Archive for January, 2006
So I did it! I took the written DMV exam, and got only two questions wrong out of, oh, umpteens. (Okay, so a thick broken white line doesn't mean you're allowed to go extra-slow -- sue me!) I'd like to think that Rita Moreno, my guest on the rerun that airs tonight at 7:30 and on Friday night at 10:30, would be proud that a fellow New Yorker had made it even this far towards driverosity.
I was incredibly nervous going into the test: the gnawing anxiety reminded me -- unpleasantly -- of my school days. And in fact, I remember very little about what happened beforehand -- except that I chatted with a guy who was watching his adorable baby daughter while his wife took the exam. I had an uncomfortable premonition that this child would get her license before I did.
After administering a perfunctory vision test, they sent me over to the Examination Area. ("No conversation! No cellphones! Violators will be disqualified!") The little pencil they gave me broke after only a few questions -- possibly an indication that I was pressing a bit. And yet -- kind of like a minor Hanukkah miracle -- the pencil continued to eke out checkmarks until the very end.
As I waited on line for the woman grading our tests, I felt a growing sense of apprehension. She had this way of rolling her eyes while grading the people in front of me, as if she couldn't believe she had to deal with such idiots as ourselves. You get three chances to take the exam, and some of the folks in line were down to their last attempt. If actually driving is anything close to this nerve-wracking, I thought, I might have to rethink this whole project.
And then came my moment of truth! The grader took the test from my trembling hands. Knowing that more than six mistakes would doom me to a re-take, I watched her red pen twitch malevolently as she compared my exam with her answer-sheet. Check, check, check, check, ... then an "x"! ... then more checks, one more infernal "x" ... Finally, without saying a word, she handed the marked-up sheet of paper back to me.
"I passed?" I asked breathlessly.
"Yes," she said, in a tone of voice that indicated she found this moment to be less historic than I did.
Smiling at everyone I passed -- something that you apparently don't see often at the DMV, based on their reactions -- I made my way to the exit. A sign on the door announced, in all caps, "FACILITY MAY BE UNDER VIDEO SURVEILLANCE." As I stepped outside, my mind -- newly freed of all the driving rules that had been crammed into it -- explored the possible meanings of this statement. Perhaps the facility wasn't under surveillance, and they just didn't have it in their heart to totally bluff? Or maybe no one at the DMV had been able to figure out whether or not this surveillance was happening, so they were hedging their bets? ...
It was a longish walk back to BART, past many industrial-type buildings surrounded by barbed wire to keep out the likes of me. I wondered what they actually produced at the "Tension Envelope Corporation," and whether people there ever just, you know, snapped. I pondered the Darwinian competition that had left "PICK-N-PULL" with a thriving business while, just across the street, "U-PULL" had been reduced literally to rubble. But mostly, I just noticed what a drag it was to be walking! Some of the route had no sidewalk to speak of, and there were very few traffic signals geared to the needs of pedestrians. The whole layout seemed to be sending the message, "Walkers Are Suckers!"
Finally on the BART platform, I reflected on my current, limbo-like condition -- not yet a real driver, but no longer basking in the Edenic innocence of pure bipedalism. At some point I realized that a man with a suitcase was asking me how to get to the Civic Center station; snapping back to the "Now," I gave him clear instructions (with zero eye-rolling, by the way). Then I asked him what had brought him to the Bay Area. "Oh, I'm with the Eternal War on Television network," he replied, cheerfully.
A bit taken aback, I said, "Wow! I knew television had its critics, but I didn't realize there was a whole network devoted to waging an eternal war on it."
He laughed. "No, it's the Eternal Word on Television. We're a Catholic network."
And for the first time that morning, I truly relaxed -- relieved not only that there was no Eternal War being waged on the medium I am now pleased to call my home, but also that the DMV hadn't thought of giving me a hearing test!
January 30th, 2006
So I'm finally going to take my learner's permit test at the DMV tomorrow morning. For a middle-aged non-driver from New York, this feels akin to planning to sneak past the Wall during the Cold War. You could say I'm feeling extremely anxious about this test, and you'd be dead right.
