or two away from plagiarism. This conformity between their writings highlights, in the few spots they occur, their differences. Most glaring and significant among them is Jefferson’s replacement of Locke’s third-listed natural right, “estate,” with the “pursuit of Happiness.” Along with “all men are created equal,” Jefferson’s trio of unalienable rights—especially the last—has become the preeminent extract from the Declaration. This begs the question: why the switch?

Even if one could solidify an answer, at this point it would be more trivia than triumph: what Jefferson intended with his diction pales to what his diction has inspired. The “pursuit of Happiness” is so dense and fertile an idea that it became the bedrock of the American Dream, but, as McDonalds exemplifies, it also evolved into something unhealthy. By replacing Locke’s “estate” with the “pursuit of Happiness,” Jefferson planted in the soul of the United States a seed of consumerist materialism. At our present consumption-created precipice of climate catastrophe, it is necessary to address the formidable Cherry into which Jefferson’s seed has grown and hew it to its mythological and ideological roots. The American Dream and American individualism must be founded on a more environmentally and existentially sustainable base than the pursuit of material well-being: the “pursuit of Happiness” must be re-replaced.

The coalescence between happiness and material well-being is expounded in Alexis de Tocqueville’s proto-sociological text, Democracy in America. Tocqueville claims the fiercest attachment of the American heart to be “the imperfectly satisfied desire to possess [a precious object] and the incessant fear of losing it,” and observes that in the U.S. the “love of [material] well-being has become the national and dominant taste” which “carries everything along in its course.” In other words, Americans believe acquiring property equals pursuing happiness. The conflation makes consumption the nation’s primary occupation.

Tocqueville’s commentary on American materialism was prescient in 1840 and remains pressing today. Evidence for it accumulates yearly: in 2017, consumers in the U.S. spent $240 billion on luxury items—twice as much as in 2002, despite only a 13% population increase. Higher spending signifies a healthy economy, but it also corresponds to the on-average 81 pounds of textiles dumped annually by each American (five times more than in 1980) and the doubled number of personal storage facilities. If the attitude in de Tocqueville’s time was more, it now seems to be more, more, more.

Even if unintended or invisible, the physical consequences of rising consumption are dangerous. Of the 26 million tones of plastic used by Americans in 2015, only 9% were recycled. What goes unrecycled winds up in landfills, where it generates methane gas; or in the ocean, where it is ingested by marine life. Both are harmful: methane accelerates climate change, and ocean plastics kill crustaceans, fish, and amphibians. Ocean littering also introduces plastic—and a host of health risks—into the human food chain. These are examples, not exceptions. The environmental damages caused by a culture of consumption abound, and, since the global population is on track to double material resource usage by 2060, the buying habit must be broken.

In addition to the pursuit of property’s physical costs, its conflation with happiness is psychologically injurious. Tocqueville diagnosed this: “in the very midst of their abundance,” Americans were “[singularly] agitated.”. The “pursuit of Happiness led to restiveness—an endless hustle for the next thing and an inability to appreciate the recently earned or already possessed.

We are not wholly responsible for this: because of the evolutionary advantages that abundance provided to past iterations of the homo genus, for-pleasure purchases trigger the brain to release dopamine, a good-vibes neurotransmitter. However, dopamine cravings are causal to addictive disorders like Compulsive Buying Disorder (i.e. shopping addiction), and although such illnesses are rarely developed, everyone is biologically compelled to chase the dopamine releases which can lead to them. This is why advertising works: it endlessly dangles dopamine in front of our ever-hungry brains. Shopping does not assuage the desire; instead, it feeds the loop.

Tocqueville’s observations hold on a larger scale, too. A Princeton University study that found that one’s perception of their own life improves steadily with income concurrently discovered that the curve for “emotional well-being” flattens around $75k. From there up, individuals are as prone to negative emotions as they were with lower incomes. This suggests that while Americans perceive additional wealth to be life-enhancing, it is not. Past a certain point—security, perhaps—the “pursuit of Happiness” in the form of material well-being is, as de Tocqueville puts it, a “useless pursuit of…complete felicity.”


