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Archive for July, 2010

Lunch Launch

First-Lunchers (Photo by Steve Rhodes)

First-Lunchers (Photo by Steve Rhodes)

We didn’t solve the problems of the Middle East at lunch today, but we had a good talk about our feelings regarding Israel, being Jewish, not being Jewish, and several other things — none of them being my possible upcoming oboe piece.  I brought my oboe to the Contemporary Jewish Museum today, and even a music stand, but my thoughts and emotions centered on Israel — so, to a large extent, that’s what we talked about.

We agreed that we don’t like being yelled at.  We talked about the possibility of there being many “centers” for the world’s Jewry — in Israel, and also throughout the rest of the world.  (Someone mentioned that there is now a thriving group of Israeli Jewish emigré artists in Berlin — which reaches such a rarefied level of irony, I can barely begin to think of it.)  I asked people what they thought of Israel, and how they were raised to think about Israel.  There was a lovely range of ages, from (I’m guessing) about 13 up to (perhaps) 80-something.  I felt nervous about bringing up this subject, especially as people came there (I think) expecting a lot of “riffing” and light banter on my part.  There were at least three families there, including the parents of my rabbi (the father is a rabbi as well).

One theme that emerged (and I may be speaking more for myself than for others) is the sense that, in so much of our lives, and in so much of the world, we are engaged in a battle against fundamentalisms, against orthodoxies that seek to be the supreme power.  No orthodoxy speaks for me.  At the same time, I feel the importance — and others as well — of tradition, continuity, narrative.  I found myself longing to do something real — not just talk, but action: something that, even if only in a very incremental, personal way, seeks to assert my own bit of agency.  I recalled that politics is about power, and that democracy is about dialogue and improvisation, and I felt, in advance, the difficulty of sustaining action (especially in the absence of an all-affirming ideology).

I passed around my notepad and people put down their email addresses for a little elist, so we could continue the conversation on the Intertubes.  I had a thought that perhaps we can link our little group with another little group in Israel.

We all enjoyed our food in the beautiful space of the CJM lobby.  I worried that people were not perhaps getting what they wanted out of this event.  But then, this is what the event turned out to be: a conversation on this day, regarding things we cared about.  And could this be very wrong?

Next Monday at noon, I’ll be hanging out at the CJM Café again for lunch and conversation.  Perhaps people will show up again.  Maybe we’ll talk more about this stuff, maybe about other things.  Maybe we’ll talk about other things that turn out to connect to these things.  Going back to Berkeley on BART afterwards, I felt keen to bring the idea of “practice” into the ongoing conversation.  I was talking with my brother Jacob about this recently — how I have a hard time just going forward, one step at a time, without any particular joy or feedback in the interstices; how it is hard sometimes to believe in the goal.  And yet, as we spoke, I felt the joy and the hope.

What right do I have to want to contribute to peace in the Middle East?  I don’t know.  I have some thoughts, but I don’t know.

Lunch, anyone?

Andy Warhol: Good for Marin?

We’ll find out, as I’ll be doing my show Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? at the 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley on Aug. 6 and 7.

Not sure whether the high-school-aged daughter of the owners will home-bake chocolate-chip cookies for concessions, as happened the last time I was there.  That was a few years ago — and the way time has been zipping along lately, she’s probably a postdoc by now.  Also not certain whether to expect tasty candied ginger again in the greenroom.  But I’m pretty confident that the atmosphere will be relaxed and convivial, as it always has been in this place: I’ve never not had a great time there.

You can get tickets and info here.


There’s a guy at my gym who possibly hates me.  Actually, I can’t tell.  It’s confusing.

A few months ago I was changing in the locker room and I got into a conversation with this guy.  He said he works in opera, and we talked a bit about this opera director I know who turned out to be an acquaintance of this guy’s as well.  You know, just a nice, pleasant talk in the locker room.

The next time I saw him — he was using roughly the same locker as before — I smiled and said hi.  He just glared at me.  And since then I’ve seen him around the gym and he’s never said anything to me or smiled at me.

So I started wondering what was up with this guy.  Had I said something that time we’d met that had upset him?  And if so, why didn’t he say something about it at the time?