I got a shiny new DMV booklet from the public library and am now making my way through its grim pages. So many terrible things that can happen when you're driving! So much to think about when you're entering a roundabout! (Not to mention getting Yes's cloying "Roundabout" song stuck in your head, which is almost as worrisome.) But I swear to Joan Borucki (DMV's director) and all my other fellow Californians that I will try my level best tomorrow.
And now ... back to the dang booklet. ...
January 26th, 2006
Over a decade ago I had the pleasure of participating in the first version of "The Grotto," a San Francisco-based collective where writers got together to work and kibbitz. Each of us had a little office space, in which we were meant to hole up and craft our masterpieces. But many of us somehow found ourselves wasting much of the day in the shared living room, which had a couple of very nappable couches and a much-abused nerfball-basketball hoop.
The unquestioned nerfball champion of The Grotto was Po Bronson, my guest on tonight's show (at 7:30 p.m.; repeated on Friday at 10:30 p.m.). And he brought the same Michael Jordan-esque intensity to everything he did -- notably, his writing. Po had a quirky set-up: instead of using his main office space, he'd cram himself into a tiny bathroom, using the toilet as a seat and a jammed-in two-by-four as his desk. Also, he had the disturbing habit of nervously plucking at his eyebrows as he wrote -- so that, the deeper he got into a book, his brows would break out in bloody sores and Band-Aids.
Yes, folks, writing isn't pretty. But the thing is, he got results. Since my brief time at The Grotto, Po has established himself as a prolific and popular author of both fiction (Bombardiers) and nonfiction (What Should I Do With My Life?). And his new book, a consideration of real-life relationships titled Why Do I Love These People?: Honest and Amazing Stories of Real Families, has put his intensity to the service of a remarkable project: Po's heartfelt attempt to show that the oft-rung death knell for the American Family is drowning out a powerful truth -- that our families, for all their flaws and variations, are getting stronger.
Why Do I Love These People? recounts the stories of 19 very disparate families. The problems their members encountered, and the courage and inventiveness with which they addressed them, are sometimes almost unbearably poignant. Po Bronson's book moved me deeply, and its lessons -- none of them of the easy, how-to variety -- have continued to resonate. However much his eyebrows suffered this time through, they did so for an eminently good cause.
January 23rd, 2006
So in my last post I got kind of distracted by the burglary of my stuff from my dressing room (I still haven't heard from the Philadelphia police detectives -- maybe they have more pressing concerns?), and I didn't get to mention the cool celebration I'd attended earlier on Tuesday morning.
Okay, I say "earlier" -- this is a relative term. For a touring theater performer, Ben Franklin's famous "Early to Bed, Early to Rise" dictum might perhaps suggest rising at the crack of noonish. But since this was Ben's 300th birthday, I bravely dragged myself out of bed and rushed down to a really old part of Philly for their annual parade -- starting at 11 a.m. -- in honor of the great man.
The parade began at the American Philosophical Society, which Franklin founded (natch), and made its way a few short blocks to his grave, at the Christ Church cemetery. The paraders were an eclectic mix: Franklin scholars, librarians, city dignitaries, kilted bagpipers (because "Dr." Franklin had gotten his honorary degree in Edinburgh?), a whole lot of Freemasons (Franklin had been one), and several members of the wonderful Friends of Franklin organization. A member of this last group, who'd seen my Franklin show, recognized me and pulled me into the procession. It was a beautiful, cold, crisp morning, and one thing that struck me was that everyone seemed to be smiling -- with the notable exception of a lone man who sullenly held up a sign proclaiming the eternal presidential ambitions of Lyndon LaRouche.
We all crowded into a corner of the cemetery where a prayer was said on behalf of Franklin (whose own religious views were quite democratic, by the way -- he gave generously to many churches, including the substantial sum of $800 to help build the city's first Jewish synagogue). Then a dignitary said a few words, though he was partially drowned out by a helicopter that hovered above us (there was lots of press, including a cluster of TV cameras -- Ben, the great self-publicist, would've loved it). I thought of stepping on a nearby platform to get a better view of the proceedings, but fortunately realized in time that it was actually a very large gravestone.
