Professional Weirdo, Nathan Rabin, with his Radically Sincere baby, Dex.

A Professional Weirdo full of Hope, Love and Optimism: the Radical Sincerity of Nathan Rabin

by heidi juniper

Part One: These Are the Times That Teach You to Be (Defiantly) Zen

You wouldn’t expect a person who was, at the age of two, kidnapped by his own mother (a deeply troubled woman who eventually totally abandoned him, leaving a hole, he’s said, that can never be filled)1—who was, as a kid, bullied and beaten up every day after school, and had no friends (and no one to rely on, save his father, who was ultimately unable to care for him, due to serious health problems)—who was, without warning, at the age of 14, forcibly hospitalized in an especially cold-hearted psych ward, under the indifferent eye of supposed caretakers and declared ready for freedom, rather cynically, when the insurance money ran out—of all people, this is not someone you would expect, as an adult, to become the grounded yet sincere and enthusiastic conduit of “hope, love and optimism.”2

 

You wouldn’t look for that sort of thing in a lifelong insomniac, a man who has combatted anxiety and depression, who openly identifies with weirdos and eccentrics2—who wrote not one, but two books championing Juggalos—and who confesses to, after enduring a prolonged series of stresses and financial setbacks, to thinking, “You go to a f——g graveyard, and there are a hundred people who don’t have to worry about money any more.”2

Nathan Rabin with fellow insomniac.

And yet, ladies and gents, coming from the least expected of quarters—I bring you, without irony, without exaggeration… a new and compelling spokesperson for positivity… in the form of:

 

Nathan Rabin. Survivor, husband, father, iconic pop culture chronicler and explainer (who served as the first head writer of The AV Club); the accomplished writer of many well-received books; and, at least in the circle of people I run in, a household name.

 

At least, the above is roughly how much of the world (myself included) views Nathan: as a heroic survivor of a dramatically bad childhood, who began head-writing for an iconic online publication (The Onion’s AV Club) practically at the same moment the internet was invented; who was invited by Scribner (with a 6 figure book-deal attached)1 to write his memoir (The Big Rewind) at the ripe old age of 31; whose childhood hero (Weird Al) reached out specifically to Nathan, to write his coffee table book; whose contribution to pop culture is so pervasive that his term, “manic pixie dream girl” not only merits its own (lengthy) wikipedia entry, it was also recently referenced in a category on Jeopardy.3

 

Perhaps most importantly, where his trajectory of surprising success is concerned, Nathan Rabin is an emotionally whole and connected survivor of an early life in which abandonment by both parents (utterly unwillingly on the part of his father) was followed by rejection at the hands of peers, by would-be foster parents, by fellow self-hating adolescent male inmates of group home life. Nathan is not merely a wildly successful artist by yours truly’s standards (I’m a fellow 40-year-old who will likely never see a double-digit book deal, much less a six figure one), but he is that rare and wondrous thing:

 

A grown man, in the snarky world of pop culture criticism—who can feel his feelings and openly admit them—who is wholly sincere in his unlikely obsessions, who admires his wife (Cadence) extravagantly, adores his child (Dex) beyond measure—and doesn’t care who knows it.

Dex resiliently throwing off post-election angst & ecstatically enjoying chocolate with mom, Cadence.

Dex asking the eternal question, “Who Let The Dogs Out.”

(A: Oprah)

About Cadence and Dex, Nathan is unabashedly proud and grateful.

 

Although he’s tactful and restrained about it, when Nathan writes about his wife, you get the idea that he sees her as a beautiful, joyful free spirit with a topnotch intellect, a comrade-in-arms who captivates and inspires him. Nathan has described Cadence as “radiant”, the person who “turned my life upside down and reintroduced me to the concept of joy” and conveys his restrained, ungushing admiration for her zest for life, her mind, and wit, in his book You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me. During an interview for a Tumblr blog by unclecrizzle, Nathan’s admiration for his wife’s intellect is palpable, when he describes her as the “most voracious” reader he knows, and, with charmed, amazed approval, as a “g—d—ed unicorn who actually goes out and buys books.” One of the best things about her, you gather, might be the ridiculous lengths to which she has pursued a mind-bogglingly impractical, un-societally-valued three post-graduate degrees in… of all things… early childhood education.4 (As a fellow book-and-knowledge-obsessed educator, perhaps I’m projecting, but I get the idea that Nathan really admires the balls/cervix his wife has had, to follow her passions and interests in this absurdly uneconomical and un-status-gathering of ways.)

