Archive for December, 2005

George & Danielle: Non-Strangers

Earlier this year I was perusing the New York Review of Books (my copy of Us magazine hadn't arrived yet) when I happened to see an ad for a book called Talking to Strangers, by a University of Chicago professor named Danielle Allen. At the time, I was looking forward -- with a healthy amount of trepidation -- to this new gig as a TV interviewer, and so the idea of talking to strangers was very much on my mind. That day, on my way to pick up my son from after-school, I bought a copy. Even before I'd left the store, I started reading the opening chapter and instantly got caught up in Allen's narrative.

Danielle AllenWhich is not to say that her book is your typical page-turner. It's a passionate, and breathtakingly erudite, work of political theory -- weaving together the civil rights movement, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Aristotle's writings on ethics, and many other sources into a thrillingly possible-feeling proposal for making our democracy more ... well ... democratic. I ended up underlining virtually every sentence, as time after time I found that Allen was addressing issues that had deeply troubled me -- especially on the heels of the last presidential election, when I feared that our country was in danger of breaking apart into simplistic, and polarized, contingents of "red" versus "blue." (Okay, I still fear that.) Her book -- despite its modest, down-to-earth, questioning tone -- makes a forceful and persuasive argument that we need to focus on creating political friendships across party, class, racial, and other lines. I'm thrilled that, during a brief visit to the Bay Area, she was able to drop by our studios for a conversation on the show that will air tonight at 7:30 (and be repeated on Friday night at both 7:30 and 10:30). ...

George LakoffMy other guest, George Lakoff, had only to cross the Bay to reach us. Which is not to say it was exactly easy to schedule him: because his powerful ideas about political "framing" have become so influential, he has a demanding cross-country travel itinerary that would seem unusual for your typical, mild-mannered linguistics professor at Cal-Berkeley. Even before the publication of his latest book, the slim and accessible Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Lakoff -- a founder of the Berkeley-based think tank the Rockridge Institute -- had become a hot commodity among politicos, from U.S. senators on down to grassroots activists. Like Danielle Allen, he is devoted to deepening the national dialogue about the pressing issues of our day. And on the show, he argued that following the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, we may actually be facing a unique opportunity to come together as citizens. I hope he's right! ...

In between the two interviews is a "Wandering Josh" segment in which I present some very silly petitions to some very patient Berkeleyites. Based on this first foray into the political arena, I think it's safe to say that if I ever run for office, I am highly likely to get myself recalled before the election can even take place. ...

2 comments December 19th, 2005

George & Danielle: Non-Strangers

Earlier this year I was perusing the New York Review of Books (my copy of Us magazine hadn't arrived yet) when I happened to see an ad for a book called Talking to Strangers, by a University of Chicago professor named Danielle Allen. At the time, I was looking forward -- with a healthy amount of trepidation -- to this new gig as a TV interviewer, and so the idea of talking to strangers was very much on my mind. That day, on my way to pick up my son from after-school, I bought a copy. Even before I'd left the store, I started reading the opening chapter and instantly got caught up in Allen's narrative.

Danielle AllenWhich is not to say that her book is your typical page-turner. It's a passionate, and breathtakingly erudite, work of political theory -- weaving together the civil rights movement, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Aristotle's writings on ethics, and many other sources into a thrillingly possible-feeling proposal for making our democracy more ... well ... democratic. I ended up underlining virtually every sentence, as time after time I found that Allen was addressing issues that had deeply troubled me -- especially on the heels of the last presidential election, when I feared that our country was in danger of breaking apart into simplistic, and polarized, contingents of "red" versus "blue." (Okay, I still fear that.) Her book -- despite its modest, down-to-earth, questioning tone -- makes a forceful and persuasive argument that we need to focus on creating political friendships across party, class, racial, and other lines. I'm thrilled that, during a brief visit to the Bay Area, she was able to drop by our studios for a conversation on the show that will air tonight at 7:30 (and be repeated on Friday night at both 7:30 and 10:30). ...

