Cross-pollination time: Announcing The Odd Interview blog

I’m proud to announce the launch of my new all-interview blog, The Odd Interview. I love interviews — reading them, listening to them, and participating in them, and perfecting the art of the interview (yes, there is one, and I’m still working on it). So I had this lengthy and wide-ranging Q&A with Neil deGrasse Tyson just sitting around doing nothing, and the premiere of Cosmos is happening tonight, and so, I figured, what better time to launch a dedicated blog to serve as a repository for my past interviews and to even put new ones now and then? Thus, here we go.

Yes, as occasional readers of this blog will know, my interview with Dr. Tyson was published in the Austin American-Statesman last December. The Q&A published here, though, is, aside from minimal editing, the complete,  uncut, never-before-seen, peek-behind-the-scenes, DVD-extras, director’s-cut version. Don’t get me wrong: I greatly appreciate newspapers and magazines publishing my work. But all newspapers and magazines have space limitations and house styles, not to mention other writers competing for assignments. I’ve interviewed a lot of prominent people over the course of my career (here’s a CV with a brief summary of my greatest hits, with live links), and most of the time, most of the interview ends up on the virtual cutting-room floor. I understand why this is, but in some cases, you just wish you could have had more of it see the light of day.

I hope you’ll have a look and enjoy the read.

You know you’re an American who’s been in Slovenia a while when…

[This piece first appeared in my original website,, under the title "You know you're a foreigner who's been in Slovenia too long when..." In retrospect, I don't think there's any such thing as too long, and the list is somewhat American-specific and, yes, a bit dated. So be it, then.]

1. You pepper your conversations (with other English speakers) with expressions like “ah res?” and “v redu!”

2. You think of Wheel of Fortune as your country’s version of Kolo

3. It seems normal to have to visit two cashiers’ windows to (a) pay and obtain a receipt, and (b) present the receipt to the clerk, who carefully wraps, tapes, stickers shut and bags your single 9-volt battery.

4. On trips home, you speak to shop clerks and waitresses in Slovene. Or at least think about it.

5. You stop thinking about how nice it would be to have a clothes dryer again.

6. When asked to spell out your name, you automatically do it pronouncing the letters the Slovene way.

7. You stop converting prices from tolars into your home currency.

8. You start following Slovene politics.

9. You tell friends you’re going on a short trip to Dunaj or Benetke.

10. The words “Jogurt” and “joga” look normal to you in print.

11. Shutters on windows begin to seem like a decadent Western affectation.

12. Your dreams are in English, but with Slovene subtitles.

Star Man: Talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the ultimate big-picture guy, about life, the universe, and everything (including what he learned at UT)

As published...

As published on 12/15/13

Arranging an interview with the well-known astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was not a particularly easy task. After about a month of emails back and forth between me and the good doctor’s various people, a time was arranged and on Nov. 22 I found myself on the phone with him, from his office at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. “Tyson here,” he said, and we were off for about 38 minutes–mostly him speaking and me listening, as it should be. I consider this one of the most interesting interviews I’ve ever done; although I enjoy my usual beat of interviewing touring comedians and musicians, the chat with Dr. Tyson was a very welcome departure. (The full, minimally edited Q&A, which runs to a bit over 5,000 words, is now available here.)

Deftly demonstrating how he applies the scientific method in daily life, Tyson gently corrected me a few times when he questioned the premise behind a couple of my questions. For example, Carl Sagan was neither a mentor nor a close friend of his; the two men only met four or five times, though Tyson clearly has great respect for Sagan as a scientist and a person. And as a web-only extra of sorts, here’s an excerpt from our conversation that illustrates his thought process rather nicely. [And by way of a timely tie-in: on Feb. 14, 2014, the National Science Foundation released the results of a study of 2,200 people conducted in 2012 in which approximately one out of four stated that the Sun revolves around the Earth; the results were widely reported in the media, including This was not the first poll to make a statement like this. Tyson explains why, although the state of science education in the US could definitely stand some improvement, you shouldn't believe this particular result, because the question was being asked in totally the wrong way. The moral being, don't believe everything you read, because there's journalism, and then there's science.]

Q: A well-known Gallup poll in July of 1999, that I’m sure you know of, stated that 18 percent of Americans thought the Sun revolves around the Earth. (Sixteen percent of Germans believed the same thing, and 19 percent of the British.)  Do you think the general public’s knowledge of space has increased or decreased in the past 15 years, with the religious right and creationism and so forth?