To recap: The conflation of the “pursuit of Happiness” with the pursuit of material wealth damages the environment; at best, briefly excites the individual; and in the long run does not secure a positive state of emotional well-being. Because, then, it is folly to believe in its deliverance and also because consumer culture is unsustainable, the “pursuit of Happiness” as it has become—a corrupted slogan for a material American Dream—must go.

The better choice for the Declaration’s third-listed natural right is Locke’s “estate.” For him, estate means material property (including money), and he arrives at it through his labor theory of value, which states that labor is the act by which man rightfully appropriates property from nature (or our modern equivalent, the workplace). “Estate” is not a right to have; it is a right to do: nobody has the right to be given any property, only the right to earn and then keep it without unjust interference.

Crucially as well, “estate” is nowhere near happiness’s associative neighborhood. It instead focuses on the procurement and possession of goods necessary for the right to life (e.g. shelter and nutrition). As the Princeton study showed, wealth corresponds with happiness up to a ceiling of security, but disengages after that point. “Estate”’s distance maintains that distinction.

It is also superior because it affords specific protections to the individual: from theft and unjust taxation, for example. The right to pursue happiness does not; and even if it was possible to disentangle the “pursuit of Happiness” from material wealth, what would its protection entail? It is too individualistic and amorphous an idea to concretize. Happiness has as many conceptions as it has conceivers; and because Jefferson declined to define it in the Declaration, it has no national definition, either. Competing notions of happiness clash constantly—how could one be favored over another without any reference point?

Yet it may be objected that the loftiness and indefinability of Jefferson’s turn of phrase are its greatest strengths. The “pursuit of Happiness” is considerably more motivating than “estate.” Including it in a list of fundamental rights implies there is an immaterial element to life toward which we intuitively work. A sympathetic reading brings Jefferson’s words near to Tocqueville’s prescription for American society: cultivate “a taste for the infinite, a sentiment of greatness, and a love of immaterial pleasures.” Both these tastes and the idea of happiness are unique for everyone and, as long as an individual strives for them, a definition is unnecessary. In this way Jefferson’s phrase deflects from the want of material wealth; instead, the “pursuit of Happiness” serves as an immaterial North Star, guiding each citizen along their lifelong path to enlightenment.

And even if the happiness and property have coalesced, is the result as harmful as has been posited? If not partially causal, the conflation is at least correlated to the United States’ economic ascent; and, as found by the Princeton study, up to a point such growth improves emotional well-being. Through their passion for acquisition, Americans have helped lift the floor of poverty again and again. Without the coalescence, the U.S. might not have developed its entrepreneurial, industrial, competitive culture; and without that culture, would we be as well-off as we are now?

Without the “pursuit of Happiness,” what is America? Pennsylvania’s welcome billboard says with Jefferson’s words what the Statue of Liberty says with its raised torch, what the biographies of Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Jobs all say: come here, work hard, and you can make a prosperous life for yourself—nobody will stop you. The phrase’s entanglement with material wealth pales to the motivation and hope it engenders. It might be a vague foundation for government, but it is the Atlas of American mythology. It is our romantic idealism that forever asks what is impossible if we pursue hard enough? This was true for the Founders, and remains as true and as inspirational today.


It feels good to rest the consciousness of a nation on such hopeful words. Yet that feeling is the flaw. The “pursuit of Happiness” and its connotations of bootstrap-acrobatics are fluttery and ideal, but the phrase and its pseudonyms—“Manifest Destiny,” for example—portray an American history much rosier than reality. It is romantic to commend the Oregon Trail as a pursuit of happiness and forget the Native Americans eliminated en route. It inspires pride to attribute the United States’ meteoric rise in the 19th and early 20th centuries to industriousness and neglect the advantages afforded by slavery and exploited immigrant labor. The “pursuit of Happiness” has never truly been the right of every American, much the same way “all men are created equal” was written by a slave-owner. It has been a right of the privileged to pursue their happiness at the expense of the disenfranchised and less-advantaged. Even today, inexpensive marketplace commodities are made possible by corporations wielding low-wage workers with less-fortunate geographic inheritances, and the consequences of climate change are predicted to most severely affect regions already afflicted by poverty, hunger, and war. It feels good to lean into the “pursuit of Happiness” because its ideology acquits or ignores many of the misdeeds underlying its ongoing history.