 

As for his son, Dex? Dex is, rather literally, The Best. Nathan depicts Dex in one of a series of Mom.me blogs5 as “the coolest, most interesting and fun person I know”, (far more popular than Nathan himself), who is “kind to everybody” and has “easily… the best hair.”

Dueling Sentient Rays of Sunshine.

Dex is, it seems, a human embodiment of joy and goodness that Nathan would not have believed possible, if he hadn’t experienced Dex for himself. He describes Dex’s smile as “enduring proof of the universe’s fundamental benevolence”; a tiny person, who, though he still soils himself, radiates “sweetness and light” and pure, infectious joy. Declan is a miracle in corporeal form or (as Nathan once told me on FB) a “sentient ray of sunshine.”

About everything else in his life—at least, on the average day, in a given social media post, or podcast interview—Nathan is more mixed. He doesn’t seem to view all things Rabbinical the way everyone else mainly does.

 

Listening to harrowing details of his tumultuous early life… or, more recently, taking in the stability-and-confidence destroying havoc that has characterized the last several years of his career, you get the idea that Nathan has truly earned his right to be far bleaker, and more disparaging about himself and his prospects, than he actually is.

Nathan tends to favor a somewhat dark sense of humor about himself and frequently describes himself through the lens of self-deprecation and even, self-laceration—someone granted book-writing opportunities which others, more worthy, likely would’ve made better use of; the man who had to move his wife and baby into his in-law’s basement after being fired by The Dissolve (in what felt to him like a “bitter, bitter, bitter, brutal divorce”2); a man (he semi-jokingly claims) who is so “bad with people” that he keeps getting demoted (“from head writer, to staff writer, to disgruntled former writer”4 and struggling freelancer living paycheck-to-paycheck)2.

(Nathan also discussed, recently, how, after his firing from The Dissolve (right before his 39th birthday), he/ his agent shopped his single remaining book prospect around to the New York publishing houses. It did not go well: “Basically, I did two things reasonably well: I wrote books, and I was a staffwriter who wrote columns. In a heartbeat, I had no publishing contracts.” And, “So—I remember—oh, God, that was the Halloween—[I thought to myself], ‘Holy S—, my career as an author is over. I had this one good idea, and I don’t have it anymore… Oh, WTF?’ […] I kind of entered into this downward spiral. I just doubted myself, and I was also depressed.”)2

All of which makes his recent coming-out as a hope-filled would-be conduit of love and positivity… (on the Wrestling with Depression podcast), in anticipation of a new and unprecedented step in his writing career… Well:

 

Stunning. That’s the word for it.

 

Having followed Nathan for awhile now, I felt, listening to his interview, that I was hearing a glimpse into a side of him that he rarely reveals… He sounded not just groundedly joyful, but he spoke from the heart, with eloquence and conviction, about his renewed sense of life purpose, and a rich, riveting trove of life lessons. He discussed his personal struggles and triumphs regarding

choosing hope over apocalyptic thinking, 

embracing self-acceptance over competition,

valuing unique artistry over externally-defined success,

and, most of all,

focusing on worth over shame.

 

He also waxed eloquently about his out-of-the-box vision for his creative future, in the form of an unprecedented series of projects (found in their collective entirety at Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place) that, is, as a whole, almost Cadence-like in how nobly and gloriously it eschews narrow concerns like practicality and potential widespread popularity.

I’ve been hearing about Nathan’s new website for awhile now. I’ve felt pleased and even rather excited for Nathan, and, when given a glimpse of all that he had planned for it (a daily blog post, an “Ask a Juggalo” column, a movie column, a column individually covering every song and album Weird Al has ever made), overwhelmingly impressed.

 

But since listening to his vision of this as a joy-filled, sheltered retreat for the weary and the weird—and hearing, in particular, the intriguing specifics of an unbelievably ambitious project Nathan has planned…

 

“So this is an opportunity to do… [a] project, that would take a normal freelancer, you know, a day and a half—and be a thousand words—and to do it on a massive, massive scale. Where, by the end of this, it’ll be 150,000 words or so?

 

It’ll be not only an exploration of the music of Weird Al Yankovic—which I find endlessly fascinating—but also, the last 37 years.   Because he’s kind of served as a sort of mirror of popular culture… And you can kind of trace the times by what Weird Al was parodying, by what he was writing about.”