 Neil deGrasse Tyson:  I’m not convinced that the people who said the Earth goes around the sun, that they fully understood the question as posed. I’ll give you an example— I was told this, I didn’t re-verify it, but it’s intriguing nonetheless—that in one of the U.S. Census forms, it might have been 1990, it asked, in terms of where you’re from, it said, what is your ancestry: is it from Europe, is it from Africa, Asia, Central America, South America? And there was a huge number of people who checked Central America who lived in Kansas, because that’s the center of America, right? [Laughs] So the way you word something can influence whether someone understands what your intent is in asking that question, or not. And just because you get an answer that’s one way, doesn’t mean you asked the right question to probe what it is you need to know about your audience.

So if you sit here, we still say “The sun rises, the sun sets.” It’s in our vocabulary. And so, to say “Does the sun go around the earth,” yeah—it rises, and it sets. But if you said “In space, what would you see?”, I don’t think any of them would say that the sun went around the earth. It depends on how you ask the question.

And so, I don’t believe those statistics. I saw them; I just don’t believe them. I think there’s a flaw in the connection between the intent of the question and the wiring of the mind of the person who answered it.

That’s a very scientific way to look at it.

 No! If you say “‘Draw the solar system,” I don’t think they’re going to draw the sun going around the earth. They’re going to put the sun in the middle. You know they’re going to do this, right? And so, I don’t believe that. But your greater question is still an important one. The science illiteracy that is rampant is real; I just wouldn’t cite “the sun going around the earth” as the best example of it. It’s real, and it’s a problem. But I think there’s more access to science than ever before.


Here, then, is the article as published in the Insight section of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013.


Although Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s official title is director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York’s American Museum of Natural History, his place in our popular culture sits closer to that of Ambassador of the Known Universe to the United States. An articulate, unpretentious educator who understands how to translate arcane scientific concepts into explanations the public can and does lap up, Tyson is the best-known living astrophysicist in America — which is to say, the only one the average person would have a chance of naming at all.

To run down why: There’s Tyson’s established status as the go-to guy for explaining cosmic phenomena on TV news broadcasts, his stack of best-selling books, his own radio talk show-podcast StarTalk (, his key role in demoting Pluto to dwarf-planet status in 2006 (Tyson’s advice to Plutophiles: “Get over it”), his assorted witty asides to his 1.5 million Twitter followers, and/or his frequent talk-show appearances schooling the likes of Bill Maher, Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart on everything from the nature of black holes to the importance of funding NASA, not to mention a cameo a few years ago on “The Big Bang Theory.” Lately, Tyson’s visibility to the naked eye seems to be, pun intended, nearly universal.

+Star Man: Talking with Neil deGrasse Tyson, the ultimate big-picture guy, about life, the universe, and everything (including what he learned at UT) photo

Tyson, who earned a master’s degree in astronomy at the University of Texas in 1983, returns to Austin this week, speaking on Tuesday in a sold-out event at the Paramount Theatre. The night before, he’ll be the featured guest at a fundraising dinner for the venue (tickets for that event at “I care about community. I care about the arts,” he says about his participation in the fund-raising event. “And I care about continued enlightenment beyond one’s formal time in school. Not only that, half of my joy of being in graduate school was that UT Austin is in Austin. So I have no trouble passing some of this forward.”

Tyson’s prominence should get an even greater boost this spring when he hosts “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” a 13-episode reboot on the Fox Network of the late Carl Sagan’s milestone 1980 PBS documentary series “Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.” Though flattered by the inevitable comparisons, Tyson says he’s not trying to imitate Sagan, whom he met a few times, initially as a high school student considering college options when Sagan invited him up to Cornell University to tour his lab. (Tyson ended up going elsewhere, but never forgot Sagan’s generosity to a teenager.)

“The spirit of the (original) series is there,” Tyson says. “It is unmistakably ‘Cosmos,’ and given that, I am now blended into that frame. I knew that if I tried to be Carl then I would just fail, but I knew I could be a really good version of myself. Or a really full-up version,” he says, with one of his frequent bursts of laughter at reaching a punch line. “So if I fail at that, then I fail, sort of a legitimate failure.”

In conversation by phone from his office, Tyson sounds much the same as his TV or radio self: eloquent yet unaffected, with a friendly, conversational tone that makes astrophysics seem as accessible as Rachael Ray discussing 30-minute recipes. One good way to gauge his extreme enthusiasm for all things space-related is to ask him a question like this:

“If you could travel to witness up close any astronomical phenomenon in the universe, where would you choose to go?”

“Can I go back in time? I would go back and see the formation of the moon, which would just be awesome!” he says, practically singing that last word. “All ideas regarding the formation of the moon tell us that a Mars-sized proto-planet sideswiped Earth, rendering most of Earth molten in this process, scraping off huge chunks of our crust that coalesced in a ring around Earth and then became the moon. That would be quite a spectacle.”

