Archive for November, 2006

Hard Travelin’

Amtrak to DavisBack's feeling better this evening; I think doing exactly what my chiropractor tells me to do may, in fact, be the way to go. (Perhaps it's best to overlook the fact that he's also a rock 'n' roll bassist.) I was even able to walk to my son's school and pick him up today -- giving me hope that tomorrow I'll be able to resume my campus visits. It would really bum me out if I have to miss any more days (I had to skip going to USF this morning; couldn't move, pretty much). Each of my campus sojourns has been revelatory: it's one thing to theorize about what today's students are thinking about democracy, quite another to hear it from them directly. The picture embedded in this paragraph was from my first trip, to UC-Davis, via Amtrak. I was, as I always am when on my way to meet new people -- especially young people -- quite terrified. (I felt the same way about meeting young people when I was a young person myself, by the way.) Would my family stories -- each of which, I hope, will relate to democracy or citizenship in some way -- seem irrelevant to them?

The students at Davis -- and the wonderful professor who guided me throughout my visit, Larry Bogad -- turned out, in fact, to be intrigued by my project. And I got my first taste, in the 26 years since I was in college myself, of attending university. O, the pressure! It all came flowing back to me: being on the cusp of adulthood, longing for autonomy but at the same time missing the suffocating-but-comforting role of child. And these professors -- or, sometimes worse, grad students -- barrel on with their facts and theories, heedless of how desperately we are straining just to hold onto each side of the child-adult chasm. The "learning" we get can feel like just so much more weight piled on top as we dig our nails into the opposing cliffs.

Perhaps in the techno-future all college students will have the option to give up a few decades of their lives -- just go directly from their teens into middle age, where it seems to make more sense to read, say, Plato.

But hey, I had fun on campus. Not just at Davis, but in my subsequent visits -- to UC-Santa Cruz (pictured below, from my hotel room), West Valley College, and CSU-East Bay. My three-day stay in Santa Cruz afforded me the additional pleasure of hanging out with my old college roommate, Jonny Fox, a professor there, as well as his wife Helen (a provost) and their two strikingly wonderful children. Unburdening my nascent ideas about my democracy piece to Jonny, I was reminded of why Jonny graduated college with super-duper honors while I didn't graduate at all: Jonny is really, really smart. As Helen and I gnawed at the pomegranates that my wife had packed for my trip, Jonny went into their garage and came back with six or seven books that related to my project.

Santa CruzIt was a moving evening for me. Jonny's family took me in back when I was a lost-soul twenty-something; when his mom Sally, an effervescent nurturer, passed away recently, I felt a part of me pass away as well. As it happens Jonny's dad, Maury Fox, is a distinguished scientist -- and the Foxes, years ago, used to hang out with the large family of a brilliant colleague of his, Gordon Sato. So when -- many years after I'd lived with the Foxes -- I fell in love with Sara Sato, I unwittingly reconnected these two great families. ... On this evening Sara was at home in Berkeley with our son, and I was missing them very much; but in spending this time with Jonny and Helen and their kids, I was with my extended family, and that was good.

How far can our connections extend? We have our family and our friends, and sometimes our friends' families. And then there are the people in our neighborhood, and the other members of our PTA, or church, or antiwar group. And our fellow Californians (say), and Americans (say), and ... From what I've heard from students so far, most of them are sad -- possibly even to the point of hopelessness -- that the connections they hear of among participants in past movements, the passions that their professors sometime try to re-create from the mists of history, are inaccessible to their generation. They seem to feel that history -- at least, of the kind that is made by ordinary citizens -- is over. They see little or nothing out there to engage in. ... But I see tremendous possibilities in them, and among them. Or maybe that's just what I want to see. I don't know yet: I still have many more campus visits to go.

My college advisor, Sheldon Wolin, has pointed out that "theory" derives from the Greek word theoria, or "journey." So I like to think that -- despite my manifold academic shortcomings -- simply by continuing to travel along this road, I am, in some sense, being a theorist. Where will the journey take me tomorrow?

I must stretch!