But I have to say that I still didn't feel totally connected to Franklin. The Franklin I've come to know through my own little researches was -- beneath all his accomplishments, and his deserved fame -- intimate and down-to-earth. These grand and elaborate proceedings, invoking God and country, though heartfelt, didn't evoke that easy, joyful plainness I associated with Ben: Much as I longed to, I didn't feel his presence.
After that ceremony, I headed over to the Downtown Club, where I'd been comped into a fancy luncheon to raise money for Franklin-related projects in Philadelphia. One of the honorees was to be Claude-Anne Lopez, the brilliant Franklin writer who is really the heroine of my monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged. As a Jewish teenager in Nazi-occupied Belgium, Claude had miraculously managed to escape to America, where she settled in New Haven with her husband, a professor at Yale. Eventually, after their two sons were grown, Claude -- who had never graduated from college -- wandered over into Yale's collection of Franklin papers one day in the '50s and ended up becoming one of the world's great Franklin scholars. (For starters, check out her charming book Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris.)
Like Ben himself, this ferociously intelligent woman must have been quite an exacting parent. (At the parade I met one of her sons, who told me that for one of his recent birthdays, Claude had sent him a refrigerator magnet that read: "You're Never Too Old To Find Room for Improvement in Your Middle-Aged Son!") As a friend -- and she has become a dear one to me and my family (she calls me "Joshua the Bear," since I'd once described myself over the phone as looking somewhat bearlike) -- she is a total delight. I love Claude. And I was thrilled that, though she is somewhat frail these days (she's in her mid-80s), these Philadelphia "Franklinistas" (as she calls them) had arranged for her to be honored and to give a talk.
Claude's speech, which was typically charming and erudite, focused on the confusions of one of Franklin's grandsons, William "Temple" Franklin. Temple, the issue of Franklin's son William and an unknown "woman of low repute," had originally been placed in an orphanage in England. Ben -- in London on an ultimately futile diplomatic mission -- took him out of the orphanage and raised him as "William Temple"; the boy didn't know anything about his parentage. Claude speculates that it was only on the boat ride back to America, in the tumultuous year of 1775, that Ben revealed to Temple that he was in fact his grandfather, and that William Franklin (then the Royal Governor of New Jersey) was his father. At the luncheon, Claude began by reading from a diary she has imagined for the teenaged Temple, and which she is currently posting in online installments.
The luncheoneers sat at round, numbered tables, listening politely. It was a fancy crowd: philanthropists, politicians, and those ever-present Masons (no LaRouche guy, fortunately). I watched Claude as she spoke in a firm voice, with her charming accent -- this representative of a vanishing generation of European Jewry. What a remarkable country we have, where all the cultures of the world somehow join together in this still-fragile American democratic experiment! And yet, though I felt a strong kinship to Claude, I still felt as out of place as I usually do at big-ticket events.
And then Claude did something. After reading her entry from Temple's "diary," she called Ellen Cohn, the current editor of Yale's Franklin Papers, up to the lectern. Ellen has always struck me as being quite shy, so I suspect that it was only the mighty force of Claude's will that got her up there. She's also an expert in Franklin's love for music, and Claude -- it turns out -- had asked her to lead us all in singing a love song that Ben had written to his wife, titled "I Sing My Plain Country Joan." (I realize that his wife was actually named Deborah, but I believe that "Joan" was his pet name for her.) At the end of each verse was a line that began "My dear Friends," which Ellen asked all of us to join her in singing.
Well, the song was charming and lovely. And as we all sang along with the last line of each verse, I looked around at everyone's faces -- and I saw delight, joy, humanity. I felt Franklin in the room.
Here's the last verse:
Some faults we have all, and so may my Joan,
But then they're exceedingly small;
An now I'm us'd to 'em, they're just like my own,
I scarcely can see 'em at all,
[All:] My dear Friends, I scarcely can see 'em at all.
