are you somebody, or, is that really you?

I wrote an essay long ago (more than ten years is “long ago” to me) called “Home Page” that was fairly well-received. I can’t remember any longer if it ended up in the first Bad Subjects book anthology … I know I was asked to use it as the basis for a conference presentation (yes, I’ve done a few), where I did OK but was on the same panel as Constance Penley talking about pornography … she was better than me, and definitely more entertaining. I’m too drug-addled at the moment to reread my essay, but I suspect it’s dated (six years later I wrote the sequel, which addressed the rising new fad, “blogs”) yet not without some truths about identity. Mine, at least. I started that essay with a quote from Emily Dickinson, and anyone who knows me can attest that quoting poems is not the norm for Dr. Rubio. But the quote was so perfect, for my essay, for me; I couldn’t resist. “I'm Nobody! Who are you? Are you — Nobody — Too?”

A couple of weeks ago, a new magazine started showing up in our mail. I don’t remember subscribing to it, which usually means it was offered as a freebie to Salon subscribers and I figured what the heck. It’s called The Week, and it purports to offer an overview of stuff from the worldwide media. On the cover it says “All You Need to Know About Everything That Matters” and “The Best of the U.S. and International Media.” It strives for a non-partisan approach, which through two issues means it’s pretty bland, if fairly broad in its subject matter. It’s like a cross between USA Today and Jim Lehrer, only a weekly instead of a daily.

An example of how bland they are comes from a piece in the latest issue … and damn if this isn’t the longest post I’ve ever written just to get to some quote I want to stick on my blog before I die from kidney stones. Tara Ison, who wrote the screenplay for Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and a highly-regarded first novel, A Child Out of Alcatraz, writes, “He loves my company, he tells me, my humor, my intellect.” I found the piece, an essay about dating a “relatively famous person,” fun, hunted down Ison on the web (OK, I was looking for gossip, trying to figure out who the “famous” person was), found the original essay from which The Week had extracted its version, and started noticing differences. Like the sentence I just mentioned, which in the original reads “He loves my company, he tells me, often, my humor, my intellect, my way with sex ….” That’s The Week in a nutshell: they’ll tell you about everything that matters, but they’ll leave out the sex.

There was a lot more in the original that wasn’t in the edited version. For one thing, in The Week the title was “Is That Really You?” The original title, though, was “Are You Somebody?” And yes, Ison led with the same Emily Dickinson quote I had stolen back in the day. Her title comes from an anecdote of her semi-famous person that didn’t make it through The Week’s editors:

He tells me the story, recently, of being on location in Dallas, of eating his late-night dinner with crew members at a local Mexican dive, when a woman approached him, staggering a bit from the salsa-thick humidity and beer. She jerked a thumb over her shoulder at another woman, a Texas sister-woman at the bar, squinting at him through smoke.

“Mah girlfriend over there says yer sumbuddy. Ur ewe sumbuddy?”

OK, my stomach is rumbling from the remains of too many Vicodin … I have to get to the point, which is largely unrelated to the above. I just wanted to quote something from Ison’s original piece, and then I’ll get out of here, point never having been made. But this quote hits me like Emily’s does: it is perfect for me.

The first night we met he made reference, at some point, to some short story I’d written, or some job I’d once had, I don’t remember which, and I was startled out of the hyperanimated 1st-date flow of conversation; it wasn’t something I had mentioned, it surely wasn’t something my friend would have told him. Then, I realized: Did you Google me? I asked. He chuckled, a bit sheepish, conceding. He’d read up on me, yeah. And I was delighted, thrilled – that there was something about me to Google, stuff out there to read up on, that I have some small visible presence in the world beyond my family and friends and colleagues. That I had a kind of a level of fame, too, the virtual equivalent of fifteen minutes. I was acknowledged, seen. My name, my writing, a few sentences on a few websites, and I felt it even’d us out just a bit, made for a balance. That I was somebody, too.