November 27th, 2006

Twisted

In case you're wondering why I'm standing as I type this, it's because my back's gone out again. My chiropractor has explained it to me thusly: there's probably some frayed ligament-type stuff in my lower spine, which leads to instability, which -- given the right combination of torque and exhaustion -- leads to a muscle getting overloaded, which leads to that muscle spasming, which leads to a nerve getting pinched, which leads the nerve to send a signal back to that muscle -- and hey, maybe some other muscles, too! -- to spasm some more, which ...

Well, you get the general idea.

The extra drag of this is that I'm in the middle of visiting a bunch of college campuses, as I work on my upcoming stage monologue about democracy. This week I'll be at the University of San Francisco, attending classes, meeting with faculty and students, and -- on Friday -- improvising on stage for a couple of hours. I've been looking forward to this campus visit for months, and now I can barely tie my own shoes.

My hopes rest in the three "I's": ice, ibuprofen, and ... I forgot the third "I." Irony? Impishness? The International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU)? Damn, now my brain's slipping, too. ...

If you're at USF this week, be very afraid.

1 comment November 26th, 2006

Miss Congeniality

Amy & JoshEvery once in a great while a TV show comes along that delves more deeply into the human condition than you had ever thought possible -- bringing you to a place of profound understanding, reminding you of your inescapable connection to the tiniest subatomic particle in the universe, taking you on an intellectual and spiritual journey of the highest order. Tonight's episode -- featuring an interview with the effervescent Amy Sedaris -- is not such a show. It was just plain fun.

AmyAs a long-time fan of her warped Strangers with Candy TV series -- now also a feature film -- I wouldn't have expected any different. Still, hanging out with her in person was a revelation. Sedaris is a master of what you might call the Comedy of Cruelty: she gaily pricks at stereotypes until they bleed. And yet, like her brother David -- the great humor writer -- Amy has an underlying sweetness and humanity that belies the barbs. No matter how mean she might pretend to be, you like her, you really like her.

Amy & BunnyThe same goes for her new book, the coffee-table-sized I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Packed into its glossy pages are numerous examples of Sedaris's twisted wit, along with loads of really delicious-looking recipes (not counting, of course, those for fake cakes). Like its author, it's simultaneously heartfelt and irreverent. And bunny-friendly. Yes, Amy Sedaris loves rabbits. We proved that definitively on this show as well.

All in all, having this hostess with the mostest as our guest was a deeply giddy experience. So hey, I take back what I said before: This show was deep.

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6 comments November 20th, 2006

I Think I’ve Figured It Out

Reading is the best, because it allows/forces you to imagine an entire world. Radio is very good, because it only gives you the sounds, leaving you to supply the visuals for yourself. Television and film: well, at least they let you imagine touch and smell. But life, as we experience it, unmediated by media, leaves nothing -- nothing -- to the imagination.

You call that entertainment!?

November 18th, 2006

A Kinder Cut?

This isn't really earth-shattering or anything, but I was wondering if anyone out there could recommend an electric razor that doesn't chew up your skin while leaving your beard mostly intact. Such has been my sad experience so far -- and darn it, I don't want to go back to the messiness of shaving-cream-type razors. And besides, I think in the couple of years since I plugged in, manual razors have evolved into bulky, intimidating four-bladed things that wouldn't actually fit between my nose and upper lip.

I started using electric razors after I had throat surgery: the surgeon said that while the scar on my neck was healing, the skin there would be numb, and thus I might cut myself with an old-fashioned-type blade. At the time I saw this as a chance to break away from Luddite shaving techniques -- which, truth be told, usually ended up spilling plenty of blood as well. It's not often, in middle age, that you get a chance to make a fundamental change in your habits. Dylan had the foresight to go electric at a younger age, and look where it got him -- he became pop music's future. When I walked up to the nice man at the Macy's counter, I felt jazzed: this new razor would be my electric bridge to the 21st century.

But the results have really been more Stone Age. As far as I can tell, the way my electric razor works is basically the same way sandpaper works: it keeps rubbing and scraping away indiscriminately till there's not much left. Kadidja, my wonderful make-up artist at KQED, recently asked me if I had a second scar at the bottom of my neck; I had to tell her that, no, that was shaver damage. All she could do was sadly shake her head and reach for the skin-toney stuff.

