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Ben Franklin: Unplugged


claudelopezMy friend Claude-Anne Lopez — “Claude,” to pretty much everyone who knew her — died last week at the age of 92, after a long period of suffering with Alzheimer’s.  That this cruel disease would have ravaged such a brilliant mind puts even more in doubt the possibility that a benign deity guides our lives.  Claude was a refugee from the Holocaust, a self-created scholar who became a transcendently great writer — mostly on the subject of Ben Franklin — a woman who possessed a regal and ironic wit, and a flirt.  Though she made me a wonderful risotto (from a recipe, she said, by the mother of her late husband), she insisted that she had been a terrible housewife.  But her husband had been a professor at Yale, and even a “faculty wife” was permitted to perform such relatively menial tasks as transcribing some letters to and from Ben Franklin from the great man’s years in France.  (The Franklin Papers are housed at Yale.)  Those letters became the basis of her first book, Mon Cher Papa: Franklin and the Ladies of Paris — which received (deservedly) rapturous reviews and launched her (much more successful) post-housewife career.

I met Claude when I was researching a stage monologue about Franklin, Ben Franklin: Unplugged.  I was on the road, performing another piece of mine in Hartford, and realized that the author of Mon Cher Papa (still my very favorite book on Franklin) lived nearby, in New Haven.  I got her number from the editor of the Franklin Papers, called Claude, and found myself invited to meet with her at her home.  So on an off-day I took the Amtrak train from Hartford (where, by the way, Ben’s son William — who had become an ardent Loyalist — was once imprisoned; I think I know the feeling), and Claude picked me up at the station.  (I had explained over the phone that, like numerous other New Yorkers, I didn’t drive.)  As we got into her car, Claude cheerfully mentioned that, since a recent eye operation, her driving had become particularly erratic — an assessment with which I fully concurred after just a few swerves down the street.

Somehow we both survived that short ride, and after a restorative bowl of her mother-in-law’s risotto, I found myself in one of the best situations that a person could possibly experience: in conversation with Claude-Anne Lopez.  It was, I imagine, like being at one of the famous pre-Revolution French salons that Claude described so well — except that, instead of speaking in French (which I don’t understand, despite having studied it for several years back in grade school), Claude was using her delightfully French-accented English.  Claude had a love affair with Franklin that suffered only slightly from the fact that they lived centuries apart.  She met him through his letters — particularly those he exchanged with the many women who, despite his (mostly self-generated) reputation for sauciness, he largely celebrated for their intellect.  She did not idealize the man — see her book The Private Franklin (coauthored with Eugenia Herbert) for some dirt on his thorny family relations — but celebrated that self-schooled genius in all of his contradictions.  And she was passionate about rescuing that complexity from the caricature that Franklin’s icon had largely been reduced to in popular culture.

But above all, to me, Claude was a writer — a glorious prose stylist for whom the life and work of Ben Franklin had provided a sustaining creative spark.  Ben gave Claude a reason to express her own genius, and she returned that favor with her meticulous scholarship.  That a Jewish girl from Belgium could end up as a historical life-partner with “The First American” is — like much of reality — a tale that would be hard to imagine.  That I got to know her is one of my life’s great blessings.

Feb. 27 Performance to Benefit the LLS

Photo by Mark Leialoha

On Monday, Feb. 27, I’ll be performing my comic monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley — with all proceeds going to the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  (The LLS runs Team In Training, the wonderful organization that is whipping me into shape to bike the Solvang Century next month.)

As far as I know, Ben Franklin wasn’t a major cyclist — but, contrary to his paunchy image, he was an athlete: he’s the only Founding Father honored at the International Swimming Hall of Fame.  My guess is that, if he were alive today, he’d ride a nifty folding bike to the printshop — and would blog about the benefits of physical activity.

Tix & info for this benefit performance can be found here.

The Path to Fulfillment

barcodeIt isn’t easy — at least for someone like me.  You move forward into the unknown, guided by those who have gone before.  They can tell you what it was like for them, but that doesn’t mean it will be the same for you.  You need support, you need the right tools — and you need to find the local Post Office.

