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Truck Left!

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

A Man, A Plan, A Port-O-San.

So on last Saturday’s training ride, a truck hit me.

Well, to be a bit more accurate — at the cost of some dramatic effect — a truck clipped me.

I was cycling uphill along a winding road near Pt. Reyes when all of a sudden: BANG! — there was this loud noise, which I soon realized was from the impact of a speeding truck slamming into my left elbow and the left edge of my handlebars.  The truck — a dirty white pickup — was going really fast (at least, compared to me — so admittedly, that might not be incredibly fast), and by the time I’d absorbed what had just happened, it was already way ahead of me.

I didn’t fall off my bike; I didn’t even stop pedaling — though I imagine that if the truck had just swerved a smidge more into me, things might have ended unhappily.  It turns out that my elbow had flattened the truck’s passenger-side rearview mirror.  This leads me to think — and I’m not normally a boastful man, at least about my joints — that I have really strong elbows!  Maybe my ancestors, when pondering the futility of their lives, assumed a particular position — elbows on desk, say — that, over the generations, led to an unheard-of toughness.  In any case, I can assure you that I feel totally fine!  My elbow has a little bruise, but it doesn’t hurt at all.  Although, as they say, you should see the other guy!

I caught up with that other guy — the truck’s driver — eventually.  At first, after he’d hit me (and let me mention that I wasn’t riding in the middle of the road or anything: I was as far to the right as I could go without falling off) and I’d watched his truck zoom away without stopping, I was pissed.  You know, New York-style pissed!  As I continued pedaling, as fast as I could go, I gestured after him with my hand, as if to say, Are you effin’ kidding me?  I tried to make out the license plate, but couldn’t.  By the time the truck disappeared around a curve, I assumed that I’d never see it again.

But then it stopped, at a turnout — and right away my anger at this apparent clip-and-run evaporated.  When I finally pulled up alongside the truck, and the guy rolled down his window, I found that I couldn’t be upset at all.  Because here was a big man with a little chihuahua on his lap.  I mean a really big (and bald) man, with this little tiny scared-looking chihuahua!  The man looked scared, too.  He kept asking me, again and again, “Are you okay?  Are you sure you’re okay?”  And instead of saying something snippy (like “No thanks to you, Mr. Erratic Truck Driver!”), all I could do was emit the little babyish sounds that I tend to make whenever I encounter cute little doggies (and even big doggies): “Oh, look at you!  Look how sweet you are — yesh you are!”  Etc.

Finally, the driver — having been unable to get me to say that I’d been hurt in any way (I hadn’t) — drove off.  And I had a fairly impressive story to tell my Team In Training teammates at the next SAG stop.

SAG stops are cool.  I believe the term is an acronym for Support And Gear — but in my experience with TNT they tend to be food-and-drink stations, usually run by volunteers.  (Often there are also Port-O-Sans.)  All SAG stops are magical and lovely things, but the best I’ve experienced have been set up by Jim Fenolio, whose daughter Jennifer was one of my teammates last season.  I believe Jim was going through (successful) treatment for cancer as we trained last year.  Here are some of the things that I remember being available to us weary riders back at my first-ever Jim Fenolio SAG Extravaganza:

  • Numerous, carefully sliced peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich wedges, with many different varieties of preserves (e.g., rose-petal-and-guava), which were labeled so you knew what you were getting.
  • Peet’s coffee.
  • Hot chocolate.
  • Teas, herbal and caffeinated.
  • Many types of pretzels and chips.
  • Eggs prepared in a number of ways.
  • Water.
  • Sea salt.
  • Steaming, hearty soup.
  • Manna from Heaven (or maybe Dublin).
  • AC/DC blaring from a boombox.

I’m sure I’m leaving out a ton of stuff — but you get the idea: It was the kind of SAG stop that makes you think it would be pretty cool if you could just live at a SAG stop.

Well, this time, among Jim’s offerings (and don’t get me started on the delicious meatballs!) were these rice-patty things that contained crab meat and a type of mushroom whose name I don’t recall but I know is popular among connoisseurs.  Jim explained to me that at one of his SAG stops on an earlier ride (one that, tragically, I had missed, as I had a gig in Florida that weekend), he had prepared a similar dish, but with another kind of fish (halibut, maybe?) — and that someone had mentioned to him that, well, it might be even better with crab meat.

