Archive for March, 2006

The Art of Self-Sufficiency

A few nights ago a couple of girls painted my arm purple. In fairness, I guess you could say I was asking for it. I mean, their hands were slathered in purple paint, and I was standing right there ...

I was visiting the Children's Learning Center at the Ursula Sherman Village in West Berkeley, where kids from homeless families can go for art lessons, get help with their homework, and enjoy being part of a community. The center is a project of a 35-year-old organization called Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), which provides housing, health services, and counseling to homeless people in Alameda County.

My wife, a public schoolteacher who has had many homeless children in her classroom, has been telling me for years how hard it is for them to do well in school. They're dealing with instability on so many levels -- where they live, where they go to school (often missing lots of school), receiving inadequate nutrition and health care -- that they need the kind of support that the Children's Learning Center provides. Not to mention the relief this gives their parents: Knowing their kids are in a safe, nurturing after-school environment, the grownups can focus on rebuilding their lives and making themselves better caregivers.

Tonight I'll be appearing at a benefit for the Center put together by Artists with Heart. There will be food from some extremely fancy East Bay restaurants, live music by the Lee Waterman/Ian Wilson Duo, and a sale of fine art by local artists. It's happening from 7-9 p.m. at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley (2345 Channing Way). For tix and info, you can call 510-649-1930, or go to BOSS's website.

And about that purple arm ... I was visiting the Center with Artists with Heart founder Tansy Mattingly and her shockingly mature-seeming teenage daughter, Mira. Both had been there many times before, and immediately started working and chatting with everyone. But as a newcomer, I was feeling a bit shy -- possibly, in part, reflecting back the shyness of two girls who were painting at the nearest table: when I entered the converted trailer, they glanced up at me with sweet, furtive smiles, then went back to their art-making. Jill Squire, the art teacher, was moving around with surprising grace, considering that a recent fall had left her with a brace on one leg; she questioned, encouraged, and cajoled as she kept track of a dozen or so children who painted, worked with clay, read from a small library of books, and -- after the first hour -- did their homework.

A boy -- older than the rest, perhaps in his early teens -- told Jill that he was bored. "At your age," she cheerfully responded, "all kids are bored." A short time later I found him at a whiteboard, skillfully leading some younger children in a game of "celebrity hangman." (For the record, I knew none -- none -- of the celebrities; I think I may be slightly out of touch with the youth culture of today.) He was funny, respectful, in control -- a natural teacher.

Boona Cheema, BOSS's executive director, stopped by. Once homeless herself, she emanates a sense of self-assurance that must serve as an inspiration to her clients and staff. With her encouragement, I began chatting a bit with the children as they worked on various projects.

"What are you making?" I asked a stocky boy who was working with clay.

"A teapot."

"Looks really complicated," I noted.

"Not really."

Hmm -- I realized I had a long way to go as a drawer-out of children.

Back at the hangman game, a girl was cheering on her friend with a cool handclap-and-chant: "Don't ... Give ... Up ..." Clap-clap. "Don't ... Give ... Up ..." Clap-clap. ... Over at the painting table, Jill was assuring a budding artist, "It's the process that matters here!" I noticed that a girl who seemed particularly shy -- like me, she had been drifting around the trailer, tentatively looking in on other kids' doings -- finally settled down and painted a lovely still-life. ...

And then there were those two girls with the purple paint. The paint didn't start out as purple -- it started out as pretty much every color that was available. But when they smooshed it all together with their hands, delighting in the refreshing gloppiness of the texture, the hue became something of which Prince would approve. But what to do with all this purpleness? I felt two pairs of eyes on me, and then I felt two pairs of little hands on my arm, which was soon completely purpleized.

To be sure, the trauma was mitigated by the delighted smiles of my attackers, as well as by their kind offering of a clean towel after I had washed off the water-based paint. And anyhow, as it turns out, I had gotten off easy. As we were leaving, Mira whispered to me, "On my first visit, I got both of my arms painted."

1 comment March 30th, 2006

Siegel & Tannen: Nurture Preserve

I had a great time doing the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and repeats Friday night at 10:30): interviews on family matters with child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel and linguist Deborah Tannen -- along with a very touching "Wandering Josh" segment.

