Archive for October, 2005

A Busy Week …

I'm just kind of catching my breath today. This week we taped two shows: On Tuesday I interviewed Anthony Swofford, author of the great Gulf War memoir Jarhead, which has recently been adapted into a feature film. Then on Friday (our usual taping day) I chatted with actress Joan Chen, whose filmmaking debut -- Xiu-Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl -- is an incredibly beautiful, heartfelt movie that you can (with some small effort) find on video (though not on DVD). (We had added the Tuesday taping because it was the only day Swofford would be available.) In between, on Thursday, we taped a "Wandering Josh" segment in which I tried to learn to be a Sam Spade-type gumshoe.

And while all this was happening, our apartment was being Agnes-ized. I mentioned in an earlier entry that I'd hired a professional organizer to try to tame the mess I have inflicted on our family's little two-bedroomer. Well, she's been over a few times now, and it's been kind of amazing. New bookcases have arrived from Ikea, many old solicitations for pre-approved credit cards have been recycled, and the mere re-angling of our bed has brought a whiff of feng shui to the master bedroom. My wife's collapsed closet has been sturdily rebuilt by an Orthodox Jewish handyman, nearly bringing her to Talmudic tears of gratitude. And at Agnes's suggestion, I asked our building manager whether the nine years' accumulation of mold on our walls might call for a repainting; shortly thereafter, a very nice painter named Phil (religious affiliation unknown) came over and repainted much of our apartment -- including Sara's closet, which Agnes then re-reorganized. ...

I can sense that Agnes is a very spiritual person -- that she sees organizing people's lives as a higher calling. And I can tell that in me she has found her entropic Moriarty: a person whose genius for creating clutter nearly matches her own for eliminating it. Our messy pad may seem unassuming to the casual visitor (not that we've been allowing any!), but to a world-class de-clutterer like Agnes it's the Holy Grail -- that ultimate challenge that can either make or break an organizer's career. What the late Johnny Cochran was to the O.J. trial, Agnes aims to be here -- defender of the indefensible, poetic conjurer of the unlikely victory: If the mess doesn't fit, you mustn't submit. If she succeeds in her unlikely quest -- and she's already made significant headway! -- then "Agnes" and "Josh's apartment" may come to rival "Hercules" and "Augean Stable" in the heroic literature. ...

4 comments October 29th, 2005

Lemony Fresh!

The show that airs this evening at 7:30 (and repeats on Friday night at 10:30) is my truly digressive conversation with the hilarious Daniel Handler, author of the darkly wonderful Lemony Snicket books for children (The Penultimate Peril, the 12th installment of the "Unfortunate Series of Events" series, just hit the stores) as well as two novels for adults. While conducting this interview, I was continually delighted by Handler's grouchy, morose persona -- it was like hanging out with one of my dad's rowdy old Trotskyist friends, before they got totally bitter. Plus he plays a fine accordion!

Preparing for our encounter, I got happily obsessed with Handleriana. My son and I started making our way through the Lemony Snicket series -- laughing with cringing amazement as the author, improbably, was able to continually add to the poor Baudelaire orphans' misery. By myself, I read Handler's second adult novel, Watch Your Mouth, in which the frantic, pansexual, and possibly delusional hero must face the music in various aspects of his young life (Handler's an opera fan, and this particular obsession gives the book a unique structure). At this very moment, I am listening to The Magnetic Fields' pop masterpiece 69 Love Songs, for which Handler contributed the droll liner notes. And I note that early next year the amazing folks at Word for Word will be adapting four chapters of Handler's upcoming novel, Adverbs, into a stage piece. Those seeking to further satisfy a Handler jones can link to the cool weeklong diary he kept for a few years ago.

Dare I say that Daniel Handler -- in spite of his eternal pessimism -- has been responsible for a very fortunate series of events? Yes, I so dare. And I hope you enjoy our conversation.

16 comments October 24th, 2005

Agnes Day

So I got fed up with all the mess in our apartment -- most of it inflicted by my out-of-control paper stuff -- and I hired a professional organizer, named Agnes.