Who the hell requests fancier ingredients at a SAG stop?  It put me in mind of these two little girls who happened to be playing “ice-cream truck” at the “tot lot” in Berkeley that I used to take my son to, years ago.  One of them said something like, “Welcome, customer!  What would you like?” and the other one said, totally seriously, something like, “Um, I’d like a scoop of cappuccino-mint gelato and also a lychee-lemongrass sorbet, if you would.”  Perhaps we have reached a point — and I am speaking here specifically of Bay Area bourgeois culture — where there are just too many choices.

In any case, Jim’s food (and the food of all the other SAG volunteers) was yummy.

Overall, the ride — nearly 61 miles in length, and 4,329 feet in elevation (but who’s counting?) — was quite challenging.  But I made it to the end (at Stafford Lake, in Novato) and was able to return home in triumph and experience the hot bath I’d been fantasizing about for lo, those many miles.  I’ll admit that — especially when the road got particularly narrow, and the winds became especially gusty — I sometimes got a bit jittery when one of my teammates called out “Car back!” (or, more bracingly, “Truck back!”), or when some skinny hotshot cyclist (not with TNT) came brushing past me without first calling out a helpful “Bike left!”  But that dirty white pickup truck hadn’t killed me, so it must have made me stronger.  Who knows?  Maybe, even now, at truck stops throughout Marin County, a legend is spreading — about a mysterious, indestructible cyclist with Elbows of Steel.  Mark me well, truckers of Marin: I will be back.  So drive carefully, keep your chihuahuas close, and keep your passenger-side rearview mirrors even closer.

I am training with the Leukeumia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT) to cycle the Solvang Century on March 9 — both to try to shrink my pendulous tummy and (more important) to raise money to fight cancer.  You can contribute to my ride by clicking here.  (As of this writing, I am 42 percent of the way toward my goal.)

Below are maps of my two most recent rides.  If you click on them, many additional details will be revealed to you.



The silence of a lamb (or sheep).

On our ride yesterday I got really excited about the idea of an espresso-maker that you could operate while cycling.  Someone — I think our head coach, K.Sue — had noted that it was a beautiful day (at that point — later, just after the ride, it would get yucky) and the surroundings (in Pleasanton, or maybe it was Livermore just then) were lovely (rolling fields, distant hills, cows, horses, vultures [!]) and asked, rhetorically, how it could possibly be better.  I thought: a fresh, hot espresso drink!  A drink that we could prepare and consume even as we continued to ride!  But how?

My first idea was a kind of modified Beer Hat.  I’ve never actually worn a Beer Hat (I don’t drink beer very often), but as a slothful person I’ve always admired a device that could deliver beer (usually to a fan at a sporting event) without requiring even the exertion of one arm.  The problem with that plan, as best I could tell (I have no engineering background, nor in fact do I have any documented relationship to the physical world), was twofold:

  • The tubing (rubber, I’d imagine) might melt from the heat of the fluid.
  • The device (especially the tubing) would probably get gunked up with espresso residue, and might be difficult to clean.

So I moved on to what seemed like the next natural idea: An old-fashioned espresso machine that could be secured to one’s handlebars — a Handlebarista™, if you will.  To be sure, there would be challenges, among them:

  • Keeping yourself and your bike in balance while operating the machine.
  • The risk, as you frothed your milk, of some of it getting windblown into a fellow biker’s face.
  • Running out of sugar or tiny lemon peels.

But people probably brought up just as many objections to the Wright Brothers.  And sometimes you just have to show the world that something new can work before anyone will believe you.

As I tried to mentally hash over various capitalistic issues relating to the Handlebarista™ — how to fabricate all the parts locally, finding a fair price-point, permitting the Sur le Table chain to rename it Le Handlebarista™ — we finished a long stretch of flatland and began our ascent along the Altamont Pass.  Now, as often happens when I’m climbing, I thought mostly about the unfairness of our economic system, the shocking apathy of our universe toward human suffering, and how mean James Blount was to me in the sixth grade (though, from all reports, since then James has become an exemplary person).

Then came a brief, exhilarating descent, and all was (briefly) right with the world.

But that’s wrong, what I just wrote: Yes, all was right with the world when I was zipping (carefully) downhill — but really, it was just as right during the previous climb (and the tougher climb that followed).  Because I was alive, and my teammates were alive, and my loved ones were alive, and the woman our ride had been dedicated to by her law partner — a woman whose bone-marrow transplant is apparently not taking, and who faces enormous and terrifying uncertainty — is still alive.