As I walked back to my hotel, on crowded blocks past discount-clothing stores and fast-food joints, I recalled a moment from my New York childhood. I was about eight (the age my own son is now), and I'd recently been greatly troubled by nightmares in which my father (then a very hearty man in his 40s) appeared to be old and dying. I wanted time somehow to stop, so that everything would stay the same as it was. But for some reason, as we waited on a subway platform, my question came out like this: "Dad, is there a god?"
Dad, ever the rational materialist, explained to me that, as he had never seen proof of a deity, he'd have to say no. And yet I persisted, as eight-year-olds do: "But if there is a god, what's he like?"
For a time, my father stood there, thinking. Then he said, "Well, if there is a god, then he's all the people, if they would work together."
January 19th, 2006
Well, it's been an interesting evening: When I returned to my dressing room tonight in Philadelphia, after performing my Franklin monologue and then staying onstage to lead the audience in singing "Happy Birthday" to Ben Franklin -- who was just turning 300 -- I discovered that my wallet, my Treo phone (which also had my PalmPilot info in it), and (I just realized this after getting back to my hotel room) my iPod had been stolen. It's weird that anyone was able to get to my stuff, as there were two members of the theater staff in front of the dressing-room doorway during the entire show. Kind of a surreal scene as well, as I had intended to join the large contingent from the audience who had repaired to an upstairs room in the theater to continue toasting Ben's 300th.
The theater people called the police, who took a couple of hours to respond, since it wasn't a robbery in progress or anything. Eventually a blonde policewoman, looking like a cast member from a TV show in which we are meant to accept that 18-year-old actresses are actually cops, showed up. I took her downstairs to the labyrinthine bowels of the theater, where the dressing rooms are. She asked a few questions. It was not at all like Columbo, but that may have been because I wasn't the guest star who had committed the nearly perfect crime except for the one thing I'd overlooked. ... Rather, I was the visiting monologuist -- a very un-Hollywoodish theater performer who would, if anything, be cast as the wacky bald sidekick to the teenaged blonde policewoman. No, not the sidekick -- I'd probably be her dad. I believe the actual policewoman's last name was "File." So let's say the show would be called The File Files -- and I'd be her gruff but loving bald dad, Phil File. I left the force years ago because I wanted to get into the theater; now, years later, I'm realizing that theater's a dying art -- the people want glitz and jump-cutting, don't you know. So what do I do? I sit at home and drink unhealthy amounts of Peet's coffee, alternately doting on and worrying about my devil-may-care cop daughter, Phyllis. ... Then one night she comes back from work: turns out a monologuist has been robbed, right out of his dressing room at the theater. The case is at a standstill -- but maybe, just maybe, with my theatrical experience I can help her hunt down the perpetrators. ...
Okay, I'm babbling. ... But let me just mention (if I haven't already) that the real-life Philadelphia policewoman said she suspected this was an inside job.
Two other things, and then I'll stop writing about this. One, I called my bank to cancel my two credit cards and they told me that both cards had already been used -- at a gas station! Two, I don't drive! ... So is that fair? They steal from a non-driver and then try to use my credit cards for gas? There should be a law. ...
Okay, just one more thing about this: I had this idea that maybe, since the perpetrator(s) used my credit cards at a gas station, they got caught on a security camera. Hesitantly, I mentioned this to Policewoman File, thinking she would just nod gruffly and keep walking (perhaps muttering something about people who watch too much TV and think they know how to solve crimes). Instead she said something like, "You know, that's possible." She told me that some detectives would be in touch -- though since I no longer have my cellphone, I'm not totally sure how they'll reach me. ...
So anyhow: Happy 300th Birthday, Ben Franklin!
