at berkeley (frederick wiseman, 2013)

I've been a fan of Frederick Wiseman's work for a long time, going all the way back to his debut feature Titicut Follies in the late 60s. I've written about one of his films here once: Welfare. I've looked forward to seeing At Berkeley ever since it was released almost ten years ago, but Wiseman, still with us in his 90s, keeps a close watch on his movies, and they are very hard to find. I finally found At Berkeley on Kanopy, and spent most of a day watching it (it's just over 4 hours long).

The shots of campus and the scenes in classrooms and meetings are almost frightening in their nostalgic pull, I didn't recognize any people except for a brief few seconds of The Hate Man. But after about an hour-and-a-half, we're in a class where Mitch Breitwieser is teaching Thoreau to some students. The sound of his voice took me back in a delightfully pleasant way. I had taken that class, or something close to it, 30+ years ago, and while I was never quite convinced of Thoreau's greatness, Mitch was one of the great professors.
I still remember my first class as an undergraduate ... we were assigned The Great Gatsby (it occurs to me now that I later taught that exact course in 2000), and in my transferred-from-junior-college mind, I assumed this would be easy, because what could be said about Gatsby that was new? After one lecture, if memory serves, Mitch had gotten through a close reading of the first couple of paragraphs, through "Reserving judgments is a matter of infinite hope". I knew then that there was a lot more to be said about Gatsby, and that Cal was another level from the Peralta Colleges.
Outside of a couple of brief sightings (and a segment of a Robert Reich lecture), that was it for people I recognized. I recognized lots of buildings, though. Seeing the faces of the young, idealistic students reminded me of how great it was to be involved with students at that point in their lives. I also started reliving some of my still-existing prejudices. I've always hated Chancellors. Didn't matter who they were, I hated them. Here, it was Robert Birgeneau, who is the closest thing to a central character in the film. He actually comes across as reasonable and pleasant, until late in the film, when protesting students take over the library for a couple of hours. Afterwards, Birgeneau reflects. "I'm gonna sound really old here. Protests I've participated in my life, serious protests, were about the Vietnam War. I got fired from my job for one day at Bell Labs for opposing the anti-ballistic missile system.... We took serious risks, actually, right? ... Now, protests have just become sort of fun out in Sproul Plaza." I traveled back to the times I experienced this kind of paternalistic faux-concern about students, and got pissed off all over again.
But is the movie any good? It's too long, sure, but Wiseman does cover a lot of what happens on the Berkeley campus, showing classes in several departments, faculty meetings, and the like. It's overwhelming, as most Wiseman movies are, because he never supplies context ... never tells us where we are, never puts up a subtitle telling us who is speaking. It's the fly-on-the-wall approach. I wished for more focus, but the truth is, I can't think of much I'd cut out ... maybe some of the faculty meetings. At one point, Reich tells his students, "I've spent half my life in the United States government, admin meetings, and the other half, a lot of them in faculty meetings, and I can tell you, faculty meetings go on twice as long. Why? Not because faculties are bad, but people in faculties like to speak. They like to talk. They are used to hearing themselves speak and they're used to watching other people nod in response. And so a faculty meeting is very, very long." If you spent part of your life at UC Berkeley (I was there for more than 15 years as undergrad, grad student, and teacher), you will get something out of the film. I noticed how beautiful the campus is. When I was there, I was always going from one place to another, and never took the time to appreciate that beauty. If you don't have that Berkeley connection, I'd suggest watching a different Wiseman movie. #602 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.


[I wrote this in 2005, and then left it in Blog Limbo, never posting it for who knows what reason. I was searching for a specific post today and realized there are a lot of these abandoned drafts, and I thought to post this. I've trimmed it a bit, but left most of it unchanged, because if nothing else it reflects where my brain was in 2005. Interesting that vaccines were on my mind ... it may be the most 2019-ish thing in this post.]

When I started graduate school, we were required to take a course that purported to be an introduction to ... well, everything. Here's a description taken from the most recent catalog:

"Problems in the Study of Literature. Course description: Approaches to literary study, including textual analysis, scholarly methodology and bibliography, critical theory and practice."