At the top of the most difficult ascent, two of my teammates had paused so one (Lisa) could take a picture of the other (Chris) in front of a lamb.  (Maybe a sheep — I’m iffy on this stuff.)  I asked to have my own photo taken in front of this same lamb (or sheep).  (Mostly, I was grateful to be able to stop for a few moments and catch my breath — the last little stretch of climbing had been a doozy.)  And though the lamb remained silent (as is reportedly their wont), I thought I could feel it beam its spiritual encouragement of my Handlebarista™ concept.  Creatures know the importance of comfort.

I’m biking with Team In Training to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.  By March 9 — when I do my second Solvang Century (near Santa Barbara) with TNT — I hope to  have gotten at least $2,250 in donations.  If you’d like to contribute — which would be awesome! — please click here.

We do our training rides every Saturday (weather permitting), and after each one I post a description here on my blog.  Below you can see a map of yesterday’s ride; if you click on it, you can get all kinds of details (like speed and altitude) — though I forgot to wear my heart-rate monitor this time, so no pulse data (but trust me, my heart was beating the whole time).


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.

Cycling Again To Fight Cancer

I’m thrilled (and, okay, a bit nervous) to say that I will once again be training to ride the Solvang Century — a 100-mile cycling event — with the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team In Training (TNT)!  The Century will take place on March 9, 2013, and I have committed to raising at least $2,250 by then.  These funds will go to help blood-cancer patients — finding cures, improving treatments — and also to their families, offering much-needed support.

Each week, on this blog, I will post a map and stats from my latest training ride, uploaded from my cool little GPS device.  So you can keep track of my progress — even including such minutiae as my heart rate and pedaling cadence from moment to moment!

I would be so grateful for any donation that you might be able to make!!  You can donate by clicking here to get to my TNT fundraising page.

In my first TNT ride, this past March, I raised way more than I’d originally asked for — and I cannot tell you how moved and gratified I was!  It’s so incredibly tough to fight cancer, and your contributions did so much to improve the quality of life for so many cancer patients and their loved ones.  I’m hoping to do even better this time!!

Below — if I have successfully navigated through the murky swamps of http coding — are the maps and stats for the few training rides that I’ve already done this season.  (If you click on any of the maps, you’ll be shown all sorts of details about that ride.)

Again, you can support my cancer-fighting efforts with Team In Training  by clicking here.

Thanks for reading this, and be well!!





“I Was There”

Our second class — in the series of four that I am sharing with Rabbi Menachem Creditor, titled “Swimming the Sea of Reeds” — focused on several myths that the Jewish spiritual tradition has inserted into gaps in the Torah’s account of the Sea of Reeds story.  These were from a remarkable book, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism, edited by Howard Schwartz, that I keep always nearby, a seemingly inexhaustible source of wonder.  I’m not sure whether these tales fall into the category of midrash — filling in the gaps left by the official accounts — but since I’m sitting here all alone in my office writing this (as far as I can tell!), I’m going to say that they do.

A couple of them imagined a further life for the relatively minor Biblical character Serah bat Asher, who — in one account we read — appears a thousand years after the parting of the Red Sea (as it is called in Tree of Souls, rather than the Sea of Reeds) and informs a rabbi and his students what really happened that day.  And they have to believe her because she was there — she was a witness.  This story put me immediately in mind of the Holocaust survivors I used to meet as a child in New York.  My mother or father — whichever parent had custody of me that day — would make a point of introducing me.  And as I shook the hand of the older man, or woman, my mom or dad would quietly point to the numbers tattooed on the forearm.  These numbers were the proof, if one was needed: proof that these human beings had once been accorded the status of things.  To look into the eyes of these survivors was, to me, to peer into infinity: to try to apprehend a suffering that I could not imagine, which, miraculously, had not succeeded in robbing them of their humanity.  And yet — and this was part of the miracle — they were “only” people, not supernatural spirits or gods.

For those of us blessed with lives of relative comfort, there is, I think, a temptation to ascribe magical qualities to those who experience enormous and prolonged suffering and degradation — which, in turn, can allow us the further comfort of separating ourselves from their plight.  It’s as if these distant sufferers become bit players in what we experience as the epic dramas of our own lives — adding color, and a sense of depth.  How much more difficult it is — how horrifying — to confront the idea, the reality, that these terrible things have happened — happen — to real people.  Then it could be me, or you — or, God forbid, our children.