But I have no idea how it feels to be famous. I wrote a screenplay once that turned into a movie that millions and millions of people saw. I wrote a novel that thousands and thousands of people read. Those are my small claims to fame. But writers don’t get famous; the words do, if we’re lucky, they dance out on stage and let us hide behind the scrim of paper and ink.

all the pieces matter

An essay I wrote some months ago, "All the Pieces Matter," has been published in the latest issue of Bad Subjects. In this essay, I discuss Steven Johnson's book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter, using The Wire as an example of today's complex television.

The appearance of this article is timely, considering the comments I wrote about Syriana yesterday. I noted how often I get confused by the plots of spy thriller movies, even though I love complex plots in television series. In the context of my article, I'm reminded of what I wrote earlier in the year about Crash: that it would have been better as a teevee series. I think the same could be said for Syriana ... if you've got 13 hours, or three seasons, or whatever, to explain what in a movie would be stuffed into 2 1/2 hours, your audience will both be enriched by the added complexity and be able to better understand what's going on.

i'll never walk alone

Back in 1997, Jillian and I edited an issue of Bad Subjects called "Sport and Play." It was a good issue, if I say so myself ... it included one of the better things I've written, "You'll Never Walk Alone," about being a fan, an essay on Maradona from David Hawkes, a piece on toys from my friends Rittenhurst, and something from my sister Chris, "Throws Like the Girl She Is."

It also featured an article on Tiger Woods by one Scott Thill. I mention this because Thill continues to produce some excellent writing, including some book reviews in the most recent Salon. Among the books he reviews are the anthology of writings on Joe Strummer, Let Fury Have the Hour, that I wrote about here and here. Thill mentions Bad Subjects twice in his column, the second time noting that he "wrote a couple of essays for those unrepentant free-thinkers back in the late '90s." Those days are in my past, but I can't say I mind being called an unrepentant free-thinker. Thanks, Scott!

why i'm not really a bad subject anymore

I checked out the Bad Subjects website a few minutes ago to see if there was anything new. I check it every few days, because I spent a lot of years working with them, because when new material appears it is often readable and insightful. There were four new reviews, and I read them, which led me to consider my (former) position with BS. What follows is not a critique of the content of Bad Subjects, which remains at a v.high level ... I often use Bad content in my classes, it's great to have such resources available to pass along to students. What I'm thinking about here is typically self-interested: why don't I work for BS anymore?

The four reviews discuss a political text about genocide studies, an anthology of revolutionary anarchist writings, an album by an underground hip-hop artist, and a book about left-wing workers' movements. The reviews are worth your time; the texts they discuss may be worth your time as well. I suspect my own encounters with those texts, though, began and ended with my reading of the reviews. Which sadly says a lot more about me than about the reviews or the texts, but again, I'm not here to critique Bad Subjects but am here to critique myself.

I looked over the entire recent history of Bad Reviews. The last time the text being critiqued was even slightly mainstream was almost a year ago, in mid-October of '02, when my friend Megan reviewed Bowling for Columbine. Prior to that, you'd have to go all the way back to July of 2001, when the excellent Jonathan Sterne discussed actual television shows (West Wing and various Star Trek permutations).

Not that I was necessarily more involved with writing about the popular in my Bad days: the last review I wrote for the website, on June 7 2001, was about a new DVD release of a 30-year old French documentary film. (Ironically, the review that came just before mine was of Pearl Harbor, which really stands out in this context!) Prior to that review, I'd written about Renoir's Grand Illusion, another French film of even more distant vintage, an album about a punkabilly band, an anthology of indie rock bands, a kid606 album (I ripped the shit out of it, at least, although a coupla years later a subsequent kid606 release got a good Bad review from someone else) ... in other words, while I wrote about movies and music rather than politics and academic texts, my subjects were no less obscure than other Bad reviews. On the other hand, I also wrote reviews of Buffy, Bruce Springsteen, and Ally McBeal.

What I'm saying is only that within the context of Bad reviews, my own subjects were, if not always "popular," at least in the realm of the popular, if not blockbuster movies, at least movies, if not the most popular teevee shows, at least teevee shows. And those kinds of subjects are not typical Bad subjects. My stuff didn't really fit.