“Fascinating,” you might respond, practically channeling Mr. Spock in spite of yourself.

“Yeah, it takes a couple of months to coalesce and shape up, so you could even watch that happen. Sell tickets to it.”

During his UT years Tyson, a New Yorker born and bred, was a teaching assistant for several semesters in Professor Frank N. Bash’s Intro to Astronomy course. He also busied himself in UT athletics, including wrestling, basketball, crew and competitive dance, and met his wife, Alice, a fellow grad student; she earned her doctorate in physics from UT in 1985. Both of them, he says, retain good friends in Austin.

Despite this, his time at UT was less than ideal. A cover story last year in UT’s alumni magazine, the Alcalde, reported instances of what Tyson considered business-as-usual racial profiling by some faculty and staff (being stopped seven times by campus police on his way into the physics building, for example, but never on his way into the gym), and an ultimately abandoned pursuit of a doctoral dissertation. Tyson described it as “a failed experiment” from which he’s long since moved on, and he did praise some of his UT professors in his 2004 memoir “The Sky Is Not The Limit.”

“Every student who comes to UT as a graduate student (in the sciences) aspires to go on to a Ph.D. A hundred percent of them do that,” says Frank Bash, now a professor emeritus. “I know he left, I know he was unhappy. I notice that at the end of the Alcalde article Neil admits that a lot of what happened was his own fault. But I don’t know the details.” (Bash was not Tyson’s research supervisor and was not on his dissertation committee.)

For his part, Tyson downplays it all, saying, “The article created a rift where there isn’t one. I left UT after my department dissolved my thesis committee. Shortly thereafter I was admitted to Columbia University and earned my Ph.D. in astrophysics there. I’ve been on cordial terms with the UT Department (of Astronomy) the whole time, and they’ve been collegial with me ever since I landed on my feet.”

Tyson always has had kind words for Bash, who chaired the Astronomy Department during his time. “I learned a lot of teaching skills from him,” Tyson says. “He had a way of interacting with the class that helped to inform how I interact with a big group of people in front of me. It’s a respect for the intelligence of who’s in the room and (being) fearless, once you do that, as to where you’re going to take them next. And that way, the audience lands in a place that is beyond where they thought they could have reached.”

Bash remembers Tyson with equal fondness, using words like “extraordinary” and “amazing” to describe his classroom manner. “I’ve had students, or former students, come up to me years later remembering him,” he says, “and asking me about him and how he’s doing. He just was particularly good at relating to the students and understanding their questions, and not making fun of their ignorance, but taking them seriously. (He was) just a very happy, cheerful guy, not the usual kind of scientific nerd. Unfortunately from the UT perspective, he really came into his own afterward. Not that I can claim much responsibility, but I’m really proud of him.”

(During his visit, Tyson will be meeting with UT President Bill Powers and possibly several faculty members and students “I carry high respect for the office of all university presidents,” Tyson says. “I was not going to turn this down. It’s surely the Alcalde cover story that prompted his overture, but as far as I know, there’s no specific agenda for the meeting.”)

Conversing with Tyson, you soon become aware that he not only applies the scientific method to all things in life, taking nothing at face value, but holds a rare, genuine enthusiasm for just about everything, from the planned launch of the next-generation James Webb Space Telescope in 2018 to the best barbecue found in Austin these days.

Whether watching Tyson on TV or talking one-to-one, it’s infectious to observe how the connections click into place in his brain, then inevitably wedge their way into yours. You also start to appreciate that he can’t help being a human aphorism machine (how ideal for Twitter), with his fans constantly circulating Tysonisms like “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it,” and “If the world is something you accept rather than interpret, then you’re susceptible to the influence of charismatic idiots.”

Although Tyson’s forte is the ability to reawaken a childlike sense of wonder in his audience, his professional focus has always been adults. “But the way I bring science to the public, it tends to also attract kids, high school down to maybe middle school. If you’re a curious middle-schooler you can follow almost anything I do,” he says. “We have problems in the world because of science illiteracy in the adult population, not because of science illiteracy in the children’s population. What I do know about kids is that they are born curious about their environment. Every kid I’ve ever met is turning over rocks, plucking petals off of flowers, or reaching for things just out of their reach. So the real issue here is not how do you get kids interested in science, it’s how to get out of their way as they express this curiosity that perhaps is inherent in our DNA.”