 

…I have to admit: I’ve become a believer. I’m on board.

Nathan’s dog Ghost guarding the kingdom of pillows (from potential repossession by unpaid creditors?).

This new thing Nathan has effortfully sought to birth into being eschews concern over page clicks or even, any solid kind of economical sense… And instead, is about creation in its purest form: making something deeply good; something unique; something… to be honest, fairly outlandish in its unrestrained, quirky ambition… It channels his devotion to exploring offbeat topics and subcultures that fascinate Nathan Rabin and may fascinate no one else… finding big, substantial, compelling meanings in culture minutiae he finds interesting… which may turn out to compel and interest… possibly, nobody else.

 

It strikes this similarly idealistic and ambitious dreamer (yours truly) as a beautiful and moving statement of Existential Meaning… A valiant statement of, this matters because I’m doing what I feel most compelled by, and can do better than anyone else—even if no one else agrees. To service the weird truths, and strange beauties, that Nathan Rabin sees in the way only he can; and to explain them with the particular aesthetic, and specific brand of postmodern, wide-ranging insight, that he alone holds.

 

It feels to me, in its own way, to be an unruly creative testament to Beauty and Truth, themselves. A way of joining Viktor Frankl in claiming abyss-defying meaning (“to live is to suffer, to survive is to find meaning in suffering”) in a world where one’s sense of security, and home, and even one’s sense of self, could, at any time, be utterly destroyed in the next wave of undeserved, yet unstoppable destruction.

 

And, perhaps most of all: a way of igniting the light of something unique and heartfelt, in an especially dark and dispiriting time.

Nathan, speaking with gravity and grace, in that interview:

 

These are the times in life that teach you to be Zen. Because the more attached you are to something [the more you put yourself at risk of serious pain and loss]. And I was so attached to my job—and that’s why I think it was so painful to lose it, because I put so much of my identity into it. Then I realized how delicate, how fragile… How everything in your life can just be taken from you.

 

And it’s hard to not operate with apocalyptic thinking—and to operate in hope, and love, and optimism.

 

I think that’s what I’m trying to do, with Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place? Is to try and and put positive energy out into the world.

 

[With conviction]:

 

This idea, that there will be something:

whose value is not related to money,

whose value is not related to page views,

whose value is not related to whether or not it’s economically feasible.

 

Whose value is derived from:

the fact that it’s good

that it’s useful

that it’s saying something that is relatively unique,

that nobody else can say.”

Nathan’s dog Ghost working on being more “Zen.”

“I say that I want to write about weird-a—s–t that fascinates me, and not the popular stuff that fascinates everybody else… this is an opportunity to do something that only I can do.”

There’s a poignancy to all this—you get the idea that as hopeful as Nathan truly is for this new project—he is, in a way, bravely igniting the final remaining reserves of his creativity and resourcefulness.

 

You get the idea that—in a way that’s strongly reminiscent of the last-ditch desperation (a sense of “what else CAN I do?—I’ve failed at everything this field has to offer; but I’m not made for anything else!”) with which Marc Maron started the WTF podcast—Nathan’s not sure what he’ll do if this doesn’t work.

 

From an earlier interview, the one with unclecrizzle—(emphasis added)

 

“I try to focus as much as possible on the work itself, because that’s where the joy and satisfaction is. I really love to write, and that has been a godsend. If I didn’t love it, and also if I had any other skills, I might do something more stable, like anything else.”

 

All I’ve ever wanted to do was write, which is good, cause no one is interested in me as an editor or a manager, which makes me very fragile professionally.”

 

Nathan’s told me, (in his FB group) that he’s emailed Weird Al about this project, and Al has promised to read every word.

 

Nathan’s father—his most earnest supporter—who doesn’t own a computer—has pledged to subscribe to it, or read a print version of it, when/ if that becomes possible.2

 

Nathan himself is a (cautious) believer—and not afraid to hide it—even as he has concerns and reservations.

 

“I don’t want to feel egotistical or narcissistic, I’m perpetually torn between really believing in myself and being this aggressive advocate on my behalf…   And [thinking], ‘You stupid m—–f—er. You stupid m—–f—er.   These things you do are not going to succeed! You have so much failure in your past, have all of these different instances of why you shouldn’t believe in yourself.’

 

It’s a struggle. It’s a daily struggle.”

Witnessing this struggle (and the overwhelming quality of Nathan’s writing) makes me root all the harder for Nathan’s hope, love and optimism to be proven right and for his new site to be a massive monetary success.