George LakoffMy other guest, George Lakoff, had only to cross the Bay to reach us. Which is not to say it was exactly easy to schedule him: because his powerful ideas about political "framing" have become so influential, he has a demanding cross-country travel itinerary that would seem unusual for your typical, mild-mannered linguistics professor at Cal-Berkeley. Even before the publication of his latest book, the slim and accessible Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Lakoff -- a founder of the Berkeley-based think tank the Rockridge Institute -- had become a hot commodity among politicos, from U.S. senators on down to grassroots activists. Like Danielle Allen, he is devoted to deepening the national dialogue about the pressing issues of our day. And on the show, he argued that following the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, we may actually be facing a unique opportunity to come together as citizens. I hope he's right! ...

In between the two interviews is a "Wandering Josh" segment in which I present some very silly petitions to some very patient Berkeleyites. Based on this first foray into the political arena, I think it's safe to say that if I ever run for office, I am highly likely to get myself recalled before the election can even take place. ...

10 comments December 19th, 2005

All Revved Up …

Usually, on Friday, we go right from taping my opening monologue to conducting the interview. But today, my guest -- the great actor Peter Riegert, who's in S.F. to direct David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago at the A.C.T. -- is coming in a couple hours later than usual, due to his schedule at the theater. (Apparently, at A.C.T. they do this little thing called "rehearsing." Who knew?) So now I have all this caffeinated energy coming out of doing the monologue, but we've still got some time to go before we continue taping. (This episode, by the way, will air in January.)

And what have I done with all this surplus energy and time? Why, I've started to organize my desk area! What is happening to me? This getting-organized thing seems to be spreading out, from my apartment to my workspace. What's next? The world at large? Be very afraid. ...

December 16th, 2005

Joan of Art

As I prepared to interview Joan Chen, my guest on the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30), I had a general idea of what my research would turn up: an accomplished and glamorous actress, with signature roles on film (the doomed empress in Bertolucci's The Last Emperor) and TV (the equally doomed widow Josie Packard in David Lynch's Twin Peaks series). So I was basically unprepared for both her improbable life story and her remarkable work as a filmmaker.

Joan ChenAlso, she's giggly. Or maybe I was giggly; I don't quite remember, as I am still not at all used to actually meeting people whose work I've admired from afar, and thus experienced our conversation from within a kind of haze. By the time I realized that I was actually talking to her, and not to her characters, I had somehow absorbed a number of amazing facts about her early life in Communist China and her subsquent adventures in capitalist America. I also was beginning to wrap my head around the fact that this still-young woman -- two years younger than me, for goodness' sake! -- has, in the eyes of filmdom, reached the dowager stage. (For example, she plays the humorously cranky -- though admittedly still vivacious -- mother in Alice Wu's Saving Face.)

But what most excited me was to talk about a movie she didn't appear in: Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, which she directed and co-wrote. When Chen was a youngster in China, teenagers were routinely "sent down" from the cities to spend some time in rural areas. Ostensibly, this was to prevent them from becoming bourgeois urbanites -- but in actuality, countless of these youths were subjected to exploitation and degradation; many were never seen again by their friends and families. Chen, whose sudden career as a politically favored child actor rescued her from possibly being sent down, defied the authorities by shooting this film in China without a permit. But Xiu Xiu is not just a labor of love; it's also a very unlikely love story, and it's staggeringly beautiful to look at.

If you missed it in the theaters, you can find it on videotape (though not, it seems, on DVD). And you can find Joan Chen sitting on my couch tonight, as I endeavor -- without much apparent success -- to keep my wits about me.

December 12th, 2005

Actual Diary Entry …

... from my sophomore year at college (I've been unearthing stuff during our current apartment reorganization):

"Thurs., Nov. 2, 1978, 1:27 a.m.: I'm tired of Bruce Springsteen."

Ah, the deep thoughts of my youth! It's a wonder I never actually graduated. ...