It is, perhaps, paradoxical that a fanciful story about an imaginary woman — who, impossibly, lived for at least a thousand years — may help me to connect with real people in the real world in which I live, instead of cowering (as I spend so much of my time doing) in a personal fantasy that shields me from some pain, but also from action, from life, and from love.  Paradoxical, but (I think) palpably true.


Swimming with Shtarkers

Rabbi Creditor hands out the class reader.

So how tough were the Israelites, really?  This question — like a stand of reeds — lay just beneath the surface of our many discussions in the first installment of the four-session class that I’m doing with Rabbi Menachem Creditor at Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley.  Titled “Swimming the Sea of Reeds,” this short but intense course is an attempt to investigate what happened at that crucial moment in the Book of Exodus when the fleeing Israelites, seemingly about to be slaughtered by the Egyptians, experienced a saving miracle: the sea in front of them parted, they went through to the other side, and then the sea closed over their pursuers, killing them instead.

That sea, which I remember being referred to as the Red Sea (a pleasing name in my Communist childhood), is called, in the great modern translation by Robert Alter, the Sea of Reeds.  Which, as I have recently taken up the double-reeded oboe again — after a break of many decades — I find even more gratifying.  In fact, I was so taken by the term Sea of Reeds that I decided to make it the title of my next theater piece.  And that, in turn, strongly suggested that the piece live at the intersection of two kinds of practice: Jewish and musical.  (Yes, I typically retrofit my shows to titles that I love.  So for example, when — in researching a medical condition called Sjögren’s syndrome — I once happened upon a newsletter called “The Moisture Seekers,” it was practically inevitable that I’d develop a show about sex just to go with that title.)

The reading for this session was Chapter 14 of Exodus, in which the sea-splitting happens.  Like all the other chapters, it’s filled with language and imagery that I find endlessly evocative, confusing, and elliptical.  Alter’s notes do a great deal to elucidate the text — or at least to clarify what the confusion is about — but that still (fortunately) leaves much to ponder.  And as I mentioned earlier, in class one big, recurrent issue for us was the question of how much, exactly, did Moses and the Israelites do.  Because the narrative makes it quite clear that God was acting, in essence, as the grand puppeteer — hardening Pharaoh’s heart when the Egyptian king was about to give up the chase, directing Moses’ actions so that this (very) human being (and not God) would appear to be causing the miracles, and generally moving all the characters along in such a way that the Israelites would ultimately triumph.

So were the Israelites heroes, in the sense that we usually think of the word?  If I had any knowledge at all about ancient Greek drama, I would insert an impressive passage here about Oedipus and Fate — but I don’t, so I can’t.  And yet there seems to be a similar vibe here — perhaps an ancient vibe — that has to do with the Gods (or, in this case, the one God) having already written the stories that we humans, in our self-centered way, register as our own experiences.  So ironically, in the Exodus story — which is seemingly about the transformation of a slave population into a culture with agency — the protagonists themselves are quite passive.  Actually, worse than passive — they also do a lot of kvetching!  Often they sound like elderly passengers on a cruise ship that’s turned out to be much less luxurious than in the brochure.

But there’s something else, too — a deeper thing — that I felt from that chapter, and that I think others in the class felt as well: As much as we (or, at least, I) may, well, kvetch about it, the language also transmits an enormous amount of power.  There is, in this story — in the way this story is told — a profound empathy with those who suffer terribly, who lack agency.  And there are so many people who suffer in this way, day after day — for whom the miraculous gift of a life is something more like a curse.  What draws me to Judaism — and to other forms of theology as well (and, for that matter, to democracy) — is the idea that our purpose, in our own lives, is to try to improve the lives of others; and the belief (hope?) that a community of like-minded people can work at this together.  In what I see as a violent and quite random universe, it is incredibly strange that we might choose to spend our brief time of consciousness (or, at least, much of it) in such ethical pursuits; and so it is perhaps only fitting that it would take incredibly strange language to describe that journey — and, more important, to inspire similar journeys.

And if we’re really going to go there, together, through the Sea of Reeds — intellectually, spiritually, and physically — I think we’re going to have to be quite tough indeed.


“Math of Change” DVD

I’m thrilled to announce that a concert film of me performing my comic monologue The Mathematics of Change is now available on DVD!  Directed by my brother Jake, filmed by famed cinematographer Hiro Narita, and with beautiful music by Marco d’Ambrosio, the Math movie captures me in the lofty confines of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute (MSRI) in Berkeley.  You can see the trailer, watch clips, check out videos of interviews I did with MSRI mathematicians — oh yes, and also buy the DVD! — here.

