Over a year ago, I scored an exclusive interview with myself. In a wide-ranging discussion, I talked about leaving The New York Times; Pope Francis; internet meanness; vaccination; and my resemblance to Daniel Radcliffe and Mark Duplass. Over a year has passed since that time almost a year ago, and in that time my interview subject has gone through many transitions, changes, and evolutions. I caught up with him on the sofa of his home in the Westville neighborhood of New Haven, where he was sitting next to his daughter as she watched Dinosaur Train.
Tell me about Dinosaur Train.
I’m not really sure what it’s about. Dinosaurs, I think. I have an amazing ability to be near my children’s entertainment without absorbing any of it. There are picture books I have read my children hundreds of time whose plots I don’t know. And I’d maintain that I have read those books with proper intonation; you’d never know I was any more checked out than my wife, who actually enjoys the books as if she were a three-year-old herself. With Dinosaur Train, the only time I focus on the show, rather than my mental radio dial which flits from book ideas that will never come to fruition, to favorite ice cream flavors, to wondering what assorted long-lost junior-high classmates are up to, is when I hear what sounds like Stephen Tobolowsky’s voice, although it isn’t. Man, that guy is everywhere: Silicon Valley for me, Dinosaur Train for the children.
Why do you say “children” and not the more colloquial “kids”?
My grandmother, Rebekah Müller Kirschner, did not like “kid,” which she said was to be reserved for baby goats.
Have you regretted leaving your Times column?
Not for one second. And that is the God’s honest truth. Quitting a job, even an occasional, freelance job, is like quitting a relationship. You are sweating, it’s a difficult phone call to make, then you do it, you hang up the phone, you do something to take your mind off what you just did, like eat ice cream or re-watch Rounders on Netflix for the 72nd time, then, exhausted by the psychic toll, you go to sleep. And then you wake up the next morning with one of two emotions. Either “Oh my God what the hell have I done will she ever take me back?” or “I feel terrific—why didn’t I do that months ago?” I had the latter feeling.
And then what happened?
I rested, spent a few days mildly curious how I’d make up the lost income, and then the L.A. Times asked me to contribute monthly op-ed columns, about any topic I like, not just religion. And I have done that, and that has been great fun.
And what else are you up to?
I have been spending a lot of time swimming with Cyd and the daughters at Mrs. Ahern’s pool down the block. It is so nice of her that she lets neighbors swim in her pool. Which is one reason, aside from the fact that I needed a nifty, tidy close for this piece, that I mentioned her in the closing paragraph of my recent essay about the paucity of municipal swimming pools.
Wait—that essay ran in The New York Times!
How very attentive you are! Yes, I can still write for the Paper of Record, and have, a couple times, since I let them go a year ago. For example, I also wrote this piece, about Jews’ reclaiming the noun “Jew,” which got me interviewed, not untestily, by the redoubtable Jewess Brooke Gladstone on WNYC’s On the Media.
Can one really say “Jewess”?
How you keep bringing us ’round to my favorite subjects! I think we ought to use the word more, and I cite for backup the blog of the Jewish Women’s Archive, called Jewesses with Attitude. But not everyone agrees. And some people say that as a man I definitely can’t use the word. My argument is that the word is so thoroughly antique and antiquated that any use of it is thick with irony, and should be permissible. You can read a range of disagreements with me in this roundtable I curated.
Okay, but what else are you up to?
I finished a draft of that book I told you about last year, How to Be a Jew. Hope to have an update soon on who is publishing it. I am working on some magazine pieces. Still teaching a bit, and directing the Yale Journalism Initiative, which helps liberal arts students try out journalism as a career. And I remain very excited about my podcast, Unorthodox, which remains the #1 Podcast in the Entire Jewish World. We’re not as funny as we think we are, but we are entertaining enough to be doing a second live show at the JCC of Manhattan next week. And we have some other cool stuff in the works. What I love most about it are the emails we get from listeners, saying things like, “When I moved to the rural town of Buttlick, where I was the only Jew, I drifted away from my heritage. I stopped saying ‘schmuck’ and forgot the taste of corned beef and learned how to be happy—basically, I became a Gentile. But after the death of my pig, I realized that something in my soul was yearning for more. Then, as if it was bashert, I discovered your podcast. And now I feel that I am back in the bosom of my big Jewish mishpochah. You are like my grandparents, but younger and with a weird predilection for Holocaust jokes.”
Last year you talked about what you’d been reading. What can you add to that list?
Two brilliant autobiographies by artists who have no business also being great writers: the photographer Sally Mann and a gifted tunesmith named Bruce Springsteen. Totally brilliant. I can’t snap a decent picture or get Rosalita to jump even a little bit higher, and they write books for the ages.
What else of note has transpired in the last year?
Best of all, three of my four daughters can now swim, and the almost-four-year-old seems well on her way. Swimming is, as you may know, one of the three important skills that we parents must pass on our children, along with reading and looking both ways before crossing the street. If they have those, we can safely die and leave them behind in a house with a credit card and they’ll be fine, at least until their guardianship is sorted out.
Whoa—tempt fate much?
I really am not very superstitious. I got religion so that I wouldn’t have to get superstition.
What’s so bad about superstition?
Ask an unvaccinated child who got the measles.
You have had some down time this past year. Have you learned much?
Yes. As you know, Hannah Arendt used to set aside an hour every afternoon to lie back on her chaise-longue (this was when philosophers had chaises-longues) and just think. I have done the New Haven version of that, which is to binge-watch Narcos from around 7:00 to 7:45 in the evening, whilst my wife reads stories to the children (I am sorry, they just prefer her at that hour; they prefer my sense of what “a little ice cream” is). And as my mind wanders during epic grands guignols of bloody Latin narco-murder, I have achieved some new morsels of wisdom.