As I prepared for Agnes's arrival today (we had set aside seven straight hours to start digging through stuff), my stomach kept churning -- possibly because of last night's super burrito, but more likely due to the life-changing possibilities of getting my things in order.

It was pretty intense. I threw out nine or ten bags of garbage and recycling -- and that was just from one corner of the living room. I found my old cassette tape of the great soundtrack from John Waters's Hairspray movie -- and the software I bought over a year ago that supposedly converts cassette tapes and vinyl albums into mp3's. (The fact that I no longer have a cassette player and am afraid to open the software's packaging shouldn't take anything away from the magnitude of this find.) ... More discoveries: It turns out that behind all those boxes of books was ... a bookcase! Who knew? ... Also, apparently our living room has a floor -- in that corner, at least. ... Oh, the wonders I've seen today!

As our time was running out, Agnes sat me down at this computer and together we went to the Ikea website. I found out that at Ikea they give their furniture styles human names, like "Billy." Agnes asked me if I liked Billy. I said that I had no problem with Billy. And now, one day soon, heavily muscled Ikea workpeople will bring Billy to our little apartment. They will not assemble Billy, however. For that, I will have to hire a handyperson -- who will have to work quickly, by the way, or else risk being incorporated by the mold that's streaming in through the cracks between the window frame and the wall. (Come to think of it, the mold might get Billy, too. I sure hope Ikea doesn't send people over to pre-screen customers' living spaces.) ...

The prospect of all this change is exciting -- thrilling, even -- but I must admit that the old ways were simpler. You just threw stuff down in piles, then when the piles built up you put the stuff in boxes, then when there were too many boxes you got real sleepy. That lifestyle had much to recommend it. But on balance, I do feel that this new way -- a way that allows for, say, visitors -- will be an improvement.

Farewell, old, cluttered me! I mourn, and I organize.

5 comments October 18th, 2005


My chat with digital-era hero Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist, is available on this website (via streaming video) right now -- before its first broadcast (tonight at 7:30, to be repeated on Friday night at 10:30). Just click on the "TV Program" link at the top of this page.

Craig and me! Not since Carl Reiner interviewed Mel Brooks in the classic "2000-Year-Old Man" sketches has so much bald virility been displayed in a single conversation. It could change the whole paradigm of the kind of person we expect to see on the small screen. Or, more likely, it's a statistical anomaly -- a brief, shiny-headed blip in the noble procession of beautifully coiffed televisers.

Either way, I loved talking with him. The guy is so soft-spoken and self-effacing that his passion -- especially for creating and maintaining an online community that is ethical, uncommercial, and non-exploitive -- may take a while to make itself evident. But that passion is there -- along with a refreshing optimism about the essential goodness of human nature (aside from a sprinkling of bad guys, whom Craig seems to be hunting down almost 24/7). If you ever find yourself worrying that computers -- such as the one you're using at this moment -- are an alienating force in human society, check out what Craig Newmark has to say. And, of course, check out craigslist. Chances are, you already do. ...

By the way, the makers of a terrific-looking documentary, 24 Hours on Craigslist, graciously allowed us to use a clip from their film. For info on where it's running, and about the DVD due out next spring, check out their website. ...

Also on this show, we did a "Wandering Josh" where I visited with one of the delightful people who use craigslist: Marcy Schaaf, chapter manager of SaveABunny, a rabbit rescue and placement organization for San Francisco and Marin. After you watch this segment, I think you'll want to hug a bunny -- or at least feed some mixed greens to a really hungry bald guy. ...

17 comments October 17th, 2005

Maintaining the Lordosis

I write to you this afternoon as a huddled mass yearning to breathe free. Yesterday morning, as I emerged from the shower, I felt the familiar spasmodic clenching of the muscles of my lower back -- a sensation that for the past several years has meant that my back was about to go out.

