I was raised by Jewish Communists in New York City. Paul Kornbluth and Bernice “Bunny” Selden had been told repeatedly that they would be unable to conceive a child — but, a bit like Lenin at the Finland Station, they kept at it anyway. I was born on May 21, 1959, in Roslyn, NY, on Long Island; hitting the scales at 10 pounds even, I apparently made quite an impression on the locals: many years later, when I called the Roslyn city clerk to get my birth certificate for a passport application, she said, “Oh, I remember you!”
Sadly, I remember nothing from those Roslyn days — my brief experience of suburban life. I’m told that we had a house, and were even a two-car family. By the time I became conscious of stuff, Mom and Dad were divorced and living in Manhattan. They staked out opposite ends of the island: Mom near the northern tip, in Washington Heights, and Dad way south, on the Lower East Side. When I was five or so, my father, a public-school teacher, started dating the sweet young teacher in the next classroom, a recent immigrant from small-town Michigan named Sue Kover. Intra-school unmarried couples were proscribed, so one would stay in the car for a while and “arrive” at work a few minutes after the other. Four years later, perhaps having tired of this ruse, they tied the knot. By this point, Dad and Sue had moved north to Washington Heights themselves; appropriately for the time when détente with the Soviets was just beginning to take flight, they and my mom were able to coexist peacefully — my mother even babysat their first child, Jacob.
Jake’s arrival — at the neighborhood mega-hospital, the Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center — was one of the happiest days of my life. I was 13 at the time, and some people at the hospital joked that I was acting more like a new dad than a new big brother. That was on New Year’s Eve, 1972. On May 9, 1975, my sister, Amy — beautiful then as now — made her own Columbia-Presbyterian debut. Then, on Sept. 30 of the next, Bicentennial year, my youngest brother, Sam, surprised everyone by showing up a full three months before he was due. And now was when we were especially blessed by our proximity to this great medical institution: at Columbia-Presbyterian, they had one of the first ultra-premie units in the world — and thanks to the work of the doctors and nurses, the persistent love and care of Dad and Sue, and (mostly) the remarkable resilience of tiny Sammy (he was born two pounds, one ounce) himself, several months later the Kornbluth household had three marvelous healthy little kids in residence.
In the meantime, their teenage brother had begun college — at Princeton, strangely. I had a difficult time there, though so far I’ve gotten two comic monologues out of the experience, for which I’m grateful. (Success, while it is said to have its advantages, rarely engenders comedy.) Then, the summer before my senior year, as I began an internship at the leftie newspaper In These Times, my father, back in New York, suffered a catastrophic stroke. He was only 55, and the stroke took away the use of much of his mind and his body. Heroically, my stepmother, Sue, took care of him for the very difficult four remaining years of his life, while also taking on the burdens of being, essentially, a single parent to my three siblings. To make things a bit easier, she moved them all back to her tiny hometown, Ottawa Lake, Mich. (near the Ohio border). Once, when I visited from Boston — where I had moved to work at my second newspaper job, at the alternative weekly the Boston Phoenix (now defunct, sadly) — Sue, who had long dreamed of being a race-car driver, tried teaching me how to drive. I remember being behind the wheel at night on the highway, going about 5 mph with lots of people honking at me, and Sue saying, cheerfully, “Oh, don’t pay any attention to them, Josh!”
Dad passed away in 1983, and was buried in Ottawa Lake; though the family was very poor, a stipend from the Veterans’ Administration (he had served in World War II) paid for a memorial stone. Sue died suddenly in 1991 — on March 3, which would have been my father’s 67th birthday. That summer Jake, Amy, and Sam all came to San Francisco — where I had moved a few years earlier, in the hopes of launching a career in the theater — and stayed in my basement studio apartment in the Mission District. It was a tight squeeze: I recall having to literally walk on Sam to get to the bathroom at night. (He could take it; from his puny beginnings, he had grown into a powerful young man.) None of us had much money — I was working as a secretary, and the kids were all still in school — but we made do, and we drew strength from one another. I have an especially fond memory of us all going to see a re-release of the original 101 Dalmations animated film at the Kabuki Cinema in Japantown; I don’t think it even occurred to any of us at the time that it was about a bunch of children (well, puppies) banding together in the absence of their parents. My sibs never had to deal with Cruella De Vil herself, though one particular relative back in Michigan made things pretty terrible for Amy and Sam (Jake was in college by that point) till they escaped to New York.