My memory, having taken this class with the fine Jim Breslin in 1988, is that we spent about four minutes on "scholarly methodology and bibliography" and the entire rest of the semester running "textual analysis" through the prism of "critical theory and practice." (I just looked up "prism" in the dictionary and got this: "A medium that misrepresents whatever is seen through it.") Each week we read a piece by some representative of a particular school of theory ... not sure I can remember them all, there was reader-response theory, and death-of-the-author stuff, and again I can't recall any longer but I'm positive there were a lot of French deconstructionists and the like. I admit to being pretty overwhelmed by it all. The odd thing was, it seemed like this introductory course was intended to serve the purpose of allowing us to identify our theory, as if we were at a wine-tasting party. A swig of this, a swig of that, and voila! You were able to announce yourself as a Marxist, or a deconstructionist, or whatever. In retrospect, I suppose this was also intended to get you on a proper career track ... once you associated yourself with a theory, you could find the right mentor, focus your attentions in your chosen sub-field, and after a suitable number of years, you'd have a dissertation, a bunch of connections, an identifiable school of thought, and, hopefully, a job.

I don't want you to think I was a standout graduate student, because I wasn't. Outside of my circle of friends, I was barely known at all. But within the confines of that introductory class, I had an identity, as we all did once we'd been through the wringer. I was told that my school of thought was called "Rubiology," and that the central theme of Rubiology was that I had a good bullshit detector. In other words, while I didn't embrace any particular theory (although I confess to having a little crush on reader-response), I was always willing and able to point out the flaws in any theory that passed in front of me.

I took this as evidence of my long-lasting solipsism and left it at that. But I think it's pretty clear, a couple of decades on, that Rubiology wasn't the best way to go if I was thinking tenure track. My heroine was Pauline Kael, who not only wasn't an academic, but who was chastised, even within the field of film criticism, for not having an overriding theory, for relying too much on just spouting off on what she liked and didn't like.

This should not be read as if I were complaining ... I've got a pretty easy life. But it's also a relatively lonely life, when you aren't a member of any particular theoretical school. I know I get frustrated by the fact that many of the thinkers I admire seem to be libertarian or conservative in their politics ... I sure wish there were more left-wing rationalists out there.

This is all a long-winded way of noting that I came to academia at a time when theory was taking over the humanities, and that left me on the outside with my bullshit detector, looking in the window at all the people who found theory more congenial than did I. I didn't realize at first that I was an outsider to theory, because many of the notions that formed the foundation of my own thinking were echoed in the work of many theorists (most obviously, that understanding power relationships is crucial, and that institutions tended to bring out the worst in good people while imposing a status-quo mentality that squashed independent thinking). But let's be honest here ... the stuff I do is out of touch with the present times, and that makes me sad, because I like to pretend I'm all contemporary and cool. I've got a doctorate in English, but I rarely read novels, don't go near poetry unless it's a Little Richard lyric, have never read Milton and would rather watch a teevee show than figure out Shakespeare's comedies. I consider myself a leftist, but my skeptical tendencies often put me on the opposite side of issues like the current vaccine scare. I get away with a lot because I'm a good writer, but in the end, I'm as inconsequential in a professional sense as is this blog.

And no, I'm not depressed ... I'm just grading papers :-).


Recovering files from my old computer and transferring them to the new one, I came across my dissertation. Here is the abstract:

Substituting action for the logical deduction that had become standard for the detective genre in the wake of Edgar Allan Poe, hard-boiled fiction offered a world where heroes acted with a fury that mirrored the chaos they were opposing. Early works validated the usefulness of individual chaotic fury in opposing social chaos, but Dashiell Hammett attempted to use the genre to critique notions of chaotic heroism, while Raymond Chandler steps back from the more radical claims of Hammett’s work, which implicates the detective as well as society as a whole. Chandler’s heroes are always disillusioned not by something as grand as “society” but rather by something quite specific: women, who are desired as damsels in distress but who are eventually exposed as representatives of chaos. In the post-war era, the massively popular Mickey Spillane reduces the art of his forebears to a stripped-down, violent neo-fascism that largely ignores Chandler’s romanticism and completely overturns Hammett’s critique in a celebration of the chaotic fury which Hammett condemned. Even more than in Chandler’s work, Spillane places women at the center of society’s corruptions; unlike Hammett, Spillane allows his hero mostly unqualified success. Robert B. Parker gives his hero a regular and significant love interest, refuses to accept the demonization of women, and attempts to recognize women as partners, if not full-fledged heroines, in his adventures. The novels of Sara Paretsky extend these changes in the genre’s attitudes towards women, merging a feminist vision of women in the late twentieth century, working communally towards common goals, with a vision of the individual on whom society calls when chaos threatens. Rather than rejecting the entire tradition out of hand, Paretsky synthesizes the notion of empowered women in a community, with the individualist notions of the heroes in the genre’s past, attempting to extract the power that comes to those who harness chaos without losing sight of the needs of the oppressed.