Perhaps this ideology was necessary to raise the standard of living. The mix-up of material and emotional well-being may have been the psychological carrot that compelled Americans to haul themselves into the first world. But into what does our prosperity translate? According to 2018’s World Happiness Report (WHR), less and less: “[though] America has doubled its income per person in the past 40 years…[it] has slipped to 18th place, five rungs down from 2016.” The WHR also found that Latin America, a comparatively poorer region, has happiness levels “significantly higher than their country’s wealth, corruption, or high levels of violence suggest, since their happiness is connected to strong family bonds.” Because Latin American culture tends to ground its emotional well-being in relationships—not in riches—that ground is much firmer; whereas Americans, who have falsely combined happiness and wealth, cannot consume their way into a good life. The WHR demonstrates that the “pursuit of Happiness” ideology has run its course: it is past time to divorce material from the American Dream and replant the culture on a more sustainable, attainable idea.

Suppose we were able to trim the ideology from the “pursuit of Happiness.” Suppose it devolved to the meaning it held the very minute Jefferson’s quill departed his parchment. Its ambiguity remains an irreconcilable flaw. Happiness and its infinite conceptions would still confound its pursuers—a frustration not without consequences. History illustrates it is in human nature to accept truths from elsewhere rather than figure them out for oneself, and that makes the blight of happiness-as-property inevitable: once it is realized that customers can be lured with promises of happiness, advertising invents itself and, aided by our neurophysiology, propagates. Addictive amelioration for humanity’s intrinsic existential angst has a wide market, and plenty of people (who are likely also motivated by happiness-as-property) are eager to sell. McDonalds’ “Pursue Your Thirstiness” sign symbolizes this and, frankly, so does Pennsylvania’s: both advertise because they want paying customers. The “pursuit of Happiness” is inextricable from such emotional charlatanism. It must go.

It is true that the Declaration of Independence is legally impotent. Revising it would not engage war with Britain nor alter any institutions. But this is irrelevant—the purpose of the revision is neither structural nor legal—and it makes the replacement of the “pursuit of Happiness” all the more provocative. Countries add and change laws constantly, but rarely does one attempt to so profoundly reconstruct its identity. Amending the Declaration would cause outrage, but also introspection and, hopefully, a paradigm shift.

As it would divorce property-ownership from happiness, “estate” alone is a passable technical replacement, but insufficiently idealistic. If Jefferson’s American scripture is to be revised, the new words must have combine the potency of the “pursuit of Happiness” with an understanding of its flaws. They must acknowledge Tocqueville’s critique that “passion for material enjoyments…[cannot] be enough for a whole people [because] the human heart is vaster than one supposes, ” and then sing into the heart’s vastness with Motown soul, Southern twang, and California cool.

So append a fourth right. Replace “pursuit of Happiness” with “estate” and then one-up the Founders. How do we choose the addition? Look to history, art, philosophy. The fourth right could hark back to the Greeks and prioritize virtue; or self-expression, akin to the Renaissance. It could be a healthy planet and pivot us toward the inexorable challenges of the climate change, or an aphorism that captures Rawls’ thorough and just primary goods. But whatever it is, it must steer the nation to the immaterial. Our lesson is learned: material wealth affords security, not happiness—whatever one conceives happiness to be—and its perpetual pursuit is too deleterious. The new right must instead be founded not in having, but in being; or even better, in becoming. Let it lead us to something aspirational, something newly American.

The ties that bind in Girls, Visions and Everything

Shooting the breeze, a novel

It feels that printed in invisible ink above the first line of Sarah Schulman’s novel, Girls, Visions and Everything, is “Once upon a strange time.” Lila Futuransky, the book’s protagonist, is introduced with that air of a character in a magic kingdom: she “always knew she was an outlaw,” but is unsure of “which one.” She “endlessly [perseveres],” is young, and “[has] time.” These immediate allusions to Lila as not beginning but ongoing convey that her and her community’s life, lesbian life, has been around in New York City for a long time and requires defiant struggle.

