Archive for February, 2006

Eggers & Calegari: Easy Does It

The idea that every child in America has a right to a quality education -- a notion first propounded by my main man, Ben Franklin -- is a revolutionary one. It implies that the intellectual tools of citizenship should not be restricted to those with the wealth to pay for excellent schooling. And indeed, my parents -- the children of hard-working immigrants -- were able to receive a solid public education all the way through college. Now, with my son attending a terrific public elementary school, I should be confident that he will do the same.

Except that I can't. Because the public schools are under attack, despite the best efforts of heroic teachers, administrators, and parents. The problem is exacerbated in school districts where -- unlike my own -- parents don't have the financial resources to supplement the grossly inadequate funding of their neighborhood schools. I think we all know that public schools in America are in crisis -- even here in California, where the funding (and, not coincidentally, the quality) of public education has slid dramatically from once-lofty levels.

Like everyone I know, I'm mad about this, and frustrated. And scared -- scared about the future of our country when the majority of students are not being adequately prepared to share the democratic responsibilities of self-government. As my late father -- a teacher in public middle schools -- used to point out, kids who move through school without getting a decent education are, in fact, learning something: they're learning that they can't learn. Eventually the beautiful and natural delight in discovering things begins to fade from their eyes. And they enter the adult world knowing that society does not value them -- and perhaps feeling, understandably, that they owe society the same kind of treatment.

So do we just throw up our hands? Well, I admit, that would be my normal inclination. But in my life so far, I've noticed that throwing up my hands doesn't actually change anything (unless I happen to accidentally deflect a Frisbee or something). So thank goodness that -- on this subject, at least -- we have an important new book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers, to offer us information, compassion, and pragmatic advice on how we might make our public schools better. I was thrilled to be able to chat with two of the book's coauthors, Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, on the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30).

Dave Eggers and N</p>

		<p class= 2 comments February 27th, 2006

Eggers & Calegari: Easy Does It

The idea that every child in America has a right to a quality education -- a notion first propounded by my main man, Ben Franklin -- is a revolutionary one. It implies that the intellectual tools of citizenship should not be restricted to those with the wealth to pay for excellent schooling. And indeed, my parents -- the children of hard-working immigrants -- were able to receive a solid public education all the way through college. Now, with my son attending a terrific public elementary school, I should be confident that he will do the same.

Except that I can't. Because the public schools are under attack, despite the best efforts of heroic teachers, administrators, and parents. The problem is exacerbated in school districts where -- unlike my own -- parents don't have the financial resources to supplement the grossly inadequate funding of their neighborhood schools. I think we all know that public schools in America are in crisis -- even here in California, where the funding (and, not coincidentally, the quality) of public education has slid dramatically from once-lofty levels.

Like everyone I know, I'm mad about this, and frustrated. And scared -- scared about the future of our country when the majority of students are not being adequately prepared to share the democratic responsibilities of self-government. As my late father -- a teacher in public middle schools -- used to point out, kids who move through school without getting a decent education are, in fact, learning something: they're learning that they can't learn. Eventually the beautiful and natural delight in discovering things begins to fade from their eyes. And they enter the adult world knowing that society does not value them -- and perhaps feeling, understandably, that they owe society the same kind of treatment.

So do we just throw up our hands? Well, I admit, that would be my normal inclination. But in my life so far, I've noticed that throwing up my hands doesn't actually change anything (unless I happen to accidentally deflect a Frisbee or something). So thank goodness that -- on this subject, at least -- we have an important new book, Teachers Have It Easy: The Big Sacrifices and Small Salaries of America's Teachers, to offer us information, compassion, and pragmatic advice on how we might make our public schools better. I was thrilled to be able to chat with two of the book's coauthors, Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, on the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30).

Dave Eggers and N</p>

		<p class= 7 comments February 27th, 2006

Sea Ahoy!

I discovered the Pacific Ocean today.

