Mixed Feelings about My MSNBC Moment

Wednesday May 20, 2009

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It’s fair to say that I’m a member of the press. But every time I’ve been a subject of the press, it’s been an uncomfortable and weirdly dissociative experience. I think this is largely because I’ve never felt like any press I’ve done has matched my image of myself, or at least the image I’d like to project. In part, this is the result of my habit of working for ill-fated companies. I once did a very weird TV segment at 30 Rock for an NBC affiliate about Epitonic.com, which by then was a shell of a website that I was maintaining in my spare time. I also did a similarly weird one about RES Media Group, even though it had effectively ceased to exist a few months earlier, because we were still hoping to pull off an eleventh-hour rescue. Soon after, I did another one about a new venture that had the plug pulled on it only six weeks later. My lifestyle moments have been even worse. I was in a New York magazine “real people” fashion spread accompanied by a pathetic little bio that was mostly about the air mattress I was using for a bed (I’d recently broken up with my live-in girlfriend); more recently, I took part in a New York Times bike story in which I just sounded like an asshole.

I think that, for me, the decision to consent to an interview request is usually motivated by a mixture of narcissism, a genuine desire to be helpful, and an impulse to build brands—both my own and those of companies I’ve worked for. I agreed to be interviewed for this MSNBC.com story that was everywhere early last week primarily because of that desire to be helpful. At first I hesitated, but I thought the article’s topic—about how concerns about crazy fees are leading patients to refuse emergency-room treatment—was important, and I wanted to be of service. When it came out, however—with me as the lede and the kicker—I immediately had second thoughts about whether this was really a topic I should have associated myself with. Within hours, a vanity search of my name was mostly turning up versions of the article and commentary on it. Looking at myself through the eyes of Google, I wasn’t the Jesse Ashlock I think I am, I was some dude who got hit by a car while riding his bike and turned down medical service because he was worried it would be too expensive. On MSNBC.com, my story was sandwiched between “Face Transplant Patient: ‘I’m Not a Monster’” and “Trump to Miss California: ‘You’re Not Fired.’” As I browsed through the hundreds of Newsvine comments on the story—some of which described me as a moron or questioned my lifestyle choices, though the vast majority were sympathetic—I wondered what business I had being the face, even for a brief moment, of this extremely charged subject of access to affordable health care. For one thing, it’s something I am decidedly not an expert on, and I hate being associated with anything I don’t feel well-versed in, regardless of the circumstances. And for another, when I started reading other people’s completely insane stories about situations and expenses that were so much more extreme than mine, my own experience began to feel trivial by comparison. Not that any of this stopped me from agreeing to do an “update” for an AM radio talk show the day after the story came out. And of course I did know that all of this would soon pass—as indeed, for the most part, it already has.

But the episode got me started thinking about this much-discussed notion that we’ve gotten overly comfortable with putting our personal information out into the online universe, which of course Google is plotting to use to take over the world. I know that the idea of broadcasting myself via various social networks, Flickr, Twitter, this website, etc, has never given me much pause because of a sense, however illusory, that I control that information. Even if it is in fact ultimately going to help some giant corporation turn me into a pawn or worse, it’s my choice. I’m constructing my own media, shaping the image I want to project to the world. I’m doing it, it’s not happening to me. By contrast, the sensation of serving as a tool to someone else’s ends, however righteous, makes me feel out of control. I’m sure there are a lot of different lessons you can draw from this, but for me, the most important is this one: Always treat your sources with as much sensitivity and respect as you possibly can. They’re putting themselves on the line for you.

Having said that, I should add that I have no complaints about the way I was treated by the MSNBC.com reporter. If anything, I’m grateful to be reminded of how it feels to be on the other side of the story.

My MSNBC Traffic Spike

Wednesday May 13, 2009

Here’s what it looks like when the miscellaneous half-dozen people who typically stumble across my site each day looking for the old-timey fiddle player Jesse Ashlock are joined by a lot of people with extremely strong opinions about whether access to affordable health care is or is not a right. Actually, I’m surprised I didn’t get more traffic.