What subjects did I take for Bad essays that appeared in the actual journal? My first essay was on Murphy Brown. Over the years I wrote about 70s punk, Bruce Springsteen, NYPD Blue, the Internet (several times), Chow Yun-Fat, The Rapture with Mimi Rogers, Tupac, fucking off, spectator sports, "alternative" health (I'm against it), and linguica. The typical Bad subject, meanwhile, has tended towards the more clearly political: two recent issues (for which I contributed a pair of essays on blogging) focused on privacy, and the war in Iraq. And they were good issues, as is the most recent effort, "Panic."

But nowhere in this stuff do I see "me." This is largely because I am dreadfully shallow, and too politically naive to write on politics with any usefulness. The "problem," such as it is, is my problem, not the problem of Bad Subjects. And I have been extremely lucky over the years that BS has made room for my writing; no one has ever been as generous in making space for what I can offer.

But the last thing I wrote before leaving the collective remains true: two and a half years ago, an issue I co-edited called "Strangers" concluded with my "Notes on Self-Marginalization," whereby I finally confessed that all the kind work of my Bad friends to keep a rocking chair in the corner for Steven had gone for naught: I was the Stranger, eternally cursed with purposeful, stupid, self-imposed outsider status. In that essay, I wrote:

Bad Subjects was kind enough to take me in. There was room then, and in fact there has always been room, in Bad Subjects for marginal folks. All we had to do was commit to the attempt, and we were accepted into the community. The beautiful utopian vision of Bad Community has made a difference in the lives of all who have participated in it, myself included. But I've been fooling others and myself; I've been posing, I haven't been a true believer. I thought it would happen, but so far I've fallen short. At times, I've misrepresented myself, but for the most part, I think it has been clear where I come from. The anti-utopian in a group of utopians, the non-believer in the midst of faith, the loner in the middle of the community. It's a sign of the magnificence of the Bad Community that there has always been a place for miscreants like me, and always will be. But Lord, I feel like going home.

And what I want, 30 months later, is to hear what my old friends think of the news that Pink worked with the guy from Rancid on her new album, I want to know if any of them agree with me that The Wire is a great teevee program, and what I see is stuff about the non-popular, to such an extreme that there is clearly an editorial stance which finds nothing of value in mainstream culture. The writing in Bad Subjects remains intelligent and vital, reading BS is as strong a learning experience for me as it ever was, but who am I kidding? My thoughts on teevee don't belong there.

And I'm such a pathetic cop-out when I say this, because when I quit the collective, I was in the beginning stages of co-editing an issue on precisely the subject of television, and I abandoned my friends when I was needed, as if I was afraid to take part in subject matter that hit so close to home. And it was a great issue, no thanks to me. And it was also pretty much the last time mainstream popular culture was addressed in depth at BS, and I'm sitting on the outside, self-marginalized as usual, so who am I to say they should talk more about the new Tarzan series and less about kid606? I deserve to be on the outside, not because it's the romantic place to be, but because it's where the losers hang out, and I belong there.

The weird thing is, my old Bad friends are still so kind to me, they still speak to me with respect, they still act like I'm just on sabbatical. They deserve better than me. But despite their kindnesses, the last words of my piece from that Strangers issue remain true. "I must let people know who I am and what I've done. I must take responsibility at last. I am a stranger."

shut the fuck up

Salon is featuring a really stupid article at the moment, "The Day the Dinnertime Phone Calls Stopped" by Farhad Manjoo, that argues in favor of telemarketers. Point of the article seems to be that we shouldn't be cracking down on telemarketers because 1) people need jobs, and 2) the crackdown is selective (we can put ourselves on do not call lists that apply to commercial interests, but politicians can still call us). The latter is a particularly dumb argument: if something sux (getting unsolicited phone calls at home, in this case), we shouldn't get rid of some of the problem because other parts of the problem will still exist. Manjoo doesn't want a partial solution, doesn't believe in "you've got to start somewhere."