Dr. SiegelI got in touch with Dr. Siegel after reading his (literally) mind-blowing book Parenting from the Inside Out, co-written with Mary Hartzell (who ran the preschool that Siegel's child attended). Drawing on exciting new findings in brain science, Siegel makes a persuasive case that the best way for us to become great parents is to make sense of our own childhoods. As a dad (and a son) myself, I ate up Siegel's lucid account of how the brain is physically transformed by our deepest experiences -- especially our early interactions with caregivers. And as a professional monologuist, I was delighted to hear that telling -- and understanding -- our life stories may be key to our families' happiness. ...

Deborah TannenAnd while we're on the subject of understanding: who better to chat with than Deborah Tannen, whose 1990 mega-bestseller You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation incited my mother to send me repeated letters and postcards urging me to read it. (Was she trying to tell me something? I didn't understand.) Now Tannen has a new book that I, in turn, can heartily recommend to my mom, whose own childhood was fraught with painful complexities. In You're Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, Tannen -- with compassionate wit and linguistic insight -- delicately untangles these incredibly nuanced relationships. I emerged from our conversation grateful and moved, having been reminded of what a gloriously difficult struggle it is to love and be loved. ...

In between these two interviews, I wander over to the Berkeley campus, where psychology professor Dacher Keltner -- aided by two grad students with eerily similar nail-polishing habits -- allows me to participate in an experiment about communicating emotion through touch. I don't mean to brag out how well I did, but let's just say that Bill Clinton isn't the only one who feels your pain. ...

4 comments March 27th, 2006

Siegel & Tannen: Nurture Preserve

I had a great time doing the show that airs tonight at 7:30 (and repeats Friday night at 10:30): interviews on family matters with child psychiatrist Daniel Siegel and linguist Deborah Tannen -- along with a very touching "Wandering Josh" segment.

Dr. SiegelI got in touch with Dr. Siegel after reading his (literally) mind-blowing book Parenting from the Inside Out, co-written with Mary Hartzell (who ran the preschool that Siegel's child attended). Drawing on exciting new findings in brain science, Siegel makes a persuasive case that the best way for us to become great parents is to make sense of our own childhoods. As a dad (and a son) myself, I ate up Siegel's lucid account of how the brain is physically transformed by our deepest experiences -- especially our early interactions with caregivers. And as a professional monologuist, I was delighted to hear that telling -- and understanding -- our life stories may be key to our families' happiness. ...

Deborah TannenAnd while we're on the subject of understanding: who better to chat with than Deborah Tannen, whose 1990 mega-bestseller You Just Don't Understand: Women and Men in Conversation incited my mother to send me repeated letters and postcards urging me to read it. (Was she trying to tell me something? I didn't understand.) Now Tannen has a new book that I, in turn, can heartily recommend to my mom, whose own childhood was fraught with painful complexities. In You're Wearing THAT?: Understanding Mothers and Daughters in Conversation, Tannen -- with compassionate wit and linguistic insight -- delicately untangles these incredibly nuanced relationships. I emerged from our conversation grateful and moved, having been reminded of what a gloriously difficult struggle it is to love and be loved. ...

In between these two interviews, I wander over to the Berkeley campus, where psychology professor Dacher Keltner -- aided by two grad students with eerily similar nail-polishing habits -- allows me to participate in an experiment about communicating emotion through touch. I don't mean to brag out how well I did, but let's just say that Bill Clinton isn't the only one who feels your pain. ...

3 comments March 27th, 2006

Guest World

One of the many pleasures of hosting an interview show, I'm finding, is that you feel sort of a kinship with your former guests. After they've stopped by the studio to chat with you, they of course go back to their fascinating lives -- performing, writing, climbing mountains, fighting for a fairer national budget (thanks, Sen. Boxer!), etc. -- and somehow you feel a continuing connection with them.

Among the performers is the genius comedienne Marga Gomez, whose autobiographical monologue Los Big Names -- which recently rocked San Francisco -- opens in her hometown of New York on April 9. Marga and the scintillating writer-performer Beth Lisick were my gracious and patient guests on the very first episode of The Josh Kornbluth Show that we taped (though it wasn't the first that we aired -- that one was with the legendary Rita Moreno, who soon will be starring in the Berkeley Rep's production of The Glass Menagerie). You can catch a rerun of the show with Marga and Beth tonight at 7:30 (repeated on Friday night at 10:30). ...