Usually, orders at my online store are fulfilled by my fabulous business associate, Dana Dizon. But a recent eblast offering a $10 discount (still available, by the way, using the code BLAST1) resulted, happily, in more orders than we had expected — especially of the DVD of Haiku Tunnel, the movie I made with my brother Jacob several years ago.  And as it happens, Dana had sent most of our stash to Portland Center Stage, where I am doing a run of my show Ben Franklin: Unplugged. (After each performance, I plop myself in the theater lobby and kindly offer to sell my stuff to departing audience members.)

So Dana called me and — in as calm a voice as she could muster — told me I’d have to send out some of the orders myself.  Now, you have to understand that I have, well, issues about mailing things out; in fact, that is exactly what instigates the comic-neurotic plot of Haiku Tunnel: my character’s boss gives him a bunch of very important letters to mail out, and he doesn’t.  Now I’m the boss — and yet, strangely, still with many of the personality flaws I used to exhibit in my secretarial days.  (Meet the new boss — same as the old assistant.  Yikes!)

But people had paid for their books and DVDs, and needed to get them right away.  So, over the phone, Dana walked me through the online process by which I could print out customers’ packing slips (two copies, one for our records) and shipping labels (cut at the dotted line; staple the bottom half to our copy of the packing slip), and log all these actions as having been completed.

“Pick up a bunch of envelopes and boxes from the Post Office,” Dana instructed.

“Don’t tape over the barcode!” she added.  “They don’t like that.”

A worried silence from my end.

“You can do this!” she exhorted.

I could tell Dana was concerned.  She does everything incredibly well, and likes to do things herself.  If I messed up, she would feel responsible (I know, she shouldn’t — but that’s just how she is).  I took a deep breath, then headed over to Portland Center Stage to grab some copies of my merch and use their printer — and, as it turned out, their computer, their packing tape, and of course their stapler (as we all know by now that the bottom half of the mailing label must be stapled to our copy of the packing slip!).  Many of the theater’s astonishingly nice and helpful staff members showed me how to find everything — not to mention get over my usual skittishness around Windows computers (yeah, I’m a Mac guy, even though I look much more like the PC fellow in those commercials).

As I was applying the tape to the packages (though not over the barcode!), I heard a loud thrumming from somewhere nearby.  Eventually I realized what this was: the sound of a typical Portland rainstorm hitting the skylight.  So now I would have to carry all this stuff to the Post Office through the rain!  Postal workers do this all the time, I know — they’ve even been known to deal with sleet and snow; then again, they also go postal.

Fortunately, there was a respite from the downpour just as I left the theater.  Holding the packages label-side down — in case of any unexpected drippage — I made my way to the (fortunately nearby) Post Office.  I needed to hurry, as Dana had been very clear on the phone that I needed to actually mail the packages on the same day as I had printed out the mailing lables; otherwise, the entire global financial system would collapse (or something).  On line at the Post Office, I briefly became entranced by a display of bubble wrap (you have to admit, there’s nothing quite as marvelous as bubble wrap) — only to be told, somewhat gruffly, by the woman behind me that the next window was now open.  I handed my pile of merch to the postal worker (a grandmotherly looking woman with a tattoo on her forearm — god, Portland is cool!) and stared at her in fear and anticipation as she ran her scanner thingie over all my (untaped-over) barcodes.  She nodded at me.

“Everything okay?” I asked, tremulously.


I felt a burst of endorphin-powered euphoria.  I had completed the task, even though it involved more than one step!  Haiku Tunnel DVDs, as well as Red Diaper Baby books and DVDs, were now on their way to all the incredible people who had ordered them.

I texted Dana that it was all over.  A moment later I got a text back from her, thanking me (even though, of course, I should have been thanking her for setting everything up so well — typical Dana).  If there were an emoticon for relief, I’m pretty sure she would have added it.