He does have optimism about the state of science literacy. “I think we are experiencing a shift in the public’s appetite and interest in the frontier of science, and I measure that by a few things,” he says. “First, how else could I possibly have one and a half million Twitter followers? How else could ‘The Big Bang Theory’ be the No. 1 sitcom on television? How else could ‘CSI’ be one of the most fertile franchises on television there ever was, in three incarnations in different cities, when it features scientists solving problems using their expertise in biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, geology and forensics? And how is it that the movie ‘Gravity’ could be a No. 1 film, and people could be blogging about the physics errors a month later, long after Sandra Bullock and George Clooney did the couch circuit with the talk shows?” (Tyson’s own tweets about the film’s errors received wide media coverage, to his astonishment.)

As for his presentation at the Paramount, Tyson says attendees might reasonably expect an animated discourse on the importance of science literacy, the value of having what he calls “a cosmic perspective on who and what we are on earth and in the universe,” plus some news briefs on what he calls “cosmic current events.” Expect a call to action or two.

“I like leaving people with some sort of philosophical outlook that they can debate when they’re at home, or at a bar,” he says. “I love it when people have bar fights over the meaning of the universe!”


Afterword: I attended Tyson’s talk at the Paramount the evening of December 17, which had been sold out for weeks; it was as delightful as I’d expected, if not more so. After the end of his “official” lecture, with slides and a bit of video, he stayed and did an audience Q&A for nearly another hour (at the beginning of this, about a third of the audience departed; their loss). Tyson answered questions ranging through everything from the greatest scientific discovery of the 20th century (he chose the 1957 discovery of the origins of the heavy elements of the universe, known among physicists as the  B2FH paper) to his favorite dance when he participated in competitive dancing at UT (the paso doble).  He then proceeded directly to the Paramount’s lobby and signed books for the better part of an hour. It was a remarkable evening.

When my moment with the man finally came, I introduced myself and told him I’d interviewed him for the Statesman; “Oh, you’re the one!” he said, cordially enough, and we shook hands. My wife, who unfortunately couldn’t attend, had given me her copy of the Peterson Field Guide to the Stars and Planets, by the astronomer Jay Pasachoff, for him to autograph; despite my misgivings at probably being the only person giving him a book to autograph that someone else had written, he didn’t miss a beat and inscribed this:
Neil deGrasse Tyson, channeling Jay Pasachoff

From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage

As published in the Austin American-Statesman newspaper on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.

David Bryan, a founding and still active member of Bon Jovi, is more than just the guy who’s been playing keyboards on the likes of “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name” for the past 30 years. For Bryan, having a second career as a composer for stage musicals is just another side of the same coin.

A pal and bandmate of John Bongiovi Jr. since both were teenagers in late ’70s suburban New Jersey, Bryan is also the composer and co-lyricist of “Memphis,” which opens Tuesday at Bass Concert Hall and plays through Dec. 15 as part of the Broadway In Austin series at Texas Performing Arts.

+From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage photo

David Bryan is the longtime keyboard player for Bon Jovi and composer of musicals, including “Memphis.”

Strictly speaking, “Memphis” isn’t a jukebox musical, because the songs are original to Bryan and his writing partner, fellow New Jerseyan Joe DiPietro (“I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change”). “Memphis,” which deals with segregation and an interracial romance against the backdrop of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll in the early ’50s, was first staged in California in 2002, but it took another seven years to hit Broadway. In 2010 the show won four Tony awards, including best musical, best original score and best book.

Bryan and DiPietro have since collaborated on another musical, “The Toxic Avenger,” based on the ’80s cult horror film satire, and are developing a third, “Chasing the Song,” set in the world of the early ’60s pop-song hit factories.

We caught up with Bryan, 51, over the phone during a short home break before the last leg of the current Bon Jovi tour. “I got two more Japans and seven Australias,” he says with the matter-of-fact cadence of a veteran of the rock wars. “We’ve already done 95 shows in 48 countries in the last nine months, so I understand when our touring company tours. I go, ‘I get it.’”

+From Bon Jovi to ‘Memphis’: David Bryan talks about writing for a different kind of stage photo

Jasmine Richardson stars as Felicia and Joey Elrose as Huey in the touring production of “Memphis,” a musical about an interracial … Read More

American-Statesman: How do you get from Bon Jovi to writing the music for ‘Memphis,’ and do you use a different set of songwriting muscles when you’re writing for a stage musical as opposed to a rock band?

David Bryan: “Memphis” was one of the first things that I did in the theater world. I got a script from an agent and I connected with it, and I just knew every one of those songs. One of my first bands with Jon, when we were 17, we had a horn band that played Springsteen and the (Asbury) Jukes and blue-eyed soul, so I knew about horns and I knew what it sounded like. What you see today on stage, when I demo’d it way back when, that’s what it’s based on.

What kinds of changes were made to the show before it finally made it to Broadway?