I'd had a sense it was nearby, based on the prevalence of surfers and seagulls in the neighborhood, but it took me a couple of weeks here in Ventura to build up the courage to seek it out.

For one thing, I'd gotten new sneakers just before I came down here from the Bay Area, and I didn't want to scuff them up right away with sand and such. Also -- and you may not have noticed this -- but I'm quite bald on top, and the sun tends to treat my noggin as a frozen planet that needs immediate thawing. "So wear a hat," you say. Well, that would make sense for someone who didn't have an enormous, gravity-bending head -- a head so big that the "one size fits all" label on baseball caps must be treated as a sad and bitter joke. I don't wear hats; at best, I balance them atop my head and hope for light winds. Plus -- and you'd think this would have occurred to me before -- I recently got to wondering whether wearing my big, honking headphones on sunny days (I hardly ever go on a long walk without listening to music) could leave me with strange, headphone-shaped cranial tan lines.

Nonetheless, despite these Lewis-and-Clark-type obstacles, I decided to go beach-exploring this afternoon. There's a woman at the front desk at my hotel who seems to think that my questions are less than important: every time I ask her something, her answer has an implied "And you pulled me away from my computer solitaire game for this?" vibe to it. Today I asked her how to get to the beach. She regarded me silently. I added, "By foot." If Mona Lisa had been a hotel clerk, she would have smiled the way this woman smiled at me then: an inward smile, an I-can't-believe-I-almost-got-my-Master's-in-English-Lit-and-here-I-am-dealing-with-this-jerk kind of smile. "You go out the front entrance," she said, at last.

"And then?"

"And then you turn left."

I got out my notepad. "And then?"

She sighed. "And then you're at the beach."

Well, I must say, it was that simple! Every day -- sometimes twice a day -- I'd been going out the front entrance of the hotel and then turning right, on my 10-minute walk to the theater. Turns out, if you turn left instead, in a block or so you're pretty much at the ocean.

Grooving to some Fiona Apple on my iPod, I made my way along a paved pedestrian-and-bike path to the historic Ventura Pier. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed like people were staring at me. Was it my enormous head that attracted their attention? Or my gigantic headphones? Actually, I think these folks sensed, rightly, that I was a visitor from Indoor World who was trying to pass for an indigenous Outdoor Type. Also, I may have actually been grimacing with my worry about the headphone-shaped-tanline possibility.

By the time I got to the pier, I decided that I needed to take protective measures. So I opened up my knapsack and took out a cap we got on a family visit to the National Zoo in Washington D.C. It almost fits on my head -- which I think is because it was originally designed to be worn by pandas. Then -- both to weigh down the hat, and to continue my communing with Fiona -- I clamped my headphones over the top. Now people were looking at me in a slightly different way -- as if I were a giant-headed mutant alien who was receiving signals from kinfolk in a distant galaxy.

Just look casual, I kept telling myself. I strolled out toward the edge of the pier, noting fun facts on placards (when I could decipher them through the graffiti and seagull poo):

  • The Ventura Pier is the longest pier in America. Or else it's one of the longest. Or maybe it's just average. (I didn't write this down in my notebook, unfortunately.)
  • In 1914 the schooner S.S. Coos Bay smashed into the pier, breaking it in two. The pier was not reconstructed until 1917 -- a process briefly interrupted late in the year, when master carpenter Leon Trotsky abruptly departed to help lead the Russian Revolution. (Okay, I made up that last part.)
  • Common fish that can be found under the pier: white croaker, topsmelt, jacksmelt, and surfperch.
  • Banjo sharks!