Yes, it's time. Time for the new, more-intact-faced me. Electrons, si; engraving, no. Knowledgeable bloggers of the world, my face in in your hands.

6 comments November 17th, 2006

Getting the Pictures

Since I was going to be interviewing one of our great photographers, Annie Leibovitz, on a whim I brought my little digital camera to the station on the morning we taped this show (which airs tonight at 7:30 and on Friday night at 10:30).

See a slideshow of my photos.

As I entered the building, feeling a bit frantic and nervous as usual, I was instantly calmed by the friendly greetings of security guard Lois Combs and receptionist Naty Panameno. Ever since I started doing this job, Naty has been giving me pep talks each morning, assuring me that my rampant insecurities are entirely unfounded. She also does wonderful humanitarian work, drawing in the entire KQED staff on her various projects. Lois and Naty really help set the tone for the community of us workers at the station, as well as our many visitors.

Up on the third floor, where my cubicle is, I cajoled JK Show associate producer Elizabeth Pepin to let me snap her picture. It is highly weird that Elizabeth is as reluctant as she is to be photographed, considering that (a) she's obviously very photogenic and (b) she is herself a tremendously gifted photographer and filmmaker. (Her beautiful documentary, One Woman's Story, recently had a smash premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival.) When I first auditioned for this TV-interviewing gig, Elizabeth was my "guest"; we talked about her photography, and she put me totally at ease (well, almost totally). And now we work together! (By the way, Elizabeth, if you read this: I'm totally putting together some Mountain Goats CD's to give you -- sorry it's taken me so long.)

Soon it was time for me to go into makeup. What's that, you say? Kornbluth needs makeup? To which I answer: Heck, yes! I mean, if my enormous shiny forehead weren't heavily powdered, the lights bouncing off my noggin would get so bright that viewers would have to squint fearfully at the screen. Plus, I've found that just a little eyeliner gives me a bit more Oprah-osity, not to mention making me look at least six weeks younger. And the delightful person who expertly applies this makeup is Moroccan-born, French-raised Kadidja Sallak. Show me a person who cannot be charmed by Kadidja, and I will show you an extremely inanimate object.

Now it was time to tape the interview, so I strolled into our studio and, as usual, marveled at what a great bunch of folks I get to work with here. Camera operator Harry Betancourt (pictured with happy-go-lucky floor director Randy Brase) is -- like my late father -- from the Bronx, and I kind of look up to him as a father figure on the set. Also doing their best to try -- somehow! -- to make me look good are camera operator Rick Santangelo, lighting director and camera op Jim McKee (pictured in muscle-man pose), and video wizard Eric Shackelford (pictured with video-testing graphic thingie).

AnnieI bet that all these intensely visual gentlemen were as jazzed as I was to see Annie Leibovitz walk in -- a profoundly down-to-earth person, I immediately sensed. She and I chatted as the crew got set up, and then we had the conversation you will see tonight. I was so taken with her relaxed intimacy that I apparently didn't activate my internal memory chip -- thus I don't have much of a recollection of what we actually said, just that our brief time together was immensely gratifying to me. I do know that we talked about the intensely personal photograph collection she's just published, A Photographer's Life: 1990-2005, which limns her most intimate relationships -- notably with her lover, the late Susan Sontag: very, very moving.

Josh & HelenIn the middle of our interview, we took a break to watch a "Wandering Josh" I had done in which I had a brief encounter with the great actress Helen Mirren, star of the addictive Prime Suspect series (now running on our station) and, most recently, the sly and marvelous new Stephen Frears movie, The Queen. Dame Helen was as articulate and gracious as any interviewer could dream of -- and it was a thrill to do even a short stand-up with her. (My Benevolent Webmistress also lets on that Mirren is her all-time favorite actor, so I know I'm not the only person around here who's verklempt about all this.)

Annie's SnapAs we ended the taping, Leibovitz grabbed my little camera -- which, living in hope, I had placed near where we were sitting -- and snapped a bunch of pictures of me, ending with a nice photo of the two of us. I guess it wasn't quite as glamorous as, say, Tom & Katie & little Suri, but fans of pix of near-sighted Jewish people should find much to enjoy in the image.

All in all, a picture-perfect day on the job. ...