I got the script in ’01, we put it up in 2002 and ’03, then we were on the shelf for three years. Contractually we couldn’t do anything, and it never went past that. And then we put a whole new team together, did it in La Jolla and up in Seattle, then came into Broadway. You don’t tell a musical when it’s done and how it’s going; it tells you. The advantage, I think, for us is even though it was a longer than usual road, we were lucky enough to have four full productions, and you learn. By the time we presented on Broadway, we were completely confident.

Why do you think the show is so popular?

It’s just a universal story. It’s not entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It has a message, and that’s what really drew it to me. It’s the birth of civil rights; it gives kudos to where rock ‘n’ roll came from. It shows an American story, but (also) shows a human story. And it shows how the arts have lifted mankind beyond beating each other with bones. It’s art. It’s the first time the caveman drew on the wall.

The show carries a message; it’s also primarily entertainment. How did you and Joe balance the two?

I think you let your audience figure it out, instead of pointing a finger and telling them. It is a subtle component to our show that I’m proud of. Instead of, you know, “You shouldn’t be racist,” it shows what it is, and we let people discover. It’s also not a dirge; for me, it can’t be such a heavy thing that you’re not also being entertained.

Currently, you and Joe are working on the musical ‘Chasing the Song,’ which is about the early ’60s, the Brill Building …

That’s still in development. Hopefully, it will be coming to Broadway next year or the year after. It’s about the first woman (music) publisher, so it’s like the female Don Kirshner, which, reality-wise, there was no such thing. We’re championing what women’s rights were in 1960, where a woman got out of the house and started a publishing company. It’s a fictional view of facts, so we get to twist our stories. I think for Joe and I, there has to be some moral fiber instead of just entertainment.

Does it come very naturally to you to write in older styles of music, or is that something you have to work at a little bit differently?

It’s funny, on Broadway everybody talks about that. Everybody does research and they try to be exact in that time period. I don’t come from that world and I don’t write from that world. I write from what I think the character does and how that character sings. In your dialogue, you have to have enough emotion so it boils over where you actually sing a song, because in real life you don’t burst into song.

It’s modernized, looking back on time. It’s not just a history lesson. So that’s why it feels more contemporary, that’s why it’s not just, “Wow, that’s a ’50s show.” That’s the beauty of writing something original. It celebrates what brings us together, not what separates us. And hopefully, you’ll walk out singing my songs.

The year-end review in review: once again it’s all about me, I mean you

My card.

My card.

Although we don’t have to deal with end-of-the-Mayan-calendar apocalypse nonsense this year, we unfortunately still have an endless number of year-end recaps, highlights, and best-of lists coming out this month, which, as far as I’m concerned, are much worse. I dread all this rehashing, and if you would ask me why I mind the annual ritual so much (it’s all about the media wanting to sell a few tickets to the show, after all, so what else is new), I suppose I’d mention something about the predictability and the sameness of the whole business, the substitution of reflective listmaking for more complex thoughts on our times and the Meaning Of It All, and the general Internet-ready soup mix (microwaved for only 45 seconds, in its own cup) of all these lists and recaps that I find so inevitably depressing.

That, and the another-year-gone stuff on top of it. That, and the fact that nothing much seems to change from one year to another, except that everything gets slightly worse in subtle ways. That, and also because so many people I know on Facebook say the same thing at the end of every December: “This year sucked. I hope next year will be better.” And everyone says Amen, and then the new year ends up sucking just as badly because it’s not really a new year, it’s the same old world continuing as always. And everyone knows this, and yet we still count down the seconds and drink the champagne and hope against hope that this time, it’ll be different.

The thing is, we follow the prompts. In the shops we witness and respond to one holiday following the next, LaborDayBackToSchool then Halloween then ThanksgivingChristmasHanukkahNewYear’s then Valentine’s Day and so on,  with not as much as a day’s break of normalcy in the interstices, any downtime begrudged and in danger of vanishing thanks to the corporate overlords serving us up one bowl of marketing cheer after another.  The round of the year; the wheels clicking into place once again. Buy your greeting cards early.

Then there’s the world of social media, which this year did get noticeably worse. There were fake Twitter feuds with fake enemies, invented by this or that media-savvy trickster to prank everyone, including his fellow media sophisticates (it was funny when Andy Kaufman did it, but somehow this year, it wasn’t). There was much fuss made about cynical waitresses posting restaurant receipts with homophobic insults, since admitted to be fabricated, after thousands of dollars came in to PayPal.  Oh, and whenever a celebrity under the age of 96 dies, it’s a hoax, then it’s not a hoax but it was a hoax two weeks ago, but this time it’s not a hoax and the celebrity isn’t coming back from the dead this time, unless the celebrity is a cartoon character.

To quote an ecard I wrote for some time ago:  I don’t believe anything I read on Facebook, including my own status updates.