Sometimes you even bump into a former guest! Yesterday, for example, I ran into linguist George Lakoff at the supermarket, and -- as other shoppers struggled to steer their carts around us -- we had a little impromptu, unrecorded interview session in the produce department. Mostly, I grilled him on what he's been up to (touring, lecturing, running the Rockridge Institute, and writing -- his new book will come out on July 4) and begged for advice on the democracy monologue I'm working on. It almost felt weird to be wrapping up our conversation without first getting a signal from Margaret Clarke, my stage manager at KQED. (I think I might be developing a dependency.) ...

As it happens, my son and I were shopping because of a future guest: former New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl, with whom I'll be taping an interview next week. Her latest book, the delightful memoir Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise, is sprinkled with recipes. We're planning for me to actually cook one of those dishes ("Last-Minute Chocolate Cake") with Ms. Reichl during the program, and I thought it might be a good idea to practice one beforehand. So my son and I gathered all the ingredients for her "New York Cheesecake" and gave it a shot ourselves. (It needed to chill for eight hours, so we won't learn how it turned out until tonight's dinner -- but it smells delicious and weighs about 300 pounds.) ...

You know, even thinking about that cheesecake is making me feel kind of flabby. I think I'll head over to the gym right now, while the impulse to work out is strong. And who knows? While I'm there, maybe I'll run into a former or future guest!

2 comments March 20th, 2006

BART Karma?

As I got on BART the other day to go to the City, a teenager slipped in and plopped down across from me, slouching into his hooded sweatshirt. A moment later an authoritative voice announced over the loudspeaker that our train would be holding in the station for a bit. And shortly after that, a sizeable BART cop strode into our car, pointed at the kid, and said, "You! Come with me." The young man's expression was a mixture of resignation and something else -- something not totally negative, as if being busted was at least making his day interesting.

As the youthful offender was joining the cop on the subway platform, a well-dressed woman ran into our car through the still-open doors. The doors shut, and the train departed. The woman looked stunned, as if she had just had a religious experience. "I can't believe I made this train -- I was so late, and I had to make this appointment!" she announced, to no one in particular. Someone explained to her how we'd been delayed by the police action, and the woman just kept shaking her head in amazed gratitude.

I wondered whether there was some sort of great, unknowable karmic circle among all of us BART riders: the boy giveth, the woman taketh, the cop busteth ...

Religion was on my mind, as I was just beginning to read a fascinating book that a viewer had sent me: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, by Stanford grad Sam Harris (not, by the way, the same "Sam Harris" as the belter who once won Star Search). It's a full-on attack against organized religion, mustering more fire and brimstone than you might expect from such a debunker.

Gripped by Harris's argument, I kept my nose in the book as we all BARTed under the Bay, vaguely aware that at a station in Oakland a woman had sat down across from me, in the exact spot where the youthful scofflaw had once slouched. As we pulled in to Embarcadero Station, I happened to look up, and noticed that this woman was also reading a book: Historical Drift: Must My Church Die?

I was struck by the image of our two books silently arguing with each other across the train car. Perhaps if we kept reading there, a consensus might be reached?

Sadly, there was no time to find out, as I had to get off at Montgomery. The woman with the very important appointment was getting off there, too. As the doors opened, I was seized with a blind hope that a rebellious teen, or a surly cop, or both, would take our places on the train car, somehow closing the circle -- but alas, this was apparently too much for a secular guy like me to pray for.

3 comments March 17th, 2006

Reopening Jarhead

Tonight's episode (at 7:30; repeated on Friday at 10:30 p.m.) is a rerun of my interview with Anthony Swofford, the author of Jarhead. The book -- a memoir of the first Gulf War from the vantage point of a Marine sniper -- is a beautiful work of prose about a godawful experience. The movie version -- just out on DVD -- captures some of the brutal language of Swofford's text and combines it with striking imagery; the effect on me, as a viewer, wasn't comparable to the mind-bending experience of reading the book, but it was pretty devastating nonetheless.

Anthony SwoffordAs a fledgling interviewer, I found this conversation to be particularly gratifying: I was genuinely freaked out by the experiences that Swofford had endured, and I wondered whether I'd be able to connect with him in a way that would be comfortable for both of us, and for the viewer. As it turned out, I felt like we did connect -- which gave me hope that I'd be able to conduct interviews with a wide range of guests.