December 10th, 2005

Music to My Ears

This has been -- happily -- a very musical week for me. On Monday, I got to jam with Fat Dog, legendary proprietor of Subway Guitars in Berkeley, for a "Wandering Josh" segment that will run with the Michael Franti interview we'll be taping tomorrow. Then yesterday, my son's after-school program put on a smashing and inspiring holiday show, "The Miracle of Oy Vey," which ended with a lovely song written by one of the instructors. (My son played the Miracle Worker -- typecasting.) ... All the while, I've been grooving on my iPod to the music of Franti and of Penelope Houston, the musical guest on the other show we'll be taping tomorrow. (Usually, we tape only one show on Fridays, but with the holidays approaching -- and a couple months of touring I'll be doing early next year -- we're trying to kind of stockpile episodes.) ... And at this very moment my son is completing his weekly piano lesson with his hip jazz-piano-playing teacher (who makes house calls!). Based on what I'm hearing, I believe that we now have an additional boogie-woogie enthusiast in the family. ...

Speaking of music -- and you thought I couldn't do segues! -- I've been listening a lot lately to a really weird rock album by a really weird group: Fetch the Compass Kids, by the evangelical Christian rock band the Danielson Famile. I was turned on to them by a terrific essay by Rick Moody in a recent issue of the magazine The Believer. (You can read a short excerpt from that essay here -- but if you're into weird rock and roll, I highly recommend that you purchase The Believer's entire Music Issue, which even comes with a swell CD of artists covering songs by other artists they admire.) I can't even begin to explain why the caterwauling of the Famile's lead singer, along with their Vince Guaraldi-esque musical arrangements, makes me so happy (at least, when I'm in the mood for it). But Rick Moody can. ...

Lastly, if you dig 20th-century oboe music -- and who can really afford not to, in this topsy-turvy world of ours -- then let me just mention that Joseph Robinson's contribution to the "New York Legends" series of CDs put out by the New York Philharmonic never gets old for me. Just my two Saint-Saens' worth. ...

4 comments December 8th, 2005

Taking It to the Limit

I'm about to run off to tape a "Wandering Josh" segment at the anarcho-rockalistic Subway Guitars store in Berkeley -- but I just wanted to mention that this evening (Monday) at 8 p.m. I'll be performing my comic monologue The Mathematics of Change at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

Join along with my adventures as I recount my raucous freshman year at college, when I hit the wall at calculus! Gasp at the big puffs of chalk dust that emanate from the stage! Cringe as I describe the work-study job I had in biology during which I accidentally injected myself with mouse cancer! ... You can get tix here.

(By the way, this performance is part of a benefit series for the marvelous 826 Valencia Scholarship Program, and is presented by City Arts & Lectures.)

7 comments December 5th, 2005

Sweet BART Moment

So I was taking BART from rainy Berkeley to just-as-rainy San Francisco this morning, and I was hunched over Po Bronson's marvelous new book, Why Do I Love These People?: Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families. (I'll be interviewing the author at tomorrow's taping.) As I read through these truly amazing accounts of people trying (despite everything) to connect with each other, I kind of blocked out a conversation that was happening right next to me: a man and woman animatedly discussing ... something. As I said, I was engrossed in the book. But I did get the sense that these were not long-time acquaintances -- coworkers or lovers -- but rather were people who had perhaps just met on this train, or maybe had met briefly once before: they were friendly with each other, but not intimate.

So we go under the Bay, and then the woman gets out at Embarcadero. The doors close, and as the train starts to pull out from the station, another woman, across the aisle, calls out, "Her umbrella!" I look up from my book, and see a jolly-looking, red-and-pink umbrella leaning against the side of my seat. Then, a bit farther away, I see the man -- who moments ago had been in conversation with the departed woman -- staring at the umbrella. At first he doesn't move -- he just keeps staring, but as he does so he begins to smile and blush. It's as if he's building up the courage to reach out and take the umbrella. Finally, tentatively, he picks it up.

The man realizes that we are all staring at him. Regarding the umbrella in his hand, he says, to no one in particular (and in a light European accent): "This could give me a reason to see her again." Then, smiling, he disembarks at the Montgomery station. ...

BART intimates life?

2 comments December 1st, 2005


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