I had reached the end of the pier. I tried taking a picture of the ocean, so I could show it to you, but with the sun's glare I couldn't really see the viewfinder in my camera-phone. (Maybe next time they should start with a really good camera and then add the phone, rather than the other way around.) I stood there and stared at the sea and tried to think big thoughts. The first thought that occurred to me was that I had to pee. Which in turn led to a question I've had for some time: Why do some (maybe even most) men flush a urinal before they use it, rather than after? This is something that I've never understood. Is it because they're afraid that the guy who used the urinal before them didn't flush? And if so, aren't they -- through this behavior -- perpetuating a recurring cycle of pre-flushing born out of mistrust? What if all men just agreed to flush after using the urinal? It might sound like a small thing, but if you ask me, it could ease a lot of the tensions in men's rooms everywhere.

You know, I should get out more often.

3 comments February 25th, 2006

Sweet Drunk Guy

At last night's performance (I'm at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura through March 5) there was a guy in the front row who was really into the show -- during the first act. But at intermission, his blood alcohol level must have crossed an important threshold, because at the start of the second act he was looking kind of green around the gills, leaning into the unfortunate young woman pinned between him and the wall. At some point, in a quiet moment, he let out this loud hiccup -- the kind of hiccup that in my childhood comic books would be depicted by an all-caps "--HIC!--" in a talk-balloon; quite impressive, really. A bit later he seemed to have drifted into blissful unconsciousness. But then, about halfway through the second act, where I re-enact a fairly intense conversation between myself and my mom, the guy woke up -- and, apparently deciding that he was rejoining a conversation between me and him, he began talking back to my character, in a quite impassioned (though incoherent) manner. Fortunately, this social interaction exhausted him so much that he immediately fell back asleep. But as it turns out, he was merely conserving himself for the climax of my show -- where, during a very pregnant pause, he let out a perfectly timed -- and amazingly resonant -- snore.

Now, you'd think this kind of behavior would bother me. And maybe in other circumstances it would've. But I have to tell you, wherever this guy was, in his pickled subconscious, he was in a happy place. I mean, smiling beatifically! He was getting a great show -- bits of it mine -- and who was I to begrudge him that experience?

Plus, he didn't throw up on the set -- bonus!

2 comments February 23rd, 2006

Incomplete

Stop me if I've already told you this, but I never actually graduated from college. I went to Princeton, and they required every undergraduate to write a senior thesis. So even though I completed all my other coursework, and passed the "comprehensive exam" in my major (politics), the fact that I never submitted a senior thesis meant that I couldn't earn my bachelor's degree.

But the story doesn't end there -- because Princeton has a policy that, if you submit your senior thesis anytime in your life, you can still graduate! What happens is that you get two grades: the first being your actual grade on the thesis, the second being an "F" (presumably for being way friggin' late). Yes, I aim to put the "senior" in "senior thesis"!

I was Class of '80, so I'm currently 26 years late in submitting my thesis. But I'm finally working on it -- and it's tremendously exciting! I've gotten back in touch with my advisor from back then, the brilliant scholar and teacher Sheldon S. Wolin, and he's graciously agreed to guide me. I can't tell you what a feeling of redemption it would give me to finally write a thesis for him!

What happened to me in college was that I froze. It was too hard! You had to read so much stuff -- amazing stuff, but for a very slow reader like me, an impossible amount. Many books each week for each course! It was like one of those nightmares where you're at the exam and you haven't prepared for it -- except that I wasn't dreaming, and each day I was falling further behind. In everything.

Looking back, I have to give myself some props for holding it together enough to make it through four years of coursework. But my lingering emotion from that time was just a great sense of failure. I was there on a big scholarship (which I'd gotten purely due to financial need), and I knew I was letting down not only my family but also the alumni who'd donated money for my scholarship, as well as the taxpayers who'd helped to fund my grants.

But possibly my biggest disappointment was that I never submitted my thesis to Prof. Wolin. He was one of those teachers you dream of: a thrilling, self-questioning lecturer, an advisor willing to spend countless hours in discussion with his students, and also a profound thinker who believed passionately that those in academia should be active citizens. His writing, in a number of books and periodicals (including a short-lived quarterly that he began soon after I "graduated," called democracy), was (and is) not just deep but also clear -- another relative anomaly in academia.

