Archive for September, 2006

Berkeley Benefit

Tomorrow -- Sat., Sept. 30 -- I'll be performing my comic monologue The Mathematics of Change at St. John's Presbyterian Church, with the proceeds to benefit Berkeley's "Yes on Measure A" campaign. The church is at 2727 College Ave. The show starts at 7:30, with a performance by the Berkeley High School Jazz Combo, followed by me doing my Math piece. Tickets may be purchased in advance via the Community Box Office Network, by calling (925) 798-1300.

Jazz, comedy, and calculus -- who could resist a combination like that? ...

September 29th, 2006


This morning my son and I were taking a city bus (what he used to call, in his toddler days, the "shaky bus," because they tended to rattle loudly) to his school, joined by several other parents (none of whom I knew) with their children. (Last year we gave up on the actual school bus, which could be depended on to take the longest, most nausea-inducing possible route to school.) One mom, sitting across from us with her daughter, seemed very serious -- an anomaly amid a busful of chatterers and laughers; I wondered whether she might be in a bad mood, or going through a rough time, or maybe just shy. Then a whole bunch of us got off the bus, including me and her and our children, who ran up to school.

The mom and I then crossed the street to wait for the bus to return and take us back downtown. A moment later my friend Mark (another dad, but one with wheels) drove by and offered me a ride. I said sure -- at which point an older guy, who had also been waiting at the bus stop, asked Mark whether he could hitch a ride as well. This older gentleman clearly had some physical difficulties: his arm was held at a weird angle, as if he couldn't control it, and he had trouble lifting one of his legs (turns out he had suffered a stroke a couple of years ago). So I got in back, and the older guy started to ease himself into the front passenger seat -- except that he couldn't quite get his leg to cooperate, and his arm clearly wasn't strong enough to lift his leg off the sidewalk and into the car.

As Mark and I timidly asked how we could help, the mom (who'd ridden across from me on the previous bus ride) came over and -- with the care and assurance of an expert -- helped the older man into his seat. She gently swung his leg up, and made sure his arm was okay as well. As Mark and I watched her with admiration, she explained, "It's okay -- I do this for a living." She carefully shut the car door, and we all thanked her. She smiled, radiantly, and Mark drove us away.

Turns out this older guy is an astrophysicist, and on the car ride down he was able to answer many of my pressing questions about general relativity and the origins of the universe. But what has stayed with me all afternoon is that woman's un-asked-for grace and kindness -- a reminder that, whether we know it or not, we move through this world surrounded by angels.

3 comments September 26th, 2006

Running on MTT

So it was Sept. 1, the first taping day of our new (second) season, and I strolled into the KQED building with a selection of the shirts my wife makes for me, along with a couple Tupperwares of cookies that my sister-in-law Nancy had home-baked for my guest, San Francisco Symphony maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, and our crew. Slung over my shoulder was a case containing the oboe that I had borrowed from the Symphony's soon-to-retire English horn player, Julie Ann Giacobassi. The idea was that I was going to play a bit of oboe for MTT -- though, after a lesson earlier that week with Symphony principal oboist Bill Bennett had reminded me of why I'd long ago given up on becoming a professional musician (I lacked talent), the idea was filling me with a certain amount of dread. Then again, dread is the constant friend of performers everywhere (not to mention Jews), so I guess I was feeling pretty much at home.

MargariteUpon my arrival on the third floor, the workday began for me as it normally does -- by chatting with the lovely and enigmatic Margarite Jackson da Silva, who seems to bestow upon our floor a kind of beneficent watchfulness. She's way cool, and I suspect she understands many of the secrets of the universe, though if so she's not telling. Officially, Margarite provides all kinds of support for my executive producer, KQED programming director Michael Isip; when I first came to interview with Michael for this job, she instantly relaxed me by pointing out the postcard in her workspace from Haiku Tunnel, the neurotic secretarial movie I'd made with my brother Jake.