1984 addendum

Should have thought to include this in the TT post:


The captions are a little blurry, so:

  • Upper left, "The withered old prole tells her story."
  • Upper right, "Julia flirts while Winston reads."
  • Middle left, "Winston and Julia are caught together."
  • Middle right, "Big Brother's 'Exiles'."

And in the group photo at the bottom, which is of the acting group from my senior year, you can see a few friends of the blog. That's Robin Smith in the front, second from right. In the back row, sitting next to each other (#5-6 from the left) are the future Dub Debrie, and Tina Sellars who was then Gooch. On Tina's left is Lynette Shaw, later a pioneer in legalizing marijuana and once the Libertarian candidate for Lt. Governor of California. I feel like this is not the full picture ... for one thing, I'm not in it.

Also, here's a picture of me getting made up for my role in 1984:

Steven in makeup 1984

A few other mementos I can get to easily ... all from high school, there are no pictures as far as I know of me in junior-high plays. From Inherit the Wind ... that's me as the William Jennings Bryan character.

Inherit the wind

This is from My Three Angels, which was made into the movie We're No Angels on two occasions, 1955 when Aldo Ray played my character, and 1989, which I haven't seen but I think maybe Sean Penn played my part. In the picture, that's me in the middle.


[Edited to add this photo from Arsenic and Old Lace ... I played the Boris Karloff character, and am in the back, behind the guy who is in ropes.]

Arsenic and old lace

the full blackboard

This is a story I think I've told many times, but I can't find any reference to it on this blog, where I've been writing since 2002, so maybe I haven't told the story as often as I thought. It also took place long enough ago that I can't really remember the context, i.e. where and when it took place. But I think it's worth telling, so I've dive in, even with the holes in my memory.

It took place in a classroom. I can't recall if I was a junior college student or if I was a university teacher, which means I can't remember if it was the 1970s or the 1990s or even later. And I can't remember if I had power in the classroom (teacher) or little power (student). And those things matter to the story, but again, not enough for me to shut up. I can say that I do think it happened when I was teaching at Cal, emphasis on "think".

The classroom discussion was about the participation of women in the classroom, or rather, the over-participation of men. This was a hot topic at one time ... sadly, I imagine it's still a topic, but it would be nice to think otherwise. As a teacher in a small, discussion-oriented class, we were taught to be inclusive when calling on students, and to beware of habits we might have that unconsciously tipped the balance of men and women speakers. In this case, at some point I realized that men (me included, of course) were dominating the discussion. So I had an idea (and this is one reason I suspect I was a teacher, because a student doesn't ordinarily get to make the kind of suggestion I'm going to describe). I decided all of the men should leave the classroom ... I forget how long, 10 minutes, 15 ... which would give the women a chance to discuss the topic without the men dominating everything. And so the men went outside for awhile while the women stayed in the room. I recall a couple of the male students were pissed off ... they didn't dominate discussions, the whole notion was ridiculous, and if women didn't want to speak up, you can't force them to do so.

After the allotted time, us guys returned to the classroom. One look at the blackboards (for there were more than one) told us everything we needed to know.

Every blackboard in the room was covered with writing.

buffy and school

Steven Rubio's Online Life



Honorifics are funny things. I like using them, but feel unworthy when someone uses them to refer to me.