I'm very curious to see what Swofford's next book -- the one he's working on now -- will be like. My strong suspicion is that the craft and focus he brought to Jarhead would not be lost on a less obviously "intense" subject. ...

3 comments March 13th, 2006

From Page to Stage

The acclaimed Word for Word organization, which dramatizes the works of noted prose writers, has adapted the words of two former guests of our TV show into popular theater pieces:

  • Their run of Daniel Handler's 4 Adverbs -- based on four chapters from his forthcoming novel, Adverbs (HarperCollins) -- has just been extended through March 19 at the Project Artaud Theater. Tix and info can be found here. (Just to add another cool link to our program, former guest Craig Newmark raves about 4 Adverbs on his own blog.)
  • Also at the Project Artaud Theater: two performances of Amy Tan's Immortal Heart, adapted from the story at the center of her novel The Bonesetter's Daughter. These shows -- on March 13 and 14 -- will be their last before the production heads to France for a five-city tour. Again, tix and info are available here (click on the link for "Bon Voyage Benefit").

I feel very protective of people after they've been guests on my show. Maybe I should set up a 12-step program for them, so they can detox from all the coffee and sweets they usually consume during their short time with me? ...

March 9th, 2006

Trilogizing in Santa Rosa

Just wanted to mention that I'll be performing three of my comic monologues -- Red Diaper Baby, The Mathematics of Change, and Ben Franklin: Unplugged -- at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa. The run starts -- yikes! -- this weekend, with Red Diaper Baby, and will continue over three (noncontiguous) weekends. (You can find more info on the pieces at my little, Luddite personal homepage.)

2 comments March 9th, 2006

Sight-Specific

It was fascinating performing my one-man show last night (I'm finishing up a month-long run of my monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, Calif.): The left side of the theater was filled with deaf people, who were able to follow the text through the work of two sign-language interpreters. These two signers, working as a tag team (I talk so much, and so fast, that apparently it would be very difficult for just one signer to make it through a two-hour show), sat on the left side of the stage. The interpreters were extremely diligent: they had attended two previous performances so they could practice signing my piece.

Years ago I had read an absorbing account of the American deaf community by Oliver Sacks, and my memories of what he wrote went through my mind as I performed. For example, Sacks pointed out that deaf people are -- by definition, but also in a profound and non-obvious way -- intensely visual. So I found myself to be especially aware of the "stage picture" I was making with my body and gestures. As I mentioned, I do a lot of rapid-fire talking in my pieces -- but thanks to the work of my directors, such as my current collaborator, David Dower, I have learned to make use of pauses, as well as of variations in tempo; in fact, I sometimes feel that the words of my pieces are essentially the container, and that the silences are the content. Last night I tried feeling the pauses even more than usual, relaxing into them; also, I tried to be especially clear with my gestures and facial expressions. It was very gratifying to hear from one of the signers during intermission that when I stopped and really felt something, deaf people in the audience would sign back at him, "Cool!"

Sacks also wrote about the historic uprising, several years ago, at Gallaudet University, where deaf students demanded that their rights and culture be properly respected. So at the times when my piece turned to the subject of revolution, I also wondered whether the deaf audience members might be responding to this topic on an extra level.

And it was interesting to note that -- at least in the theater -- sign language isn't actually silent: Throughout the show, I could hear the signers' hands slap together, sometimes bang on their laps or the stage for emphasis (of course, as I was performing myself, I couldn't actually focus on what they were doing). Also, I would occasionally hear what sounded like a signer vocalizing with his breath -- perhaps to emphasize a particular emotion with an extreme facial expression.

A great moment: There's a purely visual gag I do in the second act -- and as I held that pose, I heard a loud, hoarse laugh from a deaf member of the audience. The rest of the crowd heard it too, and laughed warmly. For that instant, I felt like a performer in silent films; it was wonderful.

My lasting image is of certain moments when I was performing to the left side of the theater. There were times where I'd see my own semi-articulate hands gesticulating, and beyond them I'd see the expert maneuverings of the signer's hands, and beyond all the dancing hands I'd see the faces of the deaf audience members, their eyes alive, taking everything in.

March 4th, 2006


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