Schulman’s method of tying Lila’s story to the greater magic kingdom (a gentrifying East Village in the 1980s) is to embody her observations in characters with demonstrably different backgrounds and then situate them in the same neighborhood. It is her vivid and unapologetic animation of these characters—how they handle poverty, discrimination, sex—that delivers an affecting portrait of life in the city; and because of their palpability the book’s societal critiques never feel pedantic or contrived.

To unite her characters and social commentary, Schulman gives Lila a proclivity for touring town. She loves to “walk the streets for hours with nowhere to go except where she [ends] up,” admiring or criticizing her block and talking with folks on the corner. She “[runs] into” a diverse palette of characters, and the chance meetings provide Schulman myriad opportunities for a colorful paragraph of backstory or Lila’s opinion. The strolls are reminiscent of the role played by the interlude chapters in The Grapes of Wrath: like Steinbeck pauses the plot to paint the road to and through Depression California, Schulman’s encounters with drug dealers, immigrants, men, and bigots (categories which often overlap) vivify city life. But where Steinbeck waxes poetic, Schulman is conversational, colloquial. She shows that New York City’s soul is in its inhabitants and their brief, usually banal chats. But Lila’s encounters are never truly shallow: through them we learn about characters’ experiences of addiction, racism, and homophobia. Their ordinary, midday banter is the poetry, and it reveals the fault lines in Schulman’s New York.

Lila is also well-equipped for the limited third person perspective Schulman employs because she is both ruminative and adventurous. This combines her serendipitous city strolls with an acute inner monologue. When Lila sees a neighborhood-watch sign that reads “’Clean Up Our Street’,” she muses that “any group of people who want to ‘clean up’ another group of people [is] usually bad news.” A downtown protest against intervention in Central America affords the observation, “in the U.S. people are allowed to be political as long as they don’t actually have an effect on anything.” Lila approaches Emily, the character with whom she falls in love and around whom she then centers her commentary on relationships, on a whimsical rebound: “Hi Emily…I just got humiliated by a woman…Want to dance with me?” Schulman weaves the exchange between broad experience and deep reflection into Lila’s personality from the get-go, giving the story an natural ability to cover an eclectic range of scenes and ideas.

The most potent method Schulman uses to explore ideas is dialogue. In addition to her casual-yet-expository streetside chats, in lengthier and more personal conversations Lila and her friends broach weighty subjects. To a poet friend, Lila proposes an idea for a story about “parents who only want…their child to fail so that they can prove…they were right all along.” This would be a provocative statement by itself, but Schulman amplifies its resonance by situating it at the end of a conversation about the poet’s mother, who disapproves of her published works. The line (“parents who only…”) draws additional power from its adherence to the natures of the conversating characters: Lila is brash, a writer, and rather open; the poet, Lacy, righteous and honest. Because it feels these people really would say what they say, their co-condemnation of unloving parents springs from the page. Schulman’s dialogue consistently hits this balance of naturality and congruence within a scene and, as a result, delivers complex ideas simply and forcefully.

That dialogue is the novel’s strength reinforces its central theme: community. Schulman makes clear that life as a low-income lesbian in gentrifying, 1980s New York is dangerous and difficult but, by focusing on the tightness of her circle, she demonstrates that “even when shit is hitting the fan, people can still have good times.” We see that the members of Lila’s community support each other not only because no one else will, but also because they are, simply, good friends. They share thoughts on food, love, and sex; they drink, smoke, and joke together; they wonder about life and grasp at answers. Their conversations about these things intimately communicate the importance of community for everyone, not just the subcategory of Lila’s identity, time, and place. Suffering is a feature of Girls, Visions and Everything as it is a permanent feature of human nature but, as Schulman reminds us, so is friendship. Better to share that.