The first point, that telemarketing means jobs, suggests that jobs are more important than life. I once wrote:

There were many factories in Antioch and the surrounding towns: paper mills, power plants, canneries, chemical factories, steel mills, makers of glass containers and tin cans. The air often smelled awful, thanks usually to the paper mill (I never understood why paper smelled bad) and the cannery (everyone understood about the cannery, which stunk whenever they canned tomatoes). The general opinion of the stench was simple: it smelled like jobs, and no one really objected.
Putting up with the stench because it meant jobs, putting up with telemarketing because it means jobs ... there's no room in such logic for the idea that it's better to create fulfilling work that doesn't stink, we're just supposed to learn to love the smell.

Manjoo's entire argument is drowning in the logic of the marketplace. Telemarketing is good because it provides people with (shitty) jobs, is good because it creates commerce. If people sell and buy stuff, that's a good thing, no matter that the air is putrid.

pauline kael

I had half an hour to kill before my movie started today, so I went to the bookstore and picked up Francis Davis' Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael. It's a slight volume, a rearranged transcript of a radio interview Davis did with Kael not long before she died, with a pleasant introduction from Davis. I listened to the interview when it was first broadcast, and loved hearing Kael's aged voice, but had let the book version slip by until today.

It's nicely done, especially if you take it for what it is, a "last conversation" ("afterglow" describes the book's tone perfectly). It's not the best Kael-gets-interviewed book (that would be Conversations with Pauline Kael, edited by Will Brantley), but it'll do as a welcome postscript to her career.

I've done a lot of writing in my life; I know I'm good at it. But I'm truly proud of only a few of those many things I've written. One of those was my obituary/celebration of Kael and Michael Rogin after they had both passed away. I feel like I've said this before, perhaps in this very blog, but it bears repeating like a mantra: every sentence I write has something of Pauline Kael in it.

Here's an anecdote I don't believe I've trotted out for awhile. We were at the 10th anniversary celebration for the National Women's History Project, and one speaker asked us to think of the woman who had the most influence on us. We then took turns telling the stories of our influential women to whoever was sitting next to us. Most people seemed to pick their mother, or their lover, or something similar, and I know if I'd been completely honest I would have made the obvious choice and picked my wife, since Robin really is in a class of her own as far as my life is concerned. But this little exercise we were given seemed to invite some kind of Statement, and so, when it was my turn, I looked at the person next to me and said "the most influential woman in my life was Pauline Kael."

It's just as true now as it was then.

dirty laundry

Most important, though, is the rejection not only of problematic aspects of the Western science tradition, but of important and vital aspects of that tradition. In particular, the frequent absence of systematic analysis such as double-blind testing means that far too many alt-health claims are rooted in the anecdotal and the unverifiable. That some people are susceptible to vague claims is understood; that people concerned about their health might be particularly willing to believe that something might improve their lives is also understood. What is hard to understand, though, is why anyone (including leftist cultural critics) who is ready to attack complex social problems with critical thinking strategies, would turn their brains off when it came to the relative merits of aromatherapy versus a visit to the doctor for a drug prescription. We are back to our old saw: the Age of Reason and the glorification of Science and Progress is so clearly problematic that the absence of concrete scientific data regarding the value of something like aromatherapy is seen as a positive. Aromatherapy proves it is the enemy of Science (my supposed enemy) by existing outside Science, which makes aromatherapy my friend. That this is nonsense is only part of the story. What is especially sad is how often this means that otherwise intelligent people risk their very lives in the service of "alternative" health notions. -- Steven Rubio, "Dirty Laundry"
Yes, it's come to this: I'm quoting myself in my blog.

912 greens

I'm listening to "912 Greens" by Ramblin' Jack Elliott. I wrote a good piece on this song some years ago, which led to one of my favorite online moments ever, when a character who used to hang with Jack and Billy Faier back in the day dropped me an email to thank me for the piece and to correct a couple of long-held misunderstandings I had about the song. You should listen to that song some time if you've never heard it, or listen again if you have.

"Did you ever stand and shiver just because you were looking at a river?"