So here was my chance, after a mediocre undergraduate career, to at least work my hardest to write a decent senior thesis for this great teacher. And I choked. I couldn't even bring myself to begin doing the research. I spent much of my senior year sitting in the Student Center, tearing empty styrofoam coffee cups into careful spirals and trying my best not to think of the thesis-elephant in the middle of my mental room.

And you know, irony can only get you so far. I could be ironic about my failure to do the thesis -- and to graduate -- but only up to a point. And after that point, I had to face the fact that I'd blown it.

Except that now, in middle age, incredibly, I have a second chance. Prof. Wolin -- retired from teaching, but still very active as a writer and thinker -- is guiding me toward a topic (something about democracy ... and yes, I know I need to get much more specific!) and a reading list. At his suggestion, I'm starting with Self-Rule: A Cultural History of American Democracy, by the late Robert H. Wiebe. I'm moving through it at my usual snail's pace, but it's a thrilling read. Thrilling! When I've finished it, I'll get back in touch with my advisor about narrowing down to an actual thesis topic.

Maybe at this rate I'll actually graduate from college before my eight-year-old son does!

February 22nd, 2006

The Perils of Penelope, The Dangers of Dirk

I was born into a folksinging family, but I was weaned on punk. The Ramones, X, The Pixies, Television -- groups like these formed the soundtrack of my mostly-bleak 20s, and continue to be dear to my middle-aged, rockin' heart.

Dirk DirksenUnfortunately, I arrived in the Bay Area several years too late to catch the thriving punk scene here in the late '70s and early '80s. But oh, do I hear stories! And all Bay Area punk roads seem to lead to the iconoclastic figure of Dirk Dirksen, who took a failing Filipino restaurant in North Beach called the Mabuhay Gardens and began booking acts there (and at the On Broadway theater). To hear Dirksen tell it -- on the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and will be repeated on Friday night at 10:30) -- his emceeing style in those days was deliberately abrasive: he incurred the wrath (and beer bottles) of the rowdy crowd so they wouldn't attack the musicians. Talk about a gracious host!

One of the most popular acts booked by Dirksen back in the day was the seminal San Francisco punk group The Avengers. Their lead singer and songwriter, a young Art Institute student named Penelope Houston (my other guest tonight), would head down from school in the evenings to rock out at the "Fab Mab." In later years, Houston would explore a more nuanced, mellow style -- and as it happens, I did get a chance to catch her near the start of this new musical stage, in San Francisco in the late '80s. Since then, in a series of beautiful albums, she's interwoven introspective lyrics and sinuous tunes with lovely arrangements of both acoustic and electric instruments. ... So you could say that, in her career (so far), Houston has recapitulated my own evolution in musical taste -- though in reverse, from punk to folk.

Penelope HoustonAt the end of the show, Houston and her frequent collaborator Pat Johnson treat us to a world-premiere performance of a new song, "If You're Willing." (Not to brag, but with Michael Franti's performance on last week's program, that makes two musical premieres in two weeks!) With guests like Houston and Dirksen, hosting a show is easy -- especially as no one threw any beer bottles at me!

10 comments February 20th, 2006

Fun with Franti & Fatdog

Tonight's show (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30) combines two of my passions: music and politics. But where my interest in those subjects has mostly been expressed from the sidelines, Michael Franti, my in-studio guest, has put himself front and center. ... Well, maybe front and left. ... But even though Franti's politics -- and many of the lyrics to the infectious, joyful songs he performs with his group, Spearhead -- are decidedly progressive in their orientation, the spirit is always one of bringing everybody together.

A powerful record of Franti's heartfelt quest for integration and resolution can be found in his documentary, I Know I'm Not Alone, which chronicles the musician's singular peace mission to the Middle East -- armed only with an acoustic guitar. It's an amazing movie. The scene that stays with me the most is one where Franti sings an antiwar song in a bar filled with AK-toting American soldiers -- talk about a tough room!

