& Recently . . .

Robert Birnbaum

‘My Poem’ by Karl Malone by Amy Shearn

Requiem for the Gay Divorcé: Tony Randall, 1920-2004

Dear Game Show Network by Geoff Wolinetz

Polish Fact

Military Manpower:
10,354,978 (2003 est.)
[Army, Navy(!), & Air Force]

Learn a Foreign Tongue!

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Was ist im Leben am besten? Ihre Feinde zerquetschen, sie sehen, gefahren vor Ihnen und die Wehklage der Frauen hören!
What is best in life? To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women!

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May 27, 2004

Robert Birnbaum

Robert Birnbaum’s résumé looks something like this: nightclub manager, short-order cook, shoe salesman, medical secretary, teacher, adman, cabbie, journalist, publisher, photographer, blogger, interviewer.

Mr. Birnbaum’s digital home is Identity Theory (a literary Web site, sort of), which hosts his blog, a reader’s progress, his portraits of authors, and a truckload of interviews. And more still reside at The Morning News. He has interviewed more writers than you’ve likely read—somewhere over 500, from Amis to Zinn. No, wait: make that from Abraham to Zinn. Yeah, that’s right. No, wait—better still: Abraham to Zulkey.

We love reading Mr. Birnbaum’s (aptly titled) Narrative Thread because the interviews are not really interviews (at least, not by any routine question-and-answer formula). They’re conversations: fluid, garrulous, exploratory, and by the end, you feel like you’ve actually learned something genuine about the subject. If nothing else, that Douglas Coupland swears like he’s on Deadwood.

Sample question by Mr. Birnbaum:

“You strike me as a rock of stability. What’s this flamboyance thing?”

[Posed to author T.C. Boyle.]

Y.P.R.: It’s hard to think of an author who hasn’t sat down for a conversation with you. How do you select your subjects?

R.B.: My selection process—if it could be dignified by being called that—has to do with the vagaries of my taste, schedule, previous history with a writer, and, frequently, which publicist has the good sense to come to me a couple of months in advance.

Y.P.R.: To what lengths have you gone to secure an interview?

R.B.: I have flown to L.A. to talk with Herb Ritts and then turned right around and flown back to Boston. Having said that, I should point out that Boston is right on the literary Silk Road—eventually everyone passes through here.

Y.P.R.: Is there an elusive white whale that’s consistently dodged your tireless pursuit?

R.B.: Anna Deveare Smith. Up until this week, it had been Jim Harrison. I haven't tried much (once) but I am interested in talking with Gore Vidal. I think that may take a while.

Y.P.R.: Of all the late, great authors, whom would you like to have interviewed?

R.B.: Hannah Arendt, George Plimpton, Julio Cortazar, Mary McCarthy, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugene Izzi, Nelson Algren, Joseph Heller.

Y.P.R.: Your interviews rarely adhere to any standard Q-&-A format; they often feel more like meandering conversations between old friends. How much do you rely on prepared questions? How freely do you let the interview roll?

R.B.: Frank Conroy in his sweet anthology, The Dogs Bark but the Caravan Rolls On, talks with Keith Jarrett, who claims that before his solo (improvisational) concerts he would sit down at the piano and clear his mind of any musical thoughts or ideas. That approach appeals to me. I think that any reasonably well read, careful reader can do a Q & A with really smart questions. Heck, I could probably do them. But I am after something else. I am not sure what it is but for the most part what I do satisfies me, my conversational partners, readers, my family—did I leave out anyone?

Y.P.R.: Could you give us some dirt? Who were the best and worst interviews?

R.B.: No, I cannot give you any dirt. But I will say that in all the time that I have been having these conversations, maybe three were, uh, less than satisfying. These days I am partial to talking with people I have talked with before. Over 15 years I have talked with Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Amy Bloom, Rick Russo, Richard Ford, Will Self, Howard Zinn, Andrea Barrett, and Tom McGuane, a few others, a few times each. I like that this suggests a tiny germ of a small friendship.

Y.P.R.: This interview is being conducted via e-mail, but we know you like to have face-to-face conversations. Does this feel artificial to you? Does the lack of spontaneity allow better or worse responses?

R.B.: I am a pretty frequent correspondent so this does not feel artificial. It’s kind of like writing the book after the audio text. No—It’s not like that. But writing is different from speaking. I have done this before and I try to do this in one take, without a lot of forethought. I couldn’t speak to whether the responses are better or worse. In the subjective world, the world of personal opinion and biography, I would offer you the idea that my answers to this pop quiz might be different tomorrow and yet not be untrue.

Y.P.R.: Do you ever get a little starstruck when talking to a subject?

R.B.: No.

Y.P.R.: Who’s your favorite interviewer (TV or print)? Who do you wish would interview you?