I don't like it when my back goes out. It usually means that I'm going to be in a lot of pain for at least a few days, and discomfort for at least a few weeks. So for the past year or so I've been doing various exercises and stretches to try to keep it from happening. Also, on the recommendation of someone I met at a party (always a sound scientific approach), I bought a little book called Treat Your Own Back.

According to that book's author, a physical therapist named Robin McKenzie, the key area is your "lordosis" -- the natural inward curve at the bottom of your spine. Modern life, he explains, often bends us unnaturally forward, eliminating the lordosis for long periods of time -- for example, while you're riding in a car, or while you're doing what I'm doing right now: sitting and typing at a computer. This flattening results in the pinching of the nerves that run through the squished area, giving us sciatica and other back-related pains. In order to combat this flattening, he writes, you must do these little exercises that restore and maintain the lordosis.

I've been doing his exercises (among others) for a while. Perhaps that's why this time (so far) my back hasn't gone out completely, as it has in the past. But what I've noticed is that maintaining the lordosis has somehow become kind of a mantra for me. ... Am I feeling on-edge? Perhaps my emotions are becoming too stretched out, and I should maintain the lordosis. ... Does our democracy depend on the flexible give-and-take of respectful disagreement? Then maybe the current infexibility of our polarized public discourse indicates that, as a nation, we need to maintain the lordosis. ...

Anyhow, right now, lordosis or no lordosis, I'm feeling kind of bedraggled. Yesterday, we were out in Menlo Park, shooting a "Wandering Josh" segment, and I stopped in at a restaurant to ask for some ice. They gave me some in a plastic bag, which (to the amusment of the restaurant staff) I gratefully stuck inside the back of my pants. And in retrospect, I think that might have been a pretty good strategy -- if only they'd double-bagged the ice. But at the point when I felt a cold dripping wetness spreading down my butt, I began to sense that perhaps it was time to rethink this particular treatment.

Which, of course, has nothing to do with maintaining the lordosis and everything to do with being very careful about putting ice in your pants.

Hmm ... I think I feel a self-help book coming. ...

4 comments October 15th, 2005

What, No Partridge?

True to her word, the owner of our building has replaced the late, lamented magnolia tree outside our window with a transplanted sapling. We are told that it's a flowering pear tree, which sounds quite festive. The tree itself looks a little forlorn, planted in the middle of an area that had been taken up by the massive root system of its once-mighty predecessor. Plus, its little branches are timidly pointing skyward, as if beseeching the sky for more sun to alleviate its puniness (or maybe that's just how they tied up its branches when they transported it?).

In any case, we urban renters welcome our new, organic co-tenant into our otherwise paved-over backyard. May it flower in good health for many rent-controlled years to come!

3 comments October 15th, 2005

Alphonso D’Abruzzo Speaks!

Probably better known by his stage name, Alan Alda, he's written a terrific memoir titled Never Have Your Dog Stuffed (And Other Things I've Learned). He stopped by recently to chat with me about his life and craft -- and he was so there with me in the conversation, so emotionally available, that I got as relaxed as I think is possible for me at this point in my interviewing arc. Our conversation runs tonight at 7:30, and then will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30.

To give you a quick sense of the quality of his writing, here are the opening lines of his book:

My mother didn't try to stab my father until I was six, but she must have shown signs of oddness before that. Her detached gaze, the secret smile. Something.

By that point I was hooked. He tells his story in the tone of one who is still working out the sadness and ironies of it, and I got the sense, while reading it, that many of these issues didn't really get resolved until he'd written about them. His father, Robert Alda, was a burlesque performer who later became a leading man in Hollywood. His mother, tragically, suffered from paranoid schizophrenia -- a condition that was not diagnosed in her lifetime, and that caused her and her family enormous grief.

Sitting with Alda on the couch, I felt that he was letting me -- and, I hope, you, the viewer -- into his still-tremulous inner life. He spoke not as an extremely successful actor (his 11-year stint as Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H being his most well-known role, of course, but he's been doing great work on stage and film lately as well) but as a person who's still fully engaged in trying to work out the meaning of everything.

