Posts filed under 'citizenship'

Citizen Josh Opens in Berkeley Tonight

My latest comic monologue, Citizen Josh, begins a run at the lovely Berkeley Repertory Theatre tonight at 8. (The run continues through Sept. 2) It would be swell to see you there!

The piece is about my attempts, as a basically passive person, to participate actively in our democracy. What makes this run particularly poignant for me is that the Berkeley Rep sits squarely in the middle of the community that has become my home. Much of the action of the show takes place within blocks of the theater, and a key figure in my story -- political theorist Sheldon Wolin, who was my thesis advisor at college -- was at the center of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement in the '60s. Plus the thrust-stage theater at the Rep is just a fantastic place to perform, and see, a show.

On Sundays, after the 2 p.m. matinées, I'll be having onstage conversations -- "Democratic Dialogues" -- with a series of Berkeley notables. Aug. 19: Joan Blades, co-founder of and founder of Aug. 26: Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff (who was a wonderful guest on our little TV show in the first season). And on Sept. 2: Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates (who also has appeared on our program.

In addition, I'll be playing oboe in the theater's courtyard before each Saturday-night performance -- you can take that as either an inducement or a threat. This Saturday, I'll be duetting with Chloe Veltman.

So that's what I'm up to, starting tonight! For tix and info, you can click here.

2 comments August 16th, 2007

Blanket Powers

My primal image of comfort is of my father tucking me into bed, under the covers, when I was little. Now that I have entered politics, as an energy commissioner for the City of Berkeley, I've begun to experience what it means to be the grown-up, seeing to the little details that preserve and protect the body politic.

It's all details -- that's my take from the first meeting I attended, in a comfortingly drab room at the North Berkeley Senior Center. (The commission meets the fourth Wednesday of every month.) There are Robert's Rules of Order to follow -- a set of rules of etiquette that would be easy to lampoon, but actually allow for the respectful (and relatively efficient) exchange of ideas on a series of topics. There's an agenda to follow. The issues mostly sound dry -- though what they address are often life-and-death matters, especially (but not exclusively) when they deal with local approaches to fighting global warming.

The commission is appointed -- Mayor Bates appointed me. At a recent groundbreaking for a municipally owned wind turbine near the Berkeley Pier, I was excited to be on the list of speakers. By the time I was called up to the podium -- following various electricity and wind-power experts, as well as Mayor Bates himself (pictured here with two young volunteer ground-breakers) -- I was feeling singularly unqualified to speak. What did I know? Well, in truth, not as much as I hope to, as I study these issues. But my tentativeness also struck home to me how singularly different it felt to be in the role of someone who's supposed to think about this stuff -- and not just think, but do.

Later, at the commission meeting (here you can see me being sworn in by Berkeley energy czar Neal DeSnoo), I quickly revealed my (political) greenness. I was quite anxious to participate in my first vote as a political appointee, and I thought the opportunity had come when the commission chair called for a vote to ratify the previous meeting's minutes. So along with the other commissioners, I raised my hand and said, "Aye." At which point one of them gently pointed out to me that, since I hadn't been on the commission at the previous meeting -- indeed, hadn't even attended the previous meeting -- I might find myself on firmer ground by abstaining.

Ah, yes. Of course. I'll get it right the next time.

I did get to vote to adjourn, however (since the meeting had lasted nearly four yours, this vote, unsurprisingly, was unanimous). And I walked out into a delightfully chilly Berkeley night, blanketed in fog, proud to have begun my service.

Today I have to send in my conflict-of-interest form -- required of all California politicians, whether elected or appointed. Since I'm not aware of having any interests, this should go pretty smoothly, I think.

July 13th, 2007

Something To Tilt At

Next week I'll begin my formal (and, I suppose, informal) duties as a new member of the Berkeley Energy Commission. If there's anyone out there with experience in government (or with energy ideas), I'd appreciate hearing from you in the comments section (with do's and don'ts).

On Tuesday afternoon, at 1:30, I'll be attending a groundbreaking ceremony for a wind turbine being built at the Shorebird Nature Center (right by the Berkeley Pier) -- there's a nice little article about it in today's Chron.

On Wednesday evening at 6:30, at the North Berkeley Senior Center, I'll attend my first commission meeting as a commissioner myself (my son and I dropped in on them a couple months ago). Apparently at the start of the session I'll be sworn in -- or, as my son refers to it, "coronated." I'm somewhat nervous about being up to the challenge -- about having the patience to work through the incremental processes of fighting global warming at the local level (among other energy issues) -- but I'm excited to be getting involved.

On a beautiful day in Berkeley like today, it seems almost surreal to imagine that there's a climate crisis. I keep thinking of what my little heal-your-own-back book (and my chiropractor) says: it's especially important to work at prevention when nothing seems to be wrong. (I understand that this spine-to-global-warming analogy is quite flawed -- but if you have a wonky back yourself, you probably understand how the topic tends to work its way into disparate conversations.)