[edited to add copy of the aforementioned essay]

"'Round about 1953
I went down to New Orleans
Perhaps I should say, many years ago"

Ramblin' Jack Elliott had just turned 22 in the summer of 1953, when the events took place which he chronicles in "912 Greens" (assuming they did take place, which is somehow both irrelevant and crucial). To be honest, I'm not sure he was "Ramblin' Jack Elliott" yet, 'round about 1953. He first recorded the song for the album Young Brigham, which was released in 1968. Thirty years later, the song is as timeless as when it was recorded. The story Elliott relates always happened "many years ago."

In "912 Greens," Elliott tells the tale of his trip south with some buddies to look up Billy Faier, "a 5-string banjo picker" who lived at 912 Toulouse Street. The vocals are casual; Elliott doesn't sing until the very last stanza, instead he just talks over a lovely guitar accompaniment, and the lyrics feel made up on the spot. It is impossible to imagine Jack sitting down with a pencil to put the words on paper. At times he stumbles a bit, repeats himself, and chuckles under his breath as he remembers some moment from his adventures. Even as he spins his story, adding just the right detail to bring matters to light, he suggests that there are hundreds, thousands, millions of other stories he could tell if he only had the time. As he says about Billy Faier,

"And the way we found him,
well that was a whole 'nother song
Let's just say we found Billy Faier"

Elliott was born in Brooklyn in 1931. His name at the time was Elliott Adnopoz. Apparently he wanted something different than might be expected for a young Jewish boy from Brooklyn, and so (depending on which story you believe, and there are many) he ran off to join the rodeo when he was still a teen. Somewhere along the way he changed his name to Buck Elliott; later he became "Jack" and later still, "Ramblin' Jack Elliott" (by which time he had indeed rambled). Also along the way he switched from traveling with a rodeo to traveling with Woody Guthrie, who was nearing the end of the "healthy" years that preceded his succumbing to Huntington's Disease. Woody and Jack had adventures; Elliott later became known as the premier interpreter of Guthrie's work, and for much of his early career he was perhaps known as much for being the heir to Guthrie's folk tradition as he was for anything. Clearly, Elliott Adnopoz had reinvented himself.

You could only get to 912 Toulouse Street by climbing over a fence. Once you got over, you found a concrete patio, in the midst of which was a banana tree. "Although I never did see no bananas hanging on it, as they said, it was a banana tree." Elliott is reinventing himself; his friends are reinventing reality. And succeeding: "as they said, it was a banana tree" is good enough for Jack. The house itself featured a balcony "that connected all the various different musicians' different various pads." That balcony is where reinvention takes place.

The sense of community in "912 Greens" is overpowering. Ramblin' Jack Elliott ... it sounds like the moniker of the last of the independents, a man with no home except the horizon. But when Jack sets off to ramblin', it's with his friends Frank and Guy, and they meet up with Billy Faier, who lives in a house where all the people and all the pads are connected. What makes this adventure so enticing is the ease with which Jack and the rest become friends, comfortable with each other and their different various pads. After a "tropical rainstorm" (I could talk about the three-legged cat, but that's a whole 'nother essay) in which Jack and "this girl there that had once been an ex-ballet dancer" (a bottomless phrase, to have once been an ex-anything) dance naked around the banana tree, everybody commences to "drinkin' Billy Faier's wine and gettin' acquainted." As Elliott talks and picks his guitar, gradually we realize that "gettin' acquainted" is the most important thing in the world. The various different people have different various pads, but the best part comes when we move onto the balcony and see our connections.

The sun comes up, everyone goes home over the back fence. "Stayed around 3 weeks in New Orleans," Jack tells us, "Never did see the light of day." It was many years ago. It could have been last month. And then he rambles. "And I never have been back," he adds. But every time Ramblin' Jack Elliott sings "912 Greens," everytime he comes to new people, everytime he "gets acquainted," he is indeed back in New Orleans.

As are we, back in New Orleans, when we listen to the song. There is no more beautiful ode to getting acquainted.