And he ate a Rice Krispy Treat! I still can't get over that. ...

20 comments October 10th, 2005


Just another quick blog item before I go to catch my plane back home:

I mentioned in an earlier item that at the rehearsal for my gig down here in Austin a cricket was chirping -- incredibly loudly -- somewhere in the darkened theater. ("Yup, everything's bigger here in Texas," quipped a woman on the crew.) At the time, I thought that if the cricket were to stick around for either of the performances it could give the show the feel of an outdoor gig. I mean, this cricket was that noisy!

So on Friday evening, as I did my first performance, I listened for my cricket friend -- but there was not a chirp to be heard.

Then, at the end of the show, after I took my bows, I headed out the theater door toward my dressing room. And the moment I stepped out into the hallway, I heard -- from very nearby -- an amazingly loud cricket-chirp. I quickly wheeled around to get a look at it, but it had either flown or hopped away. I got the cricket's message, though: "Welcome to our theater, Kornbluth -- but remember, you're only visiting."

Just Reason No. 463 of why I love doing live theater. ...

2 comments October 9th, 2005

The Smart Sets

It's Annie Smart's world -- I just work in it. Annie designed the wonderful, whimsical set for our TV show, and normally on Friday I would have found myself there, hanging out at the kitchen counter or chilling with a guest on the couch. But since I was performing in Austin this weekend, I instead found myself ... on another great Annie Smart set, this one for my monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged.

Annie has a way of getting inside a piece, finding its soul, and then imagining a visual setting that brings out the show's essential qualities. It's an amazing and mysterious gift, and to work with Annie is to feel one's work being minutely analyzed by a deep and sympathetic intellect. You find yourself looking at her proposed set design and going, "Oh -- so that's what my piece is about!" Very cool.

One thing my wife, Sara, who makes all my magical, colorful shirts, has noted about Annie's work is her incredible facility with colors. Both of her sets for me -- TV and stage -- have lots of colors in them, and yet they don't at all feel too busy or riotous; they feel playful, comfortable, intimate.

In fact, as I've said before, I'd love to actually live in one of Annie's sets. I bet if I could tell Annie the complete story of my life, she could find some pattern there among all the seeming randomness and come up with a design that makes colorful sense of it.

2 comments October 9th, 2005

On the Road

There are things that a middle-aged man should not have to endure, at least not while he is unclothed. One of the worst of them is facing a really big, wall-sized bathroom mirror. And yet this is exactly what happened to me this morning, here in my hotel room in Austin, Texas. It's past midnight now and I still haven't gotten over it. I mean, Yecchh! Maybe next time, on top of "no smoking," I'll specify "no mirror."

Ironically, the stage monologue I'll be performing at the University of Texas at Austin this weekend -- Ben Franklin: Unplugged -- was inspired by my looking in the bathroom mirror while shaving one day and realizing I looked like Mr. Franklin. This superficial little insight led me down a rabbit hole of history and heartache, and it's always a delight to have the chance to recount this adventure to audiences. Though I have to say that, after spending the past bunch of weeks taping our TV show, it feels kind of weird going cold-turkey from interviewing for a week or two.

Maybe I'll interview the incredibly loud cricket that's hanging out somewhere in the theater. We don't know exactly where it is yet, but it started chirping during today's rehearsal -- huge, booming chirps -- and each time we thought it was gone, or asleep, it would start up again. It seems to like some light cues but not others, and it isn't bashful about voicing its opinion.

One of the crew members suggested that if the cricket is still around tomorrow (when we do the first performance), they might send some bats after it. Austin apparently has the largest urban bat population in the world. (At least, that's what it says in the magazine in my room. Sadly, there's no listing of the largest suburban bat population; I guess you'd have to seek out a really high concentration of chirping Subaru Outbacks.) I really want to see the bats come out at dusk -- it's supposed to be an amazing sight -- but it seems that the bats' showtime coincides with my own. Everyone's a performer here!

2 comments October 6th, 2005

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