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Archive for May, 2008

I & Thou

Langston HughesI’m sitting at a terrific, progressive-minded bookstore/restaurant/cafĂ© in Washington D.C. called Busboys and Poets. It was just rainstorming outside — typhoonishly — and it was so cool, and comforting, sitting inside this lovely place (which is named in honor of the great writer Langston Hughes, who once worked as a busboy in town) and watching the torrential downpour through the huge windows. They’ve created a wonderful community here, at the confluence of several neighborhoods, and the clientele are a chatting/sipping/Internetting mixture, racially and (from what I can tell) economically. Jazz is playing on the sound system; I’ll be staying with my friends David and Denice; life, for the moment, feels as good as it can feel, given that I’m desperately lonely for my wife (whose birthday this is!) and son.

It’s been a whirlwind of a last few days: I performed two pieces in San Diego — then, immediately after my second performance (on Thursday night) I rushed to the airport to take a red-eye flight to Washington-Dulles. When I got to my gate area, the food choice was McDonald’s. I hadn’t partaken of Mickey D’s in a long time, but — after eating only half a bag of cashews all day, to that point — I enthusiastically ordered a super-sized Big Mac dinner (with Diet!) and brought it on the plane. As soon as we reached altitude, I wolfed down the whole meal in like five minutes. And after that I felt very strange. I felt much as Dr. Bruce Banner must feel when he’s about to transform into the Incredible Hulk: toxic, unsettled, out of control. I honestly worried that I might explode. Maybe they use gamma rays when they cook that stuff. Never again. Till next time.

I made it, intact, to the storied Lincoln Theatre, where last night I did an excerpt from Citizen Josh at a gala event celebrating the Arena Stage‘s upcoming season. (I’ll be performing the piece at Arena this fall.) [Interstitial note: It’s storming again outside — very dramatic! And two young women next to me at this long table — law-school students, clearly — are quizzing each other regarding “third-party plaintiffs” and “third-party defendants”; I have the pleasant sensation of being an uninvolved fourth party.] There were lots of other performers on the program, and I got to do something that, incredibly, was a first for me in 20 years in the theater: I actually shared a dressing room! That’s never happened before! My friend, the genius comedienne Marga Gomez, has a joke that goes something like, “You know the worst thing about being a solo performer? The cast parties.” And there’s some truth in that. For once, I was in the middle of a community (that word again! [And coincidentally, David just joined me here and said, “Ah! You found the community table.”])! Actors teasing one another, telling jokes, comparing leads on day jobs, making sure that a young boy performing with them had his collar done just right — it was a joyful thing. At one point I apologized for being so bleary and slow-on-the-uptake, explaining that I hadn’t slept in a couple of days; an actor sitting next to me patted me on the back, saying, “You don’t have to apologize to us, Josh — you’re one of us!” Then he and I spent the next half-hour swapping proud stories about our respective sons. [David — who is David Dower, my theatrical director and collaborator — is now poring over the Citizen Josh script, looking for ways we can improve it for upcoming runs.]

One cool thing that came up during this trip was that I found someone who shared my interest in “I and Thou.” I was chatting with San Diego Rep Associate Artistic Director Todd Salovey, and he asked me what new theater stuff I was working on, and I told him I was focusing on two subjects, which may or may not end up in one piece: playing the oboe, and the “I-Thou Relationship.” He seemed unaffected by the oboe mention (many people cringe), but got all excited about the second topic. Turns out Todd is from a very prominent rabinnical family line, and he’s been really into theological explorations in recent times.

And [change of scenery here — I’m now at David and Denice’s: it’s even nicer!] theology is of the essence in this I/Thou stuff. “The I/Thou Relationship” was the title of a doctoral dissertation that a friend of my dad’s wrote at the Union Theological Seminary in New York. That friend, Chuck, a Presbyterian minister, passed away several years ago, and he left me his dissertation and supporting documents, in the hope that I would bring them to Union Theological and that they’d be put in the library there. With my typical alacrity, I haven’t done this yet: the documents currently sit in a storage unit in Richmond. But lately, especially, Chuck has been much on my mind; he was such a dear friend of ours, and such a big influence on me. And I feel as though if I can transport his stuff, as promised, and also even try to get a handle on “I/Thou,” I may be able to get a little closer to Chuck, even as his actuality recedes with time.

Martin BuberI and Thou is the title of an influential book by Martin Buber (1878-1965), a Jewish philosopher. Based on my quick reading of Buber’s Wikipedia entry, he led a fascinating, passionate, exemplary life. In his philosophy (I read) Buber distinguished between two different kinds of relationships, which he called (respectively) “I-It” and “I-Thou.” From what I can make out (and from the sound of each phrase), “I-It” refers to more limited, materialistic attachments, while “I-Thou” enters the realm of the spiritual and (perhaps my incorrect addition here) political. But given my obsession with democracy, I find very suggestive the notion that Buber was looking at how we are all connected (whether we realize it or not). And in one telling sentence, the very well-written Wikipedia entry brings Buber right into my wheelhouse: “The generic motif Buber employs to describe the dual modes of being is one of dialogue (Ich-Du) and monologue (Ich-Es).”