R.B.: I do not usually pay attention to other interviewers. For one reason, they are operating under far different conditions and with very different values. As much as I find Charlie Rose vexing, I once caught a conversation he did with (photographer) Henri Cartier Bresson that was brilliant and personable. I like Terry Gross when I happen to catch her. I like Chris Lyden. I will say that the interview as practiced in mainstream media by people like Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters is a degraded art form.

The question of who I would like to interview me sounds like a form of who would I like to play me in the movie of my unwritten-but-tending-toward-self-glamorization memoir, Three Hands Clapping. If Robert Duvall were playing me then I would like Jennifer Connelly playing Joan Didion interviewing me. In real life, I would hope that Cynthia Ozick could be interested enough in me to want to have a conversation.

Y.P.R.: Who asks the best questions: Torquemada, the Riddler, or Tim Russert?

R.B.: Jeremy Paxton of the BBC.

Y.P.R.: It’s pretty much required that a writer has some wacky job experience on his résumé, and still your list of past jobs seems incredible. How has your work history shaped your current career?

R.B.: Career? What career?

Y.P.R.: Surely you’ve been on a great many job interviews. Could you please share a funny or disastrous incident from one of them?

R.B.: I have found the few job interviews I have been on to be tedious and forgettable.

Y.P.R.: We imagine you read a frightening amount of books. How much do you read, and what are you reading right now?

R.B.: I am curious why you would use the word ‘frightening’? I finish between 80 to 100 books a year, which in my world is light. A postal agent at one of the P.O.s I go to reads 4 or 5 books a week. I sample many books and read lots of short-form stuff.

I am rereading Jim Harrison’s memoir, Off to the Side, Percival Everett’s American Desert, and Death of Innocence (about the Emmett Till case by Till’s mother) and Raimond Gaita’s The Philosopher’s Dog. I am hoping to get to the Book of Ralph by John McNally and Andre Codrescu's Wakefield very soon.

Y.P.R.: By ‘frightening’, we simply meant ‘a number that shames our own vociferous appetite.’ How do you feel you’ve grown as an interviewer?

R.B.: If I have grown it’s that I am not in pursuit of the definitive conversation with so-and-so (which by my definition would be the last one with that person). I don’t feel urgent about getting everything said within the hour or so I set aside for a chat—and an unspoken assumption (of mine) is that I will have a chance to speak with my latest co-dialogist again. Also, I am not (that) interested in asking really brainy, abstract, lit-crit, post-graduate, late-model capitalist metrosexual questions. Forgive the trite metaphor, but I see my conversations as streams flowing into a larger body. And that larger conversation is never-ending.

Go figure.

Y.P.R.: Quick Rorschach test: What’s this look like to you?

R.B.: Two Mongols dancing.

Y.P.R.: O.K., it’s time to show off them interviewing skills: Please ask us an incisive question.

R.B.: Besides Saran Wrap, what is the great contribution of America to civilization?

Y.P.R.: That reminds us of Mel Brooks’s 2000-Year-Old Man, who declared that the greatest invention in two millennia was cellophane. America’s come up with some great stuff: the light bulb, the assembly line, denim jeans, standup comedy, jazz, animation, comic books, TV (as we know it, anyway), the ice-cream cone, atomic power, Velcro, cowboys, the artificial heart, the greeting card, the Frisbee… But I think I’m going to go with sneakers. I can’t even imagine childhood without them. They’ve become so universal that it no longer looks incongruous when you see someone wearing high tops with a burqa or kimono or sari. And what’s a better symbol of American propagation than the Nike swoosh?

R.B.: The story goes that when film director Milos Forman moved to the States he quickly acquired the three things he thought uniquely American (or something like that): a Zippo lighter, a Smith & Wesson pistol and a Harley Davidson motorcycle. Personally, I favor the baseball cap (especially over those wussy French bicycling caps or those wanky British school caps).

Y.P.R.: Will you pencil me in for an interview after the publication of my unwritten-but-tending-toward-self-glamorization memoir, Clapping Hands with Robert Birnbaum?

R.B.: After all you have done, how could I say no?

Y.P.R.: Finally, in your expert opinion, how’d we do on this interview? Any advice for our next one?

R.B.: This would be the part where I show my acerbic, Kingsley Amis-like wit, yes? As they say, “Enough about you. How did I do?”

The questions were decent questions—meaning they were clear and answerable without giving rise to the temptation to digress (much).

One thing, if you are really aiming for spontaneity, you might do these e-mail Q & A’s live...

May 21, 2004

‘My Poem’ by Karl Malone

“People don't know this about me, but I've changed since I moved out here to L.A., to Newport Beach. I've become a writer, thanks to my mom. I'll sometimes spend hours just writing, writing, writing. I'll be at the beach and just feel so inspired.”