By the way, as far as I know the public is welcome at commission meetings. At one point, late in the meeting I attended as a civilian, the commissioners came to a point in their agenda where they were supposed to ask for public comment. They all turned to me, as I was the only member of the "public" in the room. After an awkward moment I just shrugged and said, "Um, the public's cool with everything so far."

June 22nd, 2007


I've been appointed by Mayor Tom Bates to the Berkeley Energy Commission!

More to come shortly. ...

June 16th, 2007

Citizen Josh Extended Through June 17

Just wanted to mention that my new one-man show, Citizen Josh, has been extended a week -- through Sunday, June 17. It's at the lovely and historic Magic Theatre, at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Info here.

Also, if you happen to attend tomorrow's matinée (at 2:30), you can hang out afterward for my onstage "Democratic Dialogue" with USF politics professor Brian Weiner, who's one of the heroes of the piece.

June 9th, 2007

Citizen Josh

My new one-man show, Citizen Josh, opens tomorrow evening at the Magic Theatre in S.F. I'm hecka-excited! If you want info, you can click here.

2 comments May 18th, 2007

Warriors Win Game 6!

Yeah, yeah, their stunning 4-games-to-2 upset of the Dallas Mavericks was completed last Thursday -- but since that was the first of four days in a row in which I was doing improvs towards my upcoming show opening, I've fallen behind a bit in my reportage. (And not just about sports: I also failed to note Cinco de Mayo, John Ratzenberger's ejection from Dancing with the Stars, and even -- based on a banner I saw in front of the Cowell Theatre this weekend -- National Norwegian Day.)

Actually, I went straight from my improv at USF last Thursday to catch part of the game at Looney's Smokehouse BBQ in Berkeley (order the bread pudding -- you'll thank me), accompanied (and driven) by my friend Brian (a USF politics professor) and his friend and colleague Ron (philosophy). The second quarter was starting as we squeezed into a corner table. People throughout the restaurant/bar were going nuts, and the waitpersons were proving themselves acrobatically flexible enough to continually bend over while serving, lest they impede anyone's view. Brian and I, big hoops fans, were going nuts. Ron, who for some strange reason thinks there are things more important than sports, poked fun at our excitement. We glared at Ron -- which, I quickly gleaned, is what he enjoys. Philosophers!

The third quarter was one for the ages. The Warriors riffed and rocked their way to a rout over the formerly feared Mavs, swishing threes (Stephen Jackson) and going strong to the rim (Matt Barnes). Finally a timeout was called. Ron leaned over and started giving me incredibly perceptive notes on the improv I'd done earlier. As play resumed he was still going -- and I was torn: between my professional duty to improve my piece and my irrational commitment to the basketball team I've watched struggle for 13 years. Amazingly (to me), I chose to stay with Ron's feedback till he was finished. I just hope that when the great Artistic Director in the sky tots up all my plusses and minuses, he or she takes this sacrifice into account.

Tonight the Warriors play their first game of the second round -- against the charmingly oxymoronically named Utah Jazz (at Salt Lake City). Is Baron's hamstring back in fine fettle? (I'd loan him one of mine, but they're congenitally tighter than Dirk Nowitzky at crunch time.) Will Al Harrington and young Monte Ellis rebound from their subpar first-round play? And, as ever, will Citizen Adonal get a chance to show the world that this new American is a shot-blocker for the rest of the world to fear?

Those are some of the pressing questions. And my only excuse for having no answers is that I've been hanging around with philosophers, so I've been skewing kind of Socratic. ...

May 7th, 2007

The Death of a Public School

On Wednesday night the state-appointed administrator of the Vallejo City Unified School District announced that the John Davidson Elementary School will be shut down after this school year.

The teachers at Davidson are an exceptionally dedicated and close-knit group, many having worked together for nearly two decades. With their hard work, Davidson last year had the highest test-score point gain in Solano County. (I know that the whole test-scores thing is a dicey issue -- but if you're going to use these scores as a cudgel to attack teachers and students for their performance, then you should also give them credit when they do well.)

Several years ago the Vallejo City USD -- plagued by underfunding and declining enrollment -- had its school board replaced by a state-appointed administrator. Since then the teachers at Davidson have had to deal with unrealistic edicts from bureaucrats, such as the demand that they continually be holding their teaching "manuals" during instruction. The overall message to the teachers was this: you guys don't know what you're doing. And yet, despite all this -- despite having their job drained of nearly all joy and creativity -- these teachers have continued to pour themselves into the task of educating the children of their community.

Last month the Vallejo City USD held hearings in which -- among other things -- they announced that they were considering closing Davidson and Lincoln (another outstanding elementary school). You see, the state had loaned millions of dollars to the Vallejo City USD when it took over, and the administrator is dedicated to repaying that loan on a strict schedule. But what do you do when there's no "fat" to cut? (There are already ridiculously low numbers of vital positions, like nurses and guidance counselors.)

Hey, I know: how about closing a school or two!