Alternatively, I started thinking, Maybe this is a different guy — who (a) just happens to look like the previous guy and (b) coincidentally used roughly the same locker.  In which case, that time I thought I was meeting him for the second time and gave him a big “Hi!,” maybe he thought I was some sort of lunatic who goes around the locker room greeting total strangers.

In any case, I keep seeing this guy — or at least, one of those guys — around the gym.  And I’ve gotten kind of self-conscious about this whole thing — I worry that it seems obvious that I’m going out of my way not to interact with him.  So maybe he thinks I have something against him!  Maybe he’s wondering, Why is that weird bald guy who gratuitously said hi to me that other time now going out of his way not to say hi to me?

Though I have to say, my gut feeling is that this has been the same guy all along — and perhaps my musings about “a second locker-room guy” arise from a subconscious inclination to suppress my hurt feelings at being disliked. …

Anyhow, I was returning from the showers this afternoon, thinking about that guy who may or may not hate me and feeling grateful that he (or his doppelgänger) wasn’t there, when I realized that someone else was saying something to me.  It was this older Asian guy I see at the gym a lot.  I’ve been really inspired by the older folks at the gym, who come in every day and seem very fit in body and mind — but this guy has always struck me as extra-cool.  He wears bright blue “croc”-type sandals, and all his movements are very deliberate.  He takes his time, whereas most of us are in something of a hurry to move on to the next thing in our day.  In the showers, he does Tai Chi-type stuff.  Back at his locker, he does extra exercises.  His posture is incredible.  Everything seems to be happening as part of a deep spiritual practice.  And I’ve never seen him talk or smile.

So when I realized he was talking to me today, it came as a surprise.  He had just taken down one of the plastic stools that they keep on top of the lockers, and he was asking me if I wanted it.  I said, Sure!, and thanked him.  Then, as I was leaving (he was still doing his various deliberate locker-room things), I said, “Take care” — and he looked up from what he was doing and gave me a brilliant smile.

This not only made up for my yucky, confused feelings about the opera-guy with a possible mysterious vendetta against me, but also for another encounter I’d had earlier in the day: A loopy fellow on University Ave., walking in front of me, had repeatedly turned around to stare at me.  Finally he said, loudly, “Oh no, you can’t!  You think you can, but you can’t!” and then he ran away.  And the thing is, there are so many things that I wish I could do, and probably can’t; and I try not to think that way, but then that guy kind of threw it in my face.  I couldn’t help but think of him as an aspect of me — perhaps even my essence — come along to disrupt my silly hopes and insupportable dreams.

Walking back home from the gym, I saw six or so guys cross the street on unicycles of wildly varying sizes.  Then, at the corner of University and MLK, I saw an elderly man dressed up as an Egyptian pharoah.  He was waiting for the light to change, and he looked totally comfortable.  I smiled, and kept walking.

My first column in Tikkun!

5_cover_jul2010I’m honored to have a humor piece in the current issue of the great Tikkun magazine!  In a caring universe, this will turn out to be the first of a series; at least, such is the plan.  This one purportedly presents excerpts from the diary of a man who has been haunted for most of his life by his inability to find the afikomen (a piece of matzah that is hidden from children during the Passover Seder).  Here are a couple of excerpts:

March 28, 1964: Father has been acting quite secretive this week — I think he’s obsessed with hiding the afikomen so I can’t find it this time.  Last year he seemed disappointed that I found it so quickly — also, that I wasn’t so thrilled with my present, a simple yo-yo that I felt unsuitable for a sophisticated five-year-old such as myself.

*        *        *

June 11, 1964: It has been a week now since I ran away from home.  A rabbi on my boxcar told me that the deadline for finding the afikomen is actually midnight on the day of the Seder — which, if true, would render moot my entire quest.  I suspect, however, that this “rabbi” may really be just a hobo with a big beard.

*        *        *

You can read the whole thing — plus other pieces that are far more substantive! — in Tikkun‘s July/August issue, available now on newsstands (there are still newsstands, aren’t there?) and online (where you can download the full issue for $5 — such a deal!).