                            —Karl Malone, Hoop magazine

So, now that I moved to L.A., I just sit at the beach and get all inspired.
I write and write and write, until I get really tired!

Sometimes the night is dark and stormy and it’s really bad.
Sometimes I feel really, really sad.

Things have really changed. I shudder in the cold, damp rain.
I’m so sad I cry, sometimes on TV, so all the world can know my pain.

Karl Malone just sits on the porch with Karl Malone
And sometimes also with my friend Gary Payton, and smokes cigars. O! I am so alone.

The ocean is so sparkling beautiful and blue.
And I think, I still play okay, but in two years I’ll be forty-two.

But it’s cool. Sometimes when I dunk on someone, and scream real loud,
and kick their ankle or their balls, then I feel kinda proud.

And when Steve Nash or some other goddamned pussy
cries about their broke tooth or knee or is getting real fussy,

I say the special words coach gave me, a koan,
and I think of the angels up near the moon.

I’m still all ripped, my fans, don’t fret. Soon you’ll see me in some military movie,
saving POWs and shit, kicking terrorist ass! Totally kicking serious ass!

Don’t listen to no one saying Kobe or Shaq be playing better than me, cuz
that’s totally whack.
I was hurt, you know, goddammit! But now I’m totally back.

God, I really really really really hope we win the championship. God damn!

But then I think about how good I am, and get a little shiver.
Don’t forget why they call me the Mailman (cuz I always deliver)! ;)

Life is really fucked up on some days,
but you got to remember to just look at the beautiful ocean waves.

P.S. I tried to make this poem into the shape of a basketball but GP’s computer’s all messed up.

May 19, 2004

Requiem for the Gay Divorcé: Tony Randall, 1920-2004

An Obituary for a Thespian, Compiled Entirely from Information Gleaned from the Internet Movie Database’s Biographical Page for the Actor

Leonard Rosenberg was born February 26, 1920 and he eventually grew to be five feet, eight inches tall, or 1.73 meters. He attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. At some point, he changed his name to “Tony Randall.”

Mr. Randall studied acting at New York City’s prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse under the direction of Sanford Meisner, the legendary acting coach. The young actor got his big break as the voice of “Reggie” in the long-running “I Love a Mystery” radio series during the 1940s. Cultural anthropologists widely cite the Reggie character as the prototypical metrosexual.

At some point, he founded the National Actors Theatre in New York.

He was militantly opposed to smoking.

He married Florence Gibbs in 1942, and they stayed together 50 years, until her death. She was probably opposed to smoking, too.

Mr. Randall was originally cast as the voice of Templeton the Rat in the animated movie Charlotte’s Web, without even an audition. Joseph Barbera, the animator who was friends with Hannah, later realized Mr. Randall’s voice wasn't quite right for the part of the rodent, so the studio paid Mr. Randall what he was worth, and replaced him with someone new—Charles Nelson Reilly. It is likely Mr. Barbera imagined the rodent even more flamboyant than within Mr. Randall’s wonderfully finicky range of talent.

He met Heather Harlan at a play in New York. She was fifty years his junior, and most likely does not smoke cigarettes. They wed on November 17, 1995. Florence probably would have wanted her widower to move on.

At the age of 76, the indefatigable actor’s virility proved to be spry as a college sophomore’s: the couple’s first child was born at the stroke of midnight, Eastern Standard Time, on April 11, 1997. The child was named Julia Laurette Randall, after her grandmother, Julia Rosenberg, and the actress Laurette Taylor, whom Mr. Randall once called “the best actress [he’s] ever seen in [his] life.”

Their second child, Jefferson Salvini Randall, was born on June 15, 1998, time unknown, thus cementing the agèd thespian’s unflagging potency. The boy was named after comic actor Joseph Jefferson and Italian tragic actor Tommasso Salvini.

The two children of Felix and Gloria Unger in “The Odd Couple” were named Leonard and Edna—Tony Randall’s birth name, and that of his late sister.

Mr. Randall suffered from tinnitus.

He took classes in ballet, and could dance at a semi-professional level, despite tintinnabulatory assaults on his equilibrium.

May 18, 2004

Dear Game Show Network

GSN (Game Show Network)
Attn: Consumer Affairs
2150 Colorado Avenue
Santa Monica, CA 90404

Dear Game Show Network,

Congratulations on your recent name change from the far too verbose Game Show Network to the wonderfully pithy GSN. Hopefully, this altered moniker will attract newer, younger viewers and expose a new generation to the wonders of Charles Nelson Reilly’s toupee. Come to think of it: CNR. GSN. You should get CSN (Crosby, Stills, & Nash) to record some kind of theme song for you. Perhaps you could work “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” into the music.