The Green Ray: loneliness distilled into film

Summertime, summertime sadness

August arrives, Paris empties. The city deserts for the beach, for the lake, the mountains, abroad. Everyone has somewhere to go and someone to go with—except Delphine, the restless subject of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 The Green Ray. The film resonates as a portrait of solitary sadness because of its selective realism: by juxtaposing Delphine against her plain, happy acquaintances on holiday, Rohmer illuminates the contradictions of loneliness without isolation and depression without apparent cause.

At the holiday’s outset, Delphine’s friend cancels on her to instead trip to Greece with a boyfriend. Recently single after a long engagement, Delphine has an array of replacement vacations offered to her by friends and family, but cannot shake the sense that on them she would be intruding or miserable. While sulking at a friend’s house, she is pressed about her sadness. One girl is frustrated because nothing specific, not even her ex-fiancée, seems to be the source of her angst. The girl provides Delphine with solutions: vacation solo, be more open, initiate new relationships. It takes work to make friends or find a relationship, she says; a lack of effort is no excuse for lacking results. But to Delphine this is all wrong. She feels open to the world—it is the world that does not open itself to her.

Another friend, Françoise, convinces Delphine to accompany her on a family beach trip. Françoise’s family is amicable, and the destination is relaxing; yet instead of enjoying their company, Delphine takes walks alone. Rohmer captures her reluctance to connect in a telling shot on the beach: Françoise’s family plays catch and frolics in the water; then, the camera pans right and finds Delphine shin-deep in the sea, stumbling in the waves. Françoise’s family is out of frame.

Delphine’s listlessness persists and, after a few days, she retreats to Paris. Once there, she decides to try a solo trip and again departs, this time for the Alps. She arrives in the morning; by the afternoon, frustrated with either the tourists or herself, she decides to return to the city. Next, a friend lends Delphine an apartment in the Riviera. On this trip she makes a friend at the beach—a charming Swedish girl who is also traveling alone. The girl picks up two men at a café and plans a night out for the four of them. Finally, it seems, the winds of serendipity favor Delphine.

But while the Swedish girl flirts with the men, Delphine squirms in her seat. She is silent and wears a grim expression. When the girl pushes her to join the conversation and cheer up, Delphine begins to cry and literally flees the scene. Even after one of the men chases her down and professes there is a connection between them, Delphine orders him to buzz off. Alone again, she wanders the boardwalk and overhears an elderly group of beachgoers discuss the green ray, a rare phenomenon in which the last glimmer of the setting sun flashes green. The legend goes that if you see the green ray, you discover your true thoughts and feelings.

It sounds like Delphine’s panacea. Her depression is inexplicable, incurable. When alone, she wants company; when with others, she seeks solitude. Despite the series of excursions taken to remedy her sadness, it refuses to recede; and whenever a bit of happiness seems within reach, she feels the urge to cry. Delphine’s emotions are excruciatingly illogical, and she is desperate to understand them.

Rohmer’s accomplishment is capturing this irrational depression as it really feels. Throughout the film Delphine runs from place to place, person to person, hoping to find a situation that will resolve her feeling of disconnection; but because the problem is in her—is her—she cannot. The anger of her failures to enjoy new acquaintances repeatedly conjures a facial expression that says, simultaneously, “What is wrong with me?” and “What is wrong with everyone?” She is angry at the male expectation that for spending time with her she will sleep with them, angry at herself for denying the relationship advice given by her friends, and angry at fate for refusing her the ideal encounter with the ideal stranger. Delphine’s illogical emotions infuriate her and us: we want to shout, “Pick someone and have a nice time, already!”

Before Delphine boards the Riviera train to Paris, she does. A man sits across from Delphine in the station, their eyes meet, and, after a brief conversation, she asks to accompany him to nearby Saint-Jean-de-Luz. There, they chat amicably and walk to an ocean outlook to watch the setting sun. As it sinks, the man asks if she would like to stay with him for a few days. She begins to cry, he holds her, she hushes him. They gaze into the horizon, and at the final gleam the green ray flashes, Delphine gasps, and the film cuts.

Rohmer’s ending is hopeful but resists being a deus ex machina. Delphine finds company with a seemingly kind man and witnesses the green ray—the ingredients of a fateful intervention—but we are left to wonder: was it the universe that delivered her from loneliness, or was it her decision to seize a moment, however imperfect it might be?