Then I headed back to my hotel, bathed in a warm glow of satisfaction and relief.  Fulfillment achieved — by me, for once.

Malvina Reynolds at the Rotary Club

The International Upper Middle Class Shall Be the Human Race?

The International Upper Middle Class Shall Be the Human Race?

Just had one of the strangest experiences of my life: hearing the Rotary Club of Portland sing “Little Boxes.”  As a red diaper baby from New York, now calling Berkeley my home, I was expecting at least a soupçon of disorientation at my first-ever Rotary Club meeting — but it never would have occurred to me that the proceedings would kick off with a lusty rendition of Malvina Reynolds‘s famous song lampooning comfortable bourgeois culture.

Adding to the weirdness, I was dressed as Ben Franklin.  This was the idea of the fantastically named Devereaux Dion, the club’s current president.  He and his wife had attended an early performance in my current (and very fun) run of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at Portland Center Stage.  I remember spotting them from the stage: a handsome, middle-aged couple sitting in the front row.  I had snuck covert glances in their direction, to see if they were enjoying the show; at some point in the first act I finally saw Dev smile, and relaxed a bit.  Afterwards, Dev came up and introduced himself to me — following up with an email asking whether I might be interested in attending an upcoming Rotary Club meeting as “Ben.”

I should have warned him that I’m actually not a very good Franklin impersonator — in a way, Unplugged is about how I learned to love Ben without being able to embody him — but I was too delighted by his invitation to bring that up.  So today at noon (sharp — these Rotarians are nothing if not punctual) I found myself in a fancy ballroom in downtown Portland, in full Franklin regalia, preparing to recite a short excerpt from my show.  That’s when Dev brought this guy up to the lectern — apparently they start each of their meetings with a sing-along — who led the assembled Rotarians in an enthusiastic version of “Little Boxes” (they had the lyrics up on a screen).  The irony was not lost on anyone — in fact, it was celebrated: the fellow leading the recital introduced the song as being a parody of the kinds of folks who were in that very room.

I was stunned — a countercultural anthem was being, as it were, co-opted by “The Man.”  Turning to Trisha Mead, PCS’s delightful P.R. and publications manager (who had, thankfully, accompanied me to this gig), I said something about this moment being confirmation that not only had “my” people lost, but the winners were now actually able to gloat and joke about it!  She replied, with an understanding smile, that she could certainly imagine I’d be feeling a bit of cognitive dissonance.

But here’s the thing: these Rotarians were winning me over.  As I understand it (dimly, to be sure), the Rotary Club is about business leaders “doing well by doing good,” as Franklin liked to put it.  (Or maybe it was “doing good by doing well.”  Oh, well.  That’s why I don’t have an almanac.)  They contribute to many worthy causes — including, I’m pretty sure, the kinds of theaters I perform in.  They educate themselves on important causes of the day: the fascinating main presentation of this luncheon was by two creators of a potential totally “green” high rise in Portland.  (One of the presenters commented drily that not all architects design “boxes.”)  And, yes, they help one another in their business endeavors.  Soon after arriving in Philadelphia, Franklin launched a club, called the “Junto,” for doing these very things.  So these people are living the lives that Ben advocated for a self-fulfilled America.

And who am I — the Paine in the ass who smiles smugly while observing these high-toned ceremonies?  Well, not exactly: I’m a businessman myself now — my company, Quixotic Projects, owns my intellectual property (insert your joke here) and occupies a great deal of my time, energy, and hopes.  I could learn a lot from these businesspeople.  Plus, I’m a member of the Berkeley Energy Commission — and this green-building presentation was of tremendous interest to me in that regard.  So you could say that I’m a potential Rotarian myself.

And yet, and yet … I’m also still … me.  My aesthetics and politics — derived from the Old Left of New York, honed in the ’80s punk scene of Boston, and buffed to a Free Speech gleam in my beloved Bay Area — would probably tend to diverge a great deal from many (though perhaps not all) of those in that ballroom.  Of that I have little doubt.