I suppose it’s just old human nature in new social media clothes. Social media facilitates our worst instincts along with our best, and maybe it’s just that the worst of it attracts more attention. At least I hope that’s the case. But oh, the narcissism of our age, where everybody is a star, at least on their own page or their own blog (hey, I never claimed to be different, I’m just self-aware).

Kudos to a fellow in Seattle named Marty Perlman, who nearly three years ago wrote the following succinct post in his blog, “Thinking Out Loud,” so I wouldn’t have to:

<<Does anyone remember a classic National Lampoon satire from the ’70s called “Me, the ultimate specialty magazine,” which features the tepid life and mundane times of Walter J. Arnholt of Elkhart, Indiana?
<<EVERYTHING is by and about Walter, including his favorite recipe “Franks and Beans a la Arnholt.” “The secret is the mustard I add to the franks’ water.” His hobby? Growing his matchbook collection. The section’s crossword puzzle, naturally, includes only clues that pertain to Walter and his family.
<<Q: Did National Lampoon anticipate Facebook by 30+ years?>>
 I guess we all know the answer to that one. With the old year fast winding down, and that ubiquitous social media site urging its teeming millions to share their “20 biggest moments on Facebook” for their “Year in Review,” it’s clear that everyone has indeed become the subject of his or her own very own magazine, and no matter how many Facebook friends, or “friends,” one has, the target audience remains one. Or rather, I suspect that we have become, instead, the targets of marketing. Nothing else seems to be new except the sophistication of the marketers, who grow more slick and seamless every year in getting us to give up our souls for a bit of false, easy ego gratification.
I’ve lately been wondering if the demand for superhero movies has a direct relationship to the average person’s own feeling of powerlessness — that is, the less you feel in control of your own destiny, the greater your desire to escape into a fantasy of becoming an all-powerful being with magical powers beyond the laws of physics, whether your choice is Superman, a witch, a vampire, or an alien. And you need go no farther than a Disney Princess or Iron Man Halloween costume or Justin Bieber’s face on your kid’s Christmas stocking to know how early it starts.
But does all this make us happy? Content? If some of us are, I think it’s in spite of all the official Calls To Be Happy All The Time, not, need I say, because of them, because their purpose is not making us, finally, content, but making us believe that we need this new gadget or version or add-on to make us so. I believe you know how the rest of that goes.
Is it still possible for us to imagine a world in which it would not be necessary to dread the day when you have to break the news to your growing children that things are not, indeed, much worse than they’ve been led to believe?
I hope we can all do some serious creative thinking in the weeks to come. And I hope it will all lead to something that can justify us all to really say, happy new something, and mean it.

At a Jewish Grave in Horstmar

Levi Eichenwald

Levi Eichenwald was my father’s father’s father; he died many years before I was born, and this is the only photo I’ve ever seen of him. Levi had three daughters and three sons (fathering children until well past his 50th birthday), only two of whom survived the Holocaust. He died less than two weeks shy of his 77th birthday, and is buried in his home town of Horstmar, a small, tidy brick-and-stone village near Munster, Germany. I visited his grave in August of 2009, as part of a visit sponsored by the city of Hilden for the families of Jewish Holocaust victims.

I composed the following poem (or rather, it seemed to pretty much compose itself) over a couple of days in October of 2013, when I was asked to contribute  something for a memorial event held on the grounds of the former Horstmar synagogue on the 9th of November commemorating the 75th anniversary of the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom (at which time the synagogue, along with many others across Germany, was destroyed).  The former home of my great-uncle Ernst Eichenwald (1896-1992), Levi’s son, still stands in Horstmar; several stolpersteine now grace the pavement outside.

For Levi Eichenwald (1854-1931)

At Levi’s grave, the wide and weathered gray stone block

Marks where he lies and where others were expected.

Two plain blank slabs flank his own.

The plot leaves ample room for others.

His children ended scattered elsewhere,

Not in a proper grave in a pleasant spot on a quiet hill in this quiet town.

Else and her daughter Liesel: lost in Minsk.

Jenny, her husband Karl, and her two daughters, gone to Riga.

Otto to Salaspils, his wife Ruth and the two small ones gone as well,

To that gate marked Arbeit macht frei;

Now a school in Billerbeck bears their names.

Walter to Sobibor, and no more; his wife and son survived.

Two of Levi’s own, at least, reached the USA:

Bertha, fled to China, then San Francisco, but dead by 1949.

And not the last of them but the last, Ernst, the eldest son,

the cool-headed one who warned the rest,

Sailed with his wife and daughters to New York.

Survived to ninety-six, when people had begun to tell those tales again,

Confronting what had been. Then he tipped his cap and departed the world,

one week after his Grete.