As far as I know Franklin didn't set up America's first police force -- but he did organize our first volunteer fire department. Also (and this is just off the top of my head, at 1:15 a.m. after a long day of performing and being robbed) he set up our first successful insurance company (irony noted), along with the first public school, lending library, and public hospital. He invented bifocals (which I recently found out I need -- though in my case, they are sexily referred to as "progressive lenses"), along with the grabber (you know, that device you can use to pull down a cereal box from the top shelf at the grocery store), the first smokeless coal-burning stove (the "Franklin stove"), the glass armonica (an ethereal instrument that Mozart, among others, ended up composing for), an elegant typeface that still bears his name, and -- oh yes, right -- the lightning rod. He was the only person to sign all four of the fundamental founding documents of our country: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation, and the peace treaty with the British. He co-founded the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society. On the boat ride back from France -- in his 70s, suffering from gout and other ailments, and having just saved the American Revolution with his brilliant diplomacy -- he occupied his time by charting the Gulf Stream. Also (and I learned this yesterday, during my dinner with a bunch of Franklin scholars) while on that boat ride, he redesigned the sailors' soup bowls and the chickens' feed bowls so that neither would slosh as much. He refused to take out patents on any of his inventions, believing that everyone should have access to them. ...
And did I mention that at the time the peasants of Europe had a superstitious fear of potatoes, thinking them poisonous? And that while in Europe Franklin, knowing that the potato could provide sustenance for many of these peasants, arranged for a sumptuous feast to be prepared in which everything -- bread, whiskey, soup, etc. -- was made from potatoes? And that he made sure the success of this meal was widely publicized? And that his plan worked, and peasants started eating pototoes like there was no tomorrow? ... Well, all that stuff really happened. ...
And you already know about Poor Richard's Almanack, and his best-selling Autobiography. ...
And I promise I won't go on much further about Ben, but my father-in-law, who is himself a great scientist, loves to talk about two of Franklin's lesser-known scientific experiments. In the first, he wanted to find out whether different colors absorb different amounts of heat -- so he placed several strips of paper, of different colors, in the snow on a sunny winter's day. Sure enough, the differently colored paper strips absorbed different amounts of heat from the sun: the proof was that the ones that had absorbed more heat had melted further down into the snow. ... In the other experiment, Franklin wanted to determine the exact width of a molecule. So he poured a bit of oil in a French pond and waited for it to completely spread out on top of the water, figuring that its ultimate thickness would be that of one molecule. (Okay, I admit I'm kind of lost here myself -- but the guy sitting next to me at dinner last night confirmed that Franklin's measurement was incredibly close to being accurate.) ...
He was vegetarian for a while, but then he gave it up. There was a Scottish folksong that made him cry. He lost a beloved son, at four, to smallpox -- and then, when the false rumor spread that his son had died from being inoculated, Franklin, in his grief, wrote a pamphlet explaining that his son had not been inoculated and that everyone should be inoculated. He spent over 10 years in England trying to get the British to treat the colonists fairly; not only did he fail, but he was also falsely accused at home of secretly being a British agent. In France, in his 70s, he proposed marriage to an elderly widow of enormous wit and intellect; she turned him down, gracefully.
He had two years of formal education: second and third grade. After that, his father pulled him out of school, reasoning that there wasn't enough money for him to go to college anyway. He was apprenticed to his older brother James, who -- possibly jealous of his younger brother's obvious genius -- beat him. He ran away, and was caught and brought back. He ran away again, and made it to Philadelphia. ...
Okay, it's 1:58 a.m. and I have two shows to do tomorrow. Franklin is now officially 300 years and one day old. I have less stuff than I had this morning, but I have enough. Officer File will report to the detectives. And to you, who possibly even read all the way to here -- or, more sensibly, skipped down to see how all the blathering would end -- I wish a peaceful good night.
January 17th, 2006
I write to you from chilly Philadelphia, where I'm performing my show Ben Franklin: Unplugged through Saturday. But thanks to the magic of pre-taping, back in my beloved Bay Area our TV show goes on! I do realize that neither of my extraordinary guests on tonight's program (at 7:30 p.m., to be repeated on Friday at 10:30 p.m.), mountaineer Arlene Blum or big-wave surfer Sarah Gerhardt, would consider my current predicament -- ensconced in a hotel room while outside the sun sets on a crisp, clear, slightly sub-freezing day -- particularly challenging. But to cut me a little slack here, both of them do grade challenges on quite a steep curve.
