Archive for February, 2007

Irv Muchnick Wants You!

SgtSome of the happiest hours of my childhood were spent watching "professional wrestling" with my maternal grandfather, Julius. After Lawrence Welk had entertained us, Grandpa would switch the TV to Channel 47, a station that seemed to broadcast entirely in Spanish -- with the exception of its nightly pro-wrestling show, which ran in English. Grandpa, a wiry, athletic man even then, in his seventies (he'd live to 103!), would station himself excitedly in his plastic-covered armchair -- while I, his chubby grandson, sat on the plastic-covered couch, unspeakably relieved that the blandly smiling Mr. Welk had been replaced on the small screen by such formidable gentlemen as Haystacks Calhoun, the Iron Sheik, Captain Lou Albano, Sgt. Slaughter (pictured), and, of course, the champ: Bruno Sammartino. As the good guy in each match would -- after drinking in much sham pain -- pummel the bad guy, Grandpa would bounce up and down in his chair, vocalizing -- "Oof!" "Ugh!" -- with each blow. An idealist, he was willing to believe that the bouts were legit -- until the sad day when shady wrestling promoter Vince McMahon Sr. fixed one of his fights too blatantly even for Grandpa to accept. After that, we watched wrestling on TV less frequently, and Grandpa gave up his regular visits to Madison Square Garden to see the matches live.

SamSince then, McMahon's son, Vince Jr., has pretty much taken over the gaudy mantle of pro-wrestling promotion -- with mixed, but mostly great, success. His lurid story is woven through Wrestling Babylon: Piledriving Tales of Drugs, Sex, Death, and Scandal, the compulsively readable new book by Berkeley's own Irvin Muchnick, my delightful guest on tonight's show (at 7:30) -- which also features a "Wandering Josh" segment in which yours truly learns pro-wrestling basics from wrestler and mixed-martial-artist Daniel Puder. Irv's uncle, Sam Muchnick (pictured), was sort of the anti-McMahon: a wrestling impresario of the old school, whose courtly ways -- and aversion to the limelight -- were superseded by the younger man's brash, self-aggrandizing, ever-flashier promotions. In addition to Sam and the Vinces, there are colorful characters aplenty in Wrestling Babylon -- including the tragic, born-again Von Erich family, the volatile Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, and, of course, the hairline-challenged Hulk Hogan.

Throughout his book -- and our interview -- Irv Muchnick applies a philosopher's touch and a streetwise sense of humor to the often-sordid business of pro wrestling. The result is something that I think Grandpa -- once he'd gotten over the original hurt -- would have stood up from his armchair and applauded.

You can catch Mr. Muchnick live at Black Oak Books in Berkeley on Tuesday, March 27, at 7:30 p.m. -- a free, book-launching event that will include a visit from a certain neurotic TV-show host.

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5 comments February 26th, 2007

Waiting for Peggy

In a couple of days I'll be taping an interview with Peggy Orenstein, author of the new memoir Waiting for Daisy: A Tale of Two Continents, Three Religions, Five Infertility Doctors, an Oscar, an Atomic Bomb, a Romantic Night, and One Woman's Quest to Become a Mother. I'm reading it right now, and it's terrific -- moving, funny, painfully honest.

As I prepare for my chat with Orenstein, I thought I'd ask you folks whether you would care to share your own thoughts and experiences on the extraordinarily fraught issues that swirl around the subject of fertility. For example, at one point -- after Orenstein had endured several miscarriages -- her doctor pointedly asked her what was important to her: to be pregnant or to be a parent? In other words, mightn't it be better to give up on the fertility treatments and adopt instead?

Have you, or someone you know, had to face such difficult questions? I'd love to hear from you.

1 comment February 21st, 2007

Alice Lived Here

CalvinFew writers have given me as much pleasure as Calvin Trillin, my guest on tonight's show (at 7:30; repeated on Friday at 10:30). Not that his subject matter has always been joyful. In fact, in his long career he's shown astonishing range -- producing comic novels (Floater, Tepper Isn't Going Out), humorous memoirs on eating out (The Tummy Trilogy), and political doggerel (A Heckuva Job: More of the Bush Administration in Rhyme), but also stark reportage on terrible crimes (Killings). In recent years he's also given us a new kind of memoir -- nuanced, meditative, and often very moving -- such as Messages From My Father and, most recently, About Alice, a slender, poignant volume about his late wife. The new book is lovely, and getting a chance to talk with Trillin -- about Alice, but also about such silly topics as a tic-tac-toe-playing chicken -- was quite a privilege.

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2 comments February 19th, 2007

Citizen Foyle

America just got taller and smarter! Adonal Foyle, the hyper-articulate Golden State Warriors center (and an excellent guest on this show last season), recently gained his U.S. citizenship. I'd learned of this through my favorite Warriors blog and subsequently had it confirmed by Adonal's parents, who join him in running Democracy Matters. Congrats to Adonal! (Now maybe our country will start playing smarter defense.)

February 19th, 2007

You Dig?