Scattered too was the mother, Levi’s Selma, sent to godforsaken Maly Trostinec in the east.

Not her fate to rest beside her man.

And so lies Levi in his grave alone, forever. One wonders, is he lonely there,

Does he long for his family to join him in the old home soil?

Or is he grateful for having been spared the horrors himself,

Piled one on top of another like an overturned basket of apples,

When that stroke took him suddenly away that long-ago day in June?

He would have offered to change places with any or all of them, if he could,

If he had known,

Of that I have no doubt.

In the only photograph I have of him

The old tradesman glares out at us across the years,

Eyes wide, brows arched, the gaze haunts.

Is he angry? Accusing? Or simply tired but alert,

About to say something, I think, but what?

As if he knows, as if he’s seen.


The German translation follows.

An einem jüdischen Grab in Horstmar

Für Levi Eichenwald (1854-1931)

An Levis Grab markiert der große graue verwitterte Grabstein

den Ort wo er begraben liegt -

und wo andere begraben werden sollten.

 Zwei einfache unbeschriftete Grabplatten flankieren seine eigene,

das Grab lässt genug Platz für andere.

 Seine Kinder endeten anderswo – verstreutund nicht in einem richtigen Grab an einem schönen Ort

auf einem Hügel in dieser ruhigen Stadt.

Else, ihr Mann Arthur und ihre Tochter Liesel: in Minsk verschollen.

Jenny, ihr Mann Karl und die beiden Töchter: nach Riga gegangen.

Otto ging nach Salaspils,

der Weg seiner Frau Ruth und der beiden Kleinen:

von Riga aus zu dem Tor mit der Beschriftung “Arbeit macht frei”;

Jetzt trägt eine Schule in Billerbeck ihren Namen.

 Walter ging nach Sobibor,

er ist nicht mehr,

Frau und Sohn überlebten.

Aber zwei von Levis Kindern erreichten ihr Ziel, die USA.

Bertha floh nach China, dann nach San Francisco, und starb 1949;

Und auch Ernst, der älteste Sohn,

der kühl pragmatische Kopf unter ihnen,

der die anderen warnte,

schiffte sich mit Frau und Kindern nach New York ein.

Er wurde 96 und starb, als die Menschen begannen, die Geschichten wieder zu erzählen und sich auseinanderzusetzen mit dem, was geschehen war.

Dann tippte er sich an den Hut und verlies diese Welt,

eine Woche nach seiner Frau Grete.

Weit weg war auch die Mutter, Levis Frau Selma,

ins gottverlassene Maly Trostinec in den Osten geschickt.

Es war ihr nicht vergönnt, neben ihrem Mann begraben zu werden.

Und so liegt Levi hier in seinem Grab, für immer allein.

Man fragt sich,

ist er einsam hier?

Sehnt er sich danach, dass seine Familie sich in der heimischen Erde zu ihm gesellt?

Oder ist er froh, dass ihm diese Schrecken erspart blieben,

dass der Schlaganfall ihn plötzlich dahinraffte

an diesem Junitag vor langer Zeit?

Er hätte angeboten mit ihnen allen oder einzeln zu tauschen,

wenn er gekonnt hätte,

wenn er es gewusst hätte.

Hieran zweifele ich nicht.

Auf dem einzigen Foto, das ich von ihm habe

starrt uns der alte Händler durch die Jahre an;

Große Augen, zusammengezogene Augenbrauen – der Blick verfolgt einen.

Ist er zornig?

Klagt er an?

Oder ist er einfach müde aber wachsam?

Kurz davor etwas zu sagen, so scheint es mir, aber was?

Als wenn er es weiß, als wenn er es gesehen hätte.



Wes Eichenwald


Live from Ljubljana, Lou Reed

lou_reed_ticketI never met Uncle Lou. Thus, unlike several of my friends and acquaintances, I have no personal anecdotes to relate about my encounters with the late and widely lamented ex-Velvet and punk godfather of godfathers (sorry, Iggy; sorry, guys in the New York Dolls and MC5). Many others are currently retailing those stories elsewhere to good effect. Suffice it to say, who else do you know that, when he died, people were simultaneously: 1) amazed that he could die at all, 2) that he hadn’t died 30 years earlier, and 3) found no contradiction between those two statements? For a coda, see my card on “When you die, may people be so upset that they argue for three hours on Facebook about whether or not it’s a hoax.”