The practicality of the Patronus

Expecto Patronum is a spell for everyone

For a so-called series of children’s books, Harry Potter can get rather dark. This begins in Prisoner of Azkaban, where JK Rowling touches graver and grimmer topics than in Harry, Ron, and Hermione’s previous two adventures. The story explores animal cruelty and criminal injustice and introduces the wickedest of the wizarding world’s creatures: Dementors.

The book succeeds because Rowling balances this badness with friendship and courage. In Azkaban this is manifest in myriad ways—Hermione slugging Malfoy is perhaps the most satisfying—but the standout occurs in the penultimate chapter when Harry climactically conjures a Patronus.

We learn earlier in Azkaban that the Patronus charm is an “anti-Dementor.” It can only be understood in the context of what Dementors do to humans, which is to drain all of our “peace, hope, and happiness” and to perform a “kiss” that is, quite literally, soul-sucking. To cast a Patronus and vanquish these villains, one must concentrate “with all [their] might…on a single, very happy memory.” If done right, the ensuing swish-and-flick will dispel any proximate Dementors.

Yet Rowling’s Patronus is more than a plot device or an artifact of her world-building. A ritual that combats despair by focusing on a happy memory is the real deal, an idea not limited to witches and wizards. We might not have to cope with Dementors, but we do battle dejection, depression, and despondency—every day, for some stretches—and unlike Harry and company, we do not live in a world with prewritten happy endings. We need practical strategies to handle with our personal crises. Cue the Patronus, a strategy of memory-remedy coded into the pages of Potter. 

In our world it is tempting to rely on technology as a substitute for memory, but, as Harry learns, for a Patronus to work it must be summoned with a great, inward focus. The same goes for us. Swiping through old photos and videos is more a reminiscent indulgence than it is emotionally restoring and, usually, is buoying only for a moment or two. It is a passive kind of recollection, and falls far short of the requisite “with all [our] might” concentration. Because of the prevalence of phone-cameras and online autobiography, this habit of scrolling-as-remembering feels normal. Taking pictures for pictures’ sakes is routine, and making memories for memory’s sake seems an afterthought. But pixels do not make Patronuses: there must be more.

There is an essential, practical difference between viewing memories and sincerely remembering them, and their restorative potential is better unlocked with the latter, even if it is only a few minutes spent visualizing a past triumph in a quiet room. Such an unhurried, earnest effort at remembrance can have a powerful, healing effect—almost like magic.

Unraveling the real world

Playtime is over

“’Welcome to the real world,’ she said to me / condescendingly,” begins John Mayer’s “No Such Thing.” The song attacks an idea that has been expressed to me all my life, one offered ever more often to my friends and I as we approached high school and then university graduations – the clichéd closes of the supposed best years of our lives.

Mayer’s characterization captures the tone with which people usually speak of the real world. Relatives and neighbors warn kids about it with a sad irony and couple their cautions with advice to savor childhood, high school, or college; or, they lament their own inability to escape. But the common thread uniting those who bemoan the real world is less adulthood or responsibility than it is suppressed yearning. Mayer wonders if parents have “wished for anything better / while in their memories, tiny tragedies.” He hits at the regrets and buried dreams which are the cost of rent in the real world.

Conspicuously absent from this particular strand of unhappy people are artists, entrepreneurs, and those otherwise meaningfully occupied. This is not to say that the pursuit of a passion or meaning or some altruistic end ensures eternal or even sustained happiness, but that doing as Mayer and many others have, deciding that there is “no such thing as the real world,” is a liberation from a false, harmful, and constricting belief – but one that is systemically difficult to beat.


What do real worlders mean when they use the phrase? There are as many definitions as there are users, but the similarities previously mentioned, subdued aspiration and bitterness, and the words themselves, “real” and “world,” make a few key implications.

First, real worlders consciously or unconsciously believe themselves to be confined by some objectively true set of circumstances or rules that are not only real but natural and universal. (Ask yourself if those you hear complain about the real world also overuse the phrase “it is what it is.”) Chief among these circumstances is typically the need to obtain or keep a job which might range in quality from mundane to mind-numbing but is fundamentally characterized by the person wanting, almost always, to be somewhere else instead of at work. Real worlders feel that this need is inherent to their existence: it is a natural circumstance that binds everyone.