Michael FrantiFranti brought his guitar to our interview as well, and gave the first performance of a song so new he had to squint at the handwritten lyrics as he sang. Man, that was cool! ...

Also in this episode: a visit I made to Subway Guitars of Berkeley, where I got a chance to ask Fatdog -- the store's legendary owner -- what it was like to employ a young Franti years ago. Plus I got to play a bunch of incredible guitars, albeit incredibly badly. ...

9 comments February 13th, 2006

Centering … Centering … Oops.

Do you ever feel as though you're in the middle of being beamed up -- like you're somewhere between the strange planet and the transporter room? I guess what I'm talking about is the sensation of being ungrounded -- a nearly Unbearable Lightness. ... I'm on the road right now, in a not-extremely-bustling Ventura ("We call it 'Ventucky,'" a store clerk drily informed me today), and in my two days here I've been having a particularly difficult time getting a sense of settledness.

I grew up in Manhattan, and I guess I've always looked to my environment for kind of a jump-start. (In my childhood neighborhood, Washington Heights, that stimulation often betokened nearby violence. To the point that my mom once complained, when we were visiting friends in the suburbs, that she couldn't fall asleep without hearing the occasional sound of gunshots.) In Philadelphia, where I was performing a couple of weeks ago, I could walk out of my hotel into a swirl of pedestrians, honking horns, grocery stores, museums -- I even found a place that served Peet's coffee and played ESPN continuously! In Southern California, by contrast, I walk out of my hotel room into balmy Santa Ana winds that seem to be whispering, "Go back into your room and curl up on your bed! Also: give up all hope!"

It would probably be better if I could drive. But right now I just have my learner's permit (I plan to go for my actual license in March, when I'm back home), so I'm stuck. (Fortunately, the theater I'm performing at -- the Rubicon -- is only a few blocks away. And today, after our dress rehearsal, I walked past the Rubicon to Main Street, where I did find a few shops. I mention this mostly so that I can say, gratuitously, that I crossed the Rubicon.)

And yet I know that the problem isn't just one of getting around. It really comes back to my need for external stimulation. When I was a kid, I never felt I truly had accomplished anything until I could see that my father was delighted by it. And after he died (when I was in my 20s), I spent several years trying to convince myself that I still existed, even without my dad reflecting myself back to me. Fortunately, I had my brothers and my sister, my mother and my stepmother -- plus a new group of friends who, in retrospect, kind of saved my life. But when I was alone, in my room, I was always in danger of re-entering a state of stasis, almost a suspended animation (except without the animation), that could last for days, weeks, or even months.

Ever since our son was born, over eight years ago, I've been almost entirely out of that depressive zone: I feel continually blessed to be surrounded by my family and my friends, and also I think there's an element that as a parent I can't afford to go zombie. But there are always moments -- and they tend to happen when I'm alone on the road -- when I feel kind of a queasy flickering in the fabric of my experience, and I sense a yawning emptiness somewhere not too distant. It's scary.

So what do you do? Well, I have some techniques: I try to exercise. (Today I went to the gym that's connected with my hotel and worked out for an hour; gratifyingly, I was younger than everyone else there -- by at least 30 years.) I listen to music. (Tried a new recording from the group Iron & Wine: too mellow. Got a welcome jolt from P.J. Harvey.) I check in with my family and friends. I read a bunch of blogs. I make a to-do list, and even schedule my tasks. ...

This afternoon I felt like I was doing pretty well: Exercise: check. Listen to music: check. But then around 1 or 2 p.m. the bed started beckoning. I tried explaining to the bed that I had already slept many hours in it the previous night and had no biological need for further sleep. But the bed kept calling to me: it was like a really comforting version of Tony Robbins, with its giant bright pillow-teeth, smilingly telling me that Success was Within My Reach, if only I would Tuck Myself In.