LoriA short walk among the cubicles and I reached my own, which, conveniently, is just opposite that of my series producer, Lori Halloran. I showed Lori my shirt selection, we decided on one, and then we talked over how we were going to try to approach the interview. Each on-air conversation is an improvisation between me and the guest, shot pretty much in real time, so of course you can't predict exactly what's going to happen. But since I was going to be playing the oboe for MTT (who, as it turns out, had studied the oboe himself, and so is well aware of the instrument's sadomasochistic effects on those who try to master it), there were certain matters of staging to work out. Also, I was going to be doing my little opening monologue with my guest already in the studio (something we didn't do in our first season), making reshoots inadvisable -- so we wanted to figure out how I'd get myself, and my oboe, from a downstage stool over to MTT on the couch, in a relatively smooth fashion (or at least with nobody getting killed, and no oboes damaged).

KevinAs if on cue, as Lori and I discussed this stuff my director, Kevin Kastle, ambled over. Kevin always seems to be happy and relaxed -- which ends up relaxing me (no mean feat). Kevin and Lori speak to each other in the secret language of people who actually (unlike me) know how television works -- listening to them talking in technicalese, I feel kind of like I did as a little boy when my maternal grandparents spoke Yiddish to each other and I wondered what in the world they might be saying. (Though I think it's fair to generalize that Kevin's and Lori's interactions are a lot less fraught with bitterness than grandma and grandpa's were -- maybe it's because neither of them came from Russia.)

VictorEventually Lori and Kevin headed down to the second floor, to brief the crew on the approaching taping, while I swung around the corner to say hi to our new intern, a talented young filmmaker named Victor Tran, who was deeply focused on logging the footage from a "Wandering Josh" shoot. (Nonetheless, I did manage to elicit this action photo of him.) Victor's done a hypnotic and cool short doc, titled "The One Inch Punch," that's become a cult hit on YouTube; watch it here, if you dare. It's great to have him around this season, and I can tell it will be a challenge to break his spirit (the ultimate fate of all interns everywhere), especially given his martial-arts background.

Josh plays for Michael Tilson ThomasFinally, it was showtime. I went downstairs to the studio, got miked up, poured myself some very strong coffee, soaked my oboe reeds, and chatted with our wonderfully warm crew. (The studio itself, by contrast, is wonderfully cold -- I love it that way, and the crew members, huddled in sweaters and shawls and such, are kind enough to indulge me.) MTT -- taller than I'd expected, and with a disarming graciousness -- came in and took his place on the couch. Clutching Julie's oboe, I took my place on the stool, reminding myself not to try to force anything -- to let the interview unfold however it may (though I knew I'd be taking at least a few minutes to rave about the San Francisco Symphony's extraordinary new public-TV series, Keeping Score: Revolutions in Music, which MTT hosts). The countdown ensued, and about a half-hour later the taping was over. What happened in between remains, as always, quite hazy in my memory, but can be witnessed tonight on our season premiere at 7:30 (and on Friday night at 10:30). I do recall that I played the oboe and that nobody died -- so I'd have to guess that, all in all, it was a good day.

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5 comments September 25th, 2006

Now Podcasting!

Thanks to my ever-amazing Benevolent Webmistress, and some technology that I'll probably never understand, The Josh Kornbluth Show is now available as a free video podcast. You can find out all about it here. I just did, and a few minutes later I had our "Wandering Josh" special episode downloaded onto both my computer and my iPod. (Of course, I've already seen the show, but still it's cool to have it.)

How can I begin to describe the excitement of having my own program sharing iTunes space with Jon Stewart's The Daily Show and supermodel Heidi Klum's Project Runway (just to name two of the shows I obsessively download -- though you do have to pay for those programs)? I don't think I can, actually, so I'm just going to stand up right now at my desk and do a happy Snoopy Dance.

3 comments September 24th, 2006

Democracy or Bust

It's all coming together.

Twenty-six years ago, as a sullen member of Princeton's Class of 1980, I failed to complete my senior thesis -- a requirement to graduate. Actually, to be totally honest, I didn't even begin my thesis. It just seemed like too big a task, I guess. My major -- after hitting the wall at calculus my freshman year and abandoning math -- was politics, and my advisor, Sheldon Wolin, was a transcendently brilliant teacher. I didn't want to let him down. But in order not to let him down, I had to think -- come up with my own thoughts, not just reflect Wolin's back to him. (A truly Socratic educator, he had no use for "yes" men or women.)

