Archive for November, 2005

The Hot Seat

Tomorrow night (Thursday at 7:30 p.m.) I get a taste of my own medicine, as San Francisco Chronicle theater critic Robert Hurwitt grills me on the sordid details of my life and work. The interrogation will take place at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, on the same stage where I have happily performed my monologues many times in the past. (Random note: their café has been known to serve excellent lox, fresh and nicely sliced -- the kind of detail that an itinerant, and hungry, Jewish performer tends to appreciate.)

After the interview, I'll be signing copies of my book of monologues, Red Diaper Baby (and trying not to leave lox-grease fingerprints on them, unless specifically requested).

If you're in the neighborhood, please stop by!

November 30th, 2005

A Rumble Tonight

For a guy who thinks a lot about earthquakes, Simon Winchester -- my guest on tonight's show (at 7:30 p.m.; repeated on Friday at 10:30 p.m.) -- seemed remarkably relaxed during our conversation. I, on the other hand, was feeling pretty darned shaky -- having just finished reading his latest book, A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906. Ever since I experienced the Fairly-Big-One of '89, I'd wondered what it was like in '06. Well, now I know: it was bad -- really, really bad. What the Great Quake didn't destroy, the Great Fire that followed did its best to erase. But I learned something very heartening as well: in the immediate aftermath of the '06 quake, people -- acting together through their government -- carried out amazing acts of kindness and support. So that the book ends up being not just a masterful account of the awesome geological forces that can make our individual lives seem insignificant; it's also a chronicle of how our shared endeavors can bring out the most laudable aspects of our humanity.

Josh interviews Simon WinchesterIn person, Winchester radiates warmth. He's a raconteur's raconteur -- a guy you'd want to want to be chatting with at an isolated tavern that had been snowed-in for the day. He delights in finding seemingly loose threads and tying them together in unexpected ways. Plus he's got a soothing voice and a great British accent. If only he hadn't kept bringing up all that stuff about earthquakes, I might even have gotten a bit loosey-goosey myself. ...

Also on this episode: a "Wandering Josh" segment in which I help a man accomplish his long-held dream of honoring Daly City as the true epicenter of the '06 quake -- even if Daly City doesn't want him to!

4 comments November 21st, 2005


If I may, I would like to coin the term "Org!" My definition would be this: The cry emitted by a recovering sloppy person as he or she slogs through a lifetime's accumulation of assorted stuff.

I have been uttering "Org!" a lot lately, and I have to admit that the battle against entropy has been taking its toll. The professional organizer I hired, a very forceful woman named Agnes, seemed to sense that my determination was flagging. So yesterday, in the middle of one of our marathon sessions in my ultra-cluttered apartment, she sat me down for a little talk.

For a few long moments, we just sat there. Clearly, Agnes had something important and difficult to tell me, and was trying to formulate just the right words. I sipped my coffee, waiting and wondering: Was she going to dump me as a client? Had my cassette collection -- in which not a single tape is in its correct box -- finally pushed her over the edge? Or did our kitchen table, which magically fills up with tumblicious piles of assorted papers between each of her visits, represent the final straw? Had she lost hope of ever finding the final straw?

Remember, we're talking about a woman who has cleaned up some really bad situations. We're talking about a woman who says, with pride, "I learned organization in Germany." We're talking about a woman who sees the glass not as half-empty, or half-full, but half-an-inch out of alignment with the other glasses on the shelf. We're talking about a perfectionist. And if my little family is anything, I would have to say that we are staunch imperfectionists. Perhaps Agnes had finally met her match.

Finally, she spoke. "I think, Josh," she began, in her delightful Hungarian-Jewish accent, "that we must rededicate ourselves to the task at hand. We are about at the midpoint, I would say. And it is my experience, with many clients in the past, that this is the point at which they start to phase out a bit. If this behavior is not nipped in the bud, I know what will happen: we will get your apartment in good shape, but then I'll come back a year later and it will be a mess again."