Feeling hopeful and optimistic about a sunshine-filled new day in which to wear the color blue.

Ghost feeling hopeful, loving, optimistic feelings about Dex’s enormous pizza slice and experiencing his own “daily struggle.”

Yet, I can’t agree that money or critical acclaim could ever be the measure of this man; there is so much about Nathan and his resilient, determined example, that transcend any such crude measurements. Nathan’s exceptional courage, his resilience, his determination to focus on creation and goodness and meaning despite serious, demoralizing misfortunes are inspiring… are contagious.

 

(Profoundly sofeeling energized at Nathan’s expression of “hope, love, and optimism” after listening to his stunning Wrestling with Depression interview was, after all, what “infected” my brain with the decision to spend my entire Spring Break, and more, writing close to 10,000 words–you’re reading just the first few thousand–to spread word of his Brave New Site and relentlessly inspiring example.)

 

Recently, after hearing the details of yet another completely unmerited setback in Nathan’s career, a fellow commenter in Nathan’s FB group confessed: “Somehow, I came out of reading all this thinking, ‘You know what? F— all the bulls—. I’m’a soldier on.’ ” 

 

Nathan’s example reminds us to be Zen, to try to be less attached, to not put our identities into our jobs… but also to be defiant. To keep doing things

that are good,

that are useful,

that are unique,

that only you can do

because YOU FEEL they are good and useful and unique and no other reason.

 

And not to quit no matter how many times the universe rejects you.

 

 

So, Be Like Nathan:

Feed hope, love and optimism at the very moment when your detractors make you question your sanity and worth.

And be contagiously, courageously defiant by going and checking out Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place.  (Right now.)

Hope, Love and Optimism await, one happy click away.

Weird Al likes, reads and believes in Nathan Rabin–and he wants you to, too.

JUMP NOW TO PART TWO:

Nathan & Me, Up Close & Personal—Kindful Origins

(in which I disclose the fascinating details of my special personal connection with Nathan, and share more insanely adorable photos I did not take)

PHOTO CREDITS

Photos courtesy of Nathan Rabin & Cadence Amy.

REFERENCES & DISCLAIMERS

Basic biographical details about Nathan Rabin’s childhood (i.e., kidnapped by mother, partially grew up in foster care), and other well-established personal details (i.e., his struggles with insomnia and depression) mentioned in Part One, were drawn from Nathan’s two appearances on Wrestling with Depression and his appearance on Mental Illness Happy Hour, and were, whenever possible, confirmed by consultation with Nathan’s memoir, The Big Rewind. (Highly specific details have been footnoted.) I also gained further context for understanding Nathan (and his relationship with wife, Cadence) from his book, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

Quotations and specific details mentioned in the same paragraph as the source where I learned them have not been specifically footnoted except where the context seemed potentially ambiguous.

Nathan read this piece before publication but I claim full responsibility for any factual errors and for my interpretation of his life, his writings, and his personal and artistic example. The way I’m presenting Nathan is the way I see him rather than a claim about who he empirically is, the way he sees himself, or the way others who know him well might describe him. This is Nathan Rabin as I have experienced him from a distance, and what his example means to me.

Specific citations mentioned in Part One:

http://wrestlingwithdepression.com/interview-w-nathan-rabin/

2 http://wrestlingwithdepression.com/episode-147-nathan-rabin/

https://www.reddit.com/r/Jeopardy/comments/5e4p5n/jeopardy_recap_for_mon_nov_21/ (Also reported here:  https://www.facebook.com/groups/695847220452956/)

4 http://unclecrizzle.tumblr.com/post/152267853473/kvetching-about-freelancing-with-nathan-call-me

https://mom.me/baby/23480-declan-haven-dilla-rabin-his-first-birthday/

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heidi.juniper
Founder at A Kindful Place
Heidi Juniper is a recovering perfectionist and self-connection coach, helping people gain power and insight from their emotions, by honouring each person’s own inner wisdom, and offering tools from psychology and neuroscience.

She sincerely hopes that this fledgling community, as it grows, may help you find something meaningful or helpful you've not found elsewhere.

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2 Comments On "A Professional Weirdo full of Hope, Love and Optimism: the Radical Sincerity of Nathan Rabin (Part One)"

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Paul
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Yay! I’m glad to see this piece. You’ve really delved deep into the mind of Rabin!

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