This seems a daunting task now, at 47. At 21, it seemed impossible. Plato, he had cool ideas. Locke, too. But Kornbluth? I had barely figured out how to focus -- just getting through a single, dense book of political theory without napping, without running screaming to the Student Center for another coffee, without going back to my room and cranking up the Clash, was usually beyond my abilities. To actually think, on top of that? Not bloody likely.

So I didn't quite graduate in 1980. I completed all my coursework, somehow. A mediocre student, I spent many tense hours in the waiting room of the dean of academics, Dick Williams. Dean Williams scared me. As I remember him, he was tall, with a brush-cut -- perhaps a former Marine. Time after time, I'd be sitting across from his desk, trying to explain why, yet again, he should grant me an "incomplete" (rather than an "F") on a course that I had stopped attending after the first week or two. Sometimes he wouldn't do it, and I'd flunk the course. But just enough times, he said okay -- and so I stumbled through four years of indifferent scholarship, not an official failure as a student, but close enough to feel that way.

In subsequent years, both my mother and my stepmother would get on my case about doing my thesis, about making my father (who'd been incapacitated by a stroke the summer before my senior year) proud. But I knew I still didn't have it in me.

Cut to November of 2004. I was walking back from my voting place in Berkeley, and something snapped. While I hoped that the guy I'd voted for would become president, I realized that no matter what happened in that election I still wouldn't feel as if I'd participated actively in the decision-making process. And then, in the days after the election, I found myself almost incapacitated by my frustration at the emerging consensus (at least in the media) that we had essentially become two countries, "red" and "blue," and ne'er the twain shall meet. In the '70s, there had been all sorts of divisiveness, of course, but it still had felt to me like we were one country, albeit one arguing bitterly with itself. Had something irrevocable happened since 1980, while I was attending to other, non-political things? Was America "over"?

My distress drove me to try and track down Prof. Wolin, to try to get some perspective on what was happening. I reached him by phone -- he no longer teaches, but is still a prolific writer. When it comes to democracy, he takes the long view -- back to Athens, and I hope forward as well -- and speaking with him I felt the old excitement of talking passionately about politics. But not politics as just "us" versus "them" -- I mean politics as a way to discover who I am by connecting myself to other people, across time and geography. And sometime in that phone conversation I found myself saying that I finally felt ready to write my thesis, and asking if he'd still advise me.

And he said yes. He started me on a reading list, I've been reading some amazing books with my usual glacial slowness (occasionally napping and often drinking coffee -- the difference at 47 being that I now know the important thing is to keep going) -- and just this month I got the official go-ahead from, get this, Dick Williams (who's still dean of academics; he must wonder if he'll ever be rid of me!) to do my senior thesis with Prof. Wolin. In addition, he's allowing me to submit my upcoming monologue about democracy (opening in San Francisco next May) as my thesis -- pending Wolin's giving it a passing grade, of course.

So if everything goes according to plan, by next June I will be a proud member of both the Class of '80 and the Class of '07. And when it comes time to vote in the November 2008 election, I may even have an idea or two of my own to bring to the table.

September 24th, 2006

The Cousteau Is Clear

Tonight's episode (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30) is a rebroadcast of an interview that I did with second-generation oceanographer Jean-Michel Cousteau. (You can read my original blog item here.)

And since you're already on the Internet at this moment, you might also want to check out the fabulous website that our genius-level KQED interactive team has put together for Cousteau's PBS series, Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures. There's all kinds of information on such topics as fighting global warming and preserving natural sanctuaries, there are ring tones and wallpapers to download, and there's a whole bunch of stuff for educators to use with their ocean-loving students.

Just about the only thing you won't find on the website is the mystical source of Cousteau's effortless charm. Must be something the French put in their water. ...

2 comments September 18th, 2006

More Moreno

Tonight's episode (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30, as well as at other times that remain -- even after a year on the job -- a total mystery to me) is a rebroadcast of the first interview we ever aired. My guest is Rita Moreno, who -- the more you find out about her -- only becomes more and more impressive. You can read my original blog item about her here.