After the Rotary luncheon, we walked back to the theater in a thoughtful silence.  Eventually, I said to Trisha, “Well, it looks like the Revolution is definitely over.”

Her eyes twinkled.  “I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said.

Maybe she’s right — and perhaps, when the time comes, Rotarians and red diaper babies will march shoulder-to-shoulder into a democratic, sustainable future that would make Malvina smile.

Video: “You Want It To All Sink to the Bottom”

Shortly after I arrived here in Portland, Ore., for the current run of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at Portland Center Stage (through Nov. 22), I wandered off during a break in search of coffee-making equipment.  (I hadn’t brought my Melitta stuff from Berkeley.)  At the popular Stumptown Coffee Roasters I became entranced with the idea of trying to make coffee with a “French press” — which had always seemed like a cool way to make a very strong brew.  (I imagined burly, caffeine-addicted French people — or maybe even French Canadians — applying enormous amounts of pressure to create super-intense cups, then writing muscular poetry about societal injustices.)

Wanting to get the French-pressing process just right, I asked the young woman who was helping me — Carrie — if she would mind my video-ing her while she made an exemplary brew.  Kindly, she said yes.  The result is one of those gritty, hard-hitting documentaries that blow the lid off of outmoded stereotypes of coffee preparation; needless to say, it is not for the faint of heart — watch at your own risk!

So far, a couple of weeks into this eight-week gig, both the coffee and the audiences have been hearty and complex, with a gratifying finish.  Once my family gets here, next week, I will be completely grooving on the whole Portland experience.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some serious pressing to do. …

Opening-Night CD Playlist

Had a fun opening at Portland Center Stage last night.  I love this theater, the people who work there, and this wonderful city.  And it’s really fun to be performing Ben Franklin: Unplugged again, after several years away from it.  Ben Franklin is great company — and his brilliant historian Claude-Anne Lopez, the heroine of my piece, is a delight to (try to) re-create.

I traditionally make a CD with a mix of songs for the crew that runs each of my shows.  Wasn’t able to figure out how to print out the list of artists, songs, and albums for them at the hotel, so I’m just putting it here.  I was feeling wistful as I put together this mix (missing my family in the Bay Area and around the world, thinking about my late father and my still-very-much-alive mom), but as I went on I found myself adding more songs that were not so incredibly gloomy.

Song, artist, album:

  1. “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” The Mountain Goats, All Hail West Texas.
  2. “The Stoop,” Little Jackie, The Stoop.
  3. “Wild Mountain Thyme,” Penelope Houston, Birdboys.
  4. “Beautiful,” Anna Waronker, Anna.
  5. “Knapsack,” Amy Rigby, Diary of a Mod Housewife.
  6. “Don’t Let Us Get Sick” (cover of a Warren Zevon song), Jill Sobule, The Folk Years, 2003-2003.
  7. “Frank Mills,” Shelly Plimpton (I think — does anyone know?), Hair — Special Anniversary Edition.
  8. “Steve Willoughby,” Vic Chesnutt, West of Rome.
  9. “Carol Brown,” Flight of the Conchords, Single.
  10. “Phantom Pains,” Christine Fellows, Paper Anniversary.
  11. “New Girl,” The Long Winters, When I Pretend To Fall.
  12. “Lord, I Have Made You a Place in my Heart” (cover of a Greg Brown song), Cry Cry Cry, Cry Cry Cry.
  13. “The French Inhaler,” Warren Zevon, Learning To Flinch.
  14. “Victoria,” The Kinks, Arthur.
  15. “Mercury,” Kathleen Edwards, Failer.
  16. “Papa Was a Rodeo,” The Magnetic Fields, 69 Love Songs, Vol. 2.
  17. “Driving Wheel,” T-Bone Burnett, Truth Decay.
  18. “Lazy Eye,” Hem, Rabbit Songs.
  19. “The End of the Tour,” They Might Be Giants, John Henry.
  20. “My Body Is a Cage” (cover of a song by The Arcade Fire), Sara Lov, The Young Eyes (EP).
  21. “Love Is All Around” (cover of the Mary Tyler Moore Show theme), Hüsker Dü, Eight Miles High/Makes No Sense at All (EP).
  22. “Swimming Song” (cover of a song by Loudon Wainwright III), Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Kate & Anna McGarrigle.
  23. “Count on Me” (Demo), Kirsty MacColl, From Croydon to Cuba … An Anthology.
  24. “Time,” Tom Waits, Rain Dogs.
  25. “The Anchor Song,” Björk, Debut.