We got married by a judge. But not just any judge ... Judge Rose and his family were friends of both Robin and I. I’ve known a couple of the Rose children longer than I’ve known Robin ... they used to live across a big dirt lot from our house in Antioch. They were and are a fine family, and Judge Rose is a fine fellow (I’m sure he was also a fine judge, but since I never went before him, I’ll have to just guess about that). We referred to the parents of most of our friends growing up as Mr. or Mrs., and there were also the various medical doctors who got the “Dr.” title. Oh, and priests or ministers were “Father”. Of all of those, though, the best was Judge Rose. Somehow, it made you feel good to refer to “The Judge” ... it’s not that he was a better person than the other parents, but he had earned his title.

When I got my Ph.D, I found my new title to be a mixed blessing. Some things changed in nice ways ... in a single day, I went from being in a ceremony accepting the title of Doctor to sitting on the stage at another graduation and reading the names of graduating undergraduates. (I also got to sit next to the Rev. Cecil Williams.) Perhaps the strangest thing about the latter was when we were in line to enter Zellerbach Hall ... an old friend, a geography professor I hadn’t seen in some time, turned around, saw me standing behind him, and exclaimed, “What are YOU doing here?” Other things weren’t as nice, because while I was proud to have finally accomplished something, I still felt funny having an honorific bestowed on me ... I wasn’t sure I deserved it.

Soon afterwards, a favorite neighbor who happened to work on campus showed up at our door with a lovely gift, an Elvis Presley quilt that she had made. I remember answering the door to be greeted with, “Is there a doctor in the house?” I was delighted, if also slightly embarrassed. But it was a bit like knowing The Judge, from the other side. My friend made me feel like my accomplishment was something the whole neighborhood could be a part of, and I was grateful.

Another friend who also lived our block worked for many years doing virtually every odd job imaginable for us. He passed away a few years ago, and remains sorely missed. He was delighted that I was a doctor ... he seemed especially impressed that I had written pieces for a lot of books, and I gave him copies of a few, which he was proud to show at his home. I think sometimes he would tell his friends, you know that guy down the block, he writes books, a slight exaggeration, but again, I think he felt a part of it all. Sometimes it got a little silly, though. He would come to me with some difficult question about science or nature or the like, assuming I’d know the answer because I was “a Doctor”. I’d always tell him he should ask Robin, who knew about way more things than I did ... I was a “Doctor of Television”, I’d say, or a “Doctor of Movies”. But he’d insist, and so I’d go in the house, ask Robin the question, she’d tell me the answer, I’d go back to our friend and pass along the information, making sure he knew that it was Robin who had the answers, not me. But no, I was a Doctor. Funny thing is, our friend could do just about anything ... he was the model of a handyman, always coming up with some unknown-to-me skill. Since I have no skills ... I am the anti-handyman ... I was at least as impressed with him as he was with me. But I had the honorific.

When I was a teacher, my students would refer to me using various honorifics. I always referred to myself as Steven, in person and in online communications. But my students would call me Professor Rubio, or Mr. Rubio, or Dr. Rubio. (“Mr. Rubio” bothered me quite a bit ... “Mr. Rubio is my father!” I would shout, until one day I made a student cry and I realized I was being an ass.) One oddity is that the various places I taught had different official job titles. At Cal, where I was first a Graduate Student Instructor, and then, for some years, an Lecturer (or Adjunct), my title was never officially “Professor”. When I taught at San Francisco State, I was a visiting professor, I guess ... to be honest, I taught there twice without ever figuring out exactly what my job title was. And when I taught at a community college, my job title was Professor, even though I was still technically just another adjunct making ends meet.

Just last weekend, at a family gathering, a cousin of mine, on finding out I was “Dr. Rubio”, started telling me about a medical problem she was having. Sorry, I explained, I’m just an English teacher.

The point in all of this is that I like offering honorifics to others, but when they are offered to me, I’m just not sure it’s right. More than once, I’ve been asked out of the blue to contribute to an anthology, and I always say, “How do you know me?” (or, in the case of one academic tome, “Are you sure I’m the person you want? Have you read my writing? Do you know my style?”). Google has been my friend ... I’ve had a couple of cases of “it’s who you know”, but more often, someone finds something I’ve written via a search engine (I guess that’s the advantage of having this decade-plus blog). My insecurities remain ... as I said earlier, I’m never certain I deserve honorifics, or other accolades. (In the case of writing, that’s particularly pathetic, since I know writing is far and away my best skill, yet I’m still surprised that anyone notices.)