That’s my big question for myself! How can I, a monologuist, truly engage in a dialogue? How am I connected with my audience? With you? [With David, who is silently typing at his own computer a couple feet away from me?] This Buber guy sounds like he’s definitely someone I should check out. If you have some knowledge and/or leads in this area, please let me know: I am always thrilled to hear from Thou! [And the sun just came out. And birds are tweeting.]


Just got in to San Diego this morning. I awoke at 3 a.m. to take an early flight down here from Oakland, as I had a live radio interview to do.

Now I’m sitting in semi-darkness in my luxurious hotel room, drinking cold coffee and eating cashews. This must be how the Rolling Stones travel!

SD FreewayI’m really tired, but so far as I’ve been able to make out, San Diego is a series of freeways punctuated by malls. There’s a mall just outside this hotel. I’m trying to build up the energy to walk over there so I can get a salad, while also wrestling with my internal slothful demon that suggests I simply order from room service. I wish that demon had his own line of credit; I always get stuck with demons who are as broke as I am.

I have promised myself that on this trip, unlike all previous trips, I will actually do my stretches and core-strengthening exercises, so I don’t return to the Bay Area in a week’s time as a groaning middle-aged Jewish pretzel. Indeed, by formalizing that noble intention in this blog posting I feel I have at least earned the right to brag that I’m thinking about doing the right thing, which should buy me at least another hour of not doing that thing.

Later I’ll run my lines from the two shows I’ll be doing at the San Diego Rep over the next couple of days: Red Diaper Baby (Wed.) and Citizen Josh (Thurs.). It usually takes one session of muttering a show to myself to get a piece back inside my mind and body. But it always feels weird to just be saying the words to myself: the audience is the reason for the monologue. (But at least no one walks out. Usually.)

A card on the desk here informs me that I am invited to participate in “Unwind, a Westin evening ritual” down in the lobby, involving “nuevo-Latino cuisine” and “enticing libations”; I’m a little suspicious that this may be a front for those “Iron John” people. Another option is for me to “revitalize” (as another card says) with a $3.95 bottle of water. Possibly I’ll just follow my hosts’ injunction (on a third card) to “stir up your senses” by brewing “a delicious cup of coffee with our Westin WakeCup brewer.”

But wait! I’m hearing whispering … It’s the bed … the big, squishy-looking bed … Bed-Spirit calls to me! Cannot resist! Cannot …

Identity Crisis

There’s a place I go where everybody knows my name — it’s just not always the same name.

BBQ ChickenLet me explain. I’ve been getting the same lunch — half a barbecued chicken, with “salad and salad” on the side (you get two sides) — for the past three years or so, thanks to my modified-low-carb diet. I love this restaurant! It’s owned by two incredibly hard-working brothers from Iran, Mostapha and Morteza. They remember what everyone likes to order, and they bring daily joy into the lives of all their customers. Strangely, many of the regulars call both brothers “Mo.” Well, I guess that’s not so strange — but it’s definitely ironic, given what I’m about to tell you.

Which is this: A couple of years ago, after I’d been eating there for a few months, Morteza read a little article about me in the newspaper. And when I came in, he told me about it; but the thing is, he misremembered my name from the article as being “Joseph.” Looking back at it, I suppose I should have corrected him right away — okay, you’re right, I definitely should have done that. But I guess I was slightly embarrassed at having been in the paper: Who did I think I was, anyhow? Anyway, for whatever reason, I let it slide. And from that day forward, to both Morteza and Mostapha I was “Joseph.”

And as I said, I always ordered the same thing. My wife teased me, saying they were going to put “Chicken Joseph” on the menu. My friend John embarrassed me by ostentatiously, and loudly, calling me “Joseph” over and over. As in, “Where should we sit, Joseph? How about over here, Joseph? Could you pass me the ketchup, Joseph?” Whenever anyone was going to meet me there, I’d make sure they knew to call me Joseph — and I’d beg them not to make a big deal of it, as John had done.

Thus the months passed, and five days a week (give or take) “Joseph” had the half BBQ chicken with salad-and-salad (and a large glass of ice water with a slice of lemon — unless Joseph was feeling a little racy and got a Diet Coke instead). Joseph also started having low-carb breakfasts there as well. A couple days a week, in the morning, Mostapha or Morteza — or sometimes Humberto, who works there a lot as well — push a bunch of tables together for a “breakfast club” of senior citizens. It’s a jolly group; they particularly like it when I bring in my young son for breakfast before school. (Early on, my son and I had along talk about why Daddy was known as “Josh” in most places but “Joseph” in this place.) At some point I realized that I was getting something much more valuable than food at this restaurant: it was a community that I felt very comfortable in, a home away from home — but without any strings attached. And the person I was when I entered this world was not “Josh” but “Joseph.” Not Josh the neurotic, but Joseph the solid citizen and healthy eater. Yes, I liked being Joseph. The breakfast-club people liked Joseph. Joseph was the best of public me.