You want them for free?
Did you ever get that three dollars a word you talked about in last year’s interview?
Fair point. Okay, then. Ready?
Here goes. First, don’t argue politics with anyone, ever. Nobody ever changed her or his mind.
They are using “they” now.
Sorry, not there yet. Anyway. Second, a good movie is still worth seeing on the screen, and the popcorn is not overpriced—you think it is, but you’re paying for the experience. Third, you really can’t go wrong with button-down collars. With straight collars, the risk of its being too big, or too pointy, or too starchy, or uncomfortable, is just too damned high. And we’re in a golden era of button-downs, what with Gitman Brothers doing online made-to-order, Brooks Brothers making its made-in-the-USA rolled collar again, Mercer & Sons, etc.
I notice you hyperlink to the purveyors. Are you hoping they will send you free stuff?
Why, is that something they do?
Okay, what else?
Do some stretching every morning; you’re not 41 any more, you know. Poker is never as much fun to watch on TV as you think it will be. And, finally, art is more important than politics. Sometimes they overlap, but not always. When they do, side with art. I’ll quote my brother Daniel in a recent Facebook post of his, because this sums up what I have been feeling:
Was just reading this critique of Zadie Smith's recent piece in Harper’s, and putting aside all the specific political and ideological issues, I find myself dispirited by the sense that so many artists, writers, and intellectuals out there seem to identify their primary tribe as the left, broadly speaking, rather than as the tribe of other writers, artists, intellectuals. Not that the two tribes are intrinsically opposed. They're not. Most of the time I find it pretty simple to identify with both, without cognitive dissonance. But they're not inevitably aligned either, and conflicts between the two are inevitable.
When it comes down to a choice between the two tribes, the two distinct value systems, my default is to stand with my brother and sister artists and thinkers, even when I don’t agree with their politics or lack of politics. The political types can carry their own water. They have more power than us. They live in a society that generally thinks that art and intellectual activity are frivolous and useless and inefficient and worth less than other forms of more “useful” activity. We need to stand in solidarity with each other, and in defense of the intrinsically worthwhile values of creativity, expressivity, intellection, and truth-seeking.
Dana Schutz (the white woman who pained Emmett Till) shouldn’t be above criticism, but when people try to get her art removed from a show, or have it destroyed, they are going right at the heart of what it means to do art. When we see someone standing in front of a painting, trying to block other people from seeing it, we should fight that, no matter how well intentioned it might be, since our lives and identities as artists depend on being able to be seen and heard. Charles Murray, whatever you think of his politics and ideas, should be able to speak on a campus without threat of physical violence, and those of us who traffic in complicated and potentially unpopular ideas for a living should push back against those who would try to subordinate that activity to their notions of justice. We should have the back of Robert Mapplethorpe and his photos of gorgeous dicks, and Andres Serrano and his Piss Christ, and Laura Kipnis and her defense of eroticism in the Academy, and pro-Palestinian speakers, and Zionist speakers.
I could make a claim for why this is also good politics, in the long run, but I don’t want to. Good politics are not the only worthwhile end in life. Beauty is its own justification. Trying to understand the world better is its own justification, as is struggling to express one’s worldview through the medium of words, or paint, or film, or music. And instinctively having the backs of those who are engaged in lives and careers oriented around these values isn’t simply self-interest, though it’s that, or solidarity, though it’s that too. It’s also evidence of self-respect. If we believe what we are doing is valuable and worth defending on its own terms, then we should be fighting for more space for us to do our work, and more recognition of the unique values of our activity. We should view with immediate suspicion, rather than sympathy, those who would narrow that space, and refuse to credit or even acknowledge those values.
Whoa, he must be smart, that brother of yours.
Yes, he wrote a good book, too. My other brother is working on raising awareness about the carceral state, like with this video, which is kind of amazing. And my sister helps high schoolers get to and through college. They are all swell. There are swell nieces and nephews, too.
I am bringing it back. Ring a ding.
You have a lot of wisdom. Is there anything you don’t understand?
Some things, yes. I’ll tell you what baffles me. People who choose gelato, when there is good old American ice cream. The fact of two writers named Tom Perrotta. Nose jobs. Name jobs. The touching faith some have that soccer will one day conquer America. “Makayla.” Parents who think forcing their children to read will turn their children into readers. The cult of Marilynne Robinson. People who think it’s acceptable to go to a funeral dressed in their best business casual. Those girl-headbands with bows that some people put on their infant daughters’ heads to avoid the horror of gender mixup. The eternal youthfulness of Paul Rudd.
This has been great, just great. Can we do it again in a year?
Last year, you asked if we could do it in 41 more years. Now you want to make it annual? I’ll tell you a story. And this is a true story. My dentist forgot about me. They don’t call me to remind me to schedule cleanings, haven’t for about a year now, and it seems they aren’t going to. What happened was, Cyd left for another dentist, following her beloved hygienist, Cheryl, who had switched. Cyd brought all four girls with her. Now, I was planning to stay with our old dentist, because I love my hygienist, Paula. But the office manager obviously figured we were decamping en famille. So now I don’t get any calls. The old dentist dropped me, the new one doesn’t know about me. I am off the books. Lone wolf. El lobo solo. I could go the rest of my life cleaning-free, with nobody to guilt me about it. This is the dream. So here’s the thing: yes, you can interview me in another year, because if nothing else, it will remind me about this, my last answer to your last question. And that, perhaps, will get me to the dentist.