Blum has been the first woman -- and often the first American -- to climb several of the world's highest peaks. Gerhardt was the first woman to surf "Maverick's," a huge wave off the coast of Half Moon Bay. (I get enough thrills from the shallow pool at the Y, thank you very much.) I learned that though a generation apart in age, Blum and Gerhardt (who cites the climber as an inspiration) share a striking number of similarities: both endured extremely trying childhoods, both faced resistance from men in their field, and (this one's really surprising) both have doctorates in physical chemistry. (It would be cool if some postdoc out there could do a study to see if there's any statistical correlation between physical chemistry and physical courage. All I ask is a little thank-you when your article runs in Scientific American.)
For more on these two pioneers, check out Blum's new memoir Breaking Trail: A Climbing Life and a lovely new documentary about Gerhard, One Winter Story, by Elizabeth Pepin (a producer on our show!).
As for me, I must now brave the elements and hike over to a nearby restaurant, where I'll be dining with several Franklin scholars who have gathered here to celebrate Franklin's 300th birthday tomorrow. And lest you think that this activity has no relevance to tonight's TV program, let me just mention that Ben, an avid wind-surfer, is the only Founding Father honored at the International Swimming Hall of Fame. (I'm not sure if he was much of a mountain-climber, though I understand his kite got up pretty high. ...)
January 16th, 2006
My benevolent webmistress, Colleen Wilson, informs me that we now may have the ability to offer our show as a podcast -- a free version of each episode that you can put on your computer, and then transfer to your iPod. The question that she's asked me -- and that I'm now passing along to you -- is whether our podcasts should be (a) video or (b) audio-only.
The cool thing about the video podcasts, of course, would be that you could actually watch the show (as well as hear it). The downside (downsides?): only people with the most recent version of the iPod (oh, how I envy you!) can watch video, and these files would be relatively large (and thus take longer to download).
As for the audio-only podcasts, everyone with any kind of iPod could get them -- and their relatively small file size would make for quick downloads. On the other hand, you wouldn't be able to see me waving my hands with inappropriate wildness, or blocking the camera's view of my guest while I reach for my umpteenth sip of coffee -- not to mention fall on my ass in a "Wandering Josh" segment.
So there you have the podcasting choice: to video, or to audio-only? Please let me know in the "comments" section below. ...
Speaking of: I have been getting tremendous enjoyment from a series of podcasts created by Ricky Gervais and Steve Merchant, the guys who gave the world the original, squirmalicious British version of The Office. Called The Ricky Gervais Show, these (audio-only) podcasts consist entirely of a half-hour conversation between Ricky, Steve, and a very odd fellow named Karl Pilkington. Mostly, Ricky and Steve mercilessly make fun of Karl, who is either one of the strangest fellows on the planet or absolutely the greatest comedian of all time -- I can't figure out which. So far, they've done six podcasts, out of an eventual total of 12. You can download the episodes here, or you can subscribe to the podcasts on iTunes (either way, it's free). My favorite section of each episode tends to be the "Monkey News," which is exactly what you'd expect, subject-matter-wise. ...
January 14th, 2006
Something I often get asked, as a monologuist, is whether it's lonely for me onstage. (In fact I believe this question came up during a recent interview I did on WHYY-FM here in Philadelphia -- you can get the streaming audio by searching for "Kornbluth" here.) And my heartfelt reply is always that being onstage is one of the least lonely places for me: As a solo performer I spend the entire show with hundreds of upturned faces beaming at me (okay -- sometimes a few of them are sleeping, but it is dark and comfy in the theater, and usually even the sleepers are smiling dreamily ...). And there's my crew, in the wings or up in a booth. And there are the characters in the piece -- many of them (since I'm an autobiographer) my loved ones -- whose faces I'm seeing in my mind's eye as I perform. ...
For some reason, I've been noticing faces a lot during this trip. Back at Oakland Airport, as I waited in line to be herded into our no-reserved-seats flight, I listened to my iPod and looked around at the other people at the gate. There was a young woman accompanying her mother, who was in a wheelchair; the daughter was animatedly telling a story, and at the punchline she and her mom broke into raucous laughter at something they clearly shared an intimate knowledge of. ... A teenaged girl, also in a wheelchair and with a cast on her leg -- my guess was: skateboarding accident -- looked frustrated and resigned to be immobilized; her parents, wearing special-looking badges (perhaps allowing them to accompany her to the plane, even though they weren't flying with her? is this allowed?), looked understandably anxious; I never saw them smile. ... In the very front of the dreaded "C" line (which goes on the plane last; I was in "B") was a thin, athletic-looking man (a dancer?) sitting cross-legged on the floor; during a break in the songs on my iPod I heard him say "I'll see you soon -- I love you" into his cellphone, after which he wearily leaned forward, resting his head in his arms. ...