My MSNBC Traffic Spike

What I Do

Monday March 16, 2009

Submitted without comment.*

VMAN on the newsstand

* Camera-phone picture courtesy of super-intern Jonathan Shia, who just got accepted to Columbia Journalism School. Congratulations, Jonathan!


Wednesday December 10, 2008

2008: the year that began with Client 9 and finished with Candidate 5.


Saturday November 29, 2008

Early this last September, I was in the back seat of a rented car full of college friends I hadn’t seen for years who’d come together for a wedding in suburban Virginia. We were on our way back from Harper’s Ferry, where John Brown made his last stand, driving past clusters of ungainly, oddly exposed mini-mansions scattered across rolling hills when for some reason the subject of David Foster Wallace came up. To my surprise, no one in the car—a group of fairly voracious readers, at least once upon a time—had read him, so I started waxing poetic about the essays in Consider the Lobster, which I’d read late last spring, in particular the one about attending the Adult Video Awards in Las Vegas and encountering a porn starlet who actually had valves inserted in her armpits that allowed her to inflate and deflate her breasts, and the very long one for Rolling Stone about the trials and tribulations of riding John McCain’s Straight Talk Express back in 2000, which of course had special relevance since we’d just entered the home stretch of the election. Then I moved on to A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (tennis, TV, David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, the cruise alluded to in the title), and Infinite Jest (its weight, its hilarity, its frustrating ending, having to use two bookmarks), and so on. When I’d finished advocating, we turned to other subjects—McCain’s nefarious transformation, passing the bar exam, who had to pee—and then got back to our hotel to catch the shuttle to a vineyard where we watched the lovely ceremony and clinked glasses and danced.

The next afternoon I was on the deck of the bride’s parents’ house, struggling to stay upright with my hangover in the unbearable humidity, when a guy I didn’t know said, “Oh, shit.” He was staring at his cell phone. “I just got a text message that David Foster Wallace hung himself.” A few hours earlier I’d sent a text message to my friend Virginia listing the DFW titles she should read. The news submarined me. Later, waiting for my flight at Dulles, I searched for information on my Blackberry. Standing in the security line, riding on this massive Winnebago-like vehicle that took me to my terminal, sitting at an airport bar, it was me communing with my device, trying to find an answer—to what, exactly, I don’t know. The critics had been quick to post their eulogies, most balancing DFW’s massive literary achievements with perspectives on depression, many looking for clues in his recent prose. The commenters had come out in force, and I found myself scrolling through hundreds of posts on Salon.com with my miserable scroll wheel, half an airport hamburger on the bar in front of me. There were a number of remarks about cowardice, invariably refuted by a mental health professional or someone who’d known someone who was severely depressed. Mostly there was just sadness, appreciation, and the same longing for some kind of answer that I felt.

There was so much that was disorienting to me. For one, he was prolific, and busy people don’t seem like suicide candidates. More than that, underneath all the bravura prose and ostentatious experimentation, which mostly delighted me and occasionally irritated the hell out of me, I saw someone who was deeply empathetic, kind, and engaged with the world around him, even at its most fucked up. More than his peers, he was looking for a way out of the cul de sac of consciousness that the inheritors of the postmodern literary tradition, and by extension, fin de siecle Western creative culture, found itself in. Even the infamous hatchet man Dale Peck gave him credit for this. Even when he was dealing with the really dark shit, which was not infrequently, there was a generosity, a refusal to pass easy judgment, and an evident pleasure in unravelling the layers of an idea, an issue, a story. I thought about the election as it related to him, because it was a really fantastic story then two months away from its conclusion, because it seemed he’d have real insight into the reinvention of John McCain based on his past experience and writing, because Sarah Palin, who’d then been in the public eye for only two weeks, must have been a truly fascinating creature to him. If he didn’t want to see this particular story through, I couldn’t help thinking, he must have really been in the weeds. In a moment like this, I always go back to the first famous suicide that floored me, which was Kurt Cobain’s, but Cobain was obviously a self-pitying narcissist trapped inside himself; DFW seemed anything but those things, with the implication being that he’d decided there was no way out of the cul de sac, for any of us. If anything, he was trapped by the very qualities that made him such an appealing writer. I still don’t have any kind of answer and never will, but since he died, this takeaway has been haunting me, especially in my darker moments.