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7 comments November 13th, 2006

The Inner Agnes

Earlier this year, an amazing professional organizer named Agnes came into my entropic apartment and -- with a kind of charming, New Agey relentlessness -- whipped my things into shape. Much was thrown out. Much was filed away. Some was placed into storage. And throughout the process I longed for it all to be ... over. Not that I didn't enjoy Agnes's company. Not that I wasn't insanely thrilled when my wife and son returned from work and school, respectively, to find order where there had previously been chaos (almost all of it due to my habitual clutterosity). It's just that it was so very difficult for me to sit in the place where I had made a mess and face that mess. If Agnes hadn't been here I would have (a) slept, (b) gone to the cafe, (c) joined the Foreign Legion -- anything to get away from the piles of me-ness everywhere: bills, magazines, books, the occasional buried snack ... But whenever I showed signs of flagging, Agnes would cheerfully urge me on to the next task: open that envelope, shred those receipts, have a sip of coffee, now let's go to Ikea and buy some bookshelves! ...

It was exhausting. It was challenging. It changed my life.

And now I'm on my own. I mean, Agnes is still available; it's just that I can't afford her right now. Which is just as well, in a way, as the whole point -- or at least most of the point -- was for me to make a habit out of organizing my own stuff. And in the past, busy months, my desk -- pristine as of Agnes's last visit -- had again become overrun with papers, wires, DVD's, and such. I could feel the Old Me creeping back -- see it, actually, as it teetered on either side of my laptop, threatening to collapse. Would all of my hard work with Agnes have been for naught?

No, not for naught: What Agnes did was establish a place for each sort of thing to go -- plastic bins, file drawers, CD and DVD towers, bookcases, and little magnetic basket thingies for receipts and BART tickets. And what I learned this weekend was that I could summon my Inner Agnes. I firmly but cheerfully coaxed myself into sorting, throwing out, etc. I even made a couple of labels to put on things (never underestimate the pleasures to be had from a good labeler). And when the obsessive-compulsive person who lives beneath my slothful exterior showed signs of taking over and demanding an impossible level of perfection, I ordered myself to take a deep breath and a long sip of coffee, then went back to the task at hand (accomplishing it imperfectly).

All the while, the sadistic person living inside that obsessive-compulsive person would be reminding me off all the other tasks that I wasn't accomplishing. But fortunately my Inner Agnes would keep my eyes focused on the particular thing I was doing: a small thing in and of itself, but the kind of thing that -- in aggregate -- clears away the clutter of self-recrimination and makes space for ... life? work? happiness?

I don't want to get carried away here. I mean, I'm just saying I straightened things up a bit. But I guess I'm also saying that this felt wonderful and new and right. Thank you, Agnes -- both within and without. I think you're neat.

November 12th, 2006

MTT: Da Capo

MTTOf the many thrills I've experienced while holding down this magical talk-show-hosting job, chatting about music with Michael Tilson Thomas (tonight at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30) has to rank near the top. Amateur players like me (the oboe is my affliction of choice) rarely get to share our passion with world-class musicians like MTT -- so just to be able to ask my burning questions was a pleasure in itself. But what made the experience really swing for me was that MTT came back at me with his own passion for educating the public about classical music -- a form whose complexity (compared to pop music, at least) can seem daunting. In the marvelous series Keeping Score: Revolutions in Music -- a collaboration between the members of the San Francisco Symphony and their renowned music director -- Thomas guides the viewer towards the soul of some great pieces and their creators, showing the music to be both accessible and immensely rewarding.

oboeWhen I was a kid, my godmother, an Auschwitz survivor named Edith Solomon, would bring me to Leonard Bernstein's young people's concerts at Philharmonic Hall. Edith, a flutist, was a gaunt woman of few words, but these events -- through Bernstein's great charisma and pedagogical gifts -- were a way for us to share something transcendent and meaningful. Talking with MTT put me in mind of those wonderful afternoon concerts, and I'm delighted that -- in conjunction with Keeping Score's debut this week on our very own KQED -- we are rebroadcasting this, our first show of this season. (To read my original blog post about this episode, click here.) And now, if you'll excuse me, I have get back to practicing my squawkerator -- um, I mean, oboe. ...

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November 6th, 2006


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