Since that interview was taped, my wife and I had the great pleasure of seeing Rita in a beautiful production of Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie at the Berkeley Rep. She took the powerhouse role of Amanda, the overbearing mom, to surprising places: part burlesque, part realistic, but never pulling the play off its axis. A performer who can stretch from West Side Story's Anita to Williams's Amanda is a performer to be reckoned with.

Plus, she lives in Berkeley and is married to a Jew! What's not to like? ...

5 comments September 11th, 2006

Will Someone Please Pick Up?

I'm at SFO, waiting for a red-eye to Washington D.C. while madly sipping the Peet's coffee I just bought (since, for reasons of our nation's security, I cannot take the coffee on the plane; and if I had hair, I couldn't take hair gel either). A phone somewhere is ringing. It's got a loud ring. No one is answering.

About a year ago, by contrast, I had a very pleasurable airport moment. A woman got on the loudspeakers and announced, "Ishmael, please call the operator." After repeating that message a couple more times, with growing impatience, she finally blurted out, "Call me, Ishmael!" I spun around in my little ticket line, hoping to share my delight at this unexpected literary reference, but people seemed more focused on getting a better seat. ...

Aah, the phone stopped ringing. This is good.

It's been a busy, challenging week for me. After a relatively labor-free Labor Day, I went around San Francisco with "Wandering Josh" producer Sean McGinn and our crew, asking people on the street what they thought of American history. And yes, I know that sounds like an incredibly vague question! But amazingly, people said wonderful, cogent things about their relationship to our country's messy past. The interviews were later cut together and ran near the top of the show we taped this afternoon -- in which I interviewed UCLA historian Gary Nash, author of The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, which just came out in paperback.

Nash and his wife were flying up from L.A. this morning, so my producer, Lori Halloran, and I had our usual butterflies about whether his plane would get in on time, etc. (It did -- speeded along, no doubt, by the absence of excess coffee or gels.) My sister-in-law Nancy Sato, who quit her high-tech job a couple of years ago and became a chef, home-baked some delicious-smelling cookes -- forbidden to me by my diet, but described eloquently by associate producer Elizabeth Pepin (no relation to Jacques). As the time for taping approached, I tried to relax. Relaxation has been my main goal in this, our second season (the first new broadcast -- an interview with Michael Tilson Thomas -- will air on Sept. 25). So I just kind of thought relaxing thoughts. It was my son's birthday today, so that buoyed me tremendously. And I was really looking forward to meeting Prof. Nash, whose book has meant a lot to me.

By the time Lori and my director, Kevin Kastle, started blocking my little in-studio opening for the interview, I was feeling about as relaxed as someone with my DNA and upbringing can feel -- which is to say, pretty nervous, but not terribly. ...

Ach, the phone's ringing again! And people at my gate (across the way from where I'm sitting) are milling about in a manner that makes me feel the need to head over there. (My flight, scheduled for 10:10 p.m., has already been delayed till at least 10:30. Oh well -- more airport coffee for me!) So I'll just mention, before signing off for now, why I'm flying to D.C.: I'll be doing an improv tomorrow towards my upcoming stage monologue about democracy (it'll open at the Magic Theatre in S.F. next May 9). My audience will be young political organizers affiliated with -- among other outfits -- Democracy Matters, the organization founded by Golden State Warriors center Adonal Foyle and his parents (I had a wonderful time interviewing Foyle on the show last season -- you can watch that episode on this page). ...

Yikes -- they're boarding, apparently! Gotta go. Stay relaxed, just like your pal Josh, and I'll see you soon. And if you happen to wander by Gate 86, you might want to answer the phone. ...

2 comments September 8th, 2006

Total Re-Clips

In honor of Labor Day, which for some reason we commemorate by taking a day off from work, I will keep this entry brief.

Tonight's show (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30) is a fully functional rebroadcast of an episode in which we took some of our favorite "Wandering Josh" segments and ran them back-to-back, interrupted only by my valiant attempts to provide a narrative throughline. (Actually, it was lots of fun to watch them again.) ...

September 4th, 2006

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