The second implication is paradoxical. Real worlders who complain implicitly make the claim that there is at least one other world; however, to them these worlds are somehow invalid. For example, a real worlder may tell a child or student (perhaps with Mayer’s mentioned condescension) that their sorrows are false or meaningless because they do not live in the real world and, therefore, lack real problems.  In this dismissal is the admission that the real world is not all-encompassing: child- and student-hood can lay outside its bounds, along with other, more fulfilling modes of life.

This suggests a boundary between the real and other worlds. Mayer addresses this third implication when he sings “something’s better on the other side.” Graduation might be an instance of such a border, but Mayer is alluding to his own decision to pursue a career in music instead of taking the “so-called right track.” His example demonstrates that the boundary exists and is permeable, even after childhood – Mayer crossed it with a decision.

These implications are made by anyone who refers to the real world as the natural and universal mode of existence that demands they adhere to a set of rules which restricts them from doing what they capital W “Want,” as in “I’ve always Wanted to be a teacher,” or “I Want more than anything to make music.” This restrictive conceptualization of the real world seems to act as a central impediment to self-actualization.

It is also crucially different from the real world’s more literal interpretation as a foil to a fictional or imagined world. This version has utility: in books, television, and movies, happy endings are commonplace, whereas in life they are incredibly rare; and using the real world as a conceptual tool to combat unrealistic expectations about finding a soulmate or saving the world is, if not laudable, at least understandable. But I think the phrase has shifted from this usage to its present, popular, and more pernicious definition, one that serves less as a counterweight to fictional narratives of improbable adventure or love than as a cultural enforcer of the notion that economic security is the primary and natural mandate of existence.

That this is harmful or incorrect might seem laughable. Economic security affords healthcare, shelter, and nutrition, which all are vital and can be painstaking to obtain; but the connotation people now associate with the real world proves something is wrong. If people conceive of the real world as I have described it – and do so contemptuously or dejectedly – they make a fourth implication: the real world is bad, and they would rather live some other way. This is the problem.

How real is it?

Let’s make the assumption that people tell a story to themselves about themselves. Real worlders may or may not believe they do this, but when they lament the rules of the game, they are indeed telling a story, one where they either are a victim or play a victim. I think our situation is more complicated than this – we are somewhere in between.

In Mayer’s “No Such Thing” he tells the story of his victimization by the real world, which, for him, is a contrived narrative of life imposed by cultural expectations and embodied by his parents, teachers, and classmates, who all comply with its demands. But the song is about everyone’s ability to escape such victimization by rising above the real world’s lie. In his idealized story, we are able to break the bounds of the real world by doing what we love instead of what we are expected to do.

We could then assume that there is a process of de-victimization that Mayer and kindred otherworlders followed: they were victims, played victims, then fought their way out of the real world. In the first stage they believed they were victims of the real world, the natural, universal set of circumstances restricting them from doing what they Wanted. Then, via some form of epiphany, they realized that there is no such thing as the real world. In this stage they understand life is not constrained by the real world’s circumstances yet continue to adhere to them. A crucial distinction here is whether they continue to criticize their lives. If they accept the rules and are fulfilled, or do not inwardly or outwardly despair, then this stage is unproblematically satisfactory; but, if they do despair and choose not to change things, they lose victimhood and start playing it. Here is where otherworlders quit playing, summon the courage to accept the risks posed by breaking real world rules (e.g. economic security), and start working towards what they Want.

Because of our predisposition for self-storytelling, I think many of us make it to the second stage and then return to the first. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a hypocrite or a coward, but victimhood requires a kind of heroic endurance. That story, in tandem with consumerism, can sufficiently numb the gnawing thought that there ought to be more to life than economic security.

However, this process is a drastically shortened and simplified side of the story. The risks posed by leaving the real world are not insignificant, and the middle stage – knowing the real world is a lie but not knowing what to do or lacking the courage to change – is messy, arduous, and anxiety-provoking. This is why those stuck in this limbo are not so easily criticized, and why the notion of the real world as fact is problematic.