After the show there was a sweet party in the lobby of the theater.  At one point some performers from Ragtime, the musical that’s playing upstairs, came over to say hi.  There’s no way to get around it: the cast of Ragtime is way better-looking than the cast of Ben Franklin: Unplugged.  On the bright side, I’ll match up my crew, looks-wise, against any other crew in town!

Now I’m off to the gym to burn off 1,000 calories on the aerobic machines, as I promised Von Ray I’d do.  Then another performance tonight.  Wife and son coming to Portland a week from Tuesday!  Trying to line up bicycle tours of the Portland area for while they’re here. …

Greetings from Portland, Ore.!

Yes, Portland Has a Seal

Yes, Portland Has a Seal

I’m just about to do the second preview performance of Ben Franklin: Unplugged at Portland Center Stage.  I’ve been having a great time: the theater staff is amazingly friendly, helpful, and erudite; the first preview audience, last night, was warm and receptive; and, thrillingly, I’ve been able to hang out a bunch with my theatrical collaborator, director David Dower.  (We used to see each other all the time, but then he moved from the Bay Area to work at Arena Stage in Washington D.C., where he’s been doing incredible things — albeit [*sniff*] 3,000 miles away.)

Some quick highlights from my first week here (mostly spent rehearsing):

  • David and I wandered over to a local gym, and I happened to mention that I really missed my Berkeley-based personal trainer Georgia — who has made my life, previously beset by frequent back ailments, so much better.  Almost as if by magic, a trainer named Von Ray appeared.  Within a short time, somehow David and I had both committed to training with Von Ray while we’re here (seven more weeks for me, a few more days for David).  A moment later, I found myself at Whole Foods with Von Ray helping me choose my exact meals for the next few days.  Von Ray is a force of nature: yesterday was “Terrific Tuesday,” today is “Wonderful Wednesday.”  He’s been working our asses off.  Oh, and one other thing: He doesn’t allow cursing!  I said, “Look, Von Ray, I’m from New York!”  No sympathy.  Every time I curse, I have to do 25 pushups.  Yesterday, I had to do 50.  Today I made myself say things like “Jiminy Crickets!”  It felt weird.  Golly.
  • People at the theater told me I needed to check out Stumptown Roasters.  I did, and their coffee does indeed rock.  (As does their music: last time I was in there, I was delighted to hear them playing one of my all-time favorite albums, Television’s Marquee Moon.)
  • Powell’s Books!!!  In a rapidly digitizing world, it is a sensual thrill to wander through their “City of Books” (just a block from my hotel, and from the theater) and pick up actual, physical volumes.  Heaven.  (Plus, given the horrifyingly slow Internet service at my hotel, rather than Google, it’s often faster just to walk over to Powell’s and look something up.  It might even be faster to walk to Tanzania, actually.)

And in two weeks, my wife and son come to visit me here!  And today is the birthday of my youngest brother, Sam (hero of Citizen Josh)!  And Joni Mitchell is playing on my computer’s tinny speakers (“People’s Parties,” one of my favorites), and she still sounds glorious!

Gosh darn, it’s enough to make you want to cuss for joy — but I don’t think my arm muscles can take anymore pushups today.  So I’ll just sip some more Stumptown coffee, run down to get my laundry from the machines downstairs, and prepare for that second preview.  (The official opening is on Friday.)

If you know Portland, I’d love your suggestions for places I should visit. And if you know people who live around here, please suggest that they come visit me at the theater — that would be way, um, friggin’ cool!