Today, Jake is an incredibly gifted filmmaker: our first movie collaboration, Haiku Tunnel, came out in 2001 and was released nationally by Sony Pictures Classics; our second, Love & Taxes, was released in 2017 and is now (like Haiku) available online. Jake has made three wonderful movies of his own, The Best Thief in the World, Inequality for All, and— most recently — Saving Capitalism (the latter two films featuring former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich, with whom Jake continues to make incredible, entertaining, essential online videos. Jake and his wife, Ket, live near me in Berkeley with their two beautiful children, Eli and Naomi.
Sister Amy is a diplomat, who is just wrapping up a stint in Madagascar, which follows one in Nigeria. She and her husband, Jeff, are raising a remarkable young woman named Elsa, who seems amazingly well adapted to a family lifestyle that takes her to a new country every two years.
And Sam — oh, Sam!! A decade ago his body started breaking down from various ailments, and in October 2017 — a month after his 41st birthday — he collapsed on a sidewalk and passed away. His absence leaves a deep, sometimes almost unbearable ache among his family and numerous friends: wherever Sam went, he was adored by all who got to know him; the super in his building tried to revive Sam when he collapsed, then rode with Sam in the ambulance to the hospital, then remained by Sam’s bedside, holding his hand. Sam will always remain in our hearts, and his spirit lives on in his beloved nephews and nieces, who always received incredibly thoughtful and lavish presents from “Samta Claus.”
Last year the world also lost another wonderful man whom I’d come to love: Frank Rosen, a retired union organizer in Chicago who (in his eighties and her seventies) married my mother, Bernice “Bunny” Selden. Mom remains in Chicago, and is still going strong at 90, reading voraciously on her Kindle and religiously watching the progressive news shows each evening on MSNBC.
As for me, here’s what happened: I met a beautiful, dazzlingly charming and wildly creative woman named Sara, fell for her like a ton of bricks, and we’ve been together ever since (26 years and counting). We met on Groundhog Day, so my rule has been that each Feb. 2, if she wakes up and sees my shadow, she has to stay with me for another year; thanks to some clever lighting, I feel pretty secure about the continuing efficacy of this arrangement. Like my late father and stepmother, Sara teaches in public school: she is brilliant and passionate in her work, despite the shameful obstacles that our society has put in the way of public-school teachers and students. Joining Sara and me for the past 20 years is our favorite person in the whole world: our son, Guthrie, a sweetheart, a filmmaker (inspired, and mentored, by his Uncle Jake), and a passionate Golden State Warriors fan.
These days I’m an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at the Global Brain Health Institute, as well as Hellman Visiting Artist at UCSF’s Memory and Aging Center. Yes, it’s all brain, all the time! As I learn about the human brain and its many diseases, I am working on a one-man show and a feature film about brain stuff, as well as making an online video series called Citizen Brain. I’m also finishing up The Bottomless Bowl, a one-man show based on my experiences at the Zen Hospice Project in San Francisco, where I served as artist-in-residence and continued for years as a volunteer. Aside from the two feature films I’ve made with Jake, there are also two concert films: Red Diaper Baby (directed by Doug Pray) and The Mathematics of Change (directed by Jake); both are available at my online store, and are priced to move! For two years, I hosted an interview show on public TV station KQED in San Francisco, cleverly titled The Josh Kornbluth Show. For a time I was on Berkeley’s Energy Commission. And in recent years I’ve biked a lot with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training.
What else? I drink lots of coffee, finally got my driver’s license, bought a car, and totaled it in a crash on my way to a Passover seder (giving me a powerful sense of why this night was different from other nights). I really, truly have been intending to practice my oboe — not to mention getting back into the masochistic habit of making oboe reeds. I’m still working on my senior thesis for Princeton (it’s only 38 years late, so far). I have my own little company, Quixotic Projects, with an office in downtown Berkeley that has been described by my friend John (admiringly) as “Philip Marlowe-esque.” Mostly, though, I’m just incredibly glad to be around for this brief time, with people I love dearly, in this astonishing world.