Though I love your network, my kudos are not the reason for this letter. I have an idea for a new spin on existing GSN original programming. I was watching your show in bed the other night. My girlfriend was out of town on a fishing trip with the girls. As I do every evening, I flipped over to GSN in search of entertainment to quench my unbearable game-show yen. I caught a show featuring two gentlemen engaged in various bizarre competitions. The name of this show was “Kenny vs. Spenny,” featuring a man named Kenny and another man named Spenny (né Spencer). I found myself laughing so hard that I had to turn away from the TV. As I turned, I caught a glimpse of my girlfriend (her picture is tattooed on my arm). It hit me like the sack of sweet Valencia oranges that Bing Crosby used to beat his kids with.

My girlfriend’s name is Jenny. She is an actress. Don’t you see? “Kenny vs. Spenny vs. JENNY!” It’s bloody brilliant. It gives the show a female element without ruining the rhyme scheme. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. It was sitting right in front of all of us. She can do all of the things that Kenny and Spenny do. In fact, she’s not even averse to partial frontal nudity, if that’s what the part calls for.

Let me know what you think of this. If you like it, I’ll tell you my idea for a game show featuring Ving Rhames, a rottweiler and two contestants with a crippling fear of rubber.

Geoff Wolinetz

May 17, 2004

My Date with Harold Bloom

He was a perfect gentleman. I won’t pretend that I was anything more than a naïve, semi-talented literary canon maker who had come to the esteemed professor and critic for some professional guidance. We met at Blasambe, the hip uptown eatery that catered to literary tastemakers, zeitgeist scribblers and cultural anthropologists trying to unwind from a hard day of creating the national consciousness. Bloom, with his archaic love of that transparent thing called literature, hypnotized me with a vivid explication of John Ashberry’s Tennis Court Oath as I sucked on my lobster tail and looked longingly into his jowls. I imagined that I could read all of the Western Canon on those loose, floppy neck drapes. There under his chin were the collected works of John Ruskin; right above the neck was an unexpurgated copy of She Stoops to Conquer.

In my leather satchel, I carried my own stab at immortality: a 700-page treatise on the role of poultry in Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a work I had never read. I called it The Feathers of Nirvana. To my mind, it cut through 30 years of the meta-critique, deconstruction, and multicultural gunk, and showed that Richardson clearly wrote the novel in order to prove that transcendence can only be found through protein.

Pretty soon, we were on the dance floor, our bodies flailing in an almost tribal ritual. Alas, multiculturalism has pervaded even into the realm of the people who make the club get crunk! He put his mouth up to my ear, though I had trouble hearing him over the thump of Ludacris.

“What?” I shouted.

He mumbled again.

“Do I have an oral erection on me?”

I thought that’s what he said.

He pulled me away from the dance floor to a corner spot where the noise was less intimidating. Reader, he touched my shoulder! I felt my skin jump with life.

“You have the aura of election upon you,” he said.

“I bet you say that to all the girls.”

“My dear, as far as I can tell you are a heterosexual male, one of a dying, savaged breed. Your essay on gender bifurcation in The Rape of the Lock skillfully dodged feminist jargon and made brilliant, insightful points.”

SCORE! I was so in.

Out in the thick August night, I wondered where all this was going. How many bottles of Amontillado had he imbibed? The sweat built on his forehead like an army of Cossacks preparing to attack his fleshy eyelids. I wondered how many books those eyes had swallowed, how many pastramis had touched those lips. Zounds! To be a cannoli, or a stromboli, or even a bag of chips and become one with the whole of the Western Canon.

Bloom grabbed me by the shoulder in a casual, masculine embrace.

“Let’s go to Houlihan’s and watch the Yankees game.”

The Yankees! What could he possibly mean by that? What devious, perverted, possibly demeaning adventure did he have planned for me when we went “to Houlihan’s” to watch the Yankees game?

We sat at the bar, right in the middle of the action. Apparently, the game meant something for the playoffs. Until that moment, as I sat next to the great man at the bar, listening to his deconstruction of things like the “hit and run” and the “Falstaffian Clemens”, baseball meant nothing to me. Jeter. Giambi. Bernie. The names began to resonate with a mixture of the divine and erotic that I remembered from my first days sitting in undergraduate poetry seminars, hearing names like Stevens, Browning and Spenser.

I wanted Bloom to love me, I wanted him to respect me, but more than anything I wanted him to canonize me. His proclamations shook me to my core when I read them in his dense, rambling texts. Now I wanted the same for The Feathers of Nirvana.

Back at my apartment, as he finished another bottle of Amontillado, I timidly handed him my thesis. He took it from me, looked down and said,

“I’ll get to it when I have some time.”

And that was it, the last words he ever spoke to me. I watched him waddle out the door, and then, from my window, down the street into the night, I realized that I had not wanted to be his friend, not wanted to have a good time, not wanted to watch baseball and drink wine. I just wanted him to make me one of the greats. I used him.