Thank god for the dress rehearsal! Structure is Life. ... I was doing something I enjoy, with really nice people around me, in a cool theater. There was coffee in abundance (not Peet's, but what can you do?). And then afterwards I found a store (the one with the aforementioned clerk) where I found The World's Largest Pair of Underpants on sale, and also self-propelled lederhosen. And they were playing the k.d. lang song "Save Me" over the sound system. And I went to a restaurant and ate some ribs and watched the Lakers on T.V. (they won, unfortunately). And I walked back to my hotel, passing two young couples who were holding hands and enjoying each other. ...

Now I'm back in my room. They've just added "turn-down service" here, so my bed looks especially inviting right now (especially with those three Hershey's Kisses on the pillow). But you know what? I'm going to turn down the bed's invitation, for now. This is my only time, this life. And I know that out there is a beautiful world.

February 8th, 2006

Bar Fights …

... tanning booths ... face transplants ... tattoos ... fad diets ... tooth whiteners ... hair extensions ...

Those are only a few of the things I must avoid for the next week. The reason? On-screen continuity!

I'm down in Ventura, Calif., right now, getting ready to perform my stage monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged for a month at the lovely Rubicon Theatre (if you know people in the area -- I think L.A. is about an hour away -- please let them know!). But early next week -- on an off-day from performing -- I'll be flying back up to the Bay Area to tape the second half of an episode of The Josh Kornbluth Show.

We taped the first interview -- with child psychologist Dan Siegel, co-author of the wonderful book Parenting from the Inside Out -- last Friday. The second one -- with author and linguist Deborah Tannen, whose new book is the delightfully titled You're Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation -- will take place next Tuesday, when she's swinging through town. So in the interim, I must stay exactly the same! Otherwise my keen-eyed viewers will notice discrepancies in my appearance between the two segments (which will run back-to-back), and this will detract from their experience of the program as a whole.

It's kind of like what De Niro did for Raging Bull, only much more Zen. ...

February 7th, 2006

Watching the Detective

Jack PalladinoSo Jack Palladino, my guest on tonight's show (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30), had just sat down next to me on the red couch in our studio, and we were all set to tape the interview ... when there was a technical glitch. So while they figured out the problem in the control room, I chatted a bit with this famous private investigator, who has played a key role in so many high-profiles cases (Bill Clinton's "bimbo eruptions," Jeffrey Wigand's whistleblowing against Big Tobacco, Courtney Love's ... oh, you name it). Palladino is a great talker -- no, an amazing talker. It's not just that his stories are so colorful; there's also a soulful, questing quality in his demeanor -- you just want to keep talking with him.

And we did -- we kept talking. Palladino spun one fantastical (yet true) yarn after another. If I was a drinker, he'd be the guy I'd want to spend the night drinking with. It was an interviewer's dream -- except that the technical glitch still hadn't been worked out, so none of this was actually being caught on tape. My wonderful series producer, Lori Halloran (who is at this moment on a well-earned vacation in Italy, so I can talk about her behind her back), kept checking in on us, and she looked increasingly worried. At some point she gently interrupted our rollicking conversation, reminding us to save something for when the cameras finally started rolling.

Well, she needn't have worried: when we did begin taping, it was just more of the same from Jack Palladino -- storytelling that was delightful, even when the subject matter was gruesome. And when the taping was over, he kept talking, all the way out into the hallway. ... It was only afterwards, as I reflected on the day, that I recalled how Palladino is known for taking folks out to a nice dinner and then -- over the course of a long evening -- deftly drawing out their innermost secrets. Thank goodness I kept the focus on him! ...

Also on this show: a "Wandering Josh" segment in which Dashiell Hammett expert Don Herron valiantly tries to turn me into a hard-boiled gumshoe. ...

3 comments February 6th, 2006


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