Yet even if we accept Mayer’s process of de-victimization, why must it and its trials exist at all? Why does it so often feel like we must choose between security or the pursuit of fulfillment? And why, although there are plenty of individuals who achieve both security and fulfillment, do we choose to resent them instead of imitate them?

Partially, it is because what real worlders are feeling is not entirely a fiction. David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, believes their perception is accurate, and comes in part from the modern prevalence of what he calls “bullshit jobs.” In an essay that went viral a few years ago, he examines a claim made in 1930 by the influential British economist John Maynard Keynes that developed countries, enabled by technological advancements, would have cut the average person’s work week to fifteen hours by 2030. Graeber argues that Keynes was not incorrect – we are capable of meeting his prediction – but that “instead, technology has been marshaled…to make us all work more” at jobs that are, “effectively, pointless.” He cites a study of the U.S. that found between 1910 and 2000 “’professional, managerial, clerical, sales, and service [work]…grew from one-quarter to three-quarters of total employment,’” while “productive jobs…[were] largely automated away.”

This leads Graeber to describe the “moral dynamics of our own economy” as a kind of “Hell” comprised of “individuals who [spend] the bulk of their time working on a task they don’t like and are not especially good at.” In a later interview with The Economist, he elaborates: “[there] is an almost perfect inverse relation between how much your work directly benefits others, and remuneration. The result is a toxic political culture of resentment.”

Although the accuracy of Graeber’s arguments are questionable (The New Yorker described his book on the subject, Bullshit Jobs, as informed by “ad-hoc empiricism”), he thinks their validity is proved by their popularity and the way in which people have resonated with them. Like the real world, bullshit jobs are defined more by feeling than objective fact; and it is not the certainty of their existence that makes them problematic, but the prevalence of their perception.


At least in the developed world, it is unclear where on the spectrum between real victim and play victim any worker or most workers reside. There are the John Mayers, those for whom rejecting the lie of the real world turned out to be a lucrative and celebritizing decision; and even though we enjoy what they offer, it is easy to resent them. We wonder what makes them so special, why they have some talent that we lack, how they escaped the real world’s drudgery. It is a cultural habit to think famous and talented people are the superhuman exceptions that prove the real world’s rules, but they are not. “No Such Thing” was recorded when Mayer was 22 and preceded his fame or fortune – his insight about the real world came when the only thing he shared with his present self was his dream and his drive. And beyond Mayer, there are the fulfilled people whose name almost nobody knows: the writers you’ve never read, the teachers you never had, the YouTubers and the podcasters and the many, many other crowdfunded creators. These people liberated their Wants, left the real world, and found or scrounged a way to support themselves and their families.

Yet for all the success stories, those who cannot or will not cross the boundary have justified complaints. Graeber’s bullshit job-holders and real worlders in general face an economy that too often presents the unfair choice between fulfillment and security; and any number of self-help books or inspirational quotes ultimately cannot alleviate the pressures and miseries posed by a decision either way.

This is the sinister brilliance of the “real world.” There are just enough fulfilled people speaking from the TED stage or elsewhere to make it feel distantly possible to become one of them if we work hard enough, even though hard work seems to be frequently misdirected into a black hole of BS euphemized as ladder-climbing or “just the way things are.” To prevent despair we tell ourselves and children that this mode of existence is natural and “it is what it is,” despite it being a relatively recent phenomenon and not at all the way things have to be on the individual or societal scales. Calling this state of affairs the real world is an insidious linguistic trick which stops any thoughts of reform (personal or otherwise) before or soon after they start.

The “real world” loves to go unquestioned: it’s crucial to business-as-usual. So ask yourself what you are doing when you complain about life in the real world. Ask if your job really needs to exist – does it help anyone beyond the shareholders? Do you feel like you are contributing something positive? Something meaningful? What is it that you Want to do instead? And when someone else deplores the real world, ask them what they are really trying to say, what story they are telling. To everything, to yourself, ask why.