Arise, Ye Listeners: “Red Diaper Baby” Now an Audiobook!

I’m thrilled to announce that my book Red Diaper Baby: Three Comic Monologues has just been released as an audiobook, narrated by my very own self!

It was really fun to record these three shows — at Berkeley’s legendary Fantasy Studios, no less — and I hope it’s a really entertaining experience to listen to them.

You can buy this audiobook at, iTunes, or Amazon.  And if you would be so kind, please take a moment to add your rating and/or review on those sites — that would really help me!

Difficult Passages

I’ve started practicing the oboe again — as part of the long development process towards my next theatrical piece, Sea of Reeds (a commission by the Shotgun Players in Berkeley, in collaboration with my long-time producer, Jonny Reinis, and director, David Dower).  And so all the sensations of oboe-playing — which I haven’t done regularly since I was a teenager — are coming back.  The feel of the reed between my lips.  The too-loud clacking of the keys as I press them (working on that!).  The smell of cork grease in the morning.

And the awareness, at every moment, of my longing to create something that’s beautiful!  It is that gap — between the sounds I am making and those I wish to produce — that, more than anything else, brings me back to those teen years, when my hope was that I was going to become great: at oboe-playing, at math, at sports, at love.  But what I was really good at, in retrospect, was in not becoming anything other than this — my parents’ child.  And somehow I got it in my head that being their child meant never working hard at things.  If I was precocious: fine!  But when that precociousness was challenged — when, in the terms of math or marathon running, I “hit the wall” — I was at a loss.  To be struggling was to be uncool.

The funny thing is, as I’m writing this, I’m remembering one of the very few criticisms that my father ever addressed to me.  I was a teenager; we were standing in the narrow hallway of the bustling apartment that he and my stepmother, Sue, had set up, with my young siblings underfoot everywhere; and he must have been reacting to something I’d said, or hadn’t said, that reflected a privateness — a distance, at least, from him.  “You’re cool,” he said, appraising me. …  I know, it doesn’t sound like much of a critique!  And I don’t think he meant it in a totally negative way, either.  But it was as if, after idealizing me since my birth — and projecting the most glorious future onto me — Dad was, in that moment, seeing right through to my essential self; and he was realizing, with a sigh, that his ideal and the reality had, somewhere, diverged.

Through no fault of his, or of anyone’s, I have devoted much of my time since then to trying to close that gap — to revert to the contours of the perfect vision he (and maybe Mom as well) had of me as a little boy.  Kind of like standing partway out into the ocean and hoping that, if I just stay there, doing absolutely nothing, the currents will pull me back to shore.  When in fact that journey has already, irrevocably, begun — when, in fact, it has mostly happened.  So that the real question is, What will I do as I head to the other side?

It’s shocking that progress is not inevitable!  Neither in our individual selves nor in society.  As a child I believed it was inevitable, with all my heart; I was a fundamentalist of progress — I had no doubt.  So how to reconcile that ideology with my experience of practicing the oboe and not becoming great?  A conundrum!  This, I think now, is where faith comes in.  But I also think I need to adjust my concept of faith — or perhaps that adjustment has already begun.  Because I used to think that faith required — was pointed at — a perfect result: a utopia.  Now I don’t consider perfection a goal — or even a possibility, or even (God help me) desirable (because it suggests the death of change).  Now I consider the goal to be: better.  Just better.  A better world.  A better transition from C to C-sharp (lots of fingers have to be slapped down at once, as quietly as possible).  Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the object of my faith is now a process — one that keeps open the space for improvement.

Also, the oboe being what it is, I have a short-term goal of being able to practice for more than 20 minutes at a time!  (The old embouchure ain’t what it used to be, which itself wasn’t what it should have been.)

I’ve been doing scales, sometimes with a metronome.  Also, etudes from the massive Barret Oboe Method book that has weighed down the music stand of every oboist I know.  And — with a vague idea that the music of J.S. Bach will play a featured role in Sea of Reeds — I’ve been dipping into a book I have containing many of Bach’s lovely cantatas for oboe and voice.  That book is called Difficult Passages — a title that’s bracing in its blunt honesty.  It leaves unmentioned the fact that those passages, if played well, are also beautiful. …  Actually, they’re beautiful even if not played well (as just happened when I practiced a few of them).  Because, somehow, in these compositions the ideal is always immanent.  Which I now feel I am finally beginning to understand as, facing back at where I began, I blow myself, in tiny increments, towards the other shore.