Josh B.Josh Bernstein, the host of the History Channel's hit series Digging for the Truth and my first guest on tonight's show (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30), has many fans. For instance, not only is there an unofficial Josh Bernstein website, there's even a website for his groupies! What might account for this popularity? It could be his on-camera savoir faire as he goes on death-defying adventures to solve great archaeological mysteries. Or it could be his telegenic good looks. Perhaps it has something to do with his abortive studies at rabbinical school. Maybe it's the ruggedness he's earned in the course of running his own outdoor survival company. My best guess, however, is this: it's because he has a great first name.

TeresaAs for my other guest, Teresa Rodriguez Williamson, the only mystery is why she is not yet president of the entire world. So much energy! You can imagine how this former model and dating-game chaperone needed to take on a project commensurate with her ambitions. Her baby is the website Tango Diva, which gives women the tools to confidently travel the world alone. For those of you who crave the solidity of book knowledge, she's just come out with a volume titled Fly Solo: The 50 Best Places on Earth for a Girl to Travel Alone, containing all the essentials. (I did think of asking her why she uses the word "girl," rather than "woman," but I figured she knew what she was doing -- and anyhow, as an interviewer and a feminist, I guess I'm not that kind of boy.)

Starting off the program is a very silly archaeological dig that, in honor of Mr. Bernstein, I conducted at KQED. For some real history of our great station, you can check out this page on our website.

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February 12th, 2007

Deconstructing the Reconstruction

As I vaguely recall from my high-school social-studies class, Reconstruction was the period in American history, following the Civil War, in which African-Americans in the South made the transition from bondage to freedom. Even at the time, I suspected that it wasn't that simple: seeing how much racism still existed in 20th-century America, it was hard to imagine that blacks in the 1860s and '70s would have been allowed a smooth transition to equal citizenship.

LalitaBut it wasn't till recently, when I read Lalita Tademy's latest historical novel, Red River, that I began to understand just how harrowing their experiences were, and how many sacrifices that generation made so their descendants might actually have a chance to experience freedom. Tademy, my guest on tonight's show (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30), is one of those descendants -- and she has done her ancestors, and us, a great service by fictionally re-creating their struggles.

Her first novel, the New York Times bestseller Cane River, traced her mother's lineage; Red River now does the same for her father's side. What Tademy has uncovered in her latest researches -- centering on a racial massacre in which three of her forebears suffered -- makes for harrowing reading.

I guess it would be a lot easier just to stick with the simpler narrative I learned in school: you know, Lincoln freed the slaves and everything was just fine. But I suspect that unless we face the ugliness in our past -- as well as celebrate the everyday courage of those who have fought injustice, often at great personal cost -- we won't have any hope of healing the bitter rifts that still divide us today. By making an imaginative leap into the minds and hearts of those whom history has long ignored, Tademy has performed a valuable reconstruction of her own.

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4 comments February 5th, 2007

Molly Ivins

Many, many careers ago, I was an aspiring journalist. My territory was the small world of so-called "alternative" journalism -- that is, journalism that reached very few people and paid very few bills. I wanted to be a reporter or columnist -- one whose biting wit brought the fat cats to their haunches -- but, on account of an unfortunate tendency to develop writer's block at the first opportunity, I found myself toiling as a copy editor instead: correcting the (mostly) minor errors of the folks who actually could write on deadline.

Sometimes my little newspaper would run a column by Molly Ivins -- who died last week of breast cancer at the age of 62 -- and on those occasions all I had to do, as copy editor, was lean back and enjoy the prose of just the kind of stylist I'd aspired to be. There was nothing to correct in Ivins's writing. Also -- and this was so important -- there was nothing too "correct." Her thinking and writing were at such a high level that she never had to resort to the well-meaning but uninspiring platitudes that many of us employed to score points against The Man. She was an intellectual who wrote in a down-home style -- a good-ol'-girl humorist who could slice and dice a bogus argument while making even her victims smile. Well, maybe not all of them smiled -- but, for example, even President Bush, whose foibles, as governor and president, had been enumerated countless times by Ivins (including in Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush, the best-seller she co-authored), released a short statement on her passing that you would have to describe as affectionate.

I would have to describe my own reaction as deep sadness. There are many lovely tributes to her on the website of the Texas Observer, the venerable "alternative" periodical she co-edited for several years; one of them, by the great Bill Moyers, describes a rollicking scene in what he calls "that great Purgatory of Journalists in the Sky" -- one in which Ivins is rubbing shoulders with a bunch of other great journalists who have left this mortal coil. I love thinking of her soul, and intellect, as still being alive somewhere -- though, given my secular upbringing and experiences, I cannot actually bring myself to believe it. What I do believe is that a tall and big-boned and ebullient woman from Houston, Texas, lived her too-short life with contagious humor and passion, and with an utter distaste for divisiveness.

Case in point: At a booksellers' event a few years ago -- one that became notable for featuring a mano-a-mano between Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly -- the atmosphere became decidedly polarized along political lines. Ivins was on the same panel, and her response to the invective being slung was typically clear and devastating: "One of the things that I notice is that we do tend ... to lump everybody -- you know, 'the left,' 'the right.' ... And that's interesting to me, because what I keep sayin' to people is, 'I ain't "the left," I ain't "populism." My name is "Molly Ivins."'"

February 4th, 2007


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