She was right: I had been phasing out a bit. It's a massive endeavor -- not only to rationalize a very small living space that's filled with tons of stuff, but also to create new habits of neatness after a lifetime of sloth. In college my roommates often thought I was out, when I was simply behind all the newspapers and such. When I had my first apartment, in my early 20s, I bought some dishes, ate food on them, and placed them in the sink -- and in the sink they stayed, as I waited for the dishwashing fairy to come and clean them; by the time I moved out, a year later, that sink had become fit only for a science experiment. Even now, as a mature, middle-aged person who votes and is kind to animals, I get sleepy and disoriented when I try to focus on housework.

But that's not the person I want to be!

So I hereby rededicate myself to this organizational process. I have been a slob for 46 years, but shall remain one no longer. This is where I draw the line in the carpet. Hear me, world: Ich bin ein Organizer!

November 17th, 2005

Killing Time

One thing I did not expect to find in Anthony Swofford's Gulf War memoir, Jarhead, was a poignant evocation of how difficult it is to wait. But in his pages you can practically feel the tension escalating among Swofford and his fellow Marines as they sit around for an agonizingly long time, simultaneously hoping for and dreading the moment when they'll be called upon to kill -- or be killed. To a somewhat lesser extent, the current movie version also dramatizes the excruciating (and sometimes comic) behavior that this tension -- from the seemlingly endless stretch of non-activity -- brings out in these young men in a hot desert thousands of miles from home. But I have to say that my interview with Swofford -- which runs tonight at 7:30, and will be repeated Friday night at 10:30 -- seemed to go by just like that.

I think that's because Swofford's an intense guy. At first I attributed this intensity to his military background, but as we chatted I came to feel that his passion as a writer -- his joy in the craft -- more than matched his former urge to fight. I'm learning so much from this interviewing job, and one very gratifying aspect of that education is in exploring the complexity -- even the contradictions -- in each of my diverse guests. Before this interview, I had expected to meet a soldier; coming out of it, I felt -- more than anything -- that I had encountered a writer: a man whose life-or-death combat is with the blank page. It's a war he's winning.

3 comments November 14th, 2005

Talking to Strangers

I'm incredibly excited about the show that we'll be taping this Friday. I'll be interviewing two brilliant political thinkers, Danielle Allen and George Lakoff, each of whose work has profoundly affected the way I think of myself as a citizen.

Allen, a dean and professor at the University of Chicago, has written a book called Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education. It is a deep, yet accessible, meditation on what it means to practice democracy "on the ground" -- on street-corners, at our jobs, and elsewhere in our daily lives. A classicist and political theorist by training, she draws on influences as ancient as Aristotle and as recent as Ralph Ellison as she weaves a persuasive argument that laws alone are not enough: democracy can live only when all of us adopt the habits of political friendship that allow us to communicate meaningfully through our differences. ... One of the reasons I have found her book so inspiring is that it's helped pull me out of the very frustrating mental framework of waiting for all change to happen through the so-called political process. I am hugely interested in that process -- it was a thrill for me to chat with Sen. Barbara Boxer, the episode that's re-running this week -- but the notion that my involvement as a citizen does not begin and end in the voting booth is a very energizing one to me.

And speaking of frameworks: Lakoff, a professor of Linguistics at Berkeley, is the author, most recently, of Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. In recent years I've been puzzled about how complex subjects like taxation have been demonized, reaping great political benefits for their reframers. For example, as Lakoff points out, once "tax cuts" had been reframed by their proponents as "tax relief," the conceptual war had already been won: if you were against the cuts, then you were against "relief" -- and who in their right mind would be against relief? ... My resistance to framing has been that I don't want to reduce subjects on which I am ambivalent (and that's a lot of subjects!) to simplistic "frames" that may be effective in the political wars but don't capture how I honestly feel. Lakoff argues that to frame is not to oversimplify, but rather to be clear as to what you do believe. (And I know that in this brief description, I am oversimplifying Lakoff's ideas! Good thing he'll have a chance to speak for himself on the show.) ...

Tomorrow we'll be taping a little "Wandering Josh" segment that attempts to elucidate one or more of the political ideas propounded by Profs. Allen and Lakoff, and will accompany their in-studio interviews. I'm looking forward to figuring out what exactly that segment will entail. In fact, I should probably begin that figuring-out process right about now. ...

3 comments November 1st, 2005

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