“What’s Cookin’ with Josh Kornbluth”

Would it kill you to have lunch with me?

Would it kill you to have lunch with a nice middle-aged Jewish boy while also sipping perhaps some nice soup and possibly noshing on a bagel?

Another brainchild from my pal Dan Schifrin at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco: starting on Monday, July 12, I will be meeting all comers at the CJM’s café and … well, chatting over lunch!  If these things had been scheduled for Tuesdays, I’d been hoping for the title “Tuesdays with Joshie” — but when they settled on Mondays, that one went out the window.

So it’s “What’s Cookin’ with Josh Kornbluth” — which I think is pretty cool, too.  My plan, unless there’s a groundswell for another topic, is to begin talking about Practice, my (maybe) next piece, which (perhaps) will focus on my continuing attempts to play the oboe.  We can talk about our musical experiences — painful and otherwise — and also about the whole idea of “practice,” in all its musical, spiritual, and (who knows?) maybe even medical aspects.

The thing starts at noon and ends at 2.  Just get something to eat and/or drink and hang out with me.  Info (such as it is) here. I don’t know what will happen, either!

Abdel at the Gym

Ask anyone: Socially, I’m not at my best when I’m taking a shower.  This is mostly because I can’t see anything with my glasses off.  But I do think a lot.  And a couple days ago, while showering at the gym, I was thinking about the Contemporary Jewish Museum, which originally commissioned my piece Andy Warhol: Good for the Jews? Some of my favorite people there have been the guards — and my favorite guard was a guy named Abdel.  He’s from Algeria, and is pretty much always smiling; when I ran into him while working on the Warhol piece — typically he stood in front of the gift shop — he invariably eased my worries.  One time I did a photo shoot at the museum in which I ran around with a Warhol wig on my head; that’s when he started calling me “Andy.”  Subsequently, he’d say stuff like, “Andy, why have you come back from the dead?”  I’d reply with something like, “I missed all you living people.”  And he would nod in agreement: that made sense to him.

I ended up putting Abdel in my piece, but wasn’t able to invite him to see it — as by the time I was performing the (relatively) finished show at The Jewish Theatre San Francisco, he had left the CJM.  I heard from my pal Dan Schifrin at the CJM (another “character” in the monologue) that Abdel was now working as a guard at Alcatraz — which struck me as containing just the right amount of irony for this playful spirit.  And then, shortly before the TJT run, I actually ran into Abdel in downtown Berkeley.  He told me that he’d moved on from Alcatraz (not always easy to do!) and now had a nice desk job with Social Security (I think).  I invited him to my show, but he explained that he was about to travel back to Algeria for a few months.

So here I was, taking a shower at the Y the other day, and I heard a voice: “Josh!”  I tried peering across at the swim-trunked figure across the shower room, but he was too blurry to make out.  “It’s Abdel!” he explained.  And I thought — well, I thought a couple of things.  One is that I definitely wasn’t wearing that Warhol wig.  And the other is that is was so good to hear a friendly — and totally unexpected — voice.  (I had no idea he went to my gym.)  And, as it had generally been at the museum, the timing of my encounter with Abdel was especially welcome — in this case, because my thoughts at the gym that day had been unusually morbid, even for me.  Earlier I’d heard that someone (a woman, apparently) had committed suicide at the gym, in one of the bathrooms; she had hanged herself.  And without meaning to, during my subsequent liftings and groanings and sweatings I’d found myself thinking dark thoughts of mortality.  While stretching in front of a mirror, I had one of those occasional moments when the finiteness of my life, and of my loved ones’, vibrated out of the background blur and snapped firmly into position before my eyes.  And all those things I haven’t done that I should do, they relaxed for a while, knowing that I’d taken one of my rare breaks from my preoccupation with them to attend to other matters.

By the time I was showering, I probably had things pretty much under control — it’s helpful not to be able to see the world, for a while — but when Abdel spoke, he made a connection.  And this connection instantly pulled me out of myself — well, at least part-way.  He told me he was back from Algeria; and I told him the run had gone well.  And the morbid beast who’d been stretching a few minutes earlier was now merely a blind and clumsy animal with a nice little story to tell when he got home.