A Lecturer, But Not Yet a Graduate

My "lecture," viewed from the balcony. (Photo courtesy of Tali Si Malott.)

Last Thursday I had the remarkable, perplexing, and wistful experience of returning to Princeton University, my almost alma mater.  The occasion was a performance of my monologue The Mathematics of Change, as part of the J. Edward Farnum Lecture Series (co-sponsored by the Princeton Math Dept.).

This was my first time back at Princeton since June of 1980, when I attended graduation ceremonies for my class, even though I hadn’t yet written my required senior thesis.  Princeton lets you “walk” if you’ve done everything except your thesis; you just don’t get your actual degree until you do submit your thesis and it is accepted by your department.  And amazingly, you can submit your thesis anytime in your whole life.  What I was told, way back when, was that I’d get two grades: one for the submitted thesis, along with an “F” (for, I guess, being Way Friggin’ Late).

I did a monologue about not graduating from Princeton (oh, and also about democracy), titled Citizen Josh; incredibly, and excruciatingly, I am still working on my thesis!  I’d intended that show to be my belated thesis, but the Princeton Politics Dept. told me that I needed to append some actual thesis-like prose to the Citizen Josh script.  I’m now working on an abstract for that added section, with the benevolent guidance of a current Politics prof., whom I’ve never met but is almost certainly way younger than me, and definitely smarter.

In the meantime, now at least I’ve done my other Princeton monologue there: The Mathematics of Change, about when I “hit the wall” at freshman calculus.  I’d been trying for years to do this show at Princeton, and finally made it based on the efforts of two brilliant Princeton mathematicians, Peter Sarnak (a bit older than me, I think) and Manjul Bhargava (unbelievably young).  Somehow — perhaps using their number-theory wizardry to confuse the authorities — they arranged for me to perform the piece as a “lecture” in McCosh 50, the storied hall where Albert Einstein and many other luminaries once spoke.

It was, on the one hand, lovely to be at Princeton with my wife and our teenage son; back when I was a brooding, fumbling undergraduate, few (and certainly not I) would have predicted that such familial happiness lay ahead for me.  It was, on the other hand, creepy to return to the scene of my academic crimes after 32 years and still feel like an outsider — someone who didn’t, and doesn’t, seem to fit in with the privileged vibe on campus, like a financially aided microbe that is being continually rejected by the host as a pathetic (and/or slightly dangerous) antibody.  Or maybe it’s just that I should have studied harder, and that knowing this continues to bum me out.

In any case, it was totally lovely to do my math “lecture” in McCosh 50, before an audience of math faculty and students, along with anyone else who may have wandered in.  (The event was free and open to the public.)  It just goes to show that the route back into one’s past is sometimes made possible by the careful description of one’s abject failures.  Or else it means that great mathematicians can make things happen for the rest of us — not the original definition of “applied mathematics,” perhaps, but it worked for me.

The real "Mr. Fine."

P.S.: One of the many silly comic riffs I go on in The Mathematics of Change has to do with the naming of Fine Hall, the math building at Princeton.  In the show I speculate that, like many other buildings on campus, Fine Hall was named after a rich alum (presumably named Mr. Fine).  I give this fictional guy a silly voice and silly things to say. …  Well, it turns out that the real “Mr. Fine” was (a) not rich and (b) a beloved mathematician who, against great odds, managed to found a world-class math department at Princeton.  Henry Burchard Fine was born in 1858 (a bit more than a century before me) and died in 1928 (a year after my mother was born), after being hit by a car while riding his bike on the outskirts of Princeton (cycling being something he loved to do, as I love to do it now).  I was gently informed of these facts by several mathematicians who had been in my audience in McCosh 50 — and have supplemented them by reading a fond obituary by a friend and colleague of his.  My friend Cynthia Dwork — a great mathematician herself — happily recalled her mathematician father’s office in the original Fine Hall, which was beautiful and grand (unlike the somewhat boxy structure that bears his name today). …  This all lends further ammunition to the argument that one should never trust an autobiographical monologuist!  (I certainly don’t.)

P.P.S.: Right after my “lecture,” I was interviewed by a reporter for the Daily Princetonian.  His report can be read here.