At the Rite Aid downstairs from my hotel (which, I learned to my chagrin, sells boxer shorts but not briefs) the cashiers and security staff present a polite but neutral face to the customer, but can be covertly caught grinning at co-workers. Across the street at a discount clothing store called Daffy's (which does sell briefs -- yay!) a female guard directed me to the men's hosiery section; her sweet, open smile revealed interestingly off-kilter teeth; based on her whole look, I'm guessing she used to be involved with a biker gang, then drifted into security after a relationship went bad. ...
At night, thanks to some free software and an "iSight" camera/microphone that my wife gave me for Christmas, I can see the faces I miss most: those of my wife and son, back home in Berkeley. Weird things happen with the picture on my computer's screen -- it pixillates, swirls around, even freezes sometimes -- and in a way it's even harder being away from them when I can see those dear, blurry images. But ultimately I think I'm grateful to at least have access to their faces for a few moments. ...
And now I need to get ready to perform a show that's premised entirely on the resemblance of my face to Ben Franklin's. Here's looking at you, Ben!
January 13th, 2006
So last night I opened a short run of my comic monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged -- a show that looks at Franklin's famous kite experiment from several possible angles -- at the Philadelphia Theatre Company (through Jan. 21 -- come see it if you're in Philly!). And I was closing in on the end of the first act, when an enormous crack of lightning literally shook the building. The audience and I took a moment to take stock of ourselves, and I briefly struck a kite-flying pose before returning to the scene I'd been in (depicting an intense dining-room conversation). Afterwards, my director and collaborator, David Dower, pointed out that if the performance had begun at the usual theater showtime of 8 p.m. -- rather than at 7:30, when they're starting here -- the lightning would have struck at the exact moment when I was actually dramatizing the kite experiment.
I leave it to theatrical theologians to determine whether this confirms that God prefers holding to the 8 p.m. showtime. ...
January 12th, 2006
I'm not quite sure how I missed seeing Animal House when it came out in 1978 (perhaps I was too busy trying to flunk out of college myself), but somehow I did. So it wasn't until recently, as I prepared to interview the marvelous actor Peter Riegert (my guest on the show that airs tonight at 7:30 and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30), that I finally caught him in the role that launched his film career -- as Donald "Boon" Shoenstein, a laconic frat boy who's so indecisive that he even has trouble committing to a relationship with Karen Allen.
My own fascination with Riegert's work began with his starring role in another noted comedy: 1983's Local Hero, by the great Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Comfort and Joy). Playing "Mac," an American businessman sent to Scotland on a mission to turn a peaceful coastal village into the site of an oil refinery, Riegert manages to take his character through a startling transformation, from crass superficiality to wry self-knowledge. The shift happens in such subtle increments that I kept seeing the film over and over, just to try to figure out exactly how he pulled it off (I couldn't).
Nor did I succeed in deconstructing his next signature role, as Sam ("The Pickle Man") Posner, who woos Amy Irving in Joan Micklin Silver's Crossing Delancey (1988). Again, Riegert's work here is so subtle that Silver actually worried during shooting that he wasn't acting at all! (She changed her mind when she saw the rushes.)
There are actors I admire, and then there are those -- like Riegert -- who fill me with wonder. So I was thrilled when I learned that he was in the Bay Area to direct David Mamet's Sexual Perversity in Chicago at A.C.T. Graciously, he agreed to take a break from rehearsals to chat with me about his prolific career in theater and movies -- including his recent turn as a filmmaker with last year's King of the Corner. It wasn't a total surprise to learn from our conversation that this whimsical performer is just as fascinating while playing the role of himself.
January 9th, 2006