For the last month or so, the school district strung the Davidson teachers along. The state-appointed administrator had suggested the possibility that Davidson be converted to a science-and-technology magnet school -- so long as the teachers, on their own, could get 75 students to enroll who were new to Vallejo public schools. So during their recent spring break, Davidson's teachers woke up early in the morning and went out to places like the ferry terminal, Little League games, the farmers' market, and grocery stores, where they distributed self-designed materials about the proposed magnet school and invited people to sign up.

The Davidson teachers -- along with their very supportive principal and staff -- returned to work feeling guardedly hopeful. They had responded to the district's sort-of-ultimatum with typical creativity, enthusiasm, and action -- and they had gotten people in the community excited as well.

And then, on Wednesday night, the hammer came down.

So next year the Davidson teachers, who have worked together so effectively for so long, will be dispersed among other schools. But in the meantime they are back at work, still doing their very best to educate tomorrow's citizens.

6 comments May 4th, 2007

Warriors Lose Game 5 …

... despite the intensely helpful vibes I was trying to send them in Dallas. It was a great game, though. The Warriors are now up 3-2 in the series and are coming back home. ...

I guess I have to acknowledge the obvious limitations of being a fan: we live through our teams, but they're the ones doing the playing, and when they lose there's nothing we can do about it except mourn.

In the summer of 2004 I was at the Oakland Coliseum when the A's lost the deciding fifth game to the Red Sox in the first round of the playoffs. (Is that what they call the postseason in baseball? I'm so immersed in hoops right now that I can't remember!) It was devastating. I remember getting on the BART train at the Coliseum station. We sat there a long time while the train filled up with inconsolable A's fans. Nobody said a word -- until finally someone announced, "Well, all I can say is, after this game, Bush better not win -- that would just be more than I can take."

Which got me to thinking: How much has politics become like a game to us? We can vote for who goes on our team, but then many of us (like me, too often) just sit around and hope that they'll play up to our expectations. That can be a tendency in representative democracy: a kind of passivity. I think that's why I've gotten interested in grassroots activism lately: You don't have to wait four years to get in the game. Sure, my hoops playing at the local playground is quite a few notches below the pros' -- but it leaves me invigorated, and perhaps with an added understanding of what the experts are sometimes able to accomplish.

If you're as tight as I am, though, it would probably be a good idea to stretch before any strenuous athletic or political activity. ...

May 2nd, 2007

Strange Culture

About a decade ago I got a call to come in and audition for a movie. The filmmaker was legendary video artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, who was preparing to shoot her first feature film, Conceiving Ada. The audition was a very strange, dreamlike, and oddly pleasurable experience: I read a few lines from the script, Lynn smiled enigmatically, asked me to read some lines for another character, she smiled enigmatically again, and then we chatted for a while -- not about her film, just about stuff. I vaguely remembered being offered tea and sweets and some point. There was none of the typical pressurized, cattle-call vibe that you usually get at auditions. Even though I was even obscurer than I am now, and Lynn was already celebrated in the art world, she treated me as a colleague.

As it turns out, there wasn't a part for me in Conceiving Ada -- though there were parts for the sublime Tilda Swinton and Francesca Faridany, among many other fine actors. But that didn't really matter to me -- I felt that, with my audition experience, I had participated in the project anyway.

Cut to a few years later. I was working on my first feature film, Haiku Tunnel, with my brother Jacob, when I got a call from Lynn: she was working on a new feature herself, a sci-fi exploration of contemporary life called Teknolust. I went in and had another dreamlike, pleasurable "audition" -- and this time I ended up in the movie. Even better!

Now jump a few years further. One day Lynn invited me out to brunch in the City and told me about this friend of hers, an artist named Steve Kurtz, who was caught up in a nightmarish, Kafka-esque situation: He had woken one day to find his beloved wife, Hope, dead. He called 911, and when the paramedics came they saw these petri dishes with what looked like it might be scary stuff in them. (Actually, it was harmless biological material that he was using for an art project.) By the end of the day, Steve was in FBI custody, his house was sealed off, and his wife's body impounded. Amazingly, even though everyone now knew that the stuff was harmless, Steve was still facing a possible 20 years in jail.

Lynn was determined to get the word out about Steve's plight by making a movie. For legal reasons, Steve couldn't talk directly about his case, so she was asking several actors she knew -- including Tilda, Peter Coyote, Thomas Jay Ryan, and me -- to tell the story in a film that would be part documentary, part dramatization. Working, as always, on a shoestring, that's what she did -- and the result, Strange Culture, is a beautiful, moving call to citizenly action. It rocked Sundance this year, then the Berlin Film Fest, and now is having its Bay Area premiere as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival. (I'll be attending the first screening tonight at 6 at the Castro.)

I fervently hope that with the movie's continued dissemination, so many people become aware of Steve's situation that he will be released from this nightmare. In the meantime, his long-delayed trial is scheduled to begin by summer of 2008, if not sooner.

1 comment April 28th, 2007

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