And then I got a TV show. And the TV show was called The Josh Kornbluth Show, and there was a big article about it in the paper. And when I came in for lunch that day, the moment I’d been dreading for months and months was finally upon me. Both “Mo” brothers were there, and they had an urgent question: Who was I, Josh or Joseph? Now, I’d given this matter a lot of thought, trying out different possible answers on my friends and family. So I went with the answer I’d decided on, itself a semi-lie. I said, “Well, my legal name is Joseph, but my friends call me Josh.”

After that, here’s how it broke down: Mostapha started calling me “Josh,” while his brother went on calling me “Joseph.” In the meantime, Humberto — possibly not wanting to take sides — seemed to be calling me “Josheph.” The food continued to be excellent, no matter who was ordering it.

It’s been a while since then, and the Mo brothers still observe the same Josh/Joseph dichotomy. But Morteza, having repeatedly seen me being called Josh on TV and noticing that everyone else seems to know me as Josh, appears to have taken a whimsical attitude towards the whole thing. Not long ago, I came in for breakfast, and a new customer said, “Hey, aren’t you that guy on TV?” Morteza told him, “Yes, he’s Josh Kornbluth.” Then he smiled and added, “Although I call him Joseph — I have no idea why!”

I hope he never stops.

“Get a Setter Today”

SetterI had just finished my workout at the Y the other day. I was quite sweaty, and was heading for the disinfectant spray and a paper towel to wipe down the machine — so the next person to use it could suffer in safety — when I noticed a copy of Allure lying on top of a pile of magazines. This in itself was unusual — at my Y, in the heart of Berkeley, you’re more likely to find The Nation or Macrobiotics Today than Allure or its like. But what really struck me was the cover headline: Next to a photo of a glamorous young woman, it said: “GET A SETTER TODAY.”

What a wonderful message!, I thought to myself as I attempted to remove my middle-aged perspiration from the machine. Usually these sorts of publications seem to focus on superficial beauty — but here, we had a noble call to bond with our fellow creatures. Perhaps this was a sign of a paradigm shift in how our consumer-citizens were looking at the world. Could connectedness now be “in”? Having finished my little task, I went on to clean off my sweat-covered glasses as well. And that’s when I happened to glance at that copy of Allure again — and, with a new clarity of vision, realized what the headline really said: “GET A BETTER BODY.”

Bummer. But maybe, I thought hopefully, the inside feature on cover girl Hillary Duff would at least touch on participatory democracy and its central tenet: We’re all in this together.

It happens a lot that I get things slightly wrong. Several years ago I was at a benefit luncheon for a local branch of the National Lawyers Guild, waiting to perform, and watched them honor two legal activists. The first was being celebrated posthumously, as he had passed away that year from a heart attack; his wife and children were there, to accept in his stead. I looked in the program: The honoree was stocky and bearded, as my father had been, and as I was (minus the beard). Next they presented an award to another guy, about the same age as first one, and it was obvious as he strode to the podium — wiry, vital — that he was in the pink of health.

VikingThe first thing he said was, “I’d like to thank all my friends in the Viking community.” I thought, Wow — that’s cool: I’ve never heard anyone thank Vikings before. Maybe there’s a whole progressive Viking-American subculture that’s been under my radar to this point. The man went on to talk about how regular exercise had changed his life, giving him the spirit and energy to face the deep needs of an ailing society. And so on. It wasn’t till later — when he was going into deeper legal matters — that I realized what he actually must have said: “I’d like to thank all my friends in the biking community”!

Ah, yes — that would certainly explain the lithe physique, and the references to exercise.

Later on, after I did my shtick for the progressive lawyers, I reflected on the contrast between the two honorees. I was on the path to continuing, and probably increasing, out-of-shapeness. My dad, who battled weight problems all his adult life, died at only 59. I wanted to see my son grow up. I wanted him to see me grow up. So I began the weird, modified-low-carb diet that I’ve been on pretty consistently for a couple of years, and also began going to the Y — sweating to the oldies (in my case, ’80s Boston punk) and quixotically (and pelvically) tilting at strengthening what is now known as my “core.”

Fear of getting things wrong hampered my academic years and hobbled my youthful attempts at journalism. Now, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I don’t have to worry about messing up — because I’m a blogger! This is the first entry in my new blog. Please visit often and comment profusely — I’m looking forward to conversing with you in this space, about strengthening our core values, and other stuff. Maybe, all in this together, we’ll even get some things right!