Depending on who’s doing the anecdoting, Reed appears to have been capable of being everything from a generous, sensitive and kind soul to a snarky, gratuitously cruel misanthrope. In general he appears to have been nicer to his fellow musicians than to those pesky journalists, with a few exceptions in either case. I never interviewed him (probably just as well), although his artistic vision certainly made as large of an impression on me as on most of my writing-art-and-music-making contemporaries in love with alternative views and ways of making noise. He may not have been the nicest guy in the world, but how different would the world be now had he not been?

The only time I saw Lou Reed play live was on August 1, 2000 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where I was living at the time. Ljubljana was probably as good a place as any to see him go to work, given that I was rather too young to have made the scene when the Velvet Underground played Max’s Kansas City in 1970, let alone prior to that.  As you can see from the ticket stub, in 2000 Lou was on the Ecstasy Tour, named for his then-current album; you can find the setlist here, although for me the concert was equally as memorable for the setting as the performance. It was held at the picturesque Križanke outdoor theatre in the Old City, on the premises of a gorgeously atmospheric former monastery (originally dating from the 13th century) “nationalized” after Tito took power and redesigned by the ubiquitous king of Slovene architecture in the second quarter of the 20th century, Jože Plečnik. All cobblestones, climbing vines and artistically poured concrete, it’s still very much in use for festivals and concerts; I would see Patti Smith for the first time at Križanke in July of 2001, in her first appearance in Slovenia, where she gave one of the best shows I’ve ever seen performed by any artist anywhere.

I saw quite a few other Western musicians and bands during my time in Ljubljana, including Bob Dylan and Blondie, and the fact that they were performing somewhat out of their element — geographically if not spiritually — added something to my enjoyment of them; they related to the European audiences differently than they would have to a home crowd, and may have felt more inspired in relatively unfamiliar territory. (That certainly seemed to be the case with Patti, as well as when I witnessed Bob Dylan tearing through “Masters of War” in the Hala Tivoli basketball arena on April 28, 1999, during the height of the Kosovo War.) The well-known truism about non-mainstream artists being more appreciated abroad than at home certainly applied here. (Back in 2010 I wrote about foreigners performing and in some cases relocating to Slovenia for the Adria Airways inflight magazine, which expounds more on the subject.) If the former Bloc wasn’t punk rock’s only spiritual home it was certainly one of its major adopted ones, and in some cases became the actual home of Western punks, alt-rockers and alt-poets searching for their True Place.

Reed was 58 when he played Ljubljana. Ecstasy had received generally excellent reviews, not that whatever his latest album was mattered much to the Slovenes who packed the house that night.  To them and to most people born after 1940 in ex-Yugoslavia and in Central and Eastern Europe in general, Reed was a leather-jacketed god who had descended from the heavens to walk among them for one enchanted night.  The whole region was balm to the dark, poetic, sooty-concrete-building, grimy-street-loving soul; of course, Reed’s and the VU’s vision would resonate there more than anywhere else this side of the West Village. (Read this piece about how the Velvets may have played a crucial part in eventually sparking the 1989 governmental upheaval in Czechoslovakia; “Why do you think we called it the Velvet Revolution?” Vaclav Havel told Salman Rushdie a decade later.)

Križanke is indeed an outdoor theater, with open sides, but as this photo shows, it’s fit with a metal roof and isn’t open to the stars (or the rain) and is flanked by buildings on one side, walls on the other side and the back and the stage in front, and thus feels pretty much enclosed. Low concrete steps slope gently backwards from the stage. For most performances the audience sits on folding chairs, but on the first night of August, 2000, whoever was promoting the event decided to — the hell with it — do away with the chairs and just pack in as many live bodies as could cough up the 5000-tolar admission fee (roughly $25 USD). It ended up being as crowded in there as a New York City subway car at rush hour; you could literally not turn around when standing up, and everyone stood up for the entire show. It was a potentially dangerous situation — I don’t know what would have happened if we’d all had to rush for the exit at once — but most people in the audience didn’t seem to mind the real-time sardine analogy. After all, they were getting to see Lou.

What do I remember of the show itself? It was a solid, very loud performance. Loud noise, and lots of it, both from feedback from the amps and roars from the Lou-lovin’ audience. There was good interplay between the frontman and his band.  I wasn’t reviewing the show and didn’t take notes, and from the vantage point of 13 years later it all seems a bit of a blur. A loud blur with many flashing lights. Among his people, Lou seemed to be in a good, even gracious, mood, enjoying himself as far as I could tell; early on he said “Hvala lepa” (in Slovene, “thank you very much”) to general gasps from the crowd. Better-known material was in short supply, save for “Sweet Jane” and “Vicious” and the last encore, “Perfect Day.” Nobody much cared. Lou then said, with feeling, “Thank you so much” and vanished into the night.

Relieved we’d survived, we wiped our brows and knew we’d had a visitation we wouldn’t soon forget.