You know what I really find attractive? The honorific “Champ” when it’s given to a boxing champion. I love that no one is called “Champ” unless they have actually earned it. Even more, I like that you can never lose the title, as a referent if not literally. Even after you are no longer the literal champion, you remain “Champ”. So Muhammad Ali is “Champ” ... George Foreman is “Champ” ... they will never not be “Champ”.

And I guess I’ll never not be “Doctor”. It’s not the same, though ... no one calls me “Doctor”, and I’d feel funny if they did. Manuel Rose is “The Judge”, Cecil Williams is “Reverend”, the person who takes care of me at Kaiser is “Doctor”. But me? I’m Steven.

throwback thingie

Are people still doing this?

dance group

This is a picture of one of the dance groups at Antioch High School in my senior year, which makes it 1969-1970, which makes me 16 years old. As I recall, there were two official dance groups, and anyone must have been able to join this one, because I had never taken a dance class and my skills were non-existent. I did this because a lot of my friends were involved (just to note the obvious example, my future wife of 40+ years is just over my left shoulder).

I imagine the real reason I was in this group can be ascertained by looking at the positioning of the various participants. The real male dancers are sitting in the front. The ringer (me) is standing amidst all of the female dancers. A few of them were girlfriends of mine, again obviously including my future wife.

Three of the people in the photograph are now dead, to my knowledge … I assume there are more than I know about, everyone in the picture would be in their early sixties by now. A couple of them continued in dance after high school … one founded a dance company at a major university. At least one person in the picture became a doctor … well, two if you count me, but I’m talking about medical doctors. One of them ran for Lt. Governor of California on the Libertarian ticket. One of them was the maid of honor at our wedding.

I’m still in touch with a few of these folks. I see the girl to my right once in a while … my wife sees her more often than that. One of the boys and one of the girls have been to my house, which if you know me is a big deal. I’m friends with a few of them on Facebook.

i planned to go to s.f.

I posted this, which I had scanned, nine years ago. I’m doing a double-nostalgia move, one where I remember nine years ago, and one where I remember 1967:

golden arch bio

This comes from the program for the first play I participated in once I got into high school. It was called My Three Angels, which was made into a movie with Humphrey Bogart. My part (“Alfred”) was played by Darren McGavin in the original Broadway run, by Aldo Ray in the Bogart film version, and by George Grizzard in a later TV version. There was a Robert De Niro version in 1989, but my character wasn’t in that one, I guess.

I was a sophomore, and the way the Antioch school system was structured in those days, 7th-9th grades were “junior high” and 10th-12th grades were “high school”. There was no “intermediate”, or whatever they call 6th-8th grades now. Of the three junior high plays listed, I only remember The Wizard of Oz. I was the Scarecrow, and I was unable to hold my arms straight out when Dorothy discovered me guarding the corn field, so they gave me a pole I could use that enabled me to rest my arms using my shoulders as support. I should probably remember more about that, but hey, I was in 7th grade.

It says I was “majoring” in drama, but I don’t recall having “majors” in high school. While I was doing OK in school, I apparently had no thoughts of college. This was the end of the Summer of Love, all I wanted to be was a hippie, and thus my plans were limited to going to San Francisco and eating (no mention of a job, of course). I actually did spend about a month in S.F. after I graduated from high school, but with no money and no job, I was soon back at home with my parents.

Here’s a lo-fi picture of me in My Three Angels … that’s me in the back:


how i wrote in 1987

Continuing from this post, here is the third paragraph of my honors thesis for my American Studies B.A.:

American culture has always been fixated on the mechanism of scapegoating. That which we fear is that which is closest to ourselves. The best way to separate ourselves from the evil is to create, through a scapegoat mechanism, a sharp contrast between our good selves and the Other that threatens our stability. So America has a long history of demonizing our enemies, developing strict standards for good behavior and thrusting our inner turmoil onto social groups, Others, that can be identified as separate. We fear evil because it is us. And so we categorize, in order to recognize the evil and to confirm the good. If white men are good, then men of color are bad. Women are witches, men their opposites. Americans separate themselves from the Other, hoping desperately to establish a “good” national persona by maximum contrast to that which disturbs by its closeness: the evil we can never escape.